We all have a favourite Christmas/New Year tradition. Maybe it’s a Christmas Eve drinking session with people you don’t see as often as you like, or a Boxing Day family walk. For me, it’s Tim Maytom‘s Person of the Year. We’ve recognised five Persons of the Year on this blog, given a boost by the fact that Tim’s a dirty cheat, and last year picked both Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. This year, I’ve managed to keep his rulebreaking to a minimum. So who will wear the Alex-Spencer.co.uk Sponsored by Tim Maytom Person of the Year crown for the next twelve months? Let’s find out. Taylor Swift is by far the most famous person I have awarded the much-coveted title of Person of the Year to. The previous four entries were far from unknown, but to one degree or another, you had to be interested in them to know who they were. Even Amy Poehler, 2012’s PotY, has a tendency to disappear into her characters, and certainly has a lower profile here in the UK than she does in the States, where SNL put her on more people’s radars. Those kinds of qualifiers don’t apply to Taylor Swift. Even if they’ve never heard her songs, the vast majority of people will have heard of her, thanks to the tabloid machine. And the number of people who haven’t heard at least one of her songs must now be a considerably thinner wedge of the pie chart, thanks to 1989. Swift’s fifth studio album wasn’t the catapult that sent her into the mainstream consciousness (that was 2012’s Red, with its peerless “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, and the press at the height of their ‘who’s Taylor Swift dating?’ mania) but it is the one that cements her position as a global pop sensation. Much has been made of 1989 as her first true pop album, and while there’s elements of truth to that, with guitars swapped for drums and synths and a sound steeped in the legacy of acts from its title year, Swift has always been a pop star, it’s just now she’s embracing that. In the liner notes that accompany 1989, Swift writes about change and coming into her own, addressing the foreword from “the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love”. For all the effort people put into working out which ex-boyfriend every given song is about (answer: all of them, none of them) that seems to be the true theme of the album – Swift realising that she has changed and that she enjoys her new status quo in the spotlight. In “You Belong With Me”, from her second album Fearless, Swift pines for a boyfriend from afar, criticising his current girlfriend and singing that “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers”. Now, Swift is the one in short skirts and high heels, happy to add a few more inches to her 5’10” frame so she towers over others. It’s worth noting, though, that even back in 2009, Swift played both her ‘self’ and the girlfriend in the video and cover art for “You Belong With Me”. 1989 is a record about confidence and comfort. That’s reflected in the masterful video for “Blank Space”, satirising those who would accuse her of being a vengeful ex. It’s reflected in the absence of duets with artists who can’t compare with her, two of which dragged down Red (fuck off, Ed Sheeran). It’s reflected in the final three bonus tracks on the deluxe version, demonstrating her song-writing process to all of those who complain she’s a manufactured star. And it’s reflected in the build-up to the album’s release.‘Authenticity’ is one of those ridiculous terms that crops up in music criticism with a cyclic regularity, and Taylor Swift manages to carve through that with impressive assurance. Are her Instagram and Tumblr accounts cynical ploys to engage with the teen girls who form the core of her audience? Was inviting fans to a sleepover at her house and listen to the album ahead of time a marketing strategy?Whether Taylor Swift is actually the global megastar who still manages to be the cool girl next door, or if it’s just an act, does it really matter? 1989 and everything that surrounds it is a resounding “hell no” to that question. So often, our artists arrive fully formed, aesthetic and style set in place from the word go. Watching Swift evolve from country singer to true pop sensation hasn’t been an evolution, it’s been a camera coming into focus, refining what was always there until it shines through clearly. It’s been the act of a young woman embracing her power, her status and her agency, and showing the world exactly who she’s become. It is customary to begin this biog of Tim Maytom by pointing out that he is always my Person of the Year, but that has been aggressively true in 2014. As well as setting up a joint blog about The Wicked + The Divine, we now work together. As a result, I am treated to his witticisms daily – watch out for future bestseller Maytom/Spencer: The Skype Conversations (2013-15) – as well as Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally his own blog. Jealous? You damn well should be.
