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Saturday, 26 December 2015

Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Warning: This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film yet please do not read.

After many months of anticipation The Force Awakens has finally been released! I grew up watching Star Wars and playing Star War: Battlefront so I was very excited to see this film. Luckily I managed to keep both my love for Star Wars and my nostalgia under control, which I may have failed to do for Jurassic World giving it too high a rating. Before I start the review I just want to say it does contain some spoilers, I've managed to cut out most of them but there are still a few so please do not read if you have yet to see the film.

Plot
Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi the remnants of the Galactic Empire have formed the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is locked in combat with the New Republic as well as looking for the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has vanished. A new Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is trying to find Skywalker while renegade Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and the mysterious scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) must try and find him first. Most of the criticisms that I've seen of the film and which I have myself is how similar the plot resembles that of the original installment. A small band of rebels learning about the force while avoiding a masked Sith Lord taking orders from a shadowy figure and destroying planets is almost a direct copy of the original film. Here I felt J.J. Abrams and the other writers were too cautious opting for a story that we all know and love instead of trying something new. It was also a perfect opportunity to introduce the stories from the Expanded Universe rather than going for a tried and tested plot.

However the plot is still good nevertheless. It is clear that Abrams took inspiration from the original film but the plot is not a rehash of the original. Events have new meanings, characters are vastly different from their original counterpart (Rey for one is a much stronger character compared to Luke in the original film) and there are countless plot points added which both make the film exciting and unique. We have to remember though how similar the plots to Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are (Luke saving a friend with Leia/Han, seeing a Jedi Master who trained him die with Obi Wan/Yoda, the Alliance going into a space battle to destroy the Death Star as Luke goes one on one against Vader in either a X-Wing or lightsaber). The Force Awakens does have a downside that it bears more resemblance to the original film but it has so much new content for us to overlook this.

Characters/Acting
My biggest worry for the film was going to be the acting ability of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega due to this film being their first major film. They portrayed some of the best acting in the film. Boyega effectively portrayed someone who is finally free from oppression after years as a Stormtrooper while simultaneously portraying someone tormented by military combat. One scene in a canteen when he describes to Rey why he is running it felt like I was watching a gritty Vietnam War film. His effortless shift from a quasi-comic relief to a tormented veteran was fantastic. Daisy Ridley equally became her onscreen character and stole the film in my opinion. Her character is especially well written and combined with Ridley's acting Rey became a strong willed character with a mysterious past which we want know about. Quite often in films the 'mysterious past' trope can become repetitive but Rey's well written character and Ridley's acting allowed this trope to become engaging once more. As stated earlier Rey is a far stronger character than Luke Skywalker in the original film and is comparable to Luke in Empire Strikes Back. Also the fact that Rey is the main character is a bonus as the sci-fi genre has a stark lack of female main characters (with possibly Serenity being the most notable sci-fi film to have a female lead) so Rey being so well acted as well is a good point for the film. A final point to make about Finn and Rey is that a actually liked the will-they-or-won't-they plot point. Normally I hate this in films, with the exception of Pacific Rim where they didn't, but it seemed natural thanks to their acting ability (and the writing) so it managed to revitalize another dying movie trope.

Now for what we all wanted in the film: the original cast. Harrison Ford was excellent as Han Solo. His acting in this film was far better than the acting in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. It felt that he had just come back from doing Return of the Jedi rather than his acting in Indiana Jones where he had to portray Dr Jones but old. Likewise his interaction with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) seemed natural. When he said 'Chewie. We're back' it actually felt that they were truly back. Carrie Fisher as Leia was very good as well. It felt that she portrayed Leia as an actual rebellion leader who has had years of fighting against the Dark Side. I like how she is called General Leia this time showing that she has actual authority and a direct role in the rebellion which I must give Abrams credit for. Finally we have Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. He is not in the film for very long and criticisms of the film that I've seen largely talk about how little he is in the film. I disagree with this. His little screen time in the film fits perfectly with his role as a mysterious Jedi Master. Hamill though is still very good as an elderly Skywalker, he uses his little time on screen effectively and manages to show with facial expressions that he does have power. He felt like Alec Guiness as Obi Wan in the original film.

