Notes On A Film – Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron
I felt sorry for Joss Whedon, the successful, talented, smart, funny, creatively satisfied man. A little bit. Not only did he have to follow up his own success by writing and directing the sequel to the third largest grossing film so far, but he also had to contend with the myriad of other factors involved in making a blockbuster film with a huge cast with huge stars that is also a lynchpin for the Marvel cinematic universe, the entertainment behemoth that has completely changed the way franchise films operate. And he also has to make a really good film in its own right. That’s a lot of pressure.

I needn’t have worried – Whedon is incredibly gifted, driven, capable man and he has proved it again with Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This is a film that gives everyone in its vast cast some quality moments, provides spectacle and action, finds time for character moments, introduces major new characters to the Avengers roster, and a new villain who is a serious threat (and highly entertaining as well), sets up bits for future Marvel films (a mention for Wakanda, setting up business for the next Thor film, not to mention the Infinity War stuff), and still finds time to be funny and quippy and jokey in that special Whedon fashion. In the words of Scott Kurtz’s PVP strip: Joss Whedon is our master now.

The film starts with a bang, as the Avengers chase down Baron Strucker in Sokovia (a non-specific European nation) to locate the sceptre used by Loki, in a great tracking scene to show the team in action and their abilities in sync, with a lovely slow-mo shot that’s the equivalent of a splash page of the team that made me smile like a loon. This opening section also introduces the superpowered twins, Pietro and Wanda, natives of Sokovia who want to make a difference and who hate Tony Stark and the Avengers – Wanda uses her ability to manipulate minds to affect Tony in the castle, showing him a vision that preys on his fears as a protector of the world. This is what causes him to use the artificial intelligence in the scepter’s gem to complete his Ultron global defense program without telling the rest of the Avengers (apart from Bruce Banner, who has reservations). After a celebration party in the Avengers’ headquarters (which is a great scene, with lots of people and lots of great dialogue and a brilliant scene of the other Avengers trying to lift Mjolnir [the look on Thor’s face when Captain America starts trying to lift it is priceless]), Ultron reveals himself and his desire to bring ‘peace in our time’ by eliminating humanity; he steals the sceptre, he recruits the twins, and steals some vibranium from Ulysses Klaue (a lovely performance from Andy Serkis – one word: ‘cuttlefish’) to upgrade his body before things get worse …

I really loved this film. It had everything I want from a superhero comic-book action movie. It has the interconnectivity of the Marvel universe, with appearances from the Falcon, War Machine, Dr Selvig, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, plus some nice cameos from other characters. It has great action scenes (such as the Hulkbuster versus the Hulk scene) that work within the context of the movie, but it also finds time to dwell on the characters – there’s nice depth for Hawkeye, back story for Black Widow and the development of her relationship with Bruce Banner, and the fleshing out of Pietro and Wanda. There is a good villain with a specific purpose in Ultron, wonderfully voiced by James Spader, who is the demented version of Tony Stark. (Ultron wasn’t what I expected – a different voice style, a different mentality – but it was all the better for it.) And the film is really funny – Whedon fills it with great quips, in the great tradition of comic books, but which work in the context of a film.

Whedon has a done a marvellous (pardon the pun) job – he handles the huge cast with a deftness and lightness of touch that belies how tough it is. He uses misdirection to surprise us, he uses emotion to power the story and the characters (when Hawkeye tells someone, ‘If you go outside, you’re an Avenger’, it brought a lump to my throat), he understands and communicates his understanding of the essence of what it means to be an Avenger, and the use of Mjolnir to prove worthiness is a brilliant moment. If I have to mention something to partially negate all this praise, I found the visualisation of the Vision a little strange – the comic-book version I’m used to has very smooth facial features, more synthetic and less human, whereas this is obviously the wonderful Paul Bethany with some things on his face. I guess I’ll get used to it the more I watch it (and I will be rewatching it plenty), but it seemed less genuine than the rest of the other Avengers.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning the overload of superhero comic book movies and the large slate of films with dates announced well in advance. But, seriously, if action-blockbuster comic-book movies are going to be of this quality, this entertaining, this fun, this enjoyable – where’s the problem?

