Monday, July 31, 2006

What I Did On My Summer Holidays by Khayem, Age 35 ½

Sat 15th
I attempted to paint a couple of coffee tables in my back garden, with primer that had the consistency of tar thanks to the excessive heat. Why do I ever decide to do these jobs? I’m crap at DIY!

Sun 16th
My sweetheart and I tried and failed to rent Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl – or anything else for that matter – on DVD. Spent an inordinate time in The Lounge café bar, getting drunk instead.

Mon 17th
Left England, entered Wales, left Wales, re-entered England. Arrived at Mallards Pike Lake, the Forest of Dean, to Go Ape in the treetops. Severe doubts about my judgement kicked in when I saw people thirty feet up flinging themselves onto cargo nets, balancing on precarious platforms and screaming as they descended the ‘zip slides’ (hey, we know they’re really called ‘death slides’!). A faltering start at the briefing session as I put the harness on inside out, but I was determined to show both the slew of hyperactive teens and the inconceivably elderly gent in our group that I had what it takes. I felt adrenalin hitting hitherto unexplored parts of my bloodsystem… as I travelled the ten-foot practice zip slide, a few feet above ground level. Three hours later, my love and I completed our final ‘death slide’ descent, pumped up and ready to take on the world! That said, it’s unlikely that next month I’ll be writing of rap jumping down the side of a skyscraper. Small steps, small steps... We stopped off at the appropriately named The Gr(ape) in Chepstow for a bite to eat. My loved one ordered feta and vine tomato salad, which was lovely despite the fact that the feta became brie, the vine tomatoes were clearly the common-or-garden variety and the salad was largely conspicuous by it’s absence. My choice – black pudding and chorizo on a bed of rocket – uncovered the AWOL vine tomatoes, though the rocket seemed to have launched into the stratosphere, in pursuit of my wife’s salad. However, the combination of meats was surprisingly effective, and ably assisted by full-bodied local beer The Reverend James.

Tue 18th
My beautiful wife and I joined our close friend Jason at the local mutiplex to see Pirates Of The Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest A tad overlong, but great fun. If you’ve not seen the first film, no problem: as there’s no ‘plot’ to speak of, there’s no chance of feeling ill informed. Bill Nighy delivers a star turn, despite having an octopus for a head throughout; likewise, barnacles proved no obstacle to Geoffrey Rush’s sterling performance. It’s easy to understand that Johnny Depp has been likened to Keith Richards in this film, but I’ll admit to a slight disappointment that Depp didn’t fully realise this by taking a tumble from a coconut tree. We’re both looking forward to Pirates 3, and may even get around to seeing the first one someday…

Wed 19th
I received an outline of my pre-job interview assignment: to prepare briefing paper for a presentation/discussion with a panel. I successfully avoided soiling myself and dealt with my nervous anxiety by spending the day clothes shopping at Cribbs Causeway with the love of my life.

Thu 20th
A lazy day at The Relaxation Centre in Clifton, a first-time experience for the two of us. We sampled the outdoor hot tub, steam room, the indoor hot tub, sauna and floatation room and felt unbelievably great afterwards. I then blew it all that evening as my oldest friend Stu was in town (check out his film Outlaw in 2007). Mandatory ale quaffing in The Three Sugar Loaves and The White Lion ensued, including pints of the prophetically named Doom.

Fri 21st
The hangover from hell, accompanied by the obligatory depression and lack of motivation. We started watching a fascinating documentary on Blondie but I passed out before they’d even reached ‘The Tide Is High’ era.

Sat 22nd
I spent the morning sitting in Queens Square whilst my beloved was having her hair styled by either Toni or Guy, I’m not sure which. I wrote some prep notes for my interview briefing paper, some of them even forming coherent comments. And that was about it.

