Monday, December 28, 2009

The perfection of Who

There is a really lovely bit at the end of Alan Moore’s Miracleman story, after the world has been transformed. Poverty, hunger, war and disease have been wiped out. The Gods are living on the Earth and sharing their gifts with man, pulling us all up the evolutionary scale.

But even as he basks in the perfected world, the title character admits that it still has its problems, but that this only adds to the joy of the new world. After all:

“Think of the tedium: A sky perpetually blue without the smallest cloud to ease monotony, a poem with no word misjudged, a diamond with no flaw.”

Perfection is never absolutely perfect. Nothing will be absolutely flawless – there will always be some imperfection on some level. It puts the whole thing in context, gives it life, gives it an organic taste.

Nobody is perfect. Nothing is perfect.

So why do Doctor Who fanboys cry like little babies when they don’t get that perfection in their choice of entertainment?

* * *

The latest episode of Doctor Who was on the other night and was bloody brilliant. Splashes of stone-cold genius, backed up by the sheer unashamed populism of the show. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is all well and good, especially when there is still something for the smart set. A farting Slitheen is easy to stomach when you get Christopher Eccleston two episodes later, fucking lighting up the world when the Doctor realises he can save everybody at the climax of Stevie Moffat’s first story. Just this once!

That’s been the hallmark of Russell T Davies’ revitalisation of Doctor Who – appeal to as many people as possible, from chavs who just like seeing one of their own save the universe to hardcore fans who dig into that awesome mountain of continuity built up on the show after the past four bloody decades.

Part one of The End of Time keeps that trend intact. There’s a cafĂ© scene that has as much depth as anything else in the entire history of the series, because it’s one where the Doctor shows – for the first time ever - real, genuine fear at his coming end. There’s a marvelous and ridiculous climax that goes over the top, and then just keeps on going, with John Simms eating the shit out of every piece of scenery in sight. And then, just when that climactic screech is about to unleash, one of the basic founding stones of the past half-decade is ripped out of the series, with the Daltonator bringing the house down in the closing seconds.

Bloody hell.

So there is some unnecessary overage groping, the occasionally tacky special effect, some hamfisted Obama angle and plot holes that you could drive the Earth through.

So what?

* * *

The bits that make many geeks cringe are the bits that make their grandparents laugh. If you hate the slapstick, you hate your grandmother, and what sort of fucker hates their grandmother?

* * *

I really don’t get it.

What is this hunger for perfection? No work of art or entertainment is going to please everybody all of the time, because people just aren’t built like that. A moment like the transformation scene at the climax might seem genuinely creepy to some (especially with that horrible overpowered fluttering noise), while written off as pure cheese by others.

I know I shouldn’t feel too bad for Russ. He has brought back his favourite television show of all time, and made it more insanely popular than ever. It has been an absolute critical and commercial hit.

But I still feel for the poor Welshman when seeking out critical analysis of the latest episode. Hungry for analysis, the first three reviews I saw anywhere including the phrases “shower of shit”, “RTD does not understand how to do television” and the ultra-charming “everybody involved should have their home fire-bombed”.

Still, at least Davies has a sense of humour, and I’m sure he is delighted to see that the things often railed against by die-hard fans are the exact same things that have made the programme so ridiculously popular.

A bit of cheese, a piece of scenery chewing, this is the stuff the serious people hate, but make the show so popular in some wildly variant demographics.

Whatever Davies does, it will never be as good as the version in some people’s heads, the version that hits all their buttons and leaves the rest of us in the cold. The dim probability that these coruscating works of genius would actually find a mass audience seems to be lost on these misunderstood artists.

Complaining that a television show or book or comic is not as good as it should be is the easiest complaint of any viewer or reader. Easy snark makes easy criticism, but weary nihilism only appeals to moody teenagers and the melancholic elderly. Critics who maintain that they could do better – if they were only given the chance! – are the biggest dickheads of them all.

* * *

The ultimate question is – what do these people really want? They can bitch and moan about something they profess to love, but what do they really want?

A perfect episode, with nothing to complain about. Something that still manages to appeal to everybody, by giving them what they ask for.

