Monday, March 12, 2012


Harry Potter and the Da Vinci code are not reducible to the MSS that J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown submitted to their publisher. This is true even if the published text was very close to those MSS and not, as sometimes happens, co-authored by their editors. At the very least, several hundred people were involved in drawing covers and typesetting and printing and physically manufacturing the object that you bought in Waterstone. And someone else created the marketing campaign; decided that it would be cool for bookshops to open in the middle of the night to sell the first editions; carefully honed the Rowling persona; spotted that a series of school based children's fantasy stories might be the sort of thing that kids would want to read. No-one but JK Rowling could have written Harry Potter but if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter, some other publisher might have identified some very similar author to place at the center of a very similar maelstrom.

It is tempting for a writer to think "It is my words that the Public wants, and all the publisher does is put them in the hands of the reader."

It is equally tempting for a publisher to think "I make beautiful books, and one small part of the process is the artisan who I hire to write the words which go into them."

It is tempting for an actor to think: "I have a special talent: people come to see me act, and the director's job is simply to decide where I should stand so that the audience can hear me declaiming.

It is equally tempting for a director to think: "People have come to see my version of a play, based on my knowledge of literature and stage craft. An actor is simply a skilled individual whose job it is to read the words and perform the gestures that I am tell him to."

Would it therefore be unreasonable for the theatre architect to say "I am in the business of giving people an exquisite evening. You create a beautiful building, and then you hire anyone to sell ice cream, pour drinks, and strut about on the stage?"


You can sometimes get a very small child to eat his greens but arbitrarily declaring that these are special Tellytubby greens. It works better if the person performing the alchemy is Mr Sainsbury: the spinach that was wrapped in official Tellytubby packaging really does taste better than the kind which Mummy says came all the way from Tellytubbyland.

I am sometime told that Peter Jackson's parody of Lord of the Rings has to be judged on it's own terms: it doesn't matter whether or not it is an accurate translation of Prof. Tolkien's book.

It is certainly true that Lord of the Rings works very well as a Hollywood pop corn flick. I would place it almost precisely on  a level with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, full of sound and fury but signifying less and less as it goes along.

This is not to deprecate Lord of the Rings. I like the Pirates of the Caribbean series very much indeed. They provide a huge dollop of cutlasses, cannons and eye patches, wrapped in the illusion of a narrative, and enough macguffins and plot coupons to propel the ships from exotic location to exotic location. They are, in short, exactly what you want from a pirate movie. 

I feel much the same way about Lord of the Rings: it is the Goonies with dragons, ill matched semi competent protagonists dropped into the middle of a story in which far too many precipices collapse underneath them and far to many dragons drop rocks on them for anyone to have any chance to work out what is actually meant to be happening. 

Saying that the Lord of the Rings is to be judged on its own merits is the same as saying that Jackson, having made his big budget cartoon, used the name Lord of the Rings to give it a quite spurious gravitas: that the Lord of the Rings movie is only a Lord of the Rings movie in a manner of speaking, just at the Tellytubby spinach is only Tellytubby spinach in a manner of speaking.

If I say this, I am accursed of snobbery by the meta geeks.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Can anyone remember who the Ghost Rider was, or what comics he appeared in, or what kind of villains he fought? (It was a rhetorical question, Nick. Please sit down.) I believe he had sold his soul to the devil, as one does. Gary Friedrich didn't dream up the idea of the Faustian Pact: Christopher Marlow did. He didn't come up with the idea of the heroic stunt-cyclist, either: that was Evel Knievel. The not-that-bad-movie did indeed make use of the idea of the stunt cyclist who sold his soul to Beelzebub and then tried to use his evil hell fire powers for good (or something). But what everyone remembers about the character is the guy in biker leathers on the harley davidson with the flaming skull where his head ought to be. It is, how you say, iconic. 

Stan Lee, as everybody knows, believes that comic book characters have an essential, platonic being outside of the actual stories they appear in. He believes that these platonic essences are created in a single, metaphysical, quasi-divine act, which only he has control of. He calls this unified act "dreaming up". Once the "dreaming up" has been done, the character has existence, and any one of a number of different hired hands can do the donkey work of putting it on paper. There's no actual work involved; the demiurge just sits in his armchair and has creations. On this view, the person who came up with the elevator pitch "He's kinda like Dr Faustus, only on a bike" "dreamed up" Ghost Rider, and everything else (drawing the pictures, thinking up villains, making up words for him to say) was just dot-joining that any artisan could have done. I believe that there are sincere differences of opinion about who did the original up-dreaming in this case. 

You might think that 90% of the success of Spider-Man came from Stan Lee's funny speech bubbles, and only 10% from Steve Ditko's design the costume. You might think it was 50/50 or 60/40. No-one apart from Walt Disney's legal department doubts that two people were involved. It seems to me that 100% of the success of Ghost Rider as a comic book and 100% of the reason it was turned into a not-too-bad movie was the physical design of the character: the idea-of-the-Ghost-Rider is the guy on the bike with the flaming head not Satan or Mephisto or Zathros or anything else. In which case, if anyone "created" the Ghost Rider, it was not Mike Friedrich or Roy Thomas but Mike Ploog, who drew the actual pictures.

It will be remembered that in 1969 Stan Lee allowed Cadence Industries to believe that he was sole creator of all the Marvel characters and Ditko and Kirby were merely hired illustrators. This applied even to the Silver Surfer, even though Stan had said over and over again, that Kirby created, and therefore presumably "dreamed up" the character without input from him. It is perfectly true that Stan Lee's inferior 1970s version of the character added lots of elements which had not been part of Kirby's original conception, and that it is this inferior version which still appears in comic books today and was used in the the not-completely-awful Fantastic Four movie. It is also clear that the three Spider-Man movies were based on John Romita's version of Spider-Man, which was inferior to Ditko's tio the point of being parodic. 

