Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Isolation reading: Universal Harvester

Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle

It looks obvious where Universal Harvester is going to go when the main character starts finding strange and bizarre things recorded on video tapes returned to the store he works at. It looks like it's going to be one of those stories where an innocent person stumbles across a snuff film, and is pulled into a world of extreme darkness and depravity. 

But it's not like that at all. It goes somewhere deeper and far less predictable than that, and it ends up being a story about how people can disappear from your life, and leave pieces of themselves behind that you'll never get rid of.

There is still a weird cult, because there's always a weird cult, but the less you know about Darnielle's book the better. You only have to know that it's not what it looks like, because people aren't always what they look like.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Isolation reading: Louis and Louise

Louis and Louise
By Julie Cohen

Despite an appallingly ugly cover, this might be my favourite of all the novels I've read as part of my one-person book club, because it plays its premise absolutely straight, and gets real emotional resonance by leaving all the cleverness to the high concept, and just rolling with the punches.

It's a split narrative, where a baby in one storyline is born a mother's boy, and in the other is daddy's little girl, and this difference has huge repercussions - there are deaths and births and towns dying and living. Entirely different universes revolve around the fate of a sawmill, and the choices that Louise/Louis make or have thrust upon them.

Sometimes they do come together, and the main character will be sitting on the same beach at the same time with their family, and nothing is really different, but the paths they take diverge in some startling ways.

But Cohen takes the story head-on, and doesn't over-egg it, letting the obvious gender politics speak for themselves without making it into a huge, unwieldy metaphor.

And, crucially, one life isn't better than the other. A dear friend might be lost forever in one, but there's also a daughter that only exists in one version, and loving relationships that never appear in the other continuum.

It doesn't really matter if the baby is born a girl or a boy, except when of course it does, and Cohen's book takes it all as far as it needs to go.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Isolation reading: I Hate The Internet

I Hate The Internet
By Jarett Kobek

The whole point of my one-person book club was to read things I normally wouldn't go near, but a wry, penetrating look at the absurdity of life in San Francisco, written in short, sharp bursts like a Kurt Vonnegut book, and featuring a mention of the host of a comic book podcast I listen to every week, and even has a brief explanation of what Wizard Magazine was, means this novel was about as securely in my comfort zone as I could ever get.

In the end, it wasn't as strong as any of Vonnegut's great books, just a little too cynical and ironic to match Kurt's efforts, and just trying too hard to seem that easy-going. The characters are also almost all a bunch of dickheads, hovering around the tech industry, and I'm not sure the world needs to really follow those people around too much.

But it does have a decent ongoing joke about the absurdity of racial prejudices and the societal bullshit that they cause that keeps coming up, and it pays all due and proper respect to Jack Kirby, so that kept me in true comfort

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Isolation reading: Red Birds

Red Birds
by Mohammed Hanif

Any other novel, a jet fighter pilot who goes down in enemy territory, and is trapped in a small community deep in an incredibly hostile desert, and has to rely on friendly locals to keep him alive, would probably have that pilot be the main character of the story.

But in Mohammed Hanif's terrific Red Birds, that pilot is just a jerk, little more than comic relief, wearily tolerated by the people he had been dropping bombs on earlier. They're just trying to get through life with a minimum of high ordnance firepower falling on their heads, and trying to get a job at the mysterious bunker just outside their settlement. They don't care about the politics, they just need to put some food on the table.

Because the people who do cause this misery are buffoons, never questioning the decisions that leave them stranded in the desert, far from home, with nobody showing much interest in coming to get them. And they deserve all the disinterest they receive.

Instead, it's those people on the ground that really matter, trying to make a buck anyway they can, feeling guilty about lashing out at their dog, trying to move on from a life at barely sustenance level, and doing whatever it takes to get there. And if that means they have to throw a few scraps at some dumb pilot, that's what they'll do.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Isolation reading: It Would Be Night In Caracas

It Would Be Night In Caracas
By Karina Sainz Borgo

The recent and massive impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus have left a hell of a lot of us wondering how we'd survive if society totally collapsed, and looking sideways as the grocery shelves becoming increasingly empty with people stocking up on goods to stay inside.

Of course, even in the modern age, there are plenty of people all around the world who have lived through this scenario before, and the main character in It Would Be Night In Caracas is definitely one of those people, trying to get by in Venezuela as society falls apart around her.

