Friday, January 28, 2011

Gone

Gone to America.

Back in March.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Huh?

1) Which is more worryingly entertaining – reading about obnoxious fanboy entitlement or reading a vicious takedown of an awful comic?

2) Why does 2000ad prog 1159 have two different covers?

3) Why can’t the superheroes in the Marvel and DC universes just age slower than people do in the real world? These are worlds where super-scientists like Reed Richards can punch holes in reality itself, but they can’t do anything about the aging process. If the characters in these worlds could age more slowly, it would solve almost every continuity issue, while avoiding the need for endless and dull reboots that tell the same story over and over again. I know the rationale is that readers would find it harder to identify with an 80-year-old Spider-man than the eternal 27-year-old he currently seems to be, but Spidey can stick to walls and I can’t identify with that either, without it being a problem.

4) Shit. What was my question again?

5) Speaking of endless reboots, is the new Spider-man movie telling the whole origin tale all over again? I’ve already read about this event dozens of times and seen it on film several times, is anybody really excited about the idea of going over that same old ground again?

6) Is it possible to create a new superhero movie that doesn’t spend half its running time setting up the origin before getting to the good stuff? Origins are always the most boring part.

7) If Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four is all about new ways of thinking about old problems, why does it need to resort to killing off a member of the team to build up interest in the title? There ain’t nothing new about that…

8) Hang on, so was JMS’ Superman actually supposed to be a total dick when he went for his Walk Across America? Was that the idea all along?

9) Have the New Gods shown up anywhere since Final Crisis?

10) How come I stopped buying Hitman after #1 in 1996?

11) What was I thinking when I didn’t grab all those Hitman comics that I saw in the dollar bin at Comics Compulsion in 2001?

12) Why, oh why, has it taken me 15 years to start seriously buying Hitman comics?

13) Tom & Mary Bierbaum – hack fan-fictioners or a genuinely distinctive and pleasurable voice in comic dialogue?

14) Do many people have dreams where you find comics that don’t exist?

15) Do they feel like crying when you realise they’re not real too?

16) Nightcrawler was always my favourite X-man, so how come I was completely unmoved to learn recently that he had been killed?

17) Where's Bill Grundy now?

18) Is it possible to tell a comic story set in a prison that doesn't end in a riot of some kind?

19) Good lord, is Kenneth Anger still alive? Chalk one up for pure, unadulterated satanism!

20) Was there ever any need for so many Green Hornet comics when Dynamite launched half a dozen titles at once?

21) How come a week after I finally caved in and got the Chelo’s Burden book for $50 after never seeing it anywhere for more than a decade, it showed up at the local second-hand bookshop for $10 the next fucking week? Is the Universe laughing with me, or at me?

22) Why wasn’t the Big Book of Wild Women ever released?

23) So is that is for the print edition of The Comics Journal? Is that the end of it?

24) So is that it for the Comics Code Authority? Is that the end of it?

25) Am I the only person in the world who still occasionally uses video tape to record television programmes? It still works.

26) What’s the point of a half-arsed movie blockbuster? After watching the Lord of the Rings movies again for the first time in years, it really reminded me how big and grand and epic it was, but also highlighted the fact that other films since have completely failed to work on that kind of scale, so why bother? It’s like the uselessness of soft porn – people who love porn don’t like it and people who hate porn don’t like it – what’s the fucking point?

27) Has there been a Showcase volume for Weird War Tales released yet? I’m totally getting that.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The best five TV episodes of 2010

Thanks to the efforts of innovative television companies and singular creative talents, the standard of television has never been better, and 2010 was another spectacular year for quality shows.

While there continues to be an increase in dire reality rubbish and a proliferation in programmes featuring ugly people wearing ugly clothes and ugly smiles dancing ugly dance steps to ugly music, there has also been a lot of brilliance.

Out of the hundreds of hours of television I enjoyed over 2010 - including entire series like Justified, South Park, The Trip, True Blood, Peep Show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Sherlock, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Treme - there were five particular episodes from five particular series that stood out from the rest as my absolute favourites.

As always, it’s a mix of personal tastes and undeniable brilliance, but these five individual episodes were easily my favourite television shows of the past year.
***

Boardwalk Empire
A Return to Normalcy

Boardwalk Empire couldn’t avoid a clumsy start – the weight of expectation on the project only got heavier wityh Scorcese’s involvement, and there was the creeping sense that this sort of operatic gangster epic was nothing new, and was always going to be trapped in the shadow of The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos.

But by the time the final episode aired, Boardwalk Empire had become its own beast, taking several surprising turns into areas really touched upon in gangster fiction. The way the series has looked at returning veterans from a terrible war and the way conflict has gouged out their souls is something new and interesting in the genre. This is partly the story of men capable of terrible things because they’ve seen so much worse - men like the exceptionally eerie Richard Harrow, who can fake humanity for a while, but was hollowed out by the fighting that took half his face.

The climactic episode showed that the series had come into its own, with several exceptional performances that were simply wonderful.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise, as the show is stacked with brilliant actors. Steve Buscemi is finally shining in a real leading role, while Michael K Williams exudes wounded honour, and has already had one brilliant scene all of his own, when he tells a member of the KKK that he ain’t building no bookcase. Kelly Macdonald and Aleksa Palladino have both played wounded women who don’t take any crap to perfection, and Michael Shannon, Stephen Graham and Michael Stuhlberg have all been outstanding.

