The Joy Of… Genre-Specific Creativity

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Although this is an article about art, comics and fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music. This is mostly because, a day or two before I wrote this article, I heard a rather interesting song called “Metal Inquisition” by Piledriver that made me think about audiences and genres.

“Metal Inquisition” is a song which heavy metal fans will find absolutely hilarious and non-metal fans will probably find mildly disturbing. It’s a knowingly silly song about a Spanish Inquisition-style group who try to ensure that everyone listens to heavy metal… or else!

And, it’s also the perfect example of a genre-specific thing. It’s a comedic song that is written specifically for heavy metal fans. If you aren’t a metalhead, then you probably won’t get the joke (eg: it’s about heavy metal’s [lack of] mainstream popularity etc..).

There’s certainly something to be said for things that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre. For starters, the trouble with making everything suitable for everyone is that, unless it’s done extremely well, it often ends up appealing to no-one.

Unless you are the mythical “normal person” that mainstream cinema, pop music, advertising, gaming etc… exists to serve, then there will be a certain emotional distance between you and the creative work in question. And, well, no-one is that idealised “normal person”. We’re all geeks or nerds in some way or another. We all have preferences and fascinations. We’re all fans of one thing or another. After all, we’re all unique human beings.

Creative works that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre acknowledge that uniqueness. They say “some people like this, and that’s cool. Some people don’t, and they should probably find something else“. As such, if you find something that you are a fan of, then it’ll feel more meaningful to you. It’ll feel like something made specifically for you.

This is also useful for creating a sense of community too. After all, if you’re a fan of a slightly obscure genre, then genre-specific things can be a thing which reminds you that “other people like this stuff too!“.

For example, going back to “Metal Inquisition”, the song is such an amazing song for the simple reason that it is a gleeful celebration of heavy metal music (a bit like Saxon’s “Denim And Leather”, Judas Preist’s “Deal With The Devil”, Helloween’s “Heavy Metal (is the law)”, Sabaton’s “Metal Machine” etc… ).

It’s a song that amusingly imagines what the world would be like if heavy metal was the most mainstream genre instead of the least mainstream genre. It’s a song that recreates the feeling of going to your first metal concert and seeing literally hundreds of other people who also like the same music you do. That awestruck sense of actually belonging somewhere.

But, in addition to this, genre-specific things are also awesome for the simple reason that they’re an expression of creative freedom. They show that the person who made them is such a fan of that particular genre that they felt compelled to actually make things for other fans. They show how great stories, films, games, albums etc… can inspire people to create things themselves. After all, you don’t make a genre-specific thing unless you’re a massive fan of things from that genre.

Genre-specific things aren’t “manufactured pop band # 345,237” who were designed by committee in order to maximise sales to the 16-24 demographic. They aren’t “Generic military action videogame #17” churned out annually in order to sell more games consoles. They aren’t “CGI-filled Hollywood Movie # 500,000” with 20% less dialogue to reduce translation costs for international distribution. They aren’t “hip fashion trend #7653” that will empty the wallets of trendy people in London, New York etc… 50% faster than usual.

No, genre-specific things are things made by people for people. They’re the sorts of things that people would make even if they didn’t get paid. They’re things that are made out of love, rather than out of greed. They are things that aren’t “mass-produced”. They’re things that are brave enough to say “if you like this, then that’s great. If you don’t, then find something else!

Genre-specific things are a testament to the power of creativity for the sake of creativity, and to the value of individuality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Ways To Do Surrealism Well (That I Learnt From A 1990s TV Show)

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As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been watching an old American TV show from the 1990s called “Twin Peaks” on DVD recently (I haven’t seen any of the new episodes though). This series has something of a reputation for being slightly on the stranger side of things, although it isn’t really as ludicrously surreal as I’d expected it to be.

Still, it does provide some interesting lessons in how to do surrealism well. But, before I begin the list, I should point out that this article may contain some mild plot SPOILERS. That said, let’s begin…

1) You still need a story: For all of the strange stuff that happens in “Twin Peaks”, there’s still an actual storyline that you can follow. Yes, there are lots of twists and turns, but the series actually has a proper plot that – mostly – makes sense. Even the stranger parts of the series often end up having some kind of explanation later in the series.

