Sunday, 28 September 2014

Excelsior: Where Have All the Good Comics Gone?

I used to be into comics, but about ten years ago I gave up on them, for reasons of budget and limited space to store them (this was the period when I moved from Southend to California to New York and back to London). At the time I was reading more of the post-superhero stuff, like Preacher, the Authority and Planetary, but as those ended or turned shit or moved to uncertain publishing schedules, I let them drop off.

And on the occasions when I'd flip through a Superman or X-Men comic, I'd be reminded why I stopped - they were still telling the same stories they'd been telling in the 90s. And I've never liked that argument that comics are for kids, but the really mainstream stuff hadn't gotten any more sophisticated, just more violent.

So I remain a casual, dipper-into rather than a proper fan. It seems a little odd to say, seeing as how comics are everywhere on the pop culture landscape. Of the four movies I've seen at the cinema this year, three were based on Marvel characters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy). I gave up on Agents of SHIELD but started on Arrow, and still have seasons 2-5 of the Walking Dead to catch up on. And one of the videogames on my shelf, waiting to be finished, is Batman: Arkham City.

It's clear that even if I'm not reading the source material, I'm still reasonably conversant with it, even if I can't name the current line-up of the X-Men or the Justice League. So why am I not interested in what's going on in comics, apart from that stuff I've listed above?

DC is probably the main culprit for my lack of interest. I went through a big DC phase in the early to mid-90s, between when I discovered Keith Giffen's Justice League run and when I discovered classic SF novels. They didn't always have the flashiest artists, the way first Marvel and then Image did, but they had the best writers. DC, remember, was the publisher of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan and Garth Ennis's Preacher. When they bought Wildstorm from Jim Lee, they gave a home to talents like Alan Moore, who revitalized the hell out of Lee's off-brand X-Men knockoff WildC.A.T.s and turned the imprint into a home for some of the best superhero comics on the scene at the time.

At around the same time, I'd say 1999 to 2001, Marvel was coming out of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and other disasters, and had just promoted Joe Quesada to editor-in-chief, on the strength of his run on Daredevil under the Marvel Knights sub-imprint. All of a sudden they were taking risks with their stories, and attracting talent like Garth Ennis for the rebooted, back-to-basics Punisher.

This all went with my theory that the pendulum of creativity would swing back and forth between DC and Marvel at the end and beginning of each decade. 1999 was when Warren Ellis was doing Transmet and turning StormWatch into the Authority and Planetary; a couple of years later, Garth Ennis was on the Punisher, telling some of the character's best stories, and Marvel had introduced MAX, a mature-readers label to explore more adult aspects of the characters.

A decade before, DC had been publishing the Sandman, Hellblazer and the rebooted Doom Patrol; by the early 90s, the pendulum had shifted to Marvel with Jim Lee's run on the X-Men, and would probably have continued that way, if Lee and a bunch of other artists hadn't defected to create their own characters at Image.

But now it feels like DC's stuck having a universe-wide event every summer, and is rebooting its continuity every couple of years. They went from Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which was meant to corral the preceding 50 years into a single timeline, to Zero Hour in 1994, which intended to clean up the inconsistencies that had cropped up here and there. But then they had the Identity Crisis event, followed by Infinite Crisis in 2005 and then Final Crisis in 2008, which seems to have reset continuity to something resembling the pre-1985 continuity. These days, very little that I see from DC is in any way appealing - it's all the same stuff that I was seeing in the 90s.

Marvel also seems to have toned down their risk-taking, in favor of generating properties for Hollywood. I'm aware of the new female Thor and black Spider-Man, of course (the latter being only in the spin-off Ultimate Spider-Man continuity), but then you also get the brou-ha-ha over hiring Italian erotic comics artist Milo Manara to lovingly render Spider-Woman's butt, so it's clear the House of Ideas isn't firing on all cylinders.

