First Words on EWF

I arrived about 10 minutes before The First Word was scheduled to begin. Before entering, I helped two women who looked a bit lost to find their way, assuring them that the event to the left, with its hordes of loud men drinking booze from kegs and eating sausages, was a festival of beer, not writing. The First Word was to our right at the ever-shiny BMW Edge Theatre.

Amongst a few familiar faces and plenty of new ones, I found a good seat and waited for the show to begin. A gentleman named Phillip sat down next to me and introduced himself. I later realised he was Philip Thiel, a man of impressive blogging determination who’s speaking at the Town Hall next weekend. The current subject of his blog, soliciting kisses, was not raised. In fact, before we had much of a chance to chat, it began.

The echoing and amplified voice of Lisa Dempster welcomed us, and soon we were treated to a scene from a play by, I believe, Alison Mann.

A young stripper brings an older woman back to her place. They converse, look at photographs and eventually kiss. But the older woman wants to share all the doubts and uncertainties plaguing her mind.  Neither seems to be looking for the same thing. I felt that, in keeping with night’s theme of Love and Angst, one woman represented love (or lust?), while the other was filled with uncertainty and angst. A good snippet to begin with.

Then there were the speeches by the Co-Director and the Arts Minister (am I the only one who thinks Minister’s speeches could usually stand to be cut in half?), then the 48 Hour Play Generator was launched and the playwrights were introduced and given their theme. No envelopes, just a setting of a scene. Something along the lines of: two people: one standing, one kneeling, looking into an open grave. Nice. Whatever results from that will be seen at the Malthouse.

Toni Jordan then gave a great keynote speech about the love of writing, the love that infuses and inspires her writing, and the role of writers: to record and to bear witness. To be ready so that when someone says ‘can you describe this?’ you will reply with ‘yes’. I wish I could remember the name of the Russian poet she mentioned, who sold millions of books in her home country, pre-Sovietism.

Next was the wonderful Vachel Spirason with a physical performance that had very little to do with writing but everything to do with being hilarious. He put on boots that possessed him to tap dance. He put on a Collingwood Magpies beanie and was transformed into a footy hooligan. And he danced like Michael Jackson right off the stage after putting on one white glove.

After that was a reading by Amy Espeseth from Sufficient Grace.  It featured blood, snow, ticks, dead coyotes and the ‘mangy beard of Jesus’. Great stuff.

Then Craig Schuftan took to the lectern with his laptop and proceeded to give a speech that was genuinely both funny and intelligent, tying together a dizzying blend of pop culture and high art. He talked about the future as imagined in the Bill and Ted movies and Yeasayer’s latest music video. He related the Romantics of the 1800s to both 1980’s rock power ballads and emo. He managed to tie it all together to say, I think, that what we like determines who we are, and it matters. And our feelings matter too, but they’re not the only thing, even though the Glory of Love is pretty important. I’d always been a fan of his similar Culture Club segments on Triple J, but it was great to hear a longer talk from him, even though there was so much to take in. Like many others, I expect, I’ll be very keen to see his even longer Disco Lecture on Tuesday.

Then: Interval. Toilet. Beer. Tweet. Return. Sit.

And we were back with another reading. This time, a time-twisting story about art, read by Mike Bartlett. I believe it was Out of the Picture from his  Salmon and Dusk podcasts.  Another great, well-read piece, that reminded me somehow of the Dirk Gently novels by Douglas Adams.

And finally there was the Two Sides of the Coin Debate: Love vs Angst. With Michael Williams as chairman, Josh Earl, Michaela McGuire and Kate McLennen debated themselves on the topic. Each speaker stood up twice, once for Love, and then again to argue against themselves for Angst. The laughs came fast, whether it was after lines from Michaela’s teenage asthma-inspired angst poetry, Kate’s jaunty rendition of ‘All You Need is Love’  or Josh’s comparison of an infinite numbers of monkeys writing about love or angst.

All three were hilarious, no matter their argument, but in the end, though it sounded like Angst won, Michael Williams declared a ‘draw’ on the clap-o-meter. Love and Angst remained the partners they always were.

And then with final pronouncement from the booming Voice of Lisa, it was over. I felt that, with only two acts after the interval, it needed a finale or a coda to tie it all together. Maybe a short poem or a musical piece? Still, a minor gripe in a great night.

