Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sucked into 90-Day Fiance



I've always been an absolute snob about reality TV, even with a hypocritical addiction to Storage Wars. But the lovely wife loves 90-Day Fiance, and watches several hours of it every week, and I can't help getting sucked in.

We live in a small place, so even though the concept itself is gross and voyeuristic, there is nowhere for me to go when she's watching it. That's fine by me, I just read a book, or cash in on the one hour of video-gaming that I set every week.

But it seeps through - why is that dude that looks like a turnip so petty and demanding about anything? Can't that other dude recognise that somebody is catfishing he fuck out of him - seriously dude, if you go to visit her six times in the Ukraine, and she never shows, she's not real.

And even in this cheapest form of entertainment, there are moments of real cinema - when Ukraine girl doesn't show for the sixth time, and the dumb and broken hearted American slinks away, leaving half a bottle of stale champagne behind, the cafe owner just shrugs, says she sees this kind of shit all the time, and uses his forgotten flowers to brighten up her joint. Legend.

And then there are twists - Ukraine girl does exist!  - and it's such a ride. I don't care if it's not cool, the way Rose told Big Ed she thought he was just a bad person was as stone-cold as anything that happens in Ozark or Luther. Non-prestige TV has its moments.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Driver: Face! In the Hole!

The Hire series of short films starring Clive Owen  as a driver in increasingly tense and ludicrous situations are pure advertising hype for some very nice BMWs, but also feature some of the world's best directors getting let loose to do the best car chase scene money can buy, and that worked out very nicely for everyone concerned.


In Guy Ritchie's wonderfully frivolous effort, Owen has never, ever been funnier than his split-second jazz hands of madness, and Madonna shows more self reflection than you'd ever expect. It might be full of the most obvious musical drops known to humanity, but is seven minutes of exceptional comic timing, vicious justice and balls-out city driving.

 There are no such laughs and bugger all car action in The Follow from Wong Kar-Wai, although there is a lot going when Owen at the bar, thinking his head off, or in his rambling, poetic voiceover.

After Ronin, you always know that Frankenheimer's effort would be some classic meat and potatoes car action, with plenty of balls-to-the wall acceleration and crisp, clear editing. But Ang Lee's film offered a different kind of car chase, less about the speed and heavy on the graceful turns and spins.


This went out into the world before YouTube existed, so a lot of the films have dated badly and look exactly of the era they were made, but Tony Scott's film is eternal, and  isTony Scott at his most Tony Scott. It's the only time you'll ever get Owen, James Brown, Gary Oldman, Danny Trejo and Marilyn Manson in the same film, has an old man racing the devil to regain his legendary youth; and employs every single cinematic trick in the book, in the way that only Tony Scott could ever do.

Cool.

I'm never going to buy a BMW, so I'm not the target market for these films, but boy, did they serve up some thrills.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Looking for universes in the Friday night shopping


Going into town for the Friday night sales was still a thing when I was a kid, because weekends were not for shopping. Shops were only open on Saturday morning, and then closed for the rest of the weekend, so you had to get your shit done before it all closed down. Even the supermarkets shut up shop, which was awesome, because the carparks made terrific bike ramps for my Grifter.

Once every few weeks, for years and years, Mum would take us into town to do all the clothes shopping, and get new wool, and do whatever else Mums would do. I was always keen, because at some point they'd let me loose on the local book shops, and that was everything I wanted in life.

Going to the bookshop - any bookshop - was always a thrill, because every one had a dozen different kinds of comics and magazines and novels. Most of these thing were prohibitively expensive - I might be able to get 55 cents out of Mum for the latest 2000ad and one more comic if I was lucky and hadn't been a shit that week, and that was usually it - but browsing was free.

In the mid-eighties, in a town of 25,000 people, there were half a dozen good independent bookstores in a five block radius, so it didn't matter what part of town Mum wanted to go to, there was a slice of nerd nirvana nearby. Each store would get different things, you'd find Secret Wars in one store and Indiana Jones comics in another, but you wouldn't find those titles anywhere else, so you had to scope them all out if you wanted to know what was going on in the Marvel or DC universes.

There were also a couple of second hand bookstores, including the one store that was more responsible for a lifelong obsession with comics than any other, both down the slightly dodgier end of the main street, where I'd meet with my mates and we'd literally fight over Uncanny X-Men and World's Finest comics.