Finally we have the villains. Domhnall Greeson as General Hux is quite formidable. He captures the essence that Peter Cushing had as Grand Moff Tarkin and made it his own. He effectively plays a radical with too much power and the ability to wield such power. I eagerly await seeing him in future installments. Serkis is good at playing Snoke however he felt too much like the Emperor. Whether it was writing or the small amount of screen time that he had to flesh out his character Snoke just felt to be a computer generated version of the Emperor. Serkis however has to be commended for actually creating this effect to begin with. Adam Driver is most of the time good as Kylo Ren. While he has his mask on he portrays an aura of menace and power. He honestly feels intimidating. Not as intimidating as Vader but he does feel like a true antagonist which is always good. However when he takes off his mask his acting dips somewhat. By no means bad it feels weaker compared to the other actors and when he has his mask on. He seemed nervous (likely due to the other actors having the benefit of going through the entire film lacking a mask) and it sometimes shows in his performance. It does have some good points (a possible spoiler ahead). His confrontation with his father is moderately well acted and subtly done which works well. It is far better compared to Hayden Christianson as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels and considering this is Driver's first major role he has to be commended for not ruining the performance by overacting. 

Effects
The effects are possibly the best effects in a film of this year with only Mad Max: Fury Road competing with it. My biggest issue with Jurassic World was it basically a CGI movie. Abrams for The Force Awakens combined CGI with practical effects. He knew when it was right to use CGI and when it was right to use practical effects. Chewbacca, R2 D2, C-3PO and Admiral Ackbar are men in suits instead of computer generated images. The image above was done through animatronics. Several ships were large props. This injected a sense of believability into the atmosphere of the film helping the audience engage further. It is far easier to get caught up in a world where practical effects are used compared to one entirely created thanks to a computer. Abrams experience with the Star Trek franchise paid off here also as by balancing the CGI/Practical effect ratio when CGI was used it was engaging. The CGI itself was breathtaking. TIE Fighter and X-Wing dogfights as well as a dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and TIE Fighters made it seem as if we were there. Overall the effects department created a believable galaxy far far away.

Atmosphere
This film felt much more like a Star Wars film than any of the prequels. Focusing more on plot than flashy effects Abrams managed to recreate the Galaxy. Also the effects mirrored that of the originals with some added polish so we honestly felt that this was a continuation of the Star Wars universe. George Lucas has stated that he imagined and tried to make the Empire like a fascist state. Abrams captured this idea perfectly. The First Order felt like a totalitarian state (even with the name) and their purge of the village at the start of the film felt like footage from the Second World War of Nazi atrocities. Greeson's portrayal of Hux felt like I was watching a Nazi leader and at one part he gives a speech in front of red flags with Stormtroopers saluting. Abrams perfectly captured the fascist element of the Empire. Likewise Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca being almost folk heroes, with Skywalker going as far as to be a legend, fits perfectly in with the atmosphere. It makes sense that their feats would earn them so much reverence and Skywalker being the last Jedi it makes sense to make him a legendary figure. Finally the use of special effects made it feel that we were in the Star Wars universe.

Overall I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The most zealous critics I've seen of the film can be roughly characterized into three groups: less open-minded people (who immediately disliked the film due to Finn and Rey being the main characters), original elitists (who immediately disliked the film because of a rose-tinted view of the original and animosity towards Disney) and sci-fi haters (this one was identified by a close friend of mine who I agree with. The people who have not seen the franchise a immediately hate on the film due to it being 'nerdy'). Of course all the other critics (in fact over 90% of them) do not fit into any of these categories and their criticisms are very valid such as the increased humor, repetition of the original plot and certain plot points and these criticisms do weigh down the film. I find it a shame that the zealous critics now have silenced the level headed critics of the film as now it is harder for them to give across their views. I would give this film 8/10. It effectively captured the feel of the Star Wars universe with well written characters and fantastic effects. 

