Graphically superior

When I speak to many enlightened people about graphic novels, there’s typically a common theme. Whilst it’s what they are most frequently associated with, most folk that I know don’t tend to read Superhero stories. I don’t know why, maybe they are seen as being a bit beneath them, or maybe, with so many to choose from, they just don’t know what to try.

Let me see if I can help. I know that world of Superhero-dom can be a confusing one, with a multitude of characters each with long histories and back stories a-plenty, but they aren’t all like that, and many of the better modern writers can draw from that history and make them accessible and likeable. Or they can just give a tasty morsel of a story with familiar characters and no background reading required.

With those requirements in mind, here are some of my favourite Superhero graphic novels (or trade paperbacks) that I hope will be enjoyable and not frustrating…

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer : This DC based story sees many DC heroes well-known, and not so well known, finding that someone is attacking their loved ones rather than themselves. Even with several less well-known characters taking the fore-ground there’s plenty to enjoy and be engrossed by. With a story that is more of a whodunnit than a series of fisticuffs and plenty of drama and tragedy along the way. (If you like this then try “Tornado’s Path” again by Meltzer with a twisted take on Pinocchio as super-robot Red Tornado get’s his wish of becoming human made a reality.)

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller : It’s so obvious I feel daft putting it in here. A must-read for anyone with any passing interest in graphic novels of any kind. With an elderly Batman being forced out of retirement in a world where many others have fallen or been twisted by time, this story helped to redefine Batman and remains a classic of its type. (If you like this, then try Frank Miller’s more recent take on Batman with “All star Batman and Robin”, a reworking of Robin’s origin story and a hard-hitting take on what makes the pair tick.)

Marvels by Kurt Busiek : A walk through the beginnings of many Marvel Universe heroes told through the eyes of a reporter. Beautifully drawn – or rather, painted – by Alex Ross and with an emphasis on the impact that the rise of all major Marvel heroes had on the world around them.

JLA : Earth 2 by Grant Morrison – A very easy to pick up and read JLA story. The Justice League come under attack from another dimensions’ version of Justice League called the Crime Syndicate. Is it a battle that either side can ever really win? (An even easier to pick up, but with no established superheroes in it, book by the excellent Grant Morrison is We3. To quote a fellow comic book lover, “the best cat/dog/rabbit superhero story I’ve read”.)

Empire by Mark Waid : Again, a nice story to just pick up and an interesting take on the whole superhero story. In this one, they’ve lost. A Doctor Doom like supervillian called Golgoth has conquered almost the entire world, fighting a one-sided battle against a few who try to fight on. It’s dark and got some pretty unpleasant scenes in it, but i think it’s a real treat to read and there’s nothing else like it.

Top 10 by Alan Moore : Everyone knows Moore from “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, or “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, but for me, “Top 10” is one of his finest moments. In an incredible world where everyone is has a superpower filled to the brim with cheeky little jokes and imaginative ideas, the police force of Top 10 have to try and deal with a variety of superpowered crimes. Ranging from a Jack The Ripper-esque prostitute murderer to an invisible sex pest, with a dash of superpowered drugs and deicide thrown in, this sits comfortable with the rest of Moore’s excellent work and so far no-one’s upset him by making a film about it either!

Geoff John’s revival of Green Lantern : I’m going to put this in here mainly because i think it’s awesome. If you start at the beginning with “Secret Origin” and “Rebirth” you shouldn’t struggle too much with moving onto the Sinestro Corps Wars, which is chock full of epic battles and rich characters. A bit more work is required to span the gap between Sinestro Corps Wars and Blackest Night – which again is incredible – as Geoff introduces Lantern’s for each colour of the spectrum. It’s well worth the effort though and has plenty of shock twists and brilliant story-telling.

Published in: on 20/12/2010 at 2:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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What went….right?!

