Sunday, 31 August 2008

So It's Come To This: SpaceSquid On Musicals

Sometimes the universe folds back in on itself in strange and surprising ways.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved the musical Chess. Well, if we’re rigidly accurate about things (and we all know how much I love rigid accuracy, unless it gets in the way of the dick jokes), I can’t claim to live the musical itself, because I’ve never seen it. Moreover, there at least two very different versions of the show, and I’m not talking about either of them. I’m talking about the original work in progress double CD released back in 1984. From what I understand, the West End version of the musical (which kicked off in 1986 and ran for three years) bears great similarity to this recording. The Broadway version, though, not so much. They gutted the whole thing, setting it over one tournament instead of two, and in the process pissed all over the core concept in a way that forever proves that the Americans hate art, chess, the Swedish, and, er, Elaine Page (even the Broadway critics were smart enough to recognise that it was bilge). Since then, apparently, newer variants of the show have combined the two versions in various ways.

None of which particularly matters. It’s the original concept album that fascinates me. My mother listened to very little music whilst I was growing up, and my father almost none. The one piece of music that I was ever likely to catch whilst we drove around my dearly departed home county was the bearded half of ABBA’s latest project. Sometimes I wonder if this lack of input as a child is what left me essentially entirely uninterested in music until I was into my late teens, but that’s another story.

As a young child there was very little about the story I understood. Obviously, something was going on with chess matches and such, and the Cold War was involved (of course, I was still in primary school at the time, so the Cold War was something I only understood in the vaguest terms: the Russians didn’t like us, and if we were very lucky no-one was going to get blown to pieces for no good reason). All I really took from it, though, was there was one song about a man whose father had left him at twelve, and whose mother had ignored or berated him throughout the following years (I banned Dad from playing that one because it upset me so much, which I‘m hoping is an admission people class as sweet rather than pathetic), and another one which made use of the word “bastard”, a truly thrilling prospect to any prepubescent boy.

The months went by, added up to years, and eventually my father tired of the increasingly worn tapes [1], and I got to get my sticky mitts on them. On and off, they began to soundtrack my teenage years, and ultimately my time at university and beyond. Of course by then I finally had a grip on the story as well.

And what a story it is. The chess World Championship is to be played between East and West in the very middle of the Cold War (this actually happened in the early Seventies when Spassky Boris Spassky faced Bobby Fischer). The Russian (neither player has names in the original) and the distinctly Fischer-like American [2] will be playing each other in the mountains of Tyrol . For their respective countries, this is an opportunity for a glorious propaganda victory (this desire is most overtly expressed by the Russian’s adviser and party-man Molokov, for whom beating the American is the only consideration for the entire competition, but one assumes the Americans are just as bloodthirsty). The problem is that neither player wants to, forgive me, play along. The Russian dreams of defecting, not due to any love of the West but because he is so tired of the endless machinations of The Party who believe they control him utterly and can take the credit for his victories. The American, on the other hand, simply wants the adoration of the public (likely due to the neglect he suffered at his parents’ hands, hence the song that made little Squid so miserable). More importantly, though, he wants the love of his second, Florence (though the exact nature of that love is ambiguous). She, however, quickly falls for the Russian, and joins him in exile when he defects at the end of the first act [3], having beaten the American to a pulp over the course of the tournament.

The fall-out to this is extreme. The Russians are furious that they have lost their prodigy, and the American is devastated that he has lost not only the title, but Florence too. A year passes, and the Championship begins again, this time in Bangkok (“One Night In Bangkok” being officially the second most famous song from Chess). The Russian will be facing a former countryman (this time of unquestionably loyalty to The Party), with the American acting as a kind of MC to the whole affair. The Soviets plan to embarrass the “traitor” by allowing his wife Svetlana to join him in his exile, a development that leads to him leaving Florence since he refuses to deal with her concern at the cost of the tournament.

The American, for his part, demands the Russian forfeit the match, or else he will tell Florence the secret of her father’s betrayal during the Hungarian Uprising in ‘56 (information she doesn’t possess, and which has been handed to the American by a wrathful Molokov).

It’s almost too obvious to point it out, but the characters themselves are of course trapped within their own chess game, as oblivious as their pieces.

Ultimately, the American and Molokov are ignored. The Russian annihilates his opponent, losing Florence and Svetlana, both of whom realise he doesn't care about anything but winning (both had begun to suspect that, of course, that's what the song "I Know Him So Well" is about, which every person reading this post has heard). He, for his part, realises that winning is a necessary condition for him, his unquestionable dominance of his chosen field is essential to his self-worth. Women and countries come and go, but his abilities are unquestionable. All he ever really wanted was the chance to show his victories were his, that he was responsible for the movements of his own life (hardly surprising for a chess player, did I mention this works on two levels yet?). No matter how obvious it is that he needs to win, though, he seems to find it harder to persuade himself that winning is sufficient.

The American has always been convinced that winning is sufficient, not for its own sake, but because he is sure that it will immediately lead to the respect he has been searching for his whole life. Of course, he will never get to find that out. He lost the actual chess tournament a year ago, and he has lost the meta-game now. The Russian has ignored him as irrelevant, Florence has abandoned him. The only bullet left in his gun is the secret regarding his former assistant's father. Which, of course, knowing that it will do him no good and will cause her nothing but pain, he fires anyway. It's literally the only move left to make in the game.

These ideas about finding one's necessary and sufficient conditions for happiness/self-respect correlated to thoughts I had been having at the time, and continue to have to this day. Am I best attempting to excel in one particular area of my life, or would I be more content striking a balance between various things? Most importantly, how much of one aspect should you deliberately sacrifice in exchange for advancement in another. I still haven't decided, and of course it strikes me as massively unlikely that there is just one answer (or that that my answer and your answer would, or should, match). Sometimes I wonder to what extent I enjoy Chess because it ties in so closely to those themes, and to what extent those themes were something I subconsciously acquired through repeated exposure to the musical in the first place. [4]

So its important to me; important to a degree very few artifacts from my childhood can match. Given all of that, it’s tempting to leave my view of the musical frozen in the past, just reach for my CD’s again, and pretend that nothing ever changes.

Except that on Wednesday I discovered that there’s going to be a performance of Chess in my humble little town come November. My better judgement tells me that I shouldn’t go, that it can’t possibly measure up the images my brain has constructed from the songs and singers I’ve been listening to for two decades now. On the other hand, the chance to finally watch the story unfold rather than to just read a synopsis is pretty hard to resist, even if I know that both main story variants dare to end on less of a bummer than the original does.

Plus: night at the theatre. I could get myself right purdy. Scrub m’sel’ up all posh like. And, of course, they have a bar…

[1] He’d started playing the flute and wanted to listen to as many flautists as possible, presumably to maximise his self-loathing. I love my Dad.

[2] If you’ve never heard of Bobby Fischer, please take the time to read his Wikipedia entry. The man was a grade A lunatic. His refusal to defend his title in 1975 is a high point of advanced nuttiness. The entry doesn’t go into full detail, but he refused to play because the ICF would only agree to 178 of his 179 conditions for attendance. Condition 179: if the tournament ended in a nine-all tie, he won.

There’s much more in there (I keep meaning to try playing some Fischer Random Chess with Danny, though I am certain to lose fast and ugly), and it gets increasingly unpleasant (Fischer was a notorious anti-Semitic) , but it’s a fascinating story about a true genius, who also happened to be a total douche.

[3] The Russian lays out his feelings just before he is smuggled out by a Western embassy in the song “Anthem”, one of the better known pieces from the musical. He opines that nations and borders are all wastes of time, needless barriers to humanity. Of course, he has a natural advantage in that his pride and self-belief are so bullet-proof that love of ones home would never occur to him. Who needs a place to belong when everything you give a damn about you get to carry with you?

Incidentally, Michael Ball massacred the song without mercy on his 1996 album The Musicals, proving once and for all that there exists nothing in this universe too great for Michael Ball to be unable to reduce it to foetid excrement with his touch. Seriously, he’s like King Midas, if Midas has wanted everything he touched to be turned to sewage. And then sold to idiots.

[4] I know full well that I’m heading out of my area of expertise, but I would think there are some fascinating discussions to be had on the effect our favourite fiction has upon our emotional and intellectual development, and to what degree our personality chooses our best-loved works as oppose to our best-loved works shaping our personality. The phrase “X changed my life” probably exists for a good reason, and I have several things that could replace the unknown in that sentence.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Took His Time

I've been waiting two days for someone to say this:
But the nomination of Palin ahead of the plainly more qualified Kay Bailey Hutchison is only intelligible in the context of the GOP's anti-choice base.

Damn right. Far as I can see, McCain picked a woman mainly to combat the historic nature of Obama's campaign [1], but he had to choose the right type of woman, i.e. one that energises the right-wing Christians that have been looking increasingly unhappy of late.

That's why it's Palin instead of one of the more weighty female names in the Republican Party, who just aren't far enough along the pro-life, climate change-denying, gay-bashing scale to help McCain's problems with his base.

