Review: Batman – The Killing Joke

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My rating: ★★★★☆

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

The Basics: In one of the most famous Batman graphic novels, which navigates around a twisted past, the Joker launches perhaps his sickest scheme yet to prove to Gotham that even the sanest are just “one bad day” away from his world of madness.

In-depth: To feel the part in New York City last October I equipped myself with a New Yorker Magazine for a princely $8. In the Goings On About Town section I noticed an exhibition entitled ‘Superheros in Gotham’ at the New York Historical Society. Caught up in my moment of serendipity I convinced my friends to give it a try (it didn’t take much) and we walked through Central Park to the Society.

Unfortunately the exhibition wasn’t as good as we were hoping. It was frightfully small with a no photography policy strictly enforced by over keen security guards. The one highlight was seeing the actual Batmobile from the original Batman TV show. Walking back slightly disappointed I spotted some impromptu book stands where I came across The Killing Joke. My mood improved as soon as I started reading it.

At just 46 pages it did not take long and having recently re-read it I decided to review it on this blog. Admittedly it is the first graphic novel I’ve read and it was the perfect choice. “One of the greatest Batman stories” the friendly guy at the stall told me and he was 100% right.

The story is beautifully simple and as quick as it is intense. It centres around perhaps the Joker’s most disturbing scheme. To prove that Gotham can not and should not maintain it’s perverse commitment to law, order and indeed sanity by targeting it’s leading light Commissioner Jim Gordon and by doing this thereby drawing out his arch nemesis: the Batman.

The recently escaped Joker intends to prove a point by driving Gordon mad and show the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It is some bad day for Gordon as the Joker ambushes and shoots his daughter Barbara before his very eyes. Putting a bullet through her spine and having his goons kidnap the distraught Gordon, the Joker then completes what he thinks will be his coup de grâce by undressing the wounded Barbara and photographing her in lurid positions mercifully mostly left to the reader’s imagination by the artist Brian Bolland. It is no surprise that this passage, particularly the use of Barbara as merely a prop to get at her father, caused such a storm after many feminist readers were aghast at its overtly sexist nature.

Having the beaten and stripped Gordon paraded around his new recently acquired fairground, the Joker explains to him his simple choice. He can either suffer the trauma of his memories which through his rationality he still clings to, or choosing the ’emergency exit’ of insanity, flee into the freedom of the chaos which forms the basis of the Joker’s existence and Gotham’s unjust world.

What perhaps makes this novel so famous is it’s revealing of the Joker’s past. Before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime it depicts his failed attempts at being a stand up comedian as well as the crippling anxieties of his fear of failing to support his pregnant wife. That Alan Moore and Bolland are able to present this so deeply in such short spaces shows the intelligence and skill which lies behind every word and sketch in the Killing Joke.

One of my favourite frames is the jump between a tragic past as a failed comedian and husband to the Joker’s scheming at his violently acquired fairground. The (almost)

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The Joker’s past? Deep. Very Deep.
colourless past reaches out to his beautiful wife who is laughing at an accidental joke of his with the reflection of himself in the mirror behind revealing his inner torment of another day of failure. In the next colour filled frame, savagely jolting the reader back to the present, the Joker is instead, in perhaps a rare lapse of sentimentality, reaching out his gloved hand to a ‘Laughing Clown.’ He is met by a reflection errily similar to the previous frame.

The lack of colour in the scenes from the Joker’s past is also significant. Bolland brilliantly chooses single objects to possess the increasingly rageful red which builds up via fly-trapping sticky tape, shrimps and the red-hood worn during the botched robbery where the scared predecessor to the Joker flees the Batman only to fall into a vat of chemicals which produces the Clown Prince of Crime.

The scenes from the past are also deliciously mixed up by the Joker himself, who confused by the madness which now inhibits him, reels off the various other possible personal histories of what sent him over the edge. Such as his wife being murdered by the Mob (in this she supposedly dies in a once in a million electrical accident) or his brother being carved up by a knife welding mugger. This cleverly buys into the wealth of speculative interpretations which exist about the Joker’s past.

Back to the present and after mentally torturing Gordon and believing he has indeed driven the Commissioner mad the Joker gets what he really wants; the arrival of the Batman. After a desperate fight which involves trap doors to doom, knifes, a hall of mirrors and a pretend pistol the Batman eventually wrestles the Joker under his control.

Pleading with him to not continue their duel down the route which will only lead to one of them dying, Batman attempts to reach out to the Joker, briefly hinting at his own knowledge of suffering due to a tragic past, by offering him rehabilitation.

The Joker’s response is, as ever, a joke. Significantly it is about two men trying to escape a lunatic asylum where one offers the other an escape over a bridge of torch light. The joke being you’d have to be crazy to trust the other prisoner to keep the torch on, as oppose to believing you can walk on light.

