Friday, February 27, 2009

Boganville

I love cars. I don’t know much about how they actually work, but I still love the freedom they give.

Walking to work every day is a kick and nothing beats a walk on a beach or under green trees, but I still love driving. Getting from place to place, being able to go almost wherever you want, it's just exhilarating.

The actual act of driving is a source of constant amusement, and I have been caught more than once making Star Wars noises when driving around the motorway junctions that keep any sizable city ticking. I still love going for mad exploration drives around Auckland, finding new suburbs with their own unique charms.

As a teenager, I was down to get my license as soon as possible. Here is New Zealand, the staggered method of gaining your license means it takes more than a year to get a full licence, although a staggeringly useful Defensive Driving course helped bring that period down.

Growing up in a small town of 3000, where the nearest other population centre held a massive 30,000, the drivers license was indispensable, it was needed to go to parties, to go to movies, and, of course, to get new comic books.

Recently, I sat down and tried to work out roughly how much distance I would have driven in the last 15 years purely to get comic books, but got a little scared and nauseous when the figure starting running into the tens of thousands of kilometres.

With no comic store for literally hundreds of kilometres, and that first rush of cash that comes with a first job (and no responsibility), it meant nothing to drive those roads on a semi-regular basis. It was all about the comic books, and while there would invariably be a movie or two in there, it was a failed mission if I didn't come back with some geek-tastic comic.

Even when I lived in cities that sold a decent selection, there are entire afternoons lost to second-hand store missions, looking for elusive back issues. The sheer freedom of it all may stem from a deep frustration I felt as a kid and we would drive past interesting-looking bookshops in the family car. No eight-year-old kid should get the say on where and when a car should stop, and I still ache for missed opportunities to look in shops that haven't existed in two decades.

But the car gives that freedom, and so much more.

One of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen is the back seat of a car entirely covered in comics and Starlog magazines, even if I disposed of most of those publications long ago. Suddenly, I could take off whenever I wanted, and while it was always good to catch up with mates in other cities, I did a piss-poor job of hiding the fact that comics were my main priority.

I still get that kick out of store hopping around a city. Second hand bookstores remain the prized targets, because there could be anything lurking within, even if its comic selection is usually confined to a few old Donald Duck comics and one Archie digest.

But I do get a genuine thrill out of finding good comics in unexpected places. As I get more and more comics on my mental checklist, it’s a little rarer to stumble across something I crave more than oxygen, but it still happens. I still find some of the last few Virgin Doctor Who books I need, or that issue of Hellblazer that I’ve been meaning to buy for 15 years.

And it’s the car that makes it possible. It’s shelter in a storm, goes really fast and gets me where I need to be in a timely fashion.

I wish I knew how to fix one, but I’ve always known car people who can do that shit with me. Car enthusiasts are a funny and simple lot, but they are marvellous company. And they get incredibly excited about their passion, so they’re always good value in a conversation.

Lately and locally, the eternal war between teenagers and the older generation has focused on the car boys, hoons that delight in burnouts and acceleration, making noise in the dark of the city and country. Some of them had a go at a police officer a couple of weeks ago and now every young person with a decent car and a heavy foot is public enemy number one.

I love the goofy little bastards and despair at their treatment by police and the general public. Suddenly, people who live in the middle of a fucking city are demanding silence in the night and the worst thing in the world appears to be the sound of a big engine gunning it down Moorehouse Ave.

I think it sounds cool.

But then again, I grew up on a diet of Knight Rider and The Italian Job and The Dukes of Hazzard and Mad Max 2 and a hundred other pieces of car porn. I still get a thrill in doing a high speed skid on gravel roads and blasting past a bunch of cars stopped at the lights when a free lane opens up.

Because then I can go anywhere. I can get those comics that I always dreamed of as a kid, all those back issues and collections that I thought I’d never get to read. All those movies that I read about in The Dark side and Fangoria, but thought would never see. I can go see the latest blockbuster on the opening day, at my own convenience.

The world can’t sustain the status quo of the automobile as oil runs out and environmental concerns become more important. But there will always be a car, in some way or another, to get around. And to get all this cool shit.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

She’s with me.

You know why geeks love everything Joss Whedon does? Because the man gets them laid.

He’s the ultimate wingman, showing these gorgeous females that genre is nothing to be afraid of, and there is something to be said for that. Chicks dig the Whedon, and god bless him for that.

You see it at comic conventions a lot these days. Nerds with hot girlfriends, making sure that everyone in the room knows he is getting laid and is personally responsible for the destruction of the ‘living in basement’ generalization. They keep dragging these girls around the displays and dealers, laying claim to them when other members of the herd draw near.

It’s pretty cute, actually. It’s much better than the days of freakouts in the aisles cos’ there wuz a hot chick comin’, even if some stereotypes never quite go out of fashion. There will always be those obnoxious jerks who forget to treat women like actual human beings, and there has been some disgraceful behaviour recorded at the world’s largest comic conventions in recent years.

But this is the age of instant information spreading around the world like a virus. You can’t get away with that kind of abhorrent behaviour for long, and the majority of geeks have got over their weird misogyny, and can actually take to woman as if they are proper people. Which they are.

The geek couple is a concept that has always been there, and there have been a few notable couples who have worked together on comics and other media, such as the Pini elfmasters, and the adorable Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie partnership, (although we are all still waiting for that Brian Azzerello/Jill Thompson masterpiece). But now they’re everywhere, and I reckon it’s all Joss’ doing.

I always thought I would have to give up my comics and horror films and movie magazines when I settled down and got married. If I ever did. There was a significant possibility that I was going to end up as one of those professional 42-year-old geeks, with an empty house and shelves full of cool dork stuff.

Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I met the prettiest girl who ever smiled at me at journalism school in 2004, and we celebrated our second wedding anniversary last month.

Now, an affection I didn’t even realise I was missing grows by the day. I love her more and more every hour, more than anybody I’ve ever known. I would do anything for her, and know with absolute conviction that she would do the same for me. She’s my favourite person in the entire world. And getting her to read comic books is like asking her to chop off her toes with a blunt spoon.