For her recent birthday our resident rock chicklet, Mrs Bull, was given a book about the Zomb-ocalypse: World War Z. Now putting aside the review of this tome (penned by the offspring of Mr Mel Brooks) until the birthday girl has read the thing, I thought I’d reflect on the canon of distopia which has peppered English literature throughout the last 100-odd years. In the guise of genuine classics like Brave New World, 1984, The Machine Stops, V for Vendetta, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep we have been given terrifying glimpses into the not-too-distant. I’m certainly not complaining, but none of these visions has even come close to coming to pass. Not one hint of human fertility declining, absolutely zero suspicion of a secret fascisitic state growing in power, and (despite Daily Mail headlines) the Government is singularly failing to watch our every move and control our every thought.

For all the failings of this slightly disappointing world in which we live I suspect the sheer weight of numbers just won’t allow things to get that bad. Of course, slightly underhand things have gone on. Kings and dictators have risen and created havoc, but the people have always stuck back. So far, nothing has really threatened to end it all through our terrible decisions as human beings. I guess this is somewhat an anthropic argument, but for one it makes me rather pleased about the nature of human spirit. At heart we really don’t fancy ending it all as a species. But of course that doesn’t make for particularly interesting books.

Posted by: Adam

Published in: on 15/11/2010 at 10:39 pm  Comments (7)  

What Are The Odds?

Last night I was playing poker with my friends from work and a popular and oft quoted poker conundrum was brought up once again.  Now, I know many of you have absolutely no interest in poker at all, but as Adam has recently started a thread on stock trading and likened that to gambling, I figured I would try and transpose that problem to the world of trading to get some opinions from people.

Imagine, if you will, that you had decided to dabble in the stock market and had invested $10,000.  However, you have an imposed time limit of 1 week on your trading. For almost 7 days you play the markets, spending up to 15 hours a day concentrating furiously on your goal, and after some impressive gambling you have increased the value of your shares to $5.5 million.  That’s a good week’s work!  It’s getting close to midnight on that last day when suddenly you get an intriguing proposition. An opportunity arises to invest your money in some shares that have been fluctuating wildly throughout the week, but by carefully watching the markets you know that you have a better than average chance that if you invest all you money in this company then your shares will be up to $9 million when you are forced to sell.  However, there’s also a reasonable chance that you will lose $1.5 million and be left with “only” $4 million.  Alternatively, you can just walk away with your $5.5 million right now. 

So, what do you do?  It’s a one time only deal, you won’t get the chance ever again, and you know that the stats say that most of the time you’ll walk away with extra $3.5 million.  Even if you do gamble and lose $1.5 million, you’ve still got $4 million for your troubles, that’s a good return on $10,000 and a week’s work.  But is it worth taking the risk? Answers on a keyboard to the usual address.

Posted by Si

Published in: on 14/11/2010 at 10:08 pm  Comments (4)  

Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve

In the interests of doing something a little different on my birthday, and being a big fan of the great outdoors, I decided to visit Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve near Farleigh with my parents, Rob, Elliot and the dog. I often go to Lloyd Park, which I consider an undiscovered treasure of Croydon, as it is generally very sparsely populated when I visit. However, much as I love it, there are still parts which are undeniably Croydon, with blown litter and a burnt-out scooter on my last visit detracting from the park’s natural beauty. Besides, I wanted to find something to do which was different but which would cost nothing. So, I recalled Selsdon Wood from my National Trust guidebook, and off we went. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit. The autumn colours were exquisite, the area is vast, there is little discernible traffic noise, and hardly any other people. Greatest of all, it’s very close to most of us, but feels pretty rural. Anyone for a picnic?

Posted by: Liv

Published in: on 09/11/2010 at 9:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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Break the mold, build the tension

Monday night is Spooks night for Michelle and myself. I was never interested in watching it, but Michelle had been a fan since the beginning and as is often the way with couples her interest became mine. I now really enjoy it, glad to have been influenced by Michelle’s TV choice, and I relish the tension of the cut-throat world of modern espionage and the incredible cliffhangers.

Last week’s was particularly tense, to the point I found myself holding my breath. One of the characters seemed in dire peril, and with so many series ending with a shock death, it seemed like they were for it. Glancing at the clock I could see that there was 5 minutes left, surely not enough time for them to be saved and a great way to end a series.