In other words, for all of the strangeness, there is still a coherent narrative. There is still something that the audience can understand and, as such, they are more willing to overlook the parts of the story that they can’t understand.

In other words, you need to find a good balance between traditional storytelling and strange surrealism.

2) Different logic: For all of the strange things in the show, there is often some kind of logic behind them. As an example, one of the show’s most famous characters is the Log Lady. She’s a slightly strange woman who carries a small log with her wherever she goes. She’ll also talk to the log sometimes and claim that she receives messages from it.

The Log Lady from "Twin Peaks"

The Log Lady from “Twin Peaks” (1990)

Although she could easily just be a “strange for the sake of strange” character, the series contains some mysterious paranormal elements. So, the Log Lady’s initial explanation that the log contains the spirit of her deceased husband makes slightly more sense when you’ve seen more of the series. Of course, given that the one of the main themes in the TV show is mourning and/or grief, it’s also possible that her obsession with the log is merely a psychological reaction of some kind to her husband’s death.

Even though this is left slightly ambiguous, the fact that there is at least one “logical” (in the context of the story) explanation for this “strange” part of the show helps to avoid breaking the audience’s immersion in the story.

3) The ordinary: For all of “Twin Peaks’ ” strangeness, most of the unusual parts of the series are at least vaguely related to ordinary life.

Sometimes, this can take the form of a character owning an unusual (but available) object – for example, one character is seen eating a piece of smoked cheese that has been sculpted to look like a pig. It’s strange, but it’s also the kind of thing that can probably be bought from gift shops in areas where smoked cheese is made.

Sometimes, this can just be ordinary things that are subtly out of place. For example, the pilot episode of “Twin Peaks” includes a scene set in a rural American bank. This is the kind of place where you might possibly expect to see a hunting trophy in the lobby. A stag’s head wouldn’t look totally out of place here. Yet, merely by placing it somewhere slightly unusual, the show is able to add a touch of surrealism to what would otherwise be an “ordinary” dialogue-based scene:

As you can see in this scene from "Twin Peaks", the placement of a "normal" item in a slightly unusual location can instantly add a surreal atmosphere to a story, comic,. TV show, painting etc...

As you can see in this scene from “Twin Peaks”, the placement of a “normal” item in a slightly unusual location can instantly add a surreal atmosphere to a story, comic,. TV show, painting etc…

4) Comedy and horror: The surreal parts of “Twin Peaks” that aren’t fully explained are often still surprisingly interesting for the simple reason that they’re designed to either frighten the audience or make them laugh. Or both.

Since these parts of the show are designed to evoke strong emotions, they are more likely to bypass the more “logical” parts of the audience’s minds. Since these scenes are clearly designed purely for comedic and/or horrific effect, then they are less likely to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief too. After all, “it’s meant to be funny” or “it’s meant to be scary” can often be a logical explanation for otherwise illogical things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Ways To Make Something That Is ‘So Bad That It’s Good’

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I’ve probably talked about things that are ‘so bad that they’re good’ before, but I was reminded of this subject the night before I wrote this article. This was mainly because I started watching an anime series called ‘Tokko‘ about a police officer who has to face hordes of demonic creatures.

It might be because I accidentally left the default dubbed audio track on or because I had slightly different expectations about the series, but it fell into the ‘so bad that it’s good’ category. Far from being a serious horror series, it is (both unintentionally and intentionally) one of the funniest comedies that I’ve seen recently.

The police officer and his best friend look like what people in the very late 1990s/early 2000s considered to be “cool”. Personality wise, they are basically two American frat boys/slackers. The cheesy dubbed dialogue tries to be ‘edgy’ at every opportunity, and often comes across as being eye-rollingly immature. The “scary” monsters either look adorable and/or hilarious. The animation can be a bit clunky and the fight scenes are ludicrously gruesome (in a silly over-the-top way, rather than in a genuinely disturbing way). Yet, surprisingly, I really enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen so far. As I said, it’s literally so bad that it’s good.

