The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Review: Hannibal, Season One

Poster for HannibalSo, this is a show, then. Wow.

In my post-Game-of-Thrones-what-do-you-mean-we-have-to-wait-a-whole-year-for-the-next-episode daze I was fumbling around for something to absorb me in my ‘off’ hours. I don’t tend to turn to trash-TV to turn off. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the odd reality TV show in my time (especially the artistic ones, like Project Runway used to be), but I know a lot of people prefer what’s sometimes called ’empty-calories’ TV. Something that’s not necessarily that good or gripping, but which goes down easy because it runs through familiar tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t think I’m wired that way. I prefer to throw myself into escapism full-throttle.  I turn off easier if there’s something with a fully-formed world, well-developed characters, good writing, and excellent acting with a well-paced and interesting plot going on. Which means that when I happen across a Dexter, a Game of Thrones, a Mad Men, I latch onto it and get pulled in until it’s all used up. I know some people find those to be the sort of shows they have to turn their brains on for – serious shows that demand attention – but I just don’t work that way. It’s not some kind of intellectual thing, like I even want ‘stimulating’ in my ‘off’ hours. It’s more like… the more effort someone else has spent providing something that will take my whole attention and avoid disturbing my suspension of disbelief for 45mins or an hour, the more easily I can just hand my consciousness over to them completely for that period of time. They take all the reigns of my mind and I just lie back and enjoy the show without my mind getting in the way and saying things like ‘Well, that was a bit sexist’ or ‘That line did not sound at ALL natural’ or ‘No one would really do THAT’ – because it doesn’t happen. The whole piece is primed for my smooth absorption.

Mads Mikkelsen, looking dapper.

I mean, just look at this dapper bastard.

Which is good in some ways, but can leave me feeling bereft when one really awesome thing is over and nothing is there to fill its place. It’s a good time for discovering new things.

And there was Tumblr, with a growing number of people throwing up pictures of Hannibal. Making in-jokes about Hannibal. Posting pictures of Mads Mikkelsen because ‘Ha ha – he’s so hot but he’s playing a cannibal WTF’. Even people who hadn’t seen Hannibal making PowerPoints about Hannibal to humourously explain what they had gleaned about Hannibal based on everyone else constantly posting about Hannibal.

So I thought, OK, why not give this Hannibal thing a go.

I’m rather glad I did.


Hannibal is a TV show based on the characters and events of Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, the first book in the trilogy of which the second is The Silence of the Lambs, the seminal film in which Sir Anthony Hopkins gave an Oscar winning performance as Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist cannibal who helps FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, who also netted one of the film’s many Oscars), catch a serial killer. I’m gonna hold up my hands right now and say that I haven’t read the books and I have only seen The Silence of the Lambs. A friend of mine tells me that Hannibal is more like a prequel to Red Dragon, Wikipedia says otherwise, and I’m in no position to say which is right. It’s certainly pre-Silence of the Lambs, that much is true.

So. Hannibal as a TV show is actually more about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) a criminal profiler whose extreme empathy makes him extraordinarily effective at understanding the minds of killers, but socially crippled and powerfully affected by the things he imagines when reconstructing a crime scene. At the start of the series, Will has left the FBI to focus on teaching, as he finds field work too taxing and the FBI has judged him too unstable.

That all changes when Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) calls Will back in to help with the case of a serial killer who impales his victims on antlers to drain them of blood, before cannibalising them. Knowing Will’s unstable condition, Jack asks Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist, to covertly assess Will. A covert assessment that becomes overt after Will and Hannibal catch the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, in the act of attacking his own family. Will shoots Garrett, necessitating a formal psychological assessment, from which point Will continues to see Hannibal on a voluntary basis, as Jack continues to employ his unique gifts and Will finds the strain harder and harder to bear.

Will insists from the beginning that one of the murders attributed to Garrett Jacob Hobbs was committed by a copy-cat, and we, the viewer, are given reason to think that it was committed by Hannibal Lecter. Of course, anyone who knows even a whiff of the history of the character suspected that to begin with. As the series progresses Will and Hannibal develop a close relationship, although one begins to suspect that Hannibal’s care of Will’s mental health may have ulterior motives. And for his part, Will notices other murders supposedly committed by serial killers that do not entirely fit that killer’s MO.

What are Hannibal’s plan’s for Will? Will Will figure out what Hannibal is? What will everyone think when they realise what was really in all of Hannibal’s fabulous dinners?

How was it?

Bloody excellent (no pun intended). I was in two minds about whether to watch it. One always is with a spin off from a franchise, but it came highly recommended, not just from Tumblr, but from people whose tastes I trust. Equally, I enjoy some police procedurals, but not others. It’s a saturated market place and a format with tropes entrenched in sexism, which I’ve written about before. Plus, I have a hella big squick for cannibalism, so whilst I’m a big fan of Dexter, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to deal with a sympathetic presentation of a cannibal. But hey, Game of Thrones was over and I had a gap to fill, so why not?

