Friday, March 30, 2012

A Soundtrack of Ice and Fire

Sometimes I enjoy a movie or comic or TV show so much, there are literally no words to describe how it makes me feel. So it’s incredibly difficult to explain how hard I fell for Game of Thrones over the past year.

Like many, many other people, I only came on board George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire with the television show, and like many, many people, I fell into that world with absolute delight. Twelve months ago, all I could tell anybody about the series was that it was some sort of fantasy involving a very long winter, and that lots of trustworthy people had told me it was worth following.

I got hooked on the show at the precise moment the fight between the Hound and the Mountain on the jousting field ended, and after that, there was no going back. I devoured the books, and got deeply immersed in all the online analysis and theories. I now spend a lot of time wondering about Targaryen bloodlines and the religious beliefs of the Iron Islands.

Fortunately, I know several other people who have also fallen for the whole series as much as I have in the past year; unfortunately it means we only really talk about things like Jon Snow's mum when we meet up now, and not much else.

I'm not complaining. Spending time talking about something so vast and thoughtful and powerful is time well spent.

I’ve been a fiend for good fantasy since I got a bit over-excited reading The Hobbit as an seven-year-old, but got burned out on terrible Tolkien imitators and endless bloody role playing game tie-ins in my teens, and hadn't read any kind of long fantasy epic in years before A Game Of Thrones.

I have a fairly obsessive personality, so I drank it all up, burning through all five books in four months, watching the TV series several times over and taking to the internet to fill in all those gaps I missed. I watched all seven commentaries and every special feature on the DVD box set in three days.

Now I get genuinely irritated when people confuse a depiction of a misogynistic society as a condoning of a misogynistic society, and I know never to read the books on an empty stomach (all that red meat and ale and honey), and I’m literally shaking with anticipation over the imminent start of the new TV season.

I know I could talk for hours about how the one time you see Khal Drogo fight in the TV series is all you need to understand the character, and I know that Sean T Collins is right and there is a weird satisfaction when somebody you recommended the books to gets to the Red Wedding, and I know that like Lord Snow, I know nothing at all.

The thing I like most about it – and I like a whole lot of it – is the sheer fucking size of the thing.. I’ve read loads of essays, listened to podcasts, and they haven’t even covered a fraction of the themes of the overall story. It’s just too big to talk about.

I know someone who finds the whole Rickon thing actually upsetting – he is really moved by the small story of a little boy who has been abandoned by his parents (for the noblest of reasons), and his hurt and confusion literally manifesting itself as a giant wild wolf. It’s just one tiny part of a vastly bigger story, but even this small sliver of story has emotional resonance, and there are plenty more throughout the five books in the series.

You could – and people certainly have – write long, long essays about Jaime Lannister’s weird purity, or the absolutely clarity of the relationship between Tyrion and Bronn, or the role of the Maesters in the running of the realm.

You could pontificate at length about the dialects, geography and vast history of this world. You could argue over whether the Hound is the one truly honourable character in the series, or whether he can not be forgiven for some of his monstrous deeds.

But there are still some things that anybody who watched the television series can agree on – that Peter Dinklage is outstandingly good as Tyrion, that the opening credits are a work of sheer brilliance, that the fight choreography is frequently breath-taking and that Ramin Djawadi’s score for the series is fucking amazing.

I know it sounds like the geekiest thing ever, but the one album I’ve listened to the most in the past year is the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

All those pounding war drums, mournful strings, soaring choruses and haunting pipes. There are parts that are almost painfully moving, and other bits where it sounds like the musicians are gleefully taking to a double bass with a circular saw.

One of the astonishing pieces of trivia revealed in the DVD commentaries is the fact that the Iranian-German composer was a very late addition to the mix, because Djawadi’s score is such a massive part of the television show’s success.

It’s impossible to imagine the series without his stunning work. It is also a beautifully self-aware soundtrack that manages to compliment and enhance the story it is attached to, while also acknowledging the greater themes of the tale.

There are two moments in the soundtrack in particular, where the music suddenly becomes part of the story in an interesting way, and I’m still floored by the successful audacity of these pieces of music. One of them is right at the start of the story, and one is at the very end.

The first is The King’s Arrival, the fifth track on the soundtrack album and the music that can be heard in the first episode when the King and his incredible entourage roll into Winterfell. (You can hear it here)

The version on the show is a marvellous piece of work – perfectly capturing the grand entrance of the King with a catchy-as-hell theme – but the version on the album is even better. The most impressive thing about it is that it starts off as a jingly little toe-tapping tune that you would expect to hear from a small group of minstrels, and the sparse production is what you would expect from the soundtrack to a television show (with a limited budget) set in a fantasy world.

And then, after a brief pause at the one minute mark, the same tune starts up again, but this time the bells and tambourines have been replaced by big fucking pounding drums, deep strings and a full horn section. It’s an incredibly epic moment, and it feels like the soundtrack has paused and thought ‘Hang on, this is King Robert Baratheon, who seized the Iron Throne by slaying Rhaegar Targaryen with his own hands at the battle of the Trident. He deserves more than bells and whistles – he deserves his goddamn orchestra!” And he gets it.

The second piece come right at the very end of the first season of the show, playing over the final scene and closing credits.

It’s the moment when the story becomes much bigger, stranger and more rewarding than it first appeared, with the introduction of real magic into the story, and a monumental shift in world-defining power.  The soundtrack responds to this scene with a new theme - a soaring choral chant that hints at things darker and more substantial, and the sense that everything before was prelude and the real story has only just begun, and is destined for something bigger, something powerful.

But the main theme of the series is in there again, showing that the original story still has a part to play in this new and larger narrative. There are dragons in the world, but the Stark children are still scattered and lost, and they’re all part of this fresh and measureless new tapestry.

And then the music, the soundtrack and the story abruptly slams to a stop. The tale goes on, but not yet.

