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I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a podcast addict.

The list of podcasts I’m subscribed to currently exceeds eighty. Seriously. Not that I listen to every episode they all put out, and some of them are probably dead or at best wildly infrequent.

But there’s fairly continuous churn. I’m constantly dropping and picking up series as I discover new stuff or lose interest.

Here, then, are my five favourite podcasts that I picked up in 2016. Something on this list for most kinds of listeners and they’re all worth your time, at the very least for sampling purposes.

Crimetown
From the podcast empire that is Gimlet Media, this is by far – by far – my favourite true crime podcast amongst those I’ve tried. The genre exploded in the wake of Serial, of course, and I’ve found one or two other decent ones. But Crimetown is astonishingly good. It’s a hugely ambitious serialised documentary about organised crime, local politics and law enforcement in Providence, Rhode Island; mostly in the 1980s. It’s like a true-life audio version of The Wire. Full of recurring characters, interviews, archive recordings. Unmissable.

Liftoff
The place I get 90+% of my astronomy, space exploration etc news and info from these days. A highly accessible, all-encompassing bi-weekly update on all things space-related. Rockets, satellites, probes, planets, exo-planets, moons, stars and so on. A wonderful example of what podcasts can do: plugging a gap in TV and radio output through the simple mechanism of two guys who love their subject and know quite a bit about it talking about what’s going on and what’s caught their attention. If you like space stuff, of whatever kind, this is for you. (Part of the RelayFM podcast network, which has a heap of other geek-friendly shows you might want to check out).

Talking Politics
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I sampled quite a few politics-related podcasts last year. The only one I’m still listening to regularly is Talking Politics. It’s from Cambridge University, and it’s mostly just a bunch of folks talking about big picture issues (and sometimes specific events) in politics around the world. Inevitably, there’s an emphasis on British and US politics, but they talk about European stuff a lot and get into major developments elsewhere sometimes. Kind of non-partisan in that they’re more interested in understanding what’s going on than pushing specific agendas, but the individual participants do, of course, have opinions so possibly not for you if you’re allergic to the so-called ‘intellectual elite’.

2000AD Thrill-Cast
For those who don’t know, 2000AD is a legendary British sf anthology comic that started up in the late 1970s and – kind of miraculously – is still going. A truly formative experience for a big chunk of us Brits whose interests lay in that direction. Even those who don’t know it might have heard of Judge Dredd, it’s most famous character, right? This is their official podcast, loaded with interviews with famed writers and artists, talk about the comic’s history, key past and current stories and characters etc. etc. If you ever enjoyed 2000AD, you should listen to it. If you’re into comics, you should listen to it. If neither of those things apply to you … maybe not?

Imaginary Worlds
A podcast that looks at the culture surrounding sf and fantasy in all media. Sympathetic, smart and rarely obvious, it’s touched on a crazily wide variety of topics: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar: the Last Airbender, LARPing, D&D, fantasy maps, Godzilla, Batman … the list goes on and on. Invariably just as is interested in the people who consume and support the media as it is in the properties themselves, it’s a weirdly unifying approach to all of geek culture.

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Time for a few posts just catching up on various things as 2016 (that was some year, eh?) draws to an end.

First up, my return to writing comics. A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of writing a Rogue Trooper comic for IDW – still easy to get the collected edition, should you be so inclined (e.g. Amazon US or Amazon UK).

highlander-1-francavillaThat was a huge amount of fun, but now I have the even greater pleasure of writing a Highlander comic, again for IDW. You know Highlander, right? 1980s movie: immortals, swords, a Queen soundtrack. 80s awesomeness, really.

I’ve got to say, writing comics is intensely enjoyable after having spent so much time over the last few years working away at novel-length prose. The collaborative aspect of it – writer, editor, artist, colorist, letterer teaming up and trying steer the ship to a destination everyone can enjoy and be proud of – makes it a profoundly different writing experience. And it causes my e-mail traffic to increase by a factor of ten, easily, which makes me feel important. So that’s good.

