Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Tim Watches a Lot of Television - Part Two: Returning Comedy

It feels like something of a transitional year for comedy. It feels like there's a lot of new shows starting, and some old stalwarts have disappeared. Parks and Recreation is returning in January for a final half season (in what will probably be a fantastic and well-timed exit) and How I Met Your Mother didn't so much as bow out at the end of last season as slip, fall of the stage and impale itself on an oboe in the orchestra pit. Community took a step out of the revolving door of cancellation and renewal to finally end, then was sucked back in for an online season on Yahoo that will materialise at some point in the future.

In many ways, it's a carry-over from last year, when NBC waved goodbye to 30 Rock and The Office, and promising shows like Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B- In Apartment 23 were cruelly cut short. It means that the returning shows are, in sitcom terms, all still quite young (Modern Family, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are the biggest exceptions to this rule, but I'm talking about, you know, good shows that I like) and still feeling their way.

New Girl is into season four, an age when most sitcoms have safely found their rhythm, but last year was something of a fumble for the show. The romance between Jess and Nick didn't light up the screen in the same way that their electric flirtation did (anyone who wasn't floored by the kiss in season two's "Cooler" is a damn liar), and Schmidt seemed to be headed into a dark, dark direction for most of the season, and was isolated from the rest of the cast.

The re-introduction of Coach was another wobble in the top that had spun so smoothly for the first two seasons, but actually helped the show find its equilibrium again towards the close of the year. About the only positive was Winston finally finding a place in the group's dynamic, even if that place was "deeply odd obsessive with two speeds: stop and run".

All of these hiccups didn't stop the show from being funny, but it never hit the heights of the first two seasons. That's what made the return this season such a breath of fresh air. It served as something of a soft reset for the show. Everyone is single and under one roof. Coach is now firmly part of the group. Nick and Jess still have chemistry, but are clearly comfortable with each other as friends. In a lot of ways, it's a return to the status of season one, but with a cast and crew who are much more comfortable and established in their rhythms.

But how much space does that reset buy the show? A return to the breezy storytelling of season one is fine for the opening few episodes, but have these characters not developed or grown over the intervening period? New Girl has never been a rapid-fire joke machine in the way of 30 Rock or Happy Endings, but it also hasn't had the fantastic natural character arcs of Parks & Recreation. While it's great at mid-term plotting, it hasn't followed through on either of the two big romances it's spun out, and the characters' day jobs and ambitions largely serve as ways to place them into sitcom scenarios, rather than genuine passions that the show seems to care about.

If the show is to move forward, it needs more than the appearance of motion, it needs actual momentum. Coach has been well integrated into the show's dynamic, but he's had precious little to actually do, as has poor, underserved Cece. I'd love to see the show take on more episodes like Nick dealing with his dad dying, or even Schmidt's short arc with Elizabeth (before it became a love triangle) - slightly deeper stories that still have plenty of opportunities for hilarity.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is only in just starting its second season, so doesn't face a lot of the problems that New Girl does. However, after such a stellar first season, it has to be careful to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. When it first premiered last year, people were quick to note how smoothly the cast gelled together, their easy chemistry and established relationships feeling like they'd been ported over from a much longer-running show. This translated into two Golden Globe wins for the show, including Best Comedy, a rare occurrence for a new show on network TV. However, where does that put the show as it starts up again after the summer hiatus?

Looking at Brooklyn Nine-Nine's first season, and the first few episodes of its second, it's no surprise this show walked away with the award. It's a remarkably self-assured show with a great understanding of its own strengths, and an incredibly deep bench of comedy talent on board. It also showed a great skill in terms of course correcting away from potentially worrisome areas in its first year.

Boyle's romantic obsession with Diaz played with familiar tropes that, looked at with 21st century gender politics-vision, can veer into the problematic, but the show steered away from those choppy waters, putting Boyle into another romantic relationship and (and I cannot state how revolutionary this is for a show to do) apologising to Diaz for pursuing her so relentlessly after she made her feelings clear.

In fact, romance feels like the only area where Brooklyn Nine-Nine is struggling to find its footing. Jake and Amy's relationship hasn't had any major slip-ups so far, and in fact the new season seems to be going out of its way to have Jake deal with his feelings in a mature sort of fashion (which, frankly, is a little out of character, but we so rarely see emotionally mature men on television that I'm willing to let it slide) but I'm there's a sort of narrative inevitability to the two of them getting together, and the show hasn't done much to convince me of the romance it has seemingly preordained.

The most recent episode of season two supposedly had Jake flirting with Amy despite his attempts to get over her, but I only recognised it as flirting because the show had Diaz outright label it as that. Through another lens, it was simply the characters engaged in light-hearted banter - the kind you might get between, you know, two work colleagues who have become friends.

Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero do have some chemistry, but it's a very comfortable energy that doesn't exactly point towards torrid romance. In fact, by the show insisting on driving a romantic angle on the relationship, it's robbing itself of another storytelling opportunity that positions Peralta and Santiago as good-natured rivals, which frankly would be a lot more interesting for the show to explore.

Still, it's a minor quibble about a plot point that might not even play out this way. Overall, the show is going from strength to strength, showcasing the formidable comedy chops of actors like Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, Joe Lo Truglio and Andre Braugher, and using guest stars like Kyra Sedgwick to terrific effect. For a show still so young, it's truly thrilling to see what it's going to build into over the course of its second season.

Next Time on Tim Watches a Lot of Television 2014 - I ask how The Flash can get everything so right and how Gotham can fall so completely on its face, as I tackle 2014's new dramas

Friday, 3 October 2014

Tim Watches a Lot of Television - Part One: New Comedy

Everyone knows that October is the best month. If the confirmed onset of autumn and presence of Hallowe'en, the Official Best Adult Holiday weren't enough, it's time for a new season of American television. This year, I thought I'd try to dive into as many shows as I could fit into my busy schedule of sleeping, eating and scratching myself, and write up my thoughts on my web log, or "blog", as I understand the kids are calling them.

