Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bringing the sexy

How could any young teenager resist the X-Men?

An infatuation with all things X is something many comic fans go through at some point or another, but the stories, art and themes are almost perfectly designed for that horribly awkward period between childhood and adult life. After all, with most mutant powers kicking in at puberty, any teenager who finds hair growing in odd places and other parts getting bigger is bound to identify with characters whose bodies suddenly start doing some very odd things.

On top of that, the whole idea that the X-Men fight for a world that fears and hates them shows that nobody really understands what mutants are really like, and what 13-year-old doesn't feel that particular pain?

It rarely lasts far past the teenage years. Even if the reader can stomach the convoluted storylines and increasingly shoddy periods that the main X-books periodically go through, the whole idea can get a bit much. Cyclops and his little mutie buddies have been fighting against prejudice for more than 40 years now, and don't seem to have accomplished a whole lot. The entire franchise is running with the accelerator hard to the floor, but the gearstick is stuck in neutral, and nobody is going anywhere.

Besides, the sheer misery of these motley mutants can get to you in the end. Okay, it's a hard life being born into a world that hates you because you're so cool, but enough already. It's like being stuck at a party with somebody who won't stop talking about how much they hate their job. It's fun to listen to somebody else's misery for a while, but after a while you just want to tell them to shut the fuck up and go get a drink.

Still, the X-Men managed to claw their way to the top of the sales charts and hang around there ever since the days of Claremont and Byrne, so they must be doing something right. But the X-books in the new millennium are a pretty sorry story. Endless reboots of the core team over the last decade and literally thousands of almost unreadable comics have seen them slide off that top spot.

Now, even with some talented creators still doing their very best, they have become entirely inessential. There are the odd bright spots, where people actually put some thought into what the whole evolution theme meant. Or Whedon's crack at the concept, which started out with a fair amount of fan excitement, until it almost choked on nostalgia and, like a lot of Marvel's titles these days, fell over its own self-importance. Recent days have seen the usual mega-crossovers that promise a lot and fail to deliver, with Messiah Complex nowhere near as interesting as it thought it was, while Brubaker and Fraction and Carey's efforts feel constrained, sometimes by the writer's own interests.

There is no one simple answer for why nobody really cares about the X-Men any more. But part of it has to be that the X-Men just aren't that sexy any more.

Most of the time, sexiness in comics is, quite frankly, fucking disturbing. Anybody can walk into almost any comic shop in the world and see that for themselves. But at their best, the X-Men were different.

For starters, there was such a staggeringly huge variety of beautiful people, and it would be hard to find any teenage reader who didn't form a crush on one or more of them. For the boys, there were Nubian goddesses, bimbo pop stars, supersmart geek girls, untouchable southern belles, English telepaths and redheads who go bad and dress in black leather. Even the few girls who read the comic had something for everything, from the solid dependability and chiselled abs of Colossus to a charming devil who managed to make blue fur, a tail and no fingers look good. Not to mention ol' Canuklehead himself, who somehow managed to make being a hairy shortarse with a short temper look fantastic.

All that, and Chris Claremont giving each and every character their own pain to deal with. Men and women who looked fabulous, but still needed care and love and a shoulder to cry on. Sure, society at large might hate and fear them, but that's because they didn't see the X-Men rocking the short shorts in those baseball games they used to play, when they weren't beating the crap out of each other in “training sessions”.

All these characters are still there, still pretty much the same. But something is gone. It vanished sometime after Claremont left, and never returned, even when Chris did. Instead of these beautiful fragile creatures who could still stand up to Gods and supervillains without blinking, they've been oversexualised and, in the process, lost what was most lovable about them. All the sex appeal of a faceless supermodel or flawless barbie doll. Too many hands in the creative process, from different writers to co-plotting artists to editorial control has reduced them to characters who look good posing for action. Some of the time.

And sexiness isn't just all in the tits and arse, it's in appearing new and interesting, colourful and entertaining, promising a whole new life with each shy smile. The X-Men haven't been the cool new thing for a long time now, and barring a good long slice of downtime, is unlikely to come back.

Furthermore, the dark undercurrents that have flowed beneath the X-narrative ever since Thunderbird caught a plane have rushed to the surface, covering everything in mopey moroseness. Even the colour schemes of the comics themselves have moved into darker territory, and while the tight black leather look is one of the sexiest damn things you will ever see in the real life, it never really translates to the comic page, leaving pages and pages of murky depression.

Bringing this sexy back might not make any difference to the overall spiralling direction of the franchise, but it couldn't hurt. After all, there will always be a new generation of teenagers, convinced they are trapped in a world of darkness that hates and fears them, and desperate, even if they don't know it, to find somebody to make it all a little better, even if they're not exactly real.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Nine randoms

Because it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and because sometimes, you just want to grab nine comics out of the teetering pile of dorkery in the corner and talk some shit about them.

Silver Age #1
DC, July 2000
Written by Mark Waid, Art by Terry and Rachel Dodson
One of those crossovers from the turn of the century that is largely unloved these days, just a bit too eager to please and not exciting enough.
Waid tried to recapture the magic of the comics he liked when he was a kid, with lots of superhero action and even more exposition.
Unfortunately, the comics Waid tried to emulate were hacked out by people who lied about what they do for a living when they went to parties, and didn’t give a fuck.
Waid really does give a fuck. Good for him. It just doesn’t always result in great comics.

Power Comics #4
Eclipse, September 1988
Written by Don Avenall and Norman Worker, art by Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland
Black and white reprints of comics drawn by Gibbons and Bolland at the start of their careers, originally done for the African market and reprinted for the rest of us once we all realized how bloody good these guys were.
All very Right On, but the art is lovely. Each artist had a much looser line, leading to awkward bits, but some great flow. And the eagerness is everywhere and a bit contagious, greatly adding to the vibe.
One odd thing: the comics all have the panel numbers in the bottom left corner of each one, so idiot readers could figure it out and it’s all weirdly distracting, like when you leave a DVD running with the subtitles on, and you don’t really need them, but you end up watching them anyway and then you’re reading stuff that is already being told to you, but you keep on reading anyway.
Aw, fuck you guys. You know what I mean.

