Person of Interest: s02 e11 – 2 Pi R


Subsitute teacher

When one of your two principals, the first named cast member, is arrested by the FBI at the end of the last episode, making him vulnerable to imprisonment and probable surreptitious execution, you would normally expect the resolution of that situation to be the primary focus of this week’s episode.

But this is Person of Interest we’re talking about. Getting Reeese out of custody in Ryker’s Island was relegated to the B story, with Jim Caviezel off screen for ninety percent of the time, given only a couple of lines of dialogue and invited to put his feet up.

The show and its cast at this stage is based upon two pairings, Reese-Finch and Carter-Fusco, each with its primary/secondary polarity. Carter is assigned the task of supporting Reese, which means that she too is offscreen a large part of the time: glamming up (very nicely) to attract a random dude and get his DNA, breaking into the Police lab to switch that for Reese’s sample.

So the episode plays up its secondaries, tackling a Number of the Week without the support of either figurehead. As a further twist, of which the story had plenty, the Number, seventeen year old High School kid Caleb Phipps (Luke Kleintank), a genius level kid hiding his light under the bushel of a rigidly maintained C-level output, was Victim and Perpetrator in one body, his intent being suicide.

Caleb’s story was an unravelling mystery of motive and intent, the episode setting up a string of red herrings that it rapidly kicked into the bushes. Along the way, Caleb featured briefly as a drugs dealer, which brought him to the threatened leg-breaking attention of the area’s real kingpin, Lorenzo, who was predictably proprietorial about ‘his’ customers. And his computer teacher Chris Beckman (Luke Kirby) looked to be ripping off Caleb’s coding and selling it for lots of money.

But it was all smokescreen. Caleb’s motivation stemmed from the incident the Machine pulled from its Archives at the start of the show, a radio report called in by a subway train driver who’d hit someone on the track, a kid. The kid was Ryan Phipps, Caleb’s older brother, aged 17 years, 6 months and 21 days. 17-6-21 was the name of Caleb’s project, which was to raise a shitload of money to be placed in a Trust Fund to look after his mother, who was drinking herselfto sleep every night. And 17 years, 6 months and 21 days was going to be Caleb’s age very very soon.

The smokescreens dissolved. Beckman was only acting as front man, promised half the profits but intent on taking none. The obviously falsified report from the transit cop who attended Ryan’s death wasn’t concealing that Ryan had been pushed, but rather that two brothers, full of drink, had dared each other over how many times they could cross the track before the train come and Ryan had been hit and Caleb had blamed himself for that and his mother’s disintegration.

So he was going to kill himself, throw himself under a subway train, from the same platform, at exactly the same age. It’s left to Finch to talk him down, using the concept of Pi, the ration between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, Pi, the forever number, never repeating, never ending, containing, like the world, everything in it that there can ever be, but without one digit from it, there cannot be a circle. Caleb’s mother doesn’t need money, she needs to not lose her other son as well.

There’s no violence in the episode, just thought and emotion, and it worked on its own, with Michael Emerson, who we already know is brilliant, and Kevin Chapman getting the chance to shine. I’ve read that because of the nature of his role, Jim Caviezel suffered from exhaustion making Person of Interest so I’m assuming this episode was in part designed to give him a breather, but it’s a superb episode in its own light, demonstrating the flexibility of the series within its procedural aspect.

As for our friend in Rykers, the seventy-two hours is up, thanks to Carter there’s no evidence, and the four arrestees are going to be released. But you don’t think it’s going to end that anti-climactically, do you? Enter Special Agent Donnelly, having secured Unacknowledged Combatant status for the four men, in effect converting Rykers Island into Guantanamo Bay.

The rules are changed. Donnelly knows something’s been tampered with. He has only one person he can trust, ex-military intelligence, senior interrogator, whio’s going to interrogate all four and find the Man in the Suit: Detective Joss Carter.

Tune in next week: this one’s a three-parter…

Film 2019: The Maltese Falcon


It’s back to the Bogie Box for an absolute classic of film noir, a landmark film that influenced, indeed defined the whole private eye genre, and provided Humphrey Bogart with a tailor-made role. The Maltese Falcon, based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammet, was scripted and directed by John Huston, making his directorial debut, and it is intense, absorbing, dark and as vital as the day it was released to a public that loved it on the spot.

Surprisingly, Huston’s film was the third time Hammet’s novel had been filmed in only ten years. The first version appeared within a year of the novel, directed by Roy del Ruth and starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, in an adaptation that adhered closely to the novel. It was remade five years later as Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle, and starred Bette Davis and Warren Williams, which retains the rough structure of the plot but renames all the characters and treats the the whole as a light-hearted comedy: Davis hated it and called it a piece of junk.

The problem was that the 1931 Maltese Falcon was made prior to the Motion Picture Production Code and fell foul of it in several aspects, mostly relating to the sexual content of the story. Hence the Huston version, which either omits or seriously tones down the elements that prohibited the 1931 version from being shown (it was finally made available again after 1966, when it was retitled Dangerous Female to avoid confusing American television audiences).

