Thursday, September 30, 2010

Journalism? Don’t talk to me about journalism.

I decided to become a journalist on my 28th birthday. It was largely due to the fact that I was a 28-year-old loser who was working in a fat factory, and I knew I needed to do something with my life. I also wanted to be a journalist because I really wanted to meet girls, and the local journalism school’s classes were about 80% female.

Since making that decision, I’ve worked on a daily newspaper, been a full-time writer for a b2b magazine publishing company, a reporter for the country’s biggest business publication and I’m currently working as a senior news editor for New Zealand’s third biggest news website.

(I also completely succeeded in my plan to meet girls, and ended up marrying the most beautiful girl in my journalism class.)

So when the online comic culture periodically makes a big deal about the standard of comics journalism, I take a special interest. Not because I’m shocked or offended or angry at all. I take note because the discussion is usually so fucking funny.

* * *

Overseas, they have important documents like the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. Here in New Zealand, we have the Treaty of Waitangi, a good and just document that gives indigenous Maori unbreakable rights to citizenship, along with the guardianship of their own land and several other deals.

Treaty settlements have been ongoing for several decades, and are now starting to wind down, although there will still be plenty of Treaty discussion to come, especially on the foreshore and seabed issue. It has been used as a divisive document, but it is still big and important and righteous. So it’s a shame it’s completely unsuitable as any kind of legally binding object.

The problem is that there are two versions of the Treaty – both equally valid. When it was first drafted, it was translated into Maori and taken around the country for people to sign. Unfortunately, the translation made several key errors on the exact meaning of very important words, so that the English version of the Treaty says one thing, while the Maori version says something completely different.

This doesn’t stop both sides arguing over the details, arguments that have been going on for decades. Even though both sides are right, there can be no agreement if they’re talking about different things.

This ridiculously pointless bickering is what I think of when people start arguing about the state of comics journalism. They’ve all got strong points of views and valid arguments, but they’re talking about completely different things.

* * *

What is journalism, anyway?

According to the dictionary I keep at my desk, the definition of journalism is ‘writing in or editing of newspapers and magazines’. The dictionary is quite old, and obviously missed out on this whole internet thing, but you only have to add a ‘…and websites’ and you’re set.

The most obvious issue with this definition, and one that spreads to almost all online discussion about comics journalism, is that it’s so ridiculously broad that it almost means nothing.

As far as I can figure, online comics journalism means anything written by anybody that is intended to be read by somebody else. That covers a huge landscape, from half-illiterate blog posts like this one to intensive digging around the finances of a major comics company. It’s all journalism.

(Although I certainly don’t consider this blog to be journalism, not compared to my day job. Because I’m a reporter by day, I think of the Tearoom of Despair as just a place to pleasurably vent about comics and movies and other pop culture shit, after a day spent writing about crime and politics and business. But it’s written to be read, and certainly fits the overall definition I’m shooting for.)

The current hand-wringing over the state of comics journalism was sparked by some vague comments from Brian Michael Bendis, but it’s hardly new. There is always somebody ready to stand up and decry the state of journalism.

But this is where the funny part comes in – even though everybody knows what they’re on about, there is never total agreement on the finer details. Bendis may have been talking about Comic Book Resources or Newsarama and their tendency to regurgitate press releases, but anybody with any interest in providing any kind of comic news was tarred with his same broad brush.

Bendis’ comments were greeted with some marvellously passionate rebuttal from all over the place. Many pointed out that there was plenty of in-depth analysis of damn near anything, if you cared to really look, while others were right in their extolling the virtues of Spurgeon or Deppey or Johnston.

To make any kind of proclamation of comic journalism, you have to be very specific about what you mean, because there is so much variety out there. There is even huge discrepancies between sites that rely on breaking news, the Comics Reporter is good for one kind of thing, and Newsarama has its own uses.

If critical review is to be included in the big, bad basket of journalism, then you have to be even more exact. There are sites devoted to the artiest of the artiest comics, and others that dust off something like Web of Spider-man for a bit of re-analysis, and they’re both rewarding in different ways. Does everything really need to go in a big, neat box labelled ‘journalism’?

* * *

There is one other funny thing about this argument – there is actually one clear answer to it, but few acknowledge it. The fact is, comics journalism has never been stronger or more varied, and it’s remarkable that more people can’t step back from their own singular interests and see the whole thing for themselves.

Access to information via text, video and audio has never been easier or faster, and there is so much stuff out there, so many individuals all doing their thing, more for love than money, just to spread the word. Journalism is all about this sharing of information, and now that everybody can do it, there is so much to choose from.

There is still a large amount of complete rubbish, but the sheer volume of writing on any subject, even something as insular as comics, is staggering, and by any law of averages, there has to be some good stuff.

I only need to check out half a dozen sites on a semi-daily basis and all my comic journalism needs are satisfied. Some important information is hidden, but is eventually dug out. People are crap at keeping secrets, and all the great comic industry feuds and fights revert into safe anecdote over time.

I found out Bob Harras was taking on a top job at DC within a day of it officially happening, when that information would have taken months to get through 15 years ago. Within 24 hours, there was all sorts of analysis, weird tribute and spleen-venting to satisfy every side of this story. It will be interesting to see how Harras does, but his appointment has been thoroughly covered.

And there are a dozen stories like that a week, bouncing around, gaining momentum, gaining attention. How could you ask for anything more?

* * *

So I don’t take offence at Bendis’ remarks. They’re just absurd and funny, and not just because he’s complaining about lazy generalizations by making a lazy generalization.

As a professional journalist, I was more upset by a jarring moment from a X-Men First Class comic from a couple of years ago, where Cyclops pretended to be a reporter to get some info out of the local redneck cop, but got busted by the cop because he was using a notebook and the cop hadn’t seen a reporter use a notebook instead of a recorder for 20 years. That was some bullshit, because I’ve never met a reporter, whether they were print of TV or radio or web, who didn’t carry around some kind of notepad for taking important bits of information. Any reporter who relies on recordings is a damn fool who has too much time on his hands for transcribing and that soured me on the whole damn comic.