It is not to be suggested that Lee had no imput into the creation of the Silver Surfer; only that, by his own arguments, he didn't dream him up. This is not to argue that Steve Ditko was the sole creator of Spider-Man; Mike Ploog the sole creator of Ghost Rider or Jack Kirby the sole creator of everything else; only to argue that the concept of "dreaming up" is palpable bullshit. The idea of Spider-Man, or Ghost Rider doesn't exist apart from actual Spider-Man or Ghost Rider comics: the people who created them are the people who did the hard work of drawing and writing, not whoever it was who happened to have first pitched "What about a guy on a bike with a skull instead of head." 

Sigh. No, I don't think that Marvel Comics should pass 100% of the profit from The Avengers movie to Jack Kirby's estate. 15% would be fair; 5% would be a realistic. 1% would be a nice gesture. At this stage of the game it would count for more if Kirby's grandchildren joined Stan Lee on the red carpet, and if Stan Lee said "Me and your grandpa created these characters together" or even "I suggested this idea to your grandpa, and he created the characters, and I thought up things for them to say" which everyone knows is the truth. But even that can never happen, because Stan Lee's faith-position conveniently matches the legal fiction that characters have essences and those essences are created and owned by corporations and buildings and legal entities, not by human beings with stuff they want to say.


What were the Daleks?

Were they

1: A script written by Terry Nation

2: A prop designed by Raymond Cusick

3: Characters in a children's television programme directed by Verity Lambert

4: A cultural phenomenon which began in 1963 and was over by 1968

Once you've framed the question in that way, the answer is pretty obvious. "The Daleks" were an ambience, an atmosphere, a period when, wherever you looked there were Dalek toys and Dalek magazines and Dalek soap and Dalek colouring books. Those of us who came in during Jon Pertwee sometimes feel that we missed "the Daleks". BBC props moving around a quarry just don't have much to do with Daleks. Re-runs of Peter Cushing movies on wet Sunday afternoons and dog-eared Dalek comic books seem to bring us closer. But no collection of ephemera can really recreate the Daleks. We weren't there when they happened.

Similarly, people of my generation have seen The Beatles reduced to 15 very good CDs, 2 very good movies and Magical Mystery Tour. This has practically nothing to do with the Beatles, although Hard Days Night goes some way to telling us what the Beatles would have been like had we been there. The Beatles were a moment when people were wearing particular clothes and watching particular cartoons on TV, and incidentally stopped rationing sweets and hanging people. The fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo also happened also to sing some quite good songs was neither here nor there. People only went to Beatles concerts in order to shout them down. 

Or again, the 12 action figure that were sold in 1977 were not an adjunct to Star Wars. They were Star Wars. Star Wars was a particular summer, which included Star Wars toys (if you had lot of pocket money) Star Wars bubble gum cards (if you didn't) Star Wars comic books...oh and also a film. (Remember, if you are British, Star Wars was a comic first and a film second. One of those big Treasury Editions they don't make them like any more.) You saw the film once, or, if you were particularly sad, five times. You read the comic every day for a month. You played with the toys until you got too old for them. George Lucas's attempts to deny that things like The Star Wars Christmas Special and Christmas In the Stars ever happened represents a blatant falsification of what Star Wars was. Is.

Can you get "Force Blades" on ebay? Not reproductions of lightsabers that actually look like lightsabers -- actual 1970s force blades. The real thing. 

One imagines the Beatles and Star Wars and Spider-Man putting their essential being forth into the surrounding culture until they themselves no-longer exist. (This is a reference to Tolkien. It would take too long to explain.) Everyone knows what Mickey Mouse looks like: hardly anyone has seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney rather discourages it. A strange composite Winnie the Pooh -- definitely not A.A Milne's character but not exactly the the Disney character either -- seems now to have an existence outside of the original stories. It is very common to find young children who are crazy about Spider-Man, but who have never seen a Spider-Man comic or scene a Spider-Man movie.

Spider Man isn't a superhero: he's a lunch box. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012


So far as I can tell, the inhabitants of Barsoom never do anything except get captured, get rescued, and fight minor wars. So it is possible, not to say plausible, that Dejah Thoris was kidnapped on more occasions than the seventeen or eighteen recorded in the canonical texts. A twelfth John Carter novel would be no sillier an idea than a tenth or an eleventh. (The series had, in fact, run out of steam by volume 4.) So if I were to write a Martian fan fic, an admittedly remote contingency it could be judged purely on its own merits. The best you could say about such a book was that it captured the tone of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel rather well, in which case I'd have given the world something it arguably needed – more stories in style of the second greatest pulp writer who ever lived. But the worst you could say is that my novel is rather dull, and you would rather re-read the ten and a half canonical stories than waste time with my apocrypha.

But why write a story set in Edgar Rice Burroughs setting rather than create one of my own? Because we all love the Martian stories and wish there could have been more of them. Because I think that Burroughs' Mars is a distinctive setting, and the the story I have thought of couldn't have happened anywhere else. Because the fact that it is pastiche gives me freedom to write in a way that I couldn't if I were using my own voice. (It is easier to write about abduction and rescue of incomparable princesses in a Martian setting because we already know that that's the kind of thing which happens there.) 

Or maybe the real answer is as simple as: "Yes, I could create my own setting in which to tell thrilling adventures. But I don't need to, because E.R.B has already done it just about as well as it could possibly be done." 

E.R.B did, in fact, write "Tarzan at the Earth's Core". He never wrote "Tarzan on Mars" but he damn well should have done.

This is, I think, how the endless stream of Fantastic Four knock offs have to be regarded. In one sense, the idea of the Fantastic Four without Stan Lee is almost as ridiculous as the idea of the New Gods without Jack Kirby. No-one but Stan could write Reed Richard / Ben Grimm dialogue; and no-one could fail to see that Reed Richards / Ben Grimm dialogue (and Reed / Johnny dialogue, and come to that Doctor Doom dialogue and Galactus dialogue) were a very major part of what made The Fantastic Four The Fantastic Four. The other major part was Jack Kirby's villains and alien worlds and plots and characters and fight scenes, obviously.

