Tag Archives: Comics

Change, Please

Nerdly shut down last month due to some Google Adsense bobbins that is far too dumb and arbitrary to go into here. Short version is…don’t feature pictures from gory horror movies on your horror/genre blog, I guess?

The first review I wrote for them was a review of Warren Ellis’ novel Gun MachineThe last was a piece on the Criterion edition of It Happened One Night. Technically I started writing for the site in 2009 when it was Blogomatic 3000, but I don’t have access to the archives so you’ll just have to use your imagination until I get my hands on those old (maybe terrible?) pieces.

I’m considering starting a side-blog exclusively for my writing on film. This place has been cluttered with stray notions and cobwebs for a while now, and I might even be able to maintain something with a single focus far better than this brain dump.

[Though, of course, now I’ve mentioned that it may be doomed never to happen.]

A panel from Plutona #5, written by Jeff Lemire & illustrated by Emi Lenox

In the meantime, like any good scavenger I went looking for other places to ply my wares and found Flickering Myth, where I’m doing comic and movie reviews for the foreseeable future.

So far I’ve covered new issues of East of West, Cry Havoc, the brutal finale of Plutona and the promising first installment of conspiracy thriller Throwaways. The pay is peanuts and I know that “hey, free comics and movies isn’t a bad deal” is a chump’s line, but deadlines keep me working and – for now – it’s far better than not writing.

In other news, my dad died two months ago today. I wrote something about that on Medium; grief and learning and realising he was probably not the man he presented to me for 25 years.

I turned 26 two weeks ago. I just connected those dots and realised I’m now in a post-dad era. Numerically speaking, anyway. Well, I had him for a quarter century. My guess is that people who get a hundred years tell you it’s still not enough time.

Speaking of time constraints, I and my friends Dave & Alice went on a [THOUGHT BUBBLES] hiatus almost a year ago. Yesterday our first new episode since September 2015 went live, and it’s a doozy. This one’s a departure in many ways that I’ll go into in a later post, but I’m pretty thrilled with how it turned out (but mostly just that we’re making these things again. I’d recommend short bursts of creation to absolutely everyone) so yeah, go and watch it.

Alice, the musical side of the project, creates beautiful, dreamy synth pop under the name Mayshe-Mayshe. You can listen to one of her tracks above. I’m biased but I think Alice is great; she’s putting out two EPs and going on tour in the next couple of months so you’ll have plenty of chances to judge for yourself.

I’m going to update this blog more frequently. I know I say that every time and then you don’t hear from me for three months but I’m trying out this whole “discipline” thing and I think it might stick.

The current state of British politics

Oh, and my country’s about to collapse under the weight of its own apathy and xenophobia, the economy’s in freefall and the British political arena is looking more and more like Thunderdome every day.

Plus I’m quitting my job and leaving my flat within the span of two days in August so I might have some spare time on my hands. Gulp.

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Baby Got Back Issues

I covered the BFI London Film Festival last month, which I really should have been posting about as it was happening, but it would be disingenuous to suggest this blog has ever been anything but erratic at best. As ever, I intend to change that, but actually doing things has taken priority over writing about them recently. Which is how it should be, but self-improvement (i.e. relearning the blog discipline I once possessed) is ever the goal.

Anyway, all of my festival reviews are handily collected here, via Nerdly. I may post write-ups of some of my favourites on here, which included a rollicking trans prostitute screwball comedy and a tar-black satire about the perils of implementing social mobility.

Mickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in the blisteringly funny Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)

The whole experience was thrilling and exhausting in equal measure, and though I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to attend LFF in a critical capacity, I was also working a full-time job at the same time and suffered something of a mental burnout by the festival’s end which I’m just now recovering from.

“Oh, the poor little boy watched too many films and now he needs a good lie down.” Well, yes. But in my defence, I did watch a lot of them.

Speaking of festivals I covered but forgot to mention on here, August 2015 saw me attend my first Frightfest! Only a weekend long and situated in Leicester Square (as opposed to traipsing up and down the West End and rocketing across the Thames between screens), the Film4-run horror festival was ironically a much more relaxed experience than LFF, due in part to being attended by friends new and old, not to mention the myriad delightful genre fans the weekend brings out of the woodwork. Can’t wait for next year. You can read my reviews of Over Your Dead Body (the first of two Takashi Miike films I’ve reviewed at London film festivals in 2015, funnily enough), JeruzalemScherzo DiabolicoAwaiting and the bafflingly enthralling Aaaaaaaaah!, which was probably my standout film of the weekend.

