Tights and Capes: How Superheroes Changed The World

To admit to liking superhero comics is akin to confessing a hideous social disease. They are the core of the geek’s domain, loved by spotty, greasy man-boys who live in their parent’s basement and masturbate to pictures of Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer (they’ve moved on from Sarah Michelle Gellar). These borderline autistic creatures spend all day on internet chatrooms or World of Warcrack, having no real-world social skills, and live for the day that they can dress up as their favourite superhero and cruise the halls of the local convention looking desperately for a woman who knows the difference between Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner.

If this is true, why are superhero films so popular at the moment? And why have they been a regular feature of cinemas for over a decade? Since Brian Singer’s version of X-Men in 2000, superheroes have been coming out of the closet and dusting off their capes for the big screen. Of course, X-Men wasn’t the first superhero movie. It wasn’t the first good superhero movie. But it was the first, good successful superhero movie since Batman Returns eight years previously. Since Singer’s triumph, superheroes have made over $150 million per film almost every year. Surely geeks don’t have that much disposable income, do they?

Well, no. Of course not. The real reason runs quite deeply into the human psyche. People like superheroes. They always have. From the Norse epics of Beowulf to the spandex-clad super-teams of Joss Whedon’s up-coming Avengers, people can’t get enough of them.

"Who do you think they could get to play you, Nick?"
"Why, Mister Samuel L Jackson, of course. That's not even open to debate, Doctor Pym."

What is it about the superhero that we love? Is it simply the ‘hero’ part? Of course, that is part of it. We like protagonists in stories – that’s what they’re for. We follow their struggles and conflicts, hoping that they will pull through while secretly knowing that they almost certainly will. Superheroes tickle something else in our brains. They tackle problems that normal people just can’t deal with, so the stories can be much wider in scope – literally anything can happen. They are bigger, brighter, better than the rest of us. They climb so much higher, and have so much further to fall. They have powers or skills beyond that which is possible for us normal folk. That’s why they’re super.

Finding the earliest superhero isn’t an easy task. Where do we draw the line? Was Jesus a superhero? He certainly had superhuman powers, tried to help people and had a mysterious origin story.

Probably not...

If we take a superhero to be a work of modern fiction (somewhat arbitrarily), we could point to Spring-Heeled Jack, the folkloric figure that was immortalized in a series of ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 1860’s. He was a diabolic bogeyman in his original form, jumping out on young ladies and traumatizing them in unspecified (but probably fairly obvious) ways, before escaping by leaping over impossibly tall obstacles. He later became more of a crime-fighter, relying on his disguise and his gadgets to catch or kill criminals. Interestingly, sightings of a figure matching the description of Spring-Heeled Jack are still occurring today, some 175 years after he was first reported. He almost certainly inspired later characters, such as Russell Thorndike’s Reverend Doctor Syn from 1915’s A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Syn was a 18th century Oxford scholar whose wife ran away with his best friend, so he took up piracy and smuggling in order to get revenge on the cuckolding cad. He donned the disguise of the Scarecrow in order to rally other smugglers to him and defeat the Revenue men. Syn was undoubtedly an anti-hero, standing up against the perceived criminality of taxation on imports to areas of Kent and Sussex. Essentially, he was the Han Solo of 1700’s England.

In 1919, another masked vigilante appeared on the scene. Don Diego de la Vega buckled his swash across the pages of America’s All-Story Weekly, penned by Johnston McCulley, and was seen as recently as 2005. He was more popularly known by the Spanish word for ‘fox’: Zorro! Zorro fought against the corruption of the Spanish-controlled state of California with his lightning-quick rapier and his trusty steed, Tornado. He maintained Zorro as a secret identity, posing as the foppish Don Diego to allay suspicion and donning the cape and mask to combat injustice and protect the poor. Zorro became a template for later masked vigilantes such as Batman and V.

The 1930’s witnessed an explosion of superheroes and became known as the Golden Age. Radio serials like The Green Hornet and The Shadow appeared, pulp fiction novels and newspaper serials introduced Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze. But it was comic books that really decided the future of the genre, with a plethora of titles springing up, including Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Comics, Timely Comics and Marvel Comics (among many other, less well-known and shorter lived titles). Many long-standing heroes were born in this period, notably Superman, Batman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Blue Beetle and the Sandman.

Superman was the archetype, first appearing in 1938’s Action Comics #1, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman has become an icon of American values and culture, embodying “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, and his trademark outfit (Red and blue with underpants over his tights) created an enduring convention that influenced virtually every hero that came later. His origin story tells us that he is an immigrant, the supposed last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El. His birth name is Kal-El, and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a bumbling and mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, allowing him to keep an eye on breaking news of disasters and other situations that may need the hand of Superman. Superman is ridiculously over-powered, with flight, virtual invulnerability, heat vision, x-ray vision, super breath, super speed and super strength being the core of his powers, gifted him by the yellow sun of Earth. His main weakness is, of course, radioactive lumps of his home planet (Kryptonite), but he also suffers from the human side of his character and his desire to protect the people of his adopted world. He is highly moral, often attempting to persuade others to give up their villainous ways.

