We’re six months on from the end of last season, twenty-five from Katrina, and as the new credits demonstrate, there’s a lick of paint brightening things up in New Orleans. This made for a relatively light tone to a lot of the episodes, as things seem to be going well for many of our cast, with only a few cloudy horizons being delved into initially.
Those for whom gloom is developing are Antoine, LaDonna and Terry Colson. And Nelson hidalgo’s still on the outside and looking for a way back in that isn’t opening as quickly as he would like. Our main trombonist is feeling hemmed in by his job, by being a houseowner, by having a wife who expects him to start acting like a damned grown-up. Particularly galling is how he gets arrested at the start for throwing the Police a finger when they bust up a night session honouring a dead musician, yet two guys whose charges are dismissed at the station become the ‘Treme Two’ and get all the publicity, and the gigs.
But all it takes is the length of one opening episode and the next night the Police turn up to escort the parade. Go figure.
LaDonna and Larry are staying with in-laws whilst they find a place in New Orleans to double as home and his Practice and that is not going to last. LaDonna’s sister-in-law looks down on her from a great height and you know LaDonna will always piss up. The tension is rife.
And Terry’s feeling the blues. He’s on his own out there in Homicide, the corrupt Captain’s gone, the detectives all hate him, the Deputy Chief won’t transfer him back, he hasn’t got Toni’s friendship any more, and his ex-wife ain’t letting the boys come visit whilst he still lives in a trailer. Colson is in isolation.
And Nelson still isn’t being let back in the game of FEMA money, not whilst the erstwhile Councilman Thomas is in Federal Prison and can yet drop a dime on him. So he tries to find another way in but his fresh-faced, boyish charm cuts no ice with the steely Mrs Mortensen, who cuts him off at the balls.
So these are our current losers. Everyone else looks like they’re on the up. Annie T. has her own band, is going down a storm, and she’s so gleeful she’s jumping Davis at 6.00am in a seriously shortie nightie which makes me seriously jealous (and I mean jealous, not envious) of Steve Zahn, who’s composing a Poverty Opera and getting Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry involved.
Janette’s going down big in New York and jumping Jacques’ bones in New Orleans, whilst breaking with the grand television tradition of women having sex by not keeping her bra on.
Toni and Sofia are on a much more even keel. Mom is still working the Arbrea case, and is finding a new ally in investigative journalist L.P. Everett (Chris Coy, new to this year’s cast). Sofia’s got a boyfriend, the musician guy outside the coffee shop whereshe works, and Toni’s cool about not having met him yet.
Delmond’s CD has been released to good reviews and decent advance sales. Albert’s proud of it, he’s even smiling, but he’s coughing a bit too.
Sonny’s going out with Linh, though her father still isn’t give in them enough leeway for much more than, say, half an hour’s kissing. He’s cut his hair, looks clean too.
Have I left anyone out? No, the show’s back on the road, the lives have resumed, but we are now nearer to the end than the beginning. There is now a time limit on what I am watching and I was oddly conscious of that from the beginning. Rock with me.
Horn, who wrote the Book of Silk with the aid of his wife, Nettle, is now writing another book, on his own. A year earlier, he agreed to carry out a mission, at which he has failed. He is, in effect, a prisoner, a long way from his home of New Viron. He hopes that, one day, his story will make its way to New Viron, to explain his failure and to advise his wife, and his three sons, Sinew, Hoof and Hide, of his fate.
Twenty years have passed since Horn and Nettle landed on Blue from the Whorl as part of a Vironese party. New Viron has been founded on the coast of the eastern continent. After failing as farmers, Horn and Nettle have set up on Lizard Island as paper manufacturers. Their elder son Sinew is a difficult boy, perpetually at war with his father: the twins are much younger.
Life is hard on Blue and the colonists are going backwards every year. A committee of five, the richest people in New Viron, approach Horn. A letter has been received from the unknown town of Pajarocu, claiming that a lander has been repaired and will return to the Whorl: places are being offered.
The representatives want Horn to go, to obtain new, pure strains of wheat, to prevent crops failing, and they also want Horn to persuade Silk to come to New Viron and become its Calde: none of them trust the others is they become Calde.
Horn, now in his mid-thirties, and almost bald, agrees to take on this task, at which he says he has failed. In a haphazard, rambling manner, full of digressions, he recounts his journey from New Viron to Pajarocu and the lander.
At the same time, he records what is happening to him as he writes. He has been installed as Rajan of Gaon, apparently in a case of mistaken identity for Silk. Gaon is an inland territory many miles north of New Viron: though Horn is the ‘ruler’, he would not be allowed to leave.
Pajarocu’s whereabouts are unknown, but a merchant, Wijzer of Dorp, places it on the western continent, known locally as Shadelow. Horn sets sail in the boat he has built himself. First, he visits the tiny island where Maytera Marble looks after Mucor, hoping to get her to project herself to the Whorl and identify Silk’s whereabouts. Marble is now blind, and, giving Horn one of her failed eyes, asks him to try to find a working one for her. Mucor reports that Silk does not want to be found and that searching for him would put him in danger.
