valentina on the phone

Valentina by Crepax: message received

A while ago I called the ten-volume project to bring all of Guido Crepax’ comics output into the English language a cultural intervention, and that still looks like the right label. Crepax’ artistic treatment of an internal fantasy life is vivid enough on its own to make most erotic comics look stuck in tar, but the more of the stuff that Fantagraphics reprints, the clearer it gets that Crepax was trying to get actual tactile sexual sensations down in an ink-on-paper form—critic Matt Seneca wrote about it in those terms, and he was spot on. And it works so well in the Valentina stories that the character—even though she’s always naked or in bondage or just letting it all hang out—never seems to be on the receiving end of male gaze at all. The strips are piled high with sexuality from floor to ceiling, but it’s all Valentina’s view of Valentina’s own, and there’s nowhere for a reader’s voyeurism to fit. It’s simply irrelevant. This is quite the cultural moment to discover that Crepax wanted to achieve that decades ago and worked out how to get the job done.

Every story also has some piece of visual storytelling from Crepax’ 1960s and 1970s output that seems to bubble up from a broad expressionist tradition and inform something more recent. The first volume had a bunch of Frank Miller faces; the latest one has some very Bill Sienkiewicz demon bears. An entranced Valentina receives hypnotic instructions from the witch Baba Yaga via the telephone several nights in a row, worshiping the handset in different poses, and eventually she does the same thing with a wind-up gramophone playing some satanic 78 vinyl. It’s an erotic reverie that Dario Argento would appreciate, but could not match.

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the outlaw life

Death Wish by Michael Winner: nature or nurture

The great pop-culture recycling machine has had one bite at Michael Winner already, when it had a brainstorm and tried to turn The Mechanic into a Jason Statham franchise, as mentioned in passing here. But Death Wish is a different beast altogether. The film’s reputation as a toxic conservative virus has preceded it into every room for 44 years, which might automatically make it an item to be examined rather than erased from history no matter where on the political spectrum you happen to stand. The new remake by Eli Roth tweaks the story to be less abrasive culturally and politically, while escalating the cinematic sadism to suitably Roth-ian levels, but the unspoken worry that a story of a non-violent man becoming violent is just too dangerous to be left loose in the culture has summoned up all the old concerns.

For critics the big problems from 1974 are still in business: what’s the difference between form and content, how to assess American violence on screen, and does impolite fiction have a role to play in getting us out of this mess? Is all art an invitation to disagree, or not? What, in short, is art for? I wrote about Death Wish old and new for Sight & Sound, having already waded into the argument about whether pop-culture should be obliged to address you only from an altar of virtuousness while reviewing Blade Runner 2049 and the superhero films of Zack Snyder in the same venue. Answer remains: I think not.

Death Wish by Brett Parson: culture or cultural

phantasm at twenty-five

I’m going to be at the inaugural Portsmouth Comic Con on Saturday 5th May to chair a couple of panels. One of them will be about the art of Star Wars, from the perspective of both the designers behind the films and the artists who create painted fantasy art and book covers and other graphic designs once the films are out in the culture. The other will be a chat with Dirk Wood about his new imprint from IDW Publishing, and its recent hardback volume of cultural essays and strips called Full Bleed.

Another new print publication about comics and cartoons has started up in the UK, and the launch issue of ComicScene UK includes a piece by me about the animated film Batman Mask of the Phantasm which is now 25 years old. Full-length Batman animated films have chugged on as a cottage industry ever since and wandered far and wide, but the only thing about Phantasm that really shows its age is the flat 2D animation and the lack of colour gradients. Everything else is a story Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams would have been very happy with, and a solid look at Bruce Wayne’s troubled character, including the part of it that gets a kick when Gotham citizens turn the lights on and Batman turns out to have been standing six inches away all the time.

gardeners world

Annihilation: supernature

The May issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing the Chinese film Detective Chinatown 2, in which a pair of goofball detectives visiting from Beijing get all starry eyed in New York on the trail of a killer whose identity is obvious from the minute that the Anglophone actor in question walks on. Joe McCulloch, writing about English translations of Japanese manga in the anthology Critical Chips 2, said experiencing a foreign culture in a translated version was like looking at a garden from the outside through a hole in the wall, unable even as a conscientious observer to really know the situation in which the works exist. Which is also how I felt upon discovering that Detective Chinatown 2 had made $530 million in its own territory.

Annihilation has remarkable gardens, to the point where it ventures into the natural sublime in proper Burke-ean terror-tinged ways—a rarity in a culture more comfortable with the technological sublime instead. It puts Alex Garland into a strand of British film making that doesn’t have many members, somewhere in an overlap of Danny Boyle and Peter Strickland, although Annihilation deals directly enough with cancer and metabolic change to ally Garland with David Cronenberg as well. The alterations from the source book make for a more conventional ending, but some of Garland’s tweaks are appropriately visual rather than thematic. When the characters stumble across a house overgrown in greenery, only we and Natalie Portman recognise that it’s identical to her house in the real world, and Garland gracefully doesn’t even give her a double-take to flag the matter up. A monster duly terrorises her there, up from the id of her own adulterous bedroom.

