Sunday, 27 December 2015

MaRey Sue

Much of what I might want to say about The Force Awakens doesn't particularly deviate from a large amount of commentary already written: it's fun, frequently well-written, and features plenty of charm from both the new characters and Harrison Ford. Much of the designs tread well the line between nostalgic and new, the action sequences feel very Star Wars - which isn't as easy to do as it sounds considering the differences not just in technology but in filmography in general that have taken place over the last 28 years. Kylo Ren's backstory makes him a much, much more interesting villain than Darth Maul (though Gwendoline Christie is unforgivably underused). BB-8 is adorable, and so obviously Abrams saying "this is how you make a cute character for the kids, George" it's wonderful. Throughout the film he reminded me of our cat; there can be no higher praise. Abrams has also cannily emulated one of the original trilogy's nicest aspects, which is the sensation that this is just one story taking place in a galaxy teeming with life and other tales. Plus, obviously, the gender/racial balance is a massive improvement not just on the original trilogy, but no small number of contemporary films, and has annoyed all the right people.

(Seriously; people are furious about Abrams making a point of seeking out non-white talent, because apparently widening a recruitment pool means getting worse candidates, or something. Also, there's much squawking about women being Stormtroopers, because women don't have the levels of physical resilience to become US Marines which apparently has some relevance in a universe where cybernetics and DNA manipulation are things.)

On the other hand, the plot is derivative well past the point of self-parody. Maybe, with Abrams having got this first film out of his system, Episode VIII might tread newer ground, but obviously that won't help here.  I'll come back to this problem later, but for now I wanted to sketch out some more of my issues.

(Spoilers below).

Sunday, 20 December 2015

They Came To Outer Space

It’s Orange Is The New Black in space! It’s Orange Is The New Infinite Blackness Between Stars!

Except it isn’t, of course (though that may have made for a handy elevator pitch), and given its politics it’s hard to imagine anyone involved in making Bitch Planet would be happy with the idea of equating it to the Netflix hit just because both are set in a woman’s prison.  There are parallels, obviously, but the TV show (at least in its first season, which is all I’ve seen to date) concerns itself with the isolation and hopelessness generated by an incarceration system swollen utterly out of control by the twin political aims of generating the cheapest possible labour force and of always looking tougher on crime than the other guy. Bitch Planet is saying something very different.

And it is not saying it quietly. The comic opens on a woman trying to make it to a job as a voice actress. It is not a job at which she is appreciated, with the technician – despite being in the middle of an asthmatic episode – swearing he will do the job himself if she is any later. Because why wouldn’t a wheezing techie do as good a job at speaking with clarity and panache as the woman someone hired specifically because she's good at those things? What’s no less telling is why this woman is having to rush to a job she’s already late for; she’s trying desperately to make her way through streets packed with men who are too caught up in their masculine shit to recognise they need to make way for her. Above her gigantic billboards say things like “BECAUSE HE SAID SO”, “EAT LESS POOP MORE”, “OBEY” and “WE GET BY WHEN WE COMPLY”. It’s They Live with capitalism replaced with the male gaze. It’s our world if the patriarchy would actually admit it exists, rather than dressing as Batman because it doesn’t get to see its son as much as it thinks it should.

This is the central theme of Bitch Planet; what if society started saying the quiet part loud? What if refusing to lose weight or answering back or just basically being unable to retard your ageing process indefinitely got you literally expelled from society rather than just - “just” – being looked down on by all and sundry?

What with this being the first issue, there’s not much time to really explore that question; there's simply too much set-up to get through. Even so, though, DeConnick manages to get in another hard-hitting dig at contemporary Western civilisation – even in a prison designed  for “non-compliant” women, it apparently occurred to no-one to stitch together uniforms for plus-sized inmates – and two solid narrative twists which each not only work splendidly in their own right but further underline the fundamentals of the book.

