Pocketful of Kryptonite

Superman

I started this review shortly after seeing the Batman vs Superman film back in April. It’s now August. This is simply how my life works at the moment. Still, here it is. Finally.🙂

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from henceforth known as BvS). There’s a thing. The film that started off as a straightforward Man of Steel sequel and then became a (sort of) World’s Finest film and then eventually a bridging film between Man of Steel and the newly conceived Justice League movies has been released and I have watched it.

Even someone with the most superficial of social media presences could not avoid hearing or reading something about the film in the run-up to its release. Most of what I heard was not especially promising. The trailers and the press releases led me to the following conclusion: BvS would be an interesting but imperfect film; it would be typically Snyderish – big on spectacular visuals and bent on wrestling with big philosophical themes in a generally unsatisfactory way. Oh, and it would be coated liberally with a layer of grit that managed to be both shiny yet somehow very very dark.

And I was right. More or less.

BvS is indeed a bombastic big-screen iteration of the kind of self-consciously ‘dark’ stories popularised and taken to their sterile extreme by both the big two comic companies (and their many, short-lived imitators) in the early 90s. It is imperfectly structured and presents a story that hangs on one (or two) too many coincidences. It is violent and tackles its big theological and philosophical themes in an entirely predictably over-stated and relatively unsubtle way.  It is also weighed down by its function of introductory vehicle for a wider DC Universe that its audience has yet fully to experience. (An almost complete reverse manoeuvre of Marvel’s more systematic and thorough build-up to Avengers Assemble.) And yet…

I really rather enjoyed it.

At least part of the reason for this is the first ten minutes. The film opens with a re-telling of Batman’s origin story, an in-credit-sequence revisiting of the death of his parents which, though arguably unnecessary, is nevertheless stylishly and powerfully done, although cinema’s fetishisation of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace has surely now reached its apotheosis. (The impracticality of Joe Chill placing his pistol inside the necklace makes the moment more than a little bizarre.)  That said, the re-telling is not as laboured as others, boiling the origin down to its essential elements and it’s always good to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan (although perhaps not if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead).

The movie then shifts to one of the most gripping sequences of the entire film – a ground level view of the battle of Metropolis, and it is executed pretty much flawlessly. Snyder’s direction is kinetic and exciting without being unnecessarily jarring (Larry Fong’s cinematography is generally very good throughout, too) and we get a very powerful and clear understanding of how vulnerable and powerless human beings are while the supergods fight it out above them. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is introduced here and he is excellent – heroic, fearless and ultimately traumatised by the experience of being at ground zero as the city is destroyed around him. We see buildings collapse, streets choked with dust and civilians trapped under rubble – all grippingly desperate stuff. And, to a large extent, genuinely new. While we’ve seen similar scale destruction in the two Avengers films, it has not quite been portrayed to make this particular point or from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in the devastation and reduced to the role of victims rather than the grateful rescued (although the discarded Maria Hill-narrated opening to Avengers Assemble would have come close). In some respects, it reminds me of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels, the seminal comic book series that presents the significant events of the early Marvel Universe from the viewpoint of an ‘ordinary’ photographic journalist. As a powerful introduction to the main themes of the movie, it is very effective; as a piece of cinema it is extraordinarily engaging.

It’s a shame, then, that shortly afterwards the film makes its first serious misstep. Having established the moral ambiguity and material threat of Superman’s collateral damage-filled ‘saving’ of Metropolis, the film takes us to the Middle East and a poorly explained encounter between some unpleasant looking terrorists and Lois Lane accompanied by a photographer who turns out to be a CIA agent and, much later – and more shockingly, turns out to be Jimmy Olsen. There are numerous things wrong with this section of the film, not least of which is the fact that it is utterly superfluous to the plot and dilutes the power of the previous few minutes of Metropolis carnage. While Amy Adams is excellent, the stand-off scene is resolved in a distinctly unimaginative way and the slaughter of one set of terrorists by another set of mercenaries (which is meant to ‘frame’ Superman) is heavy-handed and unnecessary when there are already perfectly valid questions to be asked of Superman after the rather messy way he handled Zod in Man of Steel.

In a sense, these two sections are representative of the film as a whole – bold and almost viscerally watchable on the one hand; awkward and disappointing on the other. Superman, after all, is possessed of heat vision, super strength and super speed. He is, in fact, literally faster than a speeding bullet. He really doesn’t have to bludgeon his opponent through two brick walls at super speed to save his girlfriend.

While that scene is disappointing on a number of levels, some of the subsequent Batman scenes raise more specifically moral questions. Batman has always been a morally ambiguous character. His Golden Age appearances frequently presented him as a vigilante who was singularly unconcerned about the eventual fate of his enemies. Indeed, his very first ‘case’ is resolved by punching a murderer into a vat of acid. Later comic book interpretations of Batman, however, have seen him adopt a ‘no-killing’ rule that most creators have believed to be a fairly important aspect of the character. It becomes clear fairly early on that Snyder does not share that belief. Behind the wheel of the Batmobile, Batman guns down enemies and blows up cars with ruthless precision; in hand to hand combat, he flips a grenade from one foe into the path of another, and disarms a knife-wielding thug before stabbing the hapless man in the shoulder with his own weapon. He also sets off another enemy’s flame thrower tank in one of the film’s more improbable sequences. The fact that all of this is stylishly and fluidly directed can’t quite mitigate the uneasy revelation that this is a Batman who kills without too much remorse.

It’s a good job that Affleck is so good, then. It could be argued that, in one or two scenes, his Wayne is a little anaemic, but his Batman is a brutal and driven force of nature, skilled in both unarmed and (in a breathtakingly impressive flash forward) armed combat and mercifully unencumbered by Christian Bale’s guttural and occasionally incomprehensible orc-voice. One of the film’s pivotal scenes (the resolution to the Superman/Batman fight) which relies on a coincidence so obvious I’ve never really noticed it, only works because Affleck sells it so well. The obsession with Superman that leads him to this point is similarly believable precisely because Affleck makes it so; he is ably assisted in this by Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who is marinated in a world weary irony that softens the sharper edges of Affleck’s dialogue. It is Irons who provides most of the humour in the film (although Diane Lane gets the film’s one genuine laugh out loud line), and it is of a particularly dry, fine vintage.

