Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Maggie Stables

Yesterday Big Finish released the news that actress Maggie Stables had died. Stables had been a regular on their Doctor Who range as Sixth Doctor companion Dr. Evelyn Smythe from 2000 to 2011 as well as various parts elsewhere, including playing a minor villain in their first Doctor Who release The Sirens Of Time. Now, I never met the woman and had very little exposure to her work outside of Big Finish so all I can really say in tribute to her is this:

She can never be given enough credit for how her work changed the role of the companion.

Evelyn was the first of Big Finish's original companions and what was striking about her was how different she was: a middle-aged history lecturer who took no nonsense whatever, especially from the Doctor. And not just any Doctor, either, but the most notoriously acerbic and obnoxious of all Doctors: Colin Baker. She was a mature, intelligent, professional woman who the Doctor had to take seriously as an equal. Yes, Evelyn was very much in the tradition of the novel companions like Bernice and Roz but, crucially, she came with an actress attached.

Stables' fantastic and seemingly effortless chemistry with Colin Baker in those early audios not only transformed the Sixth Doctor into a fan favourite but showed that the series format could support the kind of companions the novels had introduced. Evelyn could stand up to the Doctor, tell him when he was wrong and sweet talk him when she needed to, usually using her famous chocolate cakes to do so. As a consequence the ascerbic and much-loathed Sixth Doctor became a much more likeable character because he was no longer just bullying his way across the universe but sharing his travels with a real friend.

In fact, probably Baker's most touching scene in the audios is in The Wrong Doctors as he comfort eats the last chocolate cake Evelyn made before leaving the TARDIS. Its a moment that would have been completely unbelievable from the Sixth Doctor as seen on television but summed up the relationship he had with Evelyn perfectly.

My point is that the mature, professional, no-nonsense Evelyn is as much a template for companions like Donna Noble and River Song as Bernice Summerfield ever was. Sadly, playing the role in a niche corner of the series as she did, Maggie Stables will never get the credit she deserved. In my view she's up there with the other great actresses who transformed what the companion role was during their tenures, right there with the likes of Maureen O'Brien, Katy Manning, Lis Sladen, Sophie Aldred and Billie Piper. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Bite Size Chunks

Okay, there have been way, way longer gaps in this blog than five days but I feel a real need here to get some things in order before I get back on the horse. Writers' block is a real bugger for me so here's a list, not in any order and edited only for spelling, of disjointed odds and ends that may or may not become full posts in the fullness of time.

*****

For a start, I should mention the reason I haven't posted recently is because every time I go on the internet I get distracted by a Youtube playlist of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes. I don't think this series was ever shown in the UK so I didn't even know about it until two weeks ago. Oddly, as funny as the riffing of Josh, Mike and the bots is I actually found myself enjoying a couple of the films, especially the absolutely terrible Robot versus the Aztec Mummy.

When international copyright law next gets revisited (note “revisisted” not “repealed”, I do believe in copyright as a principle) can we just grandfather in something to make the whole of MST3K legally available? Even if they weren't really, really funny there are movies here that I'm pretty sure exist nowhere else anymore so it would be a service to history.

*****

Back in January I started watching Fairy Tail, a fantasy anime series about a wizards' guild. Well, 102 episodes later I'm still watching it and that's about seventy episodes longer than many other big animes have managed to keep me coming back. The characters are great and even the filler episodes do interesting things with them. I think there's even an essay in how the series uses fanservice, which is at least a lot more self-aware than the usual “Look! Tits!” approach.

*****

You know what my one wish for Ben Affleck's Batman is? For him to not use “the Bat-voice”. Yes, it was a cool innovation with Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series but being perfectly honest Christian Bale spent three films sounding like a drunk who's put his dentures in upside down.

*****

I have never seen Superman The Movie. I should correct this omission.

*****

I'm working on Warhammer background for a group of Empire Battle Wizards who work as spies and investigators. I might post some of it when its presentable. Why? Because everyone does Inquisitors in 40k and I'm just contrary.

*****

I picked up a whole bunch of early Red Hood and the Outlaws issues at the Oxfam shop and its a much better series than I was lead to believe. It has to said that I knew little more about this series than the duff sexual politics of that one scene from the first issue with Starfire and Arsenal. The thing is though that as the series goes on Starfire's attitude towards sex and Roy and Jason's attitudes towards her evolve in interesting ways. That infamous scene, in retrospect, is a more complex moment than it seems at the time. It isn't a fantastic series but it is, in all honesty, an entertaining one and one of the few places the fresh start of the New 52 was genuinely exploited to its fullest.

*****

On the subject of the New 52: apparently the Booster Gold: Futures End issue made it clear the pre-Flashpoint DCU still exists out there somewhere in the new multiverse and... um... well... I don't think I want it to come back. I've been banging this drum for months now that DC is getting better, that the fresh start is finally leading to fresh ideas and needed updates to old properties. They finally seem to be getting it right and now they introduce an escape hatch for themselves?

*****

Twenty years later and I think we exist in a socio-political moment (within my own liberal circle anyway) where I can admit this about my childhood: I thought She-Ra: Princess Of Power was better than He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I liked that she was a rebel leading freedom fighters on an already conquered world instead of a prince fighting from a position of power.

*****

I really need to watch Books Two and Three of Legend Of Korra. I think that like Xena: Warrior Princess and Frasier it might be a spin-off that will be better remembered than its originating series. I have to admit my reluctance to get into Book Two is probably down to the knowledge that Lin Bei Fong isn't in it much and Lin taking out two airships on her own in Book One is one of my favourite bits of animation ever.

*****

Also on the TV front I haven't watched a single episode of the new Doctor Who since Capaldi debuted in Deep Breath. Am I actually, finally, fatigued on my favourite show of all time?

*****

I actually feel a little bad when I read someone else bashing or when I myself bash Chris Claremont's writing style. As badly as that style has dated, as much as I think his more modern work needs more brutal editing it has to said his X-Men run got me into comics, got many other people into comics and were actually damn good for their day. Yes, I favour the writing style Peter David pretty much invented as a reaction to Claremont's exposition-heavy style but I'll never be able to separate Claremont from the birth of my love for this medium.