I can’t really blame her. Garth Ennis once said he couldn’t understand how anybody could like superhero comics unless they started reading them as a young kid, and I have to agree with the affable Irishman. She will never share the joy I felt reading Superman Beyond, and I wouldn’t expect her to.

But I am getting there, and, once again, I have to go back to my man Whedon. Three years ago, when we were just getting serious, she had no time for genre. Outside of The Princess Bride and The Neverending Story, she had no real interest in anything involving fantasy or science fiction or horror. She thought most of it was stupid. (She’s right, of course. Most of it is pretty stupid, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot to love there.)

And comics were the worst. She wouldn’t even pick up the works of heartbreaking genius that I would leave strategically open on the sofa. Her theory was that the pictures on the page took away the thrill of imagination that a novel or short story brings. That it was taking all the fun out of fiction. I’m still trying to come up with a decent rebuttal to this argument. It’s not happening.

When I first told her I really, really liked Buffy The Vampire Slayer, she laughed in my face. I couldn’t convince her that it was even worth a look. Even though it was a show that had hot chicks in tight leather pants beating the snot out of each other, while also featuring some genuinely moving and emotionally devastating moments. She just thought it was silly.

And then I started watching a few episodes while she was cooking dinner or reading a book, and she gradually got sucked in. I think it was Spike that did it, or maybe the epic levels of sarcasm that the show prided itself on, but whatever it was that caught her eye, it caught her bad. She ended up briefly obsessed with the show, and the musical episode in particular, and is now a genuine fan of Whedon’s work.

(I like to delude myself that she doesn’t notice, but I’m doing the same with The Venture Bros right now. She is still not interested in actually watching the episodes, but she will absorb a good quote or two and thinks Dr Girlfriend is adorable. I should have her fully into it by the end of season two.)

This was the first step. Now, she is still a little baffled by the enthusiasm I show for good comics, but she seems to enjoy letting me indulge. A shift in priorities meant I wasn’t spending as much on comics and other geek shit as I would be if I was single and alone, but the benefits of married life certainly make up for that.

Now she will quite happily sit and watch Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who with me, where once she scoffed. It’s a two-way street, of course, but I have little problem with her efforts to make me a better person. (Somewhat unfortunately, while she has attempted to turn me into James Bond, a plan I wholeheartedly agree with, she somehow ended up with an Ianto Jones.)

And once I got her into a slightly geeky mindset, it suddenly wasn’t so hard to get her to read the odd comic. There is still zero chance of getting her to read a mainstream superhero comic, but she devoured V For Vendetta and From Hell, and that's a good start.

I try not to show her off in that obnoxiously nerdy way, which isn’t that hard when she is quite happy staying well away from the comic shops and tiny local conventions. But she indulges my own little geek tendencies with good humour, and I can’t help but love her all the more for it.

Now if I could only convince her to give Love and Rockets a try….

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another Final Word

Everybody and their monkey have had something to say about Final Crisis since it finished up a couple of weeks ago, and now it’s my turn, since I figure I’m smarter than any damn monkey. Except for that one that used to outsmart Clint in Every Which Way But Loose.

The fact that there has been so much to say about this comic series is one of the nicest things about it. The release of issue number seven saw the usual moaning from the usual quarters, as people unaccustomed to thoughtful contemplation grew angry at the idea that they might be forced to put some effort into a superhero comic book, but there were also some fine commentary from some unexpected and presumed lost places.

Some said it was rubbish, that Morrison had lost all sense of pacing and the overall marketing was a drag on the comic book story, resulting in a series that was disjointed, confusing and an affront to all good comic books everywhere.

I don’t know about that.

Some said it was an otherworldly plea to give fictional characters their rights, told in a multiflexible format disguised as a four colour dreamscape. That it was the culmination of decades of superhero comic work from Morrison, resulting in a series that was transcendental, exciting and the first great mess of the 21st century.

I don’t really know about that either.

All I do know is that I was sitting in my car reading that last issue when I got towards the end and it just really hit me, and I let out an involuntary sob and a policeman on the other side of the road saw me do it and gave me a funny look and I had to hide under the doorframe until he went away and then I could finish reading my comic.

He took a long, long time to move on.

So yeah, I liked it. Anything that can get an emotional reaction like that out of me has to have something going for it. And sure, I can understand many of the criticisms, with the changing artist teams and sudden appearance of Mandrakk at the end there feeling a little off.

Still, anybody who complains about the fact it was hard to understand can fuck right off. All things considered, it was a pretty straight-forward story, with lots of shiny bits grafted onto the plot, but it was still just superheroes beating up bad guys, and people who have a problem getting their head around that deserve all the scorn they can handle.

And sure, I can get a little emotional reading comic books sometimes, (Garth Ennis is a fucking genius at writing stories that get under my skin in this way, and writes the best last pages in comics,) so this wasn’t that much of a rare event.

But it still really moved me. From the ‘Earth endures’ sequence to the part where the Monitors are chastised for almost causing the destruction of the most precious and delicate creation that ever existed, to Superman wishing all of us a happy ending, those last dozen pages resonated with me, and made me want to just get up and dance.

I’d be a Morrison apologist, if I felt there was anything worth apologizing over. I just love his comics, and always have, because they’re smart and funny and sarcastic and naïve and pure and punk and fun.

But I also love them because he sometimes he writes things that articulate just how much all these stupid superheroes actually mean, and I can feel the love. And I do genuinely feel moved over it all.

And if a comic book gets the kind of emotional reaction that has policemen looking at me funny, than it must be doing something right. When so many other comics leave me cold, or bored, or even angry at their stupidity, Final Crisis made me happy. And that’s a good thing.

And that’s all I know about that.

* * *

I was also oddly moved by a sequence in a recent Green Lantern Corps comic. It was an epilogue or something to the Sinestro Corps War, and featured a scene where a lizard Green Lantern floated on his back in a clear, blue ocean, laughing at the universe because he wasn't dead yet.