We didn't know how lucky we were. Apart from that second-hand store, which is still trucking along, there is nothing like that now, back in my old home town. Just a couple of chain bookstores left, selling the same shit everybody else sells. The hegemony of corporate book retailing, with selection reduced to a formula, with no curation and no personality.

And they're all open and available all day, every day, and nobody keeps the doors open late on a Friday night anymore. There was value in telling consumerism to take a fuckin' hike for a day or two, and there was value in all those old bookstores, now nothing but memory.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

No head for heights in the movies


I always thought I was good with heights, and was climbing trees and crumbling buildings since I started to walk. But I'm really not, after recently discovered that I can't handle any film with a scene where people face a threat from being at an extreme height. 

It's obvious when you watch something like a Mission Impossible film - when we were saw Ghost Protocol on a giant IMAX screen and Tom Cruise steps outside for some fresh air at the Burj Khalifa, every sphincter in that room shut up shop, and didn't open again until they had him back inside the room. But even in Men In Black 3, where Will Smith is standing on the edge of a tall building, I can barely stand to watch. The Hudsucker Proxy is my least favourite Coen Brothers film to watch, because the point of view shots when people are hurtling to their death truly make me want to hurl.

I live in a ground-floor flat and work on level three of a four-storey building. Unless I find an excellent pine tree to climb, that's as high as I'm going anymore. The movies have taught me that much.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A goddamn greasy horrorshow


The fact that that Trump presidency is ending with less dignity than a crazy liqur and cheeseburger party is the only funny thing to come out of American politics in the past four years.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Don't throw it away: The random life of The Dice Man


Like many people, I read The Dice Man by Luke Reinhart at exactly the wrong age, falling in love with the philosophy as an 18-year-old, and then quickly growing out of it. 

It had an idea that was such a beautiful cop-out - if you left absolutely everything in your life in random chance, it's not your fault when you fuck up and hurt people. Except you're still choosing violence as an option, and forcing people into your stupid games can be deeply harmful.You don't have to sexually assault people just because you thought of it as an option, you fucking dickhead.

The Dice Man didn't fill that empty void of a young man's uselessness, still flailing around for looking for some direction in life, but it didn't hurt. It was another option, after all.

And I have always been weirdly addicted to harmless chance, and still do it, every single day. I have elaborate random-generating patterns centered on a base-nine number generator that I use when I'm trying to decide what book to read next, or what movie to watch.

It's so easy to get enticed by the philosophy of leaving everything in your life to chance, but it really isn't any way to live because you will undoubtedly end up hurting other people. But when you can't make a decision on what comic book to read next, you could do worse.

 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Mad's original crew were the greatest gang of idiots


It was genuinely surprising as an eighties kid to discover that the artists on the first couple of dozen of issues of Mad were producing the work they did in the 1950s - who knew that comic art could be so detailed and so slick and so modern-looking, even though it was drawn 20 years before I was born?

The extremely limited interactions I'd had with old comics at that age meant I was used to the crude shortcuts and chunky dynamism of regular monthly superhero comics, and the ones form the 1960s did not always age that well to these young eyes. But I also read those earliest Mad strips regularly, because those earliest strips were constantly reprinted in multiple forms. And I was always struck by how polished it all looked, nothing like the other things I'd seen drawn decades before the likes of Byrne and Perez.

That first crew that Harvey Kurtzman brought together were absolute comic geniuses. The work of Wood, Elder, Severin, Davis and all the others was so detailed, so rock-solid, with textures and depth that comics still haven't matched, all these years laer.


When we first think of Mad, most of us go to the gormless grin of Alfred E Neuman; or the eternal goofiness of the mighty Don Martin and the essential Sergio Aragones; or the right-on-target movie adaptions that were always right on target; or even, God help you, the lighter world of Dave Berg.

And while none of it is as beautiful as that original gang of idiots, that is literally the highest level of comic arts to follow up, so nobody should feel too bad about it. The first Mad comics are funny and seminal and the birth of a whole sub-industry, and spawned a title that outlived almost everybody who originally created it, and that glorious art on those glorious first issues is still as breathtakingly beautiful as it was, all those years ago.


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The cheap and cheerful appeal of the midday movie

I'm such a fucking cliche, because after several months being a stay-at-home Dad for more than half the week, I have caught myself watching bits and pieces of Lifetime films that regularly screen in the middle of the day. 

