Sunday, October 30, 2011

When is a Panic not a Panic? The War of the Worlds under attack.

There’s an interesting debate going on this morning about the War of the Worlds radio “Panic” of 1938 and the question of what was really going on that night. The crux of the argument hinges on the question, was it in fact a “Panic”? Professor W Joseph Campbell of the American University, Washington DC thinks not, and has expounded on his theory in an article on the BBC website. It’s a good question, but while I heartily welcome his contribution to the debate, I think the professor may be letting his desire to see the word “panic” expunged from the account cloud his judgement a bit, and as a result imply wrongly that something extraordinary was not happening that night. It’s frankly a bit of a downer. I know in my heart that the people of Grover’s Mill were not out shooting up the water towers in the mistaken belief they were Martian Tripods, but I’m not going to go out of my way to spoil peoples fun.

But back to the case in point. Panic is a strong word. It implies all sorts of things. People rushing around blindly, a complete lack of accountability for ones actions, an inability to see things rationally and act accordingly. In broad dictionary definition terms, that was not happening on the night of the Orson Welles broadcast. But something equally amazing was.

The events of that night have been particularly well reported and recorded. The newspapers the following morning were full of accounts of crazy behaviour, some of which it must be said could have been exaggerated or even made up by journalists of the time. There was undoubtedly a residue of anger between newspapers and radio over a long gestating battle for the hearts and minds of the public and it would be wrong not to take this into account when trying to judge the extent of the reaction, but over the years, numerous other accounts have emerged that are not nearly so subject to the passion of the moment. These tell a much more sober and very convincing tale of events that night, proving to my mind that a great many people were seriously alarmed. Many people did believe Martians were attacking, some packed bags, still others gathered loved ones or went to church. A good proportion thought the radio had got it wrong, and it was really a surprise German attack.

I am therefore convinced that Welles deserves to be called the master of Halloween trick or treat, and then there is so much more to the tale. What for instance was Welles really up to? Did he actually plan to scare the nation? He certainly claimed so in later years, and that is a tale in itself.

Then we should not forget the other War of the Worlds radio broadcasts that followed, including the horrific account of the 1949 broadcast in Quito, Ecuador. If anything that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that something much more akin to a panic (a riot really) could arise because of a War of the Worlds broadcast. There may not have been a “panic” in the true sense of the word in 1938, but I think it fair to say that America dodged the bullet by a hair's breadth.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of War of the Worlds Goliath: Cargo

Completely out of sequence, I have just gotten my hands on the January 2011 issue of Heavy Metal containing the War of the Worlds Goliath story, Cargo. This was actually the first of a number of War of the Worlds related stories published in the pages of Heavy Metal in support of the forthcoming animated movie, War of the Worlds Goliath. Unfortunately I missed this inaugural story when it first came out, so please excuse this tardy review.

As the story opens, it is 4 days since the Martian’s return to earth and things are not going well. Through a flaming English countryside laid waste by the Martians, an armoured train speeds toward its destination, a lone passenger surveying the devastation. What is the purpose of the train, who is the passenger, and what is the “delicious irony” of the situation he finds himself in? In answer we step back 7 months to an England that seems, thanks to Martian technology, well on the ascendance again, but as this story is to reveal, sometimes progress comes at a heavy price.

As with all the Goliath stories published by Heavy Metal this year, it’s hard to find fault with the art, which for this story is typically bold and atmospheric. It should be noted that each story so far has had a different artist at the helm, and this eclectic approach has been a definite highlight of the series. In this case the artist Nanzo, ably assisted by colourist Zedd, has produced a particularly dark and brooding piece of work from the pen of Joe Pearson. It’s also interesting to note that all the artists hail from Malaysia. I don’t know if they’ve had any significant exposure before to western audiences, but if not, I would watch this space, as they are clearly a very talented bunch.

