The Joy Of… Magazines

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[Note: I prepare these articles quite far in advance and, in the time between preparing this article and posting it here, Metal Hammer magazine was saved. Still, I’ll post the original draft article for the sake of posterity.]
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Magazines are one of those things that sit in the background of everyday life and aren’t really noticeable until they start disappearing. This happened late last year when I read, to my horror, that “Metal Hammer” magazine was shutting down. Luckily, I was able to get a copy of the final issue, but the whole thing made me think about magazines and how awesome they are.

Although I’ve only been a semi-regular magazine reader at most within the past few years (mostly for financial reasons), it’s surprising how important magazines have been to me over the years. I mean, I was first introduced to the zombie genre thanks to having a subscription to CVG magazine for a few years during my childhood. Back in the mid-late 1990s, they constantly ran previews of “Resident Evil 2” and it looked like the coolest thing in the world (even though I wouldn’t get to actually play it until the early 2000s).

Likewise, when I was a teenager, I had a subscription to “Official Playstation 2” magazine. This was during one of the very few times in my life that I was actually up-to-date with current gaming. Actually having a slick, shiny physical magazine (with a monthly demo disc, no less) just made the whole thing feel a lot more modern. Even though I only ended up getting a fraction of the games featured on the discs, actually being able to play parts of current games was amazingly cool.

Hell, one of the many reasons why I’m still so interested in retro gaming is the fact that, thanks to modern digital sales, I can actually play many of the cool computer games that I read about and/or saw on demo discs in the gaming magazines I read when I was a lot younger.

Then there were all of the various lifestyle magazines. Yes, these actually used to be a lot more popular (during the 2000s at least), and they were one of the coolest things in the world back then. Plus, whether it was “Attitude”, “Loaded”, “Bizarre”, “Diva”, “Hello” etc.. there was something for everyone too.

Plus, to some extent or another, these magazines elegantly straddled the line between “respectable informal journalism” and “daringly risque” well enough to actually appear on the main shelves of a fair number of newsagents during the 2000s.

In the simultaneously more liberal and more puritanical world of the internet, there doesn’t really seem to be an exact equivalent of this fascinatingly rebellious intelligent middle ground any more.

Anyway, going back to “Metal Hammer” – when I got the last issue of this magazine, I thought that it would make me feel nostalgic. After all, I’ve probably discovered at least a third of my favourite metal bands via this magazine. I have a lot of good memories associated with this magazine, even though it had been a while since I last read it.

But, when I actually read the final issue, there was nothing “nostalgic” about it. They were still reporting in depth about the current metal scene and interviewing all sorts of current bands that I either had or hadn’t heard of. It felt like I’d barely been away from the magazine at all. Although it came in a format that is “obsolete”, it felt more vivid and alive than most websites do. The quality of the writing was significantly better too.

And, yes, that’s one thing I miss about magazines. Magazine journalism. There’s something about the space limitations of a physcial format that promotes good writing. There’s something about the authority of words printed on paper that leads to better writing. There’s something about the monthly format that eliminates the need for gossipy “clickbait” articles. Likewise, curated letters pages in magazines often tend to be far more enjoyable to read than online comments are (especially if, like in CVG magazine, the editor would sometimes write politely sarcastic replies to the more opinionated letters).

Because of this, the tone of magazine journalism somehow manages to be both formal and informal at the same time in a seamless way. This is something that you don’t really see that often online (I mean, “Cracked” is the only online example of this I can think of).

Yes, I love blogging and I wouldn’t give up the freedom of the internet for the world. But it’s kind of sad that both online writing and magazine journalism don’t seem to co-exist as much as they used to. Both are good in different ways, and there should be a place for both in the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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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 🙂

The Joy Of…. Unfinished Stories, TV Series etc…

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The afternoon before I wrote this article, I’d just finished watching a DVD boxset of a TV show that was cancelled after it’s first season. No, it wasn’t “Firefly”, “Tokko” or “Harsh Realm”.

It was a TV adaptation of “Dracula” from 2013. It was clear that the makers of this show had anticipated a second season since, whilst not ending on a cliffhanger, the ending of the first season seems to be gearing up for a much more epic second season. A second season that never happened.

