Losing Harlan Ellison

I have a Harlan Ellison story. Lots and lots of people who’ve been in, or are fans of, comics, SF, fantasy or just fans of his writing have a story. I’ve told mine before but here it is again. In 1985 at a SF convention in Glasgow, Ellison was guest of honour and was having great fun pissing off and entertaining all the right people because even as a young lad somewhat awestruck at being even in the same city as one of his heroes, I could see that Ellison danced the line between genius and arsehole easily. One minute he’s be amiable and chatty, the next he’d be annoyed and angry but he’d never compromise himself. His comments about writers getting paid show this.

So back to the story. I was working a dealers table selling comics and Ellison came in to have a shufty at our stuff. He picked a few things up and much to everyone’s surprise knew more about British comics than I’d have suspected. I was wearing a Marvelman badge, and spinning off the conversation from Warrior, Ellison asked if we had any for sale which we didn’t. He then asked if he could have mine. I eventually gave him it because this was my hero and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Ellison later came over to me in the bar, offered to get a drink and we ended up chatting about how great Dreamscape was. Indeed, it still is.

Ellison then had to move on with his small entourage but I was a happy lad as he’d signed a copy of The Glass Teat which is one of the greatest books of criticism ever published.  That book is something that influenced why I started this blog, and in fact it wasn’t until Ellison’s death I realised how much he’d shaped me growing up.

See, that wee story I have is something I’ve pulled out often over the years because it is a great wee story. The part of the story I usually miss out is when Ellison talked about not compromising which is something I don’t think Ellison did once in his life which led him to do great things, not to mention some awful things.

But that idea that someone can’t compromise because once you do it then becomes a game as to how far you’ll go without fully compromising yourself. I can’t remember when I did start compromising and although my life was better in some ways, a wee part of me was dead.

I’ll miss Ellison not being around. I’ll miss not being able to see if there’s a new soundbite  that I can use to help me sum up current events, and with current events being horrible I think we’ve lost a guide at a bad time.We’ll still have his mountain of work but we’ve lost a voice who could be good or bad, arrogant and uncompromising but always had something worthwhile to say. There will never be another like him.

Goodbye and thanks for whatever small lessons you’ve given me. I’m going to watch Dreamscape later and wallow in the memories of 1985.

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Harlan Ellison and Me.

I met Harlan Ellison once at a SF convention in the 1980’s (a story for another time) and he was an extraordinary character who would engage you in conversation if he thought what you had to say was worth listening to. I’m glad to say he did so with me and we had a chat which ended up with him swapping a signed copy of The Glass Teat (one of my favourite books) for my Marvelman badge, which I hope he still has. Sadly I no longer have a signed copy of the book as that was lost in time but I did manage to get myself a rare British copy in Ebay around a decade ago.

Ellison was still a fearsome person but he did sometimes talk bollocks, but it was always entertaining bollocks, or much of the time he says vastly important things about creators and writing that needs to be said and listened to. Sometimes this even reaches the mainstream media as opposed to just the SF ghetto. 

Ellison’s message of paying writers for their work and respecting them is important as ever in a age when journalists are being asked to work for free to provide ‘content’ , and writers are generally not as regarded as well as they should be.

Sadly, Harlan Ellison had a stroke at the weekend and although friends are reporting him to be recovering, the stroke has left him paralysed down one side. I only wish him well and I treasure his writing for what’s it’s given me over the years as The Glass Teat is one of the main reasons I write my half-arsed reviews and stuff on this blog and Ellsion has given me masses of entertainment as well as educating me over the years. I look forward to him giving me loads more and wish him well.

Overstreets World of Comics-Comic book documentary from 1993

This is a cracking find. Overstreet’s World of Comics is a documentary based around the San Diego Comic Convention in 1993 and details the world of comics as they were in those days just before the great comics bubble of the early 90’s went POP! It’s a fascinating watch to see how people thought that comics were going to be a huge investment for the future, and that comics coming from the likes of Valiant were massive investments. They weren’t. The entire market went down the toilet and a number of the companies featured in this film like Topps, went under, and companies like Marvel nearly went bankrupt.

