Sunday, October 23, 2016

Steve Dillon

Just bloody gutted to read this this morning. 

Steve Dillon was one of my early art heroes. Coming into the world of Eagle's second generation return, and then into 2000AD meant that a banquet of inspirtional art was suddenly opened to me after childhood years of rote caricatures and established characters through Disney comics and UK kids' titles. I've not thought until now just how immediate the variety of styles and techniques hit me. There was no way any of these guys - the O'Neil's, Ezquerras, Kennedy's and especially McMahons would ever be mistaken for something from Key Comics. As I got older these stylistic and idiosyncratic outings became more and more intimidating as I vainly tried to copy them and develop my own confidence in drawing.

Cry of the Werewolf
Fortunately, among these artists was a younger name, only eight years older than me, whose style was more relateable. Assured, yes, but solid - really solid, well-defined and very 'readable'. Steve Dillon's  art was easy to aspire to, but reliably more complex than its his clean lines and nice black and white balancing suggested. That said, though, if there's a style that I took to most readily, it was Steve Dillon's. I mean this as no damped-down praise - Dillon was a master of ink, confident in every line, especially given his young age, and I've no doubt that I'm not the only young artist who ran to his deceptively-effortless work as a masterclass (paging Guanolad...)

City of the Damned
The rest, for Dillon at least, is history. Some early Doctor Who Magazine work, initially as a backup artists, but later to provide the work for Steve Parkhouse's last regular story The Moderator in which both Parkhouse and Dillon combine two then near-inconcievable Doctor actions - the Time Lord crying and shooting a gun, and turn the result into something very Doctorish indeed.   Lots of 2000AD, including three of the big hitters in the Eighties - Judge Dredd (the momentous death of series regular Judge Giant is pictured here, from Block Wars), Rogue Trooper and ABC Warriors plus some lovely covers for Zenith), and then, into the Nineties and more recent years, Transatlantic success, the most notable being Preacher, which he co-created with fellow 2000AD alumnus Garth Ennis. His line of stories for The Punisher has already been credited on several comic boards as being the reason some readers returned to the series, Dillon was that effective, that readable.

54 is no great age to depart this earth, though the very young age at which Dillon started his career (drawing Nick Fury and the Hulk at sixteen! And thanks to the keen foresight of Dez Skinn) means there are decades of his work to see, and a mighty field of followers who saw and were inspired by his instantly recognisable style, an who went on to draw for 2000AD, DWM, Marvel and DC. With the late Brett Ewins he co-created the influential breakaway pop-culture comic  Deadline and from that venture we have Peter Milligan, Jamie Hewlett and Tank Girl among others. The comics world has indeed lost a great storyteller.

As others have said already, completely unexpected. Thank God his prodigious start and global success means his talents and influence won't be forgotten.

The Moderator, Doctor Who Magazine

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


This week marks a bittersweet moment in the Simian household. Well, two, really. First and foremost is another year marked off by Jet Jr as he burns through his single-digit birthdays like a cheetah on Ritalin, but such things are unavoidable, and calls are for celebration. No, the second is the cruellest marker of time's passage, for this holiday weekend the labours of our local video rental shop cease, its dorrs to close forever.

For the past month Civic Video have been selling off their wares from top to bottom - DVDs, Blu Rays, TV series, movies, games, refreshments, shelves... like a distressing Dick Smith closure but cheaper and with longer queues. I defy any self-respecting staffmember to resist a sad and understandably rueful acknowledgement that this same throng could have saved the business on any other day, but over this short period it's been a quiet and certain bleeding out of a store that was a real life saver at times - particularly wet weekends and school holidays.

