VideoBrains Talk Transcript – When Bad Guys Are Good

Right. I did this talk for VideoBrains back in October. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t a good talk but now having watched it back five months on, I’m less scathing of myself. However, due to my fast and at times inaudible speaking, I’ve decided to put the script here. Yes those puns were mostly all written, including the one about wearing a tie for Jake.

You can find out more about the wonderful talks and tickets to future events at http://www.videobrains.co.uk/.

 

My original plan was to come out here in a black leather jacket and shades with Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destoryers playing. Thankfully I changed my mind, mostly because I thought Jake would kill me for not wearing a tie.

My original plan also included looking at my experience of playing as a bad-guy or an anti-hero. I thought it would go well with the theme. Although I have to say that it has also been interesting to find the differences between a literal interpretation of an anti-hero and what we consider in an modern entertainment context to be an anti-hero.

But before I list a few of these characters that we all know and love or loath, I think I should share with you the games that inspired me to talk about this in the first place.

Back in 1994, I had my first PC. A slightly rescued and rebuilt IBM 386mhz PC with a floppy disk drive. Moving on from the fairly linear design of the console games available to me in my local Blockbuster Video, and the growing impatience at my Spectrum’s ever failing keyboard, I found many games that I just could not stop playing. X-Wing of course was first, but it was TIE Fighter that gripped me. Here I was, an aimless pawn in the story arc of my then favorite trilogy. I was a nameless, faceless piece of cannon fodder who rose above it to see this fictional conflict from another viewpoint.

I was shield-less and ballsy, shooting rebel craft in to polygons and leaving nothing but waste for the vacuum of space. But for years I had a very binary notion of good and evil. The rebels and the Imperials by their nature sound as they should, which when you think about it is eloquently designed to engender empathy for the side of the fiction’s protagonist. I imagine Orwell would have had a field day with Star Wars in that regard.

But in a strange way, because the game was designed to be harder and reflect that almost Japanese WW2 airforce dogfighting dynamic, I became more attuned to the Imperials. There was more to lose here, more to prove and therefore, more to gain in success.

Then there’s Dungeon Keeper, the titular inspiration of this month’s topic. What a game Dungeon Keeper was. The magnificent Richard Ridings, whose voice I first heard introducing the Polymorph on Red Dwarf, exudes the most deliciously evil tone, like it oozed out of my Packard Bell’s speakers back in ’97. It’s at this point that most of you have probably decided to put the word ooze on par with moist in your forbidden lexicon.

For those that only know the freemium travesety, Dungeon Keeper was one of those pre-Milo Molyneux games that followed an isometric building/strategy formula that his Bullfrog studio made famous with Theme Park and Theme Hospital. Of course, ever the guy to subvert convention, the idea for this building game was to construct dungeons and attract minions in your quest to take over the land. A land of fantasy prospered above the surface where you built your halls, libraries, training rooms, treasuries and chicken pens. Your imps would dig out rooms, mine for gold and take over areas, digging faster with a gentle slap of the “god hand” cursor. You could then possess any of your minions, including the rather bemused chickens and run around, preparing for when the knight of that realm decided to come down and challenge you. And eventually lose to your never-ending wave of corruption, destroying the entire kingdom before it.

Basically, whilst actually being a good strategy game, it was the first one that I played that actively celebrated you being a complete and total bastard.

As a thirteen year old I never questioned it but as a man well and truly fixed in his early twenties, please don’t correct my maths, I’ve become more fascinated as to why I enjoy this subversive frivolity.

Terry Eagleton is a renowned literary critic and theorist. Writing for The Independent whilst promoting a book he had written on evil, he said this:

When did evil start to look so alluring? One answer might be: when goodness began to look boring. We can blame this on the puritanical middle classes. It is they who redefined virtue as thrift, prudence, meekness, abstinence, chastity and industriousness. It’s not hard to see why some people should prefer zombies and vampires. Goodness came to seem negative and restrictive. As the poet Auden wryly remarked, the Ten Commandments consist in observing human behaviour and then inserting a “not”.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/so-bad-its-good-why-do-we-find-evil-so-much-more-fascinating-than-goodness-1965587.html

 So, in this aspect, I enjoy playing evil because I’ve been surrounded by so much socially acceptable, middle-class driven virtue, that I am instinctively programmed to seek the antithesis of this. I also worked in telesales for seven years but I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with it.

Eagleton is of course referring to something more classic with his words and the rise of the gothic and more fantastical strands of literature over the course of the Victorian era. But all of this leads to the conclusion of escapism. Which of course is the default explanation for anything that doesn’t involve you just being happy with your below inflation office employment and the ever retracting welfare support system you’ve been forced to rely on.

Escapism: “The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

Well. Shadow of the Colossus is in the fantasy setting. I’m not going to go in to it too much because many people are much better qualified to wax lyrical about the game. But escapism certainly is a subjective experience here.

Playing as Wander, the “protagonist” depending on your viewpoint, you go on an heroic quest to destroy the Colossi in order to save Mono, but as you progress you realise this comes at a cost with your own soul becoming more corrupted and the destruction of nature by your hand changing the balance of the entire realm.

Now, we have some empathy here with Wander because, even though the reasons are presumably selfish, we can understand at a human level the need to save and not lose what we love. We understand the avoidance of grief and the extension of comfort. To us, Wander is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons.

