Top 10 Books of Literature (Part 2)

 

TOP 10 BOOKS OF LITERATURE (PART 2)

 

 

(5) JOHN BIRMINGHAM – HE DIED WITH A FELAFEL IN HIS HAND (1994)

 

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!

 

Yes, it’s that famous Australian blank verse for the second of two Australian literary entries in our top ten. Of course, John Birmingham isn’t quite as highfalutin literary as Peter Carey – although damn it, He Died With a Felafel in His Hand deserves a Nobel Prize for Literature (who the hell are most of those laureates anyway?) – but he’s certainly more fun.

 

He was first published in Semper Floreat, student newspaper at the University in Queensland, where he studied law among ‘rat-faced bastards’ who wouldn’t lend him their notes. (Damn those University of Queensland law students!) Fortunately, Birmingham did not graduate to become a lawyer but instead became a published writer with his 1994 share-house living memoir He Died With a Felafel in His Hand. That book is an eclectic collection of “colorful anecdotes” about living in increasingly squalid share houses in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne – with increasingly dubious housemates (included the eponymous deceased felafel-holder). It’s since been adapted into the longest running stage play in Australian history (the share house setting is ideal for stage after all), an eminently quotable cult film in 2001 and a graphic novel – as well as arguably its own sequel The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco in 1997, which was less a sequel than a more straightforward fictionalization of the original (or ‘remake’).

 

Essentially, Birmingham is Australia’s own gonzo writer in the style of Hunter S. Thompson, although without the trunk full of acid and other drugs (or at least, not quite full). Of late, he’s adapted to writing highly entertaining pulp SF thrillers (which naturally I lap up) – the Axis of Time series, the Without Warning series, the Dave series and recently A Girl in Time.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) MARGARET ATWOOD – THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1985)

 

“Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse for some”.

 

And it certainly does if you’re a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.

 

This entry crept into literature from science fiction, much like George Orwell’s 1984 (which ranks as special mention in my top ten) – a tagline for The Handmaid’s Tale might be 1984 for women (in 1985!). Margaret Atwood has flirted with science fiction on a few occasions, although she seems to be more open about the relationship these days. In fairness, all dystopian fiction tends to have science fiction elements, but the focus is on society. Atwood is a very prolific writer (from Canada, eh?) who deserves her own top ten – prize-winning novels, short story anthologies, poetry, non-fiction and literary criticism, all of it eminently readable. However, it’s to her credit that The Handmaid’s Tale looms over the others with its chillingly powerful impact, like other classics of dystopian fiction – even more so with its adaptation into a television series.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the near-future (or almost contemporary) Republic of Gilead (in the former United States) – a Christian fundamentalist totalitarian theocracy in which women have no rights, especially not the reproductive ‘handmaids’, who don’t even have permanent names. (They’re named for their male ‘owner’). And things get worse from there…

 

In the words of TV Tropes, the trope codifier for No Woman’s Land for the modern Western audience

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) DOUGLAS COUPLAND – GENERATION X: TALES FOR AN ACCELERATED CULTURE (1991)

 

“Kind of scary, kind of sexy, tainted by regret. A lot like life, wouldn’t you say?”

 

 

Another Canadian entry in our top ten (Canada, eh?), Douglas Coupland is a novelist and artist, the latter by formal training in design and visual art. The former commenced with this entry, his first novel and international bestseller.

 

From 1989 to 1990, Coupland lived in the Mojave Desert working on a handbook about the generation that followed the Baby Boom. He received a $22,500 advance from St. Martin’s Press to write the nonfiction handbook and wrote this novel instead. It popularized the term Generation X, as well as other thematic or topical neologisms scattered along with his designs in the margins, some of which have entered the vernacular, like McJob – “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one”. (I have a soft spot for ‘veal-fattening pens’ as a neologism for office cubicles. Or ‘pull-the-plug, slice-the-pie’ for the “fantasy in which an offspring mentally tallies up the net worth of his parents”. I wonder if my mother still pops in here – hi, Mum!)

 

As for the book itself, it is a framed narrative (like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in which a group of youths (particularly the three central characters Dag, Claire and the narrator Andy) of the titular generation and varying dysfunction living together in the Coachella Valley in California “exchange heartfelt stories about themselves and fantastical stories of their creation”. The book is arranged into three parts – and chapters with titles such as “New Zealand Gets Nuked Too?”, which give something of the flavor of its ironic (and sardonic) humor.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) JEREMY LEVEN – SATAN: HIS PSYCHOTHERAPY AND CURE BY THE UNFORTUNATE DR KASSLER J.S.P.S  (1982)

 

Well this entry definitely crept in here from the fantasy section, although it is perhaps somewhat loosely a fantasy. Indeed, it is primarily black comedy and satire – a black comedy of life itself and a satire of religion (arguably a theological version of my top entry and as indelibly planted in my adolescent psyche). Although the central narrative premise is fantasy, with the Adversary himself or Satan, embodied in a computer (through implanting dreams of Einstein in physicist Leo Szylyck, providing the technical directions to Szylyck), it essentially is just the plot device for the rest of the novel.

 

And it is in the form of a computer that Satan seeks out the titular psychotherapy and cure from Dr Sy Kassler J.S.P.S – or Just Some Poor Schmuck. Indeed, this is an apt description for the hapless psychoanalyst. Much of the black comedy (and quite a few titillating scenes) come from Kassler’s train wreck of a life, as well as the various characters he and Satan encounter on their mutual journey towards each other – a journey that parallels Dante’s descent into hell in the Inferno (which is referenced by name a few times, including the name of an, ah, exotic club). Although Satan dismisses the accuracy of the specialization of sinners in Dante’s Inferno – “sinners tend to be general practitioners”.

 

And at the outset, Satan narrates that he is not the evil being (nor is hell the inferno) of mythology:

 

“The truth of the matter is, I am not the Father of Evil…I am not a seducer. Or an accuser. Or a destroyer…But let me tell you something. You never hear of a vengeful Satan, a Satan of wrath, a Satan who brings on pestilence and famine. That’s the other fellow. You should keep this in mind”.

 

 

Although it is devilishly funny in its entirety, the highlight (and centerpiece) of the book is undoubtedly the seven psychotherapy sessions with Kassler, agreed by the latter in a literal deal with the devil in exchange for Satan’s revelation of the Great Secret of Life. These sessions resemble a verbal (or theological) duel, in which, as you’d imagine, Satan generally has the upper hand – “If I wanted orthodox Freudian analysis, I’d be seeing Freud…Freud cured Hitler, you know. Hitler. He had the bastard weeping over his mother by the third session and studying the Talmud by the fifth”.

 

However, Kassler does on occasions hold his own – “You could ask God’s forgiveness, as I pointed out during our last session, but that would mean you’d have to give up some considerable status. You’d just be another glorious silver-winged, golden-haloed angel, rather humdrum if you ask me”.

 

 

And in the end, of course, he does find the cure for Satan – and Satan indeed repays him with the Great Secret of Life, although it is not quite to Kassler’s liking…

 

I and my sense of religion were never the same after reading this book – and Satan forever changed for me from a supernatural figure of childhood Catholic fear to a more mythic figure of the human condition, as forlorn and lost as any of us.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

 

(1) JOSEPH HELLER – CATCH-22 (1961)

 

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

 

 

Yeah – this is the big one. This is the book that changed me forever. If you peel back the layers of my psyche, you’d find this book lodged deep in my adolescent mind (ego and id). Even more than any fantasy or science fiction book, this book is the lens by which I see the world – an absurdist and at times black comedy. Life is the laughter of the gods – but sometimes they have a black sense of humor…

 

A satirical antiwar novel written by Joseph Heller, Catch-22 focuses on Yossarian, an American bombardier in the Second World War, who would very much like to not be a bombardier in the Second World War – “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come back down alive”.

 

It is anachronistic, both in satirizing more contemporary American society in the context of the Second World War, but also in its distinctive non-linear or “non-chronological omniscient third person” narrative, with the plot seemingly an assortment of random events on base, shifting focus across several characters (who are among the most humorous character vignettes in literary fiction) – although linked by the main focus on Yossarian and a mysterious recurring story arc of references to a Snowden (“I’m cold”), the latter being unveiled in the penultimate chapter.

 

“Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about each event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, the setup of which was told several chapters previously. The narrative’s events are out of sequence, but events are referred to as if the reader is already familiar with them so that the reader must ultimately piece together a timeline of events. Specific words, phrases, and questions are also repeated frequently, generally to comic effect.

Much of Heller’s prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Circular reasoning is widely used by some characters to justify their actions and opinions. Heller revels in paradox, for example: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him”, and “The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.” This atmosphere of apparently logical irrationality pervades the book”.

 

By the way, that last reference to the case against Clevinger is to the kangaroo court martial of one of the serviceman, one of my favorite comic passages in fiction – and in a satire of court process no less:

 

“…Now, where were we? Read me back the last line.”

“‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal who could take shorthand.

“Not my last line, stupid!” the colonel shouted. “Somebody else’s.”

“‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal.

“That’s my line again!” shrieked the colonel, turning purple with anger.

“Oh, no, sir,” corrected the corporal. “That’s my last line. I read it to you just a moment ago. Don’t you remember, sir? It was only a moment ago.”

“Oh, my god! Read me back his last line, stupid. Say, what the hell’s your name, anyway?”

“Popinjay, sir.”

“Well, you’re next, Popinjay. As soon as his trial ends, your trial begins. Get it?”

 

Most events or characters highlight the absurdities of government, society and war – and, well, life, the universe and everything. Many details that seem random become significant later on, often with much darker implications – “previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events in war, but in the final section, the events are laid bare”, starting with the squadron bombing an undefended Italian mountain village (where the villagers wave at them) and getting darker (although it ends on an upbeat note).

 

And of course the novel originated the titular expression to describe a no-win situation or a double bind. (The number 22 itself has no actual significance and seems to have been chosen arbitrarily. The original title was Catch-18, and that didn’t have any significance either).

 

In the words of the New York Herald Tribune, “a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book”.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS***** (O YES – 5 STARS*****)

 

 

 

Top 10 Books of Literature (Part 1)

 

TOP 10 BOOKS OF LITERATURE (PART 1)

 

Yes – I do read ‘proper’ literature, tut-tutting at science fiction with its jetpack, even if fantasy (including science fiction with its jetpack) is my genre of choice. Indeed, the book that has perhaps shaped my world-view most is one of literary fiction (and not surprisingly the top of this list).

 

As for my definition of literary fiction, essentially it’s non-genre literature – fiction that is (mostly) not fantasy or science fiction. Yeah, I’m not going to go further than that in terms of defining ‘proper’ literature in terms of artistic or literary merit, as this is an argument that vexes academics and critics – not to mention one reason why science fiction and fantasy (not to mention horror) often find themselves in a literary or cultural ghetto (or the Sci Fi Ghetto). Of course, this potentially includes fiction from other literary or cultural ‘ghettoes’ – the ‘pulp fiction’ of crime or spy thrillers, for example.

 

However, as usual, I make my own rules and break them anyway – much like the literary establishment in defining ‘proper’ literature. A number of entries in my top ten (as well as my honorable or special mentions) might indeed be classified as science fiction or fantasy, at least in atmosphere or style – just like the literary establishment claims its chosen works for ‘proper’ literature, which is why you have descriptions such as ‘magical realism’. Also, a number of my entries are comic or absurdist, which arguably often approaches fantasy in its disdain for mundane reality.

 

Anyway, these are my top ten books of literary fiction – the books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) DONNA TARTT – THE SECRET HISTORY (1992)

 

Donna Tartt is a Neo-Romanticist writer – “Tartt’s novels are devoted to the themes of guilt and beauty, and focus heavily on the tumultuous thoughts and feelings of her protagonists. It might not be inaccurate to call her the Morrissey of literary fiction”.

 

With her breakout best-selling and cult novel The Secret History, she was hailed as an influential late-comer in the ‘literary Brat Pack’ that included Bret Easton Ellis, although her novel was a lot less grisly that Ellis’ American Psycho, even if it similarly involved a homicide (or two), and her style is a lot more lush (in the style of Romanticism, hence neo-Romanticist).

 

As I said, the novel involved a homicide or two, which underlies the evolving tragedy (or trauma conga line) of the beautiful elite clique of upper class classics students that are at the center of the novel and idolised by its somewhat lower middle class narrator. The first homicide occurs in their attempt to recreate a Dionysian or Bacchanalian rite (with just a hint of the fantastic or supernatural) and the second follows from their attempts to cover up the first. Needless to say, things start to fall apart from there, as the beautiful elite prove not so beautiful after all.

 

A salutary lesson for us all – don’t study classics, kids!

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) IAIN BANKS – THE WASP FACTORY (1984)

 

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

 

You don’t tend to forget that opening. I’m a big fan of the importance of first lines or openings in books or stories. Ideally, they should pack a punch or two – and Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory certainly does that.

 

Of course, you could say that of his books in general. To quote TV Tropes, “Iain Banks had a Quentin-Tarantino-like reputation: he was famous for his first published novel The Wasp Factory which featured murder, animal mutilation and had a darkly comic tone. Explicit depictions of horrible events is a constant. Any article about him is sure to mention exploding grannies or heads on life-support used as punching bags”. Or as Banks himself said, “full of gratuitous nastiness but a cracking good read.”

 

He also crossed over genres between ‘proper’ literature and science fiction (although he published in the latter as Iain M. Banks):

 

“Writing mainstream fiction is rather like playing a beautifully tuned grand piano. it’s a wonderful experience and you can get a great sound out of it. Writing science fiction is like playing a gigantic church organ, one with four keyboards, two more keyboards for your feet, a hundred different switches and a load of stops to pull out, because pulling out all the stops is very important”.

 

And he certainly pulled out all the stops in his science fiction, for which he is perhaps most famous and particularly for the novels of his most famous creation – the Culture, a galactic post-scarcity “gleeful utopia with no exploitation, rules or money, heavily supported by high technology and benign, highly capable Artificial Intelligences”. Of course, writing of utopia tends to be boring, so his Culture novels tend to focus on the more hard-nosed and ruthless reality that underlies the Culture – its military and intelligence service, cheekily known as Special Circumstances.

 

But back to the literary fiction of The Wasp Factory – it “tells the story of Frank Cauldhame, your average sixteen year-old murdererous sociopath who lives with his highly secretive father on an isolated island in North East Scotland” and whose “daily routine consists of disturbing shamanistic rituals”, including the titular oracular wasp factory. But that routine “is disrupted when he begins receiving calls from his older brother Eric who has escaped from his mental institution” and he finds out things in his family are not as they seem…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(8) PETER CAREY – BLISS (1981)

 

“Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death that was to have the greatest effect on him”.

 

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!

 

Well, I can’t refer to Australian literature without that famous Australian blank verse. Peter Carey is one of two Australian literary entries in our top ten – a prize-winning Australian novelist, although sadly not the Nobel Prize for Literature…yet. (Who the hell are Patrick White and J.M. Coetzee anyway?).

 

Anyway, his novel Bliss has more than a touch of fantasy or, ahem, magical realism about it. Indeed, it opens almost as my favorite subgenre of fantasy, posthumous fantasy, with the first death of Harry Joy. He gets better, although his new life takes a turn for the worse”

 

“Written as a dark, comic fable, the story concerns an advertising executive, Harry Joy, who briefly ‘dies’ of a heart attack. On being resuscitated, he realizes that the life he has previously drifted amiably through is in fact Hell – literally so to Harry”

 

His wife is unfaithful (to his best friend and business partner), “while his son is selling drugs, and his daughter is a communist selling herself to buy them” – something which is all placed in panoramic view through the windows of his house as Harry hangs upside down from a tree outside it.