Playing my Songs of 2014 mix in the family living room this Christmas holiday, I’ve come to realise: gosh, rather a lot of these songs are about sex. But arguably none more than my single favourite of the year. Before we get into it… I’m listening to this track on Spotify right now, and it’s marked EXPLICIT. We might as well go right ahead and say the same thing about the blog you’re about to read. So stop now if we’re related or something, okay? FKA Twigs – Two Weeks Enthusing about Two Weeks to friends this year, I’ve tended to call it the best pop song ever written about oral sex – a title for which, of course, there’s no shortage of competition. Honestly, in terms of what the song means to me, I could stop this blog right there – but why use forty words when you could use four hundred, eh? Besides, there are a lot of other things going on in Two Weeks which I feel like I should address. The song is a) a triumphant taunt after a break-up, b) a masterful kiss-off to a guy who’s with someone else anyway, c) an irresistible seduction because fuck that someone else, anyway. I genuinely do believe in all those readings, but frankly I don’t have much use for any of them. Anyway, whatever your take on the song, there’s an undeniable common thread: two people, one metric tonne of sexual tension. Because Two Weeks is a genuinely tense song. It begins with indistinct looped vocals that sound like a summoning chant played backwards. On top of that come these incursions of bass, and finally Twigs singing “I know it hurts” with a sense of forced restraint. It’s electrifyingly tense, and one that the song spends its running time breaking and then building back up. The end of the first verse is delivered in a series of staccato gasps, building to “that chaste mouth open like [extended vowel sound describing inexpressible pleasure]”. Suddenly, the music all floods in at once, the song blossoming into chorus. (There may be some subtext here. Speaking of, I love the way the song’s is literally buried under the main vocals, an obscured “I can treat you better than her” in the first verse switching to “I can fuck you better than her” by the second.) But even then, there’s never any sense of a true climax. Two Weeks is Tantric pop, if I can be that gross – the feeling of fingers tracing along skin, of toes bunching together, of involuntary shudders. Over the course of four minutes, precisely who we’re talking about here shifts. The song’s front end promises pleasure, the second half promises she’ll take it from you. Compare and contrast the “I’d quench that thirst” at 00:25 and “I’ll quench your thirst” at 03:17. I guess, basically, the thing I love about Two Weeks is that Twigs keeps telling you that she’ll put you first, but it’s so incredibly clear she actually doesn’t mean it. That applies equally to interpretations a, b, and c but, more importantly, to the other thing. “Get your mouth open,You know you’re mine.“ Oh, and before we go, a quick mention of the video, which is simultaneously: an incredibly confident introduction to an artist emerging fully-formed like Venus; a reaction to Kanye West’s Power video; a spectacular trompe-l’œil, 2014’s foremost incursion of The Wicked + The Divine’s pop-mythos into reality (excepting possibly the Kate Bush gigs); and a perfect encapsulation, in its teasingly slow zoom out, of what makes the song great.
It’s Christmas Eve, which in some cultures I believe is actually the main day of gifting.So in that spirit, I’m slipping a special little something into your aural stocking. Forget about tomorrow’s books and sweets and alcohols, here’s a present you can unwrap right now – a playlist of my favourite songs of 2014 (in no particular order except the one I think sounds best). Listen on Spotify here, or using the widget thing below. (Fair warning: the last couple of tracks don’t work unless you already own them. But you really should do anyway.) Or, if you’re not into the whole Spotify thing, here’s the tracklist: Beyoncé – Drunk in Love (Kanye West Remix) Tinashe – 2 On CHVRCHES – Dead Air Hello Saferide – The Crawler Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) Robyn – Tell You (Today) Run The Jewels – Oh My Darling Don’t Cry Rustie – Attak (feat. Danny Brown) Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again Kitty – Miss U How To Dress Well – Repeat Pleasure FKA twigs – Two Weeks Nancy Whang – I Was Made for Loving You – Extended Version Alvvays – Archie, Marry Me Zola Jesus – Dangerous Days Lykke Li – I Never Learn The-Dream – Wedding Bells Taylor Swift – Blank Space It’s a pretty good overview of a year. As ever, I haven’t always been as engaged with the Hot New Music as I wanted, which I’m constantly being reminded as I pick through other people’s Best of 2014 lists – but there were at least a dozen songs I deeply loved this year, and that’s all I ever really need. I’ll be going into depth on my absolute favourite of these tracks next week, but for now, happy listening, and merry Christmas!