You have to wait and digest.

Game of Thrones is a sprawling mess in the best possible way - a story that starts in a Northern castle spreads across continents and over years, through the thoughts of the main characters, through devastatingly painful wars, and through the rise of magic, the quests for freedom and the aching to find a place in this huge world.

It’s too much geography to navigate in one sitting, but there are pieces of the Game Of Thrones landscape that we can sit back and enjoy, and Djawadi’s music is one of them.

It’s immensely rewarding, and the short running time of every track leaves the listener begging for more.

Just like any good story.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lost in the library again

The local library remains my primary source for reading new comics – issues of cost, distribution and sheer quality mean that I only buy about 20 per cent of all the new comics I read. The rest are from the library.

It’s a great way to keep track of things like Jason Aaron’s Wolverine comics, which manage to be both surprisingly good or massively mediocre, or read the latest Unwritten or American Vampire or iZombie or Hellblazer, without having to make a huge commitment to a long-running series.

I have bought plenty of comics after greatly enjoying them as library comics, but I’ve also used the library system to keep track of plenty more that I like, but never really love.

It’s also a fantastic way to try out new creators, or find odd one-off graphic novels that you might never have heard of before, or catch up on old favourites, or just see what’s happening in the X-Men these days.

I go to my local library at least twice a week, and I always find something interesting in the comic section I’m still incredibly impressed by the amount of comics that get into libraries these days – I remember when you were lucky to find a few Tintins in a decent sized library, now you can get complete runs of 100 Bullets or the latest Avengers collection in many, many libraries. And if you can get them there, why bother with buying them?

This has been a particularly rich week for library comics for me. As well as catching up on an idiosyncratic superhero comic that manages to avoid scratching a mental itch I’ve had since 1992, I also got to read a kitchen-sink epic that I’ve been meaning to get to for about as long.

(There have been a lot more than the ones I look at here in the past few weeks, but after slowly managing to scale a pile of massive Marvel collections, I have very, very little to say about any of them, and can only come up with a vaguely disinterested shrug. The Superman comics I also managed to plough through, which covered most of that endless New Krypton bollocks, were even worse.)


Happenings in Vegas/Scar Tissue 
By David, Fiumara, Luoacchino and De Landro 

Peter David’s current version of X-Factor is an easy comic to keep track off. Never successful enough to get deluged in spin-offs and crossovers, telling it’s own idiosyncratic – but still slightly bland – adventures of working class mutants within the Marvel Universe.

David has found his feet with X-Factor, and it’s still effortlessly enthralling. Sometimes it gets a bit too clever-clever, and some of the pop culture references go down like a drunk hippopotamus, but it’s a Peter David comic, that’s part of the deal.

These two volumes, which collectively reprint X-Faxtor #s 207-219, are as enjoyable as the rest of the series, with fairly self-contained stories in each book, while also moving forward on the overall storyline.

They also feature a couple of slightly surprising guest appearances, and I’m really not sure why I was so happy to see Pip The Troll here in X-Factor, when the sudden appearance of Jake Fury in the final book of Secret Warriors was really annoying. Probably because one of them set itself up to be a New Kind Of Superhero Comic, and then ended up relying on a 40-year old sliver of continuity, while the other one is a comic with both Longshot and Shatterstar in it.

David’s X-Factor has done well by picking up the discarded characters of the Marvel mutant universe, and giving them a bit of depth and real character, with Wolfsbane, Rictor and Siryn all benefiting greatly. I’ve also been a Longshot fan since the Nocenti/Adams series, so I am really pleased to see him in there as well. And I’ve been genuinely interested in the relationship between Longshot and Shatterstar since 1992, and I like the way David handles it in X-Factor, acknowledging it without giving any real answers. I actually hope it stays that way.


BPRD: Hell On Earth - New World 
By Mignola, Arcudi and Davis 

It’s immensely rewarding to read BPRD in library copies, because I was so late to the BPRD universe that there were already more than 10 books out there (and counting) by the time I got to it, and it was just too intimidating to get into the whole series.

The few bits and pieces I had read had been enjoyable, but I thought I would need to spend a few hundred bucks to get into the whole series. So I have been eagerly reading them when I see them in the library, to see what I was missing out on. I never got to read them in any kind of order, but I could still roughly follow the bigger story, while grooving on the details.

One of the pleasant things about this latest BPRD book is that there is a clear demarcation point, because as someone who has read more than a dozen BPRD completely out of order, and somebody who is keen to make sense of it all, it does help to have a clear line in the sand The story – from this point on – will always be post-Plague of Frogs, and with so much material already available, it’s nice to have a rough idea of where things fit in. (I found it similarly helpful when I was first trying to keep track of Judge Dredd as a kid – it helped that there was a clear pre- and post-Apocalypse War stories.)

Other than that pleasant place-marking, and the always-welcome work of Guy Davis, the latest BPRD is just as bloody good as all the earlier volumes, and it’s still spookier, funnier and more horrific than almost any other ongoing comic series. And the creators’ continued willingness to experiment with story structure - within the vast overall framework of this ultimate battle against ultimate evil – is still invigorating, as they skip over big monster battles in favour of tiny character moments.

Saying BPRD is as good as it ever was might sound like faint praise, but it’s really as high as it gets.


Huntington, West Virginia “On the fly” 
By Harvey Pekar and Summer McClinton 

A posthumous slice of American Splendouer, published last year, this book proves that Harvey Parker was still interested in telling everybody’s stories, right up until the end.

This collection is full of small portraits of everyday folk that Harvey met while on the road, and glimpses inside his own life as a respected author who gets to do speaking engagements a couple of times a year, and is obsessed on the little details, but doesn’t want to feel like an ass when he asks where his per diem is.

I really liked Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to the book, which points out that Harvey passed away at the same time LeBron James left Cleveland, but while the basketball player had an hour-long television interview justifying his actions, watching by millions, it’s Harvey that will still be remembered in a century’s time, while James will be a statistic in a book.

