ScreenGrab Friday: All the World Seems Bright and Gay

5 films. Go forth and identify.

1) Spirits of the Dead (Fellini segment "Toby Dammit") (Solved by @fearganainim on the Twitter place).

2) Les Yeux sans visages (Eyes Without a Face) (Solved by @fearganainim on Twitter).

3) The Hitcher (Solved by @bettyoctopus,1 on Twitter)

4) This is Spinal Tap (Solved by Ann Byrne,2 on Facebook)

5) Escape to Victory (Solved by @fearganainim on Twitter)

Result: @Fearganainim: 3, @bettyoctopus: 1, Ann Byrne: 1. @Fearganainim wins again. Who among you can stop him? Can anyone stop him? Are we all to be doomed?! Congrats.

  1. Whoever she is… [back]
  2. The sister. [back]

March 16, 2012  Leave a comment

When Magoo Flew

So, I was on the wireless-radio-box last night talking about Adam Abraham's fantabulous new book When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. While the animation histories of Warner Bros and Disney have been rehashed ad nauseam, UPA's significant contributions to the art have been somewhat overlooked (though they're adored by the cartoon cognoscenti). Abraham's timely, and exhaustive, effort might (hopefully) go some way to setting that right.

The studio may have burned at its brightest for a brief span,1 but their minimalist/modernist aesthetic proved hugely influential (and that influence is still being felt today). Perspective was turfed out the window. Backgrounds were monochrome and flat. Characters were emphatically two-dimensional, and often wholly transparent. Scene changes would be executed not by cuts, but by backgrounds being erased and then drawn back in around the characters. As Adam Abraham says, the key feature of UPA characters was that they were unequivocally drawings. Not attempts to approximate boring ol' reality.

Their first Oscar winner (in 1950) was the magical Gerald McBoing Boing (based on a sound recording made by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss).2

One of the main men behind Gerald was Robert "Bobe" Cannon, who in partnership with T. Hee made some of "purest" UPA cartoons – in terms of that flat, bare-bones, modernism. One of their best is Christopher Crumpet – the tale of a boy who would imagine himself into a chicken when he didn't get his own way.

Christopher Crumpet by WackyJacky

The absence of a rigidly imposed "house style" meant UPA could range from delightful whimsy like the above to the Gothic gruesomeness of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by James Mason).


Oh, and then (of course) there was the indefatigable Mr. Magoo – an odd-ball Victorian gentlemen adrift in the modern world. One whose near-blind misapprehensions are almost wilful. As Abraham says, the cartoons are not so much about his inability to see the modern world around him, but his dogged refusal to see or acknowledge it.

Complimenting Abraham's book are two new DVD releases. TCM's UPA Jolly Frolics (3-disc) set, and The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection (1949-1959). Buy them. Then give them to me.

  1. Undone, partly, by persecution from the House Committee on Un-American Activities [back]
  2. Gerald McBoing Boing's Symphony (1953), and How Now Boing Boing are also fabulous. [back]

March 7, 2012  Leave a comment

ScreenGrab Thursday: March of the Decontextualised Images

I'm spoiling you.

Grab your disco boots. 5 films from the 1970s. Start your guessing.

#1 Chinatown (Solved by @nyderoleary, on Twitter).

#2 Carrie (Solved by @nyderoleary, on Twitter)

#3 The Sentinel (Solved by @maoiliosak, on Twitter).

#4 Impulse (Solved, astonishingly quickly, by Jason Hyde, on Facebook).

#5 Sleeper (Solved by @maoiliosak, on Twitter)

Result: @nyderoleary: 2, @maoiliosak: 2, Jason Hyde: 1. I threw this tie-break image at the joint-leaders, and then this, and then this, and then this before they got there (Dracula AD 1972), almost simultaneously. So I dare not separate them. It wouldn't be right. Let them share the film-nerd glory.