The whole crossover left me cold, but I loved that bit.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Legends

Alan Moore forced the point in the Black Dossier just a little too soon after covering things quite nicely in Promethea, turning into a mad drunk at the pub who will keep repeating himself because you're just not listening. But he still made a great point.

His theory that it is the legends and myths and stories that define us as human beings, picking and choosing our ego from the tales that surround us, is hard to deny. A little morality from Superman can go a long way, and the sheer determined drive of James Bond is something to be admired, although he can keep large parts of that particular personality.

This is nothing new. Our oldest stories are also some of the oldest records of who we were and where we came from. Human origin myth passes into religion, tales of hunting trips the only way of reading the past. Gilgemesh and Beowulf and all the rest, teaching us all to be hard and tough enough to get through a hard and tough life. Necessary skills in times of strife, less use as we all got a bit more comfortable, and eventually just another story in an age overflowing with them. Gilgemesh goes from the first great hero to a part of the Crappiest Avengers Team Ever, and Beowulf is only good for a few cheap three-dee thrills and Ray Winstone with a sword.

And look where the long, strong road from the invention of the printing press has taken us. The average person could hear a dozen stories a day, in one form of another, and a ubiquitous media presence offers hints of a thousand more.

The old heroes, even the old Gods, may have been human once upon a time, but the centuries-long Chinese whispers have pulled them into a far longer existence as Legends. Not a bad job, if you can get it.

It all slows down to a stop a couple of hundred years ago. As the world was mapped out and communication lines opened up, people that may have become legends stay hidden in fact.

The Wild West threw up a couple of men and a few notable women who broke out of their horrible reality in cheaply printed pamphlets, took to the silver screen and live on forever in myth. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Unforgiven and hundreds of other great films illustrated the myth-making of the West over the century that followed, even as they acknowledged the sordid reality.

But then the world got covered in telephone wire, and fibre optic turned information into light and back again, and we all know the score now. The amount of data flowing in from around the world is phenomenal, and getting faster. In the seventies, hideous hurricanes in the Indian Ocean that wiped out entire towns garnered a few paragraphs on the international page, now news crews are on the ground within two days, and the rolling news will be feasting on the disaster for a number of weeks.

All this information comes with heavy prices, as the more important things in life are lost in the sea of white noise. Political organisations are the masters of this domain in a brand new millennium, and it takes skill, determination and time to avoid the spin coming in from every direction.

New legends for a new age are completely lacking when it comes to this scrutiny. Pat Tillman would have had statues depicting his heroic sacrifice in any other war, but the necessary digging started soon after his death, and he has sadly become another symbol of lies and cover-ups. In the 24/7 news cycle, there is nowhere to hide. We live in a world that is so well-covered that the biggest single argument against those who blissfully maintain that the horrible events of September 11, 2001 were a US government conspiracy, is that the current media climate is so all-encompassing. And with the previous administration showing basic incompetence on almost every level, there is no way a conspiracy could be maintained for seven years and counting.

Fortunately, while the real world has been tackled hard by communication and fumbled the ball, fantasy has swept in and scored the vital points. The fantasy world is getting richer and richer every single year, with more idiosyncratic minds showing the world something a little different on a more regular basis.

It can be seen in the big summer blockbusters. More comic book characters, more fantasy television spin-offs, more things with sodding elves and dwarves. These types of movie were written of as completely juvenile for much of cinema's history, relegated to cheap sets and cheaper visual effects. The big movies were the prestige projects, historical epics with grand casts and realistic, if incredibly melodramatic, story scenarios.

It's all turned around now, and the super-hero has been primed to take advantage of this for a decade. With special effects finally living up to the special part of the title, and a lack of new legends, it is the superheroes that become our new campfire tales.

It has been recently argued that Batman is not an icon, because a couple of hundred thousand people, at the very most, regularly follow one of the many comic books featuring the character. But when multiplied by the billions of people out there who recognise the basic costume, and millions who can name his secret identity, hasn't the character leap-frogged iconography into a full-blown legend?

Our legends and myth are still there, and new ones are being created, revered, forgotten and rediscovered at an incredibly fast rate that is only increasing. Good old Alan Moore has also delighted in pointing out that the sheer amount of data in our society is increasing, and it all has to go somewhere.

The future is, as always, unwritten. But our need for heroic figures that transcend the stories they appear in is as strong as ever, and there is no shortage of such attempts. Where all this takes us is bound to be an exhilarating, scary and wonderful place, and it is our privilege to see it unfold in our lifetimes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Living in the Negative Zone

Loving comic books when you live on the arse end of the planet isn't easy, but it has its benefits.

The main difference is the most obvious one - the price of the damn things, with a new issue costing, on average, about three times as much as the price listed on the cover of most titles. Exchange rates rise and fall, but ultimately make very little difference.

In recent years, the New Zealand dollar almost doubled in value when compared to its American counterpart, but apart from a few small drops in price, that didn't really translate to cheaper comics. The sheer cost of getting the bloody things over here will always be there, so paying upwards of $75 for a hardback collection is just a fact of life.

Although when the hardbacks contain reprints of such thunderingly mediocre comics like Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, that isn't really a problem.

And now the NZ dollar has plummeted, and the prices have to go up. So it goes.

It's always been this way, and can be a source of amusement, remembering a column that somebody wrote in the late '80s. This poor cocksucker, incredulous that a decent sized graphic novel could cost $5.95, when I was paying half that for a regular issue of the Incredible Hulk. I felt his pain. Really. I did.

And things haven't got any better, with pricing methods often going completely mental. The Borders just down the road from my work offers a ton of new comics, but at remarkable prices. You can shell out fourteen bucks for a two-month old issue of New Avengers in which very little happens, or head downstairs to the Graphic Comics department, (unsurprisingly, hidden away in the deepest, darkest corner of the store), and grab a collected edition for $35. Or, better yet, get off your arse, walk up the road to a comic shop and pay six dollars for something that came out three days ago. Various people have tried to explain this remarkable discrepancy to me, with little success.

