Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
Home Of Superheroes, Supernatural, and Star Stuff

Friday, 31 August 2007

Top Shelf: SFX

Sometimes you read a great magazine so regularly that you begin to take its high standards for granted - only occasionally sharing the love when it interviews your favourite author.

But this month SFX shattered that complacency with a blockbuster issue featuring not only an overview of the 15 year build-up to the latest cinematic entry into the Indiana Jones franchise and known facts and rumours about Indiana Jones IV, but also a cool feature on old movie serials like Flash Gordon, King Of The Rocket Men, The Batman, Superman etc, a round-up of Jim Henson films and TV, and an extensive article on the latest Dr Who spin-off, Sarah Jane Adventures.

Other magazines have come along in recent months attempting to challenge SFX's position as the definitive, "go to" title for a pretty comprehensive round-up of everything you want to know about the latest geeky media - from comics and books to films, toys and TV. While these young upstarts might still be limping along, they don't seem to be a serious threat to SFX.

Although I've only subscribed to SFX for the last couple of years, I've been a loyal reader since that first Tank Girl-covered issue caught my eye in 1995 with its cheeky partial covering of the bottom of the 'F' in the title... so you thought it said: "sex".

While I'm at that stage in life where I'm losing interest in the more generic film magazines, SFX is a focused magazine I've grown to trust. While I don't always agree with the opinions of its writers and reviewers, I value them and respect their pedigree and will continue to read this magazine until I'm an old, grey geek.

In related news, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones (Volume 1) has just become available for preorder in America at Amazon.com. It's a 12-disc set with an RRP of about $130 ($75.59 on Amazon), featuring seven feature-length episodes, 38 documentaries and various other extras (such as a historical overview of the series).

Volume 2 is due out in December and Volume 3 in Spring next year. No word yet as to when these will be available in the UK - but at least one volume will probably find its way onto my Christmas list!

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Film Night: Pretty Woman (1990)

Pretty Woman is a strange film establishing Julia Roberts up an unconvincing hooker who is hired by businessman Richard Gere to pose as his girlfriend for a week while he is in Los Angeles trying to close a business deal.

At times it seems like a satire on the 80s' "greed is good" culture of Wall Street, but at other times it is celebrating the ability to spend "obscene amounts of money" and live in hotel penthouses.

It also treads quite coyly around the grim realities of Roberts' character's profession, instead going for the cliche-establishing "tart with the heart of gold".

But on the other hand, as rom-coms go, it's packed to the gills with quotable quotes and when it's funny it is hysterically funny - with most of the laughs coming from Roberts' fish-out-water streetwalker adapting to the high society life of the rich and influential; shopping on Rodeo Drive, flying to San Francisco for an evening at the opera, dining in fancy restaurants etc

I've never bought into the 'cult of Julia Roberts' - rating her neither as a hottie or a particularly interesting actress - which makes the scenes where she's walking down the street or through a hotel lobby and everyone is turning their heads to watch her go by as cheesy as some trite shampoo commercial.

The film's strength is definitely the interplay between the two main characters. Once you forget that Vivian (Julia Roberts) is a prostitute and just treat her and Edward (Richard Gere) as a 'courting couple', the blossoming romance becomes that much more convincing and the humour more natural.

Kudos also to Hector Elizondo as the very sweet hotel manager, Barney, who befriends Vivien and quietly coaches her on correct etiquette.

As entertaining and humorous as the film is, there is something slightly uncomfortable underlying Pretty Woman and its Pygmalion overtones and rose-tinted view of prostitution.

However, it still features the most natural and memorable laugh I've seen in a film - when Richard Gere unexpectedly snaps the jewelry box lid on Julia Roberts' hand and that scene alone would have validated this as tonight's Film Night film.

Next week: Taxi Driver.

My Life And Roleplaying... (appendix: the young pretenders - part two)

A subconscious aim of this multi-part thread was to remind some of my old gaming colleagues of the good times we had playing these "silly" games... and as you see later on, I may just have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!

(a) Savage Worlds (Pinnacle). I've always been a fan of the supernatural Western setting Deadlands (a mainstay of my 'middle period' in the non-gaming wilderness, when I first discovered the Internet and the wealth of free game support out there), but could never get my head around the rules system.

So when, years later, it evolved into the generic Savage Worlds system I was at first hesitant to pour money into yet another game that I couldn't fathom the rules of. Eventually, of course, I cracked - when Pinnacle brought out Deadlands: Reloaded - and, boy, was I surprised!

Savage Worlds is written to be a wicked, fast, furious and fun game for 30-something gamers who don't have eight hours free to prep a game (how much time did we 'waste' in those days?!!!).

It is easily adaptable to any setting, has some nice optional 'gimmicks' (I love the "adventure cards" that players can use to introduce plot twists), is geared towards figure use without being a combat-centric strategy game like D&D, and has an ever-growing mountain of free (and paid for) online support, both official and fan-generated.

Pinnacle has also, this month, pulled a marketing masterstroke with the launch of its £5.99 Explorers' Edition of the basic Savage Worlds rules. A full colour, digest-sized, version of the rules (all of them, mind you, not just a 'taster'), plus an adventure for less than the price of a pizza!

Other games companies should take note... I've already heard of Gamesmasters buying four or five copies to hand out to all their players!

(b) Mutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin). If Pete, Steve and I were 14 again, this is the superhero game we would be playing - beyond a shadow of a doubt. Mutants & Masterminds is Steve Kenson's grown-up version of Villains & Vigilantes, using the streamlined True20 variant of d20.

It has the flexibility of d20, but unfortunately brings all the usual mechanical crunch and paperwork along with it. I know there are online applications and spreadsheets that deal with a lot of these issues, but it's still a heady brew for an old fogey like me to cope with these days.

That said the publishers continue to produce an incredible range of finely illustrated, and text heavy, supplements and background books (as well as adventures that I'm not so bothered about) covering every aspect of the superhero genre imaginable.

I have grown very fond of this game because it reminds me of my favourite period from my gaming youth (my Villains & Vigilantes' years) and gives me an insight into what it would be like if we had stuck together as gaming cabal and were still playing the same HeroPress campaign!

(c) Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Game Studio).

Ladies & Gentlemen, we have a winner!

At Military Odyssey the other day Nick happened to mention that he had ordered a copy of HEX and that maybe we should think about starting a game sometime soon!

HEX reads as though it should be another fast, intuitive, rules-lite system - akin to Savage Worlds - but geared specifically towards pulp style adventures exploring lost cities, battling dinosaurs and outwitting Nazis. You couldn't ask for a better game setting.

It uses a simple "count the successes" dice pool system that allows you to roll any sort of dice and just tally the even numbers; most skills and abilities are ranked one to five; and all the rules appear to use some variation of these core principles.

My original copy of the rules is hidden somewhere in storage, and so Rachel kindly bought me a new copy (on the condition that when we find the old one it goes straight on eBay and she gets the money - only fair!) - so when I've finished my current Doc Savage two-in-one novel (Resurrection Day/Repel), I shall give the HEX rules another read through.

I can't wait to actually test drive this system later this year. It's been about nine months since I first discovered the game and fell in love with it; planning to launch a tabletop game inspired by The Island At The Top Of The World, reuniting many of the old HeroPress stalwarts. Unfortunately cold feet - brought on by lingering, minor brain damage from my stroke (memory gaps, word blindness, general nervousness and anxiety etc) - made me eventually chicken out from running it.

This time I'm hoping Nick will be willing to run the first adventure, then I might step up to run the next (once I've developed some confidence in the system and my ability to process it mentally) and then we could alternate.

This could be it ... the 10-year role-playing drought looks like it's coming to an end!