March 1, 2012  Leave a comment

ScreenGrab Wednesday: Absolutely Grabulous…

Earlier, the brother-in-law requested "a fiendish screen grab Wednesday". So here "a fiendish screen grab Wednesday" is. 5 films. Fling your guesses at me.

#1 House of Wax (Solved by @Fearganainim, on Twitter).

#2 Creator (Almost simultaneously solved by @lexia and @Kevnmur on Twitter. They get a point each)

#3 Gorgo (Solved by Dan Smith, on Facebook).

#4 Deep End (Solved by @MissusVee, on Twitter).

#5 A Star is Born (Solved by @Fearganainim, on Twitter).

Result: @Fearganainim: 2. @MissusVee, Dan Smith, @lexia and @Kevnmur: 1.

February 29, 2012  7 Comments

ScreenGrab Friday: The Grabbening…

Wage slaves. Office monkeys. Toilers in the dark Satanic mills of late-capitalist cyber-labour. My gift to you? ScreenGrab Friday. 5 images (to begin with, others added later as you start to weep and struggle). From 5 films. Chosen to perplex and befuddle. Chosen, too, to distract you (albeit temporarily) from constant awareness of the grim inevitability of death. Yes. You will all die. ALL. DIE. Enjoy! Pop your answers in the comments section. Or on twitter. Or wherever.

#1 Scream Bloody Murder (Unsolved! It was brutally tough, in fairness).

#2 The Curse of the Cat People (Solved by Jason Hyde, via Facebook)

#3 Assault on Precinct 13 (Solved by @Fearganainim, via Twitter).

#4 The Skull (Solved by Jason Hyde, via Facebook)

#5 Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Solved by @Fearganainim, via Twitter).

Result: Jason Hyde: 2, @Fearganainim: 2. A deeply unsatisfying draw. Boo.

February 24, 2012  10 Comments

Why should I get my head kicked in for you?: A 2000 AD Birthday Post

Borag Thungg. In honour of 2000 AD's 35th anniversary, I'm hereby reprinting a piece I wrote for SFX a while back about my own favourite series: Zenith.1 Here it be…

May 13, 1989. A beach, on Alternative Earth 666. Lying face-down in murky waters (with trousers round his ankles and broken toys strewn poignantly about him) is a young boy. And not just any young boy. Though he’s never explicitly named, the visual clues lead fans of vintage comics to conclude that this, shockingly, is none other than “General Jumbo” – the titular hero of The Beano's long-running tale of a child and his remote-controlled toy army. The unfortunate victim of (we’re forced to imagine) an unspeakable violation by trans-dimensional demonic super-beings. What’s going on? How did we get here? It’s a long story…

A long story that has its beginnings in the summer of 1987. Thatcher's Tories had just won their third consecutive general election; The Firm's StarTrekkin’ was setting the charts alight; and Grant Morrison (a young Scottish writer who would, over the next 20 years, become one of the most influential names in comics) had been tasked with creating Zenith2000 AD's first foray into the (previously-shunned) world of superheroes.

Hard as it may now be to believe (in an age in which superheroes have been endlessly reinvented and "re-imagined"), but there was a time when revisionist superhero tales felt bold, refreshing and novel. By 1987 the comics world was rapidly reacting to the game-changing influence of Alan Moore’s seminal work on Marvelman (a.k.a Miracleman), Captain Britain and Watchmen (not to mention Frank Miller’s turn on The Dark Knight Returns), and it was into this potent flux of new creativity that Zenith was born.

Though it would owe a considerable (and acknowledged) debt to the pioneering work of Moore, Morrison intended Zenith as a conscious rejection of the kind of grim and gritty, "tormented superhero" narrative then very much in vogue. This was to be a strip firmly anchored to its time and place. One that would, in Morrison's words, "reflect the eighties' obsession with style over content", fronted by a character who would embody his "worst, most venal traits".

