Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blog from another universe #1:Mark Millar’s Invisibles

When Grant Morrison tragically died from a severe case of rotting face cancer in 1996, the comic world lost one of its most influential voices just as he was beginning to produce some of the best work of his career.

Nobody was more influenced by Morrison’s short time in the US comic world than frequent collaborator Mark Millar, and nothing showed that influence quite like his continuation of The Invisibles.

Millar claimed his decision to continue with Morrison’s Vertigo magnum opus was inspired by a deathbed wish from Morrison, although nobody else actually heard this request.

To be fair, Millar did alienate many of the Invisibles readers when he killed off King Mob in issue three of the revamped volume two, although it was a suitably noble end for the character - flayed alive at the impossible corner of the nexus of all realities while mounting his illegitimate step-sister.

There was further alienation when King Mob was replaced by Millar’s own obvious surrogate, although Scotty McCoolasfook eventually evolved into a surprisingly thoughtful character.

Millar did score points with the Invisibles faithful when Invisibles volume 3: the Unfunnies began with the main characters discovering a copy of the Invisibles comic from a universe where Grant Morrison never died, hinting at a complicated tale of fiction suits and a conflict with no sides, but this was slightly undone when Lord Fanny had to use it as toilet paper during a team vacation in Rwanda.

After that, it was full steam ahead to the finale, which saw Sir Miles Delacourt assume a godhead position and start an incredibly violent rampage across London, only to be taken down and buggered by the sudden appearance of a bearded Ganesh in the book’s climax. The book also gained much of its notoriety for its final pages, where Dane McGowan kicked Jesus in the teeth and assumed the position of New God for the 21st Century.

This plot movement, which saw Pope John Paul Ringo formally excommunicate Millar, gathered much attention, although most people are more familiar with The Invisibles from the movie version, released in 2003 to an indifferent critical reaction and modest box office success.

The film project, which was in the works since Millar was in the middle of Volume Two, initially saw directing talent like Terence Malick and Sofia Coppola circle it, before Brett Ratner stepped in to direct the final movie. Fans of the comic book derided Ratner’s dull and lackluster style, but the real nail in the coffin was seen at the first cast announcement, with Vin Diesel stepping into the lead role as Dane McGunnin, and Jackie Chan taking on the part of Boy.

The movie came and went, and Millar’s career went on. He famously stuck with Ultimate X-Men for 102 mind-bending issues, saying that somebody had to keep the spirit of evolution moving after New X-Men wrapped up with #152 following a dreary 26-issue run by Frank Tieri. He put in another respectable 36-issue run on the Wolverine: You can Probably Stop Doing That Now title and recently returned to the Vertigo imprint with Seaman, Kick-Ass and Joe the Warcop.

As satisfying as some of these titles have been, none of them are quite the kick in the teeth that Millar’s Invisibles was. Even with the meta-textual high-jinks of volume three, who really knows where Morrison really would have taken the title? In the end, there is only Millar's compelling and flawed interpretation, and that will have to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hitman good

The wife was away for almost the whole weekend, so I spent the free time as wisely as possible – sitting around the house and reading Hitman comics by Ennis and McCrea.

I’ve only just completed the collection, after fuckin’ years of hunting down individual issues, but I’ve got the lot now and it has been extremely rewarding to read the entire series as it was meant to be told.

And it’s a bloody good comic, with a couple of moments where it becomes the best thing Garth Ennis has ever done. In keeping with recent tradition, here are some of them:

1. The way Tommy Monaghan never, ever tolerates a bully.

2. The size of the burgers at Bucket Burger.


4. Baytor’s ability to mix a mean drink.

5. “I’m American. What can I do to help?”

6. Tommy can’t kill Scarback the dinosaur.

7. That poor fat bloke in the burger joint.

8. The prayer spoken at the death of Tommy’s mother.

9. The bit where the elephant pisses on Tommy.

10. Carey on board the HMS Jervis Bay as the ship dies.

11. “So you live for tomorrow. Hoping there’ll be something better. Something more than death.”

12. The look on Pat’s face when Tommy introduces Natt as his best friend.

13. Hacken unnecessarily taking his own hand off during the Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium.

14. Bueno Excellente! He fights evil with the power of perversion!

15. Sixpack does what superheroes do, leaving behind his little hat and the quiet dignity of Sidney Speck.

16. “Tell you what I think it is. You think you’re the main event, right? You think your life’s the big story. But then you bump into somebody who’s really got it together, somebody serious – an’ it turns out you’re no more’n a chapter in their story, you know what I mean? It shows you just how small you are.”