The Batman then grabs the Joker with the light of the approaching police cars visible. The Joker’s laughter, then uncharacteristicily joined by the Batman’s, fills the night and the final two panels offering an almost completed bridge of light which in the next panel disappears into darkness. Some have interpreted this as the Batman finally killing the Joker, the incessant laughter does suddenly stop, but this is wonderfully left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader.

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Review: Bob Dylan – All The Songs

9780316353533The Basics: A song by song account of Bob Dylan’s musical canon to date.

In-depth: As a surprise birthday present this was right up there. Margotin and Guesdon’s collection is mightily impressive and as up to date as is currently possible (running up to 2015’s Shadows in the Night). It is also huge. At 703 pages and a fair weight this hardback is a goldmine for any obsessive Dylan fan or as the authors refer to them: “Dylanologists”.

Using each album as a chapter, with the more significant albums also receiving introductory chapters, Margotin and Guesdon work through song, via an order of technical details, song genesis and lyrics and production. Some outtakes of albums are also considered.

The focus revolves around Dylan’s own creative processes and the level of thought and slow burning genesis is fascinating. There are also little golden nuggets on most songs including noteworthy covers (who knew James Blunt has covered I Want You?) and trivia such as technical musical mistakes which are surprisingly commonplace on earlier tracks. Dylan’s creative processes and influences are so eclectic that the book can only naturally pose as many questions as it can answer, the eternally debated subject of Ballad of A Thin Man is not brought to an end.

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Naturally the best sections revolve around the readers own personal favourites of Dylan’s albums, my own being Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Time Out of Mind.

One slight disappointment is that the edition does not deal with the vast wealth of songs, covers and different versions, contained in the excellent bootleg series. Comment and analysis of say, Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs) or the most recent Volume 12 ( The Cutting Edge) would have been a real treat, particularly the many brilliant songs which somehow did not make it onto studio albums.

This edition delivers on its subtitle of “The Story Behind Every Track” and for any fan of Dylan or indeed music itself is a real treat to be dipped in and out of.

Review: Stalin’s Englishman

stalin copy-xlargeMy rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.

In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.

Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.

One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.

However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.

Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.

The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’

It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.

Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”

Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.

Review: The Night Manager

By John le Carré. My rating: ★★★★★

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

night managerThe Basics: Jonathan Pine, a night manger of luxurious hotels, becomes involved in the dangerous underworld of the illegal arms trade and it’s shadowy links to Western intelligence services. After losing the woman he loves, Jonathan is driven into the arms of the British intelligence operative Leonard Burr who designates him the mission of bringing down his obsession of “the worst man in the world,” the fabulously wealthy arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper.

In-depth: I was vaguely aware a couple of weeks ago of a new upcoming BBC adaption of a John le Carré novel. Whilst browsing in a book store in Trafalgar Square it was the front cover of the edition depicted to the left which grabbed my attention. It will surely soon be republished to reflect the upcoming BBC series with its delicious cast of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. However only after being informed by a member of staff that she was “really glad you are buying that book” and beginning to read it did I realise it was the novel soon to air. Strangely it is only the books of John le Carré which I tend to have read before watching the TV/big screen adaptions of them and this was a happy accident to continue that trend.

The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post Cold War novel published in 1993. It follows the former British soldier Jonathan Pine from his hotel night shifts and his first encounter with Roper, a charismatic but shady British businessman, his beautiful girlfriend Jed and the rest of Roper’s entourage, back through his heartbreak in Cairo after a brief love affair with a Middle-Eastern gun runner’s mistress is cut short by a savage beating and murder. This forces Pine to ‘volunteer’ for recruitment by the British Intelligence services, as much torn apart by intrigue and mistrust as Pine himself, represented by the delightful, Whitehall moulded animals of Leonard Burr and Rex Goodhew. Interestingly in the Beeb’s adaption Burr’s character is to become a woman played by the excellent Olivia Colman.

Informed of his mission to trace Roper down and infiltrate his inner circle, Pine is driven by his natural tendency to fight the good fight but also now by a growing inner rage and need for revenge for the earlier loss of his love Sophie.

The story follows Pine’s development of a ‘shadow’, le Carré/spy talk for a believable cover or back story. This takes him to the quaint but apparently murderous villages of Cornwall, to another brief fling in Quebec whilst deploying his hotelier skills and to working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean where he is crowbarred back into the life of Roper and his crew.

The scene, and the intrigue behind it, which achieves this crowbarring is a wonder. I can only imagine the fun and credit to be done to it by the BBC and Hiddlestone. A staged robbery and kidnapping of Roper’s young son leads to the chance for Pine, now working quietly under board in the kitchen with his shadowed alias, to spring to action and save the day. The inner rage built up from a lifetime of trying to do the ‘right’ thing but often having the opposite effect bursts with Pine giving an overly convincing but violent performance which saves the day, the boy and most importantly Roper’s trust.