Batman

Jesse Eisenberg is similarly excellent as Luthor. Although he is largely playing a slightly more megalomaniac version of Mark Zuckerberg (mind you, I have my suspicions about him) and much of what he does doesn’t really make a great deal of sense or relies too much on coincidental timing to be indicative of genius, he is never less than watchable. While he wears his bad guy status reasonably lightly, there are moments of genuine menace, not least in his scene with Holly Hunter’s rather impressive Senator Finch. Yes, his performance is eccentric, but we understand that this is at least partly Luthor’s attempts to disarm his opponents. It’s telling that it is only when he meets a politician who isn’t prepared to go along with him that he gets more serious.

You’ll have noticed that I’m focusing a lot on performances rather than plot. There is a reason for this. The plot, as I’ve already suggested, is a bit of a mess. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (more of her in a moment) wants a photo that belongs to her, and ‘steals’ it by copying it while still leaving it on Lex Luthor’s hard drive. This is a hard drive that contains files on other metahumans, all of which are identified by icons that suggest Lex knows rather more about the DC Universe than he really should. Lex’s plan consists of forcing Batman into an anti-Superman obsession by sending him paper clippings with provocative messages scrawled across them in red ink and manipulating one of his former employees, while also pushing a stronger anti-Superman sentiment onto the wider world. He imports Kryptonite into the country so that Batman will steal it (how does he know this?), betting that Batman will fight and kill Superman with it. Just in case Bats doesn’t, he also has some Kryptonian DNA in the form of Zod’s corpse with which he bio-engineers an ‘abomination’ who, we all know, will become Doomsday and make an appearance in the final act. He pushes Superman into fighting Batman by kidnapping Superman’s mother, but doesn’t seem to notice when they stop fighting and Batman goes off to rescue her.

Despite the plot holes, the movie remains an enjoyable experience and there are, I think, a few reasons for this. Firstly, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is magnificent. She is elegant and supremely confident out of costume and utterly enthralling in the film’s climactic fight scene. The moment when Doomsday knocks her to the ground and she looks up at him with a smile of genuine relish on her face might just be my favourite bit of the entire film. It gets to the heart of the character and is one of the film’s few punch the air moments.

Wonder woman

Then there are the intriguing references to the wider DC Universe. Admittedly, if you’re not a fan with some pre-existing knowledge of DC comic history, these will most likely serve to confuse and weaken the film’s coherence quite significantly. Arguably that’s a cardinal sin that the more objective side of me has to acknowledge as a serious weakness, but, for the fanboy side of me, the Crisis on Infinite Earths-influenced appearance of the Flash, the Mother Box-enabled origin of Cyborg and the parademon-infested future vision of Bruce Wayne all serve to add extra excitement to the movie as well as hints to the possible future direction for the DC films. (It seems very likely that we’re heading for New Gods territory, which, honestly, is just fine by me.) Even then, though, there are still missteps. The flash forward really does need more context and the Aquaman clip is just… weird. (I’m assuming that this section of the movie was sponsored by L’Oreal, but I could be wrong.)

What does intrigue me, however, are the philosophical questions being asked by the film. I said earlier that I was expecting the film to grapple with some big issues in much the way that Snyder’s Watchmen and, to a certain extent, Man of Steel do. Although BvS doesn’t deal with them terribly well, they are at least framed in visually interesting ways and they are dealt with more thoroughly than they are in the otherwise superior Avengers: Age of UltronBvS does at least have a stab at examining whether the notion of superheroes still has any relevance in the early 21st century and, in doing so, it suggests to us that heroism and its counterpart villainy are not always (or ever) absolute qualities.  Key to this examination are the two main characters of Batman and Superman.  I’ve heard (and read) a number of critics point out that the film’s characterisation of Superman is off, that it is not, in fact, at all representative of the Superman of the comics. Superman is, in that sense, the film’s very own Kryptonite – he weakens the film and allows Batman to ‘steal’ it. I have some sympathy with that point of view.

When I first encountered comics in the early 80s, neither Superman nor Action Comics were titles I read with any regularity, unlike the Doug Moench/Don Newton/Gene Colan creative team on Batman and Detective Comics. There were a number of reasons for this, I think. For one thing, Moench was weaving a fairly densely plotted set of tales with a cast of recurring characters and an almost soap operatic style of storytelling; Newton and Colan’s artwork was phenomenal, too. (Gene Colan remains one of my all-time favourite artists; his Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula work is sublime.) Those stories were also kind of weird – dark in a pulpy, slightly twisted kind of way, rather than the more self-consciously brutal manner of post-Dark Knight Returns Bat-titles later on in the decade. Superman, by contrast, was, well, a bit bland, typified by stalwart artist Curt Swan’s solid but undemonstrative style. The stories tended to be one or two-parters and there wasn’t much sense of a more sophisticated building narrative. They were entertaining enough in their own way, but ultimately unmemorable. In these stories, Superman was the archetypal hero – good, earnest, powerful and possessed of a clear moral code. He was the DC Universe’s moral centre in many ways, its constant. The silly de-powerings and increasingly outlandish foes and scenarios couldn’t disguise that, in many ways, the character and his world were resistant to change.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was the wrecking ball that finally broke down that archetype. The 12-part epic which saw the ‘streamlining’ of the DC multiverse into a more coherent singular whole also gave the company the opportunity to reboot some of its more venerable properties. While George Perez was breathing new life into Wonder Woman (which should really be the subject of its own article), John Byrne did the same to the character of Superman, first in the Man of Steel mini-series and then in the new ongoing Superman title which saw a noticeably powered down version of the character take on both familiar and unfamiliar villains in entertaining and inventive ways. While the early stories were mostly self-contained, the sense of the world around Superman changing and developing was clear, with traditional characters like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen given an 80s facelift and joined by new ones like Maggie Sawyer and her Special Crimes Unit. This developing world made Superman and its companion title Adventures of Superman worth investing in and the character proved his heroism by invariably finding, if not peaceful, at the very least non-lethal solutions to the situations he faced. The way he solved problems was always as important as the fact that he did. With reduced levels of power, it was more difficult – and thus more potentially dramatic – for Superman to save the day.

