32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics, by Adrian Tomine

32 stories cvr

This small volume collects, as the title suggests, 32 of Adrian Tomine’s short comic strips published from 1991 to 1994 in the first seven issues of his Optic Nerve mini-comic.   The introduction outlines his beginnings as an artist while at school, self-publishing the first photocopied Optic Nerve with a meagre print-run of 25.

Subsequent issues allowed him to experiment with different graphic styles and the comic became more sophisticated in design and production, later incorporating colour and proper printing.   By issue 7 in 1994 sales had reached 6,000 but Tomine had grown weary of the administrative side and Drawn & Quarterly took over as publisher, marking the end of Optic Nerve as a mini-comic.

He was only a teenager when he started and the stories trace his evolution as he learns the craft as he goes along.  That said, even issue 7’s style is still relatively unsophisticated.  The technique though is secondary to the subject matter, and it is easy to see how this would have appealed to a certain emo school student demographic.  A major theme is the difficulties of communication, the attempt to put words to feelings we can hardly grasp ourselves.

Characters lead depressing lives of quiet desperation, no-hopers trapped in loneliness and anomie, diffident with the opposite sex and lacking self-confidence, and when in bad relationships not able to find the strength to leave.  Tomine details insecurities many of us have felt as young, and sometimes not so young, adults.

The stories are a mix of fiction and apparently true experiences.  The true one often peter out, and the obviously fictional ones do not feel authentic because they are not based on Tomine’s grungy experience.  Anxiety dreams are another source of inspiration and these work best because the fantasy is foregrounded.

Some stories are fine as brief anecdotes, reflecting their lack of weight, while other vignettes feel they could have been developed further but are trapped by the format.  Tomine often puts a woman as the protagonist, which must be unusual for a male teenage author.  Stories can be grim, even violent, but they are not always downbeat; there is humour, even if dark.

Tomine is self-deprecating about his talent in the introduction but decided to take advantage of the opportunity to republish these early efforts anyway.  You can visualise him at school, in the canteen at lunchtime, sitting on his own and absorbed in his drawing, but covertly watching life around him.  This is a quick read but it provides an interesting peep at a developing talent.

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The Whippingham Papers

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The Whippingham Papers was first published in 1887 and is devoted to the pleasures of flagellation.  Its chief merit is that it is short.  The preface takes a swipe at Catholic priests using ‘the rod’ in order to ‘serve their own lubricity’, but considers the subject to have deeper roots in England than elsewhere.  The book takes the form of poems, short pieces of prose and a one-act (in more senses than one) play by various hands.  Several of the entries involve thrashing schoolboys, thus proving that in some respects times have changed for the better.  The book was republished by Wordsworth in 1995 in its Classic Erotica series.

‘Arthur’s Flogging’, by Etonensis, attempts the heights of epic – ‘I sing of Arthur’s flogging’ – but manages only the tawdry; if anyone ever found the lines ‘Under the birch, and from them every one / The drops of blood as thick as raindrops spun’ erotic, they would be in need of psychological help.  Arthur bleeds copiously, punished severely for a minor transgression (being late and missing church).  The account highlights the divide between eroticism and unpleasant sadism based on asymmetric power relations.  At a time when pederasty was illegal perhaps flagellation counted as sublimation.  The irony of Arthur’s offense having been to miss church and being so uncharitably assaulted for it would not have been lost on the first readers, so clearly was the punishment, which goes on and on, done for the teacher’s gratification (much talk of Arthur’s plump bare bottom) rather than the boy’s reformation.

The play ‘A visit to Mrs Birch’ attempts an eighteenth century ambience with silly names: Miss Switchem, Miss Tickletouch, and of course Mrs Birth.  Young ladies are not immune from corporal punishment, here for failing to learn lessons and for bad behaviour, though Miss Drawler’s and Miss Stitchem’s ordeals are extremely mild in comparison to Arthur’s.  The mature Miss Tickletouch enjoys the spectacle so much she volunteers for the same treatment, explicitly decoupling beating and punishment.

‘Hints on flogging’, by Allan Bummingham, gives advice to the proprietress of a ‘birching establishment’ in Pimlico.  Apparently full breasts heaving with the exertion of administering the birch are a definite attraction for clients.  The essence though is a masochistic feeling that the woman is more powerful, and the essay stresses the dramatic aspect of the encounter, suggesting that a book of scenarios be kept which can be played out; the whipping on its own is not enough.  A sample – ‘The enraged and jealous wife’ – is included, though the chances are both parties would collapse in fits of laughter before reaching the end if attempting such ridiculous role play.  A number of suggestions for fruity anecdotes to be told over dinner are included.