 Harvey was still interested in telling other peoples stories - real, complicated lives turned into slightly rambling and utterly poignant little tales. Harvey wasn’t just telling his own story, he was telling all of our stories, and they last forever.

Who cares about Lebron James when you could hear the story of Hollywood Bob?


The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus 
By Shelton 

I have a couple of thick Freak Bros books, covering some of their stoned misadventures, but reading all 500+ pages of their comics in one go while waiting for my car window to be fixed was an entirely satisfactory way to spend an afternoon.

Overall, I think I like the short gag strips a lot more than the hazy epics. Fat Freddy’s Cat is timelessly funny.


By Dave McKean 

Despite endless waves of imitators, Dave McKean remains a singular talent, and while there is almost always something worthwhile in his movies, covers and children’s books, his comics are where he really gets to show off.

It’s pleasing to note in the author bio at the end of the most recent collection of Cages that McKean is working on another proper comic, and it will undoubtedly be worth the wait if it’s as chunky and absorbing as Cages.

Cages is almost exactly what you expect from a Dave McKean graphic novel. It’s s story that manages to be about a single apartment building (and the quietly ordinary and slightly off-kilter lives within), while also being about the fundamental structure of the universe, and manages to meld the two together with remarkable little pretentious bollocks (and quite a lot of cat action).

There is still some pretentious bollocks, but even the most portentous narration is presented on a page of gorgeous Dave McKean artwork, and it’s hard to hate something that tries to reach so high, even if it doesn’t quite make it. McKean has a go at all sorts of art styles in Cages, so there are crazy collages that still manage to keep the narrative going, abstract streaks of beauty, and raw, sparse depictions of real life. There is also a lovely willingness in the art to fly away into the ether, looking for (and sometimes finding) a moment of transcendence.

I bought the first nine issues of Cages for a buck fifty a couple of years ago, but never read the series because I couldn’t find that last issue anywhere. Reading the whole thing, thanks to the library, is more than enough inspiration to seek it out.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A dose of recycling: Trailer Park Life

It’s a hectic week at the Tearoom, so no new post today. Instead, a repeat of some Trailer Park Boys love, because I’ve been watching it all week, and because I’ll be seeing these boys’ live show tomorrow night.

Things will probably get greasy.

There are a shitload of good television comedies out there at the moment. Larry David continues to embarrass and amaze, the Thick of It’s cast take profanity to transcendent new levels while still plumbing the depths of powerful despair and I don’t give a damn what anybody else says – The Simpsons is still fucking funny.

But if I had to pick an absolute favourite comedy of the past few years, it would probably be Trailer Park Boys, because I never, ever get sick of watching that show.

It’s just so greasy and so, so real. There are universal truths in this Canadian trailer park, along with some of the dumbest people on the planet. We’ve all known cats and dogs that are smarter than Corey and Trevor, but few that were as funny as these boys.

It’s dirty and messy, but it’s not just high definition piss jugs and rocket appliances, it’s also a never-ending drama revolving around Ricky’s efforts to win Lucy, Julian’s ability to have a drink in his hands (no matter what the circumstances) and Bubbles’ sheer good nature.

Outside of the main characters, there is a brilliant range of minor faces, all fabulously entertaining and horribly familiar. There is Cyrus' continued failure to prove he's a tough guy, Jim Lahey’s endless falling off the wagon and Phil Collins & Randy’s dirty burger bellies. There are people so greasy they have to be hosed down, because they leave marks on chairs they have been sitting in, and there are entire sub-cultures in the trailer park, like J-Rock’s dirty movies and white-trash raps.

There is also something really clever and really, really funny about the fact that everyone in the park thinks Bubbles is the smartest man they know, mainly because it’s true. He might live in a shed, drive around in a go-kart and have glasses that are bigger than the moon, but he also sees all the angles and knows when a bad shitblizzard is going to hit the park.

Unless he is under the spell of an evil puppet, Bubbles is also a genuinely decent guy who never wants to hurt anybody – when his friends inevitably get into gunfights, he’s got their back, but always fires into the air so he can be sure nobody gets hurt.

There is also something really funny when people who have been drinking all day experience some sort of triumph, and storm off yelling “I’m going to get fucking drunk tonight!”, or when a dirty liquor and cheeseburger party gets out of control, or when characters figure that the only way to get their life back together is by growing dope through denial and error, and man, I never get sick of all that dodgy stuff.

It’s not only funny when they completely fail to be criminals, it’s also a laugh when they actually get away with it, because they’ll just lose their big score all over again.

In seven years of television shows and a couple of movies, there has been an extraordinary amount of good material featuring these people who drift through life, getting stoned, having a few drinks. It’s no big deal, just as long as they’ve got the good fish sticks, not the cheap ones. The money from their dodgy deals comes and goes, and it doesn’t matter.

Despite this endless cycle of repetition, along with the fact that nobody ever learns anything, the series never felt tired, even after a decade of running around in circles. Part of this was due to the creators’ willingness to make things as ridiculous as possible, while still holding a tight grip on reality, and part of it was due to the genuine affection displayed for the characters.

They live in dumps, aren’t too bright and never really got the idea of concepts like the law, but they’re still loyal to each other, still try to do the right thing.

Even when it descends into gunplay or pants-less fights, there is no real harm done here. It’s just the way life in a Canadian trailer park goes down.

And for something that delights in the depths human stupidity can plummet to, it’s also a deceptively smart show. It relies on a surprisingly convoluted continuity, while also ensuring that any season can be watched in any order, and it will still make sense. The show drips with all kinds of irony and can sometimes go off in weird and unexpected directions, all done on a minuscule budget.

And it can also be remarkably sweet - these characters do steal and drink too much and get into all sorts of shenanigans, but they also genuinely care for each other. There is loyalty and real love within the gates of this park.