The 90s saw the Death of Superman storyline and the introduction of Doomsday, both of which are important plot elements in BvS. While Superman didn’t stay dead for all that long, DC continued to experiment with the character, even transforming him into an electricity-based character at one point (utilised memorably by Grant Morrison in his run on JLA, which included a scene in which an electro-powered Superman magnetically charges the moon and stops it from crashing into the Earth by the power of magnetic repulsion – yeah, yeah, another article).  Through the various changes and tribulations, though, the core of the character – his confidence, his awareness that means matter as much (if not more) than ends – remained pretty much unchanged. What is significant about BvS’ portrayal of Superman, however, is how uncertain he is (except, to be fair, when bludgeoning girlfriend-threatening bad guys through brick walls). Coming so soon after his outing in Man of Steel, this is a Superman who is fundamentally unsure of his place in a world that is sharply divided about whether it wants him at all. (This lack of certainty is not especially helped by Martha Kent whose declaration that her adopted son doesn’t owe “the world anything at all” would surely be something of a surprise to Metropolis real estate developers.) In some respects, this makes the character very interesting; in others, though, it means that the only sympathetic character who appears to be 100% sure of her values and is willing to stand by them – who is, in a sense, truly ‘heroic’ – is a politician.

The film’s climax is impressively spectacular, but also a little disappointing. The gloomy CGI is oppressive and murky as if reflecting the film’s moral ambivalence and the Superman-as-Christ imagery (already introduced earlier in the film) which includes a nuclear crucifixion and solar-powered resurrection (no three day wait, mind. This is the movies) is beautifully shot but, well, just a little obvious. What is interesting, though, is the Excalibur homage in the very final confrontation between Superman and Doomsday. Having introduced the film in the opening credits (Excalibur is the movie showing at the cinema the Waynes walk past prior to being gunned down) as what I assumed was a neat way of fixing the movie temporally, Snyder demonstrates that he’s much more of a fan of John Boorman’s Arthurian epic than I thought, liberally borrowing the iconography of that film’s climax for his own. And I kind of like it. BvS’ coda shows us a Batman determined to rebuild a super-powered ‘Camelot’ in Superman’s honour, having been forcibly and dramatically reminded what the whole superhero thing is all about by Superman’s actions at the end. Arguably, Batman’s character arc is the emotional heart of the film and we can perhaps safely assume that there’ll be much less outright killing of bad guys in future outings for the character.

Superman

In that sense, by the end of the film we’ve returned to much surer and safer ground than the murky, treacherous footing we’ve been on for most of the film. Snyder’s movie can perhaps best be read as a somewhat over-blown but nevertheless rigorous examination of the very concept of the superhero and, while the ending is reassuring in its affirmation that, yes, the idea still has legs, the questions it asks us about the use of superior power and the potential dangers of intervention remain with us, both unsettling and sharply pertinent.

Overall, then, the film is very much a mixed bag – enjoyable but by no means perfect, thought-provoking, but not especially subtle. The expanded version has just been released on DVD/Blu-ray and it, apparently, improves the film. I’ll be interested to see it, but, if I were you, I wouldn’t expect a review of that any time soon!

Dispatches From the Europa Wars – III

Well, we’re all apocalyptic now. Here’s some Brexit fanfiction. (I can’t quite believe I just wrote that.)

god-emperor-trump-small

The God-Emperor Watches All

Empire-Wide Public Announcement 13th September, 2034

>STAND BY STAND BY<

Citizens of the Empire, vassals, serfs and functionaries of the Dominions of America, Greater Europe and the New Russian Republics, give your attention to the following:

London has been liberated.

In the early hours of this morning, the brave soldiers of the 9th Legion of Tomsk and Kemerovo under the command of Brigadier-General Vassily Subarov, ably assisted by two squadrons of VenOM mechanised jetsuits, defeated the last remnants of the European Unionist Expeditionary Force after fierce fighting around the main secessionist strongholds of Threadneedle Street and Canary Wharf. Elements of the 3rd Luxembourgian Light Infantry, along with a small detachment of De Gaulle Mark V transformatanks, had occupied the old Bank of England building in Threadneedle Street for the last few days, using the slow advance of the Imperial Liberation Army across the M25 exclusion zone to dig in and fortify their positions. The soldiers of the Empire, however, ably assisted by local Faragist guerrillas, overpowered them in a breathtaking display of tactical mastery and superior weaponry.

Please watch the following footage carefully, noting the glorious might of the Empire’s VenOM jetsuits in close and brutal combat with the Unionist foe. Note the devastating efficiency of VenOM flamespray and miniature missile technology. Note the craven cringing cowardice of the Luxembourgian troops as they attack our glorious heroes from below. Note the impregnability of the VenOM armour. Workers in the Ohio and Michigan manufactoria, the Empire salutes your skill and proficiency.

Around Canary Wharf, combat was protracted and difficult. Secessionists from the London Separatist Movement, along with their perfidious allies from the Dusseldorf, Birmingham and Liverpool so-called free militia, put up stern resistance, having mined the North Colonnade with CrushSpyke anti-personnel charges and established sniper and heavy machine gun points throughout the complex. The forces of the Empire were victorious, however, through determination, skill and the limited and entirely justified deployment of deuterium grenades. Footage of this glorious combat will shortly be made available via the ImpNet Pay Per View service. Expert commentary and analysis is available on the Gold upgrade channel. Please see your ImpNet service provider for further details.

Two of the leaders of the secessionist movement were captured alive and ritually disembowelled before the Imperial envoy to the Greater British Isles, the Duchess of Luton and First Lady of the Admiralty, Salacia Trump, the God-Emperor’s seventh and most decorated wife. Resplendent in platinum and chrome ceremonial armour inlaid with mother of pearl and adorned with gold filigree, her golden hair restrained by a slender and unassuming coronet of office, the Duchess received the tribute with great magnanimity, bestowing a number of small tokens of grace on watching vassals who cheered wildly.

The Duchess will stay in London for the next few days while the new governor of the city is chosen, confirmed and anointed. An official announcement as to his or her identity will be made over the next 48 hours.

Salacia Trump

Duchess of Luton and First Lady of the Admiralty, Salacia Trump in informal attire.

In response to the liberation of the Greater British Isles’ former capital city, the God-Emperor made the following proclamation, speaking from his hermetically-sealed sanctum at the apex of the tower that bears his name:

“Well, I gotta tell you, that was one tough fight. Very tough. But, you know what? We won! We always win! We keep on winning! Just like back in ’16. You know, they said it couldn’t be done, but we did it anyway. And again in ’20. The world was a tough place back then. Very tough. But we did it. And this today… this is a beautiful victory. I mean, just beautiful. Did you see those VenOM suits? Did you see them? Aren’t they great? Built here in America. Forget China. I’m telling you, America builds the best mechanised combat suits anywhere in the world and that’s a fact. Those are great suits. If it wasn’t for the implants I’d wear one myself but my doctor tells me I can’t because of the power differential. Maybe I will anyway one of these days, eh?  Heheh. Yeah.  But, no, London. I love London. I was there a few years ago. Lovely city. So much history. So much great history. And it’s terrible. Just terrible what the Europeans have done to it, but we’ll make it. We’ll make it great again. Because that’s what we do. London will be great again. That I can promise you. We’ll make it beautiful, and wonderful and just great.  Good night. Love you all!”

