Being a fan of a film in the analogue age-What the marketing of ‘Alien’ tells us about how hard it was to be a fan

In 1979 I was 12, six years away from seeing Ridley Scott’s Alien which had an X certificate which meant nobody under the age of 18 could get in. Now I could just about get away with getting into a AA film (sort of like the current 15 rating but you could normally get in if you were accompanied by an adult) but there’s not a chance I could escape the Stasi-like stare of a cinema usher.

One of the joys of seeing AA films was you got trailers for X rated films, so when I went to see the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings, I was confronted with this.

I was hooked but couldn’t see the film, but what I could do was nag my parents and brothers to get me everything related to the film. See in today’s digital age if I were 12 again, I’d be able to actually see the film if I had a computer and access to an internet connection. In 1979 there was no internet, and the idea of home computers was a dream only of people like Clive Sinclair.

So first thing I got was Alan Dead Foster’s novelisation, the easiest way to live a film without having to see it.

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That wasn’t enough. I eventually managed to get a copy of The Book of Alien, which is still an amazing book.

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Then I had Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s stunning Alien:The Illustrated Story.

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I also managed to grab the photonovel (photonovels were fumetti, and hugely popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s) of Alien, a chunky, huge beast of a book.

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I even managed to somehow get a Alien model kit which I lovingly built until years later it suffered a fatal breakage that would make even Olympic athletes cringe.

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One of my brothers managed to pick up a film programme, something you never see but this piece of marketing stuck with films til the 1980’s at least.Somewhere I’ve got a few of these sitting around.

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There were also the Alien poster magazines.

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I even grabbed in the Barras in Glasgow a copy of Warren’s Alien special.

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Then there were various issues of Starlog, Starburst, Fantastic Films, or any of those great film magazines that used to be around.

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In effect I knew every single bit of minutiae of Alien, but I was utterly unable to see it. Then in 1981 at a science fiction convention in Glasgow I saw a Super 8 edited version of the film.

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There’s even a copy (in badly dubbed French) on YouTube.

These Super 8 abridged versions were the only way most of us could own any version of a film we loved before the days of video. The Super 8 versions of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are also fantastic examples of this now long gone form of memorabilia.

I digress only slightly, but here’s the point. Pre-video, you could get a dazzling amount of tie-in merchandise, but owning a copy of the film was amazingly hard, if not impossible outwith of the Super 8 versions so you hoped it’d turn up on TV or in my case, my balls would drop hard enough for puberty to kick in so I could blag my way into a cinema years before I was legally able to.

Thankfully I finally saw the complete Alien, albeit on a small screen in 1982 when ITV broadcast it during the World Cup of that year.

This still wasn’t seeing it in a cinema with an audience on a big screen and decent sound. I had to wait another couple of years for that when Alien finally turned up at the GFT, and finally, around six years and a set of bollocks dropping later, I finally saw Alien on a big screen.  The last time I saw it on a big screen was in 2003 when on a visit to Stockholm for their film festival the directors cut was playing at a cinema in the old part of the city. It still works oh so well on the big screen but this was a film I had to work hard to actually see rather than flip open my laptop, go to some website of dubious legality, and then download what I want.

So kids, when you’re complaining that it takes too long between Marvel films, or that you want a new Star Wars film every week, think of us poor fans back in what you’d probably call prehistoric times. We had to work for a living, tsk…

Ben Affleck is Batman

It’s been announced today that Ben Affleck is to play Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. This has made fans get their knickers royally in a twist and throw the sort of sad, pitiful sense of entitlement I’ve spoken about previously.

I’m not bothered about Affleck appearing in a sequel to a film I thought was awful, but was made in order to cling onto the rights of Superman, but we don’t see the level of outrage when the likes of DC or Marvel infringe creator’s rights or treat creativity as a side-effect of making money for shareholders, or even cling onto the world’s cultural history rather than let it escape into the open as it should do.

