Monday, June 26, 2017

Doctor Who: Death at tea-time

Doctor Who is a kids’ TV programme about a lovable old duffer, roaming around the universe in a blue box with pretty companions and getting up to all sorts of adventures.

It can also be surprisingly brutal sometimes, with astronomically high body counts racked up in seemingly innocuous stories. It’s all fun and games and banter until the death rays come out, and then it’s corpses by the truckload.

The show’s 54-year history is soaked in blood, and while you can pick any era for examples of just how cruel the carnage can get, there are some periods that are particularly bloodthirsty, loading up on the murder at tea-time.

After a literal lifetime as a Doctor Who fan, I’ve been slowly watching the whole series in a row for the first time ever, and it's taken a while to get through the black and white era, Especially when a lot of those episodes don't exist anymore, except as barely watchable reconstructions.

It's still been great going through the Hartnell and Troughton years, finding new appreciation for things like the Myth-Makers and the Macra Terror, but it's a relief to get into the seventies, where the episodes all still exist, even with an overdose of seven-part stories.

So I'm getting stuck into the Pertwee years now, watching some episodes I haven't seen since the eighties. The show has got nailed down to an earthly setting, and there is a lot more location work, and the whole TV show has never looked more earthy and real.

And while there is still a lot of silliness going on - the budget is still about five quid an episode, and Pertwee can never miss an opportunity to indulge in some unnecessary mugging and gurning - the 'real world' setting is taken to the logical conclusion, and clashes with alien intelligence lead to loads of innocent blokes getting killed.

In the first few episodes of Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor, there is a noticeable ramping up of the death and carnage. Sometimes it's bad guys meeting ironic fates, and sometimes it's UNIT soldiers being wiped out by creatures impervious to their rifle fire, and sometimes it's just some poor commuters standing at the bus stop.

There are people dying of a mega-plague launched by the original reptilian masters of the Earth that is only just cured before it wipes out all of humanity; shoppers and people going to work on a Tuesday morning are gunned down by living shop mannequins in the street; dazed alien lifeforms in astronaut suits kill anyone in their way with a touch; and a whole world gets wiped out by lava boiling up out of the earth's surface - it's okay, it's just a mean and nasty parallel world, but a few people still need to be throttled by green, panting caveman before the say is saved.

Soldiers, policemen, farmers' wives. Nobody was safe from death from above.

There was always a  lot of death in Doctor Who, right back to the first episodes in the early sixties. The final Troughton story alone featured all sorts of war-related brutality, and the Daleks had literally murdered billions of people before they ever appeared in colour on TV

But it isn't just the numbers that makes these killings just a bit more traumatic, it was that setting, and the blazing new colour of the new decade. These deaths weren't taking place on a wobbly set, these were taking place on city streets, in suburban homes, and in local forests. This wasn't the staged theatricality of set-bound filming, this was dirty, and rough, and clumsy, just like real life. Pertwee always had a good point about the Yeti in Tooting Bec - it really was more powerful to have these monsters crash into the real world, rather than on the third moon of Arrtaabarrga.

And it was all so casual, all these bodies lying around all over the place - it rarely seemed to be too traumatic for the characters as least. There would be the usual gritted teeth at some unfortunate casualty, but they would be back to cheap quips before the end credits. Life goes on, for most, anyway.

It's worth noting that the professional craftspeople and tradespeople working on this silly little television show at the time had all lived through the horrors of the second World War, and a fair few of them had fought in it.

They were used to body counts as a fact of life, and that casual acceptance of it jars with these days of health and safety. Don't make a fuss, keep calm and carry on, even as your neighbors house is bombed to bits. And if a spaceman shot your wife, it was just not worth dwelling on, old boy.

Some of the trauma inflicted the show's young audience by these early Pertwee adventures filtered through over the years, and would show up in the stories created by new generations.

One of the best was David Bishop's excellent Who Killed Kennedy, a spin-off from the New Adventures line from the nineties, where unabashed fanboys ran rampant over Who continuity, finding new depths in silly old stories.

And those depths were found in one of the main characters in Who Killed Kennedy,  a UNIT soldier, who is one of the faceless army men who were frequently used as cannon fodder, who has a total breakdown after seeing his mates murdered by little green men, going right over the edge when the actual devil appears in The Daemons.

The poor sod is, of course, turned into a brainwashed assassin, but who can blame him for losing his marbles, with all that slaughter and very human trauma, in the battles against interstellar evil.

