Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The first time I heard the name John Barrowman must have been in 1999, when I became a Phantom phan and acquired as many of the musical’s cast albums as I could, including one with Ethan Freeman as the Phantom, Claire Moore as Christine, and John Barrowman as Raoul (at the time, I thought he was pretty cute and sang a very good Raoul). The next time was whenever the Hey, Mr. Producer concert of Cameron Mackintosh-produced shows was shown on PBS—he was there singing something from The Fix. Next it was in 2004, when I learned he was going to be playing a part in the new Doctor Who. (When I found out Doctor Who was coming back, I stayed as much out of the loop as possible. I knew the US wouldn’t get it for a long time, so it was better not to spoil myself and get too excited if I had to wait a long time—which I did. It was a strategy that paid off, but I had to keep pestering my friend Sarah as series 1 was airing, “When is Captain Jack going to show up?”) Then I went to Wales, where I was in time to see the first season of Torchwood, go to Cardiff to “the Hub” and where “Boom Town” had been filmed, etc. Then I saw the man himself in Jack and the Beanstalk in Cardiff—more on that later—and then he was plastered all over TV, radio, he was ubiquitous! (The coda is that I had a job interview in September in the Splott area of Cardiff—I was scared to walk there, but the interview basically consisted of me telling the interviewer how much of a fan of Doctor Who and Torchwood I was and him telling me that Burn Gorman’s son was his son’s friend and that they filmed Torchwood in that area and that the mixing studio was the building next door, etc. I didn’t get the job, but the interview was memorable!)
In any case, despite being a fan—I’m on the BarrowmanOnline listserv—I didn’t exactly jump out and buy his autobiography. Part of it, I guess, is a lingering distrust of not only “celebrity” biographies, but autobiographies of anyone under the age of 60. I was really surprised, though. John (and yes, I’m going to call him John) admits that he is foremost an entertainer, and the book is above all entertaining. It’s well-written, well-paced, very funny, covers a ton of ground without being confusing or dead boring, and most of all, his very passionate personality screams out of each page. It’s co-written with his sister Carole, and who can tell who had the bigger part of making this a very readable book—she’s the English professor, he’s the gregarious, outrageous personality. The first three or so chapters had me glued to the page. While the rest of the book tapered back a bit for me, I must say I found the structure very impressive. John’s not had a harrowing life by any stretch of the imagination, nor does he spend as much time as you might think on his adventures with the rich and famous. It’s mostly about his family life and experiences in musical theatre. It’s not a book I would recommend to the easily shocked, either—John’s a potty mouth and notoriously open about his (and everyone else’s) sexuality. He describes the book as you’ll feel as if you and I are lounging in our pyjamas on the couch in my Cardiff living room, sharing a bottle of champagne or a pot of tea, and it really does.
I write many reviews, regardless of whether people read them. I’ve had three courses in memoir writing/creative nonfiction/writing the self, quite different in tone and lesson plans, and though I’ve churned out the memoirs and personal essays, it’s not a form I’ve had particular success with. (In high school I had to write an autobiography, which made me sputter, but in the end I titled it “The Lifetime of God” because my boyfriend at the time told me it would take the lifetime of God to tell my beauty. See, I was loved once …) Structuring memoir is, in my opinion, difficult. Do you do it chronologically? If so, how do you keep it from being boring? If you do it topically, how do you keep the reader from going insane? Either John or his sister Carole has a lot of finesse in this department. Each of the chapters in Anything Goes are titled after songs, the first one being “I Hope I Get It.” It’s a superb starting point, as it describes the moment when John found out he’d gotten the role of Captain Jack. He was in a revival of Anything Goes in Covent Garden with his niece Clare, and it’s a perfect nexus of much of essence of John: the musical theatre bit, the importance of his family, the role that would make him famous, his humor and joie de vivre. Camera cuts quickly to our leading man jumping off the ground, punching the air with his fists and letting out a rebel yell. Actually, what I screamed was, ‘I’m going to be in the TARDIS!’ The first chapter also lets you know that John is Glaswegian by birth, his childhood connection to Doctor Who (he was a Star Wars freak first and foremost) , describes his audition for the part of Jack, that his favorite companion is Sarah Jane, his favorite villain Davros and his favorite episode “Terror of the Autons.” (All important things to know!) It ends spectacularly with his scene dancing with Billie Piper on the top of that Chula warship: I danced to my own tune, to my own steps, the way I’ve been dancing for most of my life.
From that moment, the autobiography seizes you and doesn’t let you go. The second and third chapters are about his earliest years in the Glasgow suburb of Mount Vernon, and as a chapter it’s suffused with warmth, humor, and moves effortlessly back and forth through time with virtuoso references that come out of nowhere but never make the reader scratch her head. For example, he uses a Bosch painting he and his partner Scott saw in Madrid to tell us he was the baby from hell. He was a prankster like his dad, the victim of his older siblings’ friendly wrath; we’re introduced to his beloved Murn (grandmother on his mother’s side), who fed sweeties to “Wee John.” There’s a wonderfully atmospheric, nostalgic look back at Christmases and Hogmanys both in Scotland and in Illinois, where the family moved in 1976. He got his voice from his mother, who has her own spectacular story which involves preemies and ovens!
John knows this memoir isn’t a dark one. I suppose it would be easy to see this experience as having some kind of symbolic signifance in my life. . . . it was my first manifestation of the Barrowman risk-taking gene. He describes how he inherited this gene from his father and uncles and how it helped him in TV shows like Dancing on Ice, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and on a plane ride with Shirley Bassey, as well as when he flew in the RAF Tattoo in 2007. Very entertainingly, he quotes Oscar Wilde; the flying experience was “Defying Gravity” (and less scary than Janice Dickinson on Jonathan Ross). Chapter four follows him to America (Aurora, then Joliet, Illinois), and he somehow finds time to make fun of Cardiff-ers who have never been in the Castle! Due to teasing, Wee John not only learned how to swim, but reveals his phobia of having his face or neck touched! (Apparently not his lips!) He was a flautist before he was a singer, and I think my sister might have a cow if I told her he was a high school drum major. He spent his American summers in the pool. During one of these summers he realized he was gay, though he didn’t tell his family until 1992 when he was playing Raoul (need I say more??). They, of course, were supportive—‘John . . . I have to say that we’re hurt you’d think that because you’re gay we’d not want to be part of your life anymore.’
High school is when John began performing, acting, and singing, though he experienced “the Dues and Don’t Syndrome,” which even I, in my brief theatre tenure, am familiar with. When I got John’s self-titled album for Christmas this year, I saw that his accompanist for several pieces was Bev Holt, who turns out to be his high school drama teacher. John’s Forensic Competition must be what Academic Bowl was to Johanna and English Expo was to me, though his description of bluffing his way through a scene from The Lion in Winter (and winning awards) is much funnier than anything I ever did. (This is also the chapter he offers us the following advice, . . . sings songs like ‘Dip Your Cock in Vodka’ (readers, please don’t)!) John and Bev Holt also tried to give back to schools like his once he became successful with the Dreamers Workshop before lack of funding and support killed it.
Somehow, I never knew before that John performed in Opryland in Nashville over his summers after an unsuccessful run at the University of Iowa. You find this out in a chapter called “The First Man You Remember,” which gives you a full dose of John’s potty mouth, potty humor, mania for shopping, self-confidence, and of course, his first gay kiss (it was very romantic). He also gives you his two cents on nature vs. nurture in the debate on homosexuality (which you already know if you saw his very manic programme on it on the Beeb last year). This was followed by education at the United States International University in San Diego, which came with more exposure to Dues and Don’t—Peter cross[ed] the line from professional rivalry to personal wankerdom—before John got his first big break in Anything Goes in 1989, a true fluke as he went from only in London on a semester’s study of Shakespeare to leading man in the West End. Wow! Somehow I also completely missed that John was in the film of The Producers playing the Nazi lead tenor. His conclusion about this whole experience could sum up his life, ‘Barrowman is happy and gay!’ (set to the tune of “Springtime for Hitler,” of course.)
Only chapter nine, about John’s friend’s Midge’s depression and suicide, feels slightly out of place, though he ties it together by titling the chapter, “No One Is Alone.” Were there more chapters like “High Flying Adored,” which describes John’s relationship with Valentino (!), John’s life would be a very different one. Only John could have worked the Donner Party into a chapter about meeting the love of his life, Scott Gill. In fact, it was only after the terrifying experience of nearly running out of petrol/gas in Yosemite that made John want to participate in the civil ceremony with Scott (in Cardiff Bay, by the way; I remember when it happened). “Anything Goes” gives some outrageous stories of life on the superstitious stage (Andrew [Lloyd Webber] wrote, ‘Your penis may not upstage my music’). I hadn’t realized John’s repertoire was quite so impressive: Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom, Godspell, Putting It Together, Miss Saigon, Company, Evita, some British kids’ shows, the film De-Lovely, and the short-lived American TV shows Titans and Central Park West (and, good man, he’s tried on several occasions to get RTD to write a musical episode of Doctor Who or Torchwood—I can so see it as a Christmas or Children in Need special, can’t you?).