Sun 23rd
As it was a blazingly hot day, we put off going to the Ashton Court Festival until the last minute. I remember my earliest visits, when it was a sprawling, seemingly shambolic free community festival. Overflowing with pub bands, cheap lager, variations on goat curry and spicy noodles, and volunteers circulating with buckets to collect money for the following year’s event, the stumble out of the estate grounds in pitch blackness was a veritable rite of passage. How things have changed. Now, the entire event has been fenced in, lit up and corralled into submission. The £9.00 per day entry fee now offers you the likes of Simple Minds, The Go! Team and Dreadzone (though largely simultaneously), through pub bands still dominate. The latter two had headlined the previous day, so my loved one and I experienced the mighty Jim ‘Juan’ Kerr and co. I only recognised about half of Simple Minds’ songs and those that I did – ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, a dire cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ and the closing third encore (!) of ‘Alive And Kicking’ - were little more than extended karaoke tracks, with Kerr preferring the audience to do the work on the choruses. The sole redeeming moment was a rendition of ‘New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)’ seemingly inspired by Utah Saints’ rousing mid-1990s cover version. Apart from that, neither of us were sorry to see Simple Minds return to the ‘where are they now?’ file. Still, the walk home was fun, as we dove into the stream of human traffic heading south of the river. Along the way, pockets of inebriated, (arguably) pre-pubescent male violence broke out, causing the occasional log jam. Perhaps the festival is still a rites of passage for some, but my feelings towards Ashton Court were aptly personified by Jim Kerr: over priced, over the hill, out of touch and with an inflated sense of self-importance.

Holiday Reading:
Will Self ‘Feeding Frenzy’ (2002)
Chris Ware ‘Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth’ (2000)
Charles Burns ‘Black Hole’ (2005)
Karen Ellis ‘Planet Karen’ (2006)

Holiday Music:
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry + Dub Syndicate ‘Time Boom X De Devil Dread’ (1987)
The Go-Betweens ‘Live In London’ (2004)
David Bowie ‘Scary Monsters’ (expanded edition) (1980/1992)
The Times ‘Pure’ (1991)
The Magnetic Fields ‘69 Love Songs’ (1999)
Primal Scream ‘Riot City Blues’ (2006)
The Fall ‘The Infotainment Scan’ (expanded edition) (1993/2006)

Holiday TV:
Big Brother’s Big Mouth
Nathan Barley
Grumpy Old Holidays
Dog The Bounty Hunter

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Stripping Down #5

The Avengers United #68 (Panini UK)
“Once An Invader” by Chuck Austen & Scott Kolins
(The Avengers (v3) #83-84)
“First Blood!” by Jim Shooter & George Perez
(The Avengers (v1) #168)
“The Defeat Of Odin!” by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
(Journey Into Mystery #110

Chuck Austen appears to have generated much controversy – even animosity – with his handling of Marvel’s premier super teams, the X-Men and the Avengers. Panini have skipped all but his swansong on Uncanny X-Men, though offering Chris Claremont and Igor Kordey’s consistently awful X-Treme X-Men in it’s stead. With only one current regular US series to reprint, like it or not, Avengers United readers have experienced Austen’s unexpurgated take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which effectively concludes this issue. I wish I could say it’s been unremittingly bad, but Austen’s two story arcs have been a frustrating mix of strong storylines and poor characterisation. The latest serial, focusing on the rebirth of World War II superteam The Invaders as a crack anti-terrorist squad is a gripping exploration of the differing ideals of the two teams. Perhaps less surprisingly, it’s also a thinly veiled comment on international intervention in Iraq. I’ve come to this storyline arse backwards, as I’ve already read The Invaders series that follows it (see Stripping Down #1) . Whilst preferring Allan Jacobsen’s handling of The Invaders, Austen does a good job, particularly in conveying the team’s dissatisfaction with USAgent’s leadership, as well as Captain America’s conflict with his gung-ho doppelganger. Where Austen fails miserably is with his implausible sub-plot, developing a love triangle between Hawkeye, The Wasp and Hank Pym that is just plain ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Austen ignores previous writers Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns’ clear build up of a reconciliation between Hank Pym and ex-wife Janet Van Dyne, the writer also seems ignorant of any character developments since the start of the 1980s. Referring to Pym’s breakdown circa The Avengers (v1) #212, where he struck The Wasp, Hawkeye states “I'm not one of Hank’s friends. Not since he hit you.” Odd then, that during Hawkeye’s leadership of the West Coast Avengers, he was an ardent supporter of Pym’s rehabilitation as a member of the team… Only a romantic tug-of-love between She-Hulk, Captain America and Jarvis the Butler could seem less likely! A shame, as there’s a lot to be said for trying to shake up the status quo and take characters in new directions, whilst not being hidebound by continuity. However, it’s a step too far when a writer’s approach renders said characters’ behaviour and motivation completely unrecognisable. Sadly, Chuck Austen’s run will probably be remembered for pissing off long-time Avengers readers and largely displaying a failure to understand – or care about – the characters he is writing.

