Sunday 31 August 2014

Sophie The Mermaid

Our beautiful daughter is 19 today. Here's a picture of her from a recent photo shoot. Happy Birthday, Babs. We love you!

Thursday 28 August 2014

Jack Kirby

As many of you fine folk out there in the Blogosphere probably already know, today would have been the late, great Jack Kirby's 97th birthday. You also don't need me to tell you that Kirby was a prodigious talent with an unrivaled imagination who truly deserved the name "King Of Comics".
Today is also the 200th anniversary of J.S. Le Fanu's birth in 19th century Dublin. Le Fanu was one of the most important writers of supernatural fiction, creating such moody masterpieces as Carmilla, Schalken The Painter and Madam Crowl's Ghost.
In honour of these two very talented and very different creators I'm going to share with you, Dear Reader, some of the King's rare excursions into the mysterious and mystical...
( There's a lot of angry / screaming faces in this post, aren't there? )
Oh, and Mangog doesn't really fit here, does he? I just like that image  -  one of my fave Kirby monsters...

Soundtrack: Grace by Jeff Buckley

Monday 25 August 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath ( review with spoilers )

"Where did he get that face? Why's it got lines on it? It's brand new. How can his hair be all grey? He's only just got it..."
After what seemed like an eternity in the Time Vortex, the Twelfth Doctor finally crashed to Earth last night, giving us the first proper look at the 100% rebel Time Lord. So, how was he? Take a deep breath...
The new Doctor and Clara make a bizarre entrance in this episode  -  the Tardis is vomited out of the throat of a T-Rex and onto the banks of the Thames in Victorian London. ( It's that kind of a story. ) Old friends Vastra, Strax and Jenny are on hand to help a bewildered Clara and an erratic, post-regeneration Doctor... or they would be if the wayward Time Lord hadn't run off into the London fog in his nightshirt like a demented Wee Willie Winkie. The new-look Tardis team and Victorian allies find themselves caught up in a grisly plot involving spontaneous combustion, a buried alien spaceship and a half-faced cyborg harvesting human organs. Clara also has to deal with the sudden and frightening change in the man she had come to know and trust throughout many adventures in space and time. This new, fierce Doctor with an older face, "attack eyebrows" and all, is a harsh, erratic presence... when he's present at all. At one point he even seems to abandon Clara to the not-so-tender mercies of the Half-Face Man and his clockwork army. It's a far cry from the days when Clara could twist the Eleventh Doctor around her little finger...
This first, feature length episode of Series 8 is far from perfect but is loads of fun. In a gambit reminiscent of Tom Baker's first adventure, Robot, this story surrounds the new Doc with familiar characters, themes and surroundings, seemingly to reassure viewers that, yes, this is still the same show. The tone of Deep Breath is still more or less that of the Matt Smith era, with plenty of running around and comedy courtesy of the Paternoster Gang, although a darker, creepier vibe is seeping in  -  not surprising when the director is Ben Wheatley, the man behind Sightseers and A Field In England. We can expect the mood to darken as the series progresses.
Unsurprisingly, much is made of the new Doctor's apparent age and older look. He is as much confused by this change as his companion. In a lovely scene he has a manic, rambling conversation with a tramp in a back alley, forcing said hobo to look at Capaldi's face in a mirror, demanding to know if the tramp has seen these lined features before, because he hasn't  -  "Who frowned me this face?" he asks in a moment of existential angst. The Doctor also confronts the Half-Face Man, himself made up of stolen body parts over a robotic interior, and, while questioning him, questions himself too...

"There's not a trace of the original you left. You probably can't even remember where you got that face from..."

This may all sound too grim and serious but there are plenty of Steven Moffatt's trademark witty lines, with Clara and the Doctor trading insults in a sinister restaurant being a standout scene. And, as for Capaldi... well, he's as excellent as I had expected. Managing to bring just the right amount of vulnerability and charm to a harsher Doctor who could so easily have alienated the audience ( no-one wanted to go the Sixth Doctor route ) he is a joy to watch, whether conversing with a dinosaur like a time-travelling Dr. Doolittle, cavorting around London's rooftops or coolly pouring himself a drink before facing his cyborg enemy. I can't wait to see what he does next. Oh, and Jenna Coleman is fantastic, finally getting some meaty drama to, er, get her teeth into. She really brings to life Clara's fear and bravery when, seemingly abandoned by the Doctor, she faces down the Half-Face Man and his clockwork killers, armed with nothing but anger and intelligence.
I've got a few reservations about this episode ( the Paternoster Gang probably need a rest now, the dinosaur in the Thames would surely be a major disruption to recent history, I don't like the new theme music ) but I'm feeling very positive about this new era so I won't dwell on them. Instead...