I suppose that, if nothing else, the worst case scenario for this election now involves the first female VP in history, which ain't nothing. Cracks in the glass ceiling, and all that. It'll probably give me a warm inner glow about the inclusiveness of it all. Course, that will presumably be swiftly replaced with a warm outer glow because McCain's started a nuclear war with Russia, but c'mon, people. The glass is half full!!!

[1] This is not to say that a woman couldn't be picked as the Vice Presidential candidate purely on her own merits, obviously. I just think it's just fairly obvious that Palin wasn't. I also think anyone suggesting that this choice is designed to appeal to frustrated Hillary supporters is underestimating their intelligence, and overestimating their numbers.

Another Jenny

Yesterday morning an old acquaintance of mine lost her fiance to suicide. Every time I hear about someone ending their own life, I am reminded of this poem.


Our Father who art in heaven
Jenny walked in front of a train last night
Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,
She was only thirty seven
Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven
You knew what she was
going to do didn't you Lord?
Give us this day our daily bread,
She had no hope left
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who
trespass against us
Jenny is forgiven, isn't she?
Lead us not into temptation
Lots of us are on the edge of darkness
And deliver us from evil,
The only strength we have is yours
For thine is the kingdom
And she's living there now
The power and the glory
She's yours Lord
For ever and ever,
I've only met Adrian Plass once, at a talk he gave at a local church, but differences in religion notwithstanding, he clearly has a fairly smart head screwed on to his shoulders. I hope he forgives me for ripping this poem out of Cabbages For The King and parading it on the blog.

Also, heartfelt thanks to Pause for rooting this out for me.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Creatures Of The Night

You know what I miss? Television programmes that scare me. I can't remember it happening since the early days of The X-Files. The episode "Squeeze", to be precise, which I watched upstairs alone so Dad could watch the football (or possibly just pass out in the living room). That was a pretty big mistake (though these days the fact it was set in Baltimore just makes me think of McNulty and co trying to investigate murders in locked rooms in which livers have been removed).

Since then, obviously, I've grown up (in the most literal sense if not in others), so the fact that TV no longer gives the willies can at least be partially attributed to be being all big and manly (shut up, it can). I'm not sure that's the only problem, though. Scaring people at the movies isn't especially difficult. I accept that a) I'm not a fearologist and b) I just made that word up, but it seems to me that the key to terrifying people is immersion.

Of course, that's true to some extent of instilling any emotion into people with flickering pictures. If you're not caught up in a film, you're unlikely to feel sadness at a character's death, for example. But the degree to which this is true varies on the specific feeling you want to evoke. You don't have to be paying much attention to a comedy to laugh, after all. So there's a difficulty scale in play here, and I reckon fear is very much near the end of that scale, just before the label that says "bastard hard".

In a cinema, immersion is a lot easier. The size of the screen, the volume of the incidental music, the surround sound, the darkness, it all aids in drawing you in (there's also something to be said for being surrounded by other people who are just as immersed as you are). Sat in your living room, in familiar surroundings, watching the glowing box in the corner, doesn't have the same impact. That doesn't mean you can't get scared (The Orphanage on DVD did a reasonable job of freaking me out a couple of months ago)

So shows like The X-Files already have the odds stacked against them. This is compounded by a comparative lack of budget. Creepy things that go bump in the night are often expensive to create. Which means unless you're damn careful you just end up with a crappy rubber mask or Knightlore-level CGI bogeyman that's impossible to take seriously.

There's even more to it than that, though. Whatever one thinks about the later seasons of The X-Files (and Big G is far less convinced about its meteoric plummet in quality than I am), it seems to me that after the first year of the show it was almost never scary again. It began to rely more and more on the funny/self-parody episodes (which is not to say they weren't enjoyable), "mythology" episodes (a strong story incompetently told, and certainly not scary beyond the fact that people were still buying it) and increasingly tripped-out ideas (trapped inside a hospital in another dimension, anyone?). As I say, I'm not dismissing any of that as being terrible (not in this post, at least), but it took the show to a place where any chance of a creepy atmosphere was pretty much lost. One of the main problems, though, was that Mulder and Scully were government agents. They had the resources of the entire FBI to count on. The public, by and large, gave them their trust and assistance, and they could call in a SWAT team whenever they felt the whim. Add this to the fact that they spent a lot of time wandering around the concrete jungle, and you lose the sense of isolation that works so well in horror.

To see this, just take a look at some of the best episodes from the first season. "Ice", "Shapes", "Darkness Falls", all of them are set either on the edge of the wilderness, or deep within it. Furthermore, all three deal with creatures with no obvious intelligence, primal forces that had to be destroyed or escaped from. "Squeeze" is the exception to both these rules (and that's because the episode is specifically about being attacked exactly in the places you thought were safe, hence Tooms jumping Scully in her bathroom). This was the show at its creepiest, when Mulder and Scully weren't investigating because it was what the government paid them to do, they were investigating because the alternative was getting eaten alive.

The X-Files did return to this sense of isolation from time to time, though with diminishing returns, mainly because of familiarity ("Firewalker", for example, was just "Ice" but with the alien maggots replaced with silicon-based mushrooms, which is a fun sentence to type), but in general the show seemed to drift further and further from this archetype. This is perhaps odd, since the show obviously owes a huge debt to Twin Peaks, which itself relied heavily on the town's remote location and proximity to the oppressive pine forests of the Pacific North-West.

In fact. Chris Carter has referenced Twin Peaks as an influence upon The X-Files since its inception. His main inspiration, though was apparently Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Again, he should have been paying closer attention. Kolchak was freelance, he wasn't trained, he didn't have the Federal Government backing him up [1]; which made any situation he found all the more threatening and thus scary.

So, The X-Files dropped the scary ball, and pretty much nothing on TV since made a successful and sustained attempt to freak me out. I began to wonder if the medium itself just made it too difficult to be worth the bother.

Then, thanks to BT, I discovered Supernatural.

Truthfully, Supernatural doesn't scare me either, but it comes a lot closer than anything's managed for a long, long time. I admit that I've only seen the first five episodes so far, so there's still plenty of time for it to become formulaic and lose its teeth that way. So far, though, the show is doing a large number of very sharp things, of which I shall highlight the top three:

1. Giving the main characters an immediate interest in fighting the supernatural. Yes, Mulder lost his sister years ago, and that was what drove him, but Sam and Dean both lost their mother in the past and their father (literally lost, rather than dead) and Sam's girlfriend over the course of the pilot episode. This gives them immediate motivation, and a genuine sense of an imposed time limit, rather than an emotional scar decades old. This advantage is heightened by the fact that Mulder was curious about the unknown, whereas Sam and Dean want to kick the unknown in the nuts and then run it over with a Chevy Impala.

2. Choosing locations wisely. As mentioned already, nine times out of ten, if you want to set up a scary atmosphere, you want to find somewhere remote to do it in. The American wilderness works particularly well. For all its power and development, the US is still a young country, and a big one; there are still vast tracts of the continent which are almost unknown to humanity. Meeting a Wendigo in the Colorado forests is innately more "plausible" than meeting a Black Dog on Salisbury plain would be. The land is not yet tamed. I made a glib remark earlier in the week about modern-day America's habit of co-opting the myths and ghost stories of the continent's original inhabitants, but the truth is that American folk-lore is an endlessly fascinating chimera of Native American and old European ghost stories, mixed in with modern urban legend. The elements swirl together, frequently merging (the Native American Garou and the European werewolf, for example) to create something truly unique. Take the powerful strangeness of these stories, and set them in the unclaimed wilds just beyond the streetlight, and you have an impressive mixture.

This is presumably why the Winchester brothers spend so much of their time on the fringes of civilisation. Sombre pine forests; deep, still lakes; the dark back roads of dark, back-road towns. The only time they drop the ball in this sense is in episode four, which is set in airports and jumbo jets. Interestingly, this is the most original of the stories I've seen so far, but it takes the show too far out of the Americana-drenched atmosphere it seems to employ so well.

3. Clever use of short-hand. The show so far has been almost breathtakingly derivative, but for the moment I don't care. People used to describe The X-Files as "like a movie every week". Well, maybe, but very quickly it was a tremendously badly written and confusing movie. Supernatural genuinely feels like a pocket film each time. Specifically, the films are What Lies Beneath (twice), Final Destination, and Ringu/Candyman [2], with some American Werewolf in London and House on Haunted Hill (the re-make, natch) thrown in for good measure. In fairness, all but the fourth episode involve mythology that predates any of the films mentioned, but it's still hard to miss the references.

Like I say, I don't care. It works. The visual cues (shadows in the mirror; jerky, jumpy ghosts), the soundtrack (and accompanying spooky tape messages and the like), that ridiculous way supernatural beings have of somehow becoming more powerful and imaginative as the film goes on are all present and correct. Hopefully some experimentation will come later (no more plane-based episodes, though, and stay away from aliens and time-travel).

I guess we'll see.

Anyway, I shall be watching the remainder of the Season 1.1 boxed set as soon as humanly possible (and once it's sufficiently dark outside).

[1] In fairness, Carter specifically chose FBI agents so as to explain why the creepy stuff kept happening to them. Of course, as is so often the way in long-running TV series, eventually the freaky shit eventually started happening just because. Mulder ends up trying to foil a bank robbery and suddenly it all goes Groundhog Day on his ass? Right....

