Jodorowsky Week: The Incal

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It’s a great pity that one of the world’s most visionary directors, Alejandro Jodorowsky, has never been given the opportunity to helm a big science fiction movie. His work has always tended towards the widescreen while exploring the inner spaces of the human consciousness. Crazy Spanish epic berserkaloidity.

He came close, of course, and his years of preparatory work on a version of Dune that he promised would give all the effects of LSD without needing to take the drug are legendary in their own right. They spawned a documentary, and are famous for tangentially introducing HR Giger to Ridley Scott–a meeting without which Alien could have been a very different beast.

However, I’d argue that Jodorowsky has made his SF epic, a work of astonishing depth, scale and complexity. A work that was, for a while, so rare that fanboys would buy the French versions and learn the language just to be able to enjoy. A work that encompasses all of creation, the nature of good and evil, and includes amongst it’s characters the greatest bounty-hunter in the universe, a dog-headed freedom fighter and a concrete seagull.

You’ve got it, true believers. I’m talking about The Incal.

Continue reading Jodorowsky Week: The Incal

Atwomic Pizzas

I’m still trying to get my head around the geography and zoning of Oxford’s fair city. I prefer it to London if I have a spare day off and nothing better to do. But, as someone with heavy links to the Smoke, I can’t help but find parallels between different areas. For example, I think of Jericho as the Islington of Oxford. It’s full of chichi bars and restaurants, a nice little art-house cinema and a general relaxed upscale vibe.

The Cowley Road, on the other hand, is closer to Camden–lively, multicultural, funky and fun. Here’s where you’ll find all the cheap, good-value curry houses, the O2 Academy, and most importantly for greedy old me, the two Atomic restaurants.

Atomic Burger has been a source of simple pleasure for a while. The pop-culture theming is so deliciously over the top that it moves from tack to an art statement. The signature burgers are named after icons from Elvis to Chuck Norris, and they’re remarkably good, generous and flavoursome.

No ice cream for me, thanks.

Now a partner restaurant, Atomic Pizza, has opened a ten minute hike down the way (like Camden High St, you forget just how long the Cowley Road can get, especially when you’re weak with hunger) and it’s a blast. Bigger and brighter than the burger shack on the way back to St. Clement’s, the pizzas are again themed, although you can also build your own. I’m especially intrigued by the burger pizza that they offer. The food is as bold and brash as the setting–eating next to Han Solo in his ROTJ block of carbonite was an experience, I can tell you.

The excuse for the visit (apart from a raging need for a 15″ pizza, the Gambit in case you’re wondering, chicken, bacon and cajun BBQ sauce) was a meet-up with some Twitter pals, @LizUK and @Gergaroth, with Liz’s mate @jowyton along for the ride as well. It’s always a thrill to finally have a face-to-face with people you only know from their online presence, but I’ve always found it works nicely. Gets the tedious small talk out of the way quickly so you can concentrate on the good stuff. Deciding on appropriate T-shirt film quotes for the staff, for example. The boss was up for the game as well. Mind you, he was the one wearing the Inigo Montoya t-shirt that started it off in the first place.

The setting helped the whole session to be silly, uproarious fun, and we’re definitely doing it again after Christmas. Although I shan’t be risking the legendary Godzilla Challenge – a full-size pizza with a triple order of fries, chili, cheese and their weapon-grade Godzilla sauce on top. You get a T-shirt if you finish. Or if you don’t. And hopefully a lift to the hospital afterwards.

You can find both restaurants up and down the Cowley Road. They’re not easy to miss. Links to the menus and videos of a Godzilla Challenge winner below. I don’t think you can go wrong for a fun night out in Oxford.

Atomic Burger

Atomic Pizzas

The Atwomics, replete

State Of The Noir Nation

Dark fictions flourish in dark times. As we lurch from financial crisis to social meltdown,  our reading habits change and our idea of what constitutes light relief gains some weight. This is a simple truth that the editors of new anthology title Noir Nation understand all too clearly. It’s the perfect time to launch, and the premiere issue is stuffed as full of hardboiled treats as an old fashioned sweetie shop.

