Monday, November 17, 2014

Outside the play-list

Nothing makes you feel old quite like getting stuck in a rut of liking the same old shit.

We live in a play-list age, where you can put all your favourite bits together, and there is so much of it, you don't need anything new. You can just listen to the same favourite tunes, and read the same kind of authors, over and over again.

It's so easy. It's too easy.

I fear change, but I also crave it, and always seek it out. That's how I've lived my life – I've never lived in the same house for longer than three and a half years, and I've never had a job that lasted four years. You gotta keep trying something new. You can't just see the same scenery on the way to work every day. You can do the same old shit day after day, but there are only so many days in a lifetime, and variety really is the spice of life.

Change can make me feel a bit sick and confused and weird. And excited and alive and free.

As in life, so it goes in entertainment. It's awfully comfortable reading, watching and listening to the same old shit, proven stories with a track record of emotional connection are understandably enticing. And there is nothing wrong in building up a rich library of established favourites, and revisiting them over the years, like old friends.

But there has to be something new. Man cannot survive on nostalgia alone, or he slides into inertia. There has to be novelty. 

Fortunately, there is always novelty. Even after more than a century of innovation and invention, the art of cinema can still be outstandingly original (even if that originality can be awfully rare),  and TV still beams small slices of head-splitting brilliance amongst the churn of idiocy into the living room every week. There is always something brilliant and new to watch.

And there is always something new to read in the wide and wonderful world of comics. I do still buy everything by favourite creators, but I'll also give something new a go, any time. You never know when you're going to stumble across something brilliant, unles you try. I still enjoy going through the big Previews catalogue, looking for something new to try, looking for something that looks sexy or exciting.

I still have to be a realist about it all, and despite numerous attempts at grimly determined optimism on this blog, I have to admit that the vast majority of new comics I try out are fuckin' awful - often morally and artistically repellent. But it's easy enough to ignore all that and keep trying, searching for some kind of sublime beauty or unexpected connection. It's totally worth it.

I like the same old stuff I’ve always liked and I don’t want it to be changed, because that’s hard and awkward and weird. But I also like that hard, awkward weirdness – it’s exciting and new and reminds me why I’m alive.

And there is nothing quite like finding new music, like hearing a song for the first time that speaks to your soul, or thrills you to the very core. Great new music is a reason for living, and we live at a time where there is so fucking much new stuff, gatekeepers of taste are required to keep track of the tiniest fraction of new music. It's all out there, on YouTube or Spotify or whatever, all available for anybody who wants it.

But the paradox is that we also have the ability to create our own play-lists, and can merrily spend all our time listening to the same old stuff, without having to worry about the new. Even the most narrow of musical tastes has thousands of hours of music to satisfy and collect together in one long list, without having to resort to anything new.

Even a half-arsed playlist can still contains thousands and thousands of songs, which can be used as a soundtrack for life, the mix-tape mentality annihilating the importance of an album – no ups and downs in quality or mood or rhythm, just the never-ending great stuff..

Having all your favourite songs ever in one place is great, but can leave you listening to the same brilliance over and over again, and losing the ability to track down new thrills. Which is why, after a decade of abstinence, I've started listening to the radio again.

The same things that drove me away from the radio – things like the awful, blaring adverts and moronic DJs – are still there, but it is still, after all this time, a magnificently valuable source of novelty.

I skip between half a dozen radio stations, including hard rock, student and pure pop stations, looking for new stuff, and getting fed a regular amount of it. It's where I find music I never would have heard otherwise, pushing me into finding even more. I still like listening to the same old intense shit I always liked, but now I'm hearing things I never could have imagined. (It's also brilliant for reminding me of old favourites I'd forgotten about, or never truly appreciated before.)

We're losing that art of browsing - buying the usual books online is infinitely less satisfying than stumbling across something unexpectedly wonderful on the shelf of an actual store, and the random tunes that a radio station shoves into my world are always welcome with their unpredicted charms.

I know what I want a lot of the time, and that's easy enough to find. But it's the stuff I don't know I want that is actually needed, and I don't mind admitting I need help with it.

My musical tastes are painfully predictable, but they haven't atrophied just yet. There is still a bit of vitality and life in there.

I'm listening to the radio even as I write these words, and it's played songs I never could have chosen myself, filling my head with new sounds. And as long as there are new sounds to hear, I'll be seeking them out.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I hate my computer and my computer hates me

One day a computer is going to kill me.