A chapter is devoted to John’s relationships with his nephews and nieces (should he ever want to father children, Suranne Jones of all people will be the surrogate mother!). His nephew Turner had this to say, ‘You know, Uncle John, I’m straight, and if you think about all the times when I was a kid that I’ve been dressed up in women’s clothing and made to sing and dance, I’ve got to be proof that you can’t turn someone gay.’ He describes his fear of flying, insane adventures with Cameron Mackintosh, filming Shark Attack 3 (no, he’s not exactly proud of it), and advice from Sondheim.
If you were expecting to find out a lot about John’s experiences in Torchwood and Doctor Who, you might be a bit disappointed. He mentions things throughout the book, but focuses on the shows only really during the first and penultimate chapters. Maybe he feels his audiences know enough about that part of his life already, or maybe he doesn’t want to say too much too soon (he describes Eccleston as “angsty”). Fortunately for me, what John does have to say about Doctor Who involves filming “Utopia”! He mentions the birthdays he had on set while filming Doctor Who, the story about the manky chips in “The Sound of Drums,” nearly killing Gareth Lloyd-Jones in the Brecon Beacons with an antique brass bell, and Eve Myles’ thong. That’s probably enough for most people. The end of the autobiography praises RTD and announces this is only intermission. My ending’s not written yet, my show’s not over.
John Barrowman has been very lucky. He had a family who, despite their quirks, loved him unconditionally and let him follow his dream. He has dual citizenship and got to attend (or not attend) the educational institutions of his choice. But he also works hard, clearly loves what he does, doesn’t take crap from the detractors, is good to his fans, and is—honestly—very talented. I’ve told this story before, but it bears mentioning: the first time I went to see John’s panto in Cardiff, he was ill with a chest infection and was gone. I was seeing it with a fan from BarrowmanOnline who’d come down from Manchester several times already to see the show. She convinced me to buy another ticket and see the panto again. This time, John was performing despite still being sick. His poor understudy did his best, but John literally lit up the stage. He was just a joy to watch, his voice was great despite being ill, he was gorgeous, and I just grinned the whole way through.
It goes without saying that Anything Goes has a plethora of entertaining, priceless photos. A couple of the most memorable are John, nephew, and niece in drag for Hogmanay; in a dance belt that looks like a nappy/diaper backstage at Phantom; showing his bum in a kilt; looking like an action figure on the set of “Bad Wolf.” But my personal favorite is John watching Torchwood with his mates Naoko Mori, Burn Gorman, Eve Myles, and David Tennant. (Watch this space, I’ll try to scan this one.) All I can say is: can I marry David Tennant yet? Please? Please?!
I think writing autobiography is challenging. I never expected John Barrowman’s to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever read.
 He (or Carole) had the chutzpah to use footnotes, and to very good effect, I might add!
 Certain readers will note I am fond of both.
 He informs us by footnote you can’t get jelly babies in the US, which is true.
 Or just me?
 I didn’t know he was in it.
 Somehow failed to watch it when it was on.
 THAT I did see. I’ve seen John do some strange things on TV—marrying two dogs on Loose Women comes to mind—but this particularly episode of the Friday night talk show really took the cake.
 With Bernard Cribbins.
 I had no idea he was such a fan of nineteenth-century American history. He should persuade someone in charge of Torchwood to write an episode set there.
 I would have expected him to play Gaston, but he played the Beast (and quite well judging from the “If I Can’t Love Her” track on the album I got).
 No, I didn’t see them either.
 Poor Freema. I don’t think I could deal with standing around in the TARDIS with my two co-stars carrying on a farting competition. Grow up, boys, grow up!
 If he tries any farting competitions, I would naturally punch him hard in one of his scrawny biceps. Problem solved.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
You know the teaser that sets up nearly every on-screen Doctor Who? We meet a hapless person who is eaten by a monster, or possessed by a monster, or in danger from something, and we know the Doctor will be on the scene soon to save the day. Despite the fact it starts with such a cliché, I find Nightmare manages to make me care about poor Carl Jenkins and scare the heck of me (fishing hooks?!?) at the same time. Plus there’s a funny quip about Wales: Paying the toll [over the Severn Bridge] was like putting coins into a laundrette washing machine: no sooner had they clunked into the slot the water started to pour. Oh yes, this is possibly the first story since “Boom Town” that’s set in Wales, and I find it neither snarky nor condescending.
Tucker can easily conjure up Ten’s manic, silly moments, but also his anger and doom-pronouncement. ‘Gonna take orders from a commander who can’t even count, hmm? From someone who thinks that she’s such a clever clogs because she found a way of using the local kids as resource but didn’t make sure she had all the facts. You’ve made a lovely big monster with huge pointy teeth, but it’s not got all its marbles, has it? You missed a bit, thicko!’ Tucker not only writes Ten with perfect conviction, he writes Rose like she was his creation, and what’s even more impressive, he writes their relationship with a consummate ease that I haven’t seen since The Stone Rose. Their scenes together are absolute fun from beginning to end. I may have reservations about season 2 as a whole, but Tucker takes the best aspects of that era and brings them superbly to life. Intriguingly, when we meet the Doctor and Rose, she’s dreaming. The unspoken tenderness is a subtext in this book, neither ignored as some male writers tend to do, nor highlighted as much as in Jac Rayner’s books (you know I love her writing, though). Our two intrepid adventurers will need their absolute trust, as they meet the monsters early on. And they’re much scarier than werewolves, Clockwork Robots, Daleks, Cybermen, Slitheen. To be honest, the mechanism of the monsters is so close to being repeated in Martin Day’s Wooden Heart, I’m surprised they let that latter novel fly.
I can’t say that all of Tucker’s secondary characters are that much of an improvement on the ones from Snowglobe 7, but I do feel proud to have been the second person to give the Doctor a companion named Bronwyn. Plus, though bad child actors can be just as annoying as badly written children, I find Tucker gets the many kids in Nightmare just right—not too cutesy, not to scamp-like. Though it’s also a cliché for the Doctor and companion to separate (either by accident or design), I think Tucker makes the most of it when he has the Doctor and Bronwyn take a boat to Ynys Du (Black Island) to look at the lighthouse, while Rose takes a secret tunnel with Ali the feisty little girl to investigate sinister goings-on at the rectory. You can see already that this story has prestigious roots: “Terror of the Zygons,” “The Empty Child,” “Horror of Fang Rock,” of which Tucker is no doubt aware. His intent is to take the best of those, I believe, and scare us all. Which he does. Some crawled on squat legs, others writhed on tentacles. Spider shapes and dinosaur shapes mixed with strange combinations of scales, feathers and fur.
At the heart of it, though, is not just another boring monsters-want-take-over-the-Earth story. The human villain has real motivation this time, and in a much less obvious way than most do—it’s a horrific, considered bit of character development that’s more akin to “Human Nature” or “Adrift.” It also takes that witty line from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” about the Doctor being the nightmare, and twists in a subtle and grimly smart way. Rose has an encounter with a rather indefinable presence of evil but, in contrast to a similar entity in Wooden Heart that I really couldn’t understand, Tucker allows Rose’s sheer horror to be felt by the readers. The Doctor, meanwhile, ends up having to mildly inconvenience children—in a way fans of “Blink” will understand—in order to save the day. In addition to the somewhat Dortmun-like Nathaniel Morton, the alien menaces—that is to say, separate from the monsters—are religious warrior-zealots, a subtle jab at modern religious crusaders of all creeds.
Mike Tucker has worked on the show itself with effects, so he should know his monster stuff. But in his acknowledgments, he includes a wonderfully heartfelt: [to] Christopher, David and Billie (for bringing it back for a new generation). Though it could be argued that few who write for Who aren’t fans, Tucker is perhaps more a fan than most, yet he’s created the very opposite of fan wank in The Nightmare of Black Island (and I even like the title).
This seems to be set roughly between Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, though keeping track of chronology is a losing battle for me. The opening—a brilliant and seductive visit from Catwoman—is only the second time the two have met. The Joker has yet to materialize, as such, though Batman expresses regret over “that poor wretch in the red cape and hood.” He also wonders, “Have I inadvertedly given license to every crook with a flair for the dramatic?” Though Wagner has a good sense of composition and light and dark, his close-ups of figures are a bit like mine—serviceable, but not superb. I actually thought Julie Madison was a washed up hooker from the way she was drawn. Gordon is still rising to the top of the crooked Gotham police force—his cigarette habit winds him—and they haven’t even invented the Bat Signal yet. Harvey Dent still fights the good fight. In some ways it certainly feels a post-Batman Begins story—the Mad Monk’s lair looks a bit like the Nolan Batcave.
