Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Tag: articles

News: The Sci-Fi Chronicles (or: Blimey, I’m In a Proper Book that’s ACTUALLY IN SHOPS…)

There is a book in bookshops that has words written by me in it (alongside words written by lots of other people). It exists. It’s in the world. And here it is, in the wilds of Waterstones:

The Sci-Fi Chronicles

I got asked to work on this last year by Guy Haley (one-time reviews editor of SFX who gave me my first break on the mag), as he was editing this massive book on SF and needed contributors. The Sci-Fi Chronicles was released at the start of this month – it’s a big, picture-heavy reference book featuring tons of infographics, timelines and articles on a whole variety of SF, from books and short stories to TV, films and animation.

I’m responsible for fifteen of the articles – I wrote about Battlestar Galactica, The War of the Worlds, John Carter, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, Independence Day, the Riddick movies, The Thing, Predator, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Philip K. Dick, Doom, Batman, Cordwainer Smith and Flash Gordon. (The ones on the list that I’m most proud of are the Cordwainer Smith piece, the Philip K. Dick profile, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen article, where I got to do a fictional timeline of the League’s world that was so much fun to write. Flash Gordon, on the other hand, almost broke my brain, as doing a timeline of the original Flash Gordon comic book was more difficult than I ever would have dreamed…)

It’s come out looking very nice indeed, and it’s great to know that there’s a book like this out there that has my words in it. Okay, it isn’t a novel yet, and my words only make up a small percentage of the total word count, but it’s a START, dammit…

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From The Vault: The Secret History of Monsters (2005)

A guide to the ups and downs of Cinema’s greatest Creatures…

(This is one of the articles I was most proud of, simply because the original comission was totally different. Done for Hotdog magazine in December 2005 to accompany the release of Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, it was supposed to be a “Monster Deathmatch”, kind of a comedy wrestling-style face-off between different legendary screen monsters. One problem – I simply couldn’t get it to work, or be remotely funny. So, after a great deal of panic, I brainstormed a different idea that felt like my kind of lunacy, pitched it, and amazingly they accepted it. Due to complicated reasons I never actually got paid for it, but there are various bits in here that still bring a smile to my face (even if certain gags have dated – God, I’m not sure if anyone nowadays will even remember Dragonheart…))

Ever wondered what Kong was getting up to between his infrequent movie appearances? Wonder no longer, as we unearth the behind-the-scenes lives of cinema’s greatest (and not so greatest) monsters…

KONG (King Kong, 1933)

He may have initially struggled to match his 1933 success, but Kong finally found massive acclaim on the London Stage, particularly during his unbroken two-year run as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romantically linked with a string of screen beauties including Jean Harlow and Katherine Hepburn, Kong remained a committed bachelor, spending most of the Forties and Fifties as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund. Probably the most unexpected turn in his lengthy career was his Avant-Garde period in the Sixties, immortalised in the Andy Warhol film “Kongdom”- a four and a half hour single shot of the giant ape asleep in front of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Appearing in the unsuccesful1974 King Kong remake was an unwise move, resulting in Kong losing out on a role in Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, while his self-written sitcom “Who Brought The Ape?” was eventually cancelled after two seasons. He now lives in Northern California running his own vineyard, and is credited as an “Executive Consultant” on Peter Jackson’s remake.

GODZILLA (Godzilla, 1953)

Fondly referred to as ‘the hardest working Monster in show-business’, the 50-metre tall radioactive lizard and self-confessed ‘Renaissance Beast’ has barely stopped working between his 28 movies. Since 1964, he’s appeared regularly on Japanese television in the Sesame Street-style education show Gojira Chikara Kazu!! (Number Power Godzilla), where he teaches children to count how many buildings he’s just knocked down. The Eighties saw the start of the Big G’s infamous talk show Shiawasena Gojira (Godzilla Happy Chat), while he’s recently moved into directing with a series of highly acclaimed (and destruction-heavy) arthouse dramas.

