Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes - funk to funky!

The third and final series of the BBC's Ashes to Ashes is about half way through now and, from the outset, it's been one of the highlights of my viewing week. I wasn't sure it would be. Like its predecessor show, Life on Mars, it has an unlikely premise and the previous two series had both taken some time to get into their stride.

Life on Mars told the story of Sam Tyler, a modern-day police officer who, having been hit by a car, is left in a coma and/or, depending on your viewpoint, is spirited back through time to 1973. There he finds his modern, forensics-driven policing methods are completely out of step with the politically incorrect views and methods of his DCI, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). The show made a star out of John Simm (possibly better known now as the latest incarnation of the Master in Doctor Who!) and the thought of having to recreate the success of the show without him must have been a daunting prospect.

When the new show, Ashes to Ashes, was finally unveiled Simm's character Sam Tyler was replaced by D.I. Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes) and, this time, she was thrown back only as far as the 1980s. Gene Hunt was still her DCI and he had just as little time for her psychological profiling as he'd had for Tyler's forensic evidence. But ... something wasn't right. The first two series of the new show began with a couple of very uncertain episodes. In a bit of a funk, if you will. The writers and producers seemed to have forgotten just what had made the original show work.

The problem, I think, was that the reviews of Life on Mars kept saying how funny the show was. They were right, of course. The exchanges between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt were often laugh-out-loud funny as Tyler's methodical approach and belief in restraint ran headlong into Hunt's belief in doing whatever was necessary to secure a conviction, even if that meant breaking down doors, trampling rough-shod over a suspect's rights and indulging in more than a little police brutality.

The humour, however, was only a part of the reason for the show's success. Life on Mars was never a comedy. Beneath the superficial banter, it was actually a very dark drama with layers of subtlety - a fact which seemed to escape the show's writers when they came to script the early episodes of Ashes to Ashes.

Unduly influenced by the critics, perhaps, they lost sight of the dark, edgy vein of reality and put all the emphasis on the humour. It became, in effect, little more than a substandard sitcom based in a police station. The low point was surely the sight of Keeley Hawes leaning over a desk and urging her colleagues to date stamp her backside. So far so Carry on Constable but, when her mother walked through the door at exactly that moment, the whole thing was reduced to the level of a woefully tired Brian Rix farce.

As the first series progressed it did become more serious and, by the end, it had successfully recaptured the spirit that had made Life on Mars such gripping TV. Good solid drama, made amusing by the sharply observed interactions between a group of cleverly drawn characters, rather than by the forced inclusion of a few moments of gratuitous slapstick. It was all the more surprising, then, that the second series chose to repeat the mistakes of the first. Once again the first few episodes seemed determined to play it for laughs. Fortunately for those viewers prepared to stick with it, the series rediscovered its sense of drama (again!) in time to treat us to a nail-biting finale in which Alex was shot by Gene Hunt.

Which brings us back to Series 3. I wasn't especially looking forward to it. After two series of Life on Mars and two of Ashes to Ashes, hadn't the premise of a 21st Century police officer running up against 20th Century police methods already run its course? Also, on past performance, at least the first two episodes were bound to disappoint. And, although the hype surrounding the programme had made much of the fact that this final series would reveal everything about Gene Hunt and his "role" in the whole time-travelling phenomenon, wouldn't that be better left unexplained?

Well, we'll have to wait a little longer for the answer to that last question but the one thing I can say is that, unlike its two predecessors, this final series has wasted no time in finding the right balance of humour and drama. From the very first episode it has tried to keep us wrong-footed and has shone a light on some very dark recesses of its characters' lives. And, as dark as it gets, it's never more than a couple of lines away from another classic Gene Hunt quote to lighten the tone.

There are four episodes of this series still to go and, since it's been billed as the final series, we can probably be confident that - just like Life on Mars - it will end properly, rather than leaving us to guess about the characters' fates. Leaving aside the question of just who or what Gene Hunt is supposed to be, the big question is whether Alex will succeed in escaping the 1980s and returning to the present. Unlike Sam Tyler (who chose to stay in 1973), the decision that Alex has to make in Life on Mars is far less clear-cut. Even if she did come to the conclusion that things were better in the past, she has a young daughter, Molly, waiting for her in the present. Whatever she decides, the series finale is promising to be a very bitter-sweet mix of tragedy and comedy. Now that's something really funky to look forward to!

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Hero Machine

Have you ever wanted to design your own super hero, fantasy or SciFi character but been daunted by the fact that you scarcely know one end of a pencil from the other? Yeah, me too!

Fortunately, however, I've just been pointed in the direction of The Hero Machine, a fun little gizmo that lets you design your own characters even if you can't draw like Jim Lee.