I found the narrative confusing on a few points, like Julie and Bruce’s first meeting. Batman has a suitably action-packed run in with wolves—to his credit, he tries not to kill the blood-maddened animals—ending in an escape from an Indiana Jones-like trap of spirited walls. I was disappointed that, though the Monk’s “demise” by lightning was suitably open-ended, we didn’t learn what possible biological explanation could be given for an ordinary human being able to suck blood. I know there have been historical cases of serial killers who chewed and bit people’s necks—Elisabeth Bathory was my time-traveling vampire villainess in the original version of Doctor Who and the Pen Store Adventure—but not to the extent that they’re “as empty as a flat tire.”
Julie discovers Bruce’s real identity but conveniently goes away to Africa. Her father runs afoul of the Mob—his whole character seemed wholly unmotivated to me, but maybe I needed to read Batman and the Monster Men to get it. Anyway, the Graysons feature in the last panel . . .
Friday, January 16, 2009
So, like the volumes of other villain collections (Batman vs. Two Face, Scarecrow Tales) this is a good survey of the field—the very first Joker story in 1940 to Paul Dini and Don Kramer’s modern masterpiece “Slayride” (which I already reviewed). The first story is called, appropriately enough, “Batman vs the Joker,” and is of course by those legends Bob Kane and Bill Finger. I was surprised—I thought the very first story was going to give us an explanation akin to Red Hood for how the Joker got his pasty white skin and green hair. Instead, like the other nutters in 1940s Gotham, he just evilly appears on the scene, another mad perpetrator of crimes (for profit, revenge, and fun). From the beginning, he appears in his purple suit with a handful of playing cards, looking more like Bela Lugosi than the Jack Nicholson-like figure on the cover of this volume. It’s a bit hilarious that all of Gotham has sat down on a 1940 night to get their kicks listening to the radio, but attention hog that he is, the Joker uses that medium to broadcast his crimes. Plus ça change.
“The Joker’s Comedy of Errors” from 1951, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Lew Schwartz, suffers from untranslatable slang—ie, slang from 1951 that means something totally different now. When the comic is talking about “boners,” it means “blunders.” But it’s hard not to read this comic with a constant snicker, especially when the Joker rants, “So! They laugh at my boner, will they?!” . . . aaaaaand I’m not even going to finish that sentence. The crimes he masterminds certainly resemble those in Batman: The Animated Series, showing the subtle shift from the violent (by comparison) ‘40s to the comics that had begun to be censored.
“Joker’s Utility Belt” from 1952 also belongs in this vein, though I have to admit I’m pretty impressed with the first page/cover of the comic, by David V. Reed and Dick Sprang. The reasoning in this one is that since Batman’s utility belt has defeated the Joker on so many previous occasions, the Joker decides to fight back with his own utility belt. “Crime of the Month Club” is from 1957, drawn by Dick Sprang and written by Dave Wood. Still the same tone, the same gags, inventive crimes, a foreshadowing of Holiday in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. A continuation on this theme with “The Joker’s Last Laugh” from 1964 by John Broome and Sheldon Moldoff, though there are some outrageous sections. Using laughing gas (supposedly some pollen compound of “the plant known as loco weed”) to outwit people (again, something B:tAS picked up on), the Joker presents a dizzying amount of practical jokes before locking Batman and Robin up, intent on dynamiting the phony police station prison in which they are incarcerated. They get away, of course.
We jump ahead by more than ten years in “The Laughing Fish” by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. The art has been given a tremendous shot of modernization—gone are the linear panels, replaced by the huge, sweeping, cinematic pages we know today. The coloring palate has ditched those garish colors of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and though this is one of the strangest stories in the collection, it’s also much more ambitious than the capers we’ve just read. The subplot has to do with Silver St. Cloud, Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend who has just found out his real identity. The plot proper sees all the fish on the Eastern seaboard “contaminated with that lunatic grin” and the Joker marching to the patent office so he can make a fortune off his “Joker-fish.” The best part of this comic is that the Joker of the late ‘70s is not only a bit more stylish, but honest-to-God funny, even as he’s terrorizing people (which is, sadly, the point!). “Good Lord!” cries the patent office director. “Where?” asks the Joker. “Oh, hahahahaha, I see! It was just an expression—of endearment.” When the poor patent office director tells him it’s not on, “But the fish share my unique face! If Colonel What’s-his-name can have chickens, when they don’t even have mustaches--!” The plot from then on is similar to “Batman vs. the Joker,” and the narrator proves he won’t be bested by his witty antagonist: “A man that mad is worth more space . . . but we have other men to meet before dawn!” The Joker ends this particularly adventure electrocuted, but somehow survives. As he always does.
“Have a Dreadful Birthday, Mr. Joker” from 1980 by Len Wein and Walter Simonson hearkens artistically back to the ‘60s, but the story is easily at home in B:tAS. It begins with Commissioner Gordon being invited to the Joker’s birthday party: “black tie optional, funny hats mandatory.” Selina Kyle is an invitee, as well, despite the fact she and the Joker have never gotten along (not that they have any reason to!)—only he would give her a bouquet of roses with a boxing glove inside it. (A bit like the London Monster concealing sharp knives in nosegays!) Another invitee is Robin—“You’re out of your mind, Joker!” “Gloriously so! Isn’t it wonderful?” The other guests are lured to the party because of the promise of something for nothing, and the Joker promises them pieces of cake, when the giant cake blows up, with all of the invitees strapped to dynamite.
“Laughter After Midnight” is by that dream team that gave us B:tAS, written during the time when the show was on the air: Dini, Timm, Burchett. It’s drawn with gorgeous, glossy detail. Dini’s story is simple and very humorous, though more violent than the kids’ show could ever be. In one of the reviews for “Butcher, Baker, Tailor” someone remarked that even simple social interactions like having coffee were beyond the Joker; this comic explores what the Joker does when he’s not “Joker-izing.” This includes going for donuts and calling up Harley Quinn for a ride (she’s been detained by the police, so it’s a no-go). Even though everything the Joker does here conjures up Mark Hamill’s version, you can easily imagine the Joker of TDK laughing over injuries—“Ow! That’s going to hurt in the morning”—as this one does. I’m still waiting to get my hands on The Long Halloween, but here’s a tantalizing sneak peek from that talented pair of Loeb and Sale: “New Year’s Eve.” It involves the Joker “chartering” a biplane with the intent of crashing it into Gotham Square at midnight. “Up, up, and away! Or whatever the hell the expression is . . .” I never claimed to like how Sale drew the Joker, and still don’t, but I love this exchange (makes me think of TDK): JOKER: “When the clock strikes twelve—do I get a little kiss? . . . Eurrk. I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”
I loved Batman: Black and White vol. 1, and vol. 2 is surely just as good if “Case Study” by Paul Dini and Alex Ross is any indication. The art is photorealistic, the story quite at home in “Spirit and Liberty.” Truly—the art is superb. Nothing I can say will convey to you the appropriate measure of awe I feel for the art. If you don’t know the Red Hood story you might be a little lost, but then again, you may be learning all this for the first time. It proves, through a case study compiled by Dr. Harleen Quinzel (before she went mad and became Harley Quinn), that the Joker brutally orchestrated his rise to the top of a criminal organization long before he ever fell into the chemical vat and went “crazy.” The volume was published in 2002, smack dab between Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s visions of the Joker, so he looks suitably Nicholson-like. “He had a new mission now, bon out of a personal trauma possibly akin to whatever dark circumstances shaped the Batman’s life.”
The last two stories in this volume are from Hush vol. 2, which I’ve just reviewed, and “Slayride” by Dini and Kramer. You know that I think both of these stories are fab.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
<--Vesper Lynd (the dress is more '30s than '50s, but too bad)
Casino Royale was really not what I expected at all. James Bond on film has almost universally failed to move me—the Sean Connery film my ex showed me years ago (I can’t even remember which one it was!) was agonizingly boring, and Die Another Day was watched in my Race, Gender, and Ethnicity course in order for us to dissect its possible sexist and racist qualities. Casino Royale the film changed all that and finally made me understand (maybe) what all the fuss was about. Forgive me, then, if before reading the book I focused on those negative elements and somehow failed to take into account that there must have been something entertaining about the Ian Fleming books in order to make them as popular and long-lasting as they are.