But, do I regret watching this unfinished TV series? No, not in the least.

One of the cool things about unfinished stories is that they’re often more about the journey than the destination. We may never know for certain what happens to the characters in an unfinished story, but we get to enjoy their adventures without any thought of the outcome. In other words, reading a story or watching a TV series with the knowledge that the story isn’t finished means that you get to see it more as an experience than as a traditional story.

Likewise, unfinished stories show us part of something greater and then leave it up to us to imagine what happens during the parts of the story that we don’t read or watch. Unfinished stories are kind of like a springboard for our own imaginations. They give us the building blocks of a longer story and then ask us to try to work out what the rest of the story looks like. And, well, your imagination is probably going to create a more enjoyable story for you than anyone else’s imagination will.

Another cool thing about unfinished stories is that they’re a little bit like daydreams. After all, whenever you have a daydream, it usually isn’t a complete “story”. It’s part of a larger story, almost like a single scene from a movie. And, well, unfinished stories (whether prose fiction, comics, games, TV shows etc…) are vaguely reminiscent of this.

Yet another reason why unfinished stories can be so fascinating is because they show that people have tried to produce something great. Generally speaking, nobody sets out to write an unfinished story or film an unfinished TV series. With fiction, real life can get in the way. Likewise, with prematurely cancelled TV shows, uncreative money-obsessed studio executives are usually responsible.

But the fact that some fragments of the story, comic, game, TV series etc… that could have been still exist is a testament to the power of creativity and determination. It shows that someone cared enough about one of their ideas to actually try to make it, even though there was a risk that it would be doomed to failure.

Finally, another interesting thing about unfinished stories is that they are realistic. After all, all of our lives are unfinished stories. No-one can know for certain what will happen in the future or anything like that. So, unfinished stories can be realistic in this way.

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Sorry for the short, rushed article (I was making a webcomic at the time), but I hope it was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… New Nostalgia

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As regular readers probably know, I write most of these articles quite far in advance of publication. Anyway, the night before I originally wrote this one, I watched the first episode of “Red Dwarf XI” and was absolutely astonished by it. This is a sitcom that has been going since the late 1980s (although I only started watching it on VHS and DVD in the early-mid 2000s)… and they’re still making genuinely funny new episodes of it!

But this is hardly the first “old” thing that I remember discovering when I was a teenager or when I was even younger, that is still going in some way or another. In fact, I’d originally written something approaching a full-length article about my history of being a fan of Red Dwarf, Iron Maiden, The Offspring, Blade Runner, the “Doom” games, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes etc.. before deleting it because I realised that it probably distracted from the points that I’m going to make in this article.

There’s something amazing about things that are “old” and yet “new” at the same time. These are all things that are kept alive by both their creators and their fans.

For example, there’s a new “Doom” game (which is too modern to run on my computer 😦 ) and there’s going to be a “Blade Runner” sequel. Yet, the old versions of both things were and are still going strong because of fan-made content. Whether it’s the fact that there are still thousands of people making new levels for the old “Doom” games or the fact that “Blade Runner” has inspired so many other things in the sci-fi genre (including a lot of my own sci-fi art, comics etc…) for literally decades after it was released, both things were kept alive by their fans as much as, or more, than by their creators.

But, yet, none of the TV shows, films, bands, games etc… I’ve mentioned in this article really pander to their fans in any huge way. Sure, they’ve kept the best bits of their older incarnations, but they aren’t afraid to try subtly different new things. I mean, an Iron Maiden album from the 1980s and an Offspring album from the 1990s sound both similar and different from anything that these two bands have released in 2012-16.

They aren’t like a lot of much more “popular” things, which often seem to be defined and designed as much by things like marketing data as they are by actual people. They often don’t have planned obsolescence built into them (eg: like superhero movie/comic reboots, games that move to the latest consoles etc..) to ensure that the latest version is the “coolest” thing. The latest version is just another version, often no better or worse than the outstandingly brilliant older versions.

In other words, they actually seem like they were (and are!) things that are created by people, rather than focus groups and marketing departments.