More than four decades later, and Doctor Who still has an impressive body count, and while the current series does have admirable 'everybody lives!' moments, it's a rare episode that doesn't end with some kind of mortal sacrifice.

But it's still never quite as traumatic as those poor extras in seventies haircuts, collapsing in the street as an alien nightmare stalks the grey and wet city. As a show, Doctor Who took a big step forward with thw Pertwee years, it's just a shame so many people got squashed by the footprint.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Should've had a wank instead!

From Dicks, by Ennis and McCrea, the only comic my old mate Chris would ever read....

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Terror, gore and the best horror on the newstand

The magazine format had a good, long run as one of the world's premiere media formats, but they're just not the mass medium they once were. But some specialised, niche publications can still find an audience that can last a long time, and are, somewhat remarkably, still out there on a fairly regular basis.

It is with considerable happiness and no small admiration that I note that two of the nastiest, goriest magazines I've ever read are still out there, still educating new generations of horror fans, and still showing lurid pictures of some fucked-up film gore.

When I started working full-time and earning my own money in the early nineties, before I developed a crush on the Empire movie magazine that is still going on every month, my two favourite magazines in the world were, undoubtedly, Fangoria and The Dark Side. One from the US and one from Britain, and both devoted to all things horror.

They were addictive reads, especially since I'd been a total horror hound throughout the teenage years, watching dozens and dozens of movies on video tape, tracking down the most obscure shit, and staying up late on Sunday nights for a glimpse of something scary and new.

All that horror, and there were still some things I could never find - it took me forever to track down all the decent Hammer films, and it would literally be decades before I could track down some of the weirder, more esoteric stuff. There would be thrills in finally tracking down something as monumental as the original Last House On The Left, or even something as obvious as Driller Killer.

It's all on YouTube or easily downloadable these days, even some of the most obscure nonsense, even stuff that was massively controversial back in the day, but that just takes the fun of the hunt out of it, really.

But in those pre-internet days, when it came to reference books and general writing about horror films, pickings were slimmer than a desiccated, devoured corpse. There were a couple of big, glossy hardback books that I ate up, and would read and read over again, fascinated by details of German somnambulist nightmares of the silent era, or the strange shifts in tastes and tolerances over the decades, or the gruesome tiny details of modern slasher films.

As in-depth as these things could be - and they could go pretty fucking deep - they were still trying to cover a century of scary movies, and there were literally thousands and thousands of films in the genre. They couldn't get to them all, or would only have the most perfunctory information.

But monthly publications always had lots and lots of pages to fill, and while that kind of immediacy meant they were always bound to the whims of the latest news about forthcoming nightmares, they could also provide a long, dark look at all sorts of horror, from all sorts of eras.

Fangoria was, unsurprisingly, the slicker product, full of Hollywood madness and big budget make-up effects. But the best parts of the magazine were always when it took detours down the grimy, sleazier parts of the US film industry, covering movies with breathless enthusiasm that would never be heard of again, often not even good enough to get a DVD release.

And it could also, for a magazine available in respectable newsagents all over the world, be exceptionally gory, showing the gruesome fates of cinematic victims in wide-eyed glory. For close-ups of the sheer artistry of Tom Savini and his chums, you couldn't beat the Fango.

That devotion to the gruesome actually meant the magazine always had a wide net to cast, and it could cover things that weren't strictly horrific, like SFX-laden blockbusters and violent crime sagas - Fangoria was the first place I ever saw talking about John Woo films, in David J Schow's amazingly insightful Raving And Drooling columns.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic, The Dark Side was a bit grottier and grosser, with more of a love for Eurotrash filmakers like Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco and a horde of other dirty old pervs behind the camera.

Even better, while it had plenty of news and reviews of all the latest terrors, The Dark Side was more focused on history, with some long features on stuff that was amazingly obscure, and definite articles on super-nasty Italian zombie epics.

For a long, long time, it also had an invaluable A-Z review of every goddamn genre film ever made, which was incredibly comprehensive, issue after issue, taking months just to get through the 'C's.

It wasn't just these two magazines, they were just the biggest, and the most consistently entertaining and informative. There have, of course, been all sorts of other magazines and publications about horror films, long before these publications first came out, and even more in the years since. (Famous Minsters of Filmland is the most obvious example of this, and keeps getting resurrected more often than Dracula, but it was never my magazine of choice -  I just couldn't take the truly horrific puns.)
Some of them were more focused on the gore side of things, or were purely all about the VFX, and they could be good enough, but none of them ever had the charm or longevity of these two magazines. Most of them were wiped out as the audience migrated online, to discussion forums and Facebook groups, the community expanding far, far beyond the confines of the printed letter page.

