Comic Book Shops: Gosh! (Number 1 in a Series)

Living in London, I’m lucky to have my choice of comic book shops. However, for as long as I can remember buying comic books on a regular basis, the shop that I have had the longest association with is Gosh!, on Great Russell Street, just across from the British Museum. Therefore, it was a surprise to discover that it only opened in 1986, which is just after I became a four-colour addict.

I have a subscription list with Gosh!, so I’m slightly biased towards them, but I’ve always thought of them the best comic shop in London (I’m not the only one: Graham Linehan agrees). It’s not a big shop, but it packs a lot into its space. When you enter, the cash register is on your left. On the right are shelves of trade paperbacks; on the other side are the shelves of new comics. There is a lot space, so you don’t feel crowded, and everything is clean and tidy. There is some merchandise on sale (action figures and t-shirts) but that’s not what the shop is about – they are all about comic books. They have a wide selection on the shelves, but there’s even more downstairs.

At the back of the shop is the spiral stairs that lead to the basement, where they have European books, manga, art books and back issues (including specially priced packages of recent old books). Again, it’s small in there, but not cramped or messy. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, able to talk about books and creators (even setting aside books you may have missed). It’s got to a stage where the long-serving guys know my name, which shows I’ve been buying comics there too long.

Gosh! is everything a good comic book shop should be, which is the reason I choose to buy my comics there instead of the other comic shops within the 200-yard radius that makes the centre of comic book shops in Central London. I’ll be talking about the other shops in the remainder of this series of posts.

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Art: Almost Exhibitions and Galleries

Sunday was a day of seeing art (following Saturday’s visit to the First Emperor exhibit). Or, rather, trying to see art and not quite succeeding in the way it was planned.

The first thing we tried to see was the Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon. This was a two-day event, so we’d be catching the latter half, all about experiments performed by leading artists, architects and scientists. As former scientists ourselves, my girlfriend and I wanted to see something interesting and bizarre where the science world interacts with the art world. However, in the email she was sent and on the website, there was no mention of the fact that it cost £20 each to get in – stuff at the Serpentine is usually free. And, seeing as we wanted to sample some of the marathon rather than stay the whole day, £40 was too much just to see what it was like.

As we were there, we looked at the exhibit in the Gallery, Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint. It was interesting seeing the constraints he put on himself in creating art (as shown in the videos of the pieces) but the large pieces in the main gallery seemed a little too obscure for my tastes, but then I am rather conservative when it comes to modern art. My girlfriend and I wondered how he got paid enough to be able to do all this bizarre stuff – bouncing on a trampette to daub on a ceiling, drawing on a whaling ship while a large fish swings around his head and pen in time to the ocean – and wondered how to get a job where you make up stuff and then explain it with a strange unifying theory. Maybe it’s because his girlfriend is Björk … Wouldn’t recommend this.

The next step on the art tour was The Old Truman Brewery for British Marvel Secrets, an exhibition of British artists on Marvel comics, which I read about in Rich Johnston’s Lying in the Gutters column. Again, this wasn’t quite what it seemed – it appeared to be a shop, playing a DVD of Blade in the corner, with some superhero video games in another corner and selling a variety of books and T-shirts. Wolverine #8 coverIn the middle were three semi-informative stands about British artists working in Marvel comics, and to one side was the ‘art’ – some were monochromatic pieces using a figure from a comic book panel (I had to correct them on the artist for one work – the Hulk and Patch figures on the cover to the right were used on a piece of art and the original artist was listed as Rob Liefeld. It’s obviously the work of John Buscema, but perhaps Liefeld inked it?). The most interesting art was the ‘acrylicize’ versions of Bryan Hitch panels from The Ultimates. They looked fabulous, even from a distance, the way the colours dazzled due to the process they used. The best single piece was the Civil War poster by Steve McNiven – it looked fantastic, even with Mark Millar’s autograph nearly ruining it (and was only there because the man in charge owned it and wanted to show off). The only reason to go to this exhibit was to see the Iron Man movie prop of the prototype armour – incredible piece of work – but it didn’t warrant going to Tower Hamlets to see it. At least we got to pop round to the 24-hour Beigel Bakery on Brick Lane for a hot salt beef beigel to make up for it.

The final leg of the art tour was the Wandsworth Artists Open House, part of their arts festival. Artists who reside in the borough of Wandsworth opened their homes to the public so that they could view their art (and hopefully buy some in order to keep their homes). We went to see an artist who lived near us – he had lots of nice paintings on the walls and in his garden (it was a lovely sunny day, amazing for October) but, with prices starting at £600 for landscapes, it was a little out of our price range. It was interesting to see somebody trying to make a living from art (even though he had to teach two days a week and his wife worked) but it was obviously a struggle to do so, and a shame to see someone realising that, even with a degree in sculpting, he wasn’t going to be able to support his family on his art alone.

And so ended our Sunday art tour, wondering: Art – what’s it all about, then? And not having an answer …

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Theatre Review: Spamalot

Spamalot posterBecause I am a heterosexual male, I don’t see musicals. I think it’s a genetic thing. I’ve tried – I watched some musicals on television and even sat through Miss Saigon, completely bemused. Nothing. The only things that can affect me have humour – Blues Brothers and South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut are practically musicals but with comedy, and I can watch them endlessly.

If you add ‘slightly geeky’ to ‘heterosexual male’, you tend to find a Monty Python fan. It was seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail at an early age that switched me on to Python, so I have a fondness for it.

Which brings me to Spamalot. Now, I know I’m rather late in seeing this blockbusting musical, but that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion about it that I feel forced to share with you. I had to overcome my reluctance to musicals because of the curiosity of a Python fan: would Spamalot ruin the film with cheap songs?

