Thursday, October 29, 2009

9 Days of Reviewing #10: I can't count

Liberty Comics #2

Sometimes a little kid comes to our door and tells us he is doing a walkathon and will I sponsor him, mister? Even though there is a good chance it’s some kind of scam, I’ll still chuck them a couple of bucks half the time, just for the effort they’ve put into their plea. Sometimes I just tell them to go away.

Other times, a kid comes to the door and wants to know if I’ll buy some candy. I’ll never say no to that. Charity is all well and good, giving smugness levels a welcome boost, but give me something for my money and I’ll support you every time. I’m just that selfish.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has done some wonderful work over the years in the name of artistic freedom, but I never gave them any money. I wish I had, but I’m on the other side of the world and don’t know how. It’s a lame excuse and I’m sticking to it.

But if I give you money and you give me a comic with some fantastic creators involved, I’m all over it. Liberty Comics comes in at about 13 bucks in local money and I have no idea how much of that actually ends up back in the defense fund’s pocket, but they’re welcome to it. Maybe they can buy a packet of chocolate biscuits for the next board meeting with the cash.

The fact that the two issues of Liberty Comics – both this year’s release and last year’s inaugural issue – are packed with all sorts of interesting comics is a nice surprise. This year’s effort wasn’t entirely successful, but you get that with any anthology. I haven’t loved every single story in a new issue of 2000ad for decades, but I keep getting it. Short, snappy stories always make me happy when they’re done right.

Surprisingly, creators like making stories about their right to make stories, and that has produced some witty and thoughtful pieces about free speeh. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of terribly heavy handed stories that overflow with self-importance, and that has certainly happened with Liberty Comics #2.

Some of them get painfully earnest, especially Brian Wood’s return to Channel Zero, which is so right-on it’s almost unreadable. Aaron and Moritat’s opening story looks lovely and is humourous enough, even if it’s ultimate lesson is little more than Nobody Likes A Dick.)

The issue closes out with Jim Lee illustrating one of Gaiman’s death-obsessed poems, and it’s nice enough. Gaiman’s poetry has always been a little too precious, and that’s definitely certainly the case here, but it’s built on a nice little conceit that’s amusing enough. And Lee’s art is that step away from his usual style that he whips out on occasion. He might not be able to resist some of his artistic tricks, but at least he’s trying something a little different.

There are also new pop-comics, including Allred, Johnson and Rich’s Mr. Gum adventure, and the lovely exploding heads courtesy of Fawkes and Stewart’s Apocalypstix. Both tales are slight while still hammering home the Free Speech angle, but sweet enough to overcome any offense.

Other than that, the Choker preview had some typically interesting Ben Templesmith art, (even if there really wasn’t that much else interesting about it), I have absolutely no idea what was going on in the Immonen’s segment, but still felt oddly satisfied by it, and some sordid superheroics from Paul Pope are always welcome, even if it’s a little weird to see him use his own original characters again after recently doing similar things with familiar faces in Strange Tales and Wednesday Comics.


Chynna Clugston’s one-pager is cute, charming and self-aware, but I might just be saying that because I hat the same people she does. There is a real unexpected gem in the first Painkiller Jane story I’ve ever enjoyed, adding a nice twist to the usual argument. All you need is love.

It also helps that Jimmy Palmiotti is developing into an interesting writer. I’d given up on his comics after some terrible tie-ins to the latest DC mega-saga and his recent columns in the back of the Back to Brooklyn comic he did with Garth Ennis recently didn’t do him any favours. But he produced the best thing in this comic, is consistently hitting some good notes on Jonah Hex and wrote the best Supergirl comic I’ve ever read in Wednesday Comics. Nice one, Jimmy!

Liberty Comics is not quite as fulfilling as last year’s offering, with more stories that miss their target than the first issue, but it’s another laudable effort, and still tastier than that school candy I can’t stop buying.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #9: Oh God, that was me

Fair weather
By Joe Matt

Jim Valentino’s autobiographical A Touch Of Silver might be the worst comic I’ve ever read. Jim tried very hard and his heart is certainly in the right place, but it’s such a cloying, boring stretch of clich├ęs and dull cartoon choices. Entire scenes are reduced to sickly sentimentality, while many others revolve around the whole problem that nobody understands poor little Jimmy because he’s so gosh-darned sensitive.

At first glance, Joe Matt’s Fair Weather ­ a collection of comics about his own boyhood days originally serialized in Peepshow and published in 2002 ­ looks a lot like A Touch Of Silver, with both stories featuring the young creator barreling around on his bike, obsessed with comics.

They even share the ubiquitous moment when Mom throws out their comics, worried that their precious child is getting a little too obsessed.

But Fair Weather manages to be vastly more entertaining, because Matt doesn’t even try to hide the fact that as a youngster, he was a complete and utter little shit.

Matt, or the version he presents of himself in comics anyway, has often come across as pretty unlikeable. The world already knows far more than it needs to about Joe’s wanking habits and his moaning about the inability to finish a comic can get tedious (even if it’s somewhat undercut by the fact he’s actually produced the comic in which he’s moaning about it.)

But his younger self is a right little arsehole, monumentally selfish and almost completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. When he finds the comics his Mom claimed to have thrown out, there is no lesson to be learned, young Joe just spitefully hollers his victory and threatens of dire consequences if anybody dares touch his comics again.

While it ends on an upbeat (and slightly confusing) note, Joe displays an irritating smugness throughout the book, unwilling to help unless there is something in it for him, proud of the fact he has ripped off former friends and unable to see why it’s wrong if they don’t know about it.

Geeks ­ and comic geeks in particular- can be horrible little specimens sometimes, and that obnoxiousness can be at its worst in those early teenage years. It’s easy to forget what utter pricks we can be at that age, especially when it comes to our little hobbies. It’s just as easy to think of ourselves as soulful, sensitive outsiders, just like Jim Valentino, but chances are, we were just oblivious to how ridiculous we were.

I know I was a total bloody idiot at that age and it took me a lot longer than it should have to work out what I was doing wrong. That might be one of the most appealing aspects of Fair Weather – Matt acknowledges what a dick he was and dedicates the book to his mother, who “did her best”.

