Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange

The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn’t.

From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s been  a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.

And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.

Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.

Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.

Yes, psychedelic is the way.

Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.

We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.

You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.

(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).

These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.

I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.

I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.

And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.

The Magic Words: Azzarello, Risso, Buy

In these latter days, given my ever-growing distance from what purports to be modern entertainment, and exacerbated by my current issues with depression, it’s very hard to find new things to be interested in.

This applies especially to my lifelong love of comics, which for some time has left me with only one monthly title, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, supplemented with the occasional Graphic Novel, and those mostly when they supplant a bunch of the original comics.

But there are certain magic words, the effective of which is to add up to a mathematical formula: Brian Azzarello + Eduardo Risso = Buy.

In the middle of the week, I learned of the forthcoming publication of Moonshine 2, from the much-derided but increasingly influential Image Comics. It’s written by Azarello, and both drawn and coloured by Risso: the 100 Bullets crew back together, and even though I didn’t have a clue what Moonshine is about, and whether it’s an ongoing series or a limited one, and if so, how many issues it’s planned to run, these were matters that didn’t matter. Did we wait to find out who starred in the new Pratchett, what was its theme, how many pages before we bought it? No, we did not. And when Azz and Eduardo get together I ask no such questions, I just buy it and put the series on my pull-list at Forbidden Planet in Manchester.

That was this afternoon, the furthest I’ve been outside in the last couple of weeks: Planet and Pizza Hut and home again.

So what is Moonshine, and is it any good? The two answers are: I’ve no idea yet and of course it fucking is.

Moonshine is set in 1929, and Risso’s art is perfect for the era. The story’s hero appears to be one Lou Pirlo, a tough customer looking to make a name and a position for himself under Joe ‘The Boss’ Masserio, a bootlegger. Masserio has found a supply of illegal hooch being made up in the mountains of West Virginia by a hillbilly named Hiram Holt. It’s good hooch, in fact it’s the best, and Masserio wants it for his organisation.

So Lou is sent out to Spine Ridge to do a deal with Holt. The figures ain’t entirely to Holt’s advantage, but this is Joe Masserio we’re talking about, and this is the bootlegging business. Unfortunately, Holt isn’t interested in playing – Pirlo is shown a still, and three mutilated bodies, three G-Men, hunting down the illicit still in the opening sequence, finding it, and also finding hillbillies with axes: oh yes, this is Azz and Eduardo – and is sent back with a message: Holt doesn’t take to having others mess with his business.

Halfway down the mountain road, Lou’s car pops a tyre. He hears music, follows iit to a negro camp, watches the singing, a girl dancing. When he enters the firelight, they stop to watch him. When one of them asks what he wants, he replies, “A drink.” Looking at the girl, he adds, “For starters.”

And that’s issue 1. Not much going on, mostly passive, mostly a beginning of a set-up. No massive surprises. Yet.

But this is Azzarello and Risso, and they don’t ever lay all their cards on the table, not at once, and sometimes you don’t get to see the hand even after they’ve won it. I just know that the magic words were magic again and I’m in, and I’ll be at the table for as many months as Moonshine lasts.

And if they want to keep this one going as long as 100 Bullets, I’m in. Pass the hooch.

Spies, Sleuths and Sorcerors – An Inadequate Defence

That from whence it came… for me

The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’  is rare.

The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?

That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.

Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.

Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.

Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.

This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.

Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).

The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.

I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.

Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.

Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.

That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.

No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).

We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e14 – Heart of Stone

Ferengees bearing gifts
Ferengees bearing gifts

This is likely to end up being a perfunctory review, not out of any failings on the episode’s part but rather because I am going through some stuff at present, and I found one of the two stories in this latest episode hard to warm to. Unfortunately, it was the A-story.

‘Heart of Stone’ was another of those slightly formulaic twin-story episodes, where two different situations alternate for screen-time. The A-story featured Major Kira and Odo, returning from inspecting a far-flung Bajoran colony and distracted into chasing an apparent Maquis ship that had unsuccessfully attacked a freighter.

This led them to an unstable, seismic moon off a gas giant, whose over-ionised atmosphere basically buggered up all the Starfleet kit: tricorders, communicators, teleporter, the works. Major Kira falls into a trap where she steps into some kind of indestructible expanding crystal which, progressively, surrounds more and more of her body, whilst Odo desperately works to try to free her.

