Hoffman’s Sandman – Nothing Like Gaiman (despite the picture)

For reasons best known to me at the time – and which I have now completely forgotten – I picked up a collection of ETA Hoffman’s stories. Part of me considers them to be old fashioned German fairy tales, much like those of the Brothers Grimm before the Victorians decided to sanitise everything and change all the endings. As Roald Dahl proved many times, kids like a bit of nasty – but even so, I would baulk at letting a child read Hoffman’s best known story, the Sandman. It made me shudder, and I’ve read the original Grimm stories as well. I have to say very early on that if your only version of the Sandman is from Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel of the same name – you may be in for a bit of a shock.

The Sandman of Hoffman’s tale is a supernatural being who comes to children at night and steals their eyes. If we are still looking at Gaiman’s Sandman, I suppose the character he would remind me most of would be the Corinthian, a stunningly handsome creature as long as he kept his sunglasses on. In fact, if my memory serves correctly (and I haven’t read Gaiman’s story for a long time) the Corinthian was always considered the “stuff of nightmares” – which would bring in the sleep/dream element from the Hoffman version. In fact, apart from Gaiman’s Sandman being the keeper of dreams, there isn’t really much that links the two stories at all.

What Hoffman’s version reminds me most of is Coppelia, a ballet first performed in 1870. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wikipedia claims it is one of the stories the ballet is based on (the other Hoffman story is The Doll, which I haven’t read yet). In turn, the reader is reminded of Pygmalion, Frankenstein and even Pinocchio – which is a creepy enough film as it stands without needing to add this into the mix. In a sense, because Swanhilda is an automaton, she is perhaps the precursor to the robot Maria in Metropolis – which itself created a whole genre of tales about artificial intelligence so lifelike it’s almost human, including Astroboy and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I wonder, actually, if Hoffman also wrote the libretto (do ballets have libretti? I hope so) to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s world famous Christmas ballet which also features dancing dolls, amongst all the other toys. Let’s face it, from there it’s only a short leap to Chucky and an assortment of gruesome horrors. Why do the brightest things have the darkest shadows?

Anyway – if you get your hands on a copy of this, by all means read it – just don’t expect the Endless to make an appearance in the middle.

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A One Man Comic Book Hero

I love finding out about people (and things) I’ve never previously heard of. So when someone mentioned the name Jack Parsons to me, my immediate reaction was “Who?” I’ve now done a bit of reading on the subject, and all I can say is – he was a one-man comic book hero. None of what follows is invented, but see how many comic references you can spot.

First of all, his given name wasn’t Jack; he was named after his father, Marvel Whitehead Parsons, and changed his name to something a little more user-friendly as he got older. After school, where he enjoyed maths and science, he became a rocket engineer. He was one of a group of young and enthusiastic scientists known for carrying out dangerous experiments, which quickly gained the moniker “The Suicide Squad”. He helped form the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at the University of California, which now works closely alongside NASA and some of his engineering designs formed the basis for some of the engine technology on the Space Shuttle.

Parsons died in quite mysterious circumstances. He and his second wife were about to go on holiday to Mexico when he received a consignment of explosives from a film studio for testing. While she was out shopping, Parsons took the explosives into his laboratory for examination. A large explosion caused a substantial part of Parsons’ house to collapse; he was found alive but seriously injured by rescue workers, although he died thirty seven minutes later. An official investigation found that Parsons dropped a jar containing fulminate of mercury, which was disputed by friends and work colleagues who said he was scrupulous about safety. They went on to suggest that he was assassinated; certainly his wife always maintained that he was murdered.

And just to add insult to injury – contemporary photographs show a man who looked suspiciously like Howard Stark… (Rumours of a Winter Soldier in the vicinity were sadly unsubstantiated.)

I can only wonder how many ideas he’s provided comics with over the years. He had a fascinating life (about which I’ve very much enjoyed reading) and his scientific work was genuinely pioneering for the late 1930s and early 1940s. I’m amazed that he’s only just crossed my radar.

Godzilla Revamped

There is a new Godzilla movie in the works, I believe – a sequel/prequel/set in the same universe as Kong: Skull Island. But this post isn’t really about Godzilla, although there are similarities. I’ve just sat through Pacific Rim. Now I like Guillermo del Toro; he’s made some of my favourite films, he’s a really wonderful guy and he seems to think in a similar way to me. I just didn’t think this film showed him at his best, although the cast were great, the special effects were better and now I understand why one of my co-workers is potty about Charlie Hunnam (can’t see it myself, but there we are).