And that's it: a random selection of the thoughts going through my head right now just to get them out so I can work on them in the cold light of day and not just in my head. All or none of this might be interesting to revisit later. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Autumn

Today Google is informing the world that its the first day of autumn. They are, of course, wrong, at least if you're here in the South Of England. Newbury Agricultural Show was this past weekend and by ancient country tradition autumn begins the day after so on a purely local level Google is a day late.

But that doesn't matter and not just because its a ridiculous nitpick. The important thing is that autumn is my favourite season. I like the pleasant little bite of cold as we get towards winter that I can handle with a hot drink or a sweater. I love watching the leaves change on the trees day by day on my way to work. It s a romantic season to me because the very atmosphere gently encourages physical closeness.

There's also, I must admit, an element of relief that comes with the lowering temperature. I come from a family of classic redheads so high summer is a time of physical suffering for me. My dark hair and facial structure I get from my father's side (and their odd Chinese-German ethnic mix) but the fair skin and the non-existent resistance to heat comes from my mother's and the various levels of ginger they represent. Beach days are the worst day out for me, there is no SPF high enough. Walking through a forest on a cold autumn afternoon surrounded by the vivid reds and golds of falling leaves is a beautiful treat.


Its also a great time for getting things done. There's motive to stay in and finish a few jobs around the house, get on with my hobbies or some writing, but I don't feel confined to the house as I do in deep winter. Actually, I find myself being more social in this season, again because of that need for physical closeness the early cold brings on. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

10 Interesting Codex Space Marine Chapters

I got into this conversation with a guy in GW the other day about Space Marine chapters and he took a position I disagree with. You see, he insisted that there was nothing interesting in the Chapters represented by Codex: Space Marines and he far preferred the variant codices because he found the variants to be more interesting. “Vanilla” was the word he used to describe the Codex chapters. “Bland” also came up. I mean, all power to him, its his view and how he interacts with the background but I've always taken issue with the basic premise.

So here are with ten chapters I think have background just as interesting if not more so than bishonen space vampires, the 80s hair metal marines or heretics in skirts:

The Exorcists
A weird one to start. The Exorcists maintain three scout companies instead of the usual one because there's an unusual level of attrition in their training regimen. This attrition takes the form of strapping the scout down, summoning a daemon to possess the poor kid and then waiting to see if he can exorcise himself simply through the power of faith. They're masters of arcane lore though they aren't purely tasked with fighting Chaos, they're generalists like most chapters. They aren't like the Grey Knights where it actually feels weird to play a game with them against pretty much anything besides Chaos Marines and Daemons.

The Brazen Minotaurs
Ugh... look, this is complicated because these guys have a lot of conflicting background but I'm particularly going with the version in Labyrinth Of Sorrows. These chaps have a Greco-Roman vibe to them, some Macedonian bits (the 1st Company are called the Lion Guard) and what seem to be Jamaican accents. They aren't big on tactics and prefer frontal assault in pretty much all cases. They like axes and seem generally rather cheerful. To be honest I was disappointed when the Imperial Armour books had a completely different chapter turn up under a similar name but at least there are shoulder pad upgrade kits available through Forge World for what's actually quite a hard chapter symbol to freehand.

The Raptors
The Raptors have always been on the back foot. They were formed in the Second Founding from the already chronically under-strength Raven Guard Legion. Since then, through attrition and back luck, they've been under-strength and poorly supplied for pretty much the whole of the last ten thousand years. Far from being staunch codex-adherents they tend to be rather more pragmatic in their tactics, being used to making do with what they have. They're more willing to use camouflage on their power armour or take direct command of Imperial Guard regiments to achieve their mission goals (bit dodgy, that last one).

Visually, as you can see, they go for a more subdued palate than the usual bold Space Marine colour schemes.

The Sons of Medusa
Even for an Iron Hands successor this chapter is well in bed with the Adeptus Mechanicus. They're adherents to the Cult of Moirae, a banned and suppressed Mechanicus sub-cult which is an unusual form of radicalism in 40k. Its usually Chaos or nothing.

Plus that emerald green and white colour scheme looks horrible on one marine but looks absolutely amazing if you can pull it off consistently on a whole army.

The Relictors
A good one for people who like converting their miniatures. The Relictors have this habit of taking trophies from their dead enemies, usually weapons. Problem with this is that sometimes those weapons are tainted by Chaos and recently the Inquisition has started getting a bit miffed about this. They aren't quite a renegade chapter and they don't see themselves as anything other than loyalists so they're a little miffed with the Inquisition for poking their noses into the chapter's private business.

Admittedly the average Relictor looks a bit dull, the all-over grey isn't too inspiring but modelling them with Chaos and xenos weapons would make for some interesting variety.

The Mortifactors
The Mortifactors are morbidly obsessed with death: they cover the walls of their fortress-monastery in skulls and even measure the skull of every battle-brother to work out if it'll fill any inconvenient gaps in the d├ęcor when the time comes. If you have any Warhammer undead spare parts lying around you can use them to embellish your marines.

The Salamanders
With the Salamanders it all boils down to one thing with me: they are closer to humanity than any other Space Marine chapter. With most Astartes drama comes from how aloof from human concerns they are, how much of their own humanity they've sacrificed for a greater good. The Salamanders, by contrast, live amongst the civilian population of their homeworld between missions. They're connected to the people of the Imperium in a way that's hard to imagine in many Space Marines.

The Carcharodons (aka Space Sharks)
Polynesian Space Marines fighting Lovecraftian horrors in deep space. It sells itself. The Charcarodons operate outside Imperial borders in a self-sustaining fleet, going without resupply for decades. I love the angle but their armour is actually the real hook: the varying tones of grey is actually quite visually interesting even before you add in the Polynesian-inspired markings etched onto their armour. A good challenge for someone wanting to test their freehand skills.

They tend towards bloody boarding actions so there might be a case for using Black Templars rules so you can have chainsword-wielding loonies on foot without the need to take a transport.