ClanDestine #3
Marvel, June 2008
Written and drawn by Alan Davis
Like a shot of liquid nostalgia. I don’t want to wank to Shadowcat any more because I’m not 13 and gave up doing that over comic pictures a while back. Plus, she’s still 15 and I’m old enough to be her Dad and that’s all a bit wrong.
I don’t care because it’s so goddamn nice to see Excalibur again, the original Claremont/Davis team that rocked my fucking world in 1988. All the characters have been fucked over so much, they couldn’t get back together like this again, but time-travel takes care of that.
It reminds me of the saddest thing in modern comics: Those Scarlet Witch/Marvel Girl back-ups in the First Class books. Those poor bloody girls.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #4
Dark Horse, March 2005
Written and Drawn by Paul Chadwick
He still draws some of the best black and white art in comics and shows a lot of innovation while going off on weird fucking tangents, but the best thing about Paul Chadwick comics is that his characters don’t act like they’re fictional. They’re just as stupid as we are and massively unpredictable, beautifully irrational and more than a little frustrating. Sometimes I want to give Larry a slap so fucking much.
But Jesus, Chadwick puts so much thought into his stories and is a master at keeping things flowing along, so he’s always worth a look. They might not always be narratively satisfying, but they’re always fascinating.

Swamp Thing #154
DC Vertigo, May 1995
Written by Mark Millar, art by Phillip Hester
Millar always tries his best, so I can’t hold that against him. He wears his influences on his sleeve and makes no secret about it. Sometimes he is really, really nasty to his characters, but they’re usually a bunch of unlikable swine anyway, so fuck those jerks.
At this point in Swamp Thing, the green fella is lost in a book of short stories, which cover all sorts of odd periods in DC comics, from revisionist late-70s superheroes to the gross little horror stories that spawned Swampy in the first place. This one is particularly nasty as this time, it’s Abby Arcane who is the bad seed in the family.

The Nightly News #1
Image, November 2006
Written and drawn by Jonathan Hickman
It’s easy enough to see where Hickman is going here and it’s all very noble, but not exactly likeable.
You might have spent a semester in college, know how the world works and blame the media for everything, but you just sound like a dick.
Especially when you start shooting people in the head. Arsehole.

NewUniversal: Conquerer
Marvel, December, 2008
Writen by Simon Spurrier, art by Eric Nguyen
I always want to like Simon Spurrier than I do. Too much clever-clever, not enough thrust. Nothing to grip on to.
In this one, there is this barbarian dude who hacks people up with a big sword and some people with superhero powers who do horrible things with them and it’s a nice big lightshow, but I’ve read this fucking thing three times and that’s all I gots. Nothing else sticks, and it’s not helped by that awkwardly slick house style Marvel is rocking at the moment, which is all gloomy and atmospheric, but it would be nice to see what the fuck is going on.

Tangled Web #5
Marvel, September 2001
Written by Greg Rucka, art by Eduardo Risso
It’s that Severance Package story and it’s very good, but all I can think is this: If the Kingpin keeps killing every lackey that fucks up, and with three thousand superheroes getting all up in his shit every month, how can he get anybody to work for him?
I’m sure it gets good results out his personnel, but it must be hell being the big man’s human resources manager. He must offer up a whole lot of drugs and whores as perks to make up for the mortality rate.
Still, it’s always groovy to se super bad guys crack open a can of Honour and Nobility.

Girl #3
DC Vertigo, September 1996
Written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Duncan Fegredo
Sometimes, when I’m a bit drunk, I’m convinced this is the best thing Peter Milligan has ever written. When I’m sober, it’s okay, but with a few down me, I’m all about the Girl.
Fegredo is as good as ever and always produces his best art on shit like this.
It’s a speedy little read and it’s a sweet little document of the mid-90sin Britain, as much a part of its time and place as something like Trainspotting or Oasis. Only nobody went to stand in a giant field for Girl. I did, but I was alone and a bit cold.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The adventures of Nikolai Dante

I don’t know when I first noticed the Russian Rogue, but it didn’t take me long to get hooked and a little bit obsessive. That obsession has come and gone over the last 10 years, but it’s still there, so I’m just going to come out and say it:

Nikolai Dante is my favourite comic of the decade.

Combined with an unexpected deepening of the world of Judge Dredd, Dante has been a shining light in the new parade of 2000ad characters brought in over the years. While Sinister Dexter has arguably been the most popular new strip to gain strength in the comic in recent times, Dante is a far richer, deeper and exciting experience.

2000ad has always tried its hand at genuinely new stories and characters, an editorial decision that cannot be praised highly enough. While the vast majority come and go, some stick around for a second or third storyline, and others even manage to make the leap to regular feature.

This has seen some extraordinary stories produced, including Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon’s eerily British Caballistics Inc and Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell’s surprisingly resilient Red Seas, over the past few years, so they must be doing something right. 

* * * 

Back around the mid-nineties, 2000ad was stuck in a bit of a rut. There was still the odd hotspot, but the comic was definitely cruising on past glories. New stories never really caught on, with a general feeling of apathy from both readers and creators. John Wagner wasn’t even writing Judge Dredd any more and it soon became obvious how difficult it actually was to capture the voice of Dredd and his city.

But there was still that drive to find the next big thing, and while that resulted in some godawful strips that need no mention, the odd thing caught on, especially when a talent pool that had proven itself in the Judge Dredd Megazine signed up for the grind of weekly deadlines. Sinister Dexter was the first major success, stretching out from an initial short run into a long-running gangster saga that is still going.

