Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Set

Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Blu-Ray & 4K UHD,
Directed by George A. Romero,
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth

I’ve loved Romero’s movies for as long as I can remember liking horror films. Dawn of the Dead, the second of his original trilogy (which later grew into a longer series), still occupies a special place in my Romero Pantheon though, and indeed retains a special place in my favourite horror films of all time, an excellent mix of horror, both from the gruesome deaths waiting everywhere by the hungry, walking dead, but also from the rapid disintegration of civilisation and the way so many humans respond to it, often as bad or worse than the zombie threat itself, leavened with some humour (few zombie horrors offer us the delights of the classic cream pie in the face fight!), and, of course, Romero’s social observations and satire.

I would imagine most collectors willing to spring for this pretty magnificent limited edition set from Second Sight will already be more than familiar with the film, and all of Romero’s works, but for those less familiar, a quick recap. Following the events of Romero’s seminal 1960s, genre-defining class Night of the Living Dead, the plague of the dead reanimating and stumbling slowly but remorselessly in pursuit of living flesh to chew has spread, civilisation is collapsing. We begin with two different scenes which introduce the main character – one set in a news studio, desperately trying to remain on the air and issue emergency information to citizens as communications break down and people give up and flee, one by one (including news helicopter pilot Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews – David Emge – and his partner Fran Parker, played by Gaylen Ross).

The other sees a SWAT squad of heavily armed police backed up my army units storming a down-town building, encountering a mix of gun-toting gang-bangers, desperate civilians and reanimated corpses. This is where we meet Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (the iconic Ken Foree), dealing with criminals, zombies and fellow officers losing the plot and going gun-crazy as the situation falls apart. Even the police are giving up, the city is lost, most are choosing to flee while they can, and Roger tells Peter that his friend, Stephen, is a chopper pilot and he’s meeting him and Fran to escape later, inviting Peter to come with them.

On the run we see encounters with other frightened groups of survivors and the ever present menace of the creeping undead – nowhere is safe, even a rural airstrip where they stop to refuel, seemingly deserted. It is here we see the infamous “head slicing” as a zombie lurches towards Roger refuelling the chopper, unable to hear it over the engine noise, turning as he sees it stand up on a pile of boxes to get to him, only for the whirling blades to slice strips from the top of its skull (bloody but quite amazing special effects by the now famous wizard Tom Savini, all practical effects, long before the dawn of CGI), a scene which manages to be stomach-turning and funny at the same time. A second scene in the small airport building, however, is far harder to take – Peter hears a noise, shoots through the door, only for it to open and two child zombies rush out at him, forcing him to shoot both in the head. They are undead zombies, but it’s still shooting a child, and Foree, to his credit, shows the toll this takes on Peter in a very quiet, understated but effective manner. The message here is clear: the world they knew, of rules and safety, is gone, they now have to commit acts they would never have dreamed of if they are to survive.

It is on the run that they spot a huge structure, which turns out to be an enormous indoor shopping mall – at the time a very new thing in the world. Originally planning to land and grab some supplies, they soon realise they could block the doorways with delivery trucks, clear the few zombies inside, and have a secure location to rest, which has everything they need from radios and TVs to listen for emergency broadcasts to clothes and every sort of food. The temporary stop soon becomes long-term, as what was a brief respite becomes a lack of drive to try and escape further north as originally planned – seduced by all the consumerist delights they make their new home comfortable with furniture from the stores, new clothes, an arsenal of weapons, drink and food. Fran, now several months pregnant, realises that they have essentially created their own comfortable prison, but it is one that will soon be shattered by the arrival of a marauding army of bikers who have been living on the road since the zombie apocalypse, pillaging where they can (and I will go no further for fear of spoilers for those who still haven’t seen this classic).

I will add, however, that re-visiting this film now, in the midst of our resurgent pandemic situation, added another layer for me as a viewer – the urge for our protagonists to hide inside and largely ignore the (unsafe) outside world, the sudden burst of pleasure after normal life is destroyed, in doing something as normal as shopping for stuff, half of which you don’t really need but just want the fun of shopping and buying and feeling normal. Oh yes, that took on a different meaning after all we’ve been going through this year. But then again that’s the mark of good storytelling, that it was written to speak about events of its own time but can still be re-interpreted decades on in a very different situation.

