Archive for the ‘Geek’ Category

Empire State

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Super hero stories tend to shine when they’re dipped in noir-style nostalgia; both genres lend themselves to tales of two-fisted fisted, and the grime and dirt of the post-war era balances nicely with heroism and rocket powered justice. So it should come as no surprise that Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State, a tale of rocket powered heroes and private detectives during the American prohibition, is pretty good stuff.

Empire State is the tale of two cities; one is New York in the 1950’s, the other is a mirror-universe version of the Big Apple, called The Empire State. Whereas New York is a big place, filled with possibilities, The Empire State is a claustrophobic, insular city at war with a shadowy foe. The story follows the life of Private Detective Rad Bradbury1, a good man in a rotten city.

Gas Masks, Rocket Packs and Zepplins. What's not to love?

As you’d expect, there’s a woman with a secret and a missing person to find. There’s also rocket powered heroes, super villains, robots, airships and dashing captains. It’s a skilful blend of two well-loved genres, and it’s a fun, pulpy, tightly written book.

The setting is not just an interesting backdrop; the author takes full advantage of the premise and fills in a lot of the details in way that keeps luring you. This makes for a dense story with a well realised world behind it. Like you’d expect in any good mystery story, every character has a past and a strange secret. These elements slowly fit together to create a world greater than the sum of its parts.

Empire State is a master class in world building, whilst still retaining a coherent and engaging story. It manages to keep the reader guessing all the way through, without losing itself in its own mythology.

Fans of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City , movies such a Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow and the The Rocketeer or any ‘Dark Mirror’ episode of Star Trek, this one is for you. Fan of pulp adventures and twisty, noir-style plots will find a lot to love here.

1: Oh yeah, and it’s full of lovely little references like that as well.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews

Webcomic Roundup 2011

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

The internet is a fantastic tool for procrastination, and my preferred way to waste time is to browse the seemingly unlimited number of webcomics. Here’s a quick look at some (but not all) of the sites that have distracted me the most over 2011.

Dresden Codak is stunningly drawn with a seemingly vast and intelligent story at its heart. They aren’t many tales about a world overtaken by scientific dogma and the consequences of the singularity. It suffers slightly from the lead character being more interesting than the story. Needs to update more often, however.

Girl Genius on the other hand, also looks lovely and is updated three times a week. The ongoing story continues to twist and turn, and is epic in scale. The world, one of steampunk, mystery and monsters, and is lovingly described throughout the comic. It often suffers from being a graphic novel in serial format, and actually works better in paper format than on the screen. (I’ve got some of the paper and ink versions, they’re very nice.)

Gutters, Least I Could Do and Looking For Group are all ongoing projects by one Mr Ryan Somer. Least I Could Do is essentially a raunchy sit-com, and despite being one very
long cock joke, is never the less quite entertaining, though I do wonder about it’s long-term stamina. Looking For Group is an ongoing fantasy story (like Girl Genius or Goblins), with a stronger focus on humour rather than adventure. Gutters is the more interesting of
the three; it’s a series of one-shot gags about the comic industry, and is hilarious to the right sort of nerd. Somer has apparently received a few cease and desist letters about it, so he’s clearly annoying the sort of people he’s set out to annoy, whilst delivering the funny.

Myth versus Superscience tale Gunnerkrigg Court continues to ramble along at its usual pace, and this is its biggest problem. I’m not sure where it’s going, and I’m not entirely sure I care anymore.

Luke SURL is a regular gag comic which never fails to make me laugh or groan. I’m a sucker for puns, and for silly little flaws in narrative logic. Addictive, though something to binge on rather than read regularly.

Scenes from A Multiverse does what it says on the tin. It’s a surreal series of flights of fancy that never fails to entertain, and is far superior to the artist’s previous project, Goats. In many ways, it’s Goats without poorly thought out plot-arcs, and that suits me just fine.