Television pilot episodes are hard, and they're doubly hard for half hour comedy shows, especially given that half hour actually means about 21 and a half minutes. When you're trying to juggle establishing an ensemble cast, setting, plot and Unique Selling Point in less time than it takes to do a large load of washing up, jokes can easily get pushed out. But fail to make enough people laugh, and they won't come back for a second episode.

Pilots are also distinguished by the fact that they are usually written months, if not years ahead of time, and workshopped to within an inch of their life before they even come within a whiff of casting. To my mind, this is to their detriment - there's a lot to be said for the high intensity environment of the writers' room once the cast and crew have an idea of each others strengths. Chemistry and desperation can kick out a lot of good ideas when deadlines loom - diamonds only form when there's a lot of pressure, after all.

All this combines to make judging a show based entirely on its pilot episode a monumentally unfair premise. It's rare for a show (especially a half hour comedy) to have to do the same kind of storytelling work as it does in the pilot ever again, and the unique alchemy of writing, direction and cast that elevates shows to greatness often hasn't formed. That said, let's judge away!

Selfie weighs itself down with a lot of problems. Based around My Fair Lady (which itself was based on Pygmalion), it's the kind of premise that, when examined with the lens of modern gender politics, is more than a little problematic. Are you sure you want to base your show around a man telling a woman that she's not behaving in a proper manner, explaining how she needs to change her life and then the two of them inevitably falling in love?

The show also carries a wealth of pop culture references that can potentially irritate in the short term, and are destined to make the show seem hilariously dated in about six years time. Eliza, the main character (played by Doctor Who alum Karen Gillan) is a social networking-obsessed narcissist, peppering her speech with hashtags and hyper-current slang in the way that 50-something men imagine teens speak.

The show seems to go out of its way to make her noxious, portraying her as a friendless, self-centred airhead whose only ambition is to be validated by her digital followers. We're given very little reason to care for her, beyond a token lonely childhood and her realisation that "being friended isn't the same as having friends"; we're told she's the top salesperson in her pharmaceutical firm, but she isn't given the opportunity to display intelligence, charm or determination of any real sort.

This all sounds like I'm building up to a big thumbs down and accompanying fart noise, but in truth Selfie actually manages to be fairly charming. It's key strengths by far are Gillan and co-star John Cho, who plays the Henry Higgins to her Eliza. They're both extremely charismatic actors with gifted comic timing, and they ain't exactly hard on the eye. We aren't given a huge sense of the show's supporting cast, but it's clear that a lot of the work is going to fall on their shoulders, and I'm certain they're up to the task.

As for actual jokes, there's a slight reliance on Eliza's high-speed chatter (which Gillan pulls off with aplomb, albeit with a couple of accent wobbles) and some broad physical comedy, but there were some genuine laughs to be had, especially with the escalating strangeness of some alternative wedding vows/poetry and a goof about a sleep apnoea mask looking like Bane.

Of all the new shows, Selfie will benefit the most from the space to grow past its concept, but with its more-than-capable leads and a vein of weirdness running beneath it for the writers to exploit, it could well grow into a Cougar Town-esque unlikely success.

Manhattan Love Story

First of all, let me don my Social Justice Warrior cape and mask and get my first complaint out of the way. Manhattan Love Story producers - have we learnt nothing from Girls? I'm sure this show won't get the same level of criticism, because Girls was held up as more progressive, on cable and, most importantly, produced by and largely about women, but the same problem applies. It is simply not alright to be in 2014 and make a show about New York, one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet, with a main cast made up solely of white people, especially if you're going to play the whole "the city is practically a character" card. If you put Manhattan in the title, we should expect to see some relatively authentic facsimile of it in your show.

Okay, that little rant aside, what's the show actually about? Dana, played by Analeigh Tipton, is freshly moved to New York to work in publishing. Through a friend, she is introduced to Peter, played by Jake McDorman, and we follow their relationship. The high concept is that we hear both of the central pair's inner monologue throughout the show, giving us the rich insight into their true thoughts that would otherwise have to be delivered through, you know, good writing and acting.

That was cruel, but the inner monologue does seem like both a crutch and a potentially annoying affectation. Much like a three camera sitcom that has to pause for audience laughter, the gimmick requires the two leads to spend much of their time looking like they're thinkin' real hard while their voiceover goes to town, and were the narration to be edited out, it would probably result in some very stilted-looking conversations.

It would be easier to forgive the running commentary if the show had more of a personality to prop itself up with, or the jokes the inner monologue allowed for were better, but when the show starts by demonstrating that the male lead is looking at women and deciding if he'd sleep with them, while the female lead is lusting after purses, you know you're not breaking any formulas here.

A lot of the show's premises are awfully hackneyed - Dana's coworkers are mean and send her on a pointless errand! Peter spots her blowing her nose before that date! People give out trophies for everything nowadays! Men and women are different! A great cast might be able to elevate the material, but while Analeigh Tipton has shown a lot of promise in films like Crazy, Stupid, Love and Damsels in Distress, she's not strong enough to save the creaky dialogue here, and Jake McDorman seems to lean into the slightly skeevy vibes his character gives off, rather than transform them into charm or even bad boy smoulder. Comedy veteran Kurt Fuller (of Wayne's World and Ghostbusters II fame, amongst many other things) is unfortunately wasted as Peter's father and boss, and the rest of the supporting cast are bland non-entities.

Aside from its whitewashed version of New York, there's nothing especially wrong with Manhattan Love Story, but it certainly doesn't do anything to distinguish itself, and the one unique arrow it does have in its quiver it doesn't deploy nearly well enough to make it worth sticking with.