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Comic Book Review – Elric Volume 1: Elric Of Melniboné

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Michael Moorcock Library Volume 1: Elric Of Melniboné
The Michael Moorcock Library
Elric created by Michael Moorcoock
Script and adaptation by Roy Thomas
Art by Michael T Gilbert and P Craig Russell
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Original editor: Michael Friedrich
Collection edited by Tom Williams
Published by Titan Comics

Originally published in 1983/1984 by Pacific Comics, these six issues adapting the first Elric novel (Elric of Melniboné) have been enhanced and re-edited for this new hardcover collection, and make an interesting companion piece to the latest adaptation of the same material (the second volume of which I reviewed here). It is a testament to the strength of the original material that the 30 years since this adaptation hasn’t seen an effect on the story – it is more about the execution of the adaptation and what it says about the time in which it was created.

These comics stick closely to the novel, which sees emperor Elric of Melniboné betrayed by his crazy cousin Yyrkoon and Elric’s quest to save his beloved Cymoril from Yyrkoon, and does a grand job of evoking the spirit of the novel in both narration and art. Roy Thomas was the man who brought sword and sorcery to Marvel comics with his run on Conan the Barbarian, so he was a natural choice to adapt the book. His style matches Moorcock’s prose and dialogue, of which there were naturally more in comic books from 30 years ago, but it doesn’t affect the storytelling and seems apposite to the genre.

The most intriguing aspect, appropriately, is the art. The art is by Gilbert and Russell, but the collaboration is a fluid one – the first three issue credits have pencils and colours by Gilbert, and layouts, inks and colours by Russell, but the order is swapped around; the last three issues have ‘art & colours’ by both but with the order swapping each issue. There are some pages that feel more Russell than Gilbert – particularly the last third of the first issue, with the full page being used to tell the story with few other panels and art nouveau touches to the panel design – but it is difficult to see where one artist ends and the other begins. I’m more used to Russell’s art from his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and less used to Gilbert’s, whose Mr Monster stories are the only work that I’ve read; however, his style here is very different to what I remember of the Mr Monster stories. The fusion between the two produces a style that echoes what I consider an art style of the 1970s – elaborate, ornate, gothic, arch – and very different from the style common in superhero books from that time. There are times where the characters are grotesque, such as Yyrkoon and Dr. Jest the torturer, with strange close-up panels and the violence of the battle scenes. Then, there are times where art takes on an artistic beauty, large panels beautifully drawn to illustrate a small moment in time, or where the detail is in the composition and framing. The colours can veer into the slightly garish at times – strange pinks and yellows and greens that seem harsh on the eye, so much so that the limited drab palette of the chapter set in the plane of dimension that contains the city of Ameeron is something of a relief (although Rackhir the Red Archer’s costume stands out somewhat).

As a fan of Chris Claremont’s original run on The Uncanny X-Men, I was delighted to see in these comic books the lettering of Orzechowski – his ability to squeeze in many balloons of dialogue and narration into beautiful artwork, honed by years of working with the notoriously verbose Claremont, is put to good use here and helps to make the book an enjoyable read. The art of lettering is a little different nowadays, with computer fonts and the ability to change things more easily, so it’s a joy to see a gifted professional working in the old-fashioned style doing a marvellous job of making the lettering an unobtrusive part of the artwork.

This collection is an interesting artefact of a different time – Pacific Comics was one of the first publishers to back creator-owned work, although liquidation of the company would occur later in 1984 after the final original issue of Elric Of Melniboné was published, and this adaptation can be seen as part of the early wave of independent comic books that didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code Authority (there is some nudity and the aforementioned battles are quite bloody) and which would pave the way for books in the mid-1980s that turned the industry around. If you’re a fan of Moorcock, Elric or the art of Russell and Gilbert, this is a book that you’ll want as part of your collection; for others, it’s an intriguing curio and cultural document.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Comic Book Review – Elric Volume 2: Stormbringer