I also saw the very silly ’80s nostalgia-fest Turbo Kid and took the opportunity to recreate one of the film’s many Mad Max-on-a-BMX scenes, as evidenced by this bitchin’ pic:

“@jackkirby: Da original #TurboKid @arkmallen “

The owner of that tweet (but can you really own a tweet, man?) is none other than Jack Kirby, writer of the all-ages extraterrestrial sports comic Alien In The Outfield. The long-awaited third issue is due to be launched at this weekend’s Thought Bubble Festival by Jack and artist Mat Barnett – talented fellas and good friends both. I’ll also be there covering the con for Nerdly in…some capacity or another. It will involve some combination of words and pictures. (I’m nothing if not a forward planner.) It will probably be dissimilar to my previous coverage of Thought Bubble in 2013, which was a rambling series of panel summaries and awkward encounters with comics professionals.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to be granted a sneak preview of issue #3 (read: handed a proof copy when they came in as we all work in the same office) and I am happy to announce that it’s Barnett & Kirby’s best work yet. Humour, sweetness, romance and cliffhangers abound! If that sounds like your bag, you can find the book (and the first two issues if you don’t already have them) and its creators at table 53 in the Royal Armouries Hall or, if you can’t make it, buy it online for whatever price you like! Here’s the wonderfully evocative cover for the third issue by the marvelous Meryl Trussler:

Jack recently wrote a blog post on the development of issue #3 and some exciting plans he and Mat have for the future. If you have any interest in the creative process and the struggles of self-publishing comics, it’s definitely worth a read.

I have more things to share, but that’s probably enough for now. Watch @arkmallen for con updates (which will largely consist of amazing cosplay, I’m sure) and, um, keep watching the skies.

Thanks for reading!

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Miscalculations In Shipping Costs

Around this time last year, I was part of a comic writers’ group in York. Its members would critique one another’s scripts and submit communally to pitch submissions at independent publishers when the opportunity arose. I hadn’t produced a single page of comics back then, despite several foolhardy attempts at creating a post-apocalyptic epic the depths and ambition of which the world has never seen AND I WILL GET ROUND TO THAT ONE DAY DAMMIT.

But a lot can change in a year (or a decade, or a month or a day or a second or okay things are changing all the time all right). Now I’m living in London after having moved town twice, switched jobs five times and lived in no fewer than seven different homes (I’m working on my eighth). I was about to list my romantic exploits but then I remembered this is kind of supposed to be about my creative and professional development.

I now physically own copies of the first comic I’ve ever had published. It’s called Miscalculations in Time Travel, and it’s a three-page story that I wrote for an anthology book published by GrayHaven Comics. You can look at the cover and add it to an invisible basket here if you like.

Technically the comic was released in December but I only received my first copies in the last week of March, due to reasons I won’t go into to save certain parties from embarrassment or blame. While I would have liked to hold the thing in my hands a lot sooner I’m frankly still surprised I got to make anything at all – and I’d already seen the proofs months ago, so that anticipation was somewhat lessened.

Still, it’s a lovely caress of the ego to see your name printed on a blackboard behind a character you thought up in a glossy, staple-bound sheaf of paper. Lovelier still is the art, drawn by the terrific Donal Delay who you can and should follow on Twitter. I was very lucky to have Donal assigned to my script – I love his cartoonish, exaggerated but still detailed style and it fit the comedic tone I was going for perfectly. You can check out his Flash Gordon-influenced webcomic Daring Adventures to see what I mean.

I’d love to be able to post Miscalculations on here some time – I think I co-own it now, so there probably wouldn’t be a problem – but I should really check with Donal and GrayHaven first. It’d be great to show it to as many people as possible, though, so I’ll get right on that. Or you could just buy the comic, but I’m not going to force you (particularly as you’d have to pay shipping from the U.S. and I don’t want anyone to have to pay close to a tenner just to read a funny little story of mine).

That said, I’m considering buying a few more copies to give to friends and family so if you’d like to get your grubby mitts on my thing before it hits the internet like a (slow-moving, abandoned) freight train, hit me up and we can share the burden of trans-continental shipping.

Man. I’d really like to do more comics now. I’m supposed to have another story coming out through the same publisher some time this year, but I haven’t been given a date (or even an artist) yet so don’t hold your breath. It’s a page longer and a much more personal story, so I’ll do that for you.

Well, that’s my self-congratulation over. I need to sleep so I can wake up and feel bad that I wrote this instead of the review I was supposed to finish tonight. See you around. And thanks.


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Mark’s 10 Favourite Things From 2014

This year has probably been my worst so far for keeping a consistent blogging presence, so it seems both efficient and incredibly cheap for me to make a summary post of a year in which I didn’t share all that much you, dear reader.

I’m not doing Top 10 lists for all the forms of media I consumed (that seems a little indulgent, though I’ll likely at least do one for my favourite movies on Letterboxd, which you’ll find somewhere around here), but I have compiled a year-end list that encompasses all of the things I enjoyed, raved about or cried most at during 2014.

[Some of them may not have strictly been released in 2014, but just assume I didn’t know about them until this year, okay?]

Without further ado, and in the hopes that the following will entertain or illuminate in some measure, I end as I always do: wondering whether or not I crammed enough good stuff into the past twelve months (and whether or not it was worth avoiding all the work I ought to have been doing).

In no particular order, these are my highlights of 2014:

10. The Wolf of Wall Street

Yes, it counts because I’m British, dammit: Martin Scorsese’s depraved and joyous ode to New York’s degenerate stockbrokers was released on the 17th January in the UK. In the spirit of the rule-bending nature of Scorsese’s most refreshingly vulgar and energetic movie in at least a decade, I’ve never paid to see The Wolf of Wall Street.

