Saturday, November 03, 2007

Separated at Birth: And over the rooftops when the stars prickle the skies/London is sleeping

Excalibur #1, 21, X-Men: Die by the Sword #1
L: Excalibur #1 (October 1988), art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary
M: Excalibur #21 (April 1990), art by Chris Wozniak and Al Milgrom
R: X-Men: Die by the Sword #1 (December 2007), art by Jelena Kevic-Djurdevic
(Click picture to Big Ben-size)

Saturday Morning Cartoon: Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest

"Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest" (2007), written by Alan Barnes and directed by Gary Russell
Featuring the voices of David Tennant and Freema Agyeman

Watch the rest:
Episode 23456789101112 & 13

Friday, November 02, 2007

Friday Night Fights: The Female of the Species is More Punchy Than the Male

The next time those bullies bad teenagers down at the playground tell me that I hit like a girl...

Biff-Bam-Pow! #1 panel
Biff-Bam-Pow! #1 panel
Biff-Bam-Pow! #1 panel
Biff-Bam-Pow! #1 panel

...I'm going to say to them, Why thank you very much!

You can find this and many more pummeling presentations of punching with pulchritude by "One Punch Goldberg" in the ultra-wonderful Biff-Bam-Pow! #1 (2007) by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, on sale this week at your local comic book store. Don't miss it; it's one of the most fun comics of the year!

When he puts out the call for fight night, Bahlactus ain't monkeyin' around.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Another thing I don't get about the Star Wars Universe

Why is everybody always acting like it's a big surprise that Darth is the Princess's father? Like that comes out of left field or something in the third movie. Hey, you can pretty much tell that's exactly their relation from the first time you see 'em. Don't believe me? Why, look at the family's uncanny:
Darth and Daughter

And hey, look: they've got the same freakin' last name.
Darth and Daughter

What's more, she has her father's eyes.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week Special: Scream for Jeeves

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Happy Halloween, everybody! On this darkest of nights, what say we entertain ourselves by snuggling up in our cozy armchairs and reading some spooky, chilling, f'r instance, a Jeeves and Wooster story? But Bully! I hear you say (with your mouth all fulla candy corn) Jeeves and Bertie stories aren't scary! And there you have me. Wodehouse's work is nothing if not light and airy: a few scary aunts and threatened marriages aside, there's not a sliver of fright in the lot of 'em. So instead, let's wander off the well-lit path of Official Wodehouse Canon into the dimly-lit and spooky, dead-tree-laden dark woods of fan fiction, shall we? And like much fan fiction, it can be a scary, scary place...

Tonight's special Halloween offering is the professionally-printed but still unauthorized Scream for Jeeves: A Parody (1994) by P. H. Cannon, a loving if unorthodox homage and mashup of two initialed writers who probably never suspected their worlds could collide: P. G. Wodehouse and H. P. Lovecraft. I'll pause a moment to let that sink in, shall I? P. G. Wodehouse and H. P. Lovecraft. And, as we'll see in a while, a little dash of A. C. Doyle has been added to the bubbling mixture in the cauldron.

Scream for Jeeves (and I think that's a brilliant title) is a slim volume of three short stories and one historical essay—so brief that I read it all in one single one-way trip to Manhattan on the subway instead of the usual round trip. The conceit is that Bertie Wooster and Jeeves's right-ho Georgian world is the same in which Lovecraft's horrific dark ancient god Cthulhu is breaking through, and Bertie keeps bumbling into the mind-shearing events that precede a horrific bloody invasion with his usual cheerful aplomb (and the life- and sanity-saving help of Jeeves). I'm not as familiar with the world of Mister HPL as I am with Mister PGW, but Cannon certainly has his lead characters and especially the voice of Bertie Wooster down pat, even as he confronts things man was not meant to know:
'I trust you slept well, Mr. Wooster,' said my host, as he pushed the kippers about the plate in a morose, devil-take-the-hindmost sort of way.

'Like a top, old sport. Like a top.'

'I was harassed by dreams of the most horrible sort. First there was a vision of a Roman feast like that of Trimalcho, with a horror in a covered platter.'

'Could it have been something you ate?' I said, sounding the solicitous tone. I didn't want to hurt the old fellow's feelings, of course, so I refrained from saying that the fish sauce the night before had been someone below par. In truth, the cook at Exham Priory was not even in the running with Anatole, my Aunt Dahlia's French chef and God's gift to the gastric juices.

'Next I seemed to be looking down from an enormous height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep in filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.'

'Could it have been something you read before retiring? "Mary Had a Little Lamb" perhaps? Mind you, that one's about a shepherdess, not a swineherd, but it's the same sort of thing, don't you know.'