Questionable Content continues to be a long, tedious sit-com with talking robots in it. It’s never been as funny as Diesel Sweeties, and yet I’m more likely to come
back to come back to QC time and again, because it’s so easy to pick up and get into.

XKCD continues to be fairly hit and miss. Randy’s best gags are those based on his personal experiences; heartwarming gags, often bitter-sweet. The strip is at its worst when it’s being clever for the sake of being clever, rather than yelling “Isn’t science awesome”. I can’t shake the feeling that XKCD is in slow decline, which is a pity, because when the author is celebrating romance, mathematics and language, it’s rather wonderful.

Finally, Zebra Girl has finally found it’s groove by dipping into the surreal and dreamlike. Which is good, because it never fails to be interesting, even at its most self-indulgent.

Categories: Geek

Rare Exports

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It is the season for Christmas related things, so let’s talk about Rare Exports, a rather charming action/adventure movie dealing with the true origins of Santa Claus. Unlike the usual Hollywood schmaltz starring some TV comedian, Rare Exports takes the clichéd ‘Santa Movie’ idea and puts a distinctly Finnish spin on the whole affair.

All the elements of the traditional Santa Movie are here; a little boy believes in Santa (despite no one else doing so), there’s a local bully causing said little boy a load of trouble and the whole thing is set in a bleak social setting, where only the true meaning of Christmas can save the day.

Sounds hum-drum so far, but Rare Exports is nothing of the sort; the little boy who believes in Santa does so because he realises the terrible truth about Father Christmas, and the dark and deadly secret that lurks in the nearby mountain. The bully is just another boy, looking out for his father, and the bleak setting is the border between Finland and Russia.

Jorma Tommila plays the ‘grown-up’ and does so very well. He also happens to look like several people I know.

In short, this is a mix of ‘secrets man should not know’ horror and ‘Christmas time fare’, and the blend works fantastically well. Imagine, if you will, what you would get if The Thing and The Santa Clause had a baby. Now imagine it with more white bearded, naked old men and you’ve got a good idea what this is like.

The father and son pairing that the movie hangs on works so well because the actors actually are father and son. The characters are believable and react to insane circumstances in believable ways, and though the bulk of the movie is in Finnish, the subtitles don’t get in the way of the action at all. In addition, the movie is filled with little gags and references that make it a joy to re-watch. The “Safety Instructions” are especially fun.

This little Finnish film has been around for a while; it started life as a series of internet shorts and has been doing the rounds in foreign language cinemas for some time now. With any luck, the recent DVD release will give this cracking little movie a much deserved following. I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for an antidote to overly sentimental seasonal entertainment.

Categories: Geek, Movies

Comic Conventions, 2011

December 22, 2011 2 comments

This year I did something I never did before, not once, but twice. I went to a comic convention. This may come as a surprise to some of you, as you know I happen to be a massive nerd. But it’s something that had never really appealed, I like comics but waving my comic-fan-boy flag around seemed a little redundant.
That was until I found out about Thought Bubble and Canny Comic Con.

Thought Bubble has a steadily growing reputation of being the number one indie comics festival1, and I can see why. The sheer amount of creative talent, split across two halls, is incredible. In addition to the not terribly long queues of people waiting to get things signed by comic-book super stars the place was jam-packed with talented people from every level of the industry. I spent a chunk of time chatting away with indie creators such as Jess Bradley, Chris Webb and Huw Davies , and got a chance to grill more established types such as Graham McNeil1 and Andy Diggle.

Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper and the littlest bounty hunter at ThoughtBubble 2011

In addition to wandering the stalls, talking to cool people and spending my entire income on very pretty pictures, there were panels and cosplayers. The panels I found fascinating, and wished I had time to take in more. The cosplayers? Not as much of a distraction as I thought they might be, and I was incredibly impressed by the sheer level of detail involved in some of the costumes.
All in all a warm, friendly experience, dripping with talent and cool things. I’m definitely doing ThoughtBubble in 2012, hopefully for both days, though my bank account may not thank me for it.