The problem with yet another example of fandom throwing a strop isn’t that Affleck is a bad actor (he isn’t), or that him playing Batman is a bad idea (it isn’t really), but that fans think that he’s going to make a Man of Steel sequel rubbish, when it’s clear that the makers of the film will be capable of doing that all by themselves without Affleck’s help. However the more studios pander to fans the more they build up their inflated sense of importance, not to mention that horrible sense of entitlement that annoys the fuckity out of me.

It’s not really that Affleck has been cast that’s annoying people. It’s just that he’s not what they wanted in their own vision of Batman. All other considerations are academic.That’s simply bloody childish, which is of course, how many fans are these days.

The Strange World of One Direction Fandom

I watched the utterly bizarre Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction the other day, which can be more or less summed up by Grace Dent’s review in The Independent.  I will say that Dent is being glib in relation to how fans of pop groups used to be as I fully remember girls at school being utterly venomous if anyone dared slag off the likes of Duran Duran or going further back, the likes of the Bay City Rollers, and of course the fans reaction to the Beatles and Elvis is legendary so the idea that One Direction fans are more crazy than fans of pop groups past is a tad lacking in fact.

What is different is the ferocity of that insanity which is multiplied through social media to the point where it’s almost cult-like which is what set my Fortean nose twitching as it started to sound like a sort of controlled form of mass hysteria spread via social media mixed in with the sort of sense of entitlement I’ve spoken about previously in regards the world of comics fandom. In fact there’s a lot of similarities between the sort of obsessed fan who thinks that if Batman isn’t printed exactly the way they want it then DC will pay the price, and those One Direction fans threatening the likes of The Who with a terrible price because it sounds as if One Direction nicked part of a Who song.

Then there’s the One Direction slash fiction which is something that was very much part of the SF/comic scene for decades til it sadly broke into the mainstream, and it now forms a part of One Direction fandom.

All this though is either the sort of harmless knicker-wetting we’ve seen before, and will see again, or the sort of mainly harmless antics you get from hardcore fans of whatever, be it a pretty awful manufactured pop band, or a comic, or a film, or whatever you can possibly imagine.

The problem comes when that obsession starts becoming something else. When fans start talking of mutilating themselves, or even worse make up fake suicides to complain about the Channel 4 documentary making them look unhinged. I’ve noticed since then that the #RIPLarryShippers hashtag (This refers to the One Direction fans into the slash fiction fantasies that two members have a homosexual relationship) was trending often in the last few days since Channel 4 broadcast the documentary. A large amount of Tweets have mentioned the ‘fact’ that 42 fans have killed themselves, something which there seems to be not an inch of evidence to show that one fan has killed themselves, let alone 42.

The problem with this, and any form of extreme reaction to a mirror being held up to any sort of fandom is that they react badly to it, hence the reaction and the myth being spread that 42 people committed suicide and have become martyrs for the fans of One Direction and that’s incredibly worrying as a number of their fans have definitely drunk the Kool Aid.

Dark Satanic Mills-My First Comic Convention!

Following up from the last blog about comic conventions in the UK, I thought I’d tell the tale of the first comic convention I attended as a punter in 1986, though it wasn’t the first I’d ever been to as I’d helped organise the Eisnercon in Glasgow the year before but more of this another time.

No, this is about my first trip south of the border to Birmingham for a comic convention held at the NEC in Birmingham, well, it was by the NEC, it was actually held at the National Motorcycle Museum nearby and to this day it was one of those experiences that was fun, exciting, depressing, miserable, surreal and painful at the same time. Bit like being locked in a lift with George Osborne and not having a pick axe handle with you, so you have to beat him to death with your fists which isn’t as fun as the satisfying thud of wood on his flesh…

Anyhow, the year is 1986. People are depressed because it’s the 80’s and it’s a bit shite. Comics are on the verge of a massive breakthrough into the mainstream thanks to Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus, which meant that more and more people were taking interest in comics.

