Friday, December 31, 2010

#8 for 2010

#8 These two mini-comics by the Sheehan Brothers that I got at a convention in October

My knowledge of New Zealand comics is ridiculously tiny – I could spout out a complete genealogy of the Flash off the top of my head, stretching from Jay Garrick beating up Ratzi spies to John Fox and his amazing holographic shoulder pads in the 853rd Century, but I couldn’t name ten New Zealand comic artists without access to the internet.

But I try. I do my best. Whenever there is a convention in town, I always grab a few mini-comics from the local creator stand. Many of them have the charm of the amateur, many of them are just unspeakably awful, and a couple of them are very, very good.

I only ended up getting two tiny mini-comics at this year’s Armageddon convention, part of a new series by the Sheehan Brothers, a pair of local comic creators who have been producing good work on the NZ scene for several years. It doesn’t quite have the skills to match its goals and occasionally collapses under the weight of its own worthiness, but it's always worth a look..

There is no chance of that messiness happening with their latest comics, because they are quiet and calm works of delicate creepiness. So far, they have produced two of these 24-panel CD-booklet sized comics, and I read both of them in about five minutes, and enjoyed them both immensely.

They’re short little tales about people encountering Things In Dark Woods in a slightly impossible world where perceptions are not to be trusted and monsters are lurking around the corner. They don’t bother with anything like word balloons or plot, going for more of an unsettling vibe than a coherent story.

Mini-comics can be a dodgy proposition – there are loads of perfectly average ones appearing every year, but there are plenty of gems as well, and these Sheehan comics are definitely the latter.

I read both of them minutes, but they hung around my head in a way that most modern comics rarely do. Any sort of comic that gets that kind of reaction must be doing something right.

I wish I could say more about these terrific little comics, but they’re so small that they’ve disappeared. I can’t even check what they’re called. They are probably buried in that worryingly high stack of 2000ads that I’ve been shuffling around the spare room.

But they’ll turn up again like an unexpected little treasure, and I’m looking forward to getting into that odd little world again.

In the meantime, there are vague plans to produce more of these small comics, According to Kelly Sheehan. He said it might take a while, but these kind of things are not worth rushing. They’ll happen in their own time.

These kinds of things always do.

Next #7 Never mind the decadence….

Thursday, December 30, 2010

#9 for 2010

Kick-Ass 2
By Mark Millar and John Romita Jr

Kick-Ass rulz, okay?

Tomorrow: #8 Two tiny comics that eight people have probably read

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

#10 for 2010

Wilson
By Dan Clowes

There was an oddly muted reaction to the latest book from Dan Clowes. While there were loads of decently dull reviews in semi-alternative magazines and websites when it was released, it felt like it barely made a dent in the overall comic culture.

Which is a bit bizarre, not only because it’s a new book by one of the most perplexing, frustrating and wonderful creators out there, but because it’s also a lovely book with a couple of classic Clowes touches – both slightly charming and slightly off-putting.

There was a terrific attempt by the Savage Critics crew to nail down a bit of critical analysis. While that sometimes got horribly sidetracked by odd tangents – something about the idea that Clowes couldn’t make fun of the Dark Knight because he wrote Art School Confidential – it is well worth a read, because smart people talking about smart comics is always worth a look.

And, make no mistake, Wilson is Smart Comics, with all the capitalization that deserves. Sometimes it’s intentionally smug to a ridiculous degree, the oh-so-clever way the story meanders around big life-changing events as if they were nothing is oh-so-clever that it feels like I’m chewing down on tin-foil, and the juxtaposition between the shifting cartooning styles and Wilson’s tragic little life are about as arch as arch gets.

But it’s still a Dan Clowes comic, so the story itself is also constantly making fun of its own smugness. It often wanders off in unexpected directions and that art juxtaposition might be painfully obvious, but it often works incredibly well.

It’s also genuinely funny. The slow realization of what Wilson is actually doing on that road trip is slightly disturbing, but it’s also beautifully absurd. Wilson’s whole life – and his blind reaction to it all – is so sad it’s funny, and there are some terrific one-liners in the brief vignettes.

It’s entirely possible that it’s all just a bit too accurate, which might explain some of the lukewarm reaction. While Ghost World found a strong audience with the kind of spunky and ambitious teenage girls it depicted, older men with beards, nice slacks and a crushing sense of disappointment with the world are unlikely to get too excited about comics featuring older men with beards, nice slacks and a crushing sense of disappointment with the world.

Who can blame them? Mirrors are bastards – they don’t care how you feel, or how old you are. They just give you the cold, hard reality. Some of the things Wilson says to the random people in his life are disturbingly familiar, and that makes me a bit uncomfortable.

But hell, at least it’s getting some kind of reaction, and that kind of discomfort can be ultimately beneficial. That’s why Wilson is my tenth favourite comic of 2010. It’s funny, is beautifully designed and holds up a mirror to my world that I can’t help recognizing, giving me the opportunity to do something about it before I start kidnapping my lost daughter.

It’s a great comic book.

But it’s not as good as Kick-Ass 2.

Tomorrow: #9 - Kick-Ass 2

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A top 10 comics for 2010

2010 was another terrific year for good comic books. While the industry remains a blind and shambling beast, the medium is still producing work of astonishing quality, from low-fi web comics to high-end hardbacks, from fast and fun superheroes to wonderfully dreary existential screeds.

Out of all the comics I’ve read this year, it was surprisingly easy to name my ten favourite, and I’ll be writing something about each of them over the next week or so.

Every top ten list is subjective, but this list of my ten favourite comics is affected by all sorts of outside influences, most notably price. While Chris Ware’s comics are always rewarding, I’ve seen the most recent installment of the excellent Acme Novelty Library selling for $80 in local stores, which is just too much to justify.

