Sunday, September 25, 2016

X-Ray spex don't do shit

It took me a long, long time to realise that the advertisements in my comic books were lying to me about everything.

Sometimes I wish I was still that ignorant, and that those x-ray spex really did work, and that you really did get a whole army in a footlocker.

Still, once you get past the musty stench of bronze-age comics, the ads are priceless. They almost always get lost for the reprints, cut out to keep the page count down, and certainly not important enough to worry about now.

But some of the biggest thrills I get from old comics is the adverts. Even another crushingly dull 1970s Flash comic has some exciting and propositioning marketing going on inside, and it only took me a couple of decades before I realised they were pretty much all full of shit.

They looked so pretty and some of them felt like ghosts, and some of them were lovely pieces of art on their own merits, but were almost all lies.

There was always a  history of bullshit to advertisements in comic books. Everybody knew comics were only for dumb kids and mental defectives, so you could get away with selling them any old crap.

The x-ray specs were the biggest tease, with tiny ads offering the possibility of seeing the bones in your hand (the more sordid use of such an ability never occurred to me as a kid, but became painfully obvious as I grew into a dorky adolescent), only to be cheap little plastic and cardboard things that produced a minor optical effect. Which is probably just as well, since we'd probably have a generation of people whose faces were falling off from eye cancer if real x-rays were involved.

It was a history of cheap gags and rip offs, dollar-making machines that seemed like the answer to all my financial woes when I was eight, and produced bitter disappoint when I discovered it was all a sleight of hand trick, or Charles Atlas promising you that could beat up people who kicked sand in your face, with the astounding observation that exercise may make you stronger.

It all reached a high water mark of bullshit with the goddamned sea monkeys, which are just a buch of microscopic bugs. There is still something intriguing about the way these tiny little bastards can sit there in suspended animation, and spring into life when introduced to water, but none of them are wearing any goddamned bows in their hair.

By the 1970s, the biggest rip-offs in advertising lies were the ads for movies like Orca, Meteor and King Kong, where unnaturally talented artists made these cheap and flimsy films look like absolute goddamn epics, with towering monsters and total carnage.

Orca has a giant beast of a killer whale, which looked like it was devastating a whole bloody town, with a mushroom cloud of destruction blowing up behind the monster rips apart a boat, Meteor promised mega-destruction of a kind unparalleled in cinema, and an enormous, angry and thrusting King Kong stands astride the twin towers.

None of these films delivered on the promise of those paintings, but at least we have these great images still sitting on the page, even if they never came close to that kind of grandeur on screen.

Another great disappointment was the comics that promised armies of toy soldiers, for the low, low price of a couple of bucks.

And the ads were really gorgeous, with massive crowds of Roman Centurions or WW2 marines facing off against a giant enemy, with a list of a huge variety of cavalry, infantry, tanks, planes and artillery. You could stage entire campaigns with the number of toys that these footlockers promised.

I never even thought about actually getting them from overseas, because the US was a world away when I was a kid, and that was a relief when I found out in recent years that they were completely dogshit, and mainly just cardboard cutouts. Even entire armies could be pathetic.

I still held some hope that those bloody Hostess ads, which filled almost every superhero comic, would deliver, but then I had my first ever Twinkie from a store full of imported US junk food, and it was revolting, and I knew there was no way the Penguin would give up riches, freedom or revenge for a rubbery bun full of fake cream, or some gross chocolate muffin.  

It was astonishing how fucking many there were of these tiny, one-page morality tales, and some of them were quite well done, but the gastronomical delights they promised didn't actually taste much better than the paper the ads were printed upon.

The only ads that ever really delivered were the in-house beauties for other comic books, with tantalising covers for all the other titles DC and Marvel were putting out at the time.

These were the only ones that really delivered, even if I usually had a hell of a time actually finding the comics the publishers were boasting about. Even now, when I snap up cheap, tatty and wonderful old comics, it's the ads for other comics that stand out, and still inspire me to find more.

The ad game has changed a lot since those days, and not always for the better, especially when they interrupt the flow of the comic they're in (I genuinely got confused by Thor's sudden dramatic appearance in a recent Avengers comic, before realising it was just another ad), or when they're lacking even the basic charms of the Hostess one-pagers (all the DC comics I've seen recently have a shitty three-panel thing for Snickers bars that are ugly and clumsy, with the fading stench of a stale Twinkie).

