Saturday, June 27, 2015

Reading at a time like this

When things get grim, or depressing, or just plain shitty, I take my mind off it by retreating into a comic book.

When things get appallingly bad and stressful, I seek refuge in a good long book or a small pile of strong comics. And there will always be arsehole who comes along and asks 'How can you read at a time like this?'

How can I read at a time like this?

How can I not?


Let's face it, it's a cold and cruel world out there, and even our greatest moments of joy are tempered by the certain knowledge that we'll all have to deal with some kind of tragedy some day, that something awful will happen to a loved one, and that there isn't anything you can do about it.

So seek some joy in reading up on some fact or fiction, because that's what they are there for. To take our minds off nihilism, and to get through the day, when it seems so hard.

Sometimes you just want to get the fuck out of this world, you know? Even Superman knows what that feels like.



Fortunately, we're hard-wired to create portals out of this crappy world we all live in, for a little while at least. Ever since we sat in caves, we've created stories and worlds of imagination, to entertain and enlighten, and get away from it all, without moving an inch.

And here, at the start of this bright new 21st century, there are so many options. It's not a technology thing – putting together words and pictures to create a story is the oldest and most efficient form of information download we have, and in comics alone, there are dozens and dozens of new stories to read every week.

Even the shittiest superhero comic has its fans, who use it to go somewhere strange and wonderful. It's the oldest and most efficient form of information download we have – the written word and the illustrations to enhance it, and it's always there, in good times and bad.


It's notable that you can't really get the same effect from a TV show - even the best of them. It's something about the way you can be distracted by other things, and can let your mind wander. The brain isn't locked down into the business of making sense out of words, turning them into metaphor and making the right connection.

You can get there by going to the movies, where there are no distractions and it's far easier to get immersed in the world on the big screen, especially if it's visually exciting, but it still doesn't quite make you work like an accumulation of words does.


And, for a little while, you can get away, and some areshole will wonder how you can read at a time like that. Sometimes that there is big, important stuff happening, and sometimes that arsehole is a member of my own family, and I love them all the same, but I need to get out of here for a while.

This is not necessarily a good thing. The same week my grandmother died, the last issue of Preacher came out, and my sister caught me reading it when I was supposed to be getting ready for the wake, and I felt terrible about it, even though I told myself I was paying tribute to my Nana Smith, because she was the one who got me hooked on comics in the first place, but that was a time to be with my family, and I felt terrible about upsetting my sister, and put off reading the rest of the comic for another day.

That was an inappropriate time and place – I had to be in the moment, for my family, at least, but there are certainly places where people are encouraged to read to take their mind off things, because they need to avoid falling into a pit of despair.

Places like hospitals with their weird mix of unesasy fear and crippling boredom, where any effort to get away from it all even when you're stuck in a bed is to be encouraged. Facing big, scary things like chronic illness is made a little easier when  fly into the cosmos with an Arthur C Clarke book, or into the latest Fofty Shades of Grey rip-off, or whatever you fancy.


I've had a tough couple of weeks – not 'death in the family' tough – but tough enough. And I could've sat around all day feeling miserable and overthinking things, but that's no fucking use to anybody, so all I wanted to do was hit the books.

I finished off that Joe R Lansdale book I started the other month, burned through a great big thick volume of James Kolchalka's American Elf, read all of Garth Ennis' Hitman and Boys comics in three days, got through a dozen or so music magazines, read that big, slick 1980s book about The Prisoner, drowned in all that weird shit I got on the last trip to Sydney, and a whole heap more.

Things can get a bit emotional when you're reading in this state – I seriously lost my shit when I got to the part in Hitman where you see what is written on Sean Noonan's gravestone – but that's all part of the fun.

It's a pretty bloody stupid idea, that you can make everything right by ignoring it an burying yourself in books, but it did work. Stupid ideas sometimes do, and I did feel a little less miserable about it all.

And things are looking better now, and I can ease back on the crazy reading. I'm still reading a lot, but there is no real need to go too deep on it.


