Friday, June 22, 2018

Barry Linton goes to the movies

Barry Linton is a deadset Kiwi comix legend - producing stories and art full of stony dreamers, punk rockers and an ultra-thick line for more than 40 years.

His comic output isn't as prodigious as it once was, but his art has shown up in a lot of different places, including local screen industry magazine OnFilm, which used his pictures to make a regular column look a whole lot prettier.

I ended up with some his original art from these OnFilm cartoons through a convoluted series of events, and I gotta get them back to him soon, (in this country, you can track down somebody like Barry with a bit of mild e-mailing). But before I do, I had to share some of my favourites here, because they're so goddamn beautiful, and after seeing so much of his art in glorious black and white, his use of vivid pastels is extraordinary.

Some of the subject matter of these cartoons is pretty obscure and full of weird in-jokes about the state of the NZ film industry a decade ago, but who cares about that when they look so spunky?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The moment Keith Giffen blew up everything

Most comic book artists with evolving and ever-changing styles take their time about it. Some barely change at all, just get more polished or refined, but some artists can produce work with a strikingly different look and feel during their careers. It usually takes years, or even decades, for their style to change like this, to become something new.

Most artists aren't Keith Giffen. When he blew up his own comfortable style of art, he did it in three pages:

This is from Legion of Super-Heroes v4 #39 and it's the last issue Giffen would do for the 'five yeas later' Legion. And in just a few panels, he goes from the familiar blocky shadowing that he'd been doing for most of the past decade, and takes a sudden leap into a style full of scratchy detail, comical exaggeration and strange pastel colours.

He might have changed everything on a sudden whim, but Giffen would stick with this distinctive style for a while, producing Lobo and Trencher comics full of extraordinary gore made palatable by his gonzo scratchings. His current style is somewhere inbetween the two extremes seen in these few pages, but who knows if he's going to blow it u again?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Be pure, be vigilant, be Torquemada!

I didn't learn about the glorious nightmare that is Hieronymous Bosch's 500-year-old Garden of Unearthly Delights in an art history class, or in a thick textbook, or by seeing his art on the wall of some great art gallery. I learned about it from a choose-your-own-adventure comic by Pat Mills and Bryan Talbot that featured in Diceman, a title that was spun out of 2000ad in the late eighties, where I got to pretend to be a xenophobic despot – one of the truly greatest arseholes to ever grace the comic page – in a hallucinatory journey through an alien landscape based heavily on Bosch's masterpiece.

Everyone should learn a bit of art history this way.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Toxic nerdistry: We're not watching the same thing and we're not on the same page

It was somewhere around the second season of The Sopranos that I realised I wasn't the same show as my mates were, because they seemed to be only into it for the sex and violence - and there was loads of both - and I was in it for the thoughtful study of the death of the American dream, (although the sex and violence certainly helped, as well).

I never really judged anybody for this. That's the way people watched that show, and it was good enough for them, but I just felt a little sad that they weren't there for the transcendence, just the bullet in the head. It just felt like they were missing out on the shit that made that story so fucking good, the poor bastards.

On the other hand, I don't feel any sympathy for anyone who watches a bloody Star Wars films and comes away with the idea that it's all right to personally insult and attack the people involved in making it - especially one who provided some much need colour into the universe - just because the story didn't go the way they wanted.

That's not sad. They're just fucking dickheads.

I just don't get how people can watch a Star Wars movie and walk away with the idea that it's okay to harass an actor until they have to shut down their friendly social media presences. Are we watching the same thing? Are they identifying too much with the rabid space nazi fuckheads? Because those films make it pretty fucking clear they are not good people, and should not emulated in any way.

How can people who put down 'jedi' on their census form think it's then okay to break out the racist and sexist vitriol from behind the keyboard? How can they be so blind to the obviously positive effects that having someone who isn't another white male play a major part in a blockbuster, or how many people it inspires to join in on the fun?

While there are occasional stabs at real depth in these films, these things are still always going to be kids movies, and are pretty fucking simple morality tales. If you go around spitting at people from other cultures and genders, you're the fucking bad guy, dickhead. And bad guys in these films get a lightsabre in the face, or a space torpedo up their arse.

I get so many of my own ethics and morals from these thick, throbbing slices of pop culture, especially the dumbest superhero comics. I don't think I'd ever be able to tolerate a bully, or put up with societal injustice, even if I never gave a shit about Superman, but it doesn't hurt to have some four-colour guidance.

But the toxic nerd is just such a repulsive thing, and makes us all look bad, and as a hetrosexual white male, I'm fairly disgusted that almost all of it comes from my crowd. We really have to do better.

