Skies of Fire – Everyone Loves Airships

Do you like airships?

What am I talking about? Everybody likes airships.

But if you really like airships, or you like airships and you like comics, then you should check out Skies of Fire. It’s a dieselpunk adventure about a hunt for airship pirates in a world that looks like Europe circa 1920. There’s action, adventure, and wonderfully detailed images of cities, people, and flying machines. It’s one of those comics where I love getting lost in the world.

I stumbled across Skies of Fire at the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds. There are only three issues out so far, but I’m hoping for far more. And in the meantime, just look at that lovely cityscape and those shiny, shiny airships.

Because everyone loves airships.

Clinging to the Canon

Wrong sort of canon. Although maybe this is healthier.

The more our lives spin out of control, the tighter we cling to the fixed points we have. It’s a way of feeling secure and safe. In a world of Brexit, Donald Trump, and celebrities dropping like flies, we crave that security more than ever.

Let’s face it, the world was getting chaotic even before last year. The complexity of human society and the pace of change have been accelerating at an exponential rate. This leads to wonderful things we didn’t have when I was young, like smartphones, chap-hop music, and specialist coffee shops. But it’s also bewildering.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons people remain obsessed with protecting the importance of their particular cultural canon. This can be the definition of what’s in continuity for a sprawling franchise like Star Wars or the Marvel Universe. It can equally be literary critics upholding the cultural worth of particular books, claiming a timeless genius and relevance for things that are unapproachable for most people, sneering at whole swathes of culture.

It’s about clinging to the idea that what you had is important and relevant. It can lead to upset when Disney re-boots your continuity or the government takes your favourite classic off school reading lists. As if either of those things make the stories any better or worse.

I gave up on caring about canon when Marvel retconned away much of Grant Morrison’s amazing work on the X-Men.  I still think those are some of the best superhero comics ever. Whether their content and its meaning at the time is canon doesn’t matter. They’re awesome. I’d far rather read them than the latest crossover event or Far From the Madding Crowd, and I think they’re powerful stories despite fitting neither canon.

The world moves on. So do stories, their relevance, and their meaning. They mean different things to different people at different times, and that’s OK. If you find yourself getting concerned about what’s in the canon, maybe stop and ask why it matters to you, or whether it matters at all.

Unless it’s the other sort of canon and it’s pointing at you. Then maybe run.

My Favourite Things of 2016

What’s that you say, it’s the end of the year? Time for an inevitable best-of list?

Alright then. Who am I to resist. Below are some of my favourite new things from 2016. Have a read and let me know your favourites in the comments – they’ll give me more to explore next year.

Comic – The Wicked + The Divine

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillon continue to mesmerise with their story of music gods and potent magic. Part pop culture pastiche, part epic saga, all wonderful to behold, even in a year that saw the Chew finale, this was my favourite comic. McKelvie’s art is richly intoxicating, bringing both the mundane and the otherworldly to vivid life. Gillen’s plotting is strong and his dialogue sharp. They’re one of those creative teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the already great parts.

Music – Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become absolutely addicted to the work of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit. So when a new album came out this year, I was nervous that the spell might be broken.

There was no need to worry. This is another brooding yet uplifting mix of atmospheric guitars and brooding lyrics. As usual, Frightened Rabbit pick over the pieces of troubled emotional lives against the backdrop of modern Britain. And again, I could listen to this on loop all day and never get bored.

If indie angst isn’t your thing, then there’s always This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that there’s still plenty more of their quirky hiphop to come. Songs flit between the raunchy, the acerbic, and the deeply heartfelt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets my blood racing.

Film – Arrival

The idea – trying to translate the language of minds utterly unlike our own.

The emotions – loss, bewilderment, hope.

The style – sedately stunning.

The performances – Amy Adams. Such wonderful, wonderful Amy Adams.

In the era of big spectacle sci-fi movies, this was the year’s slick, Hollywood budget think piece, and it is stunning in every sense.

Book – The Tiger and the Wolf

A lot of the books I read this year weren’t new releases. Of those that were, the standout was The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This is a great fantasy adventure in which a young woman comes of age and must decide where her loyalties lie. The world, initially reminiscent of the European Dark Ages, has a variety and fascination that goes far beyond mud huts and tribal politics. The shape-shifting magic reveals interesting layers and implications as it’s laid out before us. The characters are varied and likable. With two more to come in this series, I’ll definitely be back for more.

