Monday, March 27, 2006

Stripping Down #1

The New Invaders "To End All Wars"
by Allan Jacobsen, C.P. Smith,

Jorge Lucas & Scott Kolins

In the past couple of years, Marvel Comics have seen fit to relaunch several of it's team books with a "New" pre-fix, most notably The Avengers, The X-Men and Excalibur (featuring Captain Britain), thereby proving that there's nothing new in this world after all. The Invaders was perhaps an unusual choice for a reboot, a 1970's series featuring the World War II adventures of Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch, plus other characters such as Union Jack and Spitfire who were 'retrofitted' into Marvel continuity. Allan Jacobsen, the series author was also an unusual choice: this collection credits him as a 'Hollywood writer', but he's probably more recognisable as the writer/director of animated TV series King Of The Hill. Add to that an unknown main artist in C.P. Smith - the better known Jorge Lucas and Scott Kolins are respectively responsible for a fill-in issue and cover art - and it's arguably little surprise that the title struggled alongside the higher profile New Avengers. (Before you ask, New Avengers sadly didn't feature Steed, Purdey and Gambit, but did have the creative 'big guns' of Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch). The New Invaders managed a courageous nine issues before Marvel pulled the plug on the title, though a paperback collection is available for Johnny Come Latelys like myself. The story of the team's reformation is actually told in The Avengers and a promotional issue #0, neither of which are available here. I've not read these either of these preludes, but this book's accessibility meant that I didn't feel like I'd missed a vital part of the story. As this series begins, WWII and Invader veteran The Thin Man has developed a battleship called The Infiltrator, which is capable of extra-dimensional travel, thereby transcending both geographical/political borders and enemy lines. The motivation for this project has been the emergence of a terrorist group called Axis Mundi, whose roots lie in the Third Reich, and The New Invaders are ostensibly drawn together to combat this threat.

Naturally, being Marvel, most of the original Invaders line-up are here, thanks to immortality, secret potions, rejuvenation or resurrection. One exception is Captain America, who is not the original (due to his current membership of The Avengers) but a previous - and temporary - replacement John Walker, now known as USAgent. A second is yet another android Human Torch, called Tara, whose mysterious past provides a sub-plot for the series. Jacobsen obviously has a great love for all of these characters and delights in developing tensions between them. Blazing Skull, an immortal whose time in a Middle East concentration camp seems to have driven him completely loopy, provides the comic relief; Walker's gung ho patriotism simiarly appears to have resulted in madness of a different kind; the Sub-Mariner has a plausible reason for aiding this current incarnation and is well characterised throughout. The most interesting relationships, however, are found in the bizarre love triangle between Jim Hammond (the original Human Torch), Spitfire and Union Jack. Jacobsen has clearly done his homework for The New Invaders. Rather than swamping the reader with exposition and continuity references, there is plenty to keep those familiar with the characters happy, whilst avoiding alienating those who aren't.

C.P. Smith's art also impresses from the outset. Whilst seeming to struggle with proportion and anatomy in 'long shot' crowd scenes, there is an expressiveness and fluidity in Smith's art that is lacking in more technically accomplished contemporaries. I was reminded in a positive way of Gary Erskine's art in the original The Knights of Pendragon series, which coincidentally also starred Union Jack. Scott Kolins provides some striking cover art for the first five issues, before Smith takes over this task, with equal success.

The initial 3-part arc sets up the premise for the series, as the team comes together and Axis Mundi attempt to hijack The Infiltrator. The following 2-parter Blood is a chilling tale of modern day vampires, which spotlights Spitfire and Union Jack, and their tragic history. Unfortunately, a guest appearance by the ubiquitous Wolverine in issue 6 would undoubtedly have been seen as a sign that all was not well, sales-wise. However, Jacobsen does a good job of convincingly incorporating the reader-friendly slugfest between the feral X-Man and Namor, though Jorge Lucas' heavy visual style lacks the nuances of Smith's approach. The final three issues reveal more of The Thin Man's past and his real motivation for pursuing Axis Mundi, the arrival of the original Captain America with the proverbial spanner, plus the identity of the Invaders' own infiltrator. Assuming that the series' cancellation was announced at short notice, Jacobsen delivers a satisfying denouement, resolving the storyline with both a pyrrhic victory and a sense that there are further tales of The Invaders to be told. On the basis of this collection, I for one will be keeping my eyes open, especially if Allan Jacobsen and C.P. Smith are involved. In the meantime, check out this criminally underrated series.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Stage Presence #2

"Nights At The Circus" by Angela Carter
Adapted by Tom Morris & Emma Rice
Bristol Old Vic Theatre, 25/03/06
It's 1899 and Europe eagerly anticipates the coming of the new century, none more so than vaudeville, and especially sensational trapeze artist Fevvers. As the name suggests, Fevvers has wings, but are they real or just another illusion to mask the harsh reality of circus life? Cynical New York Times journalist Walser is determined to prove the latter and finds himself on a inexorable journey toward discovery, liberation... and love.

I'm a belated fan of Angela Carter and have so far read only three novels: Shadow Dance, The Magic Toyshop, both from the late 1960s, and 1977's The Passion of New Eve. All of these feature Carter's characteristic approach of investigating - and challenging - sexual identity and so I expected much the same from this adaptation of her 1984 novel. Tom Morris and Emma Rice have inevitably pruned Carter's original work for the stage, occasionally at the expense of narrative cohesion and characterisation. However, Kneehigh's energetic - and often cheeky - production guarantees that the end result makes up for any potential criticisms that this somehow 'isn't Angela Carter'.