People do have a higher bullshit detector, so the adver-lying has to be more subtle. It remains to be seen if the current crop will ever still match the utter brilliance of Jack Davis' ad for Spalding basketballs. I have no idea if the balls they were advertising were any good, but the way Dr J slams the basket, while Rick Barry stretches out for his '30-footer', is still wonderful.

Sometimes the movies and toys were complete ratshit, but the ads were goddamn gorgeous.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

2000ad: Back to covers from the future

Last year, this blog took an unnecessarily snide and sneering look at the recent covers for 2000ad. While the comic remains my favourite piece of entertainment ever, the covers were getting sludgy and drab, sitting on the shelves of my local newsagent like a damp slab of moss.

But to give credit where it's due, things have been looking a lot more fabulous lately.

In the past six months, there have been some scorching covers on the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, with dynamic design and eye-catching colour work. Even as the comic approaches its 2000th issue, it can still stand out and produce a fresh, fascinating face.

There is still the odd washed out piece of blue-grey-green sludge, with characters milling about uselessly, but there is also lots of really nice work.

Even old hands like Simon Davis has been producing some of the best covers of his 2000ad career with his current Slaine run, with art that is full of brutal efficiency and huge slabs of paint -

- while Tom Foster brings the unashamedly Bolland classicism to his covers -

Things do get dark sometimes, but keeping it stark and simple, with striking spot colour, has paid off for artists like Paul Davidson and Jon Davis Hunt -

Judge Anderson remains one of the most popular cover stars of the comic - the harsh efficiency of the judge's life slamming nicely into the psychedelic swirls of her mind-bending powers. The character is pushing 60 in the comic, and has been struggling with the system for decades, but is as strong and sensitive as ever -

It's been a pretty strong run of covers all around. Nearly every week there is a lovely piece of art on the cover of the comic, like D'Israeli's thrusting Victorian/1970s spaceships, bursting off the pages of Scarlet Traces -

- or the classic bright, burned oranges of the always-wonderful Carlos Ezquerra's celebratory Prog 1977 -

- or some new McCarthy thrills (because the McCarthy Dredd is always good) - 

or some of Clint Langley's blood-red, metal-shearing ABC Warriors -

The stories beneath these covers are as rock-solid as ever, and Dredd in particular has been absolutely excellent lately. That much never changes.

But the face of the comic is always changing, and goes through highs and lows. It's been on a high lately as it builds to the big #2000, and it frequently has a beautiful face to gaze upon.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Adding it all to the list

Every day I have somebody telling me I should be watching some TV show or reading some book or comic, because it’s brilliant and will make my life better and it’s a goddamn crime I haven’t got around to it yet. But there isn’t time for everything, so like everybody else, I say I’ll add it to the list of things I’m planning to get to soon.

It’s not a metaphor. It’s an actual list of books, movies, TV and comics I want to get stuck into next, once I’ve finished watching and reading the things I’m currently on. It’s usually got a dozen items on it. And this is it, as it stands right now.

1. Read Nightmare Movies

I’ve read Kim Newman’s typically encyclopedic book about modern  horror films half a dozen times since I first found a fading copy in the Dunedin library in the early nineties, and I even have three different versions of the thing, from three different publishers. But I’ve only got through the most recent 600-page behemoth, published in 2009, the one time, soon after it came out, and I'm keen to get through it again.

Newman's film writing is always concise, knowledgeable and witty as hell, so it'll take me less than a week to get through it, even though it’s fucking massive. Although, I’ve already got the first couple of chapters, and I keep getting distracted to see if some of the obscure shit he is talking about is on YouTube, so I can add it to the bottom of this list.

And a lot of it is! Weird, barely professional Euro-horror from the seventies is dead easy to find now, and in far better quality than the 10-generation video dub I would have killed for 20 years ago. What a world.

2. Watch the latest season of Ray Donovan

I always like the bit where Ray, after hours and hours and hours of trying to be reasonable, cracks when they threaten his family and kills every motherfucker in his way.

I also love it whenever Terry gets a rare happy moment, and the whole world shines.

3. Get through all these bloody library books.

I somehow got more than 40 hardcovers and trade paperbacks out from the library at once. There’s the usual catch-up with things like the latest Wolverine and Batman and Spider-Man comics, but all those Secret Wars spin-offs that Marvel put out have all been dumped on the shelves at once.

