Sunday 3 December 2023

God and Mr Fry

Thank God for Stephen Fry. Actually, let’s leave God out of it. It’s Stephen Fry himself I want to thank. When I despair at the human race, often it’s the example of his wisdom, humour and intelligence that gives me hope. If I were Galactus, he’d be the main reason I decided not to eat your planet. In this interview with Gay Byrne on RTÉ One, Mr Fry is on brilliant and blistering form. He adduces his reasons for believing that, if God exists, He is ‘monstrous, evil, capricious, mean-minded, and stupid’.

Let’s start with ‘if God exists’. On one level, all gods are real. I’m arm in arm with Alan Moore when he says he believes in fairies. Odin and Thor have always felt more real to me than the Biblical deities, though. Probably that kind of preference has nothing to do with the universe and everything to do with how our childhood selves related to our parents – although even that implies religion is a free choice, which can hardly be true when so many are indoctrinated into their family’s beliefs from the time they can speak.

In any case, that category of belief is not what we’re considering here. I’m not talking about a God as real as Humbert Humbert or Lizzie Bennet or Mr Toad. It’s that other reality we’re discussing now, the one that can stub your toe or launch a rocket to the Moon. Most people are uncouth in their beliefs. Their minds aren’t comfortable with the abstract. Not content with God being as real as love, truth, beauty, they want Him to be real in the way that wellington boots and wisdom teeth are real. So that’s the God we’ll talk about.

How did it all come into being? We can evoke the idea of a mind hanging in the nothingness – but minds are complex things, much more complex than suns and planets. Some metaquantum aberration, a blip inside which a quindecillion tonnes of superstring unfolded, is easier to grasp as the primum mobile and considerably more likely. But hang on there. Occam’s Razor is a guide, not a rule. I can’t be certain that atheism is more reasonable than deism, and so I simply say that I’m an agnostic.

We agreed to let God into this Gedankenexperiment. Okay, so where and why did He come into the picture? Supposedly He was needed originally to answer the question of why we are here at all. Declaring that everything exists because of God is no explanation, mind you. It just sweeps the question under the carpet of what is not known. However, this 28 billion parsec-sized parcel of spacetime – and indeed spacetime itself – may only be part of a much larger or even infinite reality, possibly with one or more cosmic intelligences in the strata from which our local reality arose. For all that I doubt it, I can’t prove our universe wasn’t created by an intelligent designer. For the sake of argument, we’re saying it was. What then can we deduce about the creator from His creation?

The God that spoke to Moses and Muhammad appears to have shared the moral code, social priorities, and knowledge of the physical world that Moses and Muhammad themselves had. But that’s not the God we’re trying to intuit from the universe around us. It’s more than far-fetched to imagine that our God would take a personal interest in one small group of people at one time in history, and then couch whatever user’s manual points He deemed important in the form of legalistic rules communicated via the local power hierarchy. Anything He has to say, He could tell all mankind unequivocally by writing it on the Moon in a metalanguage. ‘Angels spoke to me,’ is no reason to take anybody’s word for anything, whether it happened yesterday or two thousand years ago. If that’s the kind of God you’re willing to conceive of, there’s no good reason not to choose the God of the Aztecs or of the Mesopotamians. One billion people can be wrong – or right; their numbers and their conviction make no difference.

So put that aside. Suppose you had never heard any theories of God, and were just starting to look around and figure out what He might be like. For a start, if you were God, you wouldn’t build a thing like the universe in the way you would a wristwatch. You’d specify laws, the way a game designer does. You’d say the electron is a class with these attributes. Then you’d start it going: ‘Let there be plasma’ – not light, that took another 400,000 years – and you’d see what kind of a universe emerged from your rules. Maybe you’d hope for life, maybe you’d observe it as a happy accident. Or maybe life wasn’t what interested you in the first place.

