Ok, so, Octavia E Butler… Lately I’ve been reading her Patternist series, and now I’m reading Kindred and it’s touching me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. The other night when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep because of anxiety over what was going to happen with one of the characters (I won’t spoil anything, but I had stopped reading at page 185 of the 2023 Headline edition, for anyone who knows). And now I just came out of a 2 hour bath because I couldn’t figure out how to stop reading it to get out of the tub. I have 20 pages left, and fuck Disney+ completely if their adaptation isn’t a good one!
The above was written a few days ago. I’ve since finished the book and seen [enough of] the TV version and here’s what I think:
They’ve made some weird choices.
Right from the start, with the choice of the opening scene, it feels like they were going to set this up as a long-running series instead of the finished story it should have been. That feeling seems to have been correct, considering the first season is an unfinished story of 8 episodes, which would have continued if it hadn’t been cancelled.
I’m trying not to spoil anything of the book (I don’t care as much about the TV series), so I won’t go into details, but…
Hang on. My comments on the TV series are kind of meant for people who read the book and are trying to decide if they should try the TV version, but let me be a bit user-friendly and start by introducing the story a little bit.
It’s a time-travel story. 26-year-old Dana goes back in time to save the life of Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner. It gets complicated since Dana is black and Rufus’ family owns slaves and black people need paperwork to prove they’re not slaves. Dana’s husband is a bit older and white and also goes back with her some of the time. I’m not even sure I’m going to say much more about the story itself, you should just read it, but as you can imagine it deals with a lot of complications. It has a clear perspective on power-relations while at the same time blaming the times rather than necessarily the people who live in them. By which I mean that all the characters in the book are believable and have motivations that can be understood (if not sympathized with), even when they act monstrously. The book also does something that feels far too unique, which is treating everyone, from slaves to slave-holders, as people. It feels like most of the time when this period of US history is depicted, black people are portrayed as victims only, with little to no agency. Or their agency is almost exclusively defined in relation to white people (actually, don’t quote me on this. I haven’t done any thorough research with statistics or anything. It’s more of a feeling I got when reading Kindred, that this was something that’s often been missed). And, as I mentioned in the beginning, Butler has a way with storytelling that I have a hard time defining with any word other than captivating.
So with that said, here are some more thoughts on the TV series:
Some of the choices I can kind of see how they could have made them work. Like having Dana be an aspiring TV writer rather than a novelist. Having her want to write things like he favorite show Dynasty feels a bit infantilizing, however. It could have made sense for an adaptation. If done right. But no.
Some were just bad choices, probably meant to make things more exciting but instead rendering some important points in the book impossible to transfer to the screen. For example, Kevin isn’t her husband and fellow novelist, but some musician guy she just started dating, by which I mean that their first date ends with both of them visiting Maryland of 1815. And there are some discussions they have in the book about their experiences, which really need to be between two people who have a long-standing relationship, not two persons who just met and hardly know each other. But I guess it’s supposed to be more exciting if they can get to know each other under these extreme circumstances? Or maybe it’d be too controversial to have an interracial married couple in a 2022 TV series (but not a 1979 book)?
They’ve preserved some scenes from the book, but put them in a weird order in a way that takes away what could have been both subtle and/or powerful scenes. Instead we get watered-down versions.
I read a review that said the TV series delt gratuitous in its depictions of the brutality of slavery, with increasing degrees of torture in the episodes I haven’t seen. This also feels wrong to me, because the book managed to get the wrongness of slavery across even without a constant barrage of black people being whipped. That part of it makes it much worse, of course, but it’s also important to remember that even the more benign slaveholders were part of a system that absolutely needed to be abolished.
In general, it kind of felt a bit dumbed-down, which is always a bad sign. I saw the first two episodes (almost). Then I jumped to the 8th to see if it seemed to get better. It didn’t. It’s just as well that it got cancelled, especially if it means someone else can have a proper go at making an adaptation.
Having written a version of the above as a comment on facebook, the app decided to die on me and it blinked what I’d written out of existence. I’m going to end this review of the TV series with the same thing I decided to write in my comment instead:
Stay away from it, it failed.
But also: read the book, for fuck’s sake!
I know I’m late, but really, who cares? The past isn’t going anywhere. Games I played in 2022:
I finally felt the time was right to play Cyberpunk 2077 after they released updates that seemed to make it playable, and I wasn’t disappointed. There were some bugs, sure, but no more than any other game of that magnitude, and the game looks so beautiful that any such indiscretions are forgivable. So enough about that.
My first play-through was as a female Street Kid and I more or less finished it at 100%, having done all available side quests, romanced all lesbian and male hetero NPCs (I’ll do the gay and straight female ones on my next run as a male Nomad), got all the vehicles, apartments etc and most of the endings. After the Nomad I’ll do a Corpo run as well, and I’ll probably keep mostly staying away from fast travel al the way through. I just enjoy moving around in that world too much. They’ve built a Night City that has its own feel in architecture, clothes, weather, social interactions, music, everything. Maybe not a place you’d like to live in real life, but as escapism, I just never got tired of it and it’s one of the games I’ve spent the most time in.
I guess it’s no big surprise that cyberpunk is a genre that appeals to me, and this is a very good representative of the genre, both in aesthetics and themes. The genre automatically lends itself so easily to satirizing the world we live in now, because it’s basically the same; a world run by corporations, with huge divides between rich and poor whan it comes to access to health care, housing, quality of life, where politicians may talk smooth but are most probably corrupt, where ads are intrusive and the media is skewed to uphold the status quo, where cops are just one more gang but more well-equipped and so on. It’s just seen from a slightly different perspective since the original roleplaying game, Cyberpunk 2020, is from the 1980s which makes this an alternate timeline where the CCCP is still a thing (which doesn’t make much of a difference). Normal life under Capitalism, only a bit more intensely so. So when CD Project Red say that Cyberpunk 2077 is apolitical, they probably just mean it’s not about party politics, because the anticapitalism is definitely there. And yes, there is an irony in a commercial product that comes with anticapitalist messages, but what else is new? Are we supposed to only make pro-capitalist content just because we live in that system?
They also released the animated Netflix series Edgerunners and a bunch of comics, all very high quality. I’m always a bit sceptical to this kind of out-branching because it’s often just a cash grab, but the side material to Cyberpunk 2077 is all good. Both Edgerunners and the comics they’ve made (Your Voice, Trauma Team, Where’s Johnny, Big City Dreams, with more coming in 2023) explore the world from varying perspectives, going into some details that are only hinted at in the game.
There was a sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, called Horizon Forbidden West. It’s still a good game, but it felt like it had lost something that the first one had. Not sure what, but it could be that there was too much to do in the open world that didn’t feel as meaningful? The environments weren’t as varied, the story wasn’t as gripping. Or maybe we’re just spoiled now with great games to compare it with?
Elden Ring, for example, which I’ve finished twice by now. Not sure what I can say about this game that others haven’t already. It’s a great game, the biggest yet from From Software, with that same feel to it that most of their games have had since Demon’s Souls. The thing that mostly sets Elden Ring apart is its accessibility to new players who may not have otherwise tried a Soulslike. There are so many different play styles available, and you can easily lower the difficulty by grinding until you’ve raised your stats enough to have a much easier time with the boss fights. Or using magic. Or using spirit ashes.
And it’s beautiful and the stories are sad and the fights are good and usually pretty well-balanced and the lore is big and interesting once you’ve managed to get more of the big picture and can actually understand what the intro is talking about.
And then they re-released The Last Of Us and I played it again and then the TV series came and as I write this we’re 4 episodes in and it’s a great companion piece to the original story. They kept the important parts and expanded on other parts in just the right way to enhance the watching experience. Like that little scene where Tess put her arm around a sleeping Joel, which held much more significance for gamers because that small detail said something about their relationship that we didn’t get to see before. And everyone is watching it and I can’t wait for the second season where everything will get so much more dramatic, and does this mean that the third game will have to come out before a third season of the show?
This feels like as good an excuse as any to show these drawings again…
Sooner or later I’ll get around to making some more posts about 2022; what I watched, what I read and what I did. For anyone who’s interested and for myself, to help me remember things…
So. Games I played in 2020/2021. Looking back, it seems I’ve pretty consistently been playing third person story-based action games, with a few exceptions. I know there are lots of other kinds of games, these are just the ones I tend to enjoy the most.
It’s also hard to choose still pictures of gameplay. By that, I mean it’s hard to show actual gameplay. Most of the pics I chose, as you can see, are of the main character posing in front of a nice background. I tried to screenshot some fighting or some other action, but they hardly ever work, and I finally figured out that it’s because those images can never capture the feeling you get while playing, so they always end up a bit disappointing. So now you know why there are so many posing pics, as you read on about what games I played in 2020/2021:
Let’s start by getting The Last of Us pt II out of the way, since I already wrote about it. It’s still one of the absolute best games I’ve ever played.
The Witcher 3 feels highly overrated. Not that it’s a bad game, or at least the story is ok, I just never got into it. I played the main story + side quests until I got to Skellige, so I gave it a good try. In the end I just mostly enjoyed Gwent, the in-game card game.
