Friday, April 30, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine 564

It's all rather in the shadow of horrifying revelations about Noel Clarke, but the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features two things by me. First, I've interviewed the brilliant Millie McKenzie, who sculpts amazing clay figures of her favourite Doctor Who characters. Millie was really gracious in answering my questions and supplying us with loads of great images when we were a little pressed for time. I'm especially pleased with the title, "Tiny and Small and Made of Clay", which is a quotation from the Doctor in Aliens of London.

There's also another Insufficient Data, which I've written with Steve O'Brien and which Ben Morris has illustrated. This time, our focus is the number 8, and I got rather lost in a vortex of connections...

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Writing Doctor Who

The new Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition is out today, devoted to the topic of writing Doctor Who. It's full of thrillingly detailed analysis.

I've contributed two short profiles - first of original story editor David Whitaker (whose life I've researched in some depth), then of Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler who between them created the Cybermen. It's quite an exercise to distill the great range of their writing down to 800 words apiece!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stan Lee - How Marvel Changed the World, by Adrian Mackinder

"Somehow, Stan always managed to present himself as a modest egomaniac - an art in itself." (p. 168)

These words, from ex-Marvel writer John Tomlinson, come at the end of my friend Adrian Mackinder's fun, breezy and yet authoritative new biography of the great Stan Lee, writer and editor synonymous with Marvel superheroes in comics and more recently on screen.

It's an extraordinary story and there's a lot to pack in given Stan's long and busy life, but - like the best of the superhero movies - it never drags. Adrian's tone is friendly and direct, peppered with Stan-isms, addressing us as "True Believer" and concluding "Nuff Said", and there's a lot of direct quotation from Stan himself, even where his own accounts conflict.

We begin with the relatively humble early life of Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York. A voracious reader, at 17 Stan got an entry-level job in the publishing company run by his cousin's husband Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle also worked there, and soon, too, would his own brother), which among its various titles had only recently begun publishing a superhero one, Marvel Comics. We're not sure exactly what lowly jobs he did, but within a year he'd published a first, text story in Captain America Comics (issue 3, cover date May 1941), and a year after that when Goodman fired star talents Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for skipping hours to work on other publishers' titles, Stan ended up as editor-in-chief, aged just 19. Yet, within months of that, he handed over responsibility to someone else and enlisted in the army.

Adrian's good on sifting the different accounts of how Kirby and Simon lost their jobs - their prior disagreements with Goodman over unpaid royalties, and the never-proven suspicion that Stan may have been involved in how they came to be fired. But it's the non-comics business that made my jaw drop: among the handful of writers Stan worked with in the USASC Army Pictorial Service during the war (Stan claimed there were "eight other men"), were director Frank Capra and artists Charles Addams - later to create The Addams Family - and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. Make a film out of that!

After the war, Stan returned to comics, doggedly working in the industry for more than a decade before hitting it big with the superheroes that made him famous. That success came when he was in his 40s, which I must admit is a comfort to this jaded old hack. Adrian's good at placing that success in the context of teenage baby boomers and the counterculture, so you understand why these costumed freaks caught on, and what made Marvel hold its own against or even outsell its competitors.

He's also good on the struggles to push Marvel beyond the printed page, the failed efforts to replicate the success of the Batman TV series of the 60s, Superman movie of the 70s and then Batman in the 80s. As all this was going on, Lee would go for dinner with his old schoolmate Bob Kane - a friendly rivalry between the creators of Batman and Spider-Man. The comics were making a lot of money, but the sense is one of frustration, creative spats, unfulfilled ambition. It's all very male-dominated and embittered, increasingly more so as the profits rise. Stan seems to have stayed largely out of it, or to have forced that steely grin.

I was never much of a Marvel Comics reader and much of the story is new to me, but I was surprised how much Stan and Marvel had a hand in things I did get into - the comic strip version of Star Wars, the TV series Dungeons and Dragons, even My Little Pony of which my daughter is now a devotee. There's a lot on the wider context of publishing and popular culture, even politics where it is relevant. Adrian nicely uses his own childhood experience of reading and collecting comics to explain the bursting bubble in the industry during the mid-90s - and in doing so made me understand why some of my older colleagues lost their jobs at that time. There's a warning here about saturating markets aimed solely at "collectors". It chimes, too, with the recent scandal in football, and the widening split between management and fans.

It all looks pretty gloomy at this point in the story but, like any superhero movie, there's then last-minute salvation with the success of some movies based on Marvel properties (Blade, X-men and Spider-Man) then leading to Marvel producing its own films - to extraordinary success in the last decade. I'm not sure I needed to know which ones Adrian does and doesn't like (he is wrong about Black Panther being "rather overrated"), but he's shrewd on what made the movies work when so many other superhero films didn't, what lessons might be learned from them, and also in not losing perspective.

