Friday, 19 July 2019

I failed to win a competition but look at my Doctor Who art anyway!

I recently entered a BBC Doctor Who Fan Art competition. The winner and runners-up get their art sold on t-shirts at this year's San Diego Comic Con.

Well, San Diego Comic Con is happening right now and needless to say I haven't heard anything, so I thought I'd share my designs here. Feel free to lavish me with praise in the comments and on social media to soothe my wounded ego.

I was going for a Patrick Nagel, 1980s vibe with this one.

And with this one I wanted to show the softer side of the Sixth Doctor.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to show the second picture to the Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker, last month at a convention in Birmingham. He was very kind and assured me that it "wasn't shite". He also signed it for me and it now has pride of place on my wall.

So I may not have won the competition but I did get a nice memento from a personal hero of mine, so I can't complain.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Was the Moon Landing Faked? (Spoiler: No)

The Apollo programme was developed with the objective of landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth. Apollo 11 was the first mission to achieve this on the 20th July 1969. In total 12 people have walked on the Moon, the last being the Apollo 17 astronauts on the 14th December 1972. Thanks to the Apollo missions we have a wealth of information from the Moon, including photos, video footage, and rock samples.

But what if was all a load of rubbish?

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission, some people are still arguing that NASA’s Apollo programme was an elaborate façade and that the Moon Landings were fake. What follows is some of the more common arguments made by conspiracy theorists and some of the reasons why I think their arguments just don’t hold water.

One Giant Vegas Party for Mankind

One of the earliest Moon landing conspiracy theorists was Bill Kaysing, author of We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1976). According to Kaysing, the engines of Saturn V (the rocket that got the Apollo missions to the Moon) were “totally unreliable” so smaller, weaker but more reliable rocket engines were stashed inside Saturn V’s engines. In 1969 the public were shown the astronauts entering the Apollo spacecraft but they actually snuck out with a high speed elevator. The rocket blasted off and Apollo was placed in a parking orbit. Meanwhile the astronauts were living it up in Las Vegas with a bunch of showgirls, pausing their debauchery only briefly so they could fake the moonwalk on a film set. They were then flown to Hawaii where they were dropped off in the Apollo Command Module in order to get picked up again for their heroic return.

On what authority does Kaysing make these claims? Well, from 1956-1963 he was a senior technical writer, a service analyst, a service engineer, and a publications analyst for Rocketdyne, the company that built the F-1 engines used on the Saturn V rocket. Sounds quite impressive. But bear in mind that he had no knowledge of rockets or technical writing when he got the job, only a BA in English. Still, he did say that even before 1969 he had, in his words "a hunch, an intuition, ... a true conviction" that no one was going to the Moon.

Kaysing’s hunch was enough to inspire a long line of moon landing conspiracy theorists.

For the love of God why?

Why would NASA want to fake the moon landings?  There are three main reasons generally provided by conspiracy theorists.

i)                    The Space Race –  The USA wanted to beat their Cold War Rivals, the Soviet Union to the Moon to prove their superiority.
ii)                   NASA funding – NASA wanted to avoid humiliation and justify the money they’d been given and not be known as the stupid gits that failed to deliver on JFK’s promise to put a man on the Moon before the end of the ‘60s.
iii)                 The Vietnam War – The USA wanted to distract America and the world from its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Let’s examine these motives one by one.

i)                    If it was a hoax Russia would have noticed and frankly wouldn’t have been able to shut up about it. Bart Sibrel has argued "the Soviets did not have the capability to track deep space craft until late in 1972, immediately after which, the last three Apollo missions were abruptly cancelled." Nothing about this statement is true. The Soviet Union had been sending unmanned spacecraft to the Moon since 1959 and had deep space tracking facilities since 1962. Also, the cancellation of the Apollo missions wasn’t abrupt. It had been announced in 1970, two years before the last mission. Bart Sibrel by the way, is the man who got punched by Buzz Aldrin while trying to get him to swear on the Bible that the Moon landings were real.
ii)                   If NASA had indeed wanted to avoid humiliation and scrutiny they did a pretty crappy job of it in 1967, when the crew of Apollo 1 were tragically killed in a flash fire on the command module launch pad, leading to NASA’s upper management team being questioned by the Senate and House of Representatives space oversight committees.
iii)                 As mentioned earlier, the Apollo missions didn’t suddenly end as soon as the Vietnam War ended. The cancellation of the missions was announced in 1970, and one of the main reasons for this was because NASA’s budget had been cut to pay for the Vietnam War!