 

Redemption comes in the form of pagan goddess figure Honey Barbara – “Honey is to Harry as Isis is to Osiris. Together they conquer Hell”.

 

Resonant with mythic and symbolic imagery, the book had a huge influence on my imagination – particularly as I also saw the Australian cinematic adaptation

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) PHILIP ROTH – PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (1969)

 

“Portnoy’s Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”

 

Hell, I am Alexander Portnoy, although perhaps without quite the same guilt-ridden dsyfunction, sharing something of Portnoy’s perpetual sex-obsessed adolescence (as well as monologues to psychotherapists).

 

If Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction, Philip Roth brought it to my literary fiction. Philip Roth is my pagan patron of sexual Judaism – or as he puts in Portnoy’s Complaint, putting the oy into the goy.

 

Portnoy’s Complaint is perhaps Roth’s most famous work, a profoundly comic novel of sexual obsession – told through the humorous monologue of the titular (heh) Portnoy, “a sex-obsessed Jewish youth who confesses his often bizarre sexual encounters to his psychotherapist”. It’s not for the faint-hearted (it was banned in several countries) but it is unforgettable for those warped enough to read it (and if you’re not warped before you read it, you will be afterwards). There’s the infamous parts (with striking titles) in which Portnoy relays, in graphic but comic detail, his guilt-ridden adolescent obsession with self-gratification – most infamously, in a scene stolen by the American Pie films, where he violates the liver his mother has left out for dinner.

 

As he tells his psychotherapist, his life is a Jewish joke – even down to the book’s concluding punchline.

 

Yes, this book changed me – although not quite so much as the titular (HEH) protagonist of close Roth runner-up, The Breast, who undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, into a giant breast rather than a cockroach. O well – there are worse ways to go. That’s Roth for you!

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(6) KURT VONNEGUT – SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1969)

 

And so it goes.

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. definitely wandered into here from the science fiction section. Of course, the literary establishment tend to identify him as ‘proper’ literature rather than science fiction, although “the time-travel and aliens seem to disagree”. His work is known for “its satirical, anti-authoritarian, humanist, absurdist and often brutally depressing world-view” (although tempered by a cautious optimism that love may fail but courtesy will prevail), not to mention his catchphrases.

 

And so it goes.

 

It begins like this: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come Unstuck in Time.” It ends like this: “Poo-tee-weet?”

 

The focus of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, is the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War – as indeed it was for Vonnegut himself as a prisoner-of-war in the city at the time (even if he unfortunately relied on over-estimates of the civilian casualties, perhaps understandably from having worked in the “corpse-mines” of the novel). Vonnegut’s anti-war sentiment lent itself to the novel’s alternative title (a common habit for Vonnegut), The Children’s Crusade – which, as he indicates in the novel, was born of a touching promise to a friend’s wife who reprimanded him about the fresh-faced adolescents of his service photographs going off to die in war.

 

Anyway, the characteristic Vonnegutian hapless protagonist of the novel is Billy Pilgrim, stand-in for Vonnegut as an American soldier as prisoner of war in Dresden – and who has indeed come unstuck in time, as a result of being abducted by the four-dimensional Tralfamadorian aliens. Among other things, they place him in an alien zoo to mate with a fellow abductee, p0rn star Montana Wildhack – which, incidentally, is my own fervent aspiration in the event of alien abduction or invasion. They let him go to marry a nice girl, experience death for a while and live his life like most other humans – just less chronologically. Interspersed throughout the narrative are the characteristic Vonnegut running gags of synchronicity or serendipity – in this case, the recurring first dirty photograph in the world (made a year after photography itself).

 

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

 

Poo-tee-weet?

 

TO BE CONTINUED – COUNTING DOWN (5) TO (1)

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

Top 10 Animated TV Series (Revised January 2018)

 

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TOP 10 ANIMATED TV SERIES

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2017 sees a new entry to my Top 10 Animated TV Series with Netflix animated series Trollhunters (by Guillermo de Toro!), knocking the classic Avatar or The Last Airbender series into special mentions.

 

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Animation or cartoons are essentially my comics of television – I have a love of animation and will have a look at anything in it, although whether I continue to watch or actively follow an animated TV series is another matter. However, I would argue that most animated series, particularly since the age of animation for adult audiences in the 1990’s, show more creativity and imagination (as well as better writing) than many, if not most of their live action counterparts. Animation also tends to be a natural extension of my love of fantasy and science fiction – even those series that are predominantly animated sitcoms tend to have recurring or routine fantasy or science fiction elements.

 

Anyway, these are my top 10 animated TV series (with notes in parenthesis as to whether they are for an adult or children’s demographic). Readers may notice what appear to be a few conspicuous omissions from my top 10 – series that easily ranked in my top 10 for their literal first decade or so, but now rank in my special mentions instead as my top ten is weighted towards my current ongoing favorites (or fresher and newer series).

 

 

(10) TROLLHUNTERS (CHILDREN 2016 – PRESENT)

 

A animated fantasy television series on Netflix – created by Guillermo del Toro? Hell, boy – you had me at del Toro!

 

Initially, del Toro envisaged it as a live-action television series, but this was impractical due to budgetary concerns, so he turned the idea into a book. It then came full circle (well, almost), when Dreamworks planned to turn it into an animated film but decided instead to turn it into an animated series.

 

It has the usual del Toro touches (“a fetish for insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places…”), particularly its exotic fairy folk – as seen in the Hellboy films and Pan’s Labyrinth. The focus of the series is the underground world of trolls – underground that is, literally and metaphorically, in California no less. The protagonist Jim Lake is an ordinary adolescent at high school, who finds his wish for something more granted, when a strange amulet calls to him. That amulet is the amulet of the Trollhunter, the mystical guardian of the trolls from their chaotic evil counterparts, mostly exiled to the extradimensional Darklands. Mostly.

 

It features some impressive voice acting talent – Anton Yelchin for the protagonist, although the tragedy of his death will see a different voice actor for the third season, but also Kelsey Grammar, Ron Perlman (a del Toro stalwart), Mark Hamill (largely playing the Joker role), Lena Headey and Tom Hiddleston among others.

 

It’s due for a third and final season in 2018 after some particularly dark cliffhangers at the end of the second season, as well as a number of spinoff shows set in the same world.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(9) SAMURAI JACK (CHILDREN 2001-2004 / 2017)

 

“Long ago, in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now, the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku…”

 

Series antagonist Aku (voiced by Japanese-American actor Mako Iwomatsu, hamming it up a treat) sums up the plot in the title sequence. The “distant land” was Japan and “long ago” was vaguely in the Imperial period – the titular samurai (whose real name remains unknown) is a young prince who escapes as Aku lays waste to his home. He spends his youth training rigorously – and somewhat anachronistically from different cultures – around the world before returning to his homeland as a samurai to defeat Aku, armed with the only weapon that can hurt the demon, the magic sword passed down by his father. But as the title sequence states, Aku magically opens a portal in time to the far future, where the samurai finds himself in an incredibly eclectic, dystopian retrofuturistic Earth which has been conquered by Aku and opened up to the wider galaxy – hence the alien criminals and wildlife that has overrun much of Earth.

 

Samurai Jack was originally broadcast on Cartoon Network for a younger audience but at the same time had more mature features, not least the atmospheric and stylistic features suited to a samurai (or Western) film – intense action sequences (in which robotic oil typically substituted for blood), minimal dialogue (with stories relying on visual or cinematic elements and pacing), tone ranging from “dark and epic to light-hearted and comical”, mature themes, and shifts of art style. Indeed, much of the series would adapt well to a live-action series for adults.

 

The series ran for four seasons from 2001 to 2004, but ended inconclusively with Jack still wandering Aku’s future world. It has been revived for a fifth season in 2017 (on [adult swim], reflecting its more mature – and darker – features), intended to serve “as the grand finale for Jack’s tale, while also deconstructing some of the darker and edgier aspects of Jack’s never-ending journey”.

 

As the catchy theme tune says – “Gotta get back, back to the past, Sam-u-rai Jack”.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(8) BOB’S BURGERS (ADULT 2011 – PRESENT)

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My ninth place entry is animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers, an American animated sitcom in a long line of American animated sitcoms (although I would argue that animated sitcoms are typically superior to their live-action counterparts).

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In this case, the humor is character-driven, with the focus on the Belcher family and their titular (floundering) burger restaurant. The father of the family, Bob (manfully voiced by H. Jon Benjamin – a voice I’d love to have) is the proverbial straight man of the family, although even he can get a little screwy – and it’s particularly funny when he DOES lose it (often prompted by his neighboring rival pizzeria owner Jimmy Pesto). As for the rest of the family, arguably in ascending order of hilarity – there’s wife Linda (also manfully voiced – by John Roberts), awkward boy-obsessed teen daughter Tina (manfully voiced as well by Dan Mintz), oddball son Gene and my absolute favorite character (distinctively and manically voiced by Kristen Schaal), perpetually bunny-eared “precocious menace” Louise.

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That’s not to overlook the comedy of the minor characters, with my favorite being the family’s eccentric (and somewhat exploitative) landlord Calvin Fishoeder (pronounced as “fish-odor”), voiced by Kevin Kline.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(7) ROBOT CHICKEN (ADULT 2005 – PRESENT)

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My eighth place entry is Robot Chicken – a stop-motion animation sketch comedy series.

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Apart from that brief tagline, it’s hard to categorize, as it mocks the gamut of popular culture (notably in special such as its Star Wars or DC Comics specials) – “referencing toys, movies, television, games, popular fads, and more obscure references like anime cartoons and older television programs”.

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To do that, it typically used toys or action figures for the animation, although it will basically animate ANYTHING, “such as tongue depressors, The Game of Life pegs, and popsicle sticks”.

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Even gummy bears – which, in the characteristic humor of the series, get caught in a gummy bear trap and have to chew their leg off to escape. (“Mmm, I taste delicious!”)

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Speaking of characteristic humor, the typical premise of a sketch is placing fantasy characters from popular culture in more mundane situations, or mashing together one popular culture reference with another, often based on a similarity of name or theme – “a collision of two pop-cultural items (one innocent, and the other “mature”) degenerating into chaos”.

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Or a mixture of both, such as Real World: Metropolis, with Superman being a jock jerk to Aquaman in a reality TV show (and avoiding his fair share of chores).

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Some sketches are incredibly brief, a second or so of visual gag, while others become recurring or running gags.

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Or again a mixture of both, such as the humping robot – initially a short sound AND visual gag based on a washing machine in cycle resembling a robot humping it (which of course involved a literal “humping robot”), variations of it have become a running gag over the length of the series (with my favorite being the advertisement for the movie version, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the robot and Kate Winslet as the washing machine)

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As a characteristic sketch show, the sketches don’t always work, at least for me – usually as a result of being too crude or weird – but when they do work, they work well, “the comedy in these shorts tends to vary wildly between Black Comedy, pop-culture parody and satire, out-and-out surrealism, or some combination of the three”.

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Oh – and there is an actual robot chicken, primarily in the opening credits. (It’s been proposed that the series is actually from the perspective of the chicken, being forced to watch a bank of televisions by a mad scientist – and mashing them together in its cyborg chicken brain).

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

regular-show

 

(6) REGULAR SHOW (CHILDREN 2010 – PRESENT)

 

It’s hard to describe Regular Show – anything but regular as a juxtaposition of absurdist fantasy with slice of life humor, or as TV Tropes quips, its Seinfeld-esque spin on absurdist humor, with the latter on acid.

 

The protagonists, Mordecai and Rigby, are regular enough, as So-Cal accented slackers employed, in the loosest sense of that word, in a city park, spending their time avoiding work and entertaining themselves – except that Mordecai is a human-sized blue jay and Rigby is a raccoon. And they’re arguably the most normal of the park staff – their managers Benson and Pops are perhaps the weirdest as an animate gumball machine (with anger management issues) and child-like lollipop person respectively; but the staff are rounded out by immortal yeti Skips (gravelly voiced by Mark Hamill), green-skinned humanoid Muscle Man (seemingly ironically nicknamed due to his flabby appearance) and Hi-Five Ghost (as a Pacman-style ghost with a hand from the top of his head – for high fives of course).

 

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The park and its staff seemingly exist in a world that is mostly the same as our own world and its human population, interspersed with other similarly anthropomorphized characters, ranging from the relatively normal human-sized animal characters to more surreal characters – animate or anthropomorphized objects as people, cosmic beings and so on. Ironically, the non-human protagonists (and park staff) typically act (and talk) in their everyday jobs and lives in non-fantastic mundane or even low-key ways, just like humans in our world – yet “their attempts to slack off usually lead to surreal, extreme and often supernatural misadventures”, “while nearly causing the end of the world on a daily basis from various forms of impossible or strange evil” (or outright eldritch abomination). Or just inviting Party Pete to your house for the ultimate party. Yep, nothing to see here – just your regular show.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) ADVENTURE TIME (CHILDREN 2010 – PRESENT)

 

“Because it’s really frickin’ weird, that’s why” – TV Tropes explaining the appeal of Adventure Time

 

More from TV Tropes – Adventure Time is a fantasy animated series like no other, “sort of a cross between a children’s show and a parody of a children’s show”. The series features the adventures of Jake the Dog (a magical shapeshifting size-shifting talking dog) and Finn the Human (one of the few surviving humans) – “their adventures are nonsensical, crazy and bear more resemblance to a group of kids playing with action figures than a coherent story…which is probably why it’s so dang fun”.

 

Set in the fantasyland of Ooo and beyond, it careens between fantasy and science fiction as Jake and Finn encounter beings and people wilder than in any conventional fantasy – the Candy Kingdom ruled by Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen and so on. Indeed, it resembles a game of Dungeons and Dragons on acid – the game itself was a major inspiration for the series and it’s always fun to spot the references to the game through the series (such as when Finn protests he can’t do something because “it’s against my alignment!”).

 

Of course, the series is primarily for children, although that hasn’t stopped it appealing to an older audience, helped by the more mature themes or tropes hidden in the series. It also helps that it is surprisingly dark for a children’s series. I mean, it gets darker (the Lich is terrifying) but it starts with a dark undercurrent – Ooo is literally a post-apocalyptic Earth after a nuclear war (the Great Mushroom War). Indeed, it’s there in the very first scene in the title sequence, as it pans over the post-apocalyptic debris (including a nuclear bomb).

 

Not to mention the chaotic evil hell of the Nightosphere straight from a Brueghel painting – and it’s demon overlord Hunson Abadeer, even when he’s being an affably evil host to Finn and Jake at the behest of his daughter Marceline (“see how I’m not killing them?”). Or to anyone really – “Well, I’m sure not the guy who’s going to suck out your soul”.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(4) THE VENTURE BROTHERS (ADULT 2003 – PRESENT)

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“Go team Venture!”

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My third place entry is The Venture Brothers, an animated series that has been ongoing, with some breaks between seasons, since its first season in 2003.

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In short, it’s blackly comic parody and satire, initially of its primary reference, “the 1964 science fiction adventure television series Johnny Quest”, but ultimately of virtually every comics or superhero reference as well as other classic television series.

