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Back in Black… Kinda

Lawks, has it really been over two months since I updated my blog?  It seems my three posts per month thing has fallen by the wayside a bit, to say the least.  On the plus side however, the lack of blog activity isn’t purely due to my laziness (and playing too much Angry Birds in Space), I have been getting some worthwhile stuff done. Namely I’ve been writing a lot more fiction, and since the point of starting this blog in the first place was to get in the habit of writing so I could get back into writing fiction I can’t really complain if the posts about comics and geeky shit has to take a back seat for a while.

I’m also pleased to report that my fiction efforts are starting to bear fruit. Firstly, I’ll be taking part in Hotel Hell, a blog project on the 13 Stories Till Halloween site, which will feature 13 stories leading up to October 31st.  The blog itself can be found here, and the editors have put together a spiffing little trailer for it which you can see here. Why not check it out when it kicks off on the 18th?

That's a strong line up right there... I'm sure that Ben Stewart chap will be particularly good

That’s a strong line up right there… I’m sure that Ben Stewart chap will be particularly good

My second recent success is that the independent publisher Fox Spirit has accepted a story of mine entitled The Wisdom of King Weejun for one of their forthcoming anthologies. Getting my first acceptance from a publisher has been a massive motivation to getting more stuff written, so I’ve been focusing on getting more submissions prepared even more lately.

So, once my current flurry of writing mania has passed I’ll likely come back and do more blog stuff, but until then I’m afraid you’ll just have to find a different source for your regular fix of a vaguely coherent Cumbrian rambling about giant monster movies and wargaming.

I’m sure they’re plenty of other sites that fill that niche, right?

Calling The Shots – Tiny Terrors Edition

Well bugger me, but I didn’t see that coming.  Anderson Silva knocked out at the hands of Chris Weidman?  That is one I wouldn’t have called in a hundred years.  Sure, I thought Chris might have had a chance by decision or submission but not on the feet.  Of course, Silva’s clowning around certainly helped Weidman, but I don’t want to take anything away from what was an excellent win over one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.  Can Anderson re-focus, come back stronger and win the rematch?  Quite possibly, but I’ll not be so confident about picking him next time.

But biggest story regarding Silva’s loss is that it cost me a clean sweep of predictions on the UFC 162 card.  Instead I had to settle for a still-pleasing 4 out of 5, which leaves me on 54/91  or 59.34% overall.  So very, very close to the magical 60% goal. I’m confident I’ll cross that threshold before the end of next month, so without further ado here’s my picks for this weekend’s matches and the first card in August.

UFC on Fox: Johnson Vs Moraga

I understand the UFC’s smallest division isn’t it’s most popular at present, with certain parties finding the Flyweights to not be to their taste.  Lack of finishes is one of the main reasons quoted, but surely an exciting KO or sub (while always good to see) isn’t the only thing that makes a fight entertaining? I enjoy watching two Heavyweights who each possess enough KO power to level a small villiage slug it out, but can’t a fast paced, technical contest of skill and agility be fun too?  That said, there is one complaint regarding the Flyweight division that I do agree with – it’s a bit too shallow at present, and this will show in the Demetrious Johnson /John Moraga main event I reckon, as Mighty Mouse takes a pretty straightforward win by decision.

Rory MacDonald beats Jake Ellenberger by decision

Robbie Lawler beats Bobby Voelker by (T)KO

Liz Carmouce beats Jessica Andrade by decision

UFC 163 – Aldo Vs Korean Zombie

The Jose Aldo /Chan Sung Jung main event should be a corker – Jung’s tough-as-nails grappling style has the potential to make for an excellent fight when up against Aldo’s savage striking.  Alas, while it might be exciting I fear that Jung will be a bit too limited to unthrone the Featherweight chamption – Aldo takes this one by decision.

Lyoto Machida beats Phil Davis by decision

Thiago Santos beats Cezar Ferreria by (T)KO

Thales Leites beats Tom Watson by submission

John Lineker beats Jose Maria Tome by decision

Enjoy the fights!

He’s Riding Through Your Town With His Head On Fie-yer

Or so sang Henry Rollins in his cover of the Alan Vega song Ghost Rider, as featured on The Crow’s soundtrack album.  The song goes on to proclaim that ‘America is killing it’s youth’ – well, I don’t know about that, but if I didn’t know better I’d say Marvel Comics are going out of their way to kill the character to which the song refers, or they’ve been be trying to kill my appreciation of him at least. Poor old Ghost Rider… he really hasn’t a good time of it of lately.

My first encounter with the Spirit of Vengeance was a reprint of the 90’s Danny Ketch version in a Marvel UK publication called Havoc  that collected various strips together in an anthology-style format. If memory serves this title featured the likes of Deathlok and Conan, but it was Ghost Rider that caught my attention most.  I dunno, I suppose for some odd reason the idea of a scary-looking demon bloke riding a big flaming motorbike in a spiky leather jacket appealed to me as a 14-year old heavy metal fan. The fact that at the time he was fighting  what was essentially a bunch of  ninjas was also a plus, certainly

With his flaming Hellcycle, burning chain, penance stare and his bad-ass attitude Ghost Rider was certainly one of my favourite characters in the early days of my comics habit. I’d go as far to say that Mark Spector: Moon Knight issue number 25 – which features a guest appearance by old flame head – is possibly still one of my favourite single issue stories after all these years, and that’s probably due to cool sequences like Ghost Rider leaving a fiery trail as he zooms up the side of the Statue of Liberty  Though having everyone’s number one schizophrenic Egyptian-themed Batman knock-off in the story is a bonus as well, of course.

You could almost think that adolescent Iron Maiden fans were the target audience here

You could almost think that adolescent Iron Maiden fans were the target audience here

After reading the Ketch storyline I ended up digging up the original Johnny Blaze run from the seventies. The Blaze Ghost Rider is a great of example of two of the trends prevalent among Marvel characters at the time. Firstly, he was a bit darker than the clean cut characters of the Golden and Silver ages what with his back story of a Faustian pact with dark forces to save a friend dying of Cancer.  Secondly, he was an attempt by Marvel to cash in on two hot trends of the time.  I’m pretty sure Johnny’s look and backstory owed a lot to the popularity of heavy metal and stunt riders like Evel Knievel.  This was a pretty common editorial approach in the seventies and earlier eighties, with characters like Iron Fist (Chop-Socky movies), Power Man (Blaxplotation) and Dazzler (Disco Music/Roller Skating) being the result.  I’m just surprised we didn’t get characters like Space-Hopper Man or Captain Clackers.

