Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Nothing But Red Skies Do I See

Posted in comics, science by Andrew Hickey on August 31, 2008

I finally managed to get a copy of Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke , Ray Zone and a million inkers late yesterday evening. I can only presume that the comic shops were trying to protect me from the sheer incredible Thrill Power of an oversized Superman comic by Grant Morrison in 3D.

(Well, that’s *one* explanation – after my local comic shop ran out without putting it in my pull list, my wife offered to go to Forbidden Planet and get a copy for me. They lied to her and told her they didn’t have any. When I went in later, they had at least 30 copies. It couldn’t possibly have been because I am a bearded man who looks comically like the stereotype comics reader, while my wife is a woman… )

There was a fun little aside in this week’s Blue Beetle (Matt Sturges has finally found his feet as a writer – he’s always seemed like someone whose work I should enjoy more than I do, but he’s actually doing a good job on this title) – looking for ways to deal with villains, one of the options the scarab gives the Blue Beetle is “Implicate-Order Annihilation Field [Fatal Potential : Theological Implications]“.

This would seem to establish as ‘fact’ that the interpretation of quantum physics that applies in the DC Universe is a Bohmian Hidden Variable interpretation (the only type that has an implicate order). Which is interesting, given the timing…

This month, mathematician John Conway (the inventor of the game Life) and Simon Kochen proved (as seen in this link which I posted just under a week ago) that free will can’t exist at all in a universe where such an interpretation of quantum physics is correct. Of course, that would be literally true within the DCU, as everything that happens within that universe is created by writers and artists from outside the universe – none of the characters have any free will at all.

The first comic to state – in-universe – that the characters in the DCU are just puppets for people in this universe was Grant Morrison(and Chas Truog, Doug Hazelwood et al)’s Animal Man – and this was also the first DCU comic to suggest – apparently unconnectedly – that the DCU was based on an implicate order version of quantum physics. (Peter Milligan’s six-issue run on Animal Man which followed (and which really should be collected – it’s almost as good as Morrison’s) stated that the Everett-Wheeler-Graham many-worlds interpretation was the correct one, but I think we should probably regard this story as apocryphal).

In Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D, which came out the same day as that issue of Blue Beetle, Morrison has Superman visit Character Limbo, a concept that originally (and as far as I know only) appeared in that same Animal Man run.

Now, I’m not suggesting here that Morrison’s attempts to make the DCU sentient have borne fruit, or that he’s had a secret Chaos Magick Timetable for more than twenty years that allowed him to synchronise the release of his comic with that throwaway line in another comic and the publication of a paper by a respected mathematician. I would never suggest such things. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the secret ending of Final Crisis is going to be the merger of Earth-Prime with New Earth, and we’ll wake up on publication day to find that Superman now exists on this earth. That would be absurd.

Grant Morrison is just a comic writer and not some weird demiurge recreating the universe according to his own desires. Almost certainly. Certainly I’d say there’s a better than 50% chance that it’s probably just a coincidence…

The comic itself is almost parodically Morrisonesque, from the explicit digs at Alan Moore (Captain Allen Adam, who is the Captain Atom of Earth 4, but who looks almost exactly like Doctor Manhattan and has to take psychotropic drugs to function normally) to the implicit digs at Alan Moore (the travel into a higher reality requiring 3D glasses to view is quite possibly a subtle dig at The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, which deals with similar themes).

(Incidentally, my wife Holly, who is legally blind and has only monocular vision, would like it to be known that she Does Not Approve of comic writers whose work she enjoys producing comics she is physically incapable of reading. I, on the other hand, just wish I still had my Batman 3D glasses that I got with John Byrne’s Batman 3D twenty years ago).

There is so much in this comic that to unpack it would take months – Morrison has put the equivalent of a twelve-issue miniseries in here. The history of the Monitors, the Yellow Submarine (Ultima Thule), the universe being run on Story… it’s just fantastic stuff.