Getting exactly what you want and expect?

How fucking boring would that be?

* * *

The final episode of the Davies/Tennant Doctor Who screens later this week. Then it’s off for more adventures in tine and space with a new face and a new style. It will probably be a bit cheesy, and a bit magnificent, and will have something for everybody.

Perfection isn’t required.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

All I need

It’s an hour until Christmas and while that may not be as exciting as it once was, it still means I’m getting some new comic in the morning.

When I was a kid and people would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, I could not tell a lie. I would tell them to give me comic books. All I wanted was more comics – any sort, Giles books, Sgt Rock, anything.

During my entire childhood, I received comics as a Christmas gift twice. I think my parents discouraged people from getting me any more. They were right to do so, I must have had nearly fifty. There wasn’t any need for any more.

But I still got some. If I was lucky, I would get one of those groovy comic packs – half a dozen random issues slapped into a bag and sold off cheap. I can still remember getting one that had one of the first Levitz/Giffen Legion comics and a Star Trek from early in DC’s go at the run. I read those comics until they fell apart.

I also got given the Judge Dredd roleplaying game sometime in my early teens. Even though I grew up around some avid D&D freaks, I’ve never, ever played a role playing game. But the sourcebooks for that game filled in some huge Dredd backstory at a time when I was ravenous for this sort of information. That’s was a good ‘un.

Now I’m all grown up and have a wife and everything, and I still tell people I want comics for Christmas. But I’ve got way more than 50 now, so I have to be a bit specific.

So every year for the last three years, I’ve made up the list. Ten comic books I really want, standalone books that I can always associate with the generosity of a gift.

I feel horribly materialistic about all this, but there are a bunch of comics I would really appreciate. And if I get three or four of the ten I list, I’m happier than Alan Moore’s ring merchant and still enjoy the element of surprise.

You still have to be careful what you ask for. You can’t go requesting something like a Johnny Ryan comic, because there is no way of explaining that shit away. That sort of thing needs to be bought by yourself. But something like Fables is perfectly fine, and I’ve been fortunate to get a few of books in that series as gifts in the past.

In fact, since I had the exceedingly good fortune of marrying a fine woman who appreciates my hard-on for comics and Doctor Who, (while never really sharing it), and she has bought me some cracker comics in the past few years. That Bone collection, the Paul Gravett-edited Mammoth Book of Crime Comics, the last Love and Rockets book I needed, and a three-foot tall Batman with a giant Fist of Justice.

She’s a keeper.

This year, I asked for a few stand-alone collections that have just come out – Brubaker/Phillip’s Incognito, Roger Langridge’s version of The Muppet Show, and the Wolverine comic from Millar and Niven that I can’t resist.

There’s some other stuff by Clowes and Bagge that would make my Christmas, and it would be good to finally get Black Hole and Hicksville. I’ve asked for it every year for the past three years, and I read these comics every 18 months like clockwork.

There are a few other superhero comics I wouldn’t mind getting – Iron Fist and some Punisher and a few more of those slightly off-centre titles like Hercules or provide a far more satisfying experience than the event-driven titles.

It is all a bit mercenary, but the sheer joy of getting nice, new and shiny comic book is always better than the forced grin caused by a shirt that’s uglier than Otto Sump. Christmas comics are better than anything, because it means somebody you care about knows exactly what you want and that’s the best feeling ever.

Merry Christmas, world!

Monday, December 21, 2009

I wanted that

I wish I was joking, but sometimes I lie awake at night wondering why I didn't buy certain comics years and years ago. I really wish I'd bought...

An issue of Diabolik in Italy. There are issues at every service stop in Italy, and I always had a look while I was waiting for paninis to toast during a nine-day tour of the country. They were fascinating and crude and I promised myself I'd get one on the last day, and then we didn't go near a service stop or any decent store on that day, and I missed out.


Infinity Gauntlet #5 from the second comic shop I ever saw. I got that issue two months later, but my regret for not getting it that time was so strong, there is still a lingering taste. That's not right.


Every issue of 2000ad from late 1995 to early 2004. What was I thinking?