Still, the high prices make you appreciate an individual comic as its own precious object. They are still the sort of thing to be rolled up and stuck in a back pocket, and read until they fall to pieces. But when I was a whole lot younger, and had to scrape together the five bucks I needed for the latest issue of Excalibur, I would treasure each issue, taking great pains to preserve them. (Although, with the amount of times I poured over those pages, it was an exercise in futility. Many of my teenage efforts to protect the comics resulted in far more damage, usually due to a poor knowledge of what sellotape does to a comic spine.)

Another side-effect of the high price is that you tend to be more discriminating about the comics you buy. If four comics are going to set you back thirty dollars, you want to be sure every one of those objects has something worthwhile in it to justify the cost. It's easier to drop something that doesn't have the thrill any more, or stay away from the vast majority of comics in the first place. Unfortunately, a major problem with this is that you end up less willing to try new things, and can get in a rut of only bothering with favourite creators or characters. These days it takes a lot of positivity coming from people whose opinions I trust before I try something from a new creator.

(Mind you, the library is a good place to avoid all this, and remains the best place to try something new for the first time.)

But it's not all about the price. Another thing is the sheer isolation of living down this way, far from the majority of fellow fans. Growing up, it meant confusion over the simplest things, such as the pronunciation of character's and creator's names. (Thankfully, it didn't take me that long to figure out that Professor X's last name wasn't pronounced Echs-ver, but I am still ashamed to admit I don't know how to say Judge Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra's last name, despite holding him in the highest of regards.) It also means never attending a comic convention of any sort, but the idea that this is a bad thing is sure to fade when I finally do get to one.

These days, the internet has brought us all together into one big shiny whole, but the isolation is just as great. My ex-local store, Bag End Books in Dunedin, closed a few years back. As far as I know, the South Island only has one comic shop, and the days of finding a Justice League comic in the local dairy are long, long gone.

Before I lived in a city that actually had a shop in 1995, the main source for comics were dairies and bookshops, with each having their own random selection of titles. Over the years, as more bookshops morphed into chain stores and dairies found more profits in women's weeklies and pornography, they gradually vanished entirely.

Finding other fans or a much-desired an issue is no longer the great problem it was in the age of the internet, but they are still relatively scarce on the ground.

Personally, things have been a lot easier for me in the last year. After spending the previous three years in a town of 15,000, where 2000ad was the only comic I could get regularly, (and even then, there were more than a few missed issues), I've moved to the country's biggest city. It has three actual honest-to-God comic shops, several nice little second hand bookshops, and an awesome library, from which I've borrowed literally hundreds of different comics.

And it's the little oddities I uncover around the place that make it for me, finding plenty of those niggly little back issues that I've been after for years, and nice oddities, from Milligan and McCarthy's extraordinary Skin to the sublime Birth Caul.

All this choice has help to remind me of the one of the true benefits of comic collecting on the arse end of the world: you get to try a bit of everything. Although originally heavily influenced by British culture to an almost embarrassing degree, New Zealand has gradually picked up the best of other cultures. It all started with the United States of America, shortly after they came in and, frankly, saved our fucking arses during World War Two. It's most obvious on the regular television channels, which will quite happily sit a piece of gritty kitchen sink drama from the beloved BBC next to the latest police procedural franchise from the States.

But it could also be seen on the comic racks over the years, with copies of Buster and Commando comics sitting next to Captain America and Superman books, with cheap black and white reprints from across the Tasman filling out the spaces.

While the British influence has dulled in recent years to the point where comic shops have few, if any, contributions from the UK, other, more exotic cultures are finally getting a look in. Unsurprisingly, manga leads the way, and with more and more immigrants coming in from other Asian countries, the selection can only get richer. (Food is always at the forefront of cultural trends, and while pizza as about as exotic as it got when I was growing up, now there are Malaysian, Korean, Sri Lanken and a myriad of other choices all over the show. As somebody who never had a plate of pasta until he was 18 years old, I can honestly say thank Christ for that.)

Despite all this choice, local comics have never really progressed much further than the mini-comics phase, although there have certainly been plenty of variety in that form over the years. There have been several attempts to get comic collectives going, with the very occasional longer work, such as Ant Sang's charming Dharma Punks. With a tiny general population, far smaller than most of the world's major cities, finding an audience for any comic work is going to be extremely difficult. This has inevitably pushed some of the finest kiwi creators overseas. Colin Wilson's gloriously sketchy art found appreciative audiences in England (particularly on early Rogue Trooper stories for 2000ad) and Europe (where he faced the unenviable task of following the mighty Moebius on Blueberry). At the more cartoony end of the spectrum, Roger Landridge has carved out a nice little niche for himself with his clean line and unmistakable style turning up in everything from solo comics for Fantagraphics to work for hire efforts for Doctor Who magazine and Marvel, (often written by fellow kiwi Scott Gray).

But arguably the finest creator the country has produced in the last few years is Dylan Horrocks, whose Hicksville remains the greatest locally-produced comic I've ever run across. In a way, it is drenched in local culture, with Horrocks accurately capturing the basic friendliness and sheer oddness of everyday life in small town New Zealand. But it’s the idea of a collection of unpublished classics and a library featuring every comic ever created that is especially relevant for somebody who could never be entirely certain if the next issue of a beloved series would show up. Or if was going to get waylaid during the long trip across the ocean.

But it's also not surprising to see the book hit a pleasant nerve with international readers, because the ideas Horrocks brings up in the story, from social outsiders giving in to temptation in their search for fame, through to the dream that comics could still be so much better than they have been, are ones familiar to us all.

And isn't that what it's all about? New Zealand is a tiny figure on the international stage, with many people unaware it even existed before Lord of The Rings. This can leave us begging for attention, (with the cringing question “what do you think of the country” asked by news reporters of anybody remotely famous to pass through), but it also leaves us eager to join in with everybody else. And all these wonderful, crazy, confusing comics help us out, showing us slices of life far beyond our shores, reminding us that we're all a part of the same wonderful, crazy, confusing world.

That's got to be worth any price.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bullets onscreen.

