Monday, February 27, 2012

Vampire Tales

Marvel’s vampires are the best vampires in all comics, despite the company’s best efforts to make them as unlikeable as possible.

Vampires are everywhere these days, and a deluge of piss-poor movies and Young Adult novelettes in the past decade has almost totally robbed them of any cool factor. It’s a sub-genre that still occasionally produced something marvellous, like Let The Right One In, but they are usually smothered in endless and unwanted Underworld and Lost Boys sequels, or well-intentioned failures like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead. The writing was literally on the wall once Vampire Fiction bookshelf signs went up in Borders.

I’ve always been a sucker for vampire stories, ever since I sneaked out of bed to catch a showing of Dracula: Prince of Darkness as a little kid. I’ll see any old piece of crap that has vampires in it, which means I have seen a lot of old pieces of crap. I don’t care, I’ll keep watching them. I can’t stop now.

And it’s not just the occasional shitty movie or a late night guilty pleasure like the Vampire Diaries, I’m always up for some vampire comics, but disappointment is almost inevitable. Maybe it’s because the appeal of vampires is so often inexorably linked to physical sensuality, and comics have a weird idea about what’s sexy (all those arched backs do nothing for me), and besides, I stopped wanking over cartoon characters and moved on to real girls when I was 15.

There is the occasionally good (but never great) Vampirella comics, but that whole concept has always been a bit skeevy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics get tedious – in any incarnation - surprisingly quickly, even with Whedon’s involvement. There are all sorts of other comics still being published, including things like Covert Vampire Operations, or Dracula: The Company of Monsters, but almost always fail to thrill.

There has also been a long history of vampires in the DC universe – dating back to Batman’s very earliest days – and DC creators occasionally produce something good (the vampires in the water in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run are still some of the creepiest nosferatu ever seen in comics.) But the DC vampires are also incredibly disorganised – there are all sorts of different rules for different comics, and all sorts of different vast vampiric conspiracies happening in different comics, often at the same time.

When it comes to creating an established mythos and setting an established template for long-running stories about vampires, nobody did it better than Marvel.

According to one of those handy Marvel Handbook things, Dracula’s first appearance in the Marvel Universe was actually in something called Suspense #7 in 1951, but the history of the Marvel vampire really starts with Tomb of Dracula #1 in April 1972.

In the 40 years since that comic, vampires have been an integral part of that world. Like everybody else, Marvel uses vampires as an easy shortcut for sexy evilness, but unlike everybody else, it has also built up its own rock solid mythology.

To be fair, most of that mythology was only established in that first decade after Tomb of Dracula #1, and the next 30 years saw an almost conscious effort to undermine it, but those old comics are still surprisingly powerful. Even if the paper they were printed on is beginning to show its age, these vampire stories are (almost) immortal.

It all starts with that Tomb of Dracula series, and the long, strange road that Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan took with that monthly colour comic.

I get the feeling that if you got Marv Wolfman drunk in front of a tape recorder, he’d tearfully admit Tomb of Dracula was an unashamedly sincere love story, and he’d be largely right. Wolman and Colan gave Dracula a regal disdain for all of humanity, and while he might be a bloodsucking monster, he was also a man with his own passions and a lust for life that death could not conquer.

It was a comic that could get ridiculously goofy, but it also managed to be genuinely creepy and occasionally affecting. It tried to tackle Big Themes, and sometimes did them justice, as Dracula strode through the late twentieth century like a metaphysical colossus. No matter what else changed in the world, Dracula was eternal.

My deep affection for Marvel vampire comics – and the establishment of a real vampire canon - also stems from the black and white magazines that ran concurrently with the Tomb title.

Of the other major comic companies, Marvel made the most out of the mini-boom in cheap, chunky black and white comics for adults in the 1970s. While smaller publishes would slap any old crap together and find buyers, Marvel’s black and white magazines were given some real editorial care – producing Conan comics that would outlive all of their contemporaries, pulse-pounding Kung-Fu magazines, the only decent Planet of the Apes comics ever (an admittedly low bar to overcome), and – most of all - all those intensely creepy black and white horror magazines

There were loads of them, featuring the truly freaky Simon Garth zombie or the misunderstood Frankenstein monster or the lovely Satana, but the vampire comics were the best.