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Jonathan Coulton



Dig the dancing gnome! This is a World of Warcraft-style video for Jonathan Coulton's seminal Skullcrusher Mountain. If you've never heard of this incredible (and funny) singer-songwriter before go and check his site immediately and listen to some of his tunes!

His music can often be heard on a variety of geeky podcasts - in fact I believe it was Nuketown Radio Active that first introduced me to Jonathan's back catalogue.

Skullcrusher Mountain is a particular favourite at HeroPress Towers as it can be taken as a metaphor for our geeky romance; other recommendations include Ikea, Tom Cruise Crazy and I Feel Fantastic.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Hail To The King!

Comic book legend and hero to all Jack 'The King' Kirby (1917 - 1994) would have been 90 today (August 28). His former assistant, Mark Evanier, remembers him here while ex-employer Marvel Comics hosts a gallery of Kirby covers here.

DVD of The Week: The Zombie Diaries (2007)

Proving once again - as Shaun of The Dead did - that we Brits can do zombie horror every bit as terrifying as the Americans, The Zombie Diaries is a low budget frightfest by a couple of local (Kent and Bedfordshire) film makers.

The film owes a large debt to Max Brooks' World War Z book as well as the cinema verite style of The Blair Witch Project and the rawness of 28 Days Later and Man Bites Dog, but still manages to ultimately pull a reasonably unique take on the well-trodden genre out of the bag.

While its "the zombies aren't the real monsters out there" message isn't entirely original (having shades of 28 Days Later), The Zombie Diaries takes a disturbing turn towards its climax that may even shock seasoned zombie-watchers!

The film takes the format of three parallel video diaries, from the outbreak of the virus up to about one month in, that gradually interweave as the story progresses, centring around an isolated farm house and its surrounding woods.

Universally amateur acting from all the main characters - including an embarrassing cameo from EastEnder's Dr Legg (Leonard Fenton) - doesn't detract from the inherent truth of the piece. Never once - unlike a great many horror films - do you find yourself shouting: "Why are you doing that?" at the screen.

Kudos especially to the writer and director for their mastery of tension; the epic build-up to the first zombie reveal (in a darkened farm house, illuminated only by a torch) is monumental; and the way, in other scenes, they play with cliches - sometimes a door knocking in the wind is just a door knocking in the wind... and not a prelude to a zombie attack - is to be applauded.

If the film has a weakness, outside the stilted performances of the low-budget cast, it is the inconsistency of the effects. The zombies and bite attacks are gruesomely great, as good as anything Hollywood can freak us out with, but conversely gunshot wounds seem as weak as you'd expect in old 1950s horror: at one point a man is shot in the side of the head, at point blank range, and there doesn't even seem to be any blood! Not that gore makes a film, but it jars that some effects are just oozing ichor and others are totally bloodless.

Released today on DVD, The Zombie Diaries is one of the most authentic depictions of a zombie outbreak in Britain that you could come across at present (complete with traditional British weather and some very British attitudes to the problem) and a worthy addition to the undead catalogue.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Bank Holiday Fun In The Sun

Not wishing the last Bank Holiday Monday before December to go to waste, Rachel and I decided to visit Hever Castle, ancestral home of Anne Boleyn - unfortunately, it seemed like a couple of thousand other people had also had the same idea!

But it was a nice sunny day - rare for a Bank Holiday - so we were determined to see as much as we could; from the expansive boating lake to the display of dolls houses charting the development of stately homes, from the ornate gardens with grottoes and statuary to the yew maze and water maze (which was overrun by children and teenagers).

We left the castle for last - because of the queues - but would almost certainly do it first next time we visit, so I have the strength to see it all and take in more of the history and exhibits.

After a 20 minute queue to get in (down from 45 minutes earlier in the day), the 'castle' itself isn't really a castle like, say, Dover castle, but rather a 'pleasure palace', a wonderful combination of defensive structure and rich family residence.

It fell into disrepair in the 1700s and was finally restored, and updated, early in the 20th Century by its latest owner, American millionaire William Waldorf Astor.

No mobility scooter for me today - although while it might have helped around the garden paths, it wouldn't have done me any good in the castle itself, which was full of narrow corridors and winding medieval staircases.

That said, unlike many castles in the south of England, Hever is in near perfect condition - thanks to William Waldorf Astor - so there's plenty of furnture, decorations and memorabilia to see from the time of Henry VIII, right up to the time of the Astors.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Step Back In Time...

Nick, Rachel, Clare and I spent the day at Military Odyssey, a "living history" show on the County Showground in Detling. As with the War & Peace Show, I hired a mobility scooter to get around, but that didn't stop me from 'hoping' off to fire a musket when the opportunity arose!

However, unlike War & Peace, this show - which I've never attended before - caters to all shade of re-enactment, not just 20th/21st Century - so Clare got to chat with people about flint knapping and wood carving, while we all enjoyed a War of The Roses' mock battles and a very loud American Civil War battle.

There were, of course, the usual array of books, toys and odd bits of military hardware avilable for the discerning shopper, but we resisted for the most part (I did pick up a lovely, reproduction, weathered Superman sign which should look cool in our new house).

Despite the heat of the day, we tried on armour and hefted weapons through the ages, as well as watching various events and weaving between the many tents and tabletop displays.

The re-enactors were all more than willing to chat away, often at great length, on their particular area of expertise.

It was just a shame we found the Wyoming Wild Bunch's Wild West town right at the end of the day, as they were all gathering to have their AGM. Next year that will be the first place I head for!

More pictures can be found here.

Clare recalls her highlights of the day over on Three Beautiful Things.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Top Of The Pile: Black Adam #1

Black Adam, nemesis of Captain Marvel, is back to his wicked ways in this six issue limited series, after a brief spell as an anti-hero in DC's epic 52.

Ancient Egyptian reject from the wizard Shazam's Marvel Family project, Teth-Adam, became leader of one of DC's wonderful 'made-up' countries, the troubled Middle Eastern land of Kahndaq, using particularly violent methods to drive any supervillains from its borders.

Unfortunately during one of these conflicts his beloved Isis was slain and Adam went a bit mental, seemingly slaughtering everyone in the city sheltering her killer before going on a rampage that was ultimately stopped by the forces of good magically stripping him of his powers.

Black Adam #1, finely illustrated by Doug Mahnke and dramtically scripted by Peter J Tomasi, sees the powerless, renegade, former world-leader, sporting a new look that puts him firmly in The 4400's Jordan Collier/wannabe messiah bracket, leading his fanatical followers on a bloody path to retrieve the bones of his former love, Isis, then carry them up into the Himalayas for reasons unknown...

Black Adam is not a sympathetic character, or even particularly likable, but the combination of Tomasi's prose and Mahnke's pencils still allows us to invest an interest in the character and take a morbid fascination in his desperate and ghoulish quest (at one point, he is even driven to cannibalism... at the expense of one of his most loyal followers).

As I gradually shed my own fanatical allegiance to Marvel Comics and switch the bulk of my monthly titles to the DC Universe, even though its current obsession with Universe-changing, weekly epic tales makes it difficult for us newbies to jump onboard once that train has started moving, darker characters like this make the transition easier. Black Adam has the brutality of the grittier Marvel Universe, but clearly lives in DC's larger than life, more fantastical continuity.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Film Night: Dark City (1998)

I have no idea how I was first introduced to, or discovered, Dark City, but in a sense, it's always been there... that strange, inexplicable, quirky movie you treasure dearly and simultaneously want to keep all to yourself and share with everyone on the planet.

It was only natural then that it would, eventually, show up on the Film Night schedule, even though I wasn't sure what Rachel would make of it.

I'd made every effort to conceal the Dark City DVD box from her and tell her as little as possible about the film. I wanted her to approach it with a completely open mind!

