Thursday, 18 December 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I don't want the blog to turn into serial excoriations of the latest bit of entertainment to waste my time. Honestly, I'd far rather read and watch good things (The Shadow Hero, Dirty Snow or Elementary, if you want recent examples) but, having sat through the whole of Agents of SHIELD season one, I feel I owe it to the world to say something.

The great thing about The Winter Soldier is that when you get Fury or other SHIELD agents spouting their ends-justify-the-means doctrine, Cap is there to reground it all with a real moral code - the point of that whole narrative of the movie being, not that a lot of Hydra agents have been pretending to be SHIELD agents, but that SHIELD is Hydra. In the war on terror they have virtually become the same thing.

The TV show, on the other hand, depicts the breakdown of any line between the good and bad guys without apparent irony. On the surface it's about a few stern-parent characters left in charge of a lot of flirty, high-schooly young folks who ought to be partying the night away at the Bronze but instead have been given a plane and as much rope as they like. Agents on both sides are willing, indeed eager, to use or condone torture and killing in cold blood, but Coulson can't provide any counterbalance because he isn't driven by Cap's unalloyed morality. He's your typical self-righteous maverick-with-a-badge who is happy to (ab)use his position of power as he sees fit. It's the kind of show the infantry in Starship Troopers probably watch between battles.

The writing is a curate's egg of the usual Whedonisms (in this case Jed, not Joss). The early episodes have some great unexpected twists such as Coulson's use of the truth serum, but those are quickly forgotten as the story gets bogged down in talk, plans and McGuffins. As the plot spirals in ever-decreasing circles, there's a sense that the writers are barely an episode ahead of their desperate reveals and reversals. By the time we get to the betrayals, which are all easily seen coming, it's starting to feel like Dollhouse season 2 (*Sideshow Bob shudder*)

The plot has become such a mechanical tyrant by the last few episodes that a told relationship like Coulson's and May's is privileged over a shown relationship like Garrett's and Ward's - as if by now the writers had lost any ability to respond organically but were simply sticking to whatever story outline they came up with months earlier. And there is the usual Whedon inability to see a bad guy as anything other than a parrot squawking crazy plans. It's as if, when any character reveals themselves as a Hydra plant, they grow a metaphorical moustache to twirl while gloating. Maybe in a very different show this might have turned into an interesting conflict of ideologies. But no, this is a story in which you are just supposed to root for the people you're told are friends and boo the ones you're told it's okay to despise. The finale is a particularly damp squib, very reminiscent of the Dollhouse finale in fact, and it's not improved for having saved up enough budget to pay for Samuel L Jackson and his gag writer.

Ah yes, gags. In Buffy they served the story. Here, if a funny line occurs to the writers, they use it. Whether it's something that character would actually say, or if it breaks the tension of the story, makes no difference. If only they'd gone the whole hog and remade Get Smart with Maxwell as a SHIELD agent. That might have actually been funnier and more engaging.

When you consider the quality of other shows in the Feds-tackle-weird-shit genre - Fringe and The X-Files especially - Agents of SHIELD looks particularly lame. Its only excuse for existence is to keep the Marvel torch burning between the movies, and great as those movies have been for the most part, so far DC are winning the TV battle by a mile.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

There’s a line near the start of Sunset Boulevard. Nancy Olson dismisses William Holden’s screenplay with the words, “It’s from hunger.” This is something every writer recognizes: what you get when the Muse didn’t show up and you had to fabricate something to fill the blank page. The hunger doesn’t have to be for a rare steak or a new pair of shoes.

I often get this feeling from Neil Gaiman’s prose. The Muse he’s got chained up in his basement is the one for comics, not novels. The Sandman books would be the very first thing to go into my desert island trunk. His novels wouldn’t make it there even if I arranged for excess baggage.

This one, I thought would be different. An adult reminiscence of growing up in the 1960s in semi-rural England, feeding your imagination with Smash! comics and books of mythology, creating rituals to appease the monsters in the wardrobe, and recognizing that a numinous other world ran just below the skin of reality we can see. That’s right where I live, folks. The title The Ocean at the End of the Lane holds the same promise as the opening bars of “The Friends of Mr Cairo”: slough off that mundane skin and fantasy will fill your life.

I’m sure you can hear the “but”. I don’t want to give the impression there is nothing good about the book. Parts of it are excellent. The trouble is, with that title, you’re geared up to expect real wonder. I’ve been that seven-year-old kid and I can tell you something: it’s way more magical than this.