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Its focus is the Venture family – “well-meaning but incompetent teenagers Hank and Dean Venture” (the eponymous Venture brothers, although the title could also refer to their father and his brother), “their emotionally insecure, unethical and under-achieving super-scientist father Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture” (living in the shadow of HIS father, super-scientist Jonas Venture), their bodyguard “the ultra-violent and psychopathic secret agent Brock Samson” (labelled by one of their adversaries as the “Swedish murder machine”, manfully voiced by Patrick Warburton, and who refuses to use a gun, because he prefers killing with his bare hands, knife or virtually anything else) and their “self-proclaimed arch-nemesis, The Monarch, a butterfly-themed super villain”.

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That’s just for starters – there’s a plethora of other characters, typically invoking one comics and superhero reference or another, with my favorite being overly dramatic Doctor Orpheus, a parody of Marvel Comic’s Doctor Strange (who typically announces some danger to YOUR VERY SOUL once an episode or so).

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The creators of the series have stated that the primary theme of the series is failure – “beautiful, sublime failure” – which is not hard to find, given the incompetence of most of the characters as heroes or villains.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(3) BOJACK HORSEMAN (ADULT 2014 – PRESENT)

 

Starring the titular, ah, horse-man (literally an anthropomorphized horse) as the ex-star of 90’s sitcom Horsing Around, Bojack Horseman is an animated black comedy series on Netflix. I say horse-man because the series is set in an alternative world in which humans co-exist with petting zoo people (humanoid animals). Bojack is now a washed-up actor (having only really achieved stardom – or anything really – in that one sitcom) in his mansion in Hollywoo (Bojack stole the D from the Hollywood sign so everyone simply renamed rather than replace the D) – “drowning his empty former D-List celebrity life and other problems in a cocktail of drugs and booze”.

 

It very much is adult animation, deftly mixing comedy with more dramatic themes – an “auteur sitcom, where an situation comedy format is used to tell more dramatic, existentialist stories while still being ostensibly a comedy”.

 

It received mixed reviews on its debut, but won critics over as the first season continued (catching up to its audience – such as myself, as I loved it from the first episode), culminating in it being acclaimed (in its third season) “as one of the funniest and most heartbreaking shows on television”.

 

And it’s not just Bojack Horseman (although now I can’t imagine voice actor Will Arnett as anything else) – it’s the plethora of major and minor character, with their various mixed animal and human traits. It’s a close call with Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s literally catty agent (and on-and-off girlfriend), but my favorite major character (other than Bojack of course) would have to be Todd (voiced by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), Bojack’s perpetual slacker houseguest and seemingly perpetually happy (“Hooray!”). As for minor characters, it’s hard go past the conspicuously named Vincent Adultman, as everyone but Bojack appears maddeningly oblivious to the fact that ‘he’ is actually three children standing atop one another in a trench coat (or as Bojack observes, doing the bit from The Little Rascals).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) RICK & MORTY  (ADULT 2013 – PRESENT)

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“SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO ME!! It’s fine! Everything is fine! There’s an infinite number of realities, Morty! And a few dozen of those, I got lucky and turned everything back to normal! I just had to find one of those realities in which we also happen to both die around this time. Now we can just slip into the place of our dead selves in this reality, and everything’ll be fine. We’re not skipping a beat, Morty. Now help me with these bodies”.

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As its second place entry indicates, Rick & Morty is the best animated series bar one, ever since its premiere in 2013 – “If you haven’t watched Rick and Morty, a cartoon about the adventures of a mad scientist and his hapless grandson, teleport to the nearest screen and shove every episode into your eyes as soon as possible.”

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Rick and Morty was inspired by Back to the Future, if Doc Brown was a caustic alcoholic sociopath and Marty his ever more progressively traumatized grandson – and instead of travelling through time, they hop dimensions throughout the multiverse. It plays with, parodies, satirizes, subverts and deconstructs tropes across the range of popular science fiction and fantasy.

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The focus is of course on the titular characters (both of whom are voice by co-creator Justin Roiland) and their bizarre misadventures – as mad scientist (and maternal grandfather) Rick Sanchez constantly pulls Morty Smith, a hapless high school student (whom Roiland voices with the perfect distressed wail), and increasingly, Morty’s older sister Summer, out of their normal lives to go on abstract trips across the multiverse for purposes that are never usually expressed. However, the rest of the Smith family is also comedy gold – particularly Morty’s harried and insecure father Jerry (perfectly voiced by Chris Parnell), who is also increasingly (and often unwillingly) dragged into the duo’s adventures. As such, the general formula consists of the juxtaposition of two conflicting scenarios – the intergalactic or interdimensional adventures of the eponymous duo, intercut with family duo. (Co-creator Mark Harmon has referred to it as a cross between The Simpsons and Futurama, balancing family life with heavy science fiction). At the center of it all is Rick, who drinks and behaves like a jerk most of the time – although he has saved the Earth at least once by getting schwifty.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) ARCHER (ADULT 2009 – PRESENT)

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“Every single noun and verb in that sentence totally arouses me!”

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Indeed, as does every episode of my favorite animated TV series Archer, still running strong from its debut in 2010. Although perhaps a more descriptive tagline might be that used by TV Tropes from this exchange between the titular character, Sterling Mallory Archer (codenamed Duchess) and his mother:

“Most secret agents don’t tell every harlot from here to Hanoi that they are a secret agent!”

“Then why be one?”

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Aptly described as James Bond meets Arrested Development, the series is about the title protagonist, a dysfunctional spy, working for a dysfunctional spy agency headed by his mother, in which virtually everyone and everything is dysfunctional. Even the time setting of the series is dysfunctional – it is “comically anachronistic, deliberately mixing technology, clothing styles and historical backdrops of different decades”, not to mention the Soviet Union. (“How are you a superpower?”):

“What year is this?”

“I know, right!”

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Archer has a reputation, certainly in his own mind, as the world’s most dangerous spy – and he might well be, but for his gross negligence, general incompetence fueled by one of his many vices and his tendency to remain oblivious to everything but himself. “His primary interest in the job is the opportunity to enjoy a jet-setting lifestyle full of sex, alcohol, thrills, lacrosse, fast cars, designer clothing, and spy gadgets” – hence, my desire to style myself after him.

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After all, who hasn't been on a cobra whiskey bender in Thailand?

After all, who hasn’t been on a cobra whiskey bender in Thailand?

 

However, he is proficient in field work or stereotypical spy skills – weapons (including an uncanny ability to keep track of every shot fired), combat and driving – although in large part this is driven by the complete lack of any sense of his own mortality or ability to take situations seriously (accompanied by a childlike or adolescent delight in them).

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Archer is one of the few (or perhaps only) animated series I recommend to people who are not otherwise a fan of animated series, because in style (including its realistic art style) resembles a live action series – indeed, with a few cosmetic changes, it could be a live-action series. (Well, if only H. Jon Benjamin resembled the appearance of Archer as well as providing his voice – man, I love his voice!). It certainly is a series that improves with watching it (in sequence) over time – as TV Tropes notes, the series’ humor “relies heavily on call backs and running gags alongside a large ensemble cast”, many of whom are recurring and as much a source of character humor as Archer himself.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Animated Films (Revised January 2018)

 

 

TOP 10 ANIMATED FILMS (REVISED JANUARY 2018)

 

I’m almost done revising my top ten lists of film and television to include new entries from 2017 – there’s only my  Top 10 Animated TV Series and Top 10 Horror Films to go. In the meantime, I’ve updated my Top 10 Animated Films to include a new entry for Coco. Well, it’s Pixar AND it’s posthumous fantasy, my favorite sub-genre of fantasy – of course it was going to get a top ten entry (shuffling Disney’s Moana into my special mentions)…

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Animation has an intimate relationship with fantasy and science fiction. On the one hand, animated films (and TV series for that matter) typically fall within one (or both) of the genres. On the other hand, animation lends itself to flights of fancy and fantasy beyond even live action. However, animated films are distinctive enough to deserve their own separate top ten list – particularly as I reserved my top 10 fantasy and SF films to live-action films in the genre. Accordingly, these are my top ten animated films.

 

 

KUBO

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(10) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016)

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My tenth place entry is this stop-motion animation film from Laika Studios, a dark mythic fantasy based on Japanese folklore.

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The plot is the standard hero’s journey. Kubo is a young boy, who can wield magic through the music of his traditional Japanese shamisen (hence the strings of the title) – both of which, magic and shamisen, he inherited from his mother – and through origami. He and his mother are hiding from his grandfather Moon King, and his mother’s Sisters – who are amongst the most chilling and eerie antagonists in animation (reminiscent of those creepy Japanese ghost girls).

 

 

His mother uses the last of her magic to help him flee her Sisters and animate Monkey, formerly a small monkey toy or charm, as his guardian. They are soon joined by a Kafkaesque beetle samurai, a transformed (and amnesiac) retainer of his father, samurai warrior Hanzo, and the trio set out on a quest to find the legendary sword, breastplate and helmet to defeat the Moon King.

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With gorgeous art and animation, it tells a powerful story about the power of story – to quote the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, “Kubo and the Two Strings matches its incredible animation with an absorbing—and bravely melancholy—story that has something to offer audiences of all ages.”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) COCO (2017)

 

Well, it’s Pixar AND it’s posthumous fantasy, my favorite sub-genre of fantasy – of course, it makes my top 10 Animated Films.

 

The film has received almost universal praise for its animation, vocal performances, musical score, songs, emotional story and respect to Mexican culture (set as it is on the Mexican Day of the Dead). To that should be added its lush, vividly colorful imagery – who knew the afterlife could be so vibrant?

 

At the heart of its story is a young Mexican boy aspiring to be a musician against the wishes of his matriarchal family of music-hating shoemakers (there’s a reason for it) and finds himself in the afterlife on the Day of the Dead (again, there’s a reason for it) – in the words of Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter, “at every imaginative juncture, the filmmakers…create a richly woven tapestry of comprehensively researched storytelling, fully dimensional characters, clever touches both tender and amusingly macabre, and vivid, beautifully textured visuals.”

 

Not to mention that it is something of a tearjerker amidst the light and breezy humor.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) ZOOTOPIA (2016)

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Who doesn’t love anthropomorphic animals? Of course, Zootopia is a whole world exclusively of anthropomorphic animals (and it won’t be the only such world in my top ten animated films), a world very much like ours but with every other mammal in our place. Although…when you take it too seriously (and I take my fictional worlds way too seriously), Zootopia is not quite the utopia its name suggests. As Cracked has pointed out, for the sake of a few rabbit sex jokes, Zootopia is about to go post-apocalyptic from total ecological collapse – in about a week or so.  (As Cracked colorfully put it, “Zootopia is a movie about the brief halcyon days of an imperious city as it remains wilfully blind to its inevitable doom”. Alternatively, as I have mused before, is The Island of Doctor Moreau the grim backstory of Zootopia? You know, after he unleashed his army of beast-men and women on an unsuspecting humanity…)

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But enough of that – Zootopia is a film that is equally cute, funny and heartwarming, a “3D computer animated buddy cop comedy mystery adventure film” as cute (and as Honest Trailers joked, strangely – er – hot?!) protagonist rabbit police officer Judy Hopps, pairs up with fox con artist Nick Wilde.

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NOT LIKE THAT! Damn you, internet and your Rule 34! Please let my new bunny fetish be a residual thing for Playboy bunnies...

NOT LIKE THAT! Damn you, internet and your Rule 34! Please let my new bunny fetish be a residual thing for Playboy bunnies…

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The animation is lush and visually spectacular – they developed fur-controlling software (iGroom) – with thoughtful themes for the contemporary society the animal world reflects.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) INSIDE OUT (2015)

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The depiction of a mental landscape may not have been an entirely original concept, but it was executed well in Pixar’s Inside Out.

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The film was set in the mind of a young girl Riley, dominated by a console or control panel run by five personified emotions – Joy, Sorrow, Fear, Anger and Disgust (color-coded for your convenience!)

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The control room overlooks an imaginative mental landscape, primarily consisting of islands of memory or personality about the memory dump – which is a literal memory abyss or hole (or a metaphorical Lethe of forgetfulness). The plot revolves around a typical odd couple pairing of Joy and Sadness, as the two are accidentally sucked into Riley’s long-term memories and try to return to the control room, as the mental landscape deteriorates into outright collapse around them in something akin to emotional breakdown (due to Riley’s family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco). Of course, while Joy is paired with Sorrow (and helped by Riley’s imaginary friend), it leaves only Fear, Anger and Disgust to run her psyche (or as Honest Trailers quipped, leaving her psyche to be run by “your average YouTube comments section”. Or any internet comment section for that matter).

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Although now that I think about it, it would be interesting to see the (adult) Freudian version of the film, particularly with the superego, ego and id. (But then again, I am my own id. I’m all id, baby!). Or perhaps, the Jungian version, with all those mythic archetypes…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

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My sixth place entry, Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, took us inside video games with its protagonist as the eponymous villain in a 1980’s 8-bit video game (reminiscent of Donkey Kong, with Ralph as Kong), who rebels against his role and dreams of being a hero ‘off-screen’. He sees his opportunity in another game of Hero’s Duty (a more modern first-person shooter game in the style of Halo and Call of Duty among others) – unfortunately, his efforts lead to one of its self-replicating alien bug antagonists escaping to yet another game, Sugar Rush (a kart racing game in the style of Super Mario). And things get worse from there…

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The plot is fun but the true delight of Wreck-It Ralph is the exuberant abundance of video game references – in visual gags and characters. These are introduced from the outset – Ralph’s support group of video game antagonists (Bad-Anon) includes Bowser from the Mario franchise and Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog, as well as M. Bison and Zangief from the Street Fighter. That’s just for starters – there’s Tapper (from the Tapper game, who runs an off-screen bar in the same style as his game for video game characters), Sonic the Hedgehog, other characters from Street Fighter, Pac-Man and ghosts (Blinky, Pinky and Inky), Dig Dug, Frogger, Q-bert and more. Even that most basic original video game, Pong. There are video game references in the most amazing (and fleeting) details, such as sound effects and graffiti – “Aerith lives”, “Shen Long was here” and “All your base are belong to us” among others.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(5) MEGAMIND (2010)

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“Oh you’re a villain alright, just not a super one!”

“Yeah, what’s the difference?”

“PRESEN-TATION!”

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And how! Now THAT’S how you do a supervillain protagonist in a superhero comics movie. Take note, DC Cinematic Universe. I didn’t think that Suicide Squad was as bad as its more negative reviews – although I also didn’t think that it was particularly good – but it certainly didn’t live up to its supervillain potential as demonstrated by my fifth place entry, Dreamworks’ film, Megamind.

What’s the difference? Presentation!

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Megamind is an inversion, subversion and deconstruction of superhero mythos, particularly Superman. In the words of TV Tropes:

“What happens when you take the Superman mythos and give the point of view (and ultimate victory) to Lex Luthor/Brainiac instead?”

Megamind (magnificently voiced by Will Ferrell) – as indicated, an alien supervillain combination of Superman villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but more resembling a blue Brainiac in appearance – consistently fails in his plots against Metro Man, the film’s Superman counterpart (based in Metro City), usually by kidnapping Lois Lane counterpart, the equally alliterative Roxanne Ritchi. (For what it’s worth, Megamind is helped by his hordes of robots as well as Minion, his – ah – minion, a sapient talking alien fish in a somewhat inexplicable robot gorilla costume).

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However, in their last confrontation, Megamind actually manages to destroy his nemesis, much to his own surprise, although he doesn’t waste much time celebrating his victory by taking over Metro City.

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After initially gloating over his victory, Megamind soon realizes that winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And so he dreams up the creation of a new superhero adversary, only for it to go horribly wrong when his new nemesis doesn’t play by the same rules as Metro Man…

“So what’s the plan?”