Tomb of Dracula continued for a few more months after the end of the colour series in magazine form, but there was also Dracula Lives and Vampire Tales.  None of the comics lasted more than a few years, but they were all loaded up with great stories, with terrific art from Colan, the terribly underrated Tony DeZuniga, Mike Ploog, John Buscema, Neal Adams and dozens of others.

The stories – written by the usual suspects: Wolfman, Isabella, Gerber, Conway and Moench – were mainly short, one-off tales that could be extremely effective, (one about Blade taking on a nest of child vampires profoundly scared the shit out of me as an eight-year-old), but they also delved into the background and history of Dracula and Marvel vampires in general, setting a template that was too strong to be ignored.

But all that was 30+ years ago. A lot has changed since then, and desperate attempts to pump blood into the Marvel vampire have proven increasingly anemic.

Oddly enough, they were at their one of their most interesting when they were all gone. For a while there, around the end of the eighties, vampires didn’t exist in the Marvel Universe – something called the Montesi Formula wiped them from reality in some random issue of Doctor Strange.

It was a blatant editorial attempt to get away from all the clichés that were building up around Dracula and his brood, but the fact that they only existed in whisper and myth gave them a weird sort of spooky power. They were a Great Evil that had plagued humanity since caveman days, and the world was better off without vampires, but they still left their mark all over the place.

It only took a few years before they did a Montesi reversal, and vampires were everywhere again. Unfortunately, by then it was the darkest days of nineties comics, and endlessly awful issues of Nightstalkers and Midnight Sons soured the concept, making Marvel vampires terminally uncool.

But Marvel are not the sort of company who just leave a half-decent concept mouldering in its grave, and has repeatedly tried to resurrect their vampires, with diminishing results.

The most recent was seen in the launch of the thoroughly redundant X-Men comic, which started with a six-issue war between mutants and vampires. The most surprising thing about these tedious Curse of the Mutants comics was that even after everything Marvel had done to its vampires over the years, it could still make them more uncool.

It only took one issue – the Death of Dracula one-shot which kicked off the story – to show this new generation of vampire stories just weren’t worth following. It wasn’t the clichéd vampire prostitute clans or even the endless bloody politics and grasps for power the story was interested in, but nobody else was (something that has also crippled the Marvel ninja – nobody wanted endless issues of Daredevil full of ninja politics).

It was largely the fact that the story included the dreaded Farmer Vampires, showing up for a grand summit in their best jeans and overalls. (And yes, there were always vampires harvesting humans like farm animals, but at least they didn’t pretend to be some mighty clan. And yes, there was always Hellcow, but nobody ever tried to convince anybody that they should take Hellcow seriously.)

But the one thing that convinced me that the new direction for Marvel vampires was like dust in the mouth was the new design for Dracula. Instead of this classically creepy look, which has somehow remained in some kind of fashion for more than a century -
- there was this design, which looked dated three minutes after the comic was published.

Gene Colan’s Dracula had a magnificent malevolence in his 19th century suit, striding through the ominous mist in his great cloak and tie. It was a criminally undervalued look, saying everything about the character. This was a supernatural suit, which turned into mist with the vampire’s body, and gave Dracula that vague bat shape that hinted of the lustful animal beneath the pressed shirt.

The new look is a hamfisted attempt to look modern and interesting, but a ponytail on a man is never cool, and all that scraggy red armour just makes him look like a cosplayer at your local con.

Even after that, I still have unbridled affection for Marvel vampire comics, but that’s not nearly enough to keep me following their latest incarnation. There is no creepiness or dread or anything like that in the latest wave of vampire stories, but at least I’ve still got the old magazines to remind me that they once had power.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

In the Meadows

There are only a few film directors whose work I always want to see at the cinema as soon as possible. I’ve gone off a few over the years and these days, it’s largely limited to slick and stylish creators like the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch and the mighty Shane Meadows.

I never miss the chance to see a new film by Meadows and it is always, always rewarding. His work is always stellar and often unbearably moving, as he finds moments of such aching beauty in the most mundane of settings.

It was the ballroom dancing scene in Twenty Four Seven that got me.