You’d think right now that I’m going to go straight in to the anti-hero but I’m actually going to disqualify some characters first, before we go in to that strand of thought, because there is a definite separation between an anti-hero and a hateful character.

Trevor and Michael from Grand Theft Auto V. In fact pretty much any main character from this series of games. It may seem like a strong word, “hateful” but that’s what they are. We should hate their guts for the pain and torment they blissfully put others through in the process of fulfilling their narrative agenda. Trevor needlessly tortures a man, so you can’t get more hateful than that, surely? We should be totally disgusted by this.

But we aren’t and for an explanation of this, I’m turning to… Ken Levine.

No, not that Ken Levine, but I will point out something he said to IGN earlier in the year about character in his new game that:

‘”to make an interesting character, you have to have a character who has a bunch of passions, wants, and needs”… Levine says a character’s wants and needs are the heart of who they are. “It’s not their skin color, not their religion, not their sex. It’s what they want, what they need, and what’s in their way.”

http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/04/10/ken-levine-talks-characters-and-relationships-in-his-next-game

 It’s a statement that the Ken Levine I’m actually going to talk about echoes completely. Ken Levine is an Emmy winning TV writer, producer, and director and has worked on everything from MASH to Cheers to The Simpsons. Hateful or evil characters are quite hard to sell in TV because usually they alienate you as a viewer. The most recent example of this was probably Watch_Dog’s Aiden Pearce, whilst not being hateful, he isn’t exactly likeable. So why do we even attempt it?

Because they’re interesting. 

 Evil characters create drama and suspense. They stir up the pot. They surprise us. They make choices that we wouldn’t make.  They say things we’d like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It’s fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can’t wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both. Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS? 

http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/why-do-we-like-hateful-characters.html

So this is where we start differentiating the anti-hero from these other more psychotic characters. Looking this up on Psychology Today, I found this blog post by H. Eric Bender MD. Trying to define an anti-hero as a more morally ambiguous character who did the right thing, despite their “antisocial behaviour”:

It might be because their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own. They’re flawed. They’re still developing, learning, growing.  And sometimes in the end, they trend toward heroism. We root for their redemption and wring our hands when they pay for their mistakes. They surprise us. They disappoint us. And they’re anything but predictable.

 While the antiheroes’ incompatibility with societal rules lays the foundation for compelling drama, it’s their unlikely virtue in the face of relatable circumstances that emotionally connects us to them.  Consider the moments that we spent cheering for Tony Soprano.  Typically they involved his efforts to overcome his anxiety—a relatively common condition—and his attempts, at times unprecedented, to protect family, both nuclear and crime.

 Similarly, Walter White garnered our sympathy when we initially learned of his cancer, lack of financial stability, and inordinate medical debt. The failures of our society are not unique to Walter White, but are a common, shared experience between the character and his audience.  He feels our pain as he, too, has been pushed too far by a broken healthcare system that threatens his family’s —let alone his own—survival.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/broadcast-thought/201309/rise-the-antihero

So here’s a few video game characters that fit that bill, Alan Wake, John Marston and Joel from The Last of Us.

Then of course there’s the characters that you create in role playing games like Fallout, Skyrim and Mass Effect. They are bound by their own worlds but your decisions are what make them the virtual projection of your own human values, unless you purposefully set out to be a cannibal or something.

Then there’s the more linear choices you make in Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead, the actions you take in Lionhead’s Fable games and even now as we speak, Halo’s Master Chief who is being promoted as a renegade that we know is doing things for the good of mankind.

Our relationship to anti-heroes is based very much on our own limitations of what we can do and what we want to do. Anything from revenge to redemption, restitution to reconciliation, revelation to retirement.

I think that’s something we can all agree on, right?

No.

Because I wasn’t happy with this and wanted a better, more definitive definition, I went back to my degree (I studied English Literature and Creative Writing, hence being a games journalist), I wanted to find something formal, something concrete. And so I took to my bookshelf and found my Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Want to see what it said?

“A ‘non-hero’, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic, deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful.”

 “The anti-hero is the man who is given the vocation of failure. The anti-hero – a type who is incompetent, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish – is of ancient lineage.”

This description then goes on to note various examples, highlighting Greek New Comedy, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy. Even Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses is mentioned.

Which makes me think that the definition in a modern sense, especially across other entertainment has changed, or at least how we see them.

And if we see some of these traits in a modern game character – unlucky, clumsy, tactless (which means showing a lack of skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues) – then we have our classical anti-hero.

Max Caulfield.

Max, a troubled late teenager struggling to come to terms with her new found independence, is trying to impress herself among the new faces in her life in a place she no longer knows. But without the fall back of other figures to guide or correct her path, it’s left up to her own judgment that, once gifted with power proves to be both naïve and brave. Her selfish actions also reveal her selflessness.

The thing is with all of these characters and these games, especially now in our current era of entertainment, character and game design, it’s impossible to have such a complete and binary explanation of what an anti-hero or a bad person is. Everything is so subjective and fluid that there is no definitive list that says what the characters are.

That leads me to conclude only one thing, which is the terribly cheesy notion that these characters are us, because of the way we play them and how we project, not only our desires but our fears too. The things that scare us, the things that make us jump, by extension make our characters jump too (even if they don’t actually jump). We are all our own anti-heroes only because we are all so different.

Which only tells me something I already knew from the start, which is that I am a complete and total bastard.