Superman’s main rival is the ‘mad scientist’ Lex Luthor. Luthor is bent on world domination but has no super powers. He is, however, incredibly intelligent and a technological genius. He, like his nemesis, has evolved over time, but he is still essentially the same evil and obsessed science geek. The conflict between him and Superman, based on their childhood friendship, is one of Science Vs Superpowers (or could be interpreted as Knowledge Vs Magic). He is easily the most well-known of Superman’s foes and definitely the most recognisable, with his bald head and evil grin.

The Boy Scout

Less than a year after Superman’s debut, Detective Comics #27 introduced a different kind of hero, almost the polar opposite of Superman. Superman drew his power from the sun, but Bob Kane’s hero was far more comfortable in the darkness. The Batman wore black and grey, covered his face and had no super powers, relying on his fearsome intellect and honed physical skills (as well as a range of technological wizardry). He modeled his costume on the bat theme to strike fear into criminals, using psychological warfare to gain the upper hand, and was motivated by revenge for the murder of his parents when he was a small boy. Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego, is a slightly foppish billionaire playboy, similar to Zorro’s de la Vega, but he uses his vast wealth to fund his night-time excursions into the criminal underworld of Gotham City. Batman is deeply flawed in a way that Superman is not, and many commentators (and many of the writers) have explored this aspect of the character. For the first couple of years of the comic, Batman would happily use guns and kill criminals, but this soon changed and Batman became more moralistic.

Batman was the first hero to have a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of iconic, repeating villains. These were, like the Batman himself, larger than life and representative of some intense trauma. The most famous is, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, representing the ‘Trickster’ archetype of Jungian psychology. He is an unrepentant psychopath, gleefully leaving death and chaos in his wake and constantly taunting Batman for being as psychologically damaged as any inmate of Arkham Asylum (Gotham City’s fictional madhouse). Over the years since his introduction, the Joker has killed the second Robin (Jason Todd), paralysed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and the daughter of Jim Gordon – went on to become Oracle), and murdered several hundred (if not more) residents of Gotham. He has corrupted several of his doctors in Arkham, including his psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who became his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. His relationship with Batman is complicated. On the one hand, he is the Batman’s archenemy, while on the other hand, the pair have more in common with each other than they do with those with whom they side. This idea has been explored by several writers, notably Grant Morrison in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman represents the yin to Superman’s yang, embodying the darkness that is necessary to balance out the light.

Tights are for girls?
Really?

The titles which would eventually amalgamate into DC Comics (Detective Comics, Action Comics, All-Star comics and a host of others) kept churning out characters in the 1940’s, with only a few that would eventually become Marvel Comics characters appearing. DC characters born in this decade include Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Joker, Catwoman, The Atom, Black Canary, Robin the Boy Wonder and Wonder Woman.

Marvel managed Captain America and…um…

Perhaps the most interesting of DC’s output in the 40’s was Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Marston, inventor of the polygraph lie detector, Wonder Woman was intended to be a feminist icon, a reaction to the male-dominated superhero world. Although technically not the first female superhero (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had debuted four years previously), she was the most iconic, able to hold her own in the male hero world. Her role was to “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”, according to Marston. Her powers of super strength, speed, agility, stamina and flight were augmented by her use of ‘magical’ devices including her Lasso of Truth (which forced those bound by it to tell the truth) and her indestructible bracelets which she used to deflect bullets. She is an unmatched military tactician, expert martial artist and god-like wisdom and compassion, although she is quite prepared to use lethal force if she deems it necessary, setting her apart from Superman and Batman.

Marston himself was a feminist, often writing about what he believed to be the inequalities of modern gender politics. He clearly loved women, as he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (also a psychologist and credited with being a co-creator of Wonder Woman), and Olive Byrne. These two women formed the basis of the character. Marston claimed that they represented the type of women that should rule the world, having temperaments far better suited to the role than men. He did not want to create a hero that was simply a masculinised woman, nor a stereotypical comic-book woman, suitable only for romantic or support roles (although Wonder Woman’s first job in the Justice Society of America was as their secretary).

Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon

The 1950’s introduced new versions of familiar heroes, with Hal Jordan taking over as Green Lantern and Barry Allen donning the Flash costume, as well as the introduction of Supergirl, Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El, but it was the 1960’s that saw a true blossoming of the superhero, with DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, really coming into its own. Stan Lee helped created dozens of new heroes in the 60’s, including (but by no means limited to) Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer and the X-Men. He worked with a range of collaborators, most famously Steve Ditko (who designed Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (responsible for the looks of The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk and a raft of others), but it was Stan’s creative mind that formed the basis for the heroes. Marvel took the idea of teams of heroes from DC’s Justice Society and ran with it, having a huge number of their characters join teams or partner with other heroes for an issue or two. Marvel’s stories also explored sociological issues in a way that DC didn’t at the time, dealing with racism, bullying, religion, high school, Communism and more. Marvel’s heroes weren’t all muscular and good-looking. The Fantastic Four’s Thing looked like a monster, as did the X-Men’s Beast and Nightcrawler, highlighting prejudice based on appearances. They also focused on ‘real world’ problems faced by their characters, making them easier to relate to than DC’s god-like creations.

Marvel’s rise has continued in the movie world. DC’s Superman had some success with Christopher Reeve in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but the attempted reboot, Superman Returns (2006) was a flop, largely due to the weak plot and gaping plot holes (he almost died from being stabbed with a splinter of kryptonite, but is then able to lift a mountain of the stuff and hurl it into space? Really?), but Man of Steel, written by David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan (the team responsible for DC’s successful Batman franchise, which has its final installment being released later this year), is due out in 2013 so that may change. Marvel, on the other hand, has just produced the third biggest opening day box office in UK cinema history (making £2.5 million, about £1 million behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) with its new Joss Whedon-helmed ensemble movie Avengers Assemble. This follows a four year build up in the shape of two Iron Man movies, an Incredible Hulk movie, a Thor movie and a Captain America movie. In that four year period, but unrelated to the Avengers, Marvel have also released Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and two animated Hulk features. They also have the Spider-Man reboot due out later this year and, of course, fifteen or so earlier movies based on their characters. DC have a handful of films based on their Vertigo label, including Constantine, A History of Violence and V for Vendetta, none of which made big box office, and their successful Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman franchise, which did. They also produced the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern which barely broke even, Watchmen which didn’t do much better, and Jonah Hex, which bombed.

In the ratings war, Marvel are winning. But this has always been Marvel’s tactic: flood the market with hundreds of different titles, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, while DC have usually focused on a smaller groups of titles and explored them in more depth. Except Superman, who is still pretty shallow. DC are certainly more ‘adult’ (whatever that means) than Marvel and have been more comfortable publishing ‘darker’ stories than Marvel. This is a result of the Comics Code Authority and their system of authorising works that submitted to their code of conduct. Both DC and Marvel released titles that were not submitted, DC under its Vertigo banner and Marvel’s Epic Comics, but DC has arguably produced the most famous titles. Vertigo printed titles from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Mark Millar, Mike Carey and Warren Ellis, to name but a few. Many of these writers have been recognised for their excellent stories, especially Gaiman, Moore and Morrison.

Alan Moore: the most famous beard in comics

So who will win out in the end? Does there have to be a winner? I certainly hope not. With any luck, both of these companies, as well as the many small publishers who put out comic titles, will last for many years to come, thrilling and entertaining us with their spandex-clad muscle-men and partially clad pneumatic women. They are the epic poetry of our generation, our version of gods and monsters. They belong to each and every one of us and we have a responsibility to add to the canon and support these Cassandras for as long as we possibly can. The minds that gave us superheroes have shaped the world, with lie detectors, web-casting restraint guns, bullet-resistant materials and more.

Maybe one day, I’ll own my very own Batmobile…

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A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

It Came From The …Wait, What?

SPOILER ALERT – ARTICLE MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS, BUT SINCE I’LL BE MAINLY TALKING ABOUT FILMS FROM THE 50s IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM!

A series on monsters wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at an often overlooked side road. So this article will examine the wild animal and the alien as monster. The obvious examples are films such as the Jaws series, about some seriously pissed off Great White sharks, but it is in fact a venerable sub-genre with many precedents.

"Um...Maybe we should go the other way."

The first proper creature-feature (as they came to be known), and an iconic moment in cinematic history, was 1933s King Kong. This was a ground-breaking film, with stunning (for the time) stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and secured Fay Wray’s reputation as the original ‘scream queen’. Many people forget that Kong was a sympathetic creature, who took Wray’s character back to his lair instead of killing her (as was intended by the villagers). Once he was captured and taken to New York, he was chained and mistreated, before breaking free and again seeking out the object of his love. As Robert Armstrong’s character observes in the closing moments of the film, “it wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast”. Merian Cooper’s film is rightly seen as a classic, despite Kong’s reputation as a mindless monster.

King Kong spawned a rash of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, but the creature-feature explosion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Monster movies in this period were more reliant on tried and tested supernatural horrors that could be tied in to the Nazi menace: vampires, werewolves and mummies. But at the end of the war, something happened that changed the monster movie: America dropped two A-bombs on Japan, and the Atomic Age began.

