Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

The Tearoom of Despair is closed for the summer holidays, because it’s hard to get worked up about things when you could be sitting on a sunny beach, sipping cool cider and watching the waves roll in.

(Normal service will resume, as ever, on January 7.)

But there is always room for a best of list at this time of year. It’s always impossible to compare the quality of vastly different comics, just because they share a medium. But I can truly say which ones I enjoyed the most, and which ones had the biggest emotional punch, and it was surprisingly easy to rank that enjoyment.

There are the usual caveats: Despite a brilliant local library and a $40 a week habit, I haven’t read everything I would like, and reserve the right to retroactively declare that the best comics of the year included something like Habibi or Ganges #4 or the latest Criminal series or Prison Pit or one of the other half dozen pieces of brilliance I just haven’t got around to yet

And there are entire series I haven’t got into yet, even though I know they’ll be bloody good for me. So I will probably fall in love with something like the much-adored King City long after everybody else has moved on, or wonder why it took me so long to get into Godland in 2015 or so.

Some comics that missed out on the list, even though I found them all immensely enjoyable, are Sweet Tooth, the Chronicles of Wormwood, Incognito, Holy Terror, Absalom and Justice League Dark, while Johnny Red and Roger Langridge’s The Show Must Go On were both some of my favourite comics of 2011, even though they were written and drawn decades ago.

I was surprised to note that there were no Grant Morrison comics in my top ten, which must be the first time that has happened in 20 years. But most of his creative energy seemed to pour into Supergods, and Action Comics is severely hampered by occasionally substandard art while Batman Inc still seems weirdly limiting.

But I'm still painfully predictable and a bit ashamed of that. There are six of them that are by British writers, and there are no female creative voices in my favourite comics of 2011, which is deeply embarrassing, although I do think that’s something we all have to get better at.

So these are the comics I enjoyed the most in the past year – and I tend to like comics that are fast and funny and and colourful and smart - so that’s just the way it worked out.


10. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century – 1969

 Because I'm always up for a beautiful technocolour apocalypse in Hyde Park, with O’Neill’s terrific grotesques dragged into the sunshine of the 1960s and confronting a couple of dark truths behind the Age of Aquarius. You can play spot-the-reference all you like, but it was still a thoughtful meditation on the idea of immortality and an inability to change with the ages, no matter how hard you try, and I’ll take that over wondering who The Karkus was.

The bleakness of those final pages, when everything has been broken down and needs to be built back up again, was a stark contrast to the primary coloured adventures of the previous decade, and a wonderful way to set things up for the final Century story.

Roll on, 2009.


9. Kick Ass 2

Kick Ass 2 is an appalling tasteless comic, offensive and stupid and a symbol of all that is wrong in the world.

But I can't help enjoying it, probably because it's so dedicated to tastelessness that it takes it all the way. It's like an early John Waters film - they're actually terrible things to watch, but you have to admire the fact they don't pussy out, and go All The Way, even if it means that literally eat their own shit.

So in the second Kick Ass story, there are cute kids callously cut down, innocent people suffer horrible and humiliating fates, there are characters who are homophobic, sexist and racist, and absolutely nothing is sacred.

But this also means there is never any sense of anybody taking their foot of their pedal, and some rampant acceleration is always good for the soul. It’s actually nice to read a comic where the creators don’t stop every couple of pages and think it’s gone too far, or is a bit much. And if they are doing that, they’re not letting it stop them barreling ahead.

Millar’s gleeful need to offend as many people as possible turn most right-thinking people off his work, but in an age of stories that have been focus-grouped into inanity and constant concern about ‘sending the wrong message’, I’m always up for a fast-paced and ridiculous story about bad people doing terrible things.

Besides, I also love stories about people that have been turned into weapons trying to be people again, and I still get a kick out of seeing them give in to their most horrible desires. When I read the most recent issue of Kick Ass and it ended the only way it could – with Hit Girl bloodily and finally stepping in to sort out all this shit – I swear I heard the sound of a gun cocking, or of a sword being unsheathed.

The expected carnage is breathlessly anticipated.