One of the aspects of Romero’s film-making I have always respected was his ability to take something different for each of his zombie films, something cultural and social from the era he made each in – Civil Rights being a huge influence in the original 1960s Night of the Living Dead, Cold War paranoia and apocalypse in the military bunker-set Day of the Dead, social media in Diary of the Dead and so on. Here in this 1970s offering with its vast, sprawling indoor mall of endless shops it is our lust for consumerism – a drive so strong that it attracts not only our fleeing heroes and distracts them with its baubles when they should be making plans to retreat somewhere safer, but also the zombies themselves. The undead have massed around this huge structure, struggling to get past the barricades our heroes put in place.

They are walking corpses, the items in the stores are of no use to them now (and in a dark mirror reflection we see that ultimately most of those shiny items we are so sure our life isn’t complete without are mostly of no use to Flyboy, Peter, Roger and Fran either, except as a dangerous distraction from the reality crashing in all around them). Flyboy opines that the reason so many are trying to get in is because they saw them enter and know they are still there. No, Peter argues, it isn’t them they are after, it is the building, the shops. They are us, or were us, and some dim spark in their decaying brains remembers this place as somewhere they liked to be, and it drives them on still in their undead existence, almost as strong an imperative as the urge for fresh flesh.

These limited edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray sets are pretty damned impressive – we get three cuts of the film, from the original theatrical version, the slightly longer “Cannes” cut, and a third by the legendary Italian maestro of horror, Dario Argento, who wrote the story with Romero and was instrumental in getting international finance to allow the film to be made. There are CDs of the soundtrack by Argento regulars Goblin, newly commissioned artwork, a novelisation of the film and a hardback collection of essays, Dissecting the Dead.

Also among the extras, in addition to different commentaries on each of the various cuts of the film offered here (from Romero to Tom Savini to Ken Foree and others), there is an entire disc full of extras, which I have to say I really enjoyed working my way through. My favourite here was Zombies and Bikers, which talks to a whole slew of crew and cast, including many who gave their time to appear as zombie extras or the biker army, many of whom would be singled out by Romero for special close-ups and their own mini-arcs in the film. Memories of Monroeville sees Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis return to the original mall to explore some of the locations where they shot scenes and reminisce about the filming. Romero was friendly with people who ran the mall, and they allowed him to use it, but he could only shoot at night after the stores closed, which meant a long, arduous shooting schedule, having to wrap each morning as the automated, canned music and voice over ads on the speakers would come on by themselves (this is echoed in the film where the same music and ads for the stores continues to play in the now empty – save for our four protagonists – mall, another echo of the emptiness of trying to fill our lives with consumerism).

A common thread in these two documentary extras, apart from a nice feeling of nostalgia as those involve look back on the work they did and how they could never at the time have anticipated that decades on it would remain this iconic, landmark film, is the sheer warmth in their memories. Despite the hours, working through the night for little money, many joining the shoot at night after their day jobs, everyone genuinely seems to have wonderful memories of the film, and most especially of the late Romero and what a charming and delightful director he was to work with. It reminded me of the time Romero visited the Edinburgh International Film Festival with Diary of the Dead – decent enough film, not his best though, but the reception the man himself got from the audience was amazing, it was clear how much love there was in the room for this man, he was “Uncle George” to most of us, and I could see that in these recollections in the extras.

It was also very clear from these documentaries, and a previously unseen interview with Romero, that this film, a film that now has a secure place in cinema history, only exists because so many people like those featured in the extras here were happy to put in the time, working for a token fee, to help make Romero’s script turned into reality, while others helped with letting them use locations they could never have afforded to rent or recreate on a sound-stage. With many it came down to a combination of love for his Night of the Living Dead and also a lovely community support aspect – a sort of wow, we’re making a feature film right here in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood, yes, I want to help you make that happen. Again it is such a warm wave of enthusiasm and mutual support for fellow creators which is inspiring to see. All in all this is a terrific collector’s edition, with well-restored cuts of the film in different edits and jam-packed with extras, giving this iconic horror the respect it richly deserves.

The limited edition set Second Sight has put together is a cine-collector’s dream – three different cuts of the film, a whole disc full of extras, newly commissioned artwork, audio CDs (including Goblin’s soundtrack), novelisation and a hardback book, Dissecting the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is released in a special Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray by Second Sight on November 16th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts

Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts,
John Wagner, Colin MacNeil,
Rebellion

Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol. Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”

Judge Dredd: I’ve been reading his tales every since the very beginning, way back in 1977. I’ve been fascinated by the adaptability of the character and the story format- across more than four decades we’ve seen everything from broad comedic farce to tragedy, from short, punchy tales of a few pages only (which nevertheless often lodge in the brain long after, despite their brevity) to huge, widescreen epics like the Apocalypse War. And Dredd himself, the unbending, iron man of the total law of Mega City One? Clever storytelling has given us Dredd as both heroic at times and at other times a freedom-crushing fascist stormtrooper.