Our final bit of catch-up blogging on every game I’ve played this year. After the laser focus of the last two posts – on Friday I wrote about the multiplayer games I’ve most enjoyed while drinking with friends,on Sunday I talked about my unexpected love for the Wii U – there’s no real pattern connecting the remaining games I wanted to talk about. So, I proudly present: The Rest of What I’ve Been Playing Permadeath, hacking and cartoony visuals. Random generation, of levels and baddies. XCOM‘s turn-based strategy, mixed with Splinter Cell‘s stealth. These are a few of my favourite things. Actually, when it comes to games, these are pretty much my absolute favourite things. Invisible, Inc has them all, plus a moody soundtrack, cyberpunk-meets-Mission:Impossible style, and the impressive pedigree of developer Klei (also responsible for the excellent Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve). Stealth is traditionally the preserve of third-person and occasionally first-person games, like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Thief. Switching the perspective to the god’s eye view of something like XCOM is an unusual decision, which abstracts the experience slightly. Then again, with their light meters and vision cones, stealth games were hardly the most naturalistic to begin with. It also shifts the focus away from the moment-to-moment tension of being caught, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching from the shadows, towards careful planning. Information is still limited, but you’ve got much more to work with – I went back to Dishonored recently, and after playing Invisible Inc, the constant obfuscation of its first-person sneaking just felt wrong. With that extra information, and less concern about fiddly execution, it makes it easier to come up with an interesting idea – hey, if I distract this guard with a noise and lead him over here, I can sneak behind him, hack this panel, then switch the targeting on that turret so it takes him out. Without the potential for a fudged button press causing chaos, all that matters is that you have a sound plan. This gets even better when you consider that the game lets you control two agents simultaneously – or even three, if things go well. It allows for some great moments, as you close the patented ‘Clever Girl’ manoeuvre on an unsuspecting guard. Best of all, Invisible Inc is a work in progress. You can buy it on early access, with updates every couple of weeks – meaning the finished product could well make another appearance on these lists next year. My only encounter with a real physical skateboard ended with me running over my own arm, but as a kid with a chipped PlayStation in the early ’00s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is written deep into my gaming DNA. OlliOlli is a minimalist demake of those games, flattening its levels into a linear two dimensions, but keeping the sprawling objectives. These are often mutually exclusive, sometimes explicitly so: pull off this difficult grind; reach the end of the level without doing a single trick. It’s an encouragement to endlessly replay levels, bail after bail after painful bail, until the memory of every gap and rail is locked into your fingers. …Or something like that, anyway. Honestly, I find OlliOlli difficult to write about because the experience of every session washes away as soon as I close the lid of my laptop, but also because, while you’re in it, the game is so absolutely consuming. Any stressful thoughts you might be carry unspool in the face of hitting a grind just perfectly, that satisfying kiss of axel on rail, and the inevitable failure that follows it, your avatar’s face meeting pavement for the hundredth time in a row. OlliOlli is the most frustrating relaxation game you’ll ever play. After a years-long drought, 2014 was blessed with not one but two installments in the Peggle series. Peggle 2 is essentially a bigger, brighter remake of the original – itself a shinier version of pachinko or pinball, with a single aimed ball leading to all sorts of unintended consequences as it pings between pegs – with all the production values pushed up to next-gen levels. Peggle Blast, on mobile, pares back the Peggle formula so it fits into a free-to-play app. If pressed, I’d tell you Peggle Blast is the better game. The free-to-play model brings out the nastiest side of Popcap. The game gives you a limited number of lives that refill over the course of hours, it’s constantly pushing extra shots or power-ups in exchange for cash or watching an ad – but it also forces them to to be more inventive. Peggle 2‘s biggest trick is giving each of its five characters a different theme song. As your ball bounces around, it triggers a chime which gets higher and higher with each peg you hit, building up to the pay-off when the screen is finally cleared, rewarding you with fireworks and a climactic blast of soundtrack. Given how much Peggle has always been about disproportionate audio-visual feedback for its challenges, this certainly isn’t insignificant – especially as it manages to find songs as triumphant as the original’s Ode to Joy,and, in the case of Hall of The Mountain King, even more so. However, as Peggle Blast seeks to make the game harder and more addictive, in an attempt to pilfer pennies from players’ pockets, it has to keep finding new tricks. Secondary objectives; boss fights; pegs with different properties; colour-coded keys that unlock certain parts of the screen; even goo-spreading gnomes, for some reason. One of the original Peggle‘s charms was that it felt like no other videogame out there. Peggle Blast goes the other way, giving it the feel of an arcade game – and one that, for all my problems with in-app purchases, doesn’t actually require you to pop in a single quarter to have fun. So that’s everything I’ve played this year, pretty much – with one notable exception. We’ll be talking about that next week, though, when […]