Because entertaining is how I found Casino Royale. It’s short and in many ways, quite dissimilar from the film. But in others, it matches up and certainly makes a strong debut for perhaps that most famous of spies. The early structure was shrewdly conceived by its author. Forget linear narration—it makes the most of Bond’s self-confessed attention to detail and his surprising imaginative streak. As the title suggests, we begin in the Casino Royale where Bond is on his mission to defeat LeChiffre, handpicked for this role because of his talents for gambling. As he takes stock of his surroundings and imagines what the other players are thinking, it makes a seamless introduction for some exposition. We learn that Bond is a serious smoker, familiar with Jamaica, and He was a secret agent, and still alive thanks to the exact detail of his profession.
It’s this attention to detail that I think most surprised me about the book. It shares with maybe my favorite book of all time, Beauty by Robin McKinley, a real sensuousness in describing food, clothes, décor, and even the physical attributes of people (especially women, it must be said). As Bond confesses, having to eat alone a lot has made him into a real gourmand, and the superb descriptions of all the food in Casino Royale made me ruefully think about the best meal of my life (at l’Anticipation in Lyon in 2005). Bond seems to have an obsession with toast and taking cold showers (he never takes a hot shower throughout the course of the book!).
In order not to bore us with unnecessary dialogue or exposition, we are given the lowdown on Bond’s mission and adversary in a flashback to the head of the organization, M, being briefed by dossier. To me, M has always been and always will be Judi Dench. Similarly, I find Daniel Craig more attractive than all past actors to play Bond put together. So, with a little literary legerdemain, I can imagine that both of these roles are filled by the actors I want, and similarly, LeChiffre is not a fat mixture of Mediterranean with Prussian or Polish strains but Mads Mikkelsen. Sorry, Ian—that’s how it’s got to be.
Bond’s mission is a daring one, coming down to a few days at the baccarat table (most of the explosions, etc, in the film were invented for a film audience). This is very effective and makes for tense, page-turning reading. There are no shortage of edgy moments—Bond really has to think outside the box at the baccarat table in order not to get himself killed instantly or give up on his mission, and the torture scene was every bit as brutal and cringe-worthy as in the film. Bond uses Vesper’s apparent unfamiliarity with baccarat in order to describe to her—and the equally unfamiliar audience, in my case—the way the game is played, and a little of the strategy involved. Even though I’ve written scenes of gamblers around the table with a lot to lose, I’d never read it so well-described before. The scenes of high-stakes gambling and Bond’s internal monologues are easily the best parts of the book. Fleming’s surprisingly eloquent (and death-themed) descriptions of the card games—lifting up the corpses of the seven and the queen—made me wonder something about an entirely different fandom. The Joker’s iconography has always been playing cards—but from all the graphic novels and comics I’ve read, he’s never described as actually gambling. Hmmm. Food for fan fiction.
What little I remember from the Bond films I’d seen before Casino Royale were uncomplicated, objectified women characters—is not that the essence of a Bond girl? Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, on the other hand, was allowed to have a character, complications, and tragedy along with her sex appeal, so that you could understand why Bond might fall in love with her. Vesper Lynd in the book is still a product of 1953 and of Bond’s—not to say Fleming’s—attitudes toward women. Bond is annoyed when he finds out he has a female partner. Women were for recreation, and he calls her a bitch before he even meets her! Blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men. I try to remind myself what I said in my review of Gone with the Wind, that attitudes espoused by characters as accurate representations of what people thought in 1860 or 1953 can’t be held against the book as a whole—but it’s difficult not to fling the book across the room when I read stuff like that. While I am, as I say, impressed at the detail in describing clothes, one has to see that there’s no parallel in describing Vesper’s lasciviously tight over her fine breasts frock—if Bond’s trousers are as tight as David Tennant’s, we have no way of knowing—it’s not the sort of detail Fleming wants to share with his audience which, fair enough, he must suppose to be men. (Though he did decide to tell us that a hairy Sicilian hit man would be “obscene” were he naked!)
Vesper makes decorative, vaguely amusing conversation at table, but is nowhere near as incisive as the character played by Eva Green on film. The section I think where Fleming falls down in the course of describing people’s interactions with each other is Vesper’s tearful reactions during Bond’s recovery from his torture ordeal and their subsequent idyll on the coast in France. While Bond is considering proposing matrimony to Miss Lynd, I can hardly see why given her vacuous behavior. Oh, I suppose there’s a “reason” for all her actions, but it’s nowhere near as well-rendered as in the film, and her demise is pathetic and cowardly in comparison to the film and would seem not to inspire the “inconsolable rage” that it does.
There are a few other surprises. Though Bond intends to resign from the service after his torture ordeal in the film, it’s for different reasons than presented in the book. In the book, the hitherto patriotic Bond has a crisis of belief. He suggests that while they’re fighting Commies at the moment, the tides could turn. I was also surprised at the graphic nature of some of the love scenes. Not that we’re talking soft porn here, but it made me feel a bit more virtuous in my own writing! And may we wonder whether the Daniel Craig swimming trunks incident had a bit of inspiration from the latter part of the book where Bond spends days on the beach swimming in his “pyjama-coat”?
I’ve declared several times that I’ve found the 1950s to be a very dull decade indeed, and I kept getting annoyed that so many Doctor Who stories were set then. Clearly, though, from Bond’s perspective, they were anything but. My favorite spies, I suppose, have always been Percy and Marguerite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel, a wholly different book from Casino Royale. Still, I’m glad I read the book, and I’m even tempted to read more of Bond’s adventures. Reading Casino Royale was an interesting and overall very surprising experience.
Monday, January 12, 2009
It is nice to see some geographical variation among the winners (Australians and North Americans among all the Brits) as well as short stories from three women! There weren’t any historical adventures (well, unless you count 1957 as historical) and a real dearth of Eighth and First Doctor stories. My favorites happen to be “Child’s Play” by LM Myles, “The Last Thing You Ever See,” by Richard Goff, “The Man on the Phone” by Mark Smith, “Those Left Behind” by Violet Addison, “Evitability” by Andrew K Purvis, “£436” by Nick May, “Swamp of Horrors” by Michael Rees, and “Lares Domestici” by Anna Bratton. While I liked “Homework” by Michael Coen, which was the overall winner—hilariously the 11-year-old protagonist is a bit frightened of the hobo-ish Second Doctor and Jamie wearing his kilt—it just wasn’t my personal favorite. (Though it did have some very satirical things to say about time travel and fandom in general.)
Simon Moore channels “Revelation of the Daleks” a bit in “Change Management,” a clever tale of the Sixth Doctor and Mel, with poor people being fed to a Flux in order to keep tourism running; fortunately the author reveals he left the job that inspired the tale. “Curiosity” by Mike Amberry was very well-suited to the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa; it’s like a Ray Bradbury story but without the cruel ending. I’m not that crazy about the structure of “Potential” by Stephen Dunn, but it’s certainly a novel approach to the Third Doctor. I really liked “Second Chances” by Bernard O’Toole, not least because his Eighth Doctor and Charley were well-written (and I could imagine Paul McGann saying the lines, added bonus). And the defeated, slightly pathetic enemy gets his just desserts. This is what I like best about the foremost of these tales: they think outside the (phone) box of Doctor Who and combine it with strong writing, not just in the plot idea, but narrative and character-wise.
“Relativity” by Michael Montoure reminded me of a short story my ex wrote, which I found extremely confusing at the time. Montoure’s story is less confusing and emulates the time-bending of “Blink,” but in a story very suited to Ace and the Seventh Doctor. Ace in particular is well-written. Love the creepy yet sweet ending. I also loved “Outstanding Balance” by Tim Lambert. He gets the prize for the most creative aliens, a race of egg-like creatures who go around giving people parking tickets. I got the book courtesy of “The Shopping Trolleys of Doom”’s author, Caleb Woodridge, and while one might sniff at the story idea from the onset, it’s actually charmingly executed, in the vein of “Change Management” (I was told that my ficlet for the Seventh Doctor’s worst day was the weirdest situation that Doctor could be in, but I think this one takes the cake). “The Final Star” by Michael Wing is a strange, pretty tale that makes good use of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn.
In my short acquaintance with Short Trips, I’ve seen variants on the story “The Monster in the Wardrobe” by James C McFetridge done several times. Still, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured well in their zany moments, and this is one of the darkest entries. Einar Olgeirsson has really gotten to the essence of the Eighth Doctor in “Suns and Mothers”—and not just the character, but the real spirit of his brief escapade on our screens. It also has hints of Rose’s life on the Estate as well as “42.” Matthew James’ “Taking the Cure” also has some wicked hints of Only Human, with some good interaction between the protagonist, the Sixth Doctor, and Peri. I quite enjoyed “Time Shear” by Steven Alexander, primarily because of the character of Miss Richards, and how she interacts with a group of young space-hopping aliens. There is some surprising violence in this one, which Miss Richards and the Fourth Doctor are powerless against, but an uplifting ending. “Running on Empty” by JR Loflin makes me think it would fit better in Sarah Jane Adventures for some reason; the end’s a bit of an anti-climax, but there is a sobering mix of sadness and sweetness in it, perfectly suited to the Seventh Doctor. “Insider Dealing” by Dann Chinn is notable for its unique second-person narrative and a very up-close, descriptive portrait of the Fourth Doctor. “The Andrew Invasion” by John Callaghan was a bit like “The Next Doctor” and the Batman story “Urban Legend”—charming, though. “Stolen Days” by Arnold T Blumberg is a sobering, scary portrait that has a lot in common with “Relativity”—again, good story for the Seventh Doctor.