>BROADCAST ENDS<

Be He Ever So Humble…

… there’s no foe like Doom.

I’ve not been hibernating, honestly!

The job has been busy and I just simply haven’t had much time to update the blog. (Oh, and I became a grandfather, too! That’s been interesting.) I’m going to try and do something about that over the next couple of weeks. There’ll be some reviews hopefully, although I will actually have to finish some books first. There’ll definitely be some fiction and there may even be some political/cultural stuff. Who knows?

In the meantime, here’s some Silver Surfer…

Last birthday, my son (I may have mentioned him already) who is something of a comic aficionado himself gave me the first Silver Surfer Epic Collection. It is, as you might expect, rather good. I’m going through a bit of a Kirby phase at the moment. My teenage disdain for his Super Powers era style has given way to a sort of awestruck wonder at Kirby’s storytelling powers and a deep sense of shame that I could have ever been that ignorant. Rather than focusing on the whole collection (which would be difficult, because – yes – I still haven’t finished it), I’m going to look at a particular moment which, I think, highlights just how good the creative team on the title at this point were.

As is invariably the case with 60s Marvel, issue 57 of the Fantastic Four, which starts the second story arc in the collection, crackles with ideas, invention and the kind of over-the-top grandiose dialogue that was typical of the era. It’s also genuinely funny, not least when the Silver Surfer is summoned to the picturesque residence of Doctor Doom.

At this point, following his dramatic introduction during the FF’s first encounter with Galactus, the Surfer is essentially exiled to wander the Earth and has decided to stop off in Latveria. Whether he already knew that he was visiting the homeland of Doctor Doom is unclear. It’s the meeting that’s important ultimately and the Lee/Kirby partnership delivers us a really rather intriguing scene between two of the most iconic characters they have ever created.

That the Surfer, for all his power, is an ingenu, largely ignorant of the political machinations of people like Doom means that the reader, while generally sympathetic to the Surfer’s moral viewpoint, is considerably more aware of the threat posed by Doom than he is. The subsequent underlying tension in the scene is handled very well. Doom starts off by trying to flatter the Surfer, but the Surfer ignores this and cuts right to the heart of what Doom is all about: “Why do you rule other humans? What quality of leadership do you possess that so sets you apart?”

Silver Surfer1

Doom’s answer is brilliantly disingenuous and is deliberately shown to be false by the creative team a couple of pages later.  Having earlier proclaimed himself to be a “servant” to his people, Doom dismisses the Silver Surfer’s offer to rebuild the portion of Doom’s castle that he’s just destroyed as a way of demonstrating just how powerful the ‘power cosmic’ can be. (Technically it’s Doom that destroys it – the Surfer has merely built the weapon that he uses. Actually, that’s pretty clever, too, now I think about it. Rather than just displaying his power with a generic blast, the Surfer builds a weapon out of thin air whose simplistic and lightweight design completely belies its effortless destructiveness. This kind of approach has already been used in Fantastic Four in the form of the Ultimate Nullifier, a potentially universe-ending weapon that can fit in the palm of Reed Richards’ hand. A similar idea is used in the first Men in Black movie for a more explicitly comedic effect.) Doom responds by saying that the Surfer doesn’t need to exert himself. He’s got “serfs” for that kind of thing.

Silver Surfer2

“Servant of the people?” Erm… right.

This moment is deliciously ironic, but also a great example of Lee and Kirby at the heights of their power. It’s memorable, genuinely amusing and reminds the reader that, while Doom’s literal mask (almost) never comes off, the self-aggrandising arrogance of the character can never be concealed for very long.

Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson – A Review

Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…

Memories_of_IceReviewing a Steven Erikson novel is, I’d imagine, a bit like trying to sum up climbing an exceptionally high mountain.  On some level, the experience has been arduous, but nothing can quite beat that sense of achievement and, oh, the memories, the moments of heart-pounding excitement and unexpected beauty…  And that view!

Memories of Ice is third in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, but comparing it to either of its two predecessors is a futile task. Despite the fact that they’re all huge slabs of second world fantasy and there are some tonal and thematic similarities, they are all very much their own gigantic, quivering beasts.  Memories of Ice takes place more or less directly after the events of the first novel Gardens of the Moon, in which the Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm is tasked with capturing the city of Darujhistan, the culmination of a long and bloody campaign on the continent of Genebackis. At the start of the third novel, Dujek has apparently gone rogue, forging an alliance with former enemies Kallor, Caladan Brood and Anamander Rake, the enigmatic ancient ruler of Moon’s Spawn.  The alliance is necessary because a new power has appeared in the south of the continent, a fanatic cult led by a powerful Seer, who is himself a front for an older, malevolent power. In the face of this evil, old enmities must be set aside and a desperate race to relieve the siege of Capustan, an independent city halfway between Darujhistan and the Seer’s capital city of Coral, forms much of the matter of the first third of the novel.  It’s absorbing and entertaining stuff.  A novel of this size has plenty of scope for sub-plots and diversions and Erikson is in no great hurry to present us with the novel’s first big action set piece.  It’s a good job that his world building and characterisation is so exceptionally good, then.

The appearance of recurring characters like Rake, Dujek and his cadre of elite engineers, the Bridgeburners, led by the nobleborn, god-touched Captain Paran and the taciturn but eminently likeable Whiskeyjack is reassuring, but Erikson has plenty of new characters to throw into the mix, too.  The caravan guard, Gruntle, and his comrades Stonny and Buke; the very creepy Broach and Bauchelain, along with their longsuffering manservant Emancipor Reese; the officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company; Lady Envy and her enigmatic Seguleh companions; the Mhybe and Silverfox, tribal messiah-girl and the reincarnation of four separate spirits: all of these have significant roles to play in the narrative and, through Erikson’s remarkable ear for believable dialogue, they live vividly in the reader’s imagination as the story unfolds.

Erikson’s training in archaeology accounts at least in part for his detailed, layered world-building. History matters in the Malazan books; it influences the actions of the characters and binds them to specific places in often uncomfortable ways.  This then lends the events of the novel considerable weight. When certain places are destroyed or changed, when certain characters emerge in answer to ancient needs or manipulations, the descriptions are replete with meaning. The world of the novels is being changed by the actions of the characters within them; this is not a heroic preservation of the status quo, but rather a brave attempt by our viewpoint characters to mitigate the effects of the changes taking place around them. This measured, layered approach – this making real a world of pure fantasy – is one of the most impressive achievements of the series and this novel in particular.