The play gets off to a cracking start as a female singer in top hat-and-tails drag (ex-Casualty star Adjoa Andoh) sings a Dietrich-esque ditty called "Die, Century, Die". As she departs, the spotlight is immediately thrown on Gisli Om Gardasson's world-weary reporter Walser, who has secreted himself in the front row of the stalls. As he continues to make wisecracks, a gesturing arm poking through the stage curtain accuses, admonishes then invites him onto the stage. Walser is then overwhelmed by the chorus (played to camp comic effect by Carl Grosse, Amanda Lawrence, Andy Williams and Ed Woodall), mincing around the stage in their gowns and ill-fitting Y-fronts. Walser's subsequent - and forcible - eviction by the chorus via the stalls is interrupted by Fevvers' appearance on the trapeze. Immediately, both characters and audience are captivated by the sight of the winged performer singing "I'm Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage". From this point on, Walser is inexorably drawn towards Fevvers, though his path is obstructed by humiliation and danger.

The production tackles a number of challenging aspects of the narrative in highly inventive ways, not least the Siberian circus sequences, with wild tigers conveyed by flame-filled buckets and scraping handsaws. The minimal sets are also effective, with backdrops solely consisting of curtains and frequently exposing the usually hidden backstage area. In many ways, this helps to create the illusion of a working circus, with lots of activity on the periphery whilst the 'main performance' is taking place. A musician sitting sidestage throughout also provides a great foil for the hapless Walser, who becomes increasingly frustrated by his fellow's inability to notice to the series of bizarre events occurring before their eyes. As expected in Carter's work - and indeed, circus stories in general - the dark underbelly is revealed, most horrifically through Ed Woodall's performance as Boffo The Clown. Up to this point, the audience have automatically applauded each musical performance. However, in a jaw-dropping number, Boffo waxes lyrical about his wife-beating, as he enacts this abuse upon his frail, bruised partner (played to great effect by Amanda Lawrence). Another sinister turn is provided by Andy Williams as The Colonel, a man possessing "diamonds that could make you shit" and an avid collector of wings, who has become obsessed with Fevvers' own unique enhancements. Yet, humour is ever present to balance this, particualrly in Fevvers' guardian Lizzie - in typical gender-challenging fashion played by Carl Grosse - whose loathing of the opposite sex manifests itself in her habitually pissing into men's socks.

The play does suffer from being overly long, particularly in the first half, but the actors make every effort to keep things moving at an attention-grabbing pace. My only other criticism would be that the necessary filleting of the original novel has removed some of the guts of the lead characters. Although the performances by Natalia Tena and Gisli Orn Gardasson as Fevvers and Walser respectively are strong, it feels that there's not enough substance in the script to elevate their characters from likeable to people that the audience can truly empathise with. However, this is a small niggle at what is otherwise an imaginative and entertaining production. An added bonus is that it will make you want to seek out Angela Carter's original work, which can only be a good thing.
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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #11

The Go! Team "Ladyflash"
The latest in a long line of collectives combining a dizzying number of samples with enthusiastic live vocals and instruments, The Go! Team may be this year's Avalanches (whatever happened to them?), but they bring a fun and frenetic activity that's a welcome counter to the static barstool crooning of mainstream pop acts these days. Culling elements from The Supremes' "Come See About Me", "I Can't Rest" by Fontella Bass and Davy DMX's "The DMX Will Rock You", "Ladyflash" is a gloriously upbeat mash up. Originally released in late 2004, but seems to have made more impact this time around. Accompanying track "The Wrath Of Mikey" is fun, but the remixes will fill out this EP are perhaps of greater interest. Kevin Shield's "Huddle Flash", which combines the lead track with another Go! Team song "Huddle Formation" is a surprise. I'd been expecting something along the lines of his previous cacaphonic wall-of-noise reworks. Instead, this barely tampers with the Go! Team formula and is all the better for that. Likewise, Simian's "Mobile Disco Mix" removes most of the rapping and incorporates further electro sounds, but works equally w
ell. It's difficult to say whether the Go! Team will still be making an impact, even in two years' time. However, if this their own one-hit wonder, they could have done a lot worse.

Tracklisting: 1. Ladyflash / 2. The Wrath Of Mikey / 3. Huddle Flash (kevin shields v the go! team) / 4. Ladyflash (simian mobile disco mix)

The Juan Maclean "Give Me Every Little Thing"
Part of the DFA stable, this track features vocals from James Murphy (DFA and LCD Soundsystem mainman) and Nancy Whang, whose vocals have also graced tracks by Playgroup and Soulwax. I first came across this as part the DFA Holiday Sampler mix CD that did the rounds at the end of last year and was compelled to track the original down. "Give Me Every Little Thing" is a really funky number that, judging by the accompanying reworks, seems fundamentally made for the dancefloor. It's difficult to single out any one track above the others, but the "Radio Edit" and "Deep Dub" are as good a starting point as any. The CD also includes the video, which may not be make frequent rotation on primetime MTV, but is a entertaining accompaniment to the track. Next stop for me will be the Juan Maclean album "Less Than Human".

Tracklisting: 1. Give Me Every Little Thing (radio edit) / 2. (muzik x-press remix (vocal mix) by x-press 2) / 3. (cajmere remix) / 4. (putsch 79 remix) / 5. (eric b. deep dub) + Give Me Every Little Thing (video)
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Sunday, March 19, 2006

I wish I'd said that...

#1 in an occasional series:

"I am a drinker with writing problems."
Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

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