They're going to find me slumped over a keyboard somewhere, blood leaking from my ears, with a heart stopped by pure rage, because a piece of technology wouldn't do what it bloody well should.

Because nothing drives me into a red rage like malfunctioning technology. I know this is the ultimate first world problem, and I know it's bloody stupid, but it's the only thing that gets me punch-the-wall angry on a regular basis.

And knowing just how stupid it is just makes it worse. If I lose my shit when Solitaire keeps crashing on the new version of Windows, I hope to God nobody can see me, because I'm throwing a petulant little tantrum over bullshit, and nobody looks good doing that.

(Although, seriously, how do you fuck up Solitaire? How do you fuck up the most basic game you've got? Microsoft somehow managed, and it drives me fuckin' bonkers!)

People always assume I'm good with computers, because I look like the sort of dork who is good with computers, and because I'm good at quickly picking up tech-related things. But even though I can bluff my way through most of it, I usully don;t have a fucking clue what I'm talking about.

I did do some IT work for a couple of years in the mid nineties, and I was okay at iyt, but then a network I'd set up wouldn't work and I'd get all worked up about it. I did like the problem solving aspect, and fixing an itchy glitch was the best feeling, but there was always more frustrations that joys.

But shit, that was 20 years ago now, and technology has exploded since then, and I could never keep up. The way the internet works might as well be magic, for all I know. I even work in an online world, but I have no idea how it all works. When people are surprised by this, I also point out that I'm a bloody good driver, but I ain't no mechanic.

So I know it's bullshit, but man, when a computer doesn't do what it is told, or locks up for absolutely no reason, or steals 30 seconds of my vital and important life which I could have spent wanking, I'm a quivering mountain of suppressed rage.

If it happens in an office environment, I hold it together enough to not make a scene, because you never want to be known as the dude who lost his shit that one time, or you'll ALWAYS be known as the dude who lost his shit that one time, but I'll be quietly mashing the mouse into the desk with white knuckle intensity.

But when it happens at home, that's when things get really shameful. I have these giant banana boxes full of comics stacked near the home PC, and when things don't go my way, those boxes can take a pummelling.

They're actually quite good for that - punching paper is easier than punching oak or steel. But sometimes the computer locks up, or shuts down with unfinished work left unsaved, and I punch the shit out of a box of comics, and it still hurts like hell, and if I hurt it enough, I might realise how fucking stupid I'm being and calm down. I might.

I can't tell if the anger malfunctioning technology stirs in my soul comes from the same place that loves the fucking things when they're working fine. My life-long enthusiasm for video games remains undimmed (as I discovered this week while catching up with the latest version of GTA). New technology remains fascinating, if only in ideal, and current computers free us all from the shackles of geography.

Without modern computers, I wouldn't be able to find out that Bruce Campbell is coming back for new Evil Dead half an hour after it was announced, and I wouldn't be able to write meta-tastic blog posts about that time I punched a box of comics in computer-induced rage, and share them with the world, and anybody who can be bothered reading them.

Thanks to technology, this is the Age Of Communication, where we can all talk to each other, about anything we want. I truly think this is a great thing, demolishing nationalism's toxic propaganda and exposing great injustices on a global scale.

Which is all when and good, but when that enforced patch update has been stuck at 93% for 20 minutes, locking everything on the computer, every piece of tech ever created can go get fucked, I'm pushing for a return to the stone age.

It also drives me crazy because there is no reason for technology to malfunction – all of our tech operates on the most basic binary level, where everything is 'yes/no'. Never 'maybe'.

This is an absolute clarity that Steve Ditko could only dream of. There is something even a little spiritual in the fundamental truth of a binary language, and its clear lines of demarcation.

So I can handle it when a human makes a fuck-up (unless it's intentionally malicious), because humans are these vastly complex creations which sometimes do things for no good reason whatsoever, but computers don't have that freedom, or complexity. They work or they don't. Yes or no. Nothing else.

Again, I don't want to live in a world with computers. They make life easier, and more fun, and more engaging. I use them every day, for both work and pleasure.

But I don't use them for everything, and I never, ever read books or comics or magazines on a device, despite plenty of good arguments for a digital life. It's partly that weird thing of making a pleasantly pointless pastime feel like work, but it's mainly because I just don't trust the technology to always work. Even putting aside battery issues, you still can't beat a printed object for ease of use.

