March Update | Space, Cinema Pulp 2017 & Comics Galore!

The tail-end of March has been somewhat hellish for me; with freelance work suddenly clustering together to make sure that I’m sweating my way through my dreams just as a trip to Rome approaches.

Now that I am in Rome and things have calmed down somewhat, I thought I’d put together a digest of the stuff that I’ve been up to, and some stuff I’m looking forward to.

Kinemastik Film Club: Gonzo Space Pulp Takeover in Valletta

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

As of March 15 I’ve had the pleasure of curating the Kinemastik Film Club — Malta’s main source of arthouse cinema, run by the great Slavko Vukanovic and a team of trusty international collaborators — and given both MIBDUL and the upcoming release of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I thought I’d choose films that fit that particular bill.

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Barbarella (1968)

Kicking off with Barbarella — which the audience laughed heartily with — and continuing on with Mario Bava’s corny but atmospheric Planet of the Vampires — which the audience laughed heartily at — this Wednesday (March 29) we continue our gonzo journey with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It’s a film that’s both weird and strangely life-affirming, and I’m sure the reaction of all those present will be a lot more varied than it was for the previous two movies. But I do expect some baffled smiles throughout.

John Wick: Chapter 2, Logan, Kong: Skull Island and The Welcome Return of Pulp Cinema

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

But things have also been good on the mainstream cinema front; and I’ve been happy to review some tentpole releases — for a change — which left me feeling like my time and money wasn’t entirely wasted while watching them, while also somewhat restoring my faith in the idea that Hollywood can actually exist to simply entertain us, and not just be a financial placeholder for studios to make money off stale franchises.

The body-count heavy action sequel and pin-sharp pastiche John Wick: Chapter 2 remains king of that particular crop so far, with an oddly intricate internal mythology lending a full-bodied, Campbellian twist to its ludicrous but fun, and bordering on sheer supernatural fantasy, universe of assassins operating under a strictly — and bureaucratically — imposed moral code.

Ramping up the violence and overall pizzazz that has made the original something of a dark horse among contemporary trash cinema, the sequel is a balletic tour-de-force of hyper-violence that refines its pastiche so perfectly it’s hard to believe a human being, and not a machine, has put it together. And for once, that can stand as high praise.

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Logan (2017)

Logan, on the other hand, was made all the better for being more human than its other superhero counterparts. Gone is the upbeat flash of Marvel cinema and the dark gloss and machismo of DC’s attempts at the same — this is a swansong for grizzled hero that leaks blood, sweat and tears in every frame.

It’s still a sort-of ‘Greatest Hits’ collection of some of the finest of dystopian work out there — it’s essentially a superhero flick with filtered through Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men — but all of this is woven into the proceedings with a strange kind of grace, which is helped along by a couple of great, earnest performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in particular.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Less human than either but certainly less nihilistic than both, Kong: Skull Island is a low-key triumph of actually-good CGI and devil-may-care pulp storytelling. Set pieces like a gas-mask-clad Tom Hiddleston katana-ing his way through subterranean evil lizards and the titular Grand Ape smashing military helicopters into each other to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid are not to be sniffed at, and while notably lacking in any character development that convinces, here’s a film that finally lets us have some fun, and saves the potential franchise-building for the post-credits sequence.

COMICS! Enforcers and Vampire Hunters and Once Again, MIBDUL

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Doctor Strange: new ongoing series written by Jason Aaron with art by Chris Bachalo

I’ve also had some pulpy fun with comics lately, devouring the Jason Aaron/Chris Bachalo (and others) run on Doctor Strange to the point where I’m fully caught up with the series, and looking forward for the next issue to drop. Which makes my current monthly comics stack look something like: Doctor AphraGreen ValleyThe WildstormInjection (gotta have that Warren Ellis fix) and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I have a feeling that comics are doing okay as far as a steady drip of quality titles is concerned.

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Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 — written by Brian Funk with art by Artyom Trakhanov

There have also been a couple of fun first issues I’ve had the pleasure of delving into. The first one is a little bit special, given that I got it as a proud Kickstarter patron. Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 plunges us into a world that’s part film noir, part Lovecraft and part Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, only it’s all far more grizzled and far less forgiving. The art runs the gamut from great to slightly patchy, with a rough cross-hatching style that sometimes feels dynamic and cool but at other times is the wrong side of messy. But writer Brian Funk (yes, really) has created a fun world that I look forward to spending some time in.

