Thursday, April 19, 2018

Paperbacks From Hell: The sweet smell of rot

The mass-market horror paperback novels of the 1970s and 1980s were, by their very definition, disposable. They were designed to be read once on boring commutes or long flights, usually by somebody who was a bit embarrassed to be reading something so crass, and then discarded. Nobody ever went for literary immortality by writing about giant killer crabs.

The books have had a long half-life in second hand bookstores over the years, but nobody really collects this stuff - absolutely nobody is hugely interested in The Collected Works of Shaun Hutson - and they are slowly starting to rot away, out of both physical existence and their place in the history of the novel.

But they're not totally forgotten, not when there are books like Grady Hendrix's recent Paperback From Hell, which traces the history of this sordid sub-genre from its birth from a flailing romance book industry, through to a quiet end as any kind of cultural force somewhere in the 1990s.

Hendrix is undoubtedly enthusiastic about all the nasty shit that showed up on bookshelves over the years, but also doesn't hesitate to point out that there is a lot that is insanely problematic about many of these books - they often dish up lashings of rampant sexism and homophobia, and frequently veer into outright and unmistakable misogyny.

But there are also crazy, mind-bending ideas and plots that are totally bonkers and utterly unpredictable, and loads and loads of gorgeous cover art from the likes of the astonishing Jill Bauman or the iconic Jim Thiesen.

A lot of people would argue that there is no way these books can be intellectually or morally healthy for anybody, but I devoured this kind of thing when I was in my teens, and other than the usual despair over our meaningless existences in this vast and cold universe, I think I turned out okay.

So many of the sub-genres Hendrix exhumes from their literary graves for Paperbacks From Hell are queasily familiar - there are all the books about heavy metal-laced satanic cults, and novels about the horror lurking beneath the pastel surface of stifling suburbia (a theme that is always massively disturbing in its banality). There are novels about alien abductions, killer hospitals, haunted houses, collapsing cities, creepy-ass children, and sick, demented twists on the usual vampires and werewolves.

There were slightly less gory books for young adults and some surprisingly hardcore novels for snobby adults who were above all that unpleasantness, but didn't mind digging into Silence of the Lambs when it was marketed as a thriller. There were blockbuster chills from authors like King and Barker, and a huge numbers of books about nature gone wrong, with killer rabbits, bees, ants, slugs, pigs, dogs and cats. (I always had an inexplicable soft spot for Guy N Smith's Crabs novels, but James Herbert's Rats books were the undeniable best.)

All these nightmares - and many, many more - are lurking within the pages of Paperbacks From Hell, and it's a compelling compendium of these gruesome tomes, while never taking these things too seriously.

These objects have a half-life of about 30 years, and are even starting to disappear from the faded shelves and deep backrooms of second hand bookstores, (also, second-hand stores are disappearing themselves as the secondary markets go online). But there will always be some glorious freak who is determined to get their hands on every book in the Satan Sleuth series, and plenty of others who are happy just to read about them instead.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Real life gets in the way

I really should be writing more about some of the weird wonderful things I've read and watched lately, because while indulging in the dorkiest of fiction doesn't fill the emptiness inside me, it does help, and writing about it helps even more.

Instead, I'm busy fuming about the waiter at a fancy cafe downtown who made fun of me the other day for having two menu items with strawberries in them, like it was the funniest fucking thing he'd ever heard of, and I just can't let it go. I just really fucking like strawberries, I don't need any berry-shame to go with them, thanks.

And then there is the mysterious fuckhead who straight up stole a bottle of wine from me on Friday night, and I really do feel like my building up the world's lamest rogue's gallery. 

I really need to get a life, because I think this current one is getting too petty to go on for much longer.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The ABC Warriors: Time is a flat circle

The mighty Pat Mills has been telling the adventures of the ABC Warriors in 2000ad for decades now, with the story sticking to the same core cast of robotic warriors, while also evolving in strange new directions.

Mills' ABC saga has had several iterations, while always remaining absolutely true to the writer's themes and ideas - the original Ro-Busters stories were a savage metaphor for the persecution of the working class, the Warriors got all Khaotic in the late 1980s and 1090s, and the characters are still trying to increase the peace in current issues.

The Warriors are a bunch of violent robotic crusaders, but there simplicity means they can handle a huge variety of stories, and Mills has always been a fiercely inventive writer, only too willing to take them to new places.

It has helped that there has been astonishing art on this story over the years - comic masters Mike McMahon, Ian Kennedy and Dave Gibbons defined the personalities of their robotic cast in the early days, Simon Bisley showed the world what he could do with his sleek, oiled and muscular efforts a decade later, while Clint Langley's mecha-gothic fumetti are a perfect fit for the modern era.

But it's always been Mills' story, and in recent years that has branched out in some odd new directions, while spiraling back in on itself at the same time - recent issues of 2000ad ended up telling two ABC Warriors stories at once, from both ends of the characters' histories. It's the sort of thing that could only work in a long-running anthology like 2000ad, while high-lighting the writer's great versatility.

