Monday, May 4, 2015

The Prisoner: Falling out of the world

Every now and then, there comes a fictional character who can't be broken or compromised in any way. Somebody who will never go down, even when things get really, really weird. Someone with astonishing willpower and the drive to use it, somebody that you can't help but admire and want to emulate..

Somebody who will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.

Somebody like The Prisoner.  

The Prisoner was a 17-episode television show produced in Britain in the late 1960s. It starred Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, an ex-spy kidnapped and dumped in a trippy seaside prison. The system want to know why he resigned, and will resort to the most bizarre  methods to crack his resolve.

They trick to break him, and trick him, and cajole him into revealing his secrets. But he resists, fights, holds fast, maintains, and he beats them all.

It's a happily surreal serial, with anachronistic charm and genuine dread, tackling big issues of self and identity and resolve, while leaving crucial questions unanswered, and a climax that is deliberately mad and obtuse. It also featured some trampoline boxing.

It was McGoohan's show. He was fantastic as the unnamed lead character, refusing to be labelled as Number Six and standing firm against monolithic madness, and he wrote and directed the most pivotal episodes. The glory and shame is all his.

Fortunately, there is far more glory than shame. The Prisoner is arguably the greatest television show ever created - and sometimes I'll certainly argue it.

This I know: Sometime in the mid to late nineties, when I'm young and drunk and spending all my money on booze and comic books and giant cream buns, I convince myself that the last episode of The Prisoner is the greatest thing ever filmed. I watch it over and over and over again, night after night after night, until the dialogue is seared in my head.

I usually watch it when I'm a bit fucked up, because that's when things are really cooking. It was the prefect background for early evenings drinks, with the daft dialogue and mammoth subtexts firing up the head, and it was perfect for the end of the night when I got home, a blast of mad artistic energy after an evening at the pub.

This goes on for a couple of years, until the last episode is seared into my head. I love the previous sixteen chapters, but the climax is everything I look for in my fiction, and so much more.

It's the culmination of all the strangeness. In a last, desperate bid to break Number Six, they subject him to deep brainwashing and regression therapy, building him up again, and he still didn't break, and the system finally concedes to him.

Most of Fall Out sees the System hold a grand ceremony honouring his achievement. After gloriously vindicating the right of the individual to be individual, the assembly rises to him, and begs him to lead them, for he is the only true man there.

It's a strange metaphysical celebration of the self, while still something that is unreal, with biting dialogue that is sharply resonant without ever really making any sense. You don't have to know what a regrettable bullet is to have your attention drawn to it.

It's also an ode to rebellion, with acknowledgement of the revolution of youth, and McGoohan's approving smirk as he tells the young man standing in for all youth everywhere that he shouldn't knock yourself out,while also featuring the revolution of a member of the establishment turning upon itself. Leo McKern is marvellous as the career bureaucrat and former number two who finally gives the system he loved the stare, born again after literally breaking down during the failed regression plan. (The filming of the episode was reportedly so intense that McKern did actually have a breakdown, but he's back in fine form for the finale.)

And finally, it's about the triumph of Number Six, who finds out what happens when you beat the system and are given complete freedom - the system tries to bring you in, changing itself to suit your view. The ignored masses and political elite alike need him.

It's all a bit of a mindfuck, and just what I needed when I was 22 years old, and suffering the usual confusions about identity and self. McGoohan articulated all that existential messiness in a stylish and entertaining way that appealed to me like nothing else, save for the odd Alan Moore or Grant Morrison comic.

And it was funny and cool, which also helped and made it so endlessly rewatchable. The crazy tracking shots around the main hall in Fall Out, showing off the wonderful set design, and complemented with some incredible sound work, mixing the Beatles with 'Dem Bones' and blasting tones of authority.

And all that absurd humour - the inability of the mob to get past the word 'I', the slaughter to 'All You Need Is Love', the freed Prisoner's pantomiming explanation to a dubious cop, the monkey's face lurking beneath number two's mask, even that final revelation that the 'I' is '1'. Taking all this ridiculousness seriously would not be wise.   

It was the most perfectly insane thing I'd ever seen. And of course, given the choice to lead or go, The Prisoner burns another path and destroys the system instead, and what young punk doesn't like to see that.

My obsession with all things Prisoner cooled over the years, as these things always do, but I still have enormous amounts of affection for the series, and for what Patrick McGoohan was trying to say with it.

McGoohan passed away a few years ago, refusing to offer up any easy explanations for what he was saying, and greeting any in-depth analysis with that McGoohan snort of derision. He was awesome.

