Friday, January 31, 2014

Bob likes comics

I like comics.

I like big comics, and I like small comics. I like big, fancy hardbacks with glossy pages and impeccable craftwork, showing off the talents of talented people. And I like tiny, stapled mini comics with rough edges and the need to shock, created by somebody you never heard of.

I like weekly comics and their quick hits, and I like monthly comics with the regular dose, and I like the overkill of a big one-off comic.

I like black and white comics, and full colour comics, and all shades of comics.

I like comics by Bolland, Davis, Severin, Wilson, Eisner, Wagner, Colan, Abel, Gibson, Perez, Immonen, Fraser, Mignola, Kennedy, Colquhoun, Bond, Bagge, Wieringo, Yeowell, Ditko, McKean, Kirby, Byrne, Fabry, Bisley, O’Malley, Maguire, Zeck, Horrocks, Buscema, Buscema, Lloyd, Campbell, Talbot, Darrow, Crumb, Simonson, Spiegleman, Novick, Robbins, Grell, Marcos, Cockrum, Ezquerra, Clowes, Buckingham, Kurtzman, Quitely, Dillon, Sim, Winslade, Lee, Orlando, Sala, Hembeck, Burns, Woodring, Beck, Langridge, Medley, Redondo, Kristiansen, Allred, Gibbons, Kuper, Frazetta, Kubert, MacNeil, Giraud, Toth, Staton, Rogers, Matt, Dwyer, Hernandez, Hernandez, Hernandez, Hernandez, Bechdel, Hewlett, Smith, Fingerman, Brunetti, Aragones, Manara, Doran, Glanzman, Chadwick, Sacco, Langridge, Geary, D’Israeli, Templeton, Hughes, Irving, Shanower, Lutes, Cruse, Grist, Pope, McMahon, Badger, Tomine, Adams, Adams, Brown, Dorkin, Davison, Giffen, Flint, Emerson, Jason, Tezuka and a few hundred other great artists.

I like intense action comics with stylish art.

I like the feeling you get after finishing an inordinately satisfying comic. I like the fact that it still happens on a regular basis, with both new and established comic creators. The surprise satisfaction is always the best - reading a comic you don't expect much from, and finding it absorbing and entertaining, is like a drug. The best make me feel like my brain has just grown in size a tiny amount, while I can literally be stunned by the very, very best.

The last time that happened, I got a bit emotional reading one of Kevin Huizenga's Ganges comics, and then I had to go to a dinner party straight afterwards, and I was a USELESS guest all night.

But that's fairly rare, and I'm happy enough when a comic is just purely satisfying. That still doesn't happen every day, but it happens enough.

I like last issues. The whole never-ending battle thing gets a bit, well, never-ending, and I have a huge affection for the full stop. Some series end because they don't have the readership any more, and a few even get the chance to finish while still on a high.

But there is always something a little melancholic in the final issue. If a series has been well established, it sad to see it go, and if it only just got started, it's smothered with the loss of failed potential.

I like comics that make me think, and comics that make me feel, and comics that are just goddamn good looking.

One of these things is not enough for me to hold on to a comic, two of them makes a comic a keeper, and a comic with all three is a downright treasure.

I like living in a town with two viable comic shops, which means I can build loyalty at one, and use the other for surprises. After decades of missed issues, I also living in an age where I can order a comic book, and it will actually show up. If I missed a comic when I was growing up, it could be years, even decades, before I got hold of that lost issue again.

But now I can be surprised to see Bob Fingerman's excellent Minimum Wage was coming back, mentioned it to the guy at the local store, and had the first issue the very next week.

The proximity to good shops also means I don't have to rely on digital comics to get my fix, which is fantastic, because I still can't get into digital reading.

I'm not into the digital, and I don’t like some particular comics, but other people love them, and who am I to say they’re wrong? I don’t want to be the asshole who is harshing their high, I don't want to be Captain Buzzkill, moaning about how Saga isn't all that.

I don’t like a lot of things around comics culture, including some appalling sexism, outrageous entitlement, rotten business deals and plain old nastiness, but nobody is asking me to like any of that bullshit.

I especially don't like bullying, in any form, and I'll not stand for that.

I like dollar bins, and have spent a significantly measurable amount of my life crouched over them, digging for gold. I like finding rare treasures among all the unloved Brigade and X-Force comics, I like using the $1 bins to build up solid chunks of long-running series, and I like using them to complete entire runs of short-lived oddities like Hourman or Glamourpuss.

I like reading books, magazines and internet essays about comics. I love the gossip and the reading about the story behind the story, and I like soaking up astute observations about various comics.

I like reading comic reviews that prove that I was always right about absolutely everything, and I like reading comic reviews that tell me I'm wrong, wrong, wrong.

I like prestige format comics, with those glossy pages and sharp spines, even if you can never see a double-page spread properly. And I like the huge chunk of story you get in a decent omnibus edition, which might be unweildy and awkward, but can contain multitudes.