These days the creativity (and the creator-owned work) seems to have all migrated to Image, which is actually a pretty positive development, since they're no longer doing knockoff versions of Marvel teams. And I guess that's not unreasonable to expect - after 70 years (for Superman or Batman) or 40 years (for Spider-Man and the X-Men) of publishing, it becomes harder to tell interesting, novel stories. It probably helps that most of what Image publishes isn't meant to run forever - I suppose the Walking Dead will end when Rick Grimes dies, for instance.

But it's a shame to see the two biggest players in comics reduced to such a void of creativity. All their efforts seem to be going, as I said, into movies and TV, with mixed results: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight was great, but Man of Steel was little more than a two-hour headache. And Guardians of the Galaxy felt like an acid trip, but with a less-coherent plot. I could go on about the various TV shows both companies have spawned, but suffice to say those are generally hit and miss.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart lamenting that comics today aren't as good as the ones I enjoyed when I was in middle school or high school. It just seems to me that, in this environment of near constant entertainment, kids who want a good story aren't going to comics - because the good stuff is being repackaged (sometimes disastrously) for the movies.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

#Indyref: They Think It's All Over

So Scotland has voted "no" to independence from the UK. Alex Salmond has resigned, the rest of the UK is celebrating (apart from the small bits that are rioting) and talk has turned to "devo max", which means further devolution for the UK's constituent parts. All in all, it's been a pretty exciting week in British politics, and for nationalist politics in general.

Not being Scottish, the vote didn't mean a great deal to me either way. On the other hand, as someone who only managed to escape the Empire's clutches less than a year ago, I could hardly begrudge the Scots wanting to do the same thing. That is to say, had I been a Scottish resident, I'd probably have voted yes.

More seriously, I've been hearing about the Scots' march toward devolution and referendum for over ten years, so it was interesting to finally get to an inflection point, where the parties involved would actually get to argue their respective cases and the people would get to decide. Looking at it from a world-historical perspective, it was also interesting to imagine how peacefully the process would play out - after all, as recently as 2010 Adam Roberts's New Model Army imagined that Scottish independence would be accompanied by bloodshed.

But I find it interesting that the question can even be raised. History is full of groups of people fighting to be free of a particular colonial or ruling power - having the question settled by the people has been tried, to my knowledge, only in very few places (Quebec's the only one that springs to mind right now).

I also believe the question will come up again. From what I read, this time the question was defeated by older voters (check this link from the Guardian for a demographic breakdown), and by the questions that were raised around currency and long-term economic viability. I can imagine future generations of Scottish leaders being able to answer these questions better - this is likely a big part of why Alex Salmond has resigned, so that the drive for independence won't be held back by being forever associated only with his name.

The other interesting point is the expected further devolution, what's being called "devo max". Some were saying this third option should have been on the ballot to start with - it's unclear to me whether Salmond or David Cameron is to blame for it not being included, but it looks like it'll happen anyway.

I'll be curious to see what form devo max takes: whether it means more oil revenues to Scotland, and whether it will mean a regional parliament for England (which is the only home nation that doesn't have one). I'll also be curious to see what comes of devolution and moves for independence if the UK ends up voting to leave the European Union.

I expected that the UK leaving the EU would be good for an independent Scotland - but in either case, I'm hoping whoever spearheaded the "Better Together" campaign this year will be available in 2017 to do the same job and keep Britain linked to the continent. Because that's a form of devolution that really would be disastrous.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Filling Up On Singapore

As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, I'm a big fan of Asia. I've been three times now, twice to Southeast Asia and once to Hong Kong, and I remain as fascinated as I ever was. My latest visit was to Singapore, because I figured it would be an easy trip (I was traveling solo, and not staying with locally based friends), and English is widely spoken. A number of friends, coworkers and relatives had suggested I'd have trouble filling a full week there, but I'm happy to report that for an initial vacation, a week is the perfect amount of time in which to see Singapore. I could even have hung around an extra day or two.

