Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gonna have myself a time

The Simpsons may have lost its sheen a long time ago, but it’s surprising how sharp South Park can still be.

That’s a little unfair on Homer’s crew. While general consensus has the Simpsons going downhill ever since the name Armin Tamzarian was first heard, I still do my best to never miss a new episode. It’s still occasionally biting and still funny enough for a few laughs, and has never been anything less than completely entertaining.

The Simpsons might not be living up to the incredibly high standards it set for itself, but a new Simpsons – or even a repeat episode that hasn’t been done to death – is still stronger than the vast number of comedies out there.

When South Park came along in the late nineties, it was written off as Simpsons’ louder, stupider and crasser cousin. There had been no end of cartoon comedies trying to cash in on the enormous success generated by the Simpsons in that decade, and most of the first wave had already fallen away. (Who even remembers Duckman and The Critic?)

So when South Park came out and featured a massive radar antenna spontaneously generating itself out of an eight-year-old’s butt, it was definitely funny, but there were few signs the joke would last.

More than a decade later, and for this viewer, there is still no funnier cartoon showing on television. While its arguable that for sheer popularity, South Park is nowhere near the levels it saw in its first few years of existence, it’s still a remarkably relevant piece of entertainment that manages to still be predictably shocking as often as it is surprisingly thoughtful.

On the shocking front, one of the delights of watching a new episode of South Park is the idea that no matter how extreme it has been in the past, it can still be genuinely shocking. It could get away with things like seeing Ben Affleck get a handjob from a young boy, although suffered some blowback when it managed to annoy the entire Catholic Church with the notorious bleeding Virgin Mary episode.

Each viewer will have their own limits of acceptability, but that first Christmas Critters episode where they launched into a blood orgy ten minutes into the show might have been the worst thing I’d ever seen on television up to that point. But since then, the South Park crew have pushed the boundaries of good taste even further, with the sight of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg literally raping Indiana Jones in a variety of disturbing movie pastiches something I still can’t clear out of my head.

This means South Park is consistently raising the ire of the easily offended, but questioning matters of taste and offence is something the show does better than anybody else.

But it’s not just the ability to whip out some genuine shock value that keeps the show fresh – it’s also marvellously topical and amazingly clever. The short lead time before each episode sees events in the real world parodied within days and watching any new episode month after it first aired can already make it seem out of date.

Its skewering of idiotic values and creeds is where the programme does its best, and the one thing that keeps me coming back every time is how cleverly this hatred of stupidity is presented. The clever aspect can often be the way it presents the piss-take and you might think you’re watching a show that’s making fun of one particular brand of stupidity, only to suddenly realise it’s really making fun of James Cameron’s Dances With Smurfs.

Take a recent episode that started out as a parody of the events seen in the genuinely horrible documentary The Cove, as hordes of angry Japanese descend on water parks and slaughter every whale and dolphin in sight

For an episode that got much of its laughs out of this mindless slaughter, that particular show worked on several levels at once. It wasn’t just the cultural differences between East and West (best exemplified in a killer last line), it also made fun of perennially stupid reality shows, green activists more interested in their public profile than any actual accomplishments and the idiocy of generational blame for atrocities.

For a show to be that clever and insightful after so many episodes – after so many years - is a remarkable feat helped by the fact that Trey Parker, Matt Stone and the rest of the South Park crew are genuinely funny people. They have crafted so many killer lines and situations, while always pushing on for more.

Still, the damn show is going to get me killed one day. I’m sure of it. Thanks to that recent episode making fun of bikers, I can’t help muttering “brumbrumbrum” under my breath every time a noisy motorcyclist goes past. This won’t end well.

But it will be totally worth it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lost in the Library #5 - Facing off

Low Moon
By Jason

Jason is a painfully good comic creator – the man has a phenomenal knowledge of pacing, a sense of humour that’s darker than Darth Vader in a mine at midnight and deceptively simple figurework that says a shitload with very little.

The stories collected in Low Moon are mostly full of that black, black humour. Emily Says Hello is really creepy, but the title story – and all its coffee and chess – made me laugh out loud several times with an abrupt cut to a funeral and the classic ‘hat shoots three feet into the air to show surprise’ never gets old in the right hands.