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 18 December 2015

World History: Introduction and Human Evolution

Welcome to the first edition of World History. In this series I will be going through major events, ideas and landmarks in world history. Each successive post will have no specific day to which it will be published and we might even go a whole month before the next post gets published. By the end of the series we would have gone on a journey that will cover every corner of the globe, see the rise of religions, the fall of empires, the birth of nations and the setting of the foundations for our current world. It is a series which will encompass history, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology. paleoanthropology, biology and climatology. We will also wonder whether human civilization has actually progressed at all. Before we start it is necessary to discuss why all of this is important.

Why is knowing the past important?
As a student of history and archaeology people have occasionally questioned the purpose of my subject. They sometimes argue that other subjects are more important: biology gives us understanding of out body while chemistry creates the medicine to keep our body healthy, maths helps us create stable buildings and manage our accounts, engineering creates almost everything that we use around us and if I list all the benefits physics bring us we shall be here for a long time. History (and archaeology) is very important in our lives. Award winning author Michael Crichton once said: If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know that it is part of a tree. History allows us to understand who we are. It is integral to our culture and our society. Every year Americans celebrate Independence Day, the French celebrate Bastille Day and the British celebrate Bonfire Night just to name a few holidays with their roots in history. History allows us to understand why this is so important. History creates a shared heritage for people. Knowing history allows stops it being corrupted. People in the past have, and will continue to do so, to try and change history to suit their own needs. Knowing history stops this from happening. History defines our culture, religious beliefs, politics, society, how we speak, how we interact and what we enjoy. History's benefits may not be as prevalent as that of engineering, maths or physics but it is there nevertheless. Now to start our journey through history with someone called Toumai whose photo is below.
Coming down from the trees: 7-4.2 million years ago
The photo above is of Toumai, a Sahelanthropus tchadensis, who lived 7 million years ago in Torro-Menalla, Chad. When Toumai was alive the Earth was going through drastic climate fluctuations. From using sediment lines dating from that time climatologists have discovered that the planet was becoming both cooler and dryer. Hence forests started to become replaced by grassland. Although only his skull is known to us Toumai shows a major evolutionary adaption to this changing environment: he has a foranum magnum close to the back of the skull. The foranum magnum is a hole where your spine connects to your brain. In chimps this is close to the center of the skull. Although Toumai's foranum magnum was not at the back at the skull it was very further back compared to a chimp leading to one possibility: Toumai was partially bipedal. Chimps and apes can walk bipedally but not for very long; Toumai's skull orientation allowed much longer bipedalism. Toumai is possibly the oldest known hominin (humans and their ancestors). We now cut to the Tugen Hills, Kenya 6.2 million years ago with another ape named Orrorin tugensis. Only a few bones are known but the two femur (the thigh bone) found were longer compared to chimps and apes. This suggests a bipedal stance for Orrorin. As Orrorin was going extinct (5.8 million years ago) a new species had evolved in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia: Ardipithecus kadabba. Not many bones of this species have been found but the position in what was once a forest indicates that bipedalism must have developed in forests instead of the open plains. This would have given hominins a greater ability to survive than if bipedalism had evolved in grasslands and in forests they could still use trees for cover. 4.4 million years ago Ardipithecus ramidus roamed the land but we have more fossils of this species which gives us a better insight on hominins. This species was bipedal but the ape like toes allowed the gripping of branches with ease. Ardipithecus was hence both bipedal and a tree dweller.