You could take the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man and throw it off the Empire State Building, and then run over it in a cab, and then roll it up and kill a wasp with it, and still read the damn thing when you're done, while my friend had an iPad that shut down if you farted in its general direction.

I can't take that kind of aggravation, not with my comics. Comic books are pure pleasure, I can't taint it with my tech issues. I just can't.

So that's why I know my fate, and it's face-down on the desk. I hope it's a long time in the far future, that sees me bursting a blood vessel over the Windows 17.X installation, falling onto a keyboard made of squid or some shit.

Computers that don't work are not worth this kind of aggravation, but it's there, bubbling away. It could be argued that it's a good form of stress release that wouldn't be unleashed in an anti-social situation, but that doesn't make my hand ache any less.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Head space: FULL

This week, I have been spending most of my spare time reading magnificently chunky World Of Ice and Fire book, intersperse with a final heroic push to finally finish off Lance Parkin's epic AHistory: A History Of The Doctor Who Universe.

As a result, my head is far too full of vast, complicated and contradictory chronologies to string a coherent thought together, let alone write anything for this blog. Instead, I need to come down from the data overload by going for long walks in the sudden sunshine, playing 10-year-old video games, and watching some Adam Curtis' films, which are surprisingly relaxing.

Normal service, such as it is, will resume later this week.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Five from 1975

I turn 40 early next year, and I'm going to try and ignore the eternal wail of mortality by spending part of the big day driving around Jeff Lester's favourite Portland comic shops.

I also take comfort in the fact that while I am now officially an old fuck, the world is a very, very different place from what it was 40 years ago, and I see it most obviously in five comics that came out the year I was born.

1. Uncanny X-Men #94

I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or not, but it is somewhat startling to realize that the huge success of the X-Men title, including all of Chris Claremont’s monumental run and the past 20 years of hits and misses, has only happened in my lifetime.

It’s fascinating to go back and look at these early Claremont/Cockrum issues now, and see how they are slightly above-average superhero comics of the time, but now tempered by the knowledge that these silly little comics are laying the foundation for something that will change superhero comics forever.

Throwaway lines spawn huge, sprawling, decades-long stories, and there is a palpable sense of the creators throwing everything into the mix, just waiting to see what sticks – the latest Sentinels upgrade, or the dopey Ani-Men, or the Shi'ar craziness, or the weird demons that live down the back of Professor Xavier's garden, or those freaking leprechauns.

This is where it all starts, and it's still got a lot of evolution to come, and it's there right through my life – Death of Phoenix at age six, rabid fanaticism as a teenager, active disinterest coming and going as an adult. Like it or not, I've been molded by the X-Men.

2. Battle Picture Weekly #1

Across the Atlantic, Battle was a sister comic to 2000ad, focusing on war instead of science fiction, and published a couple of years before the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic premiered. Even though both comics shared a lot of the same creators, Battle never really reached the same level of quality as 2000ad, with frequent filler stories that were never more than average in art and story. It still lasted more than a decade, but eventually choked on silly juvenile bullshit.

But it was also an important bridge between the awfulness of earlier British war comics, with painfully simplistic stories with one-dimensional characters and bland, boring art, transforming into something new.

There was still a lot of ‘Achtung! Britisher scum!’ going on in Battle, especially in the earliest issues, but it also wasn't afraid to show the horrors of war, with strips like Charley's War and Johnny Red focusing on flawed heroes, caught up in massive, world-changing events, and the horrors they inevitably bring.

Creators like Pat Mills and John Wagner pushed the war comic into new depths, and take those lessons on to comics like Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock, and Battle remains a crucial step in that growth.

3. Strange Tales #181

Some Marvel Comics went pleasantly strange in the 1970s, and writers dropped acid to experience new perspectives, and tried to get their trippy revelations down in four-colour glory.

A lot of those comics are almost unreadable now, as some of the basics of comic storytelling, essential for any kind of reading comprehension, slipped by, but others are timelessly and wonderfully fucked up.

I came to Jim Starlin’s Warlock comics at a very young age, only a couple of years after they were published, and they seriously scared the piss out of me, because they just didn’t make any sense.

And of all the Starlin comics of that era, this one, with the piles of dead clowns buried in trash and diamonds, was the freakiest. It was the sheer pointlessness of the surreal horror that stuck, and still sticks with me.

It might have taken me a while to catch up, but things got fucking weird in the mid-seventies, and who would want it any other way?