'Then, as the swineherd paused and nodded over his task, a mighty swarm of rats rained down on the stinking abyss and fell to devouring beast and man alike.'

'Rats! By Jove, this is getting a bit thick. My man Jeeves thinks rats may have been the party to blame for your cats carrying on the other day like they had broken into the catnip.'
In fact, throughout the stories, Jeeves serves as our guide to the dark doings; he's remarkably well-informed (well, of course!) about ancient beasts and demons and is well-read in the work of Arthur Machen. Thanks to Jeeves, no real harm comes to Bertie throughout the course of their dread adventures—at least nothing that a stiff g. & t. won't whisk away later on:
Within an hour the altar stone was tilting backwards, counterbalanced by Tubby, and there lay revealed— But how shall I describe it? I don't know if you've ridden much though the tunnel-of-horrors featured at the better amusement parks, but the scene before us reminded me strongly of same. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on a flight of stone steps, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Not a pretty sight, you understand, but at least there was a cool breeze with something of freshness in it blowing up the arched passage. I mean to say, it could have been a noxious rush as if from a closed vault. We did not pause long, but shiveringly began to cut a swath through the ancestral debris down the steps. It was then that Jeeves noticed something odd.

'You will observe, sir, that the hewn walls of the passage, according to the direction of the strokes, must have been chiseled from beneath.'

'From beneath, you say, Jeeves?'

'Yes, sir.'

'But in that case—'

'For the sake of your sanity, sir, I would advise you not to ruminate on the implications.'
It's not great art and certainly can't stand up to the best of Wodehouse (or likely even Lovecraft), but it has a certain appeal, and it's just the right length. Sort of like a headline from The Onion, the concept is funny enough on its own without delving too deeply into exploring it, and three short stories running 64 pages total are just enough. It's tough to imitate Wodehouse without slipping into total parody, and Cannon carries it off most of the time, although occasionally he piles on so many of Bertie's self-references to actual Wodehouse events (Florence Craye, the article Bertie wrote for his aunt's magazine, Sir Roderick Glossop) that it just seems like he's including them just for sheer trivia's sake. And he's not above inserting an awkward, groan-inducing pop-culture reference when Bertie linguistically tangles with a foreign landlady:
'Ah, Mistair Jeeves, I so glad you come.'

'Wooster's the name, my good, woman.'

'Is just in time. Doctair Muñoz, he have speel his chemicals.'

'Well, I shouldn't worry if he spilled his chemicals on the woodwork or marble. I daresay no one will notice.'

'All day he take funnee-smelling baths.'

'Oh, really? Perhaps he got soap in his eyes and grabbed the jar of hydrogen sulfide instead of the bubble bath.'

'He cannot get excite.'

'He can't get outside? Yes, I know, Randy told me, but—'

'And the sal-ammoiniac—'

'Sal who?"


I was prepared to play Pat to Mrs. Herrero's Mike as long as I had to, but at that moment Randy arrived and put the kibosh on the cross-talk. 'Don't mind her," he explained, as he clouted his landlady affectionately on the occiput. 'She's from Barcelona.'
Sherlock Holmes is under the magnifying glass as well in these parodies: he pops up in the final of the three stories, thinly disguised as 'Altamont," Holmes's pseudonym in the Conan Doyle story "His Last Bow." That inclusion means Cannon can examine three authors instead of merely two: the last third of Scream for Jeeves is taken up with an essay entitled "The Adventure of the Three Anglo-American Authors: Some Reflections of Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, and H. P. Lovecraft," which is a nice-enough little piece if it were a salute or admiration, but Cannon attempts to be too scholarly and winds up failing to convince us of any of his arguments, especially when he begins by pointing out the similarities of Doyle, Wodehouse, and Lovecraft are that "the supreme fictional achievements of each are roughly comparable in size: Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon consists of 56 stories and four novels; Wodehouse's Jeeves saga embraces 34 stories and 11 novels; and Lovecraft's core corpus, including his Mythos cycles, amounts to two dozen or so stories and three novels." He goes on to point out that such a superficial similarly proves nothing, which begs the question of why he begins his argument with it. The rest of the essay is devoted to drawing parallels and connections between the three authors. Unfortunately, most of the arguments can connect two of the trio but not the third, and much of it is based on post-facto circumstantial POV evidence that would get his work kicked off a Wikipedia page—for instance, he spends a hefty paragraph pointing out that Stephen King likes Lovecraft and has written a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and that actor Stephen Fry has also written a Holmes short story and has played Jeeves on television. He also spends a good deal of energy discussing racist language and attitudes in the work of the three authors, an argument that I don't think holds water (although I'm understandably prejudiced in favor of the idea that Wodehouse very seldom usages of the n-word were done innocently and in keeping with vernacular slang of the time rather than racism or hate). And then there's this specious argument:
Finally, like Bertie and his chums, Lovecraft had a penchant for assigning his friends funny nicknames, such as "Klarkash-Ton" for Clark Ashton Smith, "Melmoth the Wandrei" for Donald Wandrei, "Hilly Billy' Crawford for William L. Crawford, and "Sonny" or "Kid" or "Belknapius" for Frank Belknap Long, Jr. I rest my case.
Still, don't judge the book on the essay but on the fiction itself, which is amusing and competent. Cannon has the voice of Bertie Wooster down pitch-perfect, although those I've only read a smattering of Lovecraft in my time (it's a little too intense for a small stuffed animal!), he's got that unnerving sense of despair to a T as well. Wodehouse's books spin around the sparkling dialogue and Lovecraft's around the ponderous descriptive prose, and Cannon pulls off a tidy and artful balance of the two, especially bringing two such light and cheering characters into a dark world that is heavy with dread and encroaching despair. Like Lovecraft's work itself, the horrific End of Days events don't manifest themselves concretely in Scream for Jeeves—but the ever-present maddening pull into darkness and crushing dread of his world are wonderfully and elegantly portrayed, and it's an nifty solution to have Bertie black out conveniently whenever anything really horrific is about to happen, only to hear later on from Jeeves that it was all for the best that you did not observe the circumstances, sir. Let that be hope for all of us when the demons start climbing out of the fiery cracks in the broken earth: it's all just a nightmare that can be easily erased by a lingering hot bath and a stiff drink, and the quick wits and incalculable knowledge of our own gentleman's gentleman. After all, if Jeeves can stave off Honoria Glossop from marrying Bertie, then Cthulhu and his quivering tentacles aren't going to make him go 'boo.'

