Monday, 12 November 2018

Stan Lee

A blank page is one of the most exciting things I can think of. An empty space that can be filled with anything you can imagine. Pictures or words. A combination of both.

A blank page is terrifying, too, because it requires a first step. Blank pages are beginnings and we're terrified of beginnings, and we can be terrified of change, or terrified of exposing something as intimate as our thoughts and feelings to the world.

And a blank page can be sad, because it means whoever was going to write on it isn't here to write any more.


The thing about art is that it means people we don't know, people we've never met, people we don't know anything about, can influence the course of our lives, and I don't know how we're meant to deal with it when they die.

I remember feeling numb when George Harrison died. Not sadness or grief, just an emptiness knowing that a man who'd been a large part of my life just didn't exist anymore.

I was distraught when Terry Pratchett died, because no-one had done more to shape how I think about the world.

And it's strange, no doubt, existing as a human being, this strange species of creature experiencing a distant echo of bereavement for people they didn't know, and didn't know them, because empathy is the key to humanity and that's just how empathy works.


The superhero couldn't exist without empathy. From the very beginning, when two young Jewish men dealt with their pain by putting it down on the page and giving us the Superman, empathy was the engine room of a genre. Without it why would we care enough to need to see people saved? Why else would we care about justice or fairness?

And if the initial fate of the superhero was to be raised above mortals, to become distant examples we had to look up to, then Stan Lee changed everything by making them our equals once more, by letting us look at them eye-to-eye without having to crane our necks, by showing us that even when broken, and flawed, and fighting our own demons, we can still make a difference, that we can still do some good.


By any fair reckoning, Stan was a flawed man. He didn't always treat his colleagues justly, and there was some ugliness in his latter days that hasn't been adequately explained, and will probably never be clear. He made some bad decisions, and it seems he didn't always surround himself with good people. Does his legacy outweigh these things? I can't answer that and I wouldn't know where to start. All I can account for is what his work meant to me, because ultimately all these memorials-from-a-distance really do is tell you more about the writer than the subject.


I look around the room where I'm writing this, and Stan is everywhere. His books are on the shelves, his characters on the desk, on the screen in front of me. They're in boxes in my daughter's room, they're on my son's t-shirt, and one of them inspired the name we gave him.

They are everywhere in my life and right now I don't know what I do with that.


I have a mistrust of taking too many life lessons from superheroes. That might seem odd coming from me, because I love them so much. But it's too easy to take the wrong lessons from them, too easy to conclude that problems can always be solved with fists, that you could model your ethical outlook on how fictional characters deal with simplified situations. Life is messy and a lot of the greatest superhero stories aren't.

But as allegories they have power, and I believe absolutely and totally without a single atom of doubt that comic book heroes have saved lives. Maybe they've even saved mine, and if they haven't then they've definitely made it a happier life. And there's no single page, no frame of animation, no second of film since the 1950s that deals with these superheroes that hasn't been influenced in some way by Stan Lee.


I think one of the greatest things anybody can do is help other people to do a little bit of good. I think Stan Lee helped a lot of people figure out how they could do it.

I'm sad that the page is blank today. I hope the people who come after use it to do as much good as Stan Lee did.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Pechod Gwreiddiol

Every now and then, I've found myself wanting to write about what I consider to be genre fiction's Original Sin, as it pertains to cultural appropriation, but until now I've always put it off.

The main reason I haven't is because I've never wanted it to appear to be a reference to any given online incident or argument. I've never wanted to be That Celt who invariably shows up in the comment section of an anti-imperialist article to point out that the Irish/Scottish/Welsh/Cornish/Whoever were the very first people that The Damned English ground beneath their heel, in a fair attempt at making a piece about the oppression of non-white people all about the oppression of a particular group of white people.

This isn't to say that I don't believe the sins of the British Empire on the British Isles themselves should be overlooked. In a way, that's what this post is all about. I just find it incredibly awkward when it's brought up during a conversation about colonialism and oppression occuring beyond Europe. So please bear this in mind as you read on; while there's no doubt that anti-Welsh bigotry still exists, in no way am I trying to claim that it's on par with other kinds of racism that I see layered in shitty streaks throughout society, or that appropriation of Welsh culture occurs in science fiction and fantasy circles in the same way as appropriation of other cultures.

But it does annoy me. I've read posts from people online who are usually very careful about issues of privilege and the like, who then lecture about definitive and correct interpretations of Arthurian legend without ever acknowledging the simple fact about all of this: these tales were stolen, lock, stock and barrel, from the people of Wales.

And stolen is absolutely the correct word for it. The transformation of the early Arthurian narratives, the insertion of new characters and stories (like Lancelot, and his subsequent affair with his King's wife), the Anglicised corruption of Welsh names (Gwenhwyfar to Guinevere, Myrddin to Merlin, and so on), the weakening of the original Welsh characters and their replacement with non-Welsh knights (loyal Bedwyr's downgrading to idiot child Bedevere, hotheaded Cai's transformation into simple-minded bully Kay)- all of these things rankle.

What makes it worse is the horrible echoes the theft of these myths have in the history of the Welsh nation over the millennium and a half since the creation of the stories. Anglicisation of Welsh place names is just one of a number of language issues, issues that are routinely and fatuously dismissed by many people (and newspapers). Like Bedwyr and Cai, we continue to be portreyed as Idiot Taffies, the intellectually impaired also-rans of the Home Nations despite the overwhelming cultural and political contributions of the Welsh, punching far above the weight of our relatively tiny population. First they took the stories we told about ourselves, then they took our land and our resources. Wales has been strip-mined for the benefit of others, metaphorically and literally.

