Kid On I’m Only From Largs

It’s St. Andrew’s Day tomorrow. The National, the slender newspaper that supports independence from the UK, has won a second week of publication, although I couldn’t actually buy it the other day since it had no price code in Tesco. The warplanes have boomed over Moray for three days straight as the rest of the press warns us of the terrorist attacks that have been foiled lately.

And Dundee publishers Diamondsteel Comics’  “Saltire”, released last year, proclaims itself Scotland’s first superhero.

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Well, obviously that accolade could go to Marvel’s  Wolfsbane, the naive young lycanthrope created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod in 1983’s New Mutants graphic novel. I used to think her vernacular was inauthentic and an American approximation until I came up here. 

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Further back, in a 1977  Invaders two-parter, Thomas and Robbins delivered a pastiche of Phantom Lady: Ghost Girl had a distinctly Caledonian burr. Not to mention a presentiment about the metric system.

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As far as DC is concerned, the only notable Scot in its colossal ranks is Grant Morrison’s version of the Mirror Master. A scabrously verbally abusive Glaswegian, this super villain once actually took a bribe from Bruce Wayne in return for betraying Lex Luthor. If I recall correctly, MM donated the cash to his former orphanage children’s home,  proving himself to be both mercenary and sentimental. No sterotyping there.

Living amid the Picts and in the feverish weeks before the referendum, I was all for a genuine attempt to craft a Scottish equivalent to Cap or Iron Man- a Holyrood blockbuster as it were. Not some wise guy mockery or parody a la Glasgow’s Electric Soup or the satire of 2000 AD. Unfortunately, like the vote itself, this comic just trod a well-worn path of Ginger Cringe.

While it’s a handsome enough package, I found Saltire a barely readable mash-up of Asterix and Highlander with a ho-hum fantasy backdrop that was redolent of Pomp Rock and early-80s role playing games.

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Pages of  pompous Tolkienesque myth-making clashed with bathetic humour as the blue-hued giant bellowed ” I’m gonnae have you!” at Roman legionaries, not unlike a Tartan Army dad on a Superlager rampage among Lazio fans.

Saltire has been printed in Scots and in Gaelic – as ever feeding the fantasy that it’s the ancestral tongue of the nation- so there’s something laudable about that. But the jarring, unfunny blend of urban dialect and Hobbit-y hokum, the one-dimensional characterisation  and the colouring book artwork only make me sigh: “Gonnae no dae that?”

Coming soon: Big Finish Box Sets

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A Strangely Compelling Masculine Figure

It’s nearly Dr. Who’s fifty-first birthday. Twelve months on from the celebration that encompassed The Day of the Doctor, Light at the End and Destiny of the Doctor ( plus a line of reprinted novels), how is the series faring?

The Drama Channel is very late to the party with a series of sequential  repeats that began with The Aztecs and tomorrow revisits the Pyramids of Mars. While it’s a welcome move to show classic Who on tv, what about the real BBC deal?

The final quartet of episodes have strayed far from the 60s mission to educate as well as entertain. The Tardis has left the mathematics and computer science of the 80s far, far behind as it whirls into Harry Potter territory. Is the magical thinking and Blakeian allusion another manifestation of Cycle 24, like the mind-expanding imagery of Capaldi’s early episodes?

Flatline, like Mummy on the Orient Express was a popular episode by writer Jamie Mathieson. Part urban horror and part tribute to Banksy, it focused on Clara’s gradual transformation into a Doctor-figure. Frank Cotrell Boyce’s urban fantasy In the Forests of the Night was a whimsical fable, with more poetry than logic and less well-received, although I thought the writing was better.

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Moffat’s traditional season finale (Dark Water/Death in Heaven) reminded me of the DWM strip The Flood as Cybermen harvested the dead in an elaborate revenge scheme fostered by Missy, the “gatekeeper of the Nethersphere”. The new female incarnation of the Master was typically “bananas” – an evil Mary Poppins. But I found the episodes quite dissatisfying. The first part was  macabre but in poor taste with the cremation terrors of the newly deceased and the second resounded with the jingoistic militarism that post -Referendum Britain revels in.  Twelve’s antipathy towards the armed forces seemed to be resolved in a glutinous tribute , awkwardly poised before Remembrance Sunday.

