Sunday, 21 May 2017

Rich Buckler

Following the sad news of comic artist Rich Buckler's untimely death there are many excellent tributes to the man on the net so I won't attempt anything like that here, but I thought I'd just post some of my favourite pieces of his artwork. Above is the one and only issue of his creation Demon Hunter from Atlas Comics, September 1975. This was a very promising supernatural / super hero hybrid which I'm sure could have done very well in the era of Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider et al but which unfortunately disappeared along with its publisher. Buckler, never one to give up on an idea, later recycled the character as Devil Slayer for Marvel.

I've posted the two images above before ( from Fantastic Four no. 142 ) but they're worth repeating because they show Buckler at the top of his game, adapting his chameleonic style to that of Jack Kirby's quintessential Marvel idiom. And, of course, Joe Sinnott's inking helps immeasurably with that.
And here's another graet Fantastic Four cover, depicting one of THE classic Thing / Hulk smack-downs in a suitably Marvel-ous way.
I'll finish with a page of Buckler's pencils from a 1996 Captain America one-shot called The Medusa Legacy as a fine reminder that Rich Buckler was a consummate story-teller. In an age of often self-indulgent, flashy artists who were more concerned with innovative panel arrangements or cosmic spectacle, Rich Buckler was a master of continuity  -  his layouts and finished artwork always clear, concise and readable, with everything perfectly poised to further the story. This is a skill that many modern comic book artists seem to have lost but Rich Buckler had running through his veins.

RIP Rich and thanks for all the wonderful memories...

( All images above are from my own collection apart from the last one which I nicked from Twomorrows' Comic Book Artist no. 7, Feb 2000. If you're interested in 1970s Marvel this is a wonderful resource, featuring great interviews with comic creators from the time and some lovely artwork such as the piece above. Track it down, you won't regret it. )

Friday, 19 May 2017

Doctor Who: Series 10 Catch Up

As has been pointed out to me by certain fellow bloggers ( initials KR and JP  -  who else? ) I've been neglecting the good Doctor's latest adventures so I'll do a very quick run down of my thoughts on the recent crop of stories, starting with
Smile
In the second episode of the series the Doctor takes Bill on her first proper Tardis journey into the future. They arrive at a human colony on a distant world which seems like a paradise... except there aren't any colonists. It turns out the AI that have been sent on ahead of the first settlers have gone haywire and have been using their seemingly-cute "Emojibots" to turn colonists into fertilizer.
This episode is designed to give the Doctor and Bill a chance to get to know each other while investigating this deserted world. There's some lovely location footage here ( filmed at Valencia's beautiful City of Arts and Sciences ) and some interesting moments between the two leads as Bill starts to figure out who the Doctor is and what he does. Unfortunately, there's not a lot else going on  -  the threat is never very convincing and the story-telling energy levels have dropped significantly since the first episode, so I'll give this a lukewarm Three Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Smiley Faces )
Thin Ice
The third episode is much better. Another fine script from promising newcomer Sarah Dollard
 ( author of last series' Face The Raven ) which sends our Time Lord and friend back to Regency England and the last of the great Frost Fairs. People have been disappearing in mysterious circumstances and something extremely fishy is going on underneath the frozen Thames.
This episode is a delight  -  lots of convincing period detail, some excellent effects and more charming moments between the Doctor and Bill. Underlying all this are themes of capitalism and racism which give the story some backbone... and give Peter Capaldi as the Doctor the chance to rail against the evils that men do ( always worse than the aliens ) and to actually punch out a bigoted capitalist fop. Well, he did once describe the character as 100% Rebel Time Lord. The only slight let down is the actual monster  -  a supposedly huge sea-serpent which, when finally revealed, is about as frightening as a fish finger. But, never mind, this is a wonderfully old-fashioned Who adventure with some modern twists which I'll award Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or fish tails )
Knock Knock
There have been a few "haunted house" stories in Nu Who and the production teams always seem to find a new take on the old trope. In this episode, Bill and some friends are looking for student digs and end up in a creepy house, owned by an even creepier landlord ( the fantastic David Suchet ) who has no intention of letting them leave. There's something lurking in the walls of this creaky old building and Bill and her housemates are on its menu...
Another cracking ( and creaking ) episode with some genuinely spooky moments  -  especially if you have a phobia of insects en masse which Sarah certainly has ( she had to cover her eyes a few times during this one )  -  and an eerie but beautiful "monster" with a tragic secret. Capaldi and Suchet both give it the full thespian treatment and there's plenty of awkward humour in Bill's relationship with the Doctor  -  here more parent and child than teacher and pupil.
This one rates a Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or creaky floorboards )
Oxygen
Probably my favourite so far, this episode has a take-no-prisoners script from the ever-challenging Jamie Mathieson, some proper science fiction concepts, beautiful special effects and some real jeopardy for the Doctor, Bill and Nardole. ( Yep, Nardole has a proper role in this story and Matt Lucas does a great job in showing the real person behind Nardole's bumbling facade. I have to admit I really misjudged him and he's growing on me episode by episode. )
The story is set on a mining station in deep space ( no, not Red Dwarf ) where evil capitalists ( see a theme here? ) are now even exploiting the very air we breathe and not even the dead are beyond the bosses' control.
A tense, claustrophobic episode with some beautifully played scenes by the main cast ( especially Pearl Mackie who knocks it out of the park ) and top-notch direction from Charles Palmer, this is sure to be seen as a classic in years to come. And that cliffhanger! Excellent stuff.
I'll give this one a breath-taking Four And A Half Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers

And still another 7 episodes to go this series! If this momentum can be maintained, Capaldi will definitely go out on a high...

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Recent Movies: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Beauty And The Beast and more...

Hello blogosphere. ( Hello yourself. ) First of all, my apologies to the approximately two and a half people who still visit this 'ere blog  -  the frequency of posts here has yet again slipped to a level somewhere in between pathetic and non-existent. Anyway, for my sins I'm going to test the waters of the blog-ocean again by quickly running through some recently-watched movies, starting with...
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
The first outing for these interplanetary A-holes was a surprise hit and one of the freshest, funniest and most colourful takes on the super hero genre in a long time. This sequel, while inevitably short of the novelty factor of seeing talking raccoons and anthropomorphic trees in outer space for the first time, is still loads of cosmic fun. There's little in the way of plot  -  our anti-heroes again save the galaxy, while at the same time managing to piss off just about everybody around them, and Star Lord's dad turns out to be a psychotic living planet ( it's that kind of film )  -  but most of the enjoyment comes from the sheer, exuberant spectacle and the priceless interactions of the bickering but lovable main characters. And it's great to see Karen Gillan and ( especially ) Michael Rooker getting a chance to flesh out Nebula and Yondu. Hopefully we may get some similar character development for Rocket in the inevitable threequel. The only real let-down for me is the obligatory third-act CGI-fest, during which my mind started to wander back to the boring old real world, resulting in me giving the movie a still pretty cosmic Three And A Half Out Of Five...
Beauty And The Beast
Disney's programme of live action remakes of classic cartoons reaches 1991's Beauty And The Beast. The original was the immediate successor to The Little Mermaid, Disney's return to greatness after years of mediocrity, and I can well remember seeing it in the old Gloucester cinema with Sarah. It became an instant favourite, winning us over with its charm, colour and memorable songs. So,what of the new version?
Well, technically it's a triumph  -  the sets, costumes and effects ( apart from a couple of dodgy "Beast" moments ) are all superb and the songs still retain all their charm ( there's that word again ) and vibrancy. Luke Evans enjoys himself hugely in full-on Panto mode as bully Gaston, Dan Stevens acquits himself well from behind his CGI shell and there's twinkling support from Kevin Kline as Belle's father. Ah yes, Belle. I must say I'm always a fan of Emma Watson and her ongoing journey from the over-enunciating moppet in the early Harry Potter films to the educated activist and occasional actor of today. But I think she's miscast here -  not "wooden" as she's been rather cruelly dubbed in some quarters but a mite too subtle for what is basically a cartoon character. Much as I hate to say it, but the projecting-to-the-back-of-the-theatre Emma of old may have been more suitable.
Beauty And The Beast is good, old-fashioned fun but there is a niggling feeling that this remake ( where most of the creative decisions were made over a quarter of a century ago ) is pretty pointless. I'll give it a beastly Three Out Of Five...
Moonlight
( Could you get any two more contrasting movies? ) This is the Oscar-winning story of a young African American's struggles as he grows up a victim of prejudice in a crack-riddled Miami ghetto. And it's not as grim as it sounds, honest. Moonlight is often quite moving and profound, while also surprisingly beautiful, considering the brutal upbringing of its main character, Chiron. He is portrayed by three different actors through three different stages of his life  -  childhood, adolescence and mid-twenties manhood. The two younger actors ( Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders ) are both astonishing, often working with very little dialogue, communicating Chiron's joys and pains mostly with their eyes. The oldest version of the character, played by Trevante Rhodes, is the least successful, mostly because Chiron at this point has sunk into a stereotyped "Gangsta" lifestyle and his struggle to reconcile this with his long-suppressed sexuality seems beyond the ability of the movie-makers to convey. And, to be honest, the last third of the movie really drags. Anyway, it's always good to see something slightly out of your comfort zone, so thanks to my good friend and fellow blogger Tom Wiggins for dragging me along to this film, which I will have to give an aspirational Three And A Half Out Of Five...
