Monday, August 31, 2009

Oi! No!

I got a right to be hostile! It’s Monday morning, I’m still recovering from a dodgy pie I ate the other day and I got completely lost reading some very basic comic books over the weekend.
So I just gotta moan, moan, bloody moan.

There may be some swearing involved.

* * *

How can I fucking tell what fucking issues I’ve fucking got if there are so many fucking variants to keep fucking track of?

Variant covers are ideologically dubious already, but at least it’s only really morons who snap them up, convinced their pieces of paper will be worth loads more in years to come because it’s got a different Ed Benes cover. Last year’s variants are already worth fuck all, although there is the chance they could one day be worth money. In a hundred years or so.

Most of the time, their scarcity makes it easy to ignore them. But some companies regularly put out a massive amount of variant covers every month, and it can be easy to lose track.

When my local comic store lost its records for its regular customers, I somehow missed two issues of The Boys. But working out exactly which two proved problematic, especially when they were in the back issue bins and all bagged up. Some of the covers looked familiar, but some of them were brand new, and with an overwhelming tendnacuy towards portrait shots rather than storytelling covers, I was fucking lost. It took me ages to figure out which ones I needed.

One issue! One cover! Or I might as well not fucking bother.

* * *

And the artistic habit of having comic panels spread across both pages, without any indication that they're supposed to be read that way? That can fuck off too.

The double page spread is a perfectly legitmate way to tell a story, so long as it's
made clear what's going on. Unfortunately, everybody isn't J H Williams III, and spreading the action across two pages is fucking ridiculous when you're dealing with a dialogue scene, especially when there are no panels stretching across the page gap.

It shouldn't be a goddamn mystery.

Marvel have been fucking terrible at doing this lately, and it's getting really annoying. After pages and pages of simple reading flow, they fuck with that logic for no good storytelling reason. It also leads to the annoying habit of more blank filler pages padding out a book, needed to ensure the whole thing is readable.

(I still remember the utter confusion of a climactic portion of the first Death mini-series by Gaiman and Bachalo, where somebody fucked up and a double page spread was separated by a turning page. It took me years to work that one out.)

* * *

It would be really nice if the comics journalism sites quit doing that thing where they parrot a company line about individual comics selling out. It's no big deal and means nothing when I can still see issues sitting on any shelf. Maybe they should have printed more of the fuckers in the first place.

* * *

Whoever designs covers and writes solicitations for the big companies: What the fuck are you doing? Are you even trying to sell these books?

* * *

Dear global media: Can you please stop using the phrase 'honour killings' when the fuckwits who carry out these awful murders are anything but honourable? Love, Bob.

P.S. I know that hasn’t got anything to do with comics, but it just really fucks me off.

* * *

That’s so much better.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Where do you get your ideas from?

It was really, really funny to see people who avidly watched every episode of Battlestar Galactica blow chunks over the finale because it didn’t make sense. I have gleefully read six thousand word essays on why the unanswered question left by the series were a storytelling betrayal and message board posts written by people who pride themselves on atheism, enraged by the touch of the divine.

If there was one thing that summed up everything that bugged these people, it was that bloody song. That gorgeous, wonderful Dylan track that was a direct inspiration from the universe, reverberating across hundreds of millennia, ideas sparking across time.

Totally impossible. There is no way a song can survive untold generations and emerge word perfect through Dylan’s words and Hendrix’s guitar. Something that was lost in the centuries could not possibly resurface with so much accuracy.

It doesn’t make sense. It’s like the military protocols and slang. These people can’t have had these things 150,000 years ago. We only just invented them and they would be totally different. That’s basic logic.

It’s unexplainable.

That’s what’s so great about it.

* * *

Alan Moore always talks up the Ideaspace, pointing to the example of steam invention developments making a quantum leap forward, with separate and unique breakthroughs made at the same time around the world from people who could had no idea what their counterpart was up to.

If you want to see it for yourself, go to the Louvre and wander down its renaissance hallway and see the human race evolve, as it discovers perspective and beauty. New ways of thinking and creating are born from nothing, springing up all over the place.

Moore has built a nice little slice of theology around the whole concept of an ideaspace, something we can all access, something which we’re all a part of, something that exists in a direction we can not point to.

He has even made a couple of stabs at explaining it and depicting it in his work. He doesn’t stand a chance of portraying this place with any real accuracy, not because of any lack of ability on his artistic collaborator’s part (far from it, in most cases), but because it is something that is literally beyond our perception, something that we can not imagine.

Because it is our imagination, it is the place where crazy ideas spring from, with seemingly little prompting. It’s part of our own collective unconsiousness, something we all share and tap into without even realizing it.

By Moore’s reckoning, it is the place where all ideas come from. It is the source of everything that makes us human. It is inspiration in the purest form, the light that shines the way through the dark of history.

* * *

Grant Morrison did the same, of course. Plugging into the same geography of ideaspace, Morrison tried to make it sexy and less hairy. He succeeded too, using the idea as a key foundation in the plot of a major DC comic crossover about Superman singing a song.

And it was dead sexy.

* * *

Okay, so it’s all purely hypothetical and the chances are that ideaspace is nothing more than the gaps between the neurons in our brains. New ideas are fired up when two unconnected parts of the head start talking to each other and the concept of a shared space where ideas fall out of the ether is scientifically dodgy.

But there is already an ideaspace around us, one that exists somewhere in the netherworld of mass communication. Just by talking with each other, we all spark up on ideas and connections that we would never have come up with on our own.

It’s still invisible, but it is certainly there. It’s ridiculous to ignore everything that can not be proven with empirical evidence. Despite our best efforts, the reasons behind our continued existence in this reality remain a complete mystery and the process of inspiration is similarly unknown. To actively deny any possibility because it can not be absolutely proven is just foolish

When creators are continually asked where their ideas come from, it must be easy to blame some otherwordly ideaspace, but that doesn’t mean the idea does not have merit.