Side One – Track Ones (Part. 1)

 

I’ve included the above just for some context from one of my favourite movies and favourite books and favourite book to movie adaptations… I had a pang to list some things in this way. A bit snobbish but what the hell, it’s fun to write.

The Side One – Track One is ultimately a thing long lost to the veil of history as digitisation conquered all, but the thing that stands out for this is that traditionally, the best ones are album tracks. It’s kind of cheating when the first track on an album is the single and a predominantly successful single, as happened and still happens en masse. As someone who’s played music, your first track on an album is setting the tone, destroying preconceptions and making you feel comfortable that you picked a nice beer, sat in the comfiest chair with the best headphones on and decided to dedicate forty minutes to an hour of your life to this musical work you have on.

So, looking at albums I personally own, I’m going through some of my favourites. I’m going to miss loads because I probably don’t own them and music streaming does often make me forget how much good music is out there that I’m missing. If I included all albums, I’d be here forever. But please, share your own favourite first tracks. There’s no need to be as picky with rules or anything, but this makes for an interesting conversation, no?

Five Years – David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972)

You can see what I was listening to that drew me back in to this internal conversation. Recent events really did show just how transcendent Bowie’s music was across any era. My first experience of this song was watching Old Grey Whistle Test compilations that my dad had taped from the TV in the late 80s as the show was drawing to a close. But this song is often regarded as one of the best opening tracks for an album. It’s got all of the character from Bowie’s previous albums in the strings, punctuated by the other worldly echo that ends the song compared to its incredibly crisp beginning.

But the Bowie that came before had changed. You could tell in his tone, his lyrics and his confidence. It was harsher, less forgiving and, most importantly contained the swagger of a new character. You could hear the groundwork for it in songs like Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory, but it came to its full characterisation as soon as you start playing Ziggy. Go from The Man Who Sold the World through to Ziggy and you’ll realise as soon as Five Years starts that you got where the music needed to go.

Apocalypse Please – Muse (Absolution, 2003)

Before Absolution Muse had released two studio albums, Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry. Showbiz had some excellent tracks on it and showed a competent band who had a unique sound (you might remember the song Sunburn being used for various Apple adverts around the late 90s), but it was a style of music that was quite safe at the time with bands like Feeder and Stereophonics – radio and MTV2 friendly. Origin became the complete opposite, a heavy Prog Rock monster doused with classical motifs and sonic noise that owed more to its progenitors than the clash of nu-metal, pop punk and radio alt-rock of the early 2000s. Come Absolution, the shrill of Matt Bellamy’s voice had been perfectly nuanced and tempered between the extremes of the previous two albums. Gone was the enforced reverb and echo to create a sonic madness. Instead was the beautifully captured natural sounds from recording processes in the UK studio sessions.

Apocalypse Please starts with a drum intro, the militaristic drone that comes towards you, inspired by the anti-war protest and sentiment of the time, peppered with the barking of orders like a Roger Waters/Pink Floyd song. Then out of nowhere the hard, smashing piano riff hits you at a beat you aren’t expecting. The monotony of doom is perfectly interrupted to bring you the scale, the impact and the immediacy of music that’s coming. But it’s welcoming because it’s also incredibly clean. There’s no feedback, no insane effects, with Bellamy’s voice slightly peaking to gain some natural distortion and strength beyond the low, loud hits. Followed by a soft almost impossibly synchronous chorus of harmonic voices like those heard from Queen thirty years before. This clean sound carries on throughout the album, even with the effects and Bellamy’s talent at getting the most unique, odd and interesting sounds from his guitars and Chris Wolstenholme’s bass. Rich Costey does a perfect job at keeping the rhythm section as simple and punctuated as possible and that means that nothing else is competing, everything can be heard perfectly. Absolution is certainly my favourite Muse album thanks to this, as well as the amazing Storm Thorgersen cover, and I know that Apocalypse Please did eventually become a single, but it introduces everything about that album and about what Muse had become perfectly.

Bombtrack – Rage Against The Machine (Rage Against The Machine, 1992)

Again, this is another song that became a single eventually, but not until a good eight months had passed since release so it’s ok, I think. It’s hard to find songs that didn’t become singles because that ultimately means they aren’t strong songs, especially in the 80s. The 80s normally had a bad habit of sticking the singles within the first five tracks of an album and leaving it as that. But as it hit the 90s, a bunch of radicals (I don’t want to use the sub-genre terms of rock’s culture at the time) formed and waited until their music found the right label to keep their message. Pushed together from the ashes of punk bands, Rage Against The Machine set out to make an immediate impact.

Around the time, remember, you have Nirvana riding high and the Seattle grunge sound taking over the radio and TV airwaves – Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. Rage were never in this commercial space and their high energy, politically charged message came loud and clear, visually and musically. The striking cover of the vietnamese monk, the creeping bass and guitar that hits a tempo which is immediately slowed by the heavy riff laden, distorted funk beat. Zack de la Rocha’s rap begins and you realise that this isn’t a band bound by convention. It’s the fusion of years of oppression that has found its way in to music, the freedom it has borne and a generation of young talented angry kids who knew how to up tools and harness it for their needs. Repeated chorus lyrics continue like a riot chant. The music slowly grooves but with enough intricacy to keep your ears and your body moving. The faster riff at the beginning reminding you this isn’t just a rock band with funk undertones. Edwin Starr, Black Sabbath and Public Enemy, all fused in to one, outspoken group. Bombtrack doesn’t let you forget that.