Wait. Didn’t God already know everything that was to come? As an omnipotent being, He could run the entire simulation in his mind. But we don’t know that our God is omnipotent, only that He is (or was) capable of initiating the beginning of the universe and possibly setting or tweaking the laws that govern it. And a perfect simulation is indistinguishable from reality in any case. So here it is, finally, 13.8 billion years later: the thin film of water and air around a ball of rock that interests us.

Now, it’s a mistake to see all this from the top down. (That is if we insist on putting ourselves arbitrarily at ‘the top’.) We cannot make the universe in our image, we have to see it as it is – not a place of dietary and marriage rules, of ethics and prohibitions and cruel medieval punishments, but a place of simple physical processes, working away on a level more primitive than ants. The God we’re reading from the things He made seems more concerned with weevils than with evil, and quite right too. Evil is a human construct, and a clumsy one at that. How could an entity that doesn’t live in our social world even have an opinion on human morality – any more than we conceive of morality among the sparrows?

So if we start with the God of the Big Bang rather than the God of the Good Book, I can’t agree with Stephen Fry that He is monstrous and mean-minded. Ebola and earthquakes are just the way the universe is. I don’t think we could honestly expect a real creator of worlds to trouble Himself about whether one species burrows into the eyes of another species. In fact, if you take our human partiality out of the equation, it’s kind of cool. You can imagine Him thinking, ‘I set this in motion, but the emergent effects are awesome.’

Of course, Mr Fry is not answering Mr Byrne’s question from a deist perspective. He is addressing the question of what we should make of the world if the God of the Old Testament is in charge of it. This is a God we are told is concerned about human life – as well as being very bothered about what we eat, what we wear, and who we have sex with. Quite obviously such a God, if He were any more credible than a Dungeons and Dragons monster, would indeed be unworthy of respect. Fortunately mankind has had teachers like Jesus and Buddha to ameliorate primitive religious doctrine with a kinder message. But honestly, if you were properly brought up, you don’t need them to tell you anything. Our opinion about whether the universe has a creator or not has nothing to do with morality, just as the laws the police enforce have nothing to do with why I don’t commit robbery and murder.

So, like Fry, I’d reject that strict and jealous God’s offer of paradise because it would not be any paradise I’d want to live in. His bribe of an afterlife, if it were anything but an infantile dream, is deserving of mere contempt. The power to create and destroy gives no man or deity the right to enforce an ethical code. That you can only find in your own heart.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Killer (review)

Today I went to the cinema, which is something I haven't done in quite a while. What tempted me back to the big screen? David Fincher's latest movie, The Killer. Was it worth seeing in a movie theatre? Not really. The action was fine, but would look just as good on a decent TV. Were the performances any good? Oh yes. Michael Fassbender is always great value. He should have been picked to play James Bond -- though admittedly he'd be too interesting an actor for the anodyne superhero that Bond has become. The scene with Tilda Swinton is worth the price of admission. But the plotting. Oh dear. 

I'll talk about it because somebody has to care whether stories make any sense. You must expect spoilers from this point on, OK?

The Killer is a seasoned professional hitman with a string of successful and lucrative assassinations behind him, but he misses a shot on his latest target. Which is inconvenient, as the target is now alerted and it will be a while before there’ll be any chance of a follow-up attempt.

Unknown to the Killer, his handler, Hodges, proposes to the client that he can have the Killer whacked for another 150k. Why kill the golden goose? Don’t know. Why would Hodges think that the Killer would blab after one slip-up? Don’t know. How would the client (just a rich business dude) ever know whether his 150k had actually been spent on rubbing out the Killer? He wouldn't, so why pay?

Hodges hires two other assassins, the Expert and the Brute. It looks like all you need to know is in the names, except (as we will find out) they are fairly useless, which makes it surprising that Hodges is so blasé about writing off his star performer. They also haven’t worked together before, which would be a danger signal in many professions where the stakes are considerably lower than in assassination.