* The bit that scared me the most in 28 Days Later, even though I have no idea why, was the part in Jim's dream where he sees the sheep running away.

* I can handle criticism of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even though I really, really liked it. But I will not tolerate any sneering at Brad Pitt. He’s the 21st century’s Peter Sellers.

* It's stupid and not cool, but I love it: The bit in 2010 when the clear message from the stars is received following the detonation.

* Another fantastic bit in a fairly mediocre movie: The part in Immortal Beloved where somebody points out that if even a complete dick like Dave Beethoven can produce something like Ode To Joy, then there is hope for us all.

* I watched those crazy cunts at the Mothras, on late night christian rock shows and on proper television. Back of the Y was the best NZ television show ever. So how come, even with the best poster in recent NZ film history, The Devil Dared Me To was just a bit, y'know, stale?

* And the last series of Back of the Y was fucking rubbish! Pooman and Wees every week? Really?

* This week I have been all about melancholic western. McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Assassination of Jesse James, Unforgiven And The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Might have to rewatch Deadwood in some semblance of an order.

* I was really hoping Argento’s Creepers held up after 20 years, but it doesn’t.

* I am always, always looking forward to the next Shane Meadows film. He had me at the scene where Bob Hoskins takes his aunty ballroom dancing in TwentyfourSeven.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Won't somebody think?

Hey! Comics just aren't for kids anymore! But who cares about those little bastards anyway?

The splattergoreporn of modern superhero comics is everywhere, and the extreme levels it reaches can be quite jarring to the casual reader. Hardcore violence that wouldn't have been out of place in an early eighties piece of German necroporn filth with a name like Nexcroknobican unexpectedly appears in stories starring beloved childhood icons with bright capes and tight pants.

Seeing people ripped in half, torn to shreds and losing limbs in a comic also featuring Superman, it's easy to come to the conclusion that it's all utterly unredeemable. This stuff can get pretty grim and bloody, and poor little eight-year-old Johnny Surrogate is going to be irrevocably scarred the next time Black Adam takes a shortcut through somebody's chest and comes out the other side. Especially when he has his arms folded all serious-like, is grinning like a loon and wearing his target's intestines as a necktie.

On the other hand, little Johnny is going to eat that shit right up and ask for seconds.

After all, who else would really be interested in that sort of thing? A genuinely mature adult is always going to be less interested in these so-called mature themes as the years flow by. It might always be interesting to see entertainment that pushes intensity levels to their absolute limit, but the casual carnage in a supersaga like 52 or Countdown is just... well...  a bit boring really.

People with two last names delight in pointing out that superhero comics really are little more than an adolescent powertrip. The desire to see how cool it all is when superheroes with steel skin run into normal and fragile folk is a strong one. We've all got our own enemies, and we've all wished the worst upon them, but nobody ever really means it like an angry little child. Most people get over revenge fantasies once they've made the transition to adulthood, and it becomes a less interesting storytelling theme as we all get a bit older.

Desires to find other, less violent methods to solve problems become an imperative and it's just no longer necessary to get a cheap thrill from the old ultraviolence. An act of compassion in the right place is worth a thousand punches.

Oh, but little Johnny, he is going to love it. He is going to cream his pants over this sort of thing. It’s just what he wants.

After all, kids are, in general, thick as pigshit. They have no idea what quality is, so they love this all the more. Mark Millar has, in the past, pointed out with uncalled-for enthusiasm that young ‘uns he knows love the Liefeld. They are clearly wrong, but since they are children, they get a pass. They don’t like Ditko and Kirby because they’re ‘old’, but give them 10 years and they’ll realize what they were missing.

I know I did.

Especially if older readers are telling them there are Bad Comics That Should Not Be Read. Ironically, the kid with the comic interest stands a fairly good chance of turning into that fat and balding man-child who is sneering at the latest gore-drenched issue of Nightwing. But they're still going to ignore anything that Days of Future Past version is going to say. When you’re not even a teenager, who cares what anybody over the age of 20 thinks?

Every mega-event from DC and Marvel in the past decade has been ripped apart by critics for plot implausibility, mangled continuity and appalling dialogue, but the motherfuckers still sell like a hot meat pie in Antarctica. The general consensus is clear, that these are not good comic books. But who cares? Look at the art and the action and the crying! It must be important if they are crying!

The same adolescent mindset leads to a diabolical lack of humour. Treating everything as cosmically serious is a dead end. It’s the humour that gives work its maturity. Even Alan Moore’s darkest work has been tinged with a sense of the absurd, mixing horror with humour, as the original Mad comics still influence the Bearded One.  Grant Morrison’s comics are ALWAYS funny and Keith Giffen has a truly singular sense of humour. Mark Waid has an often overlooked light touch and Garth Ennis sees the lighter side of true despair. There are dozens of other creators who approach their comic work in the right frame of mind.

But the sheer seriousness of the regular mainstream superhero comics can get a bit much. Whining about how shit everything is can be good for a few kicks, but the grown ups want to talk about serious shit without having an existential dilemma over their conversation.

And let’s not forget the greatest phrase in the solicitation monkey’s arsenal: the jumping-on point. An issue that makes an effort to move the story off in a new direction, designed to be simple and obvious to bring in new readers.

The funny thing is, this concept relies on the inherent stupidity of the reader, but it isn’t entirely necessary. It fails to take into account that while kids are dumb, they are massively imaginative. Give them a comic with a complex backstory, explain a few key facts and they will fill the rest of that shit in for themselves.

They love it! And so did you! If you still like superhero comics, then, once upon a time, you read a comic that interested you enough to find out more. Maybe that 1977 issue of the Avengers clicked with you and you wanted to know what the deal was with Ultron, or who this Jarvis cracker was. And you’re off! Jumping on points are for wimps.

So while it’s easy to give Marvel and DC huge amounts of shit for the directions of their comics, they are clearly tapping into something that works for a certain segment of the population. This inanely convoluted and humourless shit with lame shock horror moments still sells.

I still think children are the future, in a goofy Whitney Houston kind of way, but that doesn’t mean they’re can’t be annoying little swine. Giving them what they want might keep them quiet. For a little while, at least.