I like multi-creator anthologies, and still appreciate a smart six-page story. I like dodgy foreign reprints of US classics. I like abstract comics and I like Archie comics. I like the way reading mainstream superhero comics on the arse end of the world is a rewardingly non-linear experience.

I like sitting in the sun and reading a new Love and Rockets, and I like staying up late at night to read a new Garth Ennis comic. I like reading 2000ad on the street, on the walk back from the shop, and I like coming back from the library with piles of goodness, and I like stumbling across a pile of unknown comics in random second-hand stores.

 I like the fact that comics are just words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures.

I like comics. A lot.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Catching the BPRD train

Comic retailer (and king of the coming bloggers) Mike Sterling recently said he reckons that they need to shake up the BPRD universe a bit, and maybe even reboot the series, because it's become so well established that anybody who is into it is already getting it, and standard attrition over a decade of comics means it's time for some kind of a fresh start.

Mike knows what he is talking about when it comes to selling comics, and if he says there are no new readers coming on to the BPRD, I totally believe him.

But I'm also totally glad to be the exception to the rule, because I've finally, finally started buying BPRD every month.

It was almost inevitable, once I'd caved in to Hellboy, because it's a very short step from there. I've read all the BPRD series in trade form from the local library, and enjoyed them all, even if I read them totally out of order. But by the time I did start reading them, they'd already been running for years, and the sheer amount of material was off-putting.

But then BPRD started being one of those series that I kept picking up out of dollar bins at conventions and stores. Before I knew it, I had almost half the series in scattered back issues – enough to add them to The List, and start looking for the remainder of the series properly.

It also seemed like a good time to start getting it new every month. Partly because it means that I don't have to dig more issues out of the cheap bins, but mainly because it's a fucking excellent comic that is absolutely worth getting every month.

There does seem to be a vague critical consensus that BPRD has seen a slight downgrade in quality ever since the magnificent Guy Davis moved on. It's still mostly seen as a fine comic, just not as brilliant as it once was.

But the way the story has turned into a tale of the end of the world is fascinating. The world the BPRD operate in has almost no resemblance to the real world any more, with demonic and Lovecraftian menaces responsible for destruction on a massive scale. Some of the world's great cities - including New York - have fallen, millions of innocent people have been killed, and there is the palpable sense that humanity is winning the odd battle, but losing the war against the horror.

All of this is shown in unflinching detail, (with the odd intense action scene), but the real appeal of the BPRD's current direction is the way it focuses on the people, dealing with the apocalypse in their own way – many give in to cynicism and despair, but others still hope for a better future, even with all the odds stacked against them. Some could still go either way, but fight on anyway

Davis’ scratchy and startling artwork is certainly missed, and the number of rotating artists means there is a slight lack of consistency, but each new BPRD art has strong, clear and  competent art, casting a sharp eye over all the unending horror of this hell on Earth.

And even though there are some distinctively different artistic styles coming in, with artists such as Tyler Crook, Max Fiumara, James Harren and Cameron Stewart, they all feel of the same universe, with a similar tone and feel. All of the Hellboy universe books, including Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder, Baltimore and Abe Sapien share this cohesive feel, they all belong in the same world.

This is partly due to a strong sense of colour and cover design that Mignola’s influence sparks, and the artist’s use of heavy blacks is picked by all the other books, including the various BPRD artists.

BPRD has, in recent story arcs, had a wide-eyed accessibility that shows the despair of this long, slow apocalypse in unflinching detail, but it also has that consistency in design and mood that can be seen in all of Mignola’s related titles.

The result of all this is that the Mignola-verse feels like a complete whole, in a way no other superhero universe does any more.

The DC and Marvel universe are far too sprawling and complex to remain a cohesive unit, because there are too many creators, editors and marketing people involved, all with different goals.

Once upon a time, the Marvel universe did have that distinctive, mainly Kirby-inspired look, across all of its titles. This was helped by the fact that there were so few titles, with strong art direction across all of their books.

In their own weird and wonderful way, the Hellboy universe is the best version of that old Marvel ideal. It’s several tightly controlled books, all with strong design and similar story themes, all clearly taking place in the same world. That sort of thing remains as appealing as ever, especially when the titles are all well-established, with strong creative teams building up character relationships over years, and taking this world into the future.

It is still a fairly dark world, despite the pretty art.  Baltimore is set in the grim twilight of vampire atrocities, Hellboy is literally in hell, and the BPRD are fighting a losing battle against unimaginably vast and evil forces.

But there is still light in the darkness, and it’s that light that has hooked me on the BPRD comics, a decade or so into their run. It’s not just the (slim) hope that this particular apocalypse can be cancelled, it’s the light of compassion and empathy that still shines in the darkest of days.

The characters of BPRD have gone through all sorts of horrors, and all sorts of loss, but they still care for each other. When one of the series main characters returned to her friends in a recent issue, it was incredibly moving, especially since she’d been away for years.

