Friday, 27 February 2009
Many of the reviews for Clint Eastwood's Gran Turino have conjured up the iconic image of "Dirty" Harry Callaghan, but that's to miss the point: Walt Kowalski is not some maverick cop trying to protect the public from its own perceived lack of moral grit, he's a bitter war vet who's increasingly more of an alien in his run-down Detroit community than the "gooks" whose arrival he despises.
Eastwood now resembles a Rockwell sketch of Mount Rushmore, with a growl low enough to be detected by whales fifty miles away, and he brings a depth and humour to Walt which allows us to empathise with him whilst finding distasteful many of the views he expresses. Ironically, this strength proves one of the film's weaknesses: it relies too much upon its star, and one can't help wondering how differently Eastwood the director would have handled the material. Still, if this is indeed his swansong in front of the camera, it's a damned fine performance to go out on.
[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]
Thursday, 26 February 2009
It’s not only the future which remains an uncharted continent: the past is just as capable of sneaking around and biting you on the butt. Shortly after I returned from running the Eastercon fan lounge last year*, Ann exiled me to the attic; no, not like the hideous mutant twin in some Lovecraftian potboiler, but because the second floor of our home contains the accumulated debris of my near-forty years on this planet.
Old fanzines, books, comics, toys, film posters, lost religious relics… The attic is crammed to the rafters with the odd, the obscure and the patently useless, much of which has never actually left the premises, a curious side effect of buying the house you grew up in. More terrifying, there are glimpses of other potential life paths left untrod: computer manuals from a two-year cul de sac in the mid-1970s when I hedged my career bets by taking a programming course at college; layouts and synopses for comic strips; the clockwork cine camera with which I toyed at becoming the next Ray Harryhausen; heaps of notes for novels and short stories aborted or stillborn. It’s strangely both unsettling to see so many youthful fancies buried under so much dust.
The only real constant is box upon box of fanzines, the bulk collected in the long-ago days when such material was the mainstay of British convention auctions, but very nearly as much archived during the past decade. That’s the great strength of fandom: like attics, it never demands you act your age.
*Intervention, Liverpool, 1997
[First published in Omega #22, October 1998]
This morning's post included the first entry for the 2009 Delta Film Award, which will be announced in October at the 20th Festival of Fantastic Films. The competition is open to both UK and non-UK film-makers, and is presented to the best non-professional movie screened at the Festival; recent recipients include Small Things (UK), Contretemps (France) and the acclaimed Eddie Loves You (UK).
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
It's certainly been Kate Winslet's year: two dramatically different roles in two excellent but very distinct movies. I can understand why Our Kate eventually earned the BAFTA for her portrayal of the emotionally amputated Hanna Schmitz in The Reader: it's a greater challenge to bring a sterile void such as Schmitz to the screen and make her believable, than someone whose emotions are bristling right on the surface, like the sparks on a Van de Graaff generator.
Which is not, in any sense, to downplay the weight and solidity of Revolutionary Road. There have been many films exploring the private dreams and nightmares of those who live in silent desperation within the facade of the post-WW2 American Dream (The Ice Storm immediately springs to mind), but this entry accentuates the sense of loss by offering its protagonists -- frustrated mother-of-two April and her sexually oppotunistic husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio, also at the top of his game) -- a way out of the rut they've slipped into.
Whilst 1955 Connecticut society looks on in horror born out of ill-disguised envy, the pair plan their escape to a Europe which has taken on a mythic status for them, only to have any real hope of freedom crushed by their own weaknesses. There's a grim inevitability to the movie's final chapter (one which, for personal reasons, I found very difficult to view), but it was obvious from the opening scenes that a happy ending was unlikely to be on the agenda.
[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]
Tuesday, 17 February 2009
I have to confess I haven't kept much of an eye on Woody Allen's career since Hannah and Her Sisters back in 1986. Mighty Aphrodite (1994) proved mildly diverting, as did Bullets Over Broadway (1995), but neither displayed the invention or self-assurance of Annie Hall (1977), Sleeper (1973) or even Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972). The indifferent reviews which greeted his more recent projects scarcely had me running to the box office, but word of mouth on Vicky Cristina Barcelona hinted that Allen might be back on form.
