the empire of signs


For Sight & Sound, a preview of the live-action end of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The knotty issue of whether films of any length – art in general – should be dealing in “explorations rather than solutions, atmosphere rather than answers” isn’t supposed to have an easy answer, although Amos Vogel did the world a favour in 1970 by phrasing it that way as a test of which way the wind is blowing. But at some point British films’ reluctance to stray from one side of the street and inclination to fetishise atmosphere at the expense of all else will have to be prised open for a look inside. The festival subsequently gave its top prize to a British short that felt particularly parochial, neatly summarising the dilemma faced jointly by the filmmakers, the mechanisms they work within, and the festivals which should ideally set about doing the prising.

In the Sight & Sound October print issue I reviewed Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which for all its comedy and foreseeable outcome is at least aware of both atmosphere and answers. Anticipation that a director of particular sensibilities will perturb the workings of Marvel’s less than cinematic pre-fab manufacturing operation has been misplaced in the past and may prove to be again; but Waititi seems to be made of sterner stuff, so who knows?

On the Tripwire website, a look at the two-thousandth issue of 2000AD, as an early warm-up exercise for the comic’s fortieth anniversary next year. Anniversary issues usually end up pulled in tight fluffy circles, but as Joe McCulloch pointed out 2000AD has a role as living history over and above whatever it actually publishes. So Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill probably have the right idea, returning to Nemesis and expressing suitable disdain for the power of nostalgia by simply carrying on where they left off several corrupt Archbishops ago.

Clever science: using a thread of spider silk as a focusing lens in a microscope, thanks to the strange things that can happen when light falls on very small cylinders and spheres.

As is: improved diagnosis of potential oesophageal cancer, by modifying both the fluorescent marker that identifies malignant tissue and the endoscope that takes a look – this being the latest from the prolific cancer research efforts emerging from the University of Cambridge.

And also: working out why exactly retinal implants don’t deliver high quality vision to patients by mapping what happens on a cellular level, and then tweaking things so that they might be able to.

carry on england


Alan Grant and Cliff Robinson did a Judge Dredd story in 1990 with the characters turned into versions of the Carry On team, but it was such a sublime echo of Jack Davis and Mad Magazine that it never felt all that British, despite Judge Bristol responding appropriately to comments about taking down her particulars. Dredd’s most properly Anglo moments, it turns out, were already spreading themselves out across the years of Daily Star newspaper strips, in which Grant and John Wagner moulded their Mega-City melodrama into strict single-tier portions with clear glee for how strips like Jeff Hawke and Modesty Blaise ticked, and for the pulse of a three-panel rhythm shoving a cartoon forwards every twenty-four hours. Rebellion’s archiving of everything on its books has started to collect the daily strip into hardcovers, and will eventually get to things that Wagner and Grant didn’t script – but in the meantime the ones which they did steer are getting their due, including the times that Psi-Judge Anderson slinks off her motorbike and stands side-on.

A fair accounting is also the aim of The Mighty One, a memoir by Steve MacManus about the first decade and a half or so of 2000AD as well as the few years before the comic came into existence. Tales from the 2000AD trenches are not unfamiliar by now, but the prenatal warm-up period from 1973 to 1976 is at least as significant. Several of the UK’s cultural tectonic plates shifted into position – or possibly just seized up – at a time when what was about to happen to British publishing was impossible to predict, and what was about to happen to sci-fi looked as likely as psychic judges. A certain wistful nostalgia for the simpler days of Valiant is hard to shake if you were mastering joined-up writing at the time, and any nostalgia for the later days of Robert Maxwell is very ill-advised, but MacManus keeps the world outside his office in sight while outlining what was going on inside it as his trade progressed from one of those eras to the other – which is about the best you can expect of any pop-culture autobiography, even when few of them bother to do it.


A couple of technology stories I had a hand in reporting lately:

The clever way that optoacoustics can “listen” to biological cells – picking up the weak ultrasonic pulse given off when a cell warmed so gently by a laser that it could hardly be called heating at all immediately cools back down again, technically – turns out to be particularly good for spotting different oxygen levels in blood. And cancerous tumors have a very complicated relationship with blood oxygen, including potentially stopping growing if the levels are not to their liking. (Or they can have a much less desirable growth spurt instead – it is complicated.) So making optoacoustics into a viable clinical assessment method for cancer is something a lot of people are interested in. For that to happen, ways to crunch the formidable amounts of data involved with have to improve, but they are getting better all the time.

