Friday, July 31, 2009

The Punisher made me cry

The last few pages of Long, Cold Dark, the penultimate story in Garth Ennis’ magnificent Max run on the Punisher, were the single most moving pages I have read in a comic book in the past decade.

Over the years, the character went from a c-level Spider-man villain to the embodiment of action in the late eighties, and had already regressed into a joke long before Ennis got his hands on the character.

After his first Punisher run, which focused on the more absurd aspects of the concept, Ennis took a turn into the dark side with the Max series and ended up creating some of the best comics I’ve had the pleasure to read in the past few years.

The horror that lurked behind the Punisher’s skull face and the awful retribution he brings came to the forefront of the comic, creating a tone that had so much weight, few comics could match it for intensity.

There were still laughs in the darkness and Ennis still managed to find some light in the humanity of the characters that came in and out of Frank Castle’s life. While there were certainly some truly horrible human beings showing up on a regular basis, there were also those who didn’t give in to their own despair, who fought for everything that is good in life, who didn’t go down that long, cold path.

For much if its storyline, Long Cold Dark fits the usual pattern of a typical Punisher story. It sees a returning character push Frank Castle as far as he can go, only to finally fall before the power of Frank’s homicidal tendencies.

This time, Frank isn’t just fighting as part of his own personal vendetta against the scum of the world, he’s fighting for his newly-discovered daughter and for the last slice of his humanity she represents.

And then he gives the baby to a good home and walks away. He knows there is no way she would ever be safe around him. There is no possibility that he could ever step back from his mission to take care of her. Even if he tried, some old enemy would undoubtedly track him down. So he has to give her up and walk away.

This would be tragic enough, but the real horror is that Frank recognises the loss of humanity in himself and the hole in his soul it left behind. He remembers seeing the child’s mother let down her formidable emotional defences, remembers seeing someone who is almost as damaged as he is smile at the simple beauty of a sunrise, still able to recognise beauty in an everyday occurrence, still a little bit human.

And he’s lost it all. For almost the entire storyline, the title seemed to refer to that horrible oblivion Frank brings with his death-dealing, which seemed a bit obvious, but then it turned out to be something else. That hole at the centre of Frank’s soul that can never be filled, his life of darkness that is unlikely to end soon.

To see a character recognise this inside himself and learn to live with it is a heartbreaking tragedy. It’s bad enough that Frank has become this horrible avatar of death, but to know this fact, and carry on with it regardless, is even worse.

Those last few pages did something that I’d never seen before: They made me feel genuinely sorry for Frank Castle. He is a damned soul, and he knows it.

It sounds stupid, but I’m always looking for a bit of emotional intensity in my entertainment, and nothing has hit me as hard as that moment in that comic. There have certainly been plenty of others, including several others from the mind of Ennis, but that one sequence hit me harder than any other.

The Punisher made me cry the first time I read that book, and I still mourn for the misery of this fictional character. I dig stories that are genuinely moving, and comics don’t get any better than this.

That’s not bad for a bloke who wears a giant skull on his chest and shoots people in the face. And not bad for comics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An extraordinary thing happened to me on the way to the pub

It’s the Tom Baker that catches my eye.

A couple of weeks ago and I’m walking down the street near my flat, on the way to the pub for a Saturday afternoon catch-up with an old workmate. It’s a miserable day and the footpaths are packed with material put out for an inorganic collection programme running that week. Mainly old mattresses and television cabinets, surrounded by all sorts of old junk.

Wandering past one of these piles, I carry on for another few metres before I decided it really was Tom Baker I’d seen on top of one of that broken-legged desk. It was him, the fourth Doctor’s unmistakable hair and Baker’s own unique grin. I have to go back and have a closer look.

It’s sitting on top of a beaten-up box and I’m not expecting much. It’s probably just some old, tatty magazine with little worth reading, an old Starlog or SFX that gets breathless about long-forgotten geek interests. But then I turn it over to look at the cover and it turns out to be a late 1980s issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine, the best publication to ever cover my favourite television show.

DWM issues are still pretty rare around these parts and it’s good to get hold of any back issue, especially one that is sitting unloved on the street, ready to be carted away. I check underneath to see if there are any other unfamiliar issues and see another Doctor Who logo, so I dig a little deeper.

Wait a fuckin’ second….

* * *

When I’m nine years old, the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary special is my bible. It’s a nice, chunky magazine that is packed with information and I read that fucker until the cover falls off. Then I read it some more and the first and last few pages also fall off and then I finally put it away, having memorised all the information I need.

At this stage, I’d only read a couple of the Target novelisations and seen a few handfuls of episodes, but the local television has just started running them from the early days (claiming, bizarrely, that the Mind Robber, from deep into the second Doctor’s run, is the earliest complete story available and starting from there).

And then I got this magazine and it had a full episode guide, with the briefest of synopsis and details about the Doctors and every companion they had and stories about the behind the scenes people and even some weird fan convention photos that fascinated the fuck out of me.

Doctor Who was always on the television, but it was the printed page that got me hooked on the show. It’s the magazines and books I find over the next few years that fill me in the background of this great, great series.

This is the mid eighties. This isn’t just in the days before DVD box sets, this is before many of these stories even got a video release. The local video store had some beaten up copies of the very earliest video releases featuring stories like the Seeds of Death, Revenge of the Cybermen and the ubiquitous Five Doctors, with annoying things like credits edited out. But apart from that, there was nothing.

A whole generation of Doctor Who fans could only read about the older stories, as there was no chance of seeing them anytime soon. If a new episode was missed, tough luck. It might get repeated somewhere, but the chances were slim.

Amongst all the novelisations and magazines, the best source of info turned out to be the official Doctor Who magazine. First published in the late seventies as a weekly, it soon became an indispensable part of the entire experience. It’s not just the story details it gives, it’s the huge amount of background detail and analysis of classic stories that make it so damn useful.

It also helped to be full of interesting comic strips, from a variety of fantastic creators, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgeway and many, many more, including the odd story from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

The magazine got a lot of mileage out of the series when it was still on its original run, breathlessly introducing every new Doctor or companion, and eagerly scooping up any snippet of information.

Remarkably, the magazine got even better in the years following the cancellation of the original run. Wild speculation often filled the pages, and little of it turned into reality. (The magazine must have told us that the Doctor was definitively back a half dozen times before Russell T Davies came along.)

But with no show, the level of analysis came to the forefront, and the magazine became a much richer experience because of it. There was always new product, including original novels and audio adventures, but without that ongoing television saga to follow, the publication still managed to get some great in-depth pieces out of the overall Doctor Who culture.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy to get hold of copies of the magazine. It has always been on newsstand, but has also been a fairly pricey read in this part of the world, and if an issue was missed, it was so hard to find might as well have been a lost episode of The Celestial Toymaker. Back issues would rarely show up on the second hand market, and while it was possible to pick up older back issues now and then, they proved pretty elusive.

So when I see Tom flashing his big cheesy grin on that pile of inorganic refuse, I know I’ll be happy if I get a single back issue. It’s something, which is always better than nothing.

But wait a fuckin’ second…

* * *

I’m late to meet my friend at the pub, because something much more important has come up. Turns out that one issue of the Doctor Who magazine was just the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole pile of the things. I have to get them home.