Look, I understand it's an ancient sin. Cultural consensus appears to be that all of this passed into the realm of planetary ownership a long time ago. And perhaps that's fine, and maybe I'm just oversensitive, and after all we Welsh can frequently be our own worst enemies. God knows I seem to be one of the few Welsh people who cares about Arthurian legends in this way: the recent show Merlin was made in Wales, by Welsh people working for BBC Wales, yet barely cast a single Welsh person, chosing instead to indulge in the idea of Arthur as a very English king, owing more to the long line of English public schoolboys that preside over we peasants than the figure created as a Celtic superhuman who fought against the encroaching English.

And that's the worst blow of all. Arthur was meant as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Anglo Saxon elimination of ancient Welsh culture, yet the producers of Merlin thought it was fine for the title character to speak in an old Saxon dialect. Did they even consider lip-service to the roots of the mythology? Of course not. We, the Welsh, are an irrelevance, at times even to ourselves.

So this is why I get wound up when I see people proclaiming the supremacy of the French Arthurian adaptations, or T.H. White's execrable books, where the English are explicitly cast as heroes at war with the savage Celts. Perhaps I wouldn't feel so bad about it if so many aspects of Welsh culture weren't currently under direct threat. But they are. It's no exaggeration to say that there has been a thousand year war waged against our people and our culture, even if it's a war hasn't always been fought at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. It's a historical fact that attempts were being made to eradicate the Welsh language less than a hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago! Even today.

You want to see how the Welsh language is treated? Look at recent news items about how little Welsh language musicians are paid on the BBC Radio Cymru radio station compared to English language artists on Radio Wales. You want to see how people treat the Welsh themselves? Have a read of any comment section on any news website that mentions Wales. Welsh people get verbally attacked on occasion for speaking Welsh in public in our own country.

But people don't know this context. Of course they don't. As a nation, as a culture, we are essentially invisible. If I travel outside of Britain, I have to explain ad nauseum that I'm not from England. No wonder the appropriation of Wales's Arthur is a non-issue, generally uncredited as the wellspring of Tolkien, Narnia, Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and all of the rest. This act of theft forms the basis of medievalist sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, the culture of Wales endlessly reused and recycled even as the nation itself struggles to retain its identity and language.

Maybe I shouldn't get this angry about old sins, but I do. There aren't many of us left in the world. I don't want to believe I'm part of a dying people, but sometimes I fear I am. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't find it pleasant that it's entirely possible that one day all that's left of us will be people play-acting with the corpses of our long-dead stories.

Monday, 7 January 2013

2013, Easily Going To Be The Best Year In Film History Since 2012

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Fuck Off.

Dark Skies

At last!!! The return of the criminally-underrated one-series-wonder secret history alien invasion a-little-bit-ripping-off-The-X-Files 90s show! I've spent the last fifteen years engaged in a letter-writing campaign to have it resurrected, like Tim Robbins campaigning to get Shawshank State Prison a better library, and like Tim Robbins I have triumphed! You either get busy livin', or you get busy dyin'!

Oh, no, hold on, this is a completely different Dark Skies. Shit.

Seriously, though, I really did like the 90s show.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Back in the day, a Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie movie would have been a damn good bet for a good time. In the negative column, this one's been held back for aaaages and that's rarely a good sign, and also all recent fairy tale movies have been bloody awful.

The Last Exorcism 2

[Obligatory Sneer About The Title]

I quite liked the last Last Exorcism. Couple of good performances, pretty creepy, and a final five minutes that was madder than a jam-shampoo salesman who eats shoes. This will probably be rubbish, though.

The Heat

Not, as you might hope, a remake of Michael Mann's Heat, only with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in the Pacino/de Niro roles.

Actually, that's what I would have done. Exactly the same film, shot-for-shot, like Gus van Sant's Psycho, only with Bullock and McCarthy. Made completely straight-faced.

Flash fact: Director Paul Feig also did Bridesmaids (which Mrs M dragged me to under protest, yet I ended up really enjoying) and I Am David (out of all the books I was ever made to read in school, the book this film was based on is perhaps the one I loathed the most).

Jurassic Park 3D

The fact that I will get to see Jurassic Park in the cinema two years on the trot is too beautiful for such crude, ugly, mis-shapen things as "words."

Pain & Gain

A Michael Bay film where nothing explodes, which I can't quite get my head around.

Iron Man 3

The trailer is the dog's bollocks*, no doubt. Shane Black is the perfect fit for this kind of superhero flick, and it has a good chance of being the best Iron Man yet. If you haven't seen Black's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, do so immediately, as it's one of the best films of the past ten years, and Black's best work since he played the specky guy doing the genital jokes in Predator.

The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann is great. Did I ever tell you lot my theory on how Strictly Ballroom is basically Star Wars? Not mad keen about Leonardo DiCaprio in anything, mind, although I could just about cope with him in Inception.

Seriously though, Ballroom and Moulin Rouge are perfect examples of classic, elegant, clockwork plotting in a screenplay. You could easily dissect them to fuck and back at an interminable scripting workshop. Australia never deserved the kicking it got either, although it could have done with half hour carved out. But what film couldn't, eh?

