Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Operator dead, post abandoned."

Regular posting at the Tearoom of Despair will be delayed for a couple of days, for boring real life reasons.

In the meantime, I implore anybody who enjoys my rambling on this blog to head on over to Matt Maxwell's Highway 62 Revisted blog and check out his comprehensive, month-long analysis of the original Dawn of the Dead.

Dawn has been one of my top five movies of all time since I first saw it in the early nineties, (the 2004 remake - which isn't that horrible - wouldn't even come close to my top 100), and Maxwell's eye for a nice film still and some razor-sharp analysis covers almost everything I love about this great, great film, while pointing out a lot of things I never noticed.

It's probably the best piece of film criticism/analysis/love that I've seen all year, and I've watched both Room 237 and Mark Cousin's epic 15-hour Story of Film documentary in the past couple of months.

Seriously, check it out. So good.

Normal service will resume on Friday, with a moan about the lack of balls in big superhero films...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Comics journalism: The lack of the dispassionate

A while back, I talked about an idea I had about the current state of journalism that focuses on the comic book industry and medium – how the moaners and groaners couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and how we’re actually living in a golden age of comic book journalism, with unrivalled access to an extraordinary amount of information and analysis.

I still stand by that theory – there is a phenomenal amount of information about the comic world, from ultra-local minicomics to mainstream megaliths, available every day. Straight-up press releases, analysis of sales figures, daily updates on editorial changes, comment pieces, essays in response to those comment pieces, timetables for conventions, birthday wishes to beloved creators, interviews and reviews – it’s all out there, every day, for everybody.

There is an absolute glut of information in the 21st century, and it’s the responsibility of the individual to keep up, to the level they’re comfortable with. You can’t keep up with everything, but you can aggregate, or trust proven gatekeepers. In the world of modern comics, where there are so many talented creators and so many great comics (and just as many bad ones), you still only need to go to half a dozen different websites to get good links and data.

But there are still holes in modern comics journalism, huge and gaping holes, whose absence in still noticeable among the noise.  And there is one that bothers me the most

We need more dispassionate observers. 

Journalists are supposed to be instant experts on anything, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are often completely personally uninterested in the story they are covering. This can drive people with a personal stake in that issue crazy, but the best journalism is often outside the individual reporter’s sphere of interest.

It’s this outsider’s perspective that is often missing in comic culture. There isn’t enough journalism from professionals who don’t give a shit about comics, but can still report about the issues affecting that medium and industry, without dumbing it down.

Almost all of modern comic journalism comes from a place of passion. We care about comics, so we talk about them. We can't stop talking about them. But there is still great value in a perspective from outside the culture that doesn’t patronise that culture. We could use more of that.

It can’t be me. I’m a professional journalist in my day job, but there is no way I could talk about comics in some serious way without some kind of passion creeping in. Even though I have no financial stake in the comic business, and gain nothing from plugging the things I like, I still desperately want more people to read, say, Love and Rockets or Judge Dredd, which is why I keep going on and on and on about them.

(I see all those glazed eyes in the office when I get a new issue of 2000ad every week and can’t stop talking about how great Dredd is, but I can’t stop, not ever.)

I have my own prejudices against the big companies, and personal affection for some of the more singular and barmy comic talents. I could never do a straight report on anything Marvel or DC did without bringing some kind of bias into it, not after all they’ve done, not after all the shared history we have together. All I can do is offer up embarrassingly personal blog posts.

It can’t be any of the recognised comic journalists, because they all have their personal tastes. The internet has blurred this line between personal and professional, (I’m not complaining – again, that’s what this blog is all about), but issues of tastes and ethics are unavoidable.

And if you’re reading this blog and all its comic-related bollocks, it’s probably not you either, because you’re bound to give a shit in some small way.

There are still trace elements of this kind of comics journalism. It does exist. Books like the fascinating Marvel: The Untold Story grab the attention with loads of salacious gossip, but also take a refreshingly detached view of the overall structure of the comic company.

There are still lots of fairly dispassionate pieces on comics in mainstream publications, but these are generally worthless, either stating the obvious, or biting on some kind of PR bait. (Didja know Superman has quit The Daily Planet? Earth shattering!) The best place to find real hard news about the comic book industry are on the business pages.

I'm not just saying that because I used to be a business journalist, I'm saying it because business reporting doesn't give a shit about Wolverine's new costume, or Superman's new job - they only care about the bottom line. Stock prices and market announcements might sound boring, but they're the real story behind the variant covers and mass cancellations.

Mainstream business reporting of the comic industry can be just as facile as any other reporting, but there are also great stories about funny books on the business page.

Of course, business reporting is all about the dollars, and it's the money and perks that pop up in the huge middle ground between cold professional and shameless fan, and the blurring of those lines that can be a real concern.

It's not just comics. In the last few days, the video game journalism had its own shitstorm over the different between fan and professional, and the problems that crop up when freelance journalists don't reveal who is paying a lot of their invoices.

The freelancer might not even know they've made the move from fan to shill, but that's no excuse for a lack of professionalism, and a need to declare all relevent interests, if you ever want to be trusted.

Meanwhile, Morrisoncon - a comic convention largely built around the personailty of Grant Morrison - offers up discount rates for anybody who generates a bit of media around the event. This not only deters real reporters - who would never, ever pay anything to cover a story - the kind who could generate a proper perspective on the thing, but also created a lot of white noise: bland panel transcripts and endless essays about how the people who went were a bit weird, but not that weird.

The real story - about the attempt to craft a new comic convention market with high-end aims centred around a cult of personality - was hard to find.

