Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Something for everyone, nothing for everybody


In my day job, I'm a news editor for New Zealand's biggest daily newspaper, responsible for writing and editing news stories; loading them up online with pictures and headlines; and placing them on the paper's website. I will have been doing that job for four years in May, which is – by far – the longest I've ever spent in one job, so I've become quite good at it.

There were still plenty of lessons to learn, moving from print journalism into online editing, including those bloody pictures and headlines, (which journalism school had promised me were the domain of the sub), and most of them were pretty easy to pick up. But the one thing that proved the hardest to do was suppress the 'but that's not news!' gag reflex.

Anybody who regularly reads a newspaper or uses a news website will know that feeling – seeing some story placed on the page that has dubious news merit, or is about some moronic celebrity doing something moronic, or is just plain silly, and obviously not as vital as important as updates on free trade agreements or stories about great social injustices.


But I did have to suppress that reflex for a while because, astoundingly, other people don't always share my exact opinion of what constitutes good and proper news. I have to cater for a wide an audience as possible, and maintain a balance between heavy and light news on the same page, and actually get as many eyes as possible on the site for advertising revenue. That's my job.

That inner voice still starts moaning whenever I put up a story about the Kardashians or Jeremy fuckin' Clarkson, and it never really goes away, I just have to dampen it down. Because even though I don't give a damn about these things, other people do (and they do – while everybody says they want the serious stuff, they're fucking lying, and we have the numbers to prove it). And I'd be failing in my job if I didn't offer these readers the things they actually want to read.

So I suck it up, and even get a little excited when the entertainment crew come back with some salacious story about a pregnant starlet, or Nicky in Life & Style gives me something  about the ten best ways to stroke a forehead. Because I know they will do well, and I know that I can use their numbers to offset and essentially subsidise something big and serious that nobody is reading, but makes us look stronger.

It actually took me decades to come to this conclusion – that not everybody is going to be interested in the same thing, which is weird, because comics have been telling me that for years.


Geek culture is full of endlessly vacuous comparisons, that Brand X comic is obviously superior to Brand Y television show. We're always judging the merits of characters, stories and entire genres against each other, even though they have totally different audiences with totally different desires.

There are some constants – Flash is always faster than Superman, and Captain Kirk is always going to be cooler than Captain Picard (although Patrick Stewart is always going to be cooler than William Shatner) – but there are always going to be things I think are stupid, or a waste of time, but if I'm not the intended audience who gives a shit what I think about them?

In my younger, stupider years, I couldn't stop myself from sneering at anybody who declared the My Little Pony is the greatest comic ever, or that the silly militarism of GI Joe was the best thing ever. I used to hate Archie comics with a passion, and wish they would be wiped from the Earth, but people were still reading the damn things, so they must have some kind of an audience. I was always so blind to my own snobbery.

After all, I am not the target audience for My Little Pony or Archie comics, and there is plenty of room for that audience in the wider nerd society, and they should be welcomed as something new and different. (I actually was the target audience for GI Joe for a good 18 months in the late eighties, but only for that 18 months).


But who can blame us? Comics readers in particular have been trained to compare our favourite comics and characters – wondering if Hulk could take down the Thing, and only talking about a new work of heartbreaking genius by comparing it to regular rubbish.

It dates back to the earliest days, when the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner battled in the New York sky over the infinite charms of Miss Betty Dean, but these arguments are always pointless, and reached their nadir with the terrible Wolverine and Lobo fight in the DC v Marvel thing in the nineties – the silliness of it all exposed in the dumbest barfight ever.

So it gets to the point where we can't talk about anything without putting something else down, and judging things for what they are not. We gotta make lists of ten-best comics, and they all start to merge into a pantheon of worthy shit, and everything else.


I've come around to accepting that a lot of people just aren't going to like the same stuff I do, but it took years and years of foisting Love and Rockets on people, and years and years of bafflement that they weren't as immediately entranced as I was.

So today I think Prophet is transcendently good, but friends of mine think it's a messy and incoherent, and we're both right. Even classics like Maus don't always connect – I know readers who think the whole anthropomorphism is a hindrance to the horror of the story.

I'm as guilty of it as anybody, and something like Vaughn and Staples' Saga gets all sorts of raves from all sorts of smart people, but I still think it's a tedious and unimaginative and deliberately anti-emotional comic. But so what? There are plenty of other things to try.

It's this variety that makes modern pop culture so rich. There is something for everyone, but nothing that everybody will love equally.


Anybody who wants everything to be just like they want is just an entitled and privileged wanker, and who cares what those people think? One day they'll discover that the world doesn't work like that, and that other viewpoints are valid. One day.

