Sunday, 16 September 2007

Modern Horror- Does it suck like Lestat?

Modern Horror- Does it Suck Like Lestat?

By Andrew Hawnt

No doubt you’re going to take me for a bit of a horror snob, but I have to say this. Modern horror is really getting into a bad state, and something needs to change. Hear me out.

Look at the current slate of releases. Remakes, sequels, and endless rehashings of tired old formulas. There seems to be a waning interest in original movies and a sadly growing fascination with no-brainers. SAW IV, Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN, hell, even WRONG TURN is getting a sequel! Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy cheap sequels and I do revel in B movies, but there does come a point where you want something NEW.

Hollywood is struggling, really struggling with decent horror at the moment. One factor in this struggle is the simple fact that all the decent writers are working in TV now (currently a vastly more lucrative market for writers). Another is that apart from maybe Lionsgate, there are few companies with the clout or the enthusiasm to push new horror to a wider audience. Granted there are many companies out there with either one attribute or another but never one with both.

There is a stigma against horror in many people’s eyes. Many execs think it is SUPPOSED to be moronic, and are more than happy to churn out more and more sequels with increasingly smaller returns and increasingly bad results.

The independent movie studio CINEMACARBRE is something I need to mention. Here is a
small company churning out film after film after film of the same old killer/slasher/teens in woods/haunted house/mass murder formulas. The films are shot for miniscule budgets on DV cameras and chucked out on DVD with covers that don’t usually give you a clue as to the essentially home-movie quality of the contents.

I admit I’ve sat through plenty of their movies and have taken some kind of perverse pleasure in predicting every plot twist and taking in every terribly executed (pun intended) special effect, but amongst their catalogue I can’t say there’s one title that I’d watch again. I’m all for movies getting made with no budget, but at least TRY and raise them from the mire of the formulaic!

I guess my ire is generally aimed just at the US market, as there still seems to be plenty of fresh blood (groan) to be gulped down in the Asian and European markets, where there is less emphasis on appeasing the masses and more on artistry and storytelling, tension and chills. Prime examples? Night Watch (I am yet to see Day Watch but am very excited by it), Pan’s Labyrinth (breathtaking), and the constant stream of Asian terror-fests that turn up on DVD in the west.

Why? Because these are films that, while they may adhere to some clich├ęs, they do so with style, substance and the onscreen clout to pull them off. This is something missing from US horror, which has become a relentless mess of CG gore (CG gore?! What the hell is all that about?!), MTV style editing, generic plots, lousy acting and little care.

Horror is supposed to SCARE people isn’t it? Fair enough there will be the odd chill or the odd shock, but there are very few films out there that offer anything more. I want to be unsettled by horror films. I want to come away from them feeling slightly wrong about the world and I want to feel like I’ve got my moneys worth of decent direction as well as gore!

Rant over.

Incidentally, Romero’s new one, DIARY OF THE LIVING DEAD, sounds pretty damn cool, and works as an example of what I’m getting bat. Here’s a guy who pretty much invented the contemporary zombie movie genre, coming back with another entry which turns the formula on its head with a unique mix of ‘archive’ footage, drama and flashbacks that pieces together a very compelling story that many more American film makers would do well to take note of.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Life in the geek lane...

By Andrew Hawnt

It may come as no surprise that my day usually starts much in the same way as Dante’s in Clerks. In fact, that whole film (and its wonderful sequel) pretty much sum up my whole life, apart from the fact I’ve never painted Rosario Dawson’s toenails in the back of a fast food joint. Ah well, life can be cruel.

The shutters come up, the lights go on, we set up the front of the store (as our store in the Meadowhall Centre is open fronted. Come visit us- 38-39 The Lanes, Meadowhall Centre, Sheffield), warm up the computer, and set upon a new day like a pack of wolves. Okay, maybe not wolves. Maybe a pack of comic geeks whose caffeine fix is yet to kick in for the day.

Okay, so I am pretty much the epitomy of the archetypal comic shop employee- balding, late twenties, wearing a Judge Dredd t-shirt, jeans and army boots. My head is full of X-men and my innards are full of Dr Pepper. I can reel off a bunch of Doctor Who trivia, but I can’t remember my National Insurance number (I know it has some numbers and some letters in it, but it doesn’t fly a spaceship so I pay no attention). Why am I telling you this? Well, because I love what I do, and stressful as it gets, I’m still enjoying bringing you cool stuff after seven years of working with comics and toys, and even in my most jaded moments I get excited when something great comes out.

