Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Comics: a feature on Infinite Crisis (part 2)

Now collected in a big hardcover book, Infinite Crisis stars big names in DC's universe, from the Flash to Lex Luthor to Power Girl to Mongul (an enemy of Superman and Green Lantern who destroyed a whole city in the past) to Animal Man to the Spectre (the spirit of God's vengeance which has recently gone out of control for some unknown reason). And that is not to mention the three characters who turn up from the original Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986 – a huge, impressive (but longwinded) tale of how a war between two celestial beings known as the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor ended when, after the Monitor's death and plenty of battles with superheroes from DC's vast history, the Anti-Monitor succeeded in destroying hundreds of parallel universes, and was finally killed, apparently leaving only one universe of heroes. However, thankfully, all you need to know about that is explained within the pages of this current crisis.

In order to get the most out of the miniseries, it is best to read some of the excellent build-up to the it before diving straight in. The most essential prequel is the comic book collection titled The Omac Project, containing the Countdown to Infinite Crisis special. Not only is it a really fun read, the writers and artists really pulled out the stops to make it emotional, as we witness the death of one of the older Justice League members and a vicious battle between two of DC's Big Three. Also we are treated to some moments of Batman showing real emotion (something which DC realised had become too rare in the late 1990s and early 2000's) while trying to save the lives of those he has endangered. It's an excellent and dramatic story.

So The Omac Project is a must-read, and before that Identity Crisis is recommended. If you want to as well you could pick up Superman: Road to Ruin and Superman: Ruin's End – which tie in with The Omac Project and have one or two good moments.

But wait there's more – there were another three special short series that came after The Omac Project and led into Infinite Crisis and these were: Day of Vengeance, Villains United, and the Rann-Thanagar War. Although the last of these, a war set in space, has eye-popping art, the story is weak, it has no resolution and I'd recommend you give it a miss. The others are both entertaining reads, the best, Day of Vengeance (which deals with the problems with magic happening on Earth) being at times very thrilling and at times a little odd, with some deliberately “out-there” characters; Villains being a mediocre story about some anti-heroes against the world, with a lot of tension-building and a fun climax – this one has actually spawned a critically-acclaimed new team book that pops up every so often: the Sinister Six.

Finally I wanted to recommend Checkmate to the masses, a comic book which launched in the aftermath of Infinite Crisis and which sadly stopped running last year: It's basically a book about international politics and shady black ops manoeuvres with some super-heroics in there too. The discredited organisation Checkmate has supposedly reformed after the events of the Crisis, and has been supported by certain heroes, opposed by others. Previous members still feel it has a role in foreign policy, particularly in dealing with terrorism on an international scale. And they are then faced with impossible choices, considering their backgrounds, tense wars of words to pursue the best course of action, and operations where known spies are working alongside them.

Thus concludes my guide to this comic book event, hope you enjoyed it! Maybe some film updates will come before long....

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Comics: a feature on Infinite Crisis (2006-7)

Today I thought I'd talk a bit more about DC comics, including my own brief guide to the big comic book event DC ran in 2006-7: Infinite Crisis. I guess the problem with the DC Universe is that it's hard to know where to start. Major events aren't collected in subsequent volumes, like in Fables, which deals with the whole Fable world through telling stories chronologically. In DC a character introduced in Teen Titans might turn up in Superman or JSA with little or no introduction.

OK, so, you might ask, what does DC do well then? You might count big explosive cross-overs such as the four different “Crises”, for one. Also I think the DC heroes and villains (and those in-between) often cross over from title to title more seamlessly than those in Marvel's books, which is interesting and creates a world where the bizarre and incredible seems to be going on all the time. I think there are some great writers in there too from Geoff Johns (currently writing Green Lantern, Superman and Flash) to Greg Rucka (working away on things like Checkmate – more on this later) to novelist Brad Meltzer (whose recent work on JLA: The Tornado's Path was shocking, exciting and yet very introspective, dealing with the personal journeys a few characters on the team).

So Infinite Crisis then – basically it's a great seven-issue miniseries which deals with some major threats to the world – which are seen to have come about because of the failure of the heroes to be pure and to work hard enough to protect and uphold the good in the world. It builds on several shocking storylines in modern DC comics which have shown heroes making moral compromises in the face of battle. Batman has become more paranoid, and is facing some serious errors of judgement springing from his obsession with crime-fighting, Superman has been put through the wringer through fighting new villain Ruin and letting himself be caught out by Eclipso (a magical entity), warrior for peace Wonder Woman faces the suspicion of the whole world for killing a man, and usually unstoppable superhero team JLA has split up, because of a serious betrayal of trust within the team – which sprang from some skeletons in the closet that turned up during the carefully-plotted whodunit, Identity Crisis, from a year earlier (which, incidently, is a good place for newcomers to the DC universe to start following this crisis).

One of the JLA's oldest members is missing after an explosion on the moon base of the team, and so as the story opens the Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) meet to investigate – ending up criticising each other's actions and not seeing a way forward, while the world is being over-run by an artificial intelligence worse than HAL, by chaos in the world of magic, and by a society of villains, apparently more united and purposeful than our heroes.

