This is my review*. If you don’t like it, well, I have others.

Biographies, auto- or otherwise, have never interested me that much. I have enough trouble living my own live without having to worry about how others lived theirs. Which might strike someone who knows I read a lot of history as strange, given the huge cast of characters that have walked the stage of the past. But their stories all interweave in a universal narrative, one that is best seen in relation to everything else. I may have obsessed over Άννα Κομνηνή, fallen in total lust with Θεοδώρα, but their stories where always involved in more. But certainly I would take a historical biography over some recent televisual star relating how hard her life has been, and how tough it was for her to make it to the top of her game and get some enhancement surgery to get her on the front cover of some empty magazine, none of whose names I can even recall. Is that the how it stands today? All we aspire to is being rich, marrying rich, winning the lottery or some Gong Show-esque karaoke competition? The thinkers and dreamers have retreated even further from the mainstream than when I was a child. Could anyone get away with writing such a self-obsessed autobiography/novel as À la recherche du temps perdu today? Would anyone read it, given it likely wouldn’t be put in some 3-for-2 stack in Waterstones?

She wore flowers in her hairBut there is one auto(ish)biography that I adore, the reasons of which are wrapped up in my childhood, back when I did watch some moving imagery. But it was never the images, it was the wit and invention around it. Wit I have heard repeated many times in many places, and very few know where it comes from, perceiving it at some sort of given-from-on-high line, that everyone repeats, and so should they. This doesn’t, however, devalue the wit, as even from its origins in the 30s, it still shines today. But that is the curious thing about this book, none of that wit was attributed to the author.

The supporting cast, and what a supporting cast, that orbit around the centre, covers the range of the great and the good. Leading literary lights, musicians, society people, all gathered in what if it wasn’t accidental, would have been called a salon. In the Bloomsbury, Proustian meaning of the term. There are more anecdotes to be found about people you wouldn’t expect, the protagonist especially, connected with the infamous Algonquin Round Table of New York.

It all starts in grinding, unremitting poverty, reaches the heights of riches, and everything in between. But the sese of fun never leaves, the sense of, well, kind-heartedness, the inventive view of every situation, drifts through a life lived not for himself, but for everyone around him. Nothing came easy, no chance of an education in the early days, seeking work, through to the trials of touring the vast country during the vaudeville days.

Shoreditch is hip, yes sir it is

A book that covers a filled life, told in the way you would imagine it would be. Breakneck speed, colourful, musical and more hits than misses. Honest to the point that we with our gadet-crutch lifestyles can’t begin to understand how it could have all happened. It seems alien, a total other generation, and the grasping, sense-of-entitlement current thinking can only scoff in disbelief. But this was part of me growing up, not the way they did, but the stories they told. Or not until this book, for this man.

Aside from bringing my own predujces to this review, I have also managed to avoid using terms like ‘zany’, ‘wacky’ and ‘manic’. Because while it is, and it isn’t, this is more that you imagine. And if you have seen the old films, you will have a predetermined idea of what to expect. And it isn’t that. How he found himself in those situations, by accident, on purpose, chancing his arm, these are the things great biographies are made of. And this is a great biography.

If you want to hear what he says when he does open his mouth, you have to read, rather than watch, and listen. For this is the second to only time Harpo Speaks, so enjoy it. And you certainly will.

Photo sources : Fade out / I sure can

*Review, principles, whatever.

Weapons are where you find them

Despite what the comic intelligensia tell you, neither Alan Moore nor Neil Gaiman are the best graphic novellists of the past twenty years. ‘Sandman’ is vastly over-rated (except the fantastic ‘Brief Lives’ sequence, and yes, I do understand it, now go stand in your corner you proto-goth-pseud) and Alan Moore went off the boil around ‘Stormwatch’, which was…awful. The best, or at least most consistently astounding comic author of the past generation is, without contest, Warren Ellis.

I think I first came across his writing in the seminal political opera that was ‘Doom 2099’. A forlorn, unloved Marvel book, but the writing struck me as fantastic. (And even the art for the last run of the book took on its own brilliance.) An English writer, certainly something special. So fast forward quite a few years and here he is, producing something that is altogether unique. And expensive. Ten of those Great British Pounds for a single forty page, single story, singular book. It has an introduction from William Gibson, praise enough to start with. It has D’Israeli art, for those readers of a certain age, praise enough to start with. And it was written by Ellis, which is always enough for me.

So aside from the rabid fanboi in me, what does this deliver for the money? Black and white, rampant paranoid security agencies losing precious gadgetry. (Oh, Universal Exports, how I loved seeing your sign there.) So far, so…generic. But if you have read anything of Warren’s, you will know it will be so far from that. Inventive, creative tech, oddball characters not quite fleshed out (it is only forty pages) begging for some backstory, more backstory, more story.

