Thursday, 20 March 2014

Comics: Series I Adore

I haven't blogged about comics for a while, so long that I don't remember the last time I did, to be honest.  As I've just successfully converted my housemate to the joys of Sleeper, I thought I'd throw something up about the series I actively follow. For the sake of my own sanity I'm going to avoid the bear pit that is superheroics as there's nothing I'm that invested in: though I am enjoying both Jonathan Hickman's Avengers and the Michael Bendis All New X-Men. Both are solid books with good writing (though I do worry that Bendis has done his usual make over job on the original five X-Men to a slight degree) and a solid Science Fiction core. Also, both books are taking risks, something that superhero books seldom do.

My main interest lies outside of the world of spandex and capes these days, and has done since DC decided to reboot their universe and completely change what I knew in their quest to appeal to people who grew up in the Sixties (only grimmer and with more weird lines).

Lock and Key comes from the pen of Joe Hill and features a family who are forced to move back across
America to Lovecraft, New England, when their father dies. The old family home has its stock of terrible secrets and one in particular is very interested in the family and in revenge. The teenage characters begin to peal back the layers of mystery surrounding their new home and the strange keys they find. It's a well crafted story, with a lot of darkness, both inner and outer, to pit the characters against and enough strange ideas for three series.

Sleeper is old now, it was published under the Wildstorm imprint when that was still a thing and is a strong, dark spy story with very little light in it. The protagonist has gone undercover in a crime organisation that's
growing at a worrying rate; his task to find a way to topple it from within. The problem is he doesn't know if he can trust his boss, John Lynch and there's a strong chance that he's just got in over his head. One thing I like about this is that the superpowers are pretty screwed up here, one character sickens unless she's deeply unpleasant to other people for instance and the sense of the protagonist existing in a wilderness of mirrors is well wrought.

Chew by contrast is bright, weird and brilliant. Set in a world where chicken is banned because of bird flu scares, our hero Tony Chu is able to see the past of anything he ingests. When he gets moved to a new agency he becomes involved in ever weirder investigations, mostly involving food (though a homicidal cockerel called Poyo is also involved). The strength here is in the imagination the creators bring to bear on the comic, filling it with ever weirder ideas that somehow just work perfectly.

Elephantmen is a lush European style book that I haven't read that much of. The premise is that a mad cult
created an army of hybrid soldiers (from elephants, rhinos, hippos and so on) during a war between Africa and China that left Europe a devastated wasteland. The comic picks up after the war, exploring how the characters fit into society and what they do now that they are no longer soldiers. Horrific images arrest the eye but at its heart this is a beautifully crafted piece about outsiders trying to fit in.

Perhaps one thing that seems a little strange is the relationships between the Elephantmen and the women around them. There's an uneasy tension, as three women that the series has focused on so far are obviously enamoured with the protagonists. The difference is size between the characters and the alieness of the Elephantmen is impossible to avoid.

Saga is a weird Science Fantasy book, set in outer space and filled with all sorts of wonderful things, like cats that know when you lie, trees that are rockets and a myriad of races are involved in a war that hasn't, as
far as I recall, been fully explained, but which looks rather like a space borne version of Heaven versus Hell (except the angels are fascists and the demons are horned magic hippy vikings). Well plotted and written, the book blossoms from the first page and gets its hooks into the reader quickly. It's probably the youngest series here and as far as I know it's still in the expansionary phase, building plots rather than tying them up. As the series grows it promises to be very good indeed.

Usagi Yojimbo should surely count as a classic, with simple art and masterful storytelling. I fear the world may be a bit 'childish' for a lot of readers, the characters are anthropmorphised animals after all and that often means that adults will dismiss the tactic as 'kids' stuff'. The writing however is solid and even though the protagonist is a hare, he's also a ronin (masterless samurai) with all that entails. Sam Sakai, the creator, draws on the richness of Japanese folklore and culture and its in part this that makes Usagi an all ages read rather than just something suitable for children