Saying more on these issues would be to rather spoil the, er, issue, so let me simply say this is some of the most intriguing and progressive writing of the year and move on to discussing De Landro's artwork, which is kinetic but scratchy. It's not my favourite style, to tell you the truth, but it's a good fit for the purposefully retro feel of what is going on here. This is a book concerned with taking the past (specifically exploitation flicks and the surrounding unfettered sexism) and forging them into something new and better. That's bound to be a messy process, and at least on that level De Landro feels like a solid choice.

As does this whole package, in fact. Even saying that though feels like I'm underselling this book's potential. DeConnick has proved in less than two dozen pages that she understands not just how to spin a yarn, but how to anchor herself to something that will make the yarn worth spinning. As opening salvoes go, what more could you possibly need?

Friday, 18 December 2015

Providence Provides

In theory, Moore and Lovecraft should go together like chocolate and squamous peanut butter. Moore's best work is often cold, at a remove, an artist writing like a computer simulation of a genius. Lovecraft's prose is similarly distant, the text shorn of warmth or adornment to bring stark cosmic unutterable horror more fully to life. It's not an uncommon trick - nor does it have to revolve around the tentacled and the cyclopean, as those who never shut up about The Shining will surely tell you - but that doesn't necessarily damage or even dent its usefulness today.

So the combination works on paper. Does it work in practice (or on shinier paper, perhaps I should say)? Well, it's certainly well-formed, with strong, precise pencils from Jacen Burrows and a sensibly restrained palate courtesy of Michael DiPascale. But can it function beyond the level of prettiness? Moore is certainly keen to assure us it can. The very first panel features only prose - a close-up of a love letter - which is then progressively ripped apart to show the landscape of New York beyond. The written word is giving way to images, and what they can do that mere letters and punctuation cannot (this is reinforced later with a visual clue regarding the mysterious Senor Alvarez, but I am getting ahead of myself). Moore has always insisted that comics are no pale approximation of other mediums, but a device through which one could tell stories that could exist nowhere else, no matter how much money Hollywood wants to spend. More tellingly, the letter itself talks of breaking through "mere words" to get to the underlying reality; the tear in the paper splits those two words apart. "Mere words" cannot contain this story any more than they could the indescribable other Lovecraft concerned himself with. "Don't worry", Moore is telling us. "I know what works in the Cthulhu Mythos, and I know how to translate that to a new medium."

All this almost gets us to the end of the first page.

In other words: this is a dense work. Not so much by Moore's own standards, perhaps, but certainly by almost anyone else's. Consider for instance that Moore begins this series with "The Yellow Sign". The choice is as inevitable as it is clever. This first issue is a story about the distance between where a writer starts off and where they end up; of course Morse chooses the Yellow Sign as the accompanying symbol.

And if all this feels like I'm focussing on the adapter at the expense of what he is adapting, there's good reason; precious little in this first issue exists of very few Cthulhu references at all, and almost nothing of Lovecraft's own work (King in Yellow being a work by Robert Chambers, an inspiration for Lovecraft's stories). The central idea of a play that brings about madness and suicide remains, but the narrative seems to reject the very idea, suggesting that what is important about the book isn't that it drives people to commit suicide, but that everyone in New York is so close to the edge, so wrapped up in appalling secrets, that suicide all too often feels like the only escape, and that some of the people who reach that conclusion that will also happen to be well-read. There is something buried in us all, waiting to reach the surface and cause havoc (hence Sous le Monde being the title of the book Moore suggests King in Yellow was inspired by).