On the other hand, Fantastic Four #103  is not an intrinsically sillier idea than Fantastic Four #102. The Kirby conceived the F.F, not as the protagonists of a self-contained novel, but as heroes who would continue to have adventures, month after month, for as long as he could think them up and readers wanted to read them. No-one supposes that it is important to the impact of Fantastic Four 1 – 102 that after defeating the Submariner (again) they all gave up heroing and retired. 

But if you want to tell a story about a group of heroes who fight space monsters and mad scientists, why not think up your own group of heroes, rather than steal Kirby's? Well, because the chances are that any team you dreamed up would consist of The Clever, Stuffy One; The Sensible, Motherly One; The Firey, Impetuous One and The Strong, Bad Tempered One, because that's a natural kind of team to send on adventures. We know how they talk to each other and what they are going to argue about; we know what Reed will say to Ben and what Ben will say to Reed; we can drop them into any situation, however banal, and it can hardly fail to turn into a story. It would, of course, be possible for you to dream up your own group of interlocking characters and send them off on Adventure. But you don't need to: Kirby already has.  


Yes, yes, yes of course it is cool that the Fantastic Four lived in Spider-Man's city and Spider-Man lived in the Fantastic Four's city, and that that city was based on New York and this remained true even in those episodes of Spider-Man where the Fantastic Four weren't mentioned and those episodes of the Fantastic Four where Spider-Man wasn't mentioned

But get this: Marvel New York, or indeed the Marvel Universe doesn't really exist and never did. It isn't real in the way Camden Town is real: it isn't even real in the way that Barsoom is real. It is a way of thinking about stories; it is not itself a story. It is a literary conceit. The idea that we could read the Avengers because it "reveals" to us "fact" about "history" of the Marvel Universe is as fundamentally wrong headed as the idea that we might listen to Elenor Rigby in order to find out about the architecture of Father McKensie's church -- indeed, that the church has some kind of essential existence outside of the words of the song.

NOTE: Remind me to write an essay one of these days on The Fantastic Four as an instance of C.S Lewis's Four Loves. Reed loves Sue as a wife, Ben as a friend and Johnny as a son; Ben loves Reed as a friend, Johnny as a brother and Sue as a sister; Sue loves Johnny as a mother but Johnny loves Sue as a sister, etc etc etc. You could probably draw a map.


Friday, March 09, 2012


When Jimmy Olsen is kidnapped by the Clan of the Firey Cross (or as it may be, the Yellow Mask) Clerk Kent gives his description to the police chief, and distinctly describes him as brown-haired.

Do you say:

a: Clark Kent made a mistake. The Historical Jimmy is a red-head.

b: The red haired Jimmy is a different person from the dark haired Jimmy: there are two Jimmies, just like there are two Ronnies. Radio Jimmy is dark-haired, but Comic Book Jimmy is red-haired.

c: How interesting: when he was very young, Jimmy must have been embarrassed about his colouring and used hair dye (when that would have been a very unfashionable thing for a boy to do in the 1940s.) Perhaps his friendship with Superman caused him to accept himself as he was. Or maybe hair colouring just became too expensive during the war. That could make a really interesting piece of fan-fict, come to think of it...

d: I wonder what specific cosmological force resulted in the Jimmy Olsen of Earth-R having different colouring to the Jimmy Olsen of Earth-2?


Some people got very cross with Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows because it closed the setting down and off. Some of these people had written stories in which Harry married Hermione. J.K Rowling revealed that in real life he didn't, and this matters a great deal to them. 

I overheard someone who had just seen the abomination remarking "I am well pissed off with J.J Abrams, because I have two shelves of Star Trek DVDs, and now they didn't really happen."

Whatever "really" means. In real life, neither Harry Potter nor Captain Kirk exist. Nor Santa Claus, nor Hamlet. I have serious doubts about Nick Clegg. 

Some people say that they have tried to read Jane Austen, but felt that it was spoiled because someone had removed all the zombies. Actually, disregard that: they probably only say it to annoy me. But go back and try to read  The Final Problem on the assumption that Holmes really died and is really not coming back, which is clearly what Arthur Conan Doyle intended when he wrote it.

That's the problem with worrying about what authors intended, isn't it? If an author writes his story meaning one thing, and then goes home and changes his mind, does the story change, even though it stays exactly the same? Did Obi-Wan "really" lie to Luke Skywalker because George Lucas says he did, even though, when he made Star Wars, he clearly intended him to be telling the truth? Obviously, Obi-Wan didn't "really" do anything at all, because there is no such person. 

Try to excavate Bob Howard's pulp hero from the corporate Conan that L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter and Frank Frazetta and Arnold Schwazenegger and above all Roy Thomas created out of his corpse. Reading the stories in publication order, rather than as a spurious biography helps somewhat. Imagining that you are reading them in a magazine helps a bit more. Consciously picturing Conan as not looking like Frank Frazetta's pictures helps a lot. (He was Saddam Hussien's favourite artist, don't you know?) Saying "Bob" helps, a bit, actually. But it can't really been done. The bad fantasy epic has overwritten the very good collection of yarns and tall tales. The terrible movies are the dominant flavour in the soup. Conan has that haircut. He just does. The lake of story has been well and truly pissed in.

Books and movies influence books and movies which come after them. But they also influence books and movies which come before them. Jackson's King Kong and J.J Abrams abomination will affect every single viewing of King Kong and Star Trek for as long as people continue to buy DVDs of old TV shows and very old movies, which. They aren't just parodies: they are acts of psychic vandalism.

Whatever you may have heard, all stories are NOT true.


All You Fascists Bound To Lose

Robb Johnson 
Bristol Folk House 
9th March


Just occasionally, I wonder if I might give up on the whole the geek thing; that maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if there was a folk gig in Bristol and I wasn't there. And then there is an evening like tonight, and I remember why I started to listen to this stuff to begin with.