Bloody huge!

The most compelling argument against the Moon landings being fake is what aerospace engineer Jay Windley describes as a question of scale. NASA doesn’t build spaceships all by itself, it hires private companies to do it for them. It stands to reason that all conspiracy theories asserting that no lunar landing took place must argue that faking the lunar landing was easier than actually accomplishing it, otherwise why bother faking it. But how easy would faking such a thing actually be when you take into account the number of independent contractors that would have been involved. Windley has identified three hypothetical scenarios that would had to have occurred: the Huge Conspiracy Scenario, the Absolute Minimum Scenario, and the Need-To-Know Scenario.

Huge Conspiracy
In this scenario NASA did not have the necessary technology to go to the Moon and so all the private companies who were contracted by NASA to contribute to this technology must have been paid to do nothing. Their big NASA contract would have been announced in order to keep their shareholders happy and then they would have sat on their arses for a few years. All the employees of these companies who would presumably be expecting to get cracking on this big new job they’d just been awarded, would be urged to keep quiet. That’s a lot of people keeping their mouth shut. At the height of the Apollo project almost half a million people were working on it. Yet in over thirty years, not one of these half million people has come forward with incontestable evidence to say they were part of the conspiracy. Were they all paid off? Even presuming half a million people could be bought off, why aren’t we seeing hundreds of thousands of suspiciously wealthy retired engineers all over America today, living in mansions and driving sports cars? It’s possible they could have been threatened with retribution from a NASA ninja-death squad, but there’s no evidence of this. And it’s amazing that there’s been no death bed confessions in the past fifty years.

Absolute Minimum
Perhaps then only a few unscrupulous types at the top were in on the conspiracy and most people working on the Apollo missions thought they were working on the real thing? In that case we’d have to believe that all the engineers employed by these private companies believed they were really contributing to an actual lunar mission. As far as they’re concerned they’ve been paid to solve the problems inherent in sending people to the Moon. If so, why would they sign off on materials and devices that they knew didn’t work. If this was the case then NASA would have been provided with a bunch of stuff for their fake Moon mission that was actually capable of sending people to the Moon. So, why would they still want to fake it?

Couldn’t the truth be somewhere in between? Perhaps only the people who really needed to know were in on it. That would logically still have involved the managers of the private companies contracted and, given their technical knowhow, many of the engineers. We’re still talking about a heck of a lot of people.

The problem with the idea of a Moon landing conspiracy, argues Windley, is that “you have to buy off enough of the work force in order to produce convincing hardware without producing working hardware. In short, there is no middle of this road. Either you produce real hardware, or you have a very large conspiracy with no leaks after thirty years…. The moral: if you want to perpetrate a hoax, don't have it catered.”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Mary Bennett and David S. Percy have argued that many of the people who worked on the “hoax” did in fact blow the whistle, but they did so by subtly hiding errors in the Moon landing that were so egregious that they would eventually unravel the whole thing.

A similar theory involving whistle blowing with hidden clues involves filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his 1980 film, The Shining. According to this theory Stanley Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 landing on a film set after being chosen for this task due to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, Bennett and Percy argue that Kubrick, along with Arthur C. Clarke, were involved in the conspiracy before 2001 was released in 1968, and that 2001 was made to manage the expectations of the public of what they were to see in 1969 when the “hoax” was carried out.

Apparently, the guilt proved too much for Kubrick, and in 1980 he released a film that contained his veiled confession, The Shining.

These clues include:       
  • The fact that the little boy in the film wears an Apollo 11 jumper, and at one point rises (like a rocket??) up from the carpet with a pattern that apparently resembles NASA's hexagonal launching pads.
  • You can see tins of Tang in the pantry at one point and astronauts drink Tang on missions.
  • There’s a Native American tapestry on display that looks like it has rockets on it.
  • A 2015 film claimed to show interview footage with Kubrick from before he died where Kubrick admits he helped fake it. This is slightly undermined however by the fact that the man in the interview is just a bloke with a beard who looks and sounds nothing like Kubrick.

Moon Robot!