17. Green Lantern not buying a drink.

18. The SAS team running into the Iraqi soldier in the desert.

19. The reluctant honour of Lieutenant Connolly and his hard-bitten commitment to squaring a debt.

20. “You gonna die alone?” impressions in the annual.

21. Vampire skulls nailed to a sign telling people to be nice.

22. The beautiful incompetence of the Injun Peak research facility.

23. The cat signal.

24. “You ain’t any kinda dog.”

25. The fact that Hacken makes it.

26. Tommy going back for Natt at the end.

27. Tommy’s little memorial on the moon at the end of the JLA story.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

More good.

Man, I could do this forever...

1. Johnny Alpha and Judge Dredd, striding out into a radioactive wasteland with a swagger that is absolutely justifiable. Who the hell is going to mess with them?

2. "Is ALLnow love."

3. Daredevil takes a subway demon by the horns and steers it back to the light during the comic's improbably good Inferno crossover.

4. Mr Miracle’s shame in the basement, after trying to land the Justice League's jet on the roof of the first Justice League International embassy.

5. Hal Jordan walking off into nothingness at the end of the penultimate issue of Zero Hour.

6. Spider-man bouncing over the no man's land around the Berlin wall in the unrelentingly grim Spider-Man/Wolverine one shot in the late eighties.

7. The bit in Kevin Huizenga's Ganges where he imagines all the couples sleeping beside each other, now and forever.

8. Halo Hones: "Anybody could have done it."

9. The combined might of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy face off in a vast apocalyptic battle against Korvac that never leaves a living room, and sees Korvac casually slaughter almost the whole lot of them.

10. Batman takes down a bunch of White Martians by being smarter than they are, and Morrison shows what his Justice League is all about.

11. Frank Castle shows the world a face that was not created by God in Punisher: the Tyger.

12. After Charley Borune wakes up during one of the biggest battles of World War One and discovers he has been used as a shield for the German's machine guns, he wriggles his way free and kills the whole bloody lot of them.

13. Every eyebrow on every girl Jim Aparo ever drew. Sexiest ladies ever.

14. “…And where would we be without a laugh?” in Mark Millar and frank quitely’s Tit-For-Tat

15. Flash fucking FLINGS himself forward to save his girlfriend in the first panel of the Flash strip in Wednesday Comics #11

16. Cerebus receives a gift and everything changes in #101.

17. Poor Henry Pugh, struck down by a flying chair in 1942, in Brian Bolland’s The Actress and the Bishop.

18. The fake Ben Grimm staring at his hands on the cover of This Man, This Monster.

19. Nothing Can Stop Pig Girl in the latest issue of Sweet Tooth.

20. The very weary face of Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard in the final panel of the first Grandville book.

21. Farting around the Vales of Maya for yonks, in Milligan/McCarthy’s Rogan Gosh.

22. Martha Washington doesn’t give in to that shit when it all goes horrible in the Amazon rainforest. That won’t kill her.

23. “…So the next time you go making Airfix models of the Atlantic Ocean, you read the instructions first, my lad!” “Sorry, dad.”

24. Batman figures out the hold they have over Superman in DK2.

25. The look on The Beast’s face when he sees the Uncanny X-Men in Mesmero’s circus during the Claremont/Byrne years.

26. The part of Dan Clowes in this Ghost World comic will be played by…. Dan Clowes.

27. The head on the shoulder on the last page of Locas in the first Love and Rockets.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I’ve been a bit of a moaning bastard this past week, as real-world stresses translate into miserable rants about the worthlessness of licensed comics and Marvel’s Ultimate output.

So, in a bid to cheer everybody up, here is a random list of 27 story moments in comic books that remind me why I love comics so very, very much. There are literally thousands and thousands of reasons why comics are my favourite medium, but these are the first that popped into my mind this Sunday morning (which is why there are two Grendel references, but nothing by Dan Clowes):

1. Fone Bone’s smile when the the light of all creation says hello to him.

2. Every time Tony Broke taught Ivor Lott a lesson in true happiness in the pages of Cor!!.

3. “Vivat Grendel.” Jupiter Assante unites the world with two words at the end of Grendel: War Child.

4. Dwight on the last page of chapter five in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Bloodied and beaten, one eye glaring with hate, the other already planning his revenge. “I’ll make it. I won’t die. I’ve got too much I have to do to let myself die.”