It’s Bob Hoskins taking his auntie out to a small community hall for some dancing lessons and finding some peace of mind in the effort. While it is a brief digression in a harsh story about a broken man trying to set up a boxing gym for boys, it encapsulates everything I love about Meadows’ films.

It’s a moment of poetic grace amongst the grime, the ordinary made beautiful as real human connections are made. A ballroom dancing class attended by half a dozen people in the afternoon becomes a glorious ode to finding beauty in the simple things people can enjoy

It’s not cool, or stylish, but it was real and it breaks my heart every time.

I saw the movie in a nearly empty cinema in 1997, inspired by a five-star review in Empire magazine, and after that scene, I’ve never missed a single one of Shane Meadow’s films. And that’s worked out rather well.

Twenty Four Seven is a slice of stone cold genius, a wonderful and touching examination of hope rising from the bleak despair of everyday life. A Room For Romero Brass saw Paddy Considine make his debut as a fantastically raving loony who bullies his way into the affections of younger peers.

Once Upon A Time In The Midlands does what it says on the tin, showing you don’t need guns and horses to tap into the same themes as a Leone western. Dead Man's Shoes starts off daftly humorous, takes a turn to the utterly horrific, and then ends up the saddest goddamn thing ever.

Somers Town and Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee are both about boys trying to find their place in this vast and confusing world, and the This Is England films are absolutely superb.

His films can be incredibly intense, with overdose scenes or really bad trips that manage to avoid almost all the clichés, while cranking the intensity all the way up 11. But they can also be effortlessly graceful stories about people at the bottom of society.

His films have timeless charms back up by the best ear for a decent soundtrack in the business, with broken people finding rare and exceptional moments of actual bliss, and more humour and humanity and profound truths in an 48-minute episode of This is England than in the entire filmography of, say, Michael Bay.

One of the key appeals of Meadows’ work is the idea that realism doesn’t always mean grim. His films have their fair share of utter despair, as terrible things happen to genuinely good people, but they are also loaded up with wit, humour and the value of a good laugh

Having a laugh won’t get rid of unavoidable pain, but it’ll help. Those who have been beaten down their whole lives finding their places of happiness, where they can let all that shit go, and have a laugh with good mates

Because he captures the appeal of good friends far better than any other filmmaker I can think of, grabbing those feelings of history and embarrassment and love and awkwardness that comes with any friendship that lasts throughout the years.

The crews in Meadows film can be a varied lot, but they are always there for their mates, no matter what. They tease and joke and confess and have a drink together, finding some warmth in a couple of beers and the latest Eastenders.

Meadows is also the latest in a long line of British filmmakers who are only interested in portraying this level of society, finding universal truths in thoroughly local stories. He follows in the steps of Lindsay Anderson, Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach – tapping into the same feelings that produced the shared coffee scene in Scum, or the sum totality of Johnny's rants in Naked. That sense of kitchen sink transcendence, finding hidden depths in council estates or on the football pitch or down the pub.

For Meadows, This Is England is the ultimate result of that – a short and sharp movie about a changing culture that some people can’t change with, followed by (so far) two television mini-series, following the characters through the years that follow.

The idea that the story will continue to follow vast and ordinary lives through the long years is an inspired one, and with production values equal to his cinematic efforts, Meadows and his collaborators have crafted an exceptional story.

Like all of Meadow’s films, he gives his cast incredibly meaty roles - Stephen Graham is never better than when he gets the twitchy lip as Combo, the charm and friendliness of Joe Gilgun’s Woody makes the awful pain he suffers all the more unbearable, and Vicky McClure gives Lol a real dignity as she struggles with her own secrets.

Watching them all in one go – like I did in the past week – is incredibly draining, but grants vast rewards. Things got a bit emotional.

All I hope now is that the next series of This Is England films - and 1990 is coming - doesn’t focus on Woody and Lol. After all those two have been through, and considering where they finally end up at the end of ’88, I hope the focus goes somewhere else. It would always be nice to see them, but they have had enough drama.

I have exactly the same feeling about that as I did when I read the latest Love and Rockets, and say Maggie and Ray finally find some happiness. Leave them alone for a while now.