Robb Johnson's gig at the was literally like nothing I've ever been to before. He was going to wind up his set with a sentimental song about talking to a fox on his way home from the pub. (The fox says its heading for the street where he grew up, where he used to pick blackberries; but there's a supermarket there now "and none of the fruit tastes of anything at all.") But someone from the audience calls out a title, so he sings that as well, so instead of lyricism we end the night in chanting: "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! Yeah Yeah Yeah! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" Except, of course, that he comes straight back onto the stage and encores with "Be Reasonable (Demand The Impossible Now)" It's a small audience, but they all seem to be fans, or friends, or his. So everybody except me knows all the songs:

No master, no landlord, no flag, no guru,
No gauleiter, no commissar,
Just justice and poetry with jam on it too,
When they ask 'who's in charge here?' We'll all say....

"WE ARE!" calls out the audience as one. But even this isn't the end...he can't leaves the stage, and the finally finishes on The Siege of Madrid, and heartfelt mediation about the fall of fascism. Two guys stood up at the back, arm in arm, and started singing along to the whole thing, making clenched fists at the appropriate moments. ("Each child born is born an anarchist") I've have never, repeat, never felt a more corporate communal feeling at a folk gig, or indeed performance of any kind...never had the sense that everyone in the audience wants to get up and shake each others hands because we've just shared such a great....thing. 

How to describe him? There's an element of Billy Bragg in the deliberately naive tub-thumping socialism; folk with a fairly large dollop of punk sensibility behind it. But it's lyrical as well; "be reasonable" is much prettier than it really needs to be. He can do satire: possibly the highlight of the night was a ranting, comedic, diatribe against the press corruption, ending up in a grotesque parody of Rupert Murdoch: "We're sorry...we're sorry...we're sorry we got caught"...which leads directly into a straightforwardly chilling rant about the summer's rioting:

Cops shot Mark Duggan on Thursday night
When his family asked why, they wouldn't say a word
When they still said nothing Saturday night
Tottenham burned

There's a pastoralism to it: it seems that once we've overthrown the state and a lot of our time is going to be spent drinking tea and sitting in fields. We start in fully grown up agitprop mode -- ("they cut all the benefits, close all our libraries") but just when you start to think that maybe a whole evening of being harangued is going to get tiring, he starts to talk with great affection and wit about his pupils (he is, of all things, a primary school teacher) but there's still a socialist moral to be drawn from a series of perfectly observed vignettes about his kids. ("Little people, big ideas.")

I don't endorse all his politics. I think maybe its okay to send Christmas presents to soldier, even if we think that the war in Afghanistan was a catastrophic misjudgement. I don't think we middle class folkies would really be that happy in the anarchist New Jerusalem. I think that bankers might be slightly easy hate figures, although I did like the idea of a lot of city wide-boys getting trapped in a pub basement at the same time as the Copiapo disaster. (People come from all over the country with whatever bricks and rubble they can spare to make sure they don't escape.) But as I've said before, I think "agreeing" with a song is a category mistake. You don't have to agree with all his politics to agree with what he is doing: creating a communal outpouring of joy based around the idea that things could, maybe, be different from how they are. 

As the other fellow said: the song's the thing.

Thursday, March 08, 2012



The King died and then the Queen died - History
The King died and then the Queen died of grief - Story
No one knew why the Queen was so ill: but it turned out that it was with grief over the death of the King -- Plot


A movie on the theme "The Death of the First Mrs Kane", or "Was little Charlie Really A Victim of Child Abuse?" or "The Woman On the Ferry With the Parasol: Her Backstory" could, in fact be imagined. It is even possible to imagine a good movie on those themes. A good director could make a good movie on any theme. Of course the death of a failed politician's ex-wife in a car crash is a possible set-up for a story. (Was it just an accident? Or suicide? Or did Prince Philip dunnit?) But if the story is worth telling in it's own right, there is no need to give the main character the same name as one in Citizen Kane. And if the story is NOT worth telling, why does it become any more worth telling if the name of the main character is the same as one in Citizen Kane? "Because every time I hear the narrator of the News on the March sequence mention that Kane's first wife died in an accident, I want to know what really happened." But nothing "really happened": she's only a character in a story. One of the things she does in that story is die mysteriously. That is the point of her. Your film will not tell us what really happened. It will just be some shit you made up. Out of your head.

Will anyone claim that such films (even if well made) could ever be regarded as expansions or additions or extensions to CItizen Kane, as true, in their own way, as Orson Welles' version? And will anyone say that the original movie would be improved (or left the same) if  it became a truth universally accepted that "the story of Citizen Kane" comprised "Orson Welles epic + Andrew's home movie"? Does anyone think that it would be a good idea for some third party to bring on stage what Welles left off it, to say outright things that he chose to hint at, to provide answers where he only gave questions? Could anyone possibly be stupid enough to think that the question 'Doctor Who?' might one day be answered?

Does anyone remember the daft attempt to recut The Godfather and The Godfather II into chronological sequence, on the assumption that TV audiences are confused by non-linear story telling and freaked out by the expression "son of a bitch"? The Sicilian material from Godfather II came first, then the bulk of Godfather I, then the 70s material from part II. Will anyone say that this made no difference: that a film in which the murders of  Don Ciccio and Fredo Corleone are juxtaposed is the same as one in which they are separated by four hours of screen time? That Coppola carelessly filmed his epic out of order and the TV version corrected the mistake? That the Magicians Nephew is the first book in the Narnia Series?

Granted, I have picked examples of movies where the plot is a lot different from the story: where the order in which events unfold is a lot different from the order in which they actually happened. (But nothing actually happened. They are stories.) But the same is true to a greater or lessor extent of all fiction: what happened is never as important as the way in which we are told that it happened. A film which includes a steamy bed scene is not the same as one in which the lovers tantalizingly close the bedroom door, even if, as a matter of fact, in both versions, copulation can be assumed to have taken place. A film which depicts some hideous childhood abuse in shocking detail, and then adds a caption that the victim suffered from mental problems for the rest of their life is not the same film  as one in which it is slowly revealed that a mental patient suffered from some horrible trauma when they were a child. A detective story starts with a dead body and works backwards to the murder and the motive; a thriller may start with the motive and move forward to the murder. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is so the first Narnia Book. The Phantom Menace was such a bad idea. Is any of this complicated? 