So when you're feeling shamed, angry, unwanted, embarrassed, fearful, belittled, ignored, insulted, lost, disillusioned, disenfranchised or disgraced, there is always something to read, always something to let you forget the bad shit.

There is always an escape hatch from this world, millions of them, all over this world. You can't stay there forever, but you can stay there a while.


In fact, you can't be moping around like that all the time, and yeah, it's a cold and harsh world, and everyone you know and love will die one day, but nobody is going to want to hang around with you if you keep banging on about it.

You have to work at it, but there is far more beauty than despair in this life, and more to celebrate than mourn. When we forget that, or when the world tries to prove it wrong, it's the stories we read that help bring us back to this truth.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Fanzine life: Love never dies


Years and years after they were produced in a fevered rush of enthusiasm and fingers sticky with ink, comic fanzines can still be dripping in passion, and can still be invaluable slices of cultural history.

They're snapshots of specific times and places in pop culture, and help us remember past controversies and feuds. We live in a world where entire controversies can flare and die within a week, drained dry of any life by social media saturation, and seeing a time when fights can stretch over years is fascinating. And they help us remember the fun stuff, too.

I always buy grotty old fanzines when I find them in comic shops and second hand bookstores and record stores. There is always something worthwhile inside.


Fanzine culture peaked a long time ago now, and has been utterly consumed by the ease and reach of internet platforms, so it's easy to forget how important they once were. We're all watching The Avengers now, but for many comic fans in the sixties, seventies and eighties, the only way they could reach people with similar tastes was by making their own shit and putting it out there.

They were a  real connection, back when you couldn't just join a Facebook group, or leave a few messages on CBR. Comics attracted readers who were natural loners, used to getting caught up in Marvel minutiae and getting a bit weirdly introspective when somebody asks them about Batman, but it's always nice to know you've not totally alone in the cold, harsh world. That there are other people who like the same shit as you out there.

Through the power of the mighty postal system, fanzines brought these people together. Some of them got right into it, and contributed themselves or made their own, and a lot of them were just content to watch and follow. Either way, they knew they weren't alone.

 
We now live in a Fanboy world, and fanzines can take some of the credit – and the blame – for that as well. Everybody is a bit of a nerd now, and cares deeply about something absolutely insignificant. We've all got a passion for something.

That passion used to really only find an outlet in fanzines, until the creators of these flimsy little slices of joy rode that passion right into the professional world. They stayed just as passionate right into their working lives, and made it acceptable, and something that you didn't need to be ashamed about.

That world produced many of the pros that helped shaped comic culture. That's where Julius bloody Schwartz made some insanely impressive contacts before a lifetime at DC, and where Roy Thomas used a love of the Golden Age to springboard into a long, long career of men in tights, and where a whole bunch of new punks in the seventies made their first impressions with the big boys.

It was a fairly good way to start a career – if you could prove you could create something, and stick with it, and not be a dick about everything – you could start influencing the real world.


Now, fanzines are a part of history, consigned to the junk pile of the past. Eminently disposable, the vast majority get tossed out as trash in the end, and a fanzine from decades ago can become extraordinarily rare, even if some poor bustard probably still has a boxful of over-published issues sitting in an attic somewhere.

Now, when we've taken the idea of disposability to historically high levels, they're even more interesting, because they're physical pieces of history, still existing in real, physical form, just waiting to reveal a whole bunch of forgotten secrets.


So yeah, you bet your arse I snap any old fanzine I see when I see 'em. I can live with the appalling standard of copy editing, dubious designs choices and outright bullshit that often fill them, because I always love cracking open the past.

Besides, I never saw the damn things in my part of the world when I was a kid. All the really good fanzines were put out in Britain and the UK, and I was on the arse end of the planet with no resources to get them. I didn't even know how to change my money into something I could send to somebody overseas, and even if I had, the postage costs might have put an end to it too.

Even the most wide-spread fanzines – including some in-house things that Marvel and DC both put out in the seventies - never filtered down this far. I still have never actually seen an issue of the Foom fanzine from Marvel, and I only ever got my first issue of the DC equivalent earlier this year in a Portland shop.