There was certainly a glut of Fourth Doctor stories with various companions, more than I expected. My favorites were “Child’s Play” and “Those Left Behind.” “Child’s Play” has a wonderful protagonist who reminds me of my friend who used to work in a teddy bear shop; it has the creepiness factor to the max and yet a sleepy kind of innocence that brings the heights of silliness of Romana and the Doctor in focus with beings that inhabit toys. They, too, are only children, after all. The Doctor is captured wonderfully—vaguely unsettling but a strong, curious character. There’s also a fabulous wink at the reader at the end. “Those Left Behind” shares with “Child’s Play” a possible tendency to fan fiction—it’s about Susan’s best friend who ends up meeting the Fourth Doctor—but I found it wonderfully heart-warming. Maybe I like it because it reminds me a bit of “Ian and the Beatles.” I’m sure that’s not it. I also loved “The Last Thing You Ever See” because it was hilarious and captured Sarah Jane, Harry, and the Fourth Doctor pitch-perfect. Truly, it was good enough to have slotted nicely in on Robert Holmes’ schedule. Harry is so under-used, and this really plumbed the depths of his character—while subjecting him to all kinds of torture! The Doctor and Sarah get a scene so worthy of recording I think I’ll draw it: getting smashed in a Star Wars-esque compacter, all the while the quips flying. What a fabulous adventure.
Mark Smith may not be 100% on writing women characters yet, but I can still deeply identify with Lauren in “The Man on the Phone”; in fact I can hear her, with a pronounced Welsh accent, in my mind because I knew someone very like her at the call centre where I worked, mercifully briefly. The story is probably the best Fifth Doctor short story I’ve ever read. The conceit is so fabulous—I had contemplated something similar when I worked at the call centre, but his version is much better—and executed flawlessly. It’s funny and heart-warming, and Five is just perfect with Lauren. Andrew K Purvis takes us out of the British Isles for once to Australia (he’s Australian, as it happens) in “Evitability.” Another great female protagonist, fabulous conceit, superb point of view, and wonderful invocation of the Seventh Doctor. He was staring at me. Hard . . . His eyebrows were furrowed so far forward they shaded his eyes, eyebrows expressive enough to be prehensile.
“£436” is an example of a story so suited to its Doctor/companion team, you can’t imagine it with anyone else. That team, by the way, is the Sixth Doctor and Peri, and they run rampant in a cab through the streets of a seaside resort, dragging poor (but brilliantly written) cabbie Mick with them. It is hysterically funny. “Swamp of Horrors (1957)—Viewing Notes” is also very funny and wins my prize for the most creative framing device. Surely someone must have thought of this before—the Doctor (in this case the Sixth, with Mel) ends up filmed in a movie. It’s supposed to be B-movie slush, but the adventure—involving giant snakes in Louisiana—is real. The lead actor is a spazz and a jerk, and the director is the one whose life will never be the same due to the Doctor’s intervention. What a wonderful format for getting in a 4-part length TV story in in the space of a short story. My hat is off to you, sir! But the collection is finished brilliantly by “Lares Domestici,” possibly the best Second Doctor story I have ever read. Troughton is fabulously invoked, from the sadness and sternness and brilliance to a sweet, bumbling fondness for tea and cakes. I want him living in my house!
I love some of the bios included; what a masterstroke. I also hadn’t seen some of the tips and notes Simon had posted on Outpost Gallifrey which are included here—they’re very helpful. Obviously I was disappointed that none of my stories had made the final cut, but with examples like these, I understand why. Of the five I sent, I dare to say they were all written well, but maybe the only one with an actual plot was “J’ai vu le loup,” and even that didn’t really fit the prompt (or if it did, it was structured in a strange way). The Sixth Doctor and Peri in Disneyland was a good situation, but not a story. I don’t know what counted against “A New Course in Egyptology” (unless it was just dull); I have a fondness for “Second Hand” but maybe it was too fan fiction-y.
I wish all the authors the best of luck. Probably writing to get paid, even for Doctor Who, can get a bit routine after awhile, which is why these stories look so fiery and fabulous in comparison to some of the other Short Trips stuff I’ve read—these new writers have saved up their very best, and perhaps for some of them, as Paul Cornell suggests in his introduction, it’s all they’ve got in them. I hope I can learn from this collection and be ready for next time—whenever that may be.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
“Lardner’s Ring” by John Fay is one of the better episodes of season 2. It begins with Guy’s birthday party (!). While Guy and the Sheriff are partying, Allan (in his leather outfit) is pursuing a Hungarian extra into the forest. Delegating already, Allan has his men pursue the fugitive up a tree where he hides a cage. He then dies. Robin & co come upon Allan; Allan is warned off or “you’ll be so full of arrows you’ll look like hedgehogs.” (Curiously enough, I read an Arab account of a battle of the Crusades that described fallen horses in the same manner. Perhaps John Fay read the same one.) Robin jibes at Allan being Guy’s “dog’s body.” “I count my money in the morning,” Allan replies to the question of how he can live with himself. Allan escapes; Marian is not wholly complimentary to Robin—“Do you practice little speeches like that?” The poor Hungarian extra begs for more reinforcements for Richard in the Holy Land and expires.
At the party, there’s a Fool who looks like he’s been rescued out of David Bowie’s glam-iest days. At first he drove me nuts. Then he actually proved a fairly interesting and downright amusing character. There’s certainly something a little less than innocent when he says, “Your woodcock, Sir Guy, is dead.” (Referring ostensibly to a fowl prepared in a covered plate for the feast, which springs to life later, but perhaps meaning his lack of success with Marian.) The Fool makes a number of predictions before being hauled away to be executed (apparently because the Sheriff can’t take a joke). Before he goes he makes an enigmatic claim about Lardner’s Ring. “What IS Lardner’s Ring?!” Funny, the Hungarian extra mentioned it, too.
Back in the forest, Marian chastises Robin for wanting to return to the Holy Land. He has a purely Robin moment by proposing to her over the man’s freshly dug grave (and compares her to his bow!). That’s a bit medieval! Marian’s response is that she will wed when King Richard returns (which is what she told Guy, if you remember). The Sheriff, meanwhile, being the ultra-modern, heathen, godless baddie that he is, doesn’t believe in the Fool’s predictions and insists “there is always a rational explanation.” The Sheriff also clearly believes (as one would) that Lardner’s Ring is something Frodo could wear, as he instructs Guy to cut off people’s fingers until they give up the ring. Please.
Will and Djaq happen to be in the village when this absurd command is given, prompting them to wonder, “Maybe it’s a ring tax?” In the forest, Much announces that Will and Djaq have “gone for honey. I expect it’s a euphemism.” He’s annoyed that “there’s a bit too much ‘honey’ going on around here.” Everyone’s pairing off, and “I don’t fancy mine much!” Actually, I might humbly suggest Much is being facetious; for Will and Djaq being an apparently legitimate ship, there’s been hardly a scene devoted to them before now. In the village, they do the right thing and intervene before Guy can start hacking off fingers, leading to Will’s capture (nooo!). Djaq makes it back to camp in order to inform everyone that they are searching for Lahdenah not Lardner, the prize pigeon of the “Sultan’s official pigeon handler.” It’s daft enough that I can almost believe it! Richard I sending messages via conquered people’s pigeons?! Djaq is in a splendid mood to make romantic parallels; the pigeon will fly anywhere for its mate. “The dove found its way back to Noah’s Ark.”
The Fool helps Will to escape—“I do comedy, I don’t do tragedy”—by filching a key from Allan. They split up, only for the Fool to be pursued again by the Sheriff (“I can’t die without an audience!”). I do crack up as, back at camp, the outlaws attempt to write a pigeon-sized message—“alliteration makes it much more memorable” is the Fool’s opinion—while Marian and Robin are up a tree without an . . . er, paddle? They’ve correctly figured out what the Hungarian extra hid up the tree, and are after it. Unfortunately for them, that’s when Guy and the Sheriff arrive. Marian wants to use her leverage with Guy to again buy for time (“he’s not stupid!”) and forces Robin to play the charade that he’s captured her. Gisborne wants to burn down the tree—“you tried to cook me alive in my own armor!” Robin does rather too good a job of pretending to despise Marian, “just another pampered parasite living off the backs of the poor.”