Ah, if only. Despite the best efforts of his cast (headed by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous Americans adrift in Catelonia, Javier Bardem as the fiery artist who beds them both and Penelope Cruz as his equally tempestuous ex-wife), this is a lightweight tale, its limitations underlined by the invasive narration which Allen presumably hopes will paper over the cracks in both plot and characterisation.
A stray thought hit me as I sat in the cinema tonight: had this film been set in a sinkhole housing estate, with boringly mundane protagonists rather than artists and poets, would we actually give a toss about their bedhopping antics? Romantic locations do not a romance make, nor the occasional witty line a winning comedy.
[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]
Monday, 16 February 2009
The View from the Bridge
Life’s a bridge,
spanning the gulf
between the moment of our birth
and the instant of our death
Some choose the duration of their journey;
others barely step on at one side
before reaching the other
Do we have further bridges to cross?
And should we decide instead
to leap over the barrier’s edge,
what awaits us in the darkness below?
Sixteen Weeks On
Nothing lasts forever
No one stays the same
This is no rehearsal
Life is not a game
Some believe they're special
That the rest of us are wrong
Convince themselves the middle verse will
Stretch beyond the song
I still recall our meeting
The life and love we made
But joy's a dream, and fleeting,
When even ours could fade
Thursday, 12 February 2009
Available in English for the first time, this truly chilling collection of short fiction by a Spanish devotee of the Marquis de Sade whose suicide in 1987 may well disguise real-life crimes as horrific and as sordid as those he envisioned, no easy task, holds the same grim fascination as a road traffic accident.
Often surreal (the war-maddened masturbator of "Necrophile" stumbles out of New Worlds via the films of Jorg Buttgereit), frequently fantastical (no more so than in the flying torture chamber of "Ikarus") and never less than mind-numbing, The Eyes is memetic toxic waste: there are images here which refuse to creep back into the shadows, much as one would wish them to. Be warned: these are dark tales of insanity and inhumanity, foul splinters in the mind's eye. Read them at your own risk.
[First published in Critical Wave #44/45, April 1996; more than a decade on, The Eyes remains available from Headpress, which ran the Critical Vision imprint]
There's a tendancy, when eulogising the recently deceased, to recall only that which portrays them in a favourable light, and to downplay the less commendable facets of their personality or career. In the case of Bob Shaw, however, no such well-intentioned distortion is necessary; he was, quite simply, one of the nicest people whose company I have ever had the good fortune to share.
My first contact with Bob, more than twenty years ago, exemplifies his generosity and good nature. It was the spring of 1975, and I had learned of science fiction fanzines through the short-lived World of Horror; I'd already received several copies of the Dr Who Fan Club newsletter, but this (curiously) was sponsored by the BBC and had little or no contact with the fabulous fannish universe the WoH column hinted at. Within months, a friend and I were drawing up our own plans to enter the fray, with one of those dry-as-dust serconzines pretty much endemic at the time.
By coincidence, Marvel had recently added Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction to its black & white line, a surprisingly honest attempt to drag sf comics out of the 1950's EC vein and towards the New Wave occupied by the likes of Moorcock and Ellison (who were both represented in due course, along with adaptations of work by Wyndham, Silverberg, Weinbaum and Niven). More importantly to this tale, Marvel decided to lift Bob's "Slow Glass" concept from his Hugo-nominated "Light of Other Days" for use as a framing device to give each issue an overall cohesion; instead of EC's Crypt Keeper, shopkeeper Sandson Tyme would startle his customers with visions of distant worlds and strange futures.
Despite this peripheral involvement and the somewhat variable quality of the strips, Bob wrote to offer his congratulations and - apparently on an editorial whim - his address was published in full. I'm unaware as to whether he was subsequently buried in fan mail, but I grabbed the chance to contact a Real Skiffy Writer and, surfing a wave of teenage chutzpah, even included a short questionnaire for use in our proposed first issue.