To test it out I took one of the pre-existing characters, Boo (from my online graphic novel Shades), and tried to replicate her look using The Hero Machine. The result is there on the left. It's not perfectly accurate in every detail, of course, but it's pretty close and it was a lot of fun to do. Just click on the image there to see what Boo actually looks like in the graphic novel!

So, next time you feel like designing a character of your own, give it a try. Even if you end up changing the design you come up with, it's a fun place to start and the variables you get to play with might just help you to start thinking about combinations you wouldn't otherwise have considered!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Shades - look to the skies!

A little later than usual this week but, in case you thought we'd forgotten, never fear - the latest page of our online graphic novel Shades is up and waiting for you! There's a reduced size version of it below. Just click on the image to see the full size version!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Shades - stealing the show!

Here's a reduced size version of this week's instalment of our graphic novel Shades. Just click on the image to see the full size version.
So, now to the introductions. Even if you weren't reading Shades before we began this blog, you should recognise Stan (the older guy stealing the show in the top two panels!) from the previous page. In the remaining panels, the guy in the brown and black is a WW2 fighter pilot by the name of Doug Chamberlain (or, occasionally, "Spitfire"). How he happens to be flying without a jetpack is a fairly long story but he's a kind of super hero and that's probably all you really need to know to get started. The youngster in the green and brown is Ryan Allen, a fan of Doug's and one who would dearly like to be known as Harrier. There - you can go read it properly now!

Friday, 9 April 2010

DC Comics Super Hero Collection - Huntress

Although she'd been around (in one universe or another) for years by then, I first became aware of Huntress in the pages of the five volume "maxi-series" No Man's Land. In that series she spent much of her time dressed as a would-be Batwoman, patrolling the streets of a Gotham reeling from the after-effects of a massive earthquake.

Now, I've always been quick to criticise the number of allies who seem to dog Batman's footsteps but it was immediately apparent to me that Huntress was different. She belonged.

Like Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, her childhood had been torn from her by the murder of her parents, the mafia Bertinelli family. Just as importantly, however, like the best of the Bat-villains, Huntress added something to our understanding of Batman himself. Without the moral compass of an honest father, she had become the kind of vigilante that Batman could so easily have become - vengeful and lethal, with no qualms about killing or maiming her opponents.

Her own psychological issues were also painfully clear to see. As much as her pride prevented her from admitting it, she desperately wanted to be accepted by Batman. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think she was looking for him to be the father figure she'd needed all those years before. Yes, she opposed him, scorned his methods, insisted on doing things her own way and remained fiercely independent. And yet, for all that, she wanted his approval; to have him recognise that she was one of the good guys. When DC announced that they were introducing a new Batwoman to Gotham, I shook my head in disbelief. Not only did this scream of a failure to understand that the last thing the Bat-universe needed was yet another costumed crime-fighter on the streets, it demonstrated just how little the writers and editors understood the property they already had.

By the end of No Man's Land, Huntress had abandoned the bat-suit and reverted to her own purple and black costume. Not the one the figurine created by Eaglemoss for the DC Comics Super Hero Collection is wearing (see image above). That came later, introduced during Jeph Loeb's incredibly mediocre and hugely over-hyped Hush. This was an unnecessary redesign prompted, I can only assume, by the belief that the sight of a bare midriff and thighs might titillate the more immature fanboys enough for them to overlook the shortcomings of the story.

Since then, Huntress has moved on to other things, most notably as one of the key members of Oracle's Birds of Prey team. I can't help thinking, however, that DC missed a trick with this character. Unlike the newly created pretender Batwoman, Huntress lurks in the darker recesses of Batman's psyche just as much as she haunts the back-alleys of Gotham City.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan - space sickness!

For my money, the "reimagining" of Battlestar Galactica wasn't just one of the best SciFi shows in years, it was one of the best TV shows in any genre. It had intelligent story-telling, intense political drama, moral ambiguities and a great cast of characters forced to question not just who they were but whether they were anybody at all; whether they were even human.

The spin-off mini-series Razor may not have been able to live up to the glories of its parent show but it was entertaining enough for what it was (a fairly pedestrian expansion of a sub-plot already revealed during the main show), while the prequel that nearly never aired Caprica is so far proving that, at times, it can be every bit as thought-provoking as BSG itself.

So, with that kind of a pedigree, you could be forgiven for expecting the latest spin-off, the feature-length "movie" Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, to have something to offer. Sadly, you'd be wrong!