Me and this place go back much further than my employment here. I was a regular customer here from the age of 12 and always wanted to work here. The place has changed a hell of a lot since then (it is now bigger, has a completely different stock and a completely different cast of demented characters erm, staff), but some things stay the same, namely the enthusiasm the guys (and both gals) that work here have for the goodies we have on offer. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that we are, in effect, our own target audience.

The day continues. Deliveries arrive and are checked off. Goodies are priced and displayed. Our ever growing clan of regulars pop in to say hi and pick up their comics. We talk folks through new stuff as well as the classics. Kids come in with their parents and want to know about Doctor Who. The staff pint at me and I spent ten minutes telling them about Sontarans or the Melkur or some such gubbins. Orders are made. The phone rings. Orders are packed up. Our Manga crowd come in to adnmire Rich’s hair and ask about the latest Yaoi. Repeat until hometime.

It is never dull here. There is a bit of a preconception that comic shops are a tad dreary, that many of them consist of large fellows comparing BO and talking about the merits of Shazam’s little cape. Not here! Oh dearie me no. This is a hive of activity populated by some of the most unique characters you’ll come across. And Rich’s hair. There’s always something new on the shelves, and usually there’s a member of staff who is more than happy to chat endlessly about any item you wish to know more about.

As I mentioned, the store is in a shopping centre. There’s a multiplex upstairs from us, and thus there is a regular pilgrimage down to our hallowed ground after folks check out the latest blockbusters, which is always cool as there’s nothing quite like seeing that sparkle in people’s eyes when they’ve just had their asses kicked in front of a giant screen. Most notably of late that has happened with TRANSFORMERS, where people have dived down here afterwards for posters and stuff and have been bursting with glee at the giant robot action.

People do tend to use us as a sounding board for things they want to check out, be it movies, merchandise, anime, manga, whatever. Man, that’s what we’re here for, to answer questions just like that. Occasionally we do get the odd dumb question (‘Do you sell comics here?’ being a particular doozy we’ve been asked a couple of times), but for those with real questions we’re more than happy to try and help. Hell, we love this stuff. Who wouldn’t want to talk about it?

Its cool that we all have our own particular niche in the store, subjects we know the most about, which lead to us being dubbed ‘the gamer’ or whatever. I’m the Doctor Who/Horror movies/Classic SF/books/Indie comics guy, for example.

Being in a shopping centre also has another advantage. We’re open til 9pm on weeknights, 7pm on Saturdays and 5pm on Sundays. Plenty of time to get in and check out the latest releases or to come chat about Witchblade’s slinky costume, or whether Gabrielle in Xena was cuter with long or short hair. Around the Christmas period we’re even open til 10pm, and of course you can find us all over the internet. We’re only human, despite the rumours of various cybernetic augmentation, and we do get tired and stressed, but we’re here to get cool stuff into your hands until we drop. Which happens, but meh, what a way to go.

Now that the blog is up and running, I’ll be offering a regular glimpse into the caffeinated, busy world of a comic shop employee. I promise you we are for the most part sane, but I do keep seeing people’s words in floating speech bubbles…



Wednesday, 5 September 2007

THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN: Remembering a REAL comics event

By Andrew Hawnt

We just got some of the DEATH OF SUPERMAN box sets back in, with a Superman figure, a Doomsday figure and the graphic novel itself all boxed up together, and it brought back some cool memories. Now, I was maybe 15 at the time of its original publication, spread over various Superman comics and a JLA title if I remember rightly, and it was huge for a while there.

I don't remember that many superhero comic events that made it onto the international news. I mean, recently the Civil War storyline from Marvel got into the headlines when Spidey revealed his identity to the world, but other than that I can't really remember much having such a big impact.

Superman is THE definitive superhero, there's no doubts about that. Thus his death was all the more shocking. This invincible big-blue-boy scout had become a global icon during his decades of adventures, to the point where a world without Superman seemed, well, weird. His death was far from pretty. In fact it was downright brutal. Doomsday was an absolute beast, relentless, merciless and seemingly unstoppable. Right from those first frames when all you see is his clawed fist beating against that metal door, you know he means business.

