Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dug by little moles

Having recently completed collections of certain comic runs that have taken decades to finish, it’s time for something new. Something to search for in that musty old stack. Something worth reading. It might have been published years ago, but if I've never read it, it's just as new as this week's latest releases to me.

I understand why back issues are a mug’s game from the retailing side. I know they take up a lot of space for very little return. I got the fact that there are just far too many back issues produced over the decades for anything short of a warehouse to handle.

I understand all this, but my favourite comic shops are still the ones with an unhealthy amount of back issues. Places where I can dive in and look for random shit, fill that one hole that has been itching for years.

I used to get Star Trek comics when I was 10, and I loved that shit. One of my favourite storylines was the one that kicked off a year into the mid-eighties DC series, with the Mirror Universe invading the regular Trek universe in the wake of Star Trek III. It was an exciting and engaging read for L’il Bob, but I was damned if I could find two issues right in the middle of that storyline.

I looked everywhere and eventually gave up, only to stumble across those fabled two issues at my first ever comic convention last year. They filled that space in the Star Trek run that had been itching for decades and while they turned out to be thoroughly average comics for the 33-year-old Bob, they were still snapped up eagerly.

It took almost as long to finish a long-running collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and I only just completed another frustrating lapse when I found the last issue of Miracleman I needed in a New York comic shop in 2007. (Although they weren’t the exceedingly rare later issues that proved problematic. I got those for $1.50 years ago, but couldn’t find #6 anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.)

For years, it was these issues and a few other idiosyncratic bits and pieces that I would start searching for whenever I got near a new comic shop, and I loved every second of it. I loved suddenly remembering about some issue that I always wanted, and I loved stumbling across something I didn’t even realise I had been searching for. Most of all, I loved that feeling I get when I do find that one elusive issue I’ve been craving. It’s an honest high.

But despite finding more and more of these little issues, the market for back issues has been steadily drying up for some time. Cheap trades and the internet have shot the traditional comic shop back issue market in the spine. When it’s so easy to get that elusive issue of Iron Man through an internet auction, why would a store bother?

And without an idiosyncratic selection of back issues, all comic shops begin to blend together after a while. There are always some wonderful exceptions, but the formula is depressingly easy to replicate: A good selection of the latest issues from the big boys, a few independent comics that everybody likes, and the usual merchandise, much of which is getting creepier by the day.

We all love the collected editions and the large chunks of easily digestable story they give us. It's hard to hate the trade when it gives so much. For many series, it does take an awful lot of time and effort to get the original issues, and that can just seem a bit stupid when the collection is sitting on the shelf in all good stores everywhere.

But still, while an internet auction can have a fair amount of excitement as you bid for that one issue you want more than any other comic that has ever existed, it’s still impersonal and strange. You might have to resist the odd temptation to buy complete runs of Power Pack on E-bay, but is it really as much fun as buying them one at a time, building up a complete collection over years?

And I still adore the hunt. When it comes to buying comics, nothing in the world beats that feeling of finding that elusive issue of Hellblazer that Gaiman and McKean did in a pile of ‘80s New Universe crud. Digging through piles and piles of ‘80s Starman comics, only to turn up a few early issues of Matt Wagner’s Grendel that I never dreamed of seeing before.

It’s that feeling that sends me into the dusty, musty back issue rooms with glee, knowing I’m bound to turn up something interesting or fill that annoying black hole at the centre of otherwise immaculate collections.

And when those holes are filled, it’s time to move and and start looking for something new. There have been so many brilliant comics published over the past seven decades, there is always something new in the old, something else to look out for.

Once I’ve got a copy of every comic Garth Ennis ever wrote, (and I am getting close to that goal), there is always something else to hunt out, ongoing quests to grab those missing Cerebus and Bacchus comics.

Recently, I managed to score a significant proportion of the Vertigo versions of The Losers and Human Target, with only a few issues left out. That’s something else to go for now, and it’s a lot easier to pay full prices for a few issues when you’ve got the bulk for so cheap.

And after some bastard stole a complete run of Promethea from my letter box a few months back, I managed to get almost every issue for a dollar each last week, and now just to find three more to finish that off. I honestly can't wait.

These holes can be itchy, but they’re so much fun to scratch.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

17 questions on a Sunday afternoon

1. If the sun fucked them up in the first film, how come the infected could walk around in the daylight in 28 Weeks Later?

2. How come I never, ever get sick of Groo?

3. Or Lobo?

4. Was there ever a more loved person in comics than Archie Goodwin?

5. Do people really think variant comics are going to be worth something one day?

6. Did Grant Morrison just make up that shit about traveling from Kathmandu to Alpha Centauri?

7. Is willpower an emotion?

8. Where is Bob Harras?

9. Why was that guy standing in the corner at the end of the Blair Witch Project?

10. Why did Archie marry Veronica instead of Betty?

11. What was the first time Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were referred to as the Trinity?

12. When they made the Daredevil film, why didn’t they just adapt Miller and Romita Jnr’s Man Without Fear?

13. What happened to Grendel Prime after his last quest?

14. Why did it take me so bloody long to start watching Samurai Jack?

15. How come they keep all sending Batman’s crazy bad guys to the same crazyhouse instead of splitting them all up?

16. Has Jack Knight been seen since the last issue of Starman?

17. What’s it all about, Alfie?

Friday, September 25, 2009

167 reasons why All Star Superman was my favourite superhero comic of the last decade.

Superman has everything under control from the first cover.

Four panel past, leading to an open and double-page now that shines brightly.

Steve Lombard: what a cock.

Lex Luthor, nine minutes ahead of the world.

Superman arrives aboard the Ray Bradbury and everything is going to be okay.

He doesn't stop a bomb from its destiny of self-realisation. Harsh, but fair.

The big man's pose as he holds up 200 Quintillion tons.

Doctor Quintum's coat.

Superman watching the fireworks under his skin.

The sad silence of the Voyager Titans.

“Thanks,” says Superman. “There's always a way.”

Clark Kent ignores Cat, strides into the room, trips over Cat's handbag, loses his glasses, knocks Steve's coffee out of his hand as he gets up, rescues the coffee which doesn't lose a drop, puts it down, drops his papers and slips on them. In one panel. Only in comics.

The little saves he still manages to make: saving the pedestrian in clumsiness.

“Lois. Please stop talking for just one second. I have something to tell you.”

Traveling by car to the north pole, it's the only way to travel. Beats getting wrapped in a cape.

Imperfect Superman robots. Exact duplicates were always just a little bit creepy.

Superman's new key.

Batman on the chess board and the space shuttle Columbia: Superman's time capsule.

Lois' narration in the Fortress. Paranoia plus, and the Unknown Superman of 4500ad and the alien chemicals Superman is cooking up are not helping.

Smashing suns on a cosmic anvil.

The one panel in Superman and Lois' dinner where it goes black and white. The expression on Superman's face kills me every time.

His magic mirror knows what he really looks like.

The J-Lo question. Just the right side of fucking stupid and the genuinely unexpected turn.

Lois realizes what she has done after shooting Superman with green kryptonite radiation.

Steve Lombard: Still a cock.

The sheer joy of new superpowers seen on Lois' face, and the way Superman carefully guides her through those first few steps.

The look on Superman's face when he sees that Samson is stepping on his turf.

Superman instantly zooming to the rescue of Krull after the chill-drunn eating monster has been carelessly tossed into space by Samson.

Dino-Czar Tyrannko and his fear, admiration and respect for the big fella.

The casual strength and power body language of Samson and Atlas and the callous way they present Superman with the newspaper story telling of his death.

Lois in a condition of quantum uncertainty.

They might be dicks, but Atlas and Samson will still stand by Superman's side if he genuinely needs their help.

Superman's answer to the ultra-sphinx's question, including the small laugh he releases as he works out a wonderfully simple answer.

Superman's expression when he reaches the end of his tether with Samson and Atlas.

'Okay, that's enough. Both of you.' The man of steel is a good man, but he will only take so much.

