Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Exile of Cimmeria

It's been 7 years to the day since Steve Tompkins left us. For the first time since, I've felt really apart from Howardom.


I've contributed to the upcoming Conan board game (which is, as of writing, the most successful board game Kickstarter of all time) and the Conan RPG (which is the fourth most successful RPG Kickstarter campaign of all time), not least because my Howardian scholarly pals Jeffrey Shanks, Patrice Louinet, Chris Gruber, and more are personally involved in their development. I lament the passing of the Robert E. Howard Forums, even in what is a great time to be a Howard fan. I'm long past caring about whatever iteration of development hell the next Arnold Conan is in. I've allowed my memberships of REHupa and the REH Foundation to lapse. And I came to the personal ultimatum that I would not be able to return to Howard Days until certain conditions are met.



I haven't been in regular touch with my Howard friends - but it is far from apathy. I would love to talk about the new board games, new collections and scholarly criticism, new books and films and art that evokes Howard's themes and ideas. I should be shoving my way into discussions about developing Iranistan and the Border Kingdom, asking who thought that dragon design was a good idea, giving my tuppence ha'penny worth on anything and everything. I'd even just love to see how they're doing, how the house and family and work is coming along. But for reasons I think regular readers will guess, I cannot - not until the cause is won.

I sometimes wonder what Howard would do in a situation like mine. Early 20th Century Cross Plains and early 20th Century Inverclyde have a few pointed similarities (formerly industrious towns with busy railroads, now a fraction of their former size, a history as a "frontier"), but for the most part, they might as well be different planets. What if the prospect of true change, to turn away from the corruption and decadence of the political class, were possible in Texas then? Would he continue to do what he truly loved, and type away, rather than take up political cause - when the savage realm of politics is as likely to chew you up and spit you out as you are to affect real change? Or would he try to change his corner of the world at the expense of his art, his long letters to his friends, his roughousing at the ice house? Am I being melodramatic, in comparing my politics to a great Cause and my personal interests as Art?

Who knows. All I know is that if I chose to take a different path, I don't think I could ever forgive myself. I posted this on my political blog, but I think it should be on here, to explain what I'm doing until I'm ready to ride back to Cimmeria.

Since 2010, I’d been going to Cross Plains in Texas. It’s the biggest extravagance I took part in each year, owing to the sheer expense of flights to America in recent years – to say nothing of the security gauntlet. The last time I went was in 2014. There were only a few months left until the referendum. I left Scotland for a month. The final result was decided by 86 votes.

Most of the campaigners I know still wring their hands – if only I did more. Everyone felt that. “If only I didn’t take that night off from canvassing on Sunday.” “If only I helped out at the stall more.” “If only I helped deliver more papers.” If only I stayed this year – of all years. Instead, I went to Cross Plains. I saw all my friends and relatives. I talked about the referendum any chance I got. I was sure we’d win, and win comprehensively. I was itching to get back home, to continue campaigning – but I figured I wasn’t that needed. Everyone at Yes Inverclyde worked hard. A recharge, a break, to come back rejuvenated and revitalised, was my justification.

Would it have changed anything? Would my mere presence in late May and early June in this most important year in Scotland’s history have had any effect on the official count? Nationwide, I doubt it – but it’s hard not to think that a constituency decided by 86 votes might have been affected by even the smallest nudges in a different direction. Would it have turned 86 more votes for No in the official count into a Yes result? Who knows.

I can never go back to America – not without Scotland’s independence assured. Every time I think of how optimistic and determined I was talking to my friends in America, I cannot help but feel the most profound sense of shame. Shame in so many of my countryfolk politely and democratically refusing what scores of countries fought for with every nerve and sinew, sure. Shame in my own misplaced confidence and naivete, that the British Establishment could be so easily defeated, undoubtedly. But most of all, shame in myself. Even putting aside any influence I, or any one individual, may have made on the result locally, what matters is that I left my people in the most important time of my country’s existence. There are people I can hardly bear to talk to online anymore, so deep is my personal sense of failure and mortification. How could I bear to show my face outside Scotland ever again?

I have two choices: either slink back to America with the contrived, pathetic, false nobility of the Dying Gaul, or I stride back with the assurance that my people were not the dog who handed back the leash to its master as soon as we were given the choice of freedom. I don’t want to keep my pals in America waiting much longer.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Lan' o' Derkness and th' Nicht

110 years ago today, Robert E. Howard was born: as a happy coincidence, it comes only a few days before Burns Night. Like the royal Robert before them both, I find they're never far from my life.