And Annihilation promptly terrorised and stress-tested some outposts of current film criticism to near-destruction in about five days flat, which was always going to happen as soon as something turned up on Netflix that we might actually feel people should see. Twin Peaks gathered the kindling for this turn of events, but it was 18 hours long, so claims that it was Clearly A Film became a shibboleth for folk not comfortable admitting that work of quality could merit any other label. Annihilation though really is a film—made as one and delivered as one, until Paramount chickened out and sold it on. The results have been calamitous, a coming together of both the major current critical regressions at the same time. A fixation on content and blindness to form—which is the approach needed if you’re inclined to see a film’s -isms and ideologies as both the work’s true essence and the way its makers will reveal their hidden wickedness—has instead dented our skills at sounding convincing about why one form is better than another. Meanwhile an inability to speak in any decent motivational rhetoric—never mind poetics—instead of dry academic language has squelched our ability to motivate a passing viewer to open their minds, or indeed open an envelope. After voluntarily surrendering those two weapons, what’s left?

artistic license

Judge Dredd: no cherubs Dud

All three recent books about the birth of 2000AD point out that MACH 1 was a blatant attempt to make readers think of The Six Million Dollar Man, but since Enio Legisamòn put a very Lee Majors-ish face on the character for page one it was hardly a state secret to anyone reading on the school playground at the time. From four decades down the time tunnel, MACH 1 might be more successful at the comic’s two stated aims – cash in on sci-fi while alarming British adventure comics as much as possible – than most of the other stuff in Prog 1, just by being such an enthusiastic cash-in itself. Rebellion has collected the first year or so in a new volume, where the constant churn of artists and writers doesn’t do as much damage as I remembered – partly since I had forgotten that the strip is utterly nuts. It’s boys adventure comics for boys delirious with fever, or dreaming of receiving six hundred pounds worth of cybernetics from some branch of the Callaghan government and marrying Farrah Fawcett. I reviewed the collection for Tripwire.

Also at the same venue: a review of the latest Judge Dredd Case Files collection which covers 1999 into 2000, and by my sums might be the last to contain stories only published by Fleetway before Rebellion swung in through the window on ropes. Those books mentioned above make it clear that a lot of creators felt the period before that happened was desultory, and of course they should know. But Dredd has always occupied his own tonal niche isolated from properly wayward editorial whims, a niche shaped very much like writer John Wagner. (Dredd’s counterpart, Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson, had the luxury of taking months or years off here and there, and her stories over the same period in the hands of Alan Grant were properly ambitious.) Dredd gets back into humorous mode a few times here, but the book includes Wagner and Henry Flint’s story from March 2000 in which the residents of a city tower block respond to their unsafe building and uncaring politicians by committing enthusiastic mass suicide, which in a current light is practically Swiftian. You would need to be sure of your critical footing to say that a period which put that on the shelves of WHSmith had failed to do its cultural duty.

methods

Kate Felix, NEPD Blue: art by Paul Grist

Tom Spurgeon asked for stand-out issues in favourite runs of serial comics, and inevitably most of mine were from old Marvels by Steve Englehart, who used to throw single pivot-point issues into storylines which were rolling eternally onwards like a man who understood why soap-operas are an art form of their own. Another one was much more recent, the flashback issue of Kane where Paul Grist planted a young version of Kate Felix into the storyline her adult self had been wading through for three years. Paul Grist is a modern comics master and Kane is a spectacular – if incomplete – success, as anyone on the receiving end of my lecture on the subject five years ago will know.

My admiration for Paul Grist’s art is in no way diminished by the fact that I can tell more or less how he made it, but I’m happy to leave the exact chain of events Clint Langley goes through to produce his artwork for ABC Warriors as a mystery. Photo-references and digital manipulation seem to be involved, but beyond that it might as well be sorcery, especially if you go back and look at his earlier pencil and ink work which is recognisably by a kindred spirit but apparently by a completely different hand. I spent years being sniffy about both photo-references and digital manipulation, but it turned out I just hadn’t come across them in the right venue. In 2000AD Langley’s style aligned with the comic’s existing use of painted art and spliced it with a less expected European tradition of sci-fi excess, recalling both but without directly copying either. His first work on ABC Warriors has been reprinted once more and I reviewed it for Tripwire, realising again why the strip has been pretty much roped off from anyone else ever since.

