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

Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,



Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.


Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.


Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.


Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.


It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

Filmish book 4 – Food on Film

Filmish: Food on Film

Edward Ross

Filmish 4 food on film edward ross cover

As regular readers will know, I’m a bit of a cinephile and as such it’s no surprise that I’ve really enjoyed the previous entries in Edward Ross’ Filmish series, examining the world of cinema and film theory through comics, essentially taking one modern, mass, primarily visual artform which came into prominence in the 20th century and looking at it through the medium of another. In many ways the media of cinema and comics have grown up together across the last century and a bit, and both have intercrossed with one another numerous times across the decades, from comic characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers inspiring cult, pulp serial films or celebrated early comics superstar Winsor McCay experimenting with film animation through to the modern era and massive film properties drawn (no pun intended) from comics, or a filmic visual sensibility influencing comic artists (as seen to such great effect in Dave Gibbons’ art for Watchmen, for instance), so it seems quite appropriate to me that Ed should use comics as a handy, very accessible portal into the world of film studies.

Filmish 4 food on film edward ross 1

In previous editions Edward has looked more generally at film theory (issue #1, reviewed here), set designs and architecture (issue #2, reviewed here) and technology and technophobia (issue #3, reviewed here). Edward has been pretty busy since the third Filmish so there’s been a bit of a gap that one and this new fourth, in which the theme is “food on film”. It’s an interesting topic to explore and, despite the fact we can all probably conjure to mind several good examples of the use of food and dining in film, it’s one most of us, even those who spend too much time thinking about cinema, won’t generally spend a lot of time considering. But as Edward points out in the opening pages, food is one of the great universals of the human condition – we all have to eat, quite simply, or we cannot live. But food in human culture is often about far more than simple sustenance, food, the preparation for it, the type of food on offer, the location consumed, who is providing it, all come laden with cultural and social meaning, from the simple and wonderful delight of the family meal, cooked with love for those who will share the meal, the unspoken satisfaction of the familial bonding around the dinner table, the ritual pleasure of it, through to the hideously expensive restaurant where one has to book months in advance simply to enter and where dining is more about being seen in a particular setting by others than enjoying food.

Filmish 4 food on film edward ross 3

Here Edward explores these and other food-related topics from decades of cinema. Unsurprisingly one of early cinema’s iconic scenes, the great Charlie Chaplin, starving, cooking and eating his own shoe during the Depression in The Gold Rush. As Ed shows, this is a comedy moment, Chaplin prepares his shoe like a gourmet meal and dines as if in a fine restaurant, despite the nature of his dish. But as he also shows this is about more than comedy, it’s Chaplin, never one to shy away from working in social commentary, making it clear that despite being wretchedly poor and hungry, his Little Tramp is still a civilised man, not a feral animal, still with some dignity, attempted to hold on to a little piece of civilised culture as he carves into his own boot by candlelight. It’s Chaplin declaring even the poorest in a time of hardship are still people, and in our current economic climate with growing reliance on charity food banks, it’s a memorable scene which still has social relevance to today, in addition to its comedic qualities.

Filmish 4 food on film edward ross 4

Anyone with more than a passing interest will doubtless anticipate some of the films which will make an appearance here – quite understandably Greenaway’s The Coof, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover commands a section of the comic. Given how food, it’s consumption and its social setting is a large part of the film it’s a good choice, and Ed uses it to demonstrate how film can use the consumption of food – something we are all familiar with, of course – to symbolise other qualities, such as the way the gangster Albert uses his expensive restaurant to demonstrate his power and patronage, but also as a transgressive power, in the way those who displease him are forced to consume non-food item in front of others, both humiliating them while making clear his alpha-male status (this will, of course, be turned on him in a rather macabre yet darkly amusing and appropriate manner towards the end).