UKCAC had already started up, but I decided to go to this convention in Birmingham as it had an immense guest list including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons (who were talking about the forthcoming issues of Watchmen on one panel.) but really it was all about Clive Barker.

So a few AKA regulars decided to go down because it was cheaper than UKCAC, not to mention the lure of a good guest list did it’s trick and eventually the numbers were whittled down to just the four of us; myself, Jim Clements, Peter Coyle and a now exceptionally famous comic writer (GM) who was coming down to see Barker and Alan Moore not to mention doing some crucial networking.

However seeing at Pete and myself were daft wee kids, Jim was a mentalist and GM was hardly the most reliable of people the organisation fell on the head of John McShane (one of the owners of AKA) who booked two twin rooms in the convention hotel in the middle of Birmingham as well as pointing us towards a night bus which would drop us right outside our hotel and on a muggy July evening in 1986 the four of us met in the pub on a Friday night (which for Jim and GM was a rare thing) to go up to Buchanan Street bus station for the overnight trip from Glasgow to Birmingham.

I don’t remember much of the trip down. Jim sat next to GM and talked about Alice in Wonderland all the way down, while Pete and myself chatted or slept most of the time. The point is this was a hellish journey as travelling on long distance buses (remind me to tell you about the time I went from Bristol to Paris on a bus) is utter fucking hell to me. But we didn’t have the money for a plane or a overnight sleeper on the train.

After what seemed like a multitude of eternities we pulled up in the centre of Birmingham at 6am in the morning. Now I’ve since been through Birmingham at that time to catch connecting trains, or coming out of a club or coming back from a rave from just  outside Leamington Spa but nothing prepares you for the grimness of Birmingham city centre at 6am.

But we were outside our hotel! A bed for all of us was waiting as was breakfast! All we had to do was check-in.

Except we couldn’t. We couldn’t check-in til 8am, so we had two hours to waste. In the centre of Birmingham. At 6 in the morning. In 1986. We asked where we could go for a cup of tea and we were pointed to the nearby New Street Station.Now today, New Street and the Bullring have been redeveloped and Birmingham actually looks like a proper city, but in 1986 it looked like something from William Blake’s writings but even bleaker.

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We got to New Street and realised we couldn’t actually get to the cafes to get a cup of tea because you needed to buy a platform ticket, so thinking ‘fuck that’ Jim and GM volunteered to go get us all cups of tea.

And we sat (seeing as there were no seats we had to sit on the floor) on New Street Station at 6ish in the morning talking comics and vowing never to return again in our lives to Birmingham, but we managed to get our tickets to the NEC sorted and we realised the hotel and convention were miles apart.

Oh well…

Eventually the station started to fill as it was Saturday morning, which freaked us all out a bit as we’d been in this weird bubble of our own for 12 hours and sleep deprivation had kicked in. Thankfully it was now time to go back to our hotel and check in to get our nice comfy bed each and chill out for a bit before the convention opened at midday.

I remember being the person out of the four of us who went in first, told the girl behind the reception the name the rooms were booked in and waiting for the keys to our twin rooms. At this point the girl started looking at us oddly. Very oddly. Very very oddly up to the point where where pointed out that there wasn’t two twin rooms with four comfy, comfy beds waiting for us but two double rooms with two large double beds waiting for us. There wasn’t a chance of getting any twin rooms as the hotel was fully booked, so myself and Pete instantly bagged each other to share one room which left Jim and GM to share the other. Before this, I decided to phone John McShane in Glasgow to tell him of the situation. I think he’s still laughing about it.

Oh well…

We got in our double rooms and very nice they were. We thought it’d only be for the one night as we were going back to Glasgow on the overnight bus on Sunday night and we’d probably be mixing in the bar anyhow. Jim and GM were probably going to continue talking about Alice in Wonderland and drinking a water between them.

After tidying up and chilling out, we got our act together and went back to the hell of New Street Station to get the train to the NEC, and as we got onto the platform we saw other obvious comic people and chatted with them as we headed up to the venue.