Wednesday, March 07, 2012


Ernie: I am going to do Singin' in the Rain...
Eric: Gene Kelly did that very well.
Ernie: Yes, but I'm going to do it just that little bit better.


We sit in your front room, which looks like the bedroom of a very rich 14 year old.

We move the pile of this months 52 DC comics (cost: roughly what the government says a single person needs to live on for three weeks); brush the dust of our latest box of Dalek action figures (cost: two weeks child benefit) ; pause disc 27 of our complete Battlestar Gallactica boxed set and say "Oh, you aren't getting worked up about some comic book are you? The original graphic novel will always be there, and anyone who is friendly with psychopaths can find it. You don't even have to read the new thing if you don't want to. It really doesn't matter."

We are, to a man, the same people who said George Lucas Raped Our Inner Children when he made a small change to the screen play of Star Wars and that only a genius like like Peter Jackson could have taken such a boring book and turned it into the single greatest masterpiece since John Logi Baird invented the cinema.

If Geek B says something which Geek A doesn't agree with, then Geek A's first resort is always to say that Geek B is geekier than he is. You think Phantom Menace was a good movie, and I think that it was a travesty, but you are the sort of person who cares about Star Wars so I'm certainly not going to pay any attention to YOU.

We are also the ones who read bad reviews of good movies and say "What right have YOU got to say if a movie is good or bad, having never made a movie yourself? Critics are just embittered frustrated writers! No movie is good or bad there's only what you just happen to like and anyway you are only pretending that you enjoyed the Artist because you don't want to admit you wasted two hours watch a terrible film if you were an honest-to-god all right joe you'd watching Twilight with me wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets."

Goo goo g'joob. Goo goo g'joob.


I am dimly aware that, in the 1970s, some corporate House-Roys tried to write Kirbyless continuations of the New Gods. One of them was called "The Return of the New Gods", which was a pretty good signal to stay away. They might as well have called it "The New Adventures of the New Gods" or "The New Gods Babies." I think I may even own a couple of 1980s issues by people who should have known better and John Byrne.

They are irrelevant. 

The Fourth World is, for better or or worse, and very often for worse, what it is, Hunger Dogs and all. Jim Stalin can pretend that Darksied died, if he wants to. It has precisely the same impact as if I were sitting in a pub and said "Fnaar, fnaar, what if the Green Goblin had a WILLY? Fnaar, fnaar, what if he fucked Gwen Stacy behind Spider-Man's back." It's not part of the comic. It's just something I said when I was drunk. It doesn't become part of the comic even if Marvel inexplicably hire me (say on the basis of some incoherent Star Trek rip-off I worked on twenty years ago) and write "Stan Lee presents" on the front of my sad little wank fantasy.

I haven't read Sins Past. For all I know it is quite good.

Actually, the Fourth World is a pretty bad example, because the original is so definitively enormous that it makes everything that has been pinned on to it after the fact look pitifully small  and insignificant. I can paint a man's willy on my poster of the Mona Lisa if I want to: the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa and I am still a pathetic little child who paints willies on posters. It doesn't become a witty subversion of male sexuality just because I scrawled it on a famous painting. Even if I am quite a good painter and it's quite a good painting of a man's willy. 

And please, please don't say "It doesn't matter that he painted it on the Mona Lisa. He could have painted it somewhere else. Consider the willy on its own merits." It does, he didn't, and you can't

Superman would have been a better example. Everyone has long since forgotten Man of Steel, and I seem to remember that Man of Steel was quite a good comic, provided you pretended that it didn't have anything to do with Superman. If New Gods is a vast adamantine monolith which repels every attempt to paint graffiti on it, which admittedly it isn't, then Superman is more like a vast lake whose composition is only slightly changed when someone pisses it it.

It's rather a shame that so many cooks spoiled Siegel and Shuster's rather piquant broth quite so quickly. It is worth going back and tasting their original flavour from time to time: it really is fresher and crisper and more bracing than anything that was added to it afterwards. But the broth was well and truly spoilt, and Action Comics # 1 now has almost nothing to do with Superman. So many ingredients – Jor El and Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luther, to say nothing of Kandor and Krypto and Kryptonite were added by subsequent hands. Even I am not pedantic enough to say "Superman's news paper is really called the Daily Star, not the Daily Planet, because that's what Siegel and Shuster originally wrote." All Star Superman is connected to Action Comics # 1 only in a manner of speaking, like the lumberjack who said that he still used his grandfather's axe, but admitted that it had had a new handle and perhaps a new head.

There are fans for whom post-Kirby New Gods does matter: it is quite possible to be a fan of Darkseid and never to have read New Gods. There are websites that straightfacedly say that The Great Darkness Saga is the "greatest" Darkseid story. 

They are wrong.

a series of essays by Andrew Rilstone 

if you do not enjoy this, then you will almost certainly not enjoy Who Sent The Sentinels ("the finest analysis of Watchmen that I have so far read" -- Eddie Campbell)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Folk Music – A Very Short Introduction
by Mark Slobin

In the movie "A Mighty Wind" the bland Weaver-esque Main Street Singers take to the stage at a big folk benefit gig and immediately ask the audience: "Does anyone want to hear some folk music?" In the same movie, the more-authentic-than-thou Folksmen find themselves arguing that The Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze are examples of folk music. Anyone who's ever been to a concert felt a cringe of recognition.

Folk singers are indeed pretty self-conscious about being folk singers. It isn't just Steve Knightley howling "we need roots": it's Jim Moray charmingly asking the audience if they know what a Child Ballad is, and Chris Wood paying tribute to "Anon" as the greatest songwriter who ever lived. It sometimes feels as if folk music is the main thing which folk music is about. 

So what is folk music? Mark Slobin is an academic. He studies something called ethnomusicology and he doesn't know. It would be fair to say that much of what he is interested in -- Hungarian marraige ceremonies and the state appropriation of peasant music in the old Soviet nations -- wouldn't be recognised as folk music by the average English or American concert goer. The only modern English singer who appears in his index is Kate Rusby. Bob Dylan is mentioned in passing

He does think there is such a thing as folk music and that we know it when we see it. But he throws up his hands in despair when looking for a definition. The nearest he gets is a quote from One Of Those Sociologists who had did a research project in which he talked to every folk group, god help him, in Milton Keynes. "There can be no real definition of folk music, beyond saying that it was the kind of music played by those who called themselves folk performers" he concludes.

