Friday, August 30, 2013

Ten sensational scenes from movies I just watched

While comics will always be my main thing, I love to get to the movies as often as possible. But there have been sod-all films in the past few months that I was desperate to see in the cinema. And then the film festival rolled into town, and suddenly a whole bunch of interesting things were also showing up at normal theatres, and for a few weeks now, I’ve been gorging on new cinema.

I could blather on and on about how much I’ve enjoyed these movies, but instead, I’m just going to mention my favourite scenes in each film, which adequately sum up what I liked about each movie. Some of those scenes were just a few seconds long, while others went on for 20 minutes, but I can always forgive a mediocre film if it’s got one great scene, and all of these recent films have certainly got that.


The lovely wife said this was the creepiest fucking film she'd seen in years, and I think she’s right. I liked the way every shot was just a little bit wrong, and all the performances were just the tiniest bit off. But I thought the bit where Matthew Goode shows up out of the dark while Jacki Weaver is in a phone booth - and then gets in there with her – was the best horror movie scene I’ve seen since Let The Right One In.

The Lone Ranger

There were almost no surprises here – the latest crack at the Lone Ranger was a flabby, ponderous and tone-deaf blockbuster, and that was almost exactly what I expected. (To be honest, the only reason we went was because of the wife’s huge Armie-crush).  But twenty minutes from the end, the William Tell Overture kicked in and the Lone Ranger was riding his horse along a rooftop, and I really wasn’t expecting how excited I got.

Even after all these years, the overture is a ridiculously stirring and exciting piece of music and is used wonderfully in the film’s climax, building and building into an outrageous crescendo, while cowboys fling themselves around train carriages tearing up a track, blasting away at bad guys and laughing in death’s face.

The film might not have found much of an audience, but with a climax like that, it was far more thrilling than it had any right to be.

Upstream Color

The brilliance and beauty of Shane Carruth’s films is partly due to the fact that the entire story can rest on one small piece of dialogue, or some unexplained action, and if you missed it, too fucking bad, because it’s not going to wait around for you to catch up.

There is a moment like that in Upstream Color, where one small snatch of dialogue completely changes the story, as it reveals that the boy in this surprisingly sweet romantic mindfuck has gone through the same horrible experience as the girl, and that this isn’t an isolated incident, it’s some kind of horrible cycle that never ends. This has happened before and will happen again.

In any other film, this would send the plot spinning off in some new direction, but in Upstream Color the information is casually thrown away, despite being a key part of the story. It influences everything that is still to come in the film, without ever overwhelming it, and it’s just so bloody nice to watch something that doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with the same thing over and over again, and just gets on with the show.

Only God Forgives

The scene where Ryan Gosling just gets the shit kicked out of him by the Angel of Vengeance gave me a sense of enormous well-being.

A Field In England

Ben Wheatley’s latest – which really is a spiritual prequel to all his films – has a terrific balls-out tripping scene, where somebody who has gorged themselves on hallucinogenic mushrooms flips the fuck out, and it’s an onslaught of visual and audio craziness, which is much better than most tripping scenes, because they usually rely on people looking spaced out as they wander around a graveyard or something.

But the scene that stuck in my mind the most was another great horror moment, and another great unexplained  moment – you don’t see what’s happening in a canvas tent in the middle of the titular field, but you can hear the screams, and then Reece Shearsmith comes out of the tent, and he is bound by rope and madness, gurning wildly as he stumbles forward in ultra-slow motion.  It’s weirdness for weirdness sake, but I never think that is a real criticism, but it’s also the most purely cinematic moment in any of Wheatley’s films, and one I could’ve kept watching forever.

The Dance of Reality

This was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film as a director in more than 20 years, and while it was often a shrill and grating experience, it also had loads of charm and plenty of delightful oddness. (All the hip young filmmakers of the film festival were keen to show off how weird they could be, but when it comes to proper strange, none of the young turks came close to Jodorowsky, who has someone cured of plague with some graphic pissing).

But for all the strangeness, the semi-autobiographical Dance of Reality also has moments of tender truth, and there was one part where a group of churchgoers are so happy to have received simple chairs to sit on that they burst into rapturous song, and I found it enormously moving, as they celebrate the joy of simple pleasures and the kindness of their fellow man.

Of course, being a Jodorowsky film, the scene ends with the chair maker dropping down dead in front of them, but there are worse ways to go.

Venus: A Quest

This was a lovely little documentary film that has cartoonist Dylan Horrocks investigate his family's connection to Jeremiah Horrocks, who discoevered the Transit of Venus, and gets into what family and history and a merging of cultures and all that means. Like Dylan’s comics, the documentary is a little ragged around the edges, but also like the comics, that’s where a lot of the charm lies. But it was simply fantastic to see the one brief bit where his cartoons come to life, which now has me convinced that an animated Hicksville would be a very, very good idea.

