Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rocky and Bullwinkle, classic cartoon references War of the Worlds

Rocky and Bullwinkle, the adventures of a Flying Squirrel and his Moose friend is considered a landmark cartoon series that has enthralled generations of children, though it famously slipped in innumerable often obscure cultural references for adults. Indeed the very first episode includes a clever homage to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast with the brief appearance of a character called Dawson Bells. Ring any bells?

As the episode opens, a gathering of prestigious scientists are preparing to observe the moon through a giant telescope, pronouncing with certainty that they expect to find no evidence of life, but the first thing they spy is Rocky and Bullwinkle, waving at them from the surface! The flabbergasted scientists believe Rocky and Bullwinkle to be moon creatures, and when Bullwinkle semaphores their intention to come to Earth, a panic ensues. Dawson Bells (looking and sounding a lot like Orson Welles) broadcasts a message on radio, assuring his listeners that this is definitely no play and that people are welcome to panic.

Arriving on Earth, Rocky and Bullwinkle are met by a delegation, but quickly put their minds to rest, explaining that they are residents of the Earth, and had visited the moon to retrieve a stove, which Bullwinkle's new cake mixture had accidentally blasted there when it exploded. This is of great interest to the assembled dignitaries, for it sounds like Bullwinkle's cake mixture might be a revolutionary new form of Rocket Fuel. Bullwinkle is promptly put to work developing the formula, but evil enemy agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are keen to steal the secret.

There is no further reference to The War of the Worlds or Orson Welles in this episode, the first of 40 short 7 minute serialised instalments generally referred to as the Jet Fuel Formula story arc. Created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, the show is extremely well regarded for the quality of its writing, though the animation is painfully crude by today’s standards. However it does have a certain charm, and the narration by William Conrad (famous for roles such as the detective Cannon) lends a wonderfully incongruous gravitas to the proceedings.

Friday, July 15, 2011

John Carter of Mars Trailer - initial reaction

A John Carter movie has been a long time coming, so for those with a love of the books, there’s an enormous store of expectation and a huge potential for disappointment. Equally, stick too closely to the original and you might make something so esoteric that the general public finds it impossible to connect with. Personally I’d place myself somewhere in the middle of this debate; liking the stories, but not so blinkered that I can’t see the sense of changes to suit cinematic and modern requirements. My problem with the new John Carter trailer is that with my “fan” hat on, I’m not sufficiently convinced this movie is going to do justice to the source material, but equally I fear it might have been sanitised to death for multiplex consumption. In other words, it just doesn’t look very special.

Of course this is 90 seconds or so of brief glimpses and I’m opening myself up to the entirely justifiable charge that I am jumping the gun. As more trailers emerge, we’re likely to see the movie from different perspectives. This is clearly trying hard not to please any one faction at the expense of alienating the larger cinema going public, but a safe and anodyne approach is a risky strategy and this first trailer really typifies this reluctance to be bold by a quite incredible reluctance to tell people a core truth about the story, specifically the elephant in the room, Mars. We’ve already seen a minor storm raging online due to the dropping of Mars from the title, but you might have expected the trailer to at the very least acknowledge the setting, yet it doesn’t, a howling omission made worse by the Utah backdrop which looks like, well… it looks like Utah. Mix in scenes set both on earth and whatever planet it is Carter goes to (because according to this trailer, it’s just standard fantasy planet X), and I think some viewers of this trailer will be hard pressed to figure out what scenes are on Earth, and what on X; ok, the chickens are a bit of a give-away, but you get my point.

The special effects are more than adequate, but there’s a real risk that a property already plundered over the years for ideas is going to look old hat. To that end, I was surprised some reference wasn’t made to the author and the historical significance of the title. Something along the lines of “From the author of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, comes…” would have set the scene nicely. I’ve watched the trailer a dozen times now, and I’m finding more things to like, but a trailer shouldn’t make you work hard to like it, it should grab you by the eyeballs and squeeze from the off – this just doesn’t do that – it’s disjointed and smells of corporate indecision. I just hope that there’s a much better movie buried beneath the trailer.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Heavy Metal Summer 2011 War of the Worlds Special

