Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas To All My Reader(s)

I'll be offline for a week or so, so Merry Christmas to Steve and the random surfers who find this page by accident while surfing for porn!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Galactic Medal of Honour

I picked this up second hand a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading it (while waiting for Yellow Blue Tibia to show up from I have friend who used to be forever extolling the virutues of this, so when I saw it I snagged it for later eading. The copy I got is an old Pan or Panther or NEL (not sure off the top of my head) paperback from the 70s but it features really ugly cover art that's been kind of putting me off reading it. Don't judge a book by its cover, I know, but if it's not Foss or Burns or maybe Frank Frazetta, then I'm not interested!

This is by Mack Reynolds and was apparently first published in 1976, but from the word go is incredibly old fashioned! Obviously, it's pre-Star Wars and pre-cyberpunk, and those two caused a continental shift in SF, but even bearing that in mind this book comes across as creaky and old fashioned. Don Mathers is a Sinatra-swinger and ne'er do well kinda like one of those guys that shows up in Harry Harrison or Bob Sheckley novels, all three martinis and pinching the waitress's bottom. At the beginning of the novel the guy breaks up with his fiancee, and it's heavily implied that she hasn't "come across" (as I bet Don would say). She leaves him for the mining corporations of Callisto because "I'm a trained secretary, you know!" Score one for women's lib!

The main thrust - the phoney war and stupid or eveil people who keep the war machine going - is very Pohl/Kornbluth, and maybe Reynolds thought the anti-war theme was topical in the 70s. I guess so, but if you compare this The Forever War, say, it really shows the dearth of wit and SF imagination at work. This one of those SF novels where the future is just like today but everything is prefixed with electro-, auto- or synth- to show that it's not just coffee but futuristic snyth-cafe.

It's structuarally rather poor as well, with a big long bit in the middle where Don goes along with the swindle (he's been convinced to be the fake hero of a fake battle with the fake aliens) and reflects on what a fake he is. Reynolds doesn't really bring his existential malaise alive in any real way, and all this looks like padding to me (this is a fix up of a story first published in F&SF, IIRC from the copyright page - I don't have it with me as I type this at work). The final worm-turns moment happens in the last ten pages or so, but it could easily have happened fifty pages earlier. It's interesting, I guess, in that the socialist arguments against war-mongering capitalists are very explicit, but really even that is probably too explicit having been put in the mouth of a character who is clearly present just to be such a mouthpiece.

All-in-all a disappointment,even though I wasn't expecting much. I had hoped for something a little more 70s scurrilous - a big tits and rock music sort of book or the kind Norman Spinrad or Mick Farren used to write, but this was very seemly and old fashioned. In the movie that ran in my head, Don Mathers was played by an aging Jack Lord in a roll neck in the sort of performance that makes you queasy everytime he gropes the starlet half his age.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Save A Prayer - Le Bon on Le God

So, first we get John Taylor on 40 years of email, and now we have Simon Le Bon heading off into Richard Dawkins country to prove conclusively once for all the total non-existence of god.

Clearly these hair-spray pop rockers have hidden their world-class minds beneath of facade of pastel-jacketed champagne sipping, model boffing vacuous white funk. I await Nick Rhodes's commentary on the prsopects for peace in the Middle East!

Erm, as for the topic at hand I'm a contented atheist and don't require either Simon or Richard to put my case for me. The world is empty of meaning or purpose, a pointless random ramble from womb to tomb. You've got to laugh, eh?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Piano Has Been Drinking

It's late, I should be in bed, but I've got to share this live version of The Piano Has Been Drinking by Tom Waits. It's from the compilation record Bounced Cheques, which was passed to me on cassette by my friend Pete in 1981. It's the greatest thing ever!!!

Meet The Residents!

Ah, the many ways to ruin an evening's writing! One that afflicts me is the old “Hm, I wonder if there's anything on youtube from...” some half remembered show, comedian or musical act. Monty Python is a constant source of distraction (despite owning it all on DVD) as is the Alexei Sayle collection and the Muppets. Music is ever tempting, and recent work killers have included Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, the Beatles ... well, lots of music, obviously, because YoutTube was invented, more or less, for music video. Which brings us to my latest lost evening(s) of work courtesy of The Residents.

