Doomsday Clock 4

What? Are they still publishing this piece of shit? I thought they’d cancelled the thing out of sheer embarrassment, though that may have been just wishful thinking.

It’s now two full months since issue 3 of Doomsday Clock, and the scheduling of this series is only going to get worse. Logistically, this is turning into a nightmare for DC: originally, it was supposed to be a monthly series, then it was going to skip a month after issue 4, and now, despite it still saying monthly in the indicia, it’s supposed to be bi-monthly from issue 3 onwards, meaning that the end date has now been pushed back from October 2018 to July 2019.

And the ‘now’ of this series is supposed to be the ‘now’ that the DC Universe is working towards as at Doomsday Clock 12, so that is now a shifting and an elongating deadline, except that I hear Geoff Johns is being very close-mouthed about what everybody else is supposed to be writing towards.

Even before we get onto the contents, this is looking like an almighty shambles.

But another one is now available, and what does that mean? Yes, you’re right. It’s excoriatin! time!

To be fair, this is certainly the best issue so far. That’s not a compliment, however: on a scale of 1 to 10, it still comes in at -2, but everything up till now has been somewhere like -8, -9, so it’s just a case of this issue not being egregiously offensive. It’s dull, overlong, flat and hollow, and it’s a sad case that these adjectives are by way of praise.

What we have here is the Secret Origin of the new Rorscharch, in a deliberate attempt to mirror the Secret Origin of the original Rorscharch in Watchmen 6. As such, in similar manner to Watchmen‘s alternation between plot and character, it brings progress to a dead stop. Given that Johns is plotting a more conventional, world-enveloping storyline, the effect is abrupt and awkward, amplified by this episode containing nothing of any great originality and the two month wait to get it at all. Assuming issue 5 doesn’t appear until the last week of May, that will mean a four month gap between progressive chapters, and we’re not even dealing with the audience that was prepared/forced to wait indefinitely for issues of Sandman Overture.

As for the origin itself, it begins predictably by revealing Reggie to be the son of Malcolm and Gloria Long, as everybody’s been guessing. We see some elements of his childhood, in which we’re treated again to Johns’ incurable desire to fuck about with elements of Alan Moore’s work (give up, you self-important,jealous little tw*t, you’re never going to be anything like as creative as him) as he implies that Gloria’s high sex drive in the original series was based upon maternal frustration at never having a second baby rather than a simple high sex drive, such as some people have.

No, Reggie is not a happy bunny, pushed around and bullied all his life, and then he witnesses the ‘breaking through a dimensional rift’ of Veidt’s alien monster, and Reggie is one of the thousands who go through mental tortures, in his case the obscenely vicious visions implanted in the creature.

Reggie is confined to an institution, just as he is in Arkham, which runs basically as a stale cliche. He gets a psychiatrist who tells us that patient John Doe is completely unidentifiable rather than eliciting any answers that illuminate Reggie, Rorscharch or his mission here (and anyway, the Doctor is Batman, who doesn’t seem to get the ida that he might have been more effective at this by keeping NewRorscharch in the Batcave).

No, the only insights to which we are privileged, and hell’s teeth these are slow in coming, are Reggie in the Mental Institution, which is just as much a Hell as Arkham, except that instead of getting beaten up and homosexually/sadistically propositioned by the other inmates, Reggie is being subject to ECT, drugs and beatings from sadistic staff.

But he survives, thanks to his mentor, and who is this mentor, who teaches him multiple fighting styles with which to defend himself, not to mention the mental fortitude to control his horrific visions and see only what he wants to see? Why, it is none other than, tah-dah! Byron Lewis. You remember, Mothman. From the Minutemen. In Watchmen.

Now there’s just two problems with this latest development, one of them ordinary, the other fatal. The ordinary one is that Johns is once more fucking Watchmen over, only on a slightly larger scale than the psychosexual origins of Gloria Long’s sexual drive. The thing is that Mothman is only a background character in the original, and he’s meant to be a joke as a Mystery Man. The name, honestly. The silly costume. The glider wings. He’s not to be taken seriously.

As for Byron Lewis, he’s the archetypal DC secret identity: rich socialite, nothing better to do, doing good on behalf of the plebs. He’s already something of a drinker as early as 1940  and that’s the problem. When the Red Scare comes at the start of the Fifties, Byron Lewis was interrogated pretty hard, over links he’d had with left-wing intellectuals pre-War: it exacerbates his drinking into full-blown alcoholism, leaving him a shrunken, physically and mentally crippled person wheen he’s installed in the Sanatorium in 1962.

Where he stays for the rest of his life.