There are hundreds and hundreds of new comics coming out every month, and I put dozens and dozens of new stories on my news website every day. People who complain about the merits of another story about One Direction losing a member can only be pointed to the story about the government spying on its own citizens that is sitting near it.

It could use the hits.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Prophet: A sick, strange and wonderful far future


It's so easy to get lost in the cosmic scales of time and space, to feel tiny in the grand schemes of the universe. It can be a personal thing, feeling lost in the infinite, but it's also a greater societal concern – everything, everyone and everywhere we all know and love has only existed for a blink of an eye in the cosmic calender, and will fade away, just as quickly.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to consider how puny you are in the face of existence. It's good for the ego, and if you contemplate it long enough, you might feel that connection to the rest of this reality, and to the life that is the foundation of everything there is in this world. That's always nice.

So you can seek those feelings by walking outside on a cloudless night, and looking up at the stars and seeing how far forever actually goes on for. And you can also dredge it up by reading the latest Prophet comic book, because that's some fucking heavy shit.


Prophet - the Image comic primarily written by Brandon Graham and drawn by a number of extremely talented collaborators – is set a mere 10,000 years in the future, but that's more than enough to create a strange and deliberately unrecognisable world. Almost all of humanity as we know it is gone, transcended or evolved into something unsettling and beautifully unknown, and our modern civilisation has vanished beneath the dirt.

It's not always the easiest comic to read – there are few easy reference points, and the story spins around the galaxy between a huge cast, the only recognisable human figures all have the same face and some characters are indistinguishable from the technology and landscape that surrounds them.

But it's a comic that is more than worth the effort, because it's an emotionally warm, uncompromisingly complex story full of action and grand schemes. There aren't any real humans left, but there are still people.


Once the reader gets past the innate complexity of the story, this sense of the unfamiliar can be just as intimidating. The characters who populate the book often don't conform to any biology or physics that we could recognise, and even the food they eat is weirdly disquieting.

This is not the clean and comfortable future of the Legion of Super-Heroes, or even the DC One Million future. The planet Earth itself is still there, just like it has been for millions and millions of years, but it's covered in an alien landscape, and everything we would recognise is long gone. In just 10,000 years, we've been wiped away.

There are still characters from the present day, all grown into something new and monstrous. Small trolls become vast, tentacled things that rage across the vacuum of space, and men of stone become bound to the structure of the universe.

This is not any world we know, and the zeal of the comic's creators in pushing the story and art into the unknown is truly admirable.


But even in this strange new world so far away from us, there are emotional depths to be found. There is the melancholy of the immortal cyborg Die-Hard, who left his humanity behind millenia ago, but still fights the good fight because that's all he knows how to do, and there is the warmth of the Old Man Prophet, who builds true bands of brothers, bonding with other freed slaves, no matter what the race, inspiring other freemen to new heights.

Creatures that are more tree or robot still know the warmth of comradeship. Even the cruel and physically repulsive Earth 'mothers' have lives full of beauty on as level we can not see, having conversations we can not hear at a cosmic level.

The funniest part is that there are unexpected depths from call backs to the some of the worst comics ever created - there is a certain visceral thrill in seeing what happened to Radar the Supreme Dog or big old Badrock. One flashback to a moment long lost in time is tempered in cosmic irony in showing just how far things have come, but is also hilarious, worth it just for the 'rib bib' gag.


Besides, they might be strange creatures that don't always have things like eyes and hands and heads, but they still speak of honour and revenge and freedom and love - universal constants in unrecognisable tongues.

And once you realise a little of how this strange new world works, the tale that Prophet is telling is actually a relatively simple story of a huge and cruel empire rising up again, and forcing free people to stand up and fight them, while a powerful and truly ancient force of unimaginable power thunders closer to the narrative. This isn't that complicated, and adequately explained. It isn't as tough as it looks.


After all, at least there are still humanoids and events are still basically happening on a man-sized scale. Things could be worse - at one point, in one of the Prophet: Strikefile comics, the story even goes back billions of years, to times when there are things we wouldn't even recognise as intelligent life, and they travel through space by knowledgeable means.

There are still constants, including lusts for power and transcendence that exist in all of time and space,  but this are truly alien worlds.

And the artistic freedom that gives allows for some stunning imagery in the Prophet comics. You can do anything with the possible sights and illogical physics of this far future and even more distant past, and that can lead to some awesome art moments – gloriously strange landscapes, and epic space battles that take over entire solar systems.


It is also nice to have a comic book that doesn't make it easy for the reader, and gives them enough credit to figure things out for themselves. When so many modern stories are dumbed all the way down to the lowest common denominator, it is genuinely refreshing to have a comic that requires a bit of effort.

