Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mad Men: The moon belongs to everyone

Mad Men is still one of the richest television shows on offer – it is as emotionally dense, unapologetically intellectual and achingly stylish as ever.

It is also one of those rare shows that gets better every year, as all that weird complexity and clumsy humanity piles on top of each other, and people fall in and out of love, and fight to the death for careers and pride, and make what family they can out of the mess.

This year's run of the show has been no exception, and its final two episodes were just sublime television, all capped off with a genuinely moving song and dance number, as a ghost shuffles off stage with a shuffle and a wink.

Nobody would have felt short-changed if this year's half-season of Mad Men ended with the penultimate episode, and Don and Peggy and Pete sitting down for a crappy meal in a crappy fast food joint. These strange people, who have all done such terrible things to each other, finding some comfort in each other’s company.

We might hate these characters for what they do sometimes, but we can never hate them as much as they hate themselves, and any chance to find some peace of mind is always welcome.

But there was still another episode to come, and are some last episode thrills - the plan to get Don out, thrown askew by a clumsy flirtation, ultimately resolved by the usual heist-like shenanigans; some sign that Sally Draper isn't making the same mistakes as her parents, (ignoring the dull beefcake for the guy who actually feels something); and everyone, everywhere connects for one shining moment as man walks on the moon.

It's also typically mirthful - for all his faults, Jim Cutler quickly knows when he is beaten, and Harry Crane hilariously loses again – but also soaked in melancholy, as the mighty Bert Cooper merges with the infinite, seeing humanity reaches its highest technological achievement, and checking out while the going is good.

So far, so Mad Men. And then, Bert reappears as a ghost, twirls his ass, reminds us that even after a lifetime of selling shit that the best things in life are free, nods and heads out the door for the last time.

Bert Cooper. He didn’t wear any shoes, but he was an absolute showman to the very end.

It has been incredibly funny to see some viewers try to rationalise Don’s vision of the dancing deceased – convinced that Don is dealing with the DTs, as if a moment of moving picture joy can only be suffered if is explained and analysed. It can't just happen, and be left unexplained.

But it can, because the simple explanation is that it happened because this is a TV show with the creative balls to shift into a bit of Dennis Potter-inspired musicality, and you can do and say so much with a song and a dance, so why not?

After all, a lot of the appeal of this final scene isn’t bound into the strictly superficial world of Mad Men, and that the big encore is just a chance for the great Bobby Morse, an old school song and dance man, to give a final farewell to all those wonderful people who clapped and laughed for him.

After a lifetime of hard graft in movies, television and theatre, Bert Cooper is likely to be Morse’s last major role, and he has been fantastic with the character’s zen stoicism and unbending loyalty to his team, but it was a true delight to see him come back with an unexpected encore.

We all don't like to think about the fact that all things must end, and that one day we will be gone and the world will carry on without us. But we can all hope that we will meet that inevitable end with some kind of grace and dignity, and if you can leave with a smile and a song in your heart, you've won the game of life.

I'm always a total sucker for stories that go out with a song and a dance. It might have been all those Asterix books I read growing up, which all ended in a big party of glistening boar, spilt beer and a trussed-up musician.

I’m also a total sucker for stories that have moments when reality breaks down, and somebody sees something impossible, but sees truths in that impossibility. Bert Cooper’s last little song and dance is the most intensely moving thing I’ve read, seen or heard all this year, and the most intensely moving I read, saw or heard last year was a similar impossible moment in the recent An Adventure In Space and Time - the story of the creation of Doctor Who - when William Hartnell sees his legacy standing in front of him, in the form of the eleventh Doctor.

I know that Hartnell didn’t really ever get such a glimpse of the future, but in the confines of a TV drama, where space and time can be recreated in the studio, it’s an effective way of capturing the long legacy of a silly British TV show, and to give Hartnell a little comfort at the end, knowing that he has helped create something that will last lost after he is gone, and inspire millions of kids.

Don Draper isn’t comforted by his impossible vision. He is left drained and shattered by the post-mortem performance, unable to stand, his grief at the loss of a mentor who had always stuck by him, even at his worst, weighing him down.

It's wonderful to see Bert go out with a grin, but we still hate to see him go at all, and this little ghost story has little comfort for a man who is still terrified he hasn’t done anything, and has nobody to share the best things in life with.

There are seven more episodes of Mad Men to come next year, and while it’s unlikely to feature much more in the way of intensely moving song and dance numbers, there are certain to be more surprises, and more rich drama to sink your teeth into.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The night I met the Big Red Cheese

This is a story about the time I met Captain Marvel. It might not have really happened, but it's a true story, all the same.

It was a Saturday night in the late nineties, so I was drunk as fuck. I was always drunk as fuck on Saturday nights at that time in my life. Early twenties and cracking under the pressure of sudden adulthood and a growing fear that I had no idea what to do with my life, but none of that really matters if you party hard enough.