But that’s not good enough for Geoff Johns. His Byron Lewis has to be serious, has to be effective and has to be over eighty percent sane. He’s physically fit for a man in his seventies, he’s a master of aeronautics and human flight, continually constructing wings and zipping off, he’s even got some control over the Lewis fortune which he directs responsibly (both economically and socially) despite being legally non compos mentis.

Hell’s bells, he even gives Reggie the Rorscharch costume after they both permanently escape from a sanatorium that’s busy burning to the ground, except that Byron just turns round and walks back into the flames, moth-like (heh-heh), in his latest set of wings.

Though there’s no mention of this immolation in the newspaper obituary that rounds out only two pages of background material (what’s up, Johns, imagination running a bit thin?)

Oh, and I said there were two objections to Mothman’s use in this context. The second is indeed, in fact literally, fatal: Byron Lewis’s death was reported in Watchmen before Veidt’s ‘alien invasion’. Missed that one, didn’t you? Hadn’t properly grasped that we Watchmen readers who read this over the original twelve months, with our obsessive thirst to work out what was coming, were alerted to every little detail. Unlike you. (I gave Dave Gibbons a summary of my theories once, after issue 8, at UKCAC in 1985, to which he replied that I was fifty percent right and fifty percent wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me which fifty percent. It was a neat stock answer: I was one hundred percent wrong!)

Of course, we may yet get the great ‘Dr-Manhattan-subtly-changed-everything-moment’ to account for this which, if it happens, would be a) incredibly lazy, b) incredibly cliched and c) fatal to the whole point as it amounts to disqualifying everything in Watchmen.

That’s the other point upon which this origin fails as opposed to the Walter Kovacs version: Kovacs becomes Rorscharch at a very early stage in his ‘origin’ and the climactic point is his transformation into the truly insane person he is in truth, a revelation that comes when Rorscarch is a long-established figure, both in his personal history and in terms of the story we were reading. Reggie Long is so far a cypher as NewRorscharch: his interest is solely as a replica of the original, instead of any characteristic of his own, and this issue reveals that he’s a bloody novice, that he’s been Rorscharch for a matter of days when this all starts. The origin undermines him, if anything, by presenting him as a cheapjack copycat.

Actually how long Reggie’s been NewRorscharch is a point upon which things have gotten somewhat confused on first reading and I had to go back to Doomsday Clock 1 to get a handle on things. Reggie becomes NewRorscharch on October 11 1992 and the series begins on November 22 1992. In those six weeks, with a global manhunt already on for the missing Adrian Veidt (who is suspected but not yet denounced by President Redford) Reggie makes his way to Antarctica, and Veidt’s home base of Karnak by means of a fortuitously supplied free ticket on a boat that Byron’s been hoarding for god knows how long, that just happens to be going to Antarctica. I mean, there are implausible coincidences and there are Big Fat Fucking Stupid Implausible Coincidences and no writer under the sun with the tiniest atom of self-respect writes something like this, Jeez.

And this boat, which runs by private invitation only to Antarctica to visit Veidt is still running for private invitees when there’s a global manhunt for Veidt and it’s heading for his home? Where nobody has thought to look just yet or, if they are not unbelievably stupid – because they do turn up – they with all the world’s resources take longer to get there than a boat from New York?

You could drop the plant Mars into a hole that big, and still have room to add Mercury, if you folded it over.

But all this tedious and ill-conceived reminiscing does, in the final pages, bring us back to the story because it inspires Reggie to break out of Arkham and cause Batman to admit he’s underestimated the man. We have two months in which to discover the implications of that.

I am already agog. Yeah, right.


American Gothic: e22 – Requiem

This one I was reluctant to start watching, because it was the last one and not the end. I didn’t want to get to that point, which I remembered breathlessly, where the plug is pulled, the bathwater drains away and there is just a blank where season 2 should have been. But I had forgotten just how dark this last episode was.

Watching it put me in mind of the end of Blake’s 7, where a poor series 4, made under duress and boy did it show, ended up with the Seven, including Blake and, off-screen, Jenna, killed to destroy any risk of there being a series 5. It was wrong then, it’s wrong today. I am, in one sense, old-fashioned, due to my age. I grew up in an era where Good prevailed, and to see Evil prevail is, in certain circumstances, deeply wrong to me.

Had American Gothic lived as it deserved to, had seven seasons, until Caleb grew into manhood and came into his own, I think ultimately he would have rejected what Lucas Buck stood for. In this last episode, with Lucas apparently dead as of last week, Caleb embraced the power that flowed into him with all the lack of sophistication of a ten year old boy, and the only thing that stopped him was the resurrection of Lucas Buck.

There was a funeral, with only four attendees: Caleb, Gail, Selena and Ben. Five, of you count the gravedigger who showed no respect to the deceased. But then Caleb, left alone (but for the eavesdropping Selena) to say his final words, not only openly acknowledged Buck as his father but spat upon his grave.