Matt might have spent a lot of his adult life creating a porn collection of unparalleled accuracy, but he’s recognized his own failings. They were there when he was younger and are presented front and centre in Fair Weather. But he’s grown up and moved on, just like we all need to. Finding new failings, but at least we've stopped crying about the stupid stuff.

The pleasant appeal of the book also owes a lot to Matt’s cartooning style. While his subject matter can often be filled with far more information than anybody would ever need, his art has also had a smooth, clean style that invites the reader into the sordid World of Matt. Like all of his comics, Fair Weather is incredibly readable, no matter how uncomfortably familiar it gets.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Nine days of reviewin’ #8: The mediocre blockbuster


Terminator Salvation and X-Men Origins: Wolverine


These things are always cleared in hindsight, but after 10 months, it’s easy enough to say that 2009 has been a terrific year for films so far. I have had some fantastic times at the movies this year, with unconditional and absolute love for films such as Star Trek, Inglorious Basterds, Drag Me To Hell, This Might Get Loud, In The Loop and District 9. They all had their flaws, but their brightest moments shined like the sun.

Like any year, there have been some pretty mediocre movies. The bored critical and commercial shrug that greeted Watchmen hid the fact the film still had some lovely moments, even if it was boring as piss for much of the running time. It ended up as just another thunderingly average mid-range blockbusters.

They’re out every year - Making the top spot at the box office for a week, (or two, if they’re lucky), before fading away. Making just enough money to almost be economically worthwhile, but nothing to set the world on fire.

God help me, I do enjoy watching these generally unloved films. I never miss them, although sometimes it takes a while, until I can rent them on DVD for a dollar. The vast middle ground of the modern blockbuster ­ not good enough to be notable, but not bad enough to sneer at. They’re just there.

I know they’re no good, and I know they’re unhealthy for me, but I still watch them. I know it’s wrong, and I know there is some real hatred out there for them, but I really did genuinely enjoy Terminator Salvation and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

* * *

The latest addition to the Terminator saga took a right critical kicking and some true fanboy rage, but I’m a fiend for any form of post-apocalyptic action, so I was always down for it.

There are reasonable arguments against the film: the fact that thematically unnecessary, (although the same could be said about every Terminator story beyond the original), or the relentless and unforgiving seriousness of it all. Vast bits of it saw logic run out the door and catch the next flight to Rio, while characters often acted more out of plot necessity than actual human reactions.

(Some of the other criticisms of the new Terminator have not been as well argued; making fun of McG because of his name is just infantile and says nothing about the quality of the film.)

But a good post-apocalypse story? Where people are dressed in the finest torn leather and metal spikes and there are mutant fuckers with neon Mohawks that want to eat peoples’ eyes? Oh man, I am always, always keen for some of that.

From the awful to the fantastic, I love ‘em all. For a long, long time, apocalyptic wastelands meant nothing more that a few scattered papers blowing around an empty street. If things were getting particularly bad, the hero might loosen his tie.

But then things got all dirty and grungy and spectacular a few decades back and it’s been wonderfully crazy every since. Now, they’re all about the breakdown of society more than Geiger counters ­ the way humanity reverts to feral nastiness in the name of survival, a dog-eat-dog mentality that can be truly imaginative in its brutality. You wouldn’t find the glory of the Thunderdome anywhere beyond a nuclear-blasted wasteland.

Some of them are sheer brilliance, including the magnificent Escape from New York or the mighty Mad Max trilogy. (I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that the very best post-apocalypse movies of all time came out of Australia.)

Some of them, like the last Resident Evil film of Neil Marshall’s overcooked Doomsday, are unreservedly terrible, but I still watched every second of them. Then there are all those vague memories of cheapo Italian desert epics that fit that post-apocalyptic profile, but they had a million different names for each country and I could never tell which is which. (Same with the zombies - there is one movie I’ve seen with five different titles, all some variation on Night of the Zombies.)

So the new Terminator had that going for it, and to be honest, that was all I needed to get in the door. There was also the bit with the original Terminator, which left me quite chuffed. It was telegraphed a mile away, but it was still a powerful oment to see that face emerge from the mist.

There were also some nice bits of acting ­ - Sam Worthington in particular doing a lot with very little ­ - and some action scenes that dialed up the intensity quite well. And at least they tried something new. After 95% of Terminator 3 featured little more than a rehash of the same old story (with added boobs), taking the Terminator saga somewhere it hadn’t really explored properly was actually refreshing.

Even the awful TAKEMYHEART!!!! moment at the end couldn’t kill that vibe.

* * *

I also kinda liked X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It also featured a healthy dose of fanboy rage, but who cares about that? That anger can be sparked by anything that digresses from the fanboys sense of the Way Things Should Be, and almost any geek-related release will get some kind of backlash.

Fortunately, I missed most of the bile over Wolverine Origins due to international travel, and saw the Wolverine movie in a nearly empty cinema in Dublin one cold Wednesday afternoon without any of that influence and with no expectations at all.

Later I realised how unloved the Wolverine movie was, and was actually a bit surprised by it all. Because Wolverine wasn’t great, but it wasn’t irredeemably awful.

It shared much of the plot nonsense seen in Terminator and also shared that film’s incredibly po-faced seriousness and over-complicated plot. It also dealt with some of the unfortunately dull backstory that had been established in the comics over the last decade, while some of the action sequences were almost nonsensical.

But the charms of Liev Shrieber and Hugh Jackman did keep things moving along and I got such a kick out of the fight on top of the nuclear plant’s cooling tower that any flaws were soon forgiven. I like watching a good fighting scene and seeing superhumans slicing away at each other with impossible claws and improbable skills were enough for me.

I do still wonder about the bad things Wolverine was doing to his spine by arching his back and screaming at the sky every five minutes. Imagine having a bad back that is filled with an unbreakable metal! That would be a bitch to sort out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin’ # 7: Getting it

The Auckland Armageddon Expo

It’s been a long weekend here in New Zealand and there have been some gorgeous sunny days, so I have spent most of the weekend going through boxes full of $1 comics in a huge shed in the shadow of One Tree Hill.