"Is nobody thinking of the ants?"

In the 1950s, a new trend emerged with the testing of the hideously powerful H-Bomb, with over a thousand times the destructive capability of the A-Bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new understanding of the horrors of radiation sickness. Movies were suddenly infested with creatures mutated by atomic radiation, somehow growing huge and developing a taste for human flesh, rather than growing tumours and developing weeping sores. These movies are fairly well represented by 1954s Them!, in which the evils of nukes cause giant ants, that’s GIANT ANTS, to rampage through a New Mexico town, eating people called ‘Gramps’ Johnson and Alan Crotty. It’s actually nowhere near as appalling as it sounds. It contains some genuinely tense moments and some good performances, including some seriously moving death scenes. Gordon Douglas’ direction is solid and his storytelling is well-balanced, as one would expect from the man who would go on to direct They call me MISTER Tibbs! in the 1970s. It was well received on its release and has been referenced and copied many times, with such ’50s classics as It Came From Beneath The Sea (which starred a giant, radioactive octopus and Howard Hughes’ one time lover, Faith Domergue), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (an early Roger Corman attempt with some frankly appalling rubber ‘crab monsters’), and Tarantula (starring Leo G Carroll and a really big spider).

Up from the depths!
Thirty stories high!!

The Japanese, certainly no strangers to the horrifying effects of the Atomic Age, came up with a long-running series of films centred around a man in a dodgy rubber suit stomping through a cardboard Tokyo. Released in the same year as Them! (1954), Godzilla (or more properly Gojira) was a landmark in Japanese cinema that led to nearly thirty sequels, remakes, a pair of cartoon series (one by Hanna-Barbera in the late ’70s, the other a Fox TV anime in the late ’90s), a poorly received American movie remake and a planned reboot! This makes it arguably one of the most successful film franchises ever. Godzilla is a classic example of the monster as a representation of atomic destruction. He is released by atomic testing, is radioactive, has ‘Atomic breath’ and is effectively immune to conventional weaponry. In fact, an early design of the suit gave him a mushroom-cloud shaped head. A huge number of the monster films of the 1950s and 1960s use the monster as allegories for a variety of real or perceived dangers: nuclear weapons and Communism are typical, although underage sex, alcohol, ‘un-American activities’ and other immoral behaviours are also targeted. The Godzilla franchise flourished in the 60’s, dominating cinema with films depicting the titular monster as a (kind of) defender of Tokyo against an ever-increasing horde of rubber suited stuntmen.

Other giant monsters crawled from the woodwork in the ’50s and 60s. We had scorpions (The Black Scorpion), locusts (Beginning of the End), man-eating slugs (The Monster That Challenged The World), venomous shrews (The Killer Shrews – Hollywood was really running low on ideas at this stage), large scorned ladies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and even jelly – or Jell-O to our transatlantic cousins (The Blob). Basically, anything that film-makers could recreate with some foam rubber suits, trick photography or the talents of Ray Harryhausen, would walk, stalk, slither or ooze across cinema screens for a couple of decades. Even plants got a look-in, in the shape of British sci-fi/horror The Day of the Triffids, adapted from the book by John Wyndham. The Triffids of the title were (in the film at least) semi-sentient alien invaders, ambulatory sticks of killer celery that were, rather conveniently, allergic to sea-water (which rather begs the question “Why did they choose to invade a planet whose surface is about 70% covered in the stuff?”).

Aliens were also a common feature of monster movies. The development of rocket technology had nations looking spaceward once again, and a rise in tensions between the political ideologies of East and West gave film-makers the perfect excuse to make a large number of alien themed movies with cookie-cutter communism-inspired antagonists. The Red Menace was sneakily inserted into a range of movies including The Flying Saucer (1950), Invaders From Mars (1952) and, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films show the insidious nature of the Communist threat, how it can sneak unnoticed into your neighbourhood, brainwash and indoctrinate people you have known for years. One film that specifically targets the insanity of Cold-War paranoia is the timeless classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. This amazing 1951 film explores how a defensive and paranoid humanity reacts to an other-worldly visitor, who is quite clearly a stand-in for Christ, with his amazing powers, resurrection and message of peace.

Om nom nom!

In 1975, the movie monster changed. An adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was unleashed on the public. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie has a number of completely iconic touches: the triangular fin cutting the water, the shark’s haunting tuba-based leitmotif, the boat-based camaraderie of the three male leads, Brody’s warnings being ignored by those in power. It is an almost perfect monster movie, let down a little by the fairly poor (even by the standard of the 1970s) rubber shark. I first saw this film at a very young age and loved it, apart from the very end, when Quint (played to perfection with grizzled, Hemingway-esque machismo by Robert Shaw) slides helplessly down the deck of the listing boat and into the shark’s waiting maw. His desperate struggle against a force of nature sum up the film in that brief moment: man vs fish, and the fish is winning. It is a creature perfectly designed to survive in its environment, an environment that humans are playing around in. Jaws spawned a handful of sequels, none of which managed to match the intensity and excellence of the original, but it also changed the way that the average cinema-goer and critic thought about monster movies. They were no longer B-movies; they could be blockbusters.

