Not opening all hours

Given the fact that I don’t tend to watch much television at all, I’ve not really paid any attention to the Xmas TV Schedules at all. Yes, I know there’s the traditional Doctor Who Xmas Day Special, but I’m not looking forward to it with anything remotely approaching the level of last year (though I have been equally successful in avoiding any but the most basic knowledge of its contents – Santa Claus, Nick Frost, that stuff) and I am gloomily anticipating that it will end up with the continued presence of Jenna Coleman as my least favourite character on TV this millennium.

In all other respects, I remain ignorant of the fare on offer over the holiday fortnight. It was not always thus. Part of the Xmas tradition was buying the Radio and TV Times Xmas and New Year double issues and going through them with a biro marking off everything I wanted to see, a process that then underwent revision when I saw what clashed with what or, considerably more often, what clashed with what my parent(s) – owners of the TV – intended to watch instead.

Last year, the BBC gave in to the pleas and clamours of David Jason to allow him to star in a TV programme again, by reviving the once-wonderful Open All Hours for a one-off episode. In order to get round the fact that Open All Hours was a vehicle for the wonderful Ronnie Barker, and that Ronnie Barker is sadly no longer with us, Jason and writer Roy Clarke turned Granville into Arkwright, introduced a new character to play Granville’s part, screwed their eyes tight shut and hoped it would work sufficiently well for people not to notice what a colossally idiotic thing it was.

They re-named it Still Open All Hours, a title that demonstrated both the paucity of imagination and the faint air of desperation that clung to the whole thing. I reviewed it here. Nevertheless, it brought in a tidy audience and enough appreciation for the BBC to commission an entire series, to be broadcast ‘later in 2014’.

Now there’s not a lot of 2014 left, so curiosity led me to google the programme and, guess what? The series starts broadcasting on Boxing Day, 364 days after the ‘pilot’. There’s a further episode on December 28, and four more in the New Year, so 2015 is not exactly getting off to the pristine, fresh start we might all like.

I don’t know how well it will go down, but I can say that its audience will be diminished by at least one. I watched the 2013 Xmas Special out of more curiosity than anticipation, but I found it to be as pointless as the idea suggests, and so desperate to recreate the genuine joy of the past that it was prepared to foist artificial- and in the case of Granville’s son, Leroy, horribly cruel – character traits onto characters unsuited to them. So I won’t be watching this year.

But I find it unbearably sad to think that so many people want to watch something as joyless as this, a programme that can only exist by digging up the corpse of Ronnie Barker and violating it in such desperate impersonation. It’s horrible to watch Jason and Clarke prostituting themselves in this manner, even as they doubtless think they are honouring Barker.

I wish I could say that I was surprised that such a sizeable audience actively wanted to watch such hollow, inadequate ‘entertainment’, simply because it reminded them of something infinitely better. Shame on you.

Sandman Overture # 4

Ok, let’s try to do without the grumbling this time.

Part 4 of this six-issue story has now been published. It is immaculately written, and beautifully drawn, by Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III respectively. However, despite the presence of a token cliffhanger, this is again not a discrete episode, but a portion of the whole, and as such offers little by way of independent satisfaction, despite its attempts to make up for this by way of revelation.

Dream, the Dream of Cats and the small, blue-skinned girl called Hope, arrive at the City of Stars. Dream thinks upon his father, and between microseconds, is summoned to Time’s side, his study. Time is cold and distant, refusing to give Dream the (unspecified) help he seeks, in punishment for Dream having been allowed to borrow the Saeculum*, only to lose it.

(*Saeculum: a period of time equivalent to a potential human life).

Returning to the City, Dream’s band are refused entry because they are not Stars. Dream argues that he must be allowed entry in order to deal with the mad Star who threatens to destroy all the Universe. He, alone, is permitted to enter the mad Star’s cell. The Star calls him her’brother’, underlining that she is in the domain of Delirium, Dream’s youngest sister) (who was once Delight).

Dream reveals his responsibility for this moment: the arrogance and ignorance of his refusal to end the life of the young woman who was a Dream Vortex, until her madness had infected a world a galaxy, a Star.

He is then summoned, unwillingly this time, to Time’s study, where his father is now pleased that Dream has returned the Saeculum (it is implied that this has not yet happened in Dream’s lineal perception, and that indeed it is the responsibility of his successor, Daniel-Dream). Dream does not want his father’s proferred help: he has been taken at a crucial moment, his absence will lead to the death/destruction/delirium of Hope.

As it does.

As the issue ends, Dream faces imprisonment beyond the event horizon of a dark Star, or Black Hole.

At the official quarterly schedule now applied to Sandman Overture, we should be able to read the entirety of the story in mid-to-late June 2015. It is abundantly clear that only then, with the ability to comprehend this tale as a whole, will its sections come into focus. During Sandman‘s original 75 issue run, Gaiman followed the comic book convention of creating multiple-issue arcs that carried a sense of satisfaction within each part, but he has abandoned this notion for the prequel.

