Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Further adventures in comic land

Atmospheric artwork from Andrew MacLean
The last part of 2016 saw plenty of action on the comic front – it’s become a serious pleasure to get regular deliveries of Forbidden Planet subscription packets through the post – and there’s been plenty to enjoy from what’s been inside.

Here’s a few notes on what I read and saw in that period.

Descender 3: Singularities by Jeff Lemire continues to be a cracking read, with this third collection playing with time to allow us to see events from different characters’ perspectives, and there’s enough meat here to keep the reader wondering what they’re not yet seeing, as the companion boy robot Tim finds himself being hunted by myriad forces – and the motives are not obvious yet.

And one of the things that Lemire achieves is to make the less sophisticated robots’ characters too, creating real pathos – light years away from the comedic approach of, say, C-3PO and R2-D2.

Panel from Descender 3
Dustin Nguyen’s art remains a real pleasure, his watercolours in a limited palette offering an unusual approach to sci-fi illustration, but one that works beautifully here, offering a soft-focus contrast to the story that nonetheless never jars.

Trees 2: Two Forests arrived a while back and takes us further into Warren Ellis’s apocalyptic tale, narrowing the field of vision to just the ‘trees’ – alien craft of some unexplained variety – in New York and the Orkney Isles, and with these, the central protagonists linked to them.

There’s a brooding darkness building here, with a sense of impending doom and even an incident in London that could be read as a pessimistic comment on the growing anti-immigrant sentiment that both contributed to Brexit and was boosted by it.

All this is helped by Jason Howard’s art, with strong images and a muted palette providing an excellent compliment to the words.

On a lighter note, I have also enjoyed a spot of Doctor Strange from Marvel – though not half as much as I enjoyed the film. Indeed, with TV watching and 2016’s cinema visits for the doctor and Deadpool, I’ve got really quite absorbed into the Marvel universe – albeit it cinematically rather than the version on paper.

"We are Groot" And the racoon's pretty cool too
Big screen trailers for spring’s Guardians of the Galaxy II looks so much fun that I caught up with the first one over Christmas – and loved it! It’s smashing entertainment.

Late as ever to such a party, I am however, now able to cry ‘We are Groot!’ with the best of them.

Then there’s the mere thought of autumn’s Thor: Ragnarok, which in promising to see Benedict Cumberbatch reprise Strange and Antony Hopkins Odin, looks set to ensure that this interest continues.

Christmas also saw me catching some Captain America for the first time – a bit straight-laced as a character, but when your support cast includes Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury and, in Winter Soldier, Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD leader, plus the currently ubiquitous Toby Jones as a creepy, dead Nazi scientist (though not as creepy as his Jimmy Savile-alike villain Culverton Smith in last weekend’s Sherlock), then a bit of straight laciness can be coped with.

If Marvel have mastered the way to create universes from myriad characters, DC is floundering in its efforts to catch up, with last year’s Batman v Superman having been panned.

The only highlight was reputedly the brief first sight of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, set for her own individual movie release this summer.

Now I’ve loved Wonder Woman since the 1970s and the days of Lynda Carter, and it was one of the first things that I started reading as I dipped my toes back into the world of comics over the last few years, but DC’s 75th anniversary comic was a disappointing, disjointed mess.

Much – MUCH – better was volume 1 of Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman: Earth One from earlier in 2016, which provided a new but coherent take on the Amazon’s origin story.

Yanick Paquette’s art worked for me – but then again, I didn’t get in a tizzy about pictures of WW in chains. Well, not that sort of a tizzy.

I really don’t know whether I’ll watch this summer’s film: setting it in WWI as opposed to Wonder Woman’s conventional entry into human affairs in WWII suggests that the filmmakers have decided that, instead of understanding that conflict as six of one and half a dozen of the others, writ large across all the main actors involved, it’s going to leap in with a howlingly simplistic Goodies v Baddies approach.

We shall see.

Normal and the head of Agatha Blue Witch
Very differently, one of my personal discoveries of the year was Andrew MacLean’s Head Lopper.

Written and drawn by MacLean – and originally self-published before being picked up by Image – this is the tale of Viking warrior Norgal, who hunts down monsters with the help (though he doesn’t actually like it) of the severed head of Agatha Blue Witch, which he carries around in a bag.