I find it remarkable that one strip and one character can can be so astonishingly flexible, go to such extremes. The writers and artists of Dredd have made us cheer for him as he is battered and broken by often unimaginable events and opponents, way past the point where even a mythic hero might have given up as a lost cause, but not Dredd, he keeps going, dogged, determined, he stands till the end, the the bad guys are vanquished, it’s a tenacity on which the entire survival of the city and sometimes the world has depended.

And at other times we see the cold, hard machinery of Mega City Justice Department, how it bears down crushing those it is meant to serve, unbending adherence strictly to every rule to the most ridiculous level, smallest infractions dealt with via immediate and hard, violent response, while no threat to the supremacy of the Justice Department will be tolerated. It is this latter aspect we first saw in America, by the Dreddfather himself, the great John Wagner, and the equally superb Colin MacNeil, who here delivers some amazing painted artwork, which is something else to behold, be it depicting a tender, intimate moment of friendship and love and intimacy or dreadful acts of violent outbursts.

For many decades America has, for me, been one of the finest Dredd stories of all time: it has action, romance, characters that are flawed and believable as humans rather than cyphers to advance a plot, it has humour and love and tragedy and wades into the swampy lands of Morality, not afraid to show the complexity behind the simplistic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard Rebellion was re-issuing it complete with some of Wagner’s rediscovered original scripts I was excited, although part of me also thought, how does this story hold up in the world of 2020?

How will I feel when I re-read it now, at this point in my life and with the world around me as it has become, instead of remembering it through a glow of nostalgic love for earlier 2000 AD? I needn’t have worried myself on that score, however: this is Wagner and MacNeil, I was always in safe hands with these masters of the comics form, and, if anything, sadly aspects of the story are actually more relevant to our troubled world of today than they were when this was written, even in the supposed democracies of the Western World. And that emotional punch, that you just know is coming yet you can’t look away? It’s still there, still so strong it will wrench your heart.

I’d imagine most DTT readers will already be familiar with this story, but for those who are coming to this Dredd classic for the first time, let’s have a quick recap of the actual story. We start with foreshadowing, with Dredd, always an impressive, ominous figure at the best of times, here depicted in full page splashes by MacNeil from a low perspective, as if we’re under his feet, trampled beneath the heel of the Justice Department (much later we will loop back to this scene and realise its dreadful context), with the quote about rights and freedom that opened this article. It is an opening that in two pages and images already tells you that this is a story that will not have a happy ending. This is Mega City One, not Disney.

From those threatening, huge splash pages we moved into smaller panels, the inside of a nightclub, the dressing rooms, a young woman, attractive yet with an air of terrible sadness around her, getting ready for a performance. She is the one who starts the main story going, she tells us of America and of Bennett Beeny, right from the very beginning, as she is born kicking and screaming into the world of Mega City One to immigrant parents, who in gratitude for their new home decide to christen their baby daughter “America”. Even in this happy moment, as their friends congratulate the couple on their new arrival, there are hints of the storm clouds to come, when her father, still new to the city, quotes “America, God shed hees grief on thee”, only for a friend to point out it is “grace”, not “grief”, but I think we already know in this case it will be grief. The America the Jara family thought they had emigrated to no longer exists, except as a dream. A dream that will burn in young America throughout her short life.

Benny and Ami are the best of friends as kids, but even as children it is clear they are different: Benny is good natured and effectively rolls with the system as it is, not liking it, but doing his best to make the best life he can have under the circumstances, while Ami hates the life they are forced to live and yearns to make the world a better place. Even at this young age we see the Judge system, but from the perspective of small children, these huge, armoured, imposing figures towering above them, instilling fear now – like the Jesuits who wanted to start their teaching young so they would have the later grown person for life, the Judges lay down heavy examples even to small children.

It is not a pretty sight, and it also serves effectively to show the two different characters: Ami seethes as this treatment, you can see her thinking how do I change this, take away this power the Judges have over us all, while Benny is complaint, “no, sir, thank you, sir” types to the threatening Judge. A scene a little later shows them as young adults now, and MacNeil beautifully frames their view of the vast city from a high vantage point through a broken chain-link fence. It’s beautiful visual shorthand (the story is replete with similar examples), this should be an awe-inspiring view across the city, but instead it gives the impression they are exhibits in an old, broken-down zoo, Benny already cowed, will stay behind the wire, fearful, Ami is seen looking out through the mesh of the fence into the world beyond, seeing something more, something better, if only she can manage it.