World War Z

Most of the film was predictably weightless, but I have a particular soft spot for the bit right at the end when you finally discover why Brad Pitt has had that ridiculous haircut while he's been running away from zombies, and it's because he's SEXY JESUS, come to save us all from the undead plague.

The World's End

Bill Nighy's “Yeah. Fuck it.” was the best line in the film, because Bill Nighy could swear for England, but my favourite scene in the entire film was the first major fight in the pub, where Nick Frost just goes apeshit and kicks the crap out of the robot villains.

I liked it mainly because it made me feel like I was watching a Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer film, and Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer films were my favourite non-Star Wars films ever when I was seven, because they had the best fight scenes, with Spencer’s massive hands slapping goons around the head, while Hill dived around all over the place, and watching The World’s End took me all the way back to that pure thrill of a good movie brawl.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Capital punishment and the filmography of Jim Jarmusch remain the two fundamental differences between the lovely wife and I. I believe that society should be better than its worst examples, and that the death penalty is totally unjustified, while she is total eye-for-an-eye; and I think Jim’s films are slick, funny and effortlessly cool, while she thinks they are a load of old bollocks.

But I finally got her to dig a Jarmusch, and all it took was a languid and half-naked vampire Tim Hiddleston. Only Lovers Left Alive has lots and lots of VampHiddleston lying about and being gloomy, and there wasn’t much plot, but damn, he looked good. And Tilda Swinton and her epic hair didn't hurt, either.

I'm cheating here, because there wasn't one great scene, it was just one long groove of pale immortals hanging out in clubs and apartments, and walking around empty streets (which gave a pleasant Mystery Train vibe to the proceedings).  And even though every Jamursch film is one long groove, this was just groovy enough for her, which is more than The Limits of Control ever managed..

Monday, August 26, 2013

Trans-Tasman recycling: Advance Australia Fare

I’m in Australia for the week, visiting my little sister on the Sunshine Coast and meeting a new brother-in-law (and getting the absolutely terrific hardback collection of DC's tragically short-lived Solo series).

No time to blog, so here is an old piece about my love for Australia, for their utter self-belief and their freaky comic reprints.

I bought a dozen more Murray comics a few weeks back from the local comic shop. I can't help myself.

Advance Australian Fare
Originally posted July 16, 2009

It's always a bit disappointing to discover that horrible generalizations have a gem of truth in them. French people really are so direct that they just appear rude, and Americans are generous and loud and lovers of food and spectacle, but don't always know what they are talking about.

One of the most endearing things about Australians is their absolute refusal to give in to an argument. It doesn't matter if there is irrefutable proof. They might decide the sun isn't shining, and you can take them outside and show them the sun, then get a fancy telescope to look directly into it, wait for your eyes to regrow, then talk to the 100 smartest philosophers and astronomers in the world about why the sun is shining, and slingshot them into a sun in a space travel technique that always worked really well on Star Trek. And then they'll turn around to you, grin, and say:

“Aw mate, it's all just a matter of perception.”

I love my cousins across the sea. There are a few in my immediate family, and they're loud and obnoxious and lovely, and you can't help but like them. I also love it when we beat them in any kind of sport.

Sometimes the entire country will completely cock-block you, and a big band never comes as close as Sydney. The world's great art exhibitions and performances make it as far as Australia, but New Zealand often misses out. It's less of a problem these days, with New Zealand's population density getting to the point where it can support that shit. Iron Maiden played in Christchurch. That's just weird.

Personally, when it comes to blocking, Australia will never be forgiven for the horror of their local version of Empire, the British movie magazine. The Oz editors take the British one, nick a couple of good bits and fill the rest with raa-raa pieces about local film and a humour that consists of jokes about big tits and Aussie sporting legends. They turned it into a movie version of FHM, and I stopped being interested in FHM when my balls dropped.

That's their right as antipodeans to make their own go of it, but the problem is, it costs a third of the price of the UK original, and has pushed it off the store shelves of 99 per cent of the country. To keep a continuing run of the only magazine I've ever bought non-stop for longer than 10 years means paying higher prices and missing the odd issue.

The Aussie Empire has been running for ten years and I'm still a bit bitter about this.

But Australians also offer up some strange and wonderful comics. There are bits and pieces of Australian flotsam hanging around in the general comic culture. Odd heroes and never forgotten legends like Hairbutt the Hippo and the Southern Squadron. The Phantom will never die, with a company called Frew Publications putting out a fortnightly Phantom comic book since 1948, still going strong and celebrating 60 years of uninterrupted publication a couple of years ago.