I remain an ally of anybody who stands up to this bullshit. I don't talk about social justice issues a lot on this blog, mostly because it's not my fight, and nobody needs me to stomp all over it, no matter how well-intentioned that stomping is.

I offer all my love and respect and support to anybody who fights the good fight, but I'm not going to make it all about me. There's enough of that around.

Still, as awful as people can be online, it just doesn't stack up with what I see in real life. There is the odd loudmouth nerd at the comic store saying slightly inappropriate things, but all the nerds I know in real life are generally nice people.

I sold off some comics at a tiny nerd convention the other day, and everybody I was dealing with was absolutely polite and funny and a pleasure to deal with. There were shy kids, dorky dads, and a goth girl who was only just starting to read Sandman because she always thought it was her Dad's comic. The organisers were marvelous people and other vendors were incredibly helpful and encouraging. It was a dorky little community that was nothing but welcoming and fun.

I can only hope this is the way of the future, and that the people making the loudest and most obnoxious noises are just a minority, whose volume hides their pitiful truth. The sooner we all grow up a bit, the better.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Vanishing into the digital mist

The internet has proven an invaluable medium for the mini-comic crowd in recent years, giving a voice to the voiceless and enabling an audience to find and enjoy comics from literally all around the world. It's all there, just one swipe or click away.

Over the past 20 years, there have been a huge amount of great comics that never came close to the printed page. It has created a richly diverse crowd – it's no wonder female creators have been drawn to it, and easily outnumber the boys these days - because it doesn't rely on personal connections or geographical location. Anybody can do it.

It's a beautifully pure punk idea – just get out there and do it - you can make comics on your phone and send them out into the world so easily. Unless you're one of the rare creators to get really big, there is fuck-all money in it, but for people who just want to share their stories, there is always a thrill in uploading them for the whole world to see.

But as well established as it is, the digital medium is still struggling with some things, including some severe archival issues. Sites hosting comics that ran for years are suddenly switched off, and artists who have moved on from their earlier work are apparently happy to let those slightly embarrassing efforts fade away. Even a creator who is dedicated to keeping everything they ever did available can suffer hardware failures, and years of work can vanish inside a broken hard drive.

Even finding a comic from sometime as relatively recent as the early 2000s can be incredibly hard. The big, popular comics have always been there, but for many, many webcomics, a digital past never seems to last much longer than a decade before already disappearing.

This was really hammered home to me recently when I was going through my pitiful collection of mini-comics, almost all produced here in New Zealand, and found all sorts of gems that would otherwise have been lost to memory.

These are comics that have never been reprinted and have barely ever been acknowledged. They date back to the 1980s, and feature some priceless early work by great Kiwi comic creator,s including Roger Langridge, Barry Linton Dylan Horrocks, Ant Sang and the late, great Marty Emond.

Even better, they include a bunch of artists I've never heard of. There are names of great artists who moved on with their lives and left almost nothing behind, except for these raggedy comics. Known or unknown, these comics are still hugely charming - all raw and unpolished and full of enthusiasms.

The comics are all getting a bit yellow around the edges, but they're still here.

These comics don't fade away when a web hosting fee is allowed to lapse, they don't vanish into the digital ether. They're crammed away in a box in the cupboard, but they're always there and ready to breathe again when I haul them out.

I can't find the link to the hilarious shit I remembered seeing a couple of years ago, but I'll always have my copy of my mate Don's Buzzo The Fly mini comic, and it's still the best example of 1990s ironic cartoon nihilism I'll ever own.

These flimsy little pamphlets are more than worth their weight in gold. Designed to be cheap and throwaway, they can have a far longer life than comics that can be endlessly copied and replicated.They're still here.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Don't trust me, I voted for Howard the Duck

One of the slightly frustrating things about living in a relatively tiny nation like New Zealand is that you can't trust any reviews of the local product. We're all too close to the source, and all too willing to overlook obvious faults out of national loyalty and a drive to see Kiwis make a mark on the world stage.

It's either that, or we go too far the other way, and in a desperate attempt to avoid being blinded by the local light, we are harsher on the local product than is really fair. Either way, it's hard to get a purely objective view on anything made around here.

It is particularly noticeable in the tiny New Zealand film industry, which has been struggling along for decades now. It has produced the odd indisputable masterpiece, but has been cruising on a wave of generally unachievable dreams and a tiny amount of public goodwill for a long time.

So when a halfway decent film comes out, it is praised to the heavens and hyped up to a huge degree. An okay movie is a sudden masterpiece, even as it quickly fades away from our collective memory.

It's usually pretty harmless, and usually just means things like the fact that nobody really had the balls to say the Hobbit movies were a bit shit, (even if, in hindsight and away from the initial hype, they're obviously a bit shit).