There’s such bittersweetness around this point, as the two who had been inseparable are now growing up, becoming more the adults they will become, so too they are growing apart. We’ve probably all been there, with childhood friends we thought we’d have forever, and some we do sometimes manage to keep but there are always others than our life paths take away from one another, keeping in touch at first, but less so as time goes on and the world slowly makes us drift apart. That feeling is evoked so well here, and added to by the fact we can see how clearly Benny loves Ami, not just as his lifelong friend, but he years for her as a lover, he is hopelessly lost in love with her, and he knows that while she cares for him she’s never going to love him that way.

Their paths diverge and they lose contact, although she is never far from Benny’s thoughts, he still carries a torch for her and always will. Some may see that as weak, as Benny refusing to move on emotionally, and perhaps it is, but you could also argue that it is a beautifully pure form of love, an idealised version he carries inside himself, aware that the grim reality of the real world can never give him what he has in his heart. Benny becomes rich and famous with his comedic songs and gets to live a comfortable life – he may be in a cage like any Mega City citizen, but his is gilded and comfortable thanks to his huge success. Ami, when she finally crosses his path again, has been less fortunate.

Ami’s path has been hard, her dedication to the older freedoms before the Judges has brought her into conflict with the Justice Department with the predictable heavy response. But it’s not just the heavy handed tactics which have further enraged her, it’s the basically cruel turning of the screw to teach her a lesson – for instance her child is decreed not to come up to genetic standards and so banished from Mega City. This only hardens her in her convictions to do anything to fight the system (and it is hard not to sympathise with her). It even leads to scenes with the two reunited briefly, but leaves the reader to question if Ami does so only to manipulate Benny into helping her and her comrades, or because she really does care for him and perhaps yearns for even a brief respite of peace and love? Wagner cleverly leaves that very much to the readers, even in his accompanying script notes he says it’s best not to answer that, let the readers ponder…

And I won’t go too much further into the plot for those who haven’t yet read America, because I have no wish to ruin it for you. Suffice to say do not go looking here for roses and kisses and a happy ending in the sunset. But do expect drama and love and moral clashes and trust and betrayal and tragedy. And for none of the characters to come out of this untarnished: Dredd and the Judges, glimpsed mostly in the background of this story, are clearly the fascistic power of repression here, Benny well-meaning but spineless and out of his depth, Ami driven by The Cause, one which we may even admire her fighting for, except she will use any method, even brutal killing, to serve The Cause (as with many in the real world their causes, however well intentioned, can often become more important than the lives of people).

I came back to America not just in our troubled world of 2020, but also after reading the second Judges prose omnibus by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot Coleman for the second Cymera SF festival back in June (you can still see the hour long discussion on Cymera’s YouTube channel, while the book is reviewed here). That book explores the early world of the Judges, before the Mega Cities, with the first generation of Judges operating alongside the final years of traditional law enforcement in near-future America. Those stories often evoked America as I read them – in those books we see the Judges created precisely because current law enforcement has failed. It is corrupt, police almost untouchable even when they commit violent, unprovoked attacks, clearly carrying a huge racial bias, all things the Judges are trained to ignore: they will serve the law equally upon all, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or position.

When I was reading those stories in preparation for our Cymera talks we were all watching with horror the racially motivated judicial killings in the US of people of colour, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the awful,violent response those demonstrations often received, not just from far right civilians driving cars into crowds, but police then federal government forces gassing, shooting and arresting peaceful demonstrators. The parallels to Dredd’s Mega City One were horribly, wretchedly visible to many of us. Dredd has always carried a strong element of social commentary, not to mention dark satire, but this echoed so much with that fictional world that it was painful.

I’m not going to soap-box on those aspects, this is a review, not a social commentary piece, albeit about a story with a strong social commentary component, of course, but re-reading it I think it is fair to say I found America fitted in far too closely with aspects of our contemporary world, far, far too closely for comfort. Ami’s life in some ways echoes that of the nation she is named for: born with idealised notions of freedom and equality for all, only to see that dream constantly perverted to suit those in the positions of power, and likewise with Mega City One.

