Monday, 10 December 2018

DOCTOR WHO 2018 SEASON REVIEW!

DOCTOR WHO 2018
SEASON REVIEW
BY JOHN A. SHORT

Elephant in the room… Let’s deal with this right up front. How do I feel about the gender change for the main character? When this concept was first floated I was pretty horrified… But that was in 1981 when Tom Baker was leaving and wished his replacement luck ‘Whoever he or she might be.’ Over thirty-five years later I’m a little less shocked by the idea. But it has to be said even four or five years ago you could call my attitude (to the suggestion that Time Lords might simply change sex as a natural result of regeneration) ...resistant. But since that time the programme makers have done the due diligence of preparing the way (within the fiction of the show) for the Doctor to switch from male to female. Not only have they had the Master changing gender, but also a Time Lord general (who makes it clear that you might go many regenerations without gender-reassignment, but it doesn’t mean it will never happen to you.)

A friend of mine asked me why this kind of pre-set-up was important to me. The answer is simple – foreshadowing. If the Doctor’s sex-change had been the first that we had heard of such a thing within the continuity of the series, it would have seemed unreal. Foreshadowing is a basic tool in a writer’s arsenal that helps sell stories, ideas and left-field events to the audience. Like Chekhov’s gun, we needed to see it lying there ready before our main character used it.

But like I say… job done… path readied… So I’m fine with the gender-reassignment. And Jodie Whittaker is a good choice. Her childlike take on the Doctor is charming. Her accent and general northern-vibe are refreshing. I totally buy that she’s the same character that we are used to. And I’m glad that we haven’t had too many mentions from the Doctor that she’s a woman now (afterall he didn’t used to go on about being a man did he?)

What was always going to be more interesting to me about this season were the changes behind the camera instead of those in front of it. Headed by new lead-writer, Chris Chibnall, the new team seemed likely to make some revisions to the fifty-five year-old property.

Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of long standing. He appeared on the BBC programme Open Air in 1986 berating the then current Doctor Who producer, John Nathan Turner about the direction of the show at that time. You can watch the clip on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkCe3owO7wY It’s an extraordinary moment. JNT couldn’t have imagined the ginger-headed teen would go on to take his post. One wonders if Chibnall thinks back to that exchange when he reads some spotty nerd’s criticisms of his own take on the programme and considers that they might be doing his job thirty years time?

Since that time Chibnall has overseen the day-to-day running on two seasons of Torchwood, written a few episodes of modern Doctor Who under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffatt and went on to create the ITV smash-hit whodunnit – Broadchurch.

So what has he done to his childhood object of affection now that he’s got total control of it?

Most obviously he has applied a ‘back-to-basics’ approach. By outlawing any appearances by any old foes or friends he has made the show accessible to a large potential audience who may have been driven away by more recent plot-lines. This is important to the continual survival of the programme. I (for one) do not want to live through another fallow fifteen year period where the show is off the air (as with the 1989 – 2005 gap) and I want to see it remain popular with a general audience so this doesn’t happen. No returning Master Actors from seven years ago… No returning Cyberman designs from fifty-one years ago (from a partly missing story – never repeated on British TV.)

Along with this it seems to me that he has simplified the plots and slowed the pace of each story. There is a far greater effort to emotionally engage the audience (perhaps) at the expense of the complexity of the storytelling. He seems more interested in the personalities of his main characters than the mechanics of the plots they find themselves in.

Together with the change of pace and the focus on characters over plot-nuts-and-bolts… the biggest change to the series for me has been the incidental music. After thirteen years of writing every scrap of music used in the programme Murray Gold has been replaced by new composer, Segun Akinola. The difference was obvious to me from the first episode. Although I (mostly) didn’t dislike Gold it has been refreshing to hear noises on the soundtrack that surprise. Has every choice Akinola made pleased me? No… But mostly he has done a fine job and has subtly retuned the series.

His new version of the theme music is great. Taking many samples from the Delia Derbyshire original it has a lovely, old-school, electronica feel. These work well with the new opening titles. I have to say that this credits sequence isn’t as good as the amazing Capaldi-titles, but they are far from the worst (even out of the modern programme.)

