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2012’s Finest: SAGA

I’ve already talked about today’s pick – very briefly – in my Comics round-up post. I called it “the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.”I’m such a little tease. But I’m not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes: SAGA “Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n–”“Don’t! / Don’t you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers.” For all its sci-fi set dressing – the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples – at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren’t willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you’ve created. It’s a comic about selling out. Saga starts with the birth of the series’ apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel – a character who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children’s book-style. In fact, she even gets the book’s first words: …Which is pretty much the comic’s mission statement (especially because it’s almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we’ll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art. “But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That’s why people create with someone else.” And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel’s mother and father, and the book’s – Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby. And there are plenty of forces who want to cause them harm: Marko (horny dad) and Alana (winged mom) are from two warring species, and both sides want to get the results of this starcross’d union. Enter hunky bounty hunter The Will, and aimless robot prince Prince Robot IV, who will have their own matching dilemmas set up before the first volume’s out. Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect – which is actually a child in every case – and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause? Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn’t last too long. For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don’t want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can’t return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face – which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts – shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character. Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to ‘good’ violence is Marko’s beserker rage with that sword – and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel. It might be reaching a bit to read Marko’s attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there’s certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout. Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but – like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively – Saga isn’t interested in playing by either genre’s rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone). Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions – something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They’re the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they’re sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft. It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren’t interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They’re certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of […]

Favourite Films on Friday: #23, Serenity

It’s a good thing this list wasn’t open to voting. If the internet has taught us anything (and God can only hope that it has), it’s that any time you give Browncoats the slightest opportunity, Serenity will win. That’s how I first met Serenity. It topped an end-of-year list on Jonathan Ross’ Film 2005. I was amazed. A sci-fi film I’d barely even heard of, so objectively, definitely best of the year? In a year with Batman Begins? Of course, that was before I knew anything about the world – the ‘verse – that Serenity inhabited. Both within and without, it’s a story of desperate loyalty, blind against-the-odds faith, and more than a little disappointment. The story of Serenity is that it grew out of the wreck of a dead TV show, fertilised by endless online petitioning. A single, final victory for the Browncoats. But I didn’t know that, really, when I first watched the film. The story that interested me was just what’s in the film: the single, desperate victory of Malcolm Reynolds and crew. It’s about salvaging what’s left – the ideals from a long-lost war, what life gives you now, and whoever’s still actually alive – and making the best from it. Which is all rather fitting, looking back. Serenity is proper sci-fi. It’s everything that immediately jumps to mind when the genre is mentioned: the swashbuckling adventures of the crew of a spaceship (Firefly class, aught-three model, designation ‘Serenity’). It scavenges from Star Wars, of course, but almost as heavily from The Matrix (in terms of plot shape, presentation and feel rather than world-building) but it’s a more plausible world than either: no aliens, no robots. (Well, almost no robots…) Appropriately, it’s a world that feels vastly human. And Serenity has to reintroduce everything Firefly managed in its too-short 14 episodes – the sci-fi Western setting, the growth of China as a superpower and of Mandarin as a language – but it does this beautifully. The first 15 minutes are a masterclass: it starts within a concertina of scenes-within-scenes, repeatedly pulling back to reveal ‘aha! no! that was just a dream! and the person dreaming it? it was all a video!’. It’s formalistic showiness for the sake of it, so obviously I love it dearly. But also it keeps things pacey, without too much creaky exposition (there’s one line – “and he threw away his promising career in medicine too!” – that creaks ever so slightly), and introduces the new threat. Who, fortunately for Serenity, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s the kind of man the words ‘screen presence’ were invented for, as he broods and does a bit of ever-so-slight nibbling on the scenery as The Operative. He’s a man of deep, terrifying conviction, cooing gently to a man he has impaled on a sword that, this is a good death, there is no shame in this. It’s all genuinely quite sinister and sets up a perfectly heavy, serious sci-fi film, especially when we then cut to a shot of the Serenity in space… And then the Primary Buffer Panel falls off. The camera goes inside the Serenity, and we’re surrounded by life, personality, and full-on Joss Whedon dialogue. “Define ‘interesting’.”/“‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”. A single tracking shot, apparently one unbroken take, takes us through the innards of the ship and smoothly introduces each character. We’re on the boat. From there, it’s a beautiful ride of a movie, equal parts big action adventure, touching drama and wry comedy. Just like anything Whedon, or like life. The central adventure is self-contained, but rooted in enough dangling threads from the series that it doesn’t feel plucked from nowhere. …And there I go again, talking about the one thing I said I wouldn’t. I really do think the film is marginalised as the TV programme’s sickly brother. Does it bear marks of its difficult birth? If you’re looking for them, certainly. Is it, more or less, one big episode of Firefly? Yes. Its ambitions are appropriately bigger than any of the others, but it would probably fit right in as a season finale. The thing is – and that wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, Firefly being one of the best TV programmes we’re ever going to get – the thing is that if even that were the case, if it were just slotted in, then Serenity would be the best single episode it had to offer.