Australopithecus and Paranthropus: 4.2-2.5 million years ago
4.2 million years ago in Kenya and Ethiopia a new genus of hominin evolved: Australopithecus. Australopithecus anamensis lived in what is now called the East African Rift Valley (southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya) and although they still lived in trees the position of the foranum magnum suggested it was mostly bipedal. However, it is Australopithecus afarensis which most interests paleoenthropologists. This species has been made famous by the discovery of 'Lucy' , a near complete skeleton around 3.2 million years old. She showed signs of both bipedalism (such as relatively flat feet) and her ape ancestors (like a prognathic face which is a face with a protruding jaw). At Laotoli. Tanzania a series of footprints have made by Australopithecus afarensis have been found dating back 3.6 million years. They were made by three hominins (the youngest walked in the footsteps of one of the elder ones) and are pictured above. It is important to note that the footprints could only have been made by a hominin walking upright. This family unit has been described as the first nuclear family. Australopithecus was very successful as another species, africanus, was discovered in South Africa and were more robust and taller than afarensis. Both species however have been found to have used stone tools to smash bones for the marrow inside (although they mostly ate fruit as found by wear on their teeth, as discovered by Pat Shipman). Chimpanzees do this although an archaeologist named Tote has discovered that while chimps will carry the tools for only a few meters Australopithecus would carry them over 14km! Around 2.7 million years ago Australopithecus started to diverge into two paths. Australopithecus garhi from the East African Rift Valley is a prime example of this. Between 3.3-2.4 million years ago there had been a second wave of climate fluctuations creating drier environments. It is likely this which spurred Australopithecus to adopt bipadlism to better survive in savannas which were replacing forests. Living 2.5 million years ago it had a prognathic face and strong forearms but simultaneously had long femurs and human like teeth. We shall discuss one branch of the Australopithecus first: the robust Australopithecus or as they are now known as Paranthropus.  

The earliest known Paranthropus was Paranthropus aethiopicus who lived between 2.7-2.3 million years ago. They had a bony ridge (called a sagittarel crest) across the upper jaw which were used for creating a strong pressure perfect for chewing. Parantropus had diverged from the other group of Australopithecus to become adapted at eating vegetation like modern day gorillas. There were two more species of Paranthropus, boisei and robustus, who both went extinct 1.2 million years ago. The intense climate fluctuations meant that forests, and hence vegetation, were shrinking in Africa so a specialized hominin like Paranthropus could not adapt. However, the other group Australopithecus evolved into a genus much more adaptable.

The first members of the Homo genus: 2.4-1.4 million years ago
As Paranthropus became specialized in eating vegetation another group of Australopithecus became adapted in a different way at Olduvai Gorge, Ethiopia. 2.4 million years ago our direct ancestors Homo habilis had arrived. This species was taller than Australopithecus at 1.3m (quite tall for the time) and were more intelligent with a brain size of 650 cubic centimeters. They still had many similarities with their Australopithecus ancestors with a prognathic face and thanks to analysis done by Pat Shipman on their teeth their diet consisted mostly of fruit. However there were increasing similarities to our species. They had increased meat in their diet. At Olduvai Gorge there have been butchered bones of an extinct elephant called Deinotherium which was originally used to show that our ancestors had started hunting by 2.4 million years ago. Recent analysis has found that they had actually scavenged with archaeologist Robert Blumenschine hypothesizing that in the wet season they would eat fruit while in the dry season they would scavenge. Homo habilis also created tools which have been called the Oldowan tool industry. It consisted of chipped stones which could be used for a variety of means such as cracking open bones or chipping other rocks to make tools. When Homo habilis lived the Earth started a phase of climate fluctuations which went from extremely dry to hot and wet. The Earth's orbit even changed in what is called the Milankovitch cycle which caused mass fluctuations with world temperatures. Due to Homo habilis's varied diet, tool usage and the ability to move long distances thanks to longer legs they thrived while the Paranthropus dies out. Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler have suggested that the addition of meat to the diet allowed the development of a bigger brain; less time was devoted to digestion of tough plant matter giving more time to allow brain development. The upright stance also allowed the development of sweat glands and a more spread out digestive system making adaptation to fluctuating climates easier.