As it turned out, the fanzine took a further two years to materialize, by which time Bob had replied to this and several other letters, the "interview" had turned up in another location entirely and, best of all, I'd had the opportunity to meet him in person. Better still, it was in a Novacon bar, which is on a parallel with joining John Huston on safari or Ernest Hemingway at a bullfight. He was entirely at ease, and within moments so was anyone who took an adjoining seat. As I swiftly learned, no matter how successful he became as a science fiction author, he never really evolved from the youngster who tapped at Walt Willis' front door a half-century ago and immediately boosted Irish Fandom by fifty per cent; at heart, he remained a fan.
It's difficult to put into words my admiration for Bob. I enjoyed and respected his sf novels, adored his fanwriting (frequently reprinting the lesser-known pieces in my own fanzines) and always valued our occasional chats at conventions, or on the telephone. Our final lengthy exchange was a short while before Novacon 25, concerning a less than favourable review I'd given A Bit Of BoSH in Critical Wave #41 (entirely down to the editors, I must add); then as always, Bob was supportive, understanding and, above all, honest. In a sense, we ended as we began, fan talking to fan.
Despite his achievements in professional print, Bob's is a greater loss to fandom than to sf as a whole. I doubt he ever regretted that balance for a moment.
[First published in Critical Wave #44/45, April 1996, which also included a 1975 article by Bob Shaw and additional tributes to him from fellow science fiction authors Stephen Baxter and Keith Brooke]
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
There was a time, just before the Dark Days of Thatcher, when virtually every corner newsagency held more wonders than the Cave of the Forty Thieves. Rotating racks held in their wire grasp the latest superhero yarns from the likes of Marvel and DC / National (anyone else remember Atlas, possibly the shortest-lived publisher of all time?), imported trashy paperbacks and – for a scant few years during the first half of the 1970s – the bizarre confabulation of hallucinogenic plotting, twisted metaphor and no-holds-barred illustration which would shortly gain infamy as the Skywald Horror-Mood.
Skyward had been formed in 1970 as a partnership between former Marvel production chief Sol Brodsky and 1950s comics publisher Herbert Waldman, launching two black & white horror magazines in the style pioneered by James Warren and Creepy. All around them lay the desolation wrought by the national hysteria of a mere fifteen years earlier, when the classic work of Bill Gaines and his EC crew (Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear) had been swept aside along with those bandwagon-jumping copycats whose lower standards had greased the wheels of the McCarthyist panic.
Like Creepy and its stablemates (Eerie, Vampirella), the first Skywald titles, Psycho and Nightmare, cocked a bloody snoot at the regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority since 1955 and which would effectively hamstring the mainstream industry for the next two decades. The similarity both alarmed and infuriated Warren, who vented his spleen with an ad in the 1972 New York Comic Convention programme booklet, awarding the fictitious Xerox Award to Skywald Publishing, “whose apings of Creepy & Eerie (Psycho/ & Nightmare) gave no new meanings whatsoever to the word ‘imitate’.”
One bemused reader of that advertisement was Alan Hewetson, former assistant to legendary comics writer/editor Stan Lee, who’d only just become Skywald’s editor following Sol Brodsky’s decision to rejoin Lee at the Marvel Bullpen. (Ironically, Warren had bought some of Hewetson’s earliest scripts and would reportedly offer him an editorial role in early 1973, which Hewetson politely declined as he “already had a home”).
“I had […] absolutely no axe to grind concerning Jim,” Hewetson later told Stephen Sennitt, author of Ghastly Terror!: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics and a contributor to the comics writer’s own memoir The Complete Illustrated History of the Skywald Horror-Mood. “His annoying attitude that he wanted to own the entire market was simply a personal eccentricity.”
The fledgling company chose to respond in print in Psycho #9 (November 1972), by which time Hewetson had settled into his new role. “I had just gone through my own confrontation with [Warren] over his loyalty oath business and the thought struck me that this was a great opportunity to nip this crap in the bud before it got out of hand. […] The basis of his attack was that we copied him, and the basis of my response was that he had copied EC in the first place. I don’t think he enjoyed seeing that particular opinion in print.”