Scream for Jeeves was published by the (aptly named) Wodecraft Press and distributed by the Necronomicon Press, the publishing house where all the ISBNs end in 66-6, but you don't have to go to heck and back to secure a copy. Even though it's out of print, there's still plenty of used copies scurrying about like rats on the internet, and all you have to do is click on the Amazon link to the right and order yourself up a copy. Make sure you pay for it with Visa or MasterCard; never click on the "immortal soul" option when choosing payment at checkout.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.

Ben Grimm's Dying to Read a Good Book

Happy Halloween from Boo-ly, everybody!

Last year I pointed out how Mister Benjamin J. Grimm enjoys spending his Halloween—reading spooky stories:

But Bashful Benjy's not merely a Halloween-fright-readin' kinda guy, oh no no no no no. (No.) He not only likes reading chilling tales all year long, he's keepin' his big blue eyes on the classics:
The Thing reads Dracula

...and he's also a man thing of discriminating taste, showing he's a fan of the Master of Horror and Suspense, Mister Stephen King:
The Thing reads The Shining

But of course, Ben is more careful reading spooky stories now. After that first encounter, he's more aware of what's going on when he's deep in a Stephen King horror tale, and like his other good pal Roger Daltrey, he won't get fooled again:

Yowza! Well, if there's one thing you learn from this, it's that you oughta never sneak up on the Thing. If there's two things you learn, it's to never stand in front of Ben Grimm when he does one of his tobacco-juice spit takes.

So let's bid farewell to ol' Ben Grimm so he can get started on his new blog "A King a Week" and go off and have our own Happy Halloween. And remember to keep your eyes open—because you may be getting a treat, but there's always a trick behind you!:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The funnest teens of all

X-Men: First Class #5X-MEN: FIRST CLASS #5: This comic is fun. I haven't been buying many weekly floppy comics lately, partly for economic reasons: I need more dimes and am available for part time jobs around your house, wherever you need a little stuffed bull to help out, like in cookie tasting or kittycat petting. Another reason is the sheer lack of fun-ness in a lot of comics, so that's why you've not seen any reviews from me recently. I have been buying about one comic a week for the past month or so: last week it was Fables #66 (good stuff, but I'm eager at this point for the prophesizing to stop and the battle to begin) and the week before that Booster Gold #3 (if you're not pickin' up this comic, you're missing out on one of the most fun comics of 2007). This past week I plunked my dimes on the counter because I just had to buy the newest X-Men: First Class, a comic book which in its original miniseries, special, and now the regular series has become one of my favorites.