The night before the first day of the Armageddon Expo, I kept having nightmares about getting there too late or getting kicked out before I even got in, and I was getting genuinely pissed off. I needed new comic books. I needed ‘em bad. And I needed to get into the convention to get them.

Reading comics can be a pretty lonely hobby, so it wasn’t really surprising that I only went to my very first convention last year, at the age of 33. I had never been anywhere near a city that held some kind of comic or pop culture convention until then, but it was pretty much exactly what I expected.

It was noisy and crowded and a bit full on, but there were interesting stuff to look at, and some new toys I hadn’t seen before, and loads and loads of lovely comics. This year, Auckland Armageddon moved from the ridiculously unsuitable Aotea Centre in town to a actual events centre and the difference for this con newbie was huge. It was actually possible to make your way through the crowd without effort, there was a lot more room for the wrestling and video games and the comics weren’t shuffled off into the side of a corridor.

And that’s what I’m there for. It might be interesting to hear the Robot Chicken crew do a panel or see how blood splatter has advanced in the latest games, but with so few places around here where you can pick up back issues published longer than six months ago, the convention remains the single best place to find those comics.

The comics are only a small part of the New Zealand Armageddon, despite being a part of the show since it started in the 90s. There were more stalls selling Twilight merchandise than those selling comic books, but there were still half a dozen decent retailers offering all sorts of weird and interesting comics, and that's what I was there for.

So it was a weekend where I could fill in some more of that gaping hole in my Hitman collection, while also picking up the odd issue of Following Cerebus, Angry Youth Comix and Kamandi. I was able to find issues of Strangehaven, Promethea, Mark Waid’s Flash and Frank Miller’s Ronin that I’d been after for a while, while also trying new stuff like the first issue of Godland or a whole pile of The Exterminators. I could pick up books like the Amazing Joy Buzzards or one of Joe Matt’s collections for dirt cheap.

I didn’t keep my head buried in piles of Brigade and Elementals comics for the weekend, and also enjoyed talking to people about all sorts of comics. It still feels fucking weird to talk to people about the most esoteric comics around and have them actually understand what I’m on about, and it feels even fucking weirder when they know more about it than I do, but as somebody who has scared people off with the amount of comic knowledge in the head, it is bloody refreshing.

Whether it’s heading along to a fairly sparse panel and hearing Peter David talking about the exact point he gave up on the Marvel style of scripting, or talking to the boys at the Kiwi comix booth and buying a few of their noble efforts, it is something I’m really not used to, but I’m getting better.

And maybe that’s what going to a convention is all about. Getting out of the house and talking to people about the stuff we all love, those tiny little joys we share in our favourite comics and the different kicks we all get.

Nah, fuck that. I’m only there for the comics so I can take them home and roll around on them on the floor, soaking up their four-colour beauty. That’s me for the next week or so.

I can see why people can get sick of conventions. It’s easy enough to see how it can all be a bit rubbish for the seasoned convention attendee. I still enjoy them, because I’m a total newbie. I just hope I will always feel like that.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nine Days of Reviewin' #6: Rude, crude and vulgar


Daily posting is so much harder than it looks, especially when you spend half the weekend looking for comics at your second-even convention. So I'm cheating, and reposting this review of one of my favourite films of the year, originally written in my secret identity for www.nbr.co.nz

In The Loop

Directed by Armando Iannucci

In the Loop is a deeply cynical and occasionally bleak film, but could also be the funniest movie of the year with the sharpest of dialogue and some of cinema’s finest insults in years.

The cynicism and bleakness come from the ease with which the film’s spin doctors, politicians and military men effortlessly manipulate the system for their own agendas, using the unfortunate use of the phrase “unforeseeable” in a discussion about war to set events in motion that will lead to unimaginable tragedy.

That tragedy is never seen on screen as the events play out in a series of anonymous offices, hallways and mediations rooms, but the feature film spin-off from director Armando Iannucci’s BBC government satire The Thick Of It never stops moving as the political games play out.

The plot is also taken to the next level by heading across the Atlantic and diving straight into the political swamp of Washington DC. There, the Brits soon discover that while their US counterparts can be much more polite to their face, they are just as cunning and manipulative when they want something.

It’s a sharp plot with many clever things to say about the role of the media in the political process and the dodgy dealings that happen in plain sight under horribly anonymous names.

But In The Loop also delivers up some massive laughs as characters constantly insult each other with imaginative and thoughtful venom. The language is not for the easily offended, or even for all those who take a bit to get offended, as every swear word in the world is pulled out, and a fair few new ones invented.

There is just one moment where the movie stops for 10 seconds, as a major character realizes he has been completely outplayed, but is up and running again almost instantly, wheeling, dealing and laying out vengeful destruction on those who have wronged him.

As chief spin doctor and malevolent messenger from the unseen PM Malcolm Tucker, Peter Capaldi is brilliant. A tragically unsung British actor who carries the role over from the television series, Capaldi burns up the screen with piercing eyes and furious expletives.

The fact that Tucker is a magnificently angry and vindictive Scotsman is pushed into relief by Jamie MacDonald (Paul Higgins), another import from The Thick Of It who manages to be an even more angry and vindictive Scotsman, destroying fax machines that dare to look at him funny.

James Gandolfini can’t help bringing his serene Soprano fury to his role in the film, but still impresses as a weary general who uses a to-year-old’s computer to point out that you actually need troops alive at the end of a conflict before you can say you actually won it.

There is plenty of good supporting roles backing up the leads, including several familiar faces from the television version in unfamiliar roles, while the film also brings in the completely clueless and wonderfully vague Tom Hollander, the terrifically slimy David Rasche and the all-grown-up Anna Chlumsky.

But it’s the dialogue that shines and will have you jumping to the IMDB quote page the day after you watch it to remember the gems in the vast stream of profanity and put-downs that just don’t stop coming.

It’s well worth seeing. After a stressful week, it may be surprisingly therapeutic to watch angry people in thoroughly adequate suits yell insults at stupid people. At the very least, you’re bound to pick up a few good new insults to throw at the guy who cuts you off on the drive to work on Monday morning.

