Monday, January 30, 2012

Pop culture gorging

It’s been a rubbish summer so far in this part of the world – all hot and muggy and with endless rain. That’s what you get when you live in a city that is surrounded by massive bodies of water, but it would be nice to see some bloody sun.

Still, I’m not complaining that hard, because I’ve had lots of days off work over the holidays, and since I haven’t been able to go anywhere because of the awful weather, I’ve had to sit around the house and read books and watch TV and catch up on some movies and read all sorts of comics, both old and new.

I am a glutton for good TV, movie and comic, and I’ve spent far too much time sitting around the house indulging in it over the past few weeks, and it’s been absolutely fantastic. Like a good 21st century boy, I eat it. I eat it all up.

For instance, I managed to get through all twelve episodes of Boardwalk Empire in just over a week, and like all the great HBO shows, it works a lot better as a story if you can power on through it without having to wait a week between chapters.

While it’s not the great show it aspires to be, at least it aspires, which is a lot more than most other television attempt. It looks gorgeous, has some terrific acting and gives occasional glimpses of the darkest depths a man can sink to, but it also tries a bit too hard and overreaches itself. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been beaten with the Worthy Stick, and sometimes the story is a little too obvious.

And sometimes it was magnificent – Steve Buscemi managed to give big moments unexpected heft with some stellar underplaying, and Michael Pitt managed to light up any scene with his sullen pout.

And whenever Jack Huston showed up as Richard Harrow, the show became something else. Harrow is a brilliant character – a man who got his face blown off in the carnage-filled fields of World War One, and lost almost all of his humanity along with his features. He can’t connect with people and doesn’t feel anything at all, but his real tragedy is that he recognises this hole in his soul, and has no idea what to do about it. He tries to bond with people, and knows what an ideal person acts like, but he can’t really feel it. It’s horrible and fascinating and just tragic, seeing this lost man try to find his way back to humanity, and it makes absolutely compelling television.

Little doses of things like Richard Harrow’s quest to become a man again make Boardwalk Empire something worth watching, and it’ll be a long wait to see where things go next.

I hadn’t seen anything truly great at the cinema for so many months, that I almost overdosed on goodness when I got to see Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the same week recently.

It’s still incredibly frustrating to live in a country like New Zealand and being forced to wait months to see quality films. While Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was everywhere else in the world months ago, it only arrived here last week. We still have to wait until late March until Attack The Block gets a release here and as somebody who adores working class horror and any kind of John Carpenter vibe, the most frustrating thing about that is that I know I could go online and download a pristine copy of the film in about half an hour, but I genuinely want to see it in a cinema. So I choose to wait.

Pirating isn’t a matter of good or bad. It’s a question of willpower.

So if patience is some kind of virtue, I must be a goddamned saint, because I was dying to see Tinker Tailor from the moment I first heard about it, and I held on.

It’s a brilliant film – smart and subtle, with some sublime acting. It’s always satisfying to watch something that doesn’t treat you like a moron, and lets you figure things out for yourself. The new movie doesn’t have the room to breathe that the Alec Guiness series did, so it gets all super-compressed, and entire lives are revealed in small smiles of affection and coded looks across crowded rooms.

And then, after all those smoky, dark seventies rooms, the vibrant celebration of life and cinema and love in Hugo was wonderful. The marketing for the film has failed to sell its charms, and it looked like just another overcooked kids movie, but I had a free afternoon after an incredibly efficient morning wedding, and went along.

I'm glad I went on my own, because it got pretty pathetic. I started blubbing like a little girl ten minutes into the film and didn’t stop until half an hour it had finished. It was just so sweet and smart, and was so packed for of unashamed romanticism for the past, and for the birth of spectacle cinema.

And the more it showed off with snazzy visual effects and ostentatious use of 3D, the better it was, because it contributed to the overall feel of Look How Far We've Come in cinema. I can't imagine anybody other than Scorcese pulling that kind of thing off with such charm and joy and effortless skill, and I enjoyed Huge far more than any of his more mature films of the past decade,

I'm just a big old softie when it comes to things like Hugo, and to get that kind of reaction in a cinema is why I can wait for good movies to come to the arse end of the world. They're totally worth the wait.

I only just got back into reading books last year when the lovely wife and I spent a week in Fiji last year, away from any type of screen. It’s easy to fall out of the habit of getting through a decent sized book, but it’s just as easy to fall back into it, and immensely satisfying to get into something substantial.

It helped that – like a lot of people over the past year - I got hooked on George R R Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire, and it took me four months of solid reading to get through all five books.

But I’m still suffering from Game Of Thrones withdrawl – I polished off A Dance With Dragons just before Christmas, and now I feel a bit bereft. It was so easy to get through a few chapters ever day, and immensely satisfying on so many levels to charge through all the books like that, now I’m a little lost without more.