His effortless defeat of Atlas and Samson, even if the little whistle at the end shows how unconcerned he is.

The way Lois kicks up a tiny cloud of lunar dust as she embraces Superman on the moon.

The tired melancholy of Lois losing her powers.

The two good laughs in the future newspaper blowing in the end in the final panel – seeing Clark Kent's byline and Superman's ingenious Ultra Sphinx answer reduced to ad-speak.

Jimmy's apartment and fantastic haircut.

Lucy's uniform.

Jimmy seeing the story unfold in the air, and he can't help reaching out for it.

“Wow! I can't decide who I am from one day to the next!”

“Oh, my what?”

The purple glow of the Underverse.

Jimmy's straight-up leap to avoid Superman's heat vision.

Superman's buddy won't let him embarrass himself.

No firewall is Olsen-proof.

Jimmy ends up with a snazzy jacket, two shows to the hottest how in town, a love message written on the moon and his girl. Good wins!

The Jury of Luthor's peers, especially the look of disdain on the dude in the Afro.

Lex Luthor can't read shorthand.


Luthor's supreme confidence. “It's easy to be strong when you just happen to come from the planet Krypton! This takes hard work!”

Clark's unreadable expression while he holds the punching bag for Luthor.

The crowd in the prison. All of Quitely's crowds, for that matter.

The way Superman effortlessly saves lives while keeping his identity secret. He should be good at it by now, he's had enough practice.

The baboon in the Superman suit, another genuinely unexpected turn. There is always the risk these things become too cosy and predictable, but Leopold is just so wrong.

Luthor's new eyebrow.

Superman desperately trying to save Luthor's life, but Lex isn't having any of it.

Clark Kent in the boat, being taken somewhere he doesn't want to go.

That Kansas sky.

Back on the moon, with his dog.

The new farmhands, unable to hide their admiration beneath their cheap clothes.

The old man in the diner who gives Clark the evil eye.

“Why do you both have to act like I don't know who he is?” “Don't make me talk about this, Lana.”

The Chronovore made me feel a little sick.

Krypto enters the battle, and the ground ripples with the force of his attack.

Jonathan's concern for his son, and the reassurance he receives.

Clark's despair at the death he can't stop.

The Superman Squad and its leader.

The light streaming in the church windows and doors during Pa's funeral.

The silent goodbye to the suneater, followed instantly by an attack from an impossible planet.

The horrific contagiousness of Bizarro.

Steve Lombard: Still a cock, but at least he feels the pain of those who have been transformed by Bizarro.

Quintum drawing the line against the Bizarro invasion at P.RO.J.E.C.T. And making his stand behind sandbags. Sometimes, the simplest technology is the best.

“As soon as I've knocked some sense into that planet up there, Lois.”

Superman beating the Bizarro world by flying into a mountain at top speed and blowing that shit up. It almost makes sense, but when it's as pretty as this, who gives a fuck?

The loneliness of Zibarro.

The wedge of cheese that is the only thing securing the rocketship on the cover of #8.

The oncoming All-Night on Bizarro World and the horror of eternal inertness. Until the next time.

Superman's faltering attempt at Bizarro-speak, and his increasing confidence with the language once it becomes absolutely important that he does so.

The sweat appearing on Superman's face as his time on Bizarro World takes its toll.

Zibarro's despair at the Bizarro Justice League

And the horror on his face when he realises there is only room for one on the escape rocket.

Superman's promise that they will meet again.

“Why else did this world, this incredible organism, make eyes like yours to see beauty and meaning where others see chaos?”

The increasing chaos and simultaneous meltdown that comes with the falling of All-Night.

Superman's kind-hearted and perceptive critique of Zibarro's writing.

Bizarro-Flash may have no speed, but his sense of timing is as impeccable as his regular counterpart.

Zibarro left alone as his world melts around him, happy enough to take the knowledge he has a friend with him into the endless dark.

The way Superman can be see bouncing off the ground in his re-entry to Earth, and his cheerful greeting.

The fact that the architecture of Superman's planet, now adorning the buildings of Metropolis, actually look alien and aren't another goddamn homage to something the creators liked as a kid.

Clark Kent’s excuse for his disappearance: trapped in the closet with plenty to eat and read. Fortunately, nobody asks him where he went to the toilet.

Lois still doesn't quite believe that Clark is Superman.

Bar-el and Lilo staring into each other's eyes while standing in a fountain of lava.

Their ignoring of Superman when he first greets them and the manner in which they constantly look down their noses at him (and everything else Earth has to offer.)

Bar-El thoughtlessly tossing the key to one of the Fotresses' robots, and Superman's silent comforting of it.

The perfectly viable point of view of the explorers, celebrating the life of Krypton in a new and unusual manner. Who is to say they’re wrong?

Superman puffing out his chest when he concludes they don't have the best interests of Earth at heart, and Bar-El calling him on it.

The expressions on Superman's face when Bar-El is beating the tar out of him.

Superman's concern for careless breaking of the moon and the thoughtless repair job.

Jimmy has never been cooler than in this series, but even he can't pull off Kryptonian trousers.

Steve Lombard: now a bald cock.

Bar-El's reaction to Superman's kindness and his pride in calling him kin.

“You're right about one thing: I am a scientist's son. It's in my nature to observe and to learn... and not to interfere too much. Perhaps I could have done more.”

Superman finding a solution to the explorers' illness that allows everyone to win.

Bar-El and Lilo in the Phantom Zone: ready to bring justice, and the criminals know it.

Superman's weariness as he complies his last will and testament, even though he would never show how bad he is doing in front of a group of sick kids.

Superman staring at his fingertips.

“Historic? In Kandor we have nothing left but history.”

Quintum's eagerness to get inside the bottled city.

Doc Quintum standing before Kandor's leaders, the pressure pushing him down on his cane.

The only way to study a world without superman is to make one.

Superman's battle against a giant robot driven by a mad scientist with Alzheimer’s is all done in nine panels, and doesn't need any more.

Dead skin cells look like the dust of dead stars and promises to Superman's eyes.

Superman's super-compassion with Regan.

While Kandor debates, some have already made the move, deciding there is worth in Quintum's idea.

The small crowd watching Superman replace the last of Earth's bridges.

Quitely's visualization of Superman's microscopic vision, probing deeper with every art bubble.

Evolution of man on Earth Q: aboriginal art, moving up to philosophy

Superman not giving up on Luthor.

Luthor’s spat reply

N-lish tok from the 24c

“Why didn’t I trust them enough to ever think of this?”

Superman is shooting tiny versions of himself out of his fingertips, and they can cure cancer, and it all makes perfect sense.

The creative peak of Earth comes with the creation of Superman. Of course it does, if Superman doesn’t exist, it is imperative we invent him.

The moustache on the man who pulls the switch on Luthor and his shadow arching away as he does so.

The bullets bouncing off Luthor’s teeth.

Superman missing the sun-eater, one of the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

“What a life! I’ve traveled across time and space. I’ve seen and done things beyond imagination. Blessed with friends like Pete and Lana and Jimmy. And Batman… What incredible adventures we’ve shared. What amazing people I’ve known.”

There is STILL always a way.

Luthor’s hideout is all about him.

Nasthalthia’s wedding plans, bringing mass species extinction.

The loyalty of superman’s robots. His nobleness is enough to convince machinery.

Putting his super-key under the welcome mat.

Prototype Supersquad racing into battle against an evil sun, built from his own sense of justice, compassion and truth.

Robot 7 must atone.

The return of the sun eater

Superman’s righteous anger at what the sun has done.

“Rehabilitation begins here, Solaris. There’s a way to everyone’s heart and I can see yours.”

I still think mushroom clouds are pretty.

Even evil geniuses need the media to spread their message. Otherwise they just end up like that sad internet cult in Global Frequency, that kills itself when nobody is watching.

Clark Kent rushing to get his final big headline in on time. What a pro!

The crimson landscape of Krypton.

Superman given the choice of remaining at play within the field of living, fluid consciousness, or turning and facing down evil one last time. For the big man, it’s no choice at all.