Another installment from my attempt to document everything I’ve played this year. On Friday I wrote about the multiplayer PC games I’ve most enjoyed as an accompaniment to alcohol, today I’d like to focus on the small black box which started occupying a space beneath our TV this summer – and in my heart not long after. Me & The Wii U The most common reaction from people when I told them I’d just bought a Wii U was: Why?. The implication being, I think: Why didn’t you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Or, depending on the person, and given that I was in the middle of buying my first home at the time: Why didn’t you just stick with the frankly ridiculous number of consoles you already have? The former is easy to answer. A larger quantity of pixels isn’t something I desperately crave, and the unique experiences on offer is only now starting to exceed what I could count on one hand. The latter… not so much. I’ll concede that the Wii U’s key selling point – that tablet-style controller – is slightly silly. Very few games have actually made good on its potential and, as even my 50-something parents (who have now inherited my original Wii, as hush money) pointed out, the chunky plastic controller looks rather ungainly and old fashioned in an era of iPad Airs. And yet, I can’t remember building such an emotional relationship with a piece of technology, not for a long, long time. Why is that? Well, it’s certainly not the selection of third-party games. I own two, ZombiU and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, both relics of Ubisoft’s early dalliances with the console. Black Flag is a wonderful opportunity for period tourism across a string of 18th Century Caribbean islands, hamstrung by the tedious day-to-day of Assassin’s Creed games. ZombiU actually uses the controller better than most Nintendo-crafted games, pulling your attention away from the main screen and towards the smaller one you’re holding in your hands to create tension, while you rummage through a bag as the undead shamble ever closer to your delicious, delicious brain. Combined with the wonderful specificity of its East London setting and the RTS-vs-FPS multiplayer, it’s a nice addition to the roster for the sub-fiver prices you’ll find it for, but far from the reason to recommend picking up a Wii U. Maybe my love for the Wii U is driven by nostalgia, then? Nintendo Land provides probably the best evidence for this argument. At launch, the game filled the same role for the Wii U as Wii Sports did for its predecessor – a bundled-in package of mini-games built to show off the unique capabilities of the new controller. This means squeezing in features like the controller’s built-in camera, used to display the player’s hilarious facial contortions on the big screen, or touchscreen, to draw a line between obstacles that you can only see on the TV, or its microphone, to …activate a fan by blowing. Some of these inclusions are more successful than others, but the best games take full advantage of the second screen to keep the player using that controller more clued in than their opponents on the Wiimotes. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (or ‘Cheeky Ghost’, as it’s known round our gaff) uses this to make one player the ghost, sneaking up unseen on four ghost hunters, armed only with a torch, and provoking some of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen in a multiplayer game. As in Wii Sports, each mini game in Nintendo Land – there are a dozen of variable quality, but with three stone-cold classics – is simple but surprisingly deep and satisfying, with the caveat that you need to be playing them with friends crowded round the TV. But, tellingly, where Wii Sports created a new setting – admittedly, a rather blank one – for its games, Nintendo Land dresses up each in the patchwork clothes of a familiar Nintendo franchise. There’s a Zelda-themed archery game, an F Zero X racer, a Metroid arena shooter, all of them using a sort of cargo-cult version of the series’ own aesthetic to fit the charmingly wonky house style, where everything is apparently handmade out of recycled cloth and clockwork and crayons. The effect is to make Nintendo Land a virtual museum of the company’s history. This is literalised by its setting, which frames each mini-game as an attraction in a theme park. You can explore this Nintendo Land on foot, littered with statues and familiar iconography and jukeboxes that bit of menu music you played as a kid, which are awarded to you for playing an old-school pachinko machine. It helps that (some of) the attractions contained within are so enjoyable, but somehow this isn’t anywhere near as awful as it sounds like it should be. I wouldn’t identify myself as a nostalgic Nintendo fan, despite the Gameboy and N64 being my first consoles as a kid, but it would be impossible to deny that the characters