Saturday, December 30, 2017

The End of the Year Show - an update, an explanation and a plan...

So the few readers I may have left can't have failed to notice that the blog posts trickled to a crawl in the latter half of 2017 - and there has been nothing new at all for two months.That doesn't mean that "Ravings From the Rubber Room" is dead, just that it...lost its way somewhat. This is just meant a bit of personal fun after all, so this post is me trying to make some sense of why things ground to a halt and perhaps figure out what to do about it. Who knows, some of what follows might make sense...

I genuinely went into 2017 with a basic, easy to manage plan. Just one short blog post a week on any kind of topic, plus the "Doctor Who" bullet-point reviews for a dozen weeks when the series came back in the Spring. Simple. But then after finishing the "800 Day Project" where I watched every single episode of "Doctor Who", and having decided that "The X-Files" would be next, a comment from someone on social media convinced me to blog about those too on a weekly basis. I could manage that I thought.

But then I hit upon the idea of looking at each of the last fifty years of my life in turn and picking my favourite books, films, comics, TV shows, music or games from each year, and "Golden Sunsets" was born. A good friend whose opinion I trust recently commented that much of this blog has become a bit like an autobiography - and he's right -  if you look back over the last couple of years, in between all the "Doctor Who" stuff are glimmers of a rose-tinted glow of nostalgia around the memories of my childhood. "Golden Sunsets" became a way of putting that into a more formalised structure and scratching the subconscious itch to document all those things that I liked and had been such an influence on me.

So a small plan had become a somewhat larger one. Three (maybe four) posts a week. That was fine - I was excited and I believed I could cope with the additional workload. Certainly I was incredibly fired up at the start  - the words almost flew off the keyboard and in three months I managed what I thought was a respectable 37 posts (of course I look back now and wonder how on Earth I managed to find the time to write so much...)

But as the Robert Burns phrase goes, "The best laid plans...".

If I am being totally honest here, as the year wore on there *was* a bit of a slip in enthusiasm on my part. Firstly, my "Doctor Who" fandom was going through a bit of a rough patch. I'd known for a while that I wasn't enjoying the show as much as before, and at the start of series 10, after writing about "The Pilot", I decided to step away from all elements of reviewing things related to the series (which included the "Doctor Who Show" podcast). I went back to just being a viewer.

Then the intended weekly "The X-Files" 'view and review' hit a problem fifteen episodes in. Unlike "Doctor Who" (which I always watch multiple times) or many of the other things I've written about from the point of  view of looking back at the past,  I'd not seen the majority of the adventures of Mulder and Scully before, and I realised that I was missing out on enjoying things because I was too busy concentrating on scribbling down notes. I didn't have time to do a second watch in the same week just to write a mini-review. So that element went on hiatus too.

Still I soldiered on with other bits and bobs and most importantly the "Golden Sunsets" strand, which I was enjoying immensely as I worked my way forward from the late 60s to the end of the 80s. The nostalgia thing was obviously where my heart was.

But then in early July, I began to find myself  taking longer and longer to finish a post on 1991, until eventually I ended up skipping a couple of weeks purely because I ran out of time. Why was it taking so long to cover this decade when I had written with such passion and frenzy about earlier years? Well, without trying to be too analytical, I think partly that is because the 1990s were an incredibly difficult and emotional period for me personally, where my life changed irrevocably in both positive and negative ways.

To give some context - by the time the decade ended and we entered the new millennium, I had: got married, had a mini nervous breakdown, lost my father-in-law in a tragic motorcycle accident, relocated my home 180 miles further north while still renting out my existing property to what turned out to be the tenant from hell, discovered that my first daughter (who arrived 11 weeks earlier than expected) had been born with cerebral palsy (with all the challenges that followed) *and* struggled to hold on to my job as my wife spent 14 weeks in hospital while pregnant with my second daughter. Then finally six months after her birth, my wife and I ended up separating for good, for reasons far too complex to go into here (although let's be clear, there was no one else involved).

So it's really not surprising that my focus was elsewhere - and hence my memories of the books, movies, television, music and comics of the time are...somewhat hazy.

Struggling to separate the strands of those tumultuous years, I found that the order of things in my head were jumbled. Unpicking the timelines, reflecting on the good and bad memories and doing the necessary research meant that the various sections of each post had begun to take longer and longer to shape into a cohesive whole. Plus, who knows, maybe middle-age was also finally starting to have an effect on my cognitive recall (what *did* I have for lunch last week?).

I believe that this lengthening 'development' process and the difficulties it presented caused the weekly schedule to slip, but I honestly thought I could battle through it and recover the momentum. But then on top of this, in the second half of 2017 along came a plethora of real world issues - family and pet illnesses, broken down boilers and various job related shenanigans that were - of course - a priority over everything else . What once was a regular series of posts began to drop further and further behind. As I have several times before in my life, I felt like I was trying to keep an infinite number of plates spinning while running in ever decreasing circles - and any minute one of them was going to get smashed to the floor...

The thing is, unlike when this kind of thing has happened before, I'm thankfully now older and (hopefully) wiser -  I'd like to think I know my own limits. I couldn't keep burning the candle at both ends *and* in the middle! A long overdue two week holiday in September gave me some downtime and I managed to relax, yet still write about my favourite things of 1996 by doing a little bit each day by the side of the pool. I squeezed out one more post during October, but by the end of the month it was clear that the only sensible thing to do was...stop. Something had to give, so the blog went on the back-burner while I concentrated on all that boring grown-up stuff.

The problem was, before I could blink, a month had gone past and then six weeks and, well, here we are...

It's the last gasp of 2017. Just over halfway out of the dark and a new year is almost upon us (2018 eh? How did we get here? When I was a youngster the year 2000 seemed like the far, far future). Christmas has come and gone, we have a new female Doctor Who and I've watched season two of "Stranger Things". Work has calmed down a bit and - touch wood - no human or animal is currently ill. In the lull in between seasonal festivities, I've had a chance at last to reopen the blog and look at all the draft posts and the notes I've made.

I've had a lot of encouragement in the last few weeks from another friend who told me that I shouldn't let things get in the way of writing, as what I was doing was too good to leave unfinished (he's biased of course but it was a lovely sentiment). But he was right about one thing - there's a lot of stuff floating around and old, old projects that I desperately wanted to get back to (maybe not the "X-Files" mini reviews - sorry), but I kept looking at the "Golden Sunsets" strand and I knew that was the one I really wanted to finish.

So here's the plan. I'm going to start 2018 with nothing more than a desire to write something about the years 1997 to 2017. No timetable. No deadlines. I have twenty 'episodes' left to go and it might take me twenty weeks or it might take me three years. I don't care. No more apologies about being 'late'. No worries about supplying regular 'content' to an invisible audience. If someone reads all this nonsense and enjoys it - fabulous. If they don't and the blog counter drops to zero views, I'm not going to fret. Ultimately I'm doing all this for just one person - me.

Hopefully with any kind of pressure off, I can get back into the groove and simply write for the sheer enjoyment of it. After I've finished "Golden Sunsets"? Who knows? Probably more nostalgia-driven stuff around comics and old TV shows and a nagging desire to write about the music influences from my school days. We'll see.

So here's to 2018. May you be happy and healthy. I'll see you on the other side.