But that’s the point – to realise the threat to the Dream we have to see it and know it for what it is, call it out, stand up to it. The idealised version of that Dream may always be ultimately unattainable, like most potential utopias, but it is a noble vision and striving towards it hopefully means we make a better, fairer world for all as we try to reach it, and not to let others corrupt and subvert it for their own ends. Wagner himself sums it up in his own notes with his accompanying script pages:

America – not so much a place as an ideal. In these times of increasing authoritarianism, even in the Western world – when the reins of power have fallen into the hands of crooks, self-serving conmen and shameless liars – the message in the story is more pertinent than ever.

We’ve got to keep looking for America.”

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Helmut Newton, the Bad and the Beautiful

Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful,
Directed by Gero Von Boehm
Blue Finch Releasing

A lot of the men told me they were afraid, the girls look down on the man who is looking at them.”

Helmut Newton, who passed away in 2004, was one of the most famous photographers in the world, especially in the realm of fashion photography. He was also often very controversial, not least for his very stylised nude images of women. For some they were the height of misogyny, the photographer arranging women’s bodies in a style and pose that fitted some mental image he had, indulging his own inner fetish of how an idealised female form should be, the models denuded, not only of clothes but personality, becoming like artfully arranged mannequins for his camera & mind.

But for others he created images of very strong women, often sexually imposing – as the quote by Newton himself at the top of this piece indicates, in many poses, despite being naked ostensibly for the “male gaze”, the women strike such a powerful pose, often shot from a low angle so they seem to be looking down at the viewer, their physique idealised, and powerful (like a cross between Classic Greek statuary and the idealised athletic bodies Leni Riefenstahl filmed in the 30s), in a manner which could intimidate the viewer. In some ways they look more as if they are the ones in the position of power, quite assured of their own place, tolerating the gaze of the viewer, not at the mercy of it.

Some of this is corroborated by the many famous “talking heads” included in Von Boehm’s documentary, which includes his wife (and sometimes model and fellow photographer) June Newton, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull and more. Rossellini, who was first photographed by Newton with David Lynch during the Blue Velvet shoot, noted he posed her with the famous director almost like a puppet that Lynch was moving as he wanted it to move, which, as she adds, in a way is partly the actor-director relationship so it worked quite well. Charlotte Rampling commented that he could be provocative, but that can be a good thing as she thinks the world needs a little provocation from time to time, especially in the arts, as it stimulates thought and discussion.

The formidable Grace Jones laughingly recalled him dismissing her at first because her breasts weren’t large enough (which rather adds to those arguing he was a misogynist who saw women as objects for his imagination and lens), but he eventually did make a pretty remarkable sequence of photos with her, notably some with actor Rolph Lundgren, which remain pretty striking. These included some interestingly posed nudes with the pair looking almost sculpted, one with Grace, already a tall and pretty striking looking woman as we all know, looking even taller and more imposing as she stand nude in a high position in a truck looking down on Lundgren (and by extension the viewer). “He was a little bit perverted. But so am I, so it’s okay,” Jones added, with a huge laugh.

The film does not ignore his detractors, however – for instance there is a fascinating clip from a 1970s French talk show with Newton and Susan Sontag, where she says that she quite likes him personally, but she has great problems with his work, and considers it to be strongly misogynistic. Newton replies (also in French) that he cannot be a misogynist as he loves women more than anything else in the world. Sontag fixes him with a look and coolly responds that she has heard so many misogynists make exactly that claim that they love women, with the inference being that no, what they really love is their own, internal, idealised version of what they want a woman to be.

There are other moments that show a sly sense of humour – he offers, for instance, to do a portrait shot of French politician Jean-Marie LePen. Who is of course flattered the world famous photographer wishes to do his portrait. Why does Newton – who was a child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis – want to take a portrait of this far-right fascistic politician? Well it turns out he does a lovely portrait, suggesting LePen bring his beloved dogs into the picture – LePen unaware that Newton is quite deliberately styling this portrait of the French far-right politician to look like a famous portrait of Adolf Hitler with his dogs. By the time LePen realises he has been played and the image criticizes and pastiches him and his lamentable politics it is too late and it has gone to press.