have built up a reserve of goodwill with me over the years, which Nintendo Land taps for everything it’s worth. Overall, though, the most honest answer to that Why? is simply this: Mario Kart 8. The Mario Kartgames have always been an indispensable part of life in the Spencer-Dale household, so buying the latest a new installment… well, there wasn’t really much question of us not buying it. Looked at one way, MK8 is just the latest in a long line of chunky, accessible racers. But looked at another… Who the hell doesn’t want that? MK8 is broader than any other Mario Kart game before it, and polished so much it practically glares. It still feels exactly right to tug the controller left and right to steer your kart around corners, the way most of us did anyway in the days before motion controls, tongues sticking out in concentration – and even the parts which sounded gimmicky in the […]
For a while this year, I was convinced I could blog about every single game I spent a decent amount of time with. Then I remembered how life works. Playing something in 10 minute sessions over the course of months, or multiplayer with friends, isn’t really conducive to writing about it. So, over this weekend, I’m planning to post three breakdowns of the remaining games I failed to write up, split into rough categories. Starting with… Drinking games Games and alcohol, eh? The two are a reliable cocktail, one I’ve mixed in various ways over the years. When I lived at home, games were a accompaniment to pre-drinks – Peggle, WWE Superstars, B.U.T.T.O.N. – with loose drinking rules draped over them. In our London flat, they were for the morning after – Worms, Spelunky, Mario Kart – a roomful of people hiding their hangovers behind competitive multiplayer. This year, especially since moving out to a bungalow in the far reaches of London, I finally cracked the post-pub game. Simple thrills that don’t lean too hard on your brain functions, that keep you awake with bursts of laughter. I’ve written about Nidhogg before, and that has stayed in healthy rotation over the course of the year, but there are also some new challengers for the 3am gaming crown. Towerfall: Ascension is possibly the purest example of the form. Four players battling on a single screen, each armed with a bow and a limited number of arrows. A single hit means death. Kill or be killed. That’s an incredibly simple formula, but the little details manage to make it feel complex. Arrows embed themselves into the scenery, pin crumpled bodies to walls, waiting to picked up by someone who’s prematurely emptied their quiver (it happens to the best of us). While players scrabble towards this errant ammunition, they have one weapon left in their armoury: a simple Mario-style jump onto an opponent’s head, as fatal as an arrow through the chest. That’s not the only lift from Nintendo’s leading practiser of turtle-head parkour. As in the original Mario Bros, each arena loops infinitely, so that dropping off the bottom of the screen will, bamf, have you immediately reappearing at the top. All this gives Towerfall the feel of a deadly bouncy castle. A typical game moves moves in bursts. After an early exchange of arrows that’s likely to fell the first player or two, the survivors will cautiously circle each other for minutes. But when it’s time, Towerfall‘s action happens faster than your conscious brain can really track – just your bare muscle memory versus your opponent’s. And so the tension builds slowly, and is quickly released, which is where all the laughter comes from. This is the same basic mechanism behind most verbal jokes and it’s also, I reckon, the secret of Nidhogg and Broforce. Broforce is the cheap thrill of a Steven Seagal film in the early hours on Channel 5, or of a just-before-the-shop-closes box of fried chicken, in the form of a co-operative shoot ’em up for up to four players. At first glance, the game looks like a no-frills remake of Contra or Metal Slug. In tandem with its roster of knock-off ’80s action stars with dodgy pun names (Rambro, Brominator, B.A. Broracus), you might expect Broforce to rely on retro nostalgia. Being completely honest, it does lean on these pleasures – but vitally, the game is also packed with smart and fresh ideas. The levels you shoot your way through, for example, are entirely destructible. Over-zealous deployment of explosives can make it impossible to reach the end, meaning that your own weapons are as much of a threat as the thousands of balaclava wearers you’ll run into. The way that the game juggles its enormous playable cast of ‘bros’ is pretty remarkable, too. Getting your hands on each new character, they feel just right. A Will-Smith-in-Men-in-Black bro comes equipped with a kickback-heavy Noisy Cricket, plus a Neuralyzer for stunning enemies. The twin Boondock Bros move, shoot and die individually, like Smash Bros’ Ice Climbers. A bro version of Rose McGowan’s character from Planet Terror propels herself through the air using her gun leg. But what’s even more impressive is the way these characters are built into the game. Levels are peppered with cages, which can be broken open to rescue the bro inside. This gives you an extra life, but also switches you to a random bro. It turns something as simple as a 1-Up into an interesting decision: if you’re currently playing as your favourite, do you take the life and risk getting Indiana Brones (arguably the best action