After multiple viewings, it still blows me away every time as I glean new nuances or notice clues I've missed on previous viewings.

Rachel, although unable to categorically say whether she liked it or not, conceded that it was "strange" and "not like the sort of things we watch".

With an amazing cast of character actors (Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Keifer Sutherland etc), Dark City is basically a science-fiction head trip about an alien experiment to discover what makes humans tick; it's about memory, false memory and identity, foreshadowing future flicks as diverse as The Matrix and The Truman Show.

Sewell wakes up in a hotel room bathtub, with no memory of how he got there or how the prostitute in the other room got carved up.

Soon he finds himself pursued not only by the police for a whole string of murders he can't believe he committed, but also a demented doctor (Sutherland) - who claims to know what's going on - and a bizarre race of bald, floating, humanoids (think "The Gentleman" from Buffy, but in leather trench coats and trilby hats).

Sewell's character (whoever he may) also quickly discovers he has developed a fantastical telekinetic power (similar to that possessed by the alien humanoids) and has an overwhelming desire to find some place called 'Shell Beach', which lies outside of the art deco city he appears to be trapped in.

Meanwhile Jennifer Connelly is the sultry jazz singer who may, or may not, be Sewell's wife, and eventually teams up with William Hurt's police detective in an attempt to prove her "husband's" innocence.

Dark City's writer/director Alex Proyas is now due to helm The Silver Surfer in 2009, which gives me hope for the future of quality comic book superhero movies!

Next week: Pretty Woman.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

The Shapeliness of Things To Come...

Gentleman, start the countdown! It's now less than four months until the 2007 incarnation of the classic St Trinians opens - with a host of celebrity hotties willing to don the infamous school uniform, from supermodel Lily Cole to Girls Aloud!

Sure, unfortunately, there'll be some kids in it, but for the most part - in the trailer Rachel and I saw ahead of The Simpsons Movie - the women are well above school age!

Scheduled to open on December 21, it'll be an eye-opener to see the balance of the audience between its proposed target audience (children) and real target audience (middle-aged men). And, if nothing else, it should ruffle a few Politically Correct feathers!

The story, from what little there is on the Internet so far about this film, seems to be the girls going out to commit a bank heist to save their beloved school from bankruptcy. Hopefully though the official site will soon have, at least, the full trailer!

Paul - even though he now lives in Scotland with his girlfriend Polly - and I have already reserved our seats for the opening night. Who cares if it's any good or not...?

Cycles and Epiphanies... (Episode II)

I was watching Serenity (The Collector's Edition) at the start of the week and it struck me that you'd have to be a rabid fanboy with Coke bottle-bottom, rose-tinted glasses to argue that anything George Lucas has produced in the Star Wars Saga is better than Joss Whedon's sci-fi tale of outlaws on the run.

But, that's not the point really, is it? Both have enthusiastic fans, but Whedon's Browncoats, no matter how much good they do in the community and how much attention they draw to the awesomeness of Firefly and Serenity and the need for more films, will never hold a candle to fans of the Star Wars Saga or even make a dent in the marketing behemoth that is the greatest franchise of all time.

Whedon's 'Verse is all about exclusivity (no aliens, no planets other than the ones we've been told about, nothing outside of those planets, only a single sun in the solar system, all the planets were terraformed - so no history etc), while Lucas' Universe embraces and welcomes allcomers - aliens from all quarters, the more planets the better etc.

I can't say one is categorically better than the other, but, as much as I admire and appreciate Joss Whedon's phenomenal writing (the multi-layered dialogue and deep characterisation is an object lesson in scriptwriting) I'd still rather see adventures with Jedi swinging lightsabres and leaping across chasms.

So, what does this have to do with the price of eggs? Everything! Everything always comes back to my first principles - if I liked it as a kid and still like it now, it's probably worth sticking with.

My childhood hobbies/interests, that have endured, boil down to this (in no particular order):

  • Star Wars (embracing pretty much all sci-fi now from anime to Blade Runner);

  • Westerns;

  • Role-playing games (it may have started with D&D, but it's so much more now);

  • Wargames;

  • Comic books and superheroes;

  • Indiana Jones (which I later discovered was just the tip of a very Pulpy iceberg);

  • The tentacled horrors of HP Lovecraft (expanding to include other monsters).

The trick has been, and always will be, to find a single, unifying outlet for my enthusiasms that can embrace as many of these areas as possible.

The only way there's a hope of me staying focused on one topic is for it to be as inclusive as possible of as many of these areas as is feasible. Thankfully, 'pulp', science-fiction, Lovecraftian horror and superheroes are all quite flexible in what can - and cannot - be covered under their respective umbrellas and there are large areas of overlap even within these four genres.

At least that realisation brings me a baby step closer to the 'Holy Grail'. Now it's a question of putting it into practice, or as X-Wing pilot Gold Five says in Star Wars: "Stay on target, stay on target..."

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Book Of The Month: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Supervillain Doctor Impossible escapes from prison and soon his nemesis turns up dead, without a mark on his body. Is the Doctor responsible? CoreFire's old team, The Champions, think so and - with new recruit Fatale, the cyborg super-soldier, set out to solve the mystery and thwart Doctor Impossible's latest scheme to take over the world.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, games designer Austin Grossman's first novel, is a loving homage to the Silver Age of comics. His characters don't exist in a vacuum, but operate in a fully realised universe that we are afforded tantalising glimpses of throughout the story with hints of past missions and adventures, names of other heroes and villains, passing references to alien dimensions and planets.

The tale is told from the point-of-view of the newest member of The Champions, Fatale, as she tries to find her place in the established team, and Doctor Impossible, as he scrapes together the pieces for his fiendish plan for world domination.

As always, in such stories, the bad guy, Doctor Impossible, is the most interesting character - a human incarnation of The Brain, without Pinky to act as a foil. But ultimately the book isn't about the schemes and superpowered tussles, it's about character growth and development ... or more importantly Fatale's development and Doctor Impossible's steadfast refusal to change, as he tries to enforce change on the rest of the world.

Like Marvel's Squadron Supreme and Shi'ar Imperial Guard, many of the the members of The Champions have analogues in the DC Universe - CoreFire is Superman; Damsel, Wonder Woman; Blackwolf, Batman; Mister Mystic, Dr Fate; Rainbow Triumph, Robin; Galatea, Red Tornado etc - but rather than a distraction this is almost a comfort zone, because it gives you an initial shorthand hook into the characters before they grow on you as their own personalities.

I also spent most of the first half of the book flicking between the beautiful Bryan Hitch cover, and the collection of full-colour plates at the back of the book, trying to put faces to names. As in a true superteam comic book , this novel has a lot of characters and not all get equal time in the spotlight (Rainbow Triumph just seems to fade in and out of the story and the beastman Feral doesn't show up at all in the final confrontation), but Austin also pulls other comic book cliches out of his bag of tricks and treats them all with great affection.

This isn't a send-up of comic book tropes, but a celebration. Where it scores over a traditional comic is in giving the reader more of an insight into the main characters' psyches than a comic book panel would normally allow - especially for the villain of the piece. Austin's writing is full of ironic humour and self-deprecation that has a ring of truth about it.

And in true comic book style, there are enough hanging plot threads to fuel the inevitable sequel. Bring it on, I say!

Cycles and Epiphanies... (Episode I)

Seeing all the incredible action figure collections on The Force Among Us the other day I nearly wept thinking of the volume of figures I have owned and sold off over the years.

When I was but a cub reporter at the Kent & Sussex Courier in the late 80s/early 90s, I used my staff privilege to place a free classified ad in the paper offering to buy up people's collections of unwanted Star Wars toys... see, there was no prospect of a new film at that time and Star Wars interest had hit an all-time low with the general public.