On the advice of went through the exact same experience in the past year, I tried to fill the Gap of Ice and Fire in my head with non-fiction books about movie and comic creators I admire, and I've burned through books about Grant Morrison and David Lynch and David Cronenberg and how they work, and what they try to do with their stories. It’s incredibly energising stuff to soak up and they all helped silence the voice in the back of my head telling me that Winter is Coming, but not for a while yet.

I’m truly disturbed by my own lack of interest in music in general in recent months. Where did all that enthusiasm go?

I still try new things – the free CDs I get with issues of The word, Mojo and Uncut are worlds of new music, and every now and again I stumble across something I adore. I still groove to the groovy grooves I was grooving to in the groovy nineties. I still get the odd album – I got the Black Keys CD the week it came out, but took two years before getting into The Go Team!. And I still go to the odd gig,

But there isn’t that lust for more that there once was, or that fervent need to push new stuff on others so they can share in the joy, or that general overwhelming obsession for a new band.

Unsurprisingly, it all comes back to Westeros again, and the one piece of new music I’ve listened to more than anything else in the past year is Ramin Djawadi's Game Of Thrones soundtrack. And while it is so good and powerful and epic that it gives my brain a chubby, it’s not exactly cutting edge music. (But I can’t blame that one on age, I’ve always been a bit lame like that – the most moving piece of music I’ve heard in the last week was the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack that was playing on the same tape my mate Anthony made for me in 1994 as I drove around a big empty city at three o’clock in the morning. Ultra-nostalgia go!)

I wasn’t disappointed to miss out on the Big Day Out this year, even though it was the last in this country. And all the big new shows I’m going to in the next few weeks are all built on some kind of nostalgia. I’ll be seeing Roger Waters do his The Wall show, which will make my inner 13-year-old super-happy; and the seeing Urge Overkill, which will thrill my 21-year-old self, and then going to see the bloody Trailer Park Boys, which makes my 32-year-old self extremely happy.

But I’m 37 now, and I try to get excited about new stuff that makes the now-me happy, and that spark is barely there. Is this what happens when you get old? Do we all get this lame?

Or is it just a phase we go through? Because every now and then I hear a new song that gets me getting down, and I want to know everything. That spark is barely there, but it ain’t dead yet.

But I still like comics the most, and I estimate I spend a good 18 per cent of my free time reading some kind of comic. And that’s including the time I spent sleeping.

While the local library has been serving up little gems like How To Understand Israel in 60 Days Or Less – which was a lot better than expected - I’ve been mainly been ploughing through old runs of Marvel comics I haven’t read in years. I’ve been astounded by how bleakness of those early X-Factor comics by the Simonsons, and finally sat down and read all of the Nth Man in the proper order.

(I found a receipt for some jeans from 2001 in an old issue of What The-?!, which means I haven’t cracked that comic open in more than a decade, which makes me wonder why I bothered holding onto it in the first place. Shameless nostalgia, I guess.)

I’ve also been barrelling through The Boys, getting my head around the overall story as it blusters towards a horrible and apocalyptic end, and I also got through a big pile of Mark Millar comics. The main thing I took away from that is that while I really, really wish he would stop having his characters say “What are you talking about?” over and over again. It’s a slice of overly naturalistic dialogue that works every now and again, but not when ever single bloody character says it at some point. There are other ways of saying “what?”.

And all of that is just the tip of the fuckin’ iceberg when it comes to things I’ve been enjoying in the past couple of weeks. I’ve greatly enjoyed the return of Justified (laconic dialogue + sharp bursts of violence x that hat = unmissable); walked out of the room while watching the Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Life’s Too Short, because I can’t cringe any more: caught up on Archer; finally got around to watching Two Lane Blacktop and President’s Analyst; enjoyed Young Adult way more than I should; ploughed through huge amounts of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Marvel Zombie comics and all of Jack of Fables and some of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder, while dipping in and out of some Paradox Press Big Books and a small pile of old Comic Journals; I finally got around to reading the last year of Stray Bullets, (and wondered why it took me so long to get there – those last dozen issues are the bomb); played innumerable hours of Command and Conquer Red Alert 2 (from 2000!); was slightly disappointed in re-watchings of the Watchmen movie and the 1980s Untouchables; and I just lay on the couch for hours and hours and hours and watched entire seasons of Battlestar Galactica, Angel, Sealab 2021 and Robot Chicken.

It never ends.