TV – The Ranch

This choice has been made on very different grounds from the rest. With so much amazing TV out there, it’s hard to pick one show on grounds of true greatness. The Expanse, with its space adventures and socially grounded noir? The Man in the High Castle, with its reminders of the danger and attraction of fascism and the spell-binding yet subtle performance of Rufus Sewell? Marvel and Netflix’s ongoing stream of top superhero action?

These are all great. I recommend them. But with so much great TV out there, each piece isn’t as distinct and surprising as it once was.

Then there’s The Ranch. In so many ways, this is a perfectly ordinary American sitcom. The performers are good but not being used to the best of their abilities. The jokes are predictable. The emotions are overblown. The direction and camerawork are standard, uninspiring sitcom stuff.

Yet there’s also something surprising about The Ranch. Set in a small community in the heart of rural Republican America, it shows that side of the USA in a way the rest of the world seldom sees. Things we think of as progressive and as conservative get jumbled together by characters who see Hilary Clinton as a figure from nightmare yet keep weed in their vegetable box. The attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as the events of the setting, showed me a side of America that TV producers usually ignore. It took me to a world that was genuinely new to me.

And then there are the characters. Sure, they’re often cliched. Dad’s grumpy, Ashton Kutcher’s stupid, hahaha *sigh*. But they have nuanced emotional lives. They grapple with their thoughts, feelings, and self-perceptions. Because this is a Netlflix show, designed in the expectation that new viewers will start at the beginning, they change over time more than in many sitcoms. For all their dysfunction, these characters provide a healthy model for dealing openly with friends, family, lovers, and ourselves.

Even I’m shocked to find myself typing this, but in among so many far better shows, the one that defined my year in TV was The Ranch. It’s not amazing, but I love it.

Games – Fallout 4

OK, this was from 2015. But I don’t play a lot of computer games, and this was the one for me. The world building of the Fallout series is fantastic and the game environment gives you space to explore that. Its retro-futurist post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a nightmare to live in, but it’s great fun to explore. Combat, puzzle solving, and conversation flow smoothly together. It’s an example of what great story telling computer games do. It has its flaws, the plot and mechanics not quite meshing, but for the most part this is amazing work. I’ve spent days in this game, and I consider that time well spent.

 

So there you go – my top picks of 2016. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? What would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Talking Preacher at Sci-fi Addicts

At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human…

Looking for a different reflection on religion and friendship to balance the festive shmaltz? Then check out my recent article about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s amazing comic series Preacher over at Sci-Fi Addicts.

And then go read Preacher, because it is amazing.

The Bitter-Sweet Nature of Endings

There’s something Chew1Coverrevisedbitter-sweet about getting to the end of a great story. You get the pleasure of completion and of seeing what clever finale the creators had planned. But on the other hand, it’s over. No more of this. The end.

Chew, one of my favourite comic series, just reached its finish. It was as ending that came out of everything that came before. It was powerful and striking and utterly bonkers. It was the perfect finale to this excellent series.

I’m sad to see it go, but pleased that I got to see the end. And the other sweet side of this is seeing what John Layman and Rob Guillory will do next.

If you haven’t already, go read Chew. The whole story is there waiting for you now.

And if you have a favourite ending – bitter, sweet, or a bit of both – let me know what story it was in the comments below.

The Private Lives of Elder Things – Powerful Hints of Powerful Horrors

elder-thingsHorrors creeping in around the edges of modern life. A sense that something terrible and abnormal is reaching out toward us. The eldritch amid the mundane.

No, I’m not talking about party political conference season. I’m talking about The Private Lives of Elder Things, a cracking collection of Cthulhu mythos short stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald, and Adam Gauntlett.

Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

I don’t read a lot Cthulhu fiction. I hold my hands up now and confess that I’ve never read a word by H. P. Lovecraft himself. But I’m friends with two of the authors of this collection, I like their writing, and there was free wine at their book launch. So not only did I buy a signed copy, but I started reading it.

The less horrifying side of this - the authors.
The less horrifying side of this – the authors.