They’re things that have been created by people with a particular sense of humour, a particular set of musical tastes, a particular worldview, a particular attitude towards their creative medium of choice etc… In today’s world, this sort of thing would probably be seen as “uncommercial” . In fact, it was probably seen as uncommercial several decades ago. And yet because of this these things still have the kind of dedicated fans that cash-obssesed marketing departments can only dream of.

They aren’t advertised incessantly and yet they still pick up new fans. I mean, most of the “old” things that I consider to be my favourite bands, games, books, films etc.. certainly weren’t “popular” when I discovered them by serendipity, accident, recommendation or curiosity back when I was a teenager. They were inherently cool, but they weren’t the kinds of things that the “cool kids” were enjoying when I was a teenager.

In fact, many of these things have something better than advertising. They have an imaginative fanbase. They have a fanbase that is so inspired by these things that they will actually make their own things inspired by them.

For example, “Blade Runner” may only be one movie but the number of other films, games, TV shows, songs, comics and artwork (including many of my own paintings and some of my own comics) that have been inspired, influenced by, or make references to this one little film are too numerous to count. And, yet, the film itself isn’t something that is advertised everywhere or directly remade every five years.

Likewise, many of these “new and old” things are things that were created by people who are still learning and experimenting after several decades. They are things that are both very much their own thing and yet are open to new influences and inspirations.

One perfect example of this is probably the band Iron Maiden. They’re a band who have made very few covers of other songs, and yet their own musical style has both changed drastically and remained instantly recognisable over more than three decades. It’s probably been influenced by more things than the band will ever reveal, yet it’s very much it’s own thing. They’ve had three different lead singers and they’ve gone through both “dark and serious” and “light and fantastical” phases, and yet an Iron Maiden album is still very much an Iron Maiden album.

I could probably go on about this for hours, but there’s always something uniquely wonderful about finding something that is both old and new at the same time. Something which is both thrillingly new and reassuringly old when you first discover it and twhich later ends up taking up residence in your mind and shaping large parts of your own imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Stories About “Obsolete” Crimes

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Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite elements of the detective/crime genre – I am, of course, talking about stories that deal with “obsolete” crimes. This is something that I was reminded of after I happened to find a cheap second-hand DVD of the first season of an amazing historical crime drama called “Boardwalk Empire“.

Although I’ve only seen about three episodes of it at the time of writing, it’s a drama series about prohibition-era America. The main character (played by the one and only Steve Buscemi) is a corrupt city official who is involved in several bootlegging operations, whilst trying to fend off the attentions of a fanatical revenue agent and to deal with the complex politics of various roaring twenties-era criminal gangs.

In a way, it’s very slightly similar to “Breaking Bad” but, as I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely couldn’t stand that show. Although both shows are about the grimy world of the trade in illegal substances within America – there’s one major difference between the two series. The shady world of bootleggers and prohibition-era gangsters in “Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t exist any more.

The idea that alcohol was ever criminalised is (especially to a British person like me) absolutely laughable. In other words, bootlegging is an “obsolete” crime. Depictions of it can’t be seriously depressing, scary or disturbing for the simple reason that it shows a “crime” that virtually no sensible person these days would consider to be immoral or terrible. It shows people gleefully breaking an unjust and irrational law (unlike, say, the sensible laws against the manufacture and sale of hard drugs that the main characters in “Breaking Bad” go against).

Stories that deal with “crimes” that society has long since rightly decided shouldn’t be criminal are absolutely fascinating, especially since historical LGBT stories also fit into this genre too (I mean, it’s only been 50 years since the old unjust laws regarding this even began to be repealed in the UK).

Stories about “obsolete” crimes are both rebellious and reassuring at the same time. Since, not only do they reassure us that both common sense and basic human nature will always win out against harsh political ideology, but they also allow us to think about our own lives in a slightly “rebellious” way.

They remind almost everyone that, at various points in history, the establishment saw virtually everyone as “dangerous” in some way or another.