hero, but inarguably the worst bro)? (In the multiplayer, if a fellow player is currently dead – which, given the chaos that ensues when four people play together, they will be – it simply brings them back to life. This is less interesting, though much more helpful.) Meanwhile, the game acts as a broad parody of jingoistic action movies, pitched somewhere between Team America and Hot Shots Part Deux. Each level ends with you blasting a besuited Satan then hitching a ride on a chopper as the level explodes below you, all to the soundtrack of a screeching guitar solo. It’s just funny, basically, especially to a brain that’s spent the last six hours pickled in long island iced tea. These trappings certainly help but, again, it’s the play itself which is funniest. Broforce is the rare kind of game where enemies not only hugely outnumber the player, but actually take more shots to kill. A single bullet ends your life in a sudden splurt of red pixels, and that’s funny enough, but watching a friend single-handedly master the rest of the level with Indy, only to be crushed by a falling square of concrete right on the finish line? That’s hilarious. I wanted to talk about The Jackbox Party Pack here, too – a compendium of five quirky quiz games, played on the PC and […]
It’s my birthday! So, before we begin our two-week look back over the past year, let’s go deeper still into the past. A fortnight ago, I would have told you I’d listened pretty much exclusively to brand new music this year. But then, in preparation for these blogs, I started looking into my play counts, and discovered a whole bunch of tracks from before the year began. So here are 11 songs, released as recently as December 2013 and as long ago as 1985, all of which I fell in love with for the first time during 2014. I picked up in the fire sale of last year’s ‘best of’ lists. Songs from old favourites which had somehow passed me by until now. Songs that have been sitting around for a while, just waiting to click in my brain. Listen to the playlist in the widget below, or find it on Spotify here. Charli XCX – SuperLove Flume – Insane (feat. Moon Holiday & Killer Mike) Star Slinger – Mornin’ Kate Bush – Cloudbusting Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise Burial – Hiders Kanye West – The New Workout Plan Moderat – Bad Kingdom Schoolboy Q – Hands On The Wheel Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M. Bat For Lashes – Laura
Slightly belatedly, we return, stretching the ‘every ninety(ish) days’ part of the T+AGTWATD format to its absolute limit. As usual, here are three essays from myself and Tim, this time focused on the ‘Faust Act’ as a whole. Grand DesignsLooking back over the first arc of The Wicked + The Divine, it’s hard to deny that the story beats are unevenly distributed. There are a glut of events in the first and final issues and – at least if you view this as the story of Luci and Laura – not much of real consequence in between. And yet, each new issue has genuinely felt like an event. A lot of that, I think, lies in the slow teasing of the gods. The book’s set-up tells us that there are twelve of them, but we don’t meet them all immediately. When the story starts, the world doesn’t even know about a quarter of them, and five issues in we still haven’t pinned down who Tara is. (Fucking Tara.) Given Kieron Gillen’s tendency towards full disclosure, he and the rest of Team WicDiv have been impressively quiet about the thinking behind the characters. That leaves it to the comic to deliver the compact package of ideas that is each god. They’re not just characters but archetypes, references, lines drawn across the twin histories of mythology and pop. They’re vessels for cultural criticism, representatives of a diversity that’s more unusual in comics than it should be. All of this is doled out a couple of panels at a time – and the only god we’ve spent a truly significant amount of time talking to so far has had her head blown off. So, what makes this tease seductive, rather than frustrating? I don’t mean to sound shallow, but I suspect it’s all down to looks. Jamie McKelvie was already one of the great designers in comics. His Captain Marvel redesign is a huge part of that character’s recent success. In Young Avengers, each new costume change was a cause of great joy and much Tumblr fanart. In preparation for The Wicked + The Divine, however, it seems he ingested centuries of mythological imagery, catwalk fashion and popstar aesthetics. (Just look at the official WicDiv Style Blog.) Amaterasu’s psychedelic explosion of eye make-up. The sleek androgynous cut of Lucifer’s suits, versus the broad block colours of Baal’s. The Morrigan, three complementary designs that condense the gothy glory of Sandman‘s Endless into a single character. The Jazz Age glamour of the ’20s Recurrence’s gods. Ananke’s wardrobe of elaborate veils. All of those ideas I mentioned earlier, McKelvie manages to pack into the first glimpse of each god, remixing the broad influences into something we’ve never quite seen before. Which makes turning the page to something like this totally thrilling: “Oh shit,” indeed. This double page spread, from issue #4, is possibly the series’ greatest moment thus far. This is a spread to linger on, the way I used to with Where’s Wally? and, after that, with the cameo-packed battle scenes in Marvel crossover comics: Oh. Tim was totally right about Woden. Ooh. Loving