But the real star is, surprisingly, Michael Pitt. It was always easy to dislike Pitt as an actor because of his smug blankness, but there is no smirk here, leaving him devastatingly empty. While great performances were expected from the other actors, Pitt has blown (admittedly low) expectations away.

Pitt’s portrayal of a man who sees all the angles but fails to find the words he really needs was part of the richness of the series' final episode. It featured powerful swings in power and brutal, bloody executions, along with a terrific little twist after Agent Van Alden’s tiny indiscretion, but it was three moments where three very different men open their hearts to their loved ones that made the series finale so emotionally rich.

Pitt is incredible as he reveals that much of his confusion since the return to the real world is because he never expected to get out of the war alive, while Shannon sells the moment where he talks about his own deep unhappiness, although he fails to quite sell it to his wife, who is horrified at the idea of being the wife of a grain salesman.

And the moment where Buscemi talks about his own deepest pain is just extraordinary. The contents of his speech is rarely surprising, considering the blatent clues about Nucky’s attitude towards babies and his lost wife, but Buscemi is superb in the scene, especially the part where he just stops talking, because it’s too goddamn painful.

The first season of Boardwalk Empire ended with a cold and uneasy dawn, with the three most important men in Nucky’s life – essentially his father, brother and son – all conspiring against him. A genuinely unexpected move that lays a solid foundation for the next series, and giving the show more of a chance to find its own voice.

***

Venture Bros
Assisted Suicide

Operation P.R.O.M. and Everybody Comes To Hank’s were both brilliant episodes in another brilliant season of Adult Swim’s finest cartoon, (and the throwdown between Billy and Pete in Every Which Way But Zeus might have been the funniest thing I’ve seen all year) but it was a journey into the mind of the Rusty that was my favourite Venture Bros episode this year.

It was just that it had some of the most quotable dialogue the series has ever had – I can’t stop muttering about my special secret mind powers in a slightly disturbing English midget accent – and it also had the best post-credits zinger in the entire series (“What happened when I was 16 - THAT was my life.”)

Like any other Venture Bros episode, this particular one was packed with incident and plot and killer lines. It showed why Doc Venture is the only one who can really be in charge of this motley crew, while literally getting inside his head to see what makes him tick. Like every other episode, it gets a lot deeper than it has any right to do, with Rusty’s mind overrun with guilty ghosts of the cloned sons he has lost, and a sexual drive that runs on that terrific self-delusion that he could have had any of the beautiful women he had ever met, “if he just put in the effort”.

Some say the Venture Bros is going over old ground, but it's still a rich and plentiful harvest, wry humour, some surprising subtlety and the best voice work in modern animation.

Assisted Suicide is another example of the series at its fuinest and funniest, and while almost any other episdoe this year could have made it onto this list, this episode had just a few more of the little moments that mange to be a little bit touching, a tiny bit tender and a whole lot of ridiculous than the others.

***

Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour

New Doctor, new TARDIS, new companion, new everything.

It’s still unquestionably my favourite television show of all time, at the absolute peak of its powers. Deeper and funnier and smarter than ever before, with a startingly new Doctor, all new adventures in time and space with a healthy acknowledgement of the past.

The current Doctor is always my favourite Doctor, and his introduction on that hospital roof was all I needed to fall in love with the show all over again. The future is eagerly awaited.

***

Mad Men
Hands & Knees

Like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men has overcome early expectations to flower into an exceptionally rich, complex and satisfying show that is frequently rewarded for going into strange and uncharted new territory.

The period setting has always giving the series a beautiful style, but all those cigarettes and afternoon drinks and quaint old attitudes have often obscured the series’ real story of people going to extraordinary lengths to get what they think they want, and confronting the abyss that opens up when they achieve this goal.

The fourth season of Mad Men is arguably its best, with a number of smart and thoughtful individual episodes such as The Suitcase and the climactic Tomorrowland, but Hands and Knees, which came about two-thirds of the way through the season, was an absolute stellar piece of television.

It had major changes for the firm with Lucky Strike’s move, a pair of Beatles tickets that looked certain to be the main focus of the episode until more dramatic events occurred, poor Lane Pryce’s odious father and Joan’s own terrible experience at an abortion clinic.

It also had some beautiful acting from Jon Hamm, who has made Don Draper one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern fiction. The scene where he is on the phone and learns that the delicate house of cards which is his life could be about to crumble is just astonishing – he goes from confident Master of the Universe to Scared Little Boy in 30 seconds.

Finishing off with a terrifically enigmatic last shot that would pay off in the finale, Hands and Knees was a wonderful piece of drama in a series that has reached new narrative heights and bold emotional depths.

***

Lost
The End

Live together, die together

When Lost wrapped up this year, there was a thoroughly expected outbreak of contagious snark. Many viewers who had watched the series over the past six years couldn’t wait to go out in the world and tell everybody they knew how awful the ending had been, how it had answered nothing and how they had wasted more than 100 hours of their life that they could have used to write the Great 21st Century Novel or something.

This was to be expected, and the outrage that greeted the touch of the divine in the series’ climax was always going to annoy people who had tuned into the show expecting nice and clean scientific explanations and ended up with a whole bunch of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

But all that metaphysical malarky has been a part of the show’s appeal since the start. Combined with a hopeless romanticism, excellent punching scenes and extraordinary characterisation, it all produced one of the best television programmes I have ever watched.

