Friday, 22 August 2014

REVIEW: "Sexton Blake and The Silent Thunder Caper" by Mark Hodder

He may be decried as the poor man's Sherlock Holmes, but Sexton Blake has been around almost as long and at one point was just as well known and successful. The other Baker Street detective, Blake originated as a thinly-veiled Holmes pastiche but over the many years he starred in thrilling prose, radio and film stories he developed into his own man. Now Obverse Books has gained the rights to the character, and has published the first volume in the sixth series of the Sexton Blake Library, the first such publication since 1968.

Obverse has already dabbled with the Blake canon, with a short collection of stories featuring his nemesis Zenith the Albino, which included such Blake luminaries as Michael Moorcock among its contributors. Now, though, Sexton Blake returns to the fore with The Silent Thunder Caper, a gripping story from Philip K. Dick Award winner Mark Hodder. After a brisk introduction to Blake's history from 1893 to the present day, the story begins in fine style with a touch of the science fictional before settling in to Blake's Baker Street lodgings. The Silent Thunder Caper is a rip-roaring story in fine style, drawing on the 1930s golden age of Blake adventures for its inspiration. Hodder captures the cunning of Blake, the derring-do spirit of his sidekick Tinker and the the hilarious malapropisms of his housekeeper Mrs Bardell. It's a thrilling adventure that pits Blake against new threats and old enemies; a fine reintroduction for the character.

Also included in the volume is “The Wireless Telephone Clue,” a classic Blake story from 1922, written by G.H. Teed. This is the original appearance of the villainous Three Musketeers, witty parodies of the Bertie Wooster type characters that were by then becoming ubiquitous in English humorous literature. Far more cunning than they appear, the Musketeers make wonderful villains for an adventure with a comical bent. Including their first appearance here not only brings some of the history of Blake to a new audience, but makes a fine companion piece that sits well alongside the new story. The only weak point is that the mystery of the Musketeers is already revealed in their 2014 appearance, but this is a small quibble, for the story is still hugely enjoyable in its own right.

The Silent Thunder Caper is a fine start to what I hope is a long and successful series of new Sexton Blake adventures, featuring enemies old and new.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book for free from Obverse Books, and I am also due to be published by them soon. However, I would never post a dishonest review. I have previously refrained from reviewing a freebie that was not to my taste. We can't all like the same things, after all. 

To be in with a chance of winning a copy of The Silent Thunder Caper, click here to enter a Goodreads giveaway.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Comics Round-Up August (1)

My day off this week was a Tuesday, so I got to drop by the comic shop a day before the new releases dropped in. Which, considering how much I spent anyway, is probably a good thing. Also, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was excellent, although not quite as strong as the previous film. Which you all know by now, because you saw it when it came out. Anyway, cautiously looking forward to the third installment, which I'm guessing is going to be called War for the Planet of the Apes.

Moving on...

Captain Marvel #6 (Marvel)

Marvel really do seem to be trying to make a name for themselves as the company for strong female
characters, and in spite of some missteps, they're doing reasonably well there. This is the final installment of the inaugural "Higher, Further, Faster, More" storyline, and brings everything nicely to a head, with plenty of action balanced by some clever diplomacy and a benevolent use of surveillance. With a notable exception or two on each side, this is squarely noble females vs. imperialist males, with a none-too-subtle swipe at military and police brutality. Still, strong stuff, and I think I'll continue with this title.

Ghostbusters #18 (IDW)

Continuing the "Mass Hysteria" storyline, this isn't the strongest issue, very much a case of joining part 17 to part 19 and not really doing too much of its own work. Still, bringing Vigo back for an issue is a fun hook, the inclusion of the Spider-Witch from the game as an avatar for Gozer is very cool, and the character work is just spot-on perfect now. Particularly nice is an interlude featuring Winston's wife Tiyah and her sassy friend Kas, which is a welcome pause in the crash-bang-pow.

The Sandman Overture #3 (DC/Vertigo)

Wow, is it time for issue three already? Good grief, it's only been six months since part two! Anyway, yes this is fine, still not really living up to the name of Sandman, but the gradual development of a vast cosmos full of iterations of Morpheus is quite fascinating. The big problem is probably that Sandman is best read as a book, and individual issues, especially when they're separated by months, is a poor way to read it. Not sure about the new character, Hope - she strikes me as a generic cute, feisty-in-the-face-of-tragedy kid. J.H. Williams's art is gorgeous though.