Friday, October 23, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #5: Entombed


Tomb Of Dracula

By Wolfman, Colan and others

The 72 issues of Tomb of Dracula published by Marvel in the gloomiest part of the 70s were, at times, sublimely shitty.

Primarily written by Marv Wolfman and entirely illustrated by Gene Colan, the series gave in to some serious excesses that pushed it over the line into extreme silliness, but also managed to be a moody work, a substantial slice of very particular horror.

Sometimes the comic was tacky to the point of idiocy, and other times it was just plain stupid.

With Wolfman's then-fashionable overwriting, no point was left unsaid, and then pointed out again four or five more times, before the point was shouted from the four-colour rooftops. Then Dracula would have his way with that point and leave it drained in the gutter.

The manic plot that helped the series speed through its six-year run saw it often veer off into unusual directions, from the birth of Dracula's golden child to the interminable cult storyline. And while there were plenty of spooky Marvel characters who were more than comfortable in the comic's pages, (including Brother Voodoo, Damien Hellstorm and Doctor Strange,) the Silver Surfer really wasn't one of them.

But Colan's art still took the title to terrifying levels. Capturing blind terror like nobody else and adding atmosphere that could be cut through a knife, Colan’s art was thick and substantial, and he always drew great impact shots when people were thrown at walls.

Colan’s line was loose and flowing and occasionally (and intentionally) vague, which helped build that atmosphere. Even if he wasn't in mist form, Drac was swathed in fog, death emerging from the gloom to claim another victim.

While Wolfman’s plots were often painfully pointless, the man came up with some seriously superb characterization. All of the main characters came from a tragic background and had their own demons to work through. Fortunately, they were given lots of demonspawn to take out their angst on. Nobody was safe, with characters often shockingly killed off and many of those that survived weren’t safe in other people’s hands. (Poor Rachel Van Helsing, killed off in an X-annual, after surviing years of Dracula’s worst.)

One nice touch was that level of characterization given to those who show up for a page or two before being dispatched. Dracula’s victims were often given names and sketchy backgrounds – purely perfunctory at times, but enough to add a special little dose of tragedy to the proceedings.

And then there was the title character. Dracula, prince of darkness, a supreme, arrogant creature who was often disgusted with the world, even if he was no longer part of it. Dracula could be honourable and courageous, even as he destroyed innocent lives, and led the narrative on its journey through mad scientists wanting his secrets and heroes driven by vengeance.

When the regular Tomb Of Dracula ended, there were a few black and white magazines before the character faded away, becoming another small part of the vast Marvel tapestry. There have been several returns to form, but nothing matches those original issues. While Tomb Of Dracula can seem tacky, overblown and ridiculous to the modern reader, it also offered something unmistakable and epic, as the best comics always do.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #4: Inhead Empire

I just spent more than $30 on a magazine devoted to saying how wonderful it was, and it was worth every cent. Even if I didn’t really need it to tell me this, because I’ve always known Empire was wonderful.

It’s the only magazine I’ve bought consistently and concurrently for more than five years. I still own a complete run of the movie magazine from 1993 through to 2004, and would have an uninterrupted run if the inferior Australian version hadn’t got in the way and driven the UK version out of the local shops.

Now it has to be air-freighted in, and is only sold in a few magazine stores around the country. Each issue costs more than $24 now and every time I wonder if it will be worth it, but there is always something inside worth checking out. An article, an interview, or even a nice photoshoot that gets me, month after month after month.

(And it’s still fucking good. The recent 20th anniversary issue was a fucking little cracker.)

Like a lot of things, it’s all Tarantino’s fault. When you’re 19 and looking for new things to obsess over, the then-recent release of Reservoir Dogs will do quite nicely. Repeated viewings and a lamentable video parody later, it was time for something new, and that gorgeous Empire cover with True Romance on the cover did the trick, opening up all sorts of new movie knowledge to dive into.

How could I resist? How could anybody?

Inside Empire, a special edition published this month, is terrible value for money, but it’s mental junk food that I’m craving right now. Buy a magazine for long enough and big bits of you life get tied to weird, arbitrary sequences. Like this:

Falling in love with a girl who owned the issue with the second Winona Ryder cover. Back at square one in 2003, doing the same job I was doing 10 years earlier and feeling pretty fucking bummed about it, but Empire was getting heavily into good writing about great DVDs, and that’s two hours I can sit reading the new Empire and put off the future. That shit bit in 2001 when everything was a bit shit, including Empire. Those ridiculously hot covers in 1998 and 1999, and the moving between cities that still symbolize in my head.

So that was $30 right there in Inside Empire: a trip down a nostalgic path that still aches.

Fortunately, there are loads of pretty pictures I’ve never seen before (especially the Trainspotting one), and great writing about great writing about great movies.

It’s marvelous. The thing that keeps me coming back again and again to Empire is some gorgeous writing, from some brilliant writers. People who genuinely love film and want it to be better, a little bit over-eager when something really good does come along, a little hurt when the goods aren’t delivered.

Angie Errigo’s enthusiasm and David Parkinson’s knowledge. Ian Freer’s wit and Kim Newman’s everything.

Kim Newman is the most entertaining writer on the planet and I read everything he does as soon as I can. Either as soft-spoken Kim or his hard-drinking alter ego Jack Yeovil, his fiction is ridiculously thrilling and massive amount of fun. His non-fiction is fantastic: Books about horror and westerns and the apocalypse, a mountain of thoughtful and insightful reviews of tens of thousands of books and movies.

I’ve only ever disagreed with Newman’s opinion twice: Right at the start, when he gave Army of Darkness and Braindead poor reviews, and once in Inside Empire, where he argues for getting rid of the star system for reviews.

He was right about Army of Darkness, but he’s wrong about the reviews. The five-star system for Empire has turned me on to so many films. Back when I was trying to figure out who was good, Empire told me – if they gave it five stars, it was probably worth a look.

They turned me on to Shallow Grave, and there have been no disappoints from Danny Boyle since then. They said Shawshank Redemption was worth a look, and one Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting there watching it in an empty theatre, which was good, because I was blubbing like a little girl by the end of the film. Five years later, and everybody is telling me to sit and watch the damn movie because it's the greatest thing ever.