5. The Dead Man revelation. Of all the plot twists in all the mediums, this one knocked me on my arse like no other.

6. Followed closely by the end of Zenith: Phase Four.

7. Death of an immortal, somewhere in Sandman’s Brief Lives. Bernie Capax remembers the smell of mammoths, but is still surprised by the end. “Not yet…”

8. Captain Britain versus the Juggernaut in Excalibur #3.

9. The dangers of drawing big boobies in Peter Bagge’s Junior comics.

10. Frank Castle looks at the Long, Cold Dark of his life after seeing the tiniest glimpse of humanity, and shuts off the love forever.

11. The noble and weirdly touching end of Circadia Senius when the moon is destroyed in the five-years-later Legion of Super-Heroes. “I am an astro-physicist. If I don’t know where the moon is supposed to be, then we are all in k-k-considerable trouble.”

12. The last-minute appearance of Robin at the end of the second Grendel/Batman crossover. Innocence beats evil every time, not matter how determined and driven it is.

13. Itto Ogami meets a Buddha on the road, and after much deliberation, slices the man in half, creating a beautiful gateless barrier.

14. Everybody on Earth is a member of the Justice League at the climax of Grant Morrison’s JLA.

15. Morrison gives Buddy his family back.

16. The endless massacre in the first Luther Arkwright story. Seven seconds, eight pages, 77 panels, including one big montage.

17. The arrival of Thor during the battle against the Hulk in New York City in The Ultimates.

18. Evan Dorkin’s King of the Chimps and Dwarves.

19. Skizz – “Some of them are stars.”

20. Walter Hyde talks his way out of a bullet in the eye in the opening pages of Criminal: Second Chance In Hell.

21. Batman on a horse in the Dark Knight Returns.

22. John Constantine pissing on the King of the Vampires.

23. Wally West grows up and beats the snot out of the Reverse Flash, who came back and pretended to be Barry Allen.

24. The failed rescue bid at the end of Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier #4 – “The Challengers rule the skies!”

25. The last panel of Speedy in Love and Rockets – a stark and rocky portrayal of utter depsair.

26. That elusive bird, always out of reach in the Dance of the Gull Catchers.

27. Superman’s sly super-wink at the end of DC 1,000,000.

All good.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ultimate Apathy: How to kill a universe

The return of Mark Millar to the Ultimate universe he helped establish a decade ago held some promise at first. The entire line had almost sunk into oblivion under the weight of dozens of mediocre comics and some shockingly awful work from Jeph Loeb, so it wasn’t like things could get any worse.

And they didn’t, but they didn’t get that much better either. Millar is now barreling ahead with the fourth story arc in his new Ultimate Avengers, but the first three have not been as thrilling as hoped, with terrible pacing issues, extremely light characterization and some surprisingly clunky dialogue.

The comic has failed to send the Ultimate comics back to the chart positions they enjoyed during the early days of the comic universe. While it is unclear how much of this is due to apathy over the entire line, lingering distaste from the last few mundane years, or the painfully obligatory 33% increase in cover price (which is the primary reason I never got back on board), the Ultimate comics have never looked more unnecessary.

There were signs of stodginess right from the start – The Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man did look fresh and interesting and shiny in that first year or two, but Ultimate X-Men was hamstrung by the decision to bring in Andy Kubert as lead artist. Kubert is a fine enough superhero artist, but his style of glossy scratchiness was nothing new at the turn of this century.

Ultimate X-Men did go on to cover a lot of interesting ground, but often shifted between major events with a glib shrug, and none of it felt important. The series started with an innocent person being shot with a death ray sanctioned by the US Government and never really looked like it was willing to deal with little things like the consequences of questionable actions.

Ultimate Spider-Man has been happily doing its own thing for a long time, thanks largely to Brain Bendis’ willingness to stick with the idea and take it in his own idiosyncratic directions. There have certainly been ups and downs in the story of Ultimate Spidey, including some notable failures to really offer something new, but it has remained immensely readable.

The most successful reinvention initially looked like the most cynical, especially when it was lumbered with its weirdly unwieldy title, but The Ultimates turned out to be more fun than anybody anticipated.

Much of the credit for the success of The Ultimates rightly goes to Bryan Hitch, who took the lessons he had learned on The Authority and applied them to this new version of the Marvel Universe. He drew some surprisingly kinetic action scenes, showed a command of body language that he had only hinted at before and gave everybody some terrific haircuts.

Meanwhile, Mark Millar managed to create something that still stands as a high water mark in his career. It still featured many of his most irritating quirks, such as everybody calling everybody else ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ instead of anything actually imaginative and the usual shameless homages, but it was also a new way of dealing with these old characters.

Putting superheroes into a real world setting is usually doomed to failure from the start, but The Ultimates worked thanks largely to these creators and the fact that the world they crafted wasn’t bogged down by decades of backstory.