Morrison casts Final Crisis itself in this comic as “this last-ditch attempt to save creation itself from a loathing and greed beyond measure”, and all I can say is on this evidence I hope it succeeds…

I have to break this off at this point, but at some point over the next couple of days, expect more on my favourite themes of multiplicity and stasis vs entropy in Morrison’s work, with reference to the chain motif that keeps coming up.

(I realise I haven’t spoken much about the art here – Mahnke’s art is as excellent as you’d expect, and that’s about all I have to say about it. I’m not hugely visually oriented).

I really think that Morrison is tapping into some very, very profound stuff here, putting the pure Kirby energy and the iconic power of Superman together and using them both to state some actual truths about the universe. And doing it using “4D Overvoid Viewers Forged From Superman’s Own Cosmic Armor”.

And is it me, or does the sky look a little… red today?

Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and the Smile You Send Out – Part 3: Smile!

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on August 31, 2008

(Before I start – today’s Big Finish A Week will be delayed until tomorrow. I’d already got most of this post done, and I’ve been promising the Superman one for four days, and I’m incredibly busy today.)

I was there when Smile was announced.

After Orange Crate Art and I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times Brian Wilson continued to make an incredible artistic recovery. In 1996 he worked on two Beach Boys projects – one, an album of new material written by Wilson and Andy Paley, only had two songs completed before the Beach Boys’ squabbling killed the project, but the demos suggested a renewed creativity on Wilson’s part (though some have claimed that Paley had more input than Wilson to several of the best songs).

The second Beach Boys project he worked on in 1996 at least came out – but that’s about all you can say for it. Stars & Stripes Vol 1 was an album co-produced by Wilson and bemulleted fool Joe Thomas, where various country singers (of the terrible variety you get on country radio for the most part – Toby Keith, Lorrie Morgan, Kathy Troccoli) sang old Beach Boys hits. It wasn’t completely terrible – in fact Junior Brown’s 409 and Willie Nelson’s The Warmth Of The Sun were two of the best tracks the band had done in twenty years – but for the most part it was unlistenable dreck. It’s incredibly sad that it’s the last ever Beach Boys album – they deserve better than to be remembered like that.

However, for some reason Wilson continued to work with Joe Thomas, who seemed to be positioning Wilson for an ‘Adult Contemporary’ audience, and in 1998 they released Wilson’s second solo album of new material – Imagination. It was, frankly, awful. There were four very good tracks, and the rest… well, suffice it to say that it was considered appropriate for Brian Wilson to be collaborating with both Jimmy Buffet and Jim Peterik from Survivor (the band that did Eye Of The Tiger).

But that album had a remarkable effect – Brian Wilson, who hadn’t willingly toured in thirty years, started touring to promote it. And the band he put together was stunning – based around LA powerpop band the Wondermints, it also included Scott Bennett and Paul Mertens (two excellent session musicians who’d worked on Imagination), vocalist Taylor Mills, and Jeff Foskett, a singer who’d covered Brian’s parts on stage for the Beach Boys for many years. (There were a few other members, but that’s the core group – other people who’ve been in the band at one time or another include Todd Sucherman, Jim Hines, Bob Lizik, Andy Paley and Nelson Bragg.)

That band were astonishing – capable of reproducing every note of Wilson’s incredibly complex music, and almost all multi-instrumentalists (in a typical show Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints might play guitar, trumpet, french horn, tannerin and keyboards as well as singing). The first live shows the band did were revelatory – while Wilson was not in great voice (and Foskett ended up doubling most of his lines in those early shows, as Wilson would forget lines or miss notes so Foskett was a safety net), his enthusiasm was palpable, and the band were clearly the best possible collaborators he could have. The shows got longer and longer, and they added in more and more obscure material, until by 2002 they were doing the entire Pet Sounds album, six songs from Smile, obscure songs from Friends, Carl And The Passions and The Beach Boys Love You, songs like Til I Die and still doing a good selection of the hits as well. (Unfortunately, since 2004 the setlists have become less and less interesting, to the point where now Mike Love’s touring ‘Beach Boys’ do a significantly more interesting set). They released several live albums and DVDs, and in 2004 Brian released a new solo album, Gettin’ In Over My Head, which while far from perfect was a *good* album (mostly made up of songs from the unreleased Andy Paley collaboration or from his unreleased 1989 solo album Sweet Insanity, rerecorded with the new band).