At this point I need to point out that the NEC wasn’t fully built, and as we quickly discovered neither was the road from the NEC to the Motorcycle Museum so once we got there, you either waited for a shuttle bus that didn’t seem to run, or walk the mile or so through a building site. We chose the latter which fucked up GM’s winkle-pickers but we eventually got to the Museum and after weaving our way through the venue we found the convention which was held in a number of their halls, and I headed to the dealers room which wasn’t especially full but it was interesting to see faces for the first time like Martin Skidmore who’d enter my life again two or three years later.

Now I confess to being a huge fanboy at the time. I lapped up panels featuring creators talking and was engrossed by Alan Moore telling us his plans for his DC after Watchmen assuming DC played nicely. This was one of the first times in public  I think he was clearly making the point that he was getting fucked off by DC, but he was cheery and fun not to mention great to listen to.

Sadly Clive Barker wasn’t, not because Barker isn’t a great storyteller. He is. It’s just he had to cancel, so we listened to Ramsey Campbell talking boringly about horror and his works, so I left GM and Jim to lap this up and headed to the bar to meet Dom Regan who had moved from Glasgow to London a year or so earlier to work for Dez Skinn’s Quality Comics and his line of 2000AD reprints aimed at the American market and this was the first time most of us had seen Dom since his move to London.

We caught up, drank beer slowly as you do when you don’t have a lot of cash and you’re young in a strange city, and had an enjoyable day before heading back to the hotel to get something to eat and head to the party in the bar for the convention. Before that though myself, Jim, Pete, GM, Dom and a mate of his all sat in our room talking bollocks, drinking weak lager and preparing for the party ahead.

Problem was that we were all so bloody knackered through lack of sleep, hiking through the NEC, the building site outside the NEC, all over the convention and not eating properly we were on the verge of collapse but it’d have been daft not to come all this way and not go.

We went down to the party which was held in one of these faceless hotel bars that hotels seem intent to always have, but if was fun. I do seem to remember a joke about Double Diamond that somehow kept the spirits up but I’ll be buggered if I remember it exactly. I just remember laughing.

And we all did. We had a fun time before going to our double rooms and sleeping as far apart as two people possibly can in a double bed. Having went through a few painful splits with girlfriends I can say this was even further than that.

On the Sunday we got up, had breakfast, sorted ourselves out, packed our bags and hiked again up to the NEC for the final day after checking out our hotel. Nothing much happened that stands out. Jim and GM spent more time talking about Alice in Wonderland, more weak lager was consumed and we left early as the bus back to Glasgow left early evening.

As we said a farewell to the NEC I thought that was the last time I’d do anything  comics related there. That proved to be amazingly wrong as a future blog will tell you, but we headed back into Birmingham city centre through all the greenery of the outskirts of the city and finally into the shit-brown and grey of 80’s Birmingham to get the bus home.

The bus pulled out of Birmingham and I don’t remember us saying much as we were all knackered but by this point you see I discovered how much I love travelling, and making as much of an adventure of these things as possible. I also decided there that I wanted to go to Glastonbury to help feed this sense of adventure, but that would take another six years to realise.

I remember us getting back into Glasgow early on Monday morning and mingling at the bus station with people going to work and realising I didn’t want to work in offices, or do normal things. I wanted something else but I didn’t know what, but we said our very tired farewells and I got the bus home to Milton where I was then living to collapse in my own sad wee bed.

As I write this I stopped wanting to be different a while ago and have spent too long working in offices with similarly sad people who have either seen their life slip out of view, or haven’t had one as yet.  This isn’t a sad end to a story, but it’s a bit of perspective and writing these blogs are helping me find what I thought I’d lost so yes, you’re allowed to feel happy now.

Next time, the story of the Eisnercon and then, UKCAC through my eyes!