There’s a horribly disturbing scene right off, in broad daylight, as Ben takes Caleb back to the boarding house. Caleb wants to see Ben’s gun but he refuses. He startles Ben by pulling out of the glove compartment Lucas’s gun, the one Ben didn’t know about. He sticks it in Ben’s chest, grinning, going on about how Ben was never praised by Lucas because he never showed his potential. His gun’s against Ben’s heart, he pulls the trigger, but it’s not loaded. It’s all a game: I was just funning with you.

Then he moves into Lucas’s house, against Merly’s wishes. Caleb is on the point of taking the name Buck, and doesn’t want her and her white dress around him any more. Once there, he finds Selena, at her most seductive, interested in Caleb’s potential.

At the hospital, Billy Peale has ordered post mortem blood tests on Lucas, concerned about why he ‘died’. We know he’s not dead, just buried alive, a point reiterated this week. Merlyn’s conducting a conversation with him in which he’s almost but not quite asking for help: because if he dies and his powers go irrevocably to Caleb, there’ll be no saving the boy.

But hospital boss Dr Narone, whose three year old granddaughter Ashley is with him today, is concerned about this. They’re expensive, the hospital can’t afford them, bring the results to me immediately (without looking at them yourself). And Ben, in the midst of a horde of townsfolk, demanding that they still get everything they had under Sheriff Buck’s ‘deals’ (whilst no doubt glad they no longer have to uphold their end of the bargain, not like all the dead ones), gets a prompt from a solid-looking Merlyn.

So Bill(y) and Ben go down to the cemetery at night and dig up a less-than-graciously-grateful Lucas Buck and sneak him into the hospital via the back door, so no-one else will know. Lucas is, however, weak.

And Selena’s told Caleb that Gail is pregnant by Sheriff Buck. It’s his insurance policy, an heir and a spare (how Windsorian) in case Caleb escapes him. But Caleb’s not having that: there can only be one Buck in every generation. He gets Selena to lure his cousin to the house where he makes it very plain that she’s not leaving there pregnant. Or alive, if need be.

Lucas, as soon as he learns this, skates over there, but not in time to prevent Gail from falling down the stairs: miscarriage, fracture concussion, possible spleen damage. Gail is out of it. And Selena, for playing her part in this, is definitively rejected by Lucas.

Who’s paid an unexpected visit to Dr Narone. Narone had taken advantage, tired of all the years of covering up the suspicious deaths that surround Lucas Buck. Something to temporarily stop his heat and burial alive. Lucas will be merciful: if Narone hangs himself with little Ashley’s skipping rope, Lucas will spare little Ashley. We know it’s coming but that doesn’t shake the horror when the little girl approaches Doctor Billy and Doctor Rita to tell them, in puzzlement, that ‘Granpa’s sleeping on the ceiling’.

Now it’s down to Lucas vs Caleb over who wields the power. Caleb uses a letter-opener to stab Lucas in the stomach, but it’s not him, it’s Merly, seeming to be him for a distraction. Lucas grabs Caleb from behind, but it’s too late, the only way to save him is to kill him. Lucas is going to throw him off the landing. Merlyn is frantic, thiswasn’t their deal, but Lucas Buck is a lying, cheating bastard. I won’t let you kill him, she yells. I know you won’t, Lucas says, having manipulated Merlyn into a sacrifice that benefits him. When he throws Caleb down, she is there: there is a blinding flash and she’s gone, never to return.

Caleb’s back to normal, good-little-kid normal. Buck tells him Merlyn’s inside him now: they’ll get by without her.

And it’s all over, it really is all over.

Creator Shaun Cassidy wrote the final episode. You can see in it all manner of layers and pointers for how it might have gone in season 2, in which it was planned for Dr Matt – who gets a namecheck – to return. But American Gothic was killed by its network, mistreated, neglected, denied a proper shot at an audience that I can’t believe it wouldn’t have grabbed if they’d had the proper chance at it.

But where Midnight Caller had been Saturday night dross, American Gothic gave Gary Cole a role in which he could dominate every scene he was in, and he took that chance with a vengeance, and these past 22 Thursdays, reacquainting myself with him and it has been time well-spent.

I have another series in mind for the Thursday morning slot, but what it is you’ll have to wait and see, in case I change my mind at the last minute. Thank you for visiting Trinity with me. It’s a nice town. If you do as you’re told…

Deep Space Nine: s06 e14 – One Little Ship

Tiny spaceship time

We’re already into the back half of season 6 and, whilst there were a few things about this episode that aren’t going to escape critical comment, I enjoyed this rather more than I’ve done for some weeks. ‘One Little Ship’ was something of a comedic episode, helpfully signalled to the audience in the open by having Major Kira burst into hysterical laughter over the premise, but the humour was more in the playing by Colm Meaney, Alexander Siddig and Terry Farrell, as the three who shrunk, because the story was otherwise completely serious.