Homo habilis lived for the most part with another species, Homo rudolfensis. This species found at Koobi Fora lived from 1.9-1.8 million years ago and were both taller and smarter than habilis with a brain size of 775 cubic centimeters. This year it has been announced that at the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa a new species has been discovered: Homo naledi. It is difficult to determine the age of naledi due to the main dating techniques (radiocarbon and potassium-argon dating) not being applicable in this instance. They have been put at around 2.8-2.5 million years ago. Unlike habilis they had more ape-like features such as the shoulder blades. 

Homo erectus: 1.89 million years ago-143 thousand years ago
In east Africa 1.89 million years ago lived the Nariokotome Boy. He was a member of the new species Homo ergaster which has now been discovered to be the same species as Homo erectus which shall be used here. Homo erectus was an immensely successful species and managed to inhabit Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Georgia and possibly even southern Spain. Homo erectus had a brain size of between 875-1000 cubic centimeters and had many similarities with modern humans. They had a hip like we do, femurs which were longer than their upper arms and flat feet. They also had larynxes which were further down the throat. In chimps the larynx is high but in humans it is low (which enables us to speak) and Homo erctus had a larynx close to where a human larynx is. It is possible that erectus had some form of language. Homo erectus also had a wide range of technological advances. First there was the Acheulean hand axes, instead of the Oldowan choppers they had axes created by chipping stones. 800,000 years ago they may have tamed fire. At Gasher Benet Ya-aqov, Israel the earliest known hearths have been found. 1.2 million years ago a hominin using Oldowan tools with a brain size of 1000 cubic centimeters lived in Gran Dolina, Spain. Some claim it is a new species of human named Homo antecessor while others claim it is Homo erectus. Whichever species it is they were very successful managing to trap small animals like rabbit and deer for food. However human bones have been found cracked open scattered among the animal bones which some have suggested shows signs of cannibalism...

The successors of erectus: 700-200 thousand years ago
While erectus were around a new species evolved solely using Acheulean hand axes. Originating in Africa they soon spread to Western Asia and Europe. They were called Homo hiedelbergensis. They were very smart at 1200-1325 cubic centimeters and were fairly close to our species in looks. They had a flat face with a chin forming and had noticeable brow ridges. In England they hunted deer with spears, built temporary shelters and saw immense cognitive development. At Twin Rivers, Zambia 250 thousand years ago they had used stones smeared in pigment to rub onto other stones to communicate and at Atapuerca, Spain they may have even buried their dead! 200,000 years ago they had vanished entirely. The population in Europe and Asia however evolved into a species that we all know: Neanderthals.

Neanderthals evolved 400,000 years ago and are nothing like the brutes commonly depicted in the media. They were smart with a brain that was even larger than our species (although we have greater cognitive abilities), they were the first species to create clothing and they are known to have cared for one another. Trinkaus and Zimmerman did research on a Neanderthal buried (showing at least some care for their dead) in Shanidar, Iran. He had a short right arm from possibly a childhood nerve damage and a blow to his right eye which left him blind in that eye. He lived many years after both of these injuries. This shows that Neanderthals cared for one another. The fact that he was buried as well shows that they must have some knowledge of an afterlife. Neanderthals were also adapt at making tools, called Mousterian which had axes and flints flaked off with a stone already specialized to do such a task. They made jewelry out of shells and would hunt by leading prey like mammoths and rhinos off of cliffs or into ravines where they would be stoned to death. Neanderthals were remarkably similar to humans in physiology bar a few differences. They had large noses to breath better in the cold Ice Age climates, they were shorter, had little sexual dimorphism, stockier and incredibly muscular. The average Neanderthal had the same physique as the Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. They also led violent lives, an average Neanderthal had as many injuries as a rodeo rider and few lived past thirty. Meanwhile in Kenya 200,000 years ago a new hominin had arrived: us.

