Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jason v Iron Man

You’re not supposed to compare apples and oranges, but I do like apples more.

I also think some of Norwegian artist Jason’s work is masterful comics, with a brevity and wit that gives his storytelling universal appeal, while the latest collection of Iron Man comics that I got to read was fuckin’ rubbish

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I read a bunch of comic books in a (not entirely successful) bid to calm Rugby World Cup-shredded nerves. Rugby is my sport, I’m allowed to be nervous.

Most of them were from the local library, and some were pretty good. It can take me a while to catch up on things, but it’s easy enough to follow work like Peter Milligan’s currently excellent Hellblazer comics, or a bunch of different superhero titles for free from the local.

The latest round of Captain America and Spider-Man trade paperbacks were both entirely enjoyable (if incomplete), I really liked Bone Sharps, Cowboys, & Thunder Lizards and while Flash: Rebirth and Superman: Grounded were both better than I actually expected, I had the lowest of all expectations in the first place, so that wasn’t saying much.

But the biggest contrast came between What I Did by Jason, and Iron Man: Stark Resilient volume one by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. One of them was a charming and entertaining read that managed to touch on some universally human themes, while the other was a turgid and sneering comic that looked shiny and didn’t go anywhere.

Guess which one was which?

I feel like I’m being unduly harsh on the Iron Man book because I read it in such close proximity to the Jason comic and Jason’s stuff is Always Good. But it killed any interest I had in the current Iron Man comic stone dead, and I won’t be bothering with it any more.

It didn’t even cost me anything, I’ve been eagerly getting it for the library, waiting for it to get good. There was plenty of potential, but it was largely unfulfilled, and it’s taking too long. I just can’t be bothered keeping track of it any more, and I left volume two of Stark Resilient on the shelf just yesterday.

I think my last interest vanished somewhere about the ninth time a bunch of characters all stood around talking about the same things, over and over again. It’s not just that they’re saying the same old shit, or have substituted snarky sarcasm for actual human conversation, it’s just got dullness built into the foundation of the page

And it’s not just that Larroca has now carefully erased all vigour out of his artistic line, and draws everybody like they just escaped from the set of Westworld. It’s the way the whole thing is paced out. It is the long and drawn out sequences that go nowhere, acted out by things that don’t look like proper humans.

But most of all, it’s these bloody inexplicable widescreen panels that serve no purpose:

What is going on here with all this empty nothingness?

Who thought this was a good idea to leave vast amounts of the page useless?

Who thought it should go on for page after page like this, stacking up panels like they are cumbersome pieces of timber:

There are pages and pages of this, with stacks of widescreen panels with a whole lot of nothing on either side. Individual panels that are just huge wastes of space, especially when they seem to rely on portraying an intricate piece of human emotion, and totally fail to do so.

Look at this!

Leave aside those freaky mannequin arms which seem to be springing from some different person entirely, there is that space on either side of the panel, that endless dull wall of nothin’ much. It’s going for mood, but it just comes off as boring and stale

They should start putting advertising there. At least it’s something. Look! There is heaps of room, as I have proven with my tremendous MS Paint skillz:

It took me ages to get through this comic, and this dedication to boring did not help. And when things ended with another non-ending, and even more doses of fuck-all, that was enough to say no more.

Then I read a Jason book and I felt much better about comics again.

I’m so glad that Jason is ridiculously prolific, but there seems to be a new book by the Norwegian cartoonist every second time I go to the library, and I devour each one (and go on to buy a few more).

What I Did is a collection of some of his earlier works, and I’ve already got Hey Wait sitting on the bookshelf like all right-thinking people do. But it also has ‘Shhh’ - one of his silent stories, that hovers on the edge of a dream without any possibility of waking up; and The Iron Wagon - a straight adaption of a strange and spooky little novel from the turn of last century.

As always, Jason’s anthropomorphic characters are fill of silent pain and dignity, maintaining straight backs as their heads spin off into delirium. His sense of comic timing is unparalleled in modern comics, and while his pacing often appears languid, there is a lot going on beneath that stiff surface.

So I know I shouldn’t compare the two, but after the thoroughly depressing widescreen of Iron Man, Jason’s work was a good and timely reminder of everything that is great about comics – telling tiny little epics in four panels:

Or sliding around on angles to give the perfect perspective and some terrific tension on a small and important event. (particularly tasty after the endless medium close-ups that plagued Iron Man, even in the action scenes):

It’s really great comics, and insanely readable. While the Iron Man book took me ages to get through, I blew through What I Did in no time at all, in the best possible way.

I’m still old enough and dorky enough to remember the endless Iron Man vs X-Men debate that raged in Wizard for years, but this is much easier. Jason v Iron Man?