She is a big, big country, but there is also a whole lot of nothing filling up that outback, and the isolation between cities can be crushing. The comic scene in Australia has blazed its own innovative path, but it never really had the followers to keep the road going.

It did produce some extraordinary talents, although it is notable that the most successful (probably) Australian artist in the last couple of decades is actually a Scotsman. Eddie Campbell is an astonishing talent who has produced mountains of solid material, through his wide-ranging and mental monthly series Bacchus, or in collaboration with old chum Alan Moore. He deserves all the recognition that has come his way in recent years, and takes it all in a humbled and bewildered manner.

Sometimes he gets a bit upset about the definition of graphic novels, but he seems to be enjoying the argument more than the actual belief. Anybody who has spent a lazy Saturday afternoon in the pub with a Scotsman or an Australian will know the value of a good argument. Putting both of them together is a recipe for poetic disagreement.

There are many other artists of note coming from the colony, including the fluid action of Nicola Scott's superhero work and the odd, lively and idiosyncratic scratchings of Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith.

But there has always been a demand in the country for foreign work, some of it packaged in surprisingly innovative ways. Imports of comics directly from the United States and the UK always had their place, but were severely limited, and there have always been publishers interested in getting the most recent stories they could get out as cheaply as possible.

With foreign rights available for a song, black and white reprints of American products flooded the Australian market for decades. Some of them were basic reprints of clean cut superhero action, but there were also plenty of horror and romance titles, with stories that could come from any age of comics.

Ranging in size from 48 pages through to hundreds of pages, these comics were specifically designed to be a quick read and then disposed of. Unless they were taken care of, they could fall apart in a collector’s hand after 20 years, severely impacting on their attractiveness as an investment or read.

The biggest of these publishers for many years was the mighty Murray, a comic reprinting company that pumped out thousands of titles over the decades. They started reprinting DC comics in the late forties, back when the packaging was as crude as the stories, and sometimes the editors squeezed in more content by printing two pages on one landscape page. There were more colour pages in the early reprints, although they soon became rare.

This continued for decades, with a massive number of titles, often lasting only a single issue before changing name again. Collecting an entire set was impossible, as some annuals were composed of whatever had been returned to the publisher, and two issues with the same cover would have completely different contents, depending on what returned books were lying about.

By the early seventies, the shuffling around of titles and characters saw Kirby's Fourth World take centre stage in Mighty Comic, and Batman succeed the Teen Titans in Superman Presents Tip Top Comic. Murray comics now appeared under a Planet Comics brand, before shifting back to Murray and its big grey cat mascot, which still somehow scares the crap out of me.

Murray were still pushing out dozen of titles in the early eighties, including one-offs like Kara From Krypton and Assault on Titan's Tower. A focus on the contemporary saw the publication of some really interesting stuff like Grell's Legion or Starlin's Warlock. Murray merged into Federal, and continued the fine tradition. Although Murray had primarily focused on DC and its vast stable of characters, more Marvel reprints sneaked onto shelves. At one point, there were 80-page black and white collections of Byrne's Fantastic Four, Simonson's Thor, Perez's Avengers and Miller’s Daredevil all available for less than a dollar at the same time, and I still own dozens of these titles.

Eventually, the increasing appetite for the original comics, which were no longer used as ballast and seen as something actually worth selling, saw mass importation and the death of this great Australian tradition, which eventually faded away in the mid-eighties.

There are still publishers who can make a quick buck off reprints, with reprints of Simpsons, Transformers and Marvel Adventures comics still available in hundreds of bookstores around. But that sheer amount of titles that used to be put out has not been repeated.

These comics were never really loved by the publishers, but they introduced hundreds of thousands of young minds to the joy of comics, and that ain't all bad.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

All those lost book stores

There is exactly one book store on the main street of New Zealand's biggest city. In a city of more than 1.5 million people, on a street of high-density, high-traffic retail that stretches for more than a kilometre, there is one chain bookshop.

While I understand that the business behind retail bookselling is fairly screwed, I still think the lack of decent book stores is woeful, and a situation that has only gotten worse in the past few years. There used to be a four-storey Borders in the centre of town, but there are no more Borders anywhere, and a sweet little magazine shop that was always packed with people must have been packed with browsers, because they couldn't afford a rise in rent, and also closed a year ago.

The Borders has been replaced by a gimmicky mini golf course and a Carl's Jnr, and the magazine shop turned into a pop-up shoe store.

I fucking hate shoe stores.

Bookshops are always my favourite shops. When I'm buying clothes, or a car, or shoes, or some kind of furniture, or some electronics, or groceries, or a house, I don't really care about what I buy, and I just want to get something and get out of there as quickly as possible. But I can literally spend hours in a good bookshop, and never get bored.

