Monday, November 29, 2010

Split-level reading

At the moment, I am reading a couple of trashy novels starring John Constantine and Doctor Who, and two non-fiction books about the birth of the IRA and the evolution of the Fleet Street newspapers. I am also reading several dozen comics at the same time.

That can’t be normal.

My attention span is shocking. Fortunately, I can keep track of loads of different narratives at the same time. Which is good, because I like a bit of everything, all at once.

I’m halfway through a pile of 100-page Federal Comics reprints of beautiful eighties Marvel comics. An issue and a half through another go at Casanova. And one volume into The Invisibles, after I had to go back again for a two-year countdown.

I’m just getting into them when something else strikes me, or I get distracted, or I decide I need something lighter or heavier or funnier or darker.

I’m lost somewhere in trades from the library, a third of the way through the last Young Liars book, 30 pages into Kevin C Pyle’s Blindspot and somewhere partway through books of Brian K Vaughn Batman and Jeff Parker X-Men. I have to finish of a bit of BRPD so I can get it back in time, and I’m only a few pages into some Bendis Daredevil I missed.

Then there is the Dork book and Dan Clowes’ Wilson sitting on the coffee table, for reading while the ads on the telly. And the pile of cheaparse ‘70s b&w horror comics sitting on the back seat in my car for when I’m stuck in traffic. And the Doctor Who: The Forgotten book I got dirt cheap yesterday, that I started reading before going to see Machete.

And that Love and Rockets high I’ve been on for months now isn’t done yet. Any new issue of L&R inspires a look backwards, and it’s such a rich and rewarding body of work to rediscover.

I also made the dubious decision to do another Prog Slog a couple of months ago. Every five years or so, I read every issue I’ve got of 2000ad, and after decades of collecting, that’s 1593 issues right there. I’ve been at it since September, and I just cracked the #600 mark last night.

Bloody hell. I really need to sort my shit out. I started reading Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch the other day and want to finish that off sometime. There are a bunch of borrowed Back Issue magazines that I can’t get enough of, and I’m giving DMZ one last cursory read-through before selling it off. I just started Ode To Kirihito this morning.

It’s a pretty stupid way of going about things, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This ability to split the attention between vastly different publications is something that is almost unique to comics, for several key reasons.

Firstly, comics can be about anything, and it’s easy to keep series separate, especially when the very best have wildly different artistic styles. I’m not going to get confused between a story by Teszuka and some X-Men comics.

The second thing that makes reading dozens of different comic series at the same time easy doesn’t apply to everybody, but it certainly does for me. Some comic readers like to read a whole story in some go, but with the periodical nature of most comic books, reading a series can be a curiously non-linear experience.

Unless you have a regular order, or buy a large pile of one title in one go, a story can often be read totally out of order. It took me half a decade before I even had a vague idea of the Locas and Palomar storylines (and it literally took me 15 years to figure out Poison River), because I never read those series in any kind of order. I’ve got half of Jason Lutes’ Berlin comics, because I keep buying them when I see them cheap, and that isn’t all that often. I can't understand them at all, and that's half the fun.

I read some of the best comics ever in no kind of proper order, which weirdly makes it easier to put down a comic for a while, and then pick it up again weeks later and carry on as if no time had passed. The limbo of the panel gutter is a great place to put things on hold.

But it’s really all about the visual kick of comics. I can put down a comic for days and days, read another dozen things in the meantime, and know exactly where I’m up to, because there is always that visual cue. I can’t read a novel without a bookmark, but I can find my page on a comic in seconds, because I haven’t seen the art before.

It’s always easier to remember one panel, rather than a paragraph of text.

Keeping track of a whole bunch of different things at once isn’t purely a comics thing – we all keep track of a dozen different television shows every week. It’s a bit harder with films - skipping between DVDs and digital copies can be a bitch, and it’s one thing I miss from the days of video tape. You could watch half a dozen different things at once, and the tape always stayed at the last point you left it.

Still, there is nothing that stops me reading a really good comic as quickly as possible. Something so substantial it rockets ot the top of the list of things to read. I’ll be finished the Tezuka book soon – it’s something to read while the rugby is on.

And that’s the last thing about comics. It’s possible to read them while you’re doing anything else. You can pay half attention to a comic, stop when something interesting is happening somewhere else, and come back to the comic without any loss. You always know. You always know where you are with a comic.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

This is the comic

In recent years, the exact definition of comic books has been argued over again and again by creators and readers alike, most of whom appear to have a little bit too much time on their hands.

While the likes of Eddie Campbell and Scott McLoud have made passionate and reasonable arguments over definitions of comics and graphic novels, I stopped caring a long time ago. All things considered, I would much rather read their new comics than go over the same old ground for the 27,000th time. Even inventive and innovative artists like Campbell get stuck on definitions, and Eisner couldn't let an interview go by without laying claim to the graphic novel term.

