Casual Fridays: A Little More Action

In the last few weeks, I've been feeling lazy, because I let various background things take up my mental space, and only wrote to my deadlines.  Plus Caroline having Thursdays as her day off causes me to have a rather weirdly-shaped week, in that I like to spend time on that day with her, but then can't quite make myself do a whole work day on a Saturday.  So this week I've made a conscious effort, and got back on the horse.  I've written 4000 words of prose, delivering a short story today, 25 pages of comics, and done loads of plotting, pitching and setting-up work.  (We're in the middle, for one thing, of working out a new title for the novel.)  I also managed to get three runs in, and am getting in sight, once again, of my personal best for the two miles (17.44, if you're interested, which is, frankly, rubbish).

I'm also well pleased at the reaction to Saucer Country.  I don't think I've ever had anything of mine receive universally good reviews before.  We seem to have a hit on our hands.  Which is all because I work with a great team.  Comics readers seem to have enjoyed the ending to the first Demon Knights arc as well.  #8 is a useful jumping-on point, in that it tells the origins of two of our characters (Etrigan and Xanadu) and #9 starts up... well, I wouldn't call it an arc now, really, we like to see it as a purely ongoing title now, with something new happening every issue, rather like when the X-Men went around the world.  At any rate, you could also make #9 your first issue and understand everything.

I should also take this opportunity to once again thank Mark Pilkington, whose fantastic book Mirage Men is one of the few sane works about UFO mythology.  Mark is one of the major influences on Saucer Country.  Check out his blog.

James Bacon visited this week to pick up a big box of graphic novels and comics collections for the teen lounge at Worldcon in Chicago.  James is always part of that outreach, and he's also one of the team that goes to 'media' conventions giving out SF books and spreading the word about mainstream SF fandom.  Those of you who went to Gallifrey may remember him from the UK Worldcon bid party there.  He's doing a great job. 

We saw two films this week: Senna and John Carter.  Senna: I'd heard a lot of good things, and normally I like sports documentaries, but I have to say, I was irked by it.  The film pushed too hard at creating its narrative out of complicated real world events, and stacked the deck too heavily in favour of its hero, Brazilian Formula One star Ayrton Senna.  In order to create that effect, it underlined the apparent villainy of his rival, Alain Prost.  I always prefer a more distant camera that gives us more choice about who to root for (or a better illusion of it). This film cheered so hard for its star that it saw no contradiction in taking his side when he complained about the technical advantages of the rival Williams car (and hey, they were within the rules) and then continuing to fete him when a year later he joined team Williams.  That moment alone was enough to make me start to question what they were telling me about Prost, and I'd love to see the same film from his point of view.

