Big data

Terry & Rachel Dobson achieving more life with pens than Warners could with $200 millionTerry & Rachel Dobson achieving more life with pens than Warners could with $200 million

Zack Snyder’s Justice League looms ahead like the Cirque du Soleil performing The Book of Revelation. But first:

The purpose of Wonder Woman 1984 probably seemed clearer to the board of AT&T Incorporated than to anyone watching the film. Finding things to praise about it—there are a couple—has to coexist with pointing out that it might be one of the worst written films ever to receive such high-profile attention, and critics urging people to see it—there are a couple of those too—just proves how other factors now weigh down the simple job of telling people when a film is held together with string.

We are up to our necks in an era where fantasy films think a story must be just a list of data points, but WW84 does the whole dubious system a service by showing all of its working out and deletions. Witness: Diana tells a story about a suit of golden winged armour used when a legendary Amazon did a 300 Spartans routine against impossible odds. Come the climax she specifically detours to fetch it—before wearing it to fight four blokes and a cat for two minutes. Because the armour is irrelevant. What actually matters is that it’s a visual data point from a 25-year-old comic painted by Alex Ross and that the data point is ticked, the whole machine tipping over to poke the knowledge and dopamine receptors of a subset of a subset of the audience. You assume this rotten Easter egg came from co-writer Geoff Johns, and if so then the time has probably come to lock the comics writers out of the shipyards now and let actual screenwriters build these oil tankers, if they must be built at all. (WandaVision, just concluded on TV, looked as if it was playing this game a different way with its sitcom callouts but capitulated at the end into the compulsory big battles, greenscreen cloud monsters casting all the usual animated lightning, and the pop-culture nods were just superfluous fluff.)

WW84 says that people have to pull together as a collective and get real, which by the standards of the Disney Industrial Complex is practically socialist. Everyone gets to wish for what they want and it’s all fun and games until the nuclear missiles rise in the background. As with the X-Men franchise, one character pleading with the better nature of another remains the strongest sight these digital punch-ups can realistically go for, but all the other plot elements going nowhere pile up in a heap. Diana is (vaguely, apparently) immortal, but why this woman of all women needs to resurrect one man of all men in order to jump him is never pondered. One old photo seems to show her involved in liberating the Nazi camps, a philosophical dot the film never joins back up to, although the nationality of the actor comes to mind unbidden. It does when she rides a missile fired at some Arab children too, along with wondering if anyone really looked at this stuff on the page.

But all that is content, and as usual it’s the form that really drives the hangover. Ever since Captain Marvel a realisation has finally hung in the air that this form, these specific kinds of sights and sounds and rhythms and music from the Hans Zimmer anvil chorus, are at best a small-c and probably a capital-C Conservative broadcasting service whose calculations were increasingly unsubtle as the strains in the mechanism started to build up even before Covid arrived. Now that it has and things like WW84 are rocking up in your living room, surely it’s the discrepancy, the let-down, the big void between the implied humanist message of the data points and the empty impersonal way they are actually delivered, the colossal overemphasis on prosaic repetition of the same material when that material is such small-scale acting and myth-less visual non-flair, that sits at the root of the problem, one huge all-encompassing Irony in this the age of irony that just cuts viewers adrift. And then WW84 ends with a scene in which Lynda Carter walks on, the film irising down and down onto one last small insular and Forty Five Year Old data point which oh look happened to reappear on HBO Max at the same time as the film, disappearing down into its own cells like it’s Fantastic Voyage.

Coincidence, or not, that We Can Be Heroes, the latest of Robert Rodriguez’s young-adult films for the young at heart made for roughly the cost of the WW84 catering, has a similar dig at stupid presidents and a big central message of taking collective responsibility for sorting out the planet—which in Rodriguez’s case means letting the young rehabilitate the damaged Earth while anyone over 35 just gets out of the way. All of which breezes by in a candy Android app store that makes WW84 look as dulled as a something dug up from an Athenian flea market.

