Saturday, 25 December 2010

Santa Baby: How not to do it

Merry Christmas everybody! Instead of romping about in the snow, I'm here, snarking about festive songs. Start as you mean to go on...

As Christmas songs go, 'Santa Baby' is one of the best known, and certainly one of the most covered. So why can't anybody other than Eartha Kitt get it right?

For those unfamiliar with the song, 'Santa Baby' takes the form of a flirty letter to Saint Nick requesting presents, but not so much toys and sweets as convertibles, jewellery and all manner of mercenary sundries.

Only Eartha Kitt brings so much more to it than simply flirting. Less coquette and more drag-a-licious villainess, she winds her very adult voice around such fantastic lines as "I want a yacht and really that's not a lot" and "Forgot to mention one little thing/a ring./I don't mean on the phone..." She's not trying to pull Santa - she's trying to con him out of his boots. And she's succeeding.

The song brings to mind Kitt's equally camp and morally dubious classic, 'Just An Old Fashioned Girl', in which, in a similarly gold-digging vein, she states that she wants for very little in life - just an "ooooold-fashoned millionaire" - and claims "I'll ask for such simple things when my birthday occurs/two apartment buildings that are labelled 'Hers and Hers'." She throws herself into the character of the unapologetic femme fatale, stating her requirements, rather than begging and showing a little ankle.

And that's the difference between Kitt and those who cover her work. There have been various terrible attempts, but this Christmas I sat and watched swingdoor pop group Sugababes do nothing short of garotte this fantastic song. Like every other contender for Kitt's crown, they writhe and giggle like Ann Summers 'schoolgirls', smirking and trying to act 'sexy'.

Bear in mind, please, that the Sugababes are three pretty girls in their twenties. It's quite an effort to make them unsexy, but apparently all it takes is for them to try to be sexy! That and inject a sultry song with as much genuine playfulness and character as a musty toupee.

And pretty much every other version does the same. The artist (or their choreographer) looks at the lyrics of the song, has a vague recollection of it being quite slinky and goes, "OK! Sexy! Why didn't you say? I'll wear a fur bikini and wiggle while giving myself a Lolita voice! Instant hit!" (pedants will tell me that Lady Kitt is scantily clad in the video, but bear with me)

They'll carry on covering 'Santa Baby' ad infinitum, and missing the point all the while. I guess at least performance royalties may make their way to Kitt's estate, but it's upsetting to think that so many people will look no further than the Kylie or the Pussycat Dolls, and won't go listen to that magical original. Genuinely intriguing and engaging performance requires character. Character, more often than not, requires experience of conflict or having overcome difficulty. And by difficulty, I don't mean a whole 12 weeks of singing for a bunch of billionaires. You can read aspects of Eartha Kitt's amazing life story on wiki, or read her biography in order to find the key to her trademark Catwoman purr, but perhaps it's best simply to enjoy her music.

In fact, don't listen to me extoll her virtues when she can do it perfectly well herself. Enjoy and have a good holiday!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Spandex issues 1-3

The first issue of Spandex managed the rare feat, some months ago, of making headlines in the Sun, the Metro and various online news sources. That's good going for any comic, let alone an indie production sold chiefly through the author's website. The 'story' was in the premise - the world's first all-gay superhero team, although creator Martin Eden has been at pains to emphasise this isn't just a gimmick:

"I feel that a lot of gay comics or TV shows are still in a bit of a niche – even things like Queer As Folk. Look at how most gay characters in EastEnders eventually get written out, because the writers don’t know what to do with them. Spandex is a straight-forward story, the characters face things that any comic characters would face, but they just happen to be gay."

That last statement is only half-true. There's certainly the usual monsters of the week, inter-team relationships/breakups and warring egos, but Eden is also selling himself short. I'll come back to that later on.

Happily for an independent production, Spandex is in full colour, and makes great play of it; the second issue features a fight against an army of pink ninjas and the team are represented - naturally - by a rainbow motif, with each team member assigned a colour that roughly fits their demeanour (the calm, collected one is blue, the joker is orange, the mysterious french one indigo, etc). I'm not entirely sure how this gels with the aim of making the characters' sexuality incidental (nor, for that matter, is this intention best served by names like Glitter, Butch and Diva) but it certainly gives the book a healthy shot of personality. Out of all the comics I've purchased in the past month or so, it's probably the only one that would have been significantly more difficult to read if rendered in black and white.

Beyond the colour, the art takes a little more getting used to. Like Bryan Lee O'Malley in the first volume of Scott Pilgrim, Eden is still finding his feet as a comic artist, which means misshapen fingers and awkward poses pop up more than they should. But the spare and simple lines mostly do the job, while both composition and panel layout are surprisingly dynamic and sophisticated.