I'll give this episode Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or slimy eyeballs )

Soundtrack: Deepest Purple: The Very Best Of Deep Purple ( old school rock! )

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Reading comics the hard way...

...and, no, I don't mean whilst standing on one leg. During my comic-reading years I've very rarely managed to "get in on the ground floor" of my favourite mags, often picking up on a character or comic after it's long established and then going back and trying to fill in the blanks. And occasionally my first exposure to a new comic has been completely the wrong point to start. Take Howard The Duck no.10 for instance:
You probably don't need me to tell you, Dear Reader, but the late Steve Gerber's HTD was one of the most intelligent and iconoclastic comics of its day, a satiric sideswipe at American culture, tackling comic books, the Kung Fu craze, religious cults, Presidential elections, mental health and many more of the hot topics of the 1970s, all with Gerber's acidic, surreal viewpoint. And all this with a talking duck from another dimension. By the time I tracked down an issue the comic had been running for over a year and was already notorious so I was keen to see what it was all about. What I didn't expect was an issue-long dream sequence in which Howard is mentally tortured by his own subconscious for supposedly being a coward and a loser.
"Swan-Song Of The Living Dead Duck" hits the reader with surreal image after surreal image  -  Howard hatches on page one, only to narrowly avoid being crushed by a giant hand ( Gerber's? ); he is almost "cancelled" by a giant ape called Kong Lomerate; he seeks advice from dream versions of Doctor Strange (  here called "Doctor Piano" ) and a Spider-Man who pours out of a tap; his human girlfriend, Bev, appears and opens her face like a porcelain mask to reveal a water-squirting, plastic flower inside; past enemies queue up to insult him and, finally, he "dies" and finds himself chained in Hell. The issue ends like this:

"I was brave. I was heroic. I acted in the best tradition of unthinking pugnacity an' I died... for honor. An' my eternal reward? To be laughed at for all time-- by the bums who put me there. I just hope I'm still dreamin'-- 'cause if this is for real, I'm gonna get very depressed."

Heavy stuff, man. As well as artist Gene Colan's disturbing images, Gerber's discussions of heroism, morality, guilt and conformism were not what I was used to in the average comic book. ( I was only 10 at the time... ) Sure, writers like Don McGregor had covered similar topics in strips such as War Of The Worlds and The Black Panther, but always with a reassuringly traditional super heroic slant. This was like taking a trip through the mind of a very disturbed individual with no return to normality at the end of the comic  -  the "coming next" blurbs reveals the title of issue no. 11 as "The Quack-Up!!" Somehow, after all that, I still went back for more...
Another strange trip came a few years later in Cerebus no. 20. Cerebus The Aardvark was probably the coolest  -  and definitely the most unusual  -   character in comics as the beige-toned '70s gave way to the grey-hued '80s. Following in Howard's webbed footsteps, the Earth Pig's strip had started off as a parody of the Thomas / Smith Conan The Barbarian before heading down its own idiosyncratic path. I may have expected satiric barbarian fantasy from my first encounter with the short grey one... but that's not what I got. ( Do you see a pattern forming here, Dear Reader? )
Cerebus has been drugged by the Cirinists ( an all-female cult whose apparent purpose is "to wipe out fun in our lifetime" ) and finds himself, or his consciousness, floating in the mystical realm of the Seventh Sphere, also the hangout of Illusionist guru and 182-year old hippie Suenteus Po. The aardvark plays the two cults off against each other in attempt to return to reality  -  although by the end of the issue he doesn't seem to have succeeded. This was all a fine introduction to Dave Sim's cantankerous, controversial character for me, and to Sim's mastery of witty dialogue and expressive cartooning. But ( there's always a "but", isn't there? ) the experimental storytelling caught me by surprise. The Seventh Sphere ( which is the background for every scene ) is depicted as a black void with areas of "shimmering grey" and the only character visible throughout the story is Cerebus, manipulating the unseen cultists as he wanders through the darkness. The grey areas are actually a portrait of Cerebus, chopped up and spread throughout the 20 pages of story, with the smaller images of the aardvark pasted on top. And here's the full picture:
Yeah. As the Cirinists would say: "we are like unto one negotiating the sale of farm animals without the benefit of daylight..."
My last example is Doom Patrol no. 54. All I really need to say here is... Grant Morrison...
I obviously came late to the Doom Patrol party ( Morrison had started scripting this comic with its 19th issue ) but I thought I'd give it a go. Doom Patrol had a reputation for Morrison-brand wierdness but I was sure I could handle it.Unfortunately the issue I chose was the most impenetrable of the entire run. It's ( apparently ) a meditation on alchemy, with the DP's hermaphroditic, mummified, three-in-one character Rebis travelling to the Moon and somehow giving birth. There's all manner of surrealism here: prostitutes wrapped in bandages, Siamese twins fighting and screaming at each other / themselves, incest in a submerged bomber, many references to sex, death and rebirth, a Moon buggy transformed into a cocoon...