Bad luck, Tony Stark.  No contest.

Jason wins!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rugby: It’s been no bed of roses

I started suffering a terrible case of acidic stomach a couple of weeks ago and started chewing on the antacids like they were candy in a bid to calm things down.

My lovely wife suggested that it was stress induced, but that didn’t make any sense at first. I’m happily married, I love my job (and she loves hers), we’re minimum wage kids making all right money for the first time in our lives, planning to do a bit more travel before inevitable settling down, I’m living in a city with an extraordinary access to my favourite comics and movies and books, and with my work shifts I get to sleep in every single morning. Life is good.

But I was still stressed, and it didn’t take me long to figure out what was wrong.

It was the rugby.

It’s always been the rugby.

Rugby is mysport and the All Blacks are my team, which means the Rugby World Cup is a Big Fucking Deal for me. Held every four years and routinely ignored by most of the globe who have other passions (mainly football), the World Cup is weeks and weeks of solid rugby.

It’s a terrific sport – lots of hard running, tactical thought, massive kicks, crunching tackles and a rich history of triumph, tragedy and big games. The World Cup is all that in a space of less than two months.

Like all the other tournaments, stretching back to the first in 1987, there were all sorts of upsets and pleasant surprises at the 2011 show, with Ireland overcoming Australia and the mighty French going down to the mightier Tongans. There was high drama on and off the field, and some great tackles that could be heard from space.

As the weeks went on in the 2011 tournament, it got more and more stressful, because New Zealand does not have a strong World Cup winning rate. While the overall number of winning matches reaches Harlem Globetrotter rates, the All Blacks had not won a World Cup since the inaugural 1987 one.

They were almost always the absolute favourites going into the tournaments between 1991 and 2007, but were bundled out by Australia, South Africa, France, Australia again and the France again.

There were a tonne of reasons why they lost, but ultimately, they just weren’t good enough.

I can’t remember the first time that New Zealand won the World Cup, even though I was 12 at the time.  But I can remember every place I was every time the All Blacks lost at the tournament since then.

I was at my cousin Leilani’s place in 1991, and sitting alone on the mattress at my first ever flat in Dunedin for the 1995 final. I was with my best mates in Timaru for the 1999 and 2003 semi-final losses, and was alone again in an all new city for the 2007 heartbreaker.

I was genuinely bummed out after each of these losses, and it lasted for weeks and weeks. I never cared about any sport that much.

I’ve got tonnes of friends who are a bit intellectual, and more than a little nerd-ish, and they all laughed at me when I tell them how depressed I got after the other World Cups.

It’s just a game. It’s just a bunch of men running around a paddock. It doesn’t mean anything. I have friends – trueborn Kiwis – who told me they wanted the All Blacks to lose because it might have an effect on an upcoming general election.

I told them all - with all due respect - to get fucked. Even though I can totally see where they are coming from, I don’t think like that, because I’m still convinced that sport is a Great Big Metaphor For Everything.

It is possible to take a step back and sneer at the tight shorts, or take a step forward and immersive yourself in the narrative. Sport is full of real tragedy and farce and action and betrayal and displays of remarkable physical strength and incredible surprise and triumph and doses of the utter unexpected, and if that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, you’re missing out on some of the finer things in life.

All of this is there at the local clubs, and when blasted upwards into a global event, it’s an incredible thing to witness. All the foibles and marvels of humanity play out on the rugby pitch, and you never know what might happen next.

This year, the biggest games of the Rugby World Cup were being played about six blocks from my home, which was pretty damn convenient. I got trapped by the masses that gathered for the opening night on Auckland’s waterfront, and watched about 80 per cent of the games (though I never missed any highlights.)

We only went to one – a scrambling affair between Samoa and Fiji at Eden Park, but we were there to soak up the atmosphere, not to be bothered by the quality of the game.

I started feeling genuinely stressed just before the Argentina game in the quarter finals. On paper, it was no contest between the teams, but this is knock-out time, when anything could happen. And frequently does.

The All Blacks whipped out their meanest Haka and put the Argentina team away, and were even better against the Australians in the semis – rattling poor old Quade Cooper and keeping the pressure right on from start to finish.

That put New Zealand into the first final in 16 years, which meant the job was nearly done. I think I burned through an annual allocation of stress in the weeks leading up to the Australia game, and it was the French in the final. The French, who had lost to Tonga and already been soundly beaten by New Zealand. France could barely beat Wales when it was cut to a 14-man team, and there was constant talk of team unhappiness.

But it was the French, and they never play better than when they’re up against the wall, playing a quality team.

And it was the all Blacks playing the French, just like in 1987, and the signs all pointed to an easy win. New Zealand had suffered the loss of key playmakers, and then their replacements also started falling over, but they had picked themselves up and carried on. Under unimaginable pressure to win, they kept calm.