Within a matter of weeks I had a mountain of loose figures - from Darth and Luke with their telescoping-up-the-arm lightsabres to Yakface (yes, I had a loose Yakface... now one of the rarest and most sought after figures. I sold it with a job lot of miniatures; along with a Death Star playset and a complete set of U.S. Marvel Star Wars comics).

All have now gone. Like a junkie I was selling them off almost as fast I bought them, not for a hefty profit, just to get my next fix of Star Wars goodness!

But this unhealthy habit isn't restricted to Star Wars - my other hobbies suffer this binge and purge mentality as well, be it comic books or roleplaying games (most notably the 'Up The Garden Path' D&D module brought out for the National Garden Festival now goes for thousands of pounds when it appears on eBay; I sold it in a crate full of other old D&D books and modules to a trader for some insultingly low sum. I'm more gutted about that than flogging off Yakface!).

And I seriously believe this 'problem' is getting worse; even though I'm currently a gentleman of leisure, unfit to resume full-time work and medically advised to lead as stress-free a life as possible and therefore with no income to speak of outside of state benefits.

How come? Well, for many years - and more so in the last few months - my "life" has been packed away in storage boxes (first in my parents' attic and now in Rachel's parents' study), waiting for Rachel and I to find a home big enough to accommodate my hobbies (and Rachel's ... dolls houses and N gauge railways aren't that small, you know!).

This has meant I have had no obvious, visual record of what I actually own and no real idea of how much - or how little - there is hidden away in those boxes. Of course, once we do move, it'll be like Christmas times twenty - rediscovering all my 'lost' toys and books; but in the meantime I'm spinning my wheels, dreaming of the day I'll have everything out on shelves, so I can get to it whenever I want or need to.

Why do I do this? I guess, as I've said about my quest for that one, perfect roleplaying game, it's all about the Quixotic pursuit of a Holy Grail ... in this case, recapturing that "idealised" moment of my childhood, that almost certainly never happened, when everything was fantastical and everything was possible.

As it is, it feels as though a part of my life is on hold, as wait the next, slow development in the "buying a house" saga; knowing full well that clearly visible, but currently out of reach, behind that metaphorical glass wall is my own Fortress of Solitude.

The end is in sight (we got the written survey for the new house through yesterday afternoon and Rachel will be going over it with her dad soon), but the nearer it gets, and the more boxes I stack up in our living room, the more anxious I find myself getting and the harder it is to focus on any one thing.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Force Among Us: Best Star Wars Fan Documentary Ever?

Star Wars fandom is over 30 years old and it's probably time to bring it out of the closet and into the public arena. The Force Among Us, by Cristian and Cortney Macht is definitely a step in the right direction.

Intelligent, professional and very slick, the documentary aims to dispel the stereotypical image of Star Wars fans as lonely, overweight, no-lifers and it does this very quickly by presenting the audience with a series of well-spoken enthusiasts, of all ages, shapes and sizes.

They are just ordinary people with an extraordinary passion for something other than a sports team.

Consisting primarily of talking heads, with subjects ranging from costume makers and sociology professors to toy collectors and podshow hosts (namely Arnie and Marjorie from Star Wars Action News), The Force Among Us rounds off with a segment on Star Wars "experience collectors" who have travelled to Tunisia to see where the Tatooine sequences were filmed and Norway for the Hoth sequences.

The Tunisian travellers had better luck than I did when I went there (but that's a story for another time!), but, as one of the first people to place an order for the DVD, I earned myself my own vial of Tunisian sand (a better souvenir of the place than I got when I was there... not that I'm bitter, of course).

Although the documentary is 86 minutes long, the extras - cut scenes and additional footage - probably double that.

This is required viewing for anyone with an interest in the breadth and depth of this vibrant and friendly fan community, as well as featuring some amazing, envy-inducing, action figure collections, some very impressive costumes, and a spectrum of opinions from the erudite to the eccentric.

One of the sociology lecturers points out that most mainstream media coverage of Star Wars starts out with the writer distancing himself from the subject - something unique to fandom, as you wouldn't find a sports writer saying he knew nothing about sports - but The Force Among Us corrects that, by putting fans both in front of and behind the camera and letting them tell their own story.

Clearly a work of love and devotion, it made me proud to be counted in their number. Say it loud, and say it proud: I am a geek, I love Star Wars!

Monday, 20 August 2007

DVD of The Week: Unbreakable (2000)

Upfront, I have to lay my cards on the table and confess that I am not a big fan of the works of M. Night Shyamalan.

Sixth Sense was very good, but rather a one-trick pony signalling the writer/director's obsession with trying to be the new Hitchcock, rather than develop a unique style of his own. Signs was one of the most ridiculous films I'd ever seen and The Village wasn't much better (I never bothered with the Lady In The Water).

I think he puts too much emphasis on the "twist" rather than the story that leads to the twist. It's like he's saying "look how clever I am" and challenging his audience to second guess him, so you spend the entire film trying to guess the twist and not concentrating on the story.

Thankfully, Unbreakable isn't like that. I understand it was originally intended as the first part of a trilogy, but poor box office meant the studio put the kibosh on any sequels (perhaps people were just looking for a rehash of Sixth Sense!)

While still obviously Hitchcockian, Unbreakable does feature a kind of twist in the final scene but it is more akin to a standard plot revelation and therefore isn't all that the film is about.

Viewed now, in 2007, the film is almost a dry run, a pilot episode, for Heroes with its tale of an ordinary Joe (Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn), who survives a train wreck and slowly - thanks to pestering from a strange art gallery owner and comic book obsessive Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) - begins to realise that he has "superpowers".

Certainly the best written of Shymalan's portfolio - the scene where David, having rescued some children from a murderer, silently reveals his "secret identity" to his son is incredible - yet the ending still seems slightly rushed, although on reflection it's growing on me.

The parallels between Dunn's developing realisation of his destiny and his troubled personal life are a particular gem - he can't find satisfaction in the latter until he accepts the former, however insane it sounds in a real world context.

The comic book nut, and budding storyteller, in me would like to see Shymalan and Willis revisit the story of David Dunn at some stage, let us know what happened in the "next issue", as it were.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

At The Fleapit: The Simpsons Movie

After filling out yet another of those "what are your favourite TV programmes" questionnaires on the Internet the other day, I realised I never list The Simpsons. I think this is pretty much because I consider it a given for everyone.

The only people I have ever come across in my life who didn't like The Simpsons were my parents and that's basically because they just didn't get it and weren't willing to give it a chance.

At our third attempt - previous attempts having been stymied by my random stomach cramps - Rachel and I finally made to The Simpsons Movie this afternoon; our plans for an "afternoon of fresh air" having been washed away by the unseasonally bad weather.

Those who dismiss the film as just an extended epsiode of the TV show are doing it a great disservice. The Simpsons Movie takes many of the show's traditional tropes and blows them up to widescreen proportions.

As always the central 'incident' escalates from a small, almost incidental escapade early on ... in this case, a "dare" contest between Homer and Bart that snowballs, drawing in story threads from left, right and centre, until the Simpsons end up fleeing Springfield, in fear of their lives, and heading for Alaska.

When the action shift to Alaska, there is a noticable drop in the laughter quota and the film loses its whiplash momentum; but in all honestly I don't think the human body and brain are designed to handle 85-minutes of solid, Grade-A Simpsons punnery. After a breather in Alaska, the Simpsons head home to try and save the day.

While, it's not the greatest film ever made, or even the greatest comedy, there's still a feast of memorable moments for fans old and new to justify the price of admission (Spider-Pig will live with me for a long time!).