The storylines, meanwhile, vary in tone quite wildly over these first three issues. #1 plays more like a parody of the superhero genre, with lines like "Oooh, I'm tingling!" and "We so need a better catchphrase", while the team battle a 50 foot lesbian. By #3, the mood is far more sombre and the plot more like a science fiction parable. There's plenty of sex and swearing, but it's always handled with a light touch - a million miles away from the posturing faux-outrageousness of, say, X-Force: Sex and Violence. In fact, Spandex is considerably more open and less patronising in sexual matters than most mainstream comics, where plunging necklines, corsets and leotards pass for practical battlewear and characters get it on only in order to advance the 'mature' subplot. Where else have we seen men having to deal with involuntary erections while wearing skintight pants? Or a back-up strip that juxtaposes fighting alien invaders with the hero's alter-ego visiting an STD clinic?

Alas, Spandex hits the same stumbling block as many similarly self-aware 'remixes' of the superhero genre - a dearth of originality in the character's abilities. There's a super-strong character, an invulnerable character, a teleporter, a speedster, a ninja, a half-cat mutant and even a gay Multiple Man. Only Prowler, who has the ability to 'connect' to other gay people in the immediate area and utilise their combined knowledge and strength, seems to have been given an ability that hasn't already been done to death. And while there's more to the characters than their powers, it seems odd to take such a staple of superhero comics and make it the dullest part of the fiction. Even the way they're introduced seems to lampshade this lack of interest, with an enemy commentator struggling to remember which is the invulnerable one and which the strong guy.

On the other hand, the mundanity of these power sets serves to underline the genuinely subversive qualities of the comic. Most superhero fiction follows the thematic creed set out by Stan Lee in Spiderman: "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!" Spidey, Batman and the X-Men all yearn for a 'normal' life; but their special abilities bring with them obligations, and with those obligations comes the suffering and sacrifice, the hard grit of living. Their powers are, we suppose, outlandish interpretations of our own unique talents and privileges. It's a fictional model that presumes its readership to have either stand-out ability or socio-political power and to struggle chiefly with the balance of social and personal responsibilities. And no wonder - the vast majority of comic readers and creators have traditionally been straight, white males. It was always hard to buy the X-Men as an analogy for oppressed minorities when their 'burden' gave individual members more - rather than less - power than the fleeing, wailing humans.

Spandex, like Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, flips this emotional core on its head and in doing so, hits closer to home. It recognises that for most people, straight or gay, it's difficult to conceive of the life of a superhero being one of hardship and heartbreak; instead, it's a fantasy, an attractive alternative to real life. But while Kick-Ass dons his wetsuit to escape the banality of being 'normal', the Spandex team use their secret identities to evade a more fraught existence, and to exert the kind of control they don't have over their lives. You only have to look at Diva, the traditional buxom blonde in tight, revealing costume, who flies in through her bedroom window at night and turns back into a regular-chested 'dumpy woman', frizzy hair scraped back into a high ponytail. Then there's Liberty, the team's transvestite leader. As well as taking drag to its natural extreme by becoming a glitzy, extroverted superheroine in the day time, in issue #2 she's also revealed to be an arch-manipulator, contriving situations in order to keep her superhero team colour-coded and regular in number (one death early on means a replacement needs to be found - in yellow) and spying on her team-mates' bedrooms through close circuit television.

This isn't postmodern tomfoolery for geeky giggles and it's a far cry from the 'What if?' realism of Watchmen. It's a way for Eden to explore gay issues in an engaging and challenging way, without the cumber of worthiness or the confrontationalist tenor of hard-nosed activism. If that isn't apparent from the camp hijinks of the first issue, it should be obvious by the time a character tells a villain he's already come through the darkest time in his life and that her fear-based powers cannot affect him. What should be a tired scene based on a weary trope carries a fresh poignancy for its explicit links to the experience of rejection and self-loathing. Writers of graphic fiction seldom use their work to articulate their concerns in such a way, and based on this evidence, the medium has rarely been put to a more socially responsible use.

Spandex site
Interview with Martin Eden

My Life as a Crap Artist

I've spent far too much of the little seasonal time I have trying to draw one single, simple drawing of a swift. It's for our next book, Birdbook I: Towns, Parks, Gardens & Woodland, an anthology (full-size this time) of poems and illustrations about ... well, birds, obviously. Way before we started looking for other poets and artists to involve in the project, I said to K: "I'm doing the swift. Art and poem. No question. Don't even put it up on the list. It's mine."

