Friday, 23 September 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.1

Tremayne (Part 1)

The cold, early morning sunlight cast a watery amber sheen over the grey tiled roofs of Tremayne. The light hadn't yet managed to seep into the narrow alley ways of the Shanty District, and even the wide open area that was the market square seemed reluctant to cast off the dank shadows that clung to its eastern side.

The sun had been up for barely an hour, but already a few early morning customers were beginning to drift into the square. They hugged their capes tightly around them, hunching their backs against the sharp bite of the early salt breeze that wafted inland from the harbour.

Perrick knew these people. They were the same in every town. Always the first to leave their houses, they threaded their way like predators between the stalls which had been set up while the market square still huddled under the blanket of the previous night's darkness. They'd peer and prod inquisitively at the colourful merchandise on display. These were not casual shoppers. These were men and women with business to conduct: local shopkeepers looking to replenish their stocks; keen-eyed collectors hoping to spot a rare item before any of their rivals; and the occasional government official on the lookout for anyone attempting to trade illegally.

"Fifteen," said Perrick, trying to sound welcoming but finding his voice not quite able to shrug off the gruffness he felt at having to be up and about at that unnatural time of the morning.

The woman who'd been handling a glass ball among the jumble of curiosities at the far end of his stall looked up at him, apparently startled. In sharp contrast to the other grey-shrouded shoppers, she wore a full-skirted dress and had a lace shawl pulled over her head. The shawl was a deep shade of green, beaded with tiny red stones. The dress was golden and, even in the pale grey light of the early morning, it shimmered as she turned to face him.

"Shillings?" she asked. "For this? Fifteen shillings for a paperweight?" She was, even to a Tharn like himself, strikingly attractive. A mane of wild, black hair tumbled out from beneath the shawl and nestled around her shoulders, as sleek as if newly painted in ink. Her skin radiated an inner warmth at odds with the time of day.

Perrick smiled as warmly as he could. If there was a trade to be done here, he needed to be a lot sharper than he was currently feeling.

"Ah, but that isn't a paperweight," he corrected her with a practised smile. "It was made in Grielle, a small island far to the north of here. A rich, luxuriant island full of exotic mystery. What you have in your hand there, is known locally as a witchglobe."

The woman laughed, and his head filled with the sound of a dozen tiny bells strung on a fine silver cord.

"Well, now I know you're teasing me," she said. "You surely don't mean to tell me you believe in witches? A well-travelled man such as yourself?"

"I'm just telling you what I know," Perrick protested, his face a picture of hurt. "I assure you, I bought that globe from one of my most trusted trading partners. And he'd just returned from Grielle, not three months before." He was a thin man but tall, perhaps a little under seven feet and, like many other men and women from the island of Tharn, had turned bald before the age of thirteen. In a sweeping, theatrical gesture, he bent at the waist and bowed low, bringing his angular, bird-like face closer to hers. Then, in a low, conspiratorial voice he added: "You know, it's said the women of Grielle use witchglobes to enhance their natural beauty. Now that's worth fifteen shillings, surely?"

The woman laid one hand on his arm. As heavily wrapped against the cold as he was, he could feel its warmth through the sleeve of his long, leather coat. His skin tingled. Then, with graceful ease, she slipped the shawl from her head and let it drape over her shoulders. She was shorter than Perrick, barely reaching his shoulders, and she had to tilt her head to look up into his eyes. Hers, he noticed, were green; her pupils large, impossibly black and speckled with tiny points of light like stars.

"Are you saying my beauty is in need of enhancement?" she chided him. "Don't you think that's a mite ... ungallant?"

"No, I ..." Perrick groaned inwardly. Instinctively he knew he'd allowed her to seize the advantage. He was on the defensive now. He couldn't afford to let the other traders see him bested, or he'd be a target for every chiseller looking for an easy mark. He needed to get her away from his stall as quickly and as quietly as possible. "Look," he countered, "you can have it for twelve, okay? Twelve shillings and not a penny less. Even as a paperweight, it's worth that."

"Ten," she said, still smiling. "And that's only because I liked your story about witches. Why, Tad Lerman's got a stall full of pretty objects I could use as paperweights, and not a one of them costs more than eight."

Perrick looked down at the woman's face. He couldn't remember the last time someone had so comprehensively outmanoeuvred him. There was no denying her eyes were exceptionally beautiful, but he'd been in the game long enough to be on his guard against a pretty face.

"Fine," he conceded. "Ten. But don't come back tomorrow looking for more bargains. Go do your shopping at Tad Lerman's. Ruin his business instead."

The woman dropped the globe into the small green bag hanging from her wrist. She took a ten shilling note from her purse and folded it into Perrick's hand.

"It's been a pleasure," she said and pulled her shawl back up over her head, the red stones glinting briefly, like so many eyes winking mischievously at his scarcely concealed irritation. With a swish of her skirts, the woman turned on her heel and began walking away towards the stalls lined up on the far side of the square. Perrick felt his mood blacken as he watched her go.