Other subjects discuss his work in terms of time and place, especially the 1980s fashion world, where his style of photographing women coincided with the rise of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, their fashions and the stylistic approach of his camera working well together. Other more personal moments reveal the person behind the lens, away from his “perfect”, idealised model imagery, his wife June recalls him taking his camera to visit her in hospital, but knowing this was a coping mechanism, that having the camera there helped him mediate the terror of seeing a loved one ill and in hospital, gave him something to cling to, some structure, a little control

It’s a fascinating documentary of an iconic twentieth century photographer; where you may fall on the discussion over celebrating or exploiting women in his imagery is a debate that I suspect will long continue, and as the documentary shows, those who knew him best, those who worked with him, have different opinions themselves on this issue. What the documentary does well is to show his work, place it in some context both of its time and of his life and influences, and to explore these different views of his work, while also showing that we are talking not just about these issues but about a person and their life, with all the complexities that entails.

Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful comes out via Blue Finch Releasing in Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download from October 23rd. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: Walkabout

Walkabout,
Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil,
Directed by Nic Roeg

During the Lockdown, BBC4 in the UK broadcast David Stratton’s “Stories of Australian Cinema”, a three part documentary on the history and evolution of film-making in that vast, continent-sized country. Naturally one of the films covered was the legendary Nic Roeg’s 1971 movie, Walkabout and I’ve had a strong urge to revisit this film since watching the series. And then Second Sight announced a limited edition Blu-Ray of Walkabout (packed with extras, including interviews with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, in a box set complete with James Vance Marshall’s original 1950s novel), and there I was losing myself in this classic again.

Both then and now there was some debate, not least in Australia itself, around whether Walkabout is really an Aussie film – a British director, US money, but shot in Australia. For my money it is very much an Australian film, not just because of the location, but the way Roeg makes that vast, ancient land an important part of the film. These are not just locations for a scene, the land itself often is the scene, or a strong part of it; the small-scale human interaction within it may drive the actual narrative, but the land itself surrounds everything they do and say, the two English children (Agutter and a very young Luc Roeg as her small brother) in their school uniforms and prim, plummy accents, outsiders in an environment they not only don’t understand but aren’t really equipped to even really try to comprehend, Gulpilil the Aboriginal boy on Walkabout, brought up to respect the land, the stories that go with it, that form his culture and his guide to survival.

The story is essentially pretty simple – the two children, Agutter and Roeg – are stranded in the Outback desert when their father, who has driven them there for a picnic, loses his mind, and attempts to kill them, before setting fire to the car and taking his own life. Agutter hides the suicide from her young brother, grabs some of the food and the two start walking. But they are from a city environment, and a strata of society that back then still had a middle-class that basically tried to recreate the middle-class English existence, there’s no attempt to adapt and assimilate into this other country, it is more an attempt to push a transplanted cultural imperialism onto it, and means they haven’t the faintest idea about the vastness of the Outback, much less how to survive (when they encounter Gulpilil Agutter asks him for water. He doesn’t speak English so she simply repeats herself as if speaking to an imbecile, before muttering that she can’t be any clearer. It’s a polite version of the modern, mono-lingual Brit abroad who thinks if they shout loudly in English the other person will understand them somehow).

The good-natured Gulpilil communicates with them through mime and gesture, mostly with Roeg’s younger brother, the two forming a bit of a bond together. Gulpilil generously helps the pair find water and shares his hunting kills with them, slowly guiding them back towards their own world after some shared travels. You could see it as strangers in a strange land fable, as a coming of age story (especially Agutter and Gulpilil, the two teens on the cusp of adulthood and all that brings with it), or as a survival story, or a mix of all three. And indeed yes, Walkabout is all of these things, but really, those are just the skeletons the film is draped over.

No, the real essence of Walkabout isn’t really those elements, it is a wonderfully-realised dream-like state, using clever imagery, symbolism and cross-cutting and editing, to create an atmosphere and imagery that is as rich as the Outback environment itself, a filmic version of the ancient Songlines and Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture, sometimes languid, like the dream of a half-waking doze on a warm day, sometimes sudden, even violent, mixing Aboriginal culture (Gulpilil, already an experienced dancer despite his young age here, crafts an intoxicating scene entirely through traditional dancing) and allusions to the Garden of Eden, innocence and its loss, nature and the urban.

This isn’t a film that is easy to review, because it’s more than a film, Walkabout is an experience, a waking dream on celluloid that can be shared, and how each of us reacts to those images and sounds will be different. It is a film to lose yourself in, to drink in those rich images, that landscape and nature. A commercial flop on its original release, it remains an important film, lauded by many critics and the BFI as a classic – it helped to kickstart the new wave of Aussie film-making which has gone on to enrich world cinema (something we here obviously care deeply about), and it launched the then-young Gulpilil onto a career which has seen him become an iconic figure in Australian cinema. If, like me, you haven’t seen this film in a long time, this is a very welcome chance to revisit this moving dream of a movie; if you haven’t seen it before then sit back and let this classic wash over you with its rich imagery.

