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Jack Kirby, Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick

Dr Doom and Silver Surfer

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Via io9, a reminder that yesterday (28 August) would have been the 92nd birthday of the legendary Jack Kirby. To celebrate, they’ve assembled a gallery celebrating just some of the characters Kirby helped create over the years, from Captain America to the Fantastic Four, Spiderman and the Uncanny X-Men. It’s worth a look, if only to be reminded of just how significant a role Kirby has played in the creation of late-20th and early-21st century pop culture.

Pleasingly, Kirby’s birthday also gives me an excuse to link to Jonathan Lethem’s fabulous piece about Jack Kirby and the illusions of adolescence, and the mention of Lethem in turn gives me an excuse to link to Forward’s recent interview with him about Philip K. Dick and Lethem’s upcoming novel, Chronic City.

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Prometheus in green

If I were to make a list of my all-time favourite comic panels this one, depicting Bruce Banner caught in the blast of the gamma bomb from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Incredible Hulk #1 would be right up there. It’s got all the dynamism and drama of Kirby’s art at its best – there’s something immediately iconic about the image of Banner with his arms thrown up as the bomb he’s created explodes behind him – but it’s also a reminder not just of the way Cold War anxieties fed into the early Marvel comics, but of the way their imagery and grammar drew upon the legacy of the monster and horror comics of the 1950s.

Hulk #1

Grant Morrison, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

Over the past two decades a small group of writers have redefined the superhero comic. In titles such as Planetary, Kingdom Come and The Ultimates writers like Warren Ellis, Mark Waid and Mark Millar have variously resisted, reinterpreted and celebrated the competing legacies of their characters and the superhero comic more generally, creating in the process a version of the superhero unlike any we have seen before, a creation that fuses the pulpy energy of their forebears with razor-sharp social commentary and a wild, often transgressive sense of the possibilities of the medium.

But if there is one writer whose work defines the new comics more than any other, it is undoubtedly Grant Morrison. In a string of successes that began with 1989’s Arkham Asylum and Animal Man, and continued with thrillingly inventive runs on titles such as Doom Patrol, The Invisibles and most recently All-Star Superman and Batman and Robin, Morrison has used the superhero as a vehicle for his evolving ideas about sexuality and post-humanity.

It’s fitting therefore that Supergods, Morrison’s first venture into non-illustrated narrative is almost unclassifiable. Part memoir, part cultural history, part manifesto, it is an attempt not just to map the past of the superhero, but to find in the superhero the outline of our future. It is, as Morrison puts it, intended as the “definitive guide to the world of the superheroes – what they are, where they came from, and how they can help us change the way we think about ourselves, our environment, and the multiverse that surrounds us”.

Whether Supergods is definitive or not is debatable. While I’m inclined to agree with Morrison’s view Alan Moore’s work on Miracleman is better than the considerably more influential “stifling, self-regarding, perfect yet mean-spirited microcosmos of Watchmen”, I suspect many will find his judgements about the recent history of comics somewhat idiosyncratic. Likewise there’s something uncomfortably clubbish in his gossipy and oddly calculated revelations about the upper echelons of the comic industry.

Yet definitive or not, there’s no denying the intellectual firepower he brings to bear on his subject. His accounts of the Golden and Silver Age are as impressive in their breadth of knowledge as they are assured, deftly shifting between dazzling readings of the comics themselves, discussion of their cultural context and delightful details, such as the fact William Marston, the Psychology Professor who created Wonder Woman with his wife Elizabeth, was not just also the inventor of the polygraph, but used he and Elizabeth’s live-in lover, Olive Byrne, as the model for Wonder Woman’s Amazonian physique.

The Catherine Wheel effect of this magical mystery tour of comic history is given heft not just by Morrison’s intelligence, but by the strength of his writing. Although there are places where the book lapses into the clichés of celebrity memoir, Morrison’s prose is usually not just vivid but darkly witty, as when he describes Robert Lowery in the title role of the 1949 cinema serial of Batman as having “something of late-period Dean Martin … his was a grown-up, manly and possibly alcoholic Batman in late middle age, while Johnny Duncan’s Robin evoked a broken-down rent boy long past his best”.

More importantly he is keenly aware of the visual possibilities of the form, offering attentive and detailed analyses of the works he discusses. Anybody unconvinced of the possibilities of the comic book medium might do well to read his descriptions of the melding of influences and panel design of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, descriptions that lay bare not just the sophistication of Miller’s craft but the sheer ambition of his project.

