The Joy Of… New Nostalgia

2017-artwork-the-joy-of-new-nostalgic-things

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 πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Stories About “Obsolete” Crimes

2017 Artwork The Joy Of Obsolete Crime Stories

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 πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Pulp Art

2017 Artwork The Joy Of... Pulp Art article sketch

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 πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Informal Storytelling

2016 Artwork The Joy Of Informal Storytelling

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 πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… New Things In Old Styles

2016 Artwork Modern Things In Old Styles

A while before I wrote this article, I was randomly surfing the internet when I happened to stumble across this intriguing gallery of “Firefly” fan art by Kyle Burles. The interesting thing about these fan art pictures is that they’re drawn in the style of vintage sci-fi novel covers.

This, of course, isn’t the first collection of modern fan art I’ve seen that is based on older types of media, but it’s an absolutely fascinating genre of art for a whole host of reasons.

The first reason for this is that, when it comes to things like book covers and movie posters, traditional art mattered a lot more until relatively recently. Before digital photo-editing became more common, one of the easiest ways to create a really dramatic-looking book cover or film poster was to hire an artist.

For films, this was still the case up until the 1980s at least and it can be seen in things like the original poster art for “Blade Runner” or even low-budget horror movie VHS cover art. Even in the early-mid 1990s, computer games like “Duke Nukem 3D” and the old “Doom” games still used wonderfully dramatic paintings for their cover art.

Being an artist myself, it fills me with joy to see a time when traditional artists had many more opportunities to make cool-looking paintings. But, more than that, traditional art gave old novels and movies a certain gravitas that their modern equivalents often don’t have.

Whilst they certainly weren’t timeless, a traditionally-painted cover or poster is a lot more attention-grabbing than a photo-based one. It shows the audience that the film or novel in question is a work of art rather than a disposable piece of media.

So, seeing more modern things with traditional cover or poster art (even if it’s been made unofficially) makes them seem more important. It makes the “classics” of tomorrow actually look like classics, rather than just being another TV show, another video game, another film.

The second reason why this type of art is so cool is because it satisfies our curiosity. It makes us wonder how the modern things that we watch, read and play would have been seen if they were made a few decades earlier.

Not only does it lend these modern things a sense of timelessness, but it can also make us wonder “if this had been made thirty or fifty years ago, what would be made today?“. It gets us to think about an accelerated version of our culture, where the things that we love have had more time to inspire other things and have a greater influence on the things we enjoy today.

Finally, these things are anachronisms (albeit fake ones). Seeing things that are out of their “correct” place in history is always absolutely fascinating for a whole host of reasons, since it makes us think about the past differently.

To use a real historical example of something similar to an anachronism, I was absolutely astonished when I first heard (in a documentary, I think) that an archaeological dig in an ancient Viking site in Sweden turned up an equally-ancient statue of the Buddha. Whilst this isn’t a “true” anachronism (since the Buddha statue was also ancient), the idea of a Viking owning a Buddhist statue certainly wasn’t something I could have imagined.

Anachronisms, even fake ones, are absolutely fascinating. Seeing “modern” things in old settings evokes the idea of time travel. It evokes the idea that history may not be as “reliable” as we think it is. It evokes the idea of secret parts of history. It makes us curious about the past.

So, yes, these are some of the reasons why making old-fashioned art about modern things is absolutely fascinating.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Old Newspaper Cartoons

2016 Artwork The Joy Of Old Cartoons

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I was looking through some old books of “Giles” cartoons from the 1960s and 70s (which also contained earlier cartoons from the 1950s too). This was an absolutely fascinating experience and it kind of made me think about the whole subject of old newspaper cartoons.

If you’ve never heard of “Giles” before, he was a famous newspaper cartoonist in 1940s-90s Britain (here’s a hilarious old 1940s British PathΓ© newsreel of him at work).

Although few of his cartoons were published in newspapers during my lifetime (although, when looking online, I managed to find the cartoon that was published on my original birthday), there are countless collections of his cartoons out there. Along with cartoonists like Low, he’s probably one of this country’s more famous 20th century editorial cartoonists.

The interesting thing about “Giles” cartoons is that they show a world that is both familiar and totally alien to me. They have a brilliantly cynical sense of humour and there’s a lot of stuff in there that seems very apt and instantly recognisable, but they’re set in a slightly different and older version of this country.

They’re set during the many strikes of the 1970s, they’re set in the world of the “Carry On” films, they’re set during the postwar austerity of the 1950s, they’re set during the swinging sixties, they have a simultaneously deferential and rebellious attitude towards authority etc… Although these “Giles” cartoons often focus on mundane everyday life, they almost always included topical issues from the time that they were published.

In other words, these “silly” and “disposable” daily newspaper cartoons showed me more about mid-late 20th century history than a lot of actual history articles and history books probably would.

