An Intense Month…


… has seen me working on the Second Draft of the newly-named And You May Find Yourself virtually every day leading to the completion of the same this evening. I’m also working on a brief for my colleague who’s going to do the cover, but once that’s been passed onto him, I want to give myself a bit of quarantine time, leave the characters for a while, then go back and start a Third Draft.

I’ve got the story into shape, I’ve settled the timeline, some scenes are pretty near sacrosanct – a lot of crucial scenes were worked and re-worked mentally before I even started writing any of them down – and others need looking at, a bit more patiently. I’ll probably try re-writing some of these, instead of polishing, cutting, adding, rearranging.

And You May Find Yourself is a sequel, but it’s also an inverse of Love Goes To Building On Sand. The one was based on things that did happen, reinterpreted in a fictional form, but this is based on things that never happened, and is in essence a Road Never Travelled. I’ve no plans for a third book featuring the same characters, although I do know things that happen in their future.

So, with a bit of luck, I should have this published no later than February 2019, though Xmas would be nice: clear the decks for something else once New Year’s Day is upon us. I’ve enough part started projects to choose from. I’m looking forward to spending some fictional time with other people after two years with my alter ego.

Film 2018: 2001: A Space Odyssey


For the first and only time this year, Film 2018 has take place not on the peace and early quiet of a Sunday morning, but the dark silence of  Saturday night. That was always my intention when it came to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, whose themes and colours are not mean to be watched under natural light, but it fitted this weekend particularly as this is both a working Sunday and a day on which I’ve accepted a shift-slide, answering anticipated demand by doing a shift from 9.00am to 5.00pm.

I was too young for the film on its first release, in the year preceding that when Man walked on the moon and the deliberately downbeat, unsensational, ultra-realistic depiction of space travel on 2001 began its long-interrupted journey from fiction into real-life. I was to see it for the first time, a decade later, whilst living in Nottingham when, in the wake of the determinedly unrealistic Star Wars, it was reissued and I had the fortune of seeing it on the massive screen of the ABC1, an old-fashioned gigantic screen of the grand kind.

It was magnificent, truly the head trip it had long been reputed to be, especially the psychedelic Pink Floyd lightshow of the trip through the Star-Gate that leads the film towards its conclusion. Since then, I have only seen it on TV or DVD, and as I have done tonight, have made sure to do so without light from anywhere else but the screen.

It is still something of a mystery that a film so semi-mystical and indefinite came from the pen of one of SF’s hardest science writers ever, Arthur C Clarke. 2002 was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story, “The Sentinel”, in which the uncovering of a buried monolith on the Moon (in the shape of a pyramid), results in the sending of a signal into space. That’s all the story is: Clarke and Hard SF were about the science, the technology and the setting, not anything human or personal: what follows once the signal reaches those who placed what is potentially a warning beacon millennia earlier, is for the reader to speculate upon.

Kubrick, who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke, is clearly interested in that aspect, though he is not inclined to present any definitive answers. Kubrick displaces the monolith forward and backwards in time. It appears to a tribe of apes at the Dawn of Man, stimulating them to discover the most primitive of technology (in the form of bone clubs, used to kill first tapirs for food, then rival apes for tribal domination), and it summons the last mission survivor, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), into the Star-Gate at the end.

In between, Kubrick avoids the human, the emotional, the personal almost as rigidly as does Clarke in “The Sentinel”. Space travel is treated with rigid authenticity, as silent, slow and precise, and the little conversation that takes place, here and there, is either strictly professional or else determinedly flat and banal: as is the professional, come to that.

This was much criticised but it was a deliberate choice by Kubrick to de-emphasise traditional film-making methods and verbal storytelling. It tunes up, if you can put it that way, the film’s slowness – the modern audience, brought up on CGI and blockbusters – would most likely be screaming with frustration before we’d got half an hour in, especially with Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ so prominent on the soundtrack. But the hippies and the LSD-takers who embraced the film so happily were right to do so. I’ve never taken a trip in my life but I experience the film as an experience, its visuals creating a hypnotic trance in which the time the film takes becomes immaterial.

That’s why it’s such an irony that a film of this nature should come from the likes of Clarke, whose contemporaneously developed novel (which I read long before seeing the film) is decidedly more down-to-the-ground in its approach.

Fifty years after the fact, the special effects hold up magnificently. It’s all models, and the world of space is a preternaturally clean, highly plastic environment, again in keeping with its impersonal basis, but the few occasions where matte shots are needed, seeing ‘in’ through the windows of space vehicles, are seamless and effects like seeing people moving in artificial gravity that operates in multiple directions are simply and effortlessly achieved by affixing the camera to rotatable sets: for instance, Frank Poole does a training jog around the inside of a sphere, running past the camera, across the far side of the sphere and back ‘down’ the other wall effortlessly, by running along the bottom of a wheel on which the fixed camera goes around in a circle! Too bloody simple for me to work out, I had to be told.

