Sunday, 26 June 2011

RIP GENE COLAN


 As most of you will have already heard, the comics artist Gene Colan died last Thursday, June 23rd, at the age of 84.

I have to confess, I never liked his work as a child. I was such a Marvelite that I just wanted “the Marvel look”, which meant in essence copying Jack Kirby as closely as possible. Even plodding, bog-standard hands like Don Heck or Sal Buscema gave some third-rate impression of Kirby. My least favourites were Colan and Steve Ditko, who didn’t even seem to be trying to look like the King!

I sulked my way through 1974, when Marvel UK branched out into ’Dracula Lives’ and ’Planet of the Apes’ - an unwanted digression from their superhero core. My juvenile face would scowl at the titles in the newsagents and my young brain hark back to the happier days when ’The Avengers’ and ’Spider-Man Comics Weekly’ could be exchanged for pocket money. Kids can be somewhat conservative...


I finally succumbed to Colan’s talents through the Chiller Pocket Books published between 1980 and ’82. Despite their diminished size and risible reproduction standards they reprinted ’Tomb of Dracula’ - the very strip I’d turned my young nose at only six years earlier! (The same title also got me into Gerber’s ’Man-Thing’, but let that be a story for another day.)

But it was later still before I realised just how much the Marvel look had stifled so many artists’ careers – shoehorning them into emulating Kirby no matter how poorly suited they were for the job. In a bizarre reversal, my two favourite artists from Silver Age Marvel bar Kirby became Ditko and Colan – precisely because they were able to forge their own styles in the face of all this editorial pressure.

Colan was to comment later: “Stan [Lee] would say whatever book he thought was selling, he would have the rest of the staff try to copy the same style of work, but I wouldn’t do it.  I’d tell him if you want Stevie Ditko then you’ll have to get Stevie Ditko.  I can’t do it, I have to be myself.  So he left me alone.”

While Kirby was kinetic and forceful, Colan was a master of mood and shadow. His world was one of tempestuous winds, cloaks and coats billowing around semi-defined figures. With Kirby everything looked so solid, it made it all the more impressive when someone was hurled through a wall and it collapsed into shards of flying bricks. With Colan nothing looked solid, everything was in flux.

For that reason, the supernatural ’Tomb of Dracula’ is commonly cited as his best work for Marvel UK. (A title Colan lobbied to get.) He needed to be on something strange or eerie, ’Doctor Strange’ or ’Daredevil.’ (At the time Marvel’s spoiler product for ’Batman.’) His regular superhero work was normally ill-fitting for him. (Then again if he never made ’Iron Man’ very interesting, neither did anybody else.)


Those cheap Chiller Pocket Books gave me another advantage in appreciating Colan. They were only in black and white for cost reasons, but fortuitously his work always looked best without colour. (In later years, as printing improved he’d even eschew his work being inked.)

He said himself: “It was really a black and white medium when I grew up.  Most of the films that were in the theatres were all black and white...  Aside from that that’s how I saw everything anyway. I wasn’t into color. It never occurred to me to have anything colored, so I drew it in black and white and if they wanted to add color to it then go ahead.”

With Kirby gone, Gil Kane gone and now Colan, it makes me wonder how many of the great Silver Age comics artists are left. There’s Ditko, who may live forever out of sheer cantankerousness. Joe Kubert should probably be in there was well, but with me being such a Marvelite he never hit me at that impressionable age.

Whichever way, there will never be another Colan...


Thursday, 23 June 2011

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY HITS BEXHILL ON SEA!

...to visit the John Cage exhibition (which I will blog about soon as I get the chance, honest)! But I also took a few photos in honour of the modernist palace that is The De la Warr Pavilion. Plus the International Alternative Press Fair in London. These photos and more viewable on my Flickr page.






Tuesday, 21 June 2011

REVERBERATIONS: THE INFLUENCE OF STEVE REICH

Barbican, Sun 8th May (...yes, I know I am rather behind in these posts...)


‘Minimalism’ (What’s in a word?)

Since seeing Philip Glass at last year’s Brighton Festival, I’ve now done the double and seen the two totems American minimalist music... well, sort of. Out of this weekend-long celebration of Steve Reich’s Seventieth birthday, this out-of-towner was able to make the Sunday evening concert – and in fact, not all of that! Still, let’s think positive and focus on what I did catch...

I’ve often thought minimalism to be the wrong description for this type of music. The word leads people to picture something restricted and austere; like one of those chairs made to illustrate a geometrical concept, which win awards but no-one would want to sit in.

Conversely, I find Reich’s music sonorous, vibrant and (above all) joyous! It’s minimalist in the sense that restrictions enable. He builds things up from the simplest of melodic lines, often generated by quite rigorous processes, but his genius lies in the way he makes them intersect. The result is like one of those pictures, so popular a decade or two ago, where funny squiggles could turn into 3D dinosaurs if you looked at them right. Those dinosaurs never appeared to me, no matter how much I squinted, but the resonances in Reich’s music definitely do. Simply, the longer you listen, the more there is to hear.

Ironically, Michael Nyman, the man who coined the term ‘minimalism’, has said much the same thing: “much of the charm... has to do with perceptual phenomena that were not actually played, but resulted from subtleties in the phase-shifting process. In other words the music often does not sound as simple as it looks.”

Perhaps not too much should be read into ‘minimalism’ not being Reich’s own term, for it’s fairly common for artistic movements to be named by people outside of them. But for the above reason I find more apposite a term Reich
has used, ‘metamusic.’ (Of course with the pioneer of this style passing Seventy, we are past the point of being stuck with the term. I’m just saying, is all...)

A constituent element of this is a rejection of instrumental hierarchy. With the whole emphasis on interaction, no one instrument ‘leads’, however briefly.
Kyle Gann explains: “the minimalist concept of instrumentation is based on the idea of music being a ritual in which everyone participates equally, not on the classical European paradigm of the painter's palette in which each instrument adds its dash of colour where needed.”

There feels something indefinably urban-utopian about the results. If Gershwin’s music suggested a Roaring Twenties conception of the city – hand-crafted automobiles sounding tuneful horns as they paraded down elegant avenues – Reich’s is of a city yet to be built, composed not of traffic jams and exhaust fumes but a harmony of gliding electric cars, dancing round grid blocks. Those pulsing beats, as trademark to Reich as punchy funk is to James Brown or motorik is to Neu!, sound redolent of teeming streets, exuberant and free-flowing and yet seemingly part of some underlying harmonious structure.

Yet that’s seeing it on a macroscale. Think of it on a microscale, and what comes to mind is the workings of nature. After the recent Gauguin exhibition, I observed that Gauguin’s depiction of a savage nature was at odds with our more modern view of “a machine too sophisticated for us, an intricate set of interlocking systems whose micro-complexity we struggle to understand.” Reich’s music epitomises that hidden sophistication better than anything. The way simple processes throw up such beguilingly rich and complex results always recalls in my mind the system of morphogenesis, where simple cellular forms can multiply into astonishing variety.

The Three Eras of Reich

I have always thought of Reich’s career as forming three distinct eras. Perhaps more by luck than design, there was something that night to represent each of these. (A representation which doesn’t work at all if you try to fit it chronologically, but let’s go with it anyway...)

In his early years, Reich devised his music according to quite rigid processes - leading to it being rather literally dubbed as ‘process music’. Sometimes this was simply tape loops phasing according to a strict set of rules. If his detractors’ claim is correct that his music is nothing but austere mathematics (reminder – it isn’t), this is where it would be most accurate.

These were exemplified by the pared-down sound of So Percussion who mostly performed in the bar area between acts (making even the interval eventful). Spying a low stage, I hung around this waiting for them to set up. However, it seems even that was too muso-ish for these guys, who started up somewhere else completely. I finally heard them from a distance, and it sounded so repetitive that (as in all the jokes) I first figured it to be a malfunctioning machine! However, once I’d finally found them and started listening to their incessant tapping it started to throw up those intricate 3D shapes.

Though Reich only joined them for one piece (the only time he performed anything that night) these performances were also reminiscent of the way he started out - playing lofts and other non-standard spaces with a small ensemble, rather than releasing finished scores to armies of trained professionals.

From such beginnings Reich would become more of (for want of a better word) a composer. (Though he never moved as far from his roots as Glass.) However, it is in the interchange, the mid-period between these, that my favorite Reich resides. (An era roughly corresponding to the Seventies and some of the Eighties.) On the night my heart beat fastest to ’Double Sextet’; which was actually written in ’07, and was receiving its London premiere. (Though Reich has called it “the piece you’d expect me to have written twenty years ago.”)

It was performed by the ensemble who first commissioned it, eighth blackbird (who seem to prefer their name in that lower case). However, there was one change to the way it was written. Eighth blackbird were accompanied by the celebrated Bang on a Can, instrument for instrument, lined up on stage like reflections of each other. As Reich explains here, in a method familiar for him, he had written it to be played alongside a tape of itself. Though this change to doubling up did no harm, and the method was doubtless originally devised partly just to make logistics easier, this is worth looking into.

From symphony orchestras to Phil Spector’s multi-tracking techniques, doubling up instrumentation is traditionally used for power, to get the sound ganging up on your ears. I don’t believe that’s at all what interests Reich. He’s more concerned with the way the reflection is never perfect, things are never quite in phase, perhaps so marginally that its barely perceptible to your ear. The result is a sound which shimmers rather than is solid.

Spencer Grady at the BBC has called ’Double Sextet’ “arguably one of Reich’s finest works” and the piece won at Pulitzer prize. Though ’You Are (variations)’ was actually written a year earlier, it was more representative of Reich’s later sound and couldn’t quite compete. This may be down to the much fuller instrumentation, with both the Britten Sinfonia and Synergy Vocals pitching in. It may even be significant that the number of players increased with each successive ‘era’, working against Reich’s ability to do more with less.

And, though ’You Are (Variations)’ is hardly a poetic or expansive name, it goes against the defiantly flatly descriptive names of earlier pieces, such as ’Drumming’ or ’Clapping Music.’ But of course to call a Reich piece lesser than its fellows is to praise with faint damning, it would have been a highlight of any other night.

The afore-mentioned Kyle Gann, himself a post-minimalist composer, has written good pieces on both minimalism and postminimalism that even a music theory ignoramus like me can follow.

Here’s an excerpt from ’Clapping Music’ in Austin and the opening to ’Double Sextet’ performed in Moscow. (Further parts are clickable.)





...and as for that influence...

This event was described as “a weekend long marathon of pioneering music, as Steve Reich is joined by some of today’s most visionary artists to explore his influence on generations of composers and musicians.” My one-shot attendance left me missing (among many others) Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo and Battles’ Tyondai Braxton.

However, overall I felt a little ambiguous over this plan. After recently lamenting the narrowness of Richard Thompson’s audience, I was pleasantly surprised to see the diversity for Reich – from long grey beards to trendy T-shirts. This perhaps reflected the range of Reich's influence, from 'serious composers' to popular music. However, I wonder if his influence has been broader than deep, and if it’s not the type of influence that lends itself well to this sort of tribute.

After the Stones, a space opened up for bands who sounded like the Stones. (Especially as the Stones themselves got progressively worse at this task.) After Reich, a space opened up – but it wasn’t at all for people who sounded like him. The Guardian ran a companion feature to this event, inviting composers and musicians to describe his influence on them. Though praising Reich, Owen Pallett assessed this as “little, or none... I derive most of my inspiration from musicians whose ideas are not fully formed... Reich's music is complete: nothing can be added to it.”

...in which case the tendency is either to slavishly imitate or chop into pieces, the easier to steal them. The programme notes by Tim Rutherford-Jones are rightly disparaging about the Orb’s sampling of Reich, with his “intricate polyrhythms... locked to a 4/4 beat.” It’s like when a Hollywood film takes a Shakespeare plotline because they think it will give them gravitas – they haven’t really taken anything at all.

Reich’s actual influence lies in a different, less definable dimension. He led us, at least in the West, to break down the tradition and see music in a different way. As John Adams has commented: “He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.” We don’t want people who consider Reich the founder of a new style. We want people who saw Reich as something eye-opening, something like the red pill in ’The Matrix.’

Ironically, when Owen Pallett actually performed, rather than an positive association all I could hear was the “little or none” of Reich’s influence. His rather pretty-pretty symphonic pop came over like a crossed wavelength - like being made to listen to a random hour of Radio 2, before you were permitted your Radio 3 programme.

As a founder member of Bang on a Can (who have frequently performed Reich pieces) and a self-described ‘post-minimalist’ composer, you may have expected Julia Wolfe to fall into the merely imitative camp. In fact her piece was both a fitting counterpoint to Reich and genuinely enthralling in its own right.


’Cruel Sister’ is derived from an old murder ballad, popularised by Pentangle, though it takes not one note from the original. Where Reich is serene, shimmering and hides its activity under outward calm, this was agitated, dynamic and full of tonal variety. If Wolfe hadn’t told us beforehand death came by drowning, we would have guessed the piece to be based around the power of the sea. The strings undulated menacingly, swelling up into great bursts before falling away again into low throbs. Force lurked around the piece, which always suggested at a power greater than it was displaying. (Like the way a good horror film will steep you in an atmosphere of menace, more important than anything it shows you.)

You might even be able to claim it as neo-classical; in a highly un-Reichean development it has distinct movements! (Which I’m as loathe to give away as I would the plot of a film or novel.) However it never quite fell back into the Debussy era of emulating the sound of the sea; instead its force is
evoked, like an expressive but abstract drawing.


Her own website may be able to put it better than me: “Wolfe's music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, Wolfe has "long inhabited a terrain of [her] own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock."



(You can click through to hear the second part. And be sure to check out
’Fuel’ while you’re there.)

Alas, lack of tonal harmony in both the train and tube system, combined with needing to be in work the next morning, drove your humble scribe into leaving before either Clogs or Max Richter had performed. They sounded, I would imagine, something like this...

Clogs...




Max Richter...



Tuesday, 14 June 2011

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY STRIKES BACK!

A few highlights from another set of photos posted to Flickr, this time featuring Brighton Festival performances, Springtime scenes and (inevitably) more graffiti. More to come!










Sunday, 12 June 2011

CHARLES HAYWARD (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Green Door Store, Tues May 31st


”No footsteps to follow...”

I’m not as familiar as I would like with Charles Hayward’s original band, the widely venerated post-punk outfit This Heat. In the oft-quoted ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, Simon Reynolds described their sound via comparisons to their anti-punk look – “dressed in ties and jackets, with short, neat haircuts and stern faces.”

From that description and from their classic track ‘Not Waving’ (referencing the Stevie Smith poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’) I have always imagined them in terms of a man in a pinstripe suit, purposefully pushing past the colourful bathing costumes and marching straight out to sea. Not out of any sense of adventure or excitement but sheer necessity – the drive to go where others aren’t. Musical exploration as career suicide. (“Yes I will go out there/ Out there where I know you cannot find me.” Check it out here.)

He comes across as a fittingly taciturn figure, speaking to us not once. When ready to start the set, instead of announcing it he marched into and around the bar room, insistently shaking maracas at us. The nearest we got to direct communication was a quick thumbs up at the end.

Hayward has gone solo in quite a literal sense of the word. He plays drums, there’s some tapes - that’s it. In a way this is the height of post-punk, stripping everything back as far as it will go, jettisoning anything that even suggests at being extraneous. And of course This Heat used tape loops from the early days. However, insofar as I can tell, he’s not really manipulating any switches, they are just backing tapes. He reaches out to switch one them between tracks, but that’s all.

At times this works, it really works. It’s nothing like Seventies-style drum solos, you may be glad to hear. Everything happens in the service of the song. But the normal musical hierarchy is turned upside-down, with the rest of the music filling in the body while the drums roll, pound and do all the work. Perhaps significantly, the words often just reiterate simple phrases (“ear... drum, ear drum ear drum ear drum” etc) until the words are washed of all meaning.

But I also got the impression that most tracks were written prior to this new arrangement, and at other times the extemporisation starts to show through. These tend to be when the tapes take on too much; when you get the sense that they’re the track and he’s simply playing along with it, you don’t really maintain interest. This may be down to some songs being more rhythm and others more melody based, and so some better suited to this treatment.

This is the fellow live in London, from about a year ago...



Coming Soon! Still older stuff...

Monday, 6 June 2011

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY IN LONDON!

For one reason or another, it has been an age since I uploaded any photos to Flickr. Check out some taken in London, at the London Zine Symposium, around the Barbican and of graffiti (samples below). Expect to follow shortly - stuff from Brighton (especially Brighton Festival), Bexhill and... um... more London.






Sunday, 5 June 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR’


Reviewing the first of two-parters can feel a bit weird. Okay, we’re talking about something episodic in nature, it’s not like taking the first half of a film or writing up an entree. But the question remains... why not wait a bit and just do the whole thing properly? History suggests I did for some reason review ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ in isolation, perhaps prescient of the second half not really being a second half anyway. So I was half-wondering whether I’d be best of waiting until the Autumn to write this.

I seem to be writing this now, which I suppose is something of a clue.

Though it was Russell T Davies who wrote the contemporary Jesus tale ‘The Second Coming’, I for one have found the Moffat era to be redolent with religious themes. (In fact I seem to be the only one on this, but I’m sticking with it!) The first appearance of the Clerics, against the Weeping Angels, I found to be an anti-idolatrous parable. ‘Beast Below’, meanwhile, had a clergy/civil service who keep the Queen in a check which borders on a golden cage. With ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ I found a Easter story nuzzled inside it.

And now the Clerics are back – and on the other side! But the unhooding scene explicitly contrasts the Doctor most against his new foe - the Headless Monks. Their inhuman headlessness stands for unthinking rote observances. Their alliance with the Clerics seems fairly nebulous to start off with, they’re already demanding “converts” who are actually sacrifices. But they’re mostly held against the purgatorial Lorna Bucket, who has for-real seen the Doctor once, and dedicated her life to accomplishing this again. It’s Church versus religion, strictures versus experience, form versus content.

However, things were bothering me. There seemed to be quite a neat and perfectly ‘Doctorish’ moment, where he renders the Clerics weapons not only useless but self-destructive. All they seem able to shoot with them is each other, so they’re forced to disarm to survive. There was the Vogon guard in ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide’ who was wont to cry “resistance is useless!” In the Doctor’s universe, it’s oppression which is useless. At which point it seemed not only redundant, not only counter-productive but jarring for the Doctor’s own army to then appear. Frankly, it felt a little too ‘Star Wars’ with it’s attack on enemy bases, sinister black swordsmen, surprise relation revelations and the like.

In fact the whole parade of guest stars, crowding the screen, just became annoying. If less is more than more can just as easily be less. It’s like the scene in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ where the Pandorica... um... opens and everybody from everywhere is cramming to get their rubber mug on screen. In fact it’s worse because that was an ill-concealed stab at a photo-op, here they’re supposed to be integral to the Doctor’s plan.

There also seemed a good supply of monsters fighting on the Doctor’s side – Sontarans, Silurians, even Juddoon. With all the rush, this didn’t seem to get explained very well. I wondered if we were supposed to reflect on the Doctor’s redemptive powers, most obviously on show in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The Sontaran reassigned as a Nurse seemed to suggest this. The Clerics are also humanised, though that’s in part to distinguish them from the Monks. Now, however, I’m wondering if it had a slyer purpose...

...because half-way through the rug is pulled out from under the Doctor and us, and an apparent military victory becomes defeat. The Yoda-like irony of the title becomes clear, as the trap is sprung on him by appealing to his worst instincts. River’s here to tell him the news. He has not just inadvertently produced a weapon, he’s also become a weapon.

I have never been very comfortable with this “basically, run” bragging Doctor who faces off invasion fleets and says “boo” to monsters rather than the other way around. Wasn’t the Second Doctor always telling his own companions to run? The Doctor should be part-lord part-tramp, the great disguised as the lowly, mighty enough to be modest. Those fixated with wealth and power are essentially blind to what he is, someone who could possess all of that and wants none of it.

With two Clerics speaking in hushed voices of his mighty deeds, this was clearly planned from the episode’s out. But it’s not credible for a second it was planned from the series’ out, that Moffat wrote the Atraxi into running or Chibnall wrote him saying “monsters fear me” as seeds for this moment. The demands of modern event TV are that the protagonist does eventful stuff, that he has memorably heroic catch phrases, ratings reward gun battles and explosions not eccentric theatre actors chuckling to themselves. When the Doctor says “what have I become?” that’s the scriptwriters collectively saying “what have we made him?” What’s here is in no small part an attempt to lance a boil.

But for all that it’s a pretty smart lancing! The series went and came back, but it wasn’t really a reboot. The conceit was that events had been continuing off-screen all this time. Some we know of or can surmise – the Time War, the regeneration into Nine. But the very concept of this surplus repository of time has its own ramifications. Moreover, it cross-breeds with the new show’s sense that it is more sophisticated, that it has a clearer sense of continuity.

In the old days, every time the Doctor fought the Daleks it was essentially happening anew. (Truth to tell, it was fairly often the very same story told over.) Now both sides are aware just how many times this has gone on. But it’s not just the Daleks. That repository of unseen time has been like an echo chamber of reputations, the Doctor no longer just a wanderer but a legend to the universe. The effect is Caesar-like. Gaze long enough into monsters, and what are you likely to become? Can you keep being called The Oncoming Storm and no part of you start to believe it? The religious themes of earlier are given a deep, dark twist. Christ-like or Christ complex?

Before we get carried away, let’s admit we’ve been here before. ‘Dalek’ played, if not on the Doctor’s megalomania, then on his pathological hatred for the murderers of his people. Then, at the end of Davies’ run, we got the “Time Lord Victorious” theme – which was set up nicely at the end of ’Waters Of Mars’ only to... actually, what did happen to it after that?

But the real point is, after both things just went back to where they were again. Will all this be forgotten even by the Autumn, and the good man be back at war as though nothing has happened? Perhaps in a way that’s all that can happen, unless we expect a TV show to somehow resolve the age-old violence versus non-violence debate. This is, after all, precisely the way Yoda worked on ’Star Wars.’ (“Yoda am I. Wisdom I stand for, and here to tell you war does not make one great. But anyway, for great big fight in the finale stand by. Maybe fight scene myself will have in sequels, when special effects better.”) Perhaps we should just be glad the show is strong enough to question its own hero from time to time.

River Song’s revelation to the Doctor he’d become a warrior without noticing was perhaps more memorable than the revelation of her own identity. Conjecture has already taken us here, in fact some had not plumped for that option precisely because they found it too obvious! It’s not a bad idea at all. The problem is more to do with stretching teasers over such lengths – very little can bear that weight of expectation.

(I was still confused by the flashback scene. When River scans the busted-out spacesuit, does she then know who she’s talking about? Also, we now know she’s the child in the spacesuit. But if the Clerics have her imprisoned for killing “a good man” and stand here against the Doctor, does that suggest the killer astronaut is someone else?)

With all this kerfuffle, there still seemed some strange lapses. There was nothing more about the Flesh, how the bad guys got hold or it or whether it should be considered sentient. In fact, there was only the barest mention of how it worked on Amy. Our first instincts were right, two separate storylines were merely being forced together. (And it's now confirmed that Amy was replaced “before America”, in other words handily off-stage before the season even started. That feels too much like sleight-of-hand, up-your-sleeve stuff. It should have happened in the orphanage!)

...plus, despite the reappearance of guest stars we hadn’t even seen before (the ret-conned Madame Vastra), the episode was completely silent over the... um... Silence. How they relate to Madam Kovarian, the Headless Monks or just about anything remains unexplained. Let’s hope these things don’t just get dropped, and new mysteries thrown up to distract us.

...and speaking of Madame Vastra, with a spin-off show so heavily suggested I wondered at a replacement for ’Sarah Jane Adventures.’ But some elements of her character seemed a little... um.. risque for a children’s show!

...and finally,  ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’? Tell me you’re kidding!

Okay, this mini-season of 'Who' finished, it's time for me to get working on that backlog!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

THE WALKING DEAD


Truth to tell, I never liked the comic that much.

That is, the comic series penned by Robert Kirkman, drawn (in early instalments) by Tony Moore and published by Image. In fact I confess to giving up on it after the first volume. (Though Robert Wells’ reviews in ‘Comics On the Ration’, which take things up to lucky volume thirteen, claim it continues in a similar manner.) But it did contain the germ of a good idea, which was enough for me to check out the TV show.

With zombies it is of course the George Romero ‘Dead’ films that set the template – films which didn’t feature characters so much as present ciphers. That apparent criticism is actually more of a description– they were parables about the collapse of civilization and the stripping away of humanity. Characterisation would just get in the way of all that, those ciphers had to be loose fits to act as a placeholder for all of us - not appear as individuals.

But it raises the question, what if you were to impose a zombie holocaust on credible characters? Would that bring the whole thing home? Would you start to wonder how you would cope if your world of hot showers and widescreen TVs was suddenly replaced by someone trying to eat your face off?

As I say, a good idea. But the trouble with the comic is... well actually there’s two of them. First off, it’s almost as if Kirkman has decided that the required characterisation comes from dialogue, so the more dialogue there is the more characterisation will ensue. Speech balloons puff up and bloat, to the point where you almost start to prefer the zombies’ company. They may try to kill you, but at least they shut up once in a while.


Happily, this works rather differently on screen. Take one early scene where our protagonist, the cop Rick Grimes, is asked by someone if he minds their squatting in a neighbour’s house:

“I’m not going to arrest you, if that’s what you mean. Most of the houses on my street had been looted. You seemed to be fixing the place up. The Thompsons will probably thank you when they get back. As long as you don’t put up a fight over the place. You don’t have to justify anything to me...”

...actually, there’s more but you probably get the gist by now. In the TV version, at a later point another character asks Grimes about looting. Looking to an undead army out the window he replies dryly, “I don’t think those rules apply any more.”

However, the TV version not only has its chatty moments, it habitually starts each episode with a lengthy monologue or duologue. Perhaps it has an inbuilt advantage here. Even when it’s not strictly functional, dialogue in comics tends to the purposeful. We’re always subconsciously aware that someone has written it down. The dialogue on the screen sounds casual, like a moment captured. Quite often it will seem completely inconsequential, and only slowly will its significance sneak up on you. (The opening conversation, banter about women between Rick and his cop buddy Shane, does not reveal it’s meaning until much later.) We do not feel that the characters are telling us about themselves, more that we are eavesdropping on them as they reveal things about themselves.


The show also develops and strengthens the characters. It makes sense to make Grimes a police officer, someone who would have a better chance of survival than a mere civilian. But on the page the ever-agonising Grimes is scarcely credible as a cop, let alone a survivor. The TV series makes him tougher, willing to take decisive action but also negotiate situations. Similarly, the comic-book Shane (though previously Grimes’ ex-cop-buddy) is a nasty and duplicitous piece of work. It leads to something of a good-cop/bad-cop dichotomy. On screen he is still a loose cannon, who over-reacts to situations and at times fights with Grimes. But he is more conflicted, less one-dimensional.

The comics’ other main failing is that in turning the human characters up it ends up turning the zombies down. They can vanish offstage for ages and when they appear its as something of a generic menace – they could as easily be feral aliens, or even wild animals. The vital sense that (in Romero’s phrase) “they are us” can get blunted.

This is one failing which is more or less duplicated by the TV show. The one plus point, however, is that zombie lore becomes a weird kind of anthropology. Having to survive around them, the humans inevitably learn more about what makes them tick. In a nice scene in the comic (curiously unreproduced on screen), Grimes and Shane are hunting and come across a zombie feeding on a deer. It’s so intent on its meal that it’s oblivious to them, and they stand observing it like an animal. Of course there are limits to how far this can be taken. Much of the horror of zombies lies in their being walking violations of nature. But it is never pushed too far...

In general, the screen version takes the comic as a first draft, something to develop and improve. The result is that it tends to get better as it goes along. The first episode is a little slow, though admittedly hamstrung by the convention that no-one is allowed to explain the set-up to Grimes... “you know, zombie outbreak –like those films!” By about the fifth episode it has almost completely moved away from the comic’s plotlines.

Are zombies simply better suited to the visceral world of the screen? Does live action capture verite, instill the vertiginous sense of being thrown into events? Are comics more the realm of big symbols and crazy concepts, what Alan Moore calls “ideaspace”?

Of course a great comics creator can buck those tendencies. Alan Moore can write dialogue which crackles. Kirby is nothing but a visceral rush. As Martin Skidmore has demonstrated, Junji Ito can hit you with the creepiest under-your-skin horror. But a less-than-great creator may be better off swimming with the current. With ‘The Walking Dead’, the news is not that the comic has reached a fourteenth volume but that the TV show will return for a second series!