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Elric volume 2: Stormbringer
Elric created by Michael Moorcock
Written by Julien Blondel & Jean-Luc Cano (based on the novel by Michael Moorcock)
Art by Julien Telo, Robin Recht, Didier Poli
Colours by Robin Recht, Jean Bastide & Scarlett Smulkowski
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Letters by Gabriela Houston
Published by Titan Comics

I always feel in adequate in my geek qualifications when I admit that I haven’t read much Moorcock; I’ve read more by authors who have named him as a specific influence (Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, who provides an excellent foreword to this book). I don’t know if it’s an issue of timing – if I’d been born 10 years earlier, perhaps, or discovered collected editions in the library when I was a teen, I might have been a convert to the church of Moorcock. However, I am aware of his stature in the field and the fondness and respect with which the stories of Elric of Melniboné are held by people better read than me, which is why I was eager to try this book.

This 64-page hardcover continues with the adaptation of the Elric novels, and is the second in the series so far. The book provides enough context in two paragraphs to bring the reader up to speed (although, in contrast to my opening paragraph, I have actually read this previously in prose form, so I was aware of the story so far anyway). Elric is the emperor of ancient Melniboné, an albino with pink eyes, ruling from the ruby throne in Imrryr, the dreaming city. However, his rule is threatened by his traitorous cousin, Yyrkoon, who has kidnapped Elric’s queen, Cymoril. Angry and desperate, Elric has called upon Arioch, the Lord of Chaos, to aid him in his quest to find Cymoril and punish Yyrkoon. But calling on a Lord of Chaos, by definition, will not go smoothly …


Elric volume 2: Stormbringer interior art
This instalment of the saga sees Elric make his bargain with Arioch; enlist the aid of Straasha, king of the seas; journey on the Ship Which Sails Over Land And Sea; have an encounter with Grome, king of the earth; fight Yyrkoon; and realise the nature of his fate is entwined with the dark sword, Stormbringer. It is easy to see why Moorcock is revered as an author of fantasy and science fiction – this story is the stuff of legends but told in a fresh and invigorating fashion, and his ‘fate-harrowed icon’ (a delightful turn of phrase from Moore in the foreword) is a rich and fascinating tragic figure. The wonderful names (Dyvim Tvar, Vaarda’sh, Dhoz-Kam), the playing with mythology, the broad tapestry filled with details – there is a reason why these stories have been adapted repeatedly in comic books and why they resonate with readers.

Another interesting aspect is described by Moore (he’s a smart chap – he’ll go far) when he talks about how we the readers change but Elric does not – the character remains the same but the way we see him does not. I can easily imagine how this story would captivate a teenage version of me, with the angst and the torment and the sacrifice perfectly encapsulating my adolescent mindset. As a man who is older, if not wiser, I see sadness and giving into fate and love blindness that interfere with duty, and I can even see an all-consuming selfishness that causes me to despair a little. In a way, this interpretation by a French creative team seems to capture all of that at the same time, as if it is in sync with the Gallic temperament (as least as I understand it from watching French movies) – the belief in love conquering all yet the inevitable betrayal for reasons that seem noble somehow resonates more keenly through a French perspective.
Elric volume 2: Stormbringer interior art
This richness of interpretation also continues through to the art – it is dark and angry yet beautiful and tragic, mixing light and shadow to tell the story, contrasting the colour of Elric’s skin and eyes with the palette of black and reds that dominate. Elric is a powerful figure, powerful yet haunted, philosophical yet a force of nature. If a reinterpretation of the eternal champion in comic-book form is done, then the art must be something worthwhile or it is an exercise in futility, but the art here is definitely worth the adaptation. If anything, it makes me want for more than the 64 pages of story here – I know it is the way of bande dessinée to have these smaller volumes coming out more regularly, but it’s not enough for someone like me used to trade paperbacks of double the size. Moorcock has declared this as his favourite Elric adaptation thus far, Alan Moore agrees with him; I’m not foolish enough to disagree with them. Bring on the next volume.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