Death Stranding (which I’ve mentioned before) is a weird game. As is normal for Hideo Kojima, who also created classics like the Metal Gear games and more or less invented game mechanics like stealth, it feels like something new and special. I just don’t know what I really think about it. I did enjoy playing it and I love how he made the act of carrying things in a game feel more concrete than ever, even to the point where most of the game revolves around it. I also like the story and world-building that is based on creating unity rather than conflict. Even though conflict is of course a part of it, just as with Metal Gear you can more or less go through the whole game without killing anyone, and the main quest is about reuniting a devastated United Cities of America.
Which is my biggest problem with it. Even if it’s set in a future where the USA we know is long forgotten, it’s kind of nostalgic for an idealized version of it and it kind of feels unfair to its many victims (internationally and among its own citizens). At the same time, there are some moments in the story that are both touching and epic. I don’t know…
Ghost of Tsushima. Here’s what I thought about it after my first play-through: I do prefer my samurai fiction a bit more class conscious and less nationalist than this one is. But it’s not the first story I’ve seen/played/etc where you need to close your eyes to certain things in order to enjoy them, and when you do that, this is a great game. Probably my favorite Assassin’s Creed game (without actually being one, but it feels a lot like it could have been) so far. My problems with it are small superficial ones. I know they had Japanese consultants to get the historical settings right, but there are a few things I think they tweaked to make it work better as a game in 2020. Here are a few of them: First, the female characters should probably be much more submissive in their behavior, at least in scenes where they are supposed to behave accordning to the norms of the time. I’m glad they didn’t go that route, however, because that would have felt weird and even in 2020 it’s refreshing to see so many of the secondary characters being women. And who knows, maybe other contemporary depictions of the time period have been colored by the time in which they were made and its preconceptions of what the old days were like (also, this is set about 400 years earlier than most samurai fiction). So this is more something I noted rather than something I have a problem with.
Second, as I said I’d have preferred a more class-conscious story. The main character is a samurai, which is similar to a knight in medieval Europe, and in this case an actual feudal lord, but he never behaves like one. Or rather, he behaves like the idealized version of a knight, with some Japanese-feeling surface-level flavoring. I don’t think that’s very accurate, just as I don’t think the idealized knights in many Western depictions are accurate. The samurai code that Jin lives by doesn’t feel at all like (as far as I know) bushido. In part, maybe, but not in the core. It’s ok that he deviates from the norms of the time, but if so, I’d have liked it to be acknowledged. Of course we see the story through the eyes of the main character, so if he has a false image of what a samurai stands for, that’s one thing. But it is never really contrasted against other, probably more common, versions. I can kind of live with this one as well, but it makes me feel like something’s missing.
Third, the Mongols. Ok, it’s an invading force and they start off by killing most everyone the main character knows, but it still would have been nice with a bit more nuance. I know the open world game structure demands an enemy force that can be present all over the map and who is always the enemy etc, so it’s understandable from a gameplay perspective, but that could also have worked with a rival Japanese lord or something that didn’t encourage that nationalist sentiment. In the end, this is also something I can live with if the gameplay experience is good enough. Kind of how I could live with the “make the UCA great again like in the pre-apocalypse that we don’t really know what it was like” thing in Death Stranding. But it does disturb me that the Mongols seem to be evil at least in part because they are foreigners. I should probably mention what I base these opinions on. Am I Japanese? No. Am I a historian? Nope. I’ve just seen lots of samurai cinema and read a bunch of manga in the genre, especially the ones by Goseki Kojima (Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner, Path of the Assassin) which are all to my knowledge pretty well-researched in their depictions of ancient Japan and samurai culture. Granted, the game is set a few hundred years earlier than those as well, so who knows, I may not know what I’m talking about at all?
Anyway… Even though the above mentioned elements of the story and world-building could have been done better, I’ve really enjoyed playing the game. The combat system makes for enjoyable fighting, the environments are beautiful and the map is sufficiently filled with things to do. The structure is very well-made for an open world game so it’s up there among the games in the genre that I’ve liked the most. By genre in this case I mean open world, I don’t have that many other samurai games to compare it with. I’d say Sekiro is definitely a better samurai game, but Ghost of Tsushima still makes the top 5 list (have I even played more than 3?).
And then, over time, it seems I’ve changed my mind. So here’s what I’m thinking now, after trying to play it again, about a year later when they’ve released a story expansion and fixed some things, like the Japanese lip-synch: The things that disturbed me the first time feel much worse now. The gameplay is still mostly smooth, but I have a bigger problem with all the cultural retcons/clichés. Which means that I started playing it from the beginning just to try it and I couldn’t stop until I finished the first chapter of the story, BUT I had to set it to Japanese speach without subtitles so I could no longer understand what they were saying. That made it much more enjoyable. Too bad I can’t do the same with the new story content, because for some reason I still don’t want to miss the story…
Sekiro: Shadows die twice, on the other hand, is great! I finally finished it after having been stuck on the final boss for so long that I had to restart and play the whole game from the beginning. This game doesn’t even pretend to be historically accurate but the feel of it is that it still manages better than Ghost of Tsushima. Not that they really should be compared to each other.
It’s made by From Software and has that special level design where the whole game feels like an interconnected open world. Even if it isn’t completely open, you can, and sometimes need to, move around in areas you’ve already been. It’s also and there’s a progression in time so that after finishing a certain boss the levels change with new story elements. Some parts are blocked off, some parts are ruined by invading new enemies or otherwise changed, some NPCs are dead.
There are also areas that are set in a different time, which is acknowledged by Wolf, the main character as it’s kind of a flashback but it’s not how he remembers it. His ability to resurrect after being killed is also woven into the story, as is an area that is set outside of normal reality in some kind of divine realm. Compared to earlier From Software games, Sekiro feels much more free in that you have more options for movement by jumping, stealthing or using a grappling hook to get around. I’m not going into the technical details with the fighting system which is based on posture instead of stamina and so very satisfying. This game has a special place in my heart.
So does Bloodborne, my first From Software game. I went back to this game after a few years and I finished it. And then I restarted it and finshed it again, along with the DLC, and then I finished it once more to get all three endings. And it truly is an amazing game. Some games don’t really age well, and a (at the time) 5 year old game could eaily feel old, clunky and outdated, but this one definitely holds its own against the competition. The story is great in all its subtlety. The ambience in the game is very well presented through sound, lighting, music and design. Gameplay just feels better and better the more you play and get better at it and discover nuances in what you can do. The world design and worldbuilding are both crafted with great care, attention to detail and intricacy, just as I’ve come to expect from From Software after playing this, Sekiro and a bit of Dark Souls III (which I am yet to finish as I write this, but I may go back to it at some point). I seldom play a game more than once. Playing it more than twice is even more rare, but after finishing this for the third time I almost started over again. It’s one of the great [old] ones.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne started a whole genre, often called soulsborne, or souls-like, but it started with Demon’s Souls, which is now remade by Bluepoint (who also made the PS4 remakes of The Last of Us and Uncharted) for the PS5. I never played the PS3 version so I can’t compare them, but the new one is great and I definitely see how it was a start of something. These games are known to be hard, but to a large extent that can be remedied by grinding for XP (or the equivalent souls or blood) so you can level up, and also just learning how to beat them. That was very much the case for this one.
Right after finishing it I started a new game + to get the second ending and then a new game ++ to get the platinum trophy, which I failed at due to broken (or misunderstood?) game mechanics. Now I feel that I’m done with it, but it was highly enjoyable while it lasted. It’s very good-looking and a very rewarding feeling as you get better at it.
I also played some other souls-like games, such as Hellpoint, Mortal Shell and Hollow Knight. Hellpoint is the one of the three that mostly resemble the From Software games. Similar fighting, similar level design with shortcuts and save-points, similar subtle storytelling, but this one is set in space on an occult/futuristic space station.
Hollow Knight is different in that it’s a 2D platform game, but it still fits into the genre in many of the same respects that Hellpoint also does. The fighting as very precise, for lack of a better word. Most boss fights are pretty hard, some are extremely difficult. You have to be prepared to die a lot and when you do you need to find the ghost of your previous life to get your stuff back or they’re lost forever. The subtle storytelling gets pretty dark sometimes but the art style compensates by being cutely cartoonish and there are some sequences that feel more quiet and almost solemn. I finished the main and DLC stories but skipped some of the tournament-style extra boss fights. Looking forward to the sequel if/when it ever comes out.
Mortal Shell is the one of these that feels the most unique. It does some interesting things with the fighting system, and also with character builds. Instead of leveling up your character, you switch between different bodies with differing attributes and abilities. So you can find one that suits your playstyle or you can experiment or switch depending on what fits the situation you’re in. Or you can play the game just in your basic form, without a body, which makes you extremely killable but also much more agile. The leverl design feels a bit like it’s based on opening shortcuts but it’s more just about learning how the areas are interconnected.
Also, the game doesn’t tell you what any of the things you find do, so you have to use them to find out, and all of them aren’t necessarily good for you. There are also lots of other functions in the game that it doesn’t tell you about so you need to happen upon them (or check the game’s wiki). All this opens up opportunities to experiment with combination tactics and makes you want to explore more parts of the game than just the world you run around in. I also like the mood, music and personality of the game, reminiscent of Hellblade in its bleak black metal-ishness…
Spider-man is the only game based on a Marvel comic that I even felt interested in playing, mostly because it felt like it had a story, that it had a respect for the source material and that it seemed fun to play. So it did, and so it is.