9. Trees

Trees by Warren Ellis

Trees by Warren Ellis & Jason Howard

My favourite new comic of 2014 comes, somewhat predictably, from my favourite comics writer (Warren Ellis) in a year when he came back to the graphic medium – after a sojourn in literary and audio/visual realms – with a trio of equally acclaimed but incredibly different books: Moon KnightSupreme: Blue Rose and Trees.

The latter trumps the other two, for me, because of the ambitious scope of its fascinating sci-fi story: One day, alien structures landed all over the world. Ten years later they haven’t budged, and humanity has to deal with that. The plots of the first arc span many continents, races and attitudes towards the trees and other humans, and as the final issue of the year lands on New Year’s Eve I can’t wait to see how Ellis (and his partner in crime, Jason Howard, who can flit from bustling Chinese street scenes to desolate wintry landscapes in the turn of a page without ever seeming like he’s struggling) sets the stage for next year’s stories. Read it if you aren’t already.

8. Serial


If you know me personally and we’ve ever had a conversation about podcasts then I’ve probably raved to you about how great This American Life is. If you don’t know me personally (or you do and I just haven’t mentioned it to you) then imagine that we’ve had that conversation. And start listening to the silky tones of Ira Glass immediately.

Anyway, Serial took the world – or Twitter, at least – by storm when it started its first season three months ago, and having the backing of This American Life surely contributed in no small part to that popularity. The story host/producer Sarah Koenig tells is, as you might have gathered from the title, episodic in nature and entirely gripping from start to finish. It’s a real-life mystery that’s 15 years old and full of humanity and emotion and tragedy and I pretty much started crying on a bus like a crazy person when I finished the last episode. I don’t really want to ruin it for you so I think you should just go and check it out now. It’s truly an immersive story and endlessly fascinating, and I consider both of those things to be of enormous value.

Listen to it here.

7. HhhH

HhhH by Laurent Binet

HhhH by Laurent Binet


This is the first of several items on this list which were actually released way before 2014. I read HhhH this year, however, so my conscience is clear.

Put simply, HhhH is the best piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read. (That means so very little when you know how little historical fiction I’ve actually read.)

Put less simply, Laurent Binet’s first book doesn’t contain a trace of fiction in it (except the fabrications and embellishment that he willingly admits to committing) and is one of the most honest and compelling explorations of someone’s fascination with an unbelievably true story since…well, I would say Serial but I guess that would be kind of anachronistic.

HhhH is about the assassination of The Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, by two Czechoslovakian parachutists in 1942. It’s also about the author’s struggle to tell the story with all of the facts intact, even when his writerly instincts pull the story in other directions. The part I always sell the book with to other people is the passage in which Binet compares his collapsing relationship with his girlfriend to the devastation he imagines a Russian general must have felt upon losing a crucial battle with Poland in 1919.

Which I suppose might say a lot about me. Anyway, it was probably the best book I read this year, and I read a lot of great books in 2014.

6. Europe

Okay, that’s kind of a big thing to have as one point, I guess, but it’s my list and I’ll do what I like with it.

I did some travelling on the mainland over 10 days in the summer – Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland, not necessarily in that order – and it was illuminating in a great many ways, not least of which being the fact that I’d never actually travelled east of the English Channel before. The details of HhhH were in my head as I walked through war museums in Berlin and Amsterdam and coloured in the cold statistics and stark photographs I saw. I revelled in the anonymity being in a foreign land with a million other tourists gave me, although I wasn’t alone in my travels.

As with any worthwhile trip, not everything that happened in my time abroad was positive. I left the U.K. in a relationship with the person I was sat next to on the plane and returned as a single man – but still sat next to that same person. Now isn’t the time to go into such matters, but let’s just say that what happened in Luxembourg was for the best. And that thing I said about illumination still applies here.

5. The Leftovers

The most depressing, emotionally devastating TV show of the year came courtesy of HBO and the man who many blamed for the follies of some of the most questionable blockbusters in recent years: Damon Lindelof. The screenwriter of Star Trek: Into DarknessPrometheus and the co-creator of Lost, Lindelof looked to be struggling to achieve anything approaching a coherent creative goal until The Leftovers hit my screen with a gut-punch I won’t soon forget.

Taking the current zeigeist of rapture/end-of-the-world scenarios and twisting the premise to focus not on where the ‘saved’ people have gone but where those left behind can possibly go now, the series based on Tom Perotta’s book of the same name got its hooks into me early with its mix of stomach-wrenching character drama, beautiful camerawork and stellar soundtrack and left me howling with despair at season’s end. Not just for the series’ cast and their respective parades of misery (Christopher Ecclestone’s embattled preacher and Carrie Coon’s truly tragic Nora Durst are particular standouts), but also because I was going to have to wait nearly a year to find out what happens next.

Not that there’s all that much of a cliffhanger, mind; Lindelof seems to have gotten that bad habit out of his system, at least for now, and The Leftovers’ first season ends in a narratively satisfying manner. I just want to see all the characters again so I can hug them all…even though I know it wouldn’t make anything better.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

The best-soundtracked movie of 2014, and in a year when Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross scored one.