You never really grow out of a love of horror films,  but you can get too old to be that obsessed about them, and I haven't bought Fangoria or the Dark Side regularly for 20 years now. But they're still out there, even in this mediapocalypse, even in this age of social media and apps and hot takes.

They might not be as regular as they once were, but they still show up in my local newsagents every few months, and I still get the odd issue, just to check in on the scene, and see some gross new thing I've never heard about anywhere else, or a new write-up on the secret lives of horror auteurs.

When it comes to movies designed to scare the shit out of you, or at least make you feel a bit queasy there is always something new to look forward to, and always something old to revisit. And one of the best places to find them is in the pages of the magazine.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nine dumb questions about superheroes

I'm 42 fucking years old, and I still lie awake at night sometimes, wondering what the hell is going on in the superhero comics I read.

I thought by this age, I'm be a bit more worried about grown-up things like mortgages and children and a career, but no, I'm still there in bed at 3am in the morning, wondering about how Clark Kent's glasses really work, or why trying to figure out who has been an Avenger.

This is never going to end.

Was Humphrey Bogart a young movie star in the 1970s on Earth One?

If all the big DC superheroes respawned in the Silver Age on Earth One as young and hip, and were carbon copies of characters that had existed 20-years earlier on Earth Two, were there other high-profile individuals who were also cosmically reborn?

It just seems a bit unfair if the only options for this rebirth were people who were wearing tights and a mask. Was the Humphrey Bogart of Earth One born in 1930, and did he act for Coppola and Scorcese in the seventies? Or an updated version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an atomic-powered wheelchair?

Of course there wasn't, because the silver age heroes would always be seen interacting with the celebrities of their age, such as Don Rickles or JFK, but this still strikes me as cosmically unfair. If Superman keeps coming back as someone new, why can't anybody else?

Was Civil War II really sparked by Thanos robbing a bank?

I'm frequently lost when it comes to the ins and outs of the big superhero universes these days – too much fucking product, and not enough motivation to churn through it all – but from what I could figure out, the whole spark for one of the latest rounds of gritted teeth super-confrontations was a battle with Thanos, who was busted while trying to commit an armed robbery.

Is that right? That can't be right. Thanos – an embodiment of existential entropy. Thanos - a hardcore cosmic nihilist who is literally in love with the personification of Death, a being of unimaginable motives and abilities who has become the most powerful creature in creation on half a dozen occasion. Thanos – the bank robber?

This is a question that could probably be answered by reading a tonne of CW2 comics, but that sounds like far too much fucking work.

Does Batman look a bit naked without his cape?

Why, yes. Yes, he does.

Why are modern blockbuster movies copying the business plans of 1990s failed superhero universes?

In the aftermath of the massive initial success of the Image comics line in the early 1990s, when comic stores were ordering millions of these awful, awful comics, all sorts of publishers tried to get onto that bandwagon by producing their own complex and interconnected universes.

Rather than letting them grow semi-organically, like the Marvel and DC worlds did over decades, all the publishers tried to skip past that difficult and boring set-up process, and go straight to the big, important stages, imploring readers to leap straight into a huge commitment.

Unfortunately, largely due to the general mediocrity of the product, hardly any of them lasted more than a year, and nobody cares about them at all these days. It was a ridiculous idea to expect that kind of goodwill without bothering to build any of it up.

Movies are copying a lot of ideas from comic books these days – the biggest films in the world are only just catching up to what Jack Kirby was doing fifty years ago – but this is one idea that should've been left to the four-colour funnies.

What is the exchange rate for those coins in John Wick?

This isn't a superhero question - unless you count Keanu Reeve's uncanny quick-draw ability – but I can't stop wondering what the gold coins everybody uses for pay are actually worth.

I figure they're about $1000 each, for what they usually get, but they're used to pay for everything, including cars and powerful hand weapons and body disposal and waitress tips, and there is no consistency. I can accept the sub-culture of snappily-dressed killers in these films, but only if its economy is sound.

Why the fuck can't I get Copra in this country?

I've read so many good reviews for Michel Fiffe's Copra, for goddamn years now, and I still haven't had a chance to read it.

I've ordered it specially through the local comic shops, twice, and it still never happened. This might be the lamest curse ever, but it's still a fuckin' curse.

Why can't superheroes age in real time?