Walkabout will receive a limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight from 27th August

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

Reviews: The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden,
Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Tor/Macmillan
Hardback, 608 pages,
Published August 2020

After the recent Children of Time and Children of Ruin, as well as Firewalkers, it is fair to say I was very eagerly anticipating Tchaikovsky’s new stand-alone novel. As with the Children series, this is a huge tome of a book, but don’t let the size daunt you – like Peter F Hamilton’s books, when you start reading them they are so engrossing and so well-paced it doesn’t feel like you are working through a massive page count, you will be quite happily enraptured with both the story and the myriad of ideas it sparks inside your head.

Two young girlfriends, Mal and Lee, take a short holiday of sorts – they love exploring reports of cryptids together, and even write them up for publications like the Fortean Times. Naturally both like the idea of mysterious creatures, unknown to science, but they are also intelligent enough to know that most reports are mistaken identities (it turns out the giant panther was a domestic cat and someone couldn’t judge distance and size in the dark) or out and out fabrications. What happens, though, when it starts to seem like there may be more to a sighting on the lonely moors than they suspected? What happens when a set of three ancient standing stones, known as the six sisters, despite only numbering three, becomes, right in front of their eyes, a circle of six? And when snow blows across the midsummer moors in an instant, with strange beings glimpsed in the storm? What happens when Mal vanishes?

Four years on and Lee, still wondering what happened, if she imagined things, if she went mad, is still missing her friend and lover, when Lee returns, looking different, but definitely her. Where has she been? Why so long before returning to London? Lee’s return is linked to a number of other events though – other strange disappearances, a remarkable breakthrough in computational maths and physics that could bypass all the top-secret encryption used by security services the world over, a manipulative billionaire with connections to both political heavyweights and low-life Neo-Nazi boot boys… And, perhaps something even larger, something which has a bearing on the very nature of existence itself.

Within the first hundred and fifty pages or so Tchaikovsky gives us a story of intrepid cryptid explorers then adds in scientific breakthroughs and elements of a spy thriller. This is more than most novels do in their entire page count! And then there is the fascinating and compelling element of multiple realities. The multiverse is no stranger to SF readers, of course, from Moorcock to the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and many more, and indeed it is a concept taken seriously by many in the scientific community nowadays. Here, in addition to the idea of multiple Earths in parallel realities, Tchaikovsky also deftly indulges in a lot of evolutionary what-ifs.

This isn’t just the old, here is the Earth where the Allies lost WWII, or Rome never fell approach (not that I have anything against those, tales, when done well), here, as with the Children books, he takes the very long-term view, exploring multiple evolutionary approaches on Earth. There are some where dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved into intelligent lifeforms (yes, I know, technically not all dinosaurs died out, some evolved into the bird family, and indeed that idea is also nicely explored), others where the huge sea scorpion type creatures became the dominant life millions of years before even reptiles or dinosaurs, let alone mammals or humans. But in each, while all the various possible lines of evolution play out, each Earth still suffers the same massive traumas, the same mass extinction events caused by ice or fire or meteor. Some vanish into these cataclysms, others adapt only to be lost later in the vastness of geological epochs passing (we are talking millions and billions of years, after all). We even get to ponder that remarkable evolutionary accident that had more than one type of intelligent human life existing at the same time on the same world (our own) and how that played out in other Earths closer to our timeline.

The main arcs of the story have some fascinating excerpts from a book on these parallel evolutions on other Earths, which explores so many possibilities (and yes, it does also allow Adrian to indulge in having some multi-legged creatures in the book, of course!), and I found these as intriguing as the main story. We have an engrossing story, some terrific characters (and also, I should add, a nice bit of diversity there, including gay and trans characters, and that’s just among the humans, which was very welcome), and a gradual layering of all the various strands which take the story off into a different direction than you may at first suspect, upping the stakes for the characters, indeed for all of the various worlds, each time we learn something new, and at points even incorporating the multiverse story into the actual structure of the writing to give multiple perspectives and possibilities.

This is simply superb science fiction, a gripping, high-stakes quest, and some staggering concepts that will leave you thinking about all those many possibilities, all those what-ifs that made our world – and the many other Earths – what they became.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

Reviews: Victory Point

Victory Point,
Owen D. Pomery,
Avery Hill

During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.

Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.

And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.

The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.

Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.

Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).

The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.

It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.

Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.

Review: Mongrel

Mongrel,
Sayra Begum,
Knockabout Comics

There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).

Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.

Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”

Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.

But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.

It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.

But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.

Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Echoes of Fear

Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley

Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.

As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.

Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.

The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.

But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.

While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).

As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?

I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!

Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood,
Directed by Marielle Heller,
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni

“You don’t consider yourself famous?”

“Fame is a four letter word, like tape, or zoom and face. Ultimately what matters is what you do with it.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.”

Fred Rogers, simply knowns as “Mister Rogers” to generations of child viewers, was an institution in American broadcasting for children, an integral part of many a childhood, a virtual friend to many kids who needed one, with his show, Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a small gap in the 70s). Like many in the UK I knew very little about him as the show wasn’t really known here, and most of what I knew about it I had picked up from references in countless American TV shows and films (the amount of times the show and the man are mentioned in so many different programmes and films gives you an idea of how embedded in the popular culture it was in the US, generations grew up with this).

Not being overly familiar with the show and so lacking that nostalgic affection for it, I was curious to see this movie (especially after it garnered praise at the highly respected Toronto film fest), but also rather worried that without that familiarity and affection for the show and the man, that I might not be able to connect with it. Well, that wasn’t the case – Marielle Heller and her crew and cast (especially Hanks, pretty much perfectly cast, and Rhys as the cynical journalist Lloyd) have crafted a film which is universally accessible to all viewers, regardless of their familiarity or lack thereof with the show, because this film is, at its very core, a film about the emotional depths of the human soul, about the dark places, the things that frighten us, worry us, make us angry, and how we can try to overcome them, about how it is is a good thing to listen, to be there for someone, to help, and in turn that it is okay to admit we are scared or angry, and to take a hand when it is offered.

The film is not, as I first thought, a biopic about Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), rather it is inspired by a late 1990s article about him for Esquire magazine. Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a famous and respected investigative journalist, and more than a little put out when his editor hands him the assignment of a short interview with Rogers for a special issue on heroes. He’s far from happy, considering this a puff piece, and after his brief meeting with Rogers during a short break filming his show, he feels that there is something more here. While everyone loves Mr Rogers, he starts to think there must be something else, darker, hidden behind the home-knitted cardigans and gentle manner, and begins to plan a much longer piece on his own.

We’ve sadly become all too use to many much-loved popular culture figures later being exposed as something so far from their warm, public persona, and often feel a sense of betrayal, of another layer of cynicism added to our emotional armour when this happens. Here, however, the darkness is very much Lloyd’s own problems being reflected – his cynicism, his still simmering anger years later at the loss of his mother, of his estranged, womanising father’s betrayal of her when she was ill, his worries about responsibility for his and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn baby. Rogers sees this in Lloyd, and with the same patient, understanding, reassuring approach he took to helping kids deal with emotional problems on his show, he gently befriends Lloyd, helping him to realise he can face that loss, grief and anger, but come through the other side.

This really, really could have ended up being a sugary, shmaltzy, syrupy story. That it isn’t is a huge credit to Heller, Hanks and Rhys, who offer a quite beautiful, emotional tale that will want to make you both cry and smile, while also giving some lovely visual treats – the model of the neighbourhood that was used in the show re-appears here (as do the various puppet characters and others), but that model approach is then also used for the different locations throughout the film, a lovely touch (and props to the model makers re-creating this in the same style as the original), or Lloyd hallucinating himself to be the size of the show’s puppets, on the model set, being asked by Fred about his problems, or a moment with the pair on the New York subway, where passengers recognise Rogers and start to sing his theme song, to his delight.

No, this may be a feel-good film in many ways, but it avoids most of the normal, overly-sugary traps those kinds of films often fall into. Instead we have a piece which feels very empathic, emotionally – you may well find yourself thinking about moments good and bad in your own life as you watch (I certainly did). Neighbourhood takes us on that emotional journey, but tell us that it’s okay, that it’s only human to feel, that it is okay to be sad sometimes, that anger is normal, it is what we do with them, how we deal with them that is important, and how we deal with one another, that bad things happen to us sometimes, but so often there is someone there who wants to help, and it is not weakness to take that hand that reaches out to you. As our entire global community deals with stresses and strains of the pandemic, this may very well be an almost perfect film to enjoy. An absolutely beautiful, warm, emotional journey.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is released by Sony on home digital from May 25th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 8th