From A Library: iZombie

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

iZombie TP1
Created/written by Chris Roberson & created/drawn by Michel Allred
iZombie: Dead to the World (iZombie #1–5 and part of The House of Mystery Halloween Annual #1)
iZombie: uVampire (iZombie #6–12 and The House of Mystery Halloween Annual #2)
iZombie: Six Feet Under and Rising (iZombie #13–18)
iZombie: Repossession (iZombie #19–28)

Now that iZombie has premiered on television, it seemed a good time to talk about the books from which the show has been adapted. The concept behind iZombie appeals to me – I bought the first issue (bargain priced at 99 cents) – because the main characters are a zombie (Gwen) who lives in a cemetery and works as a gravedigger, a ghost (Ellie, who died in the 1960s) who is her best friend, and a werewolf (well, a were-terrier, whose name is Scott but he gets called Spot), who live in a town (Eugene, Oregon) where vampires run a paintball camp, and where Gwen gains the memory of the dead person when she eats the brain. That’s the sort of set-up that will get me interested. However, the execution never quite grabbed me in that first issue, so I only got round to reading the book through the generosity of libraries.

iZombie TP2
There is more to the book than just the central hook – Roberson has worked out his own reasons for the folklore of the individual creatures, which involves the multiple types of souls that the Egyptians believed in being responsible for different varieties of mythical creatures. Roberson’s version has two souls – an oversoul and an undersoul: the oversoul is in the brain, the undersoul is in the heart, referring to the conscious and unconscious mind, respectively. A bodiless oversoul is a ghost; a bodiless undersoul is a poltergeist; a vampire is when the oversoul remains in the body; a zombie is when the undersoul remains in the body; a bodiless soul can infect a living body, so an animal undersoul infection can lead to a werewolf; a bodiless oversoul can infect the living, which is a possession. Because of all these types, there is obviously an organisation that hunts these monsters: the Corporis Fossorii, who have come in contact with John Amon, the ‘mummy’ who explains all of this to Gwen.

The first volume is all set-up, but this continues into the second trade paperback with the ‘origin’ of Spot the were-terrier and how the oversoul of his grandfather got into the body of a chimpanzee. Then there is the burgeoning relationship between Gwen and Horatio, a hunter in the Corporis Fossorii, the introduction of a Frankenstein’s Bride (Galatea, known to Amon, who Roberson describes as ‘the creation of an alchemist in seventeenth century [sic] Germany’), and the back story of Ellie the ghost, expanding this little universe that Roberson has created. The third volume sees the introduction of the Dead Presidents, who are named after former presidents but are a zombie, a were-cat and a disembodied entity, led by Zombie Lincoln. Comics! This volume also has some of the sloppiest knowledge-dropping in the series – Galatea goes to talk to Gwen but runs off when Ellie tells her about all the zombies in the catacombs but Galatea somehow drops a photograph of Amon and Gwen from when Gwen was still alive, which is found by Ellie – but plots have to be fed, I suppose.

iZombie TP3
We learn that Eugene is a place where the walls between the worlds are thinner and that something is going to break through soon, something which Amon wants to stop. Things are complicated by the arrival of the Dead Presidents and the Corporis Fossorii in Eugene for the zombie outbreak, plus Horatio’s partner in the Fossorii announces that Gwen is a zombie. Gwen’s brother is possessed by a revenant who used to live in the writer/artist of the comic book character The Phantasm. And then Gwen touches Amon and finds out that she knew Amon before: he skilled herself because Amon asked her to save the world.

The huge fourth trade paperback, collecting the final 10 issues, sees the zombie invasion in full effect, with the army brought in to try to contain it, and the build-up to the return of Xitalu (a giant Lovecraftian-type monster), who will consume the earth. There’s a lot going on in this final storyline, with sacrifices and kidnaps and possessions and natives of higher dimensions, but it feels rather rushed, making you wonder if Roberson was trying to fit everything in before the book was stopped.