Anyhoo, while he was a dark character for the era the Johnny Blaze period was still a lot more lighthearted than the Ketch run (though it did touch on drug addiction at one point if I remember right) but still very enjoyable.  Plus Blaze had a stint in The Champions, possibly the greatest superhero team of all time, which made his history even richer. It was all good fun suff that I remember fondly, so I was pleased when a modern version of Blaze turned up towards the end of the Ketch run in the late nineties. That particular storyline did get a bit wacky towards the end (What with extra spiky demon biker Vengeance joining the family for example) but I was still sad to see it come to an end.

Then things started to go a bit wrong. After some time in comic limbo, Ghost Rider was re-launched with some fanfare around 2005.  I assume this was because the movie was in the works and Marvel wanted to make sure the character was firmly back in the geek consciousness for that momentous cinematic event. This would be a good thing, you might think, and normally you’d be right.  However this re-launch was doomed as far as I was concerned due to Marvel’s choice of writer.  For some reason there is an obsession in the comics world that whenever you wish to attempt a story line that is mature, edgy and dark there’s only one name that should be top of your list of potential writers, and Marvel got that very chap for the Ghost Rider gig – Garth Fucking Ennis.

You may have already guessed I’m not a fan of Mr Ennis’ work, and you’d be quite correct. I’m aware that everyone’s tastes are different and all that guff, but I’m genuinely baffled as to how our man Garth has managed to build up the popularity and fan-base that he has.  I did like some of his Punisher stuff to be fair, but even in that strip he couldn’t help himself and every now and again he had to throw in some rubbish like a man stumbling around with his testicles in a Styrofoam cup.  Or the sequence in which a woman was bleeding to death from a gutshot but still felt the need to proclaim she was ‘so wet right now’due to being sexually excited by all the violence going on around her.  Seriously, I’ve got some pretty low standards so when I think a comic is little more that puerile, moronic rubbish then something is very wrong.

Anyway, it came to pass that Ennis gave us the six-part story Road to Damnation, which was based around the classic Johnny Blaze version of the character.  Sort of.  It seems Garth wasn’t too interested in the character’s back story or the way the Marvel universe worked and so just set off doing it his own way.  Firstly, he rather missed the point that Johnny Blaze didn’t sell his soul to the devil as in a pointy bearded, pitch-fork wielding Beelzebub, rather it was to a demonic, otherworldly entity.  The difference is important – the Marvel universe has never featured a full on Judeo-Christian style mythology, but has instead had a watered down version that could sit more comfortably alongside their wacky versions of the Greek and Norse gods that are also a feature of the setting (Blaze teamed up with Hercules in The Champions after all). But Garth isn’t interested in that.  Instead he trots out a full-blown Catholic style, Dante-ish vision of Hell and Heaven complete with twinkly angels and choirs of infernal nasties just so he can take another pop at the religions he seems to have such an issue with. Dude, we got the point in Preacher. Time to move on, maybe?

After that, Garth opens his big bag o’ cliches and throws a nice collection of his regular nonsense at the pages. Outrageous Deep South accents? Check.  Over-the-top violence with severed arms and spines all over the shop? Check. Disgustingly decrepit old man in a wheelchair on life support? Check.  Character with an absolutely hilarious anus-themed gimmick? Check and Check.  Thanks Garth, not only have you given us the wonderfully endearing and timeless character ‘Buttview’, you’ve actually managed to write a Ghost Rider story so poor I don’t even want to keep the graphic novel on my shelf. On the plus side, however, the book did have some OKart. Actually, if it was illustrated by an artist I can’t stand as well, say Rob Liefield maybe, then it would have been some perfect storm of comics-based Ben annoyance which might have finished off my appreciation of Ghost Rider there and then, rather than just giving it a sound kick in the nuts.

I'm not sure what's more striking here - the demonic, flaming shotgun or that bloody wig

I’m not sure what’s more striking here – the demonic, flaming shotgun or that bloody wig

After Garth Ennis’s dispiriting efforts I didn’t give much consideration to Ghost Rider for a while, but I knew that the movie was on the horizon.  I’ll admit that from the very earliest days of the internet rumors I had a bad feeling about it, primiarily due to the casting of  Nicolas Cage in the lead role, a casting decision that I found somewhat baffling if I’m honest. Still, when it finally came out I faithfully tramped down to my local cineplex, paid my money and took my chances.

Yeah, I wasn’t impressed.

The movie wasn’t the worst I’d ever seen and still had some entertaining moments but it had a heck of a lot wrong with it.  A half-arsed plot, a fundamental misunderstanding of the Ghost Rider character and his powers, ropey villains, uninspiring fights and nowhere near enough high-speed motorbike chases were all negative points, but the biggest bugbear that stood head and shoulders above all the rest was Nic Cage as Johnny Blaze.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should blame the scriptwriters, director or Cage for the fact that Blaze was played as a mentally-impaired Hillbilly dosed up on extra-drowsy Night Nurse (‘D’you like eye-tallian food?’), but given Nic is the public face I’ll direct my snark in his general direction I reckon. That good ol’ boy routine might have served him well in Con Air but it didn’t do any good here.  Actually, know I say that I’m not even sure Cage’s Dukes of Hazard impression even did him any good in that movie either.  Whenever anyone talks of that movie fondly it’s normally because of John Malkovich’s scenery chewing turn or Steve Buscemi’s mild-mannered serial killer character, nothing to do with Cage’s ‘The South will rise again’ act.