It's all weapons-grade oddness but, luckily, I gave the comic another chance, bought some more issues, and found it to be one of the best mags of its time  -  hilarious, scary, thought-provoking and heart-breaking. This issue's weirdness did, however, yield some beautifully bizarre prose amongst all the obscure references:

"Rainforest green light in the submarine twilight. Stifling heat in the belly of the beast. Drowned leviathan bomber. These archangel bombers prowl the torn fringes of creation. Their gigantic engines throb in our dreams. The war in heaven never ends."

Who says comics need to make sense...?

Soundtrack: It'll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil   ( Hey! Post number 775! )

Saturday 16 August 2014

Randomiser X ( or The Return Of The Randomiser, tenth edition )

It's been literally years since I've done one of these Randomiser posts, so I thought it would be fun to revive them. Gonna start with some Moebius ( of course ) and Sigourney Weaver's high school Yearbook photo. You're welcome...

Soundtrack: Combat Rock by The Clash

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall

At the risk of turning this blog into some kind of Obituary Of The Day, I just have to note the passing of the great Lauren Bacall yesterday at the age of 89. Bacall was one of the last surviving screen icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood. From her movie debut at the age of 19 in Howard Hawks' To Have And Have Not ( with future husband Humphrey Bogart ) Bacall created a sexy, sassy, subtle style with her trademark sultry look and distinctive smoky voice. Here she is below with Bogey in one of her greatest roles in The Big Sleep:
Hopefully, if there is such a thing as a heaven, this classy lady is now reunited with Bogart and is knocking back a few whiskys in celebration of her life...

Lauren Bacall: 16th September 1924 / 12th August 2014

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Robin Williams - O Captain, My Captain

Very sad today to hear of the death of comic genius Robin Williams. As a kid I loved him as the gentle, zany alien in Mork And Mindy, and then watched as his career blossomed into great movie roles in such films as Awakenings, The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. The man was a fireball of energy and invention, especially in his stand-up shows, but could also reduce you to tears with his subtle acting performances. Here he is above as Parry in The Fisher King, a man struggling with depression by creating his own, personal universe. Williams himself had a similar struggle, but it seems he sadly lost...

Robin Williams 21st July 1951 / 11th August 2014

Sunday 10 August 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Of all the Marvel Studios films so far, Guardians Of The Galaxy was the one I was originally most dubious about. A bunch of Z-List characters, bearing little resemblance to the Guardians I remembered from the comics of the 1970s, in a mega-budget movie by a director known for small-scale, Earthbound comedies? It didn't sound good. But as advance word and trailers began to appear I started to think this could either be one of the best films of the year or a big, steaming pile of Bantha droppings. So, last weekend James and I dragged Sarah along to see "that stupid film with that hedgehog" ( her words ) to make up our own minds...

GoTG is the story of Earthman Peter Jason Quill, rudely snatched as a boy from his home planet by a gang of galactic scavengers, who then becomes the outlaw known ( mostly by himself ) as Star-Lord. After stealing the film's intergalactic McGuffin, the Orb, Quill finds himself the target of fanatic Ronan The Accuser and falls in with a gang of homicidal outer space misfits who, against their better judgement, wind up saving the galaxy. For the half-dozen or so people in the world who don't know, these misfits are Gamora ( sexy assassin out for revenge ), Drax ( psychotic bruiser also out for revenge ), Rocket ( a raccoon-like alien not out for revenge, just here for the violence ) and Groot ( a talking tree ). Yes, a talking tree...

I have to say I really enjoyed this film. ( And, yes, James and even Sarah did too. ) It's tongue-in-cheek, action-packed and colourful, with a fine sense of its own ridiculousness, some great dialogue and a knowingly cheesy soundtrack of '70s and '80s pop. Director James Gunn does an impressive job of introducing viewers to this crazy, complex universe with its multitude of worlds and civilisations and he absolutely nails the huge space-action set-pieces. All the Guardians prove to be more layered and interesting characters than at first glance, with even the raccoon displaying moments of pathos beneath his cynical, wiseguy exterior. ( I know I'm talking about a collection of pixels as if they're a real character  -  and a frickin' raccoon, at that  -  but the realisation of Rocket is fantastically convincing, with some hilarious voice acting from Bradley Cooper. )
If I was picky I'd say there are a few plot-holes large enough to fly a spaceship through and Karen Gillan is wasted as one-note badgirl Nebula... but the good stuff outweighs the bad for me. There are starships designed by the great Chris Foss, fan-pleasing hints at a larger Marvel Universe ( Thanos, the Celestials and a certain wise-cracking fowl all have cameos ), jokes about Kevin Bacon, and Zoe Saldana kicking arse. What more could you want? Oh, and Chris ( Star-Lord ) Pratt is going to be a big star...