I'd say I managed to catch a good number of the tourist sights, like the Singapore National Museum or the Botanical Garden. I also spent a lot of time walking, clocking several 12-mile days, visiting the various ethnic neighborhoods that make up the city.

View of Little India from my hotel

Sometimes this made for some nice juxtapositions - for example, the street behind the Sultan Mosque in the Arab Street neighborhood is apparently where Singapore's punks hang out on a Friday night, and is also home to a number of trendy coffee shops and cocktail bars. My hotel in Little India was also right next to a mosque, while the main Hindu temple actually sits in Chinatown. This all reflects Singapore's past as a meeting place for traders from all over the world, whether Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab or Western.

Arab St and the Sultan Mosque

From the very start I found myself comparing the place to Hong Kong, which is the only other large Asian city I've visited (when I went to Thailand four years ago, it was to the resort island of Phuket, rather than Bangkok). My Lonely Planet city guide had led me to believe that it would be pretty much the same, but I found that wasn't the case - although Singapore is physically smaller than Hong Kong (276 square miles, vs 426 square miles, including 19 square miles of water), it felt a lot more open, with more trees and wider avenues. And while Hong Kong had one large tract of parkland (at least that I saw), Singapore had several, from the Botanical Gardens, which are home to a postage stamp's worth of original rainforest, to the Bukit Timah nature preserve, which I regrettably missed on this trip.

It was also a little more downmarket in certain ways, which is both good and bad. Good, because it was less full of ridiculously expensive European brands crowding every single mall; bad, because it meant that whenever I ventured into one of these malls, more often than not I had to wade through KFC, Burger King and Starbucks to find something local. Although I will cop to having had lunch at UK grilled chicken chain Nando's while I was there, reasoning that it wasn't something I could easily get at home.

Orchard Road and its malls

That said, the food situation was absolutely amazing - pretty much every mall, no matter how posh, had a local-style food court, with each stall serving local dishes like laksa, nasi goreng and Hokkien mee. And just as remarkably, the prices in the posh malls' food courts weren't much higher than those in the older, less posh malls.

It certainly takes away some of the sting of paying for accommodation or booze in the city, both of which are pretty expensive. Beers in certain places set me back more than S$10 (which is probably a little less than US$10, but I assumed parity while I was there, to keep myself from blowing too much cash), and a Singapore sling at Raffles will set you back S$27 (plus tax). I assume being up there with the Scandinavian countries on the Human Development Index means they have to charge similar rates for alcohol, although given that I don't believe the locals are such big drinkers, it seems more like a tax on foreigners.

A courtyard at Raffles

I did see quite a few foreigners while I was there, although I did note with pride whenever I was the only Caucasian in a food court or on a bus. The split between tourists and workers was probably about even, especially in "downtown" spots like Raffles Place, and I can admit that I did imagine myself living the expat life there, at least for a while - it helped that I met up with a locally based sales guy from my company (a Singaporean), and one of our stops that evening was a rooftop bar in the financial district that looked out over the entire city.

As far as the locals, I wouldn't say I got a lot of chances to interact with them (being a rather shy and retiring type), although whenever I had to ask someone for directions, they were super-polite, very helpful and spoke excellent English. I'm given to understand that this particular trifecta isn't all that common in East Asia, for example in Tokyo. And I'm reminded of an incident in a 7-11 in Phuket where the shop clerk tried to charge me twice for the same drink, because I came back to the counter a minute after having paid, and she didn't recognize me. It took one of her colleagues, who clearly understood more English than she did, to explain that I'd already paid.

View of Changi Point from Pulau Ubin

I feel it would be remiss not to mention the political dimension to Singapore here, which is generally justly derided by Westerners (apart from a curiously tone-deaf Lonely Planet reviewer a few years ago who, comparing Singapore with Bangkok, suggested that democracy was a little overrated if it meant the chaos and dirt of Bangkok; my response is that neither country is really that democratic). I'm aware that Singaporeans are pretty apathetic to politics, and that Lee Kuan Yew (or Harry, as Paul Theroux always refers to him) has held a pretty steady grip on the place.