There have also been undoubtedly brilliant comics from the likes of Charles Burns, Jim Woodring and James Sturm that will be read at some point, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to read them.

It’s also difficult to try out new creators, when the only option is a beautiful book costing more than $50 a shot, so comics by creators like Sarah Glidden – which receive almost universal acclaim – are also not on this list, although I will get around to them sooner or later.

Instead, I’m going to have to stick with the books, strips and periodicals I have actually read over the past 12 months, and while that is a fair amount of good material, it’s only a tiny fraction of what is actually out there.

But these are still 10 comics – above all others - that I found entertaining, funny, stimulating and moving. I read comics for all sorts of different reasons, but each of these works scratched a certain itch, and left me satisfied and content.

Who could ask for more?

Tomorrow: #10 – "Why do I even talk to that guy?"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Boxing Day, everybody!

I almost managed to avoid Christmas entirely this year – all of my immediate family were hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away, I volunteered to work on Christmas Day, and I thought I was too old to get excited about the holiday.

But then my lovely, lovely wife bought me two bloody good books that left me feeling like a giddy 12-year-old and I love Christmas all over again.

She is remarkably good at getting presents for me. It can’t be easy, buying books for a comic dork who needs a list to often keep track of what he’s got. But she goes for the more expensive and satisfying stuff that I never bother with – the sort of thing that is just too much for my weekly budget, but well within the limits of a gift.

In the past couple of years, she’s bought me the collected edition of Bone, a number of fine books about television shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood, and a three-foot tall Batman with a mighty fist of justice.

I also give her a few suggestions of things I would like, and this year I was convinced that big slab on the pile of presents this year was either that Making of Empire Strikes Back of the Art of Jaime Hernandez. But then it turned out to be the Art of Brian Bolland, which was completely unexpected and bloody wonderful.

I didn’t even know the book existed until the mighty Nik Dirga returned from America with it, and had the good grace to let me borrow it for a while. I did a terrible job of hiding my insane jealousy for that book, and thought about running off to Argentina with Nik’s copy, but I never expected to actually own my own one.

It’s a thing of beauty – hundreds of pages of Bolland’s unmistakable and rock-solid line, all cleaned up and put on show. I’ve been in love with that line since I first saw it in that very first Judge Death story, and to have so much of it in one place is almost intoxicating.

The other book was Lance Parkin’s aHistory: An Unauthorised History of the Doctor Who Universe, and I was totally expecting that, but the amount of raw Doctor Who data in there is just as intoxicating as Bolland’s art. There will be more to say about this soon.

I still had to work on Christmas Day, and it turned out to be a real shitter as bizarre IT issues cropped up when nobody was on duty, and I didn’t finish till ten on Christmas night, but it wasn’t so bad. Because when it looked like a reasonable option to pick up the laptop and fling it out the window, I could walk away for 10 minutes and flick through one of these books, and all would be right with the world.

***

Also this wonderfully long weekend: An interminable period in a months-long 2000ad prog slog has passed, when I finally got past #700. Things got a bit dire in the late six-hundreds, despite some lovely Dredd, Zenith and Chopper comics, but by the time #700 rolls around, strips like Chronos Carnival and Dry run are just a bad memory.

It all looked so promising - it’s late 1990 and 2000ad’s seven-hundredth issue bolsters the stone cold professionalism of John Wagner, Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson with an influx of new talent. Hot young things like Ennis, Bond, Milligan and Hewlett come in and shake it all about.

(Twenty years on, and just last week I saw Hewlett art blown up on an arena-sized screen at the final Gorillaz gig of the Plastic Beach tour, while members of The Clash played their guitars like they were machine guns in front of it. Somehow, it was completely unsurprising that Hewlett ended up co-founding one of the first great pop bands of the 21st century….)

It’s a false dawn for 2000ad and the next five or six years are destined to be the worst in the comic’s history, so it might take a while to get through that. There is the interminable Brigand Doom, and the horror of Michael Fleischer’s Rogue Trooper, and a non-Wagner Dredd all to come.

That might take a long while to get through...

***

I also just wanted to add my voice to the collective disappointment over the end of Journalista, with Dirk Deppey on the receiving end of an apparently inevitable lay-off. That sucks for Dirk, but he’ll be fine because he was a brilliant aggregator.

There is just so much stuff available for your attention, out there on the internet, that it’s easy to get lost. There are literally tens of thousands of words generated daily about comics, even though it’s a relatively niche thing. I need to trust the word of smart and rational people who point out the stuff worth following.

And Dirk is the best – Journalista was the first website I checked every weekday morning, and there would always be at least three links worth clicking on – to news, reviews, interviews, podcasts, webcomics, essays and notcomics that were worth a look. This was guaranteed, every weekday, for years.

It’s not just a matter of taste – I frequently disagree with his assessments of certain comics – but an ability to create a daily log of interesting things out there in the world that pertained to comics is harder than it looks, and takes real skill.

Journalista is dead and gone, but I still hope Dirk will be around in one form or another, to point out the entertaining, informative and occasionally beautiful things about comics out there. I’ll get lost on my own.

***

Starting in a couple of days, I’ll be listing my ten favourite comics of 2010. Three of them are superhero comics, I’d be surprised if more than 100 people have read one of them, and two of them are long-running strips from the greatest comic anthology ever. Almost half of them are stand-alone books.

It'll be an incredibly subjective list, with loads of undoubtedly terrific stuff out there I haven't tried yet, but hell. Aren't they all?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last night The Invisibles saved my life (24-month countdown remix)

They said that this was the way the word is supposed to end, but you never have to do what you’re told.

