Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Seb Coe, Oliver Sacks and Sara Maitland

Running My Life by Seb Coe

Seldom does an autobiography polarise opinion as Seb Coe’s latest offering does. On the one hand, there is glowing praise from Rod Liddle and Paul Hayward in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph respectively. Running My Life is a "fascinating" and "singularly well-written" autobiography according to Liddle. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is difficult to envisage a more damning review than that proffered by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian: "how the author got through [his book] without boring himself to death is a mystery".

How does Coe manage to divide opinion like this? A pre-existing interest in the author and his sporting career seem mandatory for appreciating Running My Life. Hayward is appreciative of the fact that Coe is "a good anecdotalist" and his "cinematic" life provides a wealth of fascinating details. Liddle similarly praises the surprising insights this book reveals: "As it happened, Coe was not posh at all — and not quite so clean-cut as we thought. We may have to re-evaluate, then, all these years later."

However, both reviewers notice that the books is slanted towards the most successful portions of Coe’s life. "Coe does not dwell too long on defeats," notes Liddle, whilst Hayward suggests "the reader risks backache picking up all the names Coe drops".

Aitkenhead's frank review begins thus: “Seeing as the London Olympics were such a hit, you would think that he must be a brilliant communicator. I did – until I picked up his autobiography.” The writer, she establishes is "a crashing bore" and his book falls short on almost every account one expects of an autobiography. "Seldom can a memoir have revealed less about its author," she observes, before lamenting that the book consists of "interminable minutiae of obscure athletics meetings," whilst being “bleached of all emotional meaning”. Furthermore, the text is full of baffling omissions: "Only… by the bye, does he mention his extra-marital affair. Even then he makes it sound pretty unimportant, when in fact it went on for a decade. He doesn't even mention his mother's death except as a belated afterthought."

The jury, it seems, is still very much out.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

It is difficult to review or comment on any Oliver Sacks book without first acknowledging his supreme status in the genre of popular science: "Sacks may be the world’s most well-known neurologist," Adam Higginbotham writes in his review for the Telegraph. "His four decades of writing have brought popular illumination to areas of brain science once confined to the arcane corners of specialist literature…and elevated the medical case history to an art form".

The trouble, of course, with setting the bar so high, is that it’s a difficult standard to replicate. Has Sacks achieved this with Hallucinations? The subject matter of his latest work is one "that has long fascinated him, but also one he believes deserves wider attention, in the hope that it can be defused".

What is most successful about this book, according to Higginbotham, is that "the most interesting case that he describes is his own". Indeed, there is an autobiographical dimension to this book which is new for Sacks.

James McConnachie, writing in the Sunday Times, agrees that this "startling" book uses a tried-and-tested formula - it seeks to surprise and amaze the reader by revealing the mechanics of the mysterious workings of the mind. In this case, the aim is to prove that "Hallucinations…are not just for drug-addled neurologists, the mentally ill or writers".

Sacks has not messed with that winning formula here: "[T]his book is at root a compilation of case studies drawn from a lifetime career as a physician and neurologist". McConnachie says that Hallucinations is "hugely satisfying book" which leaves the reader contemplating questions of a decidedly metaphysical kind. "The big question regarding hallucinations remains this: how can we be sure they are not real?"

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland

This book is the record of journeysthrough 12 different woods that Sarah Maitland took over the course of a year. Lucy Popescu, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says it is Maitland's personal reflections which are the highlight: "[I]t is Maitland's meditations on nature and the human responses to our changing landscape that are most memorable."

Jane Shilling, writing in the Telegraph, also praises Maitland's "richly digressive" text and approves of her "mildly subversive retellings of familiar fairy tales". Suzie Feay, writing in the Financial Times, is more critical, however. Her main gripes are structural: "Gossip from the Forest is really a book of two distinct halves that are hard to reconcile," she complains. "If you want to read about the development of forests from a historical, geographical and ecological perspective, the details are all here, but they sit oddly with Maitland's more creative musings about the roots of storytelling. The book doesn’t quite gel, in other words, but nevertheless offers much pleasure and instruction."

Lord Sebastican Coe (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
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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.