A big pile of Tomb of Dracula comics at a small second hand store in South Dunedin. I was really poor, but really wanted them, and by the time I made up my mind to go get them, some other bastard had got there first. Have since read those issues in the Essential collections, and they were pretty rubbish. But that’s not the point!


Those Hitman comics I saw going to $1 at Comics Compulsion in Christchurch, shortly after the series ended. I always thought they would be easy to find later, but it's one series I never see going cheaply. Ever.


2000ad prog 387 from an Ashburton dairy. I was eight, and wanted it so bad, but I wanted an ice cream more. Another one that took me years to get.


Did buy, but gave away three months later: Uncanny X-Men #138, the one after Dark Phoenix died. For somebody who knew nothing about the x-books, this was the primer to end all primers. Then I lent it to somebody and didn't ever get it back.


Friday, December 18, 2009


The Christmas weeks are a kick in the head – too many boring dinner parties, too much rich food, too much of everything except time. Where does that time go? Grant Morrison will just tell you it’s in a direction you can’t point to, but that doesn’t help much from where I’m sitting, you bald nonce.

Lack of blog is a sin, so here are two articles I wrote in my daytime secret identity. One is a review of Avatar, the other one is some cowardly attempt to self-justify illegal downloading.

This is the one full of big blue people.

This is the other one.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Alcoholic: A mundane intoxication

We’ve all got a September 11 story in us. It’s just a shame that most of them aren’t worth telling.

It’s not just the published stories that merge into some giant perception, it’s the tale we all have – where were you on that day? What did you do? What did you see?

Some fell into a catatonic emotional funk that lasted a long, long time. Lots of people gave blood. Many didn’t move from the television. Some went out and bought Tomb of Dracula comics. Life went on, eventually.

It's not a good idea to read too many of the tribute comics published in the year after that horrible day. Not in a row. It all gets a bit much and while the odd beautiful gem can be found in the tedium, most of the stories are painfully forgettable.

The Alcoholic – by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel – is the fairly typical story of somebody who drinks their way through the worst life has to throw at them, mixing profound regrets with a shot of vodka and hoping for some brief oblivion.

An unashamedly autobiographical story, The Alcoholic sees 'Jonathan A' go through that first sweet phase of booze infatuation, enjoying the freedom of a teenage drinker, willing to accept the cost of incessant puking. He grows out of that phase, but keeps falling back into the bottle as romance and friendships move into uncomfortable territories.

And then there is September 11, which consumes a massive section of the story. Like the rest of us, the events took Johnny A by surprise and his life in New York turns into a harrowing experience over the following days, as he comforts and aids the woman next door who lost her husband in the tragedy.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this digression into Ames’ experiences during those dreadful days. His numbed reaction is hardly unique and while dealing with somebody who has been directly affected by the attack is something many readers would not have experienced, Ames never really gets beyond a “this sucks” level.

And his whole life story runs along similar lines – a childhood friendship is shattered by intimacy issues, loved ones are snatched away by mundane tragedy and Jonathan A slips into emotional degredation as relationships fall apart.

It’s all vaguely interesting, but never compelling. There are odd pieces of interest, including Ames' impressive ability to have a boozed up party with a bunch of girls he’s supposed to be teaching, but even this just leads to another low point which Johnny vows he will never reach again.

The book is an attractive package, with Haspiel’s fine and clean art giving the story an energy it doesn’t always deserve, while grounding the story squarely in the real world. Ames does genuinely care about the people in his life story and unlike a lot of novelists, he does have an excellent sense of comic pacing and some fine dialogue, and does come up with a killer punchline on the last page.

But it’s nothing new. Nothing that stands out from the multitude of booze-soaked writings that have appeared over the centuries. In his youth, Jonathon A dreams of being Jack Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson or Ernest Hemmingway, some of literature’s great drunks who have gone off and had adventures, only to return with glimpses at the raw side of the human condition.

But the hero of The Alcoholic doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything particularly remarkable. He muddles around a bit and ends up stuck in his rut. The book’s back-cover blurb might promise something “in the proud tradition of drunken writers everywhere”, but it’s more like being stuck at the bar with a boring old maudlin drunk who doesn’t realise he’s boring the piss out of you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fantastic Four #573: Smash it up.