La La Land
Purely by chance I saw this and Moonlight back to back  -  the two films at the heart of that ridiculous Oscar ceremony cock-up. La La Land ( in case you didn't know  -  where have you been, on Mars? ) is a wonderful, pitch-perfect tribute to classic Hollywood musicals. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play two Dream Factory hopefuls  -  him a musician, her an actress  -  who meet in a car jam on the LA Freeway and, after the inevitable distrust and irritation at first, eventually fall in love. This is a bittersweet tale of success and failure in the unforgiving entertainment industry, where a happy ending is never guaranteed. Gosling and Stone are endlessly watchable and have an almost superhuman chemistry which fizzes from the screen when they're together. Everything about this movie  -  the songs, the routines, dialogue, cinematography  -  is a delight and it became an instant favourite for me, Sarah AND James on just one viewing. La La Love It!
A dazzling Four And A Half Out Of Five
( I'm only docking it half a point because our viewing experience was marred by our local Cineworld's inability to project a film in focus. It looked fuzzy when it should have been pin-sharp, which really annoyed. A few other people mentioned this too, so it wasn't just my fading eyesight. I complained to the staff but nothing was done. Grrrr! Maybe when I see the movie on Blu-Ray I'll award it the full Five... )

Soundtrack: loads of songs by the amazing Robyn Hitchcock, including stuff from his new, self-titled album. I really need to buy that.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Purple Reign

"I was dreaming when I wrote this / Forgive me if it goes astray / But when I woke up this morning / Coulda sworn it was judgement day"

It was a year ago today that the world lost Prince Rogers Nelson, the pint-sized musical genius whose songs were the soundtrack to so many people's lives. Whether it was the early perv-funk of Dirty Mind, the rock histrionics of When Doves Cry, the '60s pop of Raspberry Beret or the social commentary of Sign O The Times, Prince had a song and a style for every occasion. In the mid to late eighties if you were into American R&B / dance it often felt like there were only two ultimate choices  -  Michael Jackson or Prince. Jacko of course was one of the biggest stars in the world, a phenomenal singer and dancer with a shed-load of pop classics to his name, but he never captured my imagination like Prince did. Prince always seemed cooler, edgier and more self-mocking and weirder than MJ   -  of course we didn't know at the time just how weird Jacko really was!
I remember seeing photos of Prince in music mags in the early '80s, in his dodgy flasher-mac and underwear phase, but not actually hearing his music until the likes of 1999 and Little Red Corvette hit the charts. However, it was the Purple Rain album that really did it for me. An exciting, over the top collision of rock and R&B, this was the record that Prince used to grab the mainstream audience by the unmentionables. Hugely, insanely over-produced with pounding beats, squealing guitar solos and packed with hits ( the title track, When Doves Cry, Let's Go Crazy ), this album was an absolute monster. Just don't mention the terrible film! My mate Paul ( Death Planet Commandos drummer ) and I played the Purple Rain album to death at ear-frazzling volumes and it became an obsession for us  -  before being replaced by other musical obsessions involving Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Beastie Boys. I was now officially a Prince fan and followed his career for many years until his star began to wane in the '90s. At one point Paul and I had tickets to see the Purple One at Wembley Arena but there was some trouble with the local council over the gig's licence and it was cancelled, so that was my one chance to see Prince lost. I really should have made more of an effort to see him on a later tour...
And now, of course, it's too late. Although Prince's latter career saw him endlessly regurgitating inferior takes on his original funksplosions, he will always be remembered as that singing, dancing, twirling, guitar-playing Sexy MF who always partied like it was 1999...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot

"What's the one thing you never see when you look at your reflection...?"

The tenth series of Nu Who finally kicked off on Saturday with The Pilot, an episode showcasing new companion Bill Potts, the Doctor's new job as a university lecturer and, in the words of a previous story, a "sinister puddle".
As the episode begins the Doctor appears to have given up the old time and space travelling and has settled into quarters in the fictional St. Luke's University in Bristol, even hanging an Out Of Order sign on the Tardis door. ( There is, of course, a Mysterious Reason for this. ) He's noticed that kitchen worker Bill has been turning up to all his lectures even though she's not a student and he arranges for an interview with her, via his PA / batman, the possibly-cyborgised Nardole. Seeing something promising in this under-appreciated young woman, the Doctor offers to become her private tutor  -  an Educating Rita-like relationship, except this lecturer is an alien not an alcoholic.
A chance meeting between Bill and Heather ( a girl with a strange star-like marking in her eye ) and the discovery of a strange puddle of something that looks like water but isn't propels the Doctor, Bill and Nardole into a desperate chase across time and space. ( I knew that Tardis wouldn't stay Earthbound for long... )
Surprisingly, considering the show will be rebooted next year with a new Doctor and new showrunner, this opening episode already seems like a reboot. In a similar way to Rose, the very first episode of 21st century Doctor Who, this story gets back to basic principles: a young woman with a lousy job but much potential meets a madman in a box who whisks her away into a far more dangerous, but exciting, world. There are a couple of nods to previous characters ( River and even Susan Foreman ) but, beyond that, there is no hint of backstory or need for prior knowledge. This is a fast-paced and colourful episode, fizzing with style and energy, not bogged down by arc plots or continuity. The menace of the week is briefly sketched but effective ( even if it is yet another example of the "broken spring" plot ) with a lovely turn by Stephanie Hyam as Heather, the unwitting Pilot of the title.
Of course, the most important aspect of this story is the introduction of the new companion. The first glimpses of Bill in Friend From The Future ( the sneak preview from last year ) weren't too encouraging  -  she just came across as irritating. Luckily, this proper introduction shows that Pearl Mackie is more of an accomplished actress than previously suggested. Bill is bright, lively and very down to earth, and her unrequited love affair with Heather is both sad and sweet. After Amy and Clara seemed to be inextricably linked with the madness of the Doctor's world from day one, Bill seems more like one of us  -  a normal person whose life could do with just a little bit more excitement. Her role seems to be that of the companion who asks the questions everyone else has missed. Hopefully this won't become irritating ( there's that word again ) but will flow naturally from the character. Welcome on board, Bill!
All in all, a very promising start to the Twelfth Doctor's final run, so I'm giving this:

4 out of 5 Sonic Screwdrivers


Sunday, 9 April 2017

Recent Gigs: The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Dandy Warhols