The dispassionate observer wouldn't solve all these problems, and would still get a lot of things wrong. And I really don't have that many ideas about getting the attention of that kind of journalist in the first place.

But it would be good for all comics if there was a bit more professionalism in reporting, or we won't be able to trust anybody and the noise could become overwhelming.
(Addendumb: And yeah, it is pretty funny that Superman is giving up on the Daily Planet, just as I'm saying this. But if Clark Kent's forays into journalistic idealism are handled with the same clumsiness other superhero comics have shown when they try to portray the media, it's likely to be just as pointless. Or as painful as comic book writers' attempts to write straight editorial content. If I was Clark Kent or Ben Urich's sub, I'd throw most of their copy back in their face if they tried to do the stories you occasionally see in comic books - all those awful intros...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Another Big Book of Bolland

For reasons both boring and intangible, I just wasn’t feeling the love at this year’s Armageddon geek convention in Auckland, so I didn’t hang around when I rocked up on Saturday morning. I didn’t bother going to hear any of the guests speak, or watch the films they play in the giant auditorium, or even sit around and shoot the shit with the local comic talent. 

Instead, I just waltzed in, bought up a small mountain of various back issues, and waltzed out again in less than an hour. I was just all about the comics. I got some good stuff in that pile – the John Smith/Sean Phillips issue of Hellblazer that I’ve been after forever, a random splattering of recent Mark Millar comics that I missed, more Lobo, some of that weird Gerber/Colan Phantom Zone mini and a bunch of noble women’s lib issues of Wonder Woman.

(My favourite part of the Phantom Zone comic so far is the very first sentence: 'PERRY WHITE IS A NEWSPAPER OF THE OLD SCHOOL.')

But the real score was a book I didn’t even know existed, until I saw it on one of the tables, going for a mind-numbingly cheap forty bucks. There was no hesitation. I had to have it. I had to have one of these:

In a display of laser-accurate gift-giving, my lovely wife gave me Image Comics’ The Art of Brian Bolland one Christmas, after I’d jealously moaned about the fact that pal Nik had a copy, and I didn’t. But this new book that I found at the convention – and devoured in less than a day - was just focused on his endlessly gorgeous DC comic covers, and was just as immediately indispensable.

Hundred and hundreds of pages of Brian Bolland art? Showcasing all sorts of clear surrealist nightmares, pure superhero popcorn and the odd grotesque creature, all in that perfect Bolland line? How could I resist? How could anybody resist?

We take Bolland for granted now, after hundreds of comic covers, and too-few comic stories. It’s easy to forget there was a time when Bolland was the shiny new kid on the block, blowing out stodgy bad habits of the seventies with his fresh line.

After the stuttering efforts of artists like Barry Smith, Bolland was the first of the British comic new wave of the eighties – selling his first cover to DC in 1979 and swiftly finding an appreciative audience for his clean art. So open and shiny, with a consistency with his anatomy that makes every cover instantly inviting.

Cover Story goes all the way back to the early days, followed by more than 200 pages of art. A lot of it has been seen, time and time again, like The Killing Joke cover, or some of his Wonder Woman poses, but there are also tonnes of Batman covers I’d never seen before and various Curt Swan homages that had achieved a limited release.

It’s a gorgeous book, full of gorgeous art. That’s certainly worth forty bucks.

The new book also comes with Bolland’s own thoughts about his art, with the artist writing about his own art in an open and breezy manner. He can be harsh and self-deprecating at times, but he’s also unashamedly proud of certain pieces. He discusses his little tricks for making colours pop, and why he will never be Joe Kubert, and why he disapproves of variant covers.

He is also an unashamed gossip, name-dropping all over the show. (His Ditko encounter is a terrific little story of awkwardness in the presence of greatness, with a killer punchline.) But he’s also extremely complimentary to his fellow artists whose work he follows or enjoys.

His commentary is particularly interesting around the turn of the century, when he started getting heavily into photoshopping his comics. His earliest digital efforts, especially on late Invisibles covers, have already dated far more than his earliest work, which has a simplicity that never go out of fashion. But even if he goes overboard with strange new textures and a series of blurred layers, Bolland explains his reasoning in the captions, and it is clear that all the mis-steps were just part of an evolving style.

But what is it about that style? What is it about Bolland that makes his art so divine?

Bolland’s art is instantly appealing, but it can take some effort to really describe that appeal. After all, a lot of his work can be clumsily staged or awkward, and as the artist himself points out, there are some things he is just rubbish at drawing. He can’t do a very good horse, (although he’s been known to do a good monkey or two).

He can never quite capture the kinetic energy of early action artists like Kubert or Gil Kane, his work stiff and still, no matter how many of those tiny jiggling lines he uses for shuddering movement.

Despite ongoing experimentations with shading and colourful depth, Bolland’s art can also look incredibly flat, sometimes reducing action shots to nonsensical posing. Characters can also feel divorced from their background, something that has only got worse as photoshopped layers crept into his work.
And yet, it’s also easy enough to sum up the appeal in one simple thing – it’s that Bolland line. That crisp, sharp and timeless Bolland line. His efforts at painting have invariably been unsatisfying because they cover that gorgeous line, and it’s been strong enough to survive the leap from the paper page to a digital arena with minimal real change.

While his evolution as an artist has been slow and minimal – a Bolland cover from 1982 is obviously the same artist behind a 2012 cover – he has refined that surprisingly thick line over the decades. And he has never been afraid of a little experimentation, even as he relies on skills that were honed thirty years ago.

There are other aspects, other than that sharp line, that make Bolland’s art such a damn pleasure to look at – the fine detail that has no more embellishment than necessary, his innovative use of colour, and willingness to try new things. He can’t hide his own affection for things like big monsters and swooping superheroes, and that glee comes through in any cover that features something like that.