But most of all, The Ultimates felt big, because it took the time to lead up to its main events. By the time Thor makes his appearance during the battle with the Hulk at the end of the first storyline, Hitch’s crackling art and the power of the moment combined to produce something extraordinary.

There is little extraordinary in the Ultimate Avengers, no matter how hard it reaches for it.

Perhaps it’s the choice of artists. They’re all great superhero artists, but there has been nobody truly special who can influence the entire look of the project to such a powerful degree as Hitch does.

There are also definite pacing issues, with things not given time to build, as if Millar is so keen to get to the point he can’t be bothered with any of the build-up that worked so well in The Ultimates. Ultimate Avengers hits the ground running, but is all the worse for it, shooting its load early and leaving any climax deflated.

Along with this weirdly jarring pace, Millar is also well out of tune with the zeitgeist on this current project. The last act revelation in Ultimate Avengers 2 that there was a satanically connected figure in the White House was a real misstep by the writer. It might have flown a few years earlier, but when it comes to evil in the White House, after years of an administration that happily condoned torture, nobody wanted the new power to be even worse than that.

Combined with wildly unlikeable characters who are taking lazy selfishness, unjustified arrogance and unshocking violence to ludicrous extremes, and it’s no wonder the current series has failed to fire in the sale charts. And given Millar’s tendency to immediately lose any interest in any of his projects that don’t instantly connect with a wide audience, it’s unlikely to get any better, no matter how much Marvel is trying to convince people that another superhero death is actually important.

I genuinely wanted to like Ultimate Avengers, but in the end it’s just another average superhero comic in a market that is saturated in them. The Ultimates really did feel like something shiny and new, Ultimate avengers just feels like the same old shit.

With the rest of the Ultimate universe titles languishing in more Loeb mediocrity (that also manages to be astonishingly late – seriously, whatever happened to the Ultimate X title?), it could be a good time to give up on the whole idea.

There is nothing wrong with reducing the entire line back down to Ultimate Spider-Man, and let that play out to its natural conclusion, because there isn’t much else on offer in this world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

License this.

If comic companies want viewers of semi-beloved television shows to follow the adventures of their favourite characters onto the comic page, they should stop making their books look so goddamned ugly.

There have never been more licensed books based on television shows than are available right now. Defunct shows, cult oddities and televisual blockbusters from decades ago all have continuing adventures in comic books, as companies hope that they can pull in some occasionally vocal fanbases.

Licensed comics are nothing new, dating back to the very earliest days of the industry. Remarkably, there have even been some that were actually quite good over the decades, although most have been treated as disposable throwaways.

But now it feels like every second comic published by the smaller comic companies is based on a television show. Racks full of alternative comics that once offered new work by Dan Clowes or Peter Bagge are now choked with these things – Buffy spin-offs, innumerable versions of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, dozens of issues of True Blood with dozens of different and dull covers, continuations of dead series like Jericho.

It’s not a bad idea – even a show with the most mediocre ratings still enjoys an audience far greater than the most successful comic series, and you can’t blame anybody for trying to tap into that.

But the chances of gaining a fraction of that audience is severely hampered when the resulting comics tend to be so fucking ugly.

It’s mainly an art and design thing. The art on these books ranges from the okay to the shockingly amateur. So much time is spent on getting the likeness of an actor right, that other details like storytelling, style and decent backgrounds go right out the window. Some of these comics are based on television shows that ended years ago, but they still look like they were knocked up in half a week, all rushed and half-assed.

There is also a weird kind of style that has crept into these kind of comics. It’s a third-generation copy of the kind of things Jim Lee was doing 20 years ago, filtered through a thousand imitators and put through the wringer in an attempt to look fresh.

It’s a style that isn’t a style, the most blandest comics possible, covered up with vague scratchings. While I always thought comics like 52 and Countdown had the ultimate in bland art, as all style is leached out in favour of a dull readability, flicking through some of these licensed books is a lesson in mediocrity.

And it puts people off: my wife is the biggest True Blood fan I know, but she actually burst out laughing when she saw the cover to a recent issue of the comic adaption, because it looked so bad. She devours the show and the original novels they are based on (and some of those have the worst covers I've ever seen on a book), but if she can’t even get past those comic covers, there is no chance she’ll ever be that enamored by the comic.

It’s not just an art issue. Leaving aside the design issues, or the hideous variant covers that confuse the hell out of anybody who might be interested, the stories invariably turn out to be total pants.

In comics based on series still running, writers are constrained by the inability to make any real changes, and are blocked from really major revelations for characters. Some of the early comics produced when the latest version of Battlestar Galactica first came out have become spectacularly irrelevant, as the comic's plot points are rendered nonsensical by on-screen movements.