But this reliance on description lays bare one of Supergods’ faults, which is its failure to give visual dimension to its subject. Unlike a book such as Frank Trombetta’s largely pictorial study of 1950s horror comics, The Horror, The Horror, Supergods has almost no illustrations, and those it does have are in black and white.

In the end though, the real faults of Supergods are not ones of omission, but over-ambition. Sandwiched between discussions of works such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, descriptions of Morrison’s experience of visions in Kathmandu and riffs on shamanic magic and sunspot cycles Morrison’s own (clearly fascinating) childhood is never given the space it needs to breathe. Similarly Morrison’s reflections on his own work can sometimes seem a little perfunctory.

Of course this might sound a bit like a description of Morrison’s writing more generally, its ever-present tension between his desire to push boundaries and the demands of his form. Yet even if Supergods suffers from its author’s overreaching, it is never less than entertaining, and at its best, thrillingly, wickedly brilliant about a subject too often relegated to the fringes of popular culture.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 2011.

A New Type Of Conversation

When I started blogging in January 2009, a number of my friends were non-plussed, to say the least. Some found it difficult to understand why I’d do all that work for free. Others worried it would siphon off good ideas that might otherwise have given rise to proper essays or articles. And some, more deeply, were concerned it would distract me from writing fiction.

I’d be lying if I said they weren’t things that worried me a bit as well. Making a living as a writer is tough enough as it is without taking on extra work you don’t get paid for. Nor, when it comes down to it, am I so blessed with ideas I can afford to fritter them away. And, perhaps most urgently, between small children and work, finding the vistas of time fiction demands is an ongoing challenge.

At the time I usually claimed the blog was an experiment, something I wanted to try for a while and see how it went. And to an extent that was true. Certainly I didn’t have clear goals, or even criteria for success or failure. There was no deadline, no word count I needed to reach. What I wanted to do was try something new, and see how it went.

But by the same token it certainly wasn’t an experiment without purpose. Part of that purpose was self-interested: whether we eventually find a way to monetise online publishing or not, it’s quite clear not just that the future of writing lies online, but that the process of writing for the online space is different from the process of writing for the print publications I’ve been writing for over the last decade and a half. Setting up a blog was a way of teaching myself how to write for that space.

It was also about a sense that I was missing out. For some time it had been clear to me a lot of the most interesting – and certainly the most exciting and engaged – writing was happening online. I wasn’t quite sure what I had to contribute to that conversation, but I was clear about one thing, which was that I wanted to be a part of it.

But it was about something deeper as well. For quite some time I’d been feeling a growing disconnect between the sorts of things I wanted to write and the publications I write for. Part of that was about the fact that the things I was really excited by weren’t things the newspapers and magazines I write for tend to run stories about. My editors wanted book reviews, but I wanted to write about Battlestar Galactica, or the Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko comics I’d loved as a teenager. I understood their reasons, but it was frustrating, not least because I felt like I wasn’t writing things I should be writing. And then, one day, it occurred to me I was getting the whole thing backwards: if I wanted to write about Battlestar Galactica or The Wire I could do it anyway, and just publish it online. I wouldn’t get paid, and maybe nobody would read it, but at least I’d be writing what I wanted to be writing again.

Of course by deciding to set up online I was simply becoming part of a much larger movement. In the decade or so since the first web diaries, or web logs began to appear, blogging has become a phenomenon. Figures are difficult to come by, but two years ago the blog indexing service, Technorati, estimated there were more than 100 million blogs in existence, a number that has presumably continued to grow apace ever since.

People often dismiss these figures by pointing to the number of blogs dedicated to cataloguing the cute things their creators’ cats did on the weekend, or obsessing over Robert Pattinson and Justin Bieber. But this is to miss the point, and not just because it requires one to wilfully ignore the incredibly high standard of analysis, commentary and original writing that is to be found on sites as various as The Elegant Variation, Boing Boing and (rather closer to home) Larvatus Prodeo, to say nothing of more collaborative and professional ventures like The Millions, Talking Points Memo and Overland and Meanjin’s blogs.