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On the other hand, I’ve already experienced the world of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, and enjoyed it so much that picking up Anno Dracula #1 — the new comic book adaptation of the same book series penned by Newman himself, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey and published by Titan Comics — was something on a no-brainer. Newman’s witty and reference-happy trudge through vampire lore is very much in evidence, while McCaffrey’s thick outlines really accentuate the Gothic pastiche feel of the entire endeavour (as if to say: ‘we know we’re propping up the old as the new, and we want to go all out’).

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I was alerted to the fact that the Anno Dracula novels were getting their own comic book adaptation courtesy of Chris Thompson, who was also kind enough to interview Inez and myself during last year’s edition of Malta Comic Con, and who also participated in a discussion on superhero cinema and whether or no it’s ‘ruining’ comics — chaired by Gorg Mallia and which also included my print media counterpart Ramona Depares, and myself — during that same edition of the Con.

If you can get over the annoying phone static that dogs his interview with Inez and myself — and which starts roughly around the 1:04:00 mark — you’ll get to hear us talk about the genesis of MIBDUL and what keeps us going. You’ll also get to hear a Maltese bus actually showing up at its stop. Which is a true rarity, I can assure you.

Meanwhile, April should be off to a fun start as I get to give a talk about my struggles and euphorias with storytelling at the Campus Book Festival — that’s happening on April 4 at 11:00. Hope to see you Malta-based peeps there!

Featured photo: Finding freelance bliss at Rome’s Caffe’ Letterario

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By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

Please support MIBDUL on Patreon

February Updates: Shakespeare, historical fiction & the latest in MIBDUL

It’s not February yet but it will be soon enough, and in these times of uncertainty and stress I figured it wouldn’t be so bad to start listing (and celebrating) some of things I’m excited about for the near future.

First up, though — something from the very recent past. 

MIBDUL: latest process video from Inez Kristina

Done for our $10+ Patrons, I’m really loving this fully narrated process video from Inez, detailing how she goes about structuring a page in general, and page 10 of MIBDUL’s first issue in particular.

Of course it would be thrilling for me to see my words come to life as pictures at any stage, but seeing the page at such an early, raw stage has its own particular pleasures. For one thing, it’s good to see that, raw as the sketches are at this stage, Inez has a firm grip of both the geography of the spaces and the overall mood of the characters.

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This certainly goes a long way to put me at ease as the writer of MIBDUL — knowing that the script will be rendered in a way that is both faithful and impressive in its own right — but it’s also heartening to discover that Inez understands the vibe of MIBDUL in a very intimate way. Successful communication is the key to all collaboration, and I think we’re riding a good wave here.

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It’s also interesting to hear Inez speak about how her approach to the pages has changed of late; namely that instead of painstakingly rendering each page one by one, she’s decided to start sketching out several pages all at once, so as to get a better sense of how the storytelling should flow without getting bogged down by details and drained by the process too early.

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Funnily enough, it mirrors my own turn with the writing of late: for similar reasons — to speed up the process in a way that matches the flow of the story — I’ve decided to go ‘Marvel method’ on the latter half of scriptwriting process; partly because dialogue is the most challenging part of it all for me, and partly because I think seeing the page laid out by Inez will inspire me to write dialogue that is both succinct and relevant to the flow of the story.

Please consider following our Patreon journey — it would mean a lot to us. Really. 

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello: Gothic pastiche for an illustrious judge

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Like MIBDUL, my contribution to the bi-lingual historical fiction volume Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — to be launched at some point in February in honour of the same judge’s 80th birthday — is yet another collaboration with Merlin Publishers, who have been a pleasure to work with ever since they oversaw the publication of my debut novel, TWO.

To say that this was a fun commission would be a massive understatement. Basically, the judge being honoured by this volume — the poshest birthday present imaginable, am I right? — was also something of an historian, and the personages he wrote about were ‘assigned’ to each of us writers to spin a fictional yarn out of. And I will forever be grateful to Merlin’s head honcho Chris Gruppetta for giving me what is possibly the most sensational and salacious character of the lot: Caterina Vitale, a Renaissance-era “industrial prostitute”, torturer of slaves and — paradoxically — beloved patron of the Carmelite Order.