Image threw the comic convention of monthly, 22-page issues out of the window for this, instead allowing MacLean to produce bigger issues on a quarterly basis.

And while the first trade is a lot heftier a volume than you’d usually expect, it doesn’t fail on the fun quota.

Completely different to Hellboy, it would nonetheless be impossible not to see a relationship between Mike Mignola’s seminal work and this.

There’s humour, violence, great atmosphere and a wonderful sense of the folkloric – yes, all things that you’ll find in Hellboy – along with a superbly stylised visual look, all of which effectively gets the Mignola nod of approval in a contribution from the man himself in the gallery at the back of this volume.

MacLean makes storytelling look simple and his art ticks incalculable numbers of boxes. The picture I’ve used here also illustrates MacLean’s fascinating use of foreshortening and perspective, which is a contributory aspect of the work.

There is not a single thing I don’t love about this.

Black Road comes with added ravens
Not very far behind in my personal appreciation stakes comes the first trade of Black Road, which also plunges readers into Viking terrain – but the mood and look could hardly be more different.

Magnus the Black is a man placed awkwardly somewhere between paganism and Christianity, as the church militant strives to conquer the Viking lands for Christ.

Hoping to perhaps ease the trauma of this momentous change for his fellow Norse men, Black finds himself caught up in the bloody politics of religious conquest – and has to turn detective when an official in his care is brutally murdered.

Brian Wood’s story has a satisfying complexity about it, but it’s the art by Dave McCaig and Garry Brown that really lifts this, with its evocation of the bleak, vast landscape of the north.

Having enjoyed the autumn release of the first trade, I’ve hit the subscribe button for the coming issues in this Image series, rather than wait for trade two.

Actually, that’s also an indicator that I’m getting sussed enough about the comics world that I spotted it before the new arc begins.

In the meantime, Skottie Young’s I Hate Fairyland is another comic that defies easy categorisation.

A bright, bubbly tot called Gertrude wishes to live in Fairyland – and then her wish comes true.

Gertrude is not as happy as Larry. Neither is Larry, to be fair
Unfortunately, 20 years later, she’s grown mentally but is physically still a child, trapped in a bubblegum world of sugary niceness.

A crazy new take on a sort of Dorothy longing for Kansas, Gertrude has become a sweary, psychopathic monster who wants to destroy everything and everyone as she tries to find an escape back to reality, accompanied by Larry, a cynical version of Jiminy Cricket.

Life is further complicated when the queen of Fairyland decides that the only way in which to deal with the chaos and violence is to have Gertrude herself killed.

Written and illustrated by Young, volume one was fun and the second trade is out now (if you look online at Forbidden Planet, it can currently be obtained with a very nice autographed postcard too).

It’s hard to know where Young can take this story – but fluff you (as our less-than-angelic Gertude so often puts it): it’s going to be fun finding out.

And finally, the autumn also saw my own first comic strip – okay, only three pages, but my words and my illustrations. It was published in a membership magazine that went to over a million people, but I've now put up a digital version, so you can catch it here. Enjoy!

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Robinson Crusoe meets Titanic, as Passengers intrigues

Part Robinson Crusoe meets Titanic in space (and yes, I know that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a thing), director Mortden Tyldum’s Passengers is an intriguing film, even if it never hits any heights of supersonic excitement.

Written by Jon Spaihts, the luxurious starship Avalon is carrying 5,000 people to a new colony planet where they will begin a new life. They and the crew are in hibernation pods, as the trip takes 120 years.

But when one of these pods malfunctions, 90 years from journey’s end, mechanical engineer Jim (Chris Pratt) finds himself awake, with just a droid bartender for company.

And that doesn’t seem to be the only technical glitch. A year on, with the ship’s systems experience more and more problems, Jim is joined by Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), with neither of them able to return to hibernation.

Here we get a touch of Titanic, with Aurora travelling first class and Jim in a subsidised – his skills are in demand – starship version of steerage.

But when a third person wakes as the malfunctions increase, that’s when the trouble really begins.

Lawrence and Pratt make a good and enjoyably watchable team here and the film carefully eschews any clunky stereotypes, allowing plenty of time to develop character and situation.