This was one trade he had no intention of sharing with the rest of the crew. If Naylor heard he'd been out-haggled by some over-dressed woman from a backward island like Tremayne, he’d make his life a misery all the way from here to Brael.


(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, 16 September 2011

DC's Fifty-two Number Ones

The DCnU - plus ca change; plus c'est la meme chose.Generally speaking, I'm not a buyer of pamphlet comics. I'm one of those annoying "wait-for-the-trades" type of people. I'm with those who believe the vast majority of mainstream monthly titles are poor value for money, containing far too few pages and far too many splash pages; that they are constrained by far too rigid an observance of continuity; and that they rely far too heavily on gimmicks, crossovers, and "events" in place of good story-telling.

When DC announced its intention to repackage all its titles and relaunch them as fifty-two new "Number 1s", I was as sceptical as anyone that the editorial teams really understood what they needed to do in order to grow their readership; to attract readers like me and - more importantly - new, younger readers. But I wanted to be wrong. I wanted so much to be wrong that I even broke the reading habits of several decades and sought out a whole bunch of the new Number 1s launched this week. I've not read them all yet, but here are my thoughts on those I have. As you'll see ... I've yet to be convinced that anything has really changed!

Superman trades his underpants for a pair of blue jeans. But keeps his cape. Jerk!Action Comics - At the very end of Justice League #1, Superman made an entrance. He only had one line but that line seemed to characterise him as an arrogant jerk. Not as arrogant a jerk as Green Lantern was in that title, but then GL had more pages to show just how arrogant a jerk he could be.

Here, Superman has many more lines and far more pages to show us his real personality. And guess what? He's not only every bit as arrogant a jerk as GL, he's also every bit as psychotic and heavy-handed as Batman. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that his first story arc will see him dropping those personality traits and becoming more like the nice guy he was pre-relaunch. If he doesn't, I can see this Superman failing miserably. As it stands, this title is going to have readers rooting for Lex Luthor and booing and hissing every time Big Blue makes an appearance.

Oh, and just as an aside, why bother dressing the main character in every day jeans and a t-shirt, if you're also going to tuck a red cape into his collar? Awful. 3/10

Still a second string hero.Green Arrow - solid but, ultimately, very ordinary superhero fare. Essentially this is one extended fight sequence, but one which also delivers a whole bunch of exposition, introducing us to GA's alter ego as Oliver Queen and two members of his support team. (I do like my super heroes to have a support team!)

The only other feature of any note is that this comic possibly has more women in micro-skirts than anywhere outside of a Bruce Timm cartoon.

Overall, it's passable enough, but does nothing to answer the big question: did a second-string hero like GA really warrant his own title or, the editorial decision having been made to launch no less than fifty-two new titles, is he just there to make up the numbers? 6.5/10

Imitation. The sincerest (and most unoriginal) form of flattery.Detective Comics - completely lacking in originality and seemingly designed specifically to alienate young readers.

The dialogue and artwork in this title are both far too reminiscent of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. One or two panels, I'm sure have simply been copied wholesale from DKR. A deliberate homage, or just an uninspired piece of plagiarism? I'd like to go with the homage theory, but the comic borrows so heavily in just about every department, that it's difficult to be charitable.

It's hard to believe that, a quarter of a century after Miller's seminal book, DC's editors and writers are still trying to copy its "grim and gritty" violence, and still haven't learned anything that it had to offer in terms of wit, characterisation and story-telling. 3.5/10

Batman in Africa. Where everyone speaks fluent simile.Batwing - one sign of just how stale the superhero universes of both DC and Marvel have become is the fact that they continue to rely on resurrecting age-old characters and seem to have little success in introducing new characters. Batwing is a reflection of DC's self-doubt. Nominally, he is a new character but, in reality, he isn't. He's just Batman in Africa.

He's mentored by Batman, dresses like Batman and, in this first issue, the writing is so sparse he isn't even allowed to show any kind of individual personality. When characters are allowed to speak, they spout the kind of risible similes that haven't been attributed to native Africans since the days of Rider Haggard. Where a western murder victim would cry simply "No!" or "Don't!", the writer here apparently believes an African would be more likely to say: "I do not want to be butchered like a cow."

The presence of gratuitous gore, including close-ups of a bloody machete thrust through a chest and severed heads, will ensure that this title does little to open up the DCU to newer, younger readers. 5/10

Recovering from a broken spine? Hey, anything Batman can do ...!Batgirl - the best of the Bat-books (so far). There are problems with this title but, compared to the very low standard of the others, they're small.

Gail Simone has the unenviable task of persuading us that, just three years after being shot in the spine, Barbara Gordon is now able not just to walk again, but to swing from rooftops and trade blows with the scum of Gotham's underworld. (Oh, well, at least she isn't returning from the dead!) Ironically, this ludicrous premise is also a source of the book's strength. It means that - unlike Batwing or the Batman in Detective Comics - Batgirl has a backstory which adds depth and context to her actions.