I was concerned about the Major’s attitude to begin with, given the loss of her love, Vedek Bariel, only last week. Sure, there was a fleeting reference to the Cardassians and the new treaty, but Kira hadn’t turned a hair over her lover’s death.

The story had Kira and Odo in a prolonged conversation. We already knew, from the recent Lwaxana Troi episode, that the Constable harbours an unrequited passion for the Major, and the escalating danger to the latter’s life forced a confession of this when Odo refused a direct order to abandon her and save herself.

Which drew, in return, a confession of love from the Major. After last week, I was all set to start breathing fire and brimstone, but the episode was a million times better than that. This reciprocal claim was the key to Odo working the whole thing out, the revelation that the Major, and the crystal that had by now all but swallowed her, was a lie from start to finish. It was the Changeling woman, the Founder from the Dominion, testing Odo over his ties to the ‘solids’, still confident that he will eventually break with them and return to his people.

What broke the spell for Odo was that he knew incontrovertibly that, despite her friendship, her concern and her affection for him being very real, Kira Nerys does not love him and never will.

It was used as the closing line. Kira was quizzing Odo as to what gave it away and he told her that the Founder had said something she never would. When Kira pressed him for details, Odo said it wasn’t important. Just a slip of the tongue.

Nothing wrong with the story. Probably well-made, written acted. Just not something my head could get into.

I had better luck with the B-story, the supposed comic relief with a heart of gold element. It was all very simple: Nog wants to join Starfleet, to be the first Feringee in Starfleet, and chose Sisko as his apprentice-master. All Sisko needed to do was write a letter of recommendation for Nog to join Starfleet Acadeny. Nobody took Nog seriously, despite his putting the hard lines in. Even Jake thought it was a trick being played on his Dad.

But Nog was deadly  serious. His father, Rom, is a mechanical genius but he is not a good Ferengee: he has no instinct for prophet. Neither does Nog. But he has his father’s aptitude, he is determined to work hard, if he is given the chance he can make for himself a life that won’t lead him to where his father stands, in thrall to his overbearing brother. Sisko agrees to write the letter.

Overall, I can’t really rate this episode on any kind of scale, it would be unfair to the series, let alone the episode if I were to try. We’ll see where I am a week from now: I may need to take a sabbatical.

Rick Geary – The True Story of the Lincoln County War – Kickstarter

The author - a self portrait
The author – a self portrait

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to once again promote a Rick Geary Kickstarter, The True Story of the Lincoln County War follows in the footsteps of Rick’s Kickstarter book on Billy the Kid.

This is a brand new project, so new that I am actually the fourth person to pledge. The target is $7,000, there are thirty days to go, and this is the link.

This is Rick’s fifth graphic novel to be funded as a Kickstarter. He has a 100% record of success. Pledge now and read this book in April 2017. I can confirm that you won’t regret it.

Steve Dillon R.I.P.

There are currently two months and nine days left of this lousy year that has taken so many good people from us, whilst leaving Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage untouched, to name but three bastards who deserve never to have drawn breath on this Earth at all.

That impossibly long list now has added to it the name of Steve Dillon, English comic book artist, aged 54.

He’s not likely to mean much to anyone outside of those interested in comics, but those who enjoyed this summer’s TV adaptation of Preacher should have seen his name in the credits, because he co-created the comic with Garth Ennis, and drew every regular issue of the series.

I’m not going to pretend Steve Dillon was a favourite of mine. He didn’t draw in any kind of ornate manner, nor did he fill panels with detail, or create innovative layouts. Instead, he drew with a crisp, clean line, creating clear, concise imagery that conveyed the story without fuss, bother, or anything that spoke of ‘hey, isn’t Steve Dillon so fucking clever then?’ Compared to a lot of artists, that is fucking clever indeed.

I first learned of Steve Dillon when he was still a teenager, drawing the Steve Moore-written ‘Laser Eraser and Pressbutton’ series in the seminal magazine, Warrior. I have all copies of that run, with Dillon’s signature in red ink against his opening page in one issue. I met him at one of the Eighties’ UKCAC’s I attended, a quiet man with dark curly hair, cut short on his neck, wearing a long, dark grey coat. He was seven years younger than me, born the same year as my sister.

It is terribly wrong for someone like him to have died before me. He should have had far longer, should have been free to draw many more pages. Preacher will be his monument, and there is a new onus on its makers to make it even better, so as to stand as a memorial deserving of standing beside the comic he drew.

It should not have to be what we will remember of him. He should have had more time to produce more things that would force to think long and hard before we chose one above the others.