 

More to come in part 2…

 

Monday Morning

This is a story that was published in the “Just Met 2013” writing anthology by London Metropolitan University and also won a prize for best fiction. Judge & Poet Catherine Smith: “The twist at the end is heart wrenching. A really well-realised story, perfectly framed.”

 

Monday Morning

By Sean Cleaver

It’s a damp, muggy Monday morning. You just missed your train by seconds. Already you are irritated. The day has hardly begun and you’ve successfully pissed yourself off. The weekend ranked between a failure and a casual relaxing event. You stomp up the stairs to the platform and decide you want a coffee.

When you enter the little coffee bar, you see a girl who’s just packed her big flowery bag on the side table. She’s in your way. You start the process of hating her until you look up and realise that she is very pretty. Not only that but she is smiling at you. Not a smile that’s a general “sorry, I’m in your way” but more of a coy “I’m sorry, I really like you, you seem different. But it’s Monday morning and I look like shit, so don’t take it personally. I hope I see you again soon or I might curse myself for missing this chance.” You reply with a smile that says “it’s ok, I understand” and walk to the counter.

You order your cappuccino and take stock of your situation. The pretty girl has moved down the platform now, so it’s safe to evaluate things. She had straight, very light ginger hair, red trousers, pretty grey eyes and a Cath Kidston pink flowery bag. She was shorter than you, about shoulder height, and slim. Not athletic but nice. She’s exactly your type. You look to see you are the only person wearing jeans in a sea of suits and in spite of your messy receding hair and unkempt stubble, you do look younger than most people on the platform. You are the epitome of casual in your jeans, leather jacket and Star Wars t-shirt with the Millennium Falcon on it. You are cool? The question is too big a concept to consider and you quickly discard the t-shirt as being a deciding factor of coolness as your coffee is ready. The person serving you is griping to her colleague about the “crap” on the radio. Some cover of a decade old pop song, sung by a girl on a piano, is playing that you recognise from a television advert. “How many times is this guy going somewhere for her to go? It’s too bloody long if you ask me.” You laugh in appreciation at the effort of the person serving you, even though you don’t really care about her opinion at all and you make a mental note to search the internet for the song when you get home.

You get on the train and open your book, Bright Lights, Big City. There’s nowhere to sit so you stand in an awkward position beside someone’s fold-up bicycle and obstructing the First Class doors. The compartment is almost empty and inviting. You notice that a man is asleep in there and wonder if he’s paid extra for that privilege. Adopting the most uncomfortable position you can, you lower your head try to read as the train departs. You quickly lose all conviction to read as soon as you finish the first few lines. After fraudulently turning a few pages, you look up and see the girl again. She is right next to you. The train moves a little too violently and knocks the unprepared girl into you.

You both smile at each other and have a little laugh with yourself. “Sorry,” she says.

“It’s ok,” you reply, “it’s a big bag! Cath Kidston, yeah?” This is the first time you’ve spoken to a girl like this in two years and there’s a very good reason why you don’t do it. You’re fucking terrible at it.
“Yeah it is,” she looks pleasantly surprised and a tiny bit suspicious. “How d’you know?”
Stop. The next answer could end the conversation and your chance to impress this girl. You are either one of three things: Into fashion (which is unlikely as your t-shirt proves); Gay; A well-researched present giver. You go with a joke and hope for the best. “I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re thinking.” You both laugh.

Stop. You realise that you may have got away with that one but it’s only temporary, and you now have to explain how you know this. The truth is that an ex girlfriend liked it and you brought presents for her. Answering this truthfully, specifically the word “ex” will end this straight away. You compromise. “I used to know someone who liked it.”

You quickly change the subject. “What do you do?” Well done, you sarcastically tell yourself in your head.

“I work in accounts, you know, boring stuff.” Her reply is wistful like she knows she can do better and her eyes open a little wider. You wonder what she is thinking. “How about you?”

“Oh, this and that.” You say with a smile so it sounds rather more mysterious than it is. “At the moment I’m studying but I do a few odd jobs here and there.”

She begins to look down slightly and you hope she doesn’t ask the most cliché over-asked question you always get asked and are bored of replying to.

“What are you studying?”

She’s asked the most cliché over-asked question.

“I’m studying books, writing, that kind of thing.” You hope this sounds more interesting than giving a straight answer and she looks back up again. You appear to have survived negative judgement for the moment.

You both exchange some small talk about how busy the train is, what books you like and even talk a bit about Star Wars, including making the Wookie noise you’re good at doing. You make each other laugh with little quips and are getting on very well. The conductor announces that you’re nearly at your destination. “Well,” you croak slightly losing the confidence your voice had. “Would you like to meet later? I mean here at the station. You know…” She is laughing a little at your stumbling and smiling. You have succeeded in being the correct kind of cute. “We could get the train back together, or maybe a tea?” In your mind you are like a Hollywood movie star appearing tall, gallant and oozing sex appeal. In the reflection of the glass in the train door, you see that you look on the verge of a panic attack.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” she replies.

You agree to meet and swap numbers. As you do, you realise you haven’t asked her name. As you go to ask, the train moves violently again, throwing you in her direction. You crash into the bicycle and look around to hide any embarrassment from the other passengers. The girl isn’t there. You’ve day dreamed through your entire journey after losing interest in the page you were pretending to read. You feel a small bit of pressure underneath your ribcage and consider yourself a complete fool for imagining yourself being cool and not looking like a complete bum.

