Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

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Faire Game

11 Nov

Renaissance Faires have become increasingly popular the world around, often establishing themselves as annual events in specific locations. From jousts to feasts, plays to magic shows, from dancers and musicians to fortune-tellers and artisans, today’s Faire-goers can find any number of events and people to catch their interest and spark their imagination. Countless Renaissance Faires  throughout the world are perfect settings for experiences of a fantastical nature – here you can see legions of players in all their regalia, fighting in jousts, singing to fair maidens, hawking their wares and so on. Many Renaissance Faires are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, as this period has been generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance. Some are set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries, such as France, and some are set outside the era of the Renaissance; these may include earlier medieval periods (including Vikings), or later periods, such as 17th-/18th-century pirates. Some engage in deliberate time travel by encouraging participants to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time period. Renaissance Faires (or RenFaires for short) encourage visitors to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation – many even welcome fantasy elements such as wizards and elves!

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The Art of Charles Vess

14 Oct

Charles Vess is an American fantasy and comics artist who has specialized in the illustration of myths and fairy tales. His influences include British “Golden Age” book illustrator Arthur Rackham, Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and comic-strip artist Hal Foster, among others. Charles Vess has been drawing ever since he could hold a crayon. Working in his studio in downtown Abingdon, Virginia, Charles Vess adds a little bit of magic back into the mundane world, drawing pixies, swamp things, goth spirits and fantastical forests. If you’re a comics or fantasy fan, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the works of Charles Vess, an award-winning artist and illustrator.  His collaborations with authors Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, as well as his cover art for Marvel and DC have gained him a passionate following across the world. His award-winning work has graced covers and pages from numerous comic book publishers including The Books of Magic, Sandman and Swamp Thing from DC Comics, as well as Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. He currently concentrates on book illustration, where he continues to win praise and accolades for his unique style. The ultimate testament to his talent came when Vess shared the prestigious World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with Neil Gaiman in 1991 for their collaboration on The Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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The Irish Folk Music Tradition

16 Sep

Kept alive by a combination of historical, political and cultural forces, Irish traditional music remains one of the richest musical cultures in the Western world. In Ireland itself, the growing interest in traditional music is further evidence of a national maturity that allows Irish people to be more relaxed about aspects of their traditional culture. Consequently, traditional music is neither seen as backward, rural and something shameful, nor is it a stick of cultural purity for fending off the 21st century. Long after much traditional music in the industrialised West has ceased to exist in any meaningful way, Irish music continues to refashion itself, not as introverted, stagnant and nationalistic, but as an evolving and progressive part of a common, universal oral folk tradition. Travellers to Ireland will most likely come across traditional music in a pub setting and these quasi-impromptu musical get-togethers are known as ‘sessions’. These are the life-blood of traditional music, accompanied by the associated notion of craic (or crack) whereby music, conversation and drink combine to produce an evening of fun.

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John Constantine, Hellblazer

12 Aug

John Constantine first appeared in 1985, gracing the pages of Swamp Thing #37 with his barbed one-liners and suspiciously Sting-like appearance. Originally a supporting character who played a pivotal role in the classic “American Gothic” Swamp Thing storyline, John struck a chord with readers and in 1988 the first issue of his own comic, Hellblazer, hit the stands. For such an enduring and influential character, John Constantine’s origins are almost bland: drawing for Swamp Thing in the mid-80’s, artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting. Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore wanted to create a more “blue-collar” occult character to contrast the more aristocratic Zatanna and Dr Fate, and John Constantine (rhymes with “wine” not “bean”) was born. His solo series, Hellblazer, began in 1988 and lasted 25 years, ending with issue #300 in February 2013.It was then relaunched in 2016 with the title The Hellblazer as part of “DC Universe Rebirth”, restoring the character to his original cast, tone and setting. Well known for its political and social commentary, the series has spawned a film adaptation, television show, novels, and multiple spin-offs and crossovers.