Next year’s allocation of stress was all used up in the dying 20 minutes of the World Cup final, when the French were playing the game of their lives, breaking through the All Black defence and bringing the lead down to a single solitary point. One mistake, one silly move and it could all be over for everybody.

And then it was down to two minutes, and they had the ball, and they just kept recycling the hell out of it until there was no more time on the clock, and then it was over, and they had won.

One point will do.

Like all the best sports tales, you couldn’t write this as a fictional story because nobody would ever believe it – key playmaker Dan Carter goes down with a completely unprecedented groin injury, captain Richie McCaw’s foot is shot to hell, but he plays on. Poor Piri Weepu plays his best game ever, and then is told his grandfather has just died. (He goes on to have a shocker in the final.)

And all in front of a home crowd who need some goddamn good news after a year of economic doldrums, tragic mine disasters and catastrophic earthquakes, they pulled it off. We’ve officially got the best rugby team in the world, and while that doesn’t do anything to lessen the pain of these other hardships, we’ll take all the good vibes we can get.

It’s two days after that, and I’m still bloody hungover, but fortunately the day after the final was a public holiday, so everybody got to celebrate.

I was up and about less than eight hours after the final had been won, horribly tired and with a motherfucker of a hangover just coming on. But I didn’t want to lie down and sleep at all and kept going for hours.

Later in the day after the final, I went down to the Auckland CBD with about 200,000 other people and we all cheered out lungs out at a team parade and it was great.

When Brad Thorne thrust the World Cup in my direction, I might have got a bit emotional.

I think I’ll remember where I was when we won this one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Holy Terror: I’m the goddamn absurdity

Holy Terror - the latest comic book by Frank Miller - has been greeted with the usual derision from the usual quarters, and a foolhardy few who are willing to admit they actually kinda liked it.

I’m one of those latter fools. It was the most expensive comic I’ve bought all year, but I got what I wanted for that cost. There are points where Holy Terror can be genuinely (and intentionally) offensive, bits where the art degenerates into crazy splashes of paint and mad staring eyes, and parts where the dialogue is absolutely guaranteed to cause cringing in any reader, but I still enjoyed it.

It’s particularly hard to mount a defence for something like Holy Terror, when many of the arguments decrying it are completely right. It can be read as a misogynistic, racist and ideologically dubious piece of work, if that’s the way you want to read it.

I just liked the bits where Natalie Stack kicked a bunch of arseholes in the face, and the parts where the main characters tumbled through acres of negative space.

I’ve still got a lot of affection for Miller’s art style. Those stark silhouettes and madmen bouncing around on their own rage. I enjoy the maddeningly random spot colouring which gives certain panels an easy shorthand. I love his sound effects and the way he has characters kiss like they’re teetering on the edge of the universe.

Frank Miller’s line is still energetic and has a kinetic punch that is terribly lacking in the current house styles of the big comic companies. There are all sorts of things going on in one massive paint stroke, and insanely detailed bits of the background, like the dinosaur head that randomly shows up.

There is a weird beauty in the way The Fixer shoots people in the head, sudden circles of negative space appearing where a brain should be, and storms of rain and nails slash across the page.

Defending the art is easy – all of that is just a matter of taste. Defending the ideology is a bit more difficult.

But it’s still possible when you take certain ideas into consideration – that you don’t have to agree with a characters point of view to enjoy a story about them, and that important and troubling issues don’t have to be treated with nothing but griml seriousness, and that I’d probably be pissed off if somebody attacked my city too.

1. “I don’t agree with that.”
I think the idea of an eye for an eye is a barbaric ideology that has no place in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a rollicking romp of bloody revenge. I’m more genuinely moved by narratives that show a little goddamn compassion, but I can still enjoy Jack Bauer killing and torturing his way through the vaguely ethnic cast lists of Hollywood. In fact, questioning the motives of somebody like 24’s lead character was a major part of that television show’s appeal.

If I had to discard all the movies and books and television and comics that I didn’t politically agree with, I’d be severely limiting my choices. It’s easy to only absorb the media you agree with, but that’s not necessarily a good idea.

I don't agree with The Fixer's methods, but that doesn't mean they can't give a brief and intense visceral thrill.

There is also a worrying tendency in criticism to attribute the actions and motives of significant characters to the true feelings of their authors, which is always a bad idea. Miller might have characters saying the most politically appalling things, but that doesn’t mean Miller feels the same way.

Especially when the book ends with a one-page stinger that might be the whole point of the thing – other than prevent a few more of those blank panels, The Fixer doesn’t do shit in Holy Terror, because Dan Donegal (A hard man, a tough cop) is fucking terrified.