There are plenty shocks and Easter Eggs for the hardcore fans, the language is slightly fruitier than normal and some of the subject matter isn't the normal fare of the TV show, but it's all handled with a deftness of touch that parents' needn't think twice about taking the little 'uns.

I'm glad we finally got to see this on the big screen. Better late and than never, although I can't see this making its way into one of those "favourite films" questionnaires.

A Little Bit Of Politics...

The majority of graphic novels I've been reading this past week have been rather serious; trying to be topical and political.

Some have worked (Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs Nighthawk about the Darfur crisis) while others haven't (Union Jack: London Falling about superpowered terrorists attacking London), but the title that has stood out, head and shoulders, above these was straight forward superhero antics, without any 'message' or illusions about its role in literature beyond pure, pulpy entertainment.

The Legion: Foundations is a trade paperback collection of issues from an iteration of the Legion of Super-heroes I wasn't familar with. Somewhere between the original, classic Legion I grew up reading and the current Mark Waid version I'm currently enjoying, there appears to have been this strange attempt to "modernize" the old school Legion.

This 2004 version of the 31st Century Legion sees old characters with new looks and, harder to grasp, "proper" superhero handles (e.g. Lightning Lad is now Livewire, Dream Girl is Dreamer, Phantom Girl is Apparition and so on), but while this doesn't really work, it's just set dressing for a universe-threatening adventure involving a brilliant time-travel scheme, two versions of Superboy and a punch-up with the DC Universe's greatest villain: Darkseid.

As with all good time-travel adventures - and I can never get enough of them in comics - the plot is sometimes hard to follow, but it all makes sense in the end (honest!)

I doubt any new version of the Legion will catch my imagination as the original did, but there remains something quite magical about the Legion universe, with its massive ensemble cast and casual, over-the-top science-fiction elements, that has always made it unlike anything else either of the major publishers put out... and long may it last.

Yes, it's silly, but it's the epitome of escapist fun and that's what comics are supposed to be.

Ze Game Will Stay Ze Same ...

This is Wizard of The Coast's "teaser" trailer for the new 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.



I'm not sure why they thought mocking all their old fans and pointing out that they've spent hundreds of dollars on books that are now redundant would somehow generate good feelings and new business?

When someone - either in or out of the geekosphere - makes fun of one of my hobbies, I will usually smile and take it in good grace, mentally dismiss them as "ignorant" or try to correct their misconceptions. But when it's the very company that supplies you with that hobby's core product, it leaves a rather nasty taste in your mouth (however, light-hearted it's supposed to be).

However, that aside, the actual presentation to Gen Con about the latest incarnation of the old favourite piqued my interest slightly (with all its pretty visuals), but also worried me - and made me feel old - by its emphasis on the new "online" content of the game.

I can see how this will appeal to new gamers (which has to be a good thing), because it's all shiny and new, but at the moment I reckon established players and Dungeon Masters will want to stick with what they know.

The game is many months away and there's no guarantee it will live up to its hype, so I guess we shall have to wait and see.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Heroes of HeroPress: Gublin

It's been a while since I've done a "Heroes of HeroPress" column, but I've been in a reflective mood of late and I guess my old Pembury pal Andrew "Gublin" Patterson represents all the people I played RPGs in my youth that I no longer have any contact with.

When I was at Pembury Primary School I - and another kid - won a scholarship to the prestigious Tonbridge School (the local equivalent of Hogwarts), although first I would have to attend a prep school.

It turned out that this 'other kid' was Andy and he lived five doors down the road from me and was born a week before me. Although we both went to different prep schools, Andy (who acquired the nickname Gublin at Holmewood House School because of his alledged similarity to a puppet creature of that name!) and I became fast friends and soon developed a mutual interest in Dungeons & Dragons.

We used to play epic games of D&D, almost all centring around his character, Egghead Aramioc, and mine, Staghind Starlight, and all pretty much of the "kick down door, kill monster, take treasure" school of hack'n'slash.

Deep characterisation was not our thing - although I do remember a particularly heated in-character argument about Staghind's plans to change her hairstyle! A misunderstanding had led Egghead to think she was going for the Princess Leia-style buns on the side of the head ... when she just wanted pigtails!

To be fair, we did take the games out of the dungeon - exploring (and conquering) whole worlds on massive sheets of paper that were like rolls of wallpaper spread across the floor of his parents' house. But Egghead and Staghind eventually grew apart and began to adventure with other people...

After prep school, we both went to Skinners' in Tunbridge Wells - instead of Tonbridge School - and soon met Matt and Nick G and became a 'gang of four'. Eventually, especially when he went off to university, we drifted apart - as young friends do - because he was of the more "work hard, play hard" ethos and I was just plain lazy. He also tried to shake the 'Gublin' nickname and return to the more 'mature' Andy ... which, of course, we ignored.

Time moved on and the last we saw of him was at Matt and Nick's brother's wedding when he announced at the reception that he was going next door to check out the other reception going on in the hotel!

Over the years I heard tales from my parents - who met his mum in the village occasionally - that he got married, had a kid, worked for a big City bank, had given it all up, bought a yacht and sailed round the world.

I seem to remember, although it's all a bit of a blur these days, that he sent me a get well card when I was in hospital, but I haven't heard anything since dad passed away and mum moved out of Pembury and so doesn't see Andy's mum anymore.

Gublin is just one of many gamers who have come and gone out of my life; for instance, whatever happened to Tom Edwards, who introduced me to the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy radio series and then ran a wild D&D game based on it, or Guy Huckle and his coterie of gaming buddies that I befriended at Skinners' ... and more importantly, are they still gaming?

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Last Dragon...

It sounds like an awful wishy-washy fantasy story title, but in actual fact it is a sad day for the gaming community - ironically coming as Wizards of The Coast (WoTC) announces, at Gen Con, its plans for a new - fourth - edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

The last issue of venerable Dragon magazine (#359) has been published - Wizards having withdrawn the licence for the title from publishers Paizo, so they could focus their efforts onto more online content.

I will say upfront that I have not been a regular reader of Dragon for many, many years. As White Dwarf switched from being a general roleplaying magazine to a monthly catalogue for Games Workshop, so the Dragon switched from its more general content to focus on the new d20 iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

I still subscribe to White Dwarf for the pretty pictures, inspiration and terrain construction features, but the Dragon lost its appeal as it was too focused on a single system and genre that I had no interest in anymore. I still picked up the odd, out-of-date issue from the market to read the non-game specific material and adverts, but this is the first 'new' issue I've purchased full price for over a decade.

And, while you don't have to read too much between the lines to taste the sadness and bitterness from the Paizo staff and freelancers, they have ensured that the title has gone out on a high - giving it a dignified send-off with a mixture of articles that reminded me of the "good, old days" - particularly the Unsolved Mysteries of D&D article, which chased down legends of vapourware, prophecies from games that were never explained, the whereabouts of 'missing' writers and various other in- and out of-game urban myths that have been hanging around the D&D gaming community since I was a young 'un.

It almost makes me nostalgic for an old fashioned dungeon crawl...

There's only the odd mention of Dragon issues from the pre-Paizo days, but enough to stir fond memories of an age when gamers used paper and pens, rather than laptops and the Internet. It makes me feel very old that I still hanker for a return to those times, as much as I love the power of the Internet (it lets me write this drivel every day and share it with you folks, so it can't be all bad).

The magazine was also a hook to lure in those who knew nothing about gaming - some kid or teen with an interest in Tolkien or paintings of elves might catch a glimpse of a Dragon cover in a newsagent ... and that would be it, another gamer for life!