Metamaterials are ingenious too – negative refractive indexes, potential invisibility cloaks and the rest. Most of them are basically metallic, but ones made from non-metals might be better at doing some particular bits of the voodoo that they do. One made from tiny particles of titanium dioxide has been used in a magnifying lens powerful enough to just about pick out nanometer-size patterns of reflectivity in the grooves of a Blu-ray disk – the disk’s actual recorded data itself, a tall order to discern even for an electron microscope.

squad goals

Witch craft: not for the first time, The 13th Warrior wins.

Whatever shortcomings unspooled from Suicide Squad and accumulated on the cinema carpet, they were more than matched by the sound of some critics trolling the trolls who were trolling them about it. The muscle memory now chaining critics and audiences together while they grapple on the bridge over the live volcano has become dubious enough without adding a quarrel about the crass behaviour of crowds on social media, a topic where answers have been readily available since about 1982. (“We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous.” wrote Walter Ong, detecting the future in his ZX Spectrum.) There was a time that motivations for film criticism included coequal interests in people and human nature as well as film; what happened to that?

Things like Suicide Squad happened for one thing, films which – as the scientists say – are not even wrong. One core brainstorm of current superhero cinema is trying to pin down the best language to even discuss these cultural items, distilled directly into existence as they are by a corporate will to power without any conventional audience demand pulling them from the other end of the chain. Is “failure” the right word for David Ayer’s attempt – endearingly shambolic while also over-starched straight into deep-freeze – to be more cinematic than the regular Marvel output, and deal in themes more chewy than the panto liberalism of Captain America? Doubtful. An unhelpful diversion while working that out is the confusion between form and content that seems to have set in for the duration, a quick route to the critical back of beyond, and Suicide Squad is a lottery jackpot of all the stuff that gets put in the wrong column: marketing made flesh, text and sub-text that don’t mesh, character self-actuation and design rather than character development, non-threatening palatable darkness as entertainment, prosaic visuals with an interior feel even when they’re outside, and that odd stilted synergy that doesn’t actually make you want to see the other stuff that’s being referenced (plus unfulfilled expectations from the trailers, although by now that’s an established compliment to the relevant editors deep in the Warners gulag).

The standard theory is that Warner Bros is thrashing around blindly, but that notion didn’t hold up particularly well to the sheer heft of Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder’s mining operation at the far end of the periodic table, and doesn’t fare much better now in the face of Margot Robbie’s spirited burlesque as Harley Quinn. She’s lively and modern and disconsolate enough to suggest that the scope of the character’s awful ambivalence – a brutalised woman grabbing her own destiny specifically to set fire to it and cackle at the ashes – didn’t escape anyone’s notice, even if it also slipped through everyone’s fingers. Compared to Jared Leto’s direly misjudged Joker, a petulant millennial poltergeist from somewhere deep in Snapchat’s skunk works, Robbie practically fluoresces with actorly certainties – which is always where the trapdoor really opens, since these characters are founded on ambiguities in their home medium, and the one they’ve landed in prefers to squash all uncertainty flat.

Corporate cartooning has its own related crises going on – DC Comics has embraced the wrong path with even more enthusiasm than the rest of them – but the only way to avoid the uniquely participatory two-way mental process involved in reading comics is to glue the pages together. Short of that, a deliberately troubled and troubling character like Harley Quinn will contain multitudes, reflecting readers back towards themselves just as the inventors of written fiction intended. The kind of reader involvement inherent in the very nature of cartoons usually crops up in films only after some Herculean effort of maverick genius or screens to an audience of fifty – only the masters of cinematic dream logic really get close to the fragile ambiguities invoked. But the changing position of pop-culture in the landscape now demands that several hundred million dollars of Hollywood definitiveness lands on Harley Quinn and the rest like several hundred million kilos of dead weight. Instead of certainty, or much by way of fun, the operation conjures instead a big unhappy paradox, a hopelessly contradictory wish to treat these (in the best sense) childish archetypes as if they might be modern protagonists for adults. It’s an act of fetishisation, pop culture moving to the centre prior to nailing itself to the cross. Only a fool would not want fairer, more diverse, more equitable societies; but if you’re looking to Harley Quinn to lead you there then something significant has happened to her place in the culture, to say nothing of your relationship with Harley Quinn. Warners seem in fact to be engaged in a drastic experiment, besieged in an exploding laboratory under a sky of nothing but storm clouds, testing all these doomy contradictions to breaking point as well as retrofitting a thesis on the scope and affect of panel art beyond the dreams of Scott McCloud. The only uncertainty now is exactly how deliberately they ever embarked on it in the first place.