And that’s why I really hope that I will be able to keep getting new BPRD comics for the foreseeable future, and why I will be hunting down the rest of those back issues I started picking up. Because it’s a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, who don’t let the despair of their world destroy them, and fight on against the dark, no matter how hard it gets..

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Drinking, death and the ruin of From Hell

From Hell is still one of my absolute favourite comic books, a vast and weird idea about the way the universe works that found a perfect outlet in Moore and Campbell's Jack The Ripper pot-boiler story.

The last time we visited to London, we stayed right in the middle of Whitechapel, so I had to take along From Hell #2 and drag the lovely wife around some of those hidden sights that comic talked about. She didn't mind – From Hell is one of the few comics she's ever been able to get into.

But I can't read it any more, because when I was browsing through an issue recently, I felt physically sick, shakingly anxious and full of existential nausea.

This wasn't the comic's fault. It was mine. Well, mine, and the whiskey.

Halfway through last year, I had a catastrophic reaction to some whiskey after having a small amount at a tasting, and ended up in the local A&E for 23 hours. The reaction was so extreme, they kept me there for a while to do all sorts of tests, just to be sure.

So they scanned my brain and then they stuck a needle into my spine, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds, just to check for any evidence of bleeding on the brain.

And the result of that spine test came back positive, so they had to do another brain scan with some radioactive dye, just to be sure, because the lumbar puncture result was notoriously unreliable.

To skip to the end, that second test found there was nothing wrong, and they concluded that I had some sort of bad reaction to something in one of the premium whiskeys I'd been drinking, and we went on our way. So that was all right.

But there was a three-hour wait between the positive result and the all-clear, and that was a fairly awful three hours. My wonderful, wonderful wife was there for support, of course, but there was really nothing to do but sit there and wait, and try not to think about the possible consequences.

All I could do was sit there and read about From Hell.

I happened to have a newly-purchased copy of the From Hell Companion, edited by Eddie Campbell, and I had to sit there and read that, or I'd be freaking out because my brain could start dribbling out my nose at any second, and everything I had, and everything I was, could just vanish.

And it totally worked. I got lost in the trivia and the story behind the making of a comic masterpiece. There were all sorts of points I'd never seen before, there was unseen art, and humorous asides. A comic that was always impossibly complex revealed new secrets, even after all these years.

I read that whole damn book while waiting for those results. It soaked up all the anxiety and fear and worry. The problem is, it's now drenched in it.

I was looking at one of the later chapters in the story the other day, trying to find some particular reference, and flicking through the pages was an alarmingly unpleasant experience.

Looking at those pages, and all that concern and horror over the randomness of life came seeping up again. All those feelings I'd pushed back on that terrible Sunday afternoon came roaring back.

This isn't unusual – I often associate particular comic books with the frame of mind I was in when I first read them. Sometimes this can be pleasant – I have very fond feelings for the very first issue of Jim Lee's WildCATS that has nothing to do with the quality of the comic; and sometimes it can be less pleasant – I can't read some comics if I read them while I'm tripping, without having some brain-blistering flashbacks.

But this recent reading From Hell was one of the most extreme reactions I've had in a while, and I literally could not read any more of it without feeling faint and having to have a lie down.

Still. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.

I also had the usual reaction to a brush with death – the sense that you shouldn't put anything off, and that you need to enjoy every day, and make the most of life, and all that shit.

I've also cut back on the drinking. I grew up in a town where the only things to do on a Friday night was get wasted, watch a video, or read a comic (doing all three at once was a complete extravagance). So I've always been a fairly fearless drinker, but even though it was a relatively small amount of whiskey, it fucked me up.

So I haven't felt the need to get that rotten ever since, but I'm not being an arsehole about it. I'll still enjoy a beer in the sun, I'm just finding that adhering to the Mitchell/Webb 'slightly-less-than-two-drinks' philosophy is working out surprisingly well.

(I also sometimes feel it wasn't the whiskey at all, but those fucking witches from Suspiria. I saw Goblin perform the live soundtrack to the film at a festival, 24 hours before I ended up in hospital, and it was fucking impressive, but I can't shake the idea those fucking witches fucking cursed me.)

But there is just something about the comic book format.that soaks up feelings, both good and bad. Something in the way stylised pictures are used to tell a story that sees theser things merge with experiences.

It's one of the things I like most about comics – I will always remember where I first read a comic, rather than, say, a book. (Although I can always remember where I heard a great song for the first time, or where I saw a great movie.)

And most of the time that works out fine, and sometimes it comes back to bite me. I've ruined From Hell. I hope one day I get over it, but I just know that there is real horror is locked into those pages, as sure as stone.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Never too old for this shit

Only once did I seriously think that I was too old for comics and that I should give them up.

It was 1990, I was 15, and I had managed to convince myself that I had to grow up, and stop reading these things, and do more adult stuff. Comics were just for kids, everybody knew that. Or, at least, that was what everybody was telling me.

I did genuinely decide to stop getting comics for a good ten minutes, and then I started flicking through the latest issue of the New Warriors, and I thought it was the sweetest thing ever, and I wanted to know what happened next, so I was back on the wagon, and who gives a shit what anybody else says, when it was this much fun?