Filmish 4 food on film edward ross 2

Horror, often a huge favourite with film studies academics, of course makes an appearance, from the use of a very everyday dining experience on a working ship in Ridley Scott’s Alien to give a sense of normality to the viewers, that even although this is the far future, in deep space, people are still people, sitting around the table, gossiping, bitching, laughing, eating, drinking. And then of course having established that normality a later dining experience is used to shatter that seeming normality in one of modern cinema’s most iconic scenes as the alien creature erupts through John Hurt’s stomach right on the dining table. It’s a sequence often discussed more in terms of gender (a form of male rape crossed with a violent, horrible inversion of birth as new life erupts from the man’s violated body), but here it is viewed again in terms of food and consumption – “a reversal of consumption” as one panel has it. The Alien films were a regular feature in film studies when I was at college, but as I said generally more about power and gender terms in the analysis, so although I was very familiar with both the film and academic theories on it I hadn’t really considered it from the food perspective before and it’s always interesting to be reading about something you know very well and suddenly finding a different angle on it to make you think about it again.

While I was very familiar with many of the films here Edward also brings in all sorts of other examples from various languages and film cultures, some of which I know only by reputation, such as Tampopo, “which paints a picture of a Japan obsessed with food”, or Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty (in which bodily functions and social interaction are inversed – the ‘civilised’ classes eating in private but defecating in public, or Hungarian film Taxidermia which uses food and consumption to chart three stages of recent history for that country, from fascism through communism to capitalism. Obviously anyone reading this will think of some of their own film viewing and wish they too had been included, but that’s always the nature of these things and besides there needs to be a strict, disciplined control on the number and type of examples – after all Ed is using them to illustrate some points about the symbolism and nature of food, not as an illustrated A-Z of food scenes in film history! Just as you have to pick specific examples and back them up with references when writing an academic essay the same has to be done in this kind of comic work, and it is something Ed again proves he is very good at, in fact in many ways I think it’s fair to consider the Filmish series as film studies essays in comics form.

Edward Ross & Will Morris at Edinburgh Book Fest 2013 04
(Edward Ross – centre – on stage at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival with Dr Chris Murray – left – and Will Morris – on the right – pic from my Flickr)

On stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month with Will Morris, Edward commented that he has mostly been learning how to create comics through the tried and tested method of making them. I think that shows when I glance back at my earlier copies of Filmish – which is not to say I thought there was anything wrong with the first ones, far from it, in fact I gave them good reviews and commended to them. But looking back to the first one (which I read in 2010 after picking it up in the Filmhouse in Edinburgh) and then to this new issue I can clearly see Ed’s artwork and layout becoming more proficient; the artwork is sharper and has a much clearer line to it, while I think he’s become much more experienced and confident in laying out the panels to convey the message he wants to get across, which is good to see, while he has retained elements which have worked well from the very earliest outings, such as dropping his own cartoon alter ego in from time to time as a guide and commentator. As with previous issues Edward includes both a filmography and a bibliography so that the curious reader can follow up any areas the find themselves wanting to explore further, and I imagine that many, like me, will find themselves with a desire after reading to go and find some of the films mentioned here again, some old friends to re-watch to consider again in a different light, some that we came across in this volume which are new to us and that we now have to find and watch, and that to me is always a mark of good reading, when it leaves you wanting to go and explore other artforms.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Filmish 3 – movies, comics and technology

Filmish #3: Technology and Technophobia

Edward Ross, self published

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit of a cinephile and so it is no surprise that when Edward Ross started his Filmish series, combining film studies with comics, I was rather pleased to see two of my favourite things coming together. The brand new third entry in the series, like the second issue, eschews the multiple subject approach of the first issue to concentrate instead on a single theme, which, as I noted with the second issue (reviewed here; first issue reviewed here), made the comic stronger and more focussed, important attributes in a relatively short work. The theme this time is Technology and Technophobia, an extremely apt subject matter for film – as Edward notes himself early on the entire medium of film is built on technology. Technology gave birth to first of all the still camera then the moving image; technology’s increasingly rapid advance throughout the 20th century is mirrored in the movies, not only in the subjects those films dealt with but in the very mechanisms and means of production of film itself, from the introduction of sound and colour to the modern, wide-screen panoramas and at the other end of the scale the almost handmade, independent, micro-budget flicks which are a direct result of the new, low cost but high quality digital tech.

