Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Carole King, Tom Holland and Tim Lott.

A Natural Woman by Carole King

Writing in the Independent Fiona Sturgiss praises Carole King whose “elegant and “evocative” memoirs not only recount her Brooklyn childhood but also describe the social and political changes that took place during the fifties and sixties. As Sturgiss points out, King’s autobiography may be “one of the more reliable accounts of the era”. Unlike many of her contemporaries, King drank only in moderation and completely abstained from drugs: “Any decadence detailed in her memoir is other people's, and even then she is unfailingly discreet”. Indeed, King’s modest autobiography is a far cry from the rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of Keith Richards or Sammy Hagar. Sturgiss describes her life story as “one of resourcefulness, ambition and unfathomable strength. For the most part, King conveys the impression of an artist operating in isolation, impervious to the music world's extra-curricular activities and forever out of step with the cool kids”, concluding, “her independence and fierce protection of her values gives her the space to blaze a trail all of her own”.

In the Guardian Carole Sullivan likewise enthuses over King’s modesty. However, she is more critical of her “prim” style. She describes the book as “cosy and comforting”. From her review, you can’t help but read Sullivan’s disappointment at the lack of insight into King’s show-biz experiences: “It must have been life-changing, yet she skims over what it felt like suddenly to be America's biggest-selling singer”. Indeed, she continues, “towards the end of the story [] is clogged by a dull account of her legal fight to stop the public accessing a road running through her ranch; this is where her earnestness becomes tedious rather than charming”. However, she ends warmly, “her generosity, towards [her late husband] and almost everyone else, lights up A Natural Woman. This is a pop icon you'd (probably) like to have as a friend".

In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

Tom Holland is widely congratulated for his brave grand tour of history and religion. His new novel covers a substantial stretch of the later Roman Empire, the last years of the Persian empire, the conversion of the Arabs, the spread of Christianity and what happened to Judaism, but, centrally, the establishment of Islam and its political and martial setting and the possibility that the Qu’ran that has evolved and developed over time. Here lies Holland’s bravery, as Philip Hensher notes in the Spectator, “suggesting anything remotely similar about the Qu’ran is to condemn you to an existence where the gendarmerie have to accompany your children to school every day”. Certainly, his subject matter is, as Heshner describes, “colossal”. He goes on to describe Holland as, “a writer of clarity and expertise… a confident historian who is able to explain where this great religion came from without illusion or dissimulation has us greatly in his debt”.

Anthony Sattin, writing in the Guardian, agrees, enthusing, “The life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam are boldly re-examined in this brilliantly provocative history”. Again, Satin is awed by Holland’s courageous choice of subject matter, “Christians have choked on the notion that many of their rituals were borrowed from pagan rites. And heaven help the historian who dares to suggest that Islam might be a product of earlier religions and not, as the faithful insist, a revelation direct from God. Tom Holland has done exactly this in his brilliantly provocative new book – and we must hope that heaven is smiling on him now”.

In the Shadow of the Sword will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott

In the Guardian Alex Clark is ambivalent about Tim Lott’s tale of two brother’s search for their estranged father: “It's a relatively complicated set-up, and Lott has his work cut out juggling the frequently comic tone of the brothers' road-trip – from Christian bumper stickers to hokey tourist attractions to mammoth portions of food – and the more sombre working-out of a buried family trauma”. Clark is critical of Lott’s somewhat fraught style, his use of aphorism and clunky phrases. “Lott,” he notes, “is not great, for instance, at getting people in and out of rooms, "They made their way happily into the hotel lobby" and his writing can strain a bit for no apparent reason, a “lacuna” in the traffic might more naturally be a “gap’”. Clark is less critical when it comes to the grander themes of the novel. He praises Lott’s exploration of cultural and geographical contrasts between Britain and America, which often acts to represent his character’s mental landscapes. He goes on, “his real talent lies [] in a willingness to allow emotional rawness and confusion to remain unfinessed, the loose ends to stay frayed”.

The Telegraph’s John Preston is more complimentary. He ponders whether the novel’s long gestation can be attributed to “the fact that it’s so close to the bone. The book is based on a road trip across America that Lott took with his brother, Jeff. Lott was estranged from his brother at the time, just as his main character, Salinger Nash, is estranged from his”. Preston describes the novel as “a clever take on brotherly relations”. Though he recognises that Lott’s subject is “well-worn as it is potentially corny”, he praises Lott as, “far too sharp a writer to topple into sentimentality”.

Similarly, Sean O’Hagan’s interview with Lott for the the Observer reveals the strong autobiographical element of the novel: “At the heart of the book, is a very English protagonist, whose constant tendency to scratch away at the deeper meaning of things is, I suspect, an urge Lott knows all too well. At the end of the interview, Lott concedes, "I guess I do hang on to a lot of stuff”.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.