Special international edition! Bournemouth and Barcelona!
Last weekend Sarah and I had a trip down to sunny Bournemouth to see one of my all-time favourite bands, the Jesus & Mary Chain. It had been 25 (!) years, almost to the day, since we previously caught them on the fabled Rollercoaster Tour with Blur, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. so I was well overdue for a follow up...
The venue was the Bournemouth O2 Academy  -  which is actually in the slightly more low-rent suburb of Boscombe. It's a lovely venue: a converted theatre with an impressive, cathedral-like look to the buttresses holding up the roof, as you can see above. In fact it reminded me of the Tardis interior from the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie but that's just my Whovian imagination overreacting as usual...
Or is it? We found this familiar blue box in the street, just yards from the venue...
Anyway, back at the gig, we got there too late for the support band, Is Bliss, literally arriving as they were finishing their last song. They seemed to have a very expansive, Shoegaze -type sound but I couldn't comment any further. Maybe I'll catch up with them another time. After what seemed an age of pre-gig sounds ( the Velvets, Chuck Berry, and many more J&MC inspirations ) the house lights finally dipped, the smoke machine was cranked up and the brothers Reid took to the stage with the latest incarnation of their band.
Yep, somewhere behind all this dry ice is the Jesus & Mary Chain. They started with the first track from their new Damage And Joy album, Amputation  -  a real statement of intent as Jim Reid intoned over and over "I'm a rock 'n' roll amputation"  -  yes, they're back after all the drugs, fights and solo projects, still chasing that impossibly romantic rock 'n' roll dream. As I said to fellow blogger Elektra Luxx recently, the Mary Chain may stick to a formula... but it's a great formula.
Next up was the first oldie of the night, a perfect version of the classic April Skies, very appropriate for a glorious first day of April. The set had a fine balance of new and old with four or five tracks from the recent album slotting in well with the older material  -  although the classics got the best reactions, of course. And, for me, the highlights were the songs from debut album Psychocandy
( which you can read about here at my fossilised 15 Albums blog )  -  The Hardest Walk, Taste Of Cindy, The Living End and my absolute fave You Trip Me Up. Of course, Just Like Honey got the biggest cheer of the night. Although not quite the feedback-drenched monsters they were back in the day, these songs are still classics of noise-pop and show off the much-underrated song-writing skills of the Reid brothers. One of my favourite lines in all pop music is still You Trip Me Up's "Love's like the mighty ocean / When it's frozen / That is your heart" and Jim Reid still sings it with all the melancholy it deserves.
( These photos aren't brilliant, I'm afraid. We started off quite close to the stage but at one point the crowd went a bit nuts and somebody stamped on Sarah's foot so we moved further back. )
The J&MC were never the most visually dazzling live act  -  William Reid still hangs around the back of the stage, summoning up squalls of guitar chaos and looking like a mad professor with his bird's nest hair, while brother Jim doesn't move too much but still commands the stage with his intensity. Before bubblegum noise classic Cherry Came Too, Jim said he hadn't sung this in years and wasn't sure if he was up to it  -  he was, his voice still that classic American-by-way-of-Glaswegian rock 'n' roll drawl. The backing band were fine but anonymous, with William's girlfriend ( sorry, not sure of her name ) adding some suitably ethereal vocals to the handful of duets scattered throughout the set. Although there were a few songs they didn't play that I would have loved to hear like Sidewalking or Never Understand, the set was a triumph, climaxing with a vicious Reverence, Jim spitting out "I want to die, I want to die" in full-on Iggy Pop mode.
Hopefully the brothers have managed to put aside their past differences and this newly revived Mary Chain can continue bringing us their idiosyncratic Velvet Underground / Shangri-Las mash-up...
Back in February the Dandy Warhols were on yet another European jaunt ( when do they sleep? ) and, as my mate Glenn and I are on a semi-serious mission to see them in a different country each time they tour ( Amsterdam last time of course ) we booked up to see them in the beautiful city of Barcelona. And this time we took Sarah and Beki along too so we could all have a mini-break in the Catalan capital. We had a fantastic time in Barcelona but that's a post for another time...
The venue this time was the Salo Apolo, another of those converted theatres we seem to end up in, very similar to the Bournemouth O2. It was about a twenty minute walk from our apartment which was ideal  -  we wandered down world-famous thoroughfare La Ramblas and followed the trail of mustachioed hipsters until we found the venue.
Support came from Welsh indie band Telegram who were okay really but not too exciting. They had a ramshackle, Libertines vibe and mostly incomprehensible vocals but some reasonable tunes and a cool, band-as-gang style  -  ones to watch in the future, methinks. ( Considering how close we live to the Welsh border we had a hell of a time deciphering the singer's between-songs banter. God only knows what the Catalonians thought of it! )
The Dandy's themselves were on top form, cool as feck considering the heat and pulling classic song after classic song out of the bag. Over the last few years they've become one of my most-watched bands ( I've seen them three times since last May alone ) and I've only grown to love them more. Although still occasionally self-indulgent they seem to have become more direct recently  -  even perennial one-before-the-closing-song Pete International Airport was edited down this time, catching me out when I thought I had time to get to the bar before ( also perennial ) last number Boys Better. The songs from the recent Distortland album are becoming more familiar and now fit perfectly alongside faves like Get Off, Godless and the inevitable Bohemian Like You. In fact, these newer songs work much better in a live situation, their sound boosted in comparison to the thin production on the record. Some Things You Gotta Get Over ( STYGGO ) and Catcher In The Rye are fast becoming mass crowd singalongs which must be gratifying for the band.
So, another great set from Portland's finest with each member of the band getting their chance to shine  -  the Dandy Warhols always give the impression of being a totally democratic band, a group of friends who love being together and just happen to make great music.
( I love this shot  -  it looks like Brent's being beamed up to Planet Hipster! )
No DJ set / after show party from Zia this time, unfortunately, and no chance to chat to the band after the gig like on the last couple of occasions. In fact, the mood was slightly dampened by the extremely unfriendly Apolo staff who ushered everyone out of the building only minutes after the Dandy's had left the stage, even preventing people from using the toilets before they left the venue.
Apart from that it had been a great gig, made even more enjoyable by its setting, the fantastic city of Barcelona  -  more to follow on that subject :-)