The comic takes a more or less chronological look at technology and the movies, starting with the Lumière Brothers and their very simple shorts where the film itself was the technological marvel of the age, a true scientific wonder of the late Victorian era, amazing audiences who had never seen a moving image before, save for the basic, flickering animations of a zoetrope lantern, perhaps (it’s an era captured beautifully in a scene in Coppola’s Dracula). But it isn’t long before the makers of this nascent, new medium discover it has an almost unique ability to use technology to both tell an engrossing story and to amaze the viewers with visual splendour, from A Trip to the Moon onwards.

(scenes from the introduction to Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

It would be very, very easy to pretty much stick to science fiction for this issue and of course Edward does indeed make great use of the genre to illustrate his chosen subject, drawing on well known SF films from Shape of Things to Come to the Terminator. But it is to his credit that he ensures that his net is cast wider than a single genre to cover this subject: Chaplin’s great classic Modern Times (still a film I find both funny and with relevant points to make even 80 years on) might be an obvious non-SF film to include when discussing technology, technophobia and the movies, but Edward also discusses the emergence of film comedy in the silent era and how the actual technology of film-making changed the face of long-established comedy and I appreciated him making these less obvious points (besides which any comic which sneaks in a cameo from the great Buster Keaton has to be good in my book).

(Modern Times prove problematic for Chaplin, from Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

Edward also (quite correctly) compares technology projected in the movies with the real world technology of their era, from Wells’ utopian (if somewhat elitist, verging almost on techno-fascist) vision of science and reason in Shape of Things to Come to the more downbeat films which expressed increasing societal disquiet at the rapid expansion of technology and scientific knowledge and the fears that it we were pushing too far and too swiftly into areas we perhaps had no right to investigate in the first place. This is, understandably, most especially noticeable in the post-war years following the dropping of the new atomic weapons; it was hardly surprising that the huge fear such potent symbols of scientific advancements embodied would be mirrored by film-makers.

It isn’t just the raw power of nuclear physics which Edward includes here though, he also brings in other emerging technologies that worried society such as television in the home (a technology that also worried film-makers). David Cronenberg’s powerful and disturbing Videodrome is pretty much the poster child for worry about television’s pervasive influence (and the emergence of less regulated multi-channel viewing and direct access to videos to watch on demand, all of which actually lead to moral panics and even parliamentary legislation in the 80s. Videodrome itself remains a film very much ahead of its time in terms of addressing the multimedia age and our worries about its influence, a much recommended film).

Videodrome isn’t just about the ‘hard’ technology of the media though, like much of Cronenberg’s work it includes a strong element of ‘body horror’, with scenes where the protagonist imagines (or is it real?) his own body mutating in response to new technology, including growing a vaginal like orifice in his torso which a video cassette (amusingly in the context of this subject a now obsolete technology already) can be inserted and extracted from. This, in turn, leads into new ‘soft’ technologies, the advancements in cybernetics and biological and genetic research, and the way film has again mirrored societal concerns about ‘mad scientists’ dabbling with powers they cannot possibly comprehend, the human body and the machine not just working in tandem but actually merging, with Tetsuo’s Iron Man as a prime example or the Terminator’s combination of deadly machine over human flesh as the ultimate in human-machine. Or the cracking of the human genome and unravelling of the myriad of computer like instructions that tell our bodies how to be us, almost as if we were in fact flesh and blood machines, bringing us right up to date with filmic examples like the recent Splice, alongside digital imaging tech that allows us to have ‘synthetic’ characters. It isn’t all techno-fear though, Edward also covers the hugely accessible and affordable nature of digital tech and how this had given birth to a whole new generation of movie makers, from those in the cinema with microbudget works like Blair Witch to people putting together their own shorts (or reworking other people’s works) online.