Not all films lived up to this benchmark of course. A large number of cheap creature-features continued to be churned out by Hollywood studios, such as the largely unknown Joan Collins vehicle Empire of the Ants (which is worth digging up, if only for the hilariously bad special effects). Rather better known, as well as better production and better acting, is the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1977. Although by no means flawless, it is a solid adaptation of the H.G.Wells classic, with a truly creepy Lancaster as the disturbing (and disturbed) doctor. It attempts to turn the genre on its head, in suggesting that the hideous ‘man-beasts’, the results of Moreau’s twisted experiments, are less monstrous than the dark soul of humanity, represented by the doctor. It is only by shedding their humanity and embracing the animalistic side of their natures that York and his love interest, Barbara Carrera, manage to escape.

In 1978, another creature attacked humanity, or rather lots of creatures. But these were not giant, irradiated creatures. No, these were slightly more everyday: bees. Or, to be more specific, a swarm of African killer bees. The Swarm stars Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. Oh, and a shitload of bees. It was directed by Irwin Allen, producer of such classic TV serials as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the film was adapted from a novel by well-known (at the time) science-fiction author Arthur Herzog. An impressive pedigree, wouldn’t you agree? Apparently not. The film bombed. Badly. It was pulled from cinemas after a pathetically short run (in some places as little as two days) and was unable to even make half its $21 million budget back at the box office. Michael Caine is not alone when he describes it as one of the worst films he has ever made.

Bees. Apparently not that scary.

The next true landmark in the monster movie did not arrive until 1979, with Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece, Alien. Sold to the studios as “Jaws in space”, the movie brews a heady blend of tension, shocks and gore, with genre-defining visual effects courtesy of the deeply disturbing and undeniably sexual artwork of H.R.Giger. The alien is a shadowy menace, truly an unknown quantity, with a (pretty unlikely) life cycle of egg-crab/spider-chest bursting penis-huge shiny black cock with teeth. The sexual subtext of the movie has been commented upon before (many, many times), but if you are unconvinced, take a long hard look at this concept art for the xenomorph:

Um, yeah.
I've got nothing for this one.

If you can’t see that this is a picture af a massive penis, there’s something wrong with you. Add that to the fact that Kane (played by John Hurt) is orally impregnated by the face-hugger and ‘gives birth’ in a terminal shower of gore from his ribcage. The writer of the screenplay, Dan O’Bannon, has explicitly stated that the Kane scenes are a metaphor for male fears about pregnancy and childbirth, and has explained the alien as embodying elements of male rape, payback for the countless female victims of horror movie monsters and serial killers. The only survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that launched her career and one that she would return to three more times so far), a woman who is in a masculine, industrial environment. She is not refered to by her first name, only her surname, which has the effect of clouding her gender. The film is about sex, but it is also an excellent horror movie, dark and moody with a perfect, iconic and terrifying antagonist.

Alien also signaled a turning point in the creature feature. Films moved away from ordinary animals turned evil (either by radiation or otherwise) and focused instead on extraterrestrial or supernatural horrors. Dream monsters (A Nightmare on Elm Street), alien hunters (Predator), ghosts (Ghostbusters 1 & 2) and gremlins (Gremlins 1 & 2) were the order of the 80s, and things didn’t improve much in the following decade, with only such paltry offerings as Mosquito and Anaconda (I really wouldn’t recommend either, but if you must, go for Mosquito, if only for its knowing nods towards its B-Movie roots).

The new millennium gave film-makers the chance to make ironically bad B-movies (following from the cult success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), and this gave audiences such wonders as Eight-Legged Freaks, featuring some toxically mutated spiders and a lot of screaming. It is a mixed bag of B-movie tropes and tongue in cheek dialogue, but the basic premise (monsters attacking a small American town) has been done before and done better, notably in Tremors six years earlier. Other 21st century offerings include a couple of Anaconda sequels (somehow worse than that first one), the fabulously titled (and apparently gloriously awful) Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Sharktopus and Mega Python Versus Gatoroid. These films revel in their B-movie credentials, deliberately using exaggerated monsters and over-the-top violence to titillate their audience.

Heads or tails?