The Slow Painful Death of the Art of Criticism & How It Hurts Doctor Who

As mentioned last time this week’s final episode of this series of Doctor Who sparked a few things off in my head. This was mainly in the reaction to it online and the fact that the Emperor has no clothes but if you distract people from this you can create a success out of anything as long as people ignore the obvious. From now on there’s spoilers so be warned if you’ve not watched it yet.

Now I’m not talking about enjoying something. I still enjoy Doctor Who most of the time and thought the Neil Gaiman episode last week was excellent, and Mark Gatiss did a great one the week before that which played on the campness of Who while mixing in influences including a large League of Gentlemen one which is always going to get my approval. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy something and notice the huge gaping problems with what you’re watching. I’m talking about that most horrible of things in modern genre fandom, the Squee Factor. Which isn’t to say that people are wrong, but if you’re just sitting there thinking that something is good because it’s ”cool” and it’s what you as a fan want, then all  that’s on the screen is a version of fanwank which is building and building things up but forgets to create drama or characters in order to get what the writer, and a large chunk of the fans want but it doesn’t mean the story or the programme actually needs it.

This creates the defence of ‘but if I love it then it can’t be bad’, or ‘ur a hater!!!’ because when the writer of the programme itself is a fan then the temptation to write professional fanwank is huge and this is the huge gaping hole that Stephen Moffat has written himself into. In creating a programme aimed more and more at the fans as opposed to the populist days of Russell T. Davies (which did end up being tied in knots because of pandering to fans) that’s ended up fetishising the character of the Doctor in a way only a fan of the programme could.

So that’s why The Name of the Doctor isn’t anything more than fanfic writ large on HD screens and funded by license payers rather than banged out online, or in the old days, hammered out on a typewriter then photocopied and distributed as fanzines. I’m not knocking fanfic per say, but when you have an episode made up essentially of actors spouting large unweildy chunks of exposition at each out while the writer hammers home the point that Clara is ‘important’ and the Doctor is the huge mythological figure akin to God, or Allah, or Jebus rather that this weirdo alien bloke going around having adventures. It can’t be as simple as that as producers and writers (many of which were fans growing up) see the character as a HUGE INFLUENCE on EVERYTHING which is really some sort of meta-commentary on how Doctor Who influenced them as children and children tend to make influential figures in their lives bigger than they actually are so that’s why we end up with the Doctor being this massive figure in all of creation which makes people think it’s all grown up and dark and stuff.

In reality it takes away from the core of the character in that he was one of many of his people who escaped the cloying nature of his people to do good because he wanted to escape. He was a drop out created just before the idea of a drop out became part of the sixties culture on both sides of the Atlantic, so the Doctor was this rebellious figure saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment  even though he was sometimes part of that same establishment. In fact the entire first year of the Jon Pertwee era rams this point home as he’s constantly trying to run away like a child would if they were unhappy with their family and I found that amazingly powerful when I started watching the Pertwee era when I was a kid because things weren’t all bread and roses when I was growing up, so what I’m saying is that I’m as much as a screaming fanboy as anyone. I am able however to spot steaming shite when it’s served up to me.

This is where we have a little diversion and I have to recommend going off and reading the TV criticism of Clive James. In particular I remember reading The Crystal Bucket around the age of 15 or so thanks to an English teacher who tried to spark some ember of writing skill I must have shown in school but never properly did anything about. It’s a fantastic book and James is the best critic of television I’ve read apart from Harlan Ellison. His essays collected in The Glass Teat are spectacular and comparing both James and Ellison’s criticism compared to say, Sam Wollaston’s barely literate ramblings in The Guardian shows you just how lost the skill of criticism has become in the media.

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Go read this stuff. It’s important and it shows you how to do it rather than recapping the synopsis, adding a funny line, adopting a popular stance, then moving on.

When you have a programme written by fans, for fans and criticised by fans (normally along the lines of ‘this was awesome’ or ‘squeeeeeee’) in the newspapers, online and on fansites, genuine criticism becomes swallowed up in the fight to get heard. Part of this is people who genuinely did enjoy it, and I’ve no real problem with them. Part are people bandwagon jumping trying to get in on what’s ‘cool’ or just parroting what they’ve heard elsewhere and a large part are people desperately trying to be heard so they can get a paid job in the media and this last one causes problems because this is generally where all critical facilities tend to go out the window.