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Trollhunter

15 Jul

As it turns out there is more to Scandinavian cinema than just Ingmar Bergman and bleak, wintry black and white films which contemplate the human condition, religion and death. A new generation of young filmmakers are challenging old stereotypes and forging exciting new ground. Trollhunter is a 2010 Norwegian dark fantasy film, made in the form of a “found footage” mockumentary. It is written and directed by André Øvredal, and features a mixed cast of relatively unknown actors and well-known Norwegian comedians. This is a bit of an oddball film: a found footage faux documentary about a group of Norwegian college students tailing and filming a mysterious hunter who turns out to be a specialist in capturing and killing trolls. The result is a surprisingly believable dark fantasy film with some top notch digital effects.

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Legend of the Avatar

10 Jun

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic-like world in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with psychokinetic variants of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending”. The series combines anime with American cartoons, and relies on the imagery of East Asian, Inuit, South Asian and New World societies. For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a world defined by water, earth, fire and air. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop the evil Fire Lord from enslaving the rest of the nations. As it happens, the current Avatar is the last of the Air Nomads, a young boy named Aang, who must learn the ways of waterbending, earthbending and firebending if he hopes to save the world. If you haven’t already seen it, Avatar is seriously a must-watch. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. The series was commercially successful and was universally acclaimed by audiences and critics, with praise for its art direction, humor, cultural references, characters, and themes. It was nominated for, and won, Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. The series inspired a critically panned but financially successful live-action film, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan; action figures; a trading card game; three video games; and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, aired from 2012 to 2014, which perhaps rose to even greater heights.

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A Superman for All Seasons

13 May

Superman is the blueprint for the modern superhero. He’s arguably the single most important creation in the history of superhero comics. Superman is a hero that reflects the potential in all of us for greatness; a beacon of light in times that are grim and a glimmer of hope for the hopeless. He’s an archetype for us to project upon; whether you consider him a messiah or just a Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman’s impact on the genre and pop culture is undeniable. Rocketed to Earth from his dying planet of Krypton, Superman was raised in Smallville, Kansas with small town American ideals. Brought up by the loving Jonathan and Martha Kent, Kal-El was given the name Clark Kent and was taught to use his powers to better humanity. After adopting Metropolis as his home in his adult years, Clark would save the city – let alone the world – time and time again. Though he’d be joined by other members of his Super-family throughout the years, it would be the Man of Steel that would demand the attention of evil-doers, the respect of his peers, and the adoration of citizens across the globe. Superman stands as the single most iconic figure in comic books; his Kryptonian S-Shield recognizable as a universal symbol for truth and justice. Though Superman may have begun as a slice of Americana, he’s grown into a symbol that all of humanity can look up to. In his 80th anniversary year and with the recent publication of the 1000th issue of Action Comics, there is perhaps no better time to look at this character’s ‘super’ legacy.

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Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

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Saga of the Swamp Thing

11 Mar

The character of Swamp Thing, an elemental creature who shares a connection to all plant life on the planet, first appeared in 1972 but had roots in a comic published a year earlier. DC Comics’ House of Secrets #92 (June-July, 1971) contained a story by Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, about a man murdered and dumped in a swamp, whose body metamorphosed into a muck monster that rose from the mire to wreak vengeance upon his killer. Response to the story was overwhelming, and plans were immediately made to launch a new title with a similar creature as the protagonist. Swamp Thing #1, by Wein and Wrightson, had a cover date of Oct-Nov, 1972. In the ongoing series, the man in the muck was Alec Holland, a handsome young scientist, and his first mission in hideous, shambling post-life existence was to avenge the murder of his wife, done in by the same criminal outfit that put him in the swamp. In the course of the series, he found his body had become more plant than human — if a limb was cut off, he could grow it back. He ranged far from the Louisiana swamp he’d come to call home — even had an adventure in Gotham City with Batman — and he took on a wide variety of science fiction and supernatural adversaries. The series was both a critical and a commercial success. But Wein and Wrightson were unable to stay with it beyond its 10th issue, and their replacements were not as well received by readers. The series ended with its 24th issue (Aug-Sep 1976), and the character was relegated to occasional appearances as a guest star. In 1982, Swamp Thing was adapted into a movie — not exactly a record-smashing box-office bonanza, but DC deemed it a big enough deal to warrant reviving the comic book. The new series limped along for a couple of years, then was taken over by writer Alan Moore. That’s when the character really took off.

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