I fully expect that the whole will read as a truly worthy addition to the canon, but I can’t pretend that it makes for great reading on an issue-by-issue basis, and that’s entirely separate from the scheduling.

Until mid-to-late March, officially…

Beyond Redemption 2

So, here’s the thing: in response to complaints that there was potentially something not open and above board as to the process for awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, FIFA appoint an independent investigator.

They don’t give him any power to make people answer his question and Russia refuses utterly to comply.

Nevertheless, he completes his investigations and files an extensive report. Instead of publishing it, FIFA decide to only give an summary of the findings, which is that nothing whatsoever in the least bit dodgy has been discovered.

The Investigator immediately protests, on the basis that this summary is completely unjustifiable based upon his investigations. He appeals against it.

At the same time, two witnesses who gave evidence to the investigator on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about personal security as a result of their testimony, are exposed by FIFA, who do not release their names, but merely identify them by details that apply to no other persons whatsoever.

The whistleblowers appeal.

FIFA investigates the appeals. People implicated in the original claims investigate the appeal. FIFA rejects the appeal. After all, despite the fact the Judge giving the summary was officially relaying FIFA’s response to the report, his summary was only ‘his opinion’.

The Investigator resigns. What the hell else can he do?

And people continue to believe that FIFA can be reformed if Sepp Blatter would only go and retire.

Hymenoptera hipocriota Redux!

I thought it was all over, but the dead wasps are back.

After a more-or-less wasp-free November, I’d concluded that the cold had finished up all the 2014 crop, but I was wrong. For the last week or so, my bathroom windowsill – and floor! – has once again become a wasps graveyard.

If this is the outcome of an unusually mild autumn, then come next year it’s me for shivering from September 1.

The dead ones aren’t actually the problem. It’s little trouble to go round with a dustpan and brush, collecting them and dumping them in the bin. No, it’s the not-dead ones that are the trouble, the sudden buzz, the angry swooping and retreating towards the heat of the light, and the necessity of yet another wasp execution, as I prowl with the aerosol, ready for the exact moment to zap them on the wing. Then go for the dustpan and brush.

Last night was pretty intensive. I didn’t get home until after 9.30pm, and there were no less than five occasions when I was interrupted in my precious few hours of relaxation to lower the boom on yet another Hymenoptera hipocriota living on beyond its proper time.

The last of these was actually conducted from my bed, where I was finishing off a few pages of Pratchett, and had to do little more than roll over to grab the can and execute the one exploring my bedside lamp.

Yet there’s a curiously positive side to all this faffing around. All my life I’ve been scared of wasps, and bees: it never extended to an actual phobia, but it was in sight of the border controls. As the years have gone by and I have matured (by whatever minimal degree), I have gained a measure of control over my instinctive urge to run like buggery whenever one of the stripey little bastards buzzes around, but this past few months have changed that. The sound of the wasp no longer frightens me. When I hear it, I am irritated, but no longer scared. I just grab the can, await my chance and go back to what I was doing.

I’m never going to greet them with complete equanimity, but get this: a couple of nights ago, I felt a tickle on my left wrist and looked round to discover a full-size wasp woofling around on. There are no holes in my ceiling, where I bounced off, no skidmarks on anything (and you may take that reference any way you choose): I merely flicked it off and went for the aerosol.

Of course, I am not proclaiming myself cured. These are, after all, the cold-crippled wasps, the pensioners who have outlived their natural term, and who are easy to dispose of: it might not be quite the same with a lean, hungry young wasp next July.

But for now I’ll revel in my unexpected calmness in the face of my ancient menace.

Love, Light and Peace

Spike – much-missed

Though it was broadcast on BBC4 last Wednesday, it was only last night that I caught up with Spike Milligan: Love, Light and Peace, a beautiful ninety minute documentary about the late comedian and ex-Goon, which made much use of private photos, tapes and films made or collected by Milligan about his family and himself. With the aid of these, the programme took a look at Milligan’s life that was as open and honest about his failings as Milligan had always been himself.

And it’s still available on the BBC iPlayer, until 8 January 2015: watch it, please.

Terrance Alan Milligan, of Irish stock, born in India in 1918, known for almost all his adult like, professionally and personally as Spike, comedian, ex-Goon, pivotal figure and perhaps the most important person in twentieth century comedy.

Already, the word is there, the one word that could never not be appended to any mention of Milligan, no matter how much he may have wanted to escape from it: Goon. Ex-Goon, one of four very privileged men to have held that title, alongside Michael Bentine (briefly), Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars. Spike Milligan, write and performer in The Goon Show, perhaps the most popular comedy of the Fifties, and certainly the most influential of the century. Almost all of what we have experienced in comedy since the start of the Sixties derives, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, from the Goons and from Spike. Monty Python may be better known, better remembered, because their comedy was delivered on television and in film, visual media to which we respond, and not in radio, a fading medium. But without the Goons, and Milligan, there would have been no Monty Python, or not for probably another twenty years at least.