At its height, Dragon covered all of TSR's game systems - including its sci-fi and superhero output (its wonderful Marvel Superhero articles are preserved here) - which was also a great way to get readers to experiment with other genres. Sadly, by the nature of the Internet, this isn't so easy now ... for instance, you type D&D into a search engine, you go to a site solely dedicated to D&D, and unlikely to have any links to a superhero site!

I shall miss the 'idea' of the Dragon and all the other great role-playing magazines that have fallen by the wayside over the years. I guess it's the magazine equivalent of the corner store being forced out of business by the out-of-town supermarket.

Change isn't always a good thing.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Film Night: Moulin Rouge (2001)

As part of her drive to make sure I get my "five portions" a day, Rachel has introduced me to "smoothies", made from blending three or four random fruits into a drink for consumption either with or after our evening meal.

Somehow, this seems a nice metaphorical segue in to Moulin Rouge!, itself a "smoothie" blend of stage musical sensibilities, pop video stylings, Benny Hill humour and innuendo and over-the-top camp.

Rachel was onto a winner from the start with her choice of Moulin Rouge! for Film Night. I'd loved it when it came out at the cinema and it's now forever linked with our wedding after we chose the Ewan McGregor/Nicole Kidman duet 'Come What May' as our first dance.

I had, however, like Rachel, forgotten that at its heart - whisked up among the loud music, fast cuts, sweeping crane shots and bright colours - the film is also a very emotional, tragic, almost operatic, love story played to the hilt - and beyond - by McGregor and Kidman.

The film is remembered by most as a melange of music videos, but the core story - however overwhelmed it is by the visuals and tunes - is pure Shakespeare (unsurprising as it comes from Baz Luhrmann, the writer/director of the equally inventive Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes).

Despite the lack of giant monsters, superpowers and alien weaponry, I'm a sucker for a good love story and Moulin Rouge! is a classic in that department, complemented with powerful interpretations of anachronistic, comtemporary songs (my favourite being the growling rendition of Roxanne) and some very humourous dialogue.
Next week: Dark City.

Tactics? We Don't Need No Steenkin' Tactics...

Stomachs full of a wonderful hot and spicy Pete-cooked curry, Nick, Pete and I settled down for our semi-regular monthly game of Formula De last night - this time using the Nurburgring in Germany as our track of choice.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten to recharge my camera's batteries since I last used it, so there are no pictures of what turned out to be one of our most tactical races to date. I think we are beginning to suss out the French designers' mindset towards the game with the dawning realisation that perhaps we have all been too cautious in the past.

With the realisation that using the pits isn't actually the major handicap we thought it would be, I suspect future races will see drivers overshooting corners in the first lap (thus shredding tyres, which can be replaced during a pit stop) and then relying more on their brakes in the second lap. It's a simple distinction - and pretty much the reverse of the tactics that we've been using for the past 18 months - but could lead to a pretty heated end to this truncated season.

Last night's race saw Pete's Mehatt Mecoate take his second chequered flag on the year, putting himself one point ahead of Nick's Antonio Wasp (reigning world champion) in the driver's championship.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

My Life And Roleplaying... (appendix: the young pretenders - part one)

Maybe it's because I grew up with the system and knew it so well, but I relished the fact that, back in the day, I could design a low-magic First Edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure without consulting the rulebook; and that monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) could have their game statistics summed up in a single sentence.

I still look at monsters on TV and instantly see (HD: x, HP: x, AC: x, #AT: x, D: x, AL: x, Notes: x) where HD is "hit dice" and HP is "hit points" (ie how powerful the monster is and much damage it can take); AC is Armour Class (ie how difficult it is to hit the monster); #AT is number of attacks the creature has every round and D is the damage it does; AL is alignment (usually evil, often chaotic - which equals a motivation of ATTACK, KILL, MAIM) and 'Notes' is special powers, distinctive features etc.

Anything else is just padding. I mean look at "stat blocks" for Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons now (random example on right from issue 147 of The Dragon) ...

These days you get monsters that take over a page to stat up! How can that be a quick and easy game for the Gamesmaster to prepare and run?

And that's what I'm looking for - a game that is quick and easy to run, has enough rules to make it structured with a slight crunchy edge (so it's more than just playing "cops and robbers" at a table or freeform improv theatre) and encourages all forms of storytelling combined with fast-paced cinematic action.

In my wilderness years since the 'death' of the original HeroPress play-by-post game and our last proper face-to-face roleplaying session I have been through a great many more game systems than I ever played in the halcyon days of my youth, in pursuit of this elusive Holy Grail. Many times I have given up the quest, only to be drawn back in by hints and rumours of the "next great thing".

I am getting to an age where I just want to settle into one game system - not keep switching to the "flavour of the month" and getting drawn into "one-shots" that don't go anywhere - that I can invest my time and creative energies into. I want players (if I am to run this game) to develop their characters and grow to love them and, in future times, be able to swap tales of their heroics and derring-do.

I have now, after many false starts and much traffic on eBay, settled on three systems that I believe hold the potential to be my 'definitive' roleplaying game. These systems are: Savage Worlds, Mutants & Masterminds and Hollow Earth Expedition.

I shall take a closer look at their merits next time...

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Gordon's Alive!



A new version of Flash Gordon has just started to air in the States on the SciFi Channel, sadly it looks like an unholy cocktail of Smallville, The OC and an appalling amateur fan film, rather than the pulpy goodness of the original Buster Crabbe version ...



... or the campy awesomeness of the 1980 film:

Pick Of The Pods: Fear The Boot

When I first discovered podcasts - and then very rapidly the growing portfolio of roleplaying podcasts - I was overwhelmed by the universally chaotic nature of the many "roundtable" format shows.

You'd get people talking over each other, at different distances from the microphone, conversations veering off into banter and total tangents, even people hitting or bumping into the microphones! That is why, even now, my general guideline is "a three host maximum" for a good podcast.

However, after ploughing through megabytes of disorganised and poorly produced "roundtable" podcasts, I came across Fear The Boot.

It describes itself as: "An irreverent look at tabletop roleplaying games and a little bit more." It certainly is that - it's also opinionated, contentious and even sometimes just downright wrong. However, for the most part, the enthusiastic hosts are well corralled and generally stay on target. And among the comments that make you want to hurl your iPod out the window are some real gems (as well as some genuinely funny nuggets of comedy gold e.g. Lord of The Rings done in the style of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas).

Some of the hosts have some very strange ideas (one steadfastly refused to actually name his player characters), they seem unhealthily obsessed with Battletech (you ask most people and I think they'd tell you that was a wargame, not a roleplaying game) and tend to rag on other niche hobbyists (particularly LARPers and "furries"), but more often than not when they have a good idea on a topic it's probably an idea worth listening to.

I resubscribed recently - frustration with some of their opinions had made me cancel my iTunes subscription - and I still find their episodes a mixture of genius and utter madness, but you have to respect the fact that they stick to their guns, bring out a regular show, know their material (for the most part), love gaming, are willing to own up to their mistakes and don't take themselves too seriously!

Monday, 13 August 2007

DVD of The Week: Doctor Strange (2007)

Whatever you may think of Marvel's current comic book output, there's no denying that its animation arm is going from strength-to-strength.

The good doctor has always been a favourite of mine since discovering random black-and-white reprints of the original Steve Ditko/Stan Lee tales in various mystery comics of the '70s and '80s.

While this 76-minute movie - Doctor Strange - lacks Lee's creative incantations and Ditko's psychedelic, alternate dimension visuals, it presents an interesting retelling of the sorcerer supreme's origin story - adding in plenty of detail without discarding any of the established mythos.

Strange is still the brilliant, but arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands are mangled in a car crash, and he still loses his fortune trying to get them repaired and ends up heading to Tibet for a "miracle cure" from The Ancient One, and he still finds a spiritual rebirth in an isolated monastry while learning the secrets of the arcane arts.