Wolverine and Deadpool #2 (Marvel/Panini)

First British bumper re-release of the month's reviews. The "Savage Wolverine" storyline is already getting a bit dull. Giant gorillas? Cliches can be fun and all, but come on. I find Amadeus Cho a very dull character, I could take Shanna a lot more seriously if I couldn't see where her thighs meet her crotch, and the witchdoctor character is pretty racist. Also, the Hulk is in it for some reason. The Deadpool dead presidents story is much better, finishing up with a bold, sick, over-the-top battle with a guest spot by an extremely camp Dr. Strange. Altogether, needs less Wolverine and more Deadpool.

Batman Arkham #9 (DC/Titan)

And this is the other one. I want to get back into Batman, but DC are currently publishing a hundred and thirty-two different Bats-related titles, so the UK bumper comics are by far the best way to get back up to date. This collects Arkham Unhinged #10, Batwoman #17 and new Detective Comics #17. The former is a fun weird-ass villains get-together that brings Deadshot into the mix, while the latter is the final part of a very stylish fantasy adventure for a strong female team headed by Batwoman and Wonder Woman against the villainous Medusa. It's J.H Williams again, writing as well as painting this time, and it feels more like Sandman than the new Sandman does. The middle strip is the first part of an intriguing mind-fuck story called "Gothtopia," and it's sufficiently interesting to make me want to buy issue ten.

Amazing Spider-Man #5 (Marvel)

Apparently this is part of the Original Sin crossover event, but as I have read none of that, I have no clue how it ties in. I like where their going with this, with the new Spider-powered hero Silk providing an equivalent to Spider-Man with stronger powers and a more interesting backstory. Inevitably, this will all tie in to the upcoming "Spider-Verse" crossover which is already warming up, but the Black Cat vendetta storyline is pretty great. It's a shame it ends with a very tired cliffhanger, which we've all seen before.

Inhuman #3 (Marvel)

Still looks great, still enjoyable enough, but it's nothing special. Inhumans are basically just X-Men with a different power origin, and you can't blame Marvel for wanting to push them. If they can generate enough interest for a movie version they'll have their own equivalent to Fox's X-Men franchise. Dante is enough of a dick to be just about likeable, even if he picks the codename Inferno. (Seriously?) Sounds like more interesting developments might be on the way though.

Rocket Raccoon #2 (Marvel)

Chaotic, silly nonsense, but great fun. Umming over whether to continue this or switch to the Guardians of the Galaxy series (there's Star-Lord now too, and Captain Marvel and Iron Man all tie in). It's a comedy title, and it made me laugh, so it's done it's job. If anything, it reminds me most of Earthworm Jim. Seriously, look at that cover and tell me you can't hear the "Andy Asteroids" music. Whoah Nellie!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Eton Miss, and other things

So, decent little week, apart from the thirteen-hour shift at shitwork followed by an immediate opening.On Thursday I went to see my little sister, who works at Eton College doing all sorts of clever stuff. It's outside of term time, so she could show me round the place. Plus, no students is a real plus in a place like Eton - for non-British types, that's where they manufacture Conservative MPs. Eton is amazing though, 574 years old and full of ancient historical artefacts. So we had the run of the place - I got to see the Eton Library, an absolute book lover's heaven, and the Eton Museum, which my sister worked on at length. (They really let that place go. Good thing Becca was there.)  And the archives! They have strongrooms full of stuff that goes back centuries, beyond even the founding of the College. I even got to hold some of the items - I got to handle the genuine seal of King John from the thirteenth century. That's pretty fantastic. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures of any of the cool stuff, but here is King Henry VI to show I was at his college. He definitely founded it - I saw the paperwork.

At the end of it, I got to go play in the Natural History Museum. I couldn't play with things in there, although I did get to touch the elephant skull. They have some amazing exhibits, including material from Darwin's voyage, some fine fossils (my hero Mary Anning gets a display to herself) and, probably my favourite part, the case of mutants and oddities. They have a duck with two arses! I want a duck with two arses. It'll have two quacks.