The book really succeeds by never really getting into the politics behind the collapse, even though it's responsible for the whole mess. Instead it focuses on one woman's story and the logistics of making sure you have enough food and shelter to get through the week, and the way she holds it together, even as thugs take over her flat and steal and befoul all her treasured belongings

In the end, some sheer luck - courtesy of an unfortunately deceased neighbour - gets her to safety, and it's the ultimate lesson the book has to impart about surviving a societal collapse: just get out, any way you can, and take any luck you can.

That's not much comfort when the whole world is in the same boat, but It Would Be Night In Caracas gives the reader enough tips of how to get through this situation, any way we all can.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Isolation reading: The Yid

The Yid
By Paul Goldberg

The USSR had a shit of a time in World War II, and the people who came out the other side were tough as hell - survivors with the skills to survive in impossible situations. And when the secret police come knocking on actor Solomon Shimonovich Levinson's door as part of a Stalin-initiated pogrom against the Jewish people, they discover just how tough they can be.

Solomon's mission to stop Stalin and the despot's ultimate demise is a lot more theatrical than the grubby, petty death seen in the recent Death Of Stalin movie, but there is a real poetry in that theatricality, with a group of vengeful Jews making sure the dear leader goes out with a suitable ritual.

The crew who come together to plot the assassination are, at first appearances, a bunch of bickering old harmless Jews, but their arguments are sometimes centuries old, and their passion of righteousness runs just as deep and long.

It's a sideways look at a historical event, and while it's just a little too perfect to be realistic, it's a hell of a ride.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Isolation reading: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer 
by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Almost all the books in this tiny book club of mine have been insights into cultures and countries I have very little familiarity with, which is a lot of the point of the whole thing - I'll never learn anything if I don't learn from people I've never connected with. But some of them take place on the other side of the world, and still offer painfully familiar themes. Life is like that.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is ultimately a little hollow, and doesn't offer a lot of surprises - it does just what it says in the title, with a main character living in Nigeria and struggling with the fact that her witty, glamorous sister keeps killing people, and has now been linked to enough deaths to qualify as a serial killer. But it also captures a certain bond between sisters, where they can be jealous and angry and bitter with each other, but will still stick by each other and never betray the other, no matter what.

The setting might be far outside anything I've ever experienced in real life, and it might be a part of the world I'll never get to, but that sort of bond is universal. Family always comes first, no matter where or how you live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Isolation reading: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

A Horse Walks Into A Bar
By David Grossman

A decent hook for a meaty short story is expanded out into novella length, and just about holds it all together, right until the end.

Dovaleh G, a scumbag stand-up, goes hard out on stage in a small Israeli town, and that's all that happens. His target is one particular member of the audience who he has a deep connection to, and the entire book chronicles the events on stage.

There are still plenty of flash-backs to get the reader out of the increasingly stuffy and increasingly deserted comedy club, (although it turns out there are more connections with audience members than is immediately obvious), and the setting is mean to have a stifling quality, trying to suffocate the reader beneath stale stage smoke and self-loathing.

It's a hook that is just clever enough to be irritating, but also really smashes into its high concept with relish. At the start of the story, Dovaleh comes across just as irritating and smug as you'd think, but as the layers are peeled away, there is a real human - who has suffered real pain - in there.

Some comedians claim stand-up routines are the best therapy in the world, but that kind of connection with your audience can be more than pure narcissism. And while it might be a long show to sit through, it's almost worth the sore butt.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Isolation reading: The Aosawa Murders

I've been doing a one-person book club for a couple of years now, and it's been remarkably rewarding. Every month, I head to the local bookstore, and buy a novel I've never heard of by somebody I've never read before, based purely on what the back cover blurb says, in a desperate bid to go outside my comfort zone. This has led to me reading an alarming number of books about slightly autistic women in menial jobs, but I've also read so many books by people who aren't white, English-speaking men, which can only be a good thing.

And now that so much of the world is in self isolation, or at least taking part in some kind of social distancing, I figured it was a good time to recommend a few new things to read, based on this experience. If you're culturally trapped for the next couple of weeks, here's 14 books that could be worth your time, starting with....