To say more would be to tread too far into the realm of spoilers, but Moore is clearly linking the looming rise of R'yleh to the deep currents of the human subconscious - not astonishingly original, perhaps, but let's give the man time - which has particular implications for protagonist Robert Black. Black is a newspaperman working for a broadsheet finding itself slipping into the abyss of irrelevance, and desperately trying to up the scandal quotient to stay afloat. This shouldn't particularly concern Black, who tells himself he's just working there until he can get somewhere as a fiction writer. Things aren't quite so simply, though. As I've mentioned, this isn't a story about where Black is going (not yet at least) but about the cavernous distance between where he started (replayed in sepia flashbacks that further fade an already cold, drab colour scheme) and where he is now. How far the reality has drifted from the dream. Not that the specifics of Black's goals are what we might expect from his seemingly familiar tale of small-town dissatisfaction - how Black's secrets influence the narrative is one of the principle hooks here. The mysteries of Black are both intriguing and swiftly revealed, and result in a first episode that fits together like a jigsaw, or perhaps like the torn pages of a diary. Or a love letter. He certainly ends this first issue as a more intriguing character than he began.

Speaking of intriguing, to the extent the supernatural intrudes upon this opening issue at all (which it doesn't, at least obviously, though from the cover alone it's clear that the nightmarish may already be hiding in plain sight, reaching slowly for us) it's in the form of Dr Alvarez, a Spanish medical doctor who lives in rooms specially chilled for the sake of an unspecified medical condition. The broad strokes of what is going on here are obvious (Moore underlines them both in artwork and text), but there's enough here to make us curious about the specifics. There's fear here too, not in anything overt, but in the sick feeling that the two most interesting ideas here - who or what Alvarez is and the spiraling misery of Black and his tragic secrets - cannot possibly exist alongside each other for long before the former swallows the latter. Cthulhu stories always end the same way; the heroes end up mad or dead or worse. In giving us so compelling a reason to root for Black, Moore has both kicked back against two of Lovecraft's worse tendencies - to ignore characterisation and sneer at any deviation from "polite society" - and ensured that when the hammer drops, it will all be so, so much worse.

I'm still going to devour the next issue, though.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

D CDs #475: Function In The Unusual Way

The great irony of Elvis Costello's famous quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is just how easy it is to write about Costello's own output. It's simply too unlike anything else to make discussion difficult. Even separately, the angular synth pseudo-punk and Costello's ragged eye-rolling croon (obvious mission statement: love like you've never been hurt, dance like no-one's watching, sing like you couldn't give a fuck about how you sound) would be of interest. Combine them and you get something almost otherworldly in its oddness; the cold precision of the instrumentation and the sliding quasi-croak of the vocals simply refusing to cohere. It's as awkward as it is defiantly confident, four young men thoroughly demonstrating the philosophy of "it's hip to be square" seven years before Huey Lewis studied the phenomenon.

It's a neat trick - though one that makes the album feel longer and more repetitive than it actually is - but the real risk Costello ran with it was that he would create music people could appreciate, but not feel. To some extent it feels like this is case on Armed Forces - cold detachment is almost everywhere here, this is punk rock at near absolute-zero - but the emotion is there, bound up in Costello's paradoxically unsentimental lyrics. Written when Costello was twenty-four, the overriding concern here is still of life as a teenage outcast, which is to say life as a teenager, full stop. Much of what is said here is purposely obtuse - though what more perfectly captures communication between teenagers and those who aren't than the feeling that much is being lost in translation?- but it's clear Costello is stitching together the sick feeling of sense of emotional and physical alienation of the hormone-charged bewilderment of teenage life with the profound sense of political alienation that plagues every young person to the left of William Hague. This album may have been written before the Winter of Discontent, but Callahan stood already as a clearly insufficient bulwark against the country's lurch toward avaricious self-interest. Thatcher and Reagan did not rise in a vacuum. The wind was changing, and the smell was getting worse.

Costello's genius is to argue it's all the same thing (check out the album's original title: Emotional Fascism). The personal is political; being ignored by the pretty girls is as frustrating and upsetting as being ignored by the people gathering to ruin the country - and both are linked to the fear of having to grow up and enter the world of work full-time. But whilst Costello is adept at presenting this fusion, he doesn't shy away from pointing out how easily it leads to self-obsession and a horrifying failure to keep things in perspective. It might feel to a young man that being jilted by a pretty girl is as bad as learning the government of the day is going to raise taxes on the poor, but that's an obviously indefensible response; an almost weaponised solipsism.

