Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Them's fighting comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Welcome back to Twin Peaks

When David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks made its debut in the early nineties it quickly scored a massive audience, hooked on the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. But that success was fleeting, and the series was cancelled after just two seasons, as the audience fell away in their millions.

It was just too weird, and in the end, too uneven for the world, and it's notable that the strange and beautifully distinctive residents of Twin Peaks immediately gave up their central position in the early nineties US TV zeitgeist to Beverly Hills 90210, with its clean cut kids.

Twin Peaks returned a couple of years later with the intentionally baffling Fire Walk With Me prequel - which is only now really being generally recognised as a great Lynch film - and that was all there was for more than two decades, until it was revealed yesterday that Lynch and Frost were returning to Twin Peaks for a new series in 2016.

I could not be more excited about the fact that my favourite gum is coming back in style.

I can't watch Twin Peaks in the daylight, it's always been a late, late night thing.

It's somewhere in the nineties, and I finally get to see the whole series when it was, at long, last repeated on TV – DVD box sets are still more than half a decade away. But it's only being shown at two o'clock on a weekday morning, so I set my alarm clock to wake me up right on two with a blast of Britpop, watch the episode and go back to sleep for another few hours and have some fucked-up dreams.

It downloads directly into my subconscious, and leaves the real world feeling flat and uninspired, because I'm walking through a boring old world, but in my head, the owls are not what they seem, and there are places beyond space and time that can be soaked in fear, or open with great hope.

It's still early days into the return of Twin Peaks, with no announcements regarding the return of crucial cast members, although it has been confirmed that Lynch will direct all nine episodes.

Nothing else is known, but one thing is certain - it's bound to infuriate some fans, delight others, and baffle the rest.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of Twin Peaks in the history of American television drama. It put charm, complexity and sheer weirdness onto primetime screens, and proved to be massively influential.

It helped break the 'case-of-the-week' structure that was predominant in television at the time, with a long-running story that refused to offer easy, or quick, answers. Lynch and Frost famously never wanted to reveal who the killer was at all, and the caving in to network pressure on that issue was a huge nail in the series' coffin.

Twin Peaks also offered a unique creative vision - it's a complete world of strangeness and detail that could only come from the perspective of these creators, and that's a lesson that other important shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Deadwood took to heart, to tell their own stories, in their own way.

It's still somewhere in the nineties, and it's still somewhere in the early hours of the morning, but this time I'm really, really fucked up, and I've just staggered home from the pub, and somehow Fire Walk With Me is playing on my shitty video player.

My mates were laughing at the woman in the red dress, but I can't take it, the whole thing is so fucking emotionally and thematically rich. I've been regularly listening to the soundtrack, and Laura isn't just a victim – she sacrifices herself to save her friends, and maybe the world.

And then they go to the nightclub, and the music is pulsing and the lights are flashing, and the lights in the room I'm sitting in start stuttering for a moment, and it's all real, man, and it's profoundly terrifying for a good three seconds, followed by an enthusiastic euphoria at the weirdness of it all.

The world really is a weird place, and it's awesome.

Lynch drifted away from the show after the first season, and went off to create some of the creepiest and most unusual movies on the 1990s, but did return for the final episode, ending the series on several painful cliff-hangers that are still unresolved.

They certainly weren't resolved when Lynch made his final visit to the town, for the Fire Walk With Me movie. Fans of the show who expected Lynch to tie up loose ends were left unfulfilled, and even angry at the film's failure to provide answers, although some critics hailed it as one of the great horror movies of the nineties.

Lynch and Frost both moved onto other projects, and Lynch's next major TV series turned from commercial disaster to artistic triumph when the Mullholland Drive series was cancelled, and he used the bones of the pilot to create one of the best movies of his career.

But there was no more talk of Twin Peaks. Lynch said it was dead, and even the fabled directors cut of Fire Walk With Me, with featured cameos from many of the show's quirky characters, was locked away.

And now it's the sci-fi year of 2014, just a few weeks ago, but it's still the timeless, endless late night, and I'm watching Twin Peaks again.

It's that Fire Walk With Me footage, which I'd given up hope of ever seeing, suddenly out there in the world, and it's so familiar, largely because the full movie script was one of the very first things I ever downloaded off the internet, but there are also all those other forgotten characters, still shining in early nineties youth.

