Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You can do it. (Perfect Panel #8)

The Ballad of Halo Jones
The panel where anybody can do it
By Alan Moore and Ian Gibson

I’ve travelled all over the world in the past six years, and whenever I’m standing somewhere far from home, wondering how the hell a boy from Temuka got to clamber over Mongolian mountains or squeeze inside a Great Pyramid, or travel by husky through the Lapland wilderness, (like I did yesterday), I think of this panel.

Halo Jones went out even further than I ever could, and saw the whole universe, and when she was asked how she managed it, she answered: ‘Anybody could have done it’. In the comic, it’s a phrase that inspires people for centuries, and is remembered in the prologue to the second book by another ambitious young woman, who wants to see it all too.

And in my own life, it’s a phrase that I always think of when I travel, but also when I think I can’t do something because it’s too hard.

Nothing is too hard in life, if anybody could do it.

Wally West is the Flash (Perfect Panel #7)

Flash #79
The panel where the Flash grows up
By Mark Waid and Greg LaRocque

Even though Wally West had been the title character in the Flash comic for half a dozen years by this time, it wasn’t until Mark Waid came in as writer that the character got to this point, where he finally stepped fully out of the shadow of his predessor, and became his own man, his own hero.

It’s the moment when Wally West grows up and moves on, but it’s also the moment when Waid – whose Flash run now feels incredibly underrated, with most Flash kudos going to Geoff Johns’ attempts to make the comic VERY SERIOUS INDEED – shows that you can actually take a long-running superhero comic forward, and you don’t have to keep living in the past.

It’s where Waid unwittingly sets the template for much of DC’s 90s superhero comic revamps, taking a story forward instead of running around in circles by replacing a beloved hero, and making the replacement just as charming, noble and interesting as the original.

Waid would go on to do several more years of excellent Flash comics, but this is the moment where DC superhero comics changed, and grew up a little, and moved away from a moribund status quo. It would only last a few more years before that old status quo was reborn, and the story went back to focussing on boring old Barry again, but for a while there, Wally West was The Flash, and he deserved to be.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Stinky bites the dust (Perfect panel #6)

The panel where things can’t be taken back
By Peter Bagge

I keep forgetting that Stinky is dead, so I’m genuinely shocked every time I get to this part of Peter Bagge’s Hate comics.

There are a lot of stupid people doing a lot of stupid things in Hate, and this might be the stupidest. You’re never really sure if Stinky knew there was a bullet in the chamber, whether it was suicide or stupidity, but it was probably always going to happen.

Bagge’s goofy line and bonkers exaggeration can often mask the most horrible events, but it can also make those parts when things get really horrible even more distressing, as cartoonish characters suffer awful fates. He would reach the peak of this with the Apocalypse Nerd series he did a couple of years ago, which was nothing but horrible things happening to zany characters, but this is the most powerful, with a sudden moment of violence that can never be taken back.

RIP Stinky. I’ll try to remember you’re gone next time.

You might do something with it, if you like’ (Perfect panel #5)

Punisher #54
The panel where Frank Castle sees a glimpse of the humanity he will never feel again
By Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov

It’s a moment of quiet appreciation of the beauty in the world, when somebody who pretends that she doesn’t care about anything - on any level - sees a sunrise and has a little smile.

It’s a moment when the man who sees it knows that she isn’t totally empty of any human feeling, not like he is.

And it’s a moment that is only fleeting, before the return to the long, cold dark. ‘

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Don’t forget me, Animal Man (A perfect panel #4)

Animal Man #26
The panel that always makes me think of the time I was five-years-old and saw Superman and Batman walking on the street outside my house
By Grant Morrison and Chas Troug

After giving his main character a happy ending that he really deserves (it’s not realistic, but that’s the point), Grant Morrison goes up into the hills and tries to make contact with his imaginary friend from his childhood.

We’re always told that there has to come a time when we put aside childhood things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still love them, that we will always love them, and that we would give anything to see them again.

