- Corporate lawyer Gary Hoy used to perform a stunt for new employees where he would throw himself at the windows of the high-rise Toronto Dominion Centre to prove how unbreakable the glass was. Unfortunately when he did this at a reception on 9th July 1993, the glass did not break but popped right out of the frame, causing him to plunge twenty-four stories to his death.
- When the Mississippi and Missouri rivers rose to unprecedented levels, one of the levees failed, flooding over 14,000 acres on the Missouri side and washing away all the bridges. Petty criminal and arsonist James Scott was eventually convicted of "intent to cause a catastrophe" by deliberately damaging the levee - just so that he could strand his wife on the other side of the river and keep partying.
- The barking sound that the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park" make to communicate with each other is actually the sound of two tortoises mating.
I was already a big fan of Scott McCloud before he released the book that would become his most famous and celebrated work. Back in the 1980s I had discovered his comic "Zot!" published by Eclipse - and followed its progression from a light-heated superhero story to a series that also sensitively dealt with issues of teenage sex, bigotry, homosexuality and feelings of not belonging. He also produced the over-sized one-shot "Destroy!!" which was an affectionate homage to the senseless superhero slug-fests of his youth.
But in 1993 McCloud published a non-fiction volume that attempted to explain exactly how comic books function - using the medium itself. At a time when the artistic merit of graphical storytelling was still in doubt, "Understanding Comics" engaged in a wide ranging discussion on the definition, history, vocabulary and methods of the form along with what happens to us as we read comics and how our minds interpret the information - the key balance of time, space, colour, words and pictures that form this unique language. All this in an incredibly accessible style.
McCloud begins by defining comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" ("sequential art" for short) and then uses that as a jumping off point to show that they really have been around a lot longer than we might think. When he focuses on the visual aspect, it's as much about our subconscious reactions as anything else - one of the best things is when he explains how the reader is complicit n the telling of a comic book story because so much happens in the "gutters" - the spaces between the panels - where the reader has to fill in the gas and invent what is going on to connect one image to another..
Scott goes on to develop a whole system of pictorial vocabulary - a triangle with vertices of 'Reality' (where pictures represent the real world), 'Language' (where pictures communicate an idea), and the 'Picture Plane' (where pictures are just shapes). All visual storytelling, all comics, can be fitted into this triangle. It might sound complicated but McCloud's skill as writer and artist is that he builds up the concepts step by step in a clear and concise way that means even non-comics aficionados can follow it. He likewise has incisive and interesting things to say about the differences in the evolution of western and eastern comics, the various types of relations of text to image, the ways comics could more fully live up to their potential, and much , much more. It would be impossible to try and summarise the whole book - you need to experience it for yourself.
Before buying this book, I thought I knew all about comics. After all, I had been enjoying them almost from the time I learned to read. I thought I knew the conventions, the tricks - how to *read* comics. What I didn't realise was what I was missing - the "invisible art" that is the sub-title to McCloud's opus and I'm not joking when I say it made me look at them in a whole new light. This is essential reading for anyone who loves any form of sequential art.
Scott went on to produce two equally brilliant sequels - "Reinventing Comics" in 2000 and "Making Comics" in 2006, plus become one of the pioneers of internet comics, micro-payments and the inventor of the "24-hour comic book" concept. He has also toured the US and Europe as a lecturer and advocate for the medium he adores. I'd love him to release a new updated version one day (or maybe even return to the world of "Zot!") but for now he has recently produced his most significant work of fiction in twenty years, in the form of the 496-page "The Sculptor". Even now he is still innovating. After all , as he says at the end of "Understanding Comics"...
- Myst - This one is for my wife, as she was the real addict to this famous graphical adventure, which was the best selling PC game for nearly ten years. It's combination of non-linear storytelling, challenging logic puzzles (which required a *lot* of lateral thinking and patience to solve) and beautiful pre-rendered locations captivated a generation of players and it was one of the first games that felt like a living breathing world. The four sequels improved the graphics nd interaction much further, but it's this first entry in the series that was a real turning point.
- Cracker - Created by the excellent Jimmy McGovern, "Fitz" is an alcoholic, chain smoking foul-mouthed mess. But Robbie Coltrane's Edward Fitzgerald is also a brilliant criminal psychologist whose ability to get into the mind of his suspects enables him to solve the most complex cases - even if the means are sometimes dubious and the fallout to his personal life is disastrous. It's a mesmerising award-winning turn from Coltrane and the series turned the normal police procedural on it's head, presenting a side to criminal investigations that audiences had not seen before - dominated by a dangerously arrogant lead (in one episode, Fitz is so blinded by his own perceived intellectual infallibility that he even helps the polices extract a false confession from the wrong man). The supporting cast of flawed characters was second to none, with career high points from Christopher Eccleston, Geraldine Somerville and Lorcan Cranitch. McGovern was also not afraid to kill off his characters to show the consequences of the investigations - the death of DCI Bilborough at the end of series two was one of the most shocking and unexpected twists I'd seen on television and it's effects reverberated through the remaining episodes.
- Demolition Man - Forget "Rocky" or "The Expendables". This is Sylvester Stallone's best action film by far. Not only that, it's incredibly funny too. Sly is the brilliantly named John Spartan, a maverick cop who, while in the pursuit of the insane Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), inadvertently causing the death of all the hostages. Both men are convicted for the deaths and sentenced to a CryoPrison where they are frozen for decades. Thawed out in 2032 for a parole hearing, Phoenix escapes and goes on a rampage in a society so free of crime that it's police force has forgotten how to deal with physical violence. Here in the future guns, alcohol, coffee and swearing are banned. Physical contact is discouraged and even going to to bathroom involves a mystifying process called "the three shells". But Lieutenant Huxley (Sandra Bullock) has an idea - unfreeze John Spartan to deal with the problem. "Set a maniac to catch a maniac"... What follows is not only an action blockbuster in the true 90s mold but also a fish-out-of-water story as Spartan tries to come to terms with this brave new Political-Correctness-gone- mad society, catch Phoenix and figure out who is behind it all. It's an affectionate send up of the macho man genre and all three leads deliver great performances, with Stallone finally showing that with the right script he can do comedy. As someone who grew up on the futuristic satire of "Judge Dredd", this film was right up my street and I loved it from the first viewing.
- The Book of Ultimate Truths - Robert Rankin had been around since the early 80s, and I recall being lent a battered copy of his debut novel "The Antipope" at some point. The early follow up's in the increasingly mis-named "Brentford Trilogy" were pretty good fun, although I wasn't so enamoured of the "Armageddon" series. But it was this first book starring Cornelius Murphy and more importantly the Guru's Guru - Hugo Artemis Solon Saturnicus Reginald Arthur Rune - that kind of heralded his second coming and cemented his place as the "father of far-fetched fiction" with a stretch of over twenty novels full of catchphrases, re-occurring characters, running gags and convoluted plots usually involving a conspiracy of some sort. It's probably because of a tradition or old charter or something - or else because of the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter...
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The best "Trek" series so far (I know, some of you will violently disagree) - probably because it throws out the 'wandering around the galaxy in a starship' for a fixed location where the characters can't run away from their problems. The first couple of seasons has the show still finding it's feet but once the Dominion are introduced and the war starts, "DS9" is firing on all cylinders and produces one classic episode after another. Nothing is black or white, complex characters change and mature and there are always consequences. Outside of the main plot arc there are a number of other excellent stories varying from the social and racially focused "Far Beyond The Stars" to the 30th anniversary tribute "Trials and Tribble-ations". As much as I like "The Next Generation" and have seen those episodes multiple times, "DS9" is the only "Star Trek" series I own on DVD.