A few years ago, Mills returned to the Invasion storyline that was in 2000ad's very first issue with Savage, telling a far grittier and more political story of an invasion of Britain. The title character is still a complete nutter with a shotgun, just like he always was, but has ended up blasting away at the entire military-industrial complex as well as the hapless Vogan grunts. The most recent volumes have seen the way the ABC Warriors were introduced to the world, right up to specific characters like the dastardly General Blacklood. This is where their eternal war begins.

Meanwhile, in the very same issue, Mills and Langley are dealing with the same robots thousands of years in their future, where after many, many adventures across all of time and space, they are starting to turn on each other, as if it's the the logical conclusion to their never-ending efforts to make the universe a better place. The two stories even feature the same character in the odious industrialist Howard Stark, shortly after his human body has been destroyed and his brain shoved into a robotic body, and years later, hoarding gold after spreading his greed across the galaxy.

It's a fascinating way of telling two new stories, the kind of storytelling you can only have with the longevity and flexibility of something like 2000ad. Even though they feature the same characters, the Savage and ABC Warriors strips are dealing with totally different themes, styles, ideas and goals, while still being part of the same mega-story Mills has been telling since 1978.

Mills comics are as cleaver and intelligent as they have ever been and he's still a writer who has never met a pun he didn't like - his key duo is named after the world's most famous musical creators. And after all these years, he's still incredibly inventive - there is a plot device in Savage which is used as both a torture instrument and an explanation for the sudden explosion in sci-fi concepts in the world, while still remaining true to the gritty vision of the author.

After all this time, it's still brilliant to see Mills can still come up with new ways to tell his stories, and his strips remain a vital ingredient in 200ad's ongoing success. He's not stopping anytime soon - the writer is pumping out both factual and fictional histories of the modern British comic scene, and there have been promises that a Joe Pineapples series by Bisley is on the way (although very, very slowly - and Mills still isn't afraid to mix everything up, and tell the same story from both ends.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Leftovers: Nobody is doing this alone

When you're going through an awful bereavement period, The Leftovers is either the very best or very worst TV show to be binge watching. I burned through the first couple of seasons in days just recently and I'm still not sure yet.

Behind that staggeringly high concept of the show - an unexplained event where two percent of the world's population suddenly vanish - and a pleasing unwillingness to explain any of its mysteries, The Leftovers is full of weird, weighty themes and post-modern analysis of our culture, and is about family and home and our place in the universe.

Most of all, for this suffering soul at least, it is about grief and the human ability to deal with it. It's something we all go through - we all lose people we love at some point in our long and tragic lives. And when it happens to you, it can be so fucking traumatic that it can genuinely make you feel like nobody else has ever suffered it in the whole history of humankind.

There is almost always close family and friends, usually all stuck in the same spiral of sadness and depression, and you get through it all together, but you also get through it because everybody else you know isn't broken, and they pull you back to the real world by showing that life goes on, no matter how much your heart hurts.

But in The Leftovers, everybody is broken at the same time, and it breaks society, leading to things like doom cults making everybody else miserable until they are annihilated. One character loses her mother the day before the big event and her grief is outright stolen, and when the whole world is grieving some kind of loss, nobody gets to recover properly and is lost in their bereavement. (The few people who have just got over it and can't figure out what all the fuss is about inevitably appear appallingly hollow and wrong.)

It's an awful fate for any one person, let alone an entire society. Thank goodness we haven't to deal with such a huge and sudden tragedy in the real world, or I know we'd be just as broken.

Still, for all despair and desperation, it's an easy show to slam through. It's brilliantly acted - it's a goddamn mystery why Carrie Coon isn't the biggest actor in the world, Justin Therox does the best terrible karaoke scene in history and Liv Tyler is an absolute revelation. The writing can be maddening, but in the best possible way, throwing out the rule-books on structure and destiny an following its ridiculous premise out to its full and fulsome end.

It's also really funny and surprising, and comes packed with indulgent dream and afterlife sequences  that are also horribly familiar, because I'm still dreaming about my dead dad every night, and talking to him in hyper-real and impossible situations, every time I lie down to sleep. (Also, one of the last things my Dad ever said to me was that everything was so bloody weird where he was, and I can't stop thinking about that.)

The otherwordly moments could be accused of being weird for weird's sake - a criticism I always hate with a passion, because that's what weird should be - but they're just another reminder of this painful process we all have to face, and all have to deal with.

Because we're not alone. The whole world isn't broken after a personal loss, it just feels that way. You don't have to go far to see how truly horrible it would be if the world was really that shattered, because it's there in every frame of The Leftovers.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Dad was no nerd

When I was 16 or so, my Dad went to the pub with one of closest mates and told him he was worried about me. Like a lot of teenagers trying to figure out their place in the world, I was a hardcore nerd and Dad couldn't understand why I wasn't more interested in chasing girls and drinking beer, like all the other boys did.