Which leads me to what I have been avoiding mentioning. There is a reason for the cost. There is a reason for only forty pages. But mentioning it without weaving in some story of my own just isn’t my way, let me meander for a paragraph. Back when I was chasing girls (in a different way that I do now), very few were…appreciative of graphic literature. Or some were, but not of the graphic literature which involved speech bubbles. Very few enjoyed this with me, but then again, very few enjoyed aching hip bands you won’t have heard of. Or staying up to 3am with me just so I could show them the austere beauty of the craters of the moon, or resolving double stars. But certainly not baby comics with the thoughts encased in clouds.

ReinventBut SVK is slightly different. Not only do you get this limited print run of an indie book, produced lovingly in London, it comes with a torch. Yes, this torch has text on it that fits in with the story, as does even the sticker on the acid-free polybag (with rigid cardboard insert) that is shipped with. To save the comic-geek in you having to do it yourself, while trying not to spoil the sealing sticker. A torch. Press the button, oh look, shiny, shiny purple light. Purple..light. That would be ultra-violet, no? Which when you shine on certain panels reveals…more. Ambient thoughts, added meat to the story. (Personally the old hobo with a beard mumbling ‘boobs boobs boobs’ on the tube was a little too close to home for comfort…) But it is a neat device. Sure, it is only a gimmick, but you see what he was trying to achieve, and achieve he did. You could go further into the comic, even after reading, shining on the fake adverts dotted around, seeing what you can find.

There is the usual violence, the usual wisecracks, the usual (though in the grand scheme of comics, unusual) wit and verve. And there is ultraviolet. There are a couple of essays, and the whole package is just classy. Heavy paper, lovingly produced. And the ultraviolet ink isn’t cheap, which is why it is so expensive. The first print run sold out in 48 hours, and deservedly so. I am sure it would be prohbitively expensive to produce a whole TPB in this way, but damn, I would be tempted to pick it up. The story contains some many ideas you want him to write more, to see where he goes with it.

This is a writer who knows his medium, controls his medium and has fun with his medium. Sure, it isn’t the book to get your boyfriend or girlfriend to change their mind about comics, sure it is the book to wind your wife up when she finds out that it was a tenner, but I am sure it is a great book. Sure, the ultraviolet reveals are a gimmick, albeit a funny, inventive one, but it sure all adds up to something special. Something short, but something special.

Go get SVK.

In hoc signo vinces

There are many ways to tell a story, as many as there are stories, I would say. There are many ways to describe a city, and many ways to describe the story of a city. And there are many stories of many cities. Each one is unique, and each means something. All stories are true, but not all are based in fact. But I have only read one book where the story of this Queen of Cities is told through its architecture. There are others that weave history in with the buildings, and certainly there are several virtuso books on Venice that do this, but none so blatant as ‘City of Constantine’ by John Hearsey.

εἰκώνThis, in hindsight, is a somewhat obvious ploy. From the beginnings of a city, though its trials and tempations, its joys and sadnesses, all these are reflected not only in the people, but the utility of the people who are the city. But Κωνσταντινούπολις was always different, always one step away from the East, and at least two away from the West. And as New Rome was founded to be the hub of a new Christian empire, the main slant of this book are its churches and monasteries. As those are what drove the city, and its people.

Set out in chronological order, from the foundation, to the fall, of the city, the buildings are used to tell not only the stories of the poeple and their enemies, but an underlying thread, connecting them. From hiding out-of-favour empresses in their own sections of the city, flourishing convents with their own rules and theological influences, to huge public displays, nowhere in the world is there such a continuous record of history through building. As the Byzantines, the last Empire of the old world, recorded a lot in their bricks, mortar, wood and bronze. And this was the end of the old world, as even though the Turks took her at last in 1453, the real end of them came forty years later, coincidently, or not, the founding of the New World.

Puncturated throughout with photographs, taken mostly by the author (and decently, do you hear me, Tom Holland and Alain de Botton?) and floor diagrams to help imagine what the ramshackle ruins that are left (and haven’t been altered by many generations of Turks), there is a sense of ‘how did they do that?’, with all the arrogance of our late 20th century viewpoint. Where is the modern hymn that is Ἁγία Σοφία?

Part travel, part history, all buildings, threaded together with the dry wit of an almost Victorian schoolmaster, this is another story of the centre of Byzantium. The recent ‘through the eyes of the common man’ trend for history somewhat misses the point, as interesting as they are. The common ‘through the eyes of the victor’ histories always slant our view, but also expand it. Looking at the city of Constantine from the bricks, listening to their journey as time ebbs along the Bosporus, the cosmopolitan stones from all parts of their empire and beyond, is fascinating. Never dull, this is what could quite easily be called a romp, a new story to add to all the others.

Photo source: Hello Ikon