And whilst we’re talking about the film history, the story was revived in 1975 as The Black Bird, starring George Segal as Sam Spade Jr inheriting his father’s detective agency and discovering that people are still after the statuette. It’s a stupid, silly comedy that I went to see when it was released but had forgotten completely until I looked into the background of the story (it appears to have never been released on DVD which, given Segal’s popularity, says it all).

But Bogart… Bogart is Sam Spade, private detective, partner with Miles Archer in San Francisco. Spade and Archer are hired by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), of New York, to locate her little sister, run away with a low-life thug named  Floyd Thursby. Miles, a sleazeball, jumps in to take the job of shadowing Thursby. He is shotand killed at close range. Four hours later, Thursby is killed by four shots in the back. Ruth Wonderly has gone missing.

A classic opening. The Police like Spade for killing Thursby, avenging his dead partner. When they learn he had been carryiing on an affair with Iva, Miles’ wife, they like him for killing Archer too. Sam’s killed neither, but in order to get out from under this suspicion, he needs to bring in the real killer, and for that he needs Ruth Wonderly or, since she’s being lying from the outset about who, what and why, Bridget O’Shaughnessy, her real name (or so she says). And Bridget wants help and protection, and she wants them from Sam.

What Sam doesn’t know is that he’s walking into a complex, dirty scheme, by an array of adventurers, working both for and against each other. Their relationships are like shifting sands, each prepared to betray the other espite their mtual interest.

We’re forewarned of it by a scrolling introduction, the Maltese Falcon, a gift ended by the Knights Templar for their patron and overlord King Charles V of Spain. This is a fabulous and fabled object, a stauette of a falcon made of gold and encrusted with precious jewels, its value incalculable. It flits in and out of history, a thing of legend, its value conccaled by a coating of black enamel. Bridget’s got it, Thursby wanted it for himself, she’s taken off with it after they stole it for the Fat Man, Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet, making his screen debut at 61), it’s also being pursued by the levantine Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre)…

And by virtue of the need to clear himself, not to mention the obligation to do something about the murder of his partner, Sam Spade takes a hand.

And he does so by playing the game himself. Sam Spade is not a Philip Marlowe, who Raymond Chandler portrayed as ‘a man who is not himself man’. Sam is a good private eye. He’s observant, sharp, self-confident and hard, but he’s also cynical and, if the money is right, willing to play himself into the deal. He’s ‘menaced’ by the effeminate Cairo, who wants to search his office and who becomes pettishly infuriated after Sam, quite coldly and deliberately, knocks him out. He rides the nerves of the young gunsel, Wilmer Cook (Elisa Cook Jr), and he holds himself well in the face of Gutman (a bravura stylised performance by the stately and graceful but massively fat Greenstreet, a voluable and precise talker) but still falls for the drugged drink.

And then there’s the lovely Bridget, whose every line is a line, whose loyalty is to herself alone, whose confession of having led a bad life is possibly the only true thing she says but is sttill only a calculated confession. Bridget will claim to love Sam before the end, but we don’t believe her.

Ultmately, the three adventurers – four if you count Sam in – come to a loose and undefined accommodation over the Falcon. Sam has it and demands two things: $10,000 and a fall guy, someone to hand to the Police over Thursby’s death and that of Captain Jacobi, deliverer of the Falcon. Over Gutman’s regrets, Wilmer – who shot both men anyway – is selected.

But there is a sting. The Maltese Falcon has always been a McGuffin, and once it is produced, it is discovered to be a fake. The adventurers have been tricked by the Russia from whom the bird was stolen in Istanbul: the story that Sam Spade has crossed lines with goes on, into other lands and places. Wilmer escapes. Gutman and Cairo preserve their alliance. Sam and Bridget stay behind.

And the film moves to its inevitable but darkest climax. Sam calls the Police on the unlovely pair, but he and Bridget are balanced on a knife-edge. She says she loves him, and maybe he loves her but, in one of the most intense lines Bogart ever delivered, he tells her he won’t play the sap for her. Bridget cannot ever be trusted. How many others have stood in his shoes before this?

Besides, it doesn’t matter whether he liked the man or not, but a man has got to do something when his partner s killed, and Sam has known throughout that it was Bridget who killed Miles. She goes to the Police too. Maybe she’ll be executed. Maybe she can talk herself into life, be out in twenty years. Sam will be there. But he won’t play the sap for her.

Everything they say about The Maltese Falcon is true. It’s tight, it’s hard and it is also cruel. It’s cinematography, the low level camera angles, the close-ups on faces, all of these create a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere, where the truth, such of it that we learn, is sweated out of people. And it’s hero is no shining knight, but a man who is clever, greedy, persistent, challenging but ultimately ruthless.

Like the 1931 film, The Maltese Falcon follows the plot of the book quite closely, lifting dialogue from Hammet (I did read the book, some years later but, being by then a deevotee of Chandler and his style, was not too impressed by its plainer, hard-boiled style). But to get the film out, Huston had to tone down on things the 1931 version made too plain.