***

Sometime in 2000, I make my friend Brian drive me 200 kilometres one wet Friday night after work, so I can get the last issue of The Invisibles. Working on a delivery dock at the town’s biggest department store lets me get away early if I need to, and we’re in Christchurch by seven.

I get drunk in the car on wine with a Millennium label and we all get stoned in the Port Hills as usual and catch a shitty movie before heading back home. I’m saving the comic for the right moment.

When we get back, I lose it in the back seat of the car and panic, before finding it under a blanket. I take it inside and think about reading it.

I don't want to.

I don't want it to be over.

***

The shitty movie was Dogma. It was pretty shitty.

***

A year or so earlier than that night, I don't have a job, or a girlfriend, or a home. But I do have the first three issues of volume three and read them over and over and over again in this poverty.

Philip Bond is the sexiest artist alive and everything is coming to a head, just like we were promised. Life is just as hectic, and giving it all away and starting over again is the only obvious solution to all of this.

I feel free.

It's 1999.

***

The first issue of The Invisibles was released in mid-1994. I was 19 at the time. This explains a lot.

***

I give all of volume one to one of my best friends after he has devoured Watchmen and Sandman and all the usual suspects. When he gives it back to me, he tells me his entire flat thought the comic was evil and he didn’t want to read any more.

He’s slightly Christian, but I’m still a but surprised by this. I don't give him any more to read. I don't give The Invisibles to anybody else after this.

Let them find out how evil it is for themselves.

***

At this point in the story, I keep getting too drunk and wake up under bushes at four in the morning, more often than I would like. There is always the sour acidic taste in the back of my mouth, and the horrible sensation that I’ve done something stupid in the usual alcoholic fugue.

When I wake up under a bush with dirt in my ear and a bugs in my pants, often the last thing I remember is blathering on about the Supercontext or the Hand of Glory with somebody who just looks at me like I’m mental.

It’s all right. I’m young and alive.

***

“Ha ha! Not today, you bastards! Not today.”

***

For a while there, I buy into the entire philosophy. Wanking for magic and playing around with the esoteric. It works, just like everubody said it would. The everyday starts dripping with significance. Every morning, noon and night there is a turbocharge of unlikeliness and I drink it all up.

But, as usual, I take it all a bit far. I become convinced that the awful things that are happening to good people I know are a direct result of this dicking about. So I stop and become boring. It’s for the best.

I still won't have an Ouija board in the house.

***

“No,” whined Bob, as she skimmed through the pages. “You don’t understand. I really, really like it. More than anything.”

She just sighed and dropped the comic on the coffee table and Bob knew he had blown a definite shag.

***

I’m genuinely and profoundly moved by that bit where Superman Gold turns back and winks at the end of DC: 1,000,000. It’s all the fucking Invisibles, it’s all fucking connected.

In fact, an issue of JLA that features an explosion in San Francisco is mirrored by the same thing happening in The Invisibles. In two comics I got on the same fucking day. This must have been planned.

It all goes together. The Invisibles mixes with anything. It’s the vodka of the comic world.

***

Best Man Fall:

It’s Audrey I still feel sorry for, when all is said and done, and her kind decency changes everything in the final pages. Poor Bobby never stood a chance. Ordinary people, their lives all messed about and chopped up by forces happening far beyond their comprehension.

Every henchmen has a story, every dead body had its dreams. It takes King Mob a long, long time to realise this and think of something better.

***

Sitting on the beach, staring out to sea, high on scrumpy and I know that Britpop is dead, and I don’t know whether to blame Pulp for This is Hardcore, or Grant Morrison for v2 #16.

I staple a photocopy of the cover of that issue to my work cubicle, along with a couple of panels from Flex Mentallo.

I’m convinced that King Mob is going to die some time in the last half of volume two and am genuinely concerned for Morrison’s health if that happens. I really am taking this all too seriously.

***

And in the park, down by the duck pond where I memorised bits of Kublai Khan, I read about King Mob blowing up a mansion and giving ontological terrorism a go. For some reason, I've never felt more alone, but I’m glad to see Mob is still here. The wretched paranoia that soaked the series gives way to pre-millenial freedom.

All I want to do is dance.

***

“Some people will say anything to be thought of as clever and interesting.”

***

Sometimes I think I'm still there in that park, and on that beach. Any second now I'm going to realise the last 10 years were just an Invisibles illusion, and there is no such thing as time.

No. That’s not it. I’m sitting in an extraordinarily comfortable armchair, with an orange juice and vodka in one hand and Buffy on the television. There’s a hole in the ceiling, and if I reach for it, it’ll pull me through into the infinite. I know it.

Or I’m on that park bench in the Dunedin botanical gardens, with half a $1 pie and 17 pages of a movie script about somebody going mental.

I’m in front of a computer, gushing about the Pander Brothers art when everybody else is spitting on it.

I’m in a hallway at Aoraki Polytechnic, listening to people talk about the shiny and new concept of internet chat rooms, with the fourth issue of the Invisibles in my bag, fresh in the mail.

***

Two months before that, no difference, same thing. It's six o'clock on a Sunday morning, and Steve Yeowell is making me feel a little sick. I've got the second issue on my lap as I sit in my car, but I haven't turned the page. The sun is coming up over a silent Dunedin, and every time I look down, a poor homeless girl is horribly murdered.

My future is unwritten, but I don't feel right.

***

There is some King Mob grafitti on the wall of a building that used to house a second hand bookstore. I’m sure of it. I see it as I’m walking home from the Empire, with another dose of feedback rock bouncing around my head and some poisonous gutrot in my stomach.

