17 January 2015

Andrea Sorrentino sparkles on the X-Men

I have been reading X-Men for a long long time simply because the characters and their stories interest me. Of the various Marvel teams they are the ones who have been to the more exotic places and done the wilder things.

Unfortunately the time I have available to read comics has decreased while the number of titles featuring the X-Men has increased so I have had choices to make and I now just read the Uncanny X-Men regularly. This has gone through many reincarnations and relaunches since I first started reading it in 1976 and is now being written by Brian Michael Bendis.

I like Bendis' style as it is in the Marvel tradition as started Stan Lee and then developed by the likes of Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway with long story arcs and strong characters. These are good simple stories, and I mean that as a compliment.

X-Men Annual #1 took a slight detour with the story of one of the newer mutants, Eva Bell, and her trouble with time travel.

It also introduced me to the art of Andrea Sorrentino which I found stunning. This was Eva's first time jump into an unknown future. The quality of the art clearly speaks for itself.

I had not read a full comic drawn by Sorrentino before but he had appeared a few times in my selected highlights of DC Comics Digital Sneak Peeks for his work on Green Arrow.

The 27 page comic only told the first part of the story so that I had to get All New X-Men Annual #1 too. Bendis writes All New X-Men too and this is not the first time that he has done a story cross-over like this and I've bought ten copies of the second title now to continue reading stories started in the first.

I was delighted to see that Sorrentino drew All New X-Men Annual #1 too. Here Morgana Le Fey is showing Eva her fractured future.

Bendis' story was fine, though when you've been reading comics as long as you will have seen some of the ideas used before, though not quite in the same way. What makes the story special is Sorrentino's artwork.

16 January 2015

Richard Serra at Gagosian Gallery

Richard Serra and the Gagosian Gallery were both new to me and it was a fortuitous situation that led to me discovering them.

I had an evening even booked close to work and had planned to work a little late and then walk along to it but the work withered away and so I looked for something else to fill the time.

The place that I looked was the Art Fund iPhone app and I used the Nearby function to find something, er, nearby. And there was Gagosian Gallery just a few hundred meters south of me in Britannia Street. So I packed my bags and off I went.

The gallery was relatively small, just four rooms, and was constructed in the standard form with tall rooms and white everywhere. The lighting helped to blur the boundaries between walls and ceilings by adding its own whiteness; it also played havoc with my camera's automatic focus.

As the announcement in the reception area made clear, there were just four pieces on show; Backdoor Pipeline, Ramble, Dead Load and London Cross. What it did not make clear was that those four pieces would do a fine job of filling the four rooms.

Ramble was a collection of steel slabs arranged in dead straight lines across the room but staggered in the other direction to create interesting spaces to ramble through.

There were 24 blocks in 12 sizes, 2 of each size. The blocks were all 23cm deep with widths varying from 71cm to 144cm and heights varying from 60cm to 72cm. That mixture of sizes produced an effect not unlike the holocaust memorial in Berlin.

Backdoor Pipeline was the oldest piece in the exhibition, it dated from 2010 whereas all the others were from 2014, and was the odd one out. While it was still made of metal it was curved and orange rather than straight and grey.

The two halves curved vertically to meet at the top and horizontally to hide one end of the halfpipe from the other. It was another piece that you could walk through and everybody did. I walked through it twice, once in each direction.

London Cross was my favourite piece. It was made for the room it filled with the two sheets running from corner to corner bisecting the room twice. The lower piece blocked passage across the room but there were two doors into it so it could be seen on both sides.

What made the piece for me was the way that it sat in the room so that the room itself, its two doors and the things beyond them were as much a part of the piece as the metalwork was.

Dead Load took a different approach and tried to look as small as it could by occupying the centre of a big room. It may not look it here but it was taller than me.

The neat trick here was how the slightly larger top piece seemed to hover over the base. I was not the only person who crouched down to try and see how that mystery was solved.

There were just the four rooms and these four pieces but they managed to captivate me for some time. I visited each room at least twice and walked all around all of them looking at the works from various angles. That is the difference between simple objects and art.

15 January 2015

Mixed feelings about Dynamite's Dan Dare

I was an enthusiastic Eagle reader as a boy and I still have a healthy collection of Eagle Annuals, all of which I read many times. There were many strips that I liked, all of them basically, but Dan Dare was a clear favourite.