I don't care. I really don't. Call 'em whatever the hell you want. If it's a story told in pictures and words, it's fucking comics. Enjoy it for what it is.

So when I was recently asked by somebody in the real world to name my favourite comic, I initially felt the crippling inability to choose one. This is usually due to a complete failure on my part to be able to compare different comics. Is it Love and Rockets for the sheer depth of storytelling and sentimental value I hold for it, or 2000ad for the dazzling array of stories it has published over the past three decades? Is it The Invisibles, which, sadly, was a major part of my life for a few moments there, or is it From Hell, for its complexity and charm?

But then I tried to think of a recent comic I read that genuinely moved me, that showed me something new about the world and my perception of it, and one thing unexpectedly came to mind. It is not a comic book in any sense of the term, mainly because it isn't a book. But it is made of pictures and words, did form a narrative, (albeit more of a meta-narrative than anything regular), and it really did move me to tears. It's a collaborative piece created by the effect of hanging large paintings next to each other, and is sitting along a wall in a corridor outside where the Mona Lisa lives, in the Louvre.

Back in 2007, I had the incredible fortune of marrying the most beautiful girl to ever smile at me, and followed that with the further good fortune of taking her on a trip around the world. The next six-months were the usual whirlwind of the greatest cities on the planet, some of the most incredible scenery I'd ever seen, and some of the most mind-numbing stretches of sitting in coaches and planes I've ever suffered.

During one part of this trip, we spent two days in Paris, and like all good visitors to that fine city, the Louvre was high on the list of places to go. It was all going to plan, there is the Mona Lisa, and Venus and all that, but the part I found unexpectedly moving was in the hallway directly outside where Mona resided.

There, in the display of Italian painters stretching through hundreds of years, I saw the story. It took a moment to notice it, but it was so clear, and so perfect, and in the end, incredibly moving.

Walking from one end of the hall to the other and it's right there. The Renaissance hits like a train, right in the middle, and you can see the transition in a few works, in just a few metres of wall space.

And for somebody who doesn’t know shit about the great art of the world - although David has a great butt - the difference when perspective was rediscovered was staggering. Flat, lifeless forms come alive, dead eyes spark into life and women suddenly have fantastic breasts. A quick glance at the dates and information beside each painting show just how quickly it all occurs, and how diverse the rise in talent really was.

Those paintings on that wall, they symbolise everything that was brilliant about that point in history. The painting was, of course, only a small part of it, with architecture, music, literature, philosophy and science all taking the same great leap at the same great time.

And this is what makes that collection of paintings one of my favourite comics ever. It's not just a bunch of painting techniques that were picked up by smart people, it's a symbol of everything we strive for as human beings, the need to reach up for something better, to become something wonderful, another step up on that long ladder that starts in the dirt and reaches the heavens.

There, on that wall, a narrative emerged and a story was told. I saw humanity evolve, and take another of those steps. Even though there was, and is, a long, long way to go, it showed me we are slowly making that effort. We are trying, and sometimes we even make it.

Not bad for a bunch of pictures.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Choking on X

It used to be a joke: what do you do with a large amount of X-Men? This question, usually asked at the end of some era-defining mass crossover, had an easy enough answer once upon a time. Shift a bunch over to some side comics that nobody really cares about (and invariably end up more interesting), while holding on to the core characters and a few surprise choices for a new team direction.

Back in the day, when the franchise was still in the iron grip of Chris Claremont, things were a lot easier to follow. There was the main X-Men title, the younger team and next generation in New Mutants, the originals off doing their own thing in X-Factor and the very occasional mini-series.

Some of these minis, like the Claremont/Miller Wolverine comics or the swashbuckling and very silly Nightcrawler series from Dave Cockrum, were vastly entertaining, while others, such as the lamentable Kitty Pryde/Wolverine or confused Magik series made up the numbers in a vaguely non-offensive way.

In a time where Young X-Men can last for more than 50 issues in various incarnations for no discernible reason whatsoever, it's almost difficult to believe that there may have once been an age when Marvel was cagily reluctant about releasing a new comic with an X in the title, or even adding new team members to the X-roster.

The criminally under-rated Louise Simonson was the only other writer allowed to play in Claremont's sandbox, and the titles were all the better for it. Even with a tight creative grip, there was little crossover between titles, allowing them to form their own identity.

By the mid-eighties, the New Mutants and X-Factor were radically different comics with their own concerns and themes. There were connections between the characters and titles, but the closest they would ever come to each other would be when they were a hallway away from each other during the Morlocks massacre. Even 1987's Fall of the Mutants was almost an anti-crossover, with each of the three primary x-books taking completely different paths, with only the most tenuous of thematic connections.