The best story is the Proto Film Noir, which features a caveman killing a husband to be with the wife, but the bastard keeps coming back, and has to be murdered again and again. It gives the reader a killer punchline and the weirdly annoying discomfort of the blasé dead man, ready to do some gardening and destined for a grave.

If you’re not reading Jason’s stuff, then you don’t really like comics, because this shit is as pure as it gets.

* * *

Thor vol 2
Straczynski/Coipel/Djurdjevic

It’s hard to get sick of Loki’s machinations, and his hand in his own creation is a delightful slice of selfish malevolence. I could read comics that just had Loki showing up and fucking with people. Because that’s the way he rolls.

There are also some bloody big battles, which is what Thor is all about. His foe in the great climactic battle is a worthy opponent and carries real weight. The best Thor comics are the Thor comics where creatures of myth and legend pound the crap out of each other, while tossing off tortured soliloquies between blows.

Marko Djurdevic does a really good apocalyptic battle and there’s a nice panel of the Green goddamn Goblin getting casually tossed through the corner of a building that is a good reminder of why I still read these superhero comics in the first place.

And then there is a bit where Captain America’s ghost shows up, peeling away the layers of reality and brutally abusing the laws of physics to appear in iconic form before his oldest friend, and then uses the opportunity to have a good bitch about the media. Man, that gave me the shitgiggles something fierce.

I also don’t get the big shock climax, where the Norse Gods decide to move their base to a certain country run by a certain megalomaniac with a particular metal face. Why are the only options there, or the middle of America? The gods are after “more familiar climes”, why the hell don’t they go to the Scandinavia where they were born?

Oh, what the hell, it’s all Europe, right? What difference does it make?

* * *

Batman: Gotham After Midnuight
Niles/Jones

A wonderful showcase for the weird, wonderful and slightly sickening art of Kelly Jones, whose art belongs to a universe all of its own – one of ridiculously overblown machinery and costumes, of grotesque figures with fluid physiques.

Jones can often be off-putting, his art just so wrong, it can be hard to look at. But overall, his work remains easily readable and occasionally brilliant as he shines a light on a particularly dark corner of the Batman’s world.

The story by Steve Niles is rubbish. A half-arsed mystery spread too long, it suffers from the same problem that Hush had. If there is a mystery villan who suddenly pops up and is immediately the baddest mofo on the block, at the same time that somebody new crops up in Bruce Wayne’s personal life – there’s a good chance they’re the same person.

Gotham After Midnight also shares Hush’s complete lack of ending. Blatant sequel bait is hard to swallow of 300 pages of this stuff, the story just stops without any real confrontation or resolution.

But hell, this is Jones’ world. It’s not one you want to hang around too long, but it’s always worth a visit.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Time enough for sleep

The only novel from the past year that gave me a hard-on when I bought it was Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy.

The typically massive book brings Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy to an end, climaxing the 20th century in a feast of shattered lives and the devastation of the American Dream.

I adored American Tabloid when it was first released and loved The Cold Six Thousand even more. Ellroy has disappointingly written of the second book as overcooked, but it rewards the effort and might just be the best American novel of the past decade.

The over-reaching tale saw driven men in extraordinary circumstances, fighting bloody wars for ideology, hard cash and the loves of their lives.

To give an example of the incredible events the characters are exposed to, I always think of a sequence near the end of The Cold Six Thousand - starring big Pete Boudrant, a company man who has done terrible things while clutching to his last strands of honour.

Big Pete is on a gun running mission somewhere in the Caribbean, only to find no guns on board. Realising the friends on board the boat are taking him out to kill him, Pete gets them before they get him, suffers a massive heart attack halfway through due to the stress and still manages to kill the last man by dropping a fucking anchor through the roof of a cabin, crushing the man beneath.

The trilogy is made up of dense books that leave you talking in that beautiful clipped style that can sing like poetry in Ellroy's hands. (And nobody else's. Any reviews that attempt to mimic his style should be avoided at all costs.)

Ellroy’s last in the series is surprisingly effective when he goes to a new place – somewhere strange and supernatural. Two major characters have genuinely horrific Haitian adventures that end in sudden, shocking and completely expected deaths. There are men who hold machetes in their inhuman arms who bring this death, drug-fuelled nightmares coming to life in the jungle.