There is no response, and the crushing reality of adulthood wins again, but we don’t have to forget. We can always shine a light back into the past, whenever we want.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dredd vs Fear, obviously: (A perfect panel #3)

Judge Dredd
The panel where Judge Dredd is no ordinary man!
By John Wagner & Alan Grant and Brian Bolland

It’s the most obvious panel to put on this list, but I was nine-years-old when I first saw it, and the impact of it is still there, three decades later.

Bolland’s art can often come across as stiff and stilted, but look at the way Dredd’s arm swings around, look at the heft in that eagle-clad shoulder – there is power in this panel, and it’s not just because an utterly evil creature is getting punched through the face, it’s in the body language of the man doing the punching.

And, of course, it sums up one of the great things about Judge Dredd: he is not an ordinary man, and can take the horror that will literally kill lesser beings, and respond with a clenched fist of righteousness.

Gaze into the fist of Dredd, and see the simplicity and straightforwardness that has made him on of comic’s greatest characters, rendered by one of its greatest artists,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nothing but Speedy (A perfect panel #2)

Love and Rockets: The Death of Speedy 
The panel that is the last time we see Speedy 
By Jaime Hernandez

And there, in that moment where a boy filled with terrible guilt is rejected by the only girl he ever loved, there is nothing left for him.

It’s an inevitable end, signposted in the title of the actual story, but it’s still shattering to see this last glimpse of Speedy Oritiz. There are none of Jaime’s soft lines, but plenty of his dark shadows. And there is nothing left in Speedy. His eyebrow and slightly open mouth betray the depths of despair he has been plunged into, but his face is harsh granite, because there really is nothing else there. He’s been hollowed out and there is nothing left.

Nothing but death. Nothing but the end.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Batman on a horse (A perfect panel #1)

The Dark Knight Returns
The panel where Batman literally rides in to save his city from darkness
By Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley

Some of the politics may have dated, and even the interpretation of Batman feels like it has no place in the 21st century, but the pacing of The Dark Knight Returns is immortal – dozens of pages of tight, claustrophobic panels, talking scenes and scattershot action, occasionally blowing out into full-page explosions of power.

This full-page spread towards the middle of the last book in The Dark Knight Returns still has the most impact, Batman literally charging into action to save his city, before it can tear itself apart. Batman and his gritted teeth, ready for battle, his steed leaping forward towards the reader, backed up by an army of youth, looking for a direction.

The perspective is a bit off and a little skewed, particularly around the youthful army that is backing Batman, but this panel is still all about the forward rush into righteousness and justice, and leaping into the fray.

And while it is the most cinematically powerful in an intensely cinematic comic, it’s still only a powerful moment that comics can only really pull off. At the turn of the page, the moment is captured perfectly, and the reader can spend as long as they like on that cusp of violence, before all the punching starts.  In that moment, in that second where Batman is coming to save the day, the most claustrophobic comic of its time opens wide, and pulls you in.

And it’s going to be okay, because Batman is coming. On a horse.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

“What can you do other than this?” (Low content warning)

The proprietors of the Tearoom of Despair keep going on overseas trips, mainly because they haven’t had children yet who ruin everything and eat all the steak. This time, they’re off to goddamn Lapland, to sleep in ice hotels and ride with huskies. (Although I’m a little uneasy about that, after just seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing on a big screen for the first time this week….)

We’ll be away for a couple of weeks, and while there will still be some new content here, it won’t be much. Instead of long, rambling essays about the world of comics, there will be much shorter pieces about my favourite comic panels.

Sometimes, everything I love about comics can be distilled down into one single panel, and there are literally tens of thousands of perfect panels, but I’m going to talk about the first dozen or so panels that leapt into my mind when I thought about it. Some of them are just as obvious as you think they will be, others probably only mean something to me.

Posting may even be daily for a while, but travel screws up your days, so some might be missed. (Some can’t be helped – we literally lose entire days flying across international time zones.)

Things should kick off tomorrow, with Batman on a horse.

In the meantime, to make up for it, here is a YouTube video of my favourite documentary of all time: The frankly astonishing Devil At Your Heels. It’s a parable about the human drive to do something extraordinary, no matter how difficult it is, and it’s about somebody who wanted to fly a rocket car across a river between the US and Canada. It’s magnificent.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Moore and Morrison: No difference vs same thing

There was a one-page cartoon in a mid-nineties issue of a Lethargic Lad comic, when some grumpy character was portrayed reading a popular column by a popular writer in a popular comic industry magazine.