I've always judged towns and cities by the standards of their book stores, and they're the only thing I'm looking for when I travel to a new place. I'm always looking for the comic shops, of course, but I'll stop by a good general book store any time.

I had no brothers growing up, just sisters and a Mum who loved to spend hours and hours in clothes and shoe shops, which made me crazy, so I would always bugger off to the nearest book store. Even if it was just another chain, with all the same stock as every other bloody store, there would always be something to browse or buy.

I do think book stores lost a lot of their charm when they all started turning into franchises – if every shop has the same old shit, why bother going to a new one? But the main reason for a sharp drop in the number of stores in the past ten years – and the utter failure of mega-retailers like Borders – has been the change in reading habits, as fewer and fewer people object to reading large amounts of text on a computer screen.

I'll never be sold on the merits of reading from an e-book, and paper and print will always be my thing, but it would be foolish to ignore the huge shift in habits. Contraptions like iPads and Kindles are everywhere, and many readers have made the full-time migration to digital.

This is still a good thing for reading in general – at least people are reading something – but terrible news for brick and mortar retailers, who are cut out of the supply chain completely, cutting directly into revenue and making many stores totally unprofitable. Second hand bookstores, a particular favourite of mine, have been badly hit by the digital age, and many have closed in recent times, although the best are still there.

The other side effect of this digital age is in the actual purchasing of physical books, especially in this part of the world, where the reading public has long been at the mercy of distribution companies, as to what is shipped all the way round to the arse end of the world.

Now I can get on Amazon (both US and UK), or on local auction sites and find anything I want, at a pretty reasonable price. Online shopping is rubbish for decent browsing, but if you know exactly what you want, it's only a few mouse clicks away.

I'm tempted by some of the incredible deals I see from the big online retailers, but I still prefer to get it from a local shop. Part of it's the immediacy: the time between payment and receipt of goods is less than a second, while it can take weeks for a Amazon order to show up.

So I get some stuff from Amazon UK every six months or so, and it's always stuff I can't get in this country. I snap up DVDs of British comedy shows from the past decade that never got released in here, although that ended up being a hell of a rabbit hole. Garth Marenghi leads to Time Trumpet leads to 15 Storeys High leads to all the bloody shows Armando Iannucci is involved in leads to Black Mirror, and it's all so bloody good.

Other than that, the only things we buy online are Kim Newman books that I also can't find here, and I do look. I do want to help my local retailers, but sometimes there is no choice.

The closure of book, magazine and comic stores is a bit of a vicious circle, as consumers are forced to bypass normal retail channels, because the stores where they used to get a steady supply of words just aren't there any more.

I bought my first ever magazine subscription a year ago, after that magazine shop in the centre of Auckland turned into a shoe store. I had bought every issue of UK film magazine Empire since the mid-nineties off the shelves, but then those shelves disappeared, so I got on the internet and had a twelve-month subscription in less than 10 minutes, and now it comes straight to me, much faster than it used to, and it's massively cheaper (less than half the p[rice I was paying at the shop).

But I do weirdly miss getting it from the shop. One of my notable pleasures every week is seeing a new 2000ad on the shelves of a nearby newsagent every Thursday morning, and I do miss that tiny thrill of a new magazine out for sale.

Almost all of the bookstores where I bought books and comics and magazines as a kid are gone, (although my very first favourite bookstore where my Nana worked when I was six - where I used to go every Tuesday to exchange a grocery bag full of comic goodness for new stuff - is still there).

There are still good bookstores in my city, and there are even a couple of decent ones within a block or two of the main street, and there is a record store that has an awesome variety of books, and is one of the best places in town to buy discounted comic collections.

I think there will always be an audience for books, and while there aren't enough readers of physical copies to sustain a lot of booksellers, there are still plenty of readers and plenty of stores left. But there could always be more, especially next to shoe shops.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ghost Rider's fabulous flaming head

I love Ghost Rider's big flaming fucking head, and his kick-ass motorcycle with fire for wheels, and his chains and leather, with poor Johnny Blaze's tortured soul inside, blazing a path through themes of damnation and redemption in fuel injected suicide machines

Which is a bit weird, because I can't think of an actual Ghost Rider comic that I really liked.

Marvel Comics has about eleven-billion names in its character bank, and most of them are rubbish, names to be tossed into the grinder of near-worthless modern comics like Avengers Arena. But even the lamest character has its supporters - even Turner D Century can find some love, even if it's mostly ironic.

And there are also a lot of bloody good characters in Marvel's database, built on a foundation of pure Kirby, and refined over decades into universal icons. Everybody knows who The Avengers are now. Everybody knows who Ghost Rider is, even if it's just because of those shitty movies.

I really do love the idea behind Ghost Rider. Creator Gary Friedrich is making slow progress for legal acknowledgement that he came up with the concept, and who can blame him? Even after all these years, when done right, Ghost Rider comics can be visually spectacular, because a flaming skull is Always Cool.