It's disconcerting, especially because the new scenes have no real soundtrack beyond the dialogue, even though they have been put together by Lynch, and the lack of music and that quiet Lynch drone of dread gives the unearthed footage a step towards cold reality.

It's all out there now.

But Laura Palmer did say she was coming to see us again in 25 years, and she was always true to her word, even if she was dead, and the return of the actual series was finally confirmed this week.

The fact that Lynch will direct the TV show is very good news, especially since he hasn't directed a feature in almost 10 years, since 2006's Inland Empire, and his brand of idiosyncratic fiction has been deeply missed.

After all these years of anticipation, the new series is bound to disappoint many, and can never live up to everybody's expectations. But the murder mystery appeal of Twin Peaks faded a long time ago, and the stranger parts of the show have a weird timelessness that still holds up.

A return visit to the town again after all this time is bound to be startling, unexpected and uncomfortable. Just like it should be.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Under the big sky (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Western)

There were only two TV channels available when I was a little kid, so the choices of entertainment on endless rainy Sunday afternoons was severely limited. One of the channels would usually be playing some kind of incredibly boring sport like snooker or golf or motor racing, and the other would probably be showing an old western.

And I hated the old westerns. Some of them would start with that Warner Bros sting, and every time I saw one, I would pray that they were going to play a Daffy Duck cartoon or something, but then it would all be black and white dust and scraggly bushes and boring boulders, and it would be just another damn western.

I was a Star Wars kid – the original films came out when I was between two and eight years old, which means I never stood a chance of being anything other than a Star Wars kid. And it led to a true fascination with the weird and wonderful worlds of science fiction, and things like 'real life' and 'realism' could piss right off.

After all, how could even the best Western ever compare to anything that had lasers and monsters and spaceships? All the cowboy movies ever had were endless dull pistol gunfights and women in huge dresses swooning over the passion of it all, and even as a kid, the ideological treatment of the native American population in most films was dodgy as hell.

That affinity for science fiction and fantasy naturally led into a teenaged horror obsession, and meant I would watch the worst nth-generation copy of an Umberto Lenzi film over anything with cowboys in it. And then I got bored with all that rubbish, grew up a bit, and suddenly, all I wanted to do was walk tall.

I finally got into the Western genre in my very late teens, and I walked in through a door marked 'CLINT'.

When you leave school and head out into the world, you don't know who you are yet, and all you can do is model yourself on the people you admire, even if they're fictional. I was happy to have some of Patrick McGoohan's enigmatic bluster from The Prisoner in my mix, and still prided myself on living up to Superman's moral code.

But Clint Eastwood was the coolest of them all, a man of very few words with the most intense squint in the world, and while I was (and still am) a total pacifist who abhors violence and can't stand the macho bullshit behind the use of guns in the real world, the same character that Clint played in almost all his movies still seemed like a brilliant role model.

His many, many films varied in quality from outright rubbish to sheer brilliance, but the best, without any question, was Unforgiven, and that film single-handedly finally opened my mind to stories being told on the the wide prairie winds.

Unforgiven has a shaggy and loose first two-thirds, but the just makes the apocalyptic good climax all the more stunning. The last third of the film is pure melancholic poetry, as William Mummy reveals that the weight of all his death-dealing is still on his shoulders, and that it's something he'll never get over.

He knows that violence is not the answer, but he still goes into Greely's shithole and kills everybody who fucks with him, whether they really deserve it or not, and then stands out in the rain under an American flag, and tells the survivors to make it right, or he'll kill every damn one of them, and that doesn't just rip apart the heart out of the Western, it's a concise and poetic way of exposing the heart of American itself, one of honour and friendship, crawling its way out of a bloody and muddy past.

Westerns didn't have aliens or hyperspace or teleporters, but they could come loaded with meaning and gravitas that space sagas can never really match, and after having my mind blown by Unforgiven, I started watching every Western I could find.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is the other great Eastwood film, not just because the lead character is a one-man army who can not be stopped, but because because there is iron in his words of life and death, and his willingness to leave the blood behind.

And the Eastwood hero-worship inevitably led to the Spaghetti Westerns, which could be lacking in the emotional depth of Eastwood's later work, although Once Upon A Time In The West is still a jewel of a movie, exposing new depths every time it's viewed.