In that respect, I could not have been more satisfied with the climax. There were all sorts of loose threads and left turns, but anything neat and tidy would have been massively underwhelming.

As somebody who genuinely cared about these characters and the long, strange journey they had taken, while quite happy to be left with divine mysteries that defy explanation. I adored the way Lost ended.

Because it went beyond the happy ever after to the only ending that all of us faced, and gave us a little hope to go with that inevitability. The thing that I loved most about the two hour climax was its suggestion that the most traumatic experience any of us will ever have – our own deaths – is something that doesn’t need to be done alone, despite all evidence to the contrary. I just can’t muster any snark over that idea.

The funny thing about telling a romantic storyline is that they just don’t work if there is any irony involved. Romantic stories need to be shamelessly bold and earnest, or it all falls apart.

The end of Lost showed that the series was, after all the weirdness, one of the most earnestly romantic show ever produced, with True Love playing several important parts as it all came together.

I don’t mind a bit of love, especially when it’s all mixed up with some divine inspiration. And not just the traditional love between a man and a woman, but between people who went through extraordinary events together. Seeing that plane take off, and knowing that Sawyer and Kate were away, finally away and free, showed that these people, who have been through some truly extraordinary experiences together, can reunite in the world beyond this and move on together.

In much the same way the brilliance of Deadwood was showing how civilisation could rise out of the blood and mud of the old west, Lost’s greatest strength was in showing how a suspiciously diverse group of people could still pull together in a community, and all it took was a baffling and weird environment to do it.

What does always surprise me is how many people harshly rant against any kind of happy ending. There were plenty of people who seemed genuinely outraged that Battlestar Galactica ended with green fields instead of radioactive death and were determined that Lost had to end with something like Jack being eaten by a polar bear if it was ever going to be any good.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit you really like something, flaws and alls, but perfectly acceptable to rip into something for half-arsed reasons. I don’t mind. As a series, Lost had some gaping flaws and long stretches of pointlessness, but that final episode was moving, funny and a pure dose of hope for humanity. I just can’t sneer about that.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

America! America!

I never thought I was never much of a traveler – I didn’t go seriously overseas until I was well into my thirties – but I’ve made up for lost time, visiting 29 countries on five continents. It’s been fun, fascinating and fucking scary.

The wife and I’s first glorious five-year-plan ends next month, when we go to California, Monument Valley and Vegas. I’m absolutely terrified about driving on the wrong side of the road, and people with guns, and the sheer bigness of it all.

But that’s what traveling is all about – doing things that scare you. Well, that, and going to comic book shops.

The last trip overseas was a bizarre experience in comic hunting, but the this one will be better, and I’m already giddy at the thought of all those lovely, lovely comic shops.

There are some that I’m can not miss. I’ve been reading blogs by Mike Sterling and Brian Hibbs for so long that I’ve got to put a reality on the image of their stores that I’ve got in my head. (I'm not expecting any correlation between this mental image and the real thing.)

But there are also ones that I’m hoping to stumble across, and I’m willing to take any suggestions on any other comic shops anybody could recommend. I’m particularly interested in stores that are full of weird old stuff, rather than anything shiny or new, but I’ll take any suggestions.

So if you know of any good comic shops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas or anywhere in-between that are worth checking out, please leave a comment or drop me an email at bobtemuka at hotmail.com.

Suggestions for good restaurants, cinemas or anything else worth mentioning are also welcome.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A top ten addendumb

Bloody hell. Daily blogging is HARD, man.

Just as well I had the target of getting to #1 on Friday – the second anniversary of this blog and my thirty-sixth birthday - otherwise I would never have got there.

This means we are both – in blog years and real years – officially grumpy old bastards, so there is bound to be more bitching and moaning about the woeful state of modern comics.

And yeah, that’s right. I spent a significant portion of my birthday writing about how much I love Judge Dredd, and it was awesome. But ever since I got the JD role-playing game for a birthday, spending the big day with old Stoney Face is always a pleasure.

***

But really, while I am looking forward to turning into a real old coot, I have no right to complain about the current state of comics. While there are still dozens and dozens of shitty comics being produced every month, there is also plenty of brilliant stuff, and it felt nice to highlight ten of them from last year on this blog.

The nature of top ten lists means there is always going to be something that gets missed out, and there have easily been another dozen comics I could’ve put in there, ones that weren’t the first things to come to mind when I started thinking about my favourite comics, but could easily have placed on the list.

There was the solid quality of Vertigo books like Scalped, Sweet Tooth, the Unknown Soldier and Jack of Fables, various Brendan McCarthy comics for various publishers, the last couple of Walking Dead books, Rasl, Joe the Barbarian and the latest Strange Tales series – they could all happily have gone into a personal top ten.

One comic I definitely regretted forgetting when I made up the list was the little 14-page introduction that Dylan Horrocks did for the latest edition of Hicksville. His collaboration with Emily Perkins was also a lovely little mini-comic conversation about writing, art, stories and monsters, but the new introduction to his most beloved book is just a perfect piece of comics.

I’ve heard Horrocks talk about his love affair with comics – including the moment it went sour for him – but this short story covers it all with a touching sense of melancholic hope. It’s worth buying the new edition just for that.