Swifts have been my favourite birds, see, ever since I was a cub scout and I collaged one for some project or another. They are, to this beholder's eye, incredibly beautiful, both close up and in flight. I also think they're just plain cool. I had a character in a novel who had the special ability to fire swift-shaped semi-corporeal shadows that flew around screaming. I try to conceive of games with swifts as protagonists. I designed a Beast Wars-era Transformer that transformed into swifts. I will happily read almost any recently published article or paper on swifts, even if it's regurgitating what I already know about them, even if it's really about the type of parasites that live on them.

So it gets to early December. I have the poem more or less done and am promising K - who has spent what feels like most of this year rounding up and chasing down artists and poets for this book - that the picture can be thrown together and dropped in, oh, any time. There's just one thing I've forgotten - I'm a crap artist.

I wasn't always a crap artist. When I was in school, I would draw things and teachers would coo about my artistic talent, while other kids would ask me to sign sketches in the expectation that they would be worth something 'when you're famous'. When I look back at the picture books I made in those early school days, I was probably a better artist than prose writer ("'Yeah well I smell bad magic' Said Jon" was about the standard). Then I did an art GCSE (A*!) and for A Level (B, just shy of an A). But if I'm honest, I don't think I improved much over that period.  A Level art in particular was a doss. We horsed around. We drew or painted the odd picture. I discovered the teachers liked my chalk drawings, so I concentrated on that. We spent a whole lesson taking items off one teacher's desk and masking taping them to the front of it while he sat there. We did some life drawing, which I was also pretty good at. The instructor only had two ways of responding to your work: he either took your pencil, rubbed out what you'd done and redrew it while explaining that things in the distance looked smaller ("This is called 'perspective'") or he glanced at it and did nothing. I always got the nothing. I would do one two minute sketch in pencil and then two or three more in chalks on sugar paper in different styles.

At university, I concentrated more on writing, but had grand ambitions of writing a novel in words and pictures. This was an early attempt at a cover for it, still in a phase where I thought chalk was my forte:

(For some reason, it's been mirrored). In any case, I soon began to realise, as I persevered with images for the novel, that I was nowhere close to mastering any kind of style and wasn't even a competent draughtsman. I could copy, mildly caricature and change the colours, and err... that was about it. I didn't even know where to begin when it came to backgrounds, which is why in the above image, for example, the images are laid on top of three panoramic photographs of the now demolished Waveney Terrace at UEA.

I also now had come across, and the seeming millions of artists across the Western world - many of them teenagers - who are actually quite good. Or really good. Or amazing. I knew then that I'd gone from being 'famous one day' to being an absolute no-hoper.

I tried, somewhat desperately, to find a style I felt comfortable with, one which I hoped would save me the trouble of going back to the years of studious figure sketching I'd obviously missed out on. Here's me trying to ape Yoshitaka Amano, the artist behind the Final Fantasy series of games. I admired his technique and foolishly thought that it would be easy to replicate, since it was often little but watercolour washes over sketchy, swaying pencil lines depicting semi-floating figures. Unfortunately, I also knew bugger all about using watercolours properly, despite a few earlier (mostly disastrous) experiments.

I also knew nothing about oil painting. My first attempt was the final project for my art A level, and its obvious rubbishness was the main reason I got knocked down from my A. My second (and only other) attempt was a very brief blast on A5 during my third year of uni, inspired by that painting of a miserable guitarist by Picasso:

You can see I more or less gave up. But hey! Just because everything I've relied on so far is actually quite difficult, requiring years of practice, doesn't mean the next thing I try won't turn out to be a doddle. Such is the optimism that has informed my approach to visual art for near enough the past decade. Here's me thinking the future is in digital manipulation of better artists (pre-Banksy):

Note the swift! All these pictures so far, by the way, were intended as components in my extravagant semi-visual novel. I still want to write something like it, but the project has ended up permanently on the back burner, waiting for me to somehow conjure up the requisite artistic and storytelling skills.

Swift imagery again in this attempt to follow Max Ernst into surreal collage:

And more Max Ernst influence still. I decided that I wanted to work with 'material' and persuaded people to give me their old clothes to cut up so that I might produce abstruse silliness like this:

That white thing is derived from a swift again, by the way.

Unable to commit to any style, let alone get a proper grip on one, I decided at some point that I could make a good fist of writing comics. Or rather, some sort of comic/poetry hybrid. Only I'd forgotten - I don't know how to draw backgrounds! So naturally, I decided the easiest thing to do was photograph every area where my comic should take place and drop the characters into them. Problem being that rather restricted my locations:

This is a superhero comic and their secret base is ... my bedroom. Also note that I was too lazy to ink. These are just pencil sketches, scanned in, with the contrast ramped up to maximum.