[2] Episode five manages to steal from both the original end to Suzuki's novel and the Videodrome-inspired nightmare conclusion of Nakata's film version, which isn't easy to do considering the differences between them. Then it sticks Candyman on top. Because it can.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Use The Wobbly Stick To SING HIS PRAISES!

Christian-rock version of guitar hero to be released.

Thank goodness that dedicated proponents of the faith need no longer fake playing along to the Satanic chord progressions of the graven idols of RAWK!

Of course, if they were true Christian hard-liners, they'd consider video games, infrared sensors and synthetic polymers to be the creations of Old Nick as well...

Gender Identification

So, this is an interesting site (h/t to Dover Bitch). The idea is that you paste in a sample of your writing (fiction, non-fiction, or blog post), and it will attempt to determine your gender.

Never one to be insecure about an internet program misidentifying my genitalia (not that it's an issue that crops up all that much), I stepped up to the challenge.

On my blog posts, it did pretty well. By pretty well I mean that of the ten posts I gave it for analysis, nine of them came back as being written by a male (apparently my objecting to McCain's constant playing of the POW card made me sound feminine). Of course, the distinction between what constitutes as a blog post and what constitutes non-fiction is somewhat vague. It's at least arguable that my X-Men articles and the second piece I wrote on Midnight Nation (three of the former and the latter all being included in the ten above) are closer to being non-fiction. That's not a value judgment, I just think that maybe the Gender Genie (which sounds like something very different to what it turns out to be) might be expecting a bit more... personal expression in a blog post.

Regardless, since I'm a serious researcher and junk, I figured I'd give it some non-fiction by sticking in the progress report I wrote back at the end of my first year. I also gave it Time-homogeneous birth-death processes with probability intervals and absorbing state (minus the diagrams; I assume no amount of equilateral triangles is liable to change anyone's opinion as to my sexual identity). I figured this would be interesting, since although I did all the necessary research, and handled all the editorially mandated changes, the original draft was written almost entirely by the dear departed Dr P, very much of the female persuasion.

GG decided both articles had a female bent. I have no idea what to take from that, except that considering with and if "feminine keywords" is somewhat questionable when talking about a mathematics paper.

In fact, the keywords in general are very interesting. "Below", for example, is a masculine keyword. Why? Something to do with over-representation of men in business where they're always worried about being below something? There's a whole article in that, though I won't be the one to write it.

Finally, I handed GG some of my stories. This turned out exactly the way I was expecting, given the keyword system. I picked four stories, two short, two significantly longer. Each of the two pairs had one story with a man as the lead character, the other a woman (well, Gifts sort of flits between two main character, but it's mainly from a woman's perspective). All four came back with the adjudication that the writer shared the protagonist's gender.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I've wasted the morning. Still, kept me interested. It also revealed that I need to write more fiction from the female viewpoint, as there's currently a fairly obvious skew.

Oh, and GG considers this post to have been typed by a man. What a relief.

Sixty Second Film Corner: Get Smart

Jokes much funnier than expected.

Steve Carell less annoying than expected.

Anne Hathaway just as beautiful and gorgeous and all-over wonderful as expected.

This film is therefore endorsed by SpaceSquid.

Caution: film may contain trace elements of Terence Stamp being absolutely fucking terrible.

(I keep meaning to put together a "SpaceSquid endorses" image that I can use as a stamp of approval. Tragically, a cephalopod with all ten tentacles giving a thumbs up is anatomically impossible, and I'm not sure I'd be prepared to settle for anything less).

Days until exile: 10.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Wherein You Guys Do Some Work For A Change

Ultimately that Beast article ate up the entirety of yesterday evening (I even had to miss Stargate: Atlantis, and you can imagine how upset that makes me), so I'm taking the day off from analysing hope or searching for despondent invertebrates or whatever.

Instead I have a task for you, my glorious readers. Big G and I are slapping together a new series of articles for Our Front Room, based on an idea we batted around for a while during the halcyon days of the Creative Writing Society and the Church of Squid.

The specifics, at least for now, are top-secret. What I'd like you guys to do is list some of your favourite fictional villains. It doesn't really matter where they come from, the more eclectic the resulting collection the better, probably. Just bear in mind that if they're too obscure for anyone else to have heard of them, we're probably going to have a hard time writing their dialogue.

Right, over to you.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #5: Fuzzy

First of all, and I’ve been meaning to mention this for a little while now, but big ups to UXMN. Its “Spotlight On” series has been a massive help in filling in the gaps of my knowledge regarding the activities of various X-Men whilst they're not with the main team. Clearly, this is especially important with the franchise-skipping Beast, so this article would have been much the poorer without the website above.

Excellent! It may have taken five articles, but we’ve finally arrived at an X-Man I can really get behind. Xavier and Cyclops are blindly dedicated, Iceman is childish, and Angel unnecessarily cold, but Beast is different. Well, not different, per se; in fact he demonstrates all those faults at one time or another, but the beauty of Edna McCoy’s bouncing baby boy is that he combines all those aspects, and much, much more. Beast is a Gordian Knot of a character. Actually, even that doesn’t go far enough. Beast is a series of Gordian Knots threaded through each other. Every strand loosened in one knot tightens one somewhere else. In fact, McCoy is so complex, I’ve had to re-think the structure of this article numerous times just so I could fit it all in.

To an arguably unique extent amongst the X-Men (if not more generally), Beast suffers from the massive gap between his inner and outer self. In my last article in this series I pointed out Angel’s difficulty in passing for normal compared to Bobby Drake, but neither of them (nor anyone else, save perhaps Marrow) have anything on Beast. Whilst he is generally drawn as somewhat cuddly, without his gentle demeanour and intellectual bon mots, McCoy is absolutely terrifying. This is a mutant who escapes being arrested by leaping at two police officers whilst disengaging his image-inducer to take advantage of the resulting incontinence. The sheer gap between his involuntary-bowel-movement appearance and his genteel soul is striking.

At least, that’s how it has been ever since that fateful injection of serum turned him blue and furry. But let’s go back to the beginning.

Even as a teenager, Hank is teased by his peers about his appearance. Known as “Magilla Gorilla” thanks to his disproportionate appendages, he becomes withdrawn, and might have stayed that way indefinitely but for a fellow student named Jennifer Nyles. What starts with Hank simply tutoring Jen in biology leads to her demanding that he take her to the prom, and ultimately her punching out one of the bullies who have been bothering Hank for so long. From then on the two of them become inseparable friends.

They should be more than that, of course, but Hank’s natural shyness prevents him from telling her how he actually feels (given how much time his classmates had spent telling he was ugly, this is hardly a surprise). In fact, it isn’t until after she moves to London to study genetics that they finally admit just how much they love each other. Badly-timed though this admission is, they continue to stay in touch. With his quarterbacking going well, and with his considerable intellect to fall back on if necessary, it must seem to Hank that knowing that Jen reciprocates his love made his life complete, at least for the foreseeable future.

No-one in comics is allowed to be so content for long. Hank foils three criminals attempting to flee across the pitch whilst he is playing football. The footage of him using his mutant-enhanced agility to knock out the hoods is played on the evening news, and attracts the attention of the villainous El Conquistador [1]. Realising that Hank would be useful as a thief, the Conquistador kidnaps his parents and threatens them in order to force him into stealing a nuclear reactor (if only he’d found Angel instead, he could have just taken that weird nuclear test-tube thing off his hands, and everything would be gravy). Ultimately the X-Men arrive, and together they defeat the Conquistador.

Grateful and curious, Hank agrees to join the X-Men. That same day he phones Jen only to discover that she has forgotten him. Xavier confesses that in order to keep the X-Men safe, he has erased the memory of anyone who knew too much about Beast’s true nature, including the girl he cared for so completely.

Understandably, Hank is furious at this. The woman he loved, and who loved him despite so many others seeing him as a freak, no longer has any knowledge of him. Ultimately Professor X persuades him that it was necessary. Or at least, that is the impression Beast gives. It is just as likely that he realises that if he left in outrage, Xavier would erase his mind too. Perhaps he would have restored Jen’s memory, perhaps not. Perhaps he would remove Hank’s memories of her too, the only place where their relationship still exists. Given all that, what choice does Hank have but to stay?

As horrible as this incident is in isolation, it becomes all the worse when you realise that it begins a pattern that continues to haunt Beast to this day. Hank is a man starved of romantic contact. In fact, there is a persuasive case to be made that Hank is by the loneliest of the X-Men. He hides it with humour (though he uses his wit as distraction, rather than as a blunt defence as is the case with Iceman), and with dedication, but look hard enough and it becomes easy to spot.

Indeed, how could things be any other way? Henry’s self-esteem takes such a beating as a teenager that Jen has to put in a tremendous amount of work to draw him out of himself. Then, as soon as she has finally managed to inspire Hank to reveal his true feelings, her memory is erased. Later, when he finally stops hiding behind his jokes and agrees to a blind date with Vera Cantor, her ex-boyfriend the Mimic interrupts, using his powers to show Hank up [2]. Although the incident was fairly minor, it was likely another step backwards for Hank’s self-confidence. Watching someone beat him with his own powers (which he refused to employ for fear of discovery) must have been humiliating. Although he continued to see Vera, they quickly drifted apart.