‘Reginald’s Flogging’ is also by Etonensis, and though not as prolonged as Arthur’s ordeal it seems to be as bloodthirsty.  Sadly for Reggie, even his father thinks flogging a good idea and tells his offspring that had he been administering the punishment rather than the schoolteacher, he would have laid on two strokes for each one actually received.  Reggie is scarcely singled out, as numerous other boys experience the same kind of chastisement, and as with Arthur there is little schoolboy solidarity because the other lads all enjoy the spectacle and even Reggie’s brother has no sympathy.  Apparently there is evidence Etonensis was none other than Swinburne, who did attend Eton, and a character called Algernon appears in ‘Reginald’s Flogging’ standing close by during the ordeal, despite which this hardly counts as autobiography.

The volume concludes with a few short prose pieces.  In ‘A Boy’s Flogging at Birchminster’, Aubrey, a pretty boy, is beaten by Dr Armstrong (a more subtle name than Miss Switchem et al).  While not signed by Etonensis, Reginald’s cousin appears, and there is a long description of Reggie’s thrashing.  A paragraph describes Boadicea (as she was then called) being whipped and her daughters violated, acts leading to the Iceni uprising and defeat.  Another historical note concerns the treatment of adulteresses in Germany in past times (whipping, naturally, in public).  A woman in colonial New England who had been flogged for producing a series of illegitimate children and not being able to pay the fines those births had incurred offers a dignified defence of her actions, and it sits oddly among the other contributions, not least because the whippings are only mentioned in passing rather than being the focus as with the salacious pieces.

‘Whipping as a punishment in Russia’ details the ‘barbarous’ use of the ‘knute’ (knout), which would maim or even kill, thus barbarous because lacking any hint of eroticism.  A miscellany drawn from Buckle’s Tract covers a clergyman’s daughter with a taste for whipping who opens a school to indulge her desire; a young man who rather enjoys seeing his sister whip a ten-year old cousin in her care while wearing a huge bouquet – he acquires an erotically-charged fascination for the scent of the blooms in an early example of Pavlovian conditioning, eventually marrying a 14-year old he happens to see wearing ‘a most enormous side-bouquet’; continental nuns who enjoy whipping almost as much as they would sleeping with men; and a Parisian duchess who purchases a negro woman, educates her and trains the woman to beat her.  A young British officer falls in love with the daughter of a West Indian planter, but sadly on his wedding day witnesses his beloved supervising the whipping of a little mulatto girl, causing him to leave a hasty note bidding her adieu.

A letter to the editor (we are not told which publication) by ‘Castigator’ outlines the punishments meted out in a mixed boarding school near Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  The Earl of Portsmouth, a benefactor of the establishment, enjoyed whipping the boys and witnessing a mistress whip the girls, and his wife and her butler did the same to him at home.  (This was presumably the insane 3rd Earl, whose family name amusingly was Wallop; a later Wallop was educated at Big Horn School in the United States.)  The volume concludes, or more accurately trails off, with Sir Eyre Coote’s misadventure at Christ’s Hospital School when he got into trouble after being caught paying the boys to whip him and allowing him to whip them.  The upper classes, don’t you love ‘em.

Miscellaneous publications on Romania

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I have a particular interest in Romania, though I have never visited.  Below are notes on my random reading of publications, mostly short, about that country.  They are listed in order of publication.

Romania in Pictures, by Ann Kerns, 2007
In Love with Romania, by Tamara Robeer, 2012
World Heritage in Romania, 2017
#translating Bucharest, by Oana Dorobanţu (ed.), 2017
PressOne Quarterly #5, 2017

Romania in Pictures, by Ann Kerns

Published by Twenty-First Century Books in 2007 as part of its Visual Geography Series and intended for classroom use, Romania in Pictures, while inevitably dated, is a useful brief introduction to the country.  It covers the physical geography, complicated history, politics and social life, culture, the economy and miscellaneous information.  There is even a recipe for mamaliga.  The book concludes with a timeline, a list of basic facts, some famous Romanians, notable landmarks, a glossary, a bibliography and an index.  The text is primarily aimed at an American readership.

The book was written before Romania joined the EU (which took place in 2007), and much has happened in the last decade; Romania has hugely benefited from EU membership and its prospects look brighter than they did at the beginning of the century, though Kerns highlights the positive aspects of the country, which had made considerable gains since the revolution of 1989.  Whether the country has completely fulfilled its potential in the decade since joining the EU is open to question.  The title is slightly misleading a there is more text than it suggests.  This is certainly not picture-heavy, and the pictures tend to the generic rather than making a significant contribution in their own right.