And then, sometime around the time the Image artists all buggered off, they stopped keeping the groups separate, and everybody was suddenly an X-Man. They managed to keep things separated into blue and gold groups for a while, and have made vague attempts to establish a core cast of X-people in the years since, but even after wiping out 99% of the world’s mutants, the size of the X-Men team is bigger than ever.

It’s a valid direction and a logical move for people that feeds on a diet of fear and loathing to band together as much as possible. But doesn’t really work, because in a team comic book it’s hard to care about anybody when there are eleventy-billion characters.

There are still exceptions, with a welcome focus on Cyclops in recent years, even if, like Batman and Mr Fantastic, a lot of writers still get really confused about the difference between “hyper-competent” and ultra-arsehole” when they’re writing the continuing adventures of Scott Summers. Wolverine is still terribly overexposed, and Rogue has also got a lot of attention, even if it’s the same old can’t-touch-this vibe played out for the thousandth time.

It’s only in the last third of the X-Men’s history that its cast has got so bloated and unwieldy. While things were relatively stable for the first few decades, an explosion in titles also saw an incredible increase in the number of characters.

Here come the numbers: According to a fairly recent Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, there were 29 members of the X-Men in the first 30 years (and that’s counting Lockheed), but in the 17 years since then, there have been another 44 members, with four more retroactively shoe-horned into past continuity.

That’s not counting 36 sub-team members and 70 other named students at the Xavier institute, 22 members of X-Statix, various X-Forces and X-Factors and Dark X-Men (which managed the impressive feat of looking silly and dated within days of their first appearance), X-Babies and X-Arses.

These days, they all appear to be living together and everybody is an X-Man, including that rubbish teleporter from Fallen Angels. Most just show up with a painfully ironic info box explaining who they are, do some funky powers shit and piss off again with a quick quip.

It’s hard enough to get to the point of a character in these brief appearances and harder for anybody to care, unless they have a major crush on somebody like Madison Jeffries. They stop looking like real people and are just pieces moving around a giant plot chessboard, shuffled around to suit the purposes of the story

It’s hard to fill a character with any kind of notable traits when they’re sharing space with dozens of others characters, and adding more titles to the mix just increases the noise.

There are groups like the Legion of Super Heroes that have a huge cast built into their core concept, but this has still resulted in a team that was as bland as cardboard for most of their history, with only a few skilled creators capable of juggling the large cast and still giving individual members an actual personality.

I used to be an X-fiend, and there were a ton of reasons that killed my enthusiasm for all things X, but this basic breakdown of storytelling that comes with the burden of a bloated cast was one of the main ones. If you stop caring about characters as people, you stop caring about the comic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Batman is better than me

I’m sick of reading about stupid people in superhero comics. I want superheroes to be smarter than me.

Russell T Davies once said the hardest thing about writing Doctor Who was that the main character was much, much smarter than the writer, so coming up with a clever and ingenious solution to plot elements was insanely difficult. This might explain why stories that end with the Doctor building some piece of scientific bollocks to save the day are rarely satisfying, and an ending that relies on a ridiculously clever plot shuffle is always brilliant.

I like reading about characters that are better than me. A lot of Batman writers have been unable to distinguish between ‘ultra-competent’ and ‘ultra-arsehole’ – the character can be the best at what he does without alienating everybody else on the planet.

I always enjoy a Batman who is smarter than everybody else. I can handle a Mr Fantastic who comes up with ingenious solutions to world problems without being a dick. Intelligence is nothing to be scared of.

And that’s why I always like it when superpeople take a stand on killing, because it’s the easy way out that solves nothing. A strict moral code not only gives superfolk an absolute honour that makes them intensely likable characters, and it also means they need to come up with their own ingenious solutions to take down bad guys who shrug off death like an unfashionable coat.

Killing people is the kind of idea that a 12-year-old dipshit who just discovered black is his favourite colour comes up with, and thinks its realistic and smarter if Superman just burned his heat vision through the bad guy’s brains instead of imprisoning them.

It’s an adolescent attitude that often gets mistaken for a mature one. A Spider-man who strings Doc Ock up by his tentacles isn’t dark and edgy. He’s just somebody who has run out of ideas.

Killing is so easy. Superheroes should be good at this game. One of the things that has always been enjoyable about somebody like the Flash is that he is such a smart motherfucker, often coming up with ingenious methods to take down bad guys that can seem incredibly clever in the speed of the moment. Probably because he’s got time to think about it all in the space between seconds, over and over again.

Killing the bad guys is a real world attitude that has no place in a superhero universe. And it solves nothing.

You send the Joker to the afterlife that has been established within the fictional DC universe, and he will come back and fuck you up with his demon powers. This is a place where the afterlife is a verifiable entity - there have been enough trips over to heaven and hell to prove that oblivion is not an option - so killing people just makes things worse.

