Monday, August 31, 2015

The death of the Ultimate


Marvel's Ultimate comics universe is coming to an end again, with the best bits and pieces of the entire world being merged into the proper Marvel universe. Ultimate Spider-Man - unquestionably the most successful comic of the line - will carry on, but everything else will just fade away.

This is not the first time they've promised some big climax to the Ultimate line - there have been at least four other promises that it was all over - but it looks like the most permanent. Even with some interesting talents behind the scenes, it's been steadily declining in sales and buzz for more than a decade, and right now it's a bit of a mercy killing.

The exact moment the Ultimate line started to die is a debatable one - it could be about the time of Jeph Loeb's awful Ultimatum story, or when they rebooted all the titles for the fourth time. But as far as I'm concerned, it was all downhill from a very early point, and that point was exactly 17 pages into the first issue of Ultimate X-Men.


The Ultimate Universe did look shiny, new and exciting when it launched in 2000, but that wasn't hard, considering the glitzy dullness of the regular Marvel universe for the previous decade. Nobody seemed to know what to do with the Avengers, or X-Men or Spider-Man, with stories in the regular universe continually circling the drain of mediocrity for the past few years.

And then came the Ultimate comics, and they really did look like something fresh. The artists had to be old pros to get things up to the standard level, but the writing duties went to a bunch of young punks like Bendis and Millar, who took just as much delight in poking fun at the conceits of Marvel's superheroes, as they did in reverentially referencing them.

With equally inexperienced hands at the top of the Marvel editorial ladder, and after all the life had been drained from its massive cast of regular world characters, the Ultimate creators were encouraged to go wild and shake things up a bit, and give it all more of a realistic  sheen. And for a while, it really did work.


When Ultimate Spider-Man came out, it tried a little too hard to be the first great superhero comic of the 21st century, but it damn near got there anyway. It soon built up a rock-solid corner of its own in Spider-Man mythology, with consistent work from both Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley, who had been rendering the slickest of slick superheroes since his wonderful, brilliant and dumb New Warriors days

And, due to the fact that I lived hundreds of kilometres away from a comic shop at the time, the next series I read was the Ultimates, which was just as awe-inspiringly glossy and snarky and fun, to the point where it's arguably the biggest single influence on the entire Marvel cinematic universe, and partly responsible for the billions of dollars it generates.


The future looked bright and new and interesting. And then I read the Ultimate X-Men.

I would like to make clear that I actually enjoyed a lot of Mark Millar and Adam Kubert's Ultimate X-Men comics, they're really well-paced action blockbusters with a wickedly nasty sense of humour. Millar's mad attempts at creating post-human societies really don't work, but they certainly made a change from the tired old 'protecting the world that fears them' angle. It pointed the whole mutant metaphor in a new direction.

But then I got to this, and I knew that it might have been a  new direction, but it was still ending up in the same old place:


The characters were younger and the attitudes were sharper, but it was just the same old shit. Same dorky - and surprisingly forgettable - superhero costumes, same old posing. All the hope of a new look turned out to be the same old guff. Nothing new to see here.

It was particularly weird at the time, because the contemporary stuff was Morrison was doing in New X-Men did take these new ideas about evolution and change and do something new with them, with the mighty Frank Quiteley designing uniforms that didn't look like anything from the past. When the old school were showing the new school how to do it, the young pups didn't stand a chance.


And that was that. The Ultimate line lost that sheen and never got it back again. There were more decidedly average limited series, as more and more creators came and went on the core title, and everybody singularly failed to do anything interesting with the Fantastic Four, (which made the recent movie's constant name-dropping of it in pre-publicity a bad sign).

And now it's running out of time, but that was always going to happen when it tried to mix more superhero bollocks into real-world situations. The Ultimate universe was built of the foundation of the world outside your window, and it's unique selling point was always meant to be that it was more identifiable than the regular Marvel Universe and its decades of continuity.

Again, you can see all that already going wrong in Ultimate X-Men #1, when the very first pages already showed this Earth was so different from our world, because it was a place where random people can be blasted away on the street by giant robots and nobody bats an eye, with the same kind of dumb hatred on the part of the general public that felt so 20th century.

From there, the Ultimate world got so screwed over, with millions of people dying in superhero bullshit, that the world was left shattered by the exposure to superheroics and parts of the USA turned into Mad Max territory. This was nothing to identify with any more.


Once the Ultimate crowd starting living in this science-fiction nightmare, it lost all that real-world charm, and the dire predictability seen in that first team shot of the new X-Men led to the usual creative dead-ends.

Marvel should have known this was always going to happen, when you try to explain how superheroes would operate in the real world. After all, they had to blow up the New Universe in the 1980s when it got too complicated. Still, that only took three years to run out of fire, and in that respect, the Ultimate has done all right out of its 15 years.

But for all the successes - and again, Spider-Man has done very well out of the Ultimate world, and Miles Morales is an excellent addition to the Spidey saga - few will really mourn it when it's gone for good.


Which is a shame, because some of those early Ultimate titles do still have a lot of bite to them, and the fact that they never quite lived up to their potential can't be blamed on the original vision.