It’s impossible to doubt Hewetson’s commitment to the horror genre. The day after receiving Waldman’s invitation to join the new writing team, he bade farewell to his then-wife Julie and drove five hundred miles from their home in Ottawa to Skywald’s office in New York. By early October 1970, he was “hanging out” with such leading artists and writers as Tom Sutton, Bill Everett, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Bob Kanigher and Syd Shores, working up scripts which would finally see his byline in the pages of Nightmare by issue three (April 1971), the first not to rely upon reprint material. Reminiscing over those days in a column for The Comics Journal, Hewetson recalled his 24 year-old self thinking “This might be a nice place to work.”
First impressions panned out, and the following eighteen months allowed Skywald’s newest staffer to develop the curious cocktail of Lovecraftian mythology, frothy (occasionally turgid) prose and often nauseating gore which would become the hallmark of the “Horror-Mood”.
Its philosophy was perhaps best expressed in a curiously upfront one-pager for Psycho #13 (April 1973), “Prologue to Horror”: “Horror is a weird word that confuses as it teases… for it means many things… and many things mean Horror… It is a word slightly beyond definition, for Horror is people and emotion and expression… Horror is people… vampires… werewolves… corpses… obscure monsters… But in effect… it is you… afraid of what such beasts and fiends might do to you…
“Horror is emotion, therefore…the unnameable, indescribable fear that overcomes you when you are presented with something you can neither understand nor accept in your mind… which is why Horror is incurably linked to madness and lunacy…
“Horror is an expression of inner knowledge buried at the back of your brain… For you know… that fiends, monsters, and your fear of the unknown and secondary horrors…
“The Real Horror is you… and the unbridled, brutal alter-ego madman inside you who is capable of horrors far more evil than the world now knows…
“What is Horror? … You are!”
This unsettling approach to what had become a cosy comics genre is apparent in “Limb From Limb From Death” (Nightmare 1972 Annual), a tale very much in the EC flavour of thirty years earlier which swiftly hooked itself into my teenage cranium and has remained there ever since. Newly-installed editor Hewetson commented upon the latest entry by writer Hewetson: “This story has to go down as one of the most gruesome, horrible tales ever written and illustrated! Yet, it holds a fascination that made us read it through! .. And so we want to share it with you!”
How generous. Predating Stephen King’s similarly-themed short story “Survivor Type” by a mere decade (bear in mind that King was one of Skywald’s earliest cheerleaders, albeit at a time when his name lacked its current weight), this grisly seven-pager centres on three Americans suddenly swept up in a Saharan sandstorm. Driven to desperation by hunger, they grudgingly agree to let one of their number – a surgeon – perform unanaesthetised amputations to supply the necessary protein (oddly, artist Pablo Marcos depicts surgery upon the right arm, hardly the first choice in such a situation). When the group is rescued after just two such feasts, the medic attempts to fool his fellow survivors that he’s kept his promise to sacrifice his own arm by harvesting a convenient cadaver, only to trip into insanity in the final panels (“My god… It’s getting worse before my very eyes… My fingers… The flesh is dropping off… Dripping off like sludge!”)
As mentioned previously, Lovecraftian themes surfaced with deliberate regularity, both in the Skywald comic strips and its editorial pages. Nightmare #20 (August 1974) even announced the launch of the International Anti-Shoggoth Crusade, a tongue-in-cheek campaign against the same ancient forces which provided the plot for that issue’s “The Scream and the Nightmare”.
As Headpress co-editor David Kerekes confided in a footnote to Alan Hewetson’s memoir: “As a teenage boy I understood that the idea […] was not a serious one, but at the same time I would never want to put my name down for such a thing. After all, I had seen the photos of the Skywald staff, and they all looked pretty strange to me.”
