Sunday, 9 January 2011

What I've Been Reading: It's a strange world.

High concept is tough to make good literature. There's a readership out there who devour anything with big ideas and only big ideas, who love to see titles like 'Cowboys and Aliens' 'Cowboy Ninja Viking' or 'Superman and Batman VS Aliens and Predator'. But then the story can fall apart under the lack of story. Concept isn't story, concept is bigger than that, and if that's all you have, then you don't have a story. Just ask Michael Bay.

But then, sometimes, you come across the high concept that works, the one that fuels great characters and that makes you think of impossible things.

Here's a few of them.


Planetary is the work of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, and tells the story of the Planetary organisation; a group of archeologists of the impossible who travel around the world uncovering the secret history of the planet and universe.

The villains of the series are The Four, an analogue for the Fantastic Four, they are made up of four astronauts transformed by a trip into the multiverse who now spend their time stealing artifacts and learning the secrets of the world, only to store them away. The Planetary organisation's goal is for this knowledge to be shared across the world, their motto being, 'It's a strange world, let's keep it that way.'

Ellis uses Planetary to discuss big ideas about the formation of the universe, creation myths, and comic book theory. In the seventh issue of the series, 'To be in England, in the summertime' the team head to England to attend the funeral of Jack, a John Constantine analogue. John Constantine for those who don't know, is a Scouse magician and the star of Hellblazer, once upon a time Vertigo's flagship series. Using the funeral as a set-up, Ellis crafts a tale that takes a look at eighties and their effect on comics.

When a former goodey-two-shoes superhero shows up to murder the already dead magician, he begins monologuing about how he used to have an origin based on good old fashioned family values, he had a wife and kids and then suddenly found his origin was actually grim and gritty and horrible.
(Click to enlarge)

Essentially what Ellis is doing is a critique of Alan Moore's handling of superhero's in the eighties, the way in which dark, more realistic stories took over from these golden age tales of derring do. It's an incredibly sad story, with strong work that takes it above and beyond the basic concept of 'what if Marvelman killed Alan Moore for what he did to the character'?

The Infinite Vacation

Nick Spencer made it into my top ten of the year last year for all his brilliant writing on various projects. The Infinite Vacation is his first new series this year (he's also taking the reigns of Supergirl, and War Machine later this month). It tells the story of Mark, or rather the multiple stories of Mark. He's part of a future world in which you can swap lives with any number of parallel versions of yourself for a price. See a girl in a cafe who leaves before you make a move? Just buy yourself into the universe where you did. Ever wonder what would have happened if you'd dropped out of college and set up a surf shop? It's just a click away. Mark's problem is, he keeps ending up dead.

Really this is the highest of high concepts, similar in nature to Grek Pak's 'Vision Machine' which involves an iPhone app that can let you edit and play with reality. The Infinite Vacation doesn't just allow the concept to carry the story along, rather it uses it to explore what kind of a person would use that kind of a system to live.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu writes and stars in this novel about himself. Set in a science fictional universe in which the physics is only around 90% complete (meaning some areas don't really have anything like gravity) and where aliens, ray guns and the Death Star all bump together in a hefty bundle of cliches and mad ideas, the story concerns Charles Yu, a time travel machine repairman. Time machines can be confusing bits of technology, most people assume that obtaining one means you can go back in time and change things, make your life better, but that's not the case. In fact, changing things just throws you into a parallel world or gets you stuck in a loop. Charle Yu makes the mistake of shooting his future self, who steps out of a time machine trying to hand him a book called 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe'.

What sets this apart, and makes it work is how Yu writes each scene with such a hefty dose of science fiction and bonkers maths, but skews them with an emotional punch that keeps it grounded. When you read the flashbacks of him and his father inventing time travel, it's dealt with in the same way you would expect to read about a father and son tinkering with a go-kart in the garage. When he goes back in time to view these scenes, and realises he can't change anything, it's a smart way of showing flashbacks and keeping a human level to the story.

Whilst the ending isn't as good as the preceeding pages, the novel is well worth a look.

All the above titles can be found in most brilliant bookstores!

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