Attack on Titan – Horror Has A New (Grinning) Face

So, I’m late to the party, again. Attack on Titan has been a thing for at least eighteen months now. Never one to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, I’ve only just now started watching it (via Netflix) and… oh my goodness! Was there ever a show to grab you in a vice-like grip of terror, wonder and horrifying absurdity? No, I honestly don’t think there was. But there is now.

I’m six episodes in and find the whole thing utterly mesmerising. Somehow, it connects with me on an almost pure animalistic emotional level and bypasses the more rational parts of my brain almost completely. Do human beings possess a deep-seated racial fear of being stalked by forty-foot tall naked zombies? Perhaps they do – some residual fear of dinosaurs, perhaps, mixed with a weird Freudian aversion to nudity. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this ridiculous anime about the last remnants of humanity huddling together in a single gigantic settlement behind massive walls that still don’t manage to be high enough to keep their clothing-averse idiot-grinning giant predators at bay manages to be thoroughly engaging, tremendously exciting and utterly terrifying in more or less equal measure.

That's not good, really, is it?

That’s not good, really, is it?

What follows is spoilerish (for the first six episodes).

The first episode sets the tone. In it, we are introduced to the main character Eren and an (older?) girl who lives with him (Mikasa), as well as their bookish friend, Armin. We are also introduced to the world these characters inhabit which appears at first to be renaissance/pre-Industrial Revolution era Europe with its tudor-esque architecture. That world is fleshed out in effective economical fashion, as the necessary character introductions are interspersed with scenes of the Scout Regiment’s foray into the world beyond the walls that protect humanity and later scenes of them returning, their mission failed and many of their number dead, missing or horribly injured. The meeting between the Scout force leader and a mother of one of their fallen comrades gives an early indication that, for all its characters’ typical anime cuteness, this is not going to be light-hearted fare. And so it proves…

Eren is a feisty youngster who views the walls that protect him and the rest of humanity from a danger that mostly exists in the abstract as a constriction rather than a blessing.  While Eren’s father has secrets that he promises to divulge to his son once he gets back from the interior, Eren reveals that he wants to join the Scout Regiment (despite having witnessed their ignominious return), from which ambition Eren’s mother is determined to dissuade him. Mother and son argue and you think (or at least I did) that you’re watching the setting out of a certain type of anime hero’s character path and then it all goes to hell.

The last ten minutes or so of the first episode are insane. Events spiral out of control frighteningly quickly and the show gives us horror after horror after horror, all rendered in some of the most beautiful and startlingly kinetic animation I’ve seen in a long long while. Once the event that renders Eren’s argument with his mother almost entirely moot happens, you finally understand what type of show you’re watching. ‘Predictable’ and ‘safe’ – these are words that you simply cannot apply to Attack on Titan.

The second episode widens the scope of the action very successfully. We find out that the district overrun in the first episode is part of a much larger walled settlement. We also find out that it has been deliberately constructed to concentrate the titans’ attacks on that specific spot. We see the panic and desperation of a large scale evacuation in the face of an implacable foe. There is nothing cosy about this. It is harrowing, disturbing stuff and calls to mind my teenage imaginings upon reading War of the Worlds or, if you’re into Warhammer 40,000, Dan Abnett’s exceptional siege novel Necropolis. We are also not spared the hierarchical nature of the human world ofAttack on Titan, in which refugees are despised as weak and those with food and resources feel entitled to lord it over those who do not. It is, at times, very uncomfortable viewing, not least because it reminds us far too pointedly of the inequalities and injustices of the real world.

The third and fourth episodes see a 5 year leap forward. Our heroes have grown up somewhat and have entered training in the army.  It is an unexpected, but not unwelcome, change of tack and, for a brief moment or two, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that the show was going to settle down into a more traditional all-friends-together-against-the-big-enemy type of anime show with characters conforming to certain anime archetypes (including the always-hungry girl – what the hell is that about, anyway?). And then the ending to episode four hits and, dammit, the show does it again. It takes what you were getting comfortable with and scrunches it up into a big ball and hits you on the head with it. This continues into episode five which provides several jaw-dropping moments in quick succession. It is insane, disturbing, absolutely riveting stuff.