It is, I’m afraid, far outside the scope of this review to summarise the story in its entirety. Suffice to say that there are two major (and by ‘major’, I mean ‘massive and jaw-droppingly good’) military actions in the novel and Erikson is adept at not only describing the tactics and strategy involved but also conveying with an almost visceral intensity those moments when the allies’ plans encounter the enemy and are shredded into an incoherent full-blooded mess.  Erikson adds another layer of mystery and intrigue, however, with the revelation that at least some of the participants in the combat have attracted the attention of this world’s gods and, indeed, he frequently reminds us that there is a partially hidden conflict taking place whose roots are ancient and sunk deep into a rich earth of malice and vengeance.

All of which sounds pretty dark.  And it is. The Seer delights in torture and feeds his growing army with the bodies of his enemies; what happens to the Mhybe is heartbreaking, and there are some moments of genuine horror. That said, Erikson’s tone is nowhere near as nihilistic as, say, George R R Martin’s in Game of Thrones. In fact, in some senses, Erikson is the ‘anti-Martin’.  His world is as layered and politically complex (although in a different way; Erikson’s gods are much more proactive than Martin’s seem to be[1]) as Westeros, but his characters are not quite as self-serving or venal. Betrayal happens in the Malazan books, but so does heroism, although that heroism almost always carries a (sometimes unforeseen) cost.  It’s here, I feel, that Erikson particularly excels.  No one quite writes heroic moments like him.  And I’m not talking cheesy cartoony heroics either.  I’m talking… well, I’m talking about Itkovian, mostly.

Itkovian starts Memories of Ice as one of the commanding officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company who have agreed to help defend the city of Capustan.  It’s a tough contract, not only because the city is facing a vastly superior force of cannibalistic religious fanatics, but also because it’s ruled by a council of squabbling priests.  The Grey Swords are sworn to the service of Fener, the Boar of War, whose power is waning (and whom the reader has already encountered in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates). There is a sense of noble futility to all the Grey Swords; their religious vows mean they will see out their contract despite the seeming impossibility of the task. Itkovian, however, is the Shield Anvil, granted the power to bear the grief, sorrow and pain of the mortals around him. This gift is extended to his enemies as well as his allies and the siege of Capustan provides one of the most powerful moments in the series so far when Itkovian offers to take the pain of Anaster, First Seed, leader of the Tenescowri, the peasant army that has successfully assaulted the city. It is an understated moment of raw compassion that it is quite hard to imagine appearing in A Song of Ice and Fire; as powerful as it is, however, it is also a foreshadowing of a much more significant moment later on in the book.

It is characters like Itkovian that, just as much as the stunning action set pieces, make this novel so memorable and, yes, moving.  I’ve said elsewhere that I’m a romantic, despite my occasional attempts to present a cynical front to the world. That said, I don’t want fairy tale endings or tired cliché; I appreciate moral complexity, characters finding their heroism in difficult circumstances, characters stumbling and falling. But, I also want to see redemption; I want to see the possibility of compassion triumphing over selfishness. I want, in short, for my fantasy stories to have at least some measure of hope. This is what Erikson provides here. In the middle of the devastation and loss (and at least a couple of important characters won’t be reappearing after this book – except in flashback!), in a setting that is rich in history and the tragedy that has shaped it, there remains a glimmer of hope. Characters change; characters learn. It is for this reason, along with the excellent world-building and exciting writing, that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it.

[1] Okay. Confession time. I’ve only managed to make it through one and a half novels of Martin’s admittedly impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series, for reasons that I might go into in a later post. I am not at all questioning Martin’s considerable skills as a writer.

Draw One In The Dark, by Sarah A Hoyt

Urban fantasy with a twist and a tough moral centre.

Draw One In The Dark

While I don’t particularly want to get into the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, I will admit that it’s piqued my interest in a number of authors of whom I had been only dimly aware. Sarah Hoyt is one of them and Draw One In The Dark is the first in a series of novels set in the Colorado town of Goldport.

The central character is Kyrie, a young waitress working in a cheap diner who just happens to have the power to shapeshift into a panther. Hoyt makes the quite sensible choice of not making this an origin story. Kyrie already knows (or at least suspects – she’s sort of in denial) that she can shift. This self-awareness is a trait shared by the two other main characters – Tom, a troubled young runaway who works at the same bar as Kyrie and Rafiel Trall, a local police officer who has been shifting for a good while and whose shapeshifted form is that of a ferocious, majestic lion.  In refusing to tell a story that is exclusively about how Kyrie or either of the other two characters discover their shapeshifting abilities, Hoyt shifts the focus onto how the characters discover each other, how they learn to trust one another and, eventually, how they work together.  That focus on character interaction is one of the novel’s real strengths.

That said, there is a mystery to unravel. Although the world of the shifters appears at first to be fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of depth to the book’s mythology, particularly during conversations in which some older shifters are discussing the origins of the book’s apparently ancient antagonist. Hoyt doesn’t reveal all the details but instead keeps enough back to hint at a much wider shadowy world – a world that is dangerous, violent and just plain weird.  (I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that this book is the first urban fantasy novel to feature shapeshifting pheromone-flinging beetles.)

Although the plot starts slowly, it soon picks up pace and, I must say, never once did I feel that it dragged. The book’s action sequences are exciting and well-described and unusual coincidences early on in the novel are explained satisfactorily towards the end.  It’s the unfolding relationships between the central characters, however, that make the novel so entertaining. The will-they-won’t-they of Kyrie and Tom (which is complicated in a very entertaining way by the tempting presence of Trall), the very well-realised relationship between Tom and the father who kicked him out of the family home several years ago – these have an air of authenticity about them that makes the book eminently readable, even as the reader’s (well, this reader’s at any rate) mind is coming to terms with the more fantastical and outlandish sections of the narrative.

In addition, Draw One In The Dark is a novel with a clear sense of morality. Characters are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and often seek to do the right thing, despite that choice appearing to be less convenient. Perhaps more significantly, characters are offered the chance of redemption and, by and large (and with one or two hiccoughs along the way), they take them. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I kind of like that.