Star Trek Into Darkness

I have watched the Abrams Trek reboot more times than any other film in recent years. Even the Batmans. Even the Batmans, for God's sake. And just when you think it can't get any better, they cast the 'Batch! Can't bloody wait.

As a side note, the trailer for this and for Iron Man 3 were criticised by some fans online for being too dark and violent. You wonder whether these folk know how things like "drama", or "incident", work. Perhaps they'd prefer two hours where the characters sit around a boardroom table discussing matters of import while drinking tea.

This is, I think, how you spot the people brought up exclusively on The Next Generation.

After Earth

M. Night Shyamalan might have been bloody awful for bloody years, but Unbreakable still has one of the most perfectly-scripted superhero plots. I imagine this, however, won't be all that good, and will contain a lot of Will Smith's Serious Acting (i.e. "Looking Constipated").

Man, Independence Day. Now that's what I call a close encounter.

Man of Steel

I don't care that Zack Snyder's directorial efforts so far have been slightly above mediocre at best. Henry Cavill just looks like Superman in a way that even Christopher Reeve didn't. And it's got an absolutely superb cast, every choice inspired.

Diane Lane- bloody brilliant and, let's hope, now in a better comic book adaptation than her last one, the Stallone Judge Dredd. Kevin "Iconic Midwestern Farmer" Costner as Pa Kent (of course!). Russell "Rough Australian Man-Crush" Crowe as Jor-El, putting his Generic Gladiator English Gravitas Accent to good work. Michael "Ice Cold Freaky Bastard and Best Thing In Boardwalk Empire" Shannon as Zod! Laurence Fishburn as Perry White! Toby from off of the West Wing!

Best of all, Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She's one of the best actors working. Christian Bale got a lot of praise for The Fighter, and he deserves it, but Amy Adams is even better. The understated way she inhabits her character is extraordinary- maybe the last time I've seen someone so completely become someone else in a film was co-star Russell "Seriously, My Wife's A Bit Concerned About The Man-Crush" Crowe in The Insider (Crowe got the Oscar for Gladiator, but deserved it for The Insider.)

If that cast isn't enough to allay fears, it's produced by Christopher Nolan, who has one of the best track records in the movies. Never done a bad one, to my mind (although I haven't seen his first yet, I've heard good things.) And if that isn't enough, one of the trailers features a Jor-El voice-over adapted from Grant freaking Morrison's All Star Superman. I mean, come on. Come on. What else do you people want?

Well, apparently some of you want the film to be shot with a different lens filter. I mean, that's the only conclusion I've come to regarding the cries of "too dark" emanating from the comic book freakerati. "Too dark!" they cry when they see the Iron Man trailer. "Too dark!" they cry after watching Dark Knight Rises (it wasn't called Knight Rises, people!) "Lovely, light, optimistic, hopeful!" they cry after watching Avengers, a film which climaxes with the heroes mass slaughtering hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants. DKR is about Batman as inspirational heroic icon, and ends with Bruce Wayne's mission finally over, allowing him to live in peace. The Man of Steel trailers are all jam-packed with hope and optimism. The only thing dark about them is the bloody colour palette.

Monsters University

Can't see myself watching this in the cinema, but I would probably rent it. Pixar do solid, fun, well-made movies that are inexplicably treated by some as the pinnacle of motion picture excellence, woven exclusively from effervescent unicorn rainbow vomit.

I think they're mostly pretty good, but overrated (apart from Wall-E, which is about robots and is therefore brilliant.) For a film that so many people rave about, Up, in particular, is boring as hell for the first hour. Although I liked the dog and the ending is fun.

Also, little bit feels like there should be an apostrophe somewhere in the title.

World War Z

Long delayed, production having begun in 1978. Probably going to be bollocks**.

Kick-Ass 2

Quite liked Kick-Ass the movie, quite unliked Kick-Ass the comic (if nothing else because it wasted an interesting premise.) Quite fed up of anything to do with Mark Millar.

White House Down

Roland Emmerich returns to the site of his greatest triumph!

Man, Independence Day. Now that's what I call a close encounter.

The Lone Ranger

For those who like Disney adventure with a bracing hint of racism.






Basically no way this isn't going to be the greatest film ever made.

The Wolverine

In 2011, I thought X-Men: First Class was going to be rubbish, and it turned out to be the best of the X-Men films. In 2012, I thought Amazing Spider-Man was going to be rubbish, and despite its flaws and a half-baked plot even by the hackish standards of Hollywood action movies, it turned out to be the best of the Spider-Man films. I'm hoping The Wolverine is going to be this year's one of them.

In a surprising break with my fellow comic book fans, I've never rated Frank Miller's Wolverine work, which this is based on. And although I think Hugh "Another Rough Australian Man-Crush" Jackman's fantastic, I'm not that big a Wolverine fan. However, director James Mangold is also responsible for the 3:10 to Yuma remake, and that is one of the best Westerns I've ever seen, and I really like Westerns. So fingers crossed.


Love the look of this. Hope it has fewer troubling issues than Neill Blomkamp's District 9.

2 Guns

Wow, I remember writer and 2 Guns creator Steven Grant talking about the original comic version of this in his opinion column years ago. Always meant to pick it up, never did. Great premise- two undercover agents investigate each other, not realising they're both cops.

Insidious Chapter 2

Insidious Chapter 1 was scary as hell***, right up to the point where the baddy was shown mincing about the afterlife in demonic body paint. The tension drained a little after that, so if he's back I'll give this one a miss.