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Bernie Wrightson

I was saddened to hear today about the passing of the great comics artist, Bernie Wrightson. He was probably THE greatest post-EC Comics horror artist and his loss at the age of only 68 is a tragic blow to the comics community. His beautifully detailed and eerie artwork was one of the signature styles of the Bronze Age, often imitated, never equalled. I'm sure there are plenty of obituaries rising up from the fetid swamps of the internet today by people far more qualified than me to comment on his life, so I'll just make do with sharing some of my Wrightson collection. I'll start of course with the iconic Swamp Thing...
Swampy was probably one of the most important new DC characters of the Bronze Age. In a time when the dreaded Comics Code Authority was beginning to loosen its vice-like grip and supernatural characters began to flood the market place, the Swamp Thing strip led the way for more intelligent and innovative horror comics to make their mark. With co-creator Len Wein, Wrightson only produced ten issues of the regular comic ( as well as the "pilot" story in House Of Secrets #92 ) but what an amazing run it was! Exploring just about every classic horror theme in those ten issues, Wrightson's moody and intricate brushwork, full of shadows and grotesqueries, at times resembling antique woodcut illustrations, set the bar so high that few could follow.
( The above is one of my all-time favourite comic covers  -  a Universal monster movie reanimated in four colours )
Swampy didn't speak much, but when he did you certainly noticed...
Away from comics Wrightson was also much in demand as a book illustrator, with his beautiful work on an edition of Frankenstein being probably the greatest showcase of his skills. The illustration above and the next one feature in The Studio, the gorgeous art book put together by Wrightson with his contemporaries Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike Kaluta and Jeff Jones. You can see a far more comprehensive run-down of his Studio pieces at Pete Doree's wonderful Bronze Age of Blogs.
And just for a change here's a rare case of the artist tackling some super heroes, specifically the Hulk and the Thing in The Big Change, a collaboration with Jim Starlin...
And back to horror with Stephen King movie adaptation Creepshow:
I'll finish with Wrightson's take on Will Eisner's The Spirit, a lovely tribute from one master to another.
RIP Bernie and thanks for all the nightmares...

Soundtrack: Motorvatin' -  22 Rock And Roll Classics by Chuck Berry
( Another sad loss  -  the great showman and rock 'n' roll innovator the world lost yesterday at the age of 90 )

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