A well-curated genre collection will take pleasure in the display of a wide range of voices, opinions and stories. Noir Nation hits all the buttons hard. It’s broad, wide and deep in scope, which suits a journal with a truly international remit. Standout stories for me include Tristan Davies “Surgeons”, which introduces us to a doctor who makes Gregory House look like that nice English actor Hugh Laurie, and RF Warner’s “Dog Of A Different Breed”, the story of a drug run gone bad, an unfortunate incident with a dog, and a serial killer with a yen for poetry and gameplay.

Speaking of poetry, there’s also room for a piece by Bonnie Parker. Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie Parker. Seems like she could shoot better than she could sling a rhyme, but it’s a fascinating curio from a famous gun moll.

The first ish also gives us a fascinating discussion on what constitutes contemporary noir (Alan Ward Thomas, the Eastern Hemisphere editor, pulls together a fascinating take that includes transhumanist SF, Alvin Toffler-style future shock, Cubism and Jung) and a forum on whether the genre has a moral compass. The jury’s out on that one, but there are equally compelling arguments for and against.

The one misfire is Jon Danko and Danda’s graphic novel, Fired On Deadline. It’s muddled, and text-heavy, with none of the bite of the prose pieces. It also, at least in my preview copy, looked as if it had been inserted at too low a resolution, leading to blurry, rasterised artwork. That’s a real shame, considering my predilections. It also does Danda’s lovely expressionistic art (he did the cover, shown above, which is a much better showcase of his talents) no justice. It’s apparently the first part of a larger work, and I’d be interested to see where Danko and Danda take the idea of Flamenco Noir. But for now at least, the whole thing looks like something of an afterthought.

But that’s a minor quibble regarding a strong anthology bulging with good stuff. You can pick it up at the Kindle Store and still get change from a poorly cephalopod. Noir Nation shows a genre that is in very rude health indeed. Live and goddam kicking.

Noir Nation at the Kindle Store

The Noir Nation site

The Lady and The Father: Burma Chronicles

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Journalism in comics has a much greater pedigree than you might think. Political cartoons have been with us since the Romans, who daubed parodies of disliked senators on the walls of their cities. To this day, the form has the ability to shock, provoke and anger to the point of murder, if you consider the case of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist killed for his depiction of Mohammed.

Travel journalism is less well represented. You could argue that Herge’s Tintin took place in such carefully researched and exquisitely rendered locales that it equated to a kind of travelogue – although it would be decades before we could see how accurately he’d got the moon. For most people, Joe Sacco’s work in Bosnia and Palestine is the definition of travel journalism – angry, passionate comics that get to the heart of the conflict.

A different approach is taken by French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, whose Burma Chronicles is out in a new paperback edition from Jonathan Cape in the UK. Delisle is married to Nadege, a Medicins Sans Frontieres administrator, and their journeys into strife-torn areas give him unprecedented access. The book tells of their trip to Burma at a point when the generals who run the show are beginning the next in a long series of clampdowns. As funding and visas are pulled, Guy, his wife Nasege and their baby son Louis struggle to find a life in a country that, officially at least, refuses to admit that they are needed.

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Delisle approaches his story from the opposite angle to Sacco. He is no journalist, and never agitates to get into the dangerous areas. He’s principally a house-husband, there to look after Louis, an adjunct to Nadege and her work. Tootling around town with Louis in a buggy, he becomes almost invisible, and is free to observe the everyday life of the people. He discovers that the place they have rented is just around the corner from the house where Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for decades. He never sees her, of course, despite vague efforts to at least walk down her street (an effort that’s finally rewarded in an unexpected way). But, as in life, she is an unspoken presence, a thread running through everything, binding her people together in the face of crippling poverty and brutal repression.

Delisle has a simple, clean style that again is the polar opposite to Sacco’s pyrotechnic, fish-eye-lens freakouts. He draws himself as an abstraction, a simple collection of lines that reminded me a little of the 1992 Olympic mascot Cobi. Otherwise, his settings and characters are picked out with care and grace. As we follow Guy, Nasege and Louis through their year in Burma, we get to know and care about them and the lovely, punished country around them.