And while his art can be iconic and grand and majestic, it can also been bloody funny, with a thick sense of dark Black British humour behind his open art. It’s what makes him the definitive Joker artist – he captures the malevolent mirth of the character like few others. Eyes of evil, a grin of absurdity and a chin so sharp you could cut your hand on it.

His humour is everywhere in his art – goofy expressions and surreal madness caught in his cold eye. His characters are often entangled in bizarre situations and complete ontological breakdowns. Reality unravels, over and over again, but his Batman is always firm in the middle of that craziness, (with the weirdest hint of a smile, just the slightest smirk possible).

I could never be friends with anybody who didn't like Brian Bolland, but that's okay, because everybody likes Brian Bolland.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Batman/Grendel II: Anti-hate

I’m digging deep into my big bag of hypocrisy today, because after all that moaning in the last post about haters, I have to admit I greatly enjoyed reading the Hooded Utilitarian’s Anniversary of Hate.

Mainly because I agree with a lot of the stuff they are having a good moan about, and the writers often articulated problems with these comics that I could never put into words. It’s also cute to see people ripping into things like Watchmen and Sandman as if they’re sacred cows that have never been taken down a peg or two. (Hell, people have been doing that for so long – for decades – that I actually find it sweetly nostalgic when somebody says Watchmen ain’t all that.)

There were plenty I didn’t agree with, but I can always appreciate another point of view, even if I think they’re wrong. But there was one I couldn’t let lie, one I just have to disagree with.

Jason is wrong. Batman/Grendel II is fucking ace.

There is a nagging sense of wasted opportunity in Matt Wagner’s career over the past ten years. He has been happily working in the world of licensed comics for some time, cranking out Green Hornet and Zorro comics for the past couple of years.

While these comics are invariably okay, they’re little more than that. Usually hampered with sub-par styleless artwork, they are painfully average comics, and a world away from the complexity and experimentation of his earlier works.

After all, his Grendel and Mage comics took epic storytelling in strange new directions, Grendel constantly evolving into weirder incarnations, while Mage got more laidback as it took on the secret myths of the universe at the speed of life.

Decades after they were first unleashed, neither story is quite done. Mage has to wait until Wagner feels the itch again before the final part of the story can be told, and he’s shown few signs of scratching that itch in the past few years. His entire Grendel saga is a goddamned masterpiece, a vast and sprawling examination of power, and evil, and will, and there was a new Grendel story a couple of years ago and there could be a new Grendel story tomorrow.

The constant evolution of Grendel was its greatest strength. Why not have more Grendels after Hunter Rose? Why couldn’t a hyper-personality infect an entire culture, to the point where it becomes a symbol of military honour? Why not?

The art – in all the various Grendel series - was often jagged and ragged, and while some of it has dated horribly, it is compulsively stylised. Wagner would draw the odd story, and usually had some kind of new quirk in his warm, flowing style. He would shamelessly steal ideas from Kurtzman, but hey - if you’re going to be influenced by anybody, you could do much worse than Harvey.

This was all in the eighties, where literary aspirations were all the rage, and Wagner crafted a complex work, with dense prose and breathtaking storytelling experimentation, crafting stories about sounds in a silent medium, or squeezing the ultimate number of panels onto a page.

Wagner’s own evolution from young & keen to old & safe has been a slow one, but there is still the feeling of a sharp turn somewhere in his career, somewhere where his work got more simplistic. Less complex. Easier.

Somewhere around the second Batman/Grendel crossover.

The first Batman/Grendel comic had all those lofty literary ambitions and was well received, the second had Grendel Prime smashing his foot through a bridge and is often cited at the moment that Matt Wagner lost his mojo.

The plot of the second comic was not as intentionally complex as the first – there were none of the duelling narratives or storytelling shuffles or pages and pages of cursive text in the second comic, but it’s unfair to say the story is more simplistic. It’s more streamlined. More efficient.

Batman/Grendel II has several long, sprawling action scenes, and features a main character whose idea of reasonable discourse is a shotgun to the face. But it’s still packed full of incident. There is time travel, and laser swords, and moments where strong men stand up to stronger bullies. A major part of Grendel Prime’s life – his further adventures with Susan Verhagen – are covered in a couple of tiny panels. There is all sorts of crazy super-science going on, and crazy occult shenanigans with a True Idol

The comic is more cartooney and more ridiculous than anything Wagner had really done up to that point, but it was also very fast paced, shooting through the story at speed. For a Grendel comic, it was possible to get through it in record time (which also doesn’t win it any favours with readers who measure quality in the amount of time it takes to read a book).

Wagner didn’t just suddenly dumb it down for the Bat-franchise, he was changing as an artist. An apparent embarrassment at his own youthful verboseness saw Wagner strip it all away for the War Child series, several years before Devil’s Bones. No extraneous prose, lots of action, letting the silent panel speak as loudly as a fake diary entry.

War Child had the wonderfully open art of Pat McGreal, but the best Grendel comics were always the ones drawn by Wagner himself, and this is where Batman/Grendel II also stands as a major signpost in Wagner’s career – one where he really started to adopt a far looser line.

At this point, Wagner’s softness becomes scratchier. While still incredibly polished and styalised, there are wild and open strokes of art. It’s not as formal, a little less starch in his style.

And it’s perfect for the non-stop momentum and mayhem created when Grendel Prime meets Bruce Wayne. Wagner’s characters are actually affected by things like weight and gravity, but still fly through the air with grace and poise.