Attack on Titan, then, is an anime I will definitely be sticking with. At times, the animation is breathtaking. Fight sequences between titans and zip-line wielding soldiers are presented as exhilarating, swooping flights into action. (Or, as is the case with episode five, heartbreaking tragedy.) The architectural solidity of the setting is absolutely essential to maintaining the authenticity of the story and the designers have done an incredible job here.  Walls are high and thick, and when they are smashed down, the resulting devastation is satisfyingly huge. The crowning achievement, though, is the design of the titans themselves. Put bluntly, on paper giant-naked-smiling-sexless-cannibal really shouldn’t work. Realised, however, that concept has been mined for every single one of its disturbing, unsettling possibilities. The sight of a titan ungainly running towards a crowd of humans like an overexcited toddler, an idiot smile plastered on its huge face takes absurdity into new realms of horror. One of the most memorable moments of the first episode is one in which a soldier, desperate to regain his honour, runs towards a titan with the intention of taking it down only to pause in mid-charge as he realises just what it is that he is facing. The animators fade out the surrounding scenery around him leaving him alone in a darkness that represents not only the shadow the titan casts over him but also the sheer futility of even thinking of taking it on. That sense of hopelessness is what makes the price of heroism in the show so ridiculously high and the show itself so utterly compelling. The titans may be a weird absurd concept but they are played absolutely straight and the result is a threat which is nightmarishly relentless and the cornerstone on which a truly unique and incredibly involving anime series is built. Whatever else Attack on Titan is, it is bloody terrifying. And I love it. :)

He doesn't want to be your friend.

He doesn’t want to be your friend.

Graham Joyce’s ‘The Silent Land’

The Silent LandSome of my colleagues are off skiing with their students at the moment, actually, so it seems entirely appropriate that I look at a novel by one of my favourite authors which deals with skiing. And life, love and death, too, obviously…

The Silent Land is one of the late Graham Joyce’s last novels.  Published in 2011, three years before his untimely death in September of last year, it is a mature, contemplative work, which takes a simple premise and, through a compelling mix of deft plotting and a slow accumulation of detail, turns it into something profound and moving.

I’ve liked Joyce ever since I read The Tooth Fairy, a criminally neglected coming-of-age novel that takes the tooth fairy myth and does something disturbing, magical and ultimately life-affirming with it.  Like Jonathan Carroll, his work often inhabits the grey, difficult to define hinterland where fantasy, horror and contemporary fiction meet and mingle.

The Silent Land appears, at first, to be about a young married couple, Zoe and Jake, who are on a skiing holiday in the French Pyrenees and are caught up in an avalanche.  The pair manage to free themselves only to find that their village is deserted.  As the novel progresses, the true nature of the couple’s situation becomes increasingly obvious to the reader and, eventually, to Zoe and Jake themselves.  While there remains an element of mystery about their circumstances right up until the last chapter, that mystery is not really the primary focus of the novel.  Rather, it provides the blank canvas on which Joyce paints a compelling examination of what it means to be, well, together.

Zoe and Jake are likeable characters and Joyce does a good job giving them their own distinct voices.  They disagree, they bicker, they keep secrets from one another, but their love towards one another is never in doubt.  Ultimately that love is not so much defined by physical or emotional intimacy (although there’s a lot of both) but more by their commitment to each other’s welfare.  This is even true of Jake’s last act in the novel which seems to be a betrayal but turns out to be something much more selfless.  The Silent Land’s determined focus on this central relationship could, in lesser hands, have led to a story too loosely structured, too devoid of tension to be interesting.  While there are moments in the first third of the novel where the story seems to meander a little, Joyce dripfeeds enough small but significant moments of revelation to keep the plot from stalling.

Joyce’s prose is elegant but never ostentatious and key motifs are reintroduced at significant moments in often powerful ways.  His restraint in the use of flashbacks is also appreciated by this reader.  When they are deployed in the last third of the novel, they are extraordinarily moving with Jake’s memories of his father’s death being particularly powerful.  There are moments of genuine uncanny horror, too.  Zoe sees and hears things that Jake cannot.  These moments of increased perception are disturbing and nightmarish.  They obviously possess symbolic meaning but remain, for Zoe at least, frustratingly difficult to interpret.  This difficulty with interpretation is, perhaps, the hardest trick of all for Joyce to pull off.  Zoe and Jake are not stupid (in fact, in some respects, they’re very intelligent characters), but their instinctive desire to be together dulls their capacity to think through some of the implications of what they’re experiencing.