Twenty-four years later, and I still don't think I'm too old for comics.

If you're an adult, and you still love reading comic books, you almost certainly still have the odd friend or family member express amazement that you're still reading 'those things'.

The question is inevitable - 'haven't you grown out of it by now?' - but the response always varies. Sometimes I'll try to convince them that it's a total valid entertainment medium, where idiosyncratic styles can find a wide audience, and sometimes I'll start babbling about some of them are really, really mature, y'know. Most of the time I usually just shrug and say something like 'I just like 'em'.

I run into this kind of thing a lot, and I know I can still expect it from the odd cousin or workmate who has never read a comic outside Garfield or Archie. I just didn't expect it from one of comic's greatest writers.

One of the funniest things about Alan Moore's recent venting on various matters – and there were more than a couple - was the bizarre assumption that certain kinds of entertainment should only be enjoyed by the specific target audience.

Even though he spent a considerable amount of his adult life putting a lot of serious thought into super-hero comics, he know declares that an adult's love of the genre indicates a stunted personality, and an infantile retreat into the comfort of childhood. Furthermore, he was baffled by the fact that grown men were getting terribly excited about Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, because it's obviously just for little boys.

Which is fairly ridiculous, because modern televisual blockbusters like Doctor Who have to appeal to the widest audience possible. There is still the core of young kids who get all hopped up on the gross monsters and time-travel paradoxes, but it's also got to appeal to Dads and Mums and grandparents and weird uncles who aren't really uncles. It needs to appeal to those who just want a bit of SFX and some good looking companions, and to those who demand strong, cliche-free storytelling.

I still like Doctor Who more than anything else in the world, and I'll admit that a large part of that joy is a nostalgic thread, running right through all my years. But I also like it because it's sometimes smart, occasionally clever and sometimes genuinely moving. I do hope the kids are getting something out of it, but I know I find it an extremely pleasurable diversion from modern life.

Then again, Moore reckons Doctor Who hasn't been the same since William Hartnell left, and his curmudgeonly comments about the state of modern super-comics haven't been much of a surprise either. I just think it's just a shame he doesn't still get that same thrill that I still get from the best tights 'n' capes foolishness.

Because I do still get a bang out of various super-hero comics. Superheroes represent a pure moral code, and the best of them celebrate lateral thinking and come up with imaginative solutions. This isn't necessarily realistic, and I don't have a lot in common with Wonder Woman or The Punisher or any of these characters, but I don't think every goddamn thing in fiction has to be speaking truths about my life.

Instead, super-comics can still be a shining, guiding light. They can also be colourful, and stylish, and energetic in a way that defies the static nature of comics. They can be funny, or thoughtful, and sometimes they can even be emotionally real.

Batman can just be written off as a silly little concept about an idiot dressed up in a bat costume, but it is far more than that – it's become a globally recognised symbol. That thrill of seeing Batman kick the shit out of some vile scum is universal, and anybody who thinks superheroes have no meaning is blind to modern culture.

Of course, we don't always actually get that. I buy – at most - a couple of superhero comics a month, and there are literally hundreds of them out there that I never bother with. I have absolute no interest is 90 per cent of them, and only a vague interest in most of the rest.

But I'm still not embarrassed to like them, I'm not ashamed of liking super hero comics, and I haven't felt that need to grow up and move on from them since 1990.

Garth Ennis once said in a Comics Journal interview that he couldn't understand how adults could come to super heroes cold, without some kind of childhood affection, and he's right, to a degree. The gateway can be childish infatuation with these comics, but I also like them as a adult, who is secure enough in his identity to like what he likes.

People will still always scoff, and I still have close friends and relatives who are amazed that I still read comics at 39, but I just think they are missing out on great art, and great stories. And that's their loss, because some of the best stories I've ever read, seen or heard were on the comic page, and some of them even featured tights.

People do grow out of these things, and there is nothing wrong with that. They're free to go, but we could do without the sneering as they walk out the door.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sometimes they come back: Stray Bullets, Miracleman and Twin Peaks

The big downside of serialising fiction is that there is no guarantee that the story is actually going to end properly. It might not be popular enough to warrant more chapters, or could get tied up in some weird legal limbo that strangles the life out of it.

This is a particular problem with serialised television, where many great series have ended on heartbreaking cliffhangers that never get resolved properly, leaving beloved characters in purgatory.

It also happens a lot in comic books, as some series never get the ending that was promised, or deserved. When a comic is so obviously the work of a distinctive and smart creator, it needs that creator to end the story, nobody else can do it. And if they move away from the project, they might not return.

But sometimes, just sometimes, they do come back.

It was with enormous pleasure that I stumbled across the return of David Lapham's excellent Stray Bullets in the pages of the most recent Previews. I had completely missed the news it was coming back, which is a bit odd, because it's coming back with a vengeance.