If anything, the Ultimates' influence on the entire Marvel cinematic universe shows that this vision was clear. It's certainly more financially successful in 2015 than anybody could have imagined in the year 2000, and has helped take Marvel's stories into unexpected new dimensions.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Weird War Tales: Horror on the battlefield

There has always been a totally illogical feeling of value for money when you buy something like a Justice League comic book. It might have just as much actual story as every other DC comic, but when you're getting all the big heroes in one place, it's hard to avoid the feeling that you're getting more bang for your buck.

The same idea also applied to team-up books, with comics like DC Comics Presents and The Brave and The Bold successfully giving readers double the fun in the seventies and eighties, usually in sharp, short stories.

And the same idea applied to one of DC's most unlikely successes during that strange period, with Weird War Tales dosing the standard war story up with a proper dose of the macabre.

 

By the mid-1970s, DC had been publishing horror and war comics for a few decades, and were constantly looking for ways to shake things up a bit. They tried mixing tales of the supernatural with the western and romance genres, and produced some interesting results, but there was only one comic that really hit the right mark.

Weird War Tales ended up being published for 12 years, only dying out when DC's entire war and horror lines came to an end. That longevity was undoubtedly due to the whole appeal of the genre mix-up, and the extra kick it gave each of them.

After all, while even perennials like Sergeant Rock could occasionally be used to tell a quasi-supernatural story – which usually meant the use of a creepy-ass ventriloquist's dummy – a standard war comic like GI Combat looked pretty vanilla next to Weird War Tales, where stories of war also happened to have vengeful ghosts, arrogant vampires and grotesque zombies popping up.

For kids on a limited budget, forced to choose between the latest Unknown Soldier or Unexpected, there was something that took care of everything.
 

Besides this strange sense of value, there were two other big appeals behind the comic. The first was that there was a pretty broad definition of war, which meant it could go all over the place, and with a couple of dozen of pages to fill every month, the creators would often tell stories of forgotten conflicts in ancient history.

There were, to be fair, more stories set in World War Two than any other, because that was the biggest war story of all, (and only a few decades old at the time) but there were tales of conquistadors, and tommys in the Somme, and Japanese warlords, and battles against colonial overlords, and civil war horror.

There could even be stories set in future wars, with more than a few post-apocalyptic morality tales. This gave the readers even more genre thrills, now that they were getting some science fiction added into the mix, even if 99 percent of them ended with the usual 'Man is the real enemy all along!' twist ending.


The second great aspect about Weird War Tales was one it shared with a lot of second-tier books that made it through the DC implosion of the late 1970s - they're chock-full of veteran artists doing a thoroughly professional job, and just as many future comic superstars, getting their first chance to really strut their stuff on the printed page.

The classic artists showed all the young punks how it was really done, with old pros like Steve Ditko and Sam Glanzman doing some strong stuff, while the magnificent Joe Kubert produced a tonne of beautiful covers and frontispieces.

But with three or four short stories in every issue, they were often handed out as try-out pieces for young and hungry talent. A lot of first-generation graduates of Kubert's own school get their names in print for the first time in WWT, and there is also loads of fabulous early work by Chaykin, Simonson, Miller, Giffen, Von Eeden, and some wonderful stuff by DC's woefully treated Philippines division.

Marc Silvestri even shows up in one of the later issues, and there is a lot of clumsiness in these early efforts, but also plenty of signs of things to come, while artists like the mighty Walter Simonson seemed to arrive almost fully formed.
 

Unfortunately, they were also used as a testing ground for writers, who took a bit longer to find their feet, although there is a lot of enthusiasm leaking through from behind the word balloons.

The stories were often trite and repetitive – the moral of nearly every single story was that Death was the only winner – he showed up in some snazzy new uniform on those Kubert frontispieces every issue to remind you of it, before you even got into the stories.

But you also got a lot of crazy shit, and so much variety, that the odd clunky eight-page plot couldn't fully bury. The brevity also made it a lot easier to swallow, because any predictable or plodding tale would be over in a few pages.


Unfortunately, by the end of WWT's original 12-year run, there was more and more of those dull stories, as the mash-up of war and horror started to run out of steam. You could only have so many angry soldiers rising from their graves, or phantom battalions coming to the aid of modern troops.

In its last few years, the editors resorted to more continuing features, in a bid to build up loyal readers, with concepts like the Land That Time Forgot, the Creature Commandos and the GI Robot showing up and crossing over. It was fun for the kids, but added a further dose of predictability as these more-focused concepts were also bled dry, and the comic eventually faded away.

It has come back a couple of times, usually under the Vertigo imprint, but despite the odd nice, old-fashioned tale, the stories tended to be a bit too clever for their own good, lacking the easy charms of the original series.


There is more than enough senseless horror on the battlefield in real life. You don't need monsters to chew up human lives in vast meat grinders- normal human beings are more than capable of that.

But the intensity of combat can combine well with the surrealism of the supernatural, and Weird War Tales proved that for more than a decade.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How Rocky Horror made me a better person


Re-watching a film you used to be obsessed with is always a strange experience, and the longer it's been since you last indulged, the stranger it gets. Some dialogue, characters and entire scenes can seemingly be forgotten, until the re-watch drags them up from somewhere deep in the memory, and you realise you never forgot any of this shit.