X-Men #66; Rampaging Hulk #2Jeff Parker's script is action-packed but light and humorous as the original five X-Men (sans masks in this issue, which is a plus for showing off their quirky expressions in Roger Cruz's vivid art) hunt down the Incredible Hulk in what would be, if we were really keeping track, a retcon of the first encounter between the World's Strangest Teens and the Green Goliath. As far as I can see, the real first "canon" encounter between the X-Men and the Hulk occurred in their original series issue #66 (1970), the last single issue before they became a reprint book for several years. Hardcore marvel fanbulls (like me!) might remember that an earlier meeting was later retconned into both's history in the black-and-white magazine The Rampaging Hulk #2, but that was later revealed (re-retconned?) to be simply a Krylorian soap opera. (Trust me, you don't really wanna know.) X-Men: First Class #5 takes a simpler, more primal approach: the Hulk's on the rampage; the X-Men track him down while Professor X guides the team from a secret army base in Colorado.

As with previous issues in the First Class series, Parker spins a cheerful mix of light humor, realistic dialogue, and solid action; every X-Man (and Rick Jones) has a moment to shine and to make uniquely theirs. There's a lovely little spin on the usual cliché of Professor X saving the day with his mental powers: he's so distracted and hampered by the bellowing of General "Thunderbolt" Ross that he can't mentally attack the Hulk head-on. I especially liked of Professor's X's conclusion once he realized the truth of the matter: the military seeking to use the Hulk as a weapon is no better than humanity seeking to control and eliminate mutants, so in the end it's "live and let live." That's quite a change from all the World Warring goin' on in the regular Marvel Universe, which makes this an excellent X-Men book for the casual , first-time, or younger reader.

I've commented in the past how much I've enjoyed this book's stance that the X-Men do not exist simply to pound their enemies into the ground: most of the stories, this one included, feature plenty of battle action but end with an understanding and détente with their antagonist rather than physical defeat. Still, this is one of several times we've seen this same story in this series, and like those casual but frequent morals over in the Justice League Unlimited comic, it has the potential to get old pretty fast. I like the X-Men as Star Trek-like explorers more intent on solving a problem than destroying it, but don't be afraid to toss a few more direct X-Men versus villain stories in this series once in a while, please, Mister Parker. The two-parter with Mastermind a few issues back was a nice break; give us those once in a while.

Of course, I can't neglect one of the main reasons First Class has become a great favorite of mine: another wonderful whimsical two-page back-up by Parker and Colleen Coover (one of my very favorite artists, and that was even more I got a chance to meet her at San Diego Comic-Con!) This story's perfectly timed as Marvel Girl plays a spooky Halloween trick on the boys:

...but the joke's on her in the end! I shan't spoil the surprise but it made me laugh out loud and was a fine and welcome twist on a specific X-Man's character that I can't help but applaud. Not only is this story itself fun, but it's clear the creators are having a ball as well, and most important, the characters are wonderfully joyful as well. There's very little soap opera and angst in these pages; what you get instead is teenagers clearly having fun with their powers and each other while learning to step up to the plate of being heroes. That's a rare thing in a superhero comic these days: the joy and wonder of having superpowers, and the delight one can take from them. It's interesting that the Marvel comics that best show this trait off—First Class, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Marvel Adventures: The Avengers, Franklin Richards—are all specifically removed from the mainstream Marvel Universe and probably not "canon" in any way. Which some might say is a pity, but I say "hoorah!" There's no need for the darkness of Civil War and Front Line and Messiah Complex to intrude upon these alternate universes. If you want to be pedantic you might want to sit down, scratch your head, and determine that this here universe in First Class is really Earth-617, or maybe it's called Earth-2006, or possible Earth-XFC. Me? I just call it Earth-Fun.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #27: Frozen Assets

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The chilly winds of autumn have blown frostily into Brooklyn this week; it's sweater weather, even for a little stuffed bull. What better time to pull a Wodehouse book titled Frozen Assets (1964) off the bookshelf, especially when you can curl up to read it under a fuzzy afghan with a piping mug of cocoa with mini-marshmallows and some hot buttered toast at your side. Be careful you don't get butter on your book!

Frozen Assets (also known as Biffin's Millions in the USA) bears a handful of resemblances on the surface to his 1955 Something Fishy: not only is there a legacy will set to endow lay-about-town Edmund Biffin ("Call me 'Biff'") Christopher with millions, but there's a catch: he must avoid being arrested before his thirtieth birthday in order to collect, not an easy task for the cheerfully and outrageously inebriated partier Biff. There's a love story too for Biff as well as his sister and his friend Jerry Shoesmith, and most similar to Something Fishy, Wodehouse's recurring characters of publishing magnate Lord Tilbury and shady private investigator Percy Pilbeam also appear. (Hollywood motion picture studio magnate Ivor Llewellyn from Bachelors Anonymous and Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin also is integral to the plot but does not actually appear in the novel). So we're in familiar if not especially innovative territory here for Wodehouse, and Frozen Assets is a comfortable if not exceptional novel.