Foremost among these are the references to homosexuality. Cairo is quite plainly gay, and Lorre plays him as sucxh, though its noticeable that this aspect is played down almost into invisibility in the second half of the film. Wilmer is not just a cheap gunsel, playing tough but not a match for the genuinely tough Sam, but he’s also a hophead, an addict, which is barely allowed to creep through.

And when Gutman reluctantly agrees to give Wilmer up, we see only hints of the fact that Gutman, with his overly precise diction, his stylised joviality, is himself homosexual, and Wilmer his boy.

This prevalence of homosexuality among the villains is so widespread that it’s tempting to look for the equivalent in Bridget, though the film, like Queen Victoria, doesn’t believe in such things. It’s a psychological possibility, given he character’s lying nature and her constant manipulation of men, but that’s to build a theory out of whole cloth: the film ain’t going there..

But Huston’s version does omit female sexulaity as well. In the 1931 version, Bridget (there named Ruth Wonderly throughout) is seen bathing and there is a scene where, Gutman having tried to sew dissension by claiming she’d stolen a $1,000 bill, Sam strips and searches. That was out of the question under the Code, and instead Huston has Sam see through the lie straight away, amusing Gutman.

The film also censors an episode in the book’s climax that was referred to offstage in the 1931 version, in that instead of Gutman and Cairo being arrested, the Police report that they are dead, shot by Wilmer.

I’d like to see the 1931 version, and I’ve aroused my own curiosity over The Black Bird, though how I’m going to get to see that now is an interesting question. But there’s no comparison to the 1941 Maltese Falcon. It works completely, in every sense, without a wasted line or gesture. This is aided by the fact that it was one of the very few films ever to be shot in story order, allowing the actors to grow though their parts in a relaxed and natural manner.

Nobody has yet been stupid enough to suggest re-making The Maltese Falcon (I disqualify The Black Bird from consideration), and I think it’s because, for once, nobody is stupid enough to mess with perfection. You can imagine some of the ‘modernisation’ that would be introduced, but at the end of the day you can’t imagine a remake without Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor – or Peter Lorre, Elishha Cook Jr and Sydney Greenstreet, come to that – and that’s something you can’t put on screen.

Journalism 101


One of the very best things about the New Musical Express in the Seventies was Charles Shaar Murray’s writing, about anything.

This is him today on Journalism 101:

If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true.

Man is still right.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Smiths”How Soon Is Now?’


When it came to having a cavalier approach to singles in the Eighties, New Order were the unashamed masters. It wasn’t that they took unconventional steps, but sometimes it was like they were deliberately anti-commercial. Eventually, they either learned better or they got fed up playing games, but for a while there they were the kings of doing the nonsensical thing.
I can think of only one contemporary band who ever pulled off a stunt to rival New Order, and that was The Smiths, with ‘How Soon Is Now?’
I was an eager Smiths fan for a few years, packed inside my years following New Order. It began with dear old Peely playing ‘This Charming Man’ one night, which I immediately thought of as the Postcard sound, done right (you’ll understand what I mean if you were there too) and ended less than halfway through the only time I ever saw the band live, during the all-day G-Mex gig, the Festival of the Tenth Summer.
But for that few years, I was indeed enthusiastic. I bought the singles as they came out, quickly enough to capture original picture sleeves, like when Morrissey had to stand in for Terence Stamp, I think, to duplicate an unauthorised still on ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ The fifth one was the disappointingly nondescript ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’; not just nondescript, but also short, at 2 minutes and 10 seconds. It’s b-side was even shorter, a mere 1 minute and 50 seconds, though every second of it was lush and gorgeous, because this was the achingly wonderful ‘Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want)’.
Still, a total of four minutes of music spread across a 7” single was not really value for money in most people’s books.
But I was a fan, and fans bought everything, and besides, there was a bonus track on the 12”, and my Lord it was 6 minutes and 50 seconds long, and it was called ‘How Soon Is Now?’
First of all, how insane was that? That’s three-quarters as long again as the other two tracks put together. Who does that?
And then I listened to it. And listened to it again. And again. Who, in their right mind, throws away something like this on the bonus track on a 12″ single? Are they all completely deaf to what this is? Or are they setting out to out-perverse New Order, because if they are, they’ve done it.
I now know that ‘How Soon Is Now?’s placement was down to Rough Trade label-boss Geoff Travis’s aversion to it being released at all, it being such a compete contrast to the rest of the group’s music. So the answer was that Travis at least was completely deaf to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and if it had been up to him it would have been a secret known only to the group itself.
Given how widespread people’s musical tastes are and can be, I rarely say things like this, but I am genuinely flabbergasted that someone like him could not recognise that here was a monumental, magnificent piece of music, an epic. Who cares that it was totally unlike what had come before it?
Cribbing a bit from Wikipedia, I can report that the song is built around the use of a single chord, F#, and that Marr wanted a swampy sound (the track’s working title was ‘Swamp’). But interesting though that is, I concern myself with effects, not causes. And ‘How Soon Is Now?’s first impact came from the contrast between its shimmering effects, the multiple guitar licks built upon the base of Marr’s sustained, growling, crawling, almost grinding rhythm, the guitar riff that isn’t a riff, that sustains and multiplies throughout.
The song peals in on a higher guitar lick, but the rumble takes over. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce maintain a complex yet simple beat, metronomic in its crispness yet lacking any element of a dance-beat, as Marr crosses and criss-crosses the slow chugging rhythm with layers and layers, and Morrissey slides across the face of the song, singing melancholy lyrics of shyness and vulnerability that were, in many ways archetypal Smiths, but which, in their self-pity were in complete contrast to the solidity, the complete self-confidence of Marr and the implacable sound he’s built.
In the end, like Morrissey’s crippling introversion, the song has no ending. The music has formed itself into a barrier, an unscalable wall. It has no ending, the riff is perpetual motion, the guitars play and dance and the song has to be faded out because it cannot be stopped. The song could last forever – one take was apparently fifteen minutes long – and who would care?
‘How Soon Is Now?’ is the thing that The Smiths will ultimately be remembered for, a hundred years from now, no matter how separate it is from the rest of their music. It was thrown away as the extra track on a 12” single. It became the band’s sixth single, in a version edited down to 3 minutes and 41 seconds, a song already released on a single, released as a single, but only got to no. 24, after three Top Twenty hits. We’d all bought it already. On reissue, seven years later, it reached no. 16.
But it’s still an amazing song, an amazing performance, a thing of tensile strength and extraordinary daring that, despite the decision of some people to condemn the guitar-based rock track as a passé remnant of the Twentieth Century, still sounds as vigorous and magnetic as the day I first heard it, and will remain so.
Not bad for something they threw away and wasted.