Oh yes, and there’s the famous computer HAL (move IBM one letter back up) which breaks down and infects the mission, creating the only element of orthodox drama in the entire film, which leads to paradoxically so many famous lines (who would have thought that ‘Open the Pod Bay Door, Hal’ could become a meme before we even had memes).

The film ends with the StarChild, a much-evolved Dave Bowman, contemplating Earth. Where we go from here is where we go. Clarke wrote two sequels, 2010 and 2061, the former of which was also filmed. I have read neither nor will I read either, and I won’t ever watch the film: some people should really know better. I will stick with 2001, enjoy A Space Odyssey, and dream of where else we might have gone had the real year 2001 been anywhere near to the one of this film, rather than the sickening reality we came to bear.

Doomsday Clock 7


So the hands of the Doomsday Clock have finally ground round to the publication of another issue and we get our first telegraphed sign that, as I gloomily predicted right from the start, last year, Superman will indeed defeat and even kill Dr Manhattan, it seems by knocking his block off.

Yes, the big blue guy with the non-existent costume finally comes out of hiding in issue 7, as Geoff Johns takes a handful of his cards and throws them into the air, creating a brand new pattern when they come down but, despite the pretence, not one that makes any better sense than they’ve done so far.

What the episode does is to bring together all the participating Watchmen characters, in which pool we have to reluctantly include the Mime and the Marionette, with a small role for each of The Joker and Batman, and stir them all about. In terms of presentation, Johns mixes between Manhattan’s perceptions, rooted in a conception of time as a whole, visible from every angle simultaneously (except for one month in the future when everything goes completely black just as Superman in flying at him with one fist raised…) and the rather more linear perceptions of everyone else.

Speaking of linear terms, the actual sequence of events is a mess. The Mime and Marionette start torturing the Comedian in the Joker’s lair, until they’re interrupted by NewRorscharch, Ozymandias and NewBubastis. This pair – we can’t really count NewBubastis, though she is important – have already dumped Johnny Thunder and Saturn Girl (a hero from the past and a hero from the future, each representing a team not currently existent in the DC Universe but who Johns will be bringing back), but Ozy has hung onto Alan Scott’s original green lantern (Dr Manhattan has already announced to us that Alan Scott did not become Green Lantern in this reality, the Doc having shifted him six inches over so that when the train crashed, he didn’t save himself by grabbing the lantern).

It appears that Ozy is using NewBubastis as a kind of highly-specialised gieger counter: she’s been synthesized from the fragments of DNA left remaining after the original had her intrinsic field removed in Watchmen 12, crossed with a fragment of Dr Manhattan’s DNA, making her a blind spot in his universe and drawing him to the spot.

Which works. Ozy pleads with Jon to come back to their own Universe and save everything but Jon refuses, saying he’s never going back, and leaves without Ozy being able to do anything to keep him here. But before departing, he drops a few plot-points into the mix.

Firstly, he did not spare Mime and Marionette from disintegration that time because of any sentimentality but because, from his non-linear perspective, he knew what their baby will do. No, not the one that was taken away from Marionette but the other one: the one she’s already pregnant with since arriving in the DC Universe.

The other one is that he dobs in Ozy over a slightly significant fib: Adrian Veidt’s not got brain cancer. Or any kind of cancer for that matter. Ozy has been pretending to manipulate Reggie into becoming NewRorscharch, when actually OldRorscharch was responsible for Reggie’s Dad’s complete and utter downfall.

Reggie, who has been amusing himself by punching the Joker in the mouth several times, whilst Marionette has been trying to saw Batman’s head off from the middle of his mouth upwards, takes against Ozymandias at this revelation, not to mention the whole NewRorscharch thing, ripping off his mask and doing a runner: so much for that. Mime and Marionette, happy as Larry at having another baby, take off with Not-Alan-Scott’s Lantern

Meanwhile, Ozy returns to the Owlship where Saturn Girl can suddenly read his thoughts, until he batters her and the 102 year old Mr Thunder into unconsciousness. He then flies off in the Owlship with a) NewBubastis and b) a new plan to save every world in creation. You shudder.

Cue one page of pregnant future shouts and Manhattan returning to Mars wondering whether the ultimate outcome is Superman destroying him or him destroying everything (hint: not option 2).

What we’re seeing here is Mr Oh-So-Original Johns handing us Ozymandias the would-be world saviour, only this time instead of a calm, ordered reflection, based on long-planned purpose, we have Ozy the madman, the megalomaniac. He may well have been that all along, if you judge by actions, but the overt maniacally smiling version is a cliche that we’re supposed to accept as superior to the Watchmen version. Nah, baby.