No matter what weaknesses are inherent in his writing, at least Mark Millar puts a bit of bloody thought into his comics. His recent Marvel work has a grand masterplan simmering beneath it all, a personal continuity that has been offered to hundreds of thousands of readers.

The baby Hulk in the Wolverine story grows up to be the future Hulk who tries to beat up the Fantastic Four, where a human supermind from 1985 pits his imagination against an immortal worldkiller.

Built on a weird and conflicted reverence for the classic action beats that sees Millar strip stories down to lame insults and brilliant momentum, before building them back up again. He has got a lot of flack for an eagerness for super-degradation but that’s all part of the charm. His Captain America can be an arsehole, but he can still be a noble, valiant and admirable arsehole.

So the way a key part of Millar’s grand plan was so fundamentally fucked over in one issue of Fantastic Four was fucking genius.

Beneath an Alan Davis cover of alien waitresses and devious Gatecrashers, Fantastic Four #573 sees Jonathan Hickman tear up a bit of Millarworld, scatter the pieces into the wind and come up with something new.

The story is helped by the shameless Hitch homaging by Neil Edwards and Andrew Currie, which carries a lot of the superficial appeal of Hitch’s work, but is less consistent, with a slightly clumsy flow.

But Hickman’s plot is an even bigger homage. Some of Millar’s creations are summarily dispatched, including the hope of a Nu-Earth – devastated by page one.

There is some overcooked sentimentality – a Franklin Richards scene would be sweet if it didn’t try so hard – and some stylized hyperviolence – brain-squishing and head pulping. This could be a Millar comic if the reader was drunk enough, especially since it ends on a undeservedly triumphant note that the Scottish lad excels at.

Hickman is off somewhere new, and leaves the Millar plan behind. And that’s how it should be, all new creators on the World’s Greatest Comic have to walk that fine line between playing tribute to the past while taking the Fantastic Four something new, and sometimes that involves a bit of smashing shit up.

Break it down, build it up. Start it again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I know it’s bad when…..

Sometimes, I am such a fucking geek. Like when:

* I look at the cover of a random issue of Who’s Who and realize I can name every DC character on it.

* I scan through the latest Sight & Sound magazine but only read the Kim Newman reviews.

* I watch that bit in the musical episode of The Brave and the Bold where they’re surrounded by rock band names and laugh out loud because one of them is the Trenchcoat Brigade, but then the laugh dies in my throat because I realize they’re all DC superteams and I know every single one of them and I am such a fucking nerd. (For the record, as far as I could see, there are also the Female Furies, the Challengers of the Unknown, The Metal Men, the Tornado Twins, (are they still future-dead?), the Inferior Five, The Great Ten, the Monster Society of Evil, the Injustice Gang, the Revenge Syndicate and the Boy Commandos. The only one I didn’t recognize was the Rocket Rollers.)

* I hug the big pile of 2000ads in the corner of the room. I wish I was joking about this but I really did this the other day. Shit, I nearly had a thrill power overdose.

* I watch that Doctor Who/Handlebars video over and over and over.

* I spend my whole goddamn weekend rearranging comics into big piles, while friends completely change the landscape around their house with big diggers and giant wooden poles and I don’t feel bad about that at all.

* I pull the Classic X-Men comics out of the sale pile that’s building up in the other corner. Partly because Claremont and Byrne fucking rocked and mostly because those Ann Nocenti/John Bolton back-ups were bitchin’.

* I don’t even pretend I’m holding on to that issue of Wizard because it’s an artifact of a dead zeitgeist, and admit it’s because I bought it when I was 17.

* I look at the cover of a random issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition and realize I can name every Marvel character on it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Careful kids, hype kills!

Sometimes, having no access to a great piece of fiction can be a good thing.

Growing up in small town New Zealand, there wasn't a lot of choice or quality when it came to entertainments. Films I could easily read about in magazines and books were simply unavailable. That long-standing obsession I had with Hammer horror films without actually seeing many of them came out of this, the passion fuelled by the odd picture or synopsis.

