Posts Tagged ‘Forever People’

Stephen Hawking to Play The Book in New Series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 18, 2018

The I newspaper yesterday reported that the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, is set to play the Book in a new radio series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Entitled ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Edition’ the series will commemorate the original show on Radio 4 back in 1978, featuring the original cast.

I loved the original series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the first two books based on the show, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. However, I lost interest in it after the third book. I tried reading the fourth, only to give up. I think by that time Douglas Adams himself was growing tired of writing them. I’ve heard someone say on an interview that he was only lured back to write his last Hitch-Hiker book by the publisher’s promise that in it he could destroy every possible Earth in every possible universe. So I’m not sure I’ll listen to it, especially as the series is being carried on by other writers.

I also wasn’t impressed by Adams’ expressed contempt for the genre he wrote in. Back in the 1990s he was interviewed on the radio by Paxo, who said his book was Science Fiction, but different. It was good. Adams replied by saying that he didn’t write Science Fiction. Which is odd, because that’s what Hitch-Hiker is. But I guess Adams wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as a genre writer.

At that time the prejudice of the literary establishment towards Science Fiction and Fantasy was much stronger than it is now. I can remember seeing Terry Pratchett speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, saying how the organisers looked on him as if he was going to talk to people about fixing motorcycles. There’s a clip of the BBC arts programme, The Late Review, in which the Oxford lecturer and poet, Tom Paulin, and a female litterateur are asked to review one of Pratchett’s books, where they both make very disparaging remarks. The woman states that she felt like writing across it in big lines ‘I cannot read any more’. Paulin compared it to lifting up a stone to find all these weird people doing weird things underneath it. And going further back to the 1950s Brian Aldiss commented in The Trillion Year Spree that at that time, despite being championed by Kingsley Amis, pornography had a better reputation than Science Fiction amongst the literary elite.

Pratchett had to fight against that literary snobbishness throughout his life, but is now being taken very seriously by critics. I think Adams avoided it. Back in the ’90s he and Hitch-Hiker were the subjects of one edition of the South Bank Show with Melvin Bragg. But perhaps the price of that critical acclaim was his denial that he wrote Science Fiction at all.

But other people are different, and so I’ve no doubt that there are millions of Hitch-Hiker fans out there, who will be delighted to hear the news. They know who they are. They’re the people, who bought merchandising, like the Hitch-Hiker bath towels. This was a large, white bath towel with the text from the HHGG talking about how every Hitch-Hiker really needed to know where their towel was on it. I found one of those in Forever People, the comics/ SF shop in Bristol. The show’s fans are also the people, who organised conventions with dubious names like ‘Slartibartday’, after one of the creators of the Earth, Slartibartfast.

Hawking is in many ways an ideal choice for The Book after the death of Peter Jones, who was its original voice on Radio 4 and then in the BBC 2 TV series. He already has an electronic voice to fit the character of an electronic book, and is a world famous space scientist and advocate of space colonisation. But you wonder how massive his ego will be after playing a publication, which the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes as, amongst some people, having displaced the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.

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Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

Vox Political’s Personal Tribute To Terry Pratchett

March 13, 2015

Yesterday Terry Pratchett, one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific writers of genre fantasy, shuffled off this mortal coil. Mike over at Vox Political has posted his personal memories of meeting the great man, and the inspiration he gave him for pursuing a career as a writers. It’s simply called Personal thoughts on the legacy of Terry Pratchett and begins

You’re probably wondering how this ties in to politics. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

I first met Terry Pratchett at Forever People on Park Street, Bristol, on the afternoon of September 20, 1986 (if I recall correctly). It was the day of the big fire at the Fowler’s Motorcycles outlet on the Bath Bridge, which makes it an easy date to check. My recollection is that the blaze had not really got started as my brother (the blogger Beastrabban) and I on our way into town, so ‘that Discworld guy’ was much more interesting.

We arrived early, which meant nobody else had arrived by the time Terry did. This was 1986, remember – he was only just getting started. This meant we had him all to ourselves for a good few minutes before anybody else appeared to hesitantly proffer a copy of The Light Fantastic for his squiggle – and nothing’s going to make as great an impression on an impressionable adolescent trying to work out how to make it in the world as a few minutes with the undivided attention of someone who has literally just worked it out.

This was before Terry evolved into the personality he became – the bald beardie with the big black hat and the weakness for banana daiquiri. Obviously he was bald (genetics) and he was bearded (aesthetics) but the rest was yet to reveal itself (unless the memory cheats).