Pacific Rim is a good old fashioned monster movie, where the monsters (kaiju) live in an interdimensional breach in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and attack nearby coastal cities – hence the title. Humanity is forced to rely on large humanoid robots which reminded me of the exoskeleton in Aliens crossed with a Transformer, for defence. These robots are called Jaegers and are controlled by two pilots who are connected by a neural link. This means that their moves are synchronised, their thoughts are united and the mental load of controlling the Jaeger is shared. The plot is a fairly standard invasion/defence story, but set some time after the initial invasion, so there is quite a considerable backstory for the characters which fleshes everything out nicely.

It just feels so horribly derivative, though. As I said, the Jaegers remind me of a film I loved (Aliens) and a film I loathed (Transformers); the kaiju resemble anything from a kraken to a dinosaur, and any combination in between; and the plot is basic. So why is it so damned enjoyable? Well, the cast are fantastic and the script makes the most of the fact that this kind of alien invasion is going to be traumatic for people, so both the main characters are affected in different ways, making them feel much more rounded than perhaps the human characters of Skull Island. Ron Perlman has a minor arc in the film and isn’t really in it very much (sadly) but he owns every scene he’s in, as does Idris Elba, who has a major part and is in the film rather a lot.

Given how the film ended, I’m not sure how they’ve managed to engineer a sequel – apparently with a different cast, as John Boyega now stars – so I’d be quite interested to see how that’s worked out. At least I won’t have too long to wait to find out.

Skull Island – Still Radioactive After All These Years…

I’ve finally got round to watching Kong: Skull Island, only about six months after having read the book – which, to be fair, was entertainingly daft. The film was entertainingly daft although I did like the special effects. The acting was pretty shocking though – reminded me a bit of the John Lewis advert, “never knowingly undersold” becoming “never knowingly underacted”.

I was reminded of the film by a news story I read recently about the Marshall Islanders who still live near Bikini Atoll, the site of the US nuclear tests in the 1950s. Seventy years later, and despite the radiation levels, the marine life is starting to return to its previous state, which is very good news; although the radioactivity remains a disturbing thought. Islanders who eat locally caught fish are ingesting levels of radiation which lead to a vastly reduced life expectancy, and incidences of cancer and thyroid disorders are much higher than the international average.

One of the characters in Kong: Skull Island refers to the Bikini Atoll tests when he talks about nuking the island, and suggests that rather than testing new weapons, the military were actively trying to destroy something – hinting at either Kong himself or the Skullcrawler he fights at the end – although if you waited until after the credits, you would have heard Gojira himself, which according to the original Japanese movies, was definitely a product of nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Of course, exposure to atomic radiation is highly unlikely to cause creatures to grow hugely while remaining otherwise unchanged. Much more likely are mutations such as misshapen limbs, tumorous growths or perhaps even an extra head or tail. The overwhelming majority of such mutant creatures would not survive, so those that do would be rare indeed – and probably not that much of a threat which, of course, reinforces the unspoken plotline that the most dangerous things in the film are the people.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m reading a book about conspiracy theories at the moment. It’s not very entertaining (no outrageous assertions that all world leaders are Lizard People from Planet X, sadly) but it is enlightening, especially when it deals with how conspiracy theories take root and become disseminated into popular culture to a point where it becomes very troublesome to tell the fake news from the truth.

Now if that sounds a little familiar, I can only apologise – but I for one do not believe a word that comes out of the White House nor what appears in a Murdoch newspaper. The former, unfortunately, is more of a recent occurrence than the latter, but I long ago recognised that there is an agenda here which involves lying through the skin of their teeth at every available opportunity. If the facts suggest that something is black, they will maintain that it is white and that any suggestion to the contrary is “fake news”. In the case of the press, we are back to questions of journalistic ethics that I briefly looked at after watching Nightcrawler – what lengths will the media go to if they may get a story out of it?