The Mentors (aka Mentor Legion)
Okay, a living nightmare to paint but since their background suits them more to being an allied detachment than a full army that's not such a problem. The Mentors tend not to deploy in chapter or company strength but send squad level detachments to work with other armies. These detachments act as both advisors and observers, studying the tactical doctrine of the armies they fight alongside. That in itself is an interesting angle: Space Marines who don't see themselves as all-knowing in the ways of war but who are on a self-mandated learning exercise.

Still, you're going to have to paint a lot of white.

The other Minotaurs
Bully boys for the High Lords of Terra, basically. There was another chapter called the Minotaurs (who might or might not have been the Brazen Minotaurs from earlier) who disappeared in transit. The modern Minotaurs, who act suspiciously different from the originals, tend to deploy as a whole chapter to perform brutal attrition warfare, mostly against traitor or rogue Space Marine chapters. Their rules in the Badab War books even give them Preferred Enemy: Space Marines and wouldn't it be nice to have an actual rationale for all those Space Marine/Space Marine games you tend to get stuck with playing 40k?


(All images are, I believe, taken from GW publications or images of 'Eavy Metal paint jobs used for advertising purposes. If I have, in fact, used anyone's personal artwork I apologise and invite them to drop me a comment into the most recent post on the blog at the time they notice and the image will be removed). 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

You'll believe a girl can fly (on a TV budget)

Yes, I'm biased!
So news has hit the internet that a Supergirl TV show is being developed by the makers of Arrow for CBS. For the usual sketchy, probably not accurate plot announcement here's the Newsarama article.

Now, as keen as I usually am to rag on DC Entertainment's film offerings (for, I feel, legitimate artistic reasons) their TV offerings have traditionally been rather higher quality. I grew up watching Batman the Animated Series which is still held up as the defining take not only on Batman himself but on numerous other Bat-characters. Hell, DC still publishes that version of Batman in the Batman Beyond digital series. More recently, Smallville was a great modernising of the Superboy concept, albeit one that spent its opening seasons under the delusion it could beat Buffy at its own game.

Looking to the future the trailers and leaked pilots for Flash and Constantine are generating good buzz (haven't seen them myself).

Oh, and Newsarama insists that an I, Zombie series is already filmed for release before the end of the year. Now, I flat out loved the I, Zombie comic and I'm more stoked for that than Supergirl getting a series, but still...

Honestly, it does surprise me that this hasn't happened before. Smallville had a perfectly functional take on Supergirl and they tried to spin-off more marginal guest characters like Aquaman and the Legion Of Super-Heroes to varying degrees of abject failure.

I've no research on this point but think about it like this: apart from Superman himself and Batman is there a more recognisable superhero in the world than Supergirl? Plus “Superman... but a girl!” is an elevator pitch you can get out before the doors close.

Not that interest in the character is entirely based on her gender. If you take the more-or-less consensus canon of the character as read what she has over her famous cousin is that she's an actual alien. Superman's alien nature is entirely biological but she was raised on Krypton, she isn't culturally human as Clark is. Fish out of water humour and wry outsider perspective ahoy!

This might be nothing, of course. Lots of series enter development and DC is a little notorious by now for announcing such projects before anything is certain (the aforementioned Aquaman and Legion projects, as well as a Blue Beetle series that never happened). Still, DCE is making a lot of TV content now and aside from Gotham this is the biggest property in the running.

Colour me hopeful. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Black Templars fans and the fifth stage of grief

Necessary preface: I am a Black Templars fan. It was the stark black and white visual of Black Templars that got me into 40k; my first army was a successor chapter to the Black Templars; I was there at the front of the queue the day Codex: Black Templars was released and I picked up a hell of a lot of those splash release kits on the day. I like Black Templars, Black Templars are great, please remember this when I say the following:

Black Templars players really need to stop bitching about the army being folded into Codex: Space Marines.

I'm not saying it wasn't natural to be a bit pissed about this but its been a year now, folks. Perhaps it is time to let calmer heads prevail and admit that we, the BT fanboys and girls, benefited from this decision in many ways.

For one thing the fact that Black Templars were the only Space Marine faction not to get a 5th edition book is indicative. Space Marines are GW's moneymaker, any Marine release sells like hotcakes so the fact we went a whole edition without an update does point towards GW being out of ideas for them. And, really, who can blame them? Where was there to go they weren't already going with other armies?

I'm perfectly serious: the monk and knight imagery is the cornerstone of the Dark Angels and Grey Knights while the heavy close combat bias is explored with Space Wolves and Black Templars. Then there's the fact that most of the Black Templars' background and mechanics isn't about what they have but what they don't: they don't have discreet Scout Squads, they don't have Librarians; and in the 4th ed. book they didn't have Veteran Sergeants or Devastator Squads for some reason.

Their extras were the Crusader Squad and the Emperor's Champion plus some special characters, all of which are retained by the new list. As well as that we now get Orbital Bombardment on the Chapter Master; Honour Guard; free Iron Halos; Masters of the Forge; access to Drop Pods; Sergeant upgrades; Vanguard and Sternguard Veterans with all the trimmings; Ironclad Dreadnoughts; the Legion Of The Damned; Stormtalon Gunships; Devastator Squads; Thunderfire Cannons; Whirlwinds; Hunters; Stalkers; Land Raider Redeemers and Stormraven Gunships.

Oh, and Centurians if you can stop yourself from vomiting long enough to paint them.

Okay, maybe not all of those options meld well with your vision of Black Templars (they certainly don't all meld well with mine) but that's a whole list of stuff there we didn't have access to before. Things have changed, the replacement of the vow system doesn't quite work for me, I must admit, but I don't see where people on the internet get the idea the army is somehow unplayable or destroyed as a concept from this change. Space Marines are Space Marines, the mechanics don't change all that much between books because the stats are pretty much set.

You know what clinches this for me as a good thing? Being part of Codex: Space Marines means that we're 100% guaranteed regular rules updates. We'll never have to go an edition without a book and I don't foresee GW removing the army from the next book because it doesn't materially benefit them to do so.