If I have to voice a criticism, it will be a familiar one to those who have read my previous reviews. It’s another story where the lead character dies; a veritable suicide express in this case. It’s all been just a bit too repetitive for me but I’m hopeful that given more room to breathe, the movie will have much more to say. I do definitely see scope to bring the comic book stories together in a single volume, perhaps with a couple of new bonus stories added and some behind the scenes material on the forthcoming film. With such a beautiful range of art, it would make for a handsome volume, especially if the additional stories could be commissioned in such a way as to add some balance, by providing a few happy (well, happier perhaps) endings. I’m also told that the stories have not been presented in the original order intended, so there’s clearly room to fix some of the problems. There are also two more stories still to come and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for them. Even if everyone still dies at the end, it’s great to see the classic story so passionately reenergised.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review of John Carter: A Princess of Mars, issue 2.

I was very much impressed with the way Roger Langridge and Filipe Andrade set the scene in their inaugural issue of John Carter: A Princess of Mars, so when the 2nd issue popped up to buy on my Marvel Android app, I didn’t hesitate to make Disney & Google a little richer by adding it to my collection. But damn, it’s just too easy to click a few buttons and a few dollars at a time seems so insubstantial, but this could turn into a costly habit, especially as Langridge and Andrade show no sign of dropping the ball. My only irritation is that the John Carter comics are not available to view on a desktop login, which is plain perverse and hard on the eyes to boot as for now I’m limited to viewing the comics on my phone. How hard can it be to make the same digital files cross platform compatible? Fix this please Marvel.

Ok, so when we last we saw him, John Carter was confronting the double whammy that he was not the only human-like person on Mars, and even more jaw dropping, his first contact is with a definite hottie. It’s a case of love at first sight; that’s love I must emphasise, not lust, because John Carter is first and foremost a Southern gentleman and is keen to pledge his loyalty to the beautiful princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. Only first he has to convince the sceptical princess that he’s not an ignorant off-world rube and actually knows what he’s doing, not easy when he’s still trying to come to terms with his inexplicable transference to Mars and is surrounded by the fearsome Thark hoards.

Once again we are treated to a superb Skottie Young cover, this time of a shackled but defiant Dejah Thoris, before we launch into a quick recap of the situation, but it’s not long before Carter is in the thick of the action again, leaping to the defence of Dejah Thoris in another brilliant signature splash page from the assured pen of Filipe Andrade. But good as Andrade is, I think it’s fair to say that equal credit again needs to go to Sunny Gho. His colours are a match made in heaven with the art of Andrade. Words like opulent and sumptuous spring to mind to describe the amazing primary colours of Mars, and when combined with the dynamic pencils of Andrade you are in for a treat. The standout page for me this issue is when Carter wakes to discover the Thark hoards assembling their caravan train beneath a Martian dawn. Simply breathtaking, and you can’t help but share the sense of wonder with Carter.

If I had a gripe, it’s that Carter’s dialogue strays too far into modern vernacular in this issue. I’m getting a little tired of the need to update dialogue because it’s hip to make ancient dudes sound like they’ve wandered off the set of Beverly Hills 90210 – what started this? Xena Warrior Princess, was it you? It’s really getting a bit tired and I think John Carter would have worked better as a character if this was dialled down a bit. It’s a minor complaint though. I’m not going to let it bother me too much and if it makes John Carter more accessible to a younger generation, then that can’t be such a bad thing. Roll on issue 3.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Burkiss Way spoofs The War of the Worlds.

I dimly recall encountering the BBC radio show the Burkiss Way while dial surfing years ago, but I think I was too young then to get to grips with its surreal brand of humour. So it was with some surprise and delight that I recently rediscovered the show and the unexpected fact that it had spoofed the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast, in an edition first broadcast on April 23rd 1979.

