Saturday, May 26, 2018

Mage: Homeward bound



It's always been a maddening wait between volumes of Matt Wagner's Mage series - more than a decade between the first two, and nearly two decades between the next - which is only to be expected when the story is so nakedly autobiographical.

The Mage comics have demons and gnomes and succubi and weird harbingers of the hunt, but Wagner has always made it clear that the greater themes - and some very specific characters - are inspired by the events and people in his own life. When you nail your own existence to a fictional character like that, it takes time to build up enough of a life to make a worthwhile story.

Wagner has always said he would only do Mage again when the time felt right, and he wasn't going to be rushed into it, living his life and producing an extraordinary amount of licensed comics instead. He's now returned to his most personal work for the third and final time, and his fictional alter-ego is now in a very different place.

Kevin Matchstick isn't not the cocky young punk of the first series, or even the grown-ass dude of the second, struggling with his first real experiences of loss and responsibility. Instead, he's a family man, with a kid to look after, and a loving wife to come home to.

He can still wield Excalibur with furious abandon and he can still stomp any beastie that messes with him, but the more Kevin fights, the more monsters he attracts, and he just wants them to piss off so he can get on with his proper life.

This intrusion of supernatural creepiness into the comforting world of dull suburbia gives the third Mage comic a new weight that the previous two series lacked, because they were all about the times in your life when everything is fast and exciting, and this new one is about the time when you just want to chill the hell out most of the time.

In fact, the most interesting part of the new series isn't the fantastic battles, or the machinations of the big nasty, or the ongoing search for the Fisher King, or even the return of old comrades - it's this determination to have something resembling  normal life and the universal feeling that having to move home is a pain in the ass.

A similar thing happened in the Orphan Black TV show - all the weird clone conspiracies were fairly dull and forgettable, but the scenes involving Alison's efforts to keep a suburban home together through the power of shared homicide were always the best.

This is the last Mage story and after all his battles, Kevin deserves some kind of a rest. We're onl halfway through the series, so he's got to face a few more mystical trials and tribulations before he gets to put his feet up, but the end is coming. Wagner deserves the break too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Chaos Monsters: Too cute to live



Kiwi artist Karl Wills' art is some of the cutest ever produced in New Zealand. It is enormously appealing at the very first glance, with incredibly welcoming curves and open faces, which all just makes the extraordinarily gruesome violence all the more shocking.

His style has dashes of Winsor McCay and Leo Baxendale and generic Archie comics, with full, flowing lines that are incredibly warm and comforting. It's art that looks like a dream of kids comics, and when things do suddenly go horrible, it's a true nightmare.

His early Jessica of the Schoolyard strips set the template for a lot of Wills' works – impossibly tough girls, simplistic plots, fierce inventiveness in the strange details, hard-boiled dialogue and lashings of the old ultra-violence. It's a strong formula, which works every time.

And in an age of webcomics, digital downloads and expensive hardcovers, Wills still puts out semi-regular mini-comics, which are more like beautifully designed chapbooks. You can buy them here, and they are always an absolute fucking delight, even as they get increasingly disturbing, because you can get away with all sorts of crazy shit if you keep it cheap and nasty.

The Chaos Monsters – Wills' latest mini-comic - is a typical contradiction of gross and adorable. It features a bunch of button-cute female soldiers hanging out in an idyllic Europe, who suddenly start stabbing the shit out of each other, machine-gunning and bombing each other to death, with the survivors inflicting hideously gruesome tortures on their helpless prisoners.

Somebody new to Wills' work is going to get a hell of a shock – it's all going nicely until somebody gets rats sewn into the stomach.

It's still weird to see this mix of the delightful and the horrific. Underground comix have, of course, been mining that rich vein for decades, putting childish cartoon characters through all sorts of depravity, but it still has an impact.

One could only wish the Archie comics would do something like this with their characters – the imprint has made some fairly timid horror comics in recent years, always in a more 'realistic' style, with moody, scratchy art. Doing these kind of stories in the traditional Archie style would be brilliantly jarring.

Instead, it's the mini-comics and their 'don't give a shit' attitude that you have to go for that addictive juxtaposition. It's downright disturbing to see these gorgeously cartoonish people blown to bits, but it bloody well should be.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shaolin Cowboy: The devil in the details



The most immediately appealing aspect of Geof Darrow's comic art has always been that attention to detail, where he'll show everything he can fit into a panel. Every tiny little detail you could imagine and a lot more aside, right down to the last cigarette butt – and his city scenes can literally have thousands of them littering the ground.

Darrow's style is often imitated and never beaten, largely because he really commits to the whole ideal, and shows everything, no matter how gross or gruesome it gets. Every shrapnel wound, every flaccid penis, every exposed sphincter.