I discovered The Residents in a about 1981 or so on Radio Pictures, a late night music show that used to run on Sunday nights on New Zealand TV. In the the gilded days of my halcyon youth RWP ran right before the Sunday Horrors, a regular horror movie slot that played anything from Universal classics, through Corman, Hammer and into early period sleaze and slasher films like Massacre at Central High and The Incredible Melting Man. RWP was where I first encountered people like The Birthday Party, Stray Cats, Duran Duran, The Tubes, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Talking Heads, ABC, Grandmaster Flash, Blondie, THe beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, Culture Club, REM, The Cure, The Fall and so on and so forth – the usual suspects of 80s alternative pop and rock, I guess. Man, Sunday night was the greatest - rock and roll followed by sleazy cheesy greasy horror. Life doesn't get better than that, at least not until you're old enough for sex and drugs.

One of those nights my mind was entirely blown by The Resident's One Minute Movies. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen and heard! This was years before I saw any underground movies or heard much in the way of avant garde music. I'd maybe heard some Stockhausen or Varese at High School music, but this wasn't anything like that noise, it was beguiling and tuneful and funny! It was immediately clear to me that it was the most important thing I'd ever heard since I first listened to Dad's cassete of Sgt Pepper'sonely Hearts Club Band when I was ten.

A couple of weeks later (I can't remember what the timeline was, frankly) I was browsing in the record shop, dreaming about having enough money to be clever and cultured, when I saw it: The Commercial Album by The Residents – that was it! That was the group I'd heard, those were the songs! I had to own it and I think my birthday must have been near (I hardly ever had enough money to buy records) and Mum and Dad bought it for me.

The Commercial Album consists of forty songs, exactly one minute long. It's perfect: each has room to develop a single musical idea, with none outstaying their welcome. While one might wish some of the more interesting ones hung around a bit longer, even the more difficult numbers never become boring. The liner notes on the CD state:

Point one: Pop music is mostly a repitition of two typs of musical and lyrical phrases: the verse and the chorus.

Point two: These elements repeat an average of three times in a “top 40” radio hit.

Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only a minute long.

Point four: One minute is also the length of most commercials, and therefore, their corresponding jingles.

Point five: Jingles are the music of America.

To convert the jingles to pop music music, program each song to repeat three times.

I read on wikipedia (so it must be true!) that they bought forty minutes of commercial time on a San Francisco top 40 station and played every track once over the course of a day. I wish I'd been a round to hear that!

I played and played and played this up in the spare room of the house while me and my friends played D&D or pool on a the tinny little record player Dad made me from old speakers and some junked turntable he'd picked up. My mates were mostly into AC/DC and Pink Floyd (I liked them, too) but back in those days we all seemed to have far more elastic tastes in music. There didn't seem anything odd about listening to Aqualung, say, then London's Burning then Devo. Mum and Dad – whose taste runs more to My Fair Lady and Camelot, and in their more risque moments, trad jazz – were rather nonplussed. Mum much preferred Tom Waits, and called the Residents “That plinky plonky music.”

Anyway, the second Resident's LP I got was even more spectacular, a compilation of tracks from various albums and EPs called Nibbles. THis record features some of my favourite songs ever – Blue Rosebuds, Constantinople, Santa Dog and The Spot (the latter recorded with sometime collaborator Snakefinger, who was responsible of another Radio With Pictures favourite of mine, The Man in the Dark Sedan). Over the next few years, I bought a lot of Residents LPS – the Mark of the Mole, Meet The Residents, Not Available, Tunes of Two Cities, Have a Bad Day, Wormwood, Icky Flix – and got to see them a few times when we came over to the UK (the night they played in Wellington in the 80s, part of the 13th anniversay tour, I was in a play and couldn't go).