So, a very pleasant day was had, with some lovely people who were all far, far cleverer than me. However, I felt better when the Laura the librarian admitted she'd never finished The Hobbit either. Plus, lunch in a very swish pub that we had all to ourselves, free fudge from a very loud young lady (FREE FUDGE! FOR FREE!) and lots and lots of rain. Then back to my sister's place for dinner and Aladdin. Yes, we cried a bit.

The weekend was quiet, until workday, mostly hanging out with my the rest of the immediate family. My brother has decided to return to England for a few weeks before heading off to start a new position teaching in Japan. So altogether a pleasant little catch-up. Oh, and on Saturday night I went to a fetish club, so that was a bit different. Not entirely well-timed though, considering the working day ahead of me.

In other news, I have a stack of reviews to finish up for Television Heaven, a review of Obverse Books' latest release, and some other little bits for the blog. Doctor Who starts on Saturday; this time I shall be watching it on the big screen since the local picturehouse is showing it. Unlike my earlier reviews, my Series Eight write-ups will be hosted by DoctorWhoWorldwide. Links will be posted as soon as they are up.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A State of the Universes Report

We haven't yet reached the end of Phase Two, but clues are already becoming apparent regarding Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Bits and pieces of Avengers: Age of Ultron have been released at cons, and when this arrives next year, it will no doubt set up further elements of the expanding cinematic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy had no direct teaser for the following film; the post-credits sequence of The Winter Soldier took care of that, introducing von Strucker, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. It did, however, expand the Marvel world further, so that it truly lives up to the appellation of a cinematic "universe." Thanos waits in the background, supposedly set to be the villain of the third Avengers movie, if not an even later instalment. Other elements were seeded that may reappear, such as the Celestials, and the Kree have already been mentioned in Agents of SHIELD.

Phase Three already promises certain instalments. A third Captain America and a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel have been confirmed, as has a Doctor Strange movie. We know certain little fragments so far. James Gunn has just revealed that his take on the Guardians mythology will be something different to the comics, and that Quill's father will not be the King of Spartax, but something quite different. A whole universe is being created. A second series of Agents of SHIELD is on the way, which will hopefully build on the promise of the first. The risk is the same as what happened with that first series, which pootled along not really impressing anyone until The Winter Soldier was released, whereby it could deal with the collapse of SHIELD and the resurgance of HYDRA. There are some big mysteries for season two to explore, not least of which is the exact nature of Coulson's resurrection. It's been suggested that the blue-skinned alien from whom the life-giving element was extracted was a Kree, which would help tie the series to the wider Marvel universe. More importantly, it gives Clark Gregg some strong material to work with, and when he's given good material, he can be impressive. I still have yet to be impressed by Chloe Bennet's character, Skye, but the tease of her father at the end of series one bodes well, especially since it's now been revealed that Kyle MacLaclan is playing him in series two.

So, who are these mysterious fathers? I doubt they're in any way related, what with one being extraterrestrial and the other very much terrestrial. Quill's father may possibly be Starfox, who in the comics is the brother of Thanos, although as yet this is all guesswork. Theories as to the identity of Skye's father range from Ghost Rider to the Man-Thing, who has at least been mentioned a couple of times in the series. Personally, I feel that he may be a member of the Inhumans. There have been hints of Marvel's plans for an Inhumans movie, not least of which has been Vin Diesel's latest teasing tweet, which suggests that his voice role as Groot was indeed a placeholder to get him on contract for an Inhuman role. Without the rights to the X-Men, the Inhumans could become Marvel's answer to this cinematic franchise, providing an array of uniquely powered individuals with a complex mythology to pick from.