After all, unless you’ve never enjoyed listening to any kind of rock or rap music, unless you aren’t LGBT, unless you’ve never voted (regardless of your gender, ethnicity, economic class, religion etc.. at some point in history, the establishment somewhere didn’t want you to vote!), unless you’ve never drank any booze, unless you’ve never played violent videogames, unless you are a devout follower of the dominant religion in your country, unless you’ve never disagreed with the government etc… then you’ll probably be able to see a little bit of yourself in the protagonists of these stories about “obsolete” crimes. You’ll feel like a little bit like a “rebel”, even if you lead the most non-rebellious life possible.

These types of stories are absolutely fascinating because they turn the crime genre completely on it’s head – the “criminals” are the good guys and the detectives are the villains.

So, these stories automatically set themselves apart from most other stories in the crime genre since, even in “traditional” crime stories where the criminal is the protagonist, there is still usually a large degree of moral ambiguity involved. This isn’t a bad thing, but it changes how the audience interprets and reacts to the story when compared to a story about an “obsolete” crime. The emotional dynamics of the story are totally different.

Another interesting thing about these stories is that they also make us think about the whole subject of just and unjust laws. In other words, they make us look at our own moral principles, because these stories often have parallels with the modern world. In other words, they make us think more critically about the legislative process and help us to refine our own moral opinions about the merits of current legislation.

They also show us how political ideology or vested interests can often go wildly against popular opinion. I could probably give a giant list of examples of how political or financial dogma has resulted in badly-made, unfair or unjust legislation, but some notable areas include things like copyright legislation, cannabis legislation etc…

These stories can obviously also be used to satirise present-day attitudes and politics too. I mean, the contrast between the wild spectacular parties and the dour, depressing temperance hall meetings near the beginning of the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire” are an absolutely brilliant send-up of a certain type of modern conservatives and/or “liberals” who just instinctively hate any kind of joy, laughter, relaxation or freedom – and want to see it all stamped out immediately.

In conclusion, these types of stories are an absolutely brilliant subversion of the crime genre, which also hold a mirror up to the audience and make us question our own moral and philosophical principles in a way that “traditional” crime stories just can’t do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Pulp Art

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Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about a historic genre of art that fascinates me every now and then. I am, of course, talking about pulp art. If you’ve never heard of this genre of art before, it used to grace the covers of virtually every “film noir” detective, horror and/or science fiction-themed publication in 1920s-50s America.

Pulp art is melodramatic. It’s both realistic and stylised. It’s lurid. The colours are often bold and vivid. It’s occasionally disturbing/ horrific. It’s sometimes stylishly glamourous. It’s painted with a level of detail that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery or on a 1980s heavy metal album cover. It’s old-fashioned. It’s occasionally timeless.

It’s a lot of things but, first and foremost, it is art in the truest sense of the word. Not only is it explicitly designed to grab the audience’s attention, but it often also contains lots of excellent examples of visual storytelling too.

In fact, I think that this is probably one of the reasons why it’s such a fascinating genre of art – there’s always something happening. There are gun fights, pouncing monsters, mysterious murders, steamy romantic encounters and shocking horrors. After all, the whole purpose of this genre of art was to give prospective readers a thrilling glimpse at the stories contained within a book or magazine.

This, ironically, is probably what led to the genre being overlooked in the history of western art. After all, it wasn’t shown in a gallery, it was mass printed on the covers of thousands of books and magazines. Back in 1920s-50s America, more people probably saw pulp novel covers than famous paintings.

Since the artists who made these covers didn’t have to worry about art critics and, since they were making these paintings to get people to read books, they had both a lot more creative freedom and a lot more incentive to create dramatic paintings.

In other words, pulp art is perhaps often closer to the true spirit of what art is meant to be about. It’s meant to make people think, it’s meant to make people curious, it’s meant to elicit emotion and it’s meant to look cool.

In a way, it has a lot more in common with prestigious historical paintings than with what was considered ” modern art” in the 1920s-1950s. I mean, just take a look at Caravaggio, some of his more dramatic paintings probably wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a 17th century pulp novel.

It hearkens back to the days when art was primarily about storytelling (whether historical, religious and/or mythological) and, in this respect, it’s also somewhat related to the modern comic book. Yes, comics and pulp art co-existed in the 1940s-50s (and probably earlier), but pulp art often shows comic book-like scenes rendered in a level of detail that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery.