iZombie TP4
I thought that iZombie was an interesting book with an interesting take on the classic film monsters, with a vibrancy enhanced by the use of real places in Eugene. It was also positive to have a female lead character, still rarer than it should be. I didn’t think that the book completely gelled – the idea and the characters were interesting, but the entirety of the series never seemed to fuse and come to life (if you’ll pardon the pun). The other problem I have is with the art – I’m not a fan of Allred’s pop-art style. I can see that he is a good artist who knows how to tell a story and has a quirky and engaging style, but it’s never worked for me (I always thought that his art in X-Statix was rather ugly). It is a good choice for the book because it counters the ghoulish nature of the creatures involved by presenting them in a colourful and non-threatening manner, but it left me cold and I know that’s my issue. In fact, I preferred the fill-in artists (J Bone and Jim Rugg), which is the reverse of how I usually feel about a book – the original artist is the defining influence on the art style and representation of the comic book.

Despite my reservations about the book, which I mostly enjoyed, I hope that the TV show does well – it seems to be a different thing, going for a police procedural with Gwen as the equivalent of a psychic with her brain-digested memories, and none of the other characters from the comic book, which is a shame because it would have been nice to see the actual comic book on screen – but Veronica Mars was a great show, so I trust Rob Thomas enough to oversee it. I hope we get to see it in the UK, and I hope that it sees some interest in the book (even if Roberson did burn his bridges with DC).

Comic Book Shops: Bromley

Friday, 20 March 2015

It’s been a while since I’ve documented visits to comic book shops in London (and elsewhere), but I have recently become a resident of south-east London, so it was a pleasant surprise to find not one but two comic book shops in the general area. The two shops provide a contrast in the style and approach towards selling comic books to the public in the 21st century, so I thought I would write about them together.

Piranha Comics

I’ll tackle them in geographic order, from north to south: Piranha Comics is at the north end of Bromley high street, next to the Empire cinema – it has a nice shop front, a good display window, a funky logo and typeface, and generally looks modern. It is an open and friendly comic book shop, and I spent a good bit of time chatting with the chap running the shop – I guess that approaching customers is standard practice, as he asked about my tastes so that he could recommend things I might like, but the chat became more wide-ranging than that when he couldn’t point me towards something I didn’t already know about. We talked about various creators and their work and the different comic book universes (I felt sorry for my girlfriend, who felt like a third wheel, but unfortunately I was enjoying myself …), so I hope we didn’t geek out any other customers in the shop.

Because it is a modern comic book shop, Piranha Comics has merchandise but the emphasis was definitely on comic books – there were lots of trade paperbacks/hardcover collections, a large wall of new comic books, various collected sets of comic books on the shelf in the back next to the Superman statue. The variety was good, and it felt like a proper comic book shop (it compared favourably to my personal favourite, Gosh!) and it was friendly, a good size, welcoming and pleasant. It also acts as host to a regular Magic the Gathering evening, which was good to see even if I don’t have any interest in it. Piranha Comics has a good website (although the blog link doesn’t have any entries), a Facebook page that is well populated and well visited, and there is also a Twitter account for the shop – this level of social media presence should be standard for a retailer nowadays, but it’s good to see it done well in addition to serving the customers in the shop.

Time Trek shop

At the south end of the high street, nearer to Bromley South station and the larger shopping centres, is Time Trek, which is very different. It is a small shop, squeezed between a barber and a Wilko; the shop display is full of a wide range of merchandise, and it is rather cramped inside. The comic books are organised by publisher, crammed along the right wall as you walk into the shop; the range is impressive, with a lot of independent publishers included, but the comic books all overlap each other and it feels a little chaotic. There are also trade paperbacks and hardcover collections, as well as comic book sets, although not as much as Piranha. On the left, there is a centre section of merchandise, and then there is even more merchandise around the other side (there is only enough room for one person to walk down the aisles, which means you have to stand in the alcove at the back to let someone pass). The type of items on sale tend towards the popular stuff, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who (for example, I remember a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver pizza cutter), although it does cover the full geek range of sci-fi and fantasy.