So now I grab them whenever I see them, because there is a bloody good chance I'll never see them again.


The most noticeable thing about these old amateur magazine is how much people care about stupid crap the nobody remembers anymore.

All the big fights and feuds - things like the Kirby versus Marvel, or Michael Fleischer versus everybody - have been well-documented, but so many other tiny little fights going on, that most people have long moved past. Arguments over ratings systems and creative rights that felt so important at the time, now look a little quaint, because we've all moved past. After all, nobody can claim that full creative rights will usher in a totally new golden age any more, not after all those original Image creators screwed the pooch.

We like to convince ourselves that the internet has brought out the worst in people in this regard, that we've never been more petty and aggravated, but we just have more of an outlet these days. The same snark and bile and ridicule is there in fanzine pages, and just as funny as it ever was, once you get the right perspective on it.


The other really noticeable thing is the love, which still outshines the stupid fighting, by so much. As much as they tear the things they love apart, they still love them, and it still radiates off these musty old pages.

That kind of passion never really dies. It was a hell of a lot of effort putting a fanzine together, and probably more than a little scary sharing that enthusiasm with the world, and they only did it because they really, really liked the shit they were talking about. Even if that passion can get a bit over the top and dopey - yesterday's epic masterpiece doesn't always live up to the praise - these things are created from love, and that's always more interesting than any corporate hack work.

I love the goofy bastards who put all these things together, because they loved their comics and their fantasy and their horror and whatever they wanted to write about, because they just couldn't help themselves.


I came too late to really get into any fanzines, especially because I lived so far away. I did get the Time/Space Visualiser - the surprisingly meaty fanzine from the Doctor Who Fan Club - for a couple of years, but that was it, and there hasn't been a new TSV in years now.  

But all those little slices of history are still out there, largely unloved and mostly ignored, and I'll always keep am eye out for them. They're just waiting to reveal history, if you can ever be bothered to look for them.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

What is best in comics?


Somebody recently asked me what the best comics were. They were another new reader who had devoured the Walking Dead books, after getting hooked on the TV show, and they were looking for more.

But they only wanted the best comics. They had no time to waste, and wanted to get straight to the best stuff. They just wanted the greatest comic books ever.

Even before getting into the whole personal taste thing, my brain totally locked the fuck up, and I couldn't come up with a coherent answer. I said it's a bloody complicated question. I said I would have to go think about it. I said I might have to write it down.


 The best comics are stylish and beautiful, with design that pops off the printed page, and smooth, flowing storytelling.

There are infinite possibilities on the comic canvas, eternal potential in a few lines on a blank page, and the best comics are by true artists whose work is undeniably beautiful. Artists who show us how they see the world, and produce gorgeous images that sear into your soul. Unique talents, unique eyes, unique ways of seeing the world, all expressed through the medium of comics.

Artists like Kirby and Bolland and Tezuka and Mignola and Moebius and Kubert and a thousand others. Artists that knock you on your arse, and make the world a little bit more beautiful.


The best comics are funny comics, full of slapstick humour and dark humour, foolish shit and wicked word games.

Superheroes are easy – comedy is hard, but the comic world is full of great grins and laffs. It can be the starkly dark humour of Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis at their best, always bouncing up against starkly dark truths, and it can be can be silly comics, with universal themes found in the goofiest crap.

You can see more about the human condition in Blue Beetle's bwa-ha-has, or in Charlie Brown always missing the football, or in the insecure brilliance of an Evan Dorkin strip, or in the sophisticated anarchy of a Kurtzman comic, than you'll ever seen in a thousand angst-ridden blockbuster comics.


The best comics are clever, full of wit and smarts and sophistication, on both story and art levels

They're the intricate efforts of construction like From Hell, and the easy complexity of a page of Chris Ware's comics, and the brutal intellectual honesty of Bryan Talbot and in the intricate designs of Frank Quiteley.


The best comics are all action, all of the time.