british rails

B-movie cop films used to be so specific to the counties they came from that you could spot the cultural sore spots from over the horizon, but now they just tell you that digital post-production workflows are the same in any language. The Liquidator put the wind up its domestic Chinese distributors so much that its release was postponed, but on western shelves it will slot in next to the ballistic bits of Vinnie Jones’s catalogue and enjoy a similar destiny. It’s also lumbered with a twist on loan from the kind of high-camp soap operas in which UFOs spirited characters away during contract negotiations, presented here with an unwise poker face. I reviewed the film for the March issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

It pains an acolyte of both Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra to admit that The Commuter is a bit of a drag, but it too is stuck in a particular type of digital post-production purgatory. The tyranny of identical software packages everywhere has drained the life from films in which everyone gets stuck on public transport, all of them now draped in a bloodless green-screen unreality, the not very convincing carriage interiors matched by the not very convincing exteriors glimpsed through the not very convincing windows. Plus The Commuter is set in the US but arrives direct from Planet Pinewood, an additional unreality through which a number of British faces swim – notably Florence Pugh who doesn’t even get to be Neeson’s quarry. There’s talk of an outside world of unemployment and capitalist collapse, but it’s not even as authentic as the fraught geopolitics of Unknown, the best of the Neeson/Collet-Serra joints, and that film was utterly bonkers. Unkown hasn’t aged a day, while The Commuter feels old already, partly since age and blatant stuntman-substitution come to us all in the end. Sic transit gloria punch-up.

resemblance

Natalie Portman, via Luc Besson and Dan Brereton

Dan Brereton’s new portfolio book In The Night Studio arrived just as Tom Spurgeon asked for suggestions of great cover artists and also just as I happened to see again the terrific 1999 painting by Brereton of a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in Leon. Brereton loves monsters and a particular strand of gothic horror, but his portraiture is just as individual, going beyond resemblance and into characterisation. He did a painting of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood that makes the sheriff look like an icon carved out of dented hickory, and his versions of comicbook characters work a similar trick. In an earlier studio book there’s a picture of Iron Man as a primitivist golem against a thunderous sky, a ton of implacable matt statuary that might have wandered in from Zardoz, the colours in the armour seeming like seams in rock. All pretty much the opposite pole from the slick silicon techno-cop Tony Stark is usually portrayed as for ease of identification. Brereton’s version of Hela, one of the most striking female designs Jack Kirby ever came up with, has all the formidable otherness of the original but with an added delicious louche sensuality that Kirby never embraced easily, and to say that the Cate Blanchett version in Thor Ragnarok is a pale imitation isn’t the half of it.

Accurate resemblance is more to the point in The Beatles Story, the latest British comic from the past to be spruced up by Rebellion’s archiving project. It spins through the story of the band at a hectic sprint and leaves most of the messy complications out of it, although perhaps that’s fair enough for a strip that appeared in Look-In during 1981. Arthur Ranson’s photo-likenesses were a feature of other Look-In strips too, but most of those were fiction. Here, when he draws Yoko Ono looming out of half a panel’s worth of spotted black, he’s doing it with at least some commentary on real life. I reviewed it for Tripwire, remembering the days when comic strips were part of mass cultural education about things happening over the horizon, not to mention the days when that rescue mission took place in high-street newsagents.

John and Yoko, via Arthur Ranson and the void

LIGO restarts

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week and close to the Moscone Center, there’s an article by me in the in-house magazine of the Photonics West conference about the current status of LIGO’s search for gravitational waves. LIGO is due to be switched back on later in 2018, with some modifications to both its laser system and the core mirror optics, but the scope of the project’s technology is so broad that different parts of the exercise have been approached in quite different ways. I asked the people in charge about the overhaul, the external companies who were involved, and what might be next for LIGO.

congratulations on yet another day

The Prisoner: apocalypse then

The February issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing I Am (Not) A Number, Alex Cox’s new monograph about The Prisoner TV show, which decodes some of the series’ profundities from a production standpoint before a playfully contrarian interpretation of what was really going on. Most tracks through the thickets of The Prisoner have been worn smooth by now, but Cox has an engaging prose style – his biography X Films from a decade ago is still one of the clearest books about film directing and the various blind-spots of the British industry on the shelves – plus a political perspective that chimes with The Prisoner‘s twisty libertarian tangles.

He’s also still a proper film maker, wherever you stand on the qualities of Repo Chick, and no fan of the things current TV series get up to as they go about their endless long-form business. The Prisoner‘s good qualities are nearly overwhelmed by its quirks in the mind of at least one viewer, especially that final home stretch of episodes which feel like an endurance test beaming in from a London whose swinging has got stuck, but even that looks a bit like prescience from this distance. And I’d never seen the original end title sequence, featuring not just an entirely less splendid theme tune but according to Cox perhaps the end of the world as well.