There were two reasons that Dan Dare was special for me; the artwork by Frank Hampson was fantastical and it had long stories that ran for many weeks.

After the Eagle's demise in 1967 Dan Dare disappeared for a ten years before being reborn in the new 2000AD (before I started reading it) but that experiment lasted only two years. I was reading it by then and quite liked what they did with it.

Dan Dare made a few other appearances before Virgin got hold of him in 2008 and produced a seven part story written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine. I bought the first issue at the time but it did not do enough to get me to buy the second.

Then, late in 2014, the collected volume popped up on a ComiXology sale and I bought it.

The first surprise was that the cover to issue #1 was drawn by Bryan Talbot. Obviously I knew that in 2008 but had forgotten it so it was a pleasant surprise for the second time. Being a goldfish must be like that.

The collection include an interesting introduction by Garth Ennis in which he explained why he chose to write the story. It was to write about Dan Dare, not the places he went or the machines that he used.

He even said of Frank Hampson's version, "the classic Dan Dare is nice, but doesn't really grab me."

So, instead of a story with exotic locations and bizarre creatures we get a story about a modern hero.

And that is my problem with this version, I loved the world that Frank Hampson created and did not care that much for Dan Dare the man.

That being the case, this version of Dan Dare was never going to rekindle my love for the original stories but judged just as a story it certainly had its good points.

I liked the new more menacing Mekon who used to be something like a Batman villain in the 1960s TV series, more cad than credible. Here he was the despot in charge of a fanatical army and he was prepared to sacrifice many of them to further his own ends.

It was also good to see Digby and Peabody again and I also welcomed the new character Ms Christian, a young officer who grew under Dan Dare's leadership. Some surprising things happened to some of these major characters, things I did not see coming, and that gave the story a buzz.

The artwork reflected the new narrative of the comic and it looked much like a standard comic book with rectangular panels drawn mostly from close-range. There were lots of Treens and some monsters but no there aliens and no other creatures. That, combined with Dan Dare's bomber jacket, reinforced the feeling that this was a World War II story moved to outer space.

This may sound like faint praise but I did read all the story, which is not something that I can say about every comic that I've bought on a whim in a sale. The story did plenty enough to keep me swiping the pages to read the story in a single sitting.

Dan Dare has not made an appearance since then and I have no idea who owns the rights but the legacy is still strong and he deserves to come back. I hope he does and I'll give the next Dan Dare a try too.

12 January 2015

Kingston upon Thames Society Committee: January 2015

January's Kingston upon Thames Society Committee Meeting was fairly typical with internal affairs to consider as well as some planning applications.

The main points of the Annual General Meeting had been settled previously but there were several smaller details to sort out, such as who was going to provide the drinks and nibbles. I offered to issue a press release about the meeting but given the recent history with the local papers I was not expecting it to be published. That was one of the many things that I wanted us to work on in the following year.

The first step in this year's Heritage Open Days (HODs) was to apply to Kingston Council for a small grant for the printing of the brochure. I explained that although HODs was a Borough-wide activity we had to apply to one of the Neighbourhood Committees and would apply to Kingston as most of the HODs properties were there. After a short discussion it was agreed that we should keep things simple and apply for the same as last year and not go for anything additional like posters.

We discussed possible speakers for our Public Meetings. February (Andrew Sutherland on the former Surbiton Police Station) and March (the new Chairman) had already been confirmed. We were hoping to get a speaker on Parkleys and on the new proposal for New Malden.

Our finances were alright but falling year-on-year meaning that they will need to be addressed at some point. Some of the ideas that will be considered by the new committee after the AGM include more visits and some socials. This is in addition to the proposal to charge non-members a nominal sum for attending our Public Meetings that will be voted on at the AGM.

The Old Post Office

We had arranged to meet with the developer the following Monday. There would be another exhibition on at The Old Post Office before then which most of us would visit to get the latest on the development.

We had also been ploughing through the planning application as well and the visual impact assessments had proved to be the most interesting, and controversial.

We were a little sceptical of the way that some of the views had been presented as these seemed to be chosen from vantage points that best suited the developer. I agreed to write to the Council to ask how the vantage points were chosen.


The first tranche of work under the mini-Holland was due to go to the Infrastructure, Projects and Contracts Committee the following day. Out of a total of some £30m, about £13m was to be allocated and of that £6m was for the Kingston Station scheme.