That's actually a good deal more helpful than it sounds. It's like "Science Fiction". You can define it so widely that Jane Eyre is sci-fi (it involves telepathy) or so narrowly that Star Trek is not (warp drive? warp bollocks, more like) but we know which would be more likely to be discussed at a sci-fi convention.

Last week I went to the Frome Folk Festival. I listened to songs which poor people really did listen to in the days before the gramophone (e.g Spiers and Boden singing All Along And Down A Lee) and songs that were more or less sophisticated pastiches of that kind of thing (e.g Steve Knightley's Transported). But I also heard modern compositions by young men with guitars who wanted to explain in some detail how they felt about the girl who had dumped them; and a band playing middle eastern instrumental numbers on instruments I didn’t recognise. And lots of Morris Dancing. One sort of see why they all go together, where, say, a Beatles cover band wouldn't have done, but what did they actually have in common?  Slobin cites another academic who says rather desperately "Acoustic instruments that can be heard by everyone within earshot, a certain musical simplicty and acccessible thoughtful understandable lyrics are the most commonly quoted reasons for an interest in contemporary folk music"

Not that specific definitions aren’t possible: when I interviewed a couple of local promoters last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that folk music was lyrics-based song-writing using open tunings and avoiding blues changes. Very true, no doubt, but not the kind of definition which would interest your average ethnomusicologist. .

Slobin is very interested in the trajectories of individual songs: where they come from; where they go; what they are for. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is almost his archetypal folk song: everyone knows it; no-one knows or cares who wrote it; but it gets passed on from parents to children because it can be used as a singing game or a lullaby. Indeed, I think “song with a use” might be a possible definition of what Slobin means by folk music. A song's use might be to encourage everyone on a chain gang to dig in time with each other; or to encourage your team to score goals, or to calm down a stroppy baby. He claims that a western ologist once played a piece of popular American music to a Native American and asked him what he thought of it. The Navajo said that he couldn’t say if he liked it or not until he knew what it was good for. A lot of people in the book seem to produce these kinds of gnomic aphorisms. "You and your dried words...The meaning of my words is in the moisture of my breath which carries them" "To you, they are words: to me, they are voices in the forest." I suppose traditional peoples really do speak like that. But is seems suspiciously close to how hippies and folkies would like them to speak. 

For something to really be folk music, as opposed to performance art which some professional musician has given that label, it needs to be circulating without an author "out there" in the musical culture. Playground rhymes and football chants are about the closest we can get, nowadays, and they hardly count as “music” by most people’s definition. (You wouldn't buy them on a CD or listen to them at a concert, would you?) Didn't the Opies find that, when they asked children to sing them songs, they literally didn't understand what they were being asked for? The whole idea of music turns out to be another one of those pesky Western constructs. Slobin thinks that a Muslim might literally not understand that we regard the call to prayer and the songs a mother sings to her baby as two examples of the same kind of thing.

Football songs or a playground chants are anonymous: silly words just get stuck onto classical tunes, pop tunes, and very often hymns. But then, a great number of Woody Guthrie's songs were simply new words to old tunes: in some cases, he didn't do much more than take a hymn and substitute the word "union" for the word "Jesus". American folk's most holy martyr, Joe Hill, was writing what a science fiction fan would easily identify as "filk". Slobin talks about a process of “folklorization” whereby something which had a known author is passed from listener to listener, possibly changing in the process, and thus enters the musical culture. A pop song or an advertising jingle can easily become "folklorized" in this way; swapping songs on YouTube might even be a modern version of folklorization.

Slobin is skeptical about the existence of a dying oral folk tradition in rural England and the American south which Cecil Sharp and John Lomax fortuitously preserved. Barbara Allen may be the most frequently collected Anglo American song (that is: many different collectors have heard different people singing different versions of it in different places) but it had been very frequently written down and published before the big revival. (*) The people who sang it to Cecil Sharp might very well have learned it from songbooks or even early gramophone records. He demonstrates that John Lomax learned the the cowboy song "I ride an old paint..." in a saloon in 1908, although he learned it, not from a real cowboy but from another college educated folklore student. It was published by Carl Sandburg  in "The Great American Song Bag". Aaron Copland had used it as part of his classical ballet "Rodeo" before Woody Guthrie recorded for Alan Lomax. Gurthrie probably learned the song from the Sandburg book. But this is okay, says Slobin because Guthrie re-folklorized it, adding verses about the Oakies and the dustbowl migration. This doesn't seem to me to amount to folkorization: it sounds to me like producing a more heavily authored version, just like turning Casey Jones into Casey Jones The Union Scab. (The Union Scab version is definitely Joe Hill's song.) Sloban points out that there are now lots of performances of "I Ride an Old Paint" on Youtube, including an anoymous lady in a cowboy hat and a chinese child with a toy organ. Which rather makes it sound as if “folklorization" just means “the song has been sung by lots of different people over the years”

Which isn't, come to think of it, a terrible definition. I would guess that there are more extant recordings of Yesterday than there are of the Two Sisters; but each new version of Yesterday consciously depends on the late Paul McCartney's version of the song, and indeed, of George Martin's recording of him singing it; but no single version of the Two Sisters depends on any other or supersedes any other. The song is just out there and anyone can have a go at it.

I enjoyed the sections about "Celtic" music and didgerydoos. It isn't quite clear what Celtic music actually has to do with the Celts; it isn't even clear what the different kinds of music which call themselves Celtic have to do with each other: "no one has identified traditional structural, meldodic or rhyhtmic elements that can be isolated as Celtic". But it does seem as if Irish people and Welsh people positively started to play what they at any rate believed to be old songs because their languages were a lost cause and their songs were something they could cling to and use to represent what was theirs. (English teachers, as Welsh people never tire of reminding us, used to beat children who they caught speaking Welsh in school; they found it rather harder to stop their parents singing old Welsh songs at home). Modern music with the label "Celtic" is made by professionals, played at concerts, sold on records. "It only exists after it has been produced and marketed: It has not existence outside of its commodity form." So how is it folk music? Because, er, it doesn't sell too well, so the publishers market it on their folk labels.

