Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Madeline Miller, David Lammy and Lévy and Houellebecq.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

In the Telegraph, Stuart Evers writes that "in re-imagining Homer's Iliad, Madeline Miller treads the fine line between the invention of a new work and the desecration of the original with a sure foot, with only occasional missteps along the way." Miller depicts Achilles and his friend Patroclus as lovers. Evers comments: "Sometimes The Song of Achilles reads as part coming-of-age story, part coming-out story and part Hollywood blockbuster - Brokeback Mountain with centaurs and swords."

In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins writes that "although she is a respectful and clearly loving reader of Homer... where I lose her is when, instead of sticking to prequel, she forges on through the parts of the Trojan war described in the Iliad. Alas, the best of writers will stumble in comparison to the master."

According to Tom Holland in the New Statesman, the novel "demonstrates that it is not always necessary to play tricks with Homer, to recalibrate or reconfigure his epics, to bring him alive for a modern readership." Holland writes: "By fixing on Patroclus, lover of Achilles, Miller is able to bring to her narrative the same golden aura of youth, homoeroticism and aristocratic violence that made Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault's fictionalisation of the early years of Alexander the Great, such a crowd-pleaser."

Viv Groskop in the Independent calls the novel "original, clever and in a class of its own." She writes: "This novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work... It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres."

Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Tim Adams in the Guardian writes that in this exchange of letters between novelist Michel Houellebecq and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, they dwell "on the trait that seemed to have most united them in the public mind: 'We are,' as Houellebecq acknowledges in his opening letter, 'both rather contemptible individuals.'" Adams observes that "in an effort to explain the masochism of their media identities, they swap confession and scraps of autobiography [and] dwell in detail on the public scrutiny of their parentage".

In the New Statesman, George Walden opines: "Bernard-Henri Lévy and Houellebecq are highly distinct writers and personalities and the idea of an exchange of letters between them is brilliant... Much of the fun of these letters stems from their almost satirically contrasting characters: Lévy, the well-born playboy of the western mind and pocket Apollo, versus Houellebecq, the drunken, ill-favoured, lower-middle-class grouch." Walden writes: "However rich in irritations, this is a book that you don't stop reading... There is fascinating stuff on their childhoods... but it's the free-form rooting around by two un-stereotyped minds that is compelling."

Tim Adams concludes: "What keeps you reading, beyond the confessional drama, is the sheer one-upmanship in the range of reference and playfulness of expression."

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes: "Both men delight in being provocative, on the page and off, yet feign shock that anyone has ever been provoked... Theirs is a lonesome, literate, borderline-funny duet."

Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots by David Lammy

In the Guardian, Stafford Scott writes that Lammy "has not grasped the scale of the community's mistrust of the police and the judicial system in his analysis of the August riots." Although he "captures well the frustrations of those who became victims during the riots - those whose homes were burnt to the ground and whose businesses went up in flames... There is little sense that he has managed to grasp the scale of disaffection felt by those who participated in the riots."

Mick Brown in the Telegraph praises Out of the Ashes, calling it "an astonishingly thorough and finely nuanced analysis" of the riots. Brown writes that Lammy's book is "instructive and impassioned" and highlights that "government should rebuild a sense of reciprocity between a working class with a stake in capitalism and a middle class with a renewed faith in the welfare state."

According to David Goodhart in the Financial Times: "Instant books by politicians seldom provide intellectual nourishment. David Lammy's Out of the Ashes is a welcome exception." Goodhart calls the book "the first proper manifesto for the relatively new Blue Labour current within Lammy's party" and notes the "author's skill at storytelling". He concludes: "To date Blue Labour has been an intellectual curiosity without much of a political base, indeed with many enemies on the left. Lammy's book for the first time makes it sound like a credible political idea."

In the New Statesman, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford write that the book "is about more than the English riots, it's about the future of Labour in the country." They comment: "Labour faces the biggest crisis in its history and yet it has not yet begun asking itself these questions. Lammy's book offers a start." Lammy "offers thoughtful arguments about immigration, work, masculinity and crime and punishment. One doesn't have to agree with all his points of view to know that he is in the right place to ask the question of his fellow countrymen and women."

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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.