Friday, December 30, 2016

Memory League!

I'm having no end of fun with the Memory League training site! Not signed up there yet? You really should be! The important thing it provides, for me at least, is targets to aim for and scores to improve. Complicated rankings designed by the ever-brilliant Simon Orton and presented in the kind of dashboard views I create with Excel spreadsheets at work all the time and everyone thinks are awesome, so I appreciate and admire anyone who dreams up the same kind of thing. I'm hoping I can keep up with regular training in that, then transition it into also training for the old-fashioned longer-duration kind of memory competition disciplines, because I'm still hoping to at least turn up at a fair few pen-and-paper competitions in 2017.

And check this out! Memory League Championships in 2017 and beyond! Not only are lots of cool countries planning their own MLCs, including another UK one of course, we can look forward to the World Championship in April 2018 at Silicon Valley Comic Con! I love it when two passions of mine come together like that, and having missed the Las Vegas Memoriad, I've doubly-especially-definitely GOT to go along to this one!

More memory people need to be enthusiastic about comics, there are definite mental connections between the visual storytelling medium of comics and the mental imagery of memory systems. Also, there need to be more people at these things who can understand me when I say it's great that Ivy the Terrible is back in the Beano - as a child of the eighties, I've always had a soft spot for the only eighties-created character to become a Beano mainstay*, so was quietly outraged when she was dropped. We're not quite back to the days when she had a two-page weekly strip drawn by the Beano's best artist, but I'm still delighted to see a three-panel adventure drawn by the great Lew Stringer!

*Edited moments after posting to add... you know, except Calamity James, who was created around the same time and is still going strong and as brilliantly funny as ever. This is what happens when you move onto other subjects after talking about memory for the first two paragraphs, you forget things.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

It's WAR! And we're ALL going to DIE!

The long-awaited next random comic from my collection, as chosen by someone I don't remember, is number 3180 - Viz #122, from February 2003!

Does Viz count as a comic, or a magazine? It traditionally describes itself as a comic, so I think it counts as part of my comic collection, but really it's something that stands alone - the only other things that fall into the same category are other magazines that exist solely to publish stuff that's been rejected by Viz because it's not good enough. It's a nice position to be in.

If you're not British, none of this will really make any sense to you - Viz started life as a parody of British children's comics, soon branched out into also parodying British tabloid newspapers and magazines, and by 2003 was well-established as Britain's foremost adult-humour publication in its own right. But if you don't know the kind of thing it started life by making fun of... you won't get the joke, sorry. Still, if this review convinces one foreign blog-reader to give it a try and buy a copy, that might deter them from taking legal action against me for writing about it on the internet. Because they do that kind of thing, I've heard.

Actually, I wish the random number had given us a better issue of Viz if I'm going to be introducing it to people. This one hasn't got a photo story, or a hilarious adventure tale, or a lot of the regular characters, or any especially funny letters... but never mind. It came out at the time when Britain was umming and ahhing about exactly when we were going to do what the Americans told us and join in the invasion of Iraq, so that's the current-affairs theme of a lot of what's inside.

In British comic tradition, Viz doesn't credit the creators - a few of the artists who aren't part of the 'editorial cabinet' do sign their work, but otherwise all we get is a small print list on the first page, saying it's written and produced by Fulchester Industries, with contributors John Fardell, Cat Sullivan, Carl Hollingsworth, Joe Campi, Biscuit Tin, Paul Palmer, Barney Farmer and Lee Healey.

So, the comic starts with a three-page Biffa Bacon strip. Biffa's parents gently break the sad news to him that his grandfather's died, and then call him a big soft shite for crying about it...

Viz is published in Newcastle - when it started out, practically the whole comic was written in geordie dialect, but nowadays it's gone a bit more national; only Biffa Bacon and Sid the Sexist are really broad geordie. Anyway, the Bacons go to the funeral, Fatha and Mutha play friendly jokes on Biffa by slamming the coffin lid on his head and smacking him in the face with a clock, and then the whole family observe a minute's violence in Grandfatha's memory, smashing gravestones over each other's heads in the garden of remembrance. Classic stuff.

Letterbocks covers two pages, without any all-that-funny "readers' letters" this time, and there's only three Top Tips in this one. It's usually a lot better than this! There's also "Miriam answers your problems, translates her answers into German on the internet, and then back into English" and a three-panel "Sly and the Kidney Stone" strip.

Then we have a one-page adventure of Russ Abbot's Dormouse Madhouse - the comedian tricycles around the country with a dolls' house full of zany dormice (one has borderline personality disorder and another is suffering from schizophrenic catalepsy) who would get up to all sorts of crazy misadventures if Russ didn't keep them well-medicated with prozac, lithium, thorazine and largactil. They thwart a bank robbery by weaving a basket quickly. It's great, it really is!