8. Jack of Fables #50

Speaking of nothing being sacred and expected carnage, it was a fond farewell to the most successful Fables spin-off earlier this year, and it all ended with all the comic's characters wiping each other out in amusing and ironic fashion, before Jack cheats the devil and goes on his way to new adventures.

It was the sheer enthusiasm with which characters were disposed of that was so appealing, and a hard-bitten desire on the creators’ part to break all of their toys before they put them away for good, so nobody else can ever play with them.

Jack of Fables finished the only way it could. With blood, fire and absolute free-wheeling farce.

7. Shaolin Burning

 A terrific Kung Fu comic by New Zealander Ant Sang, Shaolin Burning got a fair bit of local media attention at the time it came out, but hasn't really been seen in the bigger world.

It's worth keeping an eye out for - the speech anachronisms are a little jarring at first, and it's a lot bloody harder to convey martial arts in comics than it looks, but Sang gets there with some dynamic action sequences. The overall plot is harder to get into than it looks, but there are some great individual moments.

There is a lovely little tribute to Martin Edmond, and some of the late artist’s lines can be seen in a powerfully outstretched arm, but Sang also brings an animation background in to his comics, and it can be seen in his beautiful character designs and marvellously-paced individual sequences.

There have been the usual bunch of thoughtful and slightly dark comics coming out of New Zealand in the past year, but Shaolin Burning was the only one that had the balls to grab my attention by slapping me around until I gave in. That’s a good thing.


6. Secret Avengers

I'll always have a place in my heart for sharp, well-drawn single issues of superhero comics that come in, have a bit of fighting, a bit of crazy science and a couple of cool lines, and then piss off again before they outstay their welcome. Result.


5. Nikolai Dante

This would be higher on the list if there was more of it, but I only read 42 pages of new Nikolai Dante comic in 2011 (I haven’t seen the story in the 2012 issue yet).

Fortunately, those 42 pages are typically spectacular, with the usual witty and considered scripts by Mr Robbie Morrison, superbly rendered by Mr Simon Fraser.

Nikolai Dante is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, and still cannonballing towards an epic conclusion in the nest year or so. This year, it set up the final act of this long and crazy story with The Memoirs of Nikolai Dante in 2000ad prog 1731, summing up the tale so far, setting the stakes for the forthcoming climax, and ending with a good joke with whatever-his-name-is-there.

There was also a five-part serial, full of action and incident, which ended with Dante back in the dungeons, racked with despair. But the story isn’t over yet, and there is no doubt that Dante will come out on top. (There is still considerable doubt as to whether he will actually survive his victory.) Me, I’m still convinced that Lulu hasn’t betrayed Nikolai at all, and this was just his utterly mental way of getting into the palace…

And in those 42 pages, there was one of those moments that perfectly sum up everything I love about Nikolai Dante, and shows his passion, compassion and zeal for life. He’s talking to his pirate queen mother, and she asks him if he can forgive her for abandoning him as a child. Dante has every right to be angry. But then again….

“Ha ha ha! Mama, I was a pirate when I was ten years old. I’ve been a thief, gentlemanly or not. An aristocrat, an adventurer. I’ve commanded armies, won and lost fortunes.

“I’ve fought some of the most evil men that ever lived and put them in their graves. I’ve fooled around with the most beautiful women in the world and a real-live princess agreed to marry me.

“Forgive you? I should thank you! People’ll still be talking about me centuries after I’m gone.”

Diavolo, that’s good comics.


4. The Boys

Garth Ennis’ latest longform comic is, like Dante, rapidly reaching some horrible conclusion. All the necessary background has been explained, and all the players are where they need to be in the end and there will be blood.

The superhero decadence is still a big part of The Boys - and it is still either truly disturbing or really funny - but the real story of this comic is about the corrupting influence of irresistible power, and this is all coming to a head.

The Billy Butcher spin-off comic has helped set this stage where all debts will be paid, and the revelation of why The Boys’ leader hates superheroes so much is just as horrible as promised.

In fact, the terrible fate of Billy’s wife was probably the single most intense thing I saw in a comic book all year – a mind-numbingly traumatic event caused by a superhero’s callous indifference that justifies everything Billy does, in his own mind at least.