A to Z

A to Z feels a lot like a chimera, a hybrid of other beasts that have come before. The premise (following a relationship from first meeting to end, around nine months later) conjures spectres of (500) Days of Summer. The presence of Cristin Milioti in another romantic lead role will draw inevitable comparisons to How I Met Your Mother. And the knowing voice-over provided by Katey Sagal brings to mind everything from The Wonder Years to Arrested Development. However, if you're looking for the most direct progenitor, it's Celeste and Jesse Forever, the romantic dramedy written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, who serve as executive producers for the show.

Katey Sagal's voice-over might well be the show's secret weapon when it comes to avoiding the usual perils of pilotdom I addressed above. With someone to talk directly to the audience (and not in the inner-monologue style of Manhattan Love Story) the show deftly skips through its high concept and even deploys some basic characterisation for the two leads in swift fashion, establishing them in the first few minutes and clearing out space to let the plot and humour develop more organically.

The two lead characters, Andrew and Zelda (see what they did there?) are played by Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti respectively. Feldman is best known for Mad Men (although I sadly haven't reached the seasons he's in) while, as I mentioned above, Milioti starred in How I Met Your Mother's final season as the eponymous Mother. Both have a lot of charm and decent comic chops, and as with Selfie and Manhattan Love Story, the heavy lifting falls on the central couple, and these two handle it with grace and skill.

A to Z doesn't land a lot of big laughs - I watched it the most recently of the three shows I'm looking at here, but can't remember a single well-landed joke (but equally can't remember any stinkers) - but what it does do very well is the romance angle. The two leads have good chemistry, and the direction and cinematography gives everything a crisp, crystallised quality that is both grounded and slightly hyper-real.

The show actually feels more like a romantic dramedy than a true sitcom, with the pre-ordained end date hanging over the relationship like a roadsign marked "Turning for Heartache in 21 Episodes", but if this clutch of shows proves anything, its that American TV audiences are apparently in the mood for love this season (or at least that's what network executives have decided).

It's certainly the show that made the best impression within its pilot (and it even manages a comic book joke with a specificity that puts The Big Bang Theory to shame). While I'd been looking forward to Selfie based on the appeal of its two stars, A to Z came in under the radar and won me over. Whether it can transform its polished pilot into a decent series is another matter, but I'll certainly be turning up for episode two.

Next time on Tim Watches a Lot of Television 2014 - I turn my increasingly square eyes towards returning comedies and look at what they need to do to keep the wheels turning...

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Wicked + The Divine: The Semiotics Of Snapping

Issue one of Image's The Wicked + The Divine came out three weeks ago now, the latest project by regular collaborators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (along with Matt Wilson as colourist and Clayton Cowles as letterer).

The story of 12 gods who incarnate into human bodies every 90 years, inspire absolute devotion and fear in equal measure and die within 2 years, it has, as with most Gillen/McKelvie projects, firmly taken root in my subconscious. It's a fantastic "why didn't I think of that" concept, positioning the gods as rock stars who encourage fanatical adoration. It taps into concepts of belief, self-mythologising, fame, art, self-image, the relationship between creators and fans and most importantly, the inevitability of death.

As someone with a lifelong interest in classical mythology and a deep passion for music, it absolutely hits a sweet spot in my mental landscape. Other, smarter people have already examined the issue in a more general sense, but I wanted to really close in on an action that repeats throughout the comic; the snapping of one's fingers.


We see several of the godly characters snapping their fingers in the issue, and it seems to be fundamentally connected to the manifestation of their supernatural powers. What's more, it seems, at least judging by this issue, linked inescapably to death. A short prologue introduces us to the previous generation of godly avatars, who having had their number reduced to four, seemingly elect to end their lives. After a countdown from four (another of the issue's recurring motifs), the quartet snap their fingers in unison, and the large stately home in which they are sitting detonates spectacularly, killing them all (at least, that's how it appears).

Later, we are introduced to the modern incarnations of some of the gods, namely Amaterasu, Sakhmet and Lucifer (aka Luci). Attacked by snipers hoping to kill her, Luci unleashes her godly powers, exploding the heads of the assailants in an explosion of pop-art gore with nothing more than a snap of her fingers.

And finally, towards the close of the issue, Luci stands in the dock in a courtroom, debating the judge. Are they willing to admit she is a god, and therefore responsible for the men's deaths (and possibly then beyond human judgement), or is she just a delusional human, and therefore the deaths nothing more than macabre coincidence? As the judge threatens to hold her in contempt, Luci replies with her own threat - a hand held aloft, fingers poised to snap. After a moment of tension, she does and once more there is a spectacularly visceral death. Only this time, Luci claims she isn't responsible - someone else did it.

As I rolled the issue around in my head after reading it, tasting the flavours and letting it marinate in my brain juices, one thought began to simmer to the surface - "why snapping?" As a conceit, it felt entirely suited and seemed to gel very well into the books vision of casual, almost nonchalant godhood, but I wanted to unpick it more.


Saying you are able to do something "like clicking my fingers" implies both ease and immediacy. It requires a smallest amount of effort and happens before anyone can react. It's important to note that in the comics, we only ever see the before and the after of the snap - it's an action that's hard to slow down enough to show the exact moment it happens, the hand curled up as the finger and thumb release their tension. By its very nature, the snap is transitory and instantaneous - it is an action defined by where you start and where you finish.

In culture, we tend to find snapping fingers in a few specific situations. Sometime, it is a mark of confidence between two people, like giving someone the 'finger guns' or, more closely, a wink, another act defined by it's immediacy. It's a sign of confidence, perhaps even arrogance, and of a covenant sealed. If you ask me if I'm sure I can take care of something and I simply snap my fingers and point at you, the implication is not only that I can handle the task in question, but that it will be a literal 'snap'.