His plots can be little more than showcases for his astonishingly articulate art – one Shaolin Cowboy story featured an entire issue of nothing but the title Buddhist smashing up some zombies, and then Darrow – showing huge balls by actively trolling his audience – carried on for another half of another.

But dig a little deeper into his stories, and that same kind of obsessive detailing is there in the dialogue and plot. It's so easy to get distracted by his delicate and thin line, but there is so much more than that.

The most recent Shaolin Cowboy comic – Who'll Stop The Reign? – is full of incident and theme. There is still that intricate rendering, but it's all about the futility of revenge, and the end results of rampant capitalism, and about a world that has its head so far up its own arse it doesn't realise its choking on the fumes.

Entire manic adventures take place in brief flashbacks, or in single panel epics on the back cover. Sure, there is definitely some cheap thrills in seeing the monk use two dogs with huge knives for front legs as a pair of nunchaku to devastating effect on a bunch of goons with amazing tattoos, but the fairly subtle political subtext is just as interesting.

All the main characters come with a load of instant and usually tragic backstory, but even the background characters have their own story going on and their own problems and quests to deal with. Sometimes they end up intersecting with the Cowboy's own unique path, sometimes they're in and out again, and sometimes they meet horrible, gory fates. Karma is a bitch in Darrow's world, and usually comes with a bucket of blood.

There is a serene goofiness behind the the Shaolin Cowboy's adventures, and a circularity to his adventures – the path always ends in the same place. Darrow's depiction of those adventures is gorgeous, even when we see a lot more than we really want to.

But there is a lot going on beyond the extraordinary imagery – there is a story behind every butt, both the cigarettes and the assholes – and every explosion or car crash destroys a bunch of lives, in exact detail.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: Fifty freakin' years, man



It's a little disconcerting to realise that Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are 50 years old, but also quite comforting to see that they haven't changed all that much, and haven't learned a goddamn thing in all those years.

The Brothers were absolutely born out of the sixties counter-culture, part of the wave of undeground comics that shoved their way into our culture. Shelton's comics always stood out from the pack because they were genuinely funny ones that didn't just rely on shock horror, but on broad, stoned farce for laughs. It was always a bit R18, but also very, very silly.

Unlike a lot of his original contemporaries, Shelton has continued telling the story of the Bros over the years, periodically publishing new adventures of Phineas, Franklin and Fat Freddy. And the comic has proven to have a life well beyond Haight Ashbury district – the comics were still as strong in the 1980s, skewering the money-is-everything greedy capitalism of the eighties yuppie on the point of a fat blunt.

And now, nearly 20 years into the 21st century, and the Freaks are still out there. Shelton's line is a lot shakier than it used to be, but that's only to be expected after all the drugs, and he deserves a lot of credit that he's still doing new comics, all these years after they first emerged, blinking and already hungover, out into the world

A special comic noting the 50th anniversary of the Freaks came out late last year, full of homages and weird ephemera but also new stories that are still as sharp and as funky as ever.

Most importantly, these strange characters are facing the modern world but dealing with the same old problems – Phineas ia going to make a fool of himself trying to make some dodgy political point, Franklin is going to pull a pistol on the dumbest aspects of modern society, and you know Fat Freddy is going to get totally burned when he gets sent out to score (and will probably find religion along the way).

Of course, Fat Freddy's Cat is still the best character in the whole thing, putting up with all their hippy crap with disinterested resignation, while having his own crazy adventures off on the edges of the panel.

This lack of change might be frustrating for those who want their fictional characters to grow over time, but nobody reads the Freaks for their continuity, and after all these years, they exist in the eternal now, like all the great cartoon characters. The dope haze is as thick as it ever was, and isn't dissipating any time soon. 

We're all getting older, but the Freak Brothers keep rolling on, on their eternal high.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Punisher - The Platoon: Love on the battlefield



If you grow up on a steady diet of war comics, you're almost certainly going to turn into a big namby-pamby pacifist, because the best war stories aren't about the great tactics, or brilliant generals, or the movements of nations. They're about the poor bastard down in the trenches, trying not to get his fool head blown off.

Garth Ennis knows this better than anybody and never hesitates to sign up for a war comic, because stories set during the most intense and dramatic experiences in human history tend to be very interesting stories to tell, especially if you never forget the humanity in the blood and mud.

Ennis has still steadily telling his own brand of war stories, usually in a series of limited comics, for a few years now. Sometimes he even manages to get his themes of the injustice of war into things as unlikely as that Dick Dastardly comic, but his Punisher war comics for Marvel have been a step above.

For such a thuddingly unstoppable character, there really is no limit to the type of stories you can tell about the killing machine that is Frank Castle. He can be used as a full-stop on this whole horrible mess, or can be a symbol of the United states' deep-held belief that might makes right, or he can be a dude who just goes straight ahead and blows shit up and machine-gun some unforgivable scum straight to hell.

