The Joy Of… Mixing Ancient And Futuristic Things

Although this is an article about art, comics, literature, film etc… I’m going to have to start by talking enthusiastically about computer games for a while first. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A coupe of days before I originally prepared the first draft of this article, I suddenly noticed that the fourth instalment of the “Temple Of The Lizard Men” series of fan-made “Doom II” levels had finally been released 🙂 And, unlike some modern “Doom II” levels, it would actually run on my computer too 🙂

If you’ve never heard of “Temple Of The Lizard Men” before, it’s a series of full-length fan-made sci-fi/horror level sets for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” which revolve around fighting lizard monsters in ancient Aztec/Maya-style temples. It’s kind of a little bit like the original “Unreal” mixed with some elements from “Serious Sam: The Second Encounter“, but with more horror elements.

This is a screenshot from “Temple Of The Lizard Men IV” (2017). Yes! A modern “Doom II” WAD that both looks cool AND works with slightly older versions of “GZ Doom” too 🙂

Anyway, like with another really cool set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens” (and the previous “Lizard Men” level sets, like this one), I really love it when people blend ancient-style architecture and futuristic sci-fi.

Some other example of this blending of ancient civilisations and futuristic sci-fi include Iron Maiden’s “The Book Of Souls” album, which does this in the opening song. Then there are the various zones in “The Crystal Maze“, and the scenes from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” that were filmed in the Mayan-inspired Ennis House. Or perhaps the futuristic version of Ancient Egypt in “Stargate SG-1“, or.. Well, I could go on for a while.

So, why are mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic so incredibly cool?

The first reason is that because “old” things are juxtaposed with things that are meant to be from the distant future, it creates something of an association between the two things within the minds of the audience.

This means that whenever the audience see old buildings, old castles etc… in other contexts, they seem cooler and more “relevant” due to their association with modern creative works (for example, although it doesn’t really contain any sci-fi elements, “Game Of Thrones” changed my entire attitude towards the middle ages). So, these types of stories, films, games etc.. help to make history even more interesting than it already is.

The second reason is because of the contrast between the distant past and the distant future. Usually, creative works in this genre will include the idea that people in the ancient world were more intelligent and/or advanced than we usually think. And not only is this really intriguing but, in some cases, it’s actually true too. For example, just look at ancient Persia – they had a type of air conditioning and a type of refrigerator too.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that things in this genre include two time periods that we’ll never get to see directly (yes, we can deduce things about the past from historical artefacts/documents and we can attempt to predict the distant future, but we never get to directly experience either).

So, seeing a representation of both time periods within the same creative work reminds us of the vast scale of time. It also makes us realise that the present day is somewhere between the ancient past and the distant future. So, by extension, our lives already include elements from both.

Finally, this genre is cool because it reminds us that some things are truly timeless. Whether it is lighting design, architecture, visual arts etc… things in this genre help to remind us that there’s nothing entirely “new” in the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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The Joy Of… Slightly Old Creative Works

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about slightly old creative works and why they’re so awesome. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to limit myself to novels published between 1950-2000, music from 1980-2000, games from 1990-2005, comics from 1980-2001 and films/TV shows from 1980-2005. Sorry for the ultra-specific definitions, but the term “slightly old” is fairly ambiguous.

So, why am I talking about these creative works? Well, it’s mostly because a large percentage of the creative works that I’ve ever read, played, watched or listened to fit into this category. For quite a while, this was mostly for financial reasons and/or practical reasons. But, these days, it’s as much of a choice as anything else.

But, why are slightly old creative works so awesome? Simply put, they often tend to have more of a “personality” to them. In part, this is because they depict a historical version of the world that no longer exists but also in part because culture seemed to contain a lot more variation in the past. Hollywood took more risks (and used less CGI), large game studios innovated more, comics aimed at mature audiences were still a “new” thing, mid-list authors could still succeed etc…

Likewise, older creative works can contain a lot more personality for the simple reason that many of them came from a time before the internet was mainstream. From a time before mainstream culture was more universal and research material was just a click away. What this means is that authors, film-makers, game developers etc… had to rely on whatever they had for inspiration. Their creative works tended to be more of a reflection of their personal interests, their own worldviews, their social circle etc..