Lex’s super-sneer.

And his refusal to accept the notion of truth because it’s not scientifically measurable.

Steve Lombard: still a cock, but a good cock as he tries to bring his buddy Clark back from the dead.

Clark calmly standing up for his friends against the most powerful man on the planet.

The glare of the gravity gun.

“Nice, ah, disguise, Superman.” His secret identity is like masturbation. Everyone knows about it, it’s just not polite to talk about it.

The ideas that start flowing for Luthor before he is hit by a truck.


The fight through the subway train. Best action choreographer in the bizness.

“Stand aside! Don’t be alarmed! This is only the phase transition to a new way of life without Superman! Lay down your weapons, surrender and everything will be fine.”

Lex figures out that compassion is the fundamental scientific force in the universe.

And Nasthalthia is mortified by her Uncle’s emo behaviour.

Superman outsmarting Luthor with the time distortion, and then punching that bald git in the mouth.


Neon Superman, as his cells convert into energy.

The silence as he plunges into the sun, carrying Lois’ love with him into eternity.

One year later and Lois’ absolute certainty that he is not dead is rock solid.

So it should be. Superman is in the sun, constructing machinery so advanced it might as well be a magic lamp. Bathed in golden perfection, his super alchemy keeping him alive, Superman is still watching over us all.

At the end, it was all about love and the best in humanity. And super-punching.

It exists outside of continuity, using it but not as part of it, giving it the ability to go its own way without worrying too much about how it all meshes together.

The 12 legendary super challenges aren't clearly defined

It totally cured a headache I had once.

Morrison and Quitely.

And one reason why All Star Batman and Robin might be better than All Star Superman.

Just because!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fuckin’ albatross

This one time, around about 1995, I was walking home from the movies when I thought my house had burned down. There were fire engines parked up on the lawn and all sorts of people running about. I thought my beautiful collection of comics and books and all things paper had gone up in smoke.

And I didn’t really mind at all.

* * *

It’s a fucking weight around the neck sometimes. All this stuff, all these piles of comics and books and magazines and shit. Sometimes it all gets a bit much and its time for a purge, but there is always more, more, more.

I just can’t get rid of it. Boxes full of Spider-Man and Hellblazer and Bacchus and five thousand other comics. There is an entire pallet of comics and magazines sitting in the side room of a factory 2000 kilometres away which I’m still planning to pick up, and I can’t bear to throw any of it out. Even the shitty Lobo comics.

* * *

And it sometimes feels a bit hypocritical. How can I cheer on King Mob when he blows up Mason’s mansion at the end of volume two of The Invisibles, when at that time I had never been overseas because I didn’t know what to do with my stuff?

A few years before that, a profile of Grant Morrison in 2000ad says that his greatest moment in comics was the moment he realised he could just chuck them all in the bin when he was done with them, and I felt so fucking jealous that he could just do that.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago the wife said we should move to the Caribbean for two years before we settle down and have kids and go boring. It’s a mental idea where we would have to chuck in our careers for a whole, travel halfway around the world and commit to a lifestyle full of uncertainties.

But there is also a part of my brain that sits there going “Well, why not?” Other people do crazier stuff and there isn’t any good reason not to.

As sad as it sounds, the one major thing holding me back is the all this goddamn paper, a forest reduced to four colour fun. But that can go back into storage and that “why not?” in my head is getting louder and louder.

* * *

In 35 years, I have lived in nearly 40 flats, houses and apartments, and every move has been an absolute mission of efficiency. It has to be, when there are several dozen heavy boxes to move around.

I don’t mind the move so much, and can now deal with the problem with ease. It’s a stupid skill to have, but a skill all the same. I can have everything packed up in hours and moved from city to city with few problems.

I should just get rid of it all. Sell the entire lot and buy booze and candy with the proceeds. But I can’t.

I genuinely love it all so goddamn much.

* * *

I also love looking at other people’s bookcases. Comic bookcase porn has been everywhere in the last couple of years, with Alan David Doane recently posting some shots of his own gorgeous collection. Alan does admit that owning that much stuff is sometimes a massive pain in the ass, but with results like that, it must be hard to argue against it all.

I have spent approximately 17% of my life arranging my bookshelves in some way and whenever I walk into somebody’s home, I always end up judging them by the standard of the books on their shelves. So I have to show off my impeccable taste in some way, don’t I?

* * *

But if I did have to lose it, if it was taken away from me, I’m not sure I’d mind.

When I was 12, our house came within a hair’s breadth of being completely flooded out by a swollen river. Even at that age, I had a sizable pile of well-loved comics and books and toys like that Boba Fett figure I’d had since I was five and was genuinely terrified of losing the lot.

The stopbank down the road ended up holding back the swollen Opihi River and I lost nothing, but so what if I had? Most of those comics I would have lost in that flood disappeared over the years since the near-flooding, with almost no regrets. Some of them literally fell to pieces from over-reading over the years, a lot were given away or sold, and many just disappeared.

So what?

* * *

This past weekend I got the chance to do nothing. That might not sound like much, but after weeks and weeks of functions and gigs and job things and catching up with old friends and shows and all that jazz, it was nice to be able to sit and home and do nothing.

And I wasn’t bored for one second, because there was so much to read and flick through and browse sitting in those boxes in the spare room.

With the attention span of a gnat, it’s nice to have a lot of choice and it’s moments like that which remind me why I hold on to all this crap.

To always have something to read. To always have something to enjoy. To always have something to do.

* * *

And yet….

That fire engine was sitting right on my front lawn and I thought it had all gone up in smoke. All those Justice League comics and Wild Card books, all gone. And I felt free.

It would have been a tragedy to lose all those things I had painstakingly collected over the years, but the stories were still in my head and could only get better without the dull reality of the actual object.

And I could be free to go anywhere and do anything.

But then it turned out that the fire engine was dealing with the house next door and all my precious possessions were safe, so I carried on with my hoarded life to this day.

And while it’s great to have all that shit, I still can’t shake the feeling that I honestly wouldn’t mind if it all went away. I’m not brave enough to do anything further than the odd purge, but losing it all couldn’t be that bad.

It’s only stuff.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Weekend Comics

And then I sold a whole bunch of old and shitty comics and used the proceeds to buy new and neat ones. That worked out well.

* * *

I’ve got into this habit of letting issues build up for a couple of months before buying them. Stuff like Herogasm or Greek Street can stay in the folder for a little longer, because I can wait and a more substantial read every couple of months is surprisingly productive.

This has worked particularly well with Wednesday Comics, which is easy enough to skip for a couple of weeks and more than made up by ingesting three massive pages of the same story in one go. It means I’m a bit behind right now, but will get a suitable dose of four colour glory with the climax next week.

This maans a lot of the new comics I got on Saturday have been out for a few weeks or months already and might already be stale in the vast collective comics unconscious, but I still loved ‘em to bits.

* * *

Okay, so I never let any Morrison sitting there for more than a week, ‘cos he’s still my fave.

And low expectations for Philip Tan’s art on the latest Batman and Robin were completely unwarranted. It was entirely satisfactory. It is nice and dirty and gloomy, just like it should be and the odd awkward pose is a small price to pay. He’s no Quitely, but who is?

I guess it’s supposed to be a big mystery about the Red Hood’s identity, so I’m gonna say it’s the Joker. He’s ways, after all, the first Red Hood, but never a buff and bloodthirsty anti-hero before. It would certainly fit with Morrison’s take on the Joker as a constantly reinventing super-personality. So that’s my vote.

* * *

I missed Kick-Ass #7 a couple of weeks ago, but I’m glad I got it because the last half dozen pages were so magnificently entertaining they made me laugh out loud.

It’s the most MARK MILLAR book out there which is still a positive in my book. So there is obviously something wrong with me.

* * *

The Boys is starting to go into some really interesting places and the last two issues of the Self-Preservation Society are suitably meaty. I did dig the Allies teaming up again to kick an evil Nazi scumbag to death, but it’s all about the Butcher.