So what did I like about it?
- A killer opening issue, which shows how bad things have got.
- The theme of disillusionment about how to improve the world seems really relevant, where we feel we are only being reactionary to the problems in the world. Is it really possible to do something great? To make a great world, when we can't even keep friendships and open up to the people that matter?
- A good focus on the younger generation of DC's characters, Nightwing and teen Superman-clone Connor particularly, whose personal journeys really impact the corresponding older heroes, Superman and Batman, who have sunken to new lows in the early stages of the story. Wonder Woman emerges from her own shadow too, proving herself a warrior of valour, and a defender of earth. Issues 3 and 4 are great at developing the main characters while providing killer action.
- The huge scale of it, with made the writer see the necessity of putting in a "temple" scene where even heroes stop and seek their god or gods. It nicely acknowledges what a real world crisis would lead to.
- A seemingly unstoppable villain, who returns for a shocking and violent climax.
- Incredible art throughout, spectacular and emotional.
- The fact that this led to the ambitious and multi-layered epic: 52. (I guess I'm introducing you to more and more DC comics - partly to point out that, clearly, Marvel comics are not the only good ones:)

What I struggled with a little was the sheer amount of characters included without explanation of who they are and how they got there. That's probably one reason why I just didn't care about the space parts much. Some of the superpowers I really don't understand (why does the “speed force” suddenly stop working, and what is it anyway?), and I'd like to know how Black Adam (proud prince of Middle East country Kahndaq) got involved. Why is Connor just moping around at the beginning? Does anyone understand Firestorm? And these are just some of my questions!

More tomorrow on the best way to read Infinite Crisis - what is essential and what I think you should skip.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The next big thing to read in comics?

It’s been a while since I have been excited by the breadth and scope of a comic, but that is exactly where I find myself now. After reading some quite full novels like The Book Thief – and a short controversial novel perhaps unfairly critiquing America called The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which was a good quick read), I have been ready to read something more light-hearted. So I finally started on the seven-issue comic Final Crisis, a bizarre and huge story set in the world of Batman, Superman, the Question, the Flash and other DC characters, where the “new gods” take over the entire earth and usher in an era of oppression, mindlessness, submission, conformity and “anti-life”.

It all leads to a (perhaps culturally significant) moment, when Darkseid announces there is only one true god, him, the embodiment of evil sadism, the one who enslaves humanity (“all is one in him”) and inspires his loyal followers amongst the new gods to produce ever greater works of genetic horror and horrendous destruction.

Not exactly light-hearted then! But it is great as it daringly pushes each character to their limit. Green Arrow, who always gets great political lines, has a fun moment to stand up against a wave of brainwashed foes before falling. Also I liked the inclusion of the low-level villain the Tattooed Man, who, in an extra part of the story called Final Crisis: Submit, has to face his hatred of self-righteous superheroes and grudgingly accept their help. It’s nice to see a couple of characters from the horrific/fantastic Seven Soldiers of Victory series here too.

The best part I got to read was actually Superman Beyond which focused on Superman on a personal mission to rescue Lois, by going beyond the universe itself to the “bleed” which makes up the universes to carry out his role in what is described to be an inexorable story that the monitors who watch the universes may have set in motion. The story is like an immovable force, a bit like the way stories or ideas are described in Terry Pratchett. And Superman proves his “super” by knowing the secret of the story, it seems. Very weird, but pushes the boundaries.

Also connected, Batman: Last Rites builds on the previous adventures of the Dark Knight (such as The Black Casebook and Batman RIP), and while looking back at his whole life in just 2 issues, it presents a cool twist that shows the new gods a thing or two, before Bruce Wayne is vaporised and killed in the main story of Final Crisis. He really seems to be dead, by the way, and will be missing for quite a while (until the inevitable resurrection)!

Of course it does briefly reference the previous big Crisis, which seemed mainly to be about irresponsibility, both on the part of the world and its heroes - but also the irresponsibility of youth, as shown in the re-appearence of an immature and over-powered "Superboy". More thoughts on that "Infinite" Crisis are coming soon, as I've been meaning to post a kind of guide to the whole thing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2 more book reviews & some big issues to chew on

I'm heading up a book stall at our Christmas carol service, and here are reviews of two of the books on that stall, exploring the God of Christianity, and hopefully providing answers which help people understand him and see his goodness.

What kind of God? (IVP)

Having seen Michael Ots on the front line, speaking at lunchtime talks at some of our universities, answering questions from the floor and debating with individuals afterwards, it is clear Michael is passionate at speaking to people where they are at and dealing with their questions about God. This book is based on the outcry of those he has met asking “What kind of God is it who authorises war, inspires fundamentalism in the US, punishes his own Son, represses sexuality, allows the environment to be destroyed, and condemns people to hell?”

He gives real answers to these accusations and, more than that, explains that there is a basis for saying God is good and that Jesus is 100% relevant today - in fact, that we ignore him at our peril. You don’t have to read the book in order, so if you or a friend would read even one chapter, consider picking this one up as a starting point for further discussion.

If I were God I’d end all the pain (Good Book Company)

In this book John Dickson wrestles with the question of suffering: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does he allow so much pain and difficulty in the world? Early on he tells us that, although the perspective of the Bible will not answer all of our questions on suffering, he thinks it is the only perspective on the world which is “not itself knocked-out by the force of this age-old question”.