And that is one of the main points of the novel, perhaps the last point before the story’s climax: as much as being in love means wanting to be together, there also comes a time when the right thing to do – the loving thing to do – is to let the other person go.

The novel’s ending is, quite frankly, astonishing in its simple power.  Plot elements introduced much earlier in the story are tied up with impressive skill and sentimentality is avoided with the same neatness and deftness of touch that, to be fair, Joyce has displayed all novel long.  Although dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter, the novel ends up being about life – about its value, about its fragility, about its phenomenal strength.

And speaking of strength, The Silent Land is a book that reminded me again of Joyce’s strengths as a writer – of his skill at writing flawed, believable characters, of his skill at producing subtle moments of unexpected disquiet.  More importantly, however, the book reminded me of why we need literature, why we need stories, why we need things that are not true – that can never, in fact, be true – to remind us of the truths that we forget.

Another week, another Ofsted story

My hatred for Ofsted has been well-documented elsewhere.  Below are some musings on a situation currently unfolding at a local college not a million miles away from me.  For various reasons, I’ve not shared links or names in this post, although I suppose if you know me well enough, you’ll have little difficulty in working out what I’m talking about.  I’m not claiming to have all the answers either.  Education is not always straightforward – either as an experience or an institution – and there are no easy answers.  As with most things, I think it’s a question of degree.  Group work, peer assessment, investigative work: they all have their place, but as part of a balanced pedagogical approach.  The unpleasantly dogmatic approach to favoured styles of learning (which they deny they have) from Ofsted has led us to a point where we now think we know what good teaching looks like and, actually, we still don’t really have much of a clue.  Anyway, here we go…

For those who don’t know, my local sixth form college is in trouble.  Awarded the dreaded 4 (that’s “inadequate” to you and me) by the inspectors in October, the college has received an interim report from their consulting inspector which criticises the college further on a number of issues.  It is not my intention to examine the ins and outs of why the college received the 4 in the first place.  Nor is it my intention in this post to comment on the quite understandable furore that is currently being played out in the local media and online petitions etc.  While I have never taught at the college, I did attend there in the mid-80s and know some of the teachers who are either currently working at the college or who have just left as a direct result of the initial Ofsted report in October.  For them and for many of the students, the last few months have been at best unsettling, at worst traumatic.

I have sympathy with all involved.  My own school’s Ofsted inspection eighteen months ago was profoundly unpleasant and I and my colleagues are well aware that an inspection, in which we will be required to show the improvements noted by our HMI in his two interim reports, is imminent.  The details of the sixth form college’s interim report are, however, instructive and worth highlighting.

The first point to note is that the interim inspection took place on the 15th November last year, only a handful of weeks after the first Ofsted report was published.  It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a radical, comprehensive improvement in the key areas identified by the report after so short a time.  A sense of realism, however, has never been something with which the Wilshaw-led Ofsted has been over-endowed.  The report criticises the college’s action plan for being “too long” and featuring “unnecessary detail”.  Without having access to the document, it’s impossible for me to comment on the validity of that judgement, but the comment about “a minority of teachers continuing to resist making changes to improve” struck me as particularly interesting, the word “noncompliance” in relation to teaching practice even more so.

At face value, that comment paints an image of a majority of teachers striving to improve the quality of learning for students (they’re actually called “learners” in Ofsted-speak, but the phrase “learning for learners” just sounds silly), while a stubborn rump of poorly performing teachers rejects the path of true salvation and clings to their outdated practices, letting the whole side down in the process.  It would be a persuasive picture were it not for a couple of pertinent points.

Firstly, Ofsted is, and I apologise for my bluntness, bollocks.