Because, despite the views of its detractors, blogging is not simply vanity publishing run amok. Instead it is part of a much larger transformation of the way content is created and distributed. Liberated by technologies that allow anyone with a computer and an internet connection to publish whatever they like for free and make it available to an audience of billions instantaneously people around the world are exploring the possibilities of the medium by publishing a dizzying range of material, from poetry and fiction to satire, memoir, criticism and everything in between. And in so doing they are helping to underline the way technology has disrupted the economic and cultural assumptions that control public debate. It’s no longer necessary to write for a major newspaper to be a significant contributor to political analysis, as the success of writers such as Tim Dunlop and Bernard Keane demonstrates, nor to build a reputation as a critic, as The Art Life’s Andrew Frost or even theatre critic Alison Croggon’s online venture Theatre Notes shows. And while it takes a bit of savvy, as the runaway success of former Dolly Editor Mia Freedman’s Mama Mia demonstrates, it’s possible to build highly successful platforms focussed on particular issues or interests, or appeal to specific audiences.

For writers this diversification is both exciting and a little unsettling. But that hasn’t prevented many from exploring its possibilities. Some, like Neil Gaiman, have embraced the medium as a way of building a closer relationship with their fan base. Others, like Cory Doctorow, have leveraged it to forge careers as activists and commentators alongside their more conventional writing.

Closer to home a number of Australian writers have also developed thriving online presences. At How to Shuck an Oyster, for instance, the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Charlotte Wood writes delightfully and delightedly about food and cooking, while at Cheeseburger Gothic John Birmingham has perfected a machine-gun version of the form that consistently delights his ever-growing fan base. Similarly Margo Lanagan, and Justine Larbalestier run successful blogs (Larbalestier’s regularly topping lists of the most popular Australian litblogs). And, under her online nom de plume, Pavlov’s Cat, the writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy hosts not one but three two blogs – Still Life With Cat and Read, Think, Write – each dedicated to different subsets of her many interests.

My first weeks and months online were alternately exhilarating and chastening. With little sense of who would be visiting, or how they’d find me I watched my site’s stats nervously. Simultaneously I struggled to find a tone that would work in the strangely intimate online world, and to work out where to draw the line between my online persona and my real life.

But simultaneously I found myself genuinely enjoying the process of writing for the first time in a long while. Partly that was about the freedom to write what I wanted. In a matter of weeks I tried my hand at pieces about television, music, film, even politics, each of which threw up new challenges, and – excitingly – suggested new possibilities.

But it was also about the freedom of the form itself. There’s a rush and a rawness to the process of blogging that’s genuinely exciting. Partly that’s about knowing you don’t have to get it right, that there’s no-one you’re letting down if the piece doesn’t come together. But it’s also about being able to chase ideas where they lead. You might begin talking about Lost, but if that leads you into a conversation about Silver Age Comics, or the nature of endings, that’s okay.

This allusiveness is partly a function of the form, its capacity to blend words and images, to link to other sites and other articles, all of which push online writing towards an openness and gregariousness that is difficult to sustain in print media. But it’s also symptomatic of the way blogging alters the balance between writer and reader. In print media, writers broadcast to a passive audience. Although institutions such as letters to the editor have always allowed a low level of interactivity, the communication is basically one way.

By contrast, what matters on a blog is the conversation. The writer’s contribution is only a starting point, designed to stimulate debate. Indeed in a very real sense a blog is only as good as the community it creates, because it’s their contribution, their willingness to be engaged and participate, that allows the form to realise its true potential.

In many ways this has been the aspect of blogging that has been the greatest joy. I’ve been consistently amazed by the generosity and openness of the many, many people who choose to contribute, and by the intelligence and care they bring to their responses. Likewise my own thinking on any number of subjects has been challenged and enriched by their responses. Nor have these relationships been confined to the blog itself: conversations online have developed into friendships offline, many with people interstate or overseas I might not otherwise have come into contact with.

This emphasis upon equality and conversation is a reflection of the blog’s origin in forms like the journal and the diary. Like both, blogging is a process that is at once personal and public, performative and reflective. And, perhaps not coincidentally, much of the best blog writing often reads like a combination of diary and commonplace book, offering something closer to a portrait of the writer’s mind at work than a finished product.

But it also demands a preparedness to allow others space to contribute, and this isn’t always easy, not least because it demands you unlearn old habits. Asking people for their views at the end of a post isn’t enough, you need to make space in the post itself, a place others can step in and contribute. Sometimes this can be as deliberate as leaving something out, or leaving a counter-argument implicit but unstated, but in many ways it’s about learning to harness the intimacy of the form and speak directly and conversationally.

