Sunday, June 30, 2013

The day we saw the Loch Ness monster

Nobody actually expects to see the Loch Ness Monster when they go visit the Scottish lake. The odds of seeing something weird in those dark waters are just so implausible, especially when you're surrounded by hundreds of other tourists on a dreary weekday afternoon.

Nobody really thinks they'll see this thing, which has become ingrained in the modern collective unconscious – a monster that everybody has heard of, but nobody ever really sees. Nobody feels real disappointment when they go to the lake and see nothing, because, really, what are the chances?

And nobody believes us when we say we saw it, but we really did.

The lovely wife and I have been to Scotland twice – the second time was just last year, when we went so far north we fell off the end and ended up in the Orkney Islands. But the first time we went to Scotland we only got as far north as Loch Ness.

It was the summer of 2007, and we were on a first major trip around the world, a newly married couple checking out the planet, and liking what we see. Scotland was about halfway through a six-month trip, and we were only in Edinburgh for a few days before heading off to Europe for a couple of months.

Time was tight, but we had to go see the Loch Ness, because I'd been fascinated by its story, ever since I was a little kid. So we caught a coach up there, saw the lake, bought the tea towel and went for a cheesy boat ride on a tourist vessel packed with sonar equipment.

And we spend about an hour on the lake, and we're heading back to port, and we’re facing backwards while everyone is looking out the sonar screen, and the shore is about 30m away and between us and the shore, there is something there and....


Nessie was one of my absolute favourite real life monsters as a kid. I looked at every blurry photo and read any dodgy book and magazine article I could find on the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t care that all the famous photos of the monster have been debunked over the years – I still love them.

In fact, it was probably my favourite, followed closely by Bigfoot (almost entirely due to that few seconds of the Patterson–Gimlin film – I still find the way he swings his arms particularly haunting). There was just something a little creepy about Loch Ness, and that old, dark lake, and the secrets it hides, and all the stories it generates.

I know there isn’t really a monster. I know that there is no dinosaur in that lake, and that most of the sightings and photos have been the work of hoaxers and the over-eager. I know the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t really exist.

I still saw it.

This is what we saw:

About 10m out from the shore, at a part where the hillside dives sharply into the water, there is something in the water. Janie sees it first and points it out to me.

It looks like two brown dolphins briefly breaking the surface of the water, rolling over smoothly and barely making a ripple on the surface. Two months before this, we’d had the extraordinary luck to be barrelling around New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds in a small boat with a two-stroke motor, surrounded by a pod of hundreds of dolphins, so we were familiar with that kind of motion.

The moment only lasted two or three seconds, and then there was nothing, and the lake was still again.

It wasn’t a great ‘HOLY SHIT’ moment, just a deeply profound moment of ‘HUH?’.

Was that….? Did we….? Could it…?

The first thing we asked the guide on the boat was whether there were dolphins in the lake, because that’s what we thought we saw, but he just laughed at us, and said they’d choke on the peat. We told him we just thought we saw dolphins, and he said it was probably just diving ducks.

I don’t know what the hell we saw, but I do know one thing: That weren’t no ducks.

Obviously, I didn’t get any photos, but I don’t regret that one fact, not one little bit.

It was all over so quickly, that if I had been scrambling around for the camera, I might not really have seen it at all, and I wouldn't have the moment seared into my brain, like it is now. There was just no time to react, only to gawp.

I'm still so grateful that the wife also saw it, because I'm sure I would have convinced myself I'd imagined it by now, if I'd been on my own. But we both saw it, and we both saw the same thing, so it can't have been a figment of the imagination. We really did see the monster.

I mean, we still barely believe it ourselves, even with that back-up, so we don't blame anybody else for not believing us. I totally wouldn’t believe us. I would laugh at any of my mates who said they saw Bigfoot, (or even a moa). I can only expect the same in return.

Nobody really sees the monster. Only bullshitters would say they did. Especially when they didn't even get any damn photos.

I don't care. I know I saw something, and she saw something, so there definitely was something out there on the lake, that grey Tuesday afternoon in 2007.

And it might have been otters, or big bloody fish, or some strange optical illusion, or even those diving ducks, but I really don't want to know the truth. (It was definitely something living, I can say that much.)