I shall repeat what I’ve already said, all along. Watchmen was based upon the wish to look at superheroes from a different perspective. Doomsday Clock is based upon the wish to look at them in exactly the same way they’ve always been looked at. Geoff Johns’ career profited from the existence of Watchmen even before he began this series.

So that’s going to be it for another two months. I know I’m biased (you hadn’t noticed?) but am I the only one to think that any momentum this turkey had has long since dried up and blown away? I bought Doomsday Clock 7 the same day I bought Heroes in Crisis 1. There’s five issues of one left to eight of the other: bet you I read the end of Heroes in Crisis first.

Heroes in Crisis 1


I’ve been waiting a few months for DC’s latest crossover series, both for the concept and the fact it’s being written by Tom King, a writer who has brought me back into reading Batman comics again – Batman! – for the first time since, probably, the Seventies.

Heroes in Crisis was originally billed as a seven-issue mini-series, drawn by Clay Mann, though at a late stage it was bumped up to nine issues, with issues 3 and 7 to be drawn by a second artist, which is mildly worrying. nevertheless, the concept is fascinating, and well within King’s capabilities and experience as a former CIA analyst.

The idea is that there is a place known as Sanctuary, set up and managed by the Trinity, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. It’s a refuge, a psychological refuge where traumatised superheroes can receive counselling over their experiences. Superheroes in counselling? It sounds ridiculous, but given the experiences they face on a daily basis, it’s not just logical but inevitable.

The set-up is that the series begins with a murder taking place at Sanctuary: not just a murder, but a massacre. I’ve been avoiding spoilers, especially about who dies, for weeks now.

So issue 1 is now to hand. To be honest, it’s a bit of a disappointment. What I’ve described above is, basically, about the whole of what we get. Nor is there any excessive amount of additional detail. There are dead bodies, including a number of no-marks, though the corpses include that of Citizen Steel, as in the one who’s been in Legends of Tomorrow this past two seasons.

But, and these are thrown away in a single panel without fanfare or follow-up in this issue, there are a couple of more substantial names: Roy (Arsenal) Harper… and Wally (Flash) West.

And the issue is plumped out by a running fight scene between Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, with the latter trying to stab the former, ending in a last page accusation that instead of it being Harley trying to complete her murder spree, as you would normally anticipate, she’s trying to bring in Booster because he killed everyone. She saw him.

I think we can safely assume there will be a few more twists along the way, but in terms of content, this is actually pretty thin stuff. I will be very surprised if Wally West is, or stays dead – he was ‘my’ Flash for a decade or more, through Bill Messner-Loebs and especially Mark Waid – and I will be equally surprised if Booster’s apparent culpability is the real deal, even under hypnosis, mental control, possession or any similar excuse.

It’s here, it’s begun, but given how it was sold to us, I don’t think Heroes in Crisis has travelled more than six inches yet. Roll on issue 2, and if King et al can actually keep a monthly schedule, I for one will be exceedingly grateful.

Treme: s03 e05 – I Heard Buddy Bolden Say


Our girl’s gonna be a star!

Season 3 of Treme is proving very difficult to blog because even here, at the midway point, it still feels shapeless. It’s a collection of mostly unrelated stories, rolling onwards, without any pattern. That that is what it has been from the start, and makes for a fascinating mosaic, is what frustrates me about why it’s so difficult to think about now.

It’s easy enough to summarise the various steps in this episode, which revolved around a New Orleans Xmas. We saw everybody except Everett celebrating the day in one fashion or another, though the episode gave quite a lot more time to Toni and Sofia on the one hand and Anne T., with some embarrassing inserts from Davis on the other.

Others had little more than cameos. Sonny fell off the drugs wagon at the first visible opportunity, having put up no more than token resistance. Nelson appealed to his contact to end his period in purgatory only to be told that they don’t see what he brings, ‘as an outsider’, to the project.

There’s a strong political issue over the City Council’s unanimous decision to demolish the Project Housing. The trickery over the meeting denotes an obvious fix, the white, rich community celebrate (even at the Xmas dinner table in the McAlary household, dissenting opinion McAlary D, stridently) and Nelson’s contact rejoices over the eclipse of the ‘Philistines’ even as he co-opts Delmond into the Jazz Heritage Project (without actually agreeing to tear down the fences that keep the black kids out, shudder).