But while they had their moments of  sad pathos, the Spaghettis were mainly just hugely entertaining with fantastic histrionic performances and set pieces of unbearable tension and excitement – the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is still one of the  tensest, operatic action scenes ever.

And once I'd got over my innate prejudice of the Western, there was no stopping me, and there was so much more brilliance to be found, and I'd follow any recommendation from anywhere, from movie magazines to the Preacher letter column.

I had always thought of John Wayne as a bit of a shallow caricature of a character, but after watching films like The Searchers, Rio Bravo and Stagecoach, I grew to appreciate his subtleties – the moment in The Searchers when he finally catches up with his lost niece after years and years of hateful tracking, and embraces her, still might be the most moving moment in all of cinema.

And there were always new lessons to learn - films like The Wild Bunch taught me the value of having a code, and of sticking by your word, even if it means your death, and more films articulated that unjust treatment of Native Americans that I had always felt uneasy about.

Westerns are the poetry of the common man in an uncommon land. It's a hard land, and taming that landscape inevitably sees characters taming their own souls, and becoming more civilised and more human.

They could get giant performances from Gary Cooper, Lee Van Clef, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and even Dean Martin. They splashed the wide open legends of America across the big screen, and confronted the country's own myths.

They helped teach me that genres don't really matter, and that great stories can be found on dusty roads, just as easily as they can be found on alien landscapes. And they featured some extraordinary stuntwork, of a kind rarely seen anymore.

And they were stories of people – broken men and resolute women, thieves and bounty hunters and herders – finding their place in this new world. What kind of young man could ever resist that?

The golden age of the Western movie ended a long time ago – cinema-goers became more interested in spectacle than introspection, and while the genre will never really die, there is just the odd tale of the Wild West .

By the time I got into them, there were few showing up in theatres at all. Occasionally you'd get something like the Quick And The Dead, an unashamed cartoon, or worthy efforts like Appaloosa, Seraphim Fall, or the magnificently melancholic Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford, or modern version of ancient themes like No Country For Old Men.

The best Western tale of the 21st century wasn't even at the cinema - Deadwood was the best of the great HBO series of the past 15 years, and re-examines a lot of the themes that made the Western great, while bringing something new to the table.

And even though Deadwood is ten years old now, and there are relatively few tales of the Wild West forthcoming, there are still some, and I'm on board with them all. I'll never get into space or fire a laser, but I'm ready to saddle up and ride into the sunset any day.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fun with Beto and Bumperhead

Gilbert Hernandez’s Bumperhead comic book is a big important work, by a big important creator, full of big important themes.

It’s about the ache of missed opportunities and the relentless march of time. It’s a semi-autobiographical story with a large injection of 21st-century magical realism. It’s a painfully accurate portrayal of youthful ennui and the way it fades over time. And it’s a story about the important things in life, and how we can all so easily miss them while they are there.

This could all get a bit much, but luckily, like almost all of Beto's work, Bumperhead is also a shit-ton of fun.

There has been a wicked sense of absurd humour in all of Beto’s comics, going all the way back to the B.E.M. days. His Palomar stories could be grim, dour and depressing affairs, with terrible things happening to good people, but they were also drenched in humanistic amusement. His stories are about love and loss, but they’re also about good friends goofing around on the edge of the darkness.

The massive breasts he gives many of his female characters is that same kind of silly joke – one that many people don’t get and just can’t get past – a touch of quiet craziness that contrasts against all the dark and complex parts of his stories. Human Diastrophism is a profound comic story, even with the stoned surfer dudes staggering through the chaos, and even his deepest sagas have strangely and funny moments.

It’s still there is his current work, especially in the one-off graphic novels that he creates for various publishers in between the usual Love and Rockets gigs. Crazy ideas, freaked-out humour and unashamed thrills bounce up against big themes of life and death, and create something new.

It’s a total punk rock aesthetic – get on with it and sneer at the things you love, but love them all the same, and mercilessly take the piss out of them at a dozen beats a second because we all might be dead tomorrow. And don’t forget the self-righteous smirk.