While some horrible things have been happening in The Boys since day one, it’s all been a bit of a laugh. The attack on the Female has brought some righteous retribution down on the clods responsible and Billy Butcher is going to make them pay.

You know it’s serious when he sends that bloody dog off.

That last page of #34 is the scariest damn thing I’ve seen in a comic book in a while. Butcher with a meat clever and some very important questions doesn’t need any more elaboration. He is going to do bad things and he will probably enjoy them.

(Plus I just like it when he says stuff like “Leg it, mate.” and “An’ you’re a fuckin’ insult to the lads that did.”)

And as it gets more horrible and brains start coming out of people’s heads, it’s good to see Wee Hughie - the hero of the goddamn comic - showing his revulsion. He is glad to see punishment done, it’s just the reality is so fucking horrible, it’s good to see a character that is still human enough to act like one.

Shame about the arm.

* * *

I also got the first two issues of Herogasm, which cast a lot of light on what just happened in The Boys and features some truly remarkable sexual positions, while still being really, really horrible.

What the fuck is up with Homelander?

* * *

I kept getting Fantastic Four after Millar and Hitch bailed because I enjoyed the climax to their story. The one that they didn’t do. I just really liked Millar’s Doctor Doom.

The first issue of the new creative team is enough to keep me going for a while. Hickman’s writing is smart, funny and human when he leaves the self-righteous characters out of it and Eaglesham is the most beautifully average artist is super-comics.

(This is good. I love beautifully average artists. Eaglesham, Bagley and – at the highest end – the great John Romita Snr and the mighty Alan Davis: I’ll read their comics ‘til kingdom come.)

* * *

Jack of Fables is still ridiculously entertaining and I always enjoy its free-wheeling nature. It’s a comic where anything could happen and consequences be damned.

It’s a little weird that Willingham and Sturges’ superhero comics tend to be so po-faced and turgid when they show such a light touch here. It’s nice to read a comic where the main character for the past 37 issues wanders off and away from the narrative. That Jack has got fat and boring and his sidekick can’t do anything interesting any more, so the audience wanders off, just like that little blue bull, who has had enough of these losers.

Luckily there’s a new Jack and while he is a bit of a naïve and whining little punk, Willingham does that thing he’s done a lot in Fables and created a vaguely annoying character who turns out to be a complete badass when it comes to battle. A quick and intense four page battle establishes the new Jack as a character worth following, all set up with the required amusing sidekick. So he’s worth following for a while, then.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Most of the biggest comic titles in the world have attracted different creative teams over the years. How do you follow greatness and emulate genius? It must be one of the most thankless jobs in the entire comics business.

It's usually the original creators that set the benchmark on a mainstream superhero comic, one that every subsequent creative team do their best to follow. It's pure logic, as nobody really should know what a character is like more than the person who dreamed them up.

Nobody who has ever worked on the Fantastic Four since Stan and Jack moved on to Hollywood and the Infinite have ever said that their work was as good as those first hundred and something issues. And they would be right. Anybody who signs on to have a crack at the World's Greatest Comic Magazine is working in their shadow, and will always face comparison. It has got to the point where master self-promoter Mark Millar actually toned down his hyperbole, and managed to suggest that even his and Hitch's recent run is not up there with the Lee/Kirby run. Although it was still meant to be the best thing ever in the last ten years or something...

Across the hallway, Ditko Spider-Man is also a definitive version, even if the smoother Romita version is the one which become a ubiquitous marketing icon. Lee and Ditko were on a roll with Spidey for those first three dozen issues, and despite numerous attempts to recapture the fire, neither creator has had that much success in the years since.

Out in the independent world, creator ownership has not only ensured that a particular vision of a creation will be a definitive one, but that it will also invariably be a singular one. It's hard to imagine other creators having a go at concepts such as Cerebus, Sin City or Love and Rockets, outside the odd pin-up and rare collaboration. The ownership of the concept has served these creators well, and has frequently lead to some of the most stunning comics in history.

Being first doesn't always guarantee that a definitive high point in a comic has been reached. Just as often, a new creator with a different eye will come aboard, reinterpret it into something new and see nothing but pale imitations for years to come.

Nobody who has ever taken on the writing duties on Swamp Thing in the last couple of decades has ever been able to avoid the shadow of Alan Moore's run on the comic. There were certainly the odd high points, such as a young Millar's sweetly apocalyptic run and Veitch's filthy and mucky meanderings, but the ideas and concepts Moore (and, to a slightly lesser extent, creator Len Wein,) brought to the table are rarely transcended. The problem is, these ideas are now more than a quarter of a century old, and it's more than a little depressing that nobody has come up with anything better since.

Back over at the House of Ideas, Frank Miller's work on Dardevil still define that comic. There have been several notable runs on the title since, but even Bendis' mammoth efforts are following the crime-noir pattern established by Miller. Any attempts to bring a lighter touch to the series have been seen as relative failures, despite some quality work. Karl Kesel and Cary Nord's mid-nineties run is one that refused to let Matt Murdock mope around the city as he bounced from flagpole to flagpole, and was a refreshing breath of fresh air on the title, but failed to find much of an audience.

Fortunately, there are still a ton of comics that have never really had something that raised the bar impossibly high. A comic like The Avengers, which has been running non-stop for decades, has a large amount of very good runs, including the Kree/Skrull war, the Korvac saga, the mansion siege, Busiek and Perez's return to basics and Bendis' current bombastic blockbuster style, but nothing that has ever pushed the book into strange new directions, nothing that has raised the quality to a level that will be almost impossible to beat.

Even Superman, the godfather of the entire superhero concept, hasn't really had something that stands as the definitive take. Mort Wesinger's iron grip on the franchise set the standard for decades, but apart from magnificent cover concepts, that standard wasn't that hard to beat. There have been sparks of pure genius in the odd reboot and one-off projects, but no definitive run that rules over all.

Batman has also hard to nail down in this respect, and while the character has been modelled on the Dark Night Returns and Neal Adams versions of the Caped Crusader for the past few decades, there are still heights to be reached with the character that are rarely seen, or even attempted at.

There is the possibility that the World's Finest, and even The Avengers, are just too big to be given a definitive version. The Great Superman Story may be just as elusive and impossible to create as the mythical Great American Novel.

Still, that shouldn't stop us all from trying. Creating unbeatable runs of comics leaves us with an inevitable comedown, but the highs are so wonderful, it's worth the drop. The nostalgic yearnings and desires to keep constant with core concepts that permeate modern mainstream comics mean that the likelihood of somebody matching the Lee/Kirby run on Fantastic Four is remote, but there is always the possibility.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pat Mills will never die

Some people say Pats Mills is bonkers, but I just think he’s free. And an absolute legend. Close to four decades of professional comic writing and he is still delivering the goods on a weekly basis. Sometimes he belabours his point beyond absurdity, but he still cares about what he does and that shines through in almost everything he works on.

He was there at the birth of 2000ad, contributed a massive amount of imagination and life into its earliest strips and has remained a constant presence over the last 32 years. Sometimes he might go away for a couple of years but then he comes back with some more Slaine or Bill Savage or Flesh and shows all the young punks how it is done.

In this way, Pitt Mills is the Neil Young of British comics. When Neil comes out on stage to do a rock and roll set these days, he puts on a fucking show that shows all the young punks how to do it. It’s not easy for him to wrench those goddamned sounds out of his goddamned guitar and it shows on his goddamned face. He is a bit old and crusty, but he still cares and when he is on fire, nobody can touch him. Especially when he has such a vast pool of fantastic work backing him up.

Pat Mills wrote the first ever decent Doctor Who stories in the first 34 issues of Doctor Who Weekly, he had a hand in the horrific Hookjaw (which got the legendary Action comic in more trouble than anything else), created a fair section of Judge Dredd’s world and history and he wrote Charley’s War.

With all the entertainment and thoughtful comment he has produced over the years, the story of Charley Bourne in the Great War is Mills’ one stone-cold masterpiece. It remains an extraordinary comic, with Mills’ impeccable research and deep feeling for humanity combining with Joe Colquhoun’s magnificently dirty and detailed art.