To help capture the shallow, avaricious mood of late-'80s yuppie Britain, Morrison turned first to the inimitable Brendan McCarthy: an artist/designer whose exuberant and wholly-distinctive work occasionally graced the pages of 2000 AD. McCarthy would go on to design several key characters, before standing aside to let (the brilliant) Steve Yeowell take sole charge of Zenith's art duties. Though his involvement may have been short-lived, the originality of his designs (which owed more to contemporary couture than traditional superhero aesthetics) lent the strip precisely the right flavour. More significantly still, Zenith himself (Morrison's deliciously vain and self-centred protagonist) was actually modelled on a figure close to McCarthy’s heart: "Zenith was essentially based on my own superhero, Paradax, from a few years earlier – all that media-brat, superstar stuff. It felt a bit weird designing something so derivative of my own work."

Whatever his roots may have been, Zenith (a.k.a. Robert McDowell) proved the perfect (cynical and sneering) anchor for an epic narrative that would, over four "Phases" and five years, touch base with everything from Nazi-engineered superhumans, to cosmic (Lovecraftian) horror, to apocalyptic inter-dimensional warfare and beyond. With a more traditional hero at its centre, these grandiose elements might have risked overwhelming the story, seeing it stray into, what Morrison has called, the "pompous and concept albumy" territory of other revisionist comics. Zenith (the strip), however, neatly avoided the pitfalls of taking itself too seriously, largely because Zenith (the character) took absolutely nothing seriously. So who exactly was he?

When first we meet him (Prog 537, 2000 AD) Zenith is flying (and crashing) drunkenly through the window of his London apartment. He’s 19-years-old, a successful pop star, utterly vacuous, and (we're told) the "world’s only active superhuman". As the story slowly unfolds we learn that he’s the son of Dr. Beat and White Heat – two (presumed dead) members of a 1960s' superhuman team called "Cloud 9″. In the Zenith universe (a slightly askew version of our own reality), the origin of all superhuman powers dates back to a serum secretly developed by the Nazis, which they used to create a super-soldier called "Masterman".

Britain reacted to the Masterman threat by using the same serum (given to them by Nazi defectors) to create a patriotic superhuman of their own: Maximan. As a result of Maximan's intervention (oh, and the nuking of Berlin by the American air-force!), the allies won the war (with Maximan and Masterman both perishing in said nuclear conflagration). The superhuman experiment did not, however, end there. In post-war Britain, a Dr. Michael Peyne labours, with official sanction, to artificially create a superhuman team called "Task Force UK". Intended as patriotic defenders of the British establishment (in the Maximan mould) they soon reject the duties imposed upon them and re-brand themselves as the aforementioned "Cloud 9″: hippy-ish, superhuman radicals.

Cut to the mid/late-'80s. Cloud 9 is no more – its members either dead, missing, (apparently) powerless, or (in the case of Tory MP Peter St. John) diverted into politics. Zenith survives as the sole progeny of a superhuman couple, and such is the state of play and status quo when the story opens. It soon gets much more complicated. The originators of the superhuman serum were not, we learn, Nazi scientists but, rather, “The Lloigor” (name borrowed from Lovecraft): formless, trans-dimensional, demonic beings who wish to create and possess superhuman "vessels", thus becoming incarnate on our physical plain. Over the next four "Phases" they do just that (aided by their earthly disciples, the "Cult of the Black Sun"), and the conflict between them, and Earth’s surviving superhumans, forms the basic core of the Zenith drama (with dozens of twists and turns spinning the narrative in unexpected directions along the way).

Said drama reaches its crescendo in the epic (twenty-five episode) "Phase Three", which depicts a catastrophic inter-dimensional war between the Lloigor and superhumans from a host of alternative worlds. Since the sprawling conflict called for a massive ensemble cast of superhumans, Morrison opted to expand on similar work Alan Moore had done in Captain Britain and revive legions of heroes from Britain's rich comic past. Series artist Steve Yeowell explains: "That was always part of Grant's grand plan. The third series was going to be our equivalent of [D.C.'s] Crisis on Infinite Earths. He wanted to use all these old British comics characters but obviously, for copyright reasons, we couldn’t use, say, D.C. Thompson material directly. So we had to come up with our own alternatives".

