Monday, 25 July 2011

Houses of Horror

I've been a fan of horror fiction ever since Dracula scared me stupid when I was a kid. These days, with Cthulhu on every other t-shirt for sale on the internet, it's easy to get your fix. Back then, I had to read about Lovecraft in Stephen King's Danse Macabre and then order the only Mythos anthology available in the Rhymney Valley library system. And even then, the only story by Lovecraft in that was The Call of Cthulhu, the others being by Lovecraft's extended web of acquaintances.

I think that true horror lives in single moments of realisation. That's why the twist ending is so prevalent in horror works, second only to the surprise reveal in crime fiction. Even a cheap twist can horrify- Bruce Willis was dead all along! The Blair Witch has put her in the corner! The call is coming from inside the house!

At its best, horror fiction can conceal something quite profound in these moments. As with all the pulp fictions, horror is often dismissed as having no real merit, and it gets a far rougher ride than its brothers and sisters. Science fiction works are acceptable as long as the author insists they're not really science fiction, fantasy becomes magical realism, and crime fiction has long been a cinematic critical darling. Apart from the odd positive evaluation of Stephen King, horror rarely gets the credit it's due. And even King still gets some stick, with his non-horror work (such as Shawshank, or Stand by Me/The Body) receiving most of the praise.

Horror films often offer huge returns on low budgets. The problem is that any merits are then easily overlooked in the wash of gore and torture. Take Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. These are two of the finest British films ever made, but they're rarely acknowledged as such outside of cult movie circles, the latter in particular renowned for its twist ending. But the twist is anything but cheap, changing the way the whole of the story that precedes it is viewed. It's a rare example of a perfect climax, one that's both unexpected and yet inevitable. Well, it's unexpected if you've been living in a box all your life- imagine going to see the film when it first came out, and knowing nothing about it.

This moment of realisation doesn't have to be part of the climax, either. It doesn't even have to be the "scare" moment, when something unspeakable jumps out at the audience. I've only recently watched the BBC's Being Human (I know, I know, talk about late to the party), and I think it's one of the finest examples of true horror I've ever seen. One line of dialogue, in particular, from the pilot and then later repeated in the full series. Two of the main characters have died, and seen what happens on the other side before coming back. Annie, a ghost, is asked by the third character (George, a werewolf, and the only one of the three friends who isn't undead) about the afterlife, and she replies that it's fine.

But it isn't. She and the vampire Mitchell know that when you die, you're met by the men with sticks and rope.

That's all that's mentioned. Men with sticks and rope. That chilled my blood the first time I heard it. A true moment of visceral horror. It doesn't matter who they are, or what they do, as the unsaid suggestion is horrible enough. One of the worst things is the implication that it doesn't matter whether you're good or evil- the same terrible fate awaits all of us. Few things can tap into this part of our minds like horror fiction can.

Horror helps us confront unpleasant realities. Both Alien and Aliens deal with a hostile, unforgiving, deadly universe. Aliens in particular posits that not even advanced military supremacy can protect us, attacking one of the foundational assumptions of Western culture. It's actually a pretty subversive film in some ways. Can you imagine a major mainstream film these days showing a crack all-American special forces unit proving to be utterly ineffective in a combat setting?

I have a pet theory (not an original one) that all superheroes can be matched up with one of the pulpish genres. While Batman has spanned pretty much all of them over the decades, his main controlling genre is crime fiction. Superman and Iron Man are science fiction. Thor and Wonder Woman, to one extent or another, are epic fantasy. Few Golden or Silver Age heroes are horror. I'd argue that Robin is one of them.

Like a fairy tale, Robin is the child orphaned, lost in the night, surrounded by monsters. But unlike a fairy tale, Robin joins with and becomes one of the creatures of darkness. There is no redemption for him, no happily-ever-after; his parents are not coming back. Whatever incarnation, he will be fighting the monsters for the remainder of his existence. His home is a haunted house, his territory the dank caves beneath it and the Gothic spires of the city.

And it's not just Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who follows this pattern. Jason Todd shares an origin with Killer Croc, one of the most overtly horrific of Batman's A-list villains. Todd's most notable addition to the Batman story was being beaten to death by the Joker, only to return from the dead as a psychopathic murderer. Tim Drake's mother was murdered and his father crippled by a voodoo priest. Stephanie Brown was tortured and (apparently) killed by a black-skulled man with a drill. The latter, of course, has quite rightly been the source of controversy. The scene's sexually suggestive, exploitative, mysogynistic nature parallels the superficiality of post-Saw horror cinema. And let's not forget Damien Wayne, the vat-grown child assassin and most recent addition to the Bat-family. Even his name is deliberately suggestive of The Omen (or possibly Only Fools and Horses. I'm not joking. Grant Morrison's been known to reference stranger things.)