I love a good Spider-Man comic, but I still wish they would actually age the character in real time, living in the now instead of some weird Marvel time. It almost all kept up with the first few years of the character, when he left High School and went off to college, but he's been stuck at the same age for more than 40 years now.
It would have been easy enough to get around if you're still determined to have Peter Parker behind the mask, you can just say that the spider bite slowed the aging rate or something. And while that would mean an aging out of various periphery characters, it would give the surviving Spider more depth as he grew and changed over the decades (and would solve all the pesky continuity issues, that surround his ongoing adventures, with no need for any rebooting).

It worked for Judge Dredd. He is now an actual pensioner, and still kicking arse.

How did they fuck up the Authority?

I was reading the first Authority comics by Ellis and Hitch recently, and they're still so tight – so fucking in the pocket – that I can't believe how quickly they fucked that up.

The methods and tricks on the surface of the comic have been fully integrated into 'normal' superhero comics, with the pacing and tone and economy are found in almost every serious super-comic today, but the characters that started it all have been sucked into the wider DC Universe and fully dispersed. That's just remarkable.

Was Adam West the best Batman?

Why, yes. Yes, he was.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Wrong criticism can be the best criticism

It's easy to spot the best pop culture criticism - it's the stuff you don't agree with, but still makes a good argument for the other point of view. It might not be strong enough to actually change your original opinion, but you can't fault the other person's conclusion, based on the argument they've made.

But we're all so stuck in our bubbles of taste, and we often fly off the handle if anything pierces that precious membrane. We'll never learn anything that way.

In entertainment, as in life, we should welcome other views, even if we think they're completely fucking wrong.

We have to listen to different opinions. We have to consider other points of view. You can still have our own take on a movie, or a comic book, or a novel, or an album, and your opinion on something is just as valid as the other guy's. Neither diminishes the other, just because it exists.

What a fucking awful world it would be if we all agreed on the same shit.

There are dozens and dozens of podcasts about movies, and some of them are awful, and a lot of them are mediocre, and some of them are excellent, but the only one I never, ever miss is Travis Bickle on the Rivera, a weekly podcast about all sorts of movies, with three regular hosts who know their shit, and are happy to spread it.

It's the best because it's the funniest, and the meanest, and the most opinionated as fuck. They're a good gateway to things I'd never heard of before, hooking me on the brilliance of Johnny To or Isaac Florentine, and they're the modern age's foremost experts on the beautiful canon of Tony Scott.

I've listened to every episode of their show, all over the world - they're a good filler while waiting at the airport - and I've cranked it to one particular episode that was pure soundtrack a hundred times. It's one of the few patreon things I have set up, contributing an meager amount of cash to the podcast's creators every month. I don't want the bonus stuff they give you for it, I just figure they're worth paying money for. They're worth it.

And week after week, I disagree with a lot of things they say. Some episodes they drive me crazy with their wrong-ness, and I couldn't agree less with everything they're saying about some dumb movie.

Sometimes it's the baffling idea that Quantum of Solace is the best Bond film, or that Batman V Superman is worth anybody's time, or that the Transformers films have any goddamn merit at all. They have an unashamed soft spot for failed blockbusters, and half the time it feels like they're just trying to piss off the nerd herd. (Which, y'know, can be reason enough for any opinion. Fuck them dorks.)

And they take repeated shits on stuff I know and love - I don't care what they fucking say, Doctor Who is the best TV, and the easy, slick entertainments of the Marvel films are like the best Big Mac burger.  I can like this bullshit, even if people whose opinions I trust and follow tell me I'm being a fucking idiot for doing so.

It doesn't matter, none of that matters. They're still fuckin' funny, and fuckin' passionate, and fuckin' informed, so they can talk about what they want.

I want to hear from people with different ideas about the media I consume, I don't just want to passively consume it, and then sit around with like-minded folk, all agreeing on the stench of its brilliance. I want to be challenged and confronted with some hard goddamn truths, even if they sound like lies at first.

If a critic is witty enough, and well-informed enough, they can be opinionated about any bloody thing, and most people will have to concede they have a point. You certainly shouldn't cave in easily on your own ideas, but having some other ingredients for the stew of opinions in your brain is always tasty and welcome.

As long as I'm certain enough of my own opinion, I welcome all others, and a podcast that tells me I'm absolutely wrong about absolutely everything is a fucking necessity in life. How else will I ever learn where I'm going wrong?