Source: Internet Archive

(31 December 2017)

In Love with Romania, by Tamara Robeer

London-based Tamara Robeer is half Dutch, half Romanian, and has written a short affectionate memoir based on photographs that had belonged to her father Gerrit Jan Robeer, a few of which are included.  She had inherited a collection of a couple of hundred of these images, taken between 1970 and 1974, after his death in 2009.  Her article first appeared in the online photography magazine Love Issue #7 in 2012.

Born in 1950, in the 1970s Gerrit had had been an adventurous youth keen on photography and eastern Europe.  Romania became a favourite destination, driving down at a time when travel to the Communist bloc was difficult, and there he met Tamara’s mother Nela, who had been born in Bucharest.

He made repeated trips and they married in Bucharest in 1974, though it took a further year, and much pleading, before Nela was allowed to leave the country.  She wasn’t allowed to take her educational diplomas out, so they secretly made copies at the Dutch embassy.  Nor could she take the gold trophies she had won at gymnastic competitions, so her father arranged for the gold to be melted down and made into a ring.

The photos show Tamara’s parents as they were in the early 1970s, young and freshly in love.  This hairy Dutchman with his western ideas must have been a breath of fresh air in stuffy buttoned-down Romania, with Nicolae Ceaușescu increasing his grip on power.  Tamara was born in 1981 in the Netherlands, and was only able to visit Romania in the mid-1990s, after the 1989 revolution.

Now she has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a photographer, using the medium to help her understand a country which, as she puts it, ‘feels so familiar and is completely unknown at the same time’.  Her father’s archive allows her to explore the way photographs hold on to moments, giving them ‘a second life’, but at the same time shape our memories of those moments.

Source: Issuu

(2 January 2018)

World Heritage in Romania

World Heritage in Romania is a 2017 document, attractively illustrated, outlining ‘a new approach in the implementation of The World Heritage Convention’.  Romania accepted the Convention in 1990 but only implemented the necessary legislation in 2000.  The National Institute of Heritage (NIH) acts as the Focal Point Institution for Romania’s sites enjoying world heritage status.

There was a shake-up of the national strategy in 2016 and continued the following year, with the creation of a new World Heritage Coordination Unit within the NIH, the members of which monitor the seven world heritage sites within Romania.

Fortunately little space is devoted to the bureaucratic approach to identifying and managing thee sites, instead the bulk of the document describes the sites, with photographs.  A visit to them all would certainly make a fascinating holiday and provide valuable insights into Romania’s history.  The sites listed are:

Danube Delta
Churches of Moldavia
Monastery of Hurezi
Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania (numbering seven)
Dacian Fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains
Historic Centre of Sighişoara
Wooden Churches of Maramureş

Source: Issuu

(2 January 2018)

#translating Bucharest, by Oana Dorobanţu (ed.)

This is a booklet issued by Casa de Traduceri, a translation service based in Bucharest, in November 2017.  Along with attractive photographs it contains short essays bearing a decidedly hisperish slant by staff members and clients, promoting in equal measure the delights of the city to visitors and the delights of the company to potential clients.

One contributor likens central Bucharest to Paris, possessing a lively scene full of people brimming with ideas and ambition, firmly putting the old rigidities behind them.  Bucharest, she asserts, is a city bearing comparison with capitals such as London, Paris, New York and Prague.  ‘Little Paris’ is now the ‘New Berlin’.  Another stresses the variety of the architecture and the hidden gems to be found while wandering around.

A client profile stresses the festivals devoted to food and drink, and the restaurants and cafes reflect the social diversity and the influences making up Romanian history.  A chef who is interviewed notes how finding the most interesting restaurants require personal research rather than a reliance on guides and websites like TripAdvisor, which he claims are for the lazy.

The nightlife is varied, having grown spectacularly in the last twenty years in step with the growth of the middle classes, and it is a safe city.  However, English resident Tom Wilson notes how the nightlife is concentrated in the centre of the city, with little gentrification in outer districts to support such ventures.  He clearly finds the post-Communist developments double-edged, with Bucharest’s unique identity giving way to similarity with other major cities.

Naturally those who enjoy shopping are well catered for, as are those who seek quieter forms of relaxation in open spaces.  The cultural life is diverse, both in terms of creativity and consumption, though Romanian literature, while thriving, has yet to make itself felt internationally.  On the downside, the traffic problem is mentioned more than once, and Wilson refers to governance issues (though other contributors stress increasing civic involvement).  The booklet ends with useful advice for the visitor.

The publication is described by the company as a ‘Brand brochure and city guide hybrid. A different approach to a boring company brochure’, an aim amply fulfilled.  This is a worthy tribute to the energy and excitement of Bucharest, even if the suspicion arises that the energy and excitement have been hyped to an extent.