He shouldn't have worried. Within a couple of years I was throwing up in the back of his new car after drinking too many cheap jugs of beer at the Mosgiel darts club, and I've been married to a wonderful woman for 11 years. I never stopped being a fucking dork, I just worked out I could still get pissed and talk to girls, while also being slightly obsessed with Legion of Super-Heroes comics.

Dad didn't understand why I wouldn't throw away my old X-Men issues, or why I spent all day in the second hand bookstore looking for the last Hardy Boys book I needed. He knew he had to tell me not to get a Star War when I got sent to the video store to get something for the family to watch, but he never really got why I could watch Return of the Jedi over and over and over again.

He could still be sightly dorky himself – Dad had a particular fondness for Strontium Dog stories in 2000ad (although he was never into things like Halo Jones), and I'm pretty sure he saw every z-grade ninja film from the 1980s. He just never really gave a shit about these things, never really got obsessed with anything. It wasn't his style.

While Dad was always a bit baffled by how much of a goddamn geek I was, the important things is that he never judged me for it. Sometimes he even encouraged it – I knew exactly how many beers he had to drink at a family barbecue before I could hit him up for the $4.25 I needed for the latest issue of Excalibur, and he never ever told me to get rid of all these bloody books and comics and videos I had, even when they started filling boxes and boxes that he had to cart between the houses we lived in.

This acceptance of my terrible nerdiness was just a tiny part of the reason I loved that man. He was loyal to a fault, a fantastic role model and the best boss I ever had. He didn't know how to lie and had a strong handshake, right up to the end.

Dad died a few weeks ago and this world is a shittier place without him in it.

I only found out about his concerns with my teenage dorkiness when his old mate got up and talked at the funeral service, but I'm so glad I got to show him he had nothing to worry about.

Despite his concerns, he let me be who I wanted to be, no matter where that road took me, and it all turned out okay. Rest easy, old fella.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A month at the movies #29: Army of Darkness

The future apocalypse ending might be the original one, but the s-mart showdown is still my all-time favourite last scene.

I remain convinced that every film ever made would be better if it ended with ‘Hail to the king, baby’.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A month at the movies #28: Singing in the Rain

There is a revisionist take on Signing In the Rain that could be made these days, where poor Lina Lamont is a star trying to make it in the world of the talking movies, only to be crushed by the cruelty of the masses laughing at her distinctive New York voice, (which really doesn’t sound that bad to modern ears – at least her tones have got a lot more personality than the smooth, dulcet tones of everybody else).

From Lana’s perspective, the main characters in the film are conceited little shits, undermining her life’s work with cheerful sneers and dancing feet.

You could make a movie about that these days, but it would still pale in comparison to the original, because holy cow, these kids could move.

Gene Kelly is one of the great movie dancers of the 20th century, and he and Donald O’Connor throw themselves across the screen with joyful abandon, making it all look so effortless as they glide over chairs and shuffle their feet sideways. Debbie Reynolds keeps up with the boys with great enthusiasm, holding her own in the most energetic scenes. Sixty-six years on, and the movie is still alive with their shenanigans.

I made the mistake of watching La La Land not long after this, and the new guys were pretty smooth, but they didn’t have that raw, powerful and uninhibited energy of their predecessors. Chances are, nobody else ever will.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A month at the movies #27: Raw

My favourite film of last year was almost certainly Raw, the heart-warming tale of cannibalism at a French veterinary school.

I just really like any film that properly commits to its premise, and doesn’t wimp out when that goes to strange and graphic places. Raw takes a fairly ridiculous idea – a young vegetarian develops a sudden taste for human flesh in her first year away from home – and goes all the fucking way with it, no matter how unpleasant or baffling it gets.

The scene that starts off with the world’s clumsiest Brazilian wax, halfway through the film, and just gets more and more ridiculous and crazy, is so good and so unexpected and goes to places few other film would touch. When so many screenwriters are stuck in the predictability of the bullshit three-act structure, it’s so nice to have a movie that is so unpredictable, and so rewarding.

It’s a cold, grey film that still throbs with spilled blood, and repression breaks out into animal-level murder. It’s not a movie I can see myself watching over and over again, because it is genuinely disturbing at times. But in the sea of blandness that is modern cinema, anything that can get any kind of a reaction – even if it is just nausea – is something to be treasured. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A month at the movies #26: Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s masterpiece has come out in several different versions since it was released nearly a century ago, and I’ve seen three of them, but my heart always belongs to the one I first saw - the one with the pop/synth soundtrack from Giorgio Moroder that came out in the 1980s.

It splashes colour across the screen and cuts up classic scenes, but it’s also got Freddie Mercury, and hits that sweet spot in where an unmistakable masterpiece bashes up against something corny and dopey, and I’m always down for that shit.