But let’s look at Toni and Sofia, eating out on Xmas Day, with no real delight, both too aware of the massive missing presence of Creighton. In trying to aim for new traditions, Sofia’s interest is raised, though there’s the slightest of hints she might not be there for next Xmas. Sofia’s getting harrassed by the Police, which Toni determinedly takes up with Captain Grayson, who hates her. Not that she’s completely innocent, she’s had her PI run a check on Sofia’s musician boyfriend. It’s come out clean, but it confirms he’s 27, and she’s, what, 17 at most (though she has her own car and is licensed): Toni’s worried.

And the straits her pursuit of the Arbea case and Officer Wilson have landed them in are exemplified when Toni’s windscreen is smashed. Outside their house, at night. By the Police.

The most buoyant part of the episode was Annie’s parents coming to New Orleans for Xmas. This has Annie, in short shorts, never an unpleasant sight, cleaning furiously to try to evade the disapproving eye of mother Theresa. a splendid cameo by Isabella Rosselini. But Theresa is focussed upon her disappointment at Annie playing jazz, folk, creole, the whole mixture, and not the classical music on which she was trained. Though at the band’s performance – a band that’s now got a recording contract! – Theresa is won over by the jaunty ‘Louisiana Christmas’ Annie sings for her with best glee.

That was a fun part, deserved of its extra time.

Just to mention that Delmond has told his sisters about Albert’s lymphona, ensuring everyone turns up for Xmas day, and Janette hires one of her New York room-mates for the restaurant, even as her doubts about Tim grow ever darker and everybody else has little moments.

Season 3 is playing even more cavalierly with the conventions of television story-telling. It’s even more novelistic in its approach. Which makes for good, strong television, but hell to blog. I hope they’ve balanced it right.

We Have A Title


The second draft of The Wildly Overdue Wish-Fulfillment Sequel has been driving forward with some speed, to the point where I’m coming up on the final few chapters. So I had a word today with my boss who did the cover for Love Goes To Building On Sand, and did such a bloody good job of it too, to see if he was willing and ready to do me another cover. He’d be delighted.

Of course, the damn thing needs a title, which is always the worst part of the process. So I gave it a dose of serious thinking.

LGTBOS came about through the misremembering of a Talking Heads song-title. So, as this is a direct sequel, is there anything to be had from returning to that well? ‘Once in a Lifetime’ could easily become Once in a Lovetime and be faithful to the theme of this story, but on the other hand that title suffers from being cheap and nasty, and probably containing trace elements of sleazy to boot.

Or Road to Somewhere might serve, or possibly Road to Everywhere but the problem with that is that it’s much too generic. I am crap at titles, but when I finally hear the right one, I know it. And trying to put together something along the lines of Burning Down The Whatever just wasn’t going to cut it.

So I am juggling around these ideas whilst I’m letting YouTube autoprogress. Wherever I start from, within six tracks maximum I always get ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which I never object to, but this time I wasn’t in the mood to follow with Cream’s ‘White Room’, so I looked at the alternatives and sort-of what-the-heyed into ‘Once in a Lifetime’. and whooped.

I have a title.

AND YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF

Maybe with three dots after it, maybe not. But once I know, I know.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e15 – Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang


Hubba Hubba

It’s something of an achievement, I suppose. It took seasons and years to make me loathe Quark to the point where I automatically shudder at the mere thought of an episode about him. Vic Fontaine didn’t even require a full season.

There’s only one more standalone after this, thankfully, and I could have done without this. It’s a stupid story, no matter how highly rated it is. A ‘jack-in-the-box’ provision in Vic’s program triggers the arrival of mobster Frankie Eyes to throw Vic out and turn his Lounge into a sleazy cabaret of long-legged dancers and long-legged waitresses serving up martinis: Vic’s out.

Naturally, O’Brien and Bashir won’t stand for this. They can’t reset the program without wiping out Vic’s memories of encounters to date, which is our MacGuffin for everyone (including Sisko but excluding our far too sensible Worf) to dress up 1962 Vegas style for an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper, in which the casino will be robbed, Frankie’s boss won’t get his cut and Frankie gets buried in the desert.

Sisko’s belated appearance in Vic’s world gets a controversial scene in which the Captain explains that he hates the thought of the ahistorical lie behind the program. Blacks in Vegas in 1962 were not welcomed as equals, very far from it, and Sisko resents a set-up that denies that reality by pretending everything was well. Kasidy Yates counters this by pointing out that they are equal now, completely so, and that Sisko’s historical perspective is a way of perpetuating those restrictions, in his head.

That this was raised at all was controversial, though in the context of the show it felt like an out-of-place attempt to staple some inconsistent seriousness onto a determinedly unserious premise, and I disagreed with Kasidy’s blythe and bland notion that the evils of the past should be plastered over with modern sensibilities. And the whole point of bringing it up is obliterated when Sisko promptly changes gear and joins the caper crew with great gusto.