Because, as sad as it sounds, that was one of the best moments of my entire life. I went to Loch Ness and saw something strange, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be that lucky. But I was, and now I've got a story and an experience that I will take to my grave, and I don't care if nobody believes me, or scoffs when I say I saw it. It was still one of the greatest days ever.

We also stopped by the Loch when we were heading north last year, and spent a lovely sunny Sunday morning wandering around Urquhart Castle and eating tablet, and I kept glancing out at Loch Ness and looking for strange wakes and waves.

I didn't see shit, but that's okay.

I'd already got a lifetime's worth of strangeness out of those waters.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“Superheroes aren't real?!?”

Someone once told me that children only become proper human beings when they realise that they are going to die someday. An awareness of our own mortality is a shattering moment, but it's a vital part of being human.

I don't remember that moment as a child, although I was always a morbid little shit. What I do remember, with remarkable clarity, is the exact moment when I realised superheroes weren't real.

I can remember the exact moment, and I know it was before I was six-years-old, because we moved out of the house where it happened in 1981. I can remember the absolute revelation that Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and The Hulk weren't real, and I was sitting at the bench of our kitchen on Tawa Street, somewhere around 1980.

I'm getting on a bit now, but I can also still remember the times before that, as a toddler when I did actually believe that superheroes were real, and lived in overseas places like New York and London and Gotham.

After all, the first five years of anybody's life is a deeply confusing experience, just figuring out how the world works. My primary memories of early childhood all revolve around bafflement – Why does Dad have to go away every day? Why.did that girl at playcentre put a staple in her finger? Who am I, anyway? (To be fair, this last one still troubles me today.)

And since there were always comics lying around – I honestly don't remember a time in my life when I wasn't reading comics – I put a lot of my toddler brainpower into the question of superheroes, and how I could meet them, or even become them.

I mean, there was always the sixties Batman show, and I also remember seeing Supermen episodes on television (which must have been the old George Reeves stuff, I guess). I was having a lot of trouble telling the difference between fact and fiction, and Batman seemed just as plausible as Abraham Lincoln in my little head.

Places like New York seemed so far away when you grow up on the arse end of the world, so there was every chance Spider-Man was really swinging around (and he was on the telly too). All I knew about America came from the movies and TV, and they had astronauts and movie stars, so why couldn't they have superheroes?

To add to this general confusion, there were real life celebrities who also seemed a little superhuman. All the actors that were too handsome or too beautiful for reality, or the crazy stuntmen like Evil Kenveial and his garish outfits. I remember thinking of the great sportspeople of that day as some kind of superheroes, with names like Kareem Abdul Jabar and Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali. People who could do extraordinary things, and often battled for social justice as well, who also seemed to show up in comics - Ali was even fighting Superman. I never got to read that comic as a kid – I just saw lots of ads – so he must've been a superhero too..

There were even real-life supervillains, like our Prime Minister at the time, a cackling gnome who once announced a general election while pissed out of his skull, and weird psycho killers with comicbook names like Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan

So of course superheroes were real. I'd even seen them for myself, and I don't just mean the guy in the disappointing Spider-Man costume who showed up at the Highfield supermarket, and was clearly using ropes to wallcrawl (I was four and even I could tell he was a phoney Spidey).

I also saw Batman and Superman walking along the street outside my house, their clean boots crunching on the gravel of the pavement. It was late at night, and I heard them walking along the street, and sat up in bed and looked out the window, and it was Batman and Superman, walking down the street, murmuring in quiet conversation.

They didn't look like real people, or like cartoon drawings, but something inbetween, like a strange digital effect in the age of the analogue. And they walked right past my house, and down the street.

It was almost certainly a dream, or maybe I saw some people off to a costume party and it exploded my young brain, but that memory is filed away there, right next to the day I saw the Loch Ness Monster.

And there I am, a five-year-old kid awash in a world of pop culture, far away from the rest of the civilised world, looking up into the blue sky for any sign of any flying men.

And then I'm sitting up at the kitchen bench, and my little sister is in her high chair, and Mum is cooking us some lunch and I'm reading some Curt Swan Superman and it all clicks and I suddenly realise this is all just bullshit.

Well, I don't use words like that at that age, but the sentiment is the same. I can't even remember what it was about that Superman story, but I suddenly realised that nobody can do the things Superman does. He's impossible. He's not real.

I ask my Mum if Superman is real, and she tells me that of course he is, and I know she's lying, because nobody can fly, nobody has heat vision, and nobody is invunerable. It's all made up.