I quite liked James Wan and Leigh Whannell's work on the early Saw movies. Despite the variable quality, there was some clever things going on in them, despite the reputation for irredeemable torture pr0n. Their follow up, Dead Silence, is flawed but atmospheric, and worth catching if you like the idea of an offbeat, Hammerish gothic aesthetic.


Hoping it's a good 'un. The original Pitch Black is great fun, the sequel not so good (though the drubbing it received was a little out of proportion, even considering the daft bits). What I liked most about the films was the mix of Alien-style space-grit production design and slightly-batty future mysticism as embodied by an incredibly bored Judi Dench. You could almost believe the Riddick universe was the halfway stage of Blade Runner's near-future evolving into pseudoreligious far-future Dune.

However, the best Riddick-related thing is Escape from Butcher Bay, the best movie-tie-in video game ever made. Actually, one of the best FPS games ever made, although not so much because of the S-ing, but the bone-crunching bareknuckle fighting (FPBCBF?). Director David Twohy also wrote the Harrison Ford Fugitive, and made the great low-budget haunted-house-underwater submarine film, Below, which Wikipedia tells me features an early movie role for Zack Galifianakis, though I'm buggered if I can remember him in it.

I, Frankenstein

Confession time: I really like the Underworld films. They have a completely barmy yet completely straight-faced sincerity that reminds me of 1970s Marvel horror comics, which are also great almost despite their best efforts.

Sure, the plot- werewolves and vampires armed with automatic weapons involved in a martial arts heavy war- is stupid, but it really commits to the stupidity. Bill Nighy's in it! Derek Jacoby's in the sequel! CHARLES DANCE is in the FOURTH MOVIE! The fourth! It has a needlessly involved backstory conceived and delivered in the breathless manner of an overexcited eleven-year-old talking to other overexcited eleven-year-olds. Series creator and microbiologist Kevin Grevioux mentions in one of the DVD commentaries that the story is inspired by a combination of his experiences in genetic engineering and interracial dating.

Look at that last paragraph again. There is nothing about that paragraph that isn't beautiful.

Anyway, Kevin Grevioux is also a comic writer, and the creator of I, Frankenstein, so it might be good, but it's directed by G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra's Stuart Beattie, so it might be crap, and let's be honest, it's only myself and overexcited eleven-year-olds who like Underworld anyway.


Not an overwrought adaptation of the output of Canada's favourite prog rock Objectivists, but instead a film about car racing. BOOOOORING.

Star Wars Episodes II and III 3D

Another chance to marvel at the once-unthinkable fact that we live in an era where Star Trek is young, fresh and exciting, while Star Wars is stale, insipid and beige.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

I still don't quite believe this is coming out, considering the long delayed production. I used to like the Sin City comics because I thought they were a satire of hard-boiled noir as well as a love letter to crime fiction. Going on Frank Miller's recent form, they're actually just straight-up racism and misogyny. Miller's one of those creators whose latter day work retrospectively infects their earlier stuff with crap. The rot hasn't quite reached Year One or Dark Knight Returns yet, but it's a worry, I don't mind telling you.

That said, I quite liked the first Sin City film. There's no way Robert Rodriguez does anything without a good dollop of satire in it. Let's hope A Dame to Kill For is more his work than Miller's.


Me and Brother Trigg watched the original Korean version many years ago, and it made both of us feel a bit queasy. And that's saying something, because Triggy's been desensitised by decades of watching the most reprehensible horror movies ever made. Imagine my surprise when news broke that the American remake would star Will Smith, and be directed by Steven Spielberg. And just when it couldn't get any odder, now it's being directed by Spike Lee, stars Josh Brolin, and has an Olsen sister presumably playing That Character. Worth the ticket price just for the WTF.


Redefining "pointless."

The World's End

Spaced was, for my money, the best sitcom of its time. One of the best of all time, really. The final part of the Wright/Pegg/Frost Ice Cream Trilogy is as unmissable as it gets. Also, I met Pegg once and he was lovely.

Ender's Game

The long-awaited adaptation of a science fiction classic written by an abhorrent, unrepentant bigot.

Thor: The Dark World

Avengers may be the best of the Marvel movies, but Thor is a close second. Not even Iron Man had such an impact on me, and of all the Marvels, Thor is the most Marvel-y. The most Jack Kirby-y. And it's worth remembering that Thor is the one that laid the most ground work for Avengers; the cosmic nature of the antagonists, the machinations of Loki.

Tom Hiddleston was great in Thor, but he excelled in Avengers. I remember Mrs M didn't believe that Loki had enough weight to be the only bad guy, but he more than counterbalanced the rest of them. That's a hell of a thing to put on one actor's shoulders, but Hiddleston barely broke a sweat. And if that wasn't enough, Anthony "Port Talbot's Finest" Hopkins and Christopher "Ninth Doctor" Ecclescake too!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Still haven't managed to see the first one yet, but from what I understand it's good but far, far too long. It appears that they delved too greedily, and now we have at least one bloated film too many. And this is coming from someone who actually likes the extended versions of LotR.

Jack Ryan

I may be a namby-pamby bed-wetting pinko commie, but I do like a good Tom Clancy doorstop. Kenneth Branagh directing and villaining, and James T. Kirk starring, really sells it for me.


Neverwhere on BBC Radio

I don't listen to much radio, but this has got me well interested. Look at the cast: James McAvoy as Richard, the 'Batch as Islington, David Harewood as the Marquis, Sophie Okonedo as Hunter, Queen Margaery of House Tyrell as Door, Bernard Cribbins, Anthony Head, Christopher bloody Lee… This shouldn't be for radio, this should be the damn movie cast.

