Sunday 27 December 2015

Annual Report:
2000AD / 1979AD
(Part # 2)

Returning to the wanton carnage gleefully doled out to impressionable youngsters as 1978 gave way to ’79, and first up we have the annual’s only ‘horror’ strip, wherein generic occult investigator Doctor Sin (no relation to Doctor Syn?) kicks some Satanist ass in a few pages of exceptionally enjoyable Wheatley-inspired mayhem.

Lest we forget, when 2000AD debuted in ’77, it rode in on the coattails of what we might today term a ‘reboot’ of iconic ‘50s British comic book hero Dan Dare. With some beautiful, somewhat Moebius-esque sci-fi artwork and a touch of icky space-horror, plenty of effort has been taken to make clear that this ain’t yr granddad’s Pilot of the Future. In fact, even Dare himself looks a tad sinister in his portrayal here. Pretty brilliant stuff all round, to be honest.

Given that it would initially seem to have exerted a hefty influence here, it would seem natural at this point to observe that ‘Alien’ hit cinemas in 1979, were it not for the fact that this annual was most likely on sale by the final quarter of ’78, with the material therein presumably being prepared considerably before that, whereas ‘Alien’ didn’t premiere until June ’79. Curious, no?

Meanwhile, regardless of 2000AD’s futurist agenda, it seems to have been more or less compulsory for mid-twentieth century Earth publication to include at least one page like this. Who DREW all of these damn things anyway? Were they made in-house, or was there an agency or something that editors could ring up and say “give me a page’s worth on a vaguely sci-fi theme, stupid as possible please”? Who knows?

Next we move on what is probably my favourite strip in the whole annual. As was demonstrated by the M.A.C.H. 1 strip featured in the first part of this post, 2000AD at this stage in its evolution seemed perfectly happy to serve up its action-adventure hi-jinks with a hefty dose of the kind of unreconstructed quasi-fascist/anti-commie survivalist fantasy stuff that would never have flown (or at least, would have been rendered heavily satirical) after the comic moved toward a more socially conscious / left-leaning outlook in the ‘80s.

Political concerns aside though, nothing can distract from the sheer, unmitigated charm of ‘INVASION’, an ongoing strip in the weekly comic at this point, in which a valiant underground network of honest, god-fearing, flares & flying jacket favouring blokes fight to defend old England from the invasive ravages of the –uh – ‘Volgans’, whose skull-insignia flouting fascism and failure to appreciate the majesty of the Clifton Suspension Bridge just won’t do in the West Country, old son.

A thing of beauty and a joy forever, I present this strip to you in its entirety with no further comment.

Next up, the inevitable crossword! Admittedly, this annual keeps it pretty high on comics, low on rainy day puzzles and other such filler, but you didn't think we were going to get away without one of these did you?

Ok, now we’re talking. Dredd. Brendan McCarthy (??). The future. Artwork here emanates ‘cool’ so strongly, I'd recommend protective eye-wear before scrolling down.

After a pretty lame installment of future-sports strip Harlem Globetrotters (never liked that one much), things wrap up with the continuing chapter of another one-off strip, a rather lovely, tentacle-heavy Quatermass-esque sort of thing entitled ‘Guinea Pig’. Again – great stuff.

The final pages leave us with a few bonus thrills, as reproduced below, and then it’s splundig vur thrigg, bloglets!

In conclusion then: boy children of the 70s and ‘80s may have had to amuse themselves without the aid of Playstations, noxious energy drinks or 24/7 access to porn, but nonetheless, they don’t know how lucky they were, having such unhinged pulp storytelling and exceptional graphic art thrown at them on a regular basis as they browsed the magazine rack in the Co-Op. Truly, those were the days, etc etc.

As a final note, it occurred to me whilst going through this annual again for scanning purposes that, with the exception of the space lady being menaced by some sort of reptilian beast on the cover illustration, I don’t think I spotted a single female figure portrayed anywhere in this annual – not even in the background, or in crowd scenes. Which is… some kind of an achievement. I mean, talk about yr ‘boy’s own adventures’, wow. Even the sacrificial victim in the Satanist strip is male!

Actually, thinking about it, I suppose one of the reasons for 2000AD’s early success was probably its willingness to give pre-teenage boys exactly what they were looking for at the point just before those pesky hormones started to kick in, dumping such conventions as sappy romantic sub-plots and ‘characterisation’ in favour of simply portraying crazed, amoral brutes blasting each other to pieces with an arsenal of over-sized military hardware, in a universe where scary things like girls and human interaction need not concern them. (For a demonstration of what might have occurred had this trend been taken to its logical conclusion without the intervention of the more enlightened minds who helped raise 2000AD’s artistic stock in the ‘80s & ’90s, perhaps see the entire existence of Games Workshop.)

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this Annual Report, but if not, rest assured – as the name suggests, I promise this will only happen once a year.

Breakfast In The Ruins will return in January with all the usual nonsense, dark gods willing, and in the meantime, let me take the opportunity to say thanks fro reading, and to wish each and every one of you happy and fulfilling 2016.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Annual Report:
2000AD / 1979AD
(Part # 1)

Striking about for some relevant content to keep this most un-festive of blogs ticking over through the festive period, I found myself scanning the shelves for good scanning material, and was reminded that, back in the lead up to childhood Christmasses long-gone, there was little I enjoyed so much as an f-ing good annual.

Whilst I’m confident that the concept of an ‘annual’ will be familiar to those raised in the UK, I’m not really sure of the extent to which the tradition of such publications crossed over to other territories. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. But I don’t recall ever seeing an American annual, or a French one, or a Russian one, so as such, I will risk patronising a large section of my readership with a brief definition:

An annual is a magazine-sized hardback book, published in the last quarter of each year, containing a compendium of material related to a popular weekly comic, magazine, TV show or entertainment franchise, aimed specifically either at distant relatives seeking an affordable Christmas present for a child, or else a pre-Christmas sop for parents seeking to keep said children busy through the holidays. Due to their sturdy construction and fleeting cultural relevance, these volumes will inevitably spend the remainder of humanity’s tenure on earth periodically popping up in charity shops and provoking fits of nostalgia in those aforementioned children’s grown up selves – which is great.

As with the vast majority of content on this blog, I am too young to have appreciated the 1979 2000AD annual when it first appeared, and so, strictly speaking, I can’t term the feeling that overcame me when I received it as a gift from my darling wife last year as one of ‘nostalgia’, but nonetheless, the feeling of joy I experienced whilst flicking through its pages, observing this pivotal stage in the British comics revolution that I caught the tail end of a few years later, was palpable.

Unlike the concept of annuals, I’m sure that, for the vast majority of potential readers of this blog, 2000AD needs no introduction. (If it does, here’s a wiki link.)

2000AD was still finding its feet at this point, with the material herein presumably developed around eighteen months after the comic was launched in February ’77, and this annual finds the title at a pretty fascinating stage in its development, slowly transitioning from the more traditional ‘boys own’ war/adventure stuff from which it emerged toward the heady brew of dystopian, punk-spirited satire and pop-art infused risk-taking that would come to define in it through its ‘golden era’ in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

If much of this annual’s content admittedly seems pretty shoddy and anachronistic in view of what came later, it at least goes about its business in a gutsy, intermittently imaginative, and, it must be said, extraordinarily violent fashion that clearly points the way toward the title’s ‘imperial’ phase. With (I suspect) an impressive cross-section of British comics talent working behind the scenes, even the most juvenile and old fashioned strips here convey a sense of vision and craftsmanship that leave the vast majority of their domestic competitors in the field of blood-thirsty ‘70s comics in the shade, making it easy to see why 2000AD so quickly came to dominate this particular corner of the market.

At this stage, the comic’s writers and artists remained anonymous, and so in general I’m not going to go out on a limb trying to identify anyone as we go through the following scans. I have my suspicions here and there, and I’m sure that more dedicated Brit-comics aficionados than I will be able to pick out many of the contributors in seconds, but to avoid potential mistakes and embarrassment, I’m going to keep quiet on the subject. If you happen to be one of those aforementioned aficionados, further info is welcomed in the comments below.

Anyway, after somewhat alarming contents spread featuring what appears to be a live action Tharg the Mighty, the first number here is a one-off, ‘The Biggest Game of All’ which runs through a particularly thuggish variation on the old ‘time travellers return to prehistory, change stuff, inadvertently erase humanity’ yarn, all concisely wrapped up in five pages.

Next up, the M.A.C.H. #1 strip, as featured from prog # 1 onwards but dropped at some point shortly after this I believe, is a thinly veiled rip off of the Six Million Dollar Man, with the titular protagonist here putting paid to a dirty commie attempt to infiltrate the world of ice hockey! (He’s ‘Man Activated by Compu-puncture Hyperpower’ by the way, in case you were wondering).

One of this annual’s best stand alone sci-fi shorts, ‘Food!’, is such a great example of quintessentially cynical 2000AD fun, I thought it best to scan it for you in its four page entirety. (Thanks to a signature sneaked in on the final frame, we can credit Brett Ewins for the artwork on this one.)

One of the more imaginative takes on standard action-adventure tropes in 2000AD’s ongoing series at this point came from war/time travel yarn ‘The Phantom Patrol’, as represented here via a weirdly compelling photo-realistic yet almost entirely background-less art style. Interestingly, the strip’s concept bears more than a passing resemblance to the wildly entertaining Sonny Chiba movie G.I. Samurai, which coincidentally was also released in 1979.

Believe it or not, we’re currently less than a third of the way through this annual (say what you like about Tharg’s editorial boasting, it’s hard to deny this thing is indeed a shoe-in for “the most hyper-powered annual [I’ve] ever seen”), so our trawl through the wonders within will hopefully continue in a few days, once I’ve had a chance to spend some more quality time sweating over the scanner.

In the meantime, we’ll finish with a couple of examples of the space-filling ‘factual’ features that inevitably serve to further bulk out any good annual.

In partiucular, I’d seek to draw your attention to the spectacularly sensationalist feature on the exploits of the Victorian clairvoyant Daniel Dunglas Home, in which a 2000AD staff writer’s attempts to tie historical events in with their own fictional universe are pretty audacious and actually very cool indeed if you ask me, in a sending-young-minds-off-on-an-inspiring-flight-of-fancy sort of way.

Monday 14 December 2015

Random Paperbacks:
Gideon’s Ride
by John Creasey
(Coronet, 1972 / first published 1963)

The work of almost unbelievably prolific British crime writer John Creasey is not something I’ve ever taken a particular interest in, but when I spied this volume amid a stack of long discarded ex-pat poolside reads in a bookshop in Lagos, Portugal, something about the London-centric theme and the striking (unaccredited) cover illustration – featuring a (presumably murdered) black, female bus conductor - really grabbed me.

Also noteworthy is the somewhat edgy inside cover blurb reproduced above, which pulls a nice “oh yeah, that’s right, yeah, me too, yeah, I, uh… oh, wait, hang on a minute..” trick on the presumed heterosexual male readership.

Unfortunately, such risk-taking would not appear to have carried over into the book itself, which on a quick skim-read seems a rather quaint and old fashioned business, full of politely methodical police procedural stuff and no doubt achingly realistic details of the internal workings of London’s transport infrastructure circa 1963. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but when you get to scenes such as the one in which two police officers earnestly discuss the possibility of “rounding up any young coloured men who have recently taken elocution lessons”, it becomes painfully obvious that the nine year gap between the book’s first publication and Coronet’s packaging of this edition had really taken its toll on the story's continued relevance.

Interestingly (well, to me at least), the 176 no longer goes anywhere near Willesden.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Nippon Horrors:
Ghost Cat Mansion
(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

Before he embarked upon his attempt to make the ‘ultimate horror movie’ in the form of 1960’s startling ‘Jigoku’ (‘Hell’) – a film so ambitious that many claim it played a significant role in bankrupting the financially fragile Shintoho studios – director Nobuo Nakagawa had already made a name for himself as an important contributor to the rather marginal field of Japanese horror cinema, shooting a series of low budget programmers during the years 1957-59 that arguably represent the first conscious attempts to incorporate more modern (eg, Western) horror tropes into the highly formalised tradition of classical Japanese ghost stories.

Nakagawa’s films ran the gamut of popular horror themes, both Japanese (‘Yotsuya Kaidan’, 1959) and foreign (‘Lady Vampire’, also 1959), but today we’re going to be looking at his take on the ubiquitous bakeneko / ghost cat mythos, ‘Bôrei Kaibyô Yashiki’, variously tanslated as ‘Mansion of the Ghost Cat’, ‘Black Cat Mansion’, or my preferred combination of the two options, ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’.

As has previously been discussed on this blog in reference to Yoshihiro Ishikawa’s Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), variations on such stories seem to have exercised a persistent hold over Japanese filmmakers and audiences, with a history of bakeneko titles stretching back to the silent era, and, more pertinently to the film at hand, those who have read that review will also recall that, prior to making his solo debut with ‘..Otama Pond’, Ishikawa had previously worked as Nakagawa’s assistant on most of his pre-‘Jigoku’ horror films.

Whilst the ‘master & protégée’ relationship between the two men must be thus acknowledged, the sad truth is that my prior viewing of ‘..Otama Pond’ lowered my subsequent enjoyment of ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’, simply due to the fact that, for a sensation hungry modern viewer at least, Ishikawa’s film is basically much better – a wilder, stranger, more ambitious and visually splendid take on the ghost-cat formula than that achieved by his sensei a few years earlier, even as it covers about 75% of the same ground, stylistically speaking.

This is not to imply that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ is anything less than a perfect satisfactory (and indeed somewhat innovative) example of bakeneko cinema of course. In fact, its deficiencies in comparison to the later film likely stem mainly from its more obvious origins as a rushed, cash-strapped b-movie, rather than from any lack of ambition on the part of its makers, and as such, it’s probably best if I nix the unfair comparison between the two films for now and allow ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ stand on its own not-inconsiderable merits.

It certainly gets off to wonderfully atmospheric start, that’s for sure. Subjective POV torch beams prowl the darkened corridors of a deserted Tokyo hospital, taking us eventually to the skeleton and specimen jar filled lab of a doctor who is apparently pulling an all-nighter. Who could that be on the stairs, he wonders, as the heavy footfalls of whoever we were following with the torch creak the floorboards outside. This, the doctor muses to himself, reminds him of certain events that transpired six years ago, and, like some doomed noir protagonist awaiting a terrible fate, he calmly sits down and lights a cigarette, awaiting the arrival of his sinister visitor.

Cue flashback to six years earlier. The doc’s wife is suffering from TB, and, to aid her recovery, the couple have left Tokyo and moved back to her familial home on the Southern island of Kyushu. For reasons that never really become clear, the doctor’s brother-in-law has secured them lodgings in, uh - a shunned, clifftop haunted house in which no one has lived for over a century. (That his brother-in-law might be somewhat of a jerk is a possibility the doctor may wish to consider, but it is not something the filmmakers choose to dwell upon here.)

As you might well have expected, upon moving into their new home, the couple and their household almost immediately experience all manner of spooky goings-on, and in particular, they become subject to frequent visitations from a particularly persistent and terrible variation on the inevitable kaidan white-haired-old-lady ghost. Not even so much a ghost in this case in fact, but a full-blown monster of apparently palpable form, this bastard hag proceeds in short order to kill the family dog and terrify the nurse who is helping the doctor establish a new clinic, before repeatedly utilising prank phone calls and disguised voices to gain entry to the house, on each occasion making a bee-line straight for the long-suffering wife, whom she proceeds to strangle to the point of near-death, only to disappear when interrupted at the last moment.

Understandably unnerved by all this grim incident, the doctor temporarily puts his rationalist principles on hold and pays a visit to a venerable local Buddhist priest, who promptly makes with the old “ah yes, I remember the dark legends connected to that dreadful old house..” routine, prompting (as per the formula of every other bakeneko movie I’ve seen to date) another flashback within the flashback, this time taking us back to (I assume) the Edo Period – a change accompanied by a corresponding shift to colour photography.

Up to this point, it must be said that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ has been directed with great skill. The opening creep though the hospital and the couple’s initial investigation of the haunted house both utilise the inherently terrifying combination of smooth, slow camera movements and wide, empty spaces that would later be perfected by Masaki Kobayashi in his epic ‘Kwaidan’ (1964), and even minor incidents such as a moment when the couple’s car is run off the road by a stray cat are conveyed using jarring, Hitchcock-esque mini-montages that further add to the somewhat ‘Carnival of Souls’-esque sense of icy, detached unease.If, as I’ve always thought, the key to creating a genuinely scary story is to present a world that seems sinister and somehow off-balance even before anything spooky happens, then it’s safe to say that Nakagawa succeeds here with aplomb.

It is a shame then that once the action shifts to the past and the photography switches to a rather drab variety of colour, this carefully wrought atmosphere largely vanishes. Suddenly, Nakagawa’s direction becomes blandly formal, whilst the obviously set-bound backdrops take on an unnatural, theatrical feel and the acting becomes stiff and melodramatic. As with many older Japanese period dramas, it sometimes feels more as if we're watching a local theatre reenactment of a well-known legend than an engaging piece of cinema.

Anyway, the flashback story here chiefly concerns the abuses of power perpetrated by one Lord Shogen, a wealthy local daimyo (and patriarch of the future haunted mansion of course), who is, to put it mildly, a bit of an arsehole.

When we first meet Shogen, he is on the verge of slaughtering his most trusted servant for some minor infringement of protocol (the servant’s life is only spared after Shogen’s upstanding son intervenes), and the Lord’s inordinately aggressive and cowardly behaviour only gets worse from thereon in.

In brief then, dark powers of a vengeful and supernatural nature are eventually evoked to deal with this disagreeable fellow following an incident in which he summons a young samurai and renowned Go master to his chambers to tutor him in the finer points of the game. Unfortunately however, the young man makes the fatal error of playing Shogen in a fair contest, refusing to let the diamyo cheat and replay his moves, with the inevitable result that lord grumpy-pants becomes so irate that he eventually snaps and, grabbing his katana, redecorates his dayroom with the samurai’s blood.

When Shogen subsequently has the audacity to avoid responsibility for the killing by claiming that the young man instantly left for Kyoto to further study Go technique after becoming embarrassed when the Lord defeated him in the game, the samurai’s blind mother – for whom he cared and provided sole financial support – cannily disbelieves him, and, visiting the daimyo to try to discover what actually happened to her son, her suspicions turn to futile rage after the hateful old bastard adds insult to injury by taking the opportunity to rape her.

As she contemplates her sorry state, the blind woman is visited by a ghostly vision of her son, who confirms the truth of her suspicions about what happened to him, and, seeing no way forward, she clutches her beloved pet cat to her bosom and uses a dagger to take her own life, calling on the spirit of her cat to execute her vengeance from beyond the grave. Before her blood has even dried of course, it’s ghost-cat-a-go-go for the folks in the mansion on the hill.

One thing I like about the avenging spirits in these bakeneko stories (and indeed in Asian ghost stories more generally) is how absolutely ruthless they are, in comparison to their more genteel, ‘poetic justice’-inclined Western counterparts. In this case for instance, all of the evil in the story has emanated directly from Lord Shogen himself. His mother, son and servants are all portrayed as sympathetic characters, as much the victims of his cruelty as anyone else - but just try telling the ghost-cat that! The dying woman specifically issued her curse against the bad man plus his entire family, his household and his descendants, and ghost-cat’s not taking any prisoners.

Indeed, the first thing the avenging ghost does is possess the body of the daimyo’s elderly mother, transforming her not only into the image of the wild, white-haired hag seen in the film’s present day section, but into an actual anthropomorphic cat-monster! Regrettably for anyone still taking ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ seriously by this point, the result of this transformation is frankly hilarious, prompting a ten minute segment in which the film goes absolutely berserk.

“My mother took a carp from the pond and went under the house?!” exclaims the daimyo at one point when a servant relates details of his mother’s disturbing cat-like behaviour, and by the time the cat-mother – her costume complete with pointy, fluffy ears that spring upward when she raises her head – begins busting out the familiar J-horror lady-ghost device of using an invisible fishing rod to draw her victims toward her like a sci-fi tractor beam, even the most determinedly straight-faced viewers will be hard-pressed to suppress a few WTF-ish guffaws.

As the ghost-cat’s rampage reaches its bloody conclusion, Nakagawa utilises prototypes of many of the quasi-psychedelic visual effects later employed by Ishikawa In ‘..Otama Pond’, with everything from double-exposures and giant, looming cat shadows to random, Bava-esque coloured gel lighting wantonly thrown around, to pleasantly psychedelic effect. Though such effects are neither as extensively nor effectively used as in the later film (here for instance, the coloured lighting simply consists of spinning, multi-hued spot-lights that come out of nowhere to assault the tormented Lord Shogen), this is all still jolly good fun, needless to say.

Thankfully, this excessive and unhinged atmosphere is to a certain extent maintained when we return to the black & white ‘present day’, wherein a charm proffered by the priest and the disinterment of the mouldering skeleton of the Go master (who had been bricked up Poe-style within the walls of the house) helps the doctor and his wife return their angry revenant to its resting place, in a wind-swept, lightning-riddled finale that remains very enjoyable – at least until a thoroughly disappointing bummer of a contrived happy ending follows

Flawed though it may be, I don’t believe that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’s deficiencies are *quite* serious enough to ruin the good feeling generated by its highlights. Although budgetary contraints and tonal inconsistencies mean that no one’s ever likely to single it out as a masterpiece, it is nonetheless a wild and wooly bit of quintessential Japanese b-horror, rich in authentically creepy moments and full-on weirdness that fans of the particular ‘feel’ generated by this kind of thing are liable to cherish.