This ease and poise is something the gods in The Wicked + The Divine seem to radiate in large quantities. They are both performers and demagogues, and although their agenda (either as individuals or as an erstwhile pantheon) hasn't really been explored yet, it is clear that connecting with people, with their worshippers and fans, is high on their list. When we examine the gods we have seen so far and the influences we can see in their portrayals, it's clear that Gillen and McKelvie are tapping into the school of performer who have no room for self-doubt in their public image. These are not Conor Oberst-style musicians, heads cowed, mumbling into their microphones. They are Bowie, Florence Welch and Rihanna, anthemic and iconic. These are the kind of characters the finger-snap belongs to.


While we're talking about performance, lets look at another of the finger-snap's natural habitats - music. For as long as there's been music, people have been using claps, snaps and stamps to mark out a beat. As we moved to drums and electronics for our percussion needs, snapping fingers on a track has on the aura of folksiness, simplicity, and perhaps even the dreaded "authenticity". It's what gives Lorde's "Royals" it's stripped-back appeal and Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" it's uniting fuck-yeahedness.

There are certain genres that a more associated with snapping fingers - one can't help but think of the stereotypical jazz club filled with beatniks clicking in appreciation - but really they can find a home anywhere. Their relative quietness compared to guitars, drums et al means that any track using them has to hold back to a certain degree, to create silence that those distinctive snaps can fill. Clicks demand that the music makes room for them. They have power.


Where else do we find snapping fingers? If we're extremely unlucky, they're being waved in our face. Using clicking to get someone's attention is one of those moves that marks someone out as a scummy human being - when I was around 8 I can remember a friend of my granddad's doing it at to a waitress at a restaurant and even at that age, I can remember thinking "That's not how you treat other people".

The finger-snap for attention move takes all the confidence and bravado of the act when shared between friends and transmutes it into arrogance and dismissiveness. It's no longer about celebrating people's attention, but demanding it. Not performing when in the spotlight, but rather insisting that it falls upon you. It's an act of control.


So, here we have the primary tool and weapon of our gods, their sceptre and their magic wand (and how appropriate is it that, in a series about the briefness of power, fame and life, it's a transitory action rather than a physical object). It's an action that we can frame in a number of ways, but in the end it occupies all of them at the same time. It's about confidence, creativity and control. It's the wink between friends, the song that you can't help sing along with, and the gesture that tells you "you're not worth my time".

And in that curious alchemy, maybe we find what we're looking for in our pop stars and our gods - something that draws in and pushes back at the same time. Something that promises wonders then asks if we really deserve them. It's the spark of inspiration and the rules we must obey. The promise of glory and the price we must pay. The wicked, and the divine.

Monday, 14 April 2014

My Writing Process - Part of the Blogtour

So apparently, there's a sort of meme working it's way through the blogosphere (we really, really need a better word for it than that) where writers of various sorts describe their current projects and processes before passing the format on to a new pair of bloggers they know. It's like a pyramid scheme, but nobody's getting rich.

  Last week, the illustrious Dave Chapman presented his new link in the chain and passed on the duties to Stoo Goff and I. I've known Dave aka Frankie for over 10 years now, and he is fundamental to the topic I'll be writing about today. Back when he worked at Ottakar's bookstore, Frankie was responsible for introducing me to the world of role-playing games, most notably through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game produced by Eden Studios that he had a hand in birthing into this world. He ran a sort of reading group for RPGs, where we'd try a new system each month, and since then has acted as a player, a GM and most importantly a wise and awesome friend.

What Am I Working On?

  For the last year, my friend Bret and I have been taking the Unisystem created by Eden Studios and unceremoniously breaking it apart to create a heroic fantasy RPG. It was Bret's initial brainchild but he quickly drafted me in as a partner. The initial idea was to take the cinematic flavour and streamlined rules of the Unisystem and build something with the feel of Dungeons and Dragons, without the strict combat focus of 4th edition D&D, or the bewildering complexity of 3.5 ed.

  Of course, adding things like a class system, different schools of magic and a more controlled parceling out of weapons and combat skills makes the system considerably less stream-lined, but our watchword has always been keeping that cinematic flavour. In short - will this make playing the game feel like being the dashing hero of a swords-and-sorcery film? While the mechanics behind creating and progressing a character are more complex, the game-play is still (hopefully) as fluid as before.

  When I'm not working on the fantasy RPG, I have my own project that is slowly bubbling away in the background, similar in type but different in scope and flavour. Another tweak of the Unisystem (we've been playing with it for a long while and it's very versatile), this one is a modern fantasy drawing on inspiration like Scott Pilgrim, Adventure Time and My Little Pony to create a light-hearted game where anything can happen.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In My Genre?

  For our fantasy RPG, tone is something I've been very conscious of throughout. There is a tendency among fantasy to be either po-faced or parodic, and we don't want our game to be either of those. I want to play a game where I'm invested in the story, but I also hear AC/DC playing in my head during the fights. The fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been Bret and mine's longest running game gives you a heads-up to the kind of universe we want to create. Something with mythology and scope, but also human drama.

  At the moment, the focus is on the mythology and scope end of the scale, as we're still crafting the history of the world. I've been responsible for a lot of the background work on things like the varying races' culture and history, and how the world feels. Even with this macro-level stuff, the focus is always on how this will feel when people play it. There is no point creating a history for a race that gives people nothing to hook on to.

  As for my own game, the work there is even more casual in tone, and I'm allowing my own personal voice to leak through a lot more prominently, not only as it's an individual project, but also because the atmosphere of the game is so much more light-hearted.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

  As far as I'm concerned, a good role-playing game creates an experience unlike any other, fusing the best elements of an immersive computer game, improvisational theatre and simply hanging out with your friends into something far greater than the sum of it's parts. As long as I've been playing them, I've been tinkering with them, and the idea of building worlds for people to explore and populate has always been a driving force and passion. I am more than happy to admit that when it comes to fiction, I am appalling at creating plots. Guiding a role-playing game takes some of the pressure off that demand - it's more important (to my mind) to create an atmosphere, and characters that are compelling. If the world and the characters are strong enough, the plot just sort of happens.