Can’t say I blame him. More even than Marvel, with its “Smilin’ Stan” and “Jolly Jack” et al, Skywald ensured its readership was fully up to speed with its current creative team, a right bunch of freaks and weirdos if the artists’ impressions were anything to go by (for example, writer Augustine Funnell’s portrait as part of the first page of “Monster, Monster on the Wall” (Nightmare #12, April 1973)).
“Monster, Monster” also typified another of Skywald’s idiosyncrasies: horror comics had previously produced one-off morality tales of the kind later paid homage by George Romero’s movie Creepshow, but Funnell followed up his initial story with no fewer than six sequels. In a like vein, “The Saga of the Victims” (a bizarre series in which two women are effectively relentlessly tortured by Satan) ran through five issues of Scream, whilst Tom Sutton’s extension of the Frankenstein legend straddled eight issues of all three main horror titles. Nine chapters of the company’s magnum opus, “The Saga of the Human Gargoyles” (like “Victims”, scripted by Hewetson), appeared between 1972 and 1975, with a further two planned but never published; a compilation was also prepped, which would arguably have been the first true graphic novel.
It couldn’t last, of course. Marvel had caught the scent and begun injecting horror themes into its superhero line (Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein), meanwhile expanding into the b&w magazine market (beginning with Savage Tales in 1971, followed by Tales of the Zombie, The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and the much-missed Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction).
As Hewetson told Stephen Sennitt, “[Marvel’s] distribution company was so powerful, because they represented all the top selling titles, that they bullied the local distribution companies into carrying their own magazines almost exclusively. […]
“So, we were banished from all but the really big newsstands. That is what killed us.”
By early 1975, Alan Hewetson knew the company’s days were numbered (Waldman had ordered him to accept no new work and rely purely upon material on file, a sure giveaway) and had in any case become increasingly dissatisfied with the company’s growing dependence upon foreign freelance artists (“There was no Horror-Mood camaraderie with the foreign artists, and no personal one-on-one communication for the most part, which is essential if you are trying to build a ‘team’”).
The boom finally dropped on 25 March, when Hewetson notified his creative team of the immediate cancellation of all three horror titles: Nightmare #24, Psycho #25 and Scream #12 would never make it off the drawing board. His memo blamed “exorbitant production increases, rising printing and distribution costs, and a glutted magazine market”, and requested his colleagues never forget “a time of editorial freedom, and consequently literary and artistic achievement”.
Ironically, Marvel, the chief culprit in that “glutted magazine market”, would eventually abandon all of its own black & white titles bar Savage Sword of Conan (“The readers liked colour,” Stan Lee recalled in Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics). In doing so, Marvel temporarily abandoned its plans to produce a parallel production line free of the CCA regulations (a plan which resurfaced in 1980 with the launch of the colour anthology title Epic Illustrated, Lee’s final project before moving to the company’s West Coast offices).
Hewetson, meanwhile, moved into screenwriting, appropriately working on an early (aborted) version of the EC homage Tales from the Crypt, whilst many of those he’d groomed went on to greater glory at the mainstream comics companies beside which Skywald had proven such a breath of fresh air. He died in January 2004, shortly after completing his memoir of those amazing, heady days on East 41st Street.
On that final day, Alan Hewetson once again distilled the Mood: “It is horror. In the extreme. The moment of personal, emotional collapse, when most individuals lose their psychological balance and their desire to remain sane.
“It’s the epitome of a successful horror story – if the story is well written, and if you can get under the skin of the character, and empathize with the character when they are experiencing their greatest moment of personal terror, you can share in their primal spinal.
“Too many of these shared moments of terrifying angst, and you die.”
Bibliography: Ghastly Terror!: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics by Stephen Sennitt (Critical Vision, 1999); Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics by Les Daniels (Virgin, 1991); The Complete Illustrated History of the Skywald Horror-Mood by Alan Hewetson (Critical Vision, 2004).
Special thanks to David Kerekes at Critical Vision.