Empire still tells me about the new shit that’s worth seeing, and that’s worth the $24 monthly bill.

This $30 book was a tougher sell, but it was Kim Newman that sealed it for me. Writing about the films that summed up the magazine’s philosophy, where others choose The Matrix or Lord of the Rings or Pulp Fiction, Newman chose Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

When that film came out, I flipped my fucking lid over it, but couldn’t get anybody else to watch it with me. Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me blew two potential friendships and one absolute definite shag for me, and it was totally worth it.

Because Empire understood. One of my very first issues had Newman’s five –star review of Twin Peaks, the only absolute rave I saw anywhere at the time, and I knew they were on my side.

Empire was on my wavelength. They helped me figure out what I liked about the great stuff, and cared about the same damn things I cared about when it came to watching films.

It still is, month after month. At the start of every month, I’ll stand there in the shop and wonder if it’s too expensive. And then I’ll read it and there will be an interview with David Fincher or a feature about Kenneth Anger films or a review of that weird European film that sounds really interesting.

And I’m in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin’ #3: Prestige


The prestige format

Designed by somebody who knew what they were doing

Comics come in all shapes and sizes these days. They can be as big as hell, or tiny digests that still pack in hundreds of pages. They come in every colour under the sun, in every length.

And some of them are gorgeous packages: sweet hardbacks with crisp and giant reproduction. Covers that sing and tantalize, overall objects with an incredible design sense. Some of them are so good, they’re pure sex on paper.

And the sexiest of them all - the biggest tart that often fails to deliver, but looks good doing it – is the prestige format.

It’s been eclipsed by all sorts of superior formats over the past two decades, but the prestige comics are still the prettiest girl at the dance. She might be awkward and slightly unsatisfying when you actually try to talk to her, but she is always up for a dance.

That format, with a spine that’s just big enough for the title and fuck all else. Slick pages, cardboard covers and the sense of a complete package that doesn’t come with stapled comics. Usually only 48 to 64 pages, just enough to offer something decent.

The format was toyed with for a long, long time, but the Dark Knight Returns shot it into popularity, with DC advertisements from the late eighties breathlessly touting the next masterpiece in “in the Dark Knight format”.

Since then, there have been fucking millions of prestige comics: Three or four issue superhero stories, often nice and complete, mostly outside constraints of continuity. Entire series that ran for dozens of issues. Cheeky one-offs and mental crossovers.

The first one I ever got was the Excalibur special edition, a comic so pretty it sparked a deadest obsession with me when I was 13-years-old. I still have that issue, and it’s falling apart, but I have to stop typing for a second and flick through it now.

Man, Rachel really pulled off that mullet…..

The second prestige comic I ever bought was The Killing Joke, and that was the one that really turned me on to the format: That neon green on the cover, and the deep and gorgeously garish colours inside. The use of the endpapers and pages and pages and pages of Bolland art. I liked this format so much I wanted to do bad things to it.

She’s proven a tart since then, and dalliances with comics like Deathmate almost killed off the appeal, but I’ve still got dozens and dozens of prestige comics that are some of my favourite comics ever.

There is Grendel, Preacher and Jeff Smith’s Captain Marvel. Judge Dredd and Batman beating the crap out of each other and the golden age Sandman meeting Morpheus in a bottle. Reprints of Harvey Kurtzman war comics and almost all of those Lone Wolf and Cub comics reprinted by First in the late ‘80s.

All the original From Hell issues are in there and some of them are bending quite alarmingly, but Kingdom Come is still holding up well, and I read the fuck out of that thing in 1997. And then there are the incredible A1 comics from Atonmeka, Dean Motter’s version of The Prisoner, or Morrison and Fegredo’s version of Kid Eternity (with the magnificent sunglasses on the cover.)

Or the wonderfully demented DK2 issues, coming out in the same format and receiving an unfortunately different reception from its predecessor.

The virulent fanboy reaction against DK2 also seemed to have the unfortunate side effect of putting many publishers off the format, but it’s still there, in black and white comics published by smaller companies. Avatar have done some fairly interesting things with the format, and even produced one of Warren Ellis’ very best works with Crecy, while Dave Sim’s Judenhass is a harrowing and rewarding read, and it only helps that these comics come with that lovely, lovely spine.

And they might be a bit long, but the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books pick up all the best aspects of the pure prestige format, and are all the better for it.

Because it’s a shameless hussy of a format, that flirts with the design-sensitive part of the brain and comes up with rewards that make it all worthwhile.

The prestige format: It was designed by somebody who knew what they were doing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #2: Arsehole in a mask

Moon Knight Saga
By loads of people who should know better

The local comic shop keeps putting these free promotion things in with my regular comics and I can’t stop reading them. But something is wrong here, because they really, really don’t make me want to try out the comics they’re promoting. The most recent one I got is called the Moon Knight Saga and seems designed to actively discourage me from ever reading the regular comic.

Some of them aren’t too bad, especially the ones that just showcase the art. Odd, 16-page sketchbooks are always worth a look, and there was a fairly decent Spider-Man one a few weeks back. That one has some really nice art in there, even if Black Cat cheesecake doesn’t impress me any more, because my balls dropped fucking decades ago.

But when they lay on the text, it all goes wrong. A recent attempt to explain Wolverine’s history wasn’t just incomprehensible, it was a charmless and gormless work that mistook endless plot repetition for a story.

And this Moon Knight Saga thing that came out a few weeks ago? It’s not just awful, it’s almost offensive. There is no wit, or style, or enjoyment to be found in these 32 pages of dreck.

It didn’t have to be this way. I was willing to give it a go. Moon Knight might have one of the most ridiculous outfits in the history of the Marvel universe (and there have been some rotten ones), but interesting creators had done interesting things with him in the past and a new series was starting up soon. I’m always keen to get some new, smart superhero comic into me and had no ill-will toward the character.

And then I read this thing and any interest I had in the comic, it’s concept or its creators shriveled up like fish that was left out in the sun.