It starts promisingly, with death. The description of the opal miner’s arrival (running over a kitten) and later finding him gassed in the car, that’s all marvellous. But you can feel the moment that the author’s inspiration deflates and he allows his intellect to take over. We’re introduced to the Hempstocks, the family who live down the lane, and it is immediately obvious they are the triple goddess – the maiden, the woman and the crone – who will function as Mary Sui Generis throughout. Where these three might have been mysterious and ambiguous (think what Alan Garner might have done with them) they instead pontificate in so desperate and on-the-nose a fashion that you begin to suspect Mr Gaiman thinks his readers might be a little on the remedial side.

Given a little more foreplay, the magic might yet have seduced us, but suddenly we’re thrust into a level of a videogame, gallivanting off on a inter-dimensional adventure on which the narrator is invited along for a throwaway reason that I don’t suppose the author even expects us to find credible. Please hang your disbelief at the door when you come in, it will help. A 10 hit dice monster is defeated, and pretty effortlessly at that, but in a way we can see is going to lead to trouble.

Back in the real world, the book starts firing on all cylinders again as the author starts cutting into a richer vein of inspiration. The narrator has to dig something out of his foot with a penknife (do little girls do that kind of thing?) but he doesn’t get all of it and now – like the Morrigan, like an evil Mary Poppins – the book’s villain shows up. Ursula Monkton, she calls herself, and my, she is breathtakingly nasty. She fucks the father, effectively replaces the mother in a Grimm transfiguration, enlists the sister as ally, and torments the narrator himself in a dozen petty, controlling ways. The dreadful high point of this part of the story has the father dunking his fully clothed son in an ice-cold bath while Ursula gloats from the doorway. His isolation is complete.

If it had gone on like that it would have been a masterpiece. Instead, one of those pesky nice goddesses waltzes in and deals with Ursula, snap, just like that. Did we ever doubt it? Not for a moment when young Miss Lettie Hempstock started spouting things like, “Ol’ varmints like you ent goin’ to take my friend.” Hokey and homey play well with the undemanding crowd who lap up this kind of fantasy.

In an interview at the back of the book, Mr Gaiman reveals that he wrote the book without planning. It began as a short story and just grow’d. And Alexander’s feet were carried clear of the ground by minions who thought he was a god, but authors who attain the same peak of all-conquering celebrity would do better to ignore those fawning editors and fans and remember that stories that are cobbled together on the fly are never going to be satisfying. (Unless, perhaps, the author is a genius. Outside of the medium of comics, Gaiman is not that.)

I kept thinking of two other books as I read this. Michael Frayn’s Spies is surely the antecedent for the novel’s voice, though Frayn carries off the older man retelling his childhood without the clangour of portentous faux-simplicity that keeps creeping into Mr Gaiman’s prose. And from the moment the narrator and the youngest yokel-goddess who befriends him set foot in the otherworld, I was put in mind of Robert Holdstock. But maybe you can only step once into Mythago Wood; in this case the terrain was more Dungeons and Dragons than rich, loamy awe.

I’m not sure why I find Mr Gaiman’s writing so brilliant and effective in comics and so jarring in prose. There is too much telling, too much coaxing. He backs away from darkness and wonder in favour of comfort and special effects. He will turn up the heat just as he would in a comic, but here he suddenly turns it down again. Is that because of an awareness that children might read the story? But children can be frightened witless without any lasting damage. Or is it simply because he was composing this story piecemeal, and sometimes the taps of the Hippocrene were flowing and sometimes not? I don’t know. It’s frustrating, because if this had been merely the first draft then something brilliant might have hatched from it. Instead we got a curate’s egg.

Back to the story. So now the author has dispensed with the antagonist who made it all personal and close to the family. But we’re only three-quarters of the way through the book. Whoops. Planning might have solved that, or even a rewrite, but this is all being improvised. Sometimes that can give you a direct channel to the unconscious and the goddess will sing (though hopefully not like a Sussex farm girl) but at other times your conscious mind just has to whip out the Meccano and build the best tracks it can in the time available.