We talked about ideas, work ethics, how to keep people interested (basically, it has to interest you first). By the time we – reluctantly – left, the motorbike place was blazing like Ankh-Morpork in the very first Discworld story (The Colour of Magic) and we had to take a detour to avoid it. My brain had already taken a somewhat longer diversion that would lead to amateur journalism, professional newspaper reporting, and eventually this blog.

I also remember first seeing Terry Pratchett with Mike back in 1986 at Forever People in Bristol, though I’d completely forgotten about the fire at Fowler’s. Forever People was one of those small, independent comic shops that existed before Forbidden Planet expanded to just about corner that area of retailing. It has, unfortunately, vanished. It was how I think comics shops should be – stuffed full of the mainstream and the bizarre, with the weird novelties in the windows, role-playing games and TSR miniatures of wizards, warriors and orcs on tables on the ground floor, and rubber monsters and plastic models of artefacts and creatures from SF movies hanging from the ceiling or adorning the walls. It was also slightly disreputable. It was permeated with a musty smell from old comic back issues, and was also regularly raided by the police for stocking magazines and literature on drugs.

Terry was on the second floor, signing copies of his books. I can’t remember now whether Mike brought one he already had, or picked one up while he was there and had the great man sign it. I think it was the latter. What I do remember was catching sight of Terry himself, sat behind the desk, saying to the person in front of him, ‘Well, the Bambleweeny 47 sub-meson brain is important’, while the long queue snaked away. The shop was packed, though that wasn’t particularly hard as nearly every inch of available space stuffed full of books, magazines and merchandising. I was amazed! He was a fan of Hitch-Hiker, just like I was! Mike duly took the book to the counter, got it signed, and we left.

I saw Terry several times again over the years. As Mike says, I went to College in Cheltenham, which has a massive literary festival at which Terry became a regular speaker. The first time I saw him I think he was speaking at the town hall. He appeared wearing his characteristic broad-brimmed, black hat and the black ‘Tel-shirt’ with death strumming a guitar. Just as he got to the lectern and was about to begin speaking, someone came up to him and gave him a banana daiquiri. He thanked them, and explained that it came from a question he and Neil Gaiman had been asked when they were together writing Good Omens. They’d both been asked what they would most like to be given. Gaiman said simply, ‘Money’, while Pratchett said, ‘A banana daiquiri’. He joked that since then, he’d got seven banana daiquiris, and Gaiman hadn’t seen a penny. So there, if someone asks you that question in future, keep to the drinks. You just might get what you want that way.

His topic was the nature of comedy, and how repetition and deliberate references can be used in humour. He said that his style was influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, and gave as an example of how repetition can b4e funny he gave the example of an incident one of the great explorers gave of one of their party telling the same, unfunny story every night until the rest of the party started falling about laughing. It was the story of a man, who left to go to work, but didn’t pack his lunch. When it got to lunch time, he looked for his lunch box. It wasn’t there. He was stupid. That’s more or less the entire story, as it was told. Terry described how the first time it was told, nobody laughed. The next night, there was something like a giggle, the night after that a few more pieces of weak laughter, until at the end of the week people were falling over themselves laughing at what was really a pathetically weak story.

He also discussed the way he deliberately put in references to other bits of popular culture in his books. Like in Guards, Guards!, one of Ankh-Morpork’s finest points a crossbow at one of the villains and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire five bolts or six. Well, frankly I can’t remember. Do you feel lucky, punk?’ He also talked about the inspiration for the dragon in one of his other books. These were taken by a group of young women, who appeared at one convention at which he was speaking. They were all Anne McCaffrey fans, and had stuffed dragons sitting on their shoulders. He said it was obvious that McCaffrey’s dragons were a feminist metaphor, and very good thing too. But it also struck him that the problem with a dragon that sat on your shoulder would be that its fiery breath would singe one side of your face, while it would also defecate down your back.

The next time I was him at the festival was a few years later. He described how Fantasy was still very much looked down on in literary circles. One of the festival’s organisers when talking to him had looked at him as if, in Pratchett’s words, he was about to talk about fixing motorcycles. His talk was on the nature of Fantasy, and he had some fairly forthright comments about Tolkien. Like if when you’re thirteen, you don’t consider The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest book in the world, there’s something wrong with you. And if you still consider The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest book in the world when you’re 33, there’s something really wrong with you. It was in this talk that he described some of the class bias in Tolkien’s work, such as the idealisation of the Shire, while the Orcs were foul and nasty and ‘almost as bad as people from Birmingham!’ One of the speakers on BBC’s The One Show said a few years ago in a piece about Tolkien and the local places that inspired the geography of Middle Earth, that one of the emotional factors behind its writing was Tolkien’s own fear of the urban sprawl from Birmingham overwhelming the semi-rural suburb in which he grew up. It was at this talk, that Terry made the point Mike mentioned – that the ending of the Lord of the Rings is quite daft, because in conquering Sauron they’d destroyed the industrial base for half a continent. But hey, it’s alright, because they’ve got a king back!