It might be going to far to say Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze is the worst casting a superhero movie ever-  given we’ve had David Hasslehoff as Nick Fury and Shaquille O’Neal as Steel in the past – but he probably makes the top five.  I understand Cage (due to being a comic geek himself) has always wanted to play a superhero role and so probably jumped at the part without much thought, and the studio was probably just chuffed to have a big name on the project, but it was simply a bad call that meant an already iffy film ended up being another terrible blow to the Ghost Rider franchise. A more damaging one than Garth Ennis managed too, I’d say, what with it being much more widely seen and more publicly known. I understand a sequel was made, and I understand said sequel features the talents of fine actors such as Idris Elba and Anthony Head which may elevate it above it’s predecessor, but I haven’t watched it yet… after all, Nic Cage is bloody well in it as well, and I don’t fancy sitting through another ninety minutes of a Conway Twitty-style Johnny Blaze.

Normally I’m pretty laid back about this kind of geek-sacrilege.  In a previous post I went on about how people should chill out and not get so wound up about tweaks made to their sacred cows when they’re made into films or similar, but sadly I can’t practice what I preach when it comes to Ghost Rider.  Maybe I’m just being a bit unfair – after all, Ennis has plenty of fans in the comics world and they can’t all be fourteen year old boys, can they? And maybe I was expecting too much of the movie given how much I’d enjoyed films like Spiderman, Hellboy and X-Men 2. And it was still better than Daredevil or Elektra. But still, I don’t think I’ll be paying a great deal of attention to Ghost Rider projects for the foreseeable future.  I’m just not sure I can take much more flame-head themed disappointment.

Of course, if Marvel Studios somehow managed to get the rights to the character back and decided to reboot the character… well, then I might be interested.  I can’t see it ever happening if I’m honest, but I’d more than likely watch a Ghost Rider movie that came from the studio that gave us the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Avengers movies, if they deemed tackling a character with such a chequered past wasn’t too much of a risk.

As long as they didn’t cast Nicolas Cage,  of course.

Red Five, Standing By

For most of the last twenty years now I’ve harbored a terrible, dark secret.  For all these years I’ve battled a terrible, nigh-on uncontrollable addiction that must be fed regularly lest withdrawal sets in,  an addiction that has robbed me of  so much time and cost me so much money over the years.

Yup, I’m a wargamer.  Tragic, I know. Mucking around with tiny plastic or lead models and rolling dice in the company of other similarly obsessed grown men  is my great vice.  At least it’s cheaper than crack cocaine. Well, marginally cheaper anyway.

I thought I’d got off the stuff at one point, and I was clean for quite a while but it dragged me back in a couple of years ago.  Since it did I’ve been working away to try and get a force ready enough to take to the tabletop but like many gamers I have about a thimbleful of willpower and the attention span of a three year old when it comes to sticking with just one game.  Any new shiny range of models will inevitably distract me from my current project and so I find myself with a number of half finished armies rather than anything usable.  Right now I’ve got Nurgle Daemons for 40k, Everblight and Khador for WarmaHordes, a plethora of Blood Bowl teams and a job lot of DreadBall teams in various stages of assembly and painting, all clamoring for my attention.  At some point I might actually pull my finger out and finish something, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon.

So given my disorganized gaming predicament what I don’t need is further ranges to tempt me.  With uncharacteristic strength of nerve I managed to avoid dipping into systems like Dystopian Wars, Bushido, Malifaux and Deep Wars, but then somebody mentioned Mongoose Publishing were doing a Star Trek Miniatures game.  This is a franchise I’m a big fan of and so, I realized, could prove more tempting than I could handle.

Yeah, I know.  Wargamer AND a Trekkie.  Tragic, isn’t it?  There’s some days where I find it remarkable that any women have ever actually talked to me, never mind one actually marrying me.

In the end I managed to resist the pull of Star Trek: A Call to Arms. I reasoned that I just couldn’t cope with more models to paint, I’d probably struggle to find opponents and also I don’t really trust Mongoose to deliver a decent product (due to a possibly irrational resentment over the way the company handled the Starship Troopers and Conan properties). But then a chap at my local gaming club mentioned another game that came without any of those problems and that could really deliver some geek-tastic space combat miniatures fun – the X-Wing Miniatures Game.

For some reason Porkins seems to be nicely representative of both Star Wars and the average wargamer.

For some reason Porkins seems to be nicely representative of both Star Wars and the average wargamer…

This nice little game uses pre-assembled and pre-painted miniatures, so I don’t need to worry about untouched plastic sprues giving me the evil eye from my to-do pile. Finding an opponent isn’t an issue as the game has taken off (if you’ll pardon the pun) at my club, probably due to most of the locals being thirty-something geeks with unhealthy Star Wars obsessions. The fact that I like the manufacturer, Fantasy Flight Games,  is a bonus too, and  that the system is a descendant of the jolly good fun Wings of War is a major plus. So I picked up the starter set, got stuck into some games, and after two months or so of playing it I’d thought I’d share some thoughts.

Firstly, I should probably point out that I’m not going to go into any deep analysis of rules or mechanics, and if you’re wanting informed discussion on killer strategies or force builds you’ve come to the wrong place.  Bear in mind that I am, in essence, a bit of a chump and I’m more interested in having a laugh while gaming than playing the rules in order to annihilate my foes.  Just so you know.

Anyway, on to playing the game. First of all we need to pick a force.  In an normal game one side takes the Imperials and the other takes the Rebel Alliance.  Each player then picks models up to the agreed points value. All the ships you’d expect to see are represented – TIE Fighters, X-Wings, A-Wings, TIE Interceptors and so on. There’s more choice than just ships too – is your X-Wing going to be piloted by Luke Skywalker, Wedge Antillies or a nameless and therefore probably doomed Red Squadron pilot?  While ships of the same type tend to perform in a more or less similar fashion – their movement options and maneuverability tend to always be the same – the person in the cockpit can give the vessel an interesting and characteristic twiddle to make things more fun. It also gives a player the option of fielding a smaller squadron of named characters with all their fancy skills or a horde of faceless spods, which is a point I’ll actually mention in slightly greater detail later.  In my experience, when playing  a 100 point game (which appears to be the tournament standard) a Rebel squadron will be 3-5 ships while the Imperials field anything from 5-8 strong.