As is the sequel, Spider-man: Miles Morales, starring the character from the Ultimate Spider-man alternate timeline comics. They’re both set in the same New York City, except it’s winter in the Miles Morales game. Not sure what else to say, except they both got the feeling of web-swinging around the Manhattan skyscrapers right. There is a system for fast-travel by taking the subway, but I hardly ever used it.
Both games can feel a bit hectic at times, with nearly constant things to do that pop up beside the main story, but most of it is fun, if a bit repetitive. And it really lives up the the cliché that the city feels like a character of is own.
Another series of open world games is the Mafia trilogy. Mafia III was one of the first bigger games I played on the PS4, and now I’ve also played through the first two in the series. The mafia genre isn’t normally my cup of tea, with exceptions of course, but the genre in itself doesn’t attract me, but I like these. At least the first and third ones, mostly because the main character in Mafia II is the least sympathetic. Mafia III was a huge leap forward in quality, probably because I find it more interesting to follow a character trying to find his way around a racist Vietnam war era alt-New Orleans than a prohibition era alt-New York…
Little Nightmares II came out, as a stand-alone sequel that maintains the same creepyness that was in the first one, but expands the world and takes the storytelling to another level. Not that the first one was lacking in any way, especially with the DLC that I had missed for some reason. Both games are well worth a play-though or two. Pretty short, good-looking games with a few twists and turns that make them much more than what you might expect from most 2D platformers. Maybe these count as 2,5D? Anyway, good stuff!
Gris fals into the category of smaller games that deal with the symbolic representation of psychological processes and emotional trauma, similar to Rime. This is 2D, pretty straightforward gameplay that does much with small means. Very stylized in its art style which looks like it’s all made more or less in pencil and aquarelle, and clever in its utilization of the limits it puts on itself, if that makes any sense?
As you progress through the game, you get more abilities and the world gradually goes from very sparse grays to adding more colors, making the world feel increasingly vibrant. Sometimes, the form can create a completely different yet complimentary sense than the content, so to me this is a feel-good game about depression…
Superhot is a slow motion first person action game. With some variations, the basics is that the enemies and the world moves only when you do, so you can plan and execute your moves and choreograph your own John Woo-style action scenes. I first tried and fell in love with the second game in the series, which is Superhot VR, and now the third one is out, called Superhot: Mind Control Delete. As that title suggests, these games are full of cybernerd wordplay and a story that is both meta and more interesting than it first seems, but never fully explained. Superhot VR kept me warm during a winter when my apartment was pretty cold at times. Even if it feels like you hardly move because it’s mostly slo-mo, you can still work up a sweat dodging bullets and shooting red guys, or cleaving bullets in mid-air with a katana. I haven’t even finished Mind Control Delete yet, because it got too intense (which I don’t mean in a bad way).
Observer (or >observer_) is a Polish cyberpunk game starring Rutger Hauer as a disillusioned cop. Most of it takes place in one building where you walk around talking to tenants, looking for your missing son. It’s a dystopic future run by a huge tech corporation. Most people are augmented somehow, except a few weird purity cultists, which is a problem since there’s a digital plague going around. Just after arriving in the building there’s a quarantine lock-down, but it’s unclear if there’s an actual outbreak or just a malfunction. Both seem about equally plausible.
You have to take pills regularly or your vision becomes distorted because there’s some problem with your implants, and there seems to be some kind of monster murdering people in the building. So as the investigation goes along, you come across several persons who are either dead or dying. You hack into their brains to try to sort out what’s happened and piece together a bigger picture. These sequences are filled with abstractions, dream logic and, as the rest of the game, the horror of living in an extremely segregated class-based society where you have to make do because it’s near impossible to change your position. So it’s almost like it’s set in out world, as is often the case with cyberpunk. Just with more misery and technology (which is in need of repair but left as it is because no one can afford to fix it). I started playing this a few years back but made the mistake of always trying to play it when I was too tired, so I had to stop because nothing made much sense. Now that I came back to it and made sure not to play it in my sleep, I had a much better experience. Truly cyberpunk without being so derivative that it loses its own expression.
I used to believe that first person shooters weren’t my thing, but Deathloop proved me wrong. Probably mostly because of its set up. The story is that you live through the same day over and over and you need to kill 7 persons to break the loop, while a mysterious woman is trying to stop you from doing just that. There are 4 areas on the island you’re on, so you need to manipulate events to get all these 7 people to the same space at the same time, because if the day ends it all resets, and only you and the woman can remember the previous loops. Except you start with amnesia so you have to spend the first few loops just trying to figure out what’s even going on. So the premise and story are interesting, but it’s also aesthetically special. All the NPCs on the island think every loop is the first day, but it’s been going on since the 1960s, so they’re all dolled up in their best 60s outfits, prepared for an eternity of the same decadent day over and over, where they can do whatever they want because even if they die they’re just going to come back again when the day resets. They just hadn’t counted on not remembering the loops. So no one really knows how long it’s been going on.
Oh, and it’s also a multiverse and you can play as the mysterious woman, invading other players to try to prevent them from breaking the loop.
Lastly, I’ve started playing the tabletop RPG Werewolf: The Apocalypse again, something I hadn’t done since the 1900s, but now we’ve been at it for over a year. Lately we’ve been mixing it up, so we all play at least two parallel characters and not just sticking to Werewolf (I play a Gurahl (werebear) and a Virtual Adepts mage). I’ve always liked White Wolf‘s World of Darkness RPGs and their focus on collectively telling stories rather than the actual game mechanics. So our sessions are a way of building a campfire narrative, a tale that we tell together over a long period of time and something to keep out the encroaching miseries of day to day life.
So I leave you with this portrait of my main character, and that’s all for this 2022 new year’s account of what I’ve used over the last two years to enhance and escape the consensus reality that some people seem so intent on destroying for the rest of us.
Films. TV. Mostly short reviews. I listed only the ones I saw that were either good (4/5), really good (5/5) or really bad (1/5). Skipped the bad ones (2/5) and the meh ones (3/5) and the ones I just didn’t have anything to say about. I won’t write about if I liked them, so you can assume I did unless I actually say I didn’t. I’m not going into details on most films. In same cases, what I write won’t make much sense until after you’ve seen what I’m talking about…
Don’t Look Up and Platform. Two of the best documentary about current day life from the last few years. Also similar: Denis Villeneuve‘s Next Floor.
Candyman. Very nice surprise! I liked that it was a sequel rather than a remake. I liked how they used music by Philip Glass. I liked how they expanded on some of the themes from the first film and also that they seemed to ignore the previous sequels… Little Woods. Also by Nia DaCosta who made the new Candyman. Former dealer of medicine to poor people goes over the border to a more civilized country for one last job.
Possessor. Second major film by Brandon Cronenberg after Antiviral. They have something special about them. Similar feeling to David Cronenberg, but still has his own voice.
She Never Died. Sequel to He Never Died. While Jason Krawczyk wrote and directed the first one, this was directed by Audrey Cummings. Interesting wolrd-building, using biblical/mythical characters to do something new with them. Made me want to rewatch God’s Army, but that one hadn’t aged as well as I’d thought…
Stumbled upon The Endless, by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. No prior knowledge, no expectations but it turned out to be some kind of low-key cosmic horror, so I checked out the prequel, Resolution (is it still a prequel if it came before the sequel?). That one was also good, and I don’t think it hurt to see them in the wrong order. Just like the previously mentioned directors, this pair seems to be something to keep track of. So I tried a later film, Spring, which felt less special but still ok, and their latest, Synchronic which is a time travel film with Anthony Mackie. “Time travel is always a good thing in a movie,” I usually think. I’m pretty sure it’s not true, and a botched time travel movie just makes me angry. This one held together just fine.
Palm Springs is another time travel movie that works even better. Light-hearted comedy.
Raging Fire. Hong Kong action by Benny Chan with references to the old John Woo classics. Ignore the copaganda and it works. BuyBust. Action from the Philippines, directed by Erik Matti. Pretends but fails to be something else, but it’s impossible to ignore the cynical copaganda in this one. Poor people as zombies…
Aniara. Swedish sci fi. Spaceship on a short trip to Mars gets redirected and flies off into space. Passengers forced to make a society but fail miserably. Avenue 5. US sci fi TV series. Spaceship on a short trip back from Mars(?) gets redirected and flies off into space. Passengers forced to make a society but fail hilariously. Human, Space, Time and Human by Kim Ki-Duk. A ship is going somewhere. Passengers turn it into it’s own microsociety but fail horribly. Seen it described as “proletarian horror” which I think is a good genre description. There’s a deep hatred for class-based Capitalist society at worl here.
Rubber’s Lover by Shozin Fukui (who also made 964 Pinocchio). 1990s Japanese extreme cyberpunk. Black/white and contrasty. Can you create ESP abilities by inducing pain? Let’s find out. I knew this wan’t what you’d describe as an “easy watch”, so it took me a while before I finally watched this, after having it for years, just waiting for the right moment.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Chinese splatter classic that I also saw after knowing about it for a long time. Fun if you’re in the right mood, which I was.
Dune. Already wrote some thoughts about this one. Very promising, but will we ever get to see God Emperor of Dune on film?
Zone 414. Very cyberpunky cyberpunk.
Reminiscence. Sci fi noir by Lisa joy, in the subgenre: “what if we had the technology to dive into people’s memories?”.