Horn is determined to proceed however, and sails on with Babbie, a young hus, gifted to him by Marble and Mucor.
His account wanders between the story of his voyage, his considerable doubts and fears about the accuracy and honesty of what he is writing, and his attempts to rule Gaon, in the sense of acting as a fair and neutral Judge, as closely as he can to how Silk would act in his place.
Horn gains a travelling companion in the form of a beautiful young woman, naked with long blonde hair, and with only one arm. The young woman’s origins are unknown: she has lost her arm to an attack by Babbie on her first attempt to board, but on her second she is sent aboard by a giant woman, rising from the sea, whom she calls Mother. This latter appears to be some kind of sea-goddess, who has cared for the young woman underwater for some time, and who is now driving her back to her own kind, humans.
Horn names her Seawrack, being the closest he can come to the name he is given for her. He finds her incredibly beautiful and tempting, though he intends to remain loyal to Nettle (even as he hopes she has found herself a new husband, to replace him).
Time passes in Gaon. The Convergence with Green, during which the inhumi attack openly and in greater numbers, passes without any reference to its events.
Horn is asked to extend his ‘rule’ to the downriver community of Skany but refuses to do so because of the distance between the two towns. He sends engineering experts to create a more navigable channel around cataracts below Gaon, improving the town’s commerce. Upriver, there are further cataracts, less susceptible to being by-passed. The upper town of Han asks for the same courtesy and, when this is not extended, they start a war, in which Horn is wounded.
Back on his voyage, Horn repels the attack of an inhumu, who drinks blood from Babbie. Later, however, whilst seeking game and water on an island, he falls into a deep pit and is badly injured. Seawrack abandons him, convinced he is dead. The inhumu offers assistance in escaping, but demands Horn swear not to hurt him, or betray him as an inhumu, and to assist him to join the lander at Pajarocu.
Horn is forced to humiliate himself to gain assistance. He takes Krait, as the inhumu names himself, as not just a travelling companion but also as a son, despite the fact that the two quarrel daily. Seawrack is recovered from the sea and Krait leads Horn to demand she sing, a song that inflames him into raping her brutally: nevertheless, the two become lovers as the voyage progresses.
The war does not go well for Gaon. Horn sees an opportunity to escape but this requires him to disinter buried inhumi. Thanks to Krait, he knows a secret about the inhumi that they do not want revealed: he threatens to make this public unless they act for Gaon in the war. The first inhuma released takes the name Jahlee, meaning false, but she and her fellows keep their word.
Horn finally sees lights on Shadelow. These belong to a family of four, headed by He-pens-sheep. He has some contact with the Vanished People, or Neighbours. These are the seemingly vanished original population of Blue. Horn goes out at night to find them, though they appear in no light, cannot be counted and seem to have twice the number of arms and legs. The Neighbours have left Blue for another form of existence: Horm, in the name of all humans, accepts Blue from them and promises they may visit without molestation perpetually.
Returning, he discovers he can navigate the thickest of thickets and jungle with ease.
Pajarocu is now within reach, but before navigating the river that leads to it, Horn’s boat is overtaken by his son Sinew, who is pursuing him in his usual refusal to accept directions. Sinew is shocked at Seawrack. The party manages to reach the Town where the lander has not yet left. Horn recognises it immediately, the only man who might, because it is different from all the others. It is a crew lander, the one in which Auk and Chenille set off. It will not return to the Whorl but will take its passengers to Green, to be cattle for the inhumi: it is Pajarocu’s price for being left in peace.
In Gaon, Horn is still hindered by his wound. Hari Mau, who brought him back from the Whorl, is now the Gaon War Leader and looks set to win the war with Han. If he loses, Han will execute Horn, if he wins, Hari Mau’s friends will dispose of him to enable Hari Mau to become Rajan.
Horn advances his plans to leave, with the aid of Evensong, his Hannese ‘wife’. His paper supply is running short and he is determined to take his story too the launching of the lander, though in the end the account is scanty. Seawrack is left behind, Krait betrays the humans, Sinew stands with Horn but they cannot persuade enough humans to believe them and prevent the lander travelling to Green. Krait is killed but before dying reveals the inhumi’s great secret to Horn, on oath not to repeat it. His threat to do so is what persuaded Jahlee and the others to work for him and Gaon.
Horn escapes downriver but is forced to abandon his boat under inhumi attack. His last pages are written in the middle of nowhere. He muses about the many omissions from his account. His last recollection is that of Silk, snatching the ball from Horn on the ballcourt.
This won’t be enough. It can’t possibly be adequate because I don’t know enough, I wasn’t there at any of the right times, and because I don’t have enough of the right temperament. But today is an anniversary, and because of who it is it demands recognition, even from those of us who can’t do the job justice.
Today is a birthday, the birthday of someone no longer with us, a man born Jacob Kurtzberg who achieved fame under an anglicised pen name which he later took officially as his own. He was Jack Kirby, and they called him the King, and rarely if ever has a nickname been more fully justified.