I just don't particularly like that many Ghost Rider comics.

The earliest Ghost Rider comics from the mid-seventies coasted on that fantastic premise for a couple of years, especially with some typically lush artwork from Jim Mooney. But it settled into a pretty big rut when that ran out of juice.

The flame had long burned out by the fiftieth issue, and the series spluttered on for another three years before finally running out of gas. The last few years of the first Ghost Rider run aren’t offensively bad, but just mediocre ( which can be even worse), with creative teams who really do feel like they’re going through the motions for the paycheck.

He was still popular enough that Marvel wanted to do more with the character, so he popped up in things like the Champions, Marvel's most pointless team book, where he again featured in a number of eminently forgettable adventures with other characters that Marvel happened to have lying about. (Again, the Champions also have their fans, but compared to the brilliant things that were happening in other Marvel team books of that time, like the X-Men, Avengers and the Defenders, the Champions really were a bottom-ranked team.)

Like the first series, the next incarnation of Ghost Rider also had some kick to it in its opening issues, no doubt helped by the fact there was a seven-year break for the character through most of the 1980s. When it did come back  in 1990 - as part of a wave of new and slick Marvel comics to come out at that time – Ghost Rider quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular characters, with his badass chains and penance stare, and hardcore attitude to evil.

This is my Ghost Rider - I was 15 when the nineties version first made his mark, and I bought that first issue off the shelf of Baird's Bookshop and loved it. I thought that first issue by Howard Mackie and Mark Texeira was terrific, and I even thought it was the best comic in the world for a good couple of weeks. But I was already souring on it by the time the second issue rolled around, and when the next few issues failed to even show up at the local bookshop, I wasn't too bothered. The only other issues of that series I would ever get were the crossover with the X-Men a couple of years later, mainly for the Jim Lee covers.

Other people stuck with it, and it lasted through most of the decade and managed to rack up 93 issues. But once again, the series grew increasingly dull, with its blend of gritty crime, hokey conspiracies and endless goddamn ninjas. Marvel were also once again unwilling to let any success stand without running it into the ground, and churned out all sorts of Ghost Rider spin-offs and crossovers, until any kind of interest in the concept or goodwill towards the character was once again wiped out. Ghost Rider was dead and buried again.

There have been several more attempts to get the Ghost Rider concept back out onto the highway in the past few years, but fine writers like Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron have failed to really make much headway with the idea, falling back on sick redneck humour and the usual hellish bollocks. Mark Millar did try something a little different with his Mr Ghost Rider Goes To Washington storyline in one of his Ultimate Avengers stories, but that still felt like the character was riding around on flat tyres.

So all that’s left are a small pile of painfully average comics and two genuinely awful films, with Ghost Rider’s forays into cinemas blowing away any last residual positivity towards the concept.

And yet, even though I only own one single Ghost Rider comic now (that #1 from 1990, with the NZ price scrawled on it in pen by Mr Baird, which I hold on for unashamedly sentimental reasons), I still love the Ghost Rider concept.

There is a good story in there, of men who have been cheated by the devil, but who also outrace damnation on awesome motorbikes. But most of all, it's that look, and that design that remains the biggest part of his appeal. While Ghost Rider scripts have often been lacklustre, they do often have some fantastic art - as well as Mooney and Texiera, distinctive artists with distinctive styles like Mike Ploog, Salvador Larooca and Clayton Crain have all produced some fine-looking hellfire on wheels.

After all, it's a motorcycle bandit with a flaming skull for a head (once again - Always Cool). In a Marvel Universe where a splash of spandex is often enough for a character design, the Ghost Rider still stands out. His bike and leathers often change with the times - his cycle in particular never stays the same, and updates with a new look with every reboot - but he is instantly recognisable. Nobody would ever mistake the Ghost Rider for Mr Fantastic or Captain America.

And so I still have some hope that there will be a Ghost Rider comic in the future that is as good as the original concept. There may have been dozens of creators over the decades who have failed to really breathe any new life into the stories, but with such a strong look and rock-solid premise, there is always hope. Even for a character whose face is on fire.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bob Temuka has come unstuck in time

When I came home last Saturday afternoon with the final Grant Morrison Batman comic, I had to warn the wife that things could get a bit emotional.

It wasn't just that it was the final piece of a brilliantly epic run on one of the greatest characters in comics. It was more personal than that. When I first moved to the biggest city in the country, (mainly because it was the lovely wife's home town), the first comics I bought were the first four issues Morrison did.

The next few years have been – hands down – the best in my life, and there has been a constant background of Morrison's Batman, and now that's not going to happen any more, and I feel weird and conflicted about it.