Why would I ever want it to, when it's this much fun? Gluttony might be a sin, but a little sin is good for the soul.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blog From Another Universe #6: Superman Forever, from Siegel and Shuster Publications

The 75th anniversary of the first Superman comic is not until 2013, but owners Siegel and Shuster Publications have already announced plans for their own celebrations.

As well as Zach Snyder’s Superman Beyond - the long-anticipated follow-up to Wes Anderson’s 2005 billion-dollar blockbuster Superman Returns - 2013 will also see the release of Superman Forever, a 500-page hardback tribute to the Man of Steel, with the greatest names in comics writing and drawing their own Superman stories.

Names already announced for the tribute comic range from Art Spiegleman and Stan Lee to Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin to Kevin Hezunga and Los Bros Hernandez to Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, and dozens of other top creators.

In a statement released earlier this week, S&S Publications said the project was not just a celebration of the character’s long history, it was also a commemoration of the thirty year history of S&S, which was established in 1983.

The company came into existence after the landmark ruling in the early 1980s that all rights to the Superman character belonged to their creators – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The result of the case, which the Siegel and Shuster families took to the Supreme Court after the massive success of the 1978 Superman movie, took everybody by surprise, with DC losing all the rights to its major (and minor) characters in one case after another.

Nobody seemed more surprised than the families of Siegel and Shuster, who signed a short-term one-year deal with DC for the continued publication of Superman comics. Decades later, those last DC Superman comics still feel full of sadness and whimsy, with the year-long Crisis On Krypton story by Marv Wolfman and George Perez giving Superman a properly farewell from the DC universe.

When the year-long deal was up, the Siegel and Shuster families revealed their plans – a new publisher that would deal only in Superman. Retaining all movie, television and comic book rights, S&S Publications was born.

Concerned with flooding the market with Superman comics, S&S maintained a strict publishing schedule – two monthly books starring the Man of Steel, with a number of one offs, short mini-series and special projects. The monthly comics launched in late 1983 with John Byrne’s Action Comics #1, followed the next month by Howard Chaykin’s Superman #1.

The new company enlisted the editorial talents of Karen Berger, whose eye for sharp stories and sharper creators led to a series of well-picked self-contained books, with longer stories in the main titles that were more epic in scale.

Over the years, this has resulted in a number of high quality stories that have remained in print, and continue to generate sales for S&S. These range from Wolfman and Ordway’s three-year-long Exile storyline in the late eighties to Frank Miller’s epic The Man Of Steel Strikes Back in 1986 (and its 2001 sequel The Man Of Tomorrow Returns).

In 1987, soon after writing ‘Whatever Happened to the Dark Knight?’, the last Batman story for DC - and still riding the success of his work on Watchmen for Ditko Inc - Alan Moore was invited by S&S to produce any kind of Superman comic he fancied, and ultimately responded with Superman: Supreme in 1991, an affectionate pastiche of the character’s long and tumultuous history.

Moore’s work on Superman reached a climax with the Death of Superman in 1995, with Kal-El reborn as a transcendent figure of glory and compassion. He also introduced a new supporting cast that replaced those the company no longer had access to. While they could publish a Superboy comic, there could be no appearance by the Legion of Super-Heroes, but Moore created an all-new backstory for Superman in the Supreme stories, one that has been used fairly consistently since.

One slightly sad side-effect of the creations going back to the creators is that there has been no Justice League comics since 1981. Several attempts at bringing all the trademark owners together for a special Justice League comic have all failed, largely due to the incredible complexity of the deal. (The thought of somebody like Grant Morrison – who made the Avengers the biggest Marvel book of the nineties – doing a Justice League story remains an impossible dream.)

Fortunately for Superman, he still got to see his best friend. The World’s Finest annuals, set up in a co-publication deal with KFR Comics has allowed Superman and Batman to have team-up adventures together, with the rarity of these team-ups continually attracting some of comic’s biggest names, right from the first issue’s For The Man Who Has Everything by Moore and Gibbons, and up to last year’s Crisis on Bongo World by Bagge and Lee.

After losing its heroes, DC stayed in business by publishing creator owned work, but became a minor publisher without its main characters. In comparison, S&S had guarded its Superman trademark carefully, and built on the iconic recognition to create one of the biggest comic companies in the business, while staying true to its founding principles of creator rights, with all new characters created for new Superman comics belonging to the creators who came up with them.

And this has produced some incredible comics – It’s amusing to read old issues of Amazing Heroes at the time that Superman was off the shelves for a couple of months, between owners, and see the fear in the letter columns, concerns from fanboys about their monthly fix, terrified that there might be no more Superman comics. The fear seems so silly in the light of what has happened since, with a revitalisation of Superman that has brought the world’s greatest superhero into the 21st century.


Blogs From a Regular Universe will resume next week....