The entire cartoon consisted of eight panels of the character frowning silently as he intensely read the column, before ending with a final panel that has him throwing his hands up in the air and crying “But who gives a fuck!?!”

I always think of that little cartoon anytime anybody starts banging on about the feud between Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

I read everything both Moore and Morrison write – I get every new release, track down as much of their dodgy early stuff as possible, and read, watch & listen to every interview or essay they do.

But even though both creators write about very similar subjects in very different ways, even though they both rode a tide of American appetite for British creators, and both made old superheroes look new and interesting before doing their own thing, they remain mildly antagonistic about each other.

When I first saw them making snarky comments about each other in interviews, it was really familiar. It felt like when you have two mates from two different groups of friends, and you all end up together, and the two mates just don’t like each other, for reasons you don’t fully follow. There’s no reason for it, but it’s always obvious by the cold shoulder and pointed comment.

Moore and Morrison are not my mates, but I follow their work. And that’s all, so I don’t have to take sides in any argument. When Morrison recently took a couple of shots over who was published first, I read the whole thing, but I still didn’t care enough to take a side.

I didn’t take sides because it’s a complicated mess, and because they’re both right, and they just don’t appear to be that fond of one another and that’s just life.

And I didn’t take sides because it’s none of my fucking business.

I’m still chugging away at some old Comic Journals I bought recently, and I’m loving the wide-ranging interviews, astute reviews and long forgotten news, but I’m fairly fucking sick of the fucking feuds

There isn’t an issue that doesn’t have some three-page reply to a letter, throwing an argument back with obvious points and ridiculous arrogance. It’s the Journal vs Ellison, or the Journal vs Steve Grant, or Max Allen Collins, or Dave Sim, or somebody. The Journal has always had an unfortunate tendency to play the man, not the ball, and this attitude has riled up more than a few creators, who understandably get annoyed by being labelled lazy hacks in scathing reviews, and who bite back when bitten.

It can be amusing to watch from the sidelines, with no stake in the issue, and see that nobody is covering themselves in glory. But it also gets a bit tedious when they use minor grammatical errors as total proof of incompetence or illiteracy.  I’ve still got a few Journals to go through in this small pile of purchases, but I’m going to skip over the Blood and Thunder letter column in the rest of them, because it’s all old wounds and hurt feelings.

That level of discussion has somehow become the default setting for much interaction on the internet, as agendas get pushed and slights are taken over the most minute shit. Any long discussion in any corner of the world wide web inevitably descends into bitter recriminations.

There is boldness in anonymity and physical distance, and we all suffer from varying degrees of entitlement that can drive some into a rage if it is ever threatened.

Another major side effect of this age of ultra-communication is that any comment – no matter how small, trivial or frivolous – can be repeated, and cut-and-pasted, and re-tweeted, over and over again. An idle comment can spread across the world, spawning endless analysis, but with all context lost. A joke comment at a convention becomes proof of an agenda, or of real hatred.

While there are rare cases when Morrison specifically jumps on a soapbox to yell his side of the story, for the most part it’s only a subject that gets dredged up by over-eager interviewers. They may have made half a dozen comments in the past two decades about each other, but it only takes a rudimentary bit of Google Fu to find them all, and seeing them grouped together like that gives the quotes even more venom and spite.

I’m dipping deep into my big box of hypocrisy again, because I do follow this story, and take note of any new elements. The funny thing about that Lethargic Lad cartoon is that the character does spend the vast majority of the strip intently reading the column that drives him crazy, and that’s how I feel sometimes.

But observing isn’t the same as taking sides. There doesn’t always has to be an us-or-them mentality. It sometimes feels like you have to stake your moral point somewhere, and if you don’t, both sides will think you’re against them, but there is always a place for neutrality.