In March, Image are releasing a 1200-page collection of all five arcs of Stray Bullets, in all their messy, sprawling glory, and the series is continuing with an all-new number one. And we're finally, finally getting #41 – the long awaited last issue.

Lapham's epic noir has been left hanging for almost a decade, with the story of Virginia Applejack's awkward return home dangling painfully in all that time. Lapham has kept busy with things like the almost likeable Young Liars and various gross Avatar comics.

He did have a family to support and couldn’t take the kind of financial risk that comes with self-publishing, and nobody could blame him for that. He always said in interviews that he planned to come back to it one day, when the schedule became clearer, and he could get the best deal.

Stray Bullets always did have an irregular schedule, with the 40 issues coming out over  10 years, but the nine-year break that followed was painful, because it really was a fantastic comic. The lazy criticism is that it was all a bit Tarantino, but while the creators shared a fascination with the criminal underworld and the hideous consequences of heists-gone-wrong, Stray Bullets had a tone and style all of it's won.

It was darker and streakier than Tarantino's brightly lit, wide-eyed nightmares, with a strong and steady line that produced incredibly slick comics. The scripts could get tied up in knots, but that was all part of the fun, and Stray Bullets liked to pull those knots tighter under they snapped.

It's good to have that kind of pressure back.

Miracleman is the other obvious story I’m looking forward to seeing conclude, after buying the last two monthly Eclipse issues a lifetime ago.

That story – or at least, the Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham part of the story - has been trapped in a legal quagmire for decades, until Marvel recently somehow sorted out the rights, and is happily reprinting all those early issues, with the assurance that the story Gaiman and Buckingham started, all those years ago will finally be completed.

Like Stray Bullets, there has been an air of vague inevitability that the creative team would end up finishing their story. Both Gaiman and Buckingham have re-iterated, time and time again, that they would like to finish it someday, and even though nothing official has been announced, Marvel is about to power through the older work, and will have the opportunity to slide right into new stuff in a matter of months.

It’s unlikely the story itself will feature any surprises, Gaiman has revealed the vague plots of the uncompleted Silver Age and never-started Dark Age, and has even told how the story will end (two people, on a beach, as the last sun goes down). The entire future of the Miracleman world - including the migration of the miracle babies and the strange story of the Fate Supercomputer - has already been documented, and can be found in George Khoury's terrific Kimota! companion book.

But a lot of the charm of Miracleman was always in the little details, and I look forward to the day I walk into the local store, and there is a new Miracleman comic waiting after 22 years (22 years!), carrying the story on to a proper conclusion, and maybe even going down a few paths I couldn't have predicted.

It’s much more unlikely for TV shows to return after decades on hiatus, if only because actors and major creative voices grow older and move on. TV is a much more collaborative medium, so getting everybody together to continue a story that may have been cut short can prove simply impossible.

But it still happens, in a way. And it may be happening to one of the most intriguing series ever to be left hanging. Recently, David Lynch has confirmed that he has been shooting new Twin Peaks material, and while it looks like it will be only a promo for a deluxe Blu-Ray edition of the series, it does open the door for more of the show.

Twin Peaks famously ended with the lead character trapped in the black lodge, while his body was possessed by a spirit of murder, and that giant, unanswered question has been overshadowing the rest of the series ever since. The wonderful Fire Walk With Me movie did offer some resolution (even if everybody couldn't see it at the time), but the idea that this weird story could finally have a full stop is just brilliant.

Besides, it's about time. Laura said she would be seeing Agent Cooper again in 25 years, and that's right about now.

There may be some unlikely hope that Twin Peaks will return, but it's also worth conceding that some stories will never be finished, Kirby’s Fourth World saga will always be incomplete, no matter how many well-intentioned bids to tie things up from other creators, because it was always Kirby's story, and nobody else's.

But sometimes they come back, and they might be a long time coming, but that just makes the result all the more tasty.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who can rid me of these troublesome Wizards?

The lovely wife and I are moving house in the next month, so I have to get my shit sorted, and that takes weeks. Getting all the thousands of comics and books and movies and other shit into order, and all boxed up, ready to shift.

It's actually a fairly painless process, and I even enjoy it a little bit. Digging into boxes I haven't opened since the last time we moved, and finding scraps of short stories I wrote when I was 11, or forgotten magazines about horror movies, is always embarrassingly exciting.

It's also a good chance to ditch a bunch of stuff, and this time is no exception, as I made a small pile of things to go to charity. This time I finally decided that I didn't really need that small pile of British music magazines from the late nineties, no matter how much they remind me of the Best Summer Ever, or that I had never even glanced at the MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy that I've been carting around for years, and probably never will.

I managed to skim off a couple of banana boxes full of magazines and comics I didn't really need any more, and that's actually better than usual, even if I have another two dozen that I couldn't bear to part with.

I didn't ditch any comics by any favoured creators (and there are dozens and dozens of those guys), and I'm still holding on to all my Neon movie magazines from the mid-nineties, because that's the first place I ever got my name in print. I still can't throw out any of those Federal reprint comics from the eighties, because they were the first place I ever read Byrne Fantastic Four, Simonson Thor or Miller Daredevil, even if they're losing their covers.