That level of intensity is harder to find in modern comics than it really should, so I cherish those moments when they do come.


3. OMAC/ Daredevil/ All Star Western

All of these new comics scratch a certain itch that I thought had gone dormant, an insatiable need for fast, funny and furious action comics that didn’t treat me like a child.

I still want new and shiny and smart science fiction/superhero/western comics more than I ever realised.

2. Judge Dredd

The ongoing adventures of Judge Joe Dredd were my favourite comics of 2010, and almost made it to the top of this list again, with only a stunning piece of Hernandez brilliance heading it off.

Dredd’s year did get off to a pretty average start, with the first half of his 2011 adventures consisting almost entirely of the usual short, snappy, one-off stories that have filled out his history over the years. There was some really nice art, including the long-overdue re-appearance of the Brendan McCarthy Dredd, and some phenomenally efficient short stories by new writers such as Al Ewing and Michael Carroll, who have both nailed the unique voice of the Dredd strip remarkably quickly.

But the brilliance of Judge Dredd always comes from the sharp pen of John Wagner, and he returned to the story in the second half of 2011 with Day of Chaos, one of the big Dredd mega-epics that is composed of a whole lot of smaller stories. The actual overall point of Day of Chaos is still relatively unclear – it has something to do with the long-suffering Sovs and the daftly twisted PJ Maybe – but it is a story about retribution and justice finally being done. 

It wouldn’t even be surprising if Day of Chaos does feature the long-promised death of Judge Dredd. For a couple of minutes I thought they had actually done it in the storyline, with Dredd apparently shot through the head in the sixth chapter of the story. He survived that brush with death, only to instantly get his throat sliced open. Dredd is made of stone, and he wouldn’t let something like a slit throat put him down, but Judge Dredd could still die at any time.

And that’s okay. He’s come to terms with his own humanity, and – in a Michael Carroll story that I could have sworn was written by Wagner – even admitted that he is comforted by the thought of new generations of judges, knowing that there will be a new batch of lawmakers to take his place when he is gone.

That day is coming, and possibly soon, but for now, there are still new adventures of Judge Dredd every week, and it’s just as funny and clever as it always was. I truly enjoy reading a new Dredd every Thursday, and after another year that was mostly brilliant, I’m always looking forward to the next chapter. 


1. Love and Rockets: The Love Bunglers

The instant when I realized what was going on in the montage scene near the end of Jaime Hernadez’s Love Bunglers was the single most genuinely moving moment I’ve had reading a comic book in many, many years.

Jaime’s work in Love and Rockets New Stories #4 is funny, sad, heartbreaking, life-affirming, clever and wicked, and sings with an emotional depth that few other stories – in any medium – could ever hope to match.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last night the Invisibles saved my life (One Year To Go Remix)

They said the word is ending next year, but they didn’t tell us how fucking fast it was going to creep up on us.

Sometime in 2000, when 2012 still felt a long way away, I make my friend Brian drive me 200 kilometres one wet Friday night after work, so I can get the last issue of The Invisibles. Working on a delivery dock lets me get away early if I need to, and we’re in Christchurch by seven.

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

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

I don't want to.

I don't want it to be over.

A year or so earlier than that night, I don't have a job, or a girlfriend, or a home. But I do have the first three issues of volume three and read them over and over and over again as I live on a mate’s sofa for a while.

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

It's 1999, and the 20th century is coming to an end in suitable tecnocolour and cool Matrix leather. When the Millenium comes, I’m up in the hills tripping balls with my best mates, and spend the rest of the night watching fireworks across the world on a tiny television, and There’s Something About Mary is the first movie I see in the 21st century, and somewhere in there, it all melds together, and I’m sure it would be a good idea to make The Invisibles as a movie starring Cameron Diaz as Jax Frost, because she’s the Day-Glo Messiah of the new…

Hang on, more fireworks, and the Thames is on fire.

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

After all, it’s the most impressionable age a human ever goes through. Most of the tastes are cemented at this age, as you finally become an adult and take your place in the universe.

The Invisibles WAS my early twenties, back when I was trying to figure out how to be a grown-up. I made a tonne of mistakes, and was a right little wanker sometimes, but I got through it. The comics helped.