"Time moves in one direction. Memory in another" - William Gibson

Monday, October 30, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 30 - 1996

One blog post a month? (just about) Okay, it's not what I want, but I guess it will have to do for now. I'll keep plugging away, hoping that other situations will improve to give me some time back and that I still have a few readers left...

So 1996 was pretty important for me, as my first daughter was born in March of this year. It's hard to believe that as I sit here writing now, she is 21 years old , has just obtained a first class honours degree in History and Literature and has just started a Masters degree in Shakespeare studies. She obviously doesn't get that intelligence from me! There have been lots of highs and lows in our relationship over the last two decades, especially after her mum and I got divorced and we both married other people, but I think we have come out of it okay. I'm immensely proud of all she has accomplished. So this post is dedicated to Hannah, with love.


The trivia:
  • A 21-year old man walked into radio station Star FM in Wanganui, New Zealand and proceeded to take the station manager hostage with what was believed to be an explosive device. His one and only demand was that the station play "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie" on repeat for the next twelve hours. Before the song could be played for the first time, local police retook the station and arrested the poor guy.
  • When the movie "The Rock" (of which more later) had it's glitzy star-studded premiere, it was held at the former prison on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. In true James Bond style, windsurfer Jeff Bunch sailed to the island wearing a wing-collar tuxedo and bow tie under his wetsuit.  He landed on the north east side of the island, climbed over the edge and snuck into the celebrity party. He later claimed to have already had a cocktail with star Sean Connery before being captured by park rangers and escorted off the premises.
  • An experienced model enthusiast was flying his self built remote controlled plane at the registered site in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland. After a few successful short flights, he suddenly lost all control and the plane flew off into the distance in a north east direction, supposedly to crash. However after five miles, the model aircraft ran out of fuel and glided to a safe stop - on the taxi-way of runway 28 at Dublin International Airport.               

The memory:


So it's no secret that I've always liked video games. I have vague memories of playing a version of the classic text game "Collosal Cave"  on a massive office machine sometimes in the late 1970s (how or why I got to see this is lost to my fading brain cells),  so I guess my love for the form grew from there. Whether it's the simplicity of "Pong", the 48k wonder of "Knight Lore" on the ZX Spectrum, the rip-off platform fun of "Great Giana Sisters" on the Commodore 64 or the fast paced spinball of "Sonic The Hedgehog" on the Sega Megadrive - I've played hundreds of action, puzzle, driving, shooting, platform and adventure games in my life - although I've managed to fully complete only a mere few of those (I said I enjoyed the games, not that I was any good at them!).

But all of those games were on simple "home computers" (which you could program as well), or early games consoles. When I first started work after leaving school, business machines were huge things that look up a whole room or "PC's" were standalone boxes that ran MS-DOS. I actually wrote the menu screen for our first office PC in BASIC. We didn't get Windows until I'd been there several years.

It was 1995 before prices dropped enough that I could afford to get a home PC - running the brand new Windows 95 operating system with it's (for then) flashy interface. I started buying "PC Zone" magazine for the reviews of new games and the cover-mounted CD-ROM full of demos and previews. Some of the first games I bought for the new machine that sat proudly in the spare bedroom were "Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time" and "Star Trek: A Final Unity" - more cerebral, thinking games than fast-paced action. I was aware of the burgeoning genre of first-person shooters pioneered by Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom" (although I didn't get to play those two until much later). But then came "Duke Nukem 3D" and the demo I installed made me go out and buy the full game almost straight away  - and I completed it too, after much effort (and maybe a little use of the "god" mode to figure out difficult areas first...).

So by the time iD Software's highly anticipated "Quake" arrived, I thought I was pretty up to speed with how these shooting games worked. What I didn't anticipate was just how damn addictive they could be...

The core conceit of "Quake" main storyline seems fairly basic by today's' standards, but back then the combination of  Lovecraftian and satanic imagery plus futuristic technology in a gothic / medieval setting was a heady one  - building on the successes of "Doom" but with a far stronger sense of dread  and lurking horror. The single-player campaign consists of 30 separate levels (several of which are secret) across four 'episodes' - which are accessed through a teleporter known as a "Slipgate". Exploring the labyrinthine passages and hidden rooms requires accessing particular switches or keys and various other portals are also discoverable over the course of the game. The aim is to fight through each of the levels, killing or avoiding the various enemies, and collect four magic runes. These give the player access to the final level and the chance to defeat the demonic presence known as Shib-Niggurath.

The antagonists in "Quake" range from the merely deadly to the truly horrific. Grunts, Zombies, Knights, Enforcers and Ogres are recognisably almost-human, but a Fiend is a mass of teeth and razor-sharp claws, while a Vore is a spider-esque hybrid monstrosity. Then there is the Shambler with it's blood-stained fur, ripping fangs and the ability to fling bolts of electricity. Any one of these creatures appearing suddenly around a dark corner (especially if, like me you played with the lights off or really low) was guaranteed to make a little bit of wee come out...

Sure, it's true that the levels are almost always the same twenty shades of dirty brown colour and at times it could be incredibly frustrating to have to restart yet again when a stray claw took your last nugget of life energy, but the excellent level design and the sheer "oh-go-on-then-I know-it's-2am-but-just-one-more-go" playability of  it meant that I spent *way* too many hours trying to uncover every secret and defeat every enemy. I hadn't been this addicted to a game since the days of the ZX Spectrum.

But I have to make an admission here. Most of my time spent on "Quake" was not in when it first came out. Oh sure, I played the demo and liked what I saw an awful lot - and I picked up a full copy when the price dropped somewhat, but in 1996 I was far too busy with firstly moving house and then coming to terms with the arrival of my first daughter eleven weeks earlier than expected, along with the special care that she needed. After that there were a series of personal circumstances which put a huge strain on the increasingly difficult relationship with my wife. I won't bore you with those problems here, but suffice it to say that despite the joy of my second daughter being born in late 1998, my wife and I ended up sadly separating for good in February of 1999.

So then I found myself living on the outskirts of London with my daughters 180 miles away and mostly only able to see them at weekends (my job was still in London you see and I couldn't afford to move where they now lived). I had almost no free cash and I was on my own much of the time during the week, so I turned to films and television and video games for entertainment. I pulled out that CD of "Quake" and booted up the PC. Sadly I couldn't enjoy any of the innovative multiplayer aspects of the game - my prehistoric dial-up internet connection was not capable of anything like that - so I just satisfied myself with trying to defeat the game on every difficult setting (yes even "Nightmare", which was frankly, impossible). And then I discovered "mods"...

The gameplay of "Quake" could be changed by altering the graphics and audio, using the "QuakeC" programming language. At the start this meant just small fixes and patches and the odd new enemy, but soon fans were creating whole new versions of the game that were very different from the original. The first major mods I read about in the PC magazines was "Team Fortress", but being as it was multiplayer, it was off limits to me. Of far more interest were the multitude of single player levels that sprung up. The small size of these files meant that I could log on, download it (relatively) quickly and then log off. I seem to recall that some mods were also given away on cover mounted CDs. For me this took the game to a whole other level, as I was no longer restricted to the 30 maps that came with the installation disc (yes I know there were a couple of "expansion packs" added later, but for some reason lost to the mists of time I never got round to them).