It's a strange animal. Supposedly telling the story of the attempted annihilation of the human race from the Cylon point of view, it has no coherent narrative of its own. Instead, it's little more than a series of largely unconnected and very fleeting glimpses of scenes which supposedly happened just before or just after events with which we are already familiar - Boomer agonising over her mission to plant a bomb; Starbuck promising to return for the Caprican resistance fighters; Six engaging with Baltar, etc etc. Sadly, none of these scenes are properly developed or given any kind of context. In short, watching this is like watching a series of out-takes. In a feeble attempt to convince us that this is actually new material, Dean Stockwell is brought back to provide a few words in between each sequence, slowly persuading each of his co-conspirators to do their bit and die for the Cylon cause. It's dreary, unconvincing stuff.

And, I should think, the producers must have known this. Why else would they have inserted a scene at a topless bar and a Starship Troopers style nude shower-room scene?

I have no problem with nudity on TV (I can't help but love True Blood!) but considering that, over five full-length seasons of BSG, there wasn't so much as a square inch of naked flesh, the producers must have made a very conscious decision to include it here. The fans wouldn't have been expecting it; I've never heard any internet forums call for it; and it added nothing either to the plot or to our understanding of the characters. The nudity was entirely gratuitous and can only have been included in the desperate hope that, in the absence of anything resembling plot or character development, a couple of naked bodies might just persuade a handful of viewers to watch to the end.

All in all, this is a dire movie, hardly worthy even of being consigned to a premature DVD release. It's not exactly unknown for desperate producers to try to milk a franchise for every last dollar but the crime for which The Plan can never be forgiven is that it is so dreadful that it even sours the memory of just how riveting BSG was. The sooner someone collects all copies of this movie and jettisons them from the nearerst airlock, the better.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Shades - where's a super hero when you need one?

The latest page of our online graphic novel Shades went live yesterday. If you didn't see it, there's a reduced size version below. Just click on the image to see the full size version.
If you've only been following Shades since we started this blog, then you probably won't have met these characters before, so let me make some introductions.

The nice old guy with the glasses is Stanley Miller. He's retired now but used to make "exceptional clothing for some extraordinary people - people the popular press would call super heroes". He is, I suppose, a kind of down-to-Earth version of Edna Mode (although I invented Stan first - honest!) The girl is his daughter Jill and the young boy is her son Sunil. All you need to know about the guy with the gun is that he's not very nice. But, once you've read the page, you'll probably realise that!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Doctor Who - saved by Amy Pond!

Somewhere in the dim and distant recesses of my childhood memories, I can just about remember William Hartnell playing the very first Doctor in Doctor Who. Despite the myths that have grown up around the show since then, I was never the kind of kid to hide cowering behind the sofa, frightened by the mechanical menace of the Daleks. I just loved the fantasy and one ancient B&W episode in particular has always stuck in my mind. Set on an alien planet, it featured some giant ant-like creatures (possibly known as Zarbi?)

I have clearer (and less fond) memories of Patrick Troughton prancing around in check trousers and whistling on a flute but, for me, the actor who will always be associated with the role is Jon Pertwee. By then, of course, the series was already being hit by budget constraints. The TARDIS was trapped permanently on Earth; the sets were noticeably cardboard; the costumes and SFX were of a laughably low standard and the acting of the supporting cast distinctly "children's TV". But I liked it. For all its absurdities, Pertwee's intense focus made the Doctor himself a credible character and that was enough for me to overlook everything else.

After Pertwee, I lost interest in the series. Looking back, I can see that production standards did continue to fall but, in reality, I think I just outgrew it. Had I been younger, I suspect I might have bought into Tom Baker's Doctor but we'll never know. For my generation, by the time Pertwee left, Doctor Who had become something of a joke, and the surprise wasn't that the BBC eventually cancelled it but that they hadn't done so many years earlier.

When Russell Davies resurrected the show, I had mixed feelings. The nostalgic in me wanted it to be a success but, despite the advent of computer-generated SFX, I never found Christopher Ecclestone convincing as the Doctor. To me, he always seemed to be hamming it up slightly; as if he couldn't quite rid himself of the idea that the show was meant for kids. He was okay, but he always seemed to be self-consciously acting rather living the role.

And then came David Tennant. For the first time since the 1960s, when Tennant took over the role as the Doctor, the show made the jump from "watchable" to "must-see" TV! He was the Doctor. He didn't just put on a costume and act slightly eccentric, he became the Doctor. Tennant's wide-eyed irrepressible enthusiasm was the Doctor's wide-eyed irrepressible enthusiasm and, like Pertwee, he brought an intensity to the role that enabled us to swallow even the most ludicrous of plots. And it was contagious. For the first time since William Hartnell, Doctor Who wasn't just a show that adults could watch with their kids, it was a show that adults could enjoy as much as their kids. No wonder both the BBC and the show's fans were worried about having to replace him.