The Residents are really important to me. They have a unique artistic vision that mixes art and satire and horror and sci fi in a bewilderingly genial mix of noise and weirdness that I find irresistible. When I was a a kid, I was fascinated by the way they deliberately obscured who they were - they were always masked in photos and performance, and they never listed personnel on their records. It's taken me a while to properly understand that this wasn't just a gimmick, but a crucial part of The Residents enterprise. It not only doesn't matter who they are, it'd be a distraction from the songs. If we knew who they were, we'd only wonder about them more, and try and project our knowledge of them inot the songs, in the way people try and interpret Beatles songs (regarding I Am The Walrus, John Lennon said "Let the fuckers work that one out"). More than a tease (though it's also an anti-op a tease) it leaves the middle of the music blank for the listeners benefit. We can put whatever we like in there unmoderated by the artist's biography or ego.

Last month I blogged about a speech given by John Taylor (of The Resident's contemporaries Duran Duran) on the value of remoteness and obscurity of an artist. I realise now how close what he describes is to my own experience with The Residents, from the life changing first encounter to the obsession fuelled by the mystery of them. The Resident played this game very deliberately, and still play it today (although it's not hard to find out who they are, they still avoid publicity, and of course the joke is that they aren't Paul McCartney or Abba or anyone else larking about, which were among the rumours that washed around when I was at Uni, they're just a bunch of obscure Californian hippies).

They're still going strong of course, and in the way of things that endure against the odds, have garnered a degree of respectability. There's no such thing as rarity these days, and You Tube is packed with videos and tracks from all stages of their career so go have a poke around and discover them for yourselves. Check out this fantastic version of For the Benefit of Mr Kite performed with the London Sinfonietta in 2007. The Residents plus Sgt Pepper's – magic!

PS - Uh oh! I just searched for Tom Waits. Curse you, You Tube!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Doll by Ed McBain

This is the other book I picked up at the Amnesty International sale for 20p a couple of weeks back. I've been interested in crime and detective fiction for a couple of years now, mostly as a model to use in my own writing. Solving a crime provides a nice set of plot pegs to hang everything else on, after all, and I've noticed that a lot of my fiction rather naturally gravitates towards this sort of mystery story shape anyway.

I've not read any of McBain's 87th precinct novel (of which this is one) but I've heard of them, so I was interested to give it a whirl (and at 20p, you can't complain). Rather than a series of plot pegs to hang other stuff on, the crime is everything here. Characterisation is pared back to absolute minimum. McBain seems to forget about it entirely for large stretches of the novel, and then suddenly remember that these are real people and so chuck in a few paras about one of his detectives worrying about being fat or another one who goes on a similar tangent about going bald.

A degree of sympathy is required for Steve Carella, who's kidnapped and hooked on junk by a strange sexy villainess. So we get a little about his wife and kids and some scenes where other detectives think he's dead and dwell on what a stand up guy he was. The reveal that Carella's not really dead is nicely done and fitted in with another minor plot step on the way quite well. The more I think about the plot elements, in fact, the more I appreciate this novel. Sure, it's somewhat dry in terms of character, and amusingly lurid melodramatic for a PoMo hipster such as I, but it's solidly constructed with some nice suspense.

Rolling in filth!!!

The Guardian asks its readers what were the worst books of the decade, and book blog commenters fly from the wordwork like borer beetles on the wing to chew and feed on delicious edginess! Seven hundred comments and they're still frothing out like rampant spittle.

Compare with the various best of the year things they're running - forty or fifty posts per year, at that rate they'll get four or five hundred comments (and many of them are coming from the same people). I understand it's fun playing at being David Mitchell (not the obne that wrote the much derided Cloud Atlas, the other one) and squeezing out your hilariously scathing bon mots at the expense of easy targets (Ian, Zadie, the other Dave) but I'm still amazed and disappointed that so many supposed book lovers long for the chance to fart out these clouds of bummer gas. And Guardian readers to boot! I mean, I could believe it of the Mail, but come on guys, don't let the side down!