So, how can you make things that are so bad that they’re good? Here are three of the many ways:

1) Awesome idea, terrible implementation: One of the best ways to make something ‘so bad that it’s good’ is to try to stretch yourself far beyond your abilities. To have the ambition of creating something awesome, but without the resources or knowledge to really do it properly.

There something endearing about someone trying to create something great, even when they can’t. There’s something warmly amusing about, say, a low-budget DVD whose cover art promises an epic story that both you and the people making the DVD know won’t be delivered.

Most people’s first attempts at making a webcomic automatically fall into this category too ( in fact, making it through this ‘crappy’ early phase is something of a test for webcomic creators), because they’re both highly inexperienced and yet highly inspired by other webcomics that they’ve seen.

These things are “so bad that they’re good” because they’re more ‘real’. They’re literally the polar opposite of flashy Hollywood movies, slick mainstream comics etc.. They show people trying to create things because they want to and because they believe in what they’re doing, rather than because they want to make millions.

2) Hyper modernity: If you make something that is very much of the time that it’s made then, years later, it will look amusingly dated. This is especially true if you are trying to use an old idea for inspiration, which can often result in something appearing slightly dated when it is originally released.

This is also especially true if you try to make ‘modern’ science fiction. A great example of this would probably be a ‘so bad that it’s good’ spy/thriller/sci-fi/comedy TV series from the mid-late 1990s called “Bugs“. At the time, it was probably a lot more “cool” and “futuristic”. But, these days, it’s joyously hilarious to see all of the characters using ‘gadgets’ and surfing the internet with 56k modems and computers that still have CRT monitors.

So, if you make something very ‘modern’, then there’s a good chance that it will become ‘so bad that it’s good’ in a few years’ time.

3) Earnestness: Creative works that try to be hyper-earnest about politics, or go to ridiculous lengths to show off how “liberal” or “conservative” they are, can often fall into the ‘so bad that it’s good category’.

This is basically because the extremely prominent and earnest politics end up distracting the audience from the actual story and completely wrecking their suspension of disbelief. This will reduce even the most serious story to unintentional comedy within minutes.

I would describe modern examples of this sort of thing. But, ironically, in our highly-politicised age, I’d probably end up infuriating a lot of people if I gave cynical descriptions of these things. Still, the modern trend for hyper-earnest politics (on both sides of the political spectrum) will at least ensure that we’ll never run out of ‘so bad that it’s good’ things in the near future.

But, if you earnestly try to shoehorn politics into the things you make, then they’ll probably turn into unintentional comedy fairly quickly.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Random Thoughts About “Unfiltered” Creativity – A Ramble

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A while before I wrote this article, I was watching the special features on the UK DVD edition of season one of “Twin Peaks”. During an interview with someone who worked on the series, a description of the series’ writer/director (David Lynch) really stuck in my mind. The description was about how Lynch didn’t really have a “filter” when expressing himself.

Initially, this reminded me of one of the problems that I’ve noticed since I started posting art, comics etc.. online. Namely that I slowly seem to have developed one of these filters. As regular readers of this blog know, despite being anti-censorship, I often tend to self-censor quite a bit for all sorts of reasons.

But, despite the fact that virtually everything I produce is (to use an American phrase) a lot more “PG-13” than it used to be in the late 2000s/early 2010s, I don’t feel as uninspired as I perhaps should.

Some of this is probably due to my changing attitudes towards telling “serious” stories (in short, “depressing for the sake of depressing” doesn’t really appeal to me as much as it used to). Likewise, the limitations of things like website content policies can sometimes make me think more creatively too. Plus, of course, it has taught me the power of subtle suggestion, implication and more ambiguous visual storytelling.

So, having one of those “filters” doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative -even if it does somewhat reduce the range of creativity available to you.

But, I also miss the days when artists, writers and film-makers were almost expected to be “unfiltered”.