Watching a new Shane Meadows film sometimes feels like taking a long train journey that passes through a new major city. You get to see the backside of a city – the streets and alleys and vacant lots that surround the tracks. It’s a fascinating view, and sometimes you get to see something surprising, and the odd bit of wonder.

Meadows does the same sort of thing; operating out of the heart of Britain, he finds beauty in the strangest things –. A man who has committed horrific murders knows he has become the last monster that must be destroyed. A roadie turns an Arctic Monkeys gig into the greatest experience in his life. A former racist gets the chance to do one good thing to atone for past sins.

I’m up for a bit of that. Any time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

2000ad: 2012

It’s a little disconcerting to realise that the special 100-page, end-of-year issues of 2000ad have now been going for more than a dozen years. They still feel fresh and new, probably because those 12 years are still only a small stretch in the British comic’s 35-year history.

They also feel all shiny because they tend to be packed with great one-off stories featuring classic 2000ad characters by the very best creators, mixed in with the launch of important new storylines, with enough room left over for a few brave stabs at all new stuff. It’s in these special issues that you find things like Morrison and Yeowell doing a one-off Zenith, or Mills and O’Neill putting the final cap on the twisting Nemesis saga.

I was a little let down by Prog 2011 a year ago – largely due to the lack of John Wagner and/or Nikolai Dante – but I was still looking forward to 2012. I intentionally ignored anything about the comic, but I still knew this one would have Wagner and Dante, and a lot more besides.

Happily, Prog 2012 is the best of these year-end things in… well…. years. While the usual ratio of quality in a regular 2000ad comic remains the same – two exceptional strips, two okay ones, and one terrible story – Prog 2012 has eight stories and three of them are gruddamn brilliant, four of them are pretty damn good, and only one is real rubbish. That’s a decent ratio.

Judge Dredd
Choose Your Own Xmas by Al Ewing and John Higgins

The only bad thing to say about Choose Your Own Xmas is that it sets an impossibly high standard for the rest of the comic, because it’s easily the best thing in it.

As the title suggests, it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure-type thing, that laces in extra doses of irony and metatextual fun – this ain’t no Diceman. While the main character bounces around the 66-panels of the 12 page story, dying again and again, it took me a while to notice that Judge Dredd has a more linear path through the story, with just enough science fiction bollocks to explain what is actually going on, and why Jackson Packard has so many different fates.

Much of the story’s humour comes from a time-honoured Dredd technique where the main character realises he is in a story, and can hear the narrator in the caption box, or starts seeing these weird balloons with words in them hovering over other characters’ heads, and the whole story has just the right mix of dead cleverness, droll wit and exploding heads to make it one of the great Dredd holiday stories.

It also has some lovely art from John Higgins, with his usual stylish stiffness boosted by some terrific colouring. But it’s mainly the clever scripting by Ewing that makes this story an instant classic and gets Prog 2012 off to the best possible start.

Sick Leave by Gordon Rennie and Tiernen Trevallion

Absalom is a strong, fast-paced piece of cockney horror noir, and Rennie isn’t shy about showing the love to his influences with the main character sitting around talking about his old mates Jack Regan, Charlie Barlow and ‘that Irish git who was involved in all that zombie mess us Manchester way’.

Absalom’s observation that he is the last of the old guard gives the story more of an emotional kick than expected, and Trevallion’s art is as spooky as ever, with the whole strip a nice combination of working class magick and some crazy hardcore demonic action.

Nikolai Dante
The Wedding of Jena Makarov by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser

Dante is down in the dungeon again, the world is being told that nobody is too cool to kill, and I don’t think his Mum is going to get out of this one.

On the other hand, Elena is already wiping blood of her blade, and I’m still convinced Lulu is on Nikolai’s side and her betrayal is all part of the plan.

I am breathlessly excited about the direction the Nikolai Dante stories are heading in.

Prologue by Gordon Rennie and Leigh Gallagher

I'm embarrassed to admit it took me six pages to realise this story about a Nubian warrior in the Roman army who has had his soul stripped from him was a new version of Blackhawk.

Grey Area
Meet & Greet by Dan Abnett and Karl Richardson

Grey Area was – unfortunately – the one strip in this bumper comic that I really didn’t like. It was the one that did nothing for me, full of all that faux machismo of all the dullest 2000ad characters.