Both the Roberts were self-taught champions of the common man who expressed themselves through poetry, drawing upon the rich history of their lands and telling new tales. Howard had a copy of Harvard Classics' Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, and poems like "Rane of the Sword" clearly show a love for the Scots tongue.

So in that spirit, I thought I'd merge my appreciations for the Twa Rabbies on this day.

Cimmeria


I mynd

Th' derk woods, masking sclent o' oorie braes;
Th' grey cloods’ leaden ayebidin' airch;
Th' duskit burns that flowed wi'oot a sound,
And th' lane wins that whispered doon th' passes.


Sicht on sicht mairching, brae on brae,
Sclent ayont sclent, ilk derk wi' dour trees,
Oor gaunt lan' lay.  So when man speelit up
A rugged peak and leukit, his happit een
Saw but th' endless sicht – brae on brae,
Sclent ayont sclent, ilk hoodit lik its brithers.


It was a dreichit lan' that seemed tae haud
A' wins and cloods and dreams that shun th' sun,
Wi' scud beuchs brattlin' in th' lanely wins,
And th' derk woodlands bruidin' owur a',
Not even lichten by th' rare dim sun
Which made squat shadaes oot o' men; they ca'd it
Cimmeria, lan' of derkness and gey Nicht.


It was so lang syne and hyne awa'
I hae forgot th' verra name men ca'd me.
Th' axe and keezle-stane spear are lik a dream,
And hunts and wars are shadaes.  I mynd
Anely th' stellness o' thon dour lan';
Th' cloods that cloddit ivermair on th' braes,
Th' mirkness o' th' ayebidin' woods.
Cimmeria, lan' o' Derkness and th' Nicht.


Oh, sowel o' mine, born oot o' shadaed braes,
Tae cloods and wins and ghaists that shun th' sun,
How mony deiths shall sair tae brak at lest
This heritage which haps me in th' grey
Brawery o' ghaists?  I sairch my hert and kythe
Cimmeria, lan' o' Derkness and th' Night.


Thursday, 17 December 2015

Remembering Adventure in Star Wars: The Force Awakens



My earliest Star Wars memories are not of the original films, surprisingly enough. The first time I ever watched A New Hope was in its final terrestrial airing before the special edition re-releases, sometime in the late 1990s. I was 10 or 12, probably a bit older than just about everyone else my year. I was precocious, and considered myself more of a Trekkie than anything else: Star Wars never entered my radar beyond "like Star Trek, but not Star Trek."

I didn't really know the characters of Star Wars at that point. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, the Emperor, and other such icons were hazy and vague to me: at least voiceless sprites in platformers, at most legendary beings spoken of in hushed voices, their reputations long preceding them. The only original trilogy characters I had any familiarity with were C3P0 and R2-D2 - thanks to a Saturday morning cartoon. Much like my introduction to Conan, it seems somewhat perverse that this would be my visual introduction to one of the cultural landmarks of 20th Century science fiction.

So I came to Star Wars from a completely different place from those who first experienced that galaxy far, far away in cinemas back in 1977: people like my mother and uncle, and Mark Finn, who's written a series of fascinating insights into his personal journey (starting from the beginning). And as a result, my experience of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will undoubtedly be different again.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Regarding Disappearing Articles

As of yesterday, all my articles have been removed from The Cimmerian website. This was by my request, following editorial changes made by the editor and owner Leo Grin. It is his right and prerogative to run the site as he sees fit, and it is my right and prerogative to respond to those changes.

I will keep you updated as the articles find a new home.

EDIT: Messrs Finn and Shanks have written fuller explanations of the situation as they see it on their respective blogs. My position can be summed up in the last paragraph from the email I sent to Leo Grin:

If you are going to expel and erase any contributor to The Cimmerian blog five years after it closed due to personal disagreements on political matters, then I must ask that you do exactly the same to me.
EDIT 2: I have decided to discuss the matter in greater detail on my political blog. I endeavour to keep The Blog That Time Forgot as free of politics as I can, so I would appreciate comments respecting that.

Friday, 7 August 2015

This Is Why I Never Get Anything Done


Right! Let's get going! I've sketched out all the pages of Bannockburn, it's more or less done. Now to begin the arduous task of inking it! (begins inking) Curses! I have drawn so much detail into each panel that it will take me forever to render the comic to the same standard! I cannot keep this up, even now I can feel myself hitting a brick wall. I need something to take my mind off this monster... Monster... Dinosaur...