There was a certain amount of disguised playing to the open as well. Everybody’s off on the ‘Defiant’ doing a scientific mission as a break from the ongoing War that’s ongoing exceedingly slowly and mostly everywhere else except near Deep Space Nine. Point of criticism #1: I’m very disappointed in DS9‘s failure of nerve over the War, which they’ve started but don’t really have any commitment in pursuing, taking every opportunity they can to run away from it into a one-off story. ‘One Little Ship’ set up shop to appear to be doing that again. But it didn’t.

And there was a point when I thought that, for the first time in quite some time, we were going to have the old A-story/B-story set-up, with Dax, O’Brien and Bashir having one adventure in the Accretion Anomaly that was going to shrink them to about half a centimetre in height, and Sisko, Kira, Worf and Nog having another when the ‘Defiant’ was attacked and captured by Jem’Hadar. I was proven wrong on both points.

What happened was that, because it exited the anomaly on a different course from its entry (the anomaly being the MacGuffin, the scientific gobbledegook required to create the situation), the runabout Rubicon was stuck at 4cm long. So the tiny ship had to fly into the ‘Defiant’ and use all manner of sneakiness to zip here and there, lending a next-to-invisible hand to the Sisko-led response to the invasion.

In this, the shrunken warriors were aided by an intriguing new plot development that was never mentioned again, because nobody bothered to follow up on it. After the Jem’Hadar fleet was destroyed in the Wormhole, the Founders decided not t try to bring in any more Jem’Hadar but instead breed a new Jem’Hadar race on the spot (shades of the Mekon’s ‘New Treens’ in my favourite Dan Dare story, ‘All Treens Must Die!’).

These ‘Alpha’s are specially bred, genetically redesigned to thrive on war in the Alpha Quadrant, which has created a friction between the new, upstarts Alphas and the long-established but now overshadowed Gammas. The First is an Alpha, the Second a Gamma, and a well-respected Elder who was himself First until just two days ago. The Second has a great deal of experience, the First has practically none, and not only does he ignore the Second’s advice, he openly resents it and is even more determined to go his own way, with the arrogance of (assumed) natural superiority.

Needless to say, the Second is right at every turn, though his reward is a death that overcomes him before he is able to complete the Jem’Hadar mantra, ‘Obedience is Victory: Victory is Life’.

Point of Criticism #2: everyone agrees this Jem’Hadar division should have been taken further, but it never was. That relegation to a one-off weakens what was, ultimately, a fundamental plot-point, makes it look as if it’s a gimmick that was invented as a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card, and you know how often I’ve complained of cheap, shoddy writing in the last thirty months. That it was intended as a permanent development redeems it a little, but it should still have been woven into the overall storyline.

Then again, in way way could this have been used that wasn’t basically a repetition of this episode? The answer is, I Don’t Know, but I’m sure a bank of screenwriters could have come up with something.

‘One Little Ship’ was filmed before last week’s ‘Far Beyond the Stars’ but airedafter because of the increased post-production time, adding the shrunken ‘Rubicon’ in Special Effects, which brought the episode an Emmy nomination. It may not have been of great significance overall, but I personally had a better time than I’ve had for many Deep Space Nine Tuesdays.

Film 2018: Delicatessen

Apart from my ongoing fascination with Isabelle Huppert – forty years and counting – most of my small collection of French films come from a brief burst of enthusiasm nearly twenty years ago. Delicatessen is one of these films and though at the start of the day I couldn’t have told you what spurred me on to buy it, a demi-memory of watching a particular clip, coupled with the presence of the busty Karin Viard (who I’d enjoyed in another French film of my collection) suggests a reason to have taken a chance on it, probably when the HMV Shop had a sale on!

Delicatessen, made in 1990, was the debut film from directors Jen-Perre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It’s a post-Apocalypse black comedy – black farce, in many ways – starring Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfuss and Viard, plus a dozen or so supporting grotesques and clowns.

It’s set in and around a dilapidated, half-demolished building, owned by the Butcher Clapet (Dreyfuss), occupied by various boarders. Outside, the air is smoky and dirty, suggesting the permanent after-life of an atomic explosion. Inside, the place is falling to bits anyway, as is everybody in it except Clapet’s mistress, Mademoiselle Plusse (Viard). Meat is scarce and grain has become currency. Clapet keeps the building stocked with meat by advertising a job for a handyman.