And with that fact in mind there might actually be a hope for a proper Black Templars box set some time down the line given how... shall we say “mixed”?... the last set of offerings were. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Spectacular Spider-Gwen

Let me preface this by saying that whilst I'm not as in love with this issue and this character as a lot of people on the internet I found it interesting and I really hope a Gwen Stacy: Spider-Woman limited series or ongoing is in the works.

Also, the problem might be me. I went into this very keen to keep my enthusiasm on a leash. I get like that when a character is as insistently marketed to me as “Spider-Gwen” was. The dialogue-free art preview of the issue on Comicbook Resources was introduced with a headline telling me I'd want a Gwen ongoing just from reading three pages of pretty pictures. So I tried not to fall under the spell.

It worked anyway, I'm under the spell, I want more of this character and here's why:

(SPOILERS ahead for Edge of Spider-Verse #2, you have been warned.)

Here's a funny thing: the interesting angle with re-interpreting most characters is to take the original and see how their essential characteristics work when they're given a new twist like updating their origin to the modern day (Ultimate Spider-Man) or being born into another culture (Superman: Red Son) or inserted into another genre (Marvel Mangaverse). You can't really do that with Gwen Stacy because under the hood of that character... well, there isn't any “there” in there. She's a poorly defined Silver Age girlfriend character that most modern fans know of primarily because of how she died and how that event defined decades of Spider-Man's character development.

It has to be admitted, up front, that the character Latour introduces is only halfway Gwen Stacy. Given how storytelling and sexual politics have changed since the 1970s creating a new take on this character basically means creating a whole new character surrounded by familiar props.

At this, Latour succeeds admirably and I flat out love his set-up. He covers the origin of Spider-Woman in two pages of single panel flashbacks covering the usual high points: spider bite, vacuous celebrity, original sin, public distrust and effective fugitive status. Bish, bash, bosh. What's really interesting is the nature of Gwen's original sin:

(LOOK, SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS)

Peter Parker dies because of her. In this turn of events she uses her powers to save him from bullies and Peter, consumed by a sense of worthlessness, becomes the Lizard to show people how tough he can be with SCIENCE! If nothing else allying the idea of Peter with the Lizard means the Amazing Spider-Man films finally get some decent legacy in the comics, as little as they deserve them. Somehow this kills him and Spider-Woman is blamed, her father Captain George Stacy unknowingly leading the hunt for his own daughter.

Captain Stacy is actually the only part of the issue I didn't like. Now, as much as I might bash the classic Gwen, I always like her father when I read Silver Age Spidey comics. He was a great character and an interesting surrogate father for Peter, a calming emotional influence to practically everyone around him. This version is pretty much just another slightly overweight New York cop. Still, a couple of good character moments between him and Gwen give me hope he could be closer to the character I loved than he seems.

She's also a drummer in a band where Mary Jane is the lead vocalist and I really hope that was meant to be a metaphor. No one notices the drummer but they set the whole tone and rhythm of a band and here we have the character who is the very Platonic ideal of Spider-Man girlfriends being the dependable backing to the most culturally visible of Spider-Man girlfriends.

Most of all is the moment at the end when Gwen unmasks for her father, admitting that Peter's death is her fault but not in the direct fashion Captain Stacy and J. Jonah Jameson had assumed. Now, this is the big moment that took me from just liking the visual (we'll get there) to thinking this character had some real legs to her. A long-standing problem I have with Silver Age Gwen is how the narrative was fine with Peter lying to her: she never finds out or is told his identity and she even blames Spider-Man for her father's death. This is a whole mess of issues that would take a whole post or more to untangle but the bottom line is this: Peter lies to her continuously whilst fully intending to marry her and, presumably, continue to lie to her for the rest of her life.

This Gwen, at gun point incidentally, admits to her mistakes and her identity. Partly to escape, yes, but also because she wants someone she loves to understand her and stop blaming her for a crime she didn't commit, even though they don't consciously blame her. The issue ends there but she could have destroyed her own life by taking responsibility for her actions. She could now be a fugitive and her father's reaction is less than entirely positive so who knows how he'll process these revelations?

And good grief, do I like that costume: the colour combinations are unusual and very different from the classic Spider-suit; the white stands out against backgrounds while the black gives it an element of stealth but also strategically taking emphasis off Gwen's sexual characteristics; and I love the blue outlines on the web patterns. Plus, it has a hood (like Spoiler, another favourite costume) and the eye lenses seem to be outlined in red eyeliner, which is a funny signifier that is really the only design decision here based on gender tropes. Really, when was the last time you saw a female superhero costume that de-emphasised the character's breasts and hips?

She's slated for two more appearances during Spider-Verse but I really hope that isn't all the plans Marvel has for her. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish Independence: Today's the day

Whatever happens today, the future gets interesting. If the Scots vote to leave the UK then I don't care how much David Cameron says he won't resign, I don't think parliament will give him a choice. Votes of no confidence have been called over lesser mistakes than losing a quarter of the nation.

Now, whatever you've been told the electoral maths of the next general election won't change that much. Yes, Labour will lose a lot of safe seats but, at the end of the day, one of problems the Scots are having is that their voting power in parliament is too small to get anything done for themselves. Scotland is large but not that densely populated. Greater London and the South decide every election and losing Scotland is not going to change that all that much.

What it will mean is that politicians will have received a massive wake up call. The call for referendum has been building for years but it came under this government and if independence goes through it will be indelibly linked to them: a coalition government that could not achieve an electoral majority when the Tories were at their most popular in decades and which has systemically reneged on every manifesto promise it made before the election.

Scottish Independence could be the knock in the head our political class needs.

Then there's the eventuality that Scotland stay in the union. Not my preferred outcome but I'd be willing to bet it'll be close either way.

Nevertheless, even if Scotland stays the precedent is set. The beauty of having an unwritten constitution is everything is, in theory, legal until proven otherwise. Now, there has been at least one similar referendum like this in the past with Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland is a whole mess of issues too extensive to list here and has a rather different relationship with the greater union. Ireland has always been, in the view of its independence movement at least, a colonial holding whilst Scotland is the country that merged with England to create the United Kingdom.