Man, that shit has been bothering me for a while. I still get weirdly pissed off when a comics writer tries to write a Clark Kent of J Jonah Jameson article and it's something no newspaper would ever publish, but it's the little things that really irritate.

It's all in the details.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Winter is slowly winding down around here, but that hasn't stopped me getting a cold, probably because it's still been raining every day for the past month and possibly because the wife has been away on an island for three weeks and I've reverted to the unhealthy bachelor lifestyle with alarming speed. All I wanna do now is sit around, feel sorry for myself, read a big bunch of new/old 2000ads I got in the mail yesterday and wonder why the hell the new Love & Rockets hasn't shown up here yet.

Because of this, writing another meandering and pointless blog post isn't exactly a high priority right now, so I'm going to cheat, and put up a review I wrote for work a few weeks back on the excellent Banksy documentary - Exit Through The Gift Shop.

This is the face of my laziness!

* * *

Don't worry if you walked out of Exit Through The Gift Shop feeling a little confused - that's almost certainly the filmmaker's intention.

After all, it's a documentary directed by Banksy, the street artist who made his name through secrecy, deception, and perverting cultural icons into twisted and brilliant new shapes, and this is a movie about an artform built on secrecy and deception that perverts a traditional documentary into twisted and brilliant new shapes.

The film is ostensibly the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA who compulsively records his life on video camera, never leaving the house without a lens attached to his face. He eventually falls into documenting the rising popularity of street art and, through several strokes of extreme good fortune, somehow ends up being the video confidant of the world's most secretive artist.

Eventually inspired by his interactions with Banksy and other artists, Thierry takes to the street himself and becomes the focus of the film. He is inspired to actually watch some of the material he collected and eventually produces his own dubious art.

By the climax of the film, Guetta has achieved his aim of fame and fortune, with his art shows proving remarkably popular and his work gracing the cover of a Madonna album. The fact that his art is frequently actually made by other people, shows a fair lack of imagination and is greeted with caution by his more famous mates does little to stop Thierry.

Or does it? Thierry's story is just a little bit too neat. While the unlikeliest stories often do turn out to be true, his fame is just a little too ironic and fitting.

It doesn't really matter if it's fact or fiction, Exit Through The Gift Shop still manages to make a few fine points about art and perception, without ever getting boring.

It's as smart and funny as the art Banksy has splashed on walls around the world. The artist himself only appears on screen as a typically shadowy figure with a modulated voice, but still has a terrific sense of comic timing and keeps things nicely down to earth when the art talk is in danger of getting a little too pretentious.

Thierry is also a charming screen presence, playing the part of a bumbling Frenchman with a perceptive eye to perfection, while there are glimpses of genuine street artists who have pushed their chosen medium into wonderful new directions. An attempt to document some of that is always welcome, and any mind-games that come along with it are just part of the ride.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Joe the Barbarian – growing up is for wimps

You’re supposed to put away childish things as life goes on, but why can’t you play with them forever?

Like every other Vertigo comics with Grant Morrison’s name on it, Joe The Barbarian works on several levels, and this time he’s got one of those collaborators who is adding to the work – rather than taking away – with Sean Murphy’s epic and claustrophobic visuals.

When the first couple of issues came out, there were a number of people arguing that nothing was happening, with loads of wide and long establishing shots instead of pure plot. It does suffer from the usual problem with stories about the processes of imagination and Joe The Barbarian might be full of monsters and big sword fights, but I lot of readers can’t get past the idea it’s really about somebody heading down the stairs to get a can of soda, and that’s not important.

Except that it is, imaginary stories are always the best. Everybody loves Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, and there is more weird poignancy in the original Superman Red/Superman Blue story than in the last ten years of regular superman comics.

You can tell which Morrison comics are about the power of the imagination and creation, because they always start or end with a blank page. The first panel of Joe The Barbarian is an empty sketch page.

Even with all its flights of fancy, the comic is still full of those doses of Kitchen Sink Plus that have been in Morrison’s work since St Swithins Day. It’s The Filth all over again. All Greg wanted to do was feed his cat, watch some telly and masturbate, all Joe wants to do is get down the bloody stairs.

But the kid ain’t all right, and going into diabetic shock, and hallucinating his way through a magical kingdom that’s slowly dying. In this flash before his eyes, Joe is an awkward adolescent, still not sure why he is going to turn out like. The giant dopey robot dinosaur and the GI Joes are still there – they’re still weirdly important – but so is Lobo and John Constantine and the Dark Knight Batman. Where does he go from here?

Where do we all go? That awkwardness of adolescence, that bit where the hormones go mental, and the body starts mutating, and the mind struggles to catch up. It happens to us all, and we grow up and stop playing with toys and be adults.

But all that childhood affection doesn’t go away, not really. There is always a place in the heart for the first soft toy you really loved, and it can be a warm and positive feeling. We can throw away our toys, but there will always be a little of them there in our souls to help us through the rough times.

You hear that, Mr Elephant? I still love you!


Anyway, the series is one issue from completion. It’s all coming to a head, everything is breaking down and Death Is Coming, but a happy ending is assured. Like his very occasional collaborator Peter Milligan, Morrison remains a deeply sentimental Scotsman, and even if stories end in carnage and death, there will still be hope, somewhere in the gore. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Sometimes Morrison’s stories get butchered by incompetent artists, but Sean Murphy is a fine talent, worthy of further recognition. It’s the sketchy slickness and shameless exaggeration that catches the eye, but his work is satisfying on several tiers. It’s big and epic and colourful, and there is no problem with the shifts between the two worlds. There are connections and stylistics mirrorings, but one is definitely not the other.