Its inspection practices are not evidentially-based and, while much of what it recommends has some proven validity in terms of classroom practice, because of the ridiculous pressure (competitive between sectors and between institutions within the public sector, as well as financial – particularly in the FE sector) on educational leaders, what should be presented as part of a range of pedagogical practices is instead presented as orthodoxy and dogma.  It should be obvious that, if students are being judged on their performance in written exams, placing a high value on group work is not all that clever a thing to do.  While investigative and collaborative work absolutely have their place, the skills students need to pass AS and A-level exams are more traditional: essay-writing, analysis of texts, remembering complex mathematical formulae, retaining information about the human body etc.  Making a technique that is useful in a particular context (starting a unit of work, for example, or modelling how to analyse a sonnet) the prescribed method of teaching for all lessons is nonsensical.  Even the much-maligned (by, I’ll readily admit, me as well as many others) former Secretary State for Education, Michael Gove, had his doubts about Ofsted’s fetishisation of group work, pointing out that “[t]eachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching. It also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”  Perhaps the ‘minority of teachers’ at my local college are closet Gove-ites.  Or perhaps, they simply recognise that the methods they’ve been using throughout their careers still work, that they are the methods students actually want to see in classrooms, that the drive to get students to teach each other, to ‘find things out’ with the teacher acting as ‘facilitator’ runs the risk of wasting their time and energy as well as their students’.

The second point to make about that report quotation is that it runs counter to what students apparently want to see.  Comments in an online petition organized by students decry the privileging of Ofsted-approved activities in lessons and express the desire to be taught in a more traditional, didactic way.  Their reactions fly in the face of accepted Ofsted dogma.  They do not feel ‘empowered’ by talking to each other; they feel ‘empowered’ by the systematic acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills.  They feel, in short, ‘empowered’ by having in their classroom an experienced, enthusiastic professional whom they trust and from whom they are prepared to learn.  Everything else is at best superfluous, at worst a time-consuming distraction.

The third point to make is a more general one and it is a difficult one to write.  The link between ‘good’ teaching and the achievement of students cannot be accurately determined.  This, actually, is the fundamental flaw at the heart of the current inspection system.  Ofsted operates on the assumption that, if achievement is ‘good’, then teaching will similarly be good.  Similarly, if achievement ‘requires improvement’, then it must surely follow teaching does too.  One educational think tank has proposed doing away with a grade for teaching altogether in school inspection reports, as the grade for achievement and the grade for teaching vary in only 5% of cases.  In the context of an inspection system which places ever-increasing emphasis on ‘value added’ ‘expected levels of progress’, communities may well be surprised to find that the well-regarded local secondary school with a good reputation for getting its pupils good GCSE and/or A level results is not so ‘good’ after all.  David Laws, the current schools minister, has talked scathingly of ‘coasting schools’ and it is undoubtedly true that some suburban schools do need to raise their game. However, in the context of an examination system that is in upheaval (Ofqual has indicated that it won’t settle down from a statistical point of view for about 10 years), the single-minded focus on judging teaching in the light of exam results begins to look highly suspect.  How can schools be judged on exam results when, because of the reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, they have been told to expect significant fluctuations in their pupils’ performance year to year?  To be honest, though, the rigid link between exam performance and quality of teaching that has formed the theoretical underpinning of all Ofsted’s practice for the last few years was suspect anyway.  At the heart of this issue, is the question: whose responsibility is it for students to achieve?  When I took my ‘O’ levels (and failed a third of them!), it was clearly my responsibility.  Now, it increasingly looks like it’s the responsibility of the teachers.   This, surely, is not a system that produces independent and responsible students – or, for that matter, independent and responsible citizens.

An example of this can be found in my local college’s interim report which criticises the college because the inspector saw “[t]oo many learners arriv[ing] at lessons with disorganised files” before later going on to comment that “many do not remove their coats during lessons”.  While students probably shouldn’t be wearing coats during lessons, I’m not convinced that it’s the college’s responsibility to ensure that students have organized their files properly.

All of this would be funny, if individual lives and careers weren’t being destroyed.  The interim report contains a sinister line about senior managers not having taken enough steps “to remove poor practice”.  If the experience of the last term and the comments on the online petition site are any indication, it may well be the practice of teachers that students feel they learn from the most that is ‘removed’, leaving a faddish, froth-filled wasteland of group work and peer mentoring in its place.

Welcome to education in the 21st century.

