Thursday, June 28, 2007

A (very) Selective Guide to Web Comics

Things I simply don't 'get':

1. Transformers.
2. Anything 'starring' Richard Ayoade. The man is a talent vampire, leeching the ability out of even gifted people he works with.
3. Comics. With the exception of 'Maus' and 'From Hell' they're just nonsense aren't they?

Web comics though are a different thing entirely.

I'd say they were a wondrous new world but truthfully they're mainly not
- a few of them, however, are unmissable. To be exact, the ones below meet the stringent criteria of 'Stuff I look at First Thing in the Morning when I Should be Starting Work'.*

Wapsi Square


Wapsi Square is more of an ongoing serial than the other strips I read daily. Starring Monica Villareal, a short, large chested anthropologist, WS started as a straight-forward semi-humorous drama but quickly evolved into a far odder and less mundane experience.

At times in fact, creator Paul Taylor leaves humour behind entirely, particularly in the early strips featuring the creation of the three drunken parts of the chimera and those strips covering the cast's unhappy formative years. Wapsi Square isn't a strip for belly laughs, but the increasing maturity of the writing is mirrored in the fabulous artwork, which often features intricate and complimentary backgrounds in each panel, fronted by cleanly drawn characters.

I've just ordered the two paperback collections from lulu.com. Highly recommended.

A Softer World

A Softer World is about as far away from Wapsi Square as you can get. Generally made up of three panels and updated only every Friday, ASW is a series of standalone strips which isn't even drawn but is instead created from photographs, with text added on a white background in an old-fashioned typewriter font.

Sometimes it's just one photograph stretching across all three panels, sometimes it's three distinct photos, but the result is usually...bittersweet is the word, I think. Sometimes, in fact, the strip doesn't even seem to make much sense but regardless, many of the comics engender a genuine sense of sadness and of the passing of time. On the other hand, some are just plain funny.

And I'm convinced Steven Moffat has seen this one.

Player vs Player

Player vs Player is a far more traditional comic strip, in the grand tradition of Charles Schulz' Peanuts. Set in the office of a computer gaming magazine, PvP generally appears in three panel form with each strip ending with a humorous pay-off, although the strips are all linked chronologically and tend to follow loose storylines.

Of the comic strips I like, PvP takes the least risks but is probably the most successful, with an animated version now showing on US TV. Traditional it may be, but it's often very, very funny and the fact that creator Scott Kurtz does do the very best PC wallpaper is not something to be taken lightly.

Achewood

Achewood is genius, no matter how hyperbolic that sounds. Not genius in the sense that people might say 'Lawrence Miles is a genius' or 'Tracey Emin's My Bed is a work of genius' (that is, the sense of 'exaggerating wildly' and 'talking shite' respectively), but genius in the proper 'christ, that made my brain shudder and stall' sense. The adventures of some toy animals and a handful of cats with personality disorders, it may not sound all that promising, but reading the entire archive in one sitting is the equivalent of reading one of the good Faulkner novels or watching a Pinter play. Ignoring for a second the fact that it's frequently coffee spat over monitor funny and that it can switch from that to genuinely sad in the space of a single strip, Achewood's primary strength is creator Chris Onstad's wonderful use of language. Each character has his own individual voice, while characters modify their syntax to create fractured sentences full of meaning in a world in which Heaven and Hell are easily reachable (and where Robert Johnson plays nightly in the latter)

Start at the beginning and read right through or, if you definitely want to waste your time doing something else, then just read the Great Outdoor Fight section, and marvel.

Perry Bible Fellowship

PBF is amongst the more successful web comics, with a weekly spot in The Guardian and a book collection out soon. PBF always goes for the laugh in its unconnected weekly strip, but uniquely in those strips I read it always makes you work to figure out the gag. This strip in which a vulture has slipped in amongst the baby-delivering storks is a relatively straight-forward one, but this one had me scratching my head for half an hour before I got the (excellent) joke, while I had to have this one explained to me by Greg.

The fact that it's usually worth making the effort to understand the entire joke tells you all you need to know, I think.

Other Comics

Other comics which I read every day but which aren't at the very top level include Overcompensating (good but inconsistent), Scary Go Round (British for a change, but 'wry smile' level at best), and xkcd (sometimes hilarious, too often a bit sciencey).

* If Scott is reading this, then that obviously should read 'Stuff I look at First Thing in the Morning Before I Leave for Work'

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Russell T Davies, lexicographer

At one point in Sound of Drums, the Master/Harold Saxon orders the decimation of the people of Earth:
Shall we decimate them? That sounds good. Nice word, decimate. Remove one tenth of the population!
I like that a lot. In spite of what John says it always drives me crazy when people say 'decimate' when they mean 'generally slaughter' and the implied precision is the kind of subtle character touch people keep telling me RTD is capable of.

Actually, I'd quite to see more of that in Who, with the Doctor defining words pedantically but correctly after he says them, or making impassioned speches about the failure of Americans to spell 'colour' properly.

That'd really be combining entertainment with education, just as Sidney Newman intended.


Other than that, Sound of Drums was slightly above average RTD fayre - no plot to speak of, a series of enjoyable if often illogical set pieces and some jokes which didn't always work (one nicked from The Sea Devils). Plus Gallifrey looked like a cut scene from a video game and the young Master section looked like a deleted scene from a Harry Potter DVD.