In this case, delectably horrid Ursula is replaced by the game’s next boss: a bunch of other-planar vultures borrowed from Moorcock. As these critters are impersonal – they want to eat the narrator, but it’s just business – the story is losing altitude so fast by now that you begin to wonder if the author has bailed out. You sense him willing you to agree that he’s ratcheted up the tension: “Don’t you see? An ED-209 is much more dangerous than Long John Silver.” Even if power level alone was enough to create an interesting adversary, with the Fates themselves just over the field we know there is no threat (something we had actually forgotten while Ursula was briefly on stage) but a last-ditch attempt to make us pretend we don’t know that is made by having the oldest and most powerful of the Fates curled up in Odinsleep, that doze ex machina that we know from Thor comics will last as long as it needs to last.

“We can’t stop ‘em,” gasps plucky little almost-omnipotent Lettie. “Only Granny could an’ she’s asleep for maybe a hunnerd years.” In your dreams, Lettie. To nobody’s surprise, Granny wakes up and deals with it all as neatly as the Cat in the Hat’s clean-up machine. Is there a cost? Well, sort of. Lettie dies. Only she doesn’t really die. She’ll be back, we’re assured. Give it a decade or four; a good kip will knit up her ravell’d sleeve. The only hope is that we don’t have to read about it.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What's in your stocking?

A friend of mine once read the first volume of the Mirabilis Winter book on the night-train out of Moscow when snow threatened to stop him getting home for Christmas. That’s the kind of experience it’s hard to replicate in reality, but (assuming you already have the paperback editions of Winter volumes 1 and 2) here are some stories that have the power to whisk you away on an unforgettable imaginative ride.


The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’ve enjoyed Wes Anderson’s other movies, but you have to be in sync with the worldview he’s creating and this is the first time the whole thing really gelled for me. Ralph Fiennes’s performance is spot on, the story is a romp but gets serious when it matters, and it’s all inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, author of Letter From An Unknown Woman, with a hint of Michael Bentine.

Ah, now this is what movies ought to be. None of that dramatic need meets inciting incident BS – at least, not in the can’t-be-arsed, cookie-cutter form we’ve got used to seeing it. I wish they hadn’t deleted the “closing door” track, as it shows the band manage to do something more than just muck about while they’re supposed to be recording an album. But that scene is on the DVD and in any case the movie is a minor masterpiece even without it.

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise comes in for a lot of stick but he’s championed some solid SF movies with a vein of Dickian paranoia. Oblivion was wonderfully bleak and avoided the mystical hand-waviness that has infected SF since they Hogwartized Doctor Who. This one (also known as Live Die Repeat) has a good mind-bending concept, an initially unlikable hero, a relationship handled without Hollywood shmaltz, and a denouement worthy of Total Recall.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Cap was my least favourite Marvel hero as a kid, but I’m warming to him in the movies, maybe because, in an era when even Superman is a brooding mo-fo who thinks the end justifies the means, it’s good to have one hero whose moral code shines like a beacon. Chris Evans plays the part brilliantly and for once I didn’t even mind the Black Widow. And so many marvellous moments for my inner 10-year-old: the raid on Batroc’s ship, the creepy confrontation with Dr Zola, the introduction of the Falcon, the punch-up in the elevator that was pure Kirby. Bucky should’ve stayed dead, though; once easy resurrection creeps in, where else have stories got to go?


A curious experiment, this: not actually a sequel or prequel to the movie but with so many nods to and lifts from the original that it’s almost the parallel universe version. I liked the development of the theme (“man is a wolf to man” vs “no man is an island”) but it’s let down by the ending, which (a) has a character acting in a way that only makes sense if he’s seen the future, (b) suddenly absents our viewpoint character from the resolution, and (c) establishes that decency cannot overcome selfishness after all – the opposite message to the Coen brothers’ movie.

True Detective
Stylish modern noir. Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a detective who’s spent so long in deep cover that he no longer quite believes in individual identity. He and Marty Hart are a modern Holmes and Watson. I found the last episode a bit disappointing – the degenerate scion of the gentry makes it pure Gothic, but all the build-up had hinted at something more interesting. The second season rightly resets with an all-new bunch of characters. (Wonder if The King in Yellow will feature? Colin Farrell is in it, so I hope there's midgets.)

Elementary season 2
Talking of Holmes and Watson, I’d expected to loathe a show in which the pair are based in New York and Watson’s a woman. In fact it’s the best classic drama writing on television today, with faultless performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, along with Rhys Ifans as Mycroft and Sean Pertwee as Lestrade. The plot twists hang together, the relationships are always developed from truth rather than merely for sensation, and the authentic strain of weirdness running through the pre-Reichenbach Holmes stories is more genuinely represented here than in the ADHD TV that is the BBC’s Sherlock. (And, oh my gosh, they actually resisted the temptation to make Joan Watson, as an Asian woman, a master of kung fu. Is this a first for television? You'd certainly never get that in a Joss Whedon show!)