As Superman once pointed out, it’s a simplistic solution to a complex problem when you’re dealing with the revolving door afterlife of the DC Universe. If Batman went a bit funny in the head one day and took an axe to the Joker, chopping him into little bits and then feeding him to pigs all over the world, the grinning one would just keep coming back.

This has even happened in a comic book. When Alan Davis did his gloriously mental JLA: Another Nail comic, Joker just did some demonic deals and came back worse than ever. The Joker survives on his ridiculously powerful mega-personality, and that’s way more powerful than any death.

It’s irritating enough to see this kind of thing in the real world. Modern political discourse has devolved into a series of simple solutions for complex problems, with sound-bite ideology driving people into ridiculous frenzies of entitlement. We see this every day in the real world, and it’s maddening and impossible to shut down. I don’t want this in my comic books as well. I want them to be smarter than that. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t mind a bit of stupidity in my comics. Dumb can be fun. Dumb can be funny. Art comics about dumb people are invariably rewarding and joke comics about dickheads who always screw things up are always good for a laugh.

And The Marvel Universe just doesn’t work unless the general population is as dumb as a bag of hammers. They’ve put up with a lot. Strange people have been bringing buildings down around them for decades, but they go off their fuckin’ nuts at the X-Men or the Avengers or somebody every second day. They readily gave Norman bloody Osborne the most powerful job in the world and are regularly dragged out to give mutants a bit of that fear and prejudice they’re after.

But I really do expect more from superheroes. We don't need tpo drag them down to our level, they can pull us up to theirs. Batman is better than me, and I’m okay with that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another horror history

Somewhere towards the end of the first episode of Mark Gatiss’ recent A History of Horror, the big man whips out a book about horror that he got as a Christmas present as a kid, and talks about its ridiculously strong influence. He talks about memorising every page in that book and the brilliant otherness of the films that the book covered, knowing every single page and every single picture.

A good, cheap thrill is an integral part of horror fiction, and I got the cheapest of thrills from recognising Gatiss’ favourite book – Alan G Frank’s The Movie Treasury of Horror Movies - as one that is sitting in a pile in the corner of my spare room. This one:

But there was an even better thrill in hearing Gatiss talk about that book, because it was something I definitely recognised.

Frank’s book is a good one, but the one that became my teenage bible was something different. It was another book about horror with a different set of pictures, but it crept inside my brain in that same way Gatiss was talking about.

It’s called Horrors: A History of Horror Films by Tom Hutchison & Roy Pickard, it looks like this:

…and it’s the best bloody book ever.

* * *

I love horror movies. It’s my absolute favourite film genre, even if I don’t like to admit it sometimes. I still love action and comedies and thrillers and all the rest, but it’s the horror that has got the tightest grip on my soul.

I love the sheer unpredictability of them, the sense that anything – absolutely anything – could happen, and frequently does. I like the tension that builds to a gory release, admire the craft of making monsters, love the way things can get so incredibly intense I can barely stand it.

It’s the climactic 15 minutes of The Exorcist, or that second’s hesitation at the end of 28 Days Later, or Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee flinging themselves around in the ultimate battle between good and evil in Horror of Dracula.

It’s the vacant eyes of a zombie horde surrounding the shopping mall, or facing the corner in the final shot of the Blair Witch Project, or Michael Myers silently getting to his feet.

Some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen have had a horror label on them, but truly scary horror films are the best. A film that can generate genuine unease and fear is something worth watching, when so many movies can barely generate a bored shrug.

Horror is at its worst when it becomes painfully predictable – series such as the Final Destination or Saw movies aren’t shocking or thrilling, they’re just the same old thing, over and over again.
Each film adheres to such a thick formula that’s they’re barely worth watching.

Horror should always be surprising, and that takes more than a sudden decapitation or two to really hit home. At its best, it’s genuinely frightening. When it creeps under the skin and keeps you awake at night.

Good horror is always about something – they can be about the fear of the young or change, or the stupidity of consumerism or the destructive nature of prejudice or anything, but it also needs to stir up some primal fears to get that message across.

My wife hates them, and refuses to go to the cinema to see them. That’s fine by me, because I never want to see scary movies with anybody. It’s always better if you’re alone. In the dark.

* * *
The Hutchinson and Pickard book was published in 1983, but I bought it off a remainder table at a small Timaru bookshop one Saturday morning in 1987, begging my parents for the $10 I needed. I remember telling them I was willing to go without lunch if they bought me the book. I was 12 years old, and over the next half decade I devoured every page of that thing.

It’s nothing special – a rudimentary history of horror movies from Caligari and Nosferatu up to Carrie and Halloween, filled with short (but still rambling) analysis of key films in the genre’s history. But it my key into a whole new world of intense cinema, something I needed more than anything as a confused young teenager.