The Aosawa Murders 
By Riku Onda

A murder mystery told decades after the horrific event, where a crowd of people, including young children, were horribly murdered with poison wine, saki and soft drinks at a family gathering, The Aosawa Murders is also one of those murder mysteries where there won't be any clear answers by the end, and no clear culprit, but you'd have to be actively not paying attention not to work out what's going on.

Told in a series of interviews with an unseen and silent author, the plot unfolds like an origami swan being slowly pulled apart, and little details regarding visits to the local second hand bookstores become key to understanding what's really going on.

It's delicately told and sometimes a little frustrating, when characters disappear when they've told their story, just as you're becoming invested in their point of view.

But even with all the horror and obtuseness, the novel never forgets how one event can still be ripping people apart years later, and can have a permanent taste as bitter as poison.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Massive Attacking around town

All these years later, and there is still nothing that beats listening to Unfinished Symphony on headphones while walking around an urban environment.

There are still millions and millions of good tunes for beating your feet on the street, but nothing comes as close to sheer bloody perfection as the Massive Attack tune. Nothing at all.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

When bloopers were funny

I'm old enough to remember when bloopers from TV shows and movies were just good for a laugh, and weren't a symbol for everything that's wrong in the world and proves that the film-makers were incompetent and had contempt for their audiences and should never be allowed near a camera again.

Good times!

Friday, March 20, 2020

My baby don't mess around

Since becoming new parents, the lovely wife and I have had a lot of time to read and watch stuff. We always thought we'd be flat out, and plenty of other parents told us that we'd have no time to ourselves. But there are hours and hours where the new human just wants to sit on you, and you can't move, so you might as well catch up on the binge watching and reading.

It's easy enough to read a book or bash through a long comic run - I'm currently getting in deep on reading all of Scott McCloud's Zot for the first time - but there is some guilt about watching the telly. It's not like the little one cares, she has shown absolutely no interest in anything happening on the TV screen in the corner of the room, so I've swallowed that 'I'm-the-worst-parent-ever' guilt and watched things that are hugely inappropriate for somebody so young, including entire seasons of Breaking Bad and Vikings.

She doesn't care. She doesn't flinch at the gunshots and calls for a shield wall, and just isn't looking at or listening to the massive amounts of sex and violence and profanity behind her. There are probably a lot of parenting experts that would tell us that she is subconsciously sucking it all up into her tiny brain, but she looks pretty bloody asleep to me. She ain't sucking anything up.

But I know it can't last. As soon as the baby shows any real interest in the events on the telly, we are going to have to stop that. She still likes to sleep on us a lot, but once she's taking it in and repeating what she hears, we'll have to watch safe, g-rated fare.

It can't be far away. The other day, she showed a surprising amount of interest in the classic Outkast tune Hey Ya when it came up on the TV, and was actually watching Andre 3000 do his thing on the video. She was into it, rather than her father's hopeless gyrations, which usually cracks a grin or two.

So I'll just get the R-rated stuff in while I can, because I know that once we're past this sweet spot of baby ignorance, I won't be watching those kind of things in the daytime for a long, long while.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Video games can be good for you

Growing up, I was constantly being told that video games were bad for me. All those flickering lights and beeping noises were obviously harmful. I should have been out there playing sports in the sun, getting skin cancer from the hole in the ozone layer and my head kicked in at the bottom of a scrum on the rugby field.

And sure, the main places I could actually play games - long before every home had a console of their own - were incredibly dodgy places where there was the odd stabbing. My local was down the back of Lester's fish and chip shop in Temuka, and while Lester did some fuckin' great chips, it wasn't a place where the good kids hung out after school.

But video games weren't all bad, and the vast amount of time I spent blasting away at spaceships wasn't totally wasted. There were some good points about them too.

After all, they kept us out of trouble. We weren't doing too much dodgy shit when we were just trying to get to level three on Rastan. And we didn't spend money on booze or drugs or anything like that, not when we needed all the spare change we could get to get them into the machines.

And playing video games cemented great friendships, just as any sport or pastime can do. Trying to beat each other's high score, or straight up taking on your mates in a pixelated wrestling ring was enormously fun, and I met people who I am still friends with, years later.