So, with our forces picked we’re ready to dogfight to the finish in space.  The game works quite similar to Wings of War, with each player planning their moves in secret and the ships acting in order of their pilots skill level.  A nice little touch is that the more skilled pilots move last but shoot first, meaning that once they know where they’re ending up they have a chance to shoot down opposing ships before they get zapped themselves. The fact that the ships act based on skill order rather than which player controls them and as attacks are an opposed roll (the attacker rolling special attack dice while the defender rolls special dodging dice) means that both players are constantly engaged in the game, something that can be lacking in a game with a traditional I-go U-go turn system.

That’s as about as much rules talk as I’m going to do.  If you want more, give the Board Game Geek website a try.  Seriously, they love their rules chat on there.  So instead of mechanical musings I’ll move on to the important thing.  Is it any good?

The X-Wing Miniatures Game has a lot of good things going for it.  Firstly, it’s easy to pick up.  After a few plays any gamer worth their salt will have their head around the system without having to refer back to the – rather brief – rules manual.  Despite (or perhaps because of) this simplicity the game is good fun, fast paced and exciting.  Tense moments as you wait to see if you guessed which way the enemy ship was going to bank correctly or moments of panic as you find your ship blundering into the fire arcs of several opponents are commonplace.  And the joy of hitting a loop the loop maneuver that drops one of your fighters right behind an enemy at point blank range is really something special.  Well, it’s not so special when you fluff the dice roll and miss completely, but it’s nice until that happens.

In this game I found out flying into the fire arcs of three TIE Fighters is a bad idea, even for Han Solo

In this game I found out flying into the fire arcs of three TIE Fighters is a bad idea, even for Han Solo

This high tempo, action packed play style really helps capture an exciting dog-fighting vibe,  and means there’s some tactical meat as ideally you have to plan several moves ahead while still being able to react to your opponents plans too.  The came is nicely cinematic , with the individual ships acting as you would expect them to, and the pilot skills are well thought out also. Han Solo is a reckless all-or-nothing kind of guy, while Luke can use the force to improve his dice rolls – all nice and characterful.  And the fact that you’ve got Han Solo or Luke Skywalker (or Darth Vader say, if you’re a fan of the Empire) means that middle aged Star Wars geeks like myself get an extra emotional involvement in the game.  Trust me, it’s much more of a big deal when Luke gets shot down than if it’s some anonymous Red Squadron guy dying in a fireball.  The photo to the right is taken from a game in which I sadly ended up being responsible for the destruction of the Millennium Falcon and the death of Han, mainly due to some shockingly incompetent flying on my part.  A traumatic experience, but I’m almost over it now.  Almost. Also bear in mind that if you’re some kind of Star Wars hating misanthrope you can always take a bit of pleasure from blowing the characters up, can’t you?

Of course no game is perfect, and there are a few niggles I have with X-Wing.  Firstly, I’ve got a bad feeling that the game is somewhat unbalanced in favour of the Imperial faction.  It might be simply that they’re easier to use and the Rebels will catch up once we’ve had more practice with them, or it may be because the Empire’s ability to field large numbers of fast, nippy ships is just too good. As I mentioned earlier a player can chose to eschew the named pilots in favor of nameless goons, and this tactic really works for the Empire.  I played one game against 8 TIE Fighters being flown by what where basically chimps in Imperial uniform and I really struggled against them. This particular game wasn’t really a great deal of fun as I just couldn’t do a thing to overcome the swarm. Maybe someone will come up with a foolproof way of dealing with this tactic, but until then I’ll have to rely on my opponents picking a force build that is better suited a more competitive and enjoyable match.

Then there’s the financial considerations.  I don’t like judging a game on the cost normally, but it strikes me that X-Wing could be a bit of a money sink.  Sure, it’s cheaper than games like 40k by a country mile, but a 100 point four ship force could easily set you back the fat end of £40 which seems a lot for a knock-about board game.  And if you want to go for the full-on Imperial TIE Fighter swarm you’re obviously looking at double that. Of course that might not be an issue to some people.  After all, what’s expensive to me as a home-owning dad-of-two might be a pittance to a single chap who has disposable income coming out of his wazoo because he lives in his parents attic. Anyway, it’s costly by my standards.

I’ve also got some doubts about the games longevity, something that’s rather important if I’m going to chuck money at it. There’s only two factions so there’s not exactly a wide range of match-ups to be had. Also by my reckoning the next wave of releases will include the last of the ships from the movies.  Indeed, the releases also include a vessel from the expanded universe, Kyle Katran’s Moldy Crow (Seriously, I’ve never heard of him or his ship). Personally I don’t have much interest in the Star Wars novels or comics so I can’t see myself shelling out for the Outrider or Bossk’s Hounds Tooth so the game could run out of steam for me without new releases that I fancy. Maybe JJ Abrahams new movies will provide some new blood, but they’re a way off yet.

On the whole I can certainly recommend X-Wing, especially for any wargaming Star Wars fans out there, but I’m not going to try and resist getting in too deep at the moment due to the points mentioned above.  If I start seeing Rebel fleets picking up wins on a consistent basis I might well pick up a few extra ships, but for now I think I’ll stick to what I’ve got.

But if X-Wing does grow stale then it looks like I might have another option to investigate…. Fantasy Flight have only gone and leased the system to Wizkids who are going to do a Star Trek version.

Pre-painted Star Trek ships?  A game using the fun mechanics of X-Wing? And based on my preferred Next Gen setting? Oh my giddy aunt.  I think I’d better call my miniatures dealer and see if he can score some of this gear,

I wonder if he’d consider giving me the first one free, just to get me hooked…

Calling the Shots – The Spider’s Web Edition

After 7 out of my 10 predictions for last months cards came up trumps I find myself sitting on a running total of 50/86 – 58.13%. As I continue in my quest to obtain a 60% success rate it’s time to put some picks up for the first of two cards taking place in July, and the  one I’m especially excited to see no less.  When Anderson Silva is in the Octagon we can normally look forward to something special. Sure, the fights with Cote, Leites and Maia might have been lackluster,  but for me those incidents are easily eclipsed by the laser-guided destruction of Chris Leben, the Matrix-like dismantling of Forrest Griffin, the crane-kick shellacking of Vitor Belfort or the Muay-Thai snotterings of Rich Franklin to name but a few.  Silva’s opponent at 162 is promising prospect Chris Weidman, from the Serra-Longo fight camp.  Weidman may well be a superstar of the future, but does he have what it takes to snatch the Middleweight belt away from Silva?