So it’s unsurprising to see that way of thinking reach its peak in Bumperhead, which has a large portion of the story set inside the seedy clubs and jagged sharp haircuts of a small town punk rock world. It’s just another part of life for the exquisitely named Bobby Numbly, and his story in Bumperhead makes it one of Beto’s best comics in years, even with his fine track record.

There is certainly still a melancholic streak in the book – losses pile up, friends are made and lost and won again, fathers have hidden families, and the intoxication of youth quickly fades away in this stifling suburbia.

But there are also lots of great jokes about crazy girlfriends and drunken foolishness, and the whole story is enormously entertaining as it skips through the pleasures and pitfalls of a normal life.

Calling Bumperhead great entertainment might seem like a back-handed compliment – great and mysterious works aren't supposed to be easy.

Fortunately, it's a book that also tackles this question head-on. Characters argue the merits of complex progressive rock over simple, obnoxious punk tunes, and it's an argument that nobody wins, because there are merits in all sorts of music. You don't have to pick sides.

All the arguments over musical tastes in Bumperhead come with the sweet sting that it really wasn't that important, and not something worth losing good friends over. Music is so important to the young, with adolescents finding community and purpose and life in particular musical tribes, but the old know that anybody can like what they want. It’s no big deal.

Hernandez's goofy and exact cartooning is another large part of the charm – multitudes can be read in the expressions on his characters' faces – and he keeps the story clean and sliding along. His black and white starkness also helps, although it would be fascinating to see a coloured version of this comic, with the neon yellows and greens and oranges on the front and back cover proving to be incredibly eye-catching.

And the free-wheeling and clear storytelling that Beto has perfected over decades makes it even easier to accept the stranger aspects of this latest work. Time is totally fucked up in Bumperhead – some characters grow younger as the years go by, and some just swell. A computer from the modern world is spitting out secrets in the past, as the story drifts into the unreliability of memory.

In the end, it doesn’t fucking matter why they start as kids in 2014, and end as old men, sometime in the 1930s. Just go with it, it doesn’t hurt. Specifically weird inconsistencies can drag you down, or just add to the whole strange milieu of the work.

Like all good slices of autobiography, Bumperhead has the details of a particular point of view, but the wide recognisability of universal longings. We've all been young, and we might not all have been shouting Alice Cooper lyrics out the bedroom window at two in the morning, but we all wanted to shout something.

It's almost embarrassing, how much of Bumperhead is recognisable. The things that you just don't understand as a kid, the awkwardness of teen love, the crushes on perfection, the long stretches of young adulthood that feel like a slow slide into oblivion, the fear that you’re getting dumber by the day, the reinvigoration of loudly getting out there in the world again, the happy charms of bumping up against the same people over and over again in life..

These types of memories can be painful, but it's hard not to laugh at your own foolishness. If you don't, who will?

And this is where Bumperhead triumphs, generating emotional warmth and storytelling energy. There are going to be literal and metaphorical heart problems, but it's not worth crying about.

This is how great comics get you, with something you can laugh at, or something that can make you remember things worth laughing about. And there aren't many people who can make you do that like Gilbert Hernandez can.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Superman's world is a Swan world

After decades as the ultimate example of the iconic superhero, Superman is eternally recognisable, while still coming in several definitive forms.

For some purists, the only right and proper Superman is Joe Shuster and Wayne Boring’s barrel-chested strong guy, while others can only think of the character in the more modern forms crafted by artists like John Byrne and Jim Lee.

They're all wrong. As somebody who first encountered Superman as a young kid in the late seventies and early eighties, I can confidently proclaim that it’s obvious that the only real Superman is a Curt Swan Superman.

Because all the good Superman comics at that time were drawn by Curt Swan, and it had been that way for decades. He produced more great Superman artwork than anybody else in the character’s long history, and – twenty years after his death – he remains a gigantic figure in Superman's never-ending story.

This was partly due to the fact that Swan was an incredibly prolific artist for years and years and years, drawing Superman and his chums in hundreds and hundreds of comics stories. Always fast and always precise, Swan was frequently called in by DC editors to help out on a bewildering variety of titles, including the Legion of Super-Heroes, Jimmy Olsen and Aquaman, before his undoubted talent put him amongst the cream of Superman artists.