Eighteen months later, my blog is no longer an experiment. By fits and starts it’s taken on a life of its own, developing a community of readers and a reputation of sorts. It still doesn’t make me any money, and it absorbs a surprising amount of my energy and attention, but simultaneously it’s allowed me to explore ideas and interests I would never otherwise have been able to explore, and made me part of a community of readers and writers whose ideas enrich my ideas and my writing in ways I could never have predicted.

But it isn’t just about the relationships or the conversation. Blogging has made me feel as if I’m part of something. To call it a movement is probably going a bit far, but it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Because like Twitter, blogging is only one facet of a much more profound transformation of the way we think about reading and writing that is being driven by technology, a process of transformation that isn’t just allowing a host of exciting new writers to emerge, but is actually giving birth to a host of new literary forms, and changing many existing ones, driving a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, genre and the literary, even the printed word and more visual forms such as the graphic novel.

And finally – and perhaps most importantly – it’s changed me as a writer. Partly this is about small things, such as the way blogging forces you to engage with your audience in a quite direct way, or the sense that somehow the creation of an online persona has allowed me to bring the many and oddly disparate bits of my writing together into something that at least resembles a coherent whole.

But it’s also about something deeper. I’ve always believed good writing puts its author at risk in some way. That risk might simply be that of expressing an opinion that might be incorrect, but usually it’s more than that. In fiction the risk is obvious, and relates to exposure of aspects of the self that are usually kept hidden, but it’s there in good non-fiction and even good reviewing as well. To really engage with an idea or a book or even a television show it’s necessary to give up the protection of assuming you’re right and test your ideas and yourself by putting your assumptions on the line.

For better or worse I had been handling that risk by assuming stricter and stricter control over what and how I was writing. But online that just isn’t possible, and so, little by little, I learned to cede control again, to stop worrying so much, and just be myself.

That process has had various effects. Perhaps the most obvious has been finding a version of myself I can work with online which feels real. But it has also fed back into my other writing. Some of those effects have been positive – I’ve become more forthright in my views as a reviewer, for instance; others less so – after the freedom of working in the online space the relatively structured nature of the book review and the essay seems oddly restrictive. Yet it’s also had odd, and unanticipated effects on my life as a novelist, freeing me up and making me prepared to trust my instincts in a way I haven’t for a long, long time.

In a way it’s this last that’s been the most unexpected. But it’s also been the most liberating. Because somehow learning to let go has allowed me to find my way back to the sense of discovery and possibility that led me to writing in the first place. Whether that’s made me a better writer is debatable, what isn’t is the fact it’s made me a much happier one.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Australian Author, Wired for Words: Writers in the Digital Era.

The greatest covers ever. ‘Nuff said.

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If like yours truly your adolescence (and much of your 20s, come to that) was misspent rereading old issues of The Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four, you might be interested to know Marvel have assembled a collection of their 70 greatest covers. The list, which is based upon an online poll of readers, is part of Marvel’s 70th anniversary celebrations, and is accompanied by a list of Marvel’s 70 greatest comics.

I’d have to confess to being a little non-plussed by the winner, Todd McFarlane’s cover for The Incredible Hulk #340 . I can think of half a dozen covers off the top of my head which are more iconic and, quite frankly, more striking. And while the selection seems to be less biased towards recent covers than one might expect, I’m a little surprised Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s work from the 1960s isn’t better represented (and, though it’s less iconic, the very striking work John Byrne was doing on Fantastic Four and Frank Miller on Daredevil in the 1980s). And how on earth how did the cover of Avengers #4 miss the cut? How can you get more iconic than the return of the original Super-Soldier himself, Captain America?

But all that said, I’m pleased to see the #2 and #3 spots go to Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spiderman) and a comic that remains one of my all-time favourites, The Uncanny X-Men #141. And as always I’m pleased to be reminded of just how much I love the old Silver Age comics, which still possess a joyousness and archetypal power the much more sophisticated work of recent years struggles to match (find me an image to match that of Bruce Banner caught in the glow of the Gamma Bomb, or the Sub-Mariner hurling Captain America’s body into the Arctic Ocean and I’ll eat my words).

And if you have a few minutes to spare after flicking through the images on Marvel’s website, do yourself a favour and read Jonathan Lethem’s piece on Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, or his wonderful essay about growing up with the Fantastic Four, or, in a slightly different vein, his bleak but to my mind accurate piece about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I promise it’ll be time well-spent.

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Some thoughts about Lost

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Lost returns to Australian television tonight, several weeks after it resumed in the US and in the rather unfriendly timeslot of 10:30pm.