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The story unfolds quietly, and always with a wry humour. Guy is lazy despite his best efforts, his promises to do more frequently washed away in the everyday tasks of looking after Louis or getting some drawing done. But he does, gradually, come to an understanding with Burma. There’s a lovely sequence towards the end of the book where he finally tries a three-day meditation retreat (granted, just round the corner from his house). Burma Chronicles is full of moments like these – the wordless, 24-panel pages of his trips to tourist destinations are sheer, joyful cartooning at it’s purest and most skilful.

If you need an antidote to the DC Comics reboot sturm und drang, Burma Chronicles fits the bill perfectly. It’s subtle, sharp and intelligent comics work, an incisive commentary on the state of Burma at a low point in the country’s history. Moving, hilarious and insightful stuff.

A New Phase part 3: UKZDL

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In a fine example of what TLC likes to call my tendency to overextend, I have signed up as writer to yet another website. At this rate, I will be doing the whole internet by this time next month. We are apologises in advance for the subsequent droop in kwalitee.

The new endeavour is a gig on a new zombie site, UKZDF. Stands for United Kingdom Zombie Defence League. There’s an element of ARG and role-play in here – head of the League, “Sarge” Rob May (an X&HTeam-mate of long standing, I might add) has spent a long while working out the best places to set up a defensive perimeter should the zombie plague hit Reading (hint: don’t do a Romero and hide out in the Oracle). But the site also seeks out and celebrates the best in zombie culture.

Up on the site at the moment, we’re looking at the upcoming launch of Dead island, which looks to be the zombie game of the year. There’s an interview with the producers of the Walking Dead, and a review of the first two in a great new series of books by Mira Grant, Newsflesh.

Oh, yes, and a brief history of the zombie in popular culture pre-Romero, which is my first contribution. Sarge has been good enough to give me my own section, so keep an eye out for weekly blather from me. It’s early days, but the site already looks good, and there’s some interesting people lined up to contribute. If anyone’s interested, let me know and I’ll forward your names onto Sarge.

In the meantime, read and enjoy. It’s a dead cert.

UKZDL

The Warrior’s Code: X&HT Watched Captain America: The First Avenger

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Give me a tweaked uniform over spandex any day...

Captain America: The First Avenger is not a superhero film. There, I said it. Oh sure, it’s got a superhero in it, and a supervillain, and a lot of the trappings and furniture of your average cape film. But what we have here is more akin to the legend of America’s most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy.

Like Steve Rogers, Murphy struggled to get enlisted, a puny, underaged dweeb who just wanted to serve. But heart, soul and tenacity succeed where all else failed, and Murphy would eventually go on to fight throughout Europe, winning the Medal of Honour, Legion of merit and the French Legion of Honour along the way. He went on to be a film star, musician and advocate of veteran’s rights – a true American hero whose image was used extensively in the post-war years as a positive national self-image.

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Captain America? This guy was a MAJOR.

 

Steve Rogers is a lot like Murphy. Fearless, determined to serve, always conscious of the need to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming evil. He gets the superserum and (eventually) the suit, but he gets them because of who he is on the inside. It’s a fairly typical wish-fulfillment strategy, based on the old saw that you can get what you want as long as you want it badly enough, but it works in this context. In a way, he has Murphy’s career backwards. Captain America is a propaganda asset long before he gets a chance to fight.

To reiterate, I look on Captan America as a pulpy war movie with SF trimmings rather than your bog-standard superhero joint. Director Joe Johnston understands this kind of material well. He helmed “The Rocketeer”, after all, still one of my favourite movies. He brings the same design flair and sense of fun to Captain America. It’s a good looking film, with a good-looking cast that understands the light touch required to make period SF work. Chris Evans fills the uniform out nicely, Hayley Atwell shines as the kind of glamourous Girl Friday that Cap would come to depend on in the 60’s, Tommy Lee Jones is a delight as the gruff-but-fair colonel in charge of the missions. Hugo Weaving was really the only choice as the Red Skull. Even under a thickness of makeup that would make Julia Roberts blanch, his villain skills shine through.

