Felix Castor: 20th Century Boy Become 21st Century Hero

14 04 2010

Giving credit where credit is due, it’s Alan Moore’s fault, as usual.  In the world of English-language comics, Moore cast a shadow from England across the Atlantic that creators are still working in today.  Looking back, I realise more than ever how he and Pat Mills brought the spirit of punk into 2000AD‘s SF,  and then to the US, and how important that is to all the comics I’ve grown up enjoying.  However, I mention Moore with regards to one particular thing, his gift to the DCU, a punk mage, a “blue-collar warlock”, Londoner by way of Liverpool and Northampton, John Constantine.  Born in the pages of Swamp Thing, star of Hellblazer (arguably THE flagship Vertigo title despite predating said imprint), and NOTHING Like Keanu Reeves, John is one of the great late 20th century fictional heroes (I’ll argue with anyone who says he’s an anti-hero – not in the traditional sense of the word he isn’t), oft-imitated, never bettered.

Until now.  The man who has written John best since Jamie Delano’s seminal run, Mike Carey, has reached the fifth volume in his series of supernatural noir novels starring Londoner by way of Liverpool exorcist Felix Castor.  I’d be wrong if I said Mike’s excellent track record in comics had nothing to do with why I picked up the first novel originally, but I was as concerned with the blurb’s description of Felix as I was when I first heard of Mike writing Sandman spin-off Lucifer back at the tail end of the 90s.  A huge Sandman fan, I had no idea who Carey was; I only knew that the first few spin-off attempts from Sandman had not impressed me, and I wanted Vertigo to show me they could still do something with this immense mythos Neil Gaiman had built up, other than cock it up Hollywood-style.  It was a specific endorsement Gaiman made somewhere in DC’s PR for Carey’s writing on the Lucifer mini-series that convinced me to pick it up, and I though his work was terrific, a throwback to Jamie Delano on Hellblazer, and Gaiman in the earlier Sandman runs – none of your Grant Morrison flash here – while still very much expressing in his own voice his own visions.  Lucifer sent him straight into my Top Ten favourite comic writers.

I’d long since stopped being a regular reader on Hellblazer (blame Garth Ennis for that) by the time I heard Mike had the job of bringing the series back to its roots after Brian Azzarello’s polarising run.  I went back and started catching up on the trades, so by the time I got hold of the first two Felix Castor novels, I could not help but think “Does his own series have to be a riff on Constantine?”  Having finished the fourth the other night in a rush of terror and excitement the likes of which I have not experienced since seeing The Descent at the London cast & crew screening, and heading into the fifth now, I’m almost ashamed to admit I ever thought that.  For Carey is a very good prose writer indeed, and owes nothing more to the shadow of Moore – the initial Castor novel nods at Constantine appropriately, then sprints off in its own direction, and never looks back.  With every book he has built up a vision of London that reminds me increasingly of a supernatural take on the late great Derek Raymond’s Factory series.  Reading one when you’ve lived and worked in London, as with Mark Billingham’s DI Thorne series, serves to add to the horror instead of undermine it.  You recognise the physical landscape, the smells and sounds associated with the places, all delivered in tight, clear prose that, in the best pulp sense (think Elmore Leonard, think Dashiell Hammett), never wastes a word, but he also has the more modern ability to render emotion and character as effectively, giving characters from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds utter credibility.  Mike never short-changes the mystery component either – he builds real mysteries that the reader will expect an all-encompassing solution for, and never disappoints, even though he usually manages to shoehorn in one last twist, something of a hallmark of his since Lucifer.  There’s no shortage of real horror and, in the last few novels, impressively-staged action set-pieces too – images and ideas race breathlessly across the pages that are in the class of a Guillermo del Toro or Neil Marshall film, vividly realised to the point where I will be very disappointed with a film version that only concentrates on one of these many elements at the expense of the others.

I haven’t yet mentioned the recognisable noir elements (Chandler, but others too), or the sense of humour (great laughs at the expense of all sorts of institutions of British life and the horror genre), or the personal experience bleeding through the Liverpool scenes in the fourth novel, Thicker Than Water, or why I think Castor is an ideal hero for our times.  I would simply recommend finding out for yourself.  These are arguably the best supernatural noir novels being published today, and I would argue some of the best noir novels being published today.  If horror, action and mystery are your thing, you simply cannot go wrong with the Felix Castor series.  (BTW, thanks to the publishers for the 4th volume author interview – I have to say, I’m in agreement with Mike about the Juliet casting sessions!)

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