Presumably the tardy return and crappy timeslot are a reflection of the show’s waning ratings, at least here in Australia. While the loss of viewers to downloads has forced Australian networks to release popular shows in a more timely manner than they have traditionally deigned to (SciFi on Foxtel are to be commended for their decision to screen the final season of Battlestar Galactica only hours after it goes to air in the US) old habits die hard, and as soon as a show begins to fail in the ratings it’s a fair bet the commercial networks will be treating viewers with the dizzying disrespect they always have by screening them long after primetime, delaying episodes and altering their schedules without warning (a disaster for anyone trying to record programs).

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Jack (Matthew Fox) and Ben (Michael Emerson) find Locke's body

It’s a pity, in many ways, because as anyone who has stuck around through the longueurs of the second and third seasons knows, Lost went from strength to strength across its increasingly wild fourth season, and reviews from overseas suggest the fifth is even better. As Season Three ended, several of the survivors (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun and Claire’s son, Aaron) are off the island, a turn of events a series of flash-forwards (mirroring the device of the flashbacks in the first few seasons) have revealed to have caused any number of problems of its own. Jack is a drunken wreck, his relationship with Kate has come unravelled, Hurley is in an asylum and talking to dead people, Sayid is an assassin employed by the perfidious Charles Widmore, Sun has taken over her father’s criminal and business empire and Locke, last seen trying to save the island, is in a coffin on the mainland. The fate of many of those back on the island, in particular Jin, is unclear, but the island itself seems to have teleported away not just through space but through time. And Ben has arrived to tell Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six that if they want to save themselves and the other survivors they have to go back to the island.

It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, of course, and almost as incomprehensible. Like many shows which rely upon the unravelling of intricate plots, it’s almost impossible to keep track of precisely what’s going on, and indeed in many ways, keeping track of what’s going on is almost beside the point. What matters is the almost visceral thrill of the show’s twists and turns, and the sense that some new craziness lies just around the corner.

Last week I published a piece in The Australian Literary Review about the rise of what I called the new television. In it I argued that shows such as The Sopranos represent a mode of television drama unlike any we have seen before, filmic in their exploration of the medium’s visual and aural possibilities and novelistic in their preparedness to reject the generic conventions of series television and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of our inner lives.

One of the more striking aspects of this new television is the way it has been made possible by changes in television’s economic model, and by the rise of cable networks less reliant upon advertising and the growing popularity of alternative distribution models such as DVD and downloads, legal or otherwise. This shift away from reliance upon advertisers has allowed the cable networks to make more courageous choices about content and style, and to rely upon greater loyalty from their audiences over time, allowing longer and more complex storylines to be developed and explored.

The Green Goblin's first appearance; the chara...

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Lost and The Sopranos are quite different phenomena of course. If The Sopranos can be understood as the early 21st century’s answer to Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, Lost’s antecedents are to be found in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, and more particularly, the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others. Certainly Lost, like other, more obviously derivative shows such as Heroes, owes more than just its subject matter to the pulpy, four-colour world of the comic strip. Its structure, with the movement back and forwards in time from an essentially static present is reminiscent of the comic, as is its dependence upon the show’s complex and intertwined mythology. But in many ways it is its dependence upon the piecing together of the puzzles it presents, rather than the transformation of character through action and circumstance to generate narrative excitement and interest that ties it most closely to the comic. For all the intensity and vividness with which characters like Jack are drawn, it’s not their personal and existential travails we’re interested in, merely the part they play in a much larger picture, just as with Spiderman it’s the thrill of recognition we feel in discovering the Green Goblin is Harry Osborn’s father that keeps us reading.

J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams

It’s a mode of storytelling Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams has spent much of the last decade perfecting. First in Alias (a show I never warmed to), and more recently in the drearily derivative Fringe, as well as in films like Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield and the upcoming Star Trek reboot, Abrams has demonstrated an remarkable capacity to marry a purely pop, MTV aesthetic to narrative elements which rarely find their way into mainstream television. Sean Williams, for one sees Lost, with its teleportation and time travel plots, as a trojan horse designed to smuggle science fictional tropes into the mainstream, and in many ways the same could be said of all of Abrams’ work to date.