See, it’s very hard to seriously criticise what might be a future employer, or something you want to work on should be lucky enough to do so. This leads to the horrible situation of the sort of soft criticism you see especially on comic sites like a Bleeding Cool or CBR because you don’t want to lose those exclusive interviews, the review copies, the access to professionals and all the other stuff that you really want to get involved with rather than actually write criticism. You want your cake and eat it, or indeed, gorge on it. If you’re really lucky you might get a job with Marvel or DC Comics, and that might lead to working for a TV production company, or a TV channel or a film studio and then you’re quids in. It’s a means to an end rather than a goal in itself so it suppresses real criticism so rather than reading about how Moffat doesn’t seem to understand anymore how to form a drama in it’s own right, you just read thousands of versions of ‘squeeeeeee’.

Which brings us to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and a storyline which has been building for years, or at least the consensus is it’s been building for years rather than being thrown together and made up on the hoof as some of it clearly looks like it has because everyone is so intent to make things HUGE and EPIC like a fan would that they’ve forgotten that the best drama is made up of what people can relate to and simply put, you can’t relate to a God. You can relate to someone breaking free of a cloying establishment and doing good things to help people, but a God who is so important we can’t even know his name or something bad will happen somewhere to everyone isn’t a relatable hook, so it all becomes fanfic. It all becomes about rushing from one scene to the next so someone can spout another huge bit of exposition and the Doctor acts like a cretin because that’s how some people growing up saw the character, and it plays well in the US.

Creating good, populist drama is hard. Creating good criticism is hard. It involves hard work, research and an education and by that I don’t mean a degree, but a knowledge of television, how it works, writing, dramatic structure and of the world generally rather than just recycling what you know. It also takes a will to demand quality be it Doctor Who, or Eastenders or anything because why should the audience accept rubbish because it throws some bones to the fans who will watch it regardless of quality. Spouting exposition at each other isn’t drama. Telling us in huge unsubtle strokes that a character is Very Important isn’t creating a human drama, it’s just demoting female characters on the programme to plot points rather than people as it’s only the female characters who act as these important plot points. It’s odd, and there’s a weird feel about seeing female characters who only exist as a puzzle for the Doctor to solve rather than being people in their own right which says something about what’s rattling inside Moffat’s head.

Really though the point of this rambling nonsense isn’t to have a pop at a popular programme, or fanboys or anything that ”haters are going to hate” but to demand quality and honesty rather than shouting ‘squeee’ at the screen every five minutes because the script has spat out another piece of fan service.

And it’s not just Who that suffers from it. It’s virtually everything genre related out there because production companies and film studios do their market research online which means they encounter the hardcore fan, and when something new or different is proposed to try to widen the appeal/audience you get fans tied up in knots complaining how it’s not ”their” version of the character, or just plain outright misogyny or racism.

I want Doctor Who to thrill, excite and challenge me like it did when I was watching all those great Robert Holmes stories, or even a return to the quality Moffat is clearly capable of.  As said, it’s still fun to watch most of the time but it’s fell into a hole of it’s own making by building up everything to a huge and massive scale that the drama is lost in the twists and turns of the plot. All the likes of Moffat is doing is just eating the history of the programme and spewing it out but bigger and more epic and this is the final point. Fans want their programmes or genre fiction to be more epic and big and huge and massive and enormous, but there’s a point where you can’t go anywhere else and this isn’t helped by the feed of uncritical, or basically crap criticism.

Saying something is ‘shit’ or ‘sucks’ isn’t criticism. It’s just an opinion. Saying something is ‘cool’ or ‘fun’ isn’t criticism. It’s just an opinion. Far too often that’s what we get as criticism and frankly it’s shite…………

Next time, something else……