Thursday, December 3, 2009

Careful kids, hype kills!

Sometimes, having no access to a great piece of fiction can be a good thing.

Growing up in small town New Zealand, there wasn't a lot of choice or quality when it came to entertainments. Films I could easily read about in magazines and books were simply unavailable. That long-standing obsession I had with Hammer horror films without actually seeing many of them came out of this, the passion fuelled by the odd picture or synopsis.

All I had to go on was my idea of what they would be like. Over the years this would fire up into unrealistic expectations, and the inevitable disappointment that would hit when I finally got to see the Satanic Rites of Dracula was only to be expected. (Although Cushing and Lee remained, as ever, fucking brilliant and I still have a huge soft spot for all the cheap character actors that filled out the cast lists on Hammer films.)

Reading about semi-obscure movies like Performance sent my imagination into overdrive. What little I knew about it made it sound like the greatest film in the world, mixing haunted houses with fluid identity crises, with all the required sex, drugs and rock and roll.

When I eventually saw it, the film didn't stand a chance of living up to those expectations, and apart from tiny slices of pure liquid genius and the odd dose of fantastic dialogue (“I am a bullet”), it was less than the film I’d imagined.

It gets to the point where disappointment is almost a requirement, and any joy is bonus. When I was a lot younger, my favourite book in the entire world was Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, the novelisation of the BBC adventure adapted by the great Terrence Dicks. I must have read that a hundred times, long before I even knew which Doctor it was in the story (The cover, with the required Dalek action and a gas-mask and leather-clad Roboman, offered no clue. At first, I honestly thought it was the John Pertwee Doctor taking part in the story.)

It’s a great little book, with a perfectly paced plot that splits everybody up, sends them off on all sorts of adventures that shows the effects a devastating alien occupation has on the human soul, facing literally unimaginable horrors along the way. I can sometimes still hear the Slither moving around in the dark.

By the time I eventually saw the original six-part programme, 10 years after first reading the book and 25 years after it was first broadcast, I was used to the awful production standards of mid-1960s television production, but the wobbly flying saucers and clumsy action sequences still caused me pain.

It was still a fantastic story, and an absolute masterclass in how to keep various plot strands ticking along, with characters splitting up, reuniting, and splitting up again before all meeting up again at the climax.

But the actual presentation of the story suffered from the fact it was made by the BBC in the 1960s for about three pounds. The production crew got some great mileage out of empty British landscapes and a harrowing chase across London, with two women and a man in a wheelchair racing to a thudding drum beat, but the good bits were drowned in a sea of dodgy accents and cardboard sets.

It keeps happening. In recent years the one that hit me hardest would be Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, where I actually liked the basic ideas behind the character and concept a lot more than the stories themselves. There are still bits of odd genius and it is easier once you stop worrying about how Jerry could die and then reappear as an African lesbian, but the actual stories never quite reached the heights hoped for.

And that bled on into Matt Fraction’s Casanova comic. I wanted to like Casanova so, so much, and all the pieces were there. Smart young creators with unique worldviews, promises of super-sexy fast-cut sci-fi spy-action in exotic locations. But it never really clicked with me. The overabundance of sheer information can be overwhelming, combined with the general unlikeability of almost all of the characters, and it just doesn't click.

The obvious answer is that I should get out there and create my own, but we all need entertainment, and I should get over the idea that what is in my head is not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be. This is a common nerd affliction, now officially known as Phantom Menace syndrome.

I still suffer mightily from this problem, a situation that isn’t helped by the fantastic job many movie trailers are capable of in the 21st century. I actually find the trailers for things like the new Star Trek movie rather moving, a standard a two hour movie was always going to struggle to match. Occasionally it does. Often it does not.

But it’s not just that rabid expectation that is doing my head in. It’s the filling in the gaps, only to find that the actual product is nowhere near as good as I’d dreamed and hoped it would be.

This is part of the nature of collecting comics, or at least it was before everything got collected in big, funky books. Unless you were one of the few that has been there since the start, sorting out a decent Captain America collection without resorting to expensive reprints means you’re going to be reading it piecemeal – bits of Mark Gruenwald here, slices of Kirby there.

Reading stories that have giant holes in the narrative mean the reader has to rely on their own reasoning, deduction and imagination to fill in those spaces. And sadly, most of the time the real thing doesn’t stand a chance of being as good as we all hope it will be.

Because we always hope for the best, and the merely adequate is not enough to meet that ideal. Whether it’s waiting for a new movie or wondering what happened in AllNow Comics #69, that sense of anticipation can keep interest humming along, but it can also lead to pure disappointment.

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