So I dived right in. Who wouldn’t?

It’s the pictures that did it - so full of possibilities. If you look at a single frame, something like Squirm can look like the most horrific thing ever, when the reality was a bit dull, a bit silly. Dracula AD1972 looked stylish and The Awakening looked startlingly gruelling, only for both to turn out to be turgid and lethargic.

But it was right about some things - The Masque of the Red Death is genuinely disturbing, especially when the final dance begins, and there is still something achingly human in the eyes behind the Phantom of the Opera’s mask.

Over the years I devoured that book, reading it over and over again, burning images from an American Werewolf In London, Dawn of the Dead and Das Niebelungen into my head.

After a few years, I saw many of the films in that book, and few lived up to expectations, but that’s not the point. I was stuck on the horror groove forever. I got into crime and western pictures, but the horror section is still always the first place I go to when I go to a DVD store.

This desire to watch anything new that shows up in that section has led to some real stinkers playing on my television, but it’s not enough to put me off. Not near enough.

* * *

Gatiss’ recent BBC series was brilliant, an unashamedly personal journey through the genre. His genuine enthusiasm for the very best in horror is marked by his own odd little touches – a quietly moving little tribute to the great Peter Cushing that still hints at the viciously repressed monster within this gentile man, his genuine unease about watching Freaks, his absolute refusal to treat Hammer’s film with any kind of irony – these are the kind of personal reactions that infuse Gatiss’ documentary.

This is the way it should be. Horror is a personal thing. There is nothing that defines an individual more than their own fears, both real and imagined. The things that truly scare me are indefinable, but unique.

So, using his own judgement, Gatiss used the documentary to break his own history of horror into three distinct eras – Hollywood horror of the thirties and forties, the Hammer-led burst into blood-red colour in the fifties and sixties, and the return of the Great American Horrors of the seventies.

That’s a fair history to cover, although I can’t help wondering if there have been any other really distinctive periods since. It’s hard to really nail down any one great wave of horror films in the last few decades, although countries like Japan and Mexico produced some brilliant slices of suspense.

But in the past ten years, Europe has produced the most thought provoking horror. Spain has produced a fair amount of it, from the jump scares of things like [Rec] to the quiet despair and lingering dread of movies like The Orphange. Let The Right One In really was another shot in the arm for slow dread, and there is a wide variety of imaginative and thoughtful horror still coming from the Old Country. That’s always something to look forward to.

* * *

It’s always quite nice when you find out somebody whose work you’ve enjoyed shares some of the same obsessions you do. While Gatiss’ love of horror has been evident in the television programmes he has written and appeared in, it was a genuine kick to hear about his youthful lust for horror and the similarities to my own experiences.

But I’m also left wondering if these kinds of obsessions are now a thing of the past. It wasn’t until two decades after I bought that Horror book that I finally got to see the last of the Hammer Dracula movies. They just weren’t available in any format, and all I had were books and magazines to tell me about it.

(And sure, all those reference sources were unanimous about the fact that the Satanic rites of Dracula was complete pants, but I still desperately wanted to see it.)

That’s all changed, and with remarkable speed. The rise of Youtube and torrenting means that you can watch some incredibly esoteric films with ease. There is always inevitable disappointment, but it’s still possible to find some gems incredibly quickly.

It is brilliant to finally see films I’ve dreamed about for years slapped up on YouTube in ten-part bites. The quality is rubbish, but I sat through a sixth generation video tape copy of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and may have a seventh still hidden away in storage. I can handle poor quality.

But I do miss that longing for something unobtainable, because it’s the gaps that get filled in that are the best part. A brief synopsis and a photo or two, and suddenly Prom Night is a searing slice of childhood trauma, and Kingdom of the Spiders is some kind of waking nightmare, and Plague of the Zombies is a fresh-crawling piece of glorious sickness.

Who needs the dull reality of boring movies, when there is so much to be imagined?

* * *

I still like to be scared, and thrilled, and moved by horror films. I still like staying up really, really late on a Friday night, turning off all the lights in the house and watching something really fucking scary.

Sometimes, I get so freaked out I can’t turn around, because there is something behind me in the shadows. I know there is. If I don’t look at it, I’ll be okay, and the safe and numbing fear makes me feel more alive than ever.

That’s why I love horror films.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winter's Bone

It’s one of those awful weeks where it’s all just crazy busy, so instead of proper blogging, here is a link to review I did in my secret identity as a mild-mannered news editor for Yahoo!

It’s for Winter’s Bone, which is a terrific film that is well worth seeing.

Winter’s Bone review.