We Who Would Valiant Read – Part 7


This is the final part of my survey of the Valiant, covering issue 601 (17 August 1974) to issue 712 (19 October 1976). It begins less than two months after the radical revision of the comic on merger with the failed Lion, at which time a great many long-lasting series were cancelled. Neither the incoming Lion characters nor the new series (one of which had already concluded) were suitable replacements.
For the last time, let’s summarise the position as at issue 601. Valiant and Lion costs 4p for 32 pages, of which only the front and back covers are in colour, the latter usually being a full page ad. Three series still remain from issue 1. The paper consists of the cover feature, The Rivals ,Captain Hurricane (4pp), Challenge Charlie (1p), Airfix Modellers Club Page (1p), Adam Eterno (3pp), The Lincoln Green Mob (3pp), Billy Bunter (1½pp), Kid Pharaoh (2pp), Yellowknife of the Yard (2½pp), Mowser the Priceless Puss (1p), It’s All Yours (letters page) (1p), Trail to Nowhere… (3pp) and Danny Doom (2pp).
Yellowknife was a special case: this had been one of the cancelled series, and the one most begging for it, and the Editor explained that, from time to time, old Valiant favourites would return like this.
Frankly, nothing appeals much out of that. Captain Hurricane was formulaic and whilst I only occasionally recognised repeated strips, it was impossible to tell how many others might be slipping past because the stories were just too generic to tell apart. Challenge Charlie was a cartoon series in the grand Valiant tradition of being completely unfunny to adults. Adam Eterno had been too repetitious and dreary for me in Lion and was no better here, whilst the Lincoln Green Club was lightweight and unable to make interesting use of its magic horn that froze things for five minutes.

The suicide one

Billy Bunter was. Kid Pharaoh had started out interesting but had overused its formula, and the exchange of a crutch-wielding kid for a middle-aged archaeologist as sidekick had improved things not at all. Yellowknife was racist tripe, Mowser had long since lost any spark it had, Danny Doom, a teenage sorceror sported here from mediaeval times was cliched and dull. Trail to Nowhere…, a Western, was the only series with any spark to it, thanks to its pairing of wily drifter Colorado Jones and Army Colonel’s brattish son, Simon Grant, but even that was just about hunting for a goldmine.
There are two omission from that list above, one of them significant. Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan was rested but the big one was Valiant‘s last lifetimer, The Nutts. Was this just an odd issue off, or a longer term thing? Issue 602 saw Nolan back but the Nutts’ exodus was extended, the first time they had missed two issues together. Three in a row suggested that they too had bitten the dust but not so. They would appear, erratically up till the end. Thankfully, Sporty had finally been staked through the heart and his head cut off and buried under a crossroads.
Yellowknife’s return was only for three issues, the usual length of his stories. The next turn went way back, a repeat appearance for The House of Dolmann and Mickey the Mimic.
The price went up again in issue 606 (21 September), reaching 5p. It would reach 6p within eight months, in issue 640 (10 May 1975).
An air of desperation first reared its head with issue 608 (5 October) with a cover plugging 1,000s of prizes and pull-out eight page bonus books. The first of these was side-on mini Mytek the Mighty (bloody difficult to read on a laptop!)
The next temporary return, in issue 612 (2 November) actually came from the Lion half and was Robot Archie, though with a brand new artist doing an inadequate job of drawing the likenesses of Archie, Ted and Ken, who suddenly all shrank to stocky figures about 5′ 6” in height.
Another prize competition appeared as early as issue 614 (16 November), whilst there was a return for the Nutts in issue 616 (30 November). A much more welcome return visitor was Raven on the Wing in issue 618 (14 December), still leading Wigford Town, but giving me three pages worth reading for however long this story would last. Which was a good job as Trail to Nowhere… ended the following week, to be replaced by Whiz-Along Wheeler, a speedway rider, in a strip that looked quite like the old days, especially with art from Mike Western.
Though I still didn’t find the content of Danny Doom more than trivial and cliched, I was growing ever more impressed by the art, which made it well worthwhile stopping to read as I scrolled through. And it was amusing to find that the teenager acquired a(n older) girlfriend in Carol Langden in issue 627 (15 February).
Sadly, Raven’s story only ran six weeks (with no appearances from either Hagan) and then it was Spellbinder’s turn in issue 624 (25 January 1975), the former Turville’s Touchstone.
Though it kept its series running regularly, when it came to the cartoon pages, these were a jumble, a random selection of two or three out of Mowser and The Nutts, who frequently alternated, and such things as Mickey the Mimic and even The Crows. I can’t speak with any certainty but I strongly suspect these were all reprints, from either of the papers, just as I’m sure Zip Nolan is reprint. Valiant and Lion’s audience in 1974/5 would have been in their cradles (or wombs) when these series were running, and it cut the comic”s budget massively to reduce the number of pages for which payment was required. Even Sporting Roundabout was wall-to-wall reprint.