There is a good case for it being the single best comic Britain has ever produced and sometimes it’s hard to argue, especially when you follow Charley’s fate in places like the Battle of the Somme. Ennis’ war stories are fucking brilliant, but none of them have come close to the power and righteous energy of Charley’s War.

(It is now available in some beautiful hardback books that are probably really hard to come by, but they are worth tracking down. If you don’t like them, there is something wrong with you.)

And after all these years, I was genuinely surprised to pick up a recent issue of 2000ad, see a new Slaine story announced on the cover and feel quite chuffed about it. If a new Slaine serial is starting, especially with the horribly addictive art shenanigans of Mr Clint Langley, then all is right and proper with the world.

Slaine has reached far beyond that point of absurdity mentioned above. It’s a story where events keep repeating over and over, where death means nothing. And it’s still incredibly entertaining. Slaine chops up some demon spawn or El Warriors and doesn’t think it too many. There will be some half-arsed philosophy thrown out and then Slaine moves on, looking for the next adventure.

Mills dedication to his own characters is one thing that shines through the anecdotal avalanche of David Bishop’s 2000ad behind-the-scenes book Thrillpower Overload. Another is that Pat Mills does not back down from a fight. Mills sits in a unique position as somebody who can arguably claim the most responsibility for the success of the early 2000ad, while also being somebody who nearly saw the entire comic shut down on more than one occasion, just because the managers were sick of arguing with this Mills fellow.

It helps that Mills is almost always right, arguing passionately in favour of creator rights and storytelling freedom, but even his dodgiest theories are argued in a vastly entertaining manner.

And if an editor fucks with a script of his, Mills will let them know about it. It’s best just to let him run riot, and while that may led to inexplicably awful comics like the Blood of Satanus sequels, he can still come up with some remarkable stuff. I don’t know why I enjoy ABC Warriors so much when it doesn’t make any damn sense after 30 years of stories, but the love for new work Savage or Defoe is absolutely genuine. Even the government super-soldier saga Greysuit can drag on for weeks and weeks, before delivering a real punch of intensity. (Greysuit also deserves a mention for Mills’ bonkers idea to have a character called the Ginger Ninja, and he almost gets away with it, too.)

Savage is the direct continuation of a story that appeared in the very first issue of 2000ad 32 years ago, but is the current forum for Mills’ own political beliefs. It works a lot better these days than when he did it in Third World War in the Crisis comic, where he eventually got a bit lost in pagan retribution, with the whole story threatening to collapse under its own worthiness. No such problems with Savage, which switches between kitchen sink melodrama in modern occupied Britain and the big battles with ease. It’s now been running for a couple of years and has become a welcome weekly addition to the comic, even tying into Mills’ greater continuity recently with the appearance of the first generation ABC Warriors recently and a man previously known for being a brain in a jar.

Defoe is zombies getting slaughtered in the 17th century. Sometimes gets a bit too convoluted for its own good and relies on some of the oldest tough guy clichés in the book but it can still be a cracking read when the reeks start marching.

Mills has spreads his wings outside comics several times, but some lamentable prose efforts have shown that Mills is best suited for combining pictures with his words. He’s also proven ideally suited for comics that are not in the American mainstream. Outside of Marshal Law, his highest profile work in US comics is probably Punisher 2099, or a surprisingly entertaining run of 90s comics based on Death Race 2000, kicked off in enviable style by frequent collaborator Kevin O’Neill.

Still, at least he had Marshal Law. Maybe it’s that absolute and gleeful hatred that Mills and O’Neill seem to have for men in tights, but the joke that forms all of Marshall Law – that superheroes are fucking rubbish and should be shot – is still fucking funny. I’ll read a new Marshall Law over any other comic any day. I read The Boys, because that same fire is in there too, but it’s still not Marshall fucking Law.

There was also a DC original graphic novel called Metalzoic, which was terrific, but has fell into the memory hole that ate all those other original sci-fi books DC put out in the eighties.

But even if it’s disappeared, it’s always worth a look, because everything Mills does has something going for it. A good idea, a decent character, a cracking piece of dialogue. Something.

Mills’ comics can be vastly entertaining and incredibly thoughtful. They can also be a bit dull sometimes, but the longer curve of his career has produced far, far more hits than misses.

I’m always up for some Mills. Without even really seeking it out, I’ve managed to read damn near everything he has been involved with, and enjoyed it all. His European work has been hard to find, but I’m sure it will turn up in some form or another, and will be well worth the read. Some of it is already making its way back into English.

Mills has been around the block but remains the ultimate angry young brit, rallying against the injustices of the world, but not scared of a little blood with his ideas.

He always wears his politics on his sleeve and is impassioned about the work he does, even if nobody seems to get what he’s on about. God bless ‘im.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Yet another Love and Rockets weekend

A year can be a very, very long time to wait sometimes.

* * *

The math was simple: Upcoming and expensive dental surgery means no luxuries for a while. Have to give up the comics for a few weeks, along with the other stupid little treats. (Still managed a good night out with booze and dancing on Saturday. It cost $1.20.)

But even though it costs $36 an issue these days, Love and Rockets only comes out once a year now and it’s impossible to resist. The second issue of L&R: New Stories is in stores this week and I can’t leave it sitting there. I want to feel like I’m 19 again. I want a dose of god damn comic genius. I want some Love and Rockets.

I get some Love and Rockets.

* * *

Short version: Jamie brings the wham-bang action with a truckload of sad nostalgia and emotional metaphor. Beto is doing that thing he does at the start and end of every L&R format, free-wheeling for a while, letting things go crazy for a bit. Fair play. It doesn’t always immediately reward, but I’m always up for some freewheeling craziness and it does stand the test of time a lot better than some of his other, more plot-driven stuff.

Shorter version: It’s as fucking brilliant as always and is my favourite comic again. Or at least for a few more months.

* * *

Jaime’s fight choreography is ridiculously tight, maintaining a real fluidity while fucking shining with energy. The part where Angel clocks Kalamity with an incredibly solid uppercut is spectacular. Or an earlier fight between the two, with the filing-cabinet back-slam.



I love this shit and after years of over-rendered idiocy reducing fight scenes to nonsense, it’s still a thrill to see a solid draftsman with an eye for movement and impeccable timing produce the best action scenes I’ve seen since… Well, since the second issue of Batman and Robin. Quitely and Hernandez are my rock stars.

It must have worked, because I yelled “Pow!” out loud with Angel’s punch and people looked at me funny.

* * *

So how come my favourite part of the whole book is the bit where Xo and Maggie meet and make that odd little connection? It’s an obvious one that still doesn’t make any sense and that’s what is so great about it. These things should not make any sense, they’re comics.

But it’s something Jaime has done a few times now, introduce a random character that turns out to be not so random. Xo can’t be Maggie’s cousin, there are decades between them, although Xo talks about things from back in the 20th century, and there is some vast, complex cosmological continuity out there in the background.

The back-story never mattered, origins are always the most boring part. Jaime just cuts to the chase and shows the big fight, leaving the background where it belongs, in brief asides and weird meetings.

Shit, now I want to head back into Whoa Nellie and those Xo stories in the last issues of the first volume. L&R always does that.

* * *

On the Beto side, it’s the fifth generation of the same old story for Killer. The multi-generational story-telling is one of the most attractive aspects of his tales and Sad Girl is no different.

Resonances between Killer and her mother, grand-mother and great grand-mother are everywhere, (not to mention the cousins, friends and other members of her extended family) but she still has her own story to tell.

* * *

But I keep coming back to the Jaime, because it’s so beautiful to look at, and still spooky and sad.

Where does Maggie go, right at the end? Is she done with super-heroes, like she was done with the ghost women and black dogs at the end of Ghost of Hoppers? Is it time to move on from her comfortable life managing that apartment block, away from that soothing nostalgia?

She’s 40 now and all grown up.