It’s still fun to look for visual clues between Joe’s house and the Playtown scenes. All those static shots of the house, or weirdly detailed rooms, it all pays off with a closer examination. But don’t look too deep, because they’re everywhere and you can’t see things that just aren’t there. Which, considering this comic, is all kinds of ironic.

Like much of Morrison’s work over the years, the final issues are shipping late, just as things are really starting to crank. The breakdowns, the little things seen in previous issues that are starting to pile up on top of each other, the climactic confrontation with the big bad in the basement, the hidden story of Joe’s life, told in his reactions to his crisis, blatantly explained in the furniture and decorations of his house. Three toothbrushes in the bathroom, the eternal struggle with money and the waste of a father – it’s all right there.

Whatever happens in the last issue, Joe The Barbarian has been a typically satisfying comic from Morrison, and a stellar showcase for Murphy. It’s the type of series that can make you think and make you laugh. That’s all I really want from a comic, and I’ll always be grateful to Vertigo for consistently producing them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Greek Street - This old detour

Taking a shortcut through the oldest stories will always be rewarding, but there is no guarantee it will find a stable audience. Greek Street lasted longer than anybody really expected it to, but it still died in its second year.

The comic is coming to an end with a hurried two-issue wrap-up and some jarring revelations. It set up all sorts of developments in its limited shelf life and few are going to be adequately resolved by the time those final pages roll around.

It’s no surprise to see it go. If anything, it was notable for how long it lasted. After reading the first issue, it looked like it would be lucky to go longer than The Minx, which shared this current sense of shaky resolution, but it had enough legs to last longer than a year. That’s better than some.

After all, it started with the main character sleeping with his own Mum and then accidentally murdering her. That might be another iteration of one of the oldest stories, but it’s still fucking gross. It’s hard to blame anybody who gave it the $1 #1 treatment and decided that this was quite enough.

It was a typically blunt and brutal start from Milligan, who has always done well out of this sort of thing. Despite the ultra-cynical exterior, Milligan’s work is stuffed with blatant sentimentality and a real fondness for his main characters. Shade The Changing Man only lasted as long as it did because people genuinely liked Kathy and Lenny and all the other weirdos that came and went. Milligan still has an ear for cutting dialogue, and occasionally did a nice little subversion of the clichés that had been built up by these old, old stories.

And he’s still one of the great Angry Young Bastards that came out of the UK ‘80s comic scene. Back then it was all bloody Thatcher’s fault, and while the world’s moved on, there are still swine in power. The penultimate storyline – Ajax – was a brilliantly indignant rage against the war machine. The waste of the past decade’s conflicts and the terrible tragedies that will continue to unfold in their wake is one of the eternal stories, revisited all over again.

(It’s like listening to Bill Hicks in the past few years. In his routines he was spitting at George Bush for fucking about and wasting lives in the Middle East, and a full decade after he died, it was still an absolutely relevant scream for reason.)

Milligan’s deft touch for character building was sometimes missing from the residents of Greek Street. It wasn’t as bad as he painfully mediocre superhero comics he occasionally writes, and there was still some there. Chirpy geezer gangsters stopped being interesting a long time ago, so Greek Street’s criminal side are hard and brutal and driven people that fall victim to the same old tragedies.

Now that it’s ending, the pacing is shot to hell, and the jarring appearance of the apparent Gods in a sadly predictable and colourful humanoid alien blobs feels like it was meant to be some kind of proper revelation, three or four years down the line, but they have been shoved out onto the stage an act too early.

Even as it ends, Milligan is still stuffing the story with pop philosophy and sharp suits. Greek Street was a noble experiment, but it was a failed one.

The old stories still have resonance, humans are still driven by the same primal lusts as their ancient ancestors – we’re just better at hiding it. There will always be warriors and victims, tales of vengeance and honour have the same meaning they always did. I’ll always still listen to those stories, if anybody is willing to try telling them.

There is still plenty for the creators to do elsewhere, including Milligan’s satisfying Hellblazer stuff, and they’ll always be worth following, away from this dark end of the street.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jack of Fables – Now I’m going this way!

Jack of Fables isn’t the sexiest book on the stands. A spin-off from a series with a devoted following and a huge amount of critical indifference, it’s wandering its own way, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered by anything.

It ditched the main character altogether a while back and started following somebody else because he looked a bit more interesting. It’s got solid, competent artwork that doesn’t bother with any flash tricks and writers who produce some of the most mediocre superhero comics ever created.

And yet, I do genuinely enjoy the comic, and look forward to reading it every month. It’s just a bit weird how I barely re-read them. I’ve read each issue of The Boys six or seven times, looking for new resonances, but the latest Jack of Fables just goes into the box with all the other Jack of Fables.

But I don’t throw them out, or give them away, or sell them. Because I might read them again sometime and will undoubtedly enjoy the experience. After all, it’s charming and modest and silly and clean and sometimes a bit exciting. It’s still the most free-wheeling comic around, going off in any old direction that looks interesting, an approach that is lots of fun and sometimes funny. This freedom to ditch characters, or switch them around, or go anywhere means that every issue is enjoyable, even though I always forget what happened in it half an hour later,

It might sound like a back-handed compliment to call Tony Akins and Russ Braun’s art solid and competent, but competency is a goddamn virtue these days and there work has always been pleasantly clean. While it is a little unadventurous, this compliments the bizarre twists and turns that the plot takes.

This ruthless desire to take every narrative zig-zag the plot throws up and present it with an absolutely straight face can also been seen in the Bolland covers. The covers are especially notable because they’re some of the artist’s best work in years, and all he does is show a scene from the comic in its most literal form. The results are frequently bizarre, Bolland’s art serving as the perfect straight man to the silliness inside. The craziness of the plot still seems perfectly reasonable under Bolland’s unwavering line.