As internet speeds became cheaper, faster and more reliable, my "Quake" mod interest kept growing. I must have played or tried out dozens upon dozens of new levels. Someone invented "AirQuake" where you were now flying around the skies of QuakeWorld engaged in bombing runs or driving a tank to take down your enemies in the air. Then there was "QuakeRally" which turned things into a medieval version of a car race. "AlienQuake" had me stalking the corridors of the Nostromo facing off against Facehuggers and Xenomorphs. "FantasyQuake" replaced guns and bullets with swords and bows and arrows."Horrorshow" added Jason Voorhees and the ability to inhabit the body of Leatherface. The sky was truly the limit.

Between games of "Quake" and sessions on my beloved Nintendo 64, I whiled away the somewhat lonely evenings after work (including through that first cold winter when the central heating broke down and I couldn't afford to repair it). I persevered with getting my life back in order and clearing my debts. I made new friends and built new relationships, but I kept returning to that first version of  "Quake" to see each new modification. Like the expansion packs I mentioned earlier, I never did progress to "Quake II" or "Quake III Arena", but that was okay. Eventually things improved and in 2001 I met the wonderful woman that would become my second (and hopefully final!) wife and my nights of gaming gradually slowed to a crawl.

As part of writing this piece over the last few weeks, I dug out my dusty copy of the game from storage in the loft and after a bit of fiddling around getting the antique DOS installer to work, pressed "Single Player" on my first game of "Quake " in probably fifteen years. As I moved around that first level, the sound of collecting the backpacks and bullets dropped by the enemies and the grunt of the main character brought all the memories flooding back. Compared to today's standards, it's slow and clunky and incredibly linear but there's still a huge amount of playability and before I knew it an hour had gone past.  It's a great game and while I'd quite like to forget certain other aspects of my life in the mid to late 90s, this is one that I'm quite happy to recall. Even if I am now going to dream about running through dank corridors being snarled at by a rabid Shambler...

Honourable mentions:
  • Kingdom Come - I mentioned this landmark comic mini series in my post for 1995, but it's first publication here is worth a more detailed look. Mark Waid and co-writer / artist Alex Ross envisioned the future of the DC universe where the heroes of the present day have abandoned their roles after the rise and popularity of  second and third generation meta-humans who fight more for the fun of it than to protect the innocent and who care nothing for the effects of their destructive behavior. Worst of these is Magog who murders the Joker and manages to turn the American Midwest into a radioactive wasteland, killing millions while in pursuit of the villain The Parasite. Coaxed back into action by Wonder Woman, Superman reforms the Justice League, but finds himself and his allies caught in the midst of a war with Batman and his team of "Outsiders", Lex Luthor and his Mankind Liberation Front and the threat of nuclear destruction. Not to mention a brainwashed Captain Marvel. But trust me it's far more complex and fascinating than that short summary makes it sound.

  • The artwork from Alex Ross is simply stunning, painted in such a lush hyper-realistic style that it's almost like looking at excerpts from a film, but still with the comic book sensibilities that make it flow naturally from panel to panel. It's well known that he uses real life models, but this is no tracing of photos, just a way of helping him get the right angle or pose or expression - and hell does it pay off. Every frame is packed with detail and some of the seemingly throwaway character designs have been used in subsequent years as templates for the current DC universe. In fact "Kingdom Come" itself has been referenced or used significantly in other stories in the last twenty-one years - it's that important an event in DC's history.

  • The Cable Guy - Made when Jim Carrey was at the height of his first wave of popularity this psychological comedy thriller showed that the actor could also do dark and twisted characters. Matthew Broderick plays straight man as Steven, recently split with his girl friend and on his own in a new apartment. When he slips the cable installer an extra $50 for free premium channels, what he doesn't expect is to be followed around by a guy who at first appears to just be a social misfit but then turns out to be genuinely crazy. I love "Ace Ventura", but if you asked me to choose one Carrey comedy, this would be at the top of the list. Highlights are the karaoke performance of "Somebody to Love" and of course the fight at the 'Medieval Times' theme restaurant that turns into a full on recreation of the classic Kirk / Spock battle from Star Trek's "Amok Time", complete with episode specific weapons and music. This really is an overlooked film.

  • Duke Nukem 3D - I mentioned this above. "Quake" might have been the first-person shooter I played the most, but "Duke Nukem 3D" was the one I played first. There's some storyline about Earth being invaded in the 21st Century, but that didn't really matter. What was important was running through a variety of environments collecting objects and weaponry while blasting as many of the hideous alien scum as possible - all while Duke himself gave a string of cheesy one liners in that deep gruff voice that were worthy of Arnie himself. The degree of interactivity with the areas you stalked through along with the clever level design and the satire of pop culture made it enormous fun to play. I'm getting flashbacks to the movie theatre level right now. It's fair to say that this was one of the most important video games of all time and all the FPS games since owe a debt to The Duke. Hail to the King, baby !

  • Hamlet - I like a good "Hamlet". I must have seen a dozen or more different versions in my life, either on stage or screen. Some were amateur productions with minimal sets. Some had big name stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant or Mel Gibson. Sometimes the main story is only a sideline, such as in "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead". I've even seen the half-hour long animation. But there is only one film version which contains every single word of Shakespeare's original text - and that's the one written, directed and starring the marvelous Kenneth Branagh. I'd been a fan of Ken ever since his 1989 version of "Henry V" and really rated him as someone who wanted to bring Shakespeare back to a mass audience.  Here he updates the setting of the play to the 19th Century, adds flashbacks that visual information and imbues the whole production with an epic style by filming it in 70mm (the last to do so until 2012) and using lots of long single takes for numerous scenes. He is helped by a wealth of famous actors in small and large roles - Derek Jacobi (whose own BBC version is almost as long), Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, Judi Dench - the list goes on and on. It's sumptuous, layered and incredibly powerful. I adore it.

  • Fun Song Factory - No don't click away from the page. There is a good reason for this 90s children's program being here  - and you have probably already guessed that it's to do with daughter number one. I can't remember where it came from but somehow we ended up with a double cassette pack of the first two "Fun Song Factory" shows - the second of which was recorded in 1996, hence how I have managed to squeeze it into this post, even though the VHS releases weren't until 1998. Performed in front of a live audience of kids, mums and dads by Iain Lauchlan, Sarah Davison, Michelle Durler and kids favourite, the unbelievable cheerful Dave Benson Philips, the shows were full of pre-school favourite songs and nursery rhymes such as "The Wheels on the Bus" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" - plus inexplicably, The Beatles "Yellow Submarine". To say that Hannah loved these shows as a toddler was an understatement, and they became a permanent accompaniment to our lives in those first few years. Even now I just have to hear "I am the Music Man" and I can picture her sitting in the living room totally captivated by the screen. Now before you think badly of us, we didn't use the show as a surrogate babysitter (well, maybe only a couple of times when we needed to urgently get things done) - this was a shared experience and it's one of my fondest memories of those years with my daughter, even if around her other things in my life were...extremely challenging.

  • The Frighteners - It may have been somewhat forgotten now in the wake of the massive success of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movie trilogies, but this horror comedy from Peter Jackson and starring Michael J Fox in his last leading film role is still a favourite in my house. Fox is Frank Bannister, an architect who is able to see and hear the ghosts around him. Initially he uses this ability to make some supernatural friends and set up a flourishing exorcism scam, but when the spirit of a mass murderer starts attacking both the living and the dead, Frank gets pulled into the investigation. Of course it's a film chock full of visual effects (more so than pretty much any other film of the time) and proved that Jackson could handle the demands of that kind of  shoot, but it's the real performances that stand out. Fox is enjoyable in pretty much everything he's done, but here he manages to imbue his character with a bit of a world-weary attitude. There is a nice turn from R. Lee Ermey who basically reprises his role as the screaming sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket". But is Jeffrey Combs who steals ever scene he is in as the disturbed (and disturbing) FBI agent.