  With the fantasy game, the initial idea was Bret's, but as we've built the world and the system that supports it, my own motivations and running ideas have crept in. In some ways, we're aiming to make the game as trope-filled as possible, to allow our players to really delve into all their idle fantasies about exploring dungeons and defeating monsters, but there are also areas where we subvert them, or twist them into something new. That's where I find my passion really excited - chopping and screwing with expectations to make something new from old parts.

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

  In fits and starts. I am very much a slave to my mood and circumstances. I've pretty much given up writing at home since I had to move back with my parents - I have no desk in my room, and the other rooms in the house are either too busy or without suitable spaces. Plus, there is the dread distraction of the internet and all it has too offer. Most of my work has lately been done in coffee shops, which keep me both focused and in a caffeine-fueled hum of activity. Strangely, even when I'm working somewhere that has WiFi, the very act of going somewhere specifically for the act of writing helps me focus a great deal. I look forward to the day when I can afford a house with a study set aside just for this sort of thing - it'll certainly save me money on Americanos.

  The very scope of the project I'm working on allows me to move from one area to another when motivation dries. Because some of the writing is very technical, or is as much a task of mathematics as it is literature, there are days when I just can't face opening up six different charts to work out what sort of sword I should give this demon, and so then I can dive into detailing background, be it history, linguistics or simply description. Then, I can head back to the statistical tasks with a renewed passion for the subject.

Coming Next...

As I mentioned at the beginning, part of the Blogtour idea is that I pass this beast on to be continued next week. My two unwitting volunteers:

Josh Butler is a columnist, author and screenwriter from Norwich who somehow thinks the catch-all ‘writer’ is beneath him. He recently caught attention with his ‘Disney Theory’, where he connects the worlds of 30 Disney movies and he is currently enjoying linking other movies to that universe and trying to work out why nonsense conspiracies get some people so irate.

His idols are Whedon, Pullman, Sorkin, Fey and Murakami and he loves female-lead indie electronic bands and rapping along to hip-hop with a complete lack of self-awareness.

Follow him at @Joshubuh or post angry comments about Tarzan’s jaw-structure at http://www.joshubuh.com.

Alex Spencer has a day job, writing about the intersection of brands and technology for Mobile Marketing Magazine. But he still thinks of himself primarily as a blogger. Writing unspellchecked flights of fancy about whichever song, game or comic grabs his attention, to an irregular schedule – this is his vocation.

Follow him at @AlexJaySpencer or watch him pit 2013's best songs against each other in a multi-round elimination tournament at http://akadaffs.blogspot.co.uk/

Friday, 11 April 2014

Comic Review: Rat Queens Volume 1 - Sass And Sorcery

  As much as the world in general still thinks of comics and superheroes as interchangeable terms, you, fine and learned reader, are well aware that comics tackle a huge variety of genres, from journalism and biography to noir and sci-fi. However, perusing the shelves of your local comic book store or library, you will notice that for a medium with lot of demographic crossover with properties like Lord of the Rings, high fantasy is a little under-represented.

  Particularly when it comes to the larger US publishers, modern urban fantasy outweighs your traditional sword-and-sorcery stories by a hefty portion. I'm sure there's a whole blog post to be had in diving into the possible reasons behind this, but I won't be doing that here. The notable point is this: for a medium where a larger-than-normal section of the audience have probably played Dungeons & Dragons, comics seem to be leaving some money on the table.

  That's why a comic like Rat Queens comes as such a breath of fresh air. Written by Kurtis J Wiebe with art by the fantastically named Roc Upchurch, and lettered by Ed Brisson, Rat Queens is a gloriously visceral approach to fantasy comics, blending traditional high fantasy trappings with a decidedly modern outlook. The comic owes a lot to Dungeons & Dragons and similar games - the comic follows an adventuring party with the classic make-up of a fighter, a thief, a wizard and a cleric, and includes such traditional trappings as rival adventurers, quests handed out by town officials and magical relics. However, the comic is shot through with an affectionate self-awareness and an almost Tarantino-esque violent streak that marks it apart from both the sterility of something like Lord of the Rings and the grim reality of Game of Thrones.

  The other immediately notable thing about Rat Queens is the female-heavy cast. All four main characters are female, as are numerous members of the supporting cast, all of them well-developed. Upchurch's art presents a wide variety of body types and his facial expressions are fantastic, capturing glee, rage, flirtation, grim determination and everything in between perfectly. Not only is the friendship between Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty at the core of the book, but their relationship with other women is also important - Hannah has a complex rivalry with Tizzie, the leader of a rival adventuring group, and Betty's "courtship" of Faeyri forms a sweet subplot that runs through the volume.

  Within this first arc, Wiebe manages to not only tell a compelling story, but do a great job establishing characters and building the world the story take place in (things like Hannah's mobile phone-equivalent being the product of dark necromancy are among the nice touches). Likewise, Upchurch is a great storyteller, with dynamic panel structures that splinter and skew the more furious the combat grows, and wonderful quieter moments like the page where Betty applies a Sherlockian eye to a local guild-leader's office. 

  In fact, the only place where the book falls down a little is in the blurb on the back of the trade that reduces the characters to simple archetypes like "Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage" and "Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter". While this helps sell the modern sensibility of the book, it suggests a much less elegant story without the affection Rat Queens shows for both the genre and its characters. And while Violet may be a hipster (she shaved her beard off before it was cool), the characters are so much more than these simple descriptors suggest.

  While I'm not about to leap to buying the single issues (maintaining such a light, raucous tone means it's harder to build the kind of stakes monthly serialisation requires) I'll definitely be buying the next collection of Rat Queens, and I can only suggest you catch up now before all the other cool kids do.