The archive reprint, showcasing The Michael Saga (or The Korvac Saga or The Destiny Hunt, depending on your preference) makes no such mistakes. Despite an enormous cast – in addition to a large Avengers contingent, the Guardians Of The Galaxy also guest star – the story never feels overcrowded and allows for some pretty intense scenes. As well as the developing sub-plot featuring the eponymous and nigh-omnipotent adversary, the Avengers face an internal threat with the arrival of government liaison Henry Peter Gyrich. Also of note is the brewing animosity between team leader Iron Man and Captain America, which comes to a head this issue. This storyline is arguably writer Jim Shooter’s finest moment and artist George Perez also took his unique visual style to another level here. Starhawk’s ultimately doomed pan-dimensional battle with Michael is truly epic, with an inspired outcome that sets up the inevitable final conflict. As a pre-teen, this was one of the most powerful, edge-of-the-seat superhero serials I had ever read and, over twenty years later, the old excitement was still there as I read it again.

The other regular feature is Tales Of Asgard, focusing on Thor’s youth in the realm of the Norse Gods. They’re perfectly enjoyable short stories, albeit slightly heavy on the moralising and hardly examples of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s best work. Despite a modern recolouring job that enlivens the visuals, I fall on the side of the fence that criticises inker Vince Colleta as a workmanlike hack. Even “The King” is prone to Colleta’s knack of draining the energy from the art he embellishes and one can only wonder at how much better it would have been had Joe Sinnott, Mike Royer, even Kirby himself had finished the art instead. Sounds awful, but I found myself idly wishing for Ragnarok whilst reading this issue’s episode…

Panini UK comics website
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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Doctor Who

Wow, has another 13-week season of Doctor Who really come to an end so soon? Unfortunately yes, but in spectacular fashion as, at long last, the Cybermen and Daleks clashed, with poor old planet Earth stuck in the middle. To be honest, I thought that following their unstoppable showing earlier in the series, the Cybermen’s performance here paralled England’s in the World Cup. A combination of poor management and half-arsed execution resulted in the Daleks kicking their butts, big time. Of course, with the Doctor on hand, the eponymous Doomsday was averted due to a last minute sending off of both teams or, in this case, exile to the void between dimensions. Actually, I wonder if it’s not too late to send Rooney and Beckham there as well…

The much-hyped death of Rose Tyler (aka Billie Piper) was exactly that – hype - but her departure was convincingly realised. Personally, I’m relieved to see the back of Rose/Billie, who became increasingly annoying as the current series progressed. Some of the recent episodes may have been a touch self indulgent but others – notably The Rise Of The Cybermen and The Satan Pit two-parters – have been amongst the finest Doctor Who stories of any era. David Tennant’s proved to be a brilliant Doctor, no mean feat considering Christopher Eccleston’s redefining and unbelievably popular performance was a daunting lead to follow. With another Christmas special on the way (I’ll ignore the inclusion of Catherine Tate otherwise I'll start using bad language), plus new companion Martha Jones and the return of yet another classic foe in season three, Doctor Who is completely compelling viewing.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Stripping Down #4