“Well, it mostly involves not dying!”

“I like that plan!”

Hmm – sounds like most of my plans…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

THE INCREDIBLES

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(4) THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

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“You sly dog! You got me monologuing!”

Take note, Fox – this is how you do a Fantastic Four film!

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Yes, my fourth place entry, Pixar’s The Incredibles, is not actually a Fantastic Four film, but it deftly handles a similar superhero family or team ensemble (indeed, with almost the same powers – if one substitutes a non-flammable speedster for the Human Torch). In the words of TV Tropes, “it’s an affectionately parodic Decon-Recon Switch of the Superhero genre, happily hanging lampshades on many conventions”.

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Superheroes have been forced into government-sponsored retirement, due to public liability lawsuits. Damn lawyers! (Of course, financial issues for superheroes are not often addressed in comic book fantasy – or indeed, in many fictional narrative in popular culture. One exception is writer Grant Morrison, with his characteristic deconstruction or subversion of superhero tropes – as a female bystander wails while her car is totaled in a superhero battle in Morrison’s Animal Man, “I don’t have superhero insurance!’)

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Anyway, super-strong Mr Incredible and rubber woman Elastigirl are now just Bob and Helen Parr, trying to live a quiet suburban life with their superpowered children, Dash (who has super-speed), (shrinking) Violet (who can project force fields as well as become invisible – essentially the same power set as Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four) and baby Jack-Jack (who doesn’t seem to have manifested any superpowers). Trying being the operative word – particularly as Bob finds his employment and suburban life chafing. And so he jumps at the chance offered by a mysterious woman Mirage to use his superpowers – only to find himself in more trouble than he can handle on his own at the hands of a new supervillain with ties to his past.

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Just remember – no capes!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(3) KUNG FU PANDA (2008-2016)

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“Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend”

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What’s not to love about my third place entry, Dreamwork’s Kung Fu Panda, or for that matter, the rest of the trilogy (although as usual sequels offer somewhat diminishing returns from the original)?

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It’s set in an anthropomorphic animal version of pre-modern China – that alone would be enough to make it awesome.

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And then there’s the story, deftly balanced between comedy and epic magical or wuxia martial arts action, with CGI animation and beautiful art – for even more awesome, such that will make your enemies go blind from overexposure to pure awesomeness. In the words of TV Tropes, just like a Jackie Chan film (fittingly, as he is one of the voice actors, albeit criminally underused), with MUCH prettier art. And just like the titular Panda, I love kung fu, or more precisely, my kung fu movies (ever since Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon) – another potential subject for a top ten.

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The eponymous panda, Po, is a hopeless fanboy of the kung fu masters, particularly the Furious Five, composed of animal homages to kung fu styles (Tiger, Monkey, Crane, Viper and Mantis) – hopeless, that is, until he is thrust, by fate and fireworks, into the position of the legendary Dragon Warrior. Worse, he has to fight the dangerous snow leopard Tai Lung (awesomely voiced, as always, by Ian McShane), who seeks the title of Dragon Warrior for himself…

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However, my favorite kung fu panda in the film trilogy is not Po, but the red panda Master Shifu – voiced by Dustin Hoffman, who combines just the right amount of wise mysticism with worldly exasperation (usually at Po).

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(2) SHREK (2001-2004)

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“I’m not the monster here, you are. You and that fairy tale trash poisoning my perfect world”

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Again, what’s not to love about my second place entry, Dreamworks 2001 film Shrek? (Or its 2004 sequel for that matter? The other sequels – not so much, although I didn’t mind them.)

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The ultimate fractured fairy tale, the film has all the ingredients of the fairy tale – an adventurer on a quest to save a princess in a castle guarded by a dragon – except that the adventurer is the eponymous green-skinned ogre, who just wants to regain the solitude of his swamp from the fairy tale creatures who have been exiled there by (ahem) Lord Farquaad. To do so, he undertakes to save the princess Fiona for marriage to Farquaad, accompanied by the obnoxiously conversational talking donkey, named Donkey of course. And that’s where things go even further astray from your traditional fairy tale.

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“Notorious for its humor, both witty and slapstick, for turning everything we knew from fairy tales upside-down, and for a ridiculously modern feel of its medieval fantasy setting”, it was the winner of the first Academy Award for Animated Feature.

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Some would argue that the sequel Shrek 2 was even better than the original  – although that would go against my Stark Law of Sequels that the original is always the best. On the other hand, I just can’t resist Antonio Banderas’ purringly-voiced Puss in Boots.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) TOY STORY (1995-2010)

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“To infinity and beyond!”

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The flagship of Pixar Animation Studios and of course my top ten animated films, Toy Story was the first computer animated film (and therefore an extraordinarily influential part of what TV Tropes labels the Renaissance Age of Animation). It also was the flagship of the Toy Story franchise, with two film sequels that maintain the quality of the original (although Stark’s Law of Sequels still gives first place to the original) – I particularly like the interpretation that the third Toy Story film is about the afterlife, with a metaphorical representation of every major version of the afterlife in Western popular culture.

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Toy Story itself, both film and franchise, needs little introduction – a story about toys that come to life when their owners are not around. The film introduces us to a group of toys belonging to a boy named Andy, led by Andy’s favorite toy – Woody, a classic cowboy doll with a pull-string vocalizer. (“Reach for the sky!”). Unfortunately for Woody, Andy acquires a new favorite for his birthday – in the form of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. To complicate things further, Buzz believes that he is actually an astronaut adventurer rather than a toy. What ensues is a buddy comedy adventure film, as Buzz and Woody have to work together to overcome mutual perils.

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Terry Gilliam praised the film as “a work of genius” – “It got people to understand what toys are about. They’re true to their own character. And that’s just brilliant. It’s got a shot that’s always stuck with me, when Buzz Lightyear discovers he’s a toy. He’s sitting on this landing at the top of the staircase and the camera pulls back and he’s this tiny little figure. He was this guy with a massive ego two seconds before… and it’s stunning. I’d put that as one of my top ten films, period.”

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And as you can see, I’ve put it at the top of my top ten animated films.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Comic Book Films (Revised January 2018)

 

 

TOP 10 COMIC BOOK FILMS

 

I’ve revised my Top 10 Comic Book Films – partly to shuffle some of the entries but mostly to include films from 2017. I had already added Logan, but had yet to add Thor: Ragnarok and the landmark Wonder Woman (the source of my feature image). Of course, that does see previous entries shuffled into my special mentions, notably The Dark Knight, which may irk some but it’s just not as fun as other top ten entries…

 

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We are living in the golden age of comic book films, in which it seems that whole comic book universes are brought to the screen and predominate the box office – but sadly not those snobby Academy Awards. We’ll just have to knock those “serious”  dramas nobody watches out from the nominations. I mean, come on – there wasn’t enough actual Birdman in Birdman! Smells like balls indeed. (Although I actually did like that film).

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Given that I have my top ten comics AND my top ten fantasy and SF films, it stands to reason that I also have my top ten comic book movies – particularly as I excluded films based on comics from my top ten fantasy & SF films (even though they are overwhelmingly fantasy or SF in nature).

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The casual reader of Stark After Dark might get the impression that I follow more comics than I actually do. I do have a love of the medium, will have a look at anything in it and read about or up on them, but I actually read only a few comics and actively follow even fewer of them, almost entirely outside mainstream DC Comics or Marvel. Now it is true that I am aware of a wide range of comics, but with some exceptions (such as my love of comic girl art and cosplay), this awareness typically comes from their cinematic or screen adaptations, which prompts my reading about them.

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Anyway, these are my top ten comic book films.

 

 

 

(10) SPLIT (2017)

 

Tonight is a sacred night. You will be in the presence of something greater. The world will understand now. The beast is real.”

 

This is arguably a cheat, as it isn’t a film adapted from an actual comic, but it is thoroughly infused with the mythos of comics. And I can’t resist director M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest twist of all – reviving his career to make a good film. Of course, he did have to return to the comic book mythos of Unbreakable, the film I had ranked as his finest over the more touted The Sixth Sense – in more ways than one, with a stealth sequel stinger marking it as the second in the so-called Eastrail 177 trilogy.

 

It’s helped by a standout performance by James McAvoy as the antagonist – a man with no less than 23 personalities (although we only see about a third of them), some more dangerous than others, but none more so than a 24th personality that is emerging, namely the Beast. And the Beast requires sacrifice – in the form of three teenage girls abducted and held prisoner in his hideout.

 

Split is arguably the first supervillain origin story in film – the Beast rises and the Horde is born!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) SPIDERMAN (2002-2007 AND 2017)

 

It wouldn’t be a top ten comic book film list without the screen incarnation of everyone’s favorite web-slinging, wise-cracking friendly neighborhood Spiderman – particularly with his return to form and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2017’s cheekily named Spiderman: Homecoming.

 

However, my favorite remains the first Sam Raimi film in 2002, particularly in the context of the dark age that preceded it in the 1990’s. The 1990’s have been dubbed the Dark Age of Comics for thematic (and quality) reasons, but they were a darker age in comic book movies much more for quality reasons. DC Comics, which predominated comic book films at that time, had ground to a halt with the execrable sequels to Superman (especially the fourth) and the even more execrable sequels to Batman (again especially the fourth, infamously killing the franchise until it was resurrected by Christopher Nolan). Marvel Comics then revived comic book movies in the new millennium – although not with the properties it had in its own name in the present Marvel Cinematic Universe, but with its properties that it had sold off to other studios, X-men (to Fox) and Spiderman (to Sony).

 

Spiderman has had a checkered cinematic history since with the third Raimi film and the two Amazing Spiderman films, but who can forget the pure enjoyment of Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman movie in 2002? It engagingly told the now familiar origin story of Spiderman (Uncle Ben and “with great power comes great responsibility), although with some modifications – Spiderman’s web-shooting was now organic rather than by his own invention, which I found to be both more plausible (as well as more consistent with his origin story) and more entertaining as adolescent sexual innuendo (Spiderman splurging his web about the place, particularly when Mary Jane was on the scene). And it engagingly presented the young superhero, one who brought out the best in New York City (if not J. Jonah Jameson), in his battle against the Green Goblin, perfectly played by Willem Dafoe. Man – he even looked like the Green Goblin before his transformation. (Why did they bother with the mask?)

 

 

Some enjoy the sequel with Doctor Octopus even more – I certainly enjoyed it, although to me the original eclipsed it with its fresh quality. The third Raimi movie…doesn’t get so much love. And yes, we’ll all like to forget Spiderman’s envenomed evil dancing, but I still enjoyed the movie, mainly because I also love Venom (even if the film badly fumbled him, as well as shoehorning him into a movie crowded with villains). Also, it doesn’t look so bad now after the rebooted Amazing Spiderman sequel essentially did the same thing, only worse, with Electro. Although even then, I didn’t hate that movie, and liked the first one (particularly with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy). That’s just how much I love Spiderman.

 

And I enjoyed Spiderman resuming his rightful place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – indeed, Tom Holland has eclipsed Raimi’s Tobey Maguire as the definitive cinematic incarnation of the character. Except perhaps for those missing spider-senses

 

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

 

(8) WONDER WOMAN (2017)

 

Truth, justice and the Amazonian way!

 

What else? Wonder Woman saves the DC Cinematic Universe! Indeed, she’s its saving grace so far. It’s not a perfect film by any means (with a messy third act), but it is good and Gal Gadot is wondrous in the role in it. She’s a hero that embraces being a hero – “a force of nature who believes in the greater good”. And one that combines an innocent wonder with power and fierce determination with compassion – who not only fights for a righteous cause but who heals hearts with a smile.

 

The film itself is predominated by Wonder Woman’s origin story and is a landmark as the first female superhero film, directed by a female director no less. It only took seventy years or so, but it is only apt that this landmark goes to THE most famous, THE most iconic and THE most durable superheroine in comics.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

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(7) DEADPOOL (2016)

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Deadpool was a shot of R-rated adrenaline into the world of comic book films, one of the more wildcard entries for 2016. The character himself is a wildcard, above all because he knows that he is a fictional character in a comic, or in this case, comic book movie, and engages the audience as such. As he quips about the presence of only two X-men in the movie – “It’s almost as if the studio couldn’t afford another X-man”.

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The title character, Marvel Comics’ Wade Wilson or Deadpool, is known at the Merc with a Mouth, for his constant wisecracking and breaking the fourth wall, which the film’s script (for which the writers are credited as “the true heroes”) used to good effect. His superhuman ability is his healing factor, although that’s nothing compared to his cinematic resurrection from the mess that was Wolverine: Origins – a mess both generally and also particularly with respect to his character. It’s not easy coming back from a film that notoriously made his character unrecognizable, while being the cinematic equivalent of punching its audience in the head – amongst other things by sewing his trademark mouth shut. Characteristically, the Deadpool film casually mocks the former film with a figurine of its version of the character.

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As for the film itself, it’s just pure, R-rated subversive fun and demonstrated that by becoming the highest grossing R-rated movie ever (as well as the highest grossing movie in the X-men franchise), while embracing the character’s appearance and personality – “Fast, funny and gleefully profane, the fourth-wall busting Deadpool subverts the superhero film formula with wildly entertaining – and decidedly non-family friendly – results”.

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Above all, it gets its superhero landing right!

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RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(6) KINGSMAN (2014 – 2017)

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Kingsman: The Secret Service is a playful and subversive parody of  spy films in general and James Bond in particular – adapted from a comic by Mark Millar (similarly to another Millar work, Kickass, a playful and subversive parody of superhero film).

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The film apparently originated when Millar and director Matthew Vaughn were at a bar discussing how the spy film genre was too serious and they wanted to do a fun one. And boy did they deliver on that premise – as Guardian writer Jordan Hoffman quipped, “no one in the production can believe that they’re getting away with such a batshit Bond”. It takes all the elements of a Bond film and ramps them up with its tongue firmly in its cheek – Bond on crack.

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Of course, there is the eponymous spy agency – stylish (“manners maketh man”) and quintessentially British (named for Arthurian characters), with Colin Firth’s Galahad in a superb action role. However, it is Samuel L. Jackson who steals the spotlight, hamming it up with his lisping, megalomaniac supervillain Valentine – such that he makes Bond villains look positively tame by comparison (although his blade-legged henchwoman Gazelle comes a close second). Valentine’s supervillain scheme is to fix global warming (yay!) by killing most of the world’s population (um – not so yay?) – the mechanism for this is revealed in a frenzied continuous action scene so good that Cinema Sins did one of its rare deduction of five sins for it.

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Per Rolling Stone magazine – “This slam-bang action movie about British secret agents is deliriously shaken, not stirred … Even when it stops making sense, Kingsman is unstoppable fun”.

 

The 2017 sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle enjoyably repeated many of the same beats, extending them also to the Kingsman agency’s cousins in the United States, the Statesman, but didn’t quite match the fun of the first film.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

 

Who’d have thought that the third Thor film would be so thunderous, particularly after the lackluster Thor: The Dark World?

 

But there you have it – it’s not only the best Thor film (not hard) but among the best Marvel films, except for one other entry in my top ten, which not coincidentally it greatly resembles in its cosmic comedy (and the most fun I had in a film in 2017). My favorite Marvel films tend to be when Marvel gets cosmic, baby. Of course, Thor: Ragnarok combines the cosmic comedy with the mythic Nordic apocalypse of the title – it’s not always a seamless fit, but it works under the unique direction of Taika Waititi. Not to mention that it is scored by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, with the exception of rocking it out to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song beyond cinematic comparison. Twice.