Of course, I went to town with this one. High on the then still-ongoing Penny Dreadful — and hammering out the short story to the haunting and dulcet tones of that show’s soundtrack by the inimitable Abel Korzeniowski — I liberally crafted something that is both a pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, all set against the backdrop of a Malta fresh from the Great Siege.

I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on this gorgeous-looking book — designed by Pierre Portelli with illustrations by Marisa Gatt — if only because I look forward to checking out how my fellow TOC-mates tackled the raw material of Bonello’s historical output.

The Bard at the Bar: Debating Shakespeare

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On February 8 at 19:00, I will be moderating a panel discussion on whether the works of William Shakespeare are relevant to the Maltese theatre scene — and Malta at large — and if so, how to make them feel more accessible and vital to the widest possible audiences.

The brainchild of actor, director and journalist Philip Leone-Ganado of WhatsTheirNames Theatre, the debate will, significantly, take place at The Pub in Archbishop Street, Valletta, aka the place where Oliver Reed keeled over and died after consuming an obscene amount of alcohol while on a break from filming Gladiator back in 1999.

More recently, the venue has accommodated the very first edition of ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ — a production of the Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Ganado himself last year — and another one is in the offing for 2017.

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

The lively, unpretentious and game production certainly felt to me like a step in the right direction as far as making Shakespeare more vibrant and relevant was concerned, so I think the Pub is as good a place as any to keep that inspired momentum going with a good discussion.

And it should certainly make for a satisfying debate, given that apart from Ganado himself, the panel will be composed by James Corby (Head of Department of English at the University of Malta and hence offering some academic weight to the proceedings), Polly March (director of the upcoming MADC Shakespeare summer production — the ritualised and established intake of Shakespeare for the island) and Sean Buhagiar, head of the newly-established Teatru Malta and someone deeply concerned with nudging the local theatrical scene out of its usual comfort zones.

So do come along to hear us talk. And feel free to shout your questions and comments over a pint, or ten. Just don’t crank it up to Oliver Reed levels, please.

MIBDUL | Free prints for Patreon backers

First off: I have returned! 

Evidence of serious Scottish humour in Edinburgh

Evidence of serious Scottish humour in Edinburgh

Yep, on the off chance anyone’s listening… I’ve just come back from a very inspiring trip to the UK which encompassed a stop to the ever-gorgeous Edinburgh, as well as the not-exactly-gorgeous Scarborough.

Scarborough, however, played host to Fantasy Con by the Sea — aka this year’s edition of the British Fantasy Society’s annual celebration of fantasy and horror literature, rounded off by the Society’s prestigious awards, the most notable of which were this year snatched up the likes of Naomi Novik, Catriona Ward and Ellen Datlow.

I’ll be blogging more about the trip in general (and the Con in particular) very soon, but first, I’d like to big up a more immediate creative concern.

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So, we’re doing a six-issue comic book series called MIBDUL.

(‘We’ being myself and the awesome artist Inez Kristina)

We’ve got a Patreon page running.

And we’re offering free prints on it RIGHT NOW

You can follow this here link to find out all about the giveaway, and root around the very same Patreon page for more information on the comic itself, which will be Malta’s very first serialized comic, and should also be a hoot for fans of Star Wars, HP Lovecraft, Guillermo del Toro and all those concerned with the alarming facts of the Anthropocene Era (no, really).

You’ve got until Tuesday to avail yourself of the free prints offer, but I do so hope you will also support us in the long run.

Watch this space for more… of Mibdul, and other stuff too.

From the day job: Bats vs Supes and Norse sagas now

Signal to nothing: Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Signal to nothing: Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I had a couple of fun articles out in last Sunday’s edition of MaltaToday.

One of them is a review of that obscure indie film that’s garnering obscene amounts of critical attention, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The other was actually satisfying to research and execute: an interview with Icelandic poet and fiction writer Gerður Kristný, who will be visiting our shores on the occasion of the Campus Book Festival, taking place at the alma mater this midweek.

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The fight of the century? Hardly. Loving Batfleck’s chunky digs though.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was, to my eyes, clumsy and misguidedly grandiloquent as its chunky title would suggest. And while there’s no love lost between me and Zack Snyder – much to his pained consternation, I’m sure – I didn’t go into the film as a hater, and wanted to enjoy it as, at least, the kind of omnishambles mess of the Jupiter Ascending ilk.