Speaking of noir, Ed Brubaker made a TV series together with Nicholas Winding-Refn: Too Old to Die Young. Criminals and corrupt cops. Feels pretty typical for both of them, in a good way.
Train to Busan. One of the better zombie films I’ve seen lately.
The Old Guard. Based on a comic. About a bunch of old people fighting. I mean, a group of immortal soldiers. Fighting and having relationships and long-lasting friendships.
The Beach Bum. By Harmony Korine, who is an interesting filmmaker. Matthew McConaughey as a cool dude (what we in Sweden would call a “skön snubbe”) who hangs around the beach, living on his rich girlfriend’s (wife’s?) money like a superficial philosopher/stoner. Some stuff happens. Snoop is there…
Gunpowder Milkshake. Fun action comedy. Loses a bit with the big fight in the end, but some parts were really good, like the hospital scene where the main character, played by Karen Gillan, has to fight with both arms paralyzed so she tapes knives and a gun to her hands and starts swinging them around.
Trudno Byt Bogom (Hard to Be a God). Existential misery in medieval mud. The book seems more interesting.
The Atrocity Exhibition. Film version of book by JG Ballard. Either it is mostly still images with voice-over, or it feels like it.
Fast Company. One of the more straight-forward, and also one of the earliest David Cronenberg movies (from 1979). Drama about a bunch of car racers. If you’re in the right mood.
The Lighthouse. I feel like I want to like it more than I do. The VVitch was much more my thing.
Om det Oändliga (About Endlessness). Roy Andersson is always Roy Andersson. Made in much the same style, but maybe not as memorable, as Sånger från Andra Våningen or Du Levande, which may be mostly because they came first, or because they’re simply better.
Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard. Another classic I finally watched. Kind of overrated I’d say. This is one of the few (or the only) 3/5 film I’m mentioning here. It deserves a mention just because I neither liked nor hated it, I guess. Maybe if I’d get more into French New Wave cinema, but do I have to?
The Dead Don’t Die was also a good zombie film. I know some people don’t like it, probably because they expected something else from Jim jarmusch? I can’t really see what’s not to like, it’s fun! Also saw The Limits of Control. Also good but in another way that feels more like a Jarmusch.
Noah by Darren Aronofsky. I decided that I loved Aronofsky’s films ever since I saw Pi: Faith in Chaos, but it took me a while before I watched this one. Didn’t really feel like watching a Bible film. Technically, I guess this is more of a Torah film. Or rather, it’s the movie version of parts of The Book of Enoch, so I saw this after I read the book. I liked that Noah was basically a doomsday prepper who got a psychosis. It felt original and like a reasonable interpretation of the whole situation.
While we’re on the subject of religion-adjacent things… I watched Cthulhu by Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell. Thought I hadn’t seen it before but it turned out I had, I just liked it a lot more this time. Probably because I saw it in a different way after having seen an analysis pointing out that it’s not actually a cosmic horror flick so much as it’s the story of a gay man who comes home to his conservative religious family. It’s just that their religion is the Cthulhu mythos and they kind of live in Innsmouth. Color Out of Space. Richard Stanley/Nicholas Cage/Lovecraft is a good mix, as it turns out, unsurprisingly. Some people don’t like it, but I don’t really see how it could have been done better.
I felt it was time to catch up on the films by Sion Sono. So I did. I seem to really like the manipulative-seriel killer/psycho ones best (Cold Fish, The Forest of Love). Especially Cold Fish left me quite affected, on a level with Suicide Club or Strange Circus. Followed by the more laid-back/experimental/slow drama ones (Into a Dream, The Land of Hope, Tag). Ok, Tag isn’t really a slow drama, more like chaotic splatter with meta elements, but still… Tokyo Vampire Hotel was really hard to find and took me a while after I heard about it. I had to get a trial account of Amazon Prime to be able to see it. Crazy shit, could have been better but was also kind of what I expected/hoped for. The sex/superhero comedy (The Virgin Psychics) and the prostitution-themed films (Guilty of Romance, Shinjuku Swan, Shinjuku Swan II) had the least appeal to me (these are the 3/5 ones).
Shield of Straw by Takashi Miike reminded me a bit of Yoshihiro Nakamura‘s Golden Slumber in a good way, but with more violence. Not as over-the-top as some of Miike’s other productions.
While on the subject of directors I like, I saw two new films by Spike Lee, both of them very good: Da 5 Bloods was good but maybe not that special, while Pass Over was the one that struck the hardest even if it’s more of a filmed theatre performance. Very good film for explaining the summer of George Floyd and BLM, except it came two years earlier which just shows that the problem is so much bigger than one specific event. I can’t recommend it enough.
Seven Samurai turned out to be much better after having seen a lot more by Akira Kurosawa than I had the first time around. Or maybe I was just more mentally aligned this time because now it was much better. The Lady Snowblood movies had been on my list of things to watch for a long time. Now I did. Just like the mangas, I liked the Lone Wolf & Cub movies better…
Doctor Sleep. Not sure what I expected but I guess I was hoping that this sequel to The Shining would at least be watchable. Stay away from it. Last Night in Soho made me understand that I just don’t like most of Edgar Wright‘s movies. Shaun of the Dead being the main exception. It doesn’t even help that this is (kind of) a time travel movie. So is Tenet. I think Christopher Nolan is generally good and I like his ideas, but compared to Memento or Inception, this one just doesn’t hold up. There are some cool scenes, but there are too many things that are just a bit dumb. But not as dumb as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I don’t think there are many who’d disagree about that, but I felt the same way about The Mandalorian and now I don’t feel like watching any more Star Wars. They finally broke me.
And then there’s Terminator: Dark Fate. If they had concentrated on making a good movie, and at least tried to do something original, this could have been really great. It has potential but it all got eaten up by nostalgia-baiting. Terminator 2 was a well-told story with ground-breaking effects that hold up 30 years later, some scenes with genuine feelings of excitement and a sense that things are at stake. This one? Some of the action sequences may look good, but there’s never any doubt about how they’re going to end. Or rather, there’s never a sense that we’re supposed to care about anything more interesting than: will Arnold wear sunglasses in this one? Because he did in the first two (most of the rest of the franchise is admittedly even worse). Will he trample any slo-mo flowers? Because he did that too before and those details must be why people loved the old ones! They could have expanded on the world of Terminator, instead of just regurgitated it. Just watch the trailer with that Björk song over and over again instead, it’s much better.
Just like it’s hard to speak about US comics without talking about superheroes, the same is now true for US movies. So…
The MCU is keeping it up with movies and TV series that are all good but not enough to be great, is the short story. WandaVision looked innovative, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier took up some interesting aspects of the overall MCU storyline, Black Widow was probably the most entertaining recent one, Hawkeye was fun but its main thing was the guest characters, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was nice to see Marvel do a Chinese Kung Fu movie, Eternals was a movie, Loki was pretty cool, What If…? lived up to the (mostly) blandness of the comics equivalent, Spider-Man: No Way Home was (also) probably the most entertaining recent one?
Spider-man-related non-MCU Marvel: Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage were better than expected, but should really be seen as one movie, since the first one is more of an intro than a story in itself. They manage to balance on the right side of being funny in a way that could easily have tipped over into “failing to be funny” territory.
X-men-related non-MCU Marvel: Legion still rules among the Marvel TV series. The Gifted wasn’t too bad either, and The New Mutants was ok. It had its failings (like whitewashing some characters) but it got some things right and it was a good idea to turn it into more of a horror story.
Other non-MCU Marvel: Cloak & Dagger good (cancelled too soon), Runaways bad, dropped it after first season which was ok but then it got stupid), MODOK worst (couldn’t get through more than a few episodes).
DCEU: The Suicide Squad actually managed to be quite entertaining. Maybe not suprprising considering James Gunn knows what he’s doing. Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the other hand… Sure, the Snyder cut was slightly better than Whedon’s version in some ways, but it still sucks, and it didn’t help that they spent the last half hour or more slapping on a bunch of fan service, easter eggs and build-up to a sequel that probably won’t come. Even a black/white version won’t cover up the fact that Snyder doesn’t understand any of the characters he’s working with. I don’t even know what to say about WW1984. Only thing I remember is that it failed even harder then the first one’s attempted feminism.
Superman III on the other hand, which I hadn’t seen since the 1900s, turned out to be possibly the best Superman movie so far, with its stupid comedy that doesn’t even try taking itself seriously while still being better than any of the new ones.
Doom Patrol still rules among the DCEU TV series (not that I’m even watching the rest). Watchmen was better than the movie and it had some parts that were better than the rest, but it still felt wrong and I’m not interested in seeing more of it. Y the Last Man. Seemed promising after the frist few episodes, but then I found out it had been cancelled and couldn’t make myself see the rest (yet). Swamp Thing was a disappointment, especially considering what the comic is (they based much of it on Alan Moore‘s run). Helstrom was a disappointment, especially considering what the comic is (they based much of it on Warren Ellis‘s run – or did they? I’ve deleted most of it from my memory). Preacher held up pretty well through the whole thing.
It’s interesting with some of these TV series, that they don’t even try to make a big thing of them being based on DC comics. In this day and age, that kind of smells of bad confidence.