What is striking is how comic focused San Diego was then as opposed to the big pop culture event it is. It’s about the medium of comics and there’s a lovely bit in the film about Golden Age artists like Murphy Anderson, a history of EC Comics, as well as a great interview with Jack Kirby, the man who built the house that Marvel are now exploiting for their films like The Avengers and Captain America.  It is however, Todd McFarlane who hogs a lot of time on the film because at that time Spawn was the biggest selling comic in the world, selling around a half a million to a million copies on average per issue. There’s a certain sad irony looking back at this seeing McFarlane talk with such idealism; something that vanished when the money started flooding in.

The film does have some amazingly tacky music running through it that makes it feel like a health and safety training video you see on the first day of a new job, If you can ignore that then this is a great bit of archive, if only to see Stan Lee say with a straight face that he hates taking from what other people have done….

Harlan Ellison talks about Saving Mr. Banks

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I love Harlan Ellison. I also think he’s a cock at times. He’s also an amazingly nice bloke. He’s also an arrogant arsehole. He also fights for the right things, and the right people. Ellison is a mass of contradictions and when you read about him, he seems like this immense larger than life figure. So when I met him at a SF convention in Glasgow in the 1980’s I was partly shitting myself, and partly in awe of meeting one of my serious heroes, so to say I was nervous was an understatement.

He ended up being quite a lovely bloke to people who gave him respect. He spent some time chatting away to myself and a few others who were working in the dealers room. This was generally about comics, but also about Glasgow, and the city’s architecture. He also asked for my original Marvelman badge, which I gave for him in return for a nice little signed copy of the Glass Teat, which ended up being nicked about five or six years later  which I’m still bitter about.

Ellison has also been one of those people in the media who says things at times that needs to be said. In this case it’s about what looked to be, and from all accounts is, a travesty of history which is Saving Mr. Banks, Disney’s new film about Disney’s attempts to get the rights of Mary Poppins from it’s creator P.L. Travers. Starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, the film looks to hit a few obvious marks by telling a story of how kindly Uncle Walt didn’t shaft a creator at all, oh heavens no!

Thankfully here comes Ellison to put things right in what can be best described as one of the most glorious rants you’ll have the pleasure of seeing.

Realise as well that Disney are still shafting creators. This isn’t history but is an ongoing process for Disney, but films like Saving Mr. Banks serve up a whitewashed version of history which reflects upon the present. Thanks to Ellison we can a chance of some realistic criticism.

My Top 20 SF Films-18-A Boy and His Dog

I’ve recently dived into doing ”best of’ list, so as I’ve explained, I’ve decided to do my top 20 SF films. This is my personal list, so feel free to disagree with it and of course, you’ll be horribly wrong.

Previously at # 20, The Matrix, 19, Seconds

At 18 it’s the film based upon a Harlan Ellison story, it’s A Boy and His Dog.

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It’s a simple tale of a boy, Vic (played by an amazingly young Don Johnson pre-Miami Vice) , and his telepathic intelligent dog, Blood, wandering a post-apocalyptic America after a nuclear war searching for food, and of course, women for sex. During the course of their travels across America they stumble upon an underground society clinging onto the pre-apocalypse world who want Vic to help impregnate their young women, however they have plans for Vic when he’s done…

It sounds like a weird little film and it is. Although Ellison’s original story is toned down for the film version, it’s still brutal at times (Blood is telepathic and uses his abilities to search out women for Vic to rape) , but it also manages to retain much of Ellison’s very dark, very cynical sense of humour. It’s also a film some people have called misogynistic which is something that a surface viewing can easy make you think is real, especially after watching the ending, but it’s not. It’s a very dark comedy/satire which touches upon some topics which are going to upset, so don’t watch it if you’re of a sensitive nature…….

The film itself is a bleak joy. It’s the closest cinema has gotten to portraying an Ellison story as well as it can without diluting Ellison’s voice too much. It’s also one of those 1970’s SF films that look fantastic without being pointlessly glossy, and there’s at least one more example of this type of realistic 70’s SF film coming up on my list.

A Boy and His Dog is enormous fun. Yes, the ending is so darkly bleak it might turn people off, but it’s also optimistic as you can be in a post apocalyptic world of a boy and a dog trying to survive….

Here’s the trailer and a No-Prize to anyone who can name the trailer that it’s ”inspired” by…

Next time, it’ll be a sunny day….

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……