I haven’t warmed to this  reactionary Doctor, crabby and choleric. Smith’s second season was about River Song and her timeline. The third was about Clara and her timeline. Capaldi’s first season has felt like  an extended epilogue to the Eleventh Doctor, wasting time on the “Am I a Good Man?” question which can’t really go anywhere- and didn’t.

I have no issues with the actor’s suitability for the role: his grouchy delivery makes me laugh and I find his Cushing-like scuttling particularly amusing. But the Rude Magician’s next outing already looks like a pastiche of 1965’s TV Comic adventure with Father Christmas.  Sentiment and whimsy seem tonally jarring after the grisly boneyard horror of the preceding story. I don’t want to descend into a cliche “Moffat Must Go” routine but in modern ministerial style, one might hope lessons had been learned. A fun-free Doctor in “just -pre-watershed” adventures isn’t a brilliant idea.

The three novels featuring the Twelfth Doctor are for the most part undemanding Young Adult fare.  The prolific Justin Richards writes prose that’s often flat and tedious: Silhouette, a Paternoster Gang Penny dreadful where aliens weaponise circus performers, plods through Victorian tropes. Another BBC stalwart, Mike Tucker evokes the Pertwee era- as suggested by Capaldi’s costume- in The Crawling Terror. This undemanding  invasion- by -giant- insects is very Terrance Dicks although the sprightly Home Guard veteran in action in 2014  stretched my credulity somewhat.

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The most successful of the three is The Blood Cell. Although I can think of three other  Doctor- Captive- in- Inescapable -Prison stories, James Goss’ novel is very well-written, blending dark humour and horror in a way that Moffat can’t quite get right.

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of audio Who,  Peter Purves plays Steven Taylor as King Lear in The War to End All Wars. Purves’ energy lifts a very humdrum story of a phoney war inspired by the writing of Alex Comfort.

Philip Olivier makes his final exit(?) as Hector/Hex in two tales: The Mask Of Tragedy, again by James Goss, is a comic sci-fi romp in ancient Athens which takes a very dark turn. A gossipy alien insect healer and a living god with mind-control powers clash in a very theatrical adventure.

Matt Fitton’s Signs and Wonders is quite reminiscent of the Virgin New Adventures as a Northern Revelationist (played by Warren Brown) summons aliens in a near-future Liverpool. A truce is eventually called between Doctor Seven and the Elder Gods- thankfully, since these stories are too apocalyptic to wear every day. Even better, Hex gets a happy ending after all his trials. I never felt Phil got to play Hector very differently from Hex, despite being possesed repeatedly and while I’ll miss his boyish energy, the character’s resurrection was squandered.

Coming soon: Titan’s Doctor Who and Iterations of I

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Generation of Loneliness

I am waiting for tonight’s Dr. Who finale to pronounce my judgement on the Twelfth Doctor and its flavour of  Cycle 24 New Psychedelia . (Read up on the Sekhment Hypothesis and the hippie maxima being in ascendant). I had wanted to revisit the Claremont/McLeod New Mutants this month after 30 years but the TPBs are dreadfully expensive.

Then last week’s “Goth at the BBC” compilation regaled us with the spectacle of  Speciemen’s hilarious Rocky Horror pronouncement : “Peasants gather round oh beautiful mutants”.

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This doggerel reminded me it was the twentieth anniversary of Generation X, the Nineties generation of Marvel’s mutants. Synchronicity indeed!

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This moody, monstrous class of mutant teens made their debut in The Phalanx Covenant.  A small scale crossover  event by comparison to the modern era, it involved an attack on some new mutants by a group of human supremacists infected by Warlock’s  Transmode virus. The story ends with the sacrifice of Blink ( who’d go on  to appear in this year’s’ X-Men: Days of Future Past.)

The creators were Scott Lobdell ,Joe Madueira, Fabian Nicieza and Andy Kubert. It feels quite contemporary, probably because the art styles are so influenced by early 90s Image Comics… as are modern DC books.

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When GNX were launched in their own comic, the art was by Chris Bachalo. Stylised and moody but with a quirkiness that replaced the Neal Adams-ish photo realistic elements of  Bill (New Mutants) Sienkiewicz.  Ugliness and cartoon elements abound in GNX making the kids feel less wholesome and more, well, Goth.

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Where the New Mutants of the previous decade were often rather child-like and twee ( even Sam, who was shaving), GNX looked more dangerously glamorous and adult. They were loners with literally spikey peronalities  and Angelo even smoked. Don’t call them X-Babies!