The artist for Highlander is Andrea Mutti, and he’s doing an amazing job. Which is high praise, because it’s not an easy job I’ve given him. This is Highlander – immortals battling throughout history – so of course the story I’m telling spans a looooong time; different periods, different looks, different styles. It’s a direct prequel to the original movie, so any fans of that celebration of immortal mayhem should definitely check it out. The first issue’ll hit the shelves of comic book stores, and digital comics vendors, in February 2017, sporting a very fine cover – as you can see up above – by comic artist legend Francesco Francavilla.

You can pre-order it right now, though, at your local comic shop – and if you do you might be able to snag yourself a copy with the special subscription variant cover by Claudia Gironi:Highlander -1-cover-Claudia Gironi

Cool, no? Correct answer is ‘Yes, Brian. Cool.’

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The world’s so big and complicated these days I imagine there’s always some kind of golden age going on in some corner of it, geographical, cultural, commercial, whatever.

It occurred to me that there’re arguably three golden ages going on in bits of the cultural/media world that I pay attention to. I have caveats and pessimisms for this post,too, but let’s do the happy stuff first.

TV drama. I seriously doubt there’s ever been more scripted TV of decent or better quality available for our viewing pleasure. We have relatively modest TV pipes running into the Ruckley residence – Netflix and (only the Brits’ll know what this means) Freeview – but they still churn out more stuff than it’s possible to stay on top of, given the fairly limited time that gets spent on watching the box. But the choice is there.

TV drama reflects, like so many other bits of the cultural landscape, the invasion of the ‘mainstream’ by geek-accented product and I couldn’t be happier about that. And of course with Netflix, the multiplication of broadcast channels and the advent of the DVR there’s an ocean of both old and new material to merrily drown yourself in. I was about to namedrop specific TV shows here, but to be honest there’s no point. The list could go on almost indefinitely. That’s a total transformation of what the TV world was like just a few years ago. And the reponse to that blossoming of availability has been the production of more good stuff than ever before.

Comics. Comics actually have a specifically defined Golden Age, so this isn’t The Golden Age, but it’s surely a golden age. There’s a greater variety of comics and graphic novels more widely available – digitally or on paper – than there has been in a long time. Probably ever. Online bookshops make them accessible in collected form to almost anyone. The graphic novel section is, by all accounts, one of the bits of bricks-and-mortar bookshops that’s actually thriving. They’re a big deal in libraries.

Unless you’ve been reading comics for a while, there’s something you might not be aware of, though. For all that certain types of comics (superheroes, notably) used to sell way more twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I can absolutely assure you of one thing: waaaay more objectively well-crafted and smart and technically accomplished comics are being produced now than was the case back then. The average quality of art and writing has improved a lot. The sheer volume and diversity of comics and titles and graphic novels being published has been accompanied by an uptick not only in the obvious measure – choice – but also in quality of craft and in ambition.

Podcasts. I talk about podcasts often enough here, so I won’t belabour this one. But come on: this has to be a golden age of podcasting, doesn’t it? There are uncounted thousands of the things, in every imaginable genre, covering every imaginable topic, taking every imaginable form. I spend far more time consuming podcasts than I do any other medium and I can’t do more than scrape the surface of the possibilities.

On one level podcasts are nothing more than radio on demand, but my ears are constantly filled with stuff that would never get on radio in a million years, for commercial reasons or because of silly geographic restrictions or whatever. Whoever you are, there are quality podcasts about almost exactly your interests, and accessing them is childishly simple. That’s pretty amazing.

Which is the peak of my merriment and optimism.

A couple of golden ages I’m pretty sure we’re not in. Movies and novels. It’s a commonplace to moan about the current state of Hollywood movies, so I won’t go overboard. I enjoy a spectacular blockbuster as much as the next person, but … well, I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for trying to claim the golden age of the franchise blockbuster as a particularly worthwhile kind of golden age.