* * *

Towards the climax of that last Battlestar Galactica episode, there is a wonderful, wonderful moment when Gaius Baltar stops everything to acknowledge that there is some higher power at work, something they can’t define that does certainly exist and has been guiding them to this specific point.

The man of science makes a proclamation of faith and directly acknowledges the divine. He recognises that there are forces at work that he can not possibly comprehend, but tries his damndest to understand which path they want him to take..

It’s interesting that Gaius bloody Baltar, the moaning git who only started up his own religious cult for personal gratification, who has betrayed the entire human race several times over and relied on his scientific knowledge for a dose of certainty for the entire series, can make that acknowledgement, especially when many of those watching could not make that logical leap.

The hand of the divine was spread right throughout the series, but this was still seen as a storytelling betrayal in some who watched it Kara Thrace vanishing from a hilltop, the impossibly happy ending and that bloody song again, which led the human race across the universe to its next chapter.

Some of those who cried foul at the final fate of the Galactica crew seemed convinced that it would have been better if they had only arrived on Earth thirty or forty thousand years ago, instead of the vast expense of 150 millennia. That would have fixed everything, because then it all ties in so nicely with humankind’s Great Leap Forward and everything would make sense.

But time means nothing in ideaspace. Ideas can spark across years, decades, centuries, millennia. A tune that dragged humanity through the stars can pop up again, over and over again. Always the same words, always the same feelings - There must be some kind of way out of here.

And if it doesn’t make sense, then so what? We all contemplate the divine, whether we know it or not, and it remains indescribable. It’s that unanswerable question at the heart of us all, that mystery we all crave to solve.

I’m looking for clues wherever I can, just like we all should. To find some in the pages of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and an episode of Battlestar Galactia is truly remarkable, and a real privilege.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Changing the Eye

At some point in his career, Gary Frank decided to draw everyone like they have been dead for two days with sunken cheeks, lipless smiles and bulging eyes. The man can still draw an incredible action sequence, and his line is as clean and flowing as ever, but those faces are just a little bit disturbing.

Frank is still a fine artist, but his style has evolved out of the boundaries of my tastes. He has produced some stellar work, right from his brief stint as the launch artist on Motormouth, Marvel UK's worst idea ever. (Which is saying something.) Maybe he just isn't suited for super heroes and the stuff he has produced for non-spandex stories has been very good. Frank would kill on a horror book.

But he's just moved on, and it's impossible to hold that against him. Evolving their style is just something artists need to do, and I'll take an uncomfortably radical new direction over creative stagnation any day.

After 30 years of weekly comics, 2000ad has seen some of its stable of art-robots go through some stunning changes. Artists such as Carl Critchlow and Clint Langely have gone far past being dodgy Bisley impersonators and truly found their own unique artistic voice, with Critchlow's scratchy exaggeration giving strips like Lobster Random and the odd Dredd tale a fantastically different vibe, while Langley's fumetti-by-way-of-Frazetta work is something unique in modern comics.

And then there is Mick McMahon, who went from one of the most solid artists in the earliest days of the comic to big-footed brilliance on Dredd before turning in something truly extraordinary in his Slaine artwork, which looked like it had been carved into wood before being slapped down on the page. His style continues to evolve to this day, with a long digression into the world of Sonic the Hedgehog leading him to produce strange, angular and harsh art that sings. McMahon has always been an acquired taste, and while somebody like Gray Frank has moved into directions that leave me cold, the appreciation for McMahon only grows with age.

In the American market, many independent cartoonists could switch from style to style on the same page, and never cease to experiment. These are balanced by a notable few who have achieved the perfect style for the type of stories they like, and craft a hugely respectable career out of iconic images.

In the mainstream pool, George Perez has maintained his status as the most reliable artist in comics and you always know exactly what you're going to get with his art. John Byrne has evolved and slipped back a couple of times, but can still try his hand at something new when he feels that rare inclination.

Matt Wagner and Frank Miller have reinvented their style more often than is immediately obvious, and Mike Mignola took a couple of years to find his comfort zone, and since then has carved the most respectable of niches. Brian Bolland (along with fellow brit Dave Gibons), perfected his immaculate eye almost 40 years ago, but still goes off the ranch with work like Mr. Mamoulian.

Once again, in all these cases, while the initial change in style can be incredibly jarring, the reward is worth any breach of the comfort zone. Unfortunately, sometimes a change in style is less for artistic reasons, and more for financial and productive reasons. These days, it's easy to look at Rob Liefeld's early work and laugh, but at the tail-end of the eighties, it showed enthusiasm and joy that overshadowed any anatomical shortcomings.

His art style almost disintegrated under business pressures and a misplaced confidence, and eventually becoming a sad industry joke. There is still hope that one day Liefeld may be able to still claw back vestiges of an artistic reputation, but it seems pretty unlikely.

But in general, moving onwards, moving on up has got to be treated with respect. Some artists fail and fall, some achieve new heights, some move back to what works best for them. But we can't expect to drag our favourite artists down to our level of stagnation. Let them find their own path, and the destination will be all the richer.

Even if they do all look like zombies.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Two new Who

It’s a long, cold year for people who dig Doctor Who. Even though it’s nothing when compared to the great gap of the 90s, it’s still missed. After four years of fantastic television, a couple of specials spaced months apart is a brilliant way to build anticipation and keep the series fresh, but I do genuinely miss it.

We’re all a bit spoiled, really. That break between The Seventh Doctor and Ace wandering off in search of a cup of tea and the Ninth grabbing Rose’s hand and telling her to run for her life was a tough one. It feature some occasionally spectacular novels and one TV film that tried its best, but the idea that Doctor Who could come back felt more and more remote every year.