(the cameras, the ‘film’, the editing and now even life itself, all gone digital… From Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

As with the first two issues Edward packs a lot into a short comic but always keeps the tone fairly light rather than lecturing (which would have been an easy trap for some to fall into, he avoids it neatly), informative yet entertaining and above all making the subject of film studies very accessible even to anyone who has never sat through a series of academic lectures by men in beards and corduroy. And for those (like me) who have, it is still an enjoyable read and Edward still flagged up some notions I hadn’t considered before. Again he backs this up by giving a short bibliography at the end (tied to properly referencing his quotes in the actual comic) and a filmography too, meaning anyone who enjoys this and wants to read and watch more has a good list at their fingertips already (and again, as in previous reviews, for anyone interested in film studies I still recommend Pam Cook’s BFI publication The Cinema Book as a fine, all-purpose introduction title). Filmish #3 marks another strong entry into Edward’s marriage of film theory and comics (in a scene where it seems we are constantly seeing comics being adapted for cinema it is also amusing to me to see a comic dissecting and commenting on the medium of film) and it remains a nice example of how adaptable the comics medium is to tackling so many different subjects effectively.

And it might just be me, but with three issues of Filmish now I couldn’t help but think as I read this one that the idea could also translate rather nicely into a nice and relatively simple animated style – a few short animations based on Filmish would make for a lovely (and again very accessible to all) wee series on films for some enterprising TV channel (paging BBC4?). But until some television programmer thinks likewise then at least we have the comics; Filmish 3 is just back from the publishers (in fact Edward should have had the first batch at the weekend’s small press bash in London and I hope some of you picked it up) and is available from his website and should also be available at the Edinburgh Filmhouse as usual. Oh and since the theme for this issue was technology I should probably tell you that I actually read it as a PDF on a tablet; I still prefer the physical print version of books and comics, but must confess the wee tablet is proving quite handy for reading PDF versions of upcoming comics form indy creators and presses. There’s that technology again… And on another related technology story Edward has decided to make issue one of Filmish available as a pay-what-you-think download from his site. You can also read Edward’s guest Best of the Year choices here on the blog. (this review was originally written for the Forbidden Planet blog)

Filmish #2: more film theory meets comics

Filmish #2: Sets and Architecture

Edward Ross

Self published

Earlier this year I picked up the first of Edward Ross’ Filmish comics (reviewed here) when I spotted it in my home from home, The Filmhouse (long an institution for film and art lovers in Edinburgh not just for showing wonderful world cinema but for linking into other events, exhibitions and festivals in the city to combine the moving image with the rest of the arts world around it). Filmish #1 took three subjects – Monsters, Food on Film and Point-of-View – and tackled them in a short but satisfying manner, laying out some basics quite suitable even for those who love film but have never entered the often mystifying realms of cine-academia. Issue #2 continues to be an easily accessible look into film studies through the comics medium, but this time it concentrates instead on one main topic – sets and architecture – and I think it’s emerged as a stronger and more interesting read as a result.

Sets and architecture are, as Edward notes, two very closely related disciplines. Architecture describes the artificial environment we build around ourselves and the spaces between – or sometimes within – them that we move through and live in. Set designers attempt to create similar effects for an audience, a believable space (even when describing fantastical realms) that the audience can move through with the actors. Architects borrow from artists and film designers to create their desired effects, welding their tricks of perspective and illusion to create a reality to real world engineering, while film set designers employ tricks from stage illusions and magic, combined with engineering and architecture and art. There’s something arguably satisfying about reading about this inter-meshing of two art/science forms via the comics medium: like the best architecture comics often start as rough doodles and outlines sketched on paper, like film comics can suspend time and space to move through those imagined realms in a way not possible in the real world (and in architecture you could argue that in the computer design stage architects also play with bending perspectives, time and space as they hone their vision).

(Edward’s black and white art seemed particularly suited to the delightfully skewed monochrome designs of Doctor Caligari; from Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

As with the first Filmish the comic is replete with examples from the screen, drawn from across cinematic history, from the great Georges Melies through to The Matrix and the current resurgence of 3D with Avatar, as before using quotes from various film studies essays to justify a particular point. Ross has fun walking his own virtual comics avatar through a variety of scenes from famous films by way of illustration, from the skewed perspectives of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, German Expressionism and Film Noir to the immersive, virtual sets of Avatar, tying these also to movements in other art forms (Surrealism and Expressionism for example), while also touching on changing ways we interact with architectural spaces like cities in the real world and how this has been reflected in film.