The delicious pleasures offered by Phase Three are both train-spottery and perverse. Train-spottery, because Yeowell's art rewards close, nerdy examination – as one tries to figure out precisely who dim figures briefly glimpsed in the background might represent. Perverse, because most of these figures (versions of beloved childhood icons) invariably die horribly at the hands of the merciless Lloigor. Look there's Lion's jolly muscle-man Typhoon Tracy…sprawled dead in rubble. Oh, and over there I see, yes, Valiant's Steel Claw…having his arm ripped from its socket. And isn't that Tanya, from Jackpot's "Amazing Three"…getting her head punched clean off? On and on the slaughter goes (with the poor, aforementioned, General Jumbo being yet another casualty).

While all this gleeful and murderous fun might strike readers as somewhat gratuitous, it actually serves to (neatly) address issue of heroism, altruism and self-interest at the core of the Zenith story. The revived old-school heroes are, almost without exception, selfless and well-meaning. Bumbling, jolly and full of old-fashioned pep and vigour. They want to stop the Lloigor because, well, that’s just what heroes do: beat the bad guys. Unfortunately, the bad guys, in this case, are monstrously evil, god-like entities who wipe out whole worlds without a second thought. In the face of such a foe their quaint and naive assumptions about a good ol' fair fight are brutally exposed. And they die. In their droves.

The real winners, and survivors, in 1980s Britain are (Morrison shows us) those driven by pure self-interest and cynicism. The key figures, over the whole four phases, are, after all, Zenith and Peter St. John – self-centred "heroes" who thrive and prosper while others fail and perish. St. John (who turned his back on his '60s counter-cultural roots and embraced Tory politics) makes his motivations explicit at the end of Phase One, telling a former Cloud 9 colleague that he only helped defeat Masterman's reborn twin "to pick up votes in the election". He duly wins a seat (despite opposition protests that his battle with Masterman was "a shameful piece of Tory propaganda"), gets offered a position as Defence Secretary by Thatcher, before ultimately becoming Prime-Minister himself.

Not only that, but he does so by influencing Commons debates through telepathy and by acting as a covert Tory assassin: seemingly agreeing to dispose of Ted Heath (at Thatcher's request!) while most likely having an active hand in the fatal heart-attack of Labour leader John Smith (an act that swept St. John's Tories back to power). As an eerie side-note, I should mention that this happened in Phase Four's finale – on 24th October, 1992 – eighteen months before the real John Smith died…of a heart-attack.

Zenith, like St.John, survives to the end – seeing his pop career flourish as he cynically reinvents himself with the times. So what kind of "hero" does he, in the final analysis, turn out to be? Throughout all four Phases he has to be cajoled, bribed and badgered into taking part in traditional (world-saving) heroic activities. "I’m not a fighter! There must be another way to deal with this", he bawls early on, while reacting to a call to arms with, "Why should I get my head kicked in for you?". When faced with a devastated survivor of Alternative-666, a world utterly ruined by the Lloigor, he offers these words of "comfort": "Oh stop moaning!".

The ultimate Zenith moment arrives at the climax of Phase Three. The surviving heroes reconvene at base, build a memorial to fallen fellows, and solemnly share their thoughts – convinced that Zenith has sacrificed himself to save the universe from Lloigor domination. "Strange how it was Zenith who came through in the end", says one. "He died a hero", says another. Moments later, Zenith pops through the door, a can of beer in hand, and says: "What? Me sacrifice myself? You must be joking?". The realisation then dawns that the character who so heroically gave his life was "Vertex" – an alternative (friendly and pleasant) "Zenith" from another world ("I've been here all the time", chortles Zenith). A horrified hero hilariously sums up the outrage of all by wailing, "Well I hope [we're] taking his name off the memorial!".