UFC 162

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter that Chris Weidman might be the man to end Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva’s epic 17 fight win streak and 7 year title reign to an end.  This seems to be mainly based on the fact Weidman is an excellent grappler, and it’s been good wrestlers like Lutter, Henderson and of course Sonnen who’ve given Silva jitters in the past.  Add in Weidman’s slick submission game and impressive striking (that standing elbow on Mark Munoz… yikes) and I can sort of see why people might think he has a shot.  Alas, at this point of his career I can’t him getting the upset.   Silva will make Weidman pay for every takedown attempt and I’m confident he’s got too many tricks in his arsenal for the 9 fight youngster to handle.  Silva takes this one by (T)KO, but  Weidman will be back.  Silva’s got to retire some day and when that day comes Weidman will be one  of the guys that has a good chance of occupying the vacated middleweight throne.

On to the rest of the card…

Frank Edgar beats Charles Oliveria by decision

Tim Kennedy beats Roger Gracie by (T)KO

Mark Munoz beats Tim Boetcsh by (T)KO

Cub Swanson beats Dennis Siver by decision

I’m finding myself pushed for time so I’ll have to come back to July’s other card next week.  So enjoy the fights and beware the spider’s web…

 

Too Busy Looking Gooood

I was saddened to hear that Jim Kelly, one of the iconic martial arts stars of the 1970s,  passed away last weekend at the relatively young age of 67.  Kelly, of course, was best known for playing the wise-cracking and impressively afro’d blaxploitation-stylee character Williams in Bruce Lee’s kung fu masterpiece Enter The Dragon.   Williams is unquestionably one of the most memorable characters from that classic, particularly as he got some of the best lines in the script.  That’s not saying much I suppose given there really wasn’t much of a script to start with, but Williams did deliver such bon mots as ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book’ and the quite simply brilliant verbal slapdown of the movies villain, ‘Bull-shit, Mr Han-Man.’ It might get him killed, but that’s beside the point.

Yeah, those quotes don’t seem anywhere near as bad-ass when they’re written down.  If you haven’t seen  film you’ll not really be able to appreciate their Jive Talkin’ brilliance.  That said if you haven’t seen that movie then you probably haven’t lived.

Unorthodox... but effective

Unorthodox… but effective

I do enjoy a good chop-socky movie, and like my unhealthy obsessions with giant Japanese monsters and terrifying horrors of the deep it’s something that stems from my childhood. I first saw Enter The Dragon when I was about nine or ten, thanks to the kid next door who had access to his dad’s pirate video collection.  I was a bit young for violent martial arts battles to the death you may think, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in danger of turning into a serial killer or anything so it doesn’t seem to have done me any lasting harm.  Maybe kids were just better adjusted in the 1980’s or something.

It turns out that the video shop in my hometown had the same lax attitude to the certifications issued by the British Board of Film Classification as my neighbour, and they didn’t seem to see any problems with lending a wide range of martial arts films to me and my brother on a Saturday afternoon.  So while my parents were out we indulged in a wide range of poorly dubbed stories of Shaolin monks avenging slain masters and so on.  Next we discovered the crazy capers of Jackie Chan, with the bicycle chase in Project A being a high point of his excellent repertoire.  Then came the inferior but still entertaining western efforts such as No Retreat, No Surrender, the American Ninja series and the early works of Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport being the pick of that bunch).

While there were some great films among that lot, Bruce Lee’s stuff was by far my favourite (with the exception of the bizarre American cut of Way of the Dragon that transforms Lee from a rippley-muscled killing machine into a comedy Chinaman who always needs the toilet for some incomprehensible reason) and Enter The Dragon was certainly the best of his work.  Those films were mainly great due to Bruce Lee himself of course, but I think Enter The Dragon stood head and shoulders above the rest due to its supporting cast. Characters such as Roper (the hairy-chested playboy), O’Hara (possessed of a truly unconvincing scar), Bolo (massive-chested end of level boss), the villainous Mr Han (complete with a collection of spare hand weapons more versatile than a Swiss army knife) and of course Jim Kelly as Williams.

Back in those days only the real martial artists like Lee, Van Damme, Norris, Chan and their ilk were considered to have the skills to make movies of this nature.  These days it seems like all it takes is a few months training combined with clever filming techniques and a bunch of special effects is all that’s needed to make guys like Keanu Reeves or Christian Bale into doom-ninjas and the era of the guy who could kick ass off the screen as well as on it has passed, which is a shame. Jim Kelly was one of those guys – a  genuine karate black belt and true martial artist, but he also had a charisma that many of the other martial artist actors lacked.  From Williams’s first appearance in Enter The Dragon where he takes on a pair of racist cops, to his untimely demise at the weaponised fake hand of Mr Han, his outgoing personality provides a nice contrast to Lee’s more traditionally stoic Shaolin monk act that helps make a good kung fu film great.

After Enter The Dragon Kelly went on to star in several other kung fu movies, mostly in the blaxplotation genre where he played a greatly exaggerated version of  his Willams character. In movies like Black Belt Jones and Three The Hard Way Kelly is like some kind of samurai version of John Shaft, kicking ass to a wacky-wacky funk guitar soundtrack and lookin’ fine at the same time.  It’s pretty easy to dismiss these films as typical 70s grindhouse fare, but let’s not forget Kelly was something of a pioneer here as the first real black star in the cinematic martial arts oeuvre. And irregardless of the breaking of colour barriers n’ that they’ve got some great fight scenes that make them well worth watching anyway.

After drifting away from the silver screen it turns out Kelly started a career as a tennis professional and coach of all things (according to the stories I’ve been reading recently).  He might have not reached the heights of stardom he experienced in  Enter The Dragon again, but he’ll always hold a special place in the hearts of fans of Bruce Lee’s work and martial arts movies in general. And if anyone wants to argue with that opinion, I feel I’d have to respond in the way that seems to honor Jim Kelly’s memory best.