Soon, he decides to pursue a life beyond the X-Men, unsure that the life of a super-hero is for him. Instead, he joins the Brand Corporation as a bio-chemical researcher. There he meets his beautiful research assistant Linda Donaldson, and again it briefly looks as though Hank might be able to assemble a future for himself.

Except guess what? His new boss Maddicks proves to be a foreign agent, out to half-inch government secrets. Unable to defeat him unaided, Hank injects himself with an experimental serum he has developed, which increases strength and agility at the price of making your skin erupt into grey fur. With only one hour before the serum becomes permanent [3] Hank is on a tight schedule. Ultimately he does foil Maddicks, but fails to reach the antidote in time, and remains fuzzy.

This, perhaps, is the birth of the true Beast. For a while he wears a latex mask and gloves so as to appear human. He continues to flirt with Linda, but now cannot allow her to kiss him in case she discovers his disguise. Whatever progress he has made reconciling his personality and his appearance is now torn to pieces, and he is forced to begin again. This difficulty is brought into sharp focus soon after when Iron Man visits the Brand Corporation. Another crisis strikes, and both he and Hank attempt to help. Seeing Beast, though, Tony Stark mistakes him for a villain and attacks.

This development is worth considering for a moment. In many ways, Beast is more than just a character in the X-Men; he is a reflection of the themes of the comics themselves. He is the embodiment of Xavier’s dream. Sure, some people would say that such is Cyclops' role, but as I’ve argued before Cyclops really only mirrors Xavier’s dedication. Summers is essentially just another dreamer. Hank McCoy is the dream. There’s a reason why Professor X is frequently compared to Martin Luther King Jr., it's because he has his own version of King’s speech on the Lincoln Memorial running around his head. “One day mutants will be judged not by the colour and furriness of their skin but by the content of their character". Henry’s personal crises, his difficulty with connecting with anyone due to his appearance, are a microcosm of the struggle for mutant rights. Xavier’s mission gives Beast hope that eventually, people will see past the fur and the fangs.

Perhaps this is why he invariably returns to the X-Men, despite frequently questioning his aptitude for and interest in the life of a super-hero. A super-hero in a team oftentimes branded terrorists, at that. Had he stayed with the Avengers after he left the Brand Corporation (having been tricked by Linda who also turned out to be a foreign spy [4]), he would have been accepted as a hero first and a mutant second (certainly the women seemed far more into him at this point), but rather than stomach the public’s hypocrisy, he chooses to return to the X-Men, to fight for all mutants to be accepted, rather than just the celebrities (mutants being far from the first minority in history who the population are happy to encounter as long as they are sufficiently entertaining or sufficiently useful).

There is another plausible reason why Hank fights alongside the X-Men, of course, which also explains why despite his insecurities he returns time after time to the life of a superhero (whether it be with the X-Men, X-Factor, the Avengers, or even the Defenders). It isn’t often discussed, but there is in fact no compelling reason to believe that Henry’s towering intellect is actually connected to his mutation. He may in fact have gained almost nothing from being a mutant at all. Sure, he’s more agile, but the price of that is a lifetime of mockery and hatred. Moreover, he has demonstrated time and again that he could manage perfectly happily with his intellect alone. He has gained almost nothing from his “gifts”, certainly considering the cost, but by choosing to employ his powers to fight for mutant rights, he forces them to have some meaning.

Of course, this decision to make use of his mutant skills (as oppose to just boosting an image-inducer and spending the rest of his life looking like Brad Pitt) comes at further cost. It forces him to accept his hideous form, to try and live his life as if everyone already can see him for what he truly is [5]. This is exactly what Wolverine throws in his face after Hank seeks a cure for the mutant condition from Kavita Rao. He has chosen to be an inspiration to the next generation, Logan reminds him, and he cannot simply toss that aside in the hope of once more passing for human.

Eventually Hank acquiesces to Wolverine, but it is perhaps unlikely that he ever truly agrees. After all, his decision to try and “cure” himself came only after his secondary mutation kicked in and left him more feline than hominid. In fact, Hank’s various regressions mean that Hank not only represents Xavier’s dream, but also the difficulty in making that dream actually happen. He mirrors the seemingly constant set-backs to the X-Men’s ultimate goal. Each time he might have a chance at mastering his circumstances, the universe conspires to throw him another curveball. This brings us back to the true tragedy of Beast (and all the best heroes have a detailed entry on their profiles under the “true tragedy” heading), the degree to which he suffers from the lack of human contact. Sure, he has friends, though the degree to which they can penetrate the twin shields of his formidable intellect and his constant wise-cracking is an open question, but that isn’t really enough. Perhaps he needs someone that he feels understands him, or perhaps it is simply that the New York winters are too cold for him even with the fur. Regardless, Hank’s romantic nature is painfully obvious from his patter, and its constant frustration seems to weigh heavily upon him. Consider how often he gives his ex-girlfriends another try: Vera once, Trish Tilby at least twice; and that was after she told the world a new mutant virus was absolutely, positively going to kill every mother-fucker in the world. Even though it was clear Vera or Trish weren't right for him, Hank’s need for some kind of contact meant he kept trying with what limited options he had. After all, each of the various X-Women that have come and gone over the years have invariably fallen for one of the more handsome, less hairy individuals in the Xavier Institute. To the best of my knowledge Cecilia Reyes was the only team member he very clearly had feelings for, but why should I find it easier to get through his defences than anyone else has?

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. All of Beast’s attempts to keep the plate spinning with regard to Trish falls apart after the secondary mutation kicks in. “You’re still the same lovely Hank inside” she tells him, but “The Enquirer ran an article on us. The word ‘bestiality‘ was used three times”. Then the kicker: “I couldn‘t do anything to hurt you, my dear lovely Hank, but this could ruin my career as a broadcaster”. It all comes down to how you look, and what other people think (not to mention that the woman does it by phone ). As his brain begins to shift into new patterns, as his hands become pens incapable of holding a pen [6], the one woman he hoped he could rely on cuts him loose for fear The National Enquirer might cause trouble for her.

So how does Hank respond? He buries himself in his work. Well, actually he tells Trish he’s gay for a laugh, but mainly he buries himself in his work. Much as he always does, in fact. Attempting to cure the Legacy Virus back before Trish’s phone-call-of-doom (which he eventually managed, albeit with Moira MacTaggert doing most of the ground work) became a bona fide obsession for the man. How better to prove to himself that he was worth a damn?

OK, maybe that’s unfair. Certainly, when someone is trying to neutralise a disease designed to wipe out all of humanity it seems churlish to find fault. But this is just the most extreme example of Hank’s insistence upon proving himself through his intellect. After all, without that, without the planet-sized brain that the X-Men rely upon for "Everything from battle scenarios, tech-support and medical evaluations to studying the Legacy Virus!” (to quote Dark Beast, and don’t worry, we’re getting to him), then what exactly is he? An ambulant azure rug, basically. His brain is the only thing Hank can think of to be grateful for, aside from his friends, whom in any case he constantly attempts to prove he has earned, rather than has had given to him. It’s why I think the greatest period of despondency in Beast’s life comes during the tenure of the original X-Factor, whilst fighting Apocalypse’s Horseman, Pestilence. Her touch is simply supposed to make him grow sick and die, but instead it interferes with the serum he injected himself with years before. Pestilence’s power returns Beast to his original appearance, but leaves him unable to use his enhanced strength without it feeding off his intellect. Every time he exerts himself to defeat a villain or to save his friends, he becomes a fraction less smart. He loses more of the only thing that he can be proud of, the one thing that makes him more than the gorilla that nobodycould ever love.

He does it anyway, of course, connecting with Trish Tilby and eventually being cured in the process. This is the true measure of Beast’s heroism, that he would take the only part of himself that isn’t somewhere between mediocre and a cluster-fuck and toss it aside to aid his friends. Of course, Beast has always tried his best to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. This was obvious as early as his tenure with the Avengers. When a Skrull impersonating Jarvis poisons Vera whilst she is visiting Avengers Mansion, he demands the heroes steal the Resurrection Stone. This they do, only for Beast to shatter it to prevent it falling into alien hands. This is a decision that leaves Vera in suspended animation for some time, (until Doctor Strange eventually revives her), but it was what Hank's conscience demanded of him.

The moral compass of Henry McCoy keeps cropping up across the years. As he himself says, "Science is one of the things we picked up in the course of evolution. Like opposable thumbs, and the ability to use tools." Again, this is a sign that he operates as more than simply a character; he often voices the objections of the reader when various characters step out of line . It is he, for instance, that admits doubts over Xavier’s plan to intentionally downplay the seriousness of the Legacy Virus outbreak in order to prevent panic and further death (after the uninfected mutant Dennis Hogan was beaten to death by panicked humans). Perhaps his most interesting moral challenge, however, occurs after Scarlet Witch almost erases the entire mutant race on M-Day (a population of hundreds of thousands or even millions are suddenly reduced to around two hundred). Faced with the possible extinction of his species, and unable to discover the root cause, Hank first asks a selection of characters (ranging from the morally questionable to the outright evil) for assistance. "I've sold my soul. Would any of you care to ransom yours?". Eventually, though, he begins searching various unsavoury locations for clues. Eventually this leads him to the mutant concentration camp known as Neverland, where he meets and strikes an unholy deal with his alternate universe counterpart, Dark Beast.