They’re actually fairly addictive, because they’re all only four or five  issues long, and are pretty simple little stories, with some lovely art. I have no idea how it all ties together, and I spend way too long wondering how pop culture works in this patchwork world, or how many versions of the same character there on this same planet, but it’s best not to think about it too hard.

It'll probably only take me a bit longer to get through giant book Drawn and Quarterly put out to celebrate their 25th anniversary, which I also just got from the library, but it promises to be way more rewarding.

4. Read BPRD. All of it.

I wanted to burn through every issue of BPRD I had before Hell On Earth wraps up, (and to get the taste of all those weightless Secret Wars comics out of my mouth), but that's a huge goddamn pile. And I gotta include all the side-things like the 1940s issues, or the Frankenstein or Sledgehammer 44, and if I'm doing that, I might as well get through the Hellboy as well, and suddenly it's a massive goddamn pile.

It's all so beautiful, but it comes in such huge portions.

5. Watch Hap and Leonard

I had no idea this was even a thing until it popped up on the TV a few weeks ago, and I’ve never seen any reviews or anything, and I’m sure there are much, much better shows I could be watching soon, but shitfire, Joe R Lansdale's work is always all right by me.

6. Catch up with the movies on the magic box under the telly

There are a couple of dozen movies on the DVR there - recent movies I haven't seen yet like the latest Paranormal Activity, Black Mass, the three latest dumb Will Ferrall comedies, and things I'm watching again, like all six original Star Trek movies, The Martian and Creed.

I know none of these films I’m seeing for the first time are particularly great, which is why it’s taken so long to get to them, but how the hell am I ever going to be able to sneer at them if I haven’t actually seen them?

7. Do a prog slog

I really need to give the last decade of 2000ad a good re-read through, and firm up some opinions on some of the comic's recent serials, but it's still like 500 comics to get through.

That’s only 16,000 pages or so.

And I thought BPRD was bad….

8. Watch all that shit that people tell me will be good for me, like Mr Robot or Stranger Things or The Night Off…, but there are loads of contrary opinions and I don’t know where to start, or whether I should even bother starting, and there is something new every day and SO MUCH good stuff.

This part of the list is a large one, and the one that is constantly growing as more and more people tell me what I should be watching.

There is a whole sublist of these shows, but it’s like a hundred programmes long. We’re getting into the realm of ‘might not actually get around to’ on the list now.

9. Watch all the Doctor Whos

I was making great progress on a rewatch of every single Doctor Who episode recently starting with the Hartnell, and then I got bogged down in some of the horrifically unwatchable reconstructed episodes. I’ve been stuck on episode four of The Ice Warriors since March.

So when one of the local TV stations started playing all the modern episodes, with a new episode every day, I cheated and started watching them again instead.

Maybe by the time I get back to the old stuff, they will have done more of the animated reconstructions, like the shiny new Power of the Daleks release, but it's not like anybody is going to be in a rush to one for something like the Space Pirates.

10. Read all the Ellroy books again

I read Perfida, the latest Ellroy doorstop, last year. It's the start of a whole new series of books by the razor-sharp author, but ties into the other series he's done, in quite significant ways.

But I haven't read the early books in his LA Quartet for years now, so I didn't get most of the references or in-jokes. Might be worth going through the whole series again, and if I'm going to do that, it's worth giving the American Tabloid series a go again, and wonder why they still haven't made a TV show out of it.

11. Read old Empires

When there is absolutely nothing else at hand to read in the house, I read old Empire movie magazines.

I’ve got just about every issue, and I’ve been trawling through them on and off for months now, and even though I skim most of the breathless preview articles for films we all now are shit, I’m still only up to the late nineties. At this rate, I should be caught up to the current issues by around 2022.

12. All the music in the world

I just want to listen to all the music in the world, in every genre and with every artist, and figure out what I’m missing. That shouldn’t be too hard.

13. All that horror that Kim Newman was talking about

I mean, I know it will probably be an interesting thing to watch, it’s not like I’m actually in a rush to see Lèvres de Sang, you know?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Friday, September 9, 2016

A week of recycling: Boldly going forward

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was just on the telly, and it's still a cracking movie, with some of the best editing in the entire series, but the bit where Spock dies still gets me right there.