Another cool side effect of creative works from before the internet was a mainstream thing was that there was a larger separation between creative people and their critics. No, I’m not talking about things like reviews (which are a good thing from a consumer standpoint). I’m talking about the modern phenomenon of a few people on Twitter or Tumblr or wherever stirring up gigantic worldwide controversies or genuinely calling for censorship, because they personally disagree with or dislike a creative work.

In the past, these “critics” were restricted to writing to their local paper or grumbling to their friends in person. One side-effect of this is that slightly old creative works often tend to contain slightly more nuanced, moderate, ambiguous, unusual and/or complicated opinions and worldviews. In these polarised and ideologically-rigid times, this can be surprisingly refreshing.

Another reason why slightly old creative works are so interesting is because they don’t tend to have that much publicity these days. Since the media always promotes the latest thing, a gigantic number of interesting older creative works can get overlooked slightly. So, when you discover something good online or in a second-hand shop, it really feels like serendipity. It really feels like luck, because you found it on your own.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of cost. One really great things about older creative works is that, since they tend to be released on physical media, you can usually find second-hand copies of things cheaply. But, even if you buy retro games via digital download, then they still often tend to be cheaper than new ones. So, unlike the latest new thing, older creative works tend to be a bit more sensibly-priced – which means you can enjoy more of them for less.

Then, especially with films, TV shows and games, there are the technological limitations. Because directors and game developers couldn’t dazzle audiences with lots of flashy graphics and/or CGI effects, they had to find other ways to make their works interesting. In other words, things like enjoyable gameplay, good storytelling, good characterisation etc…

Finally, slightly older creative works aren’t some kind of dusty, faded relics. They are designed to be enjoyed and you’d be surprised at how much fun can still be had with these creative works that have faded from the public imagination slightly.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Old Paranoia (In Fiction)

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Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d write about an absolutely fascinating type of fear-based fiction. I am, of course, talking about older works of fiction that either reflect public fears that didn’t come to pass and/or predicted feared events incorrectly.

This was mostly because I ended up reading parts of William LeQueux’s “The Great War In England In 1897“. Although I unfortunately didn’t have time to read the whole thing, I read the first 60-70 pages, the final chapter and the plot summary on Wikipedia. This was a novel that was first published 20 years before World War One began and it predicted a major European conflict… incorrectly.

Form what I read, the novel predicted a short European war (in 1897) in which France and Russia attempt to invade Britain after learning of a secret alliance between Britain and Germany. The novel alternates between narrative storytelling and stern lectures about the state of the British military in the late 19th century. It’s kind of like a cross between a melodramatic thriller novel and a paranoid political tract. It’s chilling, thrilling and occasionally unintentionally hilarious.

But, it made me think about a lot of other old stories, films etc… that tried to scare people about threats that either never came to be or which weren’t quite the thing people should have been worried about. A good cinematic example of this is an American film from the 1980s called “Red Dawn” about the Soviet Union attempting to invade the US.

The subject of Cold War-era fears was also handled in a much more “realistic” and chilling way in another 1980s film called “Threads” (about the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear conflict in the UK). This is a film which still somehow manages to maintain the power to chill, depress and disturb even when watched today – although that’s mostly due to the writing, acting and style of the film. Yet, I imagine that it would have been significantly more disturbing to watch during the 1980s.

Stories and films about old fears are absolutely fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is, of course, that they’re oddly reassuring. After all, reading stories and watching films about feared events that never came to pass (or at least didn’t come to pass in the way that was predicted) makes us feel better about the fears of today. It makes us think that, in the future, we’ll be able to sit back and laugh at the present day too. And, in the age of Brexit and Trump, we need all the reassurance we can get!