Overall, then, Draw One In The Dark is a fast-paced, well-crafted novel, populated with a relatively small cast of mostly three-dimensional characters (I’m a little unsure about Keith, but Hoyt writes him with such panache, I’ll forgive him his quick acceptance of the madness into which he’s been plunged) who are genuinely engaging and with whom it is very easy to identify.  The story hangs together really well, while leaving a few background threads dangling free to be picked up in later volumes. Speaking of which, I read this book on my Kindle.  It is part of Baen’s free e-book initiative which puts out a selection of the initial novels in some of their authors’ series for free, which demonstrates an impressive confidence in the skills of the company’s authors.  Well, Baen’s cunning ploy worked on this occasion, because the second book in this series, Gentleman Takes A Chance, is purchased, downloaded and ready to read.  And if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.

Arak: Son of Thunder, issue 2

We like comics in our house. I am, of course, entirely to blame for this.  My obsession with comics, particularly those of the American variety, began in the early 80s and has continued on-and-off into my adult life.  My younger son seems to have inherited my comic geekery.  He’s just turned 18 and celebrated by spending a sizeable amount of money on some very nice comic collections from the ‘big two’. I’m kind of jealous, actually. He has way more disposable income than I do and two very sturdy sets of shelves in his room stocked liberally with trade paperbacks, original graphic novels and, most impressive of all, a smattering of those over-sized omnibus editions that look so beautiful it almost makes you want to weep.

What he doesn’t have, though, is a copy of Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2.  First published by DC in 1981 and written by Roy and Dann Thomas, Arak: Son of Thunder was a sword and sorcery series set in the Dark Ages. Its titular hero is a Native American who, as a boy, finds himself marooned in the middle of the Atlantic where he is discovered by Vikings one of whom ends up adopting him.  While Arak has some superficial similarity to a certain dark-haired Cimmerian whose adventures Thomas had been chronicling for much of the preceding decade at Marvel, the comic’s nominally real world setting, its growing band of recurring characters and, perhaps most importantly, the more reflective character of Arak himself meant that the title was never going to be a straightforward Conan clone.

That's a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it'd be... perfect.

That’s a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it’d be… perfect.

That said, issue 2 gives us a tale that could, with just a little tweaking, have appeared during Thomas’ run on Conan the Barbarian.  The issue starts with Arak, having set off from the Northumbrian monastery that was the setting for much of the first issue, running aground on rocks off the coast of France. It’s a moody, dramatic opening which successfully establishes the tone of the story while giving away nothing whatsoever as regards its main plot.  It does, however, serve as a useful reminder of the storytelling skills of both Thomas and co-creator Ernie Colon (who would go on to create the Amethyst comic for DC), whose artwork, embellished with some generally very impressive inking from Tony DeZuniga, is, as we’ll see, one of the highlights of the early Arak run. (DeZuniga would later take on the art duties all by himself; artists such as Ron Randall and Adrian Gonzales also had stints on the title.)  The opening page’s narration (remember those heady days when narration in comics was still a thing?) takes the form of a fairly simple Native American fable. Along with the art, though, it’s not only an economical piece of storytelling but it also reminds the reader of Arak’s Native American heritage while also reinforcing how integral the symbolism of the storm is to his character. It’s clever and relatively subtle.

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

On page 2, Thomas’ narration settles into a more familiar tenor. It’s present tense, slightly overbearing and somewhat melodramatic, although there are nice flashes of more poetic description that remind us that Thomas is actually a very fine comics writer. “Beneath the breakers, jagged rocks lurk, like the furtive daggers of assassins” is particularly good and the “dawn-flecked boot” that prods him awake at the bottom of the page possesses an unexpected gentleness that, it turns out, is entirely appropriate, given that the aforementioned boot belongs to a beautiful young woman who just happens to be out walking the beach with her silent armour-suited guards.

The mysterious beauty in question is, we find out, Corinna (I do love fantasy names. Whether she ever goes a-maying is, sadly, never divulged) the daughter of Lord Hessa, owner of the large castle near the shoreline that Arak initially mistakes as belonging to Charlemagne, the focus of his current quest. The conversation between them establishes her as being somewhat haughty with a hint of flirtatiousness and Arak as being naïve, direct and, at the bottom of the page when he grabs Corinna’s cloak in order to emphasise his point, socially inept bordering on the point of rudeness. (Well, he is a Viking – sort of. And he has just been shipwrecked.) Needless to say, Corinna looks on this with some disapproval and one of her silent guards intervenes. And then we have our first fight.

I’m not sure who it was who pioneered the technique of figures ‘breaking out’ of the panel borders during action sequences (I’m tempted to say it was Kirby, but don’t take my word for it), but Colon uses it effectively here. While the guards are lumbering iron brutes, Colon draws Arak fighting with speed and ferocity. He takes down two of the guards but is knocked unconscious by the third and taken to the castle. So far so straightforward.  That said, the final piece of narration on page 5 (“All in all, it’s been a most unusual morning for everyone.”) is jarringly whimsical after such an energetic and violent scene.

There's some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of... spare, aren't they?

There’s some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of… spare, aren’t they?

The story then sags a bit, although there’s some very nice artwork to lift things. Arak is questioned by Lord Hessa, an interrogation that continues at the prompting of his daughter. (Note, incidentally, that on page 7, her throne is drawn as being just a little higher than his. Significant, that.) Arak gives a truncated account of his origin before the narrator gives the reader a much fuller account via an internal monologue-flashback that is mostly unnecessary given all of this only happened one issue ago. Hessa is unimpressed with Arak’s tales (his comment that Arak “weave[s] tales like tapestries” seems odd given that he hasn’t heard the more outlandish aspects of Arak’s story like we have) and orders him thrown into his castle’s donjon, because he thinks our hero’s a spy for Carolus Magnus. Needless to say, Arak’s not particularly taken with that idea and a scuffle breaks out which unintentionally reveals one of our first big clues as to what’s really going on. Hessa, who has been wearing some very nice white gloves (a la Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) throughout the interrogation, actually has (also like Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) a very hairy hand (the left one, naturally). A monstrously hairy, wickedly clawed hand, in fact. Goodness me. What on earth is going on here?

Hessa is all for killing Arak outright – or, as he puts it, raking his monstrous hand “lovingly” across Arak’s unusually red skin – when his daughter stops him. This is the second time Corinna’s intervened in this scene. Hmmm.  Our attention is nicely directed away from the issue of who’s really in charge in the castle, however, when it’s revealed that those big suits of armour don’t have anyone in them. They appear to be animated by some malign magical force. Hey, this is getting pretty good.

