Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Sandman

Literature. Odd the way we label everything and then, not content with the label applied subdivide the thing adding yet further labels. 


Literature. The reading of books, the reading of words that make up books. We all know what makes a good story. It really is as plain as the nose on your face. Of course, in reality, it is all a matter of taste. One person's being quite different to another's.

Literature. Enid Blyton? Albert Camus? Cormac McCarthy? Alan Moore? M.C Beaton? Who really says what is good literature or what is bad literature? 

Literature. Not the stuff of comic books apparently so they invented yet another label which they called a Graphic Novel.  This gave the genre added gravitas or so it seems. Possibly it is just more bullshit.

Literature. What is it? It is heartache and striving. It is a human struggle against the odds. It is grim realism. It is romance, it is humour, it is horror, it is science fiction,  it is surrealism. It is...

It is 1956. Carmine Infantino has just drawn the updated version of D.C.Comics, The Flash. It is to be a landmark publication which introduces the Silver Age of comics which in turn re-introduces superheroes to the comic buying public. It reignites the fortunes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and also Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Green Arrow before giving the breath of creativity to Stan Lee and his nascent Marvel Comics Group. 

The Flash's stories were science fiction based as were Superman's. Another DC hero who appealed to me at that time was The Atom. These superheroes, among many others, were the stuff of my childhood but a threat to the D.C world of ubermensch was about to arrive in the shape of Marvel.

Where D.C had published stories with a cerebral quality Marvel was graphic action and no one better personified Marvel than Jack 'King' Kirby. His balletic violence leapt out of the page at you be it Thor, Captain America or The Fantastic Four.  

The next few decades, the sixties through the seventies right up until the early eighties, Marvel ruled supreme. Their kick 'em down, full-on action heroes had DC, if not pinned to the ropes, definitely losing on points.

Along came Dave Sims, Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez, Frank Miller and of course, Alan Moore. They, this gaggle of creatives, along with many others, shifted focus. Not only were superhero stories given a dramatic boost courtesy of Miller's '"The Dark Night Returns," Moore's "Marvelman,"  his "Swamp Thing" revamp and of course "Watchmen." The mainstream remained true to its superhero tradition but suddenly a darker element, courtesy of Miller and Moore, took the genre to an adult readership. 

Officially, this 'Bronze Age of comics, is set between 1970 and 1985. Personally, I disagree. Miller's debut with  Marvels "Daredevil" number 158 in 1979 was a potential starter. Okay, so the seeds of the Bronze Age revolution may have been planted some nine years before but the reality of that change didn't start until the closing of that decade. It could be argued, and I think there is merit in it, that Will Eisner's "A Contract With God," lay the way for both the Bronze Age and the graphic novel tag that grew out of that publication. Anyway, this is all moot. The Bronze Age came and went leaving in its wake what is now called the "Dark Age." Too bloody dark by half if you ask me. I much prefer the "Modern Age" appellation.

With this move to more adult themes came a change in the publisher's fortunes. DC returned, possibly pushing Marvel into second place. This was largely thanks to those two gents previously mentioned, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. That said, there was another, a Brit who, along with a bevy of fellow Brits, formed what was a wave of creative talent that elbowed its way into American comic creation. That man was Neil Gaiman and the series he created was SANDMAN.











Gaiman created a dark world filled with monstrous events defined by a rich array of characters. If Frank Miller embodied the spirit of graphic storytelling with his art, freezing frames, allowing the pictures to tell the tale and Alan Moore brought a new level of literary sensibility to the comic medium, then Gaiman introduced a multi-layered, literary work that took the comic book to yet another height. 

We had witnessed how "Watchmen" with its alignment to character development along with a mature plot had not only reinvented the superhero genre but attained literary status. Now here was Gaiman doing the same thing with his "Sandman" series.

That first story, a little toe in the water, a tempter of what was to come. Artwork by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg reminding me of all those macabre tales that EC Comics used to publish. A dim world, charcoal etched onto carbon. The despicable mind of Roderick Burgess who, with his knowledge of black magic, entraps Dream, or Morpheus as he is also known. The entrapment lasts decades giving Dream a deep longing for revenge and, food? Neat the way Neil Gaiman spins a yarn that is horror mixed with ironic humour.

As with Alan Moore, when writing both "Marvelman" and "V for Vendetta," Gaiman doesn't find his voice until comic number eight, "The Sound of her Wings." In this chapter, we meet for the first time Dream's sister, Death. What a cracker. That doesn't mean all that went before was sub-standard, it certainly wasn't, but chapter eight defined the course Gaiman had set for the series.


The horror was horrific and nowhere better delineated than when we meet the Corinthian. Here we have an eyeball muncher; a creature created by Dream to visit our dreams then turn them into nightmares. Having been imprisoned so long Morpheus's creations, many of them anyway, have broken out of Dreams world and entered our own. So it is with Corinthian. When we first meet this creepy character we are engaged by his charm, by his looks, he is, after all, a handsome cove, a man who gays and straights admire especially women, yet we are aware something sinister lies beneath his exterior. 