But still nothing could prepare anyone for the day when in 2003 at a small gig (not a Brian Wilson gig) with about thirty or so people in attendance, Jeff Foskett announced that he’d been asked to put together a half-hour suite based on Smile for the band to perform the next year.

As it turned out, Foskett was exaggerating his own importance to the new work. It was Darian Sahanaja – the Wondermints’ keyboardist and the band’s musical director – rather than Foskett the frontman who was asked to piece together the new Smile. But, crucially, he didn’t do it alone. Acting as Wilson’s assistant, he merely helped Brian sequence the new piece.

Shortly after this, Van Dyke Parks was brought in to provide lyrics where they hadn’t been completed in 1967, and the project moved toward actually completing the promised album from nearly 40 years ago. In the later stages Wilson’s horn player Paul Mertens also added some very Parksian string arrangements that tied together different leitmotifs from throughout the album, creating links between songs and generally giving the project a feeling of cohesion.

While Brian very nearly didn’t go through with actually performing Smile, because it brought back so many memories of a very unhappy time in his life and was linked with many of his mental problems, when he did perform it it was near-unanimously hailed as a masterpiece (with a few exceptions among those who had spent decades of their own lives creating theories about what Smile ‘would have been’ – some of whom, being proved wrong, either decided they had wasted their lives or that the finished version was created by some evil conspiracy out to use Brian).

So, after all that anticipation, what was the Smile they completed?

The finished album was in three movements, patterned after the structure of Rhapsody In Blue ( a piece which Wilson has described as the soundtrack to his life). The first movement had few surprises – it started with Our Prayer, a brief pastiche of Bach’s choral music, before going into a snippet of Gee by The Crows, and then into an extended version of Heroes & Villains. This movement, which then ran through several short bits of songs that had all originally spun out of the Heroes & Villains melody, before ending up with CabinEssence, combined the story of one man’s life in the Old West with the story of the journey of European settlers across North America, going from Plymouth Rock and ending up at the Grand Coulee Dam.

The first movement was extremely good – featuring two of the best songs Wilson and Parks ever wrote, that’s unsurprising – but the third movement was merely quite good. Wilson has spoken of the third movement as being added later, separate from the original conception of the album, and it shows – it’s a collection of little snatches and songs that don’t really belong together, much like side two of Abbey Road. The core of it seems to be the material originally intended for the ‘Elements’ section of Smile, but other bits have been thrown in, seemingly more because they had to be fitted in than because they fit. Having said that, some parts are still stunning – the segue from Mrs O’ Leary’s Cow (Fire) into In Blue Hawaii (Water) is beautifully done. Using the ‘water chant’ recorded in 1967 (and used in the 1971 Beach Boys song Cool Cool Water), they added a new lead vocal line, singing in free tempo over the top:

Is it hot as hell in here or is it me?
It really is a mystery
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery
I could really use a drop to drink
Somewhere in a placid pool and sink
Feel like I was really in the pink

It’s clever, it adds a whole new interesting layer to the music, and it works in context wonderfully.

But the thing that makes the album – the literal centrepiece and the part that turns it from a good album into possibly the best album ever released – is the second movement.