That’s almost as much a downfall as it is a benefit: this is a picture that can, on occasion, seem to drag, yet at the end, the viewer is left with themes that have been worked hard enough to intrigue, from the nature and affect of loneliness to the limits of AI-human interaction (and therefore the nature of humanity) and a sort of Dorothy-in-Oz question of what you really want from life.

Sumptuous to look at, the glossy, hi-tech, sleekly-designed appearance of the ship itself, together with its sheer size, adds to the sense of human isolation, along with a beautifully-realised idea of the vastness of space.

Michael Sheen as Arthur the android bartender and Laurence Fishburne as Gus, the third to wake, add nice cameos that help develop plot and the relationship between our central protagonists.

Some critics have complained about the ethics of a key element of the plot (I’m not giving that plot device away here), but the complaints seem a tad forced, since the question concerned is hardly played for over-simplicity and certainly far from ignored.

One hopes we’re not going to see sociological analyses of all forthcoming releases, from Assassin’s Creed (spoiler alert: likely to include some killings that are Not Very Nice) to Despicable Me 3 (is Gru really an appropriate parent for three small girls, once of whom is clearly from a different ethnic background to him?).

Tedious it may seem, but it seems boringly necessary to remember that Passengers is, after all, a piece of entertainment and certainly no more morally dubious than most other entertainments around if one starts playing such a game.

So, while its certainly no masterpiece, it is a pleasant and interesting enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Reinventing Christmas folklore

Christmas Present
A few days ago, chatting over morning coffee and social media, The Other Half and I happened upon a mention of Père Fouettard, a Christmas character.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and search engines, it didn’t take long to discover that Père Fouettard is a sort of counterpoint to Father Christmas in northern and eastern France, and in Flanders, and that he carries a whip with him to punish the naughty children.

This is not too far removed from Krampus, the half goat, half demon figure who can be found from Bavaria to northern Italy to Hungary and more, and who, through comics and more recently a film, has found his way into American and British minds.

It struck me how sanitised our own gift-bringing mythology is: at one time, a bad child in the UK might have been led to expect a lump of coal as a present, but we don’t seem to have the same child-snatching villain as Krampus or, indeed, Père Fouettard, who is sometimes equipped with a sack to take away naughty children, never mind whip them.

But then again, Victorian society was a weirdly mixed bag when it came to frightening children with morality tales, yet sanitising the likes of fairy tales.

The late 19th century was also the time when British personifications of Father Christmas morphed from the sort of Green Man version that owed a great deal to ancient myth and folklore – and is famously presented as the Ghost of Christmas Present in John Leechs illustration for Charles Dickenss Christmas Carol – to the red-cloaked old man we are so familiar with today.

Our discussion ranged across various other elements of Christmas folklore, including the vexed question of when Santa first needed elves.

Godey's Lady's Book
Elves were an established part of Germanic and Scandinavian folkloric traditions, but it was only in the US, where they’d made their way via migration, that they were incorporated into Christmas, with a first festive appearance in literature coming in 1850 in an unpublished book by Louisa May Alcott, called Christmas Elves.

Harper’s Weekly published a poem mentioning elves in 1857, but for the idea of the elves in the workshop, we can thank a 1873 edition of women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, with its cover illustration showing Santa surrounded by toys and elves and with the caption: "Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time”.

I’ve always rather thought of folklore as a process that has stopped, and that we preserve, as in amber, but it continues to grow, even if modern communication and entertainment methods have largely overtaken the oral tradition.

Star Wars has a sense of the mythological about it. And Christmas myth and folklore have not stood still in recent years either. Some reworkings and new versions are more successful than others.

In 1996, Terry Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel introduced us to the Hogfather – with a two-part TV version following a decade later.

Josh Kirby's original cover artwork for Hogfather
Pratchett, of course, famously said that he’d occasionally been accused of penning ‘literature’ – and Hogfather is a good example of how his novels are so much more than simple ‘entertainments’.

Here, beyond the satire – and I’d suggest that Pratchett is one of the finest satirists the UK has ever produced – are questions and reflexions on the relationship between storytelling, myth and folklore and the human condition; on the fine balance between somehow believing (à la the willing suspension of disbelief we engage in at the cinema or theatre) and yet not allowing such beliefs to usurp science and reality.