Of course, along with a new showrunner (it seems) we always have to have the programme visually redesigned.

The new sonic screwdriver is okay. I don’t dislike it. Although I have to say that my mantra about design is ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ I would still be totally happy with the sonic if it still looked as it did in the seventies!

The TARDIS console room? Hmmm… I’m less happy with this. To be honest, it looks cheap. It looks smaller than it’s ever been in the modern series and less impressive for it. I’m not keen on the Police Box shell in the doorway (it might make some viewers think that the inside of the TARDIS is just meant to be invisibly out the back of the box instead of in another dimension.) I guess they were going for rough-hewn and cave-like, but that doesn’t say ‘high-tech’ to me.

I saw some wonderful fan-designs for the TARDIS interior that were easily better than this one. Not just one, but several, putting the professionals to shame.

I’m surprised that since we have a much larger crew now, so little time has been spent inside the TARDIS. I guess that’s deliberate on Chibnall’s part? And perhaps the low amount of time spent inside the machine is the reason that so little money and effort was (seemingly) spent on it’s interior? Which I guess makes sense?

Finally (on the design side of things) the creatures? This has been a real disappointment this season. The aliens have ranged from unmemorable down to rubbish.

The visuals to the series’ monsters and villains has always been a big factor in the success of any creature. I would argue that the Daleks would never have returned if they had looked like the Krotons (for example.)

A good demonstration of how the current design team doesn’t really understand their job would be the aliens from The Demons of the Punjab. When I first saw the Manish, I assumed their heads were helmets… Why? Because their multiple eyes were just prop-eyes, stuck to their masks. No animatronics to make them move. No CGI to make them blink. This is the kind of thing we might expect from Power Rangers or a seventies Toho movie… But not Doctor Who. This is a mistake the show hasn’t made since the Nimon in 1979.

Obviously the Pting in The Tsuranga Conundrum was meant to look cartoony. I would argue that it was an experiment that didn’t work… But the younger audience might have enjoyed it?

The robot gunmen and the Stenza? Cliched, bog-standard alien designs. I would be hard pressed to pick out any distinguish features. These are no Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, Sontarans, Ood, Ice Warriors or Yeti. I find it hard to believe any of these creations will continue to be used in the programme for the next fifty years.

Another thing that has given the series a new feel is the increase in the number of series regulars. It’s a long time since there were this many characters that recur in every episode of a season of Doctor Who. The advantages of this are obvious. Having more people along for the ride helps writers with such things as varying the interpersonal interplay and threading soap-opera-sub-plots through the season. With Chibnall’s interest in personality and emotion this is a huge asset.

I would argue that Chibnall hasn’t taken this opportunity to its fullest potential. I would have liked to have seen more romance, conflict and growth between all of the regulars.

The biggest disappointment in the main cast has been how Yasim has been written. Being a police officer is a massive career choice… arguably as large as entering medicine. Whereas an episode barely passed where Martha Jones didn’t mention that she was training to be a doctor, Yasim hardly makes reference to her career. In fact, halfway through The Woman Who Fell To Earth she stops acting like a copper when she abandons the scene of the crime where the train driver was killed to swan around with the Doctor and friends. If that isn’t a sack-able offence in the police, then it would certainly be a disciplining offence. She has the cheek to complain about never being sent to anything interesting after this, which just beggars belief. These complaints aside… she is a fuller, more rounded character than Nardole ever managed.

I have no complains about Graham. In fact, I’m surprised at how well he works within the set-up of the drama. It could well have been that having an older male character (especially one played by a charismatic, well-established star) might have over-shadowed the Doctor, but this didn’t happen. Chibnall and his fellow writers allowed actor Bradley Walsh to have some humour and charm without every eclipsing Jodie Whittaker’s title character.

Ryan worked well enough. I’m surprised that Chibnall gave him so many handicaps, as this might have been seen as racistly writing down to a black character. But perhaps we have crossed so many bridges now that Chibnall wasn’t concerned about making the black character the least intelligent and able of the regulars? I’m particularly surprised that out of all the main characters he is the one who doesn’t know the history of Rosa Parks! A brave move on the writers’ part – having a black character be the one who is the most clueless on black history (even if it is American black history.) Tosin Cole has a subtle warmth and lightly plays his relationship with Graham and his crush on Yasim.