Last week I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film I was brutally obsessed with for an incredibly brief time 28 goddamn years ago. It was the first time I'd seen it in more than a decade, and it was bloody awesome. I knew every song (up to a very particular point) backwards, and greatly enjoyed drinking in its unique vibe again.

Looking back, with its themes of wild and rampant sexuality, it probably wasn't the best film to be watching over and over again when I was 12-years-old. But it really did help me become a better person, so maybe it was exactly what I should have been watching.


The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a strange and goofy movie that is unlike anything else ever put on film. A lot of this is due to the fact that it remains oddly timeless - a pastiche of dopey fifties horror films made in the seventies, on very limited sets that have no foundation in the real world. It's a hermetically sealed world where everyone bursts into delightful song, or gets on down into some dirty sex, and it all takes place in a tight little universe.

Fortunately, almost all of those sings are still just as irritatingly catchy and meaty as they ever were - everybody knows the Time Warp, but each song, which come along at surprisingly regular intervals, is infinitely catchy. Over at The Frankenstein Place is a dose of haunting glam, Sweet Transvestite has some great thundering keyboards, I'm Going Home is still fucking heart-breaking, and the whole Science Fiction/Double Feature thing is a fantastic bookend.

And it's all held together by a fine cast, including the young and unflappable Susan Sarandon, and a ensemble who had mastered the roles in the stage show.  Tim Curry has done many fine things over his long career, but nothing beats his sly, snide and spectacular Frank N Furter.


Even with the groovy songs and unique atmosphere of cheery and gross dread, Rocky Horror still has some flaws. Some parts of the story are needlessly cruel, and some of the sexual politics are incredibly dated. And it's easy to see how the whole thing could be repulsive to certain people, with its callous disregard for taste and social niceties.

But it's precisely  those things that still make it an attractive experience for some. For many beautiful freaks and lovely geeks, Rocky Horror is still one of the greats.


My own obsession with the movie was oddly limited, in more ways than one. I had a copy on video tape when I was 12, but it ran out of tape almost exactly halfway through the film, right after the point when Frank separately seduced Brad and Janet.

So I just rewatched the first 45 minutes over and over again, because that was enough. I loved the look of the film, and that unique and unusual atmosphere. I would watch that same 45 minutes over and over again, memorising the tunes and dialogue through sheer osmosis, (although I had to play 'Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul' a million times over to figure out what Meatloaf was on about). I pestered my parents to rent out a copy from the video store so that I could see how it ended, and was thrilled to see the second half continue with the same bizarre vibe. They didn't really understand the attraction, but indulged it.

It didn't last long - youthful obsessions like that rarely do - and I was over Rocky Horror by the time I was a teenager. It was still something I would watch now and then, but the spaces between those viewings stretched out further and further, until I didn't watch it for 10 years.


A brief aside on the experience of watching Rocky Horror - I never, ever got into the whole audience participation thing, something Rocky is truly infamous for, and actually found myself actively turned off the movie by those fan events.

It's hard to really explain why, especially when so many outsiders and loners found those special movie screenings a revelation, all over the world. There are plenty of people who couldn't even think of watching the movie on their own, because the communal experience was what it was all about.

Not for me - right at the height of my Rocky Horror love I got a hold of a soundtrack album that actually included the whole audience participation, and it was so fucking annoying and restrictive and elitist that it turned me right off the idea. It was something about the strict rules over what dumb lines to insert in any gap in the movie, and the loss of the movie's silent charms, that was so off-putting.

I went to one live show once, and it only took five minutes for one person to get loudly upset because the others "weren't doing it right".


Still, while I'm just a grumpy old shit on this issue of watching it with a crowd, I can point to one way that the Rocky Horror Picture Show made me a better person, and I'm so glad it did.

Because when I was going through that phase of watching it every day at school, I was literally living on a farm outside a small rural community in New Zealand in the mid-1980s, and that whole scene was conservative as shit. And growing up in that place, I was a bit of a conservative little prick, worried about things like homosexuals and transexuals and anything that could be classed as 'abnormal'. I never experienced anything to do with it, it wasn't really on TV or anywhere, and I knew a few camp adults, but they just seemed really happy all the time.


So Rocky Horror was actually one of my very first exposures to all these issues, with some very mature moments in between the rock and roll. And seeing a man in sexy ladies underwear seduce both Brad and Janet was an absolute revelation, because I suddenly discovered I had absolutely no problem with any of this. Confronted with some very adult issues at a reasonably young age, I couldn't see why people were so scared of this sort of thing. Because if Rocky taught me anything, it's that you should just be happy with who you are, no matter what the rest of the world says.

Confronted with these things, I really didn't think it was any big deal. If feeling good about yourself means putting on some tight pantyhose and slipping the odd nipple out, go for it. Who cares what anybody else thinks?  I'm still painfully heterosexual, but if people want to change clothes, or genders, or anything like that, then I don't want to get in their way, and I encourage them to do whatever makes them feel good, because we could all use a bit more of that in life. I may have been a small minded little son of a bitch, but Rocky Horror opened that mind right up.