While McGoohan has gone, his work remains, and it's more than just a bunch of blistering acting roles over the decades – it's one of the finest stories ever put to film, as aggravating and resonant and marvellous and obtuse as it ever was, or will ever be. In the end, The Prisoner escapes into a world that is just a bigger prison. All these years later, he'll never be free of a devoted audience.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

2000ad on the shelf: Another face of comics

We all know we shouldn't judge books by their covers, because that never works. But you literally have to do it. When you're confronted with a shop shelf that is heaving with the latest comics and magazines, you need a cover that will stand out amongst the noise. You need a cover that grabs the attention.

I'm a deep comic nerd, and I'm often left wondering how packed comic shelves look to the general public. Sometimes I wonder what they make of entire lines of comics, and sometimes I wonder what they make of individual issues, especially when it's been coming out every week for decades.

2000ad is a great British comic institution, with 37 years of constant weekly publication, and literally thousands of covers. They have a strong track record of awesome covers over those decades, with some of the most iconic images in the medium gracing their faces, and dozens and dozens of bold, exciting and tantalising covers.

The comic is still going strong, this far into the 21st century, and they're still producing the odd classic cover, especially when they get back one of the old masters like Fabry or Bolland. But sometimes, they're getting a bit too tasteful for their own good.

And 2000ad should never be that tasteful.

It's impossible for me to come to 2000ad from an objective viewpoint, because I've been buying it more or less every week since 1981. It's always there, and I'll always be there, for as long as it runs.

I still get it every Thursday, straight off the shelf at the terrific little newsagents right next to Auckland's Sky Tower. I don't need to notice a spunky cover, I've been hooked for years and years, no matter what they put on the front.

But even then, I can see that the comic sometimes get lost in the Doctor Who and Transformers comics that surround it, because it's just not popping out from the crowd like it used to.

There is still dynamism on the covers – the artwork is uniformly strong and occasionally magnificent. You can see this at the wonderful 2000ad Covers Uncovered blog, which de-constructs them from the ground up, and shows the whole process.

But the blog also shows that the gorgeous linework on many covers is drenched in colouring effects at the final stage, often muting the overall effect. Sometimes an image that is sharp and focussed in the original pencils becomes blunted and safe in the final result. Simple, striking images become overcomplicated and covered in rendering effects, while the palette becomes strangely limited.

It's not any particular colourist or artist, but more of a trend. Looking back over the past year of covers, and it becomes a bit of a sludgy mess – the predominant colours are earthy browns and greens, and washed-out blues, and you can go weeks without a cover offering anything more of a colour choice.

Look at some recent examples:

Even the cover for the big, year-end issue - which is usually some kind of a celebratory image - is a subdued close-up of Judge Death's badge. It's moody, and classy, but it doesn't exactly shine or pop.

There are still some terrific covers that have the old 2000ad bite, and they usually come from experienced hands, working in new shades. The Chris Weston cover at the top of this post might be my favourite single comic cover of the past year. Mostly because it's funny as hell, but also because Weston's clean, crisp lines aren't saturated in unnecessary effects.

Other total pros like, Rufus Dayglo, Colin MacNeil, D'Israeli have also produced some lovely looking covers, with the Stickleback one showing you don't even need colour to stand out -

- while covers from Warhammer artist Neil Roberts are also strikingly eye-catching and beautifully designed -

But these have been the exceptions over the past year or so, not the rule, with the same safe colours, blurry lines and sweeping fogginess showing up again and again:

I don't have that objectivity to look at these things properly, but I do pay attention. I still buy the latest issue every Thursday lunchtime, and leave it sitting on my desk for the afternoon in a high foot-traffic area, and it is notable what sort of covers catch people's eyes.

It's not the sludge.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Avengers – Age of Ultron: The expected epic

This contains mild spoilers for the Avengers - Age of Ultron movie

The new Avengers film is a fast-paced, melodramatic super-hero power fantasy, full of awe-inspiring action sequences, sharp dialogue and sharper characterisation. It's a master-class in structure for an ensemble action movie, with plenty of thrills, laughs and mega-destruction.

So, no surprises there, then.

The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, so it hasn't even been a decade since the Marvel cinematic universe was really built on the solid bedrock of Robert Downey Jnr's infinite charms. But there is already a malaise setting in, with jaded viewers who feel they've seen it all before.