And what about the Rosa Parks episode? I have to admit to being very nervous about this episode as it became clear (from location photos) that there would be a story that featured events surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott. Handling so tricky a subject could easily go badly. There was the potential to be heavy-handed. There was the potential to make light of it.

I have seen other TV programmes come a cropper when touching on such difficult subject matter. An episode of Upstart Crow this year that attempted to discuss Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jews in The Merchant Of Venice turned into an embarrassing mess. I love Upstart Crow… but that episode was preachy and misjudged.

But Rosa didn’t disgrace itself. I felt it was handled better than anyone had the right to expect. No-one needed to preach because it didn’t need explaining why the injustice was an injustice. They were careful not to have any of the fictional characters take agency away from Parks herself. The villain was kept deliberately in the background so as not to overpower the real narrative. And there was a good use of humour which didn’t diminish the seriousness of the subject matter.

But it wasn’t perfect. There are a number of sloppy plot holes (something it shares with nearly every story this season.) And the modern pop music used at the end was intrusive, jarring, distracting, out-of-era and lyrically inappropriate (a song called ‘Rise up’ about someone who must remain seated?!)

This was a powerful episode and the best that this season had to offer.

What of the writing in general? As I indicated above, Chibnall has sidestepped some of the recent pitfalls of the series. Doctor Who is a huge programme in the UK and doesn’t just expect a fan audience to tune in. You (reading this) may view Who in America or some other country where it has a mainly young, mainly fan viewership… But here in Britain in airs on the biggest TV channel in the country in prime-time and it can’t just expect only an audience of devoted followers who never miss an episode to be watching (it couldn’t survive on just the fan viewers.) Sometimes I have thought that in the last four years the show’s writing hasn’t really been taking those more casual watchers into account.

In those terms Chibnall and the writing team should be seen as a success. This is a completely fresh take on the show. No foreknowledge is expected (although I think an explanation about the psychic paper may have slipped through the cracks?)

But Chibnall’s writing has never set me alight in the past and it didn’t here either. There are obvious rookie writing mistakes… Telling not showing – The Pting has skin that’s toxic to the touch? The water (in The Ghost Monument) is full of flesh-eating microbes? If you’re working in a visual medium like television you should show us these things not just tell us. Introduce some cannon fodder and have them show us that Pting’s skin is poisonous… have them eaten by the water. A professional writer shouldn’t be making mistakes that obvious.

And it’s all very well not using any past enemies if you have some new ones that will be as good… As memorable… As clever… As original? But Chibnall and crew just haven’t managed that. Just as the design of the creatures was bland… so was the writing of them. In this regard, the writing does need a jolly big kick up the backside.

While I’m on the subject of the writing, let’s run through all the other episodes this year (leaving stand-out episode Rosa aside.)

The Woman Who Fell to Earth – Not the best post-regenerations story ever, but certainly not the worst. I liked it’s focus on the new companions and Doctor getting to know one another. I might have liked it if it had been even more simple that this… (If Tim Shaw had been hunting the Doctor rather than a random crane operator how much more sense would it have made?) Great bit where the Doctor makes a new sonic screwdriver.

The Ghost MonumentA good episode. Would have been better with more memorable enemies (CGI rags? Seriously?)

Arachnids in the UKA messy episode. Basically a remake of The Green Death with spiders instead of Fly lava. Good CGI on the spiders.

The Tsuranga ConundrumAnother good episode, but it could have been a great episode with a more scary monster.

Demons of the PunjabThe monsters completely ruined this episode for me. Their motivation was too similar to the glass people out of Twice Upon a Time. Their design was terrible and they were completely out-of-place in a serious story about religious hatred.

Kerblam! - A fine whodunnit. I would have liked to have seen another run through the script to close those logic-gaps and plot-holes. (Kerblam! Have the tech to materialise things inside a TARDIS? The Daleks could have won the Time War with tech like that? Why did the computer only write ‘HELP ME’ instead of something more informative? If puncturing the bubble wrap caused it to explode, it would be happening all the time in the packing area of Kerblam!)