I'm 28 years older now, and a lot of things have changed. But some things haven't.

I still love the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I love the way Richard O'Brien's kiwi accent only pokes through once (when he yells that they never liked him, right at the end), I love the American Gothic thing at the start, and I love that it's still as funny as hell - the 'Brad! Janet! Doctor Scott! etc...' bit is a strange comedic highlight.

And I'm still trying to keep that open mind going. I've seen plenty of other sexual shenanigans since Rocky Horror, but as long as it's this much fun for everybody, I'm up for anything.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The monthly comic fix (by publisher, as at August, 2015)


Comics achieved that perfect alchemy of words and pictures about a century ago, but the ways comics are delivered continues to evolve and change.

After an eternity of print, digital looks like the most likely future, with serial comic book storytelling going electronic, and higher end collections still published on paper. It might come on a screen rather than a page, but there will always be new Batman comics.

Digital comics are not my thing, for loads of different and stupid reasons – but I still genuinely enjoy going to comic shops and getting the same few regular titles every month. I don't get as much as I used to, barely a dozen regular titles, but I still get some. Nearly half of them are published by Image, most of them have a limited life, and all of them make stopping by the comic shop every weekend worthwhile.


The only regular ongoing superhero comic I still get is Daredevil by Waid and Samnee, who are both moving on to other things fairly soon. It's been a ridiculously confident superhero comic, with bold, clever storytelling strokes and some sweet cliffhanger action, and scratched an itch for strong superhero fun that is never quite satisfied. I'm not sure what's going to fill that hole when Daredevil swings off in another direction, but I've got some ideas.

The only other Marvel comic that I'm getting at the moment is just as limited – Where Monsters Dwell by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun still packs some daft action and brick-subtle social commentary into its short run, although the funniest thing about it is how they're trying to tie it into Secret Wars, when the comic has absolutely no interest in even acknowledging anything to do with Secret Wars.

Some of Marvel's current weird range of titles that have spun out of the whole Secret Wars thing are awfully enticing, with interesting creators going a bit crazy with the mash-up concepts, (and I still have a total Pavlovian reaction to that Inferno logo), but they all look more confusing than entertaining.


It's not like I'm getting a lot of regular DC comics to balance it out – the only two comics I'm getting from that publisher are All-Star Section Eight, (where the best bit so far has been Green Lantern refusing to play along with the gag and telling off all the readers for expecting such shenanigans), and Sandman Overture, which is just as much fun in its own way, because it's always great to see talented comic makers go completely over the top with things.

Again, some of the new books, like Prez, Bizarro and - somehow - Midnighter look like a lot of fun, but I missed the first issues at my local shop, so will have to wait for the collections to check them out.


Instead – and I'm still a little blind sided by this – Image is the publisher that puts out most of the regular comics I get. These include Warren Ellis' Injection and Trees comics, which are structurally fascinating; and Ed Brubaker's solid Velvet with Steve Epting and spectacular The Fade Out with Sean Phillips (it's Dottie that's behind it all, right?)

It's where I get my Morrison and Millar fixes – the only Millar comic I'm getting at the moment is Jupiter's Circle, and Nameless is the only Morrison book I'm getting right now. Both feel a bit over-familiar, but have some lovely art. And again, they only have a limited life, which makes them easier to bother with..

And Image is a fine home for old survivors like Bob  Fingerman and David Lapham, who are still producing fine regular comics, this deep into the 21st century. Stray Bullets has been particularly fine in recent days, while Fingerman's Minimum Wage comics are seriously good looking – a recent issue with some airbrushed dreamscapes was just beautiful.


I also get one Avatar comic - Garth Ennis' War Stories comics, which has benefited greatly by looking at combat tales from new perspectives, like a tank commander in the Israel's Six-Day War, or a group of German civilians fleeing some pissed-off Russians in the dying days of World War 2.

Unfortunately , they also come with the usual bog-awful Avatar art, which often undercuts many of the big moments that Ennis is going for. I also keep telling my shop guy that I don't want the covers with the gross 'good girl' art, but that seems to be all he gets.


The most consistently strong regular comics I get are in one little (but rapidly expanding) corner of the Dark Horse comic line – the Hellboy and BPRD comics.

After some heavy-duty catching up (much more on this later), the BPRD series has somehow become my favourite monthly comic. Twenty years of outstanding comics by Mike Mignola and his chums have produced a thematically rich and character-rich world, which just makes it more heartbreaking when that world falls down around those beloved characters.

Hellboy and the BPRD: 1952, a spin-off title, is just was welcome, while the increasingly rare new issues of the actual Hellboy comic, once again fully written and drawn by Mignola, are total gems.

The writers and artists playing in Mignola's world are producing great work across a number of titles, full of smart and stylish comics, and I happily get the Abe Sapien., Lobster Johnson, Baltimore and Witchfinder spin-off series in trade paperback, simply because I can't keep track of the phenomenal workrate. With promises that everything in the Hellboy universe is about to get totally shaken up again soon, it's unarguably great serial comics.