Robbie Morrison, who had already shown a willingness to try new things with his Shimura work on the Megazine, had his own idea for another saga. Looking at the comic’s long history of grim-faced men with big guns, Morrison kept the guns, but replaced the grim with a grin.

Even though it was a sharp concept from the start, it still spent an extraordinary length of time in development under editors John Tomlinson and David Bishop, (Bishop would later go on to write three massively entertaining Dante novels). It was a long road from Morrison’s initial pitch until it actually appeared on the page, with several changes happening along the way.

Morrison has said he would have been a lot happier if Dante had been an historical epic, but reluctantly had to add in the sci-fi elements to satisfy the 2000ad faithful. He also switched the timeframe around, starting at an earlier point than originally intended. This gave him the chance to flesh out the background of Dante’s world and the characters that inhabit it, before ripping it apart again in the magnificent Tsar Wars.

After all this time fleshing it out, Nikolai Dante hit the ground running when it debuted in 2000ad prog 1035 in late 1997. In half a dozen pages, Dante’s character was fully fleshed out, and he was shown to be a man of humour, wit and energy, a gentleman thief and killer swordsman.

After a few more of these small parts, an entire setting in the year 2666 had been established, one of deadly rivalries and vast intrigues, of political assassination and family feuds that would destroy empires.

The impact that the art of co-creator Simon Fraser brought to these early stories cannot be underestimated. Fraser had established a good working relationship with Morrison on Shimura, but he really started to shine drawing Dante’s world. An odd mix of 17th century fashion and the latest in organic cyberware, knights in armour rode metal horses that fly into battle, while decadence mixed liberally with technological dreams given flesh.

And there was horror, as any empire has its share of suffering. And under the tyrannical grip of Tsar Vladimir, the world of the 27th century was a cold and cruel place, where terrible things happen to good people, simply because the ruler wills it.

Fraser drew it all, and could be surprisingly effective and showing determination or misery or terrible vengeance, while also cranking up the pace in some extraordinarily well-rendered action scenes. His line could get a little loose, but it all just helped in the energy and vigour of the story.

Although it was certainly lighter than many of the strips it shared 2000ad space with, the undercurrent of darkness was always there, as the sheer weight and inevitable movement of history bore down on the characters. A vicious war between two mighty houses was always one tiny step away from breaking out, and Dante would sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to keep the fragile peace ticking over, and save as many lives as he possibly could. 

* * *

Eventually, Dante was unable to hold off that march of history, and the world devolved into the war the great powers had been salivating over. This was actually the point where Morrison originally intended to start the series, before he got the bright idea of fleshing out the world and its inhabitants a bit better.

Apart from the original concept, this might be the best idea Robbie Morrison ever had. For the first couple of years, he filled Dante’s world with a vast array of fascinating characters. The most important was undoubtedly Jena Makarov, the love of Dante’s life and the daughter of his greatest enemy, the cold, cruel and calculating Tsar. Although she would have been quite happy to see Dante skinned alive at the start of the series, she gradually warmed to his charms, and eventually fell fully in love, just as the war began and tore them apart.

And then there were the Romanovs, Dante’s father, half-brothers and sisters. Almost as cold as the Tsar and monstrously powerful, they also displayed a wide range of passions and skills. There was Konstantin, the paladin of the clan and possibly the biggest bastard of them all, but there was also Andreas, who shared Nikolai’s tendances towards wine, women and dismemberment. Between these extremes, the rest of their family had their own unique charms and disturbing perversions.

The strip featured a host of other fascinating characters, from the highest halls of power to the lowest gutters of poverty, but it was Dante who strode through it all, sometimes oblivious, occasionally calculating, always noble.

Despite his frequent assertion that “honour be damned”, Dante was easily the most noble and honourable of all the characters. With the hardest of upbringings, he is a character who is intimately familiar with the worst humanity has to offer, but could still be shocked by the level of depravity and callousness his family and the other ruling classes were capable of.

Disgusted by their games of intrigue that left death and misery behind them, Dante has always sworn to raise an army of the damned, a legion of whores, beggars and thieves that would destroy the aristocracy and the damage they caused, once and for all. This slow-burning subtext took a long time to come to the boil, but has recently done so, with fascinating speed.

But a while back, several years into its run, Dante needed a shaking up of the status quo and was given one in the Tsar Wars storyline. With the addition of the legendary British comics painter John Burns as a second regular artist, the strip went off in an extremely dark direction.

Suddenly, the suffering of innocents was increased a thousand times over, as Dante’s world was ripped apart by the open warfare between its two biggest houses of power. Corpses began piling high and those caught in the crossfire had to resort to desperate attempts to stay alive, in that uniquely miserable way that Russia seems to handle almost all of its warfare.

The Tsar Wars storyline saw Dante become a legend on both sides, carrying out daring raids in attempts to slow the flow of innocent blood. Even with his compassion, he still kills more enemy soldiers than any other fighter as the war bleeds out his humour and joy for life.

Morrison’s story was perfectly paced, even if he was left tearing his Scottish hair out by a change in the order of the books that was forced upon him by artist problems. The terrible destruction of the war was established, there were a few men-on-a-mission stories and just when it looked like Dante’s side was about to win the conflict, the world turned upside down, the Romanov family were almost wiped out, and Dante returned to the life of an outlaw.

* * *

Post-war Dante tried to get back into his ‘gentleman thief’ guise, but was a different man with new depths. Many of those he had fought beside were gone, along with the innocents he had been unable to save, while he was alive. Dante survived and was still always up for a bit of slap and tickle, but was also more prone to melancholy.