T-REX (Jurassic Park, 1993)

The star of Jurassic Park started developing a substance abuse problem when his starring role in the mooted remake of One Million Years B.C. failed to materialise. After being overshadowed in Jurassic Park III by the supposedly scarier Spinosaurus, the T-Rex was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct on the Universal Studios lot. In and out of rehab for the next few years, the T-Rex has now cleaned up its act, spending much of its time hanging out with Corey Feldman, and is strongly tipped for a comeback with a vital role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.

THE SCORPION KING (The Mummy Returns, 2001)

Widely mocked at the time for his unconvincing, CGI-like appearance, the Scorpion King made the move into professional wrestling, but was booted out of the sport for accidentally slicing the heads off some of his opponents. After an unwise attempt at shifting careers into Telemarketing, he was declared bankrupt in 2004, and is currently living as a derelict on the streets of Downtown L.A. According to reports, he can regularly be found flexing his claws outside the Bradbury Building wearing a cardboard sign that says “Will Raise Eyebrow For Food”.

THE BALROG (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

Already a legend on the Lord of the Rings set for his practical jokes involving banana skins and lava, the Balrog’s hard-drinking lifestyle was exposed after he publicly brawled with one of the Nazgul’s Fell Beasts at a 2003 post-Oscar party. Despite this, he remains friends with all the Rings cast members, and his cameo opposite Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown will be re-instated on the forthcoming DVD release. He lives in a New Zealand volcano, and is currently suing Peter Jackson for a percentage of the profits from Fellowship of the Ring,

BRUCE THE SHARK (Jaws, 1975)

After many years trying to get out of the iron-clad contracts that forced him into the shoddy Jaws sequels, Bruce The Shark has finally left the world of Hollywood far behind. He now lives at an exclusive resort in the Cayman Islands, where he’s allowed to snack on any guests who don’t pay their bills on time, and is strongly rumoured to be writing a candid expose of his film career that will ‘set the record straight’ on the supposed rift between him and Steven Spielberg.

THE SKELETONS (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963)

The sword-wielding stars were an instant success in the early Sixties thanks to their novelty hit record version of “Dem Bones”. Sadly, the sextet soon split for artistic reasons, with one Skeleton recording a 3-volume concept album, and another launching a series of pop art “happenings” with fellow Argonauts star Talos. Thankfully, the group was re-united in the mid-Eighties as a result of the “We Are The World” Ethiopia charity single, and today can still be found performing their spectacular “Boneyard” theatrical extravaganza at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

DRACO (Dragonheart, 1996)

Despite Dragonheart’s lack of success, Draco the last dragon did, briefly, manage to carve out a successful career as a witty, urbane sidekick in TV shows like Dragon P.I. and Flaming Hell, but his flippant attitude soon stalled his film career when he got himself fired from As Good As It Gets, with his role being switftly rewritten to fit his replacement Greg Kinnear. Draco currently runs his own Flame Grilled Barbecue restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, as well as earning money on the side doing Sean Connery-impersonating prank calls.

 

From the Vault

A quick note to declare that for the immediate future, I'm going to be regularly reposting some of my older articles up here, many of which date back from my 8-year sojourn as a film journalist, some of which are more recent. There'll be articles, interviews, reviews and plenty of other stuff appearing on a relatively regular basis – there'll be plenty that will have dated, but hopefully there'll still be something which will be of interest to someone, so feel free to join me on the nostalgia bandwagon, and I hope you enjoy the ride…

(The first 'From the Vault' post will be hitting in the next hour…)

 

Atom Bomb Blues – The Birth of the Watchmen (2009)

(Originally published in an SFX Special in 2009)

Remember ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ Remember how it was a gritty and realistic saga of superheroes in a world on the verge of nuclear apocalypse? Remember how the story started off with the murder of government-sponsored superhero the Peacemaker? Remember how it put a new spin on comic-book characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom and Nightshade?

Of course, you don’t remember that. Like the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President, the classic comic miniseries Watchmen never actually happened that way – but it could have, very easily. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking saga has been a landmark of quality for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t around, but Watchmen had humble beginnings, and there were many ways this influential classic could have gone in a very different direction.