But it wasn’t the end of the series. Whilst watching it I didn’t know this. All I knew was that it would end after an hour, giving me a possible clue as to what may or may not happen.

I have a voracious appetite for TV programmes and if you look beyond the mass-produced drivel there are many gems to be found. They all, however, suffer from one problem, one that i honestly don’t know if it could ever be fixed. They all have to last for a pre-defined period of time. Be it an hour, 45 minutes, half hour, 22 minutes, whatever it is, you know when it will end. This, in my mind, takes power away from the narration. If you didn’t know when it would end, would you be more drawn in?

A little research into why TV programmes are the length they are – a waste of time it turns out, it’s all down to money and scheduling – did make something apparent that i hadn’t either realised or appreciated. The traditional notion of the episodic story all comes down to the story of “1001 nights”.

The story is of a woman who, to save her life each day, tells her captor a story. The story ends each night with a cliffhanger that keeps her alive until the next night when she tells the next part of the story. It’s the use of cliffhangers and narrative hooks that has been carried over into mass storytelling of all formats, not just tv. The problem is we expect it. You know when it’s coming, you knows it at the end, and you know when the end is. Doesn’t really help build the tension, does it?

Here’s my idea to fix this. Make a tv series where the number of episodes is unknown and the length of the episodes varies. It might be necessary to create a block of programmes grouped together. Say two or even three programmes sharing two hours between them. To start off, they’re all the same length, if nothing else but to allow the viewer to get used to the idea. If there’s three, then 30 minutes each, plenty of time for adverts if needed, and traditional enough to not scare most people away. Of course, you will have to end them all with cliffhangers and they would have to be of a common enough genre to make the target audience happy to sit through all of them.

The next week you change things. One of them gets 50 minutes, one 25, and the last one 15. Maybe change the position of the ad breaks around, something which no doubt will take some execs some convincing to allow, and make some of the breaks smaller and some of them slightly longer. The week after that, leave one of the shows out altogether, and again change the lengths of the programmes on offer. The key thing, is to not allow the audience to know when it’s all going to be over.

(Thinking about it though, isn’t this how a good story with a complicated plot works. Many threads all woven together, some go unresolved and hang in the air, others are the focus of entire episodes. Maybe the only way would be to actually not specify the length of the slot at all. Instead find other unrelated stories to fill the gaps. Something which I really don’t know would ever work. Or maybe it’s considered standard for most stories to either focus on one plot only, to avoid confusing the viewer, or to share time for different plots, to avoid potentially annoying the viewer!)

If the basic format of my grand idea is nothing but a description of a well written and complicated tv series, maybe the final piece could be different. Avoiding traditional series length’s. In the UK, make it five parts. For the US, maybe 17. Here I can see that less would definitely be more. Alternatively break it up into smaller pieces, 8 episodes but broken up over the course of a year so that you get a blocks of 3, 3, and 2. Don’t tell anyone that this is what’s planned. Maybe the 2 could be at Christmas but don’t announce until the end of the last 3.

Of course, something like this will require some pretty hardcore writing and would no doubt be a hard sell for any and everyone involved. Would an actor be happy to see his role slashed one week and then find himself overwhelmed the next? Maybe you could have the same cast act in each show, or make the three shows compliment each other in other ways. Different takes on the same events, crossing over of characters, stories set before, after and during some interesting event. (As I write this, the more I can see this only being something that would ever work in the realm of science fiction programmes where cross-over and spin-offs abound.)

It all feels like a pipe-dream to me. Wishful thinking. (Or nothing other than a dream of a multi-plot series with some really decent writers that avoid clichés.) For now I think all i can really do is hide the clocks, avoid reading tv schedules, and hope I forget how many episodes of my favourite series I have already seen.


Published in: on 06/11/2010 at 8:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Diary Of A Dead XBox Owner * (Updated)

(* It’s the XBox that is dead, not the owner!)