I mean, take the movie “Blade Runner” for example. It is a visual masterpiece. It’s a philosophical treatise on humanity, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. It’s a morally-ambiguous film that will probably make you sympathise more with the ‘villain’ than the ‘hero’. It’s a film where the characters are both superficial and extremely deep at the same time. It’s a film which will reward you with something new every time you watch it. It’s a film that has inspired many other people and will probably inspire you if you’re an artist or a writer. It is, quite simply one of the best films – if not the best – ever made.

And, yet, by modern standards, it would probably fall foul of the “filter” mentioned at the beginning of this article for a huge variety of subtle reasons.

In a way, I think that the modern expectation for things to be more ‘filtered’ ignores why people watch films, read fiction, play games etc.. It’s for escapism from ‘ordinary life’. It’s to live other lives vicariously. It’s a safe outlet for our more ‘primitive’ instincts. It’s to make ourselves feel a particular emotion (eg: laughter, fear etc..).

It’s to explore all manner of fascinating places without even leaving home. It’s either to make ourselves think or to give ourselves a break from thinking. It’s to learn more about the parts of ourselves (and humanity in general) that the mainstream doesn’t teach us about. It’s to experience life ‘turned up to eleven’. It’s to add new places to the vast worlds of our imaginations.

Usually, these kinds of things are emotionally-intense in pleasant or unpleasant ways. This, of course, goes against the whole idea of a ‘filter’. The idea that everything should be completely bland and inoffensive. The idea that everything should be suitable for everyone, because modern people supposedly don’t have the intelligence to discern whether something is really their sort of thing or not (and to ignore it if it isn’t).

In short, the best creative works often need to be “unfiltered” to some level or another. They need to be free to evoke strong emotions. They need to be free to let us explore ideas, situations etc.. that we may never encounter in everyday life. Creative works need to be able to shock, to amuse, to horrify, to provoke thought etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

History, Nostalgia, Creativity And Subtlety – A Ramble

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Although this is an article about creating historical art, historical comics, historical fiction etc…. I’m going to have to start by talking about real-life “anachronisms” and some vaguely geeky stuff. As usual, there’s a good reason for this.

The night before I wrote this article, I happened to find an absolutely fascinating historical video online. This was one of those mildly unusual things that, like colour footage of 1920s London (or colour photos of 1910s Russia) or old footage from the 1920s/30s that seems to show people using mobile phones, seemed like an anachronism. But, what was it?

It was a modern-style HD video of New York… filmed in 1993. Seriously, you can actually watch this in 1080p if you have a fast enough connection and/or enough available RAM. I watched it in 720p, but it was still pretty astonishing, given when it was filmed.

Some of the high-definition scenes in the film look wonderfully retro and some look slightly eerie (eg: modern-style footage of the Twin Towers etc..), but a few scenes look like they could have been filmed today.

For example, there’s some aerial filming which – if it wasn’t for a barely-noticeable helicopter shadow on a building– could easily be modern HD drone footage. Likewise, there’s a close-up of an old man sleeping on a bench, which literally looks like something from a modern HD documentary.

So, what does any of this have to do with creativity?

Well, one of the many interesting things about this modern-looking HD video from 1993 was the comments below it. One thing that seemed to “shock” a few people was the fact that nobody was staring at a smartphone in the footage of the busy streets. People were actually *gasp* acting like people whilst walking down the street.

I was more distracted by the retro fashions etc… to notice this (which is especially odd, given that I made an entire webcomic about smartphones, time travel and 1990s America a while ago), but the absence of smartphones seemed to be one of the things that made it stand out as something from the 1990s.

And, yet, it’s a really subtle thing.

So, this obviously made me think about works of art and fiction that are set in the past. Often, when we’re making art or comics about the relatively recent past, it can be very easy, and very fun, to go down the “nostalgia” route and exaggerate notable features from the time in question. Like with some of my own “nostalgic” 1990s-themed artwork:

"1990s Office Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Office Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

"1990s Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

But, often the most telling signs that something ‘serious’ is set in the past are a lot more subtle. For starters, many things are surprisingly timeless. Although the inclusion of these things in historical works might make them seem ‘modern’, they’re often anything but modern.