The plots that fill Jack of Fables are crazy, and do go off wherever the hell they feel like, and while this means there is a wonderful amount of unpredictability, it also means it can often feel immaterial or unimportant. The most recent run of the series has been particularly forgettable, with the current title character off having the usual fantastical adventures, while the original Jack sits in a cave after turning into a dragon.

The new Jack has been pleasingly proactive in his adventures, and it has been marginally exciting to see him swinging a magic sword around, but it also leaves the comic feeling like it has been treading water for some time. Fortunately, with a big, convenient #50 coming up, everything is starting to pull together. The jarring cliffhanger of the most recent issue was a terrific switch between cute Jack Dragon And Gary funny pages and a final page reveal of the dirtier, grungier and nastier reality.

Jack Horner, who cart-wheeled through the pages of Fables and his current title, is now a vicious monster to be put down, and his son is on the way with a bloody big sword, having squeezed in a lifetime’s worth of adventures between the panels.

It could go anywhere. Although the foreshadowing that surrounds New Jack makes it fairly unlikely that he will come out in one piece, either of the Jacks could see their story end. There are no guarantees.

And that’s why I enjoy it more than anything else. It’s a comic that takes place in real time, with a typically charming supporting cast of Fables. I keep thinking I should get sick of the little blue bull joke, but I never do, and the comic has taken metafictional machinations to appropriately absurd limits before dialing it right back, while still getting in a couple of good in-jokes about that.

But it’s mainly because I still enjoy reading a story that could go anywhere, where anything could happen. One that knows the rules of narrative fiction, so it’s allowed to blithely ignore them and do whatever it feels like. That’s why I get it every month.

And because it does have a sense of humour - Comics, including superheroes, can take themselves too damn seriously, and it’s sadly refreshing to see one go about its business with a grin on its face. Especially when it’s a Vertigo title. The worst comics from the imprint were all guilty of absolute seriousness, and it's something that this comic side-steps completely.

Jack of Fables is just silly sometimes, and sometimes it gets quite dark, but it never takes itself too seriously. Just like real life, the comic can be horrible and absurd and it’s no use crying over it.

You’ve got to laugh.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sweet Tooth – Scratching out the new world

Occasionally, comic companies actually come up with a decent way to try to hook readers into a new series that might be otherwise overlooked, and Vertigo’s habit of issuing the first issue of a comic at a stripped-down price has worked for me.

It’s certainly better than slapping a few random pages in the back of unrelated books and hoping for the best. While some of these previews have actually looked interesting, many of them are still for hardback comics that cost more than eighty bucks around here. The hell with that.

Without this financial hook of a $1 #1, Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth would have been one of those series that passed me by. One I could have picked up cheap some years down the line. But there wasn’t much else that looked like fun the week #1 came out, and I gave it a chance, and enjoyed it enough to keep on getting it.

And this proved to be pretty fortunate, because it keeps getting richer. It plays up to cliché just enough to subvert it and doesn’t look like anything else Vertigo publishes with its scratchy and idiosyncratic style, even under the traditional and official company colour tones of Brown and Even More Brown

Sweet Tooth has a typical apocalyptic vibe. When society has broken down, everybody does what was expected of them, and there is brutality and violence. (Although nothing quite as brutal as some of the recent events in another comic Armageddon - The Walking Dead. The hardness the heroes have to show in that comic just to survive is fucking harsh.)

But there are also a couple of nice twists that make the series worth following. The lead character – poor old Gus – has been relentlessly pushed around by the cruel hand of fate since issue one, and remains a skinny, awkward presence. There is still humour in Gus’ sheer gormlessness, but the thing that makes the comic worthwhile is the fact that he is learning all about the world real quick, and is already adapting. A passive character can be hard to handle, but a passive character who learns to take things into their own hands is always a story worth telling.

It’s just going to take a while to get there. The plot is taking a while to get to a point, and after a year, a lot of the comic still feels like set-up Some points are dragged out again and again - the idea that Gus isn’t a by-product of the virus that wiped out the world, but the cause of it, has been hammered into the ground several times over, and some sort of refutation or confirmation either way would be nice.

While it is moving towards a definite bloody and violent end, this means the comic is sometimes dragged down by predictable beats – the moment a character breathlessly declares they’re pregnant can be seen coming a trade paperback ago

But that’s all part of the charm of this new post-apocalyptic ride. Sweet Tooth is a fun and scary comic that is promising to go to strange, new places. It’s not essential or important, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It has a B-movie sensibility, which means long stretches of quiet, followed by intense bursts of action.

One of the funny things about buying Sweet Tooth is the fact that even though I do genuinely enjoy Lemire’s work on the title, there is absolutely no compunction to seek out his superhero comic work. It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of a notable creator like that on a beloved character like The Atom would have had me jizzing my pants, especially if it was teamed up with brand new issues of the Legion of Super Heroes by Paul bloody Levitz, but now I couldn’t care less, because it’s all part of this big massive mess that lost me long ago. Not only has the last decade of DC comics made that superhero universe toxic to my tastes, the house style of stale fourth-generation Jim Lee clones covered up with over-shined effects is just so bland and off-putting, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could ever be tempted.

Compared to that, Sweet Tooth is a beautiful little slice of idiosyncrasy, and that’s always something worth keeping an eye on. Even though its look shares a scratchy aesthetic with a number of current Vertigo titles, Lemire’s art still has a lovely individual style. It really doesn’t look like anything else the company does.

It’s also not trying to be too clever, or too mind-warping, or too bloody faerie, it’s just doing its own thing, with the specific focus of a single creator that no writer/artist combo can ever replicate. It’s Lemire’s story, and he can take it where he wants, and make it look any way he chooses. He can experiment, like in the recent issue of Gus’ silent treatment balanced against the dry diagnosis of the end of the world at the bottom of the page.