Sapiens: 200,000-10,000 years ago
200,000 years ago Homo sapiens had evolved. Our specific species (Homo sapiens sapiens) would not arrive until 150,000 years ago when the other type of our species (Homo sapiens idaltu) went extinct. Despite almost going extinct around 90,000 years ago our species went out to conquer the world. There are contriving theories about how this happened: some argue that all humans evolved in Africa and then left, others argue we all evolved independently from erectus and hiedelbergensis, others that we hybridized with local human species while others say we assimilated with local humans. Regardless of what happened Homo sapiens spread outwards. By 60,000 years ago they had reached Asia and within the next 20,000 years they had dispersed into Indonesia, across the Sahul land bridge into Australia, Africa and Europe. Burials at Lake Mungo in Australia 40,000 years ago shows by that time they had integrated themselves. In Europe they had came into contact with Neanderthals and have been known to breed with each other thanks to a young hybrid found at Vindya, Croatia. However 40,000 years ago the climate was changing causing the animals that Neanderthals hunted to vanish and through competition with Homo sapiens (who had better technology and possibly even domesticate dogs as hypothesized by Pat Shipman, although this is tenuous) they could not adapt and vanished. 17,000 years ago the recently discovered Homo floriensis in Indonesia likely vanished for the same reason. There is considerable debate about when humans dispersed into the Americas but we know it has to be before 10,500 years ago. Through DNA cross-referencing of a Native American child who died thousands of years ago there is some traces of genetic similarity with modern day Siberians indicating that they must have come over the Bering strait while it was one continuous land mass. These early Americans would be the ancestors of the Clovis people characterized by their bifacial points (see the image below).

Our species around the world went through a massive leap in behavior and technology. As early as 35,000 years ago at Chauvet Cave our ancestors were painting extremely detailed paintings whose meaning we still have no clue about, bearing in mind the more famous Lascaux paintings were done 15,000 years ago. Earlier still at Apollo 11 Rock Shelter, Namibia 60,000 years ago permanent painting was done on the walls. 35,000 years ago in Europe (called the Gravettian) at Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic the famous Venus figurines were being made which many have assumed to have religious significance and roughly the same time at Hohlenstein-Stadel an anthropomorphic lion statuette had been carved out of ivory possibly indicating a deity. As human technology and cognitive ability increased so did their curiosity about the world. Eventually they would start taming wild animals and planting seeds. After conquering all the world from the Amazon to Australia to Egypt to China humans would start doing a practice which many have defined civilization by since: agriculture. 

Thanks for reading. Next time we'll be talking about the origins of agriculture and how the concept of civilization is a more tricky concept than we generally believe it to be. The sources which I have used (and which you might want to read) are as follows: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-evolution-timeline-interactive, Exploring Prehistoric Europe and The Human Past by Chris Scarre, The Prehistory of the Mind by Steven Mithen, Images of the Ice Age by Paul Bahn and Jean Vertut, People of Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory and World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction by Brian Fagan, In Search of Neanderthals by Clive Gamble and Chris Stringer and Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood? by Patricia Rice (1981) in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 37, Article 2. Now I'll leave you with some art made by our ancestors.
The lions of Le Cabinet des Felines from Lascaux, 15,000 years ago
An auroch and other animals from Lascaux
The Lascaux unicorn
Rhinos from Chauvet cave, 35,000 years ago. In firelight the way they were painted would resemble movement.
Figures from Bradshaw rock, Australia, 17,000 years ago
The Hohlenstein-Stadel Lion Man

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Comics Explained: Apocalypse

Earlier this week the trailer for X-Men: Age of Apocalypse was released depicting the struggle between the X-Men in their early days and the new villain Apocalypse. Although Apocalypse was made last minute as a new villain for X-Factor #5 in 1986 (he only was seen in shadow in this issue but he would make his full appearance next issue) he quickly became one of Marvel's signature villains. Holding a vast array of powers including flight, superstrength, bio-molecular alteration and basically immortality he has plagued not only the X-Men but all of human life. Today we'll look at the life of Apocalypse.