My other convention was Canny Comic Con , a small, but perfectly formed event. In contrast to the festival at Leeds, this small, North East England based convention was all about encouraging the local talent, something that the region has by the truck-load. There was a strong focus of getting people into comics here; though it was aimed at the comics nerds, there was plenty to do for all the family and there was even a chap dressed as a Mega City Judge handing out old copies of 2000AD.

The focus seemed very much about raising awareness and encouraging local talent, and this is a good thing, there’s much more to Geordie comic-book creators than Viz and Bryan Talbot, though it was lovely to see both of those there. I really do hope to see it grow in size and popularity next year.

1: If San Diego Comic Con is the Cannes of Comic Books, Thought Bubble is steadily becoming the SunDance Festival, apparently.
2: Who’s a very nice chap, and was very tolerant of me being a raving fanboy.

Categories: Geek

The further adventures of Torchwood

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Earlier this year, Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s launch was accompanied by a trio of tie-in novels1. Previous releases have included books written by the likes of genre favourites such as Dan Abnett and James Moran, so it came as no surprise that this batch featured work by some of the more notable and ‘upcoming’ authors.

Long Time Dead by Sarah Pinborough is the most intriguing of three, as it stars recurring villain Suzy Costello. Fans of the show will recall that Suzy is a girl who just won’t stay dead, and in this, she’s back again, raising hell. Pinborough delivers a nicely chilling story of murder, other-worldly horror and science-gone-wrong with some lovingly delivered moments of utter creepiness. Just enough is left to the imagination to be nicely chilling, and though the tale runs across fairly predictable lines, the characterisation of the confused yet completely crazy Costello is superb. One to pick up by an author who’s worth checking out.

First Born features the return of well known characters from the series

James Goss’s addition to the series, First Born is the best of the bunch. It features former Torchwood agent Gwenn, her husband Rhys and their new-born baby girl on the run. The small family swiftly finds itself in a remote welsh village with a sinister secret and twisted problems. The tale is told from multiple perspectives, and Goss makes the characters compelling and endearing. Fans of the show will find a lot to love here and it’s the sort of science-fiction horror that Torchwood does well.

Man who sold the World is the weakest of the three, and suffers from the fact that the main character, Rex, is the least established Torchwood hero. (He’s only been in the recent series.) It’s a neat little sci-fi thriller, but Rex comes across as unlikeable (rather than headstrong). Author Guy Adams is a very strong writer who seems to have had the toughest deal here, and though it’s a reasonable adventure, the main characters simply don’t carry the story far enough. I was quite disappointed by this, but I do hope we see Rex again, should they do another set of spin-off novels.

1: You may have noticed I like tie-in novels. This is because I’m a big fan of shared creative works, and I find the idea of being invited to play in someone else’s creative sandpit to be highly appealing. Creating a world from whole cloth is one thing, but telling original tales in a more established setting is something else entirely, and allows for a depth often missing from single-creator works. I do wonder if some people are snooty about tie-in fiction because they feel foreknowledge is required to enjoy them. This is rarely the case, as a good tie-in writer can cater to both new and experienced readers at the same time.

Categories: Books, Geek Tags:

Gaunt’s Ghosts

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Salvation’s Reach is the latest book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels. As a review of one book in series of thirteen would be a bit useless to those of you who’ve aren’t familar with them, let’s take a quick look at the series as a whole.

The books are set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and focuses on the fate of a specific regiment of Imperial Guardsmen; The Tanith First and Only. These are just regular guys, armed with fairly standard equipment and weapons, facing an uncaring galaxy filled with hostile monsters and hidden horror. They are humble riflemen, doing their duty to protect their civilisation, with very little hope of long term survival. Those familiar with the Sharpe series may recognise some elements here; the first few stories were pitched as ‘Sharpe in Space’. It’s a fair summary, though not a very descriptive one. The two are very different from each other in many respects, however, both are character-lead action dramas with high body counts.