And even better, there are all sorts of deeper levels laid into the tale, especially about the harsh changes of nature. Sweet Tooth is set after an apocalypse that has wiped out most of humanity, but it’s not about the end of the world, it’s the start of a new one. It’s a matter of history: tearing it down and start all over again is often the first way to get anywhere new, and Sweet Tooth is full of new mutants – new people – who are greeted with fear by the old, but are showing the way to the future.

It’s a harsh new world that Lemire shows in all its scratchy discomfort, but the possibility of genuine change means Sweet Tooth is easy on the taste buds.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Down Vertigo way

Me and Vertigo, we got a history.

Vertigo and me, we go all the way back.

* * *

Somewhere around 1993 and I’m sitting in my freezing fucking cold bedroom in an old house on Richard Pearse Drive, the walls decorated with brand new issues of New Warriors and X-Force and that Joe Jusko Mary Jane Watson poster from the swimsuit special, and all I can do is stare at the ads for Enigma and Death: The High Cost Of Living.

They’re in black and white in a price guide magazine that I bought so I could work out when Morrison started on Doom Patrol. I saw the same ads in colour just recently and they looked weird, because they looked fucking awesome in monochrome. I was 18 at the time and absolutely primed for something more than superheroes. I’d only managed to find a couple of issues of Hellblazer and Sandman and Doom Patrol, but that was enough. I was desperate for more of that thrill, more of that fun.

And it was made even sexier by the fact that I couldn’t get those comics everywhere. I was just out of school and had my first minimum wage job, but the nearest comic shop was hundreds of kilometres away. It took me six years to get Enigma, and another ten before I finally found the first issue of that Death miniseries.

They were totally worth the wait.

So what I could get, I coveted like crazy. Anytime any of my mates were going up to the big city, I asked them to pick up a Sandman trade and went to ridiculous lengths to make sure they got the right one. I still ended up with two copies of Season of Mists, but gave one away to a girl who doesn’t talk to me any more.

And when I could get them, I would read them over and over again. I fell hard for the Hellblazer issue with the skeletal Statue of Liberty on the cover, and all three issues of Sebastian O. I’ve still got them, but they’re all frayed around the edges from this obsession.

I even loved the mediocre stuff that came out, convinced that the whole line was the Way of the Future in that obnoxious way that young adults do. I would score the random issue of Black Orchid, or Kid Eternity or Sandman Mystery Theatre and treasure it as much as any other comic in my collection.

* * *

Marvel was going into places I didn’t want to follow, and I woke up one morning and discovered that every Superman comic I was still reading was fucking boring. It also helped that I was a typically pretentious and reasonably obnoxious teenager, going on and on about shit that had opened my eyes. Especially if nobody else had heard of it.

Like anybody else with half a brain born in a small town on the arse end of nowhere, I was off to the city as soon as I could. It was partly because I was a grown up now and could live wherever the hell I wanted, and mainly because it ensured I could get that comic fix I had for the whole imprint – caught the last few arcs of Sandman, stuck with Hellblazer until the end of Ennis and fell for whole new series like Preacher and The Invisibles.

That six or seven years that those two series were coming out represented the peak of Vertigo interest, which is hardly surprising when you had those two comics dropping a dose of brilliance every month. It wasn’t an unconditional love – Despite trying the odd cheap issue, I never really got on board with comics like the Books of Magic or House of Secrets. They were all enjoyable enough, and still a lot better than many of the comics being published at the time, but they weren’t really thrilling.

And then there was the Trenchcoat Brigade, which was just as awful as any other company’s products. The one panel where vast and mysterious wanderers like the Phantom Stranger, Mr E, Doc Occult and John Constantine tried to defeat ultimate evil by firing magical rays out of the tips of their fingers, a little bit of that Vertigo lust died.

And then it was the turn of the century and The Invisibles and Preacher both brilliantly wrapped up, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t buying a Vertigo series every month. I was still dipping in and out of things like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, but the monthly series that were launched around this time were only okay.

Maybe I was just turning into an old bastard, growing out of Vertigo’s demographic, but series like 100 Bullets, Deadenders and Lucifer all seemed a bit too serious for their own good. While certainly full of inspired touches and occasional doses of brilliance, they were not the sort of thing I was really interested in any more. I couldn’t even get into some series that found a popular audience, like the incredibly successful Y: The Last Man or Transmetropolitan. They had their moments, but their was something a bit too self satisfied and targeted.

* * *

Periods of poverty and relative disinterest saw me drift away from buying a regular comic from the Vertigo imprint altogether sometime around 2001. Unfortunately, this meant I missed out some stuff that turned out to be pretty bloody decent, like Human Target, The Losers and Fables, but that just leaves something new to search for in the back issue bins, when I’m on the eternal search for cheap issues of Shade The Changing Man. New holes are good holes.

After all, I got the last issues of the Ennis Hellblazer that I wanted the other week, after spending years and years looking for that story where Prince Charles gets possessed by Jack T Ripper. I’ve got all the Swamp Things I ever wanted, and it’s nice to have something to look for when you walk into a new comic shop. And there are still old holes unfilled, I’ve been one issue away from getting all of the Lansdale/Truman Jonah Hex comics for ages and I’m sure I’m still down one issue of the Rifle Brigade.

* * *

Over the years, Vertigo has produced these little bits and pieces of brilliance. Some comics adhere to an unfortunate template – The Unwritten ticking all the typical Vertigo boxes by being a bit literate, mixing up the real world with a fantasy one and indulging in a spot of metafiction – but there has also been a ridiculous amount of experimentation.

Every now and then, something sticks, and the company ends up with an unqualified success like Fables, but the number of Vertigo ongoing comics that never reached #30 is staggering. Some of them are really good, many of them were just rubbish, but at least they’re trying to do something different.