And, once again, I completely failed to get rid of any issues of Wizard magazine. That's not right, but I just can't. I love the Wizards.

I have about 30 issues of Wizard, all stashed away in the same box that has been sitting under the bed for years. They mainly date from around 1995 until around 1998, although there are a few stragglers from outside that timeframe, and I have far more issues than I really need, but I keep holding on to them.

Let's be clear – I think Wizard magazine had a terrible impact on the comic medium, culture and industry, mainly through the fierce devotion to the speculator mentality, but also through a crass and outright sexist attitude masquerading as humour, and a hypocritical sniffiness that saw it declare that good stories were the main reason for successful comics, while drooling over near-illiterate T&A garbage.

Nobody who wasn’t directly involved with Wizard magazine gave much of a shit when it finally withered away a couple of years ago. Its news coverage had long been supplanted by the internet, and one homophobic ‘joke’ too many had left it with little goodwill. There was some vague effort to take the magazine online, but that didn’t go anywhere, and Wizard passed into history, its memory living on a legacy of the lowest common denominator during a particular era in comic books.

And yet, there was a time when I happily grabbed every new issue of Wizard every month, and I would devour those things.

I actually came into Wizard through Hero Illustrated, a Wizard clone that went for a slightly classier tone. I stumbled across a copy of that magazine one Friday night, when I went into town to get my regular Red Dwarf Smegazine, and I thought it was outstanding. This was the early nineties and I'd never lived anywhere near a comic shop, so I was still relying on the Johnny DC and Stan's Soapbox columns for all my comic news, and these mags had hundreds of pages of news and analysis and price guides, (mainly used to help figure out when, say, Morrison started on Doom Patrol).

While I still have a few issues stashed away, including that first one I found that fateful Friday night, Hero Illustrated only lasted a couple of years, and then the local Paper Plus bookstore started getting Wizard magazine every month instead, so that was an easy switch.

And it really was one of the few ways of getting any type of information about new comics for a while. The internet existed, but the idea of websites updating daily with all the latest news was still a couple of years off. There were other print options - there was always the good ol’ Comics Journal and things like the Comic Buyers Guide, but I never even saw any of their issues in the small town I lived in. Wizard really was the only source of any type of comic news and analysis I could get my hands on.

I could still recognize a lot of its faults, but that smug frat-boy tone eventually got a bit much after a while, and I stopped getting it regularly, and only bought two or three more issues before it eventually faded away.

So here we are, more than a decade and a half after Wizard’s heyday, and I still have those 30 back issues, and I pulled them out again for this purge, and started flicking through them one last time before I ditched them, and then I put them all back again, and they’re coming with us to the new place.

What is wrong with me? These aren't worth holding on to, are they?

It’s partly that nostalgia thing that justifies it, because I do still feel that thrill of discovery as I crack these things open every couple of years. And they are total historical snapshots. I still find it fascinating to see what Wizard considered the hottest books in June 1994, and I’m even more fascinated by the various top ten writer/artist lists, and how much they actually resemble modern lists, and what that says about the pace of change in the comic book industry.

It’s also partly because there were actually some nice articles and interviews, capturing the thoughts of creators at a particular period in their careers, and it's bloody interesting to see how their attitudes have changed over the years. Wizard also had some nice covers by some of the best artists in comics over the years, and even though there were also loads of Rob Liefeld and Jim Balent covers, some of them are still visually striking.

But the weirdest reason I hold on to these Wizard magazines is that they actually make great reference material. The issues I still have were all bought during the absolute peak of my comic-buying obsession, between the ages of 17 and 25. I bought thousands and thousands of comics over those years. And then I got rid of thousands and thousands of them over the years since, and there have been so many, sometimes I forget that entire series even existed, or what they were about.

But then I look at these Wizard magazines, and they’ve got previews and reviews of all this stuff, and I find I don’t need to hold on to those old issues, when the magazine can trigger the same feelings of pleasant nostalgia.

I don't need the forty issues of Ron Marz Green Lantern comics that I once had, or all the Amalgam comics I once owned, when a couple of Wizard pieces remind me of everything I enjoyed about them at one time, and of all the plot points and creator shuffles the various titles went through.

These 30 magazines are a record of this particular time in comics, one I still have a lot of fond feelings for. And when those feelings are often undermined by the actual reality of shitty comics, the memories sparked by an old Wizard are more than enough.

I know that holding onto to these awful - and almost harmful - magazines is a real weakness of mine, wallowing in the past through the medium of crap. I know I should just dump these old magazines in the recycling and move on, with no regrets.

Maybe next time.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A drokking good birthday

This is the fifth birthday of the Tearoom of Despair. I’m surprised it has lasted this long, but have no plans to stop any time soon. Thanks to all those who sent in lovely emails, or left a comment, or contributed a guest post, or just read something I wrote and said ‘Huh…’

This is also my 39th birthday, so I’m going to avoid the fact that the long, slow slide of mortality is getting a bit too steep for my liking by talking about the day I turned 12, and about how my Mum is the best Mum ever.