Inside Llewyn Davis is probably my favourite movie of the year, for more reasons than just the music – though that’s a huge, inextricable part of it. The titular musician is a tragic, unsympathetic character who I still ended up rooting for, his journey an absurd and occasionally mythic one, his friends like ghosts he’s all but forgotten the moment he slips out of their lives once more. And the songs themselves? Like all good musicals, the numbers tell us everything that Llewyn won’t tell anyone in person, which makes his public engagements all the more heartbreaking when you really actually listen.

Oh, and it’s hilarious from beginning to end. But it’s a Coen Brothers movie, so you already knew that.

3. Young Avengers/The Wicked + The Divine

Young Avengers

Gillen and McKelvie went from strength to strength this year, and boy do they know it. For those out of the comics loop, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie ended a universally-praised run on Marvel’s Young Avengers at the beginning of the year, tying up what Gillen had referred to as his defining statement on teenagers. We laughed, we cried, we cooed at McKelvie’s uncanny ability to turn floorplan layouts into slick action scenes and we mourned the closure of one of Marvel’s freshest books in recent memory.

A couple of months down the line the duo returned with a brand new comic about a pantheon of gods reincarnating once every 90 years and the 17-year old girl who gets mixed up with them. So they’re not quite done with teenagers yet, although The Wicked + The Divine certainly tackles heavier themes than Young Avengers (which was itself by no means angst-free).

The Wicked + The Divine

Anyway, people went banana-balls crazy for WicDiv and it’s not hard to see why: not only are McKelvie’s fashions sharper and his subjects more beautiful and nuanced than ever, but the story itself digs into those most intertwined of subjects: fame and death. Though that’s perhaps putting it a bit glibly, those are the twin focuses of the comic – how people react to fame (both having it and wanting it) and what it costs them. Oh, and the gods are basically rock stars, including a Lucifer who’s basically a female David Bowie. That part’s fairly important.

And having it told from the perspective of another teenager is a great excuse for Kieron Gillen to be overly verbose and mess around with captions in the way that only Kieron Gillen can get away with. The talented bastard.

If any of that sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend picking up the first trade, The Faust Act, which collects the first five issues. It just came out so you’ve time to catch up before the second arc kicks into high gear.

[Sidenote: I was going to fill half of this item with spite directed at the above creators for not coming through on their long-awaited third volume of Phonogram this year, but they’ve given us so much brilliant new stuff that it seems ridiculous to punish them for not retreading the old. Still: the bastards.]

2. Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”

Yeah, I don’t know how I’d never heard this before. I listened to the first couple of tracks on Spotify, then bought the album, then didn’t take it out of my CD player for three weeks.

Yes, I still have a CD player. I don’t know what to say about The Suburbs, really – I’ve never been good at writing about music, much like I’ve never been good at playing it – except that listening to the album feels like you’re inhabiting a world that Arcade Fire have created in its entirety, complete with broken swings, childish dares and 20th-century pipe dreams. It’s a record of adolescence in all its naive beauty and contradictions. And I think that’s kind of special.

Special enough, I guess, to include a 2010 album on a ‘best of 2014’ list. What can I say? I’m an iconoclast.

[And yes, I am aware that Reflektor came out last year. I’ve heard the title song, but it’s likely to be 2017 before I give the whole thing a whirl. I’ll probably still have to put it on my CD player.]

1. Boyhood

What better way to segue from The Suburbs, a collection of childhood stories and hopes than Boyhood, a coming-of-age story in which we get to see the lead character’s hopes shift and fade (or become a reality) that was being filmed over the entire length of Arcade Fire’s entire career so far? I’m sure you can come up with dozens of better ways, but I didn’t exactly plan this far so I’m happy with what I’ve got.

Richard Linklater is a master chronicler of changes in people over time, and that’s no more apparent (in very different ways) in his Before trilogy and Boyhood. The titular young man, Mason, is shown growing up over 12 years in real time, with some characters staying firmly rooted in his life and others drifting in and out of view, as happens in real life. I connected with the story, characters and emotion of the film in a profound way, and I grew up in decidedly different circumstances (well, if you ignore the fact that both Mason and myself are white, male millennials with artistic leanings), which I believe is a testament to the universality of Linklater’s masterwork. Again, I cried.

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Blue is the Warmest Colour

I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour in a packed Picturehouse cinema the other day. It was impossible to go into that film – as is the case with pretty much every movie at present – without being all too aware of the hype and pseudo-controversy that surrounds it, and as such it was pretty difficult not to be disappointed by much of it, though the combination of being sat on the second row from the front in a subtitled film and said film having a 180-minute running time may have contributed to a certain exhaustion I felt by the time the credits rolled.

A primer for those not in the know: Blue follows lead Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French high-schooler and ravenous eater, over the course of several years as she experiments with her sexuality and falls in and out of a very intense love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a slightly older woman.

That’s more or less it, and the trailer gives you a pretty good sense of the tone – if not the pace – of the thing:

I’m not going to go into any great detail, but I’ll just mention where I think Blue is the Warmest Colour works best and where I think it fails.

Good things first: the film is most alive, vibrant and emotionally engaging when there’s conflict on screen. Whether it’s Adele getting into a fight with a former friend over her closeted lesbianism outside the school gates or Emma forcing a tortured confession of adultery out of her soon to be ex-lover, never more than in these scenes does the movie feel like it’s got a full-blooded, racing pulse and makes me need to know what happens next. Of course, it makes sense – story is conflict, as the old maxim goes.