Still, there are always trusted creators like Ennis, Morrison and Milligan, putting out these comics that still thrill. Stuff like the Filth and War Stories and Kill Your Boyfriend and the Minx and Unknown Soldier and the criminally underrated Vinarama. Milligan and Fergado’s Girl is somehow still one of my personal favourite comics of all time – a sweet little three issue slice of kitchen sink fantasy.

I was also particularly fond of the series that were nothing by short stories – comics like Flinch, Weird War Tales, Gangland and Heartthrobs were occasionally clumsy, but always worthwhile.

I still realised I didn’t need to read every series, and never even bothered with stuff like Crossing Midnight and Codename: Knockout. I still tried the odd thing that just didn’t work for me, like DMZ, The Exterminators and Testament. They were taking too long to get to the point, or just weren’t quite as interesting as they should have been or maybe I’m just an old fart.

* * *

These days I live in a house where I don’t have to look at my breath every night, and tastes have radically changed in 15 years, but I still dig some Vertigo.

I still get four Vertigo comics every month – although two are about to end - and the same two are by that old crew of Milligan and Morrison. There are still new series that I haven’t tried yet, although I’m looking forward to jumping in. Despite the disappointment of DMZ, Northlanders is something I’ve been giving the glad eye in the local store, and I’m three trades behind Scalped, but eager for more.

Vertigo isn’t as unique as it once was. Other companies like Wildstorn and Dynamite have picked up on this, the latter doing something right in nabbing Ennis’ current Battlefield stories from the company that produced the similar War Stories, while The Boys follows the template of a finite - but long-form - monthly story that the imprint established.

Vertigo grew out of the comedown from the Comics Ain’t For Kids No More high of the mid-eighties and it’s big brother’s backing saw it tough out the almost-complete collapse of the industry, and it’s still there

There will be more to say about the four comics I still get – Sweet Tooth, Jack of Fables, Greek Street and Joe the Barbarian – over the next few days, but there have been dozens of great comics published under the Vertigo imprint. Those early comic crushes can quickly curdle and go embarrassing, but there is no shame here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rob Liefeld and his silent murderings

Nobody can hold a grudge quite like comic people, but it’s interesting to note that there really still is some genuine hatred of Rob Liefeld out there in the greater comic community. Any time he pops up in an interview or profile or message board post, he still manages to rile up people, even with the most innocuous of appearances.

A lot of it is nothing more than a real distaste for his dodgy anatomy and poor staging of characters, and it’s hard to argue with that, while his business practices and habit of announcing books that never showed up also didn’t win him any fans. Rob had the smugness of youth, a style that spawned endless imitators and was the most visible person in an extraordinarily successful comic company – how could anybody like him?

But for a while there, Liefeld really was one of the most popular artists in the industry. Twenty years on, it’s easy to forget the explosive impact of his run on New Mutants – which included the introduction of Cable and Deadpool – he single-handedly turned Marvel’s most mediocre mutant book into something genuinely fresh and exciting that kids started reading again.

Me, I had been driven off all of the X-books, mainly because I just didn’t have the money to buy them, shortly after the Inferno storyline, but soon came running back because I was 14 and the prime demographic for Rob’s style. I even stuck with X-Force for a year or so. The first issue of that lamentable series remains one of the best selling comics ever, despite its almost total lack of any artistic merit, and it’s still a weirdly modern comic, so eagerly did it piss on the legacy of John Romita’s Marvel.

Liefeld couldn’t match costumes or body shapes in every panel he drew, but he was still a breath of fresh air. I first saw him on the New Mutants annual that tied into the Atlantis Attacks series, and I remember genuinely enjoying his kinetic and crazy art, hoping for more.

Back when Marvel used to actually put a bit of effort into these things, New Mutants annuals of the mid-to-late eighties were awesome, with terrific Art Adams and Alan Davis art, but the regular New Mutants series drifted after Inferno and was hampered by fill-in artists and a bored Bret Blevins. Which was a real shame, because Blevins’ enthusiastic style had settled the comic for a while.

Then came Liefeld and the comic was new and shiny and interesting again, and using the power generated by Marvel’s top talents thinking for themselves, he used his position and following to produce Youngblood #1, which was bloody rubbish.

And it didn’t get any better – those issues of Brigade and Bloodstrike and those other terrible titles he put out quickly soured his name in comic circles. Wizard magazine stopped kissing his arse and started making fun of him, and by the late 90s, Liefeld sneering had become a frequent sight in comic shops all over the world. New internet communities beat his work with iron bars and left it crying in a ditch on the edge of town.

And they had a point – the comics Rob made at Image and Awesome and Extreme were largely execrable. There was the shining bit of brilliance, like Alan Moore’s sharply effective Supreme stories, but most of those comics now sit in quarter bins all over the place, hiding the good stuff in an avalanche of mediocrity.

Liefeld’s name still has some heat, especially with the recent bizarre explosion of interest in his Deadpool creation, but he has lost the vast majority of the popularity he once had. His recent Armageddon comics have alienated more of the obnoxiously agnostic section of comic reading, and people have long memories of broken promises and lacklustre results.

But if there is one reason to really criticise Rob Liefeld and his comics, it’s because they murdered the dream of artistic freedom in creative ownership.

What Image and Liefeld destroyed, more than anything else, was that artistic ideal of creative freedom – that if creators were given the opportunity to do their own work, it would result in better comics than ever before.

Up until Image made its debut, the likes of Dave Sim had been arguing this for years, and even tentatively approved of the new venture, only to see that ideal shrivel up and die.
There had been so much earnest discussion on the connection between intellectual freedom and storytelling quality, and when artists actually had the unprecedented power they had been denied for so long, they went on to create the same old shit.

