1 October 2018


Mention of some science stories I had a hand in recently:

Taking a bad picture of someone’s retina isn’t difficult, but taking a sharp one at cellular scale is more tricky. There are platforms using adaptive optics to take the distortions and inaccuracies out of the image, although the kit is so bulky that patients have to lie down and keep very still. Duke University has come up with a handheld portable system that could be used more comfortably on adults and restless children.

Also: using a pattern of light instead of a plain beam of illumination can get you a long way in bioimaging, especially when it comes to measuring oxygenation and hemoglobin levels in tissues. A California company called Modulated Imaging has just had FDA approval for a device using spatial frequency domain imaging, which is really just a way to try and cut out the effects of scattering and absorption, two things that biological tissues are often annoyingly good at.

And: improvements in virtual reality don’t only involve getting higher quality display screens to sit closer to the eyeball, but that is a big part of it. A German project has developed an OLED microdisplay that measures one inch across, with a pixel density of 2300 pixels per inch. Put a pair of them in front of each eye in a suitable helmet, and the wearer is looking at authentic WUXGA widescreen. Configure them correctly and that wearer might even not get a headache.

26 September 2018

the moderns

Great faces in The Moderns. But Linda Fiorentino first among equals.

16 September 2018

very British crews

I’m in the current November-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine with a piece about Paul Grist’s comic Jack Staff, a strip which grabs British humour comics and British humour generally in a big warm bear hug.

My appreciation of Paul Grist and his earlier Will Eisner/Frank Miller homage Kane is on record from a long time ago, but Jack Staff is a more expansive gesture, half nostalgic swoon for old comics and half mournful eulogy for acres of British cultural history. The fact that Image Comics picked it up and turned it into a colour strip for US readers who may or may not have recognised Harry H Corbett when he turned up as a vampire hunter is just another layer to conjure with. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.

Supplementary material: Back in 2012 I spoke to Paul Grist about his comics and career for a magazine article which was ultimately unpublished. Some quotes from it are in the Comic Scene article, but the whole interview is here on this site.

Elsewhere: For Tripwire I read the new graphic novel adaptation of Yellow Submarine, which Titan commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles animated fantasia. Bill Morrison’s background at MAD magazine and Bongo Comics makes him a crafty choice to work at the point where animation and comics overlap, and this particular comics adaptation of a film certainly resembles its source—which is more than you used to be able to say for those old issues of Marvel Comics Super Special. Even having to pretend the film doesn’t have a note of music in it isn’t fatal to the book overall. But at some point this rip tide of nostalgia that’s now tearing constantly at our footing will have to be tempered.

19 August 2018

old soldiers

Rebellion didn’t say how much it spent buying up the output of the old IPC Youth Group and having half of the UKs entire comics output for the 1970s and 1980s delivered into its warehouse in tankers, but presumably it was not chicken feed. The publishers did say up-front two years ago that the plan was for new stories with the old characters, ie. an active return on the investment, which now turns out to be reworkings of them into something more in the current superhero vein by active 2000AD creators, and a connected universe for everyone to rub shoulders in. You don’t have to be too averse to nostalgia to wish that this wasn’t quite so inevitable. The reprint programme has already shown to at least one reader that the frantic brevity and excess exposition inherent in the UKs old weekly anthology format do not necessarily make the best impression, when the strips are gathered into large sequential runs and the stories’ end-points recede endlessly away from you towards the horizon. The stand-outs so far are probably the calmer material from Misty and The Beatles Story reprinted from Look-In, which are self-contained and neither hectic nor lunatic; but for the boys comics stuff it’s not the easiest task to see exactly which audience is being fostered here, beyond the literal appeal to people who were reading 2000AD in 1977 plus those who wish they had been. Finding a way to treat the loopier old stuff as cultural works rather than IP fodder might be a better destiny for it. Or at least consider making a break from the standard vein of 2000AD, which seems entirely predicated on nostalgia already. But all this is easier to say if you’re not the one signing the cheques at Rebellion.

In any case, the original version of Herr Doktor Von Hoffmann, embittered old Nazi and maddest of mad scientists, has had his original adventures reprinted in a collection called Von Hoffman’s Invasion that I reviewed for Tripwire. No coincidence that his attempt to bring fictional 1971 Britain to its knees allowed a real-world 1971 boys comic to address a painful grievance, involving the World Cup and the West Germany football team. Also for Tripwire, a collection of Judge Dredd stories involving apes, mostly as adversaries although lately one of them as an ally. Science-fiction loves a good primate, and in 2000AD they always feel like one of the few strong ties between the black satire of the Dredd strip and the whimsy of Silver Age DC Comics, territory that 2000AD usually treats as a hinterland of no major interest.

Frank Miller’s position in the comics culture these days is a hinterland all his own, and the conclusion of Xerxes from Dark Horse Comics has caused even less of a ripple than its launch, which itself did not look like much. At the time of writing, no one’s even bothered to put it on Wikipedia. There’s a contingent of readers who will never forgive Miller for Holy Terror or his statements about the activist left after 2008, and some of them had only just forgiven him for The Dark Knight Strikes Again anyway. Another sector remains sure that the man’s linework reveals hidden misogynist wickedness before the ink is even dry, a plank of current leftist thinking about art that I’ve pondered at length before always giving it the boot. Most reviews of Xerxes seemed determined to just parse the plot and skirt around the issue of the art altogether, as if worn out by the effort of looking at Miller’s sinuous, boneless DC superheroes last year on the covers of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Exhaustion might actually be the default critical response to Miller now. But some of the cartooning in Xerxes is as bracing to look at as anything off the presses this year.