What is Miller saying here? Whatever the hell you think he’s saying.

2. “Well, that’s just silly.”

The easiest defense is that Miller is going for a satirical vein, but it’s more than just that. There is satire in here, including some fairly obvious, but hearty, slams on the main character’s point of view, but there is also pure and nasty caricature, complete farce, balls-out action and utter silliness.

The one thing Miller’s superhero work has going for it – the one that is most often sneered at and ridiculed – is their sheer absurdity, but despite what the 1980s keep telling you, that isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s the sense of the truly absurd that keeps me coming back to superhero comics, that silliness that gets taken so seriously is a huge part of their appeal. I want to read about superheroes who step in when things go crazy, and I really, really want to read about superheroes who step in when things go absolutely bugfuck mental.

There is no escaping it in Holy Terror - it’s patently absurd to think there is a big supervillain lair beneath New York City, ready to fire out terrorist ninjas and unlimited megadeath, but this is fiction, where anything goes. Absurdity is a valid part of fiction, and the more blatantly ridiculous it all gets, the more I love it.

No, you can’t just go up to your fears and punch them in the mouth (or knife them in the guts), but you can dream about it. We all do that.

Miller’s work has been in the realm of grim absurdity since his first Daredevil comics, which are much funnier than everybody remembers. By the mid-nineties, he was all about the absurd, taking a path through the excesses of Elektra: Assassin into the straightforward and glorious stupidity of Sin City, Hard Boiled and Martha Washington.

Anybody who is surprised by how silly Holy Terror is hasn’t been paying much attention to Miller’s work. There are dozens of super-folk comics that wear their uniforms just a little too tightly, and humourless super-heroes are no fun, but they sure are everywhere. What's wrong with a bit of silliness to counter-balance things like Aquaman's sneering and self-important dismissals?

3. “Hey! You can’t do that!”

It can’t be denied that the September 11 attacks did something to a lot of Americans, many were shocked enough to go to war in far-off lands, many were angered by the liberties taken in the over-reaction and some just shrugged their way into catatonia.

Some, like Frank Miller, made comics about superheroes slapping around terrorists. It’s rumoured that a lot of The Dark Knight Returns’ energy came from the frustrated and impotent rage Miller had after a New York mugging in the late seventies. Frankly, we got off lightly with Holy Terror, if that’s true, considering his angry instant reaction..

Golden Age comics are cool again, and while that doesn’t make them any less crude or unwittingly offensive, they were born in a crucial period in American history. The very first thing Captain America ever did was punch out Hitler and Superman was soon tossing tanks around, in comics created by young men who were appalled by the inhumanity in Europe.

It’s only fair that a direct artistic descendent of Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, Simon and Eisner – who all wrote and drew crude stories about kicking injustice in the balls – gets his own go at it.

Frank Miller’s home town got attacked by moronic martyrs who think their own idiotic cause is worth any bloodshed, and he wrote and drew a comic about total retribution on these idiots. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.
Holy Terror is not for everyone. It is a silly and violent comic, loaded up on its own righteousness. It’s a Frank Miller comic, and I think it’s terrific.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I fell in love with a Video Nasty

They said these films will make you a horrible person. They said they had no artistic merit, and only appealed to illiterate morons. They said Don’t Go In The House, Don’t Go In The Woods, Don’t Go Near The Park and Don’t Look In The Basement were Bad Movies.

They said Video Nasties were bad for you.

Well, what did they know? I was sitting at home recently feeling sick and miserable, so I watched almost eight hours of trailers for films that had been banned in the UK for their sex, violence and general depravity, and I felt bloody great after all that.

Okay, the bit in the Beast In Heat trailer where the gimp eats the pubic hair made me feel a bit sick.

But apart from that, it wasn’t that bad. Laughably bad gore effects are always entertaining and it’s hard for a 21st century mind to get around the idea that people took this shit seriously, and actually thought it had a detrimental effect on society. Politicians and police who led the fight against video nasties showed a worryingly absurd tendency to mix up fact and fiction, parading the fakest of fake gore as proof of real life atrocities.

The UK Video Nasties affair is nothing new in genre fiction, with horror and fantasy becoming a convenient fall guy for society’s ills too many times. It happened in the fifties with all those lovely and wicked EC comics, and because nobody ever learns anything from history, it happened again in the UK in the early eighties.

This was the birth of home video, before the industry became corporatised and driven straight into extinction. There was an insatiable demand for video product, and the producers quickly realised that the more gory and offensive and extreme the cover got, the more it would sell.

Inevitably, these things started leaping over the line of good taste with reckless abandon, and a crackdown by the authorities saw dozens of titles placed on a banned list. These were the Video Nasties.