The Shadow Hero

I need to do a proper review of this. For now, suffice it to say it is a pitch-perfect blend of humour, romance, action and serious themes in a charmingly evoked ‘30s Chinatown setting where you’ll meet characters bursting with life.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Some chills and a thrill

Halloween is nearly here. Tell my next-door neighbours - they've had plaster pumpkins and a big witch's-hat display on their porch for weeks. If you get yourself all worked up that early, I think the actual day loses its spooky shine. Premature horripilation, Dr Freud would've called it. But if you're not sick of ghosts and goblins yet, here are some suggestions for an enjoyable shudder:

The image above is from "Wrong Turning", a comic strip in the Creepy style that I wrote for Martin McKenna after a fog-shrouded week at Shute Gatehouse. You can read the story here for free, but if you want to see the works of real genius that inspired it, Steve Ditko's collected Creepy and Eerie strips are here.

If that lights your turnip lantern, the comics connection gives me a segue to "A Dying Trade", a story I originally cooked up for a ghost-written Clive Barker book that didn't happen. I tried turning it into a comic with the help of Russ Nicholson, but that didn't get off the ground either. But eventually Dermot Bolton produced it as a short movie directed by Dan Turner, and you can watch that here.

Talking of movies, The Book of Life is out now and has to be worth a watch, because if two Mexican maestros like Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Gutierrez don't know their Day of the Dead, who does? As del Toro says:
“[What is it with Mexicans and death?] Ultimately you walk life side-by-side with death, and the Day of the Dead, curiously enough, is about life. It’s an impulse that’s intrinsic to the Mexican character. And when people ask me, what is so Mexican about your films, I say me. Because I’m not a guy that hides the monster: I show it to you with the absolute conviction that it exists. And that’s the way I think we view death. We don’t view it as the end of end all. You say 'carpe diem' in Dead Poets Society; we have that in a much more tequila-infused, mariachi-soundtrack kind of way.”
That whole vibe of wild partying and the flowering of life in death resonates with me, maybe because I got married in Mexico (just after the Day of the Dead, in fact). I like the fabulist notion of death teeming with all these passions and possibilities, which probably accounts for me being such a big fan of Tim Schafer's adventure game Grim Fandango. Boy, I wish somebody would turn that into a movie. Or a kids' TV show. Or a comic or a series of novels. (Well, maybe somebody did the last of those, kind of, only without Manny Calavera's decent-little-guy charm.)

The thing about Halloween is the fairground fun side of it. It's the ghost train version of scariness, a chill to enjoy by the fireside on a dark and stormy night. That's why I love John Whitbourn's classic series Binscombe Tales - not exclusively horror stories as such, but all of them open a window on an unsettling world of weird. They've been anthologized more widely, and won more awards, than any eerie English yarns this side of Algernon Blackwood, and the main reason for that is the storytelling warmth that accompanies the grave-deep chill and feverish fizz of Mr Whitbourn's imagination.

A more serious take on a tale of dread is to be found in Frankenstein, which (I'm sure you know) I turned into an interactive novel a couple of years back. There's no comfort to be found there, no cosy shiver before bedtime. This isn't the Universal horror movie version to be taken with popcorn and a pinch of salt, it's Mary Shelley's bleakly brilliant work of SF - only with more humour and characterization and fewer descriptions of mountain walks and river journeys. Oh, and I added a solution to the knotty problem of how the monster got the corpse of Frankenstein's murdered friend to Ireland, which otherwise makes no plot sense whatsoever. (Sorry, Mrs Shelley.) Read Dr Dale Townshend discussing the story with me here, or go and grab a copy (for iOS or Android) here.

More exploration of nightmarish unease was supposed to happen in Wrong, the online magazine I launched with Peter Richardson. Unfortunately the creators involved were all too busy trying to make a crust to throw in their time for free - myself included. But I still stand by our manifesto:
The most unsettling fears are the ones you can’t quite put your finger on. It needn't be anything as cosy as werewolves or vampires; nothing so comfortingly concrete as a madman with a knife. The supernatural, when it appears, can be a catalyst evoking the real horror that comes from within. ...Dreams are also a kind of truth, and bad things are more sinister when they happen to the blameless. Not everything is always explained and neatly tied up. There are often loose ends that will leave you uneasy. Rod Serling would be at home here. 