 

Part of the reason it works so well is its charismatic and comedic characters. There’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor of course, at his most exuberant in his own film trilogy so far, as well as fan favorite villain Loki played just right so as not to overshadow other characters. And of course there’s Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Hulk. The three of them find themselves marooned halfway across the universe on landfill planet Sakaar.

 

And that’s the setting we find the true ensemble dark horses of the piece – softly-spoken rock alien Korg, played by the director himself, but also one of my favorite Marvel female characters so far, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, as well as Jeff Goldblum’s scene-stealing sleazy Grandmaster.

 

And there’s also Cate Blanchett vamping it up as the slinky, smoky-eyed Hela – one of the best Marvel villains apart from Loki himself and certainly its finest female villain.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(4) GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014-2017)

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Marvel Comics got cosmic, baby, with The Guardians of the Galaxy.

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And it’s particularly striking that this film works as well as it does – given that it takes an ensemble from Marvel Comics C-list roster into its equally bizarre and eclectic cosmic setting. As I said at the outset of my top ten, I tend to stay aware of a wide range of comics, and I hadn’t heard of the Guardians (although I was aware of elements of Marvel’s cosmic setting).

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How does it work so well?

 

Well, there’s that cosmic setting with its visual effects.

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There’s the funky sixties and seventies soundtrack on its protagonist’s impossibly durable mixtape (and for which he is prepared to risk death)

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There’s Chris Pratt’s charismatic and comedic performance as the protagonist Peter Quill or Star-Lord (although the latter doesn’t quite catch on as well as he would like, much to his disappointment) – with such highlights as dancing off the villain.

 

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There’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, with my personal favorite highlights including when she proclaims their heroism “we’re just like Kevin Bacon” (from a reference by Quill to Footloose) – and when she dances, ever so slightly, at the end (after rejecting the idea of dancing – prompting Quill’s Footloose reference)

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There’s Dave Batista’s incredibly literal-minded Drax the Destroyer. (“Nothing goes over my head – my reflexes are too fast”).

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There’s Bradley Cooper’s voiced (and spotlight-stealing) Rocket Racoon.

 

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And then there’s Groot. Just Groot. I love Groot. Vin Diesel-voiced three-worded vocabulary tree-thing Groot. While the rest of the Guardians start off as rogues at best, Groot is the innocent and true hero amongst them – with a heart at big as he is. Cinema Sins did its rare reversal of sin count for Groot, not once but twice – firstly, when he offers a beggar girl a flower grown from his hand (“I’ll take a sin off for Groot being awesome – I’m not made of stone”, the narrator quips as he knocks off a sin), and secondly, when he beams with a beautiful child-like grin to his colleagues after saving them from a wave of attackers.

 

And it’s turned into a cosmic comics space operatic franchise with the sequel in 2017 – perhaps not as fresh as the first, but more psychedelic…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(3) LOGAN (2017)

 

I liked this 2017 X-men film so much that it has leapt into the top three, as well as becoming my favorite film from the franchise. Based on the X-men comic storyline, Old Man Logan, the film is set in a dystopian future United States (rather than the post-apocalyptic future of the comics).

 

Why do I like it so much? Well, it helps that it abandons the ensemble cast of the previous films of the franchise (always a difficult task to balance or juggle) to focus on its two most intriguing characters, fan favorite Wolverine (the titular Logan), played by Hugh Jackman and Charles Xavier (or Professor X), played by Patrick Stewart. As the film opens, Wolverine’s mutant healing factor (which includes longevity) has gone awry and he has aged, as he is being slowly poisoned by the adamantium in his skeleton. Charles Xavier been even less fortunate – as the film opens with him a fugitive tended to by Wolverine, his former telepathic abilities now turned against himself (and others – to the extent that it has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction) due to neurogenerative disease. It also helps that both Jackman and Stewart are at the top of their game at portraying the depths of their respective characters.

 

 

The plot doesn’t always hang together (and is hard to reconcile with the previous X-men film franchise – what has become of the other X-men?!). It helps that it mixes genre effectively as a neo-Western superhero road movie. The Western elements particularly loom large, with the classic Western film Shane a point of reference on a number of occasions – not to mention the cybernetic Reavers (who, as one of those aforementioned plot points, don’t appear to actually be any good at, ah, reaving).

 

Above all, it has more heart than any other film in the franchise, even if at times it is a raw and broken one. And I have a particular soft spot for stories of heroes at the end of their days, but who still rise to the call of heroism one last time (or for one last chance of redemption) – or in the context of the Western, one last ride into the sunset.

 

“We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved heaven and earth, that which we are, we are:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” –

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE: 4 STARS****

 

 

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(2) HELLBOY (2004-2008 AND ?)

 

It should come as no surprise that I rank the Hellboy films highly – with Guillermo de Toro as the ideal director and Ron Perlman as the perfect Hellboy. Although I prefer the original to the fey fantasy sequel with its titular Golden Army, the only disappointment is that there have not been further sequels.

 

But then, what’s not to love about a comic film franchise in which the hero is the literal Beast of the Apocalypse? (Or Anung Um Rama – “upon his brow is set a crown of flame”). Of course, he’s one of the good guys – and humanity’s best hope against hell and other eldritch abominations – because of his human upbringing (and Catholic at that), although we do get a striking image of his potential destiny. His backstory is that he was summoned as an infant demon in the last days of the Second World War to turn the tide of that war in Project Ragna Rok by Nazi occultists, led by none other than Grigori Rasputin – the mad monk turned eldritch abomination himself. I can’t help but feel Rasputin cheated his Nazi patrons if they expected victory for their war, as Rasputin was apparently playing the apocalyptic long game. Fortunately, Rasputin and his Nazi occultists are opposed by the Americans and their nascent Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development, who disrupt the ritual and raise Hellboy as one of their own – as he grows into his full-blown demonic appearance, with horns (which he files down for appearance), hooves, tail and red skin.

 

Again, what’s not to love about the first film? Nazi occultists? Rasputin? Secret occult history? Demons and Lovecraftian eldritch abominations, most notably the apocalyptic Ogdru Jahad? The Beast of the Apocalypse as hero, fighting his own apocalyptic destiny – embodied in his Right Hand of Doom, the key to the abyss…?

 

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Even better, there is more afoot in the film franchise – and although Ron Perlman was the perfect Hellboy, David Harbour from Stranger Things is the next best thing as the title character.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** 

 

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(1) DREDD (2012)

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You knew this was coming – it’s my favorite comic so it’s also my favorite comic book movie. Of course, one does not necessarily follow from the other – the woeful 1995 Judge Dredd movie is a case in point. Fortunately, the 2012 Dredd movie got it right, although unfortunately it did not get the box office numbers.

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Judge Dredd is the most iconic character from the British weekly SF anthology comic, 2000 AD, ongoing since it was launched in 1977. Unfortunately, American audiences remain somewhat unfamiliar with (or unresponsive to) Judge Dredd, despite his American setting (albeit futuristic) and despite that he is effectively a quintessential American hero in the same vein as Batman – relying on superior discipline, training, experience, equipment and resources, except as a governmental lawman rather than a vigilante billionaire. (They even both effectively remain masked in their public identities, as Dredd never removes his helmet). This is despite his iconic status, particularly in Britain, and despite American audiences being familiar with many of the alumni of 2000 AD, as virtually every British writer (and artist) of note working in American comics started there (and indeed often in the Judge Dredd storyline itself) – Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar and so on.

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Even more unfortunately, the first substantial introduction of American audiences to Judge Dredd was the 1995 film, although fortunately that particular horror is fading with time. This Hollywood travesty was particularly inexcusable, because the essence of Judge Dredd is ultimately very simple – Judge Dredd is a futuristic Dirty Harry in a dystopian (and post-apocalyptic) SF satire. How hard is that, Hollywood?! On second thoughts, this simple formula is probably too much for Hollywood to handle – when they couldn’t even have Dredd keep his helmet on throughout the film.

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The 2012 film was much more effective in capturing the elements of the original comic (not least in keeping Dredd’s helmet on throughout the film). It is not perfect in this respect. For one thing, it minimizes the satire or comedy to focus on effective world building, although that was probably a matter of necessity. For another, it alters the original storyline from the comics, notably by having psi-Judge Anderson as Dredd’s Rookie. Nevertheless, it is effective in having a stripped-back storyline to the most basic of Dredd storylines, which was indeed that in the very first Dredd episode in the comics (with a length of six pages) – the entry into a building or city block to apprehend criminal perpetrators or ‘perps’. In the first comics episode, the perp was Judge-killer ‘Whitey’ in the rundown Empire State Building. In the 2012 film, it’s slo-mo drug-lord Ma-Ma – played by Lena Headey – in a lockdown of a residential city block, similar to The Raid.

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Unfortunately, the film was not as effective in capturing an audience for its cinematic release, nor in commencing a franchise (but I’ll continue to lobby for the latter with my top spot here). I mean, come on people! Karl Urban acting with his chin as Dredd. Cersei Lannister as scarred city block drug lord. What more could you want? In its own way, this is as unfortunate as the 1995 film, particularly at a time when comic book movies are in such vogue (and dystopian or post-apocalyptic movies have always been popular) – because if ever a comic deserved its own cinematic or screen universe, it’s Dredd, especially when you consider the dreck (or drokk – Judge Dredd slang in-joke alert) that does get adaptations. It has fared better as a cult film with fans and home media release, so perhaps some further adaptation is possible – perhaps a television adaptation would be better, as it suits the more episodic nature as well as longer arcs of the storyline, and indeed one is potentially in development. Whatever the case, I’ll just repeat my ten reasons why Judge Dredd is the galaxy’s greatest comic – and why it deserves its own cinematic or screen universe:

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MEGA-CITY LAW – 10 REASONS WHY JUDGE DREDD IS THE GALAXY’S GREATEST COMIC (AND DESERVES ITS OWN SCREEN UNIVERSE):

(1) APOCALYPSE WOW!

(2) SCI FI FANTASY KITCHEN SINK

(3) REAL WORLD SATIRE (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SEXUAL OLYMPICS)

(4) FUTURISTIC DIRTY HARRY (OR DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?)

(5) MORAL COMPLEXITY (OR JUDGE DREDD DIED FOR YOUR SINS)

(6) THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY AND THE WEIRD

(7) THERE WERE 800 MILLION STORIES IN THE MEGA-CITY

(8) ROGUES GALLERY

(9) DIVERSITY OF GENRE AND TONE (OR HOW THE DAY OF CHAOS TORE MY HEART OUT)

(10) THE TAO OF DREDD (PLATO’S REPUBLIC AND HOBBES’ LEVIATHAN)

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Fantasy & SF TV Series (Revised January 2018)

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TOP 10 FANTASY & SF TV SERIES (REVISED JANUARY 2018)

 

To inaugurate consolidating my film and television top ten lists into one index page, I’ve updated some of those lists to include new entries from 2017.

 

While the revision to my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Films only involved swapping two entries, I have added a new entry in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF TV Series for Westworld in tenth place. Sadly, this did involve relegating The Walking Dead to my special mentions, to reflect that it has waned over time from its previous high point in my mythic world. My interest waned in season 7 – I still watch it but I no longer have the same urgency in doing so. I guess there’s only so much zombie apocalypse – or post-apocalypse – one can take. Of course, it probably didn’t help that I read the comics at about the time of season 6, overtaking the series and reducing its suspense for me.

 

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For many – perhaps most – people, fantasy and SF is a cinematic or screen experience rather than a literary one – and in this present so-called Golden Age of Television, that screen often tends to be the smaller screen of television rather than the larger cinematic screen.

 

These are my top 10 fantasy and SF TV series here, judged by their mythic effect on me – the way in which they changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos. As usual, I make my own rules (and break them anyway) – unlike my top 10 fantasy and SF films, it does include TV series with elements of horror or adapted from comics (which are otherwise fantasy or SF) as they are simply not prolific enough for their own top ten lists as their cinematic counterparts. However, they do not include animated TV series, although these also tend towards fantasy or SF, as they are prolific enough for their own top ten lists. or defined the way I view fantasy or SF on TV.

 

Also, my top ten lists for television among the most fluid of my top ten lists, rotating over time (particularly in the lower half), because with some notable exceptions, they typically consist of series presently screening or ongoing, as those are the ones that continue to engage my interest or imagination (particularly as it is their ongoing mythos that engages me). Once a series is past or finished, I tend to relegate it to special mention – or, for that matter, when a still current series has waned over time. And that is where it gets still more fluid as, again with notable exceptions, fantasy or SF series have a habit of waning in quality with ongoing seasons, often (or perhaps especially) after the opening premise of their first season  – or moving beyond seasonal rot to jumping the shark.

 

 

(10) WESTWORLD (2016 – PRESENT)

 

“These violent delights have violent ends”.

 

Those viral arc words can’t end well. Uh, the robots are revolting? (And yes – I know they’re technically androids, or in the parlance of the series, ‘hosts’).

 

This SF Western thriller TV series is based on the film of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton, with his characteristic technophobic streak.

 

In the near future, Westworld is a theme park version of the Wild West – “a place where every human appetite, not matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged without consequence”. Although those appetites mostly seem to be shooting it or having sex with it (or both). The unfortunate recipients of these appetites are the android ‘hosts’, indistinguishable from humans, with advanced programming following a pre-defined ‘narratives’ (generally intertwined into a grand overarching narrative offering adventure for the park’s guests). The hosts repeat these narratives daily – with their memories wiped from the previous day at best or their bodies repaired from the previous day’s ‘deaths’ or ‘injuries’ at worst. The people enjoying those appetites are its wealthy guests or ‘newcomers’, who can live out all their desires or fantasies with the android hosts, no matter how immoral or illegal they may be. Guns don’t kill people, only hosts. So, you know, a Western version of Grand Theft Auto but with androids instead of graphics – or a lot like everyday life, but with androids instead of people. Of course, for the safety of the guests, hosts are unable to harm living creatures – they literally couldn’t hurt a fly, a plot point. (In the words of TV Tropes, “what is it about the hosts that every fly in Westworld wants to frolic on their eyes and face?”). Activities in the park are also overseen by staff and security personnel.

 

Obviously to anyone familiar with the film or to genre savvy viewers of the series, that state of affairs is not going to last. And so the series begins as a routine update in the hosts’ programming causes unusual deviations in their behavior, seemingly contagious like a virus at times, that is of increasing concern to the staff – not to mention, some of the hosts themselves, who become self-aware of the truth about themselves and their world.

 

Touted as HBO’s next big thing since Game of Thrones, it’s not quite at that level but it is intriguing or even compelling at times, with more layers than I might have anticipated from the original film – particularly due to the uncanny effect from the perspective of the hosts of experiencing their world unfold.

 

The robot revolution will be televised!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) THE MAGICIANS (2015 – PRESENT)

 

In a nutshell, The Magicians combines a dark adult version of Harry Potter with a dark adult version of Narnia.

 

In my Top 10 Fantasy Books, I confessed my fantasy fan secret that I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay. Which is to say it just pales in comparison to some of the other children’s or young adult fantasy out there, some of which are wild rides indeed, and I evoked Australian writer Garth Nix by comparison.

 

On screen (albeit the small screen), the Magicians offers a more intriguing comparison – as I said, it combines a dark adult version Hogwarts in its Brakebills University with a dark adult version of Narnia in its Fillory.

 

The TV series adapts Lev Grossman’s novel series of the same name and premise – protagonist Quentin Coldwater enrolls at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy to be trained as one of the titular Magicians, where he discovers that the magical world from his favorite childhood books is real and poses a danger to humanity. Over time, the series develops a number of intriguing and overlapping narrative threads.