***

After writing incessantly about my favourite comics for a week, I spent the last few days playing video games. I only buy one game a year, otherwise I lose days and days that turn into weeks and week to the game because I get horribly addicted. Usually it’s a Grand Theft Auto or Resident Evil or Command & Conquer, but one is enough. I still play Red Alert 2 more than I should, and it’s ten years old. I have to take it easy.

This year the choice was obvious when I saw a bunch of games on sale at a local store: it was impossible to resist the allure of Batman: Arkham Asylum for $20, and it proved to be the best twenty bucks I’ve spent in a while.

Any game that rewards furious bashing of buttons with some impressively powerful Fists of Justice has got something going for it, and I’ve been glued to the laptop screen for the past few days. I might have to take it a bit easy, I’m already a third of a way through the game. After two days. If it’s going to last till next year, I don’t want to blow my load now.

Mind you, I did have some incredibly frustrating experiences with the installation process that meant I had to go away and read some Hitman comics in the sun to calm down, because they didn’t break down.

It’s one of the reasons I sometimes feel trampled by the digital comics revolution and left to die in the dust – the appeal of instant delivery and easy storage is outweighed by the perfect nature of a physical comic book, and the way it works so well for all my needs.

A comic doesn’t need batteries, or a power source of any kind. They don’t need additional software to work. You can toss one off the roof of the tallest building in the world and it will still work at ground level (although, if it’s a collected edition, you may be dealing with a broken spine). Comics don’t suffer system failures, individual issues don’t suddenly crash for no apparent reason, and they can be paused at any given point, and picked up again.

So I got to feel all smug and shit for a while, until the installation finally completed, and then I spent hours and hours beating up bad guys in stunning digital detail. Comics? What comics?

Friday, January 7, 2011

#1 fo 2010

Judge Dredd
by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, John Higgins and many, many others

Somewhere in the middle of Mega-City Justice, the climactic storyline to the long-running Tour of Duty tale, Judge Dredd tries to figure out why the Chief Judge has abruptly changed his mind about returning to the top spot after a recent injury, but can’t quite make the connection that will blow his case wide open.

The reader knows all about it – we’ve seen the corrupt Judge Sinfield steal and use the mind-altering drug – and Dredd should know about it, because the killer who used that chemical as a trademark has recently been recaptured (after a lengthy and hilariously successful term as Mega-City mayor).

But Dredd doesn’t make that connection, partly because he assumes the Chief Judge’s change of heart is simply a matter of a man getting old, something Dredd has struggled with in the past. He has changed his mind – while remaining Mega-City One’s absolute rigid symbol of justice – on several crucial issues over the years, and has changed the make-up of the city through sheer force of will. But he still has doubts, and the doubts he recognizes are those he thinks he sees in the Chief.

It’s just one moment. Other creators might get a 12-issue monthly series arc out of this simple idea, but it’s just one part of the overall tapestry that was Judge Dredd in 2010. Part of an overall saga of deceptive complexity and unashamed thrills that made it my favourite comic of the past year.

***

Telling a story in six-page chunks is much, much harder than it looks. Fortunately, John Wagner has been doing it for about 40 years now, and knows how to keep things ticking along nicely.

One of the most interesting things about this most recent turn in Dredd’s story is the apparent lack of action. Every other Dredd epic has been measured in body count, with the Apocalypse War still holding the record with the deaths of 400 million citizens, but Mega City Justice managed to avoid almost any bloodshed, with no loss of tension.

Dredd would still sneak off and gun down a few perps every episode to take his mind off the tedious politics, but the drama was in men of honour standing up for corruption and in complicated schemes coming undone under misfortune and absurd comedic swerves.

This absurdity is a major part of Dredd’s success, and the last few years of Dredd stories has had a heavy dose of it in the form of PJ Maybe, a psychopathic killer introduced as an eight-year-old, who has grown up throughout the comic and eventually became the mayor of the biggest city on earth. That was funny enough, but the real laughs were in the way he turned out to be the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while still indulging in a bit of homicide on the side. (Mind you, the previous best mayors were a man who turned into a mushroom and an orangutan.)

It’s this mix of absurdity, solid drama and heavy action that continues to make Dredd so readable, and sees every slice of the story stand alone as a perfect piece of comics. This brutal economy of storytelling means everybody has to keep up – if the reader has no idea who investigators Buell and Garcia are when they show up at the story’s climax, then it’s not going to take the time to go over it again, although there is enough to show they have Dredd’s back now that he has provided the necessary evidence.

Wagner has been telling this latest story of Dredd’s attempts to give mutants the same rights as human beings – an unpopular move that saw him exiled to an administrative job in the Cursed Earth – for several years now, using this tiny increments to craft a story of enjoyable complexity and subtle depths.

Dredd’s scowl never changes, but the man has come a long way.

***

One of the primary criticisms of the title character in Judge Dredd is that he’s just a fascist. It’s hard to argue, mainly because it’s completely true. In one story this year, Dredd comes down hard on a particularly crime-ridden patch of the city, and utilizes a justice department sniper to take down minor criminals, blowing the kneecaps off grafitti artists and putting shots through the heads of pickpockets.