We should probably discuss Dark Beast at this point. A refugee from the Age of Apocalypse, the Hank McCoy of that reality never bothered with anything so inconvenient as a conscience. Free from such restrictions, he became a markedly superior scientist to our own blue-furred version of the Beast. Certainly he was smart enough both to escape his reality before the metaphysical walls started falling, and create the Morlocks in our dimension. At one point he replaced his counterpart and lived amongst the X-Men, who were none the wiser until X-Factor released the original model from his prison. Since Dark Beast had been entirely happy to leave his genetic twin to rot(the only reason DB hadn't executed his double immediately was on the off chance that there was something useful in his head), our own McCoy harbours a healthy loathing for him.

After M-Day, he resolved to set aside his loathing, at least temporarily. Both McCoy's were desperate to undo what Wanda Maximoff had done; why not work together? Well, aside from the fact that DB thinks Hank is afraid of allowing himself to be pushed over the line, but that's never really a possibility. Or is it?

During their partnership, Beast reminds himself "From the moment I chose to devote my life to scientific research, I knew I'd face ethical dilemmas". Of course, he does it whilst grave-robbing Genosha for "fresh" mutant DNA. For a few moments, it seems as if Beast might finally have given up on morality for the sake of expediency.

It can't last. The instant his shadowy twin attempts to upgrade their blasphemous experiment to the living, Hank ends their alliance with a claw to the face. Of course, this leaves him with very little in the way of alternatives. His faith in science dashed by his failure, his desperate hope in magic ended by the sad testimony of Doctor Strange, there is only one thing left for him to try.

He goes to visit Wanda.

It doesn't go well. He fully intends to explain what has happened to her, rip aside whatever defences her magic has erected over her fatigued and barren brain in order to persuade her into undoing the damage she has done. Wanda realises this on some level:
"A man gets a certain look in his eyes when he's fishing for omens. When he's trying to nerve himself up to something he knows, deep down, is wrong.
"You've got that look."

In the end, he can't bring himself to do it. He realises that his cause is lost, he is lost, and he leaves. He returns to Neverland to do the only thing he can do.

He buries the dead.

That, then, is Beast. Too smart for words, and certainly too smart to easily gauge. "Brilliant and unloved", as Steven Moffat might say (if he wasn't busy trying to work out how to make children afraid of tables, or something). Xavier's dream given form, and its reality revealed. The conscience of the team, dedicated to the correct course of action no matter what. A man who, at the end of his rope, and at the end of his hope, works to give his respects to the dead, because he is sure that it is the right thing to do.

"I gave the past its due", as he puts it, as he begins laying skeletons to rest. "Which is all you can do, in the end, for the dead, and for the past."

"Well, that and live".

Next time: we give thanks to the God of the Marvel Universe that she won’t let a hot red-head stay buried for very long.

[1] Early X-Men stories seemed to spend a lot of time fighting against various Mesoamerican-themed bad guys. Of course, to the Americans, this is presumably like fighting Nessie.

[2] Given Bobby has a hand in arranging the date it is perhaps remarkable that it all went as well as it did.

[3] One day I’m going to sit down and write "SpaceSquid’s Top Twenty Abominations Of Science Apparently Considered Worthy Of Funding By Fictional Governments". If it’s not this then it’s those damn acid-resistant velociraptors.

[4] "SpaceSquid’s Top Twenty Outrageous Failures To Adequately Check Applicant Background" would also not take too long to slap together.

[5] This is another reason why Beast is great. The other five original team members are, in general, hard to relate to, at least when you’re at the modal age at which people start getting into comics. Xavier is a teacher, Cyclops insanely dedicated, Angel rich as hell and arrogant as fuck. As a man I can’t decide how easy it is to identify with Jean Grey, but my guess is that for much her early years she can be written of as “generic woman” (though I may change my opinion once I’ve researched the next article). Xavier has her in charge of fashion, FFS. Bobby, fair enough, has the whole cocky wise-ass shtick, so that works, but Beast takes the crown for relatability. Who hasn’t thought at one time or another that if they were as attractive on the outside as they’re sure they are on the inside, then everything would be better?

[6] This whole storyline sort of reminded me of Stephen Hawking, actually. It’s the same principle of an exceptionally powerful mind being frustrated by base physical inadequacy (that keeps getting worse, too). Of course, to make it a complete match, you have to ignore the whole nurse/affair/blow-job thing.


Still hoping to have Beast's article finished today, but in case I don't I figured I'd introduce you to the world's most morose sea anemone.

I only just discovered Whispered Apologies, and it's great. The basic idea: one person draws the strip, then someone else writes the script. It's frequently pretty funny (especially when Ryan North from Dinosaur Comics is on dialogue duty), but occasionally reaches a whole new plane whenever the writer just decides to use the relevant speech-bubbles to insult the shoddy work or insufferable personality of the artist whose work he is defacing.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Fashion Advice Needed

Everybody who has met me knows that I've never really understood the concept of "fashion". Generally speaking, I tend to view clothes as strips of material used only to keep me warm and stop me freaking out the townsfolk. Ian Malcolm summed up this opinion in Jurassic Park, the less time one spends deciding what form of coloured cloth is going to hide your shame on any given day, the more time you can think about stuff that actually matters.

So, yeah, not really up on the concept of what should be worn how and when and why. I'm also aware (so, so aware) that I continue to hurtle towards middle-aged like a creaky-limb freight train (yes, I know trains don't have limbs; I'm not really a squid either, so shut up). Even if I ever had possessed the arcane knowledge required to tell the difference between a morning suit and a lounge suit (still don't know, still refuse to find out), it would be fading as the damn kids get together and conspire to change it all around again. On the way back from Jersey I saw a pair of tweenagers who were wearing leg-warmers. Obviously this was bad enough, but they'd swapped one sock with each other so that each of them had one sock that was lime green (the shade of green that dare not speak its name) and one that was radioactive pink. You could have used those kids to guide down planes.

Even given all of that, even accepting that I'm paddling away from Fashion Island which I never really mapped out in the first place, there are some items of clothing that must just be considered unarguably awful. Last night A texted me to tell me about a T-shirt she'd just seen a girl wearing in a nightclub (a Middlesbrough nightclub, admittedly, which puts it somewhere between a cattle market and a convention for child prostitutes), which was plain except for the word "CLITORIS" emblazoned proudly across the chest.

What... the... Hell? I'm open to suggestions on this one. Was it reminder for inattentive lovers? An attempt by a lesbian to make her sexual preferences inescapably obvious? Or are we facing a resurgence of interest in Red Dwarf and the Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Reintegration Into Society?

I'm wondering what people think. Have I missed something? Should I commission a T-Shirt which says "GONADS" in four-inch golden letters? Or should I just give up on this planet entirely, and relocate to the asteroid belt to live out the rest of my life as one of those rock hermits I used to shoot at in Elite?

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Slipping Through The Cracks: Part 2

Caution: do not enter the spoiler enclosure unprotected.

Yesterday I tried to give an overview of Midnight Nation and explain why I love it so much. Amongst other things I pointed out the fact that there is a lot going on under the surface of the book that bears closer scrutiny. Much of this will completely ruin the comic for anyone who hasn't read it yet, so if that's you; leave now.


I mentioned yesterday both that this series had a tendency to head off in unexpected directions and that it had heavy religious overtones. Both of these points are, of course, connected. We suspect that some kind of religious imagery is liable to be popping up from the moment David has his soul stolen by The Men. By the time we're introduced to Lazarus and his (quite literal) guardian angel, we are no longer in any doubt. David's struggle isn't just about reclaiming his soul, it's also a tiny slice of a much bigger battle.

This, it seems at first, is perhaps why Laurel is so cold and unsympathetic towards him. Having fought this particular battle so many times, and aware of how many other such conflicts are going on all around them, it is perhaps forgivable that she might find it hard to focus on David through the violence and the misery and the white noise. This isn't her first rodeo, and it's not like she and David are playing the only chess game in town.

In fact, the chess analogy is a good one, especially when the realisation dawns that this is a chess game from the pawn's perspective. David's frustration is borne from Laurel's expectation that he simply do what he's told until New York rises from the horizon. She berates him for his mistakes (trying to contact his ex-wife in order to apologise, for example), but never gives him any real reason to trust him beyond lack of choice (and his growing romantic interest in her). It becomes increasingly clear that things aren't as simple as are being made out: Arthur and Laurel's claim that losing one's soul transforms you into one of them and erases you entirely starts to fray as time passes. They meet Laurel's last companion, who has now become one of The Men entirely, and suddenly it begins desperately pleading her to help his family, a request that leads to his death at the hands of his fellows. Could a soulless creature really still understand the concept of sacrifice for their loved ones? The party line becomes even harder to swallow once David meets up with his future self and finds him both still soulless and still human. [1]

It's not until our heroes arrive in New York (centre of the world's evil, apparently, though Straczynski is unlikely to have been the first person to think so) and are cordially greeted by the Devil himself that we finally begin to get answers. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, Satan is the only one of the three main characters who is resolutely honest throughout. His explanations and arguments reveal the true themes behind the series: hope, honesty, misery, and the battle between the three.