And then it came back and it was so good and suddenly Doctor Who wasn’t old vid-fired DVDs and great novels with terrible covers any more, it was a massively successful television series that didn’t have to compromise to fit with mainstream tastes.

The decision to take it off for a year is a sound one. It’s an excellent one to differentiate between the Davies/Tennant era and the Moffat/Smith one. It means we don’t get sick of it, it means we appreciate it all a bit more when it does come back.

But I still miss it.

There are still the new novels and audio adventures, even if they feel a little unnecessary now. There are also plenty of books and magazines that remind me of everything I like about the television, while still showing me something new.

This week, I’ve been indulging in a couple of new Doctor Who publications. One is a dense and in-depth look at the inside of a writer’s head, while the other gives a broad overview of the appeal of the show, by drilling down into the details.

Doctor Who: The Writers Tale
By Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Davies has taken a fair bit of an online kicking from dickheads who don’t know what they are talking about, accusing him of storytelling laziness and sneering at him for being populist while vaguely hinted at some ill-defined and ill-mannered gay agenda.

I’m only a quarter of the way through this book, but if there is one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that Davies is about as far from lazy as you can get, unashamedly populist and massively gay, although I still really don’t understand why this is supposed to be such a bad thing.

The Writers Tale is 500 pages of correspondence between Davies and Cook, essentially a year long interview with Davies explaining the writing process while he’s doing it, chugging through the fourth season of the show with copious amounts of raw script. Davies is also amazingly open about the whole process, his part in it and the 3am terrors, when he convinces himself that everything he writes is shit.

And it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. There have been several thousand behind the scenes books on the series over the years, but none of them have crawled into the head of the main creative voice on the programme and taken a look around like this book has.

With the hindsight that comes with the familiarity of the episodes he’s working on, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a story take shape, even if Davies’ first drafts are surprisingly resilient, with many familiar lines and moments that survive every aspect of the rewriting process.

It’s also interesting to see Davies explain why he does the things he does, forced to always think about the budget he has to work with, while always trying to push the limits of British television capability.

It really is a fascinating book. It’s not just the best book I’ve ever read about writing Doctor Who, it might be the best book I’ve ever read about writing television altogether. Davies is intellectually naked here, always aware of the pressure that surrounds his position, while relishing the opportunity to craft a definitive chapter in his favourite television series.

I really hope he doesn’t take all the online criticism to heart. Some people are only too eager to rip one of his stories to pieces because it upsets their precious sensibilities. But if they could understand the actual storytelling process and all the limitations and liberations that come with it, they might actually have something interesting to say.

(Davies is a nice little sketch artist too, so if this Doctor Who thing never really works out, he could always find a home on the Beano.)

Doctor Who: 200 Golden Moments
Edited by Tom Spilsbury

The UK-based Panini Magazines, which also publishes the regular Doctor Who Magazine, (along with several American comic reprints), has put out plenty of special editions covering the history of Doctor Who since the new series started five years ago.

In fact, this is the twenty-second. But while the previous 21 have been packed with fascinating trivia and amazingly fresh anecdotes, this is the first one I’ve actually bought.

Because while the others are full of behind the scenes trivia and broad overviews of distinctive periods in the show’s history, this one focuses on the little moments, picking 200 tiny little slices of Doctor Who, summing up everything that is great and wonderful about the Doctor and his adventures in time and space.

Every story is covered, from Hartnell hiding in a junkyard, to Tennant striding the silky sands of San Helios. Some of the top moments are unexpected, some are obvious. Some are full of grandeur and operative vigor, others are tiny little character moments or good scares.

There are the Cybermen walking in the shadow of St Paul’s and the Doctor wondering if he has the right to wipe out the Daleks at their genesis, but there is also Jamie’s anger at being used by the Doctor to prove a point, or the Doctor telling Martha about the silver leaves of Gallifrey.

As somebody who has loved Doctor Who his entire life, I don’t mind admitting that it can be a terrible show sometimes, with ridiculously bad production standards only eclipsed by some horrendous acting. But even the most unloved of stories have their moments of charm, every story has one bit that makes it all worthwhile.

And the army of writers who volunteered for the special do a remarkable job of catching that charm in their short pieces. Familiar names like Paul Cornell, Kate Orman and Gary Russell snapping up the opportunity to talk up their own little favourite moments of their favourite show.

It's still a good few months before The waters of Mars and the final two stories of the Davies/Tennant run, but there is plenty of good reading to fill in the time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Comics aren't for kids any more

They reckon there is no shame in reading comics in public. Newspaper and magazine articles have been breathlessly telling us for the past two decades how much comics have grown up, and how they're not just for kids any more, and the odd one has even managed to avoid using cheesy sound effects in its headline.

While it's got to the point where comic readers are completely bloody sick of all those sweeping statements, the general public are still pretty bloody clueless. The amount of big, shiny blockbusters filling multiplexes every summer has certainly increased recognition of second and third-tier characters such as Iron Man and Blade, but these have also led to an increase in the idea that these are the only comics being published.

Despite the best efforts of Ghost World, American Splendour and many other fine adaptations, (which can now sit ignored on the back catalogue shelf of your local DVD store), along with the massive influx of manga material over the past decade, the prevailing connection society has with comics in this weird cultural mainstream is the super hero angle.

This inevitably leads to the fact that despite what they've been telling us all for decades, many people still consider comics a child's medium. These same people might be more than a little surprised to see some of the ultra-violence and mature situations that crop up in modern super hero comics, but as they're unlikely to even step foot in a comic store or glance at the graphic novel section of their local chain bookstore, it's not something that is really going to mess with their misconceptions.