Hellboy is a revelation, taking pulp tropes and mixing them with a number of other wonderful ingredients, to
create something that has elements of horror, myth, conspiracy and the end of the world. The series is 20 this year and its longevity seems almost odd. The creator, Mike Mignola is an artist, only growing into writing as a result of Hellboy and the first series was penned by John Byrne (but let's not hold that against it). Over the years the series has grown, pushing its hero to battle increasingly dangerous threats and spinning off a sister series, BPRD. Mignola's world is convincingly dark and unpleasant, his heroes hold the line against a host of threats that could topple the 'natural order' (i.e. the one we like) and he doesn't flinch. Where most comics in the same vein would press the status quo button regularly, the Hellboy universe steadfastly moves towards its own Armageddon.

So there you have it, a few of the comic series I enjoy.

Birmingham: Second City or Second Best?

The School of Media at Birmingham City University have decided to start having a monthly debate. The first, held last Friday was about the status of Birmingham and the view the outside world has of the city. The panelists were the Mark Rogers new Chief Executive and Director of Economy, Pauline Geoghegan from the PoliticsinBrum (which doesn't seem to have been updated for a while), David Harte from the Bournville News, a hyperlocal site focusing on a part of Birmingham that gets little press coverage and Beverley Nielsen,  the director of BCU's Birmingham Made Me, which celebrates the city's innovation.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Diane Kemp, who was quick to explain that in some respects the topic had been chosen to reflect the recent coverage the city had received; all Peaky Blinders and Benefits Street. The question was, is that all Birmingham is? Is that the only way the city is seen?

The panel put forward a disparate set of views, to the Chief Executive the question was about the future, not about the past or even the present; it was a matter of where the city would be in a number of years' time. He stressed the city's diversity (there are 189 different communities within Birmingham) and depth of culture, throwing facts out. For instance Birmingham has the youngest population and the most visited REP theatre in the UK. He also stressed that the issue for him was not about being second city or second best, but whether Birmingham could be first rate.

Opposing views were automatically put forward, Pauline Geoghegan said the city was bruised and beleaguered in the difficult times, after a series of savage attacks from Westminster. She highlighted the vast levels of youth unemployment and the lack of proper engagement with the grass roots communities in the city.

Controversially David Harte argued that Birmingham wasn't even second, but more eighth or ninth city in the UK. He didn't see that as a bad thing, though it wasn't a popular opinion with most of the crowd. Later he explained that he welcomed the idea of Birmingham is so low because it makes the city more livable, keeping rents and costs down. He also welcomed the fact that Brummies are sceptical about rapid gentrification, citing Digbeth's gradual growth as a hub for designers and artists as an example. He railed against the idea that glitzy brands like John Lewis would save the city's economy and dismissed HS2 as something of a 'red herring'.

Beverley Nielsen stressed that within in her area Birmingham could be seen as first, so many brands and trades have grown from industrialisation and the growth of the city. she referred to the city as once being the 'city of a thousand trades' but now a 'city of a thousand brands'. It could be argued that Birmingham created branding back in 1707.  To her the ability to think outside the box was paramount and something Birmingham excelled at; the city sits at the heart of changing the world with its English design ethic.

Discussion turned to where the city might go, as members of the audience asked questions. There was discussion of the idea of 'Greater Birmingham', which was felt to be a way of 'cheating' our way to be second city by default (lest we forget, Birmingham is already the biggest local government area in Europe). Other panelist's gave the idea pretty short shrift, with a focus being put on partnership with the other cities in the West Midlands and the idea of Local Enterprise Partnerships to boost excellence across the region.

When a member of the audience asked what the city's unique selling point was, the panel stumbled a little. Mark Rogers said there wasn't one, but felt that was a strength as it avoided over specialisation, whilst David Hart argued that steps should be made, even if it was just to push to make Bournville a world heritage site and move outwards. Branding reared its head again, with the argument being put forward that its invention should be at least part of the city's claim to fame. There was a consensus that in many ways Marketing Birmingham, the outfit responsible for promoting the city did a poor job, though there is an argument that they're hampered that the airport and NEC; places strongly associated with Birmingham are actually geographically in Solihull.