They're pure excitement, finding the buzz in the panel break, going for intensity through fluid motion, somehow making static images come alive. You can do anything with words and pictures, an one of the things comics does best is intense action.

Like comics that have the smooth clarity of Matt Wagner and his criminally ignored choreography skills, or the frenetic claustrophobia of Frank Miller and his brilliant use of cinematic techniques, or the sugar rush of Paul Pope and his energy that burns up the page, or Stuart Immonen's remarkable use of body language to convey kinetic energy.


The best comics are the ones that make me cry.


The best comic are experimental, and always looking to do something different in the comic medium.

This can lead to the abstract craziness from uncompromising artistic voices, written and drawn by nobody you've ever heard of, overcoming obscurity through ferocious newness. But even in the strict formats of modern comics, there has never been so many talented artists all striving to do something new. New things with story layout, and pacing, and use of the comic panel.

Some of them - comics like the punishingly intricate Prophet or the blazing multimedia of Dave McKean's best work – find a hungry audience, but recognition, fame and financial reward aren't the most important things in this part of the comic universe.

There are no limits, and there will always people trying to prove it. Most of them fail, but damn it, at least they try.


The best comics are polemic cries for attention to injustice, bringing large slabs of truths into a largely escapist medium.

It's a small, but vital, corner of the comic world, because they are desperate cries for help in a cruel world. More than 40 years of comics from Pat Mills are devoted to standing up for the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, and the sharp eye of Joe Sacco shines light on neglected areas of human suffering.


The best comics are those that look at real life and look at it through the perverted mirror of their comic art.

Artists like Peter Bagge or Eddie Campbell or Joe Matt all put down their lives in the strict grids of a comic page, exposing themselves for truth and occasional ridicule.

That takes some guts, man.


The best comics are ambitious, and who cares if they work or not?

The history of comics is full of ambitious failures, and a few ambitious success stories. Some comics reach for the stars, and even if they fall back to Earth, at least they went for it. Knowing your limitations can be both humbling and disconcerting, but breaking free of them is always worth a go, which is why comics like Peter Milligan or James Robinson's many fine and fashionable failures are always worth reading.

Some strive for brilliance in half a dozen pages, saying something true and honest about the human condition in 36 panel or less, and some go unashamedly for the epic, with comics like The Invisibles and Cerebus slowly losing their goddamn minds over pages and pages of mind-bending craziness.


And the very best comics are all of these at once. They're smart, stylish, real, passionate, and funny, emotional, experimental and exciting.

The best comics are all these things and more. There is so much glory, and so much brilliance. They might be difficult to find sometimes, buried in oceans of mediocre rubbish that doesn't even try to reach one of these goals.

But they're always worth looking for. The best comics are out there, and they're always worth it.


I gave this to the person who asked about the best comics. They said that it was nice, but they just wanted to read some fucking Spider-Man shit.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Lobo. Lobo! LOBO!

I had to quit the best job I've ever had today, and now all I wanna do is look at pictures of my main man Lobo beating the tar outta some geeks.























Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tying the world together (and getting your end away) with Philip Jose Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer was tapping into something powerful when he had Doc Savage and Tarzan literally cross cocks that one time, and we're not just talking about the obvious throbbing members.

Farmer's A Feast Unknown brought together the two pulp heroes under legal-friendly aliases and is still a ridiculously entertaining action romp, 45 years after it was published in 1970. It's just a tiny slice in Farmer's massive bibliography, but it's one of the most crucial, and most fun.

The fun is self-evident, with the adventure icons racing through a fevered fight against the usual mysterious and vast global conspiracy, while all their clothes fall off. But the importance is seriously under-stated, because Farmer was playing around with some big, culture-defining ideas decades ago, and the mainstream pop world is only just catching up.


Farmer was always the totally harmless, slightly inappropriate and enormously entertaining drunk uncle of late 20th century science fiction literature. He had big ideas about life and existence and consciousness and this wonderful, strange universe of ours, but he was never afraid to get a bit dirty and grubby, and his best works were always a wonderful amalgamation of the gutter and the divine. 