Weeks later, I told Keris that I was reading her book and hadn’t read much Cthulhu. She seemed surprised and asked what I thought of it. After all, the stories are built on references to existing Cthulhu creatures. Without that prior reading, a lot of the references were going to be lost on me.

The answer is that I’m really enjoying these stories. I can tell as I read them that they’re referring to things I don’t recognise or understand. For me, that doesn’t leave me frustratingly lost. Instead, it creates the feeling of being embedded in a larger, richer world. I’m intrigued by those hints at things beyond the stories in my hands. They add to my immersion because they’ve been done well and so hint at a wider in-story world, rather than being nudge wink references that pull me out of the text.

And of course, the feeling of incomprehension is part of the allure of the mythos.

Superheroes and the Supernatural

I get the same experience reading the better superhero comics from DC and Marvel. References to events and characters in their wider continuities can create a sense of depth and richness. As long as those add to the story, rather than being what holds it up, they create depth whether I understand the references or not. Take this page from Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers:

thor-and-cap-wont-help

 

Do I need to know about the current story arcs of Thor and Captain America to understand the significance of them ignoring events outside? No. Is a deep understanding of their personalities vital to the story? No. Does it add something? Yes.

Of course, when poorly handled, these references become meaningless and frustrating, and that happens a lot in comics. A reliance on continuity rather than its use as flavour makes many comics inaccessible to new readers and boring to the less continuity-minded like me. Some people love it, but I think you can over-salt this meal.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in The Private Lives of Elder Things. These are creepy stories set in the modern world that hint at something more. They’re thoroughly enjoyable.

 

You can get The Private Lives… through Amazon. And while you’re there, why not check out the latest issue of 9Tales Told in the Dark, featuring my own take on horror, “Cold Flesh”.

Do Marvel TV’s Corridors Describe Modern Life?

Marvel and Netflix released a trailer for their Luke Cage show at Comic Con. Unsurprisingly, it looks awesome. With its hip-hop soundtrack, feats of strength and intriguing snippets of dialogue, it fits the tone of these shows while bringing something different. And I don’t just mean the ever-charismatic Mike Colter, who could give Chris Evans a run for his money in the charming superhero stakes.

Premiere of 'Bloodline'

That’s right, I said it – I now have ridiculous man-crushes on two Marvel superhero actors.

Yet there was also something familiar about the trailer. Because, like Daredevil before him, Luke Cage is having a setpiece rumble in a corridor.

luke cage corridor
Why wouldn’t you want to see another picture of Mike Colter?

Do We All Live (and Fight) in Corridors Now?

This got me thinking about corridors as spaces – what they represent both in reality and in TV shows. Aside from being useful in cool fight scenes, that is.

Corridors are places yet also the space between places. They’re part of buildings, destinations in their own right. But they’re also transitional spaces, like the motorway-based cities Warren Ellis discussed in Desolation Jones. They don’t really have identities and functions, like a bedroom or kitchen. They’re spaces we pass through.

And we spend a lot of time in them.

dj freeways

This is how a lot of urban space has become over the past century – something we hurry through on our way to a destination, not a place to linger in and enjoy. For those of us living in cities and towns, corridors are emblematic of the space we live in.

What better space to use in these gritty, urban superhero shows that Marvel and Netflix are creating? The conversations outside Jessica Jones’s office are often hugely important, and they take place in this limbo space, on a journey from one real place to another. When Patsy Walker keeps a visitor in the corridor, she’s keeping him in that city limbo.

He's behind you! Or your door, at least.
He’s behind you!
Or your door, at least.

When Daredevil or Luke Cage fight their way down a corridor, they’re not fighting over their real goal – they’re just trying to get there by the best means they have – violence.

Our Corridor Lives

Going deeper down the rabbit hole of this metaphor, we can see corridors as representing the way we live in the modern western world. Jobs for life, homes for life, even relationships for life, these were common in previous generations. Now they’re all the exception rather than the norm. We are in a constant state of transition.

Everything we do with our lives is now both a journey and a destination, place and transitional space, somewhere and nowhere. Our lives have become corridors.

Like superheroes learning to use their powers, we are in constant transition.

