Lights, camera, music! Score: a Film Music Documentary

Score: a Film Music Documentary,

Directed by Matt Schrader

Music and cinema, two of my favourite things in life, and when combined those visuals flickering on the screen, the narrative, the actors, the dialogue and the music create something which is, when it really works, far greater than the sum of its parts. Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ score? Or the magic he brought to Jaws (Spielberg often remarked with all the effects problems with the mechanical shark models Williams’ iconic theme became the shark the visual effects couldn’t give him)? Or that Superman theme, that dum de de dum dumm dumm building rapidly to that triumphant, suitably heroic theme that makes you want to “do the Superman”, rip open your shirt to show that big S, so empowering, magical, inspiring, so perfectly in symbiosis with the visuals. Just a few bars from any of those themes is instantly iconic, we hear it and the magic of that film moment fills us. A few notes of it added to a comedy sketch works the same magic, it’s instantly recognisable and comes with a built-in recognition and series of memories and emotions.

And that’s only three examples from one – albeit masterful – composer. Score talks to, well a score or more (sorry) of contemporary composers, and this includes a large number of have worked on some of our favourite sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics-based movies, from Bear McCreary to Hans Zimmer, about their work, their inspirations, how they collaborate with directors and other musicians, from rousing themes like Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean to musicians who are generally seen as working outside the soundtrack composition world but who have been invited in, like Trent Reznor, bringing fascinating new ideas, rhythms, energies and passion to the world of film music, to its betterment.

(Hans Zimmer discussing his craft in Score)

That notion of change and evolution is strong in Score; while much of the running time, understandably, talks to contemporary composers – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and many more – about their craft, and commenting on the works of others they admire, past and present, the film also takes in the ever-changing nature of film music. From the mighty King Kong in the 1930s, a pioneer not just in visual effects but in using a full symphony orchestra to score the movie (that fabulous music as Kong scales the Empire State Building) – bear in mind at that point the “talkie”, the sound movie, was only a few years old, this was inventing new ways of storytelling for a new medium (although as the film also points out, even the preceding “silent” movies were never truly silent, there was always at least a piano playing along to them, or the famous Wurlitzer organ, or a small chamber orchestra in some cinemas, while some silent films had visual cues for those musical accompaniments – think Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, for example).

Like many things today we are so used to the notion of a film with carefully composed music being part of its fabric that it is easy to forget someone had to come up with these ideas originally, then others developed them, they became the standard approach. Then others would come along and shake that approach up with something new and fresh – that fabulous, then contemporary jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire replacing the notion of the symphonic suite to huge effect, a burning, modern, sexual, jazz that went with the story and visual so perfectly evoking and enhancing the mood, the feeling on levels that work beyond those paired with the visuals.

(the Air Studio in a converted London church)

The methods used for inspiration, for creation and recording are discussed, from hearing natural sounds and wondering how they might translate into music for a piece to feeling their way through how to translate that sound in their head into something tangible, experience and artistic intuition telling them how to continue, be it a simple, short piece that may be best on a solo piano to some great, iconic theme that requires a full orchestra (and then how to set up and record that orchestra, which space to use, how to deploy it, the changes in post production, so many choices that can make totally different sounds and feeling to the resulting music), or something new, digital electronica or contemporary jazz or rock or dance beats. There’s technical discussion, but mostly what comes across from all of these musicians is passion for their work, for what it adds to the cinematic medium, and the respect and admiration many of them show for the work of other musicians, contemporary and those who went before.

(Bear McCreary experimenting with different instruments and sounds)

This takes in a huge swathe of film music history, and of course it includes many of our beloved fantastical genres that have featured score which have become iconic – think on that intricate music for Inception, the big, brassy, sassy, swaggering music for James Bond, that Jaws theme, Mad Max, Close Encounters, Psycho, the Avengers movies, that great, swelling Lord of the Rings theme (and all the smaller character themes that weave through key moments). I play a lot of soundtracks when working in the Blogcave, and even divorced from the film they still inspire me, enthuse me, play with my emotions and the best ones, even played on their own, evoke memories of some of my favourite film moments, from Star Wars to Dunkirk. Score captures that feeling the music creates in us as the audience, how the finest soundtracks live in our heads afterwards, and that wonderful magic that happens when amazing musicians and remarkable film-makers come together.