Yet for all his '80s shallowness and self-obsession, Zenith does, bizarrely, stand as a quasi-hero for uncertain times, in one regard. Unlike most of the key players (St. John, Cloud 9, the Nazis, Dr. Peyne, the Lloigor etc), he pursues no ideology. He couldn't care less about changing, reshaping or reordering the world. If he stands for anything it's for hedonism and individuality (crass though his versions of them may be). He's harmless and inoffensive as a superhuman precisely because he doesn't care. He kicks back and (mostly) watches as zealots battle it out for the future of the universe. In a world riven and divided by ideologies that almost, nearly, sort of…makes him a hero.

Little extra bits…

Steve Yeowell

The "Galaxy’s Greatest Comic" has hosted its share of fine illustration over the years, but Steve Yeowell's beautifully spare art on Zenith remains a notable high-water mark. As Zenith progressed, Yeowell (who’d previously worked with Morrison on Zoids for Marvel UK) began to experiment with "a lot of much looser techniques". Influenced by Scottish artist Ian Kennedy – who had, Yeowell says, "a way of reducing everything down to solid blocks of black and white" – he used Zenith to perfect a "pared-down, simplified, chiaroscuro look". A look that delicately emphasised fragility and anxiety over conventional superheroic muscularity and confidence.

Name that (slaughtered) hero

Phase Three's brutal wipeout of both much-loved and mega-obscure British comic characters of yore is a nerd's wet dream (or nightmare). Spotted among the living and the dead are "Big Ben" from "Caucusville" (i.e Desperate Dan/Cactusville), "Jimmy Quick" (The Beano's, Billy the Whizz), an Acid House-obsessed Robot Archie from Lion, "Tiger Tom" and "Tammy" (Beano's Billy the Cat and Katie), Sally's Cat Girl, Tri-Man from Smash, Buster's Leopard from Lime Street, "Prince Mamba" (Hotspur's, King Cobra) and many more. There’s even a four-legged fatality with "Bobbie" (The Dandy's, Black Bob) being upsettingly dashed against a wall by a nasty Lloigor.

  1. Piece originally appeared in SFX #203. [back]

February 22, 2012  4 Comments

Owp! (or “The Mother Who Came to A Crisis Point”)

I have read Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea aloud many times. I have had read it aloud, perhaps, 6322 times. That's no exaggeration. Or if it is, it's only slight. I've read it in day-lit rooms. I've read it, squinting, in gloomy rooms. I've "read" it in pitch-dark rooms, where I've realised that the physical book has now become just a prop for the benefit of a toddler who likes things just so. I know it off by heart. Every line.

So I feel I'm speaking with some expertise when I say that the Tiger is not just a trickster and a sprite, but a sort of Macguffin. He enters the world of Sophie and her mother, eats the edibles, drinks the drinkables, and departs. Leaving Sophie's mother unable to give her child a bath (the Tiger having consumed all the water in the pipes) and, crucially, unable to prepare tea for the father/husband who's due home imminently.

The image of her alone in the desolation of her kitchen, pondering this dilemma, sadly, always makes me cry. Even when it's dark. And I can't see her (but can still imagine her).

Enter the father/husband.

We then have the book's most haunting, and telling, image.

Sophie's mother animatedly explains the outrageous reasons for the absence of food on the table. The father/husband sits, listening, with the weary/resigned (?) look of someone who's been down this road before. Domestic chaos. No tea. Bare cupboards. An unwashed child. A "Tiger" blamed.

If this were a gritty, kitchen-sink, 60s play the drunken ogre of a husband might now explode into "Where's me dinner?!" violence. But there's no judgement. No fury. Just the tender suggestion that they all head out into the night to the local café for sausages and chips and ice-cream. The crippling loneliness, boredom and frustration of Sophie's mum's socially-enforced domestic servitude (echoing Betty Friedan's "the problem that has no name") may have conjured the Tiger – as a friend and a companion, an excuse and a justification – but he has perhaps, served his purpose. As an agent of change. An animal spirit guide. And Sophie loves him.

And so, in the morning, they go shopping and buy lots more things to eat. And a very big tin of Tiger food in case the Tiger should ever come to tea again.