"The truth is, only a handful of the MCU films are exceptional. Most of them are solid and a few are so-so. But none are objectively terrible." (p.163)

There's a final twist in the closing pages where Adrian addresses the scandals in Stan's closing years with those close to him accused of elder abuse and exploitation. Adrian then digs in to try and make more sense of the real Stanley Lieber rather than the "legend" Stan Lee. He cites a few examples where we get a sense of the man behind the showbiz mask - the "teeth" displayed in a contract negotiation, the sense he could sometimes be rude or have an off day. My clever old boss Ned Hartley is quoted, suggesting that "alienation" and "anxiety" evident in the comics "give a window into Stan's soul" (p. 167). 

All in all, it's an engrossing, insightful book, full of boggling detail and wise analysis. The feeling at the end, I think, is that for all Stan was in the limelight and for all he gave the world in terms of popular culture, he always held something back - and so remains a tantalising mystery.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The third book in the Lady Astronaut series (after The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) is another triumph, and having struggled to read anything for months, I'm very pleased to complete such a whopper of a novel - it's 687 pages to the end of the epilogue, not including the acknowledgements, notes on real history and bibliography.

The Lady Astronaut series is set in a world where a meteor smashes into the US in the 1950s, with a dramatic effect on the climate which only looks to get worse. This accelerates the space programme, with the active involvement of women. The first two books in the series are led by Dr Elma York, "the" Lady Astronaut as far as the press are concerned. This new book is focused on one of her colleagues, Nicole Wargin - an accomplished astronaut in her own right but also the wife of the governor of Kansas. He's struggling with the fact that a lot of people object to the expense of the space programme, and many want to deny the existence of the global crisis. An "Earth First" movement is flexing its muscles with ever more menace.

It's a thrilling read, full of incident and twists - the end of Part II in particular made me gasp. The nerdy technical stuff is also threaded with raw emotion: Nicole's anorexia is as much of a wrench for those around her as it is to her. There's grief, too, and the PTSD of those surviving the meteor in the first place, and lots on race and sex (both gender politics and nookie). Lots of this is conveyed in telling detail: an argument where we glean that racial epithets have been used without being told exactly what was said; the mouthfeel of apple sauce or cottage cheese when Nicole is under stress; the chilling etiquette in not asking people where they're from in this world, since it may well have been destroyed.

In her "About the History" notes at the end, Kowal says that in her "LAU", the meteor prevented Jonas Salk working on his polio vaccine which is why the disease is such an issue in the novel. 

"The headline about Chicago refusing to vaccinate children? That is real. The vaccination program did work though and brought the polio epidemic to a standstill. The last case of wild polio in the United States was in 1979 ... When I wrote this book, COVID didn't exist. As we go to press ... the choices that I've made to be religious in my social distancing and mask-wearing are directly influenced by the research I did about polio. My father says that he remembers movie theatres being shut down, how no one would get into a public swimming pool, and that 'everyone was afraid of getting it.' Everyone knew someone who had gotten polio." (p. 698)

As well as the disease itself, Kowal deals with denialism, and in Part III there's the horrible, practical issue of a funeral attended over video link. It's a coincidence that it all feels so timely, but it's a testament to Kowal's skill that this stiff feels so credible having now lived such experience.

Other elements of the plot may have been borrowed from fiction. The front cover of my copy includes an endorsement from Andy Weir, author of The Martian, and I think that book might be the inspiration for Nicole making use of stuff left over from previous expeditions. Earlier, the crew of Nicole's moonbase are compromised using the same method deployed by the Cybermen in 1967 Doctor Who story The Moonbase - and I know Kowal has admitted sneaking the Doctor into other books.

But the success of The Relentless Moon is all down to Kowal as expert pilot. For all the thrills and danger, as readers we're in safe hands: the setting and characters grounded in reality, each of the myriad mysteries tied up by the end, the technical stuff balanced with plenty of humour and insight. It's a hugely satisfying read. The epilogue, set two years after the main events, took me completely by surprise but in retrospect seems inevitable, the ground skilfully prepared - so what felt at first like a giant leap is really a small step. And that, I think, is what makes this book so appealing: it's all about small steps forward in dealing with crises. We can work our problems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi chronicles his exploration of a "labyrinth" of halls full of statues-with-meaning, the place liable to epic floods and the occasional albatross. Only one other living human shares this space - aptly named The Other - but there are the remains of 13 bodies, suggesting a history of travellers through this peculiar realm. And then there's someone else among them - and the tantalising prospect that Piranesi's own detailed journal entries are not telling the full story...