Which is not to say it isn't a delight to read in patches. I've said in the past that even lesser Wodehouse can be a lot of fun. The love story between Jerry Shoesmith and Biff's practical and pleasant sister Kay (who's already engaged to stuffy and stick-in-the-mud diplomat Henry Blake-Somerset) has some lovely moments, as here where Jerry enthusiastically gushes of romance to an amused but unaffected Kay:
'Be careful crossing the street.'

'I will.'

'Don't get talking to strange men or letting strange women give you candy.'

'I won't.'

'Watch out for simooms, earthquakes, and other Acts of God, and hurry back as quick as you can, because every second you're not with me is like an hour. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,' said Jerry, putting it in a nutshell. 'Have you ever been struck by a thunderbolt?'

'Not that I remember. Have you?'

'Oddly enough, no. But every time you look at me with those eyes of yours, I feel as if I'd caught one squarely in the solar plexus. They're like twin stars.'

'Well, that's fine.'

'I like it," said Jerry.
(Incidentally: simoom: 'A strong, hot, sand-laden wind of the Sahara and Arabian deserts: "Stephen's heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoom coming from afar." James Joyce. Also called samiel.' Who says you don't learn anything from Wodehouse?)

In fact, almost everybody who's anybody (with the possible exception of private eye Percy Pilbeam) is in love in this book: even blustery Lord Tilbury is head-over-spats for his bubbly blonde secretary Gwendoline. Of all these love stories, however, Biff's seems curiously the weakest: he reconnects with Linda, Tilbury's niece and his ex-fiancé, and they're married swiftly and business-like in the last few chapters. Linda's probably one of the weaker-drawn characters in the book, and certainly pales before most other Wodehouse heroines, especially in the limelight of Kay. I've read (and re-read) enough Wodehouse by now to know that when he's hitting on all cylinders, every character gets a moment to shine, every one is vital and vividly drawn, and Linda doesn't "pop" the way her peers do. Pity poor Biff for marrying the dull one, then, especially when Gwendoline and he had been making eyes at each other earlier in the book. Ah well, we can't all wind up with the gorgeous blonde.

Still, there's some lovely little moments, plot twists, and touches. In an extended subplot about two-thirds of the way through the book, Jerry locks Biff in his house, minus his trousers, to keep him from getting out and getting sloshed, disturbing the peace, and getting arrested in the final few days before he inherits his millions. Over the next few chapters, a series of visitors to the house in turn lose their trousers to the man before him, allowing us the opportunity to see-well, at least picture-Biff, Lord Tilbury, Pilbeam and Henry Blake-Somerset pottering around nervously in their shorts, like the picture of Biff on the cover of my copy of Frozen Assets. It's a funny bit that escalates but doesn't go overboard; it never develops into farce or Benny Hill territory and each subsequent transfer of pants has just a slightly different twist than the previous one, including the arrival of Gwen's dog Towser, mistakenly fetched when Tilbury calls for trousers. There's also a good old-fashioned posing-as-the-butler subplot towards the end, always good for amusement.

I'm especially impressed, however, with the casual grace and lyric ease with which Wodehouse introduces his characters and their predicaments in the beginning of the novel. As someone who's been struggling to smoothly introduce a parcel of characters in my own story without resorting to too many flashbacks and plot-halting exposition, I'm in awe over the opening sequence of Frozen Assets, in which Wodehouse so casually yet skillfully brings us up to speed on Jerry Shoemaker and his life and predicaments by having him explain his situation to police officers in a Paris police station, punctuated with humorous observations by a sympathetic gendarme who nevertheless upholds the letter of the law to the last zed. It's fast, it's funny, and it's information blended with entertainment. No infodump for M. Wodehouse, non non. We finish out Chapter 1 intimately informed of Jerry Shoemaker: Who He Is and How He Came to Be (In a Paris Police Station). Were I wearing a hat, I'd doff it to your skill, Mister Wodehouse.

Wait a minute. I'll get a hat.

(trots off)

(returns wearing my fuzzy hat, doffs it)

So. Frozen Assets. I'm sorry to say that there's no cheap or in-print edition of it in the USA, but here's a link to used British copies from Or, you may be able to find it or order it from your local library. It's not great, but it's good Wodehouse. Call it Godehouse.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ten of a Kind: Give me your tired, your poor, maniacs! You blew it up!

On October 28, 1886—121 years ago today—"Liberty Enlightening the World "...but you can call her The Statue of Liberty...was dedicated, given birth to a symbol of hope, freedom, a new world, and tacky foam souvenir hats. Celebrate the grand old lady with this decapod of some of her most famous comic book cover appearances, only some of which involve her being blown up:

(More Ten of a Kind here.)

Timedance, Part 3: The Girls of Brasenose

Timedance banner

Here's Part 1. Part 2.