I did get some amusement out of the way they firstly ran through the complex, clockwork plan until it worked perfectly, and then Dortmundered the whole thing when it was done for real. I refer of course to the much-missed Donald E Westlake’s ‘Dortmunder Gang’ series of crime fiction in which the titular John Dortmunder creates brilliant criminal plots of the kind that ruthlessly succeed in crime fiction, only to have then screw up over the simple fact of human beings acting like human beings.

That and the sight of Nicole de Boer in waitress outfit, fishnet tights up to her cute little bum, were my only sources of pleasure in an episode that could have been written to order to leave me cold. Badda-bing, badda-bang, badda-bugger off.

Something Immortal


Though I remember well the first few It’ll Be Alright on the Nights, before the really funny bloopers started to run thin, I hadn’t thought to mark the passing of Dennis Norden, at the age of 96. A very talented man, but not someone about whom I thought I had anything worth saying.

But reading his Obituary tonight, I found to my surprise that I have one immortal moment by which to celebrate Mr Norden’s life and humour. It comes from the 1964 film, Carry On Cleo, which was scripted by Talbot Rockall. It is a moment I have long since cherished as the second greatest pun of all time (the greatest one comes from Spike Milligan, and is in The Goon Show).

You know which one I mean, so flare your nostrils and in your best Kenneth Williams voice, repeat after me: “Infamy! ‘Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me.”

Written by Talbot Rockwell, yes. But stolen, with permission, from the radio script-writing team of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden.

Thank you, gentlemen.

 

Film 2018: The Kentucky Fried Movie


Before Airplane!, before Animal House, there was The Kentucky Fried Movie (usually spoken of without the definite article), the first film written and produced by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, then and previously performing as The Kentucky Fried Movie. I first learned of it via Barry Norman and Film 77, on which he had to be very careful about which extract to feature, and went to see it in the cinema after I’d moved to Nottingham the following year.

I came out of it with my face aching from laughing so hard, videoed it off the television the first chance I got (must have been BBC2, nobody else would have dared), was one of the first DVDs I bought once we had a player, and is spot-welded to any list of films to take on retirement to a desert island. In short, I like this film, people.

What it is is a low-budget sketch compilation played by a cast of unknowns, which includes both Zuckers and Mr Abrahams in several small parts, featuring multiple sketches of various lengths, the centre of the film, but by no means overshadowing what is around it, being a 20 minute spoof Kung Fu movie titled ‘ Fistful of Yen’. There are a handful of cameos from established personages such as Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Henry Gibson, Stephen Bishop, and Donald Sutherland, but basically no-one you’d ever see again, except from Stephen Stucker, who had a larger part in Airplane!

For those who don’t know the film, it’s structured around a pseudo-television schedule, with news shows, ads, promotions and the feature presentation, all of which are skewered with merciless precision. In some places there’s a Spike Milligan/The Goon Show style satire by extending an idea into absurdity, in others there’s just absurdity, throwaway gags (one literally) are piled up until the pips squeak, and all the way through there’s a delightfully outrageous eagerness to be crude, filthy and hysterically funny.

Kudos too to Director John Landis for marrying up the various perfect film stocks for each segment.

Forty years on, and a couple of dozen viewings, I still laugh my head off every time I watch this. it’s so tempting to fill this review up with quoting my favourite gags, a couple of which are just punchlines to a tiny sketch that exists just to build up to them, but on the off chance you’ve never seen the film, and are going to do so now – you must, you must – I don’t want to spoil the moment. There’s at least one I could ever quote properly to friends because I couldn’t deliver the punchline without cracking up all over again. (It’s the air-freshener ad, you’ll know what I mean when you see it).

Given the exuberance of the film – a future presentation for ‘Catholic high School Girls in Trouble’ proudly boasts that “never has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited” – there’s a great deal of difficulty in finding a scene to promote on  TV, and Barry Norman went for ‘Feel-A-Round’. That was a riff off the Seventies idea of immersive sound in certain cinemas, Sensurround, which during disaster movies like Earthquake would shake the cinema and make yoou fel you were in the middle of an earthquake.

‘Feel-A-Round’ is its much cheaper cousin. A hapless schlub goes to watch an afternoon movie. After he settles in his seat, a uniformed commissionaire comes to stand behind him and provide a sensory experience. We hear the dialogue, the guy provides the actions: “I see you’ve started smoking again” (lights cigarette, blows smoke in guy’s face), “You haven’t noticed my perfume” (sprays guy and his popcorn from cheap bottle) etc. You can imagine where we’re going with the line “Put down that knife”… The punchline is the (notorious) title of the next feature…

Which leads me to the film’s only weakness. ‘Feel-A-Round’ is funny in itself, but it’s funnier if you get the reference to Sensurround, and it’s like that throughout. So much of the film builds upon things instantly recognisable in 1977 that an audience not old enough to remember will miss a lot of it. Who the hell is Stephen Bishop anyway? Or Henry Gibson? I know, and I get it.