So while sitting under a tree on a sunny day reading a big, fat Vertigo book is a fine way to spend an afternoon, sooner or later somebody is still going to see you doing it, snicker to themselves, point and laugh.

But so what? Anyone who has grown up reading comic books will be familiar with this, and a whole lot more. There's that teenage period where the desire to do away with childish things is seen as far more important than any inconvenient facets like enjoyment.

And the major comic companies have to be congratulated for now doing a fairly good job holding onto those readers who suddenly find themselves more interested in girls than who is carrying Captain America's shield, (even if they're done a completely fucking rubbish job of holding on to any other kind of reader).

Even if immaturity is an image the medium has somehow managed to claw its way away from, it has only been replaced by the equally mockable aura of geekiness. Media reports of something like local comic conventions are invariably tainted with this brush, although attendees in costume do little to reject the notion that all those who enjoy reading comics are hardcore geeks who fantasise over their latest long-limbed and two-dimensional object of desire, while obsessing over who could take who in a fight.

My best mate Kyle loves the X-Men and has steadily built up a fantastic collection that includes an unbroken run of more than 300 solid issues. For almost 20 years, he has regularly bought every issue of X-Men, both Uncanny and regular, along with a fair amount of spin off titles. He has had an arrangement with a comic shop 200 kilometres from his home for more than a decade, which has ensured he has never missed an issue since giving in to his addiction.

But for a while there, even though a parcel of comics brought him genuine pleasure, he was a little ashamed of the habit. Whenever he received a package from the comic store, he would call them magazines instead of comics, as if he was too embarrassed to tell a full room of people (who had all known him for years and were fully aware of his tastes), what he was really reading. He didn't have to, although with many of these packages containing an issue or two of the official Doctor Who magazine, he was technically right, even if the new arrivals were mainly comic-related.

Kyle doesn't care about that any more, and is only too happy to come out with the word “comic” these days, because he doesn't care if somebody laughs at him for it. It's their problem, not his.

The fact is, reading comics well past that age when it suddenly becomes socially unacceptable is hardly a sign of immaturity. If anything, it shows there is no need for an unhealthy reliance on the influence of others. These people, all of us, who make our own decisions, who follow our own paths, who choose our own entertainments, we have just grown as human beings enough to not care about appearances, to be happy with what we enjoy.

This is the real maturity in comic books, showing that we've grown past that awkward adolescent where our image is everything, into an adulthood of freedom. After all, comics really aren't just for kids any more, and we should read what we like.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Three comics

George Sprott (1894-1975)

By Seth

The latest book from the unique pen of Canadian cartoonist Seth is, as expected, a gorgeous piece of work. Designed to perfection, with art blown up to a size the eye can get totally lost in, while still packed with incidental and touching detail. It is smart, funny and incredibly depressing.

But it’s not just depressing, it’s wonderfully, gloriously depressing. This is misery on a metaphysical scale, melancholy that really moves.

It’s a story of regrets and wasted lives, of accepting our place in the world and all that it brings, of a boring fat man who did something interesting once, and never let the world forget about it.

The story flits back and forth around the life of the unfortunate Mr Sprott, from his terrified adolescence, to cheating on his wife, to dying alone in his dressing home, and even to the place beyond birth and death. The impact of his life is painfully small in the grand scheme of things, despite Mr Sprott’s best intentions.

Outside of a glorious gatefold, there is no attempt to get inside the mind of the title character, leaving character revelations to tiny snippets of information picked up from the rest of the cast. Vital slices of revelation are tucked away in the smooth flow of mood that keeps the book moving and nobody does this better than Seth.

There are heartbreakingly tiny hints of the man’s recognition of his own shallowness and the hollow nature of his inflated reputation, but they never overwhelm the story. They are just another part of the man’s life, along with his regrets over the way he has treated his loved ones and the friendships he still managed to cultivate and nurture over the years.

But beyond the snapshots of George’s life, the book reminds us all of what it means to be human, of the bumbling paths we take through life and the mess we leave behind. It’s about death and passing on, it’s about the little slices of love we give during our short lives, when we’ve got so much more to share.

The narrator of the tale offers us the surface of George Sprott, a mediocre man who made some small achievements in his life, but never goes much deeper, allowing the reader to draw own conclusions. George might be the impossible iceberg that crops up right at the start, top-heavy and lacking in any depth whatsoever. Or it might just be a neat design.

The nostalgia for a bygone area saturates Seth’s work and George Sprott is no exception, enamoured with love for institutions and places that faded away with time.

Everything passes and nothing lasts, so if George is telling you anything in his boring lectures, it’s that you should love it while you can. Even the solid buildings that housed performances and warm dinners are falling apart and replaced by discount computer stores.

It all goes and George goes along with it, with all his personal touches. The tragedy of a top hat that has fallen to the ground, that lost child, the last record snapping in the Arctic chill.

George Sprott goes back to the same place we all came from, but lived a life that just as messy and oddly fulfilling as our own. He’s gone forever, but it’s so nice to see somebody still cares.

* * *

Wolverine Saga

By lots of people who didn’t have anything better to do

I just found this buried in a pile of comics I brought a few weeks back, as if it was trying to hide its shame. It’s one of those horrible comic history lessons, with lots and lots of text and selected panels, showing the history and life of Wolverine, Marvel’s biggest character for the past two decades.

It’s irredeemably awful, but it’s not writer Ronald Byrd’s fault. Poor Ron had to deal with nearly four decades of mess and try to make it all readable. He relies a bit too much on foreshadowing, ending many segments with promises that Logan would meet his enemy again, but he deserves recognition for diving into this ocean of discontinuity.

And despite this, along with some occasionally terrible art choices, I read this sucker cover to cover as soon as I found it, because it’s a fascinating document which says more about the publishing history of Marvel since the 1980s than it does about the old canuklehead.