Star Trekking (Across My Universe)
Originally posted April 2, 2013
There are a lot of good films that I’m looking forward to in 2013, from esoteric arthouse nonsense to big budget blockbusting bullshit, but there is undoubtedly one movie I’m craving to see more than any other – the new Star Trek.

My love of all things Trek has its up and downs over the years. There have been periods when I’ve been ultra-fascinated with that whole universe, and other times I couldn’t even be bothered to watch entire series.

Right now, I’m on a high from the new movie coming out, and because I’ve been re-watching selected bursts of the Next Generation over the past few weeks. It’s a love that can last a long, long time, but it doesn’t last forever.

I didn’t exist when the original series was on television, which is a pretty good excuse for not being into it at that stage, although I can’t remember a time when Star Trek wasn’t being repeated on TV screens. And I was only four when the first motion picture came out, and I never got to see that until years and years later (I did have some Kirk, Spock and Ilia action figures from the first film and, against all odds, I still all have in one piece, more than three decades later. They probably only survived because when I was a kid, I thought the Star Wars figures were waaaay cooler.)

But I was seven when the Wrath of Khan came out, so I was primed for it. It was the first film I ever took a girl on a date to, and I can’t remember her name (Angela? Lisa?), but I still remember my excitement at seeing the film on the big screen at the State Theatre in Timaru, that long-ago Saturday afternoon.

I still think it’s the best Trek film by far – it certainly has the greatest score of any of them (which I’m listening to on YouTube right this second), the editing in the action scenes is still breathtaking, I love the timeframe fake-out and the Kobiyahi Maru cheating, and I still bawl like a little girl when Spock stands up in the radiation room and straightens his uniform, and the way Shatner chokes on his words during the funeral, even though I know it all turns out okay.

And even though nothing has ever matched that original experience of that first date, I’ve still seen all the Trek films at the cinema, including the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Sometimes I had to go to elaborate lengths to see them – I had to literally beg my big sister to take me to see The Voyage Home, and I had to hike more than 20 kays to see Star Trek VI – and sometimes it totally wasn’t worth it. I still remember trying to justify the Final Frontier to a dubious cousin after we walked out of the cinema, and all I could come up with was that the bit where the shuttle jumped on board the ship was pretty sharp.

But even though I roughly adhere to the general idea that the odd-numbered ones were the rubbish, I still enjoyed them all, even number five. There was always something about that cast, in that world, racing around the universe to save worlds and to rescue their best mates, beating all the odds to save the day. 

The films could be slow, and all of them still have their cringe-worthy moments when you realise these guys are getting just a bit old for this shit. But each of them had brilliant parts – Spock in his spacesuit, blasting forward into the unknown; the theft of the Enterprise, and its necessary sacrifice; the crew’s literalism bouncing up against a thoroughly ironic modern-day San Francisco.

The Undiscovered Country is my second favourite of all of them, and makes me despair Nicholas Meyer didn’t do more, but is a lovely send-off, giving everybody something to do, and it’s Shatner’s best Kirk performance of all of them, from the nakedly ugly hatred of the Klingons at the start, to his old man resignation on the prison planet, right up to his single best delivery of ‘Fire!’ in the entire series.

I was still buzzing from the last original crew movie when I got into the Next Generation, and again, Star Trek was tied to a big personal first in my life – the first proper thing I bought with my first ever proper paycheque was a fancy TV aerial, because the Next Generation was switching to a channel that didn’t broadcast in our part of the country.

That aerial was shit, but I still managed to see every Next Generation episode that screened after that, if I was willing to put up with a shedload of static. A lot of the Next Generation episodes don’t hold up well – especially all the touchy-feely emoting and the dubious attempts at outright humour – but the series could still be wonderful. Patrick Stewart was always giving goofy stories unexpected gravitas, and was often strikingly vunerable, and the supporting cast of solid, unspectacular actors could also prove unexpectedly interesting at various times.

The stories were often formulaic, but every now and then, there would be a perfect little slice of Star Trek, like the first time the Borg came calling, or the episode where Picard lives out a whole life as an average man on a faraway planet, or any of episodes that got up to time-travel shenanigans. The final episode – which I watched in the first flat I moved into, two weeks after leaving home - included many of the elements that made the series so worthwhile, and the catharsis of seeing Picard finally settled down to play cards with his friends was earned.