Comics adaptations but neither Marvel nor DC: The Boys is going strong, even if it’s toned down a lot compared to the comic, both in outrageousness and in nerd references. Happy! was better than the comic. Deadly Class. A shame it got cancelled. Invincible is a comic I haven’t read, I just heard it’s supposed to be good. Looking forward to future seasons of this. Supercrooks had a promising first episode, but halfway through the second I had enough of it, for some reason. It felt too juvenile or something. Maybe I was just too tired?
There have been a few animated game adaptations that have been really good. Especially Arcane which was a big surprise. Very well-made, in a style that worked even better than I’d have guessed. Warren Ellis‘ adaptation of Castlevania is also well worth a watch. The fourth and final season was released last summer.
Ping Pong did a great job of channeling Taiyo Matsumoto’s art, using distorted perspectives to enhance the sense of movement. A manga/anime about ping pong doesn’t sound appealing but it still works.
It’s interesting how both Star Trek: Lower Decks and The Orville can feel so much more like Star Trek than Star Trek: Discovery does. I like both of them for that reason, but dropped Discovery a bit into season 2. On the other hand, the first season of Star Trek: Picard is easily among the best Star Trek ever, counting TV series as well as movies, for several reasons. It’s one long story told over the entire season, which appeals to me. It’s the same that made seasons 3 and 4 of Torchwood the ones I like best from that series as well. But that’s just the format. The main thing is this: Star Trek for me hasn’t felt right since the ends of Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Enterprise missed the point by being set too early in the history of the Federation. It’s too close to our time. It also had a bunch of other problems, but I think those are related to the same thing. Same goes actually for both the rebooted timeline in the JJ Abrams movies and in Discovery. Discovery also isn’t set in the same universe, really, and I thought the scripts got kind of stupid in the second season. Picard, on the other hand, is set in the right timeline and does everything right. We get a future where the baseline is more or less a socialist utopia, the same world as Voyager and DS9, where money has been abolished and the only real Capitalists in the galaxy are the Ferengi, little ugly sexist trolls that no one likes. But Picard builds further on that world. Something has broken the Federation. It no longer holds onto its old ideals, but in this case it works, because Picard and the rest of the main characters still do. It’s refreshing to follow a character with that kind of integrity for once. He isn’t flawless as a person, but when it comes to ideology he stands for something greater than himself. The series also manages to refer back to what’s come before without falling into a bush of memberberries (see South Park season 20 for that reference). It isn’t nostalgia-bait as fan service, it’s call-backs that make sense and that work for the story.
Twin Peaks season 4 came and went and was great and I guess now we just need to wait 25 years for season 5 yaay!
The most special thing about Squid Game was that it got so big. I mean it was ok, but not THAT special. Hellbound was much more interesting (if we’re comparing Korean TV series that got internationally big) with its take on religious reactions to when supernatural things actually start happening, and how that can go wrong.
Norwegian series Beforeigners is among the better things I’ve seen lately. It feels finished now after 2 seasons where they bound together all the threads pretty nicely, but there’s big potential for it to branch out. It’d be cool to see spin-offs set in the same world but in other countries. People timigrating from the 1700s or a thousand years ago or the stone age would be another thing in other cultural contexts.
Future Man. Third and final season was released and it kept the quality going til the end. I want to say that if you like Killjoys, this is for you, because the humor is similar in some ways. But it’s also a different kind of story. Probably the best thing to come out of the brain of Seth Rogen, if that sounds good to you. If it doesn’t, I understand but would still recommend this. It’s a time travel story from people who understand the genre and can have fun with it without getting lost in the plotholes they dig themselves into, like some other entries in the genre (I’m looking at you, Timeless and Legends of Tomorrow. Yes, you. Go cry in the shame room).
Aand I guess I might as well talk about The Matrix Resurrections now as well, even though I didn’t technically watch it last year. It started kind of interesting. The flashbacks from the original trilogy were maybe a bit much but I thought it was ok. When the fighting started I felt the absence of Yuen Woo-Ping‘s fight direction and from there it was just downhill. None of the innovation of the old movies was left, none of what made them special. This one just followed the steps from beginning to end like they just wanted to get it over with. I really wanted this to be good, and I’m sure Lana Wachowski still cares and wanted to make a worthy sequel, but no. In the end it felt like just another cash grab.
I think that’s all I had to say about things I’ve watched in 2020/2021, so I’ll just leave you with a list of general recommendations. Some of the things I’ve been watching (and enjoying, so I’m not mentioning some stuff that got boring after a while, like Stranger Things…) but don’t have any comments about at the moment: The Nevers | Raised by Wolves | Foundation | Weird City | Lovecraft Country | Electric Dreams | Made for Love | Community | Devs | Maniac | Killjoys | Dark (except it lost its thing in the 3rd season) | Cobra Kai | South Park | Undone | Rick & Morty | Archer | What we do in the shadows | Good Omens | American Gods | Dopesick
Almost finished with this seemingly endless (or maybe that’s just me?) listing of various ways to escape the stupid consensus reality that we’re generally forced to live in for some reason. Up next: GAMES Also don’t miss my reading tips: -Escapism 2020/2021 pt1a: What I read -Escapism 2020/2021 pt1b: More things I read -Escapism 2020/2021 pt1c: Even more things I read -Escapism 2020/2021 pt1d: Further readings
Let’s start with some Manga. No 5 by Taiyo Matsumoto is finally being published in English! The first 2 books in the series was published long ago and it was my first discovery of Matsumoto. My first impression was that it was a Japanese comic with heavy influences from Moebius and US action comics. After reading more of him, that impression has evolved into just a love of his line work and a form of naivistic expression that somehow turns into realism without looking like realism. It’s hard to describe properly but I want it! I mean I want to be able to do the same thing. Those hands, those faces, that sense of movement, his use of shadows under water! The first edition of No 5 never continued after those first books in English. More came out in French, but I’m not sure even those editions covered the whole series. Anyway, now it’s coming, the whole thing in 5 volumes from VIZ Media. The 2 earlier both fit in the first of the new ones, which is all I’ve read so far.
Another classic(?) manga is Opus, by Satoshi Kon, who is mostly known for is work in anime such as Paranoia Agent, Perfect Blue and Paprika. Opus is a meta story of a manga artist ending up within his own comic. I’m not sure what I thought of. I guess it was ok, it’s an early work by Kon and was left unfinished for years. Not as interesting as what he did later, but nice to see where he came from. On the other hand, I re-read the first volumes of Samurai Assassin by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, and that’s never a bad idea.
I finally got around to reading Palestine by Joe Sacco. I’ve been putting it off because I thought it would be emotionally taxing. Which wasn’t wrong, but sometimes it’s worth it to learn more, even about things you already kind of know. If you don’t know already, Palestine is Sacco’s journalistic report about Palestine, first published in the mid-1990s. Lots of mud and misery and people who have been in Israeli prison camps. Stories of torture and resistance. I went on to read Footnotes in Gaza (also by Sacco), which is more specific in its subject, concentrating on one part of the conflict, showing both the current (when the book was written, a bit over 10 years ago) situation in Gaza with the constant and mostly arbitrary bulldozing of people’s houses, and researched events from the earlier days of the occupation, all based on eyewitness accounts and some comparisons with official documents. From the inception of Gaza as a refugee camp created by people who had been driven from their homes by the Israeli occupation to a couple of events on the way to the now of ca 2009. Is “nazi-esque” a word? I think it’d be a good description of the mass murders depicted in this book. It gives a broader image of daily life in Gaza now and then. However, the main event is a massacre that took place in Rafah in 1956, where all the men were rounded up, driven like cattle to a schoolyard, and my words can’t do it justice in the same way the comic does. Hundreds of civilians were systematically murdered and whoever says that the situation is too “complicated” to choose sides is by default an apologist for things like this. Read it.
Zombier, zombier, zombier is a Swedish non-comics anthology about zombies, from different perspectives. Some more interesting than others. Best was the text by Mathias Wåg who wrote about zombies as allegory for popular mass movements and how they have been seen and depicted historically.
More non-comics (before we go back to the more advanced form of literature that is the picture-book): Exterminate all the Brutes (orig: Utrota Varenda Jävel) and the sequel The Skull Measurer’s Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism (orig: Antirasister: människor och argument i kampen mot rasismen 1750-1900), both by Sven Lindqvist (I read them in the wrong order, one in Swedish and one in English, but it doesn’t matter). Both highly recommended. Exterminate all the Brutes is an examination of Joseph Conrad, his book Heart of Darkness, and the time and social climate that surrounding him. Which means it’s about European colonialism, primarily in Africa, during the 1700-1800s and a bit into the mid-1900s. We tend to treat the Holocaust as a unique event. Lindqvist that it’s not unique at all, just a logical continuation of things that happened in the European discourse of the preceeding centuries. The main difference between the Holocaust and the earlier colonialism was that it took place within Europe. But the ideas it was based on were things like some races being obsolete and ripe for extinction, races being both biological and cultural, the need for space for the superior race to expand and flourish. These ideas fall apart when you look closer at them (as should be, but isn’t, apparent for everyone nowadays), but they were totally dominant during that period, enabling for example the genocide in Leopold II’s Congo and other atrocities that cost millions of lives. Which becomes even more clear in Antirasister (I’m using the titles in the language I read the books). It explores documented instances of people who questioned the paradigm of White supremacy. White supremacy sounds like an extremist view these days, but not long ago it was simple the generally accepted truth to the extent that it didn’t even need to be said out loud most of the time. Even the dissenting voices were affected by the paradigm. Most examples are things like someone figuring out that Jews should be regarded as people too, but forgetting the extend the same courtesy to Native Americans. Or someone writing an article against slavery that no one really took seriously. Small, individual drops against an ocean of racism. If things go as planned, I will be involved in an exhibition working with this themes later this year, so I will be sharing some more thoughts and insights about it then. By the way, Exterminate all the Brutes also exists as a documentary series on HBO Max that I plan to watch at some point.