And on a personal and entirely unscientific level, I'm convinced that all that time playing those games means my hand-eye coordination and spatial orientation is off the charts. I don't have any proof for this, but my reaction times were honed to a fine point by hours and hours of playing Doom and Tomb Raider, and I'm certain that has something to do with the fact that I've never had a car accident in my life.

There are still those fears about video games going around, and sometimes they have some basis in fact - like anything, gaming should be done in moderation, and if you spend your entire life doing nothing but playing video games, it's probably going to fuck you up.

But it turned out that all those adults who used to tell me I was wasting my life playing video games were pretty much full of shit. I turned out okay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Figuring out the absolute best time to sell

Slowly selling off the flabby edges of my vast and unruly comic collection has taught me a lot of valuable lessons about the commerce of the whole thing, but one of the first things I learned was that if it's a comic that is about to be adapted for a movie or television show, it's all about the timing.

So I've got a few issues of the Eternals to get rid of - a few random issues from the original Jack Kirby run and a full set of the Gaiman/Romita Jr limited series from the mid-2000s. They're in the growing pile of stuff to be sold off, but I'm not ready to put them up on the local online auction site yet, because you've gotta wait for the enthusiasm to peak.

It's no use offering them up when the news of the movie first came out - even with the first hints of buzz and the photos showing off the astonishing new abs of Kumail Nanjiani - nobody really gives a damn about the whole Eternals thing just yet.

And it could be a bust if you wait until it's been completed and thrown out there in the world, and turns out to be a complete turd (although to be fair, none of the Marvel films have really reached that level of awfulness, even if some of their TV shows have). Interest in the whole thing can die off incredibly suddenly, and you're stuck with comics that reek with the stench of the failed movie.

There's always the chance something will go a bit Walking Dead, where the main peak of interest in the whole concept was a good three or four years after it came out, but when you look at the sheer number of adaptions being pumped out, that's definitely an anomaly.

No, the peak time is definitely in that sweet spot between the time the first trailer drops, and the premiere date. If the trailer builds up enough buzz, it might be worth waiting until just before the movie comes out, but anywhere in that time is golden.

So I'm hanging out for that first Eternals trailer, not because I give a shit about Ikaris and Sersi and all the rest, but because I can sharpen up the comic collection a bit. It's going to be rough getting rid of the Kirby - it always is - but I'll be able to find a collected edition at the library easily enough. And the 2000s series is just taking up space. All I need is that anticipation which I can feed off.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

No such thing as a cursed movie

There's a new documentary TV show coming out that promises to expose the horror of 'cursed movies', and how some films have a higher-than-average number of deaths and tragedies associated with them. And the documentary makers have their work cut out for them, because arguing that certain movies have a metaphysical shadow hanging over them remains one of the dumbest fucking arguments in the history of cinema.

It doesn't help that they're always looking at the usual suspects, and are focusing on exactly the films you'd think they would - all the big devil possession and ghost films that often dwell on the darkest side of humanity. They never do these kinds of things about Pretty Woman or Toy Story or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, it's always the ones that have some kind of horrific or theological bent, as if curses were a real fucking thing.

It's somewhat curious that so many of these movies are about the devil - if Satan is actually a real thing, wouldn't the lord of darkness be thrilled to get some free publicity?

Ultimately, it's all a matter of publicity. Scary movies for years have played up stories of people fainting or throwing up or going into seizures and speaking in tongues at screenings, and while that's certainly a thing that has happened, they're usually painfully rare cases.

It's actually pretty fucking tasteless when you're talking about real tragedy - real lives have been lost and destroyed, and implying that it's all part of some curse because they chose to do a particular movie is an insult to the victims and their families.

After all, these films have so many people involved, there is always going to be some bad luck involved. Even the lowest budget can have dozens of people involved, and the biggest blockbusters have thousands, as anybody who has sat through the credits for some lame sting can attest to.

There is always going to be a film where more than the usual number of tragedies occur, and anybody convinced that making a horror movie is more dangerous than any other kind of film might be getting a bit too close to the fiction.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Not like the other Constantines

In the long publishing history of the original Hellblazer comic, there are only two runs that I've ever really been interested in - the Ennis stories, which remind me of a drunken past; and the Milligan issues that close out the series.