If a founding member of the union can call for independence then literally any part of the UK with a strong historical or cultural claim to autonomy can do so. I mean, Northern Ireland will be first, don't get me wrong, but I expect to see Wales and Cornwall getting on the bandwagon. Maybe even the North if a large enough body of counties can club together to create enough leverage on Westminster.

Seriously interesting times ahead. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Revenge of the Pointy-Eared Space Sadists

Presuming that Games Workshop's latest teaser video is not an epic troll of misdirection it seems like Dark Eldar are the next army to the get 7th Edition treatment with pre-orders hitting Friday night as usual. Now, since I don't follow rumour sites anymore (owing to most commenters on the things being blisteringly insane) I have no idea what's coming and that's actually kind of liberating. I think the internet has rather robbed us of a sense of surprise with the way companies tease (or spoil, depending on your point of view) future developments for publicity.

I mean, really, when was the last “HOLY SHIT!” moment you had consuming any media? Mine was probably the first season cliffhanger of Battlestar Galactica, off the top of my head.

But, anyway, pointy-eared space sadists! The ones that make Romulans look like cuddly wittle kittens. The ones whose plan to avoid eternal damnation is to live forever fuelled by the pain of their victims. Oh, yeah, if there's anyone left who hasn't noticed yet...

I LOVE BAD GUYS!

Especially in my wargaming. Oh, I'm forever thinking about picking a heroic race for race this campaign or other but my fate is, quite simply, dominated by the dark side. Forever. Yoda was right, its inescapable. The armies I always go back to are Vampire Counts in Fantasy and the Lost And The Damned in the grim dark future of the forty-first millennium. The reason?

BAD GUYS ARE FUN!

I write background for my armies, lots of background and I should get around to posting some because it would make great blog fodder. Bad guys are just so much fun to write and, of all the “bad guy” races in 40k (there is a lot of relativism going on in that description) Dark Eldar offer all sorts of twisted options.

You've got the Kabals themselves that are led by the Archons: a sort of cross between feudal nobility and crime lords who lead the Kabals on raiding missions, mainly to capture new slaves. Then there are the Wych Cults, gladiatorial warriors whose performances (I kid you not) involve slaughtering slaves and each other to provide the masses with the psychic screams they use as food. There are the Haemonculi, who are classic mad scientists. The Beastmasters are exactly what it says on the tin and they have a host of lovely gribbly monsters that accompany them. Then there are the multifarious hangers on who follow the Archons: poisoners, snake alien bodyguards, flesh-eating ghoul things and chained psychics.

This is the problem, actually: every time I consider a Dark Eldar army I find myself spoiled for choice when it comes to sheer, unbridled evil fun of it all.


Perhaps it is time to return to the grim darkness of the far future where there is only war?

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Justin Bieber could have been great for DC's comics and films

This is actually a thing that's a year old but here's the short version: Justin Bieber chucked a selfie on the internet a while back with a faked up Batman Vs. Superman script and the hashtag #Robin. It was fake, obviously, there was no script at the time and yadda yadda yadda. I heard about it on an old podcast but the thing is, I got thinking and, well...

It might actually be a good idea.

Oh, don't look at me like that! I have no opinion on Bieber as an artist, good or bad. I've heard a few of his songs, one I found catchy, most I found bland. I have almost no point of comparison for him as an actor. His public persona is obnoxious but since I am as far from the target demographic for his stunts as it is possible to get I'm more than willing to let that pass. Also, everything I just wrote equally applies to my opinion of early-career Elvis so let's see where we stand in twenty years if and when Bieber reaches his mature artistic phase.

Moving on...

You know what casting Justin Bieber as Dick Grayson or Tim Drake would mean if it had happened? It would actually give me, as a viewer, some sense of creative vision behind this film.

I'm not saying good, I'm not saying bad, I'm just saying that creative vision would be seen to exist. Man Of Steel was bland to me. I paid my money, picked up my 3D glasses, sat through the trailers and then the film started. 143 minutes later I left the cinema with no sense of who the production team thought was Clark Kent in any sense other than the visual. I hate Joseph Campbell and his damn mono-myth theory with a fiery passion but if you're going to do the bloody cocking pissing hero's journey then “refusing the call” should involve refusing the bloody call not just looking broody before saving the oil rig crew anyway.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh but in all honestly when I look at Man Of Steel I can't actually point at any aesthetic decision and say it was about Superman. Almost the whole visual style and aesthetic was lifted wholesale from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and the one thing that wasn't, the huge display of military hardware, was straight out of Michael Bay's Transformers series.

So, aesthetic decisions lifted straight from other popular franchises, a longterm plan that's a cut down version of Marvel's Avengers franchise and a character arc with no arc beyond Clark gaining the physical props of Superman (costume, Fortress of Solitude, save Lois, put on some glasses, roll credits). Henry Cavill is actually a very good actor but one with almost zero public profile in the US and only really known for one role here, as Charles Brandon in The Tudors. Casting him says little and all that's left to make a statement with it is what you do with him but... eh, we've covered that.

On a similar level, I like Ben Affleck and I'm eager for his Batman but here we have the opposite problem: an actor whose range is so varied he could comfortably play any version of Batman from Adam West to Michael Keaton. Again, until this performance is on screen we've no way to judge where its going no matter how much Affleck's critics invoke Daredevil.

Bieber, meanwhile, has a huge public profile, a well-known public persona and a built-in following amongst a single demographic not generally associated with comic fandom or films: pre-teen and early-teen girls. Cast this guy as Robin and the statement is clear: stunt casting in the classic Batman tradition and an attempt by at least one arm of DC to actually grow its audience into new demographics. Yes, I would sure as hell question whether he is the right actor to use for those purposes but those purposes are inherently good, especially that last one.

I'm not even saying that in a social justice context, I'm stating it as blatant fact: comics as a business need new audience demographics! The audience is shrinking and has been for years because of poor marketing, limited distribution and an uncanny ability to court all the wrong controversies but most of all because of the companies' fetishistic desire to pour what little marketing budget they do spend on pursuing not a new audience but the same one they've always had: men aged 18 to 35.