If you have read my review of the July 2011 issue of Heavy Metal magazine, you’ll know that based on that particular comic book strip, I was developing some pretty serious misgivings about the likely direction of the forthcoming movie it promoted. War of the Worlds Goliath is an ambitious attempt to continue the story begun by H G Wells in a post invasion world awash with reverse engineered Martian technology, and as a major backer of the project Heavy Metal are using their flagship magazine to promote the film. Fair enough, but the previous story seemed heavily burdened with a need to pander to what I surmise are two of the magazine’s core principles: violence and profanity, and at first glance, the cover of the Summer Special looks to have the third covered pretty well; plenty of improbable cleavage. But, get past the pneumatic cover and you find it’s actually completely unrepresentative of the contents. It’s not perfect by any means, but this is a much more sophisticated read than I expected. Shows you should never trust a book by its cover, no matter how buxom.

Things get off to a very promising start with the opening story, St Petersburg. This is a simply beautiful looking piece of work by the enigmatically named Puppeteer Lee, who has crafted a chilling (in more ways than one) vision of an icy hell. Russian forces prepare to repel Martian Tripods, but thought they are outgunned and surely doomed, they ride into battle undaunted and determined to expel the invaders from their winter shrouded motherland. Each panel of this strip is a work of art in its own right and as such it is difficult to pick out a particular favourite, however one two page spread of Russian soldiers riding toward a phalanx of Martian Tripods is particularly fine. All the artists in this issue stick to the same basic design for the Tripods, but in the hands of Lee, they seem particularly organic and demonic. I was also particularly heartened to note that St Petersburg is written by David Abramowitz, who is also writing the movie. If this issue achieves nothing else, it at least suggests that the movie is in the hands of someone with a true feel for the material.

Legacy is a completely different work, both in terms of script and especially art, which in the hands of Wankok Leong, opts for a bold cartoony approach. It’s not at all ineffective, and focusing more on the visceral Martians themselves, lends itself well to the material. The narration of the story takes an interesting approach, and can at times be read as if spoken by a human or a Martian, with an intriguing interchangeable viewpoint. It’s good, but inconsistent. As the story opens I was pretty certain I was watching preparations for the invasion by the Martians while reading the words of a British soldier, perhaps implying a kindred spirit of sorts, but that fascinating idea doesn’t seem to take root, and writer Chi-Ren Choong can’t quite hold it together strongly enough to bring the story to a fully satisfying conclusion.

Devine Wind by Leon Tab with art by a certain Kromosomlab (yes, one word) is another striking shift of style and alongside St Petersburg, boasts the strongest art in the issue. The opening page is incredibly powerful and one I have returned to again and again. This I’d like to own the original of, it’s that arresting, as a grim faced freefalling Japanese suicide pilot plummets from the sky straight toward the reader. This is where I love the whole concept of a wider War of the Worlds. The idea of Japanese suicide parachutists landing on the backs of Martian Tripods is giddily insane, and carried off here with considerable skill and pathos.

Back to a more cartoon style for the next tale, though it’s very different to Legacy, not only in terms of art, which has a smart Manga look, but story too, for The Oath is a love story first and foremost, and not a bad one. It’s the longest strip in the issue and as such has time to develop the characters very satisfactorily. Joe Pearson crafts an interesting tale of a young man orphaned in the first Martian Invasion, who grows up to join the forces readying to combat an expected 2nd attack. I liked this story a lot, and it’s certainly the one tale in the strip that has the legs to carry on, and in fact I wonder if we might see the lead character in the movie.

The penultimate strip is The Patient, a dark piece of fiction from Gavin Yap and artist Remy “Eisu” Mokhtar. The art again has a Manga sensibility which suits this unpleasant (in a good way) tale of a mental hospital patient released in the confusion of a Martian attack. Wandering the war ravaged streets, he comes to look upon the Martians as Gods, and goes out of his way to aid them in attacking the defending forces. The art for the final story in this issue by Slaium reminded me a lot of the work of Bryan Talbot, who I have always admired. It’s a nice enough little homage to The Thunder Child from Wells’ original novel, though it’s all a little obvious where it’s all going.