I know I look horribly skody, swiping a bunch of magazines from a pile of inorganic refuse, but I don’t care. Walking down the street with a box that is starting to fall apart, all I know is I’ve found the kind of score that doesn’t come along very often.

I get them home, stash them away safely and head back off to the pub. I apologise for the delay and get the beers in, but can’t stop thinking about that beautiful pile I’ve got sitting back home.

It doesn’t take me long to get the issues in order and see what I’ve got, and it’s a true treasure haul. Every issue of Doctor Who Magazine from #89 up to #210, along with a dozen special editions, including a decent copy of that Radio Times magazine that disintegrated under my obsessed hands.

It’s been a few weeks now, and I haven’t even made a dent in that pile. There is just so much material to get through, but even with the vague browsing I’ve managed so far, it’s still fascinating to see how the show evolved during the late eighties, with the actual magazine blossoming into something new after Sylvester McCoy walked off into the sunset with Ace. More analysis, more fiction, more experimentation. The introduction of the New Adventures novel range were a pretty big deal at the time, even if it has led to a massive amount of similar auxiliary product. At the time, NAs were unique.

There really is a whole lot more of these magazines to get through, and I’m looking forward to it. I sometimes wonder if I should knock on the door of the house I found the magazines outside and thank the person who decided to dump them, because I am incredibly grateful to have the chance to read this stuff.

I dream of finding hauls like this, and still can’t really believe how easy it was to find them. It really is the kind of opportunity that comes along very, very rarely.

Thanks to Tom Baker and his unmistakable grin, and the decision to walk to the pub instead of driving, I ended up with a pile of great reading. I’ve always love Doctor Who and always will, and a decade of unlikely magazines only reinforces that love.

Especially when they’re free.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wednesday on Sunday

Wednesday Comics has struck a chord with many, and while actual sales figures are still hazy and there is the odd bored critical shrug, the comic has to be seen as a success.

This is hardly surprising, getting so many fine artists together on such a broad canvas was always going to produce the occasional slice of brilliance, along with a few inevitable mis-steps.

But in an ocean of the same old shit coming out every week, Wednesday Comics stands out. The format certainly helps, but the project lives and dies by the quality of the material in it.

Everybody has got their own favourite strip in the comic, and it has been interesting to see which stories find favour with which critics. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of love for the comics by Paul Pope, Kyle Baker and Joe Kubert, but every strip has something going for it, even if you have to dig around a bit to find anything nice to say about the Wonder Woman and Teen Titans stories.

Me, I love the fucking lot. Every single one of them. I dig the huge Metamorpho panels that are loaded with deceptive information, and I adore the simplicity of the Supergirl story. The Metal Men stuff is straight out of Average Tales #216, which is more than anybody expected out of DiDio, while the Demon/Catwoman and Kamandi work is satisfyingly basic. I could read pages and pages of Kubert artwork featuring Sgt Rock getting beat up, Green Lantern is Green Lantern and Lee Bermejo is way too stiff for super-punching, but he gives Superman a fantastic bemused face .

Flash and Wonder Woman are both doing something a bit different, but any clumsiness is still done with the best of intentions, so it’s hard to exactly hate. Same goes or the Teen Titans. We all love Azzarello, Riso and Pope, even if we don’t need it yet. The colours on Strange Adventures are fucking brilliant and make the story really pop on all that lovely newsprint.

The best so far is Hawkman, because of the thumbs-up scene in #3. (Or is it #2? I just read everything in an incredibly random order, which didn't help story cohesion that much.)

I haven’t been able to get to the comic shop in weeks, so I had the first three waiting for me in the store yesterday. Ten minutes after I bought them, I ran into a pothole in Auckland’s beautiful Onehunga and burst a tire, so it was off to the tire dudes to fix it. I had ten minutes to kill, and started to make a stab at these wonderfully chunky issues, but accidentally made somebody a comic dork for life.

A significant portion of the comic industry is devoted to finding new readers. I was always off in the sidelines on that argument, contending that quality work will always be enough to lure in new readers, and leaving the hard work of marketing to people who know what they are talking about.

But if you’re ever wondering how to get a kid hooked on comics, try this:

I’m sitting in the waiting room of the tire place, waiting for the repair, and the only other two people are a woman and her young son. About eight or nine, and he was bored shitless, wandering around the place, asking questions about everything and annoying the piss out of his mum, who was trying to read about Prince Williams’ girlfriend.

Soon he saw what I was reading and he made no secret of the fact he was fascinated. I gave him one of the ones I wasn’t reading. The only thing I heard out of that little guy for the next ten minutes were an occasional “Wow!” or “Look at that!” or “Who’s that guy?”

He seemed to really like Supergirl and Sergeant Rock.

Their repair was done first, so the kid had to give the comic back, especially when I told his Mum they cost nine dollars each. That killed any chance she’d be buying one in the near future, but I recognized the look on that kid’s face. I’d seen it before, in the mirror, years and years later. He only needed to look at one comic, and that was enough. He needed more.

I almost feel guilty for putting him through it.

* * *

Bonus Doctor Who comic review!

Doctor Who: Room With A Deja View
By Rich Johnston, Eric J and Kris Carter, published by IDW

Bloody good, actually.

Johnston has always been an entertaining part of the comic world, but that doesn’t mean he always knows what he’s doing. Some of his satire comics have been fucking awful, but I’m a sucker for a done-in-one Doctor Who, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Good thing, really. It might be the best original Doctor Who comic produced in America. It is still suffering from some appallingly amateur art, like many previous IDW Who comics. Eric J is okay, but still has a while to go, with some fairly terrible panels. There is a bit of enthusiasm in there, but that isn’t always enough.

(I wonder why IDW doesn’t make more use of British talent, accomplished craftspeople who have slaved on weekly comics for years and know what they are doing, and have probably grown up on the good Doctor’s adventures. I would love to see one of these IDW books drawn by Steve Yeowell or Clint Langley or Cliff Robinson or Paul Marshall or Henry Flint or Richard Elson. All of there guys have been doing some spectacular work in 2000ad in recent months and while Paul Grist’s recent welcome appearance was certainly a step in the right direction, there is some huge depth in British comic art to be tapped.)

Apart from that, I really fucking enjoyed Room With a Deja View. A good concept dealt with quickly and smartly. Johnston has a good ear for the Tennant dialogue and it all ends on a nice bit of basic philosophy: that death is not to be feared, because it’s just a change of perspective.

That’s always nice.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Who the hell is John Constantine?

Back when the only source of comic news available to me were house ads and columns from Johnny DC and Stan's Soapbox, I was fascinated by John Constantine, without knowing a damn thing about him.

In fact, with the distribution of mature comics almost non-existent in my little corner of the world, the first place I ever saw the character mentioned was an issue of Teen Titans. Former Doom Patrol member Mento was going through one of his kill-'em-all phases, and would wander around talking to himself and mentioning the character's name. Constantine was a man of true mystery, and the few hints I could pick up from comics like that Titans issue didn't tell me much about the character, but gave me enough to keep me looking for more.

(Around the same time, I also had a little trouble trying to figure out what this Watchmen comic was all about, although I knew it had something to do with pirates and sugar cubes. It wasn't until I found a cover-less copy of Who's Who that I first read all about the particular details of that slice of comic history, and it was another half-decade before I actually saw the damn thing.)