Which is why great swathes of the film don’t work quite as well, being given as they are to languorous passages where nothing of great import happens…very slowly. The heightened moments are too few and much too far between to work as effective punctuation in between the extended lulls. Adele might be eating spaghetti with her family while they watch TV, for example, or we might be treated to one of the many graphic, overlong sex scenes between her and Emma which, after the first minute of the first one – don’t further the story or tell us anything new about their relationship. These scenes actually end up being so long that the context of where they belong in the story and just become short, exquisitely shot sex movies.

I suppose that might be the point of them after all – the characters are so lost in each other, both emotionally and physically, that we fall into that world as well – but I really never felt like I knew either of the central characters well enough to get that intimate with them and was left feeling pretty cold by these sequences. Add to that my creeping concern that the director (Abdellatif Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalya LaCroix from Julie Maroh’s comic) is much more interested in Adele’s body than her mind and Blue is the Warmest Colour takes on an unnervingly pervy perspective at certain points: Adele is constantly shown in close up, often eating insatiably (at one point she even tries to consume Emma’s hand); similarly, we’re subjected to several scenes that contain little but Adele dancing to music for minutes at a time; and opportunities for gratuitous nude shots are taken without hesitation, e.g. the leery vertical pan of the lead’s whole naked body as she showers.

There’s merit to the film, for sure: I admire the naturalism of the performances and the construction and deconstruction of a relationship are well-told, even beautiful at moments, but it all too often feels like being beautiful is the aim of the game instead of something with more substance.

At one point, a male character talks about the “mysticism” of a woman’s experience during sex, comparing it to a transcendental moment of bliss and something profound. The female characters present scoff at this, but I suspect that Kechiche aligns his beliefs much more with the former than the latter and can’t help but feel that another director – most likely a woman – could have created a much more accurate representation of female sexuality.

As a final thought, I’d like to offer up Frances Ha as a much shorter, richer and genuine exploration of female relationships, both with other women and men. Written by its star, Greta Gerwig, and director, Noah Baumbach, the story it tells feels much more on the same level as its characters, dealing in their mundanity, neurotic failures and minor triumphs with warm humour and pathos rather than – like Blue is the Warmest Colour – attempting to give epic weight to drab family dinners and keeping an oxymoronically scrutinising yet distant eye on its players.

The two certainly wouldn’t play together well as a double bill but are well worth comparing, especially given that there’s a much more complete story told in Frances Ha‘s 90 minutes, half the length of Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s appropriate that the film’s original French title translates as The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2* given that it’s got about as open an ending as you could ask for and really feels like it could do with a proper conclusion…not that I’m asking for (or even really interested in) a Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight-type continuation here.

Actually, here’s my final final thought: there’s a great movie hiding in Blue is the Warmest Colour, but a skilled editor – like Michaelangelo staring at a hunk of marble – would need to cut at least an hour out of the film to find it.

*Such a pretentious title. Why two chapters? Why does a life only warrant two instalments? Fun fact: Julie Maroh’s original comic (which is actually only credited as “freely inspiring” the film) translates to the movie’s English title, which to me stinks of Kechiche wanting to take even more ownership of the project than he already had. But that might just be me.

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Thought Bubble 2013 Field Report

I wrote this about last weekend’s Thought Bubble comic convention at Leeds for Nerdly:


Over for another year, this weekend’s Thought Bubble was the biggest in its short history, and it definitely felt it. While I didn’t attend every panel or get every signature that I wanted to, my days were still jam-packed with awkward fan-worship of idolised writers, wonderful small press discoveries and comfortable reprieves in the plush Bury Theatre in which writers and artists waxed lyrical about their work and industry.

On arriving at New Dock, I and a couple of friends navigated the main hall as best we could, but the first morning of Thought Bubble is always (in my experience) the busiest, and I may have slightly regretted packing my decade-old, ramshackle rucksack to the brim with quite as many comics and trades as it made me something of an obstacle to all beside and behind, especially when we stopped to gawk at a table’s wares.

Might as well get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Despite my overflowing backpack and enthusiasm for many of the con’s attendees, I got almost nothing signed aside from a few choice Matt Fraction picks (whom I attempted to talk to briefly about ’70s paranoid thrillers before suffering from a keen awareness of both my own encroaching hero worship and the dozen-strong queue of like-minded fans behind me) and the first issue of Six-Gun Gorilla, which artist Jeff Stokely scrawled on for me in between having his ear talked off by an overenthusiastic middle-aged gentleman.

[I did talk to the book’s writer, Si Spurrier, on a couple of occasions, but never actually had his comics on me when I needed to. Same goes for about ten other creators.]

You could say I failed the entire weekend right there – and you’d be correct, frankly – but while I may have forever crippled by back for no good reason whatsoever, I certainly didn’t waste my time.

The first panel I attended was a sketching session including Annie Wu, Joe Quinones, Meredith Gran and Declan Shalvey, all of whom spoke eloquently about their craft while practicing it in a few different character studies for the audience to see. I’m no artist, and seeing someone practice their skill as one is always going to engender both admiration and intense loathing in me. So yeah, they were all great.