However, if it is that authoritarian, they certainly hide it well. I'm intellectually aware that there were surveillance cameras all over the place - on my first day I got a bit paranoid about what would happen to me if I dropped a plastic cup in the wrong recycling bin - but it felt less intrusive than the surveillance apparatus in London, for example. What I did notice was a certain infantilization of the place, for instance in the ads on the MRT, that suggested enforced puritanism. Contrast the generally insipid bookstores of Singapore with the newsstand I perused on my layover in Tokyo, which featured bondage porn magazines at around eye level, something you wouldn't see even here in the US or in the UK.

Returning to slightly less salacious shores, I thought the dress of the locals, particularly Chinese office workers, was reminiscent of the 1960s - white shirts and slacks for men, floral one-piece dresses and high heels for women. I kept wondering at that, until I decided that maybe it was because the same government had been in power since the 1960s, unconsciously enforcing a resistance to change among the city's adults. The college students and teenagers, by contrast, looked pretty much the same as they do here in the Bay Area, although I was intrigued to see that the more fashion-forward ladies of Singapore were favoring enormous baseball caps.

Hindu temple in Chinatown

To sum up, I really enjoyed the week I spent there, and as I say, I wouldn't have minded a little more time to keep looking around. If there's one thing that appealed to me about the place above all others, it was the diversity of it - the fact that Chinese, Malays and Tamils have come together to create a society on the island, and use English as their lingua franca, makes it feel impressively cosmopolitan, and possibly more welcoming than Hong Kong. The fact that it's rich also meant there weren't so many of those couples composed of enormous, old white men with extremely young and tiny local girls that you seem to see so often in Thailand.

And if Singapore doesn't have the personality it used to, when the river was home to warehouses and sampans plying their trade twenty-four hours a day, its personality has receded to the ethnic neighborhoods. Visitors who go looking for it will be rewarded.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Quick One While I'm Away

Not that I'm away yet, but it'll be a quick post this week, because I've been doing productive stuff like playing Skyrim and going to 49ers games. But I just wanted to give a quick rundown of one or two things I'm planning on doing on the blog soonish, and note that I'll be away the next two Sundays, as I'm flying off to Singapore for a week or so next Sunday.

Singapore will probably be the subject of an upcoming blog - since I set up my trip, a lot of people I know have said I'll struggle to find a week's worth of things to do there. I'm not so sure, and I want to (hopefully) prove them wrong. And if I'm bored the entire week, I'll report that on the blog too. Possibly even from an internet cafe in Singapore.

The other thing I'm sort of thinking of doing is a little essay on my train trip from London to Turin, which I took earlier this year. I took some notes while I was doing it, and hopefully I'll get something interesting out of it.

That's probably enough for now - I'm looking forward to the trip, and hope to spend the week getting nice and ready for it! See you soon!


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Thoughts on the Start of the 2014-15 Premiere League

The Premier League season started up again today, and I can't deny a twinge of nostalgia (you might even call it homesickness) for my days in London. It's always an exciting time of year - the football starts up again, and with it stuff like the BBC's Match of the Day, and all of the fantasy leagues from the various newspapers.

I have to count Match of the Day as one of the things I miss most, along with bacon sandwiches and Big Waterstones, the one on Piccadilly. For those who don't know, it's a roundup of the day's Premier League action, showing all the highlights from all the games, along with commentary from the BBC's regular team of top soccer pundits (and Alan Shearer, who always seems to be invited back).

It's kind of an institution, as it airs pretty late on Saturday nights, and on Sundays to show the highlights from that day's matches. This is actually pretty savvy programming by the BBC, if you think about it. Because chucking-out time at the nation's pubs is around 11pm, and MOTD usually starts between 10-11pm, it's a great come-down for a night out, and a chance to sober up with some water or something before you go to bed. Or, if you've been in all night, it's that perfect excuse to stay up just a little later, in case the movies on Channel 4 or Channel 5 aren't that appealing.