The series began life as a collection of short stories in the magazine Inferno1, and this means they tend to have an episodic nature. This is actually rather handy, as it means you can digest the stories in bite-sized chunks. (I recommend reading them on an e-reader whilst travelling). You can put them down for a while, but the stories are deeply more-ish.

Grim. Dark. Gothic. And a page turner. Stock up on them for a long journey.

The earlier books in the series (collected together in an anthology called The Founding) are also the weakest, but no less interesting. As the first anthology concludes, you can tell that the author, Dan Abnett, is just starting to get into the swing of things. The writing begins with at a pretty good quality, but as the series progresses, the narrative gets much better and becomes much more fun. It’s intensely satisfying to see an author whom you like to begin with improve, and the Gaunt’s Ghosts delivers this in spades. Each anthology improves on the other, as we learn more about the world they are in and the people that surround the regiment.

As this is a tale of war and warriors, the body count is very high. Abnett fiendishly keeps key characters around long enough for you to become familiar and fond of them. He’ll hint at dark fates for his characters (after all, this is a war story), and just when you think your favourites are safe, something awful happens to them. It’s part of the fun. The churn of shocks, bluffs, revelations and funerals are the life-blood of this series. As you become more convinced of the indomitability of certain heroes, something happens to change everything. It’s grim. It’s dark. But it’s also about people surviving in extraordinary ways. Gaunt’s Ghosts is a series about heroes, but flawed, fractured heroes who keep going. “Only in death does duty end” as the books so succinctly put it.

So what about Salvation’s Reach ? More shocks, more revelations. More people die and we learn more about the world. Is it the same as the last dozen? Not a bit of it, because part of the appeal of the series is it uses the massive galaxy it’s set in as a backdrop to the drama. Did I devour it during the spare moments? Of course I did, it’s what I’ve come to expect from the series. Did it leave me wanting more? Yes. More please.

1: An ambitious short story magazine, with a focus on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K worlds. Sadly, like many anthology periodicals, it’s no longer around. However, the same people behind Inferno do produce a regular e-zine called Hammer and Bolter, which fulfils the same sort of purpose. Which is good, as short story anthologies allow both readers and publishers to find new talent.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews Tags:

Doctor Who, the other movies

November 17, 2011 6 comments

With all this talk of a potential new Doctor Who Movie, I think it’s time to talk about the Timelord’s previous trips to the big screen. By which I don’t mean the 1996 TV movie featuring Paul McGann. I mean the big screen.

In the Sixties, Doctor Who was a new and exciting show, having first reached our screens in 1963. By 1964, Dalekmania was sweeping the nation. The pepperpot dictators where new, exciting and nothing of their like had been seen before, especially on national television. By 1965, Amicus Studios 1 had released Dr. Who and the Daleks and would later release Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. in 1966.

They planned to release a third, but it never got made. This is probably because the first two movies where terrible. They where panned by critics at the time and modern viewers have a lot of difficulty with them as well. When they were made, Doctor Who was still in its infancy as a show; The First Doctor, William Hartnell, played The Doctor as an unpredictable and crochety old man with a mysterious past. In the movies, the horribly underused Peter Cushing looks like Hartnell, but the character is entirely different. For a start, he’s called Doctor Who (as in his surname is “Who”), and he’s clearly cast as a kindly old white-haired genius.

All mystery is stripped from the titular hero in the first five minutes of the movie. To modern viewers, Cushing’s character is mortal and bland, and an elderly, doddery cliché at that. Action sequences are pretty much handled by younger characters2 , and we don’t really care about any of the cast. Compared to even the earliest episodes of the classic series, it pales in comparison. (This is quite a feat, as the movies are in colour).