When it wrapped up, there were diminishing returns afterwards. Deep Space Nine managed to remain relatively interesting by becoming a war story, but I only managed a couple of seasons of Voyager, and by the time Enterprise came out, the whole thing was trapped in inert and boring formula, and I didn’t even make it through the first season. I thought my love for Trek had completely atrophied.

It hadn’t. It was just lying dormant. Like Spock on the Genesis planet.

I know a lot of Trekkies were shattered by the JJ Abrams reboot, seeing it as a travesty that feeds off the original concept like a vampire, but screw those guys. I thought the new film was fucking excellent.

Sucessful reinvention of 20th century entertainment icons for the 21st century often involves going right back to the original concept, and telling those kind of stories with a modern sensibility. It’s how Bond managed to stay fresh after fifty years, and how superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman remain phenomenally successful at the box office.

I loved the sexy swagger and the shiny new tech. I loved the way the actors channelled the original cast, but all brought something on their own, and the way the film still found room for the magnificent Leonard Nimoy (the bit where he recognises Kirk on the ice planet is only moving because of Nimoy’s performamce).

Needless to say, I’m looking forward greatly to the second film in this series, especially when I’ve half-convinced myself that they’re going to invert things and kill off Kirk, instead of Spock, in this one.

Even some of the innumerable Star Trek spin-offs led to short-lived obsessions. I actually thought the terrible Star Trekking song by the Firm was the greatest tune in history at one point, and I still know all the words, and… Oh bollocks, I’m going to have to listen to it again:

Outside that, I never really got into the novels - out of the hundreds produced, I probably only got through about a dozen of them, and most of those were by Peter David. But there were periodic love affairs with the comic adaptations.

Again, I was too young for the Marvel series that came out of the first motion picture, but was the ideal age for the DC series in the eighties. I’m still slightly impressed by the way they worked around the tight continuity of the eighties films, but I also liked them on their own merits, especially when they had the lovely Tom Sutton art (he could never quite get the technology looking right, but his figurework and caricatures were excellent).

There was a terrific Mirror Universe saga at the end of the DC series’ first year, and some lovely work from that man David again at the very end of that whole volume which again shadowed an important note in my life – I remember buying the second to last issue of that series on the same day I first kissed a girl.

But, once again, any interest I had in the comic adaptions dried up by the time other companies took over the license, and I haven’t even glanced at any of IDW’s increasingly large body of Trek comics.

But maybe I’ll check out some more, because I’m feeling a fever for Star Trek again. There is a new movie coming up, and I’m feeling that urge again to check out strange new worlds, and new life, and new civilisations.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A week of recycling: These men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.

He's big and purple and likes to sit down.

Originally posted November 15, 2012

Like a lot of teenagers who wear too much black and brood too much about death, I had a fling with nihilism as a lifestyle choice. This belief in nothing was fun while it lasted, but only lasted about a week.

And like a lot of teenagers who wore too much black and spent too much time reading Marvel comic books, the first time I ever actually heard of the concept of nihilism was in a comic about Jim Starlin’s Thanos. And a love of this character has lasted a lot longer than a week.

I can not overstate how much I was blown away by Infinity Gauntlet #1 when it suddenly showed up on the comic shelf at Temuka Stationery in 1991, nestled between the expected issues of the deluxe Marvel Handbook and the Savage Sword of Conan.

A lot of that powerful impact was due to the fact that I’d never even heard of it, and had no idea it was coming. I was vaguely familiar with Warlock and Thanos from the few issues of the old seventies stuff I had seen, (and, somewhat ironically, their Marvel Handbook entries, usually in the ‘Book of the Dead’ section), but hadn’t been reading the Silver Surfer comic since the first couple of Englehart/Rogers issues. I also had no access to comic industry magazines, and there was certainly no internet. I got most of my upcoming series news from the Bullpen Bulletins and the subscription pages, and I had no idea the Infinity Gauntlet even existed until I saw #1..

But even though I knew nothing about, and even though it cost twice as much as a regular comic, I fell hard for the Infinity Gauntlet. There was something unusually moody in George Perez’s art, and Jim Starlin’s script skated a deft line between intense introspection and events on an unimaginably cosmic scale.

My tastes were a little less refined at this stage of my comic reading life – I’d never read any Crumb or Spiegelman or Clowes, and I still hadn’t even read Sandman or Watchmen. But the storytelling in the Infinity Gauntlet was so perfect, and full of such epic despair and larger-than-life characters.