The last time the world got to see inside the Sunnyvale Trailer Park, the eternal war between our heroes and Jim Leahy had been won by the supervisor, who was off in paradise, getting drunk and sunburnt and passing out in the swimming pool. It’s unlikely to be the end of the road for the Trailer Park Boys, and they’ve even put on a live show since the movie, so it’s bound to come back, sooner or later.

I’ll be waiting. I’ve never lived in a trailer park, (although I have relatives who did), but you don’t have to live this greasy lifestyle to make a connection. Trailer park people are just people, with all the same fears and desires as the rest of us.

They might not be able to pronounce jalapeño properly, or might spend a bit too much time at the Gentlemen’s Club, but it’s still a rich and rewarding experience to follow lives on the Sunnyvale side.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Justice League Awesome

It’s always a little bit disappointing when the Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire-Hughes-Templeton-Medley-Hefler Justice League is written off as all jokes, no feeling - because you can get so much more out of it than the bwah-ha-ha’s.

There is no denying that it could sometimes be a sublimely goofy comic, but it’s easy to forget that after years of terribly serious Justice League comics (that came to a dead end in Detroit, it was a welcome change of pace to have a few laughs at that time.

Especially when the 60 issues of Justice League/International/America – published between May 1987 and March 1992 – were crafted by creators with impeccable comic timing, an occasionally sublime depiction of exaggerated body language and some terrific banter.

Whether it was Mister Miracle's embarrassment after he came crashing through every floor of the Justice League embassy after assuming the roof could take the weight of the League's transport, or Guy’s adoration of General Glory, or the ongoing humiliations of poor old Blue Beetle, or the infamous 'one punch', or Kooeykooeykooey kurrency, or the skill of the punch-line set-ups that filled almost every issue, there were plenty of chuckles to be found.

But those laughs were more than just light relief - they humanised these four-colour superheroes in new and different ways. If you laughed along with Booster Gold, you ended up genuinely caring for Booster Gold. This version of the Justice League is still loved and enjoyed by many comic readers, and not just because it made them laugh, but because it made them care.

Born out of Legends, another fairly dire mega-crossover, Justice League International quickly found its own feet as a quirky, charming and occasionally dead serious superhero comic somewhere in the late 1980s. Rising from the ruins of the Detroit League, who were all systemically and heartlessly wiped out by mad old Professor Ivo, it brought together a group of DC heroes that managed to seem both entirely random and meticulously planned.

There were the standard old faces like Batman and the Martian Manhunter, some new characters to the League like Blue Beetle (recently arrived from Earth Charlton), Mister Miracle, Guy Gardner and Booster Gold; and a mix of both with the all new-all different Doctor Light & Black Canary, and Captain Marvel.

The series started off as a typically earnest and surprisingly silly late eighties super-comic, with the team taking on nuclear terrorism and the Royal Flush Gang, but under Giffen and DeMatteis' guiding hands, it quickly became something else. 'Moving Day' in issue eight helped set the template for the rest of the series, with the creators - and readers - having just as much fun with an issue focused on the heroes moving into their new headquarters as they would with another supervillan punch-up.

Not that there was any shortage of punching, with even team members often taking a swing at each other, but it was the quiet issues of Justice League, in-between the big battles, that gave the book most of its charm. Things approaching tenderness and genuine feeling could be found here, like the oddly touching sweetness of the Guy/Ice relationship, or moments where good friends were mourned.

But while it was undeniably goofy and arguably moving, it could also be deadly serious, and racked up a horribly high body count for a series remembered mainly for its giggling fits – entire villages of innocent Europeans were wiped out, Despero suddenly became some sort of avatar of homicide and slaughtered a hero’s family, and a street thug corrupted by an Apokalyptic mega-rod murdered dozens of his friends and even more policemen.

All that grimness was made darker by the lightness of other moments, and gave everything some context.
And it wasn’t just a case of goofy or grim, this Justice League worked on a number of interesting levels - some of the Biayalan mind control moments were truly disturbing, and the first Grey Man’s mission to de-saturate the world took an unexpected emotional term when he actually got what he wanted, as Giffen's mad ideas medlded perfectly with DeMatteis' humanism to create something new.

All of this was rendered by a cracking art team, with the usual brilliance of Magurie replaced by the lovely flowing lines of Adam Hughes. Linda Medley did some lovely work in the last couple of years, names like Mike McKone started to pop up, and there were interesting efforts from some slightly unexpected artists like Trevor Von Eeden or Kyle Baker.

This high quality of art is one of the signs of the brilliant work of editor Andy Helfer – the great unsung hero of this particular slice of comic history. As well as picking the right artists for the right story, Helfer also knew how to balance out the light and dark stories, and, most importantly, knew when to cut back on all that fabled dialogue.

His ruthless cutting pruned out a lot of it, and you only have to look at the new efforts by Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire that came out in ‘03 and ‘05, where the stories started staggering under the weight of their own cleverness, with no editor willing to tell these comic legends that they need to wipe out at least half of their precious dialogue.

Not that it was all perfect in the eighties and very early nineties – A lot of the gags just got too repetitive, the whole General Glory thing was a good one-issue laugh, but not a whole arc of its own; a lot of the gags just got too repetitive; the extension of the comic into those quarterly issues showed that a Mr Nebula story might be bloody funny for 22 pages, but an 80-pager was asking a bit much, and a lot of the gags just got too repetitive.

And some G'Nort - and I ALWAYS love to see G'Nort in a comic - was always a bit too much G'Nort....

But even with all its faults, this Justice League still has its own style that make sit endlessly enjoyable.  The DC Universe was an interesting place during these years it ran, where superhero comics were changing into their adolescent phase, and willing to try anything.