As some of you (note ironic use of plural - hi Steve!) may recall, I used to review books for The Zone (an online SF fanzine). One of the reasons I gave that up was the number of poor or average books you had to slog through and then spend time enumerating their problems. One of the reasons I started reviewing was as a way to focus my thoughts on what does and doesn't work in fiction to feed in to my own writing, and as time went by I realised that it was only the good books that had something to teach me.

Mulling over bad books is like mulling over bad relationships, dying a little more with every reminder. Bad books aren't like the unhappy families that Tolstoy tells us about. Bad books tend to bad in the same ways: wooden characters; murky, cacophonic prose; lumpy lurching plots; a poverty of ideas. They are, ultimately boring. By contrast, every great book is great in its own unique way. Every great book has it's own perspective, something exciting and new to show us (cue Love Boat theme). Every great book is a revelation and it astonishes and humbles me to realise the incredible variety and passion of human life and expression that's revealed by great fiction...

God, I can't believe I just typed all that. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Hudson, a fool and a hypcrite!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Tom Waits in the Hobbit?

Well according to the Guardian, who got it from AICN, who got it from the dairy maid in the eternal game if web-based Chinese whsipers that passes for entertainment news, Tom Waits is being considered for a role in The Hobbit.

I think that's cool and all (being a Tom Waits lover from the beginning of time, more or less, if we assume that time began when Waits launched Swordfishtrombone, and some physicists theorise exactly that) and it's not generally the the kind of news I feel the need to comment on (it's probably bullshit anyway) but I was struck by:

"Waits has acted before, in films such as Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law. But he has never played the kind of character you would expect to find in a JRR Tolkien's novel."

Uh, hello? Bram Stoker's Dracula? Singing spot in Shrek?

I wish the Guardian had comments on so I could be all outraged and nerdy. NERD RAGE!!!

Also, while Smaug's a good call, it could also be one of the trolls that gets turned to stone, or the voice of a dwarf. A dwarf would be kind a fitting, actually.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Monty and Me

Do you ever feel old? I feel old all the time these days. Nothing makes me feel old like watching my idols wither and decay, their bodies losing definition, their talents dwindling as the sun sets on the lives and careers. So, pondering Python has been making me feel old since at least the first Secret Policeman's Ball movie. They've been out and about this year celebrating their 40th anniversary, and every time they stagger, stumble and wheel out for one of these things they look more disturbingly ancient and unfunny.

The age I am, Python have always had the slight allure of the forbidden and the “grown up”. I was a bit young to be aware of it first time around, but by the time repeats were showing on TV in the seventies I had two older brothers who were fanatics about it and a bedtime curfew that prevented me from seeing it most of the time. I recall one summer's day with the Perkins family in Raumati (maybe they had a summer batch or something, because I seem to remember they lived in Wadestown) staying up late and an episode and I'm pretty sure I saw the episodes Party Political Broadcast (I remember The Most Awful Family in Britain) and Mr Nuetron from series at some stage. I might have even seen them while living in the UK.

Back in these ancient times, before videos and goddamn YouTube, we used to get our Python fix through their amazing records. My brothers (again!) owned them, and listened to them avidly at every opportunity and it's these versions of the sketches that burned themselves onto my impressionable, malleable pre-pubescent mind. [NB There's a doco about these on Radio 2 tonight presented by the Mighty Boosh Guys. Don't groan that way, maybe they'll play it straight! It'll be on listen again for a week, so go listen to it!] I was startled when I saw the Cat License on DVD and it didn't end up with the wonderful Eric the Half A Bee song, and neither does the Michael Baldwin sketch end up with the Philosopher's Song. I think that the versions of the sketches on the records tend to be a little than the original broadcasts, too, the rhythms are hit a little harder and the scripts are a wee bit sharper. Plus you don't have to sit through some of the ... er... weaker items.