But Love, Light and Peace, the title taken from Milligan’s sign off to all his correspondence, gave no undue time to the Goons, and was all the better for it. This was a programme about Spike the man, about his whole life, and whilst it was measured out largely about the things he was involved in throughout his career, it was equally concerned with the measure of the man. It took in the wildly successful stage plays in the Sixties, The Bed-Sitting Room and Son of Oblomov, massive anarchic attractions, and the later BBC2 Q series’ (Q5, Q6, Q7 etc), the first of which that alarmed the nascent Pythons by preceding everything they were planning to do.

There wasn’t room for everything: I was particularly sad not to see any mention of the late Sixties The World of Beachcomber series, adapted by Milligan from J. B. Morton’s long-running Daily Express column, which I found hysterically funny, and no reference to his books, barring a passing mention of his memoirs. But there couldn’t have been a complete accounting of everything Milligan did and still have room to speak about Spike the Man, Spike the husband and father.

The programme included extensive contributions on screen from three of his children, daughters Laurel, Sile and Jane (son Sean was not involved, except in childhood films), who spoke with loving honesty about him as a father, most notably in the case of Laurel, who praised Milligan for never ever saying a word against her mother (first wife June) after their divorce, taking onto himself the whole of the blame for the breakdown, even though elsewhere in the programme he speaks of his belief that June had been unfaithful to him.

The only area to which the documentary could not do justice was, properly, Milligan’s life-long issues with depression. Nowadays, we call it bipolar disorder, but Spike and his contemporaries knew it and spoke of it as manic depression. Traditionally, it’s associated with his experiences in the War, brought on by shell-shock in Italy in 1944, when he was bombed, but the children believed that it had been in him from his birth, and one of the few new pieces of information that I learned was that, two years before his death. and after decades of Milligan’s issues, his father Leo confessed that he too had suffered throughout his life with depression.

But Love, Light and Peace could only talk about that side of Spike, through Milligan’s relentless honesty, and the voices of his children and his close friends and collaborators: it could not show it, could not show the other side of Spike, because it didn’t exist, on film, on tape. The closest was a short film, made by Milligan himself to highlight his own treatment in a mental hospital at the hands of a cruel, arrogant, ignorant nurse, berating him for being self-indulgent when other people ‘have it worse’. The excerpt was brief and violent, but nothing more was needed.

Of course, the documentary was stuffed with clips of Milligan at work, including extremely rare footage of ITV’s mid-Fifties attempts to put the Goon humour onscreen, and an excerpt from the Australian adaptation, in which Milligan also appeared, The Idiot Weekly. It didn’t matter where they came from, every single clip had me laughing out loud, even as the programme’s more personal elements had tears welling.

I think that Spike Milligan was a genius, that he did more to influence what comedy could be than any other single person in my lifetime. Not everything he did was brilliant, especially towards the end of his life but for The Goon Show alone he deserves every accolade there ever could possibly be. Almost all of his brilliance came from his manic depression and thereby lies the rub. If that was, as has been suggested so many times, due to his war experiences, then that led to the extremely difficult question: how much of Milligan’s life were we prepared to sactrifice? If it were possible to go back in time to that exact moment, to pull him away from the bomb that shredded his nerves, preserve him from anything else that might have been a trigger, is it true to say that we would have lost the comic genius entirely, with all that entails? But would we then have had a happier Spike Milligan, released from the depressive episodes that made his life? If that were demonstrable, what choice would we, as his devoted audience, make?

That was a dilemma the documentary did not raise, let alone try to grapple with, but it was a personal reaction, and one that i have had many times before. I think – I hope – that of given the chance to play God like that, I would have chosen the happy man over the genius.

One Rule for All

Readers of this blog who follow the sports posts may remember the excessively long one I posted here about the crazy events of the 2008/9 FA Cup Second Round tie between Droylsden and Chesterfield, which went to four games, two of them abandoned, before Droylsden beat their League One/Two opponents to qualify for the Third Round proper for the first time ever, only to be expelled from the competition for fielding an ineligible player.

History has now repeated – or rather reversed – itself as Chesterfield, who won this season’s Second Round Proper tie against MK Dons have been proved to have fielded an ineligible player.

Just as with Droylsden, six years ago, there’s no suggestion that the player was played deliberately, and that his inclusion in the team was purely an accident. And, just as with Droylsden, Chesterfield have been expelled from the competition for fielding an ineligible player, and MK Dons have been reinstated, to go into the Third Round tie against Scunthorpe United or Worcester City.

Unfortunately, that’s where the parallels end. Chesterfield have NOT been expelled from the FA Cup. Instead, they have been ordered to replay the tie as soon as possible.

So, let’s just pause to check what that means. It means that a non-League club who field an ineligible player whilst beating a Football League club get expelled, whilst a Football League club who do exactly the same thing get the chance to win the game anyway, this time legally (oh, yes, and to pull in another gate for the replayed home game). Where’s the consistency in that? Where’s the fairness in that?