Enter Louison (Pinon) an unemployed, indeed redundant circus clown, once half of a double act, ‘Stan and Livingstone’. Indeed, there’s a certain Laurelesque aspect to Louuison, with his rubbery face, his imperturbability, his general air of separation from everyone else around him. Anyway, the double act broke up in tragic fashion: Livingstone was an ape, you see, and one day after a performance, he was kidnapped. And eaten.

Like I said, meat is scarce. The meat Clapet supplies to his customers is handymen, and Louison’s next.

A post-Apocalytic cannibalism black comedy.

The film, and Clapet, stalls out the inevitable conflict by having the resourceful Louison prove to be so good at maintenance that, in the face of complaints from his hungry customers, Clapet keeps postponing the moment when Louison meets the cleavers. This provides enough time for Louison to come to the attention of Clapet’s estranged, cello-playing daughter, Julie (Dougnac), whose flat is on the top floor. Julia, who is blind as a bat without her glasses, falls in love with Louison and pleads for him to be spared, unsuccessfully. So she calls in the Troglodists.

These are a literally underground gang of rebels, living in the sewers in black, shiny wetsuits, who are, of all radical things in this remnant of society, vegetarians. Julie secretly broadcasts to them, using a radio set disguised as a coffee grinder, and enlists them to kidnap Louison to save him, bribing them with her father’s grainstores in the cellar. Needless to say, they get Mselle Plusse instead.

It all comes together in a broad, slapstick sequence that lasts the final quarter of the film, in which, in true It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World fashion, destroys everything, including Clapet in a bizarre but brilliant manner.

What holds the film together is its attention to creating its own little bubble world. Jeunet and Caro intended Delicatessen to be an homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the influence of which is clear once spelled out. It lacks Brazil‘s expansiveness and its world-building, going to the opposite end in confining itself to a small, almost stage-like setting, and choosing to run with dirt, dilapidation and decay as its binding imagery, instead of the very rigorous cleanliness of its inspiration.

And whilst Brazil takes its cue from the Forties, Delicatessen is very much in the Fifties mode: hairstyles, clothing, technology, attitudes, all of which it skillfully sets against its ultraviolet humour, setting it yet further in contrast to the very rigid mores of the period it recreates.

There isn’t much of a storyline in itself. Each of the supporting characters form their own little world, existing at an odd angle to strict sanity, and the film sustains itself on a succession of little set-pieces. The highlight amongst these are the ongoing attempts of Madame Aurore (a splendidly gawky example of an angular, buck-toothed French matron, played brilliantly by Silvie Laguna) to commit suicide in ever more complex fashions, all of which founder on farcical accidents until, having changed her mind, she accidentally blows up her apartment, alone with herself and her long-suffering and patient husband, Georges.

Clapet himself (Dreyfuss) is a monster, a speak-his-mind, overwhelming hulk of a man, and his lunatic energy drives the conclusion forward, but the heart of the film is the relationship between the little clown, Louison, and the shy, repressed, hopeful Julie. Dougnac is simply lovely in the role. She’s supposed to be plain, and a bit skinny, especially when contrasted with the voluptuous Viard, and the extended tea scene, when she’s left off her glasses to try to look her best for Louison, except that she can’t see to pour tea into a cup, best demonstrates the kind of desperation of a supposed ‘Old Maid’, grasping at any kind of kind face.

But I found Marie-Laure Dougnac to be lovely in herself, in exactly the way she’s supposed to be, and the film accords her the right to be delightful as Julie, with her masses of long blonde hair. As well as the tea scene, there’s a wonderfully silly, yet touching moment when, on discovering Julie plays the cello, Louison admits to playing an instrument and accompanies her on an affecting duet: her cello and his musical saw.

That’s the clue to the film’s ending, because it doesn’t really have one. The milieu doesn’t allow of it, the film’s overall lack of a serial spine leaves it stranded. Louison escapes, Clapet dies, the building is symbolically cleansed by a flood that the lovers create, washing away everyone but the old guy who lives in dampness and squalor in the basement because it attracts the frogs and snails – and what do Les Francaises like to eat? – and the film ends on the roof, the next morning, with Louison and Julie duetting on musical saw and cello.

It’s a dark film full of dark comedy on a dark subject that it deftly blurs into obscurity by simultaneously treating it with an internal consistency and seriousness but delivering it in tones of farce and grotesquerie. Before watching it again today, I had half a mind to put the DVD on eBay after finishing with it, but I’ve changed my mind. It’ll never be something to watch regularly, but I’ll still keep it, if only for the lovely Marie-Laure Dougnac.