But there are still comic books that only Maggie can read, or the weird creepy vibe of it all. It’s the return of that supernatural hum that often underpins the Locas stories and can also be found in obscure old superhero comics, in entire companies that vanished over the years, leaving behind pop culture debris that can still be picked apart.

And then she fades away under a light of truth. Wherever she ends up next, she’ll still be Maggie, but she will have grown up, just a little bit more.

* * *

It is a bit sad sometimes, but there is still a lot of light to enjoy. The super-heroines are spunky and sassy and the easy explanation of “the gift” covers a lot of holes.

And Penny is always Penny, reacting to everything in a massively over-the-top manner. If anybody who digs the grungy realism of past Locas stories has been put off by the fantastical super-hero angle of the new comic, they just need to remember that Penny has always flitted about between worlds.

Just as comfortable in world where young men drinking beer against a wall in the Californian sun as she is in the one concerned with ultimate, epic battles between good and evil. She was always the most comic-book character and now she has also faded away. Penny could still pop back up at any moment, but this could also be an end, holding her head high as she moves on out of the world.

Is she done now, content to live a life outside the limelight for the first time in her life?

Could be!

* * *

The shift to the annual format was a welcome revitalization, but it still means that years can go by before we get updates on the best characters in comics.

Okay, so Doyle would vanish for more than a decade and then show up as if it’s 1982 all over again. But with the quarterly schedule, there was always the chance that he could show up at any time. When the Ti-Girls story got started and it became obvious that that was the next two years of Locas stories, it really was a little depressing to know that this was all we were getting out of Jaime for the next two years.

Even if the brilliance of the new story, I’m still desperate to know how Ray D is doing, or whether Viv has got it together, or how Hopey is managing a mature life.

Because – god damn it- I really fucking care about these characters. We drop in and out of their lives and it’s never quite enough. Like my closest friends and family, I don’t need to know much, but I just want to know if they’re all right, if they’re okay.

These are simply great fictional characters, in a great story, in a great comic. I miss them like nothing else, but at least that just makes the inevitable catch-up all the sweeter.

* * *

See you next year!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adventures of a snot-encrusted bog monster

The key this time is Swamp Thing Annual #2.

* * *

I finally completed my collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run a couple of weeks ago, managing to get the last three issues over the internet.

That only took 20 years.

* * *

I’m 12 years old and think I’m cool because I’m smoking out behind the golf course, when my mate says he has a couple of comics he doesn’t want any more. I can never turn away from free comics and come and have a look.

There are a few issues of Battle Action Force, an Uncanny X-Men from 1984 and the second Swamp Thing annual, drawn by Steve Bissette, and written by some bloke named Alan Moore.

It’s the Action Force stuff I’m most excited about at this stage, although that interest in the X-Men is about to be taken to the level of obsession. I don’t even get around to reading the weird looking Swamp Thing for a couple of weeks. When I finally do, it blows the back of my head clean off, leaving my brains splattered across the wall in a lovely Rorschach pattern.

* * *

That annual remains, to this day, one of my single favourite comics of all time. A brief tour of heaven and hell and everywhere in-between, it was still weird and confusing to this 12-year-old, but it was also strange and beautiful.

The quest to rescue an innocent soul from the horrors of hell is one of the oldest stories we have, but few of them gave the story as much weight as Moore slapped on the back of his muck monster.

It’s funny, it’s clever and it raises so many storytelling possibilities that there are still bits and pieces being picked off it now and used to spark off new stories. It’s also my first proper introduction to many of the weirder denizens of the DC afterlife, including the Spectre and Deadman. I’d seen them in other places – usually in the hip super fun of the Brave and the Bold - but this is the first time they feel like real characters, instead of pure plot-movers. Even the great Swamp Thing stories by Wein and Wrightson never really clicked, despite being spooky as hell.

With its sweet, quiet ending, I'm floored. This is one of the first genuinely moving comics I’ve ever read, and I want more.

* * *

Since then, I’ve always had my eye out for the Swamp Thing and have picked up issues here and there, from literally all over the world. It all got horribly confusing, especially when various reprints got involved and I couldn’t remember which ones I needed any more, reduced to relying on an ever-dwindling list.

I’ve never read a single storyline in Moore’s run in order. Always piecemeal, missing vast chunks of the over-reaching narrative, only picking it up, one slice at a time. Fortunately, Moore is good at crafting single-issue stories that do tie into that much bigger story, while standing as an entertaining item on its own merits.

* * *

Looking at it all now, it all comes together so nicely. The first shuffling, unsure steps, growing steadily in confidence, the first major climax against Arcane and the depths the hero must plunge in order to save a loved one. Then more spreading out of ideas and thoughts, blossoming into some American Gothic horror that takes on some very large metaphysical threads. And then up and beyond, before coming home again. That’s the story of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

But it’s more than that. Moore’s Swampy wasn’t about the big battles for all reality, it wasn’t about the conflict and horror. It was about the love that shines through in the darkness. In almost every storyline after the first year, Swamp Thing is motivated by love, pure love.

His love for Abby almost sees him destroy Gotham City and ultimately sees him banished to the cold cosmos. He comes back, of course, as Moore finishes off the series with the main character going off and living happily ever after, or as happy as they could get under subsequent writers.

But Moore’s attempts to bring a little love and empathy and compassion into the series still sing, more than two decades after they were first written. Even in the massive climactic battle of #50, with all the forces of heaven and hell joining forces to face off against the ultimate darkness, it’s Swamp Thing’s compassion that saves the day. The others try to fight and fail, but our hero is taken willingly and throws questions instead of weapons, and emerges triumphant.

Love leads the way!

* * *

Sometimes, reading it in such an incredibly piecemeal fashion means certain moments are surprisingly effective. Especially when the last one I get to complete the series is the exact issue where Alec and Abby actually get together. It’s lovely, but it’s like seeing your parents make the glad eye at each other. As far as this reader goes, they’ve always been together, and always will be.

* * *

Sometimes Moore gets a little crazy with the overwritten prose, but it’s still hard to hate when this much thought goes into it. When so many creators are happy just to churn out the same old shit, Moore was one of those creators who sat down and thought about the possibilities. Put a bit of effort into it. Took ideas to their logical conclusion and saw how it all fit together.

It’s not that hard, is it?

* * *

I managed to completely miss Moore’s blitzkrieg into the American comics scene at the time, and only became aware of the impact of his Swamp Thing run long after the fact.

It’s almost like Woodstock. If everybody who claims to have been reading Swamp Thing in the eighties was actually reading it, the comic would have been the best-selling of all time. As it was, it was more like the Velvet Underground – never really that successful, but massively influential.

* * *

Sometimes the art actually makes me feel a bit sick, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Bissette or Veitch providing artwork that was anywhere near as effective.

The swamp can be a horrible, dangerous place, stinking and hot and humid. Everything is decaying and dying. But it can also be a place of great beauty, of light shining through in unfamiliar patterns, of natural art forming in the still waters, of life clinging on.

The Swamp Thing artists captured it all.

* * *

It’s the last year that remains my favourite of Moore’s run, with our hero going through all sorts of Strange Adventures during an exile in the depths of outer space. It saw some of Moore’s most experimental work in mainstream comics, mixed up with some good old fashioned space monsters and ray guns.

Loving The Alien in #60 - an eerie tale of space rape and truly alien life forms – somehow ends up as one of my favourite single issues ever, alongside that annual that got me into Swamp Thing’s world in the first place. With some stunning John Totleben art and a truly alien subject, it was something so vastly different from anything I’d ever read before and still manages to have real emotional weight.

* * *

Moore’s ending was a good place to stop. Despite some really lovely work from Rick Veitch (with the climactic exile storyline again becoming a favourite) and Mark Millar & Phil Hester, it’s still nice to think of Swamp Thing ending like this. Settling down in his organic mansion in his kingdom with the wife, content and fulfilled.

Under Moore’s guidance, Swamp Thing travelled the lands of the dead and flew across the universe. He showed compassion to those who didn’t deserve it, but was not above a bit of righteous vengeance. He questioned his own existence and came up with an interesting perspective on the world around. He pushed his own limits and became massively powerful, but was still happy to find contentment in the simplest pleasures.