And the story of his Vietnam experiences - which were such a scar across the mid-to-late 20th century - have even more scope. We've already seen Ennis' Castle in action in Fur: My War Gone By and the Born limited series, but the first days in country, and the first people he ever killed, have now been examined in The Platoon.

Part of the reasons the Punisher war comics are some of Ennis' best is that he gets paired with a brilliant artists like Goran Parlov's art, whose art can be bombastic as hell, while also selling the silent moments, where there are no words for what's going on, and it's nobody else's damn business what those who were there were thinking anyway.

Parlov's art is always glorious, and Ennis raises his game to match it, getting new mileage out of the oldest of themes and ideas. The best thing about the Platoon story is that it captures that soldier's feeling that he will die for the man beside him, and that this is what keeps them going. That it's a true love – platonic, sure, and only sometimes physical - but real love between two men who save each others' lives on a regular basis.

At the same time as the Platoon was coming out, Ennis' ongoing War Stories comic at Avatar had a more traditional love story, of lost lovers impossibly reunited in the ravages of a continent set aflame by brutal conflict, and it's a spark of rare genuine warmth in the coldness of the constant conflict.

The love between two soldiers on the battlefield might not be as romantic as that kind of traditional love story, but it's just as valid. It can lead to sacrifice and unbearable bravery, but it's mostly there to get the soldiers through their long tour of duty, before they can go home. As Punisher: The Platoon coldly reminds us, love doesn't win wars - but it can help get us through the horror.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Visitor - How & Why He Stayed: A little light in the abyss



One of the most pleasant things about the small universe built up around Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics is the strong art direction. While many small comic companies are more interested in the high concept than great artwork, the comics put out under Mignola's careful eye feature art that is a vital and integral part of the overall storytelling,creating mood and atmosphere, and conveying fernetic action when called for.

It's an approach that encourages artists to have their own different styles, while still keeping a cohesive overall aesthetic. There is only the vaguest of house styles, somewhere between the heavy weight of Mignola's own line, and the fine detail of later Hellboy artist Duncan Fegredo.

There has definitely been more experimentation with that cohesion in the past couple of years, especially with a number of spin-off mini-series featuring side-characters of this vast and sprawling saga. Some of them are in the capable hands of the reliably excellent Ben Steinbeck, and others look like nothing else published under this imprint. The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed is most certainly one of the latter cases.

Paul Grist has been producing his own great comics for a couple of decades now,  but his simple, elegant and utterly distinctive artwork is still a breath of fresh air into the world of Hellboy. It's more heavily stylised than the usual comic in this universe and just a little bit more brighter and colourful.

It's especially fitting for this particular story, rather than in the ones about the Black Flame or Rasputin, because this isn't really like any other Hellboy story. There are still huge, unfathomable monsters from beyond the veil looking to soak up all our souls, and it does give the backstory to a weird character who made a tantalisingly tiny appearance in a Hellboys comic years and years ago, but this is something else.

Instead, the key relationship at the centre of The Visitor is a quiet love story that stretches over a lifetime. It subverts an obvious expectation of shock horror, when the alien's true form is revealed to his human wife, but she just tells him to stop speaking in alien jibber-jabber, and they get on with their life. It's a comic that says that the beauty beneath the skin, and how that's just as important when it comes to overcoming the darkness all around.

There is still also a melancholic air to it all - a being who just wants to stop the world suffering the same sad fate that his did. Even as the light of the alien's civilization dims in this cold uncaring universe, one of the last survivors continues on, as best he can.

There are still plenty of monsters that need to be punched back into the dark abyss, but it's not as important as losing somebody you love to the ravages of time. And even a dead alien, chained up and slumped against a castle wall, was somebody who loved, and was loved.

Grist's clear and efficient art effortlessly sells this heartbreak in a way other artists would struggle. It might be more cartoonish than other stories in this massive tapestry of a saga, but it's perfectly suited for the delicate touch the story requires. This one isn't set in hell, or in ancient forests, or on some battlefield. The Visitor takes place in the heart.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Ganges: What were you thinking?



The thought balloon has fallen hopelessly out of fashion in mainstream comic books, which is weird, because they just got filed down at the edges and turned into caption boxes. There's no real difference - square boxes are just so much cooler than fluffy ones. Apparently.

But even with the sharper corners, these glimpses into the inner-most thoughts of a character still always feel a little faked and forced, because nobody really thinks like that. Nobody thinks in clear, concise and grammatically-correct sentences. Human brains just don't work like that.

We're still struggling with what this whole 'consciousness' thing is all about, but there is a cacophony in the mind, as thoughts are created, processed and discarded. When we say words out loud, even if it is the most mundane sentence, there has already been a staggeringly complex process going on in the head to find the right thing to say

We don't think in straightforward sentences - our thoughts go back on themselves, interrupt previous ideas and keep repeating.