‘Bull-shit, Mr Han Man.’

Obviously that works best if their name happens to be Han, but I wouldn’t let a minor point like a person’s name get in the way of a chance to come out with a classic line that one.

Rest in peace, Jim Kelly.

Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

There’s a campaign that’s come to my attention of late that’s that poses the question ‘I Need Feminism Because…’.  It seems to consist of various people (not just women of course, there are plenty of male feminists in this world of ours) holding up a sign with that intro followed by something from their own personal experience that highlights the importance of the battle for equality between the sexes.  It understand the campaign garnered a lot of initial momentum on something called Tumblr (which is apparently not a social networking site for circus acrobats as I had previously thought) but recently I’ve been seeing it a lot on Facebook too, hence my sudden awareness of it.

I made a point of not engaging with it at first.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully behind the goals of feminism (as I understand them) and I’m 100%  for equality.  My problem is that I’ve got one or two philosophical differences with the approach taken by some feminists who, in my opinion, sometimes take it too far. But when friends of mine are bearing their souls and standing up for a cause they believe in I don’t think it’s particularly big and clever to charge into some online flame war with ’em. It might start off as a reasonable and adult debate, but when a subject so emotive is combined with the sense of separation from the person you’re dealing with that the internet gives one, then things can escalate surprising quickly.  So I’ve decided to retreat here, to my own cosy little corner of the wibbly wobbly web to elucidate on my views further.

First, a disclaimer just in case any of you are mentally drafting hate-mail or trying to think of a way to find my address so you can smash my patriarchal, misogynist windows – I’m all about the equality. I’m not about to launch into some crap about how disadvantaged us poor white heterosexual males are these days or any of that bollocks.  Just hear me out.

OK.  Here goes.

I need feminism because… well, actually I don’t.

By which I mean I need something else. Something more than feminism. Yes, an ideal that rails against the ludicrous idea that a section of the human race should be discriminated against because of the arrangement of their genitals (whichever arrangement they happen to possess) is a good thing. But we need more than that. We also need an ideal that says people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of what they do with said genitals. Nor should they be discriminated against because of what colour those genitals are, how old they are, if they’ve been swapped for another set or whether or not they’ve had slight religious modification, if you follow my drift. And then, once we are being all inclusive and whatnot, we need to mention the tricky issue of labels. 

MMA legend, J-Pop impresario, messenger of hope - is there anything Genki Sudo can't do?

MMA legend, J-Pop impresario, messenger of hope – is there anything Genki Sudo can’t do?

From what I’ve been learning about this type of thing over the last few days I think my hope for equality across all lines of discrimination makes me some kind of ‘Intersectionalist’ who’s more interested in the ‘Kyriarchy’ rather than the ‘Patriarchy’ or something along those lines anyway.  I might be using those terms in completely the wrong context, but I guess that’s the heart of my issue.  There’s just too many damn labels, factions, subgroups and what have you.  Labels are divisive. Labels and arguments over labels and their definitions can, in my experience, all too often can get in the way of what counts. I mentioned earlier that there’s some aspects of feminism I take issue with – there are occasions when people can take it too far. What we should be about is equality, not having a go at me purely for the crime of owning a penis. Now, this is strictly a small minority of feminists as the vast, vast majority of them that I’ve met are perfectly reasonable people simply trying to combat a genuine injustice. But it’s all to easy for nay-sayers and to lump the reasonable people in with the extremes, and use it as a handy way to dismiss them.  Such is the power of labels. 

So rather than feminism I need something bigger and, if I may, better. Something accessible, understandable, inclusive and less easy to argue against based on the unreasonable actions of a half-baked minority. I suppose you could call it egalitarianism or humanism if you like, but then they’re just more labels for politics or philosophy students to argue over and labels are what I’m trying to avoid. I prefer to simply call it ‘not being an arsehole’. .These days when I find myself considering discriminating against someone because of their gender, race, sexuality or whatever I simply ask myself ‘if I do this will I be acting like a right arsehole?’ The answer is almost invariably yes, so I don’t do it.  Now that’s a philosophy that’s hard to argue against. Of course I’m not perfect when it comes to not being an arsehole and I don’t always get it right, but I try my best. My best isn’t always good enough but I’d like to think my best is slowly getting better, and that’s about as much a chap can hope for in these turbulent modern times. 

You might agree with me, you might think I’m talking out of my backside.  That’s fine by me – I’ve been wrong before in my life and I’ll be wrong again in the future, and I might turn out to be wrong here as well.  And you might think I’m some horrible misogynist fiend or maybe you’ll think I’m some kind of hippy commie leftist.  Maybe I’m just a white-middle class chump who needs to check his privilege or something. Hopefully I’m none of those things. Hopefully I’m just a  bloke who’s trying to treat people right in the possibly over-optimistic hope that they’ll treat me right in return. At then end of the day I’m just going to keep on trying to live my life in the spirit of the wise prophets known as Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan.

“Be excellent to each other.’

‘Party on, dudes.’

Peace out.

Savage Swords and Mighty Thews – A Tribute

 “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.” – Wilson Mizner

Well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.  This little quote popped into my head while I was working on a recent writing project – a short story heavily influenced by my love of classic sword and sorcery stories, especially the work of the master of that genre – good old Robert E. Howard (The story itself can be found here if you are interested, though beware of first draft typos aplenty). I think it’s tricky to work in a long-established genre like this without being in some way derivative, particularly when one is such a fan.  But I’m taking the approach of writing the kind of stuff I like to read myself in order to keep my keen up, so hopefully I can at least be derivative in new ways.  Fingers crossed.

Did you spill my pint?

Did you spill my pint?

As it happens this short story is one I started several years ago, when I last had a shot at this writing lark.  When I was working on it originally it was with the intention of pitching it at Games Workshops publishing arm, The Black Library. The first draft was set in the Warhammer world and featured a mighty beastman gor by the name of Kruac cutting a bloody swathe through countless foes on a mysterious quest for his tribe’s mysterious totem god (an aspect of Tzeentch as it happens). He was to be accompanied on this epic quest by a wily, sneaky ungor by the name of Ghul, a character rather inspired by Moonglum from the Elric stories, with perhaps a tiny amount of the Gray Mouser in there as well. I’d intended to try and write a series of linked short stories featuring these two chaps, aping the format that was used so well by Howard for characters like King Kull and Conan of Cimmeria, but it never really came to pass.