Next page is a competition to win a holiday, sponsored by "Not Another Teen Movie", about which they're hilariously rude, with the editorial slant of not having watched it but knowing it's a load of rubbish. To win, you have to find five synonyms for holiday diarrhoea in a wordsearch.

Then a one-page strip of more schoolgirl bullying with Fatty and Skinny, Susannah and Trinny. Whatever happened to those two, anyway? Not that I ever watched them in the first place, but I haven't heard about them for years. Still, they were regulars in Viz at this time, destroying the self-esteem of girls who can't afford fashionable clothes at school. In this one they go swimming. Sort of a one-joke thing, really.

Next, two pages of Finbarr Saunders and his Double Entendres, another longstanding Viz regular. Mr Gimlet spends the strip trying his best to get a reaction from Finbarr with his usual contrived innuendos, but now Finbarr's only responding to Russian exchange visitor Sergei's hilarious mispronunciations. He also gets to shag Mrs Saunders at the end. Poor Mr Gimlet...

One page strip of Laurel and Hardy the Midwife - wonderful silliness in the traditional style. Laurel and Hardy are a midwife but keep getting distracted by painting the wall and carrying a piano upstairs, with slapstick consequences. In the end the frustrated father calls for an ambulance, but the police escort is the Keystone Cops.

A newspaper article about a graffiti artist winning the prestigious Saatchi Prize for Contemporary Art by scrawling "Suck my nips" on a wall... is a joke they'd done before, multiple times, I'm sure. Then we get a parody advertisement for "Quumf!" - the magazine for men who sniff ladies' bike saddles.

One page of Mrs Brady the Old Lady, whose friend Cissie slips on the ice and breaks her hip, giving Ada the opportunity to talk at great length to paramedics about her own medical problems. It's the kind of thing that never gets old.

Perhaps the highlight of this issue of Viz is the first ever Drunken Bakers strip, the long-running series, still continuing today, of adventures of two bakers who technically still run a shop, but never manage to bake any bread products because of their alcohol problem...

It's so wonderfully unremittingly bleak and depressing, the strip achieves true artistic genius. In this one, they consider making oatcakes, but the thought doesn't get very far.

A page and a half of Boyz R Uz, the parody of manufactured boy bands, is a bit strange really - it's still mired in the 1990s, and hasn't yet twigged to making fun of Pop Idol and X-Factor, or whatever was the big thing on TV at the time. I know for a fact those things already existed in 2003.

The middle-page centrespread gives us our free Rolling Stones It's a Gas Gas Gas Mask! You can cut it out and assemble it yourself, with half a pringles tube and a few odour eaters for the mouth bit, two glacier mint wrappers for the eyes, and a few rubber bands and things! The accompanying text, explaining why we need to be ready with our gas masks for the inevitable war with Iraq, is brilliant - as well as explaining the Rolling Stones connection as "We've teamed up with Britain's fave boy band to bring you this cut out & keep gas mask," and a testimonial from Brian Jones, "If I wasn't dead, this gas mask would probably save my life", the main text takes the traditional British tone: "The Marquess of Queensbury's rules mean nothing to evil Saddam who thinks little of killing Iraqui men, women and children in pursuit of his dastardly plans. But worse than that, this crazed dictator has even set fire to oil wells, destroying millions of barrels of our precious oil. We're facing a man almost as evil as Nasty Nick off the first series of Big Brother in a war he was too cowardly even to start." And there's a classification of the relative strength of gases, with the strongest being "that gas the Penguin squirts at Batman out the end of his umbrella". Classic Viz stuff.

A page of "Have Your Say" letters debating whether it's a good or bad thing that scientists are now able to produce clones of Saddam Hussain is followed by a one-page Tommy Salter's Chemical Capers strip in which the boy genius's mum makes him get rid of his evil baby Saddam Hussain clone.
He eventually flushes it down the toilet, before being told to go and clean up his bedroom, which is full of baby Hitlers and Mussolinis. This is the most traditional-Viz-strip thing in this issue - the kind of thing that would appear in a British children's comic, with a slight twist. The absence of Gilbert Ratchet or Tinribs from this issue is another shocking omission.

Next, a one-page story of "Beautician and the Beast" - Villagers, come quickly! The beast has taken my daughter - a Boots beautician - prisoner in his castle! With the villagers approaching with their flaming torches and pitchforks, the Beast tries to make the beautician fall in love with him, but she just tortures him with painful beauty products while delivering her sales pitch with an expression of contempt and superiority. It's very true to life!