He found a huge audience with his Riverworld books, one of the greatest high concepts in all of science fiction, as everybody who ever lived wakes up on the banks of a world-spanning river, with no explanations or clear purpose. He also got into some seriously psychological shit with his World of Tiers series, even writing a book about the series' real-life use in psychotherapy, and he wrote a genuine Kilgore Trout novel, which pissed off Kurt Vonnegut Jr enormously.

And he wrote dozens and dozens and dozens of other novels and essays and short stories, often targeting subjects that were traditionally taboo in sci-fi worlds, like sex and religion, and all the messy stuff in-between. His stories certainly weren't for everybody, and every now and then he could get genuinely offensive, but they were often more thoughtful than they looked, and just as exciting as they promised.


I came to Farmer by accident – his works weren't found in my local libraries, not even in the adult section, and I would have missed him entirely if I hadn't heard about him from an article in some random issue of Starlog. But that was enough. This is somewhere in my mid-teens, somewhere in the early nineties, and his fiction sounded incredibly enticing, and like nothing else I was reading at the time.

I soon found some slightly soiled copies of his work at the local second hand bookstore, and I was off. His work had a vitality that was often missing in other pulp pastiches, and he always remembered that while man was reaching for the stars, he was mired in physical desires. Sex and death often intertwined, which was incredibly appealing as a teenager, and gave his stories their own swagger.

And, best of all, he made connections between fictions that was remarkably addictive, building up this vast chronology of the fantastic, dating back thousands of years to the time of Opar, and pushing these stale old heroes into strange new territories.

His books could still prove maddeningly hard to find – I still haven't read the Mad Goblin/Lord of The Trees stories, because I've never seen them bloody anywhere – but I still couldn't get enough of this kind of obsessive cataloguing. And as Farmer ended up tying more and more characters into the same world – the world of the Wold Newton family – I was there for the ride.


There were other writers who did similar things before Farmer, and there had been intricate fictional universes in the world of comic books, but not on the scale that Farmer worked on. In his fantastic fictional biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage, he laid out a vast tapestry of ultra-heroism, all dating them back together to a single event – the falling of a meteor in England in 1778.

This real-life event was, in Farmer's hands, the catalyst for all the great heroes of 20th century action yarns, spawning legacies of grey-eyed and steel-jawed heroes. They were often related, and Farmer sometimes even made the argument that different heroes were the same person, cracking under the weight of multiple identities and convoluted histories.


In a long career full of brilliant ideas, this was Farmer's greatest. Bringing the heroes together, and saying they all existed in the same fictional world, was a fantastically strong idea that still resonates, today, and still produces fictions that make billions and billions of dollars.

Farmer's ideas of a shared world reached some strange moment of perfection in the slightly sleazy prose of A Feast Unknown, promising a universe where everything counted, and where everything was connected. It's a small world in the pulp universe, where these indomitable heroes could barely go to the store without stumbling across some other adventurer on a desperate mission of their own, teaming up for the greater good.

It's an idea that has been almost totally drained of anything exciting and new now, and recent attempts to build shared universes in movies and comics and novels has led to some regrettable efforts, but they can still prove both artistically and commercially viable, and both the successes and failures all owe their debt to Farmer.


Philip Jose Farmer merged with the infinite in 2009, but the ideas he left behind are getting bigger and bigger, as shared universes become the ultimate breeding grounds for lucrative franchises.

Farmer really tied it all together, and it's an idea that had been refined with a number of rollicking League of extraordinary Gentlemen stories by Moore and O'Neill, or Kim Newman's bloody fangtastic Anno Dracula series, and anything becomes possible, and anyone can meet anyone.

Farmer sometimes wrote himself into his own stories, using the most obvious pseudonyms, which means that while he is no longer with us, he lives on in his own fiction. Maybe one day we will wake up on a Riverworld, and he'll be there. I doubt he'll be smug if he was proven to be right about everything, but I'm sure he'd be proud.