I didn’t get very far into it at the time, and over the years the prospect of submitting anything to The Black Library has lost it’s appeal – the publisher seems to be becoming more of a sausage-factory for churning out an infinite number of Horus Hersey books and Space Marine novels of highly dubious quality, and it appears to attract some pretty spectacular frothing-nut-job type fans to boot.  So when I stumbled across the half-finished first draft for Kruac and Ghul’s introductory adventure by chance recently I thought I’d have a bit of a fiddle with it. The idea of re-skinning the story to move it away from the Warhammer setting had a certain appeal given the influence of the pulp genre. After all, Conan’s first appearance was in a reworked version of the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Taking the skeleton of what I had written so far and transplanting it to a different setting struck me as nicely Howardian, so I set about re-writing it.

Deep, dark, and almost certainly chock-full of monsters.

Deep, dark, and almost certainly chock-full of monsters.

I didn’t much fancy the idea of coming up with my own fantasy world (which seemed too much like hard work to be honest) so after a bit of pondering I opted to set the tale in a slightly fantastical version of  my home county of Cumbria in the 5th Century ( I think was known as Rheged back then),which may have had something to do with the fact that I’d recently been reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord series that takes place in a similar time frame.  The fact that I’d been reading an article in the paper about the Rheged tourist centre in Cumbria which is focused on that era likely had some influence too. I also had a bit of an obsession as a kid with the idea that the picturesque bodies of water to be found in the Lake District national park were full of monsters, and when I got an idea to feature a lake-dwelling Great Old One like creature as replacement for Tzeentch I was sold on the location.  And it didn’t take me long to decide that said creature would lair in Wastwater, an unpleasant and almost lifeless lake which also happens to be the deepest in England.  I had my setting, but what of my lead characters? I couldn’t very well have Beastmen of Chaos running around Cumbria, so I came up with an alternative.

I’m not sure when Fomorians popped into my head, but it seemed to fit.  My take on them might be a bit more Dungeons and Dragons rather than classical Irish myth, but I kinda think it works.  And I don’t think my grasp of the Fomorians is any less shaky than my grasp of dark ages history anyway, and playing things a bit fast and loose with accuracy (if accuracy is something that can be quibbled over when dealing with fairytale creatures) is probably in keeping with the pulp era thing too.  As with the original beastman idea, using the Fomorians as the main antagonists is my feeble attempt at originality – trying to have what should be the bad guys as the heroes. If I was to end up doing more of them that would be something to try to work into the arc, the transition from terrifying monster to Conan-esque antihero.

Anyway, I won’t be doing any more of these anytime soon as I have another entry for a short story anthology to be on with, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to at least re-draft this one at some point.  With that in mind I’d love to hear any feedback from anyone who takes the time out to look it over, even if it’s just pointing out my copious spelling and grammatical errors.  I Sky plussed The Scorpion King for about the other day so I’ll think I’ll go and watch that for probably the thirtieth time now.  At least when I watch that film it proves the point that something doesn’t have to be original to be entertaining. so maybe there’s hope for me yet.

(Did I mention the story was called The Exiles?  And Could be found either here or via the Short Story tab up top?  Well, if I didn’t, I have now…)

Calling the Shots – The Epic Comeback Edition

Things were looking a bit bleak on the predictions front recently with my running score sinking faster and faster to the 50% mark that would have prompted me to give up. But a really rather excellent may (including a good night at UFC 160 which saw me pick 4 out of 5 right) has dragged me back to) 43/76 or 56.57%. The 60% target is in my sights again, so here’s my picks for June’s two cards which see the UFC return to Brazil and Canada.

UFC on Fuel TV 10

In the main event two Brazilian grappling aces clash in their home country, but I kinda think this fight is going to be decided by the striking. As much as I love Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria I can’t help but think his best days are in the past, and his opponent Fabrico Werdum is a fellow I’m expecting to see fight for the title before the end of the year.  Werdum is in a different league to Big Nog’s last two victims (Brendan Schaub and Dave Herman) and I see him using his ever improving muay thai to take home a (T)KO victory.  Now, as for the rest of the main card (well, the main card according to Wikipedia anyway, the TV broadcast for these Fuel shows never seems to match the fights advertised), my picks are as follows:

Rafael Cavalcante beats Thiago Silva by decision

Daniel Sarafian beats Eddie Mendez by decision

Erick Silva beats Jason High by (T)KO

Rony Jason beats Mike Wilkinson by decision

I’m not making a pick for the TUF finale match as I haven’t been watching the show and don’t know either fighter from Adam – at least that’s one fight I can watch without being nervous over the outcome!

UFC 161

So, onto the injury-marred Canadian card, which will be headlined by a three-round affair between Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans following the cancellation of the Bantamweight title match. I’m not expecting a particularly exciting match here.  Sure, if Hendo lands clean then Rashad will find himself out cold and making another funny face for the camera (see the Lyoto Machida fight) but I just don’t see it happening. Rashad will use his speed and wrestling to exploit Henderson’s questionable takedown defence and win a somewhat tame decision.  The rest of the main card has some potentially better scraps however, and I’m expecting a couple of good knockouts here:

Roy Nelson beats Stipe Miocic by (T)KO

Ryan Jimmo beats Igor Pokraiac via (T)KO

Alexis Davis beats Rosi Sexton by decision (it pains me to pick against Rosi, but I just think she’s undersized for this division)

Pat Barry beats Shawn Jordan by (T)KO

That’s me done for June – hopefully that percentage will continue to creep up and Calling the Shots will be back next month to welcome Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva back to the octagon, as the number one pound for pound fighter in the world takes on hot prospect Chris Weidman.  Now that’s one I’m really, really looking forward to.

