You Know… For Kids!
Item 1. I hadn’t given HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and its sequel the go-by on the big screen, but having caught up with the first film on Christmas TV, I’m now kicking myself. It’s beautifully designed visually (the characters are proper cartoons, not obsessively over-detailed monsters with pores and broken capillaries) and structurally, and it’s not only funny but extremely emotional, and I even overlooked the weird voice casting that has adult Vikings played by Scots (Gerald Butler and Craig Fergusson, both excellent) and the kids all-American (Jay Baruchel particularly effective in the lead). The laughs come not out of ingenious gags, but out of character animation — pure performance in stop-motion CGI form. Great father-son mutual embarrassment scene, for instance.
I’m still a little confused by the film’s politics. It starts out with the dragons as deadly threat, and then we learn that, pace Renoir, even dragons have their reasons, and it becomes about the need for understanding and friendship across boundaries. But then it becomes a story where the good guys invade the bad guys, kill their evil leader and make them into pets. I guess the good news should be that as of release date 2010, that kind of narrative is only credible in fairy tales.
But I don’t want to put you off — if you had any doubts about the movie, dismiss them and check it out. This is a golden age for two things: US TV drama, and animated features.
Item 2) Foolishly, right before Christmas I visited the library and got a ton of interesting books. Then I got a bunch of interesting books for Christmas, including three volumes of Gerald Kersh short stories (among other things, some of the best short-form horror out there) and a Patrick Hamilton. So the only library book that got read was The Steel Claw, a collection of comic strips originally published in the sixties in boy’s comic Valiant then reprinted in the seventies in Vulcan, which I guess is where I became familiar with the character, though I have no memory of Vulcan being a thing.
The Steel Claw concerns a junior scientist/lab assistant type with an artificial hand, who gets blasted by an exploding experiment so that he gains the power to become invisible whenever he receives an electric shock. All except his steel claw, which stays eerily floating about. Curiously, he never thinks of removing it, despite the fact that it’s a major handicap in his life of crime. For this is what our hero decides to do — like the Wells/Whale Invisible Man, he sets out to blackmail the world with acts of wanton destruction, all lovingly depicted in Jesus Blasco’s noirish inks (for some reason, nearly all British comic artists in the seventies were actually Spanish).
The story is frankly ridiculous, even allowing for the goofy concept, but I found myself enjoying the furious pace. Each weekly installment was only two pages, so writer Ken Bulmer (a great name for an author of thick-ear pulp) has to cram in a resolution to an outgoing crisis right away, and then dash ahead to the next tense situation to create a suitable cliffhanger at the end. All wasted on the tiny me, who only saw a couple of isolated issues of whatever the strip was appearing in, but a thrill to read all in one sitting, in the bath (for instance).
Alas, my scans don’t capture the fabulous liquid BLACKNESS of the art, which is what made it so exciting and scary to me as a kid. I must read some more stuff from this era of British comics.
Item 3) Apart from foolishly visiting the library, I foolishly visited that nice second-hand bookshop in the Grassmarket, and lucked into the complete kids’ trilogy of E, Nesbitt: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and the much rarer The Story of the Amulet. I’m halfway through the third one now, which features time travel, and a rather advanced description of time all existing at once, explaining why you can hop about in it (Nesbitt fears no paradoxes). Great stuff, and the kids in it are properly thoughtless, stroppy and destructive like the real thing. And I like how she used the pronoun “it” when referring to the group: “each child felt that it…” etc.
My favourite bit in Amulet so far is the massacre on Throgmorton Street by time-travelling Babylonians, perhaps because that sort of scene happens so rarely, even in children’s stories, and perhaps because Throgmorton Street is my favourite London street (because it is narrow and high like a canyon, and because it is called Throgmorton Street).
Item 4) Still got DESPICABLE ME lined up on the Tivo. Never seen that one either.