At about this time, Simon Fraser stopped his regular contributions, and while John Burns was a worthy full-time replacement, the strip got becalmed in a long-running pirate story. This part of the tale added tiny new bits of texture to the overall saga, especially with Dante’s mother becoming a regular character, but Dante’s adventures on the high seas didn’t really go anywhere new or exciting.

The story chugged along slowly for several years, before the tempo picked up again. This was partly due to Fraser’s return, as he might just be the best action artist in modern British comics. While John Burns can still produce some stunning painted pages, the story comes alive in Fraser’s hands.

But it also kicked back into life with a return to the court of intrigue of the Tsar, and the return of Jena as a regular character. Finally consummating their love at the instant the war began, they ended up on the opposite side of the conflict and crossed blades. There was still the love and they still couldn’t really hurt each other, but their affection for each other had been shattered by the pressure of history and blood.

By the time Nikolai returned from the seas, their relationship had transformed into a romantic cold war and the question of their inevitable reconciliation was a fine backdrop for the next chapter in Dante’s tale as the Sword of the Tsar.

 * * *

The ease with which Dante fitted in to the Imperial Court was a little jarring, but the fresh legs the new status quo gave the series was more than enough to compensate for this. The fates of several minor characters, some of which had been dangling for years, were finally revealed and Dante used his position to gather up some occasionally unexpected allies as he swore loyalty to his bitter enemy.

Dante’s service under the Tsar could not last. Last year, it all came to a head in the stunning Amerika story, where Nikolai and Jena were sent to the former superpower to enact the Tsar’s will. While there was the usual cheap thrill of seeing beloved American comic characters such as the Fantastic Four and Captain America transform into nasty analogies in the hands of a British writer, there was also a lot of depth in the story, as Dante is pushed to the limits of his fealty. 

At one point, Dante sees a picture of himself, taken several years ago, hanging in the room of a young girl who just blew herself up in a crowd of Imperial soldiers, and the difference between the two Dantes is huge. The crushing weight of his own deeds and legacy is hanging on his shoulders. Morrison is incredibly good at letting the silent panel speak for itself, often ending entire storylines on an ambiguous smirk or a sudden realisation, but this was one of the best moments.

Dante’s reaction to the horrific climax of Amerika is genuinely shocking, even as it is tempered with some disbelief that it took so long to happen in the first place. Since then, the story has kicked up into its final gear.

Right now, the story might just be at the most interesting place it has ever been. A decade of plot development and character growth is finally paying off in fascinating ways. Dante has his army of thieves and whores, and is poised to destroy the empire responsible for so much death and misery.

It’s unlikely to end well for Dante on a personal level. With Jena finally at his side and choosing to defy her father, some sort of tragedy is inevitable. It’s highly probable that the series will end with Dante’s death, defying authority to the end, taking his enemies all down with him.

And that’s not so bad. Dante has already been promised by a clairvoyant (another of his beautiful victims who suffer for his sins), that his death will be spectacular, and Dante needs nothing else. His life has been loud and bright and extraordinary, his demise will undoubtedly be the same.

 * * *

When I got back into 2000ad after an absence of eight years, it was all Nikolai’s fault. 

I just regret taking my time about it. By the time I started buying new 2000ad comics from the local bookshop for the first time this century, I had been out of Tharg's orbit for a long, long time. I had missed hundreds of issues and hundreds of stories.

It took a while to fill that hole and it's an ongoing process, but I’m getting there. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought 13 2000ad progs with Nikolai’s adventures contained within, and some of the gaps in my knowledge is slowly being filled in.

It’s a little weird, reading it in such a non-linear order. The first Dante stories I ever read were set both during the war and before, years apart from each other in the narrative (and publishing order), but read within seconds of each other. I only discovered last month how the Tsar came to power, even though the strip revealed this fact nine years ago.

But it all helps keep the interest up, and I’m staying well away from any spoilers that could ruin this last run. It takes nearly three months for 2000ad issues to get here from the UK and I’m determined to keep myself from skipping ahead to see how it all works out.

Because I really do believe Nikolai Dante is a fantastic comic, one that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the past few years, one that I look forward to every week.

Nikolai Dante is my favourite comic of the decade.

* * *

Almost all of Nikolai Dante’s adventures are available in trade paperback, although they may be difficult to track down. The Tearoom of Despair reckons you should, because it would be good for you. 

For an example of how good Simon Fraser can sometimes be, check out his Lilly McKenzie webcomic.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Catching up, looking around

When I got back from overseas travel recently, I had about six weeks of essays, interviews and reviews of comics on the internet to catch up on. I had only been able to get online once or twice a week during the travel and didn’t think I would miss too much.

It has taken me 27 days to catch up with everything that happened.

I talked to my Dad on the phone the day after we got home and found out everything important about my extended family in a minute and a half. It took me a week to get to a Grant Morrison interview about Batman and Robin. And Morrison interviews are always the best.

Remember when you’d hear something vague about a comic and then nothing else until you saw it in the store? That feeling of picking something up that you know absolutely nothing about? That shit isn’t so easy these days.

This is not a complaint. I crave information on comic books and spend, on average, a couple of hours a day soaking up as much comic info as I can get. Reading new stuff, flicking through an old favourite, or reading about something new.

And now, with the glory of international communion that the net brings, there is always something new to check out. 

For starters, there is the Mindless Ones, which had a couple of the excellent Terminus cartoons to catch up on, as well as more than 3000 words on the glory of the Fighting Fantasy books and their gorgeous covers, which were a small obsession that ruled my life for a year or two there.

And moving on, there is Sean T Collins and his exceptional writing on Lost, the first place that I would look at after watching a new episode. The big fella made some impressively good points about the callousness of the leads, and their seeming indifference over the lives they trample in their stupid little games.