As I entered the shop, the man behind the counter (who I think is the owner – you can see him in the photographs accompanying this piece in a local newspaper from last year, which I think was referring to the 25th anniversary of the shop) asked me if I was all right and then said that the shop was very quiet that day – he said that it was usually busier; it was a Saturday, so I hope he was right. The shop felt a little dated – the shop front hasn’t been changed in years (it still has an 081 phone number on top – see my photograph) – and it has a static page for its website, with no other social media, indicating an old-fashioned approach to retailing. However, there is obvious love for comic books and sci-fi, such as a ‘recommended’ graphic novel on the cash desk (when I was there, it was the first volume of Rat Queens), and the owner must be doing something right if the shop is still in business after 25 years.

Bromley: a town centre with two very different comic book shops. The choice is yours.

RIP Terry Pratchett

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett (photo copyright Rob Wilkins)
It was a genuine shock when I turned on my phone to check the news and saw that Sir Terry Pratchett had passed away. Even though the diagnosis of a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease was widely known, his passing was completely unexpected and he was taken from us too soon. It’s taken me a few days to absorb the knowledge and to contemplate these words, but I knew I had to write something about the man and his work.

I have written about his books only once – a review of The Unseen Academicals, in which I commented on the fact that it was a surprise that I’d never written about his work before. I adored his Discworld series, ever since I discovered them in the early 1990s. It was an enthusiastic endorsement from a good university friend that pointed me towards the books, and I remember the joy I felt at reading books about fantasy that were genuinely funny and so well written. I have a vivid memory of getting up on a Sunday morning to visit a large car boot sale because I’d been told there was someone there who sold the Pratchett books at half price, and picking up the entirety of the series to that point (although Pratchett had first been published in 1971, with The Carpet People, it wasn’t until 1983 that the first Discworld novel, The Colour Of Magic, was published; however, Pratchett was a prolific writer and had written a dozen Discworld books by the time I started buying them).

There are many reasons to admire and enjoy Pratchett’s work – his excellent prose, his wide-ranging knowledge, his pop culture references, his humanism, his intelligence – but his warm humour was the stand-out reason for me. It’s incredibly difficult to tell a good story well and still be funny with it, and Pratchett was consistently laugh-out-loud funny. From his blurb (he liked writing ‘because it was indoor work with no heavy lifting') and turns of phrase in his prose, to the many funny quotes (I’m not going to list them – see the Pratchett Quote File at the L-Space site) and his wonderful use of footnotes (my personal favourite, which has stuck with me for many years, is referring to Detritus the troll as a ‘splatter’, the footnote to which was ‘Like a bouncer but trolls use more force’), Pratchett always made me smile, titter, laugh or guffaw.

His Discworld novels started out parodying many aspects of fantasy (such as Cohen the Barbarian), but they developed into a series of satirical novels that happened to exist in a medieval world which was a disc balanced on four elephants who were stood on the back of the giant turtle, Great A’Tuin. The stories were allowed to develop into a broader canvas by the many great recurring characters, who were either the centre of the story or peripheral characters in other books. Rincewind the cowardly and unsuccessful wizard of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork was the first protagonist, followed by the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and then the best human character, Sam Vimes, introduced along with the City Watch in Guards! Guards! There were lots of recurring characters who would pop up, such as Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and the Librarian (accidentally transformed into an orangutan but who remained as such because it made swinging through the stacks easier, only saying ‘Ook’), and all manner of werewolves, vampires, zombies, Igors, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes and golems. But the greatest of all was Death, an anthropomorphic representation who spoke in capital letters, and is perhaps Pratchett’s greatest creation. It was fitting that the tweet that announced Terry’s passing on his Twitter account was from Death.

Another aspect that made Terry so loved was his interaction with his fans. An early adopter of the internet, he was a frequent poster on the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.pratchett, something we take for granted in the accessible world we live in but was such a treat back then. He also did extensive signing tours – I was fortunate to attend one of his talks/signing tours in Canterbury in 1993 (or 1994, I’m not completely sure of the year), and he was a genial presence even if he was by nature a shy person (like most writers), coming across as wise and warm and funny as he does in his books. The Discworld convention has been going since the mid-1990s, and Terry would often appear as a guest of honour.