It's not perfect. Some of the scene shifts are clumsily handled, and Batgirl's admission that she feels fear comes far too late in her opening battle to be credible. By then, the cocky, self-assured comments she's already made during the entire fight, make the admission sound like an afterthought on the part of the writer, rather than an integral part of the character's mindset. Still ... at least she says it. 7.5/10

1980s mullet meets 1970s mohawk in a 1960s throwback. Now with added Kirby dots!O.M.A.C. - like GA #1, this is very ordinary stuff. Despite the glossy digital colouring, the artwork is very reminiscent of Silver Age Marvel. Facial expressions and body shapes all seem to belong to an earlier time. One huge panel even features vast laboratory tanks filled with a glowing green liquid and - wait for it - Kirby dots! Nostalgics may get a buzz out of that but, sadly, the storytelling is as dated as the artwork.

By the end of the issue the reader has only really learned one thing: mild mannered Kevin Koh is the incredible Hulk. Or at least a version of the Hulk called OMAC that's part machine and controlled by a sentient space station known as (yes, you guessed it!) Brother Eye. A Brother Eye which, despite being the most advanced mechanical brain ever invented, rather annoyingly still spells "I" as "Eye", just as its equally annoying pre-relaunch predecessor did. You'd have thought a genius inventor might have installed a rudimentary spell-checker among all that other software that must be in there.

Oh, and OMAC sports a hairstyle that's part mohawk and part mullet. I've taken an extra half a point off for that. 4.5/10

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 - a space Cadillac with missiles!Back in 1962, before Thunderbirds had put an orbiting space station around the Earth, before Captain Scarlet had ventured as far as Mars and incurred the wrath of the Mysterons, before Dave Bowman and HAL had embarked on Kubrick's epic odyssey to Jupiter, and before James T Kirk had taken the U.S.S. Enterprise out to explore the final frontier, Earth was protected from all manner of alien invaders by the puppets of the World Space Patrol and its flagship Fireball XL5.

Now mostly forgotten by all except the most avid fans of scifi-themed TV and those of us of *ahem* a certain age, Fireball may well be the reason I'm still a fan of all things scifi to this day. At five years old I may have been too young to be aware of Kennedy's historic "We choose to go to the moon" speech, but I was certainly old enough to be captivated by the adventures of Colonel Steve Zodiac and his crew.

Steve Zodiac with punningly named Matt Matic and Robert the see-through robotAnd what a crew! As well as Zodiac himself (the "greatest astronaut of Space Patrol"), the ship boasted a beautiful French "doctor of space medicine" Doctor Venus, resident boffin Professor Matt Matic and a wonderfully perspex co-pilot Robert the Robot. At some point they also seem to have acquired an alien pet, Zoonie the Lazoon, an obvious forerunner of Debbie, the monkey-like pet acquired by Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.

Viewed through today's eyes, the show is very much a product of its time. Not only was it initially made in black and white, it had only the most fleeting of relationships with scientific fact. A simple "oxygen pill", for example, was sufficient not only to allow the crew to breathe outside the ship, but also to protect them from the cold and every other rigour associated with surviving in the vacuum of space!

Venus - doctor of space medicine and doer of laundry!In addition, some of the dialogue seems designed specifically to outrage even the most non-militant of feminists. In the first episode Doctor Venus is seen preparing the crew's meal and is frequently asked to make coffee. By episode 4, we learn she spends her off-duty hours "sewing on buttons and doing the laundry" for Steve and Matt. Wow. Imagine Star Trek's Doctor McCoy being asked to wash the unmentionables of Kirk and Spock!

But the selling point of the show was never meant to be its realism or its characters. As with Gerry Anderson's other shows like Supercar (which preceded it), Stingray and Thunderbirds (both of which came later), the real star was the vehicle: Fireball XL5 itself. Fireball was a spaceship. Not a flying cruise liner like the Enterprise or Voyager; not a utilitarian hulk like the Nostromo; Fireball was an honest-to-goodness 1960s cylindrical rocket, complete with a detachable bullet-shaped nose-cone, wings and a tail fin. It was Thunderbird 1 - but even more cool; a space Cadillac with missiles!

Look - it's the future! In a box!Thanks to the modern miracle that is DVD, all 39 episodes can now be seen again. As indeed can the puppets' strings! If you thought Team America was only spoofing Thunderbirds, the Fireball XL5 box-set will really open your eyes.

Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet may represent the high-point and best-known of Gerry Anderson's creations featuring scifi-themed marionettes but, as these episodes demonstrate, all the key ingredients were already in place as early as 1962. The corny dialogue, the jerky movements, the laughable foreign accents ... yes, they're all there.

But most of all, so are the wonderful machines and the sense of excitement; the sense that Anderson was creating a brand new form of entertainment for children and instilling in them a fascination with the future that would last a lifetime. A sense, as Kennedy might have said, that Anderson was choosing to send his puppets to the moon, not because it was easy; but because it was fun!