All I had to go on was my idea of what they would be like. Over the years this would fire up into unrealistic expectations, and the inevitable disappointment that would hit when I finally got to see the Satanic Rites of Dracula was only to be expected. (Although Cushing and Lee remained, as ever, fucking brilliant and I still have a huge soft spot for all the cheap character actors that filled out the cast lists on Hammer films.)

Reading about semi-obscure movies like Performance sent my imagination into overdrive. What little I knew about it made it sound like the greatest film in the world, mixing haunted houses with fluid identity crises, with all the required sex, drugs and rock and roll.

When I eventually saw it, the film didn't stand a chance of living up to those expectations, and apart from tiny slices of pure liquid genius and the odd dose of fantastic dialogue (“I am a bullet”), it was less than the film I’d imagined.

It gets to the point where disappointment is almost a requirement, and any joy is bonus. When I was a lot younger, my favourite book in the entire world was Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, the novelisation of the BBC adventure adapted by the great Terrence Dicks. I must have read that a hundred times, long before I even knew which Doctor it was in the story (The cover, with the required Dalek action and a gas-mask and leather-clad Roboman, offered no clue. At first, I honestly thought it was the John Pertwee Doctor taking part in the story.)

It’s a great little book, with a perfectly paced plot that splits everybody up, sends them off on all sorts of adventures that shows the effects a devastating alien occupation has on the human soul, facing literally unimaginable horrors along the way. I can sometimes still hear the Slither moving around in the dark.

By the time I eventually saw the original six-part programme, 10 years after first reading the book and 25 years after it was first broadcast, I was used to the awful production standards of mid-1960s television production, but the wobbly flying saucers and clumsy action sequences still caused me pain.

It was still a fantastic story, and an absolute masterclass in how to keep various plot strands ticking along, with characters splitting up, reuniting, and splitting up again before all meeting up again at the climax.

But the actual presentation of the story suffered from the fact it was made by the BBC in the 1960s for about three pounds. The production crew got some great mileage out of empty British landscapes and a harrowing chase across London, with two women and a man in a wheelchair racing to a thudding drum beat, but the good bits were drowned in a sea of dodgy accents and cardboard sets.

It keeps happening. In recent years the one that hit me hardest would be Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, where I actually liked the basic ideas behind the character and concept a lot more than the stories themselves. There are still bits of odd genius and it is easier once you stop worrying about how Jerry could die and then reappear as an African lesbian, but the actual stories never quite reached the heights hoped for.

And that bled on into Matt Fraction’s Casanova comic. I wanted to like Casanova so, so much, and all the pieces were there. Smart young creators with unique worldviews, promises of super-sexy fast-cut sci-fi spy-action in exotic locations. But it never really clicked with me. The overabundance of sheer information can be overwhelming, combined with the general unlikeability of almost all of the characters, and it just doesn't click.

The obvious answer is that I should get out there and create my own, but we all need entertainment, and I should get over the idea that what is in my head is not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be. This is a common nerd affliction, now officially known as Phantom Menace syndrome.

I still suffer mightily from this problem, a situation that isn’t helped by the fantastic job many movie trailers are capable of in the 21st century. I actually find the trailers for things like the new Star Trek movie rather moving, a standard a two hour movie was always going to struggle to match. Occasionally it does. Often it does not.

But it’s not just that rabid expectation that is doing my head in. It’s the filling in the gaps, only to find that the actual product is nowhere near as good as I’d dreamed and hoped it would be.

This is part of the nature of collecting comics, or at least it was before everything got collected in big, funky books. Unless you were one of the few that has been there since the start, sorting out a decent Captain America collection without resorting to expensive reprints means you’re going to be reading it piecemeal – bits of Mark Gruenwald here, slices of Kirby there.

Reading stories that have giant holes in the narrative mean the reader has to rely on their own reasoning, deduction and imagination to fill in those spaces. And sadly, most of the time the real thing doesn’t stand a chance of being as good as we all hope it will be.

Because we always hope for the best, and the merely adequate is not enough to meet that ideal. Whether it’s waiting for a new movie or wondering what happened in AllNow Comics #69, that sense of anticipation can keep interest humming along, but it can also lead to pure disappointment.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Old memories, new junk

Sentimentality can be hard work sometimes. Especially when you’re inordinately attached to thousands of books and comics that take three full days to haul from one end of the country to the other.