As I left, more drunk men and Collingwood Magpies footy fans were swarming Fed Square and the rest of the city. It all seemed fairly appropriate, both as a counterpoint to all the wonderful talk of angst, love and writing, and an apt reminder of a certain dancing man in a Magpies beanie earlier in the night.

*

With the First Word finished, there’s plenty more EWF stuff I intend to get involved with:

  • Today saw the first event in the online program: a Blogger’s Brunch wrapped up just as I posted this. It’s still open to be commented on, and there’s plenty to read. But then from 12-5PM today is the Page Parlour. I’ll be seeing what’s on offer, feebly attempting to not spend all my money, and lending a hand at The Lifted Brow‘s table. I may or may not go along to the 48 Hour Play Generator tonight too.
  • From Monday to Thursday, 7PM, is 15 Minutes of Fame. I’ll be getting along to as many of these as I can to find out about some new publishings.
  • Tuesday night is ‘You Can’t Stop the Musing‘ a disco lecture with Craig Schuftan. I’d better buy my tickets to this, because after his piece at the First Word, I think it’s gonna be pretty popular and awesome.
  • (8PM Wednesday Night means ‘Black Rider presents The Last Hurrah‘. Not an EWF event, but near-bursting with literary talents!)
  • Thursday day sees a Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre with Chris Flynn talkin’ ’bout heroic hounds.
  • Then on Thursday night: Wordstock. I’m not a fan of AC/DC, but I’m still hoping to go to this.
  • Then there’s the Stuck in a Lifts, Creative Writing Bootcamps, TwitterFEST and all the other parts of the online program throughtout the week. Hoping to get into as many of these as possible.
  • And finally, the gargantuan cherry on top, the Town Hall Weekend Program, which is far too massive to even think about now. I just hope I find time amongst it all on Saturday to get on the Zine Bus.

I think after all this I’ll be bloated with words, ideas, inspiration, bloggery and good festival vibes for quite a while.

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Review: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

(So ends another blogging hiatus, hopefully the last for a while. Back to at least one post a week, yes? Yes! Okay! So! Here’s a review of a comic book I read recently)


Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

by Warren Ellis (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)

Ever since I read his incredible Transmetropolitan series, I’ve been keen to devour more Warren Ellis (his work, not his flesh), so although I didn’t know what the heck Planetary was about, when I saw the volume one trade paperback, collecting the first six issues of  27, I had to grab it.

Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories begins with a superhuman fellow named Elijah Snow (able to freeze the air around him and such, hence the name), who is drinking bad coffee in a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. Out of this nowhere arrives Jakita Wagner (of superhuman strength and speed) who enlists Elijah into a highly secret organisation called Planetary, which is dedicated to investigating some highly fantastical goings-on. He soon meets the third member of Planetary, The Drummer (able to manipulate things like data and radio signals with the power of his mind), while another member, the shadowy Fourth Man, is only hinted at. Up to this point, I felt the beginning was a little thin and shaky, and I didn’t really see Elijah’s deeper motivation for going into it all so readily (well, besides the million-dollar salary). But my doubts were soon gradually eroded by a series of spectacular happenings.

In just the first issue’s mission, both Elijah and the reader are faced with otherworldly artefacts, a computer built in the 1940s that can recode the fabric of reality, and superheroes coming through an interdimensional portal to defend their dying planet.

If the presence of Ellis and an introduction by the well-respected Alan Moore hadn’t already given a hint, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill superhero action comic, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with some good WHIFF, BAM and SNUH. But while other stories would be content to just follow in a straight line from this beginning, instead, issue two has a Japanese cult leader/novelist taking his followers onto a secret island, littered with what appears to be the decomposing corpses of Godzilla, Mothra and all their pals.

Not enough? How about the ghost of a Hong Kong cop seeking to avenge his own murder? Disappearing skyscrapers? A secret Nazi space program? Yup, and then some.

It’s not until about issue five that things start making some crazy kind of sense, just as I was wondering if all the disparate pieces would ever come together. As I wondered if these superhumans would do little more than just observe one extraordinary spectacle after another, Elijah seems to voice the same concerns. The grand events continue, but Elijah, shaking off some of the befuddlement the reader may be sharing with him, takes the reigns and gives the plot a clearer drive and focus. The adventures of these archaeologists of the impossible were cool enough, but with Elijah’s help, it looks like Planetary might start using its resources to take action and actually get involved in what they’re investigating.