The second movement is bookended by the two best songs from Smile – which is to say, the two best songs ever written – Wonderful and Surf’s Up. Wonderful is a beautifully oblique story of a girl’s loss of virginity – and loss of innocence generally – with a melody that’s a third cousin of the melody for Heroes & Villains, and a story that’s not too unlike She’s Leaving Home:

Farther down the path was a mystery,
Through the recess, the chalk and numbers,
a boy bumped into her one, one, wonderful

But unlike the Beatles song, here the girl returns to her parents and is accepted by them:

All fall down and lost in the mystery
Lost it all to a non-believer
And all that’s left is a girl
Who’s loved by her mother and father

She’ll return in love with the mystery
Never known as a non-believer
She’ll sigh and thank God for one, one, wonderful

While Surf’s Up (the song I posted a video of in the first of these posts) is more oblique yet, a torrent of imagery that keeps nearly coalescing into meaning before going off again:

A diamond necklace played the pawn,
Hand in hand some drummed along
To a handsome man and baton

The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter’s swan

Columnated ruins domino
Canvas the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?

These two songs had been known for nearly forty years, though. The fact that the album featured extremely good performances of them didn’t matter – we already had several extremely good performances of them by either Wilson solo or the Beach Boys as a band to choose from.

What mattered was the end of Wonderful, where suddenly it segued into a song that had previously only been known as an instrumental, but is now known as Song For Children. With one line – “Maybe not one, maybe you too , are wondering, wondering who, wonderful you” – we went into unknown territory. The two songs that followed (Song For Children and Child Is Father Of The Man ) had been known as separate instrumentals, one with a brief chant for a chorus that was also used as the tag to Surf’s Up. In their 1960s incarnations, those songs were plink-plonk dull instrumentals with not much to them.

Suddenly, with the addition of lead vocals (and additional backing vocals, so that in Song For Children we have a ‘child is father of the son/sun’ to mirror the ‘father of the man’ later on) those songs worked as songs. Chuck Britz, the engineer on most of the Beach Boys’ 60s records, once spoke about how he’d heard some harmonies from the band that sounded terrible, and he’d told Brian so – Brian had immediately added the one extra vocal line, and it had sounded great, and Britz had never criticised his arrangements again. In the case of the middle of Smile, that process was repeated on a much bigger scale.

With the addition of the lead vocals, and sequenced correctly, these songs went from being forgettable bits of noodling into integral parts of a tightly-structured longer piece which is infinitely better than the sum of its parts – and like I said, the parts include probably the two best songs ever written. Hearing this piece for the first time, and knowing that I’d had access to more than 90% of the actual music in it before in pieces, once I got over the shock of how beautiful it was, I felt like Huxley reading Darwin – “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”

So by 2004, we knew that Brian had conquered his demons enough to complete an album he couldn’t complete in 1967. We knew he was still capable of putting those pieces together in extraordinary ways, and that he could fill in the gaps well. At the time, I thought Smile was going to be the capstone of his career, that he’d probably not do anything more – because how could he possibly top that? I assumed he was going to retire, and it was a good place to bow out.

Because how could he possibly follow that?

On LibDemmery

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on August 30, 2008

For those of you who are waiting for them, you can expect an influx of posts tonight/tomorrow. My local comic shop didn’t have any copies of Final Crisis: Superman Beyond , so I am venturing into the murky depths of Forbidden Planet. Pray for me. This means that that review will be tonight. I’ve also got the next piece on Brian Wilson halfway written, and I’ll be doing the usual Big Finish post tomorrow too.

But for now I want to talk about politics. Alix at The People’s Republic of Mortimer wrote a post yesterday which touched on some things I wanted to say about the Liberal Democrats.

I actually agree with almost everything she says – and yet I still think she’s wrong. For those of you who don’t follow this stuff, the Liberal Democrats (the party of which I am a member) recently put out a document called Make It Happen, full of pictures of Our Dear Leader looking as dishy as he can make himself, and full of very short sentences about it being ‘time for a change’.

Now, in this document, the phrase ‘ordinary families’ occurs to the point of obsession, and I absolutely agree with Ms Mortimer that the repetition of this phrase is both wildly irritating and smacks of illiberalism – what of the extraordinary? What of those who aren’t families at all?