We were keen to find out more about the proposals and the way that they would be approved. These were likely to be through traffic orders rather than a planning application so this would be an unfamiliar process for us.

I agreed to write to the Council to establish what the process and timetable would be.

University Town House

We had had a presentation on the University Town House in May and the planning application had been in one of the recent weekly planning lists. Howard had circulated some comments by email and these had been held to allow for a discussion at committee.

The new scheme was broadly the same as that we had seen in May but was one storey lower and the interior space had been remodelled to reduce the amount of circulatory space.

I took yet another action, this time to submit our comments on the proposal.

11 January 2015

Ham House gardens looking good in Winter

I have always liked walking and now my iPhone encourages me to do even more by counting my steps for me. The target is 10,000 steps a day but I do not get that much opportunity doing most working hours (it depends where I am working, London is good and everywhere else is bad) so I am making more of an effort to get out for short brisk local walks.

The shortest of these routes takes me all around Ham Common in just under half an hour and I have lots of longer circular routes available. One of the longest takes me into the gardens of Ham House which, as a member of the National Trust, I can get into for free.

I broke all sorts of personal rules this time and went around the gardens clockwise, starting with The Cherry Garden on the east side of the house. I think it is the first time that I have done the gardens in that order as going counter-clockwise means that I end on a high-note with The Cherry Garden and the borders around it.

Having been replaced a couple of years ago the new lavenders had reached their full size and the garden was looking at its best.

The back of the house was looking very good too with the Winter sun shining directly on it. The row of pots on the terrace were a relatively recent addition and I like the detail they add.

Moving out on to The Plats (the lawn area that is split into eight square parts by wide gravel paths) gave me a fuller view of the back of the house, which I much prefer to its dark and fussy front.

I avoided The Wilderness at the southern end of the garden as the grassy paths were wet and there was little to see in the patchwork of little gardens formed by the hedges. I love The Wilderness but it is a Summer place.

Instead, I moved straight to the walled vegetable garden and the Orangery cafe where I rewarded myself with a coffee and some cake.

Once again I was reminded of how lucky I am to have Ham House just the right distance away, about a mile, for a reasonable walk.

10 January 2015

Trees by Warren Ellis is as strange as it is beautiful

It does not take much to get me to buy a Warren Ellis comic and I jumped in to Trees with issue #1 in May 2014 and I was hooked immediately. Now the first arc has just concluded with issue #8.

Warren's name may have been the main reason for reading Trees but Jason Howard's name helped. The two first worked together in 2013 on Scatterlands, an experiment in producing a weekly comic in the style of a newspaper strip. That experiment may have been inconclusive but it brought Warren and Howard together, so that part worked.

The other bit of good news is that Trees is published by Image Comics, currently my favourite publisher thanks to their diverse range of top-quality comics. As with all Image Comics, I bought Trees in digital format.

The idea behind Trees is simple enough, the Trees, as we called them, are an alien life-form that arrived on Earth, planted themselves across the globe and stood there doing nothing for ten years. That's when the comic starts.

The people of Earth reacted to the Trees differently, some studied them while other ignored them. The comic tells the story of some of these groups of people. These include a test community created by the Chinese around the base of a couple of trees, an Arctic science station and a retired secret service agent in Italy.

Dramatic things happen to each group thanks to the indirect influence of the Trees that just stand there motionless throughout the story.

I like Warren's writing style as he is economical with words and lets the pictures tell the story when they are all that is needed to do so. In issue #8 their is a four page section that just has one word and that is a person's name. The lack of words gives more space to the art and that is a good thing as Jason's art is beautiful. It has a gritty, linear style that is entirely suited to the story and helps to make it stand out from the usual.

This early scene shows the arrival of the Trees in Rio.

The first story-arc ends on a dramatic point and while that may be where the story was going to end I am delighted to say that other people like Trees as much as I do and so a second story is on the way. This will be called Two Forests, which sounds somewhat ominous. I'll be there to find out.

9 January 2015

Cinderella and the Beanstalk at Theatre503 was fun all the way

It occurred to me when booking to see Cinderella and the Beanstalk at Theatre503 that almost everything that I had seen at Theatre503 so far had been dark, grim or bleak. There were comedies among them but nothing that was light or jolly. Obviously this Christmas show was going to be different.

The first part of my plan worked well and I managed to be in London that day but the plan fell apart slightly thanks to road works in Battersea. I was forced to abandon my bus and walk the last kilometre or so which got me there in good time for the show but too late to eat in The Latchmere. That was no great problem and I simply resorted to the old favourites of a beer and some dry roasted peanuts.