I also still get 2000ad off the shelf every week, and that ain't ever going to change, as long as there is still 2000ad, me, and shelves.


I'm always a little embarrassed by my regular comic diet, the same old names like Ennis and Morrison, and more than a few other creators from the 1990s.

But I'm always up for something new, and most of the regular comics I get do have finite lives (if something lasts for 20-some issues, is it still a limited series?). I like getting about a dozen new comics a month, and when they're pushing ten bucks each, can't really afford to get much more.

But there are always great new comics to indulge in, and enjoy. The future might be digital, but I still like getting that new ink on my fingers every month.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Batman versus Superman: This can only end well


My lovely wife is a talented wit, a natural weight-lifter and a superb cook. She's my reason for everything, and my sun rises and sets with her. She's also my barometer of dork.

She didn't grow up a geek - she was normal folk - but I've made some limited progress on that front over the 10 years we've been together. She has watched every episode of the new Doctor Who with me, but wouldn't be able to sit through a single episode of the classic era.  She adores the Venture Bros more than anybody else I know, but the only comics I could ever get her to read were the Alan Moore books they made into movies.

So she provides invaluable grounding on the nerdier side of life, giving me a good perspective I'd never see for myself. This can prove to be extraordinarily useful sometimes. Like when I have embarrassingly complex emotions about the new Superman versus Batman film.


I can't help having embarrassingly complex emotions about these things - they're deeply ingrained, a love etched into my heart. Ever since I saw the two greatest superheroes ever walking along Tawa St outside my house in 1979 (it totally wasn't a dream), I've loved Superman and Batman.

I have put a considerable amount of thought into the differences between the two superheroes. I firmly come down on the side that Batman will always win a fight between the two, because Batman always figures out a way to win. It's like the eternal Beatles/Stones debates - you can still love both of them, but if you had to pick one, you always know which one it'd be. I think Superman is the ultimate iconic hero, but Batman is just cooler. Because he is.

And now, after years and years of painful teasing about it, and decades and decades and decades after they first got together on the comic page, the two are going to star in a big feature film together, standing up on the big screen to beat the tar out of each other.

I know it's going to be bad for me, but I can't fucking wait.


Of course, that eagerness for another stupid superhero movie is tempered by some massive reservations - Zack Snyder is boiling down into a deeply predictable filmmaker and the odds of anything actually surprising in these films are low. He always has been that way, just look at the way the songs he chooses to soundtrack his films are always the most awfully obvious choices.

And with the publicity machine already roaring into life, eight months out, the filmmakers are already getting out there to talk it up, and they're displaying the unfortunate tendency to get stuck in the idea that dark equals realistic, even though there is more humanity in a few heartfelt jokes than there will ever be in pained glowering. Only 13-year-old boys and grown-up superhero fans think real life is all about pain and suffering, mainly because they need to get laid.


But oh boy, all those deep and thoughtful concerns just slide away when they show these two gigantic superheroes facing off, and I want to see the new film so fucking bad.

I just want to see them smash into each other. It's total action figure film making, but if you're going to do that with anybody, you might as well do it with these two.

I come into this thing with decades of goodwill towards the characters and concepts. I've enjoyed the greatest, mightiest and dumbest Superman/Batman adventures over the years, and there has always been a part of me that was desperate to see them go apeshit in a movie. There is no way I can look objectively at this. At all.


Which is where the lovely wife swoops in, to save the fucking day. She doesn't have that weird love for superheroes that goes on forever, but she's into the spectacle of it all, and watches all these silly films with me. I love talking to her about these movies, to see what she makes of them, because that's a whole new perspective.

And the thing that surprised me about her reaction was she was keen to see the movie, if only because Henry Cavill makes that suit look good, but that she was really wasn't down with the idea that the whole film was built on these two fighting each other.

I don't think she's read a single Superman comic in her life - a Batman one probably snuck in there somewhere - but even she knows they're the World's Finest team. She knows they're great chums and allies, and are the ultimate team - complementing each other's strengths, and offering a bit of contrast to the other's purity.

So while I'm just keen to see the two butt heads, she's already bored. What's the point of spending so long with the set-up for the fight, when you know they're going to team up in the end? They just look like angry idiots being manipulated by dudes with bad haircuts, taking too long to get to the point. Everything up to the moment when they inevitably shake hands is just prologue.


She has the same problem with the huge focus on origin stories, the idea of seeing Batman's parents gunned down again is pure tedium. It's already been seen over and over again, and if you haven't got the point by now, there's no hope for you. Seeing heroes forced to fight each other, instead of taking down the actual bad guys, is just as dull.

I don't really have the heart to tell her about the next few Marvel movies....



Even with all this moaning, we're still going to see it because we're total hypocrites who just go for the spectacle. We're happy with the razzle dazzle, and we're only too happy to let the awesome sights drown out our complaints about how problematic it all is.

Because it is just another dumb superhero film, and we can watch it together, and get completely different things out of it, and I always look forward to seeing what this wonderful woman thinks of the dopeiest shit in life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Inoffensive!