The misery porn one

The next ‘guest’ feature was Janus Stark, in issue 630 (8 March). The same issue, Whiz-Along Wheeler also met a ‘girlfriend’, a female motocross rider he’d beaten in a competition, who didn’t take kindly to his attempts to be friendly and who turned out to be the daughter of his speedway team’s manager. First Danny Doom, now Wheeler? This is definitely the Seventies.
Or so it looked. Times were getting desperate, and Valiant underwent a full-scale revamp in issue 633 (29 March), dropping Lion from the masthead, restarting all series, Whiz-Along Wheeler (whose story was a long way from concluding), The Lincoln Green Mob and Danny Doom chucked out, and adding new series in The Potters of Poole Street, Sergeant Strong and The Test Match Terrors.
The new cover feature, the next week, was the Daredevils, starting with Evel Knievel. A fourth new series, The Boy Who Went To War, started in issue 637 (26 April).
Only one of the new crop was interesting. The Potters was an odd tearjerker about a very poor family in which schoolboy Alfie was being the man of the family whilst dreaming of buying a bike against all his setbacks, Sergeant Strong a quasi-superman thank to a space accident and the Boy a fifteen year old sharpshooting poacher who lied about his age to join up in the Second World War. The Test Match Terrors was a cricket version of the Legge’s Eleven/Carson’s Cubs formula, an ex-England all-rounder building a team of oddballs to challenge for the Ashes, heavily reminiscent of the Wilson story interrupted in the Sixties when I stopped buying Victor.
Valiant is visibly sliding towards oblivion now. Captain Hurricane, and the random mixture of cartoon strips that changes from week to week, are all reprints, as is Zip Nolan when he appears. Kid Pharaoh has long since lost any freshness or individuality, grinding out the same old same old. The same goes for Adam Eterno, whining about the threat of gold every third panel or so, in case the reader has forgotten. Sergeant Strong is a stupid mess, The Potters some appalling Victorian morality play translated into modern times, the kind of thing that should have appeared in Mandy or Bunty, not a boy’s comic, whilst The Boy who went to War just a war story, no better, no worse, but no different from the thousands before it.
Only The Test Match Terrors continued to amuse, despite being as predictable as all get out, but I wonder what they’ll do for the second story, if there is a second story. In the end, the series came to an abrupt ending in issue 658 (4 October), as Ashe’s Eleven got selected for England, played a very close draw against the Australians and totally abandoned the plot about someone trying to sabotage them unsolved and unmentioned (I’m sure I guessed the villain). I guess I was in a minority in enjoying it. So there was no second story.

The ‘Football ‘ one

I couldn’t help but smile at the advert in issue 657 (27 September) for Fleetway’s newest comic, Vulcan. Only three features were mentioned, two of them being very familiar to Valiant readers, namely Mytek the Mighty and The Steel Claw (the third was The Trigon Empire). The ad for the second issue mentioned The Spider. Presumably Vulcan‘s budget was limited to paper and ink?
The next new series, in issue 659 (11 October), was The Prisoner of Zenga, in which an evil scientific assistant secretly copied the brain patterns of vicious criminal genius Max Zenga into a super-powered robot. What was worse, this was all happening in Birmingham! The prisoner side of it became apparent in week 2 when the scientist realised he was under metal Zenga’s control, not the other way round.
And The Boy who went to War ended in issue 660 (18 October), with Danny’s age being exposed and him being sent home, his orphaned mate being invalided out and coming with him, and the two setting up as poachers. In their place, The Wild Wonders returned, presumably as a restart of the ‘guest’ feature feature, with a first trip back to Worrag Island since they debuted eleven years earlier. Meanwhile, The Potters from Poole Street trudged on, three pages of pure poverty porn every week.
There was a complete cover-re-design in issue 667 (2 December), with a new logo, white backgrounds and Adam Eterno being plugged on the cover. Inside, Captain Hurricane was still in reprint but the decision had been taken to overwrite the original hand-lettering with mechanical lettering in an overlarge and flat font. It made every balloon look like shouting, and reduced the amount of text possible in each frame. The change went for every series. It was ugly, it was out of proportion to the art, and in the reprinted strips it was a waste of time and money. For what? If it cut costs, it was short-term gain only. No-one would long buy a comic looking like that.
Kid Pharaoh finished the same week, still wrestling, still cursed by darkness, still after Baron Munsen, in short unresolved after all those repeated adventures. May one ask the point? It was replaced by (cover-featured) They Couldn’t Break Brady, another football strip.
A week later, Alfie Potter was rewarded with his dream bicycle (the family remained in poverty, but so what?), the Zenga robot blew up and the Wild Wonders got their feral dog, so that was three series blown away and three more new ones in issue 669 (20 December).