The WitchfindersDidn’t really work for me. It didn’t really capture the time period and how powerful (and evil) James was.

It Takes You AwayAnother mess, padded out in the middle with the pointless ‘zone’ sequence and then rushed at the end. The frog was laugh-out-loud stupid.


The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosA good episode, but the most unimpressive season finale of the modern series.

The decision to air in the autumn might well have been brought on by when Chibnall was able to start work on the series. The choice to air the series on a Sunday is obviously mould-shattering. It’s not hard to work out why the BBC might have done this. Saturday night has become a bear-pit with both the Beeb and her competition airing huge talent-vote-shows in prime time. Because those programmes expect the audience to watch live and vote in real-time on them, anything going up against them will suffer in the overnight ratings. Sunday nights are much more friendly to an old-fashioned-style drama show.

It is difficult to tell what (out of all these changes) has had an impact on the audience. Certainly there was an up-tick in the run-up to the season in the level of publicity about the series due to the debut of the first female to take on the Doctor role. Whatever the cause, the ratings took a big shot in the arm. With over ten million tuning in for the season launch and over seven million joining the programme on a regular basis. These are the best viewing figure that the show has had in roughly ten years (since Tennant and Tate were in the TARDIS.)

What do those ratings mean in context? It makes it one of the biggest dramas on British telly at the moment. It’s up there with the two most successful soap operas and not much else is coming even close. Seven of the ten episodes of the 2018 season were in the UK top ten of all TV for the week. Eight of the episodes got over seven million viewers. All episodes out rated the 2017 season of Doctor Who.

Not that you would know this if you read certain British newspapers or listened to a sub-section of fandom. Some commentators seem determined to misinform the public to support their own opinions of the series. I have my own issues with this season, but I don’t need to try to use the ratings in an attempt to validate my tastes. I’m happy that the show is a hit at the moment. It means more Doctor Who. It means not returning to the dark days of the nineties when the show was off the air.

Some newspapers have been trying to tell us that the ratings have been on the slide for years now. And like the rest of broadcast television they have been (since at least 2010.) However, against the broader trend, the show has had a major reversal this year. Perhaps it’s simply the switch to autumn? Or the move to Sunday nights? Maybe it’s the switch of focus from plot to character? Maybe its just the increase in publicity? Most likely its partly all these things.

This year the disinformation about the programmes viewing figures has gone into over-drive. It’s one thing to report that ratings are on a downward trend when (technically) they are. But to try this story when they are the best they have been in a decade smacks of some deliberate attack. To anyone who has been watching the wider world of politics this shouldn’t come as a surprise. However it is strange to find the new trend for claiming black-is-white, up-is-down, right-is-wrong intrude into the coverage of a sci-fi show.

Some of the fans making these smears may well just have been misinformed by bad sources. To them I say, do your own research. It’s only a google away. BARB Doctor Who official figures.

A FEW others seem to have a political axe to grind. This type of commentator seems to think that Doctor Who has suddenly taken a political turn to the left and hates it. The so-called ‘Liberal Agenda’.

This is a little odd, because as far as I remember, the show has always been pretty obviously left-leaning, even going back to the seventies. I won’t both to name every instance, as there are just too many to go into here. In fact, in the whole history of the show I can only think of two stories that featured right-leaning agendas (The Dominators – pro-Vietnam-War and Kill The Moon - anti-abortion.)

There has however been an increase in the level at which the stories have stepped away from using metaphor to get across its real-world messages. In the past the programme was more likely to use Zygons (or other creatures) to talk about disenfranchised groups… now the show just tells a real story about how black people were made to go and sit at the back of the bus. But even this isn’t completely new… Ace told us all about her Asian friend and the white kids who firebombed her flat back in 1989… I’m just saying there has been an increase in the explicitness of the messaging.

Maybe this is what’s upsetting some people? Or the fact that for the first time one of the companions is South Asian? And one is black? And the Doctor is female? If you’re the type of person who gets upset by seeing Asian, black or female people on your TV, you need to go check your mirror...because that’s where you’ll find the problem. None of that should be remotely controversial. And clearly it shouldn’t be at all surprising in a programme that had an openly bisexual regular character in 2005 (not to mention a lesbian couple as major heroes in recent years.)