 

In The Magicians, magic is dangerous. And it costs, usually in sacrifice or profound loss. That’s whether it’s the curriculum of spells in Brakebills University or so-called hedge witches scrounging for scraps of magic elsewhere. Magical creatures and gods are dangerous. The magical land of Fillory is dangerous – particularly as the seat of power of the Beast, who has made it over in his image (and whose face is shrouded in a swarm of moths).

 

To paraphrase Hemingway, magic tends to break everyone (although most of the magicians are somewhat broken in the first place) – but those that will not break, it kills.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(8) I-ZOMBIE (2015 – PRESENT)

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This entry, iZombie, is based on a Vertigo comic series (albeit one I have not read). It’s a spin on the zombie apocalypse, or perhaps more precisely, the zombie virus (which of course is potentially a zombie apocalypse). With the titular zombie, it features what must surely be the zombie pinup girl, Olivia “Liv” Moore – certainly the most attractive zombie in popular culture (with the arguable exception of Jenna Jameson in the deplorable film Zombie Strippers, although that was the premise of the film’s ‘joke’, such as it was). Of course, it helps that she is not, you know, decomposing – although her zombification has resulted in a pale emo white-haired appearance.

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The premise of the series is summarised by TV Tropes:

 

“Olivia “Liv” Moore is a young, upwardly-mobile go-getter who has it all. She’s pretty, perky, has a hot fiance, and is on the fast track to becoming a heart surgeon. Well, she was“.

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What she is now is a zombie – after being scratched in a zombie outbreak at a party, she emerges from her body bag (much to the alarm of emergency services personnel) to find that she is now undead herself. As a zombie, she finds she can preserve her bodily and mental faculties as well as retain her personality by eating brains, so to do so she now works in the morgue rather than as a surgical resident. However, a side effect of eating brains is that she picks up some of the memories, skills and personality traits of the original – ah – brain ‘donor’, which she then channels into assisting a police detective to solve their murders (the usual source of the morgue’s bodies) by posing as a psychic (while collaborating with her supervisor, who is aware of her condition, to find a cure).

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It’s a genre-bending series – combining elements of urban fantasy, horror and police procedural drama amongst others, not to mention the various conspiracies, both living and undead, to exploit the zombie virus for fun and profit (not least the corporation whose energy drink lead to the initial outbreak).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) ASH VS EVIL DEAD (2015 – PRESENT)

 

Hail to the king, baby!

 

Well, not quite – Ash is back (played gloriously by the chin himself, Bruce Campbell), but things haven’t turned out quite so well for him. What’s worse – the evil dead are back as well, due to a moment of characteristic idiocy by Ash. (Pro tip – do not get stoned and read books of the dead. Although it does set the tone for the series). O well – it’s only the end of the world. What’s the worst that could happen?

 

Ash vs Evil Dead flows directly from the Evil Dead film franchise – which, as I said when I placed it in the top spot of my top 10 horror films, is not high art, but it embodies (in virtually every sense of that word) the archetypal B-grade horror movie in all its fun and glory, with tongue ever more firmly in cheek. Of course, the TV series starts with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Well, in someone’s cheek at least. Probably a whole lot of cheeks.

 

Need a recap? Ash helpfully provides it in the first episode:

 

“Thirty years ago, my friends and I spent the night at a cabin. We found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the book of the dead. Certain passages were recited. It awoke something in the woods. Something evil. I was the only one to escape. But now, the evil has found me.”

 

And it certainly has – from the opening ass-slapping scene onwards. Hold on – you’re in for a wild ride! All the iconic elements from the film franchise are there – the Book of the Dead, the Evil Dead, the chainsaw, Ash’s hand(s), that cabin with its eldritch architecture, all that dark fantasy comedy you loved from the sequels and all that splashing of gore that defines the franchise. And a lot of new elements, including some genuine touches of nightmare fuel amidst the dark fantasy comedy – as well as Xena’s Lucy Lawless.

 

Groovy!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

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(6) THE STRAIN (2014 – PRESENT)

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It’s a vampire apocalypse in a box!

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My fifth place entry is one of two (or perhaps three) genuinely horror series in my top ten fantasy and SF TV series – and a vampire horror series at that, something of a rarity in television.

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And one that portrays vampires as the blood-sucking parasitic abominations they are. (Yes – I have fantastic racism against vampires. Stake them all in the sun, I say. Except hot vampire girls, of course. And there’s none of those in this series). In this case, vampirism is spread by the worm-like parasites that crawl from their bodies, one of which was depicted burrowing into an eye in an infamous promotional poster. (It’s reminiscent of the Lovecraftian vampire parasite things in the pulpy Necroscope book series by Brian Lumley).

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It’s a welcome relief from the sexy (or worse, sparkly) vampires of True Blood (or worse, Twilight) and most vampires in popular culture these days – the vampires in The Strain are distinctly unsexy vile abominations of extreme body horror. It’s hard to be sexy when your (male) genitalia have atrophied and dropped off, while your excretory organs have fused together into a cloaca. Eww!

 

The series is the brainchild of Guillermo de Toro (yes, THAT Guillermo de Toro) and Chuck Hogan, based on their novel trilogy of the same name (albeit one originally conceived as a story line for a television series). The series opens with CDC medical staff called to an airliner in which everyone appears to have succumbed to a mysterious viral infection or disease. Or at least, so authorities surmise – instead, it is worse. Much worse.

 

Soon, New York finds itself battling for its very existence against an ancient enemy with humanity itself at stake.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

 

(5) BLACK MIRROR (2011 – PRESENT)

 

Black Mirror – the cyberpunk Twilight Zone of the twenty-first century!

 

Okay, that cyberpunk label may be overstating it, but it certainly is a series of dark and satirical twists in the tale of the unanticipated or unintended consequences of technology and social media in modern society – or, in the words of series creator Charlie Brooker, “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

 

It is an anthology series with no continuity between episodes – each episode has a different cast, a different setting or even a different reality, so you don’t have to watch them in order. Personally, I’d recommend starting with the third season and working your way backwards (at least until the awaited fourth season) – particularly as the very first episode doesn’t extrapolate so much on technology or social media and can be a little confronting (although unforgettable – let’s just say you won’t feel about pork the same way again).

 

As for the premise and title of the series, it’s back to Charlie Brooker:

 

“If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

 

Black Mirror episodes deserve their own top ten list – some episodes appeal more than others, although there have been no dud episodes to my taste. However, the third season is a definite highpoint (although that is not to exclude The Entire History of You in the first season, White Bear in the second and the White Christmas special) – with the series’ most acclaimed episode of San Junipero (a touching love story with some virtual twists and turns) as well as Nosedive (in which society is stratified into castes based on social media popularity) and Men Against Fire (with its chilling dehumanization in a dystopian war).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) AMERICAN GODS (2017 – PRESENT)

 

“Believe”

 

American Gods is worth it for the psychedelic opening title sequence alone.

 

But of course it’s worth it for much more than that. It adapts the novel by Neil Gaiman, who (as I opined in my Top 10 Fantasy Books) may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy – and my favorite Gaiman novel at that (as well as my favorite fantasy book short only of The Lord of the Rings).

 

Both novel and series focus on Shadow Moon, one of my favorite fantasy protagonists – although series Shadow is less of an unfazed everyman than novel Shadow, as the latter would work less well on screen. Shadow accepts a job offer as a ‘bodyguard’ for a mysterious man named Wednesday after being released from prison (particularly as he finds himself at a loose end after his wife and best friend are killed in a car accident in a compromising position with each other). This takes him into a world of gods and mythic beings that exist because people believe in them – and even more so, a looming war between the waning old gods of traditional mythologies and rising new gods of modern society.

 

One of the most striking features of the novel was Gaiman’s lyrical invocations of gods and goddesses, which the series adapts into striking visual invocations of gods and goddesses – reflecting that Gaiman is “very involved with the production of the series as well as the vision of series creator Fuller in adapting the mythic world of the novel.

 

The series expands on the mythic world of that novel – a joy to someone such as myself who loved that world and wanted to explore it further – as well as the events of the novel. And so we see an expanded role for Laura, Shadow’s magically revenant wife and one of my favorite characters from the novel.  We also see a role for Jesus, the subject of a throwaway line from the novel by one of the envious old gods – “there’s a lucky son of a virgin”. Or more precisely, ah, Jesuses, as there are often different incarnations of gods based on different beliefs – perhaps most powerfully in an incarnation by Mexican immigrants.

 

The series also perfectly captures the thematic power of belief from the novel – one of my favorite sequences involves Shadow making snow from belief (under Wednesday’s tutelage) in the episode named for it, “Head Full of Snow”. And then there are the gods themselves, brought to life (along with the other characters) by inspired casting choices – particularly with the new gods fleshed out from the novel, led by the trinity of Mr. World (played to creepy awesome effect by Crispin Glover), Media and the Technical Boy.

 

Above all, the series perfectly depicts how the gods and magic can turn our mortal world inside out. The gods are dangerous, even the old gods as shadows (heh) of their former selves

 

Believe. O yes – believe.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) STRANGER THINGS (2016 – PRESENT)

 

I assume this series needs little introduction – the Netflix Original series to rival HBO’s Game of Thrones!

 

And what’s not to love for fantasy and SF fans?

 

Eleven! The Upside Down! The Demogorgon and Mind Flayer! Steve Harrington’s magnificent hair (and its secret)!

 

 

More broadly, 1980’s nostalgia and pop culture references aplenty! Psychokinetic girls (reminiscent of Charlie, not to mention her adversary, the Shop, in one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Firestarter). Extradimensional alien invasion – evoking Alien and Aliens in Seasons 1 and 2 respectively (with more than a touch of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos)! Mysterious government agencies to rival the nastier versions of men in black (with their black helicopters) – so that’s what the Department of Energy does?

 

And of course there’s all those Dungeons and Dragons references for this fantasy fan – “I’m our Paladin, Will’s our Cleric, Dustin’s our Bard, Lucas is our Ranger, and El’s our Mage”.

 

To quote Wikipedia, series creators the Duffer brothers “developed the series as a mix of investigative drama alongside supernatural elements with childlike sensibilities, establishing its time frame in the 1980s and creating a homage to pop culture of that decade. Several themes and directorial aspects were inspired and aesthetically informed by the works of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King, among others”. Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980’s, the first season focuses on the investigation into the disappearance of a young boy amid supernatural (or rather paranormal) events centered on the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory – and the second season is even, ah, more upside downier.

 

On the other hand, I can suspend disbelief in the Demogorgon and Upside Down – but no one ever made it that far in the Dragon’s Lair videogame…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(2) GAME OF THRONES (2011 – PRESENT)

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House of Stark! HOUSE OF STARK!

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Of course, you saw this coming. Adapted from George R. R. Martin’s (unfinished) book series A Song of Ice and Fire (and sharing the same title with the first book), executive producer David Benioff jokingly suggested a tagline of The Sopranos in Middle Earth.

Or rather, I’ll make my own Middle Earth – with blackjack and hookers!

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More accurately, it has a plotline drawn from history, if history was much more interesting with dragons and zombies – the English War of the Roses (with the northern House of Stark substituted for the House of York and the southern House of Lannister substituted for the House of Lancaster) mixed with Hadrian’s Wall (with a zombie apocalypse brewing north of it), with more exotic elements (the Mongol Dothraki horde and Khan Khal Drogo).

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Anyway, the combination has proved wildly popular – “Game of Thrones has attracted record numbers of viewers on HBO and attained an exceptionally broad and active international fan base. It has received widespread acclaim by critics, particularly for its acting, complex characters, story, scope, and production values”. Even better, it has contributed to “the popularity of fantasy themes and mainstream acceptance of fantasy fandom”, so that “you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t a fan of some sort of epic fantasy”. Of course, the nudity, sex and violence helps.

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As for me, I was hooked from those awesome opening credits and opening scene of the first season – with the Night’s Watch looking into the heart of the night north of the Wall. The scenes of the Night’s Watch and the Wall have tended to be my favorite throughout the series.

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And of course, the series is a positive boon to people with the name of Stark (yes – that is my actual surname), although our House hasn’t been doing too well.

Sigh - honor before reason

Sigh – honor before reason

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Like little miss badass Arya Stark, I have my list of characters who must pay for their crimes against the House of Stark (with Littlefinger in top spot). O yes, they will pay…

The North remembers – and winter is coming.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (ANGEL) (1997 – 2003)

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“Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a Chosen One. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer”.

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And in the end, just like the Slayer, there can only be one TV series in the top spot – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For me, just as The Lord of the Rings defined literary (and cinematic) fantasy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer defined television fantasy – hence its top spot. In the words of TV Tropes (which itself originated as a Buffy fansite), “nobody can deny or ignore the influence of Buffy on the TV shows that followed it, both within and outside the genre”, notably in longer story arcs within seasons. Robert Moore of Popmatters wrote “TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards,” and similarly Dr Who executive producer Russel Davies has said “Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed the whole world, and an entire sprawling industry, that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the world is not hack-work, it can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar for every writer—not just genre/niche writers, but every single one of us”.

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As for Buffy herself, she is one of the most iconic female figures in fantasy (and certainly in television fantasy). The premise of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with the name as part of the premise) is an inversion of the horror trope in which the doomed (dumb) blonde girl (typically of the appearance of a cheerleader, if not an actual cheerleader) is attacked by monsters in dark alley. In Buffy’s case, the blonde cheerleader is the Slayer, a mystically empowered warrior of whom the monsters are afraid.

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In the story, Slayers are called or chosen by fate, one at a time (passing on with the death of the previous Slayer), to battle against vampires, demons and other forces of darkness. (The prehistoric origin of the Slayer was explored in the seventh and final season of the TV series. Indeed, the Lovecraftian origin of demons and vampires is set out in the very outset of the show – demons originally ruled the world, before some sort of mystical realignment moved them into other dimensions, with vampires remaining behind as a lower form of demon in the bodies of their mortal victims). This mystical calling endows them with superhuman physical strength, endurance, agility, accelerated healing, intuition, and a limited degree of clairvoyance or precognition. (On one occasion, Buffy refers to her spider senses tingling). Like previous Slayers, Buffy (famously played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is aided by her “Watcher”, a member of an ancient conspiracy dedicated to finding and training Slayers to fight the forces of darkness. However, unlike her predecessors (and critically for her unusual longevity as a Slayer), she has a circle of loyal friends who dub themselves the Scooby Gang.

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The starting point of the television series is the original film (both the brain child of Joss Whedon) – Buffy has learned that she is the Slayer and hoping to elude her responsibilities (as well as being forced to move schools after setting the school gym on fire to kill the vampires inside it), moves with her mother to Sunnydale, an apparently sleepy little town in southern California. However, things are never so easy, as she soon learns that Sunnydale sits on top of the Hellmouth, a mystical source of energy (and portal) which accounts for the never-ending stream of monsters drawn to it (and for Buffy’s own presence there). The series continues as Buffy battles various hellbeasts and spawn while juggling her double life as a schoolgirl (and while Sunnydale’s adults for the most part seem to be unable to acknowledge the evil brewing right under their feet).

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Apocalypse? Just another day in Sunnydale. Or as her tombstone read (she got better), she saved the world a lot.