There aren't any quick and easy explanations for what is actually happening in the story – it take several collected books before some of the basic tenants of this new world are explained, and the confidence of the creative team in this regard is truly amazing. But it's a comic that is truly worth that extra effort, for this much strangeness.

And if it gives you the existential shits, well, that's just a bonus.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Conan: Came the day Frazetta changed everything.


It's very rare, but every now and then, an artist working in a specific genre will be so strong, and so powerful, that they'll change that genre forever. Nothing will ever be the same after them.

In modern comic books, the most obvious examples are people like Jack Kirby, who brought dynamism and energy to the comic page – his work still crackles with power, all these years later; or Osamu Tezuka and his extraordinary impact on the entire look and pace of Japanese comics.

And in the world of fantasy, and sword and sorcery, there is only one obvious candidate for the artist with the greatest impact, and that's Frank Frazetta, because you can see it when you look at what he did to Conan.


The picture above - courtesy of the almighty John Buscema - is one of a typical Conan, easily recognisable as the world's most famous barbarian. That long, dark hair hair, the barrel chest with muscles upon muscles, the fur loincloth and boots, the flat face, the bloody big sword – it could be nobody else. Accept no imitations.

But Conan didn't always look like this. For the first few decades of publication after the 1930s, there really wasn't a definitive Conan. Sometimes he looked like a lean bloke with a sharp haircut in a loincloth-


- and sometimes he just wore a sack -


Sometimes he looked more like a deserter from some Roman legion than any real barbarian -


- and sometimes he looked more like a crazy drunk deserter from some Roman legion -


- and sometimes he just looked like a crazy drunk -


Conan stories were still reasonably popular over the years, with a large audience, but not a spectacular one. That all changed, and it can be argued all art fantasy changed, when somebody had the bright idea of getting Frank Frazetta to do this cover for a new paperback edition of Conan The Adventurer in 1966:


That's the Conan we all know. It's the Conan who will star in a thousand comic stories, and several movies. He's the dealer of death, brooding and blunt, ruling his savage world with brute force, an empire built on a foundation of massive carnage.

Frazetta changed everything with this one image, but he wasn't done yet. He continued to produce astonishing art like this -


- and this! -


- and, fucking hell, this!


Despite a long history of fantastic fantasy art, the genre had never seen art this powerful or graceful. His years spent on adventure comics starring the Shining Knight and Ghost Rider - combined with the flow of cartoon silliness he picked up doing Li'l Abner with Al Capp - had given him the basics of telling a whole story within the confines of a single image.

And with Conan, Frazetta let his id run free, creating all these wonderful paintings. Crucially, he also ignored all perceived wisdom on what a good fantasy cover should have, and broke the goddamn mold.

After all, look at this one, my own personal favorite of all his Conan work:


It's a strange little snapshot of action, all the characters are moving in odd directions, and the main character has his back to you. But it's a fucking spectacular picture, largely because of these idiosyncratic aspects. Each character is flowing around the other, with a graceful clumsiness, under unnatural lights. They're not posing, they're trying to kill the shit out of each other.

This art ended up on a million bedroom walls, and inspired a thousand other imitators, but also changed the entire look of Conan. The character and world we see in the Conan movies are a Frazetta world. The Lord of the Rings films, while designed by the stately likes of Alan Lee and John Howe, also have a driving dirtiness to them that owes a huge debt to Frazetta.

He changed everything.


I'm not a huge fan of Conan comics - they're often dull, plodding and humourless, and there are only three female characters in the entire Hyborian world who aren't a damsel in distress or a monster in disguise.

But the images can still be powerful, even with the dodgy words. When somebody like Frank Frazetta comes along and changes everything, everyone had to follow, and it's a path that leads to savage beauty.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Excalibur by Davis/Farmer: Days of Future Done


It's easy to sneer in hindsight, but I cannot overestimate how tremendously exciting it was to be a 16-year-old comic book reader in 1991. I was getting my first pay cheques, and with more disposable income than any point in my life, all I wanted to do was buy comic books.

The world of more alternative comics was just opening up for me, but there was still a huge affection for the X-Men and all of its spin-offs, and they were all relaunching in new, shiny and modern versions, with top artists like Lee and Liefeld and Portacio. The future looked bright.

It wasn't that bright. It was a bit shit. Uncanny X-Men was awful from the first issue, Jim Lee lasted a good five months before clearly not giving a damn anymore, and everybody on the planet suddenly realised how terrible Liefeld's art was in the gap between X-Force #1 and #2. Peter David's X-Factor scripts were awfully clever, but the crazy Larry Stroman art took some adjusting to.