I grew up surrounded by Swan’s comics, both the original issues and the vast amount of black and white reprints that were always around featured Swan’s Superman heavily. He was always there, meticulously filling in the Metropolis skyline, crafting a supporting cast that was always instantly recognisable and sending his powerful figures flying off into space.

As definitive as he is – and if you ask me to picture Superman, it’s a Swan face I see – his style still changed and evolved over the years. Half a century of creating comics will do that, and his line would come more refined and delicate as he got older, and his figurework would stiffen into fixed and immovable forms.

Even his Superman became sharper and starker as the years rolled by, but also more expressive and strangely contemplative (mainly due to the best furrowed brow in all comics).

A lot of that evolution was in the hands of his inkers, who could produce startlingly different results from Swan’s pencils, and the artist would have his own favourite embellishers. Some scholars can tell the difference between a Murphy Anderson or John Forte-inked page of Swan’s art by the thickness of Clark Kent’s glasses, but sometimes the differences between inkers were plain and obvious.

But they all came from the same original artist, and even looking at Swan’s pencils, you can see the art refine over the decades. His Superman was initially indistinguishable from the more established artists – he even ghosted Wayne Boring in some strips – before becoming the solid figure of the 1970s and beyond – a Superman who was always straight-backed and clear-eyed.

And when artists like Nick Cardy and Neil Adams came along with their flowing, unrestricted line and fuzzy texture, Swan didn't blink, and doubled-down on his own style, and it became even more mannered, and more precise, with a new discipline of clarity that would prove to be a huge influence on a new wave of clear artists like George Perez and Brian Bolland.

And Swan remained in a league of his own. The only artist who came close to portraying a definitive Superman at this time was Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, who was wasted on fill-ins and licensing work. That licensing meant his version of Superman was the one the general public saw more of than any other, as he popped up on beach towels and underoos, but it was still not the ultimate Superman.

It’s also worth nothing that Jim Aparo – for many, including me, the definitive Batman artist - infused that clear line of Swan’s work with the loose energy of the new guys to create his own legend. An Aparo Batman complimented the Swan Superman perfectly.

It could be argued that by the seventies, just when I think he was reaching his peak, his art had actually atrophied into a strict style that it would never outgrow. His figures were still expressive and emotional, but they could also be incalculably stiff, and Swan's crystal clear storytelling was soon overtaken by younger, more flowing artists.

Swan evolved over the decades, but he finally, slowly, fell out of fashion, and his Superman saga essentially ended with Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, a fitting send-off for any artist.

Swan was still working, right up to the end, and would show up in strange places, like the an entry in the Marvel Universe handbook, or a biting issue of Mark Millar's Swamp Thing, or on the cover of some strange little independent comic company.

It was a sad day when we lost Curt Swan in the nineties – his name never appeared on the Top 10 Hot Artists lists in Wizard magazine, but he was still producing strong work, right throughout his working life.

And I think Swan would be quietly pleased to see that his artwork has already aged far more gracefully than the work of that new breed who replaced him. Swan was all about keeping it clean, and that extended from an individual line through to the storytelling of the whole comic, everything was always easy to follow, and always clear. And the fashions might be looking a bit chunky these days, but a Swan comic never really gets old.

We all took Swan's brilliance for granted for so many years. That's just what Superman comics were always supposed to look like. But now I can look back at his artwork, and find new delights, and new beauty.

After all, Swan did so many damn comics, so there are still always more to find, even after a life immersed in Superman stories. And they're never confusing, or ugly, or hard to follow. They're good, solid Superman comics, and Swan's work still flies.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Losing the Legion of Super-Heroes

I used to be the kind of obnoxious dork who would sneer at people who moaned about how hard it was to follow the Legion of Super-Heroes. I had no time for complaints about the vast number of characters and editorially-tangled continuity of the 30th-century stories.

After all, it wasn't that bad. All the characters were clearly delineated with their own distinctive costumes and powers, (and, over the decades, a surprising amount of them even developed genuine personalities). And all the big continuity reboots didn't really matter if the key components of the Legion were still there, especially when there was only one hard restart in the comic's first 40 years.

All those weird teenagers, and all that vast history were always part of the Legion's appeal, and if you couldn't keep up, you would be soon left behind. I lost contact with the Legion a  while back, but still had a vague idea what was going on, and followed it in library editions right up to the end of that last Waid/Kitson reboot. I knew what was what.

