Monthly Archives: July 2015

Reading Challenge – Book 54 ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ by Sean Howe and Book 57 ‘Secret Wars’

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Reading Challenge – Book 54 ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ by Sean Howe and Book 57 ‘Secret Wars’

Ever since my move to using a Kindle (as well as tried and trusty paperback books), I’ve had a yearning to try and experience the world of comic books. Outside of Asterix books when I was young and Persepolis when I was older, I’d never made a concerted effort to read anything from Marvel, DC or any of the other companies producing graphic novels. Primarily, this was due to the difficulty in working out the continuity – a story with fifty potential years of backstory is difficult to get your head around, and a jumping on point is not always obvious. Also, the ability to acquire the comics/trade paperbacks for a reasonable cost was often difficult.

Enter Marvel Unlimited.

For £9.99 a month, I’m in a position where I can check out most of the old Marvel stuff, covering years, storylines, characters and major events across the timeline. Rather than feeling I need to read everything leading up to a story arc, it allows me just to pick and enjoy. However, I did feel that I needed to get the most out of it and read around the subject a little more – I was recommended ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ and purchased it straight away.

For someone wanting to get an overview of the machinations behind the development of Marvel as a company, from the initial production all the way up to the heady heights of the Avengers movie release, you can’t ask for a better book. As a comic novice, some of it went over my head, but Howe tries to do his best to explore the characters behind the comics, as well as give some over-riding understanding as to the development of the superheroes on the page. Maybe I’d have got more out of the book if I had a working knowledge of some of the people who worked in the industry, but I didn’t feel like it necessarily hampered me and I left the book feeling like I had a better knowledge with which to tackle the Marvel Universe.

The big issues coming from the book center around the peaks and troughs of the comic book industry – riding high and selling huge at times, barely registering culturally at other points. At times, it feels like Marvel survived in spite of the management of the company, with owners bumbling from one failed venture to another, yet with workers creating stories and characters that continued to appeal to an audience over the course of fifty years. Another problem over the half century that arose several times was the idea of who the characters belonged to, with some writers battling Marvel for the rights to better remuneration for their intellectual property. Finally, we saw the battles between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (often centred around this idea of intellectual property) as their relationship turned sour, and arguments pervaded over who created the foundations for the Marvel Universe.

It is fitting that it ends at the time of the Avengers film release, as almost fifty years is spent trying to get Marvel onto cinema screens in a lucrative manner. Stan Lee comes across as melancholic at times, yearning for the red carpets of Hollywood, yet stuck in the Marvel bullpen churning out comic stories. The book highlights this desire effectively, thus giving the ending a sense of a real peak and the accomplishing of a dream, at least on Lee’s part.

During the 1980s, the Marvel writers decided (as another gimmick, amongst Number 1 issues and fancy covers) to have an event that brought many of the main characters together in one place. ‘Secret Wars’ was really the first of its kind, as heroes and villains are taken away by the Beholder, and tasked with fighting to the death in competition for the Beholder’s promise to grant the victor’s true desires. The fact that Howe’s book suggested that this was a cash-grab designed to shift comics and merchandise doesn’t detract from what must have been a huge deal for comic book fans at the time. Even now, it holds up…relatively well.

There are a lot of chances for the heroes and villains to go at it in large (impressively rendered) set pieces, and any opportunity to see Doctor Doom or Galactus in action is  worth reading. That nothing really changes by the end (a staple concept within the world of the Marvel ‘Event’ style, seemingly) outside of Spiderman’s new suit – a concept developed during the Venom storyline later on in the canon – and that the women are presented how you might expect women to be presented in a male dominated creative industry in the 1970s is something that, as a modern reader, you are forced to get your head around.

Still, as an oppurtunity to check out the biggest names in Marvel in one neat, packaged storyline, it works well and is an excellent jumping on point for a newcomer. At the least, it is the first full storyline I’ve read from Marvel, and it has me excited to check out more.

Reading Challenge – Book 53: ‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett

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‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett

In two weeks, I am due to get married. An exciting new step in me and my fiancee’s life, following the purchase of our first house in the summer last year. Due to both of our occupations being that of secondary school teachers, major events are always timetabled into the six week holiday in an attempt to make the most of the long period of rest and relaxation afforded to us following a tiring and turbulent year.

Preparation for a wedding leaves little time for reading. When coupled with the inevitable parties and functions that liberally litter the end of a school term, I’ve felt like I had stalled in my progress. Sure, I was reading books, but I just wasn’t anywhere near completing one – not something so important per se, but as my attention has spiraled from one book to the next, nothing has really gripped me, leaving me feeling adrift and unengaged. I needed a ‘quick win’: a book I could read and finish, picking up some much needed momentum along the way.

Taking back to the library a selection of books on poetry (my latest attempt to break the back of that beast, to moderate success), I saw a copy of ‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett. Slim, small and by an author that I had begun to dabble in during this year, it fit the profile of the ‘quick win’ I needed, so I loaned it out (along with a book about making a good wedding speech).

Forty five minutes later, I’d finished the book and added one more to my challenge. However, it would be crass to view this book as something as little as another notch on the metaphorical literary bedpost of my year. It is a delightfully funny, if slight, look at the Queen’s burgeoning love of reading, inspired by an altercation with a traveling librarian. Soon, she is spending more time reading than actually being Queen, with even her most basic duties supported by a hidden book away from the gaze of the public. This is neatly contrasted with the responses of her help, as confusion reigns as to why the Queen might want to read.  The idea of reading being an act of exclusion, due to the number of people who don’t read, is an interesting concept which is explored throughout the book.