Exploring the views of suffering taken by Buddhists, Muslims and then atheists, he notes their various insights and difficulties before going on to present the picture of this problem in the Bible. We are warmly encouraged to grapple with this problem and to question (or shout at) God along with the writer of Psalms in the Old Testament, and to learn of the way God has provided for us to bring us comfort and help, also promising to one day bring to an end the suffering of his people. The book gives us a glimpse of the plan of God for the world according to the Bible - then, it is up to the reader to decide whether this really does hold true or not. John Dickson “keeps it real” too with examples from films like The Truman Show and real-world tragedies he has spoken to people about, read in the news or those that have affected him personally.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book reviews - and the real God worth knowing

As we start to think about filling in Christmas cards, and prepare for the Christmas period, here is the first of some books I've reviewed which should get you thinking about God at this time of year, - because I know He can get squeezed out of our thoughts all too easily but I believe it is actually immeasurably important to be moving towards a close, dependent relationship with Him. I hope these books we help you see more of this, and more of Him.

First up: But is it Real?

In this short book Amy Orr-Ewing tackles in quick succession 10 real objections people have to the Christian faith. Each objection has come from someone she has met (a student, a mechanic, a taxi-driver) and they include “What about the spiritual experience of people in other religions?” and “Your ‘experience of God’ is a delusion”.

She treats each statement carefully to get to the heart of the matter - using lots of real-life stories - before going on to claim that it is possible and desirable to have a relationship with the God of the Bible, and that it does not require us to throw our minds into the bin! For instance, she claims it is possible to have respect for people with other beliefs while disagreeing firmly with the content of those beliefs. She exposes the problems with atheism and points to the wealth of intelligent people (including Nobel-prize-winning scientists) who claim to have experienced a relationship with the true God as revealed in the Bible. Leading us through some of the claims of Christianity, she encourages us to approach God for ourselves, as the Bible promises that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us.

More books coming soon, approaching the subjects of God, religion and life from some intriguing angles...

New Poem: Knowing

Here's a new poem - exploring the contradictory desires of the self, and also perhaps looking at things which are temporary and pass from our lives. Seems to be a theme I often come back to. Let me know what you think.

Quisling one paddles towards graceful swan
Just as my thoughts break waves, pressing on,
Slapping them back, travelling directly through.

As the echoes of a dream quake around
Conscious thoughts know where they are going,
You, only you.

Every step he makes is a fight,
But there’s no restraint, he’s not right,
Moments of knowing will leave.

Temper admiration for his stealth,
His victories, his health,
Work hard not to be fully like him.

As gusty winds suppress a shout,
Turning him outside, and about,
We search for wisdom stars forgot to tell.

Our attitudes to our thoughts
Become other thoughts and platitudes,
And soon it is all forgotten.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Reading The Time Traveller's Wife

So why am I reviewing a 3-year-old book that was huge and pretty much everyone already knows about?

One reason is that Niffenegger's big novel touches on just about everything - fate, memory, happiness, fear, bereavement, illness, disability, religion, the future, hope, love, self-destructive anger, sex, jealousy, self-centredness and existential problems about the self, including that feeling of being disconnected from something important. The author's genius is to not simply to create the bizarre concept of a man with a time-displacement disorder, slipping out of time to other points in his or his wife's lives, but the genius is in how she makes this situation human, and then uses it to explore the way we look at ourselves, our relationships, our lives.

In the course of its pages, which plot out the relationship between Henry de Tamble the time-traveller and his great love (and time-static) Clare, we identify with Clare, as she feels the distance in the relationship created by time, and also (for instance) as she struggles with commitment to Henry and feels guilt about that - and has to conquer her fears for their future, often through producing some quite bizarre, and physical, art. But we also appreciate Henry's often strange reflections on life and how it works, and we can understand the way he resents the other version of himself he meets in his future; Niffenegger knows how, during the confusing teenage years, we can have ambiguous, even hostile, feelings about ourselves and our bodies. What is more, in the way Henry studies his older self, Niffenegger clearly perceives our resentment of those who have a better sense of security than ourselves, and reflects on how us creative types want to be in control of our own lives, not merely feel we are fitting in to a pattern laid out for us.

The book is filled with astute observations of how we work. Often the author draws attention to the human body, I think to celebrate the excellence of the way we work, move, interact, reproduce, and sometimes showing how frail we are and the enormous problems caused by just one thing being wrong with us. It seems to warn us to make the most of our time, and not to play around with other people's lives, something we do when we are young and impatient with what life is giving us. Niffenegger uses all kinds of settings and situations (a club in Chicago, a Christmas day mass, the apartment Henry's dad has let deteriorate) to examine how we treat those around us, and the way our values change as we become older.

Although it is mostly concerned with Henry's survival, Clare's next big challenge and the love story, there is a section some time after the midway point where it becomes too much about representing their feelings abstractly, through dreams and other more obvious techniques. And the book bares all, including the ugly side of attempting to conceive a child, and some unhelpfully explicit details of their sex life (outrageously, the incredible gift of sex is exploited for our analysis and entertainment purposes when the sensation is designed to be shared between two people and not compared and dissected).

Having said that, Niffenegger clearly knows what makes a good yarn, and has read her Homer. The end of the novel is exceptionally well done, finding a neat (and intriguingly non-spiritual) solution which still leaves you feeling full of hope for the pair of lovers and for the time ahead, widening our own horizons: What things have we yet to see, and to discover? What are we holding on for?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Another heavy, epic, action anime to watch?