In addition to the records are the completely brilliant books, the Monty Python Hardback Bok and Monty Python's Big Red Book. My brothers owned these, two and I practically memorised them as a kid. I picked them both up second hand quite recently (on the Isle of Wight!) and they are a real delight. The design is fantastic, using different types of paper and cut outs to add a whole other dimension to material from the show. They could probably have just printed the scripts and walked away with the cash, but instead the material has been solidly re-worked for the new format, giving it a whole new dimension.

I saw the films in my early teens, first the Holy grail and then The Life of Brian when i was fifteen or so (it was an R16 in New Zealand – those were different days!). I can vividly recally seeing it in the old majectic Cinema on Willis Street (now the site of an ugly skyscraper) and feeling exhausted with laugher before the end of the credits. The Meaning of Life was a disappointment, of course, and it's probably instructive to ponder why that is. I guess it seemed like a retrograde step after the wonderfully unified (in the Aristotelian sense, in fact) Life of Brian and, for that matter, after Time Bandits and Brazil, Gilliam's great first flowering and nearly Python movies in their own right. I'd say that by the early 80s the show was over for the Pythons and it's been annoying cruft like Spamalot ever since.

Ah well, who can complain when the originals are so marvellous? Watching the TV shows now (via the wonders of DVD, but it's nearly all up on youtube if you want) them now they are still amazingly funny and fresh. The first couple of episodes of series two, for example, are nearly faultless, including the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Piranha Brothers, Meet the Press (“I'd like to answer that question in two ways....”), and the Spanish Inquisition. They have the reputation of being “clever” with jokes about philosophy, art and literature, but what really strikes me is the amazing gleeful silliness of it all. There's so much wonderful slapstick and word play, grotesque costumes and simple clowning about – what are the Gumbies if not drolls? Some of my favourite sketches are based on such simple premises, like Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson or the whole “No Time To Lose” sequence, which ends with the brilliantly stupid gag about “No Time” Toulouse, the Fastest Impressionist in the West.

The other key element is the quality of the performances. They weren't just wonderful writers, but brilliant comic actors. On the one hand they are brilliant clowns and physical comedians but on the other they can play straight to provide the correct leavening to the wackiness, notably Graham Chapman's wonderfully straight performances such as the army Colonel in series one and later in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. Terry Jones also had a nice line in stuffy middle class types, like the guy in Nudge Nudge that could also break in wonderful silliness. These two elements combine most memorably in Cleese's performance in the Ministry of Silly Walks – while the top half of his body expounds on government funding, the bottom capers hilariously around the office.

Python has been a huge influence on me creatively ever since I started acting out and writing and everything. When I was nine, I goaded my friends at Greenacres School in Tawa to perform the Lumberjack Song for the Friday performance assembly. Who knows what Mr Swan made of me pulling aside a plaid shirt to reveal one of Mum's bras? His thoughts were never recorded. My “funny” writing leans heavily to the Pythonesque. I sometimes wonder if I've fallen into a Douglas Adamsy/Terry Prathcetty mode (who also echo Python pretty heavily) but... hm, well, I don't know. I try and be a little meaner than those two, who I admire technically but I find a little good natured for my own tastes. I worry about the age of it all, too – is it too old hat in this age of rock star comedians playing stadiums and hosting every flavour of programme on TV ever (how long can it be before Jo Brand joins the team on The Today Programme? Or – worryingly realistically – Russell Brand?)

So, there's two posts in a row about what are probably my foundational creative elements. Marvel comics and Monty Python - no wonder I can't sell anything!

Superman and Batman Get Yet Another Bloody Reboot

WARNING: This post is a bit boring, but I had to get it out of my system. Ah well!

Fair go they want to try and make them approachable for the casual reader and everything, but why announce it like it's the most amazing news ever? Batman and Superman get "rebooted" every damn year! The last four or five years in particular have seen the whole DC universe repeatedly re-started like a cantkerous computer that refuse to connect to the wireless (as mine does from time to time). Well, I guess it's about making some sort of connection, because DC seems to be losing market share little by little every year. They seem to have lost it to independent rather than Marvel, who've seen some fall in market share but have been sitting on the late forties for a while.