For a long time before I actually saw this episode, I tried to figure out what possible reason there could be for Guy to climb up a tree to rescue Marian. In point of fact, while Robin escapes with Ladenah, Marian appeals—rather cruelly, I find—to Guy’s desperate feelings for her. The rescue scene is squee-worthy. Too bad Marian doesn’t find it more so. In any case, she’s back to where she was a few episodes ago, a spy on a knife edge, and Robin manages to get the pigeon with its message out. Until the Sheriff shoots it dead. I was really amazed for a moment. I thought, what a downer for a kids’ show to end on! But, actually, the birds were switched, the message got through, la dee la dee da. Onto the next episode!
For a long time, I seriously thought “Walkabout”’s title was “Helm’s Deep” (in keeping with the Tolkien theme the episode titles seem to have). Actually, it’s probably the cleverest episode of season 2. Oh, and it yields much gold for shippers, oodalolly. The problem here is making sure the Sheriff is safe. Obviously that makes fun of the whole premise of this show: the Sheriff is a dastardly villain, but the narrative (and moral respect from the kiddies) ends when Robin kills him. In “Walkabout” he goes missing. He must be found, because remember the edict from Prince John earlier? If something happens to the Sheriff, Nottingham gets razed. So when the “special envoy” finds that the Sheriff is missing, “the troops will be here by sunset.” So where did the Sheriff go? He sleepwalked into the middle of the forest where he meets Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle’s best characters (perhaps). “Like you don’t know it’s a drop point,” snarls the woman with a raggedy bunch of children: a female Fagin. Thinking the Sheriff is another moocher, she sets the wheels spinning in his dastardly mind.
In the forest, the outlaws complete a raid, and Little John brings a goose—“it lays golden eggs. . . . there’s a consignment of magic beans coming.” This is just making fun for Much’s benefit, but through Marian Robin finds out that “they’ve lost the Sheriff.” Robin goes straight to Gisborne, culminating in a scene where Guy (being Left in Charge by Default) sits at the Sheriff’s throne with Marian at his side. He responds merely when she touches his arm; it’s a curious little scene. Basically it’s there to humiliate him, though, because Robin insists, “ask me for my help.” Which Guy, with Marian’s tacit approval, must and does. I confess, silly as it is, there is a real sense of urgency to finding the Sheriff before the army shows up.
The second plot thread, though nicely aligned to the primary plot (almost wrote Splott!), concerns Little John and his desire to right the wrongs of poverty. “Are we making any difference?” he wants to know. He is angry; “you can’t just throw money at them!” Meanwhile the Sheriff is working his devious magic with Mrs Fagin, showing her how to demand more aid—“what does he [Robin] give you? Handful of scraps?” Much and Robin search for the Sheriff; “you and me, back on a mission.” Robin takes this opportunity to crush Much and tell him about his proposal to Marian. “You’re supposed to say congratulations.” Robin is concerned that they won’t “live to enjoy it.” Mrs Fagin, in order to be supreme moocher, suggests “I could always chop one of the kid’s arms off.”Robin has given Little John and Djaq orders. Little John wants to help Mrs Fagin, the kids, and the theatrical Sheriff, who’s given himself airs and is disguised as a blind old man. “He’s right and he’s our leader,” Djaq admonishes. “No one, no one should have to be reduced to this!” Poor John, his heart is in the right place, but he’s reduced to mockery in this episode. He blindfolds Mrs Fagin and the kids but since the Sheriff is “blind,” he’s allowed to see the way to Robin’s camp. Doh.
Much more interesting, therefore, are Guy and Marian. As the army approaches, Guy tells her, “There’s still time for you to get away.” “I’m not leaving you in trouble.” (Liar.) As things look bleak, the envoy suggests that Guy get his family out. “I have no family . . . but I do have friends.” “One person in particular?” Guy isn’t allowed to get his friends out, but if he can marry Marian before the army arrives, he can get away with her. Best. Plot. Device. Ever. “I can’t marry her between now and sunset!” Meanwhile Will and Allan end up in Nottingham together; “we’re brothers in arms again after all.” Unable to convince Marian, Guy decides to get out of Dodge. “You’re abandoning us?!” This is the scene in the turret that I saw quite a long time before I saw the episode (courtesy of fan videos). This is the scene where Guy goes on his knee and asks Marian to marry him (again). “Is it such a difficult choice [between death and marriage]?!” This is the part where I thought he said “I love you.” He actually says “live.” Oopsies. I wonder if it would have made a difference?
In the camp, the Sheriff and Mrs Fagin look for their respective treasures with Djaq and Little John momentarily out of the way. “Don’t slobber over it, woman!” (The Sheriff is looking for the Pact of Nottingham that Robin stole in the episode before last.) Guy decides to strike out on his own; he almost gets to the gates, after frustratedly telling Marian, “Your wilfulness will kill you!” He turns around, though, and comes to help Marian, Allan, and Will defend the undefendable (hence Helm’s Deep). “You came back!” Marian takes his arm, and they exchange a smoldering look. “Marry me now, and make it the last thing we do.”
Robin, in the meantime, has found the Sheriff, gotten the Pact away from him, shown Little John the error of his ways, and returned the Sheriff to the envoy before the battle can begin. Score.
“Treasure of the Nation” by Simon J. Ashford is trying to hard to earn its historical underpinnings. The Sheriff is bringing in mercenaries; clearly he saw his counterpart Alan Rickman doing the same in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, although there they were Celts, whereas here I really have no idea who they are supposed to be! The crew of Attila the Hun?! A very tall ally of Robin’s, Legrand (appropriately named) sneaks up on the outlaws. “You might have announced yourself a little less violently!” At this point we’re still somehow before Midsummer’s Day! 1193? I have no idea!
Legrand has a message from the King, a picture of “the treasure of the nation.” This requires Robin & co to go on a treasure-hunting quest, which is about as realistic as “The Booby and the Beast”; nevertheless makes entertaining viewing. Marian is being nice to Guy for some reason, I suspect to get him to stop beating up on the peasants of Locksley, who have been moved to make room for the semi-Celtic mercenaries: “I thought I saw a different side to you—kind, brave . . .” Marian demands Robin help her help the peasants; “what are the villagers supposed to do the in the meantime?” Robin is too busy looking for the Holy Grail—er, the treasure of the nation. One of the clues takes a cue from Chaco Canyon as well as The Goonies (again . . . can’t you just see One-Eyed Willie’s pirate ship coming out of that cave the outlaws go into?).
The subplot here concerns Marian’s decision to take matters into her own hands again, as the Night Watchman. “The Night Watchman rarely strikes at night!” (For some reason a hazardous materials sign shows up in Locksley. No idea why.) Guy, however, is ready for his old adversary and overpowers “him.” Allan in the background tries to stop him—“leave him, you’ve done enough, Guy”—before he unmasks Marian. “No . . . not you.” As Marian guiltily reveals the scar he gave her last season that almost killed her (something a bit kinky about that scene!) Guy turns and runs away!
Robin & co get stuck underground in One-Eyed Willie’s domain while the Sheriff tries to find the treasure of the nation. John plays Sloth’s part and gets them out. The treasure turns out to be Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Fortunately they make her, as in Ivanhoe, a force to be reckoned with. “You’re meant to be in France.” “You’ve been doing most of the work for my son [Richard].” She takes a shine to Little John—“who is this fellow?” She is sad because of Prince John; “one can choose one’s friends . . .” The Sheriff arrives; “are you always this odious?” Eleanor, dressed more like a queen from The Tudors than what she really wore (and I know, I have the paper dolls) escapes the Sheriff’s clutches while groping Little John as much as she can.
The Sheriff has been told that the Night Watchman has been apprehended but not “his” identity, only that he will hang. Guy has imprisoned Marian; she tries to escape, naturally. “You were betraying us . . . every day that I grew more and more to love you, you were mocking me.” Marian has really hurt Guy; unfortunately all her heroics do have their price. “This isn’t a game, Marian!” “After all my so-called betrayals, you should be glad to do it [kill me].” She is a bit of a Princess Fiona—“this is me.” “Why did you have to put me in this position?” he angsts.
Meanwhile Legrand dies Boromir’s death as Robin & co get Eleanor safely back to France (why she left again I can’t remember). “Tell me you’ve caught him!” snarls the Sheriff on his return. Allan has taken up Marian’s guise in order to help her, but in the end it’s Guy who takes all the flak for saving her life. He claims the Night Watchman got away, suffering the Sheriff’s full—and very physical—wrath. Marian is forced to burn her Night Watchman outfit. “Thank you, you saved my life,” she says to Allan and Guy. She hugs them both, and Guy asks her to stay in the castle. “Make this place bearable.” She does. Alas, it’s not to be.