Source: Issuu

(I January 2018)

PressOne Quarterly #5, 2017

PressOne is a quarterly English-language magazine which bears the strapline ‘Cherishing Romania’ and articles are devoted both to social justice and reporting positive stories about the country.  It is published in Cincinnati, United States.  The major theme of issue 5, the most recent at the time of writing, is the way children are treated in the country, and the cover has a photograph of a young child tied down in a cot with the legend ‘The tragedy of Romanian children’.  Underneath are stark statistics: 63% are victims of domestic violence; 51% live in poverty; 42% of 15 year olds are functionally illiterate; there have been only 769 adoptions while 57,026 children live in state care (or custody as the caption puts it), which by my calculation is a mere 1.3%.

After the 1989 revolution there were many horror stories in the British press about Romanian orphanages, but on this evidence, despite the opening up of the country, the situation for many children has not improved dramatically in the last thirty years.  As the introduction by Don Lothrop points out, the cover photograph is not from 1990, it is from 2017.  Romanian children are still being kept in appalling conditions.  Further statistics presented indicate that Romania is the only country where child poverty has increased since achieving EU membership and it has the highest infant mortality and child abandonment rates in Europe.  Part of the problem, the editorial continues, is the corruption found within the Department of Child Protection, and the prevalence of dehumanising domestic violence.  Romanian practices contravene both international and domestic laws, and Lothrop sees these attitudes as having deep roots in the old communist culture.

The first two articles amplify the bald statistics by examining domestic violence and child neglect in more detail, with case studies which show just how women and children are being failed by the judicial system.  When prosecutions do occur, penalties tend to be light, with abuse considered more of a private domestic matter than one for the courts, and the process of bringing abusers to justice can be protracted and opaque.  The article on the failure to protect vulnerable children within the care system notes that given the history of child institutions, Romania should have the best system in the world, yet the dire situation persists.

The result is not only suffering in the present, but long-term developmental harm for the children.  A policy decision to foster children rather than place them in orphanages has not been implemented, and there still 70 ‘traditional’ institutions in existence.  Such confinement up to the age of 2 can cause lowered IQ, attachment difficulties and lack of control of emotions.  These articles are the heart of the issue, while those following are lighter in tone and while enjoyable, mostly amount to filler.

As a change to a more cheerful subject, the following article is about a rural funeral, that of Dumitru Şomlea.  There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the death of Dumitru, who had died at the age of 103, except that he was a veteran who fought in the Romanian army for six years during the Second World War.  His sacrifice was acknowledged by those around him, but still he was forced to live on a paltry pension despite the sterling service he had given to his country.  The feeling of those left behind, as is universal when such individuals die, is that they don’t make them like that any more.

The next article concerns a Romanian visiting a fellow countryman now permanently resident in Canada.  He left Romania in 1985, aged 30, using salami as a bribe to get to Yugoslavia with his wife, but leaving their young daughter behind.  Now he works as an estate agent and has only been back to the old country once, in 1991.  He has no desire to return, and discourages his son, born in Canada, from making the journey.  During a visit to the local cemetery he shows his visitor a number of gravestones marking the last resting place of Romanians.  ‘This is my village’, he says.  It transpires that there is a significant Romanian presence in the area.  A wake for one is a chance for the expats to gather, though the deceased did not much care for Canada and his body is shipped back to his native land.  Most of the Romanians in the area fall somewhere in between the two poles, happy to live in Canada but keen to maintain links with their roots, even while acknowledging problems in Romania.

The next stop is Cluj and a profile of a man who was wearing himself out in sales switching to cooking and becoming much happier as a result, with a renewed zest for life.  Then an historical article traces the lives of two brothers, Dinu Lipatti, born in 1917, and Valentin, born in 1923.  Dinu was disabled and often ill, but he was a musical prodigy, and Valentin grew up in his shadow.  The family was wealthy and Dinu was able to study the piano in Paris until their return to Romania in 1939, where he established himself as an important concert pianist.  Dinu moved to Switzerland in 1944 but died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1950.  Valentin took an entirely different path, becoming a member of the Romanian Communist Party in 1947 and a successful international diplomat for the country, dying in 1999.