The circumstances do differ: Sean Newton played for Droylsden due to an oversight about his one-game suspension, whilst George Magreitter, an on-loan player, did not get written permission from Wolves to play in the FA Cup (and therefore become cup-tied). And Sean Newton scored both goals by which Droylsden beat Chesterfield and I have no information as to whether George Magreitter played any decisive role in aiding Chesterfield to their 1-0 victory, other than being a part of their eleven.

But when it comes to ineligible players, it is and always has been an absolute offence. They don’t need to have affected the result, they just need to have stepped out onto the field of play, and the club loses all benefit they take from the game: points, qualification, the lot. Teams have been expelled from Europe for having brought on an ineligible player as a sub with eight minutes to go and a winning margin already.

I imagine there’s some pretty pissed off people around Droylsden right now, and I don’t blame them one little bit. The salt in the wound is that this isn’t just inconsistency, but that it benefits Chesterfield, who benefited from Droylsden’s offence in the most direct way.

One rule for all, or not it seems.

Kirstywatch: The Penultimate Weekend

Only another seven days to go until the Xmas Number 1 for 2014 is revealed: will it be this year’s X-Factor Winner, or can the prize be prised out of Simon Cowell’s back-pocket again? Wait and see.

However, I’m more concerned with the annual faring of A Fairytale of New Yprk, and The Pogues featuring the late and utterly great Kirsty MacColl.

Back for a tenth successive Xmas for no better reason than that people love it, the song may just be on for its first top 10 placing since 2007, having climbed to no 11 and, for once, placed itself ahead of its perennial rival, All I Want for Christmas is You.

I love seeing it come back, year in, year out, without promotion or effort. Give me a Xmas present, people, keep on buying it for the next seven days. I’ll owe you one.

Uncompleted Stories: d’Arc Tangent

Talk about an uncompleted story! d’Arc Tangent appeared in 1982, a black and white magazine in the format used by the very popular Elfquest. It was co-created by Phil Foglio (already a well-known cartoonist in SF circles) and Freff, a working name for Connor Freff Cochran, a writer-artist with no previous and no subsequent credits. The duo also had the benefit of an editorial consultancy by Chris Claremont, then riding high as writer of the X-Men.
I was recommended to the title by a friend who couldn’t speak highly enough of it, and when I read it I agreed with his opinion. The story combined expansive space opera with slapstick humour, and set up the engaging situation of a robot imprinted by an alien being’s thoughts, feelings and memories, and faced with becoming his stand-in in an intense symbiotic relationship with the dead man’s mate.
It was planned as a sixteen-part series, though I wasn’t then aware of the limited number. It promised much in so many ways, and completely failed to deliver: there was never a number 2.
The explanation for this was simple: there was a rift between Foglio and Freff, and I heard that Foglio had threatened to go to law if Freff attempted to do d’Arc Tangent without him. Until recently, when researching this piece, that was all I know, but in recent years Freff – who states that the story will be completed, in some format or another – has gone online to deliver a vicious attack on Foglio, laying the blame 100% at his door and accusing him of all manner of arrogance and laziness.
I have not found any comment from Foglio on either this piece or indeed about d’Arc Tangent in general, except the most oblique yet public of statements that appeared in issue 1 itself! Each issue was intended to include a space for one or other of the co-creators to do their own thing: Foglio chose to draw a cartoon of himself demanding to know of Freff when he’s going to finish his part of the work, whilst Freff lies on his back on the top of scaffolding, painting pages onto the ceiling, Michaelangelo-style, whilst languidly pronouncing “It will be ready when it is ready…”
Oh dear.
So what was it that made d’Arc Tangent so good?. The single issue ran for 46 pages. It’s the only piece of Freff’s work that I’ve ever seen, whilst I’m familiar enough with Foglio’s work over a sufficiently long period of time to find the majority of the issue in keeping with his interest. It’s not difficult to tell which parts are most influenced by young Claremont either.
The creators use the first ten pages to draw up five prologues, the last two of which will be of direct relevancy to the ensuing story whilst the preceding three plant clues and forebodings as to what is intended to come later. An alien warlord flees a rebellion, leaving death and destruction behind him, swearing return and revenge, an ambassador approaches an unbelievable and unbelievably immense structure in space known as the wall and an undetected derelict spaceship drifts somewhere in the Solar System, occupied only by a cartoon caricature of Phil Foglio that identifies that visitors are coming.
There is the seeming irrelevance of two Breton idiots arguing their interminable rivalry in front of Jean-Jacques d’Arvieux, Duke de Villayer, in 1671 and the slow building to the beginning of the story in the growing professional and personal relationship between Stuma M and Pavilar T, Krithians and Agents of Starsift. The pair bond as Avari M and Avari T, a much more intense version of marriage involving soul deep empathy and telepathy, before leaving on a routine, innocuous, three year mission designed to be an excuse for a prolonged honeymoon, allowing the Bond to devlop to its furthest extent.
Until Avari M and two of the three Arc series robots, Sine and Cosine, descend to update his prior report on a quiet, isolated planet of harmless class-three lifeforms. Except that the planetary inhabitants are now volatile, dangerous and lethal. They attack without provocation, killing Avari M and destroying the robots, and delivering what will be a fatal blow to the in-orbit Avari T, unless she can abort her mission and receive medical aid.
Which is highly unlikely.
Apart from the personal aspect, the disaster is highly unusual. With one exception, the Universe favours empathy and reason ahead of random violence. That anomaly has an irreplacable agent installed. It is, of course, the nearest planet, three months away, to which Avari T must trvel to make her report. Is anyone surprised to find that this is Earth, specifically Brittany, in 1671.
The journey sees the ongoing deterioration of Avari T, though the creators are clever in not letting us into her head, but instead to watch it both in body language and in the discussions between Arc Tangent and the main mobile Psi-Dwelve shipboard computer. On achieving orbit, she insists on travelling to rendezvous with the robot agent, Imrak, who poses as the wise hermit, Folgoet, despite the increasing evidence that she is cracking, descending towards madness and death.
Her descending lander, crossing the sky like a flame, is seen by the two squabbling French idiots, Alphonse and Raphael (pure Foglio, these two), who follow it to Folgoet’s cottage, where they see his robotic face, and worse, Avari T without the mask that covers her over-large eyes.