Jack Kirby was a comic books artist. Many would call him THE comic books artist, and if you restrict that definition to the superhero field that has dominated the form, for good or ill, for so long, you’d hardly find anyone to argue. In terms of dynamism, energy, imagination, inspiration, the King was unequalled. Whilst nt discounting Stan Lee, there are viable arguments that Jack Kirby was responsible for creating Marvel as it is. His characters dominate Marvel, and the number of creations that sprang from them will probably never be countable.
But whatever you can say about Kirby’s approach to art, and many far better qualified than I to analyse it have worshipped at its feet and drawn untold inspiration, there is one aspect in which Jack Kirby can never be equalled. The man was a Creation Machine. He created more and more varied characters than anyone else, without stopping, almost without thinking. They just poured out of him, until the end of his life.
Kirby just was a marvel. He would have been 101 today. He deserved to be 101, to be physically immortal and not ‘merely’ creatively immortal. And everyonee who met him to this day misses him like crazy.
It’s finally become obvious to even me that I know nothing about Deep Space Nine. I have been out of step so many times, disliking, being bored by or simply not appreciating episodes that are held in high regard, and here I am again, only this time I’m appreciating, even enjoying an episode that nobody involved with making it felt was worth it, and which is regarded as the official weakest of season 7 (with all those effing Vic Fontaine episodes and another bloody Ferenghi story next week? I should coco).
Apparently, this was down to the many changes of plot, theme and even central character to arrive at the basic story, by which point the script had to be hammered out without any time for revision or reconsideration.
Personally, I found it interesting, and assumed it was an episode intended to illuminate Ezri Dax and her background, since it involved her going home to her family, and especially her overbearing mother, who runs a successful mining business to which she devotes all of her energy and focus. Ezri hasn’t been home in three years, nor spoken to her mother in six months.
The peg for this, the MacGuffin, was set up in the open, most of which I was unable to see thanks to the same scratch on the DVD that carried away the ending of last week’s episode. After a comic start about the different kinds of gagh, Bashir discloses that he’s worried about O’Brien, off-station ostensibly visiting his father but in reality checking up on Marika Bilby, the widow of Liam Bilby from ‘Honor Among Thieves’ in season 6. O’Brien is overdue. Given that he’s on the planet where the Tigan family is based, a furious Sisko orders Ezri to get her mother to use her connections to help.
Part of the reason I was able to take this episode so seriously was that I recognised it. Yanas Tigan, a bright, energetic and completely convincing guest appearance by Leigh Taylor-Young, was a mother who has stifled her children, directing their every course and still finding whatever they did to be inadequate. Boy, do I know how that feels! Whilst older brother Janel manages the mine, younger brother Norvo, the most clearly gifted, artistic, imaginative and creative of the three, has been broken by Yanas’ relentless criticism of everything, Ezri included.
O’Brien is quickly produced, having been saved by the New Sydney Police from an Orion Syndicate beating as he investigates Marika Bilby’s murder. The Police insist she wasn’t killed by the Syndicate as they notably take care of their widows etc. The Tigan company is being pressed by the Syndicate to do business with them and whilst Yanas is adamant that they never will, it turns out that Janel has already used them once, to save the company, in return for which he was ‘asked’ to carry an ’employee’ who would be paid for not working, obviously, Marika Bilby.
Yanas is horrified, the more so because she cannot see past Janel as the murderer. Norvo insists Janel is innocent, which gives Ezri the moment of unwanted insight that rounds things off: yes, it was not Janel but Norvo: Norvo, the ‘weak’ one, the ineffectual, the one who was never strong enough to take the tough decisions. Well, he’d made a tough decision now.
All that remained was the family fall-out. Norvo got thirty years. Ezri advised Janel to get out, go anywhere, do something different. Yanas confronted the possibility she may have been wrong, and asked Ezri if any of this was her fault? Ezri, who did not answer that question, nevertheless feels that what was happened was her fault, despite accepting O’Brien’s plain statement that Norvo got what was deserved, or better. But she knew Norvo when he was younger, saw his brilliance, his potential, before…
The writers and producers saw the episode as purposeless soap opera, cranked out to fill a slot because the slot had to be filled, and indeed apologised to Nicole de Boer afterwards. The fact that the story structure meant that nothing could be shown of O’Brien’s travails was also regarded as weak and robbing these of any meaning, which is true in its way, but beside the point on which this episode stood for me, which was Yanas. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like, and it wasn’t weak to me.
I know nothing about Let Loose, have no memories about them and about when they were around. If it were not for Wikipedia, I would assume them to be another boyband in the popular mode kicked off by Take That, but they weren’t, not really. I don’t even remember hearing ‘Best in Me’ when it had its hour of glory, taking the band to a number 8 slot in 1995. I don’t even remember where or when I did hear it first. I just know that for a long time now it seems to have been there, and that every time I listen to it, it delivers a kick to the back of the emotional knee.
I can’t gauge how ‘serious’ Let Loose were as a band, whether they were into it for the music or whether they wanted to catch their share of the teen market. The video for ‘Best in Me’ is frankly risible: an Ultravox-esque piece of pretention, divided into quarters showing the same image multiplied, slick and portentous, the band dressed in high-collared Russian greatcoat-length coloured coats, with military buttons, giving the impression of being shoegazers. They look dodgy as hell.