There are things in this little world of comics that are worth taking a stand on – there is no excuse for not standing up to obvious injustice and cruelty. I’m automatically on the side of any artist who is in a fight to get his art back from a publisher, no matter what shitty contract the artist signed, because I truly believe they have an irrefutable claim to ownership, (unless they sell it for themselves), and I don’t need to buy anything by Orson Scott Card, because he’s a dick.

And there are even some feuds where you can’t help taking sides, where one side does a spectacularly bad job of stating their case, or is just obviously in the wrong. You’re not a proper human if you don’t get a bit judge mental on things that really do matter.

But the case of two British comic writers who don’t particularly get along barely ranks as important. It’s entertaining as hell, because both men are witty and intelligent writers, but it’s not important. And I can like both of them, if I want.

Friday, February 8, 2013

It don’t pay to be too smart in the Marvel Universe

There is certainly no shortage of super-smart heroes in mainstream comic books. Modern comic heroes have been geniuses since the very first days, and back even further into the pulps, where super scientists quietly and modestly saved the world on a weekly basis.

The Marvel and DC universes are overflowing with them – main characters who happen to be the smartest people on the planet, putting their intellect into the pursuit of truth, knowledge and fair play. They are often noble and inspirational, showing us a better way to live.

But they can also be complete dickheads: narcissistic and obsessive, and downright dangerous. And if there is one bad place to be a super-genius, it’s among the residents of the Marvel Universe, because they will tear those fucking nerds down.

The DC Universe has its share of super-intelligent super-jerks, and even set the template with the mighty Brainiac 5, who couldn’t help being a total dick to his less cerebrally-enhanced teammates, right from the start.  But Brainy was still likeable, and was often put in his place, and while he was an arrogant asshole, it was only because he was invariably right about everything and everybody learned important lessons about friendship and sacrifice and shit.

But when it came to consequences for his super smartiness, Brainy rarely got anything worse than an atomic wedgie from Shrinking Violet now and again. In the Marvel Universe, which has always prided itself on being a little more real-world than its Distinguished Competition, the smart guys are painfully put in their place.

The most intelligent heroes in the Marvel Universe are probably Richards, Stark, Banner, Pym and Parker, and they’ve all been made to paid for being such a smartarse, over and over again.

None of them are safe.

Tony Stark is a mechanical genius, able to build machines that nobody else in the world can conceive. As smart as he was, he was morally flawed from the start – an arms seller and commie hater who morphed into a corporate raider, (which some would consider even worse). But he never got away from his just desserts - good old Tony became one the great flawed heroes when he fell into the bottle, and every second writer who takes on his story has the bright idea of tearing everything he owns and loves away from him, before making himself whole again. It’s become total cliché, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Tony

Hank Pym might have been mentally unbalanced when he started slapping poor Janet around, but it’s always been hard to forgive him for that, or any of the other times he came off as a creepy, arrogant jerk. Of all the supersmart guys, Pym is the one who deserves all the ridicule and humbling he can get, and he’ll never get the thing that makes the great heroes. He’ll never get total respect.

Bruce Banner was so smart he built the biggest bomb in the world and then he jumped right in front of it, and his life has been an unending nightmare of brutal destruction since then. So that’s him told.

Peter Parker’s intelligence never did him any good. He was picked on in school, and all that raw intelligence was so busy dealing with the Green Goblin, he didn’t have time to do anything else with it. (But he does offer a bit of hope, which we’ll get to later.)

And then there is Reed Richards, who is the brainiest of the lot (especially when he can stretch his brain into strange new configurations). As the leader of the Fantastic Four, he has got off a bit more lightly than the rest – he has respect, and a dream job, and a loving family. But he is also a lot harder to write than he looks, and many decent comic writers have utterly failed to get Reed right, and have him sound cold, or charmless. His elongated head is just as full of empathy as his equations, but he can still be taken down a peg or two, and, at the very least, he is not to be trusted. (See Civil War, which got Mr Fantastic spectacularly wrong). No wonder the Ultimate version of him went full-on villain – it’s the only “logical” road for the smartest man in the world. Of course he’s going to try and take it over.

Marvel established itself as the home of the everyman hero long ago, and there isn’t really a place in that home for the smartass. The subtext of all the degradations heaped upon these heroes is a real fear of intelligence, the kind of fear that has existed in the real world throughout human history, often with devastating effects to our development as a species.