But it’s not there in the cold light of the next day, so it probably wasn’t real in the first place.

***

A month or so before that very last issue, I'm sitting on a bench in the centre of town, reading the penultimate comic. The street is busy, with hundreds of people walking around in all their beautiful, stinking glory. I finish the comic in 10 minutes and have to sit there and have a think about it.

Two hours later I'm driving home and I realise who saved King Mob in the phone booth, and a new pattern is formed.

***

Time is never as flexible as I think it might be.

***

Still: Once upon a time, 2012 sounded so sexy and weird and exotic, and now it’s just another shitty Roland Emmerich film.

***

Phil Jiminez’s art takes a while to get used to, his art like flexible bodies made out of water, flowing through the story. When things break down and the Hand of Glory is activated, his work goes with it.

Sometimes, it feels like the story is all happening around the edges of something big and wonderful, something that is never quite seen. It moves through the narrative like the ghost of a whale, occasionally bumping up against the narrative and sending everything apeshit. Jiminez almost captures this horror out of the corner of the eye, and makes everything suitably sick and slick.

***

When I try to explain the Invisibles and why I love it so much, it all comes out wrong. It sounds like the stupidest thing in the world when I start blubbering about the End of the Aeon and the secret universes between the cracks in the sidewalk.

I’m still struggling, but the whole glorious mess still thrills. The dialogue is as sharp as ever, and while we’ve all moved on from those oh-so-‘90s conspirancies, there is still terror in these dark, unknowable plans for humanity. It’s funnier than it looks, and anybody who gets too deep into it starts wanting to write their own languages. It’s hot and humid and there is a smear in the membrane of space time, there at the edge of all things.

This is the kind of rubbish I start saying when I read too much Invisibles. I’m not sorry.

***

There’s something wrong with Fanny’s trip to the other side in Sheman. It feels sick and wrong, even though it’s just another rite.

I still feel guilty about my initial reaction to the story, when I got confused and sickened by stupid stuff, back before I stopped being a dick.

***

Not being a dick has worked out surprisingly well in the past five years. Thanks, Invisibles!

***

It’s cold on the roof, but I’m wrapped up warm. There is beer here and the bass beat from a live band coming through the building and good conversation and I can just about read about Boy’s origin in the orange glow of the street light.

It’s How I Became Invisible and the chills and conspiracies in the story seep into my bones. In three hours I’ve passed out in the hallway again and I’m so ashamed. I just can’t do anything about it.

Then I’m going home again, counting off the steps and pavement slabs to keep the legs moving. I’ve lost my glasses and my booze and I think I gave my wallet to Greg earlier, but I’m not sure. I have an iron grip on The Invisibles #20. Dignity comes and goes, unlike comic books.

Some things are worth holding on to.

***

Suddenly …

***

I read most of The Last Temptation of Jack while standing in line for a quarter pounder at McDonald’s and it all feels a bit weird. Something is going on in my head, and I can barely order the food. I’ll have some enlightenment with my cheeseburger, thanks.

I still manage, because that’s one of the few things I learn about magic – you can travel into vast and intricate realities within your own mind, but you still need to eat.

***

It’s hot and humid and Lord Fanny never looked sexier than on the cover to #14 of the second volume. This one is all about the sex and I’m still a bit messed up about that stuff in 1997. The adolescent drive fading and I’m still just as stupid.

There must be more to life than this.

***

When I’m 15, I make the conscious decision not to skip to the end of a novel for the first time, halfway through A Feast Unknown by Philip Jose Farmer. Before this, I’d ruined the ending for myself in nearly every book I’ve read up till then. I knew who fell in battle at the end of The Hobbit, three hundred pages before I got there.

And then I realized that it was better to read all the way through and it made reading a lot more enjoyable. I still have to stop myself from spoiling too much, but I’ve been getting better.

Ten years after Tarzan and Doc Savage crossed cocks in Farmer’s book, I realize that while it takes a week for the comics to get to me, the internet has information right fucking now and I have to stop myself from looking at The Bomb to see how volume two ends. I manage, most of the time.

Ten years after that again, and I still check in on Barbelith now and again. The conversation has died down, but there are always replacement interests.

***

I must be fucked up, because that Backstreet Boys song is actually all right and I want to dance to it. I look like a dick, but that’s because I keep seeing the Harlequin out of the corner of my eye and I’m trying to catch its attention.

It’s okay to let it all go on the dancefloor. Even if the music is terrible. It’s okay.

***

I’ve just pissed off another friend who won’t speak to me for another eight years and Grant Morrison might be dead tomorrow. Mark Millar has taken over the comic's letter page, providing regular updates and it’s a good shot of mortality for this 22-year-old reader. For a while there, it really looks like he might not make it as his face is eaten by a virus.

It’s a trial for the writer as he faces his own mortality, and winks at the abyss. After that kind of thing, it’s hard not to laugh at the seriousness of it all.

***

I started reading the Invisibles again two nights ago and everything feels a bit strange again.

Life is just a ride.

***

Last night, The Invisibles saved my life. It’s made me a better person and while there are a lot of comics that have done that, nobody does it better.

***

“What's this?”

“It's a new comic by Grant Morrison. A Vertigo ongoing.”

“I loved Zenith.”

“Steve Yeowell is doing the first couple of issues.”

“I'll get that.”

Peaking on life, off to the pub every weekend, out and about, shaking it all around. If you don't have the best time of your life getting out there at 19, you missed a lot.

Need new comics fix, X-Men just not doing it for me any more. Discovered Love and Rockets last year, got a little obsessive over that, and looking for something good and new.

The Invisibles? Shit yeah, I'll give that a go.