Now, lemme level with you, I'm a born again Marvel zombie. Here's the background (skip ahead a few paras if this kind of kiddy nostalgia bores you, you heartless creep!):

I was a Marvel lad in the early seventies as a wee fella in the UK (via the black & white weekly reprints like Mighty World of Marvel) then in New Zealand I used to enjoy the pocket-money friendly black & white DC reprints from Australia (twenty-five cents for sixty four pages, and no ads except for the eternal stamp-collectors club in the inside back cover). These presented whatever stories were to hand in any order and following continuity was simply not possible. There'd be a Legion of Superheroes from the seventies next to Superman from the late sixties and then some oddball thing like Manhunter or Kamandi. My uncle David (who is Down's Syndrome) had a huge trunk of these when we arrived in NZ in 1975 and joyfully shared them with me.

They were happy times. I hardly knew anything about DC in those days apart from the Batman TV show, and the Batman who was in the comics was nothing like that! Similarly the old George Reeves Superman who fought gangsters and ... well, more gangsters couldn't hold a candle to the Superman in the comics with his bottle cities, robot duplicates and secret artic bolt hole. And add to that all those strange fellas like the Geen Lantern, the Flash, the Atom and Wonder Woman, plus the occasional glimpse of something really whacky - Dr Fate, the Phantom Stranger or Dead Man. Brilliant stuff.

Later, there was 2000AD of course (subject of another post one day, maybe) and then distribution of US comics improved and I discovered Marvel again. Marvel offered something that those black & white DC reprints never could: a story that lasted more than one issue. The X-Men's problems went on and on, and extended into the New Mutants, and then there was the Avengers and the West Coast Avengers and all that and it was like my mind expanded, like I discovered a whole new way to tell stories (I write a bit about that in this review of The Essential Fantastic Four vols 1-3).

Well, that was all well and good, but then Alan Moore moved to DC and I discovered the comics shop in Wellington. Well, suddenly Marvel wasn't good enough any more. DC seemed to have a kind of moral superiority that that Marvel lacked. Marvel appeared venal and tawdry beside DC's noble heroes with an ancient lineage. Hell, they'd invented the whole shebang, as I discovered through fanzines and oddly layed-out small press comics histories (before the internet, gasp!!)

One title I liked in particular was Roy Thomas's All Star Squadron, which told the story if the DC universe during World War II, retconning a number of properties they'd acquired over the years into their "Earth 2", the alternative universe where Superman had appeared in the 1930s quickly followed by Batman and Wonder Woman and all the rest, and where the Flash wore a soldier's helmet, Green Lantern had a cape and the Sandman was an oddball in a gasmask rather than an annoying mopey goth. You see, to keep their comics current they'd had to update them from time to time and... well, if you don't know what I mean when I say "Earth 2" then there's no real space to explain it here.


Just as All Star Squadrom was really hitting its stride, DC made the first of their massive reboots. Earth 2 was suddenly no more, eaten up by the Anitmonitor All Star Squadron was now about these rather uninteresting second stringers. Superman was rebooted as a yuppie. Barry Allen the Flash was dead replaced by the Kid Flash. All the wierd and quirky elements were eliminated and replaced by something that looked a lot like the Marvel universe I'd seceded from just a couple of years before.

Then the twin body blows of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and suddenly the whole super heroes idea seemed a bit embarrassingly stupid. DC had somehow managed to hug their golden goose to death.

Whhheeeesh wheeeessh, winds blow and I wander in the wilderness, enjoying the outer reaches of Alan Moore for a while and the post-underground black and white guys like Dan Clowes and Joe Sacco and then, suddenly, I'm not reading comics any more. Years go by, dark years, empty years. No one punches anyone through a wall. No one agonises "Oh, Betty, if only you knew the real reason I ran out on our date!". No one I read about has unfeasible pectoral muscles.

