Saturday, May 25, 2013

Odd Space Ditty

Jet Junior is going through a very enthusiastic David Bowie phase right now, singing him, drawing him, remarking on the Thin White Duke's more memorable Seventies incarnations ("Eyes are different!" "Paint on his face!" "He's a singer!"), but is so far unmoved by astronaut Chris Hadfield's cover of Space Oddity. I can't say the same.

Space Oddity and I go a long way back. It might be the earliest Bowie song I know. No, hang on, that might be I Am A DJ. Or is it The Laughing Gnome? Cat People? Thanks to Sunday morning kids radio it's probably Gnome, dammit, but for the sake of the man’s preferred canon, let's say it's something else again - Ashes to Ashes. Freaky video, utterly memorable in song and visuals - that's the one. So, really, I suppose I experienced the story of Bowie's ill-fated astronaut Major Tom backwards, from Heaven's High back to Countdown.

And yet Oddity is the one that stuck with me because in our house it, Starman, and Life on Mars were the only three songs assured easy access to me until I was old enough to work out how to tape Let's Dance off the radio during its local chart peak. The three tunes were all collected on a compilation I actually wanted to feature on Jetsam under a different category. An LP of space tunes simply called, I think, Star Trek, featured paintings of your actual Kirk and Spock on the cover, but inside offering soundalikes of such fare as the Star Wars theme (erring on the side of the Giorgio Moroder interpretation), Close Encounters (again, a regional stab at Gene Page's great disco mix), Telstar (don't even hope for the Tornadoes/Joe Meek version nor even The Shadows), Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (nope), Night Flight to Venus, and Rocket Man. Alas, no chance of tracking down a picture or full track listing of that LP for the moment - even Google is doing a pretty good job at sweeping what's likely to be another K-Tel cash grab under the carpet. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Eventually making my acquaintance with the original Oddity via a British Pop box set changed little in the end - it was a still a really strange song, lyrically inventive with its countdown and key changes, and it tells a story! Not an easy story to decipher at the end, of course - does the hero lose contact with Ground Control accidentally or does he disconnect himself? It's deliberately vague and unashamedly juvenile space fable, its moral and conclusion left to the listener's interpretation. External interpretations came, of course, including the soundalike I'd heard, plus a rivetingly spartan, twitchy 1979 remake performed by a post-Low Bowie on Kenny Everett's TV show, patently and visually linking the original with the imminent strung-out Scary Monsters sequel (its minimal bass kick-and-snare backing recalling also to my ears Five Years' backing beat). A few years later and there is Peter Schilling's 1983 literal Europop re-telling of the story in Major Tom (Coming Home). After that, the literal grounding in Ashes to Ashes, and later still a posthumous cut-up resurrection in the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy in 1996 which, again, excused itself before coming to any form of explanation. As it ought to have by then, of course.

Chris Hadfield’s in-orbit cover does something new, of course, leaps apart from Schilling and Tennant/Lowe’s rather too reverential nods. It’s by no means an attempt at a further chapter to Major Tom, but an endearingly personal sign-off from one of our farthest frontiers, heaven’s high being this time a breathtaking and uplifting window onto our planet home as the ISS glides over oceans an continents, observing pinpoints of light that mark the cities of the world. Hadfield’s voice is for the most part up to the job, and he acquits himself remarkably well with his guitar in a zero-G environment, but it’s the sentiment behind his rewriting that really strikes me “Your Commander comes back down to Earth and grows”, providing a version of Major Tom who completes his mission, returns to Earth changed and equally proud and humbled, and shows us all in our best light – from the anonymous distance of space. It's a profound, humanist and ultimately optimistic piece against Bowie's tripping, existential original.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ray Harryhausen

Stop motion was a dominant form of animation when I was growing up. It infiltrated so many shows and movies of my childhood in large and small ways - Star Wars, Vision On, Sesame Street, Land of the Lost, and ultimately Clash of the Titans, the final great show reel of the movie making genius of Ray Harryhausen. My first encounter with Harryhausen's work had been a TV clip of Jason and the Argonauts' famous skeleton fight - still an effective and masterfully-choreographed mix of live action and animation. You've seen it - of course you have. Let's all watch it again:

Classic work, with some assured, slight, genius touches 'humanising' the bony killers - I love the occasional cutaway to those oddly expressive and malevolent grinning skulls, the deft wall vault one makes around the 2:45 mark, and of course that initial baleful scream - in my opinion much mimicked (on more than one occasion by Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and Xena franchises) but never equaled.

Of course Ray Harryhausen's work amounts to more than a standard Basic D&D level party melee, although you can be sure that a fair few skeleton encounters in my D&D playing games were based on that encounter and replayed in my head as a variation thereof. Surely that scene is why living skeletons are in the game to begin with? Speaking of which, surely, once again, there is a causal link between Golden Voyage of Sinbad's animated murderous ship figurehead and a similar murderous ship's figurehead in (SPOILERS!) AD&D Adventure Vault of the Drow. Even in my teens and pre-Jurassic Park the dinosaurs we encountered in our games were the stop motion monsters of Valley of Gwanji (still a favourite - somebody remake it. No, on second thoughts don't!), and though my adolescent adventurers never encountered a colossal Iron Golem, you can bet I'd have visualised it as Talos.