Which makes the song even more amazing. It’s a sweet, upmarket pop ballad, a hazily strummed acoustic, a tinkling piano and masses of strings built around a husky, near-hoarse vocal that bleeds into a power ballad chorus with the band executing note perfect harmonies with an angel’s choir falsetto. What is there to like about this? It’s the template for any boyband, Westlife with less drippiness. What is it doing here?
Because underneath all this calculated wrapping, singer and songwriter Richie Wermerling surpassed the commercial crap this might so easily have been. I think I read once that this song was to be taken seriously, one of those songs that bands write when they want to be thought of as musicians, though apparently he was supposed to have recorded it in his bedroom when he was fifteen, a dozen years before its commercial release. But if that was all hooey, it didn’t change the effect, for ‘Best in Me’ proves that long after the Sixties died on us, it is possible for something created solely for commerce to be true art.
There is a simplicity to the music, and a sincerity in the words that very well might be the work of an earnest fifteen year old. But there is a truth to them that I recognise instantly. Wermerling sings that he doesn’t care if he’s some kind of foolish and some kind of weak, he’s not ashamed to say that he’s fallen head over heels, because, and this is where the song goes through the superficiality it might otherwise display, because you bring out the best in me. And how Wermerling sings it makes it not a line, not a thing to say to a girl, but it’s the truth and it’s the whole of him.
I know what that feels like. It’s happened twice for me, twice I met women I loved deeply, who loved me, and these times were not just the best of my life, they were the best in and of me. I was transfixed and transformed. I became everything I could be, I was more than I’d been. I learned more about what I could be and do, and what strengths I had. The best in me was indeed brought out, and I can hear in Wermerling’s voice that he has been there too, and it doesn’t matter how concocted the song is, it’s chorus soars and I am filled with memory and regret.
Like the best of songs, during the moments that this plays, I am taken out of the world in which I live, and like such things I don’t want to return to where I am. Such, whatever the attention, is Art and high beauty. There are many things with more serious intent than this track that I would not care to listen to even once.
And a quick listen on YouTube confirms it was indeed a fluke.
Gene Wolfe went straight from The Book of the Long Sun to The Book of the Short Sun and, as the titles suggest, the latter was a direct sequel to the former. It continues the story begun in Long Sun as well as folding itself into the story of The Book of the New Sun at an unexpected stage.
Unlike its predecessors, Short Sun consists of only three volumes, not four, for reasons that will be obvious once we look at each book. Also, in an unwelcome distinction from the other two series, Short Sun has never been published in the UK: indeed, with the exception of the retrospective Best of… collection in 2009, the only books of Wolfe’s to be published in the UK since the Long Sun series ended have been the re-issued one-volume collection of New Sun as Severian of the Guild and the one-volume collection of the first two Soldier books as Latro in the Mist.
Between them, the Long/Short Sun books took up all of Gene Wolfe’s time in the 1990s. At their end, I was fortunate in that I completing a thorough re-read of the Solar Cycle to date only a day before finding the last book available in Manchester’s Waterstones, though it did not prevent me from having to carry out an exercise I have not found necessary with any other book, which I shall describe in the blog about the Short Sun series as a whole.
Due to the complexity of Wolfe’s approach to this last series, my blogs on each volume will be very much more of an outline, rather than the detail I have employed to date and there will be a rather longer post on the series as a whole.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the final round of the Solar Cycle.
Whenever I watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I always remember the words of R. Fiore, reviewing the film for The Comics Journal: “When you see a man walk on water, you don’t complain that he gets his pants cuffs wet.” I also remember going to see the film for the first time, with my girlfriend and her son (the same team that went to watch The Princess Bride) one Sunday morning at the old Odeon in Manchester, one of the last few films I saw on a properly big screen.
There’s a case to say that this is one of those films that is at its best on first viewing, despite the immense level of detail that’s only observable on repeated viewings (for instance: I don’t remember catching a background shot of the Seven Dwarves, pickaxes on shoulders, emerging from a subway station, before today). That’s because the film starts with something that, no matter how pre-warned you have been, you cannot visually comprehend until you see it.
The opening of the film is a cartoon, straightforward, line-drawn cartooning in the classic style. It’s presented as an R. K. Maroon Studio cartoon (nod to Bugs Bunny there), with an introduction loudly echoes the Warner Brothers shorts and a ‘storyline’ firmly built on a Tom and Jerry-esque sequence of domestic disasters. It’s supposed to be the latest in a series pairing Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit, one a baby innocently getting himself into dangerous situations, the other his babysitter, getting serious slapstick punishment saving the baby from danger.
It’s highly reminiscent of the classic style, though it lacks something of the tightness of the works of Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, and the underlying premise (a rabbit for a babysitter?) lacks the logic of the best cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner and Coyote).
