Monday, 28 March 2016

Drawing out a story

I’ve been given a weekly column to illustrate this year, and like a wet tea-towel fight, it can be daunting, but fun.

Surviving in a modern working environment

The author of the column’s observations are not only perspicacious, but delivered with the kind of self-effacing wit which makes me LOL embarrassingly while reading through the latest draft during my commute.  I wish I could write with a fraction of the sharp and droll perception of the every-day that Leah McFall does.  But best of all, I know she likes the artwork I’m contributing to her page because she took the time to write me a lovely email saying so.

The other force behind the page is the Sunday magazine editor, who I have also never met but communicates regularly by phone and email.  She has a very young-sounding voice, but I wouldn’t make the mistake to equate this with inexperience.  Refreshingly she also isn’t shy to prescribe a style when she commissions artwork for me. Sadly, I’ve known illustrators who throw down their brushes and flounce dramatically from the room at the very thought of this, but I like it.

Having reached 50 I still don’t especially have an illustration style of my own, and am only too happy to bend, stretch and insinuate myself into a technique established elsewhere, if it works for a particular brief.  I like to think of myself as a chameleon, but maybe I’m really more of a plagiariser…
By coincidence, the editor suggested a style which I had experimented with for an essay illustration over Christmas.

Not an illustration for the column, but a kind of prototype of the style,
accompanying a Christmas tale about a disastrous family holiday.
I can recognise that producing an unself-conscious, expressive line is one of my weaker areas, so I’ll avoid outlines where possible, and fortunately the technique suggested completely avoids them.
Here is a selection of the illustrations so far.  The column itself, in the Sunday magazine supplement of the Sunday Star Times, can also be found online by following the links below these images:

The fine art of small talk - a random conversation with a fisherman.

An imaginary photo-shoot described in a column about ageing gracefully(?)

"Mummy, why can you see the moon in the daytime?"

Some surprising information comes to light about a favourite children's YouTube series.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Charting the Amazon

Batman v Superman begins next week, but the most interesting character may not even be in the title.

Brilliant artwork by Doug Chiang showing live-action depictions
of Wonder Woman, forty years apart: Lynda Carter (left) and Gal Gadot.
I have to admit I’m going a little cold on the thought of DC's upcoming big screen spectacular. I love Henry Cavill’s Superman, (although this wasn’t the film I wanted to see him in next), and Batman is well, glowery and gravelly-voiced, and I don’t doubt Affleck could turn out to be the definitive portrayal.

But the bright spot for me is finally seeing a live action depiction of the third member of DC comic's trinity.

Gal Gadot, soon to be seen as the first big screen Wonder Woman
As usual, I don’t have any comic book fan credentials to speak of - to me and possibly most other people, Wonder Woman is still Lynda Carter.
The former Miss World USA starred in two closely related but separately produced series between 1976 and ’78 (the single, WWII-set Wonder Woman season for ABC followed by the contemporary New Adventures of Wonder Woman for CBS).

Given that superheroes on television were still equated with the campy ‘60s Batman series, and that the mid-seventies were hardly noted for progressive media representations of women, I recall that the Amazing Amazon actually fared pretty well on the tube.

Yes, she had a figure which impacted our developing libidos like a crashing invisible plane, but Carter also managed to depict a strong, sensitive, inspiring and intelligent character who still served as a role model for young women for generations afterwards; long before (the obviously derivative) warrior princess Xena.  Her sincere portrayal also gave a comic-book character 'verisimilitude' before Christopher Reeve ever took to the air.

All hail to the Princess, baby
So in a week’s time Gal Gadot (and we wish her all the luck in the world) will become the second actor ever to play Wonder Woman in a live-action production?

Actually, she will be the fifth.
Join me in the result of a long journey down an internet rabbit-hole which convinced me that the more you think you know, the less you actually do...

The first actress to play Wonder Woman in person was another Linda - Linda Harrison (Charlton Heston’s love-interest ‘Nova’ in the first two Planet of the Apes films).

Linda Harrison as the first live-action Wonder Woman
Admittedly, it was only in a 5-minute pitch for a television movie pilot by Batman producer William Dozier, and the concept deviated wildly from the established history of the character, resulting in something truly dreadful - exactly the kind of sleazy campiness which the '70s series managed to avoid. It will come as no surprise to anyone that this wasn’t picked up.

In the intersts of completism, here are 5 minutes of your life you’ll never get back again - but if I were you I really, really wouldn’t bother:

The first time Wonder Woman was successfully broadcast on the small screen, she was blonde:

Now, that's incredible - Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman (?)
Then-tennis star Cathy Lee Crosby (later to find fame on the That’s Incredible series) donned a costume completely unlike anything the character ever wore in the comics, to combat the mighty Ricardo Montalban in a 1974 ABC TV movie. No I’m not making it up - here's an image to prove it.