Normal service will resume sometime in the weekend, with a blatantly blubbering examination of horror films.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kick Ass 2

I dreamed about Kick-Ass last night. Not the movie or any of the actors in it, but of the actual act of reading the comic. I’m not joking. This is the sort of thing I dream about.

This is what I remember: It was one of those dreams where my dead Grandad turned out to be Maximan from Zenith, and he had to put on the old costume to go fight zombies. This is no surprise - I watched The Walking Dead the night before, and I always, always have terrifying dreams about zombies after I see a good zombie movie.

But the other part of my dream that I remember was that bit where I was reading the third volume of Kick Ass, and I was a bit pissed off because the big battle promised in the first issue of the second volume had still not appeared.

That’s all I remember, and it’s a remarkably stupid thing to lodge in my head in the dark of the night, but I also think it shows how much I think about this stupid comic.

I think this has confirmed something I was worried about. I think Kick-Ass is now my favourite comic.

I don’t mean it’s my favourite in the same way Love & Rockets will always be my favourite comic, or in the way 2000ad will always be my other favourite comic, but when I bought a bunch of new monthly American comics recently, it was the first issue of the new Kick Ass comic that I wanted to read first, and it was the one that most satisfied.

I keep thinking I shouldn’t like Kick Ass, but I do. I really, really do. It’s stupid and pandering and has a phenomenally mutated arching eyebrow instead a story. Mark Millar’s ear for dialogue is still just slightly tone deaf enough to be discordant

But it also one of the few superhero comics with pretensions of realism doesn’t take itself so damned seriously. Comics so often mix up realism with pessimism, but life is a lot funnier than that and Kick Ass’ blatant wink, from the title on down, is why I buy it.

The first issue of the second series is exactly what what’d you’d expect – continuing the original series by making everything bigger and louder. It’s a comic that makes no secret of its predictability, even showing off a glimpse of the climactic carnage (something Mark Millar has been pulling out of his writing kit since Canon Fodder). The comic’s path is obvious, and its refusal to take itself seriously makes it a lot more charming that it should be.

It also cracks along at a fair pace, Millar likes deconstructing his action down to the most basic beats, before building them all up again, and his surprisingly delicate stories can live or die on their artists. Just as well he’s got John Romita Jr, who draws some of the best impact blows in comics.

While I’m nailing my dirty linen to this blog’s masthead – I also thought the movie was absolutely terrific. I really wasn’t sure about it the first time I saw it, but watching it on a airplane entertainment system that deleted all of the swearing and much of the violence made me realise it was really, really good.

It often takes me two viewings before I can form a concrete opinion on a movie. Watching Kick Ass again convinced me it was a classic, watching Zombieland for the second time was just fucking boring, and I enjoyed the hell out of both films the first time around.

There are no guilty pleasures here. I still know this stuff isn’t all that good for me, and I’m okay with that. It makes me laugh, and that’s more than most superhero comics manage these days. This weird tone of violent humour is really difficult to pull off, and even if Kick Ass often fails to meet that tone, at least it’s trying something other than dour pessimism. I can dig that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Batman & The Boys – Digging the monthly grind

I keep thinking I’m going to give up monthly comics completely, but they keep pulling me back in. Once upon a time, a copy of New Warriors #1 was enough to keep me in the periodical fold, and while tastes have come a long way since 1990, it still doesn’t take that much to keep a hand in.

A few weeks ago, price rises - both foreign and domestic – were enough to convince me the affair was over. I’ve been buying monthly comics of some description ever since I was 12 years old, but there is no way a new issue of something I still genuinely enjoy is worth ten bucks for 20-something pages, not when the collected version gives far better bang for buck.

But I still love reading new comics every month, there is just something in that immediacy that keeps all these comics fresh and exciting and alive. So that’s why I went back to the comic shop this week and bought new stuff.

One of them was the last issue of Greek Street, which turned out to be quite sweet in the end and left me feeling like I’d been properly Milliganed. But I also got four other comics (or is it two?) which reminded me there are still things monthly comics can do that you can’t find in a book.

(Some of these comics are a bit late and the next issue is already out, but that’s not my fault. No, sir. It’s Qantas’ fault.)

* * *

Batman & Robin #15
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5

Batman was always coming back, but to see him appear in two different places at the same time is a good new trick, especially when he’s getting all incorporated in the near future.

But it is weird to read one comic where he shows up on the last page looking completely mental, covered in a cape made out wire from the end of time, and then see him appear on the last page of the very next comic, looking like the goddamn Bat-God, ready to punch evil in the fucking face.

No wonder Batman has some psychological problems.

It’s weird, but it’s not a bad thing. Non-linear storytelling is surprisingly rewarding, and many of the best comics I’ve ever read in my entire life have been totally out of order. You don’t have to worry about continuity in the endless now of a single comic panel.