Ammy’s new look. Hm. What’s Minerva riffing on? Arguably, it’s completely separate to the story. The page is packed with descriptive information, but not much actually happens. That’s pretty much the definition of world building, a term I normally deploy like someone handling a used nappy. So why do I like it so much here? Maybe because the world of The Wicked + The Divine is unusually distinctive. This isn’t world building in the ‘give the seasons silly names, and make our orcs a different colour’ sense, and each new piece of design does actually shine more light on the ideas that the story itself is communicating. Maybe because it fits neatly with the subject matter so well. Most of us have loved at least one popstar so much that we covet each new glimpse of album art, each magazine cover shoot, each mid-show costume change. Maybe there’s something mimetic about those covers, where McKelvie simply renders his designs as sharply as possible and lets Matt Wilson’s colours, pushed reliably into overdrive, communicate the rest. Or maybe I am just that shallow, and it’s just because everything is so damn pretty. I’d be okay with that, frankly. Illuminated Gospels If we use the common analogy comparing a comic’s creative team to a film crew, then a comic’s letterer would be something along the lines of sound design – one of those categories that Oscar coverage tends to talk over, and people tend to ignore when considering how the final product is assembled. Like sound design, bad lettering can cripple a comic, but good lettering is often invisible, because its whole purpose is to service the more ‘showy’ elements. With that in mind, let’s have a smattering of applause for Clayton Cowles, letterer for The Wicked + The Divine, and shine a light on his craft, and how it plays into the comic’s atmosphere. The biggest lettering style element is the most easily skimmed over – the distinction between the all-caps word bubbles, in traditional comic style, and Laura’s narration, which is closer to handwriting. It doesn’t go to the lengths of Hazel, the infant narrator of Saga, whose asides are hand-written directly onto the art by artist Fiona Staples, but the lower-case lettering and rounded bubbles give it a vulnerability and naivety that the same words in all-caps would lack. It has the feeling of a diary or a confession, conveying personality and intimacy. Some of the lettering effects have been more overt – Woden’s square-bubbled, neon green on black lettering, lit by a gentle glow at the centre, is autotune visualised, a voice stripped of any personality and irregularity, perfect in its anonymity. When Laura runs into Highbury & Islington Underground in the hopes of finding the Morrigan, her yelled plea first becomes a large, disjointed word that cannot be contained by […]
Once again, we return.Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each. This time round, we’re focusing on issues #4 and #5 – and as you might expect, there’s a big focus on Laura and Luci’s relationship. Spoilers abound. Elegy for the Devil In many ways, Luci was the apotheosis of Gillen/McKelvie characters – a morally ambiguous, razor-witted woman with mythical powers, fantastic fashion sense and an asymmetrical haircut. In her swaggering DNA, we can find the traces of Emily Aster, Loki, Astrid, Silent Girl, America Chavez and more. Of course she had to die. Even in the world of The Wicked + The Divine, gods are defined by their stories. After all, while the deities manifest for only two short years, their influence stretches far beyond that. Their role is to inspire, to trigger something lasting from their brief time on Earth, and that means leaving behind tales that will drive people to obsession and fanaticism. They are defined by their stories – the ones they live, and the ones they leave. Woden must hang upon his tree. Minerva must enter the world fully formed. Lucifer must fall. So what caused Luci to fall? One could point to a number of emotions, both those that track with classical depictions and those very much unique to the book’s setting and interpretation, but in the end, I think it comes down to fear. Laura’s final visit to Luci’s cell, just before her escape, strips away all the illusions the character had held. She will be left to rot in jail for her sins until she dies, cut off from those who worship her, unable to wield any influence, alone and forsaken. Her fellow gods do not care if she is guilty or not, if she is a good person or bad, all that matters is that the (super)natural order is maintained. There is no justice. She will die, and leave little trace upon the world. It’s the throughline of the series, the Big Message Laser focused upon one character. Read that page as she comes to term with the news. Is that a tear she wipes away? We’ll never know. Look at the slow push McKelvie draws, boxing Luci in more and more. “You’re told you’re going to die…and some part of you just defiantly doesn’t believe it.” “It was never going to be okay.” In the end, it isn’t fear of death that triggers Luci’s escape, and subsequent demise, it’s fear of a death without meaning. It’s dying without a chance to make an impact on the world, to write her name in fire and blood and headlines. The Wicked + The Divine isn’t just about death. It’s about what we do with the knowledge that death is coming. Lucifer has to fall, but she has to go to war with heaven first. And of course, in