Grendel had already mined a rich vein of experimentation in Devil Quest – the story that led up to this. It had some astonishing use of colour, and twisted the eight-page narrative into new and strange shapes. Batman/Grendel II had little of that. It was all straightforward. Purposeful. Directed.

Just like Grendel Prime.

While Hunter Rose is a fascinating character, the whole tortured-genius-striking-back-at-the-world-after-losing-his-lover thing is a little adolescent. He remains a terrific character who haunts Wagner, but my favourite Grendel character was always the Prime.

He’s more machine than man, reduced to a brain in an iron body by this point. But he’s not just a mindless Terminator rip-off – there are weird complexities beneath those blank white eyes.

He’s an errant knight who is utterly useless unless he’s on some kind of quest, an immortal man who is not afraid of death, somebody who shows no remorse and no regret over killing anybody who gets in his way, but doesn’t go out of his way to deal with anybody else. He is the ultimate perfection of Grendel, a creature of such will and strength that it can’t be stopped.

Bats could just about hold his own against Hunter Rose, but he didn’t stand a chance against Grendel Prime. All he does is slow him down, or prevent him from casually massacring millions. It’s notable that Batman does defeat Prime with some ultra-tech, but loses him when his body demands sleep.

And yet – there are faults in the Ultimate Devil. Moments where Prime is stopped in his tracks by somebody willing to sacrifice themselves for somebody else. He doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand why somebody would do that.

This all culminates in Robin showing up at the climax of Batman/Grendel II, a symbol of relative innocence in a dark world. It’s Prime’s blind spot, the one thing he can't comprehend, and that's why he ultimately fails in his Devil's Quest.

As Wagner evolves - almost visibly on the pages of this comic - so the characters in his story have also grown from the first showdown between the devil and the bat. Grendel has taken the darkest of paths, and boiled down to something cold, hard and remorseless, while Batman has not lost sight of his own humanity, and by holding on to things like compassion and innocence, he never goes too far over to the dark side.

Back in that Hooded Ulitariran post, Jason argued that Batman/Grendel II might not be the worst comic in the world, but that it held a special place of hate in his heart, because he was gutted at the loss of a cartooning voice he cherished, and "too angry at the imposter that strolled in and tried to take his place".

It does represent a point when Wagner was moving away from his earlier style, but his new, looser line is just as beautiful, and far more energetic. That alone makes Batman/Grendel II one of my favourite action comics of the past 20 years.

And while he has been mired in comfortable licensed comics for a while, the spark of innovation and experimentation is still there bubbling away - his Grendel: Black, White and Red comics from the past decade have been fascinating, even the stories that are outright failures are still interesting, and still full of a comic creator trying to do something new, trying to reach for something better.

It might be some time before there is another Grendel comic, not least a Grendel Prime story. But if Wagner does ever check back with Grendel, I’ll be along with the ride, giving the devil his due.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Poor George: Love and hate in nerd culture

Fanboy indignation can be pretty fucking funny sometimes, but there are limits, and I found mine again halfway through The People Vs George Lucas

Nerd culture gets itself all worked up over the strangest things, and the results can be entertaining. So I thought I’d give the documentary a go when I saw it at the local DVD store for a dollar. While the astonishing new theories it put forward – that the new Star Wars films have been a bit shit and the remixing of the old films has been a crime against art – are neither astonishing or new, it looked like it could be funny.

Because it can be funny to see somebody splutter and vent in rage about something that isn’t really that important. It can be funny to see somebody lose their shit over something that isn't worth it.

I lasted about 40 minutes into The People Vs George Lucas, because it wasn’t funny anymore. It was just boring.

I gave up on the documentary once people with terrible facial hair started singing a song about how George Lucas raped their childhood, because that particular analogy has gone from smirking to irritating to offensive in record time. (Although I do love the South Park episode where Lucas and Speilberg do actually physically rape Indiana Jones, partly because it’s genuinely disturbing, just as you think that cartoon can’t shock you anymore, and mainly because Butters gets the last word, and doesn’t see what all the fuss was about).

Look, I love Star Wars as much as the next thirty-something guy. I was obsessed with the movies when I was eight years old too, and it’s a love that will never die. It was worrying to see the cack-handed changes made to the original films when they were released in the late 1990s, but the films were still slightly magical and still incredible fun. (It’s notable that The Empire Strikes Back was the one that needed the least ‘fixing’ and was still the most impressive, proving that new effects had nothing on the old movies.)

And I didn’t even mind the prequels that much. They were needlessly complicated, featured an inexplicable loss of mojo from John Williams, thuddingly dull at points, and the simplicity of the space action scenes were always way over-cooked – too many asteroids floating through the space, or too many spaceships to keep track off, flying apart in a million little pixels.

But Lucas still knew there was inherent drama in vehicles travelling at insanely high speeds and people hanging on for their lives over the abyss, and there was plenty of that too.

Unbelievably, in between all the interminable senate meetings and painfully clumsy slapstick, there were moments of pure joy, sometimes only a couple of seconds long, where it all came together.

It’s there in Obi-wan’s feint in the fight against Darth Maul, and Padme’s glorious costumes, and the fantastic editing in the pod race sequence. There can be a long, unbearable scene where Anakin leaves his mother, carrying all the weight and conviction of a fairground ride, and then there will be six seconds of sublimely shot light sabre action in the desert.

I was 24 when the Phantom Menace came out, and it was the first time I really felt out of step with nerd culture. The films weren’t great, but they weren’t the Worst Thing Ever. (That’s still Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, folks…).

I did used to get angry about the stupidshit all the time, but the new Star Wars film? It was okay. Shrug. Whatever. Order another beer.