The first time I ever actually saw John Constantine was in a house ad. Despite owning the odd issue of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, I had managed to collect the few issues that didn't feature the character. It wasn't until Richard Piers Rayner took over for a brief run on Hellblazer and DC put out a half page ad for the laughing magician, crowing about the whole new look that he was getting from the artist, that I finally saw him.

It was also here that I first realised that John Constantine was the main character in that Hellblazer comic I had also heard about. Considering I was well into my teens by this time, the only explanation for missing this vital fact is that I was, after all, just a teenager and therefore as thick as pigshit.

I still can’t figure out what it was that caught me and reeled me in about the character. I knew he was into magic, but that was all. It was that one image of a dirty, working-class magician with a cigarette in one hand and a weird smile on his face that got me.

From there, I managed to scrounge a few more issues of Swamp Thing and I had a fair idea of who this man was. I knew Garth Ennis, a writer I was familiar with through Crisis and 2000ad, had taken over the comic, but actual issues were still non-existent.

The first issue of Hellblazer I ever managed to buy was well into Ennis' run, and after the title had made the official switch to the Vertigo brand. To be honest, it was the lure of a Glen Fabry cover and Steve Dillon art that caught my eye first, more than any real affection for the character. The one I had built up in my head was faded by then, but the comic struck a chord. It wasn’t just the storyline, it was the storytelling craft on display. Dillon has always been good, but was still refining his style. Ennis was young and full of piss and vinegar, and had a couple of things to get off his chest.

It led into the obligatory wander across America that every Vertigo title had to do every 24 months, but it was sad and funny and a bit mental, and I was with Ennis and Dillion to the end of their run.

I wish Eddie Campbell had stuck around a bit longer, because the Paul Jenkins Constantine never clicked. After that, even a return from Ennis was only okay, and I haven’t bought a regular issue since the first one from Ellis.

I still read them, mainly in trade paperbacks from the library. I like a lot of things about Azzarello, but couldn’t get a grip on the overall plot, and Carey lasted a bit too long.

The speed and humour that Diggle brought back to the title was a welcome relief, and I am genuinely interested in reading the current stories from Milligan. Some of them have even got art from Bisley in there. Simon Bisley! I still love him! Maybe I will have to check some new issues out.

Still have to throw some love in Delano’s direction, having read almost all his run in back issue chunks. Like the later Carey stories, some of it goes on a bit, but Delano also had a good eye for the truly disturbing, including the most horrific appearance of Winnie The Pooh ever.

There have still been mis-steps. We won’t talk about that movie, and there has been plenty of mediocre Hellblazer comics and books from respected creators, but the essential creation is still incredibly potent. The working-class mage with more honour than most, even if he rarely shows it. Somebody who understands the sacrifices that must be made for the greater good, but doesn’t forget all the mates that he lost.

John Constantine is still a man of mystery, I don’t know a lot about him, and some of what I do know makes me hate him, buts he is still the ultimate charming git.

I’m still looking for a couple of the Ennis issues of Hellblazer. I still don’t know how he gets that demon out of Prince Charles, or what he does with the dead bodies that scientists were doing horrible things to. I’m looking forward to finding out one day.

But this week, I did finally get every issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, after a 20 year search. The issues I got this week included the very first appearance of John Constantine, and he did something that really surprised me.

He was always good at that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Behind the curtain

Stories that build their plot on a mystery framework can be massively rewarding at the unveiling stage, but finding out all the answers isn't all it's cracked up to be.

An unanswered question can, in the right circumstances, be the best way to go, leaving the audience hanging, forcing them to come up with their own ideas. David Lynch has forged a fantastic artistic career by avoiding any straight answers.

Unfortunately, we live in an age of instant gratification, where short attention spans mean the quick fix is almost always chosen over the slow burn. Television shows are beginning to abandon the short story model that builds up overall stories with complete, done-in-one, hour-long episodes, in favour of long-form narratives, where an individual episode in only one small chapter in a vast, over-reaching storyline. But many of those watching are demanding answers and resolutions, almost as soon as the story starts.

There have been several good examples of this in recent years, where keeping things hidden during a television show's run is almost seen as the greatest of sins by the viewers. General consensus has it that The X-Files squandered the goodwill built up over it's first few years by a refusal to show the over-plan in any timely fashion, while Twin Peaks almost rolled over and died once the revelation behind the death of Laura Palmer was made public. (Unsurprisingly, Lynch has stated he would have been quite happy leaving the identity of the murderer a complete mystery for as long as the show ran.)

On today's screens, the poster child for unresolved mysteries has to be Lost. The chief criticism of the series, apart from Jack's constant blubbing, is that it has not answered the most basic questions of what is going on and just what the hell is up with this bloody island. But this information is the great mystery, and to reveal it would stop any plot development right in its tracks, leaving it as floundering like Prison Break, which somehow managed to flop around for several years after the characters in that show actually broke from prison.

(Although, the idea that Lost has never revealed any of its deep secrets is a patently false one, as after five seasons there have been plenty of revelations, dripfeed so slowly the sheer amount of them has been barely noticeable.)

In a way, there is almost nothing the creators can do. Any mystery they generate will lead to speculation, with many viewers of the show bound to be inevitably disappointed by any result. Unless the creators make the climax utterly baffling to the point of incoherence, the long-term effect of the series will be negligible.

In movies, things need to be resolved within a relatively short running time, with answers to mysteries resolved before the viewer's arse gets too numb. But unless those answers are just as awe-inspiring as the initial mystery, the movie will fall over.

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, for example, is a fantastic film, full of depth and grandeur and mystery, right up to the point where you find out why all those bloody hats are lying in a gully. Then it all gets a bit dull. We see behind the curtain and the explanation that has been given doesn't stand a chance of rivalling the mystery that hid it. The actual explanation has its merits, with a use of science that could be mistaken for magic, but it's not quite there.

There is always the chance the film-makers are going for a shot at meta-text, with the resolution designed to be disappointing and showing that a magician's tricks are never as interesting once you know how it's done, but that might be reading a bit too much into it.

Comic books have an even tougher job of maintaining that mystery, with that monthly schedule forcing plot development to keep the reader coming back. Some series with relatively short-term runs, like the most successful Vertigo books, can tease out information in a planned fashion, saving the big revelations for the big climaxes.

You can’t do that with Spider-Man. While Marvel absolutely nailed the art of keeping the sub-plots ticking along somewhere around 1968, a mystery in a superhero comics needs to be resolved pretty damn quickly. You can only wonder who the Red Hulk is for so long.

Ultimately, the fine line between revelation and mystery is one that exists in the strange, unspoken dialogue between the creator and the audience. The mystery is essential, keeping things ticking along as the answers slowly come to light. If they come too quickly, interest dies, but if they look like they're never going to come at all, it should come as no surprise to see the audience melt away.

That’s no mystery.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Praying my own way

Over the weekend I caught up with family and friends back in my home town, some of whom I literally had not seen in years. I caught up with people who needed to talk about things and made as much time for everybody as I could, and then we all got drunk and rocked out to The Buzzcocks. I had an excellent time that could not have been better, especially when it was topped off with a Sunday visit to Comics Compulsion in Christchurch.

I had money and time and a burning desire to buy something cool as a souvenir for the southern trip. I was horribly tempted by The Writers Tale, Russell T Davies’ ridiculously revealing book about his time running Doctor Who, but that cost ninety bucks. And then, by pure chance I was wandering past the comic shop, and it was open, and all was right with the world.