The fact that I know that my mother is lying to me about it is troubling enough, but the sudden and sharp divide between fact and fiction becomes crystal clear, and it's scary as hell.

But only for a while, and even though the lines between fact and fiction do sometimes still get a bit blurred, I was glad to know the distinction.

I held out hope for a real Batman, mainly because Adam West seemed perfectly plausible, but that didn't last long either, and I stopped believing in him too.

The same ruthless logic was soon applied to Santa Claus – nobody could get round the whole world in one night – but I pretended to believe in him for years so I could get the extra presents.

But the line between fact and fiction was drawn, and there would be no erasing of it.

I've always like superheroes, and I probably always will. But sometimes I think I can never love them as much as I did when I really believed in them.


I did so see the Loch Ness monster.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Talking shit about movies: Valhalla Rising, The Great Gatsby, Queens of the Stone Age, trailers for Martin Scorsese films, new Mad Max and Apocalypse Now

I was watching Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising film on my laptop the other day, and the instant the film ended, something catastrophic happened to the computer. Turned out to be an irreparable failure of the hard drive, so I can only assume the thing was killed by the sheer awesomeness of Mads Mikkelsen's sneer.

The reviews for the most recent version of The Great Gatsby were painfully predictable, pointing out that a Baz Luhrmann film was all style over substance, with the film overwhelmed with glitz and swooshing cameras and an oppressive soundtrack, like that's some kind of new observation, rather than anything people were saying 20 years ago.

Those reviews may have a point, but I have the opposite problem, and wanted it to be even crazier. I'm always down for some glitz and outrageous glamour, and if you're going to go down that road, you might as well go all the damn way. Showing any type of restraint in when you’re shooting for this level of decadence is a sin.

So The Great Gatsby turned out to be a bit of a PG-13 horror film, without the gust to go fully crazy. It’s beautifully absurd up to a specific point – and that point is reached and transcended during the brilliant moment when Gatsby reveals himself, with literal fireworks in the background - but then it all shifts down a gear, and ultimately loses its bid for gaudy greatness.

I’m still glad I went, because it's still bloody Gatsby, and it's certainly better than the hazy seventies effort, and all the women I know thought it was fabulous, and all the guys I talked to about the film appeared to be actively repulsed by the idea of going to see it, so it must have been doing something right.

It might just be because I've been listening to ...Like Clockwork a whole lot lately (it's the first proper album I've bought in months), but I really wish somebody would use Queens Of The Stone Age for a whole soundtrack.

I love it when a rock and pop band comes in and does the soundtrack for a whole film, giving it a level of style that a playlist of various tunes can rarely achieve. I loved it when they used Queen for the Flash Gordon soundtrack (an album that has held up surprisingly well, and possibly better than the movie itself). I loved it when Air did all the music for the Virgin Suicides, giving Sofia Coppola's first – and best – film its exquisitely dreary and menacingly plodding sound. And I loved it when Pink Floyd fucked around out on the edge of Zabriskie Point.

And I would love it if Josh Homme and his Queens Of The Stone Age chums would do something for a movie that could make great use of their menacing growl, slow dirges, sudden bursts of frenetic musical violence and long, protracted periods of guitar wankery. That could be something groovy.

Most times, I like the trailers to Martin Scorsese films more than I like the actual film, (and I often end up liking the film a lot too). The Wolf of Wall Street looks no different, and it’s a typical bloody Scorsese trailer too, cut to that same fast and popping beats that all of his films get previewed with. Although it does looks like the film is worth seeing just to see some more sleazy Matthew McConaughey, because sleazy McConaughey has unexpectedly become one of the most entertaining things in modern cinema.

I'm still hopelessly optimistic about the immediate future of cinema and, as always, I’m hoping for the best. There are a bunch of films coming out in the coming weeks and months that I’d deeply looking forward to seeing, like A Field In England and Upstream Color and Kick-Ass 2 and Gravity and The World’s End and Only God Forgives and Stoker and even the new Superman film, which hasn't opened here yet. 

But the one film I'm looking forward to more than anything else put together is the new Mad Max film. I know that when a new movie in a beloved series comes out years after the rest, it’s not a good sign, and few can match the thrills of the original, even with the same creators on board. But I adore the Mad Max films with the power of a dirty great V8 because speed + crazy fucking stuntmen + Australians = balls-out mentalness, and I was greatly heartened by a recent article I read that said the only CGI they’re employing is the wiping of the safety wires. (The use of computer effects for stuntwork destroys all the value of the crazy bastard who does actually put his life on the line for our entertainment.)