Right, this all might get a bit metaphysical. Satan is both honest and without hope. He makes it very clear that, in his opinion, hope is nothing but an outrageous lie, told by a capricious God to his miserable creations purely to keep them from rebelling outright. In this, at least, he is fairly convincing:

"Bombs and anthrax and ebola, terror in the streets, doors locked against neighbours and anonymous crime, against community and each other. Mothers drowning their children because they can't handle the stress of the very act of creation itself. They understand that what they bring in will know only misery so they end it, end it for themselves, for their children. They get it over with."

Misery is everywhere, he argues. And there doesn't seem to be any reason why it needs to be. It's such a bad idea that, as mentioned, God has to keep pedalling hope just so the universe's inhabitants don't en masse tell him to go fuck himself.

And what is hope but keeping down your defences for long enough for life to cut out your heart one more time?

The idea that one can "lie with the truth" is a fairly old one, certainly when applied to fictional representations of Satan (Devil's Advocate is just the very first example that springs to mind, though in fairness that Devil combines lying with the truth and having women with big tits come on to you). This is the first time though that I've seen the idea of Satan being honest because he genuinely hates dissembling and self-delusion. Of course, you don't have to lie in order to trick someone. You just make a deliberate logical misstep and hope no-one notices.

This is exactly what Satan attempts with David. Misery is the problem, misery is the proof that God is either incompetent or a bastard, or both. It can't be fought, because it is everywhere. It certainly can't be beaten back with hope, since hope is just refusing to learn that everything is just suffering and pain fashioned into an insane and random world. Thus only way to end the misery is to keep increasing it, building it up to critical mass until it becomes obvious to the world that creation is a lie, and that we need to start over, preferably with a Supreme Being who isn't drunk at the wheel. This is bizarre reasoning, of course; hope doesn't work as a weapon against misery, thus there is no hope against misery, thus our only hope is to increase the misery until all hope is gone. Clearly, though, it is an argument which has swayed each and every one of Laurel's companions up until now. It probably helps when being persuaded by the argument allows you to get your soul back, of course.

So, that's Satan; unquestionably honest but still withholding and scheming, denying hope, fighting fire with fire. As I say, it's interesting that the dark in the story's trinity [2] should be the most truthful of the three. At the other end of the scale is the avatar of light, Laurel, who spends almost the entirety of the story lying to David on several levels. Of course, how else is she to give him hope?

I mentioned earlier that David is the pawn in a chess game. Laurel, however, is the king. Or possibly the queen, depending on your interpretation. Satan doesn't want David. Not in the long term, at least. It just doesn't make any sense to go through all this just to add one more demon to his arsenal. After all, not only did it take a year for David to get to New York, but he and Laurel crippled or killed perhaps dozens of his minions on the way. Admittedly, other potential recruits might be less handy in a fight, or surrender to the process earlier into The Walk, but even so, the exchange rate makes it implausible in the extreme that Satan's aim is to control David as one of The Men.

Satan's actual goal is two-fold. Firstly, he wants the misery gained first by torturing David for a year before turning, and then by forcing Lauren to watch as he betrays her in order to save his soul. The second objective, though, is almost certainly the more important. Forcing Laurel to take The Walk time after time, only to watch her companions betray her one after the other, not only feeds Satan's obsession with overloading reality with misery, but gives him the chance to tempt her into rebellion. David is a nice trinket, but really he's only there to make Laurel face the choice again, suffer once more through the temptation to give up on the cycle of her agony and despair.

At last, then, we finally understand Laurel's attitude. Her desperate attempts to keep David at arm's length (which fail, and perhaps they always fail) were not, as we might originally have assumed, for fear of getting too close and suffering through his failure, but for fear of getting too close and suffering through his betrayal. Each cycle Laurel tries to minimise the horror she knows is coming, partially perhaps to limit the damage Satan can do, but surely in the main to spare her the pain awaiting her in New York.

In fact, Straczynski gives a powerful clue to some of this earlier in the series. Laurel makes a cryptic reference to an upcoming ritual known as "the bleeding". Later, as he sits with Laurel on the street after a battle with The Men in which she is injured, he tells her "When you said the bleeding was coming... I thought you meant it would be me."

"Of course you did" is her weary reply.

The cycle is taking its toll. She tells David she thinks she might be out of hope. She begs the power that wakes her to begin The Walk to just leave her be. "Haven't I done enough?" Sooner or later, she might finally give up, and Satan truly would have what he wanted. It hardly seems worth the risk. Ultimately though she goes through it all again anyway, because she still has that last sliver of faith, the same sliver that she knows Satan will stab her through the heart with.

It seems, then, that Laurel agrees at least on some level with Satan that hope is a lie. Not just a lie that God tells us, but a lie that we tell ourselves. Self-delusion is a theme that appears frequently across the twelve issues. Sometimes it ties in with hope; David refuses to accept the inevitability of his own fate, to the point that he refuses to allow Laurel to "end it" for him even given the damage (both physical and psychological) he is doing to her. Even being told by his own future self that he fails to reclaim his soul doesn't cause him to abandon hope (we'll come back to this). Lazarus spends the entirety of his millenia-long existence waiting for death to arrive, pointless though it obviously is.

But not everyone who lies to themselves does it out of hope. Sometimes the motivation is fear. In issue 4 David and Laurel come across a camp-fire surrounded by people, each of them lost, each of them with a story to tell. The particulars change from tale to tale, but each of them end in the same way: "What choice did I have?" These poor specimens, robbed of their hope, delude themselves that hope never existed in the first place, that their fall from grace (gosh, who is this starting to sound like?) was unavoidable. They shirk their responsibility because it gives them comfort, because it lessens the misery which everything always seems to keep coming back to. This parallels neatly with Satan at the climax of the story. In the end, he proves to have the very human failing of failing to realise that failure is not inevitable, that when hope is dashed it doesn't invalidate hope across the board. Satan and Laurel both claim to be out of hope (though both are wrong; if Satan genuinely was hopeless, then why does he ask Laurel to rebel each time he meets her?), but all they mean by that is that they no longer believe anything can change. Locked into the endless cycle of The Walks, neither of them see any possibility of escape. When David finally proves both of them wrong, sacrificing his soul to save Laurel, denying Satan, and justifying hope by giving it up himself, Satan's response is not anger, but surprise. "Huh. Well. I certainly didn't see that coming."

Ah yes, David. Our little grey chess piece is the only one who works it all out. Satan, Lazarus, Laurel, the people at the camp-fire, all of them are trapped in their personal battles against their own hope. Satan tries to change the world without employing hope, even though the desire to change must necessarily require hope in the first place. Those around the fire spend every night reciting the stories of how they found themselves there. Each time no-one points out the inherent flaws in their companion's stories, because each of them simply hears their own tale of woe in that of their fellows, time after time after time. They don't listen out of empathy (there's that word again) but because they take comfort from hearing their own failures vindicated by the failures of others. "If he didn't have a choice, then neither did I."

Laurel might berate David for his selfishness along The Walk, viewing every new development in terms of how it directly affects him, but in truth of course she is fighting a private battle against her own hope that this time her companion will do the right thing and set her free. Of course, the irony is that the harder she tries to keep her distance, the less likely the above scenario becomes. [3]

Nevertheless, Laurel's pressure plants the seeds of realisation in David's brain. They are then watered by his meeting with his future self. Alone amongst the players in the game, he realises that hope is not something to either be held or abandoned, but also to be offered up. By choosing someone else's hope instead of his own, he changes the rules of the game.

In so doing, he replaces Laurel as the guide of the lost. The implication is that The Men are no longer active, either. The battle for souls between black and white has now simply become the assisting of souls by the grey. It's a job for which he is perfectly suited.

At the end of the final issue, years on from the beginning, David travels to his rendezvous with his younger self. He repeats the truth that he never regains his soul, and the lie that he would kill Laurel after their arrival in New York. He does this knowing that that was what shook David loose from his selfish quest to regain his soul, and turned it into a quest to save Laurel instead. In a sense, he changes the nature of David's hope. It is important to note that in the midst of brutal honesty and self-defeating self-delusion, it takes both a truth and a falsehood to set David along the path that will save so many, and that only by crushing one of his hopes can a new and better one be born.

That brings us to the final message of Midnight Nation, and the end of a post that surely brings new meaning to the word "rambling". Hope is a shield and it's a curse, but never at the same time. The trick isn't to give up hope, nor is it to delude yourself that everything will automatically be fine. The trick is to know what to hope for, what to accept, and most importantly, when to hand over hope to somebody else.

Tomorrow: my top one hundred movie fart gags.

[1] Plus tremendously unhelpful into the bargain:
"I'm telling you everything that was said to me. I'm sorry if it seems cryptic. I always assumed there was a good reason for it."
"Is there?"
"Beats me".