It’s a story about aliens in a Earth-based ghetto, and the hard-nosed humans who police the alien zone, seen through the eyes of a young female rookie who seems a bit naïve, but probably has something to hide, and I’m sure I’ve read this story a dozen times before. Even the gritted teeth and ridiculous air in Richardson’s art is horribly familiar.

To be honest, I’m not sure it isn’t just a pisstake and I’m not getting the joke. It has lines like “I WANT to scare you, honey. You NEED to be scared. Or you won’t last to WEEK TWO.” and “Bulliet? I thought you died!” “Nah, I got better.”

This… this can’t be serious, can it?

A Christmas Ghost Story by Alec Worley and Jon Davis-Hunt

This relatively new strip is always a bit too formal, but has a sly sense of wit and some surprisingly creepy moments, so more is always welcome. It’s also one of those classic 2000ad concepts that lends itself to short, sharp and shocking one-off stories, which is what it goes for here, and largely succeeds.

Sinister Dexter
Now & Again by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams

This strip is usually dead average for me - even though it’s been popular enough to keep running since the late nineties, I’ve only really loved it when things broke down into Downlode Tales and people like Chris Weston and Sean Phillips were doing the art.

But Dan Abnett (despite the depressingly routine Grey Area)  is still a smart writer, and manages to do a Sinister Dexter story that advances its achingly long plot, while still celebrating the history of the comic, getting in special guest appearances from Dredd, Nikolai, Johnny & Wulf and Abnett’s own Gene The Hackman.

Like the Absalom shout-outs, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of cheap thrill, when you’re in the mood for celebration, even if the Stonts meeting the Gunsharks was a bit too clever for its own good.

Strontium Dog
The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha – Chapter Two: The Project by JohN wagner and Carlos Ezquerra

Forget about Johnny, Middenface is alive! Ho’d ontae yer breeks, Middenface McNulty is still alive!

2000ad got into a good groove towards the end of 2011, with Dredd going somewhere Important with a capital Eye and the most recent series of both Low Life and Indigo Prime proving to be quietly spectacular. Prog 2012 was a fitting end to the year.

And that’s another year of 2000ad done, and another to come. There is a lot to look forward to, including  the Zaucer of Zilk by the legendary Brendan McCarthy and that man Ewing, Nikolai Dante’s self-prophesied (and independently verified) spectacular end is coming, and I would not be surprised if the latest Dredd mega-epic is the one that will finally finish the old man. Not knowing what comes next is a real joy, and it’s a nice feeling to be a bit over-eager about these things.

Looking forward to the future is the only way to face it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Digesting the love

There was nothing quite like a comic digest for delivering short, sharp doses of superhero fun, and I wish they still published them.

Back in the early eighties, reprints of old superhero comics were sometimes surprisingly hard to find. In the decade before, DC padded out super-sized issues with pages and pages of golden and silver age reprints,  and Marvel put out titles like Marvel Tales and Marvel Double feature and Marvel Triple Action and Marvel Collectors’ Items Classics and Marvel Action Spectacular Happy Hour, which helped remind everybody that the new guys weren’t as good as Kirby.

And then, in the 1980s, everybody was trying so hard to be modern and interesting and mature, and didn’t like being reminded of the embarrassing past too much. Marvel Tales carried on, but almost all the other Marvel superhero reprint material dried up. DC cut back its regular titles to smaller issues with all new content. There were odd special projects, or the rare book like Bring On The Bad Guys, or some weird little reprint paperback that suddenly shows up at the local supermarket, but the past was largely ignored.

There was no internet, or trade paperbacks, and even reference things like Who’s Who and The Official Awesome Handbook Of The Marvel Universe, or the terrible & incredibly informative Marvel Saga. I was just a kid at this time – in prime superhero mode – and this lack of access to the past used to drive me crazy.

But there were always The Best of DC: Blue Ribbon Digests, and I coveted each and every one of them.

The digest format is little-used these days. With the exception of Archie Comics, who will probably put out digest comics about goofy teenagers until the heat death of the universe, none of the big comic publishers really touch them anymore.  There are occasional reprints of random things like Vampire Tales and Sgt Rock comics that are smaller than regular collections, but none of those tiny, chunky digests.