As you get off the train, you look ahead to see a way through the crowd disembarking and you notice the girl and her bag. You wonder if you can go up to her and be the man you imagined you could be, but you decide not to embarrass yourself further. After all it is Monday and you look like shit, so you don’t take it too personally.

The Wicked and The Divine – The Fade Out

This may shock you, but I’m not a comic book guy. Never have been really. There’s no real reason for it, I did read some comics of TV shows I liked when I was young that were in the show’s magazines like Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and Star Trek. But mostly I just wasn’t a comic book person. I couldn’t access them in the same way my friends have. The universes of Marvel and DC were as alien to me on a page as Kale currently is. I could possibly in retrospect put it down to my complete lack of any artistic ability.

I can’t draw. At all. Not above a crude level. But when I was young I could barely write properly, had a very tough time with maths and was creatively impotent… In retrospect I mean. I read though. I read a lot. I absorbed the meanings of things very quickly from fiction and reference books and that has stayed with me in the accumulation of knowledge only befitting relevance to certain pub quiz rounds.

In fact my interest in comics, which probably won’t surprise anyone given the relevance of the past 12 years of cinema, has come from the Alan Moore graphic novels. These also seem to be a part of a lot of reading lists on literature/writing degrees now in relevance to the art of writing, the conversion to cinema, the mystique Moore has around him and his creations; so it’s all been quite convenient.

I know a lot more now about the universes thanks to the popularity of the film and television franchises that have come from Marvel and DC, but 10 years ago I would have been clueless. Which is why I wanted to talk about two comics I have been reading lately.

The first is a comic by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips called “The Fade Out.” It’s a noir thriller that channels the setting of post-war, post-depression Hollywood and the myths and legends around the time and centres them in to a multi faceted whodunit. I ashamedly am not a guy who will sit in a comic shop for long enough to peruse these things so I was caught by seeing it on Comixology. The first issue has a cover of an old typewriter with a water colour blood stain dripping down over it. That obviously captured me.

What caught me after that was the sample that showed the beginning, and the sense of things that play in the mind and haunt you with the scene of the LA Blackouts after Pearl Harbour. It’s something that, if you read the letters at the end of the issues, the writer says was something that stuck with him and enabled him to access the story, the time and the emotions behind it. Given the incredibly complex emotions of guilt and trauma that our most viewed protagonist, screenwriter Charlie Parish, has it’s something that ties him to his current situation. Which is solving a murder of a Hollywood starlet that has been covered up in to a suicide by unknown parties and him trying to recall the events that led to that moment.

It’s incredibly well written and from my experience, noir can be overly pastiched. Especially when you look at the cinematic impact and the written works of Chandler and Hammett in regards to later imitations. But the style and unfolding of so little and the introduction of such a varied and all equally culpable dramatis personae has kept me rivited. Along with the artwork which evokes a great sense of the world of Old Hollywood but also has such a cinematographic eye that the right emotion on a characters face is equally as important as the balance of light in a frame. This isn’t a first for these guys but this is my first experience of their work and I’ve been loving every page of it.

The second is a comic by a man I’ve always respected and admired for his work as a video games critic. Many people will cite Charlie Brooker as a big influence on their writing style and I do too. But I came to Brooker long after he had finished writing for PC Zone. I was a PC Gamer guy and my writer was Kieron Gillen. He has since transcended his work there and for Rock, Paper, Shotgun by becoming a comic book writer, with some great work reinvigorating franchises for Marvel along with Jamie McKelvie. Again this comic isn’t their first independent work but it is the one that I’ve come to first and has gripped me.

The Wicked and The Divine tells of a pantheon. Twelve God-like figures who come in to existence every 90 years (a few generations) and manifest themselves in late-teenage people. But after two years they are gone, sacrificing themselves until the time is upon them again. This time it’s 2014 and their appearance and God-like abilities has become entwined with the rise of popular artists, celebrity culture, underground music scenes, socialites, sub-cultures of fashion and social groups, and cultural youth icons. All fuelled by dedicated fandom in the fiction the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Bowie in the 70s and the modern connectivity/hysteria of the Internet and distanced-reality only inflates these obsessions. The heroine Laura enters a world of illusion, confusion and admiration as a fan of these Gods and becomes a part of something much bigger and deadlier.

Gillen makes no apologies that this is kind of a love letter to his youth and the desire to create art. Gillen, like myself presumably, grew up with the stories of parents and other elders who had seen these immortals that we saw on little screens and on the covers of our families vinyl collections. It inspired our own research and our own dedication to something we had never experienced. When that experience suddenly became open to us, we grasped it and threw ourselves in to it in our selfish search for immortality that we didn’t ever understand. For him I guess it was the golden age of the early 90s through to the end of the decade and beyond. For me it started with the popular punk renaissance of the early 2000’s along with the reappearance of heavy angst driven rock. Something that reflected my utter confusion and inability to know who I was, what I wanted and how the fuck I would ever get such a thing even if I knew what it was. Us lost souls would gravitate to the churches that held these bands and their music would unite all of us, make us whole and allow us to try and order snakebite as soon as we’d seen that someone else had one.

