Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

*Warning this review contains potential plot spoilers*

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: In one of the most famous graphic novels of the 20th century an ageing Bruce Wayne returns as the Caped Crusader to save a Gotham overrun by a murderous new gang called the Mutants. His renewed crusade against crime soon attracts all sorts of attention including from past foes, a new police commissioner and even the US Government backed Man of Steel himself.

In-depth: I’ve felt very underwhelmed by the negative reviews of the recently released Batman vs Superman film. Several friends have also complained of its near meaningless as it descends into a massive CGI fest with the only positive outcome, for its makers, being it’s high takings at the box office. I instead decided to purchase the recently published 30th Anniversary edition of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller et al.

I had heard before hand that this four part series formed the basis of the modern, darker and gritty version of Batman (by far my own personal preference) that we have grown accustomed to largely due to the excellent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films. During reading, this is clear to see in the wonderful, highly self conscious internal thoughts of the characters which make up most of the dialogue.

The story is built up from the crime and violence infested ground of Gotham City. The first part, which gave it’s name to the whole collection, sees an aged, slightly unhinged Bruce Wayne internally fighting the urge to put the Batsuit back on and clear up the city.

From this basis the collection covers much ground and narrative depth; Batman’s origins; Commissioner Gordon’s eventual retirement; the failed rehabilitation of Harvey Dent and his relapse into Two-Face; a first woman commissioner, Yendel, zealously obsessed with bringing the Bat to justice; the recruitment of a new Robin; the return (and gruesome death) of the Joker; a wide array of new technological weapons and the general descent of Gotham into savagery. Even over four issues this is a lot and it offers any Batman fan or newcomer plenty to sink their teeth into.

The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps most famous for its capturing of the Zeitgeist of the time when it was published in 1986. The United States, which here includes Gotham and Metropolis, is racked by Cold War paranoia represented by an escalating crisis firmly within the American sphere of influence on a fictional South American island.

This is coupled with the almost provocatively modern insights which hint at the weakness of civil society. Be that theorists of criminal psychology, represented by psychiatrists defending the Joker and Harvey Dent and instead attributing all blame for their crimes to the Batman. Or the defeatist City Mayor willing to negotiate with the ruthless Mutants gang leader who is instantly slain as soon as he tries to do so. Or the well off lawyer, who of course has never lived in the crime ridden City of Gotham, but defends his clients civil rights against the violence of Batman’s vigilantism.

All these attitudes and characters are satirised and juxtaposed with the reassuringly simple crusade of the Batman. This harks back to the America of the Second World War which was convinced of its role and worth in the world. One can imagine how effective, but also controversial, these reactionary themes were in the 1980s and remain so today.

Batman, like many other superheros, initially served as a form of escapism from everyday life. However Frank Miller’s work dragged Batman, and superheros as a whole, back toward the realities of the real world allowing them to satirise and make cutting political statements whilst entertaining readers.

This underlying ambition is best demonstrated through Superman, here a stooge of the US Government. He is eventually called in to take down Batman after the Government’s disapproval of his vigilantism and its results. However when he is distracted by a nuclear missle launched from the USSR, heroically diverting it from hitting the US, Gotham is thrown into darkness and chaos. My favourite frames are in-fact those after Superman denonates the nuclear missile and is half dead due to his lack of access to the sun.

After the gloriously depicted recovery from this, the final scenes are given to a showdown between Batman and Superman which very almost sees the Man of Steel defeated. Wayne then pulls a concluding trick in convincing the world that he, and the Batman, are dead. The novel concludes with Wayne plotting with Robin and other characters from the DC universe for some grand comeback. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I can’t get my hands on the sequel, the Dark Knight Strikes Again, quickly enough.

Have you read this graphic novel or any others which are similar? Please leave your comments below!

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Review: Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh. This review contains spoilers of this novel.

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: After suddenly being expelled from Oxford University Paul Pennyfeather begins a comedic and increasingly dangerous journey through 1920s British society, high and low.

In-depth: I was made aware of this novel, Evelyn Waugh’s first, by David Mitchell choosing it on his Desert Island Discs episode. I purchased it at Hatchards, a wonderful booksellers in Piccadilly, and I was delighted when this store was actually mentioned in this novel.