Back to comics, but sticking with the nazis… Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith was originally meant to be an alternate take on The Hulk, something like Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X that redefined parts of Wolverine’s backstory, but that never happened. Instead, it was recently released as its own graphic novel, published by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House. It’s a black/white story, written and drawn by BWS, dealing with child abuse, military science experiments, and nazi scientists imported to the US after the second world war. In short: monsters and monstrosities. By an artist who still lives up to the hype.
Another classic comics creator is Charles Burns, probably best known for Black Hole. Last Look is a collection of 3 books from a period of about 10 years. Maybe not as captivating as Black Hole, but that could be because this is a much shorter story. In short, it’s about this guy who is bad at relationships. It’s also told in a non-linear way with lots of dream sequences. It all comes together very satisfyingly.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign by Geoff Darrow brings more details and crazy fights and a big altright pig. We just can’t seem to get away from that theme in this post, can we? Anyway, Darrow is crazy as usual and seems to really truly enjoy drawing comic panels that other artists would run from, screaming in panic.
More visual storytelling: The Thousand Demon Tree by Jeffrey Alan Love is all about the visuals. Large format and amazingly stylized, it tells a story that evokes a sense of grandiosity that is quite similar to some scenes in the game Shadow of the Colossus. Meanwhile, The Arrival by Shaun Tan is (mostly) much more low-key. Like The Thousand Demon Tree, it’s told only in images with no text and is a story about migration in what seems to be a fantastical version of old-school New York, from the era of “bring me your huddles masses”. That feeling, but with fantasy animals and architecture and weirdness.
Speaking of migration… I don’t think I’ve written before about Club Mediterrâneo – doze fotogramas e uma devoração? Based on a poem by João Pedro Mésseder, it’s illustrated by Ana Biscaia with typography by Joana Monteiro. Ana and Joana were guests at AltCom 2018 and brought this book with them. Just wanted to mention it because it’s a very nice book about a not-so-nice situation for refugees coming to Europe over the Medierranean…
Oskar Aspman, one of my co-founders of CBK, recently used the risograph at the Malmö University to print Nightshine, a zine version of an old comic from C’est Bon, but remixed with new color and halftone and resurrected text from his original draft. Very nice, halftone-y and his usual kind of dirty line work. Also re-read the Piracy is Liberation books by Mattias Elftorp (name sounds familiar somehow) recently. I’m happy and relieved that they still hold up. I did it mostly as research since I’m getting ready to start working on book 012 of the series, finally, ten years later. Just waiting for my work situation to change so I’m allowed to draw more than 1,77h/week again (long irritating story for another time)…
As you may suspect, I make lists of everything I read. It sounds a bit OCD(?), but is mostly so I don’t forget as easily. It’s also a great help for when I do these annual review posts. And maybe a bit of OCD? I hope you get something out of it. If you’ve read some of the things I talk about you can figure out something about my tastes, and you can use that to figure out if you should check out some of the things I mention that you haven’t read.
So Karen Berger is back, editing a new imprint at Dark Horse since a while back. Now and then I think about how she is one of those individuals who have a massive impact on something that would have been completely different in their absence. Without her there would (probably) be no Sandman, no Hellblazer, no Invisibles, no Preacher, no Transmetropolitan and so much more since she was running DC Vertigo where all these came from.
Anyway, the imprint is called Berger Books and so far I’ve read two series from it, both written by Ann Nocenti, who used to write, for example, Daredevil, Kid Eternity, Typhoid Mary etc. These two books are The Seeds and Ruby Falls. The first of which is a kind of experimental dystopian story with aliens and people in gas masks walking around in wastelands and stylish black/white art by David Aja. Ruby Falls is more straight-forward, drawn by Flavia Biondi, about a woman trying to solve an old crime in the small town where she lives. I recommend both, but The Seeds appealed to me the most.
The publisher I probably follow the most ongoing comics from these days is Image Comics, so let’s talk about some books from (mostly) them:
Did you watch the TV version of Deadly Class? It was cancelled after one season which is too bad, because it was a pretty good adaptation of a very good comic by Rick Remender and Wes Craig. They’re currently up to 10 collections. Another one by Remender, with beautiful art by Greg Tocchini, is Low, which was finally finished. It took a while before the final part came out, but it was well worth the wait. It’s about a future where the sun got too big and hot so humanity had to move down under the sea, but the remaining civilizations are dying and the only hope is a probe returning that might contain information about an inhabitable world that we might move to. One of the main characters has adopted a kind of religion based on wishful thinking, like in The Secret, a book that is popular in certain circles of mostly rich people. The secret is that positive thinking can make you successful, basically. I don’t believe in that crap, but that doesn’t mean the comic doesn’t work. It is sci fi, after all, and the drawings are fucking gorgeous.
I finished Jeff Lemire‘s Black Hammer (with Dean Ormston) and Gideon Falls (with Andrea Sorrentino). I kept reading Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark and I also read Rucka’s The Old Guard, with art by Leandro Fernandez, which you may recognize from the Netflix film adaptation. I liked both the film and the comic. I think I enjoy things that put our lives into perspective, like a story about a bunch of immortals can do if it’s done well.
Monstress deserves a special mention. As I wrote in my last post, I enjoyed Marjorie Liu‘s Astonishing X-men very much. Monstress is her own story, drawn by Sana Takeda in a pretty unique, manga/fantasy-inspired style. Interesting characters, impressive world-building in a story about a girl who is more than she seems. That’s a very understated description, but I also don’t want to give away any of the story, so…
Michael Gaydos is one of those artists I count as working in the same style category as I do. Not saying that we’re on the same level or that we’re drawing exactly the same, but I believe we have much of the same influences and we’re trying to reach the same or similar feeling in our lines and shadows. He’re worked well together with Brian Michael Bendis on a couple of occasions, like Alias (that the Netflix series Jessica Jones was based on) and now Pearl, from DC comics. It’s a pretty short, finished story collected in 2 books. It reads more like an action film than a superhero story, which makes sense since it’s not even trying to be a superhero story even though it’s part of the normal DC publishing.
Another artist whose work is a huge inspiration to me is Danijel Žeželj. As you probably know if you’ve followed CBA where we’ve published some of his short stories. Unfortunately, much of his books haven’t been published in English (yet, hopefully), but there was at least one last year: Cyberpunk 2077: Your Voice, with script by Aleksandra Motyka and Marcin Blacha. As you might guess, it’s a cyberpunk story set in the world of the Cyberpunk 2077 game that was controversially released about a year ago (that’s a whole story in itself, which I guess I’ll have something to say about after I’ve actually played it myself. Short story: it was release before it was completely finished and the internet people got angry). Beautiful, dark, dystopian cyberpunk, as it should be.
Another pair of creators who worl well together is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. At the moment, they’re mostly working on their latest series of graphic pulp novels, Reckless. If you’ve read their Criminal, this is kind of similar but also different. It feels new and fresh. Pulp is a good description of the genre. Pulp is also the name of the story they made just before Recklass started coming out. Kind of a stepping stone to that from Criminal, about a former professional criminal who is talked into doing one last job even though he’s retired. Set just before the second world war, about a character who is old enough to have been around during the wild west era. As I was saying, I like stories that put things in perspective, and it fascinates me just like it did Brubaker that those two things took place during the span of one lifetime.
Next time, I’m going into some more history and also some books from the more indie publishers and classic artists… Also, if you missed them, I wrote more about what I’ve read in 2020/2021, linked in the bottom of this post.
So I guess I need to address this thing before we start…
I really like most of what Warren Ellis has written. I din’t think this post is the time/place to talk about all aspects of cancel culture, but since he’s currently sleeping on the couch I think some things need to be said. Has he done some things he isn’t proud of, that hurt some people? Yes. Does that mean we all have to stop reading all his stuff? No. The things he did aren’t encouraged or defended in his works, so in that way they are separate things. He also doesn’t defend them as a person but has stated that he’s working to change (unlike some others who have been uncancelled faster). But even if that wasn’t the case, you could still read and enjoy his works with a good conscience. It is possible to read things where you don’t wholeheartedly agree with every detail. You just need to sort things out for yourself, accept that there are things you don’t agree with and if the work is otherwise good enough to keep reading/watching etc or not. That’s how we had to consume more or less EVERYTHING back in the days (and still). You can still enjoy Harry Potter even if you’re not a TERF (I mean if you for some reason like it, you don’t have to if it’s not your thing, I’m completely uninterested in Harry Potter myself). You can still enjoy Lovecraft even if you aren’t extremely xenophobic (in his case the fear of most things/people is even probably the basis for what makes his cosmic horror so interesting, but you can still enjoy it without agreeing with him). All that said, here are some really good comics by Warren Ellis:
So one of the things he was involved with was The Wild Storm, a reboot of Jim Lee‘s Wildstorm part of the original setup of Image Comics in the early 1990s, with titles like WildC.A.T.S, Stormwatch etc. In the mid-late -90s, Ellis wrote Stormwatch and built it up to transform it into The Authority which was a big part of taking the superhero genre to the next level. With The Wild Storm, his job was to update those characters, tone down the superhero stuff a bit while still preserving a lot of the more original concepts that have been developing in various Wildstorm titles over the years. One of those concepts is what he did with another of his titles on the imprint, Planetary, where the main characters met and fought paraphrased characters from other parts of various genres, from superheroes to secret agents to pulp-style adventurers etc. With The Wild Storm: Michael Cray, written by Bryan Hill (based on a basic concept and plot structure by Ellis), they’re doing something similar again, pitting the main character against alternate, eviller versions of classic DC superheroes like Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and others. It’s all fun and enjoyable, especially Ellis’ run on The Wild Storm. Sadly, it looks like that whole reboot project may be hibernating for now and I don’t know if, or in what form, it will wake up again.