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


He’s slightly Christian, but I’m still a bit surprised by this. I don't give him any more to read. I don't give The Invisibles to anybody else after this, but I’m always up for a conversation about it with anybody, any time.

This is a lesson: everything is not for everybody.

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

When I wake up under a bush with grass in my ear and a bug in my pants, often the last thing I remember is blathering on about the Supercontext or the Hand of Glory with somebody who just looks at me like I’m mental. They were right to do so. This isn’t normal.

It’s all right. I’m young and alive. This is when I was always supposed to do this stuff.

At least I’m not missing it. At least I survive.

For a while there, I buy into the entire philosophy. Wanking for magic and playing around with the esoteric, and if you put some effort into looking good, people will believe any old bollocks you say. It works, just like everybody said it would. The everyday starts dripping with significance. Every morning, noon and night there is a turbocharge of unlikeliness and I drink it all up.

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

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

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

In the years since, I’ve read all sorts of articles and essays and books that look to deconstruct The Invisibles. They’ve ripped it up and put it back together, and answering the all-important question of what it all means.

I don’t really care about What It Means, I’m all about the How Does It Make You Feel?

It’s Audrey’s story that is the most moving, when all is said and done, and her kind decency changes everything in the final pages.

Poor Bobby never stood a chance. Ordinary people, their lives all messed about and chopped up by forces happening far beyond their comprehension. There are still snatches of happiness, and if we can get as many of them as possible, then we’ve lived the good life.

Every henchmen has a story, every dead body had its dreams. It takes King Mob a long, long time to realise this and think of something better. The rest of us still need to catch up.

Sitting behind that bus shelter in a particularly comfy piece of grass, staring out over a wide golf course and the sea beyond, high on scrumpy & sunshine and I know that Britpop is dead, and I don’t know whether to blame Pulp for This is Hardcore, or Grant Morrison for v2 #16.

I staple a photocopy of the cover of that issue to my work cubicle, along with a couple of panels from Flex Mentallo. Crunching numbers under the eye of the infinite, especially after a few after-work beers.

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

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

Give it all up.

Live on the move for a while.

No pressure.

All I want to do is dance.

Sometimes I think I'm still there in that park, and on that beach. Any second now I'm going to realise the last 11 years were just an Invisibles illusion, and there is no such thing as time.

No. That’s not it. I am still there.

I’m sitting in an extraordinarily comfortable armchair, with an orange juice and vodka in one hand, some volume two in the other and Buffy on the television. There’s a hole in the ceiling, and if I reach for it, it’ll pull me through into the infinite. I know it.

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

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

I’m sitting in a beachfront hut in Fiji in mid-2011, reading those last four issues a few more times and drinking ridiculously expensive gin.

I’m on that beach, or this beach, or those beaches.

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever happened to Barbelith?

Time is never as flexible as I think it might be, but I still feel like I’m here, there and everywhere sometimes.

Once upon a time, 2012 sounded so sexy and weird and exotic, and now it’s just another shitty Roland Emmerich film. It’s almost here – just over a week away.

I’m still getting over the fact that 2001 was more than a decade ago. Time is slipping by faster than I can adjust, and all I can think of is Fanny: “Do you feel as though time’s speeding up, darling? I mean actually getting faster?”

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

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

Weston is a dirty little boy in comparison, and that’s just the way we like it, right readers?

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

I’m still struggling, but the whole glorious mess still thrills. The dialogue is as sharp as ever, and while we’ve all moved on from those oh-so-‘90s conspiracies, there is still terror in these dark, unknowable plans for humanity.

It’s funnier than it looks, and anybody who gets too deep into it starts wanting to write their own languages. It’s hot and humid and there is a smear in the membrane of space time, there at the edge of all things.

This is the kind of rubbish I start saying when I read too much Invisibles.

I’m not sorry.

This is an apology:

There’s something wrong with Fanny’s trip to the other side in Sheman. It feels sick and wrong, even though it’s just another rite. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

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

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

One great weekend in 2002 climaxes with a screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive when I’m all sorts of fucked up on all sorts of highs, and it all seems a bit obvious really.