Known for his cutting satire and black humour, Waugh’s first novel is as funny as it is layered in it’s targeting of all aspects of inter-war British society. On the surface, and for which it gained most attention upon it’s publication in 1928, it is a riotous and funny journey led by Paul Pennyfeather, whose passivity is typical of male narrators of 1920s social satire à la Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and whose sympathetic willingness to listen draws out the stories of the characters but also leads him into unseen dangers.

The title is perhaps a reference to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire series, which charted Rome’s descent from civilised superpower to savagery. It feels as though Waugh’s novel, which includes Churchmen of no faith, drunken teachers who do very little teaching and a prison governer who give dangerous carpentry equipment to homicidal maniacs, is also observing a demise of a once civilised society.

The story begins with Pennyfeather, a young and unassuming undergraduate at the imaginary Scone College of Oxford University, falling foul to the drunken antics of the highly exclusive Bollinger Club. Discovered walking around the college green with no trousers on, after they were stolen by a privileged fellow undergraduate, Paul is swiftly identified as a trouble maker and expelled for his “indecent behaviour”. Desperate for an income he then somehow ends up as a schoolmaster at a unknown public school in Wales.

Most of the first half of the novel takes place at the school, Llanabba Castle, and introduces a number of the schools “preposterous inhabitants”. There is the anxious churchman of Mr Pendergast who constantly doubts his faith, the pathological liar Philbrick and the headteacher Dr. Fagan whose discriminatory views about the Welsh people is rumoured to have mirrored Waugh’s own prejudices. However it is Mr Grimes, who is constantly “in the soup,” which refers to his alcoholism, who undoubtedly steals the show.

From the school onwards Pennyfeather finds himself thrust into a number of adventures which his somewhat benign nature deem him incapable to realise the dangers of. He is instructed to organise a school sports day for the prestigious visit of Ms Beste-Chetwynde, Waugh’s novels are full of seemingly unpronounceable names, and the snobby Lady Circumference, but things quickly descend into farce and scandal.

A loaded pistol is used to start one of the boy’s races which inevitably leads to a boy being shot in the foot. Waugh’s use of characters is ruthless as the reader is later informed that the boy is actually dead in a throwaway comment which receives no follow up or attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waugh’s writing is that it introduces characters in settings which appear believable, deep and permanent but then yanks the reader away from them with sudden and increasingly ridiculous plot twists which refresh the story.

The comedy is kept moving as the reader becomes more aware of the importance of pretence to the story. This is achieved via perceived tragedy at the end of part one, as Mr Grimes escapes an unhappy and rushed marriage to Dr Fagan’s daughter by appearing to kill himself (he later reappears and disappears under different guises) and by love in part two as Pennyfeather quickly stumbles into arranging to marry Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

However, visible throughout many of the character’s conversations, are the underlying tensions and barriers of class, race, sex and nationalism. The characters, largely members of high society which seem to obsess Waugh, are often blissfully unaware of the damaging consequences of these rigid structures as they help form the structure of their gossip, wealth and scandal. The most uncomfortable section for the modern day reader deals with the overt racism  of the time but the satire knows no bounds.  Pennyfeather himself fails to realise the perils of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s grand incomes via the ‘white slavery’ of trading young women, as he is too busy enjoying the public attention he is afforded for their planned marriage.

The final act centres around another delightful plot twist where Pennyfeather’s wedding day at the Ritz Hotel is cut short by a sudden arrest for the above crime. A prison sentence follows, cut short by the ‘legal death’ of Pennyfeather, elaborately organised by his friends, which enables him to flee to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s, now married to a Viscount Metroland, grand villa in Corfu. The story ends with a moustached, and thus suitably disguised, Pennyfeather back at Scone College studying Theology once again witnessing, but this time from a safe distance, the antics of the Bollinger Club. Not so much a decline and fall for it’s central character then but more a brief interlude of wild adventure for a man who wandered.

In all, this is a novel which possesses a comic thrust of ridiculousness and savagery which is at times difficult to associate with the 1920s from which it was produced.

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: 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.