I absolutely hate that kind of wording – I’m married, but I wouldn’t consider my wife and myself a ‘family’, we’re a couple, and I don’t think either of us would be less entitled to respect were we single – and it worries me, but I think on the whole it’s the right thing to be doing at the moment.

I didn’t vote for Nick Clegg, and I’m on the left of the party and not really keen on the Orange Bookers who currently have most of the power in the parliamentary party, some of whom seem quite eager to become a third Conservative party to go with the two we’ve already got [Edit April 2009 ignore that - I was talking crap], but one thing which almost persuaded me to vote for Clegg – and which I singled out at the time – is his ability to put liberal values into the language of the Mail and the Express without compromising those values.

I’ve argued for a while now that we need to be trying to get votes from the Tories, not from Labour, because the Tories are going to win the next election and Labour lose no matter what we do. Even did I not personally (slightly) prefer Labour to the Tories, I would still argue pragmatically that it is better for the party to have the Conservative majority be as small as possible, and so we should concentrate on winning seats in Tory marginals (the Labour marginals should fall to us anyway – they’re low-hanging fruit). If we can’t win the next election – and realistically we can’t – we can try to push for a hung parliament where we would be the balance of power.

Now, documents like Make It Happen, repulsive as I find the way they’re phrased, work perfectly for attracting Tory voters. I would like us to be able to reframe the terms of debate in this country, but right now the vast majority of people aren’t reading the Independent or Guardian – they’re reading the Mail or the Sun. If we can convince them to support liberal positions – without changing those positions, just the way they’re presented – then I think that’s a wholly good thing. Make It Happen doesn’t seem to have been aimed at me or Ms Mortimer – we’re already on-side.

It’s only if the change in rhetoric becomes a change in policy that we have to worry – and indeed I am worried about that – but the actual policies in the document make sense. I think we’ve already got most of the extraordinary on side – and with an activist base as full of bisexuals, transsexuals, poly people, goths and large men with beards as ours is, I don’t think it’s ever likely that they will not be catered to – we need to get the ordinary families on side too…

Linkblogging for 29/08/08

Posted in comics, computing, linkblogging, music, politics by Andrew Hickey on August 29, 2008

Hmph. Comics didn’t come out over here yesterday because of the Bank Holiday. I was looking forward to wearing 3D glasses on the bus home. Comic reviews tonight (and maybe more Beach Boys too).

In what little spare time I have, I play around with Inform 7, a programming language for creating text adventure games. Emily Short once again posts some interesting thoughts about using that language well…

Vote the Americawesome Party. A stegosaur with a cut-out guitar is much better than a donkey or elephant.

Bobsy at the Mindless Ones continues his use of the I Ching to divine the villain in the latest Batman storyline. (When did stories change from ‘lines’ to ‘arcs’, BTW? And are we ever going to have story-tangents?)

More on Morrison – a pretty good interview with him is up at IGN, while David at Vibrational Match continues his issue-by-issue look at The Filth, and Jog reviews the Superman comic I haven’t read yet.

Nice interview with Pierre Boulez here. I’ve always been meaning to get more into Boulez – I’ve got some of his piano works, but given he’s had a 60 year career, I really should have more…

Linkblogging for 28/08/08

Posted in comics, films, linkblogging by Andrew Hickey on August 28, 2008

I’m gearing up, 3D-glasses at the ready, to review Final Crisis: Superman Beyond tonight. In the meantime, some links…

Fred Van Lente interviewed by Comics Should Be Good – one of the very few times I’ve read an interview with a comics writer whose name isn’t Moore or Morrison where the questions asked are intelligent ones about which the writer can actually talk…

Eddie Campbell reviews Red Coloured Elegy, a Japanese graphic novel from 1970.

Gavin Burrows reviews Dark Knight

And that’s about it. It’s been quiet…

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