In fact, it wasn’t just the same old shit, it was also the worst of the same old shit, regurgitating ideas, recycling concepts and falling victim to plain old laziness. All those long ‘80s nights in convention hotel rooms, creators blitzed on the minibar and discussing the concepts of creative freedom and what it really means, man. It often led to nothing more than a horrible hangover and a genuine dissatisfaction with the entire medium, but there was passion there in these long ago arguments.

Read comic magazines from the late eighties and it’s there in every article and interview – a genuine optimism that things are going to get better and that creator rights would lead to a new golden age of comics. Still high on the 1986 buzz and creator recognition in the real world, a bill of rights was produced and everybody that was interesting had something wonderful lined up.

Everybody knew that even with creative freedom to produce any damn thing the creator felt like, there was always still going to be genre trappings, but 1980s comics like Grendel and Zot and Nexus and a dozen others had shown that superheroes could still be done with love and care and create stories with genuine emotional resonance.

Image killed all those discussions stone dead. All that effort and all we got was Brigade #1. It would have been sad if it hadn’t been so absurd. The drive towards creator control had produced some of the finest comics the medium had ever seen, but also resulted in comics that were worse than worthless, doing incalculable damage to the industry as a whole as the speculator bubble built and burst.

The fact that many of the Image founders went on to produce their own studio sweatshops also didn’t help matters, but it was the comics themselves that put the dream of a new comic utopia, of creators unshackled by any burdens producing lovely work for a mainstream audience, down like a dying dog.

Comic magazines that have a mainstream focus have stopped talking about this kind of thing. In interviews with current creators, the only time the issue of creator rights comes up is when somebody like Mark Millar talk about getting more money from the studios for an original creation than anything he could produce for Marvel.

Of course, there are still some incredibly good creator-owned comics being produced every week, but the idea that the biggest comic company in the world – and Image got pretty damn close to that title early on its life – could support creator rights and produce good, thoughtful comics, is no longer an issue.

And that’s a bit of a shame. It’s too easy to hate Rob Leifeld because he can’t draw feet, or because his influence resulted in the ugliest comics known to man. I still have a fondness for Rob, but there is a part of me that genuinely blames him for the death of a noble idea, his actions and artwork pulling back the entire medium.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Chasing Batman

A couple of goddamn decades ago, finding the latest issue of the Justice League in my tiny corner of the globe took a large amount of effort. It would require biking all over town and hitting the half-dozen book shops and dairies that still bothered to sell comics in the early nineties, in the hope that one of them might have the next issue.

This would take a few bit of planning to ensure all the right stores were hit - including putting a huge amount of thought into creating a route that involved as few steep hills as possible - but it would all be worth it to find an issue of the West Coast Avengers or 2000ad or X-Factor that would only be sold in one store, and might even be there the next month.

With a ridiculously shoddy distribution system which seemed to have been designed by somebody who didn’t give a flying fuck about their job, missed issues were an absolute certainty and to get more than a dozen uninterrupted issues in a row was almost unheard of. But with no comic stores and no access to any kind of mail-order system, the mission was necessary.

The pay-of was immensely satisfying. I still remember being proud of having the first two dozen issues of the New Warriors, after finally locating #10 six years after it was published.

Time moved on, and few of those bookshops or dairies or supermarkets or tearooms have carried mainstream American comic books in more than a decade. I ended up living in towns which actually had stores devoted to comics and I discovered the joy of being a valued customer. Suddenly, I was ensured of never missing an issue of a regular comic, they were all available every month, waiting for me in the store, and if I didn’t have the necessary money straight away, they would still be sitting there next week.

I was inevitably drawn back to smaller towns, and with comic shops drying up like yesterday’s rain, it looked like I was back to a system that was broken and forgotten. Luckily, the joys of mail order made up for that, and consistency was maintained.

But somewhere in there, I got a bit bored with that too. The ability to purchase stories in a collected format months, or even years, after they were published made that monthly fix a little less necessary.

These days, there are only a handful of monthly comics I get on a full and regular basis. These comics are always waiting for me at the local shop, delivered with efficient friendliness.

But those aren’t the only comics I ever buy, and there are even some I specifically avoided asking for at that shop. It’s nothing against them, I just like chasing Batman.

I have found the Morrison run on the comic - whether it’s in the original Batman comic, or Batman & Robin, or the Return of Bruce Wayne - consistently rewarding and enjoyable, and have not missed an issue. Sometimes, it’s taken me a couple of days to track one down, and in one case, I only got hold of an issue the day before the next one was due out.

I’ve now bought this comic from nine different comic and book stores. It means I could drop it easily when Ostrander had a go with the writing early on in the pace, and later when Denny O’Neill did his bit. But it’s also the thrill of the hunt, the joy of discovery, and the butt-numbing tedium of failure.

And it gives me an excuse to walk into different stores, and I don't feel like a complete parasite if I walk out with something, after flicking through the latest Captain America and putting it back on the shelf. It's a guilt reliever. And the more effort that goes in, the sweeter the reward.

There are a couple of other things I buy in this manner. It never felt right getting 2000ad put aside for me, but fortunately, and unlike Batman, this one is actually still sold in several book and convenience stores, so it’s never a big deal getting it.

It doesn’t prevent the distributor from occasionally delaying or releasing comics in the wrong order, but there is a fairly strong level of deliverability consistency for the weekly comic.

There is always the possibility of failure – I spent a large slice of last weekend trying to buy Batman #702, the final part in Morrison’s short three-issue return to the comic he started with back in 2007 - and I completely failed. I drove halfway across Auckland and back, checking out all three of the city’s comic shops, and they’d all sold out.

I don’t blame the shops, it costs so much for them to ship over here that there are few shelf copies of anything, and even though I enjoyed the previous issue a lot, I can wait.

After all, it’s just another Batman comic, and they’re not exactly hard to find. It might take a little bit more effort, but half the thrill is in the chase. The result is almost an after-thought.