In the cozy and snug, well-worn old rooms off Staircase Two at Brasenose College, Oxford, some twenty-five minutes before Terry Alan Simon had blue paint sprayed across his face, a week into Trinity term of her second year, a short, slim, bushy-haired girl of twenty-one going one twenty-two lay on her bed and took her headphones from her ears slowly. Elizabeth unplugged the 'phones from her DAB stereo and listened for a moment to the static of the radio. She could almost discern the click of the needle as it refused to lift off of the end of side two of Abbey Road, then she switched off the radio and flopped belly-first onto her bed once again.

Elizabeth smoothed her thick, waist-long brown hair over her ears carefully. Her ears were the reason she wore headphones whenever possible; she had never quite given up the hope that constant pressure would push them flat against her head. When Elizabeth was born, her grandmother had said of the infant, her namesake: "She's going to be lovely—just like her mother." Elizabeth's grandmother had beamed happily at Elizabeth's mother, who was lying in bed holding her newborn, glad it was all over for the moment and rather hoping it wouldn't have to happen again for another couple years or so.

"She has your face," Elizabeth's father had said to her mother. "Your nose, your eyes, your..."

Elizabeth the baby, becoming gradually more used to life in a world in which she could do a bit more than just swim, wiggled a bit in her mother's arms and turned her head slightly to one side.

"Oh dear," said Elizabeth's grandmother, without quite meaning to.

Elizabeth had inherited her father's ears.

"Still," Elizabeth's grandmother said, "a lovely child."

That grandmother (after whom she had been named) passed away the year that Elizabeth Alexandra Anne Mountbatten-Windsor had started college. Even with her father's preoccupations with the transition of ceremonial power it was harder than she had expected to convince him to let her go to Brasenose College. If she must go to University now, her father had sighed, why not at least Christ Church, or King's, where it would not be completely unthinkable to see her walking from housing to classroom. There, her father had pointed out, she would be at least in company that was in her social class.

"No one," Elizabeth pointed out, with a mischievous smile, "is in our social class. Anyway, you went to Cambridge."

The argument had continued. Why not Balliol—or Magdalen? But Brasenose? It was a very minor college, and for her to attend a school such as that—well, it was simply not done. Brasenose had no distinguishing marks towards its credit; it had never been one of the more prestigious Oxford houses. Why did Elizabeth want to go there? Elizabeth did not tell her father that her main attraction for the place had been her enchantment with the place upon reading an Elizabethan play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, in which a magician sets up shop at Brasenose College. She had been enthralled by the play and by the college's name. There was no other reason than that. That was was, she felt, a fine enough reason in and of itself. She had lived most of her life wanting to do things she had only ever read about, and was denied, by birth and class, and therefore she wanted them even more. Without being a spoiled brat about it, she put her foot down, and quite enjoyed the sensation of doing so.

In the end, to her surprise, she got her way, not because she would have disobeyed her parents had they truly forbidden her—she had no illusions in her mind about that point—but rather she got her way simply because her parents loved her. She was a Princess not only of the United Kingdom, but more important, a princess of their hearts.

There had been no problem in getting her accepted into the college—there was never a problem getting a princess accepted into anywhere— but her mother was most emphatic that she roomed at the college, that she share a room with another girl. It was an idea Elizabeth was eager to accept. "But..." her father had protested. "It seems to me that the situation would be most uncomfortable. Quite a trying experience."

"I think Elizabeth shall adapt, don't you?" her mother had asked.

"I'm not speaking of Elizabeth," her father had said glumly. "I'm talking about the other girl."


"I mean—I mean, rather, would you have liked to share a room with my sister?"

"I see your point."

So, in fact, had the JCR's director of female life at Brasenose. At first she had drawn up a list of suggested roommates, but this one and that one had been ruled out with the strike of a pencil. It was not that they were unsuitable to Elizabeth, who longed for any friend her own age, but rather disqualified by her father—"Oh dear, this one simply won't do." It was a puzzle for her father. More for his role as her father than the country's sovereign, he did have that sort of authority to make a totally biased decision. So Elizabeth sat back and chewed her fingernails and waited.

Or, the candidates for Elizabeth's roommates were unsuitable to the college director—"I musn't gossip, but in her reports...well, I musn't gossip." So Elizabeth sat back and sighed and waited, and wished she could hear the gossip.

In the end both parties, including the special services of MI5 (put on overtime investigating the political connections of the girls' families), agreed on Lady Laura Kingsley, the daughter of Lord Mayfield (Wilks.), and the two girls met each other over the summer, exchanged the secrets that girls meeting for the first time exchange (that is, the least-secret ones) and both agreed they were looking forward to their first term at Brasenose.

Two weeks into her first Michaelmas term, Laura was sent down for selling hashish.