March 15, 2021 Films

Photonics West 2021

No one will be in San Francisco for this year’s Photonics West exhibition and conference in March as it will be held online instead, although with biomedical imaging technologies at the absolute forefront of studying and diagnosing and understanding Covid-19 there’s going to be no shortage of things to talk about.

There will be only one Show Daily publication this year, including an article by me about work at South Korea’s POSTECH university looking at ways to combine different imaging techniques into one feasibly economic package. Since optical and ultrasound methods are often present in the same clinics, and the technique called photoacoustic imaging already uses them side by side, making them play nice with other clinical techniques might not be too difficult. POSTECH created a spin-out to look into it, just in time for Covid-19 to stress-test the medical equipment sector.

The conference magazine will be archived here on the publisher’s site.

February 5, 2021 Science

New Seekers

Revere: Tarot card XIIRevere: Tarot card XII

In 1991 Revere was good news if you wanted 2000AD to look over the Channel at slick painted European things like Métal Hurlant and less great if you wanted something dirty and subversive. But since the door had been found it would have been dim not to go through it. From 30 years further down the time tunnel the lake of overused acrylics in which this road petered out can be seen in the distance, but Revere has the fire of an early adopter, John Smith and Simon Harrison calling for revolution in a Britain rebuilt as a Tory machine for so long that the whole edifice was cracking. All Reveres LSD and Tarot business is like Alejandro Jodorowsky coming down a crackly phone line, although I was surprised to find that it’s still considered in some quarters to be beyond the WTF threshold. It’s not that hard to see what’s going on: Smith is thinking about standard esoteric history and Steve Ditko comics and Harrison is thinking about modernity and Salvador Dalí among others.

The modernity now is in the publishing plan since Rebellion is putting out Revere as digital-only, which might be a zero-sum game. Decoding Harrison’s art on an iPad screen, rather than on paper after a printing mechanism has done its best to reproduce the images properly with smoke rising from the cogs, can only be a shortcut to the intended enlightenment. And they never work.

I reviewed the digital re-release of Revere for the Tripwire web site.

The Avenging World: global stormingThe Avenging World: global storming

Steve Ditko’s fingerprints are all over Revere once the character sets off on self-improvement, and doubly so after reading Zack Kruse’s new book on the artist Mysterious Travellers—cunning title, Fellow Travellers being a phrase from the opposite end of the political Earth to Ditko. Proving that I was completely wrong after Ditko’s death to think that the existing biographies would be mostly unmodified, but completely right that lazy political labels stuck on an artist have to be addressed for their accuracy at some point, Kruse grapples with how Ditko’s mind materialised in the art, in the figures and plots and pen lines themselves. Which means defining what that mind actually thought and not just repeating what everyone always says it thought. After carefully claiming the word Liberal for one aspect of Ditko’s position rather than any label from further over to the right, Kruse lowers himself into the Ditko mines on a rope.

Kruse’s book goes on my shelves next to ones by Marc Singer and Brannon Costello as accessible books by scholars about comics which not only set sail into culture and politics too, but gently call for higher standards in comics criticism (not so gently in Singer’s case - it’s the whole book). This isn’t the only reason to think film criticism could do with a few comparable holistic and critical texts right now, books suggesting that some things about criticism have to stay measurably objectively valuable to people outside rather than unmeasurably subjectively good for self-expression or a formerly paying trade will become an unpaid pastime. But it is a pretty big one.

Lipstick Traces is on that shelf too, a book about punk and music and artists kicking the doors in at regular intervals like a sunspot cycle. A dimension in which Steve Ditko and Guy Debord overlapped would be more explosive than any cosmic punch-up Ditko drew, but there’s the Avenging World against scraps of newsprint and pulp, looking like something cobbled together with paper mache backstage at Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse 1, before being thrown out as too easy to understand.

January 30, 2021 Art

The Killers

Quo Vadis Aida: men at workQuo Vadis Aida: men at work

For Sight & Sound online and in the March 2021 issue of the magazine, some words on Quo Vadis Aida?, a fiction film with a ground-level perspective on the 1995 Srebrenica genocide which after all was the perspective of most of the people caught up in it.