It was almost the worst birthday ever. Just too old for any cool toys, too young for anything that would impress girls, and the whole family thought I had too many books or comics as it was, so there was no chance of anything like that. (I had more than 200 comics, which was considered fairly outrageous.)

So most of my twelfth birthday was spent walking around the finest clothes and shoe shops in Timaru, and getting lots and lots of extremely sensible presents, and man, I was the grumpiest little shit by the end of all that, rallying against God and the universe for putting me through all this on my birthday.

And then my Mum – my wonderful, patient and sympathetic Mum – bought me the Judge Dredd Roleplaying Game, and all was right with the world again.

I remember it was bloody expensive, almost fifty bucks in New Zealand 1987 money, so I had to give up all the birthday money I’d scored, and she’d pay for the other half, but I thought that shiny box sitting on the shelves of Chapter & Verses was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen, and it was totally worth it.

I’d been reading Judge Dredd comics since I was six, but I’d never played a role playing game before, and only had a vague idea of how they worked. Mum was a little put off the whole concept when one of my aunties told her that she’d heard that people who played role playing games ended up fighting in sewers with swords, but she got me it anyway, and it was the best birthday present ever.

You didn’t get much for your fifty bucks – a couple of sourcebooks, a bunch of tiny cardboard cutouts, some funky dice and a fold-out action map of a shuggy hall – but I didn’t care. I know this makes me sound like the shallow little shit I was, (and still could be), but that role playing game made it the best birthday ever.

(The shop where I bought the roleplaying game was also the first place I ever bought a Terry Pratchett book, and where I bought many of my first cassette tapes as a teenager (including my first Cure and Queen albums), and where I got a copy of the Miracleman Golden Age collection and a hardback collection of Morrison and Hughes’ Dare, two of the few graphic novels that ever showed up in Timaru.

It only just closed down last month, and even though I hadn’t bought anything from there in more than a decade, I was sorry to see it go.)

But the really funny thing about getting that roleplaying game was this - I never actually played the damn thing. I tried once with some of my geekiest mates, but it was a hot summer day, and we all got bored quickly and buggered off down the river for a swim.

Even though I did have some friends who went hard for the Dungeons and Dragons, I could never get my head around the way so much of the game took place in a nebulous form. I loved board games, with their hard rules and absolute results, and the idea of leaving it all up to some gamesmaster just felt so unsatisfying.

In fact, me and my mate Anthony actually converted the Dredd roleplaying game into a boardgame for a while, coming up with an arcane system of attack and defence dice rolls to move Judges and perps around gameboards that included that shuggy hall and a surprisingly suitable Cluedo board. It worked out pretty well.

But while I had terribly noble pretensions of actually playing the game when I bought it, the best thing about getting the board game was those sourcebooks, because they were stuffed with fascinating data about the world of Judge Dredd.

I had been reading Judge Dredd comics for half my life at that stage, but it had been a sporadic experience. I’d missed out on a lot of great Dredd over the years, and had to catch up on things like the Apocalypse War and the Judge Child Quest through the Eagle reprints and Best of 2000ad Monthly. When it came to the background of Dredd’s world, I had the basics all sorted, but a lot of Mega-City One’s more insane details were a total mystery.

Until I got my hands on that sourcebook, and hoovered up all those details. I still know which year Dredd was born (and why he is both a newborn and a five-year-old at the same time), from the role-playing game. And there was pages and pages and pages of this sort of this stuff, covering the culture and history of Dredd’s city, and detailed profiles of all the main characters and groups that inhabited that world.  It's where I memorised the name of all of the Cheif Judges, and it's where I first read about the slightly impossible Vienna Dredd, or the ugly craze spawned by the mighty Otto Sump.

In those pre-internet days, roleplaying games that were based on an existing property were often invaluable for info like this. The Watchmen game in the 1980s was famously packed with hundreds of tiny little tidbits that filled in the background of the world, and I found that Judge Dredd roleplaying game just as useful.

So what if we never actually played the game? It was still the best birthday present I ever got. I still have the books, and that shuggy hall map, and just last week I found I still had most of those little cardboard character cutouts, hidden in a Trivial Pursuit box in the spare room.

But it wasn’t my favourite birthday present because of the contents of that box, and, as incredibly useful and addictive as it was, it wasn’t that massive information dump either.

It’s my favourite present because it’s the ultimate example of my lovely Mum going out of her way to fulfill her son’s geekiest tendencies, and even encouraging them. I really was a miserable little bastard after spending all that day trying on nice shirts and comfortable shoes, but that just made the joy of the perfect present even better.

Thanks Mum!

The second best birthday present I ever got was also from my Mum , and it was a video copy of the original Dawn Of The Dead she bought be when I was 16, and I watch that fucker a hundred billion times. But I’ll save that reminiscing for next year, when I will be trying to ignore the fact that I’m 40.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Future shrug!