The second reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it’s a subversion of the “alternate history” genre. After all, whilst things that fall into this category might currently be seen as “alternate history” stories – they were, of course, about alternate futures when they were written. So, like with old science fiction, these stories give us an insight into how people used to think about the future.

The third reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it reminds us that people have always been paranoid about something. In this way, these types of stories are strangely timeless. They remind us that our modern fears about things like Brexit, Trump, terrorism etc.. aren’t unprecedented, they’re just the modern incarnation of a tradition that has existed for most of human history.

Finally, this genre is fascinating because it is designed to be attention-grabbing. It is designed to shock and horrify. It is designed to keep people reading or watching out of morbid fascination. This lends these types of stories a timelessly vivid and energetic quality which – for example – can make a novel from 1894 read like a modern thriller novel or “mockumentary” film.

So, yes, stories about old fears are, paradoxically, very much products of their time and yet surprisingly timeless at the same time. They’re both reassuring and disturbing, and they give us an insight into how people used to think about the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Shorter Stories

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A day or two before writing this article, I ended up reading two short comedy novels from the 19th century online. This wasn’t something that I’d planned to do, but after reading something online which pointed out that John Kendrick Bangs’ “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat” featured the ghost of Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a gang of pirates, I just had to read it. Since it’s out of copyright, it was very easy to find online.

And, despite the fact I don’t usually read e-books and the fact that I’d only planned to read the first part, I ended up reading the whole thing within the space of a single evening. Then I ended up reading the short novel that was written before it, mostly because I’d realised that – although I’m interested in the concept of “Bangsian Fantasy” – I’ve never actually read all of “A House-Boat On The Styx” before. Surprisingly, I actually preferred “Pursuit Of The House-Boat” though, because the humour was better, the narrative was more focused and it featured Sherlock Holmes too.

But, even though I could spend a while talking about the ways that these books were ahead of their time (and the ways they weren’t), one thing that really delighted me about both books was their length. They’re more like novellas than full-length novels. And, best of all, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unnecessary padding whatsoever. They’re short, sweet and they leave you wanting to read more.

Despite the 19th century’s reputation for “Doorstopper” novels, it was also the heyday of the short story, the segmented story and the novella too. Back then, short stories were the “television series” of the day. Whether it was monthly Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, or longer continuous stories released in thrillingly short instalments via Penny Dreadfuls, people back then understood the importance of shorter stories.

Shorter stories were designed to be entertaining, in the way that TV shows are designed to be entertaining these days. Despite their age, a lot of shorter stories from the 19th century and early 20th century are still very “readable” today for the simple reason that they were either designed to be compelling (with lots of drama, horror, action, comedy etc..) or because they didn’t have room for lots of bloated descriptions, extensive character histories, long irrelevant tangents etc…

Back then, literature was the main form of popular entertainment. TV, computers, the internet and videogames didn’t exist. So, shorter stories had to fill that role. They also had to fulfil the most basic purpose of literature, which is to entertain. Yes, literature (and even graphic novels too) can teach us more about humanity, they can make us think deeply etc…. But, above all, they can only truly do this if they’re entertaining enough for people to want to start reading them and keep reading them.

Shorter stories are the kind of thing that can be read “on impulse” because they promise an interesting story without too much time investment. Likewise, the shorter format also means that the narratives have to be more focused, which makes them more compelling. Plus, the experience of reading a short story collection is a lot like watching a DVD boxset.

When I was seventeen, and had first discovered “Sherlock Holmes”, I actually had to ration myself to just three or four stories a day. On reflection, this wasn’t too different to what I do when I’m watching a DVD boxset of a really good TV show these days. Yet, all or most of these Sherlock Holmes stories were written before television was invented!