Along this journey we are treated to a host of icons from Strange's world - from Wong (seen here with hair!) and the wicked Mordo to the evil creature of pure magic Dormammu - but there are also Easter eggs seeded along the way for the fans, such as mentions of Dr Donald Blake (the crippled doctor who is really Thor) and Clea (Dr Strange's future love).

Given that the Iron Man animation was followed by an Iron Man live action film, does this mean we can expect a live action Doctor Strange? You just have to watch this animation to realise they already have Matthew 'Lost' Fox lined up for the role!

Among the extras on this Region 1 DVD (released today) is a preview of the next animated release from Marvel: Avengers Reborn, a futuristic tale of the Avengers at the end of their days.

The legendary heroes come out of retirement to fight Ultron, but are soundly beaten and it's up to an elderly Tony Stark and the children of The Avengers (aka Teen Avengers!) to save the day. It's supposedly designed, using all new 'teen' characters, to draw in a new, younger audience - while still holding onto their established fanbase.

I have to confess - especially as I'm still reeling from the kidcentric awfulness of Thunderbirds - I'm not so thrilled about the prospect of this movie as I have been about the others in their line. But we will have to wait and see... Avengers Reborn is scheduled for release in Summer, 2008.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

HEX Appeal!

Indiana Jones versus dinosaurs ... you're hooked already, aren't ya?

Hollow Earth Expedition was launched at Gen Con last year to rave reviews, and it soon hit these shores. It wasn't long until it was in my hands ... and, as you can tell from my review on RPGnet, I fell in love with it.

In retrospect, I might have been slightly lovesick when I wrote the review, seeing the game through rose-tinted glasses and maybe choosing to ignore some very minor flaws (for instance, for a rules-lite game, you still appear to need massive stat blocks for every character and monster).

Having joined their forums I even started contributing rules suggestions and monster write-ups (something I've never done before or since). This was it, I thought. I had found my dream game ... I just needed some more source material and I'd be set to go (I even had a provisional gaming group warmed up).

Then, despite the active boards and the lovely personalities of the creators at Exile Game Studio ... nothing. Even the scheduled new releases were each six months apart (and the first was "only" going to be a gamesmaster's screen!)

So, sadly, I lost my nerve for running a face-to-face tabletop game and with the lack of support material, the game - as beautiful and brilliant as it was - went into storage.

But now, the year is up! Kicking off with an interview on The Games The Thing podcast, Exile Games Studio is roaring back to this Gen Con (next weekend) with the lovely looking gamesmaster screen (which should be out here in the next week or two ... fingers crossed) and news that the first major supplement - Secrets of The Surface World - should be hitting the shops in October (preview copies at Gen Con).

Suddenly I'm all excited again ... I know I'm as fickle as a schoolgirl, but until I can actually get a regular RPG game going again, my tastes are going to keep switching (even if within increasingly narrow parameters). Better get those Pulp miniatures painted as well!

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Films on TV: Thunderbirds (2004) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life (2003)

It may be summer and the TV schedules may be bereft of interesting, original programming, but that doesn't mean the terrestrial channels can't surprise us sometimes. This evening ITV screened Jonathan Frakes' ill-conceived Thunderbirds movie and this was followed by the critically mauled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life on BBC.

But, for all my trepidation, I hadn't seen either of these (because of their universally bad reviews) and we had no other plans for a Saturday night (after a week of celebrations for Rachel's birthday).

Unfortunately, Thunderbirds was as bad as I'd feared - if not worse. Infact, it may be one of the worse films I have ever seen. It has very little going for it outside of its stylish live action recreations of the world famous Tracy Island (complete with sliding swimming pool and collapsing plam trees) and the Thunderbird vehicles themselves.

Basically, whichever moronic corporate suit throught it would be a "great idea" to ignore Gerry Anderson's original popular and successful formula and introduce "kids" into the Tracy mix - and then centre the whole film around them - basically sank the franchise before it was launched.

The film might have stood some chance if the lead kid (Brady Corbet as a young Alan Tracy) had any charisma or acting chops, but he's so lame that the film just sags around him, leaving the real actors (namely Bill Paxton as family head Jeff, Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope and Ben Kingsley as The Hood) to try and keep their heads above water.

I felt genuinely sorry for Anthony Edwards - horribly miscast as Brains. After his eight years as Dr Greene on ER, you would have hoped he could have found something a bit better!

Meanwhile Sophia Myles seems to have modelled her portrayal of Lady Penelope on Uma Thurman's Emma Peel from the underrated Avengers movie, but like the other serious actors quickly looses the will to perform and eventually phones in the role and looks to her paycheque.

The Hood, with his mind control and telekinetic powers, might have made a half-decent supervillain if the plot had been any good. As it was he damaged the space station Thunderbird 5, so the rest of the Thunderbirds scrambled to rescue it, then used their absence to slip onto Tracy Island, with the idea of stealing Thunderbird 2... however he didn't count on the meddling kids.

Truly awful. Avoid this film at all costs. If you want to get into Thunderbirds watch the original puppet show.

The Cradle of Life, on the other hand, was surprisingly good. Obviously having the gorgeous and fit Angelina Jolie in a variety of figure-hugging outfits racing round the world beating up baddies and firing off guns doesn't hurt, but there was also a half-decent story.

The action centres around a vague, ancient myth about the place on Earth where life began ("the cradle of life") and a box that was found there (Pandora's Box) - said to contain "anti-life" (a deadly supernatural plague).

It's a race against time for Lara to find the box before a bio-terrorist does. This involves action, set-pieces in sunken Greecian temples, Chinese cave systems, the streets of Shanghai and Hong Kong and magical underground complex in Africa. Sound like a video game? Of course, it does ... this is Tomb Raider, what do you expect?

Brainless, but exciting, I actually thought it was better than the first Tomb Raider movie, and could certainly see myself sitting down again sometime in the future to enjoy a repeat viewing... and maybe ripping off some of the ideas for roleplaying games of my own (the "shadow guardians" were pretty cool monsters and Tomb Raider movies always make inspirational use of their locations for their set piece stunts and fights).

It's Stat Time Of The Month Again...

I'm proud to announce that HeroPress has recorded 5,000 visits (as of today), just before its sixth month anniversary. Another month of mixed fortunes for the site as the ever-popular Six Of The Best series has had to go on temporary summer hiatus. Many of the people I had hoped to interview were either on holiday or caught up in the convention season in the U.S.A. or here.

So, here are the numbers for the last 30 days. Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 11 August): 5,000 (4, 046)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 27 (22)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United Kingdom 46% (19%)
United States 36% (56%)
Canada 8% (8%)
France 2% (5%)
Portugal 1% (-)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site)
For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:

(1) Happy Birthday, Flea Girl!
(2) Once Upon A Time - The Super Heroes...
(3) Published In A Dark Horse Comic...
(4) Heroes Of HeroPress: Matt and Nick Green
(5) Holiday, Day One - Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside...

Shameless self-promotion accounts for the two of the top three entries as I used my letter in Conan & The Midnight God as an excuse to post to several forums to sound out views on the death of the comic book letter column. As to Rachel's birthday, well, I had to bombard all her friends with emails inviting them to leave her comments ... and a few did.

Being summer there's not really anything original on television, so most of the entries to HeroPress at the moment are quite random (hence the popularity of some strange old pages in the list above), but hopefully soon I'll be able to get Six Of The Best up and running again, although maybe in a monthly format rather than fortnightly as that was rather ambitious.