"Oh dear," Elizabeth's father had said, "this won't do at all."

In rapid succession, Miss Pamela Peacock (daughter of a Conservative M.P. from an affluent south London district), the Hon. Danielle Sperry-Marylebone (daughter of the British Ambassador to Antarctica) and Princess Teresa Rominova (daughter of King Leo of Concordia) came and went from Elizabeth's student digs. Pam broke her legs after drunkenly falling off the roof of the Radcliffe Camera and had to be sent home when she refused to push herself about in a wheelchair; Danielle had experienced a sudden attack of morning stomach and continued out the term staying with an aunt in Switzerland, and Teresa's father, unceremoniously ousted from his throne and country, recalled his entire family from the various corners of the globe. He later turned up on a number of American television chat shows, which was easier than governing a country. Teresa went to Sarah Lawrence and enjoyed it much better—it was more fun being a Princess at a college, she decided, when you were not rooming with another one.

On the day that Jellybaby Shakespeare moved in, Elizabeth was wondering to herself how all the other girls at Brasenose had managed to hold onto their roommates through the first six weeks of Michaelmas term.

"H'lo," said Jellybaby Shakespeare, throwing a ratty worn carpetbag on the empty bed. "I'm your new roommate." She thrust out her grimy hand and grinned widely with a gap-toothed smile. "You're the Princess."

Elizabeth stood up uncertainly and took the other girl's hand. "Elizabeth," she said.

"What 'bout the Princess part? Do I say Your Maj'sty? Or do I call you Miss Mountbatten-Windsor?"

Elizabeth had to think for a moment—she was so used to being referred to by only one name for most of her life that she did not immediately recognize her last. "I just use Elizabeth. You can just call me Elizabeth."

"My name," the new girl said, opening one of the drawers in the bureau and finding it, to her satisfaction, empty, "is Jilabi Shakspiri."

"Is your father," Elizabeth said carefully, "a diplomat?"

"A diplomat?" The girl looked up from dumping her knickers from bag to drawer, a ragged rain of pastel cotton and satin. "No. He runs a fish 'n' chip shop in London. He's from India and Mum's from Liverpool. She wanted to call me Susan and he wanted to call me Jilabi." The girl grinned again. "Guess who won?"

"Jil..." Elizabeth tried to wrap her tongue around the syllables. She had been tutored for years in diction by the same professor who had taught her brothers. French he had taught her. German had been an essential part of the curriculum. Latin he had hammered into her head until she could op cit. with the best of them. He had never taught Elizabeth how to pronounce East Indian names, however.

"But nobody calls me that. Nobody can spell it, 'sides. Jellybaby Shakespeare. That's the best I've ever been able to make it pronounceable. You can call me Jelly."

"Oh dear," said Elizabeth's father when he heard about Elizabeth's new roommate.

To put it succinctly: someone had screwed up. Somehow along the line, somewhere in the director of female life's office, the two files had been carelessly shuffled together; the half-caste Indian girl who was looking for a new roommate after the last three had moved out in outrage, and Her. The director knew what it all meant. She poured herself a cup of coffee to perk herself up, and then poured half a flask of Irish in the coffee to perk that up. She typed—rather shakily—her resignation, and slipped it, without knocking, under the Head of College's door, beating a hasty retreat to the girls' housing to at least try to straighten things out while she was still official the director of female life. If that failed, she could always have another cup of coffee.

To her surprise and shock Jellybaby Shakespeare and Princess Elizabeth were sitting on Elizabeth's unmade bed, Elizabeth's multiphonic DAB stereo rumbling through the ancient corridors, bass turned up way past the levels recommended by the Ministry of the Environment, a can of warm lager in Jelly's fist and a mug of tea steaming on the bedside table for Elizabeth. They were playing two-handed bridge for points—more precisely, for money—pound coins with Elizabeth's father's picture on them—and they were singing along loudly with the music (the Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope, a great favorite with both of the girls), spilling beer and tea whenever one of them scored.

They were clearly having the time of their lives.

The Director had just enough time to retrieve the letter with a ruler and a wad of spearmint chewing gum, and attributed the perfect match of Elizabeth and Jelly to her own personal genius.

Elizabeth's parents, though they questioned Elizabeth's choice, could not refuse the request that Jelly be allowed to stay as her roommate, because—as always, they could refuse her nothing, because they loved her very much.

That had been a year and a half ago.

This is now, a week into Trinity term in their second year: "Wake up, Eliza!"

Elizabeth blinked her eyes open and was not surprised to see Jelly's face, looming over her. The patented Jelly grin split her round brown face, a manic grin that often put doubt to her pedigree as a Shakspiri and cast paternity suspicions upon the late Jack Nicholson. "It's only bloody one o'clock," she said excitedly. "Sarah and Kim found a punt somebody left outside Oriel boathouse!"