While recently watching Captured By Ghosts, the documentary about noted comics writer Warren Ellis, I noticed two things keep cropping up, over and over again. One of them was that interviewees kept describing Ellis as kind and gentle, (which he took gleeful offense at), and the other was that everyone kept pointing out that his work was always all about the future.

And they’re both true – Ellis makes a great show of being a total curmudgeon and delights in the adolescent drive to shock, but any real analysis of his writings reveal that he is acutely empathetic and incredibly compassionate, while the vast majority of his work really is concerned with the future, and what it all holds for us.

His idea of the weird and wonderful future for mankind was most evident in his Transmetropolitan series, but it infuses almost everything else he writes. Even Planetary was all about paying tribute to the past and learning from history, but also, crucially, about moving on and doing something new with those lessons. And I can’t be the only one hoping for his evolution of Batman that appeared in the Planetary crossover, one who is more emotionally balanced than the Grim Avenger Of The Night, to become the default Bat.

Throughout his large body of work, Ellis has proudly been one of comic’s great futurists. We could use more of this in comics and movies and television and books and music. We could use more visions of the future.

After all, human beings have always been fascinated by the future, and often imagine the worst, and are constantly surprised when it doesn’t actually happen. Millions and millions of words have been written imagining the times to come, and some of them even come true.

We all know where we’ve been, but nobody really knows where we’re going, and this attraction towards this unknown is part of the human condition. And now it’s a whole new year, and it’s not just a good time to change the calendar, it’s the time to look forward to the year ahead, and hope for the best.

Society’s obsession with the future can be clearly seen in the way it treats its entertainment. Last week’s release is already old news, and creators of books, movies and TV shows spend most of their time in interviews answering the most obvious question - “What’s next?”.

It’s only human to wonder, and to ask this question. After all, we’ve always been this way.

I’ve always been this way.

The future comes in strange shapes, and objects that have been around for years can still signify the forthcoming, on a personal level.

For me, Uncanny X-Men #273 will always be a symbol of the future – it came out at a time when my X-obsession was at an all-time high, but also at a time when I was getting every issue four months after the States, until my mate Kyle found a proper comic book shop in Christchurch and came back with it.

This was during one of the X-Men’s periods of extreme change, but getting to see how the X-tinction Agenda all turned out was intoxicating – everything had changed in three short months, and it all felt slick and new in a way the copies down the local bookstore never would again. It was also a jam issue, which I always have a secret soft spot for, and had art by Jim Lee, John Byrne, Marc Silvestri, Michael Golden and Whilce Portacio, and it was the most modern thing I had ever seen in my entire life.

That comic is twenty-something years old now, but it still looks like the future to me.

I’m always on the lookout for the next bit of the future, and sometimes I find it. I even still get a bit of a thrill every time I flick through a copy of Previews in the comic shop.

The delight of seeing the near-future is still there, even if it has been diluted by enormous disappointment over the years, as more and more solicited comics never live up to the promised wonder.

But there are often comics that look like something genuinely futuristic, even on the age-old medium of ink-on-paper. This is largely due to the talents of individual artists, as every now and then a new artist comes along who doesn’t look like anybody else, and it all reeks of the gorgeous funk of potentiality.

I don’t see as many signs of the future in television shows, which has often been a reactive medium and a far harder place to carve out an idiosyncratic style, but do see it in the work of filmmakers like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick (The world is getting a little more Clockwork Orange every day).

But I'm constantly getting hooked on music that sounds like the future. I’m always interested in the sound of times-to-come, and have had various obsessions with various music acts who I’m convinced sound like the future. It all started with the pounding electronics of Vangelis’ scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, and I never quite got over it, convinced at various times that bands like the Chemical Brothers, The Beta Band, post-OK Computer Radiohead, and Asian Dub Foundation were the sound of the future.

I've never got over this, and even though I'm a sad old bastard who feels left behind by much modern music, this hunt for future sounds continues today, with a current childish infatuation with dubstep and the genre’s glorious need to annoy the shit out of the listener.

There is certainly some warm and cozy comfort to be found in nostalgia – I frequently wallow in my own past without guilt and regret. The past is what made us, and to ignore it is to ignore the fundamental aspects of your own being.

But as a species we’re inclined to look forward, not back. The only way we progress is through learning from our past mistakes, and going forward. The music we listen to and the comics we read are great big honking metaphors for the human need for novelty, for something new. This iw what Ellis is saying, over and over again, combining that compassion with the eye towards the future and coming out with a big bag full of pure hope.

And, despite the constant whinging about the lack of jetpacks and rocket cars, the future is all around us, with technological advances and sociological changes in the past few decades that are just staggering. Leonard Cohen might have reckoned the future is murder, but it's also full of hope and glory.

The future is unwritten, but, against all the odds, we’ve somehow made it to the year 2014. That’s a fact worth celebrating, because it’s a wonderful time to be alive, and we've got so much to look forward to.