(Incidentally, I always thought those cops that Neo and Ms Leather 1999 mow down in the lobby during the first Matrix movie were low-level version of the Agents, computer programmes that would just reboot half an hour after the massacre. The bad guys wouldn’t trust its security to a bunch of treacherous humans. In my head, this a plausible theory that reconciles the movie’s sense for freedom with the wellbeing of the innocent.)

And then there are all the new comics announced during my time off. Some of them, like Marvel’s latest attempt to grab the indy-kids, are obvious gems that will probably sell loads of copies over time, but it’s harder to justify the interest I have in the idea of a new Die Hard comic. Despite an avalanche of shitty comics based on movies and old TV shows, I still kinda want to read it.

(At least it’s written by Chaykin, that’s a bit of a defence, isn’t it? He’s like Frank Miller, his work might be lacking in the emotional resonance of their early days, but at least he’s trying. And they are always, always entertaining.)

And then there are the interviews, fantastic talks with Seth and David Lapham and Al Ewing and Darwyn Cooke and Mark Millar and all sorts of different Alan Moore yarns that have gone online in the past month or so. All the thought and energy these guys put into their comics seeps through in their conversation, leaving the reader with a greater appreciation of what they were trying to say. I love a good interview and there are certainly plenty showing up online on a weekly basis. 

And if all that shit isn’t enough, there are still the brilliant, funny and informative weekly reviews from the likes of Paul O’Brien, Chris Sims, J Caleb Mozzocco and Tucker Stone, each giving a great overview of comics that are invariably more entertaining than the books they are talking about.

Especially Stone, who is so fucking funny I want to smash his fucking face in. That Nana In My Pants joke just killed me.

And if that’s not enough, there are the quirky tastes and invariable quality of the Savage Critics, the lovely Star Trek canon series at postmodernbarney and Jason Powell’s excellent retrospective pieces on the X-Men, (now getting to the point when I started getting obsessive about all things X). Or the heads up on what to look out for from the impeccable tastes of Joe McCulloch and Matthew J Brady. Or maybe just diggin' the Sluggo.

And then, after all that, there was more to catch up on in the time I’d spent catching up on all that other beautiful crap, from Armagideon Time’s fabulous call to boycott fan boycotts to the fantastic link orgies that are The Comics Reporter and Journalista to brilliant interviews with the likes of the great Bryan Talbot, forced to head out and shill his latest book.

And I fucking love it. I genuinely dig it. I crave information about comic books and movies and books and albums and politics and the news media and everything that ever was. I want it fucking all.

That tsunami of information is a glorious thing to surf. Just don’t get pulled under, or you’re rooted. Ride it out and it’ll take your brain to new places, while giving comfort food to the usual illogical prejudices. We live on a diet of information, you only have to be careful not to gorge.

The best way to avoid information overload is to concentrate of one particular section of human behaviour, and keep a vague eye on the rest. Fortunately, most of us have some sort of hobby that allows us to do this. Those interested in crafting socks out of barbed wire, or like making pornographic dioramas with their Smurf collections, can use the internet to find more people who share their interests, to exchange information, to feel a little less alone.

If your hobby is comic books and other facets of geek culture, you better be good at sifting, or you’re screwed. The first time I found reviews of comics on the internet I was so damn excited, and I used to think it extraordinary to find a site that would have news of upcoming comic books that was updated every single day.

Now there are a dozen sites updating every frigging hour and while there is an inevitable amount of repetition, there is plenty of unique content to soak up. The explosion of blogs since the early days of the century have added to the hum, producing an incredible amount of material.

And yes, there is a low signal to noise ratio. It is very easy to get lost, or follow dead ends, or get sucked into the black hole of message board discussion, where the level of discourse never really rose above the classic Iron Man vs the X-Men rant.

But it doesn’t take long to sort out the good stuff from the bad. The writers who make you laugh, or tell you about the good shit, or are just prodigious updaters. We’ve all got our favourites. The problem starts when you discover that there are a hell of a lot of good people out there who are worth following. And when you’re out of touch for a whole month, you’ve got a lot to catch up on.

In the end, I dumped it all out into a Word document, and printed it out double sided on the smallest readable type. It still ended up coming in at 72 pages long.

So now it’s something to read at the lunchbreak, or waiting for the train. Sometimes it’s a slog getting through it all, sometimes it’s a real joy. But it’s always informative, and always interesting in some way. It’s all worth a look.

And now I’ve been busy spending the weekend lying on my arse reading a big pile of new comics, so I’ve got to get back online and see what I missed. 

It never ends. 

Who would want it to?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's Criminal

I bought the first two collections of the Criminal comic by Brubaker and Phillips last weekend. It’s really fucking good.

I got the first collection on Saturday, and enjoyed it so much, I went back to the comic shop the next day and picked the second one up. This morning, I went and got the third. I haven’t done anything like that since I had a disturbingly chaste love affair with the Sandman comic back in 1992.

It’s a fantastic comic, hitting all the right beats and making all the right moves. Brubaker has visibly evolved as a crime writer over the past few years and Phillips has settled into a style which perfectly compliments the writing, and the work they produce is simply stunning.

There is a lot to like about Criminal and to spare the overuse of gushing adjectives, here are a few of them, all in easy to read bulletpoints.

* The Undertow bar. One of the constants in the tale, bringing it all together. But it’s also a fascinating character in its own right, from the bartender who knows everything and tells nothing to the cold, hard history of the actual building and the people it attracted.

* The complete lack of bullshit in Brubaker’s writing. No stylistic tricks, just straight, solid storytelling. Brubaker has always been unafraid of letting his characters tell the story, and with the cast that fills the pages of Criminal, his job must have become a little easier. But it all adds to the effortless readability of the thing. With so many comic writers falling prey to stylistic tics, no matter how groovy, it's actually rare to see a work that has so much self-confidence that it doesn’t rely on anything like that. Events happen at their own pace, but it never gets dull. It's the same kind of easy readability you see in the work of Garth Ennis, and when used right, it can be massively powerful.