But this is wet cuffs stuff, because after three minutes of this, a fridge drops on Roger’s head, producing little bluebirds, flying around whistling, and an angry Director yells cut, the scene unfolds into three dimensional live action, Roger gets yelled out because the script called for stars, and if you were any kind of average, everyday person in 1988, your jaw is currently somewhere about the floor and the film has you in the palm of its hand and can do anything with you. Because you knew the film was about human beings and cartoons interacting with each other, and you might remember Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” or Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse, but never before had you seen it done so completely, so comprehensively, so unbelievably real.
After that, you don’t really need a story. Just watching the impossible will do to keep you in your seats for the rest of the film, especially as the film offers several moments that are a vintage cartoon fan’s wet dream, the stuff of which private fantasies are made, because for a golden moment, rights have been acquired that put Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on scree together in the same scene and, more glorious than that and, thrown in early on to blow away any residual resistance, a scene with Daffy Duck and Donald Duck competing in playing pianos (though apparently the original sequence was storyboarded by none other than Chuck Jones himself, who savagely criticised Film Director Robert Zemeckis for ruining it by insisting on directing it himself instead of leaving it to Animation Director Robert Williams).
The story is pretty simple. Embittered and alcoholic Private Eye Eddie Valiant (played to near perfection by Bob Hoskins, whose only failing is that on a couple of occasions his American accent slips) is hired to investigate claims that Jessica Rabbit (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner: boy, that woman could vamp!) is stepping out on Roger with Marvin Acme, the gag king and owner of Toontown, the (un)real estate where the Toons come from. Eddie gets the evidence and Marvin gets a safe dropped on his head. Roger is the prime suspect and turns to Eddie to save him from the frame. Eddie swore off representing Toons after one killed his brother Teddy five years ago but won’t take being played for a patsy. The whole thing is a get rich plot by the soon-to-retire Judge Doom, whose jurisdiction covers Toontown. Freeways are coming and the Judge foresees getting very rich off service industries serving motorists: he plans to wipe Toontown off the map, and the Toons with it, to build the first.
As plots go, it’s simple. It’s an affectionate spoof of a classic film form, without being any deeper than it need be to let us wallow in the idea of a world in which Toons exist side-by-side with us. There are enough references and cameos here to keep a cartoon buff happy for years, whilst providing an equal amount of fun to the less committed audience, who only want to be reminded of the fun they had as kids.
Basically, it’s Disney and Warner Brothers and outside of that there’s not much more. Betty Boop, originated by Fleisher Studios and owned by Harvey Films since 1958, has a scene with Eddie, Tex Avery’s Droopy, created for MGM plays a lift attendant, but Screwy Squirrel (also Avery) only gets a mention and Woody Woodpecker gets an unportrayed and unnamed laugh. And to be honest, the original characters created for the film aren’t up to the level of the ‘performers’ who fill in the spaces: I have to say that, a dozen viewings along, I am finding the hypercrazy Roger and his “p-p-p-p-p-please” a tad irritating. But we’re back at the trouser cuffs again.
Christopher Lloyd as the forbidding Judge is also superb, with his air of cartoon menace overlaid onto genuine human greed and malice. Like Hoskins, he was far from the first choice, and Tim Curry was considered very seriously until Disnet decided he was just too scary (you can certainly see that). They’re the only two principal human roles, with Turner bringing Jessica to admirably subtle OTT life, and Charles Fleisher (sadly, no relation of Max Fleisher) as Roger.
I’m going to take one last trip to the cuffs and echo one aspect of the film that not so much jarred as mildly irritated even when I first watched the film with M*** and D****, and which everybody attributed to the involvement of Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer, and that’s the portrayal of the Toons as creatures that exist to make people laugh, which is not a problem in itself until it’s tied to the quasi-deification of laughter as a cure-all for the world.
But Who Framed Roger Rabbit? simply has too much in it and going for it for these to be anything but quibbles, easily ignorable. From that moment when 2D cartooning becomes 3D like you and me, we are walking on water, and if film special effects are even better yet thirty years later, who cares? And it preserves some of the very last work of Mel Blanc, and is all the more special for that.
And obvious though it may be, the film ends with one Porky Pig, giving us the only possible line on which this can end, and which I’m going to blatantly steal: Th-Th-Th-That’s All, Folks!
Delayed from its original July date, the fourth and final part of Titan Comics’ The Prisoner mini-series is now available and it confirms what I’d long since surmised: it’s a piece of shit and anyone who thinks this remotely worthy of the original series hasn’t got a clue about the original series.
I am, admittedly, a very harsh taskmaster about such things, but I am old enough to recall the series going out and this has been a ridiculous piece of work on all levels, starting from the rough and inconsistent art by Colin Lorimar and going up to the nonsensical story by Peter Milligan, who is talented enough to do better. Beyond the superficial trappings borrowed for the look of it, there is nothing that Patrick MacGoohan would recognise as being related to his vision, and the final issue introduction of a Number One of sorts is an insult to the original. Even Deam Motter’s ‘Shattered Visage’ of thirty years ago did better with its empty philosophic of “Does the presence of a Number Two necessarily require a Number One?”