Also, the new film is partly written by Brendan McCarthy, so they have me right there.

One of the (many) nice things about having a wife who is nine years younger than me is that even though she is pretty clued-up, I've still had a bunch of years to watch a lot more films than her, so there are a lot of movies that I assume she's seen, because everybody from my generation was into them, but she has no idea what I’m on about, so we have to sit and watch them again, and I get to see how a favourite film is seen through a new pair of eyes.

She has seen a lot of films from the past 20 years, but she is particularly dark on the seventies, so every now and then I get to whip out a French Connection or The Exorcist, and see how it stands up, after all these years. Every now and then she will surprise me by revealing that she’s never seen something as obvious as the Godfather films, and we’ll have to immediately check that out. (She usually provides the motivation for us to sit down and watch one of these films. I don’t force anything on her, even if I’m convinced she’ll love it.)

That’s what happened this week. We’re going to watch Apocalypse Now tonight. She says she’s super keen to see it, but I don’t think she really knows what she is in for.

The horror. The horror.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fatale: Horror, out of order

Despite its impeccable good looks and fine heritage, it is taking me a while to fully fall for the charms of Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Even though I'm a great admirer of their Criminal comics, I'm still not totally convinced by their latest work.

This trepidation means that I keep missing the odd issue in the series, because I've never been moved enough to get it on a special order, while still interested enough to buy copies up off the shelves, whenever I see them.

This mean that even though the series is little more than a year old, I've already missed out on a few issues that I've came back to later. In an odd coincidence, I got the first two issues of the first two story arcs in order, than skipped straight to the end of both, before going back and filling in the gaps.

It makes a complicated narrative even more complicated, but that's okay. I don't think there is anything wrong with a bit of complication in your narrative.

Back when I was 20 and convinced that Quentin Tarantino was the greatest living filmmaker, I was baffled by the fact that some people just couldn't follow the plot of Pulp Fiction, because it was told out of order. I had no problems following the storyline, and could handle the way John Travolta is gunned down halfway through, but still gets to walk triumphantly out of that diner at the end.

I think it's largely due to a lifelong comic book habit. I'm used to reading stories out of order because comic books are mainly serialised things, and the nature of serialisation means that issues are missed, or dropped, or lost. Or you can come into a narrative that has been running far longer than you've been alive, with no idea of the insanely complicated backstory that led to the current status quo.

In my case, take the mid-seventies Avengers. I had a couple of the issues that involved that whole Korvac thing before I was 10, but only read the issues in-between in the past year. That's a non-linear story that I've been following, told out of order over a period of decades, but I was still able to follow the story as a little kid, and I was still able to be surprised by the way the individual issues linked together as a grown man.

Compared to that, all the cinematic time-warping of something like a Tarantino film is a piece of piss.

Once I started living near comic shops, I started reading stories in more of an order, but I still come to things from the completely wrong chronological perspective, and it rarely damages my appreciation, if the comic is good enough that each individual part of it stands on its own merits. I genuinely think Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser's Nikolai Dante is one of the best comic stories I've read in the past decade, and I only read the last third of that long saga in the proper order, and I think there are still some individual episodes of the story I have to catch up on. Doesn't matter. Still love it, in any order.

And then there is something like Fatale, which I like enough to follow, but not enough to guarantee each issue is put aside for me. It's a comic that is often impressive, and just as often problematic, which means I'm completely lazy about the actual purchase of issues.

I'm not sure where this slight dissatisfaction with Fatale comes from, and it might just because I really wish they were doing Criminal comics instead. I'm certainly less enamoured of pulp theatrics as Brubaker is, (I usually like the ideas in pulp bullshit, but can't handle the execution), and I feel less connected to immortal love goddesses than the desperate losers in Brubaker/Phillips' other main work.

And just the basic concept, of the noir femme fatale in a Lovecraftian world of eldritch horrors, feels just a bit too old-fashioned, (although I might just be saying that because I finally got to see John Dies At The End last night, and the way it told it's story of vast, gooey entities trying to break into our world felt pretty fucking fresh.) This story, and the way it is presented, feels particularly well-trodden.