Not any more. My 15-year-old self was an annoying little shit, and somewhere in time, he's sneering at me, because I have no bloody idea what's going on in the Legion any more.

I was pulled into the orbit of the Legion of Super-Heroes through the 'Five Years Later' stories, the most notoriously obtuse and complex period in the comic's 50-year history. It was not a place for new readers - building on events in stories from years and years ago, and taking away all those easily identifiable costumes and code-names – but that's where I came in.

And the fact that I couldn't understand what was going on was a large part of the charm, (it literally took me years to work out who Salu Digby was), especially when I had a hard time tracking down issues in my part of the world, picking up random issues here and there, and I came at the whole thing from a totally non-linear perspective. It was intriguing, and I was hooked, and I was always working out new little things.

I followed the Legion all the way until Moy cuteness got too much, and didn't bother with later attempts to reinvigorate the team. It was all the same old shit, especially when they reverted to a complicated version of the original team again a few years again, taking ti back where it all started.

A sense of inertia creeps into the whole concept, left spinning its wheels in some idealised version of seventies superheroics. Instead of looking forward and growing up, the Legion was trapped in its own past.

There is currently no Legion of Super-Hero comic, and the break could be the best thing for it. The most recent version – spun out of the largely mediocre New 52 comics – ended after less than two years, and I just read the collection of the last eight issues, and even though it is in the trusted hands of Levitz and Giffen, I have absolutely no idea what was going on.

It's not the usual complaints – there are a bunch of new characters, but they're all visually unique and introduced properly, so that isn't a problem. But it felt like there were entire scenes missing. Things like the death of major characters have so little impact that they happen off-panel – Duo Damsel loses another version of herself in her usual obligatory sacrifice, Sun Boy gets his head caved in and then eaten and Star Boy is crushed by a falling building – and it all means nothing.

And I have no idea who these people are, because it's never really made clear what sort of history they have, or what universe they live in. It seems like a Legion that never went through that 'Five Years Later' wringer, but did experience things like the Great Darkness Saga, and it's never made quite clear. And even after spending an embarrassingly large part of my life trying to figure out Legion lore, I'm genuinely lost

It's made even more jarring by the fact that there are moments where the creative team nail it, like the brief little vignettes that get the character moments just right, and there is some lovely Kevin Maguire artwork on a couple of the chapters.

But I'm essentially adrift, and those brief doses of loveliness are offset by a general confusion and malaise, with no real drive to even figure out what was going on. Large parts of Legion history have been hard to follow, but intriguing enough to find out more – this just feels like a comic that is spinning wheels, stuck in neutral, a thousand years in the future.

So I've become one of those people that I always looked down on, interested in the Legion, but baffled by most of it, and giving up on it altogether.

But so what if I've disappointed my younger self with this current Legion apathy? Teenage Bob was a moronic geek, and I've got more important things in my life than remembering what planet Cosmic Boy came from, or wondering why Ultra Boy doesn't shred his hands when he uses super-strength, but can't use invincibility.

There will still always be a fondness for these teenagers in space and their mad adventures. Those personalities that took decades to develop are still there, and there is still that sense of boundless optimism, even in the darkest of times, that makes the Legion so strong.

And there is also hope that there is a future for the Legion again. Comic book concepts can come back from these kinds of sabbaticals, stronger than ever. They can also fade away, but while the Legion's history is often wiped out or written over, its legacy can survive the fall of universes.

I still hope that there will be more interesting and stylish  Legion comics to come. It could be time for something new, or for a return to core basics, but the right creators could still breathe life into this dusty old concept.

There is still plenty of love for the Legion out there, no matter how many times they keep losing us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nice guys finish first in Dredd's dangerous world

Mega-City One - the setting for the long-running Judge Dredd comic - is an incredibly vibrant, weird and dangerous place to live. There is the constant fear of nuclear apocalypse, a recent virus turned the city into hell on earth (and reduced the population to less than 94 per cent of its peak), and every now and then, Dark Judges from another dimension are going to show up randomly and slaughter a whole lot of you.

Random spree shooting are a daily occurrence, the law have awesome firepower that is frequently deployed and extreme violence is everywhere. Every now and then, there is some grand mega-epic, and Dredd saves everybody by being the rod that will not break, but millions of innocent souls are still going to die horribly.