FULL CREDITS: Rat Queens Volume 1 - Sass & Sorcery is published by Image Comics as part of their Shadowline inprint. It is written by Kurtis J Wiebe, with art and covers by Roc Upchurch. Ed Brisson is the letterer, and Laura Tavishati is the editor. Jim Valentino is the publisher and book designer.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Person of the Year 2013 - Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction

As is tradition, this article was first posted earlier today on Alex-Spencer.co.uk, digital home of pop culture impresario and dancefloor whirlwind Alex Spencer. As always, Alex brings you the finest in commentary and consideration, and at this very moment is running his tracks of the year through an elimination tournament to discover who emerges victorious. His articles always make for the most nuanced, entertaining reading available, and you should go check it out as soon as you're done here.

The good thing about making the rules is that you can decide when to break them. That's something I think this year's choice for Person of the Year represents, and so it that spirit, I'm breaking my own rules, and declaring a joint selection this year.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction are both comic writers who have had great years. They have worked within the system of the "Big Two" comic companies to craft superhero stories that resonate on a personal level and are elevated beyond folks in tight costumes punching each other (not that there's anything wrong with the occasional spandex fistfight) and also produced independent books that have pushed themselves and the medium creatively into telling new types of stories. They are deft practitioners of social media, using their Twitter/Tumblr/whatever presence to interact with fans and build a sense of community among like-minded readers. They are everything a modern comic writer should be. They also happen to be married to each other.
Let us consider Kelly Sue DeConnick first. Having risen up through manga translation and the odd issue and mini-series at Marvel, Kelly Sue earned the job of relaunching Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel in July 2012.
Captain Marvel #10, cover by Joe Quinones
Danvers, as Ms Marvel, was a character that Marvel had slowly been raising the profile of, clearly aware of their lack of a female superhero able to support her own series a la Wonder Woman. Ms Marvel was a natural choice for this evolution, and with Kelly Sue's relaunch, she finally took the name Captain. Like so many female superheroes, Danvers' origin was tied to a male hero, the original Captain Marvel, but by taking on the mantle as her own, both the character and Marvel themselves were making the statement that this was no longer a spin-off, distaff companion to another hero. She had inherited his name, and so was his equal.

The series proceeded to build a upon the ideas of legacy, exploring the world of female aviators while Carol adventured through time and fought monsters and villains across the world. DeConnick built a wonderful supporting cast for Carol, using established characters from her previous solo series and introducing new ones, and in one of the most exciting developments, this year it was revealed that the Ms Marvel title would relaunch with a young hero inspired by Carol's exploits. 
There is a long and embarrassing history in comic books of female heroes all being based on existing male characters - Batwoman, Supergirl, She-Hulk, etc - and while many of these characters have had fantastic stories written about them that treated them as well-rounded, three dimensional characters, that initial secondary nature hangs over them. Just as Carol Danvers had shed that idea by truly embracing her position as Captain Marvel, the new Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan, is unique for being one of the few female heroes inspired by another female character. 
As many of 2014's "Year in Review" style articles will tell you, we seem to be part of an exciting time for feminism, and bringing the idea of female role models, mentoring and friendship to the fore in this way is just one of the methods DeConnick has used to create a modern feminist hero in Captain Marvel. The book is full of interesting, conflicted woman who feel real, and who deal with issues that all readers can relate to (albeit in the magnified, larger-than-life way that superhero comics tend to use). This deeply integrated feminism has created a huge and devoted fanbase online, the Carol Corps, who read, write, draw, craft and cosplay to support their hero. Captain Marvel is relaunching with a new number 1 in 2014 and I can't wait to see where DeConnick sends Danvers next.