As the story is told so we encounter like- minded individuals who attend a conference for homicidal maniacs. This again shows us the dark humour inherent in "Sandman" and illustrates perfectly how well Neil Gaiman adds tension only to have a safety valve prepared by which said tension is momentarily released.  

When the horror is finally unleashed Gaiman doesn't illustrate it graphically but leaves obvious signs of what is occurring which allows our imaginations to do the footwork. Nonetheless, what happens is both bloody and violent in the extreme.

But there was more to "The Sandman" than just horror. More than just black humour. Gaiman invents a mythology, a pantheon, as good as any historical set of gods or demi-gods. Morpheus isn't alone in this fiction, he has family and not just the aforementioned sister, Death either, there are others. 

Gaiman invented The Endless, a fictional family who are older, and possibly more powerful, than gods.  The Endless are a dysfunctional family who represents all the elements of the universe. There are Dream and Death of whom I have spoken, then there is Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destiny. 

When we dip our toes into the dark waters of Sandman's world, with all its tactile gruesomeness that attaches itself to your mind like tacky treacle, we also find a pantheon whose divinity strikes a desperate chord amongst our mortal sensibilities. They too have their issues, their problems, their petty jealousies. 


The endless have been around as long as the ideas they represent. They are older than gods, older than time for time is a man invention, older than worlds or spinning galaxies. No one knows how old they are although Destruction states in 'Brief Lives,' that he remembers a time some ten billion years ago and since he is the fourth eldest with Destiny, Death and Dream all older than him then goodness only knows how long the Endless have existed, 

There are those who suggest Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' is better than the much vaunted 'Watchmen.' I think the comparison is stupid, the two are totally different. Both are good, in fact, both are better than good. I find they have the same appeal for me as re-reading Orwell, Murakami, or any other great writer. 

Such invention is remarkable. Possibly Neil Gaiman's best work and that is saying something considering 'American Gods.' The one thing I do know is that 'The Sandman' is pure fantasy. There are some out there who dismiss fantasy as being puerile. there are others who rename it much in the same way comics are now graphic novels so fantasy is called by a few magic realism. Literature's roots are firmly embedded in fantasy as for me 'The Sandman' is among the best of them.

"...Neil Gaiman's work on the series is considered legendary for a reason. This story, in its entirety, is every bit as good as Watchmen and of equal (if not greater) literary merit. Were I to list the 100 best single comic-book issues I have ever read, three would come from this collection. Whether you have read The Sandman before or are a first timer, this is the one book you need to buy this fall. The stories within are magnificent and the care taken in reproducing Gaiman's work is the same you'd expect for any great work of literature." 


Harry Goldstein





 










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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Depression - Then and now.



I had a chest infection last Christmas. Absolutely nothing in itself. Rather like having a very unpleasant cold. Under normal circumstances, I'd just get on with it, maybe visit the doctor in case I needed antibiotics. Again, I don't like taking those damn things unless it is imperative I do.

Oddly, and for reasons way beyond my grasp, the chest infection led to a series of anxiety attacks that lasted well into March/April. Okay, again I struggled on but found I was doing off-the-wall stuff. Really fruit loopy, crazy stuff and even though I was well aware of what I was doing I couldn't prevent myself from doing them. No need to elaborate, too embarrassing for me and too dull and boring for you.

I saw a doctor who said I needed therapy. Really? Isn't that something Hollywood stars go for when things get too much? Why would I need therapy? Surely, I just need a pick-me-up? He insisted I attend a six-week therapy course which I did.

As it happens they proved to be of value. Patsy, the woman I saw, was very kind, compassionate, and attentive. Yet, the more I talked, with Patsy interjecting the occasional comment, the more I came to realise that the methods as used by psychologists, all this mindfulness, and much else, was in fact what I had been applying to the panic attacks I had been having for the past thirteen years. It was, even though I am not one, Buddhist. That is to say, and check this out for yourselves on YouTube, that Buddhism and psychology are brothers with one, the big B, far, far older. 

So what was the root cause of these mental health issues? I know for talking to my dear friend Cara that mine were nothing like hers or many others, mine were far less bad. Even so, one cry for help, I think that is what it was, took me close to a very dark edge. Not a thing I'd want to repeat again. Mental institutions, no matter how compassionate they try to be are horrid places to be confined to. Filled with unfortunates far worse than yourself with furniture so heavy to prevent any inmate heaving a chair from hitting a fellow patient with. The only good thing to come out of the experience was meeting a young Canadian woman, a musician, with whom I had pleasant conversations with.

Seventeen years ago, mid-2000, I won an American bank as a client. Providian mailed in the states 60 million items a month. The USA is way bigger than Britain so no big surprises there. My UK based client mailed 60 million a year. Still, sufficient revenue to excite a company finance director. The contract was worth to my company £6 million per year. Suddenly I was Johnny big nuts. Paraded as being the company superstar. Utter crap of course. I am just an ordinary bloke. This turn of events, bearing in mind I had had other,  smaller successes mostly half a million a year accounts, proved to be a personal negative rather than the polar opposite. No sooner had I won Providian then another, smaller win arrived in the form of Transnational Financial Services. These guys were worth only £1 million a year. This meant in one month I hit £750,000 with an annual target of £500,000. I not only matched my target, I smashed it. Just as a glittering future appeared I lost the plot.