And then the last 100 pages go somewhere new again – away from the violence, away from the blood-soaked history. A short piece at the start of the book that comes off as incredibly clumsy sings with renewed meaning in the context of the revelation over who actually speaks the words. It’s unusual for an Ellroy novel to spend so long on the calm denouncement and rewarding in all new ways.

Of course, there is still a shitload of the usual Ellroy themes and ideas. It’s a weird mix of politics and crime, shadow histories and celebrity scandal. These stories feature Serious Men, doing Serious Things, horrible people who murder in the name of dubious ideology, against the backdrop of an ever-changing America.

Like its predecessors, the plot of Blood’s A Rover revolves around three men caught up in the swirl of the vast events their own actions have set in motion.

There is Wayne Tedrow Jr - the main holdover from the second book – a mess of racial guilt who feels no shame at killing his hate-filled father. He works for the mob and Howard Hughes, a brilliant chemist who will not hesitate to put a bullet in the head of any who cross him. There is Dwight Holly, a minor character from previous books whose portrayal isn’t quite as sharp as other lead characters, his own confused ideology leaving him a little adrift, until he makes his final and unexpected stand, where he sacrifices everything for somebody he doesn’t even like.

And then there is Crutch, a goofy dork who stumbles on to the greatest conspiracy of them all and holds on for the ride. Donald Crutchfield is a creepy peeper, a minor character in any other book, but he perseveres, when other, stronger men fall. Three times in the book he is a second away from certain death, and he survives each time, twice with the aid of heavy firepower.

And it’s this creepy peeper who becomes the ultimate witness of history, the observer of this changing world. By the end, the line between fact and fiction is so blurred, the reader is left wondering which of the main characters were real and which weren’t – a situation not helped by Ellroy’s own deliberate fudging of the issue in interviews supporting the book.

It doesn’t really matter whether the characters actually existed or not, they are powerfully portrayed and weirdly frustrating. Blood’s A Rover won’t win over any new converts, but for those who have been lost in Ellroy’s world for some time, it’s a terrific experience and a great step into a brave, new world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No answers

As Lost kicks into the business end of its final season, the inane moaning about a lack of concrete answers is only going to increase. Some of it will be perfectly valid, most of it will be petty nit-picking. But it’s impossible to devise an ending that panders to such an extraordinarily wide audience.

It’s already started – irritating YouTube songs, demanding answers to questions nobody else cares about. Complaints that the season has is the worst ever. After two bloody episodes.

I hope they don’t answer all of Lost’s mysteries. Some resolution is nice, and a bit of redemption can go a long way in a climax, but it won’t be the end of the world if every loose thread isn’t tied up.

I don’t want the answers. I just want an ending. If it’s not the one I wanted, then it’s my problem.

Isn’t it?

* * *

I recently had the good fortune of stumbling across the Red Riding Trilogy – three movies of complexity and darkness, set around the time the Yorkshire Ripper was on the loose.

Based on the novels of David Pearce, each film is an incredibly well made piece of work with some truly stunning acting and some extraordinary storytelling that doesn’t just refuse to hold your hand, it intentionally blindfolds you and shoves you into a world of uncertainty.

Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely, but was surprised to find myself frustrated by a lack of clear explanation for the events of the three movies when it all wrapped up.

When the credits finally flowed, I realised I’d been hanging out for a big old chunky expository scene, with characters sitting down and explaining all the nuances that had been missed. I was waiting for a full explanation of what prompted the massacre at the club in 1974, or what exactly had been going on in the underground lair that Piggot found.

My reaction to it was stupid, because none of this needed to be spelt out. Over the days since watching the films, they’ve stuck in the head like nothing else this year. A lack of answers actually made the entire experience far more rewarding.

It was even more stupid, because that lack of easy resolution was an integral part of the story the movies was telling - things disappear, people go away, whispers become fact become rumour in less than a decade. There are tantalising glimpses of the truth, but no character sees the full picture, why should the audience expect any better?