It must not be assumed that nearly two years in a room with Jellybaby Shakespeare as her roommate and best friend had totally led Elizabeth to always understand what Jelly was talking about. "So what..."

"We're going to take it out punting on the Isis!" Jelly exclaimed. "That is, when you get your duff up."

"We're going punting at one in the morning?" Elizabeth asked incredulously.

Jelly shrugged. "It'll be fun."

"Not if we get caught by Proctor or the Bulldogs with the boat."

"Why the hell do you think we're bringing you," Jelly said, exasperated, standing back and putting her hands on her hips. "No one in their bloody right mind is going to report you."

"It's one in the morning, Jelly," Elizabeth repeated carefully. "Besides, I'm tired."

Jelly shook her head. "Saturday night and..."

"It's Sunday morning, Jelly dearest."

"Sunday morning and you're tired? You can sleep through your lit tutorial on Monday, Eliza."

Elizabeth stood up slowly and stretched her arms towards the ceiling. "Oh, very well," she mumbled, and then smiled. "But it's only because you're asking so nicely."

"Well, eff you, Princess." Jellybaby spread her arms out wide and mock-curtseyed. Jelly was the only girl at Brasenose who even dared to get away with teasing Elizabeth about her position in society. Contrary to Princess-like stereotypes, Elizabeth was not that sort of Royal who absolutely dripped noblesse oblige—one could, after all, not take totally seriously a girl whose favorite tee-shirt read "I've Seen Elvis at Balmoral"—but only Jelly, out of friendship, or ignorance of custom, or gleeful mischief—or all three*#151;stretched the limits of polite behavior by treating Elizabeth's royalty with the same viper-tongued heresy that she applied to everything else in life. She perched upon the shoulder of Elizabeth's life and acted as Greek chorus and Mephistophelean tempter, tormentor and comforter, fool and hero, her best and only friend, her guide and her conscience—Jiminy Cricket with breasts.

She treated Elizabeth as if she were a human being rather than God's own appointed political Divinity-in-Blue-Jeans-On-Earth, but she was the only one. Being a Princess, one might observe, is never as fun as the legends often make it out to be. Aside from the usual universal Princess hazards (poison apples, potential lovers in the form of hopping amphibians, and midnight curfews), being a Princess also meant that one had to give up much of the fun a normal person had. Befriending Jellybaby was Elizabeth's way of feeling more like a normal girl rather than the last in line of the immediate Royal Family to an area that used to be an Empire and was now barely a country.

It still beats being a bag lady, but it ain't all dance balls and lacy gowns, Elizabeth would have told you.

"Hey, your wireless's on," Jellybaby said, stepping over to the stereo and pulling out Elizabeth's headphones. All that was audible through the speakers now was a low hum, slight static and a dull, regular that echoed through the room like a cricket at 33 1/3 RPM. "Radio 1's off the air."

"It was their last night tonight," Elizabeth said, slipping a jumper on over her tee-shirt.

"Awww, 'cos you're gonna miss what's'is name, the night shift bloke, Simon." Jelly giggled.

The highlight of the early morning's punting was Jelly's tumble into the river as they passed Christ Church Meadow, quickly followed by her capsizing the other girls when she tried to scramble back into the tiny boat. They had to remain in the Thames, silently treading murky cold water, while a vicar, out for his pre-service stroll, had thought he had heard something splash and swear in the foggy dawn and called out, peering into the misty morning and then finally gave up, wandering on, completing his day's sermon-lesson in his head.

The four girls got the punt back to the boathouse, stole some blankets to wrap up in, and made it back to the college just after dawn. Jellybaby and Elizabeth returned, unobserved, to their room, and then proceeded to go to sleep.

Jelly was still slumbering when Elizabeth awoke at two in the afternoon. After a quick shower Elizabeth quietly curled up in the window ledge with a cup of tea, put on her headphones and turned on the radio.

She had forgotten, of course. The power had been switched off back at Broadcasting House in London and even the continuous click of the needle on the old Abbey Road LP had ceased to be broadcast across the United Kingdom.

Elizabeth sighed with the resignation of one who could do nothing about the matter—contrary to the usual public perception of her birthright, she was used to being denied most things that she truly, truly wanted. She flicked the DAB receiver over to MTV and settled back to listen to the music, without video, to let the pictures form in her own mind. It was going to be a lazy afternoon. She sang along softly with the music and daydreamed of radio.

(More to come. Next week: Superheroes.)

Playlist 3: Donald Fagen "Tomorrow's Girls" • McFly "Five Colours in Her Hair" • Fleetwood Mac "Seven Wonders"