What we did get was a penny-plain spy story that mistook convolution for complexity. Breen, an Agent of the Unit, under section, loses fellow and temporary lover Agent Carey in the Middle East, believed taken by The Village, defined as a completely independent organisation beholden to no-one. Breen is ordered to steal a vital but undefined secret (named Pandora, fairly banally but you could have just said The MacGuffin for all the real importance it has) in order to attract extraction to The Village.
He undergoes interrogation, finds Carey has first defected to The Village, then she’s assisting his escape, then she’s the new Number Two by murdering her predecessor, then she’s electrocuted then she’s a Unit Agent with no hostility to him who’s never even seen The Village. Which one do you believe? Unfortunately, to believe you have to care and I didn’t.
The great revelation, which I’d leave out if I could, is that Number One is a punch-card driven old supercomputer acting totally at random. You can tell that Milligan is just punching the clock because he pretends to offer randomness as a Political system of serious merit.
The climax features Breen accepting employment as the new Number Two and having section kidnapped and installed as Number Six. Very witty.
The problem is that Breen’s a cypher, Carey’s a cypher, and Section’s a silly ass cypher. Lorimar finds it difficult to make people look the same two panels running – his Carey is a different woman every single time you see her – and the minimal plot is weighed down with so much faux reality that it chokes any effort to equate it to a series that was the complete antithesis of reality: surreal, glittery, absurd, constructed out of iconic imagery and above all clean. A twenty-first century grim’n’gritty Prisoner is a contradiction in terms, and if there’s a sequel series, I shalln’t be acknowledging it without a complete change of every creative person associated. The editor and original plot provider is David Leach: I’m sentimental enough to hope he isn’t the one I used to know in UK fandom in the Eighties because I liked him.
You may bid for the set on eBay as from Sunday, though I can’t in all conscience recommend you do, unless you feel sorry enough for me to want to help me recoup the money I spent on this, or maybe even turn a small profit. A large profit would be even better.
The DVD collection I bought of Hurricane was a revelation, the realisation that my memories of long ago comics when I was a boy need only only be confined to memory, but might be recovered for a very small price. My next purchase was a five DVD set of Lion.
Lion has a big reputation, second only to that of Eagle, to which it was the biggest rival. It’s history includes classic series such as ‘Captain Condor’, ‘Robot Archie’, ‘Zip Nolan’ and ‘The Spider’. I still remember the last of these with great pleasure. Lion didn’t appear until twenty-two months after Eagle, and it couldn’t have been more different in appearance: twenty pages in black and white with a limited colour cover, a smaller size and the traditional cheap newsprint paper that Eagle was such a reaction against. Put the comics side by side and Lion is clearly the downmarket neighbour. But it outlasted its rival, and even absorbed it, when the time came for Eagle to be put to rest.
The ‘King of Picture Story Papers’, as it advertised itself from the beginning, ran until 1974 and a total of 1,156 issues. That’s too many years and too many issues for a single post, so I initially decided to split things up into at least three, representing the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies.
But long-running series do not organise themselves that conveniently for the decades later blogger. DVD1 covers issues 1 (23 February 1952) to 496 (7 February 1961). It’s pretty comprehensive as far as issue 254 with few and usually limited gaps, but from then on the cover is pretty sporadic, with several long gaps, twenty issues and more at a time. And during these longer gaps, the comic underwent two revamps, one minor, one major, on unspecified dates.
So thematically, it makes more sense for this first post, notwithstanding it’s title, to cover the period until that major revamp, in 1959, and resume the story from there in the next post. Especially because, up till that point, the Lion in the Fifties was mostly pretty dire.
In deliberate imitation of Eagle, Lion‘s flagship character was it’s own space hero, Captain Condor, created by Frank Pepper. Condor appeared on the front and back covers until 1958, enjoying Lion‘s only page in colour, though this was a poor, mechanically processed colour, with a limited palette applied in visible dots and frequently off-register.
I read once that Frank Pepper (who also created Roy of the Rovers) had been given a very short deadline, and so relied on the somewhat hackneyed set-up of a good man wrongly imprisoned. The series was set in the 31st century, well beyond any connection with the modern day, Earth and its space empire was run by an evil Dictator, and Condor was imprisoned on a slave moon. So the Captain escaped in a stolen spaceship and spent the next three years slowly building up a rebellion that ended with the Dictator destroying his home city, himself and all his forces just to kill Condor (the way power-hungry Dictators are wont to do) only for Condor to streak away in the last split second.
Thereafter that, Condor (who was never given a first name) became Chief Pilot (oh, did he now?) of the Space Patrol.
It’s easy enough to call Captain Condor a pale imitation of Dan Dare but the truth is that beyond being a space ace, he didn’t have enough colour at this time to even be pale. Condor’s stories – and this is going to be a common complaint about so many of Lion‘s series – have no structure or coherent story to them. They begin with an objective that is finally achieved over many many weeks, but the intervening episodes just clatter along with no better intent than to provide an endless series of cliffhangers that spin the adventure out for as long as possible.
And Condor is dogged by poor art. It’s limited and crude beyond the generally dull art for Lion throughout this first era. It’s limited by poor basic drawing skills, a lack of any coherent design, a seriously diminished imagination for spaceships, space stations, uniforms and especially aliens. This, let me remind you, was the cover feature, yet it hard the worst art in the entire comic.