The titular character of this weekly comedy show (first broadcast in 1976) was intended to be a professor, who each week would offer a “Burkiss Way” to such dilemmas as how to peel a Banana or how to solve a murder. By the time of the 1979 edition this format had all but been dropped and the show had evolved into a strange mix of loosely connected sketches. I won’t go into a detailed history or analysis of the show here (there’s several very good specialist sites that cover this way better than I can) but the best comparison I can make is to Monty Python, though really the Burkiss Way exists in a strange universe all of its own. Listening to it now, there’s much that would bypass the average person without some knowledge of everyday British life in the late 70s and early 80s, but certainly the episode spoofing the War of the Worlds has broader appeal, and while it will sound odd and even quaint to some, it is well worth tracking down. Unfortunately this episode has not been released commercially, but does feature fairly regularly on various BBC radio channels (broadcast online as well), and thus can be heard if you care to keep a diligent eye on the schedules.

The episode that concerns us here was called Is Britain Going The Burkiss Way (part 2). I should add that there’s zero requirement for you to also seek out part 1, as there is no connection at all. Part 2 starts exactly as part 1 ended, but that’s the totality of the connection, as it then goes off on a completely different and rather wonderful tangent.

Some 4 minutes into a typically meandering interview with a Mr Croydon, the programme is interrupted by an announcement, “which is not to be believed.” The Ministry of Defence is reporting that very large spherical shaped objects have been sighted over several major European cities including Paris, Brussells and Moscow. Radar indicates the objects have come from the direction of Mars and more are likely on the way. The reporter goes on to pronounce, “In accordance with instructions received within the last 5 minutes from Her Majesty’s Government, the domestic radio and television networks, together with the commercial broadcasting stations, are to close down their transmitters in order to block all outgoing radio signals. Listeners are therefore urgently requested to switch off their radio sets please, NOW!”

While it would be funny to imagine that some credulous listener actually obeyed this official sounding proclamation (delivered in very precise BBC tones), had they but endured the several seconds of silence that followed (taking a leaf here out of the Orson Welles broadcast), they would have quickly had their fears allayed by the next brilliantly farcical pronouncement. “Right, if you’ve done that, please listen carefully.” The announcer goes on to calmly inform listeners that they can all expect to be massacred by the invading Martians, though there is no need to panic. The show then rambles off into a strange discussion on the merits of 19th century classical poetry, before introducing a wonderfully throaty impersonation of Orson Welles, who proclaims, “Good evening. The story I have to relate tonight is one of unmitigated horror, nameless dread and ineffective throat pastels.”

As the music of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds swells dramatically, the show parodies the opening paragraphs of the original novel and then after a further series of random diversions the listener is transported to Hampstead Heath, where a Martian spacecraft wipes out the gathered onlookers. This is the cue for one of several irreverent nods to the reaction caused by the Orson Welles broadcast, as the announcer gravely informs the listeners that they are listening to a fictional Martian invasion. The gentle mocking of the panic caused by Welles continues with a sketch set in a Government panic station, which definitely reminds me of the Ministry of Funny Walks from Monty Python, as a tremulous member of the public attempts to convince an official that he should be given a job as a government panicker.

Undoubtedly the funniest moment other than the gravel voiced Welles impersonation is the scene set in a Martian pub, where the regulars pour humiliation on one of their compatriots by asking him to order an ever more embarrassing series of effeminate drinks, including a sissy special lemonade and my personal favourite (delivered in a distorted faux alien vocoder voice), a small sweet Nancy’s Ruin.

Brilliant stuff, but did anyone actually get suckered in as in 1938? Well, implausible though it might seem, it has been reported that there were complaints and it seems that one of the announcements in the show warning that it was a fake was added in latter for repeats. I must admit, the moment when the reporter orders listeners to switch off their radios could have done the trick, if and only if, someone had tuned in at that precise moment and was oblivious to the true nature of the Burkiss Way. Other than that, this episode of the Burkiss Way is exactly as it sounds, a very funny and affectionate send up of the Orson Welles broadcast. I wonder if Welles ever heard it, I think he would have enjoyed it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review of Marvel John Carter comic books

The publicity machine for the forthcoming John Carter movie is rumbling into life now, and up at the forefront are Marvel Comics, with two very different takes on the property.