One of the more interesting points was that Birmingham keeps its secrets. There are fascinating things going on but they're small, tucked away. The Custard Factory is a wonderful example of artisan businesses working together but its not a place that's splashed across the front page. Ditto Alum Rock, an area of the city that attracts people from all over the region to shop at the jewellery and spice shops. Compare that with the Jewellery Quarter, which is internationally renowned for its central product. At least one member of the audience said that this tendency to keep knowledge close isn't helpful, it doesn't help to sell the city, and to an extent that's true.

For me, the day underlined a number of truths. For a long time its seemed that the city is running to an imagined future, trying to get away from its history as quickly as it can; as if that has become an embarrassment. I can understand this move to an extent, but what use is a future if it has no foundations, which is surely all that will be achieved by severing the past so completely?

The point about Birmingham keeping its secrets rang a bell with me, but only to underscore that there isn't one city, but several. In many ways the face the city presents, of industry and science, is a mask to bring in new people and attract investment. What lies underneath in the communities and the little places that aren't bragged about, are the things that induce us to stay. In fact I'd say the mask of innovation is sometimes a deterrent - the veneer of big flashy brands cuts down on the interesting things that grow up from the streets after all. I can honestly say that the fact that brands like Aston Martin were created in Birmingham means little to me because I've never wanted an Aston Martin. In fact 'brand' says 'flashy and hollow' to me, and I don't want my home to be dominated by that, but by something of substance and integrity (as an aside, this is a tricky place to be, what are Doc Martens if not a brand?)

Returning to the debate, it was lively, fun and informative. I liked the fact that the university was stepping up to promote discussion and, dare we say it, intellectualism and I'm looking forward to the next one. Do come if you can.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Songs You Owe To Other People

A lot of the songs I like were 'given' to me by friends or family. Some come from when I started going out with Eve, others from meeting people like Bert Wolverson. The music these people gave me was very different from what I'd found for myself and provided new directions to explore. I wouldn't have  discovered these by myself, I don't think; apart from possibly the James track as I was a teenager at the time when the Indie explosion happened.

1) Deliverance by the Mission (Eve Weaver)

This is one of the songs that Eve gave me on a tape after we just started going out (it was after we'd played Mage, the songs were about magic, children and dreams - loosely modelled on the plot of the game). We were exchanging a lot of letters about all sorts of things. We were talking about if I was going to go Goth or not. The opening hit me in just the right place, electrifying me and I was hooked when the music spilled out.

2) Snake Dance by the March Violets (Cara McKee)

Another track from my time at Uni. Cara filled up about five tapes with songs by various bands, Rosetta Stone, Children on Stun, The March Violets and others. Snake Dance is the track that really stuck in my head and I adore it. I saw the March Violets at Eddies a few years ago and the song was even better live!

3) Holy Diver by Dio (Herbert Wolverson)

I didn't used to like Metal - not traditional stuff anyway. I loved the early Manics but nothing like Iron Maiden or Dio, or Alice Cooper. I met Bert through Eve and heard more stuff (it was sort of odd, I was in Ormskirk and he in Hulll but I consider him one of my best friends even now... and he's lived in the States for the past decade and a half). He did me a tape of Dio songs and this was the one that stuck, probably because it seems to be about a cat.

4) Sit Down by James (Jenny Staton)

When my sister went to Bristol University she came back with lots of new ideas and new music. Indie was catching on, but hadn't yet blossomed into Britpop.

5) Sword of Damocles by Lou Reed (Lesley and Trevor Davies)

The last song was another university find, when a friend impressed on me the importance of Lou Reed. They played a lot of Magic and Loss, the album about one of Lou's friends dying of cancer and whilst it's not a particularly cheerful it stuck with me, morbid little git that I am. As ever with Lou Reed, there are bonus points for just how dense and rich the lyrics are.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Madness Beckons: A Second Blog

In what seems like a moment... well more a few weeks of madness I've started to ponder launching a second blog, one that focuses on a single subject. The main reason for this is as a career move, I plan to try going freelance later this year, once the MA is done and I want something dedicated so that I can use it to hopefully get work; much as I love the Shores of Night blog it's become a bit of a dumping ground for everything and I think its probably best to start separating things out a bit.