For example, the copious use of four-letter words in the fictional medieval-style setting of “Game Of Thrones” is probably closer to how people actually talked in medieval Britain (even if many written records of the time were kept by pious monks etc… who didn’t use four letter words). Even a few centuries later, the old French slang term for British people – “les godames” – comes from the fact that we used to use the word ‘goddamn’ a lot. So, it’s hardly a modern thing.

Likewise, historical change isn’t really an instant thing – so, the best way to show that something is set in the past is often to focus on these timeless things and to keep the “old” details relatively subtle.

This also reflects how nostalgia actually works. For example, in late 2016, I had a sudden and vivid moment of 1990s nostalgia that actually led to me spontaneously writing a short essay and making a cartoon.

All of these old memories were suddenly brought back to life when I happened to hear about a videogame series that I played when I was a lot younger. It was a subtle “background detail”, but it probably evoked more nostalgia than a picture of the Power Rangers playing POGs whilst watching a Tamagotchi advert that was playing on a CRT television in the middle of an episode of “The Fresh Prince” probably would.

So, yes, nostalgia and a sense of history can often work better when they’re fairly subtle.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Nostalgia Itself Can Sometimes Be More Inspirational Than The Things That Provoke It- A Ramble

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Although I’m going to start this article by talking about a time when I revisited a game that I felt nostalgic about, there’s a good reason for this. But, if you’re interested in some ideas about nostalgia and creative inspiration, then it might be worth skipping the next four paragraphs or so.

The afternoon before I originally wrote this article, I was in a vaguely nostalgic mood and decided to take another look at a computer game from 2006 called “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” that I played for the first time in late 2011 (after playing the original “The Longest Journey” game during summer 2011).

Although I didn’t feel like replaying the whole thing, I wanted to quickly relive some of the good memories that I had of this game. So, I loaded up one of my old save files from near the beginning of the game – ready to jump back into the complex immersive fictional world that I remembered so fondly.

But, it didn’t seem right. Dialogue that seemed significant and emotionally powerful just a few years ago just came across as needlessly melodramatic or “depressing for the sake of depressing”. Likewise, the large explorable futuristic version of Casablanca that I remembered from the beginning of the game actually just seemed to be a few linear streets. Previously interesting characters just seemed to be more annoying than anything else. There were also more loading screens than I remembered.

After a few minutes, I stopped playing. This wasn’t the game that I remembered! Sure, it looked vaguely similar. Sure, the characters looked the same. But, it just seemed less enchanting, immersive and dramatic than it was a few years ago.

This, naturally, made me think about the nature of nostalgia.

It took me a while to remember that nostalgia is as much about the difference between the person you were in the past and the person you are now as it is about any specific game, movie, book, TV show, song, comic etc…

Generally, we become nostalgic about things for one of two reasons. Something either seems to sum up a particular time period perfectly (eg: floppy disks, audio cassettes and POGs sum up the 1990s quite well), or it has a strong emotional impact on us when we first encountered it. It was exactly the right thing that we needed to play, watch, hear or read at a particular time in our lives. It was something that either fired our imaginations, helped us to understand ourselves and/or provided something good during a gloomy time.

If nostalgia falls into the latter category, then it is often best to avoid revisiting it. After all, even though it was a small- but essential – thing that helped to make you the person you are today, you are almost certainly at least a slightly different person to the one you were in the past.

So, if you try to revisit something that used to have an emotional resonance with you, then it probably won’t have exactly the same resonance any more. You’ll probably end up looking at it in a more dispassionate and disconnected kind of way. Needless to say, it won’t live up to the vital and important memories that you have of it.

However, if you don’t look at it again, it’ll still be the amazing thing that it once was. You’ll remember it as being much better, much more dramatic, much more significant, much more detailed etc… than it actually is. And, if you’re a creative person, then this is exactly the sort of thing that you need in order to get inspired.