It’s a shame then, that even though Johnston has said in interviews that Captain America would be the stand-alone piece in the jigsaw of Marvel films that will piece together to form next year’s Avengers movie, the ending hauls it into line. Up to that point, the film had stood on it’s own two feet. You didn’t need to know who Howard Stark would sire, or where the cube came from that gave the Skull’s infernal devices their power. They were Easter eggs for the fans, but didn’t spoil the flow. The last five minutes, in which Steve is brought brutally up to date, are clangingly out of place with the tone and feel of the rest of the film. It was the kind of scene that would have been better suited to a post-credit vignette. It’s a real shame, because up to then I had really enjoyed the ride.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s pretty, funny and sharp. Good, pulpy fun with enough to keep both the fans and the non-comic reader happy. The ending aside, it’s a great summer movie.

The Face Of Dredd

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The release yesterday of the first real look at Karl Urban as Judge Dredd sent a certain portion of the nerdiverse, myself included, into geekgasm. It’s great to finally see the character up close. Every still we’ve seen up to now, coupled with Alex Garland’s taut, claustrophobic script, shows that Dredd The Movie is going to be a grim and gritty affair. The man in his scuffed bike leathers and stubble owes as much to Mad Max as the version we see every week in 2000AD.

I still think the helmet’s too big. But then, in the comic it has to serve as the top half of his head. Some artists have drawn it as so close-fitting that it would be impossible to get off. Either that, or Joe Dredd has made the ultimate sacrifice, and shaved off his ears. Urban’s hat is as close as dammit to the one that I have been drawing since I was 9, with the obvious exception of having to serve a real world purpose.

Of course, we’re now a world away from the Stallone version with the spandex and gold-plated plastic and the talking gun and flying bike. I cannot in all honesty defend the 1995 movie, although the first ten minutes is a very fine adaptation of the “Block War!” story. And goddamn, Stallone has the chin for the job. But I’m a purist, and the moment the hat came off was the moment that I lost interest.

Of course, you could argue that Dredd has taken his helmet off and we have indeed seen his face. At which point I’d note that you can’t fool a fanboy, because it’s clear you’re talking about The Dead Man. This was a spin-off strip set in The Cursed Earth that followed a drifter, burnt beyond all recognition, who is taken in by a friendly family of mutants. But the man has a past, and it hasn’t finished with him. The big reveal, that few readers saw coming was that The Dead Man was an amnesiac Dredd, left for dead by The Dark Sisters Of The Apocalypse.

This story is a major milestone in the Judge’s long history, and I’d argue it ties him much more explicitly to the fictional exploits of another iconic loner, Clint Eastwood. If Dredd in MegaCity is Dirty Harry, then in The Dead Man he has become, quite literally, The Man With No Name. Scarred and haunted, he becomes a clear analogue to the ghostly avengers of westerns like Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. The look, though, is clearly based on William Munny in Unforgiven. His return to Megacity and Judgehood is marked by reconstructive surgery. The glimpse at Dredd’s face that we get in The Dead Man is fleeting and illusory. For the most part, we are left with the early legend that he is simply too ugly to be looked at directly.

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The fact that we never see Dredd’s face is kind of the point. He was imagined as an avatar of justice, soul-less, almost machinelike in his single minded dedication to The Law (always capitalised, as much an abstract concept as a set of rules). Through the last 34 years and thousands of progs, he has become much more, while still staying true to the core idea. He’s a cipher, on which any number of stories can be hung.

I’m pleased that the makers of the movie have embraced the unwritten rule of the character, and the helmet will be staying firmly on Karl Urban’s head. besides, as any fan knows, the face of Dredd is not the most important part…

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A Fiendishly Good War Comic

Wartime horror is one of those subgenres that’s never really taken off. War itself is horrific enough. You don’t need to overegg the pudding with something supernatural.
SF can get away with the setting, as it’s an excuse for cool dieselpunk gadgets and Nazi robots and that.
There’s been a bit of an upsurge in films about Nazi zombies lately, but really they’re just the walking dead in an emotive costume.