And it's often fairly obvious that it's happening, like when the country's biggest newspaper named the last Thor movie as the best film of 2017 because they were clearly blinded by the glory of Māori director Taika Waititi's fashion sense. (And shit, you can't really blame them for that.)

It just means you have to take it all with a huge pinch of salt. If you recognise this homegrown parochialism, it's easy enough to take it into account when you're reading a review of the latest cinema release. It can just get a bit grating – and a little embarrassing - when it's so bloody obvious.

In the same way, I hope nobody trusts my opinions of the new superhero films, because there is no way I can give a clear view. I've been unable to avoid being revealed as the biggest dork in my office, and when workmates asked me what I think of the new Avengers film, I just had to tell them I've been obsessed with this shit since before I could read, so of course I love seeing Thanos let loose.

I never went through that phase of writing off all the big mainstream comic books as corporate bullshit – I still fucking love superheroes and always have. I grew up on them and never grew out of them and I see almost all of these adaptations at the cinema, because it might just be a cheap thrill to see Iron Man and Doctor Strange bash up against each other, but it's still a thrill.

I don't get any ongoing Marvel or DC superhero comics anymore, and lost track of the finer details of both universes a long time ago, but still there are still oceans of affection for all this crap sloshing around inside my skull.

I have all the credibility of a gushing review on a nerd site like CBR when it comes to these films – I can't get past all that affection to give a true account of things. I'm too close. Don't ask me, I'm always going to be a fucking nerd.

I also have a problem with the local films. I genuinely didn't know if Housebound was actually a good film when it came out in 2014, but I know I had a fucking great time seeing it at the local film festival, with the best possible crowd. The local reviewers – and I ended up being one of them - didn't help, I had to wait until it got a global release before getting the proper perspective on it all.

So the only conclusion I can make is that nobody should trust a damn thing I say. My mind has been warped by all the things I've shoveled in there over the years, and my opinion has been molded by a lifetime of this shit, and by the physical reality around me, and by everything in-between.

But hell, what's the point of an opinion if it hasn't been formed like this? I might be longing for something truly objective, but I also know that perspective is probably boring as hell. My opinion might be a shitty one, but at least it's all mine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Love and Rockets: Fuck off with your bullshit, dudes

There has never been any room for any toxic masculinity in Love and Rockets. Maggie and Hopey never put up with that shit, and all the biggest swinging dicks of Palomar swung themselves right into the grave or a jail cell.

It's still there, just like it is everywhere in our modern society, but it has never been not tolerated or normalised in Love and Rockets, and it's definitely not being tolerated in the latest issue, in the stories beneath a cover of a beautifully craggy Maggie, scowling at at a world reduced to rubble. 

Beto's comics in L&R #5 deal with the issue by getting rid of all the men almost entirely - the women of his stories don't need any masculinity in their lives. His latest chapter vaults over the Bechdel Test in the first page, with a group of women discussing the finer merits of calculus, and the only blokes who appear are well-meaning minions who are really no fucking use at all.

Maggie and Hopey don't have that much luck in Jaime's pages, where he finishes off his 'one crazy night' story that has been running for a couple of years now. Toxic masculinity is literally stalking them in the guise of Eugene, a guy who sounded like an interesting dude to meet at first, only to turn out to be a creepy piece of shit.

Eugene sums it everything you need to know about this kind of behaviour. It's not just harmful and genuinely threatening to two women who are just out to have a good time, it's also dull, plodding and boring. And so fucking dumb - the kind of dumb that doesn't know to run off the flash when you're taking a selfie in the mirror - and loud at it, with dopey homophobic and transphobic insults.

All he has got is his bulk, which he can use to silently intimidate, but he's just a coward who sulks away when called upon it by a larger group of people.

Neither Hopey or Maggie have the energy or inclination to deal with Eugene's crap. They've got enough problems of their own, and are left unloading their deepest regrets and shames, and left sitting with forced smiles in empty rooms.

After all, they know where all that dumb male behaviour leads. In the flashback parts of the story, we see Del Chimney, one of the biggest dickheads of them all, left standing alone and naked at the front door, and about to be crucified on the living-room floor. That path never leads anywhere good.

There are a lot of problems in this world, and we can't blame them all on silly and pointless men - Maggiue and Hopey's troubles with judgemental arseholes don't end when they ditch the dick. But we can pin a lot of them on the wide-reaching effects of toxic masculinity, and it's about time we all tried to do a bit better.

Nobody is helping anything by acting like a boring bully. Even some of us idiotic men - and the creators of the world's best comic - can figure that one out.

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.