It’s a 32-page advertisement for Wolverine, with some dodgy recommendations for further reading stapled on to the back, but it also shows Marvel’s fascination for sticking the character anywhere it might make a buck, shoving him into situations, crossovers and superteams that don’t always fit.

It’s also interesting to note the massive rise in backstory over the past few years. It’s not until exactly halfway through the book that Wolverine makes his appearance fighting the Hulk and Wendigo, before joining the X-Men on the very next page.

That means that by this standard, half of the interesting things that have happened in Logan’s life have been told in flashback, filling in a history that was immeasurably stronger as mystery.

When the Wolverine Saga was somehow packaged as a prestige miniseries sometime in the late eighties, it was a still a convoluted mess, but it had more room to breathe than this latest thing, while also skipping over most of his past as ‘unknown’.

It goes on and on in this latest version, and the most disappointing thing is that it’s all plot. Logan meets up with this guy who betrays him but then they meet up 20 years later and somebody wants vengeance but Logan has been brainwashed into working for the bad guys and is this really more interesting that a man with a shadowy, unknown past?

Another thing that the eighties version had over its most recent counterpart is that while it was a clumsy beast of a read, it still found room for that time Wolverine taught Kitty that smoking was bad, or the first time he told everybody his name, along with many other minor pieces along the way.

It’s all gone now, replaced by conspiracies and vast over-reaching story arcs with important ramifications. Romulus gets more mentions in this book than any of Wolverine’s friends and allies.

And that’s a shame, since it’s not Wolverine’s massive plotbelly that makes the character so interesting, it’s the character himself. The way Logan lives, the way he tries to be a good person, even if he’s not always capable of it.

It’s his fierce determination, sense of honour and wild animal passion that makes Wolverine such an interesting character, not some lame conspiracy saga that never ends. But with Marvel’s fascination with wringing every last drop of life out of the character and the concept behind him, it’s the things that are most likeable about him that frequently get ignored, and all the reader is left with is a bunch of boring stuff that doesn’t matter.

* * *

The Hunter

By Darwyn Cooke, based on the book by Richard Stark

There’s one, brief two page sequence in Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter that sold me on the book, and it’s one sequence I keep thinking about whenever I dwell on it.

It’s the part where Parker accidentally kills an innocent woman as part of his plan to get his money back. It’s about halfway through the book and is a pretty shocking moment, even by the standards of the story.

Parker has already done some truly horrible things and will do more, but he lives by a code that doesn’t like seeing innocent people die. His anger at discovering that he has killed the asthmatic woman by gagging her is really quite scary, not because he’s angry about the loss of life, but because he has made a mistake that could upset his precious plan.

A page later and he is already using his mistake to his advantage, using it to stealthily gain entrance to an enemy fortress. He made the mistake, but he’s adapted and moved on. The dead woman is not mentioned again.

If there are any doubts that Parker’s cold path of vengeance is a horrible and bleak road, this sequence dispels it. He leaves a trail of collateral damage that he accepts as a necessary price, one that he is willing to pay. Parker doesn’t really care, he just wants his money back.

It’s a nasty little section in a tale that is full of them and could certainly have been cut. It’s the sort of moment most editors would be happy to see go, but Cooke’s decision to keep it shows the determination to stay true to the character, even if it makes him a hell of a lot less likable.

Some of Parker’s traits are almost admirable, but this section reminds the reader that Parker is a monster. An unstoppable force that tramples everything in its path, even those who don’t deserve it.

It’s one great little sequence that speaks multitudes and sums up everything I like about the whole story – its honesty, its determination and its horror.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

If every leaf on every tree could tell a story

I think it was about six years ago when I stopped giving a shit about the legal issues over the rights to Miracleman. (I never knew him as Marvelman, so that’s the name here.)

It is a fascinating story and one that everybody who gives a shit about Miracleman knows backwards. It’s been exhaustively documented and it would take you ten seconds of hardcore internet searching to find a dozen different variations of the same old tale.

It’s a story that is unclear and some sympathy has to go to everybody involved, to Mick Angelo, who didn’t know what he had; or Alan Moore, who attracts this weirdness and shit; even Todd McFarlane, who apparently didn’t get what he thought he’d paid for.

But somewhere around 2003, in the middle of another protracted period of legal wrangling, I stopped caring. I still followed the story, bit was disconnected to any emotional feeling on the case. It didn’t matter who had the rights or who owned the logo or who had the international rights to the fucking lettering. The entire case, bogged down in the legal quagmire for decades now, had gone beyond absurdity into pure tedium and was stuck there.

The trouble was, the legal wrangle became the story and the inaccessibility of the comics began to build up impossible expectations. Any essay or blog post or magazine article that mentioned the comic had to waste half its time lamenting the fact that it’s out of print or cursing one of the participants before getting to the meat of the actual story.

There are always exceptions, and you can always rely on writers like Tim Callahan to focus on the good stuff, but even then, the legal issues have to be mentioned, if only for context.

And now that Marvel has made another one of those balls-laden moves that has characterized Joe Quesada’s time at the top and that gets all the attention. (The man is so bloody good at hitting the right buttons, even if the end results are never quite as big as his claims. Quesada makes an excellent editor in chief and of all the fine editors who have filled the job since Stan fucked off to Hollywood, he might just be the best at spinning the company line.)

So Marvel tells everybody they’ve got the rights, even though nobody is sure what that means and what’s going to be reprinted first and whether Todd still has a say and Dez Skinn is still banging on about the fucking lettering rights and oh god, I can’t take it any more.

* * *

It would be good if the two dozen issues of Miracleman produced by Moore, Leach, Davis, Beckum, Veitch, Totleben, Gaiman and Buckingham get reprinted. They’re bloody good comics. The themes and set pieces have been picked to pieces by lesser talents over the years, but few have the deft touch that Moore brought to his superhero apocalypse and the rebuilding of an entire society that followed.