It's not helped by these silly things insisting on their own self importance, without even a wink of acknowledgement of how absurd they're getting – it's hard to take deep and important themes seriously in a movie with the Incredible Hulk in it. 

And on a purely plot level, the second Avengers film is achingly mechanical, hitting all the required beats and sets up the required uber-story arcs. The creators – especially writer/director Joss Whedon – can't really be blamed for this. There is so much to get through, and so many expectations, following a strict template is the only way to please everybody. That just doesn't make it any less predictable.

There is a pre-credits action scene that most other blockbusters would love to have as a central climax, and there is a mid-point beat-down that leaves every good character hanging their head in defeat, before they all rally together to save the world, with new allies and valiant sacrifices needed to save the day. It even ends with yet another iteration of the giant-shit-falls-from-the-sky climax, which is starting to really feel like a parody of itself, after Marvel's use of it in their past half-dozen films.

The script does do a wonderful job of giving all the main characters something to do, and has a terrific shorthand device it can use with cameo appearances from other Marvel films, but the plot is purely functional.

Even the look of the film, with one notable exception, is one of predictable grit – lots of brown and grey dust flying around as the heroes deal with property damage on a biblical scale. Like all the Marvel films, it looks good, but it rarely looks great, with only the Guardians of the Galaxy having any real sense of style. The new Avengers looks exactly like you think it will.

It's still the sort of film I'd love to take back in time and show my 10-year-old self in 1985 and say “This! This is what we expect from our superhero films now!” and watch his brain explode, but on the big picture scale, there's not really anything new any more.

To look for the unexpected in this new blockbuster, you have to go beyond the plot, and there are riches to be found in the details, including some deft characterisation and terrific lines for good actors to chew on.

And nobody chews it up like the bad guys, and this is the Avenger's first great strength.

Ultron himself is a lot better than you'd expect – visually he's never totally convincing as a special effect, too slippery and sleek to have any actual weight – but he's not a dull meglomaniac, he's too loony for that.

Because James Spader is fantastic in the role. He gives him a sleek malevolence, but he's also weirdly goofy and awkward. He might be accidentally ripping off arms and planning to slaughter billions, but he's also clumsy and illogical and moody. Villains are usually so busy making insane speeches to realise how silly they're being, but Ultron is fully aware of how weird he is. He just doesn't care.

And at the other end of the moral spectrum, there is the Vision – the strange child with four dads: Ultron, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor – and he is an absolute delight. A lot of that is due to the powerful charisma of Paul Bettany, who is always great in everything he does, but also because he brings humanity and a savage slice of colour to this grey and murky world.

He's a striking design, standing out with his primary-colour skin and cape and suitably unreal, bringing a touch of high fantasy to the gritty world of Marvel movies. One shot, of the Vision, Thor and Iron Man absolutely unloading on Ultron, is the closest we've had yet to something straight out of the comics, and is a rare visual highlight.

Most importantly, the Vision is also the most human, for all his synthetic origins. He's privileged to stand with the other heroes and proudly stands up on the side of life over death. He's worthy to stand among the Avengers – and even proves it with one small gesture soon after his creation that leaves everyone stunned, and might be the best little bit in the movie.

Beyond the androids and robots, and there isn't that much room for quiet moments among the bombastic, but they're there. There are strange and doomed romances, small moment of contemplation and a quiet moment of domesticity that comes halfway through and is almost refreshing after all the fighting.

That sequence also has the unexpected benefit of making Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye the moral centre of the film. In the end he's the only person who has something real to fight for – the others battle for honour or destiny or because it's just the right thing to do, but he's doing it for the family.

The movie is also surprisingly on target with its themes and messages, and follows that through to the big climax, where the most important thing – the only important thing – is saving the innocent civilians who are caught up in the carnage. The collateral damage of a massive fight has never been more in focus in a superhero movie, and that acknowledgement is something new.

So all the good guys do what they're supposed to do, and the actors carry a lot of the weight – Mark Ruffalo is still the best Bruce Banner by far, Chris Evans has the right conviction and guts for Captain America, Scarlett Johansson brings more bite to the Black Widow and Chris Helmsworth has fully grown into the role of Thor.

It's nothing really knew, and it's easy to predict where things are going. But it does end on a lighter note than expected. With all the pre-publicity, and knowing what's still to come for the whole superhero universe, you could expect this to end with the heroes all falling out and walking away from each other, heads bowed.

But they're still a triumphant team, and still comrades and friends, for now at least. After all, if they need to have the wit and will to save the world, they can't spend all their time bitching at each other.