After all, they still got money to spend. And if they want to see dismemberment and gore that will annoy their elders, then the kid is all right.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Tearoom of Despair's corner of Secret Shame: X-edition!

I still think the Australian X-Men team was the best ever.*

* Of course I'd say that, I was 13 years old at the time, and as leading scienticians have already proved: you are legally required to love the X-Men when you're 13 years old. Those scary physical changes are just a little bit more manageable when there is the distinct possibility they may give you the ability to fly, or run faster than the speed of light, or pick up ice cream trucks and throw them across town.

But those years when the X-Men lived in a whole town full of treasure, ghosts and fast motor-cycles, those were the years for me. Over the years that he steered the X-books, Chris Claremont had a nice habit of tearing the whole team apart and scattering them to the winds, only to have them reform to deal with some unimaginable menace. In the three years leading up to 1987's Fall of the Mutants storyline, leading characters had been crippled, lost in time or buggered off to join some other super team.

So when they all got together against another massively powerful demon who threatened to eat Dallas, it was definitely a case of the band coming back together. One faked death later, a quick establishing of a new, mysterious and exotic base, and a couple of costume changes, and the team was set.

At my most geekily pedantic, I try to remember who was an official X-Man at different times, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit I have literally wasted hours pondering this inane idea. But it's not as easy as it looks. I have been horribly conflicted over when Banshee was officially off the team, while mildly bemused by Angel's status. It usually gets a bit much, and I have to start thinking about something more important. Like the names of every actor who played a Doctor Who companion, and what order they appeared in.

But the Australian team is a cinch, a clearly defined team that almost lasted for two years before Claremont kicked in the sandcastle again. Four male, four female. Storm, Dazzler, Rogue and Psylocke; Havok, Wolverine, Colossus and Longshot. A basic team covering all the skills and abilities that would ever be needed, with a potent mix of sheer power and delicate precision.

There was an aboriginal teleporter up on the hill, odd computer systems in the depths and a teenage runaway girl living in the walls. Genosha made its first appearance and was genuinely horrifying, while Inferno had everybody up against personal and literal demons in an oddly accurate New York/Hell hybrid.

There were natural leaders in Storm and Wolverine, and everybody saved the day at least once. The world thought they were dead, which left the team free to ride in, save the day and fuck right off again. It also meant there was very little interaction with the rest of the Marvel universe, which could get a little frustrating, but was ultimately beneficial for the overall story. It eventually got to the point where it actually was a genuine thrill to see X-Factor and the X-Men finally meet in a demon-filled New York.

Primarily rendered in scratchy magnificence by a young and eager Marc Silvestri, there was also nice art from Rick Leonardi and a couple of others, although the sharpness of Jim Lee and his gorgeous hardbodies made an immediate impact in just one issue.

That Lee-drawn issue is also notable for being the exact point where it all went a bit pear-shaped for the Aussie team. The team had already just lost Rogue, but there was much worse to come. Havok, who was taking his whining to artistic levels, let loose on the bad guy and Storm got caught in the crossfire. The angst got a bit much for everybody involved, and within half a dozen issues, the rest of the team had all taken a magic portal ride into new lives, and Wolverine got nailed to a cross.

Then it all went a bit odd, and there were a couple of years there where there really wasn't any X-Men team. Scattered across the globe, all messed up, inside and out. It wasn't until everybody got back together for a jolly Genoshan adventure in the X-Tinction Agenda that most of the team were reformed, if a bit different. Storm was as magnificent as ever, and Wolverine was just as brutal. Havok went off and sulked for a while, Colossus was back where he belonged at the back of team poses and Psylocke had been all ninja-ed up. Rogue took everything in southern stride, but Longshot and Dazzler went off to do uninteresting things in uninteresting comics.

It all spiralled away from Claremont into the hands of the artists and editors who thought they knew more about writing than the writer, and that led to a decade of dire comics, enough to stain the franchise forever. A few notable attempts to get it on track notwithstanding, the X-Men are still tainted by this immediate past.

Maybe that's why I love the Australian X-Men so much. The comic grew up and we both went our separate ways, and I was off trying to find Hellblazer back issues and sneering at superheroes. But there is always that fucking annoying 13-year-old inside me, with a deep and unwavering love or a bunch of comics published 20 years ago, a status quo that became just another little slice of history.

A slice I still can't help loving.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bullets in the head

* In the case of comic bloggers hurling insults at each other, Judge Judgey McJudge finds in favour of growing the fuck up.

* If I read one more magazine article about REM or Oasis that says their new album is a “return to form”, I may cry.

* There are no sacred cows in pop music, and that Love album of remixed Beatles songs was fucking fantastic.

* That said, the world will change forever on the day the last Beatle dies. Since Ringo Starr is going to live until he's 120, we're safe for the time being.

* Did you know one of the major themes of Batman Begins was dealing with fear? Because after watching it again recently, it struck me that Batman had to deal with his fear by being fearful because criminals feared stuff that was fearsome and that by using fear instead of being afraid of fear, he became free of fear. It also had the Scarecrow in it.

* I really wanted to like Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles, as it made connections from ancient invocations of forgotten deities to the pulptastic adventures of Aleister Crowley to modern superhero shininess. But the focus was too broad, the sweeping generalisations got a little unnerving and there were a few too many tiny inaccuracies, including two in one paragraph about Grant Morrison. Sorry, Chris. Good effort.

* Mind you, based on the artwork in the book, Joseph Michael Linsner has some outstanding Archie comic work in him once he gets sick of that softcore shit.

* I always hated The Beano. But The Dandy was even worse.

* What was the exact point where Stuart Immonen's art went from goofy and cuddly to scratchy and alive?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hyperstories!

If you go by some fairly strict definitions, Trajan’s Column, which still stands proudly in the centre of Rome, is one of the first comics ever created. The story carved into its surface is a simple one of war and triumph, snaking around the column, with panel breaks and forced perspectives familiar to contemporary readers.