Which brings us to the first episode of the new series starring Matt Smith. So, how did he measure up against his predecessors? To be honest he was not bad as the Doctor. Following Tennant was always going to be a difficult task and, for most of the episode, Smith seemed to be still in his shadow, imitating Tennant rather than playing the role his own way. He still has time to grow into the role, of course, and he may yet make it his own. In fact, I suspect that part of the problem may well have been that the script was written with Tennant's Doctor in mind, making it difficult for Smith to play any other way. We shall see. On the strength of one episode, I can't quite give him two thumbs up yet, but one thumb is certainly raised. The episode's frantically fast pace careered from pathos, to slapstick, to action and back again, without missing a beat. It was in short ... fun.

And much of the credit for that fun belongs to the performance of Karen Gillan as the Doctor's new assistant, strippergram (sorry, kiss-a-gram!) Amy Pond. Perhaps more than any other of the Doctor's assistants, Amy seems to be a refreshingly complex character. Having seen the Doctor as a child, she has something of Martha Jones's starry-eyed infatuation with him. Having been entranced by his seemingly fantastical stories she has something of Rose Tyler's star-struck wonder. But, most importantly, having spent years in therapy as a result, she has more than a little of Donna Noble's combative feistiness. She is, in short, all of her predecessors and yet none of them. She is a worthy successor and yet very much her own person. It may take a few episodes for Matt Smith to become his own Doctor but it seems that, while we're waiting, Karen Gillan is going to give the kind of performance that will ensure we hardly notice!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

DC Comics Super Hero Collection - Superman

By most accepted definitions, Superman is without a doubt the first and most iconic super hero. Fanboys may like to debate whether he or Batman is the best, the most successful or the most inspirational character in the DCU but, to the world at large, Superman defines the very concept of what a superhero is. Without him the comics industry would be very different to the one we know today.

The figurine made by Eaglemoss for the DC Comics Super Hero Collection is rather more caricatured than most of the other figurines, a huge barrel chest tapering down into an impossibly slim waist. This seems an odd decision given the realistic proportions of the other figurines in the series, but I suspect very few will complain. The Big Blue costume is such an instantly recognisable brand that you could dress pretty much anything in it and it would still be identifiable as belonging to Kal-El, the last son of Krypton.

The skin tight body-suit, the "underpants" worn on the outside, the insignia emblazoned across the chest and, of course, the cape - back in 1938, Siegel and Shuster supposedly based the costume on that of a circus strong man. These days, that's all but forgotten. It has been imitated so often by the rest of the super hero community that it now defines the entire super hero genre. Modern creators may try to vary the basic template by dropping the cape or losing the underpants but they seldom stray far from it.

If there's one thing that defines the super hero more than his costume, however, it's his superhuman "powers". And, over the years, Superman has acquired more than enough powers to equip a whole super team. The core abilities originally given to him by Siegel and Shuster are summarised neatly in his now legendary tag line: "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" You'll notice there's no mention of his various ocular abilities. No telescopic vision, no heat vision and no x-ray vision. Even more notable, however, is the fact that, back in the day, he leapt rather than flew. The power of flight was added to his array of powers later, when Superman was given his own radio show.

And this is where many, myself included, start to lose interest in the character. There is a feeling among many comic book fans that Superman is simply too powerful. His only weaknesses are kryptonite (also introduced by the radio show) and that weakest of all plot devices - magic. He is, in effect, a god. A character for whom no enemy is too powerful to defeat, no problem too difficult to resolve. Compared to the threats faced by other heroes, the dilemmas dreamt up by Superman's writers are ridiculously artificial and contrived. They have to be. What else could challenge a god?

That Superman remains so popular today is due in no small part, I think, to the fact that he clings to his secret identity as mild-mannered reporter (now editor?) Clark Kent. Readers might have difficulty relating to a man who can fly, but we can all relate to a socially inept Mr Average who never gets the girl (although why anyone would want to win the acid-tongued Lois of the 1930s is a mystery!) You see, as much as today's writers try to say otherwise, Superman is Clark Kent. Even when in costume, Clark's "nice guy" persona still wins through. The fashion may be for heroes to be dark and gritty but somewhere, inside all of us, we all want to know there are still people out there who are as good and as brave, as honest, as loyal and as decent as Clark. After all, even without the "super", that pretty much defines a hero.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Shades - sneak peek!

I've been serialising my graphic novel Shades on the Worldwide WonderWeb for a good few years now but, as it draws to an end, I'm having to give more and more thought to how I'm going to get this thing into print. At present, I'm planning two volumes: one with all the chapters drawn by Harsho Chattoraj and one with those by E.C. Nickel and Muamal Khairi.

This is a reduced size version of the design for the cover of Volume 2. To see the full size version, just click on the image. Pencils, inks and colours are all by E.C. Nickel (and don't they look marvellous?!)