But I think the film rises above that (or slithers under it, depending on your take). Think how much of Alice in Wonderland is a detailed parody of things popular when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote it, and who since the Victorian era has cared? More pertinently, take ‘A Fistful of Yen’.

As I said, it’s a spoof of a Kung Fu movie. Now I escaped the Kung Fu fad of the early mid-Seventies so I had no idea what was being taken off but even I could recognise that this was coming from someone who knew their stuff and I was laughing my head off. It was at least fifteen years later that I found out, through watching part of the latter one evening when there was nothing else on, that it wasn’t generic, but actually a dead-on accurate parody of Enter the Dragon. You don’t need to get what they’re piss-taking when the piss-take is so spectacularly funny.

And I have an indelible memory of watching ‘A Fistful of Yen’ the first time. it’s the final confrontation between the hero, Mr Loo, and the villain of extraordinary magnitude, Dr Klarn. It’s a spectacular fight with its comic edges. The cinema is silent, tense, until one lone voice bursts out in raucous laughter, all alone. It was me, suddenly realising what other, even more famous film this was disbelievingly morphing into, about five seconds ahead of everyone else in the cinema. It got pretty near the biggest gale of laughter in the whole movie.

Once again, I’m not giving it away. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. Especially if you’ve seen and loved Airplane! or Animal House, because this is the pure stuff, baby, the uncut, unsoftened crystal. Though, if you are an Airplane! or Animal House fan, you’ve probably found that out for yourself all those years ago and, like me, Kentucky Fried Movie runs are welcome nostalgia.

And forever funny.

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 2


The Lion dated 19 January 1963 can’t be described as a revamp, not with only one feature disappearing and two new series started, but it has to be classed as a relaunch, eleven years into the comic’s existence. There was a high-profile, front-page promoted free gift, with further instalments over the next four weeks, and every single series starting new stories simultaneously.
The main newcomer was another of those series that I mistily recalled before launching into the first of these Lion DVDs, ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’. The title says it all: Nolan was a motorcycle cop in the American city of Pensburgh (was this a disguised Edgar Allan Poe pun, Pittsburgh to Pensburgh, The Pit and the Pen-dulum?). Nolan took over the complete-in-two-pages slot, although every now and then one of his adventures would be serialised over two weeks, never longer.
The stories was very formulaic. Practically every week, Nolan would let something get past him that he couldn’t realistically have been expected to stop, be chewed out for it by Captain Brinker, and would charge off alone to bring in the crooks, pretty much single-handedly.

Zip Nolan by Reg Bunn

I’m not sure why I remembered this series ahead of others with more elan, individuality or flare, because it’s pretty routine and Zip Nolan has the personality of a post-box. Probably it was the name: to this day, I have heard of no-one else being called Zip, not even as a nickname. The series also suffers from never having a regular artist for more than a couple of weeks running. Captain Condor’s dismayingly crude artist of the time served up a few episodes, Rory MacDuff’s Reg Bunn elevated the strip a few times with his customary atmospheric approach, but Nolan’s artistic level was up and down continually, and some weeks it was execrable.
But every other series was refreshed with what would nowadays be called a jumping-on point: new serials all round.
And for most of the rest of 1963, Lion offered a regular, unchanging set of features, jut as Eagle had in 1957. Except for Paddy Payne, on the cover, still drawn by the expert Joe Colquhoun and enjoying Lion‘s sole page of colour, the order would vary from week to week. But the readers, amongst whom I was now to be counted, could rely upon Robot Archie, frightening superstitious natives somewhere primitive; Karl the Viking, superbly executed by Don Lawrence; Zip Nolan; Spot the Clue with Bruce Kent; Captain Condor, whose artistic duties were, like Zip Nolan, never settled upon one artist for more than two stories running; Tales of Tollgate School, which had not forgotten Sandy Dean but which was mainly dominated by Bossy Bates; Rory MacDuff, for whom Reg Bunn delivered a credence the ghoulies’n’ghosties stories couldn’t; and the return of the prose series with an ongoing character, Tuff Dawson, yet another bloody Secret Agent.
I should also mention the two half-page comic feature. ‘The Backwood Boys’ was already established, a highly-stylised cartoon about PC One of the Mounties which was strangely charming and actually sporadically funny in a quasi-surrealistic manner. The other, which was Lion’s second new feature in January 1963, ‘Commander Cockle’, drawn in a more realistic manner except that heads were out of proportion to bodies, making everybody look like overgrown children. The Commander built a 14” dinghy on an upper floor of a block of flats, launched it out of the window and set off to sail round the world. As humour goes, the only possible word is feeble: feeble comedy featuring a feeble-brained character.