There is so much absolutism in the geek world. Everything has to be the very greatest, or the very worst, which sniffily avoids the fact that most of the movies and comics and TV shows lie somewhere in the middle.

Where it exactly lies in the strata depends partly on quality, and mainly on personal taste. I would happily put O Lucky Man at the very top of my list, but understand that most people would rank it a fair bit lower. The Star Wars prequels were somewhere in the middle. Better than the Transformers films. Not as good as originals. Somewhere in there.

I’m sure most people probably feel the same way – it’s not just a complete coincidence that the use of the word ‘meh’ took off around the same time as the new films. The standard reaction seems to be that they were a bit shit, and that kids are stupid because they do actually think Jar Jar is funny.

But the ones who cared passionately – the zealots – were always the ones to feel most betrayed, most personally affronted, and slowly the narrative became ‘George has fucked us’.

The same thing is happening in comic book culture, every day. Some people get so angry about Before Watchmen they give up on comics altogether, others take an off-hand comment in an interview with a creator as a direct personal slight.

Some people seem shocked to see corporations act like corporations, when they’ve been doing it forever, or they are knocked down when a writer or artist says something they don’t happen to agree with, forgetting the fact that comic creators are actual human beings, who don’t always act coherently, or honourably, or unselfishly.

I could go out now on the internet, and easily find a dozen nasty complaints about the current state of the DC universe, or how Bendis’ Avengers is just talktalktalk, or how incoherent the new Morrison comic is, and there can be some real anger there. Real hate.

I remain as baffled – and kinda exhausted – by all of it as I ever was. And I still think it’s a bit funny sometimes. But not as often as I used to.

And hey, the rage isn’t just confined to nerd culture. In my day job, I get hate-filled emails from members of the public on an hourly basis, telling me I’ve done something that was a personal affront to their sensibilities. (I got a pretty thick skin for that kind of thing, but also have the self-confidence to know that these moaners don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.)

There is rage on the commuter bus in the morning, anger at the local sports ground, and real hatred on busy city roads. It doesn’t actually spark up into actual violence all that often – we’re not living in the Middle Ages anymore – but it’s there in everyday life.

I guess I just see a lot more of it in nerd culture, because I’m happily wallowing in that culture every day. But there is so much anger at so many silly things, like a new comic book, or Star Wars, that it inevitably sours the whole mix.

Because the love of a good story or geek experience is no match for the real thing.

I love comic books more than any other medium. Overall, I like ‘em more than the movies, and more than TV, and more than music. There is something about the blend of words and pictures, and the ability to do absolutely anything with them, that really sings to me.

But there isn’t a single comic that means more to me than things in real life - things like the love for my wife, for my friends, for my family. There is nothing in comics that gets me as angry as I feel when I see or hear of some great injustice in the real world.
These nerd things are entertainments, that can move us and make us laugh and make us angry, but they’re still just entertainments. Art can reach across the centuries and speak to me, but it’s nothing to the feeling of comfort and love I get when my wife takes my hand. Art can touch me inside the soul, and remind me of something sublime in my own life, but that doesn’t compare to her smile, or when I make her laugh.

While comics can remind me of the feelings I have when I see an old friend for the first time in ages, there is no comparison to the actual meeting. When I read a comic book I don't like, I don't worry about it, but I do worry about the way our society can be callously indifferent to suffering. There are things to be angry about in this world, and the Phantom Menace just ain't one of them.

There is only so much sneering I can take, and a little perspective is always welcome. It's only a fucking movie.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dredd: The Movie (2012)

Judge Dredd is one of my absolute favourite comics of all time. I can’t say it enough and now I’m saying it again, twice in one week. It’s smarter and denser and more exciting than anything else I ever read in 35 years of reading comics.

The new film ain’t bad either.

Here’s a dozen reasons why:

1. Got tone

There are moments where the 2012 Dredd movie looks nothing like the comic – its design and look often bears little resemblance to the stuff seen in 2000ad every week. But it does have one crucial thing in common with the source material – its tone.

It’s the way the story is a bit crazy and silly, but treated deadly seriously, producing deadpan humour and genuine tension. Anything could happen in a Dredd story, and usually does, but the main character always stands strong in the middle of the chaos.

There are dark laughs and groaning puns in both comic and movie. But it’s also terribly grim, and incredibly violent.

2. This could be the past

In fact, the tone is so right, it’s actually possible to reconcile the movie with comic continuity. This could be the same Judge Dredd who wiped out East-Meg One, or keeps putting Judge Death back in his bottle.

After all, Dredd was on the streets for twenty years before he debuted in 2000ad #2, and this could take place anywhere within the gap. Even Anderson’s age matches up. I got a real kick out of that.

3. Another unique look

The major difference between movie and comic, and one the filmmakers managed quite nicely, is the look of Mega-City One. Things like the Judge uniform are surprisingly faithful – while still looking a whole lot more practical – but the city, with its vast spread of low-level housing, punctuated by spaced-out super-high rise blocks, is nothing like the comic’s dense, ultra-high future housing.

But it doesn’t matter. I actually got into a debate over the look of Mega City-One at the local comic shop the other week – another customer was adamant that the look of the movie city was all wrong, because it wasn’t “his” Mega-City One.

This is a ridiculous argument, because there is no such thing as a definite Mega-City One in Judge Dredd. Much of the visual appeal of the comic over the years was that it was a rigid formula that demanded crazy stylistic interpretation. A McMahon Dredd looked nothing like a Bolland Dredd, but each vision was just as iconic.

The city was a bit more fixed, and still owes its look to those very first Dredd stories, but the crazy architecture has been radically interpreted by dozens of idiosyncratic artists.