The shitbag one

The big shock was that after 668 appearances, Captain Hurricane was no longer the lead feature. This was a war story of a different stripe, Death Wish, about a sergeant who got his men killed and sought death, if he could take loads of Jerries with him. Next was The Lout Who Ruled The Rovers, about a guy banned from his local football club until he inherits it and takes over. The other was One-Eyed Jack, about a New York Police Detective, a Dirty Harry rip-off. Captain Hurricane was found all the way back on page 22.
The three new series all had one thing in common (apart from shit art). They were violent, rebellious and rough. Six months ahead of The Sex Pistols, they were anticipating punk. This was the work of new editor, John Wagner, co-creator in 1975 with Pat Mills of Battle Picture Weekly, and soon to co-create a minor title called 2000AD.
Both writers wanted to get away from the sanitised type of traditional comic and move from middle-class to working-class ideas and characters, and the more unwashed working-class at that. Valiant had become dull and predictable, and was plainly dying, but based on just the first issue of Wagner’s revamp, I think I’m going to wish they’d just killed it off. Within ten months, they would.
And then it was 1976. This latest version of Valiant was a bust. One-Eyed Jack was immensely popular, so much so that it was promoted to lead feature in issue 679 (28 February) but it was still repetitious macho crap. The two football stories were the only ones that retained any of my interest, but the Lout ground out very old ground, with the Chairman constantly ineptly trying to pull a scheme to get rid of Joe Carson… sorry, I meant Monty Montgomery, and Dave Brady getting mired up in plots to get rid of him: if every footballer in British comics who lost his place to a newcomer worked as hard to get it back as they did to sabotage their rival, they’d be shoo-ins for international call-ups.
The problem was that everything was run by formula, the same thing every week and, in the case of Death Wish and Adam Eterno, several times a week. Things were made worse by Wagner’s next new feature, also in 679, Soldier Sharp, the Rat of the Rifles, about a little shitbag of a Quartermaster who was scheming the Army, got caught and got sent into the lines where he cheats his way around. Enter the anti-hero, exit any shred of Valiant‘s reputation. Sharp replaced what had been a modest run for Zip Nolan.
They couldn’t break Brady ended in issue 684 (3 April), alongside the news that Vulcan had failed (not that it was put that way) and was to merge into Valiant. One-Eyed Jack, Soldier Sharp, Billy Bunter, Adam Eterno, The Lout (albeit for a final episode) and Death Wish survived. Wee Red, another football strip about a goes-his-own-way talented kid, was the only new feature first week, whilst Captain Hurricane was in the unusual position of having been appearing in both comics, and so surviving and transferring all at the same time.

The Dirty Harry rip-off one

The oddest feature of all was a mini-Valiant pull-out, eight sideways pages featuring Mytek, Kelly’s Eye, Robot Archie, The Spider, Billy’s Boots and The Trigan Empire in one or two shrunken pages each. The Trigan Empire’s full colour art, not just shrunken but printed in monochrome, suffered the most. The ones I recognised were reprints so no doubt all the others were.
Another new series, on an unexpected fortnightly schedule, started in issue 686 (17 April). This was Paco, about a killer half-dog, half-wolf. No, thanks.
This time, even the football story wasn’t worth reading. This meant that I was skimming through the entire comic, reading nothing, just noting any changes between now and the inevitable end. Like Paco going weekly as of issue 689 (8 May), and the minimag disappearing by issue 691 (22 May). The usual crop of cartoons kept popping up irregularly but even Billy Bunter was missing the odd week or two. They, like Captain Hurricane, were stuck in the back pages. These were the only features offering a standard of art commensurate with Valiant‘s peak.
Issue 700 rolled up on 24 July. Wee Red would finish in issue 703 (14 August), cut for another football series, Stryker, a big, mean guy on a revenge mission. Issue 706 (4 September) saw the last price increase, to 7p. Death Wish ended in issue 708 (18 September) with Joe Bannon finally killed in action so, yes, this was entertaining the audience with a suicide strip. There was another like-for-like replacement in The Black Crow, starring an ever bigger bastard of a ‘hero’, a scarred Gestapo Major out to trap and kill a British Secret Agent. Excuse me while I puke in disgust.
Everything now was too late. Issue 712 was Valiant‘s last, cover-dated 16 October, just two weeks after the comic’s fourteenth birthday. The last line-up consisted of One-Eyed Jack, The Black Crow, Paco, Stryker, Billy Bunter, Soldier Sharp, Challenge Charlie, Captain Hurricane, Adam Eterno and The Nutts. Some features carried on into the comic that killed Valiant, Battle Picture Weekly, mostly the shitty ones. I stopped caring ages ago.
I feel sorry for Valiant. Like Lion, it fell into decline around about 1969/70, but Lion was never subjected to the indignities served upon Valiant but put decently out of its misery. Valiant lasted just long enough to reach the era of thuggish, brutish, violent comics, and attempt to pervert itself to the coming form. Its last issue was a mercy killing, one that demanded a stake through the heart. Let me read something radically different next.