***

I cave in and read the last issue in half an hour, savouring every crinkle in Quietly's art, drinking in the talk of a narrative you can catch like a cold. I feel the love of the AllNOW and reach out for that last full stop that goes right off the page.

It's four o’clock in the morning when I finish, and the house, the town, the whole fucking world is quiet. I sit there for another three hours, patting my cat, and by the end of it, he’s so floppy his bones must have turned to mush.

I don't want to go to bed.

I don't want to do anything.

I don't know what I want.

I still don’t know what I want.

***

And then I start up all over again. You can do that if you want.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No fear

I am not a brave man, and there are loads of things that freak me out - Adam Curtis documentaries; the last 30 seconds of the Blair Witch Project; photographs of ghosts sitting in the back of cars; the possibility of oblivion; people with no faces; insects in my ear.

But there are only two things that genuinely scare me and one of them makes some sense and the other doesn’t make any sense at all.

I’m really, truly scared of zombies and the 1970s.

***

I was born deadset in the middle of the 1970s, one week into 1975. My actual memories of the '70s are the usual preschool fuzz – seeing my little sister for the first time in 1978, watching a kindergarten classmate put a staple through her finger, sitting with my cousin Maria to watch Superman.

But I also recall spending a huge amount of time as a little kid scared out of my fucking mind, because I couldn’t figure out how the world worked.

It’s not right but it’s undeniable – this entire decade makes me feel uneasy, loosens my grip on the world and scares the crap out of me. It wasn’t just inherent dead eyes of the fumetti that bugged me about Fandom Confidential when I saw it in a Comic Kingdom on Saturday, it was the deep existential horror of those clothes and those outdated references and those haircuts and Chuck Fiala’s Mom.

It all scares me on some deep and primal level: the fashions, the big hair, the sideburns, the film stock, Terry Gilliam cartoons and Tomb of Dracula comics.

In fact, every comic from the 1970s bugs me in some indefinable way. There were those clowns building a huge pile of garbage and diamonds in Starlin’s Adam Warlock comics, or the silent despair that could show up in the art of Dave Cockrum – an artist who could capture everything that was wrong with the decade in one costume design. It’s even there in the nice and smooth Curt Swan comics, and his plastic Superman stares out of a metaphysical void into my head.

***

I was weirded out by the strangest things as a child. There was no fear of horror movies, or anything like that.

But that fucking thing with the big eyes from the credits of British kids show Vision On, that still scares me. It’s the title of the show written in cursive and mirrored up to create some kind of horrible creature.

They called it a Grog, and it haunted my nightmares for years, and now I can find it on YouTube in seconds, and the fear hasn’t gone away, it’s just been sitting there for three decades, waiting for me.

Look at it! Look at the horror!

IT IS COMING TO EAT YOUR SOUL!

Eat your soul.
And don’t get me started on the Burbles. Looking for a picture of that Vast Insect God, I stumbled across this YouTube video. There is a bit one minute and seven seconds into it with The Burbles that just filled me with such paralyzing fear, I thought my heart was going to stop. It's those voices coming out of nowhere, the way the door slams, that horrible, horrible music. It was genuinely terrifying.

I showed the wife and she just thought I was fucking mental.

And that’s what I feel any time I watch anything from the 1970s. Scared out of my brains for reasons I can’t explain. I feel mental and stupid. That weird confusion of the world, where everything has a sinister subtext. Even in works of undeniable quality, I am terrified for no good reason.

Now I watch A Clockwork Orange and it makes me nauseous for reasons that have nothing to do with Malcom McDowell’s retching. Malc is also in O Lucky Man, which is often my favourite film of all time, but that scene with the man’s head grafted on to a sheep’s body is one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen.

***

No wonder Dawn of the Dead is the scariest damn film I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

It wasn’t even the full movie that scared me for the first time – it was the trailer for the film that had been tacked on to the start of a Jewel of the Nile video tape. There was something in that trailer, something in that deeply creepy Goblin music, something in those endless shots of shambling hordes, that spiked the fear part of my brain.

At least you’re supposed to be scared of zombies. That’s the point. Not like the fucking Burbles.

And when I did finally see the whole film, it was absolutely terrifying. It’s mainly those dead eyes, decaying faces and ravenous appetites that make Dawn of the Dead so scary, but I’m creeped out by the whole thing. It’s the decorations in the mall and the peculiar shade of the red that blows out of the back of a zombie’s brain and the turtleneck sweaters on the dead people and the food and those old video games they play at one point and the way they decorate their bolt holes and just about anything.

I still have terrible nightmares about zombie apocalypses every time I watch a decent zombie movie, and the most recent was the night after I watched the last episode of the Walking Dead. I always wake up absolutely shit-scared, and it’s ensured I’ve had a zombie plan ready to go into place when the inevitable apocalypse comes since I was 12. (The key is surviving the first couple of days.)

The Goblin score is a large part of it. It’s not that dull, thudding bass beat, it’s the moaning chorus in the background that really sounds like the whole world is crying out in terror, but doesn’t have the strength to scream.

But I could watch Dawn of the Dead over and over again. Partly because the ending feels me with real hope, and partly because it’s just a fucking good film. It scares the hell out of me still, every time I watch it.

***

The second scariest thing I’ve ever seen was a Hammer House of Horror episode that I was allowed to stay up and watch one night, when I was about four or five. All I can remember about it was that there was a disappearing house, and something to do with a phone-box.

***

And I’ve realized that despite what Roosevelt said, fear is nothing to be afraid of. I like getting freaked out by stuff, I crave the rush of horror and I groove to the dread. You never feel more alive than when you’re scared out of your mind, even if – especially if- you’re scared of something that makes no sense.