While I’m still not sure what happened in the Red Riding movies, that didn’t stop a genuine emotional reaction at its climax, when all sorts of redemption and strength are found in a single shot of unlikely salvation. That’s more important than any nice, clean wrap-up.

* * *

I love the fact that I can’t figure out David Lynch films, and that parts of The Invisibles still thrill me with mystery.

Mulholland Drive was never better than before everybody figured out the Right Answer. It was a hell of a ride, seeing explanations form out of the critical consensus, the endless blog posts, the late night discussions over doughnuts. But it wasn’t as much fun as seeing it for the first time – after a ridiculously indulgent weekend, completely lost and going for the ride.

Just because I didn’t understand exactly what was happening, it didn’t mean the Cowboy was any less creepy, and that bit where the guy goes behind the diner was still the scariest fucking thing I’d ever seen, even if it didn’t make any kind of narrative sense.

And I spent months going over that film in my head, over and over and over again, and never really coming up with anything concrete. The movie experience doesn’t have to be restricted to the time in the movie theatre.

My personal favourite theory is still my first one – that it was all the work of malfunctioning fictionsuits playing a game that had been stored on a scratched disc. But then again, I was reading a lot of Morrison’s turn-of-the-century work at the time.

As for The Invisibles, it’s still an absolute pleasure to flick through a random issue of Morrison’s love letter to the nineties and puzzle over what it all means. I don’t care if I don’t get every reference, or every explanation. It still thrills.

* * *

Narrative isn’t just a puzzle, waiting to be solved. It’s also something to be experienced and to be immersed in.

Judging by the way it’s gone so far, when Lost does end, it will surely be an invigorating and frustrating finish. And that’s all we’ll ever need.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lost in the Library #4: Short is good

Frankenstein’s Womb
Ellis/Oleksicki

These wonderful little things by Warren Ellis that Avatar keep putting out are always worth a look. Crecy was a bloody brilliant slice of historical horror and Aetheric Mechanics was had a good little metaphysical kick in the testicles to offer, right at the end there.

The latest one has Mary Shelley meeting the shade of her monster in the castle, and given a rundown on history and her place in it. It’s another Ellis monologue – informative, a little tenuous and oddly moving. Ellis shows all the cynicism of a true failed optimist and has an excellent grasp on what he wants to say, even if he overcooks some of the links between dead bodies and electricity.

Like the rest of these little comics, the art is a bit too eager and a loosening up of Oleksicki’s art would go a long way. But it is nice and moody, and occasionally hits just the right spot. Oleksicki does a very nice sideways look of contempt.

Frankenstein’s Womb is a sweet little one night stand of a comic, in and out and gone again, leaving behind feelings of vague satisfaction and a slightly dodgy smell. It’s still better than a wank in the dark.

* * *

Secret Invasion Infiltration – Avengers: The Initiative : Killed in Action
Slott/Gage/Caselli

It’s kinda nice when a character stops acting like a dick and reacts to things like a normal human being, because then they’re loads easier to relate to. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen more often.

Fuck, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed bits of this, but it all slides right through the mind, and dribbles out my ear. Super-generic Marvel art of the early 21st century doesn’t help, and I just flicked through it again and it all seemed kinda familiar and ten seconds later I’ve forgotten what was in it again. Hang on, I’ll try again.

Nope, it’s gone again.

Shit. This is spooky.

* * *

Dark Reign: Accept Change
By fuckin’ heaps of people

So this reprints a whole bunch of Dark Reign tie-ins by Bendis and Parker and Fraction and all those crazy Marvel kids. It’s all the usual fun and games, but is largely pointless.

I’ve already read two of the comics here in other collections – the first issue of Dark Avengers and the last Uncanny X-Men annual both in print elsewhere. Apart from that, there is the Secret Invasion: Dark Reign story – which is another exciting adventure of people siting around a table spouting terribly important dialogue – and a bunch of short eight-pagers that all lead off into a bunch of comics that I’ll probably never read.

And then there are a whole lot of profiles culled from various handbooks, along with some blatant advertorial from the Marvel Spotlight magazines, and this shit takes up half the book. Hearing about how awesomely awesome a new comic is going to be doesn’t quite have the same sting when that book is about to be cancelled.