Films about human evil often hesitate to actually look that evil in the eye, and the ones dealing with wickedness on a grand scale feel obliged to rise up into the stratosphere where art and Extreme Cinema meet—the altitude where the kid in Come and See stands looking out at you, brain dented and a meme before his time. Quo Vadis Aida? doesn’t have the resources or the inclination for that, although the facts of what went on in Bosnia are enough to dent your brain already. The film does have Aida (Jasna Đuričić) looking appalled at the other characters and at you, but a lot of it is occupied by individuals talking to and at and over each other as a warm-up for ignoring each other completely, prejudice in thought as much as deed, plus a cosmically dim view of the UNs attempts to be useful. Ratko Mladic arrives less like Caligula and more like a regional manager en route to a particularly annoying redundancy consultation, before sending 8,000 people into eternity. A serious film with serious purpose.

David Mamet’s Al Pacino’s Phil Spector: Unhinged MelodyDavid Mamet’s Al Pacino’s Phil Spector: Unhinged Melody

Another convicted killer returned to the source when Phil Spector checked out for Covid-related reasons, which made me want to rewatch David Mamet’s film Phil Spector and see if its wide looping orbit around the facts of Spector’s first murder trial felt any less odd now that he’s just a shade.

This film does look its subject in the eye, but the view is obscured by several layers of safety curtain. On top of the many mannerisms of Al Pacino, which are never going to make me ask for my money back but don’t always bring you closer to the soul of a character doing cartwheels across the screen, there’s the dislocation caused by David Mamet’s shift from leftist to rightist. The film says that freaks don’t get a fair trial in your legal system Mr So-Called Liberal Democracy, a libertarian tenet that the film could probably have built without deliberately fudging so many of the actual facts of a murder case, or indeed the facts of Spector’s domestic life, which are swept out of the way to give Pacino more room to rave. Mamet’s instinct for male persecution, or at least for males perceiving themselves to be persecuted, has made for great drama and at least one key film of the recent Hollywood Left back when Mamet was inclined in that direction, but in the Spector case there’s Lana Clarkson’s dead body in the grave to be acknowledged and the film comes perilously close to waving it away. Considering that it ends before the conclusion of Spector’s first trial, never mind the second, the film does have a great final ten minutes, when Spector emerges in full psycho pomp and Mamet films it so that Spector moves out of the shadows with a deeply ambiguous expression of self-awareness and self-destruction. A figure of cultural folklore having an actual coming out (of the elevator). Followed shortly by his shaken defence lawyer Helen Mirren crossing out her entire game plan on a legal pad with a biro and opting for Plan B, The End. Some truths lurking in there.

I said in 2017 that if people couldn’t bear to listen to songs like River Deep - Mountain High now that Phil Spector was revealed as a monster, then fine, but I wouldn’t be binning the CDs myself since the revealing was less important to me than an existing positive relationship with the stuff. Now Spector is gone there will have to be an accounting for whether erasing the Wall Of Sound from history is worth the cost, which would be easier if there were any real agreement on what the dangers of liking art made by horrible people actually are. In this case, there’s always Ike & Tina’s decision to re-record River Deep - Mountain High in 1973, a second version that’s entirely different and exactly as drastically joyous as the first. If you’re inclined to send Phil Spector off with a jeer, than the sound of him effectively scrubbed from one of the most Phil Spector songs in existence by the Svengali’s former adepts is as good a way as any. As long as you bear in mind how hard Ike was hitting Tina when they got home.

January 22, 2021 Films

Beware of God

The reissue of The Biologic Show, reviewed for The Comics Journal. When I first saw this book in 1995 and then later emerged from under the bed the only compass points I had for it were cultural hangovers from the previous few years, all the serial killers and American Psychos. But at that point I hadn’t read Lipstick Traces. Looking at Al Columbia’s comic now, it’s a drastic mad-scientist splice of the puckish macabre of early comic strips and the authentic cabaret of scorn that Greil Marcus talks about. It is, among several other things, your old colossal Dada back in town.