I’m kind of disappointed that there’s been so little material on Nazi vampires. I can’t think of anything in the realms of film apart from Michael Mann’s discodelic The Keep (oh, those lasers…). Angel and True Blood have both had WW2 vignettes.*

But it’s comics that have brought us the best examples of an admittedly niche trope. Some fine recent examples include the current run of American Vampire, and a lovely, creepy Captain America strip by Ed Brubaker and the sorely missed Gene Colan, that you can read in full here.
But for the definitive WW2 vampire story, look no further than my beloved 2000AD, and Fiends Of The Eastern Front. Drawn by one of the most celebrated artists on the British scene, Carlos Ezquerra, and written by one of it’s most under-rated scribes, Gerry Finley-Day, FOTEF is a stark, uncompromising and gloriously pulpy bit of horror.
The comic is set during the Russian campaign of 1942, and takes the form of a diary written by a German trooper, Hans Schmitt. His regiment becomes host to a group of Romanian partisans led by the charismatic Captain Constanta. They seem unstoppable in battle, and fight by night, spending the day asleep.
You’ve guessed it. They’re Transylvanian, and Schmitt discovers their bloody secret. Of course, none of his comrades believe him, and Constanta gives him a not-so-friendly warning. When the tide of the war turns, and Romania changes sides, Schmitt and his regiment face a new and remorseless enemy who are quite literally after their blood.
2000AD is unfairly tagged as the Judge Dredd comic, when it has published a wide range of solid genre work over the years. Their horror is particularly good (and probably worth a post all to itself), and I would hold up FOTEF as one of the AD’s finest hours.

Ezquerra’s stark black and white art is dripping with atmosphere and a sweaty, febrile dread. Findley-Day’s script is stripped to the bone, as tight and inevitable as a hangman’s noose. Bookended with a scene set in a Berlin bunker twenty years later that provides a neat final twist, FOTEF is a deeply satisfying read that motors along breathlessly. As a treatise on the way allegiances can all too quickly shift, and how trust be be so easily compromised, it has few equals in the comics field.
Finley-Day is best known as Tharg’s future war specialist, creating both Rogue Trooper and The VC’s. But FOTEF’s roots can be traced to his work with Battle and Action in the mid-70s. He was already known for creating sympathetic German heroes, and his work had a sharply political and cinematic edge. Rat Pack, an earlier collaboration with Ezquerra, is a neat take on The Dirty Dozen, and I can’t help but be reminded of Peckinpah’s Cross Of Iron when reading Hermann Of Hammer Force. Not least because Ezquerra’s heroes look a bit like James Coburn…
Fiends Of The Eastern Front was revamped (sorry) for modern audiences in the early norties by David Bishop, and those stories, dropping Constanta and his bloodsucking crew into real life battles, are a lot of fun. But the original is the best, and Gerry Finley-Day deserves recognition for a solidly original work of horror fiction. War, with Constanta at your heels, can indeed be hell.

Revolution Books have a nice new edition of Fiends Of The Eastern Front for your viewing pleasure, which include the original tale and David Bishop and Colin MacNeil’s reboot. Highly recommended.

*As expected, I has UPDATES from X&HTeam-mates. Ben Woodiwiss issues a Uwe Boll warning, and reminds me of Bloodrayne 3, which features more vampNazis than you can shake a stake at! Trailer here. Caution: not safe for anyone.

Meanwhile, Leading Man Clive has pointed me at this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI9BLZ6460

Looks like you have to go to the Germans for your Nazi Vampires…

The Mutant Question: X-Men First Class, prejudice and revenge

We humans are a venal, fickle bunch. We’re fine with superheroes as long as they’reaccidental (bitten, exposed to gamma radiation, struck in the face by toxic sludge); gifted by otherworldly outsiders (aliens or magical beings, or indeed aliens posing as magical beings); or if they’re otherworldly outsiders (aliens from a stricken red-sunned world, gods of thunder, Amazonians). If you’re unlucky enough to be born with your power, then we will fear and despise you. Talk about a mixed message.