They’re all just malfunctioning fiction suits, aren’t they?

Even though I’ve read literally dozens of essays and books that have attempted to explain what happens in Mullholland Drive, and even though there is a general consensus over what is real and what is dream in the movie, I still think my initial reaction is a bit right.

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

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

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

Some things are worth holding on to.

Suddenly …

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

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

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

I’ve got a boring job and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m so uncool.

It’ll take me another six years to figure out that there is more to life than this.

Not long after The Invisibles ends, I get the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had in my entire life (probably due to a dodgy Burger King), and I’m sitting on the couch, feeling delirious and watching the 2000 US Presidential election on the TV.

George Bush comes into power, bad things happen and the promise of a decade of dancing evaporates as greed and fear prove just as powerful in the twenty-first century as they did in the last one.

I should have listened to my gut.

Just last week, US troops pulled out of Iraq, leaving behind the horrible feeling that nobody learned anything at all from the experience, and all that pain and misery was unjustified.

This isn’t the future of The Invisibles, an early 21st century day-glo mess where we all get stoned on media feeds. But who knew that so much effort and time and wealth would be wasted on pointless conflict in the past ten years? The future is always unwritten, and people in general don’t really change, and if there is one thought that convinces me that nothing will happen this time next year is that people don’t change that much, that quickly.

The Invisibles never promised anything, but it did show possibilities. We’re just still a bit too caveman to grasp them.

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

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

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

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

Life is just a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't want to go to bed.

I don't want to do anything.

I don't know what I want.

I still don’t know what I want.

I might never know what I want.

And then I start up all over again. You can do that if you want. For another year, at least.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A week of moaning #4: Screw destiny!

Just because there are storytelling rules, doesn’t mean you have top follow them implicitly. You can always bend them all out of shape.

A devotion to the three-act principle can be a good thing – there are very good reasons why you should tear your protagonist’s world apart at the end of the second act – but it has become part of a formula that has been boring and unintentionally harmful to fiction.

You can now watch a trailer for almost any damn movie, and you’ll be able to tell how the story turns out without bothering to see the film itself. Look, there’s the bit where the heroine is left alone in the rain, before they have that big confrontation at the beach at the end. There might be some tension in not knowing who is left alive at the end credits, or who has become romantically entangled, but that’s it. No wonder people get so upset about spoilers – there is nothing else but the final outcome that remains unknown.

Along with this rigid code of storytelling – which can be found in films, comics, novels or anything with a narrative – there are other demands. There must be relatable characters, they must grow as people during the story, and you can’t kill the dog.

Most of all, the lead character(s) must have motivation, and must have a reason for getting involved in the story. Motivation is everything, but it’s also painfully necessary, so it’s often got out of the way as quickly as possible.

The most common reason for any kind of Hero’s Journey in any kind of medium is vengeance, and some desire for some kind of revenge drives the vast majority of fiction. It’s all over our oldest stories, and still dredged up every week, all over the place. At its worst, this can lead to Women In Refrigerators, where an unimaginative writer uses the death of a loved one, especially a wife or girlfriend, to drive a tale of gritted teeth and tearful dedications, without really given any real emotional thrust.

I like a good bloody romp of rampant revenge as much as the next guy, and there are always interesting things that can be done with a tale of vengeance. But one motivation that could use a goddamn rest is Destiny with a capital D.

It usually starts with a vague prophecy, and while it is often unclear who actually came up with this vision of the future, it’s ancient, so it must be true. It tells of a time when somebody who has movie star hair will rise up and defeat unimaginable evil. And it must happen, because it is written. It is destiny.

The hero might scoff at the prophecy, but will ultimately come to believe it, and become convinced that he is, indeed, The One. It might take a montage of crying children, but he will embrace his destiny and save them all.

This is easily the most tedious ways of creating the motivation, but it also teaches a toxic lesson – that people only do the right thing because that’s their fate. People in those stories don’t stand up to all that is wrong and evil and bad in the world because it’s the right thing to do, they do it because some lunatic had a vague premonition centuries ago.