Still, this was parts three and four of six in old money, which would once have meant most of an hour spent escaping and being recaptured. Having a bit of spectacle instead is definitely something to be applauded.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Whotopia*

Before we start I'll put my hands up. I watched 'Utopia' in the near certainty that it would be
rubbish. I didn't want to: it's never good to experience anything with massive negative preconceptions already in place, after all. But I couldn't help myself. Russell T Davies is a perfectly competent writer (and seems like a lovely person as well), but to my mind he's an slightly above average ability hack** who has been elevated to the ranks of virtual auteur by solely because of the weakness of the current UK TV writing scene.

He can turn out page upon page of decent dialogue, hung upon a bare bones plot, all of which can be filmed easily enough using a team of decent actors and a solid director. He's rarely inspired and he repeats the same basic elements over and over again with little obvious imagination, but he can be relied upon to churn out scripts to demand which is a rarer trait, I believe, than you would think.

He's Terry Nation, basically (even down to using the same favourite names more than once). That's no slight on the man - I love Nation's work and would count season 1 of Survivors as my all time favourite single season of television. But it does mean that I tend to watch his episodes of Who in anticipation of 'much the same as last time'.

To be fair, Utopia doesn't actually disappoint in that respect. It features the utter lack of sparkle
which marks Rusty's far future societies. It's got Cap'n Jack in it, flirting with everyone. There's
various scientific bits which make no sense even in an in-story way. Scientific solutions go 'boink'.

And yet, for once it works.

It obviously helps that an actor of the stature of Derek Jacobi plays the Professor with a degree of unforced aplomb which is a delight to watch, but it would be an injustice not to give credit where it's due.

This Davies script is full of the kind of layered, intelligent writing that his fans have tried - with
little success - to claim for his earlier offerings. Maybe it's just me, maybe I was in a a better
frame of mind, but there was a charm in 'Utopia' which I've never found before in Rusty's work.

The swearing scene with the two youngsters was genuinely funny, for instance, and not laboured in the slightest. The revelation that YANA stood for You Are Not Alone had me high-fiving my son. Even Cap'n Jack made me laugh.

Ah, Cap'n Jack. Primarily a one-note pain in the arse in the Eccleston season and as rotten as most other things in the Torchwood spin-off, RTD does more with the character in this single episode than every other appearance combined. It helps that Barrowman (an actor sufficiently limited to make David Boreanaz look like Al Pacino) also unexpectedly raises his game, to the extent that it's not actually embarassing watching him on the same screen as a Tennant who continues from previous weeks at the absolute top of his game. The (horribly contrived, admittedly) scene in the radiation flooded reactor room is Barrowman's best acting performance to date, but the script at that point is so tight that it would have been a challenge to mess it up.

And it gets tighter still as Jacobi's hidden secret is revealed and Chanto melts his evil insides as she dies. "KIlled by an insect', 'As one door closes...', Davies' totally nails the Ainley Master and
Jacobi doesn't disappoint in breathing life into his words. That John Simm then chews the scenery with gusto might have struck a wrong note, but it's obviously intended to mirror Tennant's post-regeneration whirl, and it's fantastic that the Doctor now doesn't even know what the Master looks like. Hopefully the final two parts of the season will do more with such a promising set-up than piss it all away on some variation of the Doctor and the Master are brothers/lovers/father and son.

If I have one complaint it's the fact that yet again the Far Far Far Future looks so unimaginative. This week's crowd of extras comes from a Blakes 7 episode, rather than an Ikea catalogue, but really - you would think with the money and talent at work, we'd have come a little further away from 'Frontios'. But that, and more minor quibbles about overly convenient deadly power couplings and ships that can't be started from inside, is a moan for another day.

For today, Rusty is the Master.

* I nicked the title off of Simon, since i couldn't think of anything myself
** Not an insult, to be clear.

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Blink and this review will be gone

Steven Moffat writes great, scary TV.

Blink is based upon an award-winning, typically intelligent Moffat short story.

Since the panto of the Dalek Disaster, Season 3 of New Who has been darker, more atmospheric and just downright better than we had any right to expect.

Really, what else is there to be said that hasn't been said elsewhere to greater effect? Blink is the third great Who episode in a row and is a thing to be treasured.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Human Nature/Family of Blood

At the scene where Nurse Joan saw what her life would have been like had she married John Smith, I had tears running down my face. Then when we saw the elderly Tim at the Remembrance Service and the Doctor and Martha waving to him, I was choked up all over again. That's not a thing that happens often to me, but the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter was an absolutely exceptional piece of television.

It's tempting to just list all the glorious moments in HN/FoB (not all of which are a cause for tears by any manner of means) but that would would in effect involve writing virtually every scene out in longhand, which somewhat misses the point of a review. Suffice to say it has genuine thematic and emotional depth, beautiful dialogue and believable and consistent characterisation.*

Ditto praising the good performances would inolve copy and pasting the cast list from IMDb. But special praise perhaps belongs to Harry Lloyd as Baines and Thomas Sangster as Lattimer, while Tennant (conclusively proving that he's an excellent actor, just not very good at playing the Doctor) was as good as he's ever been in New Who.

I could go all snarky now and contrast this with the likes of Gridlock which some (deluded) fans have praised to the heavens, but I'm still on a high from watching Cornell's masterclass in 'How to Write' and in any case, I was always told it wasn't nice to mock the obviously afflicted.

And there's a scary Moffat to come next! It's like Rusty's already left and the show's gotten good again...

* Not everything works - the scenes set in No Man's Land during World War I have a real Two Little Boys feel about them, and there's a line in Human Nature (which I can't help but think sounds like a Rusty inclusion) where Martha bemoans the fact that the Doctor has fallen in love with a human and 'it's not me!'. But these are minor complaints.

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