He was a snot-encrusted bog monster with more depth and humanity that most of us, full of love and compassion. He was Swamp Thing, and it’s bloody brilliant to finally read his entire saga in the right order.

Monday, September 7, 2009

‘Tooth and claw

I’ve been buying 2000ad for damn near thirty years and I still get a genuine dose of thrill-power every time I get a new issue. It gets released here the day before payday, and I still gladly go without food to buy the latest issue.

The most recent issues show all of the strengths and weaknesses that have always been a part of the galaxy’s greatest comic. The anthology format means it is impossible to keep everybody satisfied all of the time and there are always some outright stinkers, but there are also still plenty of gems showing up in its pages on a weekly basis.

It may be nine years past its futuristic date, but the first half of 2009 has still been a good six months for the science fiction institution. Plenty of old favourites, a couple of pleasant surprises and those turkeys.

Same as it ever was, then.

* * *

(This post will not look at Pat Mills’ recent (and mostly excellent) work for the comic, as the venerable Mr Mills is just too big to lump in with everyone else and will get his own individual post later in the week. There will also be no mention of anything from the last couple of months, as it takes 10 weeks for 2000ad to get to this part of the world or anything about the current state of the Judge Dredd Megazine, as I just can’t justify paying $20 for a couple of new stories, a whole bunch of text and reprints of stuff I’ve already got. For full reviews of the most recent issues, check out, where they’ve been doing a fine job for several years.)

* * *

Judge Dredd remains, as ever, the foundation of the comic and still retains the capacity for brilliance. Creator John Wagner still keeps the overall direction of the strip on track and has taken it in some really fascinating territory.

Over the past six months, Dredd has lost the political backing of most of the judges and may even face exile from the violent and terrible city that he loves so much.

Themes that have bubbled under the surface for years and years are still being pulled out with a new depth that is nothing short of surprising. There has been discussion of Dredd’s willingness to break in half, rather than bend in any way, since just after the Judge Child Quest, and it’s still a talking point in the story.

Judge Dredd’s future promises to be just as interesting, with the big man still questioning the inequities of law he loves so much, while still following it to the letter.

But it’s not all about the ongoing saga. This year has still seen plenty of short tales, showcasing the humour and absurdity of Dredd at his finest. Wagner even managed to write a ten-part run that didn’t bother with any of the over-reaching themes, with the writer content to do a straight thriller about an unstoppable killer and an addictively toxic alien brainsucker.

Other writers have also had a go with including Ian Edginton and Al Ewing taking time away from their own strips to add another tiny bit of Dredd lore, with Ian coming up with some new psi-shenanigans, while Al has got some more great mileage out of the well-mined future Sex Olympics. It’s also been good to see the odd Gordon Rennie, after the Scotsman appeared to give up on comics in favour of more lucrative video game work.

But Wagner is the lawmaster, and Backlash has been the best story of the year so far, offering up the usual humour and tragedy, along with some real surprises and emotional weight. It is the kind of story where nothing will be the same again, and carries the thirty-year evolution of Dredd on to the next level. Excellent stuff.

* * *

It can look easy to create a good Tharg’s Future Shock, but it’s bloody hard to get it right. Creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan all perfected their craft on six-page yarns for the comic, and it’s still used to blood new talent.

Unfortunately, that reliance on using the future shock as a training ground leads to some pretty clumsy stories. There is no shortage of good ideas, but the execution is often lacking. Some of the more recent short stories have occasionally featured artwork from odd legends like Robin Smith, but they mostly use rawer talents.

And for all that, there is something nice about a new Future Shock, even if it doesn’t completely work. They are over and done with quickly, and a bad future shock never lingers as a bad taste.

In recent times, 2000ad has also featured the fine comic styling of Bob Byrne’s Twisted Tales, short, bizarre and dialogue-free tales of weirdness. They often make little sense on the first read-through, but can be surprisingly rewarding on later reflection, while Byrne’s art is a lovely mixture of odd cuteness and foreboding menace. They might not have the charm and wit of some of the classic Future Shocks of the past, but Byrne’s story hold their own.

* * *

Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s Zombo kinda fizzled out. The story of an undead and awfully polite monster leading the way through a truly alien and hellish deathworld has some wonderfully imaginatively gory deaths doled out to its characters, but then just stopped.

There are indications that Zombo is set for a longer run, but the initial storyline was pretty thin. While setting up further stories featuring the character and world, a prologue has to stand on its own merits, or you’ve lost the reader before you get started. Seeing an obnoxiously accurate Russell Brand die horribly isn’t always enough.

The same thing certainly happened with Necrophim by Tony Lee and Lee Carter. It was certainly a lot better than the painfully mediocre space prison thing Lee did last year (which still wasn’t bad enough to warrant the abhorrent gift he got sent in the mail) and is even better than the absolutely average Doctor Who stuff he has been doing for IDW. But it’s still a whole lot of nothing so far.

Just because the characters in the story are demons doesn’t make the political backstabbing and theological civil war any more interesting than something like King Lear.

Both stories could still have a long future, but the jury is out at this stage. Dredd would give them six months in an iso-cube anyway, just to buck up their ideas.

* * *

Two longish-running black and white series have also fleshed out their respective worlds quite nicely in the last few months. The Red Seas, written by Ian Edgington, has been moving along nicely for several years now, with a rollicking pirate yarn slamming up against vast, eldritch gods and their incomprehensible weapons. It is always a worthy and entertaining read, and Steve Yeowell’s art is as pleasantly flowing as ever.

Dredd spin-off Low Life had a cracking run recently, with creator Rob Williams going overboard on the religious iconography with a drug that grants any divine wish. Artist D’Israeli is a bloody genius at blocky technology and sheer desperation, and the focus on Dirty Frank – a genuinely crazy undercover Judge in the worst sector in the city – is a welcome one.

Low Life can occasionally run cold, but this latest story was a good one, with an exceptional ending that beautifully explains exactly what Dirty Frank was doing while freezing to death in an icy wilderness.

* * *

Marauder by Morrison and Elson was disappointingly dull and clichéd, even though it highlighted the strength of modern Dredd – the ability to check up on minor characters ten or twenty years down the line and se what Dredd’s world has done to them.

The 86ers by Arthur Wayatt and PJ Holden was just disappointing. Even under Gordon Rennie’s pen, it never really went anyway and the thankless task of tying up old loose ends that nobody cared about produced a thankless tale. Space fighter pilots in a future war should not be this dull.

* * *

Old favourites are always good. There has been a nauseating display of love for Nikolai Dante on this blog before, and the recent Army of Thieves and Whores story is as good as anything Morrison and Fraser have done with the character in the past. The most disappointing part of this thoroughly engrossing serial remains the wait between series.

Sinister Dexter has been running on the spot a lot lately, but an expected explosion in violence should set that right.

Strontium Dog is still by Wagner and Ezquerra and is still fucking excellent.

* * *

Hoodie horror Cradlegrave is the best new story to appear in 2000ad in a long, long time. The thoroughly brilliant series is John Smith at his finest and Edmund Bagwell’s art might be a little raw sometimes, but he captures the filth and desperation of the story very nicely.

A fantastic sense of mood, sharp characterization, a council estate setting and some extreme body horror gives Cradlegrave a nice early Clive Barker feel, which is always good value. But it’s more than simple pastiche and fantastic on its own level. The inevitable collection is one to watch out for.

* * *

And I still fucking love it. Even the shit stuff, even the mediocre rubbish. I love it all. It’s a comic that is packed full of humour and action and horror and some of the maddest ideas in comics.

It’s a comic where there is a significant power shift in a city of 400 million people, where an enemy informant is ripped apart by a savage beast on the industrial wasteland of occupied Britain. It’s Soviet soldiers getting shot in the face by a nutter with a shotgun and a raft full of stranded interstellar passengers getting stripped to the bone in three seconds. It’s the sad hopelessness of returning to an unloved home after a stretch in prison and clockwork imperial zombies rising in the ruins of a destroyed dynasty. And that’s just one random recent issue.