So what's the purpose of horror fiction? I tend to think of it as the flip side of the coin to fantasy fiction. G.K. Chesterton's famous quote is "…fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Horror fiction tells us that sometimes no matter what we do, the dragon's going to do for us, and fuck us up while he/she/it goes about it. It's not a nice lesson, maybe, but it's undoubtably a true one.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Your Friday Five: Five Faces of Megatron

You'll note the title isn't The Five Faces of Megatron, because the fucker has dozens of them. And that's without including Galvatron. Why has he so many faces? To sell toys. That's why.

It's said that the best villains are the ones that have believable motives, and exist in stories that obey the rules that every character is the hero of their own story, and that none believe themselves to be evil.

Megatron ignores these rules. He's the uncompromising representation of grim, relentless villainy, evil because that's just how he rolls. Oh, sometimes you see his past as a Cybertronian gladiator stapled on as motive, but is that really why he does what he does? Of course not.

Megatron is notable in every incarnation as a cold, calculating, ruthless tyrant with a line in completely arse-backwards plans that can't possibly work. And not just in the 80s Generation One cartoon. Right up to date, in the latest round of spectacular cinematic Bayhem, he spends unbelievable eons of time on several plans, all riddled with faults. And then flushes it right down the pan after a thirty second conversation with a woman whose only distinction is in making Megan Fox's acting seem positively Olivier-esque by comparison.

But he comes across as such a competent guy. He rules the Decepticons with an iron fist and a glowing morning star. He maintains his leadership of bloodthirsty beings who transform into fighter jets, tanks, implausible dinosaurs and giant robots made out of lots of other giant robots despite his own alternate mode being an antique Nazi firearm upgraded in an absurd 60s spy show. He's obviously an old school political brawler of the most sadistic kind. Perhaps he has knowledge of compromising pictures that Shockwave tweeted of his single-eyed purple head.

And yet, and yet, despite his status as an unstoppable force of mechanised domination, the kind of plans he could really get behind include, but are not limited to:

-Building numerous Doomsday Weapons before abandoning them after a single Autobot-related setback and never trying to rebuild them, regardless of the initial success of the scheme;

-Finding numerous new sources of energy before abandoning attempts to harness them after a single Autobot-related setback and never trying to harness them again, regardless of the initial success of the scheme;

-Thinking the best way of protecting himself from Optimus Prime was to climb aboard the Space Bridge and blow it up;

-Despite having won the war for Cybertron, having driven the last Autobots off-world, he throws it all away in an ill-advised all-out attack on Autobot City that leaves his troops decimated and himself most of the way dead, the temporary demise of his oldest enemy small consolation to him as he's dumped out of Astrotrain like a flushed log freshly minted by a cosmic commuter;

-Not shooting known coward and usurper Starscream. Repeatedly. In the face;

-Resurrecting known coward and usurper Starscream. More than once.

One wonders what the rest of the Decepticons make of this. It must be like being employed in senior management to a brutal, efficient media mogul, who's spent decades building a ruthless corporate empire only to decide that the key to future growth in the face of rising internet usage is to include samples of his own widdle in a bag with every newspaper as a free gift.

Then again, look at the alternatives. Ratbat's masterplan was to hypnotise humans in order to siphon petrol from their cars. He's the alien death-bot equivalent of a smackhead with some tubing and a bucket. Thunderwing aimed high by attempting to (and succeeding in!) stealing the Autobot Creation Matrix, but was, unfortunately, a complete fruit loop even by this faction's undemanding standards. And Galvatron's just Megatron rebooted with the voice of the artist behind the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

In the end, the unthinkable truth must be that however inept a commander Megatron is, his continued existence is a damning indictment of the Optimus Prime administration.

(Pictures up top ganked from the informative and hilarious TFWiki. Except for the toy picture. That one's mine.)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Centre Is Perfectly Capable Of Hold, Thank You Very Much

Some time ago, my vague, irritated antagonism toward W. B. Yeats' work in general and The Second Coming in particular boiled over into the kind of impotent rage usually displayed online when DC Comics change the design of Superman's boots. Now, apart from the odd ill-tempered tweet, I don't like to hop on the internet and have a scream about what a monolithic corporate entity has done to a fictional character I have, in an embarrassing display of misplaced, short-circuiting human empathy, some affection for. I'm not knocking anyone else who wants to spend their energy that way, but half the time snarking leaves me with a vague feeling that, in protest against said monolith's actions, I've taken to punching myself in the cock.

But the most famous work of a long-dead poet? Oh, I am going to fucking do for you, sunshine.