On the other hand, the classic movie posters look fab

The plots are stripped down versions of Dalek stories from the original series. This improves the pacing, but also makes the whole thing less engaging. Even the pleasure of seeing multi-coloured Daleks and the oddly painted Thals does not make up for intense boredom the movies produce.

As family-friendly action movies made in 60’s go, they aren’t that bad. But because it features Daleks and a TARDIS, we expect more. I can remember watching both these movies as a child, and being very disappointed. They are the Doctor Who equivalent of being promised chocolate and getting carob.3.

If I was producing a new Doctor Who movie today, I would give these movies some repeated viewings. Their greatest flaw is that they imitate the elements of the original series without any of the charm. Even though there is now a greater body of lore surrounding the show, the Peter Cushing movies should serve as an example as to why one should not re-invent the wheel when one is playing in someone else’s creative sand-pit.

1: Interesting studio, Amicus, often mistaken for Hammer Films as they also tended to make movies starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is one of theirs.
2: Roy Castle in the first one, Bernard Cribbins in the second. They play characters of course, but it really doesn’t matter, because both actors don’t have any real chance how talented they are. Both Cribbins and Castle are charming of course, which is why both went on to become much loved celebrities. (In the UK at least).
3: Carob looks like chocolate, and sort of tastes like chocolate if you don’t have taste buds. It used to be billed to concerned parents a healthy, vegetarian alternative to chocolate, but I suspect it was actually produced to instil into children a deep seated mistrust of vegetarians

Categories: Geek, Movies

The Avengers, assembled once again

November 10, 2011 1 comment

One of the fascinating things about Marvel Super Heroes is the way it constantly re-invents itself; for example, though the origin story of Spiderman has been told endlessly on the screen, stage and indeed in comic books, The House of Ideas1 likes to mix it up a lot, retelling the same ideas in different ways. In recent years, this has applied to Marvel’s foremost and best known superhero team, The Avengers2. Stories with teams in them are a bit of a bargain, you get to enjoy the adventures of multiple characters, rather than just the one, and if you’re promoting a brand3, it has the added advantage of exposing the audience to characters they may not have met yet.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a recent cartoon TV series, that yet again re-invents the classic Marvel Super Hero team. We can see elements of previous versions within its structure; Iron Man resembles his recent movie incarnation more than ever (he even looks like Robert Downey Junior), Captain America’s origin resembles both the version seen in The Ultimates comic book and the recent movie. Each episode has been plugged together with a great deal of love and care for the mythology surrounding these heroes, and each one has been re-imagined in a way that’s fresh but also familiar.

(c) Marvel

The main problem with the show is that, in parts, it’s a retelling too far. Every time Marvel redoes a story featuring the Avengers, it always starts the same way; the band gets formed in a way that generates a lot of tension and then they unwittingly face a conspiracy of mystically manipulated villains, almost falling apart in the process but ultimately becoming stronger because of it. If you’d never heard that story before, then I’m sure it would be fresh and exciting, but for me, I’ve already been there, many times.

Part of the reason for my fatigue is actually one of the strengths of the franchise, as this particular story is one of human frailty. It’s an examination of what happens when you thrust power and responsibility into the hands of flawed people.4. This is great, but I want to see the character development go beyond the first handful of stories. I want to see this aspect of the myth evolve in different media as well.

I want to see other, more obscure, stories about The Avengers retold in different ways; the comic books are filled with amazing weirdness and fantastic ideas. I want disassembled robots, the scattered souls of twins, world conquering androids and alien war zones; some of this is hinted at in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes but I’m greedy and impatient, and am never sure how long a show like this will run for before it gets cancelled.

I’m sure it’ll get a lot of attention in the run up to the forthcoming movie The Avengers, and if you’re in the mood for cartoon action, it’s worth a look.