By the time Justice League #1 debuted, the DC Universe had got far enough past the Crisis on Infinite Earths to have complexity, without becoming convoluted, while it was also a period where individual point of views from creators actually seemed more important than corporate visions, (a status quo that lasted for at least a couple of years before the monetary-based status quo slotted back into place). 

So this was a comic that could have desperate battles to save the world rubbing up against off-kilter appearances by Darkseid (chilling with a cup of tea and a copy of Mein Kamf), or a night out on the town with G’Nort and Kilowog.

The surprising success of this style and tone invariably seeped into the wider DCV universe – this Justice league led the way into Invasion, still one of the most creatively successful crossover events, and the bantering dialogue suddenly appeared in all sorts of DC books.

This kind of bickering banter did feel new and interesting at the time. This style was well established in TV sitcoms, but rarely appeared in superhero comics, and under the right hands, it turned out to be a very neat fit. It might not have been for everyone, especially when comic readers were used to heroes showing their emotions by the way they put their hands on their hips.

The endless banter even got the better of some characters, with both Hawkman and Booster Gold unable to take it any more at different points, the characters speaking for readers who were upset that this wasn’t “their” Justice League, who still longed for the days of posing and gritted teeth, and just weren’t comfortable with an angst-free superhero.

But the great thing about super heroes is that there is plenty of room for all sorts of interpretations, and the Justice League’s  mixture of utter seriousness and utter silliness meant that over that five years, anything was possible, including the ability to care about these super people.

This was the most amazing fact about this incarnation of the League - even though he was an insensitive and boorish jerk, you actually liked Guy Gardner, or you cared about Blue Beetle’s waistline, or you wanted Booster come back to the team – where he belonged.

All that affection for that period of the Justice League has been strip-mined away in the years since, blown away for cheap shocks and idiotic reboots, with the most obvious use when Max Lord was revealed a master villain in a black polo shirt, callously gunning down poor ol’ Ted Kord.

Turning Max into a dull supervillian was supposed to be some great, clever twist, but it just made me feel like a fool, because like all the DC superheroes, I actually gave a shit when Max was shot and nearly killed in Breakdowns.

He sure fooled me, and it can’t help but retroactively tarnish the original stories. There have been periodic attempts to rehabilitate the characters that appeared in this Justice League run, and tap into any of that fondness that may still exist in current readers.

Unsurprisingly, the most successful were the (still-flawed) I can’t Believe it’s Not The Justice League and Formerly Known as the Justice League, but any other attempt to integrate these more light-hearted characters into the dark and moaning normal DC universe in the past decade are doomed to failure.

There is no place for a light touch here. (This includes the current New 52 effort by Dan Jurgens, which misses the point of all those original stories with spectacular cluelessness, but which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, with the same writer leeching most of the fun out of the Justice League as soon as Giffen and DeMatteis were done, nearly 20 years ago.)

I came late to the JLI. Even though I got the first issue when it was brand new, and picked up the random issue every now and again, I didn’t start getting it every month until the last year of the run, and almost all of my collection was collected out of back issue bins.

It took nearly a decade to fill those gaps (and even now, I’m short a couple of issues of the Justice League Europe), and I’ve never been tempted to get rid of any of this issues in the periodic purges of my superhero comics.

Because these Justice League comics still make me laugh, and they still make me care about the characters. Two decades after they first started bwah-ha-ha-ing, these comics have stood the test of time with humour and humanity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moebius will live forever

The death of Jean Giraud this week is a great loss for both comics and wider popular culture, but his art and influence will live for a long, long time to come.

The brilliant French artist – who died from cancer at the still-too-young age of 73 – had a passion and enthusiasm for making his utterly unique comics until the end. As Tom Spurgeon noted, he was one of a handful of artists that could be seriously argued as the world's greatest living comics-maker while still alive, and even that barely covers his accomplishments.

Giraud produced a stunning amount of stunning work, both as an artist and a writer, over a period of decades, creating an incomparable body of work that will continue to be studied and enjoyed for as long as all of us will live.

Jean Giraud has gone, but Moebius will live forever.

But while all right-thinking people can agree on Moebius’ brilliance, it is still pretty astonishing to note how much of the artist’s work has not been produced in an English edition, and there are vast amounts of his exceptional comics that still await translation.

There was a brief flurry of terrific reprint material in the late eighties and early nineties, with Epic gleefully putting out several decent – and sadly short-lived – titles, but there have only been sporadic reprints since then. Chunks of Blueberry in thick digests show up in the strangest places, and there are a handful of sumptuous albums from Humanoids, including Madwoman of the Sacred Heart and The Incal books.

This web page takes a pretty good stab at cataloging the English reprints of Moebius’ work, and while my head starts to spin when I try to understand it all, the one thing I can figure out is that there is a shed-load of Moebius comics that have never been translated, and remain unknown to an English-speaking audience.

Consider Inside Moebius, a 700-page autobiographical comic that was the great man’s last big project. It features the artist interacting with his own characters, including Blueberry, Arzahch and Major Grubert, and it doesn’t look like it will be available in English anytime soon.

And that lack of Moebius comics in the English market is a terrible shame, because there is nothing quite like a Moebius comic. 

 It could even be argued that Moebius is one of the great hidden architects of the modern world, with his craziest ideas slowly filtering through into mainstream society, in fashion and trends, and becoming the norm. He dabbled in production design on all sorts of movies, and inspired all sorts of creators in all sorts of fields, influencing dozens of terrific comic artists over the years in both Europe and the US. It’s easy to pick up an issue of Jim Lee’s Justice League comic – the biggest selling comic in the US market at the moment - and find Superman or Green Lantern rocking the Blueberry squint every now and again.

His stories could be infuriatingly complex, or pleasantly simple, but they were always gorgeous – moments of transcendent beauty and moments of dirty, ugly humanity. His comics could be insanely detailed black and white wonders, or covered in sweeping colour washes that found new hues unseen by man. His art kept its feet on the ground as it reached for the stars, and sometimes it managed to grasp those distant fires and bring them down to us on the comic page.