A contrast is a feature about a Romanian long-distance runner, his achievement all the more remarkable as he nearly didn’t reach his first birthday.  He has a fundraising campaign, ‘The arc over the Carpathians’, to raise money for a new children’s hospital.  He ran 1,300km along mountain ridges, beautiful but full of dangerous animals, in 22 days.  Then PressOne co-founderVoicu Bojan, claiming to be a gentleman of mature years though looking well preserved in his photo, attends a large four-day music festival.  This is Electric Castle 2017, at Bánffy Castle in Bonţida, a small town near Cluj where the festival has replaced pig farms as the major revenue generator.  While the piece is titled ‘No castle for old men’, the author finds it an enjoyable if sometimes perplexing experience.  The issue concludes with a photo spread of Poiana Aleu in Western Romania, looking very attractive.

(14 January 2018)

Source: Issuu

Aircrew: The Story of the Men Who Flew the Bombers, by Bruce Lewis

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Bruce Lewis’s book about the British and American bombing missions over Europe during the Second World War was first published in 1991, and by Cassell Military Classics in 2000.  Lewis, who himself flew 36 missions in RAF bombers during the conflict, focuses on the human aspect rather than on technology and strategy in order to get to the heart of the experiences of those who entrusted their lives to those huge machines.

To do so he has supplemented his own experience by drawing on interviews with others who served in various capacities in Bomber Command.  As he points out, to talk in terms of the loss of 57 aircraft during the night of 21/22 January 1944 masks the fact that they were carrying over 400 airmen.  His aim is to focus on the individuals who made up those statistics, describing the hazardous conditions of flying in combat by men whose bravery was understated, for whom an exhausting night with death a constant companion could be characterised as ‘a bit of excitement’.

He has structured the book by devoting chapters to the various roles that made up a bomber’s crew, incorporating biographical information from interviewees and covering training (or lack of it) as well as the raids they undertook.  The breakdown helps the reader to understand how crew members worked together to fly these behemoths to a target while being attacked from above and below, deliver their payload, and return – sometimes – to base.  A final brief section covers the United States 8th Army Air Force.

The numbers are terrifying: of the RAF aircrews who flew combat missions in ‘heavies’, 51% were killed in operations; 9% were killed in crashes in England; 3% were seriously injured; and only 24% came through unharmed.  Those who took to the air in these aircraft knew their chances of ending the war unscathed were slim.  They were very young, seeing things most 20-year olds cannot imagine.  Lewis reminds us that 55,500 Bomber command aircrew died, ‘a rate of loss never before borne by a military force of comparable size in the history of the world’.

Bombers lack the glamour of fighters, and the carpet bombing they undertook night after night was a world away from the aerial jousts of the Battle of Britain; but the part their crews played in the war effort was huge, and the sacrifices immeasurable.  The Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters made an enormous contribution to grinding down Germany, and this is a worthy tribute to the gallant men who flew them.  There is a useful glossary but no index.  A good selection of photographs is marred by faint reproduction arising from the poor quality of the paper used.

Fighter Pilot: A Personal Record of the Campaign in France 1939-1940, by Paul Richey

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Paul Richey’s account of being a fighter pilot in the RAF during the early days of the Second World War was originally published anonymously (for operational reasons) in September 1941.  It quickly achieved classic status, selling 75,000 copies, and would have sold as many again had it not been for paper shortages.  The book must have had an enormous impact on its initial readers with its first-hand account of the Battle of France, giving them insights into the pilots who were now defending Britain above their heads.

The slim book was carved out of a diary amounting to 100,000 words Richey had kept from the day his squadron landed in France in September 1939, which lends an immediacy to its descriptions.  He was only 23; he had joined the RAF in 1937 and by the outbreak of hostilities was a Flying Officer in No. 1 Fighter Squadron, equipped with Mk 1 Hurricanes.

The squadron soon proved itself a force to be reckoned with, and Richie captures the excitement, fear and camaraderie.  The experience was a bruising one.  Even as they admired individual enemy pilots, chivalric notions of gentlemanly behaviour were discarded after witnessing the Germans’ barbaric behaviour towards civilians.  This was an early taste of what total warfare would entail, though it should not have come as a surprise after the behaviour of the Condor Legion in Spain.

Richey’s squadron exhibited astonishing bravery, outperforming superior German forces – destroying 155 aircraft for the loss of three pilots by the time it left France in 1940.  These were men for whom death was a daily companion (even in peacetime one death per month among pilots was regarded as ‘normal’).  Lessons learned in France were to prove invaluable in the Battle of Britain.

Richey was shot down three times in France, the final time with an armour-piercing bullet next to his spine, which put him out of active service for nearly a year.  It was removed at the American Hospital in Paris on 19 May 1940; the book is partly dedicated to the surgeon who saved him – he committed suicide a month later, the day the Germans arrived in the city (the book is also dedicated to those of Richey’s ‘comrades killed in action in the Battle of France’).