All of these films have long ago been passed into legitimacy, (or faded into irrelevance), but they remain as fascinating as ever. Most of them are dark and dirty films with little to recommend to the average viewer, but for anybody who likes their cinema with the intensity cranked up to 11, and just generally fucked-up, these are a terrific bunch of films.

Video Nasties :The Definitive Guide is a DVD collection of trailers of every single film put on the Video Nasties list, with fine intros from the likes of Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Allan Bryce and the wonderful Dr. Patricia MacCormack & her tattoos. They can usually find something nice to say about every film on the list, even if they really have to stretch the boundaries of ‘interesting’ quite a lot.

It also features a fine documentary by director Jake West, which looks at the story of the video Nasties, speaks to people affected by it and tells the background. Crucially, it also features interviews with the people who brought the ban in, giving their side of the story. (I still think they were horribly, horribly wrong, but it’s worthwhile to see them try and justify it.)

It’s a fascinating story – people actually went to jail for hiring out certain horror films, as a conservative government that had implemented terribly anti-social legislation looked around for convenient scapegoats. The moral backlash against the films was inevitable, but it was never going to last once people realized how silly a lot of these ‘disturbing’ films were. It’s hard to take anything seriously when you see people desperately try to suppress the giggles while hacking up some poor unfortunate victim.

Besides, one of the Video Nasties was the Evil Dead, and if you thought that film was an insidious threat, you’re a bloody moron.

But it’s the trailers that make this collection so brilliant, with those hours and hours of gore, lust and depravity, spread across two DVDs from films made primarily in the l;ate seventies and early eighties.
There is a surprising amount of variety amongst the nasties – they’re not all Italian zombie/cannibal/nazi atrocities. The vast majority are some sort of horror film, but there are also films packed with dubious social realism, films that are flat-out science fiction, films that are that same old Mondo bullshit and uncategorable films like The Witch Who Came From The Sea.
And the horror movies themselves represent all sorts of sub-genres, there are ghost stories and slasher mayhem, monster romps and grim revenge tales.

Some, like the notorious Snuff, are so incompetent and stupid that they are barely watching, and there are some films you can read a lot about, and never, ever feel the urge to see. (I’ve never watched The Last House On The Left, or I Spit On Your Grave, but I could tell you everything that happens in them, and why they are nothing I’m really interested in watching. I also can’t watch Faces of Death, because I find that kind of thing genuinely disturbing.)

Others, particularly in the three-minutes-and-out trailer format, are a lot more interesting. There are splashes of gratuitous art in there among the blood & guts. Moments of intensity that take things just a bit too far, and then take them much, much further. Many people might write off Abel Ferrara’s still-disturbing Driller Killer as utter trash, but it’s trash with a point, buried beneath all that fake blood on the terrifically in-your-face video cover.

And the wonderful thing about watching the trailers to these video nightmares is that they show all the money shots, without the endless clumsy exposition. Terrible acting is reduced to tiny soundbites, and if there is a movie that is too stupid, or perverse, or – worst of all – boring, it doesn’t matter, because another one is coming along in a second.

These films are not for everybody. I’m not surprised that I had to literally order this DVD collection in from the other side of the world. This is uncomfortable material for many people, and anybody who finds these kinds of films queasy should stay the hell away from them. Nobody is arguing that these films are good for everyone.
But they are good for me. A bit of fatigue set in around the sixth hour of trailers, but that was largely because many of the introductions couldn’t find much to say beyond “I don’t know why this was banned, and if it wasn’t on the list, nobody in the world would care about it.” But there were still plenty of surprises, and it all ended nicely with the atrocious Zombie Creeping Flesh, which is almost a greatest hits of the video nasties, with cannibalism, stock footage, idiotic zombies, terrible dubbing, blunt social commentary and appalling gore all rolled into one film.

Years ago, I used to watch Zombie Creeping Flesh with a bunch of kids I babysat, and they thought it was the greatest film ever. (And they turned out to be fine adults.) But I’ve still only seen less than a dozen of the nasties on the list, and for most of them, it was footage of stuff I’d read about in magazines like The Dark Side and Fangoria since I was 13. It was occasionally invigorating, and sometimes utterly disappointing, to see these things I’d read about over and over again.

While watching yet another trailer for a film about yet another dubious atrocity, I fell in love with these daft efforts all over again. They are films at the extreme edge of any kind of taste or restraint, where a greasy film-making style smashes into the desire to be more hardcore, more brutal than anything else, standing out from the rest.

There is real beauty in the final shot of The Beyond, or in the ripped-out tongues of Blood Feast, or the floating corpses in Inferno. Cannibal Holocaust’s found footage style was still fresh at that time, Flesh For Frankenstein was artlessly artful and Evil Dead’s claymation disintegrations are still gracefully gory.