Afterlife With Archie Issue 1

Comics have been a fertile ground for experimentation over the years, but Archie Comics’ bold foray into the horror genre is surely a step too far for the classic wholesome publisher?  Erm, no actually.  Below I examine what might be the best comic of the last twelve months…

It starts, as many good horror stories do, with a reckless act of desperate love.  And an act of compassionate rebellion.  And a dark terrible secret.  When Reggie Mantle accidentally runs over Jughead Jones’ dog, Hot Dog, he inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the sort of moment more commonly seen in a George Romero film, as a newly undead Jughead arrives at the Riverdale High hallowe’en dance, his entrance greeted by admiring comments from his unsuspecting classmates.  How we get to that moment is a deftly handled masterclass in comic book storytelling from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.

Francavilla's artwork is worth the cover price on its own.

Francavilla’s artwork is worth the cover price on its own.

Aguirre-Sacasa weaves a story whose key moments spring from the characters and their motivations.  Of course, Jughead would do anything to save his dog.  Of course, Sabrina would do anything to help her friend – even if that help means opening up the infamous ‘Necronomicon’.  (I’m not sure which edition this one is, but it certainly packs a punch…)  The pace is assured and unhurried, which means that there’s plenty of time for that sense of inevitability so important to good horror fiction to build up.  And, boy, does it build up!  Aguirre-Sacasa makes Jughead (and us) wait for the appearance of the re-animated Hot Dog and, halfway through the issue, he teases us with a confrontation between an infected Jughead and Archie which doesn’t, thankfully, end the way it might.

This dog's not so hot now...

This dog’s not so hot now…

While the formal conventions of horror writing are duly (and skilfully) observed, Aguirre-Sacasa imbues his tale with a considerable amount of heart.  During the aforementioned encounter between Jughead and Archie, you genuinely feel Archie’s concern for his friend and the later banter between Betty and Veronica is witty, waspish and perfectly naturalistic.  Throughout the issue, Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing is faultless: his dialogue, along with Francavilla’s artwork (more of which in a moment), breathes life into the characters, fizzing and crackling with arch humour at one moment, replete with warmth and pathos the next; his pacing is deliberate but never slow; and, his understanding of both the characters and the horror genre in which he’s placed them is spot on.  Even given those strengths, though, the comic would not be quite so impressive without the considerable talents of Francesco Francavilla.

Francavilla’s artwork is, quite simply, gorgeous.  His lines are simple and clear; his muted colour palette possesses a haunting luminosity.  He’s capable of portraying incredible tenderness between characters in one panel and ominous silhouetted horror the next.  He’s perfectly suited to the horror genre, but, as I suggested earlier, he’s adept at the quieter character moments and his facial expressions are both varied and natural.  Even with an averagely written book, his art would pull you into the story.  Here, in expressing Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing, it’s utterly compelling.

That... can't be good.

That… can’t be good.

On paper, Aferlife With Archie probably shouldn’t work.  The mix of clean-cut, all-American Archie Andrews with brooding, visceral horror should be too jarring to be entertaining.  To be brutally honest, Archie comics have never particularly interested me, but, after hearing the guys on the Comic Vine podcast rave about this title a few months ago, I decided to give this a look.  I’m very glad I did.  This is not a gimmick.  Nor is it a knowing exercise in post-modern comics irony.  This is comic book storytelling at its finest and this is now a title I’ll be picking up regularly.  (And catching up on.)  I highly recommend that you give it a look.

Leicester City 5 Manchester United 3

Deep breath.

The temptation is to scream, to fling things at other, more robust, things, to swear, to weep, to indulge in an undignified hyperbolic expression of excess emotion.  Well, you know, I did some of that on Sunday afternoon.  If Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary comment about football holds true, the King Power Stadium is a portal to a hell not just bloody but drenched in gore, scorching hot and staffed by demons whose principal delight lies in tormenting its denizens with a tantalising mirage of footballing competence, which swiftly evaporates to reveal the blasted wasteland of inadequacy, disorganization and miscommunication underneath.  During the second half on Sunday, United didn’t so much lose the plot as stick it on a rocket and shoot it into the nearest black hole.  Doing an analysis of this mess may well involve passing through an event horizon of madness, but I’ll give it a shot…

You won't catch this...

You won’t catch this…

“That Di Maria chap’s a bit special, isn’t he?”