That doesn't mean I always have to like it, especially when a different opinion is treated like its an objective reality. Other opinions are always available, but that doesn't mean they're all automatically valid and true.
There are always some critics that go too far, and descend to troll-like levels, but they can be easily ignored. I recently decided I wasn't going to bother with one prominent critic's work because he just couldn't leave the preconceptions aside when he went into something, and it was all getting a bit predictable. He's still got his audience, but there is always plenty of other writing and broadcasting to get stuck into. Having an open mind doesn't mean you have to blindly follow everyone all of the time.

Still, it's easier to handle it a different opinion when it's somebody saying good things about something you hate, because when it goes the other way, we can all take that stuff a bit too personally.

We can't help it, assaults on personal tastes are, understandably, fucking personal, and if somebody implies that you are a goddamn moron for innocently liking something, the only natural first reaction has to be a total 'hey, fuck you too, buddy'. But if you can bite back that bile, and actually listen to a different opinion, it can enrich your own experience.

On the other hand, when it comes to different opinions, there is nothing quite as fulfilling, interesting and entertaining as somebody really getting stuck into the love they feel for something everybody else - including me - has always written off as pure trash. It's far, far easier to reassess the hate, instead of questioning the love.

It's just so easy to let things go, and to even crave an opinion that you know you're going to hate. If you're always disagreeing with a certain critic, than you can count on that disagreement as a form of quality control, and if they start slagging something off, it becomes an instant must-see.

Still, I'm still not going to go see the new King Arthur film like the Travis Bickle podcast told me too. I'll give them cold, hard cash to tell me that I'm wrong, but two hours of Charlie Hunnam grimacing? I'm stupid, but I'm not that fucking stupid.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

'I told them to fix their hearts or die!'

It's been another rough, tough and busy week - don't act like you don't know - so there is no new post today, due to the demands of modern living.

To be honest, I'm happily stuck in a deep, deep Twin Peaks hole at the moment, watching all the old episodes, sparked by the recent revitalization of the series. I could literally spend all day talking about the use of doppelgangers (not just Coop) and other spiritual echoes in the new episodes, or how glorious it is to have artists working in a mass medium format who have absolutely no interest in giving their loyal audience what they want, but I find that after every single new episode I have zero desire to see what anybody else thinks about it, so I'm not about to to add to that cacophony.

Although I will say this - while it is obviously a strange and difficult path, I still absolutely follow the Tao of Albert Rosenfield:

Normal service will probably resume on Saturday.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Still Uncanny, after all these years

It's now 40 years since Chris Claremont and John Byrne started their run on Uncanny X-Men, and all these years later, there is still a modern gleam to their adventures, with the light of the future still bouncing off Cyclops' visor.

The stories can look clumsy and cheesy to modern eyes, but they still stand tall among their 1970s peers for sophisticated action and sublime characterisation. A lot has been written and said about this relatively short run on one single comic in the past four decades, but there are always new uncanny treasures to be found in these X-Men comics.

My first exposure to the wonders of this work was at a young age, but right at the tail end of the collaboration. I was barely in school when I read Uncanny X-Men #138, the one after the death of Jean Grey, and instantly fell for its chunky delights.

That particular issue was a great primer to start from, going over the past 100 and something issues of adventures and prejudice. It still took me years and years before I actually read those issues they were summerising in #138's graveyard soliloquy, usually in reprints, so a comic that was more reference book than actual story was extremely welcome.

In fact, the only Claremont/Byrne issue I had for ages was the Phoenix: The Untold Story comic, which was inexplicably everywhere in New Zealand. It might not have counted in the grand scheme of things, but the fancy, bright paper and behind-the-scenes round-table at the end of the comic made it more than worthwhile.

I have the whole run now, in the Classic X-Men format from the late '80s, where the stories were sometimes remixed and redone, which can be irritating as hell, but also gives the reader a better view inside Claremont's head, and the vast, wonderful X-plan he was immersed in for years. I still get those issues out every now and then, and I still marvel at their beauty, and their unashamed sincerity.

It's a stone-cold classic of a comic, and while there is the odd, noble attempt to tear it down and burn it all, the comic is an immovable monolith that often sits near the top of broad comic surveys.

It wasn't always this way - in their earliest incarnations, the X-Men were always the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe, shoved away to the side of Lee and Kirby's grand tapestry, and only coughing back into life in the mid-70s as Marvel's latest desperate attempt to pump some diversity into their whitebread line, a truly international team of characters with richly different backgrounds.

Those low expectations that came with the first issues of the relaunch were its obvious strength, because nobody really gave a damn, so Claremont could do whatever he wanted, and with the hyperactivity of Dave Cockrum, it quickly became a shining light in mainstream comics.