Beneath Alan Davis’ dullest cover ever, Moon Knight Saga runs through the history of the character, covering all the big moments in his life and the allies and villains that are there.
That would be fine, if it was left like that. But somebody along the way decided it would be much, much better to have Moon Knight offer a running commentary on his own life. He’s a bit sarcastic and a bit ironic and a bit shit.

From this narration, Moon Knight isn’t edgy or interesting, he’s just a fucking jerk. And I know enough jerks in real life, I don’t need to read about them. Fictional jerks can be interesting, but most of the time they’re just fuckin’ jerks. Fuck that.

Hearing Moon Knight sneer “whatever” and make fun of the West Coast Avengers with all the wit and charm of an eleven year old is just tedious, but joking about ripping of somebody’s face is just tasteless.

Or there is this little gem of wisdom, from a man who faced his own mortality head on and died a fiery death: “Yeah, dying sucks.”

Okay, so he’s supposed to be unhinged and genuinely psychotic, I get that, but he just sounds like an arsehole instead.

Fuck Moon Knight. And fuck the people who thought this was a genuine attempt to bring in new readers. This has put me off Moon Knight for life. He’s just too stupid, too irritating and too damn boring to follow. Maybe that 11-year-old who fills his caption boxes will get a kick out of this idiocy, but I’m not interested.

It’s the best piece of anti-promotion I’ve seen in comics in months.

Nice one, Marvel!

Monday, October 19, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #1: Could be worse, old chap


Grandville

By Bryan Talbot

I feel in love with Bryan Talbot’s comics from the first panel: seeing his Torquemada in his very first Nemesis The Warlock panel made a powerful impact on this eight year old. After the scary Kevin O’Neill artwork, Bryan’s insane detail and meticulous geography was incredible and he had me for life.

(It took me years to work out how good O’Neill’s art really was, but he really did scare the crap out of me. Same with Kirby or Mike McMahon: they were too much, too ugly, too stylised for this kid, but as an adult, I drink that milkshake up and ask for more.)

His work has been unmissable ever since and that worked out nicely. The One Bad Rat and the two Luther Arkwrights. The mighty Alice in Sunderland and that one awesome Batman story he did. If you can’t like Talbot’s comics, I can’t like you.

Grandville is the latest, and the first notable feature is that it’s one of those books that is just a fantastic package. Top quality printing and design from Talbot. Old-school endpapers and a thickness that hides the fact the story is less than a hundred pages long.

Not that it feels like it, with some glorious substance in the story and plot. It’s a dense tale, mixed with genuine feeling. A locked murder mystery that unlocks the secret of a great tragedy and the blood and fire and iron it takes to forge the key.

And then there is the fact that every character is some kind of animal. Those animals are often ingeniously chosen, with turtles, foxes and rhinos all showing up in unsurprising roles, but excellent uses of dogs, chimps and one mend badger.

It’s often used for comical effect, including the “Damn. He’s croaked.” line and the cover, which features a menacing hero with two big guns and two beady and crossed eyes. But the animals can be hugely expressive, conveying some sharp emotions and inner caricatures.

On the same page LeBrock croaks the frog, there is a fantastic panel of his adjunct Detective Ratzi watching the hero beat the amphibian to death. Ratzi’s black eyes make his expression unreadable, while saying multitudes. It helps that Ratzi is one of the most decent and honourable characters in the whole thing and gets the single best line in the whole book – “Indubitably, DI. Rats are jolly good at this stuff.”

This kind of story and the way it’s presented means it lives and dies on the strength of the main character and that’s no bother, because Detective Inspector LeBrock literally packs barbells for luggage. The sharpness of a Victorian analytical genius combined with the capacity for monstrous violence and the tenacity of… well… a badger.

He goes to some very dark places in this comic and by the end, is the weariest goddamn badger ever seen in comics, tired of this great and stupid game of treachery and murder.

There’s so much more: action sequences that rank amongst Talbot’s best (and his best, such as that seven seconds sequence in the first Arkwright, are better than anything). A weirdly satisfying Tintin subtext, from the look of those weird doughfaces from Angouleme to poor Snowy’s opium dream. The 9/11 parallel and the fictional justice that is wrought.

It’s a dense and satisfying work with much to recommend and little to moan about. But this is no surprise.

This is Bryan Talbot. He’s always good.

Further adventures of Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard are eagerly expected.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hh.

Wednesday. Yeah, right.

Starting tomorrow: Nine days of reviewin'.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In heaven....

The staff at the Tearoom of Despair would like to apologise or the lack of any material on this website for the past several days, and regretfully must confirm that there were will be nothing else for a few days yet. Normal service should resume around Wednesday.

The proprietor has undergone some unfortunate dental surgery that has left him looking like that horrible woman with the cheeks in Eraserhead. It has also, oddly, left him massively disinclined towards sitting down at a computer and sharing his inane thoughts about comics with the world.

That said, I managed to drag my arse off the couch for the first time in two days and get to the comic store this morning, and I’m glad I did, because that last issue of Planetary was legendary.

I also enjoyed watching Doghouse – which was horrible if you stop to think about it, so you just don’t think about it. And documentaries about Townes Van Zandt and Monty Python and the history of video games.

And I don’t care what anyone says, I thought Revolver was bloody great.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Make up your mind

According to the vast drone of political discourse that the internet has created, one of the worst thing a politician can do is flip-flop - changing position on a subject and maintaining that this was always the way the politician really felt. Our leaders are supposedly meant to stay focused on what they believe in, and ensure their ideological path is a straight one.

Needless to say, I would make a fucking rubbish politician.

This is partly because my opinion of my fellow man rarely rises above total despair, but also because I change my mind all the fucking time. An open mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it also means a constant influx on new data invariably leads to a total change of opinion on almost anything. If every argument has its good and bad points, how is it possible to come to concrete conclusions?

This inability to keep a consistent opinion is most obvious in the types of entertainment I like. Some things are constant: I don't think I will ever respond to Pearl Jam with nothing less than complete apathy, while I will defend the works of creators from David Lynch to Frank Miller to my dying breath.