I fell in love with a lot of Video Nasties, and they did me no harm.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

This is why I do it

Borag Thungg, Earthlets!

Sometimes I can’t think of anything to say on this blog, and that’s when it really starts to feel a bit pointless. I’ve been posting fairly regularly at this blog for almost three years, and more often than I would like, I end up sitting here at two in the morning, wondering what the fuck I’m talking about.

But I still do it, because I love talking about comic books and movies and novels and other narratives that I’ve enjoyed. Like everybody else, I also like to have a good moan, especially when something I genuinely love, like the modern American superhero comic, is so lacking in basic craft that it’s downright offensive.

And it’s even more fun to talk about something I really loved. It’s harder sometimes, to put that feeling of affection and contentment that comes with a good story into words, instead of just slagging something off, but it’s always worth it when somebody says they love the same shit I do.

But there is another reason, and it’s loads more selfish. One of the great benefits of writing a blog is that every now and then, you get a package in the mail that contains something like this:

It might look like a random issue of a fairly recent 2000ad, but it’s not entirely random – it’s one of sixteen issues I need to complete a colossal run in my collection. I’ve now got a complete run from prog 107 to 1366 – a run of 1259 consecutive issues. I am inordinately excited about all of this.
 This is how a decade-long obsession starts: In 2001 I finish up another prog slog – reading every single issue of 2000ad I own in one go. It ends fairly apruptly with #950, because I quit reading the comic in the mid nineties, largely due to a dire drop in story quality.

But half a decade after they had been published, the few post-950 issues I had didn’t look quite so ugly anymore, and there was this Judge Dredd storyline called The Pit that looked fascinating, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was hooked again.

I picked up a few more issues over the next couple of years, but didn’t start buying 2000ad every week again until 2004, and by then I had eight years to catch up on. And I had to catch up – I was totally obsessed with the latest twists and turns in the Judge Dredd saga, adored Nikolai Dante and loved the slick art and stories on dozens and dozens of other strips.

But man, eight years of a weekly comic. That’s four hundred issues. This was going to take some work.

Well, it’s not really work, because it’s so much fucking fun: buying more than a hundred circa-1999 issues from a Sydney second hand bookshop over one week in 2005, finding that one issue with the Shaun of the Dead comic in it in Jim Hanley’s store beside the  Empire State Building, innumerable TradeMe surprises and a terrific weekend in Dunedin watching Mulholland Drive after buying the last of the pre-1000 issues I needed.

I love this shit so hard.

This is how a decade-long obsession ends (or reaches a significant milestone, at least): a couple of weeks back, I get a lovely e-mail from the UK from somebody called Ben, who runs a terrific Grant Morrison site and wants to ask me a favour. He read my review of an obscure British charity comic from the mid-eighties, and he is dying to get a copy for its early Morrison goodness, but keeps getting beaten to the punch by Alan Moore completists who want it for the Bryan Talbolt-illustrated dinosaur story.

He’s so keen, it would be a crime not to get it to him. But I’m selfish enough to admit that when he offers me something wonderful for it, I can’t refuse.

He’s willing to pay a silly amount of money for it, but I’m not bothered by that. But then he offers to get me some of the missing 2000ads I need – they are plentiful in his parts, and he is more than willing to swap a small pile of them for the much-needed Food for Thought.

The deal is done – Ben gets his comic, I get my 2000ads, and we’ve both done well out of our obsessions.

In the past couple of weeks, post-travel blues means I’ve been buying more crap over the internet than I usually do, and ended up with issues of Jack Kirby’s 2001, and Justice League cartoon DVDs and the new edition of Kim Newman’s extraordinary Nightmare Movies, and that one bloody issue of Batman:Year One I’ve been after forever, and a beautifully chunky DVD collection of Video Nasties, all coming through my letterbox.

But the most exciting package was the 2000ads. Opening that one when it finally arrived generated a sense of enormous well-being. Dork life!

So I’ve got this monstrous beast of a collection now, but I’m far from done. There is still loads more to get – big chunks of the Judge Dredd Megazine, a small fortune in pre-100 issues and several annuals from the 1980s that I’ve never seen anywhere.

But I’ve almost completely filled that gaping hole when I lost faith in Tharg, and it’s a terrific feeling, and all the incentive in the world to keep on blogging. It’s great to talk about stuff I like, but getting something substantial and real out of it is even better.

Splundig vur thrigg!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Love and Rockets: “There ain’t no deposit money”

There is so much love (and rockets) on the final page of Jaime Hernandez’s The Love Bunglers, so much genuine loving emotion between Maggie and Ray, built up on years of pain and tragedy and guilt, that it’s the perfect enduing for these characters, and I would have no problems if their story ended right here.