The story is breathless, a massive chase across America as various heroes trail Doomsday and attempt to stop him, with catastrophic results. Naturally the finale took place on the streets of Metropolis, with Supes and Doomsday slugging it out until one of them would inevitably fall. The story, and naturally the graphic novel, has a rather sudden ending, but it is that aprupt and terrible moment where he falls still in Lois Lane's arms that breaks the heart upon first reading it. That last double-page spread where Superman lays dead in the rubble is a fine moment of comic perfection.

Of course, it was inevitable that Superman would return, and his death gave way to the WORLD WITHOUT A SUPERMAN storyline, which in turn led into REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN, in which four possible new incarnations of Superman arrive on the scene. Now, this particular storyline was very continuity heavy and suffered a little from overdoing the geek factor, but it wasn't without its merits. I do like the fact that it is actually Pa Kent that lures Kal El back from the other side, in a weird netherworld while his frail old body lies on an operating table following a heart attack.

Superman's return is suitably glorious, even with the new, longer hairstyle he came back with, and it was essentially back to business, kicking the collective asses of evildoers everywhere.

What followed that? Sadly I lost some interest in Big Blue after that, but there's definitely a mass of cool material out there that even the painfully mediocre SUPERMAN RETURNS movie couldn't tarnish too much. Frankly I would rather have seen Kevin Smith's fanboy extravaganza SUPERMAN REBORN on the screen (go find the script, its awesome. Just don't mention giant spiders to Kevin if you ever run into him).

Thankfully we have been left with a wealth of amazing comic adventures for the iconic superhero, and whenever we need reminding what a real comics event is like, we could all do worse than checking out THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN.


THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN graphic novel is available at our website over at Starstore dot com!

WATCHMEN: The Ultimate Graphic Novel? The Ultimate comic book movie?

By Andrew Hawnt

There are always good sellers, titles that will stand the test of time and the fickle fancies of passing trends, titles that become a standard and essential purchase for any collection. Then there the precious few that transcend this tiny scene and reach out to the masses on a whole different level. Maus, Road to Perdition, Sandman and so on.

But there is one title that is a true masterpiece, a book respected far an wide outside the comics community as well as within it, and that, dearreader, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's immortal tale Watchmen.

It'd be easy for a fanboy such as myself to warble on about it being awesome, but the book's pedigree speaks for itself: Voted one of TIME magazine's 100 Best Novels, winner of the prestigious HUGO award, and described as Entertainment Weekly as 'A masterwork representing the apex of artistry', amongst other such comments from sources the world over.

The thing is, the damn book lives up to the hype in every way. No, seriously, it is frankly ridiculous how good Watchmen is. Each page seeps class. The story is impeccable, and the art, while very much of its time, is outstanding. A complex, engrossing tale of ageing superheroes brought back together when one of their number is murdered, it turned the genre on its head and things have literally never been the same since the original 12 issue run of the series.

I would urge anyone who hasn't read it yet to do so before the film is completed (as much as I'm looking forward to Zack Snyder's adaptation, it must be experienced in its original form first to fully appreciate its beauty).

It spawned one of the most unique and gritty vigilante characters in decades in the shape of the relentless and near-psychotic Rorschach (aka the gangly, monotone-voiced Walter Kovacs), and boasts some of the most memorable scenes in modern age comics history. It cemented Alan Moore as a comics genius, and immortalised the art of Dave Gibbons for generations to come.

Which poses a slight problem. With something so beloved by so many people, the movie may well be fighting a losing battle even before the cameras have started rolling. The story has been around in one form or another for twenty years now and is so ingrained in fan's heads that any deviation will cause an outcry. On the other hand, there are millions of people who have never even heard of it, and if the movie doesn't amaze them, then they'll wonder what the fuss was about in the first place (*cough*LXG*cough*). Watchmen is sacred, and rightly so, as it is truly a fascinating and addictive book.

The casting for the movie is shaping up nicely though, I must say. The names already released are inspired, and Zack Snyder knows what he's doing, or at least I hope he does! I'm excited and apprehensive at the same time. This is a big deal. Batman and Superman and X-men and Spider-Man movies can come and go as they have such a lengthy history of stories and characters. Watchmen was a one-off, a single moment of near perfection that has resonated in the comics industry for two decades, and I pray that the film people do it justice. I doubt it will ever be the Watchmen movie the fans want to see, but even something close would be very, very special indeed.