Back Around to Marvel

If ever there was a set of genre shows that explored modern life – especially modern urban life – it’s these Netflix Marvel shows. Jessica Jones is about gendered power and rape, some of the most fiercely argued subjects of the moment. Daredevil explores the corrupting influence of wealth upon the law, and whether justice really can be blind, issues constantly thrown into stark light by news from America. Luke Cage looks likely to take us into the world of criminal gangs and drug trading, a parallel society and economy living parasitically alongside the legitimate one.

And so corridors become the perfect symbol for these shows. A modern transitional space heading towards an uncertain future, both for society and for genre television.

Plus they make for some really, really good fight scenes.

dd corridor

Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the ExilesThe Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.

I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.

I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.

I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.

I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.

Saga by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan – OK, Now I Get It

In a war torn universe a child is born to soldiers from opposing sides. Her mother has wings and a laser gun. Her father has horns and magic. She has the cutest little smile, and half the scumbags in the universe hunting her.

Welcome to Saga.

sagaA Graphic Classic?

I first tried Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s science fiction comic Saga a few years back. It was one of the hottest properties in American comics, I’d heard nothing but rave reviews, and I’d enjoyed other Vaughan books. So I picked up the first trade when it came out.

I was underwhelmed. I enjoyed it – the art was bold, the writing characterful, the universe it portrayed a feast of weirdness like nothing I’d ever seen before. And yet I felt no compulsion to read on. This was a well made comic, but it didn’t blow me away like Transmetropolitan, Preacher or 100 Bullets. It didn’t live up to the hype.

A Strange and Compelling Saga

So a couple of weeks ago I was visiting my friend Mags. I told him that I hadn’t read much of Saga. He looked shocked, and sent me away with five whole volumes. I thought it would be a while before I got through them, given my initial reaction, but boy was I wrong.

Saga is strange. It’s a mad mixture of science fiction and fantasy that carries the “this universe could contain anything” thrill that Flash Gordon must have had for an earlier generation. It’s also a crazy mix in terms of the issues it addresses. At the core is family – what makes one, what they mean to us, and how they shape us. But there’s far more than that. There’s war, justice and morality. There’s sacrifice and selfishness, conformity and defiance.

This is a saga both in being an epic genre adventure story, and in telling a soap opera style tale of a community changing over time. Characters join the cast, live, change and in some cases die. Years stretch out.

Then there’s the design of the universe and the characters, which is dazzlingly eclectic. There are people with televisions for heads; red light planets surrounded by hologram belts; water-dwelling dragons with beautifully mottled skin; living spacecraft. It’s confusing at first, busting through genre expectations, but it’s also amazing in its richness. And every time I thought I’d got a handle on the style, something new would come in to surprise me, like Ghüs, the cute little dungaree-clad seal who goes from sealion shepherd to axe-wielding galactic adventurer.Ghus

With its disparate strands and patchwork style, Saga isn’t as powerfully focused as 100 Bullets or Transmetropolitan. But it is every bit as rich and compelling.

Now I get it.

9 Thoughts About Daredevil Season 2

Daredevil_season_2I recently watched the new run of the Netflix/Marvel TV show Daredevil. Better people than I will offer coherent reviews, but I had a lot of thoughts about this show, and wanted to get them out of my system.

While I’ve tried to stay vague about details, there are spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned…

Damn, That’s A Good Punisher

When I heard that Marvel and Netflix were putting the Punisher into the second season of Daredevil I was worried. I understand the appeal of the Punisher, Marvel’s gun-toting vigilante anti-hero, but I didn’t think that his vengeful brutality would work well here. I was very, very wrong.

Punisher is the best thing about this season. The storyline around him explores the morality both of his actions and of Daredevil’s. It’s the most convincing and nuanced exploration of the character I’ve seen, made more powerful by Jon Bernthal’s compelling performance.

Matt Murdock’s an Arsehole

I really can’t emphasise this enough. It seems like we’re meant to like Murdock, aka Daredevil, empathising with his guilt-ridden Catholic ways and his need to take responsibility for everything around him. But the more I watch, the more I find his attitude rotten and egotistical. His constant references to “my city” and his insistence on him being the one to solve everything aren’t the attitude of a man taking reasonable responsibility – they’re the attitude of a man claiming ownership over the people around him. It’s not noble, it’s selfish, and he’d be far more effective if he worked with others. In his own way, he’s as unreasonable as the protagonists of Sons of Anarchy, and as with those characters, I empathise right up to the moment I think about what he’s saying and doing.