Tuesday 5 August 2014

We will remember them

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1914

Last night, along with thousands of other households across the UK, we switched off all our lights and lit a single candle to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. A televised remembrance service from Westminster Abbey saw actors, soldiers and members of the church movingly read poems and letters about and from that terrible time 100 years ago. There has been much debate recently about the justification of the so-called Great War. Was it a complete disaster that slaughtered a generation for no good reason ( the "Blackadder" argument ) or was it a necessary evil that ensured European democracy? Whichever side of the debate you favour it's important that the unprecedented and unimaginable sacrifice of ordinary men and women, whether military or civilians, should never be forgotten.
We will remember them...

Sunday 3 August 2014

Recent Gigs Part Two: The Dandy Warhols and more

Portland, Oregon's finest psych-pop hipsters The Dandy Warhols played Bristol recently, for the first time in years, so I headed down to the home of Banksy and trip hop with fellow culture lovers Glenn and Caz. The venue was the Anson Rooms, a part of Bristol University. I hadn't been there since the late '90s when I'd seen Terrorvision play one of the maddest, hottest gigs ever, so it was interesting to revisit the place. Quite a smart venue, probably only about 400 or 500 capacity, with a well-staffed and accessible bar. We got there just in time to catch the start of the Dark Horses' set. They play a moody, Gothy art-punk, with one song being a dead ringer for the Velvets' Venus In Furs. Derivative, then, but full of potential.

The Dandy's then came on to polite applause from a fairly reserved crowd  -  set list above. This was the fifth time I'd seen the band and, while not the best performance I'd seen from them, they played a fine set with their usual impeccable musicianship and laidback, charismatic cool. The audience was a mixture of hardcore Dandy's fans and younger student types who mostly came alive when the hits were played. Glenn ( world's no.1 Dandy's fan ) and I of course went down the front to get the full effect of the band's dream-pop soundscapes... and to get a good look at the lovely Zia... ( Shallow? Moi? )

As ever a couple of songs outstayed their welcome but crowd singalong favourites like Boys Better, Horse PillsBohemian Like You and Get Off had us all jumping up and down, and the peerless Godless was the expected highlight with mass audience vocals replacing the absent horn section of the recorded version. Although slightly marred by a few sound problems and a lack of encore it was a fun gig with some great company. "Super cool / Dandy's Rule OK..."

A few months back ( when my melted PC meant very little blogging was going on ) Sarah and I went to the good ol' Gloucester Guildhall to see The Selecter. I'd seen them before, of course, but Sarah hadn't and didn't really remember them from back in the day. But it only took a couple of songs for her to get into the groove  -  I defy anyone with a pulse not to move their feet to The Selecter's red hot ska beat! They played a great, sweaty set with all the old faves present and correct: Missing Words, On My Radio, Three Minute Hero all as fresh and invigorating as jumping naked into a mountain stream... I imagine. Fine support came from legendary Bristol reggae band Talisman, bringing some warm Caribbean sounds to a chilly Gloucester.

On the local bands front I've been to a few gigs by old favourites Demob and Noise Agents and also a new set of old mates from various bands under the guise of Borrowed Time. Here they are looking dead hard on the mean streets of, er, Cheltenham. Borrowed Time play a superior form of Street Punk ( circa 1982 ) with some rough 'n' ready but tuneful songs which would have easily stood up against the likes of Chron Gen, Infa Riot or Anti Pasti back in the day. For a new ( if not young ) band they are doing very well and will be playing at the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool next week... along with The Selecter. ( I don't just throw this blog together you know. OK, I do... )

And finally Esther, I saw Stroud disco-Punks ( heh heh! ) Chinese Burn for the umpteenth time the other week at Gloucester's grimy Lower George pub. A cracking gig from the Burners with loads of good friends in attendance. I even dragged Sarah along. This gig was on the day after the last of the original Ramones, Tommy Erdelyi, had passed away so it ended with an ( ahem! ) all-star cover version of Blitzkrieg Bop. Various members of Chinese Burn, Borrowed Time, Noise Agents and even yours truly all made complete fools of ourselves as a tribute to Tommy Ramone. There's me in the grey Ramones T-shirt, sharing a mic with my mate Cliff. As we used to cover Blitzkrieg Bop back in the Death Planet Commandos days, I tried to persuade ex-DPC guitarist the mighty Mark to join us too but he remained behind to fill half of the frame at the bottom of the photo :-)
Hey ho! Let's go!


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