Moore’s last issue remains one of my favourite comics of all time, as Miracleman and his chums get rid of nuclear weapons, destroy the concept of money, give people everything they want, offer to turn people into superheroes and creates a world of wonder.

The purple prose of Alan Moore has never been more keenly heartfelt than the monlogoeue that covers the climax of his story. Miracleman’s final lines under Moore’s pen still resonate, as the man of miracles marvels at the wonders he has brought on the world.

He knows it’s not perfect, but that imperfection gives this new society life and vitality and wonder.

He knows there are those left behind and Miracleman’s inability to connect with lost loved ones is the biggest tragedy of the series, as poor Liz is left behind.

But Moore’s story is a grand, sweeping, organic epic that becomes something that still feels new and different, two decades on. It deserves an audience and it would be nice to see it reprinted in some form or other.

It would also be bloody brilliant if Gaiman and Buckingham were given the chance to finish the story they started so long ago. His first arc showing the lives of ordinary people in this extraordinary world took a kicking at the time for excessive tweeness and the crime of Not Being Alan Moore, but it was the first Mircaleman book I ever read and I fucking love it. It makes narrative sense and gave this world and its astonished inhabitants much-needed added depth. He went back to the main story with the first two issues of the second arc and there were the first signs of trouble in paradise when the entire story got struck down by the legal bullshit.

It would be interesting if Gaiman keeps to his original idea, or moves away from that conversation on a beach at the end of time that he has had in his head since the start. A future timeline of the Miracleman world has been around for a long, long time and shows that Golden Ages never last, even with the greatest of intentions and technology.

* * *

But that’s all a long way away yet. There will still be legal shitstorms and crude accusations and the usual confusion and wake me when it’s all over.

There is a chance of new Miracleman comics produced, ones that continue a fascinating narrative that still has a lot of meat left in it, and that is a miracle in itself. It would just be nice if all the usual pettiness and sniping and feuding could be left out of a legal case involving the intellectual copyright value of a comic character. Just once. It would be nice if it didn’t overshadow a lovely little comic that punched well above its weight.

It would be nice.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Eisner was always right!

District 9 is a bloody good movie, mixing some surprisingly intense action sequences in a Johannesburg ghetto with some real emotional depth, while stapling on a couple of broad and timely subtexts.

It’s also a very South African film, with director Neill Blomkamp bringing a large amount of South African attitude to the movie, most notably with the main character – the excellently named Wikus Van De Merw - who exemplifies the friendliness, stubbornness and sheer toughness of the national psyche.

At first glance, District 9 seems to share common ground with late eighties cheesefest Alien Nation, but the film itself actually has more in common with the classic BBC Quartermass serial, as an ordinary man goes through an extraordinary physical metamorphosis, trying to hold onto his soul as he transforms into something monstrous.

There is also a fair bit of mid-eighties James Cameron in there, some really nice reality-TV pastiches that do some interesting things with the format and there will be inevitable comparisons between the gloriously gruesome gore seen on screen and producer Peter Jackson’s own earlier work.

The role Jackson (and his lovely wife) played in getting District 9 underway is well known by now. When Halo fell over, Blomkamp was left high and dry before somebody had the bright idea to flesh out his 2005 short film into a feature.

While Jackson has undoubtedly become one of the most powerful film directors on the planet over the past decade, there was still the eternal search for money. Even if they were only after a relatively modest $30 million budget, they still needed to sell the idea of a smart, gory sci-fi action film set in a South African slum, with no name actors and a director with no big showreel.

In a project littered with bright ideas, somebody had another one – make a comic book to show to the investors and let them see exactly what they were getting for their money.

Well, the Wall Street Journal called it a comic book. Well, they actually call it a graphic novel, but we all know what they mean.

It’s not really a comic anyway. Look, you can see it here. It’s a book that reprints much of the script, illustrated with props and location shots and mood settings and occasional bits of storyboard art, laid out together on a page. This creates panel progression, which is enough for many definitions of comics, so we’ll claim this one.

Jackson used a bunch of his Weta Workshop mates to illustrate the script, the book was put together and used to sign deals with Sony and other distributors.

Good luck finding one, because there were apparently only 10 ever produced, which makes them a motherfuckin’ holy grail for the heads that connect with the film. Something like this movie has cult hit imprinted on its celluloid DNA and the idea of a book like this with an incredibly tiny print run is the stuff of future legend.

Of course, someone will eventually cave and see the book reprinted in some form, because there is some money in that idea and people connected to movies like to make money. But for now, it’s an odd excerpt here and there, and little more.

There have been plenty of comics in recent years that are fairly bloody blatant about their attempts to be as movie friendly as possible. Mark Millar has turned it into an artform, repeatedly pointing out that he gets a good wedge of cash and fanboy love from his Marvel work, but it’s nothing compared to coming up with his own idea, selling it to his film-making mates and riding that wave of publicity.

But this District 9 book is something else. It only exists to get the movie made, while still retaining some power as an artistic object. It must have some, if it was used to sell the look and feel of the completed film, which carries a fair artistic wallop of its own.

If anything, the ability of the book to attract movie money proves that Will Eisner was always right and anybody who has ever doubted him was a foolish young punk.

As far back as World War Two, Eisner was telling everybody who would listen about the ability of comics to teach and inform, about the power of comics in a learning or training process.

Ever since, Eisner has been proven right over and over again: The mix of words and pictures is instantly accessible and sticks in the mind like nothing else. Comics can teach mechanics how to take apart an engine, or how to escape a burning aeroplane, or how to sell a movie.

Comics can do anything.