The other side to this story, though, is what checks are there to keep the media from breaking the law – or just offending pretty much every normal person’s moral framework? The Leveson Enquiry spent months (and thousands of pounds) trying to establish a forum where the press could be regulated; but this ended up as entirely voluntary and so watered down as to be completely ineffective. Ultimately, unscrupulous media moguls can behave as they please without sanction, especially if those in power are doing exactly the same. No wonder the conspiracy theorists don’t trust anyone!

It’s incredibly depressing but what can one do? The simple answer, suggested by the book I’m reading, is this: the more variables involved in the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to be faked. Unless, of course, the White House is involved, in which case believe nothing and trust no one.

Not Quite The Rage Monster

Crikey, I really should calm down a bit. Reading some of these recent posts back has just made me realise just how angry I am. Perhaps I should change the subject.

Watched Avengers Assemble again last night – not that I need any excuse for that. It’s amazing how much I realised I hadn’t picked up on before – like Tony Stark referring to himself as a “Life Decoy Model” when trying to fob off Agent Coulson. As far as I know, nobody had picked up on that before, yet much was made of the LDMs in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Much like all the little side references that you really have to pay attention to – Nick Fury’s statement that “gamma radiation can be dangerous”, for example. Which leads me nicely onto how much I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

When I first saw Ruffalo’s characterisation, I didn’t take to it at all. I thought he was too old – well, he’s the same age as me, which is a bit too old for a superhero – and his Banner was too shambling and confused. Repeated viewings have shown me the error of my ways; he’s perfect. He’s a brilliant scientist who’s spent more time in labs than he has in social situations. He’s a fugitive, so that makes him edgy and careful about what he says and does. And as for the age thing – both Robert Downey Junior and Jeremy Renner are my age and I didn’t think they were too old. It’s just a beautifully nuanced performance which has really grown on me, especially as the character has progressed through Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cameo at the end of Iron Man 3 and most recently in Thor: Ragnarok (and the fantastic teaser trailers).

The Hulk has had a troubled cinematic history of late; the (much too long) Ang Lee movie featured Eric Bana filled with angst alongside his gamma radiation and was not the most auspicious start to proceedings. The Incredible Hulk (starring Ed Norton as Banner) did at least have a comic element as well as some FANTASTIC action sequences, and allowed the story arc to enter the MCU. The reason why Hulk punches out Thor is directly due to him being struck by lightning outside the cave after being attacked at the University, and Ruffalo’s Banner directly references the movie when he tells Stark that he “broke Harlem”.

I don’t always like some of the things that Marvel, and the MCU in particular, do but I have to say that they got the casting spot on with this movie, and having the actors tied into multiple movies has allowed them to grow into and develop their respective characters, which is a very good thing, although now I couldn’t imagine anybody else as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. I do wish, though, that they’d renege on their decision not to make a third Hulk movie with Ruffalo in the role. I think it’s the least his character deserves.

Wonder Woman Wasn’t The First

Lucy Lawless and Sigourney Weaver must be rolling their eyes at the short memories some people have. Ellen Ripley and Xena weren’t that long ago, were they? Mind you, back in the day, we also had Emma Peel and Purdey in the Avengers (talking of which – Black Widow isn’t a slouch either), Cagney and Lacey for the detective show watchers and even The Bionic Woman. Lynda Carter’s original Wonder Woman aired at a similar time – I remember watching it when I was young – and nobody ever declared her the first female action hero.

What’s changed? Why has Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman got everyone in a flutter?

People have double standards, is why. There is a long legacy of women playing action roles – I’ve listed a few already – but because they didn’t wear a bikini when they did it, they don’t count. Xena had a huge lesbian subtext surrounding her partnership with Gabrielle; Ripley was a part originally written for a man; both Emma Peel and Purdey were always fully clothed, as were Black Widow, Cagney and Lacey and the Bionic Woman. Whether Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman counts as an action hero is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the studios simply forgot about her. They don’t fit the heterosexual male ideal of a fit woman who is sexually available and so they’ve been airbrushed aside.

Cruel, but that’s how sexism works. Carrie Fisher always complained that despite making three Star Wars movies where she played a military leader, she will always be remembered for the scene with the gold bikini – and she’s absolutely right. Nobody remembers the fact that she was a General, in charge of an entire Rebel Army, but everyone remembers the gold bikini, because that was the image that was promoted in the publicity. As many studio executives still maintain, tits and ass sell.