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One of the greatest strengths of the series was its metaphorical and thematic depth – “given that demons on Buffy are walking metaphors for existing evils — reptilian authority figures, suddenly-soulless boyfriends, and so on — the B-horror trappings take on an entirely new meaning, usually with a sly feminist wink inserted”. The premise of the early seasons was ‘high school as hell’, extending to life in general in later seasons (and its spinoff series, Angel). Indeed, real life arguably became the antagonist in the sixth season (although that season had a mixed reception). Of course, there were still supernatural antagonists – a trio of fanboy nerds who suddenly decided to become supernatural supervillains, and more apocalyptically, Buffy’s own friend Willow, crazed on (and addicted) to magic (which, in the betrayal by a close friend, perhaps brings us back full circle to real life as antagonist). One episode from this season (and perhaps my favorite episode) illustrates this best, while also presenting itself as an alternative (and arguably more plausible) storyline for the entire series – with Buffy a patient in  an asylum, lapsing into catatonic fantasies of herself as Slayer. Although one aspect of the real life as antagonist bugged me – Buffy’s financial difficulties. Surely the Council of Watchers, who seem to have extensive resources acquired over centuries or millennia – including the means to purchase rare magical books and to infiltrate their members as librarians in schools – could pay for their most valuable asset, the Slayer herself?

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Our Lady of Sunnydale

Our Lady of Sunnydale

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Close-runner up is the spin-off series Angel, although one might well regard it as intimately part of the ‘Buffyverse’ as the parent series itself – with characters (and storylines) shared between the two series. It featured Buffy’s vampire boyfriend (the vampire with a soul) setting himself up as a mystical private investigator in Los Angeles facing the forces of evil (and worse, their lawyers), broadening the scope of storytelling well beyond the suburban Hellmouth of Sunnydale – “part horror, part melodrama, part neo-noir, with a helping of comedy (a given for Whedon)”.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top Tens of Everything: (3) Film & TV

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TOP TENS OF EVERYTHING: (3) FILM & TV

 

And that effectively concludes my New Year project of consolidating my blog page index for my top tens to date. Previously, I’ve added each new page to the index but that threatens to proliferate into an unwieldy index indeed. Instead, I’m now consolidated the page indices into numbered categories, effectively creating a Top 10 Top 10 lists (how meta!).

 

For my Top Tens of Everything, I’ve concluded the top three categories, which comprise the substantive top ten lists so far (with the exception of my special mentions for apostles of the goddess and saints of pagan catholicism):

 

(1) FANTASY & SF

(2) COMICS

(3) FILM & TV

 

To which I’ll subsequently add the next most substantial categories to round out the top five:

 

(4) LITERATURE

(5) MUSIC

 

And over time I’ll add the balance of categories to round out a top ten.

 

As for the page so far:

 

FILM & TV

 

TOP 10 FANTASY & SF FILMS

TOP 10 FANTASY & SF TV SERIES

TOP 10 COMIC BOOK FILMS

TOP 10 ANIMATED FILMS

TOP 10 ANIMATED FILMS (SPECIAL MENTION)

TOP 10 ANIMATED FILMS (SPECIAL MENTION) – CULT & PULP

TOP 10 ANIMATED TV SERIES

TOP 10 ANIMATED TV SERIES (SPECIAL MENTION)

TOP 10 HORROR FILMS

 

I’ll also take this opportunity to update the lists for some substantial new entries in 2017 – for my Top 10 Fantasy & SF TV Series, Top 10 Comic Book Films, Top 10 Animated Films, and Top 10 Horror Films.

 

 

 

Top Tens of Everything: (2) Comics

TOP TENS OF EVERYTHING: (2) COMICS

 

I’m continuing with my New Year project of consolidating my blog page index for my top tens and fantasy girls. Previously, I’ve added each new page to the index but that threatens to proliferate into an unwieldy index indeed. Instead, I’m consolidating the page indices into numbered categories, effectively creating a Top 10 Top 10 lists (how meta!) as well as a Top 10 Fantasy Girl lists.

 

For my Top Tens of Everything, I’ve now moved on to consolidate the second of the big three:

(1) FANTASY & SF

(2) COMICS

(3) FILM & TV

 

To which I’ll subsequently add the next most substantial categories to round out the top five

(4) LITERATURE

(5) MUSIC

 

And over time I’ll add the balance of categories to round out a top ten.

 

Admittedly, there wasn’t much to consolidate in this page so far:

 

(2) COMICS

 

TOP 10 COMICS

 

Over time, I will add my honorable and special mentions (including my cult and pulp roll call), as well as other top tens within comics.

 

However, in the meantime, I did shuffle the entries in My Top 10 of Comics as well as returning Hellblazer to its rightful place in the top ten.

 

Top 10 Fantasy Books (Revised 2018)

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TOP 10 FANTASY BOOKS (REVISED 2018)

 

To commemorate my new index page for Fantasy & SF in my Top Tens of Everything, I’ve revised my Top 10 Fantasy Books to include two new entries. (The other lists for Fantasy & SF have remained essentially the same, which some minor re-shuffling of entries).

One of the two two new entries, Welcome to Night Vale, was formerly in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Books – Stories & Works, because it is predominantly a podcast – but I’ve transferred it to my Top 10 Fantasy Books because 2017 saw a second novel, It Devours, added to the Welcome to Night Vale universe. (I’ve promoted Joe Landsale from my honorable mentions to replace it in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Books – Stories & Works).

The second entry is for a new entry entirely, The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.

To make room for these new entries, I’ve transferred Christopher Moore to my honorable mentions and Simon R. Green to my special mention cult and pulp entries.

Anyway, these are my top ten favorite books as revised for 2018 – the fantasy books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) LEV GROSSMAN – THE MAGICIANS TRILOGY (2009 – 2014)

 

In a nutshell, The Magicians combines a dark adult version of Harry Potter with a dark adult version of Narnia.

 

As a fan of fantasy, I have a secret – I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay. Which is to say it just pales in comparison to other fantasy.

 

The Magicians offers a more intriguing comparison – as I said, it combines a dark adult version Hogwarts in its Brakebills University with a dark adult version of Narnia in its Fillory.

 

I came to The Magicians trilogy through the TV series, which adapts Lev Grossman’s trilogy, albeit in somewhat different but equally interesting directions. Protagonist Quentin Coldwater enrolls at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy to be trained as one of the titular Magicians, where he discovers that magic is real – and after graduation finds that the magical world from his favorite childhood books is also real.

 

In The Magicians, magic is dangerous. And it costs, usually in sacrifice or profound loss. That’s whether it’s the curriculum of spells in Brakebills University or other sources of magic elsewhere.

 

To paraphrase Hemingway, magic tends to break everyone (although most of the magicians are somewhat broken in the first place) – but those that will not break, it kills.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(9) ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY – SHADOWS OF THE APT (2008 – 2014)

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Damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky!

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I have always been fascinated by insects, so accordingly one of my (unwritten) story ideas involved high fantasy with insect-people. They were essentially human, but with the skin or hair coloring of their insect species, as well as other physical attributes that did not radically alter their otherwise human appearance – wings for example (in the style of the butterfly or other insect wings occasionally depicted on fairies), perhaps antennae and so on. I imagined the insect-people as essentially divided up into realms according to the three great species of social insects – bees, ants and wasps, although there would be different realms of each (corresponding to different sub-species or types). Each of these realms would also include other thematically similar insect-peoples – for example, bee-kingdoms (or more precisely, bee-queendoms) would include other pollinating insects, such as butterflies. As for antagonists, one was spoilt for choice – flies or locusts as marauding hordes (the Locust Horde!), various parasitic insects (fleas, mosquitoes and so on) as blood-sucking bandits or brigands, arachnids such as spiders or scorpions as monstrous figures. However, I imagined the most dangerous and recurring antagonists as the fourth great species of social insects – termites.

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In fairness, I didn’t get much beyond imagining the various insect-people societies, although I did imagine my main protagonist as a mantis warrior.

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And then I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, which effectively does just that – a high fantasy set in a world of insect-‘kinden’, humans who have adopted some of the characteristics of their insect-types (or arachnid-types) through their magical Art from the dangerous and giant fantasy insects (or arachnids) of this world. Ant and beetle kinden dominate the so-called Lowlands (not surprisingly, given the sheer prevalence of those insect species in our world). Even more intriguingly, it is a world in which magic is being replaced by science – an industrial revolution by the technologically Apt peoples of the title, matched by a political revolution, in which the more mundane but Apt ants and beetles have ousted the more magically-minded moths and mantises (although mantis warriors are still legendary). However, the antagonists are not termites, but the growing and ruthless Wasp Empire. Of course, Tchaikovsky is a little too fond of spiders for my liking – a fondness that extends across his works, not just the spider-kinden in this series.

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So – damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky, for conceiving and executing your story idea first, in an epic series. It’s not quite how I imagined my story idea, but it’s close enough that I love it anyway.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) GARTH NIX – THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM (2003 – 2010)

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As I previously confessed my fantasy fan secret, I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay.

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It’s just that it pales in comparison to some of the other children’s or young adult fantasy out there, some of which are wild rides indeed. My favorite is that by Australian writer Garth Nix (a name made for fantasy!) – whose works make Hogwarts look like, well, any other old English boarding school.

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There is his Old Kingdom or Abhorsen series – and this would certainly be the place to start for those looking for similarities to Harry Potter. Its primary setting is divided between the scientific nation of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, a mysterious realm of magic, particularly necromancy, although the highest necromancer in the kingdom is the Abhorsen, its guardian – “”I am a necromancer, but not of the common kind. Where others of the art raise the Dead, I lay them back to rest. And those that will not rest, I bind. Or try to. I am Abhorsen.”  Of course, that’s easier said than done…

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I, however, prefer his cosmic trip, the seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series (a series somewhat similar in concept to one of my favorite webcomics, Kill Six Billion Demons). In it, Creation is coming undone – not just the universe, but the entire multiverse, is slowly falling apart into Nothing in the absence of its Creator, the Architect. The primary setting or axis mundi of the multiverse, the cosmic structure called The House, itself divided up into seven domains (akin to worlds) by its seven most powerful denizens (in the absence of the Architect, of course), the Morrow Days. This is essentially the root of the cosmic decay – those seven beings elected not to appoint a mortal from the so-called Secondary Realms as the Rightful Heir in accordance with the Will of the Architect, but instead to break up and imprison the Will into seven parts, keeping power for themselves in the titular Keys to the Kingdom.

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However, the Will has, ah, a will of its own and part of it escapes, tricking the lowest Morrow Day into handing over part of his key to a mortal Rightful Heir, the aptly named Arthur Penhaglion. And so Arthur, faced firstly with his own destruction (by the Morrow Day seeking to reclaim the key) and subsequently with the fate of the multiverse itself, finds himself with no choice but to ascend the House to reclaim the Will and the Keys to the Kingdom, successively fighting each Morrow Day (each embodying one of the Seven Deadly Sins) as reflected by the titles of the books – Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday and Lord Sunday. Fortunately, Arthur does find allies within the denizens of the House. including one of my favorite female fantasy characters, Suzy Turquoise Blue, as well as other free agents within the House such as the Mariner and the Piper – all the while being slowly transformed by the House into a cosmic being himself…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

 

 

 

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(7) WILLIAM BROWNING SPENCER – RESUME WITH MONSTERS (1995)

 

Great Cthulhu in a cubicle!

 

For this entry, we move to light fantasy evocation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. (Lovecraft himself does not rank in my top ten fantasy books, instead ranking as an iconic special mention – but his Mythos will recur throughout my various top tens, as other writers use it).

 

William Browning Spencer is an undeservedly overlooked writer, notwithstanding a name worthy of a romantic poet. He delightfully combines a playful comedic style and observational humor to fantasy themes. This is particularly so in this entry (and winner of the International Horror Critics Guild Award for Best Novel in 1995), Resume with Monsters, which combines the Cthulhu Mythos with satire of the corporate cubicle drone workplace. It has a special resonance for those, like myself, who have always suspected a connection – nay unholy collusion! – between the soul-destroying corporate workplace and the soul-destroying dark entities of the Cthulhu Mythos.

 

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In Resume with Monsters, Philip Kenan may not be the most reliable narrator of his experience as a worker in dead-end office cubicle drone jobs – between bouts of therapy and his unrequited quest to win back his ex-girlfriend Amelia, although he saved her (and quite possibly the world) from some…thing at their mutual previous employment (narrated as the Doom That Came to MicroMeg). Now he is routinely alert to signs of otherworldly incursions at his workplace, “signs of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or his dread messenger Nylarlathotep – checking bathrooms for “hideous, disorientating graffiti from mad Alhrazed’s Necronomicon” evoking those entities. And he is particularly alert to signs of altered states in his fellow employees, obvious signs that they had been changed into crypto-zombies, tools of management to open our world up to otherworldly invasion.

 

A model employee

A model employee

 

Or perhaps he is simply lapsing into mental breakdown or outright insanity, symptoms of his obsession with H.P.Lovecraft’s “monsters”, as both his therapist and his ex-girlfriend term them – his therapist noting that Lovecraft “was not in the pink of mental health”. An obsession that was born of his father’s own obsessive narration to him of the stories of Lovecraft, identifying it with the ‘System’ – “Don’t let the System eat your soul”. An obsession that Philip Kenan tries to keep at bay by the equally obsessive emotional talisman of his own Lovecraftian novel, “The Despicable Quest”, which he has been constantly rewriting over twenty years until it has swollen to two thousand pages.

 

Or perhaps both. Perhaps this madness is what allows him to see the things beyond this world but which still hunger for it – or it is a product of seeing things that the mind was never meant to see (or again perhaps both). As Kenan himself ruefully observes – “in the meantime, of course, he would have to hang on to his own reason…once you have gazed on the baleful visage of Yog-Sothoth, your own thoughts are forever suspect”…

 

As I said, this novel had a special resonance for me from my own experience as a corporate cubicle drone, where I suspected that the mind-numbingly boring files simply could not exist for their own purpose but had to have a more substantial and sinister purpose in inducing a receptive state or lack of resistance to otherworldly invasion. After all, the business partners milked us for everything else – why not our very souls? Of course, I was too smart for them, as I simply didn’t do my files…

 

 

The face of evil - "Um, yeah, I'm going to need you to work Sunday as well as Saturday"

The face of evil – “Um, yeah, I’m going to need you to work Sunday as well as Saturday”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS***

 

GODISDEAD

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(6) JAMES MORROW – GODHEAD TRILOGY (1994 – 1999)

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James Morrow is a writer of religious and philosophical satire clothed in absurdist Vonnegutian fantasy – particularly of the abstract philosophical or religious concept made flesh in the form of absurdist fantasy (and indeed as the source of much of the absurdism in that fantasy). This is never more so than in his Godhead trilogy, where he takes the Nietzschean theme that God is dead and makes it flesh, literally in the form of a two mile long corpse – or Corpus Dei – in the Atlantic Ocean.