This anime should be worth watching (over 18s only please)! There seem to be more and more of these kind of projects - fusing Eastern artistic talent with Western ideas (here Dante's Inferno, which is all about Hell). See Batman: Gotham Knight and (especially) The Animatrix, for other interesting examples. (I liked the Batman one, it was a mixture of one-note shorts which were brutal, mysterious, and simple little stories.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

November tune-age

Here's a new playlist for your Spotify browser (because I enjoyed making the last one): November tunes. Discovering Vampire Weekend, White Lies (thanks Joe) and finding some classics from Goo Goo Dolls and Genesis have been the highlights this month. I must make more time for the Muse album, which sounds incredible. You will also find some Switchfoot, Killers and a track from Mark Ronson's album Version. Click on the tag "music-related" to find other music reviews from the blog's past, including Elbow, who have been on top form the last couple of years.

I've also written about the Killers and Jars of Clay. Let me know what music is catching your attention at the moment!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Visiting Penguin publishing in London

So last Thursday I travelled up to Penguin Books for a day called "Getting Into Publishing". As you can see, it wasn't hard to find the place :)
I met some fantastic people: editors, publicists, publishers, sales and finance and marketing and book production people, assistants, and students and graduates looking for work. It was exciting to be amongst so many great people who were really passionate about books.

This has thrown up some more questions for me: I love working with words, ideas and communicating the best aspects of a book, the experience I've had with it, the fresh take it gives on big themes. So do I want to work in marketing, focusing on how to promote a book through its cover, informing the trade press, writing newsletters, etc. Or do I want to work on actually producing the books themselves? And then, there's other questions, such as children's or adult? Fiction or non-fiction?

Hearing how publicists make opportunities to spotlight books by generating news stories was interesting, and explains a lot. I guess this fuels the book industry, and gives newspapers a lighter story or a story in a completely different area that wouldn't have come up otherwise. Of course it also helps sales in independent book shops (which are struggling) as well as helping Penguin make money!

It was a really interesting day, and hopefully not the last time I visit Penguin. They gave us lot of tips about how to start with Penguin, and generally in publishing. We were also given some books, including "Twitterature" which is so WRONG but so FUNNY.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Graphic novel: Silverfish

Now I am not a big fan of horror, although I do enjoy some of the darker and more violent crime thrillers in Hollywood, such as Kiss the Girls or even the classic, The Fugitive. Here's another exception.

In this black-and-white graphic novel, we are taken on a movie-like journey through Hitchcock suspicion and mystery, through the tension of the "serial-killer-is-lurking" territory, to a high-stakes, high-adrenaline, almost-teen slasher climax. And it all works - particularly as the creator adds something that could only be done in comics: the bizarre 'silverfish' which seem to be fantasy breaking in on our reality. And we are still left with some questions tantalisingly unanswered. What really drove the villain to kill? (There are many suggested reasons.) And what do others know about the strange titular 'fish'?

A good read. In my book, not quite a must-have comic - but that reflects more on my philosophy that it owning stuff isn't everything than this book's quality.

I'm off to visit Penguin Books tomorrow, on a numbers-restricted Open Day. Let's hope this leads to something...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

One book I'm enjoying at the moment is The Book Thief - a rich, warm but at times uncomfortable novel about the life of a girl Liesel and how she lives through many adventures in Nazi Germany, suffering after her mother leaves her and her brother dies, growing up with a new family, fighting, living in poverty, having to march along with the Hitler Youth, learning how to read and steal and keep secrets from the Fuhrer.

Although it has taken me some pages to get into it, I am now appreciating how it works on lots of levels. The book is told from the point of view of Death, which is ominous, but this version of Death is almost child-like in his curiousity. Like the children in the book, Death is uncomprehending of the true import of some of the episodes in the book. But we well know the barbarities of the time.

At other times Death is very perceptive and shows he does know the world, having walked its paths and seen how people have acted. It makes you see how bizarre and painful the Jewish persecutions were, coming from men and women who used to live next door to Jews, speak with them, visit their businesses. And Zusak is keen to show the great levellers - our interest in one another, our personality, our appreciation of art and music, the things that go beyond mere tribe or race to the very heart of man, woman and child.

All this makes the book one which is eager to explore good and evil, where men and women are detailed with strange but likeable characteristics and stubborn, wilful natures. The potential to be destructive is there right on the edge of the characters - and their anger, as it develops, is an excellent way to express the outrage we all feel at the way people were treated and killed by Nazis. (There is definitely some similarity with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, especially in Liesel's relationship with her "papa" Hans, who is upright and wise like Atticus Finch - although The Book Thief is more focused on private struggles and the effects of trauma on a young girl, and on Death as well.)

Here is an interview with the author about the book - he refers to humanity being part "pure beauty" and part "pure destruction" - a pretty astute observation. I think the Bible (and so God) would agree with that.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Where is our love? And how we can relate to God

Check out this interview with a fellow worker from my time with UCCF. It's pretty encouraging - and one of several things which have been reminding me how little I do for God and how I must not try to approach him on the basis that I am "so good" - because I'm really not! He is the one who rules and is good - and He is the one who provides a way wide open for us to know Him - through Jesus.

This also links with these excellent talks which cover what the Reformation was about, and Song of Songs (the only part of the Bible that comes totally under the genre of love poetry).