Fatale also uses the trick of pandering to a cliché – in this case, the femme fatale who brings ruin to everybody around her – but getting away with it by ironically commenting on the fact that it is a cliché. It's a classic case of having the cake and eating it too, and while it's not always a bad thing – Garth Ennis had built a successful career on pointing out that violence is horrible, while revelling in scenes of massacre – the cliché in this case is still borderline misogynistic and out-of-place in 21st century fiction.

And yet, Brubaker and Phillips are top creators, and never let that worrying cliché overwhelm the story. Josephine might be a harbinger of doom to all those who cross her path, but she's still just a confused human being, who still feels regret at the carnage she leaves behind. After a year of Fatale, there is enough hope that it will all work out for her, (although , this is one of theose stories where you might hope for a happy ending, but you're not going to get it).

And all the other characters feel like proper people, with fears and desires. Large parts of the cast die horrible deaths, but there are few faceless tragedies in Brubaker's scripts (and even a few laughs in the dark).

Of course, it helps that Sean Phillips' art is, as ever, fucking great. He still does the best betrayed look in modern comics, his action scenes are vivid and the colour palette is just right – dark and dirty when the characters descend into hell, and sharply bright when the horror really hits.

And the whole story is peculiarly followable, even when read out of order. Reading the start of each arc before skipping to the end, and then going back to fill the story in, actually made the story feel faster and more energetic.  

You don't do a jigsaw puzzle in order -- starting from one corner and moving along. It comes together in pieces, and some great stories have been told in this way.

It doesn't always work, even with the same creators. Criminal is so tightly plotted that it really does read best in one big book. And I was still grateful when Fatale did do a series of one-off stories after its first two arcs, which were much easier to follow

But I really don't have many problems reading a story in the wrong order. Because it's nothing new, and because it forces you to concentrate on the merits of the individual issue, and because coming at it from an odd perspective can be helpful in a story where the dimensional barriers between our world and unimaginable horror beginning to tear.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fast zombies and the arrogance of the now

Whenever I mention to somebody in real life how much I like zombie movies – and I like 'em a lot – I inevitably get asked what I like more: old-school slow zombies, shambling around at the speed of stagger; or fast, lethal zombies, with almost superhuman abilities to launch themselves at their prey.

The answer is obvious. Like all right-thinking people, I prefer them sloooooow. And not just because I'm a total snob about zombie film, but because those who say slow zombies aren't scary and could never wipe out the world of the living are showing the same sort of arrogance that will get their spleen ripped out when the dead do come knocking on their door.

I always have vivid and terrible nightmares the night after seeing a good zombie film, and this is a good thing when a bit of entertainment can affect you like that. Zombie movies are the only horror films (apart from the odd ghost story), that get inside my head and deeply scare me on a primal level, and it's totally all George Romero's fault.

It was the trailer for Dawn of the Dead that gave me my first nightmare when I was about 11. It was sitting on a video tape at the end of The Jewel In The Nile, and that two-minute trailer seriously freaked me out – I couldn't figure out what the story was about, but I was bloody fascinated by that blank horde of death, the weird seventies sheen and that awesome, awesome music. (I'm extremely, extremely excited about going to see Goblin perform a live soundtrack to Suspira at the film festival in a few weeks....)

I didn't see it for a few more years, but it ended up being one of the first video tapes I ever bought - and later, it was one of the very first DVDs I ever got, too. I've still got that tape sitting on the bookshelf next to me, and I still think it's not just a good horror film, but one of the greatest films of all time (it's been one of my top five favourite films ever for quite some time).  I love everything about that film, and it still creeps me out on a fundamental level, and it sparked an obsession for zombie movies that is still shuffling along, all these years later.

After Romero's films, the next easiest films to get hold of in my small town all came in badly dubbed English from Italy, and I gorged on Fulci, Bava and Lenzi fright flicks – their cheapness making them even more horrific, as clumsy gore splashed across the screen.

I lived, breathed and ate zombie films for a few years there. I watched everything - the good, the bad and the abominable, including Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, which I still rate as the worst film of all time. I got every issue of Fangoria and The Dark Side, with the latter magazine proving invaluable in tracking down the next obscure film. Me and my mates shot our own zombie epic on low-fi VHS, and I've still got that tape stuffed away somewhere too.