I’m not talking about phobias – which are crippling and painful and horrible – but sitting down to watch a BBC kitchen sink drama from 1973 in the dead of night and feeling scared and alone is curiously uplifting.

I still haven’t worked out how the world works, but I have got a lot better at hiding my fear. I never want to lose it completely, because it's so damn thrilling. The '70s were a long time ago, but things from that decade can still affect me in ways I never want to lose.

Monday, December 13, 2010

18 observations after a long weekend spent largely in the comic shops and second-hand bookstores of Sydney, Australia

1) Comic Kingdom on Liverpool Street is dark and old and has the surliest staff on the planet and is one of my favourite comic book shops ever. There are things in there. Things I never knew existed.

2) It’s there that I get Not Brand Echh #7 for $2, and the 10-year Love and Rockets anniversary issue which is just page after page of Los Bros talking about their art, and some reprints of Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, and loads more.

3) My second favourite comic shop in Sydney is Kings Comics on Pitt, where it’s clean and open and has the friendliest damn staff, but they just sell all the same stuff I can get in Borders.

4) Although I did get some Dogem Logic, because Alan Moore’s free-rolling essays are always worth a look.

5) Newtown is my favourite destination for second hand shops, and I found some cheap Kochalka, a Who’s Who, a Judge Dredd megazine and more of that goddamned Justice League Europe that I can’t stop getting.

6) That Dredd comic was the only 2000ad thing I got all weekend, which was bitterly disappointing. They have just vanished from the second hand market.

7) I always, always buy Cerebus the Aardvark comics when I see them going cheap. It’s a frustratingly long process, but it’s all worth while when I get some Church and State-era comics for $1 each.

8) Jamie Hewlett did more covers for Shade the Changing Man than I ever realized, but I’m not surprised by how beautiful they are. Shade is another series that I get on the cheap, and like the aardvark, it’s taken me 15 years to get about half of the whole series.

9) Strange Tales II #2 is more than two-thirds cheaper in Australia than it is in New Zealand. Fuckin’ NZD.

10) Still, it’s worth any price. Los Bros Hernandez = always good, and Jeffry Brown, Paul Hornschemeier and Paul Maybury all bring the thoughtful goodness.

11) Holy shit! I completely forgot I bought Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, The Heckler #1 and a 1992 reprint of Starlin’s Warlock three years ago, but left them sitting on my sister’s bookshelf, until I saw them there on Sunday morning.

12) So that’s where my bloody copy of American Tabloid went.

13) I keep buying copies of Wolfman/Colan’s Night Force, but I never get around to reading them.

14) I had an excellent weekend – I got drunk on high quality hooch and danced with pretty girls and met a beloved family member for the first time in nearly two years and went swimming and saw a redback spider and went trainhopping and the most exciting thing that happened to me all weekend was finding a copy of The Room With No Doors by Kate Orman at the bookshop across the road from Kings Comics.

15) Okay, it was better to see my little sister again, but damn: I’ve been actively searching for that novel for 12 years, and I got that and Eternity Weeps and Godengine for $20. I paid $60 for a copy of Lungbarrow two years ago.

16) So when it comes to the Doctor Who New Adventures, all I need is The Dying Days and one of the Warlock books and I’ve finally Got Them All.

17) It took me six hours to finish The Room With No Doors, because people kept talking to me.

18) My one regret over the long weekend is that I didn’t buy Fandom Confidential starring Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala, because their fumetti pokes at 1980-ish comic creators scares the living crap out of me.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The life and death of Middenface McNulty

2000ad has a habit of gleefully killing of its main characters, but it has also been a comic which isn’t going to let a good character go to waste. Considering most of the comic’s strips feature some kind of future science, weirdo magic or time travel shenanigans, it’s not hard to bring characters back from the dead. Not when the impossible can be explained away in a line of dialogue.

Despite this, it was genuinely surprising to see the recent return of Johnny Alpha from the dead in the pages of Strontium Dog. Alpha was one of the classic 2000ad characters, maintaining a level of excellence for 30 years, built of a rock solid concept of an intergalactic bounty hunter with a fierce hatred of injustice. A man who is spit upon by society, but maintains a solid dignity.

There were always lots of trains barreling out of control, and vicious cannibals and trips to a Hell dimension. Johnny gunned down irredeemable villains, tried to put right all of his wrongs and stuffed a sock in Hitler's mouth. All of this given a real emotional weight with Johnny’s refusal to give in to the anger, to maintain his dignity

Alpha was killed off 20 years ago, slain by evil wizards from another hell dimension to save innocents. His soul was released from a hideous organic trap soon afterward and Johnny Alpha was gone. Stories starring his friends and allies continued on for a while, eventually mutating into the unending and beautiful Durham Red series, but it wasn’t the same without Johnny.

Still, Johnny Alpha and his pal Wulf Sternhammer had plenty of untold adventures from the period before the comic started and about a decade ago, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra started filling in some gaps with some ridiculously entertaining and curiously inessential stories.

Some of the best Strontium Dog stories – including Portrait of a Mutant and Rangnarok - had filled in Alpha’s background well, but everything after his death was a little stagnant. It wasn’t just that they Alpha was in no real danger because we’d seen his ultimate end, it was just a general pointlessness.

It meant characters that had been long dead could come back as whole new stories spiraled out of past plotlines, but there was no real progression in the story of Johnny Alpha.

And then, after decades of “dead means dead”, this year Wagner and Ezquerra produced The Life And Death of Johnny Alpha with the specific aim of bringing back Alpha with some mystical mumbo jumbo. The 11-part story climaxed with Alpha’s resurrection, but it still came at a cost, with his oldest surviving friend giving up his own life in exchange.