Here's an Isaac Watts hymn that picks up on some of the things Phil talks about in the interview. We had it read out to us at church at the end of an emotional, challenging talk, and it showed us just how worthy God is of our praise. Our devotion is so small, so quickly exhausted, but He is love. Jesus came from God, God as man, willing even to go to death to win us to Him. Such amazing grace!

Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Kindle a flame of sacred love
In these cold hearts of ours.

Look how we grovel here below,
Fond of these trifling toys;
Our souls can neither fly nor go
To reach eternal joys.

In vain we tune our formal songs,
In vain we strive to rise;
Hosannas languish on our tongues,
And our devotion dies.

Dear Lord! and shall we ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great!

Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Come, shed abroad the Savior’s love
And that shall kindle ours.

A poem about knowing God and other thoughts

With all that's going on with everyone looking for work, finding the best deals, hearing the latest blame game on the news and keeping up with the latest entertainment releases, it can be easy to totally miss the bigger questions in life that are actually the important ones. What kind of politics do we want? What would make things better? Or, bigger than that, what am I living for?

This is one reason I like poetry which, in a few phrases, can provoke and suggest big things for us to ponder on. Here's a poem I wrote today:

A watch in my pocket-
A tension or two-
Elaborate curving traffic queue

A stifle and a shout-
Lions running free-
Huge encouragement to turn about

Too far to travel-
High ends and aims-
Categorizing nameless days

Protests escape-
What's in it for me-
Affection seizes up all my duty

Washing hangs up-
Curtains tear apart-
The feeling of being plunged in light.

This is a poem basically about getting things wrong in the Christian life, and is at least partly inspired by some ideas I've been hearing about about what it really means to be united to Jesus. But I didn't want it to sound too religion-y either. It reflects more on our frustrations and sense of ambition in religion, which really show we are (most likely) failing to start at the most central part of Christianity - seeing Jesus in his glorious goodness, his power and his saving grace, and having our hearts changed in love towards Him.

Incredibly, believers and followers of Jesus are given a totally new status in Jesus, one we don't earn, or try to conjure up from our own effort. We are forgiven, made right with God, as a gift of God's loving kindness. We only must receive this gift, to be able to stand secure and right before Him, in Him, with Him. How great is this! As one speaker puts it - "Getting this gives massive happy boldness to the believer. And it removes the terror and the religiosity of a false gospel".

As Martin Luther put it: 

"When the devil throws our sins up at us and says we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: I admit that I deserve death and hell – what of it? Does that mean I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means! For I know one who has suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf – his name is Jesus Christ the Son of God. Where he is I shall be also."

Both quotes came from the first of these helpful talks from the always-passionate UCCF worker Mike Reeves.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Authors' websites

As I continue my quest to track down (and capture) that most elusive of phenomenon: a job in publishing, I occasionally come across an author's website that is so wildly different, you want to share it around. Try this weird one, from Colin Cotterill, a well-travelled writer and cartoonist, now living in Thailand - and evidently enjoying riding his bike up the Doi Suthep mountain. He has some strange thoughts.

Anyone else know a good author's website they want to recommend?

Book reviews (and perhaps a new poem) to come soon on this blog - so keep checking back!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Pixar's Up - a brief review

Here's the thing about Up: It is, I think, a fantasy-slash-drama, rather than a kid's film - and its subject? Moving on after a bereavement, escaping into the clouds and finding true freedom in the process.

The main two characters, brilliantly animated, are put in situations which somehow show us emotions which people struggle with every day. Loss, bitterness, bewilderment, a sense of being left behind, acceptance, empowerment, joy, hope, victory. It's pretty powerful stuff, tied up in a story perhaps as symbolic as Finding Nemo seems to be.

It is a tour de force for Pixar, who are showing Hollywood what worthwhile cinema is. As my first experience of the new 3-D film technology, it did impress on that score too, with a few stand-out effects.

Up is also exciting, surreal, and laugh-out-loud funny, especially when it involves the dog Kevin, or the tracker dogs who come after Karl and his floating house. This one ranks as an unmissable film, and one of Pixar's best.

A new look at Vincent van Gogh

I picked up an Observer on the train yesterday which had an intriguing article discussing some newly published letters from van Gogh, who apparently was concerned not only with the beauty he found in ordinary and plain scenery and people, and how to represent this in new ways, but who was also very religious. The article maintains this was a factor in making him a great artist, and argues that he wanted to celebrate life and inspire the joy that he took in the world, as well as to evoke angst and sorrow. Anyway, Click here to read it.

The painting The Bedroom and his various portraits inspired me to strive to create emotion/alienation by pulling at perspective and working at colour in big acrylic paintings at GCSE and A Level. I still can't understand how van Gogh never sold a single painting in his lifetime.

When was the last time you found joy in the everyday? Do you see this to be linked with God? Fire off your comments below!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The feeling behind the words.... and seeing the heart of Jesus

Been meaning to post this insightful exploration of John chapter 13. (Not entirely sure about the points made after the creative "story" bit, but still...)

I've been finding it more and more helpful to read or hear creative pieces like this - which imagine what it was like to be with the historical figures in the Bible, to hear what was said and feel what was felt, and particularly to focus on how messages were delivered, human to human.