I love these people in the stories more than any other characters in all of fiction, and I wouldn’t mind if I never see them again, if it can climax with a final declaration of love and end on a tearful and heartfelt kiss.

That’s how good The Love Bunglers is.

Once again, there is the terrible guilt that I‘m not saying enough about Beto whenever I get a new Love and Rockets, but that’s the way it goes. King Vampire and And Then Reality Kicks In are terrific little comics with the usual hidden depths, but they don’t have the emotional catharsis of Jaime’s work, they don’t have decades of storytelling building and building to tiny little moments of transcendent wonder.

And once again, this is no review. This is love.

The art is as beautiful as always, evocative of time and place, and Jaime still draws the best body language and facial expressions in the medium, telling entire stories in a frown or wink.

It can be as mundane as the long and lonely path that leads to a crappy meal in a crappy diner –

 - or the easy confidence of somebody who is finally comfortable in her own uneasy skin.

All over, the art is as beautiful as ever, and it’s so easy to get lost in Jaime’s gorgeous profiles, or his effortless command of geography, or simple panels of people looking at each other.

Jaime’s panel structure is also still incredibly rigid, but that just keeps all that energy and vigour bottled up there on the page, released with every new visit. There is more artistic enjoyment in his flowing line than can be found in dozens of other comics. It’s just gorgeous.

While it’s no surprise that Jaime Hernandez is still producing magnificent and beautiful comics, it is also still incredible to see how big his storytelling balls are, man.

Much of The Love Bunglers takes place at the same leisurely pace Jaime’s stories have had for the past few years, but after a startling piece of violence that throws the future up in the air, the story bounces forward two years, and after three pages, takes another similar leap forward in time, showing how things worked out for Maggie and Ray.

(And Hopey – there was another big emotional kick to see little Hopey all settled down and reasonably successful. The fact that this little hellion has grown up enough and can lend Maggie the money to start up her business is astonishing, but not as astonishing as the fact that I felt genuinely proud for her that she had got this far. She’s still got that same awesome haircut she had as a 16-year-old, but Hopey is All Grown Up.)

Those last seven pages are dense with information and revelation, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. The abrupt leaps in time allow for drastic changes that seem so natural, like things were always going to end this way.

And the comfort in that is so warm and toasty. The past is still spiky and tragic, but it all worked out in the end.

Oh man, that bit when I realised what was happening in that montage was the most emotionally moving moment I’ve read in a comic book since, well, the last Love and Rockets.

Letty’s story is also an unexpected treat – telling a tale that answers questioned first asked decades ago, while providing details that are absolutely essential to the ongoing narrative.

With a continuation of all that painfully unnecessary guilt and shame from Browntown in #3, Return For Me also shows that everyone leaves Maggie, no matter how much they intend to stay. Poor Letty’s last thoughts are that she will always be there for Maggie, and you can bet her family, and Speedy, and Hopey and Ray and Calvin and all those others made the same promise, only to leave Maggie behind.

Dig it: Jaime Hernandez is now telling stories that cast a whole new light on 30 years worth of comics. That’s an astonishing feat.

I really, really hate Coronation Street, (mainly because I wasn’t allowed to watch the Incredible Hulk on the other channel when I was a kid), but it makes so many other people so happy that I never want it to go away.

It is also hard to hate something that has evolved from a bog-standard soap opera into something else. It’s still rubbish on an everyday basis, but when you consider it as the continuous biography of an ordinary man named Ken Barlow, it’s something extraordinary.

Ken – as played by William Roache – has had his daily life dissected by an audience of millions since 1960. That’s 51 years ago. Ken has grown from a pimply little dork to an affable old man. He has the world record for being the longest-running character in a televised soap opera, and Ken’s wikipedia page is more than 10,000 words long.

He has been a teacher, journalist, waiter, newspaper editor, writer, male escort and trolley pusher, and has been married four times, fathering numerous offspring. He’s the most boring man on the most boring show of all time, but over fifty years, it adds up. What a life!

Jamie’s Locas stories are just like that, but instead of being the most boring thing ever, the story of Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, Ray, Doyle and Angel has been fascinating, moving, exhilarating, sad, silly, beautiful and utterly human. To see characters grow and develop over decades of terrific stories is one of the great pleasures of these comics. All the young punks have grown up, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

(And yes, it’s particularly ironic that this latest Love and Rockets - which pays off on situations set up 20 years ago and shows the growth and maturing of ripe characterisation - came out right at the point that DC is putting out All New All Different versions of the same old characters, giving them another tedious reboot because people can’t handle the idea that Superman isn’t 29-years-old any more - but let’s not go there right now….)