I could easily have sat through much more of this, Score is by turns fascinating and inspiring, a glimpse into some of the creative processes that bring out favourite films to life, to the power of music to enhance the emotional experience.

Score: a Film Documentary is out on DVD and  available via Video on Demand from Dogwoof on April the 2nd

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Bizarre Romance

Bizarre Romance,

Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell,

Jonathan Cape

Now Blanche lies on the bed and waits to become a page in the book…”

I would happily read any book from Audrey Niffenegger or Eddie Campbell, so you can imagine my delight when a book collaboration by both of them turned up in the Blogcave, a collection of short stories on themes of relationships and love, some prose with illustrations, other short comic strips. As with any collection there are always stories that you like more than others, such is the nature of individual taste, but I can honestly say that while I did have my favourites, there really isn’t a tale here that I didn’t enjoy. In fact even the introduction is enjoyable here, as the pair relate a little of not just this their artistic partnership, but their real-life romantic one, once a tentative, very long-distance relationship, then full-blown romance and marriage: “now we are living happily ever after.”

That fairy tale phrase in the introduction is perhaps setting a bit of a tone – quite a few of the stories here have the scent of the fairy tale around them. Some fairly obviously are modern tales riffing on older fairy stories, such as RoseRedSnowRidingBeautyShoesHoodSleepingWhite, which starts with a sister and brother trying on last minute ideas for Halloween costumes in a store, a single splash page of the pair in front of the dressing room mirrors, costumes hanging from the racks, full of colour and hints of a chance to be someone else, at least for a while (it’s also, to those of us of a certain age, reminiscent of the start of Mr Benn’s adventures in the old kid’s animated series. And just like Mr Benn Roselyn is whisked away on a magical adventure, via the age-old portal of the mirror (reflecting surfaces long a gateway to the Otherworld). Faeries appear in other stories, with their own sneaky agendas, as the Fair Folk usually have.

Felines feature several times – Secret Life, With Cats is a short prose tale with illustrations, this one less about grand romantic love and more the warm companionships we can form, with other people and with our furry friends (and they with us, in their own manner, of course), while Digging Up the Cat is a short comic strip meditating on family, on home, on moving, on growing up, on parents getting older and of the furry members of our family, while another tale ponders the parental-child bond and the elements that changes as both grow older (and the elements that never change, no matter what our respective ages, if we are lucky).

Motion Studies plays with the still-fascinating early photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge which showed, as if by magic, the range of human and animal motions caught frame by frame (long, long before the Matrix’s clever “bullet time” method of multiple cameras), and allows Eddie to frame the strip like Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. The model, Blanche, normally poses for the life classes in the art school, the students trying to translate her likeness through mind, hand and brush, “to transform her into art”, but here Muybridge seeks to capture her exact image in slivers of frozen time, turning, rising, bending. Brand-new science which appears as magic, and yet both her appearances as artist’s model and as photographic subject are re-rendered here as comics artwork now, another transformation (are any of them really true representations of her or does each capture just a facet?). I found this one particularly fascinating, visually, the peculiar Muybridge with his still-compelling imagery and new way of looking at people, animals, the world, science and art and magic.

There are thirteen tales, all told, and I’m not going to go into the rest here because one of the joys of short tales is that you briefly immerse yourself into another world, or see through other eyes, but their very brevity means it is far, far too easy to spoil an important element in a review, and I really don’t want to do that. The stories rotate around love and loss and grief and joy, but there is a quite delightful playfulness running through them all, a deft lightness of touch, such that even the stories that have sadness in them are never maudlin or overly sentimental but leave you with a warm feeling. Bizarre Romance is an utter delight, an artistic collaboration between two writers and artists, not just of great storytelling skill, but who are, quite clearly from that lovely, warm, light tone, sharing a very good space together, and that warmth permeates the stories quite beautifully.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Snow fun