There was just something about zombies that I always loved. Something about the way they keep coming, and never stop, and are us, and they show how fragile modern society is, and how terrible it is to get stuck following the herd, and all that rotting meat and flesh-ripping.

Zombie films weren't ironic enough for the nineties, but the past decade has seen an explosion in zombie fiction and there has been lots of good stuff, and more every month. But there are also absolutely terrible ones, and I have enough willpower to resist watching the worst these days (it's easy to figure out which are the bad ones - any movies about zombie strippers are a real turn-off, and any zombie films that end with the living dead being cured are a particular bugbear, because YOU CAN'T CURE DEATH, and because it means the main protagonists are inevitably terrible murderers.)

The fact that zombies can sometimes run fast isn't a sure sign that the film is going to be rubbish – some talented filmmakers have done interesting things with the running dead – but they do show that they've missed the whole goddamned point of zombies.

There were, of course, running zombies as far back as the eighties and the magnificent Return of the Living Dead, but now it feels like almost every new zombie film has lightning-fast dead people. The whole thing has reached its apex with the tidal wave of pixellated dead in World War Z, climbing gigantic walls in impossible configerations. These digital ghouls don't come ambling towards you, groaning in dead despair, they're launching themselves at you with impossible swiftness, (and also severing the connection between the living and the dead that makes most zombie films so unsettling, but that's a whole other argument).

But we are told zombies have to be fast, otherwise people won't believe they're a threat. They say it's not realistic that the world would fall to such a slow-moving menace. They say slow zombies aren't scary. They say they're not a real threat for a modern audience.

They'll be the first to get eaten.

The fact that they are so slow is the very thing that makes the classic zombie movie concept so powerful, something that is lost in the jog of the dead. Society falls in apocalyptic zombie films precisely because that society doesn't take the threat seriously enough. When the dead shuffle towards the characters, the ones that get eaten are those who don't keep their eye on them, because they think they're not a threat.

It's part of the arrogance of the now – our civilisation thinks it's so powerful that it would take a monstrously large and swift event to bring it down, when it's really about a long, slow descent into extinction. The great historical civilisations didn't collapse in a day, they were slowly lost over decades and centuries, not in a burst of sudden chaos. While the zombie apocalypse was all kicked off by a singular Night of The Living Dead, it's a long, long fall towards the Day.

It's because people scoff at slow zombies and their clumsiness, and the fact that in a one-on-one fight, the human will usually win. But that's how they get you, like the biker gang at the end of Dawn, dying stupidly in blood pressure machines.  They're not less dangerous because they're slow - their victims are too complacent and don't see dead staggering towards them.

Until it's too late.

Monday, June 10, 2013

You're allowed to be a hater

Slagging people off is a great way to get page views, and I've got the stats to prove it. But I still try to keep my moaning to a minimum.

Of course, I’m as guilty of purely irrational negativity as much as anybody when it comes to my entertainments, and sometimes I hate everybody and everything they do, (and who doesn't?),  but I’m not really that interested in bitching about things too much in my writing here at the Tearoom, where the Despair is strictly ironic in a very-1992 way.

But you shouldn’t let that stop you from complaining about a comic or a movie or a TV show or a song you don't like. After all, anyone who insists that everybody should have the same opinion as them is a bloody fascist.

I'm not the only one who can't help reading poor reviews of things they love – reading negative reviews of the new Star Trek movie is like picking at a scab, because I fucking loved that movie – but I've still read plenty of them, and can take on the criticism. I doubt they will impact on my enjoyment of the film when I do see it again, even if I agree with some of the critical points.

But there are still some specific types of lazy criticism that still annoy the piss out of me, including, but not limited to:

* People saying Grant Morrison comics are full of weirdness for weirdness' sake, as if that was a bad thing. That's been wheeled out since the late eighties, and is looking pretty fucking dusty.

* Blind parroting of critical consensus, Everyone else is saying the same thing, so why not follow the herd over a cliff?

* This is a purely personal one, and it's a Doctor Who thing, but I've seen a lot of hip young Americans complain that a programme aimed at ten-year-old British kids doesn't meet their standards over the past couple of months. I still think it's pretty funny sometimes, but it's now definitely in the world of the obvious.

* A tendency to nitpick a film to pieces over pedantic shite. It's something that is especially prevalent in dork culture., but even my favourite (and non-genre) films of all time wouldn't stand up to that kind of pissy scrutiny.