To round off, let's go back to Mexico. As well as getting hitched, I was there researching Maya mythology for my gamebook Necklace of Skulls. Eldritch encounters abound with skeletal noblemen who invite you to join them for a chat, threshold guardians on the way into Xibalba, disembodied heads, and the like. You can buy that in its new Fabled Lands Publishing edition, and if you get the paperback then the Kindle version is free, but I recommend waiting a week or two for Cubus Games's all-new app version. The full gleeful ghoulishness of the Day of the Dead has rarely been so vibrantly evoked as by Xavier Mula's artwork.

And a little snippet of a whiff of a hint of news: we may have a new publisher for Mirabilis. It's no secret that our partnership with Print Media Publishing turned out a big disappointment for all involved. Book One got out to reviewers (and got some very gratifying write-ups; here and here and here, for instance) but only half a dozen copies got into bookshops, and those I had to deliver myself! Book Two simply never arrived in Britain - apparently the lorry carrying the stock went missing somewhere in Germany, and I may have one of only two copies in existence.

But now we're on the verge of signing with a big-name comics publisher (no, not Marvel) and I'm hoping that will be the catalyst for getting our story out to all the people who I'm sure would love to read Jack and Estelle's adventures if only they knew about them. 2015 is looking good!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Pick a side. The future or the past?

Funny how things get dredged up. I recently got to thinking about a very old idea of mine. I’ll tell you a bit later what jogged my memory. A long while ago – must’ve been a couple of decades at least – I was watching an old Carol Reed movie called Odd Man Out, about an IRA man on the run in 1940s London. Thinking of spies having to lie low – soldiers, that is, but out of uniform – I got to imagining a society that waged war against its own future.

What kind of a war would that be? Well, one way to do it would be old Nazis plotting revenge against a modern, distinctly anti-fascist Germany, but that felt a bit tired. It hardly counts as a war when a bunch of OAPs set fire to a bus stop or daub a swastika on a wall.

I was striving for something more jolting to the audience’s expectations, which probably meant more science fictional. A war against the future suggested society having reached an impasse that only time could break. So should it be sleeper agents in a literal sense, floating underground in suspended animation tanks until the moment came to rekindle the conflict?

Trouble with that, it’s a little like the core premise of Pyramids of Mars, only with a very different skin (or at any rate bitumen-soaked bandages) over the top. Nobody would notice, but I still felt that treating it that way would be wasting the idea. Obviously the best approach would be to have outright time travel, so that armies could pour out of the past to mow down their own descendents. Firing back could be a knotty problem. But done that way it’s not special. You wouldn’t notice that the interesting thing was a society at war with what it had become. The time travel business would overshadow all that.

Sometimes you just can’t see the way to make an idea work. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant pursued by a tornado across Indiana. “But how can the heavies manufacture a tornado?” asked Ernest Lehman, who actually had to write the damned thing. Hitch settled for a crop-duster, but he wasn’t happy about it. I know how he feels. The war against the future got slung onto that subconscious junk heap of unworkable gems – or unpolishable you-know-whats. And then I came across a couple of brilliant tweets by Paul Cornell that bought it all back.
So there you are. No need for a Tardis or a cryonic pod. No need even for superannuated reactionaries blowing up their hippy grandchildren to teach them a lesson. The war against the future is interesting when it happens (as it always does) between neighbours, within families, both sides lining up to decide whether civilization should point forwards or backwards. And I knew that. I’ve read about enough revolutions, hot and cold, throughout history. That’s how to write my story. The answer was staring me in the face all along. Maybe it was just too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Between Stops

I was heartened recently to come across an article by Nabokov in which he spoke up for short stories. Thank goodness, I thought. Now I can own up to my private passion, and if anyone pours scorn I have the author of Lolita in my corner. But when did the short story become such a guilty pleasure? While the novel may date back a thousand years (The Tale of Genji – discuss), the short story is as old as fire. Why should it need defending?

Perhaps because it’s so old and familiar a form. Short stories often have the smack of wood smoke, of a yarn told intimately at hearthside or from a bar stool – in contrast with the high, declamatory idiom of many novels. Somewhere along the way from cave to drawing room, people started to confuse questions of high and low art with the quite different matter of quality and worth. As the Victorian middle class began to aspire to genteel literary tastes, the short story got thrown in among the penny dreadfuls. People continued to enjoy short stories. They just didn’t want to admit it.