Editors are often hamstrung by budgetary constraints, with companies obviously spending so much money on getting the copyright, that there isn’t much left to spend on professional creators who can create a competent comic.

These creators – who may even have had a hand in the original TV series – also seem to forget there is a major difference between writing dialogue for the printed page and writing dialogue designed to be said out loud. Joss Whedon’s lines sing on screen, given the right inflection by the right actor, but are curiously uninvolving in his comics, often come across as a bit too arch and smug, and way too static.

But the success of Buffy season eight, despite a big loss of momentum as the series dragged on and became increasingly improbable, is the inspiration for many of the series still coming out. Companies work closely with a show’s writers and producers, and any series that gathered any kind of cult following is targeted for adaption.

They don’t have to be awful, (and I certainly have a fondness for things like DC’s Star Trek comics from the 1980s), but if they’re not done right, they might do harm to the medium by putting people off comics altogether.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Consider the McCarthy Dredd

One of the nice things about the Judge Dredd comic is that the more stylistic and individualistic an artist is, the more successful the story. There is something about that deceptively simple uniform, the weird world of Mega-City One and the comic’s willingness to embrace the absurd that works so well with a truly individual artist.

It’s where the stumpy feet of Mike McMahon can sit alongside Paul Marshall’s absurdly clean line. It’s where a fiercely independent talent like Carlos Ezquerra can build an unexpected and rich history, and then Brian Bolland comes in and makes it all look so incredibly easy.

It’s a comic where an utterly unique artist like Brendan McCarthy can dabble in Dredd over a few decades, and produce some truly iconic and massively influential work.

McCarthy has been there since the early days – and his art was as clunky and clumsy as the Dredd strip itself. Back in the late seventies, neither had really found their own voice, although they were certainly showing promise at this young age. McCarthy was heavily influenced by the dubiously addictive talents of Brett Ewins, resulting in a Dredd that looked like this:

Which is about as generic 1979 Dredd ever gets. But by the time 2000ad had turned three years old, he had moved on. He was off perfecting his craft elsewhere and finding his voice. And when he did, he came back and talked like this:

This is something extraordinary and beautiful - I’ve been looking at that cover for 25 years and it’s still as shocking and brilliant as ever. But more to the point: his Dredd looked like this:

or this:

or what-the-hell-am-I-even-looking-at this:

Awesomely coloured and brilliantly experimental, McCarthy’s Dredd has a helmet that only this artist could pull off. While he’d been away from the comic, he’d evolved into a fierce talent that was endlessly readable, while still slightly painful to look at.

Okay, that’s a bit simplistic. McCarthy never really went away, and in between these two styles, he produced several covers and pin-ups that defined Dredd for a new post-punk generation.

In particular, there is this pin-up from the early eighties, later reused as a cover for a reprint:

Even by the standards of 1984 - this Dredd is something else. Look at him! Look at his power! He doesn’t need to pose or wave a gun or stomp on somebody’s head to assert his authority, this Dredd is cool as fuck because he is totally relaxed, while still in complete control. Literally clasping the law in his hand, with no need for a massive physique, Dredd’s will is all.

Look at those legs! He’s still got the McMahon big boots (even though a contemporary storyline had Dredd trade his boots in for a tighter fit) – and several current Dredd artists have singled this one piece of art out as a key influence in their work.

He also produced a couple of cracking Dredd doppelganger covers at the time for the City of the Damned storyline, like this one:

I was 10 years old when this comic came out, and a comic that promised a blind Judge Dredd fighting his zombiefied future self was more than my thrill-receptors could handle. Especially when it all paid off! With violence! -

Ungh indeed!

McCarthy always had a humourously clumsy action style that has infinite charms, and in a short few years he had developed an entire style that remains essentially unchanged, while always evolving.

Whatever it was, in the wake of Riders on the Storm in Prog 473, there was to be a rich offering of McCarthy’s Dredd. He went on to do more covers and more stories, including a splendid couple of issues of Oz that let him loose with the Judda – perverted copies of Dredd hiding out in Ayers Rock. Between the hilarious action setpieces and beautifully designed giant mutant Mexican birds, there was always the McCarthy awkwardness, that leads to panels like this, full of rage and power and frustration, while also just a picture of an angry man in his underwear:

And then, after a typically weird one-off with Jamie Hewlett in Prog 614, McCarthy was off. He buggered off to do terrific covers for Shade the Changing Man, and doomed pieces of brilliance like Skin. There was also a load more film work, which is undoubtedly more lucrative, but there is barely a second’s worth of Highlander 2: The quickening that is worth the months he worked on it. Although, to be fair - the idea of a Brendan McCarthy-written Mad Max film still makes my brain drool.