It is a shame that we have lost so brilliant an author before his time, but I take heart in the fact that he knew that people loved him and his work, that he was able to make a good living from his writing, that he enjoyed writing so much, and that he left behind a wonderful series of books that will stand the test of time. I took out my collection of Discworld paperbacks to look at the lovely covers by Josh Kirby for the first 20 books, making sure not to affect L-space too much while doing so, and it made me feel better to know that we will always have a small part of Terry with us. Time for me to re-read them, I think. Thank you, Terry, and enjoy your walk with Death under the endless night.

Being An Empire Magazine Workie

Friday, 13 March 2015

Empire #301
Last year was the 25th anniversary of Empire magazine, which is an impressive achievement for a print magazine these days. I picked up issue 301 (not the 300th; that would have been too obvious) to take a stroll down memory lane, because I haven’t subscribed to the magazine in many years, despite the fact that I think that Empire is the greatest film magazine.

The item that stood out was The 301 Greatest Movies Of All Time (or, more accurately, The 301 Greatest Movies Up Until Now, unless Empire knows something about an impending apocalypse that’s not being shared), as voted for by Empire readers. Despite not being a regular reader of the magazine, I still share the same broad tastes as the voting readers. This is demonstrated by the fact that, of the top 25 films, I have 21 of them on DVD/Blu-ray.

You can see the list online but the relevant part:
25: Schindler’s List; 24: The Big Lebowski; 23: The Matrix; 22: 2001: A Space Odyssey; 21: Alien; 20: Apocalypse Now; 19: Aliens; 18: Jurassic Park; 17: Back To The Future; 16: The Avengers; 15: The Godfather Part II; 14: Fight Club; 13: Goodfellas; 12: The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King; 11: Blade Runner; 10: Inception; 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark; 8: Jaws; 7: The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring; 6: Star Wars; 5: Pulp Fiction; 4: The Shawshank Redemption; 3: The Dark Knight; 2: The Godfather; 1: The Empire Strikes Back

If ever there were an indicator of my Empire zombie status, you could point to this statistic. However, there is another piece of evidence to prove my love for Empire – the fact that I spent a week as an intern at Empire (or ‘workie’, as they like to call them) over 10 years ago, something I was reminded of when I read the magazine.

I had returned from the US after a postdoctoral position in a molecular biology lab at a university, which had confirmed my suspicion that I didn’t want to be a research scientist. Alas, I didn’t know exactly what it was I *wanted* to be. I had always had an inclination towards words and writing, but I didn’t know how this would be channelled into employment. When I saw the notice from Empire (I think it was the weekly email newsletter, but I’m not 100% sure) on the lookout for interns, I knew I HAD to apply. A chance to work at a magazine I’d admired as well as discover if I had the ability to do it? I heard opportunity knocking and I answered. The application involved writing two film news items in the style of Empire online. I duly wrote them up and sent off the items and the accompanying letter, happy that I had actually applied. I was amazed when I was offered the chance to be a workie – I didn’t really think that they’d want a thirtysomething with a PhD in biochemistry; I was also surprised that my placement wouldn’t be for several months because of the huge number of people who applied. Empire had a workie every week, and never needed to worry about applicants. Nowadays, I don’t think they even bother with them – the website directs you to Go Think Big to look for opportunities and a quick search couldn’t find anything for Empire – so I consider myself very fortunate.

Empire magazine logo

The Monday in October finally arrived, and I turned up in the offices on Winsley Street (Empire has since moved to Shaftesbury Avenue), just around the corner from where the HMV superstore used to be on Oxford Street. As I’m sure is typical everywhere, there was nobody to specifically tell me what to do or where to go; I was given a seat and the editorial assistant asked me to provide an interesting fact about myself (I went with the ‘meeting Margaret Thatcher’), so that she could send round an email announcing who the new person in the office was that week. Later on that day, she would say to me, ‘Why didn’t you say you had a PhD? That’s much more interesting than meeting Margaret Thatcher.’ Because of the Margaret Thatcher comment, Chris Hewitt would come over to ask why I hadn’t tried to kill her. Yes, Videoblogisode Man, him off the telly and the radio and the Empire magazine podcasts, came over to ask me why, as a 10-year-old boy, I hadn’t had conclusive evidence of future events and decided that the only option to prevent the misery was to commit murder … Chris was pretty much the same as he is now, being loud and silly and passionate about films; I remember him quoting bits from films, forcing people to watch trailers (this was back when it was still a novelty to watch movie trailers online) and quoting bits from Father Ted for no reason.