4. Footrot Flats

For many comic strip fans, Peanuts is generally regarded as the pinnacle of the form. Unless you live in New Zealand, where it was always, always Footrot Flats.

Life down on the farm could be harsh and cruel, but it could also be human and funny, and Footrot Flats captured that contrast perfectly. It first started appearing in 1975, but soon became a hugely popular and incredibly funny fixture in almost every newspaper in the country, and spawned a surprisingly dark – and still faithful – cartoon feature in the late eighties.

For 20 years, the story of the Dog, Wal, Cooch, Cheeky, Rangi, Aunt Dolly & her beloved Prince Charles, Pongo and the unmovable Horse the cat ruled New Zealand’s funny pages, and a full shit-ton of collected books were sold every year (and still smell like Christmas to me).

Nothing has spoken to so many Kiwis at the same time, and it's highly likely nothing ever will again – many NZ newspapers don't carry any real comic strips at all, (although some are still reprinting Footrot Flats, 20 years after they're gone).

But for two glorious decades, everyone was happy to visit the farm. It's the one comic my Nana and I could love equally, and it's still a wonderful cultural touchstone that is still funny as hell.

5. The Joker #2

The short-lived comic starring the Clown Prince of Crime is another comic I came to at a very young age – and Joker #2 is actually one of the very first individual stories I ever remember reading.

In fact, it’s irrevocably tied in to one of my first existential dilemmas, because I still have a vivid memory of sitting in my bed at six in the morning somewhere in the late seventies, reading this comic, when my Dad left for work, and I just couldn’t understand why he had to go away every day, and the misery of being separated, even if only for a few hours, was everything, and all I could do was read this comic to help me feel better.

And I’m still doing that today – escaping into these strange and wonderful worlds of comics when it all gets a bit too much. I might be nearly 40, but there is still some part of me that is that confused little kid in the 1970s, reading a Joker comic to keep the fears – and tears - away.

NOTE: This list was originally created for Tom Spurgeon's fabulous Five For Friday feature at The Comics Reporter. Please go and make your own list for Tom when he asks for them, I keep forgetting because it's Saturday here when it happens and I'm never on my bloody computer then.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lost in Armageddon

It was somewhere just past the 3d lenticular Walking Dead wall hangings that we got stuck. The crowd had reached a point where there was no room for anybody to move, and we were all stuck at the crossroads between the video gaming hall and the stalls full of replica steampunk weapons.

It was my mate Kyle’s first Armageddon geek convention in Auckland – the biggest nerd event of the year – and he'd travelled all the way from the South Island for a day at the show. It started out as a bunch of trading card and comic book dealers gathering at a racecourse hall in the mid-nineties, and now attracts tens of thousands of happy nerds. The trading card dealers are all long gone, but there are still a few comic stands out there, and that’s why I’m there.

Kyle is there for other things – a chance to get an autograph and photo with a current Doctor Who companion is a ‘no-brainer’, so he’s flown up from down south just for that. The lines for this briefest of interactions is surprisingly fast, and he’s free, so we go to walk the con floor, get about 20m and get hopelessly, helplessly stuck in a sea of geek.

It’s no use moaning about it. I’m still taller than 90 per cent of the crowd, so I can see over their heads and see that the hall has become hopelessly gridlocked. The showgrounds has wide, clear aisles, but there are just too many people, and one hopelessly impractical Silent Hill cos-player getting stranded at a crucial juncture can bring everything grinding to a halt.

So all we can do is wait for a moment to clear, and take more interest in those lenticular wall hangings than they deserve. The only other option for freedom is to start treading all over the seven-year-old in a Captain America costume beside us, and that would not be a good look, so we just help shield the little guy from the flow of the crowd.

Earlier in the day, Kyle and I got into the exhibition space early through the magical power of media passes, so got a chance to scope out all the stands before the day actually started, and now that he’s got his scrawl and pic, he’s happy. We would bolt altogether and go for a quiet beer somewhere, but there is one more stand I want to get back to, because I'm not done with the comics just yet.

There is a brief surge in the crowd, nothing violent, more a moment of relief, and we get to backtrack down the aisle a bit, but we only get 10 metres before everything grinds to a halt again.

At least we’ve got a different view and, improbably, it’s a comic stand. High end back issues, where 9.8-grade issues of the Claremont/Miller Wolverine #1 and mylered-up issues of early Fantastic Four comics go for hundreds of dollars.