Over on MySpace, HeroPress currently has 36 "friends" in its first week - including Bridget Marquardt from The Girls Next Door, Sara Underwood (Playmate of The Year 2007), Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man), Hayden Panettiere (of Heroes), comic book gods Brad Meltzer and Ed Brubaker, author Austin Grossman, several of my favourite podcasters and bands, and a host of random comic book fans.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Published In A Dark Horse Comic ...

My first published contribution to an American comic book has seen the light of day... a letter in this month's Dark Horse's Conan And The Midnight God issue 5 (see above). It refers to a story in issue 37 of their main Conan title, that came out several months ago.

I was so excited when I discovered it that I had to show Rachel. She brought me back to Earth with the very sage observation: "It's another letter complaining about something. Couldn't you write a letter of praise sometime?"

However, the way I look at it, many famous comic book authors refer back to letters they had published (admittedly usually when they were kids, not 40-year-olds) and so I'm seeing this as my first step on the road to comic book greatness!

Film Night: Escape To Witch Mountain (1975)

Before Star Wars became such a large part of my childhood, there had been another film which my impressionable nine-year-old mind had been fixated with: Disney's Escape To Witch Mountain.

Watching it for the first time in over 25 years I was impressed how the majority of the effects stood the test of time - except for the climatic "flying RV" and helicopter sequence, which was on a par with Doctor Who effects of that era!

Nevertheless the dancing toys scene remains - like the animated suits of armour fighting the Nazi invaders at the end of Bedknobs and Broomsticks - permanently etched into my psyche as a spectacular, inspirational image.

Unfortunately Rachel, who lists "child actors" as one of her major pet peeves, found the story increasingly "unbelievable" as the "extraterrestrial" origins of the runaway, psychic childrens' powers unfolded, but I thought the story was as entertaining as I did when I was a child, even if the final effects were as poor as I remembered.

Of course, those were more innocent times, when no one thought twice (particularly in Disney films) about a lonely, old man befriending two young children and helping them run away from other strange, old men in his camper van! Which might explain why this great little story hasn't been reinvented for the 21st Century - with modern special effects.

In retrospect I can see how this tale of two 'gifted' children almost certainly contributed to my fascination in later life with all things paranormal and people with 'special abilities' - from the X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Heroes, The Dresden Files and The 4400. But at the time it was simply magical - I'd never seen anything like it and was instantly drawn into this exciting world of infinite possibilities.

I will also confess that the nine-year-old Flea also had a bit of a soft spot for Tia (Kim Richards, who I now discover is Paris Hilton's aunt!), but it was the telekinesis, telepathy, distance viewing, animal empathy and other incredible powers of Tony and Tia that made this film so special to me. Little did I realise that it would shape my viewing (and reading) tastes for the rest of my life.

Next week: Moulin Rouge.

Top Of The Pile: Justice League of America #11

This has been a good month so far for 'fun' comics - admittedly boosted by my major catch-up on the Justice League/Justice Society crossover story The Lightning Saga.

That tale not only ran through issues 8, 9 and 10 of Justice League of America and 5 and 6 of Justice Society of America but saw the two superteams joining forces with the Legion of Superheroes (from the 31th Century!) to bring back one of the pillars of the DC Universe.

After such a world-spanning, convoluted, universe shaking epic I didn't know what to expect from issue 11 of the Justice League... but what I got blew my mind.

Working from an amazing tight Brad Meltzer script, boosted by the atmospheric art of Gene Ha, Walls concentrates on two of the less cosmic members of the JLA: Vixen (Mari McCabe) and Red Arrow (Roy Harper).

Starting in media res, the duo have apparently been caught up in a tussle with electromagnetic supervillain Dr Polaris at the Watergate Hotel which has resulted in the hotel being dumped in the nearby river with the two heroes trapped underneath.

I have never seen desperation, heroism, claustrophobia and suffocation portrayed so truthfully and dramatically in a comic book before. While Meltzer does the business with the thoughts and words, it's Ha's painted art - using predominantly narrow, horizontal panels - that really draws the reader into the plight of the characters.

A textbook demonstration of the unique power of the medium, it's not something I'd recommend writers and artists trying every issue, but as a one-off - and in direct contrast to the vast canvas of The Lightning Saga - this terrifying and intimate tale stood out, in a month of already entertaining reads, as a story that would stay with me for a long time.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Welcome to Springfield...

We may not have gotten to see The Simpsons' Movie yet, but in the meantime I've found an awesome website that "Simpsonizes" portrait pictures! Here's me (on the left) and Rachel.

Happy Birthday, Flea-Girl!

Happy birthday to my wife, Rachel (aka Mrs Flea aka The Fabulous Flea-Girl aka Lumpy etc etc), seen here sporting her stylish "I Y My Geek" shirt from Geeklabel.com.

It may be a gradual process, by osmosis, but I'm slowly corrupting her to the way of the geek - for example, it was Rachel who discovered the first mention of 'Cloverfield' on the Internet and has been encouraging me in my pursuit of further information on this elusive, mysterious film project.

Now I just need to convince her that she really does have time - in her hectic day - to listen to podcasts and think about playing geeky superhero roleplaying games and my masterplan will be that much closer to fulfillment.

Bwahahahaha!

I realise I don't say it enough, but I owe this woman everything: starting with my life, thanks to her quick thinking when I suffered my aneurism.

And I still can't believe how lucky I am that she agreed to marry me (and then invited Darth Vader to the ceremony!)

The week-long birthday festivities began last night with a traditional visit to the Oriental Buffet in Tonbridge High Street, accompanied by Rachel's parents, then the rest of the week is a mix of meals with various permutations of family and friends, culminating in a barbeque at Abbie and Martin's house on Sunday (which also marks Abbie's birthday).

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

DVD of The Week: Once Upon A Time - The Super Heroes (2002)

The main reason I collect superhero films on DVD (besides the main features - which are, let's be honest, variable in quality) is for the extras; particularly the documentaries about the history of the featured characters in their comic book titles.

Once Upon A Time: The Super Heroes is a French/Canadian documentary about the history of superhero comics as a whole, from the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 up until the start of the recent cinematic wave of metahuman movies (there are clips from Batman, Spawn and X-Men).

As another fine example of misleading marketing, the documentary was repackaged in 2007 as a "Spider-Man" tie-in, although I feel any little kid expecting an hour and half of the webslinger will be sorely disappointed.

This interesting and insightful film features a gallery of talking head interviews with many of the greats - from Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams and Joe Simon to Alex Ross, Stan Lee, Jim Lee and Joe Quesada (it's ironic, in the light of the current state of many Marvel titles, to hear Bill Sienkiewicz saying how making comics grim and gritty has made them less fun and then to have Joe Quesada saying comics are now heading for a more positive phase).

The interviews are illustrated with a lot of comic book art (either pages and single frames or posters), sequences of various artists at work (how cool is it to see Joe Simon colouring a drawing of Captain America?) and wide range of animation and movie clips from sources as diverse as the 70s Incredible Hulk TV series and the beautiful 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons.

Once Upon A Time is an excellent film, hidden under some very heavy handed (and misleading) marketing that also examines the genre's origins in the urban canyons of American cityscapes; the impact of the Dr Fredric Wertham's Seduction of The Innocent allegations and subsequent introduction of the Comic Book Code; the need for a good supervillain; and the changing face of the superhero market as comic books became a niche product and licenced characters expanded outwards into other mediums, much as films and video games.

You get the feeling that there is still much to tell and that this documentary could easily have been twice as long, but as an overview of an intriguing subject it is a quality introduction to the history of my favourite medium. This is partially addressed in the hour of deleted scenes (mainly comments from Stan Lee - who has an opinion on everything and has turned talking into an Olympic sport - and reminscences from Mark Evanier about working with Jack 'The King' Kirby), but it never gets dull and I could listen to these people talk all day.
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