2000ad: Better than anything.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Free sounds

One of the biggest things I fear about getting older is getting too stuck in my ways – listening to the same music over and over again, watching only certain types of movies, reading only a particular brand of books. I'm always trying new comic books, desperate to break the easy pattern of following known creators, even if it's only rarely rewarding.

It's been said that mature tastes are almost fully developed at the age of 19, and that once we've worked out what we like, we're reluctant to go further afield.

This might be biologically correct, with the brain reaching a certain stage at a certain age, but it's also a load of old bollocks. While there are certainly people who only listen to music created 20 years ago because it reminds them of the one time in human history when they were actually a little bit cool, there are many more who are always looking for something new, shiny and interesting.

When it comes to music, it's not hard to find new stuff, but the big problem is sorting out gems from the vast amounts of sawdust. Thousands of new songs are created all over the world every week, many from hopeful amateurs, many from established artists. It can be easy to rely on what you know, to stick with the artists who have proven themselves over and over again, but the need to branch out and try something a bit different is a strong one.

The internet age has made finding new songs, artists and entire genres easier than ever before, as long as you know where to look. There are a number of excellent sites where contributors of discriminating tastes can point you in the right direction, and they are to be applauded.

But personally, over the last decade, I've discovered the best way to discover new music is through the free CDs that come with British music magazines.

The British music press has always been an odd beast, with entire musical careers built on the appearance on the front cover of the NME. Those weekly rags were only too keen to hype up the Next Big Thing, and even keener to run that band or individual back into the ground once the shine has worn off. The weeklies no longer have anywhere near the power they once had, and with the exception of the sturdy NME, are almost non-existent.

But many of these writers have migrated to the monthly magazines and the UK produces a large number of these monthly music-related publications. Some of them are aimed at an incredibly niche market, others go for a more popular route.

Mojo has to be the best when it comes to quality of writing, (even if the articles do sometimes tend to be a bit too interested in their subject's drug use), and looks at subjects that few mainstream publications would even consider. The free CDs started appearing on the cover of every issue about five years ago, and have built up a powerful library of tunes. From complete cover versions of Beatles albums to CDs dedicated to the best soul, garage and punk music, Mojo rarely disappoints. It offers meaty writing for the mind and beautiful tunes for the soul.

(It also featured my personal favourite piece of rock writing in the last decade, with Charles Shaar Murray's painfully moving obituary for the mighty Joe Strummer - “Go straight to heaven, boy. Your name's on the door. Walk right in.”)

On a more popular front, Q magazine only features three or four cover CDs a year, but they're invariably high quality. While they are certainly not as eclectic as Mojo's effort, the ability to offer the occasional random act from some of the best pop-rock bands in the world gives the listener the chance to hear something exciting and new. The magazine itself is nowhere near as good as it really could be, and somebody with a limited interest in the few bands that receive a multi-page profile would find little else to chew on, but it still features a trustworthy review section, the odd sharp feature and the occasionally spectacular cover shoot.

Uncut magazine got on the free-CD bandwagon pretty early and offers a huge amount of variety. Champions for alt-country long before it was cool, and still singing its praises long after everybody had moved on to the next retro-hot movement, there is plenty of that sort of music in the selections it offers, and a whole lot more.

With the mixtape mentality in full force, Uncut brings a more scattershot approach than the CDs offered by the other magazine means that there is a certain amount of unparalleled rubbish, but it's very rare to get a CD that features nothing noteworthy. (Unfortunately, one fairly recent compilation featuring the best of US college rock failed to connect on any level.)

Writing-wise, Uncut magazine is a bit better than Q, but frequently mines familiar territory a few times too often, and really needs to stop putting rock legends on the cover in moody black and white. Dylan, McCartney, and Mick & Keef are just as photogenic as ever, but it all gets a bit too predictable sometimes. And the magazine's move towards a focus on music meant many fine reviews and articles about movies and books largely disappeared from its pages overnight, which was a regrettable loss.

But when you get this much free music, who has really got the right to complain? There is still an overwhelming amount of material, but any fool can put together a playlist, and every single CD has at least one tune that is worth listening to.

I love the CDs. It's the path to something new and it's the rejection of comfortable nostalgia in favour of the weird unknown. But mostly, it's just a fucking good way of listening to some good new tunes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marvel stole Steve Dillon's mojo

Steve Dillon is a fantastic artist, but he really needs to step away from Marvel before the stagnation in his style settles in.

I’ve always liked Steve Dillon from the days of Mean Arena, back when he drew some of the most attractive women in comics. There was a real rawness to Steve’s early work, but he already had a stern grip on anatomy and an incredible eye for facial expressions. One early eighties Dredd remains a six-page classic as Dillon nails terrified desperation, fierce gun battles and complete shame with ease.

Then he showed how action was done in a surprisingly long run on Rogue Trooper in the late eighties, overcoming dire scripts to produce some lovely and lively art. He even made a rare scripting effort to wrap up the convoluted plot, giving Rogue an understated send-off that still managed a few good explosions.

Dillon’s line, right through his career to this point, remained strong and consistent, while the man’s style visibly changed. While some of his early work had more furious lines scratched into the page than any Image founder, he gradually simplified his work over an entire decade.

There was still time for some great noir work in the terribly silly Diceman series and he messed around with awful series like 2000ad’s revamped Harlem Heroes and good efforts like the sadly missed Deadline comic, but he was already getting noticed in America.

By the time he got to the US, he was still experimenting. The process was so slow and gradual that it was almost unnoticeable, but it’s certainly there. See his art change between the first and last issues of his relatively short Animal Man work, while the style visibly evolves during his first major Ennis collaboration on Hellblazer.

Six years of fun and games on Preacher and Dillon was on fire. With a vast canvas of violence and Americana to produce, Dillon pumped out the pages on a consistent schedule, never missing an issue and still finding time for the odd side-project.

The difference in style between that first issue of Preacher and the one where Jesse and Tulip rode into the sunset was still there. That monthly grind had polished Dillon’s art to a bright shine. As always, his skill at capturing facial expressions and intense action sequences remained undiminished, but there was a little less fine detail, a bit more of a broader stroke.

There was nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural part of Dillon’s progression as an artist. As well as the simplification, there is also a tendency to stretch out the character’s faces that increased as the Preacher saga wound on, but it’s all a natural progression as an artist. Dillon’s characters may not be as sexy as they once were, but they are still as full of life and vigour as they ever were.

And then he went to Marvel.

There is nothing seriously wrong with the work Dillon has produced on various Marvel titles over the past few years. His superheroes can sometimes look a little uncomfortable in Dillon’s version of spandex and leather, but his drafting and storytelling talents are as large as ever.

But at the same time, there hasn’t been a hell of a lot of progression during his time on Marvel. Looking his earliest work on the Punisher, made shortly after his move over from Preacher, and there isn’t a lot of difference between that and his most recent work.

There is a consistency in style right throughout Dillon’s Marvel comics. You can see it in Wolverine: Origins and in more mini-series about Bullseye than anybody really needed. It’s still there in the bits and pieces of Supreme Power he’s done and the recent return to Punisher with the War Zone mini series.

You can’t blame Steve for enjoying the opportunity to produce comics for the American market and make a little money off it. He has put in the hard work over three decades and deserves any success that comes his way. He has obviously found a comfortable level of artwork and appears content to leave the innovation aside for a while.

His next run on the Punisher, with stories by Jason Aaron, promises a return to darker territories for Dillon and while it remains well within his comfort zone, there is also the chance to make another little evolution.

I really hope this can spark up some more creative fire for the artist. He certainly hasn’t been hacking it out for Marvel, but the House of Ideas hasn’t fired him up either. Both sides seem quite happy to let him coast along on his inarguable skill, with no need to stretch out much further.

Dillon remains the model of consistent, well-produced work and he might be getting comfortable after 30 years of art, but he’s never too old to try something new, and it would be bloody nice to see some further evolution.