Alas, the film was a plethora of missed opportunities for fun and games because it was clearly all about setting up a future franchise to compete with Marvel’s already far-advanced “shared universe”, and while the film got a lot of flack for being joyless due to Snyder’s continued efforts to ape Christopher Nolan’s billions-raking reinvention of Batman, I think the real reason it felt bereft of the adrenaline jolt of pulpy fun was that it wasn’t in fact allowed to be pulp because it needed to do double-duty in setting up DC’s response to the Marvel behemoth, asap.

Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir

Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir

Gerður Kristný told me quite a few interesting things, but perhaps the most striking are the following:

“The original meaning of the word stupid (‘heimskur’) in Icelandic refers to the one that is always at home (‘heim’). People believed it would bring wisdom to leave your island and travel. We still believe so.”

“Coming from a country not many people know gives you opportunity to reinvent yourself, make up stories about yourself and your country.”

There was also some stuff about the Icelandic landscape and the island’s much vaunted literary culture – and what I loved is that no bubbles were burst in my conception of what looks to be a truly magical place, which I hope I’ll get to visit some day soon.

Loneliness relief: collaboration & writing

Having slogged three years to write a debut novel – that’s really a novella – I’m finding myself more and more drawn to collaboration as a default mode of planning for and engaging in future projects.

It’s partly to do with wanting a fresh start – Two was revelatory and educational to write, but also a fearful trudge with no apparent end in sight (personal matters which coloured the narrative itself, and others that didn’t, further cast a shadow on the experience).

But it’s also simply down to that alchemy of opportunity and the desire to experiment with different forms. As is the same with most of my generational colleagues – I suppose – experiencing fiction was always a multi-media experience for me: what with cartoons, comics, video games, cinema and literature usually existing side-by-side, and even more so now that ‘media convergence’ is such a blatant aspect of everyday life that even the term itself sounds redundant.

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A comic book project of mine is currently on the rocks, but some TV/film based stuff might just take off. Either way, the process of creation for each of these things was markedly different to what I experienced with the novel.

Brewing largely in my head throughout its three-year conception period, Two was as obstinate and unwieldy a draft of novel that you can imagine – perhaps more true than ever in this case, with a parallel narrative structure defining its contours.

The new projects, on the other hand, are being put together in an atmosphere of constant dialogue – quite literally,  plot points and character beats are drafted in conversation (with a whiteboard and marker never too far behind).

I’m finding it to be a great way of busting out of the warrens of endless possibility on the one hand, crippling self-doubt on the other, which tend to characterise the pitfalls of writing prose fiction from scratch. Collaboration both gets you out of your own head to enjoy some fresh air, and forces you to ‘make your case’ to another person at every turn.

Discovering the joys of structure mechanisms for storytelling is also something of a revolution for me. Again, like most people I know – or know of – I was initially sceptical of applying any form of overt structure to any piece of fiction I write a priori. For the usual reasons, of course: takes the fun out of it, ruins spontaneity, etc. Breaking out of that prejudice and exploring these options is proving to be far more liberating that I’d previously thought. But that’s something I’d like to talk about further in a future blog.

Here’s hoping that you’ll also hear more about the aforementioned projects here soon. Meanwhile, click here for all you need to know about Two, including where to order it from.

The Films That Never Were | Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul & The Death of Superman Lives

Poster for Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted attempt at making Dune

The practically back-to-back release of three documentaries about films that never ended up being made makes for quite the wistful (and geeky) movie marathon, but it’s also a great exercise for the imagination and a jumping-off point for other artists to maybe get inspired to do something similar.

I’m talking, of course, about the trifecta made up of Jodorowksy’s Dune, Lost Soul and most recently The Death of Superman Lives. With ‘Dune’ being the most intriguing and richest of the bunch, it’s also garnered the most attention so far, in large part thanks to the charismatic, loquacious presence of its central protagonist, the cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, as well as the totemic reputation of another key cook in the abortive Dune broth – pioneering French comic book artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.