Dredd’s world is a hard world, and you'd think it would be harder on the nice guys. But in Mega-City One, nice guys somehow finish first.

There are still plenty of plenty of nice guys who meet unfortunate ends in the on-going saga of Judge Joe Dredd. A sunny disposition isn’t actually going to save you from a hail of high-powered shrapnel, and plenty of lovely, innocent people are occasionally unceremoniously incinerated by those bloody Sovs.

Even the slightest of stories can come with a large body count, and it becomes a vicious cycle, as the insanity of the situation causes more people to snap and go futsie and go on a killing spree, making the situation even crazier, inspiring new massacres. Plenty of nice people are taking the midnight bus to Resyk.

But one of the great secrets of Dredd's storytelling success is that a whole lot of the people who do meet a messy end write their own fates – dying due to stupidity, incompetency, greed or selfishness, often meeting their maker in the form of justice from Dredd's lawgiver.

And yet, even with all that danger, and even with all that death, sometimes the only reaction to mad absurdity is to be nice and polite. It can’t hurt, and it might just keep you alive.

It worked for Walter the Wobot, an extraordinarily annoying robot with an extraordinarily annoying speech impediment, who only ever wanted to wash Dredd’s socks. Walter is the one free robot in this city of the future, and was granted that freedom by feeling empathy and sympathy for humans.

Walter is, for all his annoyances, just a nice guy, and is still there after three decades of chaos, surviving direct involvement in some of the most calamitous events. Every now and then he has a breakdown and goes a bit crazy and has to be blown apart, but he's always coming back, and all he wants to do is help somebody with the washing. (He might have finally given up on getting any affection out of Dredd himself, but he's still a great pal.)

In fact, Walter might have finally found the perfect home, as he is now living with Mrs Gunderson, a nearly blind and totally deaf senile old lady, who has proven to be the single nicest person in the entire crazy city.

She is the only person besides Dredd to have had multiple run-ins with Judge Death and somehow survive – in one memorable interlude, Death had to admit she was the only truly innocent person he had ever met. She is a lovely old lady, who stumbles through scenes of terrible carnage without really noticing anything, and is always hilarious.

She still shows up in the odd episode, and is as endearingly batty as ever. Her and Walter make a nice little odd couple, tottering through the wreckage of a smashed world, wondering if they left the gas on back at the flat, blissfully surviving the world's harshest city.

There are plenty of other nice guy survivors - Max Normal is still bopping around somewhere. The pinstripe freak might still be a little dodgy, but he always liked seeing bullies get their just deserts. He could play with the system, but was always his own man, and disappears for years, only to show up again on the far side of a shuggy table.

It's even arguable that one of Dredd's greatest foes – the great Mean Machine Angel – also survives multiple run-ins with Dredd because he's inherently nice. He's only mean because of awful surgery, and is an innocent at heart, and has been allowed to shuffle off into retirement, taken in by a caring and sharing son, another bright face in the darkness.

Even the Judges aren't exempt, with a new generation of men and women showing a more progressive side of the law. They're still judges, so they're not exactly nice, but it's notable that the slightly more flexible Benny and Rico have survived for years now.

Smiling at Mega-City's craziness is the best reaction you can have. You can go a bit far, and become officially mental, but that just gives you all sorts of metatextual headaches, so you're best off just being a bit sensitive.

It still works, even in the grim post-Chaos Day city, with a cracking story about a sensitive Klegg from Rob Williams and Chris Weston recently running in 2000ad. He might be a massive reptile with massive sharp teeth hanging around a city that was scarred on a primordial level by his kind, he's also the only Klegg to survive longer than one story.

He might risk getting accidentally shot on his way to take some books back to the library, but he endures.

The one thing all these nice folk have in common is that they're always pretty drokkin' funny. It's hilarious to see that Klegg waving enthusiastically at Dredd, or to see Mrs Gunderson narrowly escape awful harm without even noticing.

Besides, to maintain a positive attitude in a world of such mega-death and horror is to cast a deeper light into the darkness of Dredd's world. And it's also part of that great British stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on, even if the world is going crazy, because going on about it isn't going to fix things.

It's a hard world, but there is no need to be rude about it.