Five Favorite Non-Comics Works By Comics Creators (via Tom Spurgeon):




1975: Doctor Strange meets early twitter adopter, detects trouble ahead.



Hiring dancers to act in a film always makes everyone else look like they’re moving underwater. Star Trek Beyond dozes off, but the last sight before slumber is Sofia Boutella still pivoting under unseen internal tensions and lounging furiously and looking like she might be capable of pouncing from a prone position, a neat trick. And if most of her dialogue sounds like it was written underwater too, that’s hardly her problem.

The rest probably deserves to sink. It’s a drastic course correction by Paramount away from JJ Abrams’ crystalline intellectual rigour in favour of something that in the circumstances would have to be called fast and furious, but to what end? Tough to claim that it’s really aligned with the spirit of the original series just because of a lack of lens flare – not when the film nearly swoons at the prospect of a swarm of holographic James Kirks riding 20th Century motorbikes spraying CGI concrete behind them, or requiring him to trip four switches in the correct order in order to blow the film’s level boss out of an airlock. And both of those are surface-level phenomena. A move away from space action in these space tales is an established red flag of modest ambitions – a switch Abrams tripped himself in Star Wars – replacing the heavyweight physics of battleships with the weightless biology of Tomb Raider, all prison breaks and camouflage and goals and targets, filmed by Justin Lin in a style amounting to point and shoot. The villain – weighed down by obligatory forced causal link to the hero – notes how utopian military and political union tends to just leave bodies bleeding in the gutter, but the background hum of pop-sociology that tries to juice all these films with some modern resonance is really just homeopathy at this point. The Beastie Boys are eventually dragged into things as well, so fannish a flourish that it’s simultaneously hard to knock and an objective low point for Star Trek, doing without the old hints that the series knew how to be funny from a philosophical and performative standpoint rather than a self-reflexive one. So far no director ever grasped that better than William Shatner himself, a lesson learned beneath a mountain of tribbles and never forgotten.


the hanging garden centre of babylon

Whether or not Judge Dredd kicking Colonel Sanders in the face and stabbing the Michelin Man with a scalpel was really the best part of 2000 AD’s slightly-banned Cursed Earth story line in 1978, it was certainly the one that stuck firmly in the memory. Which is more than you can say for that marsupial bucket of pathos named Tweak, erased completely from my recollection until we came face to face again in the new edition that’s just come out from Rebellion, which I reviewed for Tripwire. Viewed from nearly four decades down the tracks, the urge of its writers to redline the comic’s general rate of rotation and see what might fly off is a more audacious move than all the business with Burger King, although I can see why it didn’t appear that way at the time.

Pat Mills didn’t write the bits where Dredd runs into half the brands on sale in Fine Fare, but then that’s not really his kind of satire. The more Swiftian class conflicts and workers’ purgatories of Ro-Busters are closer to his calling, and Rebellion has also republished more of that strip from the same era to prove the point.

Cassandra Anderson has nothing left to prove by now, so Alan Grant’s long-term plan to treat the character as an authentic tragic hero requires the piling on of all appropriate agonies as part of the deal. Another shovelful for the now middle-aged psychic arrives in the latest Judge Anderson Psi Files collection, although not before she’s also dragged into the latest symbolic discussion of Mega-City One’s masculine mystique between King Kong and a giant phallus. Characters lucky enough to have her longevity can pull off that kind of switchback maneuver from comedy to tragedy – and so can Alan Grant – but it helps that Anderson is still a vivid, lively creation. She’s 2000 AD’s sweet spot of pragmatism, spirituality and firepower, with cosmic balance on her mind and Cosmic Trigger on her bookshelf.


growth potential

Some recent technology news stories I had a hand in:

The United States wants to double the pace of research into tackling cancer, and do in the next five years what was shaping up to take ten. Optical imaging will need to play its part, but then so will just about everything everywhere.

Such as: learning more about how oxygen in the blood promotes or chokes tumor growth, an understanding of which is getting better all the time.

Elsewhere: lots of biological materials polarise the light they reflect, so a new lens able to image both left- and right-polarized images at the same time from the same object should make it easier to spot what nature is up to.