Also, I think Neverwhere is Gaiman's best novel, and as much as I liked the TV series back in the day (Patterson Joseph, what a legend), it didn't really do the story justice. But this could be great.

* For my transatlantic chums, please note language usage guidelines here.

** See footnote above.

*** A quick disclaimer: I am a great big scaredy cat. What I find unbearably terrifying, my wife finds laughable. For example, I barely made it through Paranormal Activity without having a heart attack. Adjust your expectations accordingly

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Xbox at X

Microsoft's Xbox is ten years old today. This makes my brain feel a bit fuzzy round the edges, like that time I realised there are likely married couples in Britain that weren't born when Grant Morrison started on JLA. I was an early adopter of the console, with an early-version motherboard and a crap DVD drive that I eventually had to replace by taking a better one out of a second-hand "crystal" Xbox with a transparent shell (remember them?) before selling the spare bits on eBay. The Xbox was, in fact, the first DVD player I ever owned, with a DVD remote that had to be bought separately (of course) to unlock the function.

I'm not one for getting sentimental about multinational technology brands. That particular train sailed back when Commodore went bust when I was a kid. If Microsoft announced tomorrow that they were shutting down the whole operation and moving into bespoke bathroom fittings, it wouldn't have that big an impact on me beyond being annoyed I'd just paid my Live account's annual fee. But Xbox The Brand isn't going anywhere, and the reason why not is pretty interesting.

Xbox One happened along at the right time, not just in market terms but in me, personally, terms. I'd been out of touch with PC gaming for a while, and was just finding my way back in after discovering the first Half-Life, and playing it to death. My previous console of choice was a Master System.

Doom had been the big game of my teenage years, but I'd stop playing first-person shooters after Quake. The laptop I'd taken to Uni was underpowered for then-contemporary gaming (probably for the best), and for a couple of years about the only thing I played was Mechwarrior 3: Mercenaries (and what a game it was!). Half-Life Game of the Year edition was the first game I got after upgrading, and I was hooked again.

I wasn't really a console gamer in the 16 to 64 bit era, so I don't have the nostalgia of the hardcore Nintendo/Sega/Sony crowd of the 90s. I've got some good memories of playing through Resi 1 and 2 with my buds, and a fondness for, of all things, Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi. But Goldeneye, Mario 64, Tomb Raider and the like didn't make an impact.

So why the Xbox? Probably because at the time it was in essence a high-spec gaming PC at a ridiculously low price, relatively speaking. Computer, as opposed to console, gaming was my home, so there's no surprise I'd gravitate to the console most familiar to me. And it was undoubtably aimed at folk like me.

I'd been weighing up the options on all the sixth generation consoles. The Dreamcast was a non-starter. The Gamecube couldn't play movie DVDs. The Playstation 2 hardware wasn't as impressive, and as daft as it sounds, I'd always hated the controller. To this day, I'm not keen on the positioning of the Dual Shock's analogue sticks.

The two aesthetic problems that always came up about Xbox One were the controllers, and the casing. The controllers were huge, ungainly things, but they suited me- the Xbox 360s controllers are the only ones I've found more intuitive. I know I am largely alone in this. But the issue with the casing is, I think, representative of how the Xbox ended up finding its niche.

Because the machine itself was a monster. It needed fan-cooling, and was alone in the sixth generation for having a hard drive. It was a huge black brick that sat under your telly, humming. It was the console version of the last of the V-8 Interceptors, a petrol-guzzling Ford Mustang to the Gamecube's Mini Cooper and the Playstation's Audi-TT.

I like films with cowboys in them. I like films where robots blow things up. I am always going to choose the Mustang.

The Guardian article linked above makes two very good points. Firstly, in terms of games, I owned the majority of those mentioned- classics, every one. And it's on games that a console lives and dies. But the second point made, and it really can't be overemphasised, is about the colour pallete of games like Halo.

If you missed out on the Japanese consoles of the 90s, and came from more of a PC background, then the Japanese aesthetic wasn't necessarily what you were after. Bright colours, overblown characters, insane Power Rangers gameplay. Plenty of folks like it, but it's not my thing. I remember playing Super Smash Bros on the Gamecube and being utterly baffled. But Halo was something I understood. Straight off the bat, it was informed by (i.e. ripped off) genre tropes and gameplay I recognised. And it looked gorgeous. All the Xbox games did. It's the only time that I've played an in-store demo of anything and knew instantly a game was for me.

At the time, mind, the Xbox looked like a loser. It was never going to catch up with the PS2, and Microsoft never made any money off of it. But the games kept being good, and it was the first console to capitalise on online gaming, which proved to be its killer app. All three Halos remain the best multiplayer games I've ever played.

For the most part, Xbox 360 could play Xbox One games. That plus Halo 3 meant the 360 was the seventh gen console I got. What Microsoft got completely right here was Xbox Live. Not just for gaming, but for access to TV, movies, and most importantly, streaming videos from PC. I've probably used the Xbox to watch more TV than the Sky box. I've certainly spent more hours watching TV on it than I have gaming, which was Microsoft's plan all along.