[First published in Owl Soup #1, summer 2005]
There’s nothing original, so they say (and “they” probably stole that aphorism in the first place). Drama entire can supposedly be reduced to a mere seven plots (six-and-a-half fewer if you happen to be Barbara Cartland), which explains the sense of déjà vu typified by watching the 1996 screen incarnation of Chris Warner and Paul Gulacy’s Dark Horse superheroine Barb Wire and realising Pamela Anderson is channelling Humphrey Bogart in a gender-reversed Casablanca.
I write as one who has succumbed: the appearance of the eponymous hero in “Inspector X”, a cartoon strip I produced for the amusement of classmates at age 12, was lifted wholesale from “I Spy”, a regular in the 1970s weekly Sparky.
But such plagiarism is not always conscious. For the past couple of decades, I’ve followed Alfie Bester’s suggestion in Hell’s Cartographers and scribbled down passing ideas in a succession of notepads and sketchbooks. Amongst them was the synopsis for a short story: guy finds secret of immortality, is mistakenly convicted of murder, realises to his horror that this particular US state doesn’t have the death penalty. Perfect plot for one of 2000AD’s “Future Shocks”, methought, even if my last submission (a mere quarter-century ago) received a two-fingered salute from Tharg the Mighty.
Fast forward to early March 2004: I’m listening to BBC R7 on our new digital radio, and catch a 1990s adaptation of Rod Serling’s 1959 Twilight Zone script “Escape Clause”, wherein hypochondriac Walter Bedeker sells his soul to become immortal and is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder, etc, etc.
Four days later, I tune in by pure chance to Oneword, another digital station, and hear The Inner Sanctum (a rather over-excited spin on the EC Comics template), wherein a scientist’s widow traps his killer, who committed murder in order to become immortal, but now finds himself behind bars for the rest of his (un)natural.
Okay, okay, I get the point: even though I honestly couldn’t recall seeing the original Zone episode and had never heard of The Inner Sanctum before, I do possess the landmark Gary Gerani / Paul Schulman tvsf overview Fantastic Television (which confusingly juggles the “Escape Clause” details over three columns) and the Jean-Marc / Randy Lofficier programme guide Into the Twilight Zone, as well as Joel Engel’s excellent biography of Serling, so it’s pretty obvious this particular meme slipped into my head years ago. Bugger.
Still, at least I can now devote myself to my latest story idea, positively bursting with originality: two aliens called Adam and Eve flee their dying world and crashland upon an unpopulated planet, stumble across the Statue of Liberty and fall through a time vortex before killing their own grandparents. I suspect it needs a little work, but I’m sure the guys at Dark Horse will love it.
[First published in the Caption 2006 programme book]
I have to confess I haven’t bothered to check via Google which came first, but the indoor shower remains one of the greatest boons to horror movies.
It’s not just that vertical ablutions mean scream queens can’t shield their cleavage under thirteen layers of bathfoam, but the incessant hiss of the showerhead also ensures no endangered damsel can detect the approaching footfall of the generic maniac with an absurdly heavy knife. (For further reference, check out the extensively-researched instruction video Hollywood Scream Queen Hot Tub Party and the rather gorgeous Brinke Stevens’ demonstration of maximising breast exposure by soap avoidance and minimising pubic flashes with careful positioning of the outermost leg.)
Meantime, mid-December, I hear some guy explaining on BBC Radio 4 that a Belgian scientist has invented a shower which offloads into the neighbouring toilet cistern, dramatically reducing water usage; apparently, he’s already having discussions with hotels in Saudi Arabia.
My first thought, should all British bathrooms get one of these devices, is that should you feel the need, piss in the shower. Goes the same direction in the end, you’re cutting out the middleman and – multiplied by, say, twenty million thirty-second micturations per day – the thousands of hours saved would probably propel the UK back into the top ten of global productivity.
Needless to say, this is not recommended for those who prefer to take a bath. Nor should this idea be extended to more solid bodily functions – at least not without a full time and motion study.
[First published in Zoo Nation #?, April 2006]
You never forget your first love, and my own was comics. Not just the weekly anthologies peculiar to these shores, but the American superhero titles which in an oh-so-recent era were crammed into rotating metal racks in almost every corner newsagency. For every copy of Valiant or The Dandy, a glossy-covered and freshly-imported Fantastic Four or Tales to Astonish.