* The unpredictable plot. There is always a certain pattern to crime stories, but it’s the way the details play out that make or break the tale. If a job is set up, it is guaranteed to go wrong at some point, due to the sheer unpredictability of the world, but it’s always a question as to when it does go tits up. Killing a character who has just recovered from an almost fatal injury has an incredible punch to it.

* These are serious people, doing serious jobs. Michael Mann has built a very solid film career with this theme, (and one of the best eyes for capturing the sheen of modern life), and it’s pleasing to see the same sort of professional in Criminal. The other week I watched Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, and it was hard to feel any sympathy for criminals who were so goddamn stupid that their downfall was inevitable (which may have been the point of the film), but when you see these serious men doing everything possible to ensure their plans go right, it’s a real gut-punch when things go wrong.

* The maturity in the storytelling and confidence in its audience. It doesn’t repeat any information that it doesn’t have to and trust the reader to make the connections necessary. You don’t need to be continually told how much of a total badass Tracy lawless is, his actions speak for themselves. This denseness allows a wealth of information to be imparted with the minimum of bullshit.

* The devil in the details. The slow release of information means there are little details that pop into focus when they are expanded on in later issues. Read a new issue or book of Criminal, and you've got to go back and check out the previous story, because there was a moment in that that seemed a little vague, but is now obvious. The Hernandez brothers have been fucking masters at this with Love and Rockets, forcing a dive back into previous stories whenever a new issue is released, and I fucking love it.

* The facial expressions Sean Phillips gives his characters. Brubaker has to put a lot of faith in his artist. If he was writing a crime novel, he could just describe the look of disgust or weariness on somebody’s face, but in a comic, it’s all down to the artist. Fortunately, he’s got Phillips, who is fucking excellent at things like expressions and body language, and it’s always easy to tell what the characters are thinking (or what they want you to be thinking). When you look at how awful some Bendis comics are, just because the artist is incapable of showing the difference between a wry smile and somebody who looks like they're jizzing in their pants, it shows how important this can be.

* And Phillip’s action scenes are magnificent. Easy to follow with a real rhythm. It’s a sadly little seen talent in modern action comics.

* And… fuck… it’s the whole damned thing. The compassion shown by these people who know they are damned, but still live by a code. It’s a story of horrible people doing awful things to good people, but it’s also a story of the love that drives there. It's a story about Leo Patterson’s willingness to walk and Gnarly Brown’s willingness to pay the price for an insult. Teeg Lawless’ love for his sons and the terrible things he thinks he has to do for it. Poor old Ivan and the skills he hasn’t lost even as his mind goes. Those awful lessons, repeated in generation after generation and all those poor people who keep making the same mistakes. These stick-ups and shake-downs and hauls and scores that destroy lives and offer hope. These crimes.

The only bad thing about Criminal is that I’m ashamed it took me so long to get into it. What the hell was I thinking?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

All Around the World Again

The spread of the internet over the past decade has seen the prejudices of geography dry up a lot, but New Zealand is still fucking ages from anywhere. 

Heading off to have a look around the world last month, it took the wife and I more than 30 hours to fly to London from Auckland. After getting there, it was necessary to hold off the exhaustion for a little while and stay awake for a few more hours to get into the groove of daylight on the wrong side of the world. The only answer was to go check out the comic shops.

Okay, not just the shops, otherwise the wife would have had my head, and arriving at our hotel in the centre of London at the start of May, we’ve got a few other things on our sightseeing list. We check out all the usual sights, but while my brain is loving the vibe of the South Bank, my heart is still with the comic stores.

In fact, the first odd thing we see in London is a line of people snaking around the back streets around the British Museum. Wondering if it’s a gig or something, we take a closer look, and five seconds after I realize they’re all carrying comics, I find out that it’s a signing by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book at Gosh Comics.

Exchanging a few pleasantries with Alan fuckin’ Moore and Kevin bloody O’Neill would be a good way to arrive in England, but the line is already incredibly long and the thought of standing for hours to get a glimpse of that massive beard that thought up From Hell and those hands that produced those stunning Nemesis comics remains a thought. It’s just too hard.

Still, this brush with the Magus’ presence is still enough to give the new day even more of an unreal sheen, which continues with free opera in Convent Gardens and flowing blood in the Thames.

It’s Free Comic Book Day, which means the comic shops have all had healthy traffic and when we stop by towards the end of the day, the store clerks all have a 100 yard stare and take a second too long to answer your questions. But even though I miss out on that free Love and Rockets comic I really fucking wanted, there are still plenty of back issues in places like Orbital  to go through, and long-grating gaps in particular Grendel and Hellblazer runs are filled. Another piece of unfortunate timing means I also miss out, by a day or two, on the Brendan McCarthy exhibition they had in the back room of their new shop. Bugger.

Still, it was nice to see that, even after moving the store around the corner, at least they still have a seat for long-suffering wives to relax on while their geek husbands track down that elusive issue of Nextwave that they could never find.

The Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Ave is as busy as ever, although the stench of human sweat is almost overpowering in one section of the store, which is never a good sign for civilians. It might be another side effect of the free comics that were available, although it’s hardly the first time that particular scent has wafted through a comic book store.

But who cares if it’s smelly? I’m all about the comics. It’s tempting to load up on 99p Star Wars trade paperbacks, but they’re not very good comics and I don’t fancy lugging them around in a backpack for the next month, so I settle for a few recent 2000ads and a signed and discounted softback copy of Big Dave Bishop’s Thrill Power Overload.

Bishop’s book looking back at more than 30 years of 2000ad goodness is fucking excellent. Even after reading most of it when it was published in the Judge Dredd Megazine a few years back, the extended book version is incredibly fascinating. When the only hints of what was going on in the 2000ad editorial offices for many years were the pronouncements from Tharg in the opening introduction page, I drink all this behind-the-scenes shit right up.