* Any review that comes soaked in 21st century entitlement, filled with but-that's-not-what-I-wanted and here's-how-I'd-do-it.

* And, most of all, I can’t stand it when it gets personal.

So I was at these drinks a few weeks ago and I’m talking to Steve, somebody who was introduced to me as “someone who likes that geek shit too”, and within 30 seconds of the conversation starting, I already knew he was a wanker, because he said Deadwood was shit, and then he confirmed it when I made the mistake of saying the ending of Lost wasn't that bad, and that started him on a rant about Damon Lindelof, (except he kept pronouncing it Damon Lindhoff), and that's always a bad sign, because bitching about plot and script is an easy way for dumb people to look smart, and because everybody thinks they can do a better job than the writer, because that's not a skill or anything, and his rant was pretty epic, and got quite personal and insulting towards artists that failed to adequately entertain Steve, and it was an internet troll attack in real life, which I'd never even seen before, and he finished it all off with the sentence – “Damon Lindhoff can suck my cock off!”, and I genuinely didn't know what to say about that, and it was a bit uncomfortable, so I just took a sip of my beer instead.

Tsk. Steve.

But like I said, this was something that I hadn't actually seen in real life before, because it's remarkably easy to avoid this sort of thing in our multi-media world. I don't have to listen to the same boring old arguments, or irrational hatred, or general shit stirring. It's easy enough to find people who share the same opinion as me, and can back up everything I say, and it's easy to find trusted critics who can point out the flaws without getting bogged down in the usual complaints.

But there is one other group who really get my hackles up, and that's the hater-haters who insist everyone should see things they way they do. These tiny fascists, who insist that everybody has to love the sane thing they love, are even more annoying than the laziest of lazy critics.

There is a definite strain of it in most fandoms, and I see it all the time in both the world of comics and Doctor Who (which are the only two fandoms I can bear to really follow). They're relentless cheerleaders for something dorky, who fly off the handle at any criticism. Strictly speaking, I’m on often their side, because we both love the same thing. But I’m not on their side when they refuse to even entertain the possibility that somebody else might dig it as much as us. As if the lowest common denominator, which would be necessary to gain a universal audience, was something to aspire to.

One of the things I find endlessly irritating about geek culture is the absolutism of it all. Even though 80 per cent of everything falls within the boundaries of “okay”, it has to be the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever, with no room for the vast grey area in between. Likewise, many feel that they have to absolutely love or absolutely hate some small piece of entertainment, and are outraged that others might not feel the way they do, which is a pretty fucking stupid thing to be outraged by.

I can accept that people don't like the same things I do – I've been reading comics since I was three, and I'm a life-long fan of Doctor Who, so I'm certainly used to people slagging off the things I like.

But I can still disagree with them, even if they are my favourite critics. I respect where they’re coming on, and take their comments on board. I still think they’re wrong, but they’re equally convinced that I’m wrong, so it all balances out.

I can disagree with people easily enough, and can appreciate other points of view. And I can even safely ignore the kind of lazy criticsms that just drive me crazy.But I'm certainly not saying that they shouldn't be allowed to have a different opinion from me. You're allowed to be a hater, even if you're wrong, and don't let anybody tell you anything different.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Watchmen: A strong and loving reputation

Watchman isn't just a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It's a monolith of mainstream comics, and a massive metaphor for crative rights, creative freedom and sheer creativity. It's the gold standard, accepted amongst normal society – the only comic on Time's list of the greatest novels ever. It's a stirring saga of heroism and betrayal, and the ultimate example of extreme craft and careful thoughtfulness. Its influence on modern comic books is still everywhere and current comics with critical acclaim are still compared to it.

Then again, Watchman really is just a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It's easy for the comic to be overshadowed – and even crushed – by its own immense reputation.

I certainly knew of its reputation long before I actually read the comic. I never saw a new issue of Watchmen on the shelves of bookshops in my town, and by the time I even knew it existed, it was all over. I was also 11-years-old when it started coming out, and I thought X-Men and Rogue Trooper were the greatest comics in the world, so was a bit young for all this mature reader craziness anyway.

But then I would see the odd advertisement for it, or read about it in a magazine or something, or see it mentioned in a Johnny DC column, (this last one was actually my primary source of information about Watchmen for quite some time).

I didn't even know if it was a superhero comic. All I knew was that it was being talked up as the next great evolution in mainstream comics, that it dealt with utterly relevant issues in a mature manner, and that it had something to do with sugar cubes.