Capturing that kind of thought process in comic form is fucking hard, so it's no wonder so many writers default to hard-boiled narration. It's easy to comprehend, and follows a long tradition of first person narratives that dates back to novels from hundreds of years ago.

But some comic creators try to capture a different thought process, and Kevin Huizenga is certainly one of them. His Ganges comics have plenty of straightforward and clear thought balloons and captions, but also aren't afraid to break things down, especially when the main character is bone-tired, or half-asleep, or just wandering through life in an everyday fugue state.

With gorgeously accessible art, his comics are full of stories that drift around lazily, while managing to be stunningly complex on a craft level, with pleasantry universal themes of confusion, alienation and curiosity about the world. But nothing feels quite as familiar as Glenn Ganges tripping over his own thoughts, and losing himself in that strange white noise in his head.

He could be wandering around the streets of his dull suburbia, or lying in bed at night, wondering where the hell all that time goes, but when he doesn't even try to keep his thoughts in order, he could be any of us.

There are a lot of other curious delights in these comics, including some startling twisting of the conventions of a simple story or a brilliant willingness to follow a train of thought all the fucking way, but it's the rambling brain that give it all such an unmistakable taste of truth.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Oh boy



All this week, I've been thinking about this panel from Evan Dorkin's Dork #6, because I've been swinging wildly between feeling like the dickhead members of the Northwest Comix Collective, angrily rallying against a world full of stupidity and unfairness, and feeling like the kid in the corner, who just really digs Spider-Man.

I remain, as always, baffled by the fact that Dorkin isn't the most successful, well-loved and richest comic creator ever, because his shit is funny as fuck, incredibly clever and sometimes totally on point.

Monday, April 30, 2018

I still can't get my fucking comics


When I was teenager and living out my peak comic nerd period, I had to learn to live with missing out on issues of my favourite comics because I lived in a town of 3000 people on the arse end of the world, and it was pure foolishness to expect every issue to show up on the shelves of Baird's Bookshop.

Most issues of X-Men or 2000ad would still come through on a regular basis, but there would also be regular omissions, when the process to distribute these tiny pamphlets of joy would break down, and nothing would show up. I had absolutely no say on what would appear, and had to take what I was given.

I can still remember exactly what issues were missed, and because the nearest comic shop was several hundred kilometres away, it would literally take years to fill those holes in the stories. You could make the most of it – there can be something pleasantly non-linear about this kind of reading experience – but the missing holes were an aching void that would take a long time to fill.

I got used to this in small town life, but I'm still amazed that it still happens now, even though I live in the country's biggest city with two dedicated comic shops. I'm still on the arse end of the world and I still can't get my fucking comics.


There are two main reasons for this - customer loyalty and distributor douchebaggery. Most of my regular comic buying is through a store I've been supporting for about 15 years, long before I even moved to this city. The owner is a great, smart retailer who has supplied me with thousands of doses of comic brilliance over the years, and still does his best to feed that never-ending addiction every week.

But he's been totally screwed over by Diamond, with unexpected invoices and delayed shipments, and weeks can go by without anything, and then a month's worth of product will drop at once, but there is always something missing. He's stuck with a distribution monopoly, and can't do much about it, and I still have to take what I've been given.

When I got talked into signing up for the latest 16-part Avengers bash-a-thon, the only ones that came through were parts 2, 7 and 12. I ordered a regular supply of Matt Wagner's new Mage comics, and got issues 0, 1 and 5. I might be into the non-linear aspect of reading monthly comic books, but this just isn't really that satisfying

I could always go to the other store in town, who are fine people and get their comics on a timely basis because they can afford (just) to get a premium service, but I can't bail on my dude now. I don't have much to really offer the world, but I got loyalty. I'm with him to the end, no matter how many BPRD comics I'm going to have to hunt out somewhere else.


Of course, 2000ad has always been a constant in my comic life, and getting a new issue every week off the news-stand and reading it in the street is an eternal pleasure, and I only have to miss three or four issues a year.

I don't know who does the distribution for them, but they get very confused, especially around Christmas time, when the comic takes a four-week break after a big annual special. My local shop missed three of them altogether, including the special, and tried to make me pay $22 for the next one (the regular price is currently $8.80).

Once upon a time, there were hundreds and hundreds of dairies, bookshops and supermarkets that sold 2000ad, now there are only a couple, so I'm going to have to go buy the missing issues online. It still feels like cheating, but it's the only way.


The regular printed periodical comic book is still my favourite form of the medium, followed closely by big, chunky collections, while reading them on a phone or computer is of no interest at all. I want to consume them like this, because I worship the object as the most sublime form of entertainment I know.

But I think I'm going giving them up, and just waiting for the inevitable collection.This is getting ridiculous.