But he never does.1

  1. How to read this. Is the husband's "resignation" actually of the "poor hysterical/addled woman, I must humour her" variety? Is the trip to the café, instead, an act of love? Does the Tiger's failure to return really signal change (and a new harmony), or is this the death of a cherished sustaining fantasy? I may have to squint at it in the gloom some more. [back]

December 20, 2011  11 Comments

Woah! Woah! Woah!

So there I was, on Saturday afternoon, chatting with Dave Fanning about Hergé, his (great) works, and the (not-so-great) Spielberg/Jackson adaptation of said works, when we got to the sticky issue of "faithfulness". I may have (accidentally) ended up sounding like the kind of saddo nerd to whom slavish faithfulness is intoxicating fan-boy catnip. But, like, y'know, I didn't mean to…

Take Zak Snyder's (snore) Watchmen, or Robert Rodriguez' (zzzz) Sin City. Both cravenly respectful adaptations of the source materials. Both technical experiments in trans-medium faithfulness that treat comics as mere storyboards. With intensely dull and unimaginative results.

The problem here is a formal one. Comics are (of course) not storyboards. Comic book panels are not the direct equivalent of cinematic "shots". They have their own visual language. Their own narrative logic and flow. And few people have ever spoken this language more eloquently and gracefully than Hergé. Sure, the Tintin stories are fun-filled and stuffed with the thrilling-est of derring-do. Sure, the characters (Tintin aside) are outrageous, lovable and hilarious. But it's not those elements that raise Tintin from pleasantly good to unforgettably great.

The things that make Tintin arguably1 the greatest creation in the history of comics are all specific to the medium. Hergé's visual genius (disciplined, obsessive and hard-won) didn't lead to the creation of some sort of proto-cinema in book form. It wasn't a stiff skeleton waiting for animation to make it dance.

It celebrated the thing just about to happen. The pause between the stumble and the head-long plunge into a ravine. The thrill of the frozen moment just before a wielded cosh connects with an unsuspecting head. You could stare (breathlessly) at those moments for minutes at a time, terrified to turn the page.2 Afraid to see the results of this thrillingly tense pause being released.

There are so many other examples. The long vertical thrust of panels where Tintin stands perilously on the edge of a cliff/building (as he does in The Black Island). The long horizontal thrust of panels where the long road stretches ever on (as it does in Tintin in Tibet). The sumptuous detail of the backgrounds (inviting the reader to pause and linger and return). The way every single extra, every single backgrounded or foregrounded unspeaking figure is invested with character. Each face telling their own untold stories.

These things (and many more) mark Tintin as, ultimately, a glorious celebration of the possibilities and pleasures of the comic book form. Specifically. You can faithfully reproduce narrative elements, dialogue, character, in live action or animation, but this X-factor,3 this thing that makes TintinTintin, is, quite possibly, impossible to translate to another medium (particularly a comfortably mainstream piece of cinema).

And so, whatever about the cold/dead failings of motion-capture, whatever about the allegedly formulaic Hollywood-isation of this most European of icons, the most glaring flaw of all is that the soul of Tintin (our Tintin) just isn't there. And this absence really has nothing much to do with faithfulness (or otherwise). It's simply this.

Tintin = comics.

Producing a film/TV version is like dancing a poem. Or singing a painting. It may be a pleasurable thing, in and of itself, but it's not the thing (and, perhaps, it can never be). Particularly in this case. We're left with Tintin minus Tintin. Which is what, exactly? An above average action/adventure flick? A poor-man's Indiana Jones?

  1. I emphasise arguably. [back]
  2. Many of Tintin's most deliciously tense moments occupied a page's final panel. A classic example being those panels where a loud BANG! causes our hero to leap into the air and glance anxiously over his left shoulder (in the direction, of course, of the next page) toward the sound's source. Source not revealed till the page was excitedly turned. [back]
  3. A compromised term these days, I know. [back]

November 4, 2011  3 Comments

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