Peanuts consumed I took my beer with me up the tricky stairs to the box office to collect my ticket and to bag a seat in the waiting area near the entrance to the theatre ready to claim my usual seat in the middle of the front row.

I was not used to seeing pantomimes, or any other sort of outright jolly show, and I settled down a little warily. My trepidations seemed founded when the three-man team came up with the lamest of excuses for why there was not a vast cast to play the many roles. I should not have worried, that was the only weak spot in the show and it was quickly forgiven.

The story was a delightful mash-up of, not surprisingly, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk with a large dollop of Rumpelstiltskin and a host of other references and characters.

The small cast added a lot to the fun and in one memorable scene the man playing both of the ugly sisters staged a conversation between them and Prince Charming, who he was also playing.

The story and the presentation was pure pantomime but aged just a little for the mostly twenty-something audience. There was plenty of audience interaction and I may have shouted "Behind You!" a few times.

The script was original and I noted the line, "Love is a Wicks brochure", as a good example of this. This was Benidorm humour, and that is a good thing.

After a few setbacks there was a happy ending but it was not as happy as the audience. We giggled, chortled and laughed all the way through a thoroughly entertaining show delivered with panache and a good understanding of both the medium and what audiences want.

3 January 2015

Sirens at Soho Theatre was strange, stark and sparkling

I was enticed into seeing Sirens as it sounded unusual and outrageous. I love unusual and outrageous can work very well when it is used to shock and provoke rather than to titillate.

I also like Soho Theatre as a venue. The performance spaces are good, if somewhat traditional, and the location is ideal. Being placed in the heart of Soho means that it is easy to combine a trip to the theatre with something else. This time it was a trip to the Liberty Sale and that is why I chose to go to the matinee performance rather than the evening one.

Soho Theatre is a pretty and gentle walk away from Piccadilly Circus, my usual arrival point in Central London. I had allowed time for a light lunch in the safe expectation that I would find a good cafe along the way. My expectations were exceeded with Apostrophe in Brewer Street with its rough modern look (not unlike some of my favourite theatres), art exhibition on the walls and reasonable menu. There were young men in there with beards and laptops. My sort of place.

I had not given up drink for January but I was cutting out the "unnecessary" drinks and as many of those are before and during theatre trips I made the point of this time of arriving at the theatre just in time to collect tickets and join the queue and I avoided the bar. Queueing was an issue, as always, with the keenest people huddling by the door and so blocking it for other people. I was not that far away but kept out of the main routes to avoid inconveniencing others. There I struck up a conversation with a woman who liked the same sort of theatres and shows that I do. That was a pleasant way to pass a few minutes before we were allowed up.

Once released, we proceeded in a reasonably orderly fashion up to the second floor only for me to walk back down again to claim my usual seat in the front row where a dark and bare stage was only interrupted by some music stands and bottles of water.

Sirens started with some singing without words, or noises if you prefer, and continued with a series of short pieces that used speech, signing, a little movement and more noises. The sole connection between them was that they were a view of womanhood and with nothing else to link them they flew past in an almost bewildering way. The changes in styles and moods kept the show interesting at the time but makes it harder for me to recall most of it now, almost two weeks later. However,  there were several notable scenes that have stuck in the memory.

I liked the one where the women talked about the cosmetics they bought and how much they spent on them. This was an interesting side of womanhood that I was aware of but had no real understanding of and it was made humorous too with the young woman in the glamorous purple dress admitting that she bough all her cosmetics from Lidl for not very much money.

Another scene that I could relate to more had a young woman talking about her baby, her fear that its silence meant that it had died and then talking through the consequences.

And so the show continued with a startling mix of topics delivered with intensity and humour, but almost without the confusion and bias of passion.

It was also a fairly negative view of womanhood in that it showed many of the trials and tribulations associated with being a woman but said almost nothing about the joys. For example, there was the expected view of the pain of birth but nothing about the pleasure of being a mother. I did not mind that as the purpose was to balance the almost relentlessly positive view given in the mainstream media and so it did not need to be balanced itself.

Sirens was a difficult show because of the style of presentation as much as the subject matter and it was that difficulty that gave it its edge. It was not comfortable to watch, nor was it meant to be, but it was intelligent, challenging and rewarding.