  • DC versus Marvel - Fans had been looking for a meeting of the heroes and villains of the rival comic publishers for decades, and after a lot of wrangling we got this four issue mini series by Peter David, Ron Marz, Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini. There's some nonsense about cosmic embodiments of the two universes setting up a contest, but it was really an excuse for a series of smack-downs between various characters, with a fan vote deciding the outcome of each bout (I still can't believe Storm defeated Wonder Woman though). It's fun stuff, particularly when the intervention of new character Access resulted in the two universes being merged - and we got the 12 issue "Amalgam" imprint with odd fusions such as Dark Claw (Batman & Wolverine), the Green Skull (Lex Luthor & Red Skull), Moonwing (Nightwing & Moon Knight) and Doctor Strangefate (you get the idea...). There was even the Two-Faced Goblin and an amalgamation of Green Arrow and Hawkeye In terms of sheer comics geekery it was pretty hard to beat - until 2003 anyway...

  • Mars Attacks! - I wasn't even born when the original "Mars Attacks" trading cards were released, but I was soon aware of them once I started to seriously become interested in all things science fiction (plus, don't forget Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds from 1978...). Who couldn't fail to enjoy the lurid, sometimes blood-soaked paintings by Wally Wood and Norman Saunders depicting the Martians with their skull-like faces and pulsating brains? The cards soon became huge collector's items and think I didn't get to see a full set of images until the rise of the internet. As for Tim Burton's live action satire / comedy / thriller adaptation - it's as mad as a box of frogs. Where else would you get to see Jack Nicholson hamming it up to 11 in two roles. Or Pierce Brosnan as a disembodied head smoking a pipe. Or Tom Jones playing himself as an action hero! Or the Martians heads exploding when they listen to Slim Whitman? It's all over the place and I love it more because of that. Plus the aliens themselves are a triumph of 90s CGI. "Ack Ack Ack Ack !"

  • The Rock - Before Michael Bay became the king of over the top mindless action, he made this smart thriller starring the legendary Sean Connery and personal favourite Nicholas Cage. A bunch of rogue US Marines take over Alcatraz Prison, hold all the tourists hostage and threaten to release nerve gas over San Francisco unless they get $100 million for the families of Recon Marines who died on covert operations. Cage plays the FBI's top chemical weapons expert, the wonderfully name Stanley Goodspeed, who is paired up with former British SAS Captain John Mason (Connery) - a man who has been mysteriously locked up without charge for thirty years and is the only person to ever escape Alcatraz. What follows is a wonderful action film, made all the better by the chemistry between the two leads. Connery is clearly enjoying himself as the secretive Mason (was he a disguised James Bond?...) and Cage is on a career roll. It's also worth mentioning Ed Harris as the Brigadier General in charge of the bad guys, who makes his character quite sympathetic at times. It's one of those movies which, when it comes on TV, I stop changing channels and end up watching all the way through - no matter how many times I've seen it before. There's nothing guilty about this pleasure.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 29 - 1995 that was August was it...and part of September? Damn...

Anyway, I'm still soldiering on in attempt to return things here to some semblance of regularity, but it's proving to be incredibly difficult, due to a number of personal challenges. I'll get there eventually I'm sure, but free time for any kind of writing has been nonexistent. Thankfully I'm currently on two weeks holiday, hence the final delayed appearance of what has turned into a very long post indeed...

This time round I reach the year I got married (for the first time). In the world of fantastical fiction there is a bit of a resurgence, with a number of significant new (and returning) authors. In film there are a couple of big flops and in comics some seminal titles that have had a huge influence even to this day. But in a busy year I've decided to chose something that harkens back to a more innocent age...


The trivia:
  • Convicted killer Daniel Luther Heiss was serving time in the Berrimah prison in Darwin, Australia when he noticed that the keys pictured on the front of the prisoner information handbook looked very similar to those for the prison cells that the guards carried. He and fellow inmate Shame Baker - a former jeweller who for some reason was allowed to have equipment in his cell - made an exact replica of the key that fitted the lock and they then escaped by scaling three razor-fire perimeter fences. It was 12 days before Heisss was recaptured. The locks were swiftly changed.
  • On 29th June 1995 the Sampoong department store in Seoul, South Korea collapsed, killing over 500 people.One of the major contributing factors was that during construction the owner insisted on adding an extra 6th floor with a swimming pool. When the engineers working on the project warned that this would be dangerous, they were fired and the changes covered up by bribing government officials.
  • Inept criminal McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks with his face covered in lemon juice. His crazy logic was that since the juice could be used to write invisible letters (the writing only becomes readable when held near a heat source), the same thing would apply to his face and by smearing himself in the liquid he would effectively become invisible to the banks security cameras. Needless to say he was captured later the same day, thanks to surveillance footage clearly identifying him.       

The memory:

The Power of SHAZAM!

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the *original* Captain Marvel.

As usual, before we get to my personal memory, we need some contextual history, and there is quite a lot to get through...

First appearing in 1939 in the pages of  Fawcett Publications "Whiz Comics" as an "alternative" to a then fledgling superhero known as Superman, young radio reporter Billie Batson is drawn by a mysterious figure to an underground cave via a subway station. Creeping past vast statues illustrating the Seven Deadly Enemies of Mankind (greed, hate, laziness, etc.), Billy meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who asks the lad to become his new champion. Directed to shout out  the sorcerer's name, Billy finds himself transformed by a bolt of lightning into an adult, clad in a red and gold costume and endowed with the powers of six gods - Solomon, Hercules Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. He was now the World's Mightiest Mortal - Captain Marvel !

Written by Bill Parker and illustrated in a cartoony, whimsical style by Clarence Charles "C.C" Beck, that comic also introduced readers to the villain who would become the Captain's greatest nemesis - the bald, buck-toothed scientist Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. It was a huge hit, selling half a million copies. Subsequent issues featured Marvel in repeat engagements with Sivana, battling the ever present Nazis, facing Sivana's duplicitous daughter Beautia and even fighting the brainwashed hero Spy Smasher. Within a year the hero had his own title, "Captain Marvel Adventures" and in 1941 the character was considered popular enough to feature in his own Republic Pictures serial starring Tom Tyler.

Unfortunately this also brought him to the attention of DC (then National) Comics lawyers. Citing that Marvel was infringing their copyright, the lawsuits would drag on for years and fundamentally affect the character. But that was all in the future. Right then Fawcett had a huge success on their hands - regularly selling 1.8 million copies twice a month under the pen of main writer Otto Binder. Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero in the world.

Around this time Fawcett also began a number of spin-off's of their main character. Firstly in Whiz Comics issue 21, Billy met three boys who also shared his name - Tall Billy, Fat Billy and Hill Billy Batson (look it was the 1940s, okay?). Thanks to a plot by Sivana, they all wound up tied to a log in a sawmill. When the four shouted "Shazam!" together, they all turned into Captain Marvels, but after defeating the evil doctor, the trio agreed that there was only one true hero, so they would become "Lieutenant Marvels".