They’d been sitting on a palette in the side room of a pet food factory for two years and were starting to smell a bit funny. A couple of dozen boxes, overflowing with Fantastic Four comics and Fighting Fantasy books. The bulk of a geek collection built up over several decades – most of the 2000ads I own, almost all of the Empire magazines I have, and hundreds of other individual titles and tiny collections of enjoyable runs. All the Flash comics Mark Waid wrote and all of the Justice League International books. All of my Lobo comics.

Despite the painful banality of most of this stuff, I do love it all, but was content to let it sit in that factory for years. I still had all the really good stuff, - I had all my Ennis and Moore and Morrison - I didn’t need the bulk.

But you leave something like that sitting for long enough and it just gets annoying, so over the past weekend I flew back to my home town and then drove back - more than 1500 kays with a car stuffed with all sorts of crap.

And at the end of all that, all that crap had to be unloaded, and now it’s all sitting in a messy pile in the corner of the spare room and most of them are rubbish and I will probably end up selling a fair chunk of it for fuck all and I really have to wonder why I bother.

I shouldn’t have to wonder about that. I know why I bother – I love these comics because I’m a sentimental old fool and they remind of the best of times.


There’s that issue of Byrne’s Superman where the big guy goes up against Mr Mxyzptlk for the very first time – I bought that on the same day I ever kissed a girl. I can’t remember her name but I remember her freckles and can recall finding that Superman comic with absolute clarity that wonderful summer day. I can’t get rid of that comic. I can’t get rid of that feeling.

And then there are the Peter David/Gary Frank Hulk comics that I bought the week I moved out of home. Living in a shitty flat in a new city far from home and I had to make a tent out of my blanket and put the heater under it to get warm. And I went without food during that weird and scary time to get those Hulk comics. How can I flick them off for $1 after that?

And there is the American Splendour comic with David Letterman in it, that a complete stranger gave to me on the same day a completely different stranger gave me a free ticket to the American Splendour movie. And the Batman comics with Gene Colan’s none-more-sexy Poison Ivy that I got given to me by my Aunty Val one Christmas – only the second time I ever got comics for presents. And the X-Men issue I got that one Friday night when I lost one the friendship of one of my closest mates forever while meeting a whole bunch of new people who are now amongst my oldest and dearest friends.

I can’t just throw these memories out. I just can’t.

But I have to do something. There are now four piles of comics in the corner that are taller than I am, and I’m well over six foot. There is that sentimental attachment to almost every single one of them, but it can’t go on like this, I can’t keep hauling this shit around, just because I like reading the old advertisements in these comics. Something has to give.

Nostalgia can be an insidious and cosy trap, and we can all end up circling its drain, wanting everything to be like we were when we were 12 years old. We have to move on, especially when social stagnation is the only alternative.

So it’s good and proper to ditch all these worthless pieces of paper – to just chuck them into a bin and move on with life without boxing it all up for the next move. It can just be so hard sometimes.

Last night I had to convince myself that I didn’t need a ratty old detached cover to a sci-fi and fantasy magazine published in 1992. It was a nothing piece of ragged paper, but it was also one of the very first genre magazines I ever really bought with my own money and the only reason that piece of paper is in such a bad condition is because I read that sucker until it started to fall apart in my hands.

And looking at that cover – with Gary Oldman’s Dracula on it – I could remember exactly how exciting it was to get that magazine, and read of all the new and wonderful things that were coming up. The fact that most of them turned out to be rubbish doesn’t even dent that nostalgia. I really was excited and it’s still nice to get a little taste of that every time I saw it.

But, in the end, I crushed that sucker up and tossed it into the rubbish pile, because it wasn’t worth holding on to any more.

And I know that I will eventually dump so much more, bits and pieces that I really cared about once, but now only exist in my possession for their memories. All that stuff can go and the memories will still be there. I don’t need this stuff and I’m increasingly convincing myself I don’t want it either.

Sooner or later, I might actually believe myself.