Comics Compulsion was never open on a Sunday. I’ve been buying stuff for them on a regular basis for more than 15 years, and had never, ever seen it open on the second day of the weekend. There had been days when I’d end up in Christchurch on a Sunday, and I had always wandered past with the faint hope that it might be open, but it never happened.

I would like to tell you how many times I stared into the darkened store with a forlorn look on my face on a Sunday afternoon, but it’s just too horribly embarrassing.

And this time it was, and I had money, and there were comics I could get, and it was good.

Turned out it was only the third weekend it had tried out its new Sunday opening policy. So I timed that nicely, because I got the chance to grab that last Tom Strong comic I needed, as well as another Miller Daredevil to fill in that gap, and Evan Dorkin’s last two fantastic comics, and the last issue of Diggle/Jock’s The Losers, and some 2000ad stuff, and the first two issues of Comic Book Comics, and I was done.

I had to spend the next four hours sitting in airports and planes and more airport, so that worked out nicely for a while. Especially the incredibly dense Dorkin and Comic Book Comics, they filled in a good chunk of time.

Cheers, Comics Compulsion! You made my weekend complete, and brought some joy to this place of despair, for another day or so.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Advance Australian Fare

It's always a bit disappointing to discover that horrible generalizations have a gem of truth in them. French people really are so direct that they just appear rude, and Americans are generous and loud and lovers of food and spectacle, but don't always know what they are talking about.

One of the most endearing things about Australians is their absolute refusal to give in to an argument. It doesn't mater if there is irrefutable proof. They might decide the sun isn't shining, and you can take them outside and show them the sun, then get a fancy telescope to look directly into it, wait for your eyes to regrow, then talk to the 100 smartest philosophers and astronomers in the world about why the sun is shining, and slingshot them into a sun in a space travel technique that always worked really well on Star Trek. And then they'll turn around to you, grin, and say:

“Aw mate, it's all just a matter of perception.”

* * *

I love my cousins across the sea. There are a few in my immediate family, and they're loud and obnoxious and lovely, and you can't help but like them. I love it when we beat them in any kind of sport. (The rugby league world cup win last year was the biggest sporting moment of the year. It was beautiful, right down to the crying in the sheds afterwards.)

Sometimes the entire country will completely cock-block you, and a big band never comes as close as Sydney. The world's great art exhibitions and performances make it as far as Australia, but New Zealand often misses out. It's less of a problem these days, with New Zealand's population density getting to the point where it can support that shit. Iron Maiden played in Christchurch. That's just weird.

Personally, when it comes to blocking, Australia will never be forgiven for the horror of their local version of Empire, the British movie magazine. The Oz editors take the British one, nick a couple of good bits and fill the rest with raa-raa pieces about local film and a humour that consists of jokes about big tits and Aussie sporting legends. They turned it into a movie version of FHM, and I stopped being interested in FHM when my balls dropped.

That's their right as antipodeans to make their own go of it, but the problem is, it costs a third of the price of the UK original, and has pushed it off the store shelves of 99 percent of the country. To keep a continuing run of the only magazine I've ever bought non-stop for longer than 10 years means paying higher prices and missing the odd issue.

I'm still a bit bitter about this.

* * *

But they also offer up some strange and wonderful comics. There are bits and pieces of Australian flotsam hanging around in the general comic culture. Odd heroes and never forgotten legends like Hairbutt the Hippo and the Southern Squadron. The Phantom will never die, with a company called Frew Publications putting out a fortnightly Phantom comic book since 1948, still going strong and celebrating 60 years of uninterrupted publication last year.

She is a big, big country, but there is also a whole lot of nothing filling up that outback, and the isolation between cities can be crushing. The comic scene in Australia has blazed its own innovative path, but it never really had the followers to keep the road going.

It did produce some extraordinary talents, although it is notable that arguably the most successful Australian artist in the last couple of decades is actually a Scotsman. Eddie Campbell is an astonishing talent who has produced mountains of solid material, through his wide-ranging and mental monthly series Bacchus, or in collaboration with old chum Alan Moore. He deserves all the recognition that has come his way in recent years, and takes it all in a humbled and bewildered manner.

Sometimes he gets a bit upset about the definition of graphic novels, but he seems to be enjoying the argument more than the actual belief. Anybody who has spent a lazy Saturday afternoon in the pub with a Scotsman or an Australian will know the value of a good argument.

* * *

There are many other artists of note coming from the colony, including the fluid action of Nicola Scott's superhero work and the odd, lively and idiosyncratic scratchings of Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith.

But there has always been a demand in the country for foreign work, some of it packaged in surprisingly innovative ways. Imports of comics directly from the United States and the UK always had their place, but were severely limited, and there have always been publishers interested in getting the most recent stories they could get out as cheaply as possible.

With foreign rights available for a song, black and white reprints of American products flooded the Australian market for decades. Some of them were basic reprints of clean cut superhero action, but there were also plenty of horror and romance titles, with stories that could come from any age of comics.

Ranging in size from 48 pages through to hundreds of pages, these comics were specifically designed to be a quick read and then disposed of. Unless they were taken care of, they could fall apart in a collector’s hand after 20 years, severely impacting on their attractiveness as an investment or read.

* * *

The biggest of these publishers for many years was the mighty Murray, a comic reprinting company that pumped out thousands of titles over the decades. They started reprinting DC comics in the late forties, back when the packaging was as crude as the stories, and sometimes the editors squeezed in more content by printing two pages on one landscape page. There were more colour pages in the early reprints, although they soon became rare.

This continued for decades, with a massive number of titles, often lasting only a single issue before changing name again. Collecting an entire set was impossible, as some annuals were composed of whatever had been returned to the publisher, and two issues with the same cover would have completely different contents, depending on what returned books were lying about.

By the early seventies, the shuffling around of titles and characters saw Kirby's Fourth World take centre stage in Mighty Comic, and Batman succeed the Teen Titans in Superman Presents Tip Top Comic. Murray comics now appeared under a Planet Comics brand, before shifting back to Murray and its big grey cat mascot, which still somehow scares the crap out of me.

Murray were still pushing out dozen of titles in the early eighties, including one-offs like Kara From Krypton and Assault on Titan's Tower. A focus on the contemporary saw the publication of some really interesting stuff like Grell's Legion of Starlin's Warlock. Murray merged into Federal, and continued the fine tradition. Although Murray had primarily focused on DC and its vast stable of characters, more Marvel reprints sneaked onto shelves. At one point, there were 80-page black and white collections of Byrne's Fantastic Four, Simonson's Thor, Perez's Avengers and Miller’s Daredevil all available for less than a dollar at the same time, and I still own dozens of these titles.

* * *

Eventually, the increasing appetite for the original comics, which were no longer used as ballast and seen as something actually worth selling, saw mass importation and the death of this great Australian tradition, which eventually faded away in the mid-eighties.

There are still publishers who can make a quick buck off reprints, with reprints of Simpsons, Transformers and Marvel Adventures comics still available in hundreds of bookstores around. But that sheer amount of titles that used to be put out has not been repeated.

These comics were never really loved by the publishers, but they introduced hundreds of thousands of young minds to the joy of comics, and that ain't all bad.