As beautifully expressive as Cockrum could be, Byrne's arrival as regular artist really pushed things through to the next level, creating the slickest, deepest and most exciting superhero comic of its time, and setting a template that is still being heavily mined by modern creators.

For a comic that liked to take plenty of time to show the team in civilian life, trying to get their heads around modern society without beating up bad guys, it remained a pure action-adventure comic that never stopped moving.

In just a couple of years, they fought Magneto and the Imperial Guard and the Hellfire Club and there was an extended period where half the team thought the other half were dead. Then there was the usual Savage Land shenanigans, the debut of Alpha Flight, the annoyance of Arcade, the reality spinning of Proteus, and the introduction of Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde and Dazzler in one go. And it's a run of comics that actually has a fitting and noble climax with the entire Dark Phoenix storyline and its tragic ending, before rounding things out with a couple of small epilogues, and a two-part story about a dark alternative future - a timeline which would create a thousand spin-offs of its own.

There was swashbuckling and raw emoting and cosmic craziness and a team that became a family. It was a series packed with incident and invention, and a plot that kept pushing forward all the time. Every issue was created with breathtaking enthusiasm, and that energy shines through in every page, every panel.

Even more importantly, it took a cast of cliches and broad generalisations and made them feel like people who you could actually give a damn about, even if they looked like blue demons, or African goddesses.

In these early days of the all-new, all-different team, it was soon obvious that like every great Marvel hero, each character had their own small flaws, but these flaws weren't just something to be conquered or overcome, they were part of the character's overall existence, in a way that is still fresh.

Nightcrawler would hide his pain at never fitting in beneath charming bluster, and that just made him even more charming. Colossus spent a long time feeling like a useless hunk of meat, consistently failing to prove his worth in big battles, only to finally save the day when facing an enemy which couldn't stand his metal grip. Storm could fly free, and still struggled with the trauma of being buried alive.

Wolverine would quietly battle his own animalistic urge to goo off on his own, and would make noble - and ultimately successful - efforts to find a place he belonged. Banshee had a comedic Irish accent, and then lost his bloody voice. Even the stick up Cyclop's butt, the thing that made him such a good leader, bent and broke beneath the weight of his love for Jean Grey and his own responsibilities to the team.

In the years since this run, Byrne has downplayed his artistic efforts, confident that his later work had more substance to it, but with the glorious benefit of hindsight, it's easy to claim that this is some of his very best work.

It's 40-years-old, but still slick as hell. The vital inks from Terry Austin gave it a sheen that Byrne would soon abandon for a more jagged line (foreshadowing the Image style of endless cross-hatching), and while that glossy smoothness of his X-comics started to look dated for a while, it is now nearly immortal in its ease and accessibility.

The pages are also bogged down with never-ending narration, copious thought balloons and needless dialogue, but it always flows just as much as the overall plot goes, individual scenes of action and drama becoming endlessly re-readable.

A lot of the novelty of this comic has been worn down by the intense influence it had on super-comics for years. Every new superhero team tried to capture that same formula, and it became the ur-text for this level of superhero team-building for other groups for a long, long time. The X-Men themselves have tried to recapture it too, with limited success. Even the latest iterations seen in the X-Men Blue and X-Men Gold comics are still straining for those heights, with simpler team line-ups, and a renewed focus on adventure over long-term angsting.

It's always good to see someone trying for those heights, and it should be little surprise that they barely reach them. Even the decade of Byrne-less comics that Claremont continued with never quite got there, even with hugely talented artists like Paul smith, John Romita Jr and Jim Lee. The Claremont/Byrne comics are just as fresh and fun and fearless as they were when I was that little kid, studying #138 like it was the bible. Everything I needed to know about mainstream superhero comics was in those pages, and it's lurking there still.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Writing abut writing: Everything I've ever done, everything I ever do

Comic book blogging godfather Mike Sterling always says blogging about blogging is a sin, and Mike is totally right about that, as he is in all things. It's a failure of imagination, and easy and lazy.

But I've been doing this for eight years now, and I just worked out I recently cracked the 750,000-word mark for the Tearoom of Despair. That's a ridiculous amount of bullshit, and sometimes I really feel like I am running out of things to say, and am starting to repeat myself over and over again.

I gotta write about something, and I've reached the inevitable stage where I've gotta write about having to write something, with the a level of irony so thick that it's like it's the goddamn 1990s or something.

I've been a daily news journalist for 12 years now, and now I write lots of short, punchy breaking news stories for one of New Zealand's big news websites.