Only one of those big relaunches of the X-titles really met those early hopes and expectations, and only one of them exceeded them. And it was Alan bloody Davis again, doing strange and wonderful things in the pages of Excalibur.


Davis returned as the regular writer and artist on Excalibur in late 1991, with a specific mandate to breathe some life back into the team, and tie up some of those damned subplots that Claremont had started simmering, and then wandered off and let evaporate.

The most obvious benefit of all this was the return of the artist. The large number of fill-in artists had not been up to scratch, but Davis' art was glossier and slicker than the Neary years, with a new polish and shine from Mark Farmer.

Those eternal flowing curves of Davis in these days are still a delight, bedded down in years of storytelling experience. His characters were as graceful as ever, his world-building was unparalleled, and there was dynamic power in his action scenes.


And as writer, he still had that healthy sense of humour that Claremont had brought out in the book. This wasn't a team of psychopaths with cyborg limbs and big fucking guns, this was a goofier world of fairy tales and science fiction insanity. Things in mainstream comics had only got grimmer out there in the nineties, as everybody tired so hard to show how serious they were, but that just made Excalibur all the more unique.

Thankfully, Davis still had that comic timing, and the freedom that came with the writing duties meant he could spend entire issues leading up to silly jokes, or he could kick off his run with the team facing the dire menace of 'Hard Boiled Henry', a suicidal chicken that does, admittedly, manage to destroy the team's base/home.


Davis also proved adept at tying all those bloody loose ends that Claremont had left lying around. Freely conceding that he had no idea what Claremont had planned for all this, David made it look like there had been a plan all along, with Colin The Barbarian sorting out a dangling thread from #2, the final (probably) confrontation with Sat-Yr-9 and the mystery of Widget all laid bare.

You can almost see the sweat from Davis' brow falling onto the published page in his first year as writer, getting the dialogue just right and keeping the story flowing with a huge cast of heroes, aliens and other beautiful freaks, but his ability to maintain a tone of complicated joviality was almost effortless, and some of his resolutions to these plot conundrums were inspired.

He even finished off the whole Days of Future Past thing with a long delayed win for the good guys, courtesy of some of Marvel UK's most embarrassing characters. Nobody has really noticed since, but that just makes it all the more charming.


There were still a few fill-in comics during Davis' run, issues that only made his pages look all the sexier, but he still lasted until mid-1993 on the title, and got some good stories out of his system. He also, crucially, left the team in a very different place than where he had found it – it was still Brian and Meggan and Kurt and Rachel and Kitty - but they were in a new home, with new friends, facing new adventures.

There were a couple of interesting Excalibur comics after Davis left, but they quickly dumped all that goofy shit. Warren Ellis' issues have a bit of bite to them, but are full of ideas that he would better explore in Authority and Planetary, and the comic eventually faded away, with the main characters heading back to other teams with varying degrees of success, and the more original creations fading into into limbo.

There was a fairly recent catch up with the classic Excalibur crew in Davis' most recent ClanDestine comic in 2008, with the Cross-Time Caper era crew showing up to save the day, and it was one nice little coda to the Excalibur story.


Those Davis issues were the second high water mark of the series, after its impressive debut. And while he lasted a couple of years, that era always seemed a lot longer to me personally, because it actually took me years to find those damn comics.

In between the Davis eras, Excalibur disappeared from all the bookstores and corner dairies where I lived, and was only available at comic books shop, and I loved hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest shop. So I was forced to hunt them out, and fill out the story, in total piece-meal fashion.

It was easy enough to do, when each issue was a slice of shiny and comfortable brilliance. Each issue I could find - and it could be months and months, and even years, before I found them - was cherished and valued.


It was such a happy hunt, because these issues of Excalibur were the last superhero comics I was really, properly obsessed with - excited about the latest developments and absolutely desperate to read the next issue.

I'd soon be moving on to fascinations with the Los Bros Hernandez and the like, and I still love superhero comics, but I'll never love them as much as when I was a kid, and I'll never love them quite as much as I loved this last run of Excalibur fun. It's a wonderful end to a childhood of super hero comics, and one wonderful last grand adventure.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Excalibur by Claremont, Davis & Neary - The Sword is Drawn


For all the misery he heaped upon his favourite creations in the X-Men, Chris Claremont also had a marvellous sense of whimsy. He ruled all things X for years in the seventies and eighties, and often pushed things deep into grim and gritty territory, but he also had a wicked sense of humour, a penchant for fairy tales, and enough creative clout to do what he wanted.

Still, even with goofy interludes in the main X-Men title and crazy annual adventures, the X-Men, don't always offer the best platform for laffs when its persecuted heroes were fighting for their lives. Nightcrawler might have launched into battle with a grin, but Wolverine's sullen scowl was the predominant emotional beat.