As a past librarian I've frequently had to make hard decisions about collection management. They're hard decisions because beyond the cold equations of linear metres, storage overheads, rental and futureproofing, there's an emotional attachment to a well-stocked collection. Like a lot of people my generation and older, I like to discover by browsing and through serendipity, and you can't do that much with what resources we have at home for domestic film viewing. We don't torrent movies (though I do admit I've been the grateful recipient of one or two in a bind), and we don't have Netflicks - though we suspect this will have to change at some stage. Sure, the hit rate for Civic was sometimes not our friend, and there would be a distressingly-large number of scratched discs that would have to be returned, swapped, and maybe returned again to be swapped for a different title for a crestfallen Jet Jr, but the store was a mainstay of our little suburb, and the staff were unceasingly friendly, courteous, and helpful. I'll miss them - I do already. I have been, I admit freely, in an extended period of mouring for the old place, even if I confess I haven't been using it as much as I should have, or would have done were I a younger ape with more time on my hands.

But as I say, it's been a real friend. When I broke my back nearly ten years ago I spent a lot of recuperating hours finally watching Outrageous Fortune. I binge-watched when it wasn't fashionable to! Thanks to the less-recent closure of a neighbouring Video-Ezy, Civic's collection was also pretty decent for arthouse fare, and their World and SF collections weren't bad, either.

Alas, no more. And two visits to the shop post-closure announcement have meant some sad purchases were made - I have Batman v Superman now, for my sins, plus My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (oh boy), The Spiderwick Chronicles, Snowpiercer, E.T, Galaxy Quest, a Count Duckula collection (which may be scratched beyond play but at $2.25 was worth the gamble) and The Bean Movie. The father and son before me in the queue second time around walked - or at least staggered off - with just over ninety titles ranging from Dog Day Afternoon to The Delinquents for a cool hundred bucks. On my first visit a small boy eyed my quartet of movies and quietly asked 'Do you have Hunt for the Wilderpeople?'. I didn't. No chance. How am I going to see it now?!  Whole collections of Tolkien, Rowling and Meyers I passed by, and I regret not picking up Frankenweenie when I saw it, but on the whole I felt somehow culpable in part to a good shop's demise.

So, off to Netflicks or Neon we Simians march and call it progress. I've known some great video shops in my time. Well, no I haven't. I've known maybe one or two - but Civic Video in Johnsonville along with Amalgamated Video in Kilbirnie were the best two Wellington shops I frequented. Aro Video deserves its dogged survival, and long may it continue, but to me it's never been as friendly, as homely, or as handily local.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


So now the DC cinematic universe is up and running, and what a start. Collective wisdom would indicate that it's not been the most auspicious of beginnings, but two things come to mind- principally that Marvel's movie universe didn't arrive fully-formed and blockbuster-ready, and that this muted beginning- plagued though it may have been with low critical scores and seemingly divided audiences, at least has a vision that its current creators simply cannot take for granted. Harsh lessons have been learned.

By far the greatest surprise has been Suicide Squad, a movie I did get to see and reviewed here. It did Box Office gangbusters, which on the face of it is very good news for a movie with only marginally-recognisable characters (and no, the Joker doesn't count, even if he does feature heavily in the trailers - simply put, the same word of mouth that afforded its bad reviews must naturally be telling anyone who listens that the Joker wasn't in the movie very much at all.) Indeed one of the big lessons moviemakers might take away from its four-week run topping the US box office is that August needn't be a dead zone for franchise movies and that a few more slots may open up in schedules in years to come, thanks to its performance. 

That said, this success was probably a fluke and not to be repeated. My worry is that the pressure that came off the reviews of Batman. V Superman and which informed the arguably-botched late changes to Suicide Squad will now be visited upon Wonder Woman, a movie which unlike Squad is expected to be a tentpole franchise winner. But a female lead and also one not yet wrought from Hollywood's A List and a less-recognisable setting for a Tinseltown movie (World War One, rather than its more recognisable legacy) may prove challenging.