Hodges sends them to the Killer’s isolated jungle home in the Dominican Republic, though he must realize the Killer won’t be back there yet. They find Magdala, the Killer’s girlfriend, and torture her for information. Why doesn’t Hodges just give them this information? Don’t know. Why not wait at the house to ambush the Killer when he comes back? Don’t know.

They leave Magdala alive. Why? Ah, this one I do know – it’s because otherwise the writer couldn’t give the Killer the clues he needs to find the assassins. He tracks them via the taxi company who took them to the house. Why didn’t they hire a car? Why did they leave the taxi driver alive? How did Magda get a look at the taxi from hundreds of yards away through a jungle? You got me.

The Killer now realizes Hodges hired the two assassins. He goes and kills him and gets info about the two assassins from Hodges’ secretary, whom he kills. (Unlike the Expert, he leaves no loose ends.) Meanwhile, you may ask, isn’t he in jeopardy from the Expert and the Brute, who have been hired to kill him? No, because having beaten up the Killer’s girlfriend and trashed his house, they went back to their homes and are now making no effort to look for him. This is convenient as it means that the Killer can track them down separately and kill them.

After some more shenanigans involving the client who hired him in the first place, the Killer retires with all the money he’s made in his long and lucrative career. Does he have to create a new identity and set up a new home in a distant corner of the world? Not a bit of it. He goes back to his house in the Dominican Republic, a place which has been compromised and might well now be known to other assassins, and relaxes on a sun lounger.

What might have happened after the missed shot: Hodges could say to the Killer that they either owed the client a hit and would have to follow-up despite the increased security, or they could hand the money back. The former would make a story, but it wouldn’t have the betrayal trope vital to lazy storytellers in this genre. If Hodges really decided that the Killer was now useless, he should have hired competent assassins, briefed them properly, and laid low till they reported the Killer was dealt with. It didn't matter to the client, certainly, who could have been told that the Killer had been iced and would have believed it.

Why was this plot such a mess? I suspect because it’s based on a graphic novel by a videogame writer, both mediums being stronger on style than on substance or on coherent storytelling. Why wasn’t the plotting fixed by Andrew Kevin Walker, a screenwriter with a number of hits to his name, and David Fincher, who ought to be able by now to tell if story elements make no sense? Don’t know, but it may be because they no longer expect audiences to bother to question what they’re seeing on screen. If plots are only going to be skin-deep, no wonder screenwriters are worried about being replaced by AI.

Monday 30 October 2023

A deal with Death

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a week at Shute Gatehouse, a place owned by The Landmark Trust that you find by turning off the main road, passing between two half-collapsed stone posts, and finding yourself on a narrow route that seems to take you a couple of decades back in time. The mist closed in and we spent a few days exploring the local woods, pubs, and footpaths. 

One afternoon we came across a steep driveway lined with pumpkins - rotting, puckered and caved-in on themselves in the week since Halloween, but which must have marked out the way to a bonfire party. The story “A Wrong Turning” arrived in my head just like that, in one piece, a gift from the otherworld. 

The premise: it's that time of year when the veil between life and death is so thin that to stray off the path could easily take you on a detour via undiscovered country. Guy Wasserman has already suffered one bereavement, and when his car is forced off the main road he finds Death waiting with an impossible demand: "You, or your son." 

“A Wrong Turning” is my homage to the old Warren horror comics of the 1960s and 1970s. The tight, atmospheric pencils are by Martin McKenna, and you’ll see right away why he was so in demand for movie storyboarding. His artwork on this little tale reminds me of the great EC Comics and Creepy artists like Gray Morrow, Reed Crandall, Angelo Torres and Al Williamson.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Winding your way down Yancy Street

I’ve never been to New York in the summer. And in particular I’ve never been to the Lower East Side in summer in the early 20th century. Yet I know the place like home. I can smell the fruit and cabbages that have rolled from barrows to get trodden underfoot. The stink of livestock and automobiles. The tobacco and stale sweat on the clothes of passers-by. The cheerfully rude street banter. The delighted shouts of kids running wild. The hissing gush of fire hydrants and the petrichor rising from the heat-stifled dust of the sidewalk.