The Wicked and The Divine is colourful, flamboyant, unapologetic and yet shows a latent innocence that any 16-17 has and still does feel. The parables to the UK’s music scene of all generations is clear (along with a few further afield). Everything from Bowie, Bush, Prince and Daft Punk is thrown in to the mix of these modern day underground music pantheon performers, but the story always centres around Laura and her dealings (not literal) with one of the pantheon who goes by the name of Lucifer. A tom girl with all the echoes of Eurythmics-era Annie Lennox but with a mystique that combines that with Patti Smith, Chrissy Hynde, and their 90s equivalents like Kenickie, the presenters of The Girly Show and many other alternative music/youth shows like The Word.

Both of these comics are available on Comixology for the technologically inclined (or those wanting to hide their comic books from prying eyes/judgmental room cleaners) and of course from any good comic book retailer. The Fade Out is coming back this month after their first four issues and The Wicked and The Divine is on their 8th issue this month, with the first five available as a compendium called “The Faust Act”.

The Record Player (Short Story)

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He sat down with no one except the spectre of what used to be. Surrounding him was a record player, the kind of one you find in the shopping sections in the back of Readers Digest magazines, a pair of headphones, an old vinyl of Hotel California and half a bottle of Jack Daniels next to a glass filled with some ice. Some might call it a ritual, but for him this was a retraction, or an expulsion, of what was stuck in his head.

Memories have a strange way of making the past recur in the present when it really shouldn’t belong. Much like listening to a band like the Manic Street Preachers or Smashing Pumpkins now when you used to listen to them in the 90s. Are you listening to them now because you like it, or because you’re living in the memory of when they were at their peak of musical creation? All those bands that you hear a new song from on the radio, or you get on CD as a birthday or christmas present because someone remembered you used to like them and it just seems like the right thing to have; they all get old. They all change. They all remove themselves from what they were because there comes a time when you simply cannot live there anymore.

He poured the first measure of his whiskey. It was a little stingy so he added some more. A bit too much. I can savour this one, he thought. He dropped the needle before quickly realising it needed a bit of a blow, to shake off the dusty collection of fluff. Then he dropped it again and the opening bars of Hotel California rang in his ears like an old friend that had come to stay and chat about old flames, lined up in perfect chronological recollection, like pretty maids all in a row. He ran through them all: the first, the other first, the one that should have been first, the one that came after, the one that stayed, the one that left, the one he left, the one they both walked away from, the one that hurt and the one that stung. Those were the memories that needed to leave.

The problem, his old friend sagely advised, was that there was no new kid in town. There was no way to stop that memory creeping in. The present wonderfully suppresses the past like the bourbon suppresses the clouded thinking for truth. It wasn’t the last resort to invite the friend in but it was needed, that clarity. The memory is like that old band, it hangs around waiting for the appreciation it feels its earned but all it does is outstay its welcome and give you heartburn. Acidic stinging making him drop his shoulders more than he comfortably should be and keeping him rearranging his pillow at night before his body is too worn out or just too drunk to stay awake.

“All of this time with the memory is wasted time,” the friend said. “You’re sitting here for what? A chance? A slice of that past? Well it doesn’t work. You don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or any of that fluffy pop crap. You think you’re sitting here pretending to be a victim of love, but you’re only the victim of your own ego.”

He sat and pondered this as he realised he needed to top up his drink and would need to flip the record over too. Ego, he questioned to himself? How can he have an ego if he wasn’t good enough to stay with, if he wasn’t good enough to move himself along? Surely that isn’t his fault? He’s no rich kid, or devil may care punk living life in the fast lane way beyond his years. He was distrustful of love by now. It kept bringing all these memories and old records and empty bottles of whiskey.

“Why do you distrust love?” the friend asked in the quiet moment where he flipped the record over to side B. “If you distrust something then it needs to be alive, an animal or something. The only animal in love is the one looking at you in the mirror when you stare too long after a shower and think your hair can do whatever you want it to. Love isn’t alive, love is a choice. It didn’t choose you and your ego took the hit.”

The memory rose to the closest point his mind has with his eyelids as he closed them and replayed a self-edited montage of what he wanted to believe. He took a sip from his glass and realised the memory was over very quickly, as quickly as the sip from his glass, but it just repeated and repeated like a CD that was skipping. “You see this?” The friend made him look at the vinyl. “This is pure. This has no cracks or blemishes that weren’t designed to be there. This isn’t skipping over same things over and over again. Take another look.”

He looked and the memory went a bit further. It looked at moments of silence, of being sat next to a phone or having social media show him everything he never wanted to see. “You chose this,” the friend reminded him. “Now you just need to realise that this is a choice, try and love again, and see what else is out there. The bands were great, but now they’re old. Not forgotten but hanging on before people chose to not to remember them anymore.” He poured his last generous glass and swirled around what little was left of the melted ice cubes. They had degraded to such a point that they almost weren’t even there, but the outline was hanging on to remind you they were.

He contemplated the choice as the last song played its way in to his headphones. It is a choice, he said. I choose… He pondered. He took the remaining bits of ice out of the glass and leaned back on the floor, his shoulders straightening and bringing relief like a massage. It felt like he was melting in to the floor enough for it to mould around him and capture him perfectly. He lifted his head up slightly and drank the last of the bourbon as the record spun around to the end and he closed his eyes. The memory was gone. The edited one, the full one, all of it. “See you next time,” the friend said, “but remember you chose to be here. Don’t choose to go somewhere you can never leave.”