She said I sounded like a loony, but while she loved the fact that I saw strange and pretentious patterns in everyday life, she assured me I would get over the lack of new Mozbat.

I think she's right. I do sound like a loony. But I can't help it. That's what happens when you end up tying every major event in your life to the comics that you happen to be reading at the time.

I started reading comics before I could read, and I don't think there has been a single day since when I haven't been reading some kind of comic. If I don't buy something every week, I feel unfulfilled and weird, so I make sure this doesn't happen.

So it's no wonder I can't help associating certain and specific comics with certain and specific times in my life. I moved around a lot when I was younger, and lived in more than 30 different houses before I turned 30, but it's easy to keep track of where I was when, because I can remember what comics I was reading at the time.

(It also helps that new comics come with handy dates, so if I want to know what year I lived in a a certain place, I can just look up the cover of a comic I was reading at the time, and pinpoint the year.)

So if I pulled a Billy Pilgrim and came unstuck in time, and I needed something to keep track of where and when I was, I would come back to the comics. It would always be the comics.

I've been utterly obsessed with Love and Rockets for more than 20 years, so that's a good marker, as I fall in love with Los Bros comics over and over and over again – reading #34 of the original series on the grass beside Maori Park Pool in the excellent summer of 1994/1995; seeing the last issue of the second series for the first time in a New York bar in 2007, reading Duck Feet up on a Mongolian hilltop, the year before last.

Or I'm reading that issue of the Joker comic in 1979, as my Daddy goes off to work early in the morning and I'm baffled about why he has to go away every day, and then I'm worried about what happened to my Doom Patrol collection in 1996, when I drank too many jugs at the Mosgiel Darts Club and my Dad had to take me back to my flat after I threw up in his car.

I'm reading The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones in 1984, and trying desperately to find the last issue of DC's Invasion! Crossover in 1989. I'm taking the Invisibles way too seriously for almost all of the nineties, and my linear thinking is still fucked. I'm reading the last issue of Preacher in 2000, in the same week my grandmother dies, and I'm devouring huge chunks of new 1981 Marvel comics from the second hand bookshop where she worked at that time.

I think Claremont and Davis' Excalibur is the most perfect comic in the world in 1990, and I'm reading The Big Book of Conspiracies five years later, when I should be working at the first office job I ever had, and another ten years after that I read all of Planetary for the first time on a lazy Saturday afternoon in Blenheim, while the wife is off at a wine festival.

And in mid-2013, I'm reading the last issue of Batman Incorporated, nearly seven years after I pick up those first issues (and from the very same shop), and I actually dig it's final discordant note, as Morrison once again points out that Batman and Robin will never die, but gleefully points out that this isn't always a good thing.

Hell, I could nail every significant peiod of my life to the equivalent issues of 2000ad at the time - I'm only five when I read my first issue, and its the Fiends of the Eastern Front that have the most terrifying impact at that age, and I'm in standard three at Highfield Primary School when old Ben takes his face off and reveals he's a cyborg on the cover of prog 302.

It's 1990 when I find out who the Dead Man is, and I know exactly what house I'm living in when the second Zenith interlude – the one that told the story of Cloud 9 – is enough to bring me back into the 2000ad fold in 1988, and I'm only living around the corner from there when #1182 brings me back again, 15 years later.

A weekly comic that started when I was three, and I'm still getting it every week now, and each time I dip into the back progs, I can smell the past, and dredge up half-forgotten memories, and I remember where I was, at that time. I can't help but remember.

My absolute favourite episode of Lost is, unsurprisingly, The Constant, mainly because I'm a hugely sentimental softie who gets all choked up when separated lovers literally cross oceans of time to reach each other, even if it's just for the briefest conversation.

In the episode, Desmond uses his love for Penny to bring him back to reality when he becomes chronologically challenged, and it's love that keeps him in this world, just like love keeps us all from losing our shit in the everyday world.

(Just as unsurprising – I also found this obvious metaphor to be one of my favourite things in The Flash when Mark Waid was writing it, and adored the way only Wally's love for Linda would keep him from merging with the infinite.)

If I really did get lost in time, I'm sure it would be love for my lovely wife that would bring me back. I wasn't exaggerating earlier when I said the past six years have been the best in my life, and she's been at my side during all of the greatest moments of my life in recent years, (and responsible for the vast majority of them). Of course it would be that love that I would keep coming back for.

But for the other two-thirds of my life, when she wasn't there, the only other constant is the comics. They're always there, and they always will be.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Paper matters

The other day I cracked open some comics from the mid-nineties – comics I hadn’t read in quite a few years - and I was surprised by how brittle and thin the inside paper stock seemed to be. Even though they were carefully bagged up for most of their existence, there were a few that looked like they were well on the road to total degradation.