The connection between music and Monty Python isn’t too big a stretch; Eric Idle always had wonderfully silly songs dotted throughout, so it wouldn’t take an excess of imagination to reimagine it as a musical. However, the extra ingredient that brings Spamalot to life is the exuberance of being a musical while also mocking the musical at the same time.

The Holy Grail film is suitable for turning in to other forms because it doesn’t work completely as a movie – it is essentially well-connected sketches that fall apart with the ending, as if no conclusion can be really satisfying (even if the breaking of the fourth wall is amusing). This means that the sketches can be used easily in the musical. In fact, there are entire sections of sketches that are used in the show: coconuts; ‘bring out your dead’; anarcho-syndicalist commune; the knights who say Ni; the taunting Frenchmen; Tim and the rabbit; the wedding. This means that I am automatically going to enjoy myself hearing them again. But then you add the music.

And the music is fun. Lots of fun. Knights of The Roundtable, which provided the title for the show, is elaborated into a Vegas show tune, and there is even place for Bright Side of Life. But there are lots of other fun songs. This Is The Song That Goes Like This mocks Lloyd Webber tunes, and is so good they use it again. (In fact, there are so many references to other musicals that a lot were lost on me; it was only via the Spamalot Wikipedia entry that I was able to understand them all.) A Finnish Schlapping Dance starts off proceedings in an appropriately silly fashion (harking back to the joke opening credits in the film), and there is a lovely song in the second half from the Lady in the Lake singing What Happened To My Part?, complaining about the fact that the show is mostly a boys-own event and there hasn’t been much room for her (absolutely amazing) singing. Even though it is a great number, the You Won’t Succeed song starts off with nobody laughing; I’ve never heard an audience that was enjoying something so much go so quiet so quickly after hearing the word ‘Jews’. I’ve been reliably informed that this song is an in-joke about Broadway, which perhaps gets lost in translation. The enthusiasm of the song wins the audience over in the end, but it was dicey for a few minutes. The variety of music is wide, as there is even time for some disco as Lancelot finally comes to the realisation that he is gay.

The show comes to a finale with a wonderful breaking of the fourth wall, with a member of the audience helping the quest the Holy Grail for them, which is perfectly suited to the spirit of the film but fits in even better in a musical, after the knights have been told that that the West End is the location of the Holy Grail. The musical also channels the spirit of the film by having the performers, apart from King Arthur, playing multiple parts. The actor playing Lancelot/Tim/Taunting Frenchman is particularly impressive in this respect. The actor playing King Arthur does a good job of playing the role instead of imitating Graham Chapman, with a much dryer delivery. The actor playing the Lady of the Lake gave a wonderful performance, with an incredible singing range.

All in all, the cast were a delight and, even though I saw a matinee, they gave a rousing performance that entertained everybody in the theatre. The sense of fun that permeated the whole show was fantastic. I’ve never enjoyed myself in the theatre as much. Spamalot is not Monty Python, even though it uses the sketches from the film; it is a wonderfully silly piece of fun entertainment. (This is appropriate: after the Camelot interlude, King Arthur sums it up with, ‘On second thoughts, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.’) I enjoyed it so much that I could easily have turned up to the evening show and watched it all again. However, I’m not sure if I particularly want to see the inevitable film version – I would rather just have a filmed version of the show I saw. Thoroughly deserving of all the success it has achieved, I would heartily recommend it to anyone, even if you’re not a Monty Python fan. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to start watching more musicals, though …

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Theatre review: Pinter’s People

Harold Pinter is a former Nobel Laureate and revered institution of the theatre. I have never seen one of his plays. All I really know about him is from references in comedy (specifically a Stephen Fry reference to ‘Pinteresque pauses’ and the Derek and Clive sketch about two critics discussing Pinter using swearing in his plays). Therefore, the opportunity to sample his wares via a selection of sketches and monologues performed by a quartet of top comedy actors, including the wonderful Bill Bailey, seemed too good to resist.

Pinter’s People is a collection of 14 rarely seen sketches and, after watching it, I can understand why. The reviews haven’t been particularly kind, although the critics seem to hold the actors and the directors to account rather than the material. I found the opposite. If it weren’t for seasoned comedy actors wringing humour out of situations that wasn’t in the words, there would have been very little to bring merriment.

The majority of sketches seem to have an idea as the source of comedy rather than the actual sketch itself. Other sketches seem to be merely conversations that Pinter has overheard and thought were amusing and decided to write up as a black comedy sketch, but failed to show why he thought they were funny in the finished product. Two sketches brought some satisfaction. ‘That’s Your Trouble’ had some delightful bits of comedy in the interplay between Bailey and Kevin Eldon, and ‘Night’ was a wonderful scene between Bailey and Geraldine McNulty as an elderly couple trying to recall how their relationship begun, before remembering that they are still together for a reason, in a beautifully touching ending.

For some reason, the sketch ‘Victoria Station’, between Bailey as a mini cab controller and Eldon as a driver, got huge laughs, despite it being evident from early on that Eldon’s character has done something deeply unpleasant. People were still laughing at the end even when it is obvious that he has kidnapped a woman. The final sketch, ‘Last To Go’, was the very definition of the phrase ‘Pinteresque pauses’, as Bailey’s food vendor and Eldon’s newspaper seller have a ridiculously protracted conversation about nothing whatsoever. If it hadn’t been for Bailey doing his trademark facial tics in the pauses, it would have felt interminable.

Sometimes, when watching theatre, I wonder if I’m missing something because I haven’t studied drama at university to understand it. This was one of those occasions. I was glad that the reviews didn’t like the show, even though I didn’t want it to be bad, but it at least confirmed that I am not a complete idiot. This episode also suggested that I should avoid Pinter plays in the future, no matter how highly esteemed his work is held.

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