* * *

(For a much richer look at the history of Australian reprints, check out this site, which does a top job of it, and was instrumental in sparking the memory.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


When I was five years old, I got my tonsils taken out. I was sharing a room with four other kids and one of them had a Fantastic Four comic that I really wanted to read, but he wouldn’t let me. So when he got taken off somewhere for his operation, I stole it and hid it under my mattress and when he came back I said I didn’t know what had happened to it.

Children can be evil little shits, and I was obviously no exception.

I lost that Fantastic Four comic soon after discharge, but comics have been inexorably linked with illness in my life ever since then. The few times I had to return to hospital as a kid, I always used the sympathy of family to convince me to get them the latest 2000ad or Justice League. I can still remember the joy of waking up from one operation to see a brand spankin’ new Judge Dredd comic from the Eagle reprints run, with the gorgeous Bolland cover of two fatties menacing a slim man for his grub. I was still swimming in nausea and other post-operation weirdness, but I was all about the comic.

Outside of hospitals, comics and sickness still go together. I still remember staying home from school one morning in 1984, and having my Mum come home with a new comic called GI Joe. That day I read that sucker over and over again, marveling at the fantastic paper stock used on that first issue (still relatively rare for a Marvel comic at this time) and trying to get my head around all the new characters. It wasn’t enough to spark a fully grown interest in GI Joe, (that would come 64 issues later), but it was still something that helped me feel a bit better.

This might be the best thing about reading comics in your sick bed. They’re unlikely to actually help you heal, but getting lost in a pile of comics helps you forget your own misery for a while. It can take your mind off the pain and nausea, and offer you some mind candy to replace it with.

On the other hand, there are still some comics that are inevitably tainted from reading them while stuck in a sickbed. I cant even look at some artists without remembering the time I was ill while reading their work, and the phantom nausea comes back on again.

It’s still happening. Last week I read Thor: Vikings by Ennis and Fabry when I was feeling a bit crook, and I think I may have ruined it for myself. Every time I’ve glanced at the cover since, that same uncomfortable feeling has settled in the gut and I don’t want to go any further.

It’s a perfectly acceptable comic which says some interesting things about the way our modern society is safe from devastating raids and the rape, pillage and mass murder that follows, but I don’t think I'll be able to read it ever again.

Only one comic has ever actually made me throw up. I can handle the worst of R Crumb or S Clay Wilson, but an issue of English kids comic Oink! made me lose my breakfast when I was 12 years old. The comic was an attempt to do Viz for kids, which mainly meant it couldn’t do anything about sex, but had no problem with grossness.

It was a bit like the Garbage Pail Kids, and perfectly harmless for little kids, (and apparently featured the earliest work of Charlie Brooker, my favourite English shouter) but one day it tripped some switch in my head and had me throwing up in a rubbish bin behind the bicycle sheds at Temuka High School and staggering home to collapse into bed.

One interesting side-effect of the use of comics to placate sick kids is how the love for the medium can get seared in their fevered heads. It’s not that surprising to see how many creators were terribly sick at some point as a child, falling in love with comics while stuck in bed, sometimes for months at a time.

Morrison and Quitely's Flex Mentallo makes a specific connection between the weird scariness of being in hospital as a young kid and the weird heroics of superhero comics, with Morrison blatantly hiding autobiography behind the super-plot.

Maybe the light-headed nature of illness help build an appreciation of comics, full of fever dreams and superheroes, and maybe the pleasant optimism of many classic superhero stories helps the sick, in more ways than we can imagine.

All of this leads to the enormous satisfaction I get in dropping off a boxful of old comics at the local hospital for the kids to enjoy. You could make a couple of bucks selling them, but that’s nothing compared to the smugness you can generate through a worthy donation.

At least you know there are comics in there that kids are going to genuinely love, even though they probably won’t last long before being accidentally read to pieces.

Chances are, there will be one evil bastard in there who will steal one of those comic from a roommate and hide under his mattress. But can you blame him?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bob gets his Marvel fix from the library

Well, it’s not like I’m going to pay for this shit. Not unless it’s going cheap.

* * *

Son Of M

In which Quicksilver acts completely in character by being a bit of a dick.

No, strike that. Quicksilver is more of a complete cock in this comic than any other Quicksilver appearance anywhere. And that’s saying a lot. Sure, he’s been bad and good, but never this awful.

There is a good chance he fucked his sister in one reality or the other, he treated poor Crystal awfully and has killed for dodgy ideologies. But there is something about turning his daughter into a junkie for the Terrigan Mists that is just horrible. Quicksilver has been arrogant and righteous, fierce and vengeful, but he’s never been that bad.

I really dig the art of Roy Allan Martinez, with its heavy European influence. It’s just a shame he’s stuck illustrating an infinitesimal part of the vast Marvel super-saga about one of its biggest wankers.

* * *

Ultimate X-Men  Volume 19: Absolute Power

Fuck me, there’s Quicksilver again. I’ve totally lost track of the Ultimate version. Is he a good guy or bad? I really liked him in the Millar/Hitch Ultimates, where he stood up for his mates, even if they didn’t always know it. But is his Dad trying to kill him this week?

That, and the fact that this is the 19th volume, is the problem with the whole Ultimate X-men thing, and these have led to the unavoidable end, with the comic taken out behind the chemical sheds and quietly shot. The super-saga has gone so far up its own arse, it’s impossible to remember the basic status quo, especially with the parent continuity going through its own flux periods.

There is something nice about seeing poor old Cyclops finally take control of the energy coursing through his body, but Colossus treating Wolverine like a tasty chunk of KFC already looks old and boring, even if they do make fun of this.

Still, at least the comic keeps up the fine Ultimate tradition of introducing old-school characters, but trying to make them edgy and interesting by having them act like a bunch of arseholes. This doesn’t make Alpha Flight edgy or interesting. It just makes them arseholes.

* * *

Iron Man (Director of SHIELD): With Iron Hands

Stuart Moore has done a nice job of the transit from editor to creator, but he can really do better than this. He needs to get away from the spandex and armour, because there are some nice bits and pieces in here, it’s all just average superhero comics, and the world doesn’t need many more average superhero comics.

There aren’t enough spectacular ones.

* * *

Young X-Men: Final Genesis

Paquette has a lovely malleability to his line that is nice and appealing, and he is visibly improving at putting action scenes together. There is a bit in here where somebody gets smacked in the face with a shotgun, and it’s a nice bit of fluid storytelling that caught my eye.

The rest of it is pretty standard, and again, turning the originals New Mutants into a bunch of dicks in bad suits does not make them interesting.

* * *

The Incredible Hercules: Against The World

There is a fuckload of appeal of demi-gods striding across this Earth, throwing heat-seeking missiles into each other’s faces and continuing bloodfeuds that stretch back millennia. Attempts to tie into then-current Marvel continuity is a bit of a yawn, but when Pak and Van Lente go off the reservation, it’s a joy to behold.

To be honest, I enjoyed this so much, I’m almost ready to commit to a monthly relationship. It’s not spectacular, but it’s bloody entertaining and has some wit and intelligence to it. What more could you ask for?

* * *

I love my local library.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My codename would be Redundant Lad

The future is scary. It will be full of technology that our 21st century brains can’t eve comprehend and a society completely different from our own. There is a good chance it will all be sticky and a bit gross.