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, was hailed as a new breed of monster movie and is told through the use of ‘found footage’, home-video style film of events of a monster-induced disaster. From a relatively tiny budget of $25 million, it made a massive $171 million at the box office. Its suggestions of terrorist attacks (the subtle reminders of 9/11 run right through the movie) gave it an intensity that most creature-features lack and it was met with high praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Again, the choice to show little of the creature served the film well, heightening the tension and creating the faceless menace to support the subtext.

Is the creature-feature dead? Replaced with endless movies about aliens destroying our cities? Or is this just a phase, and, like the changes in the 50s, we are due a new revolution? A new way of looking at the world around us? Maybe this has already started. Contagion attempted to tap into our collective fears of infectious diseases, following on from the real-life scares of SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu. The film didn’t capitalise on its own premise, but the portrayal of the emergency protocols and procedures slowly grinding into motion was interesting: in the world of Contagion there is no quick fix. So maybe the creature we will be scared of next are the ones that we really can’t see, rather than the ones that the film-makers keep hidden.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

Sweet dreams!

Blood-sucking Parasites!

[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]

For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.

Vampires get people in a flap

Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.

The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The VampyreThe Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.

Gary Oldman pimpin' it as Dracula

Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.

The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!

Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.

This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.

Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.

Near Dark: Rebels without a pulse

Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).

The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.

A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.

In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.

"Look me in the eye, Tom, and tell me you aren't standing on a box."

There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.

Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.

"I really hate that Stephen Dorff. Oh crap. He's right behind me, isn't he?"

In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.

So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.

Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.

But they still don’t bloody sparkle.

When There’s No More Room In Hell…

This is the first in a series of blogs about famous monster types from literature, film and folklore. I thought I’d start with a common creature that mostly appears in movieland: The Zombie.

"Anybody got a Band-Aid?"

As you all know, the name ‘zombie’ originates from Haitian and West African traditions of Voodoo (or Vodun, or Vodou), where a zombie (or zonbi, or nzumbe – thanks Wikipedia!) is generally regarded as a re-animated corpse, brought back from the dead to do the bidding of a practitioner. Some have argued that zombies are the result of pharmacological compounds, consisting of pufferfish venom among other things, but this is generally dismissed by the medical community. Although the word is linked to Voodoo, the creature appears in many different cultures, fulfilling different niches in folklore. The draugr (recently seen in Skyrim) are the living dead from Norse mythology that guard the burial chambers of heroes, while revenants are European spirits that return from the dead in physical bodies, mainly to pick on their living relatives or take revenge on their killer. The German nachzehrer (basically ‘devourer from the afterlife’) was linked to deaths from epidemics, predating recent ‘infected’ zombie types.

Zombies have gained popularity over the last few decades, mainly down to the stirling work of film-makers like George A. Romero, Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright (as well as the less stirling work of a veritable horde of others). There are a number of takes on the zombie, ranging from the shambling, groaning undead (the ‘classic’ movie zombie) to the sprinting and leaping ‘infected’ (the ‘new-wave’ zombie), but they all have a relentless hunger for human flesh – and often brains – in common. A zombie can be created by a disease, often spread by bite or other bodily fluid, by magic or by radiation, as well as a range of other possibilities, so it seems that the existence of zombies is of far greater importance than what caused them. In fact, this is often the case with these movies – ‘where did they come from’ is far a less important question than ‘how the hell do we get away from them?’

So why are they so popular? Why do they make such a good monster?

Well, firstly it is a force of numbers thing.

The queue for the new iPhone was getting out of hand

The idea is that there is an endless supply of hungry, angry, cannibalistic corpses. On its own, a single zombie isn’t that much of a threat – it’s slow and stupid – but they don’t tend to attack on their own. As the great bard himself said, “When zombies come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions”. And because they are technically already dead, it’s a bit tricky to actually kill them. In movieland, the destruction of the head is usually the way forward – sever the connection to the brain and the body will die. This leads to a series of cool special effects as zombie skulls are exploded across the screen in a variety of inventive ways and bloody showers of gore.

Of course, if the horde does get its hands on you, it’s a painful and violent death. We have an in-built horror of being eaten by something – it triggers a primal fear in us – and zombies are an embodiment of this fear. They keep coming. They have no remorse. They will eat you alive. It’s a predator/prey thing.

Om nom nom

Typical zombie films consist of a group of – usually mismatched – strangers banding together for protection as they try to find a safe place to escape to. This gives the film-maker good scope to include the frictions between the disparate characters as well as the stress from thousands of relentless killing machines bearing down on them. Themes of racism, sexual politics and growing up are common in these films, although the learning is often interrupted by someone’s intestines being pulled out through their anus, followed by hysterical screaming and a lot more running away.

The image of the zombie horde has lodged itself so firmly in the collective consciousness that the internet is full of sites dedicated to the creatures, from artwork to fan fiction, from (de)motivational posters to scholarly – and not so scholarly – articles on how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Even The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an article on what to do in the event of an outbreak of zombies in your town. Admittedly, its tongue is firmly in its cheek, but it raises some good points about general emergency preparedness.