Fighter Pilot covers a period not much celebrated compared to the summer of 1940, bound up as it is with allied defeats by German forces as they rolled through France and the Low Countries, and the BEF’s retreat to Dunkirk, even though the RAF gave a very good account of itself in those dark hours.  Richey’s convoy left Paris only three days before the Germans, as he puts it, ‘goose stepped’ in, and he captures the locals’ desolation at the prospect of the occupation.

The book concludes with Richey being flown home in June.  As he crosses the Dorset coast he looks down and sees peaceful countryside, smoke rising not from bombed villages but cottage chimneys, and a cricket match being played on a village green.  His reaction is surprising: not a nostalgic feel for the age-old English ways he has been fighting to preserve, which today we are familiar with from the propaganda of the period; instead he feels contempt:

‘With my mind still filled with the blast and flame that had shattered France, I was seized with utter disgust at the smug insular contentedness England enjoyed behind her sea barrier.  I thought a few bombs might wake those cricketers up, and that they wouldn’t be long in coming either.’

I have not examined a copy of the original 1941 edition, but I suspect those lines were censored at the time.  He was right about the imminent arrival of the bombs and while his judgement might seem harsh, at the time, seeing how terribly the French people had suffered, it is understandable that he would be frustrated at the apparent complacency symbolised by a cricket match.

Fighter Pilot has gone through numerous editions and reprinting since it was first published by B T Batsford in 1941 and is therefore very easy to find in one form or another.  A further revision and enlargement was undertaken in 2001 to celebrate the book’s 60th anniversary and published in Cassell Military Classics (the copy I read).  It includes a useful selection of illustrations.  The History Press issued a further edition in 2016.  My one criticism is that an introduction outlining the events of that period would have been useful to put Richey’s experiences in context.

A preface by Diana Richey briefly describes his further service in Europe and the Far East, which was equally illustrious.  He ended the war a Wing Commander, awarded the DFC and bar as well as numerous other honours.  He is someone worth listening to because he knows all about bravery, and he conveys the terrible cost of war superbly.

The Piccadilly Murder, by Anthony Berkeley

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Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel features his diffident amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick.  Chitterwick is described as ‘a red-faced, somewhat globular, early middle-aged gentleman’ sporting gold-rimmed pince-nez.  His very name conjures up dullness (evoking the image of chitterlings perhaps) but he has more going for him than his unprepossessing appearance suggests.  In this mystery he finds himself by chance at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel having afternoon tea.  A hobby is people watching, attempting to make inferences from their appearances.

Unfortunately while in the lounge he witnesses the unexpected death of an old lady, Miss Sinclair.  Was it suicide, as the police initially think, or murder?  He had seen her in deep and apparently acrimonious conversation with a young man who left shortly before her death.  Going over the heads of the local plods he telephones his acquaintance Chief Inspector Moresby, whom he had met while involved in a previous case.  He informs the Chief Inspector that it looked as though the man dropped something in her cup shortly before he left.  It is quickly established that Miss Sinclair was indeed poisoned.

The man who had been with her is identified as her nephew, Major Sinclair, and the case seems cut and dried.  Mr Chitterwick is ready to swear he saw the deed, but the accused man’s family and friends invite him under false pretences to an old country pile to, as he immediately realises, persuade him to change his evidence, or at least not present it with such conviction.  These champions include a duke and his sister, and particularly the major’s distraught wife who is ready to do anything – anything, she suggests to him in his bedroom at night – to save her husband (a noble offer he hastily declines).

Unable to resist their combined pressure, and somewhat smitten by Mrs Sinclair, he is persuaded to look deeper into the matter.  Yet it seems so straightforward.  The accused was distinctive in appearance and Chitterwick was able to have a good look at him in conversation with Miss Sinclair.  Feeling a fraud, Chitterwick mulls over the matter, but as he ponders, he realises the facts might not be as cut and dried as he first thought.

Chitterwick is shy and bumbling, a man of independent means in name but in practice living under the (very comfortable) roof of his domineering aunt at Chiswick.  Firmly under her thumb, he likes gardening and stamp collecting, those most inoffensive of pastimes.  A mild bachelor he may be, but he is a natural detective with a good grasp of psychology, having long had an interest in criminology.  He is very correct in his manner, and while he will not bend his testimony or conspire to subvert justice, he is fastidious in his desire that right be done.

Of course as he digs it transpires appearances can be deceptive and once he is on the trail he finds possible alternative explanations for the crime.  While he is busy investigating, he hears that a cousin of the major’s is hotfooting from America to do all he can to help, even though he would inherit if the major were to hang.  Hmm.