But for a good 18 months in the mid-eighties, the digest format was everywhere. It was particularly well-suited for cheap and easy reprints of easy reads like GI Joe and Transformers comics, which were hard to find at the time. (During a brief infatuation with GI Joe comics in 1988, the only way I got to see those early issues were in there shrunk-down collections.)

The digest is a convenient format for carrying around in the back pocket, and provide a huge amount of bang for their buck. But it’s also easy to see why the format died – while reproducing at half the size of the original comic can produce some startlingly detailed work, it can also lead to smudged, confusing artwork. They were still printed on paper that was one level above toilet paper, and tiny lettering could lead to severe eye strain. I still have an inexcusable fondness for the garish tones of flexographic printing, but attempts to use that on tiny digest comics resulted in some good comics reduced to terrible mush, thanks to severe colour bleeding and over-saturation.

So now nobody (except Archie) bothers with digest comics anymore, which is an awful shame, because I love the little buggers, especially The Best of DC Blue Ribbon Digests.

There were 71 of these digests published between 1979 and 1986, and I’ve only got 16 of them, but I’m always looking out for more. Each digest has dozens and dozens of pages of DC comic fun, with a heavy Bronze Age preference backed up with stories from all eras of DC’s past.

The variety of comics published in these tiny books was staggering. There were tonnes of Superman, and ‘Year’s Best’ things, but also Sugar & Spike, Batman, Plop, Legion of Super-heroes and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer collections.

Even the endless Superman collections reprinted a large variety of stories, collected under certain themes, like Superman vs Luthor (#27), or Superman vs Kyptonite (#36), or Superman vs spooky shit (#38 - a personal favourite that still feels creepy).

A sharp editorial eye produced a series of digests that, tiny lettering and dodgy printing aside, are still incredible readable and packed full of terrific stories. Take the Batman Family digest (#51) – it’s got the classic Daughter of The Demon and the brilliant Night of The Reaper by O’Neill and Adams, but it's got a while lot more.

There is also a long story from Batman Family #11-13 with great art by Don Newton and Marshall Rogers featuring Man-Bat, Robin and Batgirl going up against that dastardly Outsider (which includes a great bit where Alfred finally gets the chance to give this Outsider fellow a good biffing), and it also finds room for charming oddities like a Commissioner Gordon/Alfred team-up where the butler and the policeman get a surprise birthday party for Bruce Wayne ready.

It wasn’t all a celebration of the past, even if it was the only place you could find that chunky Wayne Boring Superman. Some digests, like the New Teen Titans in #18 and the Legion of Super-Heroes in #24, included all-new ten page stories, and one of the most popular recurring features in the series were the Year’s Best digests.

These specials were all ‘148 prize-winning pages’ long, and stuffed full of the best DC could come up with at the time. They remain fascinating documents of the very last years of the Bronze Age – each has a super-charming Superman story, and there is always a Sgt Rock comic, because Easy Co’s short and sharp stories about man’s inhumanity to man were ideally suited for Best of Collections.

But they also have odd and offbeat stories featuring everyone from Green Lantern to Atari Force – and all of these comics are smart, clever and thoughtful to some degree. They show the first signs of a new quantum leap in superhero comics – it’s no coincidence that one of the last of the ‘Year’s Best Comic Stories’ books (#61) starts off with The Anatomy Lesson from Swamp Thing #21, and includes “Who Is Donna Troy’ from Teen Titans #38 – two comics that helped set the template for the next two decades of DC comics.

That was the first place I ever got to read the anatomy lesson, and even though Bissette and Totleben’s art is not well served by the format, it was still more than enough to blow my 12-year-old brain.

I adore these tiny digests, and wish I had more. Paradoxically, while they offer exceptional bang for buck, they were prohibitively expensive when they were brand new. I remember being crushed to discover that #66 – Superman Team-Up Action! – was $3.95 in 1986 NZ money, when most regular comics cost $1.03, so I had to get a Star Trek comic instead. (It was the first issue of the DC series where the Mirror Universe guys came back, and that was fucking awesome, so I did all right out of that decision.)