I never expected them to last forever. Paper inevitably breaks down into mush, and the process can only be slowed down or sped up, but never avoided. We have documents that have lasted a couple of thousand years, but they're a rarity, and that's still nothing in geological terms.

But I thought my friggin' comics would last longer than a couple of decades before really showing their age.

And with all the changes in paper stock since the 1980s, I’m left wondering if there will turn out to be some paper that doesn’t last the test of time at all, and whether entire comics are destined to fall apart in the coming years, even if they’re kept in the best possible condition.

It would be tragic for collectors if their entire comics hoard collapsed into dust, but it’s one of the pure and unavoidable facts of the universe - all things must pass. And comic books are no exception.

Newsprint was good enough for almost all comics for most of the medium's history, and the only times any comics were given some decent paper is when they were reprinted in proper books. But that all changed almost thirty years ago.

I first became really conscious of the differences in paper stock in the mid-1980s, when advertisements for comics would proudly and loudly declare they were printed on highest-quality Baxter paper.

And it was worth shouting about, because Baxter paper was a marvellous way to read comics. On whiter than white backgrounds, colours would pop and artists’ lines were crystal clear. Because of its cost, Baxter stock was also saved for slightly more prestigious projects, and became an unconscious indicator of overall quality.

The first comic line I really saw the difference on was the Eagle Comics reprints of 2000ad material from that time period. The ongoing Judge Dredd comic had some fantastic covers from the likes of Mike McMahon and Brian Bolland – still some of the greatest Dredd covers ever – but the insides were printed on boring old newsprint. But some of Eagle’s comics, like the five-issue reprint of The Judge Child Quest, were printed on Baxter paper and looked gorgeous, even with the reformatting of stories into the US format.

Marvel would slap some worthy reprints of things like the Kree/Skrull War and the Warlock comics on Baxter, while also using the stock for special projects like Phoenix: The Untold Story, which was, at that time, the slickest presentation of John Byrne's art I'd ever seen. But DC were particularly keen on the sharp new paper, and had quite a number of high quality presentations.

Camelot 3000’s plot was a mire of cliché and repetition, but nobody cared when Bolland’s art was so crisp and clean on the paper, the Omega Men’s grim adventures in space were just as bright, both the Teen Titans and Legion were upgraded (with newsprint reprints), and – for a while there - almost every new series that dared stray outside the superhero ghetto was given the finest of paper to print on.

The differences between Baxter and Mando paper were totally clear, but it wasn’t that long before all comics were upgraded to nice, shiny newness, and newsprint was phased out of mainstream comics fairly quickly. By the late nineties, even the lamest superhero comics were on slick and glossy paper.

Some of them got too glossy, and it became nearly impossible to read a comic outside on a bright sunny day, because the pages would reflect the full might of the sun right back into your eyes. The pages also got mighty thin – some of Marvel’s first Ultimate comics were incredibly slender, and it’s not surprise that phrases like "floppies” and “pamphlets” really took off, because they did feel that small.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a comic printed on Baxter paper. Nobody really bothers to crow about their paper stock like they did in 1986, unless it’s of ultra-high quality for a serious art project, but the state of paper in comic books is reasonably high – it’s sturdy, but not too thick, and shiny, but not too glossy.

There are still some subtle variations, with things like Marvel’s Max comics often appearing on a slightly grittier stock, for slightly grittier stories, but the only time anybody uses newsprint anymore, it's for strange one-off projects like Wednesday Comics.  Newsprint makes everything look old, even if I think that old griminess is a lot of the charm of snapping up back issues from the old days.

Some of the Vertigo and Dark Horse comics I bought in the mid nineties are starting to feel more fragile and thin than I remember. The kinds of paper stock that have been invented and marketed in the past 20 years have been revolutionary, but also untested by the inevitable passing of time, and I’m not sure I’ll be that surprised if one day I pull one of these comics out of its protective bag and it crumbles into dust in my hands.

I sincerely hope that doesn't happen, because I do love these fucking things, even if it always helps to be reminded that all things do pass, and even our favourite comic books have a finite life. It might also give us the chance to deny that things like Clone Saga ever happened (even if there will always be someone who thinks of it fondly), if there is no real evidence because all those thin, super-slick comics suddenly turn into sand after thirty years..

People who get hard into digital comics don't seem to miss paper at all, and declare that they've never seen colours pop like they do on a screen, which I always find supremely unconvincing. Good for them, really, but I'm sticking with ink on paper. And I'm fascinated to see what happens to these flimsy slivers of paper next.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Last Grendel

It's mid-1995 and I'm looking for something new in my comic diet. I'm 20 and I still like my superheroes, but I fell off the X-bandwagon a couple of years ago, and have been a pretentious little shit of a teenager ever since, only really reading Vertigo comics, (or anything by John Byrne). Even though I've been living in a Love and Rockets world for a while now, I'm just finding my feet in the world of independent comics, and I don't know where to start.