Moebius’ comic art has such clarity and craft that it is possible to read them in their native language without understanding any of the words. You do miss the details of the story, but you get the broad strokes, and it’s hard to complain about that when these strokes are so wonderful.

Still, I know I’m always up for some translated Moebius comics. I’ve got a few scattered albums, and a sizable chunk of the various Epic efforts, but I would love to get my hands on a cheap and chunky complete collection of Blueberry comics. (If we can get Showcase collections for Robin the Boy Wonder and the Trial of the Flash, why can’t we get one for Young Lieutenant Blueberry?)

I can wait, because I know someone will get around to it. This a golden age of reprints, when all sorts of esoteric comics are appearing in comprehensive collected form. One day some publisher will realise there is actually a market for a something like for a translated collection of Inside Moebius. A deeply personal comic by a goddamn legend, featuring many of his favourite characters, told over a decade and hundreds of pages? How could anybody ever possibly be interested in that? 

Giraud’s death is undoubtedly a sad event, and we should all mourn the loss of this ultra-singular talent, but there can also be celebration in all that mourning. He spent his life crafting a baffling variety of stories in an incredible array of styles, he grew and matured as an artist and remained a true experimentalist until the end, inspired a legion of new artists trying to find their own voices.

His comic pages are full of pulse-pounding action, existential transcendence, daft humour, sickening horror, and full flights of the imagination into new and bizarre mind-spaces, and it’s all brilliant.

In interviews towards the end, Giraud certainly showed few regrets in his life. It’s always nice when somebody gets to see that they managed to leave a legacy before they move on from this world, and Giraud always seemed affably baffled about his own success.

It’s also nice that he has left so much behind, and there is so much more to be revealed, especially for an English audience. It might take decades for all of Moebius’ comics to appear in an English translation, but that just means his work will still seem new and fresh and interesting for years to come.

And considering some of his work might be centuries ahead of his time, we might not be catching up with Moebius for a long, long time.

Rest in peace, Jean Giraud, because your ideas never will.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Isolation, gone

I still find it a little weird to be in a town that has comic shops, and I still think it’s a novelty to talk about comic books on the internet with people who care about them just as much as I do, if not more.

Things haven’t always been this way, and I’m still getting used to it.

When I was teenager and going through my peak comic period - at a time when I was utterly obsessed with all the comics in the world - I lived in a town of 3000 people near the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand, right there on the arse of the world. Apart from my mate Kyle, whose enthusiasm for X-Men and 2000ad occasionally outshone my own, the idea of talking about comics with other people always seemed so... unlikely.

It was always fun to talk to Kyle about what happened when Rogue went through the Siege Perilous, or what was in Kano’s black box, but his tastes were particular, when I was into everything, and as far as I could tell, there was nobody else in the town of Temuka who cared about Mark Bagley and Dan Clowes in equal measure.

So I kept it all to myself. It probably didn’t do much for my social skills, and may explain why I unload so much of this crap on the blog now, (self awareness go!), but comics became something internal. I got right out of the habit of talking about them with anybody, content to live in my own little head with Black Panther and the Katzenjammer Kids. Like Warren Ellis liked to say, when it comes to comics, we all Come In Alone.

It wasn’t a case of never talking about comics with people, I was always up with discussion of particular comics with particular people, or giving specific comics to people who asked for them, but in general, it was all internalised.

Things are a bit different now.

I first came out of that weird shell a bit when I went to my first comic shop and talked to people.

It took me a long time to get to my first comic shop, and another decade before I could get to one regularly, and it was only then that I meet people who also really liked Grendel comics. Go to the same place often enough, and people remember you, and you get to talk about stuff you have in common.

But even that became off-putting: While there were good people, comic shops also hired people who managed to be more socially awkward than I was, and I never got into the habit of hanging around the shop and talking shit about this week’s new releases. I became a grab-‘em-and-go guy. Give me my fix and I’m out the door.

And even though I was now surrounded by like-minded geeks in the store every week, there still weren’t that many. It was all part of the geographical isolation of living in New Zealand, right there at the bottom of the world. They cost three times as much as they do in America and distribution can be decidedly dodgy, so comics have been an extremely niche market around here since the mid 1980s.

There still weren’t that many people to talk about comic books with, down in my tiny corner of the world. So far from the rest of the world, so far from anywhere.

All of that didn’t mean anything once I got on the internet.

The first thing I did when I got on the internet for the very first time was look up comic books.

This was 1995, so there wasn’t much to choose from, and I didn’t know where to look. I remember the first thing I found was a new review of a recent Superman comic, and I remember how chuffed I was to soon find a comic news site that updated once a week. (I think it was called Mania or something, and I have a vague feeling it eventually turned into Newsarama, but I could be getting totally mixed up there.)

Then I found websites solely devoted to Alan Davis and Matt Wagner and Kingdom Come, and that last one somehow became Comic Book Resources, and that’s when I really realised I wasn’t alone.

I got deep into the message board culture there for a couple of years in the late nineties at CBR. There were other places, but Alvaro’s boards (which I was just slightly stunned to discover still exist) was a bit too Eltingville Comic Book Science Fiction Fantasy Horror And Role Playing Club, and the Comics Journal message board (which changed and changed and died) was too Northwest Comix Collective, while CBR was just the right mix of dorkiness, politeness and obsession for all things comics.

I posted every day and spent time in a chat room (for the first and lat time.) I called myself Max Zero, because I really dug Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, and because I like names with x’s and z’s in them. I got into it so much that it led to an unfortunate fan fiction phase, which we will never speak of again. (Although I always think I’ve got another Therapeutic Skin Jobs in me…)

And I wasn’t alone. If I’m one in a million, that still means there is hundreds of me on the net, and I became great friends with people I still haven’t met in real life. All those interests and perspectives that I had were hardly unique, and it was wonderful to find people who I could talk to about the latest Love and Rockets, or argue over the new Justice League line-up, or be inspired to check out Akira.

