In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular.
Webcomics, they’re a tricky beast.
The spiritual successors to daily newspaper strips, given the entire scope and resources of the World Wide Web in which to spread their wings. Just keeping up with a tiny fraction of what’s available can amount to a full time job and, for luddites like me, they represent a unique problem: I want to read them, but books are just so darn nice!
Luckily, some very nice people (publishers, mostly) have collected some of top webcomics into print editions. Here are five of my favourites:
Ellerbisms by Marc Ellerby (published by Great Beast)
Ellerbisms came out in 2012, but the comic itself began way back in 2007 and charts Marc Ellerby’s own life, specifically his relationship with Anna: the girl he never thought he could have, then had and ultimately lost. Autobiography is a common genre for webcomics, the daily, or near-daily, nature of them being a great way to chart day-to-day experience. What sets Ellerbisms apart is the charming honesty of its warts-and-all storytelling. Ellerby himself is not always the hero here, but that doesn’t mean he’s the villain. There are no villains in this story, there’s just life. This honest account is tied together by Ellerby’s disarmingly simplistic artwork: simple lines construct amazingly expressive faces, with quirked eyebrows and slight frowns saying so much more than words could, the art belying the raw emotional punch this comic carries.
It’s my project to see every film he ever made - and without splurging box-set style, but instead to eke them out across the decades. I go for a new one every few years, as I'm in no rush to deny myself future pleasure. So it should come as no surprise that, a couple of years ago, I was filling in time by reading Todd McCarthy’s excellent biography of the man, Hollywood’s Grey Fox. From it, I learnt that Hawks had been part of Douglas Fairbanks' circle of energetic young men.
So then I searched out a Fairbanks biography, which was pretty remarkable, and then that led me to my first encounter with Frances Marion, named as one of his screenwriters and a close confidant of Mary Pickford.
Naturally, I then happened upon another book in a remainders shop, Joseph P Kennedy’s Hollywood Years, about JFK’s father - a banker, film producer, US ambassador and Nazi sympathiser. It contained an incredible story about Frances Marion and her husband’s ill-treatment at Kennedy’s hands. So I then picked up that author's other biography, this one about Frances Marion. Without Lying Down is so called because Marion spent her whole life looking for a man she “could look up to without lying down”.
I was completely sold on her.
Understand, I did not want anything that followed from that. Like everyone else, I wanted only to be left alone, to get on with things. I was not someone who would push themselves forward. I was happy to stay in the background, to live a simple life, but I couldn't ignore facts.
But, to be clear - basically, don't nominate me for anything.
1. Charles I was executed on Whitehall, right about where the Earl Haig statue is placed. Charles was led out to the scaffold on a walkway from the first floor of the Banqueting House rather than via the street.
From K.J. Parker's Two of Swords (Episode 9):
"You want to know a secret? Writing what you call good music is easy, piece of cake. You're writing for intelligent, educated people who are prepared to meet you halfway. It's the army songs and the romantic ballads that made me sweat blood."
"I don't believe you."
"Because they're simple and accessible? You don't know anything about writing music. Simple and accessible is the hardest thing there is. It's like designing a clock mechanism with only two moving parts. It's working with both hands tied behind your back. You're limited to a simple melodic line, which has to conform to strict form. You've got the voice and one instrument and that's it, no orchestra, no counterpoint, nothing.... And that's why I earn good money. Because I can give people what they want. Not just the smart ones. Everybody."
"All right," she said grudgingly. "If money is all that matters -"
"It's the only reliable way of keeping score," he said. "A thousand cultured folk will tell you they love your symphony, but can you believe them? But if a hundred thousand poor people decide they can afford two stuivers to hear you sing, that probably means you're actually getting something right."
Stark says: “If he’s dead, why is he still smoking?”
I first came across West & Soda a few months back, after taking a tumble into a dusty corner of the Internet. As soon as I saw the words “1960s Italian animated parody Western” I just knew I had to get me a copy of the DVD.
The editor of this magazine [Ray Bradbury], under the impression that I am still one of that queer tribe known as science-fiction fans, has asked me to write an article. I am no longer a science-fiction fan. I'm through! However, I have decided to do the article and explain with my chin leading just why I am through.
Eloisa James' Essex Sisters (2005 - 2006)
Eloisa James's books are wonderful. They are charming, bantery romances that are almost entirely populated by nice people doing nice things for one another. I've written in the past about how epic fantasy could pick up some tricks from historical romance, and the Essex Sisters series ticks those boxes nicely. There's clever foreshadowing with the interrelated characters and perspectives, a casual approach to historical authenticity that balances empowered female characters with Regency world-building, and an openness to both humour and (of course) romance. These four books - about the marital prospects of four orphaned sisters - aren't quite as conniving or as surprising as the Desperate Duchesses series, but they certainly have their highlights. The third, The Taming of the Duke, is perhaps my favourite, as both the male and female leads have their obstacles to overcome. (I was a little disappointed by the final volume, as it recycled some tricks, and used a 'woman in peril' shtick that felt tonally different from the rest of the series.)
Wait, print is still dead? Make up your mind.
An article in the New York Observer addresses the uncritical enthusiasm around the vaunted print resurgence:
"First Contact" first aired January 15, 1958, from the series Exploring Tomorrow. It is based on a novelette by Murray Leinster, first published in 1945.
Thoughts Before Listening
Aliens probably? It would cool if this weren't about aliens. It’s probably about aliens though.
A Rescue from Darkness
The girl sat alone, burdened by forgetfulness and incomprehension. That she was a prisoner was not in question, but the reasons were lost to her, just as she in turn was lost to the darkness. The ever-present silence weighed heavily on her slender shoulders, at once oppressive and maddening. How long had she been here? How would she escape? Questions needed answers, answers lost in a mind that failed to recall the subtle and the obvious. What was her name? Why was she here?
Would that all new years started with fantastic beasts and stormy weather. They don’t, but thanks to Taylor Swift, 2016 did for us. The video for "Out of the Woods", complete with its fairy tale narrative, is my first favourite thing of 2016 and it proves that the indomitable Ms Swift is only getting better and better.
I'm not 100% sure what this is, but TUBE-LEVELING sounds like a very dangerous pastime.
The Guardian picks out some 2016 trends for art and creativity. Some might be a little more controversial than others, such as Tony Churnside noting that:
A big theme this year will be the use of data to provide personalised content experiences, going beyond recommendation systems and adapting narrative in response to audiences.... For personal data to provide more engaging experiences, art and storytelling themselves must become more flexible. We need to stop seeing art as sacrosanct, as artists and storytellers develop new tools and processes that allow the generation of adaptable user experiences.