So I give everything a go, and this works out marvellously, because I discover artists like Clowes and Bagge and Sacco and Brown and Matt and all sorts. And this is 10 years after the big boom of semi-mainstream comics by idiosyncratic creators, so there are dozens of series like American Flagg and Zot and Concrete, and those are the ones I fall hardest for, and end up obsessively collecting.

By the time I get into them, they have all racked up dozens and dozens of individual issues, and it takes a long time – and a fair amount of money – to get a full collection of these comics going. But there are priorities, and the one series I fall hardest for is Matt Wagner's sprawling, messy and wonderful Grendel comics.

It all starts with a Homecoming. By the time I buy my first Grendel comic, the 40-issue Comico run is long done, we're way past War Child and deep into the sporadically brilliant Grendel Tales cycle of the story. And it's an issue Pat McEown's Grendel Tales: Homecoming, featuring the further adventures of honorouble warrior and jilted lover,  Susan Veraghen, that comes first.

And it's fucking brilliant. A simple enough story of a lone warrior standing up to the bullies who run a dying city, but it's full of action, and death, and tragedy, and honour.

After that, I eat up any Grendel comic there is, and the deep confusion of diving headfirst into a complicated mythology is as comforting as ever. The second Grendel comic I ever get is the Grendel Cycle book, which is a bloody good move, and it explains the basic histories and philosophies behind the Grendel concept, and makes it easier to put it all together.

I get all the remaining Grendel Tales, (which don't last as long as I truly hoped for), and fill in the gaps over the next decade – buying big chunks of the Comico issues, grabbing most of the weird one-off pieces when I see them, and filling in the last gaps with the War Child collection. And all these years later, long after I picked up Homecoming #2

I still love the Grendel comics, all these years later. They're stylish, complex and experimental to an astonishing degree, most notably when Matt Wagner takes on the script and art duties.

Hunter Rose isn't my first Grendel, so the anarchic malevolence of that character isn't what I associate Grendel with, (even if it's another worthwhile facet of the overall saga). I was always more interested in the point where Grendel has infected an entire society and bent a civilisation to its tastes, only to have Grendel evolve into something else - something with honour and power. 

Five hundred years from now, and that code of honour and that unbending will in the Grendel comics is still the most attractive thing about the story for me. The idea that will can overcome anything is an almost admirable ideal, while Grendel comics still never hesitated to show how troubling it can be – Grendel Prime is a force of nature who probably doesn't mean you any harm, but will FUCK YOU UP if you get in his way. That's always pretty exciting, but it doesn't change the fact that he's still a murdering monster.

The Grendel comics – in almost all their incarnations - also had a lot of style, with some stories smothered in moody, hazy artwork, and others showing unspekeable horrors in unflinching detail. And through it all, there are those Grendel eyes, a mask and face that is endlessly adaptable, but always recognisable as a Grendel mark. They always look good.

I'm still missing a few Concrete comics, here and there, and I'm a long way off from completing a full collection of Zot issues, but I got my last Grendel comic last weekend.

I got the first issue of the first Batman/Grendel story right at the start of my Grendel obsession, at a record sale in a Dunedin railway station in 1996 or so. It was a sale where I also bought my very first issues of Bagge's Hate and Miller's Ronin, but it was the Grendel that excited me most at the time.

There was no trouble following the story into the vastly underrated Batman/Grendel II, but I could never find any copies of the second (and final) issue of the first crossover. I would have a quick look through longboxes in comic stores all over the world for it, but I never came across it, until last weekend, when I saw it at my local store for twelve bucks, and pounced on it.

It's a suitable ending for the story I started reading nearly 20 years ago, and it's a suitable way to round off the Grendel collection. There are no more Grendel comics to get. The run is complete.

I got into Grendel at a very strange time in my life, and I still feel that strangeness in the pages of this sprawling story. It's a melancholic and mischievous strangeness, and it's there when poor Brian Li Sung is dying in the snow, and when Grendel Prime catapaults across a future world, or when Borna names his son in a lake.

There have been tragically few Grendel comics in the past few years, but even though he is focused on licensed comics, Wagner will occasionally pop up with something like the sublime Behold The Devil, where Hunter rose is horrified by his own legacy, because it means he is no longer unique. And there have been various reprints of various oddities, and the lovely Omnibus books, which are thick with madness and mayhem.

I still prefer the future world of Grendel Prime, and it's sad that it has been well over a decade since there has been a new story in that continuity, but I will take any Grendel, in any form. I've got all now the Grendel comics now, but I still hope that collection will grow further.