The God Delusion didn’t hit bookshelves until three years after Hogfather, but re-reading it again this December, it was difficult not to see The Auditors as being akin to Richard Dawkins and others.

However, Hogfather is far from the only evocation of Christmas to add to the mythos and, indeed, to offer a sense of Christmas not being ‘just about the children’.

A Dan Mora cover for one issue of Klaus 
Klaus, written by top comic creator Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dan Mora (who has won an award already for his work on this), first appeared in seven parts, beginning at the end of 2015.

Now available as a trade – although when it’s a large-format, limited-edition hardback with gilded page edging, it’s hard to think of it as a ‘trade’ – this presents us with a far darker Santa origin story that draws on Norse myth and Siberian shamanism.

There are no elves here and nothing sanitised, but a brutal and beautiful tale that draws us back to Christmas as a festival marking the depths of winter.

It’s a really top work (the architectural aesthetic attracted me first, since it owes more than a little to the kind of Germany that we’ve experienced in the last couple of years), and left me with a meditative sense of something that was not new, but as old as the hills.

If youre unfamiliar with Morrisons work, just this work should illustrate why hes so highly regarded.

Klaus is available now from BOOM! Studios, both in the limited edition mentioned above (it seems that Forbidden Planet still has copies) and in a non-limited edition. A one-off, single story comic has also just been released to follow up the first series/book.

I’ve also read Krampus! from writer Brian Joines and artist Dean Kotz (published by Image) and, while it’s an entertaining romp, it also serves to reiterate how good Klaus is.

So, folklore/mythology does not stand still, even in technological, cynical times such as ours. And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Star Wars and Carrie Fisher – such a part of our lives

Star Wars was a global phenomenon. It’s such an obvious thing to say, now, 40 years on, that it’s hard to remember just what a shock to the system it was; a bolt out of the blue.

It was the first film that I ever saw without an adult relative. My sister (three years younger) and I saw it one afternoon in Ashton-under-Lyne, delivered there by my father and picked up by him later. How grown up we felt.

The cinema was packed. I remember so much – and yet so little. It’s fair to say, though, that it had a huge impact on my life, possibly to the point of changing it.

My teachers had decided I was set for a career in graphic arts, but I had already rejected that.

I thought ‘graphic arts’ meant designing adverts, and there was no way that I was doing that. I also thought, with the pretentiousness of youth, that I had ‘the soul’ of a fine artist, but, rather less characteristic of that age, considered that I had none of the talent.

I gave up art.

Yet for a while, I seriously hankered after going to work in the States, building models of spaceships for the likes of Star Wars.

However, there was nobody around to tell me that this might have been possible or to point me in the relevant direction – any more than they could point out that ‘graphic art’ could include animation or comics or so much more.

It has taken me until my fifties to work all this out. I’m a slow learner. Although in my defence, I’ll point out that, with no private income and no trust fund or similar, when I was thrown out of polytechnic after a year for having had the temerity to be injured as a direct consequence of the course, the only thing that I could hope to focus on was getting a job – any job. And this was the beginning of the ‘you’re overqualified’ era .

Yet for a few years I nurtured a dream of putting together a book about the blossoming of fantasy film. Before my polytechnic career turned very sour, I had been to the cinema on my own to see Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, and remain in love with it to this day.

And yet …

Yet reality can batter you. As can the edict learned so well from both my father’s pulpit sermons and his dinner table ones. I have been so suckered by that stuff from 1 Corinthians 13:11.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

I have wasted so many years believing that I should be so bloody bleeding boringly ‘grown up’!

True, I have reviewed and appreciated work by others that has included sci-fi and fantasy and that area where the two intersect. But probably until the last 12 months or so, any thoughts that I might produce any sort of work along such lines had lain dormant so long I had forgotten about it.

I have even attended events where I’ve met members of the cast of the first three films.

Yet this year it has all awoken again. And while I wouldn’t remotely suggest that that’s ONLY because of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that this is the year in which art – graphic art – has become a part of my working life, I have few doubts that it hasn't been part of a wider process. It was a reawakening of a certain kind of dream – of a certain kind of modern mythology.