Almost everything in between, including some longer spells by various writers, leave me cold. Warren Ellis started off strong, until he told Vertigo to go fuck itself, and the other eras are a decidedly mixed bag. The Jenkins, Diggle and Carey comics were perfectly fine, but not that exciting, while the Azzarello and Mina stories were straight-up awful.

But the Milligan comics didn't feel like anything else, and provide an excellent capstone to that particular John Constantine. There is still somebody with that name running around in DC Comics, but it's not the same person.
With beautiful, gritty art by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Simon Bisley, Milligan's comics are far less episodic than previous Constantine tales, building up to tell one long story of John's final adventures before the reboot. Milligan's wicked humour, as sharp as Constantine's tongue, shines through on the stories, but the stories are more grounded in a grimy reality than usual, even with world trips and small apocalypses and demon attacks.

The biggest move was making Constantine a married man, hooking up with a strong, independent woman who was also half his age, which the character was mercilessly ridiculed about. But Epiphany more than held her own against her new husband, proving just as tough and merciless when needed, but also providing a unique perspective that her older and jaded lover couldn't even consider. Constantine's wider family were also an integral part of the whole thing, especially his long-suffering niece Gemma, with a new nephew (who may actually now be the same Constantine who has been running around with superheroes for the past decade) taking up the family curses.

There were still werewolves and suicide bridges and Shade the Changing Man and a final page that posed a lot more questions than it answered, but under the discipline needed in work-for-hire on a corporately-owned character, (see also his fucking fantastic Batman comics with Jim Aparo in the very early 90s), Milligan delivers the goods, with a brilliant end for a brilliant character.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

All I want is everything

All I want in my entertainment is an idiosyncratic style, some emotional or physical intensity and a degree of intellectual rigour.

I can take the intensity with the style, and leave out the smart stuff; or you can mix the intellectual with the stylistic. But you always got to have a good look, or it's all for nothing.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Happy ever after with Alan Moore

Me, when somebody promises to do a deep dive into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest comic, the final work Alan Moore is doing in comics, and a reasonably effective summation of the writer's lifetime of themes:

Me, when that deep dive doesn't just moan about the fact that nobody can get all the references, like every other bloody review always does, as if that mattered:

Me, when instead, most of that deep dive is taken up with looking at the way Tempest is mocking Grant Morrison, both the most boring and obvious thing you could read in Moore's work, and something that actually isn't even fucking in there:

Friday, March 13, 2020

Who needed Love and Rockets anyway?

"The Hernandez brothers appear to be trapped in a literary time warp. The time is 1968. Comics at the time were still squeaky clean; faithful followers of the Comics Code. An outlet was needed for creative people who didn't fit in the mainstream; for stories that didn't conform to the orthodoxy imposed by the code.

"The underground comic filled this void. With a few notable exceptions, they were rather crude and poorly executed; but even so they were a refreshing alternative to the norm. Love and Rockets seems to be firmly rooted in the underground tradition.

"There's just one problem with this. The time and need for undergrounds has come and gone, just as the social upheaval which spawned them has subsided. Even as women no longer need to burn their bras just to get our attention, so too do comics no longer need a separate movement to espouse alternate views and lifestyles."

I've read a tonne of reviews of Love and Rockets over the past 30 years, but the one this excerpt is from - written by R A Jones and published in Amazing Heroes #48 in 1984, just a few years into the Los Bros' long comic career - has always stuck with me.

Partly because it's a rare review of the comic that is less that effusive in its praise, but also because it's a little bit incredible that Jones thinks it's all a bit pointless, because there's nothing more to be said about alternate lifestyles after the undergrounds of the 1970s said it all.

That's certainly a perspective. It's an unfortunate one one that is unfathomably wrong in hindsight, but it's a perspective.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

I still need the broadcast

The world might be fully embracing the ease of the streaming video, but there is something about broadcast television that I crave, and that's why I'll never make the full switch to the new paradigm.

Even though I edit a national news website all day long, I still watch the news every night on the telly, and there is something weirdly comforting about watching something at the same time as other people, even if you have no idea who or where they are.

It's also the immediacy and intimacy of the broadcast that I need, and it gives me a weird sense of community when people are talking to me live through the TV. When we're all in our own bubbles, I'll take that community where I can get it, no matter how lame it is.

And when I watch DVDs or streams or Youtube videos on the laptop, I don't have that feeling at all. I  feel strangely alone, like I'm not sharing anything with anybody.