Talented bastards, the lot of them.

Both the Image Independence in the U.K. and the Marvel Q&A sessions were defined by humour, especially the latter, with Matt Fraction, Si Spurrier and Kieron Gillen providing many of the laughs and plenty of jokes about Young Avengers artist Jamie McKelvie dying (it’s okay, though; Kelly Sue DeConnick defended him, and I have it on good authority from the man himself that he wouldn’t have anyone else in his corner). You had to be there.

There was also a lot of emotion in the Marvel panel, too, as a few questions were directed towards creators’ gratification and ‘proudest moments’ questions (there was also a ‘what was your least proud moment?’ question too, which led to some wonderfully disparaging yet uplifting stories from the group). Fraction summed up the panel’s feelings by stating that – at the risk of being corny – the audience is the best thing about what he does, because the dialogue between fans and creators and “seeing someone running around dressed as a character that you play around with all day” is, apparently, pretty great.

Other highlights included Fraction and Hawkeye artist David Aja riffing on the origin of the now-infamous ‘Dog Issue’ (“It started as a game of chicken and no-one blinked”) and sparring verbally with their editor Stephen Wacker – also moderating the panel – when the topic of the lateness of some of their issues arose. DeConnick answered that perpetual question about writer’s block by succinctly redefining it as “courage block”, which most of the other panelists nodded sagely at. Gillen said that anyone who suffers from it’s probably just lazy.

As the day wound down, I was looking forward to the mid-con party, but having to leave the sketching panel early and the battery on my phone dying meant I was separated from my compatriots until well into the Doctor Who50th anniversary show, at which point rum was consumed, anger was expressed at Steven Moffat’s inability to write in anything but tropes and we finally made our way to the Corn Exchange, where a one-in-one-out policy was in place and we were left in the cold for a good 45 minutes with little to warm us but the alcohol in our bellies and the embarrassment of having mistaken one female cartoonist for another – to her face, no less – while congratulating her on what a great sketch she did earlier on. The less said about that, the better, I think.

But then we were allowed in the comics world’s Valhalla. Records were digitally scratched, drinks were drunk, dances were overly enthusiastic and, yes, Gillen did start his set with Be My Baby by The Ronettes, because how could he not?

And that’s all that needs to be said about that. Because writing about an artist’s DJ set is like dancing about his house, right?

Sunday’s From Stands to Screen panel was the only one I managed to attend due to a killer combination of poor planning ahead, taking a somewhat zig-zaggy route through central Leeds to the Armouries and enjoying myself far too much at the mid-con bash the previous night…

All that aside, the panel was very illuminating and broad-ranging, featuring editors from Marvel, Vertigo, 2000 AD in addition to a representative from Mondo and the co-creator of the sublime comic Axe Cop Ethan Nicolle. Most of the conversation centred around the problematic nature of adapting a comic to a very different medium such as film and several of the panelists extolled the virtues of TV as a superior method of adapting long-running stories like those found in ongoing series.

One audience member asked about the likelihood of a future female-led superhero movie, and the (entirely male) panel danced around the issue somewhat, with CB Cebulski (Marvel) speaking of the issue as an ongoing conversation and citing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as having a “predominantly female cast”, a seemingly statement that’s demonstrably false: there are six lead characters in AoS. Three of them are women. Not so much predominant as equal, which is surely a more positive statement to make? The editor from Vertigo, wry throughout proceedings, joked about not being willing to make a comment before mentioning that he’d love to see a Wonder Woman movie but there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done until the stars aligned.

That brings up one of my issues with these kinds of panels; while they’re normally compelling enough for the duration (especially when more creators who’ve had something of theirs adapted, as in last year’s counterpart panel with Jock and Charlie Adlard), they don’t leave me feeling like I learned anything more than the fact that a Kickstarter campaign for a Dredd sequel probably wouldn’t work. There’s something of a distance between the comics people and the movie industry, and we’re only getting insights from one side of the fence, which makes for a lot of agreement and not much genuine discussion. In a perfect world we’d be able to hear just as much from someone adapting a book as someone having theirs adapted and have the sense that maybe there’s a dialogue occurring between the two and not just grumbling from the sidelines.

As that was the last panel of the day – and, indeed, Thought Bubble’s final event at the Armouries – I retired to the solace of much-needed pizza and the dread of public transport, certain in the knowledge that I’d be aching and weary for days to come. My back was already close to giving out, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

See you next year.

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Thought Bubble 2013

I had a whole post written making fun of the train car I’m sitting in stinking of weed and using that to segue into mentioning that I’m heading to Leeds to attend Thought Bubble 2013, but public transport and me blogging have a Tom & Jerry-esque relationship (clue: I’m not Jerry) and the whole damn thing went up in smoke, so I’ll just lay it out for ya:
I’m writing about the con for Nerdly, so watch this space.

Until it’s filled, you can check out my guide to this year’s Thought Bubble if you feel in need of guidance or just want to be able to effectively stalk me over the weekend.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: “Fzzt”

Written by Paul Zbyszewski | Directed by Vincent Misiano | Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen


After five decidedly hit-and-miss episodes and a week off the air, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come back with “F.Z.Z.T.”, possibly the strongest and definitely the most emotionally engaging entry to the series so far, though reminders of the limitations of bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen are still never far away , as evidenced in this week’s (relatively few) action sequences.