Throughout this great six-issue story arc there are also some nice jabs of coarse humour and a good dose of righteous indignation at the horrors so often inflicted by those with power. By the end of this first collection, I felt as if I’d just witnessed a mighty, satisfying introduction to an awaiting adventure. I trust Mr Ellis will not disappoint in the following 21 issues.

Warren Ellis, with writing implement and pokemon

It’s not just him though. Besides the inker, letterer, colourist and the like (all probably unfairly underappreciated), it’s artist John Cassaday who helps bring this story to life with his illustrations. Most of the time his art is solid, sometimes subtly bleeding or exploding across the page, other times deftly capturing the action in so few frames that it stunned me. Sometimes I found the illustration a little patchy, or it didn’t quite hit the mark, but overall – though I’m still learning when it comes to the visual aspect of comics – I thought the art was great.

My only other criticism would probably be that while issue five’s “pulp novel within a comic” was a nice idea, it came off as a bit tacked-on and disorientating, which detracted slightly from the tying up of threads that was in motion at that point.

It’s hard to guess how the series will progress; I’m sure the rest of it will be just as unpredictable. There are still so many questions that need answering: who’s the Fourth Man? What’s hidden in Elijah’s past? And seriously, what’s the go with all of this crazy crap going on?

To me, sometimes the best works of fiction are like glimpses into a strange parallel universe. Weird, somewhat like our own, and offering us a chance to make sense of our own world in a different way, no matter how bizarre it all seems. Planetary got me thinking, amongst the spectacular setpieces, about all manner of such things. That’s something I love about Ellis: he fills his work with such varied and outlandish ideas and possibilities, yet it all seems to slot together so nicely. He packs insight into his comics, subtly playing with their conventions. As far as I can see so far, in Planetary he seems to be interrogating the 20th century in an interesting way, via the alternate history of a parallel Earth (or Earths), along with an exploration into comic book-related history and mythology. But it’s also just a none-too-dense, plain fun read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this in the end. I’m keen to read the remaining issues and it might be interesting to review the series as a whole when I do. Heck, this just confirms that I really want to absorb everything with Warren Ellis’s name on it. He’s a mad bastard genius and with Planetary, it looks like he’s given us a transhuman, transdimensional epic worth pursuing. With John Cassaday at his side, I trust that the near-infinite worlds of possibilities will continue to coalesce into something wonderful

W+E4DM Web Feature Portfolio Part 2 – Review: Rooftops by Mandy Ord

This is part 2 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’ The Enthusiast. My second article is a review for their ‘Books’ category.

7/10 Stars (again, no Enthusiast star images or sweded images)

Rooftops is ostensibly about a day when Mandy Ord watched Ghostbusters at the cinema with some friends, then drove home and had chatted with her housemate. Simple. But it manages to be, in a gently odd way, an absorbing and thoughtful story.

This is Mandy Ord’s first book-length comic, which I suppose you’d call a graphic novel, and it was published by Finlay Lloyd. They have a frustratingly creaky-looking website, but their books are often thoughtful and beautifully made essay collections, like When Books Die and Animals. Ord did feature in the latter though, so clearly she’s part of their efforts in new directions.

Despite being more of a graphic novel, it retains Ord’s preoccupation with the little things that stand out amongst the ordinary and mundane. In this way, the story’s subject matter and conversations cover coincidences, the search for meaning, Bill Murray’s career and the literature of mystics and philosophers. Her overactive imagination regularly merges with the everyday and she further illuminates the narrative with thoughts and visions conjured by a mind that loves scaring itself. A demonic imp-like man climbs over a toilet door at her. Images of Ghostbusters ghouls and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man fill her head, her life and her panels.

From every black page spread, four equal panels of white and black pop out. The panels are filled with Ord’s wobbily handwritten speech bubbles, realistic cityscapes and urban interiors of Melbourne, and distorted but curiously realistic cartoon figures, most notably the one-eyed protagonist herself. These slightly twisted figures reminded me at times of Albert Tucker’s work. Her drawings from movie scenes are also evocative and spot-on, yet still true to her overall technique.