Like much of Europe we’ve been hit by some very severe winter weather, ironically just as meteorological spring arrives. Last weekend I was walking around town and noticing the first signs of early spring, the return of colour to the land with a few crocuses and daffodils starting to poke their heads up out of the cold soil. Last few days, several inches of snow and bitingly cold winds. For only the second time in the years I’ve lived in Edinburgh the buses were stopped, even in the city centre, trains were off, we were sent home early from work while we still could get transport and like a lot of places work just had to remain closed the next day as staff couldn’t get in and police advice was for nobody to try travelling. So fun and games! Still, even with severe wind chill and driving snow I still managed to get a few photos over the last couple of days…

Snowy Edinburgh 06

This trio of classic red British telephone boxes is a regular photo subject on the Royal Mile, I’ve snapped them a few times, by day and night and it’s a bit of a cliche as everyone takes this shot, but dammit, they looked quite cool in the snow, the red contrasting the white, so what the heck, take another…

Snowy Edinburgh 08

Snowy Edinburgh 09

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Snowy Edinburgh 012

The park by the Union Canal was pretty busy despite the awful weather, with folks making snowmen (or snow women, or perhaps non binary snow beings), lots of dogs going nuts in the snow (and clearly wondering why their humans were not so equally enthused), the canal itself was frozen and the ducks were reduced to walking on the ice rather than paddling along in the water.

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Snowy Edinburgh 017

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Snowy Edinburgh 030

On the walk home I paused to take a few pics in the old boneyard near my flat, when the skies opened and the snow came on heavily again, one of those snowfalls where you coat is covered white in seconds, so I snapped very quickly and beat a hasty retreat back indoors to the fireside…

Boneyard in the snow 01

Boneyard in the snow 02

Boneyard in the snow 05

Boneyard in the snow 07

Reviews: Sif Fox-Fighter

Sif Fox-Fighter,

MJ Wallace

This was another comic picked up at the small press comic fair which I am belatedly getting round to, having bought several, put them aside then as usual got busy, had some other books waiting and am now catching up on at last. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw MJ’s stall. I have a huge affection for animals in general, and cats in particular – besides I just couldn’t say no this wee face on the cover above.

Sif Fox-Fighter is a short, landscape format mini-comic about MJ and partner and flatmates adopting a cat. Not just any kitty though, they pretty much look for the saddest feline from the Cats Protection League folk and take him in. Sif, as he comes to be named by the people in his new furever home, has healthcare issues and is also very nervous – he’s had a rough time and isn’t secure around people or new situations. As anyone who has ever lived with animals of any type will know, rehoming is very stressful. Heck, even just moving home can be very stressful to cats, dogs and our other animal chums and that’s with humans they know and are comfortable with already.

I’m sure many of you have been to animal rescue shelters, and have seen that scared look on an animal’s face; it’s a look which is part fear and nervousness, but also contains a need, a need for love and affection. It’s not an easy path, to be sure – even starting with a young kitten it takes a while to establish a bond, but with an older animals, especially one who has been through the wars, it takes an awful lot of patience and a big, big heart. But it’s worth it, oh so worth it. And that’s one of the things MJ brings out rather beautifully here in such a short collection of life with the new kitty strips.

This collection covers the flatmates adopting Sif and trying to make him comfortable. Like a lot of nervous felines he hides, he doesn’t get too close to people, he’s wary. A cat, even the domestic moggy, is an apex predator which incredibly sharp sense, reflexes and guided by instinct, like any animal you can’t take their behaviour for granted. Like having kids to take care of you can try your best but often just have to roll with the punches. And to their credit the whole flat tries their best not to crowd Sif, he’s introduced to his new home, given space, allowed to explore. You really want to pick them up, cuddle them, smother them with affection, but you simply can’t push these things, the animal has to feel comfortable, secure, when they do then they may come to you when they are ready. And that’s what they do, give Sif that space and time.

It’s a slow process as anyone who has been through it will know, but that moment when they slowly begin to come to you willingly, that first wee head bop, that first contented purr as they sit on your lap, it’s just joy and delight. It’s quite something that cats, dogs, horses and other animals so often come to trust humans, totally different species, and yet they can and often do. And the inner joy you feel when an animal chooses to trust you makes you feel amazing, it lifts the spirits. Like humans they bond with those around them over time, settling into rhythms of life with us, sharing trust and emotions, and again that’s something MJ shows here beautifully.