We probably won’t have flight rings and trans-suits and buildings shaped like upside down rocketships.

But what if we did?

* * *

The Legion of Superheroes freaked me out when I was a kid. It was all that gooey slickness of Mike Grell and Dave Cockrum. Any time I picked up an issue, I didn’t know what was going on or who these people were and I usually retreated to the safety of a Superman or a Wizard and Chips.

This was partly due to the massive cast. Not just the Legion, but all the secondary characters that filled the stories. It was also thanks largely to Grell and Cockrum's interpretations of the team, which felt futuristic, but wrong, like a birthday cake made of marble.

And then, like every good young teenage dork, I fell hard for the Legion at 14. All those characters, all those weird worlds, and science cops and giant talking snakes and wizards in green and purple with wings on his helmet and space travel and the cutest girls in comics. Especially that Shrinking Violet.

This is just after the first Giffen period, when it all split up and one comic was reprinting another comic from a year ago, except when it wasn’t, and I couldn’t find any of the fucking things anywhere and it all got so confusing.

And I loved the confusion. I loved filling in the story. Still do. When a comic saga has been going on since 20 years before I was born, there is no linear clearance here. It’s all picking up bits here and there. There are still elements of the vast backstory of the Legion’s universe that are unknown to me even now, parts I look forward to filling in, at sometime in the future.

* * *

The future is unwritten, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a crack at it.

* * *

I kept an eye on the Legion over the next couple of years, and those fucking awesome DC digest books in the eighties helped fill in a lot of the backstory. I still managed to miss the last two-thirds of the Baxter run, onto new obsessions by then. I was entirely oblivious to the five year jump and didn’t care.

And then I read v4 #20, and that love started up all over again.

You couldn’t ask for a more confusing comic. Bought from Christchurch Airport for $2 in 1992, and I had no fucking idea what was going on.

No internet, no references, no nothing. It took months before I realized who Salu Digby was and that the bloke blubbing over the horror of war was Cosmic Boy, and the full implications of the events of Venado Bay would not become clear for years. It was just a huge mess of strange characters, some pretty familiar and comfortable, some completely unrecognisable and weird.

I didn’t understand any of it. But I had to know more.

* * *

It doesn’t help when time is rewritten every couple of years and the Legion invariably took the fallout. The series was a mess enough without the entire timeline throwing a fit every few years. The funny thing about all these editorially-driven status quo fuckups was that they helped with the whole fluid nature of the overall narrative.

Everything was up for grabs, everything was flexible, anything could happen.

* * *

They reckon that the only way to get new readers into comics is a bunch of jumping-on points. Every month, the solicitations fall over themselves to offer interested readers an ideal place to start.

But I love jumping cold into a complicated narrative. Piecing it all together, filling in the gaps as best as possible, putting a bit of bloody thought into it. I did the same thing with Love and Rockets, coming in at v1 #28, and got the same rewards.

There was just something about that one particular issue of the Legion of Superheroes that was interesting enough to merit following up on, and I picked up more issues here and there. It was an achingly slow process, and it would literally be 10 years before I found each one, but I eventually got hold of every single issue in that Giffen/Bierbaum run.

And I loved every single one of them. They fucked with continuity and made fun of legends, they changed for change’s sake and were occasionally wilfully obtuse.

And yet, some characters actually had a personality for the first time in 30 years and the hopelessness was never enough to extinguish that spark of youthful optimism that the Legion had been founded on.

As each new piece of the jigsaw slowly slotted into place as I found more odd issues in extremely odd places, the emotional resonance of the series grew with each piece. The characters were sometimes painfully obnoxious, but I still cared about them. When things got their darkest, I feared for the worst.

There were some fantastic action scenes in the Terra Mosaic storyline, and after so much horror and pain and degradation, to see symbols of an innocence past come back and save the world, just like they were born to do, was fucking shattering. The one page at the end of this storyline, where you see the people of Earth celebrate their victory, full of pure joy and relief and complete exhaustion, remains one of my favourite panels of all time.

And then it went from euphoria back to despair with the destruction of the entire planet. After everything they’ve gone through, after a joyous victory in the wake of horrific war, the world suffered. And even then, humanity survived and moved on, in despair, in the bleakest of futures, there was still some hope.

* * *

Once they realised the powers weren’t an excuse for a personality, things got much better. Phantom Girl wasn’t a girl who was a phantom, she was somebody who lived in two worlds at once. Shrinking Violet wasn’t just a violet who shrunk, she was somebody who had a level of assertiveness that was a direct opposite to her size.

* * *

I managed to get the last few issues of this last Giffen run as they came out and by then, I was shamelessly hooked on the Legion, driving hundreds of kilometres to ensure I didn't miss one single issue. I picked up every issue of Legionnaries, following it through to the reboot, after shedding a few manly tears over the last oath at the end of everything in Zero Hour.

I was still keeping track of it through those interminable Moy issues, which contrasted with the deliciously malleable Moder art, but it was all a bit too nice, and a little too focused on retelling 40-year-old stories, (how many times did poor Triad have to almost die?) I was forced to give up the habit shortly before the Legion got Lost, and every time I checked in I was less and less interested.

By the time Waid and Kitson came calling with their teenage rebellion, there was nothing there for me anymore, and the latest reboot felt curiously bloodless. There was a good 10 seconds where the Legion of Three Worlds tie-in to Final Crisis looked promising, but I really don't care any more. If Giffen ever comes back with a whole bunch of creative control, I'll be up for that. Otherwise....

Recently, I managed to pick up the last couple of years of stories published on the post-Zero Hour crew, with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning raising the stakes a bit. Their attempts to take the Legion somewhere new were laudable, but I honestly can’t tell if it didn’t work for me because of my inexplicable apathy towards Abnett, or because I was just over the Legion.

I don’t believe it’s just one of those concepts you grow out of. I still love those v4 comics just as much as ever. The love for the characters and the worlds they live in may have faded over the years like my cover to #288, but I still feel that same enjoyment reading little bits and pieces from over the years.

From seeing Karate Kid die a hero to Ultra Boy and Phantom Girl getting married when they were trapped in the 20th century. (After the shit that couple went through in the preceding 15 years, it was nice to have some kind of a happy ending.) That one issue of The Great Darkness Saga that I owned for years and the mass of Grell and late Curt Swan stories collected in big Australian reprints. I loved it all.

* * *

Everybody has their favourites. Mine are Ultra Boy, because he was a bad boy who wanted so hard to do the right thing; and Brainiac 5, because he was smart enough to acknowledge his own emotional limitations; and Timber Wolf, because he was a total badass. And Triplicate Girl, because I’m a dirty old bastard and she talked to me when I was high on mushrooms once.

* * *

Whenever anybody starts writing something about any version of the Legion of Super-Heroes, there is apparently an unwritten law that stipulates that they either say:

”I love the Legion, have always loved the Legion and will always love the Legion. Long live the Legion!” Or it’s “I don't get the Legion.”

At various times, I have sat on both sides of this fence. Sometimes I’ve been more than a little obsessed, other times I haven’t even thought about the comic for months at a time. I haven’t been a skody little teenager for a long, long time, but God help me, I still give a damn about the Legion.