And then, in the very late eighties, somebody noticed there were a bunch of groovy X-Men characters who weren't doing anything, and gave Claremont total license to go crazy with them, and Excalibur was born.


It was actually born from the supposed tragedy of the X-Men's death at the climax of their Fall Of The Mutants storyline, with wounded survivors Shadowcat, Nightcrawler and the Rachel Summers Phoenix joining forces with Captain Britain and Meggan to fight the good fight, and to not give in to despair.

All of the characters had wounded pasts and struggled with life as a post-modern superhero, but they were also more of a family than the usual super group, and it was a comic with a lighter touch right from the start, especially with the fantastic art of Alan Davis.

Davis had been working steadily for a decade by the time he came to Exaclibur, and with the rock-solid Paul Neary on inks, he was absolutely peaking - his work had never been more lush, slick and smooth. His characters had never looked sexier, and his storytelling was so comfortable, each issue was like a tasty little meal.

His coming timing was sharp, and his figures were graceful - Nightcrawler had a lively spring in his step and Shadowcat slid through the confines of walls and comic panels. His ease with the physicality of his characters also helped with the comedy – this chase panel in #4, featuring a bunch of crazy body-swapping is still wonderful:


Claremont, Davis and Neary took their heroes into demon worlds and parallel dimensions, with a swashbuckling fervor that was utterly at odds with the prevailing mood in current comics, making it almost unique in mainstream titles.

The heroes, who all lived together in a haunted lighthouse, fought new inter-dimensional baddies like the Warwolves and their own evil Nazi doppelgangers, and still took on old school X-enemies like Arcade and the Juggernaut. They didn't give in to despair and melancholy, and it was great fun.


It still had its serious side – the first issue saw a couple of innocent people getting brutally murdered, and I'm still shocked by Courtney Ross' fate, all these years later. It was so abrupt, especially after she'd just made such an impression in Arcade's Murderworld, I'm still dealing with it.

There was complexity in this storytelling rush. There was still a lot of exposition, but most of Claremont's wonderfully overwrought script was focused on the feelings of the main characters, not what was happening to them. Their relationships as damaged people finding some comfort with each other, was way more important than saving the world.

So Claremont stuffed his comic with this stuff - filling speech bubbles and caption boxes with florid prose, his sing-song dialogue reaching a peak on this title.


I have no objective view of Excalibur, because for two years at the dawn of the nineties, I genuinely believed it was the greatest comic I'd ever read. Each issue was beautiful and smart and funny and exciting.

I was 14 years old when I first started getting it. I would scrape and save every cent I could to get that $4.35 I needed for a new issue each month, and it was the best $4.35 I ever spent, with these beautiful comics full of nice paper, bright colours, fun stories and gorgeous art.

I still have those issues I got from Baird's Bookshop on King St when they came out in 1989, and I have read those issues to hell, man. They're literally falling apart through over-reading, especially with some fantastically ill-advised experiments with regular sellotape doing irreparable damage. I really should trade up, but I love these individual issues like I love few other comics, and I'm reading them until they turn to dust in my hand.


This crazy affection makes it easy to overlook the weaknesses in the comic, but they're still there. While Claremont was allowed to indulge in the whimsy, he was also given free reign to go crazy on his addiction to long-running subplots, and would set up dangling threads that would never, ever pay off. The mysteries of what was going on with that lighthouse, and what the evil Sat-Yr-9 was up to, were constantly alluded to, with any definite result.

This actually got quite maddening for a while, as Claremont was clearly making shit up as he went along, but it was also a brilliant strategy for a serial publication. It kept you coming back, and when the odd thing would pay off after years and and years of waiting, it was always spectacular.


But that love for the comic was really tested by the growing gaps between Davis' issues, and those gaps got longer and longer. The Cross-Time Caper dragged on far longer than it should have, and ultimately derailed all the momentum of the book. And by the end of that, Claremont and Davis were both effectively gone.

I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. All I knew was that Michael Higgens and Ron Lim were no Chris Claremont and Alan Davis, and that the book started to take on a Marvel Comics Presents-level of quality, with blatant fill-ins and stories that were little more than training wheels for Scott Lobdell.

In just a couple of years, Excalibur had gone from the most brilliant comic in the universe tojust another Marvel mess. Everyone knew it was done for. Everyone knew it couldn't be saved. Everyone knew that.

Alan Davis didn't know that.

 

- to be continued

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A week of comic

I read comic books every day. I read them while eating meals, and while sitting on the bus. I read them while I'm brushing my teeth, and before I go to bed. I read them all over the place, all day long.