So, yeah, comicbook companies: listen up because here's the master plan. Stage one: stunt cast an icon of teeny-bopper pop as Robin to draw young girls into the theatre. Step two: embrace the fact that comic films are at least halfway marketing stunts for your product and put an advert for your comics at the end of the trailers, “if you like the film why not try...” yadda yadda yadda, you can see where this goes. Most importantly, stage three is...

DO NOTHING ELSE!

I am not kidding, this is the most important stage of the master plan. Once you have this new audience drawn in and trying out your comics you DO NOTHING ELSE! Keep the product as it is. Oh, by all means stop screwing up on the race and gender fronts but that's a separate debate. The product, absent its frequent socio-political failures, is fine. Female fandom exists, it exists in spite of the considerable apathy and even hostility publishers have demonstrated towards it for decades.

And if you're thinking about introducing a bunch of new female characters to please this demographic then STOP! That's called pandering and even little girls will notice it. Women and girls don't need female characters to identify with any more than I need a male figure to identify with. Audience identification is a really weird concept and a bit false and some day I will write a takedown of the whole bloody thing but that is not this day.

That said, there is virtue in exploiting the female IPs the companies already own better than they do. Here are the female intellectual properties from the Big Two I wrote down off the top of my head over the course of half-watching a five minute internet video (I don't own a stopwatch):

Wonder Woman, Birds Of Prey, Storm, three flavours of Batgirl, Batwoman, Kate Bishop as Hawkeye, Black Canary, Huntress, Power Girl, three flavours of Spider-Woman, two flavours of Spider-Girl, Black Cat, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Ms.Marvel, Renee Montoya as a cop or as The Question, Rogue, She-Hulk, X-23, Wonder Girl, Catwoman, Supergirl, Mystique, Zatanna, Harley Quinn and slap in the Young Avengers for having an admirable equal focus on male and female characters throughout its comparatively short history...

and going back to my earlier point these are just properties that either currently or in the recent past have supported at least a decent length limited series. Exploiting that, and they're getting better at exploiting that, alongside existing product is the smart move. You know why?

Because girl geeks are as completist as boy geeks. Draw then into a character and they're going to want to read up on that character's history and you want that history to exist and be in print to sell it to them. New characters don't have that, established characters do.

So, yeah, a genuine argument about how Justin Bieber could be the best thing to happen to the comics industry in years.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Comics Ramble: Hope Springs (Batman) Eternal


You want to know my dirty little secret? The thing that I keep at the back of my mind in a world of constant disappointment, dashed hopes and thwarted expectations? I want everything to succeed. I don't expect everything to succeed but I want it to. I want Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice to break the pattern of DC film offerings and be a fantastic movie. I want to like whatever old or obscure junk my friends point me to on the internet. And do you know what? Bitch and moan as I do I want The New 52 to be the game-changing, artistically inspiring revival DC was hoping for.

The New 52 has outlasted my expectations, no two ways about it. When it was announced I thought it would last a year, two at pinch and here we are three years down the line and it is still DC's main publishing continuity. Three years is a long time, long enough that I'm a different person now than when Justice League #1 came out and this experiment has had a good while to validate itself. So has it? Just in my own highly subjective personal view?

Eh... very nearly almost.

Now, one of the problems I had with this idea out of the gate was that DC was mixing soft and hard reboots within the same initiative. Batman and Green Lantern (Green Lantern especially) were basically continuing where they left off with a slightly adjusted past timeline, soft as it comes. Wonder Woman was getting a new cast and status quo but that's just what happens to Wonder Woman and she's never needed a reboot for it, that's what she calls “getting a new writer”. Meanwhile the Teen Titans suddenly have a whole new history: Tim Drake is their founding father now, the Dick Grayson era Titans were never a team, in fact only three of them seem to exist in the New 52. That's an astonishingly hard reboot compared to what Hal Jordan and Bruce Wayne went through.

Reboots happen, though, and what mattered to me then and matters to me now are the stories being told in this new framework. Does what has been done creatively validate the business decision that started it all?

As I said: very nearly almost, in a few cases, a bit.

The simple fact is that after three years DC is finally getting its collective head around what it wants and how it wants to achieve it. This should probably have been a realisation that came a bit sooner (preferably three or four years sooner) but here we are and at least it does feel like the moment has arrived and that moment is called Batman Eternal.

I already mentioned in my Tim Drake/Harper Row post (and the series really needs to return to them at some point) that I liked the series but I want to get into the real nuts and bolts of how Eternal works and why it works. You see, the whole series is devoted, on multiple layers, to asking and answering one question:

How in the hell does Gotham City work?

The answer is presented mechanically by removing one of the city's most essential moving parts as Jim Gordon is indicted for multiple counts of manslaughter and watching the whole thing fall apart. And here we have the crux of the matter: with this move DC is finally taking advantage of the door they opened when they made everyone younger and less experienced. The pre-Flashpoint Jim Gordon was practically as sainted a figure in the fiction as he was within fandom. He'd been Commissioner forever, he'd pretty much succeeded in stamping out police corruption in the GCPD or at last at Gotham Central itself and he was damn near untouchable on a moral and ethical level.

New 52 Jim is younger and has been Commissioner for about six years. He's not as popular as he was pre-Flashpoint and his crusade against corruption isn't as advanced (look at his immediate successor for evidence of that). From a storyline perspective there's more weight to the public siding against him than there would have been before. Yes, we know he's innocent because he's Commissioner Gordon but the backlash is at least believable.

It's not just Jim, either. Eternal finally integrates the new Tim Drake into the Bat-family. Death of the Family and a few stray guest appearances where he was a visitor notwithstanding this is genuinely the first time we've seen this Red Robin operate in Gotham. He has his own base in the city, possibly even several, and this causes tension between him and Bruce but obviously the tension is manageable or even a joke since Tim still has his Gotham privileges. Y'know, not that I think even Bruce could revoke those from Tim even if he tried. The fact is, though, that this relationship is subtly different from their pre-Flashpoint one: Bruce is a former mentor Tim isn't too worried about pissing off instead of the stand-in father he wants to surpass, which is probably down to this Tim not being an orphan.