There have also been plenty of bad guys with incredible intelligence – all of the great Marvel villains share a terrible ruthlessness, an indomitable will and a fierce intelligence. And while they never win, they never seem to really suffer in the same way as the heroes.

Superheroes should be better than us, and they should be better than us, and we should stop trying to bring us down to the dumbest level. The lowest common denominator isn’t good for anybody.

Revenge of the Nerds came 29 years old, but they’ve been playing the long game, and things are changing, even in the Marvel Universe.

The introduction of Amadeus Cho is a good sign – the seventh-smartest person on the planet is pleasingly well-adjusted to his smarts, and uses them in interesting ways to stay alive in the incredibly dangerous world of Hulks and Hercules. And for the first time in his history, Tony Stark is arguably the most popular character in the Marvel Universe, thanks entirely to the charms of Robert Downey Jr.

And Peter Parker has a job that actually encourages him to think, which is the best thing to ever happen to him. He’ll lose that role one day, some new creator will become obsessed with resuming the old status quo, but for now, his intelligence is working for him, instead of against him.

The Marvel Universe keeps tearing these fucking nerds down, but they just keep coming back stronger, resisting the dumb arguments and showing a smarter way to live. We should all be keen to see what they can show us.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Star Trekking (across my universe)

There are a lot of good films that I’m looking forward to in 2013, from esoteric arthouse nonsense to big budget blockbusting bullshit, but there is undoubtedly one movie I’m craving to see more than any other – the new Star Trek.

My love of all things Trek has its up and downs over the years. There have been periods when I’ve been ultra-fascinated with that whole universe, and other times I couldn’t even be bothered to watch entire series.

Right now, I’m on a high from the new movie coming out, and because I’ve been re-watching selected bursts of the Next Generation over the past few weeks. It’s a love that can last a long, long time, but it doesn’t last forever.

I didn’t exist when the original series was on television, which is a pretty good excuse for not being into it at that stage, although I can’t remember a time when Star Trek wasn’t being repeated on TV screens. And I was only four when the first motion picture came out, and I never got to see that until years and years later (I did have some Kirk, Spock and Ilia action figures from the first film and, against all odds, I still all have in one piece, more than three decades later. They probably only survived because when I was a kid, I thought the Star Wars figures were waaaay cooler.)

But I was seven when the Wrath of Khan came out, so I was primed for it. It was the first film I ever took a girl on a date to, and I can’t remember her name (Angela? Lisa?), but I still remember my excitement at seeing the film on the big screen at the State Theatre in Timaru, that long-ago Saturday afternoon.

I still think it’s the best Trek film by far – it certainly has the greatest score of any of them (which I’m listening to on YouTube right this second), the editing in the action scenes is still breathtaking, I love the timeframe fake-out and the Kobiyahi Maru cheating, and I still bawl like a little girl when Spock stands up in the radiation room and straightens his uniform, and the way Shatner chokes on his words during the funeral, even though I know it all turns out okay.

And even though nothing has ever matched that original experience of that first date, I’ve still seen all the Trek films at the cinema, including the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Sometimes I had to go to elaborate lengths to see them – I had to literally beg my big sister to take me to see The Voyage Home, and I had to hike more than 20 kays to see Star Trek VI – and sometimes it totally wasn’t worth it. I still remember trying to justify the Final Frontier to a dubious cousin after we walked out of the cinema, and all I could come up with was that the bit where the shuttle jumped on board the ship was pretty sharp.

But even though I roughly adhere to the general idea that the odd-numbered ones were the rubbish, I still enjoyed them all, even number five. There was always something about that cast, in that world, racing around the universe to save worlds and to rescue their best mates, beating all the odds to save the day. 

The films could be slow, and all of them still have their cringe-worthy moments when you realise these guys are getting just a bit old for this shit. But each of them had brilliant parts – Spock in his spacesuit, blasting forward into the unknown; the theft of the Enterprise, and its necessary sacrifice; the crew’s literalism bouncing up against a thoroughly ironic modern-day San Francisco.