Despite the twisted style and imaginative divergences, it’s essentially a work of realism, possibly memoir. These are musings, moments and memories from an individual perspective. There’s no clear moral lesson, no ‘heroes journey’. This is real life and there’s rarely a big answer or resolution at the end of each day. Her story goes on, continued in her other comics, in bits and pieces. Rooftops itself is not an amazing work, but still a pleasant, leisurely and enjoyable read.

In any case, I’m still a fan and I’ll be keeping an eye out, watching her progress as an artist and storyteller. In fact, after reading Rooftops I noticed her work popping up all over the place: in recent issues of The Lifted Brow; a serialised historical comic/essay with Kate Fielding in Meanjin; in Sleepers’s wonderful Conceived on a Tram; in the Paper Life Boat exhibition during the Fringe Festival; and in myriad comic anthologies, zines and small press endeavours. Clearly prolific, she also sporadically updates her blog with sketches and character portraits – they’ve taken on rather hirsute qualities lately. Amongst all this, I hope she’s still finding time to put effort into another long-form work. Until then, I’d recommend checking out her stuff. Rooftops serves as a great introduction.

W+E4DM Web Feature Portfolio Part 1 – Review: Attract/Repel

This is part 1 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’ The Enthusiast. My first article is a review for their ‘The Stage’ category.

Starring: Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah
Directed by:
Ming-Zhu Hii
Venue:
The Storeroom at Parkview Hotel, Fitzroy

9/10 Stars (unfortunately, I don’t have The Enthusiast’s star images, nor their flair for sweding images)

Terry and Jing-Xuan in rehearsal. Image: Buxton-Walker, Fringe Publicity http://www.buxtonwalker.com/fringe/media/

Terry and Jing-Xuan in rehearsal. Image: Buxton-Walker, Fringe Publicity

To quote a song from Avenue Q: everyone’s a little bit racist. But Attract/Repel, which just finished a rather successful run at the Fringe Festival, confronts issues of racism without being flippant, and asks why we’re still being racist, without heavy-handededness. In fact, it stands as an honest, challenging and compelling piece of theatre.

But to call it theatre is almost wrong, at least in the traditional sense of theatre. It was more like we were eavesdropping on the casual conversations of four people getting to know each other. Rather than performing, they seemed to be discussing and we were silent witnesses and participants.

The actors take turns introducing themselves to one another, giving their names and backgrounds. They recount their memories; real stories, both humorous and horrible, surrounding their experiences with racism, how they perceive their racial identity and, all in all, candidly sharing their thoughts.

Accompanying their conversations: blackboards waiting on the walls and fluorescent tube lighting scattered around the stage. Both features play an integral part. The actors pull out chalk and mark their place on the ‘chink scale’ – do they blend into Asian stereotypes, Australian ones, or somewhere else on the spectrum? Georgina and Terry scrawl racist slurs across the walls and throw ironic racist jokes at one another, which soon becomes hurtful. Then the conversations continue, almost as if nothing has happened, but with uneasiness bubbling away underneath.

Soon, all of this gives way to several abstract and surreal interludes. The fluorescent lighting flickers out, and the actors roam the dark stage in anger, bashing against the walls. They hold fluorescent lamps and scrutinise one another’s bodies. Terry dances frantically. Jing-Xuan is excluded, trapped and crying in a prison of light while Fanny cackles at her. Towards the end, perhaps in some parody of ‘integration’ and ‘acting white’, Georgina puts on white gloves, Jing-Xuan squeezes into a white corset and Terry’s face is daubed with white makeup, bringing to mind the infamous Hey Hey blackface sketch.

All in all, Attract/Repel was structurally and stylistically unconventional, but utterly potent, with the perfect mix of hilarity, honesty, confrontation and worthwhile discomfort. The everyday met the abstract, with a lasting final effect of thoughtfulness, humility and appreciation.

In its production, casting and conversations, the play raises issues of diversity in theatre, particularly ethnic diversity. Director Ming-Zhu Hii wrote about this in both the Age, and on RealTime Arts and it’s recommended reading. Beyond that, go to The Melbourne Town Players’ website, check out some great photos from the show and read what other reviewers reckon. Attract/Repel was definitely among the best of this year’s Fringe Festival and it deservedly won the Kultour Tour Development Award at the awards night, so undoubtedly we’ll see more great stuff from this team soon.