Pretty Deadly #2, cover by Emma Rios
DeConnick's other big project this year was a creator owned one, a mythical Western horror series called Pretty Deadly she made with Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles. Pretty Deadly is well removed from Captain Marvel's primary coloured exploits, for although Carol Danvers is a complex, rounded character, there's no denying she's a hero. As befits its genre roots, there are no obvious heroes in Pretty Deadly.
Instead, there's Johnny the nihilistic coward, languishing in a prostitute's bed with a bruised ego. Fox, the blind wanderer with a dark secret. And Deathface Ginny herself, the granddaughter of Death, a skull-faced avenger loosed on the world. Pretty Deadly is different to almost everything out there at the moment, a lyrical folkloric tale that entrances and disturbs in equal measure. Rios' beautiful fluid art and inspired layouts combine perfectly with the tone DeConnick creates, giving everything an otherworldly, dream-like feel. Each issue begins with the framing story, as the tale of Deathface Ginny to told between a butterfly and a skeletal rabbit, and the first issue was largely taken up with a gorgeously relayed song describing Ginny's origins. These stylistic choices feel like acts of faith, asking people to get on board with the book's atmosphere, accept the world the team is weaving that is so different to most other comics. 
 I'm sure there were a fair few people who never got past young Sissy's song of Death's daughter locked in a tower, but those of us who gave the book a chance became utterly bewitched by the story that is being told. Pretty Deadly is DeConnick's first creator owned series, and that she has chosen such a bold, unique story, clearly born of her passions and executed in such a confident way speaks volumes about her skill as a writer.
Hawkeye #3, art by David Aja
Let's turn now to Matt Fraction. Fraction has been a "name" in comics for much longer, moving from his early independent work with AiT/PlanetLar and Image to higher profile jobs at Marvel, relaunching Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker and writing acclaimed runs on the X-Men, Thor and Iron Man. 
Like Kelly Sue, the summer of 2012 saw him relaunching an existing hero at Marvel, in his case Hawkeye. Reteaming with his Iron Fist artist the incredible David Aja, Fraction took Marvel's archer (his profile raised by an appearance in the Avengers film) and re-positioned him as a true everyman hero, one who drank straight from the coffee maker and struggled to connect his DVR. Hawkeye became a book about what a (relatively) grounded hero does when not being an Avenger, and focused on Clint Barton's relationship with his young protege Kate Bishop, also called Hawkeye. 
Indeed, by the time of this article, the two have parted ways and the book alternates, spending one issue with Barton in New York and one with Bishop in Los Angeles. Like Captain Marvel embracing her new name, Kate Bishop is as much Hawkeye as Clint Barton, and in many cases seems to have her life a lot more together. The series serves in part as a deconstruction of the hero and sidekick trope, showing that when you take an established but flawed existing hero and pair them with a hyper-competent teen then things are not going to run smoothly. 
As well as sharing the spotlight with Kate Bishop, 2013 saw Fraction and Aja release Hawkeye #11, "Pizza is my Business", an issue told entirely from the point of view of Lucky, Hawkeye's dog. It was a stylistic tour de force, utilising Aja's astonishing layouts to show how Lucky's senses interpret the world through scent. It wasn't simply empty spectacle or showing off though - the issue also drove the overarching plot forward in multiple ways, in many ways proving a pivotal issue in the run so far. It was a great example of a story that could only be told as a comic, and showed how the medium can be pushed forward.
Sex Criminals #1, art by Chip Zdarsky
Fraction has had multiple other titles out this year, included acclaimed runs on Fantastic Four and its sister title FF, and his Satellite Sam series with Howard Chaykin, but I'm going to focus on his new Image series with cartoonist Chip Zdarksy, Sex Criminals. From its provocative title to its frank depiction of sex, Sex Criminals seems to be a comic built to shock people, but for all the penises and orgasms, it's actually an incredibly sweet and honest story of two people falling in love. 
Suzie and John, the protagonists, have a unique ability to stop time when they climax. When they discover each other after meeting at a party, they share how they came to realise they had this power, and how it shaped their sexual awakenings. Now, having finally met someone with a similar ability, they quickly begin to fall for each other, and as they do, realise that they can use their ability to save the library Suzie works at. It's a gloriously silly comic, featuring the two lead characters goofing around in a sex shop and, in issue 3, a full blown musical number (of a sort). 
Obviously, inevitably, it's also filled with hundreds of filthy jokes, from the numerous sex moves an more experienced girl tells a teenaged Suzie about, to the different categories of porn in the sex shop. I have rarely laughed at a comic as much as I have at Sex Criminals. But at the core of the story is something much more personal - a story about connection, about the different ways we have sex and how frightening and alienating youth can be. Like Hawkeye, Fraction has an amazing collaborator in the form of Zdarsky, who gives Suzie and John a human warmth and life, and contributes more than his fair share of the jokes to the pages. It is one of those rare comics that I would recommend to everyone, as long as they don't mind dick jokes.

It should be clear by this point that both DeConnick and Fraction are writers at the top of their game, forever pushing the envelope in terms of what can be achieved in mainstream comics. They've both gone to great lengths to make even their work-for-hire into projects they are passionate about, ones that are shot through with their personality. But accomplishment and expertise alone ill not win you the coveted "Person of the Year" award.

Both Kelly Sue and Matt have gone to great lengths to be accessible and honest with their fans. They talk, enthuse and joke around with people online. Kelly Sue is fiercely protective and supportive of her Carol Corps, and Matt manages to balance absurdist humour with humbling honesty about his struggles with addiction and depression. They reach out to fans and welcome it when fans reach back. More than that, they share their lives openly and in a way that encourages respect, rather then invasive prying.

They have two young children together, and watching the slices of their family life that they present, they're clearly loving, generous parents, whether they're building a cardboard city for their son and his friends to destroy for a Giant Monster themed birthday or servicing their daughter's two current loves by painting a toy tool bench pink. They have the sort of family life that makes me wonder if I could get adopted by them.

I was lucky enough to meet them both at Thought Bubble this year and in person, they are exactly as charming, friendly and wonderful as their presence on the Internet suggests. Both were faced with huge queues for both days of the convention, but treated each person who lined up to get something signed with patience and kindness, and were more than happy to chat about their work and their lives. In a world where public personae are increasingly managed, not just by celebrities but by Joe Average, it's refreshing to see two people who have need to do so. I hold both Kelly Sue and Matt up as icons, and meeting them only cemented that.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dr Nerdrage or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Kill Batman

My friend Bret and I often like to play the popular Nerd Sport of “If I Was In Charge…” where we take over creative direction and editorial control of Star Wars, or Marvel, or whatever, but usually with an incredibly specific remit such as “Construct a team of Avengers that has a specific mission or area of expertise” or “Make a team of 80s/90s villains to face off against the Expendables”. One of the most recent ones that Bret posed to me was this:

“You have been given the job of killing off Batman. DC have decided it’s time to let him die and to try something radically new. You have to come up with the storyline that leads to his death, but it has to involve a C-list member of his rogues gallery who is revealed to have been pulling the strings in his life all along.”

Of course, this is never something that DC would go for – Batman is their number one cash cow, and to radically rewrite his history at the same time as killing him off would cause some kind of collective fanboy aneurysm. Still, you have to buy into the premise in these exercises, and with that said, I managed to provide an answer that resulted in Bret saying “You have to write that up and share it – I don’t care if you get death threats.” So, with our criteria clear and the understanding that this will never, ever actually happen so if you stumble across this and feel the need to rent your frustrations in Caps Lock, take a breath and reconsider your life, here’s what I came up with:


Our story opens with a flashback to (stylistically) late 60s Batman, just before Neal Adams reworked the hero to be closer to the gothic badass we are familiar with today. Robin is still Dick Grayson, and comic books have not yet fallen into the chasm of “dark and gritty means grown-up”. Robin and Batman are dealing with a riot at Arkham Asylum. In the midst of the fighting, Batman is thrown from a high stairwell and his grappling hook fails to connect. He falls heavily to the floor and is briefly knocked out. After a few moments, he reawakens to find his nose bloody, his ankle sprained and some of Arkham’s inmates advancing on him, but despite his grogginess he manages to defeat them, and resume bringing the asylum under control. However, in the shadows at the base of the stairs, a figure watches him swing off, their plan already in motion.