Especially when it came to its main character, because this comic shows Thanos at his glorious, monstrous best.

After all, this is a character who wipes out half of all life in the universe with a snap of the fingers and a sly grin in Infinity Gauntlet #1. Using a scientist’s dedication and an artist’s improvisation, he has clawed his way to the very top of all things – as the absolute ruler of all reality, Thanos shows no remorse or pity as he bends the universe to his will.

Thanos is one of the great Marvel villains. He has the dispassionate cruelty of the Red Skull, the powerful and justified arrogance of Doctor Doom and Magneto’s unwillingness to fit neatly inside any ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ box. But while he shares these traits – and while he may be a thinly-veiled counterpart to Jack Kirby’s mighty Darkseid – Thanos is a unique character.

Because, unlike these other megalomaniacs, Thanos is not a personality built around a vivid design. While he often appears appropriately menacing, he still has a pretty goofy look – a stubbly chin is Marvel Generic Alien Feature #4 – and his blue and gold outfit is an absolutely average 1970s costume.

Thanos’ charms aren’t in his looks, it’s in his smarts, in the way he is a bit more clever and devious than anybody else seeking to stop him. In the Gauntlet prelude series Thanos Quest – which I only finally got to read last month when Marvel put out a welcomed reprint – he beats the oldest beings in the universe with guile and sophistication. He identifies a source of untapped power, and nothing in the universe can stop him from getting there.

He’s also quite polite and his brutal honesty is often funny. He wouldn’t destroy you if you had nothing to do with him, unless it suited his purpose, and then he’d wipe out all of existence, without a second thought.

(There is a solar eclipse happening right now outside, as I write these words. The light is ALL WRONG, with dark blue skies and sharp shadows on everything. It’s weirdly fitting to be thinking about Thanos in these circumstances.)

Despite his (well-earned) reputation as the ultimate nihilist, Thanos does always have goals, and always believes in something, even if it is just his own superiority. He is a big softie at heart, literally in love with Death, and willing to do anything for a female anthropomorphic representation of her.

And when he couldn’t please her, Thanos moved on. His life has become dedicated to the collection of knowledge – something that would certainly be a worthy goal if innocent people didn’t keep getting mowed down in his quest.

The fact that Thanos usually has clear and concise goals is impressive enough, but he also manages to actually achieve them. He does climb to the top of reality and becomes the supreme being. Of course, the great dichotomy of Thanos is that he craves ultimate power, and is good enough to attain it over and over again, only to lose it, usually due to his own actions.

This is what keeps him from ever being a total hero or villain – Thanos is always his own worst enemy.

The appearance of Thanos in the credits of The Avengers was a good sign that the film series was taking off into a cosmic arena, which has always been one of Marvel comic’s core strengths. Out there, among the stars, there have been some wonderful Marvel stories – doses of brilliance in the Guardians of The Galaxy or Silver Surfer or Warlock.

Still, I’d be surprised if 10 per cent of the people who saw The Avengers recognised the character (although there is a good 20 per cent who will claim they did recognise him all along, after some quick wiki-work). A two-second glimpse in a big Hollywood blockbuster exposed the character to a bigger audience than 40 years of comics.

That kind of attention is bound to mess up the character somehow. It always does. But I don’t mind, because I got mine. The most obvious benefit to me from all this renewed attention is that I finally got that Thanos Quest comic, which I’ve been after ever since I read the first issue of the Infinity Gauntlet, all those years ago, and had no fucking idea what was going on, but knew I wanted more.

And even though that obsession with all things Thanos died out two issues into the Infinity War, I always look forward to more Thanos comics. A bit of nihilism can be all right, in small doses.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A week of recycling: Be seeing you

I like to think I'm Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, but I'm really Woody Allen in Casino Royale...

The Prisoner: Falling out of the world
Originally posted May 4, 2015

Every now and then, there comes a fictional character who can't be broken or compromised in any way. Somebody who will never go down, even when things get really, really weird. Someone with astonishing willpower and the drive to use it, somebody that you can't help but admire and want to emulate..

Somebody who will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.

Somebody like The Prisoner.  

The Prisoner was a 17-episode television show produced in Britain in the late 1960s. It starred Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, an ex-spy kidnapped and dumped in a trippy seaside prison. The system want to know why he resigned, and will resort to the most bizarre  methods to crack his resolve.