Still, among the remarkable things about Squad was its apparent appeal in the US to some broader moviegoers - namely young women and Hispanics. It is a remarkably diverse and progressive cast ethnically and in gender, with (as Forbes covers) features nine out of its fourteen leading characters who are not a white male - and that includes all three potential villains (no, still not a Joker movie). Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman ought to appeal to one of those demographics directly, and further down the line James Wan will give us an Aqua Man who to intents and purposes could bring a decidedly Pacifika bent to a traditional white bread super hero.
Diversity is the next big battle in superhero movies, and it'sa battle that needs to be fought hard.When Marvel fans baited the 'serious and realistic' DCEU birth with cries of "hey, we just had a blockbuster movie featuring a tree and a talking racoon!" the correct response is to counter that with a movie led by an ethnically diverse and gender-mixed cast. Crocodile man aside, Suicide Squad did just that, and we'll see Wonder Woman headline on the big screen well before Captain Marvel, let alone a Black Widow solo feature.

So although its start was less than ideal I'm cautiously optimistic about the future of DC's hero franchise. Justice League may have the worrying presence of Zack Snyder behind the lens but is a year away yet with clear directive post-BvS, and there still seems a lot of goodwill held for it with Ezra Miller's Flash receiving a lot of positive buzz. There will be a solo Batman movie yet, Man of Steel 2 is in development, and somewhere in the schedule it's believed Margot Robbie will give Harley Quinn a well-earned victory run - with or without the rest of the Squad, and maybe with some other female DC heroes in tow. We'll see, keep working hard everyone.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Under Hill

I've been required to do a fair bit of travelling recently. A bit of flying (I love landscapes from above), and a lot of driving. Though New Zealand varies region by region, and certainly it's not the postcasrd travelogue recent movies have CG-ed up, there are parts of this country that are gorgeous in their mute simplicity.

As a young Simian I would travel the main highway to Dunedin with my parents when visiting family down there, and from the back set of our car I'd watch the contryside change as we travelled further south, becoming hillier, greener, the low slopes and mrangeds alternately withdrawing and approaching as we wound our way through places with evocative names: Blueskin Bay, the Kilmog Hill, Pigeon Flat, Flagstaff . As I grew older and took books with me for the journey these places would become proxies for Tolkein's Middle Earth locations: Weathertop, Amon Hen, the Dead Marshes, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood.

Kilmog Hill by Ian@NZFlickr

For me, reading has always been a very visual experience. I'm unable to follow a story unless I can build a picture of it in my mind, with locations, casting (for want of a better term) and so forth. I've no idea if this is normal, but it's been the habit of a lifetime. Similarly, my Dungeons & Dragons experiences were also visual, and informed by the same landscapes I travelled though at the time. Travelling through the lower rolling countryside of the Kapiti Coast and lower Manawatu, Rotorua's Waioekea Gorge, and the Rimutaka incline brings back those fancies of a younger me, head full of roleplaying and fantasy scenarios. What armies of goblins and unspeakable creatures lurked inside those emerald grassy domes carved by rivers and wind?

Landscape plays a part in roleplaying, but I'm interested to know how much this matters to players from different locales. I was of course extremely fortunate to have literally just outside town the countryside that would become Peter Jackson's Middle Earth (and no, I've not yet made it to Matamata/Hobbiton!), but did city-locked Inner Birmingham and Greater Manchester players of my generation plant themselves in fantasy worlds built from their surroundings? Did the experience of players in the US work the landscapes seen from their bedroom and car windows into the same sweeping prairies and cliff and pine tree panoramas that the likes of Larry Elmore made a career painting into the rulebooks I lost myself in?

Answers on a postcard. Really.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Suicide is Painless

This month I had a stop-over in Gisborne for work. It was wet, I don't know anybody there and was a bit anxious about what was in store for me the following day, so rather than cooling my heels in a motel room with bad telly I took in a movie. I saw Suicide Squad in a small-town cinema at a late session with six other people including three of the local youths - loud voices, confident swagger, armfuls of candy bar popcorn and selfies galore. What the hell I thought, they may be more the movie's dynamic than I am.