Napoleon the Great

51+Py0MgnYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★☆

Roberts’ account centres on a romantic account of Napoleon, from modest backgrounds to Emperor, who represented the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and meritocracy. Whilst remarkably realist in painting Napoleon as the socially conservative, middle class, army man that he was, it also takes a positive view of the individual genius that possessed him which briefly awed all of Europe. Another of Roberts’ central points throughout is that many of the legal, cultural and administrative policies of Napoleon, particularly the Napoleonic Code, have endured and long outlived him.

Whilst Roberts’ account of Napoleon as the embodiment of enlightenment ideals is what you would expect from this book’s title, it is often at it’s best when demonstrating the Machiavellian flexibilities Napoleon was capable of.

This is first visible in his acceptance and embracing of the power of France over his native Corsica. His family’s connections to the native Corsican insurgency, from his upbringing in Ajaccio, briefly appears as the most obvious avenue to him, but eventually pales into insignificance against the opportunity afforded to his ambitions by the meritocratic atmosphere of the French Revolution & the chaos of the revolutionary wars.

The book largely centres on Roberts’ painstakingly meticulous analysis of the vast archives of letters that Napoleon produced during his career; and there is also plenty for military buffs with in-depth military studies of each of Napoleons battles and campaigns, something you’d expect from a grand history project such as this. Roberts gives engaging accounts of the near constant wars of the Napoleonic era, demonstrating Napoleons’ often-genuine reluctance for war, but ultimately his own firm belief in his abilities to pull off increasingly audacious victories.

Roberts also excellently captures the many personal relationships Napoleon enjoyed and endured through his life. The most interesting is that between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, which verges on looking like a 19th century blueprint for the ruthless games between US President Frank Underwood and his Russian counterpart in series three of House of Cards.

Immediately taken in by the Tsar’s first words of “I shall be your second against England,” Napoleon forever clung to the idea of a possible truce with Russia through out his many battles with her. After a brief friendship forged from the grand summit of Tilsit, and a later attempt by Napoleon to marry into the Romanov bloodline, the Tsar’s appetite for alliance soured dramatically. Roberts pinpoints this largely to Napoleon’s trade-strangling Continental system and his Machiavellian tactics of fostering local support in the East by encouraging a nascent Polish nationalism.

Tsar Alexander I’s biding of time to destroy Napoleon hangs over much of the book and early glimpses of the hubris upon which most popular interpretations on Napoleon are built upon begin to appear. The most obvious comes with the French Emperor’s statement in a letter that French armies could surely overcome any climate or arduous environment, noted during an early pursuit of the Duke of Wellington in the mountains of northern Spain.

Although what is most interesting about Roberts’ account is it’s definitive break with the common mode of interpreting Napoleon as an absolutist ruler with a hubristic ego.

The infamous 1812 Russian campaign is the best example as it receives analysis that goes much further than merely painting the Emperor as hell bent on invading the known world, but is presented as a logical reaction to a long chain of events and influences, many of which were beyond Napoleons’ control. The horrific nature of the campaign, through its never ending marches, murderous weather, ravaging diseases are also masterly captured, culminating in the grand spectacle of the burning of Moscow by it’s inhabitants to snatch it from Napoleon’s grasp, from which his fortunes do not really recover.

Ultimately then this book is a traditional addition to the ‘great man’ canon of history but manages to achieve a remarkable amount of balance. Whilst clearly having a positive view of Napoleon’s un-doubtable achievements and legacy, Roberts’ is obviously not blind to his massive shortcomings. The most central are a lack of appreciation of naval power, particularly after the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar, fed by a self-centred belief in the prestige of land armies and battles. This, coupled with the continental system he constructed from the Baltic States around the European Continent’s coastlines to the border of the Ottoman Empire, formed the master plan for a French dominated Europe which strangely ignored the naval, commercial and economic might of his gravest foe against the channel.

It is this balance that makes this book a must, although very long, read for anyone interested in moving their understanding of such an important historical figure like Napoleon beyond the understandably popular bias of him merely as a crazed dictator as well the central point of Roberts’ admiration for Napoleon: that his dramatic rise, fall and legacy demonstrate the ability one individual can have upon history.