But he is also an honourable and just man with an iron willpower. He has wrestled with the conflict between the law he represents and actual justice for decades, he has admitted mistakes (usually of a personal nature), actually gave the citizens of Mega City One a go at democracy (they went for the devil they knew), and will not tolerate any kind of bullying (usually with the aid of his nightstick).

While still something of an enigma behind the blank fa├žade of his helmet, Joe Dredd is also a man whose motives are always clear. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than he is, and forces his point of view across with sheer implacable logic, which helps with the economy of storytelling. When he is given the chance to plead his case, he takes a half dozen panels to state it clearly and precisely. (And, in another brilliant little moment, concedes that he could have done more to stop anti-mutant hate groups, but only because he has been too soft of them and needs to come down harder – Dredd is going to beat the prejudice out of the city, one bigot at a time.)

Over the past decade, Dredd has also built up an enviable supporting cast, with characters that move in and out of his life, often growing into surprising new people while out of his sight. There is Rico, his clone replacement who has managed to hold onto Dredd’s honour and fairness when all others have failed; and Judge Giant, another character who has grown up over the years into a fine judge; and Dredd’s neice Vienna, who has been unable to avoid the tragedy her blood brings.

Most of all, there is Dredd’s surprising tenderness (or as tender as he ever gets) towards Judge Beeny, a young and brilliant street judge who happens to be the daughter of a pro-democracy terrorist. His encouragement, and the quiet pride he feels as she grows into a new breed of judge who doesn’t deny her human feelings, shows that Dredd is a man who can change and adapt to a new generation, while passing on the few lessons he has managed to acquire.

You break the law, and Dredd will break you. But while there were once lively debates in the 2000ad letters page over whether Dredd was a robot, nobody can now deny that he is a man, with all the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions that brings.

***

There were some comics this year that were more intellectually complex, more genuinely moving and more viscerally thrilling than the ongoing story of Judge Joe Dredd, but none of them were as personally enjoyable for me.

It’s one of my favourite things to do each week. I’m going out for a birthday dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant in a couple of hours, and I’m hoping the newsagents next to the restaurant has the latest issue. It’s hard to tell at this time of year, with Christmas/New Years messing everything up, but a new issue usually shows up every Thursday, so I’ve got a chance.

I’ve been doing it since I was six, with the occasional lapse. I know every shop in Auckland that sells 2000ad, and always make some time in my week to get to one of those stores, because I just can’t wait to get the latest dose of unadulterated thrillpower.

It’s impossible to deny my favouritism towards 2000ad when making this list of the best comics of the year, because it’s always been there. I was dying to know if old Ben was really a robot after the High Rock escape, and what was in Kano’s black box, and how things were going to get progressively worse every week in Zenith Phase IV, and how Dredd was going to tear down a group of corrupt, power-hungry judges who had seized control of the highest offices of the law.

Under the guidance of Matt Smith – who has been the current Tharg for almost a third of the comic’s existence – the comic has chugged along quite nicely, with a sprinkling of new talent and some seasoned pros supplying some seasoned work

There is always something worthwhile in every issue. There is always the duff stuff, and each issue of 2000ad usually has one story that just doesn’t work, but there is always at least one bit of brilliance. In the past year, strips like Nikolai Dante and Strontium Dog have been utterly fantastic, but the comic’s main star is always the one to beat.

Because no matter how bad 2000ad has got over the years, there has always been Judge Dredd.

There is always Dredd.

***

It’s Wagner who deserves much of the credit for Dredd’s success over the years, but this is comics, and his artistic collaborators are the ones who have to draw that weight on Dredd’s shoulders.

Fortunately, many of the artists who tell Dredd’s current stories have literally been working on the character for as long as Wagner has. Co-creator Carlos Ezquerra’s work is always particularly welcome, and nobody does it better than the Spanish artist.

Ezquerra’s line has got a little shakier over the past few years as some health issues start to intrude on his professional life, but the appearance of his dynamic and powerful art on a Dredd story is now an event in itself – almost guaranteeing some kind of status quo altering event.

There is also a sprinkling of new talents, getting their chance at the UK’s most famous buckethead before moving off to the States for some real money. But there are still some familiar faces that keep on keeping on, with names like John Higgins and Colin MacNeil contributing several chapters in the story. These artists have been producing art for some of the most thought provoking Dredd stories for more than 20 years, including the first democracy story and the shattering America.

They know what they are doing.

***

When all the debris from Mega City Justice starting to settle, the strip ended the year with another run of absolutely inessential Dredd short stories by a variety of non-Wagner writers and some terrific artists, including the brilliant Brendan McCarthy.

As unimportant as these stories are – and they are often little more than a sardonic punchline – they are still part of the overall story. Even with all the shifting politics and the city’s balance of power swinging wildly, life in Mega-City One goes on, and Dredd doesn’t stop.

Even in the big stories, he is out there on the streets, cleaning up the criminal scum and dealing with the insanity of this future world. Even after the biggest and most earth-shattering events, Dredd is still out there, dealing with clumsy pastiches of modern pop culture and outright villainy.

Life goes on, even in the future madness of Mega-City One, and Dredd is a constant presence. The strip is better than it’s ever been, and while Mega-City Justice tidily warpped up a number of long-running plotlines, there is always more to come. Always more story to tell. It will be a pleasure to follow it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

#2 for 2010

Love and Rockets: New Stories #3
By Los Bros Hernandez

It’s remarkable to note that after three decades of comics, Love And Rockets is as good as it’s ever been, with the most recent installment in the series - particularly Jaime’s Browntown and The Love Bunglers - providing the most moving, honest, achingly complex and utterly transcendent comics of 2010.