* * *

For a proper review of District 9 written while I was hiding away in my secret identity as a mild-mannered business reporter, follow this link.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the corner of Secret Shame: Special rasslin' edition.

* When it comes to wrestling, I'm all about the late 1980s, because that's when I was the right age.

* I always, ALWAYS like the Macho Man Randy Savage, and it did my heart good to see him in the first Spider-Man film.

* The best wrestling match ever was the Ultimate Warrior versus the Honky Tonk Man.

* Big Daddy could kick Andre the Giant's butt.

* The best trick Andre ever had was falling into the ropes and crying 'BOOOOOHHHBBEEEE!' It was like watching a captured grizzly bear.

* When Hulk Hogan won Royal Rumble 1990, I was genuinely upset and totally spewing.

* I was also totally spewing when the Truth did an article that sneered at professional wrestling for being an act. For a 13-year-old, this was like being told that Santa Claus wasn't real.

* I still have an inordinately fond memory of sitting in a warm car on a cold morning, eating a hot pie and reading an official WWF magazine from cover to cover.

* The best off-line video games to play in a group of eight or more are wrestling games, because there is always something for someone to do.

* Especially if you're ripped off your tits.

* I used to be terrified of Dusty Rhodes and his giant man-tits.

* I was in Meteora in the north of Gress, sitting by a pool in the shadow of the glorious and impossibly balanced medieval monasteries when I heard about what happened to Chris Benoit and it utterly ruined it for me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A fiend for the buck

I’m addicted. I can’t escape this fact. I know they’re bad for me, but it feels so damn good when I buy some and I enjoy them so much more than I should. And every now and then, there is something a little bit spectacular.

The $1 comic bin: I fucking love you the way Reed loved Sue.

Comics are, at their very cheapest, still about six or seven dollars around these parts, so it’s easy to pass over a few dodgy looking comics in the name of pure economics. Spending half your paycheck on goddamn comic books is all right when you’re 17, but I’m still suffering from a bloody hangover from drinks two nights ago so I know I’m not 17 any more.

There is always something new and shiny to buy, but there is also a lot of stuff you can put off for a later date. It’s similar to the movie ratings in my head, every film I ever hear about gets puts into a category:

* See it at the cinema (about 3%, if that, of all movies),

* Wait for a new release DVD, (another four or five percent)

* Wait for $1 for a week DVD night at the local Civic Video branch (a good 20% of the rest)

* Wait for a free screening on TV (another decent 20%)

* Or just not fucking bother, (most of them).

It’s not a complicated system, but it works. For comics it goes like this:

* Oh fuck yeah gotta have it (Most Moore and a fair whack of Morrison and all of Los Bros Hernandez and anything Bryan Talbot does and 2000ad and Criminal.)

* Will get one day, prepared to pay cover price (The rest of Moore and Morrison, along with the vast majority of stuff from Ennis, Ellis and Matt Wagner. All of Frank Miller. Fables and Shade The Changing Man.)

* Will buy for a dollar. (Almost anything else.)

You can’t buy much for a dollar these days, but you can always find a comic book if you look around. I will spend my last $1 on a lame issue of JSA, rather than buy something useful like food with it. $1 is nothing, if you can get a whole comic or it, a nice little document with art and words and ideas encoded within, you’re on to a winner.

And it’s so good. Massive chunks of The Losers and Peter Milligan’s beautiful Human Target comics from a few years back, worth keeping and worth looking for the new stuff. I missed them when they came out, but have always given them the glad eye and was more than happy to pick up sizeable pieces for the discounted price.

I just completed my full collection of the Swamp Thing comics I want and need something like these comics to look for in the back issues. There is always the eternal search for more 2000ad comics, but it’s nice to have something to look for when I wander into a store.

Don’t tell the wife this, but I spent $500 in two weeks on comics a month or so ago. I got some really, really good stuff, including all the Criminal books and that weird Coober Skeber Marvel benefit book that I thought I’d never see, but a good three-quarters was fluff from the dollar bin.

I don’t regret a single piece of the fluff. I got a chance to read Abnett/Lanning Legion and some Peter Bagge stuff I missed and a couple of eighties New Mutants comics which are extraordinarily satisfying work.

Some Glamourpuss and Following Cerebus and a few of the later issues of the proper Cerebus run, and I can’t follow where Sim is going but I fucking love to watch him go there. I have never paid more than two dollars for any issue of Cerebus I own, and I’ve got half of them. I’ve always felt a bit horrible and guilty about that, but I could only ever find them in second hand stores in my part of the world. I’ve done the same thing with Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus. I’m a bad reader.

Some unloved Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics from 1977, still written by Denny at his Action Socialist best, but hampered by some surprisingly clumsy Mike Grell art. Loads and loads of Yummy Fur, which I’ve still got to crack into, and good stuff I’ve put off, like the odd issue of Agents of Atlas, Paul Grist’s Burglar Bill and eight-ninths of David Lapham’s Murder Me Dead. Top comics, all of them. And certainly worth the price.

I love the Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius comics that I tried out. I get all the in-jokes in Don Simpson’s Splitting Image comic from 1993, but that doesn’t actually make them funny.

(Fuck, those early Image comics looked so, so sexy at first. That chubby didn’t often last past the first issue of any of the comics they actually put out, but Image were fucking hot in 1993 and I was eighteen, so that’s my excuse.)

The $1 bin is still stuffed with shit but it’s always easier to give something a go when you know you can flick it off on the internet later. I tried some of John Byrne’s Superman/Batman Generations comics and enjoyed them, but didn’t love them. I really gave Terra Obscura a go and Peter Hogan always gives it his best, but it’s still so horribly dull. I just don’t get the Luna Brothers and Girls was too much people standing around yelling at each other and not enough movement. Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comic from the short-lived late ‘90s Helix imprint was just sadly awful, which was just crushing

That’s okay, I get to read them, judge them with a stuffy eye and sell them on if they don’t meet the grade. There is a nice pile of stuff in the corner of the room that has to go, ready to be packed up and sent to the comic deprived wastelands of Nelson and Whakatane.