Sunday 12th July – Today at midday my XBox died.  Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.  Spent a few hours on the internet trying to work out if I could fix it myself but then gave in and sent off e-mail to Microsoft support.  Watched 2 DVDs and played Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 on the PC for the rest of the day to keep myself occupied.  My roller coasters also broke. Typical.

Monday 13th July – Got reply back from Microsoft while I was at work but decided to wait until I got home to read it as I’m not supposed to check web e-mail in the office.  Spent extra long in the gym after work as no need to rush home. Tried to use the shoulder press machine but the seat broke when I sat on it.  *Sigh*  Went home and read e-mail from Microsoft and discovered I needed a printer to print out a label, so decided I would have to do it work after all.  Played more Roller Coaster Tycoon.

Tuesday 14th July – Got into work early and went onto the Xbox website to sort out the repair before other people got in and started asking questions.  Discovered that the website is blocked by my company’s web filter.  Arse.  Decided to do some work instead but then had power cut which meant my computer didn’t work for the rest of the day even though everyone else in the office seemed to be okay.  I’m starting to wonder if I’ve enraged some gypsy women or something.  Back at home I managed to complete the Xbox registration and log my repair request, at which point I discovered that the thing I needed to print would be e-mailed me to, so I could have done that on the Monday night after all.  Ho hum.  Went to football, scored 2 goals (both in the right goal) and didn’t break anything.

Wednesday 15th July – Got into work and thankfully the UPS website isn’t blocked so I printed out my UPS label.  Discovered that Sam still had the box they sent his Xbox back in so went round after work and pinched that.  When I got home I packaged everything up and then watched “Vicky Christina Barcelona”.  The only thing that broke was my heart when I realised Scarlett Johansen will never go out with me.  Damn that Ryan Reynolds!

Thursday 16th July – Took my packaged XBox to the UPS depot this morning to drop it off.  Turns out that it was the wrong depot thanks to some dodgy directions from their website.  Finally found the right one, the guy behind the desk took one look at me as I walked in and said “XBox?” So much for Microsoft’s cunning plan of ensuring it remains unrecognisable during transit.  Still, it’s on its way now.  Went to the gym after work again, burnt off another 1000 calories on the cardio machines and then worked the guns.  Went home and watched “Redbelt” which was excellent, thinking about signing up for Jui Jitsu lessons.

Friday 17th July – Turns out it wasn’t on its way after all.  Checked UPS tracking site this morning and it didn’t leave Crawley until 7.45pm last night, 11 hours after I dropped it off.  An hour and a half later it arrived in Barking.  My geography isn’t great, but isn’t that in the opposite direction to Frankfurt?  It then left Barking at 7.26am this morning and is due to arrive in Frankfurt on, wait for it….  Monday!!  I could go out right now and pinch a bike from the bike sheds and I’d be in Frankfurt before then!!!  Rubbish.  Never mind, I had a very good night at The Glamorgan celebrating Mik’s pre-Stag Do Do.

Saturday 18th July – My head felt a little broken this morning but not enough to stop me from heading off to the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park to see “The Importance Of Being Earnest”.  It was a very good day, with upside down squirrels and rather spicy curries and nothing at all broken.  Result.

Sunday 19th July – Checked the UPS website this morning and they said that my XBox had been delivered to Frankfurt yesterday, 2 days ahead of schedule.  Excellent!  Went onto the Microsoft site and got really excited for a brief moment until I realised that where it said “Your XBox has been fixed and shipped back to you” was just an explanation of the different stages of the process and not the status of mine.  In fact they were still saying that mine hadn’t arrived yet so I’m not sure where UPS have delivered it to.  Decided to play on my PC for a bit only to discover that my DVD ROM drive had, you guessed it, broken!  What is going on in my flat?!?  So I decided to take the opportunity to have a bit of a clean and tidy up and even put up a mirror which I’ve had sitting around for 6 months.  Went round to my Dad’s for lunch and then watched “Get Smart” with Sam and Georgie in the afternoon, which was really nice.  On a tip-off from Sam I sent a text to Colin to see if he had a spare DVD drive lying about which I could buy but sadly he said he hadn’t.  However, later on that day he contacted me again to say that he’d been round to his Dad’s in the afternoon and learnt that he was throwing out his old computer which had a fully functioning DVD re-writer that I could have.  Woo hoo!  Picked it up on my way home and then spent an hour trying to fit it due to a series of mishaps.  First of all the screw holding the old one in sheared off so I couldn’t take it out, so instead I decided to put the new one in a different slot.  Then it turned out that as well as the plastic shielding there was a metal plate across each slot which I had to poke out and for some bizarre reason they had been screwed to the frame in such a way that you couldn’t get to the screws without taking apart the whole case!  Eventually I got there, put it all back together, turned it on and realised I had plugged the old one back in.  D’oh!  At about 10.30pm I finally got there and it seems to be working fine, huzzah.  I wonder what treats the next week will hold.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Published in: on 17/07/2009 at 10:49 am  Comments (7)  
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The Wonderful, Amazing, Thorpe Park