Whenever Garth Ennis gives an interview about his comics, there is a very good chance he is going to be asked about the outrageous sex and violence that often drenches his stories, and a very good chance he is going to be asked about the offence this often causes. Doesn't he feel any shame for the deplorable things he writes about? Isn't he embarrsed by it?

Ennis has been asked these types of questions for about a quarter of a century now, so he's gotten really good at coming up with a response. He will patiently explain that even though his comics are filled with strange and terrible sights, it's okay, because none of it is real. It's just words and pictures. Lines on paper. No actual people were harmed in the making of his comics.

He will usually go on to point out that this is a concept that most people figure out by the time they're three years old, and he's a bit baffled why grown-ups have such a problem with it. And then he'll move on to the next question.


Ennis is being both totally disingenuous and completely truthful when he makes these arguments. Of course his stories are more than just lines on paper - all stories are more than just that. They're containers for ideas; interesting and crazy and entertaining ideas. They can make us think in different ways and change us as people. They can also be full of harmful ideas, and cause all kinds of grief.

But he's also right. It's not real. None of it is real. And I know it sounds awfully callous and privileged – and I do have serious concerns that there is something important missing in my brain - but I don't get personally offended by the sex and violence I find in the fiction I ever consume. Ever.


Hell, I seek out the intentionally offensive, always with a clinical eye on seeing how far people will go to prove a point, no matter how gross and sticky it gets. A good, hard dedication to extreme fiction is inevitable when you're seeking out the utmost intensity in your stories.

Obviously, I still won't tolerate anything blatantly sexist, racist, homophobic or anything like that, and I'm only too glad to see those things get an ideological slapping, because we're supposed to be better than that. But while I find these things appalling, I still don't have a personal stake in these fights. A dumbass comic is just a dumbass comic, disgust doesn't rise into outright offence and ignoring it through the power of total apathy is the only sane response.

So I stay out of those arguments altogether, and let some genuinely noble cultural warriors fight that good fight, even if I often think they're wrong.


I can't help speaking from a perspective of privilege here – I'm a white heterosexual male. My people ain't been persecuted, we've been the motherfuckers doing the persecuting for the past millennia or two.

You can make fun of my culture all you want, because it's an oppressive and omnipresent culture that has swallowed up all the rest and deserves all the shit it can get. I'm totally in favour of new ways of thinking, and I actually really like seeing pale white guys get humiliated and belittled, because we fucking deserve it.

But as much as I cheer that on, I'm still on the side of The Man, just because of who I am and the advantages that have come with it, and I'm painfully aware of it. I don't have that powerful personal response to something which can be properly upsetting for people with other points of view, who have been pushed down their whole lives, and I don't want to add to the shoving, in any direction.


And I'm not a total monster. I still get offended by all sorts of real world shit - inequality, greed, selfishness and ill-treatment of our fellow human beings are things I still find deeply upsetting. What sort of person doesn't get offended by the great injustices of the world? They make so angry sometimes I choke on my own frustration.

But I just can't get that bothered by something as frivolous as silly entertainment. There is a lot to take offense at in this world, stupid movies comic books come way down the list.


And I do actively seek it out. Stories that push the envelope are always interesting, I look for intensity in my art, and that often ends up taking me down ideologically suspect lines.

But I can't help it - I still think it's hilarious the lengths some people will go to be offensive without being outright horrible. I enjoy seeing how far Mark Millar goes with his blasts of stinky comics -  I'm not ashamed to admit I have a real soft spot for his Unfunnies, which I know I'm awfully alone on - and I always like seeing how far Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison occasionally go. Morrison is currently doing his worst in Nameless, which would be even harsher to take if the narrative wasn't deliberately eating itself alive, while Ellis hides his beautiful soft heart beneath layers of nastiness.

And all these nice British lads - even Ennis - ain;t got nothing on the things that were going on in the US undergrounds of the 1970s, or the bonkers Japanese scene of the late 1980s. There were all new levels of depravity there, they don't just push the envelope of taste, they turn it inside out and stick their dick in the results.

It's still happening - in between tales of heart-wrenching epic family dramas, Gibert Hernandez regularly lets his id run wild all over the page, with some appallingly beautiful result. When Beto goes far out, he really goes far out.


And why not? Go hard or go home! If you're going to go for the hardcore violence, then you really need to push it all the way. Any whiff of restraint and you're doomed.

If you half arse it, or you end up with the uselessness of softcore porn (people who hate porn don't like it, and people who love porn don't like it, so what's the point?)


I do still have my limits, and it's usually for purely aesthetic reasons - I don't like the Crossed comics at all, even as I sneakily admire their ability to get really depraved, it's still nothing I actually want to read (especially when they feature the usual butt-fuck ugly artwork of Avatar comics), and I can sit through Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, but it's not something I ever need to see again.

But I don't want to ban these things, or stop anybody else from ever seeing them. It's your own choice how far you go, and how much offense you take at things.