It's enormously satisfying work, forcing me to be creative dozens of times a day, while still acting within strictly prescribed parameters. Almost all the work I do is invisible, with no credit or byline, and that's just fine by me.

It can also be grim as fuck, dealing with all the death and horror and Donald Trump in this world, and having to write stories about it. That sense of creativity and novelty is always being undermined by the harsh realities of this world, sucking all the joy out of writing.

So I started this blog so I can write about nonsense like comic books and TV shows and the new Alien film, because it's the sort of stuff I just don't do at work. It's long-winded and waffling and full of unnecessary adjectives and totally unimportant, and that's the way I like it.

I tried mixing the fun stuff with the work stuff once, and did some entertainment writing and had a small handful of published movie reviews, but it dragged all the fun out of the pop culture I was consuming, and turned it into a daily grind, which didn't work at all. So I keep the two writing styles and subjects separate, as much as possible.

I try to post something new at the Tearoom of Despair every four days - and don't always make it - and try to write something a bit substantial, so there is always am attempt at topping 1000 words - and I don't always make that goal either.

Three days in-between posts gives me a day to think about it, another day to bash out something like a structure, and another day to put it together. That doesn't always work, and I usually lose a day or two to the stresses and needs of ordinary life, and am still bashing something out 10 minutes before I hit post. This entry is one of those, I lost two days to looking after the lovely wife as she recovers from having her tonsils removed, and now I'm trying to get it all down now before this Sunday is done.

Sometimes it gets a bit much, and I wonder what the hell I'm doing all this for, but when it's done, and I'm finished for another few days, it's always satisfying as hell. I usually miss the whole point of what I was trying to say in the first place, but at least I'm trying, man, I'm trying.

It's deciding what to write about that is the hardest thing. Trying to say something new, putting forth an argument that I don't see anywhere else, or telling some stupid, tiny personal anecdote, is the main goal, and most of the time I don't have a goddamn clue where to start. Three times in recent months, I've completed a post, only to discover I've already written almost exactly the same thing three years ago, and I have to ditch it. It's fucking maddening.

Sometimes I have two separate ideas and try to push them together to make something coherent, sometimes I go straight up for the dodgy metaphor - I think I reached the apex of this with a questionable link between the comic book industry and the traffic in Mongolia's biggest city, but I've also got something half-done about the way my fucking breakfast toast represents my tastes in genre fiction, which is easily the dodgiest metaphor yet.

In fact, I also have a word document that is 278 fucking pages long, full of ideas and half-written posts that often go nowhere. Some of them date back to before I even started this thing in 2009, and most of them are so out of date, or terribly constructed, that they can stay unread in that file forever.

Sometimes these lost posts do spark up again - the one about how I find new music was originally started in 2011, before being dragged back to life a couple of months ago. But there is no place for the piece that tries to argue that the covers for Mark Millar's Trouble mini-series for Marvel weren't that bad (they really were), or that Back of The Y was the best TV show New Zealand ever produced (it still might be).

So I try to post on a regular basis, but I don't always make it, because of those stresses of modern life and the fact that I can't be arsed sitting down and writing something, because every fucking word is a chore.

But I don't want the Tearoom to die a slow death like that, so I resort to blatantly easy stuff like a month of scans from comic books, or a daily round of various music videos, or recycled content. The lovely wife and I enjoy travelling around this world of ours, and usually take at least three weeks every year to go to the other side of the planet, and I have to set shit up to cover that gap - this will happen again in October, and I still have no idea how I'm going to fill that space.

I always think I can get a headstart on the proper posts when I go into low-content mode, but I never do, and the first real post back is just as panicked and loose as anything else.

Sometimes I spend more time looking for the perfect pictures to go with a blog post than I do writing it. And sometimes I just go for the Fink.

I'm not sure if I'm getting any better at this, if there has been any improvement in my writing in all those hundreds of thousands of words over the past eight years. Sometimes I look at the earliest posts from back in the day, and they're fucking cringe, but sometimes I feel the same way when I look at stuff I wrote last month, or even parts of this post here.

Whatever. I'm not in this for self-improvement, I'm in it for my mental health, and because it's always nice to connect with somebody - anybody - over the dumbest shit.

And I cracked that 100-word mark a couple of paragraphs back, so I'm done with this bullshit self-reflection now, and can move onto something nobody else has ever written about, like the Claremont/Byrne X-Men comics. If nothing else, I'm timely as fuck.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien Covenant: Survivor guilt

Ridley Scott's latest Alien film is a cold, sharp mess, with some strong, intense moments that are as good as anything else in the entire series, fatally undermined by a desperate search for shock tactics that bulldozes any narrative cohesion. 