According to Wikipedia, she’s spent most of her career dubbing English voices into French instead of appearing on the screen. According to Google Images, she’s still a delightful looking lady, with a shining smile, so I personally regard that as a shame. She’s the light that illuminates Delicatessen, the essential element that let’s the film’s darkness be funny. Without her, this film folds in on itself as a deliberate exercise in distastefulness. The lady is a star, in all respects.

Eagle Volume 11 (1960)

The new front page

The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.

One mountaintop…

The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.

Another mountaintop…

By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.

…and a trough

American Gothic: e21 – The Buck Stops Here

And now we’re right on the brink.

This was an ideal set-up for a season finale, stirring things about to the greatest extent, resetting conditions that had been disturbed over previous weeks and introducing the greatest of new factors: Sheriff Lucas Buck is dead. Or is he?

In many ways, the penultimate episode was confused and muddy, with no clear storyline. Billy Peale and Selena Combs break into Buck’s house searching for medical files on Doris Lydon, believed to have been stolen by the Sheriff. Doris has been in a coma for two years, following some mysterious deal between Lucas and her husband, Yancey, the Hospital pharmacist.

Instead of searching for the files, Billy and Selena have sex in Buck’s bed. She talks of wanting Lucas dead, but when he comes home unexpectedly, they skedaddle out, though the Sheriff well knows what’s gone on. He interrupts Selena’s class the next day, making some pointed comments, but he also introduces Caleb to the eye in the pyramid symbol on the dollar bill, linking it to Caleb’s surname, Temple, and Lucas’s: the Buck stops here, and in every generation one rises who wields the power.

Weird stuff is going on. Caleb gets obsessed with cutting out the eye in the pyramid from dollar bills, arranging them into the third eye symbol. Gail, pregnant with Lucas’ baby, starts eating raw, uncooked beef and drinking it’s blood. Yancey blames Buck for cheating him: he gave a Judge who had upset Lucas a placebo (of which he impliedly died) in exchange for Doris’s life, but was lead to believe she would be restored, not comatose.

With the muddy waves stirring, and Merly getting ever more concerned about Caleb, someone attacks the Sheriff with a trochea, a medical implement constructed to split skulls. Billy’s there, but didn’t do it, though he’s thrown in jail at first (we all know it’s Yancey). Buck has been stabbed through the ‘third eye’, the pineal gland, the source of his power.

And he dies, just after whispering something to Caleb that we don’t get to hear.

There’s a funeral, a procession of people passing the coffin, several of them figures from earlier episodes. Reaction to his death is, to say the least, mixed. Gail admits to loving Buck. She also shoots Selena down, telling her she’s deader than Lucas.

But the worst is Caleb. He just smiles, like Gary Cole.

So it rushes towards a conclusion. Yancey is going to put Doris out of her hopeless condition but she dies first. Merly brings her back long enough to say farewell. Then Caleb enters, to punish him. Yancey winds up with his mouth and throat choked with pills: only an emergency tracheotomy by Billy saves his life. Caleb has come into his powers, it would seem.

He walks into the church, lays a dollar on the coffin lid, says, “The Buck Starts Here.”

And inside the coffin, Lucas Buck’s eyes open…

Next week is the finale, about which I remember certain things. Especially the closing scene. Hang on tight.

Braithwaite Exchange is Down

Late in my shift last night, we had notification of multiple exchange outages in Cumbria and Lancashire. I ran my eye down the list of exchanges affected, familiar names stretching from Penrith to Keswick, and a bit beyond that, as far as Braithwaite, and that brought back a memory.

Between 1987 and 1997, I was in a relationship with a woman a couple of years older than myself. We met at work, things were very intense for quite a time and then life’s complications began to get in the way. For the last half of our relationship, and perhaps more, things were permanently volatile, off and on and several stages between.

I’d taken the opportunity to introduce her to the Lake District in 1988, a day out in Patterdale, climbing Angletarn Pikes (which was on my list of Wainwrights to be done). We took things easy, took our time, had a brilliant day of it. I promised to take her up Catbells, the next time.

That time didn’t come for a long time. We were up and down with a vengeance, at one point not even having any contact for nearly six months. And things were decidedly on and off when we met up again.

I still hadn’t climbed Catbells. It remained on my ever-shrinking list, but I kept the faith and refused to ascend it, in the hope that we’d one day make that opportunity for ourselves.

Well, at long last, it came about. We were mostly friends, rather than anything deeper, though my feelings for her ran deep and had by no means been extinguished. And one summer, the opportunity came up, a day out to the Lakes, visiting Keswick and, no promises, maybe we’d have a go at Catbells.

Things were pretty fragile between us. I was not to press her over the walk, so I simply kept my mouth shut on it. We had a solid lunch in the Oddfellows Arms, where I always try to eat when I’m in Keswick, and then, slightly begrudgingly, as if I had pressured her into it, she agreed we’d do the walk.