I know this is an anachronistic attitude, but I still love that connection. When we're watching broadcast TV, we're all in it together.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Reading on the move

We all walk around with half our attention on our phones and devices, and there are plenty of hilarious videos of people doing real injury to themselves by walking into things when they should be paying attention to the world around them.

I'm as guilty of this as anybody, but at least I've been ahead of the curve for years, because I've spent the vast majority of my life reading on the move.

When I was a young kid at primary school, home was a couple of kilometers away. At that age, it was an interminably long and boring walk through dull suburbia, and, more importantly, it had a big impact on the amount of time I could spend reading books and comics all day. So it only seemed logical to read my books on the long walk home every day.

And I got the hang of it really quickly, and found that if you held the book at the right angle, you could see a couple of meters ahead, and as long as a small part of your brain was devoted to making sure you weren't walking into a wall or out onto the road, you could chug along at a decent speed while filling the head.

I read books and comics and magazines for years like this, and occasionally got some shit for it from friends, family and random people on the street, but I didn't care. I was getting in some reading time, that was all that mattered.

Later in life, I even found a way to read while riding a bicycle, because I was on a 10-km stretch from work to home on a road with literally two slight bends on it and very little traffic, and I could set up a a book on the handlebars and read as I rode. My Uncle Ron busted me one afternoon, and he brought it up every time I saw him until the day he died. But I wasn't shamed by that either, except for the fact I was reading one of William Shatner's TekWars book when he saw me.

I don't read and walk as often as I did when I was younger, although the ritual of reading a weekly 2000ad on the street immediately after buying it hasn't changed. I've still got a long walk home after work every day - about four times as long as that after school trek - but now I usually listen to podcasts or music while power-walking home.

But at least I've become bloody good at reading texts or messages or checking the cricket score or fucking about on Twitter, when I do that while walking on the street, and I don't have to worry about appearing on one of those hilarious videos. Not when I've had so much practice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Wasted on Fight Club

Cameron Stewart is a terrific comic artist, and has spent a lot of time recently doing work on Fight Club comic, which is a terrible shame, because the comic is really, really awful.

Driven by some lingering affection for the original book and movie, I got the first sequel and it had a pleasant anything-goes attitude for a while there, but unfortunately, where it went was right up its own arse.

By the end, Chuck Pahulniak is suggesting that anybody who read the original Fight Club book was incredibly obsessed with it, or incredibly opposed to it - there was just no room for most people, who just found it okay - and the second comic series, which recently wrapped up, was just offensively dull.

It's a terrible shame that it's so unreadable, because Stewart's art is amazing. It's as clear and energetic as it ever was, and he's doing some really incredible stuff with panel subversion, and there are some freaky sense-of-depth effects and some playful and lively character work.

But good art only goes so far, and it only goes as far as Pahulniak's ego allows it. I can only hope that Stewart got a decent payday (maybe there are more of those obsessives than I assume), because nobody else is really getting anything out of it.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Young Ones and the ghost flatmate

Ever since I first fell head over heels in love with the Young Ones TV show, I've watched every episode at least a hundred times each. I know the dialogue backwards, I'm familair with the lyrics to every song performed in every episode, and the way Vivian smashes Rik and Neil over the head with a cricket bat will always be strangely comforting.

So, finding out recently that there was actually a fifth flatmate after all, hidden in the background of every episode in the first season, was more than a little surprising, and actually quite creepy.

In my defense, I mostly watched the show on video tape, recorded off a TV screening in the very early nineties, so the appearances of that fifth flatmate were often hidden in the sludgey quality of the video format and the fuzz of an analogue transmission. I saw a couple of the appearances of the flatmate, with the long hair hanging over the face, but never realised they were there in every episode.

And there is something quite unsettling about it. The Young One's brand of surreal humour often left things feeling unreal, with the manic events happening on a strange level far from the real world, and the idea that there was a flatmate that was more ghost than person fits into that.