In this bold tradition, the wide open space of the movie city, with a limited number of vast blocks that are only just starting to stab the sky, is perfectly valid, and a tasty blend of the crazy future shock of the comic and the real world we all live in now.

4. Tight

While there is no nostalgic fondness for the look of the city, there is some in the storytelling. Like the comic, the movie doesn’t screw around. It’s efficient storytelling that gets straight to the drokkin’ point, with a script that is just slightly smarter than it looks, as off-hand moments in montages turn out to have direct plot ramifications.

It thunders along on a wave of grim seriousness, punctuated by brutal bursts of violence, with few moments of calm, and captures the rhythm of a Dredd story, something recognisable in any medium.

It is unfortunate that the idea for this first Dredd reboot film has already been done incredibly well in the past year, with The Raid sharing the same plot. But plot isn’t story, and while both films share a basic framework, they’re telling completely different stories (especially when The Raid veers into the territory of family melodrama). 

5. Don’t forget to have a laugh

Besides, The Raid doesn’t have a character like Dredd, who shows pain and suffering with a slightly-more clenched jaw, and is a source for much of the film’s dark humour. From his ironic dispatching of perps, to the parts where he gets laughs from pointing out the blindingly obvious in an almost disinterested monotone.

There is grossly black humour in Dredd – seeing somebody’s head hit the ground after a 200-floor fall in ultra-bright light and ultra slow-motion, from beneath, is just horrible enough to be hilarious – but the real laughs in the deadpan of Dredd. He faces certain death with a resigned sigh, and kills 30 men without breaking a sweat, This efficiency, this no-bullshit approach, is always good for a laugh or two.

6. Pretending to be somebody else

For the beauty of the deadpan, the new Dredd film got the right kind of performances, which don’t go for cheap laughs and histrionics.

Often when an actor is cast in a film based on a comic, they take it as a license to go completely over the top, with a broad performance designed to grab everybody’s attention. This attitude reached its nadir with the widely ridiculed Batman And Robin movie, but has continued through the years – check out Nick Nolte literally chewing up the scenary in his teeth in Ang Lee’s Hulk. It has slipped out of fashion – Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are wonderfully repressed, and after the goggle-eyes of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is so laid back, he’ll end up with a bald spot on the back of his skull.

Dredd follows that trend, and there is remarkably little shouting or screaming in the new film. Lena Headey, who has already proven she can play an exceedingly unlikeable woman in Game Of Thrones, barely raises her voice as she orders men to be skinned alive, or locks down the whole block, trapping tens of thousands of people, and wanders around the film as if she genuinely doesn't care what happens.

Meanwhile, Wood Harris is carted around like a fool for most of the running time, but hardly utters a word (and while his Avon in The Wire was squintingly cool, Harris is no stranger to scene chewing, as seen in Southland Tales). Oliva Thirlby is also a terrific Anderson, mainly because she never tries to oversell her discomfort at the violence and hatred she encounters. It’s just always there, while she pushes herself on to get the job done.

Dredd is a pretty goofy film, but these surprisingly subtle performances, right across the board, sell the reality of this world. And like everything else in Mega-City One, nobody does it better than Dredd himself.

7. He is the law 

Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to my brother-in-law, Karl Urban is one of the few Kiwi actors to escape the immense gravity of local soap opera Shortland Street, talented and charming enough to forge a career outside New Zealand (along with fellow Bourne actor Martin Csokas and Boba Fett's dad).

He is a terrific Doctor McCoy (where excessive eye rolling is allowed), and with a strong brow and laser stare, he can play the toughest of tough guys rather well.

Of course, he never gets the chance to use that brow or stare in Dredd, because he's acting with a bucket on his head. A gutsy move for any actor, Urban overcomes the difficulty with a quietly expressive chin, and a voice and demeanor that is more Eastwood than Schwarzenegger, snarling out Dredd's iconic lines, rather than bellowing them out.

Like Tom Hardy's Bane in the last Batman film, whose performace was all about pained eyes and an outrageously beautiful villain voice, Urban plays Dredd as a snarled whisper and a clenched jaw - severe teeth-gritting for moments of extraordinary pain, a slightly looser jawline of satisfaction when justice is delivered. 

Benath that faceless helmet, Urban sells the toughness and authority of Dredd. It can't have been easy.

8. Sloooooo-moooooo

The use of Slo-mo is little more than a gimmick, but it does work, largely because it isn’t really overused, and because it offers a little light and beauty in the dirty world of Mega-City One.

9. Boom boom boom

Like the acting, and the special visual effects, the music is something that belongs solely to the film,. something the comic never had. And it's a cracker of a soundtrack from Paul Leonard-Morgan - sparse and thumping.

The music of Dredd's world is a low, persistent throb of menace, pulsating into a beat as the action picks up. Despite John Carpenter's best efforts over the past four years, electronic music is still rarely used that well in big action films, but it certainly fits Dredd's bleak world far better than the usual orchestral mush. Moody electronic music can get the blood pumping in a way more traditional music can't. (See also The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack for Hanna, which was easily the second best thing about that film, after Eric Bana’s outrageous accent).

The score for Dredd can sometimes be a bit obvious, but that's just because it fits the world of Mega-City One so well - it's no surprise that Geoff Barrow's Dredd-inspired Drokk concept album sounds awfully similar to a lot of Leonard-Morgan's stuff. Nobody is ripping anybody else off, it's just the perfect accompaniment. The perfect vibe for this world.

10. The helmet doesn’t come off

This isn’t just fanboy pandering. Dredd’s facelessness is vital. The helmet doesn’t come off.

