Review: Hellblazer – The Roots of Coincidence by Andy Diggle

Since I am writing comics, I may as well add reviews of the comics I’m reading and re-reading here. Originally I wasn’t going to, worrying that it might come across somehow as less literary, less serious. Those fears, that the reading and writing of sequential art, that’s comics to you and me, might be seen as childish and frivolous, are a matter deserving of a fuller post.

Today, instead, I want to talk about Andy Diggle‘s Hellblazer: Roots of Coincidence graphic novel. The Hellblazer series has a long and respected history in comics, mature storylines of horror, fantasy, mystery and urban grit, and it’s protagonist, John Constantine the sardonic English street mage. Andy Diggle does a good job, as he so often does, writing the character and the setting and ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ finishes off along-running story arc. Sadly, that it also my issue with the book. Diggle is very good at writing the longer arc and has written some brain-bending short tales within that longer narrative; what I have issue with is the packaging in the graphic novel format, which is outside of the control of the writer.

The story that the graphic novel completes tells of the Laughing Magician, who he is, what he means, whether or not he and Constantine are one and the same, etc. This is all fine, but the story is split into several graphic novels. Each one will contain 4-5 individual monthly comic issues, two of which are often an adjunct to the storyline while the rest is part of the main narrative. This is frustrating and I would have preferred a collection of either the main story only, or the full story. ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ contains Hellblazer issues 243-244 and 247-249, resulting in about 112 pages of story. I know why the publisher does this, making readers buy many individual books increases revenue in a declining market, though sometimes I do wonder if it’s declining due to little things like this.

Again, to reiterate, I liked the story and  think Andy Diggle writes a difficult character well. The overall story arc is good, but reading it piecemeal in thin graphic novels is a shame and doesn’t do justice to the well-plotted story.

Review: The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

The James Bond archetype, by the time you’ve taken into account all the permutations, spoofs, reboots and cultural periods, is quite ridiculous. Not only does Charles Stross know this, he embraces the ridiculousness and makes it part of the story in The Jennifer Morgue. Add in some Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos and geekery and you have a very entertaining novel that knows it’s target audience very well. You can tell that Stross had a great time writing this and I enjoyed reading it. The novel also has a short story with the same protagonist in it, but that’s really not worth writing home about.

People who would like it: Nerds, ideally with a knowledge of James Bond, computers and H.P. Lovecraft.

Review: For the Win: Organize to Survive! by Cory Doctorow

Last year, I very much enjoyed Doctorow’s Little Brother, part YA novel about civil liberties and part how-to guide for civil disobedience in the 21st century. It was well written and while some felt the technological descriptions were somewhat basic, I think a good balance was struck between explaining things for the non-nerd audience while not being overly patronising to the more technically literate.

I was quite excited then when I received Doctorow’s next novel, For the Win: Organize to Survive! as a birthday gift and a recent trip to Turkey meant that I was able to read the whole book in one stretch. In recent years, between the demands of work and the OU , most of my reading has been piecemeal. A most regrettable sacrifice, but it certainly makes me appreciate those rare windows of literary indulgence.

For the Win is a story set in a near future where the economies of Massively Multiplayer Online games are, well, massive. So huge in fact that gold farming, the organised process of acquiring lots of in-game valuables and selling them on to cash-rich, time-poor players, is big business; Big business that is performed across the third world, invariably by cruel, violent gang bosses. The premise of FTW is that the kids playing for pay in a variety of slums across the world want rights, representation and protection from abuse. They want a union and are willing to fight for it, using a combination of strikes and market manipulation.

Sadly, there are a lot of things that don’t work in this book. Firstly, the reader is thrown straight into the jargon heavy world of online gaming, with nary a glossary in sight. I am familiar with many of the terms but it was still sometimes a struggle for me. I can see anyone less familiar with the jargon, that is often never explained, just giving up before the end of the first chapter. A similar problem is encountered later in the book where we have an explanation of hedge funds, what they are, how they work, how they can be manipulated etc. Except the description isn’t very good. I’m sure it’s complete and accurate, but the description was detailed enough to baffle me, but not clear enough to part the veil.

Another problem with the narrative was the distributed characterisation. We’d be introduced to a strong protagonist, then another, then the first one would be dropped, then add a few more middling ones, then the remaining strong one would be dropped, etc. By the end we had lost all the best characters and were left with a series of less interesting ones, nursing their wounds. I did wonder if this was supposed to be part of the meta-narrative, that a union movement isn’t about strong individuals but the masses. Or, it could just be a poor use of character arcs.

Overall, I liked the premise and found it interesting. But I would not call it fun to read and I’m unlikely to recommend it, I found it mostly a hard-to-read polemic. People who would like it: Online gamers with an interest in economics and union politics.