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog From Another Universe #5: Fearsome Four by Lee and Kirby

Everybody knows that it was the 106-issue run of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men that really kicked the Marvel Age of comics into life, with the World’s Greatest Mutant Magazine providing such a burst of life and energy that the entire superhero genre was revitalised.

But less well known is the fact that the Marvel Age almost didn’t happen at all, with the company almost destroyed by the continued survival of EC Comics, when that company almost pushed Marvel out of the market altogether, while also influencing it into a less successful direction.

As a comic company, EC was almost wiped out during the Fedric Wertham-inspired moral backlash against horror and crime comics in the 1950s, and for one brief moment, it looked like EC would only be able to publish its flagship humour title Crazy.

But when William Gaines got a good night’s sleep in 1954 and made an impassioned and eloquent speech on the importance of artistic freedom before a senate committee, the moral outcry soon faded away, and EC continued with more sexy and violent stories.

EC’s continued success ate up precious market share that other companies could not afford to lose, and Stan Lee was ordered by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to do something with a superhero team. Goodman had heard about the surprise success of Justice League of America, which managed to crave out a small – but profitable and growing – slice of a comic market dominated by crime and horror, and he wanted a piece of that pie.

But with EC comics now the biggest company in the industry, Lee decided to play it a bit safer by going back to the monster genre and – with co-creator Jack Kirby – created the Fearsome Four, a team of destructive creatures who rampaged through the earliest days of the Marvel Universe.

The Fearsome Four – Mr fearsome, the Human Fireball, Invisible Witch and the Thing – were a group of thrill-seekers who sought to unlock the mysteries of the occult through the use of science, and instead unleashed their own primal desires in the form of fantastical powers.

For 18 wonderful issues by Lee and Kirby, the Fearsome Four plotted and schemed to destroy a world that didn’t understand them, with only mysterious masked hero Doctor Victor Von Druid standing in the way of their terrible plans.

And with new EC titles like Tales From the Tomb and the Crypt of Horror still a heavy influence on everybody’s stories, the creators pushed things to the extreme – the Invisible Witch created bubbles of nothingness in men’s minds; the Thing would rip off limbs without a second thought, the Human Fireball would set helpless waitresses ablaze from the inside and Mr Fearsome could tear a man’s soul apart with a glance. 

While Kirby’s art showed plenty of the bombastic energy that would later make the X-Men the biggest comic in the world, it was also stuffed with gloom, dread and awful terror, mixed with gore that still seems overtly gruesome, decades later.

But while the Fearsome Four was a bold experiment in fusing horror and superhero comics, it was not a huge success and cancelled after a year and a half in late 1963. Lee and Kirby were both hugely disappointed - they had both put their creative hearts and souls into the Fearsome Four and were ready to turn their backs on comics altogether.

But after the modest success of Spider-Man - a creepy and largely forgotten superhero who lived in an old dilapidated mansion with a werewolf for a groundskeeper - the comic company survived long enough for Kirby and Lee to give one more go, and struck gold with the X-Men.

With stories like the Galactus Saga, in which the world’s most feared and misunderstood heroes saved Earth from the World Eater and were finally embraced by a thankful public,  Lee and Kirby started the real Marvel Age. By the time they were finished on the mutant title, other creators were taking the next step in the company’s evolution - Claremont and Byrne were making The Defenders the most exciting book in the market, while Frank Miller was bringing a new noir sensibility to the Hulk title and Steve Gerbe was doing odd things with dwarfs in the pages of the Champions.

The Fearsome Four only appeared once more in the Marvel Universe, showing up as villainous henchmen in a 1994 issue of Nightstalkers, only to be swiftly dispatched by Hannibal King, but the original 18 issues had relatively low print runs and are now highly prized by collectors.

EC Comics has been the biggest company in comics ever since it purchased DC Comics in 1975, and incorporated its wide range of genre-bending titles into a larger and weirder superhero universe, but Marvel has gioven that comics giant a run for its money over the years.

While Marvel eventually found its own voice, the Fearsome Four is a fascinating relic of a time when it tried to talk like somebody else. The Fearsome Four never really caught on, but they don’t have to be forgotten.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blog From Another Universe #4: Dave Sim’s Cerebus The Barbarian

When Dave Sim’s epic Cerebus series finished with #350 in October 2003 – three years ahead of schedule after an astonishing late burst of productivity – the Canadian artist revealed one of the great secrets about his series: The utterly human character Cerebus initially started life as a furry animal.

Cerebus has become one of the great iconic characters of modern comics, with his furious visage one of the most recognisable faces in the medium. In the initial issues of Sim’s mega-epic, the character looked exactly like Barry Smith-Windsor’s Conan, before later taking on more of an idiosyncratic look. (Sim went on record in 1982, stating that he based Cerebus on Peter Tork from The Monkees, but he was very, very high at the time.)