Birds Of Prey #91 (DC Comics)
by Jim Alexander, Brad Walker & Jimmy Palmiotti

My knowledge of Birds Of Prey – an all-female super-team comprising Oracle, Huntress, Black Canary and Lady Blackhawk – is limited to their brief appearances in Panini UK’s Batman Legends reprint title. So, this standalone tale by Jim Alexander (standing in for series writer Gail Simone) is perhaps the ideal test of the ‘fill-in’ issue. All too often, my experience of ‘fill-ins’ have not been that they provide a good ‘jumping on’ point or self-contained story. Rather, they’ve often proved to be the dumping ground for filler, inventory material either completely out of continuity or so dated that they have to be presented as ‘flashback’ tales. Let me just say that my ignorance of Birds Of Prey, or apprehension regarding the ‘fill-in’ were quickly and positively addressed by Jim Alexander’s story, although die-hard fans have been apparently more critical. The narrative focuses on crooked casino owner Joseph Bull, or more specifically his nephew Tod, the eponymous donor, who arrives in Metropolis for an operation that will save his uncle’s life. Inevitably, elements of the city’s police and criminal population are keen to see that Bull does not get a new lease of life. Birds of Prey, directed by wheelchair tactician Oracle from their hidden base, seek to ensure that Tod has the operation. Alexander constructs a layered story that deliberately addresses some questions, but leaves others unanswered. Huntress reveals a history with Bull that threatens to impair her judgement in the field. Meanwhile, Oracle’s own motives for wishing Bull to survive do not become apparent to Huntress until much later (and, judging by some of the online criticisms, seem to have bypassed some US readers altogether). Admittedly, the story is ostensibly about Oracle, Huntress and Tod (critics again take note: the clue was on the cover), so I don’t feel that I really gained an insight into the other team members or their adversaries, two members of The Royal Flush Gang. However, it achieves the basic necessity of showcasing the Birds Of Prey as a team, without overcrowding the story with too many narrative viewpoints. Alexander’s dialogue is effective, particularly during Oracle’s exchanges with Huntress and, later, Joseph Bull himself. Brad Walker is an artist I’ve not heard of, but he does a good job in realising the script. The visuals are sharpened considerably by ink work from Jimmy Palmiotti that avoids overpowering Walker’s pencils. The final panel featuring Huntress is oddly reminiscent of Alan Davis and Paul Neary. Like I said, I’ve never read Birds Of Prey so can’t comment on whether the writing is superior or inferior to Gail Simone’s current run. However, taken (as it’s presented) as a standalone issue, I thought it was accessible and, more importantly, a solid story with pleasing art. In short, ‘fill-in’ but not filler.

DC Comics

Whoa Nellie! (Fantagraphics Books)
by Jaime Hernandez

The first – and last – Jaime Hernandez works I picked up were the early British collections of his Love & Rockets series nearly twenty years ago (!). Considering not only how much I loved reading (and rereading) these stories, but also Hernandez’s influence on my own comic strips, by rights my bookcase should be bulging under the weight of his subsequent collections. It’s not, but I’ll leave the point there before I forget that this is supposed to be a review… Whoa Nellie! is a tale about female wrestlers, the basic storyline focusing on childhood friends Xo and Gina as they compete for the Women’s Texas Championship title. As might be expected from Hernandez, the narrative is more about competitiveness, how professional aspirations can compromise personal values and, unsurprisingly, the value of relationships. Hernandez excels at this type of storytelling: the joy of his deceptively simple writing and art is it’s universal appeal; the narrative is arguably analogous to any number of personal experiences. Hernandez’s economy of art contains an energy and expressiveness that puts many artists working in the more lucrative mainstream to shame. And boy, does Hernandez champion the female form! There’s a memorable sequence, when veteran wrestling duo The Birmingham Lady Bashers pound Xo and Gina into submission, which contains an inherent beauty and grace that is simply breathtaking. This book apparently collects a three-issue mini-series from 1996, and was apparently Jaime Hernandez first post-Love And Rockets work. This edition boasts the addition of six new pages, though there are no obvious ‘breaks’ in the narrative. In fact, given the choice, I would probably still enjoy Whoa Nellie! more as a single, continuous piece. Experiencing Jaime Hernandez is like meeting a friend after years apart and immediately clicking, with none of the awkwardness of absence. My only hope is that I don’t leave it as long between visits next time.