Lots of Irish and Cornish people went to Australia, so Australian folk music can be quite a lot like Irish music, and therefore distantly connected to the Celtic thang, but apparently some Ozzie groups have transmogrified into, god help us, “folk rock bush bands” which incorporate the didgerydoo but apparently not the wobbleboard. The didgerydoo doesn't seem to have been that big a deal for the First Peoples; it was a hollowed out log that that you blew down in certain religious ceremonies, but it has become a signifier for Australian-ness and in particular for the idea that the Aborigines were specially spiritual and in touch with nature and stuff. It has a distinct sound, of course (Jim Moray uses it in Leaving Australia and Christ Ricketts in Bound For South Australia) but Slobin thinks that it is the idea of the instrument -- what it symbolizes -- that has caused a separate musical sub-culture to grow up around it. "Turned into a myth, the aboriginal's cultural essence distills into a single object made from a log". The sound of the didgerydoo is thought by fans to be bound up with the Native Australians respect for the environment, and fans think that just listening to it will help you "reconnect with nature, earth energy and each other". They don’t seem to be playing traditional Native Australian tunes: it's the instrument itself which is special.

This reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s odd idea that free floating things called "myths", shorn of their cultural context can return your mind to a blissful, telegraph-wire free utopia. But it's also maybe not too far from Steve Knightley's idea that our stories and our songs will connect us with our roots, with all questions about who “we” are taken for granted.

Ursula Le Guin famously said that she wrote science fiction because science fiction was what her publisher called the kind of thing she wrote: but folk music is a label which certain professional musicians wish to apply to the kind of thing they sing. Martin Carthy's Prince Heathen and Jim Moray's Lord Douglas are not part of any process of folklorization: they are the result of the conscious study of multiple written versions. (But I suppose that some folkies may sing Prince Heathen in Carthy's version and believe that they are singing something unchanged since the Olden Days.) Reading this book made me wonder if it's the label which is important, symbolizing something about the Olden Days for certain middle class English people in the way that the didgerydoo does for certain Australian hippies? 

Chris Wood says that when he sings a song, he feels the ghost of the person who taught it to him standing behind him: but that person learned the song from someone else, so there is a long chain of ghosts standing behind him. You only really become a folk singer, he says, when you understand that one day you will be one of the ghosts. I don't think it matters very much whether that chain of ghosts is real or imaginary, any more than it really matters what aborigines did with their didgerydoos before white people arrived on their island. What matters is the idea. 

(*) The haunting version of the song performed as part of the Cecil Sharp project doesn't sound as if it has been carefully honed by Anon to fit the needs of a new continent; it sound more like a product of misremembering and mishearing: "Sweet William died on a Saturday night, and Barbara on a Sunday; the old woman died for the love of both, she died on Easter Monday" sounds like a something out of a playground chant: the old woman has found her way into the story simply to provide a rhyme.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Don't Shoot The Support Act, He's Doing His Best

Laura Marling 
Colston Hall 
3 March   

Dear God, I had forgotten how unpleasant mainstream audiences were. These aren't people who drifted in off the street; the tickets were hard to get; Laura’s last gig in Bristol sold out overnight: people must, like us, have leapt onto the website first thing in the morning to nab tickets while they were available. Maybe all the truefans had headed for the, er, mosh, and we foolish ones who had taken the front row of seating were surrounded by people who didn't really want to be there in the first place.

Yeah, I'm a grumpy old man and everything, I've read serious critics (well, Jule Burchill) arguing that only a total saddos listen to music: it’s there to subliminally affect your mood while you are doing something else like washing dishes or having sex. Someone on Facebook was surprised to be asked to shut up when he talked over the music at a Billy Bragg concert, and concluded that he’d wandered into some weird religious cult. Which is a fair point, actually.

So, they talked, all through the first support act, Pete Roe, a local singer with a guitar and a flat cap and some decent singery songerwritery tunes. They talked all the way through the second support, Timbre Timbre, who I concede was one of the most hopelessly misjudged performances I've ever seen, droning barely audible cod blues at an audience who were leaving in large numbers. They talked about Aunty Angela's lumbago, and about who that cute boy was who keeps showing up in the office canteen.

Maybe I've misread this: I'm used to concerts where the support is "someone who the main band like and want to give some exposure to" or "a local act the promoter thinks is quite good": maybe young people regard them on a level with the adverts before the movie. But they talked, gesticulating and raising their voices to be heard above the PA, actually seeming to have some kind of full scale domestic dispute, through the main act. Quite astonishing. Folkbuddy 1 (*)  actually resorted to the old “don’t bother, he’s not worth it" gambit when I leaned forward, quite politiely, and said words to the effect of “Oh, please, be nice, he’s doing his best.” I’m a librarian. I tell people to be quiet for a living. A customer threatened to kill me the other day. What was the question again?

 So, anyway, Laura Marling. I believe I understand why Laura has become A Phenomenon. There literally isn't anyone like her. She sounds like a young woman of about nineteen possessed by the spirit of the 70-year-old Bob Dylan: world weary, rambling, occupying some space between blues and folk-Americana, long, structureless narratives that you can’t make sense out of suddenly giving way to beautiful little melodic hooks; a sound that buzzes like a bumblebee on a hot day; a sometimes preposterous naivity – ("there's a house across the river but alas I cannot swim" could be taken for a child's skipping rhyme) with a horrible maturity behind it. There’s also a hint of the Kimya Dawson type baby-voiced antifolk patter in some of the poetry. The fact that she’s awfully English but singing in a more or less American idiom and sometimes accent makes her all the more unpinable down. I could list the brilliant songs on the fingers of one hand (Alas I Cannot Swim, Give Me To A Rambling Man, I Only Love England When Covered In Snow, It’s Not Like I Believe In Everylasting Love) and there are an awful lot of songs which are likeable only in so far as thy somewhat remind you of the good ones. But that's still more classic songs than many people manage in a career. 