When I was quite a lot younger I used to go to Thorpe Park with my parents and I have quite a few early memories associated with the place.  I remember quite clearly the relaxed boat ride which would climax by going through a trippy barn with flashy lights and strange anamatronic things all around you.  I remember taking the train out to Treasure Island and being attacked by pirates who would try and give you the dreaded Black Spot.  I also remember my brother Mike falling off a carousel and smashing his head on the ground which resulted in a massive bump on his forehead which seemed to hang around for weeks afterwards.  I have vivid memories of going on Space Station Zero with my Uncle Dean and getting so bashed around that I wouldn’t go on another  roller coaster for years, yet now the same “coaster”, moved outside and renamed “The Flying Fish”, seems like the most tame ride imaginable.   Later on I remember them building Loggers Leap and being terrified of what was then the highest log flume in the UK.

Last Friday I went to Thorpe Park for the first time in 5 years and these days the park looks somewhat different to the one I remember.  Loggers Leap and The Flying Fish remain, but there are so many other rides to choose from that I didn’t even go on either of them.  Instead we (there was a group of 10 of us) started with a ride on Vortex, a large swingy, spinny thing,  followed quickly by 2 consecutive goes on the magic carpet ride Quantum.  Once upon a time both of these would have been considered pretty extreme for Thorpe Park, but these days they’re a pretty tame introduction.  So, upping the ante, we headed for the park’s newest ride, Saw. The ride itself was awesome, but the 90 minute queue was not so great.  Fortunately no other queue was quite that bad and after lunch we managed all the big coasters, including Nemesis Inferno, Colossus and my personal favoruite Stealth. There was still plenty of time to go on loads of the other extreme rides too, such as Samurai, Slammer, Rush and X:\No Way Out.

All in all it was a very good day and, while suprisingly busy for a Friday during term time, we ended up getting on pretty much everything we wanted to in the 8 hours we were there although we did end up purhcasing a fast-track ticket for Stealth for an extra £4  to save us some time.  I would have liked to got on a couple of the roller coatsers a second time and so if I went again I’d either go mid-week earlier in the year or modify my ride strategy a bit to go on the coasters first and last thing with all the other rides inbetween.  It’s also worth noting that there’s no need to ever pay the full £35 entrance fee as 2-for-1 vouchers are so easy to come by that we ended up with about 4 spares between the 10 of us.  While we concentrated on the bg rides there’s still plenty of stuff for younger kids too, so it’s definitely one for the whole family.

Published in: on 23/06/2009 at 9:24 am  Comments (2)  
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Is Paintball Dangerous?

As someone who has been organising paintballing trips for the last 15 years I was interested to read this article on the BBC:

Going paintballing has certainly never made me want to take part in a real gun battle.  After all:
(a) You realise just how easy is to get shot.
(b) If getting hit by a couple of paintballs hurts that much then what is a real bullet going to feel like!

Still, I was impressed with Spaced analogy and it’s nice to hear that Jim from Campaign Paintball is still doing it, even if his site did go really downhill once it got more popular.

Posted by Si

Published in: on 26/05/2009 at 4:44 pm  Comments (3)