In fact, it started life in the mid-Eighties simply as a way for legendarily hairy comics mastermind Moore to continue exploring his daring ideas for a different kind of superhero story. His incredible work on horror comic Swamp Thing had netted him awards and acclaim, but what he planned next was to team up with artist Dave Gibbons for a potentially challenging take on the classic superhero.

The basic starting point for Watchmen was the thought of playing with an entire superhero world – ideally using characters no longer being published – and treating them in a different and much more realistic way; subverting rather than following the usual rigid superhero continuity imposed by the big comics publishers. It was an idea that meshed with what Moore had already achieved with radical Brit superhero saga Marvelman (first published in 1982, and also known (for very complicated copyright-related reasons) as Miracleman), where he’d taken a familiar character and pushed it in a new and often shocking direction.

Soon, Moore had a loose concept for his story: one member of a superhero team would die, and the whodunnit mystery would allow him to explore interesting aspects of the superhero equation. And what was best was that it didn’t matter exactly which characters they used, as long as they were familiar. Instead of the usual super-powered action, this would be a tale *about* superheroes, and the emotional resonance and nostalgia of familiar characters would give the story a sense of shock and surprise when the reality of their world became clear.

At least, that was the theory – and after initially considering a team of heroes called the Mighty Crusaders (first published by MLJ / Archie comics), Moore eventually found a firmer structure when DC offered him the chance to use characters originally published by Charlton Comics – the rights were now owned by DC, they weren’t being published and were potentially ripe for reinvention. Moore and Gibbons leapt into action, and it’s here that the Watchmen alternate version ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ came together.

Thanks to most of the proposal being printed in the 1988 Graphitti Hardback edition of Watchmen (and reprinted in 2005’s Absolute Edition), we can get an idea of how ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ would have looked – and at first glance, the two projects are pretty similar in both plot and characterisation.

Each Watchmen cast member has their predecessor in the Charlton Comics heroes, and out of all of them, it’s the Question (who’d eventually become Rorschach) and the Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) who are closest to their Watchmen counterparts. The Blue Beetle is actually the oldest of all the characters, first seeing publication in 1939, and was always planned to be the most empathetic and human of Moore’s group, a Batman-style inventor and crime-fighter who’s sometimes aided by the powers of a mystic scarab.

Moore even worked the fact that there had been a previous Blue Beetle into the story (leading to the creation of Hollis Mason, the 1940s-era Nite Owl), while he also stayed close to the source material when dealing with the Question. One of the more distinctive characters created by famed comics artist Steve Dikto, he was a frequently ruthless crime-fighter who used an artificial skin known as ‘psuedoderm’ to render himself literally faceless.

Despite being a toned-down version of a previous Dikto character, the independently published Mr A, the Question is still a much darker, more extreme superhero, and Dikto’s right-wing beliefs in moral absolutes often came across very strongly in his Question stories. Moore’s own outlook was very different, but the uncompromising portrayal of the ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ version of the Question (and eventually Rorschach) owed just as much to Steve Dikto’s politics as it did to his characters.

Another cast member superficially close to his counterpart was Thunderbolt, who’d soon become Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Orphaned and raised in a Himalayan lamasery, Thunderbolt was both physically and mentally powerful, able to access the unused portions of his brain – but while Moore finally cast him as the ultimate villain of the piece, things got sketchier when it came to some of the other characters.

Destined to die at the story’s opening, the Peacemaker was a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he decided to fight corrupt warlords and dictators as a costumed superhero (with the splendidly ridiculous tagline – “A man who loves peace so much that he is willing TO FIGHT FOR IT!!”). Moore’s plans didn’t go much further than him being a patriotic superhero who stumbled across a shocking secret that led to his death, and this version was a long way from his Watchmen replacement, the Comedian.