He opened his eyes and put his hand in the slightly damp puddle the melted ice had left. He closed the record player and took his headphones off. He put the bottle in the recycling bin and went to his bed. He spun himself over once and flipped his pillow to a colder side. Then it was morning and the radio woke him up with a new song by an old band. He switched it off, got up and left.

The Dissertation Diary – Christmas (Or How To Avoid Work)

Yes, the traditional holiday season of putting on weight and celebrating the change of year numbers has meant I’ve done absolutely nothing. Shit all. Bugger.

All I’ve actually HAD to do was read and I failed miserably. Being distracted by Halo, beard growing and eating.
So the plans for this year are as follows:

1) Finish University without leaving everything to the last minute.
2) Get really buff in January.
3) See if I can go on my friends stag do in May (during dissertation hand in time)
4) Maybe get another Radio Show on the go.
5) Write that Radio sitcom I’ve had planned for ages.
6) Write that Movie script I’ve had planned for ages.
7) See if I can go to see the Northern Lights.
8) Get some work experience.
9) Look in to a Masters Degree.
10) Don’t drink.

That last one isn’t just an idle resolution, for I am a Dryathlete. I’m raising money for Cancer Research UK by not drinking for a month. I’ll try and go further too. But if you wish to donate, visit www.justgiving.com/dryathlete-sean-cleaver or if you’re in the UK text PINT84 to 70070 to donate £5.

But the rest, all pie in the sky thinking really… Except maybe the get buff. Need to get back on the gym wagon. I also need to stop being distracted by video games. I thought Halo 4 was going to destroy my life, but NO. It’s not even my now ridiculous obsession with getting all the available achievements for all the Halo games, NO! It’s this game I picked up on sale called Tropico 4. You get to be a dictator running your own Banana Republic. A bit of a jokey city builder but it’s fun, easy pick up and play and just cool. I’m trying to find a citizen called Januito so I can have him executed… Ok maybe only certain people would get the humour.

So I hope my next update is more productive, but until then please sponsor me. You have no idea how hard not drinking is when you have a delicious 21 year old Johnnie Walker XR (google it) sat on the shelf. Also, if you don’t follow me on twitter you can (@cleaverslips) and even instagram now (seancleaver)! Here’s a selection of alright photos.

Lost In Whisky Translation
Tailgate To Heaven
Charity Shop Extreme Shopping
Some Local Winter Sight Seeing
Why I Write Rather Than Draw

Currently Reading: Tailgate To Heaven – Adam Goldstein, Ingenious Pain – Andrew Miller.

The Dissertation Diary – Procrastinating

Hello!

Sorry to have kept you waiting so long diary, but I’ve been busy. I’ve been to the other side of the world and I’ve been deep in university research. I’ve had hospital visits and moments of alcoholic self destruction. I’ve also been playing Halo 4… Sue me.

So I’ve been busy and been researching agents and how to get myself published once I’ve written a manuscript. I don’t think I fully appreciated how hard that would be without having a manuscript. I’ve had to make a lot of assumptions and judgements which I hate doing with Uni work. Good thing though is that I’ve got a lot healthier and lost a lot of weight. I’ve been going to the gym and can now comfortably run for 5km without dying. This is good seeming I plan to lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle otherwise.

Ok so that the personal stuff out of the way, but what about my story? Well, nothing has happened. I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to stop plan everything properly and get my process sorted. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing but just not my story. I’ve thought about it a lot though and had a very good productive conversation with my editor about how implied certain parts should be. I also have looked in to some serious research about one of the events of the story, and that’s visiting the Northern Lights.

Now I’ve never been but its a dream to go. Come January, I’d be in a position both with work, money and time to have a quick weekend away in Norway and go and see them. Now this probably sounds rather stupid that I take a two day holiday to see something I’ve always wanted to see under the “excuse” of research. But there’s going to be a lot of stress in the following months, lots of morbid things to research and to have that experience would be amazing, not just for the story but to remember why I’m doing all of this.

But for now, t-minus 5 days until whiskey can be consumed again. Got a great couple of bottles from Japan that are screaming to be consumed.

Read: Angels & Inscets – A.S. Byatt, World War Z – Max Brooks

Reading: Tailgate To Heaven – Adam Goldstein

The Dissertation Diary – Easily Distracted

Well. What a week.

It’s always hard to do anything at all in life when life gets in the way. Last week, life majorly got in the way of all dissertation related endeavours. I do now have a supervisor for my project and the few people that have asked really like the story idea so hopefully, this will come off well. So I flew in to this week with commitment and confidence that only life could ruin… Well life and whatever tawdry low-budget tosh my friends have cared to tape from the Horror channel and play over take-out and friendly banter. Which is where this weeks journey began. Shortly followed by finishing some sketches and one lines for BBC Radio 4 that didn’t get used. Sad face.

Fast forward to Monday. 5am. Awake. I’ve never got up that early on purpose unless to catch a flight. But this time it was to meet one of the heroes of my, and my friends, life. The actor, bodybuilder, writer, businessman, politician and Austrian (that counts), Arnold Schwarzenegger. Early morning rises are not fun at the best of times, even less so when having to stand outside Waterstones in Piccadilly from 7:30am and only just make it into the queue. The man at the front had been there since 7pm the night before. 12 HOURS! I can’t imagine that, as the one thing I would not want to do when getting Arnie to sign my book is smell like I’ve slept on a London street overnight. But we got in, were rushed along with hardly a hello or a handshake, got our book signed, ate a burger and left. But it was totally worth it. Here’s my good friend Charlie (@brownsell) getting his book increased in value.