Would I get an Xbox 720? Short answer is, I don't know. Halo 3 was a great way to finish the series, and I never got round to buying the Halo spin-offs, so it'll take more than Master Chief's return to tempt me. And thanks to Valve's Steam service, the cycle's come back around and I'm getting back into PC gaming. But who knows. I've spent ten years with an Xbox, which is way more than I would've predicted in the first year of ownership.

I used to work with a guy who, about nine years ago, would take the occasional pop at my preferred gaming options. He got the boot from the job about six months later (completely unrelated) so I never found out how long he kept playing his Gamecube.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Like It

According to the BBC, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry has claimed that the art world is disengaged with the real world, before implying that realness is in some way related to sitting in front of the X-Factor* drinking a beer. Oh, and just to hit a trifecta of Things That Bug Madeley, also implied that the Tate is in some way deficient because they don't display the work of Banksy**, Jack Vettriano, or Beryl Cook.

There's a lot of unpacking to do here. I'm particularly taken by the way Perry pulls off the trick of appearing as both a patronising elitist and anti-intellectual at the same time.

I probably shouldn't be too mean about this. I'm a big fan of the BBC, but I know from experience they're just as likely to twist and edit information for shock value as any other outlet. The soundbites come from a longer talk, so I don't know, maybe context changes things. But there are things touched upon that are worth discussing.

There's this thing people do sometimes, where we imagine there's an Elite Artistic Cabal that has set themselves up as ultimate arbiters of what is GOOD, and are busy sneering down at the rest of us scum. Why, I've even been known to imply such a thing myself! In the second footnote below, no less!

It is rarely a helpful stereotype. It doesn't add anything useful to discussions surrounding art. It's a strawcabal that distracts from some very interesting questions, because it plays on the ever-present inferiority complex of damn near every human being.

Perry manages the impressive feat of siding with two completely separate groups. On one hand, the kind of conservative Daily Mail reader who hates intellectual, craft-less "modern" art, and wishes that artists made Real Art, like the nice painted dancy beaches of Jack Vettriano. On the other, he chucks in a bracing dose of class warfare, conjuring a vision of a ruling elite uninterested in Banksy's urban street troof or Beryl Cook's Real Life working class women.

He's barking up the wrong 'un, for several reasons. But, first! An admission.

I have spent a lot of time in my life wallowing around in the shallows of Low Art. And at the same time, as we discuss frequently, both I and Brother Paul take a dim view of enjoying anything quote-ironically-unquote. If I like something, I like it for reals, and that includes the ridiculous pompous bombast of, for example, Metallica's S&M album (and hellooooo questionable Google searches, but it's not S&M in the way you're thinking).

Mea maxima culpa, however. Music is the one thing where I'm most guilty of getting on my high horse about what constitutes "good" and "bad" art. I'm ashamed to say I've often been the one getting sneery about stuff that other people like, when really I should have kept my gob shut. Which brings us, I suppose, to the X-Factor.

What does Jack Vettriano share with the X-Factor? Why exactly has Perry drawn a parallel there? Because both are well-loved by Perry's Real People in proportion to the amount they're disliked by Perry's, I don't know, Unreal People.

Both are relatively popular in their fields. But both are unbelievably cynical, and both are facile. There is a fair amount of raw talent, and some craft, even an effective formula. But there's very little else. There's nothing to talk about. Pretty posh people dance on pretty beaches. Some people sing, occasionally well. That's really it.

And to be honest, I'm being as diplomatic as I can here, because I fucking loathe everything about the X-Factor right down to my fucking bones. The implication that Real People like it while only an out-of-touch Unreal elite don't spins my nut. Remember, everyone, Alarm Clock Britain loves the X-Factor!

Over on Twitter, while I was having a meltdown about this, Will Entrekin said "I always just think art is art. Some things just don't achieve it." I hope Will doesn't mind me intepreting this as the argument usually posited as "there's no High Art or Low Art, only good and bad." Bob Dylan at his best is Good Art. Soulless***, corporate X-Factor covers are Bad Art. They push the definition of Art to its very breaking point, although I do tend to side with folk like Scott McCloud who define art in about as wide a manner as is possible.

We sail perilously close to the waters of Objectivity and Subjectivity. Let's acknowledge the area's existence, and row off in the opposite direction.

There's something nastier going on here than an attempt to spark warfare beween the highbrow and lowbrow, between elitist and popular. I'm a fan of superhero comics. I've seem damn near every iteration of that particular conflict, from every tired angle. Here's where I set out my stall:

I think that Jack Kirby is one of the greatest, most important artists of the 20th Century. I think few people have shaped popular culture, or the language of its portrayal, as much as him. I think he's the best of all the Pop Artists, and I'm including Warhol in that.

At the same time, I think that Marcel Duchamp is THE most important artist of the 20th Century, and that his Fountain is the Century's greatest work of art.

I love craftspeople. I love watching someone of talent doing something well, whatever that is. A craftsperson at work can be hypnotic, whether it's sculpture or piano playing or whatever. I rate craft highly, and believe me, there's a big part of me that regrets the loss of craft and precision in 20th Century art. I am never going to like Tracy Emin's work as much as I like [insert famous classical painter's name here]. I rate Da Vinci highest of all classical artists. I love Peter Green's music as I love Joni Mitchell's songwriting, or Hergé's draughtsmanship. But the fact is that as great as these people are at their craft, at their art, none has changed the way we think about their field- or about art itself- in the way Duchamp did. Not even Da Vinci.

"Modern" art asks questions about what art is. It exists on the level of concept. It examines how thoughts and ideas are passed from brain to brain. No, it might not be aesthetically pretty, but it can be conceptually satisfying.