Origin

Like many of Marvel's villains much of Apocalypse's backstory occurs years before his first appearance fighting the X-Force in X-Force #5. A child was born 5000 years ago in what is now Aqaba, Jordan but due to his grey skin and blue lines running across his face he was abandoned by his tribe. Soon after the leader of a band of nomadic raiders, the Sandstormers, called Baal of the Crimson Sands found the child and seeing potential adopted him. He named him En Sabah Nur meaning 'The First One' (his name actually means 'Good Morning' through an unintentional grammar error). Over the years En Sabah Nur grew to be stronger, smarter and more agile than the rest of the Sandstormers and was universally despised thanks to his skin by all except Baal. The ideology of the Sandstormers of survival of the fittest would leave a huge lasting impact on En Sabah Nur. The new pharaoh named Rama-Tut (who was actually the time travelling villain Kang the Conqueror) wiped out the Sandstormers except for Nur and Baal as he knew who Nur would become. Baal escapes with Nur to a cave where they find the remains of Tut's ship but Baal dies. However, before he does he tells Nur that he believes Nur is the one in a prophecy who would overthrow Tut. Nur became a slave in Tut's court vowing revenge against Tut and his vizier Ozymandias for their role in Baal's death. While a slave he hid his face and fell in love with Ozymandias's sister, Nephri. When she rejects him after seeing his face he loses control over his powers and goes to take his revenge. Tut tried to reason with Nur (hoping that Nur would become his protege) but he instead fled to the future and Nur threw Ozymandias into the remains of Tut's ship which altered the molecular structure of his body. Ozymandias turned into a sand like being who could see glimpses of the future after that and was enslaved by Nur, now calling himself Apocalypse. Apocalypse and his offspring created Clan Akkaba creating a new age for Egypt. After centuries he left, following endless war against Alexander the Great and later Rome, where he formulated plans for world conquest.

Early History
 Apocalypse would travel the world using his infamy to become a god in various cultures spaning the entire globe.
In 1150 A.D. he would travel to Mongolia hearing that an alien ship had crashed. After defeating the ruler who had claimed the ship he claimed it for himself. The ship was a Celestial ship and he infused himself with the technology of the Celestials. During the 15th Century he created his Four Horsemen, beings who he had given great power to who would be his most loyal servants. The ferocity of their warfare earned them a place in folklore. In 1459 Apocalypse and his Horsemen defeated Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) in single combat which forces Vlad the Impaler to become a vampire. In Victorian England, 1859 he would meet Dr Nathaniel Essex who would give Apocalypse a reason for his immortality and other powers. He was possibly the first member of the new stage in human evolution: a Mutant. Seeing potential in Essex he offered him a choice, a chance to expand his research and gain powers using Celestial technology in return for a life of servitude. Essex agreed and was transformed into the villain Mr Sinister. After a battle with Dracula he would go into hibernation to recover until the modern age...

Apocalypse in the Modern Age
Apocalypse would wake from his hibernation following the birth of Nathaniel Summers to Madelyn Pryor (explained later). Seeing that the mutant population had skyrocketed and that the Mutant Registration Act had been passed he decided to capitalize on it. Forming the Alliance of Evil out of angry or blackmailed mutants with their powers increased by his technology he decided to take on the X-Force. However, the X-Force defeated the Alliance and Apocalypse abandoned them assuming them weak. He would reform his Four Horsemen, including making Angel of the X-Men into Death by augmenting him with Celestial technology, and became a new threat for the X-Men. After several events this brings us onto the Sins of the Future arc in Cable vol. 2. It transpired that Mr Sinister created a clone of telepath and X-Men member Jean Grey called Madelyn Pryor so that she would have a child powerful enough to defeat Apocalypse. This son turned out to be Nathaniel Summers, the time-travelling Cable, and Apocalypse realized infant would later be partially responsible for his existence. He kidnapped the infant, injected him with the Techno-Organic Virus (thus creating the paradox which would create Apocalypse's need to hibernate) and tried to eject it over New York. This failed. Following this he would become a recurrent enemy for not only the X-Men, mainly Angel who tries to break ties with his former master.