Shortly after I hit my teens, US tv executives finally wised up to the fact that comics were popular enough to merit their own series, thrusting their versions of The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman upon the telesphere. That the last of these – Lynda Carter, a former Miss World USA in a shiny basque – proved the most accurate translation to screen pretty much sums up just how useless the rest of the field was.
By the early 1980s, the success of Superman: The Movie and its first sequel – not to mention the middle-section Star Wars fables – had raised the ante. Tv networks and the direct-to-video market both tried to respond, but their hands were tied: soon as you bought the licensing rights to a major-league superhero and set aside the cash for minimal special effects, there was nothing left to license the requisite supervillains. Let’s be frank here: watching some bland goon in a spandex costume “battle” a gang of rogue bikers (The Flash), minor Mafia hoods (The Punisher) or manic mystics (Supergirl) is mildly more entertaining than stirring your own teacup.
Even the heightened cultural profile of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons breakthrough Watchmen failed to persuade tv execs to shift gear. Whilst both Superboy [1988-92] and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman [1993-97] survived into a fourth season (the latter finally jumping the shark with an unbelievably absurd nativity reprise), neither had any more dramatic depth than most of the ludicrous yarns churned out during DC’s “silver age” (the birthplace of such atrocities as Krypto, Bat-Mite and Superhorse).
The launch of Smallville in 2001 marked a signal change in screen superheroism – with DC (now part of the Warner Bros cartel) aping Marvel by switching the focus from caped crusading to the more personal traumas of a teenage metahuman. Whilst the series remained in constant danger of fixating upon the “meteor mutant of the week” format, its attempt to dissect Kal-El’s family life – previously as impenetrable as the quasi-“S” on his chest – was an obvious nod to the genre influence of Miller and Moore.
The background detail, of course, was the sudden availability of cinema-quality special effects for higher-budget tv series. Where once George Reeve would hop out of a set window and assume his audience believed he could actually fly above the cardboard skyline, Tom Welling could now juggle tractors and catch passing bullets with an ease unseen since the classic 1940s Fleischer Studios animations. Indeed, the only manoeuvre this version of Clark Kent couldn't perform was slipping out of his civilian clothes (semi-regulation red and blue, ‘natch) into the uniform we all know so well: franchise copyright turns out to be even more powerful than Kryptonite.
But this remained ersatz Marvel: there was still a crying need for a series in which the central characters amounted to rather more than the sum total of their multi-coloured gym shorts. We needed tortured souls, twisted egos, doomed affairs, deranged villains, acts of personal bravery undermined by arrogance and self-interest – and all of this built into an intersecting cascade of story-arcs.
In other words, we needed Heroes.
[First published in Procrastinations #5, March 2008; a follow-up is scheduled for #10]
Sexual intercourse might indeed have been invented in 1963, as Philip Larkin opined in "Annus Mirabilis", "Between the end of the Chatterley Ban / And the Beatles' first LP", but it took a further four years for yours truly to become aware of it.
It must have been a Friday or Saturday evening, since my parents had allowed their seven year-old son to stay up for Granada's weekly movie review Cinema. As the presenter headed towards the commercial break, he cued in a clip from the newly-released sf romp Barbarella, in which the insane scientist Durand Durand slides the eponymous heroine into his Excessive Machine; no sooner had items of her clothing begun to disgorge themselves from a slot at the torture device's base than the adverts rolled.
I don't think my parents were even watching the programme, and they were certainly unaware of the tension I was experiencing as the seconds ticked away and the promised continuation of the extract approached. Nor was the tension lessened when it finally arrived, as the now-naked Jane Fonda (her nudity implied rather than explicit, of course; this was 1967, after all) mimed an orgasm so apocalyptic that she sent the electronics into meltdown. Okay, so maybe Meg Ryan's restaurant routine two decades later in Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally... was a degree more realistic (albeit no less theatrical), but Fonda's perspiration-drenched performance was primo erotica.