Talking about novels, I’m on much shakier ground. I don’t read many these days, so I’m barely qualified to comment I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like a golden age. In many ways it feels just like business as usual, with at best an average distribution of quality product. I don’t detect a glut of innovation, boundary-expansion, inarguable genius. That’s OK. It’s just not what you’d call a golden age.

All the media – every single one – I’ve mentioned above are in the grip of ongoing technological and distributional revolutions. Those revolutions have, I think, caused or at the very least facilitated golden ages in TV and podcasting (comics to a lesser extent, but they’re part of the mix there too). But those same revolutions have emphatically not triggered golden ages in music, movies or prose fiction. If anything, I’d say they’ve had the opposite effect. Funny how things turn out.

Which brings me to my final point: how things might turn out. I reckon two of my three golden ages are heading for a fall. TV and comics. It might take years, but because of the revolutions in distribution and technology, and because of the ‘buzz’ surrounding these media, there’s an inevitable consequence: oversupply.

Once you reach a certain mass of available content, you can add as much new high quality content as you like and people just won’t have the time or inclination to consume it. So producers overextend. Retrenchment sets in. The golden ages wither and fade. I’m far from the first to suggest a tight, maybe imminent, time limit on TV’s golden age. In the case of comics, there might even be a crash – it’s a much smaller and more fragile market and it’s done that before. Probably not, though. Probably just a decline, a re-setting of the baseline. Fingers crossed.

Podcasts, though. Their golden age has legs, I reckon. Obviously, I’m biased, being an addict, but think about it. They’re new, and their audience still has lots of room to grow. They’re the only one of these media that can be easily consumed while you’re doing something else. Digital audio players in cars are only just really becoming 100% standard. And they have one other huge advantage over most other media: they’re free. We have a winner!

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I’d probably have a whole other list if I did this next month, but I thought it’d be fun to rattle through my five favourite podcasts right now, off the top of my head. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, so there’s an absolute heap of deserving stuff I’m not mentioning, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And one other thing: these aren’t exactly recommendations. I’m entirely ignoring the question of whether these particular podcasts might appeal to anyone other than me. They appeal to me enormously, for sometimes personal or idiosyncratic reasons, and that’s all it takes to get them on this list … you have been warned …

In no particular order:

Revolutions – a great history podcast that’s working it’s way through a load of the world’s most significant revolutions, one per season. The British Civil War and American Revolution have been covered, now we’re deep into the big daddy of revolutions: the French. Each episode is reasonably short, the tone is accessible and very appealing. Full of fascinating details and wry humour. Great.

Let’s Talk Comics – there’s no particular shortage of interview podcasts relating to comics out there, and I listen to several, at least now and again. This one is frequent, well-produced and delivers pretty meaty interviews with a pretty wide range of people involved in the mainstream comics industry: artists, writers, publishers etc etc. Tends to take a life-story approach, and it’s always interesting to hear how people first got started in the medium, as both reader and professional creators.

Hello Internet – some folks will just not like this one, I suspect. It’s a fine example of the ‘two guys talking’ podcasting school. No specific theme, though many recurring topics, so its appeal depends entirely on how interesting or engaging you find the two guys and the subjects they choose to talk about. Me, I’m interested and engaged. These guys make their livings from their YouTube channels (in fact, they’re both quite famous YouTubers), and I find stuff relating to that fascinating when it comes up. One of them also has a highly distinctive and structured view of the world and of life that you may or may not always agree with (or even find palatable) but it makes for entertaining, thought-provoking and often amusing listening at times.

Wait, What? – my favourite comics-related podcast. I like it so much I pay for it, via Patreon! Another entry in the ‘two guys talking’ category, this time talking very specifically about comics. All sorts of comics. It’s sometimes meandering, sometimes tangential, sometimes doing a deep-dive into stuff I know very little about, but for whatever reason I always enjoy it.