But in the end I didn't mind Suicide Squad and some parts and characters I quite dug. It's certainly not the ultraviolent hoodlum gangster flick I feared it would be, and is more likeable than Batman v  Superman, and though it fell a little drunkenly between stools (namely the grimy urban vision of David Ayer's original shoot and the dayglo gonzo of Trailer Parks' reworking) it falls just short of recalling some mid 80s B movie fare in giddy pleasures. Perhaps I responded to this movie from a background in comics like 2000AD's Strontium Dog and Bad Company, where motley bands of outcasts find their honour in the spurned work of normal men, and redemption the insurmountable odds of doomed battle. Truly, Squad is to date the most comic-strip looking of the modern superhero movies, relishing in its colourful grotesques.

I find my reactions are frustratingly akin to those of others. - yes Margot Robbie, Will Smith and Viola Davis carry the movie. But yes also Jay Hernandez deserves more recognition for his doomed Diablo, and Joel Kiniman does a lot with his character Rick Flagg's character - enough, in fact, that I'm sorry the movie didn't make more of Flagg and Deadshot's grudging alliance seen through his eyes; the normal man amidst Amanda Waller's crew of deadly circus turns. Jared Leto is hard to gauge - he's simply not in the movie enough, and could have been edited out for the most part, which isn't to say I wouldn't want to see his Joker return, it's just that Squad is not a Joker movie whatever the marketing and trailer might have led everyone to believe. 

But, like Batman v Superman before it, Suicide Squad has turned out to be a different beast from the slick production the trailers promised. It is a little lumpy in places, and the third act looks like it's had some chops that would make F4ntastic Four snigger. The musical cues are all up the wop in places and in others are about as blurty and welcome as the soundtrack to a DIY programme. Cara Delevigne dances about as well as I do in her big scene, and there are other casualties along the way. Katana and Killer Croc hardly get out of the gate and are timidly underused, the former especially as Flagg's hired muscle. Boomerang has to feature in the Flash movie if there's any justice. We just see too little of him, and a comic foil with his rough unrepentant charm would to my mind be more fitting than Harley's "irksome" self-aware needling. 

But Jeez - it's not the end of the world, and it's not cinematic trash. It's guilt-free gung-ho hooligan heroism, with a powerful foil in Davis' Amanda Waller (essentially the true villain of the piece.) Its part in the DC cinematic universe is well-earned with some fun and effective cameos by two Justic League members, and its graphics are awesome. It's by no means perfect, but I can't help liking it. Let justice be served - let's see them again. 

Postscript: Justice has of course come to this movie, weirdly enough. The critics have been effectively silenced, and Squad has become the Little Blockbuster That Improbably Did. It's out-grossed Captain America : The Winter Soldier without a Chinese release, and out-profited Iron Man, its soundtrack has just gone gold, and it's Will Smith's most profitable movie. It's made a star of Margot Robbie and Harley Quinn into a future movie lead. This despite a lingering well-below-par critical score and acknowledged production and editing issues. The future for Suicide Squad looks bright, I'd say, though some of the above will assuredly make it an interesting one. And I can't wait to see what makes it onto the Blu Ray.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lead Time Lords: The Twelfth Doctor

Hullo! And welcome back to a new instalment of this lumbering series. There's more to come, so sit down, grab a stiff brandy and settle in.

Here, then, is the Twelfth Doctor, in the form of Crooked Dice Studio's lookee-likey Tucker Newman (great name.) Up until very recently CD were the only game in town for a Twelfth Dr figure, but new licence-holders Warlord Games have just teased everyone with their (slightly taller) version of him in his Hell Bent duds - hoodie, red 'lectric guitar, stupid f***ing sonic specs and his journeyman walk looking for all the world like the Mid-life Crisis Doctor he's sadly become. God I hated last year's season - for the most part. They do say no-one loathes Doctor Who more than Doctor Who fans.

I do digress, because the figure here is Peter Capaldi's marvellous, abrasive, alien Doctor in his first year, replete with his Hartnellesque lapel-hooking finger, his magician get up (check out that flash of red lining!) and that majestic pair of eyebrows. Why, I was so intimidated by those space caterpillars that I didn't dare finish painting his eyes for fear of catching the wee man's baleful gaze.