He’s the implacable face of authority, with no sign of humanity in his eyes. But he’s also an utterly ego-less man, dedicated to the law and nothing else. You take away the helmet, you see doubt in his eyes, and you see personality. Dredd would never show either.

The helmet doesn't come off. 

11. Sour times

To be brutally honest, expectations were lowered for the new film, so it wasn't hard to exceed them. (And as I've already pointed out this week, unfesibly high expectations invariably backfire.) The first Judge Dredd film left such a bad taste in the mouth that it managed to taint another cinematic crack at the character, almost two decades later, but it doesn't actually take that much to wash it away.

The new Dredd film isn't perfect - it's fairly unoriginal and sometimes a little too serious for its own good. But it is still a hugely entertaining and almost smart sci-fi action film. That's far more than Stallone ever managed. 

12. Credit where credit is due
Right at the moment the film ends, and the credits come crashing in, the first names you see are the names of the creators of Judge Dredd – John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. See, Avengers? It’s not that hard.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

'Yeah, that's it': Dante, Dredd and disappointment

(#2 in a two-issue limited series) 

Nikolai Dante ended – for the most part – like it was supposed to, with the Russian Rogue finally vanquishing all of his worst enemies. There were terrible sacrifices (it’s still the only comic to make me cry over a piece of dead computer hardware) but there were also moments of heroism and compassion that ultimately saved the day.

This was always to be expected, since a 15-year action-filled saga was unlikely to end in despair and misery. But what then? After freeing the world from tyranny, would Dante go out in his prophesised blaze of glory, or would he rule an empire in a new and just age?

Well, neither, as it turned out. Instead the story ends with two men playing Russian Roulette, with the winner wandering out into the world, wondering what he’s going to do next.

And that’s it.
With its sexy and swaggering take on the typical 2000ad killing machine, Nikolai Dante was the one strip that got me reading the comic again after a decade-long break (with Dredd also contributing a lot to that homecoming.) I fell for it hard.

Created by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, with able assistance from the great John Burns, Nikolai Dante has undoubtedly been one of my favourite comics in the past decade. It was funnier and openly sillier than the usual things you saw in 2000ad, but it could also crank up the emotional intensity, while still finding room for the misadventures of a rogue on a flying robot horse.

There were massive shifts in tone that still felt organic, with the light tales of a gentleman thief and his sci-fi shenanigans slowly shifting into a deeply dark war story, before becoming something else that was a weird combination of both, before leading to the expected grand finale in the past couple of years.

But when that grand finale was done, and there was only epilogue, the final fate of the comic strip’s title character was still unknown. And while there was certainly a lot of closure in those final pages, I just didn’t think Sympathy For The Devil, that last story, would turn out the way it did. And like Dredd, my first reaction was one of disappointment.

Again, like the disappointment I felt when I got to the end of Day of Chaos in Judge Dredd, this was almost all my own fault. After all the Dante comics of the past decade, I was genuinely hoping for some kind of Happily Ever After, but also ready for something a lot more tragic.

To get something that doesn’t really fit into either category – to get an ending that was so open-ended, after all that – was a more than a bit disconcerting.

And yet… What other ending could there have been for this comic?

After all, the appeal of Dante was always that he didn’t quite do what was expected of him. He shamelessly stabbed his most vicious foes in the back instead of taking them head on, and literally ran away from offers of ultimate power.

So when it was all done, and he’d raised his army of thieves & whores and brought down a terrible tyranny, Dante was never going to be happy with the reins of ultimate power, and was just as unlikely to throw his life away.

The need to burn out, rather than fade away, is a fairly adolescent one, and after all he had been through - all the war and death and family melodramas - Dante was too old for that shit.

(Besides, Morrison takes piss out of the idea that Dante is going to bleed to death heroically pretty early on in Sympathy For The Devil, with another Great Swordsman suddenly appearing, only to be despatched almost instantly, just like all the other Dead Great Swordsmen who crossed blades with Nikolai.)

And he can’t be the Tsar, because he was just so unsuitable for that type of role, and the last conversation he has with the previous ruler convinces him that he couldn’t handle that burden, and he does not have the required cruelty to keep the peace.

He’s brought down an empire, but he is not the man to rule it. He is the Tsar of All The Russias for just the briefest of moments, before he walks away.

There is no final fate for Nikolai Dante. He just walks away from his own story.

Even with an intense bout of Russian Roulette, in which Dante actually chooses to put the gun to his head, it certainly wasn’t what I was expected from the final Dante story, and there was some disappointment when I did get through the last five episodes in one go. This ending certainly wasn’t as pessimistic as the climax to the latest Dredd mega-series in the pages of the same issues, but I was – like Dredd – left wondering: ‘Is that it?’

But then I went back and read the past six months of Dante stories, and it did feel like a more natural ending. It was more obvious that there wasn’t be anything close to a fairy tale ending.

This last story is drenched in the main character’s own uncertainty over his own ability to rule - the only time he laughs is when he dives out a window to escape a wall of bureaucracy, and swings across the city on some handy flagpoles. Even the love of his life – the fabulous Jena Markov, can feel it, and isn’t surprised when he doesn’t show for the wedding

I’m damned if I know what sort of ending I was expecting, but the more I think about it, and the more I consider it, this feels more and more like the only ending it could have ever had.

The first reaction to a comic story can be a vital one – instantly crystallising an opinion that won’t ever be shaken. But there are plenty of other comics that can be initially impressive, only to appear more problematic as time and thought go by.

And there can be comics that initially appear lackluster, or weak, or disappointing, only to later reveal themselves to be anything but, and that’s been my experience with these Dredd and Dante endings.