The Priceless Puss

This line-up lasted without change until 28 September 1963, when Lion was half-revamped, re-extended back to 28 pages, put up to 6d, with new stories again simultaneously, though only for Condor, MacDuff, Archie and Tollgate School, and three new features. Only one of these, ‘The King’s Musketeers’, a relatively short-lived adaptation, drawn with fragile detail by Arturo del Castillo, and with a surprising seriousness, freely but sympathetically adapted from the final third of the Alexander Dumas novel, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, pertaining to The Man in the Iron Mask, which gave its name to the later part of the story, was a comics series.
The others were a half-page boxing cartoon serial, ‘Bud and Boss’, which was not worthy of anything more than a cursory mention, and, replacing Tuff Dawson and leaving Lion without a prose serial for the first time since its inception, ‘What’s in a Name?’, brief life-stories of famous men as nominated by readers.
Though only three weeks would elapse before the line-up was joined by another short-run feature, ‘Morg of the Mammoths’, set in the Neolithic age, nine thousand years ago. Young hunter Morg spares the leader of a herd of Mammoths threatening his village, is thrown out as a consequence, brings its leader, who he names Karga, under his control and teamed up with him for two serials before the series was cancelled after six months, to nobody’s regret.
This stable period underwent one unwelcome disruption, when Don Lawrence took a sabbatical from ‘Karl the Viking’ for the story starting on 17 August. Practically any other artist would have been a disappointment, but the crudity of his temporary replacement was next to an insult, the art being little better than the worst and crudest art being wished on Captain Condor.
Ah yes, the Captain. Among old fans of British boys comics of a certain generation, Condor has a reputation second only to Dan Dare himself. Not that there were many such rivals, the only other serious contender being Tiger’s Jet Ace Logan. But after a decade plus of his adventures I have to ask why. Neither Condor nor his longstanding assistant Quartermaster Burke (what is an officer who organises stores doing as Condor’s assistant troubleshooter?) have an atom of personality, their stories do not rise above space opera, and there is neither continuity, logic nor any consistency between adventures.
Dan Dare lives a very full afterlife and has for decades: I’m not aware of any efforts to bring back Captain Condor, nor any reason to.
Lion‘s steadiness was not affected by the September 1963 semi-vamp, complete with more free gifts spread over a month, but once the comic had sailed on into 1964, its pages suddenly became prey to change after change after change, starting with the issue of 1 February.
The shift was not propitious. ‘Tales of Tollgate School’ was renamed ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’, the serial format giving way to 2½pp short stories. The ‘Rock’ was a meteorite that landed in Tollgate’s grounds, with the power to grant the wishes of whoever touched it each week, wishes that faded away three panels from the end, leaving no memory of the disruption.
The following week saw the end of Commander Cockle after just over a year of wasted space and the debut of the long-lasting ‘Mowser, the Priceless Puss’. Mowser would appear sporadically over the next few weeks, as did ‘PC One – Top Cop of the Mounties’, the re-branded ‘Backwoods Boys’, as nobody seemed able to make up their mind what half-page laughter riots should appear.

breath-takingly good art by Arturo del Castillo

One more week, and Paddy Payne was booted off the front page, to be replaced by ‘Badges of the Brave’, a front and back cover feature on the histories behind famous badges, usually but not exclusively British Army Regiments. After a couple of episodes that I remembered, Joe Colquhoun was pulled off Paddy Payne to take the series over.
Rory MacDuff exposed one last supernatural event as being produced by more mundane means and he and Barney Lomax went back to being film stuntmen and having down-to-earth villains to overcome. This lasted until 22 August, when the feature disappeared for good.
A new one page comics serial, ‘Spy-Smasher Smith’ made its debut, about a middle-aged man who looked like a mundane Civil servant but who was Britain’s top spy, foiling the plans of the evil Doctor Skull. Needless to say, it was down to half a page in just over a month, and then re-named ‘Mr Smith of MI51/2’, competing with Mowser and the soon-to-disappear PC One.
Captain Condor was reduced to 1½ pages per week, and would go down further to a single page before being killed off as a comics series on 4 April, though he would return after six weeks absence, with the weekly prose story resurrected to tell the space hero’s ongoing issues, withut Quartermaster Burke but with Sergeant Willis.
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was faithful to the end to the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, if not the actual novel, in having the four Musketeers all die in the service of restoring Louis XIV to the throne of France. Re-reading those deaths reminded me of how how disturbing they were to a boy just turned eight, who was completely unused to the idea that the hero could die, even as he achieved his victory.
Morg and Karga ended after two serials. Bruce Kent’s appearances also became sporadic, until one Monday he pointed out his last clue to his perpetually oblivious assistant, Jim, and never came back. Zip Nolan merged with the concept on 9 May. Even Robot Archie finally came out of the jungle, battling crooks in a Thunderbirds-esque Mole in Paris and New York.