“A Good Day to Die” suddenly propels us forward to the 14th of October, Robin’s birthday (and not a mention of Klingons). Much has thrown him a party but invited all the Hungarian nasties among the semi-Celtic mercenaries, who want to smoke the outlaws out (maybe they’re more than semi-Celtic; they do start playing bagpipes). The outlaws fight back for some time using Djaq’s black powder from last season and an exploding pig’s head. Feeling sure that Robin will be killed, the Sheriff has decided to get a tan, and he’s taking Guy with him. To the Holy Land, I mean. I described the following two episodes to my mother who had never seen this version of Robin Hood, only Robin of Sherwood, and she burst out laughing. I wonder if the merry party of the Sheriff, Allan, Guy, and Marian take the first plane out of Nottingham to Acre or if they have to change planes in Sicily? What about the outlaws? Do they have to fly coach? I’m sorry, my sarcasm is no doubt a bit grating, but, much as I liked the idea of Guy going to the Holy Land on an assassination plot to kill Richard, the fact that everyone and their mother is going over really stretches credulity.
Marian tries to get to the outlaws’ camp to warn them, fails, and has to knock Allan out on her quest to kill the Sheriff. She is caught, is sniffed out as the Night Watchman, and the Sheriff naturally feels more secure taking her along (!). I can only imagine the shticks that went on with these four characters in close quarters for the weeks it takes to get to Acre. The Sheriff orders “3 beds” at the inn; I thought for one surprised moment he was going to make Marian stay with Guy. Rather, Marian was made to stay in the stable. Marian never quite got to the bottom of “Tattoo? What Tattoo” and is surprised to hear that Guy’s “been before.” “Feel betrayed?”
The cornered outlaws play a game of Kalila and Dimna, an Arabic version of “truth-or-dare.” Now obviously we know this will lead Djaq and Will to finally say how they feel about each other, but it’s still cute. “I love the way you fight like a man,” Will says, with relish. Okay. “Is this everyone says they really love each other?” wonders a befuddled Much. “You take me for granted,” Much accuses Robin. “I hate you.” Little John feels guilty about turning outlaw and abandoning his family; “I deserve to die.” Robin is last to confess. “Let me have my thoughts to myself!” The reason he refuses to go over the “good old times” with Much is because “I can’t face the terrors we saw . . . I have to try not to kill.”
Marian convinces Allan to develop a conscience and go back and warn the outlaws. (Yet it is a hell of a long way to ride back to Nottingham!) Now, here’s a scene I just have to WTF to. “I should have let you take care of me, Guy, I should have let you,” says Marian while giving the recumbent Guy a backrub (!). Then she transforms into Allan, then the lecherous Sheriff. I’m very confused. Anyway, Allan makes it to the gang and helps them fight for their lives. Will and Djaq finally kiss. Hooray. Then it’s off to the Holy Land for everyone. There’s not even anyone left behind to send a postcard to.
“We Are Robin Hood” is definitely on the ambitious side. A kids’ TV show is trying to recreate Acre of 1193 (in Hungary, I assume). If you forget the silliness of the set up you can enjoy the adventure. Until Marian dies, of course.
Hiding in the shadows, the Sheriff, Guy, and plotters are in league with Nasir who has Saladin’s Royal Seal and will lure King Richard with a promise of peace so they can murder him. Marian is chained up in some room, in Persian costume with a stuffed bra for some reason. She makes one last desperate appeal to Guy; “kill the Sheriff and I will reward you. I will willingly give you my hand.” Guy considers her offer. Marian is told that Robin is already dead. “You’re not a killer,” Marian says, referring to the regicide to which Guy is a part. Guy may have actually intended to kill the Sheriff, but the Sheriff suspected it and prepared. “Are you going to?” “I will still have Marian.” And thus Guy’s character is written into shallow evil by lazy scriptwriters. Marian is tied up and left in the desert by the Sheriff.
Robin & co are staying with Djaq’s uncle Bassam. When they seek out King Richard to warn him of the Sheriff’s imminent attack, Richard’s mind has already been poisoned by Nasir, and despite the words of Carter, Richard somehow believes his most loyal servant capable of treason. Dude. I find it most amusing that Richard here is played by Steven Waddington, who has played many roles but most importantly for our purposes, Lord Wilfred of Ivanhoe in the 1996 A&E production. It isn’t until Richard, on the “Crusaders’ Frontier,” determines that the outlaws “must all be punished.” THAT’s the historical Richard I know. He decides to have them tied up in the desert. God will decide if they live. “If God wills it, there is always a choice.” “Then you will be remembered as the king who spent too long at war.”
With Marian tied up with them, the outlaws are subject to the elements. (And you know how long Almàsy lasted in The English Patient.) “I would never leave you, Will Scarlett,” announces Djaq. “I wanna die in England,” sighs Allan, probably wondering why he chose the losing side. “It’s not the King’s fault,” says the ever-loyal Robin. He then presents a modern wedding liturgy as he marries Marian then and there. “Much . . . don’t cry.” Fortunately Carter comes and rescues them before Much loses all his moisture from crying. (“Moisturize me, moisturize me . . .”) He also has the alacrity to mention Bonchurch later to His Majesty.
Guy is somewhat horrified to realize what the Sheriff’s done with Marian; surely wearing all that black leather is giving him a fever. Richard is an idiot, there’s something about a paintballing expedition (according to my notes; I’m afraid I can’t figure out what I was talking about!), and as the Sheriff shoots Richard with a crossbow, Guy goes in for the kill. Marian gets in the way and goads him by telling him that she loves Robin, is going to marry him, etc. Then GUY KILLS HER! (I would be more shocked, I confess, if I hadn’t been watching the fan video “What Have You Done” over and over on YouTube.) Lame. Robin and Marian finish their wedding as the Sheriff and Guy ride away before Marian dies. “The last time we were dying we were getting married.”
She gets a crusader’s burial before Djaq and Will decide to stay behind in Acre. WHAT?! Write the two most interesting characters out? Are you insane?! Anyway, Richard learns the errors of his ways and the poor, sad, dejected remaining outlaws return to Blighty. *huge sigh*
There were many opportunities to be absolutely ridiculous in season 2. Of course, being a big Guy/Marian shipper, I wasn’t pleased at the ending. Which fans did the writers think they were pleasing when they wrote that ending? Surely they can’t be so arrogant as to believe they’ve gotten two seasons in with complete indifference from their viewers? I liked some things in season 2, and there were some good story ideas. I’m curious indeed to see how the show will survive without Marian and more than intrigued to wonder what will happen to induce the departure of the title star. Time will tell! In the meantime, I’ll be over here, writing AU fan fic.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
There have been alterations, of course, but those are to be expected and in general, add much to the story. The exposition whips along from the beginning, seeing Margaret already on the train to Milton by the time she gives the backstory in flashback. Therefore there isn’t much time spent on her season in London, her life at Helstone, or Henry Lennox. This is fortunate because that would all probably be tiresome, especially Lennox as he comes off much less charming and much more odious in this version. There really is no comparison with Thornton. If it were possible to make Thornton any more sympathetic and wonderful, they did it. His first meeting with Margaret makes a much darker impression on her than in the book: she rushes to the mill to meet this “tradesman” who has dared to interfere with her father’s and her arrangements when they arrive in Milton, only to find him beating a worker on the mill floor.
North and South the novel is surely a book with a social conscience, but with the benefit of hindsight, the film can present even more of the working conditions than even Elizabeth Gaskell would have known. Everything that is filmed in the city (I assume it’s Manchester) is done beautifully and with attention to historical detail, but it’s no rosy vision of Victoriana: the twilight tones put Milton in perpetual winter, indoors and out, and especially evocative are the many scenes set in the mill, with pieces of cotton floating like a giant snow globe. This becomes even more powerful when Thornton watches Margaret leave Milton after the death of her father and it actually is snowing.
Margaret meets Bessy Higgins in a very different circumstance to the book: she works at Thornton’s mill. All idea of religious uncertainty has been removed from Bessy’s character and in general she is more noticeably sympathetic; she’s being played by the actress who plays Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane. Higgins is cast a lot younger than I pictured him, reading the book, and is a less harsh man. He rescues Margaret from mean-spirited factory workers who basically do the happy-slappy on her. He’s also a big union man, and Boucher, too, has a much larger role. Mr Bell is brought into the narrative a lot earlier than he was in the book, which is better, all things considered (though to be fair to Gaskell, she was writing on a serialized basis). That he thinks of marrying Margaret himself is an idea I wondered about reading the book, but fortunately the film doesn’t turn him into an old lech, either. Edith and Aunt Shaw have smaller roles, but writing letters to Edith becomes a wonderful device of summarizing action and showing the gap between what Margaret wants Edith to hear and reality (as well as the things she can’t tell Edith, like Frederick’s visit and Thornton’s proposal).