TetZoo – and here we are at the quirkily unique end of the podcasting spectrum. What’s podcasting for if it can’t produce the kind of audio you just would never, ever hear anywhere else? This is a scientific podcast with a focus on tetrapod (i.e. anything with four limbs) zoology. I’ve got a lot of zoology in my educational background, so I can follow most of what’s going on, but fair warning: quite a bit of jargon is involved. However, because this is podcasting rather than radio, there’s also a lot of silly humour, cryptozoology, sf movie talk, running jokes, vaguely disorganised unprofessionalism. I really like it. Once again, it’s ‘two guys talking’, and it’s very like eavesdropping on them just having a rambling chat in the pub.

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The Free is not the only book I’ve got out this autumn, you know. Oh, no. The Free‘s just my October book; my September book (i.e. this very month!) is a handsome collected edition of the comic I wrote earlier this year: Rogue Trooper: Last Man Standing.

I’m quite proud of it, to be honest. Future war, lone warrior, talking gun, conspiracies and chaos. How can that not sound like fun to any right-thinking reader?

RT-Vol1-cover-gif

You can get it in paper-and-ink form or e-form alike, and if you’re tempted but need a little help taking that all important next step of ordering the thing, here’s a nice succinct five star review from bigcomicpage.com to do the helping.

Here it is on Wordery, look (I know the cover’s different, but that’s it, honestly). I really am being helpful today. I might need to go have a little lie down.

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Time to get back to the blogging business, I think. And here’s some trailers to grease the rusty wheels.

Hellblazer was one of the more important comics of the 1980s, for my money. It was one of the key foundation stones of DC’s Vertigo imprint, which punched way above its weight in terms of profile and significance in the industry as a whole. And it was a bit of a flagship for the transformative ‘British invasion’ of the US comics scene.

It had a damp squib of a Keanu Reeves film adaptation, under the title of its lead character Constantine, a while back (which I confess I always thought was sort of not totally terrible as a movie, just not very good as a Hellblazer movie). Now it’s coming to TV – again as Constantine. The first trailer, a few weeks back, didn’t really do much for me but now there’s trailer v2.0 and it’s looking better, if you ask me. I might actually be able to get on board with this …

And talking about things that were important in their time, they don’t come much more important for me personally than Mad Max. The first two films – let us not speak of the third, which was a sad misfire if you ask me – made a big impression on young me when I saw them, videotaped of course. A new outing for the franchise has been floating on the horizon for years, tantalisingly never quite coming to fruition. Well, now it’s actually going to happen, in the shape of Mad Max: Fury Road and here’s what it’s going to look like:

More promising than I feared, even if not quite everything I would have hoped. Looks to be plugging right into the vibe of Mad Max 2, and doing it with a certain style – the visuals and the music are on the moody money, I’d say. Plenty of tone and ‘voice’ in there. The actual action that dominates the trailer looks a bit less moody and a bit more in-your-face, though – I kind of hope the final movie isn’t just wall to wall chasing and driving and mayhem (fun, and indeed essential, as all that is), and retains something of the bleak tone hinted at in the trailer. But hey: it’s Mad Max, it’s Tom Hardy and it looks interesting. That’s enough to put a smile on my face.

Truly, and I mean this without a trace of irony or sarcasm or exaggeration, we live in an age of total, unremitting sf, fantasy and horror saturation. We – those of us who always liked this stuff – are not so much inheriting the media world as consuming it, monopolising it.

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Here’s some stuff I’ve harvested from around the web of late:

The Nerdist Podcast put out a couple of interesting/fun interviews that caught my ear: Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, talking about the comics and the movies; David J. Peterson, language guy, talking about inventing languages (including for Game of Thrones) and various real-language stuff.