A powerful, ongoing serial

But amongst all this chopping and changing, Lion did gain a new major feature, on 29 February, that I had long forgotten but instantly remembered. Titled originally ‘Britain in Chains’, and renamed ‘Public Enemy No 1’ on 15 August, the series starred top secret agent Victor Gunn, and his West Indian assistant, Barrel. Gunn was assigned to investigate a group run by the seemingly eccentric Baron Rudolph, who was dedicated to ancient times. Gunn found that not only was Rudolph planning to overthrow Britain’s government and install himself as Dictator, but that he has been planning this for years, has very influential adherents everywhere, and a well-developed plan to paralyse the entire country whilst he takes over.
And the evil Baron succeeds. Gunn and Barrel become wanted men, threats to the new regime. They succeed in getting the real Government out of the country, to set up in exile in Canada, which was the climax of the first serial, under the original name. The pair then stayed on, to organise the fitful, passionate but incoherent Resistance, the serial hanging its name to suit. I remember further changes of name for later phases, but not how the series was ultimately resolved. I am very much looking forward to getting to that point.
But still the changes kept coming. On 11 July, ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’ finished its pathetic run by being thrown down a well, paving the way for a return to serials, starting with ‘Tollgate at Sea’, and then ‘The Tollgate Treasure-Seekers’ as the entire school took to the waters and decided to sail round the world. After a dozen years, this latest switch starts ringing the alarm bells as to whether the series should be put out of its misery.
Another new series, ‘The Silver Colt’, debuted three weeks later, with no little potential. It centred upon the eponymous gun, made for a famous lawman, which had the unfortunate habit of being lost or stolen: the series followed the gun and its several owners, and what luck it brought to them. Though a strip, this series replaced Captain Condor (again). Don’t worry, the Captain was back on 14 November, albeit for a single week.
Whilst Victor Gunn and the Silver Colt were major series, and well-executed, the next new feature was considerably troubling. ‘Outcasts of Storm Island’, starting on 29 August, was a reprint of one of those awful stilted serials of the Fifties, complete with its dull, drab art. Lion had lasted twelve and a half years without needing to repeat any of its unworthy past. Doing so now seemed to be a very bad omen.
Worse still was the end of Karl the Viking, on 26 September, to be replaced by ‘The Hand of Zar’. Fears however were relieved when the new series appeared and was found to be more work by Don Lawrence. The series would be better known under its later name, ‘Maroc the Mighty’, but under either title, it starred Devon Yeoman John Maroc, outlawed during the Crusades for saving a man from his rapacious master, who came into possession of the hand of Zar, an amulet that,when exposed to the rays of the sun, gave him superhuman strength.

Maroc the Mighty

But John Maroc was no substitute for Karl the Viking, nor were the Holy Land’s desert landscapes as fertile for Lawrence’s skill with atmosphere and landscape. The Hand of Zar amulet took the series too far into American superhero territory with that half-heartedness that characterised such a move.
In contrast, Zip Nolan benefited from Rory MacDuff’s departure by acquiring Reg Bunn as his full-time artist. The Tollgate series nostalgically returned Sandy Dean to the title, with two successive stories featuring, first, a Ghost Ship and then Pirates. A new comic feature with very old-fashioned roots arrived on 28 November 1964: ‘The Lion Street Mob’ harked more to ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’ than its class contemporary, ‘The Bash Street Kids’, with a formulaic three panel set-up leading to a half-page multigag cartoon that to my eyes is overcrowded and confusing, but I rather think would have entertained my younger self very much more.
But this phase of Lion was now nearing its end, with another relaunch, like that which starts this essay, planned for early 1965. Before that, Robot Archie took over the cover from 9 January, replacing ‘Badges of the Brave’, and Rory MacDuff made a brief return, without his sidekick Barley Lomax, in a five week short serial with an artist I don’t recognise but practically every panel of which jumped out at me from my memory.
Sadly,DVD2 misses the last two issues of this run, mistakenly reprinting two recent issues, denying me the end of ‘Public Enemy No. 1′, which was a loss, and the last of Sandy Dean, Bossy Bates and Tollgate School afloat, which wasn’t. When the latest relaunch his the newsagents’ on 13 February, despite the persistence of Robot Archie, there were no Lion features left that could claim to have been there from the beginning.