Any initial disappointment I felt while overdosing on thrillpower in a London café has been almost completely replaced for a sneaky admiration for both endings

After all, they didn’t give me what I expected, and that’s a good thing – sometimes the best thing a story can do. To complain too much about that just feels childish.
Not giving me what I wanted? Yeah. That's it, all right.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

“Is that it?”: Dredd, Dante and disappointment

(#1 in a two-issue limited series) 

I’m sitting in a disturbingly healthy café on Shaftesbury Ave in the centre of London. It’s mid August and I’ve just arrived in the UK, and one of the first things I do after travelling thousands of miles to get here is go out and buy five new issues of 2000ad from Forbidden Planet.

I’m usually about ten weeks behind with the comic by the time it gets to my end of the world, but now I get to read a solid chunk of thrill-power in one go, and this is a proper dose: the final parts of the latest Dredd mega-epic – Day of Chaos – and the last few chapters of the 15-year-long adventures of Nikolai Dante. I’ve got a lot of heavy emotional investment wrapped up in these two stories, (sad but true), and I’m desperate to see what happens next.

So I read the comics in about ten minutes, sitting in that café while the lovely wife enjoys some kind of weird yoghurt/muesli thing, and they’re done. The Dredd epic ended on a massively abrupt note, and Dante’s fate was weirdly inconclusive, and I can’t help it. I can’t help thinking it: ‘Is that it?’

Yeah, that’s it.
It’s my own fault, of course. Disappointment often comes from unrealistically high expectations, and with both Dredd and Dante consistently exceeding my expectations for the past decade, I was certain these climactic chapters would be more of the same.

I don’t even know what that it actually was that I was expecting. Something epic, and majestic, probably. Some note of triumph, almost certainly. Something conclusive, anyway.

Instead, both end on a relatively rare down note. Each ending is far quieter than the stories that preceded them, even as they bring everything to a conclusion, tying up a few plot threads while leaving others hanging.

It just wasn’t what I was expecting, and it’s taken a few weeks to appreciate these comics a bit more.  I didn’t get what I wanted, or expected, or even demanded from these stories, but I’m feeling more and more impressed by the fact that they didn’t give me what I asked for.

The Dredd ending was particularly jarring. At least Dante had been winding up for a while, and there were plenty of warnings that that particular end was coming. But after a year of build-up, the actual Day of Chaos in Judge Dredd ended up being a couple of episodes long – just 12 pages.

This did not conform to the pattern of a Dredd mega-epic. They might have long lead-in times (or sometimes just pop up out of nowhere), but the actual epic would always be between 20 and 26 issues long. (It’s notable that the length of a Dredd epic – in pure page count – is often less than the average six-issue US trade paperback).

So after a year of stories counting down to the Day of Chaos – including a few interludes and the 20-part Eve of Destruction arc – to see it come to an abrupt end after two issues was actually quite shocking.

Like actual violence, the build-up is the drawn-out part, but the actual event is over in an instant. It’s all set up, even if there is no resolution, because there is nothing left to resolve, just piles of corpses as the horrific death toll gets higher and higher.

There would be no moments of fight-back, or triumph, or victory for Judge Dredd in this story. There is only containment of the threat, the ultimate lawman limited to damage control rather than justice as his city dies horribly around him.

This might be the shocking thing about this ending - Dredd fails. By the end of it, Mega-City One is just a shadow of its former self. Hundreds of millions have died on Dredd’s watch, and while he did his best to save as many as he could, it just wasn’t enough. He loses.

It did feel like Day of Chaos was a climax to decades of story, and there was every chance this could be Judge Dredd’s final tale – his successor is in place, he’s an old man who has been on the streets for more than 50 years – but he’s still there at the end of Day of Chaos, standing tall as the city crumbles around him.

Which means there is still the possibility that this will still actually be the event that ends Joe Dredd. It’s always been expected that he will go out in the ultimate blaze of glory, or get gunned down by some punk on the streets, but Mega City-One is broken by the end of this story, and what if that’s too much for Dredd? 

He still has a lot of work to do to get the remains of the city under control, but once things get back to a semblance of normality, all that guilt could destroy him.

Make no mistake, I still think Judge Dredd has been my favourite comic of the past year – it’s unmatched in complexity and density and excitement, and still one of the most darkly humourous comic around. (The fact that the Dark Judges get free, only to become instantly irrelevant because the living are doing a much better job than they could ever manage, is fucking hilarious.) 

And it’s a 35-year long game that is still paying off in unexpected ways. The events of Day of Chaos all happen because Dredd is still paying the price for his actions during the Apocalypse War. He could admit that he would do the same thing if somebody destroyed his city, but he still has never apologised for his genocidal destruction of East Meg-One, and has even proved his point in an actual gruddamned court of law

This is Dredd’s greatest strength, and the thing that takes the sting out of the sudden end to Day Of Chaos – the story has decades of tight history to call upon, so something like the Dark Judges can go on ice for almost 20 years before suddenly bursting back out into the narrative, or terrible actions prove to have worse consequences across entire generations.

And the other part of this is that the story goes on – Mega City-One has been irreparably damaged and there are plenty of stories to be told in the aftermath of the Chaos Bug. The Day of Chaos stories finish here (and John Wagner takes a deserved break), but there are many, many more Judge Dredd stories to come.

Dredd endures. 

For now.

And then there was the Russian rogue Nikolai Dante, which does not have the benefit of a future. That series has come to a complete end, and it’s not one I really saw coming

I’ve got a lot more to say about that particular ending as well, so I'll save it for the next post. Besides, I have the strange urge to go back and read the past five years of Dredd comics all over again. Where did that come from?