It’s also a reminder that comics is one mighty medium for drastic mad-scientist splices, and it’s tough to imagine this particular twitch of creative energy taking any form other than this one. Which is ironic, given that a punch-up broke out between Al Columbia and Hollow Press just before the new edition came out over whether the publishers had tampered with the work at a qualitative level. Any contract between this particular artist and this particular publisher always looked like two fissile materials voluntarily climbing into the same test tube, and the inevitable big bang might prompt a couple of questions about archival publishing of wild mutant art in sober respectful packages, bound in black like a Bible. But not a question about whether The Biologic Show is a benchmark work of its era and its maker, a query which deserves due consideration before being promptly binned.

January 6, 2021 Art

Ride the rage snake

Some comics of the year:

What We Mean By Yesterday by Benjamin Marra, who called it Degrassi High on mescaline” but whose sympathetic skewering of America’s basic instincts lands him somewhere nearer an overlap of Charles Bukowski and Mark Twain. Exfoliating suburbia with a potato peeler, WWMBY has the added formal spice of arriving in daily portions on Instagram lasting presumably a calendar year, although the story could clearly roll on for a decade. (2021 Update: it rolls on.) Hapless teacher Bruce Barnes, a simmering ball of mid-life crisis likely to trip over a mop in exactly the way needed to make him land in a pool of piss, meanders into a psychodrama of sex and drugs and some of the whitest white people on the books. You could go on holiday and get back to find Barnes still attempting to extricate himself from the maladroit cock-up he made two weeks before. Or you could if holidays still existed—the strip’s slow-motion fever has ended up meshing with the time-dilated brainstorm of Covid-19 without Marra having to nudge things in that direction very hard. Peering behind the urban curtain to glimpse a raging cosmos, Marra took a 17-day 68-panel wordless digression into Barnes’s mind, where avatars and spirit animals tore chunks out of each other, and if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Season 3 atom bomb had gone off in there it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise.

Coincidentally (or not) Shintaro Kago is also on a daily Instagram project, and Fantagraphics completed reissuing Dementia 21 this year too. But the tentative appearances of Kago’s comics in English had the effect of making his single images seem the place where the action is. A Japanese art book Shishi Ruirui turned up on cue collecting posters and covers and a lot else, full of Kago’s complete fascination with the human body and the culture that shapes it. Plus some impressively deadpan movie jokes: Enter The Dragons poster but Bruce Lee is holding two guys off the ground by the dicks instead of nunchaku sticks, Ikiru but the ropes of the sweet old man’s swing form nooses around the necks of two kids hanging from the frame behind him; knockabout stuff. All those placidly unravelling human bodies could hardly be less rigid or armoured or solid, and since bodies which are those things have the air of fascism, refuting them as emphatically as this makes Kago’s art seem liberal to the core.

Gleem is by Freddy Carrasco and after now seeing four projects of his the upward curve of ambition and skill is unmistakable. Hot Summer Nights was a comic of stillness and heat with panels of Frank Miller motion dropped into the stream, and now Gleem is an anthology of fast motion with a Miller spread of ultraviolence revealed by the turn of a page. Carrasco is pulling in threads from all over US and Japanese comics, forging them into something shaped around Afrofuturism with some of the greatest urban faces currently around.

The Biologic Show rides again, although Hollow Press grabbed a tiger by the tail when they contacted Al Columbia about licensing it and might by now wish they hadn’t bothered. But a reprint of The Biologic Show in a single volume emerges from the war zone, speaking in the same coded language of nightmare it coined a quarter of a century ago.

Portrait of a Drunk was discussed here but there are still fresh things in the art to notice: this guy being tortured with his features fading back into the paper of the page is the latest spot.

Mitchum reviewed by me for The Comics Journal. Another titanic work under zero illusions about human nature, which means it can’t help but be hopeful about the possibilities opening up even while it’s busy peering into the pit and seeing what men and women sometimes do to each other in there.

An unstoppable hitman devolving into something animal, or even more animal than he already was. The noir stories adapted by Jacques Tardi from Jean-Patrick Manchette novels along with some other unfinished stories and notes on their collaboration have been wrestled into two volumes by Fantagraphics and reissued. They sit on the shelf and glare threateningly at all the other books.

December 20, 2020 Art