Unsurprisingly he picks on Lang’s Metropolis and Scott’s Blade Runner as two prime examples to use, which is fair enough given how hugely influential both have been, but he also touches on work you might not have thought about for this kind of study, notably McTiernan’s original Die Hard and the way McClane moves through the vast skyscraper tower – ducts, lift shafts, external windows – compared to the ordinary characters who move only through the proscribed, normal channels (doors, corridors) and links this to modern developments like Parkour and the way it creates a new relationship to the architecture of the city as the practitioners moves through, around, over and under it in ways never imagined by designers and as extolled in films like District 13 (and I found it amusing to think of such a straight Hollywood blockbuster type of flick as Die Hard containing such transgressional elements – proof if it be needed that the viewer can interpret what they want from a text).

Once again I found I really enjoyed this comics trip into film studies. I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who is both a lifelong cinephile and someone who has penned more than their fair share of academic film studies essays, but Edward’s created this deliberately so that no formal knowledge of academic film studies is necessary, just a love of cinema and imagery. As with the first book the quotes from various essays used during the comic are all properly referenced so you can follow them up if you want and there is a bibliography and a selected filmography at the end for suggested reading if you want to expand your knowledge and take in some excellent films relevant to this particular theme (again for those new to film studies I highly recommend Pam Cook’s thorough and yet approachable The Cinema Book as a great prime reference text).

(“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave…”; you can’t discuss set design and architecture in film without referencing Blade Runner. From Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

Obviously there are more approaches that could have been included and more relevant films you might think should be in this particular issue (no Dark City?) but there’s only so much space in a mini-comic and I think Edward used it well. On the production side of things the paper stock felt much better than for the first issue and on the art side I like the way Edward uses his cartoon self as a narrator, often altered to fit a particular film he’s describing (notably at one point he’s portrayed as the robot from Metropolis); I strongly suspect he rather enjoys projecting himself into those film scenes (quite rightly). Cinema and comics both largely grew up during the same century and given how much they have fed from one another (think on various film themes borrowed for comics, especially early 2000 AD, or how many films are inspired by comics, or even just on imagery and techniques inspired or borrowed from one medium to the other – Dave Gibbons’ cinematic Watchmen frames for instance) I think it is highly appropriate to be using one of those mediums to study the other. I’ve really enjoyed the first two issues of Filmish and I think concentrating on a particular topic here (as compared to three in the first issue) was a better route to go, offering a more satisfying read. I look forward to more and seeing what areas Edward tackles next – genre theory, maybe (go on, Edward, it will give you an excuse to draw yourself in Mac and Fedora as well as cowboy hat!)? Filmish is available from Edward’s website or if you are in Edinburgh you can pick it up from the Filmhouse box office on Lothian Road.

Filmish – comics meet film theory

Filmish: Comic Book Essays on Film Theory

By Edward Ross

Self published

Filmish comic book essays on film theory Edward Ross cover

I spotted this mini-comic on a recent trip to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (spiritual home to the city’s film festival and a mecca for those who love quality cinema from around the world. not to mention a second home to me since I first came here back in 91 as a student). A short comic on film theory? Unusual topic but since I spent a fair chunk of my college time studying film theory I was intrigued and picked it up (admittedly a considerable part of my studying involved watching movies in that same Filmhouse, but that counts as research, not bunking off classes, honest). Film and media studies can leave mental scarring for life, with victims still moved years after university to indulge in pseudo-academic discussion (or talking cobblers in the pub post-film, depending on your point of view and level of inebriation) in which they use terms like “the paradigmatic and syntagmatic nature of the text.” I shall endeavour not do that here. Filmish is a short work, black and white, nice, clear artwork with card covers, and obviously it can’t cover several decades of film theory in any depth, but Edward opts smartly to take just three areas as examples and discuss those: Monsters, Food on Film and Point of View (the longest of the three chapters).