I'm tying myself in knots here, and making the same mistakes that some folk use as sticks to beat MODERN ART with.

Much like Economics, big-A Art is something that people shy away from. At some point, the narrative of our society tagged Economics as something too difficult for average folk to understand. It isn't. Yes, it can go to some complex places. It can't be summed up in its entirety in a tidy, simple manner. And all too often, knobheads like your humble Jedi head off on one with long words of uncertain meaning that, in the end, are neither useful or applicable. What can I say, there's no doubt the world would be better off with a little less jargon in it. But at the heart of things, both Economics and Art are based around some very simple, straightforward concepts that absolutely anyone can understand. We shouldn't be put off by sneery gatekeepers, whether real or imagined. We shouldn't let these things be taken away from us.

Some time ago, I saw a discussion of art in Irregular Webcomic. It's still one of my favourite bits of writing on the internet. It says a lot of things I'm trying to say here in a far more elegant fashion than I ever could. You should all go read it.

Let's back up a bit. If I think Duchamp's Fountain is so important, why do I rate Kirby above Warhol? Jack's good, yeah, but he never seeks to understand society or humanity, or to examine culture itself, in the way Andy does. But this is where it becomes interesting: Kirby's not just a great craftsman. He evokes abstract concepts, from simple things like energy and movement to the complex, unknowable vistas of the cosmos. And, being comics, he ties it to narrative in a way that, for want of a better phrase, Gallery Art has no hope of achieving. And Jack practically invented an entire visual language and context while he was about it.

Bringing this back to where we began, why do watchers of the X-Factor, or EastEnders, or Corrie, or whatever, exist as a shorthand for Real Britain, anyway? How many people watch these shows? Ten million? Twenty million? My point is, when these shows are on, most of the British population are doing something else. The import of the advertiser's darling, the WATER COOLER TELEVISION SHOW, fetishises the lowest common denominator. And the worst thing about it, the very worst thing, is that it's patronising. It's not about what you watch, or your views on Jack Vettriano, or where you think Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Beethoven should come on an absurd list of relative merit. What Perry does, in effect, is assume that most of Britain has neither the interest or ability to understand the Tate's brand of art.

I hate this attitude. I hate it because it assumes that Real People are unintellectual scum who have no capacity to enjoy Proper Art. I don't think I'm going too far in saying that this is the same attitude that drives a Government of ruling class Etonians intent on cutting funding to arts and education. The scum don't need it. Look at them, the scum don't even LIKE it. They can't possibly understand it. Leave them wallow in their X-Factor effluence. It's all they can understand.

Perhaps, once again, I overstate.

Oh, I don't know. I don't fucking know how the Tate chooses who they display. Maybe they do have a giant snooty wankathon where they drip hot liquid sneer all over art they consider Low. But I wouldn't put Jack Vettriano in either. Or Banksy. Or poor old Beryl Cook, and to be honest I think she has been treated badly by The Establishment over the years. But I'm pretty sure I'm not one of Perry's Boring Cool People who swig champagne in contemporary galleries. I don't like the X-Factor, but I do like Batman****, and Predator 2, and I've spent a hell of a lot time on this very blog talking about Megatron.

It's not about High Art or Low Art. It's not even about Good Art or Bad Art. It's about Perry's assumption that Real People have no hope of defining this for themselves. And I think Perry is completely wrong.

* I'm going to take a wild punt and assume Perry's not talking about the Marvel comic.(^)

** Now, if you know me out in meat space then you know I'm no follower of The Football. Even so, I once got a hilariously stinking look from an artsy-fartsy type back when I worked in a bookshop because she asked for a book on Banksy, and I thought she was after the autobiography of English international goalie Gordon Banks.(^)

*** I have a theory about Good and Bad music. I think we all kind of know what I meant when I used "soulless" up there, but "soul" has, of course, another meaning in pop music terminology. I think that "life" is a better word for it. When Nobody McPointless off of X-Factor covered Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror", an utterly lifeless recording was created. Meanwhile, the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible is alive in a way few other albums are, even though every single track deals with death and sickness.(^)

**** In fact, BAT FANS, there's a hidden BAT REFERENCE in this very post! Can you find it?(^)

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Gotham, Bless My Aim

I had no intention of buying Batgirl, digitally or otherwise. I've got no interest in the character, whether the Barbara Gordon version or any other. I've never read an issue of Birds of Prey that I can recall, or anything where Gordon was protagonist. As a kid, I remember her from the occasional appearance on the 60s Batman show, but that's really it. I am about the last person that this title is aimed at.

Gordon'd been Killing Joked into Oracle by the time I was reading the UK Batman reprints, and my main feeling about her was annoyance. Oracle was a shortcut for lazy writers. Batman has a puzzle? Phone up Oracle, she'll have the answer. Now, Oracle as a concept is great: an information broker for the superhero set. Just as inspired was Brad Meltzer's reinvention of the Calculator as her villain counterpart, one of the few good things to emerge from the Identity Crisis series. But in the Bat-books she becomes a way for the writers to avoid having to write Batman doing detective work. I can't particularly blame them. Writing good detective fiction is hard. But if you find yourself writing a title called Detective Comics, maybe you should put the fucking hours in.