There are always exceptions, but it’s everywhere. It’s in the obvious places like Clash of the Titans, or Immortals, or Prince of Persia, where heroes can’t just be simple fishermen or farmers standing up against unimaginable odds, they have to be Kings or Gods who must accept their destiny.

It’s also in so many comics, but there is also a weird contradiction. While it feels only right and proper that DC characters are a little bit mythic and a whole lot iconic, Marvel’s attempts to create that kind of Pantheon have actually devalued many of their characters.

Men like Tony Stark or Reed Richards can’t just be brilliant men who stood up and did the right thing when it counted, they have to be part of a long tradition of family destiny and tradition, with their parents doing extraordinary things in Jonathan Hickman’s daftly humourless SHIELD comic.  

Even Spider-Man, the ultimate wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time superhero, can’t be somebody who learned his own lesson in power and responsibility, he’s just another in a long line of pre-destined individuals who have been chosen by some ridiculous Spider-Totem.

Hardcore religious types will argue that there can be no morality without conforming to some kind of ideology, but lots of people manage to do the right thing without fearing divine retribution, mainly because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not hard to figure it out.

While Hollywood is often rightly seen as a seething cauldron of sin, this puritanical view that people only do brave and noble acts because of fear of eternal damnation has filtered through to so many movies in so many different forms. It’s in romantic comedies and hardcore horror, it’s in every damn blockbuster and infects independent weepfests.It's in comics and novels and songs. Characters are destined to be great, just because.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Do it because it’s right, not because it’s your destiny. You write your own fate.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A week of moaning #3: Oi! No!

I’m running out of week, so here is a general list of things that tick me off, before I end this childish week of groaning on Sunday with a moan about the single biggest failure in modern fiction. (Then the annual Invisibles love, then a holiday.)

So yeah, it’s a hard life sometimes, and these things make it harder:

* Readers who consistently assume that the writer shares the exact same point of view as one of their characters.

* Film festival wankers! I have missed out on so many screenings because I’m stuck in line behind some smug couple who don’t know if they want a Sav or a Pinot with their film, and I just want to get a fucking ticket, and then the movie start time creeps past while I’m still in line, listening to that woman at the counter loudly demanding to know why her expired vouchers are no good any more.

* Members of the public who try to tell me how to do my job when they have no fucking idea what it actually entails. (Mentioned earlier in the week, but it’s been a rough couple of days on that score.)

* Anybody who thinks superheroes who don’t kill are lame.

* So there is this one ad that plays on television all the time, and it features all these people getting on a train and then putting these SUPERAWESOMEHIDEF televisions up over the windows, and then marvel at pictures of the sun and other places around the world, and I don’t know why – probably because I really enjoy sitting in trains and watching the countryside roll by - but this ad irritates the piss out of me.

* Top ten lists of music that nobody but the reviewer has ever heard.

* Fast food places where the food isn’t fast.

* Paranoid lunatics who see the whole world in terms of their own political ideology.

* Soft porn! People who love porn don’t like it, and people who hate porn don’t like it, so what’s the point? (copyright BotY)

* People who moan about the fact that David Lynch films are hard to understand, and people who go on about the fact that David Lynch films are easy to understand.

* Comic book collections that don’t tell a full story.

* The Academy Awards

* People who sneer at me because I didn’t vote in the last general election.

* Especially when they say “Well, you can’t complain if you don’t vote”, as if that’s the only real reason for exercising my democratic rights.

* Drivers who go 20 kays under the speed limit and don’t pull over, or drivers who have no idea how indicators seem to work, or drivers who take too long to move when a traffic light goes green, or drivers who stop for no bloody reason.

* All other drivers on the road, basically.

* And cyclists who ride in the middle of a traffic lane, bringing everyone on the road down to their own pitiful speed.

* And for that matter, the prick who set the timings on Auckland traffic lights. I’ve driven in some big cities, and Auckland easily has the worst I’ve ever driven through.

* Every judge on every talent show ever.

* Anybody who has ever checked their phone, halfway through a movie in a darkened cinema.

* Anybody in criticism who plays the man, not the ball.

* People who whine about lazy storytelling.

NEXT: I whine about lazy storytelling.