Oh, Lord, yes.  He looks good value for his ludicrous price tag.  The skill required to conceive and then execute United’s second goal is something we’ve not seen in United colours for a long while.  He’s amazing and by far the most exciting of United’s summer acquisitions.  His work rate is excellent and his ability to see and play balls whose angles suggest he has more than a passing familiarity with Lovecraftian (non-Euclidean) geometry makes him a stupidly exciting player to watch.  United generally looked good going forward and it was nice to see van Persie’s name on the scoresheet, but Di Maria is something special.  I actually felt a bit embarrassed for him given the way the match panned out.  No one that skilful deserves to have even a tangential role in Sunday’s debacle.

“That Vardy chap’s a bit special, isn’t he?”

His role in that softest of penalties notwithstanding, Leicester’s £1 million buy from Fleetwood Town has pace to burn and a considerable amount of tenacity and skill.  While our defence helped him out quite a bit (more of which in a moment), the relentless pressure he put our back line under during the second half was frightening.  He had a hand in four of Leicester’s goals and scored the other one – a truly remarkable performance.  His cross for Leicester’s first was, as much as I hate to admit it, a thing of beauty, as, for that matter, was Ulloa’s header.

Too good for United on the day.

Too good for United on the day.

“Clattenburg’s a… [INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE].”

Yeah, well, he is.  Vardy fouled Rafael in the lead up to the penalty decision and the penalty itself was very soft.  It’s also fair to say that that pair of poor decisions constituted the turning point of the game.  That said, they didn’t have to.  If Rafael hadn’t decided to take the law into his own hands, if the United defence hadn’t (presumably fuelled by a sense of aggrieved entitlement) fallen apart under the renewed Leicester pressure engendered by the penalty, if our players hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to pass to one another – then we might have had a chance to come out of the game with at least a point and some sense of dignity intact.  Instead, we lost all sense of team cohesion and tactical awareness, culminating in Rojo selling Blackett short and the hapless youngster being rightly sent off for bringing down Vardy in the penalty area.  When decisions went against them, the United teams of the past generally found a way to channel that sense of injustice into something positive.  On Sunday, the team showed a startling mental fragility, something I hope is merely a by-product of so many new signings being embedded into the team.  A key factor for me is the lack of leadership in the heart of the defence.  Arguably, Evans’ injury really didn’t help in this regard and Jones’ longer term absence is really hurting us.  Prior to the international break, he was probably our best player.  It’s hard to believe he would make some of the mistakes made on Sunday.

That... doesn't look good, does it?

That… doesn’t look good, does it?

All of the above should not take away from the incredible commitment of the Leicester players and, for that matter, the King Power crowd.  They made it hard for United to play once the penalty went in and Leicester played with considerable pace and skill.  United’s response to that second half setback was simply not up to scratch, though.  According to recent reports, United players conducted an hour long inquest into the game with RVP admitting that the mistakes that led to the goals were not merely ones of defence.  Well, good, but we’ve got West Ham tomorrow and no right-sided central defenders.  To say I’m apprehensive would be something of an understatement…

Aquaman (New 52) issue 1 – Review

Aquaman has never been a hero whose solo adventures have particularly appealed to me.  His appearances in various incarnations of the Justice League have been variable.  At times, his character’s been bland; at others, he’s been spiky, almost adversarial, although, even when he was sporting a hook, long hair and a beard, he still wasn’t as effortlessly arrogant as Marvel’s Namor.  Despite having some cool moments in, for example, Grant Morrison’s JLA run, he was never someone whose personal story I was invested in.  The New 52, with its controversial re-boot, provides a useful opportunity to delve deeper into the character, though, and the name of Geoff Johns as writer of this first issue is enough to… ahem… whet my appetite.  But, enough of the rubbish water puns.  Let’s see if the issue’s worth the effort.

Well, yes, it is.  For one thing, the art’s pencilled by Ivan Reis whose work I’ve enjoyed in various iterations of the Green Lantern series.  What’s even better, though, is Johns’ script, which systematically takes all the misconceptions a casual reader like me might have about the character and addresses them head on, even, in the process, making me feel a little guilty for having them in the first place.

The story is bookended by the introduction of a race of deep sea monsters who I assume are going to be the main bad guys of this first story arc.  The monsters look suitably scary (think fluke man from that X-Files episode) and their introduction is suitably dramatic – and brief.  The majority of the issue is a metatextual manifesto, an elegantly and economically told examination of the character and a mild rebuke to readers who haven’t given him a chance before.  Such is Johns’ power as a writer that he managed to make me feel more for Aquaman in this single issue than I have in over thirty years (on and off) of encountering him in other titles.