The central mystery of the episode has Coulson and his team trying to puzzle out how a camp leader and firefighter ended up dead and floating six feet off the ground.

The detective work from the agents is fairly rote and it’s quickly discovered that the culprit is not a murderer targeting members of a fireman team who were in New York during the Chitauri invasion in Avengers but a virus contracted by the men when they cleaned a recovered alien helmet (though that doesn’t stop us being fed a brief, all but negligible red herring about a serial killer). But that’s not a big deal as the real story of “F.Z.Z.T.” lies in Fitz/Simmons’ relationship and Coulson’s difficulty with his body post-Avengers; both welcome changes from the ongoing angst-ridden saga of Skye and constant non-teases of Melinda May’s past, though both crop up fleetingly.

The virus in question is actually pretty novel: making itself known to the victim through a buzzing only they can hear, they begin involuntarily sweating and making objects around them float before giving off a wide electromagnetic pulse that also inconveniently kills them. It’s almost a cliche in genre and action-based television – giving the ensemble an enemy that they can neither hit (as Ward laments later on) or defuse to solve the problem – but it’s for pretty good reason as those episodes tend to focus on characterisation and emotion rather than the more fleeting kick-punching of other installments.

About halfway through the episode Simmons shows symptoms of having the virus (contracted when she received a static shock from the first body) and the firemen are pretty swiftly forgotten, although Coulson’s palpable frustration at not having been able to save the last victim goes a long way towards reminding us that Agents really is trying to be a show about the people on the ground of the Marvel U, even if it does spend most of its time 30,000 feet above sea level.

This is where the episode kicks in, and there’s really not that much to say about it other than that Elizabeth Henstridge (Simmons) really does a tremendous job of stepping up to a central role after having been confined to technobabble and awkward nerdery for the bulk of the series so far. She and Fitz (Ian de Caestecker) are the emotional core of “F.Z.Z.T.”, and maybe even the whole show, because – as we learn through their variously panicked and heated discussions in and around Simmons’ quarantine area/lab – they’re the least qualified people to be on this team, just like us. Sure, they have specialist knowledge and are invaluable assets to Coulson and the rest, but they didn’t pass the field exams and are pretty sure that, although the experiences they’re having are once in a lifetime opportunities, that’s because people usually die from them and they’re ill-equipped to deal with that very concept, let alone the reality. Anyone who’s ever felt out of their depth can relate to that, and Fitz/Simmons’ constant reality checks ground us much more than Skye’s flippant attitude and one-liners.

If anything, this is probably the most ‘Joss Whedon’ episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far, possibly more by legacy than active involvement on his part. It’s been said many times by Buffy the Vampire Slayer writers that they discovered early on the best way to worry viewers or grab their attention was to put Willow in danger – she wasn’t a fighter, she was a nerd, and thus more inherently vulnerable, like many of that show’s viewers felt as a teenager. The parallels between Alyson Hannigan’s character (at least in the first few seasons) and Simmons are pretty obvious: both are tech-savvy, bright and enthusiastic but not on their social A-game. Judging by how big a following Buffy (and, in particular, Willow) developed, I’m taking this as a positive sign for S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s future.

But there’s another Whedon show – an exact episode, even – that’s had an even clearer influence on this episode: “A Hole in the World” from Angel‘s fifth season, in which Fred (that series’ heart and resident nerd – see a pattern emerging?) is exposed to an ancient disease that eventually hollows her out and replaces her with a god-like being, with no semblance of Fred present other than her appearance.

Clearly there’s a difference in context between the two episodes (“A Hole in the World” takes place seven episodes before the end of the series, while “F.Z.Z.T.” is too new an entry to have the same emotional heft or backstory), but the similarities are striking, especially in the other characters’ reactions to Simmons’ plight Most are upset and powerless to help, especially the group’s leader (Coulson/Angel), but the other nerd in the group with the strongest personal connection to the infected (Fitz/Wesley) does everything in his power to help, even when the person he’s helping has already resigned herself to her fate.

The crucial difference, however, is how it all ends.

Like Fred, Simmons gives up on finding a cure after her last lab rat is left floating in its cage, knocks out Fitz with a fire extinguisher (somewhat brutally for a woman of science, I thought) and throws herself from the plane’s hangar so that she doesn’t take everyone else with her when she blows. If only she’d waited for ten more seconds; then she would have seen that the rat was just knocked unconscious & the anti-serum worked.

Fitz makes a grand gesture in attempting to follow Simmons and save her life in mid-air, but the more capable (and likely pretty bored) Ward snatches the parachute away from him and does the honours pretty dependably in a slightly iffy – if brief – green-screen freefalling sequence.

So Simmons lives, much to the surprise of cynical television critics who expect characters in Whedon’s shows to be picked off fairly rapidly, and it really couldn’t have ended any other way; sure, there’s shock value to be had in killing off a character early in a series’ run (Revolution), but it rarely ever pays off because we hadn’t been given enough reason to care about them in the first place (Revolution).

Granted, I already care about Simmons enough that her death would matter to me, but we’ll let that slide on account of decent character work.