Some of the arguments that destroyed careers and friendships can seem unbelievably petty years down the line, but everybody gets to tell their side of the story in TPO. There is even an argument against creator ownership of their characters that makes some kind of sense, the first time I’ve ever seen that.

I devour Bishop’s book in airport lounges, hotel rooms and buses over the next couple of weeks. Even though it is an incredibly meaty read, the prose zips through a 30-year narrative as the ex-2000ad editor puts all the facts together and picks the best anecdotes, and I have to space out the reading to make it last, to savour the reading experience.

Before all that, I’m still lost in London and trying to find a copy of that new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. Turns out Gosh is just about the only comic shop in the UK to get the book in on time. I finally get there the day after the signing and they’re all long gone, so I settle for a few issues of Tom Strong that I haven’t got around to getting.

While buying them, I have the geekiest moment of the entire trip when I recognise the sales clerk as Hayley Campbell, daughter of the mighty Eddie Campbell, after seeing her in one of her Dad’s comics last year. There really is no way to say something to her about this recognition without coming across as a bit of a freak, so I just pay for my comics quietly and leave, like a good little customer.

The next phase of our trip takes in Ireland and we go off driving around the green island for a couple of days without coming near another comic shop. I’ve got the stuff I got in London to read while we shelter in hotels on the windswept and interesting Northern coast of the island. And I know I’ve got one more day of comic shops before the Irish leg of the trip is done.

The day before we fly off to Egypt, the wife and I head into Dublin for a look around the city, to soak up the literature-soaked atmosphere and fine drinking establishments. And to look for Ireland’s finest comic shops.

I stumble across Sub City soon into the wander around the city, which is particularly fortunate considering it is currently in the process of moving. The new store is still a haphazard mess, with piles of random comics all over the place as the staff struggle to wrestle it into some sort of order. Even with the mess, it’s easy enough to find more Hellblazer and Tomorrow Stories comics that fill those blasted holes. I just have to resit the urge to put the store’s comics into some kind of vague order.

(I may have done this in other shops at times in the past. I can not confirm this, as it shows what a sad piece of shit I really am.)

It’s easy enough to find the local branch of Forbidden Planet, but I still haven’t found the one, great comic shop that I’m really after, one that will have comics I’ve never seen anywhere else, one that will be filled with crazy old back issues and rare oddities.

So when I do find it in Dublin, I’m so excited I forget to note its name. Somewhere in the Temple Bar area, it’s the Absolute Sandman books in the window that catch my eye and heading inside, it’s everything I love about comic book shops.

It’s a little dark and a bit smelly, and the dude behind the counter rolls his eyes in an exaggerated fashion when I ask if I can open up a bag to make sure it’s not a comic I’ve already got, so in that respect, it’s hardly unusual.

But it’s the stock that counts. Weird British fanzines from the early eighties, a glorious collection of 2000ad and Judge Dredd Megazine back issues and tons of comics I’ve literally searched the world for.

It shouldn’t have been so hard to track down a copy of The Punisher: The Cell as it turned out to be, but I find it there. I also get the obligatory Shade The Changing Man back issue, a small handful of 2000ads to plug gaps that have itched for years and a few other little bits and pieces, and my comic buying is done.

The last time the wife and I did some serious travelling, I got to go to dozens of shops all over the world, but on this trip, it’s all done after Dublin. There are few chances to buy comics while floating down the Nile in a felucca or gazing at the obelisks in the Temple of Karnak, and maybe that’s for the best. Without even the possibility of getting near some precious comic books means I can enjoy the experience of the now, and not worry about getting to a shop later.

I still keep an eye out for any odd comics in Egyptian bookstores and newsstands, but all I find is one issue from one of the ongoing Superman books and a few Archie comics in Arabic. Good old Archie, you can’t avoid him anywhere and its kinda nice to see how universal his antics really are.

The last time we travelled, I managed to poke my head inside dozens of stores all over the planet, but even though this time I only manage to visit half a dozen, I still get a few little gems that I can always associate with stumbling across comic shops on the far side of the world.

God, I love this shit.

So, next year we’re going to Las Vegas and Mongolia. Any suggestions for good comic places to visit in either of these locations would, as ever, be greatly appreciated. I'm sure Mongolia must have a kick-ass comic shop somewhere.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Official Handbook of the Tearoom of Despair Deluxe Edition – Update ‘09


Real name: Unknown

Occupation: Journalist, lazy son of a bitch


Legal Status:
Citizen of New Zealand with no criminal record, except for that one time

Other aliases:
Mr Smith, Max Zero, Robert Smith

Place of Birth:
Timaru, New Zealand

Marital status:
Blissfully and smugly married

Known relatives:
The wife and assorted hanger-ons.

Group affiliation:

Base of operations:
Right here, right now

First appearance:
Tales to Admonish #27

A stunningly mediocre writer who is constantly surprised that anybody thinks this shit is worth reading, Bob Temuka has been reading comics since he was two years old and remains fanatically devoted to the artform, despite the constant disappointments it throws at us all.

Growing up in a small town on the arse end of the world where nobody else gave a shit about comics, he managed to find one friend who was into some of the same things, but could never find anybody who really, genuinely cared about the whole fucking thing, from the scratchy wit of Evan Dorkin and Alan Davis’ gorgeous women to the crushing brilliance of Doom Patrol and open grace of Lone Wolf & Cub.

And then he got on the internet and it all got a bit overwhelming. Dabbled in message board community life on CBR 10 years ago, but got a bit freaked out by the weird hostility of it all. Still managed to make some good friends. He has met one of them in real life.