Then editor Ed Heron introduced Freddy Freeman, a young boy crippled during a fight involving villain Captain Nazi, whose life was saved by Marvel when he convinced the wizard Shazam  to grant him a portion of his powers. By exclaiming "Captain Marvel!", Freddy still retained his youth but became "Captain Marvel Jr". When Freddy moved over to his own title in "Master Comics", it was with a more gritty, realistic style from artist Emmanuel Raboy (later to succeed Alex Raymond on the "Flash Gordon newspaper strips).

Captain Marvel Jr proved to be such a hit that in 1942 Otto Binder and artist Mark Swayze had Billy Batson discover he had a long lost twin sister, who when granted her own set of powers became Mary Marvel! Together, Billy, Freddy, Mary and the trio of Lieutenants became the 'Marvel Family', with another regular title. Later they would be joined by loveable con-man Dudley H. Dudley as their non-super-powered manager "Uncle Marvel" and there is also the anthropomorphic Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, but we don't have time for *that* story...

That first issue of "Marvel Family" would introduce a character that appeared to be a one off - the wizard Shazam's previous champion Teth-Adam. Banished 5,000 years ago for abusing his powers, he returned for revenge as "Black Adam" before being tricked by Uncle Dudley into saying his magic word and turning to dust. But you can't keep a good villain down for more than a few decades...

The most famous Golden Age Captain Marvel storyline was the 25-part "Monster Society of Evil", in which the good Captain and his friends battled a huge gathering of previous foes brought together by a mysterious voice known as "Mr Mind". After many chapters it was revealed that this was a really a two-inch green alien worm wearing glasses, possessed of mind controlling powers! He was duly captured, tried, executed and stuffed! It was the first epic superhero crossover not to mention the first super-villain team-up and shaped what was possible in the. medium.

By the early 1950s, superhero comics were losing their appeal and sales of Captain Marvel comics became moribund. The stories appeared dated and simple in a time of horror, war and crime comics. Fawcett tried to adjust by introducing villains such as King Kull and Mr.Atom, a robot powered by atomic energy but these didn't sit well with the more innocent stories of the past. Then in 1953, to make matters worse, the lawsuits from DC returned with a vengeance. Tired from battling it out in court for years, Fawcett agreed to DC's terms and reluctantly ceased publication of all Captain Marvel comics immediately. "The Marvel Family" #89 was the end of an era.

Meanwhile over in the UK, publishers L. Miller & Sons had long been releasing black and white reprints of the Captain Marvel stories, along with other Fawcett heroes. When their supply of new material began to dry up, they took the unusual step of creating their own character with writer Mick Anglo. "Marvelman" was...let's call it "inspired"... by the alter-ego of Billy Batson - except here reporter Micky Moran was contacted by an "astrophysicist" and granted powers based on nuclear energy rather than magic (his special word was "Kimota" which is atomic spelled backwards). Otherwise the similarities with Captain Marvel were numerous, even down to a pair of teenage sidekicks (Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman) and an evil buck-toothed nemesis in Doctor Emil Gargunza.

The two existing L.Miller & Sons titles were renamed to reflect the new stand-ins and were published weekly for an astonishing 346 issues each. They were joined by the monthly "Marvelman Family" and various annuals - and sales outstripped those of the Captain Marvel reprints at some stages. Then in 1959 the law changed and full colour American comics could be imported to the UK for the first time. Unable to complete with their flashier rivals, Miller's switched everything to monthly reprints and limped along until 1963 when they had to file for bankruptcy.

(Of course all good comics fans know what happened to 'Marvelman' when he was eventually resurrected in the pages of "Warrior" magazine in 1985, by some guy called Alan Moore - but that *definitely* is a story for another day),

Captain Marvel might have been off the shelves in the USA, but fans of the original material kept his name alive by trading the hard to find back issues. C.C. Beck moved into commercial art, but Otto Binder stayed in comics and his period in charge of Superman was one of the most fertile in terms of new ideas. Binder introduced Supergirl, Braniac, the Phantom Zone, the Fortress of Solitude, Krypto the Super-Dog, the bottle city of Kandor and the Legion of Super-heroes - all of which reflected many of the concepts from the 'Marvel Family' . Most of my earliest memories of reading Superman stories are from UK reprints of Binder's classic work.

Time marched on and superheroes began to regain their lost popularity. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionised things with the debut of the Fantastic Four and their soap opera plotlines and cosmic adventures. By the mid-60s many of the Golden Age characters were revived (often in updated forms) - but due to Fawcett's settlement with DC, Captain Marvel could not be one of them. His legacy was still being felt though - whether it was via several somewhat poorly conceived and frankly weird "revivals" from Binder and C.C. Beck ("Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer" lasted just three issues), in the lines of Beatles lyrics on "The White Album" or even in the jump-suited stage presence of Elvis which was apparently based on Captain Marvel Jr.

Even though Fawcett couldn't use the name, that didn't stop another publisher from trying their luck. Rip off merchants “M.F. Enterprises” put out a book in 1966 called "Captain Marvel", but their version was an android from another planet who could separate his arms, legs and head from his body to fight by themselves by yelling “Split!”and reform with the word “Xam!”. He battled villains such as “Plastic Man,” “Dr. Fate” and “Doctor Doom.”. Copyright (and good comics) meant nothing to owner Myron Fass. Needless to say Marvel and DC were not best pleased and this version did not last long. But a precedent had been set and shortly thereafter Marvel Comics got the legal rights to use the name "Captain Marvel" and created the famous Kree warrior Mar-Vell. He starred in his own book for much of the 70s, including a well-regarded run by Jim Starlin that introduced the villain Thanos, before being famously killed off in 1982. Marvel still have a character called Captain Marvel to this day - and they are not letting go of *that* copyright.

By the early 1970s, the original Captain Marvel had been gone from the newsstands for two decades. But DC itself was facing a challenge, as it's Silver Age revamps were themselves beginning to feel old fashioned and out of touch. Part of their response was to engage talents such as Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams to revitalise old favourites like Batman, or woo Jack Kirby aware from Marvel to bring his magic touch to new concepts such as the "Fourth World" books or "The Demon". But another string to their bow was to look at their former publishing competitor.

Since Fawcett couldn't publish a Captain Marvel comic under the terms of the legal agreement, DC offered to licence the hero and publish it themselves (eventually they bought the rights completely). But of course Marvel Comics now owned the trademark to the name, so the comic that debuted in 1972 to much interest was therefore titled "Shazam!: The World's Mightiest Mortal".

The first issue revealed Captain Marvel, Mary, Junior and most of the supporting cast (including the evil Doctor Sivana) had been trapped in "suspendium" for 20 years - neatly explaining away their absence and bringing them into the modern world. Shortly thereafter it was revealed that both the evil worm Mr Mind and the 5,000 year old Black Adam had survived their original fates and it was time for a whole new raft of adventures.

But DC thought that their real coup was getting the legendary C.C. Beck to draw the new stories alongside reprints of older Fawcett tales. It certainly garnered them lots of publicity at the time, but problems soon developed. The fun retro stories were a hit with younger readers and old Cap fans but seemed out of place in the more gritty 1970s. It was proving difficult to capture the lightning in a bottle of 20 years previous. Beck was also by this point a notorious curmudgeon, disillusioned with modern comics, and he began to rewrite scripts without the knowledge of his collaborators or editor, creating a degree of tension. With sales in decline, things reached crisis point when Beck refused to draw the script for issue ten. DC had enough and fired him.