I even saw someone claiming that the pregnant male alien in The Tsuranga Incident was evidence of a left-wing agenda (perhaps they think the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Junior was also lefty?)

None of this should be seen as political. And I would argue that only ten years ago (or so) it wouldn’t have been. Since when has condemning racism been seen as a party political stand rather than a moral one? I feel as if something has changed in British (and probably American) culture that some people are now trying to claim that opposing sexism and other bigotry is somehow taking a radical political stand.

Anyway, whatever these people’s problems with the show two things are sure… The ratings show that the general audience are not at all put off by the show’s messaging. And if these people were too thick to understand Doctor Who’s moral messages in the past, Chibnall has done them a service by demystifying it for them. Welcome to the wrong side of history… You can join the rest of us in the twenty-first century anytime you want to.

I’m sure that the BBC itself looks at the real viewing figures and doesn’t let screaming fans or newspapers with nineteen-fifties views sway it’s judgement on whether or not to renew their shows.
I’m sorry for fans who have fallen out of love with the series. I’m sorry that it’s a relatively big hit at the moment and that doesn’t back-up your feelings of aggrievement. You need to stop acting like big babies whilst throwing your toys out of the pram. So the general British public don’t agree with your opinions of the series? So what. You could always stop watching Doctor Who and start talking about something else.

John A. Short
December 2018

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

STAN LEE 1922 - 2018 my opinion...

STAN LEE 1922 – 2018 – A CREATIVE LIFE IN CONTEXT
by John A. Short

If you are an aspiring writer you probably have the dream that you can be successful enough to just make your living from it. If you are particularly ambitious you may hope to create something that will be famous enough to be a household name. We know the name of Ian Fleming because he created the ‘James Bond’ books. We know of Conan Doyle because he created the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series. Most people would be hard pressed to name other things written by those very well known authors. Agatha Christie is exceptional because we can lay two very famous characters (Poirot and Marple) and some other globally-famed stories at her doorstep.

How much more successful would a writer have to be to have a dozen or more household-name series credited to them?

Stan Lee co-created THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, ANTMAN & THE WASP, THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, THE UNCANNY X-MEN, NICK FURY, SHIELD, DOCTOR STRANGE, THE MIGHTY AVENGERS, MARVEL’S THE MIGHTY THOR, BLACK PANTHER, GROOT, BLACK WIDOW, HAWKEYE, DAREDEVIL and many, many more. I think we can predict that some of these characters will continue to be world famous for decades and (yes) centuries to come. That kind of creative achievement is almost unique. That’s why I think in future Lee’s name will be spoken (with respect) in the same breathe as someone like William Shakespeare.

Perhaps that might sound over-the-top to you? I don’t think it is. Look at the similarities between them…

They both worked in mediums that were (or are) looked down upon by those who think of themselves as the elite. Theatre in Shakespeare’s time was thought of as something for the illiterate masses… A low form of art… Just as some might characterise comics today.

Both used their stories to talk about human emotions and the human condition in morality tales deeper than they might first appear. (The first Spider-Man strip for example, where Spidey refuses to help stop a robber who he could easily have caught, only for the same thief go onto kill his own beloved uncle – so teaching Peter Parker a lesson in responsibility… Who says Americans don’t understand irony?)

Shakespeare and Lee both redefined the mediums in which they worked. Both spread their influence to every kind of storytelling genre. Both created so many famous ‘franchises’ that it’s difficult to name them all.

The extraordinary thing about Lee is that most (perhaps all) of his really famous, really successful creations happened in one five year period from 1961 through to 1966. Strange for a man who wrote from when he was a teenager through to his 90s? He was around 40 when he finally found that successful streak. Perhaps it says something about being in the right place at the right time?

Part of the success was no-doubt due to what a shameless self-publicist Lee was. You could see it in him every time he was interviewed even in recent years with every well practised anecdote and quip. In the 1960s through editorial pages and even the caption boxes in the strips themselves Lee would tell his ‘True Believers’ how great the characters and stories they were reading were. It has an amazing effect on your audience if they can see that even the creators are enthused about their creations. Confidence breeds success.