I thought that the purely or mostly acoustic numbers came through pretty well tonight, despite the audience; but I am not convinced by the addition of a band, which appeared to entirely drown out out the Suzanne Vega type recitative. She doesn’t have much stage presence or persona, but she makes a connection with her fans through sheer niceness.(She mentions in passing that the Colston Hall was the place where she went to her first gig: a young girl in the balcony calls down "This is my first gig!" "Well maybe in a few years you’ll be up here" she calls back.) And although I am in principle pleased that she’s fighting a one man rearguard action against pointless encores. ("If you want an encore, then that was my last song.") it gives the evening a rather anti-climactic finish. Laura Marling picking away on a guitar, singing cryptic lyrics like an infinitely old little girl, I shall listen to again, but I am not quite sure I'll have the stamina to face another one of her concerts.


 (*) Bristol’s leading citizen journalist

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Boy Bands Have Quite Definitely Not Won

The Albion Band
Colston Hall
2 April

Vice of the People (CD)

 We're left in no doubt as to what we've let ourselves in for. The band rush on to the stage, and without ado, akapella the opening track of their album: close harmony, through the nose, copper-familly-ish; not specifically based on any song, but sounding like "arise ye men of england" or something of that kind, except that it's about the modern world and people who want their magical 15 minutes of fame. And then, still without ado, the electric guitars and the drums blare out, and we're straight into a heavy rock take on Mr Richard Thompson's Roll Over Vaughan Williams. This is most definitely going to be folk and it's most definitely going to be rock.

The programmes says New Albion Band but they definitely want to be thought of as simply the Albion Band with a new line up. Blair Dunlop, (guitars and vocals), is the son of Ashley Hutchings who founded the original band, but that's the only direct link, and Hutchings says that the new generation have largely gone it alone. Singer and squeezebox man Gavin Davenport actually seems to be the driving force, writing or arrange about half of the songs on the album, and acting as front-man in the live show. He has a deep, rich, northern voice where the younger Blair sings with a Moray-ish twinkle; they go excellently together. Katriona Gilmore contributes two songs, fiddle-playing and the only female voice. 

The live show plays right through the album, but peppers it with number from the Albion Bands back catalogue. "You will be able to see that the guitar arrangement is based on the monster rock stylings of.... Martin Carthy" explains Gavin at one point; and yes, as a matter of fact, without being either parody or pastiche, you could see a lot of Carthy in Ben Trott (lead guitar's) performance of "I was a young man, I was a rover." (Carthy did indeed appear on one album in 1973. I recall that Phil Beer once remarked during a solo gig that, statistically speaking, two out of three members of the audience would one day be members of the Albion Band.)  

We are told that Vice of the People is an album with a concept, although it isn't a concept album. The concept (and stop me if you've heard this before) is the vacuity of celebrity culture. If getting to know Simon Cowell is the only way you have of getting famous, then there really isn't much hope for you as a human being, says Gavin.  "Almost as bad as inhering a folk rock band from your dad" interjects Blair. (The bands on-stage rapport is slightly self-conscious, but still convincing.) 

You can see why folkies would make slebs their target: as Bernard Shaw might have said, martyrdom and reality TV shows are the only two ways in which people can become famous without ability. I suppose you could say that its a bit much for folkies to complain that the common people don't stand up and sing in pubs nowadays, and then complain when what's basically a glorified pub talent show becomes popular TV viewing. (Susan Boyle and the folklorization of the West End Musical, anyone?) But it presents a very good hook to hang an album on: not necessarily music of folk, but very definitely music about folk. The band is really, really, really good at voicing modern concerns in a folk idiom; and presenting it in a combination of traditional and rock arrangements. "Thieves Song" starts with the nursery rhyme "Hark, hark the dogs do bark" and turns it into a rant against dishonest politicians – we might as well be robbed by poor people as by MPs. Not a terribly new insight, as it happens, but the combination of vernacular and folkie dialect is spot on: 

"And yet you scorn the beggar man who cries out for each crust
But on the pinstripe wolfshead you invest your faith and trust
And put the biggest rogues of all your parliament within
So don't despise the poor man though his clothes be awful thin"

Even cleverer is the following "How Many Miles To Babylon?" also based on a nursery rhyme. They are not the first people to whom the idea that ancient Babylon is in modern Iraq has occurred, but it's used here with considerable ingenuity. The person in the rhyme who is trying to get to Babylon and back by candlelight turns out to be a soldier from the gulf war:

"Come see there's little left of me 
But longing for my love 
And to see the child I never saw 
I thank the stars above
Weary of the killing
Ravaged by the fight 
I must go before the dawn
Snuffs the candle light" 

He is in fact a ghost and the nursery rhyme has morphed into a hauntingly contemporary "night visiting" ballad.

Unusually, I thought the stand-out tracks in the live gig were the purely instrumental sets  particularly the "Skirmish Set", a collection of infectious morris tunes in which the drums and amps are kept firmly in the background and the melodeon and fiddle take centre stage. (The melodeon player is Tim Yates from our own beloved Blackbeard's Tea Party. There is, when it comes down to, only one folk band in the world, but that folk band is very big.) The songs, I can't help thinking, came out better on the CD than live, because, as too often happens in folk rock sets, the very loud volume made the lyrics disappear so you couldn't quite follow what was being sung about: a great shame when the group so clearly has something to say. 

The show winds up with Wake a Little Wiser, which you might see as a modern take on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a hint of the aforementioned Roy Bailey's Song of the Leaders.) 

"From Wilberforce to Nightingale from Anderson to Paine
Our ragged heroes built this land come sing their praise again
And leave your tinpot idols out a rusting in the rain
And wake a little wiser in the morning."

This is great music; I haven't stopped playing the CD since the band wrote their names on it Polished, intelligent, fun but above all, loud.