The Undiscovered Country is my second favourite of all of them, and makes me despair Nicholas Meyer didn’t do more, but is a lovely send-off, giving everybody something to do, and it’s Shatner’s best Kirk performance of all of them, from the nakedly ugly hatred of the Klingons at the start, to his old man resignation on the prison planet, right up to his single best delivery of ‘Fire!’ in the entire series.

I was still buzzing from the last original crew movie when I got into the Next Generation, and again, Star Trek was tied to a big personal first in my life – the first proper thing I bought with my first ever proper paycheque was a fancy TV aerial, because the Next Generation was switching to a channel that didn’t broadcast in our part of the country.

That aerial was shit, but I still managed to see every Next Generation episode that screened after that, if I was willing to put up with a shedload of static. A lot of the Next Generation episodes don’t hold up well – especially all the touchy-feely emoting and the dubious attempts at outright humour – but the series could still be wonderful. Patrick Stewart was always giving goofy stories unexpected gravitas, and was often strikingly vunerable, and the supporting cast of solid, unspectacular actors could also prove unexpectedly interesting at various times.

The stories were often formulaic, but every now and then, there would be a perfect little slice of Star Trek, like the first time the Borg came calling, or the episode where Picard lives out a whole life as an average man on a faraway planet, or any of episodes that got up to time-travel shenanigans. The final episode – which I watched in the first flat I moved into, two weeks after leaving home - included many of the elements that made the series so worthwhile, and the catharsis of seeing Picard finally settled down to play cards with his friends was earned.

When it wrapped up, there were diminishing returns afterwards. Deep Space Nine managed to remain relatively interesting by becoming a war story, but I only managed a couple of seasons of Voyager, and by the time Enterprise came out, the whole thing was trapped in inert and boring formula, and I didn’t even make it through the first season. I thought my love for Trek had completely atrophied.

It hadn’t. It was just lying dormant. Like Spock on the Genesis planet.

I know a lot of Trekkies were shattered by the JJ Abrams reboot, seeing it as a travesty that feeds off the original concept like a vampire, but screw those guys. I thought the new film was fucking excellent.

Sucessful reinvention of 20th century entertainment icons for the 21st century often involves going right back to the original concept, and telling those kind of stories with a modern sensibility. It’s how Bond managed to stay fresh after fifty years, and how superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman remain phenomenally successful at the box office.

I loved the sexy swagger and the shiny new tech. I loved the way the actors channelled the original cast, but all brought something on their own, and the way the film still found room for the magnificent Leonard Nimoy (the bit where he recognises Kirk on the ice planet is only moving because of Nimoy’s performamce).

Needless to say, I’m looking forward greatly to the second film in this series, especially when I’ve half-convinced myself that they’re going to invert things and kill off Kirk, instead of Spock, in this one.

Even some of the innumerable Star Trek spin-offs led to short-lived obsessions. I actually thought the terrible Star Trekking song by the Firm was the greatest tune in history at one point, and I still know all the words, and… Oh bollocks, I’m going to have to listen to it again:

Outside that, I never really got into the novels - out of the hundreds produced, I probably only got through about a dozen of them, and most of those were by Peter David. But there were periodic love affairs with the comic adaptations.

Again, I was too young for the Marvel series that came out of the first motion picture, but was the ideal age for the DC series in the eighties. I’m still slightly impressed by the way they worked around the tight continuity of the eighties films, but I also liked them on their own merits, especially when they had the lovely Tom Sutton art (he could never quite get the technology looking right, but his figurework and caricatures were excellent).

There was a terrific Mirror Universe saga at the end of the DC series’ first year, and some lovely work from that man David again at the very end of that whole volume which again shadowed an important note in my life – I remember buying the second to last issue of that series on the same day I first kissed a girl.

But, once again, any interest I had in the comic adaptions dried up by the time other companies took over the license, and I haven’t even glanced at any of IDW’s increasingly large body of Trek comics.

But maybe I’ll check out some more, because I’m feeling a fever for Star Trek again. There is a new movie coming up, and I’m feeling that urge again to check out strange new worlds, and new life, and new civilisations.