Actually, don’t call them at all. Very few are around in any form today. Mondo, the short-lived Samoan member and the mute Penance were essentially red herrings. Skin and Synch were killed off. Husk and M were hived off into other X-Books as was Chamber. The disfigured poster boy of the group, an analogue of  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman- or even of Gaiman himself -was a  passive-aggressive character, given to glaring in the rain, whilst delivering his monologues in telepathic thought balloons. The Ultimate Goth hero is now reduced to cameos.

Even the Identification Figure -the Cyndi Lauper-ish Jubilee – lost her sass and sparkle,vampirised years ago but too late for GNX.  Happily though, the  MC2 version of Jubes grows up to serve as leader of the X-Men, sorry, X-People.

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On the other hand, the series effectively created or reinforced the star-status of the adult leads: all former X-foes.  Banshee was clearly rejuvenated and became a buff, bearded Irish hunk from the cover of a romance novel.  A far cry, sadly, from the  spectral, androgynous figure designed in the 60s by Werner Roth. The ultraviolent Sabretooth was in the midst of his bizarre transition from serial killer to antihero while the conflicted super- bitch Emma Frost provided sexual chemistry with Banshee that would ultimately lead to her starring role in Morrison and Whedon’s iterations of the X-Men.

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Curiously, GNX was awarded its own TV movie , predating the Jackman-Stewart-McKellen cinema cycle. I haven’t seen it for years but US sensation Max Headroom is the villain. Sort of. Bwah-ha-ha.

What GNX proves, ultimately, is the strength of the X-Men’s core concept. They are not, despite the potency of the Claremont-Cockrum-Byrne 70s era, a super- powered strike force but a school. And as I now know, all students have to leave eventually but the classes are refreshed with new intakes. The experience is similar but always individual.

Many of these Marvel students are now long gone but the legacy of Young X-Men, New Mutants Vol. 2 , Genext and Wolverine and the X-Men proves that mutant school days are the best of their lives.

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To conclude: another shape-shifting character, blending tragedy and comedy,  is fifty this month. Metamorpho, the Fabulous Freak created by Ramona Fradon and Zany Bob Haney, is one of my earliest Batman memories. He was a strangely comfortable fit in the campy (Batman and) the Outsiders of the 80s. But the chemical hep-cat has resisted attempts to turn him into a moody, Goth outcast. Happy 50th, Rexy-Boy.

Coming soon: Signs, wonders and death in Heaven.

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File It Under Fear

Before I write about this unseasonably warm Hallowe’en, I just want to announce how fascinating I’ve found the BBC Genome Project, which archives issues of the Radio Times.  I found out the very night my dad sent me to bed in 1973 when I wanted to see Barbarella. (Monday November 26th!) It is an amazing tool to reacquaint you with your childhood and adolescence through  BBC TV.

It also lends weight to my recent theory that, as a very small boy, I only began to watch Patrick Troughton in Dr. Who because Batman had ended on STV in the spring of 1967.  I hope Scottish nostalgists might supply transmission dates for Batman in the Clyde Valley area.

It’s curious that the notion of Hallowe’en as a month-long festival and something of a holiday has seemed to have filtered into our culture in the last couple of decades- probably through the service industry and US corporations like Wal-Mart. Trick or Treat was an exclusively Yank custom in my childhood; we called it “guising” and it was a time for monkey nuts, not Haribo. 

However, I don’t need much encouragement to watch old Universal or Hammer movies at the weekend. This year, it was Sixties Brit monster movie, Island of Terror and Thirties Art Deco-Satanist shocker, The Black Cat.

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The former is like a Pertwee Who projected backwards a few years in time. It features Peter Cushing and the bluff Edward Judd fighting bone -eating  monsters on a (not very) Irish island. I think I first saw it in the 80s on C4 and it’s quite slow. The “look” reminds me very much of Daleks -Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

I first saw The Black Cat, I think, the weekend before our holiday in the Rhins in 1977: the weekend before Elvis died. It is an astonishing -and very short- story of necrophilia, torture and revenge. Karloff and Lugosi play old enemies who engage in a battle of wills in a fantastic Bauhaus fortress. It must have been very shocking to its audience and it’s still powerful (if a little mannered to our tastes). Interestingly, the soundtrack was reused for the Flash Gordon serials – and his Trip to Mars was on the very same Saturday in ’77.