In my defense, the production values on these weightless movies is through the fucking roof. They look great, all shot in colourful high def, with blandly beautiful people with a pleasing ethnic mix, all decked out in stylish outfits and clothes and living in lovely and bright houses as they get up to all sorts of shenanigans.

The stories are full of love in the vineyards, or a sister dying of cancer, or an evil twin, or some PG-level murder, played out by actors you never see in anything ever again. They're all cheerfully off-brand versions of all the big stars, but also so much more. There's plenty of off-brand Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt variations, but it starts getting fun when you see the Lifetime version of Ben Mendelsohn or Michael Shannon showing up.

I am not the target audience for these things, but sometimes I leave one on the TV for five minutes too long, and I just let it run. I don't even have to watch the whole thing, they're always so predictable and safe. But they're pleasant enough to have on in the background when I'm writing some nonsense for this blog or play some Sudoku while the baby has her afternoon nap. The films might just be wallpaper, but it's tasteful and pretty wallpaper.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Traffic and the social construct



Years ago, I lived in a fairly inner-city flat where I could lie on the sofa in my room and see a huge intersection with multiple entries and exits, all on a steep hill, without any traffic lights or roundabout action. And I would get wasted, listen to the new Pulp album and could just watch the traffic move around for hours.

There was something in the way it worked, the way everyone knew what they were supposed to do, where to turn and when to give way. And the more fucked-up I would get, the more I would be convinced that it was all some kind of deeper metaphor for the way humans can work together, if they all agree on some straight and simple rules.

This may be why road rage can spark up out of nowhere. Sure, you might only be 10 seconds later to your destination when some prick pulls out right in front of you and dawdles down the street, but they're also breaking that unspoken contract - the one where we are looking out for each other, and working together for the common good. Bad drivers are just bad people.

And there are some bad fucking drivers out there, because there are many bad people - so many people who refuse to do some absolutely fucking basic things like wear a mask that could stop other people dying, and they're not just showing how much of a fucking asshole they are, they're fucking up the whole social dynamic.

Just drive sensibly and responsibly and we'll all get where we're going so much easier. That mad intersection worked so well and there weren't many mishaps, because we all knew that was a pain in the ass, and potentially tragic.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Kyle nearly has all the X in the world




After decades of searching and collecting, my mate Kyle is ridiculously close to getting a complete set of the original X-Men comic - all 500+ issues - and it's all my fault.

He was way more of a Thor boy when we first met, right in the middle of the eighties, although we first bonded over a full and honest shared appreciation for Charley's War and Judge Dredd. I had been reading X-Men comics on and off for years, but after I convinced Kyle to try some X-Factor, he was off and racing, and has never looked back. 

He started getting Uncanny X-Men just as I got distracted by other comics and just kept on going, all through the years. He never stopped getting the regular monthly issues in all the years since, and has got almost every issue of the 200+ that came out before that.

Getting a full set of X-Men comics is a huge accomplishment, especially in this part of the world. Comics are scarce and expensive on the arse end of the world, and I was genuinely impressed when he finally got all the issues that numbered in the 200s, a decade or so ago. And then about five years ago he got everything from Giant Sized #1 on, and now, incredibly, he's almost got all the Silver Age X-Men issues.

I never had that kind of dedication to one single title, and that kind of drive. I've been trying to complete a set of all 2000ad comics since I was five, and I'm still miles away, picking up vital back issues on an incredibly irregular basis.

But my pal doesn't have that kind of patience and has befriended a wide circle of comic nerds all over the world through his cheerful YouTube videos. He now deals with dudes in the States and the UK and Australia and all over the show, all with the ultimate goal of getting all that X.

He'll do it soon. He's almost paid off his house and will soon be able to put aside a few grand for the crucial last issues he needs, and I remain as impressed now as much as I ever was. 

I have no idea what he'll do after that. Maybe he'll go back to the Thor....

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Saucerful of Secrets: Deeply uncool




I know that repeatedly listening to Nick Mason's early Pink Floyd covers band is the 100 percent least cool thing you could do in the year 2020. But there I fucking go again anyway, drifting off into the uncool.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Using Sporcle to keep the brain ticking over


As I get older and older, I become increasingly convinced that my brain is just shriveling up like a tomato in the sun, and I need to keep feeding it and testing it to keep it ripe and juicy. Sometimes that means teaching myself something useless and new, like how to solve a Rubik's Cube, and sometimes it means playing the same Sporcle quizzes over and over again.