As obscure as this production has now become, it still generated enough interest to eventually lead to the Lynda Carter adventures which we all remember so fondly.
And perhaps because the memory of Ms Carter is held in so much affection, it took another thirty-two years for the character to (almost) reappear on television.

In the interim years nominating an actress to play the Amazing Amazon was a popular pass-time for fans. Sandra Bullock was always cited in the ‘90s, to be followed by almost every dark-haired actress in existence, from Jennifer Connolly, to Kate Beckinsale, to Megan Fox (remember her?)

However, another Megan really was a contender. Mad Max Director George Miller cast Australian actress Megan Gale as Wonder Woman in his 2008 Justice League film, but as this was aborted before filming began due to a writer’s strike, including her here would be dubious.  Except, apparently-genuine shots of Ms Gale in costume came to light recently, so here she is what we very nearly could have had...

Megan Gale was cast as the first big screen Wonder Woman in 1998
Perhaps the next closest to a live-action realisation of the character was Cobie Smulders. Joss Whedon wrote two Wonder Woman film scripts with her in mind, before eventually casting the actress in The Avengers and his Agents of Shield television series, when the project collapsed. Smulders did, however, voice Wonder Woman in The Lego Movie (2014) making her the first big screen incarnation after all!

Cobie Smulders, (looking quite a lot like Lynda Carter here),
voiced Wonder woman in The Lego Movie
And speaking of Agents of Shield, not only has it featured an actress playing one of Marvel’s closest approximations to Wonder Woman (and therefore another fan candidate): Jaimie Alexander as the Thor film's Lady Sif, but someone who actually did play her.

Not a wondrous Amazon, but a marvel-lous Valkyrie (sort of).
Jaimie Alexander as Asgard's Lady Sif

In 2010, Shield's statuesque Adrianne Palicki became the first to finally play Wonder Woman in over three decades -  in a TV Movie pilot which unfortunately was never even screened.

Adrianne Palicki was not well-served by the script of the aborted 2010 TV movie

She certainly looked the part, (the only actress invited to test for the role), but once again, the concept of the character was unnecessarily reshaped.
At least we weren’t given the by-now cliched ‘origin story’ approach, but instead a jaded, cynical and even sometimes cruel character who has lived in the ‘World of Men’ for some time, and become some kind of corporate brand and media celebrity.

My feeling is that with a far better script, (even either of Lynda Carter’s TV pilots), Palicki could still be Diana Prince now.

But instead we are finally getting Wonder Woman on the big screen: first guest-starring in an unsightly scuffle between two testosterone-over-dosed Capes who ought to know better, followed by her own feature film. Early footage can be seen here:

Wonder Woman fights the Nazis, just like old times

There’s been a little bit of thin-shaming (TM) after news of Gadot’s casting, (regardless of the fact that the actress is also a former Israeli army combat instructor who put on 17kg of muscle for this role), but she certainly looks the business from what we’ve seen in the trailers.

Despite the character's history of handing the titular male heroes their own bottoms in occasional clashes, I for one hope that we will see some of the gentleness and feminine wisdom in Batman v Superman, which Carter brought to the role all those years ago.
If Wonder Woman has to act like just another posturing male to succeed in the 'World of Men', then I think the character will lose much of her wonder.

And in the upcoming film, would a ‘power pirouette’ be out of the question?

More wonderful artwork, this time by Phil Jimenez, evoking the spirit of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Size sighs

The stick who walks is giving some stick back

Apparently I was a chubby infant, but have been what is commonly called 'skinny' for as long as I can remember.

Clothes I wore as a teenager would probably still fit me now - until the opposite of liposuction is invented nothing is ever going to put weight on these bones.  I still have to put an extra notch in every new belt, and my decent height means that trouser shopping for a particularly absurd ratio between waist and leg measurements can take all day.
First world problems, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t make a big deal of it, but other people sure like to.

It's certainly no news to me that remarks are directed at those sharing my body shape with a degree of casual cruelty that no one would dream of using on an overweight person. Not in these apparently more sensitive and enlightened times.

It’s a shame that the occasions when these comments have hurt me the most is when they’ve come from friends. But as we all continue to age I suspect there might be increasing amounts of envy in those remarks - who knows.
Who cares?