Then, one day, I decide it's been too long. Inspired by online debates about Marvel's Civil War, I jump in again with World War Hulk, a series where the Hulk returns to Earth and... well, look that's what wikipedia's for, right? But the point is I found a new way to read comics. Instead of following individual title or characters, I started reading "events". I read World War Hulk and its attendant specials and cross-overs, without getting any of the other series (well, I did end up siging on for the Incredible Hercules, which is sublimely brilliant). Then I read Secret Invasion (skrulls invade!) which morphed seamlessly into Dark Reign (Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin becomes director of S.H.I.E.L.D; hilarity ensues).

People complain about these mega-crossover events but I like them. I think it's a development in the story telling technique as powerful and interesting as the original idea of a shared universe. I'm wierd that way.

Anyway, these are all good fun series about people being punched through walls and missing dates and having unfeasible pectoral muscles, so I'm happy, but I feel bad! I have the residue of my old worry that DC is where the real oil is. Indeed, Grant Morrison, another alumnus of 2000AD's golden age, is working at DC and doing some amazing stuff. Aside from his Vertigo books (like The Invisibles and The Filth) he's planning big cross-over events, too, so I read Inifintie Crisis and then the weekly multi-character book 52, and then Final Crisis. Well, they're all good. 52 is excellent, in fact, and extends the idea of the superhero comics being about continuity rather than particular characters in a really interesting direction, but it can't be maintained. The Crises, in particular, come hard on each others heels redefining the DC continuity again and again until it's not even a recognisable continuity anymore, but a kind of meta-continuity which self consciously references its own artificiality and gets all crazy whacky and occasionally brilliant, but more often unreadable.

So, in the last year or so DC has retrenched a little, put Mr Morrison back on the strong tranquilisers and launched a Green Lantern-based mega epic, Blackest Night. Unfortunately it's a pallid version of the sort of thing that Marvel have been doing for the last few years, but without Marvel's wilfully vulgar brio. I dunno why, but there's an energy that still comes through from Stan Lee that allows the Marvel creators to be histrionic, melodramatic and silly that DC lacks. DC seems stolid and boring by comparison. Blackest Night opens with about eight pages of dense of dialogue as superheroes attend a series of memorial services on superhero day, remembering fallen comrades, mulling their heritage and oh Christ I JUST WANT SOMEONE TO KICK SOMEONE ELSE IN THE FACE!!! Is that so wrong?

So, well, what did I actually want to say here? I guess, where this is heading is saying that DC seemed to lose the superhero plot sometime in the 80s. Something about the Vertigo deal meant that they could never again just do superheros kicking each in the face and revelling in their unfeasible pectorals. They seem obsessed by dignity and legacy and history in a way that Marvel are not. The Marvel comics aren't great art but they're great, cheesy superhero thrills. Other people probably watch Heroes and stuff for a similar kick (I'm not much of a genre TV fan) but for me well, Make Mine Marvel!

What makes DC's annoucnement all the more stupid is the wonderful All Star Superman produced by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely which did everything they claim their Straczynski Superman is going to do in a single eloquent 12 issue run last year. Having read that, I just don't see how anyone (and certainly not a hack like Straczynski) can top that. Okay, Miller's All Star Batman was a mixed bag (if you mixed vomit, shit and weevils) but then the wonderful Mr Morrison's been doing superlative work on the mainstream Batman title for several years (yes, I've been reading that and it's been truly magnificent stuff).

So, please, DC, don't pretend this is some Earth shattering new idea that's going to revive your properties. It's the same old bollocks in the hands of a bunch of annoying hacks. Raaargh! Nerd Rage!!!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities

This is one of those classics that you always promise yourself you're going to get around to reading but never do. I generally rely on fate to throw books in my path for about 80% of my reading, and so when I happened across this for 20p at an Amnesty International book sale, I figured the time had come! I wasn't sure what to expect, and have a fifty-fifty kind of relationship with “classics” (at best) and find a lot of them don't interest me that much for one reason or another, but I was totally swept away by this! It's compelling funny and clever, with the kind of penetrating vision that speaks of real knowledge and experience of the milieu he describes.