And even with its grand metaphysical conspiracies stretching back to the Dawn of Man, Batman is still a great pop comic - funny and clever enough to always entertain, while a good Gotcha! moment is always appreciated.

That cheap thrill is still there. I fell in love with Morrison’s Batman comics years ago, and the little tart is stringing me along pleasantly. It will be nice to follow it for a little while, into the pages of Batman Incorporated.

Of course, the other nice thing about getting monthly comics is that I get to see the art in these things as soon as possible, and when it’s as breathtaking as Frazer Irving’s ongoing efforts, I can’t get it quickly enough.

The art is so important. In one of these Batman comics, there are a bunch of adverts for all the different Bat-books coming up, and there are some inevitable contrasts in there – David Finch and Yanick Paquette and Tony Daniel are all good at what they do, but their easy-going and clear art looks old and boring. When it comes to Batman, stylish kicks rule, and the advert for Detective Comics that features some of Jock’s graceful scratchiness is a thing of advertising beauty – I want to read this comic.

Morrison’s comic are Always Good, but pair him with an idiosyncratic creator like Irving or Quitely or Murphy and it’s a whole other level.

* * *

The Boys #47
Highland Willie #3

Like the Batman, this is one big story being told in two separate comics, leading to some really interesting pacing going on in both books.

In one of them, Hughie has buggered off back home after some unknown heartbreak, and mopes about a bit as people with nasty looking shears lurk in the background. In the other, the story of what happened to Hughie has only just been revealed.

It worked surprisingly well. The first couple of issues of Highland Laddie were vague enough about Hughie’s depression that it didn’t matter what happened, and filled the ongoing Boys title with a suffocating sense of impending doom. The latest story arc was never going to end well.

By the time Highland Laddie reached its third issue, Hughie’s reason for running back home was obvious. All the terrible secrets of his lovely relationship with Annie were exposed and he just couldn’t handle it – walking out of her life and leaving behind a tirade of truly awful insults.

And then, right after all this is shown in The Boys #47, I pick up the third issue of Highland Laddie and Annie is there again, unwilling to give up and turning Hughie’s life all upside down again.

Weirdly, it’s a beacon of hope in the ongoing degradation of The Boys. After the way it ended in the park, I really thought Annie would disappear for a while from Hughie’s life, letting bitter recriminations and anger build until it all came to some kind of explosive climactic tragedy.

But this is a Garth Ennis comic – these fuckers are a lot more complicated than they look.

So Annie comes back, ten minutes after Hughie told her he never wanted to see her again. It’s not that easy, and there is still a lot of shit to work out, but they are actually going to sit down with each other and talk, and that’s a great thing. So much idiotic conflict in comic books (and movies and novels and everything else) could be avoided if people just sat the hell down and talked for a bit, and Ennis comics that feature people trying to explain themselves always end well.

Hughie and Annie haven’t told each other everything, but it’s coming out. It’ll be painful and embarrassing, but they’re going to get it out and move on with their lives, in one direction or another. The Boys is headed towards a terrible and inevitable bloodbath, but there is some hope in those two wee people.

I can’t wait for the next issues of these two comics, to see where it all goes. You can’t get that with a trade.

I was going to give up The Boys in monthly doses because it was too expensive, but that’s not happening now. This kind of comic, this kind of regular thrill, I’ll pay fuckin’ anything for that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

23 reasons why they’re all right about the new Love & Rockets

Now that Love and Rockets only comes out once a year, all the critical acclaim gets sandwiched together at once. That, combined with the fact that Los Bros Hernandez have produced consistently brilliant comics for thirty years, means it’s easy to take their work for granted.

But it really does deserve all that praise, because the most recent instalment in the annual series features a couple of moments that are as technically brilliant and as profoundly moving as anything the series has seen in the past. It’s not easy to get to that level of emotion without collapsing under the weight of your own portentousness, but the Hernandez brothers have managed it.

Jaime’s work in Love and Rockets New Stories #3 is particularly brilliant. There are barely enough superlatives to talk about how good The Love Bunglers and Browntown are, but I’m going to take a crack at it, all the same.

No slight to Beto – he’s off doing his own stuff and comparing the brothers’ work is a mug’s game. All I know is that Browntown made me sob into my cheeseburger, and Scarlet by Starlight didn’t, and I really want to talk about the emotional kick.

(Spoilers ahead, and if you haven’t read the new Love and Rockets, stop now. Diamond screwed over my local comic shop and it took weeks and weeks for the book to arrive. In that time, I couldn’t resist dipping into a couple of fantastic reviews and spoiled some fairly key information for myself, which was stupid. Don’t be stupid.)

* * *

1) Seeing 13-year-old Maggie crushed by horrible, invisible guilt as she sits alone at the kitchen table – saying she’s sorry for the fifth time – was just heartbreaking. It’s not just that this poor girl blames herself for destroying her family, it’s that it sets off a cycle of guilt that sees her blaming herself for everything over the next 20 years.