And John Carter... well, it's hard to know where to begin.  I've never been so frustrated about a movie.  Broadly speaking, there have been two sets of public responses to it: mainstream critics hating it, and fans loving it, while the public have silently stayed away.  I can see why fans love it, but I'm desperately sad to say that the mainstream critics are right, and the public have not flocked to it not because they've been mis-sold it, or fooled somehow, or deliberately been alienated by a half-hearted publicity campaign, but because, in the end, it's not very good.  But perhaps for the first time ever, that 'in the end' includes vast stretches of the movie that are brilliant, sensational, spot on, absolutely the movie you'd want for this character.  That's what makes the whole thing so heartbreaking.  John Carter was clearly meant to be in the same tradition of big world, franchise-building Disney movies as Pirates of the Caribbean.  Unfortunately, it seems to have thus felt able to settle for some of Pirates' uselessness with narrative, forgetting that the Pirates world view allows us enjoy a certain amount of yo ho addled chaos, and also that the first one of those films was pretty crisp and precise in its storytelling, actually.  Instead of joining that genre, John Carter joins a dishonourable group of movies that include Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland: films that were released before they were finished.  Because, seriously, just one more draft of that script, even one more cut of the movie, and JC could have been an excellent, crowd-pleasing, full on summer blockbuster.  I think the feeling of most creative people who went to see it must have been the same: I want to take this thing home and finish it!  The lead is not the problem, he's fine verging on great.  The film is uniformly well cast and the actors are directed well (with villains so un-hammy that oh oh, we start to empathise with them a bit, particularly Dominic West, who, in the context of a world where Tharks shoot their own babies actually comes off as quite a reasonable wedding prospect for the Princess).  James Purefoy was brilliant, and that's an entirely cool (rather Chris Claremont-influenced) modern Dejah.  The design is excellent, and the ongoing sunny California afternoon of the colour palate actually made me happy on its own.  At the point where Carter starts leaping around onto ornithopters, swordfighting and saying 'ma'am', I was full on thinking 'the fans are right, this is brilliant!'  But then it started to sag, and sag, and... what did that mean, what did he just say, why are these people doing that, who is that person anyway and... what?!  To slow the whole narrative down for a journey to exposition-ville, and after all that deliver exposition we don't understand is a terrible crime.  Just straightforward narrative was sometimes fumbled: why the hell don't we see Dejah escaping Helium?  And if we're not going to, then how about we see her at the controls of a flier, looking over her shoulder, desperate, cut to those pursuing her.  But no, we're with those pursuing her, who tell us she's in front, and what's just happened.  When she arrives at the Thark camp, I thought by introducing herself as 'Regent Librarian' or whatever it was that she was just telling the truth about her identity, but everyone's surprised, a few scenes later, when she's 'revealed' as a Princess.  These are all tiny things, but there's loads of them, and they're cumulative, to the point where I honestly still couldn't tell you what the villains were planning to do, or why Dominic West's people, from that mobile city that was never made use of, did anything, really.  (The question of whether he's trying to marry Dejah, invade her city or both, and why, seems to be subject to quantum fluctuation between competing narratives, the sort that's sometimes caused by too many contradictory notes from too many worried producers.  'Why am I still marrying her when I've already won?' he asks at one point.  The answer is not good enough to remember.) However, amongst all this, there are, as I say, also long sections where the film has perfect, clear, straightforward Disney-style narrative, with tons of scattered moments of pleasure.  The Tharks, in particular, live in the Land of Clear Story.  And I must say, the Land of Clear Story clearly has the same geographical boundaries as the Source Novel.  (But having said that, I rather liked the historical framing stuff, which even leaves the movie on a high note, and tastes of Michael Chabon, whom, without any evidence pro or against, I hold blameless here.)  I think there are two reasons for the muddled narrative bits: firstly, there's the desire to use the villains to create an ongoing franchise, a big, complicated history, and somebody will have said 'how can we make this also about Earth?' (but again, Pirates didn't do any of this in the first movie).  Secondly, and I hate to say this about a picture that gave me so many moments, as a John Carter of Mars fan, of genuine joy at how well this adaptation was made: this is one of those movies (exactly like the Pirates series) that thinks 'but simplicity is too simple, let's add a twist, and a twist, and a twist, because we want to always be ahead of the viewers in how intelligent this is', and thus leaves the viewers, and intelligence, behind.  To feel like that about the movie you're making is to feel the source material is beneath one, that one has to add something more.  That's why this picture is, stupidly, called John Carter.  Not because of any merchandising or PR failure.  That's a long-suffering publicity person taking the hit.  This picture is called John Carter just so they can do that reveal of changing the title to John Carter of Mars on the last frame.  That's just their own damn fault.  That's how they spoiled something that was such an aggravating millimetre away from greatness.

I've now put download links to the whole series behind the comics covers on the right margin, so you'll always be able to purchase Saucer Country and Demon Knights by clicking on them.  But if you'd be interested in promoting Saucer Country on your own blog or website, then just download any of these handy banner images...

And put this link behind them.  And you will have my eternal gratitude.

I'd like to mention a couple of things mates are doing this week.  Simon Spurrier has a new free webcomic out, twelve pages a week, running for two years.  It starts with a splash, let us say.  It's possibly the single most Not Safe For Work thing I've ever seen.  It's eighteen rated.  Or more like forty rated.  You have been warned okay.  So now here's the link to Crossed: Wish You Were Here. And don't come running to me about your retinas.