The legendary WATCHMEN graphic novel is available at Starstore dot com!

Coolness for the masses

Coolness for the masses: Thoughts on non-superhero titles (Pt 1)
By Andrew Hawnt

Look, lets get something straight. We're in this business mainly because we're fans of the stuff we sell. If we didn't have a passion for the books, the figures and whatnot, we wouldn't be doing it. We don't always get it right, but we do love the things we sell and thus we always want you to be able to discover something cool you may have missed. We're now looking further afield than the standard superhero graphic novels, for example. Now, we do love our superheroes, but there comes a time when your tastes change a little, and you crave something more than spandex.

Hmm, can't say I've ever actually craved Spandex, but you know what I mean. While the big publishers are content to publish safe superhero material (yeah they are taking more risks in terms of storytelling now but they're still essentially tales about dudes in capes), there are some absolute gems out there that the general graphic novel audience may miss.

These are also things that the casual comics audience may miss, and strangely, some of these non-superhero titles are responsible for bringing more people into the world of comics fandom. Hmm, what comes to mind? I've already talked about WATCHMEN, and I don't really want to include it in this piece as it's a DC title anyway.

Maus would be an obvious one to mention, voted in WIZARD as the best graphic novel ever published. A gritty black and white tale of the holocaust, told entirely with rodents for characters. No, seriously, it is an exquisite work of graphic storytelling. There are a fair few books out there that deal with otherwise taboo subjects, but that's the one everyone knows and is a veritable must-read.

Ghost World is another obvious choice, which boasts a good amount of crossover appeal thanks to its marvellous film adaptation starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi. The graphic novel is a constant good seller, even considering the book is noticeably darker than its celluloid counterpart.

There is a virtually endless supply of quality independent material out there. Granted there are some duds as well, but that is to be expected of anything.

Something I take a great pleasure from myself is web comics, and now a great many of them are available as physical comics and graphic novels. One perfect example is PVP, a strip-based series by Scott Kurtz, set in the offices of a Video Games magazine called Player Vs Player. Now, the thing is hilarious, but in equal measure it has a soul and its characters have their problems. It has created something of a geek icon in the shape of Skull the big blue Troll (the office intern. Why don't more places have big blue trolls for interns? That would rock), but there's a great deal going on in those pages aside from geek in-jokes and Skull farting.

Oh, and I have to mention Liberty Meadows here. Frank Cho is a genius of the highest order. Not only is every panel of his art magnificent (anyone who read his SHANNA series from marvel will agree with me there), but his storytelling skills are also superb. Liberty meadows takes place in an animal sanctuary, populated by talking animals, as well as a very well characterized staff, including the perpetually dorky Frank and the beautiful, amazonian Brandy, with whom Frank is fixated. There was a storyline a few years ago in the pages of Liberty Meadows, involving Brandy being proposed to by her beau, which was a heart-rending arc as we watched Frank try to come to terms with possibly losing the woman he is in love with to someone else, without her even knowing for sure if he cares. The family politics surrounding the engagement are deftly handled, sending Frank spare, and all the while Brandy is having second thoughts about the whole thing, evident when people keep asking why she has her ring on the wrong finger. The thing is, this is all played out surrounded by chaos from the talking animals, who are a madcap bunch of Disneyesque critters with some very odd habits (an OCD Racoon and a literal male chauvinist Pig, for example).

Recently DC have started the MINX line, which, while published by one of the 'Big Three', merits a mention for the quality of its content and its different approach. The books published thus far, The Plain Janes, Clubbing, and Re-Gifters are something of a minor revelation- comics with a heart. There's humour in these black and white tales, but there's also a bittersweet pang of reality to them, with some surprisingly poignant moments in each one, and not a cape in sight.

That's the thing- there is a growing audience who are becoming aware of comics as a form of entertainment that don't have any interest in costumed heroes at all. They're after something a little deeper and more involving. I'm not saying that superhero titles can't provide that, but there is an ever more evident appetite for stories people can relate to on a personal, everyday level.

You know what? I'm glad about that. There is so much talent in this industry that it is a real shame more people aren't aware of it simply because of the stigma that the word 'comics' carries with it. After all these years as a geeks-only concern, its time for people to be shown just what is out there.

I shall cover more of these titles when I get chance, as, quite frankly, I want to share some great stories with you.

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