Because I love hunting down comic books, and the harder they are to find, the greater the pay-off. I get off on this. The frustration of missing out doesn’t matter, and the hunt is the thing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Riches from Planet Mongo

There’s comics all over. Even out somewhere out past the Gobi Desert, along the Mongolian border with China, in literal one-horse towns of dusty streets and empty vodka bottles, there is still some good comics.

It’s an extremely limited choice, but it’s a good one – Tintin in Tibet. That translated book, that classic cover of mysterious footprints, it can be found all over Mongolia - and at one shop it was the only reading material to be found at all.

It only cost ten bucks in real money and I was going to buy it, before realising that it was stupid and selfish. It was better to leave it for someone else to find, leave it for some kid who has never heard of Herge or Belgium or billions of blistering barnacles, and let that kid see how bloody brilliant comics can be.

* * *

Tintin inspires – he was an irritating little git sometimes, but he went to marvellous places to see incredible things, and that is still an absolute inspiration. If Tintin can do it, anybody could do it - you could go to Tibet or The Congo or Soviet Russia and meet interesting people.

You could go anywhere. You could go to Mongolia and have an adventure.

* * *

I kept looking for other comics in Mongolia, but outside Ulan Bataar, nothing except that lonely Tintin could be found. There aren’t many roads in that country, it’s possible to drive for days without seeing asphalt, so goods distribution is limited to the essentials – things like water, toilet paper, Coca-Cola, Khaan chips and vodka. Getting the latest issue of the X-Men out there is more trouble than it’s worth.

In the capital, there were still bits and pieces to be found, especially in the bookshop on top of the State Department Store, where there are a few crude manga-style local comics that seem to be aimed at four year olds and appear to be about the mighty Chingess, and there is a really cheap translated offering of the first Death Note comic.

There are still lots of Spider-Man colouring books and Batman backpacks, but there doesn’t appear to be any actual Marvel or DC comics, anywhere in the country.

But there is one recognisable logo on those shelves, and it’s the Dark Horse.

* * *

In late 2008, Dark Horse published Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen’s Gigantic, the story of a giant robot beating up a city, built up on the high concept of Transformers meets The Truman Show. It lasted five issues and came and went without anybody noticing.

But somebody at a group called Blue Strawberry did notice, and went to the trouble of getting it translated into Mongolian and sold in shops over there.

Gigantic was the only American comic book I saw anywhere in Mongolia. It still had the Dark Horse logo, and in the back of the first issue there is a brief history of the company for the benefit of Mongolian readers. At least, I assume that’s what it is. I can’t read it.
I can’t read any of it, but I bought it anyway, because it’s an odd comic to find in an odd country. And I’m all about the odd.

* * *

In January, we’re going to go to Vegas, in our last major overseas trip before children ruin everything. There will be plenty of comic stops on that journey.

* * *

I go through some weird withdrawals when I go without comics for a while – sometimes I don’t want to watch a movie or TV show, sometimes I don’t want to listen to music or read a book – I just want a damn comic book.

I took a couple with me to Mongolia – hauling them all over the bloody country because I knew that urge would hit at some point, and I had some carefully selected comics to fill that aching and sad void. After more deliberation than was really healthy, I ended up taking JLA/Hitman, Evan Dorkin’s World’s Funnest prestige comic and Duck Feet – volume six of the Love & Rockets collection.

The JLA/Hitman story was just what I needed when I got hit by food poisoning in the middle of the goddamn Gobi desert, and I read the rest while sitting on top of a Mongolian mountain, getting sunburnt and drunk on tasty apple vodka. ‘For The Love Of Carmen’ made me cry.

When I got back home, I gorged. The first day back and I’m ignoring the weary to buy comics – catching up on the latest devastating developments for Nikolai Dante and Judge Dredd, finally buying that Superman issue of Hitman and grabbing Trident #1 from 1989 for the hell of it.

Then I got get the regular stuff, and there is one of everything, so I get all that too.

I feel a bit sick afterwards, but I also get the residual high from that Love and Rockets altitude injection. It’s still going strong, and I’ve gone back into the comic, dipping and diving in and out of various periods of the comic, zipping from Mechanics to the Education of Hopey Glass through a House of Raging Women.

There is new Love and Rockets out sometime in the next month and, as usual, I’ll be buying it as soon as humanly possible. It’s been three years since we last say Ray D, and as good as an all-new superhero mythology from Jaime was, it’s the Locas that see me living my life to this beat.

* * *

Travel is good for you – there are loads of interesting things to look at, physical limits to push and new adventures everywhere. And it’s just as easy as Tintin promised.

It’s not all a Tintin inspiration – going to different countries all over the world is a staple of all kinds of comics. You can’t go anywhere, but you can see pictures of places you will never go, with words that explain it.

So why not go see the world? Go for a subway ride in New York City and it feels like you’ve walked into the Inferno X-crossover, bleed into the Thames and all over the Alan Moore comic you just bought – The world is just like the comics promised it was.

Especially New York. After all, with all those skyscraper canyons and teeming humanity, it’s the only city in the entire world where Spider-Man could actually exist.

* * *

The other big comic inspiration to travel is Halo Jones. Particularly the six-page prologue to Book Two, when her story is told in a far-future university. In this tale, Halo goes out further than anybody ever did, sees things that are forever lost and comes back to tell everybody else about it. A girl who only ever wanted out – just out – and just kept on going through death and war and loss and dancing. How could you not love this girl and her impossible life? How could you not want to travel?

Especially when they ask her what made her so special, an swer that becomes her immortal epitaph: “Anybody could have done it.”

I read that comic when I was 10 years old, and 25 years later I’m standing on an infinite Mongolian plain as the sun sets and strange stars come out.

There is no such thing as coincidence.