When Arak is thrown into the castle’s dungeon, he (and we) meet the next significant character – Malagigi, a wizard from the court of Carolus Magnus who can make fire appear in his hand, but, whenever he gets close to revealing what’s really going on, breaks into a fit of coughing. Either he’s suffering from the most convenient case of consumption in all of fiction or… something weird is going on. In any event, Arak reveals a bit more about his background via his story-telling belt. And then things get interesting. Corinna shows up to help Arak escape because, well, I’m sure you can work it out for yourself.  “Did you really doubt I would come for you, wayfarer? I took you for one who could read a woman’s eyes.” along with “Do you know what it means, Arak, to  grow from maidenhood to womanhood without ever truly knowing a man till tonight?” are the salient pieces of dialogue, the latter being a great example of a question that is both leading and utterly rhetorical.

But this is a sword and sorcery comic. It’s not going to be this… ahem…easy for Arak, is it? No. Even Arak’s noticed that Corinna’s not exactly been acting like a lovesick girl and, indeed, the come-on above is far too studied to be delivered by an innocent. And in any case, we need some answers to questions like ‘What’s going on with those magical soldiers?’ and ‘Why does your dad have a weird hand?’ So, Corinna gives us the kind of answers that make you wish you hadn’t asked the questions in the first place. It’s a tale of a woman, her grandmother, who, tired of being the sexual plaything of ugly men of power, decided to get some power herself by entering into a pact with a devil which is sealed in a carnal union that resulted in Lord Hessa. That, however, is only the half the story. We get the rest of it after a fight between Arak, Hessa and his magically animated armour-guards in which a defeated Hessa refers to Corinna as… ‘mother’. The ‘grandmother’ in the story is actually Corinna. The devil has granted her immortality in return for her not being able to leave the area around the castle. Ah, this all makes sense now. There is no Lady Hessa because Hessa is Corinna’s son. This also explains why Hessa was always so ready to defer to Corrina earlier on in the story. And it also explains why Corinna’s attempts to play the innocent lovestruck girl were so rubbish. She’s been out of practice. Like fifty years out of practice. Now, devilish pacts are meat and drink for comics like Arak, but this one is unusually focused on the physical nature of the transaction. In that sense, it reminds me very much of the Warren comic magazines of the late 60s and 70s and not just because Colon did a lot of work for titles like Vampirella and Creepy. There’s a prurient tinge to the storytelling here that feels a bit out of place in a DC title. I’ll return to this later.

Hmmm. There's something really weird going on with this girl's arm..

Hmmm. There’s something really weird going on with this girl’s arm…

In any case, Corinna’s setting foot outside the area prescribed by the terms of her agreement with the devil Belial has some interesting consequences. Firstly, in his cell Malagigi stops coughing and, suddenly finding himself free of whatever spell-retarding force Corinna’s been employing against him, begins to use some serious magic. This results in the ground opening up half way through the battle between Arak and Hessa. This is not just any old fissure in the ground, though. Oh no. This, as Thomas and Colon delight in showing us on page 22, is a portal to Hell. (Or at least some weird timeshare satellite of it.) That’s impressive enough, but, for Corinna, there’s more bad news. She starts to age. Her leaving the plateau on which the castle has been built releases her from the enchantment that had conferred eternal youth onto her and she becomes a withered parody of her formerly beautiful self.

So far so predictable, but there’s a final – and let’s be honest, really unsettling – twist in the tale. Belial, the demon who had made the original bargain with Corinna all those years ago, having just toasted his son, appears to offer Corinna a second deal. He’ll restore her youth if she’ll consent to go with him back to Hell and set up house with him there. And she says… yes. There is to be no redemption, or sense that she’s learned anything from her original bargain. Just more naked ambition and vanity. Which is very human, actually, but, I think, unexpectedly dark for a fantasy story published by one of the big two at the start of the 80s. Malagigi shows up to explain everything (as plot expositors go, I’ve seen worse, but I’ve definitely seen better, too) and Arak – and perhaps the reader – is left wondering what the hell that was all about.

"I'll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you."

“I’ll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you.”

Arak: Son of Thunder #2, then, is an interesting comic mostly because it is a narrative produced by a number of not always complementary imperatives and influences. At the end of this issue, alongside a handy map of Europe and the Middle East in the time of Arak, there is a page long essay by Thomas in which he explains what his thinking was when making decisions like setting the series in a pseudo-historical rather than purely fantastical milieu. A couple of sentences jump out:

“[The Sword and Sorcery genre presented] limited roles for both men and women, especially the latter, who seemed all to be either luscious maidens, beauteous warriors, or astonishingly lovely witches.

“Eventually, as I got into the genre, I began to realize that this could all be fun in its way – and that, besides, its limits could be stretched, played with, even expanded here and there.”

In one sense, it could be argued that here Thomas has expanded on the clichéd role of women in fantasy fiction. While Corinna is superficially ‘lovely’, Belial (and, by extension, Thomas) gives her a choice of fates. Not much of one, admittedly, but it is a choice nevertheless. Her origin, too, highlights her desperation at an explicitly misogynistic and unequal society. That origin is not presented, however, in a way calculated to engender sympathy for Corinna (for one thing we don’t understand she’s talking about herself at the time and, when we do find out, the focus is on her lust for power); similarly, Arak’s astonishment at her choice both during and after the story’s denouement ensures that we don’t feel much sympathy for her then either. To what extent she ‘expands’ the stereotype of ‘astonishingly lovely witches’, then, remains to be seen.

Another imperative that influences the writing is the need to differentiate the setting from that of the Conan adventures that Thomas had spent so long penning. Again, to what extent the story succeeds in doing so remains to be seen. The action taking place in and around a seaside castle on an isolated plateau makes the story feel quite divorced from its historical setting despite the frequent references to the court of Carolus Magnus. Compared to the first issue in which Vikings, Christian monks, Northumbria and Native American culture all play an integral part in the story, the setting of “The Devil Takes A Bride” is less specific and consequently feels more dislocated from the wider setting of late 8th century Europe. Arak is not Conan here (for one thing he’s much less proactive), although his directness and ferocity certainly contain echoes of Robert E Howard’s most famous creation. The supernatural elements, the character of Corinna and the less defined setting all contribute, however, to the sense that this is a more generic story. (And when the genre is sword and sorcery, Conan probably is the benchmark at this point in time.)