Frank Pavich’s film sets the tone for this strand of documentary, balancing industry gossip with insights into the artistic process, and so feeding our curiosity from two different angles. We get to hear about ‘Jodo’ wrangling with studio execs, convincing the likes of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Pink Floyd to join what was already becoming a movable feast of a film.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, seen here with the totemic book of storyboards for Dune

Alejandro Jodorowsky, seen here with the totemic book of storyboards for Dune

But by dint of the fact that Moebius had completed the storyboards for the film long before the film went into (ultimately doomed) production, Pavich’s film also has the luxury of being the most visually arresting of the three films we’re discussing here, giving us a presumably accurate approximation of what Jodoroswky’s film may have looked like.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is also, perhaps, the most ‘culturally significant’ film of the three, because the fallout of the project then paved the way for likes of HR Giger and Dan O’Bannon to assert their influence on that other sci-fi behemoth – Ridley Scott’s Alien – to say nothing of how the would-be Dune’s reputation had a ripple effect that helped give rise to the likes of Star Wars.

Though all of the three projects were ultimately felled by a common enemy – film studios getting cold feet over what were essentially sprawling, avant-garde projects – this predicament is felt most keenly in Lost Soul, directed by David Gregory and charting the demise of director Richard Stanley’s attempt to make The Island of Dr Moreau.

Concept art for Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr Moreau

Concept art for Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau

Eventually released in 1996 thanks to the efforts of a new director, John Frankenheimer, the Marlon Brando-starring stinker had a far more interesting – read: disastrous – behind-the-scenes story, owing in no small part to its exotic Australian location. Being the most ‘advanced’ project of three – for whatever it’s worth, the film was actually completed – its make-up is slightly different to that of Jodorowsky’s Dune or The Death of Superman Lives… but only to a point.

We’re here to lament the loss of Stanley’s proposed visionary take on HG Wells’s classic novel, the film suggests, and the fact that a bastardized version was sent to die to the theaters is irrelevant – if anything, it’s yet another twist of the knife.

Lost Soul is mostly talking heads and some piecemeal archive footage – there’s a disappointing scarcity of concept art on display – but its narrative does boast a universally appealing backbone: the tragic story of a misunderstood eccentric crushed by bean-counting and nervous executives (there’s a more tenuous connection too – Stanley can also be counted among the talking heads in Jodorowsky’s Dune).

Richard Stanley, holding the Dog Man mask he used to sneak his way onto the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after he was fired

Richard Stanley, holding the Dog Man mask he used to sneak his way onto the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after he was fired

Though Jodorowsky is hardly the pinnacle of well-adjusted normality, and though would-be director of Superman Lives Tim Burton has built a career out of marketing himself as an ‘outsider’, it’s only Stanley who comes across as the true eccentric of the bunch. Dressed all in black and sporting a hat at all times, a believer in the power of witchcraft (as bolstered and made somewhat more intellectually palatable by his background as an anthropologist), Stanley arrives to the project with plenty of interesting things to say, and a passion to lend a relevant, contemporary spin on Wells’s story while fully respecting its historical and intellectual history.

Things are, of course, not as black and white as all that, and what also emerges is how unsuited Stanley was for such a large scale project. Fresh off cult hits Hardware and Dust Devil, Stanley was a stranger to big studio films and hardly inspired confidence on set – refusing to have meetings and clearly not being comfortable with the demands of such a production.

To say nothing of dealing with the egos of the likes of Val Kilmer, whose fee ballooned the budget to ridiculous proportions, putting further pressure on an already strained shoot (to say nothing of the fact that he had reduced shooting days, and acted like a complete dick on set).

Still, the documentary suggests that Stanley had a healthy clutch of supporters, and that even the film’s producers were sympathetic to his overall aims and wanted what was best for the film.

Actress Fairuza Balk, who found a kindred bohemian spirit in Stanley, comes across as his most impassioned defender in Gregory’s film, and her immediate reaction to Stanley being eventually fired from the production makes for a hilarious anecdote.

By contrast to the two other films, The Death of Superman Lives is a conversation with high-powered industry individuals who, despite the project never getting off the ground (hur hur) remained comfortable in their careers and weathered this (very expensive) storm in the end.

Poster for Death of Superman Lives

Whereas Stanley went into exile after being fired from ‘Moreau’ – first in Australia, then to the Montsegur commune in France – Tim Burton was allowed to continue his career in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood virtually unimpeded… although, as one-time screenwriter for the project Wesley Strick tellingly suggests, he hasn’t scaled the heights of its potential ever since.

Directed and narrated by Jon Schnepp – who is seen chatting to all of the interviewees – the partially Kickstarter-funded documentary has a rough-around-the-edges feel to it.