With Beck gone, DC hired Kurt Schaffenberger, a longtime Fawcett and Superman artist to continue working in the same vein, along with a plethora of other artists for short stints. But sticking to the storytelling approach of the 40s and 50s wasn't working despite the huge efforts on everyone's part. The title needed something different. In the very last issue, along came Don Newton, a life-long fan of the character and a friend of C.C. Beck. His style combined a more modern, realistic look for Captain Marvel alongside the humorous scripts. Newton went on to illustrate a further thirty Marvel stories in the pages of the "World's Finest" comic. Many regarded his run as a highlight. Beck (obviously) disagreed with the interpretation and the two men fell out.

Meanwhile in another medium, the Filmation TV studio produced a "Shazam!" TV series starring Michael Gray as Billy Batson, Jackson Bostwick (season one) and John Davey (seasons two and three) as Captain Marvel and Les Tremayne as new creation Mr. Mentor. Later on they added a new female superheroine named Isis as a second half hour show, and the two occasionally crossed over.. Despite its miniscule budget, the show's combination of non-violent action and moral storytelling was hugely popular, running from 1974 to 1976 and introduced a whole new generation to the Big Red Cheese. Unfortunately it never made it to the UK as far as I am aware, so I didn't get to see it, unlike their animated efforts based on "Star Trek" and "Tarzan",

By the time the TV series went off the air , Captain Marvel was definitely more of a known name and DC was intent on keeping him around even if he didn't have a comic of his own. In line with their 'multiverse' concept, the Marvel Family and all the heroes and villains around them lived on Earth-S. This meant that they were separate, yet could cross over with the 'main' DC universe when an interesting storyline arose. In 1978 fans got the showdown they had been looking for in the over-sized Treasury edition of "Superman vs. Shazam!", written by Gerry Conway with art by Rich Buckler. There was even a new Filmation animated series which this time was able to include many of the classic foes such as Back Adam and Mr. Mind, but it only lasted 13 episodes.

Finally we reach the 1980s, when I seriously started getting into US comics. But there was also "Warrior" magazine with that revamp of "Marvelman" by Alan Moore - and that's where I became aware of this hero called "Captain Marvel" for the first time, as an article explained the long convoluted history of Marvelman and where he came from. I was immediately intrigued as I had never read any of his previous adventures, and I started to seek out more information.

Then came 1985 and DC's massive 12-issue crossover event "Crisis on Infinite Earths", designed to streamline their superhero universe and merge all the different Earth's, including the one inhabited by Captain Marvel. Now the thing is, I never had any problem understanding the multiverse concept and the idea that differing versions of the same character could live on alternate words at different times, even dying. I loved the original Earth-2 with an older grey-haired Superman, a dead Batman, the World War II based All-Star Squadron, the Justice Society of America and their descendants Infinity Inc. It was a world that had a history and a weight to it. Just look at the "America vs. the Justice Society" mini-series to see this in action. All the multiple universe-shattering events that have come since and the attempts to retrofit DC's long history together have - despite some excellent comics -  just lost that unique flavor. Modern readers would, I am sure, quite happily accept distinct ranges of titles labeled "Earth-1", "Earth-2" and so on. Corporate synergy had got in the way of good storytelling. Sorry, bit of a rant there, but it's one of the things that makes me sad about the current era - well the post-Crisis / Zero Hour / Infinite Crisis / Final Crisis  / Flashpoint  / New-52 era anyway - lets see if "Rebirth" can reverse the trend.

So during "Crisis", Captain Marvel valiantly led the heroes of Earth-S against the forces of the Anti-Monitor. This was my first real exposure to the character, but it didn't really give me a sense of him or his world. There was too much else going on. Of course when the dust settled and there was only one DC Earth,  the legends history had been rewritten and he now had always existed on the same planet as Superman. They were firm friends and basically the same power level, although Marvel was not susceptible to magic like Supes, so was useful in those kind of fights...

Then following the 1986 John Byrne "Legends" mini-series, Marvel was inducted into the infamous Giffen and DeMatteis Justice League International. What's more, whereas previously Billy and the Captain had been two distinct personalities, now the adult hero retained the mindset and outlook of the young boy, as a contrast to the more serious and cynical members (of course *I* didn't know at the time that this wasn't what always happened when he transformed). As with most of that book, Marvel was played for laughs with his wide-eyed optimism earning him the nickname "Captain Whitebread", but I loved all of the incarnations of the JLI at this point so this was just one more "Bwaa-ha-ha".

At the same time as his appearances in JLI, veteran writers Roy and Dann Thomas with artist Tom Mandrake produced the "Shazam: A New Beginning" miniseries. This was a real attempt to bring Captain Marvel into the modern era with a more realistic feel. This version of his origin saw Billy Batson's initial transformation directly tied into Doctor Sivana and the revival of Black Adam. I remember buying this mini (along with pretty much all of DC's output at the time) and I've read that it sold well, but for me it didn't gel with the more upbeat hero I read about in JLI. I do like Tom Mandrake's art on other projects (he's perfect on "The Spectre" for example) but this just seemed *wrong* somehow, even with my limited knowledge of the characters history at the time. I didn't really want a Captain Marvel glowering out at me from the cover. Still, what do I know?

Following the revised origin story and a strip in "Action Comics Weekly" came...well, nothing (except for a guest appearance in the "War of the Gods" mini-series starring Wonder Woman). A planned ongoing series never materialized. Several false starts with different artists (including John Byrne) came and went and eventually Roy Thomas moved onto other things, perhaps a little disillusioned over the runaround he had been given on a property he had high hopes for.

So then, at long last, we come to the whole crux of this piece and writer / artist Jerry Ordways's take on the decades old superhero - "The Power of Shazam!". But before the ongoing series came the beautifully painted 96-page graphic novel. This gave another retelling of how Billy Batson became Captain Marvel with Ordway cherry-picking pieces from the stories of the past to weave them into a new tapestry.

This time the modern day reincarnation of Teth-Adam was directly responsible for the murder of Billy's parents while on an archeological dig and for the abduction of his sister Mary, under the instructions of tycoon Doctor Sivana. Meanwhile back in the retro-styled Fawcett City, Billy encountered the wizard Shazam and received his powers in much the same way as in the original Whiz Comics #2, although it was later revealed that the mysterious stranger that led him to the subway was in fact the ghost of his dead father, C.C Batson (a nice nod to the artist who gave so much to the original comics). The graphic novel left a furious Sivana penniless after Marvel's battles with Black Adam (who has his memories removed by the wizard), and vowing revenge. The stage was set....

The graphic novel was very successful, winning several fan awards and led to an ongoing series at last. I had enjoyed the story enormously, so was at the front of the queue when issue one appeared in my local comic shop. Ordway stayed on writing duties and provided stunning painted covers every month. He only did the occasional interior art, with most of the adventures being drawn by Peter Krause, inked by Dick Giordano or Mike Manley.

Right from the start Ordway began to reintroduce other elements of the Fawcett run into current DC continuity. The premiere issue had Uncle Dudley, the villain IBAC and Beautia Sivana, along with new creation Sinclair Batson, a wealthy property developer who wanted to transform Fawcett City. This was swiftly followed by the Arson Fiend, Captain Nazi, and of course Billy's sister Mary and Freddie Freeman. - alias Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. However there was a twist on these members of the Marvel Family. Mary now transformed into an adult and insisted on sharing the "Captain Marvel" name with her brother. She also wore a white costume to further distinguish herself. Meanwhile Freddie resented being called "Junior" all the time, so decided to rename himself "CM3" (which I personally thought was terrible). One further tweak was that there was only so much magical power available, which meant that the three heroes had to share, their strength diminishing each time another invoked their magic word.