Music is more likely to change my mind than any other medium. Bands I have detested have become beloved, and the worship I felt for some musicians can just fade away and die. All it can take is one gorgeous performance, or hearing the exact right song at the exact right time, (or vice versa) and my view can be utterly changed.

Incessant hype can be the biggest turn-off, especially if the dullest or most irritating song in an artist's range is the one that is shoved down the consumers throats until they gag, but mostly it's a matter of personal taste. Sometimes a band can completely change their sound, and while early Radiohead is still slightly too twee and irritating for me, the various artistic leaps they have made in their career have done nothing but raise my estimation of them. Other times, all it takes is one good song or album to turn an opinion right around, and a healthy dose of humble pie is called for as I eat my own past criticisms.

It's relatively rare for an opinion shift with a movie, although there are plenty that have been dazzling on first viewing, but never seem to hold up on later reflection. For better or worse, the opinions of others in this regard can be massively influential, and a single review that gives new insights on a film can leave a strong opinion on me. Sometimes this can force me to reappraise my opinion and come to the conclusion that I was talking out of my arse when I slagged it off after the first viewing. But most of the time, a good piece of writing or analysis is more likely to face the fact that something I thought was quite clever was, in all honesty, a bit shit.

Television shows have a far better shot at a flip-flop, if only because the longer nature of the work. Some shows can run the better part of a decade, and while quality will invariably rise and fall within this time, (usually, but not always, tending towards a drop in quality levels as time marches on), there is always the chance of getting hooked.

After becoming distracted during the first season of Battlestar Galactica and losing touch with the series, it wasn't until early in the third season that my opinion of it was significantly changed. In this case, it is even possible for me to nail down the exact moment when it all changed: when Galactica jumped into the atmosphere over New Caprica, the ship descending from the heavens like an angel's fucking flaming sword, firing off its righteous vengeance in all directions. Besides all the religious allegories and nihilistic wanderings that give the series an extra dimension, that one scene should be enough to convince any casual viewer that this could be a show worth following.

A single comic narrative can sometimes take place over decades, with multiple creators taking their crack at the same characters and concepts, and a single opinion on the adventures of somebody like Spider-Man is a little harder to nail down. In this case, it often comes down to individual creators, and my opinion on their contributions are more likely to hold greater sway than an opinion on the title itself.

Mind you, with shorter, more complete works, I can still be utterly unsure whether I like something or not. My head jury is still out on works like Blankets and Fun Home, comics that have been universally praised, but left me strangely cold. I know I should enjoy these books, and I have little doubt that a future re-evaluation will be gigantically rewarding, but for now, I just don't know.

But they still had enough to merit a re-read, and there is always the strong possibility that they will resonate far more strongly a second time around. One can hope. Starman left me bored the first time around, with something about Robinson's writing not clicking, but further investigation has revealed a title that went its own way, had a unique style, and was all the better for it.

And then there was Scott Pilgrim, which all the cool kids were raving about, but despite the best of intentions, I could never make that connection until the closing moments of the most recent volume, where it all came together so nicely.

Trying something new is always recommended, and changing tastes and desires are a fact of life. Keeping that open mind means it can be a little harder to make sweeping judgements on certain entertainments or the tastes of others, but it's all worth it in the long run.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

17 answers on a sunday afternoon

Questions last week, answers now. (Cheers, wikipedia! You life easier for everybody.)

1. I guess the infected in 28 Weeks Later could run around in daylight because the virus had mutated into a new form. Considering it was such an important aspect of the original, it would’ve been nice if somebody could have spent five seconds explaining this. It always bugs me when sequels don’t bother explaining away discrepancies when it’s so easy to do.

2. Groo still rocks my world. In my country, Sergio Aragones is a god and Mark Evanier is a very clever man indeed. And because funny stories about complete stupidity never get tired.

3. I have no excuse for liking Lobo comics, but I do find them genuinely funny.

4. Archie Goodwin had a passionate love for experimentation mixed with strong storytelling and encouraged creators to find their own voice. He was the perfect editor, guiding the overall direction while pushing creators to do their best. How could you not like the man? How could you not mourn his passing? Why isn’t this more common in comic editing?

5. If you think your variants are gonna be worth something one day, I’ve got this lovely bridge to sell you.

6. I have to stop taking stuff so literally.

7. No, willpower is not a fucking emotion. I have tried to get into the current era of Green Lantern and I can see why people like it, but it just does nothing for me. It’s too ponderous and top-heavy, overshadowing the few moments of space glee that do crop up. The Sinestro Corps War was a snore, cookie-cuter aliens with rings chopping each other’s extremities off for page after page after page and while Alan Moore might be overstating the case when he accuses DC of ripping off his concepts and running them into the ground, the Abin Sur tale he did with Kevin O’Neill was an absolute little gem of a short story which absolutely didn’t need any more fleshing out, and seeing that happen in the Secret Origin and Blackest Night storylines just feels old and dull.
Okay, picking on the vague concept that willpower is an emotion is a cheap shot, but Green Lantern is nothing but cheap shots, relying on ‘surprise’ guest stars for narrative drive just isn’t going to cut it.

8. It’s easy to sneer at Bob Harras now, when his time as head of Marvel is mainly remembered for some terrible comics full of over-rendering, gritted teeth and atrocious dialogue. But that’s all too easy with the hypocrisy of hindsight. We all laugh at Liefeld now, but we forget that for a couple of years there, he was exactly what the market wanted and he sold a fucking shitload of comics.
Harras was lucky to be chief at a time of unprecedented superstar artist power and even enabled the whole thing. Sales of Marvel books shot to levels last seen in the 1940s under Harras’ hand and while he took it all too far and it all came to an inevitable crash that left the market flat on its arse, he grew the company beyond Stan Lee’s wildest dreams. Applying the X-formula to the entire Marvel line resulted in some awful, awful comics that sold huge amounts, which was kidna his job.
Then he was gone in 2000 and now he’s the group editor for DC Comics collected editions. I don’t know what that means.

9. IT STILL SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF ME WHEN I THINK ABOUT THAT BIT AT THE END OF BLAIR WITCH. Also the bit where something is hitting the tent.