There is also a small section that summarises the entire saga in a few tiny images, and the eminently charming Doctor Nigel Spivey has argued that this section comprises the world’s first movie trailer, a taste of a greater saga to come.

But what if this short section is the story itself, with all the good bits highlighted? Everything else is annotation, enriching the smaller narrative. That’s certainly something that is happening more often in modern storytelling.

After decades of kerfuffle, the Watchmen film is about to be unleashed on us all. The comic community has quickly split into two main camps, with some burning up with anticipation, while others have already written it off based on short glimpses and past prejudices.

There is certainly an attraction in seeing well-crafted characters leap off the comic page and onto the movie screen, taking one step closer to real life. But based on the source material and the apparent intentions of the film-makers, there is another good reason that could make the film worth seeing, as it offers the possibility of a new kind of storytelling.

When Terry Gilliam walked away from the project back in the nineties, he made the reasonable observation that it would take a mini series to do the concept justice. The complexity of the storytelling meant that vast amounts of the comic’s narrative were absolutely essential if the story was going to have any effect on the reader, or even make sense.

But judging by the material already seen of the new film and the accompanying hype machine, there is comparatively little that has been cut out. The pirate comic sections were always going to be the first to go, and have been stripped out to create a tie-in product. After that, the most controversial omission is the dead mutant squid materialising in New York.

There has been a lot of discussion about this cut, enough to sow some doubt that it has been removed at all. Movie publicists are more devious than ever before, and the sudden appearance of an alien creature in the middle of New York can not be ruled out, even at this late stage.

This creative decision has a knock-on effect of getting rid of that entire minor sub-plot that spawned it in the comic, saving some more time. But almost every other part of the story seems to be intact, in one form or another. Any reader familiar with the comic will recognise every tiny shot from the first trailers and be able to place them securely in the narrative. (Unfortunately, the one shot that can’t be placed gives a major indication of what is replacing the giant squid.)

But to get all this information into the movie, scenes will have to be cut down to the bare minimum, with all the fat stripped away. Vast amounts of data need to come through, and it’s impossible to do that if the film is full of ten minute scenes with oceans of mood and feeling.

The filmmakers have used the background details to get some of these plot points and clues across to the audience, and the contents of the Comedian’s apartment seen in the trailers have already been examined with all the zeal of a television forensic scientist.

But it still comes down to the scenes, which will need to buzz along at top speed.

Zach Snyder has made no secret of the fact that there were sections in the comic, including Doc Manhattan’s Martian vacation and the Comedian’s funeral, which the studio would have been only too happy to remove. But he fought to keep them in. If he really is as passionate about the story as he appears to be, many other scenes like these will be making the transition from comic to movie.

There has always been a solid economic argument against filming in dozens of different locations, as sets need to be built and sites located. If a movie company is going to sink millions of dollars into a vast and impressive set, you can guarantee a large amount of the film’s action is going to take place in that location.

In a way, movie technology has finally caught up with Watchmen. The virtual set has changed the formula for location shooting, allowing filmmakers to produce massive sets that don’t really exist, for a fraction of the price an actual brick-and-mortar creation would cost. So Snyder, who has shown how comfortable he is with shooting against green screen with 300, can now go out and shoot short scenes in new locations, and fit in more and more of that glorious information.

Again, it comes down to a shorter scene as more are squeezed into the story. It remains to be seen whether this will have a detrimental effect on characterisation, and there is certainly a large chance that this will happen in some form. But the results should be interesting.

Another option open to Snyder and his crew include leaving outs big patches of information, and relying on the viewer to discover this for themselves. The Tales of the Black Freighter cartoon feature is the most obvious example, allowing fans to walk out of the cinema and see something that ties into the main text. This project does not provide material vital to the main movie, but does offer the opportunity to expand on its themes, and give the entire enterprise some depth.

Alan Moore has a lot to legitimately complain about when it comes to movie adaptations of his work, but he can’t complain about this kind of storytelling. Especially when he is doing basically the same thing with his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books.  The Black Dossier, now available in a variety of forms, is a fine, witty and oddly moving work, smart enough to drop hints about characters and events without resorting to clumsy exposition.

But while the basic story of this recent comic is built around a very basic chase scenario, there is so much going on in the background, material that enriches the tale for those willing to go that extra mile for that extra information. This is not strictly necessary, but the annotations produced by the likes of the extraordinarily useful Jess Nevins give the tale extra impact.

So is it that hard to imagine a point where this is the norm? Where any tale will come with a vast background of further detail, jettisoned to keep the tale moving along as quickly as possible? With attention spans falling to record levels, shorter works can only find a more appreciative audience, particularly if there is further information to be found with a little digging around.

It’s already happening, even if some would rather it didn’t. There are those that are convinced that the recently wrapped Final Crisis was a complete failure because it relied on events outside the main text, mainly the Superman Beyond side-project, to flesh out the tale. But there are also many readers who were only too happy for the main tale to be stripped of its fat, readers who sucked up Morrison’s shorthand and asked for seconds.

Both sides have their points, and a common ground could almost certainly be found, if only everybody involved stopped shouting at each other.

The art of crafting a decent narrative has never been set in stone. From Trajan’s Column to the latest comic blockbuster, there have always been new ways of telling stories, and there always will be. This will inevitably result in the odd mis-step, and the art may head off in the wrong direction altogether. But when the results are this fascinating, the ride has got to be worth it. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Loving the awful

It's easy to forget how awful Jeph Loeb is at writing comic books until you actually sit down and read some of his work. He throws everything he can into a story, often leaving the reader with the vague impression they're better than they really are.

But a quick flick through some of the comics he has written over the last decade takes that vague impression, beats it with a rubber hose and takes it out behind the chemical sheds to be shot.

It's got to the point where you know exactly what you're going to get before you even pick up one of his books. Characterisation is stripped down to the bare minimum, with pop psychology and plot machinations replacing anything recognisably human.

Dialogue leaves no cliché unturned and Loeb's ability to find exactly the wrong word to come out of a character's mouth is almost unmatched in modern mainstream comics, with the degree of awfulness turned all the way up to 11.