1: Marvel Comics prides itself on the creativity, hence the self-styled ‘House of Idea’ sub-title. After all, you take away the amazing stories that Marvel has brought us over the years and you’d have nothing.
2: Not to be confused with the classic British TV series of the same name, which features super spies with vengeance in mind. That’s a wholly different kettle of fish, and I’ll talk about that some other day.
3: It isn’t soul-less to to think of superheroes as brands, provided you remember that the story should come first. This is storytelling as a business, and Marvel has proven time and again that thinking about the money makes a story no less valid. Disney bought Marvel for $4.24 billion. A business founded on comic books. Frankly, anyone who doubts the worth of storytelling through the comic medium is woefully misinformed.
4: The battle cry of The Avengers is ‘Avengers Assemble’. I often wonder if that’s because so many of the heroes are so interestingly broken.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews, TV

Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

In case you didn’t know, I’m running a larp event at Hebden Hey Scout camp, the weekend of Friday, 30th March 2012.

It’s called Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea, and it’s a game that evokes the excitement of Dan Dare action stories and the creeping horror of Bernard Quatermass.

It’s a set in a world of two-fisted justice, rocket powered heroism, hidden horrors, lurking conspiracy and exploration. Square jawed heroes team up with brilliant academics and savvy politicians to unearth the wonders and horrors of a world still reeling from the Second World War. It is an alternate history larp that features very little steam, hardly any punks and a huge amount of fun.

Want to know more? Some handy, printer friendly downloads are here:

Setting information and timeline
Event Invite
Rules of the game
Equipment List
Booking Form

You can also email Rocketlarp(the at symbol goes here)

Did I mention it's a system that uses NERF? It uses NERF.

EDIT: A quick update. As described elsewhere, I eventually gave this project to very good friends to handle. They’ve done amazing things with it and you can find out more up to date information here:

Categories: Geek

Inner City Versus Outer Space

October 17, 2011 2 comments

Riffs on the idea of an alien invasion have been redone countless times. Marauding creatures from beyond the stars have been defeated by everything from cowboys to Santa Claus in the past. But Aliens versus South London Hoodies? There’s a novel idea. What happens when you take a tedious British movie about urban decay and how tough it is to be a youth on the streets and drop alien monsters into the mix?

The result is Attack the Block. Director Joe Cornish1 has taken UK Film Council money and made a B-movie reminiscent of the sort of fun films Hollywood used to make in the 80’s, such as Critters, Gremlins and CHUD. It’s refreshing to see a British movie that’s fun for the sake of being fun, and a B-movie that isn’t trying to be anything else. That’s not say it’s not got subtext and clever social parody; of course it has, it’s been partially funded by Film4 so we expect that, it’s just that’s also has big monsters eating people.
The story is tight, the characters fun and interesting. Humour is injected throughout the movie, but so is a constant feeling of danger and terror. One flows naturally into the other, neither is particularly forced.

(c) Film4

I wonder what would have happened had the aliens landed in Glasgow...

I would say that the first five minutes of the movie are the least promising; it really does start out as yet another British movie about how crap Britain is, even though those opening scenes are done suberbly. Maybe it’s the strength of the opening scene or the raw talent of actor John Boyega’s performance, but I utterly fail to have any sympathy for the lead character, Moses. Whereas the rest of the hapless hoodies all seem to be kids way out of their depth, Boyega’s “Good kid in a bad place, doing the best he can” fails to elicit any empathy; I suspect I’m supposed to feel for him, but I don’t. Boyega is simply too convincing as a thug. In a way this is a good thing as it lends a heavy dose of pathos2 to movie.

If you have a spare couple of hours and like monster movies of this ilk, you could do a lot worse than check this out. I hope to see more from Joe Cornish in years to come. It would be awesome if the UK could continue to produce this sort of scary fun.

1: Jo from Channel Four comedy programme Adam and Joe. Sad to say, no toy pastiche action in this movie. I’m sure someone will do one.
2: Pathos is like salt; you may not notice it’s missing when you first tuck into your meal, but once it’s added, it can improve things immensely.

Categories: Geek, Movies, Reviews Tags: ,