10. I can only assume Archie wanted a sugar-mummy and who can really blame him? Veronica is hot but mean but hot. Betty is hot and nice and hot. If Ronnie didn’t have the cash, she wouldn’t have got Archie Andrews, because he is the most selfish creature in the entire history of fiction.
Fuck that ginge.

11. I like the fact that the Trinity idea had replaced World’s Finest as the founding stone of DC superhero comics. A three-way relationship is far more interesting.

12. Superhero movies are usually rubbish because they get too hung up on Boring Origin and don’t just get straight to the interesting shit. Who cares where people come from? The more we know about Wolverine, the more boring he gets.
All that said, Miller’s Man Without Fear script would have made a killer movie.

13. The more I think about Grendel, the less I care about Hunter Rose. I came in on the saga somewhere around the end of the War Chikld storyline, so that was always my favourite period. I’d love to see more of Grendel Prime’s adventures. There is something so entertaining in his sheer relentlessness, ruthlessness and cold-boldedness. He’s a star.

14. I don’t know why it took me so long to start watching Samurai Jack and I feel foolish about this discrepancy. It’s got some astonishing storytelling confidence, mixing medative moments with the finest action choreography in cartoons. What’s not to love?

15. Guards at Arkham Asylum must have a cracker of a union.

16. It’s nice to hear that James Robinson has one of those agreements with DC over Jack Knight that meant his story really did end with the climax of his story. His Starman was a frustrating, self-important read a lot of the time, but when it was good, it was fucking spectacular. So when Jack drove off out of the superhero life, that was it, and now he just shows up to look sad and say nothing at tragic funerals.

17. I don’t know. What is it all about?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Green Goblin killed the Marvel universe

Fuckin’ Norman Osborn killed poor Gwen Stacy when I was five years old and I’ll never forgive the prick for that.

I didn’t blame Spider-Man. He did his best. I blamed the goddamn Green Goblin and his grotesque glider. As far as this kid was concerned, he did the worst thing anybody could do and he paid the price for it and I first understood the concept of justice.

My morals are formed by Superman and Doctor Who. Treating people with respect and upholding a moral code that protects the weak and punishes the guilty comes from comics and movies and television shows. All that is good in me was inspired by the deeds of fictional creations like Peter Parker and his Heartbreaking Losses.

(I also tried to dress like Peter Parker once, but it all went horribly wrong. Stupid fucking early nineties.)

Everything I know about justice I learned from Spider-Man and his final battle with the Green Goblin. Once Norman killed poor Gwen, I knew he had to pay, and the impalement on his own glider was the epitome of justice in my little mind.

Years later, it all turned out to mean nothing.

* * *

When Norman Osborn came back from the dead, I was fucking spewing.

Right at the end of the awful, awful clone shitpile, there was one last idea to sour the taste of Spider-Man forever. I still get excited when I get a book out of the library and it’s 200 pages of new Spider-Man comics by dazzlin’ Dan Slott and jizzin’ JR Junior, but I haven’t bought an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since #398.

I loved Spider-Man in the early nineties and got hooked on Bagley at a fairly early age, (especially when he was doing Spider-Man and New Warriors every month and producing some strong and slick work.) And then it all turned to rubbish, so quickly. It was the continued crossovers with lesser Spidey comics right at the start of the clone mess that killed any interest I had in Amazing, so I was lucky to miss the worst of it, but I never really came back.

Part of this was due to the Big Reveal at the end. Bringing Norman Osborn back was the last little dollop of shit on a mountain of it, but I was soured forever by it. If Spider-Man loses that battle, if Norman fucking Osborn keeps coming back and killing innocent people, than he is not accomplishing anything.

Three decades after that nightmare on the bridge and the Green Goblin is still bloody doing it. Norman has dropped a few innocent souls in the past decade of comics, more people that Spider-Man cannot save. He is the impotent superhero, and while he remains a great character to pile on the angst, there is a fine line between being a tragic figure and just being a fucking failure.

I can handle Spider-Man taking shit from J Jonah Jameson, as Jonah is still a fundamentally decent guy who actually thinks he is doing the right thing, and sometimes confounds expectations by actually doing it.

But I can’t abide seeing Norman Osborn enjoying overwhelming support from a public that must be aware of his horrible past. He might plead past insanity and maintain that he is completely cured, but even then, you don’t give people like that power because they shot an alien in the face.

That level of stupidity has always been there, buried in the psyche of the average Marvel universe inhabitant. It’s the idiocy that saw them throw bricks at the X-Men after they saved people from a burning building, or willing to believe anything they’re told by proven liars.

But the amount of stupidity behind Osborn’s current reign has been taken it to a whole new level. Unless there are some kind of brainwashing shenanigans going on, there really isn’t much excuse for giving this lunatic the powers he has.

It won’t last, and eventually Osborn will pull a Lex Luthor and get too nuts to get away with it, but the chances of Osborn actually facing proper justice remain slim. Marvel are happy to use him as the ultimate bogeyman in Spider-Man’s life, offering him up as an unbeatable villain. There is a lot of logic behind that idea, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

* * *

I was five years old when Gwen Stacy died. She actually died two years before I was born, but I didn’t find out for another seven years. When I did read those issues in a shitty black and white reprint comic, it hit hard.

It was horrible. Super-heroes are supposed to save their loved ones. A couple of years as a court reporter have made me horribly cynical about the entire justice process, but at least there is still a sense of accountability in the real world. The Marvel world has none of that, and I want nothing to do with it.

Over in the DC Universe, it still grates to see the Joker slaughter more and more and more innocent people. But even if Luthor could con enough people to make him the present of the United States, nobody is going to make the motherfuckin’ Joker the
head of the CIA.

But there Norman is, sitting happy at the centre of power in the Marvel Universe, talking to himself in that lazy way writers use to show insanity. If the Green Goblin can fool the world and escape all judgment, then there is no justice and the Marvel Universe means nothing to me.

It might be a blind and irrational hatred for a fictional character, but it’s enough to sour me on every book the character appears in. And with his ubiquitous nature these days, that’s damn near all of them.

So fuck Norman Osborne. Fuck the Green Goblin. And fuck the Marvel Universe, for keeping him around so long, when his story was done a long time ago.