The Peckham Invalids is a comic about disabled teenage superheroines in 1906 Peckham.  You can see a nicely comic-informed piece about it, and the history of deaf characters in the medium, in this clip from the BBC's See Hear show.  Do check it out, their angle is fascinating, and this is the sort of quality storytelling and diversity we look for from modern comics. There's a particularly interesting discussion about how to portray (and script) sign language in the medium.

And in the run-up to Olympus, this year's Eastercon, I'll be talking to individuals who are coming to the convention as their first pure SF event, having previously taken part in different fandoms.  (If you are such a person, drop me a line in the comments, I might well be interested in featuring you.)  Take it away, Ash...

What's your name?

Ash Farbrother.

Why did you decide to go to Olympus?

A desire to once more dip my toes into the world of conventions which happily coincided with suggestion and gentle persuasion from someone close to me. The desire had been there a while but things had never slotted together well enough. However, Olympus is in London, so travel/exchange rates are not an issue and whilst the main hotel was fully booked, an alternative within walking distance was both available and reasonably priced.

My last convention was the American Doctor Who convention 'The 18th Amendment of Gallifrey One' in 2007. Various changes (both in life and the convention) meant that going all the way to L.A. for a Doctor Who convention was something I could no longer justify or afford, even though it meant I'd miss seeing a lot of the friends I'd made at Gally. For any of them who see this I do miss you all a lot, and hope to see you again sometime soon.

What made Olympus appeal more than some others is that I knew that some of the people attending would be people I know (thus meaning I wouldn't hide in a corner nursing a drink and growling at anyone that approached my own personal perimeter), but the majority would be 'new', and therefore give me the chance to meet new people and gain new experiences.

What had you heard about previous Eastercons?

A small to moderate amount about the panels and a lot about the social aspects. Since one of my favourite aspects of the Gallifrey conventions was the social aspect, and often the panels and the official activities (whilst brilliant) came secondary to seeing old friends, making new ones and enjoying being in a group of like minded people. The convention environment just seemed the perfect place to do that in. I liked what I'd heard of the convention being something of a two way flow of information and interaction. Unlike some of the larger conventions, where guests are only ever seen on a stage or behind an autograph table, it appears (to me at least) that Eastercon is much more a two way flow of information and interactions. Again this was something I experienced and loved at Gallifrey and look forward to experiencing again.

What do you expect to be different from cons in your own fandom?

Whilst most Doctor Who events do offer programming not based around the core fandom I'm expecting Eastercon to be a lot more eclectic. With this will come a more varied group of attendees and what should make for more varied discussions and interactions. Also, the bar prices being in my native currency will be a unique (and possibly pricey) experience.

What are you most looking forward to?

At the moment just experiencing a new convention environment and finding my feet in it. It's only as EasterCon approaches that I realize how much I've missed the convention environment, and that it's been five years since my last convention. Much like Ford Prefect I'm at my happiest with a strong drink and a peer group, and conventions usually provide both of those.

How do you think SF fans will interact with fans from your subculture?  What sort of panels about your own subculture's stuff are you expecting?

There are two less pleasant reactions that I've experienced over my time in Doctor Who fandom: before 2005 Doctor Who fandom could be seen as some as a cause kept alive by the devoted. We had books, we had audio adventures but mostly in the SF fans (as in the public's eye) some might have seen it as being a bit of a joke with it's wobbly sets and its stereotype of the anorak and scarf wearing brigade. Now Doctor Who is massive business, it's a pop culture phenomenon and it could be regarded as being too mainstream by some and with that constant stigma of 'it's for kids'. So we've been thrown to the opposite end of the scale.

However whilst you will have those who dislike Doctor Who for whatever reason, I think there is more often than not a common ground to find. Very few people just like Doctor Who. They may also like known authors who have ties to the series such as Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman or Paul Cornell. And whilst an SF Fan may not like Doctor Who they may like Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman or Paul Cornell too; but from a different point of view, be it H2G2, Sandman or work for DC/Marvel Comics. There may be common grounds completely unrelated to either of the core subjects. A die hard Doctor Who fan and a dedicated follower of Iain M. Banks may discover they both have a mutual love of fly fishing, or cricket.