People die horribly after doing stupid shit and getting fucked over by corporations or technology, ripped apart by bio-tech monsters in a beautifully art-designed nightmare, which is all you can really ask from an Alien film. But then it literally loses the plot 20 minutes from the end and buries its own efforts to tell a complete story, sacrificing the whole movie to larger franchise-building needs.

It's easy to handle the stupid things in an Alien film because you wouldn't have an Alien film without somebody sticking their mug up close to a face-hugger, or people deciding they need to go "freshen up" in a necropolis, minutes after they just saw their friends and comrades die horribly. 

That's almost a prerequisite for these films, because they don't know they're in an Alien film, and they don't know that they're all going to die horribly. If anything, it's nice to see a movie these days which plays it straight, without relying on the cheap snark and irony of meta-commentary - every other big film these days has to have a smart-arse audience surrogate telling everybody what's happening with a knowing wink to the camera, but in Alien Covenant, they blunder on obliviously into hideous death.

But when the fundamental basics of narrative film fiction leads to an unavoidable conclusion, and that conclusion rips all the emotional power out of the climax of the film, it has to feel like a wrong step, right out of the airlock and into the void of space.

Deep spoilers for the Alien Covenant from here. You have been warned, but feel free to stick your face in closer if you've already seen the film.

So towards the end of the movie, after most of the main characters have suffered the usual monstrous fates, Fassbender and Fassbender are beating the shit out of each other for several minutes, a bad android versus a good android, with the fate of the humans at stake.

You never actually see the resolution of the fight, and then one runs out to save the day and gets away with the survivors, and it's another long sequence before it's revealed that it's David - the bad 'un - who has survived, and now he's free to do his biological experiments on thousands of helpless, sleeping people because the idiots have happily assumed he was the good 'un. The end.

The intent behind all this is easy enough to figure out. The filmmakers want to show how serious and hardcore they are by refusing to give this part of the story a pat and happy ending. Life is pain, and life in the Alien universe is immeasurably more so.

But the first problem with this is that it's so fucking obvious - of course it's David hanging around for the final few minutes of the movie, long before they reveal it. All he had to do was rip off his own hand to convince them he was the good guy, and he's a robot, so that's no bother.

It's not just the rampant foreshadowing of it all - David was the first character seen in the film, he's not suddenly going to be disposed with off-camera. This is a basic rule of film fiction: if there is no actual depiction of the villain's destruction, he's obviously alive and kicking, and the refusal of the film to give his story apparent closure is the only clue that's needed.

The 'twist' itself isn't really the issue - it's the fact that it makes the crucial climactic part of the film nonsensical, because you end up wanting the two remaining characters to fail. You're supposed to give a shit about the final survivors, but when their success will result in the deaths of thousands of oblivious colonists, their fight to get off the planet is hollow and mean-spirited.

So when the film is racing towards the end credits, and you get a bonkers action scene with a maintenance space ship trying to take off while an alien mega-fiend is scuttling around, and the lead character is flailing around at the end of a rope, any triumph or relief from the humans' inevitable victory is hideously undercut.

And the film continues onward, and because this is an alien film, it all ends with things getting sucked out of the airlock, and the final hero dragging her arse back from oblivion, but who cares about these fools anymore? They've condemned everyone they're ostensibly responsible for to a hideous chest-bursting death. Nice one, fuckers.

We all like a good, dark ending that shatters everything we know, but it's no coincidence that the two obviously best Alien films both end with Ripley surviving to live another day. You need someone hanging on long enough to defeat the monster, or it's all for nothing.

It could be saved for the inevitable sequel, but this latest example is like tacking the start of the third Alien film on to the end of the second - the cheap shock of  'it was all for nothing because Newt never woke up again' is one way of starting a new film, (and not a very good one), but if Aliens had finished like that, it would have been a colossal bummer.

It all diminishes Covenant as its own film, because it's only part of a dull multi-film cycle that is determined to mine all the mystery out of the original concept. It's just another step in the evolution of these extraordinarily angry alien creatures, not a story with its own purpose or point.

Alien Covenant looks magnificent, is supremely moody and gets a lot of mileage by introducing the couple's dynamic to this meat-grinder of a franchise. But it ends with a flat thud of nihilism, and when you're actively hoping the last few members of the main cast fail and die in their efforts to survive, what's the point of it all?