Of course! Dinosaurs from the Pulps! I've compiled a database of over 200 short stories, novellas and novels which feature dinosaurs: of them, I've narrowed down 17 that I definitely want to include, which leaves 3 left; I have 18 on "standby" if one of the ones I've chosen is in copyright, and to draw the final 3 from. I sat and typed out an entire story from a reproduction because I can't get the damned scanning-to-text software to work. It's all going swimmingly! But wait! I need to write an introduction, but I don't want to editorialise too much or condescend to the reader! Perhaps I need a break from writing and drawing, and try reading...

OK! I just got Dinosaur Lords, it could be good - problem is it's quite long, and I'm a slow reader. Maybe I should try a short story collection, like The Big Book of Monsters? Or should I go with something Scottish, read up on the Middle Ages in Scotland, or old Border Reiver tales? I could always go for one of those intriguing paperbacks I found at a charity shop like Footprints of Thunder. Perhaps I should go for something completely unrelated to swords, sorcery and dinosaurs: another Peter Høeg book like The Woman and the Ape? I enjoyed Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. There's always the late James Herbert for a ripping horror yarn - not read The Spear yet. Wait... I've spent more time trying to decide what book to read than actually reading. Argh! I'm missing that documentary on the Franklin expedition-

Hold on! I was working on a comic about the Franklin expedition! That's what I'll do: fairly minimalist, lots of silhouettes, white and black space, practically done already. Just need to find the right font. Can't be Verdana, Arial, or any of those ones. Copperplate too overused - even that documentary used it. Hmm, so many fonts, and even the most subtle of changes can alter the layout and tone of a page. Zounds! This is taking forever. Perhaps I need a break from all this ice and bleak northiness. Ice... bleak northiness...

Ah-HA! I haven't played Skyrim in ages! I often come up with some great creative ideas while playing open-world games like this. Time for a new character: Babarracus, a Redguard, an Alik'r wanderer, Monster Hunter-for-hire, seeks the greatest challenges. Each "companion" he hires is a client offering a reward for slaying a beast: they rarely hire Babarracus for multiple contracts. No guilds, only progress the main story far enough to get access to Solstheim & start dragon attacks. Good fun so far: managed to slay a giant at level 11 with a mixture of misdirection, a friendly sabercat and good aim. Not sure how much longevity Babarracus has, though. Hmm, wonder who I could create next. Maybe try a pastiche on some comic or film characters. Hmm, what films have I seen lately...

Ach! So many films I've seen and meant to review for the blog due to links to my interests, but never got around to: Godzilla, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Kung Fury, Attack the Block, Let The Right One In, Dinotasia, even The Dino King - and I never thought I'd see a more infuriating waste of potential than Walking With Dinosaurs in 3D, but somehow Korea managed it. And I can't even be bothered with the new Conan film. Hey, what happened to Conan?

Huzzah! 80 Years of Conan! I keep going back to it, but always get stuck on some complex or thorough thing, and still wanted to publish them in the order of the stories' original publication. What was I on this time: ah, "The Tower of the Elephant." What was stopping me that time? Oh, Indian mythology and Howard's exposure to it through Dr. Howard. Man, I really wish Howard did a story about Scotland, not just Bran Mak Morn's Caledonia, but involving the heroes and villains of my country's history: Simon Fraser, William Douglas of Nithsdale, Aonghas Óg the last Lord of the Isles, the notorious Armstrongs of the Border Marches, the Black Douglases, Robert the Bruce...

Wait! Robert the Bruce! Bannockburn! ...

And so it continues. Dozens of things I'm working on simultaneously and one-at-a-time. One of these days, I'll get one of them finished. I suppose it's better working on something even if it's scatterbrained than not doing anything: at least I'm producing something, even if it means the net creation is going at a snail's pace.

Back to work. What am I doing now...

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Might of Small Things

We knew then, that we were being changed... and made part of their world. We didn't know for what purpose... but we knew, we would be told.
 - Closing narration, Phase IV

 Watching Ant-Man, you can definitely tell what was Edgar Wright, and what was Marvel. I would have loved to have seen Wright's version, of course, but I enjoyed the final film knowing its convoluted history. It was at its best when it shied away from the standard Only You Can Save The World element, as well as the needlessly extended Call To Heroism/Training for Battle section of the film - it was when the film did the things that you wouldn't see in Thor or Iron Man that made it shine. As Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a '70s spy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist movie, appropriate for the character.

Of course, being a science fiction aficionado, I couldn't help but think of other things...