They trick to break him, and trick him, and cajole him into revealing his secrets. But he resists, fights, holds fast, maintains, and he beats them all.

It's a happily surreal serial, with anachronistic charm and genuine dread, tackling big issues of self and identity and resolve, while leaving crucial questions unanswered, and a climax that is deliberately mad and obtuse. It also featured some trampoline boxing.

It was McGoohan's show. He was fantastic as the unnamed lead character, refusing to be labelled as Number Six and standing firm against monolithic madness, and he wrote and directed the most pivotal episodes. The glory and shame is all his.

Fortunately, there is far more glory than shame. The Prisoner is arguably the greatest television show ever created - and sometimes I'll certainly argue it.

This I know: Sometime in the mid to late nineties, when I'm young and drunk and spending all my money on booze and comic books and giant cream buns, I convince myself that the last episode of The Prisoner is the greatest thing ever filmed. I watch it over and over and over again, night after night after night, until the dialogue is seared in my head.

I usually watch it when I'm a bit fucked up, because that's when things are really cooking. It was the prefect background for early evenings drinks, with the daft dialogue and mammoth subtexts firing up the head, and it was perfect for the end of the night when I got home, a blast of mad artistic energy after an evening at the pub.

This goes on for a couple of years, until the last episode is seared into my head. I love the previous sixteen chapters, but the climax is everything I look for in my fiction, and so much more.

It's the culmination of all the strangeness. In a last, desperate bid to break Number Six, they subject him to deep brainwashing and regression therapy, building him up again, and he still didn't break, and the system finally concedes to him.

Most of Fall Out sees the System hold a grand ceremony honouring his achievement. After gloriously vindicating the right of the individual to be individual, the assembly rises to him, and begs him to lead them, for he is the only true man there.

It's a strange metaphysical celebration of the self, while still something that is unreal, with biting dialogue that is sharply resonant without ever really making any sense. You don't have to know what a regrettable bullet is to have your attention drawn to it.

It's also an ode to rebellion, with acknowledgement of the revolution of youth, and McGoohan's approving smirk as he tells the young man standing in for all youth everywhere that he shouldn't knock yourself out,while also featuring the revolution of a member of the establishment turning upon itself. Leo McKern is marvellous as the career bureaucrat and former number two who finally gives the system he loved the stare, born again after literally breaking down during the failed regression plan. (The filming of the episode was reportedly so intense that McKern did actually have a breakdown, but he's back in fine form for the finale.)

And finally, it's about the triumph of Number Six, who finds out what happens when you beat the system and are given complete freedom - the system tries to bring you in, changing itself to suit your view. The ignored masses and political elite alike need him.

It's all a bit of a mindfuck, and just what I needed when I was 22 years old, and suffering the usual confusions about identity and self. McGoohan articulated all that existential messiness in a stylish and entertaining way that appealed to me like nothing else, save for the odd Alan Moore or Grant Morrison comic.

And it was funny and cool, which also helped and made it so endlessly rewatchable. The crazy tracking shots around the main hall in Fall Out, showing off the wonderful set design, and complemented with some incredible sound work, mixing the Beatles with 'Dem Bones' and blasting tones of authority.

And all that absurd humour - the inability of the mob to get past the word 'I', the slaughter to 'All You Need Is Love', the freed Prisoner's pantomiming explanation to a dubious cop, the monkey's face lurking beneath number two's mask, even that final revelation that the 'I' is '1'. Taking all this ridiculousness seriously would not be wise.   

It was the most perfectly insane thing I'd ever seen. And of course, given the choice to lead or go, The Prisoner burns another path and destroys the system instead, and what young punk doesn't like to see that.

My obsession with all things Prisoner cooled over the years, as these things always do, but I still have enormous amounts of affection for the series, and for what Patrick McGoohan was trying to say with it.

McGoohan passed away a few years ago, refusing to offer up any easy explanations for what he was saying, and greeting any in-depth analysis with that McGoohan snort of derision. He was awesome.

While McGoohan has gone, his work remains, and it's more than just a bunch of blistering acting roles over the decades – it's one of the finest stories ever put to film, as aggravating and resonant and marvellous and obtuse as it ever was, or will ever be. In the end, The Prisoner escapes into a world that is just a bigger prison. All these years later, he'll never be free of a devoted audience.