He really is quite impressive, you know...

He really is quite impressive, you know…

We start with Aquaman foiling a bank heist (and in some style too!) which leads to assumption number 1.

Aquaman’s only interested in marine issues.

Erm… no.  Evidently not.  The message here is clear.  Aquaman’s a bona fide superhero and he does what all the other superheroes do: stop crime, punish wrongdoers, help people – whether they’re in the water or not.  Ivan Reis’ artwork not only does a great job of getting across just how strong Aquaman is here, but also how very uncomfortable he is dealing with ordinary people (in this case the cops who’ve been chasing the aforementioned robbers).  But, then, can we blame him when they do stupid things like ask him whether he now needs a glass of water?  (Because Aquaman just loves water, right?)

Shooting him will only annoy him.  You have been warned...

Shooting him will only annoy him. You have been warned…

We then get a rather uncomfortable protracted scene in a sea shore diner.  The waitress is shocked when Aquaman orders fish and chips.  (Assumption number 2: Aquaman loves all fish to the extent that he won’t eat them.  Apparently not true.  Assumption number 3: Aquaman ‘talks’ to fish.  Also not true – fish brains are “too primitive to hold a conversation”.  Dolphins, however, are a different matter.)  There’s a nicely written brittle awkwardness to the conversations between Aquaman and the waitress and Aquaman and the blogger who starts an impromptu interview with him while he’s waiting for his order to arrive.  Johns writes Aquaman as polite but guarded.  He’s well aware of his status as “nobody’s favourite superhero”.  Johns’ interspersing of the memories that act as a counterpoint to his often curt answers builds up a considerable amount of sympathy for a character traditionally seen as cold and distant.

It’s after the restaurant conversation that we see Arthur Curry with his guard down in a quite beautifully written and drawn meeting with his wife Mera.  Starting with him remembering his childhood with his father, the melancholy mood (powerfully evoked by the artwork including a muted colour palette from Rod Reis) is lifted by Mera’s dramatic appearance and an elegantly scripted (and drawn) conversation ensues, in which, perhaps surprisingly given his earlier encounters with the surface world, he announces his decision to leave Atlantis and settle down on the surface.

Aquaman's also a romantic chap.  Awww...

Aquaman’s also a romantic chap. Awww…

The issue ends with a three-page sequence that draws on a number of established horror tropes to good effect.  Aquaman may have decided to shun the underwater world of Atlantis but the sea isn’t finished with him just yet.

All in all, this is close to the perfect debut issue.  Johns’ pacing (which I’ve complained about elsewhere in relation to Justice League) is here faultless: the prologue is intriguing and ominous; the introduction of Aquaman is dynamic and exciting; the restaurant scene is subtly and cleverly done (the treasure coins seen in one of Aquaman’s memories provide payment – and tip – for the waitress), giving us a clear sense of Aquaman’s character; the meeting with Mera is touching and gives us some important overall plot information; and then we’re back to ominous (and downright disturbing) horror action at the end.  It’s a satisfying and unexpectedly touching read and a powerful riposte to anyone who has dismissed or belittled the character before.  (Like me, then!)  Highly recommended.

Manchester United 4 QPR 0

One of the unexpectedly pleasant things about not having European football to watch/listen to this season is that there really isn’t all that much urgency to get some kind of blog up after each match.  Of course, I can’t pretend that I don’t want us to play European football ever again, but not seeing your team struggle to beat a team from Bulgaria who are playing in the CL for the first time or concede to Bayern in the last minute or draw against an unexpectedly organized Schalke side or lose to Dortmund is actually rather pleasant.  Jeering from the sidelines is not the most dignified of activities, but it is something.

And it’s always nice when your team plays well.  Even if it is only against QPR, more of which in a moment.