These wonderful and obnoxious little shits, racing off and saving the universe of the 30th century, all bright colours and stupid codenames. The creator’s ability to make a character named Matter Eater Lad interesting in any way is an achievement in itself, to make me genuinely care about this vast cast of aliens and teenagers is just remarkable.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever love the Legion as much as I did, but I’m quite happy staying friends and keeping in touch, seeing how they are doing every now and then. Even if I stray away for too long, it doesn’t take much work to catch up.

* * *

The future will be strange and unusual and mess with our heads. But the teenage condition is eternal. They’ll always be annoying and eager and ready to change the world. There will always be this awkward idealism and sometimes they even make a bit of difference. There will always be innocent people to protect, even if those people have sixteen eyes and purple skin.

There will always be a Legion of Super Heroes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The incoherent book

I can trace the joy I get from reading comics in trade paperbacks to one point in time: The moment I reached page 175 in the first Sandman collection I ever read.

I had read trade paperbacks before, collections like Marvels charming Bring on the Bad guys and Origin books of the seventies, right up to the recent (at that time) collection of the Death of Superman story. But I had never read anything like The Doll’s House. Gaiman’s story was so complex and rich and funny and open, but it was also a fantastically dense read. Three quarters of the way through, I realised there was still a shitload of story to go and it felt so fucking good.

So much material, so much to read. And even though each Sandman book was certainly part of an ongoing and sprawling narrative, they also had a definite beginning, middle and end. They were a complete story.

Nearly two decades later, and trade paperbacks have exploded all over the pants of mainstream comics. Once upon a time, only the comics with the highest profiles and most respected of creators would be collected, but now any old piece of rubbish is slapped between cardboard covers and shipped out to bookstores.

There is certainly a lot of appeal in trade paperbacks, from the sheer volume of material in a single package to the ability to read an entire story in one go. And it is fucking fantastic to be able to read many comics in this format. Unfortunately, there is also an unfortunate tendency to take the idea of telling a complete tale in one package right out of the equation.

When you have an entire book, you want the entire story, you don't want to be sent off in some other direction to find out what you missed. Collecting ongoing comics set in a multi-titled universe is fraught with problems and can often leave the trade-reader left stranded with half a story and no resolution.

One of the worst examples of this was the snazzy collected version of Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman run, which ended with a cliffhanger that was resolved in a completely different story.

What was the point of this? Any fans of her work see a story that has holes, holes that have been specifically designed to generate more income from another project, but that doesn't mean they're going to give a shit about filling those holes. They're far more likely to end up dissatisfied with the whole way these things are produced, and make a renewed effort to stay well away from the funny books. And who can blame them?

Trying to make sense of a trade that reprints a section of a long-running ongoing comic is hard enough sometimes, but it becomes almost impossible to do so when they tie into the mega-crossovers. Read a Teen Titans or Outsiders book that is set in the same time period as Infinite Crisis and it barely qualifies as a story, with events that have been built up in the title petering out and going nowhere, while chunks of the main mini series are sometimes inserted, jarring against the tale.

And Marvel isn't much better, with Civil War and Secret Invasion hijacking natural narratives and bending them into the shape of the supersaga. While the packaging of the trades makes them easy to find and connected, the stories often contradict each other, or stop entirely and skip forward in time, leaving the reader stranded.

It becomes necessary to read more than one to find out exactly what is going on, and then there is so much repetition that you end up rereading about the same incident five different times, when it was barely interesting enough the first time.

It happened before TPBs became utterly ubiquitous, but the one example that still rankles me years later is Jim Starlin's Infinity Crusade. After falling madly in love with Starlin's work with the Infinity Gauntlet, he lost me pretty quickly with the Crusade, especially when entire cliffhangers were resolved in other titles I didn't want to buy, and couldn't even find at that time anyway.)

Even in non-crossover work, the lack of a complete story is a little frustrating. Reading one book in a series like the badly-thought out Wolverine Origins title is almost pointless, as it often sets up events and revelations without actually getting to anything close to a point, while relying on various tiny pieces of arcana to carry the story forward.

It's all part of the neverending saga that give fanboys such a painful chubby, but it is also a major turnoff. Trade paperbacks are expensive items, (especially in New Zealand where you are unlikely to find one for less than $30 these days and are forced to pay closer to $50 for a basic six-issue softcover collection.) For that amount of money, it can¹t be asking for too much to expect something a bit more complete.

I still get that thrill of cracking open a new book and knowing I've got hundreds of pages of dense storytelling to float through, but it just gets depressing to start reading something that is woefully incomplete.

This is surely an idea that is long due. Fortunately, there are some books that offer a complete story with a real beginning, middle and end, books that are all the more satisfying for it, but it really is time for this to become the norm, instead of a rare exception.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

This week’s comics rocked my socks off

While the Tearoom of Despair prefers to bask in the warm nostalgic glow of old comics that smell like the ten-year-old socks I found in a backpack last week, this was a particularly fine week for new comics. And as the world is in desperate need of one more poorly thought out capsule review of Batman and Robin, it’s time to cast aside the past and embrace the shine of the new.

I also finally got around to reading that Jeff Smith Captain Marvel book and the Ennis/Fabry Thor: Vikings this weekend, but that’s a post for another time…

* * *

Batman and Robin #2

Morrison is as good as ever, discarding the new Batman ‘s temporary regrets about taking on the job with a minimum of bullshit, and a nice theatrical metaphor from dear old faithful Alfred, but this issue is all about the Quitley.

For a medium that relies so heavily on action and handsome people punching ugly people in the face, it’s surprisingly hard to find some decent action choreography. There are always spectacular talents who can whip out a good chase scene or punch-up, but Quitely is the current king of action comics.

The page four splash in Batman and Robin #2, showing the dynamic duo descend through the innards of a police station stairwell, is nothing short of gorgeous. Quitely may take a while to deliver the pages, but the remarkable thing about the time he puts into his pages is how effortless it all looks. The relaxed flow of the grappling line. Robin’s legs splayed out behind him, his left arm balancing him out. It’s graceful in a way few comics even try to achieve.

And then a couple of pages later, it’s Batman and Robin versus a gang of homicidal freaks, which has been seen so often, that last sentence alone managed to bore the piss out me. But again, in Quitely’s hands, it all comes alive.

The movement of the characters, the rhythm of the panel sizes, the ability to capture a single moment in time that is just unusual enough to stand out. And sharp enough to note the impact of fists on walls, and there is some kind of poetry in the way Batman leaps into the scene and just starts laying into motherfuckers.

The spread across pages eight and nine is simply spectacular. It’s alive and moving and the bit where Dick shows he knows exactly what to do with the cape in panel four, and then goes in feet first two panels later.

There are pages and pages of this shit to drink in.

The impending arrival of Phillip Tan as regular artist for several issues looms over these comics, and poor Phil has an immensely high standard to live up to, one he has rarely demonstrated in the past. At least it could inspire Tan to be a bit better. Tony Daniels was trying his hardest during the last Morrison Batman run and was occasionally really effective.

Unfortunately, he was still rubbish most of the time.

* * *

The Boys #32

Back in the early 70s, writers like John Wagner, Pat Mills and Alan Grant learned how to write by working on weekly girl’s comics in the UK. Like 2000ad, only instead of guns and explosions and eight-year-old kids getting eaten by dinosaurs, it was secret diaries and safe ghost stories and adventures in the walls of the boarding schools.

This may not have been a direct cause of the respect for women displayed in the work of these men, but it can’t have hurt.