Are you prepared? What would be essential kit for your zombie survival kit? Let’s see if we can get a definitive kit worked out.

“I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite blog on the Citadel.”

 ATTENTION: SPOILERS INCLUDED

It’s not long now until the third and final installment in the best-selling and award-winning science fiction series Mass Effect is released, so I think it’s a good time to look back and see what makes this game so successful.

The games are described as action role-playing games; basically third-person shooters with role-playing elements, including decision-making that shapes the story. This decision-making affects the story across the installments as well, because you are able to import your character information from the earlier games (a feature that is continued in the latest title, making it possible to continue your character development through all three games). You play Commander Shepard  (either male or female, depending on your preference), a human soldier who uncovers the existence of a race of mechanical beings called Reapers. In the first game, a Reaper called Sovereign, aided by a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance) named Saren Arterius, is attempting to open a route for the other Reapers to enter the galaxy and exterminate all sapient organic life. They are aided in this by the Geth, a race of artificially intelligent synthetics, originally created by the Quarian race as servants/slaves. Once this threat is dealt with, the Reapers (in Mass Effect 2) work through a shadowy race called the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human colonies. Shepard is killed by the Collectors at the start of the game and brought back to life by Cerberus, the human supremacist group responsible for some of the nasty side missions in the first game. You find out that they are not necessarily as evil as they appear, but you decide how much to trust them and work with them. The third game apparently focuses on the final attack of the Reapers as they enter the galaxy determined to exterminate all sentient life. I think it’s fair to say that we can expect a really big fight, especially if the trailer and this screenshot are to be believed!

So why are these games so good? Well, Bioware (also responsible for the Dragon Age series and the recent MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic) have put a lot of work into designing and developing their universe. The locations (while occasionally limited) are well realised and the cut scenes well animated. The voice casting is excellent, with characters voiced by Seth Green, Martin Sheen, Armin Shimerman, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis, Claudia Black, Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Ann Moss, Dwight Schultz and Michael Dorn among many others. It’s like a cult TV/film convention guest list. The bonus is that the voices sound familiar without being distracting, allowing you to immerse yourself into the game without spending time muttering “I know that voice. Who is that? For fuck’s sake, who is it?” and missing half of the plot.

Or is that just me?

The depth of the universe is well demonstrated by the number of non-human races, all of which have their own talents and weaknesses. There are the Asari (blue, pseudo-psychic squid-haired women), Batarians (four-eyed criminals and slavers – very anti-human), Collectors (insectoid bad guys), Drell (lizard people with eidetic memories), Elcor (elephantine and slow speaking, the Elcor state their emotions explicitly to avoid confusion), Geth (sentient machines with a hive-mind), Hanar (religious jellyfish), Krogans (hardcore warrior toads), Quarians (interstellar travellers with poor immune systems and excellent technical skills), Salarians (hyperactive scientists and spies), Turians (honourable raptor-like creatures), Volus (dumpy diving suits), and Vorcha (barely sentient scavengers and fighters). Over the two games so far released, Shepard will build a team featuring several of these races, with recurring characters who come to trust and respect the leadership of the player. Other races have been introduced through the downloadable content, comic books and iOS games: I have focused on the main installments here.

Some of the races you'll encounter in the Mass Effect universe

The universe is arranged in star clusters, which Shepard can travel around at will using the galaxy map in his ship (more about that later). Some planets can be landed on, with side missions and main missions taking place in a wide range of environments. In the first game, the player has access to the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle armed with autofire weapons and a single shot cannon. This allows Shepard to roam the surface of terrestrial worlds searching for resources to collect and enemies to slap. This vehicle is missing from Mass Effect 2, replaced by a system whereby you scan planets from orbit using the map screen and launch probes to collect resources. This does rob the game of some of the exploratory feel of the original, and makes it feel somehow smaller in scale. However, it does bring me to the next item on my list: The Normandy.

l

SSV Normandy - Possibly the most beautiful ship in Sci-Fi history

Look at it! Just look at it! Isn’t she beautiful? Sleek and sexy, a design classic! Sorry if I’m getting carried away, but I really love the Normandy. As you play the game, she becomes more than just a vehicle, more than just a base of operations, more than a home, even. She becomes a character in her own right. Which is why the opening scene of ME2 is so heart-breaking. An enormous Collector ship appears from nowhere and blasts the Normandy into scrap, killing Shepard in the process. I don’t mind admitting that it brings a tear to my eye every time I see it, even though I know that Cerberus will bring Shepard back to life and supply him with the SR2 (a slightly redesigned Normandy). It is the design of this ship that helps breathe life into the franchise. The designers could easily have created a functional, practical ship to haul Shepard’s team around the galaxy. Instead, they came up with something iconic. Good for them.