Lou Grant: s02 e11 – Conflict


It wasn’t immediately easy to see where the conflict of the title was coming from as this latest episode of Lou Grant seemed to be going in at least four directions all at once. There was Billie’s effort to start a campaign against having the trees in her street cut down to enable road-widening, Mrs  Pynchon wanting to have an in-house staff member reporting on the paper’s faults and failings, Lou’s friendship wth the basketball team owner denying he’s moving the Stars from LA to San Jose, Lou starting an invstigation into the chief fundraiser of Mrs Pynchon’s personal charity and Marion Hulme loving her new paid job assisting a local politician. Where’s the focus in that?

Eventually, as I should have foreseen, everything coalesced around the Trib’s new ‘Watchdog’, with all the other elements of the story feeding into that in their individual way. Whoever got the Watchdog role would end up having no friends left, so Lou cynially chose the guy who had none to begin with, Joe Rossi.

This was so much a mistake. Rossi seized upon the opportunity to bombard everyone with criticisms. In essence, he was trying to remake every writer and editor on the Trib in his own image, without the least understanding  of what he was doing.

Worse still, Mrs Pynchon was invested enough to promise him a column opposite Editorial, with a free hand, to publish all his criticisms in front of the readers. This was the episode’s only major goof, bending character logic to the arc of the story. Where Rossi, a genuinely good reporter, would track down everything that needed to be known to produce a balanced story, Rossi the watchdog abandoned any effort at enquiry to produce surface-based, impressionistic stories without the context in which they existed, without even asking those attackedfor their side of the story. The Managing Editor whose wife is paid to work for a politician (Charlie). The Editor who’s sitting on a story for a friend (Lou). The reporter who’s using her paper to exercise political clout (Billie). The finance editor with an extensive stock portfolio (Adam Wilson, recurring character, who has one share only in each company to assist his reporting by getting access as a shareholder that a reporter won’t have).

It all looks rife with conflict, but Rossi’s cartoon fire-stoking overlooks every single real-life aspect of it, and brings the paper’s fury down on his head (there is a pool on when he’ll get punched out, who’ll do it and how serious the injury will be: good odds to be had on Billie but Lou’s already taken).

On the other side of the coin, the issue is approached with a little more seriousness in two areas. Lou has to confess that Rossi was right in his instance: his friend did lie to him and play him and Lou fell for it: the Stars are going to San Jose. And whilst Mrs Pynchon is absolutely furious at Lou for going after the charity her father started, for crippling its efforts and depriving its recipients of aid, she has to acknowledge that the story was true and appropriate, and that by going behind her back, Lou has avoided putting her in conflict.

In a way, the most powerful moment of the story, in a low-key but painful closer, related to Charlie and Marion. Marion’s been a wife and mother all her life, a typical woman of her era, adjusting herself to her husband and her children. She started volunteering, and her job is no more than a formal recognition of her role, and the thrill and self-respect of a wage-cheque each week, however small it is. Her joy in what she’s doing, her sense of a self that’s owned by her only, is palpable. When she’s told she has to quit, she refuses.

Charlie is put in an invidious position. Mrs Pynchon makes it clear the situation cannot continue: if Marion will not leave her job, then Charlie will have to leave his. The closer features an angry Charlie, internalising things in bitter, ironic, self-condemnatory terms, and Marion explaing the importance to her of what she does after decades of self-abnegation… but agreeing to quit, because she loves Charlie (and he her), but she’s going to get another job.

It was impressively written, and even better performed by Mason Adams and Peggy McCay, indicating their personal commitment to each other. Yes, it still ended up with the little woman giving way and going back to the home, in the short term at least, which was only to beexpected in 1978, though that doesn’t relieve it from criticism. And personal is not the same as important, as Terry Pratchett once put in the voice of Captain Carrot.

The personal element was also used to blur the episode’s other main flaw, which was that it didn’t have an ending to the watchdog tale. Rossi goes back into reporting, and for the detached man who has no conflict whatsoever there is the exquisite revenge of being given multiple membership of everything you could get membership for, short of the Ku Klux Klan (the Shaun Cassidy Fan Club ran that close though). But the Watchdog idea was now dead. It had been used to illustrate a point, and could now lapse without actually being killed. Only the critical, week-by-week blogger would be so ungentlemany as to notice.

Person of Interest: s02 e10 – Shadow Box


Oh, wow! This is where things really start to roll.