It has to be said that Lee’s prose-style on those early strips hasn’t dated well. His chummy attitude is as unique to Lee as Shakespeare’s flowery dialogue is to him.

But of course, Lee is only a co-creator of his most famous titles. He is only the writer and collaborated with many comics artists without whom his works would have been nothing. Some people give more credit to such pencillers as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko with whom he worked in the early 1960s. As with any creative collaboration it is difficult to know where one person’s contribution starts and another ends.

Because of the way that Lee developed in the 60s for working with his artists, it’s even more complicated to unpack in the case of Marvel Comics. Lee instigated the ‘Marvel Method’ of writing comics, where he would only provide a rough plot and leave it to the artists themselves to breakdown the comic into a blow-by-blow structure as they drew it… He would only start scripting the dialogue once he had the final pages in his hands. This was necessary because as Marvel took off in the early 60s he was practically the only writer working there.

Some have it that some of his greatest plots and characters were invented by the artists on the page as they pencilled. There maybe some truth in the idea. Opinions vary.

But what we can credit Lee with, without much doubt, is the way that he changed the way that American comics were telling stories. Up until 1961 your average superhero story would return to a baseline status quo at the end. Lee broke that mould with the introduction of soap-opera-style subplots in his titles. So if Spidey’s girl friend was mad at him at the end of one story… she still would be at the start of the next.

Also he added a simple, but unheard of, level of realism in his stories. What if Spider-man’s costume gets torn? Can he afford a new one? Has he got the needle-skills to sow it up himself? Superman never had to worry about such things.

All this meant that his comics could be consumed by an older age group than superhero titles had up until that point. Before Lee American comics were mostly aimed at the under tens. In the early 60s Marvel Comics began to be aimed at young teenagers, by the end of the 60s they were being read by college-agers.

The Distinguish Competition (as Lee called DC Comics) had no choice but to follow his lead and they have been telling stories in the Lee-style ever since.

There are controversies that surround him. Lee went onto be a millionaire through Marvel Comics while some of his co-creators got nothing. Perhaps this wasn’t completely intentional on Lee’s part? He had a foot in the door to the management of Marvel by being related to their owner. And he stuck with the company on the production side long enough to get himself in a position of power (allowing him to secure a legacy for himself) while his artists tended to stay as freelancers? But I have no wish to excuse the undoubtedly shabby treatment that many creators had at Marvel (perhaps even to this day.) There is no excuse for the comics industry not to work like any other other field of the creative arts, where the author owns their own work.

Of course, in recent years Marvel Studios have made Lee’s creations (and the man himself) more famous than ever. As Hollywood special effects have caught up with what Kirby and Ditko could do on the comic page the whole world now marvels at the concepts and characters that only comic readers enjoyed only a decade ago.

Lee was one of a kind. We have amazing stories and characters thanks to his involvement. Was he a great human being? There are stories and opinions that he wasn’t. That I can’t say. I can only address his work… and that is marvellous.

John A. Short

Saturday, 10 November 2018

COMIC REVIEW: BLOOD BLOKES!

Title: BLOOD BLOKES
Format: AMERICAN COMIC SIZED. COLOUR COVERS B/W INTERIORS
Length: 6 ISSUES
Price: £17.50
Publisher: GREAT BEAST
Creators: ADAM CADWELL
Review:
An everyday tale of slacker vampires in the early noughties… in Manchester.
Vince is a twenty-something dropout from university, who loses his job and his girl and then his life all on the same day. He wakes to find himself all vamperised and wearing a gingham dress on a coffee table in the local vampire den. His new housemates, Mike, Ari and Douglas do there best to explain his new non-life to him (and why he’s wearing that dress.) They introduce him to the thriving vampire underground and hierarchy and rules as he struggles with adjusting.
Cadwell’s art is pretty impressive. Clear-cut and simple, but never lazy. Obviously influenced by Jamie Hernandez, while not being as accomplished (yet.) He takes full advantage to the stark black and white areas to satisfying effect. His backgrounds are full of well rendered detail and in-jokes.
Those references tucked away in the art are a lovely touch in themselves and I’m sure that I only clocked 75% of these vampire and horror related Easter Eggs. There’s even some great ‘Young Ones’ references that I enjoyed!
Cadwell has a good handle on how to best tell a story through pictures… with only a couple of missteps in the whole story.
Vince himself comes across as a lovable loser character much like Simon Pegg’s character from ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and it’s nice to see him actually having a proper character growth during the course of the six issues.
The style of this reminded me quite strongly of the early episodes of the British version of the TV series ‘Being Human’, since it portrays the main monstrous cast trying to keep their heads down and lead (what for them is) a normal life. It has a similar mix of unsettling horror and humour.
I loved the set-up here and would love to see more of the Blood Blokes. Who knew Manchester had such a thriving vampire scene?