Loeb's own brand of caption overkill brings all these failings up to the front and centre. And, at the most fundamental level, his plots are nothing more than the small bits between the clumsiest of cool moments, (see Superman/Batman) or so completely flawed from the beginning you have to wonder what the hell Loeb was thinking when he came up with it, and how he convinced his editors to join in, (see Wolverine).

So how come every time I come back from the local library with a big stack of books to read, I'm always compelled to read one of his books if it's in there, over something I know will be intellectually and emotionally rewarding?

What the fuck is up with that?

Obviously the train wreck factor is there, seeing how bad it can get every time, getting cheap thrills knowing a four year old could do better. But enjoying something for its sheer awfulness can only go so far, the so-bad-it's-good theory falling apart in the face of so-bad-it's-just-fucking-bad counter-idea.

Then there is the unashamed fanboy button pushing. Those moments might often be horribly misjudged, (Superman throttling Wonder Woman is high on the list of stuff I never really needed to see), but Loeb's love for the Awesome-with-a-capital-Awe moment still shines through. Sometimes it has all the logic of a kid playing with his favourite action figures, and how can you judge that too harshly? It can be pretty funny to watch.

Loeb has also proven the master at having the cool guest star show up at just the right moment, even if the logic behind the appearance is, at best, dodgy as fuck.

Maybe it's just the sheer pop power of the majority of his work for both Marvel and DC, with the piling on of the guest stars adding to the colour and spectacle and sheer volume of it all. I know when Loeb takes a more subdued tone, such as in his work with Tim Sale, it just doesn't feel as exciting. Sometimes it feels more like a chore than a cheap thrill.

It's unfair of me to single Loeb out, (or even comics, since the first movie I watch when I hire a pile of DVDs from the local store will invariably be the biggest, dumbest filim of the lot, thanks very much Starship Troopers 3). Especially as there are several other creators who make me wince with almost every page, but still compel me to grab their work with glee when it shows up on a library shelf.

The idea that Loeb's work is more readable the less seriously he takes it stands up when I try to read Brian Bendis' stuff, with his big, fat and important writing on things such as Daredevil or Powers frequently hard to get through, while his big, fat and loud work on some of the Avengers or Ultimate Spider-man books are a joy to read.

I don’t really like the New Avengers, but I burned through that instead of starting a Scalped collection when I got both out from a library over the weekend, even though I knew damn well that the Vertigo book was better for me.

But Loeb is the king, when it comes to that special and joyous “Oh-God-what-is-he-doing-now-guess-I-better-check-it-out” feeling.

As shallow as it sounds, it’s probably all about the shininess. Comics always look better with vivid reds and garish greens and more yellow than is strictly necessary. Picking up a Heroes For Hire book is easy when it’s covered in bright purple, while that new hot monochrome indie is emoting its arse off over there, but doesn’t grab the eye. Just because it’s Vertigo doesn’t mean it has to be brown.

This can’t be good for me. My taste has no say in this. I’m going to to read that Scalped, and I bet it will be funny and moving and exciting.

Right after I finish this Ms Marvel book.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The corner of SECRET SHAME

I'm so, so sorry.....

* God help me, sometimes I still like Don Heck more than Kirby.

*I'm still angry that Wolverine beat Lobo in the first big DC/Marvel donnybrook.

*The New Warriors was my favourite comic in the entire world for a whole year.

* I'm still quite chuffed by the way Alan Davis took about an issue and a half to tie up all Chris Claremont's dangling plots when he took over as writer of Excalibur.

* I stole three issues of the second Marvel Handbook from a small, family-owned bookstore back in the late eighties, and I still feel awfully guilty about that.

* Despite the best of intentions on the part of all concerned, I didn’t really like Age of the Sentry.

* R Crumb's comics creep me out a bit too much.

* I've got this horrible habit of watching foreign films on fastforward, and trying and keep up with the subtitles. I've got to stop that.

* I still think a lot of Marvel's What The-? series is really, really funny.

* Outside of All Star Superman, the only Superman comic I've bought in the last five years is the collection of Bob Haney's Super-Sons stories.

* I once tried to convince my best friends that Interview With The Vampire really was the best book ever.

* I still love Kitty Pryde, and only want good things to happen to her.

* The only Bendis comic I own these days is the collection of his Ultimate Team-Up stories.

* It wasn’t until Final Crisis #6 that I made the connection between the Black Flash and the Black Racer. That only took ten years.

* I always kinda liked Wizard.

* The only manga I’ve ever read is Akira, Barefoot Gen, Lone Wolf and Cub and the Kurisagi Corpse Delivery Service.

* I slipped over and fell on my butt in front of 10,000 people when I was five years old.

* Every week for the last month, I’ve bought fifteen comics for ten dollars, and they’re almost all shit. Recent DC and Marvel comics that I end up selling two weeks later. I can’t get enough of them.

* The only ones I’ll keep will be Don Simpson’s extremely bizarre Splitting Image, Keith Giffen’s even odder Trencher, one issue of Tom Peyer’s Hourman, the Generation X Underground Special by Jim Mahfood and some Milligan/Aldred X-Force and some Lethargic Lad. Ummm....

* I used to take Marvel's Coolometer at its word.

* I really did believe that Pink Floyd was going to be the key into a whole new world. (I still cried like a little girl when they took to the stage at Live 8.)

* I spent three days in London a couple of years ago, and all I really remember is the comic shops.

* I'm still disappointed that I never developed super powers during puberty, and I blame Zenith.

* It took me 15 years to work out that Freddie Mercury was gay.

* Once I got busted singing along to Bring The Noise by Anthrax and Public Enemy. It was on my walkman, and I was busted by the prettiest girl at my work. She never talked to me after that.

*I dug the draftsmanship, but I just don't like Guy Davis' artwork because I always used to think his people were so ugly. Until Unstable Molecules. His Sue Storm was hot.

* I... I think my current favourite monthly comic is Jack of Fables.

* God help me, sometimes I still like Sal Buscema more than Kirby.