Ordway was able to create his only little Fawcett corner of the DC Earth with all of these old, yet new heroes and villains. For those who had always been fans of the Big Red Cheese, it was clear that there was a huge love for the stories of the past in every page, even while updating some things to a more modern sensibility. For those (like me) who came to the series completely fresh, or with only a very limited exposure to the character, we were discovering a whole new universe full of wonder. The 90s in comics has often been defined as a period of grim and gritty violent heroes (and pouches - don't forget the pouches). "The Power of Shazam!" went against the grain and was a successful all-ages adventure book. I'm not down on the former type - I enjoy all types of comics - but the tales of Captain Marvel written by Jerry Ordway were something pretty special. Maybe it was the retro feel of things, or that it harkened back to my childhood memories of discovering superheroes for the first time (perhaps even those early Otto Binder Superman stories I mentioned). What ever the reason, the comic was soon one of my favourites ever month.

Within the first twelve months, Black Adam was let loose on the world once more. The persona and history developed for him, as a more noble anti-hero, is one that has stayed the test of time and been incorporated  into subsequent iterations. However as he was also writing some of the Superman books at this point, Ordway incorporated the demonic villains Lady Blaze and Lord Satanus from those comics into the Captain Marvel mythology. Blaze became the one who had corrupted Black Adam and she and Satanus were revealed to be the illegitimate children of the wizard Shazam.

In quick succession the writer introduced more Fawcett friends - Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible and Princess Taia, Spy Smasher, Minute-Man, Mr. Scarlet - they all became part of the new Marvel roster. In the second year the malicious worm from Venus, Mr. Mind reappeared, teamed up once again with Dr. Sivana. Ordway even found a way to make 1940s oddities such as Tawky Tawny (a stuffed toy tiger that walks and talks like a man) and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny work in a more modern context and had a guest appearance from the rip-off "Captain Marvel" from M.F. Enterprises, complete with splitting limbs!

All told the series lasted an impressive 47 issues and an annual, plus a #1,000,000 to tie in with the "DC One Million" event - and that was part of the problem that some believe led to the comics eventual cancellation. Instead of being allowed to mature and grow in the sandbox Ordway had lovingly created in the first couple of years, the title was increasingly dragged into the multitude of DC universe spanning events that were incredibly prevalent at the time. "Final Night", "Genesis", "Underworld Unleashed"  - you name it, Captain Marvel, as one of the most powerful heroes in DC's pantheon, was pulled into it. Just as things were building nicely in their own little corner in Fawcett City, along came a company wide cross-over to derail things - at least that's how some saw it. I'm not sure that for me it was quite that bad, but it's true that DC did have a bit of event madness going on at the time.

That's not to say that Jerry Ordway didn't make the very best of the events he found mandated on him by the wider DC universe. Nor that Captain Marvel couldn't cross-over with other DC characters successfully. One of the best of these was the four-part "Lightning & Stars" which saw Marvel meet the James Robinson version of Starman in a story that spanned both titles. Both Robinson and Ordway clearly had a love of the huge history of  the comics medium and liked to try and make all of the ill-fitting pieces of their heroes continuity work together, so it really was an excellent match.

All in all it was not a bad run to last for four years in a marketplace dominated by darker, more intense comics and storylines. Many creators would sell all their worldly possessions for a series to last that long in the 21st Century. "The Power of Shazam!" showed that you could make a Golden Age flavoured hero work and it certainly raised Captain Marvel's profile higher than it had been for years. Jerry Ordway and his collaborators should be rightly proud of what they accomplished.

After the series cancellation, it was really superstar artist Alex Ross who became the keeper of the flame of Captain Marvel, who had a large role in the universally praised "Kingdom Come" miniseries Ross did with Mark Waid, which he then followed up in 2000 with the oversized graphic novel "Power of Hope" written by Paul Dini. Marvel also had a big presence in the 12-issue "Justice" mini series, again by Ross, Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite published between 2005 and 2007..

But in the 21st century it seems that DC can't settle on a definitive take on the Marvel Family. They have been retooled and re-tweaked time and time again either in the pages of "Infinite Crisis" or "The Trials of Shazam" and Mary Marvel was even turned evil for a while in "Final Crisis". With the relaunch of the "New 52" a lengthy backup tale in "Justice League" by Geoff Johns (who I normally rate as a very good writer) and Gary Frank redefined things yet again, thins time far more serious and flawed with his powers more rooted in fantasy and magic - and with Captain Marvel's name seemingly permanently changed to "Shazam". Hmmm, I'm still not sure about that one, even if it probably is how most people in the street know him by now. We've yet to see how this will pan out in DC's "Rebirth" continuity. Hopefully some of the fun and optimism will be let back in.

There have been alternate versions aplenty such as in Grant Morrison's "Thunderworld" or the "Forever Evil" crossover. "Bone" creator Jeff Smith's mini "Monster Society of Evil" was a more traditional take returning Billy and his alternate to having separate personalities. Following this lead was the young reader orientated "Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!" between 2008 and 2010, drawn in a animation-influenced style by Mike Kunkel and others.

It's been a long, long road for good old Captain Marvel from his 1940s origins as a Superman analogy and he is definitely not going away. As good (and bad) some of these other comics have been, I still think that beyond the original Golden Age tales, Jerry Ordway's take on the Fawcett heroes is the definitive one. Maybe I'm old fashioned and stick with the things I loved 20 years ago. Maybe I don't like change (I'm sure that the 2010s version will get some new readers interested in the past stories too). Or maybe I just like a hero that is pure of heart, full of wonder and where good always triumphs over evil with a smile.