But in a career-spanning interview with Gary Groth’s Newsarama in 2005, Sim revealed this his initial intention was to have a very different lead character.

“At first I thought I had to make something a bit wacky to make it stand out,” Sim told Groth, “and I was going to make Cerebus an anteater or antelope or something stupid like that. But then I realised I’d spend the rest of my career being asked ‘Why an anteater?’, and that would probably have driven me crazy.”

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Sim had stuck to his initial idea of Cerebus being a talking animal. It is unlikely the title would have lasted 350 issues, or that most of the last decade of the comic would be totally concerned with the 100-issue Battle For Iest. Sim might never have got to his final, transcendent 50-issue Peace For Iest storyline, which climaxed with the highly emotional #350, with Cerebus on his death bed, surrounded by an entire kingdom who would all gladly give their lives for him.

(On the positive side, it also might not have resulted in the appalling 1987 adaptation of Cerebus, starring Dolph Lungren as the barbarian hero, Brigette Neilsen as Jaka and Bob Hoskins as comedy sidekick Oscar Wilde, but some cinematic atrocities can’t be erased that easily.)

Sim broke new ground with his Church & State storyline in Cerebus the Barbarian, but abandoned a brief dabbling in sexual politics after Jaka’s Story, and pulled back to focus on Cerebus’ existential dilemmas on the battlefield, with the title character unexpectedly finding the meaning of the universe in the lamentations of his opponent’s loved ones. This story, which ran in the ‘Love’ storyline from issues #150-200, was a nakedly emotional plea for understanding from Sim, that only the hardest of hearts could resist.

This new direction towards a kindler, gentler barbarian was not in the initial blueprint for the series, as Sim revealed in an interview with Hero Illustrated in 1997: “The initial plan was to really get into the relationship between men and women, before moving into some deep religious allegory, mixed with Three Stooges slapstick and musings on the 20th century’s literary giants.

“But then I thought nah, fuck that, and went back to telling stories about adventures and girls with big tits.”

He also revealed that a noted British writer had a major influence on his new direction.

“Michael Moorcock wrote me a lovely letter in the late eighties, talking to me about the dubious sexual politics he saw in the title at the time. He said it in the nicest possible way, and I just felt like a bit of a dick, so I stepped away from all that kind of thing.”

Sim has remained busy since Cerebus ended with the universally-acclaimed #350 – his SimWorld message board system is the fourth biggest comic board on the internet, with ‘Dave’s Love Corner’ responsible for more successful relationship than all the others put together, while WW2 revenge epic Judenhass was the second biggest selling comic book of 2007.

And Sim has jumped back into the monthly grind with Glamourpuss – a Modesty Blaise meets Millie the Model pastiche that has already racked up more than 40 issues, with Sim promising a shorter run this time and an anticipated ending somewhere around #100.

After that, Sim has signalled that he will retire from comics and let his work speak for itself. In the unusually introspective follow-up interview with Groth, he talked about settling down with his second wife Colleen – who he has now been married to for more than 20 years – and enjoying life with his four kids.

But he also spoke of one great regret in his work, and – surprisingly – it was that he didn’t stick with his initial plan to make Cerebus a furry animal.

“I know it was a stupid stoner idea, but I kinda wish I had stuck with my guns on that one. If I hadn’t made that first initial compromise, who knows what could have happened?”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Batman, Ltd

Grant Morrison’s fascinating run on Batman came to a natural conclusion with the Return of Bruce Wayne, with Batman’s return from a fate worse than death suitably apokalyptic and fun.

But Morrison was apparently getting so much enjoyment out of writing Batman that he carried on with Batman Inc, a series that has managed to be exciting, essential, inconsequential, dark and silly, all at the same time.

Stories don’t always stop where they should, but that’s not always a bad thing…

Consider Vertigo’s ultra-resilient Fables title. Everybody knows it was supposed to end with the defeat of the Great Adversary, even Bill Willingham. But Willingham ignored that general wisdom and wrapped that particular tale a couple of years ago in three issues flat, and then went on to do other things with the title.

The post-war Fables stories have provoked a nagging sense that the story is finished and everything after is epilogue, which is a little odd to think of when you’re talking about characters whose stories have become literally endless over the centuries, and that idea that things have moved past the predictable ending that was always going to happen gives the comic a terrific sense of freedom and unpredictability. Anything could happen now.

There is a fair bit of that Fables factor in Batman Incorporated. The first volume of Batman Inc recently wrapped up with the double-sized Leviathan Strikes, leaving ten issues of comics that tried to do something new with Batman beyond the natural conclusion of Morrison’s story.