It's good to check out all those gorgeous covers while we're stuck here, but this is not my market – I crave the old stuff, but don’t give a damn about the condition, so I’m more happy buying 20 $1 issues of DC war and horror comics from the 1970s from a different stand, rather than one half-way decent issue of mid-sixties Justice League.

(I always have weird regrets from these kind of things – I see a comic that I desperately want, but it’s just a little too expensive, and then I wish I’d gone back and I regret it forever, and it comes at this booth – that Spider-Man v Super-Man Treasury edition is looking a little ragged for thirty bucks, but I’ve never seen it for less than $50 in this part of the world, and I’ve just about talked myself into getting it, and then there is a gap in the crowd, so we bolt for it, and I leave it behind, and that was two days ago, and I’m still cursing myself as a stupid fucking wanker for passing on it.)

Even without that titanic team-up, I still come back with a small pile of comic goodness, and some fairly inexplicable awfulness

The day before the crush, on a Friday night preview, my American friend Nik somehow convinces me that I should really get all five issues of Trouble, the universally panned romance comic by Mark Millar and Terry & Rachel Dodson, for a whole $2.50, and it's actually an easy sell, because I do still like those creators, and have always been fascinated by the vastly negative reaction to this series.

But it will be a while until I get around to reading it, because there is a whole bunch of other good stuff. Beautiful little oddities like The Joe Kubert School Presents: 1st Folio #1, Charles Vess' The Book Of Night and Buck Godot: Zap Gun For Hire. Crucial gap fillers, including the inevitable 2000ad and Vertigo comics. That small mountain of ratty war and horror comics, and Tom Spurgeon's sweet hardcover book about the Romita family.

And, best of all, the Dharma Punks, the only comic I've ever helped Kickstart, is finally available in a collected edition, and I arrange to pick up my copy at the show, and congratulate Ant Sang on finally getting it out. Trouble can wait, when there are three-hundred pages of kiwi punk comix to devour. 

But before I can get to all that, I have to get out of here alive. We get a bit further towards the corner of the hall before we’re stuck again, as we’re hit face-on by a surge of people from a panel starring Richard Dean Anderson, but then we duck down past the dude with the awesome Judge Dredd tee-shirts (I already got three), and we're almost free of the mass.

It could be so easy to freak out in this situation. It’s actually a good vibe. It's like a good concert, where there can be long frustrating lines for refreshments and toilets, but everyone is just stoked to be there, buzzing off their favourite band, just like we're buzzing off our favourite comic, or game, or TV show.
And when we all get stuck, there is no need to panic, especially with so many kids around. Nobody gets really shitty and everybody waits patiently for a gap, even if- Shit! There's some room! Go, go, go!

And then we’re free, ducking down a side corridor and coming out near that stand with the weirdest and most wonderful comics available at the show. This is why I'm here.

I'm here for the place where I can get two (2!) Dave Cockrum tribute books, a rare early Knuckles the Malevolent Nun comic, some Milligan/Aparo Batman, the first three issues of Toxic, the last four issues of Marvel's Vampire Tales, random issues of Bizarre Adventures and Savage Tales, a Young Blueberry album and dense issues of Deadline & the Comics Journal – all for less than fifty bucks.

I don't care about the long lines, or the crowd compression, or the sheer weight of nerd that descends on the Auckland showgrounds every year. Not when there is such treasure to be found.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Censorship can really fuck you up

As long as there has been art, there have been people wanting to cover it up and keep it quiet.

Censorship exists in that brutal space where individual artistic freedom slams into the blunt wall of society's moral code – it was there when ancient Christians hacked the cocks off Roman statues, and again and again in the past century - when William Gaines failed to explain why a severed head was in good taste, when the UK Government lost its shit over video nasties in the early 1980s, and when US artist Mike Diana's comics were deemed so gross he was actually legally forbidden to draw anything.

The crusaders for good taste stake their claim on the moral high ground, and don't even understand why there is resistance to their meddling and editing. But they're also hilarious in their piousness, especially when all their efforts don't mean shit, because censorship never really works. And sometimes it just makes things worse.

I know where I stand on the argument: artistic freedom is paramount, and no matter how disturbing or offensive things get, I always know one simple rule – and it's one that 95% of people figure out while they're still kids – it's not real. It's okay, it's just fiction.

There are writers and comedians and other know-it-alls that are deliberately provocative, trying as hard as they can to be offensive, and my little punk heart thrills to see them trying to get a reaction, and while it's also so terribly adolescent, I don't think you can ever shut them up. After all, how will you ever learn what people really think if you don't let them speak?