In retrospect, the imagery was pure SM, but I was rather too young to latch onto that aspect; instead, it imbedded in my psyche a profound (if nascent) lust for the flame-haired Ms Fonda, simultaneously awakened and reinforced when I finally caught the complete movie in my early teens. Even now, I get an instant hard-on whenever I meet alien blondes in thigh-length plastic boots and see-through brassieres. Especially the females.
Most sex is like that: learned behaviour. One of the psychologists consulted for the recent Channel 4 documentary on serial murderers, To Kill and Kill Again, reckoned that the United States had no history of gas mask fetishism because its citizens never shared the British experience of sheltering from German air raids during the Second World War. The roots of Jeffrey Dahmer's paraphilia, meanwhile, lay in the coincidence of his childhood experiments with gathered roadkill and puberty; the overlap between death and desire proved a recipe for homicidal necrophilia and cannibalism.
Which leads me to wonder what lessons our own culture is currently absorbing from the barrage of advertisements, magazine features and tv images that daily pummels our consciousness. Wear the right cologne, eat the right ice cream and drink the right coffee, and you seem guaranteed a night of passion (although it apparently takes four years' coffee intake before you get your leg over, so it's only recommended for the extremely patient).
Of course, you could always invest in one of the numerous video sex manuals which sneaked hardcore bonking back onto the rental shelves in the autumn of 1991, after a gap of more than six years. Quite how Pickwick convinced the British Board of Film Classification that penetrative sex should evade the censor's scissors so long as Dr Andrew Stanway popped up from behind his desk first to offer a few handy hints is difficult to say, but The Lover’s Guide opened the floodgates, with VCI's Love Variations: Inspiration For Lovers one of the more absurd subsequent entries (there's not even a pretence of educational content, not least because there's no dialogue, just a series of sexual positions demonstrated in various rooms).
What worries me is the psychological imprinting these videos could be responsible for, as an entire generation gains its first sexual conditioning in the company of a grey-haired GP whose delivery is only marginally more effective than Group Four. Five years from now, might the likes of agony aunts Irma Kurtz and Miriam Stoppard be deluged with enquiries from those unable to achieve orgasm unless a middle-aged doctor stands in attendance and shouts directions?
Me, I support a return to Victorian values. After all, any woman whose husband sported a bolt through his wedding tackle has got to be worth emulating.
[First published in Gaijin #4, May 1994; an annotated version appeared as an instalment of my long-running column Fannish Memory Syndrome in The Drink Tank #200, February 2009]
What exactly is the appeal of the zombie in contemporary cinema? Be they the brain-famished cannibals of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the shambling lost souls of Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie or the crazed killing machines of Boyle’s 28 Days Later, there seems no end to the march of the resurrected across our cinema screens.
After all, it’s not as if they’re embued with either the tragic alienation of the Frankenstein monster (English literature’s first and greatest reanimated cadaver) or the shadowy eroticism of the vampire. Even the mummified adulterer Kharis solicits more sympathy from audiences than these personality-depleted icons of the horror genre.
But that, of course, lies at the unbeating heart of the zombie’s mystique. Almost alone in our shared mythology, these creatures are totally devoid of self; they are without motivation or masterplan, the senseless personification of our own mortality. As fast as you run, whatever obstacles you place in their path, you can escape neither their frantic grasp nor the inevitability of your own demise.
The attraction for film-makers is rather more obvious. The restless undead offer a tabula rasa upon which virtually any theme can be explored, from a satirical broadside against American consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) to quasi-Marxist condemnation of corporate genocide (Zombie Creeping Flesh).
In the hands of a gifted writer-director, they can illuminate the darkest recesses of the human mechanism and the social shells we build around ourselves; in a hack’s, satiate our animalistic thirst for cheap thrills.
Zombies are the footsoldiers of chaos, the walking embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. With time, their contagion will spread throughout the globe, whereupon the twisted hunger which drives the corpse army will prove its own undoing. Only then will the dead rest again, and forever.
At the close, all is entropy.
[First published in Procrastinations #6, distributed at Zombiecon, September 2008]