This far into Person of Interest‘s life, there have always been backround elements telling something of a broader story, and there was the season-crossing three parter concerning Finch’s kidnapping by Root (who gets a mention this week, to remind us of the lady), but there has been no directly continued story, until now. This week we had a cliffhanger ending.

The Number of the Week story was again well-planned, taut, intricate. Jessica Collins played Abby Monroe, outwardly a paragon: well-educated, thoughtful, in a socially worthy job with a charity offering low cost mortgages to returning ex-soldiers. In every respect the archetypal victim, as soon as you can find the enemy.

The enemy turned out to be Philip Chapple, Abby’s ex-boss, who had fired her and framed her for stealing. The loans were a scam, interest rates becoming unpayable within a year, foreclosure, one Bank selling them on and splitting the profit with Chapple. By setting Abby up, Chapple cut off going to the Law. So Abby, sister of a soldier who didn’t make it, teamed up with victim and boyfriend Shayne Coleman (Brian J Smith), ex-Army munitions expert with a prosthetic arm, in a plan to access Chapple’s safe deposit box and steal back the money.

It’s dangerous, and they’re highly suspicious of Messrs Reese and Finch, though they needn’t be: Reese has a thing about veterans being messed with and he ends up assisting in the execution of the robbery. That’s where it all goes wrong.

But this is the Number of the Week story, and that’s far from all we got. There’s Detective Cal Beacher hanging round Joss Carter: he enjoyed dinner (and from her smile I’d guess she did too), and wants to do it again. Carter’s re-opening the Davidson case, after the tip-off last week: she asks Beacher if he knew Davidson. Fusco, on the periphery, is worried about this, starts checking Beacher out. He’s a bit flash, best of everything, hints that he may be on the take. He’s certainly connected, as the Machine makes plain, to Alonzo Quinn, head of the vastly shrunken HR. In fact, he’s Quinn’s godson.

And Quinn and Simmons are plannning to rebuild HR. Now Elias has emphatically shut down that connection, they’re looking for a new revenue stream. An association with the Russian mob?

But the biggest movement in the ‘background’ is the reappearance of Special Agent Donnelly, free, now that HR has been reduced to an irrelevance (has there ever been anything on which Donnelly has been right?) to resume his obsession with the Man in a Suit?

They’ve got a new lead, but in order for Carter to be briefed, she has to accept a temporary assignment to the FBI, for clearance. Donnelly’s sure that will quickly become permanent, to Carter’s advantage. He’s got evidence that a new group, a Private Security organisation, with Chinese backing, has aquired the Man as an asset. And Donnelly is convinced the Man has flipped missing CIA Agent Mark Snow as an asset. This time, they’re going to get him, they have tracking devices put together by their men at Quantico that can locate the Man. Here, at this Bank.

Yes, at this Bank. The one Abby and Shayn, with the aid of Mr Reese, are robbing. They’re going in underground, timing their explosions to coincide with the subway trains. Using the stolen building plans, they get underneath the vault, blow the ceiling, let it come crashing down to them. They’ve got the accounts, Finch can (and will) extract every penny and transfer it to genuine veterans’ organisations. They’ve just got to get out.

Which is the problem. Underground, three of Chapple’s thugs are there with guns (one of them is a new hire for this job: remember that, it will be significant), keeping Reese and co. from getting out. Above ground, the FBI, with temporary Agent Carter, are raiding the Bank. Above ground is Finch, or ‘Harold Wren’, legitimate Bank customer, with passes and IDs for three associates. Reese and co need to climb up the rubble and into the Bank to find him.

That’s not easy with three gunmen shooting at you. Reese sends Abby and Shayn ahead but as for him… John Reese is resigned to what’s coming. It’s been on the cards all along, the inevitable moment when it stops working out. He accepts it. Just in this episode he’s woken up chipper and bright, has found himself… happy. He puts it down to the job Finch gave him. Reese has made peace with himself.

So, Fusco arrives to run interference for Harold and Co. And Agents Donnelly and Carter sweep down into the chamber below the vault where the Man in the Suit has been captured. Except that his men are holding four prisoners. All men. All in suits. One is John Reese. The FBI have got their man. All they have to do is find out which one he is.

The game is not over. There’s an awful lot more of it. But that’s next week…

Not-Crap Journalism


Sometimes, things appear in the Guardian or on its website that are crap, or perhaps I should re-define that as particularly crap, and I jump on them.

Rather more rarely, something comes up that is not only not-crap but which I think should be picked out and celebrated. Like this, today:

“Perhaps some of the poignancy identified in Suzanne Moore’s piece (16 July) can be attributed to the fact that those of us who added Neil Armstrong to our book of explorers as children didn’t expect him to be on the last page, but the first page of a new and much bigger book.
Christopher Ward

It’s noticable, however, that this doesn’t come from one of tthe writers, but rather a reader.

Film 2019: Superman II


I dunno. And I used to like this film so much.

Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.

I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.

Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.

And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.

The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.

Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.

The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.

But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists  on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.

Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).

But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.

Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.

So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.

Bollocks.

Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.

So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.

I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….