The creators of the show have refused to acknowledge that the fifth flatmate was even a thing, which adds to the unreality of it all, but that long-haired apparition is now as real as any of them. They never said much, but they were always there.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Becoming a parent means becoming a cliche

Me, before I was a parent, watching The French Connection: Holy shit! They nearly hit that pram in that car chase! What a remarkable piece of film-making, capturing the chaos and stress of a high-speed pursuit through the streets of a major city like no other movie ever has! Sure, they didn't get permission to clear the streets and just went for it, but when the result is one of the all time great car chases, you have to admire their passion!

Me, after I became a parent, watching The French Connection: Holy shit! They nearly hit that pram in that car chase! What a bunch of irresponsible fucking arseholes!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

I've swallowed enough microchips and shit them back out again to make a computer

Spy is way better than it should be, and Melissa McCarthy sells the hell out of the lead role, but Jason Statham is an all time favourite character - a splendid mix of bluster, ignorance, competence and misplaced confidence. Most white male supporting characters don't deserve their own spin-off, but I would always be down for a full Rick Ford movie.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Swamp Thing's happy ending

There have been a shitload of Swamp Thing comics since Alan Moore finished up his hugely influential run on the character back in 1987, including several reboots and revamps from a large number of extremely different creators.

But after reading that original run in one go recently, and coming to an end where Swampy and Abbe head off and live on a giant lily pad in the swamp, I've found it surprisingly easy to ignore absolutely everything else that has happened to the character in the past 33 years

There were some good comics over those years - I have a particular soft spot for Rick Veitch's aborted run, and for the stories by a young Mark Millar that closed out that long run (humanity being saved by a reformed Arcane might be illogical and sentimental as hell, but always worked for me) - but it's also just as easy to write it all off as a fever dream, and that the comic came to an end with the characters living happily after, all those years ago. All the craziness and reboots and re-incorporation into the world of super-heroes just didn't happen.

You can do this with almost any comic, especially when the continuous publication of many characters sees their status quo constantly shredded. Just choose a place to end it, and you can do it. It's really easy. Maybe Spider-Man finished for you when Ditko first left, or maybe you can end it with Dan Slott's recent epic-length run. How many more Spider-Man comics do you need anyway?

The mainstream comic book industry is pathologically allergic to an absolute full stop, but the brilliance of that punctuation is that you can put it anywhere you choose. And I choose to end Swamp Thing there.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Good people make the best stories

Although we seemed to be currently trapped in a dark and cynical world, I have an optimist's hope for the future, and that people are generally decent and good. That arseholes will get exposed for the arseholes they are, and get the treatment they deserve.

This is something that is not always expressed well in our fictions, where writers' obsessions with conflict mean people have to be dicks to each other in order to clash, but there are some small rays of hope out there.

Like the stoner delivery service it features, High Maintenance can be rambling and unfocused, but also has moments that remind you why people live in cramped mega-cities, where there are odd moments of unexpected community. There are still dicks and idiots, but people generally get along. And get really, really high. (Whether this is correlation or causation is for bigger brains than mine.)

Across the Atlantic, the films of Shane Meadows also get super dark, from 24/7's regrettable violence to the absolutely broken people of The Virtues, but also crucially recognise that there is light and laughter around the kitchen sink. There is genuine joy as people live from meager paycheck to meager paycheck, but they are still genuinely kind and thoughtful people, who may sometimes get out of their depth, but can always rely on each other.

Maybe I've just lucked out in real life, because my friends and family are all basically good people, nobody has ever really got into trouble, or caused much for other people, but they're still as windswept and interesting as anybody. And while I like a good roaring rampage of revenge as much as the next dork, it's nice to see that joyous realism reflected on our screens, every now and then.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Indiana Jones and the foley of Doom

The Indiana Jones films had great punch-ups and epic car chases and outrageous whip action, and one of the things it did better than any other movie out there was the sound effects. From the very first film, the sound team - including the legendary Ben Burtt - did exceptional work with the soundscape that helped create the hyper-real world of evil nazis and awesomely powerful artifacts.

The punches sounded meaty and loaded, and the gunshots were thick and powerful. Combined with Harrison Ford's moans and grunts as he put his body through the wringer, it all sounded so much more alive and real than the cheap, tinny sounds of its action contemporaries.