Also coming up is the highly anticipated Agent Carter series, which can only be a good thing for two reasons. One: more Hayley Atwell. Two: a chance to further explore the past of the Marvel universe. This can not only seed elements into the contemporary stories, but allow historical stories which have their own self-contained problems and content. There's plenty of room for WWII-era Marvel characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner to appear. I also wonder who holds the rights to the original Human Torch, the wartime android who predates the Fantastic Four. Add to this the four heroes who are getting Netfix series, including the interesting casting of Charlie Cox as Matt "Daredevil" Murdock, and a rich universe is taking shape. First though, we have Ant-Man. I honestly can't see the point to this one anymore. Ant-Man was always an odd choice to head a movie, and the developments are not reassuring. This was Edgar Wright's own dream project, and it was the prospect of Wright-directed superhero film that gained fans', and actors', interests. With his script rewritten and a new director on board, it's seeming more and more like a dangerous decision to launch Phase Three, and a huge missed opportunity. The script choices are strange, too, and some of this at least must go back to Wright. Hank Pym is one of Marvel's more interesting and flawed characters, yet he is relegated to a supporting role here, with the action going to Paul Rudd's Scott Lang. Janet van Dyne, a great character and a core Avenger in the comics, is apparently deceased before the movie even starts, and though it's possible Evangeline Lily's character will be the Wasp in all but name, it feels like the most interesting elements of the story have been removed.

Surprisingly, while we're waiting for Marvel to make a Black Widow or Captain Marvel movie, it's Sony who look like they'l be the first to produce a film centred on a female superhero. With The Amazing Spider-Man 3 pushed back till after the Sinister Six movie, and possibly after the Venom film (apparently now titled Venom Carnage), Sony are actively pursuing other options for movie series. Spider-Man is the core hero of the rights they own, but there are several female supporting characters who could take up their own adventures. The most obvious is the Black Cat, as Felicity Jones was included in TASM2 as Felicia Hardy. This version of the character has links to Oscorp, and she could be great for a Catwoman-esque antihero movie. There are several alternatives though. One would be Mary Jane, whose introduction has been delayed and has, in the comics, some superhero history (she's Spider-Woman in the Marvel Mangaverse, for example). Other suggestions have been Silver Sable, Firestar (from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) and Spider-Woman (the original Jessica Drew version). Again, though, it's rights issues. Firestar was created to be a Spider-Man ally, but is first and foremost a mutant, and a onetime X-Man. Spider-Woman has only a tangential connection to Spider-Man, although there were later Spider-Woman, (and the Ultimate Comics version was Peter Parker's clone). Who holds the rights to her is anyone's guess.

As for Fox, Fantastic Four is rumbling along but news is sparse. There's more info on the X-Men franchise, with both X-Men: Apocalypse and Gambit entering pre-production. An eighties set X-Men movie is a fun prospect, and if they don't finally introduce Dazzler, I'll be very cross. Beyond that, we don't know where the franchise is going, but I suspect that numerous other characters will be included to test for audience response so that they can one day head up an X-Force or New Mutants movie. We know that come of the new actors in Days of Future Past have been signed up for long-term contracts. There's also a third Wolverine movie in the works, although there will come a point when Hugh Jackman is to old to play an ageless mutant. Many fans point to Old Man Logan as a possible last movie for him, including Jackman himself, although there are significant rights issues that would stand in the way of a direct adaptation. Hawkeye and the Hulk are major characters in the story, so a great deal of rewriting would be necessary to get round that. Then again, previous films have all been pretty loose adaptations of existing storylines, so this is unlikely to be a major problem.

Oh, and DC are doing some films too.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Oh, shazbot!

I wanted to write a post about Robin Williams. He was to me, as he was to so many, an icon, one of the true greats of comedy and drama. But what more can I add to the many, many tributes that have been made today? Mork has returned to Ork, and that is that. A great and kind man, by all accounts, cut down by this most terrible illness. Even now, a day after his death, some people are attacking him for his "selfish" action of suicide. This makes me incredibly angry. Perhaps it's because of my own struggles with depression, or perhaps it's the sudden number of deaths with similar causes that have affected those I hold dear. Or perhaps it's just because it's an inane, ignorant, cruel thing to say. Already, though, there has been a perfect rebuke to the attacks by people like Shep Smith, a Fox News arsehole. By Dean Burnan at the Guardian, it's the best description of depression I've read in a long time.

For now though, let's remember the wise, troubled clown who made us smile so many times. His films were a fundamental part of my childhood. He was even pretty good in Fern Gully.

Robin Williams, you truly were the Pan.