I love pub quizzes, and I love news quizzes, and I love quizzes that ask me to name every Doctor Who episode ever, especially when I can get better at them. The first time I tried to name all the 21st century episodes I managed around 55 percent. Now it's 100 percent, all the way, and I can easily name each adventure.

I also find the picture searches on Sporcle weirdly comforting - trying to identify all 260 Marvel characters in this picture gets things humming, even though I always, always fall about 15 short.

Look, I know there are better ways to keep the brain turning over, and certainly more useful, but I'll take what I can get. Knowing the title of every single episode of Doctor Who isn't big or clever, and nobody is ever going to ask me about it, but it's there now.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Last Black Man In San Francisco: No need for the worthy stick



I've been watching a lot of very worthy films recently - it just happens that way sometimes - and they're all been very important and full of important ideas and important themes and are all very, very serious. 

The Last Black Man In San Francisco is definitely worthy and important, but really stands out among the pack. It tackles issues of race and home and gentrification and community head on, and does it with such life and vigor and humour, it feels more alive than a thousand biopics about dead white men.

It's got insanely sharp dialogue, and you're really not sure where it's going to end up, but you're still ready to go along for the ride, like two grown men drifting through the city on a skateboard. 

I've been to the city a couple of times, but still feels like a fairy tale, even with that homeless dude taking a dump on the corner. It feels big and unreal and so does this story, but it's also achingly familiar, because I'll never own a home like the one, or even dream of it. 

And with that kind of universal longing, and the slightly absurd humour that sits alongside it, this film feels so vital, without ever smashing you over the skull with the worthy stick.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Witzke in the morning


The best writer on horror movies blocked me on social media some months ago, which is fair enough - the only way to survive on social media is to go heavy on the blocking - but it means it takes me ages to find their work now.

But Sean Witzke's piece about the history of fashion horror is so fucking good, and incisive and personal, that it puts all other horror writing to shame. There's so much trash articles about horror movies on the internet - making tedious arguments about obvious cases, talking about all the movies you expect them to talk about - that things like Witzke's piece are to be absolutely treasured. And are worth the fucking wait.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

It ain't up to you




Black Hawk Down is a hot and loud mess of a film, ideologically unsound and all over the fucking show. But it also has Eric Bana as a supremely relaxed modern warrior poet named Hoot who tells people that it's all about the man next to you, and nothing else, while he gobbles down as much chow as possible before he heads out again, and that's 4000% my jam.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Dredd's whole world in nine panels

 

Although I always took the Judge Dredd newspaper strips for granted, and saw them as just another part of the massive and sprawling tapestry of Dredd's world, they really were remarkable feats of storytelling.

The strips that were produced in the 1980s - usually by the classic Dredd team of John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ron Smith - never showed up in my local paper, but were often reprinted in annuals and sci-fi specials, with a couple of luxuriously large and loose softcover collections.

I read some of them for the first time in years just recently, and they are something I just took for granted as a kid, but I was a pretty drokkin' stupid kid, because this kind of hyperdense storytelling is incredible. Each story has a set-up, action and punch-line, in nine panels. Ideas that were too thin for a full six-page epic in the weekly 2000ad had a perfect length in these one-page wonders, while important events like the world-changing Apocalypse War are dealt with in a quick 11 panels.

Wagner and Grant were also very, very funny, with terrific ideas laced with great jokes, all told with that black irony of Mega City-One. Crucially, very few of the strips are set outside the walls of Mega City One, because the writers know it's the city and its mass of citizens that are the main characters of the story - Dredd is just the straight man, who gets everything under control.

Smith's art also used every inch of the page, and the artist still found room for his characteristically weird angles and contorted figures. He defined the look of Dredd for a few years, and a heavy dose of these strips confirms that his MC-1 is the definitive MC-1.

Entire company-line crossovers don't have as many ideas as a handful of these strips, and there's no messing around. It suits the lean efficiency of the Dredd character to have some economical storytelling, just as the character is also suited to 45 years of incrementally slow growth. It's all Dredd.


Monday, November 9, 2020

No movies for you


While I've been regularly going to movies for almost all my life, things have dropped off precipitously in the past year, thanks to the new child and the pandemic. 