I'll always stand up for the little guy. I proudly get the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund annual issue every year, even if fully half the stories are always painfully, painfully earnest. After all, I have a fascination with intense fiction – the kind of stories that go all the way, and then some – and that leads to regular frowning and muttering, and even to outright cutting or banning, if enough people get their knickers in a twist.

It doesn't work. I remember watching Robocop on TV, somewhere in the early nineties, and after they cut all the swearing and violence out, it just made it all more noticeable in its absence, especially when the cuts took out key parts of the plot. It was laughable, especially when they would dub over horrid swear words, and mother fuckers would become melon farmers.

Censorship invariably brings attention on the thing it's trying to suppress – I would never have heard of Mike Diana if his artistic rights hadn't been trampled upon. In a typically brilliant episode of Father Ted, an attempt to say 'down with this sort of thing' makes a dodgy filim all the more enticing, because nothing makes people want to see something more than somebody else standing in the way, saying they really shouldn't.

The worst case of censorship I ever saw, (and its hilariously awful consequences,) was a few years ago when the lovely wife and I were in Egypt. It was the hottest part of the day, and everyone was getting in out of the sun, and we were chilling in our hotel room, with the air conditioner on maximum.

One of the few English language stations was playing old movies, and Billy Wilder's marvellous The Seven Year Itch came on, and it was just the thing for the long wait for the shadows to lengthen: a witty, clever story of life in the big city.

It's a terrific film, with one of Marilyn Monroe's greatest performances. And it's a stifling, claustrophobic and muggy film, set in the confining skyscrapers of New York in the middle of a stinking hot summer, with all sorts of temptations to let off a little steam.

It all famously reaches a head in Marilyn's scene with the subway wind blowing up her dress, and it's not just a gloriously iconic moment in cinema, it's a real moment of release of all the frustrations of the film, finally giving it some room to breathe. While watching the film in my tiny Cairo hotel room, I knew that scene was coming, and craved that breathing space in provided in the story.

And then they cut it right out.

The Egyptian TV that we got to see had no problem with a bit of the old ultra-violence, but physical intimacy was right out. No holding hands, no embracing, and definitely no kissing, even in something that was more than half a century old.

And definitely no Marilyn Monroe enjoying herself.

It was easy to see the cut, and you could even understand the motives of the censors (without ever having to actually condone it). But it threw the whole movie out of balance – without this moment of pleasure, the film was just stuffy and hot, and massively unsatisfying. Without any contrast or release, there was almost no point to the whole film any more.

In trying to keep minds uncorrupted, they left them frustrated, which doesn't work out for anybody.

And then! On the flight home, the lovely wife was watching that awful Australia film, starring Huge Jackman and Nikki Kidman, and she was really into it, because that's the sort of thing she's into, and it was all leading up to the moment when the rugged man and determined woman finally embrace and...

They cut out the kiss, because we were on an Emirates flight, and they didn't want to corrupt us with images of face-locking, and the lovely wife almost punched the screen in emotional frustration.

She said it was the biggest tease ever, with no reward. A harmless little romance movie becomes something deeply frustrating.

A year after we left Egypt there was a revolution against the government. I'm not saying a national government was overthrown because of an oppressive approach to entertainment that denies any kind of real release or relief from the stress of modern life, but it probably didn't help.

We all need our entertainments to get through this slog of a life, and any film that is thrown out of careful balance can become incoherent, or actively subvert the actual message of the movie.

That's why you can't trust people who try and stop you experiencing your kind of art, especially when they're telling you it's for your own good. Because that kind of closed mindedness isn't good for fucking anybody.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

They might be superheroes who fuck, but they're still just fucking superheroes

A good friend of mine named Max (not his real name) had a real alcohol problem when he was younger. It cost Max his marriage and his job, and he was a hair's breadth away from falling into homelessness.

But he pulled back from all that, and slowly got his shit together. But when Max tells people he had alcohol issues, they often don't believe him, because he still enjoys a wine with dinner or a beer at the rugby. He doesn't get drunk anymore, but he'll still savour a couple of drinks.

Max's reasoning is that  if he gave up the booze completely, it would still be running his life, even through its absence, and his method of avoiding chronic alcoholism meant he couldn't give it that much power over his life. He's always clear that this doesn't work for everybody – most former alcoholics can't taste a single beer without falling into addiction, but it certainly works for him.