I’ve also read some other Ellis things, like Trees, The Batman’s Grave, Dark Blue and a re-read of his main 90s work: Transmetropolitan, which still holds up, maybe even more relevantly than when it first came out, with its dystopian cyberpunk setting and its murderous cops and corrupt politicians… Ok, maybe some things are just more or less constant? Anyway, I also read one of his very early comics, Hellstorm, which was much more interesting than the ettmpted TV version that came and went without much notice. Hellstorm has that 90s gritty cynicism that can still be refreshing sometimes, and also features art by a Leonardo Manco that is much less refined than his later works, but still expressive and full of dirty lines.
Speaking of The Authority, I have to mention something that has disturbed me. When Northstar got married in Marjorie Liu‘s Astonishing X-men, it was hyped in some places as the first gay superhero marriage. I don’t know what was actually the first one, but there’s AT LEAST the marriage of Apollo and Midnighter (who are pastisches of Superman and Batman, created by Ellis, married during Mark Millar‘s run). And that was in 2002, a bunch of years earlier than the X-men one. Both comics are great, by the way. My only problem with the whole thing is the ignorance in news media and the view that nothing is important enough to be newsworthy unless it’s the first time it happens.
Guess this is as good a time as any to talk about the current X-men era, beginning with House of X/Powers of X written by Jonathan Hickman. Hickman has previously tackled both Fantastic Four and Avengers in longer runs that redefined both titles, at least for a while after. Now Marvel gave him the X-men to do the same thing but on an even bigger scale. So he took some elements that have been recurring for a long time and saw what he could do with them, such as: -Resurrections. Since Jean Grey/Phoenix died in the early 1980s and then returned a while later, first as what turned out to be a clone, then as herself, there have been multiple instances of X-men dying and returning with different explanations. -Mutants as an allegorical tool for talking about racism. Even if it’s kind of a retcon that Professor X and Magneto were originally meant to represent Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively, there have been instances where they have been used that way, and different takes on racism have been the theme of most of the best X-men stories, from the future concentration camps in Days of Future Past to the mutant slaves in the fictional nation Genosha’s first appearance to what’s currently going on. -Sci fi. When Chris Claremont took over as writer in the mid-70s, the sales numbers were really low, which meant that he and his artists had free reign to do basically whatever they wanted. So one of the things they did just because it might be fun was taking the mutants to space. Mutation in itself is a sci fi theme and they’ve been fighting mutant-killing robots since forever. There are also alternate timelines, time travel, freaky technology etc. The comic has been around for a long time and they’ve had time to do a lot with it. Slight spoilers ahead.
So Hickman took these things and some other concepts and did something new with it. So the current state of affairs is that mutants are basically immortal since they can all be easily resurrected if they die. They live in the only timeline they found where they have a chance to survive as a species, IF they can beat the competing AI/robotic strain of evolution. Kind of like the two strands of posthumanism in Bruce Sterling‘s classic cyberpunk novel Schismatrix. And they dropped the old dream of living togehter with humans and instead started their own nation, on the living island Krakoa, for mutants only.
All very interesting and I’m sure most of it will turn out to be something different from what it looks like. But they’re also doing something kind of new with the publishing. House of X and Powers of X were two mini-series running parallel to each other, with one story running through both titles. After that, they rebooted all the X-men-related titles (usually somewhere between 5-10 titles/month) and started collecting them all in monthly trades. Of course it’s a profit-driven move to make it easier to follow ALL the titles instead of having to choose some, but it’s also kind of weird that it hasn’t been done this way before. Ok, I guess it has been done, but seldom exactly like this. So there are various titles driving the overarching story forward by concentrating on different characters or aspects of this new mutant society. Different writer/artist constellations on each title makes the quality fluctuate a bit and some of it isn’t as good as the rest while some are better than most. The overall story could’ve been done more interestingly and some characters could have been written better and so on, but as I said earlier, you can’t expect a work of fiction like this to be perfect. It’s still interesting enough to keep me hooked. The first 16 collections after HoX/PoX were called Dawn of X, then there was a crossover event called X of Swords and now they’re calling it Reign of X until the next crossover event that will bring the whole thing to its third phase. Hickman is now rumored to be leaving the whole thing before it’s finished, due to the rest of the writers wanting to drag it out longer before things change too much. It seems they have more stories to tell in the current setting. I hope Hickman will stay involved somehow since it’s his vision that started the whole thing, but either way I look forward to seeing where they’re going with it.
What else do I have to talk about from the world of superheroes? Oh, right. Remember the outrage when Captain America came out as a member of Hydra and there was this whole thing about it, mostly based on ignorance? Since Hydra are bascially nazis, I guess the anti-SJW croud thought it was a statement from woke Marvel about the US being racist or something, so they were up in arms (because the US can never be racist enough for them and everyone who says so is a liar). Not sure if anyone else really made a big thing out of it? Most people who are the least bit comics literate would understand that when a comic has been around that long (since the 1940s when he was created by two jews wanting the US to take a stand against the nazis), you have to do something with it to keep it interesting. So why not make it seem like the main character has been on the side of his enemies all along? Everyone knows that it’s going to be a temporary thing, just like the time when Thor was a frog, Spider-man was a clone or the Hulk was gray. It’ll pass, don’t worry about it. But while it lasts there might be a good story. So I read the Secret Empire story by to see what it was really about (wanna bet that most of the internet storms took place before it was even published?). It was ok.
Speaking of internet outrage… I wanted to read Divided States of Hysteria by Howard Chaykin based on a few reviews by internet idiots. They said this comic was 1: offensive to SJWs because they couldn’t see that depictions of racism and transphobia are not the same as actual racism or transphobia, and 2: depicting the USA in a bad light. So I thought: I like dystopic stories that are critical towards the US, so maybe I should finally check out this Howard Chaykin guy? I’d read just a little of him and I liked the art but hadn’t read any of his writing. And you know that people who use the term SJW to describe people who don’t agree with them are idiots, so I thought those reviews were a good sign. However, I didn’t like this story at all. It might have been interesting, but the storytelling was stiff and stale, and its depiction of racism was too exaggerated, like everyone in the near future US is super racist AND they have good grounds for being racist because everyone in the comic more or less live up to their stereotypes. More or less. And let me be clear: I’m not offended by depictions or racism/transphobia. Those things are real and we need to talk about them, BUT I want my stories well-written. And this one is filled with boring stereotypes and also in the end with boring patriotism as well, so it’s just boring. I’m also aware that you shouldn’t judge a comics writer by just one of their works. I think sometimes: what if people judge me by THIS story that I’m not particularly proud of and it prevents them from reading THAT one that I do feel is some of my best work? If it’d be unfair to me, it’d be unfair to anyone else too. On the other hand, I’m not made of money. So maybe I’ll give Chaykin another try in the future if I find some of his stuff from the 80s that’s supposed to be better. If it’s cheap. But I’m not actively going to look for it, as I would have if this one had been more what I hoped it would be…
By the way, the whole thing about “woke Marvel” is kind of pathetic, actually. There are some right-leaning people who complain that (especially Marvel) superheroes are too political now, too woke etc. And then there’s the other side with liberals who say that these comics have always been politically correct and even left-leaning. And they’re both wrong, basically because they both think that liberalism is a left-wing ideology. Of course you can find examples, both now and back when, of comics taking left-leaning stances. As I said, Captain America was created as an antifascist statement, BUT it was also created in a context that was very nationalist and very very capitalist, which limited what it could express and how far it could go. Marvel is now owned by Disney, and is anyone for real thinking that they are progressive for any reason other than making a profit? Yes, there is some space for messages that are at least humanist and sometimes even socialist or socialist-adjacent, but that stuff is still far from taking over the whole genre and whoever thinks otherwise is probably willfully ignorant or just stupid.
Yes, gay marriage sometimes occurs in superhero comics. Yes, stories can be made that deal with the complexities around mutants as allegory for racism and some comics are more progressive than others. And yes, even women and Black people can be superheroes now, as has been the case for a long time. But do you really feel that you have to look too hard to find an apolitical (as in: defending the status quo which is liberal capitalism) white cis straight male superhero?
I think there’s going to be two more posts about comics and other reading material, so stay tuned for those. After that I’ll be going into movies and tv… All these posts will be linked from the one about my own comics and illustrations.