I drove round into the Newlands Valley. It was a hot day, high sun and few clouds and I parked in a corner of the road where there was some shade from trees. It was quiet and cool among the trees.

It’s a fairly steep climb out of Newlands onto the ridge. It’s like that on either side, but Newlands gave us more peace and quiet: a summer Saturday afternoon on Catbells was going to be heaving. We took our time, far more time than I might alone, but there was nothing to rush for, and I was content to go at her pace. The more content she was, the nicer the day.

We reached the ridge without any major effort, and from there to Catbells was easy-peasy. And it was heaving, with very little space on which to sink and sit down. She took the initiative, led us a little downhill on the Derwentwater side. The ground quickly steepened away but we only ventured down about five or six yards, not out of hearing of the buzzing on the summit, but substantially out of sight. It was too angled to comfortably sit, so we stretched out, side-by-side.

And arms found their way around each other, kissing started, and she took one hand and slipped it under her shirt, where I was encouraged to confirm what sight had already told me about what she was wearing underneath.

We could do so much in our seclusion, but it wasn’t like Angletarn Pikes, when we’d been completely alone.

With a new feeling of contentment and connection between us, we slowly moved on, taking the tourist path towards Keswick before doubling back at a lower level, towards Newlands and my car. We headed back to Keswick, to get ourselves another drink. Before we did, she insisted on using a phonebox to call back home and speak to her daughter.

Keswick on Saturday night. I’d never been there at that time before. The pubs were crowded, and it took about three before we found one where there was actually a space we could slip into. She was bubbly, excited, uncontained. I had an inkling of the surprise she was planning to pull but I wanted her to have the fun. But when it came to our second round of drinks, I had to speak up, so I could decide what to order for myself. Were we staying tonight?

Her face fell, for which I was sorry. She was keeping it back, to spring on me as a surprise: let’s get a room and stay. But I knew her too well by then, and had read that surprise the moment she’d gone off on her own to call her daughter. There really was no other reason to have done so. But it was the difference between a Diet coke or another half of lager and lime for me.

However, there was a nearly fatal flaw in our plan. We weren’t just seeking an impromptu guesthouse vacancy in Keswick on a summer Saturday night, we were doing it on the weekend of a Jazz Festival in the town. There was literally no room at the Inn.

I hadn’t overindulged on the lager, so I was still within safe limits to drive. If push came to shove, we would go back to Manchester and my house, but a weekend in the Lakes, and a little more walking on Sunday was a preferable deal so I called upon my ingenuity and local knowledge and we headed off towards Cockermouth.

Whether they could have sorted us out became moot when my partner in fun spotted a Vacancies sign as we passed the edge of the village of Braithwaite. And that Vacancy turned out to be for a double room, with appropriate bed, which we took. The only other visitors to this heaven-sent little place were a pair of very shy, very young Japanese girls.

Our night secured, we went back to Keswick and completed our day with fish’n’chips from the Old Keswickian. Suitably greased up, we drove back to Braithwaite, at which point I am firmly drawing a curtain across the rest of the day.

Sunday was equally hot and sunny. Steeping into yesterday’s underpants and socks was a bit icky, especially as it had been such a hot day, but this was a small price to pay and we were both paying it. I’d only brought The North Western Fells with me, for Catbells, but there was an easy walk available that I’d done before, that involved little energy or time, but would give my companion her third summit. This was High Rigg.

The road up to the church on the saddle requires two gates to be opened to progress: it was a pleasant change to have a passenger to whom this could be delegated. We parked up just as the Morning Service was ending. Of all the coincidences, my partner was approached by a woman in her fifties: this was the mother of my lady’s next door neighbour!

We made a stroll of it, sitting on an outcrop off the top for ten minutes before visiting the actual summit. This was an affront to my fellwalker’s instincts, that I had to suppress, to my companion’s amusement. It was a perfect day.

But we had to get back to Manchester, and domestic chores that demanded attention, and there was a limit to how much time we could actually spend in each other’s company by that time without things starting to break down again. So we drove back, on good terms, and I dropped her off, and that was it.

So Braithwaite Exchange breaking down last night was the spur to remembering that unexpectedly sweet weekend. It’s not really my usual sort of walking story, since the walking turned out to be the least point of it, but I did tick off another Wainwright and Catbells is a lovely place to be, alone or in company.

We never climbed another fell together, and I doubt she added to her tally, unless after a slammed down phone one night in late summer 1997 she met someone else who took her walking in Lakeland. I doubt it would have mattered to her either way, but those walks we did together remain as cherished memories.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e13 – Far Beyond The Stars

Who’s Who?