Let me expand upon that point about uniforms. Once Condor had overthrown the Dictator and became an official hero of the new (impliedly) democratic government, the Space Patrol had to be depicted in Space Patrol uniform. Frank Hampson based Spacefleet uniforms on British Army and RAF battledress, but Dan Dare’s future was merely decades ahead, not a whole millennium. Condor’s Space Patrol wore rounded metal helmets that balanced on top of their heads as opposed to covering them, bland tops and leggings and, most absurd in appearance, a kind of green tartan check… something around the loins and backsides, that didn’t really resemble any known form of human clothing, looked bulky and the very opposite of stream-lined (it was not so much a case of my bum looking big in this as in bums being swaddled beyond the point of any recognition.)
It looked amateurish and unconvincing, and it made a mockery of the reputation Captain Condor enjoyed.
Not that any of Lion‘s art was anything to write home about. There’s a curiously homogenous look to it, as if the comic was calling on a very limited pool of artists, who may have been drawing more than one series every week: remember that Eagle stood out for its non-professional insistence on paying its artists enough to live on for a week whilst drawing one colour page. The contrast is self-evident.
With the exception of the illustrations to some of the prose series, the majority of Lion‘s art is static and stiff, composed of regular panels in small and rigid tiers, bland drawings with no pretention to story-telling. Everything looks oddly rounded, and whilst backgrounds are not skimped, there’s an unnerving amount of white space on every page, as if the artist is not even using the full extent of the panel.
These criticisms certainly have to be said of the War Serial. That’s not its title, but it might as well be. War story succeeds war story, one after another, each operating to a formula that is only ever mildly tweaked to fit the service and the geographical setting: two British servicemen, from differing regiments or services, but always two, are either sent on a mission behind German lines or get stranded there and the story goes on for week after week after week until eventually the mission succeeds, but each week there’s a cliffhanger to make it carry on longer and longer without rhyme, reason or structure. All with the same, pallid art.
The War Serial is as much an ongoing feature as ‘Captain Condor’, which made it one of four such throughout the Fifties. Another such which, like Condor, survived the 1959 revamp, was ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ (‘Sandy Dean’s First Term’ on it’s debut). Clean-cut Sandy arrives as a new boy at Tollgate School, an old-style Public School with studies and dormitories. Sandy’s a Fourth Former (it’s always the Fourth Form, isn’t it? Never older nor younger) sharing with popular Jack Hardy and studious, chunky but still athletic Owl Watson.
Sandy’s natural enemy is bully Bossy Bates, with his cronies Spider Jessop and Gus Trevor. There’s firm but fair School Captain, Tough Talbot, unpopular prefect, Haughty Hawkins, big-headed Snooty Adams, even would-be detective Beaky Brown, until you start to feel sorry for Sandy and Jack for being condemned to having real names.
The whole thing has the feel of an archaic throwback. These are supposedly contemporary stories, as the serials about scientific inventions demonstrate, but the series screams of the milieu of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. It feels stuffy at all times.
The art is a little more distinctive than the Lion norm, but is still bland in line and layout. And the series suffers from the usual implausibilities of long-running school stories, such as the sheer volume of sinister boys and sinister masters that pass through Tollgate, not to mention the fact that stories go on for months and terms end and start and nobody ever goes up to the Fifth Form. But what I found hardest to accept was that, over and again, Sandy, Jack and Owl prove themselves to be honest, brave, trustworthy, intelligent and, above all, unfailingly right, yet it only takes the least amount of framing for the Headmaster and Staff to automatically assume that they are lying, cheating hooligans and twisters. It winds me up.
The last long-running feature throughout this period was ‘The Amazing Mr X’, who is some kind of adventurer/troubleshooter who cannot reveal his real name as his enemies would strike back at his loved ones. X was not one of Lion‘s original features, but turned up during 1952 as a two page prose series, increasing the number of such from two to three. To be honest, I haven’t been able to get through even one such episode, nor could I summon up any greater enthusiasm when, as part of the 1958 revamp, the series was converted to a two page comic series, again complete in each instalment.
One series that began in issue 1 did amuse me. This was ‘The Jungle Robot’, about an amazing metal man being used to search for lost treasure in Africa. The robot was under the control of two friends, Ken Dale and Ted Ritchie, the former of whom controlled the mechanical marvel by means of a control pad he wore on his chest. And yes, the robot’s name was Archie. But this was a far cry from the Robot Archie everyone loved in the Sixties. The art was the same drab, limited stuff of every other series, the adventure dull as ditchwater, and Archie both silent and useless if not under control.
Once the serial was over, that was it. Except that Archie was brought back, years later, in 1957, once more assisting Ken and Ted in Africa. The art was no better, but this time the series went under the title ‘Archie the Robot’ (closer, but still uncatchy), and it was immediately followed by a serial set in the South Seas. It would get better.