Ironically enough, I was captivated by this strange, beguiling, beautiful tale of a man trapped in a fantasy domain. As with Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the magical fancy is fused with the entirely mundane, so that even the most outlandish elements feel credible.

One particular joy is that we're sometimes ahead of our narrator, who can be slow to make sense of the evidence presented. When he scoffs at such ridiculousness as "Manchester" and "police stations", we know he's missed something important - and true. I think that then prompts us to read his findings extra carefully, sifting for additional clues. We become active participants in the tale.

It's difficult to say more without giving away some of the mystery - and if you've not read the novel, then stop now. 

I think it's brilliant that the ending is not about some lost eden, forever out of grasp. Instead, Piranesi - if he is still Piranesi - is helped by an amazing character to take charge of all that has happened, and then he helps others do the same. Among the literary and scholarly references, on page 165 there's mention of "Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat [and] Blink", and there's the same satisfying intricacy and resolution. As with Blink, there's violence and loss, but what could so easily be (effective, moving) tragedy is in fact a joyous liberation. It's beautifully, deftly done - this whole puzzlebox of a book deceptively simple, and perfect.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Emperor's Feast, by Jonathan Clements

About once a month from 1991 until I left home, my grandfather would treat my family to dinner at the Golden House, a Chinese restaurant a short walk from his house, on the far side of town from where I grew up. He'd usually order the same things for us all - wonton soup followed by crispy duck and pancakes - and I vividly remember the first time I was allowed a glass of beer as well, or when Grandpa made known his approval of my then girlfriend by inviting her to one of these meals.

I now think there was something else going on. Grandpa was born in Shanghai in 1914, his father a bank manager at HSBC. In a memoir he wrote for us, Grandpa remembered his parents entertaining guests there or in Hong Kong with "marrow bones wrapped in white napkins" (which he thought over-rated), and the time, "A party of officers from the 'Hawkins', then China flagship, called for tea one day with their pet honey-bear. It raised a tantrum at not being given enough cakes and swept about a dozen pots to destruction." I think taking his grandchildren for dinner recaptured some of that mayhem.

My friend Jonathan Clements begins his new book with his own childhood memories of a Chinese restaurant where his dad worked as a drummer in a band, and where impressionable young Clemmo "ate all the time." From this, he tells the history of China through its food, the impeccable research peppered with his own experience of living and working in China. It's fascinating, funny and full of great detail. The very idea is intoxicating: a nation marches on its stomach, as Napoleon didn't quite say.

A lot of the book is about authenticity - or the lack of it - in the staples we recognise: "Peking" duck really derives from Nanjing; Zuo Zongtang (1812-85),"is unlikely ever to have tasted anything like" (p. 167) the dish later named after him and known to us as "General Tso's Chicken"; "Sichuan Alligator" (p. 200) is just the most egregious example of dishes erroneously claiming links to Sichuan. In this quest for fidelity, there's plenty on the origin of names and problems of translations. For example, trying to order a Big Mac from the McDonalds at Yangyang International Plaza, Jonathan had to describe it sufficiently for his server to give him the Chinese name: "Immense Tyrant Without Compare (ju wu ba)" (p. 195).

"There was me thinking that writing a book about Chinese food would be an excuse for endless 'research' banquets. Instead, I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie's Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That's the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don't mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" Jonathan Clements, The Emperor's Feast (2021), p. 201.

Authenticity is at the heart of his compelling final chapter, charting a series of health scares and scandals involving milk powder and milk, and then food standards more generally. This leads into discussion of the supposed origins of COVID, in the "wet markets" of Wuhan, and a culture that silences whistle-blowers and complaints. That, and some thoughts on how COVID might change Chinese dining culture - and the shared plates of food - is fascinating, full of expert insight that I've not seen addressed elsewhere.

Ironically, COVID has meant Jonathan hasn't been able to dine out while writing, and his book ends with memories of his final meal in Soho just before lockdown and dreams of the Chinese restaurant from his childhood. Like him, I am haunted by thoughts of meals anywhere other than home. A particular joy of this book is that it's like dining out in his company. I'll have wonton soup to start.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Scourge of the Cybermen trailer

The trailer for Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen is now online, with Jon Culshaw reading from the six-hour audio novel I've written and Steve Foxon providing the atmospheric score. When the full thing is released in July, you'll also get to hear Nicholas Briggs as the voice of the Cybermen.

You can order Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen direct from Big Finish.

The amazing cover art is by Claudia Gironi. Cybermen and sunflowers - what's not to love?

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #563

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts an interview with Ninth Doctor actor Christopher Eccleston, and lots of other Ninth Doctor related goodies. That includes the second instalment of Sufficient Data, the back-page column I've written with Steve O'Brien, illustrated by Ben Morris.