The plot is quite convoluted, involving two separate but linked plots, but once explained it makes sense, even while the reader suspects the murder was not quite as straightforward to implement as Chitterwick claims.  It is also hard to believe Chitterwick would have mistaken the identity of an individual at fairly short range, however good the disguise and close the genetic link (this barely classifies as a spoiler as the ruse is obvious as soon as the cousin is mentioned, while the identity of the murderer is well concealed).  There is a little social commentary as Chitterwick realises that nobody notices the waitresses in a large and busy lounge; they are effectively invisible.  Even so, Berkeley displays a degree of snobbery when writing lower-class characters.

He overeggs Chitterwick’s awkward shyness and inability to reach the end of a sentence to begin with, but once the sleuthing gets underway in earnest Chitterwick gains in confidence and becomes more bearable.  The police patronise but tolerate him, even so Moresby is remarkably free with information, especially considering Chitterwick is the star prosecution witness.  The Piccadilly Murder is entertaining and flows well, but is a minor entry in the canon of Golden Age detective fiction.

Action Comics #1

Action Comics 1

I was fortunate to pick up a copy of the very first issue of Action Comics, dated June 1938, at a car boot sale, in pristine condition.*  There are apparently only about 50-100 copies of the original publication left, and very few in very decent condition.  It’s quite horrifying to see on the inside cover a competition which involved crayoning in a black and white page, tearing it out (I can hardly bear to type this) and sending it to the comic, where the best 25 entries would be awarded a $1 prize.  One wonders how many copies were defaced in this way.

The issue is of course famous for Superman’s first appearance, written and illustrated by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Rather than fighting supervillains, his adversaries tend to be domestic and his powers seem relatively limited compared to his later near-invincibility.  Krypton isn’t mentioned by name, nor his foster parents, leaving the reason for his name being Clark Kent unexplained; instead the baby is found by a passing motorist and taken to an orphanage, the whole of his childhood covered in three panels.  Lois Lane is present as the love interest rebuffing Clark’s attentions on the grounds that he is a coward – his cover as a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Star (before the name was changed to Daily Planet) being too convincing.  Curiously there is a political element because Superman foils a plan to embroil the United States in European affairs (with war looming and Hitler adopting an aggressive posture towards Czechoslovakia, there was fierce debate in the US about intervention in Europe); American entanglement, it is indicated, is a bad thing.  For a superhero who was to achieve such a phenomenal standing, the storytelling here is surprisingly unsophisticated.

Chuck Dawson, he of the colouring-in, in ‘Chuck Dawson’ is out for revenge on the ranchers who killed his paw and stole the family ranch when he was a youngster.  He tangles with the bad guys but is thrown into jail by the sheriff.  The episode concludes as Chuck is about to make his escape, having tricked the jailer with laughable ease, when he hears footsteps in the outer office, a cliff-hanger preparing the reader for episode two.

‘Zatara Master Magician’ features Zatara and his sidekick Tong investigating thefts from a  train which are being masterminded by female criminal the Tigress, whose evil plans involve her being immaculately coiffed at all times.  Zatara is definitely a magician, as he goes about in a cape and top hat (possibly with a white dove or two underneath).   Tong, being ethnic, wears a turban and is bare to the waist.  Zatara has skills the average stage magician would envy, not just the ability to hypnotise a group instantaneously, but when the Tigress throws him from a train, his ‘magical powers’ allow him to float to earth.  He is able to cast his spells by means of mesmeric passes accompanied by gniklat sdrawkcab.  He cracks the case and rounds up the gang, but the Tigress escapes to fight another day.  One glaring error suggests the strip was done in a hurry – the Tigress is about to shoot Zatara and somehow he changes her gun into a banana with merely a ‘gesture’, but the text reads ‘transformed into a bullet’.  It certainly looks like a banana.

‘South Sea Strategy’ is a short story about sea captain Bret Coleman and his sidekick Cottonball, whose ethnic origin is fairly clear.  They are on their boat the Aruba as night comes on.  It’s only two pages, minus two illustrations, but nothing much happens for the first page.  Then they fish Samuel Newton out of the water.  He has been a missionary and trader for 20 years, but was lucky to escape a violent native uprising.  His housekeeper has been murdered, his house torched and his daughter Merna abducted, while he was left for dead.  It is the first of a two-part story but I think it is fairly easy to deduce the ending.

‘Sticky-Mitt Stimson’ is a small-time thief who bungles stealing from a display of apples.  He is chased by the shopkeeper and then the police, but eludes them by running away and being adept at disguise when cornered.  He meets a bunch of cops, batons drawn to deal with strikers (another political reference) but hoodwinks them too.  For such a simplistic story the artwork is oddly confusing.