And the profile stuff just gets tedious. Just enough information about various characters to provide the barest of backgrounds, but not enough to make them interesting. They lack the ridiculous density that makes things like the Official Handbook series so charming, but still go on for pages and pages – random round-ups of various villains.

Slapping in a bunch of profile pages bulks out a book and makes it look like a good deal, but it’s being done to death in some Marevl comics. The worst example in recent times is the trade paperback collection of the Bendis/Dell’Otto Secret War, which has profiles of various characters, and then has exactly the same text – with a small added note – fifty pages later. What’s the point of that?

This comic costs US$25. Full credit to Marvel. If I could get people to pay for my advertising, I’d do it too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Had it, lost it

It’s a horrible feeling when you finally realise you’re not cool any more.

Geek chic has just about had its day, so get in quick. The image of the lonely loser hiding in the comic world is fading, but right now nothing is sexier than intelligence, despite dumb society's best efforts.

Even if the world doesn’t move on without you, back to the hard bodies of the late eighties, time will get its own back at you. It’s much later than you think. Before you know it, you’re a crusty old fart, unable to keep up with all the best and brightest new stuff.

For me, the exact moment I felt old and passed it was the day Tom Spurgeon posted his list of the top 50 comic books for 2006, and I had never heard of half the books on there.

This is not a new sensation, and for most of my comic reading life, I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the greater medium. But by the time I hit my early 20s, I pretty much had it going on. From the heights of independent publishing in the mid nineties to the lows of Marvel's output during the same period, I could, at the very least, recognise what was happening. It was a state of mind that carried on for a good decade, with the internet helping me keep track of all the furtherest corners of comicbookland, even when I wasn't able to make the weekly trip to a local store.

But seeing The Spurge's list that day in early 2007, I realised I didn't really know dick. Stuck in a mindset without even realised it, new artists and creators had blossomed with a staggering variety of work, and there was whole areas of the medium that I now knew had suddenly passed me by.

The initial reaction of shock was soon replaced by a creeping malaise. While my level of knowledge of music and movies was a lot higher than the average joe, I had always thought that comics were the one medium I knew inside and out, better than anything else. That might sound horribly arrogant, but comics had always been a part of my life, since before I could read, and I had immersed myself in the whole thing, only to discover there was so much more going on than I had ever realised.

And yet, it wasn't that bad. That list of unknowns was enough to shake me out of the safe little area of comic mindscape that I had carved out for myself, and gave me the impetus to try out something new. Granted, many of these new works were simply awful, and barely worth the time it took to read them, but others took me off to new and wonderful places.

This is what keeping up with the comic scene is all about. There is so much stuff out there, enough comics released every month to crush an elephant. The unknown books eventually become familiar, and if enough trusted critics keep saying how good something is, it's inevitable that it will come onto the radar. In the end, quality wins.

Even if you damned kids don't know it. Now get off my lawn.

Friday, February 5, 2010

It’s always been Miller time

It’s no wonder Frank Miller can be a grumpy old bastard sometimes. When you’ve had half the comic world falling over themselves to tell you how shit you are for your entire goddamn career, you’ve got the right to feel a bit surly.

Sometimes it feels like everybody likes to have a go at Frank Miller. Any new article, essay or interview with the creator that appears online attracts bitter comments about Frank’s stories and abilities, often ascribing personal world views to his work that can be a little tenuous.

It’s certainly gotten worse since the rise of the internet, and some people - who have certainly never seen the kind of commercial and critical success that has been enjoyed by Miller - feel entirely justified in laughing at him.

For every one person who adores All Star Batman, the general buzz around the sadly silent series seems to have 10 people who can’t stand it, to the point where comicblogging king Mike Sterling’s unashamed love for the comic is sometimes assumed to be taking the piss. (And maybe he is, but he still seems to genuinely love the book.)

And the worst part is – none of this is new. Read some old, yellowing Amazing Heroes magazines or David Anthony Kraft’s Comic Interview, and there is plenty of Miller-love to be found, but also the same criticisms of his work – that ridiculous fascination with his plot machinations, a snide sneer at the most superficial aspects of the work that ignores any real depth.