This novel brought to mind a piece of Wolfe's journalism I read earlier in the year, “Radical Chic” published in the New York Magazine in 1970. The article uses a lot of fictional techniques, but the novel really brings home John Gardner's assertion that fiction can tell truths that non-fiction can't reach. While “Radical Chic” describes the actions of a small group in the great game of power, The Bonfire of the Vanities uses fiction to illustrate the entire cycle of power and money in New York in the 80s, showing how it flows through the city and the people.

This is a satire, and the characters have only the depth and characteristics that satire demands. They are libidinal, dishonest, cowardly, greedy and lazy and it's these characteristics that drive them rather than any desire to do or be good. They are partly symbolic of various players in the game of power, although some are more symbolic than others.

Sherman McCoy is at the heart of proceedings here, and is the most rounded character. His actions get the whole thing started, and we spend the most time with him as he makes his way through the justice system. He's the only character that's really changed by what he goes through, and for all the blame he can rightly take for what happens to him, he's an innocent compared to the people that drive the case forward and ultimately ruin him. The Reverend Bacon who pushes the case on behalf of the impoverished black community of the Bronx is shown to be self-serving and corrupt using the rhetoric of oppression to line his own pockets (in a subplot about funding for a community daycare centre that remains half developed) and the district attorney is more interested in re-election than justice. Both men are forever in touch with the press making sure that their righteous actions are there for all to see. The press, of course, come off no better and are represented here by the venal, drunken Englishman Peter Fallow, who works for a scandal sheet and only really worries about free drinks and snobbery.

Wolfe wades into all this with great wit and verve. He has a great fractured style, breaking sentences up with dashes and ellipses to create a stream of consciousness that follows his characters eyes and thoughts around a room. He's especially good at waspish observation, whether it's Fallow's disparaging commentary on barbaric Americans or McCoy's bored superior view of his wife's friends (emaciated social X-Rays and Lemon Tarts). The plot is effectively driven by the competing desire of of everyone to reveal or conceal different aspects of what happened on the night of McCoy, Kramer and Bacon all have their own reasons for presenting a certain version of the events, and Wolfe builds up tension as they try and conceal or reveal matters for their own advantage. Most of the tension builds up around McCoy, that familiar dread where you know what's coming but it's artfully spun out as the author ratchets up the consequences of not coming cleans notch by notch.

The elements work brilliantly in isolation, but they all add up to a fantastic satirical vision, one that seems compellingly true and vital, revealing the cracks in society of 80s New York. All in all it's a fantastic book, one of the best I've read this year!

Friday, 4 December 2009


I say! My Dictionary of Dumb Jokes defines "palindrome" as "Sarah Palin/Micheal Palin - two Palins enter, one Palin leaves."

I don't really care about Twilight, but...

... I thought this was an interesting article. I found the comments here about the reaction to Twilight fans in the geek crowd and online revealing. The comparisons with the reaction to Harry Potter are also very interesting.

I've always felt geekiness was a very male place, despite the increasing presence of young ladies with piercings, tattoos and odd coloured hair in comics shops. Representations of women have always been problematic, and I never felt that the sexy kick-ass chick was quite the answer seem people seemed to think. I boggled at the idea of Xena as a feminist icon, for example (although it would be foolish of me to try and speak for women who did find that image attractive) and while the soapier elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer made that a much more female-friendly show (and of course the Buffy/Angel relationship prefigures Twilight), it suffered a little from the feminism = sexy lesbians equation that gets into geeky creators heads when they try and make strong female characters (in this case Willow, although she got mired in all sorts of sick-making paganism crapola as well).

That kind of typical nerd "empowered" female just looks like a male fantasy to me, created by men for men. When you look at fantasy actually created by women and targetted at women you get something else entirely and I find the territorial squawking of the fanboys pretty funny.


"Meme" has come to mean a joke gone stale. When something is labelled a meme it's just another way of saying "I'm fed up with this now".

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Beware Death By Drowning!

I got soaked in a down pour on my way into work today, and now I've just knocked over a cup of water on my desk. If this was a creepy movie, I'd be getting worried about now. But then, I'm easily scared.