Comparing a terrible issue like alcoholism to superhero comics might be a little trite, but this is (mostly) a blog about comics. Trite is what I'm here for, so I'm going there anyway.

For decades now, I've been reading essays, articles and interviews (and in the past few years, watching videos and listening to podcasts), bemoaning the impact of the superhero genre on the comic medium, convinced that comics would only thrive and grow if everybody stopped reading bloody Spider-Man comics. After all, there were so much good non-superhero comics out there, why couldn't everybody be reading Eightball instead?

The authors of these very serious think-pieces are always at pains to point out that they don't actually read the silly things, (except the odd Morrison comic, but, you know, he's one of the 'good' ones), but that they are all obviously tarnished with infantile power fantasies and deep-seated misogyny, while the treatment of the iconic superheroes' creators also allows them to take a warm and smug position of moral superiority.

I read and listen to these things because they can be both genuinely thoughtful and unintentionally hilarious, sometimes in the same piece, but I don't really ever understand them.

If they really don't like superheroes that much, why the hell do they spend so much time and effort talking about them?

I guess my first issue is that I'm not even remotely interested in defining what a superhero comic is. That just leads to tedious arguments over genre definition – the single most boring discussion you can have about your fiction – and nobody wins those. I still occasionally see long message board discussions or Twitter conversations that spend a lot of time and effort trying to work out if Judge Dredd is a superhero or not, and all I can think is: Who gives a shit? Does it really matter? Judge Dredd is a great comic, who cares what category it goes into?

I can certainly understand the frustration when things like Youngblood sold a million copies, while people ignored the ongoing brilliance of things like Love and Rockets. But I stopped getting upset about the tastes of the general public not matching my own when I was a goddamn teenager, and realised it didn't matter what was #1 on the pop charts, I could just listen to the stuff I liked. And just because I liked it, doesn't mean everybody else has to.

I don't shed tears over the state of cinema when the Transformers films rack up billions, despite being total bollocks, while interesting movies die at the box office – I'll do my bit, but I can't make everybody like the good stuff, because everybody won't like the good stuff.

But the main issue, is that once you decide you don;t like something anymore, or grow out of it, or remain eternally baffled by it's popularity, why spend more time dealing with it? Move the fuck on.

I really, really don't like Geoff Johns' interpretation of superheroes, so I don't read Geoff Johns' superhero comics, and that's all okay. He certainly had his fans, and his stories do resonate with many people, so I can stand aside, and move on.

In fact, I'm genuinely not interested in 95% of the superhero comics published every month – the vast majority are tedious, unimaginative and bland. And it's incredibly easy to skip past them and zoom in on the stuff I really want.

Because I do still like a smart, stylish superhero comics, and there is still that 5% of the good stuff.  Sometimes it shows up in the strangest of places, and sometimes it appears from the most trusted of creators, but there are still some wonderful superhero comics out there.

And I love the good stuff, because I love the ideal of the super-hero. I know the actual comics can be horrible, but their foundation on fairness and justice and compassion is timeless.

You can rail against them all you want, but those kind of ideals never die, no matter how bad an individual comic can get.

It's only going to get worse, as superheroes seep further into all aspects of modern culture. Cinema and television can now do big epic superheroic shit without resorting to making it jokey, and some of the biggest movies of the current age feature men in tights. (Or kevlar, or rubber, or whatever the hell they use now.)

But don't worry about it. That's Max's point – a pint of cold cider on a warm summer's day is just refreshing, nothing more. He doesn't sit there making a point of avoiding past temptations, he just ignores them and gets on with his life.

Again, that's not for everybody, and I have other friends who I am super glad they will never drink again, but if it works for somebody in a big, life-changing event like alcoholism, it can work in the silly world of comics.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Them's fighting comics

I like stylish and smart comics – comics that make you think, while looking good. I like complex sagas and humanistic aches, and I’m always looking for comics with a bit of thematic, emotional and spiritual depths.

There are plenty of comics that are both intellectually stimulating and terribly moving, and we could always use more. They make us all better people.

But sometimes, all I want to read is a comic book featuring two characters beating the living crap out of each other.

Kirby was the King because he brought power and motion into the funnies like nobody before him, but the lessons he taught have been diluted through the generations. Fight scenes in modern mainstream comics are usually painfully generic – a whole lot of posing followed by uninspired fisticuffs, as characters run around unbound by realities like gravity or momentum.