The man who makes the sacrifice has no doubt that it’s worth it, telling the mystical beings responsible for Alpha’s return that he was worth ten of him “and ye’d still get change”, but it’s still sad to see him go.

He makes that sacrifice, and is apparently gone for good, (although, like Johnny, there is always that crazy possibility of his own resurrection somewhere down the line). It’s a shame, because out of the hundreds of brilliant characters 2000ad has produced over the years (and a few thousand duff ones), the Tartan Terror was one of the best.

So let’s raise a glass to Middenface McNulty!

***

Archibald “Middenface” McNulty first showed up in Portrait of A Mutant – Johnny Alpha’s origin story – as the mutant leader of a Scottish militia fighting back against a society dedicated to wiping all mutants out. He was a colourful character with a head full of lumps, (several of which would be shot off over the years), the desire to give any kind of prejudice a good kicking and a small fondness for the drink.

Over the years, Middenface made more appearances in Strontium Dog, always willing to give his pal Johnny a hand when he needed it. He started showing up a lot more after Wulf Sternhammer died in a hail of bullets, serving the role of Johnny’s unofficial partner and comedy drunken sidekick.

One of those simple jobs turned into a river of genocidal shit, and Johnny was gone at the end of it. Middenface showed up a couple of times after that, but most subsequent appearances were in the flashback stories.

It’s fair to say the Strontium Dog strip lost a lot of its humour and humanity without Middenface (or Wulf), with the story occasionally descending into po-faced seriousness, especially when Wagner and Alan Grant were no longer involved.

Middenface’s appearances were always so welcome because he was just so bloody charming, a good friend who would do the job and the buy the first round. Despite the fierce bumps on his head, Middenface was an absolutely honourable character who never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it.

Middenface was always a bit of a comedic character, although he could also be used to tell far more serious stories, especially when his past fighting against mutant prejudice with a broken whiskey bottle and a headbutt was revealed in a number of excellent Young Middenface stories by Grant, who also deserves much of the credit for the brilliance of Strontium Dog over the years.

It was Middenface who would be the first to crack a joke in the face of unbelievable peril, he gave average stories like The Rammy a healthy boost with his fighting skills and drinking in court, (“Purely medicinal, your Jameship.”) He was always up for a song and a dance and could outshoot any man after downing a few bottles. He would travel halfway across the galaxy to avenge his dog.

But something interesting happened in Middenface’s last appearance, a weary melancholy that explains his sacrifice. He drinks to forget all the awful things he’s done. His easy-drinking ways have, over the years, swelled into full-blown alcoholism.

He is still one of the galaxy’s greatest drinkers, but Middenface does it o wipe out his own past, living on guilt at the horrible things he has seen and done in a lifetime of conflict.

McNulty was a stone-cold killer and a great man to have by your side, but over the course of his last story, he often admits to being a lesser man than Johnny. He uses Feral, a character who briefly took over the Strontium Dog strip for a couple of years, and then casually dumps him back to a hugely ignominious end: Feral is fattened up into obesity, gets his nose cut off and burns to death at the stake.

And Middenface knows it. He knows Johnny would have got the information from Feral and given him another chance, or at least an honourable end. Middenface is a broken man who can’t think of a better way to get to his best mate.

He eventually finds Johnny’s body and brings it to giant Stone Wizards, who talk back at him in his own language. (Another brilliant bit of Wagner’s sense of the absurd – vast, eldritch gods telling a wee mutant that he’s cruisin’ for a bruisin’.) And he reveals that Johnny is the best man he’s ever known, who deserved better than a dirty death at the hands of disgusting demons, and that Middenface is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to bring him back. No hesitation, no fear, it’s just the right thing to do.

Nice one, Middenface.

***

The actual fate of Johnny Alpha is still a mystery, he has only been seen slumped in one panel, but that panel also has a big ol’ ‘To be continued’ in it, and there is no doubt that Johnny Alpha is back.

There have been plenty of dubious resurrections in 2000ad’s past, but occasionally something becomes even better and the future of Johnny Alpha is so uncertain that the wait until his next appearance in the comic is going to be interminable.

After all, it’s on the back of a blistering burst of creative excellence from Wagner and Ezquerra, who have built on decades of craft and experience to produce some outstanding comics in the past couple of years. Their work has never been better. Judge Dredd: Mega-City Justice was a stunning piece of work - there is much, much more to say about this soon – and their focus on telling the unknown next stage in the saga of Johnny Alpha is simply exciting

Whatever Johnny’s fate, it will be one without Middenface, which will be a damned shame. He really did bring a lot of colour to the story of Johnny Alpha and the pages of 2000ad.

But this is science fiction - and as Russell T Davies said in another one of his brilliant observations about writing Doctor Who – you can get away with anything in science fiction, because you can explain anything in as piece of dialogue.

So there is always the chance of further Middenface adventures somewhere down the line. This is one of the brilliant things about comics: there is nothing to stop him from returning, because you don’t have to rely on an actor or any kind of production issue.

Middenface could show up again. There is still hopes of an Old Middenface series to balance out the adventures in his younger days. He is too good a character to let lie forever.

And if he does come back, he’s buying the first round. And you’re getting the next three.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jerks

I was on the bus the other morning, watching this guy: he’s about halfway down the vehicle, standing right in the middle of the aisle. It’s a full bus, and people want to get past because it’s all getting a bit tight up front.

But this guy – he’s not letting anybody past. He won’t say why, all he’ll give is a resolution to stand still. Eventually somebody barges past him and he takes a step back, but he wasn’t giving in until he absolutely had to.