Jump forward to the Batman of today (for your information, I’m not bothering working out where this all stands in the whole “New 52” continuity – I’m working with old school Bats) and there is a mass breakout from Arkham Asylum. Over the course of what is likely almost a year’s worth of issues, Batman finds himself dealing with most of his major foes in some way or another, all free and causing trouble at the same time. So far, so Knightfall, right? Well, yes and no, because not only are the villains free, they seem dangerously co-ordinated. There are multiple attacks on Wayne Manor by villains that have no idea about Batman’s secret identity. Others go to work on isolating Gotham, disrupting the efforts of other heroes (both in the Bat-family and the wider universe) to help. Batman slowly becomes cut-off from his allies and increasingly stretched thin.

Needless to say, Batman suspects some kind of conspiracy or massive villain team-up, but even when captured and exposed to the standard Bat-Intimidation-Techniques, multiple villains claim no knowledge of a wider plan - they just happen to be working in unison, with no larger goal. As the attacks step up and Batman becomes less and less able to combat the free-roaming villains, the Joker kills Alfred and Commission Gordon. Batman is justifiably pissed, and we see what we think must be the start of a roaring rampage of revenge, as Batman gets his groove back and takes all the villains to school. But when he drops in on the Joker, he finds himself ambushed by several villains (the notably tougher/more combat able ones) and eventually captured.

Returned to the partially ruined Wayne Manor, Batman rages against the Joker, who lords it over him, but then a voice rings out "It wasn't his idea. It never was" and from the shadows emerges Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter.

The Mad Hatter explains, through a series of flashbacks, that he was always far smarter and far less crazy than Batman gave him credit for. His time as a supervillain was a mere distraction, a break from the day to day. Really, an obsession with Alice in Wonderland and hats? What did Batman take him for? His insanity was a smokescreen, produced by a chip in his head that would allow him to appear a harmless (or at least, borderline harmless) madman for weeks at a time while his normal consciousness worked on scientific problems, then return him to his normal self at a designated time. His own mind was the first he ever controlled. Well, almost the first, he says, gesturing towards Joker.

Poor Joker. He had to test his insanity simulator, of course, and thank the Lord he did. A faulty connection in the nanocircuitry led to Joker being uncontrollable insane until Tetch was able to correct the implant a few years ago. Of course, by then, he had also implanted almost every other foe in Batman's rogues gallery, certainly any of those who ever passed through Arkham. It's incredible what you can smuggle in once you have a guard under your control. Why did Batman think so many of his foes were so utterly consumed with foiling him? Why had so few ever left Gotham to practice their criminal activities in less well-protected cities. Why did none of them respond to treatments for their insanity. Because Tetch wanted them crazy and focused on revenge. He wanted Batman's life to be one of unending struggle against evil.

Why? Because Batman had embarrassed him, that's why. His forays into supercrime had been a whim, trying out what seemed to be a fashionable craze, and Batman had defeated him, beaten him and thrown him in Arkham. He would have his revenge. He would turn the dark side of Batman's city against him, forever. There would be no peace for him. No respite. His fight would be eternal, as long as Tetch desired.

Of course, that had changed slightly on that fateful day years ago, when Batman had fallen, unconscious, at his feet in Arkham. You see, Tetch could now see that Batman was as sick as the very criminals he fought. He may not steal or kill or torture, but his obsession was palpable. If he had set aside his quest for justice, he could have recovered from the death of his parents, rather than dragging other people into it. He could have spent the Wayne fortune creating lasting change in the city, eliminating the conditions that created so much crime. But no - that would never be enough. Tetch would see to it. You see, in that minute when Batman had laid helpless at his feet, he too had fallen victim to the Mad Hatter. He too, was under Tetch's control.

It was only subtle pokes and prods, of course. Just enough to steer him towards his endless, un-winnable crusade and away from any hope of a normal life. And he could have been normal, have been happy. Tetch has seen his thoughts. But no, he would be punished for his slight, for his arrogance. The villains would never stop coming, and Batman would never retreat. He was locked in an endless conflict that would eventually kill him. Unless, of course, Tetch decided otherwise.

At this point, Tetch pulls out a small device and explains that he's going to do what Batman never could. He will end the devastation of Gotham, the plaque of supercrime, and he will give Batman his happy ending. And with a push of a button, the assembled villains (excluding Tetch) collapse, blood leaking from their ears, their nose, their eyes. And deep inside Batman's brain, a tiny, undetectable web of nanomachines triggers, rewriting synapses and channeling chemicals to new spots. And Tetch? He simply walks away.

We move forward six months. Gotham has recovered from the villain's wave of destruction and for once, things are actually looking up. Reconstruction is ahead of schedule, and crime is down. The city is improving. In the newly renovated, mostly empty halls of Arkham Asylum, a man talks with one of the doctors. The damage to his friend's nervous system is irreparable - he can function more or less normally, but his fine motor skills and hand-to-eye co-ordination are shot, as is his concentration. He's the same man he was, he's just clumsier and less focused. No, replies the man, this isn't anything like the man I knew. His drive is gone. He remembers everything, but he doesn't care anymore. He's...happy.

He takes a seat in the Visitor's Room and his friend, Bruce Wayne, is brought through to see him. He doesn't understand why he's being kept here, but he doesn't mind. He gets to watch TV and talk to people. Hey, he thought of a joke. Would you like to hear?

"Sure" says the man who used to be the Joker, his face recovering from a round of plastic surgery to return it to normal - only two more to go.

"Why didn't I do well on my date? Because I had BAT breath! Get it?"

The Joker laughs, humouring his friend, then pats him on the hand and leaves.