Helen O’Hara had become the most recent new employee at Empire (she was doing an internship with the prize of a full-time post, if I recall correctly), so it was she who had to deal with the workie (which doesn’t make a lot of sense – what does the newbie know about things for a workie to do?). She was very helpful with someone like me with no journalism experience, perhaps because she had trained as a barrister before deciding to pack it in and become a film journalist, and she was as nice in person as she is on the Empire podcast. The first task every morning was to pick a news item to write up in the Empire style for the website. My first piece was about John Woo doing a remake of Le Samurai, and I was happy with that (I was a big fan of Woo, and included a reference to Melville’s influence on The Killer); however, on another morning, I had to completely rewrite a piece about Madonna when Helen told me that I couldn’t call her the ‘gap-toothed one’ and other less flattering prose (I am not a fan of Madonna), giving me an insight to the synergy between the film industry and film media – don’t insult someone the magazine might want to interview in the future. Unfortunately, the Empire archives don’t go back to 2003, so there is no online proof of these articles.

Popcorn is film-related, right?
The week I was there was the London Film Festival, which unfortunately meant that it was the only week that workies couldn’t see a preview – you have to be an accredited journalist to get in. This is perhaps the only unhappy part of the week – I would have loved to go to a screening with the Empire people and then chat with them about the film afterwards and have an influence on the star rating; however, I had been a film reviewer at a student newspaper (Felix, the Imperial College student paper), so at least I had already enjoyed the luxury of going to London screening rooms to see films for free and before anyone else.

There was also a magazine awards thing happening, so everyone in the office left early on the Friday to go to the event. With nobody else around and no work to do, I ended up chatting with Sam Toy – he was a friendly, burly, bearded Australian who had come as a workie but then kept turning up at the office every day (I don’t know if he was independently wealthy but I don’t know how he survived otherwise) until they finally surrendered and gave him a junior online position just to stop him bothering them (I don’t think this is an approved method of getting a job with Empire). He told me to take two Empire t-shirts, which I still have, so there’s that.

In between, it’s pretty much a blur of being happy about the fact that I was legally in the Empire offices. I wrote the daily news item; towards the end of the week, I wrote the copy for the competitions in the newsletter; I had to go through the previous year or two of magazines (they had a cupboard where they kept them) and write a list of all the three-star films in the magazine, although I don’t know why (unless it was a stupid job to keep the workie busy); I remember transcribing an interview – one of the dullest things to do in the world – but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be there: watching trailers on massive Apple screens on your desk was part of the job; talking about movies with people who were passionate about them was part of the job; watching films (if I’d got the chance) was part of the job.

Empire magazine
While I was there, I was given the opportunity to talk to other members of the magazine, to ask them advice and about the business. I chatted to online editor James Dyer (now Editor-in-Chief [Digital]) – who nicely said that I had the right voice of Empire (‘authoritative yet irreverent’) and that if I worked at it then he could see no reason why I couldn’t get a film journalism job (which was nice, even if it was a lie he probably said to all the workies). [In an email to Dyer afterwards to thank him for his time, I apologised for nearly destroying the office – I have no memory of what that refers to, unfortunately. It would make for a killer anecdote in this piece, wouldn’t it?] I chatted to Assistant Editor Ian Freer, a lovely chap who got his job on the magazine by writing in letters to the editor pointing out mistakes and giving a list of ideas for them to write about in future issues.

I suppose I should finish with a germane movie quote (‘I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook’), but I don’t really feel that way. I wasn’t qualified to work there, but I proved myself and got in and had a blast for a week, and I can always say that I did it. What more could I ask?