The Mighty World Of Marvel (volume 3) #44 (Panini UK)
“Master Of The Ring” by Robert Kirkman & Scott Kolins (Marvel Team-Up (v3) #7)
“Once More, The End Of The World…” by Kurt Busiek & Erik Larsen (The Defenders (v2) #1)
“Why Won’t They Believe Me?” by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Amazing Adult Fantasy #7)

To put my review in context, I have to admit to an unconditional love for MWOM. It’s partly the nostalgic in me: as a self-confessed Marvel UK obsessive, the original, 1970s MWOM introduced me to the adventures of the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil; it also spotlighted the diverse likes of Luke Cage, Planet Of The Apes, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Captain Marvel, even Godzilla. MWOM volume 2 was a short-lived 1980s series, but mined the best of Marvel’s then-nascent line of mini-series featuring Wolverine, the Vision and Scarlet Witch and, er, the X-Men and the Micronauts. It was also a showcase for home-grown talent, most notably Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ groundbreaking Captain Britain series. The latest incarnation of MWOM was launched in the wake of the Daredevil and Hulk’s cinematic outings, and largely remained a trawl through the 1960s Marvel archives for it's first couple of years. MWOM's relatively recent relaunch as a broader anthology - both in terms of characters and chronology – has been a much needed shot in the arm.

The current lead strip is Marvel Team-Up by the seemingly ubiquitous Robert Kirkman and Scott Kolins. Originally a 1970s vehicle for Spider-Man, the series was restricted by it’s need to premiere new characters or retrieve existing ones from Marvel Comics limbo. Although Spider-Man has still featured heavily in the latest series, there’s a greater degree of flexibility in the format, allowing for sub-plots and continuing storylines. That said, Marvel’s insistence on structuring story arcs to fit into a subsequent six-issue trade paperback collection does mean that themes are sometimes stretched further than necessary, resulting in a loss of pace. Master Of The Ring begins this issue, as long-time Z-lister The Ringmaster comes into possession of a reality altering ring, leading to an explosive encounter with Spider-Man and Moon Knight. In fairness, credit for The Ringmaster’s reinvention as a credible adversary lies with writer Joe Casey, but Robert Kirkman successfully develops that here, particularly in the sequence where The Ringmaster obtains the ring through a typical deception. Kirkman has a good feel for his cast of characters, especially Spider-Man, whose mocking dismissal of his foe’s threat sets up the inevitable volte-face (and great cliffhanger). I don’t always warm to Scott Kolins’ art, facial expressions being a specific weak spot. That said, he does a great job here, with effective layouts and attention to background detail.

Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen’s unintentionally brief revival of The Defenders debuts in MWOM with a double-sized episode. This is unashamedly backwards-looking, with writing and art that evokes Steve Gerber and Keith Giffen’s respective work on the title in the 1970s. Fun though this approach is, perhaps therein lies the problem. The premise for the revival of Marvel's greatest 'non-team' is plausible and the story itself is an enjoyable romp, both for it’s slew of typically obscure adversaries and the continual bickering between Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Sub-mariner and the Silver Surfer. However, although rewarding for long-time fans of The Defenders (like me), the use of villains like Yandroth, the Toad Men and the Ravagers of Creation – and arguably the constant continuity references – is likely less appealing to new readers. Busiek and Larsen are credited as writers but I’d suspect that the former’s input may not have extended far beyond plot and the aforementioned continuity, as it’s not on a par with his other team titles, particularly The Avengers. I’m not a great fan of Erik Larsen’s art, but his Giffen-esque style, given an additional rough edge by inker Klaus Janson, complements the writing. Criticisms aside, I enjoyed this instalment and hope that The Defenders will be sticking around for a while.

The issue is rounded off by a 1960s sci-fi short by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Why Won’t They Believe Me? has, in retrospect, a predictable twist – I vaguely recall a rather more satisfying remake drawn by Gene Colan. However, at five pages, it’s a snappy counter to the more sophisticated and/or protracted plotting of it's companion strips. If you’ve never read MWOM, give it a try. The varied line-up is a major plus: Dan Slott and Juan Bobillo’s brilliant She-Hulk series has regularly featured of late; the aforementioned Gene Colan’s work with Marv Wolfman on the classic Tomb Of Dracula appears in a couple of months. Consistently enjoyable, MWOM is once more Marvel’s flagship title on the UK newsstand.

Panini UK comics
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