After all, inspiration comes from using your imagination to turn pre-existing things into new things. It comes from seeing something and thinking “I want to make my own version of that!” and/or “I wonder what something like that would be like if I added something else to it?

Since nostalgia tends to do some this for you automatically, you’ll be in a much more advantageous position to start coming up with creative ideas if you take inspiration from the nostalgia itself, rather than the thing that actually made you feel nostalgic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Getting Artistically Inspired Using Places You’ve Never Visited – A Ramble

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Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about how you can use places that you’ve never actually visited as a potent source of artistic inspiration. This is probably because, the day before I wrote this article, I found myself inspired by 1990s Los Angeles/California once again.

Although the next webcomic mini series to be posted here (which will start appearing here tomorrow night) will be set there, I also made a sci-fi painting inspired by 1990s Los Angeles that will be posted here in mid-late June. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

 The full-size painting will appear here on the 22nd June.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 22nd June.

And, yet, I’ve never been to America. Although I’m not really a fan of travelling these days, when I used to travel more, I never actually travelled outside of Europe. Likewise, although I was around during the 1990s and can remember a fair amount of it, I was only a young child at the time.

Plus, I’m not a fan of hot weather or large, crowded cities in real life – so, the idea of ever actually visiting a city like Los Angeles doesn’t appeal to me. Especially considering that I can probably count the number of times that I’ve visited central London (which is apparently tiny, spacious, affordable and quaint when compared to Los Angeles) on the fingers of both hands, and I still consider that to be too many times LOL!

But, I still consider 1990s Los Angeles (and 1990s California) to be highly inspirational. Why?

Well, it probably has to do with the fact that I’ve never actually been there. It probably has to do with the fact that I’ve only ever seen imaginatively stylised depictions of 1990s Los Angeles. In fact, most of the “cool” things from when I was a kid either came from or were set in 1990s California and/or Los Angeles (eg: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, “Duke Nukem II”/”Duke Nukem 3D”, A punk band called “The Offspring” etc..).

Likewise, although it didn’t become my favourite film until I was seventeen (despite seeing it for the first time when I was fourteen), the futuristic version of 1980s Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is probably one of my largest artistic inspirations too.

A good portion of the earliest, largest and/or most nostalgic parts of my imagination belong in 1980s/1990s Los Angeles and/or California. Because I’ve never actually been there (and don’t have a time machine), a lot of this place is still an absolute mystery to me. As such, there are a lot of gaps which my imagination has to fill whenever I make anything that is set there.

If you’ve only seen a few stylised glimpses of somewhere else, then this is fertile ground for your imagination. You can take those few glimpses and use them as the basis to build something new, interesting and imaginative. The mystery will make you wonder what the rest of the place you’re thinking about looks like, and it’ll be up to you to work it out.

Yes, some people might moan about “inaccurate” or “unrealistic” depictions of real places (rather than seeing them as imaginative creative works and/or great sources of unintentional comedy), but the whole point of imagination is that it allows us to build new versions of existing things and/or to use existing things as the basis for interesting fictional things. It allows us to escape from the boring confines of our own lives.

Imagination works by taking pre-existing things and turning them into something new and interesting. And, the more “mysterious” those things are, the more room your imagination has to work it’s magic. This is why the things that you make that are set in places that you’ve never been to often end up being more fantastical and imaginative than the things set in places that you have actually been to.

Plus, of course, it’s always amusing to see when this happens in reverse and Britain (or, more commonly, just London) is depicted in things made abroad.

Amusingly, it’s often a version of London that seems to take an American attitude towards guns (eg: in a realistic version of ’24: Live Another Day’, Jack Bauer would probably quickly get arrested for even owning a pistol, let alone carrying it in public) or it’s a version of London that sometimes looks a lot like rural or urban America/Canada ( the first and second seasons of “Nikita” have a couple of great examples of this – even if they get the ridiculous number of CCTV cameras in London absolutely right).

It’s hilarious, it’s silly, but it’s a testament to the power of imagination. It’s a testament to the fact that many different versions of real places can exist in people’s imaginations. It’s an interesting example of two cultures mixing. It’s creativity!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