This book is effectively a love-letter to reading, which is an easy sell for anyone who enjoys books as much as many of my fellow readers do. It celebrates the ability to explore worlds outside of your own in a truthful manner, rather than the highly polished representations you may get through other media or even presented to you face to face. It allows you to delve into the mindset of people who live myriad different lives to the one you lead, even if you are someone as well traveled and exposed as the Queen, for example.

There is a melancholy within the book that I can empathise with: I’m never going to read all the books that I want to read, and wish that I’d started to read as voraciously when I was younger. Other ideas that the books seeks to explore in its mere forty minutes (or thereabouts) are the all-encompassing strain of reading on your time, coupled with the concept that, as wonderful as reading is, it is not the same as actually experiencing or doing. At some point, it should be a gateway to develop your own voice and creativity – something that has been awoken in my over the past few years.

Some of the prose stylings of Bennett I do find difficult – I’m not sure why. Whilst his narratives are good (considering I’ve dipped into a few of his other stories this year), I feel that the written word doesn’t flow off the page as easily as I would like to. It isn’t the use of complex vocabulary per se, but the narrative voice can feel a little stilted for me personally, yet probably wouldn’t be an issue for many others. Just a word of warning, really.

So this was how I got my ‘quick win’ and my reading mojo kickstarted. I finished another book the same day, which I’m sure I would have done anyway, but felt that the Bennett tale reignited a desire in me to read and finish some of the books I had in front of me.

…..now back to the wedding planning.

Reading Challenge – Book 52: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

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Reading Challenge: Book 52 – ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

This is a very difficult review to make, and it can realistically be tackled in several different parts.

Part 1

I’m not a big fan of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Unlike a lot of my friends who read it either when they were at school or at a young age in general, I only managed to read it earlier this year, at the tender age of 28. It was alright. I can see why people liked it as much as they did, but it didn’t wow me in the same way that it has other people I know. I can only assume that my relative age when reading it plays a fair part in that – if I’d come across this novel earlier in my life, perhaps my view of it would have been different. Instead, in buying this book, I was just looking forward to being a part of the wider picture that constitutes this book release.

Part 2

This was the first time in my life that books usurped films and games in terms of my impulsive desire. Whilst I would argue that I’ve always probably had a softer spot for the written word over these two other forms of media, this is the first time that I’ve been swept away by the media circus around a novel to the point where I have invested money in it in the form of a pre-order. An oddity, really, if you consider my general apathy to the initial story. However, just like a new big game on the PS4, where I promise myself I won’t be swept away by the discussion and debate leading up to release, before buying it on day one, this became a ‘must have’ purchase in my mind. Arguably, no book release has been bigger in my lifetime outside of the release of the last Harry Potter novel, and to not be someone who could share my opinion on such an important literary landmark seemed hard to legislate for. Thus, I received the book at 12.01am on Tuesday.

Part 3

Don’t view it as a sequel. This will be a difficult concept for many, but I just feel that you can’t enjoy it if you see it as the next progressive step in the story of the Finch family.  For those who aren’t aware, this was effectively the first draft of a story that would eventually end up being ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – apparently (if stories are to be believed), the editors felt the flashbacks to Scout as a child were the most interesting parts of the story, so Lee was told to focus on that rather than the story she was trying to tell. Therefore, these characters work within a different timeline to those in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in my eyes, and are effectively not the same people. Between this ‘first draft’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, the representation of characters changed, but they can’t necessarily be viewed in the same light. I’ll be honest, I don’t have the same feelings towards Atticus Finch as a character as some do, but him being somewhat of a bigot in this novel shouldn’t really devalue how important and valiant his character is presented in ‘TKAM’.

Part 4

To steal a concept from ‘Community’, this is very much ‘dark timeline’ To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, the characters that you have grown to love are not the same, and generally for the worst. Rather than questioning the story itself, it does leave me wondering what happened in the sequence between Lee’s writing of ‘….Watchman’ and ‘TKAM’ that led to the radical alteration of some characters? The big shift that got the media’s attention was the aforementioned representation of Atticus – such a radical alteration changes the relationship between the characters and the message of the story, for sure.

Part 5

I think I prefer the story being told if I’m being honest. Maybe it is my lack of emotional attachment to the initial novel, maybe it is my age and the divergent nature of the two narratives, it is hard to tell. I can see why the editor (if the story is to be believed) suggested a focus on the time of Scout’s youth, as I feel that they are the best parts of the story in terms of how well written they are. Also, ‘GSAW’ doesn’t have narrative features such as the trial of Tom Robinson and the character of Boo Radley. Indeed, I wouldn’t try to make the argument that it is necessarily a better book, and I’m sure it won’t go down in history in the same way that ‘…Mockingbird’ has.

However, it felt like the story Lee was trying to tell was more interesting to the person I am now than ‘…Mockingbird’ ever really was. As a father, the idea of the perception of your child towards you is a huge concept, as you struggle to be the best Dad you can be, yet also to hide your inadequacies from bubbling to the surface. ‘…Watchman’ felt like it was exploring that very concept, something that spoke to me more than anything really did in the previous novel. At what point is it right as a child for you to realise that your parents are just as flawed as the rest of us? Can you still love someone when your perception is radically altered about a core facet of their being, even when they haven’t fundamentally changed themselves in the process? Is it ever possible to truly escape the life and place you were born into?

Will it go down in history in the same way as the first book? Of course not. Is it a valuable piece of literary fiction? I definitely feel like it is, and hope that unrealistic expectations don’t crush the potential of the story before it has truly had a chance to flourish.