Rio 2 has been all over cinema screens around the world lately. Here’s the real parrot it’s based on, Spix’s macaw:

Very pretty, no? Really quite beautiful in fact, if you ask me. But not as widespread as Rio 2, that parrot. In fact, it’s extinct in the wild as far as anyone can tell. Has been for some time. Good job, humanity. (And yes, I know the whole extinct in the wild thing is kind of a central plot point in the movies, but I still find the whole ‘let’s make fun movies and a bajillion dollars based on this’ thing a bit weird, even if it’s sort of well-intentioned.)

Amazon took over Comixology, the biggest purveyor of digital comics, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. I can’t begin to tell you how despondent the big river’s acquisition avalanche makes me. They’re a fine and clever company, I know; I use their excellent services now and again. But it’s in precisely no-one‘s long-term interest (except their own, of course) the way they’re hoovering up competitors and add-ons that incrementally turn them into a leviathan of truly leviathanic proportions. If you want to buy books online, take a look at Wordery. Good prices, good service, free delivery worldwide.

Talking of comics, I thought I’d take a moment to point out my favourite comic produced by IDW Publishing, the good folks who put out the Rogue Trooper comic what I have been writting. Locke & Key is an inspired, beautifully crafted and beautifully illustrated dark fantasy/horror comic from Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Complex and intriguing, it’s loaded with terrific character writing, clever world-building and eye-popping set-piece action. Give it a try (at Wordery, of course).

And here’s one of my favourite blogs, which I don’t believe I’ve mentioned here before: Abandoned Scotland. An exploration of ruined, forgotten, derelict Scotland that’s kind of hynoptically fascinating if you ask me. Stuff that’s hidden in plain sight, overlooked and disregarded, comes alive when you pay close attention to it. Investigate it. The most grungy and crumbly places and buildings become kind of beautiful. The Abandoned Scotland YouTube channel is a goldmine of strange discoveries. Don’t suppose this is exactly how the Scottish Tourist Board wants the world to see Scotland, but as a resident it’s all simultaneously familiar and surprising. Great stuff.

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Rogue Trooper #2, written by some bloke called Brian Ruckley, will be in your local comic shop and available for digital reading at comixology.com tomorrow. Huzzah! (You can even read the first few pages of it for free in a preview, here for example).

To celebrate, I’m giving away signed copies of Rogue Trooper #1 over on the Winterbirth fan page on Facebook. If you’d like to be in with a chance of getting your hands on one, all you need to do is head over to the Winterbirth page, go to the post that starts SIGNED COMIC GIVEAWAY and follow the entirely idiot-proof instructions.

If there are more entrants than available copies, I’ll pick a winner next Monday.

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… kind of fun. First time I’d been to one of these ‘pop culture’ shows that are sprouting up all over the place now, mixing celebs from film/TV/Sports with bits of toys, comics, all sorts of odds and ends. First time Newcastle had had one too, I think, and the level of interest seemed to have caught the organisers a bit by surprise, so there were biiig queues (at least on the Saturday, I gather it was all more or less under control by the time Sunday came around).

Anyway, I had a good time. Was great to meet Alberto Ponticelli in the flesh and spend a pleasant few hours hanging out with him. Talked to a few folks about Rogue Trooper, signed a lot of copies of the first issue. Got my own, unique copy as a souvenir, signed by me, Alberto and Courtney, the very nice lady from the convention crew who patiently sat with us for the whole day:

All the usual sort of stuff was going on …

… but a few personal highlights/impressions:

  • seeing a Rorschach cosplayer wandering around all day holding a can of baked beans (you’d have to have read Watchmen to get that …)
  • having lunch in the secret guests’ facilities while sitting next to Frank Bruno (you’d have to be a Brit of a certain age, or a serious boxing fan, to get that), and realising he really is as big as he always looked, and he really does have the deeeepest voice ever heard on the surface of the planet
  • watching (and filming, but that didn’t work) Alberto do a Rogue Trooper sketch in three minutes flat – which he then gave to me, because he’s nice like that:

  • being Judged (inexplicably, I was released without charge) …

  • realising I have never, not once in my life, been as much of a fan of any piece of entertainment, or brand, or celebrity, as many of the attendees were. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or bad; but knowing I didn’t regret it for one second.
  • coming out of the ‘celeb’ toilets just as Teal’c from Stargate SG-1 was going in, and thinking ‘Huh. Isn’t it funny how life turns out?’
  • being generally very struck by how extremely pleasant and patient and accommodating all the celebs were in dealing with their fans, no matter how big or small their celebritude was (and then overhearing one of them – who shall remain nameless – at the train station after the show telling someone it had been a ‘terrible, terrible madhouse’, and feeling some sympathy. Can’t be that easy, doing what they do at these shows and smiling, being utterly professional, all the way through it.)
  • giving Alberto a sustained and detailed introduction to the correct use of the word ‘Cheers’ in colloquial English (I think he got the hang of it, since he’s using it in his e-mails to me now …)

But you know what the best bit of the whole day was? It was the most striking, most obvious example of something that happened several times: people deriving enormous pleasure from their experience of being at the show. And even though this instance only involved me somewhat indirectly, it was immensely enjoyable to sit there and watch it happen.

A guy came wandering past, saw me and Alberto sitting there and came over to see what was what. He was after a copy of Rogue Trooper, but then he discovered Alberto’s small portfolio of original art pages for sale, and I could see his eyes lighting up in something approaching disbelief. To cut a long story short, this guy eventually (after queueing at a cash machine for about half an hour, spending another fifteen minutes trying to decide) bought a page of original Ponticelli comic art, and he was as happy as a happy person could be.

He said something along the lines of ‘You’ve made my day, I never in my life thought I’d own something like this’, and he absolutely meant it, and he was absolutely delighted. It was great. And it was kind of the point of the whole show, really. Whyever they came, whoever they wanted to see, I guess pretty much everyone who was there was just looking for that moment when they’d think to themselves ‘This is awesome. I never imagined …’

And although, on some really quite profound level I don’t get, can’t share in and indeed find a little dispiriting this whole celebrity culture, this idolisation of actors and characters and shows and films and fictions, this longing to be part of something, there’s no denying the happiness that was abroad in Newcastle on Saturday. And there’s no denying it was infectious.

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I’ve got a post up at SF Signal, about the experience of switching (temporarily! – I do still have a new novel coming out this October, after all!) from prose to comics writing: What Happens When A Novelist Tries To Write A Comic?. Do go check it out if you’re interested.

Enough about what I think about things, though. It occurred to me I’ve got a chance here to do something I’ve not done in a looong time, so for nostalgic reasons as much as anything, here comes … A Review Round-Up!

What some folks have made of Rogue Trooper #1:

‘Rogue Trooper is off to a killer start and I can’t wait for more.’ IGN

‘This comic nails the atmosphere of the world and the voice of the title character.’ Adventures in Poor Taste

‘Checks all the first issue boxes while still giving you a great story.’ Comic Book Therapy

‘We have a winner here.’ Comic Bastards

‘This is an impressive opening issue for the series.’ Unleash the Fanboy

‘Well worth adding to your pull list. Final score: 8 out of 10.’ Rhymes With Geek

‘A great piece of apocalyptic pulp.’ Flickering Myth

All of which is very nice. If you haven’t already, there’s still time to pick up the first issue at your local comic shop ( if you have one), or at comixology if you don’t (where I’ve just noticed, in the course of finding that link, that it appears to be piling up 5 star reviews, which is also very nice).

Thanks to anyone and everyone who’s said nice things about this first issue, wherever they’ve said them.

Now I must go and do some preparation for my first trip to a convention in a while: Me and the Rogue Trooper artist, Alberto Ponticelli, will be at Newcastle Film and Comic Con tomorrow, Saturday 8th March, where I believe we may both be doing such things as signing stuff and talking about stuff. If by any chance you’re there, do say hello. Neither me nor Alberto will bite. Probably.

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