If you happen to be in San Francisco, there are two articles by me in this year’s in-house magazine of the annual Photonics West conference going on in The Moscone Center.

One is an interview with Zeev Zalevsky from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, whose research programme has been deliberately built along more diverse and pluralistic lines than many. He’s in the running for a prize at the conference, after developing implants that tackle vision impairment by sending visual information onto the cornea by direct tactile stimulation – Braille for the eyeballs.

The other is a round up of where the hunt for gravitational waves has got to, with the US LIGO instruments warming up again ready to restart after their overhaul, and the Italian facility called Virgo about to join in. Among other things, the overhaul replaced the wires used to suspend the LIGO mirrors, after it turned out that metal molecules jiggle far too much.

living history

gary groth

Gary Groth: a single forty-year bound

No amount of arm-waving can link the appearance of 2000AD and the creation of Fantagraphics too directly, even though they appeared at almost the same moment. 1976 London was not 1976 Vermont, and rebellious insiders are not rebellious outsiders. 2000AD has always had to fit its inherited air of punky rebellion around life as a corporate brand, and hasn’t resisted that obligation for a while; Fantagraphics has gone from being a proper rouser of rabbles to one of the strongest curators of its art form that we have – the ten-year project to translate Guido Crepax is a full-scale cultural intervention – while still being prepared to take an artistic punt on material that might scare the horses.

But both have survived four decades of turmoil, so both feel like living history when you hold the books in your hand. And now both have an official biography, for the libertarian war stories and near-bankruptcies and court appearances and clarifying who exactly threw sharp objects at whom. I read the two books for Tripwire, and as always the termite art is probably where more of the action is. Neither book has any doubts about the value of making art in the first place, though.




The Invitation: raise the red lantern

The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:

Little Sister  (discussed in part here during the Edinburgh Film Festival)
The Invitation  (wiki)
Flag Without a Country  (reviewed at Critic’s Notebook)
Queen of Earth  (wiki)
The Neon Demon  (gallery)

Other votes for these films by poll participants:  0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.

In the comment box, some matters arising:

“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”

The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?

As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.

Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.

The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.

punks, not dead


Cadet Anderson and friend: futures not so bright

Carlos Ezquerra’s art is essentially caricature, which made me lose my bearings when I first saw it, back while obsessed with the slanty panels and alarming trousers of George Pérez. Now the upsides are much clearer, especially when the style gets buoyed up by current production standards and Ezquerra’s recent design habits – those are two serious characters up there, especially the one on the right who has a lifetime of heroism and agony ahead of her. For Tripwire I read the new Cadet Anderson collection from 2000AD, which didn’t make me change my dim view of prequel stories, but didn’t damage my admiration for Alan Grant either.

And: Martians invade and England prevails in Scarlet Traces, leading to a great many Victorian faces caught in flashes of fright, which happens to be one of D’Israeli’s areas of expertise.

And: several months of 1998 Judge Dredd collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 28, some of which is smothered by the year of its creation to the point of oxygen starvation. Retrospective satire is always lumbered with knowledge of all the cyclical failures that followed – barring the odd outlier like Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, which hovers above irrelevance on an updraught of pure dissatisfaction –  so the news that Mega-City One politics includes a Liar Party prompts a muted response in light of all events on planet Earth everywhere at the time or since. On the other hand, John Wagner and Ezquerra’s close look at Judge Galen DeMarco’s workplace dilemmas is timelessly potent. Soap opera with a purpose.

mystic twangs

sam waterston as richard helms

Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast

Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.

And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.

Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.


As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.

If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.

Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.

hands on

Gymnasts and rock climbers both use chalk, for similar reasons but at some distinctly different altitudes. In the November issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote a short column about how magnesium carbonate and a pioneering climber tie the two activities together, and about the ethical issue arising from the human traces left behind. There’s also a version of the same article online (paywalled, sometimes).

This month’s other clever science: peering into living brains via optoacoustics, something all set to be big news in neuroscience circles once the wrinkles are ironed out. And: optical fibres are usually stiff and brittle, but soft and squidgy ones might be implantable in the human body, to keep an eye on wound healing or the progress of diseases.

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, or art at all, 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


Cassandra Anderson: judge not

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 – 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.