I can’t tell whether this is a deliberate move by a very clever show, or a terrible reflection of what is considered appropriate behaviour for a man and a hero. Given the Punisher plotline, I’d be inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt, but…

Where’s the Villain?

There’s an interesting conversation to be had about who the antagonist of this story is, but one thing’s for sure – there’s no interesting central villain. The Kingpin was a highlight of the first season, turning it from something good to something utterly compelling. Here he’s a bit player, and there’s no equivalent figure to take his place. The Punisher, though well written and performed, is sidelined in the second half of the season, and there’s no other figure as interesting. The eventual villains are dull and passionless. It’s a real shame, as the makers of this show have shown that they can do better.

Karen’s Become Interesting

Karen Page was a problem in the first season, a bit too much the blonde girlfriend / victim. The hints of darker things in her past weren’t enough to avoid the feeling that we were heading into terrible gendered tropes. This season she does better, emerging as a more strongly written and pro-active character, whose failings make her interesting rather than disappointing.

Will Claire Temple Bring the Defenders Together?

This point is wishful thinking on my part, but plausible at this point. Claire Temple, the nurse who helps out superheroes, is currently the strongest connecting thread between DaredevilJessica Jones and, through her existing relationship with the protagonist, possibly the upcoming Luke Cage series. Could she be the one to bring together these heroes and the as-yet-unseen Iron Fist for the eventual Defenders show?

I really hope so. Of all the characters we’ve seen in DD and JJ, Claire is the one I most admire as a person. She’s strong but not obstinate, caring but not a pushover, and Rosario Dawson never puts a foot wrong with her performance. As the person who picks up the pieces of the broken superheroes, and who calls them on their bullshit, Claire would make a wonderful central point and moral compass for the ensemble show.

Costumes and Personhood

Daredevil‘s two seasons have given us origin stories – one for Daredevil, the other for Punisher. In both cases, the character dons their costume at the end of that origin story, symbolising their new status as a superhero.

But I think there’s something else at stake here. In donning a costume they’re marking themselves as separate from the rest of humanity. Such costumes, like medieval full body armour and modern matching military uniforms, dehumanise the wearer, making it psychologically easier for them to perpetrate acts of violence against others, and to have those acts perpetrated against them.

In the context of the MCU’s gritty street hero shows, this feels particularly important. It fits with the moral decline and isolation we see in Daredevil, Electra and the Punisher. When they put on costumes, they set aside their humanity to take up the fight. The fact that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage haven’t done so is fitting, given that they’re more in touch with their humanity and other people.

This may be me reading my own interests into the show, rather than the intention of the show runners, but then stories only become complete in the minds of the audience.

The Terror of Blood Trails

Ever since watching The Untouchables in my youth, wide blood trails left by crawling characters have always filled me with dread. Every time I see them I feel the tension of the scene where assassins come after Sean Connery’s character, which at the time was one of the grittiest, tensest things I’d ever seen. I still think there’s something powerful and horrible about a messy blood trail left by an injured character crawling. Their pain is written across the ground in a way you don’t get with blood spatters. When I saw that in this show, it hit me harder than any other moment of violence.

The Slow Build of the Weird

The creators of Daredevil are being careful in the way they bring in strange and supernatural elements, building them ever so slowly out of the mundane. It’s a technique I’ve noticed in horror, in both David Tallerman and V H Leslie’s stories. It makes the implausible more plausible. It works well here.

Orientalism

One of the unfortunate aspects of Daredevil is that it reflects the west’s longstanding attitude towards Asia, and in particular east Asia, as a land of the exotic and dangerous. This season is rammed full of shallowly written oriental villains, without sympathetic characters of Asian descent on the other side. In isolation this would not be a problem, but in the context of modern culture it perpetuates a trope that’s very troubling when people are pointing with growing fear at Iran, North Korea and China. If, as some people hoped, Iron Fist had been cast as an Asian character, then the MCU’s street character team could have balanced this out. As it is, it left a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

In Conclusion…

Even a flawed Netflix Marvel show is still a superior superhero show. Daredevil isn’t as brilliant as Jessica Jones, but it’s still a good show, worth your time if you like superheroes or gritty drama. I just hope they pull their socks up for the next season, because season two could have been amazing, and instead it became sloppy.