But until now, I've been heading along to the cinema on an extremely regular basis since I was five. On average, it was almost certainly a movie a week for decades, except for the great and terrible cinematic drought that I suffered through for most of my teenage years

There were plenty of matinee screenings as a kid, lots of Terrance Hill and Bud Spencer, or the Village People movie, or anything that was on at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, while Mum and Dad were at housie with Nana. Going to the legendary State and Majestic theatres was a part of life.

But then we moved to a different town, and even though it was only 20 kays away, I was 10 and 20 kilometres is a long, long way when you're 10. I didn't go to the movies for an extremely long time.
It didn't matter if it was the latest Star Trek or Terminator or anything else in the period, I completely missed seeing it at the movies. I completely failed to see the new Indiana Jones at the theatre, and didn't see Batman in a cinema until Val Kilmer was in the suit.  

For about five or six years, the only film I saw at the movies was Edward Scissorhands. That was it. I came close to getting to T2 one Friday night, but my mate with a car never showed up, and I've never forgiven him for that.

Luckily, this celluloid desert was also during the boom days for video tapes, and what I lacked in quality cinematic experiences, I made up for in quantity of videos. Watching hundreds and hundreds of the things, cleaning out the shelves of the local video on the cheap-arse Tuesday deals.

It was good, but it wasn't the same.

Once I got a car and some disposable income, and then moved to a town with a multiplex, I went a bit crazy. I was at the theatre three times a week, going to anything that was showing - Mission Impossible, Romper Stomper, Speed, Batman Forever, Escape From LA, Lost Highway, Star Trek First Contact, Lone Star, yeah, whatever, I'll take anything and I'll see it three times.

It was some hardcore movie binging for years and years after that, and I don't regret any of it. I was thirsty for that cinema experience, and I needed to drink it all up. I'll probably need to do it again in another five years, the way things are going now.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Doctor Who: Drowning out the drums of war


 

I go through phases of listening to a lot of the Doctor Who audio adventures that Big Finish put out, and just discovered the library has a heap of them, so have been pounding through them.

Some of them have been great - I really like a lot of the Unbound ones, where continuity goes right out the window and into the vortex - and a few of them have been staggeringly mediocre. But the production values, foley work and acting are generally astounding, and the remixed theme for the War Doctor audios, starring the incomparable John Hurt is fuckin' rad. 

I still genuinely believe the Doctor Who theme music is a great big metaphor for the entire series - the solid beating rhythm that underlines it can be seen as the most basic and oddly linear of plots that almost all Who stories adhere to in a strict episodic format, while all that high-tech blaring that goes with it represents the craziness that gets slapped on top of that plot, all the outrageous sci-fi concepts and characters that the writers delight in dreaming up.

And the War Doctor remix adds another level, with the beat given a thudding military march, before being briefly overwhelmed as the music soars, and promises that there is still heroes out there, who will always stand up for the right thing, even during the horrors of conflict. That taste of heroism only lasts a moment, before the drums of war take over again, but it's still there. The Doctor is still there.

The War Doctor audios get a lot out of the incomparable talents of John Hurt in his final days, but they all start off with a fierce reminder of what the Doctor's story is all about. Even if he doesn't use that name anymore.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

What came first?



 Anytime I hear anybody mention the philosophical conundrum of what came first - the chicken or the egg - I remember seeing a scene from Head Of The Class, where cool teacher Howard Hesseman told his class that it was obvious. The egg was a potential chicken, and the chicken was an actual chicken, and since actuality is really real and potentiality is only the idea of being real, the chicken came first.

I'm sure more of life's conundrums would be revealed in middle-brow situation comedies from the late eighties, but it would probably take a lot of work to find them.

 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Kingsman The Red Diamond - Millar comics without Millar


Mark Millar's comics are thunderously high concept and blatantly designed to be blueprints for highly lucrative movies. And it's interesting that when Millar's concepts are handled without Millar's mannerisms, they can work surprisingly well.

When other writers work from, say, Alan Moore's plots, his lyricism is completely lost, and it's usually just more tediously average comics. But while his writings definitely has its faults - and some very obvious dialogue - Millar is a great ideas man, and seems happy to let trusted chums run with those ideas.

That's what you see in the Kingsman: Red Diamond, the sequel to the Millar/Dave Gibbons super-spy nonsense. After it was adapted to a movie, 2000ad vets Rob Williams and Simon Fraser came in for this 2017 comic to tie into the cinematic sequel.

And it's definitely set in Millar's world, with villains making ridiculously mannered pop-culture riffs and an absurd premise smashing into some clumsy and apparently heartfelt class warfare concepts.