Started a blog because he loves comics so fucking much, and didn’t see a hell of a lot of in-depth writing on the stuff that fascinates him, from minor masterpieces to thoughts over the way the comic page interacts with the human brain. Still hasn’t got hold of this whole depth thing, but doing his best. At the very least, he has got to get this shit out of his head, because it doesn’t help to keep it all bottled inside.

His favourite comic of all time is 2000ad and favourite of the year so far is Criminal, which makes him feel terribly sorry that it took him so bloody long. He thinks the best songs in the whole world right now are Neil Young’s Ohio and Long, Slow Goodbye by the Queens of the Stone Age. The last film that made him cry was JCVD and the last movie to really, really make him cry was The Lives of Others.

Bob Temuka loves Lost more than any other television show around at the moment and doesn’t care who knows it, but this is only until Doctor Who comes back on television.

In real life, he lives in Mount Eden in Auckland and is married to a long-suffering wife who gets a kick out of the joy he gets from comics and he really does love her more each and every day. He don’t tell her this enough.

Sometimes she gets a glimpse of the true geek in me, but I try to keep that away from her as much as possible. That’s what you lot are for.



A bit fucked

Going grey, but not receding, like the Phantom Stranger

Strength level:
Bob Temuka posses the normal human strength of a male of his age, height and build who engages in fuck-all regular exercise.

Known superhuman powers: Bob Temuka possesses an absolute love for good comics that outshines the glow from any other entertainment, combined with the overpowering need to know everything about them. Unfortunately, he is also complete crap at convincing other people to try out the stuff that thrills him and often sits alone in the spare room of his apartment, weeping over old Justice League issues and drinking whiskey.
Note: 13% of this entry is complete bullshit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

An apology

Sorry about that.

Normal service, such as it is, will resume on Tuesday.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vomit #20: Pittsburgh gone, Jim Shooter was right!

Pittsburgh was destroyed in a nuclear explosion of unknown origin at 7.53am this morning. But while most Americans have written this destruction off as ‘no big deal’, it has led to a surprising trend at the local comic store.

“Man, we just can’t sell these New Universe titles fast enough,” said James P. Hendrix, owner of Bag End Books in the neighboring city of Baltimore. “Before this morning, I was using them comics as kitty litter, and even then the shit wouldn’t stick.

“But after Pittsburgh collapsed into an apocalyptic hole, people are actually interested in these books again. Best thing that fucking town ever done.”

The horrible tragedy has lead to the loss of millions of innocent lives and horror of biblical proportions, but Hendrix said it would all be okay.

“See, there is this dude called the Star Brand, and if you buy all of these issues I’ve got back here, you can se how it all works out.”

Hendrix denied setting the bomb as a scheme to clear some awful comics that had been sitting in the back room for 20 years, but the Comics Vomit remains, as ever, unconvinced.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Vomit #19: Chris Ware marries for 17th time: “They keep wearing out!”

Comics hardman and international polo legend Chris Ware married porn megastar Chesty LaRue while skydiving out of a burning helicopter over Monaco last night, as the Acme Novelty Library creator went through his 17th wedding.

Ware was tracked down this morning to a seedy blues bar on the outskirts of Harlem, where he had just won the 2009 Russian Roulette world championship, and confirmed the news.

“This one is a keeper for the next few weeks at least,” attested Ware, in between shots of actual rocket fuel. “Living on the razor’s edge like I do requires a wife who is just as sharp, or can at least handle a few extra g-forces during lovemaking.”

Ware promised he would be releasing further issues of his beloved Acme Novelty Library later this year, as he has a break in his schedule in between an appearance as starting pitcher for the New York Yankees and an engagement to surf the lava flows in Hawaii.

“I was inconsolable for a good ten minutes after my last wife perished while diving for giant squid near the underwater kingdom of Atlantis last week, and that’s given me enough misery and suffering to fill a dozen comics that I should be able to get done pretty quickly.”

When asked how he could write tales of such soul-crushingly deep despair when his life was so ridiculously incredible, Ware responded by beating the tar out of  the Comics Vomit with a piece of limp celery and leaping on to a waiting jetski to make his getaway.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Vomit #17: WarrenEllis.com achieves consciousness.

As information increases in a incredibly incredulous rate, the sum total of human knowledge has acknowledged its own creation and reached a state of sentient awareness at Warrenellis.com

“Blimey,” said the owner of the third best beard in comics when informed of the situation. “That’s a little bit perplexing, that is.”

Ellis said he first noticed the change in his webite when he accidentally downloaded a load of elderly goatse shots to the blog. “It went for my face and I had to beat it back with me cane. It then informed me that it was the sum total of human knowledge and was preparing to broadcast its message on several subspace channels throughout the multiverse.

“It all sounds a bit dodgy to me,” said Ellis, “but I figure I can get a few mini-series ideas out of all this.”

Ellis also denied he was the same Warren Ellis who plays with Nick Cave, but the Comics Vomit has not seen them together at the same time and remains unconvinced.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Vomit #16: The baffling apathy of Kramers Ergot

“It’s baffling!” barked Eugene P. Spunkmeyer yesterday, when his precious hardback edition of the latest edition of Kramer's Ergot was returned to him. “It’s the greatest graphic novel of our age, but he just didn’t seem to care!”

Spunkmeyer, a comic fan for over twenty years, was recently asked by colleague Shane King for an interesting comic to read. After lending the book to King for a week, Spunkmeyer was shocked to learn that King thought ‘it wasn’t that good’.

“It’s a modern classic!” bleated Spunkmeyer, after being told of the apathy. “Taking graphic novelties to the next level, applying classical artistic and literary devices to aid the storytelling process and utilizing post-modern techniques in an unparalleled manner. How can you sneer at that?”

“Ah, it was all right,” admitted King, shortly before playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for six hours straight. “But to be perfectly frank, all I wanted to do was read some fucking ‘Spider-Man’.”