So as part of my new year’s ritual, let’s talk about some of the things I read in the last two years, beginning with The New Gods by Jack Kirby. I never got the thing with Kirby.
I knew of him, I’d read a couple of his comics, I knew the huge influence he’s been on Marvel in particular, superhero comics in general, now also movies, and lots of artists (even working in other genres). I also knew how he got fucked over by the publishers he worked on. But I never got the thing. Until now. Still not sure I can put it in words, but reading one of the comics he made after rage-quitting Marvel and getting the freedom to do whatever he wanted at DC was kind of an eye-opener. The storytelling was solid, if not amazing, at least from a this-was-made-in-the-early-70s perspective, and I suddenly saw some line work that reminded me of other artists who must have been inspired by him. There’s also a general feel to his drawings that I’ve been aware of but I can now appreciate much more.
A few years ago I started re-reading the Dune series. I’ve now gone through Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune. I’m guessing a lot more people have been reading the first book now since the movie was such a success, but I hope they don’t stop after the first book. I remember thinking back when that it was with God Emperor of Dune that it got really interesting, and I tend to agree, still, 20-something years later. Not going to go into more details than that to avoid spoilers. But I also got it into my mind that I should try some other books by Frank Herbert, which I did:
Whipping Star is linguistic sci fi at its finest, in my mind. Second in Frank Herbert’s sabotage series of one short story and two novels (The Tactful Saboteur, Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment), written parallel to the first couple of Dune books in the 1960s and -70s. I see echoes of this one in many other works of mostly sci fi/speculative fiction, but I had never heard of it before I stumbled upon it now. I’m very glad I did, because this should be seen as much as a classic as Dune is. The Arrival (which I’ve only seen as a movie, not read the book) comes to mind as a comparatively dumbed-down exploration of some of the same concepts. Language, how different species might experience time differently, how we might approach understanding each other. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Arrival (even though as a comics creator I can’t see whay they wouldn’t try to communicate with images), but Whipping Star is so much more of a mindfuck. In the good way. You need a bit of patience, because everything isn’t clear from the beginning (same goes for the short story, The Tactful Saboteur, which I found in Eye, a collection of short stories by Herbert). But the main characters understand even less, and it clears up during the course of the book. The first main conversation lasts for about 50 pages, and if you like the way Herbert writes dialogue in Dune, for example, then you need this. It is such a treat! The Dosadi Experiment, the third and final part, brings more alien culture clash, also handled interestingly.
Destination: Void is a story about the first steps in the journey of a generational spaceship. You know the kind where the journey takes longer than one lifespan, so the passengers need to either be frozen or prepared to let the trip last for several generations. I’ll be talking more about the genre in a future post about movies/TV, specifically Aniara, Human, Space, Time and Human and Avenue 5. Destination Void differs in that it’s about a planned trip, not an accidental one. It’s also written by Frank herbert, so expect some interesting concepts in the relations between the small crew and the ship’s brain-based computer. There are three more books in the series, so at some point I will go on with those.
More sci fi, but much much older: The Book of Enoch is an approximately 2300(?) year old sci fi/horror(?)/fantasy story. Some would call it mythological or religious and they wouldn’t be wrong considering it’s one of the background works of Judaism/Christianity/Islam and even canon in some branches, like Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. To me, it was more interesting to read it as really old sci fi, and it might even have been written that way originally. In any case, it is one (of many) example of the apocalyptic genre that was a thing mostly for a few centuries around 2000 years ago. There’s some cynical politics in there, a bitterness over all the evil the writer/s saw around them, and a hope that the wrong-doers will be punished in a utopian final judgment. An event where all sins will be forgiven, but there’s simultaneously no salvation for the sinners. I guess the absolution is only available for the good guys who might also have sinned, while the bad guys are eternally fucked. A mix of wishful thinking and commentary on the times it was written. Part of the book is the story of when a bunch of angels (100 of them, 10 main leaders who are named) decided to go down to Earth to marry human women. And of how they were punished for it. The most well-known thing about this (as mentioned in passing in Genesis) is that they had children with the human women. Children who grew to be massive giants. What’s less known is that not only did they have angel/human hybrid kids, they also taught their wives about medicine and other things. And they taught the human men how to make weapons and armor and work with metal, and astronomy, astrology and so on. Their punishment was for all this, not only the procreation. Granted, the greatest sin was that they had defiled themselves by being with human women. But the writer probably also didn’t like war. Or science. Or medicine. Or giants. Or especially women. I’m not sure if this should be read as conservative/nostalgic or as a cathartic curse on contemporary mainstream society, with their wars and all those other things. Parts of the book can be read almost as a Lovecraft story, with dream sequences and these cosmic beings procreating with humans and names like Azazel, Araqiel, Zerachiel, Chazaqiel… Another interesting thought: If you see this as sci fi, you might see religions as fandoms, sacred texts as shared universes. Think of the Bible as if it was the Marvel comics universe. Different writers contributing to stories about different characters and events, some dealing with supernatural powers, all set in the same universe/timeline (while for example the Olympian pantheon is an adjacent fandom within the same genre). There have been in-group discussions about what’s canon and not, how the fandom should be organised, what themes are important in the stories, who counts as a true fan etc. When I thought of it this way, it made a bit more sense as a historical/social phenomenon within human culture. That was part of what made me interested in the Book of Enoch to begin with. I wanted to see how it would feel to read such a text if I saw it as a really old sci fi book. I must say it does work quite well.
Speaking of HP Lovecraft, I finally managed to get all of Alan Moore‘s Providence, so I re-read The Courtyard and Neonomicon, since they are all part of the same story.
Alan Moore is easily one of the best and most interesting contributors to the mythos based on Lovecraft’s stories. Providence is at the moment quite hard to find (or it was, until the compendium edition was released recently) but well worth the effort. It was frustrating but kind of fitting since much of the story is about the main character trying to find a book. Each issue of the series, at least the first ten, is part comic, part entries from a notebook/journal written by the main character. It fucks up the reading rhythm a bit, but gives some extra insight into the character when you read his after-the-fact interpretations of what you’ve just read in the comic, as well as some events that weren’t shown in the comic pages. It shows how oblivious he is to certain elements, but also gives some insight to some of the context. For example, the main character is homosexual and has several sexual and/or flirtatious encounters during the course of the story, but even when he writes about them in a journal only meant for himself, he takes care to use neutral pronouns or insinuating that the person was female, probably because it’d be dangerous not to do so IF someone else would happen to read it, even though he comes from what seems to have been a pretty open gay culture in New York in the years around 1920. As usual, Moore does his research and uses it in his worldbuilding, setting the story against the backdrop of a world war, prohibition, the fear of communists following the Russian revolution etc.
Also as usual, he uses the sequential nature of comics to enhance the storytelling, which I won’t go deeper into here. If you read it you’ll understand. He incorporates the prejudices of the zeitgeist and of Lovecraft himself and lets it enhance the horror. Lovecraft did this as well, but Moore flips the perspectives. Instead of the otherness of everyone except White men being one of the sources of horror, here it’s the process of othering that is part of an oppressive background to the more cosmic elements. Which is a simplification, but I believe that to be a basic intention in the way Moore deals with those topics while adapting someone like Lovecraft. A friend of mine, French artist Alkbazz, posed the question at one point: what would the world be like without Lovecraft? It made me realize how far his influences reach. How many writers and artists haven’s been influenced by him? No, not by him but by his works. An important distinction considering how much he was a child of his times and how racist/sexist/homophobic those times were (think the 1980s but much worse, less insightful and closer in time to some massive examples of genocide. If you grew up in the late 1900s you’ll probably know what I mean). But the contributions Lovecraft made to the horror genre, in many ways grounded in the fundamental realization of how insignificant we are in the cosmic scheme of things. Insight that probably derived in part from the scientific discoveries of the time and how the public consciousness moved in a more secular direction. We had to come to terms with a world where we weren’t chosen by God, where we weren’t at the center of the universe and if Gods existed they either didn’t care or had no respect nor concern for us because we were like tiny faceless inhabitants of their fleeting dreams.
I think that has to be enough for today. I have things to say about more things I’ve read, but I’ll let you rest a bit before continuing. So…
Time is weird lately. I normally make a couple of blogposts in the end/beginning of the year to let you know what I’ve been up to, stuff I’ve made, stuff I’ve read/watched/played etc, but I didn’t manage to do that last year so I have some catching up to do.
Seems I have more to talk about than I really have the time to write, but I’ll do my best in the coming blogposts, beginning with
What I did in 2020-2021
I didn’t actually do much this last year. Mostly since I’m not allowed to do too much due to the unemployment insurance rules. Even the amount of pro bono/non-profit work is restricted (as it turns out, even more restricted than I thought, but that’s a story for another time. I can hopefully talk about it after I’ve managed to sort out the whole mess OR after I’ve given up on fixing it). But I did some stuff in 2020, and even if I didn’t actually produce all that much in 2021, I got some stuff published during the year.
I’ve written about some of it earlier in the blog, so this is more of a list to sum things up. Links to more info are in the captions.
I’m not doing a post about upcoming stuff this time because I’m mainly going to try to have an income in some form or other and I’m not sure yet what that will mean. Right now I’m living on money I managed to put aside last time I had an employment, plus a couple of grants I got, so hopefully I can fix this situation before I run out. If/when that changes I’ll let you know…