The report this to d’Arvieux who, between the Church’s insistence that Demons be burnt, and his own German mercenaries’ fears of devils, is forced to act. Any hope that the calm, and experienced Folgoet can defuse the situation, and talk the crowd down, is dashed when Avari T snaps, her anger and pain driving her towards wanting to kill. Both are exposed as what they are and d’Arvieux, despite his own fondness for Folgoet, does the only possible thing and orders their burning.
From orbit, Arc Tangent observes. It is his task to rescue the mission and, to improve his chances by giving him local knowledge, the Psi-Dwelve implants d’Arvieux’s personality profile onto his memory circuits. This has to be done at express speed, and a computer that has seen several disasters affect its mission, and had to carry an additional burden after losing two-thirds of its robotic assistants, makes a tiny error in billions of computations.
And d’Arvieux’s personality is permanenty imprinted onto Arc Tangent, transforming him into a Seventeenth Century swordsmaster with great swordplay skills (you can so tell Claremont here, can’t you?). He swashbuckles in, rescues the girl and Imrak, and returns them to the spacecraft without harming anyone, least of all d’Arvieux.
There, Imrak finds that the Psi-Dwelve has burnt itself out. Moreover, the distortions that affect d’Arc Tangent and the Psi-Dwelve match entirely the distortions inherent in the two anomaly planets. The breakdown is not due to Avari T’s advancing telepathic madness, but something else, something vital to his mission, that sends him back to Earth.
But that is not all. Against all expectation, Starsift has responded, lifting Avari T’s duty to the mission and calling her to a redezvous with a medical ship. The flight should last five weeks, making the timing to her utter breakdown very tight but there is one last sting in the tail: the Bond is there once more. Weak, feeble, but still sustaining: that essential oneness of mind is restored… with d’Arc Tangent. Even as it saves her life, for now, Avari T responds with disgust…
So, there it was. Come back in three months for issue 2, except that thirty-two years later there is still no issue 2 and never will be.
That single issue of d’Arc Tangent is both immensely fascinating and immensely frustrating.  Whilst certainly not flawless, the opening issue set up a situation full of potentil whilst hinting at deep background that would, in time, come to be explored in depth. And Foglio and Freff had created the intriguing prospect of a swashbuckling robot with and empathetic bond with an organic being: where would you go with that?
One of the perennial issues that makes comics different from any other form of publishing is that it’s largely a collaborative medium. Writers and artists make different contributions that go to make up the whole of a work. Most writers can’t draw, a large proportion of artists can’t write well enough. From the outset, for commercial reasons, publishers split the creative task, both to speed along the physical creation of work, but also to compartmentalise the artistic aspect, diminishing the importance of any single creative person, and impressing upon them their interchangeability.
Disputes between creators, antipathies between writer and artist were unimportant. Both were subject to editors who told both what to do. Most of the time they never met.
But from the Eighties forward, with work made for hire no longer the only game in town, with creators retaining ownership of their own work, or even publishing it themselves, the inherent weakness of being dependant upon two, potentially diverging, creative minds became apparent.
I don’t know what caused the Foglio/Freff partnership to disintegrate but it put paid to any more d’Arc Tangent. Foglio’s cartoon, berating his partner for blowing many deadlines, indicates a substantial difference between the pair about the speed of their respective work. Freff’s recent slam at Foglio confirms this: he claims that Foglio was careless, hasty and lazy, bringing in half-hearted pages of semi-scribbles that he then expected everybody else to do the work on to render them publishable.
Freff also painted himself as the true creative force behind the story, minimising Foglio’s part to such extent that you begin to wonder why he involved Foglio at all. The rumour in the mid-Eighties was that Foglio had threatened a lawsuit to prevent d’Arc Tangent continuing without him: Freff claims that Foglio did start a lawsuit, claiming ownership of virtually everything to do with the series, but being thrown out with nothing.
Freff also says that d’Arc Tangent will be completed, in some format or other. On the other hand, having defeated Foglio utterly, destroyed his claims to any ownership of the project, how come it’s thirty-two years later and there has never been the least part of d’Arc Tangent in any way, shape or form from Mr Conor Freff Ferguson?
d’Arc Tangent 1 was copyrighted to ffantasy ffactory, who published it. ffantasy ffactory was publisher Melissa Ann Singer, and never published another comic. Melissa Ann Singer is a Senior Editor with the long-standing SF publishers, Tor Books. I suspect that the rights to d’Arc Tangent  are still divided between Conor Freff Ferguson and Phil Foglio.
Long ago, that noted writer/artist of highly individual opinions, Dave Sim, proposed an in-passing solution. Sim thinks at right angles to most of the rest of us, and he has a refreshing approach to copyright, in that he believes that it should be enforced basically by public opinion.
In short, let everyone in. Let anyone who thinks they can do a Cerebus story try it: Sim was rightly confident that no-one could do a better Cerebus than him and that would settle the hash of copyists. So Foglio and Freff can’t work together anymore: let both of then put out a d’Arc Tangent 2, and see where each of them goes with it.
I admit it: I love Foglio’s work, and have followed him for the last twenty-five years. The only work of Freff’s I’ve ever seen is, as I said above, d’Arc Tangent 1. I know which one I’d buy first. But then again, the whole point of collaboration is the synergy of minds, the creation of something that the individual minds would not, individually, be able to produce.
It’s all moot now, and has been for a long time. d’Arc Tangent is not so much an Uncompleted Story as a Barely Started Story: in either form it’s a glimpse into what might have been and never was: except maybe on Earth-2, when Foglio and Freff stayed friends all the way to issue 16 and the end of a story not to be read.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Uncollected Thoughts