For me, all those years ago, George Lucas’s vision opened a door to me – a teen still struggling in a home environment that was more of the 1930s than the 1960s and ’70s; an environment that considered any form of adults having pleasure with suspicion, that saw me carted to evangelical meetings in the hope that I would succumb to the emotion (I did).

Never mind air guitar –  my counterpoint to religion saw me wield an air light sabre and dream that The Force was real.

Since September, I have been using art – graphic art – in my work. Not something I expected. But it's been a massive leap forward.

On 1 January this year, when The Other Half and I got to see The Force Awakens, within a few moments of leaving the cinema I had declared, in a state of giddiness, that JJ Abrams had given us Star Wars back.

It was a quiet cinema when we saw it, but I wanted to cheer when Leia arrived on screen.

It’s been a shit year for the deaths of people whose talents and works have shone light on the light of others.

For me, not all of those people have meant a great deal, but even those who have not made the greatest impacts on me personally have added something to the creative mix.

Personally, I feel as though I have been most hit by the deaths of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood.

And now, by the loss of Carrie Fisher.

Carrie … you were a crucial, feisty, fabulous part of all this: one of the few real and meaningful awakenings my teenage spirit felt – and that has been renewed in the last 12 months.

Wherever you are – go well: may the force be with you.

And thank you.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The German Gymnasium provides a perfect culinary Christmas work out

Kholrabi and beets
Back in the dim and distant past (late 1999 to early 2000, to be precise), I worked in Camden and travelled there daily via two buses. The second was a 214 and I was often joined by a colleague at the time.

He was German – complete with huge, soup-straining moustache. And, as the bus turned down Pancras Road, he introduced me to the German Gymnasium – the first purpose-built gymnasium in England, and key in the development of athletics in this country.

Designed by Edward Gruning, it was built in 1864-65 for the German Gymnastics Society, at a time when there was a large German population in the city – and it was funded solely by that community and was used by both men and women (women’s classes were first held there in 1866).

It ceased to be used for its original purpose at some point before WWII and subsequently played a variety of roles, from office space to storage space to exhibition space.

But, with the regeneration of the whole King’s Cross area over recent years, the building has, in the past 18 months, been reborn as a cafe, bar and restaurant, with a menu that more than nods at German and central European cooking.

The Other Half and I, having some schooling in German food, had always intended to visit, but you know how it is, and it was only on a work-related Christmas lunch today that we finally made it.

It’s a wonderful space: cafe and bar on her ground floor and the restaurant at mezzanine level. Amazingly, it manages to feel spacious but without any overt echo.

The OH started with a smoked pork sausage salad, which I am assured was very good, while I opted for marinated kohlrabi, sweet and sour beets, horseradish and rocket.

There was too much rocket. However, the beets were beautiful – so earthily sweet – and the kohlrabi, while thick, was very, very tasty. It’s probably the first time I’ve really appreciated horseradish, and it complimented those sweet beets so well. All in all, it was remarkably light, yet perfect for the season.

Venison Baden Baden
For a main, we both opted for Venison “Baden Baden”, which was centred around two lovely pieces of meat (cooked rare, as asked), and with sprouts, a halved pear stuffed with sharp lingonberries, Germany’s noodle, Spätzle, and a juniper jus.

This was simply wonderful, seasonal food. The flavours sing – the pear and lingonberries are such a good compliment to the meat, cutting through its sweetness at slightly different levels, while the Spätzle was not overdone and added a fine extra component, and the jus was simply divine.

Accompanied by a glass of Gewürztraminer from Italy, this was a truly excellent dish.

For dessert, I opted for a sea buckthorn mousse, with a pumpernickel ice cream, Glühwein gel, spiced sponge and pistachio shards – and it was also a delight.

Now, I’m a raving Germanophile – as regular readers here will know – but this is a fascinating restaurant, taking German food and showing its haute cuisine side for sceptical Brits.

Its worth noting that we were some such diners – who had little familiarity with the reality of German food and only a British stereotype, and they were equally impressed if certainly more surprised.

Service was excellent and, to be frank, it was the best Christmas work-related lunch I’ve ever had.

I doubt it’ll be the last time that the OH and I dine there – and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone.

My late German friend, though he might have found the food itself a little fussy, would have bristled with delight at the thought that such a building, with such a German heritage, is now showing Brits just how good German food can be.