Understanding, as Christians do, that the Lord Jesus really bore out dishonour, by dying in our place, so we do not have to die, the carefully phrased words he said to Peter really are incredible. They show his intention to serve sinners by setting them free from sin, making them "clean" (at the time Jewish cleanness meant being right with God, while being unclean meant being unfit to approach God).

Can it be that He would do this in love for us? Astoundingly, the rest of the Bible tells us it's not just for those following Him then, but for all who trust Him and seek to obey Him today. He went to death as a criminal, bruised and broken, and took onto Himself all the wrong we have done against God. What amazing love!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Good art, design, wit and character

Check out this artist who is doing some really detailed and crazy comics and graphics for various websites, promotional material and actual published work too. I love the layout of this one. Also, having tried playing Dungeons & Dragons at uni, and in the end not really having the patience, this image is fun too.

Without going into much detail, I wanted to give Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-men another mention (which I've already written about here). Cassaday has to be one of the 2 or 3 best comic book artists out there, tied with someone like Frank Quitely. Cassaday doesn't just draw what happens, he draws us into a scene so we are positioned close to the iconic characters, masterfully pulling away again for bigger movie-like shots of the action, whether that's so we can see the insanity and power of a loyal warrior jump into the vacuum of space to escape his captors, new X-girl Armour beating the odds in a scrappy fight in the mansion, or X-man Colossus heaving a wall across the ground to block out a rampaging crowd.

Whedon has a very special connection to these characters, especially Shadowcat (Kitty Pride), Emma Frost and Cyclops, and the while the 3rd arc "Torn" focuses on Emma, the fourth (and connected) story "Unstoppable" is more well-rounded, and surprised me by bringing to light a new side of Cyclops. It is a wonderfully conceived finale to a consistently impressive series of comics. I'm not looking forward to seeing the following issues, created by a different writer/artist team, who have not received the same sort of praise...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Where I am now...

3 weeks ago I went to Rhiw, North-west Wales, to spend a week in a cottage with three guys, playing games and enjoying a break from normal life. The scenery was beautiful, the conversation was good, the games of Rainbow 6 Vegas 2 and Halo 3 were welcome, and on a visit to Caenarfon Castle I enjoyed going up the towers far too much, frankly. I took lots of photos!

Basically a great break before heading back into various ministries eg. to friends, to young people at church, and so on. Not often you get to step back and ask yourself: How am I doing with family, engaging with culture and real life, job-seeking (badly), learning to drive (still a little way to go; I have struggled) and blogging (you tell me!!) There is definitely an art to making and keeping good commitments, and I haven't got there yet.

Lately I've also been quite excited about new Good Book Company resources coming out, and pleased to be reminded by John Piper that God works in us so that we see his mercy to us and how good he is and are satisfied in Him. Check out this resource for some of that and a challenge I felt as well about how part of the way we fail God is in not feeling enough passion for Him and His glory.

Finally, here's a couple of things which have amused me:
The trailer for the adaptation of The Road, which I discussed here already, shows how the bare-bones depressing story of that book has been easily made into an appealing (and perhaps better-balanced) suspense blockbuster.

Meanwhile, if you have time this week, check out "The Story of the Killers" on the BBC's Radio 1 website. Oh, and here's a silly link about the dark side of Disney.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Movie review: District 9

This was an excellent cinema-going experience, which my friend and I both found thought-provoking some time after the movie ended. How on earth can we treat people like we do?

The early part of the film unfolds, documentary-style, how the film's aliens have come to be living in the South African slum area known as District 9 (based on an infamous white-only area of Cape Town, from which 60,000 people were forced to move during the 70s, their homes bull-dozed).

When they arrived, mal-nourished and strange, the humans didn't know what to do with the alien nuisance. Feared because of their prawn-like appearance, it isn't long before riots erupt and barbed wire goes up surrounding the "prawn" zone. So the stage is set for main protagonist Van Der Merwe to wade in with an armed team to forcibly evict the aliens and confiscate their personal "illegal" property - and so begins this story about recovering freedom from oppression, at great cost.

The film makes it easy to see how prejudice, cruelty and deception can be the convenient thing, there being great political pressure to get the aliens moved further from Johannesburg. It is an exciting, important project, for the good of South Africa - rather than an illegal act, taking advantage of those who don't know how to defend themselves according to South African law. It's certainly not seen for what it really is: An upheaval of families, the aliens and their children, a bullying of them and herding them up into more of a prison camp than a home.

If this is sounding a bit heavy, it's not all about political allegory. The story twists into a frantic kind of horror, a short section a bit like The Fugitive, and finally an impossible-seeming mission to set things right - which leaves us with a violent, action-y climax. It is definitely surprising, feeling like an energetic South African drama, but also drawing on the action blockbuster genre. I was thinking about the other films I've been to see this year and would say it lies somewhere in the middle of a film like the excellent Slumdog Millionaire and the satisfying summer flick Star Trek. But I guess more thought-provoking than either!

What are you listening to?