Another area in which the design tem excelled themselves is the armour and weapons. Shepard’s N7 armour has become something of a classic among the fans, and the weapon sets available match the design perfectly. In ME1, you could choose from a range of armour, depending on preference for heavy or light, colour and appearance, but this option was removed for ME2. In the second game you had one set of armour, although you could customize it in terms of colour, pattern and material, as well as purchasing add-ons which altered the appearance and granted combat bonuses.

The famous N7 armour

I am, as I’m sure you have realised, a huge fan of the Mass Effect universe, and I am really looking forward to receiving my copy of ME3 when it is released. But I am a little worried. I hope they have managed to keep the feel of the game. I hope that they have kept the sense of scale. I hope that they haven’t lost the love. If they have turned the game into a bog-standard shooter it will be an enormous disappointment. The well scripted and intricate story is what makes these games great.

They need to keep the promise made by ME1 and 2. If not, it will be a massive tragedy.

#writing – or trying to

Ummmmm...

I am currently (or constantly) trying to write. I am aiming to complete a selection of short(ish) stories based around the same world setting. I must have started a hundred stories, if not more, before becoming disillusioned with the plot, characters, or, usually, my level of talent. I am beginning to understand that my depression has had a lot to do with that, but I refuse to allow myself to use that as an excuse any more.
So why do I want to write?
The fame? The groupies? The money?
No. Don’t be daft. I want to write because…well, I want to write. Simple as that. I have always enjoyed writing stories. I used to borrow my mother’s typewriter as a young child and write terrible superhero stories (the one I remember featured Captain Forcefield, who had to overcome a dastardly plan whereby his nemesis stole the ladder to his bunk bed, thus stranding him in bed). I moved on to running impromptu role-play style games for friends at primary school, based on my love of choose-your-own-adventure books, such as the Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books.

You enter a 10X10 room. A goblin is guarding a chest...

Later on, I met someone who was far better at running these games than I ever was, so I generally stuck with creating characters and playing. I enjoyed the way that the story developed as we played, and that we could affect the outcome. It satisfied my creative temperament, as well as forming a solid group of misfits and outcasts. This social interaction was an excellent way to avoid doing the stupid things that many of our peers were involved in (such as sport, drinking in crappy pubs, joyriding and so on) and to make some very good friends in many parts of the country and beyond.
I have always read avidly, often having two or three books on the go at any one time, usually in various locations in the house so I can pick them up and carry on with the story when I find myself there with a few minutes to spare. One of my regrets is the speed at which I consume books, especially new ones, so the pleasure of reading is over far too quickly. I envy the imagination and skill of a huge number of writers, from the obvious to the obscure. In fact, the writing doesn’t have to be of a particularly high standard for me to enjoy, as long as the story itself is engaging. Some of the writers I would not hesitate to recommend include Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Toby Frost, George Mann, Ben Aaronovitch, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens… and so on (and on, and on…).
I have, over the last few years, stopped playing role-playing games on a regular basis. This has, oddly, left a rather sizeable hole in my life. Sad, I know. Not so much because of the lack of role-playing per se, but rather the lack of creative thought. So I’ve started trying to write again.
However, writer’s block is killing me! I have tried lots of different techniques in my writing. I’ve tried just getting on with it and making it up as I go along. I’ve tried planning out the story in as much detail as I can. I’ve tried creating a general ‘road map’ of where I want the story to go. Nothing seems to be working. I can’t get the story onto the page no matter how hard I try. Part of my depression (and I suspect everyone’s depression) is the feeling of being a failure in everything I do, of feeling that it isn’t worth doing anything because I will be judged harshly by others, or I will be held up as an example to avoid. All this tells me not to write.
Fuck that. Fuck that sideways.
I am a writer, even when I can’t write anything that I want to read back. I have to believe that, or I won’t write anything ever again.
And that thought is too horrific to contemplate.
So, my current project is a series of short Steampunk stories featuring a group of adventurous types led by an inventor/academic who has had a ‘device’ stolen by a group of Prussian mercenaries. The group is going to investigate… and so far, so predictable. I need to develop the idea in new and interesting ways, unfortunately I have no idea which direction to take! I would like to use this blog as a way to bounce ideas off people but I obviously don’t want other people to write it for me! So, any ideas that people feel happy offering would be gratefully received!
More to the point, I would be very interested in writing collaboratively with other people. I am happy to write in a range of genres and styles, although my preferred area would be fantasy/sci-fi (including urban fantasy, steam- or cyberpunk, pulp etc.). If you’re interested, DM me on Twitter (@Bailey_san75) leave me a message here, or email me on bailey_san75@hotmail.com. Also, any helpful advice would be gratefully received.
So, is that needy and desperate enough?