Well, apparently some people do. In the space of a year I’ve just completed my second illustration for an article about what is apparently now known as ‘thin shaming’. The first was written by a male broadcaster whose modest physical stature comes from his family’s Asian origins (below), and the most recent has been a compendium of interviews with a variety of women (top of this post).

It makes compelling reading, but my own experience leads me to conclude that unless the result is physical or psychological health problems, (and make no mistake, it can be), there are far worse things to be ‘shamed’ for.
During a long stint in martial arts, the look on every single opponent's face at the moment when they realised that, despite appearances, I wasn’t going to blow away after their first punch, was all I ever needed to cope. (Well, not their very first punch, anyway).
Maybe writing a blog named after a stick insect also demonstrates the arrival at a certain amount of peace with a lifetime of putting up with size-est nonsense.

The article I've illustrated ends with a much better solution, however. Simply put: perhaps we all just need to be kinder to each other.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Arthurian Legends

A science fiction writer, inventor and undersea explorer investigated myths in his own television series, and unfortunately became the target of a particularly unpleasant one, himself, many years later.

Arthur C Clarke 1917 - 2008
In the '70s it was Leonard Nimoy who brought the world’s mysteries into our living room via his acclaimed In Search Of series.

His successor in the early ‘80s was a bald, bespectacled West-Countryman. He didn’t have Nimoy’s star power or charisma, but to my friends and I he was a star of a completely different magnitude - Arthur C Clarke wrote one of the greatest films ever made: 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I discovered his other novels he fast became one of my heroes.

The men behind 2001, writer Arthur C Clarke, and director Stanley Kubrick.
He pioneered groundbreaking work on the early warning radar system during World War II and later the concept of geostationary satellites; predicting their potential for global communication. He commentated live on the Apollo 11 moon landing, served as a patron for charities combating polio and preserving gorillas, was an avid diver who discovered a sunken temple off the Sri Lankan coast and wrote 80 novels.

The day before my birthday I decided to treat myself to a book and spotted the television ‘companion book’ to the series I’m alluding to: Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, in a second-hand bookshop. It’s one of those books I always meant to get, a lot of people I knew owned it, but somehow I never got around to it. Picking the book up from a pile not yet shelved, I’d just noted its perfect condition when the shop-owner asserted: “Five dollars”.

Happy birthday to me…

But before we return to his wonderful television series Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, lets address a little bit of ugliness first.
Already having been appointed a CBE, Clarke’s knighthood for services to literature was announced in the 1998 New Year’s honours list. However, when the Sunday Mirror accused him of paedophelia, he requested the investiture be delayed until his name was cleared.
After an investigation the accusation was found to be completely baseless (and possibly part of a Sri Lankan conspiracy to discredit Clarke and embarrass Britain on the occasion of a royal visit by Prince Charles).
Clarke received his Knighthood in 2000 and five years later, the highest civil honour Sri Lanka could bestow: the Sri Lankabhimanya.

Unfortunately, that kind of defamation can still cause irreparable damage, and I know I’m not the only person to have been more aware of the accusation than his exoneration.

Clarke scuba diving in Sri Lanka
Moving on…

The book I parted with a princely sum for was published in 1980 to correspond with the screening of the Mysterious World series, and is redolent with the graphic design of that time, heavy egyptian serifed headlines and neatly drawn key lines around the many photographs.

It’s also delightful, more or less following the format of series with separate chapters on everything from lake monsters to UFOs to the Tunguska explosion. The book is actually written by Simon Welfare and John Fairley, but each chapter is closed with a comment from Clarke, where he gives his personal interpretation of the particular mystery.

Each time the impression that Clarke believes mysteries are important because they are so far unquantifiable, is apparent. Do any of us really want to see Nessie or a sasquatch caught, scientifically labelled and corralled? Surely this would only diminish our sense of wonder about the world (to say nothing of the harm it would do to these new species)?

It is also fascinating to read about the the science of the day being applied to less glamorous phenomena like ball lightning and the moving rocks in Death Valley, and to see how little we’ve advanced in thirty five years to come any closer to a definitive explanation.

A scene from last year's television adaptation of Clarke's novel Childhood's End.
Clarke ends his remarks in a playful fashion:
“Mysteries are fun. Even if they are only nature’s practical jokes, they add to our enjoyment of the marvellous universe around us…
If we can find the answers to as many as ten percent, I should be very pleased - and surprised.
And even if we got the answers to one hundred per cent, there are plenty more where they came from…”

When Arthur C Clarke’s death was announced in March 2008, I just happened to be listening to the radio at the time. The National programme played this excerpt from 2001 as a tribute...

The two least emotional characters in cinema history,
Dave Bowman and HAL 9000, break your heart