United on Sunday were a substantially different side to the last time I saw them against Burnley, not just in terms of personnel but also in terms of attitude, vision and sheer desire.  It was all rather thrilling – all the more so when you consider that van Gaal handed debuts to Rojo, Blind and (later) Falcao, as well as a home debut to Di Maria.  The potential for these big signings to look unfamiliar with one another was significant, but turned out to be unrealized as the two debutants and Di Maria looked comfortable on the ball and showed signs of a strong understanding with their team mates.  All of them, it turned out, proved themselves to be intelligent, skilful players.  Of course, in calling Di Maria ‘intelligent’ and ‘skilful’, I’m damning the Argentinian with faint praise.  At times, his pace was electric and his vision verged on divine.  While a few misplaced passes and the occasional poor first touch mean I can’t hail his home debut as perfect, his pace and presence in midfield, his hunger for the ball (one of his most impressive moments was winning and then shepherding the ball out of defence, harassed by two QPR players, the ball seemingly stuck to his boot by a piece of invisible elastic) and his ability to play an inventive ‘killer’ pass at just the right time (he delayed playing the Mata ball until he was sure the Spaniard was onside) suggest we’ve got something very special here.

"This scoring thing's lots of fun, isn't it?"

“This scoring thing’s lots of fun, isn’t it?”

Even if it was only against QPR.

Then there’s Blind.  The unfeasibly handsome Dutchman set up shop just in front of the back four with a range of satisfyingly quick, uncomplicated passes and moments of quick-witted anticipation on display.  His passing accuracy of 95.5% is impressive, but doesn’t really tell the full story. Most of those passes were short and straightforward, true, but they tended to release more dynamic and creative players very quickly.  Throughout the match there was a growing sense that here was a player whose reading of the game was excellent and whose ability to influence its outcome was potentially huge.  It was a very disciplined performance too.  He resisted the urge to maraud forward with Herrera and Di Maria, his first shot (a blistering swerving 25 yarder) coming in the 85th minute.  There are caveats, though.  His mind may be quick but his legs aren’t – or at least not as quick as those of some of the players he’s going to be up against elsewhere in the league.  There is, nevertheless, a greater sense of stability and purpose when he’s on the ball.  A great debut.

Not only is he pretty but he can pass a ball very well, too.  Fantastic!

Not only is he pretty but he can pass a ball very well, too. Fantastic!

Even if it was only against QPR.

Those goals were good, though, weren’t they?  Di Maria’s flukey free kick was the footballing equivalent of an expertly pitched knuckleball, its flight deceiving everyone and leaving Rob Green uncertain as to which way to dive until it was far too late.  Di Maria’s incisive foray into the QPR penalty area and his pass to Rooney should have been rewarded with a goal and Rooney’s quick recovery after his initial shot was blocked ensured Di Maria’s hard work wasn’t wasted.  Herrera’s strike was deliciously vicious.  And the Spaniard returned the favour just before half-term combining nicely with Mata before putting Rooney through on the edge of the penalty area.  The QPR defence’s startlingly accurate impression of a bunch of random people who had got together to indulge their newfound passion for treacle-wading certainly helped matters, but it was a nice goal all the same.  Mata’s goal in the second half was the result of a cross/pass/shot from Di Maria that I’ve seen described as a ‘shank’ but I’d much rather prefer to describe as a deliberate (and ultimately successful) attempt to penetrate the QPR defence by slicing the ball behind most of the defenders and steering it more or less perfectly to Mata’s feet.  I’m willing to concede that it was a fluke, but I strongly suspect it wasn’t.  If he does something similar in the next few matches, I guess we’ll know for sure.

Other items of interest include Rojo looking lively down a left hand side that was meant to be Luke Shaw’s patch, Robin van Persie selflessly trying to play in Falcao for a goal even after the Colombian spurned the chance to do something similar for RVP and Tyler Blackett looking increasingly comfortable on the ball as the match progressed.

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to get carried away.  The miscommunication between Rojo and DeGea that almost let in Phillips would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so alarming – and should have been punished by the QPR striker who hit the ball tamely enough for Evans to get back and clear.  QPR’s best player by a country mile (Armand Traore) only came onto the pitch when the game was arguably already lost, but he caused problems for the United defence and, for all our attacking verve and guile, the whiff of vulnerability still clings to the back line.

And it was only QPR…

True.  Very true.  Tomorrow’s match at Leicester will be a sterner test, as will the home game against Everton on 5th October.  But this was a start – and a very good one.  United played with passion, hunger, invention and pace.  It was exhilarating to watch and an early indication of a hopefully more sustained period of recovery.  Time will, as always, tell, but I for one am encouraged by last week’s result.

Even if it was only QPR.


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