I’ve heard it said that animals don’t really have expressions, it’s just us reading in our own expectations, and that they don’t have the same emotions as us. Frankly I don’t believe either of those claims for a moment, and I doubt most people who’ve shared their lives with animals would agree either. A cat or dog face may not move the same way ours do when making expressions, but you can still pick up on them, and on their body language, and they pick up on those of their humans. And on the emotional side, yes, they’re not human, their emotive states may well be different from ours, but they are close enough that we can, over time, share a very deep bond.

MJ doesn’t overly mine this story too much on the emotional front, rather presenting the changes as Sif becomes comfortable with his new humans, and lets the emotional side speak for itself with the art showing those expressions some say animals don’t have. It’s warm and engaging and rather lovely and I think anyone who loves animals – cats or otherwise- will recognise a lot in this collection.

You can read more of MJ’s work at the Roller Skates and Breakfast Dates tumblr

This Review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,


I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Jean-Pierre Filiu & Martin Rowson 02
(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.

And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Blue Hour

Each night it is slightly lighter when I leave work as sunset slowly moves later each day as winter moves at a snail’s pace towards spring. It is still dark as I walk home, but only just, with a glimmer of pale light in the western sky – the sun already below the horizon, but a last bit of light illuminating the skies. And as I walk home east to west that’s facing me and I get a chance for a few “blue hour” shots, when the eastern sky behind me is already black but for a short period the western sky retains a pale, blue glow, which silhouettes Edinburgh’s unique skyline beautifully. It’s something that happens particularly early spring and late autumn, and it’s a sight I always love seeing…

Edinburgh on Burns Night

Royal Mile at Blue Hour, winter's night 01

Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head

Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head,

David Gaffney, Dan Berry,

Top Shelf

Valerie’s mind had three rooms: a front, a back and a cellar. If there was something she didn’t want to think about at a particular moment she would move it into the back. Then she could concentrate on playing the accordion. Or explaining her job to her mother. The problem was the cellar.”

I’ve been rather looking forward to reading Gaffney and Berry’s new book from Top Shelf, the description intrigued me when I first heard about the book, a woman who has serial problems with each relationship she attempts, and the obsessions and problems that cause each to go wrong or to fail to satisfy her standards. Relationship problems are nothing new for comics tales, of course, but here they are given an extra-fine twist: Valerie keeps her ex-boyfriends preserved bodies in her cellar, bringing them up regularly to talk to about her day or latest problems, even posing them into a sort of diorama (playing pool in the pub, performing trad jazz). And as she moves each body around and talks to it, this leads us nicely into a flashback of her time with that particular former beau.

And what a collection they are, each with some very serious defect. Well, at least, that’s how they are presented to us, but of course we are getting all of this from Valerie’s perspective. We see all the flaws in her would-be partners exposed over the course of their relationship, and wow, some of them really are hum-dingers – the boyfriend who hates wearing corrective lenses so has his car windscreen ground to his optical prescription so he can drive without glasses. Terrific. Not so good for anyone else in the car with him, like, say, Valerie, who is left nauseous by the distorted glass. And then there is the boy who is the first one she’s known who has a house with no street number! Oh dear! Or a bizarre fixation with the eyes of a former girlfriend that he has to tell Valerie about.

But each of these failings and flaws slowly reveal much more about Valerie than they do her would-be boyfriends, and we see more and more of her problems surface, of the aspects of her own character, expectations and problems which sabotage any really strong relationship developing more deeply. Talking with these preserved bodies of former boyfriends may be some sort of therapy for Valerie, but it is also a crutch she is using to validate her choices (and failings) to herself, to be in control of her own narrative, but it also reveals the gaps in her life, it reveals the needs she has but either can’t connect properly with someone else to fill, or perhaps she’s a bit scared and backs off before she gets too close (and yet given her cellar collection, she clearly can’t let go either).