Batman-as-Detective is a trope that hasn't really filtered through into the various movie-verse Batman films, and it's a shame. I've been known to posit a convoluted argument that the Nolan movies show him doing detective work as a modern real-word detective understands it- electronic surveillance, interrogation, CSI-type methods- and I was interested to note Tony Daniel intending to use the same approach in his upcoming Detective Comics run. It's mirrored in the development of crime fiction over the decades, too, beginning with Holmesian cerebral types working through mysteries intellectually, through to modern fiction in the Inspector Rebus mould, where investigators rely on footwork, guesswork and informants to break their cases. But I don't really think this was deliberate choice on the film-makers' parts. People just don't tend to think of Batman as being a detective anymore.

But I like the stories that revolve around mysteries (or Riddler-puzzles), that show Batman using his intellect like a superpower. Oh, my kingdom for a bird-themed Penguin heist. Paul Dini was particularly good at this, as was Alan Grant during his classic Detective / Shadow of the Bat run with artist Norm Breyfogle. Writers like Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench, unfortunately, were not. These writers have their fans, but I've never been keen myself. Perhaps I'm remembering wrong, and maybe my recollection is distorting the issue, but I always think of them as the worst offenders when it came to casting Oracle in an expository role.

I was never that enthused by the Bat-family anyway. I'm a fair bit happier these days, maybe because writers I like have been handling the characters. But pre-Grant Morrison it seemed like every other Batman title had Nightwing or Spoiler or (worst of all) the bloody Huntress co-starring in it. I got sick of the hangers-on, and subscribed whole-heartedly to the Batman-as-loner approach.

Problem is, the grim night-stalking loner take tends to tempt writers towards a complete fruit-loop portrayal, much like the one Christian Bale is currently rocking. It's fine for the relatively brief run-time of a movie, but becomes unrelentingly grim to read month after month. I always thought a good balance would have been having Batman solo in his own title, and with Robin in Detective. Or, these days, in the Batman and Robin title itself.

At the other end of the scale, in the hands of bad writers the Bat-family become one-note caricatures, with Batman as grim moody patriarch and Nightwing as prodigal son. I've always seen Nightwing himself as a lightweight Batman, only for the character to come into focus for me in the Happy Batman role pre-Return of Bruce Wayne, to the extent that for the better part of two years my favourite comic was, in essence, Nightwing and the Little Psycho. In fact, Morrison, Snyder and even Winick have written such a good Dick Grayson that Nightwing itself is a title I'm looking forward to, and if you'd told me that in the 90s I would've looked at you funny.

The return of Barbara Gordon (I almost typed "the original Batgirl" there, bat-fans, which isn't quite true) as Batgirl is not without controversy. In a typically tone-deaf manner, DC have removed one of the few extant heroes who live with a disability. And not only is this not the first time, it's not the first time with this title, having previously replaced an Asian Batgirl (and only member of the Bat-family from a minority background) with a white one (and turning her into a villain, to boot), not all that long ago.

With all of this in mind, of all the DCnU titles I was intending to pick up, Batgirl wasn't one of them. Because of issues with the Comixology service which I'll likely go into in a future post, it ended up being the second digital title I bought after Justice League #1. And it's superb. Imagine my surprise.

Gail Simone is a talented, well-respected writer who, with the exception of a brief Deadpool run some time ago that I really dug, tends to work on characters I don't give a crap about. On the strength of this issue, I'm tempted to go looking for the other stuff I've missed.

The stand-out revelation, however, is Ardian Syaf's art. It's gorgeous. It reminds me of Scott Kolins at his best, but a lot more physical, in keeping with the acrobatic style of the protagonist. And, joy of joys, the women are all drawn in decent proportion, meaning the title isn't a complete fucking embarrassment to read (DC can feel free to use that quote in advertising, should they wish). There's a lot of go to the issue, a lot of action. I even like the busy, armour-esque quality of the new costume, the first of the DCnU redesigns that fit into the artist's style, and world. Syaf seems at ease with the new look in a way that even Jim Lee has trouble selling (and Lee did the damn redesigns).

Classic adventure comics, really, but modern in style rather than regressively retro. And a lot happens, too. You learn everything you need to know about Gordon, a bit of necessary backstory, a bit about her personality (and it's good to see a writer not dismissing the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress), plus you get a new villain and two fight scenes. Awesome fight scenes. It has all the wit, personality, density and kineticism that Justice League #1 was completely devoid of, making the latter seem even less substantial and more patronising that it did initially. This is how superhero action comics should be done.

But the best part, without doubt, is the single caption-box line used as the title of this post. It demonstrates the kind of subtle touch the great writers have when it comes to characterisation. It tells us that Gordon is a woman with faith in something greater (and as a trauma-survivor who regained the ability to walk, I imagine she would be), but also distinguishes her from Batman. I'm not sure if Batman really has that much faith in Gotham- and why would he? He thinks he has to wage a non-stop war himself because he doesn't trust the populace to deal with the monsters of Gotham. But Batgirl does have faith in her mother-city despite everything she's seen and has been through, faith that echoes in her interactions with the police officers and her father (himself a senior official of the city.) Unsurprisingly given the family connection, she believes in the police force in a way that Wayne, the orphan of murder victims, clearly would not. And it's another subtle hint, in line with recent explorations of Gotham's history in the Gates mini-series and in the upcoming Western DCnU title, plus a continuity of architectural design as seen in the JL#1 art, that Gotham herself may be a character of hidden significance in the rebooted universe.

You can read a lot into that single line, and not just because it's bad-ass. The mark of a great story-teller, and a great story.

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.