Ah, the joys of using Spotify. I've been discovering great album tracks from artists I knew little about, including Ray La Montagne, Amy MacDonald, Athlete (they have 4 albums now?) and someone called Tommy Sparks. Excellent stuff. It's also been a good way to listen to U2's new album... Check out my fairly random playlist:

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book reviews: Walking through ravaged America as Cormac McCarthy dreamed it up - and a Dickens book too

I must admit I had a hard time accepting this novel, The Road (2006), for what it is. Often harrowing, it is basically a slow and subtle character-piece masquerading as an apocalyptic survival horror. A father and son travel south through a hostile, ash-covered land that was once America. They don’t have any real destination, they don’t have a hope, they just look for food – and ways to avoid the pain of losing each other. Occasionally attacked by the desperate and starving nameless, our hearts are in our mouths as we see the father trying to provide in a land with no sign of life or colour. Tense moments quickly pass and we feel the monotonous inevitability of their trek down the road and learn how they scavenge, what they talk about along the road, what the country has become.

And so it goes on. As I read it through, it seemed McCarthy (who also wrote No Country for Old Men) has a number of intentions with the book. He shocks us with an uncompromising vision of a ruined planet, and shocks us more by the convincing psychology of both characters, their trauma deftly created through suggestive phrases, the smallest of actions, or the way the father speaks about the old world or about other people. McCarthy wants us to stop and think. What is it to be a father? How do you nurture a child when all the world is lost? What would happen to us if the very earth turned against us? Where would we turn? The book is a portrait of a world without hope – revealed in bleak episode after episode of aching loneliness and difficulty. Not light reading, then.

The grey road becomes a place of danger, or, as their attitudes slowly change, a place of connection with the world, as the pair decide to leave something in the road for other travellers. The road at times too is a symbol of the father’s determination to keep going, and not give in to suicide. The man knows there is no better world for the child to hope for, but he carries on as if there might be. This makes for some powerful moments, as the weary man looks up and sees his son as “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (p293). This child he believes he has ruined, this child he cares for, who frustrates him, who bears with him, who is his whole world, who asks him about the past and the strangers they have seen – he is his purpose for living. He must protect this boy.

Dreams become the enemy – at least for the man, tempting him to die and go to another world. He can’t dare to hope for the future, or for death, or think of the past. He just travels the road. It must barely be possible to live like this. Just surviving.

It does raise some questions for each of us in the real world. Do we walk alone? Who do we bear our burdens for? Is there something better to look forward to? Does God care about those who are burdened, starving, living in a grey world of monotony and pain?

I thank God for the truth that though we can go through tremendous difficulty, and break our backs working “by the sweat of our brow”, one day He has promised fruition, joy and peace with Him for all believers. We are heading somewhere – a place better than our wildest dreams, with our Saviour God, if we follow Him now. We are not walking alone.

Another book I enjoyed recently is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Chapter 10 stood out for me as it, like much of the novel, manages to move and amuse within pages. It is a brilliantly crafted and deeply tragic episode in Louisa’s life, as she joylessly consents to an engagement with the blustering Bounderby, and her parents are pure caricatures of what it means to be absorbed by self, or blinded by a rigid worldview. Dickens creates absurd characters who show us our own faults: our pride, our insensitivity, our use of language to put down and exclude, our double standards (not necessarily to those of lower classes as pictured in Dicken’s Coketown, but just excusing ourself for what we do not let others away with) – and of course, our ambition at the expense of humanity and society.

Plenty of other moments shone in the book – but for now I will just say that Hard Times is a vastly superior novel, once you begin to care for the characters, and while it is sad, it is only bittersweet and doesn’t come with the health warning of “savage bleakness” that The Road does. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Grab the popcorn....

Having been away in Wales the past week, with no internet, I'm getting round to blogging on bits and bobs I've been thinking about over summer.

But first, for all those movie fans, I just saw a trio of thought-provoking dramas. Thirteen Days was an excellent political drama, focusing on the Cuban missile crisis, an example of how a film can draw you in to make you imagine what a real-life event was like, and the stresses on US policy makers. It was well-acted, thought-provoking, tense, and a brilliantly made film.

The Last King of Scotland was an incredible performance movie, and you spent most of this lively movie wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. An ugly story exposing the self-centred attitudes of Western visitors to Africa and the fierce proud madness of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. (As a Christian, with minds for Jesus, do like we did and fast forward through the sex scenes.)

And biopic Ray was a quite engrossing but over-long look at the way Ray had to grind his way to the top of the ladder to make records in his own name, and the destructive nature of his personal life, partly overcome at the eleventh hour, by finally quitting heroin. Jamie Foxx plays Ray very well, exceptionally so in a sad scene near the end in which Ray and his wife argue over the drugs.

On a lighter note, it seems Disney are making a major come-back. Not only have they just bought Marvel, they have just announced the next Pirates of the Carribean movie, based on a fun-sounding pirate novel, as well as a new Muppets movie, and a new Toy Story movie with Pixar and a live-action collaboration with them called John Carter of Mars. What else? Only the launch of some new animated horror/adventure films with Guillermo Del Toro, director of the upcoming Hobbit films, and a classically animated movie The Princess and the Frog. Oh and 2 collaborations with Tim Burton, and 2 live action movies with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, including an adaptation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and an adventure movie based on the computer game Prince of Persia. Oh and a 3-D Yellow Submarine movie. Exciting times!

