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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Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

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For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

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And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

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Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.

LISTEN: Podcasts of the Year

Over the past couple of weeks, I was reminded of just how important it is to remain humble and nice no matter what.

At Malta Comic Con 2013, I met some truly great and highly accomplished international comic book creators, and as luck (and the efforts of the great Kenneth Scicluna) would have it, I also scored the opportunity to interview Joshua Oppenheimer, the award-winning documentary director of The Act of Killing – arguably the most important film of our generation (with Mr Oppenheimer’s kind permission, I will be reproducing our conversation in full on this blog very soon).

Both of these encounters flew in the face of certain notions we tend to hold about successful and/or famous people: that they’ll look down on anyone not in their position, or that they’re brusque and difficult.

These artists were both on top of their game and very, very polite and accommodating people to boot: which made me chuckle privately to myself as I thought of the pompous figures I’ve met in my time who hadn’t accomplished half as much but still felt the need to peacock about (and having grown up in Malta, the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome is very pervasive).

One of the people I met at the Comic Con was Chris Thompson, the man behind the Pop Culture Hound podcast – a mainstay of discussion on all things comic book related. And because he’s such a nice guy, I’ll open this haphazard list of great podcasts I’ve listened to over the past year (so far) with one of his offerings.

1. Pop Culture Hound Ep. 66: Alan Moore and Lance Parkin

Magic Words

With the help of the Prince Charles Cinema in London, Chris Thompson’s Pop Culture Hound podcast delivers this conversation between comic book luminary and literary magus Alan Moore and his biographer Lance Parkin for all those who couldn’t be present for it on the night.

It’s worth a listen for anyone interested in Alan Moore’s work (obviously) but also for those who care about art and the future of humanity beyond our immediate physical and financial concerns. If that sounds a bit lofty well, it’s because it is. Moore was never one to pull his punches and neither was he ever cagey about embracing ideas that may veer away from the norm (and, perhaps, dangerously into ‘loony’ territory).

This recent conversation is a heartening reminder that the Moore we know and love is very much alive and kicking and that, despite his general grumpiness about the contemporary cultural climate of the world, he always has something magical – the word is not incidental – to offer up to his listeners that will refresh their outlook and inspire them.

2. The History of Byzantium Ep. 15: Justinian

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I came to this one a little late and frankly, I’m a bit miffed – I had been hunting around for a podcast on this very subject for quite a while. It’s a period I’m interested in particularly because it concerns the development of my country of origin – Serbia – while following on from another podcast I used to listen to with relish – Mike Duncan’s excellent The History of Rome.

Host Robin Pierson openly acknowledges that this podcast follows on the heels of The History of Rome both in form and in content – delivering a comprehensive sweep of the period in 20-30 minute chunks.

I haven’t reached all that far into this podcast just yet, but I’m enjoying it very much so far. I’ve chosen the episode dedicated to Emperor Justinian because, as Pierson says, his is a life packed with incident, and is I think in many ways representative of the kind of conflicts that characterised the Byzantine age.

3. Lightspeed Magazine Podcast: A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain by Karin Tidbeck

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One of the reasons I really got into podcasts was because they offered the possibility to enjoy short fiction while ‘on the go’, and in a way that preserves some of that time honoured by sadly fading format of oral storytelling.

Lightspeed Magazine – offering a selection of science fiction and fantasy fiction compiled by master editor John Joseph Adams – is a great venue for varied, colourful work, and Tidbeck’s story is a fine example of how genre fiction can be made to do some great things if the writer in question is a brave, playful and emotionally honest one. I keep coming back to this poignant story about a theatre troupe performing to seemingly nobody, especially because it’s so sensitively narrated by Kelley Catey in its podcast version.

4. VICE Podcast: Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives

The Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) is one of my favourite directors.

His most recent film, Only God Forgives, suffered something of a drubbing at the hands of the critics (and, from what I can tell, a bemused shrug on the part of the general moviegoing audience), but to me it only reaffirmed his alchemical mix of lush visuals, unflinching brutality and his masterful employment of archetypal figures.

So it’s hardly surprising that I enjoyed listening to this expansive interview, which apart from picking apart the engine behind Only God Forgives, draws parallels to some of his previous films – particularly Valhalla Rising, a Viking-era thriller starring Mads Mikkelsen which is reminiscent of both Werner Herzog’s work and Apocalypse now – a cocktail I can’t resist.

And how about you? Any good podcasts you’ve heard recently?