Although, straight out of the gate, it's not Yeats that's the problem, though the pompous old bastard is there with his arms wrapped around the root of the matter, sneering at all of us plebs drowning in the horrible eschatological effluence of democracy's endgame. Much like Nietzsche's void, I am going to sneer right back at him, and probably flip him the vicky while I'm doing it.

That's the thing about Yeats. He thought the idea of people from the lower classes having influence over those who govern was apocalyptically abhorrent. Back when he wrote The Second Coming, he was predicting the end of the world, and the end of the world was triggered by revolution, unrest, and overthrow of hereditary monarchy in Europe. What's slouching towards Bethlehem? The concept of self-determination of the working class, and it's slouching with intent to shove democracy up your arse, William Butler!

Perhaps I overstate.

Anyway, I hate this attitude, one that's prevelant amongst a certain type of media and a certain kind of person, and it is not restricted to either end of the political spectrum. It's claimed we're living at the shitty end of civilisation, and that it's all going to collapse around our ears. Which is ridiculous. It's absolutely laughable, particularly here in the developed world. We've never had it so good. Our lives are amazing. Yet some people- the Yeatses of the world, the Statlers and Waldorfs of existence that fear their children, that fear the future, that hate, hate, hate, hate- would have us believe that we live in a time of ashes and decay and that things just used to be better.


How long have we had democracy? Do we count forward from universal sufferage? What about all the dirty tricks used to disenfranchise people at different points in recent history? Could we argue that refusing to allow prisoners the vote means we only have a pseudo-democracy? How about that fact that only a minority of eligible people actually vote? How about that fact that only a minority of people on planet Earth live in a society that could even reasonably be classified as democratic?

However we choose our definition, all of this can only be encouraging. However bloody the 20th century was, however much our leaders have chosen to repeat horrific mistakes in the first decade of the 21st, for millennia the major powers of Europe have been in constant warfare, right up until 66 or so years ago. 66 years is nothing on the scale of history, even human history. That's within the memory of a single generation. But look how far we have come.

Is it perfect? Hell no. We aren't far enough. We need to be further. We need to move faster. The fact that so much casual injustice remains in our society is damning, a terrible indication of how far we have to go. But look. How far. We've come. I flat out refuse to believe that Yeats was right, that his argument has any objective merit.

And it drives me round the fucking bend that science fiction and comic book writers throw his quotes round just to add a bit of ominous weight to their facile stories, to borrow imagery they barely understand above the most superficial level because they are incapable of generating any atmosphere of their own. That's the real problem, not Mussolini-admirin', Ezra Pound-befriendin', Blueshirt-supportin' W. B. Yeats (and what is it, by the way, with Fascists and their colour-coded wardrobes?)

I don't know, maybe Kevin Smith was perfectly aware of the authoritarian subtext of the work when he referenced it in Batman: The Widening Gyre, and fully intended to use metatextual nuance to comment on Bruce Wayne's fascistic overtones in the storyline warmly remembered today as the one where Batman piddled himself just a little bit. Smith's certainly not the only offender, if offender he is, but his miniseries was the place where I finally lost my rag with all of it. And he's in good company. Even The West Wing named an episode "Things Fall Apart" in reference to the poem.

So yeah. Poetry, man.

Someone remind me to do a post sometime on why R.S. Thomas would have beaten Dylan Bloody Thomas in a poetical fist-fight.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look. Up In The Sky.

I'll start with Superman. Everything else did.

One of my earliest memories is watching the first Superman film with Dad. Superman freaked me out in a way that Batman and Spider-Man didn't. Superman was something alien, and even when I was a kid the terrible loneliness of Krypton's destruction had an effect on me. To this day, I get a bit wobbly watching the first hour of the Donner movie.

Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope. Superman's secret origin has an emotional weight that an origin like Batman's has lost over time. For kids, the loss of their parents is perhaps their greatest fear; hence all the orphaned superheroes, I suppose. Maybe these days I identify more with Jor-El. Maybe at some point Superman's origin stops being about making your own way, alone in a hostile world, and starts being about how far you would go to protect your family.

The comic character came later for me. I was reading the crazy old 60s comics at the same time as post-Crisis Byrne/Stern/Jurgens UK reprints. And I liked them, but not as much as other things. Not as much as the Exploits of Spider-Man (a Marvel UK anthology title, great fun until 90s overindulgence set in), or Simon Furman's Transformers. Certainly not as much as Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Batman stories, to my mind the best run of that period.

I don't remember the first Siegel and Shuster story I read. At a guess, I'd say it must have been in Brother Paul's copy of the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. I'd be lying if I said that everything changed instantly for me, but that version of Superman- the original, Golden Age version- lurked in my brain for a long time, much like the early, Gothic Golden Age Batman stuff did, informing everything I understood about the character.