And that's not even mentioning the two characters Eternal has introduced to the New 52: the Spectre and Spoiler. Corrigan we've seen the least of but this version seems actively afraid of the Spectre which, whilst not out of line with past interpretations, is at least an interesting choice of several potential angles.

Spoiler meanwhile... well, they really thought that one through. We're finally at a point where she has a costume and has chosen her hero name but they've actually thought about how the word she chose to describe herself has changed in the years since her original introduction:

Spoiler is now a vigilante with a blog!

This isn't me being a sad bastard and identifying with a character because of my hobby, by the way, which was obviously what DC was courting when they did a similar thing to Superman. This is me laughing with DC at a cool idea that ties in with not only modernising the character to include an angle modern, baggage-free readers would actually expect and a funny little acknowledgement of the role internet fandom has played in her enduring popularity and multiple resurrections.

And dear God they have finally worked out what they want to do with Jason Bard. This guy again. This guy just turns up and I don't know what he was originally but I've seen him used as a street level PI free of Bat-connections, a uniform cop witless foil for Barbara Gordon, a dirty tricks man for Tim Drake and now as “l'il Jim Gordon” with a twist. So, yes, this angle is interesting, this angle is good, let's run with this, see it through and maybe then we can finally say we have the definitive Jason Bard interpretation and move on. Still, though, this is a case of using an existing character name and the broads strokes of their past incarnations to wrongfoot the audience because what nearly every version of Bard has agreed with is that he's a bit shady but ultimately on the side of law and order. This creates expectations of the new version and that you can play with and DC has, gleefully.

Now, I'm specifically singling out Eternal because there's enough meat for a whole Comics Ramble in it. It isn't the only example. Wonder Woman has been taking advantage of the new start from day one; the latest Teen Titans run under Will Pfeifer is examining how superheroes and social media would interact; Justice League United shows huge promise; and I am absolutely fascinated by Grayson. Like I said, the New 52 is on its way to being validated as an experiment...

if its lucky. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The triumphant non-return of Cass Cain


(Due diligence: I have not received last Wednesday's comics yet because of postal issues therefore I'm writing about the “semi-canon” return of Cassandra Cain sight unseen. That said it's basically a what if story in Gail Simone's goodbye issue so I doubt there's much to fruitfully interpret. This post is my case for why this needs to go further and we need to see Cass properly reinstated into the present day New 52. I've been meaning to write this for a while, basically since Steph's return was announced, and Batgirl: Futures End gives me the perfect excuse.

On with the motley...)

So, about two years ago someone at DC did a stupid and referred to Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain as “toxic” characters in reference to not allowing them to be used in a Smallville comic. They could have gone with “We want to firmly re-establish Barbara Gordon as the sole version of Batgirl for the time being and are not pursuing the development of other characters who have embodied the role” but instead they went with “toxic” and other people at DC confirmed the quote and even agreed with the description.

This, of course, has changed. Steph is now a big presence in a tentpole Batman series and Gail Simone has used Cassandra Cain (and the Steph Brown Batgirl) in the Futures End issue of Batgirl. A few things need to be mentioned about this before we move on. This issue was, of course, Simone's last; it was set in a future that likely will never be explored outside of the Futures End series; and Simone has already made some other fanservice casting choices during her final arc like slipping Misfit in for a single panel cameo. This might be nothing more than a big author on her victory lap being allowed to slip in a few fan-pleasing Easter eggs now there's no chance she'll try to pursue them.

However, I think there are good reasons to reintroduce Cass to DC continuity proper beyond mere fanservice. You see, Cass has a unique distinction amongst female Bat-characters.
Look at the boys who help Batman: Alfred, Dick, Tim, Jason and Damian. Bruce calls them family: his surrogate father and his adopted and biological sons, they're an inner circle who have all lived at Wayne Manor at one time or another and have always known Bruce's secret. The female Gotham heroes (Barbara Gordon, Kate Kate, Helena Bertinelli, Kathy Kane, Steph Brown, Renee Montoya) tend to be independent operators with their own resources, to whom Bruce is at least initially antagonistic and he doesn't usually reveal his identity to them. Of that whole list I think only Barbara and Steph know “the secret”, at least as far as I'm aware.

Cass defies the distinction, probably because she's the youngest woman to be Batgirl: high school age instead of college age. She was more analogous to a Robin in many ways and she even slept at Wayne Manor every now and again. She's family, taken in by Bruce in the same way the Robins were and that's unique for a female sidekick.

So, bring back Batman's only begotten daughter, is basically what I'm saying.

There are a couple of other angles that should be mentioned. Aside from Batwing and absent Renee Montoya the Bat-books are rather short on characters of colour these days. Also on the inclusivity side there's the fact Cass has a disability, albeit an inconsistent one, being either illiterate due to her upbringing or profoundly dyslexic depending on who's writing her.

Mainly, though, I want her back because she was really interesting me again in the lead up to Flashpoint. She had a bad couple of years between the end of her ongoing series and Batman Incorporated. First she was a villain then there was a pretty bad limited series and then she was just wandering the world off-panel after she gave Steph the Batgirl identity. Then Batman Inc. happened and she became the Black Bat, Batman's woman in Hong Kong. She turned up once or twice in Red Robin, Batman Incorporated and Gates Of Gotham but we never really got to see what sort of adventures she had on her own in her new identity in her own city.

Let me pitch this to you. The Black Bat: a female Nightwing operating in East Asia. Sells itself, doesn't it?