those final moments, we see the young woman she originally was shine through, the one who doesn’t want to die before she’s 20. That small “Don’t”, a prayer and a plea against the inevitable. But then Lucifer is finally crowned with her halo, first one of fire, then one of blood, and her life comes to an end. But her story? That will last a lot longer. More Than A Superstar Bat for Lashes’ Laura is a song about loss which also finds the time to toy with ideas of glamour and fame. If you’ve been listening to it as much as I have over the past few months, you may just about be able to spot some connections with The Wicked + The Divine. There’s a good reason for that. In the Writer’s Notes for issue #1 of The Wicked + The Divine, Kieron Gillen says that Laura is one of the key songs – if not the key song – that inspired the series. It’s where our cheery (currently not so much) fangirl protagonist got her name. It’s the song Gillen posted on This Is My Jam the day issue #5 dropped. “You’re the train that crashed my heart/You’re the glitter in the dark.” The lyrics contain a pretty good summation of where we are at the end of #5 – I don’t think it’s much of a stretch so say that, in the film adaptation, it’d be the song that plays as that last scene fades to black – but it features a dark promise for the future, too: “Laura, you’re more than a superstar/You’ll be famous for longer than them.” The end of issue #5 suggest that maybe Laura could take her place among the pop-pantheon. But the previous issues have also gone out of their way to establish that’s she different from the gods. Their fate – infinite fame, very finite lifespans – was foisted upon them. Laura seems to be actively planning for it – no friends, no A-Levels, just a dream that makes everything else not worth living through. Maybe Laura will fill one of the two remaining openings in that wheel of symbols, but I’d bet that if she achieves her dream – and it’ll be interesting to see how much she still wants it all now she’s has her first bitter taste of fame – it won’t be as a god, omnipotent and disposable, but something else. Something more, according to the prophecy of Laura. In order to rise above your influences and become something truly great in your own right, you have to kill your idols, as the saying goes. The downside of that, of course, being that your idols end up rather dead. “You say that they’ve all left you behind/Your heart broken, the poverty died.” We’ll see how that one pans out. Every Superhero Needs His Theme Music It was the suit that did it. Jamie McKelvie has an […]
Once upon a time, I strayed from this blog, and set up a Tumblr. It’s now defunct because eventually I wasn’t unemployed, but it was a whirlwind romance while it lasted. For some reason, I’ve decided to do it again. Meet Words in Pictures. It’s a photographic scrapbook of all the tastiest morsels of novels, journalism, comics and anything else that could conceivably be said to feature ‘words’, each with an accompanying short essay. To give you an idea of what looks like in practice, here are five of my favourite things I’ve written so far: Some cards from Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game “Imagine a Cylon came into power. Imagine they managed to work out another player was secretly a fellow evil-bot, and made their position unimpeachable while they openly sabotaged the game…Are you starting to see it? That beautiful, complex knotted shape? This is the game in its perfect form.” Read the rest here A Passage from Rachel Edidin’s “Hey, White Americans. We Need to Talk.” “With every protest or riot or strike, public sympathy often seems to lie with what pop-culture always taught me was The Man: they’ve broken laws, it’s their own fault, they’re just being lazy, being greedy, they’ve inconvenienced me personally. I’m far too timid for revolution (or, hell, even for probing people’s reactions in a way that might make them uncomfortable enough to change their minds) but I worry that this is just the system’s antibodies at work.” Read the rest here Two Panels from Grant Morrison’s JLA: Rock of Ages “You can see the world as Lex does, with him as the hero. It’s a very different reading of the Superman story (oh yeah, that blue thing is Superman – ’90s superhero comics everybody!), but it’s one that sticks in the mind. What if all Superman comics are actually pro-Kryptonian propaganda? What if we don’t want to be overseen, which after all is really just another word for ‘watched’?” Read the rest here A Passage from Andrew Hickey’s An Incomprehensible Condition “Rather than performing a close reading of Morrison’s comic, Hickey manages to reproduce the feeling of it by being smarter than the reader by just enough, cutting between ideas just fast enough, that you can still just about follow. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to Thomas the Rhymer to Isaac Newton to golem myths to M-theory. It’s dizzying, mimetic criticism.” Read the rest here A Passage from Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test “It’s utterly convincing when, for example, Bob Hare tells you psychopaths are practically a second species hiding among us like Cylons. Then you turn to the next chapter, and encounter a completely contradictory perspective, and are won over by that one too. They all kind of plaster over one another, giving The Psychopath Test the texture of a palimpsest.” Read the rest here