Why? Because they show a stylised (and mildly exaggerated) version of what everyday life was like back then. They show what kinds of issues were in the news back then. They show public attitudes back then. In addition to all of this, all of this historical information is filtered through the mind of just one cartoonist – which adds to the sense of historical immersion.

You get to see the past through the imagination of just one person who was alive then, with all of their opinions and strange and amusing quirks (eg: for some reason, Giles seemed to have an absolute hatred of pipe smoke. As soon as someone in his cartoons actually lights a pipe, it often belches out vast conspicuous plumes of ink-black smoke that blot out large parts of the cartoon).

This reminded me a lot of another fascinating book (which I actually own two copies of, for some bizarre reason) called “The Cartoon Century” (Ed. Timothy S. Benson). This is a book that collects British editorial cartoons from every year of the 20th century and it is absolutely fascinating. Although this book explains the historical context of a lot of the cartoons, it’s fascinating to see the popular humour of decades past.

Likewise, another newspaper cartoon series that is absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective are Peattie & Taylor’s “Alex” cartoons. Although this is still a current cartoon series, it’s been going for quite a while and I’ve got a few old second-hand books of these cartoons from the 1980s and 90s (as well as some from the ’00s).

These are timelessly-hilarious cartoons about the life of an unscrupulous businessman called Alex and, yet, you can see the gradual passage of history in these comics. Over time, the characters get slightly older. Over time, the background details change slightly. The topics of conversation change, the jokes change etc…

Of course, this might just be a British thing or possibly a European thing. The few classic American newspaper cartoons that I’ve seen seem to be frozen in an almost timeless state. For example, in Jim Davis’ “Garfield” cartoons, everything seems to take place in some bizarrely frozen version of 1970s/80s suburbia. Likewise, in Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” cartoons I’ve seen, they also often seem to take place very slightly outside the space-time continuum (with the possible exception of changing computer designs in the background).

Still, as historical documents go, old newspaper cartoons are – by far – one of the most fascinating types.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Space Zombies

For starters, there are forcefields on spaceships...

For starters, there are forcefields on spaceships…

A the night before I wrote this article, I was reminded of one of the coolest types of zombie fiction by an episode of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, of all things. The episode in question (season three, episode five) revolves around the main characters discovering a seemingly abandoned Vulcan spaceship, whose crew has been turned into modern-style “fast” zombies.

So, what’s so great about zombies in space, and why is it such an awesome version of the zombie genre? Well, there are several reasons.

The first reason is that zombie stories that are set in space are automatically about ten times more suspenseful than “ordinary” zombie stories are. This is because a spaceship is a relatively small and claustrophobic location, which the main characters can’t escape from easily.

Unlike a “normal” zombie story, the main characters can’t just leave the city or hide in a secluded cabin. On a spaceship or space station, there are usually few places to hide and nowhere to run.

Not only that, as well as facing the threat of being eaten by zombies, resources matter a lot more to the main characters when they are in space. Whilst the protagonists of a “normal” zombie story might have to worry about getting enough food, weapons and water, they don’t have to also worry about having enough oxygen or about keeping a zombie-infested spaceship in good working order.

So, purely by virtue of setting your zombie story in space, you can make it significantly more suspenseful than most zombie stories are.

The second reason why zombie stories set in space are so fascinating is because of the contrast between the zombies and their surroundings. Some of the horror in a “traditional” zombie story comes from the fact that all of humanity’s technological and social advancements have been wiped out by a plague of zombies. Seeing high tech modern cities being reduced to zombie-filled ruins is meant to evoke a sense of apocalyptic dread in the audience.

With sci-fi zombie stories, this is turned up to eleven. Seeing primitive, shambling zombies lurching through the corridors of impossibly futuristic spaceships and space stations contains a much larger amount of dramatic contrast than merely showing a horde of zombies roaming the streets of a modern city. The contrast between humanity’s achievements and the primitive inhuman nature of the zombies is made even clearer when your story is set in space.

The third reason why zombie stories set in space are so cool is because, as well as including lots of zombie-related stuff in your story, you can also include a lot of cool sci-fi stuff too. You can dazzle your audience with futuristic technology, intrigue them with interplanetary politics and thrill them with spacefaring adventures, whilst also including a lot of stuff from the zombie genre too.

Finally, one thing that makes sci-fi zombie stuff so cool is because of it’s sheer rarity. When you see something in this genre, you remember it because there aren’t that many things out there that fit into this astonishingly cool genre.

Off the top of my head, the only things I can think of that fit into this genre are this hilarious music video, one episode of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, the first part of the original “Doom” (technically), “Doom III”, an animated movie called “Dead Space: Downfall” (and everything I’ve heard about the “Dead Space” franchise), and a few fan-made levels for “Left 4 Dead 2” and “Doom II”.

But, I can’t really think of any major movies or anything like that in this genre. It’s one of those genres that is ridiculously cool, but often overlooked.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