Age of Apocalypse
The title of the new movie X-Men: Age of Apocalypse derives from an alternate reality story (which may feature as a part of the film's plot). Professor X's son Legion decides that to end the human-mutant fighting is to kill Magneto, who he saw as causing the animosity, before he could come to any form of power. However, when he travels back in time he arrives at the time when Magneto and Professor X were still friends. As Legion tries to kill Magneto Professor X stops him resulting in his death and Legion being wiped from time. This shift in time allows Apocalypse to wake years earlier than he did in the normal timeline and begin his campaign for dominance. Without the existence of the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man he is met with little successful resistance and manages to conquer North America and start his genocide of humanity. Canada and the United States became divided by Apocalypse and his supporters, Central America has disappeared, South America is referred to as 'The Atrocity Zone' and Brazil is known to have been destroyed by nuclear bombs and Japan and the Middle East was destroyed also by nuclear bombs. Europe and Africa have become the last surviving refuges for humanity and anti-Apocalypse mutants. Magneto now leads the resistance against Apocalypse using the X-Men to fight him and liberating humans from concentration camps.

I hope you enjoyed this post and look out next week for the start of a new series!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

What is the Krampus?

Earlier this month the Christmas horror film Krampus released by Legendary Productions brought the attention of the folkloric demon to a wider audience. In Austria and Central Europe every year the Krampus pays a visit as a demonic version of Father Christmas. What exactly is the Krampus though and how did he come about?

Who the Krampus is
The Krampus is a half-man, half- goat creature with a long forked tongue, horns, one human foot and one goat foot (in traditional images of him) and carries a bundle of birch sticks. On December 5, Krampusnacht, he would go to the homes of children who have been bad, whip them with the bundle of birch sticks that he carries and puts them in a sack so he can take them to Hell for a year. On December 6, Nikolaustag, Father Christmas would come and give the good children presents. A National Geographic article (the link to it can be found below) claims that Krampus is believed to be the son of the Norse goddess Hel who presides over the dead realm of the same name.

Evolution of Krampus
Krampus can find its roots in pre-Christian Germanic folklore and Norse traditions as well. His possible mother being Hel from Norse mythology shows that his role in folklore originated prior to Christianity in Central Europe. His integration with a Christian festival has many parallels across Europe (and later the world) such as how the holiday of Samhain merged with Christian festivities to become Halloween and how Christmas celebrations took much inspiration from various winter solstice festivities. As Father Christmas started to become a popular figure in association with Christmas so did Krampus. This was particularly easy considering that many cultures already had a figure similar to Krampus. Germany for example had Knecht Ruprecht who was an old man with a beard who would visit children and get them to recite Christian catechisms. If they did it successfully he would give them gingerbread men but if they failed he would give them coal or put them in a sack and throw them in a river.  

During the 1800s Krampus became a widely distributed image around the Christmas season. Krampuskartens (like the images above) were widely distributed throughout the 1800s as greeting cards. In some areas he even usurped Santa Claus as the gift giver he became that popular. However, Krampus started to get a bad press with him being deemed too scary for children by parents and even the Catholic Church. He was even banned briefly in Austria! In 1934 fascists managed to take power under Engelbert Dollfuss and they banned Krampus. Austrian fascists aimed to ban anything deemed not to be Christian enough and with his origins in Norse and Germanic folklore this meant that celebrating Krampusnacht was banned. The Social Democrats (the socialists who were in power before being ousted by the fascists) had supported the celebration of Krampus so this was simply a further nail in the coffin for Krampus. After the Second World War the ban on Krampus was lifted.

Krampus remains a popular figure in Central Europe with many people each year dressing up as him and taking to the streets for a night of drinking and celebrating called Krampuslauf. Over the last few years in the United States Krampus has been making an appearance as an alternate celebration to the traditional Saint Nicholas. With the recent film portrayal of the 'Saint Nicholas's shadow' it is likely that many more people will be interested in celebrating Krampusnacht.