(spoilers after the cut)

Continue reading The Mutant Question: X-Men First Class, prejudice and revenge

DC: Dunces and Conmen?

Every time I think the comics industry can’t get any stupider, something happens to make me wonder how I got so complacent.

No, hang on, let me qualify that. Every time I think the American superhero-based comics industry can’t get any stupider, something like, well, this happens. DC are cancelling and rehashing 52 of their titles, starting them all back at no.1 with simplified back stories and in some cases changes to the origins.

Retcons. The curse of the American superhero-based comics industry. Ever since DC killed Superman, brought him back in a new costume before slowly reverting him back to the old blue-and-red romper suit, this nonsense happens on an annual basis. The claim is always that creators want to do something fresh and new with the old franchises. Rubbish. It’s all about squeezing a few more cents out of them. The new editions are scheduled to take place over the traditionally quiet sales period of September. No. 1’s of any title always sell, and all of a sudden DC are flooding the market with 52 of the buggers at once.

The argument brought forward by DC head Dan DiDio is that it’s a chance to make the books relavent for a 21st century audience who have little investment in the stories of the past. Which is, in it’s way, fair comment. Fifty years of character development and story cruft can leave any title in a funk, unable to properly innovate or tell tales in a fresh way.

But, as comics blogger and funny-book shop owner Mike Sterling points out, a jumping-on point can also be a jumping off point. The end of a story gives the bored reader who just wanted to see how things turn out the excuse not to bother with next month’s issue. Especially if it’s not the character he or she enjoyed reading about.

I’ve long been bored with the American superhero-based comics industry’s obsession with huge, multi-book events and gimmicky promotions, to the detriment of decent characterisation and storytelling. If this event doesn’t work, it could signal a reboot for DC as a whole, becoming a placeholder for superhero franchises, a brand name for movies, TV shows and lunchboxes. Which can only be bad news for fans and retailers again. Mike Sterling again:

“While I’m curious as a fan about what DC is doing, as a retailer I’m a little worried. Not just about the jumping-off point thing I noted already, but also about how I’m going to explain this to the customers who are going to be caught completely by surprise by DC’s plans. I know it sounds strange, since all of you reading this are plugged into the Web Matrix-style via interface ports at the bases of your skulls, but I have regular customers for whom their exposure to comics news comes from walking into the store and looking at the rack to see what’s new. I can hear them already: “Hey, why is Superman at issue #1 again? And Batman? …And, hey, Legion of Super-HeroesAgain? What’s going on?” Which is fine…that’s part of my job, to explain what new dumb thing a comic publisher has done to confuse and frighten its readership this week.

But as a pal of mine noted to me in email, if this particular publishing initiative falls flat on its face, where does DC go from there? This is an awfully drastic and wide-ranging strategy that won’t be easy to reverse without some consequences. And not just of the “fans and Marvel Comics laughing at DC’s failure” kind, but having highers-up at Warner Brothers looking at the crash-and-burn and thinking “that didn’t work, so why are we bothering with these pamphlet-thingies? Let’s just do cartoons and movies with these characters, and make some real money on them.”

Yes, quite. Although I’m no fan of capes and masks any more, and will gleefully and at length point out how comics are so much more, I don’t want to see a huge part of the industry collapse into rubble. I can see DC’s core readership shrink rapidly as no-one wants to read crappy new interpretations of perfectly good characters, with no new fanbase to take over. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. But confusing and alienating your customers is no way to run a business.

However, there’s no reason you can’t have a little fun with the idea…

Oh, and if you want to know how to elegantly tell an origin story without letting it taking over an issue, Grant Morrison’s four panel recap that started off his masterly All-Star Superman is the way to go. Perfect comics work.

Four panels. Eight Words. Seventy Years Of Back-story.

*One last thing. The heads up/impetus/desperate steal of an idea at the end of a dry creative day for this one came from long time X&HTeam-mate, Rob May. His new geek-friendly website Cake And Lies is very much worth your time. And as he says here, there are prizes to be won.