This is despite the fact that I deleted my supposedly dedicated gaming blog, Hastur's Hamster at the start of the year because I just wasn't updating it.

Anyway, its something I'm considering and the next logical step is to ask 'what do I blog about?'

I initially pondered doing something about politics, not necessarilly talking about Westminster and the Houses of Parliament because there's tons of blogs doing that. Instead I was pondering looking at a more global perspective, asking if the nation state still has a place in the world or if its doomed to obsolescence as globalisation advances and umbrella groups like the EU, African Union and the like become stronger (I'd exclude the USA and Russia from this because to my mind they're already umbrella groups, albeit with stronger national identities). The other side of it would be to look more at political theory and what its based on. I fear this would be too dry and that the whole thing would cause me a headache, much as I love politics its one thing that brings out the worst in people and I'm not sure I need the hassle.

After that though, well I just don't know what to base blog 2 on. I've gathered a few ideas which I thought I'd list below.

1) The aforementioned politics blog
2) A history blog, which would be general and probably quite unfocused
3) A blog focusing on Fantasy as a genre (just to cheat, this could also be about horror or Science Fiction
4) A comics review blog - though I don't read as much as I used to and I generally pick up collections in a fairly eclectic fashion.
5) A random gaming blog (basically a re-rebirth of Hastur's Hamster)
6) A review blog for RPGs.
7) Another gaming blog, this time dedicated to building either a new setting or putting together things for a specific game or system. As I've already done a couple of bits for Call of Cthulhu, I suspect I'd continue in that vein, or try to put together pieces for a World of Darkness game.
8) Lastly for RPGs a blog dedicated to single campaign, in terms of play and development; which is a nice idea but.... I'm not gaming at the moment and I don't know when I will be again as I have to look for a new group (I left mine at the end of last year over a few issues, amongst them communication and gaming style). If I were to do this I'd like it to be based on a game of All For One: Regime Diabolique, Esoterrorists, Numenera or Mage the Awakening (or Ascension) at the moment. As I'm picking up Unknown Armies 2nd edition soon and thinking I might get Mongoose's version of Traveller, that might change.
9) A book review site, which probably means separating out the reviews I do here.
10) A subculture blog, which would be general but would probably lean towards Punk and its successor movements.
11) A blog dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos
12) Related to 11, I suppose, something to do with folklore and legend, especially around the UK and the Midlands.
13) A Birmingham based blog, with the idea of doing something on psychogeography - if I can find something to do beyond travelling round on the 11 bus route (there must be other options but at the moment I'm stumped).
14) Soemthing similar to 13 but with a focus on Urban Fantasy. The genre focuses on London (for obvious reasons) in the UK and it would be nice to see if I could build an Urban Fantasy version of my home city, especially if I can do it without resorting to cliches about monsters in the back alleys. Both the ideas are about seeing the city in new ways, and would get me walking and exploring more which can't be a bad thing.
15) Another idea with regards to history - but with a lot more focus on the Victorian period in the West Midlands.
16) A Steampunk culture blog looking at books, films and games in the genre (and probably asking the question, what is Steampunk?*)
17) A flash fiction blog, possibly returning to the Kingsford story I was writing here and giving it, it's own home, but equally possibly writing little horror stories.
18) Returning to a more outward facing, political idea, something about men and the experience of being male in the UK in the 21st century. Whilst this would be interesting on some levels my instinct is that it's a non starter and best left to someone like Ally Fogg over at the Guardian.

And that's it (there were originially 20 ideas but some of them really just fit into other ideas too neatly to stand on their own). I've avoided subjects like sex because, to be honest, I don't want to talk about that in public (old prude that I am).

There are obviously issues around time, energy and motivation and obviously the new blog  has to be about a topic I love rather than something that will drag and become a millstone. For that reason I'm veering more towards a creative topic than one that will require a lot of research.

What do you think, any suggestions?

*Which seems to be the question that vexes most people, Steampunk is nothing if not versatile and hard to pin down.