In some hands this would have been one of the emotional-confessional, “oh I am such an emotional mess” type tales which Indy comics has rather more than its share of (not to knock that sub-genre, I’ve enjoyed more than a few of those comics over the years). This is a very different beast, less the autobiographical confessional of some failed relationship comics tales, this is far more comedic and with a delightfully surreal bend to it so that even when there are moments which  are rather sad they also manage to evoke laughter. It’s no mean feat to conjure both pity and humour from the same scenes, but Gaffney and Berry do that repeatedly throughout Three Rooms.

Dan’s art adds to that mix of surrealism, pathos and comedy enormously, his expressions on Valerie’s face as she argues with her cast of deceased boyfriends had me giggling away, but at the same time feeling sorry for her (actually Dan’s art had me roaring with laughter on a number of occasions, those expressions cracked me up). It also makes you pause and think – we all have little fantasies and daydreams, little narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives. Perhaps, thankfully, not to the surreal extreme Valerie has, but pretty much every person does have them, and that means we can all see a little of ourselves in Valerie, the hopes, the fears, the failings, the coping mechanisms; she’s not exactly a mirror to the reader, but she is perhaps a distorting reflection reminding us none of us are perfect and each of us tries some mental tricks and stories to help us deal with life’s slings and arrows, each of us could easily be Valerie.

That this is all delivered with a delightful level of humour – and a humour that steers away from meanness, it’s not laughing at Valerie’s foibles and failings – Gaffney’s script and Berry’s art working hand in glove, the dialogue and the imagery, especially during Valerie’s talks with her deceased beaus are so nicely timed together, they hit all the right beats.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

It Don’t Come Easy…

It Don’t Come Easy,

Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,

Drawn & Quarterly

I’ve loved the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian’s work for many years – I’ve even struggled through some of it in the original French (no mean feat given how rusty my French skills are) – and I’ve grown very, very fond of Monsieur Jean over those years, not to mention the ensemble cast which has grown around Jean. In fact they’ve been around so long, and growing older (not necessarily wiser!) as the years passed, that they’ve become like old friends. You know, the sort of friends you have known forever, right back to when your eyes were clear and wrinkles were something you couldn’t imagine ever having. The sort you used to be around every day and couldn’t imagine it would ever be any other way.

Then one day you realise that Real Life has gotten in the way – you are all older, you’re still friends, still part of each other’s lives, but you see each other less frequently as work, relationships, family and more build up, or you find yourselves living in different cities. Revisiting the cast in this new D&Q collection, which collects fourth through to seventh of the Monsieur Jean series, feels a lot like that, and as the years rolled past for Jean, Felix, Cathy and the rest, so they did for the readers, and I think that’s part of what is so endearing about this series. There’a a lot here that most of us can empathise with; even if it doesn’t mirror our own lives exactly, we’ve all been through similar moments, and that makes it the stories all the richer and more emotionally satisfying.

Doing the best you can. Maybe that’s the trick. I try. Sometimes I even feel like it all makes sense. Everything just falls into place. Every breath I take, every thought: it’s all clear. Clear in a way you can’t put into words. It’s a fleeting sensation. It disappears the second I try to explain it. But when it’s there I know… Everything I do...”

We’ve seen Jean go from struggling writer to published success and acclaim (and then the treadmill of what do I write next? Will it be as good? Problems which plague every creator as much after success as the problems they had in trying to be published in the first place), a young man, single, playing the dating game, enjoying life, dealing with the highs and lows. And now here he is – Jean is in his forties, he has a baby girl (Julie), and he and Cathy are struggling with their relationship. Or more accurately Jean has little wobblers – little nervous moments, is this the life he wanted, is it too late to change, if he could, would he? Cathy, meantime, mid 30s and thinking she can’t wait forever for a man who can’t commit fully.

And meantime the old crowd are still there, notably disreputable best chum Felix, with his adopted young son. And Felix is still a dreamer, floating through life, seemingly not a care in the world, free-spirited, not bothered about settling down into his own place, solid job or any of that stuff. All of which seemed quirky and charming when younger, but as he gets older – and is responsible for a child – seems more like being selfish. And yet, despite frequently rubbing Jean up the wrong way, he is still his best friend, and you know he’s always going to forgive him after being angry with him.