If prose fiction is ever to become a truly popular thing again, then length should be the first thing to change. Looking at a related subject, there’s been a lot of controversy online about the length of modern computer and video games. One of the main arguments I’ve heard in favour of shorter modern games is that people don’t have the time to play games that they used to. Well, the same is true for fiction too. But, fiction has so many advantages that games don’t.

You don’t need to spend hundeds of pounds upgrading your computer or buying an expensive games console to read a piece of modern fiction from this year. Likewise, traditional books are the original form of portable entertainment. Even modern e-book readers are very portable (not to mention that e-books can be read on smartphones, tablets etc.. too) . Books are also significantly cheaper than computer/video games are too (both new and second-hand).

If we lived in a world where novellas and short story collections sat alongside novels on the “bestsellers” shelves, then prose fiction would probably be a lot more popular than it is now. I mean, we live in a world where films and TV shows co-exist in roughly equal numbers and with an equal amount of prestige. So, why should this be any different for longer and shorter pieces of fiction?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Eccentric Detectives

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Well, at the time of writing, I was going through a bit of a “Jonathan Creek” phase. This is a classic long-running BBC TV show from the late 1990s which focuses on a magician’s assistant called Jonathan Creek who often ends up having to solve strange and seemingly inexplicable crimes. His skill at devising magic tricks and his slightly strange view of the world allow him to solve even the most baffling mysteries.

This show made me think about the subject of eccentric detectives, and why they’re so interesting. Although this is a type of character that I haven’t encountered too often, I should probably start by talking about the original eccentric detective – the one and only Sherlock Holmes.

One of the great things about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories is that Sherlock Holmes is about as far from the more stuffy, Vulcan-like character of the popular imagination and more like his on-screen portrayals by Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch.

He’s a geek from the 19th century who is an expert on all sorts of obscure topics, but who considers the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the sun to be a waste of brain space and promptly tries to forget about it.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a quote from the second chapter of “A Study In Scarlet”: ‘ “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

He does mildly unusual things like keeping his pipe tobacco in a slipper and keeping his correspondence safe by attaching it to the mantlepiece with a pocket knife. Plus, when he is bored, he’ll occasionally do various extremely dangerous things (such as injecting drugs or using a revolver to write a message on the sitting room wall) just to relieve the tedium.

There was no character like him when the stories were originally written and he’s pretty much the original eccentric detective who has inspired several other fictional characters over the years.

So, what is the appeal of the eccentric detective? Why are they so fascinating?

The first reason is because they are unpredictable characters. Although they have a distinctive personality, they are often also intriguingly mysterious too. Going back to Sherlock Holmes yet again, we learn relatively little about his history throughout the original stories. Likewise, we often only get to see him “second hand” from Watson’s perspective most of the time.

Eccentric detectives are strange, mysterious characters who have the added appeal of being non-threatening, since they are on the side of order and justice. But, they also avoid the pitfall of being dull paragons of virtue either. They have just enough moral ambiguity to be interesting, whilst also still very much being “good guys”.

Even much less morally-ambiguous eccentric detectives, like Abby Sciuto from “NCIS” will still do interesting things like listen to loud music, have cool tattoos, have interesting tastes in fashion and be anything but an “establishment” detective.

Another reason why eccentric detectives are so fascinating is because they often tend to solve eccentric cases. Having an eccentric detective investigate depressing “ordinary” crimes would seem somewhat out of place. However, these characters are in their element when they have to investigate brain-twisting locked room mysteries, baffling cases of murder most foul and bewildering catalogues of inexplicable events. So, an eccentric detective is usually a guarantee that a story won’t be the usual run-of-the-mill police procedural.

Finally, eccentric detectives are characters who celebrate eccentricity. They present being slightly unusual, nerdy, unconventional etc… as a positive virtue. And, although this is a lot more common in the media than it used to be, it’s still a reassuring thing. They are characters who don’t “fit in” and they are all the better for it. They are well-respected for it. I can’t imagine a more uplifting and enjoyable type of fictional character to watch or read about.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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 🙂

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 🙂