After all, it isn’t easy to stage a good fight scene in this static medium. Action scenes are all built around movement, and that's the one thing comics can’t do. Instead, they have to create the illusion of movement through smart staging and thoughtful use of the space between panels to build the notion of a live beatdown.

There are still plenty of modern artists who can draw a mean action scene – Stuart Immonen‘s action scenes in recent X-Men comics are vibrant and alive, and the sheer power of Frank Miller’s art often blinds me to the dodgy ideology of his stories.

And there are still plenty of good action scenes in comics, you’ve just got to be prepared to look for them among the mountain of mediocre mayhem. There are still great fight scenes lurking in a new Shaolin Cowboy or BPRD comic. I’m usually only truly blown away by a nice piece of action once a month or so, but sometimes you get a double dose, in the unlikeliest worlds of noir and laffs.

There were two tastes of terrific action in the small stack I brought home from my most recent visit to the friendly local comic shop. The comics they appeared in couldn’t be more different, but they both came with pure thrills.

The first one was in Matt Wagner’s latest Grendel comic, so that wasn’t much of a surprise, because Matt Wagner’s Grendel comics often come with clear, distinctive action scenes, (his second Batman/Grendel story is often sneered at for a lack of complexity, but has some of the best smackdowns in comics). But the fight scene in the opening pages of issue two of Grendel vs The Shadow #2 was still excitingly unpredictable.

The appeal of crossover comics like this is that you get to see iconic characters who have never met before truly test themselves against a worthy opponent, and it’s enormously satisfying to see The Shadow kick seven kinds of hell out of Hunter Rose.

Hunter Rose is a great character – arguably one the greatest comic characters to be created in the 1980s – but he is also a bit of an insufferable prick. Arrogant beyond words and bitingly callous, the only times he is really put through his paces is when he takes on another powerful figure, usually from another universe.

And The Shadow definitely wins the first fight between these two - after Grendel ended up back in the Shadow’s era through some kind of time travel shenanigans, the two were always bound to clash – with Grendel’s cocky arrogance see him losing the battle, and his wickedly lethal fork.

It’s pulse-pounding action, with blows landing with a cracking ferocity, and Grendel’s flying attacks coming up against the brick wall of The Shadow’s unbreakable will. It’s clear, concise action, as two uber-men with extraordinary skills show off their moves, which include hypnotism, smoke bombs, and wicked jabs at nerve clusters.

The second issue ends with an imminent rematch, as Grendel uses his smarts and his natural sneakiness to get the upper hand, and the concluding part of the story is bound to feature more of the same magnificent fisticuffs. Bring it on.

The Shadow and Grendel are fighting in a dark world of stark colours and intense sneers, but there was a second blast of decent action in last week's comics, in an entirely different world - a world of swords, and sorcery, and cheese dip.

I didn’t start getting Groo vs Conan because I was desperate to see some kind of titanic clash between two quintessential barbarians, I got it because Groo comics are always jam-packed full of laffs, and the comic's inherent silliness only amplified when contrasted against the moody seriousness of Conan. Conan has cracked about four jokes in his entire history, and although his po-faced seriousness can often be hilarious, it's usually not intended to get that reaction.

But that makes him the perfect straight man to Groo, as Conan wrestles with the unbelievability of Groo's seriousness before the mayhem starts. That's not surprising, and it's not surprising that the sub-plot of an addled Aragones running around the city, totally out of his mind and imagining the whole crossover, is also hilarious.

But what was surprising was how exciting the actual battle between these two swordsman actually is.

When they finally throw down, it’s a proper fight, with Groo's furiously pumping arms and legs against Conan's slower, more powerful bulk. It really shouldn’t work, with Tom Yeates’ textured Conan smacking up against Aragones’ usual rubbery line, but it does, and that contrast only helps build up the flow of the action.

It also helps that the fight at the end of #3 of the crossover is really, really funny, with Groo spouting silly lines – “Groo moves with the speed of a duck!” - or stopping in the middle of the battle and trying to remember what his great skills actually are (probably something to do with having a good memory).

The two characters clash with confounding calamity, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful mess.

The fact that both of these comics are crossovers mean there can’t really be a result to all this fighting – Groo can’t slay Conan and The Shadow can’t put Grendel down for good.

But that's okay - I'm not in it for the thrill of who-beats-who,  it's the fun of the fight itself, and even in this gloriously static medium, there is some fast-paced action to savour.