That said, the story on the whole works well, not least because of the Colon/DeZuniga art team. While their backgrounds are somewhat sparse, their character work is impressive; Corinna is suitably vampish, and Arak is well-proportioned and, when called to action, a dynamic heroic figure. Adrienne Roy’s colours are, though, somewhat mixed. There’s impressive subtlety in, for example, the reflections of flame on Arak’s face when he stares horrified into Belial’s pit, but Arak’s leggings change colour at times as does Corrina’s dress.

On the whole, though, Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2 is an enjoyable comic book. If it wears its 70s influences a little too obviously and feels at times a bit too indebted to its illustrious barbaric competition at the House of Ideas, it can perhaps be forgiven. Its function as a vehicle for the introduction of Malagigi (who will become a regular companion of Arak for the next year or so) weighs it down somewhat, but there is a lot to like here and it does act as an interesting example of the small but popular sword and sorcery niche of the DC universe of the 1980s.

Attack on Titan – Horror Has A New (Grinning) Face

So, I’m late to the party, again. Attack on Titan has been a thing for at least eighteen months now. Never one to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, I’ve only just now started watching it (via Netflix) and… oh my goodness! Was there ever a show to grab you in a vice-like grip of terror, wonder and horrifying absurdity? No, I honestly don’t think there was. But there is now.

I’m six episodes in and find the whole thing utterly mesmerising. Somehow, it connects with me on an almost pure animalistic emotional level and bypasses the more rational parts of my brain almost completely. Do human beings possess a deep-seated racial fear of being stalked by forty-foot tall naked zombies? Perhaps they do – some residual fear of dinosaurs, perhaps, mixed with a weird Freudian aversion to nudity. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this ridiculous anime about the last remnants of humanity huddling together in a single gigantic settlement behind massive walls that still don’t manage to be high enough to keep their clothing-averse idiot-grinning giant predators at bay manages to be thoroughly engaging, tremendously exciting and utterly terrifying in more or less equal measure.

That's not good, really, is it?

That’s not good, really, is it?

What follows is spoilerish (for the first six episodes).

The first episode sets the tone. In it, we are introduced to the main character Eren and an (older?) girl who lives with him (Mikasa), as well as their bookish friend, Armin. We are also introduced to the world these characters inhabit which appears at first to be renaissance/pre-Industrial Revolution era Europe with its tudor-esque architecture. That world is fleshed out in effective economical fashion, as the necessary character introductions are interspersed with scenes of the Scout Regiment’s foray into the world beyond the walls that protect humanity and later scenes of them returning, their mission failed and many of their number dead, missing or horribly injured. The meeting between the Scout force leader and a mother of one of their fallen comrades gives an early indication that, for all its characters’ typical anime cuteness, this is not going to be light-hearted fare. And so it proves…

Eren is a feisty youngster who views the walls that protect him and the rest of humanity from a danger that mostly exists in the abstract as a constriction rather than a blessing.  While Eren’s father has secrets that he promises to divulge to his son once he gets back from the interior, Eren reveals that he wants to join the Scout Regiment (despite having witnessed their ignominious return), from which ambition Eren’s mother is determined to dissuade him. Mother and son argue and you think (or at least I did) that you’re watching the setting out of a certain type of anime hero’s character path and then it all goes to hell.

The last ten minutes or so of the first episode are insane. Events spiral out of control frighteningly quickly and the show gives us horror after horror after horror, all rendered in some of the most beautiful and startlingly kinetic animation I’ve seen in a long long while. Once the event that renders Eren’s argument with his mother almost entirely moot happens, you finally understand what type of show you’re watching. ‘Predictable’ and ‘safe’ – these are words that you simply cannot apply to Attack on Titan.

The second episode widens the scope of the action very successfully. We find out that the district overrun in the first episode is part of a much larger walled settlement. We also find out that it has been deliberately constructed to concentrate the titans’ attacks on that specific spot. We see the panic and desperation of a large scale evacuation in the face of an implacable foe. There is nothing cosy about this. It is harrowing, disturbing stuff and calls to mind my teenage imaginings upon reading War of the Worlds or, if you’re into Warhammer 40,000, Dan Abnett’s exceptional siege novel Necropolis. We are also not spared the hierarchical nature of the human world ofAttack on Titan, in which refugees are despised as weak and those with food and resources feel entitled to lord it over those who do not. It is, at times, very uncomfortable viewing, not least because it reminds us far too pointedly of the inequalities and injustices of the real world.

The third and fourth episodes see a 5 year leap forward. Our heroes have grown up somewhat and have entered training in the army.  It is an unexpected, but not unwelcome, change of tack and, for a brief moment or two, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that the show was going to settle down into a more traditional all-friends-together-against-the-big-enemy type of anime show with characters conforming to certain anime archetypes (including the always-hungry girl – what the hell is that about, anyway?). And then the ending to episode four hits and, dammit, the show does it again. It takes what you were getting comfortable with and scrunches it up into a big ball and hits you on the head with it. This continues into episode five which provides several jaw-dropping moments in quick succession. It is insane, disturbing, absolutely riveting stuff.

Attack on Titan, then, is an anime I will definitely be sticking with. At times, the animation is breathtaking. Fight sequences between titans and zip-line wielding soldiers are presented as exhilarating, swooping flights into action. (Or, as is the case with episode five, heartbreaking tragedy.) The architectural solidity of the setting is absolutely essential to maintaining the authenticity of the story and the designers have done an incredible job here.  Walls are high and thick, and when they are smashed down, the resulting devastation is satisfyingly huge. The crowning achievement, though, is the design of the titans themselves. Put bluntly, on paper giant-naked-smiling-sexless-cannibal really shouldn’t work. Realised, however, that concept has been mined for every single one of its disturbing, unsettling possibilities. The sight of a titan ungainly running towards a crowd of humans like an overexcited toddler, an idiot smile plastered on its huge face takes absurdity into new realms of horror. One of the most memorable moments of the first episode is one in which a soldier, desperate to regain his honour, runs towards a titan with the intention of taking it down only to pause in mid-charge as he realises just what it is that he is facing. The animators fade out the surrounding scenery around him leaving him alone in a darkness that represents not only the shadow the titan casts over him but also the sheer futility of even thinking of taking it on. That sense of hopelessness is what makes the price of heroism in the show so ridiculously high and the show itself so utterly compelling. The titans may be a weird absurd concept but they are played absolutely straight and the result is a threat which is nightmarishly relentless and the cornerstone on which a truly unique and incredibly involving anime series is built. Whatever else Attack on Titan is, it is bloody terrifying. And I love it.🙂

He doesn't want to be your friend.

He doesn’t want to be your friend.

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