In ‘The Adventures of Marco Polo’, the 17-year old Marco sets off for the Orient with his father and uncle, stopping off first in Armenia.  After a side visit to the Pope at Acre and a run-in with Babylonian warships, the trio set out once more.  They have an arduous journey and the episode concludes with the party gaining the upper hand on bandits in the ‘Rhas Mountains’, somewhere in the Middle East, by dropping boulders on them from the top of a defile.  The geography may not be wholly reliable but there is a faint whiff of education about it, which might be why it is so dull.

“Pep” Morgan is a light heavyweight boxer (the ‘light’ suggesting he is not a muscle-bound freak).  He wins the world championship by beating Sailor Sorenson, but it is clear that his opponent’s manager, Doc Lowry, had tried to fix the fight by putting liniment on Sailor’s gloves which temporarily blinded Pep.  Doc is told to leave town, but later makes headlines promoting an alleged ‘wild bushman’ from Australia called Boomerang, perhaps to suggest he always returns.  Naturally Boomerang, whose physique must stretch the definition of light heavyweight, plays dirty as well, Lowry having attached a doped hypodermic to his glove.  As one would expect, Pep still wins through, proving that even drugged he is the better man, while Lowry goes down for a five stretch.

Next up is ‘Scoop Scanlon: Five Star Reporter’.  What, another ace reporter in the same comic?  All we need is Tintin to make it a trio.  Scoop and his photographer, Rusty, are present at the attempted rescue of Arnold, an international jewel thief who is being brought back to the US.  Gunmen cut loose with machine guns, but Scoop jumps on them and – biff, bash – drops one gunman, while another and Arnold make off.  There follows a thrilling chase, only terminated by Rusty, who has been hanging on to the back of the miscreants’ car, jabbing holes in the petrol tank, though with what we are not informed.  Arnold is captured and Scoop gets his, er, scoop.

The eponymous Tex Thomson is a Texan (well what else?) who has struck it rich in the oil fields and gone on a world tour – which is really a great idea for a strip, with plenty of scope for culture-clash humour.  In this first instalment he is in ‘a small town in England.  The inactivity is beginning to bore him.’  Is there an element of Anglophobia here?  He goes for a country walk, whereupon a boy runs up and shouts, ‘Hey mister! Wait up a minute’, a form of address widely employed in the home counties in 1938.  This is young Bob, and the two stroll together until they stumble upon the body of a murdered man.  Tex sends Bob for help while he stays with the corpse.  A scheming young woman, surely kin to the Tigress, arrives and accuses him of the murder and as Tex protests his innocence, the sheriff (really) turns up and wants to hold Tex.  Realising he needs to clear himself, Tex thumps the sheriff and vamooses.  Suddenly he sees the mysterious girl, who goes into a deserted shack between two hills (at which point I double-checked to make sure we really were supposed to be in England; that’s what it says).  Eavesdropping, Tex learns she is part of a gang who committed the murder and planned to frame the first passer-by, clearly a scheme of great subtlety.  Worse, the gang has captured Bob!  Naturally the British criminals talk like American gangsters.  Tex employs a little jujitsu but despite Bob getting away, Tex is captured.  After more fisticuffs and a convoluted plan by the gang to do away with him, they make him run so they can shoot him, a solution so much more satisfying than just, say, executing him where he stands.  Naturally he manages to get to cover, meanwhile the bobbies have been alerted and get the drop on the gang, plugging the chief villain as he attempts to flee (yes, these coppers carry guns) while the remaining members are marched off to the ‘jail house’.  Bobby and his friend Betty get the reward, whereupon they proclaim in unison: ‘Gee, Mr Tex, you’re swell!’  Why this nonsense had to be set in England heaven knows; couldn’t Tex have gone on holiday in Nevada or somewhere closer, so that the story could have some element of authenticity?  This is plain insulting.

The comic wraps up with ‘Stardust’, by ‘The Star-gazer’, with celebrity snippets on Fred Astaire, Constance Bennett, Charles Boyer and ‘two of Hollywood’s most popular comics’, Wheeler and Woolsey; ‘Odds ‘n ends’, more snippets, these on sport, mostly baseball (featuring Lou Gehrig, now better known because of the disease named after him); and an ad for sundry items sold by Johnson Smith & Co on the back.  All in all, Action Comics #1 is wildly variable in terms of quality but even at this early stage it is easy to see Superman’s potential.  While he has left his original stablemates far behind, it is still worth reading the comic cover to cover to get a sense of the context from which he emerged.

 

*Sadly a facsimile published in February 2017 for Loot Crate, though it does come with a DC certificate of authenticity.  There are some changes to the cover artwork to make sure it can’t be confused with the original.

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