In addition to this, another awesome thing about pulp art is that it’s a reminder of a glorious time when artists were much more central to everyday life. After all, colour photography was still in it’s infancy and CG graphics hadn’t been invented yet. So, if someone wanted a dramatic cover for their book or magazine, they had to hire an artist.

I mean, just imagine a time where you could see lots of high-quality paintings whenever you walked into your local newsagent. It sounds awesome!

Yes, by modern standards, pulp art certainly shows it’s age (eg: for want of a less charged term, some of it would probably be considered “politically incorrect” these days). But, that aside, it’s also a reminder of what art should be. Art should tell stories, art should be attention grabbing and art should be something that elicits emotions. And, most importantly of all, it should be accessible to ordinary people – rather than hidden away in galleries.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Informal Storytelling

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A while before I wrote this article, I was watching a somewhat left-leaning American news discussion channel on Youtube called “The Young Turks“. One of the things that I suddenly realised was “I wish that the news was more like the format of this show”. It’s true, the dry and formal style of the usual BBC or ITV News broadcast couldn’t be further away from the much more informal style of “The Young Turks”.

Even comedy news discussion shows on British TV only sometimes come close to the style used on this Youtube show. The presenters express emotions, they use realistic expressions, there’s hilariously crude humour, there are impassioned comments and all sorts of other things that you just wouldn’t see in a formal news broadcast or debate.

This made me think about the power of informality and how it can be applied to storytelling. The fact is that, from an early age, we’re usually told that formal is best when expressing information. Despite trying to be more informal, my writing style on this blog is still heavily influenced by the essays that I used to write during my formal education and the more formal online articles that I’ve read over the years.

There’s a lot to be said for a more formal style when it comes to non-fiction but, I thought that I’d look at fiction. The fact is that I’ve read relatively few novels and comics that use a proudly informal style and do it well. Most of these things can probably be found in the punk genre – in fact, the work of one writer in particular springs to mind. I am, of course, talking about Warren Ellis.

Whether it’s in his brilliantly hilarious film noir novel “Crooked Little Vein” or in his “Transmetropolitan” comics, he’s able to tell brilliantly complex stories that never really feel like they’re formal in any way. They’re anti-formal. Everything is taken as seriously as everything else and this is used for comedic effect, dramatic effect and all other kinds of effect.

They’re stories that take place in a world where a news article about bad political news can consist of nothing more than a single four-letter word repeated 8000 times, mirroring the thoughts of the characters (and the thoughts of the audience whenever they read bad political news). They’re set in a brilliantly informal world where this kind of thing is just another part of life.

Some examples of more informal styles can also be found in the cyberpunk genre (when first-person narration is used) or in the punk genre itself. However, when it is taken to extremes, it can often be more confusing than anything else. Both Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” and Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” both fall victim to this problem, since they’re both written in a phonetic style that tries to mirror the narrator speaking to the reader. But, since they use a lot of phonetic spellings and/or dialects, both books confused me so much that I didn’t finish either.

The same is true with Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”. Although the notorious film adaptation is more well-known than the book, the book itself is written entirely in the “futuristic” slang that the characters use. It’s informal but, because of all of the linguistic experiments, it can get slightly confusing.

A good informal style feels like free speech. It feels like a compelling story that has emerged organically from someone’s thoughts. It feels like you’re being told a story by a friend or by an interesting person that you met in a pub. It’s almost like a window into someone’s thoughts. It’s a highly subjective style of writing that lets the serious parts of the story show themselves to be serious, rather than telling the audience that they’re serious by the way that they’re described.

In addition to this, a good informal style leaves it up to the reader how seriously they want to take the story. An informal story can treat trivial things with deference and serious things with indifference. It reflects how many people actually see the world, rather than how people “should” see the world.

In a way, informal storytelling goes back to the very beginnings of storytelling. It hearkens back to the days when a storyteller was someone literally telling a story to an audience, rather than someone writing a story for people to read later. This, I think, is the main reason why informal storytelling styles can be so much more powerful than formal ones.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