John A. Short

Saturday, 27 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - MAGICAL NOPE!

Title: MAGICAL NOPE!
Format: A5 FULL COLOUR
Length: 20 pages
Price: £5.00
Publisher: HARMFULRAES
Creators: RACHEL WOOTTON
Available from: http://Harmfulraes.com
Review:
  This is a brilliant, crazy, glossy little indie comic from writer/artist Rachel Wootton. She has a simple, cutesy, cartoony style of art which is a fantastic contrast to the humorous, but brutally blunt style of the story here.  
 It’s hard to talk about the plot of this comic for two reasons. It’s a fairly short and sweet read at only twenty pages and I don’t really want to ruin this for you, if you would like to read it yourself. Let’s just put it this way… A fairy-godmother-type turns up to proclaim that young Kat is the Chosen One and prepares to grant her magical powers to fight the forces of evil…   And then… Let’s just say - things don’t go at all to plan.
  It’s easier to talk about the style of this comic. Rachel’s art might have you thinking that this is a cuddly comic for small girls… But she’s just lulling you into a false sense of security. There is a big manga-influence in the art. Simple line work, unaugmented by the computer-colour that gives it more dimensionality and texture.
  Perhaps this comic isn’t one for you youngest kids (no matter how appealing the cover might look to them) as this does contain plenty of swearing!
  I picked this up from Rachel last year and I must apologise to her for taking so long to read and review it. My only excuse is that it got buried under tons of other comics and it’s only just come back into the light. Better late than never?
  Well worth picking up! Support UK indie comics and have a great laugh at the same time.

John A. Short

Sunday, 21 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - COMBAT COLIN 2!

Title: COMBAT COLIN 2
Format: AMERICAN COMIC SIZED. COLOUR COVERS B/W INTERIORS
Length: 40 pages
Price: £3.50
Publisher: LEW STRINGER COMICS
Creators: PLOTTED, SCRIPTED, PENCILLED, INKED, LETTERED & COLOURED BY LEW STRINGER
Review:
Colin and his sidekick (Semi-Automatic Steve) are back for a second issue! This time it’s reprinting many of the half-page comic strips from when ‘Action Force’ (in which the strip started) merged with UK Marvel’s ‘Transformers’ weekly from 1988 and 1989.
Lew manages the reduced size of the strip well by mixing in more simple self-contained stories with longer episodic adventures. I’m always impressed by a creator’s ability to tell stories in very small spaces and some of these strips are only five panels long. But I’m glad to be able to read the strips altogether like this as some are so brief as to not allow you time to blink while reading them!
It is the invention in these strips that makes me smile the most. Colin’s Combat Kilt is a particular stroke of genius, along with such concepts as the Crusher Tank and Propellor Hat!
This issue sees the introduction of some new on-going characters such as Professor Madprof! I’m unsure which university he lectures at (to get his Professorship), but perhaps that will come up in a later strip!
As the strips progress you can see an evolution in Lew’s writing style on Colin’s tales, with an increased use of puns in the final panels of many strips. And anyone who know my own writing will know how much I love this kind of word-play!
I never read these strips at the time as I wasn’t a Transformers fan. However, I later worked in a comic shop and UK’s ‘Transformer’ comic back-issues were a huge seller. There was a larger amount of UK originated material in these Marvel UK comics because the demand for strips for a weekly comic far out-paced the speed with which Marvel USA was producing the source-pages. It was clear that many people had not kept their collections and were now keen to relive their youth by re-buying these issues. So I’m sure that many of you reading this will get a warm glow of nostalgia from rereading these bonkers comic strips.
I’m a little behind with this review as ‘Combat Colin’ 3 has just been released, but copies of issues 1 and 2 are still available. Retired to the Combat Shed and get reading!