Then we have one and a half pages of "The McBrowntrouts", a parody of "The Broons" that is apparently just different enough, this time, for Viz to get away with it. A few years earlier they invoked the wrath of DC Thomson with a strip called "The McBroons" that was identical to the Broons in every way except that the punchline involved toilet humour. This version is a lot safer; the characters only vaguely resemble the Broons, and the style of the strip is more a general parody of old-fashioned comics, including rhyming captions. This week the McBrowntrouts enter the Biggest Shite In Glasgow Contest. There's a really really funny McBrowntrouts strip in I think the next issue of Viz; it's a real shame I got this random number instead...

Half a page of the adventures of Ben "Bend Over" Dover, who tries to make an innocent film of a wedding only for it to turn into hardcore pornography, then a two-page newspaper-article about henpecked husbands being haunted by the ghosts of their nagging wives. This, again, is the kind of thing there's normally much more of in Viz!

After that we get a one-page strip of The Critics, who buy a non-existent art installation from a modern artist with no name, although he takes payment in the form of a cheque made out to Nigel Ponsonby-Wankwelle, and one page of Otto S. Fixiation, who has zany misadventures trying to satisfy his jaded middle-aged sex needs with a bit of self-strangulation. Both very funny.

Then we get three pages of the Profanisaurus, definitions of unusual rude words, that a lot of people find really funny but I've never liked all that much. I mean, it's schoolboy stuff, but not funny schoolboy stuff like the rest of Viz! And then, crammed into the last page, it's three of the characters who normally get a page or two each - Roger Mellie, Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags. Roger has a celebrity boxing match against Thora Hird, Sid gives tantric sex (or in his case, tantric wanking) a try, and Baz and Dave discuss the edible knickers he got San for Christmas (he ate as much as he could on Christmas morning, a bit more on Boxing Day and put the rest in the freezer).

For £2, not much more than most of the other comics in my collection, that's a heck of a lot of content! It's no wonder Viz is so popular, considering this is one of the least funny issues I've ever seen and it's still got plenty to laugh at.

If you'd like to see a review of a random comic from my pile, give me a number between 3 and 3333, and I'll oblige! Maybe I'll make it a monthly thing in 2017, set myself some kind of publishing deadline...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Red Dwarf retrospective

I've got the whole week off work (the company I work for now is the very sensible kind of company that completely shuts down between Christmas and New Year), so I'll catch up on all those things I said I'd ramble on about in my blog. First off, Red Dwarf XI!

With hindsight, and having watched all six episodes of the new series multiple times, I think I can safely say it's a very good one. If it's not quite as much fun as watching the episodes from the golden age (series 3-5, say), it still does justify making new ones - there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, quite a few clever plots in the classic Red Dwarf style, quite a lot of things that generally make me say 'ha, yes, that was a good one!'

So, let's start by complaining about things (because, y'know, this is the internet, I'm an opinionated nerd, it's what we do) before moving on to talking about the good stuff. Lighting - turn down the blue, people! Seriously, nearly every scene is bathed in harsh blue light and I don't really see the point of it. Every now and then they move into a setting that's lit more naturally, and it's a real relief. Acting - I just don't get the sense that the actors are enjoying it, which is weird. I'm sure they must be, since nostalgia is the main reason for the series existing, but if they are, they should show it more. Go over the top now and then and don't look so restrained! The day job - the Red Dwarf crew's purpose in life now seems to be to travel around the universe, salvaging technology from derelict spaceships. Firstly, why do they need a purpose in life at all? I miss the days when Lister gave his occupation as 'bum'. And secondly, if they're going to have a driving raison d'etre, what happened to Lister's stated purpose of a few years ago of finding Kochanski? Originality - all the episodes are variations on themes of earlier episodes, there's nothing particularly new or different about them, and there's a limit to how long you can do that without it getting old...

Okay, now the good bits - there's some hilarious dialogue, like the Captain Bollocks scene in "Give and Take", and basically everything with Snacky in the same episode. One particularly brilliant visual gag with the 3-D printer in "Officer Rimmer", which might be the single funniest scene Red Dwarf has ever done. Lots of clever dialogue in "Twentica" especially with the technological speakeasy. Ingenious and brilliantly silly time-travel stuff in "Give and Take", not to mention a new character who we need to see again (shame that they filmed the next series at the same time as this one, so if we do see him again it won't be for a long time...) Nice character moments for everyone, even Cat (who spends a lot of time just standing in the background) which really make the most of the dynamic between them. It's all very promising for the future, so here's hoping it goes on beyond series twelve and lasts forever!