That said, even Felix can surprise you – he seems his old, laid-back self, floating through problems (even a social services visit about his parenting skills gets treated lightly by him, as always). And yet Felix cares about the boy, not even his biologically, but the child of a former girlfriend who didn’t want him, and he’s taken responsibility (well, relatively, this is Felix, a man who can forget to pick the boy up from school, but that’s okay, Jean will do it, right?) for all these years. And when a family event offers him a huge opportunity, but one that comes with a horrible revelation, dear old Felix will show a strong side he’s never shown before, even if it costs him dear (although this may be a closing one door but seeing another, unexpected one open situation).

We travel from Paris to the countryside to New York as work for Cathy and Jean moves them, and so does their own relationship, both trying to figure out what they want in terms of career and family life, and realising, as we all do sooner or later, that you don’t get everything you want, that you have to compromise with the important people in your life, with their needs and desires as well as your own, if you’re going to make it work. And that creates tension and problems, and sometimes it leaves you unsatisfied… And other times it makes you feel like everything is perfect and you wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is all worth it.

In between these ups and downs we get treated to those flights of fantasy that have been a bit of a hallmark of the series; Jean’s imagination runs riot around a story involving an antique picture, bleeding into his own life and worries, his formidable concierge takes on monstrous forms in his dreams, or he has weird visions about Cathy, pregnancy and fatherhood (drawn in a totally different style to the usual version both Dupuy and Berberian create for the series). We revisit favourite old spots, like the bridge over the Canal Saint Martin, but also new places, like a stay in New York (a good excuse for our writer, Jean, to visit literary NYC landmarks like The Strand). People stay the same but also change at the same time, the essence of life.

The Jean books have always put me in mind of Woody Allen movies, circa mid to late 70s, still laced with humour but more dramatic and emotional than the earlier outright comedies, not quite as dry as the later ones, with dashes of the soap opera that is life and the Absurd and flights of fancy, both narratively and sometimes artistically. There’s a real sense of growth (painful, sometimes two steps forward, one step back variety, but that’s life, isn’t it?) for all the characters here (even old Felix), of realising, sometimes slowly and painfully, where they need to be in life, and more importantly, who they need to be there with. An absolute pleasure to lose myself once more in the company of Monseiur Jean and his friends.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog


Today would have been the birthday of one of my favourite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve been reading Poe since I was about twelve and still love his work. Here, to celebrate his birthday, enjoy another of my favourite writers, one I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times, Neil Gaiman, reading The Raven:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Picturing the year

As usual I took a ridiculous amount of photographs through the previous year, people watching shots, landscapes, the festivals, whatever caught my eye, so here are a few of my favourites I took in 2017:

Singing to the Sea 01

Back in March I was down at Portobello beach on a windy, cold afternoon, and this group in white robes descended from the promenade onto the sand, and proceeded to sing towards the sea. I have no idea why, although it sounded and looked religious in nature, the singing in a language I didn’t know, but it sounded quite happy, joyful even.

union of cloud and hills blessed by last rays of the day

The end of an early spring day, last light hitting the peaks of the Campsie Hills, diffused through a band of cloud along the summit line.

Forth Rail Bridge 015

Looking down the Fife side of the Firth of Forth, past Inchcolm island (you can just see the silhouette of the 12th century abbey on the island), towards the mighty Forth Rail Bridge through the mist, with the mid-2oth century suspension road bridge behind, then the (at the time still being constructed) new cable-stayed road bridge.

taking the wedding one step at a time

Simply walking round town one day, saw this newly married couple who had decided to pose for their photos on the Vennel steps, which cut up from the Grassmarket, past the Flodden Wall, towards the Meadows, so I grabbed a quick candid shot from the hip as I passed.

a stroll through the market

Street market on a bright, spring day in the Grassmarket, I was taking candid people-watching shots, and got this young couple pushing their baby stroller, just as the light and shadow came together.