I never got to read that digest, and never actually bought one brand new. All of the ones I still own were bought in second hand bookstores over the years, and they’ve become incredibly scarce in recent years. A Jimmy Olsen digest I found in Dunedin last year was the first one I’d seen in a decade, and I haven’t seen any more since.

All my own digests are beaten to hell, which is probably why you don’t see them for sale much any more – these comics were made to be chucked about and treated badly. They all got lost or read to pieces.

But they also have those sturdy cardboard covers, and still hold together reasonably well, so I’ll still be looking out for more. This kind of dose of concentrated comic goodness is always welcome.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Are we reading the same comic?

He’s not the goddamn Batman, and Captain America doesn’t condone torture. I thought this was clear.

All Star Batman and Robin lost a lot of people with ‘I’m the Goddamn Batman” in issue two. It was one of those pieces of dialogue that manages to be silly, a little ironic and kinda funny, all at the same time. After that, you were either on that particular roller coaster of a comic to the end, or you most definitely were not.

I was certainly on board after that, because even if it sounded a bit clumsy and stupid, it also made me laugh, and I even have this put up as the desktop picture on my computer now and again, and it makes me happy:

I can totally understand people who didn’t like the way that comic went, or where it was going, and took the chance to jump off the title at the earliest opportunity. This type of hyperbollocks is definitely not for everybody.

But I was genuinely baffled by readers who started bleating that “Batman wouldn’t say that”, because it was utterly redundant. Of course Batman doesn’t say things like that – even Batman knows he doesn’t say like that, as is acknowledged in the very same story. It’s right there on the goddamn page:

It is an act he is putting on to try and impress Dick Grayson, and it’s totally not working, because right from the start, nobody knows the real Batman like Robin, and he can tell he’s faking it. He even says “He’s faking it” half a dozen times in Miller’s typically beautiful overindulgence.

The text is clear. This is early Batman – not the confident and proven Dark Knight – and he doesn’t know what works yet. It’s all spelled out in Jared K Fletcher’s lettering. It’s not a subtext or a vague theme – it’s right there.

So while I do appreciate the charm of a goddamn Batman, it was never worth getting your knickers in a twist if you think it’s silly, especially if you fail to actually read the comic which tells you it’s all an act.

It would be okay if this was an isolated incident, but this kind of woeful misreading of incredibly simple superhero comics just keeps on happening. 
It happened again last week. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Warren Ellis’ short run on Secret Avengers. It’s fast and quick and thoughtful and unexpectedly empathetic. Each issue was as sharp as a razor, while still finding room for extravagant spreads by cutting out the obvious shit.

The past six issues of Secret Avengers are a lot of what I like about superhero comics. It’s not everything, but it scratches a specific itch.

After reading the last issue, I was interested enough to see what the general vibe was like online about the series, and was a little confused to discover that the main point a lot of people took out of the issue was that ‘OMG! CAP DOESN’T TORTURE! I’M NEVER READING ANOTHER ELLIS COMIC AGAIN”

Which is funny, because I completely missed all of that torture.

This is what happens in the comic. Captain America and chums are looking for a traitor And so…

Somebody touches the back of somebody else’s hand, another person is shot with a super-stinger capable of everything from Instant Death to Harmless Light Show That Leaves You Feeling Slightly Numb and somebody holds a blade up to somebody else’s face.

There is no blood in any of these panels. With one exception, they’re all innocent people involved in anti-terrorist work, and Captain America would never hurt anybody who is on his side, but he’s not in his Cap uniform, so the traitor doesn’t know that.

When I read that bit, I was happy enough to believe that a Simon/Kirby creation didn’t condone torture, but he still understands the value of a good bluff. He’s been doing that since the Bulge.

At least, that’s how I got from it when I read this comic. Quick bluff, and then on to the monster-fighting to round out the issue. It didn’t even occur to me that anybody – Steve Rogers, Warren Ellis or Marvel in general – was condoning the use of torture.

Hell, this had already happened before in the same bloody comic - Ed Brubakerdid exactly the same thing back in issue seven:

There was a notable lack of outcry over this, so were the people who got upset when Warren Ellis did it offended by the fact that it was a British writer saying it?
This kind of manufactured outrage is very easy to condone, because we can all agree that torture is an evil and vile act that has no place in a civilized world. What is forgotten is that Ellis knows this as well. He just didn’t have the space in the comic to explain every single bloody thing.