[2] Note that Straczynski called the main character David Grey. Subtle, this is not.

[3] Having said that, it's entirely possible that this is a deliberate choice on Laurel's part. Reducing the chances of success might seem an acceptable price to pay for reducing the pain of failure at the same time. Anyone who has ever thought about keeping their distance from someone they are attracted to from fear of rejection will understand the plausibility of this theory.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Slipping Through The Cracks: Part 1

Every now and then it makes a nice change of pace to sit down with a ludicrously high stack of comics and just chew through them. Since I'm home visiting my parents this weekend, I figured now was the perfect time to catch up with new developments, and return to old favourites.

At long last I am now up to speed with the X-Men (and my God, UXM 500 is a perfect case study of how to totally screw up on almost every imaginable level). I also finally got round to reading Civil War, which frankly is worthy of an entire post on its own; whatever else you want to say about Mark Millar, he did a pretty good job of presenting both sides of the argument reasonably well.

That's for later, though. Today I wanted to talk about one of my all-time favourite comic series, which for some reason never seems to really get the attention or praise it deserves. Thus follows some of my thoughts on Midnight Nation. Today I'll start with some essentially spoiler-free comments (I'll paint the early story in broad sketches, though, so if you're one of those people terrified you might accidentally learn an episode title, or whatever, look away now), to try and whet the appetite of those not yet familiar with the series. Then tomorrow I'll move on to some more in-depth thoughts for anyone who has already experienced the end of David Grey's year long journey across America.

The plot to Midnight Nation is deceptively simple, and I use that phrase for two reasons. Firstly because the book is multi-layered, and a lot of what seems obvious on the surface is often more complex, or even contradictory, when considered more closely. Secondly, the seeming direction of the narrative manages two shuddering ninety degree turns within the first three issues.

At first, the comic presents itself as little more than a detective story with a supernatural bent. LAPD detective David Grey is called to the scene of a particularly brutal homicide. According to a twitchy informant David meets in a nearby alley, some force known simply as "The Men" (yes, it's a stupid, stupid name; but nobody's perfect) are going around killing people, apparently to keep them quiet about some unfathomable conspiracy. At first Grey isn't sure what to think, but once his snitch turns up brutally murdered (so brutally in fact that The Men get to arrange the myriad separate body parts for the sake of various sick visual puns), he gets interested quick. This interest leads to his first encounter with The Men, which alters the path of David's destiny to a considerable degree.

Now, it appears, we find ourselves in some Californian equivalent of Neil Gaiman's London Below, an alternative city occupying the same geography as the LA Grey knows, the same streets and buildings, but populated by the lost and the abandoned. These are the dregs of society that have fallen from sight, to the point where they have literally become invisible to the general population, and vice versa. Nothing can be used by Grey and his new associates unless the regular Los Angelinos have discarded it. Phones calls, for example, can only be made from telephone booths that are dilapidated and abandoned. The less said about how they get food, the better, I would think. Each character has a story as to how they fell through the cracks. Take the apparent leader of the LA forgotten, a stern, angry man named Arthur, who worked so hard alongside his buddies in a car factory that the owners reaped enough profits to move the whole shebang to Asia and lay the peons off. Unable to find new employment, he eventually realised that no-one was paying him any attention at all any more, and he was lost.

David, though, is different. He didn't fall through the cracks, he was pushed. Apparently for this reason, someone seems to have decided he warrants a guide. Said role is taken by Laurel, a mass of anger and jaded condescension who makes it immediately clear that she has done this many, many times before, and that David is "the biggest asshole in the history of the known universe". Patient and understanding she is not, especially considering the degree to which David's world has been aggressively rearranged. It seems an odd attitude for a guide, even considering that this is obviously old news to her.

At the conclusion of his tense and confusing encounter with Arthur, we find ourselves shifting rails again. This isn't really a story about the lost and the desperate, and how they live from day today inside the ghost of the city they used to know. It's more of a existential road-movie with religious overtones. The Men took something from him, they've stashed it in New York, and it's going to be the mother if all battles getting it back. Plus, cars don't work for the lost, so they're going to have to slog it on foot.

They have exactly one year.

In a nutshell (well, possibly a series of nutshells), then, those are the basics. What can't be conveyed here, of course, is just how well done it all is. It's fairly common knowledge that jms is a Marmite writer, either you get it or you don't, but even his more fervent defenders (of whom I am often, though not always, an example of) have to admit that the man has his blind spots. An insistence upon having his characters stare into the middle distance and spout melodramatic monologues, for instance (the most obvious example of his problems with overwrought and inflexible dialogue). I'm sure every dedicated Babylon 5 fan can reel off at least a couple of badly-judged "comedic" interludes over the course of the show that had them chewing their fingers with embarrassment. Straczynski has always doggedly insisted that his trump card is the strength of his characters. There's certainly some truth to that statement, but every time he tries to force what he considers pithy dialogue into their mouths, it no longer sounds like Delenn or Ivanova or Vir (G'Kar and Londo both get away with it, either because their characters are close to being user-proof or because Katsulas and Jurasik could act their way into Fort Knox and then ad-lib the gold into the air), it sounds like jms. I've said before that Joss Whedon is talented enough to write gags into dialogue without it working against the plausibility of a scene. Straczynski isn't (nor for that matter is RTD, who I bring up just because I haven't given him a kicking in a while and I miss it). His plots are often fascinating, exciting, or thoughtful (or a combination of same), and his characters frequently rise above his meat 'n' potatoes dialogue, but the above two problems seem determined to ham-string his efforts.

In Midnight Nation, they evaporate entirely.

Vomiting Mike always maintained that jms was a writer best suited to the forum of comics (mind you, he said the same thing about me, so what does he know?). His argument was that Straczynski's fascination with the mythical and the legendary, and his particular spin on dialogue, both lending themselves better to 24 pages of pictures and word balloons than to a forty-two minute television episode. Rising Stars had already vindicated this position, of course, but Midnight Nation really drives it home. An individual comic doesn't allow for wiggle room. Every comment has to be short and to the point. Nor, with only twelve issues to tell a fairly ambitious story, can you afford to piss away three pages having a discussion about socks and zippers, or stabbing someone with a sewing needle, or whatever the fuck jms thinks is funny this week [1]. The very nature of comics demands concision, and to his credit Straczynski cuts out exactly the right aspects of his writing style.

What he leaves in is tense, thought-provoking and visceral. The more we learn of David's situation, and Laurel's role regarding it, the more we feel for both, and the more certain we are that the series can't possibly end well for both of them, possibly for either.

And just who is the Messianic leader of the Men?

Tomorrow we get to a more thorough deconstruction of the series. Be warned, spoilers will abound. ABOUND, I tell you!

Oh, and also: I request one minute's silence for the upcoming passing of Books & Comics, the store from which I have been purchasing my monthly X-Men fix (in addition to Midnight Nation, Rising Stars, and various spin-off titles and trade paperbacks) for more than twelve years.

[1] Actually I thought the zipper conversation was pretty good. In fact, whilst Season 1 of B5 is generally considered as a promising mess, it was probably the most consistently funny year of the show. I mean, I'm not saying Will Ferrell should be up nights worrying, or anything, but at least the misfire rate had yet to shoot through the roof.

So maybe it's a bad example. Um, let's think.... How about Ivanova's crazed sex-dance in Acts of Sacrifice? That felt like watching someone singing a car crash.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Why Is Anyone Still Listening?

This is beginning to just be sad. McCain and his campaign seem absolutely dead-set on aping the Rudy Giuliani technique of constantly referencing one past incident as a universal panacea against legitimate criticism, foolish political mis-steps, and pretty much any event that occurs across the face of the planet that he doesn't like (I bet Wallace Spearmon wouldn't have stomped on someone else's lane on Wednesday if he'd known McCain is a former POW; that would make him a traitor).

Of course, we all know how well Rudy's 9-11 Tourette's worked out for him ("None of this worries me. September 11, those were times I was worried."), so I'm happy for McCain to keep going. Honestly, I don't even care how many houses the man owns [1], mainly because people made such a big hairy deal about how much money Edwards had during the primaries. At that time the left kept insisting (correctly) that having money and not giving a damn about the poor is not the same thing. It was true then and it's true now. I don't think McCain is bad for the poor [2] because he has more houses than he can count (it may or may not be into double figures, apparently the search is ongoing), but because his policies and his voting record makes his dismissal of the have-nots (and frankly the have-some-I-guess-but-still-finding-times-toughs) abundantly clear.

All of which was obvious before the house issue. This doesn't make a difference to anything, beyond being a rather dismal reflection of how badly McCain's campaign seems to be at adapting to new situations and emerging memes.

Update: as one might expect, davenoon makes the same point with considerably more panache.

[1] Or to be more accurate, the amount his wife owns. Not that I care about that either, really. I just think it's interesting that when criticised about how many houses he has his first response is to accuse Obama of attacking his wife. Which seems to me to be a hell of a stretch. As far as I can see, McCain got hit, flung himself behind his wife, and then started shouting "Leave Cindy McCain ALOOOOOOOOONE!" whilst burying his head in her skirt.