It was worth the risk. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is different from Hopkins’s, but not to the detriment of either. His almost deadpan stillness adds an alienness to him as an aloof psychiatrist. Although still charismatic, his is a charisma that draws you in – to step closer, to speak your thoughts to fill the silence. It adds an edge to Mikkelsen’s good looks that allows the watchfulness and disquiet the character evokes to prevent any impression that his handsomeness detracting from the horror of what he does. And though he is immaculately dressed in very flattering clothes, the perfection of his appearance speaks of an exactness of mind that works for a character that dissects human beings. A sense that that level of perfection isn’t quite… human.

Although, of course, Hannibal is human. And Hannibal, the TV show, never makes the mistake of demonising killers to the extent that you might think that killing like that isn’t really the act of human beings. Hannibal himself shows human affection. Although he is distant from people and has few real friends, he does seem to like Will Graham, and he affection for Abigail Hobbs (whom both he and Will become guardians of after Will saves her life by taking her father’s) seems genuine. He also expresses a wish for friendship with his own psychiatrist, Dr Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). Similarly, his own reserved mannerisms are closely mirrored by Dr Du Maurier, and whilst other psychiatrists, such as Dr Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), show greater warmth, the sense that a certain detachment is natural to the analytical mode and a wish not to import one’s own assumptions onto one’s patient seems both reasonable and normal for a person in his line of work.

Without doubt, the psychiatry is central to the show. Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t comment with any authority on its authenticity, but as a layperson who has had cause to learn a bit about mental illness over the years it rang reasonably true. In analysing the killers, and in Will’s empathy with them, the show forces the viewer to accept their actions as those of human beings with complex psychologies whose actions have a context and thus cannot be attributed to some vague notion like ‘evil’. At the same time, through Will’s eyes, we are never divorced from the horror of the actions. Whilst the programme is certainly not for the faint of heart, there is no way that it could be said to sanitise or normalise violence. Rather, it forces the viewer towards a confrontation with horror both at emotional and analytical levels in a way that leaves little room for excuses. Human beings do do such things as these, and admitting that does not entail excusing it.

As for the cannibalism… yes, there are numerous darkly humourous moments in which it is strongly suggested (or even directly shown) that Hannibal is cooking people for dinner and serving them to almost everyone on the show. And the whole time I was sitting there going ‘Gnnnaaaaghhh! No! Don’t EAT IT’, but that’s OK. The humour is very subtly played and it is never pressed into tastelessness.

As for the sexism… it fares better than most of its genre. There are limitations stemming from the source material. Elementary has shown that you can change the race and the gender of no less a literary character than Dr Watson and not detract from the show (I’m sure there are those who would disagree, but I don’t have a lot of time for such people) but it’s possibly an added controversy that you don’t need when you’re making a show about a cannibal. So, yet again, it’s two middle-class white guys in the lead roles, and this time both of them are hyper-intelligent odd-balls who don’t play by the rules. On the plus side, the next most significant character is played by a person of colour, and there are two other people of colour in the recurring cast. Roughly half the cast are women (how bad is it that this is unusual?), they all have distinct characters, and only one of them has a relationship or potential relationship with one of the leading men.

I loved Gillian Anderson’s Dr Du Maurier, and not just because it’s always a pleasure to see Scully getting work. She was perfectly Hannibal’s equal for detached and analytical perspective, which women are rarely allowed to be on TV. There’s even a suggestion that she suspects what he does, and that she is prepared to protect him anyway, just as he once protected her in the past.

Equally, showing that women can be detached and unemotional doesn’t mean showing all female characters that way. Alana Bloom is warm and caring. Gina Torres‘s Bella Crawford is a strong and self-contained, yet still feminine woman. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) is out-going, yet somewhat sardonic. Lara Jean Chorostecki‘s performance as Freddie Lounds is intriguingly suggestive of sociopathic, but not psychopathic, behaviour, in her aggressive reporting technique. And Abigail Hobbs presents a significant and interesting question mark throughout the series, as many wonder whether daughter takes after father, and if she’s actually a killer herself, or simply a very messed up girl. That’s what we want: not cookie-cutter Strong Female Characters who kick ass but never have a hair out of place, but rich, complex, diverse characters, who are devised and defined just as male characters are: as full people, interesting in their own rights, not specified in advance by their gender.

It’s also worth mentioning Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) who plays a slightly camp forensic scientist. I liked that we don’t know whether he’s gay or not and his slightly camp mannerisms and tone of voice are never commented on or made fun of by the other characters. It’s just how he is. On the one hand, it would have been better to have a recurring character who was acknowledged as being gay – I’m aware of the frustrations LGBT people feel at only ever being hinted at on screen – but it was also nice to have camp behaviour not being treated as exceptional, weird, or to be mocked. Whether he’s a het man who’s comfortable with being camp, or a gay guy who can be relaxed around his coworkers, it’s nice to have a character who is camp where being camp is not the entirety of what his character is about.

So, whilst there are a few areas that aren’t all that might be wished, in comparison to many TV shows that I also like and watch, Hannibal does pretty well. And those issues aside, it’s a really interesting programme with some fresh new takes on a familiar genre. By no means simply a cashing in on a franchise; rather, a well-thought out, meticulously explored gem of a show.