Things improved slightly when I got back into Transformers. Everything is more angular in Transformers, and I found I could produce a one page comic in, oh, a month. Wonderful for a property you don't own and which most of your friends think is a bit childish:

We're getting to the stage now, though, where I'm starting to feel maybe a little confident again. That last strip isn't too bad, and I found, probably some time around three years ago, that I was quite comfortable using a brush and ink pot:

Since then I've started to feel, every now and then, like I'm getting close to being something you might call an 'artist', rather than just someone who occasionally goes back to art to see if it's magically got any easier since the last time. It's still embarrassing how hard I have to work to manage even simple cartoons - most of the images on the Dr Fulminare site, for instance, took many attempts. Any art I do for Fuselit is a major task and something I'll contemplate giving up on at various points in its creation. A particular frustration of late is that even if something looks good in pencil, inking can ruin it. Heck, even scanning can take all the shine off. The idea of being able to quickly knock out a decent little sketch is still a bit of a daydream. So is the notion that if I spent a long time on something it will end up intricate and complex and glorious. It will be a long time before I feel I can call myself either an artist, illustrator or cartoonist in the same way I'm fairly comfortable thinking of myself as a poet.

But I do want to persevere, even amongst all my other commitments, and so I've persevered with the swift drawing, albeit that I've gone through many poor attempts before arriving on an extremely simple one I'm happy with:
My 'vision' was mixing images with cut up words from an out-of-print book on swifts I have. I also wanted to do a really clean simple version of the bird. This guy looked great in one of my miniature sketches - like a villain drawing his cloak around him - but when I blew him up and dropped the context in, he just ended up looking fat. Swifts are not fat.
So I replaced him with this pair. But they're too simple. It looks like I knocked them up in half a minute (it was more like twenty minutes) and neither of them suggest much of the swift's relative power, or marvellously severe expression, or their perfectly evolved arrangement of flight feathers, which are studied for the purposes of military science (ie. making tiny, highly efficient spy planes).

I was really attached to this chap for a few days. I thought maybe I should play the 'cartoonist' rather than the 'artist' and give him some items which suggested personality. So here he is with what are meant to be a map, goggles and pilot scarf, stopping off on a cliff to check his migration route. But I had a lot of trouble working out how he could possibly end up in this position. Swifts have backward-facing claws and can't grip 'around' objects - they can only cling vertically. I know - I'm overthinking it. But it still bugged me and the wings still aren't right.

This is the pencil sketch of the drawing I finally went with. The scan has bleached out the lighter shading. I'll leave the final version for a debut in the printed book but in the mean time, I hope a progression of improvement can be followed through the last four images. I mean, I hope I'm not fooling myself. I am getting a little better, aren't I?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Orbiting literary auction event tonight - amazing new lots added!

EDIT: This event has been cancelled and will be rearranged for early 2011! Unfortunately, the snowfall means performers outside of London can't make it in tonight.

Brave the snow tonight for a warm welcome at the fantastic Orbiting event at London's Poetry Cafe (nearest tubes Tottenham Court Road, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Cirucs) - readings by top poet Richard Evans, Jon and myself and Goldsmiths alumni, as well as music by Tim Hoyte.

7.30pm start, £6/£4 concessions entry.

PLUS a literary auction, just in time for Christmas, of the following items (all in aid of the Clare Lewis Nest Egg Fund)! New items added today!

• Handwritten sonnet by Toby Littl with signed postcard
• John Cage manuscript
• Signed poem by Stella Duffy
• Edited A4 page from a recent James Miller novel: Sunshine State
• Handwritten poem ('Night Photograph' title poem of her first collection) by Lavinia Greenlaw
• Signed first edition of The Importance of Music for Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw
• Signed first edition of Maurice Riordan collection
• signed copy of Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road collection
• handwritten poem by Matthew Hollis
• signed copy of Tom Lee's of Greenfly, collection of short stories
• signed copy of Daljit Nagra's collection of poems, Look We Have Coming to Dover
• signed copy of Maura Dooley's collection of poems, Life Under Water
• signed copy of Stephen Knight's collection of poems, Dream City Cinema
• signed copies of Blake Morrison's And When Did you Last See your Father, and The Justification of Johann Gutenberg
• signed copy of Francis Spufford's memoirs, The Child that Books Built

I'll bring the Lebkuchen - you bring the festive spirit! K x

Friday, 10 December 2010

About a Minute

I've contributed to this new and excellent exhibition, which opens today:

15 artists, architects, designers, poets and writers interpret the potential of a minute

About a Minute is the inaugural exhibition at The Gopher Hole, a new project space in Hoxton founded by aberrant architecture and Beatrice Galilee. For their first show, The Gopher Hole invited carefully chosen conceptual artists, architects, designers, poets and writers to respond to a premise – the idea that today, a minute is all we seem to have.