But it's just not as grating, amd not quite as predictable as Millar's  patter. Fraser's art is his usual crisp, clear and colourful flowing lines and jarring body horror, and he is a terrific substitute for Dave bloody Gibbons, but Williams steps into Millar's shoes even more comfortably. It's lightweight and extremely disposable, but sometimes that's all you need in a dumb super-spy comic. 

Millar has been doing the same thing with new Hit Girl and Kick Ass comics, letting other get their hyper-violent kicks with the characters while he deals with Hollywood. And it's usually pretty painful when my favourite comic writers disappear into the meatgrinder of movie productions, but Millar as a showrunner for his comics is a good fit, because then the ideas don't always sound the same.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

How does Cyclops work?


It is an increasingly confusing and maddening world, but there was only one question that my brain wouldn't let go of at 4.14am this morning - Can Cyclops see when he's blasting away?

Even after reading X-Men comics for the vast majority of my life, I still have no real idea how Cyclops' powers work, or if it's ever been address. Can he see when he uses the awesome power of his optic blasts? Is he looking down the shaft of the ruby beam? Or does he just literally see red?

There are many, many more things I could have been worried about in the depth of the night, on both a personal and global level, and it's almost obscene to be thinking about such ephemeral trivia as the world, but the brain goes where the brain goes. I don't have any control of the fucking thing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Stuck in the awful with Simon Hanselmann


Simon Hanselmann's comics are full of awful people doing awful things to each other for no good reason. Each story is full of the miserable lives of young people in a grotty flat, and it would be hard to take if it was not rendered with a wonderful crudeness that is open, cheerful and colourful, even as it deals with the worst kinds of behaviour. 

Hanselmann has devoted hundreds of pages to the mistreatment of Owl, and to Meg and Mogg and their magnificent fuck-ups, and the sheer gory terror of Werewolf Jones and his nightmare brood. It goes on and on and on.

But the best parts of always when somebody ends up sitting still on the sofa, wide eyed with the terrible realisation that they're a piece of shit, and they're trapped in an awful situation of their own making, and Hanselmann drags it so far out that it becomes a thing of beauty. 

A lot of us go through these periods in our lives, hanging around with dropkicks and losers and people just like us, and sometimes we realise how futile it all is. Some of us end up like Werewolf Jones, roaring down a rollercoaster of depravity that can only end in an early demise, and many of us are like Owl, and eventually have enough of this shit and take off.

But even if we move on, there's no forgetting our own long, dark cycle of the soul that opens up while you're sitting on the sofa, stuck in time, and stuck in the awful.

 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Fighting Fantasy: Roaming and fighting in an open world

 Video games were hugely expensive when I was a kid, even though they were massively simple affairs, but you only needed less than five bucks to get into a whole world of adventure in the brilliant Fighting Fantasy books. Especially when they went open world.

They were a natural progression from the Choose Your Own Adventures books, offering up a tonne of sword and sorcery and adding more dice-based gaming to the storytelling as you picked your way through the narrative. They were still nowhere near as complex as the full role-playing adventures in Dungeons and Dragons, but they were the next step.

The first I ever got was Forest of Doom one one mid-80s Christmas - I'd seen them in the shops and had been begging for one - and I hid in my room to play the shit out of that game all that afternoon while all the other kids were outside in the sun. I still played it properly with the dice and everything, although after a few books I just straight-up cheated and went through the book assuming I win all the fights, because it was such a bummer to just stop a story dead because you rolled three ones in a row.

As the first in the series, Warlock of Firetop Mountain set the template, with barbarians and monsters and evil magicians and tunnels and death traps everywhere. But authors Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson were willing to bend that template as soon as possible, and got out into the dungeons and into the stars, like the fourth book Starship Traveller. (Although this was one of the few that I never successfully completed, because there was always a point where you got stuck if you hadn't picked up some sort of key information from some side-trip, and that was that, and I still feel a bit bitter about it).

Scorpion Swamp was particularly memorable, because it required you to draw a map, and gave the story more of an open world feel, where you could go anywhere It would be more than another decade before Grand Theft Auto's creators even starting thinking about an open world game, but it was already there in these cheap books.

They fell heavily out of fashion within a couple of years, but I've still held onto many of the. Especially those early ones, which had terrific covers, if nothing else. Maybe I'll give them another go. I probably won't bother with the dice, though.


Sunday, November 1, 2020