21st Century Digital Boy

Recently I decided to drag myself kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  I came to the conclusion I could no longer fight the inexorable march of progress and it was about time I renounced my Luddite ways  and joined everyone else in the wonderful digital paradise  of the future. Yep, I finally bought one of them there Kindle things.

Because I’m something of a tightwad who’s only interested in the E reader side of things I got myself a bog-standard model rather than a fancy-dan Kindle Fire or similar.  I also thought this would be a good idea as it’d be easier to use, an important consideration for a techno-phobic chump like myself. Well, two weeks or so later and I think I’m just about starting to get the hang of it. It actually took me about an hour to work out how to make it turn pages, if you can believe it. After all those buttons on the side are pretty small and well hidden.  One of the main problems I encountered with it was that there wasn’t any instructions in the box, rather they came as a file on the Kindle itself.  Which is not entirely useful when one can’t figure out how to turn the bloody screen saver off, never mind how to access a document on the sodding thing.

Anyway, once I’d got my head round the basics I poked Amazon until it made some books magically appear on my device and got down to some reading.  The first book I sampled in the Format of Tomorrow was Doc Savage : Skull Island  by a Mr Will Murray, a crossover tale recounting how one of  the legendary crime fighters of the pulp era came face to face with monster movie icon King Kong. This sort of small-print indie novel was exactly the kind of thing that made me interested in the Kindle format. To order this book in paper format from the U.S. would have cost me the fat end of £15, somewhat more than I’m willing to spend of a slice of light-hearted pulp adventure. The electronic version however is only a couple of quid and so I paid my money and gave it a read.

This one way to get that bloody screensaver to turn off...

This is not the best way to get that bloody screen saver to turn off, but it’s the most satisfying

I intend to do a full review of the book at some point, but in the meantime I’ll just say I spent a couple of pleasant lunch hours in the office canteen as the Man of Bronze came face to face with the Eighth Wonder of the World (and a load of dinosaurs). Add in a bunch of Indonesian head-hunters, some of Doc’s immediate family and a highly implausible giant octopus attack and you’ve got an amusing little yarn that’s pretty well suited to my tastes.  Once I finished it I gave a little consideration to the how the whole Kindle experience had differed from reading a traditional book fashioned from good old dead trees and ink, and came up with the following pros and cons.

The Pros 

1)  As well as the Doc Savage book I’d managed to fill the Kindle with about twenty other books that I’d got dirt cheap or free from Amazon.  This meant if I fancied something different to my current book I had a wide range of options without having to carry a sackful of novels around with me.

2) Ordering a book from Amazon and having it in front of me and ready to read in seconds was pretty damn impressive to a computer-illiterate semi-caveman such as myself.  The ability to send PDFs to it and have them available to view in next to no time is pretty clever too.

3) As I already mentioned the Kindle opens the door to a wide range of independent and self-published books, such as those aspiring authors who give samples away on sites like Goodreads. Electronic publishing has opened the door for so many people to put their work out there and the Kindle is my way of sampling said work. Of course it’ll only take a few bad choices to expose me to some of the god-awful, indulgent  self published junk that’s no doubt swilling around out there before I change my mind and class this as a con.

4) This one might seem like a trifle but I thought it was an excellent little feature – a Kindle, unlike a paperback, rather handily lies flat when not held. If one lets go of it for a second it doesn’t flip closed causing my to lose my place, which often prompts a wee bit of cursing. As I mentioned beforehand I frequently read on my lunch break, and this handy little feature means I can lie the Kindle flat on the table leaving both hands free to attend to my dinner. Some people may find my eating and reading to be somewhat bad manners, but I’ll take reading time where ever I can find it.

The Cons

1) I like books. I like books as a physical thing, with nice cover art. I like bookshelves full of books, with all their spines of different colours and sizes lined up in whatever random organisational system I’m opted to use at the time.  I don’t like the fact that because these books are there on the Kindle they won’t be sitting on some bookshelf  gathering dust and looking all brilliant.  Of course, my wife might argue that this is in fact a Pro rather than a Con given I’ve got far more books than I have shelves, and there are far too many books hidden under tables or in cupboards and so on in our house.  Maybe I’m due another charity shop run to thin them out a bit.

2) Maybe it’s because I’m just not used to it yet, or maybe it’s related to a lack of physical product as referred to in point 1), but the reading of a book in the Kindle format lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. I can’t quite put my finger about it but it did seem to be lacking something. It’s almost as if it was all a bit sterile. Hopefully this is something I’ll be able to come in time.

3) And the number one, biggest con? I find myself constantly terrified that I shall fumble the Kindle with my clumsy, sausage-like fingers and be forced to watch helplessly as it tumbles in some kind of cruel slow motion to the hard concrete floor,  under the wheels of a passing bus or into the toilet or similar.  Dropping a paperback rarely damages it that much. Even if I do manage to drop one into a river or inconvenient  fire, it’s only six quid at worst wasted – not a £75 bundle of delicate electronics.  I appreciate this might not be a concern for those less cack-handed than myself, but I’ve broken enough mobile phones in my time for it to be a very real worry.

Of course I shall persevere with the Kindle – after all, I’ve spent all that money on it now so I’d use it even if I didn’t like it. But I don’t think it’s going to entirely replace good old-fashioned paper books for me quite yet.  But as a means for getting hold of out of print stuff or the indie stuff it’ll be an excellent little tool for expanding my reading options. And should I ever get the chance to go on holiday at some point it will be easier to take along than a couple of novels. I’m not sure this means I’ve totally caught up the wondrous possibilities of technology… I’m still struggling to get to grips with things that people tell me are pretty simple, such as Dropbox, Skype and my new Outlook E-Mail account. And this Windows 8 monstrosity could be written entirely in Ancient Greek and I wouldn’t find it any more baffling than I do already. But I’d like to think I’m slowly getting there, one gizmo at a time.

Now, I need to face another one of my as yet unconquered technological demons and try to sort out my daughters iPod. I may have struggled getting the Kindle working out but that’s nothing compared to some of the epic, swearing-filled wars I’ve had with my Arch-Nemesis, the dark and malevolent entity that goes by the name of iTunes… and now the time has come to lock horns with that fiend once again.

Let battle commence.