Here are 23 reasons to back up this audacious claim.

But they’re still not my favourite comics of the year.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

#3 for 2010

Parker: The Outfit
by Darwyn Cooke

2010 was, apparently, the year of the digital download in the comic book world. A number of technological breakthroughs, several new downloading options and a greater public acceptance towards paying for digital comics all made the option more feasible than ever.

This is all fantastic news for those who enjoy their comics in this way, but didn’t mean anything to me, because I just don’t enjoy reading any comics on any kind of screen, and still have a powerful lust for beautifully put-together books.

While those in charge of design at Marvel and DC occasionally produce comics of breathtaking beauty, they are also capable of some real abominations. I just finished reading a hardcover collection of Invincible Iron Man volume IV and it took me days and days to get through the bloody thing because it’s got such a godawful cover. It’s a fuzzy, raw image of an apparently dead Tony Stark lying still, his head towards the bottom of the page.

It’s saturated in dull reds, yellows and browns, and it makes the comic look boring and not worth picking up. The astonishing thing is that it shows off the original covers from the monthly series, and they’re gorgeous. Which is unsurprising, since Rian Hughes is involved. Whoever made the decision to go for this cover over Hughes’ efforts does not know what they are doing.

Darwyn Cooke knows what he is doing, and it took days to get through his latest Parker book – for all the right reasons.

These books are dense and beautiful and experimental and charming. Cooke has spent his life buried eyebrow deep in art design, and his experienced and talented eye takes in everything, from the endpapers and palette choices to the lettering and his own unshakable art style.

Parker: The Outfit is the most beautiful book I bought all year, and it was a pleasure to just look at the thing, without even taking in any of the story. I spent 20 minutes just looking at the cover and dust jacket and soaking up the buzz. That sexy early-sixties cool vibe it exudes is invigorating.

The beauty isn’t just skin deep – the brilliance of this whole package is that all that style swims on an ocean of substance. It’s a strong story, full of grim undertones and hollow revenge, set in a world where nobody gets any second chances and vicious violence is everywhere.

As adaptations of Westlake’s rock solid Parker novels, Cooke’s retelling keeps the original author’s voice intact, while still maintaining his own. His love for the source material slaps the reader around the skull on every page and he fortunately manages to contain his adoration without letting it stifle his own contributions.

Cooke maintains this deceptively tricky balancing act with his own enthusiasm. He creates comics with all the vigour of somebody who genuinely loves what they are doing, on every level. This is Cooke at his most inventive and experimental – he can barely contain himself.

The stylistic shifts in the individual heists show this better than anything else. They don’t always work – the prose section slows things right down just as the story needs to start buzzing along – but they are more successful than not, adding to the charm and attractiveness of the whole thing.

There isn’t enough beauty in the world – and a comic that manages to look this good, especially when its main characters have such ugly, souls adds just a little bit more.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

#4 for 2010

Grant Morrison’s Batman

It doesn’t matter if it was Batman & Robin, Batman Inc. or the Return of Bruce Wayne, it was all the same story. Some say this is a bad thing, and that all of Grant Morrison’s comics are about the same things over and over again, but I don’t mind. It’s a story that I never get sick of hearing, it’s a song I’ll always dance to.

Morrison’s work on Batman over the past year has been loudly praised (and occasionally derided) for its complexity and cleverness, especially with all the time travel shenanigans and emergence of ultimate evil. But while that’s certainly been enjoyable, the best thing about Grant Morrison’s current Batman comics is how much fun they all are.

The amount of fun found in each individual issue relies heavily on a decent artist, and Morrison has had a mixed group of collaborators over the past year. There have been some real (if expected) brilliance from the likes of Frazer Irving and Cameron Stewart, but the energy in the last few issues of the Return of Bruce Wayne was sapped away by some terribly bland art.

Still, you’ve got to laugh.

It’s a comic where vast and terrible conspiracies from the dawn of man are objects of ridicule and easily defeated by superpeople who don’t have time to waste. It’s one where anybody who takes themselves too seriously – such as the odious Dr Hurt – is relentlessly mocked by the plot and characters.

There were several times when Morrison’s Batman was in extreme danger of going too far up his own arse, but it had such a deceptively light touch that it was able to skate along the edge of pretension with apparent ease.

It’s as disposable as a three minute pop song with a catchy melody and a pulsating bass. It’s in one ear and out the other and tries not to outstay it’s welcome with loads of deft touches.

After all, it had plenty of ‘Gotcha!’ moments, some incredibly well-choreographed fighting and a genuinely novel Batman and Robin relationship, with a lighter Batman barely suppressing a smirk as a young and angry Robin tries to beat up the world.

The obligatory delays that saw issues coming out months late – almost expected in any Morrison project with a bit of ambition – also managed to hide the fact that the storyline zips along at a terrific pace. While Bruce Wayne is bouncing around in time, those who follow in his footsteps are barely given a moment to breathe before some swine comes along and shoots them in the back of the skull.