And Golden Age Superman is Superman to me. There's compassion, righteousness, and energy in the stories. And anger, too. The anger of two kids who'd grown up through the Great Depression, when corruption and the evil deeds of the rich and powerful had forced destitution on the people, when Fascism had begun its march across Europe, when hope took the form of people banding together for the common good, of the strong choosing to help the weak instead of exploiting them.

That's the myth, anyway, but what is Superman if not a myth? The Golden Age Superman provides the soul that is sometimes missing from the later eras. Golden Age Superman wasn't the conservative, avuncular figure of the 50s and 60s, who wasted his days in a spiteful passive-aggressive cycle of deceit and practical jokery with Lois Lane. Neither was he Earth-Two Kal-L, the parallel world stand-in created in the 70s, recently beaten to death by a whinging strawman with severe entitlement issues (You know, I actually like a lot of Geoff Johns' writing. But his interpretation of Superboy Prime as the kind of fanboy he doesn't like was cringeworthy for the most part.)

Golden Age Superman is absolutely not a procrastinating self-doubter who weeps at the drop of a hat. I'm not saying a man shouldn't have a damn good cry every now and then, but if I never see a drawing with Superman in floods again, it'll be too soon.

The main offender here is George Perez's cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, one that always ranks highly in polls of the greatest covers. I loathe it. It encapsulates several things I dislike in modern superhero comics: a pointless death, faux-classical pretention, and an ineffective Superman. Why on Earth do writers want to cut Superman's legs out from under him? Superman always finds a way. That is the point of Superman. I don't want grim, depressing, tortured, self-loathing quotation-marks-realism-end-quotation-marks in my Superman comics. That's what Daredevil's for.

Golden Age Superman is none of these things. He acts, unafraid of consequence. An embodiment of Roosevelt-era politics, a proletarian activist reversing the disparity of power. Scary, even, because the only thing keeping him in check is his own sense of morality, regardless of whether or not that means chucking a copper out of a window.

It lends the early comics a zeal and motion that's impossible not to get swept up in. I've seen it described (somewhere, I forget where) as almost outsider art, naïve even by the standards of the time. Remember, this was long after McCay's Little Nemo, and a contemporary of Dick Tracy and Hergé's Tintin. Outside of the rushed demands of periodical publishing, there's no real excuse for the crudity of the art. Bob Kane (or his ghost artists) were doing much better work for the same company at the same time. But it doesn't matter, because in this case enthusiasm trumps talent by a huge margin.

Odd to think that so often it's argued that Superman should be neutral as regards politics. Take the recent kerfuffle about Superman renouncing his American citizenship in a rubbish story. It was such an obvious provocation to people of a certain political mindset that, had it been me, I'd have been embarrassed getting angry.

My problem with it, curiously, had nothing to do with Superman as much as it has to do with the unquestioned assumption that everything would be better if we didn't have countries and we were all one big united planet. When unexamined it sounds great, but I can't help but feel what is really being argued is that we should all be one big homogenous society, implicitly white, Western and capitalist. I don't know. I like my culture, I like my flag, and I don't like the way we have surrendered identity issues to reactionaries and bigots. To see Superman do so is unpleasant, and plays to the idea that only right-wingers are true Americans because look how fast the bleeding hearts turn their backs on their country. One thing I'm certain of is that I'm not going to renounce the Fair Country just because some Welsh folk do something I don't like.

I think it's a fair argument that in representing an American ideal, in his opposition to divisiveness, Superman should be portrayed as aloof from politics, that in character terms he would want to represent every American regardless of affiliation. Fair enough. But there's no way Clark Kent votes Republican, any more than Bruce Wayne votes Democrat. Ok, maybe his Midwestern upbringing counts against this interpretation. I mean, no pro-union socialist or liberal activist ever came from Kansas now, did they?

This is the long way round of saying, I am really looking forward to Grant Morrison's upcoming run on the rebooted Action Comics. I don't care about Superman's status quo, or whether he's married or not, or who amongst his supporting cast has bought the (Kent) farm, or what number they're going to stick on the cover. I don't care whether comment sections and message boards and The Twitter fill up with denunciations of a direction that isn't due to be published for months.

I don't care because with All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison was responsible for writing the greatest Superman story ever told. I don't care because Morrison is quoted in the New York Post as saying "We felt it was time for the big adventures of a 21st-century Paul Bunyan who fights for the weak and downtrodden against bullies of all kinds, from robot invaders and crime lords to corrupt city officials." I don't care because if Morrison fulfills the promise of that quote, then for the first time in seventy odd years, the original Superman gets to fly again.