And then he came back, late last year, with an all new Dredd, and it’s all different again. In one sense, the cozy weirdness of new McCarthy art feels like it never went away, but you have to take another closer look at his Dredd, which has gone somewhere very interesting:

The helmet is back under control and the scowl is still there, and the chin is still there, but it’s not the same. It’s something different, all over again:

This is something new again. A new, more wiry Dredd, tough as ever, but even more relaxed and again. This Dredd is the same old hard bastard (especially when writer Al Ewing has him threatening an innocent rat and shooting Doctor Who in the head), but he’s a bit more stripped back and a whole lot leaner.

This kind of face is nothing new to McCarthy, but usually it would be used for a tech-judge or some other minor character. To give this face to Judge Dredd promises all new possibilities, and all new avenues to explore.

It remains to be seen if McCarthy will produce any more dredd in the short term future. It’s entirely possible that he’ll disappear for another few decades. But if he ever comes back, it will be well worth watching out for.

Because this is a Dredd that is all new and all different, every single time. There are things that never change, like the basics of that uniform, but there are endless variations, endless possibilities.

What more could you ask for?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Catching up

There is something genuinely nice about going off the grid, and it's even nicer when you have to plug in again. While it’s good to leave the phone and computer at home, and go get lost for a while, the world goes on without you, and there is always something waiting for you when you get back.

Coming back and catching up on the stuff you’ve missed is ridiculously fun. Even if you’re only away for a few weeks, there are dozens of good articles, essays, videos, blogs and other examples of great writing all over the place when you get back.

I’ve been trying to catch up on comic stuff on the web in the last two weeks or so, but it’s remarkable how quickly all this stuff builds up, and I’ve only scratched the surface of things.

For instance, I still do have to give Tim O’Neill’s dense and fascinating looks at 1980s crossover madness a proper read, and guys like Matt Seneca and Colin Smith continue to put out sharp assessments of the oddest comics at a staggering rate. There has also been more of that brilliant analysis and insight into the current state of the overall market from Brian Hibbs, a long overdue appreciation of the mighty Steve MacManus from David Bishop, (including the first time I’ve ever seen a photo of the big man), and the usual doses of brilliance from guys like Sean T Collins and J Caleb Mozzocco.

It’s also nice to come back to a couple of week’s worth of dimly addictive cartoons like A Moment of Moore and Our Valued Customers, or new movie trailers that actually get me excited about films again. Like Terrence Malick's latest, or the new X-Men movie.

The new X-film has unexpectedly become the one superhero movie I’m looking forward to the most. Partly because I’d totally go gay for Fassbender, but mainly because the trailer is full of sharply handsome people in nice clothes sitting around languidly while some serious weird shit happens in front of them. In the previous films, the sheer weirdness of mutants was often glossed over by running and jumping and kicking and stabbing, but people like Furious Frank Kafka and Dangerous Dave Lynch have mined rich themes from extreme physical metamorphosis, why can’t we have a bit of that with the explosions?

(It also helps that Matthew Vaughn is directing it - I genuinely love his Kick-Ass film every time I see it.)

Actually, scratch all that - the best trailer is undoubtedly the Captain America: Fuck Yeah remix. I’ve watched that bastard a dozen times, and I never get sick of it.

I never get sick of comic news either, from publication woes to new creative teams. The best way of doing this is by relying on several good resources like Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter, and bits of Newsarama and Comic Book Resources and Bleeding Cool and some people’s twitter accounts and bits and pieces of blog.

(It really bothers me to an unreasonable degree when somebody says they don’t bother with regular media anymore because they get all their general news on twitter. Reducing input down to any one format is idiotic – with misinformation and disinformation giving straight data a real kicking in all mediums, it’s necessary to rely on a variety of platforms to deliver a full picture.)

It’s not all fun and games. First week back from a long and leisurely holiday and there are all sorts of heartbreaking stories and images coming from my old home town, and there is the real tragedy in the death of Dwayne McDuffie (a writer who was really at the height of his abilities), and more sad news with the passing of the Brig:

“Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you as their champion?

“Probably. I just do the best I can.”

Life goes on for the rest of us, and there’s always something different to check out. Always something interesting to look forward to with great anticipation. Always a new point of view to consider. Always something new.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hard times for Kiwi comic shops

This is the street where the last comic shop in the South Island lived, shortly after last week's devastating Christchurch quake:

Fortunately, all the staff of Comics Compulsion were unharmed in the earthquake, but people died on their street, and the news that they were okay was bloody good to hear.