There have been riots and face-offs and revelations and mysteries in the dark. The Joker has shown up to liven everything up with his fatal charm, and proven to be beyond all these silly little games of good and evil by trumping everybody, even if he still doesn’t avoid the odd kicking.

The relationship between Batman and the Joker has always seen the hero play the straight man to this particular brand of homicidal humour, but he’s always been in on the joke and this time he even gets the punchline.

Like all of Morrison’s comics, it’s extraordinarily tempting to go on and on about the brilliance of the dialogue and the ambiguous plot and everything else, but the thing I always liked about reading Batman comics this year is that they came, they kicked arse, and then they pissed off again.

That’s always a song worth listening to.

Monday, January 3, 2011

#5 for 2011

Nikolai Dante
By Robbie Morrison, Simon Fraser and John Burns

A couple of years ago, the creative team behind Fables took the audacious step of wrapping up the comic's main storyline without having the decency to put The End on the last page. The series has gone on after the defeat of the evil empire, and while this has left current issues with a weird sense that they’re just not essential enough, it has also made the whole thing a lot less predictable, and a comic that has made a habit out of killing main characters could still go anywhere.

Nikolai Dante has taken a slightly similar route over the past year. The evil Tsar Vladimir – who has been the big, evil enemy ever since the story started a decade ago – was defeated in a short and brutal war, and against all odds, Nikolai Dante actually had a shot at a happy ending. He got his girl, defeated the evil empire and was surrounded by a loyal group of family, friends and compatriots. After years of war, death and horror, he actually seemed genuinely happy.

It lasted about a dozen pages.

The adventures of Nikolai Dante have been running on a semi-regular basis in 2000ad since early 1997 and has been a shining light in the British weekly for much of that time, infusing its story with wit, humour, honour, tragedy, energy and sexiness.

Co-creators Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser are still there at the helm, with the help of some brushwork from the legendary John Burns. While the latter artist is slightly disappointing, this is only because Fraser is so damned good, with more energy and emotional gravitas than ever before. His art is exceptionally good in colour, with a heavy reliance on a bright and purple palette that makes Fraser’s line pop out at the reader.

After a decade of political machinations and two horrific world wars, Morrison’s story is now approaching some sort of climax, as the true villain of the tale – who has been somewhat dormant for most of the past decade – returning more powerful than ever.

The latest sudden upshift in the comic’s status quo has raised all the stakes, while sending the title character all the way back down to the gutter. During the long history of this single story, Nikolai Dante has been a gentleman thief, the bastard son of a twisted aristocracy, a bitter and cynical warrior, a pirate king, the Sword of the Tsar and the hero of a revolution fought by an army of thieves and whores.

Now, after these latest losses, he is all of these things at once – a brutal man with no mercy who is still too cool to kill. And he still has the magnificent supporting cast - the brutally beautiful Elena Kurakin and the beautifully brutal Lulu Romanov; the implacable former Tsar, who knows the score; the immortal Spatch and Flint; the latest tyrant to rule this empire and his ridiculously complex double personality.

Some of the most interesting characters in the series meet unfortunate end during Heroes Be Damned. Considering the loss of several other important characters during the re-emergence of the story’s real threat, the destruction of Dante’s crest should come as no surprise, but it was genuinely surprising at how touching that end was.

The weapons crest was a complex artificial lifeform that bonded with Dante at the start of the series. It generated weapons for him, monitored his health and provided a running commentary for the series as a sarcastic voice in the back of Dante’s head.

This isn’t the first time I’ve ever had an emotional reaction to the breakdown of a machine – Blade Runner has the most poetic system meltdown in all of cinema – but it was still truly touching to see the Crest fade out of Nikolai Dante’s life, and devastating to see him on the final page of A Farewell To Arms, alone on that cot.

Still, while there was a genuine emotional gut punch of the Crest’s destruction, Dante is still not dead. He still has his mother, Elena, and that army of thieves and whores at his back.

Morrison has admitted that the story of Nikolai Dante is now reaching its natural conclusion. It will be thrilling to see if Nikolai finally gets that spectacular death he thinks he deserves – there is the distinct possibility that he will be denied this fate – but sad to see it go. At least it’s going out on a high.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

#6 for 2010

Grandville: Mon Amour
By Bryan Talbot

The second Grandville book only just got onto this list, as I only managed to get a copy just before Christmas, but it had to go in, because I never, ever get sick of Bryan Talbot drawing characters shooting bloody big guns.

Tom Spurgeon made a very good point a few weeks ago about the lack of good fight scenes in comics. While action scenes are an integral part of most mainstream comics, there are remarkably few artists that can craft a solid and thrilling slice of action.

There are still a few out there – When Frank Quitely draws superpeople beating up other people, he uses goofy body language and an exact sense of space to craft visually thrilling scenes, and there are a number of other artists working today - including talents as diverse as Cam Kennedy, Jill Thompson and Sean Phillips - who actually put some thought into the deceptively intricate dance that the beat of the action comics page demands.

But while Bryan Talbot has earned a deserved reputation for cerebral comics over a career that is well into its fourth decade, he is also a master craftsman who can put together some of the most thrilling action sequences in comics.

This is nothing new. He broke a seven-second action scene in the first Luther Arkwright book down into its base elements, before building it up again over pages and pages of tight, controlled panels, and his career since then has been a pleasing mix of thoughtful and tasteful slices of ephemera and terrifically fast-paced adventure yarns.