(All the images in this review are from Phase IV, Saul Bass's only feature-length film: visually striking and very weird in the classic British Science-Fiction style. Well worth a watch.)


Thursday, 18 June 2015

Dinosaurs from the Pulps!


One of the joys of getting into Robert E. Howard fandom is the vast world it opens up before you. Before I got into it, I relied mostly on luck and happenstance to find stories and art that intrigued me, and living in Scotland as I do the availability of those classic American tales could sometimes be hard to come by.

But after years of infiltrating the echelons of Howardom, needling information and hints from the experts and polymaths in funny hats, it's amazing the things you find. On my last Scottish Invasion of Cross Plains, I learned that one of these behatted genii was leaping into the vast sea of pulps in search of one of his other great interests: zombies! And sure enough, he even produced an anthology of twenty classic tales of the undead ripped from the musty yellowing pages of those lurid tomes.

The magic of pulps is that there are just so many different stories and trends out there, you could easily fill a themed anthology with them. Amazons from the Pulps! could feature the likes of "Black Amazon of Mars," "The Golden Amazons of Venus," "Queen of the Panther World," "Slaves of the Jackal Priestess," "Sword of Gimshai," "Black God's Kiss," and other adventures of warrior women. "The Metal Monster," "The War of the Giants," "The Metal Giants," "Between Dimensions," "The Reign of the Robots," "The Ideal," "A Dictator for All Time," and countless more tales of Metal Men could shamble through Robots from the Pulps! Crom knows we have plenty for Stephen Jones' The Mammoth Book Of... series, as he always manages to find at least a few from the Age of Pulps.

And then there were dinosaurs...


Monday, 15 June 2015

Unanswered Questions: Jurassic World

 Me for 2 hours.

I've read and watched a number of reviews for Jurassic World, and because I'm the sort of guy who's Just Here For The Dinosaurs, there are naturally a lot of character, plot, and thematic elements that I didn't cover in my review. Some of them occurred to me, some of them didn't. I could chalk these little anomalies to the film's flaws - after all, as I said in the review, the film is not without them. It's an imperfect blockbuster.

But that's no fun.


Sunday, 14 June 2015

8-Year-Old Reviews: Jurassic World

We’re going to grow old but never grow up.
We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.
 - Ray Harryhausen & Ray Bradbury made a pact together. They never broke it as long as they lived.

A review 22 years in the making.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Company of Death

Last year at Howard Days, we were talking about the deaths of Miguel Martins and Ray Harryhausen. I'm pretty sure they'll be talking about Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, maybe even Dusty Rhodes. Two of our wee Scottish contingent in Arizona died, too. As Howard Days is scheduled around the anniversary of Howard's death, there is always that tinge of gloominess and melancholy. Death is ever present in Howard's company.

So today I decided to defy the company of Death. I read Howard stories and poems that weren't about mortality or war or murder. I played the new Lego Jurassic World game, having seen the film (a review is forthcoming), which avoided the more gruesome scenes in the movie with a loveable nod and a wink. I went around to a gaming night with a few good friends.

This should take my mind off Robert E. Howard!

We played HeroQuest. It was great fun, even if I could barely remember the rules, and I kept fudging the order of play - last time I played the game must've been the turn of the century. Nonetheless, we made a great wee story of a troupe of adventurers alternately mucking things up profoundly and heroically saving the day: the barbarian who went off on his own away from the group to kill goblins; the wizard who stumbled into a horde of Chaos warriors and barely escaped with his skin; the dwarf who cut a bloody swathe through a host of monsters; the elf who somehow managed to slay the most powerful monster in the dungeon with a single stroke.

Since the adventurers had ridiculous good fortune, we decided to make the monster a "load bearing boss," and suggested to have five turns before the dungeon caves in, trapping the entombing the heroes with the treasure they sought. The wizard used his air magicks to blow through the corridors and escape; the dwarf heroically stood by the entrance to ensure no monsters came, not leaving until every hero escaped; the barbarian had the awful luck of constantly running into frantic goblins barring his way. But the elf had the worst luck; brought low by a vengeful Chaos warrior. I guess you never can escape the company of death, even in board games.

I had a great night, knowing that my pals in Cross Plains were having a good time too. Some of them were even playing the new Conan RPG, which probably prompted my decision to go with HeroQuest. I'm glad to have them: we talked a bit of Howard at the table, too, as well as the usual current affairs, politics, films, books, and whatnot. Much like I would at Howard Days.

Hope everyone's having a great time in Cross Plains! Let us all drink to Howard's shade across the continents, united in the Company of Death.