One might wonder why whistle blowers felt the need for such subtlety, given that they were up against evidence as compelling as actual photographs. And we’re not just talking about the photos taken by the Apollo astronauts. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a NASA robotic spacecraft launched in 2009 and currently orbiting the Moon. It has provided us with photographs of the Apollo landing sites. For example, here’s the Apollo 11 landing site.

Don’t just take NASA’s word for it

Plenty of parties not involved with NASA have been able to verify NASA’s claims. Earlier I mentioned that the Soviet Union had monitored the Apollo missions. Other countries have also encountered evidence of the success of Apollo.

In 2008 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) SELENE lunar probe provided us with a three-dimensional reconstructed photo that matched the terrain of an Apollo 15 photo taken from the surface. In 2009, India's lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 recorded evidence of disturbed soil around the Apollo 15 landing site and tracks of the lunar rovers.

Planetary scientists who are unaffiliated with NASA have studied the Moon rock brought back by Apollo and confirmed their age and origin. They have been used to identify lunar meteorites collected from Antartica. The rocks returned by Apollo have also been found to be very close in composition to samples returned by the independent Soviet Luna programme.

Apollo astronauts left a bunch of mirrors on the Moon called laser ranging retro-reflectors, or LRRRs. These mirrors have been used as targets for Earth based tracking lasers. Photons reflected back to Earth by the LRRRs have been detected. The NASA-independent Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, McDonald, Apache Point, and Haleakalā observatories regularly use the Apollo LRRR.

So, were they fake?

When one considers what a monumental feat the Moon Landings really were its perhaps not surprising that people have their doubts. In an era of fake news perhaps cynicism is healthy? But sometimes people aren’t trying to catch you out. Sometimes things aren’t too good to be true. Sometimes real life is just cool. Occasions where real people get together and accomplish something genuinely amazing are rare. But that’s all the more reason to celebrate them. 

So yes, the human race is full of liars and cheats and people who abuse their power. But let’s give credit where it’s due.

We made it to the Moon.

Bibliography/Further Reading (Jay Windley, aerospace engineer)
David S. Percy & Mary Bennet DARK MOON : Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers (1999)

Tuesday, 4 June 2019


This weekend I went to Collectormania 26 at the NEC in Birmingham and got my picture taken with Brandon Routh AKA SUPERMAN!

That's yer actual Superman that is.

As you might imagine, he was really lovely. I attended his Q & A session on the Saturday and he was kind enough to answer my question. I asked him if there was any talk of creating a shared DC Comics Cinematic Universe while he was involved with Superman, and if he thinks shared cinematic universes are a good idea. He replied that he does think they're a good idea, if there are strong, well crafted relationships between the characters. He also said that there was talk of doing Batman v Superman after Superman Returns but that it wasn't a scenario he ever understood. He explained that as far as he was concerned, even if Batman got to a point where he felt that he needed to battle Superman, Superman still wouldn't let that battle happen. Routh went on to say that if he had been asked to play Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman he would have either used what influence he had to change how Superman was portrayed or turned the project down.

It was a real thrill for me to meet Routh, as I'm a huge Superman fan and a massive fan of Superman Returns. I went to see it twice when it came out in the cinema, and embarrassingly I even wrote an indignant letter to the Guardian when a columnist slagged the film off. Thankfully the letter wasn't published. I'm also a massive fan of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but it was nevertheless fascinating to hear Routh's thoughts.

As well as meeting Superman I also got my picture taken with Sophie Aldred, Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, and Mark Strickson, who played classic Doctor Who companions Ace, Jamie, Zoe, and Turlough. I also attended their Q & A sessions, an Allo Allo cast Q & A, and I met my favourite Doctor, Colin Baker again. Colin was kind enough to sign a piece of art I made of his Doctor. He assured me it was "not shite". I won't share it here as I've entered it into a BBC competition to design a t-shirt  but I'll post it next month as soon I know that I haven't won. I'm not too bothered about losing, as having my work proclaimed "not shite" by the Sixth Doctor is all the prize I need.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

How Avengers Endgame sets up the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe


Avengers Endgame is an astounding cinematic achievement. It manages to be a coherent, satisfying film in its own right while also serving as the culmination of a number of stories that have been unfolding across 11 years and 22 films.

There's so much to love about Endgame, but my favourite aspect of it is the way it brings the story of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man to an end. In my opinion, this ending has come at exactly the right time, and it may even have set up the circumstances in which the next big character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can emerge.