But have no fear, true believer! If Captain America’s actions in Secret Avengers #22 left you with a bad taste in your mouth, just print out and cut up the following bits of dialogue, and then with the magic of glue, paste them somewhere in the comic where there is a bit of space around the characters.

SHARON CARTER: Gosh, Steve. I sure am glad you only had to bluff your way into finding out who the traitor was. It would have been terrible if we had needed to actually hurt people.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  No, Sharon. Even if the spy had stayed silent, we would not have resorted to that, because that’s not THE AMERICAN WAY.

FALCON: Sho ‘nuff!

And you’re sorted.

There is plenty to be outraged about in the comic business, plenty of other causes to support, plenty of things to be justifiably irritated by (and that’s as close as I’m getting to ever talking about Before Watchmen on this blog.) But I really don’t think this was one of them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Television: Those magic moments

There are so many new television shows every year, and only so much time and patience. It’s always fair to give a show a few episodes to get its hooks in, and hopefully be interesting enough to follow. I’ve found it actually disappointing when I can’t get into something like Heroes, or Supernatural, or V – I wanted to like them, I liked the concepts and the ideas, but I was never hooked.

But others get in deep, and I’ll follow them until the end. And it often comes down to one pure moment that tips the balance – it might be a moment of exquisite comic timing, or some deep emotional moment, or some incredible piece of action, but once I’ve seen that, I’m willing to follow this story to the end, no matter where it goes.

Because it can be a hell of a commitment, taking years to fulfil, and the path it takes might be one I’m wary of following, but it’s usually worth it.

I can always recognise that moment, when I think something is so clever, or hilarious, or just good, and it’s always a delight. Sometimes it comes in the first episode I ever see, sometimes it’s four seasons in, but I always know it.

I can’t find the words to fully explain this feeling, so I’me going to use theirs instead. And images. But no YouTube, because I hate blogs full of YouTube windows. Go find it if you want it, it’s all out there.

There is the usual subjectivity here – all of these 23 television shows are from the past 15 years, when the best television suddenly became better than the best movies, and I have a predictable preference for genre television and long-form narratives that occasionally touch some moment of transcendence, and lots of dopey adult cartoons.

These are those moments:


1.Battlestar Galactica

“Well, this should be different.”


2. The Simpsons

“There's a man here who says he can help you.”

“Is it Batman?”

“He's a scientist.”

“Batman's a scientist.”

“It's not Batman!”


3. Deadwood

“You can go now, brother”


4. Parks & Recreation

“You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.”


5. Lost



6. Venture Bros

“And I think my spaceship knows which way to go! Tell my wife I love her very much!”

“She knows!”

“Ground Control to Major Tom! Your circuit's dead, (there's something wrong!) Can you hear me, Major Tom?”


7. The Wire

“All in the game, yo?”


8. Seinfeld

“No soup for you!”


9. Metalocalypse

“Go! Into! The water!”


10. Doctor Who (new series):

“Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives!”


11. Buffy The Vampire Slayer

“Is Buffy Summers here tonight?


12. Arrested Development

“What have we always said is the most important thing?”



“Oh, right. Family. I thought you meant of the things you eat.”


13. Rome



14. Justified



15. Mad Men

“Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”


16. South Park
“I love to singa, about the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a! I love to singa , about the sky all blue-a or a tea for two-a…”

17. Trailer Park Boys:

“Act like you know me!”


18. Batman: the Brave and the Bold

"Batman's rich history allows     him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but is certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots then the tortured avenger, crying out for mommy and daddy. And besides, those Easter bunnies looked really scary, right?


19. Game of Thrones

“Stop this madness in the name of your King!


20. Six Feet Under

“Lord bring peace to them in their grief as you have in ours.”


21. Peep Show:

“Here, eat some turkey!”


22. True Blood

“Come, join us! It’s beautiful!”


23. Curb Your Enthusiasm:

“Larry, is there anybody right now that you’d like to ask for forgiveness, make right with?”