But even though there has barely been a day since 1979 when I haven't read some form of comic, I’ve never really properly catalogued an entire week’s input. Never really took note of exactly how much comic books I produced in a random week. Until now.


SATURDAY

Finish off the Showcase Presents: Bat Lash book with the lovely Nick Cardy art in the morning, and kick off a lazy Saturday afternoon with the fourth and fifth Criminal books, sparked by the recent special one-shot that just came out.

Criminal is the kind of comic where I can remember all the broad strokes of the story, but the details always slip out of my head. So they're always a pleasure to read every now and then, because in Criminal, the devil is all in the details.

Today I also finally finished working my way through a small pile of Judge Dredd Megazines that I got from a local second-hand bookstore, because they're too damn expensive brand new. They took a while because a lot of the text pieces were actually worth reading this time. Makes all the difference.


SUNDAY

Sunday is a work day, so there is less time to sit around and read. There is still room for some random All-Star Superman comics, partly because Jupiter's Legacy recently wrapped up, and partly because they were lying around and tempting me with their saucy covers and naked sentimentality. And now Quitely is my god again.

I also finish off a bunch of Comic Journal interviews with the classic EC artists, which is almost comics.


MONDAY

Almost all of the books I read this week are comics I already own, or have just bought, but the library is still the best place to load up on new comics that might, or might not be, worthy.

I burn through some borrowed books today – Rick Geary's The Adventures of Blanche is enormously entertaining, although after years of his awesome true crime comics, I kept expecting someone to lunge out from behind the curtains with an ice-pick; Superman/Wonder Woman volume one, which might be the least romantic comic I've ever read, with the power couple showing all the chemistry of hard stone, (although there is a great bit where they insert a back-up strip from the monthly comic into the middle of the story, so it looks like Superman runs away from a full-on battle with General Zod to go have a moan about what they're saying about him online, which is just fantastic); and the latest Manhattan Projects book, which is fine, even if Hickman's humour never really hits the mark for me.

I also get through Pascal Girard's charming Bigfoot comic in about 10 minutes, and end up speed-reading through the second volume of China Mieville's Dial H, because the plot was getting too far ahead of the characterisation, and there was no real humanity under the weirdness, which is crucial. (And Chris Weston should totally have done the art for it.)


TUESDAY

Finish off the last of the library books, including the latest tremendously exciting adventure for Lobster Johnson and the fourth volume of Rick Remender's Captain America stuff, which I got totally lost reading. Remender's superhero comics are often complex and clever, stretching across multiple titles he's written, which might be why I just can't get into them.

I also realised I somehow missed a Criminal book, so I tear through that. There is always a bit more Criminal than I think.

And after a recent re-read of all the Multiversity comics, I got back to the latest one, with the Nazi Superman on Earth-X. It's interesting that they’ve turned the Freedom Fighters into genuine terrorists, who slaughter hundreds of thousands of people to make a point, but still take the moral high ground, because they’re hitting back at those dirty Nazis. Uncle Sam's tough talk at the climax comes soaked in death.


WEDNESDAY

The only comic I read today was some Perry Bible Fellowship strips. The rest of the time I read magazines about movie stars.

I also read some prose books, all week long, while indulging in as much comic as possible, but they're not worth talking about. They don't have any pretty pictures.


THURSDAY

This Thursday is a big Thursday, because it's the day the new 100-page 2000ad year-ender issue, packed full of thrill power, is out. Highlights of this year's package is Greg Staples shiny art on the new Judge Death comic, a typically nasty little Jaegir comic with a decent little twist, and new Low Life, which makes no sense yet, but will in greater context.

I also get through the first six issues of Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay's Supreme: Blue Rose, reading them all in one go for the first time, in preparation for the forthcoming final issue. It's actually way more straightforward than it looks at first glance, but there are still depths in Ellis' labyrinthine plot, and even more in Lotay's layered art.

I also read some Milk and Cheese comics, only this time I did it before dinner, which was a spectacularly bad idea, because I got so very, very hangry.


FRIDAY

Friday is comic shop day, and there is new Hellboy & the BPRD, The Nameless and Daredevil. All good enough, but nothing great yet, and it's a bit disappointing that that last issue of that Supreme comic never showed up.

And then it's a quiet Friday night watching Archer and Justified with the lovely wife, but I still spend the evening drifting through the books on the new shelves she bought me. Browsing through greatness, a little Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book here, some Big Book Of The Weird Wild West there, and some Signal To Noise in between.