It was about three or four more years before I learned what Watchmen was all about, and even then, I still hadn't read a panel of the comic. What I had read was the Who's Who entry, which explained the plot and history of the Watchmen, condensing the entire 12-part series down to a page of text. I was more confused than enlightened by it all, but I knew I would have to read this Watchmen comic one day, to see what all the fuss was about.

Seven years after the first issues of Watchmen came out, I actually got to read the comic, picking it up from a record store in Dunedin, the first time I ever went to visit my mates at university.

That was one of the best weekends of my life - for lots of different reasons - and a small part of that is the memory of sitting on a tiny sofa in my friend Kaz's dorm room, cracking open this Watchmen thing for the first time, and diving right in.

And it was everything I'd hoped for. I was 18 by this time, and primed for a comic like Watchmen, a comic that was sharp in both art and story, and was all grown up, and dead serious, and important. It took me a few years to get there, but my first impression was that Watchmen really was as good as everybody said it was.

And of course, being 18-years-old, I got a bit evangelical on it and pushed it on everybody I knew, even if they didn't give a damn about comics. A few of them caved in, and it became the one book I was always lending out to people, all the time.

It was always the same copy, and I still have that book that I bought in Dunedin all those years ago, although it's pretty banged up now. After lending it out tonnes of times to people over the years, and reading it myself dozens of times, it's cracked, and a bit faded, and there is a good chunk of the cover missing, (that bit of cover was eaten by a dog which almost choked on it years and years ago, and the dog is still alive, as far as I know, even though it must be incredibly old by now. I don't know what this means...)

That book has been camping with me, and I've read it on planes, trains and buses. I read the whole book a dozen times the first couple of years I had it, and then at least once a year for a long time. I still read it every couple of years or so, even if almost all of it has become over familiar.

Even though all this was 20 years ago now, I was late coming to Watchmen, and the backlash had already started by then. That amount of unambiguous praise will always generate some kind of blowback, and there were gleefully vicious reviews of the series appearing in magazines soon after the story ended, as critics tried to stand out in the crowd by shouting nastier and nastier things.

Anybody who feel for the charms of Watchmen at a young age invariably gets a bit embarrassed at their youthful enthusiasm and feels the need to slag it off a bit. I can't be the only 20-something-year-old who ended up writing something provocative on a comics message board, and thought they would be different from the herd by tearing down an icon.

Of course, all those devastatingly clever points about the plot holes and sterility of Watchmen that I made had all been made years ago. I wasn't saying anything new, and there have now been so many critiques of the work over the past three decades that they're a herd of their own.

I still see people saying 'Watchmen isn't that good, actually', and then standing back to enjoy the gasps of horror, and I used to roll my eyes at it, but now I think that's just adorable and quite cute. They're going through an anti-Watchmen phase. God, I wish I was that young again.

So you can't blame people for taking an anti-Watchmen stance, (or for not getting into it in the first place, for perfectly understandable reasons), but there is nothing to fear in the timeless symmetry of the comic itself.

Reading it now, it still looks effortlessly brilliant (even with all the work that went into it), and it's still complex and challenging in just the right ways, with a perfect tone of grim incredulity. And everyone forgets how funny it gets, with bulging stomachs and gags about sexual dysfunction and violent retribution.

And it's also a very humanistic work, as the main characters actually act like real people in unreal situations, while secondary characters have just as much humanity as they comment from the sidelines and ultimately pay the final price for a brave new world.

They're proper people, not just faceless masses - messy, complicated, cruel, compassionate, silly people, who give the climax its tragedy.

No jokes at the end of the world.

Things like the two Bernard's at the news-stand were something that the movie version of Watchmen didn't have – the dense plot meant all the real meat of the story was cut out for a series of events for the cinematic version, without the human touch.

And no matter how much it annoys Moore, that movie is part of its legacy now, and most people will now come to that story through the slick lens of Zack Snyder. The latest assault on its legacy – the incredibly misguided Before Watchmen – felt like a real concern in the months leading up to it, but then all the comics turned out to be, at the very best, okay. And blandness is always easier to ignore than an outright disaster.

Watchmen is still, first and foremost, a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and while its reputation has become a bit tarnished over the years, that's all right, because there are always new readers ready to clean it off and find the gold beneath the filth.