It’s still a bit too crass to worry about one little business in a city of misery, especially when the death toll is still pretty uncertain, but I really hope it survives. Comics Compulsion has been the one stable part of the Christchurch comic scene for the past 20 years, and I’ve happily spent thousands of dollars there over the years.

It was the first place I ever started actively subscribing to certain comics, and the store layout is the first mental picture I always get when I read about another comic shop somewhere else in the world. My mate Kyle bought every X-Men comic from them for 15 years and still orders his Doctor Who Magazine through them, even though he could get it much, much cheaper at a chain bookstore. I bought all my Sandman comics from them, filled in an almost complete Grendel collection from its back issue stacks and frequently found gold in a raid on the $1 bin. Seeing that big COMICS sign coming up as I walked down Manchester Street was always a thrill.

Sometimes you had to wait a while for important comic and things to get through, and sometimes it was easy to walk out of there without finding anything worth buying. But the staff were always good, there were often odd gems to be found and it survived, when every other store in the South Island slowly withered away. There were more than half a dozen at one point in the nineties, now there is just the Compulsion.

When last week’s devastating earthquake hit, I first checked in that friends and family were okay, with texts and Facebook posts providing quick relief. Christchurch is the closest city to my home town and I’ve lived there for a year or so, so there were plenty of folk to check in on.

Thankfully - and despite the tragic death toll - everybody I know is okay. And that includes the folk at Comics Compulsion. They have kept their Facebook page regularly updated, even if the future is particularly uncertain. The store is in the shadow of a 22-storey building that has started rotating in on itself and they have no idea if they’re going to get back inside the building. The stock might be okay, but it might just be far too dangerous to go in and get it.
Fortunately, in the last couple of days, they've confirmed that they will still be filling out orders for regular customers (and generating some much-needed cashflow) by operating out of the owner's house.

If it does survive, it is unlikely to be operating out of the central business district any time soon. If it doesn’t survive, it’s a sad end for a fine store that weathered a lot of ups and downs in the comic book industry, but was finally literally brought down by an Act of God. Tectonics beats a good business plan any time.

After all, it’s hard enough to sell comics in this country as it is. New Zealand retailers have to deal with the fickle movements of the international currency market and the unavoidable costs in sending big piles of paper halfway across the world. Individual comics generally cost about three times US cover price in local currency, making them a niche item for many readers.

Shops well outside last week’s quake zone have been hurting in recent weeks, with a monumental screw-up on Diamond’s international shipping meaning many Antipodean stores have gone without new comics for about six weeks (and counting).

So in a business that depends on new and shiny product, there has been nothing new coming in. All the publicity from the recent death in the Fantastic Four is lost, because that particular issue still hasn’t shown up yet, and anybody who has managed to avoid that particular spoiler for this long is doing better than me.

I can be patient. I can wait. But the cashflow for many Kiwi stores has dried up, during one of the most traditionally moribund retailing periods of the year. They can sell a couple more trades, but the shelves are getting a little bare.

I don’t care if I have to wait another month for the last issue of Highland Laddie, but the distributor needs to sort its shit out for the retailers’ sakes. They are putting livelihoods at risk with sheer incompetence.

It would be nice if blame for the Christchurch quake could be so easily attributed. It’s now 11 days since the quake and there are still dozens of people missing. The death toll creeps up day by day, and it’s all pretty horrible.

I’ve donated money to the cause, but there really isn’t much else I can do. Except to wish the staff at Comics Compulsion and everybody else in Christchurch good luck. They’ve been through enough of the bad stuff.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


As we drive out of the carpark of A-1 Comics in Sacramento, my wife turns to me and says we all look the same, all over the world.

There might be variations in hairstyles, or body sizes, or nationalities, or genders, but she can spot a comic geek a mile away. She tries to describe the common thread and doesn’t do a good job of it, although she is quite clear that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, since I’m apparently the living epitome of it, and she married my arse.

She might be saying it because she had to stand in line for 20 minutes while the store sorted out the payments, and wants revenge. She is saying something that could be existentially troubling, something about my identity and a lack of uniqueness in this whole wide world.

But I’m not bothered, because A-1 had an AWESOME sale on, and I just bought the last issue of the Great Darkness Saga, a whole bunch of Ennis/McCrea Demon comics that I never see anywhere, some vital Concrete, one of the last Miller Daredevil comics I’ve been after, all sorts of shabby Marvel reprints and some Starlin Silver Surfer.