He also said that magic itself was actually quite boring. It simply did what it did. What he found really fascinating was the organisational magic by which people came together to produce nails, and other items, which other people then went on to use to create further objects, quite without the planning of the original producers, and which all led to the complexities of modern life and culture. At that time he was also pessimistic about the state of Fantasy literature. This was several years before J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman came forward to re-invigorate it with Harry Potter and the Amber Spyglass. I think he thought at the time that it was more or less dead. I certainly remember him describing himself as ‘a big, hairy maggot crawling over its corpse’. Of course he was far from that.

I was talking to a friend of mine about Pratchett and his work a little while ago, and he surprised me as he’d also met him. This particular friend is a fan of Role-Playing Games. He’s written several game books himself, and knows personally many of the people behind some of the games companies. He’d met Terry a decade or so previously, when one of his friends was looking for inspiration behind a line of Fantasy figurines he was crafting. He was looking for a character on which he could base a wizard, and so wrote to Terry asking him if he could use Rincewind. Terry agreed. He later met Terry along with the rest of the RPGers in the pub. He liked and admired Pratchett personally, because he was also good to his fans. He was protective of them, and seemed genuinely grateful simply that there were people who read and liked his work.

He was also very used to the kind of weirdness that might have other people running for the hills. At one of the Cheltenham festivals he talked about how he encountered a group of Viking re-enactors while out walking with his small daughter. As they were going through the countryside, they noticed a group of young men in chain mail running up and down and hitting each other with swords. One of them came running up to him, and asked him if he could lend them a cup. They’d been fighting for a little while, and were now thirsty. Terry said, yes, and got out his daughter’s Asterix the Gaul lunchbox, and gave them the cup from her Obelix flask. The Viking warrior thanked them, went off to a nearby standpipe, and he and the other Norsemen duly quaffed deep of the water before returning the cup to Terry and his daughter.

Later that day, Pratchett met them in the pub. They were curious about him. Most people, they said, took one look at them when they were out fighting, and fled in the opposite direction. But he hadn’t been at all bothered. Why? Well, said Terry, it was because he reasoned that anyone mad enough to do what they were doing was obviously far too mad actually to harm anyone. He went on ‘Nobody ever says when they find a serial killer, ‘Oh, we knew he was a bad ‘un, because he had a wardrobe full of uniforms and last week he went to a convention. No! They always say, ‘He was a quiet one. And then they find the load of human skulls in the sink.’

He also wasn’t afraid of bikers either. At one convention he was warned by others in the crowd that there were a group of Hell’s Angels in the queue. Well, he met them, and they weren’t. He said they were just a group of polite young men, who wanted to talk about his book and liked motorcycles. Perhaps this is where the Cheltenham literati got the impression that he was going to talk about fixing bikes.

In his fiction, Pratchett created baroque worlds with wit and good humour, taking the motifs of genre literature and then transforming them again to bring out something fresh, producing a bizarre, comic cavalcade of strange gods, wizards, witches, trolls, warrior women, warriors and mobile, predatory luggage. Oh yes, and people from the Counterweight Continent selling In-Sewer-Ance Polly-Seas, all infused with an equally bizarre logic. For example, in Pyramids he concluded that camels have to be experts in quantum physics because of the mathematical intricacies of the way they walked. The world he created with words, and which his illustrator, Josh Kirby, painted, was one of colour, absurdity, and laughter. Although the strongest, and most obvious influences on his work were Tolkien and Conan, it was also like the very best fiction in that it appealed to people of all ages. It wasn’t only children who read them, but also their parents and grandparents.

Mike says in his piece that it kept him sane while he was at College. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people. The world can be a horrifyingly grim place, and there is a lot of pressure on young people. It was certainly the case when I was at school, and things seem to have got worse since then. It really doesn’t surprise me that one quarter of all university students will suffer from depression or some mental health problem during their time at uni. Pratchett’s fiction offers an escape from all that, away from grim reality into a unreality that may also be grim, but is at least comically so. And like good fiction, it isn’t just mere escapism, but often makes a serious point while making you laugh at the same time.

RIP big man. May you rest with the great bards in the celestial realms as one of the great, modern skalds of Middle Earth.