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My Halloween reading matter included DC’s  Showcase Presents Ghosts. I’ve read a couple of volumes of the Joe Orlando stable of titles from the late Sixties and early 70s. Ghosts was editor Murray Boltinoff’s contribution: Levitz says it was a “disproportionately good seller”.

It purports to present “true tales of the weird and supernatural” but the very first story borrows heavily from that of Miss Havisham in Great expectations so I hae ma doots on that score.

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Many of the stories  were written by Leo Dorfman, who created Pete Ross, Superboy’s pal. I didn’t find Ghosts anywhere as enjoyable as The Witching Hour, for example but I like Cardy’s stylish scroll design for the covers. I also came to enjoy the exuberance and surrealism of Jerry Grandinetti.

Last night I read the sole two issues of Marvel’s 1975 Masters  of Terror anthology. This was quite a late entry in their horror line of b/w magazines: Dracula Lives and Vampire Tales were finally staked at this year. 

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The selling point of this mag was its literary value: these were all shockers by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard etc. They had all appeared in colour two or three years earlier too, so it was a reprint collection, tapping the vein, as it were, of Chamber of Darkness, Journey Into Mystery, Supernatural Thrillers and others. I never read many of those titles at the time- I preferred the superheroes and I often found DC’s “mystery” books like House of ,eh, Mystery quite scary!

Here’s a run down of the contents of issues 1 & 2:

It: first published in Supernatural Thrillers and  the originator of swamp monsters  including Solomon Grundy, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing. Really well-written. Adapted by Roy Thomas and Marie Severin.

The Horror from the Mound: dull Mexican vampire tale by REH. Adapted by Gardner Fox and Frank Brunner for Chamber of Chills.

The Terrible Old Man: primitive work by Barry Smith on a Lovecraft story in Tower of Shadows (and from the first issue I ever glimpsed). Disappointing on all levels, although I like the Kirby-isms a little.

The Drifting Snow: eerie, gorgeous vampire tale from, uh, Vampire Tales #4. Adapted by Tony Isabella and Esteban (Satana) Maroto.

The Shambler from the Stars: Robert Bloch does Lovecraft adapted by Ron Goulart and Jim Starlin. Very early Starlin is not great. This story and the next are both from Journey into Mystery

Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper: dynamic Bloch adaptation by Goulart, Thomas and Gil Kane. A very well-known story- one of my S4 pupils wrote about it in her Added Value Unit. Second-best thing in this issue.

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The second edition opens with The Invisible Man by Goulart and Val Mayerik who always seemed like a poor man’s Berni Wrightson. I think I first saw this “Supernatural Thriller”  in POTA weekly and maybe again in Dr. Who Weekly. it’s competent but a bit boring.

The Man Who Cried Werewolf: weak Bloch adaptation by Gerry Conway and Pablo Marcos. You can see Steranko influences. This was the headliner in Monsters Unleashed #1.

Dig Me No Grave: my favourite in this issue. a Faustian tale by REH, adapted by Thomas and Kane. Again, from the revived Journey Into Mystery and an early POTA reprint too.

The Music of Erich Zann: Thomas and Johnny Craig provide the first of two Lovecraft adaptations from Chamber of Darkness. This cosmic tale is competent but not brilliant.

Pickman’s Model: The other Lovecraft shockeroonie is by Thomas and Tom Palmer. it’s very naturalistic but also predictable.

The Roaches: this is quite unsettling. Gerry Conway and Ralph Reese bring an Underground Comix flavour to a queasy revenge story by Thomas Disch, who novelised The Prisoner. The Roaches ( from Monsters Unleashed features a rather racist and sexually repressed woman with an obsession for cleanliness.

There were no further issues of Masters of Terror ( although the branding was re-used in 1978 in an issue of Marvel Preview). This is a pity because I would be interested in more reprints from Tower of Shadows . Ron Goulart was a name I associated with the one-and only issue of Power of Warlock I got at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station in the early 70s. Turns out not only did he ghost-write Shatner’s Tekwars, he also wrote this Flash Gordon book I got later in the decade.

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And neatly we return to the Seventies- tonight I have House of Dark Shadows to catch up with and the beginning of the Twelfth Doctor’s series finale. More on this to come…

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