Favourite Films on Friday: #34, Brazil

Science fiction isn’t about the future. It just happens to be set there. …So goes a common argument, and one relevant to Brazil. As emphasised by its title card, whichinforms us it is set “somewhere in the 20th Century”, it isn’t a film about the future, in any way that matters. It’s about the now. Or the ‘now’ of the early 1980s, at least. The trends it picks out of society are exaggerated, making the film more a caricature of the time than a prediction of the future. But it is a proper sci-fi film, one which delights in exploring its world of Blade Runner-esque neon lights and unfamiliar technology. Then again, it’s hardly straight-down-the-line stereotypical science fiction. Our hero is one Sam Lowry, a small-time civil servant. For him, at least, the world of the tomorrow is very much like our own, but with an exaggerated emphasis on the right paperwork. Meanwhile Lowry dreams, in exquisite fantasy sequences, of being free and gliding through the clouds, and of one woman in need of saving. As is the way of these things, he spots her in the waking world and becomes obsessed. The backdrop to all this is wonderfully rich, taking from contemporary trends and extrapolating them to their illogical conclusions. And in the great tradition of these things, each feels just as relevant today as it must have in 1985: Plastic surgery and the resulting fetishism of looks and youth. The emptiness and loneliness of the job/consumerism cycle. But most of all, the frustration of bureaucracy and its unwavering faith in machines and processes, which are showed right at the beginning to be flawed. For Archie Tuttle–sorry, Buttle, at least, fatally so. Which doesn’t sound too cheery, does it? Brazil hit me at the exact right moment, around the time I read Catch 22, and after two years at a government-initiative school that was restrictively bound to its own rules and regulations. It was a call to arms for the 16 year old me, echoing my discoveries of how unthinking people with power could be, and how impersonal and businesslike life in any institution can feel. It cemented a lot of very things in the mind of Serious Teenage Alex. But coming back to Brazil as a twenty-something, it turns out I’d forgotten how funny it also is. Director Terry Gilliam was the token American and cartoon-provider for Monty Python and Brazil is often irreverent and surrealist in a way reminiscent of Python’s stuff. The digressions from the plot that fill out the world feel like small sketches and are symptomatic of Brazil‘s overwhelming style. Gilliam has described his directorial style as messy, and he packs the film with anything that’ll fit. It’s overpacked, in every sense. Take the song that lends the film its name, for example, surfaces constantly throughout, in different versions, whistled, played by a restaurant’s string quartet. Its a fascinating, and suitably patchwork, approach to a soundtrack. It’s packed with ideas like this. With distinctive visuals, with themes, characters, running jokes, fantasy sequences, satire, weirdness… Frankly, it’s a baggy film. It’s over two hours, and feels every minute. The central plot stops and starts. But even here, form fits function. It’s a film about order versus chaos, and picks its side accordingly. As the state crumbles, the film itself explodes into countless fragments. So it’s hard to say Brazil is a film about any single thing. But it’s not really about the future, no. It’s a messily-drawn cartoon of a film, and everything it uses to create the supposed future is drawn from the fabric of the present, and the present. Brazil is no attempt at predicting what tomorrow will be like. It’s far too silly to try something as pointless as that.