And yet, while it was a typically witty and trippy and fast-paced Morrison Batman series, it sometimes tried too hard to be now and fresh and interesting, and the story sometimes out-paced itself, leaving the reader gasping in its wake. Morrison’s superhero shorthand allows him to skip past all the dull bits and nail one scene in a couple of observant panels, but it can also cut out a lot of emotional resonance, and the story is in dire danger of becoming a Series Of Events, rather than an Actual Story.

This sense of all surface, no feeling was not helped by the series’ initial artist - Yanick Paquette – whose work was a bit too flat for the intended effect  The colours were also oddly muted, when they desperately needed to be bright and garish, and the entire comic looked dangerously un-sexy.

Still, while it had its faults, Batman Inc still managed to be the most entertaining and interesting Batman comic being published every month. By taking Batman outside his Gotham comfort zone, the series gained a zesty international flavour. After thousands of issues set in Gotham City, seeing Batman engage in the big wide world is still refreshingly satisfying.

The series also saw the startling development of artist Chris Burnham, who is quickly shedding the Quitely influence to build his own unique style – his line is getting a lot looser than Quitely’s, and he doesn’t have - or need - that same obsessive attention to detail.

And it was a Batman comic written by Grant Morrison, who manages to be deadly serious while retaining an ironic sense of how beautifully absurd it all is. It was an idiosyncratic and deeply individual story produced within the rigid confines of corporate comics, and that is something that is always worth celebrating.

The most surprising thing about sneaking these high-faluting ideas into a Batman comic was that is actually paid off, because there is a real audience for that kind of thing. The first volume of Batman Inc remained one of DC’s consistently top sellers over its short life, outpacing many other comics with 'Batman' in the title, without resorting to tie-ins to dubious events, or superstar artists.

It was a comic that proved that truly individual stories told in a slightly challenging format could be sales successes.

It couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

Because then the new 52 came along and brought back the same old Bat doing the same old Bat-shit in the same old Bat-town, and while creators insist that there are vital differences between Batman and Detective and Batman & Robin and David Finch Batman, there really isn’t much of a difference from a slight distance - just that same old status quo, spread across titles that share that same intensely scratchy art style. All-new, all-extreme, all the time.

Batman Inc was shunted off to the side in this latest soft reboot, the final relic of a obsolete continuity which doesn’t fit with all the other regular titles, and no longer counts in the greater Bat-story. Batman Inc is left feeling like a time capsule from six months ago, passing itself off as the brand new thing, when it’s been relegated to the old – and not even old enough to be interesting again.

It’s hard to deny the financial success of DC’s 52 initiative, but it’s succeeded by retreating to tried and tested formula. Just when it looked like things could be different, they’re back to the same old games. There might be imaginative mutilations and locked room mysteries in the new Batman comics, but that’s nothing really new.

One unfortunate side-effect of the DC relaunch is that it’s shown that while something like Batman Inc can gain enough readers to be a consistent sales success, the only really big sellers are those driven by large editorial visions, rather than eccentric and singular ideas. And while it certainly pays off in the short term, this kind of pandering to a committed base is only going to have diminishing returns.

Then again, Batman Inc is not dead yet….

The series returns later this year, even though, for a while there, it looked like the second volume of Batman Inc was going to be one of those projects that Morrison never quite got around to finishing off. But DC has enough goodwill towards the Scots writer – and has made enough money off his ideas over the years – to let him finish the story, even if it is an odd fit for the new DC universe.

That could be for the best, because Morrison’s comics always work a bit better when they’re just a little out of sync with the regular universe. His audacious Seven Soldiers work was not quite in the same world as Batman, and the pleasantly jarring appearance of Booster Gold in the pages of Doom Patrol gave that comic some necessary context.

So if Batman Inc goes off and does it thing, it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t fit with the current Detective Comics. Those weird little pathsoff the main continuity road are where some of the best work gets done and should be encouraged as much as possible. It can lead to dodgy results, like Neal Adams’ recent unfortunate Bat-comics, but this is the area where things like The Dark Knight Returns and Killing Joke come from.

Batman Inc felt so unnecessary after the Return of Bruce Wayne, but has become more essential as other Bat-comics return to their comfortable chairs. It’s hard to follow its pace sometime, but it will wait for you to catch up.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Criminal: Crime totally pays

(Warning, this post contains big-ass spoilers for Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent)

After decades of comics showing that committing any sort of crime has some sort of consequences, it’s actually slightly jarring to read one where the main character commits a heinous and violent murder, and totally gets away with it.

On the other hand, since this is happening in the pages of a Criminal storyline, and since Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have delighted in playing off genre convention with unexpected results since the first book, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

For reasons far too boring to go into here, I only get Criminal when it is collected in a trade paperback, even though I happily buy a new issue of Incognito – and now Fatale – every month.

There is just something so satisfying about a Criminal story when it is full and complete, and can be read in one sitting. Each one is an absolute delight – the most efficient comic on the market also comes with deadly doses of darkness and weird emotional epiphanies.

Despite being extraordinarily late in jumping on the Criminal bandwagon, I now get each new book as soon as it comes out. This means I have to wait a few months, but that’s okay – I can wait.

What I can’t do is avoid general reviews. While I have no desire to spoil anything, I can’t help skimming through reviews and previews, just to get an idea of the general critical vibe.

That vibe was – as usual – almost uniformly positive for the first few issues of Last of the Innocents. The inspired use of Archie analogues gave this particular slice of noir an extra emotional punch, and, as many noted, it was a story that could only ever really work as a comic. You couldn’t evoke that Archie atmosphere and get a similar effect in a movie or TV show.

But while the series still featured on a number of ‘Best Of’ lists at the end of the year, the vibe was hit by a nagging sense of disappointment when the final issue rolled around. While many critics and readers appreciated the ending - in which the Archie character kills the Veronica and Jughead analogues and totally gets away with it - there were many others who felt that this particular Criminal ballad ended on a flat note.

It’s easy to see where they are coming from. After Riley Richards stabs his beloved Felix in the eye with an ice pick, there is a creeping sense of dread and despair. There is no way Riley can get away with it, especially when his enemies (and best friend) know exactly what he has done. Some kind of terrible retribution is inevitable.

But it’s also totally avoidable. Stories don’t always go the way they should, and Riley ends up with his dream girl, the beach house and the millions of dollars. He’s killed his best friend and his wife, and there are hints of regret in those final pages, but they are only hints. Riley has simplified his world again and he figured it was worth the cost.

I admit - my first reaction to Last of the Innocents was vague dissatisfaction, because I was expecting some kind of gory and intense end, and it just didn’t happen like that. But I’ve been more than satisfied with it on subsequent re-readings, because I didn’t know what the story was the first time round.

This isn’t the story about a man being punished for his terrible crime, it’s about a man willing to go to horrible lengths in a bid to get his life back into a teenage ideal.

And this kind of ending, where crime actually pays, is genuinely unexpected. Everything else in the genre, from the EC crime comics of the fifties to David Lapham’s mad Stray Bullets, has shown that committing a crime has some sort of consequence. Even people who aren’t punished by the law face some sort of karmic justice, or are mentally destroyed by the experience. Because crime is bad, and nobody gets away with it.

Which isn’t always how it works in the real world. Despite nightly doses of CSI bollocks on the TV every night, a lot of people do get away with all sorts of crimes. These types of things don’t always wrap up nicely.

And Brubaker has been using that expectation against us since the end of the first volume where a mortally wounded Leo was supposed to slip away into death as police come closer – eyes flutter, police lights blur, roll credits – but finds it’s a lot easier to kill than it is to die.

While this kind of ending is difficult to pull off, Brubaker and Phillips just keep on doing it, to the benefit of the larger story they are telling.

Creating a good crime comic is a lot harder than it looks – Vertigo’s recent line of original crime novels have produced a lot of mediocrity, and nothing truly great – but Criminal is Brubaker’s best work, and his obvious love for the genre shines through on every page.

It’s not just the unexpected twists and turns the plot takes, it’s the overall story of generations of crime, making the same old violent mistakes and (not always) suffering terrible fates. And it’s the gorgeous and moody art by Sean Phillips. And it's the little connections to the greater criminal story, with Sebastian Hyde and Teeg Lawless showing up. And it’s the fact that it’s also still very funny – the line about Riley only really existing when people were watching him was a cracker – with the crispest dialogue around, making each new volume absolutely entertaining

Like several other stories in the series, Criminal: The Last of the Innocents doesn’t end like you think it would or should, and the story it’s telling might not be obvious from a first reading, but that’s what I dig the most.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I love movies and music and books and television, but it’s the comics I love the most.

I travel to the other side of the world just to see what the comic shops look like. I lie awake at night wondering how much worse Dashiell Bad Horse’s life is going to get in the next Scalped book. I have genuinely emotional reactions to old issues of GI Joe and 2000ad and Richie Rich.

Then again, I also have genuinely emotional reactions to old issues of Wizard magazine, so I’m obviously not right in the head. I found a whole bunch of them from 1991-1996 in the cupboard the other day, and the stench of nostalgia was so overpowering, I shelved plans to get rid of the magazines, even though they’re taking up a fair bit of room.