In these expeditions to the cheap side of comic books, there are some awful comics. It’s usually easy to avoid the really terrible stuff, just by judging a book by its cover. (Any comic with blood on breasts = no sale.) And then you try something new and it looks okay, but it turns out to be ridiculously bad. Not bad enough to be interesting, just bad enough to be bad.

So you flick those fuckers on too and let some other poor sucker have a go. And if they don’t like Jim Valentino’s A Touch Of Silver, they can get rid of it themselves. These things go around in circles. Until they get burned.

(A Touch of Silver, published by Image somewhere in the nineties and featuring Valentino’s black and white reminiscences of his dorky childhood, is the Worst Comic I’ve Ever Read. Poor Jim, he just tries too hard. I liked Shadowhawk III more than this.)

But it doesn’t matter if I can’t get rid of the shit. If I can’t sell it and too ‘adult’ to give away, it gets flung into the back of the wardrobe to be trampled on and forgotten. And then I find it again in a year or two and I can’t help myself and it’s worse than I remembered but I can’t stop reading.

Shit, I wish I hadn’t sold those Valentino comics.

It’s payday tomorrow and I’ve got a spare $20 left and I could go get myself a really nice lunch, or I could buy a pie and 18 comics. The shop is less than 100m from my work and I have my eye on a bunch of Joe Kelly JLA that have been sitting there for the last month.

I don’t need a nice lunch.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I kept trying to like Neverwhere, but never got anywhere.

When it was first announced, there was still a healthy post-Sandman glow to Neil Gaiman, and he had a lot of love coming his way. Fortunately, Gaiman appears to be a thoroughly nice and decent bloke and he didn't piss away the love from the geek world, like many of his predecessors had a habit of doing. He used what cache he had to go his own way and seemed pleasantly surprised to find an audience, even for such esoteric works as Mr Punch.

Then there was Neverwhere, and while it featured many fine touches, it ultimately didn't work as well as it should. A decade on and the original television series doesn't hold up at all. The difference in production values between the series and something like the current Doctor Who series is staggering, if only because the BBC figured out that shooting things on dodgy videotape and lighting everything like its a veterinarian's surgery doesn't exactly help matters.

Gaiman did a much better job with the novel, and it certainly helped that The Great And Mysterious Beast of London was left to the reader's imagination, and didn't look like an old bull destined for the slaughterhouse. After getting the kick up the arse from a Terry Pratchett collaboration, Gaiman showed some real skill in the pages of this novel, setting himself up for a respectable career as a serious novelist who writes fantastical books.

There was still an itch to be scratched there and as Neverwhere was primarily intended for some kind of screen, movie versions of the tale rose and fell in various states of pre-production, never quite materialising in front of a camera.

A couple of years back, when the chances of seeing a film looked remote, (but before Gaiman's work appeared on-screen in Stardust and Beowulf), Vertigo went back to one of its favourite sons. The concept was given another airing with a comics adaption, with the workman prose of Mike Carey keeping things moving and some occasionally sublime work from Glenn Fabry, who came up with some fantastic character designs.

This last adaptation was arguably the best and even then, it's far from perfect. The story takes a long time to get going before just shuddering to a stop. While this could be a symptom of Gaiman's legendary skill for quiet denouncements (and the fact he's never meet an anti-climax he didn't like), it still feels like the end could have been given more room to breathe.

It could be the characters and while it's admirable to cast a egotistical little runt of a man as the main character, he is still bloody unlikeable. Door, the Marquis and a small army of supporting characters are a lot better, but Richard is such a twat, and his decision to return to the real world shows that while he may have become the greatest hunter of all time, he is also an annoying little bastard.

Maybe it's the concept itself and the idea of a homeless society that just doesn't really work. While it is certainly a strong one, it might be served best by taking it easy for a while. Instead of pushing out new versions trying to capture Gaiman's original idea of an under-city of the homeless and the metaphysical, maybe it could be left to rest and simmer for a while.

Neverwhere will still be there, the next time somebody decides to give it a go.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


* Rugby is my game and the All Blacks are my team.

* But I’m not a child and I can accept that they won’t always win.

* Those games against France last month were bloody good. We both won one and lost one and there was blood in the rain, and that’s the way I like it.

* The first South African and Australian games of the Tri-Nations went as expected, and halftime of the second South African match is coming up on the TV as I write this. It could go either way.

* But it would fucking help if the All Blacks knew how to fucking throw a fucking line-out.

* If an interstellar alien appeared before me now, and asked me why there was both a rugby league and a rugby union, I’d be right stumped.

* I still support the Warriors, because they're my best mate's favourite team in the whole world.

* I never watch the All Black's haka anymore.

* Oh man, I wish they had a 20-year-old Christian Cullen or Jeff Wilson right now

* We will probably not win the Tri-Nations this year, because those South Africans are looking fucking sharp.

* This is a good thing. It’s a good time to lose. And I’m still gonna yell at the television. Especially when we can't throw a fucking lineout.

* We pretend we’re not, but we are all still pretty bitter about the Rugby World Cup thing.

* I support the Crusaders, but not the Canterbury provincial rugby team

* Bring back Buck.

* If I found the Infinity Gauntlet in that alley behind work and became Lord and Master of the Universe, where every whim I had became reality, the very first thing I would do is get rid of night rugby and make them play during the day. Like they’re supposed to.

* * *

Obligatory comics content: I got that Parker book by Darwyn Cooke yesterday and it's so pretty that when my wife accused me of wanting to take it home and make sweet, sweet love to it, I couldn't argue with her.