Now (read) on…

By an interesting but not unlikely coincidence, I saw last year’s second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy the day before my team’s Office Xmas Party, at which, in order not to spoil anything for those who planned to see it, I made only one comment. Which was: “Oh, wow!”

Twelve months on and I’ve returned from the final instalment, and yes, I’m off to the Party tomorrow night where, in order not to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I will make only one comment. This time it’s going to be: “Oh, fucking wow!”

After watching the middle instalment, I mused about what Peter Jackson might find to fill out The Battle of the Five Armies, given that The Desolation of Smaug had finished – on a cliffhanger – a bit close to the end of the original novel. There were only three things left: the destruction of Lake-town and the death of Smaug at the arrow of Bard the Bowman: the build up to and the fighting of the Battle of Five Armies (no definitive article): and Bilbo’s return to Bag End in the middle of the Sackville-Baggins’ auctioning off its contents.

Jackson had created a hostage to fortune from himself in leaving Gandalf captured in Dol Guldur, which meant having to resolve his escape, and the attack by the White Council that drove the nascent Sauron from his older, less terrible fortress, which was not merely confined to offstage in the novel, but also very much to offhand. Still, that only made four elements.

And Jackson made his film out of those four elements only, and nothing else but sub-plots interweaved into one section or another.

The film starts where last year’s left off, right into the action, as if twelve months hadn’t gone by. Smaug circles the town then comes in for fire-breathing attacks, burning the wooden city in great sweeping lines, treading it under claw. Tauriel tries to get the dwarves and Bard’s kids away, the Master tries to get the gold away, and Bard saves the day by shooting the last Black Arrow unerringly into that single patch where the dragon is unscaled, killing him (Smaug promptly drops out of the sky and does even more damage to Lake-town, though he does rather propitiously land directly on the Master: I have made no secret of my lack of regard for Stephen Fry, and this is possibly a churlish thing to say, but if anyone should set-up a Kickstarter to fund a real-life enactment, they will not find me wanting.)

The problem with this section is exemplified by the fact that it is only now, getting on for however long into the film it is, that the title card for The Battle of the Five Armies comes up on-screen. A decade ago, Peter Jackson caused a rift with Christopher Lee by dropping the death of Saruman from the theatrical release of The Return of the King, on the basis that it was a leftover from The Two Towers (and when you see the extended DVD version, it is obvious that Jackson is right).

The same applies here: Smaug’s death is a holdover from the previous film. No matter how much of a catalyst it is for what follows, it belongs at the end of The Desolation of Smaug: it’s sweeping up a loose end that would have been better concluded where it naturally belonged.