Sound quality fluctuates throughout and a disproportionate amount of the running time is dedicated to the costume Nic Cage would have worn for the film – perhaps betraying the ‘fanboy’ nature of Schnepp’s project (where dwelling on seemingly superficial accoutrements becomes a matter of cultish fetishisation).

But barring Nic Cage – whose presence is nonetheless felt through the use of now-totemic archive footage of costume fittings – Schnepp manages to assemble all of they key players involved in the cancelled production to have their say (on this point he gets one over ‘Lost Soul’, in which the absence of Kilmer and fellow actors David Thewlis and Ron Pearlman is keenly felt).

Giant spider! Pre-production concept art for Superman Lives

Giant spider! Pre-production concept art for Superman Lives

If nothing else, the film is a treasure trove of concept art. The jump to a high-budget production of this kind from Dune and ‘Moreau’ is made all the more evident by just how many varied talents were brought in to help bring Burton’s vision to life, and Schnepp succeeds in bringing the wild, colorful panoply into relief.

But for better or for worse – and despite a somewhat woozy presence from Burton himself – the key attraction remains producer Jon Peters. A former hairdresser with claims to bona fide street cred (at one point he tells Schnepp he was in “five hundred fights”), he comes across as a well-meaning nuisance at best, a bully at worst. He’s a fervent believer in the project but clearly also the product of the deluded Hollywood machine; 20 percent substance and 80 percent bullshit.

Tales of wondrous projects squashed by the machinery of ‘reality’, these films give breathing space to a pop culture landscape rapidly losing any heterogeneity in the name of financial security.

Perhaps they’re also a by-product of the internet age, in which nothing remains hidden for long, and where film fans become pseudo-historians and archivists by proxy. Whatever the case, I hope that they end up serving as cautionary tales above all, rather than just harmless curiosities.

The Joker Is Wild: Celebrating 75 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime

The Joker by Brian Bolland

The Joker by Brian Bolland

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Joker with a small conference dedicated to the Clown Prince of Crime’s ‘life and works’ last Saturday, and it served as a good reminder of how refreshing academic inquiry could be when placed actually outside an academic context.

Organised by Euro Media Forum and chaired by my good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone  – who also gave an lucid an insightful paper on the Joker and Batman as a comedy double-act  – the event may not have been terribly well attended, but it did inspire an convivial atmosphere of open discussion and debate which wasn’t about intellectual one-upmanship but genuine passion for the subject matter, and a desire to get at it – him – from as many angles as possible.

 Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Running the gamut from conversational ‘geeky’ presentations and more scholarly insights into the Joker as a key character of Batman lore across various media (comics, film, animation and video game), we heard presentations which delved into Joker’s design history, evil clowns in pop culture, and how the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger film-Jokers compare to each other; as well as the idea of the Joker as a demiurge, the Joker’s smile as a traumatic ‘wound’ (with all the symbolic weight that the image implies) and the socio-political imagery of both the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger Jokers (that would be me).

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

It was an unabashedly geeky way to spend a Saturday, of course, but a part of me felt very proud of the fact that we got together to pay tribute to the Joker – one of my favourite characters in fiction – in such a concerted and dedicated way. The main take-away insight from it all – if we could reduce it to just one – is that the Joker’s familiar-but-amorphous nature is what makes him such an enduring – and enduringly scary – villain. He is equal parts prankster, psychopath, terrorist and trickster – sometimes embodying just one of those characteristics at a given time, other times (more often than not, it seems) amalgamating all of those things in garish and dangerous brew.

Illustration by Greg Capullo

Illustration by Greg Capullo

In short, I think he’s secured himself the role of an archetype worth remembering, celebrating and returning to.

Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.

Inspiration | Mad Magus Artist Documentaries

Moebius' Arzach

Moebius’ Arzach

Call it glorified procrastination (then again, what isn’t?) or a genuine pursuit of inspiration, but there are few things I love more than watching documentaries about creators I admire.

The release of Jodorowsky’s Dune (which my friend Marco incidentally nattered about on recently over at Schlock Magazine), coupled with the sad passing of HR Giger, made me think of this again, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of my favourites – all of which are thankfully available online.

I know I’ll be returning to this list every now and then for an inspiration top-up. Feel free to suggest any others I may have missed.

In Search of Moebius

The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

H.R. Giger Revealed

*

Incidentally, did some more nattering of my own, this time into the ears of the protean Maltese lifestyle web-hub, Malta Inside Out.