Monsters was a lot of fun for me – it will surprise no-one that I worked the more fantastical and horror genres into my film studies back in college. Actually this wasn’t just because of my own interest in those genres – films with science fiction, horror and monsters in general are a hugely rich subject area for academics. It shouldn’t be surprising since these are genres which often use the theatrical trappings of the fantastical to explore real, everyday human fears and concerns. Edward notes this and how the filmic monster has changed throughout the decades in response to historical and cultural forces: Gojira in early 50s Japan playing on the fears created by the atomic bombings which ended World War Two, the ‘reds under the beds’ scare of McCarthyist America in the 50s and how the original, classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers fits the rampant paranoia of the time and the fear of the enemy within, through to the body horror of the 70s and 80s (step forward Mr Cronenberg) and the 21st century return to the big monster movie with Cloverfield, linking the rampaging, city-destroying monster with post-911 fears.

Filmish comics essay on film theory monsters edawrd ross

Point of View is the longest segment in the comic and covers rather more than the simple, technical meaning of POV (i.e. the viewpoint presented by the camera’s ‘eye’ to the viewer) but also the cultural point of view: the way a scene or character is framed and the way that influences the way the viewer ‘reads’ the image. Sadly this does mean a bit too much Laura Mulvey and the ‘male gaze’ for my taste (at college I thought Mulvey made some interesting points but as with many academics in this field, only selectively, there are many examples that don’t fit her theories). That said Mulvey is a major writer on understanding film and my personal likes and dislikes aside Edward would be remiss if he didn’t include her in this chapter (thank goodness he didn’t quote Barbara Creed and her ‘monstrous feminine’ or the various Freudian film analysts though).

The POV chapter also takes in later cinema which established different ways of seeing and presenting the world to the audience and changes in the sorts of lead characters audiences are encouraged to identify with, changes which mirror the way society has changed its views on, for example, women. I would question one scene though, where he implies that it was these later films that now allowed the audience to “participate with the film and think about and question the ideology of the onscreen image”; it seems to assume earlier audiences didn’t think about what they were watching, which seems unlikely. The passive audience has often been brought up by media theorists for various mass media, but I’ve never really bought into it (and indeed the old ‘hypodermic needle’ model of totally passive audience acceptance of what they are presented with is largely discredited among many media studies types. Some elements of audiences have always interpreted the text differently from the preferred reading encoded by the maker).

Filmish comics film theory point of view edward ross

The third and final short chapter is Food on Film – you might have expected something more obvious like a chapter on genre theory, perhaps, but as Edward explains “Wait” Hear me out” It’s not as daft as it might sound. In fact food has long played a major symbolic role in the movies”. He then goes on to cite a number of examples, from the early, silent era (a starving Charlie Chaplin carving up of an old boot as dinner) to more indirect uses of eating to portray characters’ state of mind (the ever increasing breakfast table, one of the simple but incredibly clever devices used to portray the cooling of a marriage in Citizen Kane) through to the more modern era and humans themselves being on the cinematic menu, be it as prey to other nightmare creatures (back to the monsters again! Cinema and film theorists can’t leave monsters and horror alone) or being served up to other humans (as in The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover).

As I said at the start it seems an unusual subject matter for a short comic, but the fact that it is using comics on a different theme from many I read is one of the things which interested me. The brevity means there’s no time for much depth in the chosen examples, understandably – you could fill 10, 000 word essays on each of these areas easily (and for some of them I have, in a former life), but obviously Edward isn’t trying to pretend he is giving you that. Rather he’s picking out some major examples and citing some of the important writers in the field of film studies and, importantly, he concludes each chapter by listing both some relevant films and some of the authors and their books which he quotes from, so if you are a movie buff but haven’t delved much into the academic study of the medium there are some good suggested examples of further reading should the comic inspire you (on a personal note I’d add Pam Cook’s excellent The Cinema Book, published by the BFI, as a perfect general primer for anyone interested in learning more about film theory and studies). It’s an interesting wee comic which I enjoyed; I don’t think you have to have any familiarity with film studies to enjoy it though; in fact for those unfamiliar with the field but interested in cinema it probably functions nicely for introducing a few key ideas from the field that they can then follow up for themselves.

There you go and I didn’t use the term ‘intertextual’ once and I have refrained from stroking my beard in a thoughtful manner while discoursing on postmodernism in cinema. You can check out more of Edward’s work via his blog, where I see he is another of our comics community who is taking part in the Hundred Days project and posting up the results, so go check it out.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog