Friday, 31 July 2015

The Might of Small Things

We knew then, that we were being changed... and made part of their world. We didn't know for what purpose... but we knew, we would be told.
 - Closing narration, Phase IV

 Watching Ant-Man, you can definitely tell what was Edgar Wright, and what was Marvel. I would have loved to have seen Wright's version, of course, but I enjoyed the final film knowing its convoluted history. It was at its best when it shied away from the standard Only You Can Save The World element, as well as the needlessly extended Call To Heroism/Training for Battle section of the film - it was when the film did the things that you wouldn't see in Thor or Iron Man that made it shine. As Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a '70s spy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist movie, appropriate for the character.

Of course, being a science fiction aficionado, I couldn't help but think of other things...

(All the images in this review are from Phase IV, Saul Bass's only feature-length film: visually striking and very weird in the classic British Science-Fiction style. Well worth a watch.)


Thursday, 18 June 2015

Dinosaurs from the Pulps!


One of the joys of getting into Robert E. Howard fandom is the vast world it opens up before you. Before I got into it, I relied mostly on luck and happenstance to find stories and art that intrigued me, and living in Scotland as I do the availability of those classic American tales could sometimes be hard to come by.

But after years of infiltrating the echelons of Howardom, needling information and hints from the experts and polymaths in funny hats, it's amazing the things you find. On my last Scottish Invasion of Cross Plains, I learned that one of these behatted genii was leaping into the vast sea of pulps in search of one of his other great interests: zombies! And sure enough, he even produced an anthology of twenty classic tales of the undead ripped from the musty yellowing pages of those lurid tomes.

The magic of pulps is that there are just so many different stories and trends out there, you could easily fill a themed anthology with them. Amazons from the Pulps! could feature the likes of "Black Amazon of Mars," "The Golden Amazons of Venus," "Queen of the Panther World," "Slaves of the Jackal Priestess," "Sword of Gimshai," "Black God's Kiss," and other adventures of warrior women. "The Metal Monster," "The War of the Giants," "The Metal Giants," "Between Dimensions," "The Reign of the Robots," "The Ideal," "A Dictator for All Time," and countless more tales of Metal Men could shamble through Robots from the Pulps! Crom knows we have plenty for Stephen Jones' The Mammoth Book Of... series, as he always manages to find at least a few from the Age of Pulps.

And then there were dinosaurs...


Monday, 15 June 2015

Unanswered Questions: Jurassic World

 Me for 2 hours.

I've read and watched a number of reviews for Jurassic World, and because I'm the sort of guy who's Just Here For The Dinosaurs, there are naturally a lot of character, plot, and thematic elements that I didn't cover in my review. Some of them occurred to me, some of them didn't. I could chalk these little anomalies to the film's flaws - after all, as I said in the review, the film is not without them. It's an imperfect blockbuster.

But that's no fun.


Sunday, 14 June 2015

8-Year-Old Reviews: Jurassic World

We’re going to grow old but never grow up.
We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.
 - Ray Harryhausen & Ray Bradbury made a pact together. They never broke it as long as they lived.

A review 22 years in the making.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Company of Death

Last year at Howard Days, we were talking about the deaths of Miguel Martins and Ray Harryhausen. I'm pretty sure they'll be talking about Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, maybe even Dusty Rhodes. Two of our wee Scottish contingent in Arizona died, too. As Howard Days is scheduled around the anniversary of Howard's death, there is always that tinge of gloominess and melancholy. Death is ever present in Howard's company.

So today I decided to defy the company of Death. I read Howard stories and poems that weren't about mortality or war or murder. I played the new Lego Jurassic World game, having seen the film (a review is forthcoming), which avoided the more gruesome scenes in the movie with a loveable nod and a wink. I went around to a gaming night with a few good friends.

This should take my mind off Robert E. Howard!

We played HeroQuest. It was great fun, even if I could barely remember the rules, and I kept fudging the order of play - last time I played the game must've been the turn of the century. Nonetheless, we made a great wee story of a troupe of adventurers alternately mucking things up profoundly and heroically saving the day: the barbarian who went off on his own away from the group to kill goblins; the wizard who stumbled into a horde of Chaos warriors and barely escaped with his skin; the dwarf who cut a bloody swathe through a host of monsters; the elf who somehow managed to slay the most powerful monster in the dungeon with a single stroke.

Since the adventurers had ridiculous good fortune, we decided to make the monster a "load bearing boss," and suggested to have five turns before the dungeon caves in, trapping the entombing the heroes with the treasure they sought. The wizard used his air magicks to blow through the corridors and escape; the dwarf heroically stood by the entrance to ensure no monsters came, not leaving until every hero escaped; the barbarian had the awful luck of constantly running into frantic goblins barring his way. But the elf had the worst luck; brought low by a vengeful Chaos warrior. I guess you never can escape the company of death, even in board games.

I had a great night, knowing that my pals in Cross Plains were having a good time too. Some of them were even playing the new Conan RPG, which probably prompted my decision to go with HeroQuest. I'm glad to have them: we talked a bit of Howard at the table, too, as well as the usual current affairs, politics, films, books, and whatnot. Much like I would at Howard Days.

Hope everyone's having a great time in Cross Plains! Let us all drink to Howard's shade across the continents, united in the Company of Death.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Requiescat in Pace Christopher Lee, Master of the Fantastique


I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.
 - Christopher Lee on the death of his friend Peter Cushing

I never met Mr Lee, but I think all of us who were touched by his performances will feel a little share of that same sadness. I can't really think of much to say about him that I suspect will be said by many over the coming days. Christopher Lee was an actor who enriched every production he graced with his presence. He never phoned it in. He never treated his roles with anything but commitment, dignity and respect, whether it was a Hollywood blockbuster, an intimate character drama, a lurid Hammer horror, or a screwball comedy. Like his friend and co-stars Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, he made every film he starred in better just by being there - because you knew while watching them that they cared about what they were doing. It was never a paycheck, never something to do for their CV, never anything other than the craft.

Dracula. Frankenstein's monster. Kharis. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Lord Summerisle. Scaramanga. Nicholas, Duc de Richleau. Henry Baskerville. Jinnah. Captain Robeles. Mycroft Holmes. Blind Pewe. Rasputin. Marquis St Evrémonde. Saruman. Lucifer. Fu Manchu. Dr Catheter. It's difficult to think of a film he starred in where he wasn't one of the best parts.

Christopher Lee was an actor who was very good at what he did, and loved what he did very much. For a man who is immortalised largely by his monstrous villains and foreboding menace, the world is a little darker in his passing.

Part of me wants to joke - only half-joke - that he isn't really dead: either that he has finally self-actualised and become undead, or that rumours of his death were greatly exaggerated - the man served in the secret service, after all. But with over two hundred and eighty films to his name, Christopher Lee will be with us all in some way as long as the medium exists. Whether his shade's in the next world or not, the shadow he cast on the silver screen will last forever.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Terrible Steeds


 A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden – and of war. Colossal planteaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meateaters like Allosaurus and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from batsized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Milán's splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…and the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where we have vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engaged in battle. And during the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac – and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.

Oh come on


Friday, 3 April 2015

Threads


For the last week - last month, really - I've been unwell. I figured it was just another winter-to-spring virus, or possibly the onset of hayfever. But it didn't account for the great frustration, the great sadness, that I felt. I was angry at the world, and I didn't know why.

A timely reminder from a friend told me: it's been a year.

It's been a year since Miguel Martins died. I still miss him greatly, even having only met him for a few days in Texas. But we knew each other about as well as Lovecraft and Howard knew one another: we exchanged emails, debated on matters Howardian, historical and (sometimes) hysterical. The conversation's reached a lull.

I never got around to posting the fifth Scottish Invasion of Cross Plains, and I figure now is as good a time as any to explain why: it's going to be the last time I'm going for the foreseeable future. It has become financially impossible for me to continue jetting off half a world away for a month each year, often with a month or two's preparation and most of the previous year's money going on the plane tickets alone. Every day in Arizona and Texas, I felt tremendous pangs of sadness, as I knew that this might be the last year I go.

I disclosed my feelings to a select few of my friends there. I had thought - as I always did - that this would be the last year. The first year, it was a "once in a lifetime" event. The second, it was just the one encore. The third would be the last time, definitely. Then... well, that's how things went, isn't it?

I could no longer put off the inevitable. Until my financial and professional situation improves, Cross Plains will have to do without me this year. I'm tearing my guts out, of course: Mark Schultz was going to be there, and I would've loved to talk Xenozoic Tales with him. I would've relished talking with Jeff Shanks about the new Conan RPG coming out. I would've been overjoyed seeing all the friends I'd made over the past five years again. I'd made even more friends in Arizona, at the Phoenix Comic-Con, and beyond.

I'll relate one story from the Fifth Invasion. Patrice Louinet was the guest of honour. I was excited: here was someone from closer to home making a similar journey to me and Miguel. The English Channel, so long seeming such a barrier between island and continent, now seemed a mere babbling brook compared to the immensity of the Atlantic; the great expanse of England a patch compared to the grand expanse of North America. So of course I felt a tremendous kinship with him, being fellow Europeans, rekindling the fires of the Auld Alliance. But more importantly, we knew Miguel.

So we talked about our mutual friend. Miguel was naturally a fixture of the French Robert E. Howard community, and Patrice knew him well. He told me a lot about him, his family, and his circumstances. And we shared a moment that I think Miguel would have appreciated. Then, talk wandered to the French Howard community, and of the annual gathering which took place: I was assured I would love it (I don't know, a Robert E. Howard gathering, is that really "me"?) and I seriously considered going. Unfortunately, it was in October, and I was in no mood to be doing anything that month, that year.

This year is very different. I found a spring in my step. The world didn't seem quite so dark. I think on some level, conscious or otherwise, everyone leaves a trace of themselves somewhere, like thread catching on a fence: that thread is always tethered to you through the aether, always connecting you to the places and people you love. There's a thread caught on a cactus in a little garden in Surprize, Arizona; there's another snagged on the door of the Phoenix Convention Centre; one wrapped on the fence of 36 and Avenue J, Cross Plains. Every so often, I feel those threads tugging. Reminding me that there's always a piece of me in Texas.

But it isn't just places, it's people: I have threads stretching to wonderful people in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, California, Florida, New Mexico, Canada... and Japan. England. Germany. France.

I may not be returning to Texas this year. But there's a whole world out there, and many strangers waiting to become friends. I've been to Paris before, as a young boy: a thin, gossamer thread at Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, Disneyland Paris. That thread could do with a reinforcement.

I owe it to a friend.

“But he was a Frenchman. You can’t expect a Frenchman to live hundreds of years. Not in these times. The French are smart people. You can’t fool a Frenchman.”
 - Robert E. Howard, "A Glass of Vodka," letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, ca. September 1932

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Howardian Valentines


This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to Novalyne Price, 14th February, 1936

I haven't shied away from being very personal on my blog, but there are some places I wouldn't go. I wouldn't discuss politics or religion, and I'd now decided to add racism, sexism and other "isms" to that lot - not because I don't deem them worthy of discussion, far from it, but because they are so potent and emotive that I simply cannot maintain any degree of impartiality or fairness when I feel my guts twisting in anger, pain or frustration.  There was a time I could discuss those subjects with passion but without too much emotion, but not any more.  Enraged histrionics are funny in parodies or satire, but when someone is truly compromised by their own emotional reaction to something, then it's no use for anyone involved for the affected to continue participating. Perhaps sometime in the future I'll revisit them.

That doesn't mean I've gone soft, of course, or that I subjects I do talk about don't affect me emotionally. War, poverty, love, adventure, injustice, charity - things that tug or tear my heartstrings affect me just as strongly, but for whatever reason, my sense of reasoning and logic are enough to balance that passion into an articulate manner. In addition, if ever someone talks about something they know nothing about, it's very easy to see - and dismiss. So since I'm no expert on world religions, gender mores and whatnot, I decided "you know what? Why should I talk about these things I barely understand?"

But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to get very personal with one story this Valentine's Day, and how I think it may have helped heal a broken heart.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Robert E. Howard's Conan - Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

I feel a bit like an apostate. I've not been keeping up with REH news and events for a while, though I still pop in at the Robert E. Howard Readers Facebook page and very occassionally at the REH Forums. Things seemed a bit quiet.

Then Jeff Shanks had to go and ruin it all with this announcement.



Modiphius Entertainment announces the definitive sword & sorcery roleplaying game, planned for launch August 2015

KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of....

Modiphius is proud to announce a licensing deal with Conan Properties to publish Robert E. Howard’s CONAN Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of. This is CONAN roleplaying as Robert E. Howard wrote it – savage pulp adventure battling ancient horrors in the Hyborian Age! We plan to bring the game right back to its roots, focusing on the original stories by Robert E. Howard.

Modiphius has scored a leading team of Hyborian Age scribes to chronicle these adventures including Timothy Brown (designer of the Dark Sun setting for Dungeons & Dragons), award-winning Robert E. Howard scholar and essayist Jeffrey Shanks (Conan Meets the Academy, REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, Critical Insights: Pulp Fiction, The Dark Man: The Journal of REH Studies, Zombies from the Pulps!), Jason Durall (Basic Roleplaying, Serenity, The Laundry), Chris Lites (Paizo, Savage Worlds, Omni, Slate), and many more to be announced.

Players and GM’s alike will feel the might of the 2d20 game system, the cinematic roleplaying rules devised by Jay Little (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire) for Mutant Chronicles, and sharpened up for intense sword and sorcery action. The 2d20 system lets players experience the true pulp adventure of the CONAN stories.

Howard expert Jeffrey Shanks will approve all content, ensuring it remains true to the spirit of the source material and brings the Hyborian Age to life. World-famous CONAN artist Sanjulian (Conan Ace Paperbacks, Vampirella, Eerie, Creepy) has been commissioned, as well as Carl Critchlow (Batman/Judge Dredd, Anderson: Psi Division). Joining them are other CONAN greats such as Mark Schultz (The Coming of Conan, Xenozoic Tales, Prince Valiant), Tim Truman (Dark Horse Conan, Grimjack, Jonah Hex), Phroilan Gardner (Age of Conan, World of Warcraft), Alex Horley (Blizzard, Heavy Metal, Magic: The Gathering) and many more.

Modiphius is working with other Conan Properties licensing partners including Monolith Board Games, creator of the hit CONAN boardgame which has surpassed $2 million on Kickstarter, and Funcom, creator of the long-running, free-to-play, MMO Age of Conan. Modiphius plans some select supplements including missions designed for the Monolith boardgame, as well as floorplan tile sets allowing you to use Conan miniatures in your roleplaying adventures!

Modiphius is already working on the roleplaying corebook for Robert E. Howard’s CONAN Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of to be released this Fall. A Kickstarter is planned for the summer to fund a larger range of roleplaying supplements, campaigns, and accessories to follow the core book.

Ho, Dog Brothers! (and Sisters) Don your mail, hone your blade, and pray to whatever fickle gods might listen. Harken to the sound of clanging steel, cries of battle, and death curses spat from bloody, frothing lips! Tread the jeweled thrones of the earth at www.modiphius.com/conan or die in towers of spider-haunted mystery. Crom cares not!

So having talked with Jeff about this just after the announcement, it seems that this is going to be something I've been wanting since I got back into Robert E. Howard - a Conan adaptation that just sticks to Howard, with no pastiches whatsoever. No Arenjun, no Serpent Crown, no Spider-Thing of Poitain, no Colossus of Shem, none of that. No ties with the comics, films, or books by other authors. And this isn't just us Howard crumbs - some real stars in that team there from the world of RPGs. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is extremely cool.

This follows up on the tremendous Monolith Conan RPG, which still has some time left on the clock (just over two days as of this posting) to go nuts with stretch goals. I've backed it: it's the first time I can recall when you could have miniatures based on characters other than Conan, Belit or Thoth-Amon - Valeria, Shevatas, Taurus, and my girl Zelata!



Sure, the Aquiromians and Uberboreans are still lingering, but with this new RPG announcement, I feel like we're getting there. The Mongoose Conan RPG was excellent, but I'm of the opinion Conan and the Hyborian Age is easily rich enough to support multiple interpretations, and this extends to RPGs. Perhaps, then, this could be the start of an entirely new generation for Howard and Conan? The Conan license seemed stuck in a sort of limbo: the 2011 film, Mongoose losing the license, Brian Wood and then Fred Van Lente all but rebooting the Dark Horse Conan, Age of Conan going free to play. It seemed Conan was in danger of slumber. Perhaps now, after Conan Meets the Academy broke down the gates of Academia and Howard's status as A Writer Of Real Literary Merit has become normalised, we're going to see a change.

Well, we'll have to see, won't we?