Now, it hasn't always been on the BBC, however - for a year or two, back in the early 2000's, rival network ITV got the rights to show the Premier League highlights, but I still remember the celebrations when it went back to the BBC. And despite not having grown up with MOTD, it felt right to me even then, if for no other reason than the iconic theme music:

A big reason for my nostalgia is that watching MOTD reminds me of the first time I lived in England. I was in Southend, just an hour east of London, and getting acquainted with the UK for real, after having visited several times in the previous six years.

One of the first things I learned then is that weekends are different in the UK than they are here. Here, everything's open pretty much as usual on Saturday and Sunday, but there it's almost impossible to get a haircut or a dinner of fish and chips on a Sunday, because those shops are all closed. Supermarkets and department stores will open before noon, but won't let you buy anything until the clock strikes 12 (seriously, I once saw a sales assistant at Debenhams refuse to even tell a customer where something was, because it was too early). Some shops proudly announce that they're open on Saturday, as if it's some new-fangled idea they've just come up with.

What this means is that you have to be super-organized if you want to get anything done on weekends. Either that, or you just sit at home and read the paper or keep an eye on the football scores as they come in. I do remember a lot of very pleasantly lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings where I did just that - leafing through the Guardian while listening to Radio 2 in the living room, with the sun shining on the Thames Estuary... It's hard to beat that.

Now, this will take a little explaining, but another of my pleasures was staying in on a Saturday afternoon and watching the scores come in on Sky Sports News. Sky Sports News didn't feature any game footage whatsoever (because evidently any trace of a man kicking a ball would have cost them billions in revenue from their pay-TV subscriptions).

What it did have was a newsroom full of men in suits and varying levels of agitation, relaying what was happening at each ground across the country. While Jeff Stelling read out the latest scores and scorers, you'd sometimes hear someone shouting in the background, as one of the presenters' teams had just scored. Occasionally they'd cut to Chris Kamara standing on the edges of a stadium, with the tiniest smear of green behind him, offering some hot air or other about what the result meant for the relegation race in the Second Division, as was.

But the best part was at the end of the afternoon, when they had someone read out all the scores, from each league. If you're a fan of mythical place-names, as I am, then you'd be in heaven - Sky went all the way down to the Conference, relaying what Hereford United and Shrewsbury Town had accomplished that day. And then the announcer would move to the farthest reaches of the Scottish Leagues, followed by the Welsh Premier. And every week - EVERY SINGLE WEEK - on hearing the results from Welsh team TNS, Jeff Stelling would crack the same joke: "They must be dancing in the streets of TNS tonight."

Admittedly, one of the main reasons for watching Sky Sports News on a Saturday afternoon was to keep an eye on my team in the office soccer fantasy league, which was rather competitive. But I don't know if that makes the preceding more or less sad, so I'll just move straight along.

I guess the reason I'm so nostalgic for those days, despite living in a dump and working in the worst company ever, is that I felt I could blow an afternoon that way, and not worry about whether I was Getting Things Done or anything like that. I sometimes berate myself a little bit for not having gotten my act together until around 2012 (when I started reading all the self-help and time-management books), but on the other hand, it is nice to remember the Saturdays and Sundays where I could unselfconsciously stay in bed all day, only venturing out for a burger or to do my washing at the laundromat.

Now I do silly things like sign up for half-marathons and try to keep my house clean. I guess that's growing up, but it's kind of a shame sometimes that as we get certain things more in control, we have less time to ourselves, instead of more. I feel like it should be the other way around.

At any rate, I'm unable to catch MOTD this season (unless someone wants to explain how I can torrent it), but at least I'll still be able to follow the Premier League - I've signed up for another office fantasy league. And it looks, from this first matchday, that I'm doing terribly. Nice to know some things never change.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Like pretty much everybody, I've been in shock the last couple of days, since hearing about Robin Williams's death. I hadn't followed his career much in recent years, so I didn't know about his personal struggles - as a result, the news that he was gone, ripped away by his own hand, caught me completely by surprise.