I think a reasonable chunk of it depends on how you approach people. If you do so waving your multi-coloured scarf and wanting to talk about Who, Who, and only Who then you might be off to a non-starter. The catalyst for conversation a convention like Eastercon can provide is that two people who are from opposite ends of the Doctor Who appreciation spectrum could find themselves sat next to each other in a panel on something completely unrelated. A conversation could spark, it could leave the panel and go to the bar, others could join in and only five hours and many drinks later could you find out that your new best friend doesn't actually like Doctor Who. And at that point does it matter?

As for the panels, I'm expecting some panels to be either Doctor Who based or at least have enough scope in them for there to be Doctor Who related opinions and materials. And even if there wasn't for some reason I don't think that would bother me. There could not be a single official event on Doctor Who. But there could be an excellent three hour discussion on 'Fez Vs Fedora Vs Stovepipe' in the bar.  I will happily take the schedule as it comes, and if for some reason I end up sat in a hotel room all weekend it won't be the convention that's failed me, it'll be me who has failed the convention.

How do you see mainstream SF fandom, from the outside?

At times intimidating. I love to read, absolutely love it, but I feel my tastes are somewhat narrow when it comes to the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy and as a result I have some gaping holes in my SF experience. This is entirely a fault of mine and not of the fiction. I have many friends who can recall the intricate details of such-and-such a book series or the intricate workings of this story arc, and sometimes that makes me feel a little ill-educated. It's not that anyone has ever sought to exclude me or make me feel inferior in fandom, but it sometimes happens. This will be the first convention I've been to where the main 'theme' is not my main 'Fandom Hat'. It will be interesting to see how my perception might change over the weekend.

Do you think there's a chance you might ever move your primary fandom to being an SF fan?

Anything is possible. I wear many fandom hats: Ghostbusters, Babylon 5, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Hitchhikers Guide, Comics, Godzilla. But Doctor Who is what it has always come back to. From Target Novelizations to worn out VHS recordings of the McCoy years it was the first and i think it will always be the strongest. But I think there is room in my millinery collection for a general 'SF' hat, with maybe a feather of 'Fantasy' in its band. And maybe as time moves on and I grow older, develop a beard, etc, then things will shift. Maybe Doctor Who will move so far from its roots that I will not feel able to call myself a Doctor Who fan any more. I know that has already happened for some. I hope that doesn't happen, it's been a pretty good fandom to me thus far.

Thanks very much, Ash.  (Who would like the world to know he can be found on Twitter as @ravenevermore and that he runs Rock Club London, a gaming/music pub night centered around Guitar Hero and Rock Band.)  

And speaking of music, we round off as always with today's song pick of my favourites.  It was only a matter of time before I got to XTC.  They were my band when I was growing up in Wiltshire, all our band, the sound of the chalk hills.  It's a healthy thing, when you're a kid, to hear pop music sung in your own accent.  And to have a pop star who could be spotted in Swindon library.  Their Skylarking is one of my favourite albums of all time, and manages to convey the 'summer Sunday in Swindon' mood for all its length, but this is them doing that in single form, albeit in a frankly too low fi video.  This is 'Love on a Farm Boi's Wages'...

I'll just be off down townall for some eastdregs.  Until next time, Cheerio!

6 Response to "Casual Fridays: A Little More Action"

  • Unknown Says:

    It's a shame about John Carter. It's particularly unfortunate given that the director is a Pixar veteran, who's two previous credits are Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Those films are rightly considered classics because they have clear stories.

    I like huge blockbusters with massive effects, but only if there's a story that matters.


  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Well, indeed!

  • Kathryn Peak Says:

    I am going to Eastercon. It's my first Eastercon. In fact, it's my first con. It has taken me a long time to realise that for most people, if you talk about a bat'leth, they thing you've got something stuck in your throat. It's taken me even longer to give up trying to write straight fiction, and to write SFF instead. The first SFF story I wrote was like breathing out after a very, very long time holding it in. I have embraced my inner geek and am now a much happier camper than before. And so I come to Eastercon. See you there.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Would you like to be featured on the blog, answering the same questions as on this one?

  • Kathryn Peak Says:

    It would be my pleasure. How soon do you want text?

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Drop me a line answering those same questions, any links you'd like me to add, and a suitable image (of yourself or a project) to: Thanks very much!