How did that become a familiar place in my childhood memory? Not from movies like Dead End (1937), much as I love them. They can show you a photographic record, but they can never depict the way it felt. For that you need a guide like Jack Kirby.

A time machine could drop you in Lower Manhattan, but it couldn’t find you Yancy Street, though you’d recognize the hard-as-nails stare of Yancy Streeters in the neighbourhood kids – among them, back then, the young Jacob Kurtzberg. Wikipedia credits the invention of Yancy Street to Jack and Stan Lee, but if any such claim stretched credibility it’s that one. Stan grew up ninety blocks away in the Upper West Side. If he ever saw a street gang it would most likely have been up on the movie screen. He never lived that life and breathed that air as Jack did.

There’s been a lot of water under the Williamsburg Bridge since the Silver Age. Revisionists got their hands on the FF and soft-soaped everything for a more sentimental generation. So Ben Grimm became a former Yancy Streeter, Aunt Petunia a young medic, the gang itself openly reconciled with the hero they loved to hate – or hated to love. I’ll have none of it, and I don’t believe Jack would either. He could be big-hearted without getting schmaltzy. He could depict affection without corniness. He was a no-nonsense, stogie-chomping guy, just like his big orange creation, and his comic book New York was real in a way that nothing in Marvel’s universe feels these days.

And that’s why it matters. Because when we see the Surfer soaring over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, we also know the bustle of the ordinary folk way down there on the street. Jack shows us that so as to make the cosmic adventures real. When Galactus arrives, he doesn’t just come to chow down on concrete and girders. There are living, breathing people at threat, and the genius of Jack Kirby is to make them a richly contrary variety of types – not the nice, carefully set-up-for-sympathy cast of relatable bystanders that a modern comics writer would assemble, but real New Yorkers, warts ‘n all, many of whom might resent the high-handed experts like Reed Richards, the liberated women like Sue Storm, the loudmouth kids like her brother, and even be jealous of a rocky-skinned, two-fisted clobberin’ monster like Ben Grimm.

The people who inhabit Jack Kirby’s New York – a place he evoked more expressively than any other comics artist, even Ditko – reflect the ambiguity the Fantastic Four themselves feel about their role as heroes. His New Yorkers are maddening, loud, ungrateful, fickle, adoring, demanding, vibrant, scrappy and fun. When the FF step forward to protect mankind, they stand as champions of the good, the bad, and the majority who are just in between.

In such a mix, the Yancy Street gang stand out as the most constant of the lot. Whenever the Thing’s self-pity inflates to grandly indulgent proportions, he can count on a snappy put-down from the Yancy Streeters to bring him back to Earth. He might go into space, fight alien empires and demi-gods, and save the whole furshlugginer galaxy, but when he’s back and takes a stroll past Yancy Street, it’s their jeers and catcalls that comprise the most sincere welcome home. It’s fitting that, with Ben Grimm’s self-loathing simmering just under the surface, the nearest he’d have to a fan club would be a bunch of hard-boiled, blue-collar guys who send him exploding cigars and pelt him with rotten tomatoes. And you get the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way.

* * *

This essay originally appeared in Jack Kirby: Variations On A Theme, edited by Glenn B Fleming, who knew Jack Kirby personally. You need the whole book, true believer.

Monday 1 May 2023

A far cry from cave paintings

Following on from last time's discussion of AI artwork in comics, there is the question of copyright. US law allows AI-generated art to be copyrighted if it involved a significant input from human beings. I don't know what they're going to do when we have AGI, but that's going to be a legal headache across the board.

It doesn't necessarily matter anyway if you're not able to claim copyright in your comic book's art. The text will be your copyright, so nobody can republish your story as is. I guess they could strip out the text and come up with a new story to go with the images, the way Eric Thompson wrote The Magic Roundabout, but if the underlying material is at all original that wouldn't be easy. (And in any case, what writer worth their salt would want to wear another's clothes that way?)