Tony Stark's cinematic story began in 2008 in Iron Man, the first film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Throughout most of the next 21 films (even some of the ones he's not in) we grew to understand the context in which Tony exists, and had the pleasure of seeing him grow and develop as a character. We saw a selfish, narcissistic playboy become a man determined to take responsibility for his actions. In a way Stark weaponised his own narcissism, as he allowed the belief that he was responsible for protecting everybody on Earth become his primary motivation. Tony's efforts to protect the world led to the creation of the menace known as Ultron, and to a personal battle with PTSD. But ultimately he was able to fulfil his mission and atone for his past mistakes by sacrificing his life to save the world. Tony was played throughout all of this by Robert Downey Jr, who gave the most considered, nuanced, entertaining, and true to the character portrayal of a superhero since Christopher Reeve's Superman.

As much as I loved watching Tony's story unfold, his end was a timely one. In 2008, Tony Stark was the right superhero at the right time - the world was ready for a capitalist superhero who had made things worse in the Middle East but felt bad about it, and was now ready to save us all with technology. But now in 2019 a new generation has started to worry about wealth inequality and we've realised that the tech bros won't save us because they're basically Nazis. A millionaire playboy became the American president and it turns out he's just a revolting old man. The white guy redemption story has been done to death in films and TV and we've all started to move on from it. Tony's story has come to an end not a moment too soon.

So where does that leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What's next?

There's an account on Twitter that appears to have some kind of insider access, and has had some success in predicting what will happen in Marvel films. This account has predicted that the Thunderbolts will feature heavily in the next phase.

In the comics, the Thunderbolts are usually depicted as a team of villains working as superheroes, either as part of an evil scheme, an attempt to find redemption, or because they're being forced to do so by the government. One character that has featured prominently in Thunderbolts comics is Spider-Man's arch-nemesis Norman Osborn AKA The Green Goblin. It's worth remembering that Osborn is a Spider-Man character and as such, Marvel may have not yet recovered the rights to him from Sony. But if they have, I feel that Tony Stark's death has created the right set of circumstances for Norman Osborn to emerge.

Mike Deodata

The trailer for the next Marvel film, Spider-Man Far From Home shows us a world that has placed Tony Stark on something of a pedestal. We see candles and graffiti left in gratitude to remember Tony's sacrifice. Spider-Man himself says "the world needs the next Iron Man."

What if this is a world that is scared after what it just went through in Endgame, and is desperate for the next Tony Stark to come along and protect them? What if this is a world that is so scared and desperate it will embrace the first charming, billionaire genius that comes along? What if that charming, billionaire, genius is Norman Osborn? Imagine Osborn, a petty, spiteful, greedy megalomaniac, playing on people's fear, cynically taking advantage of the situation the world's in, and setting himself up in a position of power. He could be a Tony Stark for the age of Trump.

Perhaps, just as the threat of Thanos and the events of Infinity War were set up in previous Marvel films, Far from Home and the films that follow it could set up Osborn and the Thunderbolts?

We could see Marvel taking on a critique of the very concept of superheroes. Putting all your faith in individuals is a dangerous business, because in all likelihood, they're not going to be Tony Stark, or Captain America. They're going to be someone who will hold on to any power you give them and eventually use it against you. This would be a pretty radical thread for a multi-billion dollar superhero movie franchise to pull at, but it's such a fascinating and relevant theme that I can't help but think that they're going to want to explore it.

Besides, the next big bad guy isn't the only thing that Tony Stark's death sets up. The events of Endgame have left us with a world that has experienced forces beyond their understanding meddling with everybody's life in a pretty huge way. Half of everybody on the planet died for five years before suddenly returning. It's not enough to merely defend the Earth from these forces, as the Avengers did. The world will need somebody to explore and understand these terrifying new frontiers.

Now if only Marvel had recently reacquired the film rights to a team of super-powered explorers of the strange and fantastic......

Alex Ross

If you'd like to see me take a small part in a discussion of Avengers Endgame involving lots of clever people, head over to The Comics Cube!

Saturday, 30 March 2019

The Best Superman in the Best Superman Costume

Here's a picture I did of my favourite actor to play the Man of Steel wearing my favourite Superman costume - the Grant Morrison/Rags Morales Action Comics costume.