First up is John Carter: A Princess of Mars, and this really is something special. Beneath a striking cover by Skottie Young we are plunged without preamble straight into the world of Barsoom, where a captive John Carter is facing a brutal interrogation by the imposing Green Martian warriors, the Tharks. Able to understand everything he hears, but strangely unable to make the Tharks understand him, Carter is bloodied, disorientated and a veritable fish out of water, but with an undeniable inner strength that sustains him bravely in the face of such adversity. Writer Roger Langridge really gets Carter, and while he plays fast and loose with the dialogue, he does the material no disservice, offering up a remarkably assured first issue that is just the right blend of reverential and irreverent. “Get your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty lizards!” proclaims Carter, channelling Charlton Heston for all he is worth in loin cloth and rippling biceps. (Wow, how cool would a John Carter movie starring Charlton Heston have been?)

It would have been interesting to see what Skottie Young would have made of the story had he been offered the interior pages as well, but then we’d have been denied the stunning interior art by Filipe Andrade. Andrade fills his pages with panel after panel of breathtaking dynamic action, and with vibrant colours by Sunny Gho, this is a Mars that looks and feels the part, all burnt orange skies, parched dusty deserts and sun baked citadels. The plot moves briskly, with the necessary exposition skilfully woven in and some marvellous set pieces, not least Carter’s run in with the White Apes of Mars and his first glimpse of Dejah Thoris which crowns the issue; somewhat more clothed than you might expect given the source material (hey, it is a Disney film) but every bit the haughty (if not quite so naughty) Martian Princess.

Adapting a well known property always runs the risk of telling the obvious in slavishly boring fashion, or so losing sight of the heart and soul of the story that you may as well call it something else, but this comic crosses that tightrope while juggling balls and riding a unicycle, it’s that assured and cocksure of itself.

I’m not really clear if Princess of Mars is intended as an actual adaptation of the movie in any sense (it certainly doesn’t fit with the movie trailer so I’m thinking not) but John Carter: World of Mars is clearly labelled as an official prequel to the movie, so no room for doubt there. This is a very different beast to Princess of Mars, with art that is much more realistic in tone and with characters recognisably based on their movie personas. We begin straight away on Mars, where we find John Carter and Dejah Thoris deep in conversation. Dejah believes John still has much to learn about the past of Mars and offers to tell the tale, but Dejah is not the only “person” with a tale to tell, for Carter also counts among his Martian friends the Thark warlord Tar Tarkas, and he too has something to teach of the past of Mars. Weaving these two strands together, writer Peter David and artist Luke Ross take us into the dark heart of the thousand year old war between the city states of Helium and Zodanga.

This then is a departure from the original novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, though if this first issue is any indication, quite an interesting one. Much of the action is set in Zodanga, where we meet its ruler and his impetuous and obnoxious son Sab Than, who is chafing at the indignity of playing second fiddle to his father. Exiled for his lack of anger management, Sab Than sees an opportunity to make his mark by carrying out a daring one man raid on Helium, with the Princess Dejah Thoris firmly in his sights.

I’m not quite as taken by this vision of Barsoom. Esad Ribic’s cover is, like that for Princess of Mars by Skottie Young, a significant departure from the art within, and again you have to wonder how this book would have looked had he worked on the interiors as well. Luckily, the interior art by Ross is superb, with some of the big splash pages sumptuous in their detail, especially his depiction of the indigenous Martian lifeforms, which are nothing short of remarkable. I’m less keen on those scenes set in the gloomy fortress of Zodanga, which look a little too much for my tastes like something out of the Stargate television series, which for me is a bad thing as that show always wound me up the wrong way. I could never figure out why people with a high technology would want to spend all their time in drafty looking stone citadels. I know, it’s meant to be a dying and ancient world, and that’s how the original novels portrayed it, but it’s all a bit too much Erich von Daniken for my taste, and I must say, a little bit plodding. But I’ll certainly give the 2nd issue a go. I think that now David has set up the basic story, future instalments may pour on the coal and we’ll have more Barsoom for our buck.