So many choices. So many possibilities. So little time to get to it all, so you just have to get as much as you can.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Graphic memoirs: Comics could use more real lives


Bill Griffith - the comics legend responsible for the mighty and peculiar Zippy The Pinhead - is currently working on a graphic memoir. He has mentioned it in a couple of interviews, and appears to be deep into it. This is extraordinarily good news for three strong reasons:

Firstly, because Griffith has led an interesting life and has an interesting perspective on the things he has seen, and that is certainly worth documenting. He was right there at the centre of the birth of underground comics and built a massively successful career – both artistically and commercially – without ever compromising on his singular vision.

Secondly, Griffith always turns up for the party, technically speaking, and his squiggly art and dizzying storytelling is always fantastic to read, so the promise of a longer work is warmly welcome, purely on a craft level. It should be a good read, regardless of any subject matter.

And because we could always use more graphic memoirs, because they're almost always fucking great.


Memoirs can make for terrific reading, in any form. They can be exercises in setting the record straight and pleading for personal justification, but can also be snapshots of a specific time and place, and what the subject of the memoir actually thought about it at the time.

Stripped of any artifice that comes with fiction, memoirs offer up huge servings of pure truth, telling us all how it really went down, and you even get a glimpse of why the author actually did what they did in the first place. You see their actual life, right there on the page, opened up for consumption and judgement.

You can pack an entire life into the tight pages of a prose memoir, but comics are even better, because you can show exactly what it was like, with a few bold lines. You can pack more data into a page of comics than a page of text, setting the scene like nothing else, while showing emotions without having to actually articulate them. Graphic memoirs can pack a hell of a punch.


And there have been quite a few memoirs in comics that pack that kind of punch. Books like Persepolis, Fun Home and Blankets are painfully raw accounts of growing up in strange and mundane places, while Al Davison's The Spiral Cage and the lightly-fictionalised Stuck Rubber Baby from Howard Cruse are powerful stories of struggle against personal disability and social injustice.

Comics are also ideally suited for the ongoing memoir, because they can come out in bits and pieces over time, and can be used to tell a life over decades,  building up a substantial body of work over the years. Creators like Joe Matt and Eddie Campbell have been telling it like it is for for almost their entire adult lives, even when that telling gets a little too personal.

The king of all the real-time biographers was, of course, Harvey Pekar, who put the tiniest details of his life onto the comic page, no matter how mundane. And he left behind an enormous amount of work that is only getting better with age, as his world - of urban life in middle America in the last days of the 20th century - fades away with the years. Harvey's comics will remain vital history lessons for centuries to come.


(A special note must also be made here for the great forgotten graphic memoir -  Del Close's story of his wayward life, as published in the Wasteland comic DC did in the eighties. Close's stories were often hugely exaggerated, but he always liked to point out that each story had more truth than you would really, and the bizarreness of his adventures spiced up an already interesting life. Close died back in 1999, but his strange little stories are still out there, lurking in back issue bins, and begging for some kind of collected edition.)


Of course, a lot of the medium's greatest artists have no real need for a proper memoir, because there work is so obviously personal. Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb have both cloaked their autobiographies in artistic conceits, with those conceits usually heightening the impact of their work.

Other artists, including Los Bros Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge and Will Eisner, put so much of their own naked selves into their comics, there is no need for memoirs. Characters have grown with them, and changed with them over the years. Everything that really matters to Bagge filters through his Buddy Bradley stories, and all you need to know about Jaime Hernandez is right there in his Locas.

I'm certainly not saying I wouldn't whole-heartedly welcome a full-on memoir from any of these artists – they have all dabbled in autobiography here and there, and the results are always painfully charming – but they've all managed to show us how they see the world, without resorting to clumsy old reality.


The best memoirs are always written by somebody in the twilight of their years, putting their life in its proper context. As good as Alison Bechdel and Craig Thompson are, they just don't have the years yet, and their stories are forced inside the framework of youth and adolescence, which aren't always the most fascinating time in someone's life.

But I could listen to old people tell stories of the way things used to be all day long, and if they're sharp enough to get that story down in a comic, it will always be welcome.

After all, more and more comic artists and writers are merging with the infinite every day. We've lost most of the creators from the Golden Age, and their stories of all-night art sessions in mid-town bathtubs, and their perspective on the medium than the one they helped shape is a singular one, soon to pass into history. Even later creators aren't getting any younger, and there is surely great memoirs just waiting to be written about life as a comic book creator in the sixties, seventies and eighties.


We're losing the people – the artists and writers and editors – who helped create this vast and fascinating medium, but we don't have to lose the stories of their lives.

So I look forward to Griffith's upcoming memoir, for all these reasons and more. These tastes of Truth in an ocean of fiction and unreality are a vital part of comics, and they taste delicious.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

MPH: My fantastic Fegredo face failure


• This post contains spoilers for MPH •

Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo's MPH might go down in history as Millar's most irritating comic ever, which is a high hurdle to climb.