But he was an important figure from my childhood, having brought to life some amazing characters, so I'd like to offer my condolences to his family and friends, and for what it's worth, to let them know they aren't alone in mourning the loss of a talent like his.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

How I Met Your Mother: The Comic Novel Comes to TV

For the last few months, I've been obsessively hoovering up episodes of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. I was spurred by sorta-kinda-almost spoilers that I absorbed by seeing headlines about the series finale, which aired in May. I had also admired the show from afar, as it were, for a few years - when I lived in London, it was on even more frequently than the Big Bang Theory (which is saying something), and the two shows were generally paired together on the same channels (Channel Four, E4, etc). I'd even started watching it sort of regularly when Season 8 came to the UK, so I caught the broad strokes of what was happening as it led into its last season.

It's kind of an odd show. As Donna Bowman notes in her series of episode recaps for the AV Club, it's a hybrid between the traditional sitcom (like BBT) and the newer single-camera sitcom (like Community, Modern Family, etc) - likely a result of the structure, in which the main character recounts the titular story to his kids, decades later. This allows for a lot of flashbacks, flash-forwards and other time- and camera-related shenanigans.

The structure also means that spoilers are kind of irrelevant. As I said above, the headlines that came out around the time the finale aired have given me a pretty good idea of how Ted's search turns out... and, perhaps oddly, it makes me want to see how they get there. Back in 2012 I touched on the whole spoiler controversy that we're having in the culture right now, and a month or so ago, again on the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff spoke out against what he calls "spoiler paranoia", by noting in his first sentence that Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad.

If that last sentence pisses you off, I'm sorry (I'm not sorry). HIMYM is another show that effectively defies spoilers, by showing you - through its title and framing sequence - that Ted will meet the love of his life and have the two kids sitting on his couch; and throughout its nine seasons, it also states pretty much outright that none of Ted's girlfriends are the mother. The best example is in the pilot, where he describes meeting the perfect girl, has an amazing date with her and tells her he loves her... only to reveal to his kids in the last frame that she's their Aunt Robin.

I'm still impressed by how well that works, especially if my suspicions about the finale are correct. I also love the more minor spoilers that crop up every now and then. In an episode positing that single people automatically have more stamina for nights out than coupled-up people, we have a flash-forward to a wedding where Lily and Marshall leave early, but Ted and Robin decide to stay later. Except this is in Season 2, when they're a couple - so the writers are effectively telling you a month or two in advance that the relationship is doomed.

That's the reason that I call the show a novel for TV. I don't know exactly how far ahead the creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, plotted the show, but however they did it they managed to build a clockwork universe where, so far, pretty much everything that's been teased has paid off. It rewards close watching, for example by having Ted enter the bar wearing a dress in one episode, and not explaining what that was all about until a season or two later.

Like any good novel, the characters are also well-drawn, and generally more than one-note stereotypes. The closest to a one-note character that the show has is Barney, but in early seasons he demonstrates impressive, unhinted-at depths to his character, and then in later seasons he starts to grow out of the sleazy lothario persona we're initially introduced to. My favorite character has to be Marshall, though, because he's at once the most grown-up of the characters, by being the first to marry and have kids, and also the most child-like, with his belief in stuff like ghosts and Bigfoot. I also love his relationship with Lily, as it's pretty rare for a sitcom to show a married couple as enabling besties rather than a bored and frustrated couple (ie, "eh, the old ball-and-chain, am I right?"). That's pretty refreshing.

So I'm at Season 8 now, and coming up to the end of what's available on Netflix. Season 9 doesn't show up on DVD until 23 September, so I'm hoping the episodes will be available for streaming around that time too. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, don't tell me what happens! The show may defy spoilers, but I do want to see how we get to the end.