That kind of enthusiasm always fades, and I moved on from all that a while back. I last posted on CBR in 2006, and that was after a break of a couple of years. I still post on a semi-private message board used by those first CBR message boarders, and it’s comfortable, a nice place to discuss things like Before Watchmen without having to make some kind of public declaration on the issue.

But over the years, I became far more interested in blogs. I still love nothing more than a great link blog, but I mainly enjoy the essay-type blogs, where somebody takes the time to construct some kind of argument, or point of view.

Which leads me back, as always to the Tearoom of Despair. I’ve written more than half a million words for this blog over the past couple of years, and met some lovely new people through it, and I still feel weirdly privileged to write about the comics I love and share that adoration with the world, especially when the people who make them get to see my thoughts.

I never thought I’d get to talk – or write – about this stuff, or that anybody would even give a damn.

Ellis was right, and the act of reading a comic is a solitary experience. But that doesn’t mean we can’t babble on about it afterwards, and how it was moving, or irritating, or exciting. There is a connection between everybody who ever liked Spider-Man comics, let alone anybody - like me - who obsessed over something as relatively marginal as the Infinity Gauntlet.

Sometimes I still find it hard to talk about the things I love. Sometimes I really can’t find the words. But I’m getting better at trying to put all those stupid feelings that comics generate into words, and with the gently biting banter at the local shop. Because I get more chances to talk about these things, and more chances to get the attention of an audience who know what the hell I'm talking about. Because I've grown up, and gotten a lot better at small talk. And because I know I’m not alone any more.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Down in the DMZ

Brian Wood’s DMZ series from Vertigo reached some kind of a natural conclusion late last year, but it had faded from my interest a long time ago, and I didn’t even notice it had gone.

It wasn’t until last week that I read the last couple of issues, and saw how it all turned out. Which is weirdly disappointing, because I really, really wanted to like DMZ, and I just never could.

I tried DMZ cold – without reading any of Brian Wood’s earlier comics - because I was in the mood for something new, and liked the sound of a story about New York becoming an absolute war zone. I was only getting two or three monthly comics regularly at that time, and they all featured creators I had been following for a long, long time. I knew I was in safe hands with these writers and artists, but I needed something new.

A lot of good things had been said about Wood’s work, but the concepts behind books like Demo and Local just didn't grab me. But with DMZ, there was something else. The idea of living in a war zone, a place that was once safe and secure, but had now been turned upside down, has been at the heart of dozens of good tales in a number of different mediums. (Including my adolescent brain, which constructed one of those hideously complicated tales set in my home town and based on whatever GI Joe figures I could get from the local stores.)

So with a creator I was keen to try and a concept I was interested in reading, it appeared the stars were in alignment and I was away.

Three years on and I bought my last issue of DMZ, and didn’t get any more until the very end (although I’m still vaguely following the story through library copies.). I tried - I really tried - but I just gave up on the comic. I still had a soft spot for Riccardo Burchielli's gloriously messy art, and I liked some of the places Wood was taking the story. But it was also going into areas of dull and self-important predictability, and in the end, crucially, I just didn't care about the main character.

Matty Roth was a fairly typical character in modern comics, a pretty ordinary young man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As a young reporter in the middle of the second American Civil War, Matty started off idealistic, a little naïve, a little hip, energetic, self-righteous and committed,

DMZ was the story of a nation at war, of the horror that generates and the lives it destroys, and of the political complexities it created. But it was also Matty's story, but if I didn't care what happened to him, I couldn't go on. I'd seen it all before and will again.

It was particularly noticeable when Wood abandoned the six-issue storyline pattern that chokes modern comics and told a series of done-in-one tales featuring different characters from the series. At first it actually felt like a relief to get away from Roth a bit, until I realised that most of the characters in those stories were idealistic, a little naïve, a little hip, energetic, self-righteous, committed and more than a little familiar.

At about the same time I quit DMZ, the same sort of character showed up in Anthony Lappé’s generally well-received Shooting War. Jimmy Burns, the main protagonist, is almost exactly the same character: an idealistic, naïve, hip, energetic, self-righteous and committed young man, fighting for the truth from inside in a horrific war zone. Despite the odd piece of sloppy storytelling, Shooting War managed to get the result it was after, but there wasn’t much need another version of the same character to take that journey.

In Shooting War we occasionally get glimpses of veteran broadcaster Dan Rather, and I couldn't help but wish the story would follow him. The grizzled veteran, rather than the newbie. The new guy might make sense narratively, learning life lessons and plot turns at the same time as the reader, but that doesn't mean something else can’t be tried.

Of course, with purely anecdotal evidence pointing to the typical Vertigo reader as a young, hipper-than-thou sort, it shouldn't really be that much of a surprise that the main character should be a reflection of the readership. This is a comic trick that has been used heavily ever since Robin pulled on his short shorts, one that presumes that audience identification is one of the most important parts of a character.

But Matty Roth’s point of view just seemed too simplistic, and as DMZ went on, Roth became even more unlikeable, especially when he got deeply involved with the politics of the thing. I can even pinpoint the moment when I finally stopped giving any kind of shit about the character – when he was seen screaming at somebody to turn a camera off because he didn’t like what they were filming, while slinging a rifle, and went from being somebody trying to uncover the undeniable truth of the situation to just another idiotic zealot willing to do terrible things in the name of another dubious ideology. Unsurprisingly, not long after that, he ordered the deaths of a group of people he thought had attacked him, and became somebody who could rot, for all I cared.

I gave up the comic not long after that.  The actual storylines were still occasionally interesting enough, but were nothing that anyone with the most basic knowledge of international conflicts wouldn't see anywhere else, and were just not enough for me to justify buying the comic every month.