Millar's plot never really goes anywhere new, and his characters are appallingly self-aware, speaking to each other in broad platitudes, instead of anything approaching actual conversation. It's also another blatant bid for movie money, and on the ideological scale, it's dodgy as hell, with the politics coming off like they were created by a 19-year-old kid who has just watched every episode of The Wire.

All that, and it was still a fantastically entertaining read, and it's almost all thanks to the typically wonderful art from the mighty Duncan Fegredo.


Like a lot of his peers, Fegredo started his comic career with a wave of relentless experimentation – his work on Grant Morrison's Kid Eternity comic showed how easily he could have followed artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean into scratchy abstraction, while his work on the Enigma comic with Peter Milligan was heroically ambitious.

But he soon found his own voice as a comic artist, with a thick line surrounding lots of delightfully delicate details. He had really nailed his style down by the time he worked on Milligan's criminally under-rated Girl comic in 1996, and spent the rest of the next decade showcasing his work in a bizarre variety of comics, including work on 2000ad titles, Vertigo short-story anthologies, Spider-Man books and Kevin Smith comics.

He found the perfect outlet for his wavy and centered art in a fruitful collaboration on Mike Mignola's Hellboy from 2007-2011, getting to draw an apocalyptic battle at the end of the world, without forgetting to show the pain in the title hero's brow. His work had power and life.

Fegredo has been reasonably quiet since helping to send Hellboy to hell, but then Mark Millar did what Mark Millar does best, and gave a great artist something awesome to draw.


MPH is a story about the world's first super-powered human, and he's an ambitious working class criminal who can run faster than light. The five-issue series is packed with set-pieces at supersonic speeds, action and melodrama all peaking at terminal velocity.

Fegredo captures this world perfectly, nailing the high-speed shenanigans as people blast forward on a forced perspective, right off the fucking page. And he's just as good at the moments between seconds, where everything stands still as a speedster wanders through a silent world.

This is harder than it looks. Creating that frozen world is particularly impressive in the comic medium, which is nothing but frozen slices of time. Creating the illusion of one person walking through a world of statues takes real storytelling skill, and Fegredo certainly has those chops.


Fegredo's art has noticeably evolved, even since his Hellboy days. His line is surer, more defined. The artist, who inks his own work, still has that distinctive wriggly linework, but it's harder and more certain around the edges.

The action sequences in MPH certainly benefit from Fegredo's well-deserved confidence, but he is also a master of character work – he draws some of the best goofy grins and wild gesticulating figures in modern comics – and no two characters ever look the same, they all have their own idiosyncratic touches. And his ability to create recognisable and real faces on those characters left me wide open for the story's final curve ball.


For all its speed – and the plot does move pretty fast - the story of MPH is ploddingly predictable. The wish-fulfillment angle offers up hedonistic thrills, but even the inevitable come-down and rejection of materialistic concerns is a well-worn path.

Even the time-travel shenanigans which blast through the final issues of MPH could easily be seen coming, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in comic books where people run faster than the speed of light. They're going to come unstuck in time. It’s only to be expected.

All that, and I still totally didn’t see the final issue’s twist coming, and I feel like a happy fool for missing it, especially because it’s a plot development that almost entirely succeeds thanks to Fegredo’s fine work.


The twist comes out right at the climax of the story’s big final fight, and reveals that a mysterious character hanging around the edges of the story is actually one of MPH’s main protagonists, who got lost in time and had to spend decades waiting for it to catch up with him, so he could rejoin the story.

And it's a blindingly obvious twist, hidden in plain sight, but that doesn't mean you don't see it coming. It's the kind of twist that could feel like a frustrating deus ex machina, but it is really set up right from the start, and Millar has been playing totally fair. (Although, the fact that the two characters spoke the same way meant nothing, because all Millar's characters speak the same way. I cannot tell you how happy I am that other people have started noticing his 'What are you talking about?' thing)

But Fergedo has also been playing totally fair, and once you realise these are the same characters, it's all there on the page. The young and old characters share the same body language and facial structure, hidden beneath different hair and decades of time. They're obviously the same person.

Fergedo's faces are some of the most recognisable in comics, and they all look ruggedly characteristic, and when that is paying off on a fundamental storytelling level like this, it's still pretty fucking impressive.



And it's still absolutely delightful to get suckered into a decent storytelling twist like this. To not even see it coming, even when you're marvelling at how different all the characters look, that's still a thrill in this jaded world of modern comics.

Hopefully it won't be too long before Fegredo is given another meaty story to get into, but it will be worth the wait. because his work is always welcome. His art is stylish, and smart, and beautiful to look at. At any speed.