Certainly the way I envisage using AI art there'd need to be a lot of human input. As prompts I'd be using not only text but my own thumbnail panel layouts and Leo's rough pencils. How we make a comic is quite an involved process. All the AI would be handling is the embellishments: the inks, flats and final colouring that are fairly arduous work for the artist.

Writer Steve Coulson is way ahead of where I thought the technology was now. He's already producing a range of comic books using art by Midjourney. You can download them and take a look. Midjourney hasn't got anything like the charm of Leo's art, as you can see from the quite similar scene below from Mirabilis season 2. But while AI artwork wouldn't yet do for Mirabilis, it's already fine for something like B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth. Watch this space.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

The power loom approach to illustration

The other day I was adding some notes to my Mirabilis plot summary. I have a good 15,000 words now, as well as the full scripts for the first half of the Spring book

Could I even write it today? Certainly it was far easier to contemplate when Leo and I were on a roll. We had little luck with publishers (variously uninterested or unable to get the books out) and the obstacle to going it alone was the cost of all the artwork.

These days Leo is busy with some interesting but very different projects. I could complete the story as a novel (if talk is cheap, prose isn't that much more costly) but it really feels like it should be a comic. What about using AI? Not a popular choice, I know, but it's not like I'd be doing a human artist out of a job, seeing as I can't afford a human artist in the first place.

The AI isn't there yet, as these samples show. I'd need the characters to look like themselves and remain consistent from panel to panel. Also to have the right number of fingers (human artists have the edge there) and not to come out with two left hands (a mistake the robots have picked up from people).

First above is an image by Nightcafe. I don't mind the style but it hasn't got Jack and Estelle right. Still, it did better than Bing Image Creator, which first got Jack mixed up with Harry Potter and then with John Constantine. It did have a crack at lettering, though. Next is Wombo Dream's attempt at a whole page, which looks like a comic you might find in the Dreaming. Trying to redeem itself, it next goes too manga and lovey-dovey for my tastes, and gives us two Jacks into the bargain. Back to Bing (below) for what could be from a future season of Doctor Who. And at the bottom another Bing image that's either channeling Barry Windsor-Smith or trying to look like an actual Edwardian drawing. Or I guess it could be a Steeleye Span album.

What I haven't tried yet is Midjourney, the crème de la crème of generative art models. With AI advancing as it is, it might be ready within a year or two to take my thumbnail layouts and descriptions and turn those into something halfway decent. Then the only question is whether I still have those characters and stories in me. 

Friday 31 March 2023

According to the mighty working

In Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Vile Bodies), the protagonist Adam arrives at Dover and in a scene played for broad farce (‘I know filth when I see it, and this is filth!’) has his novel manuscript taken away for burning by Customs. This triggers a whole series of misadventures as Adam needed the book to raise money to get married.

The trouble lies in making it completely arbitrary. It’s as if Fry was saying, ‘Look, I’m not even bothering to explain this because we all know it just has to happen for the sake of the plot.’ Audiences are willing to collude in that kind of thing but you do at least have to give them some kind of rationale, however flimsy.

In the novel, Waugh has the Customs officer look through the manuscript and become increasingly appalled by what he reads. The movie doesn’t have time for that, but it should at least have him light on one line – something read out of context that sounds subversive or obscene. Anything, however spurious, would do. In fact the more absurd, the better; it makes us take Adam’s side. And that line out of context could be funny, too, which would recruit our sympathy even more strongly. But to have no reason given at all leaves the audience no reason to connect with the character and buy in.

It’s an abstract injustice and thus a failed opportunity. Blake Synder would never have let that pass. Do watch the movie, it's a lot of fun and I wish Fry wrote & directed more movies, but read the novel first. Waugh tells a tougher and truer story throughout than the one the filmmakers have put on screen.