As for the rest, these were much of a muchness. Same art-style, same rigid tiers of small, regular panels, same devotion to weekly cliffhangers that neither advanced nor built. They might be set in different countries, or different historical periods, they might be westerns, or about Red Indians, they might feature marooned sailors, sabotage-facing whalers, Britons unjustly condemned to the guillotine. They frequently featured sensible, competent, fair-minded leaders trying to rescue stranded parties in the face of the selfish determination of some thug or rich man to be top dog, come what may (this plot even turned up in ‘Captain Condor’). But at the end of the day, they offered nothing original, nothing exciting, nothing beyond the weekly gratification, at minimal invention of a small boy’s unstretched imagination.
Two such I was already familiar with, being ‘Brett Marlowe – Detective’, and ‘The Naval Castaways’, one of the interminable War Serials, both of which turned up as unacknowledged reprints (the latter as ‘Danger Island’) in Hurricane‘s final, desperate phase.
I’ve mentioned that, throughout this period, Lion had two, and then three prose series. These were equally varied, or perhaps unvaried, as the picture stories, and what’s more, where Eagle was deemed to be a bit imperialistic, Lion was decidedly colonialist. Adventures would be set in exotic locations, with Canada a particular favourite, with Mounties, trappers, trading post owners and even a Mountie’s Dog – Rory – knocking back what Simon Templar would call the ungodly on a weekly basis, and many of said godly being other than Anglo-Saxon.
There were Wild West Sheriffs, traders in the South Sea Islands, District Commissioners in Africa (one of whom was the White King of the Pygmies), and all manner of folk that, like Mr X, I found impossible to read. Though I do have to credit one thing about such series: each had an opening, larger scale illustration every week, frequently of a much higher and more detailed quality than the picture stories.
Not all the series were serious, at least in the first half of the decade. There was Jingo Jones and his Invisibiliser, about which it’s better not to ask, Wiz and Lofty, speed merchants and Don’s Diary, the weekly adventures of another schoolboy. These were an improvement on the adventure serials, but eventually were phased out in favour of the latter.
It’s a depressing picture to the older comics fan who is not fueled by nostalgia, nor was the position greatly changed by the 1957 revamp, which took place sometime between issues 282 (13 July) and 291 (14 September).
The most immediate difference was the replacement of ‘Captain Condor’ on the cover by ‘Paddy Payne’, itself an effective replacement for the War Serial. Payne, another of Lion’s long-running characters, was an RAF fighter pilot, at first working with his combat team-mate, Dick Smith.
At last we had an ongoing character, a long-term hero whose stories enjoyed a proper sense of narrative. Of course the cliffhangers didn’t disappear, but now they were linked to the long-term objective of the story, which was kept in mind, instead of being an end in themselves. And Payne enjoyed better art than Captain Condor thus far. It was still not brilliant, still basically timid in panel structure, but the thick outlines that characterised the basic art of the Fifties were replaced by thinner lines and a greater degree of subtlety. The episodes had a little bit more room in which to breath, with Payne getting three pages per week, including the cover – still the only colour page.
Captain Condor was moved inside but, but more importantly, he too was given better art. It was still not brilliant or innovative, but the newcomer was could actually draw real human beings, and that was a massive jump in itself. By this simple change, Condor’s stories became more realistic, and more entertaining.
There was one negative aspect to the revamp, and that was the addition of a one page comic series, usually but not always on the back page, about ‘Lucky Guffey – The Lad Who Always Laughs Last’. This was pure formula. Each week, Guffey would find something he wanted, volunteer to help or work to get it, completely misunderstand his orders due to an excess of ignorance, create a disaster, but unexpectedly and improbably avert an even bigger disaster and get what he wanted after all, as a reward. Dull stuff but supposedly ‘hilarious’. It’s the comedy strips that really really don’t survive the decades.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Lion of the Fifties, but for good reason. It’s unfair to other comics of the time to judge them by Eagle‘s standards, but if Lion is typical of the standard boy’s ‘picture story paper’, then everything pales in comparison. Eagle aspired to excite and educate and in everything to avoid talking down to its readers. Lion did nothing more than offer what the Undertones once categorised as ‘dumb entertainment’, neither any better nor any worse than it need be, but certainly not any better.
As time would show, it could be better, it could be much better and after the 1959 revamp, it would start to be.
As a final point, and let credit be given where credit was due, from issue no. 1, Lion credited its writers on every story. We knew that Frank Pepper wrote Captain Condor, that E. George ‘Ted’ Cowan wrote Robot Archie, that Mark Ross wrote Paddy Payne and George Forrest Sandy Dean (though Lucky Guffey was anonymous). As were the artists, though that was probably no bad thing. Perhaps that concealed how many were drawing more than one story at a time?
Stuart Heritage doesn’t like The Big Bang Theory. Stuart Heritage absolutely hates that people like The Big BangTheory when he doesn’t and they won’t do what he tells them and not like it, because Stuart Heritage is a wanker and can go fuck himself anally with a rusty hacksaw.
I think Stuart Heritage should be cancelled. Imagined what he’d feel like if I went on about it as much as he does.
I’ve met self-entitled four-year-olds who are not as big a baby as Stuart Heritage.
Jesus, they ask people to contribute to support things like this.