There’s no such reservation about the next section, which is made out of best Jacksonian whole cloth. I’m pretty sure that Jackson’s portrayal of the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur bears no resemblance to whatever Tolkien saw happening so far away from his jolly little adventure, but it’s the most eyepoppingest and jaw-droppingest part of the whole film, as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee get to do some strutting of their stuff against the newly-resurrected Nazgul, before Galadriel blows Sauron far far away.

And I know how antithetical this is to Tolkien’s concepts, to the Three Rings that were never touched by Sauron but which were not instruments of war, but rather of defence and preservation, but damn! this is the three ringbearers in one place and it’s unbelievably powerful, and I’m prepared to overlook what is one of the largest overturnings of Tolkienian lore for how this is handled. Not to mention that, in having it be Galadriel – who alone of all those Elves is of the Noldor and has lived in the light of the Blessed Land – who finally drives Sauron out, tumbling through the sky, Jackson lays the most subtle link to his earlier trilogy, to her Tempting at her Well, so long ago in The Fellowship of the Ring.

As for Bilbo’s return to Hobbiton, it’s handled with simplicity and, above all, brevity, which other commenters have already welcomed as a contrast to The Return of the King‘s multiple farewells.

The rest of it, about two-thirds of the film as far as I could judge, was the Battle of the Five Armies, the actually fighting of which, in all its stages, took between and hour and ninety minutes of the movie. Proof, therefore, for those who have never accepted the application of the tone of Lord of the Rings to a cheap and cheerful children’s book, of the elephantiasis of Jackson’s handling of his subject.

Well, we disagree on that, and we’re going to have to continue to disagree, because I found it spectacular in every sense of that word, utterly riveting in every moment, and stunning in its execution. If you think that the Battle for Minas Tirith was colossal, when set against this it was no more than a local skirmish. If you’d asked me what subjective time the battle lasted, I’d have struggled to put it at above a half hour.

There was the most brilliant of cameos by Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Thorin’s cousin, and leader of the Dwarf army from the Iron Hills, approaching the forthcoming battle as if it were no more than a Saturday night punch-up outside a Glasgow pub. And there was death.

In The Hobbit, three of the dwarf-band die: Fili and Kili, the two youngest, Thorin’s nephews, and Thorin himself. It’s yet another thing that Tolkien placed offstage. Not so Jackson, as we knew would come. Fili, killed as provocation for Thorin to place himself in a trap, Kili in trying to save his elf-maiden love, Tauriel, and Thorin, redeemed of his dragon-sickness, in final single-combat with the Orc, Azog the Defiler, who killed his grandfather Thrain. There was only one way to do it: to get close enough to Azog to run his sword through the Orc’s black heart, Thorin had to allow Azog to deliver a fatal blow.

I very rarely cry at films, and if I do it’s nearly almost always in the privacy of my own home, but between this, and Tauriel’s grieving over Kili, and her desperate pleading not to love because she didn’t understand it could be like that, I was wiping away tears and glad I was sat alone in the dark and invisible.

So, from me, a yes. To be perfectly honest, whilst I’m not going to get carried away and say that this is the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen, because it’s not, I think it’s the first time that I would have been ready to go out, buy another ticket and walk back to watch the film all over again, as long as it began immediately.

There’s nothing to look forward to now for December 2015, except perhaps that by then the 12-disc DVD box-set of all the Extended Versions may be available and I can set aside a day to watch the whole thing, every extra minute, one after another.

Maybe in the future, Jackson and those of his closest collaborators who I’ve lumped into his name, will do it again. There is The Silmarillion, after all, and if there’s a problem about turning that into a Trilogy, it’s going to be in the sheer volume you’d have to leave out just to do as few as three films. Go on, Peter, just don’t leave it too long. I might not have another decade left in me, and I would dearly love to have another December Friday afternoon at the Cinema, cursing that there were another two Xmas’s before me to see the end of the film.

And I’m just trying to imagine the Dungeons of Angband, and the ever-smoking, triple tops of Thangorodrim, and the face of he who will become Sauron but who is merely a Lieutenant of Melkor, whose name is not spoken and who is named Morgoth…