I actually like the political correctness debate - as long it stays a debate, and not a rigid set of baffling, inflexible rules. I'm glad there are those cultural warriors out there, taking offense so I don't have to. Sometimes I wish I could, but I'm still happy to wallow in the outrageous.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The last video store

The local video store is closing down, and that's it for video stores, as far as I'm concerned. I held out a lot longer than most with the whole going-to-a-shop-and-renting-shit thing, but my days of wandering up and down those endless bland store aisles, looking for a cinematic fix, are done.

And the last video I ever hired out was a ninja film, which is awesomely fitting, because the very first video I ever hired out on my own was a ninja film.


We didn't have a video player until I was nine, and I can still remember how horrible it was to miss a programme and never be able to see it again – I cried real tears when we had to go to a family party while The Posiedon Adventure was on TV, and I still have deep emotional scars from missing the final part of the Doctor Who adventure The Leisure Hive.

Video came along in the early eighties and freed us from this small tyranny. Now you could watch Star Wars whenever you bloody well felt like it, and if you were out or in bed when the latest episode of Sapphire and Steel was on the TV, it would magically record it for you.

And the video stores were suddenly everywhere – you could even rent tapes from the local petrol stations. There was a glut of product, as distributors put out any old crap they had, and it was eagerly hoovered up by a generation of TV watchers who were sick of being forced to watch Coronation Street, and wanted some video nastiness.


'Revenge of the Ninja' was the first one I ever got out with my own money, and I remember it well because it was an R13 and I was underage, but I still managed to convinced the store clerk that my Dad said it was okay. My Dad didn't know anything about it, and me and my mates watched it while him and Mum were off at the darts.

It was an awful, awful film, except for one sweet piece of car stunt action that I still remember, and I was left vaguely disappointed. I'd get used to that anticipation melting in the face of reality over the next 30 goddamn years, as I spent an undesirable amount of my life in video stores, looking for great examples of cinema on the shelves. It was a lot of work - over the years. I watched everything, from the usual blockbusters to the nastiest Italian gore to the They Call Me Bruce films.

There was always something new to watch, or some old director to catch up on. There wasn't much else to do when you grow up in small town New Zealand, but you could see how the rest of the world looked on film, if you looked for the good stuff hard enough.


I became a bit of a video store snob over time, seeking out the best stores – the ones with the festival films and the things you could never find anywhere else. I would find, and haunt, places where you could find all of Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle or the collected work of Satyajit Ray, because they were full of film treasures.

Whenever I moved town, the first thing I would do after signing up at the local library was sign up at the best local video store, and see if they had those last few Hammer horrors I hadn't seen, or some strange foreign delights. 


I even worked in a video store in Christchurch for a full eight weeks in 2001, just as the DVDs were starting to really appear. It was a fantastic job, but I had to quit because the boss was a total fucking bitch, and I couldn't stand for that, and when I left, I stole a copy of Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, because that's the type of fucking dork I was.


They're almost all gone now. All those stores where I spent literally hours trying to decide if I needed more Steven Seagal or Lars Von Trier in my film diet, they've closed down, one by one.

It was a slow death: DVDs propped up the video store industry for a little while, but once people could start getting films easily and cheaply over the internet – legally or not – it was all over. More and more films were streamed and downloaded, and nobody could be bothered heading out into the cold, dark world to get their entertainment, when their entertainment could come to them.

One by one, they faded away, and nobody seemed to mind.


I held on to the end – until this month I was still getting out $1 DVDs every week, just to catch up on the films that weren't worth paying up to $20 to see at the cinema, or had bypassed the theatres completely.

I can never find them by browsing through online lists, because I never really know to look, and don't trust the algorithms that pretend to know my likes/dislikes. The type of films that were never worth more than a buck to watch could only be found by looking at hundreds of the things on a proper shelf, artwork and logos sparking memories of a positive review or an interesting plot.

All that time spent in those stores wasn't wasted. It was far too much fun for that, cramming more pointless information about movies into a head full to bursting. I could always use a bit more of that.


The local store is closing down now. They've sold off their stock at insanely cheap prices, and I'm certainly one of the vultures who grabbed a few things, desperate to have a copy of Jack Hill's Spider Baby to call my own.

But it'll be gone next week, faded into history like that awesome Video Ezy that set up in the bottom floor of my favourite local cinema, or that arty place where I hired out too many Peter Greenaway films. They're all gone.

I'm not going to bother joining anywhere else. There is nowhere close by, and it's become more of a hassle to regularly hire out discs from anywhere else. I'll sign up for some kind of streaming bullshit, because that's all they really offer any more.


The last DVD I hired before they announced they were closing down was a ninja film starring Scott Adkins. It came out a couple of years ago, but I only stumbled on it while flicking through the shelves one last time. Like almost all of Scott Adkins films, it was awesomely awful – and a perfect end of an era.

 If my video store days are done, I'm going out like a ninja.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Another double-take at the supermarket



“Ladies and Gentlemen, by overwhelming demand, we start with everybody's favourite... Chocolate Sandwich!”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Everything is wonderfully pointless: Who's Who and Official Handbooks


I keep thinking I should chuck them out. They're just taking up precious space in our small spare room, and they're not even relevant any more. There are dozens and dozens of them, and when I go on a purge binge through the comic collection, they always end up on the 'maybe-it's-time-to-let-them-go' pile, before I chicken out and put them away again, until the next time.