There are a lot of posts on the Internet about Harryhausen's effect as a movie pioneer and the filmmakers he inspired. I don't think there are as many championing his ability to penetrate the imagination. His work could amuse, enthrall, emote and horrify - the latter being ably exemplified in this sequence from my only big screen Harryhausen viewing (but it was a good one), 1982's Clash of the Titans' Medusa battle:

Probably a good ten years ago some friends and I revisited and experienced again Ray Harryhausen's entire oeuvre. Great early evenings of a mad scrabble from the office to the cable car and up to a viewing at VUW's AV suite. The movies were old and increasingly cheesy (particularly the Sinbad series), but made all the more enjoyable - the best viewing yet, in the company of friends.

Thanks for the thrills, Ray.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Minty Fresh!

Well, it's finally here - Judge Minty, the not-for-profit Dreddverse fan film, all 27 minutes of it which you can view on a lot of blogs, YouTube, and through the embed here:

I'm mightily impressed. For a low budget film it looks very slick (if a little loose towards the end), and its dedication to the world of Dredd and Wagner and McMahon's vision is absolutely second to none. Here's the comic strip Judge costume done in a believable way, with a modernised Lawgiver and, once again, the Lawmaster bike true to the comic original.

There's lots here for the die-hard fan - cameos and shout-outs to such Dredd legends as Otto Sump, Skysurfers, Judge Anderson, Judge Pal, the Aggro-Dome, not to mention a not-too bad realisation of the Gila Munja, humanoid reptile assassins who changed their appearance a few times over the lifetime of the comic. I loved the visual nods to the strip, too - the 'No Law' sign of course, but also a stricken Land Raider - very nice CG, all told.

A Kickstarter for a sequel is, as I understand it, not in the offing due to the rights to the character and universe being in the hands of Rebellion and the strip's creators, but that aside it's really very very cool that the same people have rallied behind the film, put in a lot of good words and promotion for it and generally given it the thumbs up. After the disappointment of Dredd 3D's reception it's nice to now the faith is still strong.

So, lads. How about a Helltrekker story next time, eh?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Oaken's Twelve coda: Dain Nainsson

With the Company of Thorin Oakenshield done, there's now only one remaining Dwarf from The Hobbit to cover.

Well, there is Thrain, Thorin's father, but Dain is the last Dwarf to make a personal appearance in the story, and despite its fleeting nature, he is kind of a big deal. John Rateliff calls Dain son of Nain the sine qua non of Dwarves, and identifies in his personality and actions everything that Thorin ought to have been but fails to be either through his own rashness or the growing dragon-sickness once Smaug's treasure is recovered. Dain proves himself patient, diplomatic and well-resourced. As later King Under the Mountain he is a generous ruler, dispensing treasure to those promised and forging new alliances with his neighbours. All of this important to recognise because, as mentioned above, Dain's role in The Hobbit is not too obvious compared to Thorin's, and it's not hard to see his late appearance and triumph as usury if not also something of a cheat on top of Thorin's sacrifice.

Dain is therefore a complicated character, but for all that is easier to read if face value can be relied on - his influence lies beyond the story of The Hobbit as well, with Gandalf recalling his part in the War of the Ring alongside Bard's descendant Brand of Dale, and we can infer that he refuses Balin's request to attempt to re-take Moria - once again proving that he is a Dwarf of some wisdom. 

All of which gives me some pause when I anticipate Peter Jackson's version of Dain, to be portrayed by Billy Connolly.Seriously, he comes into the story riding a giant boar with a mohawk (Dain I mean, not the boar, mind you...)? This is going to be distracting, I can tell. And it's not as if Jackson has been the first to cast Dain as a Dwarven 'Hard-Ass' (even if the aforementioned vision sounds the most GW-inspired of all the Hobbit trilogy's visualisations). Here's GW's War of the Ring-era Dain, squeezed into their licence by virtue of the LotR Appendices:

I painted that five or six years ago, based on GW's own catalogue picture; but I've no desire to commit to this figure being Dain - he just doesn't feel like Dain to me. He's just a well 'ard Dwarf with a big axe.

This is my Dain, comprising nearly as much green stuff as the Bombur conversion, including chain mail, cloak, braids, hands and his base - which I'm really quietly proud of as it used up a heck of a lot of old rolled up green stuff scraps.yes, I know. I'm stingy with my supplies!

Here's the original Dwarf Warrior from GW's 'Khazad Dum' expansion of their Rings movie licensed line:

Note the beard tucked into the belt? That was a big factor in picking this pose. But add to that Tolkien's own description of the Iron Hill Dwarves (knee-length chain hauberks, braided beards tucked into belts, round shields, and a picture builds as much as a worksheet.