Well, maybe we should just forget about the last one.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Comic review: A hero who eradicates evil "in brightest day and blackest night"

Enter another world of fantasy with me a second. Hal Jordan is a US pilot who was chosen by a dying alien to become part of and intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. Each member has a glowing green ring which converts their will-power into any physical construct they wish; a brace to steady a jet that's crash-landing, a small vehicle, a wide variety of guns and projectiles, or as some prefer, a really big sword. The ring allows them to fly and travel through space – including to Oa, the planet where the Guardians live, the strange group of infinite beings who set up the Corps and created the rings (and give the orders).

Straight away this set-up allows for all kinds of fun. It can be a chance to explore strange new cultures and whether the Green Lanterns have any right to enforce justice. It can be like a cop buddy movie pairing two fearsome aliens from different sides of a bitter intergalactic war learning to work together as new members of the Corps. The whole idea of “will-power” overcoming “fear” can lead to some epic battles won by sure courage, ingenuity and endurance in the face of intimidating odds and a range of villains which explore what evil really is – for instance in Revenge of the Green Lanterns (collecting comics from 2006) you come across a cyborg who wants to reprogram human beings using nano-technology, wanting to cut off all ties with natural life – why? He's experienced the death of loved ones too painful to cope with and he wants to eradicate death. He doesn't know it, but his desire to order creation his own way is the most human part of him, and speaks of his own fragility.

As you can probably tell, I'm really enjoying the way this part of the DC universe has opened up lately. The 2004 miniseries which relaunched the character Hal Jordan is one of the best mainstream DC comics I've read, and is a good example of catharsis at work in modern pop culture. We cheer as Hal fights away all his demons and all those who have been manipulating him, after a long period in which he had become a villain, and we get to see him become a hero again.

This outstanding sell-out storyline Green Lantern: Rebirth is like an exciting big budget movie, giving a few characters some great moments of dialogue and cinematic-scale action and reinventing the whole Green Lantern mythos, while Green Lantern Corps: Recharge, which focuses on some of the newer Green Lantern recruits, is a bit more like Lost or Stargate, putting a few characters in precarious situations on faraway planets to see how they react. It feels remarkably fresh and I'm beginning to think reading the Corps comics is going to be quite a different experience to reading about Hal in the main Green Lantern comic. Recharge finishes with an explosive finale, a little cheesy, but truly epic, and I've yet to track down the next volumes of GL Corps, but Green Lantern has continued to impress with some good character moments as Hal rebuilds his life on earth, seeking to win the trust of his estranged family, get back into flying, and atone for his past mistakes.

If you like Rebirth try reading on in the volumes Green Lantern: No Fear and Revenge of the Green Lanterns, and then (skipping Hal Jordan: Wanted) move on to the epic-looking Sinestro Corps War, a war of ideologies that has been building since Rebirth. And watch out for Hollywood's take on the character, in a year or two.

Monday, 24 August 2009

No longer "lost"

The other day I got to speak at a local church about how Jesus can bring salvation to people who are lost (from Luke 19:1-10). This was a big part of what Jesus came to do, by his own admission: When people ask why he has gone to spend time with Zacchaeus (who had been, basically, a sneaky, selfish swindler, a loser, who everyone hated), Jesus says he has brought salvation to this man then and there, and then explains why he didn't just go to all the best and brightest people: "The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost".

This is wonderful news! Jesus came from God his Father for people who are lost in living wrong ways of life (like Zacchaeus was), ways of life that God hates. He came to save them, and make a way for them to be forgiven! And He came for those who are written off, to be their light and rescue.

The crucial thing then is to respond to Jesus as Zacchaeus does - gladly receiving Him, joyful that he has come to save us.

This requires more than just occasionally thinking of God. Like Zacchaeus, we must turn our lives around and follow this Jesus. He is the one who saves us and rules us. This means changing the way we think and speak and act and committing to Him, above other things we are committed to. Above money, our dreams, the ways we want to live which God says are wrong.

Because Jesus is Lord, and can bring us salvation too if only we recieve Him.
So the question is - will we respond as Zacchaeus did?

If you'd like to think this through a bit more, you can listen online to the talk here - it's called "The right response" (from 16.08.09). Also, a second talk by me will soon appear online on the website for my home church on the hope Christians have for the future because of what God has done for us to rescue and save us. Let's set our sights on the Lord we have, the saving one, Jesus!

Update: the second talk mentioned here took a while to appear online, but you can find it, entitled "Peter 1 23.08.09"

Friday, 7 August 2009

Music review: "Version" by Mark Ronson

You got to pick this one up. A bold album of upbeat alternative pop and RnB, it relies on some excellent drums, jazzy trumpet, brash or soothing synth (even some saxophone), and of course guest vocals (everyone from Amy Winehouse to Kasabian), to bring great energy to an exciting mix of cover tracks. Impeccable production by Mark Ronson throughout keeps things moving, and although many tracks are far from ground-breaking, they are catchy and fresh. The track on there to bin is “Pretty Green”, childish in its execution and repetition, whereas personal favourites include the cover of “Amy”, a great tune, well updated, and 2 of my favourite ever collaborations: “Stop me” with Daniel Merriweather, and the superbly funky “Apply Some Pressure” with Paul Smith from Maximo Park. As a whole the album plays like someone’s eclectic iPod track list, modernised and pulled together with a thread of brass and bass rhythm running through the punked-up lot. When choosing music to take on holiday I couldn’t conceive of a better or a more varied pop album from the last couple of years to take. Time to brush up your air-trumpets, and turn up the volume!