And yet look at the short story’s champions. Dickens, Kipling, Mansfield, James, Hemingway, Salinger, Borges. I could go on and on. Plenty of literary giants haven’t shared the popular lack of respect for the form.

Graham Greene, for example. He said that, while a novelist needed to feel his or her way through a story, the short story writer could perceive the whole shape of the work before they began. Which is true, as far as it goes, but not every short story is a polished epicule in fractal miniature. The most interesting ones defy all sense of morphe and give us something nearer to real life: an elusive twist of truth without a definite end. So Steinbeck can write of haunted chewing gum, Lawrence of a family’s dark secrets revealed down a drainpipe. People can wake up as cockroaches. Repressed feelings manifest as overcoats, pocket watches, cleaning products and pet ferrets in ways that would blow Freud’s bow tie clean off.

Arguably the highest goal of the literary art is to represent things that have multiple meanings at once. Frankenstein’s creature – is he Victor’s id? His child? A real monster? An imagined terror? A philosophical question? Answer: all of the above. This is hard for a novel to pull off, especially these days as the entire orbit of the novel is being tugged off course by the mass market’s assumption that a novel, like a movie, is supposed to be straightforwardly a recounting of events. But short stories are free to be surreal, shapeless, irrational. When a writer takes on a short story, they get to kick off their shoes and go wherever the material takes them.

Polti said there are only thirty-six dramatic situations. Hollywood has supposedly boiled that down to just seven plots. A horrible future of reductive storytelling would await us, if not for short stories. The short story writer, like the poet, doesn’t have to give a fig for plots and dramatic situations. Story arcs can twist like Möbius strips, splice into something different with no more sense than a dream. Redemption? Closure? Put a coin in the swear box, please. This is fiction in its purest form.

Still, we admire artifice in a work. We look for the connective structure. We like to perceive a shape. In a collection of short stories, though, it is the whole that has the shape. It’s only when we step back that we can see the common themes being explored. The individual stories are free to dart away from definite analysis. Hence Between Stops, which is not just the time we have to while away but the mental space between anchors of logic. What will you discover on these journeys? The answer for each reader is a different one – and there’s the beauty of the form.

Friday, 18 July 2014


O magistri sapienissimi,

In a fight between Hercules and Thor, who would win?

Yours, Piers Craddock and Will Rice,
St Paul’s School,

Dr Clattercut replies: Ah, doesn’t that take you back, Bromfield? In one’s schooldays the world seems so simple, every problem so black and white. Well, Masters Craddock and Rice, I have to tell you that even in the Year of Wonders, reality is a little bit more complicated than algebra books and rugger pitches may have led you to believe.

Prof Bromfield: Quite. In any case, Thor would obviously win, being a god.

Dr Clattercut: The matter is entirely hypothetical, but even so I don’t think it is as clear cut as you say, Bromfield. Hercules’s father is Zeus, king of the gods.

Prof Bromfield: He’s half-divine, then. But still only mortal. And wrestling a few boars and oxen and whatever — all those tedious labours—hardly puts him on a par with the god of thunder. Remember that Thor’s hammer is so heavy that only he can lift it…

Dr Clattercut: What about when Hercules took the entire weight of the heavens off Atlas’s shoulders? I daresay that’s a greater burden than any hammer.

Prof Bromfield: Well, there you have it. The hammer’s the key. Big biceps aren't going to matter a jot after a clonk with a weapon like that. You know the Norse myths, full of giants falling like skittles. Think what it sounds like when a thunderclap goes off right over your head. Rattles the furniture, eh? Well that’s Thor’s hammer heard at long distance.

Dr Clattercut: It’s hardly an even contest if Thor is going to use his hammer. I’m saying that without the hammer, a straight grappling match — then Hercules is bound to be the victor.

Prof Bromfield: Why would the god of thunder agree to fight and leave his hammer at home? Not that he needs the hammer to defeat a Greek strongman, seeing as he actually is the mightiest of all the Aesir.

Dr Clattercut: But that’s…

Prof Bromfield: And I haven’t even mentioned Thor’s magic belt yet that doubles his strength. Or his iron gloves that double it again.

Dr Clattercut: I give up.

Prof Bromfield: As would Hercules!