In theory Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander—a title which you guess Dark Horse marketing had little say over—is part-prequel and part-sequel to 300, although the plot is more of a loose improvisation than a history lesson. Several generations of Persian kings are thwarted by internecine conflicts within their own house, and by resourceful Greeks putting aside their own fractious disagreements to foster a democratic project that looks like it could go either way. Xerxes shows every sign of becoming a despot, but more than once the real focus seems to be on unreliable hearsays and what you would have to call fake news, the accumulation of legend and lies onto fact like layers of dust until the roots are hard to discern.

Meanwhile the art has changed from 300s bronze-wash firelight into something properly rococo, human bodies embossed with ornamentation that almost floats above the page. Miller’s current colourist, Alex Sinclair, was tarred by some of the general unhappiness with The Master Race, but in Xerxes the high-contrast palette seems completely in tune with Miller’s wish for heft and mass, legend and fate. He also makes some Persian flesh jet black, opening more avenues of interpretation, factual and otherwise, and shunting the cartooning even closer to iconography. It can’t be as simple as saying that all this is just Miller hacking further into the undergrowth of expressionism, but that’s surely a big part of it. Expressionist figures ask for pity, as Robert Hughes once wrote on the topic of Francis Bacon, and the strong kings of Xerxes, drawn as terrible old gods of the past, dead and bent double in their holes in the ground or slumped dying on their thrones, are pitiable in vastly larger ways than Superman was when Miller gave him wrinkly leggings and a neck wider than his head.

News that Miller has recovered the film and television rights to Sin City from the smoking crater where The Weinstein Company once stood probably doesn’t bring that work much nearer to a live-action return—tough to imagine a studio green-lighting Sin City Anything at present—although if it means that Miller is emerging above the horizon again, so be it. Frank Miller remains the best argument against conformity, complicity and self-conscious prudery in movies made from comics, simply by proving that the two forms will forever fly apart like magnets,” said me about the last Sin City film, but then I’m also the guy who did not hate The Spirit, and from a few years further down the track that film looks more like an authentic reflection of its maker at that moment than it even did then, all his odd conflicted intentions out in plain sight, pleasing hardly anyone and possibly not even him. At this point, with the calamity of Holy Terror still looming over Miller’s every pen stroke like a thundercloud, the five issues of Xerxes feel more assured in their cartooning, more drastic in their methods, than any two-decades of British comics combined. It’s a product of cultural wartime, saturated with artistic tensions, which sprints straight past the fragile nostalgia of Rebellion’s Treasury project and roars off into the future.

10 August 2018

clear margins

A few science stories I had a hand in recently:

There’s a method called laser scanning fluorescence lifetime microscopy (FLIM) that looks good for peering into certain living tissues, but the fields of view possible have so far been tiny. German specialists Becker & Hickl have tweaked the technique so that it can scan an 18 millimeter area, which is much more like it.

Also: ultrasound is ubiquitous, but the various bits of electronics used in the kit itself can interfere with the subtle ultrasound signals you’re looking for. Using optical components rather than electronics and detecting the signals with a fibre-optics sensor would be better, and UCL has built an all-optical system efficient enough to be clinically useful.

And: heavy water is already used as a biological marker since it’s close enough to normal H2O that many metabolic processes can’t tell the difference. But to see it you need a mass spectrometer, which is big and expensive and not actually optical. Raman spectroscopy would be better and might be a way to photograph the exact boundaries of cancer tumors, a perennial problem—so perennial that the FLIM technology mentioned above is being put to the same use too.

7 August 2018

lone wolf and cub

It’s been mooted by some that Denis Villeneuve might be a not-great director who just directs the hell out of the scripts he takes on, which sounds like one sign of a great director to me. The difference between Sicario and Sicario 2 Soldado is mostly down to the change from a high style to something more routine, and since Taylor Sheridan wrote both scripts the likely source is the swapping of Villeneuve for Stefano Sollima—who, whatever else he does, does not direct the hell out of it. Sheridan doesn’t do the new man any favours, leaning into that old standby The Strong Man’s Dilemma, and doing without meaningful adult women at all—apart from a cheery US soccer mom earning a crust through people trafficking with a baby in the back of her car, which is the best moment of pointed commentary in the film—but it’s Sollima who finds ways to shoot Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro that come straight out of the Cannon Films catalogue circa 1991.

The general Cannon-ness has convinced a few people that Sicario 2 Soldado is a Conservative work, even though one thing that actually survives the sequel-manufacturing machine is Sheridan’s uncertainty that good people are righteous warriors able to change the world. Or good men, anyway. There’s been an attempt lately to banish Wind River within 12 months of its appearance, on the theory that its female character was made naive and out of her depth—as if an arc that starts there was a regressive thought crime by definition. Wind River is sedate and mournful, and more indirect proof of the influence of Sollima and Villeneuve on Sheridan’s scripts, since he directed that one himself. There’s also the small matter that Wind River shreds toxic masculinity, takes it to the absolute cleaners; but why let facts get in the way of a philosophy. I reviewed Sicario 2 Soldado in the September issue of Sight & Sound magazine.