He was completely oblivious to the fact that half of the people on that crowded bus thought he was a complete dick, and he gave no sign of any reason for his weird and pointless selfishness.

Did he just have a bad day and couldn’t take any more? He looked completely calm. Maybe he was just another average arsehole in a world full of them.

I bet he likes comic books, I thought.

***

It took me a long, long time to get over the way some comic readers could be intentionally obnoxious about their favourite medium.

I didn’t see my first example of hideous fanboy entitlement until I went to my second comic shop ever in 1992. I was 17. I just wanted to buy the latest Jim Lee X-men comic, but got stuck behind somebody at the counter giving a lecture on how awful the Infinity Gauntlet was.

I was tempted to tell him how much I’d enjoyed that comic, but I was too amazed at how deliberately unpleasant the Gauntlet hater was as he pontificated about the vileness of the comic, and how everybody involved, including writer, artist, editor, colourist, letterer and the company itself deserved to be beaten, and how he had the brass knuckles to do it.

Eventually he ran out of breath and waddled off to moan about something else, and I managed to get my X-fix. Within a few months, I would be giving up the X-Men entirely, but I have never got over my fascination with comic jerks. I can’t stop watching them.

***

It’s hard to put an exact definition on the average jerk, because we’re all repulsed by different things, but we know it when we see it.

It’s a loud arrogance, boorish and rude, often sexist and crude, with an enormous sense of self-importance and entitlement. It can be a physical thing, but it’s more about a personality than any bulk, which makes it perfect for the safe anonymity of the internet.

It’s a singular lack of empathy, even for the people who create their favourite entertainments. (Who cares about industry people losing their livelihoods – how is it going to affect my monthly Superman fix?) It’s an absolute unwillingness to acknowledge any point of view different from their own, and the derisive ignorance of these mental blinkers.

It’s taking offense at anything that possible disagrees with their own perspective, while possessing the thinnest of skins. It’s waving away disdain at their own crude efforts at funny as humourless. It’s the inability to notice when you’re really, genuinely pissing somebody off.

It’s just being a jerk.

***

Sometimes I can be the biggest jerk of them all, but I’m trying real hard not to be.

***
Back when we’re all figuring out the world, it doesn’t take us long to work out some people are purely out for themselves – most of us figure out that some people are just selfish, foolish and loud while we’re still kids.

But I was genuinely surprised – and continue to be surprised – by how some comic books readers could be complete dickheads. I just couldn’t understand how people who had grown up reading Superman comics failed to pick up on his central themes of justice and fairness and compassion and friendship.
How can people read stories about superheroes standing up for the little guy, and then turn out horribly sexist, racist and homophobic bile?

And unlike people who actually like to be surprised by their entertainments, they go into fits when a comic or television show or movie doesn’t turn out exactly like they wanted it to. It’s actually quite easy to stop reading or watching something that is guaranteed to infuriate. You just don’t.

What’s wrong with these people? How come they keep doing these things? Why do I care?

***

This is why I care - because after all that, this is my big shame – I fucking love this shit.
I find it genuinely entertaining when somebody goes apeshit because a comic book wasn’t what they wanted, and am constantly amused by the worst excesses of obnoxiousness.

Even though I know it’s not good for me, I still get a kick out of reading the worst comic book readers can come up with. Even though I can feel real despair at the alarming reactions to innocuous news and views, it still makes me laugh.

As long as things don’t get too personal, which is always the most distasteful part. Resorting to physical insults is just adolescent. And you can’t just have different tastes to other people, you must just be stupider. Everyone is smarter than everyone else.

I get a weird kick out of reading scathing reviews of comics I genuinely love, that call me a goddamn idiot for daring to like something they don’t. Trust me. I genuinely enjoy Mark Millar’s comics, and I’ve had to walk it off and calm down after bravely anonymous people have labeled me as a moron who only likes his stuff for the blood and tits.

I’ve read the Eltingville stuff dozens of times. I love it when Dorian Wright points out massive cases of undeserved entitlement in the comic community, and I’m consistently interested in Kevin Church’s examination of epic retail douchery. I can’t get enough of it.

***

They’re everywhere, of course, not just in the tiny, insular and comfortable world of comics. Go into any online community of gamers or role-players or Twi-hards, and there are the same sorts of trolls, saying the same sort of shit.

And it’s bigger than that, and there are more than enough jerks in the general public arena. Part of my day job involves reading over comments left on a news website, and I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and downbeat part of my day, as I choke on the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia.

This type of behavior has been taken to the most extreme levels by the use of the internet, allowing any loudmouth to share his views with the world, no matter how stupid or ridiculous they look for saying them.

But I have seen the worst examples of fanboy fuckery in comic shops in the real world. Maybe there is something about the form that attracts these type of people, maybe the closed-off and insular nature of the medium encourages people to act like arseholes. Maybe they just think they’re the heroes in a fantasy of their own creation, and everybody else is just stupid bit actors in their grand story.

Or maybe it’s just because I spend a large amount of my spare time reading comics, and even more time reading magazines and reviews and previews and interviews about comics, so I can’t help noticing it.

And I can’t help seeking it out.

***

And even though I am still entertained, even though they still make me laugh with their obtuse obnoxiousness, I still don’t get it. A basic level of politeness isn’t an anachronism, it’s a vital part of keeping a modern civilization from falling back into selfish barbarism.

We all have to get along. You can’t go picking fights in the real world without suffering for it, and we should be able to handle it when things don’t work out the way we want, or when people disagree with us, or when we just have a bad day.

If we can’t talk about the things we love without acting like a jerk, then maybe we just need to try harder, and let people walk past us to the back of the bus.