So if it did end? If Jaime went off and did Wolverine comics for the rest of his career, or spent the remainder of his life sitting on a mountain painting landscapes? It would certainly be painful, but to leave the characters where they stand isn’t a bad way to finish it.

The artist himself has even expressed in interviews some trepidation about where the story could go from here, but he undoubtedly has more stories he could tell. Angel’s story is just beginning, Izzy is undoubtedly off doing something peculiar, and it’s always nice to see what Doyle is up to.

But for Maggie and Ray and Hopey – this isn’t a bad place to leave them. You never really stop growing up, but if you can mature enough to get to a point where you’re actually happy with yourself and the way things turned out, then…

What else is there?

Just love, baby.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The hunt

We’ve been together for more than five years now, so she knows that look. We’ll be in some far-off city, wandering down strange streets, and I’ll seem strangely determined to find a certain area.

It doesn’t matter where we are in the world, I’m useless at hiding it. She knows what I want. She knows I’m looking for comic shops.


It’s easier these days with the internet and you can look up addresses and maps, and even go on Google  to see what the street looks like ( I have done this far more than I should), but sometimes it’s just a matter of following your nose.

It’s easy to stumble on comic shops if you know what to look for. Near a university campus is always a good idea, or suburban shopping areas that also features things like second-hand bookshops, reasonably-priced antique stores and kick-ass tattoo shops.

They’ll be there, lurking innocently while insolently flashing some kind of neon Bat-signal. I’m always, always thrilled to step into a new comic shop, because you never know what you’re going to find.


I’ve been to comic shops in Amsterdam, Auckland, Christchurch, Dublin, Dunedin, Edinburgh, Hamilton, Invercargill, Las Vegas, London, Newcastle, New York, Osaka, Rome, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sydney, Ventura, Wellington and York.

Some of them were undoubtedly groovier than others – the stores in San Francisco and Brooklyn’s Rocketshop (which I think doesn’t exist anymore) exuded a casual cool, finally stepping into London’s Forbidden Planet was weirdly thrilling and an overdose of the local produce meant an adventure down into the cellar of some Amsterdam store felt like I was going to be starring in Hostel 3: Bob Doesn’t Come Back from The Comic Shop.

But if I could go back to any two comic shops in the world, it would be A-1 Comics in Sacremento, and that one in Dublin’s Temple Bar area with the extraordinary selection of 2000ad-related back issues. I left behind comics at those places that I really, really wanted, and now I have dreams where I go back to these places and buy those comics I didn’t get the first time around and I’m happy as a pig in shit until I realise it’s just a dream, and I feel real despair when I wake up.

This isn’t normal, but what is these days?


There are inevitable disappointments. There are plenty of shops that just sell the same old shit as everybody else, that have nothing different or interesting, nothing worth bothering with.

There are a lot of stores that are like this, but how will I know until I go inside?

To be honest, it’s getting harder.

It’s not just the fact that there are a lot less comic shops than there used to be – the drop in store numbers since the mid-nineties is staggering, (speaking from personal experience, there were a shit load of comic shops all over New Zealand at that time, now there are about half a dozen in the whole country), and that simple fact makes the good ones harder to find.

But there have been other changes in the business over the past decade that have led to a bland uniformity. The amount of reprinted material now available is wonderful, but while it’s possible to pick up collected editions of the most obscure material, there are thousands of comics that can’t/won’t/will never be reprinted. (I’m still completely baffled by the lack of trades reprinting the truly excellent v4 Legion of Super-Heroes.)

I’ve spoken to enough retailers to realise there really isn’t any money in maintaining a large back issue collection, and many stores have justifiably ejected them entirely in favour of a books ‘n’ three months of comics.

This is only good and proper, but I’m after little oddities, and the best place to find them is in a dusty and dark room packed full of comic history. My favourite comic shops are the ones that have the weird shit.

Yeah, I know I can get this stuff through the internet (and the online world has been good to me this month, as I’ll explain in another post soon), but there are two obvious factors why I tend to spend almost all of my comic budget in brick and mortar stores.

One if the beauty of browsing that can never really be replicated online. By their very nature, weird little oddities never become apparent until you find them in a dollar bin somewhere, sandwiched between endless issues of Transformers dreck and invulnerable copies of D.P. 7. You can’t go looking for them, you have to stumble across them yourself.

The second factor is that it’s cheating, and cheating is NO FUN.


Our next trip overseas won’t be for another 11 months, but she’s already caught me looking up potential comic shops. Soon enough, we’ll be somewhere over the other side of the world, and I’ll be looking for some random street with that weirdly focussed look, and she’ll know what I’m doing.

Because I’m always looking for new comic shops