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morrow1

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This is the premise of the trilogy as a whole – and the opening of the first novel, Towing Jehovah. “God is dead” say the archangels, dying themselves of terminal empathy with their Creator, as they charge a chosen few with one last divine mission (with feathers from their glowing wings as tokens) – “died and fell into the sea”. The Vatican charges Captain Anthony Van Horne to tow the Corpus Dei with a supertanker to the Arctic Circle, to preserve it from decomposition, for possible resuscitation or at least for time to ponder the problems of the Deity’s death (not least the theological question posed by the Deity’s death). Captain Van Horne sees it as his opportunity for redemption from his responsibility for the world’s largest oil spill, his dreams haunted by hordes of oil-soaked animals – and he has his work cut out for him, as sabotage and perils, natural and spiritual, threaten the tight timeline calculated by the Vatican supercomputer to avoid irreversible brain deterioration for the Corpus Dei. It was nominated for a number of awards (including Hugo and Nebula) – and won the 1995 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

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However, my favorite is the second of the trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon, where theodicy is made flesh – theodicy being the theological study of the problem of evil,  “reconciling God’s goodness with the world’s evil”, or at least explaining His apparent indifference to suffering. In the manner of the biblical Book of Job, small town and small time magistrate Martin Candle – widowed and afflicted with prostate cancer – seeks to have the Corpus Dei towed to the World Court and prosecuted for the problem of evil or suffering of the world. (The trial itself is funded by G.F.Lovett, a children’s book author based on C.S.Lewis – on the condition that Candle prosecutes it and Lovett argues the defence). The trial itself is preceded by Candle exploring the original form of Creation in God’s mind (or spelunking the infinite), where everything exists in its ideal Form – God, it seems, was a Platonist – including, touchingly, the ideal Form of Candle’s deceased wife (and for that matter, himself). And of course, this novel of the problem of evil is narrated by none other than Satan, resident in God’s mind.

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In the third book, The Eternal Footman, the last remnant of the Corpus Dei, God’s grinning skull or Cranium Dei, is in geosynchronous orbit over Times Square. Western civilization is collapsing as a plague of ‘death awareness’ overtakes it in the aftermath of God’s death – its victims are considered ‘Nietzsche positive’ with the first appearance of their ‘fetch’, their dark supernatural double that is also the literal embodiment of their death at a time of the fetch’s choosing. Nora Burkhart sets out to save her only son from his fetch in a picaresque quest across the United States in the throes of a death plague, not unlike Europe during the Black Plague – ultimately to a new religion in Mexico that offers deliverance. Or does it?

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By this trilogy, Morrow has added himself to the ranks of the great fantasy satirists, while retaining a genuine sense of the beauty and sorrow of the world.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS*****

 

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(5) JOSEPH FINK & JEFFREY CRANOR – WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE (2012 – PRESENT)

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“A friendly desert community, where the Sun is hot, the Moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”

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Welcome to Night Vale is a surreal humor or horror podcast styled as a community radio broadcaster in an American desert town and has been ongoing since 2012 – although my familiarity with it is more from the novels by creators Fink and Cranor, which served as my introduction to the Night Vale setting.

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The creators conceived of Night Vale as a desert town where all conspiracy theories are real – as well as other urban myths and other surreal fantasies. And so Night Vale is an eldritch location, a Fantasy and Conspiracy Kitchen Sink setting, where the laws of time and space and nature in general don’t apply, or at apply only spasmodically. The citizens of Night Value simply roll with it, accepting surreal fantasy side by side with mundane reality.

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The show has been described as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King” – or perhaps the Illuminatus Trilogy and the Invisibles filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and crammed into one desert town. Or the surreal dream logic of David Lynch on crack or in acid flashback (or both). The focus of the podcast is the Night Vale radio station, narrated in deadpan fashion by its host Cecil Palmer (as assisted by the Voice of Night Vale’s notoriously short-lived interns).

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Cecil’s broadcasts are peppered throughout the 2015 debut novel Welcome to Night Vale as intermissions, but the main characters of the novel’s narrative are apparently minor, even trivial, characters from the podcast – Jackie, the perpetually nineteen-year old owner of Night Vale’s mystical pawnshop, and Diane, treasurer of the town’s PTA. The plot is driven by their quests to solve intertwined mysteries. Jackie’s pawnshop routine is disrupted when the mysterious Man in the Tan Jacket hands her a piece of paper marked KING CITY – unfortunately, this piece of paper is indestructible (and indeed constantly returns to her hand) and has a tendency to overwhelm other thoughts (when it is not audibly announcing its own contents). Diane’s shape-changing son Josh wants to know more about his missing father, which is complicated as Diane is now seeing him everywhere, while she investigates her own missing co-worker whom no one else remembers.

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And if the plot wasn’t surreal enough, it takes us through the geography and population of Night Vale from the podcast – the Sheriff’s Secret Police along with all the other government surveillance agencies and spy satellites, Old Woman Josie surrounded by angelic beings all named Erika (and whom it is forbidden by law to acknowledge as angels), the Glow Cloud (all hail the Glow Cloud!) and plastic pink flamingos that warp time and space.

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flamingos

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And then you have the really dangerous entities and eldritch abominations – the car salesman loping like wolves through their yards, the mysterious hooded figures in the town’s forbidden dog park, the City Council (in the council building draped nightly in black velvet) and worst of all, the Library and its most dangerous part, the fiction section filled with lies…

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“As they ducked and ran down a parallel aisle, Diane saw, through the gaps between the books, the librarian emerge from the shadows. She saw, exactly and in full, what a librarian looked like. Her stomach lurched. She would not forget the sight, recurring in dreams and panic attacks, until the moment she died, at which point she would forget it. Eventually, on the day she finally died, one of the things that ran through her mind was: Well, at least I won’t have to remember that anymore. It made her happy and she died smiling. But that was much later.”

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

killingpretty

 

(4) RICHARD KADREY – SANDMAN SLIM (2009 – 2017)

 

How could I resist a hero – or anti-hero named Stark? No simple revenant clawing his way out of the grave – James Stark or the eponymous Sandman Slim of the series by Richard Kadrey, is a revenant who claws his way like a badass out of hell. The first book (and series) had me at hell – I have a soft spot for heroes back from the dead, or even better, gone to hell and back. Stark is a naturally talented magician (not wizard, because wizarding is for wimps like Harry Potter) in the secret magical underworld of Los Angeles and falls afoul of one of his colleagues, who sends him straight to hell.

 

Stark survives the literal gladiatorial arena of the abyss and rises to serve as hitman for the demon lord Azazel in the infernal internecine power struggles, before stealing the keys to the universe to return to our world (after eleven years in hell) for revenge on those who dealt out his damnation and his girlfriend’s death. And that’s just where the first book starts!

 

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The other books in the series up the ante even more – Stark faces vampires and a zombie apocalypse (while serving as Lucifer’s bodyguard when Lucifer comes to Los Angeles to film his life story) in the second book (Kill the Dead), before going back to hell (which of course resembles Los Angeles, although there’s a magical reason for it) because a former mortal enemy has staged an infernal coup d’état in the third book (Aloha from Hell), and…well, you get the idea. Anything more would spoil the deliciously deviled fun!

 

The series might well be described as dark fantasy noir (or in the occult detective school), sharply written with an engaging cast of characters, not least Sandman Slim himself (whom I can’t help but picture as author Richard Kadrey) – Harry Dresden on steroids (or in the words of TV Tropes, Harry Dresden minus any sense of morality and on permanent god mode – wait, what’s higher than god mode?). If you read contemporary fantasy, you must read Sandman Slim. Where in hell is the movie – or at least the television series?…

 

sandman_slim_by_fairyfindings-d3cpn48

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

best-stephen-king-movies

 

(3) STEPHEN KING – IT (1986)

 

You didn’t think I was going to have a top 10 fantasy books without the King, did you? Of course not.

 

Hail to the King! Stephen King, that is. Stephen King needs no introduction – he is one of the most iconic and prolific writers of our time. Lines and scenes from his work reverberate throughout popular culture, albeit particularly driven by cinematic or screen adaptations. His prose is vivid and visceral – indeed, the only books that have given me bad dreams, something which generally only occurs from the direct visualization of movies. In short, I am that Constant Reader to which King addresses his Author’s Notes.

 

But which Stephen King book to choose? I could so readily (and will) compile a top ten (or more) just of King. Arguably, he shows his finest craft of story or narrative in his shorter novels. In these, the narrative is kept taut and tight by the shorter length, which is why they have tended to be the best screen adaptations. Let’s not forget King’s shorter fiction, even more taut and tight than his novels, but which ironically tends to be too short to sustain cinematic adaptations (with notable exceptions such as “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). I’ve been a fan of King’s short stories from my original trifecta of “The Mangler”, “Gray Matter” and “The Boogeyman” in his Night Shift collection through all his varied stories, including those under King’s own pseudonym of Richard Bachman (which inspired The Dark Half), such as personal favorite “The Long Walk” (as well as the novel Thinner).

 

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However, it is King’s longer work that has the more truly mythic impact, as it tends to have its own individual mythos, as well as being fundamental building blocks of the overarching mythos throughout King’s work, the Kingverse as it were, with its focus on Maine. But which longer work? There’s his Dark Tower series, which King considered his magnum opus – his Weird West multiverse of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Yet as much as I enjoyed being part of King’s ka-tet through its seven progressively larger volumes, the narrative extended too wide (including into his other books in an act of canon welding to rival Michael Moorcock, and for that matter to include himself in it), and it fell apart somewhat anticlimactically at the end (although I didn’t mind the ending for which he apologized in the book itself as it seemed apt).

 

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Ultimately however, if there is a book that not only has its own individual mythos and is an important part of King’s overarching mythos, but also encapsulates and symbolizes King’s mythology in itself, it is, well, It. It traces its shapeshifting eldritch entity of evil in its favorite shape of Pennywise the Clown, as well as its lair and hunting ground, the town of Derry in Maine, and its opponents, the Losers’ Club through multiple and overlapping layers (even if it has some narrative missteps – and if you’ve read It, you know which particular scene looms largest in this respect). As the saying goes, you don’t know how deep It goes – but then, you’ll all float down here…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(2) NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS (2001)

 

Neil Gaiman may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy, the literary (and suitably English) heir to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (both of whom were substantial influences on him). He may not be as iconic or prolific (or cinematic) as Stephen King, but the King himself has praised Gaiman as “a treasure house of story” and added that “we are lucky to have him in any medium”. And indeed we are. He is the fantasy writer that I would recommend to non-fantasy readers, because of his lyrical prose, his power of story and his sensibility of fantasy as ultimately the layers of story within our world.

 

 

His most mythic work – indeed, the core of Gaiman’s mythos – would be his comics series of The Sandman. It is of course within the genre of fantasy, with an episode even winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Fiction (prompting the awards administration thereafter to revise – or remember – the rules of that award to exclude comics or graphic novels). Indeed, it “falls within the dark fantasy genre, albeit in a more contemporary or modern setting”, but transcends genre – and audience appeal, attracting fans who weren’t traditionally seen as readers of comics or fantasy – into urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical drama, superheroes, mythology and more. Its mythos, and even more so its mythic themes of the power of belief and the power of story, recur throughout Gaiman’s writing.

 

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My favorite Gaiman novel is the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning American Gods, in some ways a reenactment of The Sandman mythos in the microcosm of a single novel, as well as its central themes of the power of belief and power of story. It has one of my favorite protagonists of fantasy, Shadow Moon – who wants nothing more than to return to his wife and a job with his best friend after release from prison. However, he finds himself at a loose end after his wife and best friend are killed in a car accident – in a compromising position with each other – and accepts a job offer as a ‘bodyguard’ for a mysterious benefactor, Wednesday. This job takes him into a world of gods and mythological creatures, that exist because people believe in them. (The identity of Wednesday, revealed soon in the novel, is of course immediately apparent from his appearance and name for those familiar with the particular mythology). However, existence is hard for the old gods, such as the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods, originally brought to America by their believers, but now surviving on the leftover flotsam and jetsam of belief. As one old god gripes about a successful Jesus – “There’s a lucky son of a virgin”.

 

I particularly have a soft spot for the Egyptian gods in American Gods – Anubis or Mr Jacquel, Thoth or Mr Ibis, and Bast. Sadly, hawk-headed Horus has gone mad and is living off roadkill in the desert. Although where are the Olympian gods?!

 

americangods

 

Wednesday himself survives as a magical conman and grifter. However, he has a plan for a showdown with the rising new gods, the power-hungry gods of media and technology, and Shadow is part of that plan. Shadow is helped by his revenant wife, mistakenly brought back (partly) from the dead by a magic piece of gold from the fairy hoard (thrown into her grave by Shadow) – who, in turn, only wants Shadow to help her be either truly alive or truly dead. And so Shadow sets out on various quests, including the hero’s mythic night journey into the underworld – ultimately to find out more about himself, his deeper connection to the old gods and how to be truly alive.

 

And of course there are Gaiman’s lyrical invocations of gods and goddesses, the latter such that I have canonized Gaiman as one of my saints of pagan catholicism and apostles of the goddess

 

gaiman.goddess-blue

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Characters

 

(1) J. R. R. TOLKIEN – THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1954)

 

One-Ring-to-rule-them

 

One book to rule them all!

 

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings defined modern literary fantasy, just as its cinematic adaptation arguably defined modern cinematic fantasy. Fantasy could well be classified as pre-Tolkien and post-Tolkien. In the words of TV Tropes, The Lord of the Rings is “the most recent addition to the canon of Western epic literature and is the epic which set the stage for the entire high fantasy genre that followed in its wake”. Such was its impact and influence, that Tolkien has been identified as the father of modern fantasy literature or high fantasy, although of course there were many other writers of fantasy before (and apart from) Tolkien – perhaps most notably Robert E. Howard, writer of Conan. I particularly note Robert E. Howard, because I understand that Tolkien read and enjoyed the Conan stories – and because I couldn’t resist including George R. R. Martin, who came to The Lord of The Rings from those very different Conan stories:

“Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party…Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking…Yet I kept on reading. I almost gave up at Tom Bombadil, when people started going Hey! Come derry do! Tom Bombadillo!”. Things got more interesting in the barrow downs, though, and even more so in Bree, where Strider strode onto the scene. By the time we got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me…A chill went through me, such as Conan and Kull have never evoked”

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two...

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two…

 

Indeed, just as A. H. Whitehead stated that the western philosophical tradition could most safely be generalized as being footnotes to Plato, so too might modern fantasy literature be generalized as sequels or epilogues to Tolkien – and Stephen King has done just that in his non-fiction study of horror Danse Macabre, attributing modern fantasy to a hunger for more stories about hobbits.

 

Much of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings is the depth of its world-building, or what Tolkien identified as his legendarium of Middle Earth. On the other hand, this can present as a flaw to more modern readers as a potential lack of pacing, or where world-building takes precedence to story. However, this is not surprising since the world-building was essentially Tolkien’s life hobby, from which the story revolved in recitations and into which Tolkien was not above shoehorning other ideas – the aforementioned Tom Bombadil for example, or The Hobbit itself to some extent, or as Hugo Dyson infamously exclaimed during one of Tolkien’s recitations, “Not another f…g elf!” (The same might have been said of yet another poem, song or verse).

 

Perhaps another sexy elf...?

Perhaps another sexy elf…?

 

However, I prefer the reaction of C. S. Lewis – “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart”. Indeed, there are and it is. For me, I loved the depth of Tolkien’s world, one of the few fictional worlds I regard as real as our own (canonically, it is meant to be a mythic precursor of our own world) – or indeed, perhaps more real. Again, as George R. R. Martin wrote – “The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real…They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth”

 

As for the story, like George R. R. Martin, I was enchanted and entranced – but unlike George R. R. Martin, from the very start in the Shire. The story itself should be well known to any reader (or viewer) of fantasy, and in any event is too complex to discuss in depth here, but can be summarized as the Quest to destroy the One Ring, the source of the Adversary or Dark Lord Sauron’s power. Its themes are the themes of humanity in any world – life and mortality, the corruption or addiction of power, courage and compassion, triumph against adversity and at the same time the sense of loss for those things lost in battle or passing from the world.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE (WITH SOME RANTING, MAINLY ABOUT ELVES)! 5 STARS*****