I also get Lobo: Unamerican Gladiators #2 and I’ve been after that bastard for nearly eighteen years. That sense of accomplishment fills up that gaping spiritual void quite nicely. For a while.


I feel like such a dork introducing myself to Mike Sterling at Ralph’s Comic Corner in sunny Ventura, but I manage to do it anyway. It’s like getting autographs – I never do it, because I just feel like the biggest tool in the world. The only one I’ve ever actually got was Dylan Horrocks’ name in the front of a new edition of Hicksville, and that was only under supreme duress.

I’ve been reading Mike’s blog for bloody years, and had to go check out his shop to see if it looked like I always imagined it would.

It was. They all looked exactly like I thought they would – Isotope and Comix Experience in San Francisco have just the kind of stock and layout that I always imagined them to have, although I was genuinely shocked and impressed by James Sime’s hair.

Ralph’s was the first comic store in America that I visited in more than three years. I bought some Evan Dorkin and some Marshall Law and a Hernandez Bros comic which was a real treat, because I thought I had everything, and wanted to get some of the local brilliance, but really lucked out by finding Mario’s Brain Capers.

(Before we arrived in Ventura, I made us drive through Oxnard, just because it was the Hernandez family’s home town.)

But yeah: such a dork. How do you say hello to somebody you’ve followed on a daily basis for years? You can’t just walk up and shout “I LIKE YOUR BLOG”, but you want them to know you’ve appreciated their efforts. I once sent Mike a Swamp Thing black and white Australian imprint, mainly to thank him for the years of entertainment involved in his End of Civilization posts. But I didn’t want to mention that too soon, or I’ll sound like a weirdo trying to bribe up a friendship. That never works.

Anyway, I was wearing my favourite Dalek tee shirt, and through that I said hello and may have wept a tear over the cheap prices of comics in the States. It was lovely.

There is a real isolation in living in a country like New Zealand, which is at least half a day’s air travel away from anywhere else interesting in the world. To get to places where Jaime Hernandez grew up, or walk the street corners where R Crumb sold his comics, or visit New York and see exactly why it’s the only city in the world that a hero like Spider-Man can soar, or walk into any American comic shop – that always seemed so unlikely when I was growing up. To the point that they grew into a weird little obsession, a itch that I’ve finally scratched.


Comics are my souvenirs – I can still pick up that Comic Journal with the Evan Dorkin interview in it and remember a marvellous day in Manhattan, and can point out the exact issue of 2000ad bought from Forbidden Planet on my first day in London, or the shitty comic I got in Mongolia's State Department store.

So when I go to Isotope, I get some very Isotope comics, including a mini-comic by somebody whose name I can’t read, and Andrew & Roger Langridge’s Zoot Suite. (There is something suitably ironic about traveling to San Francisco to buy a comic by a couple of Auckland boys.) When I go to Comix Experience I end up buying comics by names like Henderson, Seth, Bagge, Kupperman and Huizenga, but I miss saying hello to Brian Hibbs because he’s off on a food run and I don’t get the chance to walk up and say “HEY! I LIKE YOUR IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF COMIC BOOK RETAILING FROM THE GROUND FLOOR PERSPECTIVE!” Just as well, really.

(I still run back in and grab a copy of the Onomatopoeia newsletter after realising I’d forgotten to pick one up….)

In Vegas, I spend more on a taxi getting to a comic shop than I actually spend instore, but my pack is already straining and I have to restrain myself, or I’m going to go right over the weight limit for the flight back home. The fine folks at Cosmic Comics are liquidating a bit of stock, so I get an Essential reprint of all those groovy black and white Dracula comics Marvel used to put out, and some Vertigo laughs for ten bucks and call it done.


There was other awesome stuff during our few weeks in the American West – we saw a Hollywood star get his Hollywood star, figured out some new road rules, ate an extraordinary meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant, woke up to a Monument Valley covered in snow, saw the best stage show I’ve ever seen, watched the dying quarter of the Superbowl in a Mexican cafĂ© in Salt Lake City, froze our butts off in the Grand Canyon, declared my love to the most beautiful woman in the world again at a Vegas chapel, watched an insane amount of amazing American TV, felt the grooves of grenades in Alcatraz and drove along those incredible lost highways.

Going to American comic stores was just one small part of the incredible trip, but it was a crucial one – that charge I get from walking into a new comic shop is still strong, especially when it’s over the other side of the world. Especially you can buy an issue of Pallokaville for ninety cents.

Okay, the best moment was driving into Monument Valley with some Morricone on the stereo, but the 70% off sale at A-1 was pretty fucking close.