Increasingly hyperactive consumption of data, information and images has trained the brains of a generation to multi-task, skim, tweet, comment and status-update, but has eliminated the notion of patience or pause. The sheer volume of things available at the touch of a button or swipe of a finger has lead to a saturation point, where boredom and irritation arrives sooner than we may like to admit. Galleries are easy victims of the phenomenon. Visitors may spend a few moments to asorb an artwork, half-read a caption and move on. This leaves both curators and artists in a conundrum. How does one respond to the knowledge that no more than a minute may be spent with a painstakingly crafted exhibit? After all, it can take less than a minute for everything in the world to change.

Participants: Rachel Armstrong, Shumon Basar, Diane Cochrane, Economy, Glowacka Rennie & Robin Dutson, The Go West Project, Elaine W. Ho, Sam Jacob, Christian Kerrigan, Pedro Gadhano, Ralf Pflugfelder, Postworks, Jon Stone, Sunday Collective, Luke Wright

My contribution is 'Staring Into Space', a collection of six poems written to reflect the content and composition of about a month's worth of daydreams I noted down (or recorded on a dictaphone). Daydreaming can do strange things with time, including compressing it so that you conduct an entire fantasy narrative in the space of a minute or so. Visitors are invited to stand and daydream themselves, then record their daydreams in a book provided.

My favourites among the other pieces include a collection of 'translated' chairs (the originals were described using a minute's worth of words and the descriptions then used by architects as the basis for a new design) and a layered picture which visitors are invited to tear a piece from, causing a gradual decay over the course of the exhibition.

It's running from now until early February on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at The Gopher Hole, which is downstairs at El Paso restaurant near the corner of Old Street and Curtain Road. Nearest tubes are Old Street and Liverpool Street. Please go and have a look round!

No, Robot, No!

Earlier this year, Forest Publications approached Kirsty with a proposal to contribute to their very successful chapbook series. Kirsty isn't quite ready to publish a debut pamphlet yet, but we reached a compromise whereby the two of us would put our heads together to come up with a pseudonymous themed pamphlet. The end result was No, Robot, No, attributed to Eve Bishop and Roy Marvin, and it's available for a rather affordable £2 (with an extra quid for postage, I think). Both of us had already written a number of robot poems, most of which were previously unpublished, and we wrote four new collaborative poems specially for this collection, including a reprise of the 'domino' poem technique from Dr Fulminare's Bardgames.

"Two mysterious figures conspire to produce a mechanism of collaborative poetry on the subject of our anthropometallic friends. Whether in the guise of hairdressers, assassins, patients or pets, synthetic heroes and villains travel through this pamphlet in confusion and curiosity. From famous film and literary automatons to intimate portraits of the droid in the street, No, Robot, No! is a zoom-mode look at the everyday lives of superbeings."

“Such heroic nonsense!”Megatron
“Oh, yes, that’s very good, I like that… Oh!”C-3PO
“[tinny roar]” – Mechagodzilla

About the Authors:
Roy Marvin is a community service bot who writes poetry during his oil changes. He has only 500,000 more time blocks to work before he graduates from waste disposal to park patrol. He can’t wait to see his first real squirrel.

Eve Bishop is an ex-assassabot who collects boxes. At the time of writing she has 50,936 boxes.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Christmas Press Release

Since we've got Korsakoff out just in time for Christmas, I've whipped this up. Please spread far and wide if you are willing and able!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Orbiting: 17th December: Reading & Literary Auction

Rather unique and important poetry event this. Important because we're raising money for something that will make a big difference to someone's future. Unique because there'll be an auction of various items, many of which have yet to be announced, but already including a signed John Cage MS and a handwritten sonnet by Toby Litt. Here's the Facebook event and here are all the details you need:

Friday, December 17 · 7:30pm - 11:00pm
The Poetry Cafe
22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden
London, United Kingdom
A night of poetry and prose


Featuring poetry from Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Richard Evans
And Goldsmiths Alumni
Music from Tim Hoyte


7.30 start, £6/£4 Concession


Including edited manuscripts, signed works and handwritten poems by
major writers!

Items kindly donated for the auction include:

• Handwritten sonnet by Toby Litt with signed postcard
• John Cage manuscript
• Signed poem by Stella Duffy
• Edited A4 page from a recent James Miller novel: Sunshine State

More to come!