This is something Armed Forces is very much aware of. "Accidents Will Happen" casts the narrator as an adulterer, no less guilty at causing misery and a sense of betrayal than those he blames for generating those feelings in himself. References to "white niggers" and claims that "you'll never make a lampshade out of me" drive the point home further. Whatever life was like for Costello growing up as a white British teenager attending (so far as I can tell) decent enough Catholic schools, it can't possibly have been bad enough to warrant a Holocaust reference (see also "Chemistry Class", which not only returns to Holocaust imagery, but does so for the sake of a cheap pun). "Oliver's Army"'s most infamous phrase is perhaps more understandable - Costello's parents were also British, but he has Irish ancestry - but the phrase itself is a tone-deaf attempt to link the undoubtedly hideous anti-Irish bigotry in Europe to the grotesque nightmare of slavery and its aftershocks that continue to reverberate to this day. Being a white British teenager is hard. Being Anne Frank or Trayvon Martin means dying before you reach twenty.

In short, then, this is both the Grand Unified Theory of teenage alienation and a caution to not oversell the usefulness of same. All this is then set to exemplary bass from Bruce Thomas and exceptional key-work by Steve Nieve, who between them carry the whole album to its multiple heights (not that Pete Thomas' drumming is anything to disparage, either). Interestingly, the guitar-work of My Aim Is True is almost totally absent here. Costello's playing is functional at best when it can even be detected in the mix, as though his commitment to reliving alienation extends to his own band.

Alienation was eventually something that became inseparable from Costello, of course, as the myriad stinking horrors of the Thatcher government paraded through the country. The universal disconnect of youth became something more focused, as it became clear that the worst suspicions of teenage paranoia were, in fact, coming true. They really were out to get us, for a horrendously wide definition of "us". Knowing what we were doing - and what they were doing - didn't actually make anyone any happier. In that sense, Armed Forces would ultimately prove both a blueprint for Costello's work for the next decade at least, but also stand apart from it.

Just as it stands apart from everything else.

Seven and a half tentacles.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Put Right What Once Went Wrong

"You can't do this to me! I used to have a submarine!"
I've said it before, Marmite wishes it was Doctor Who.

Given how violently "Hell Bent" has split viewers, I'm going to start off by giving my own opinion - bloody loved it - and spent pretty much all of what follows justifying why by batting around various objections (to be clear, none of which I find ridiculous) I've seen online.  Spoilers, obviously, beneath the fold.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Greedy Geoff's Warporium Of Death

What's the good in having a Labour MP if you can't even trust him to not vote to murder children?  I asked him that very question via email.

Actually, I didn't. I just abused him for a bit. Changing hearts and minds is all very well, but on occasion one simply needs to vent in an appropriate direction.
Dear Mr Robinson,

There seems little point in writing this email – how can one hope to persuade those with so much blood on their hands they think they’re undergoing a brain haemorrhage every time they pick their nose? – but nevertheless, let it not pass unremarked that your vote has shamed your party, your city (which these days is also my city) and essentially humanity in general.  Innocent people will die, and you have killed them. Innocent people will become refugees, and you have set the torch to their houses. Innocent people will hate our country, and you have shown them why they are right to do so.

We will not win this war with bombs. We will not win this war with Tornadoes. And we certainly will not win this war with you presuming to lead us. It would please many in the fine city of peace and reconciliation if you were to resign immediately, join a religious order of your choosing (if they'll take you, though you could always try Sam Harris if you get desperate), and take a vow of silence, to last until your dying day, with exceptions made only for the phrases “I am so, so sorry” and “Oh Gods, what have I done”?

Yours in disappointment and disgust,

Dr Richard Crossman