For all the power of the love story in North and South, the filmmakers realize the responsibility of telling its historical and political aspects, from which they never shirk. I think the impressive thing about North and South is that it does try to tell both sides of the story, the masters and the men, and also communicates how easily position can be lost—both Thornton’s and Margaret’s social statuses seem to be dependent on the unthinking actions of others, or something as fickle as the free market. As in Little Dorrit, the man is saved by the woman’s newfound financial status (an unlikely development in real life but possible). The depictions of working conditions, the intricacies of the unions and striking (Boucher, at least, is seen by Margaret as having a worthwhile opinion when doesn’t want to strike in the first place), are all faithful to the book plus add a bit more drama. One thing I really didn’t expect to see was Margaret going to London to see the Crystal Palace Exhibition. It was a small scene; they couldn’t very well show the entire Exhibition. But it did so many things perfectly. Margaret defended the north and industry to Lennox; Thornton saw Margaret on Lennox’s arm and assumed the worst, long before he had seen Frederick; and Margaret got a chance to be jealous, too.
In addition to the wonderful filmic shots and the absolutely haunting musical score, the costumes are very impressive. Margaret’s wardrobe is perfectly aligned with her character and the gowns of the early 1850s. Her gown at the dinner party is very flattering. All the other costumes are wonderfully in period, and Thornton’s costumes . . . well . . . swoon. Actually, everything about Thornton=swoon. If you recall the first time I really heard a northern accent was Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, you’ll understand how nice it is to hear it coming from Richard Armitage! I was really impressed at the way simple shots could say the volumes that the book expressed in several sentences. For example, Thornton obsessing with Margaret’s hands the first time he met her is done in simple shot of her handing the tea cup to him, but their fingers brush and they both know it. Don’t laugh, but I think Richard Armitage’s great skill as an actor is his expressiveness. It really is necessary for the way they’ve written Thornton, as most of his more passionate speeches are taken away from him and we’re not privy to his thoughts. He can’t give the “Oh, Margaret, my Margaret” speech when she’s struck by the stone, but has to convey the intensity of his feelings in his looks. To understand the importance of her shaking hands with him at the dinner party, you have to rely on the gesture. Of course, when he does get speeches, they really pack a punch. After Margaret’s rejection, he tells his mother, “I knew I was not good enough for her. No one loves me.”
The proposal is a big favorite on YouTube, and again I make the Pride and Prejudice comparison. Margaret is at first insulted because she believes he is offering her marriage in order to save her reputation (which I didn’t really get from the book). “I don’t want to possess you, I wish to marry you because I love you!” It’s a great ending for part two, and part three seamlessly reminds you of the deep pain Margaret has caused Thornton as he walks through Milton absolutely rebuffed. Film can show lots of little moments like these, sometimes more effectively than prose can, and there are enough of them that your heart aches throughout the third and fourth episodes for Thornton (well, at least mine does). The film does end almost as abruptly as the book does, but it’s definitely going for the romantic jugular. On her way to tell Thornton that she is willing to lend Marlborough Mills the money to start up again, Margaret finds he has left Milton. She meets him by chance at a train crossing. He has just come from Helstone where he found roses. He puts his hand over hers, and she kisses it! There is a very sweet kiss before they leave for Milton together on the train. Unfortunately this made me yearn very much for such a happy ending, but such is life. I’m surprised there isn’t more North and South fan fiction out there!
The final, and slightly uncanny thing is, back when I got the inspiration to write The Mesmerist, I had heard of North and South, but I didn’t know anything about it. I had some vague idea of a northern industrial heiress with a certain independent manner, an orphan. I couldn’t know that The Mesmerist would end up being set in the same year as North and South, nor that the film at least would have a seen at the Crystal Palace (where a good deal of The Mesmerist is set). Finally, when I drew my graphic novel version of The Mesmerist in the fall, I had a certain image in my mind of the cemetery where Dorinda’s husband was buried, and it’s really the same one as the cemetery in Milton in the film. Where did that come from?
Anyway, I’m on a campaign to spread the gospel of North and South everywhere. It’s wonderful!
“Each of these places holds something that I require for my well being, and I have happily allowed them to keep it for me. I’ll admit, I’m not sure I know these places for themselves, rather, I know them in the context of what I want or need them to be. Most of us move through many places in our lives, and only some remain with us. Something out there resonates with something in here.”
Back in September, one of my poems was published in an anthology put together by the Harwood Arts Center in Albuquerque called Looking Back to Place. I didn’t get to the launch party or even to see the volume until December, for obvious reasons, but now looking at the book, I am really proud to be included with such esteemed poets such as Lisa Gill, Robert Woltman, John Brandi, Don McIver, E.A. Mares, and Joy Harjo (plus my 8th grade teacher, Merimée Moffitt). For my first actual book publication, it’s not a bad start. This is a great read, obviously a bit skewed to the Southwest, but a collection of great technical variety. I especially love the way the contents are arranged. For example, the poem before mine shares with my poem the word “dogs” and with the one after it the word “doll”—the poems are arranged by shared words. I have never seen this done before, and agree with editor Susan McAllister, creating an “unexpected and lovely flow.” I was very surprised when I received word that one of my poems was going to be published, but it has been a precedent, the works of mine about place seem to be the most popular. “St Malo” is the poem, and I am still surprised it was chosen considering no one seems to know what it’s about. Obviously it’s about going to St Malo, Brittany, in April 2007, but I doubt that even my travelling companions could tell you what the heck I’m talking about in the poem, which is, er, probably for the best.
The talented artists include Michael Turner, Micah Gunnell, Marcus To, Travis and Jordan Kotzebue, Jason Badower, Staz Johnson, Michael Gaydos, Steven Lejeune, Adam Archer, and Tom Grunnett. However, did you see any women in that list? Nor do any women contribute to the writing. Oh well. A lot of the art reminds me of Fables, prompting me to wonder if some of the artists worked on both, which could certainly be the case. Some of the fill-ins are mildly interesting. “Monsters” shows how Mohinder got the cab driving job in New York (and features some very interesting art of a homicidal goddess Kali). “Snapshots” offers a bit more on D.L.’s story, always a bit thin as presented on TV. In “Bully,” Micah uses his powers to fight back against bullies long before it’s ever seen on screen. A particularly bloody story, “Roadkill,” shows how Sylar gets from point A to point B (killing Charlie). The art, by Jason Badower, is among the most distinctive in the book. Several of the stories, like ones for Parkman and Nathan, offers glimpses of the heroes doing, well, heroic things when no one’s looking. “Life Before Eden” tells us Eden’s back story, which was quite interesting (and yes, somewhat Fables-like), but ends tantalizingly too soon. One of my favorites is “Turning Point” by Christopher Zatta, Micah Gunnell and Marcus To. It pits Sylar and Audrey (Parkman’s partner) in a battle of wits. Another of my favorites is “Hell’s Angel,” which, despite the fact that Claude looks nothing like Christopher Eccleston, is beautifully drawn.
A large chunk of the novel is taken up by the story of Hana Gittelman, “Wireless.” I barely remember her from the TV show (it has been awhile since I saw season 1) but in the very best tradition of fill-ins, the comics give her a long legacy of freedom-fighting, starting with her grandmother in a concentration camp, her mother as one of Israel’s first female fighter plane pilots, etc. You almost sense Hana’s saga could inhabit an entire TV show of its own—in fact, in tone it feels somewhat different to a lot of the other material in the book. She’s drawn almost primarily by Micah Gunnell and written by Aron Eli Colete and Joe Pokaski, so at least the style is consistent. Her story also leads in to “War Buddies,” another large segment that traces how Nathan met Linderman (though I wonder if it’s all rendered non-canonical by season 3?). Since it’s set in Vietnam, it’s again got a different tone, but I think it’s fairly accomplished.
I’m certainly in no position to offer anything other than a friendly critique. Clearly there was a lot of pressure involved in getting the comics web-ready by increasingly frenetic deadlines, and working before the series had even gone out. Perhaps I’m just not fond of the overabundance of digital inking and coloring techniques; I’m a bit old-fashioned in that respect. I’m sure that if I picked up the next volume I would be more prepared for its format. There’s a good interview with Aron Eli Coleite and Joe Pokaski at the end, which gives the comics’ background, and gave this amusing nugget:
So ... are you comic book writers or graphic novelists? Remember, this is how you’ll be defined for the rest of your lives ...
Is there a third choice?