Some people actually seem to enjoy missing the point of Miller’s work, even if they haven’t realised their snark has no currency. One of the most irritating things about the criticism of Miller’s work is the superficiality.

Mention Sin City to a Miller-hater, and they will come up with a long (and occasionally valid) list of things to hate. They’ll bang on about the misogyny, the stale plots, the harder-than-diamonds dialogue and all that jazz, and completely ignore the craft.

It’s a little mindbending to think that Frank started Sin City nearly two decades ago, because a lot of the things he has done in the comic are still being picked apart by draftsmen who are getting rich rewards from the veins he has mined.

Look at the panels, the negative space that spills out over everything, the transitions between scenes, and there are some remarkable things happening in Miller’s comics. The man’s work might look like he’s stuck in a certain style, but there is also a sense of brave experimentation.

That experimentation doesn’t always work, or it may take some time to see what the hell Frank is getting at, but at least he’s forging his own path, going his own way.

But this is ignored in favour of sneering at something like Miller’s typically strong women. It’s just irritating, like the morons who refuse to read Beto Hernandez’s traumatically good Palomar stories because they can’t get past the big tits.

Despite these dismissals, Miller does find an appreciative audience, and there are even some poor souls out there who can find nice things to say about The Spirit movie.

Me, I’m always up for some Miller. His work – both writing and art - is strangely compulsive, slightly frustrating, occasionally devastating and always entertaining. That beats the same old shit anytime, sweetcheeks.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lost in the Library #3 - Hold tight!

Amazing Spider-Man: Death and Dating
Waid/Guggenheim/Stern/Slott/Martin/McKone/Weeks/Kitson/Dave/Dee/Dozy/Beaky/Mick/Titch

It’s become a bit of a clich√© to go on about how good the art is in the current Spider-Man comic is getting, but that’s because it’s fucking true. There are some gorgeous pages in there – brilliantly kinetic action scenes that really flow, Spidey in the city like he’s never been seen before. Idiosyncratic styles and a slick modern sheen that helps story cohesion and just looks bloody pretty.

Even poor old Mike McKone - who has put me off comics with his stilted bodies and flat perspectives since back when he was filling in on the Justice League – comes off all right, his style loosening under the grace of a human with the proportionate speed of a spider.

Story-wise, it’s all right on an individual level. Who cares about deals with the devil? The new Spider-Man works best when nobody gives a damn about the past. Existing in the now is always a better story than worrying about the past.

If the new Spider-Man comics could do that all the time, and just forget the whole who-knows-whose-identity bollocks, they would be a whole bunch stronger. But they can’t resist explaining how Flash or Betty or the coffee shop guy who appeared in Spectacular #148 fits in to the new jigsaw, and any momentum the story has slams to a halt.

There are also neverending subplots go nowhere, and it’s hard to see what’s so interesting about the Spider Tracer killer that necessitates the continuous teeth-grinding. It’s an easy way to turn the ever-fickle Marvel Universe public against the web head, but goes on and on.

The shame of it is, these are bloody nice comics that occasionally sing when the writers and artists are given a free reign, but are constrained by incessant continuity pandering that doesn’t need to be there.

* * *

Batman: Battle For The Cowl Companion

Lots of people, some of whom you may have heard of, but probably not

Apparently, Gotham City can’t survive without Batman and everybody who lives there is mental.

* * *

Thunderbolts: Caged Angels
By Ellis and Deodato Jr

The ridiculous seriousness of the modern Marvel universe is a bit off-putting. Fortunately, Warren Ellis knows the more serious it gets, the more ridiculous it gets, and there is nothing wrong with that if you’re going to push the dial all the way up to 11.

So this Thunderbolts book is a bit stupid and a bit funny and shifts along at a cracking pace. The biggest problem is that it relies on a bunch of mentally deranged people acting more mentally deranged than usual, which is hard to get to grips with and leads to all sorts of confusion.

That might be Ellis’ intention and he might be saying something brilliantly clever about the inherent absurdity of the characters he’s writing about, but it still gives the whole comic a bitter after taste that will take a shedload of whiskey to shift.

Deodato Jr’s art is much, much better than it was when he drew Wonder Woman and she was replaced by a ginger who nearly put my eye out with her nipples.