Well, I guess I must be suffering some sort of burn out on Deep Space Nine because I just couldn’t get into this episode at all, and it’s one of those episodes that’s not just a fan-favourite but a favourite of so many members of the team that made it, including many of the actors themselves. Clearly, it’s me, then.

‘Far Beyond the Stars’ is another of those get-the-cast-out-of-character episodes, as Sisko undergoes a practically episode-long hallucination in which he’s a staff writer on a 1953 SF magazine, facing racial prejudice. It involves every member of the cast and a bunch of recurring characters out of costume and, in several cases, out of make-up.

Basically,the peg is that Sisko is approaching burn out. The Dominion War is still ticking over in the background, with wins and losses, but the latest loss – the Cortez and it’s 400 strong crew, especially its Captain, Quentin Swofford, an old friend of Sisko – has him talking of stepping down.

Immediately he suggests that, he starts seeing people in 1953 clothes walking around where they aren’t. Bashir diagnoses strange synaptic potentials akin to those in the season 5 episode, ‘Rapture’ when he was having visions sent by the Prophets (not so much a hint as a crowbar to the back of the neck) and, presto changeo, he’s in 1953 New York where he’s Benny Russell, employed by Incredible Tales magazine.

Everyone’s there, so it’s spot-the-unmake-upped- actor time (I didn’t get Aron Eisenberg, Jeffrey Combs or J. G. Hertzler and I was incredibly slow about Rene Auberjonois and Michael Dorn) whilst the story hammers on its theme of racial prejudice. The hammering is relentless, but then again so was the racism. I don’t doubt there’s a social faction that would kick-off against snowflakes and SJWs, but just because the present day isn’t as relentlessly open and universal as the world depicted here doesn’t mean it no longer needs saying.

To be honest, I found the unrelieved nature of the depiction to be dramatically unbalanced: over and over and over again. In another context, where you could focus on this story without having Deep Space Nine looking over your shoulder constantly, it would have worked far better. Instead, it was never possible to escape the awareness that this set-up was doubly unreal, a fiction within a fiction.

Anyway, Benny Russell is inspired by a drawing of a space station very much like DS9 to write a powerful, engrossing story. About DS9, and it’s captain, Benjamin Sisko. Everybody loves and admires it, but it won’t get published. Because the Captain is a negro.

To jump briskly forward, after a tour of Benny’s world and constant reminders of the restrictions inherent on black people (Marc Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs as two violently prejudiced cops,who beat the living shit out of Benny at one point), he gets his editor to accept the story (and possibly the six sequels he’s already written), in return for his altering it slightly, to make the whole thing a dream. Whatever gets it into print. But the owner orders the whole print run pulped, the magazine’s going to skip a month and Benny’s fired. We all know why.

Throughout the hallucination, Sisko Senior keeps popping up as a Minister, preaching about the way ahead and insisting Sisko keep on his path, that he writes the words. He keeps mentioning the prophets (there’s that crowbar again). Benny has become fixated on his Captain Sisko, his DS9, this future he’s imagined. This latest setback unhinges him.He cracks up, onscreen, as if this block on publication of the story is an attempt to stop this entire future, the world of DS9, in which black and white and every other shade are equals, from ever happening.

Sad to say, I found it unconvincing, even when supported by Sisko’s musings in the close, which attempts to tip the show into metafiction, by wondering if Deep Space Nine is actually nothing more than the fiction it is, created by Benny Russell?

It’s Jorge Luis Borges’ paradox writ large: who is dreaming who? Is Sisko dreaming Benny, or vice versa? For me, it completely flops. Firstly, because when Benny goes into his meltdown, talking about ‘creating’ DS9, in the sense of a Creator creating Reality, he’s doing so as a character we know to be at a lower level of existence, the centre of a story-within-a-story. The same goes for Sisko’s musings: in an isolated story, you can play this angle for all it’s worth, and leave the reader genuinely uncertain, but after 136 previous episodes of Deep Space Nine, you’re pushing credibility to suggest that might be a fiction. A Tommy Westphall ending doesn’t work unless it is the end.

When Sisko recovers from the hallucination, his synaptic potentials have cleared up, even without a take-two-of-these-and-see-me-in-the-morning (crowbar time…) and he’s decided to soldier on. Phew, I was worried there…

The whole thing was a vision from the Prophets, to show Sisko that some fights have to be fought even in the face of frustration, defeat and loss. But really the episode was about the cast dressing down and playing outside their characters, with the framing story a loose-fitting McGuffin. That the story chosen was an important issue is impressive, but paradoxically it was weakened by being played in the context of Deep Space Nine, where it could have n serious impact by virtue of our knowledge that by the end it would all be reset, nothing gained, nothing lost, all that anger, frustration and heartache meaningless.

Or is it all just me?