The Wild, Wild West 03

I finally visited a spot I have meant to for ages – there is an Old West street hidden away behind some tenements in Edinburgh, not the sort of thing you’d expect to see here! The “cantina” door is actually the fire exit for the Morningside Library. It was built as a promotional stunt by a local firm several years back, and is now slowly decaying, although to be honest it looks more authentic now it is somewhat distressed. The things you can find if you go looking…

world's cutest jedi padwan 02

At the comic con, bumped into one of my colleagues and her husband, there with their wee girl, who was dressed up as Rey from Star Wars and having great fun. Cutest Jedi padawan ever!

Edinburgh Comic Con 2017 031

Another from the comic con, this couple had matched up their cosplay costumes, which I just loved.

March for Science Edinburgh 02

I went on the March For Science in the spring and took a bunch of pics, but I especially loved this one with the student waving her sign and giving the camera a great, big smile.

spring tango 06

Walking through the Grassmarket one bright day, and there was an open-air tango class going on, right there in the middle of the square, underneath some trees, so the light through the leaves was dappled. I was taking several pics when one of the dancers saw the camera and just as I clicked she smiled right at me, and I was lucky enough to capture it. Sometimes you get lucky and grab a little moment like this.

Meadows Festival 2017 033

Slightly different weather in this one! I was going around the Meadows Festival when it started to rain. As I scuttled for cover I managed to snap off a couple more candid shots of people at the fest in the rain, including this one with the lady and her umbrella.

Canal Festival 2017 021

Singer with her band at the annual Canal Festival and Raft Race, on the nearby Union Canal.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Last Photograph 01

As I came out of one of my film festival screenings I saw actor and director Danny Huston on the red carpet, about to go into the cinema for the festival screening of his own new film, The Last Photograph. The camera is always in my bag, so quickly out and click.

Cloisters 04

Something I have been meaning to photograph for ages – the beautiful cloisters in the Neo-Gothic Glasgow University.

A Visit to the Trossachs 02

Out with dad for a day in the Trossachs, a day of constantly shifting light and shadow as sun poked through clouds to illuminate patches of the landscape in shafts of light, while casting large cloud shadows over the rest. Gorgeous.

Carnival 2017 038

How colourful is this costume on this wee chap at the Jazz and Blues Festival carnival??

Carnival 2017 079

Close up portrait of one of the performers at the carnivale.

clan gathering 01

Clan gathering in summer when all of our Canadian relatives were over, rest of the family all got together for food, drink and chat, while the kids played in the garden. Someone brought out soap bubbles, and one little cousin, Wee Joe, was mesmerised by them!

clan gathering 017

All that playing can be tiring though, one of the kids curled up for a wee nap!

Fringe on the Mile 2017 020

Fringe on the Mile 2017 021

Festival time on the Royal Mile, and on a whim I wandered behind the bustle of the main drag, behind the cathedral, and saw these two performers. They were rehearsing before going out onto the Mile, and didn’t see me at first, so i was clicking away merrily.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 028

Fringe on the Mile 2017 041

Fringe on the Mile 2017 053

Some street portraits of performers strutting their stuff on the Royal Mile during the Fringe, trying to attract an audience to come to their shows, always a happy hunting ground for taking photos.

relaxing in the sun

Fringe bustling all around, but this one young woman had found herself a quite spot on the edge of the cathedral, in the sunlight, to take a wee break.

wet night in the New Town

Freehand night shot, coming out of the Book Festival on a rainy night, wet streets reflecting the lights.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 073

Saw this musician and her partner several times on the Mile during the Fringe, and took several shots, but I really liked the way this one came out, think it caught something of the joyful exuberance she was showing as she sang.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 091

This lady in traditional Korean costume was dancing on one of the small stages on the Mile, where the Fringe performers can put on excerpts from their shows to try and entice audiences to come along. I shot a lot of photos of her and her fellows, but kept zooming in closer, only to find her moving just as I lined up the shot. Finally I got one, very close up, in focus and in frame. Quite pleased with this one.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 0107

Another Fringe performer on the Mile – I loved her smile and her sign!

Fringe on the Mile 2017 0109

Juggler on the Royal Mile.

Shoreline of Infinity evening 05

Author Ken MacLeod reading from a book of his and the late Iain Banks’ poetry at the regular Shoreline of Infinity science fiction evening in Edinburgh.