Later that day, via the medium of twitter and random contacts, I had a small open spot doing stand-up at UCL for Tuesday. Obviously whenever I do any comedy I always feel completely nervous, way out of my depth and a complete phoney. But that’s half the fun. It went quite well, the other acts were astounding (Tony Law a particular highlight) and I survived. However I was doomed to get the last train home (1:30am). Bearing in mind I had to be back at LMU (which I’d just spent half the night criticising) for 10am, I was one sleepy Sean. Panda eyes in full effect.

So, lets be honest. Going out drinking with friends after lectures, watching the England game and being out until 10:30, really isn’t a great idea. Especially when you have so much reading to do and writing to think about and after I’d just started a new gym regime. So I spoilt that with Nando’s and alcohol. But I still felt pretty good going in to Thursday. Back to the gym and then to a hospital appointment was the plan. I’ve recently been in hospital for an operation so I had to have a check up. Positive: Got to read a crap load of a book whilst waiting to be seen. Negative: I had to wait for an hour only to get crappy news and have nothing except the crappy book I had to read. This completely ruined my day and brought back a lot of other problems. Life yet again throws a curveball (baseball reference – see I’m learning).

Friday however was fairly ordinary and life did nothing but plod along taking me in its wing for lectures, a lot of reading, meetings, home and gym. Which led to Saturday where gym also occurred as well as some reading. But in the end, it led to many friends on my bed, lots of drinking, a terrible hangover and yet more sobering realisations that I probably, and very dangerously, vomited in my sleep. Not cool. Fast forward to Monday (now) where I am documenting the week’s distractions, which in itself is a distraction from reading more university stuff and researching. I’ll catch up this week before an AWESOME NFL WEEKEND!

I guess I’m easily distracted.

Word Count: 312

Reading: Lucky Man. A memoir – Michael J. Fox

The Dissertation Diary – 32,500 verbs and adjectives

Thirty two thousand, five hundred words. Over the course of the next year, that’s how much I have to write – minimum. The bulk of that will be my dissertation, but the rest is all the little essays, presentations and commentaries.

If you want to put that in to perspective, that’s around 16 average sized essays over a year. Or half an average novel. Or 31,750 more sensical words than the average Ultimate Warrior WWF promo. I must admit that it’s a bit daunting. It’s a bit daunting to do the entire 10,000 word short story, even though I mostly have it sussed. I have to research several elements of this to get it right. First I have to find the right affliction (which I think I have). Then I have to map the route this journey will take. Then I have to think practically how these people in their situation can get to the even they are meant to get to so that I can navigate them to the end of the story. In between that I have to create some dramatic tension, a sense of relation with the reader and I have to right confidently enough and strongly enough that I can hook a reader with the first paragraph and keep them there for the next 9,600 words.

Thats the last thing of course. Before then, I have lots of smaller tasks, at least 15 books to read, analyse, discuss and critique. Oh woe is me (sarcasm). You know, I chose this path for my life. I was aware, although somewhat less informed at the time, of the gravity of my choice. What I would have to do, the level of maturity and commitment it would take to develop not only my skills but my mind and my attitude towards this career of writing.

Writing is solitary confinement for the emotionally crippled and the socially self-masochistic. Over the past two years, I’ve desperately tried, as I probably did for the years previous to that, to hang on to the last strands of youth. To find what I always craved in love and muse and to actually be happy and productive. I now know that can’t happen. I don’t mean that in a defeatist depressing way at all. Lots of people can find happiness in life and work. I however am not one of them, at least not at this stage in my life.

What’s with all this emotional baggage, Sean? Well, it’s precisely this: I need to forget all of that. Everything. I need to exist in the bubble of reading, writing and creating. I need to forget the late nights boozing with people years my junior. I need to leave the baggage I’ve created for myself with love. I need to forgo any commitments for the most part that detract from the pursuit of writing. There’s a picture next to my desk on the wall of one of my favourite movies, Casablanca. Champagne is being poured in glasses on a piano that Sam is playing. Rick Blaine is pouring it whilst looking directly as Ilsa Lund who is looking away and down, unable to meet his eye. Because she knows deep down the truth of the matter that this around her, her wish, cannot be. Rick realises this and starts the process of sacrificing for their benefit.

In the same way, I must sacrifice all of this for the attitude of writing. If I don’t, then how can I call myself a writer or continue as one post-university? I need to get this frame of mind practiced and the year long task of producing as many words as half a novel serves no better purpose than to do that. If I can do this then I can do anything. Some things, as I’ve come to learn the hard way, are harder to let go than others. Some I don’t think ever truly leave you. But as I tweeted recently I know when I publish that first book what the dedication will be. It might lay some ghosts to rest, or it might excise them. Either way, then is the time for reflection and for life. Until then I must carry on with this plane of thought because if I don’t, to paraphrase Rick, I’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But someday and for the rest of my life.

Sean sits in front of his computer and starts typing the end of his story in full. This final paragraph will serve as his goal to reach. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Sean

Word Count: 312

Reading: Waterland – Graham Swift; Japanese Phrases for Dummies – Eriko Sato PhD.