The visuals through all three movies (we don't talk about the Last Crusade) are great and all, but the Indiana Jones films skated a thin line between preposterous action and realistic reactions, and the only way to make that totally immersive was to have sound crew give everything a bit of oomph, bang and boom. And lots of it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The wife and I and Buffy

The lovely wife and I have been a couple for 15 years, and she absolutely did not enter that relationship as a nerd. Even though she was a Roswell fan, she didn't give a damn about Star Wars or Doctor who or anything. She still really doesn't and humours me most of the time, but she also doesn't mind the odd dose of geek shit.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the first win, back in 2006 or so. She wasn't really watching it, but I was doing a big re-watch, and she got sucked in. We watched the whole series together, and still both have a huge fondness for it.

We don't talk about Buffy that much anymore, because some of it hasn't aged well, and that awful flat lighting that makes everything look so 20th-century is genuinely hard to get into, especially when we've all got eyes that have become used to prestige TV. But it was really fucking good, with lots of kick-ass fighting, good lines, aching continuity, surprising twists and all that jazz. It was an excellent introduction to full-on monster genre fiction, and we both will always have a fondness for it because of that.

After that, she went to Star Trek movies and watched Battlestar Galactica and had a good time, mainly because she doesn't give a damn about the big picture. We still have our own interests and cultural obsessions, but she's 100% nerdier than she was when we met.

And it was all thanks to Buffy, who got the ball running. She watched a lot of it again recently, but got stuck halfway through the sixth season, because it all got too depressing and dark, and she's probably going to leave it there. That's okay, Buffy already got us where we are.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The biggest story ever told

The toys were too expensive when I was a kid in the 1980s, that was the main problem. By the time they got to this part of the world, the costs had sky-rocketed. A single action figure might be a month's worth of pocket money, and forget about ever affording any of the vehicles or other accessories.

There wasn't even a guarantee that figures would show up at all - I never saw a stormtrooper or Darth Vader until I was 15, although there were plenty of bloody ewoks. So you had to make up your own story with the figures I got, and all the ones I had a a kid - usually Star Wars and GI Joe figures, 9.5cm tall, which was easily the best size for detail and playability - all got merged into a new story about an alternate world where World War 2 never ended, but built up over decades into an endless and huge war between two giant mega-states.

The Cobra Commander in battle armour figure became a lead fighter in the war, and the various GI Joes toys that also came in faceless armour made up his team, repurposed into new roles. Though not that much - the tech-viper figure (the only one I still have complete, even if his foot got slightly melted by a firecracker in the early 90s) was always the tech dude, and Snake-Eyes was always the stealthy ninja part of the squad. A Borg figure from Star Trek was... well, the Borg really, but there were some variations - ruggedly handsome characters like Hawk and Duke were standard bad guys, and an action figure of the queen from Aliens became an erudite genetic abomination who just wanted to be friends with everyone.

The story got bigger and bigger and bigger as I played with the characters in ways they were never intended. There was a long-running storyline involving a giant house - that always looked just like the house I was living in at the time - that had to be defended in the ultimate siege battle, and my home town got overtaken in a huge epic invasion story that got rehashed and retold a thousand times over - I still can't go past a particular sports field without recalling the concentration camp it got turned into in my head. 

The story changed and mutated over years (at one point, ending the war and sending all the characters off into space on new missions), and there were odd retcons as figures got broken or lost or rebuilt, and replaced by new ones. The story was never linear, and went back over origins and noble deaths and everything in between again and again over a decade or so.

Then I became a teenager, and the action figures became one childish thing that faded away in favour of girls and music and booze and all that shit.

But sometimes....

Sometimes I find the old toys, and I'm a 45-year-old playing around with his old men, and all that story comes back, and I'm there with those soldiers in that endless war again. That story isn't a huge concern in my life anymore, but it's still alive.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

When Star Trek had to go back to Vulcan

Even after all these years, I'm still a bit impressed by the way they tied the DC Star Trek comics in the mid 1980s back into the movies between the third and fourth films. Even though the movies were directly connected, the comics had gone through three years of adventures, but still somehow ended with an injured Spock on Vulcan, and the rest of the Enterprise crew boarding a Klingon ship to go home. They had to twist the shit out of their story to get there, but they got there.

None of it is canon now, and all those stories - a terrific Mirror Universe story and Captain Spock's doomed adventures with the USS Surak - have fallen down a continuity wormhole, but there is still a part of me that regards those Treks as real as anything else. After all, they still fit inbetween the movies.