In all seriousness, it felt like the character was going somewhere again. Since I've already argued that Cass had the character progression of a Robin instead of a Batgirl the next step for her is the inevitable change to a solo hero with her own identity like Nightwing, Red Hood and Red Robin. But we never got it, we were just teased with it and now she's in limbo halfway through a major, necessary transformation and it strikes me as a massive missed opportunity if nothing else. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Relative value and not pre-ordering Space Hulk

I didn't order Space Hulk in the end and I'm pretty much writing this post because the last week rather suggested I would end up building, painting and reviewing the thing. Well, I'm not and the only interesting thing to say about that is a short digression on the notion of post-purchase value:

Most Games Workshop miniatures I buy are for practical purposes. I buy the odd character model just for the pleasure of painting them but the vast majority of them are bought for the express purpose of using them in games. I'll drop a tenner on a character I just think looks cool but £75 for admittedly cool Terminators I probably won't use, Genestealers I never will and a bunch of other stuff that is no use to me since no one I know wants to play Space Hulk...?

I might even have still gone for it if not for the fact a better deal came my way:

Big Finish does a lot of weekend deals and this weekend they were offering the season season of their Fourth Doctor Adventures for a grand total of £38.50 and I will get far more pleasure out of those seven stories that I can confidently assume I'll list to a couple of times a piece than out of twelve Terminators I will paint, put in a draw and forget about.

And if I'm honest, now that I have professionally shot 'Eavy Metal images to look at again, my memories of those Terminators was a bit rose-tinted. I think they are better than Wolf Guard Terminators but I'm not now convinced that they beat out Deathwing Knights and I have a nascent Guardians Of The Covenant army I'd rather expand than start a Blood Angels army I'm not too invested in.


Yeah, I said this wasn't going to be interesting, right?

My one and only opinion on Michael Bay's Transformers

I've got friends who are big Transformers fans. For my part the toys were quite cool if clunky when viewed with adult eyes (I'd swear more of them had moveable legs) and the Simon Furman comics are comfort food to me to this day. I have friends who self-identify as fans of the franchise and who absolutely hate the Michael Bay movies. This isn't exactly controversial, there's a lot of fan hatred for them and Goggling “Michael Bay Transformers racism” certainly brings up some interesting results.

All that said I've only seen the first one so whenever the series comes up I have only one contribution to make. It's an odd opinion, I'm told, but the only one I can offer:

I think there's a good movie hiding in Transformers, it just isn't a movie about Transformers.

The good movie that isn't quite there is one about that group of soldiers trudging across the desert being hunted by a giant robot scorpion. There's some good moments there and probably the best gag of the film when the sergeant gets his satellite phone working and has to deal with a bored, obstreperous telephone operator whilst the squad is fighting off said giant robot scorpion. It isn't a very clever joke but it was effective.

My impressions of the rest of the film? I don't really remember it that well and there isn't that much distance between now and when I saw it. I didn't see it in the cinema, I saw it on TV about a year ago. I remember the desert bit, I remember Optimus Prime demolishing an ornamental fountain (okay, that was the best joke...) and an Autobot dying but I couldn't honestly have told you which one, then or now.

So I can't really get offended or upset about these films. I've never held the belief that a bad reboot inherently devalues what came before, my childhood memories and old comics are safe. The Bay films can't even be accused of derailing the franchise, an accusation I've often levelled at the New 52, because IDW continues to publish multiple series based on the toys and characters I have nostalgia for (pretty good comics, too). I can't even accuse Bay of causing me to waste time and money on his product because I've only seen the one and I watched it on TV, probably whilst getting something else done like painting miniatures or writing blog posts.

As such I find myself on the outside of this one. I'm more than willing to accept most of the common criticisms of Bay's movies, in this franchise and others, but I'm not personally offended by them as many self-identified Transformers fans are. I feel like I should feel it when I hear others hold forth on it, though, and that's an interesting sensation.


I suppose I could always expose myself to the other movies so I can be up to speed on the outrage but that genuinely seems like giving Michael Bay more of my time and brain space than he frankly deserves. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Jumping Ship (Tim Drake, Steph Brown and Harper Row)

First, let me say this so there's no ambiguity: I'm grateful that Steph is back. I like the way she's being brought back: origin polished up a bit, still in keeping with the character we remember and with earnest promises that there are plans for her after Batman Eternal wraps. This is good, I'm glad to see it and very enthused for where its all going next, but...

My God, am I seeing great chemistry between Tim Drake and Harper Row!

It certainly helps that Eternal has taken the New 52 Tim and reverted him to type just a little. Tim is one of those characters to me, we all have them, who is so bound up in how I got into comics that I'm a bit precious about him. Chuck Dixon's Robin wasn't the first series I read but it was the first series I went looking for back issues and collections of, the first time I learned to look for a creator's name. I watched this character grow through Dixon's run, through Young Justice, through Bill Willingham's run (look, we all make mistakes) and then to become a truly spectacular solo act in the Red Robin ongoing.

Then it all got swept away. I'll say this straight: I am not a fan of the new origin Scott Lobdell set down in Teen Titans #0 or the whole attitude of trying to place Tim totally outside the Bat-family. What I like about Eternal's Tim is that he's back in Gotham yet retains the lone wolf vibe he developed coming out of Batman Reborn plus the one aspect of the New 52 version I liked: his focus on looking out for the young people who suffer when the adults fight.

Add to this mix young Harper Row, future Robin-esque Bat-sidekick (according to that Eternal teaser that interrupted Zero Year) who has enforced her help on Tim the way Tim did to Batman back in the day. Okay, that's not such a good description of Tim's new origin but the New 52 is more about cultural memory than a literal chain of events laid down by continuity. That's my theory and it helps to make the New 52 a bit more palatable and comprehensible. She's also as dedicated to her own area of social justice as he is, except her focus is the poor of Gotham rather than the young of the world.

Of course, their mutual arrogance has placed the two of them in conflict almost since the moment they met but Tim has something of a history with stubborn women. Almost exclusively with stubborn women, now I think about it, between Steph, Lynx, Wonder Girl and Tam Fox.

You know, listing it out like that it occurs to me just how celibate Tim's been since Flashpoint. I think the only time he's managed to get any in the last three years was when he got possessed by Trigon and fooled around with Solstice which... ugh, no.


What I'm basically saying is this: we have two alpha-type personalities who are techy, stubborn and arrogant and I really want to see the sparks fly.