If I can’t get rid of old Wizards, what hope it there?

They say you’re meant to grow out of it, but they don’t know what they are talking about.

Comics are just another medium for delivering stories, and it’s easy to see why they’re the best. You can do anything with words and pictures. Harvey Pekar famously said that and then used his words and pictures to tell stunningly mundane stories, which somehow proved his point.

And there are so many different comics, doing such wonderful things with words and pictures.

There are sexy spies and transcendent superheroes and Kitchen Sink Plus and gritty crime and heartbreaking autobiography and pure laffs and genuinely creep horror and metaphysical mindfucks and historical epics and fairy tales and war stories and love stories and action stories, and that’s all just on a couple of shelves in the bookcase next to the computer.

There really is something for everyone, an incredible variety of tales and fables, and anybody who cloisters themselves within any one genre or mindset is really missing out.

I always, always buy comics made by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Matt Wagner, Brendan McCarthy, Paul Chadwick, Frank Miller, Evan Dorkin, Dan Clowes, Jim Aparo, Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman, Alan Davis, Los Bros Hernandezx, Garth Ennis, Frank Quietly, Brian Bolland and Peter Bagge.

It might take me a few years to get them, but I get there in the end.

There are also a hundred other creators that I actively seek out work by, even if I never feel any kind of completist urge, from Sergio Aragones to Pat Mills. But those 18 creators produce work that I find Always Entertaining and Occasionally Quite Moving, so I get everything they do. 

Because of all the major creative outlets, comics are the most likely to get across a specific and singular artistic vision.

There are always dozens of hands in the mix when it comes to movies or television stories, and while creating a comic is almost always a collaborative process - even work by writer/artists often have editors or colourists or somebody backing up their ideas - it's also the best place to get that singular perspective. The insatiable demand for new comics, and the speed with which they come out, and the ability for anybody to pick up a pen and paper and just fuckin’ do it, results in some remarkably personal and idiosyncratic work.

Even in the cold, hard world of corporate comics, creators like Peter Milligan or Frazer Irving or dozens of others get to tell stories that are their own. There will always be some editorial interference, but Grant Morrison has shown that you can deal with all that, and still put out some Batman comics that are sometimes uncomfortably personal.

And when it comes to comics that are more nakedly personal, there are some wonderfully extreme world views. Never mind the greats, like Crumb or Spiegelman or Eisner, who have all left behind substantial bodies of work representing a specific artistic vision that will live for centuries after they have gone. Even that one guy back in college who did that one autobiographical comic about the day his girlfriend dumped him and his grandfather died, even he has created something out of nothing, and left it out there in the world.

One of the other great little pleasures in my life is sitting down in front of the telly and sorting out some comics. I love hefting boxes of comics around, and filing away scattered comics into their proper places, slotting that one issue of Hellblazer right where it belongs, putting all the Paul Grist comics in the right place.

I also spend far too much time thinking about bookshelves, wondering if the Vertigo books really belong on the same shelf as Superman/Batman: Saga of The Super Sons.

There is something beautiful about a good comic – the way art and design and story all combine to produce this little package.

I don’t care what form the stories come in, but I can still appreciate a good-looking comic. Whether it’s an extravagant hardcover or a stapled mini-comic, each comic is a beautiful singular thing, and some of them are prettier than others.

A really good looking comic is prettier than anything.

I actually did a little dance in the store the other day, when I realised the new Milk and Cheese hardcover was out. I knew it was coming, but didn’t know when, so when I saw it on the shelf I did an honest-to-God jig, right there in the aisles of Real Groovy.

My lovely wife bought it for me for my birthday, because I said I’ll love her forever if she got it for me. She did and I will.

She also says that if I ever cheated on her, she would burn every comic I own, and that I would come home one day and there would just be a big pile of ashes in the spare room, because she knows that this is the worst thing she could do to me.

Besides arguing that I will never, ever be a cheater, I have also tried to convince her that there are tens of thousands of dollars locked up in all those boxes of comics, and it would be much better to take them and sell them for money, rather than a quick fix of fiery vengeance.

After all, it’s not the comics’ fault. They shouldn’t suffer.

I haven’t convinced her of anything, and all those wonderful comics, from the Uncanny X-Men comic I’ve had since I was six to the Secret Avengers I bought last week, would justifiably all go up in a cloud of thick, black smoke.

I turn 37 today, and I love comic books just as much as I did when I was w Whiz-Kid (not a Chip-ite) at seven, or when I was 17 and cracking open my head with the first Love and Rockets comic I bought, or when I was 27 and enjoying the hell out of the Ennis/Dillon Punisher.

This blog turns three today, and I’m never going to get sick of talking about how much I love comics, so it will still be going for some time to come.