2) There is a direct line from young Maggie sitting in the kitchen alone to the imaginary slaps that she conjures up on herself in the final issue of the first series. Her guilt is almost never justified, but it still weighs her down, and her whole life story can be seen as a reaction against these various shames.

3) Just as well Maggie doesn’t know the truth about her little brother Calvin then, because then the guilt would have been unbearable. His fierce protection of his sister is a terrible secret that could have seen Maggie try to help her little brother, but it’s still a relief when he lets her live in ignorant bliss.

4) That one panel, where a smiling teenage Maggie tells young Calvin to go away, is a universal brother/sister moment. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to go to Calvin’s lengths to look after our stupid siblings.

5) One of the most horrible things about all this is that it’s the only time the Chascarillo family are an actual and proper family unit, and that time will always be tainted by its awful end.

6) So Maggie goes off and has adventures, and the beauty of this new revelation is that all of her past actions have a new resonance – a new depth. If Maggie lives under this awful guilty burden for most of her life, it explains her fears of commitment, her youthful tendency to run away, even her entire career choices. (Does she become a mechanic because of that parade, or does she run away from that God-given skill to avoid becoming that person?)

7) And yet – 30 years after her family fell apart and she’s learned to live with her own guilt and isn’t stopping it get on with her life. The 42-year-old Maggie is moving forward, sorting out a new bit of business, taking charge of her own destiny with more will than ever before.

8) She’s not fighting against life anymore, she’s accepted some of her shortcomings and taken hold of her own demons. She’s walked with ghost dogs and knows there is no tree.

9) It’s there in her face, in each perfect little new line. The Magpie has grown up.

10) It ain’t all wine and roses – there is a recurring nightmare that haunts Maggie’s future. But she’s getting there.

11) I’ve been waiting for Ray D and Maggie to hook back up for half a goddamn decade, and I’m really glad they didn’t. What’s that about?

12) No, seriously. What’s that about? They were a gorgeous couple, one of the most relaxed pairings in any fiction. Maggie was always one side of Jaime’s brain mouthing off, and Ray’s internal monologues are the other side of his head, and the pair together were so damn charming and complimented each other perfectly. They broke up years and years ago for no good reason, and over the past few years have orbited each other lives, without coming in for a landing. When they finally do, it’s not the right time, or something. And that’s okay.

13) Of course, there is always a chance for Maggie and Ray D. They’re getting older, but they’re still young. There is a whole lot of life to come, and loads more adventures to be told, and it’s incredibly easy to see the pair together in their dotage, living out their last days in each other’s arms. They’re both terrified of being alone and that might be the time of their lives to get back together.

14) And lurking in the background is poor, poor Calvin. Jaime’s drive for no wasted line is even more evident on Calvin’s face than his sister’s, and his impeccable talent for body language reveals more about Calvin than a thousand thought balloons.

15) Speaking of body language, what about that way the man dropping off the rent to Maggie thrusts his head forward and arms out, in that universal sign of angry challenging? That’s some terrific movement going on there.

16) Maggie blames herself for destroying her family, but Calvin’s story is the real tragedy. By the time the Chascarillo parents split, he’s been all hollowed out by his terrible experiences, and gets his nasty payback against his own personal monster. There is no triumph here, no righteous vengeance, just a sad and complicated little life.

17) If there is no triumph in Calvin’s retribution against the boy who ruined him, there is a small piece of pride – a taste of tiny triumph – in the way he looks out for Maggie, all those years later. He doesn’t always get the scene right, but he hopes to see enough to make sure she’s all right.

18) Christ, for a second there, as the climax of the book came, I honestly thought Calvin was going to do something horrible to Ray. I had the same sense of horrible dread watching the last episode of the most recent Mad Men, but like the TV show, moving on is the key, even if it leads to more of the same mistakes.

19) Maggie rejects Ray because of her own complications, and Reno is another little one. His first kiss is revisited, but he is another character with a whole other life, which can b glimpsed when he shows up at the gallery with that lunchlady painting. It really felt dreamlike for a moment, like a ordinary moment in an ordinary day twisted just a little, and it was good to see Maggie shared this discombobulation.

20) “I thought we hated him.”

21) “Talk talk talk. All they do is talk.”

22) Dad making a big deal out of nothing when Maggie tries to climb into his lap.

23) I first started reading Love and Rockets in 1992, and it’s just got better ever since. This level of quality work, this world of love and pain and strength and rebirth and rockets that Jamie has created over the past three decades is extraordinary enough. But to still have enough fire and passion and thoughtfulness to produce a piece of graphic genius like his work in L&R #3, that’s something else altogether. Something wonderful.