I became absolutely terrified that all those past triumphs and all my current ones I could never repeat. I lost all confidence fearing that the mountain I'd climbed was far bigger than my abilities, that the likelihood of my cracking any further clients, big or small, was so remote as to be nigh on impossible. So the anxiety attacks began. Not that I recognised them as such as I dismissed any thoughts of mental health issues as being nonsense. I'd had seizures and a heart attack and they hadn't stopped me so why even consider my mind was unwell. I just had to repeat what I had always done and get on with it.

For three years I ignored what plagued me although I did ask for help in 2002 from someone near and dear to me. They were unable to help. By winter 2004 leading into 2005 things got really bad. My son took me to a doctor who prescribed Diazepam. I threw them away. Another doctor prescribed some unpronounceable drug which I flushed down the lavatory. I don't do medication unless it is vital. Trouble was it was vital and I was too stupid, too determined not to concede defeat to recognise that fact.

So, depending on your maths, on when the depression really started, I fought the damn thing unsuccessfully for something like 13 to maybe 15 years. I am loving and compassionate by nature. I don't judge sufferers of mental health issues unkindly so why was I do dumb when it came to accepting I had problems, problems which, incidentally, led to my marriage breakdown? Male ego maybe. Arrogance perhaps or possibly fear of accepting the truth.

The knock-on effect of the problem I faced and my inability to deal with it has meant my career going from good to bad,  my earnings along with it. I was never a 'big hitter' but earned above average. I now have a part-time that allows me to care for others which in itself is gratifying if a little dull. My marriage is over. It took a long time for me to accept that fact but now I do.

I also lost some good friends along the way, one in particular who's absence at first hurt me. Forgiveness is a two-way process, you have to forgive yourself as well as others for all humans are guilty of something and as the Christian Messiah said - 'You without sin cast the first stone.'. I no longer sulk. I used to for days, sometimes weeks. Sulking is nothing but passive aggressive. It is of itself a form of bullying. I don't want to be remembered as a bully.


Buddhist prayer of forgiveness.:

Currently, I am not medicated. As I said earlier, the doctor sent me to therapy which reaffirmed the Buddhist approach to the mind - it belongs to the individual. Body and mind are part and parcel of me. That is not to say all mental health issues are controllable by disciplining the mind. My mood swings are the gift of my diabetes, they are chemical, they can only be controlled efficiently with medication. What I need to do is be aware of the fact that my mind - MY MIND - is mine to control and not it controlling me. So I meditate. 

Early this year I had an argument with one of my daughters who slagged off my Zen Buddhist bullshit. I am not Zen Buddhist. There is no convenient label for what I am. Perhaps an amalgam of the three Chinese faiths merged with Jiddu Krishnamurti's teachings. All I know is that this is right for me. I am not spiritual in the accepted sense, nothing supernatural for me. That said, I accept that it works for others. and I would rather work in kinship with them than not.

Today I woke at 3.30. I got up, put on some clothes and went for a walk. Just a short walk around the block. When I returned I watered plants in the dark before sitting down to meditate. Mind, body and mother nature one and the same thing, a shared experience. As I sat silent and still so a fox crept into my garden midway through meditation. I heard the animal climb my fence. I opened my eyes and watched it explore my garden. It was a blissful moment.

Meditation, not medication.

 As I said, it works for me.








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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Margaret Brundage

Pulp artist supreme, Margaret Brundage illustrated most of the covers for "Weird Tales" between 1933 and 1938.


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 Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Village Tales of Fekenham Swarberry - Book Four and a Bit- Hand In Glove - Epilogue

Epilogue


The twin weeping willows of Birchtickle pond looked out on a sorry scene. Not since the days of Hawthorn Cobble and Lilac Lillywhite had the tiny hamlet borne witness to such sadness.
All the cottages that had so short a while ago housed the small community were now empty. Sam and Todd had been taken into care and the only people still living there were Alice and Martin Tickpant.
That couple, closer now than they had ever been, had petitioned the authorities to allow them to foster the boys. It was debatable whether the powers that be thought Alice capable.
Whatever the outcome of that particular tragedy, the pond and the area that encircled it seemed desperately silent. It was as if the spirit of the place was in mourning for the loss of lives but also the terrible situation in which two innocent children had been left.
A set of empty cottages: Harry’s, Agatha’s, Jean’s, the Trimeots’ and the Goslings’ were now vacant. Within days all, apart from Harry Hertlasp’s, would be up for sale.
That night, as the nearby residents of Fekenham Swarberry slept peacefully in their beds so a mist hovered over the glassy sheen of the chill waters of Birchtickle pond.
If anyone passing at that late hour looked, they would have seen the shape of two spectral images seemingly floating across the water.
Perhaps it was the ghosts of Hawthorn Cobble and his true love Lilac Lillywhite.

This is the end of Book Four and a Bit.

The next book in the series will be…


The Runaway Cadaver.”
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.