Part of the Abrams mystique is the illusion that everything in shows such as Lost and Fringe is part of some intricate plan worked out in advance. Like many other television shows, Lost assumes many of its viewers will watch (and indeed rewatch) episodes on Tivo and DVD, allowing them to pause and rewind, and as a result every second frame has some secret unlikely to reveal itself on a casual viewing hidden in it. If a television is on during a flashback in Lost you can assume whatever’s on will pertain to the plot, if a document is glimpsed on a table it will matter, if a logo appears on a coffee cup it will be part of the larger picture.

Obviously this increasingly complex web of associations in Lost and other shows like it depends upon exactly the same transformation in delivery technologies that underpins the rise of the new television more generally. Yet they are supplemented, in Lost’s case, by the very intelligent and deliberate use of the internet. Google Lost, and you will find endless discussions and spoilers, attempts to unravel the show’s mysteries and general speculation about what every detail might mean. And it’s not idle chatter either: I suspect for many viewers this second life (if you’ll pardon the pun) is as much a part of their enjoyment of the show as its more immediate pleasures.

Evangeline Lilly as Kate

Evangeline Lilly as Kate

The illusion it’s all planned is, of course, just that. One only has to look at the description of the original pilot (which was meant to star Michael Keaton as Jack, and have him die at the end of the first episode) to be reminded of the organic manner in which any television show, even one as intricate as Lost, evolves. Perhaps to his credit Abrams seems happy to give away the sort of fascistic control over every aspect of his shows’ creation that David Chase clearly exerted over The Sopranos or Matthew Weiner now exerts over Mad Men (there’s a fascinating if appalling depiction of Weiner at work in this excellent New York Times feature about life on the Mad Men set)

It’s also interesting to contrast Abrams’ manipulation of the illusion of control with the cheerful and slightly dismaying preparedness of Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica, another show whose success depends at least in part on the complexity of its overarching narrative, to admit how many of the crucial decisions about Battlestar Galactica are made in the most casual fashion (“Who shall we make the last of the Final Five? Adama? The President? Ellen?????”).

Jack and Sayid on the island

Jack and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) on the island

Given this careful calibrated interplay between the collaborative technologies of the internet (an interplay shows like Battlestar Galactica also build on through the release of mini webisodes between seasons) it would be tempting to see Lost and shows like it as the first wave of a new, viewer-driven mode of television, a wikivision if you like, but they’re not, or not really. The shows are still driven from the top down, even if they aren’t mapped out by their creators in quite the detail they pretend they are. And it is worth asking whether viewer-driven television would be attractive anyway. In the days of yore, when Xena was one of the hottest shows on tv, its writers checked out the newsgroups, and discovered, somewhat to their dismay, that its fans were enraged by many aspects of the current season. Pleased to have an insight into what viewers did and didn’t like, they began to change storylines and finesse characters to meet the wishes of their fans. The strategy worked. Within a few episodes the chat on the newsgroups grew far more positive. But simultaneously, ratings began to slide. Pleasing the diehard fans, it turned out, was not the same as pleasing viewers more generally.

Yet there’s little doubt Lost and its relatives are part of a broader transformation of television drama, a transformation driven by related, forces to those which have allowed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Big Love to flourish. And, like those shows, they represent a flowering of televison drama which speaks to its vitality as a form. Whether this renaissance can survive the next wave of changes to the media landscape is an interesting question, but for now, I’m just happy to have Lost back.

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A Lost Mastermind offers a crash course

A Lost Recap: On Lost, the Island Skips, Skips, Skips in Time

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Favourite Music 2015

I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.

And so, without further ado, here they are …

Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and  a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.

 

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.

 

Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.

 

Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour
Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.

 

The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists’ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.

 

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man,  Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.

 

Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.

 

Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.

Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.

 

Elle King, Love Stuff
Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.

 

Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.

 

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands  find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).

 

Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.

 

Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.

 

Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood
Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.

 

The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.

 

The Seven Deadly Sins

Better Durer

Albrecht Durer, ‘Cain Killing Abel’, 1511.

Just a quick note to say that if you’re free tomorrow night you might want to head over to Sydney’s Ashfield Library, where I’m joining Richard Glover, Debra Adelaide, Boyd Anderson, Gabrielle Carey, Christopher Cyrill and Catherine Walsh at an event celebrating the Seven Deadly Sins in literature. I’m speaking about envy, and I’m planning to say some things about monkeys, Milton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Doctor Doom.

Things kick off at 6:00pm in the Ground Floor Activity Rooms, Ashfield Library, 260 Liverpool Road, Ashfield. You can book tickets on 02 9716 1810 or visit the Library’s website for more information.