Which brings us to Grandville, and the second book in the series. It’s certainly not the best thing he’s ever done – with further books already in the planning stages, Mon Amour is a fairly blatant case of world building at the expense of an individual story, the plot is immensely predictable (anybody surprised by the revelation of the ultimate bad guy really isn’t paying any attention) and the use of another badger prostitute that happens to look exactly like the one the main character lost in the first book is just a bit too much, although she thankfully avoids the original’s fate and allows LeBrock to move on.

But there is still plenty of charm (largely thanks to LeBrock and the implacable Roderick), the book makes a few nice points about the nature of political heroism and takes the piss out of Dave Sim.

And it’s the action that makes Grandville Mon Amour so tasty. There are only a few action sequences in the book, but they are alive and exciting in a way so few comics manage.

It’s the little touches – the way the LeBrock’s pistol recoils every time he lets off a massive shot, or the way speedlines have evolved into an oddly tasteful digital blurring of the background, or the body language of the characters as they flail about, or the lack of sound effects other than the occasional clicking firearm or ringing telephone, or the way the panels start to tilt just slightly as the action heats up and the energy displaces the usual fixed perspective.

And it’s in the characters Talbot uses to pound the crap out of each other. Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard is a force of nature, thundering down corridors in righteous fury, standing up tall to the lowest scum in the streets and the corrupted fools in power with equal indignation. LeBrock is still a double-hard bastard, but he also gets so weary with the world he lives in, and like all the great heroes, he only comes alive when there is a terrible villain to bring to justice.

The villain in this second Grandville book is just the ticket – a literal mad dog who needs to be put down before he causes more horrible harm. His confrontations with LeBrock are charged with the hatred the two feel for each other, giving the action a suitably feral angle.

Anthropomorphic isn’t always easy to pull off, especially when you’re dealing with suitably serious subjects, but Talbot is crafting a world in his Grandville books that is getting progressively richer. The next book in the series is eagerly anticipated, and the action it will surely contain is also something to look forward to.

Because when it comes to vicious animals with big guns trying to take each other down, nobody does it better.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

#7 for 2010

The Boys

Garth Ennis keeps going back to certain themes and ideas in his comics. Things like the pressures of war, or the nobility of true friendship come up again and again. But the least interesting of all these ideas – by far – is the concept of superhero decadence.

There might be cheap thrills in seeing what disturbed people with insane amounts of strength and power can do, but it is rarely more than just silly. Ennis has been mining this vein since his earliest comics and has no respect for the vast majority of superheroes.

The first year or so of The Boys took all that silliness as far as it could go, and looked like it was going to go down the same old roads, but then started applying the idea of absolute power absolutely corrupting in all sorts of new ways.

After getting through some of the more obvious humour and plot twists, Ennis has taken The Boys onto another level. The past year of The Boys has easily been the strongest of the title, as all these ideas of black-hearted corruption and rampant, super-powered idiocy start piling up on each other. Most of the comic’s main conspiracies have been revealed much earlier than expected, laying the foundation for a suitably apocalyptic ending.

There is still some stupid shit going down, but Ennis gets away with all this with some typically strong character work. While many of his characters are unapologetic caricatures of real people, his leads tend to have a habit of acting like human beings, which makes the entire narrative arc of the whole series surprisingly unpredictable.

This has been most obvious in recent months – Billy Buutcher’s discovery that Hughie was in an actual relationship with one of his mortal enemies could have led to a violent bust-up, but after the two men actually talked about the situation, they almost managed to sort it all out without resorting to the usual histrionics.

In any other series, it’s the kind of situation that would inevitable result in some kind of shocked revelations at the comic’s climax, especially when Butcher’s first thought is that Hughie is a mole for the bad guys.

But is just doesn’t happen like that. Silence and secrets breed conspiracies, but this little conspiracy is wiped out before it begins.

And then there is the story of Hughie and Annie, and their sweet and small relationship that offers some hope for a little light amongst the inevitable blood. It all looked over after Hughie got to see her audition ordeal for the world’s biggest super-team, and said some very, very horrible things to her.

The Boys has just rounded the two-thirds mark of the overall story, so this kind of status-quo shakeup is to be expected, and with Hughie disappearing back home for a few months in his own spin-off mini-series, setting the stage for some grand confrontation somewhere further down the line.

But then, almost immediately, Annie followed Hughie into the pages of his own comic, and made the whiny little bastard sit down and listen to her story. They still have a long way to go and many things to settle by the time she gets to the end of that, but they’ve made a start. Instead of festering in their own guilt and anger, it all comes out quickly.

And that’s what made The Boys one of my favourite comics of 2010. Many reviews of the comic are still hung up on the superhero decadence, and they’re hard to argue with, because all that stuff is still there, and is only going to get worse as the Homelander takes his final steps into real insanity.

But there is also more to the comic that fucking superheroes, a whole world of real people dealing with unreal situations.

The Boys isn’t as obviously charming as Preacher, or as openly emotional as Hitman, or as devastatingly complex as Ennis’ mature Punisher stories, and some of the art over the past year has became disturbingly shaky, but it’s a thoughtful and nakedly emotional comic about the corruption of power. That’s always worth a look, and worth talking about, far more than any more superhero shenanigans.

Next: #6 - A badger with a bloody big gun