When you also account for the fact that the male lead of Sharknado 5 earned more than Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman, you really have to wonder just what has to be done to make studio executives realise that women are more than just the sparkly costume.

Miss Peregrine Follows a Grand Tradition

I’ve just finished reading Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children. It’s a strangely wonderful book but perhaps a little scary for children. It’s one of those books where “young adult” means “only if you’ve sat your GCSEs and not before” as some of the episodes are (a) quite scary and (b) a bit on the gruesome side. Definitely not something to read over breakfast. And yet I was struck by both the similarities and differences to other books of that ilk.

For example, Harry Potter features a young man who has no idea of his special powers and finds himself in a school with other young people – most of whom are fully aware of their background and capabilities – in which he has to survive. It’s just that Jacob Portman is not a wizard and his peculiarity (as it is termed) is rather specific, unlike Emma, who can produce and control fire, or Millard, who is invisible. The fact that Miss Peregrine can turn into a falcon is only eclipsed by Professor McGonagall turning into a cat on a regular basis.

In that respect, it reminds me a little more of Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted, as the institute where the X-Men are based is known. There, peculiar children who are often in fear of their lives are given a sanctuary where they are fed, housed and protected, much like Miss Peregrine does in the book. And she can control time, as can Professor X (up to a point) and read minds.

And yet, the film that I found myself thinking of most often as I was reading was Paranorman. Jacob, like his grandfather before him, can see hollowgasts, who feed on peculiars, which suggests that they are predominantly invisible to the majority of peculiars. It’s a bit like Norman’s ability to see ghosts – and his calling to protect the community from the vengeful spirits in particular.

It’s not a bad book but I wasn’t especially left wanting more and the jury’s out on whether I’ll read the sequel.

An Interesting Use for Old Photos

One thing I absolutely love about Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children is how the author, Ransom Riggs, has managed to weave some weird and quite wonderful vintage photographs into his story in a way that makes it feel entirely natural – as if the photos were taken to illustrate the book, rather than the book being written to do something with the photos. It does make me wonder what people “back in the day” were thinking when they took photos of the back of someone’s head, or a mocked-up strong man. And as for some of those Christmas Grotto photographs, no wonder the Offspring refused to go in!

I can’t help but think that the late Victorians and early Edwardians were really captivated by what photography could offer and played with a variety of effects, including double exposure and something like an early form of Photoshop. This trend continued as technology improved and colour photography started to gain in popularity. Of course, the modern trend for digital photography does, in a sense, take all the fun out of it – I used to love receiving envelopes from places like Prontaprint and trying to remember what was going on when I took that particular photograph – or even when an envelope came back with someone else’s snaps!

It was worse when the Prontaprint envelopes didn’t come back at all, though. God only knows who’s got the photos from my trip to Malta back in the Nineties.

Yet it never once occurred to me to try and put together a sequence of some of these photographs and try to form a story around them. I might try that one day, when I have time, photographs and half an idea in my head. Riggs has demonstrated that not only is it possible, but you can also create something incredibly creepy indeed.

So Hawkeye’s a girl now? Great!

hawkeye

I am thoroughly enjoying the new Hawkeye comics at the moment. I have written previously about Occupy Avengers, which is thoroughly recommended (one of the best storylines out of Marvel for a LONG time) and I’m loving the new Hawkeye, who has undergone a few changes of late. Without giving away the reasoning behind it, let’s just say that Kate Bishop has now taken over the mantle of Marvel’s Favourite Archer and has got herself a cracking good story to go with it.

One of the things I’ve noticed (and appreciated) about having a female superhero is that it allows comic book writers to address issues that are important to women. Kate is also a private investigator and when a young student instructs her to find out who is stalking her online – and possibly physically – it’s possible to understand just why she is so scared. There are things that women just – get. I can’t explain it better than that, I’m afraid, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

That’s not to say that Kate isn’t great fun, she has some great one-liners and her archery skills – obviously – are worth seeing. I’m just grateful she’s not real, she’d win every competition she entered. It’s well drawn, nicely laid out and, as I say, the story is a really good mix of tension and humour. Issue 2 is out imminently and frankly I can’t wait to get mine – issue 1 ended on a bit of a cliffhanger and I really need to find out what happens next.