After the main events, we’re given little hints at where Agents might be heading next – Coulson stands up for himself and his team in front of Item 47‘s Agent Blake (Titus Welliver), much to the latter’s surprise, which suggests that they might be facing off against the head office at some point…which is another Whedon trope (Angel S5, Dollhouse). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I don’t need to detail the show’s issues – which are still present here, if muted – but after this latest episode I’m pretty confident that if I stick around and find out what direction we’re headed in, I’m going to enjoy the ride more than anything else.

[Originally posted at Nerdly]

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The Talented Asshole Problem

In other comic-related news, artist Tess Fowler recently came out about a run-in she had with a successful and popular male comic creator who verbally abused her at a con and (allegedly) acts pretty reprehensibly towards women with an alarming frequency.

I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, but the fact that she was backing up someone else’s allegations doesn’t look good for the dude concerned. It’s troubling for the usual reasons misogyny is troubling – people writing it off as nothing, others supporting the accused’s right to be an asshole, etc. etc.. It’s all pretty well-trod territory and I’m seriously doubtful I can bring anything fresh or helpful to that debate. But it’s especially troubling to me because I read that guy’s work. I like that guy’s work, and I don’t know if this new information changes anything about that.

I’ve had dozens of conversations about the separation between artists and their art in which I’ve come down on the side of still being willing and able to appreciate what someone has created completely aside from the fact that they’re a morally reprehensible human being. It usually helps that I’m talking about work that was done decades before and that I know my ownership of it doesn’t give legitimacy to whatever intolerant nonsense they’re spouting or the terrible acts they may have committed and doesn’t financially benefit them to a degree that would change anything.

A couple of examples:

I picked up a paperback copy of Ender’s Game at a charity shop a couple of months ago for about £1.50, largely because I had read about it being a great science-fiction novel that has little to do with its author Orson Scott Card’s homophobic bile that’s been the cause of the controversy surrounding the imminent movie adaptation of said book. No bones about that: none of the money was going into Card’s pocket and I didn’t feel like spending the price of a train station pastry on a 28 year-old novel would look like a vindication of his ‘values’. I’ll probably go see the movie too, which is harder to defend in the same way (although apparently the author’s not getting any of the box office profits) until you realise that hundreds of people worked on it and I’d wager a pretty large sum that most of them weren’t burning with anti-gay sentiment while shooting (or otherwise), and it’s unfair that their hard work should go unrewarded if it’s actually a decent flick.

In a more remote instance, it’s hard to generate an image of Dennis Hopper as a decent human being when I know for a fact that he was a violent, abusive drunk whose second wife Michelle Phillips described their week-long marriage as the Seven-Day War (incidentally, you should go read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls). That said, it’s impossible not to regard Easy Rider as a seminal piece of filmmaking that forever changed the landscape of Hollywood and American cinema for the better – at least for the first ten years or so – and to disregard his breathtakingly ugly performance as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet is to ignore an actor at the peak of their craft, and that’s difficult to do.

[In fact, Hopper’s performance in that movie is supposedly so drawn from his own personality that he actually once called up director David Lynch and told him, “I am Frank!”]

But does watching Blue VelvetRumble Fish or even Rebel Without a Cause mean I approve of Dennis Hopper’s personal life or even like the guy? Of course not. And to be perfectly fair, I didn’t know the guy. Most of the heinous shit I’ve heard or read about him happened in the ’60s and ’70s, so there’s nothing to say he didn’t change before he died in 2010. That doesn’t excuse anything he did, but it at least means we should probably think about him as a human being with flaws (albeit somewhat more heightened than others) instead of a cardboard monster.

But dealing with something that happened 30 or 40 years ago is admittedly a lot easier than something that’s happening right now, which brings us back to the writer in question. I have a couple of his comics on my pull list; they’re not properties he owns so I’m reasonably sure he doesn’t get the lion’s share of the profits, but I’m still contributing to his continued success in an industry in which he (again, allegedly) acts a manner I can’t knowingly stomach.

And the thing is, he isn’t writing stories which uphold values I don’t. He writes well-rounded male and female characters and has been lauded for doing so. Maybe he’s well aware of his own flaws, knows that they don’t have a place in any healthy society and so at least tries to fix them in his work? Maybe, but that also sounds dangerously like a rationalisation. And I’m not particularly comfortable making up a defense for someone who hasn’t (to my limited knowledge) admitted that they’ve done wrong.

So I’m kinda stuck. Really, it would  make it so much easier if he was an asshole on the page as well as in the street.

At least people are talking about it, though, right?

[via Bleeding Cool]

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Bat to the Future

I just read an essay on how The Dark Knight Rises is really about Christopher Nolan’s reluctance to make The Dark Knight Rises. If you’re into gross over-analysis of comic book movies and managed to get through my batessays back when TDKR came out last year then you’ll probably get a kick out of it. The author manages to articulate a lot of things that were swimming around my head but never got pinned down, and its reading of the final moments of the movie – Nolan passing the burden of shepherding the Caped Crusader through his next incarnation on to another director while freeing himself from the restrictive shackles of his self-built prison – actually makes me feel a little more positive about the film than I did before.

So that’s something. You can read it here.

[via /Film]

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