 Honourable mentions:
  • Judge Dredd - Hang on...shouldn't this have been the premier choice? After all it does star the most famous character from my favourite British comic of the last 40 years. Surely this would be my most treasured memory from 1995? A valid point, but I still couldn't bring myself to elevate this film higher than a footnote - there is just too much wrong with it. It tries very hard and there are some excellent elements - the CGI vistas of Mega-City One, the depiction of the Angel Gang, the Hammerstein war robot (even if he really shouldn't be there), but the bad outways the good. Stallone obviously thought he was making some kind of comedy (Rob Schneider doesn't help either). Sly's delivery is almost unintelligible, the script is dull as dishwater and don't even get me started on the decision to remove Dredd's helmet. It's a huge chance squandered and killed the idea of Dredd as a movie possibility for nigh on twenty years. There is an excellent attempt at a fan edit out on the interweb, but there are only so many ways you can polish a turd...
  • You Don't Know Jack - A multiple choice trivia quiz video game that's often genuinely funny, I first came across "YDKJ" via a freebie disc given away with a games review magazine. Billed as the quiz "where high culture and pop culture collide", players get to choose categories from humourous titles that have a (sometimes obscure) connection to the topic. The first player to "buzz in" with the correct answer from the choices given wins the money on offer. Get it wrong and they lose that amount of funds. The winner is obviously whoever has the most cash at the end of the 7 or 21 question rounds, but it's the irreverent and often silly questions, sarcastic commentary from the games host and especially the spoof adverts and phony news stories interspersed between games that make it all so much fun. Since the original there have been over 20 different iterations or spin-off's - each with their own unique set of questions  and take on the quiz show format. One game of this is never enough...
  • SFX Magazine - Wandering through the local shopping centre with my then fiancee, I happened upon a lurid pink logo on a magazine in a newsagents window, accompanied by a picture of Lori Petty as "Tank Girl". The strapline proclaimed it to be "the hot new science fiction magazine", so it obviously appealed to my personal interests and I was interested enough to pick up a copy. Filled with news, interviews, opinions and reviews of movies, DVD releases, books, comics and assorted other tat, those early issues were a joy to read. Remember, the internet was out of reach of most ordinary folk at this point and there were only a handful of other sources for this kind of niche information ("Starburst" being one, but for some reason I can't explain I never got into it) Twenty-two years later "SFX" is still going strong, what was once seen as cult is now mainstream and I have bought every issue - although most were consigned to a skip when I moved house around a decade ago (sob). I've been introduced to dozens of new authors, hundreds of TV shows and films I may not otherwise have touched and yes,  I know that everything is at our fingertips now on the web, but there is something special about reading a physical magazine. I don't think I can ever abandon it for the digital world. Long may it continue.
  • Waterworld - Yes it went wildly over budget, was a nightmare to film and certain accounts paint Kevin Costner as a micro-managing egomaniac who forced director Kevin Reynolds to leave, but I'd like to argue that critics had the knives out for this film before it was even released and in reality it's actually an enjoyable Mad-Max-esque post apocalyptic action adventure with an intriguing premise, impressive sets and decent acting. Sure it has flaws, but it's no where near as bad as some people make out and thanks to DVD it's started to be reassessed in more recent years. The extended version was also a huge step in the right direction, but if you want the best version of "Waterworld", seek out the "Ulysses Cut". 
  • Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) - The first book in Philip Pullman's celebrated "His Dark Materials" trilogy.mixes parallel worlds, animal embodiment's of people's souls, witches, armoured polar bears and a thinly veiled version of the Catholic Church. As 'young adult' novels go, it definitely veers more towards the older end of the spectrum and it's rare to see an fantasy story tackle such weighty philosophical themes as destiny, free will, the suppression of knowledge by organised religion, and the differences between innocence and experience. As a whole the trilogy is a masterpiece,
  • Astro City - Kurt Busiek's creator owned title set primarily around the titular fictional metropolis is probably one of the greatest superhero universes of the last three decades. Busiek took the ground level themes he developed on the "Marvels" miniseries and applied them to his own creations - a huge cast of characters, some of which have only appeared in the background for years only to suddenly be catapulted into the spotlight. Stories are less likely to be about the latest universe shattering event and more about the small things - a date between two ultra-powerful beings, two brothers in the lower echelons of heroes, the decades long "friendship" between a hero and a villain, a bystanders attempts to come to terms with having being held hostage, etc , etc. Everything comes across as being meticulously planned (even though I'm sure it's not) and is superbly illustrated by Brent Anderson with mega-star Alex Ross on covers and character designs. Above all the absolute love for the medium and the heroes that form it's backbone shines through. 
  • Sabriel - So after discovering Philip Pullman, I started to take a closer look at other 'young adult' novelists, and this title by Australian Garth Nix leapt out at me. Like many of his contemporaries, Nix takes a time worn concept - in this case non-magical and magical countries separated by a barrier and a protagonist flirting with destiny - and spins something truly new out of it. When her father is lost, Sabriel becomes the next  Abhorsen, able to cross into the realm of Death and quieten the restless dead through the power of necromancy and the use of her bells. However she also faces the menace of  Kerrigor, who wants to destroy the 'Charter' that keeps wild free magic from corrupting both her Old Kingdom and the world of Ancelstierre on the other side of the wall. It's a great story full of surprises, but for me it's Nix's development of the history of his world and its system of magic that really shines here.

  • Richard III - There have been a lot of great versions of the Shakespeare play concerning the rise and fall of the machiavellian Richard Plantagenet, but I'd put this one starring Sir Ian McKellan at the very top. Set in a fascist version of 1930s Britain, the film further ramps up the disturbing overtones by the use of various elements of the Nazi Third Reich. This coupled with the use of real buildings instead of sets (a then derelict Battersea Power Station for one) adds another note of disturbing realism to the whole project. McKellan is, as one would expect, truly magnificent in the lead role, his Richard relishing in being the villain of the piece as he schemes his way to power. The screenplay (which Ian adapted himself from the previous 1990 stage production he also starred in) makes some bold visual choices with the interpretation of the text. Richard often speaks directly to the camera, and my favourite is when the famous "winter of discontent" speech begins with a Nazi-like rally but ends with him plotting to himself while peeing in a dilapidated gents toilet! Ably supported by, amongst others, Robert Downey Jr, Nigel Hawthorne and Kristen Scott Thomas, this really is a mesmerising piece that I keep returning to.
  • Assassin's Apprentice - When Megan Lindholm released her first novel as "Robin Hobb", few could have imagined that the story she began here would grow to cover sixteen different novels across more than twenty years in both real and fictional time and become one of the best-loved fantasy sequences of recent decades. This initial volume details the early life of FitzChivalry Farseer, a royal bastard who becomes an assassin and who's actions may one day decide the fate of the world. While one could argue that the fantasy setting appears fairly standard (although it expands hugely as subsequent trilogies add to the mythos), it's the characters that Hobb creates that stick in the memory. There is real skill in making the reader care about the inhabitants of the Six Duchies and building and developing their relationships - especially when the book is all told in the first person. The abiding friendship between Fitz and the mysterious 'Fool' is at the heart of the whole series and it's that core that keeps her legions of fans coming back for more.
  • Preacher- No look back at 1995 would be complete without mentioning the infamous Garth Ennis Vertigo comic which introduced the world to Jesse Custer, Tulip O' Hare, Cassidy the vampire and of course Arseface. When the reluctant minister is accidentally bonded with Genesis, a creature born from the forbidden union between a demon and an angel, it kick starts a quest to find God and make him accountable for his neglect of humanity. What follows is shockingly violent and filled with an array of hideous grotesques - yet also manages to take in the legends of the American West, individual morality and the limits of friendship and love. The late great Steve Dillon illustrates every page of the main series and there is almost no one better at being able to portray intimate emotions playing across a characters face followed by scenes of sometimes disgusting depravity. All this plus some of the most beautiful covers ever from Glenn Fabry. I hope the current TV series is hugely popular so that more people discover this classic.

  • The Baker's Boy - one final new fantasy novel for this year and it's the first of the "Book of Words" trilogy by Julie "J.V". Jones. It seems to be the usual tale of a pair of familiar-ish characters - a downtrodden servant boy who finds a power awakening inside him and a princess who wants to escape the dull life planned for her. But traditional doesn't have to mean bad and Jones puts enough twists and turns and political machinations into her plots to keep things interesting, telling the story from multiple points of view using both major and minor characters. She has particular skill with her villains - the sorcerous chancellor Baralis being the highlight for me, but the gluttonous Archbishop Tavalisk is also a lot of fun. I remember speeding through the complete trilogy very quickly. Sadly it appears that personal difficulties have meant a longer and longer gap between subsequent novels, and Jones's follow-up series "Sword Of Shadows" remains unfinished with nothing new since 2010. Hopefully her situation improves and she feels capable of producing more work of the quality of her debut.