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 06

This is standing inside an old doocot (dovecot), at Elcho castle, looking straight upwards, but the effect, especially in monochrome, seems otherworldly.

Scott Monument at dusk 02

Blue Hour on an autumn evening 04

“Blue Hour” in Edinburgh in autumn, when the sun has set below the western horizon but there is still some pale, blue light in it, not yet the full black of night sky. One of my favourite times for taking night photos in Edinburgh. Here it’s the Scott Monument silhouetted against that sky, and the Castle and the National Gallery.

Shoreline of Infinity November - Aurora Engine 05

Musician Aurora Engine was playing the harp and singing at a Shoreline of Infinity evening. I took several pics of her, then on a whim I zoomed in to try and capture her fingers moving deftly over the harp strings. It was in an underground venue in fairly low light, and I didn’t expect it to work, but I got this fairly sharp image and was quite pleased with it.

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Walking around Commercial Quay at Blue Hour – these were all old dockside warehouses by the Port of Leith. Once left neglected after their working life ended, they have since been beautifully restored and are now home to apartments, businesses and many restaurants.

The Shore, winter night 08

Same evening, little later and darker, freezing evening, taking night photographs along the Water of Leith, by The Shore, a regenerated area near the docks which boasts lots of very nice pubs, cafes and restaurants, plus the sight of the buildings at night reflected in the river. Been meaning to take some night shots down this way for ages.

The Tower 02

Spur of the moment shot – I was zooming in on the weathervane at the top of the steeple on the Auld Kirk in Kirkintilloch when suddenly the skies darkened and these crows descended on the steeple. Suddenly it went from a detail of some old architecture to a brooding, Gothic photo that looks like a scene from a Poe novel.

me and my shadow

A couple of weeks ago, walking past Edinburgh University, bright but cold day, sun so low in the winter sky it cast as many shadows as it did light. I passed one student sitting on this bench by a stone wall, the sun casting sharp shadows and it was just begging for a black and white shot.

Schoenstatt at Christmas 015

Boxing day, 2017, dad and I drove over to Schoenstatt, a religious retreat by Campsie Glen, under the shadow of the hills. Freezing but bright and clear, snow had started falling on Christmas night and by next day it was crisp and frozen, crunching under foot as I walked through it, while the foliage was encased in ice, with the low winter sun shining through it.

sky snow clouds and hills

I can never resist taking yet another shot from the parental mansion looking out to the Campsie Hills. No matter how often I have taken pics of this landscape, it changes all the time depending on time of year, time of day, weather, and when the bright, low winter sunlight hit the snow-covered hills, while the clouds drifted by in front, I had to take another one…

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.

And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dismal days

Turning of the year also marks my birthday, and yes, it is a bloody rubbish time of year to have a birthday as everyone you know is busy with their own Hogmanay stuff, so it gets largely forgotten, even when it is one of those tedious “landmark” birthdays when you hit some supposedly socially important age. Quite why it is important, I have no idea, and given that, as usual on my birthday, I spent most of it on my own, it doesn’t exactly feel special, in fact it feels like a waste of bloody time, an event more likely to make me feel depressed and isolated than inspire celebration.

And yes, there are people with far more pressing problems than that, I know, but it still does little for one’s sense of self or self-worth or mental health, quite the reverse. What a bloody rubbish day. Birthdays, I wash my hands of you, especially “landmark” ages (Ohh, that’s a special age, you must be doing something big to celebrate!)  Yeah, right. What? With whom?). It also really doesn’t help when someone tells you to “pull yourself together” or “others have it worse, what’s your problem”. That really doesn’t help when someone is in a depression spiral, in fact you make them feel worse with that well-meant but idiotic nonsense, instead you make them feel even lower – they’re right, I’m pathetic, I don’t even deserve to feel included or happy, no wonder I am like this, I deserve to be like this. And so on, the black spiral feeds itself, you turn in on yourself and see nothing but mistakes and wrong and it is very hard to pull yourself out of it, in fact you often then attack yourself thinking how pathetic you are to be so lost like this, everything feeds the black dog.

Time for some self pity cake, which of course I had to buy for myself and eat by myself. Wow, birthdays are such fun!