[2] In addition to pretty much any other American citizen who doesn't own an oil-rig, along with every other citizen of this planet; plus plants and animals and rainbows and Christmas, as well.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

It's Not The Size That Counts

So, I've gotten back from my supervisory meeting, and the news is mainly good. My first paper will finally see the light of day next March, and I'm apparently am going to appear in a book as well (which is nice).

The one thing that worries me (and it really worries me) is the plan to put together a series of papers as a tribute to Dr P. Now, obviously, in the abstract, I think that's a brilliant idea. Idl certainly buy a copy. The only problem is that Dr F wants me to write something for it.

"It will be very nice to have her former student contribute to the collection," he told me nonchalantly. "If it gets accepted".

If. That's the scariest pair of letters I've come across for quite a while. As if the pressure isn't already bad enough making sure I don't stuff up the PhD and in the process render a non-trivial proportion of her last two and a half years a total waste of her time, now I have to worry about being rejected as too feeble a mathematician to be allowed to honour my supervisor's life and career?

Days until exile: 17.

Fun Stuff, Because I Am Lazy

I came across an idea courtesy of sarahkay (h/t also to Selkie), and have stolen it without compunction. Mainly because I haven't the energy to be creative right now, I'm just killing time before a supervisory meeting which may or not cost me my testicles.

The basic idea is easy: I simply type in my name to various Google searches along with one or two other keywords and then see what comes out. Obviously "SpaceSquid" doesn't work, (or to be more accurate, simply spits out thing's I've said.) Thus, MotCC proudly presents: 12 FACTS OF RIC!
  • Ric needs and hopefully has smart management.
  • Ric looks like he really enjoys it when Taker bows to him.
  • Ric says, vote yes on Amendment 2. [1]
  • Ric wants to know why Jason is always round Elizabeth.
  • Ric does not list a seated SALVS AGV type for the Ticinum mint.
  • Ric hates America; Florida; loves eternal war. [2]
  • Ric asks if he can smoke a cigarette and after a thoughtful drag continues.
  • Ric goes to the movies.
  • Ric likes to take risks.
  • Ric eats anything!!
  • Ric wears a mosaic coat in shades of rose and grey on black.
  • Ric was arrested for drunk driving.

Several of these are directly attributable to Ric Flair, of course. Which is a bit of a shame, because I was hoping to gain some reflected glory from Ric Olie, least crappy of the Phantom Menace characters (narrowly beating the Theed Palace caretaker who didn't stay on screen long enough to sear my eyes with hate!)

[1] Seriously, though; don't. It's a Floridan Constitutional Amendment designed to ban gay marriage.

[2] This is particularly annoying because I actually wrote a column called "Ric Hates" for at least three years. There should be a dedicated website by now. Or at least, I don't know, a shadowy cult, or something.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Learning By Counter-Example

I briefly considered not posting this until tomorrow and thus getting the day off, but I decided that that would be cheating. I didn't want anyone to feel like they weren't getting their daily fix of SpaceSquid. That would just be terrible.

Anyway, feast your eyes upon the results of the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton contest. Basically, the idea is to write the worst opening line to a novel possible. And that's it.

Some of these are inspired. Others try a little too hard to construct the most ludicrous pun possible. But the best are the occasional one where you can't be sure the author actually meant it as a joke. I mean, I guess they must have, since they entered it into the competition, but still, some of these are disturbingly plausible.

I shall have to give some thought about entering this thing next go-around. Perhaps I shall trial some of them on the blog. Or perhaps I'll put up some of my actual stuff, and then pretend it was for BL when you jackals tell me it sucks.

Man, this daily update thing is easy. Tomorrow, I shall upload content whilst simultaneously cooking an omelette.

Please use the comments thread to explain how to cook an omelette.

Messing With Psychologists' Heads: Part Two

So a while back I described a psychological experiment I underwent (for free no less, because I am humanity's benefactor), and the resulting realisation that my own unique view of the world might not necessarily be the best one to avail oneself of when attempting to understand mankind.

Well, since then, I've apparently been on the psych department's sucker list, and any time they want someone to compare pictures of faces or play chess with a Diana monkey, I'm the guy they call [1]. I did one experiment before Jersey that I never got round to writing up [2], and then another upon my return. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but it suddenly hit me earlier today that it ties into a topic that's been on my mind for a little while (especially after reading the first two parts of the Hyperion Cantos whilst in the Channel Islands, which I can't recommend highly enough), namely empathy.

The experiment itself consisted of four stages. Mercifully, none of them involved filling a small test-tube with saliva. I mean, I say small, but the problem with saliva is that it's mainly bubbles, and bubbles simply aren't good enough. I ended up spending what felt like hours spitting into the tube through a straw, using said straw to spear the bubbles, wiping away any spittle that was now running down the outside of the tube (none of you are eating while reading this, are you?), and repeating, again and again and again. I wish I was Luke Cage:

"I need a sample of your saliva."
"This is a sample of my fist!"

Anyway, I digress.

The experiment itself consisted of four stages. First, I was given a booklet containing ten brief stories. All of them contained dialogue, each line of which had a box at the end. The idea was for me to tick the box of any phrase I thought could have upset someone in the story. The doctor supervising me made it very clear that I should "try to consider what I normal person would do". Perhaps my reputation precedes me.

Regardless, despite the advice, I found it a very difficult exercise to complete. Each time I read a story I found it tremendously difficult to not objectively analyse the situation, and from that decide whether anyone in the story had a justifiable case for being upset. I knew that wasn't the point, but I found it very hard to do otherwise. "Should be" and "could be" seemed to get mixed up in my head. Which I thought was odd, though not necessarily out of character. I wonder to what degree my responses would have changed had I known the people the stories referred to ("Senor Spielbergo says Big G looks fat in that dress").

Next, I listened to a bunch of voice actors reading numbers out to me (obviously, as a mathematician, this is my hobby in any case), and I had to decide what the emotion the speaker was communicating. First up was a choice between proud, guilty, bored, interested and neutral. All the way through this one I found it very hard to tell between guilty and bored; I put this down to spending so long listening to children reading numbers back to me, often they put so much effort into making their boredom plain it tends to creep into other tones. This was followed by happy, sad, fearful, angry, and neutral again. Now it was sad and fearful that were difficult to distinguish (ultimately I figured it was all in the speed of delivery), though happy and angry occasionally merged in an odd way, presumably because the actors were American and it's sometimes hard to tell if they're ecstatic or outraged, especially when all you have to go on is "three hundred five!!!"

The final stage of this second part was only slightly different. Same actors, same emotions. This time though I had to relate what the person was feeling, which made more of a difference than I would have expected (which is to say I expected none).

So far, so so-so. The obvious conclusion is that this is an attempt to compare how well people empathise in the abstract with how they do it when confronted by an actual person (or at least their voice). Where things got interesting was in the next stage.

Part the third required me to read twenty-five numbers into a microphone. Each set of five had to be spoken in a different tone. Unsurprisingly these were once again angry, happy, frightened, [3] and sad.

This intrigued me for two reasons. Firstly, was this a test to see how well someone's accuracy of empathy affected their ability to project feeling? Does that work? Is empathy an aid to an acting career? It's an interesting idea. Obviously, it can't be necessary, given that plenty of actors are bastards, but if it's true as a general trend, it would certainly have some fascinating implications (especially for Hollywood; why did they so many of them end up as liberals?).

Secondly, assuming I'm right and there was some attempt going on to measure my level of projection (or spouting a crock, as my old school friends would have it), then how exactly is that measured? What would the scale be? Is this a daring attempt by the psychologists to create the world's first objective scale of acting talent, measured (presumably) in milliOliviers?

The last thing I had to do was read aloud a list of words, all of which were in some sense difficult to pronounce [4]. This too I thought was worthy of consideration, the implication apparently being that empathy is in some sense correlated to literacy. Now that, if true (and, of course, if correlation was eventually strengthened into causation), would be a very interesting thing to know. I am in no sense qualified to offer any explanations as to why it might be the case (and yes I know that hardly ever stops me, shut up), and in fairness this may already be well-known, or indeed already disproved, by the psychological community at large (I realise I'm extrapolating wildly from one experiment). Despite all that, though, I thought it worth mentioning. Certainly the nature of any hypothetical links between empathy, literacy, and show-business in general would make for an interesting discussion.

Update: I mentioned this discussion to A when I last saw her, and she suggested that literacy and empathic ablility may indeed have a connection, because the more literate you are the greater your vocabulary is for the range of emotional states. Thus, the better you become at identifying them. I like this theory.

[1] In fairness, they have started paying me. I became bored of being humanity's benefactor once I realised it didn't improve the chances of anyone sleeping with me.

[2] Partially this was because of the bad memories. I had to turn up at eight in the morning, having been banned from ingesting caffeine. Which as anyone who has ever me me can attest, is roughly equivalent to forcing a codeine addict to go cold turkey and then kicking him in the testicles.

[3] You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

[4] By "some sense" I mean that the word "churlish", which I can't imagine too many people slipping up on, was mixed in with words of almost infinite complexity which I can no longer remember. Had I got every one correct I have no doubt that Azathoth would have blazed into being and reduced the city to a nuclear wasteland