I have followed the story since, half-heartedly reading the next trades, thank to the local lovely library, but in the end, it was more disappointment than anything else. Roth did finally come to his ideological senses, but it was too little, too late. I was somewhat relieved to see that in the last couple of issues, he had finally accepted responsibility for his actions like a grown up, but he still played up to his own martyr complex. Matty Roth was consistently insufferable to the end.

There weren’t a lot of laughs in DMZ, and while it is hard to find humour in the bombs falling, the unrelenting grimness and seriousness exemplified by Matty Roth was no fun to hang out with, producing no life or vigour.

My ultimate disappointment with DMZ is largely my own fault – I can’t complain about the fact that it didn’t give me what I want, because that’s what I always want stories to do.

But I still feel the greatest fault of the comic was that it never really lived up to its potential, focusing on dull, predictable and ideologically dubious aspects of the demilitarised zone, rather than highlighting the lives of the people scraping out a life under the hail of steel. That's where the real stories were, but DMZ wasn't really interested in that sort of story.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Something for everybody

I firmly believe there is a comic for everybody – the hard part is matching the right comic to the right person.

The new comic reader is a prized goal for many companies. Even though the comic industry is not at its healthiest right now (and hasn’t been for quite a while), there must be new readers replacing those who drift away or pass on. Grabbing the attention  - and more importantly, dollars - of a new reader is a major goal for every publisher.

Jumping-on points, Point One issues and complete reboots all have the aim of attracting new sales, and while most of the increased sales come from the same people who have been buying the same kind of comics for years, it’s the brand new comic reader that’s the real prize, bringing one more customer into that pool.

And who can blame them? The number of regular readers of English-language comic books would be lucky to top a million – there are literally billions of potential readers out there to snare.

Comic book movies are, for all their faults, responsible for many people trying a comic for the first time. While it’s also arguable that something like the horribly clumsy Green Lantern movie put off as many potential readers as it attracted, other films have certainly inspired new readers. (The only time my lovely wife has ever got into a comic was after all those disappointing adaptions of Alan Moore stories.) And there is plenty of choice

There are so many different kinds of comics, and while the racks are choked with superhero stuff, there are still all sorts of genres, and styles, and everything

I’ve done my bit for Team Comics over the years, trying desperately to get people into things, giving comics to my very best mates and people I hardly knew. There were only two real successes: I sent somebody in New York a copy of Death of Speedy, and gave somebody else hundreds of 2000ad issues after I somehow ended up with double issues. Both follow Love and Rockets and 2000ad to this day.

But I’ve backed off in recent years after realising that not everybody can be into the same things I’m in to, and that that’s okay. (It only took me 30 years to figure that one out.) I’m always ready to make suggestions if anybody asks, or rave about some new thing with somebody I know, but only if I’m sure they dig the exact same things. 

The thing is, you can never be entirely certain of what is going to click with somebody, and it can sometimes be something totally unexpected. You can never really tell when somebody who has never shown the slightest interest in comics will pick something up and ask for more.

Case study #1:
My mum

Neither of my parents were huge readers when I was growing up, although Dad had a voracious appetite for chunky pulp nonsense, and has always had a Wilbur Smith or Stephen King sitting by his ashtray. I was always the crazy reader in my house, slightly bemusing everyone else with the fondness I showed for silly old books.

In particular, my mum was never one for reading, happy enough with womens’ magazines and the odd romance novel. She never really disapproved of my obsession with comics, but she never really understood it. But the things she always liked, which kinda surprised me, were DC horror comics from the 1970s and 1980s.

She read every single one I owned, and was always pleased to read a new one. She really liked all those short, sharp shocks from comics such as Unexpected and Ghosts and the House of Mystery.

While she didn’t care about the format, and was just as happy with a coverless black and white thing that I got for ten cents as she was with a pristine new issue, she knew what kind of stories she wanted, and knew which were the good ones.

She wouldn’t be able to tell Rob Liefeld from Jack Kirby (and, in fact, would have no idea who those men are), but she could tell the difference between the DC efforts and horror comics by Charlton, or the weird European horror things that local publishers could pick up for a song. They weren’t as good.

My mum never showed any other interest in any other comic I ever read, except for those horror comics. Who would have known?

Case study #2
The esteemed Mr Trump

A good mate of mine, who we will call Mr Trump (largely because that’s his name), was never into comic books. When we were growing up, he was more into wrestling miniature – and later on, his obsession became dirty old rock and roll – and he never had time for comics, at all.

But one day, when we were flatting together in the late nineties, he picked up a random comic I had left lying about, and thought it was the funniest fucking thing he had ever read in his life. It was an issue of Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Dicks.

Dicks is the textbook definition of a comic that is NOT FOR EVERYBODY. It’s intentionally crude and offensive to an often horrific degree. The terrible misadventures of Dougie and Ivor don’t trample over all of society’s worst taboos, they stamp on them with a steel-capped boot, rub them into the ground and take a massive shite on them.

And it’s this kind of gleeful abandonment of anything subtle or acceptable – combined with the genuine (and slightly mental) sweetness of the main characters – that appealed to Mr Trump. I can still remember the day he nearly pissed himself with laughter over the bit where a dog gets shot in the head.

Any time I have caught up with Mr Trump in recent years, he has asked me if there has been any more new Dicks, and it’s always disappointing to say there isn’t. I’m pleased beyond words that the next time I see him, I can tell him there is actually new stuff coming out.

Mr Trump never showed any other interest in any other comic I ever read, except for Dicks. Who would have known?

You can never really predict what people are really going to be hooked by – all you can do is offer a wide a range of new and different options, and let people find them for themselves. Quality work always finds an audience, even if it’s not the audience you’d usually expect.

Something new, something different, something pretty. Something that will catch the eye of somebody who has never bothered with a comic before. Something for everybody.

Who would have known?