So not a bad issue all told, with some outstanding art and interesting writing, though I did find a certain repetitive sameness about the stories. With the exception of The Oath, none of the stories really go anywhere. It’s almost as if the writers were all given the same brief and mostly stuck to it, hence the template seems to be: Martians attack, protagonist provides gloomy introspective narration, everyone dies. The story in the July issue had the same problem. If we’re going to see more of these comic strips in Heavy Metal, we could do with some stories that have better defined characters and plots with a proper beginning, middle and end. The Oath almost does it, so come on Heavy Metal, I can only give you silver for this, let’s see you aim for gold next time.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Review of War of the Worlds Goliath: Outpost, in Heavy Metal Magazine

For those not in the know, (and it’s an easy mistake to make) Heavy Metal magazine is a monthly publication featuring comic strips for a mature audience, and not a certain brand of music. If I had said adult audience, you’d almost certainly have made another assumption, though if truth be told, there is a high proportion of female flesh on show, nothing particularly offensive it must be said, but I feel it fair to give the warning should anyone feel inspired by this review to go out and buy it. I’ve not actually bought a copy before though I am aware of the French magazine that inspired this American version and own several anthologies of material published there. I have to say, that on that admittedly incomplete comparison I was less impressed by the American publication as a whole. The French edition (based it must be said again on the anthologies I own) certainly did not shy away from “mature” content, but it seems far more sophisticated in nature. Heavy Metal USA seems to be pandering very determinably to a very specific demographic.

But presumably that’s not why you are reading this review. You want to know about the War of the Worlds comic strip contained within, called War of the Worlds Goliath: Outpost. The story is set in a post Martian invasion world, where abandoned Martian tech has been reverse engineered by the human race. You should also know (if you didn’t already) that the story is a preamble to a forthcoming animated War of the Worlds movie that Heavy Metal is helping to finance. On that basis I worry considerably for the movie, because this is a not terribly successful introduction.

Make no mistake; there are things to like here. The art by Popia is pleasing to the eye and the gory fight scenes certainly have a raw visceral power. If I were to make a comparison, if the original War of the Worlds was the film Alien, this would be its sequel Aliens.  It’s basically a massive gung ho battle, with a group of rag tag marines trapped in an Antarctic base (there’s a bit of The Thing mixed in here) going toe to toe with the Martians. Judged entirely as an “action movie” type story it ticks all the required (what few there are) boxes of the genre. There’s surely potential to be had from the idea of bigging up The War of the Worlds in this manner, but rather than bringing two different genres together in a careful melding of ideas into something new and exciting, this feels like they were raced toward each other at break neck speed and rammed together. In other words, it’s a bit of a wreck.

Now, if you’ve looked at what I write, you’ll know that I’m pretty keen on the idea of stretching the original novel in new directions. It’s a story ripe for re-imagination and collecting and cataloguing anything related to The War of the Worlds is a passion of mine. But there are certain things I would prefer were left well alone. Hence I’m really not happy for writer Chi-Ren Choong to have transformed the aloof and enigmatic Martians into wise cracking smart arses. I literally cringed to read dialogue like, “You know how it is with eating humans. Half an hour later you’re hungry again.” What! The other big problem is that nothing really significant happens in the story. For sure there’s some attempt to inject token characterisation into the marines, so all have their little back story/sob story that got them dumped in the snowy wastes, but we’ve seen this sort of thing so many times now that the novelty has worn off and little in the way of sympathy is generated.

So as the Martians penetrate the base in exoskeleton tripod devices (nice designs but haven’t we seen that in Independence Day?) we’re treated to various gory decapitations and dismemberments. As mentioned previously, Popia turns in some stylishly grisly scenes and certainly seems to know his anatomy, but it’s a by the numbers story of attrition. The problem is, as the marines are bumped off one by one, I just couldn’t bring myself to care, there’s just not enough time in the short story to develop feelings for these characters. Perhaps 16 year olds will find all the gore and profanity amusing, but nothing about this story felt compelling or deep enough to draw me in. In fact the language (and not just the incredible level of crass profanity) seemed horribly out of place. I’m sure that behind closed doors your average Victorian could and did swear like a trooper, but the dialogue here feels far too modern for the 1914 setting. There is of course a propensity at the moment for making period pieces with modern slang and cadence, but it’s getting old, and my fear is that this is the approach taken by the movie. There’s a Heavy Metal summer special due out any day now that will contain a number of other War of the Worlds strips, so I’ll reserve judgement for now, but sorry to say this is not an auspicious start.