John A. Short

Sunday, 14 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - THE SIGNAL MAN

Title: THE SIGNAL MAN
Format: A4 B/W
Length: 32 PAGES
Price: £8 UK - £12 US
Publisher: BLACK BOAR PRESS
Creators: WRITTEN BY JASON COBLEY & ILLUSTRATED BY DAVID HITCHCOCK
Available from: black_boar1@yahoo.com
Review:
This wonderful comic is adapted from the spooky short prose story by Charles Dickens. Although not Dickens’ most famous work, it may well be his most well known short story. You might know it (as I did) from the excellent BBC dramatised version from the early 1970s, or various radio readings if not from the original source.
If you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it for you here, save to say that it involves the creepy goings on at a manned signal box in a lonely railway cutting in the early Victorian period. It has that brilliant quality that all the best ghost stories have, of keeping it unclear how much is supernatural and how much is in the characters’ own heads. It walks a fine line between nailing down the rules of this haunting and nothing being certain at all.
What is important about this tale is that Dickens was exploring something about the human mind that hadn’t at that time even been given a name. It’s clear from the subtext of this story that Dickens was writing about post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be over fifty years after this before it would even be given the name ‘shell-shock’.
Cobley and Hitchcock give this version full room to breath and take it’s own time. Some comic adaptations of prose can be terribly rushed, but not here. This uncomplicated, but never boring tales unwinds itself at it’s own pace. Building tension and atmosphere as it goes.
Of course Hitchcock is the master of Victorian horror and so this story is a perfect project for him. His beautifully rendered pencil art surrounds the characters (and so the reader) with an oppressive mood. His characters look terrified and so we are unsettled. The shining eyes of his rats with their dark coats gnaw at the edges of our vision. The cold breath of the characters against the shadows chills our blood. There is a naturalness to his art. Unlike some others nothing seems forced and he seems able to drawn anything the story asks him to very well indeed.
Well worth a look.

John A. Short

Thursday, 11 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - CLOSELY

Title: CLOSELY
Format: A4. SQUARE BOUND. B/W WITH SOME COLOUR
Length: 112 PAGES
Price: £5
Publisher: GRAYHAM PUTTOCK
Creators: WRITTEN & ILLUSTRATED BY GRAYHAM PUTTOCK
Review:
We tend to call any comic with a spine a ‘graphic novel’ these days (I’ve done it myself) but rarely do I come across anything with the length and complexity of an actual novel, but this… At over a hundred pages, some of them with as many as fifteen pictures on them, this is no brief funny book. You need to either read this in instalments or set aside a couple of hours to consume ‘Closely’.
On the surface Detective Inspector Closely is investigating a murder in an off-season seaside town – But this isn’t really a whodunnit. This is an examination of the landscape of protagonist's mind. When I began reading I thought this might be a comic like ‘Harker’ (by Gibson and Danks) aping the format of Sunday night ITV cop shows… But it isn’t. Then I thought we might be into the territory of ‘Twin Peaks’ and that is closer to the truth… but not quite.
Closely’ is nearer an unsettling psychological-horror film than any surreal cop drama. It’s claustrophobic and disorientating and original. Those are all pluses if you are aiming to disturb your audience and Puttock succeeds in that here.
This is a story much more concerned with character, mood and questions than it is with answers and plotting. With more space than many comics have, Puttock is able to experiment and indulge with his storytelling techniques. Cutting between reality, TV, dreams and differing time-frames, this isn’t your bog-standard comic.
And be sure that this is an adult comic too. Not just full of strong language, but strong concepts and difficult images.
His scratchy, detailed, photo-realistic art suits the project to a tee. Accomplished at likenesses he populates his story with famous actors… From Kevin Eldon for his main character, through to Tilda Swinton and Leo Mckern. Not everything quite comes off, but it mostly does.
The nights are closing in. What better time to have your dreams disturbed by ‘Closely’?

John A. Short