There was a bit of planning here, but no modification needed. It's a beautiful sculpt by CD's reliable Ernst Blofeld sorry, Veingart. Simple but effective, with the aforementioned overturned Crombie jacket front to break up the navy and charcoal stovepipes (I cheated - it may well be an all navy ensemble, but I wasn't going there.) He was a pleasure to paint, with a great likeness and very forgiving face (except the eyebrows, obviously) although I expect I may yet return to him to tidy up some of the blue and maybe... maybe, attempt those eyes. The cobblestone base is mine and I'm rather chuffed with it.

Cripes - he's looking my way again. Aargh!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Mighty Bush

Times dictate that I must post this today, for today is the day that Kate Bush has her birthday. Happy Birthday, your majestic Weirdness.

Flap-flap-flap! It's a bat.

Kooky, spooky, and very very talented, Kate Bush landed on Earth on this day in 1958, and announced her presence to humankind twenty years later (more on that in another post). By this time she'd pretty much written out her career, and for the next two decades at least, she'd continue to be a significant presence in the UK pop world. She was young, gifted and weird. Arty, intellectual, sexy, exotic and cooly distant, she'd write, compose, choreogrph and direct her impressive body of work almost from day one, all the while maintaining the same destatchment that would mark her persona and probably frustrate her fans. There aren't many artists like her around these days, and there weren't then, either.

Bush Goes Full Achilleos
My first encounter with la Bush will be the feature of my next entry, but like Bowie before and after, her career and public presence (the two being virtually one and the same due to the artist's strict control over her private life) was something that I drfited through. I remember select videos and song from her early years - Wuthering Heights, Babooshka, Running Up That Hill, and the rest was pretty much catch-up.

Catch-up took place for me in 1990, and my second year at Uni. Having joined a band I was a young man very much in pursuit of new musical ideas and influences. My friends and I were all into easily-accessible student fare - local alternative bands, Flying Nun rostermates, Pixies, Smiths, REMs, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and so on. The result was that in all of this common ground there wasn't much I could call 'my' taste - it was simply shared with too many others. And then my brother's then-girlfriend played Kate Bush's The Whole Story to me one holidays while we were both hanging out at my parent's new home. I don't remember much more, except that I was immediately taken by it, and that Marg also recommended Hounds of Love as Bush's best album. I bought Hounds two years later, having got almost everything else on vinyl - this was one of my first CD purchases, and of course she was bloody spot on. Hounds of Love is a classic.  Perhaps I'll blog that one separately.

Ms Bush and I parted company shortly after The Sensual World and her pursuing the (to me) less accessible musical stylings of Trio Bulgarka. Clearly, a Hill too high for Running Up, but by then I'd consumed enough of her creative output to have satisfied my curiosity without entering the dark world of total fandom. Kate Bush fans - or those I'd be comfortable counting myself as one among them - were a bit thin on the ground in early Nineties Dunedin, but brief encounters led me to interesting places. A long conversation I had with a keen fan answering our ad for a new keyboardist revealed that he had recenty bought her retrospectve box set This Woman's Work. I was interested, my bandmates weren't, and we never got that follow-up meeting. But the next person I had an in-depth conversation about Kate Bush to was a lot more fruitful. Just over a year from that phone call I was looking to join a flat with a friend and the two of us met with a girl from his Anbthropology class who was also on the hunt for digs. She was a fan, apparently, and now she's Mrs Simian. So there's that.

We still play The Whole Story occasionally. Mrs Simian is a big fan of Jig of Life, and I would be remiss not to admit that This Woman's Work has got me through a couple of challenging life episodes. And we were both shattered to discover a fortnight ago that we'd blown our Saturday morning roster and not had the time to turn up to Waitangi Park for Wellington's own Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever. But eh. Maybe next year.

So, many happy returns once again Catherine Carder Bush, and thanks for playing a not insignificant part in the life I enjoy today.