As for the the finished product, the axe, I must point out, is not the figure's original and it was only in seeking a picture of the original model that I realised I could have saved myself a few evenings of work and plastic filing. Oh well. A few colour changes occurred along the way as well - my dain was originally grey-haired with less brass highlighting and more chestnut (I was using his Dain Ironfoot epithet as a design template, basing the palette on metal and rust colours), but decided I wanted more warmth in the figure. He is an old, humane character, and setting him up in such steely colours didn't convey that. Also, it tied in nicely with the other colour clue offered by Tolkien's appendices, his 'red axe' he uses as a very very young warrior avenging his father's death in the Battle of Azanulbizar.

Of course it might not literally be a red axe, more an axe red with the blood of orcs, but it's Tolkien - you take what you can get!

That's it for the upright Dwarves of The Hobbit! There's one last visit I'll make to the members f the Company - well, two at least, and then I'm on to pastures new.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Let's Play...

I've posted this on the Lead Adventure Forum's Mediaeval board, but thought I might spread the net a little wider (by about twelve people perhaps.) A family member has unearthed these figures - a chess set from the mid to late Eighties cast in metal (by the soft appearance I'm guessing a lead alloy as most figures were cast in back in the day), but neither of us know what they are meant to represent or who made them.

Anyone out there have an idea?

Friday, May 3, 2013

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969

The beat goes on...or does it?

By 1969 (Century's second volume) the events of interim adventure The Black Dossier have already played out, Mina and Allan are fugitives from the Government and working for Prospero, Shakespeare’s exiled Duke of Milan now ruling over The Blazing World. Pointedly here is now no ‘League’ as such, all Imperial obligations having been tossed aside with the surviving members near-fugitives themselves and only the Dossier’s eternal wastrel Orlando hanging on, dropping names and changing genders with deliberately tedious regularity. In fact, tedium and the tedium of immortality appear to be a running theme in this trilogy, the three League survivors now being themselves, effectively, immortal and in pursuit of an immortal enemy, Alan Moore’s adopted Aleister Crowley analogue Oliver Haddo, who collects new identities and earthly vessels almost as regularly as Orlando replaces his. The two crucial 'new' allies of the League, Orlando (an immortal and ultimately impotent wreck, deliberately drawn, I'd say) and ‘prisoner of London’ Andrew Norton, (another immortal and cryptic Greek chorus - pointedly also not able to directly intervene in the story) lend another disturbing themes to the Century storyline – impotence. The League are, it would appear, designed to never win, or never achieve a victory that isn't itself Pyrrhic.

And so to Moore’s alternative pulp literature London the league drift, transported by Nemo’s daughter Janni aboard the Nautilus; however as much as stepping off the submarine Mina, Allan and Orlando are also stepping away from the series’ past and the kernel of Moore’s conceit. We’ve already had one out-of-sequence story in The Black Dossier (itself a format-challenging collection of multimedia in-jokes – a 45 rpm record, a Tijuana Bible, Orlando’s randy and bloodthirsty story told as a series of Look and Learn picture stories), now it seems the added conceit (admittedly Moore’s strongest suit in this series) – recreating the world of the past through fictional analogues, has beaten Century’s plotline to near impotence itself. It’s very clever, of course, and Kevin O’Neill’s witty artwork does wonders to mollify the loss of intrigue, but I came away from Century 1969 feeling like I’d read less and merely traipsed along with Mina, Allan and Orlando through a literary Where’s Wally? Which was much of the fun of the original series of course, but by 1969 popular culture is everywhere, more recognisable (I can – only just – say it’s outside my own lifetime) and with its familiarity less exotic. Where in the past there was an intrigue to the inclusion and rubbing of shoulders between Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, Fu Man Chu, Verne’s Nemo and Wells’ Professor Cavor, there’s less surprise and novelty in seeing Thunderbirds’ Parker filling up on a motorway lay-by while Michael Caine’s Jack Carter provides voiceover. Even more, the cameo of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor passed me by, and I can’t decide whether it’s because he’s already too familiar a face to me as a Doctor Who fan, or because on reflection the brief appearance of a Sixties time traveler in a story about literal time travelers is just not that interesting.

That said, 1969 does at least push the major story line forward in a way, teasing out the series finale by way of another thinly-veiled franchise-bothering character (“My first name’s Tom, my middle name’s a marvel and my last name’s a conundrum.”) Once you’ve reached that point you’ve perused appearances from all James Bonds (a lovely scene, really), Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (every Rutles needs a Stones analogue, naturally), and crucially, a denouement borrowing heavily from the Hyde Park memorial concert for Brian Jones, deftly tying three plot strands together, but stranding the hapless League all the more. It’s a downbeat ending to an important chapter, but I cared less this time around. Where to from here?