Riffing the Comics

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a geek institution (with “MSTing” entering the vernacular) for good reason. The original television show is, when you get down to it, a variant on the time-honoured tradition (which I believe to be distinct to America) of having televised genre movies in a special slot with host segments introducing the movie and maybe breaking in with little skits. This is an approach which started with Vampira – yes, the one from Plan 9 From Outer Space in the 1950s – and continued through Elvira and others up to the present day.

The MST3K difference is that the host doesn’t go away – whereas most horror hosts of yesteryear clear off for the actual movie, MST3K has its host (and their robot friends) appear in a silhouette of cinema seating at the base of the screen, cracking jokes about the (usually terrible) movies featured on the show. Anyone in fandom who has not seen the show – which is now easier than ever to access outside of its US stamping grounds thanks to YouTube and various other platforms – at the very least has reasonable odds of recognising two things: the term “MSTing” and the theatre silhouette.

Since the original run of the show closed out at the end of season 9, various “movie riffing” outlets have tried to continue this approach, with or without the silhouettes; The Rifftrax project spearheaded by Mike Nelson, final host of the original show, hit on the idea that if you went without the silhouette and just sold an audio file that people synced up with their copies of the movie being riffed, then a world of copyright headaches could be avoided. Joel Hodgson, creator of the show and the original host, established Cinematic Titanic, which tried to incorporate a few more comedians in the riffing crew with a redesigned silhouette in its first few episodes (released direct to DVD in a world where, already, some form of streaming or download setup would reach more customers), before shifting to a live show format which went without the silhouettes (because what would be the point of including them in a show where you can see the riffers onstage anyway?).

Continue reading “Riffing the Comics”

Where Did the Patrol Go Wrong?

The tendency of the entertainment industry to try and turn everything into a franchise sometimes has strange results. Take, for instance, the example of RoboCop, where Paul Verhoeven’s original movie is generally regarded as a classic but where various efforts to create follow-ups and spin-offs have been at best incongruous, at worst just plain bad. There was the inevitable attempt to create a family-friendly kid’s Saturday morning cartoon out of it, for instance, because for some reason in the 1980s studio executives thought that making tie-in cartoons for small children based on films they weren’t allowed to see was a good ideas, and there was also the live action TV show which was watchable but entirely forgettable cyberpunk time-filler.

The 2014 remake came and went without gleaning much acclaim, and it seems like the rights holders have come to agree with the general sentiment that a lot of the stuff that’s been made since the original isn’t up to much. Not that they’re being sensible enough to just let it die, mind – they’re just working on a new movie which will be a direct sequel to the original film and treat everything else as non-canon.

Where did it all go wrong? Let’s look at the original movie trilogy and see if we can work it out.

RoboCop

The first film is, at its very simplest, a superhero origin story, and like all the classic superhero origin stories it’s so archetypal that I really don’t need to spend much energy summarising it here. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a cop in Detroit in an edgy cyberpunk future. The privatised police force’s contract is held by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which is researching robotic alternatives to conventional flesh-and-blood police. When the ED-209 project of corporate vice president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) suffers a few setbacks, the up and coming executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) proposes stepping up his own RoboCop project. Blah blah, Murphy gets mortally wounded at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang, he gets cyborged up, the memory wipe doesn’t work 100% and he sets out to recover his memories and avenge his death with the help of his former partner on the force Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen).

Continue reading “Where Did the Patrol Go Wrong?”

Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks

Cerebus the Aardvark, or simply Cerebus for short, is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and important works in the field of comics – especially independent comics. It began as a simple, funny parody of sword & sorcery comics, made funny in part by casting as its central hero a diminutive, grumpy aardvark (“the Earth-Pig born!”, as the narration in early issues was fond of proclaiming).

With the passage of time, it increasingly took on more serious themes, with artist-author Dave Sim shifting gear from telling short stories over the course of a single issue to telling two-to-three-part stories to, eventually, producing enormous novel-length series of dozens of issues. Sim declared his intention that the series would run for 300 issues, culminating with Cerebus’ death. Following on from its debut in 1977, the series ultimately put out its 300th issue and bowed out with issue 300 in early 2004, at the end of which Cerebus did indeed die.

In the intervening 27 years, the series managed to spearhead a major shift in comics publishing; not only was this the first time anyone had attempted a work of this scope within indie comics (or, for that matter, within comics in general), but Sim kicked all this off in a time when reprints of individual comic book issues or collecting comics into trade paperbacks was not the industry norm; the rise of the trade paperback can, in fact, be linked in part to the early commercial success of the so-called “Cerebus phonebooks”, compilations of the aforementioned novel-length storylines which ended up being literally phonebook-thick.