The book then turns to the Bahamas, Roper’s glorious island home and the world of selling “toys” or advanced grade weaponry to the highest bidder. Pine’s mission leads him around the dangers of Roper’s wonderfully suspicious lieutenant Corcoran and his seemingly blissfully ignorant girlfriend Jed. This ignorance is not all that it first appears.

Aided by an American planted lawyer called Apostoll who manages to convince Roper that his chief lieutenant, Corcoran, may not be as trustworthy as he seems, Pine is instead recruited into helping pull off the biggest arms and drug exchange Roper has ever attempted with a powerful Columbian drug cartel. Reporting back to Burr the details of the deal and Roper’s world, not including his stealing of Jed’s love, Pine’s operation appears briefly to be going as smoothly as Roper’s luxurious daily life seems to.

However corrupt elements within the political and intelligence classes in America and the UK, who profit off illegal arms sales threaten the operation against Roper. After the Cartel lawyer Apostoll ends up with a Columbian neck tie, Pine’s real intentions and loyalties are betrayed to Roper.

A period of imprisonment and torture within Roper’s superyacht for Pine runs parallel to battles of survival, operative and personal, fought by Burr and Goodhew in the equally dangerous world of Whitehall.

This novel revolves around the fight by people who are presented as genuinely good, Pine, Jed, Burr and Goodhew etc, struggling in a world turn asunder from the apparent moral certainties of the Cold War and the opportunities this new world was affording to individuals with more flexible morals.

Pine’s determination not to betray his mission and Jed, driven by his endless love for Sophie who did not betray him in Cairo even when faced with violence, is eventually rewarded. He and Jed retire to a quiet life in England. However the ending is more ambiguous for the other players. Roper’s Columbian deal appears to succeed thereby rendering Burr’s operation and reputation seemingly in tatters.

Now all there is to do is wait for the first episode to air on BBC 2 on 21st Feb. If past BBC adaptions of le Carré’s works and the cast are anything to go by it is going to be a belter. You can watch the trailer here.

Review: Dominion

By C. J. Samson. My rating: ★★★★☆

51lPEtvacBL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Basics: The year is 1952. After surrendering in 1940 Britain is now a subservient Vichy-like ally to the victorious Nazi Germany which dominates all of Europe and most of Russia. David Fitzgerald, a Civil Servant in the Dominions Office, suffers the tragedy of losing his young son which leads to him reconsider his surroundings and begin a dangerous journey into what remains of the British ‘Resistance.’ Learning that an old university friend of David’s bears a potentially world changing secret, the Resistance acts quickly to learn this before the Nazi regime does, whose search is lead by the ageing Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Hoth.

In-depth: Counter-factual historical fiction is most definitely ‘in’ at the moment. The current TV series based on the Philip K Dick book ‘The Man in the High Castle,’ which depicts an early 1960s North America co-ruled by seemingly victorious Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes, is the most glossy and visible representation of this trend. However Samson’s ‘Dominion’ from 2012, somehow written and published in the midst of his brilliant and continuing Shardlake series, is a fantastic, gritty and British alternative.

Samson turns history from 1940 onwards on it’s head and teasingly reveals the many intricate details of his imagination through off the cuff conversations. The characters are easy to relate too, include quite worryingly even some of the Nazi’s, due to the immense back stories Samson dedicates to each of them. The most tragic is of Frank Muncaster via his brutal school days of bullying, then his even darker days in a mental asylum and his final opening up whilst on the run with the resistance.

The central couple of David and his wife Sarah form the basis of the book, particularly their transformation into ‘criminals’ who resist the Fascist leaning British Government (Newspaper Tycoon Lord Beaverbrook as PM, Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary alongside faint rumours of Winston Churchill still on the run and heading the Resistance).

Finally another of the main characters is a Scottish Communist called Ben. Not only is his speech spelt out how it’s spoken through his thick Glaswegian working class accent, which can bring joy to the reader in deciphering what at first appears a foreign language, but his character and views seem to represent something close to what could be the authors view of Scottish nationalism today.

Before reading this book I noticed a news story about Sansom being a passionate and financial backer of the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. In a revealing section late in the book Ben lays into the Scottish National Party and their wider attachment to the small minded nationalism that grips Europe in this dark vision of 1950s Europe abandoned by an isolationist USA. It appears a dig at the current Scottish National Party and what to Sansom seems to be the insidious opportunism of valuing the nation as a whole above the people that actually make up nations.

This offers an interesting insight into the current politics of Scottish nationalism today but is merely a hidden nugget in what is an exciting thriller within a remarkably well estimated and entertaining guess at what the world could have looked like if Britain had surrendered in 1940.