Garth Ennis grew up on these writers, grew his own opinions and has made his own feelings on the opposite sex quite clear. Women are not to be harmed, and when they are, there is hell to pay.

One of the central themes of Preacher was that you don’t prey on the weak, because there is always going o be some righteous cocksucker who will punish you for it. Poor Cassidy hit some women and hurt them bad, and he paid for his crimes. The worst thing was, he lost the respect of a good man and had to make a sacrifice to win it back.

(The fact that Cassidy gets a happy ending remains my single favourite thing about that whole damn comic.)

Ennis does rely on the superwoman a bit too much, but in general, he is one of the good ones when it comes to writing women. The first two stories in his Battlefields comics feature women who do some extraordinarily horrible things, but there is no judgement here. That’s too easy.

And now in The Boys, he points out the logic that sees women in comics go all dark and sexed up after a sexual assault is FUCKING RETARDED and then later has one character go right over the line.

The Crimson Countess deserves what she gets, because she is a horrible person who is going to kill a little dog, but it’s still a line that Billy Butcher crosses in dishing out her punishment, one that shows just how damned Billy is. It’s a reminder how horrible the title characters need to be to take down some evil people doing evil things, and the effect it has on the characters is harsh.

The Boys has gained a slow momentum that is building to some kind of horrific climax. Each story arc looked superficially like the rest, but things have got slightly worse each time, and now it’s all starting to pay off.

DC were such fucking knobs.

* * *

Fantastic Four #568

For story featuring a menace that threatens to destroy all of existence, the final run of Millar and Hitch’s Fantastic Four is oddly anti-climactic.

It’s all a bit of a shrug and a yawn. The creators have all had personal issues to deal with, and fair play to that. My sense of entitlement doesn’t extend that far, but handing off the last issues in favour of something that will get more attention indicates a certain sign of throwing up of hands. A completely muffed cliffhanger that doesn’t give enough information to work and a failure to sell the stakes sinks it.

There is also some of that stuff that came up in The Boys, with Aunt Petunia thrown into the grinder, although there is still the chance that a little time and space surgery won’t fix that up.

It’s still a cracking read, Millar at his worst is always a little bit entertaining, and Reed Richards’ confidence that there is always a better way never gets old with me.

* * *

Greek Street #1

Yeah, I’ll give that a go.

It’s all a bit confusing to start off with, but it makes me think and tempts me back into the old classics. Milligan rarely disappoints outside superheroes and the Gianfelice art is nice and scratchy.

* * *

Jack of Fables #35
The Literals #3

The last two parts of The Great Fables crossover and I still dig the Fables. Reading the main one in books, and Jack of Fables is my big guilty treat each month.

The mental looseness of Jack of Fables invades the whole crossover and while the ending is pretty obvious, everybody in the story knows it is and is quite happy to move on and not worry about it.

The two-page little blue bull bit was really fucking good, and Bigby the Evil Little Girl ripping heads and chewing hearts was marvelous.

The freedom that the Fables series have by wrapping up the whole Empire thing is the best idea Bill Willingham ever had. It could literally go anywhere and is all the better for it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On the inside, the sun still shines

Someone was recently kind enough to point out that I am a bloody fool, because I was still buying DVDs at a time when direct downloads are the inevitable future. But I don’t care, because they look really neat on the shelf.

But then, I have always been a slow learner when it comes to new technology. It took me years to get my first DVD player. Since then, I have gone through four of the fucking machines, and I’m still using the same video tape player I bought in 1996.

The obsessive need for high definition is one that completely passed me by as I sat there watching The House By The Cemetery on a 23-year-old videotape that groaned like an orgasmic walrus as it wound its way through the machine. Local television ads that show the benefits of HD by highlighting tiny details on great movies seem to miss much of the point of these films. Why watch The Godfather to marvel at a pretty picture on the wall of the restaurant, when Michael Corleone is in the foreground, selling his soul?

It’s the story that matters, and the HD push has not been matched by any comparable rise in the quality of the actual product. You can spend hundreds of dollars to get the best possible picture and quality humanly possible, but what the use if you’re just gonna watch something like fuckin’ Stealth on it?

The first time I watched the Wild Bunch, it was on the World’s Shittiest Video Tape on a small black and white television, and it was still the one of the most powerful things I had ever seen. It was extraordinarily poor quality, but such a good story, laden with incredibly resonant themes, overcame these technical deficiencies.

I’ve seen the Wild Bunch a dozen times since then, always in a better quality, and it has always thrilled, but not because you can see every drop of water in the air when the bridge blows up, it’s because they blew the fucking bridge up while people were trying to cross it.

I recently had the extreme fortune on stumbling across a huge pile of Doctor Who magazines and videos, and have spent the past few weeks watching the odd episode of The War Games or The Chase. After years of DVD releases that had been cleaned up to the point where they look like they could have been shot yesterday, the video tape is hazy and sounds like it was recorded under water.

It doesn’t matter. They’re still enjoyable, Wendy Padbury still has the nicest arse in Who history and Billy Hartnell is a marvellously grump old bastard. When I’m sitting on the couch at three o’clock on a Sunday morning, watching the Tardis crew land on the top of the Empire State Building is a lovely moment, even on skody old VHS.

And there is something about that fuzzy image, something about that gorgeous haze that triggers vast waves of nostalgia. Fuck crystal clarity, it ain't nothing compared to recapturing the feeling I had watching these things as a 12-year-old.

When it comes to the comics, I’m also completely unimpressed by shiny new packages. I own three hardcover collections, two of which were purchased at a huge discount. I just don’t care about the presentation, it’s all about the story.

Fortunately, the big comic companies have pandered to my whims with their Essential and Showcase collections. These books do lose something with the black and white format, especially the pop day-glo shine of superhero comics from the 50s and 60s, but the very best of them are still massively entertaining and easily readable. The joy of Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four doesn’t need a big glossy hardcover to breathe, the enthusiasm and innovation can be seen on the cheap newsprint.

The appeal of comics has often been directly comparable to the presentation. The hideous over-designing seen in comics from the 1990s, when every colourist and designer suddenly went apeshit with their cool new toys, is one obvious example, one where the quality of stories and art seemed to fall in direct proportion to the rise in jazzy new effects.

These days, comics are presented in some incredibly slick formats, and while designers have now worked out that more isn’t always better, there are still some comics that rely more on looking pretty than any real content.

(One personal hatred: comics that are printed on nice shiny paper that is impossible to read on a sunny day because the fucking sun is reflecting off the page.)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with owning a nice package, but it’s not the important thing. It’s the ideas and thoughts and wit and intelligence within the package that matters most.

Back when I was young and ideologically confused, I genuinely thought I was a horrible, materialistic person because I craved new comics and video tapes and CDs and all that shit, until I realised it wasn’t the physical objects I was hanging out for, it was what was represented within.

The funny thing is, it is really nice to still have those DVDs on the shelf. Even if digital downloads are inevitable, I still like holding on to the physical object.

But it’s not the most important thing. If I really do believe in the purity of the content over the way it is presented, downloads should be made for me. The only excuse I have is that laziness over trying new technologies.

The day will come when it's all about the story, with no bells or whistles to distract, but I'm in no rush to get there. Leave me here, with my pretty DVDs and three hardback books, I'll catch up with you all later.