Things were even looser when it came to Nightshade (soon to be Silk Spectre) – Moore basically admits in the proposal that “she’s the one I know least about and have least ideas on”, and the only firm detail set down was that the US Senator’s daughter with mysterious, shadow-based superpowers would be Captain Atom’s only emotional link to the world.

However, it was with Captain Atom, the direct predecessor of Doctor Manhattan, that the project’s real potential became clear. The original Captain Atom was a fairly clichéd nuclear-powered hero, a military official transformed by an accident that gave him a selection of nuclear-related powers – but Moore’s idea was to tackle what being an immensely powerful superhero would do to a person, and to the world around him. A distant and emotionally isolated character, the Captain Atom of ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ pointed to the depths the project would reach, as well as being definitively unlike any superhero who’d come before.

If ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ had been given the go-ahead at this point, it would have been an interesting, gritty bit of superhero intrigue. However, so much of what made Watchmen unique was the detail around the characters, the way they transcended their origins and went in unexpected directions – developments that might not have happened if Moore and Gibbons had stuck with their ‘remixes’ of the Charlton characters.

As it turned out, though, things went very differently. The proposal was submitted, but DC’s reaction was a polite “No”. They liked the idea, but didn’t want to leave the Charlton characters in a state where they were either dead, or so psychologically messed-up that they wouldn’t be usable.

This could have been the moment where everything came to a screaming halt – but instead it became the turning point for the Project Soon To Be Known As Watchmen. Intially unsure that brand new characters could achieve the same emotional effect as established ones, Moore finally realised if he used the Charlton characters as a loose basis, he could still tap into the sense of familiarity and nostalgia he was aiming to both use and subvert.

On top of that, severing the links with the Charlton originals meant the story was now completely self-contained – and one of Watchmen’s ultimate strengths is that unlike many ferociously complex superhero mythologies, it doesn’t require any outside knowledge.

The proposal was reworked from the ground up, with the Charlton characters morphing into their new versions – and as they did so, the breadth and scale of the project started to increase. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and his quantum-related powers became even stranger, leading to the ambitiously structured time-hopping chapter “Watchmaker”. The Peacemaker transformed into the brutal, morally ambiguous Comedian, while the world of the story started getting more complex, and the characters became deeper.

Bolder experiments started to happen – like the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate storyline that mirrored the main plot, and the symmetrical design of issue 5’s chapter ‘Fearful Symmetry’. It was all adventurous, groundbreaking stuff, but at best, Moore and Gibbons were hoping to carry off a daring piece of storytelling. What they weren’t expecting was to transform the comic book industry forever…

Over twenty years on, and Watchmen has had a truly gigantic effect. Even more than Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s the title that kicked off the ‘graphic novel’ revolution – it proved comics could be just as legitimate and adult an art form as any other, and its intelligent, multi-layered approach to characterisation and storytelling has been felt in countless titles ever since.

Unfortunately, it also unleashed a torrent of two-dimensional copycats, with every other superhero title embracing ‘grim and gritty’ for over a decade, and comics suddenly being crammed full of shocking violence and near-psychotic costumed avengers. Even today, despite occasional stone-cold classics like The Ultimates and All-Star Superman, there’s the sense that superheroes are still trapped in the shadow of what Moore and Gibbons achieved.

Maybe it’s not beyond belief that some enterprising writer-artist team will one day achieve a superhero tale that goes way beyond Watchmen – but Moore and Gibbons have certainly given them a hell of an act to follow…

 

 

The Star Wars Effect

The July 2007 issue of DVD Review Magazine comes with a 95 page free book all about the influence that Star Wars had over the last thirty years of screen sci-fi– and I wrote about half of it (the other half was done by regular SFX contributor Jayne Nelson).

The films and shows I covered are:

The Black Hole,
Saturn 3
Flash Gordon
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
E.T.- The Extra Terrestrial
2010
The Last Starfighter
Red Dwarf
Babylon 5
Independence Day
Starship Troopers
The Fifth Element
The Matrix
Titan A.E.

A motley crew, but it turned out fairly fun in the end. It’s an entertaining read, and should be in the shops within the next week.

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