Considering John Crowley: Beasts

Striking front cover, appallingly unrepresentative back cover blurb

As with The Deep, John Crowley’s second novel, Beasts, was received with critical fervour when it appeared in 1976. And as with The Deep, I find myself far less convinced than the luminaries that welcomed this work.
Beasts is, like its predecessor, firmly a genre novel, though Crowley leans much further towards SF than fantasy, setting his story against a background of a future America in which a protracted civil war has resulted in the country being divided into ten large Autonomies and several smaller ones, not merely bringing an end to industry and advancement but putting it into reverse.
It’s a (contemporaneous) hundred years into the future whose dimensions are spelt out to us in the first chapter by a convenient old magazine with convenient articles, read by Loren Casaubon, who is not the protagonist of this book.
It’s something of a clumsy step, though Crowley handles it with his customary elegance of prose. Loren is one of those who have welcomed the reversal of Progress, the return towards an older, wilder, more ecologically sane American continent. When we meet him, he’s just starting a mission, cut off from ‘civilisation’ to reintroduce four fledgling peregrine hawks into the wild. It will demand care, attention and time.
But not a great deal of action, it seems, which is a trait in Crowley’s fiction overall. As we progress, we will see that not a lot necessarily happens in his books, though it will always happen with great and elegant prose and, as he finds his footings, nobody will care that nothing’s happening.
For now though, Crowley uses Loren and his handy magazine to set up the world of the 2070s, though notably in a mainly impressionistic fashion, descending into hard detail only where the ensuing story will tread. This means a direct reference to the Northern Autonomy, led by Dr Jerrell Gregorious, and to the USE (elucidated only once as the Union for Social Engineering).
The USE are to be our baddies, which is signalled near the end of the chapter when, remotely through his superiors, they force the closure of Loren’s project as unnecessary, requiring him to abandon the fledglings to death when he is forced to take up a role as tutor to Gregorious’s children: needless to say, Loren rescues one of the hawks.
The USE are an arm of the former federal Government, still alive a decade after the civil wars, and out to re-establish itself as the true Government. It is unsurprising, given that this book was published in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, that they are manipulative, ruthless and quasi-fascistic.
But that’s not all that Loren’s magazine sets up for us. Despite the SF trappings, Beasts is intended to be more of a beast-fable. During the past century, Man has indulged in gene-splicing, creating hybrids. First with two separate forms of tobacco, then moving on to Man itself, combining human genes with those of beasts, those these experiments have almost always failed. Only in one aspect, the grafting together of men and lions, has the science succeeded. Earth now holds a race known as Leos, human/lions, capable of breeding themselves with genetic fidelity.
And immediately in chapter two, Crowley introduces a Leo, named Painter, who is the true centre of his story. There’s a change of scene, of setting, of purpose and of characters, heralding an approach that I think works against the coherence and comprehension of the story: each of the book’s eight long chapters focus on different people, in different scenes, with much of the ‘action’ of the story raking places in the interstices between such chapters.
Thus chapter 2 introduces Painter, who is moving north towards a rendezvous with a government counsellor, but who is seen through the eyes of Caddie, a young woman who is ‘indentured’ – effectively a slave – and who is sold to Painter. Caddie introduces us to the notion that the Leos are inherently fascinating, inspiring human devotion, or perhaps it’s just that Painter is. Because this is where the book, intially absorbing despite the blatantness of its infodump, starts to slide away from me. Caddie couples with Painter, unnecessarily surrendering herself into an even greater slavery than she already suffered, and becomes a part of what will grow into an entourage. The government counsellor turns out to be another successful hybrid, albeit a limited, sterile one, in the form of Reynard, a human/fox and, naturally, a manipulator/plotter.
Then it’s back to Loren, tutoring Sten and Mika Gregorious and co-training Hawk. Reynard turns up to meet Gregorious, ahead of a reuinification conference, manoeuvring Gregorious into a position that ensure his assassination, enabling Reynard to become Sten Gregorious’s counsellor. Elsewhere, Painter’s pride of Leos turns up at the Genesis Preserve, an area of uninhbited wilderland kept pure undr the direction of Meric Landseer: when the USE seeks permission to go in and capture them, it’s refused but they go ahead anyway, and Meric travels to find the pride himself, falling under Painter’s spell.
And it just starts to diffuse all sense of narrative coherence dissipating. We jump from place to place, person to person. We follow the mind of a dog, a pack-leader who accepts Painter as his pack-leader (as good a metaphor as any for the whole direction of the book, and a good deal more explicable). Somehow or other it’s about Painter, whom everyone wishes to serve. Crowley elevates him because the Lion is the King of Beasts, and the mystical effect Painter has on humans is to make them more or less worship him, though Crowley gives no reason for why Painter deserves this veneration, other than the fact of what he is, and the oppositional effect of USE, which wants him imprisoned.
And Painter’s in and out of jail, captured, escaped, recaptured and rescued, but too often at a distance, seen from afar instead of close at hand, where it might be too inescapable that all he does is exist. Painter doesn’t do anything, he has no aims or intentions, he simply is, and at this early stage in his career, Crowley isn’t good enough, for me at any rate, to make that stick.
I’m not fascinated by Painter, I’m not under his spell, and I’m not held by the machinations of the frankly dull USE as they scheme and squirm towards power that only ever seems to satisfy themselves and not to have any effect on those they are meant to lead. Nor does Beasts have an ending, a point of resolution. It merely ends, with Painter rescued, with Reynard killed and cloned, with the cast drawn together but without a sense of what they plan to do next.
As with The Deep, I’m left cold by this book, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Yet it’s intriguing to measure that appraisal against later works, including one coming up in the near future, where much of what I’ve said to describe this as a failure would be equally applicable to books that I regard as an almost total success.
But first there’s one final ‘prentice’ work to consider, but one which marks a staging post on the way to the work that made Crowley into a major writer.