Continue reading “The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks”

The Downward Spiral

Kirie Goshima is an ordinary high school girl in the coastal town of Kurōzu-cho. She’s dating Shuichi Saito, an old friend who used to go to school with her in the town but ended up attending an out-of-town high school. One day, as Shuichi returns home for a visit, Kirie becomes aware that Shuichi’s dad has become obsessed with the symbol of the spiral. This apparently harmless aesthetic obsession runs out of control until Mr. Saito dies in a gruesome and nigh-impossible fashion; as his ashes spiral into the sky from the town crematorium, Mrs. Saito succumbs to a phobia of spirals just as acute as her late husband’s obsession, with equally grim consequences.

Shuichi, perhaps because of the perspective he’s been able to gain from being out of town, believes that there’s more to all this than mere mental aberration. He thinks that Kurōzu-cho as a whole is cursed by spirals – of both a physical and metaphorical nature – and whilst Kirie is at first sceptical, a string of increasingly overt and outlandish incidents makes this all too apparent. And whilst at first the incidents all seem to be isolated cases, they are all connected – like how every point on a spiral is connected as part of a single line. As the spiral corruption extends from the individual to the institutional and structural level, storms lash the town and it becomes isolated from the outside world, as bit by bit it descends into a helical hell…

Continue reading “The Downward Spiral”

Grappling With History

Written by Aubrey Sitterson, host of the Straight Shoot podcast, and illustrated by Chris Moreno, The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling is an almost 200 page history of what the book calls the One True Sport. This is a title Sitterson bestows because of, not despite, the fakery intrinsic to the format, which he makes a case for being a strength of the form rather than a liability. Clueless non-fans love to point out to wrestling fans that it’s fake, as though any wrestling fan didn’t know that. (Despite fan myth suggesting that “kayfabe” – the pretence of reality – died in the 1990s, the history notes that actually the lid was blown off the business by a renegade promoter airing his grievances in the press back in the 1930s.) What they don’t get is that the fakery liberates wrestling from any consideration aside from providing an entertaining spectacle and emotionally engaging stories to the audience. Football teams, athletes, and so on are supposed to be concentrating on winning first and foremost, entertainment second; Vince McMahon’s infamous “sports entertainment” phrase really sums up how wrestling inverts that, since it’s an entertainment which uses the trappings of sport as its aesthetic and premise.

To my eye the length of the book is just about right; it’s short enough to provide a good introduction to the field that isn’t off-putting in its length but long enough to be meaty and go into sufficient detail that it can also teach fans a thing or two. Sitterson has a knack for condensing his text down to a point where he’s delivering a lot of information in a short amount of text without becoming so terse that he fails to adequately explain crucial concepts; Moreno’s artwork not only fits the superheroic world of wrestling neatly but also works well to support and convey Sitterson’s points.

Continue reading “Grappling With History”

Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

Continue reading “Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow”

Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error”

Ferretnibbles 5 – Wrecking Elven Cities and Drawing Elf Porn

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Note: Ferretnibbles 4 is not conserved here since it was not my own work.

The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien)

The Fall of Gondolin is the third of Christopher Tolkien’s standalone presentations of major narratives from Middle Earth’s First Age, following on from The Children of Húrin and Beren and Lúthien. Since he’d hit his early 90s by the time the latter volume was done, Christopher had played down the hopes of his being able to complete this one, but thankfully he has been able to; this time around, he’s much more emphatic that this is well and truly the end of the line as far as his delvings into his father’s Middle Earth manuscripts go.

The three stories in this trilogy constitute the three stories which J.R.R. Tolkien himself thought could sustain an entire novel by themselves, and in each case he made multiple concerted attempts to set down and revise the narrative to a point he was happy with, but all were unfinished to a greater or lesser extent. As I’ve previously detailed, The Children of Húrin is presented mostly as a single, continuous narrative, Christopher Tolkien taking the most complete version of the narrative available and then drawing on other texts to patch over the gaps here and there. On the other hand, in the case of Beren and Lúthien no one version of that narrative was developed and polished to the point where that was possible, so Christopher instead presents the different versions of the texts in order of composition so readers can trace how the story developed from its early, Lord Dunsany-esque prototype into more distinctly Tolkien-ish later forms.

Continue reading “Ferretnibbles 5 – Wrecking Elven Cities and Drawing Elf Porn”

Kickstopper: Back Book 2

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Webcomics are great when they’re not terrible, and two of the most consistently not-terrible webcomic creators of recent years have been Andrew Clark of Nedroid Picture Gallery fame and the much-memed K.C. Green, creator of series like Gunshow and He Is a Good Boy, with breakout hits including that doggo who doesn’t think things are all that bad, Anime Club and the comic which inspired the “magical realm” meme.

But do these two great tastes taste great together? Luckily, a recent Kickstarter of theirs lets me offer the answer in Kickstopper form.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Back Book 2”