They are two series, published by Marvel and DC in the late eighties. The DC one was called Who's Who, and the Marvel one was called The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe. They are catalogues, histories and data about the most prominent characters, settings and props of the main superhero universes.

They're 30 years out of date, and are obsessed with a continuity that has been rewritten four or five times since. They're totally useless in this 21st century, but that's just another reason why I can't bring myself to get rid of them.


It's all about the context. Unless you're 70 years old, any new reader of the big superhero comics has decades of history to catch up on, and after years and years of ignoring the issue altogether, by the 1980s, things had got complicated, and needed to be catalogued properly.

There was a strong fanbase asking for this, desperate to know if Iron Man or Thor was stronger, or how tall the Golden Age Black Canary was. The eighties are the decade when the fans really took over the asylum, and were finally given the green light to put everything in its proper place.

Fanzine theories became canon and hidden histories were revealed, but I didn't know anything bout that. All I knew was that these series were full of background information from comics I never  thought I'd get to read, and my 12-year-old brain hoovered that shit up like it was cocaine.


Who's Who came out as DC's continuity-shattering Crisis On Infinite Earths was still running, and there is some incredibly impressive back-pedalling in the earliest issues, as they catch up with a new status quo that was shifting literally every month.

Still, it had the task of setting the new reality, and original editors Len Wein and Marv Wolfman went about it with gusto, giving some of DC's quirkiest characters their first on-page appearance in years, and devoting a bit of space to even the most bizarre histories as everything was sorted out.

Despite some great art, the comics themselves were eye-searingly over-designed, and various experiments with yellow dots and bleeding colours sometimes produced pages that were almost unreadable.

But they were dense with fifty years of history, and covered everyone from Baron Blitzkrieg to El Diablo, and even the goofiest shit got in there.


The Marvel version was, as the name suggest, more utilitarian, with less artistic craziness, but more text and information crammed into its pages. Marvel actually got there with this sort of thing first, with a Handbook series in the early eighties, but it was the Deluxe Edition, first published in 1985, that was the definite catalogue of Marvel's best and brightest.

With a greater focus of facts and information than its DC counterpart, the Official Handbook was absolutely dense with data, with little wasted space. Again, there were some nice character portrayals by some of comic's brightest star of the time, but the information was the thing.

And Marvel delivered – the Handbooks had denser history segments, and greater detail, right down to whether somebody engaged in light, moderate or intensive exercise. It wasn't perfect - by some glitch, they kept under-powering Iron Man by 90 per cent – but it was some beautiful detail.


After all, there are some hidden truths of the time they were published, like how much they care about recent things – characters that are largely forgotten now get detailed entries, just because they were flavour of the month 30 years ago, and some of comic's biggest characters today get little more than a footnote in the mid-eighties.

They also show that while superhero comics are still primarily a boy's medium today, we've come a long way, because these things are packed to capacity with straight white men, and few characters of any colour or creed other than whitebread. They're not being blatantly offensive, it just shows how colourless a lot of characters were back then because that was the way they always had been, but it's certainly noticeable now, especially when males outnumber female character entries by 10 to one, and it's a good reminder that we could still use a few more different perspectives.


I read these comics to pieces in the eighties, and still get them out again now, to remember the strange and obscure characters and worlds. They've both been mined by their parent companies for anything useful over the past three decades, but there are still some delights to be found in characters that have slipped away in history.

There were a couple of update series towards the end of the eighties, and then the whole thing was reinvented and over-designed to death, just like everything was over-designed to death in the 1990s. And now we've got Wikipeadia to find out everything we need to know, right down to the slightest details, and there's no need for them now. But they were crucial for their times.


They also had some terrific art – even with the appalling polka dots, the DC pieces were artistically stronger, with montages showing a character’s history, while Marvel favoured blank backgrounds and a focus on the actual people and props. But both of them attracted unusual artists, and you'd find somebody like Jaime Hernandez doing the spunkiest legion of Super Heroes or Curt Swan doing one of Marvel's Superman analogues.

The first issue of the Handbook alone has art from Byrne, Cockrum, Buscema, Ordway, Smith, Simonson, Zeck and Steve flippin' Ditko. But DC went better, with the young stars like Gibbons, Giffen, Bolland and Perez kicking out some killer images, while Kane, Kirby, Kubert, Swan, Orlando, Infantino and Garcia-Lopez brought decades and decades of experience on incredible cover designs to their character pieces.

These publications were full of beautiful art and silly trivia, and I still care about this shit to go back over it, again and again. Somebody has to, right?


The pages are starting to yellow, and the data is getting more and more pointless, but that just makes it even more attractive. Caring about superhero universes is the ultimate in pointlessness anyway – because let's face it, true believer – because none of this shit really matters.

But if you're going to pretend you're going to give a damn about pointless shit, than you might as well go all the way. I can try to justify it with art appreciation or shameless nostalgia or anything like that, but the fact that these things are so obsolete is really appealing.

The Who's Who and Official Handbook comics don't really matter any more. That's what makes them so great.