This is hardly unique, and most of my best friends were barely functioning alcoholics at that age. Almost all of us grew out of it, if only because the hangovers were getting worse and worse.

This one night was typical – I was flatting in Dunedin, and it took a lot to get me properly wasted, so I would pre-load on scrumpy cider and vodka 'n' lemonade and Invisibles comics at home before hitting the bars and clubs for a night of drunken oblivion and bad dancing.

And like many other nights, I ended up staggering home alone in the early hours of the morning, and like a lot of other nights, I didn't quite make it on the first go.

Sometimes that long drunken walk home was a little too long, and I ended up getting very good at taking quick, booze-fuelled naps in dark corners on deserted city streets, hunkering down in doorways, or under bushes, or up in a tree. Looking back, this is fairly pathetic behaviour, and I'm not proud of it, but that's just the way I rolled at that time.

This one night, it was pouring with rain, so I didn't even get out of the centre of town, and at some point I wandered down a short alleyway and took refuge under a car port just 20 metres from the office where I worked, waiting for the showers to pass, and indulging in a little easy unconsciousness while I waited.

I don't know how long I was sheltering there, but when I came back to my senses, it was very, very late. The rain had stopped, the only sound I could hear was somebody playing a Beatles album somewhere far away, and Captain Marvel was standing in the incredibly dim light, his smile beaming as he looked down at me.

 Even at that time, as fucked up as I was, I knew this was just some drunken hallucination/dream. But for a good two or three seconds, he was as real as anything else in the world.

It was Captain Marvel. The world's mightiest mortal. The Big Red Cheese.

He didn't look like a character drawn by a human hand, but he didn't exactly look like a real person, either – he was somewhere in-between, like heavily stylised CGI. He was massive, with a big barrel chest, and his hands on his hips. He had an easy smile, and he wasn't judging me. He was just watching me.

Things got a bit hazy then, the vast amounts of alcohol messing with some of the brain's highest function, and when I pulled it together again, he was gone. There was no sign he'd ever been there, other than my memory. I got my shit together and walked the rest of the way home.

To this day, I have no idea why it was Captain Marvel that showed up that night. Although I'd already been reading comics for decades by this point, I'd never read much of the hero's adventures. I'd never read any of C C Beck's wonderful little dramas, or any of the recurring reinventions.

As a kid I'd seen him pop up in the odd Superman comics, but I found something slightly offputting about him, and I could never really explain why. It might just have been the fact that those stories were deeply average, or the fact that he was sometimes called Captain Thunder, or it might be just because I really didn't like that stupid little cape, but Captain Marvel wasn't for me.

Kingdom Come had just come out at that time, and Captain Marvel played a large part in that, but he was just a total dick for most of that. I did like his brief appearance as a straight man in the Justice League International, but he didn't last long there. And I did have a couple of random issues of Jerry Ordway's Power of Shazam lying about, but no inclination to go get any more.

In fact, the only thing vaguely related to Captain Marvel that I really gave a shit about was the modern Miracleman, which veered away from the bright, clean world of Billy Batson and chums a long time ago. Other than that, Captain Marvel was just another face in the big crossover crowd scenes.

So he meant nothing to me, but that's what my brain pulled up to confront me in that car port, on that wet Sunday morning.

I have the absolute clear memory of something that probably never happened, I was barely conscious, heavily intoxicated and I'd probably been reading some Flex Mentallo earlier that day. (It was the best reading material for pre-loading). It was nothing but mundane hallucination and I have no idea why it happened to be Captain Marvel.

But I do know this - he wasn't judging me, he was just watching me, but I still felt like I'd disappointed, that I really was just a dumb piece of shit, passed out in a car port on a cold night. If I ever really was going to meet a real super-hero, I'd like to meet him at my best. And man, that was not my best.

I didn't change my ways for a few years yet, and things even got a little worse for a while, but I grew up, like we all do. I didn't turn from a crippled nine-year-old boy into a grown man with incredible power in a flash of lightning, I went the long way round, just like everybody else, but I grew up in the end.

If I meet Captain Marvel again, I won't be so ashamed. I'll probably be just as confused, but I won't be ashamed.

I also met Superman and Batman when I was a lot younger, but that's another story altogether.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Right On

The issue of creator's rights used to be so simple. I had it all figured out. All the moral and ethical rights belonged to the creator, and it was a great injustice that they didn't have all the legal or financial rights. Anybody could see that.

That ideal is still out there. It's still valid and it still does work for many of comic's greatest creators. Everything that was ever published in Love and Rockets belongs to the Hernandez brothers, Evan Dorkin will always be the only artist to do proper Milk and Cheese comics and nobody but Frank Miller will ever own a piece of his Sin City comic, unless he wants to give it to them.

But the history of the comic industry is still full of outright injustice and it’s always worth pointing out that this shit is not acceptable, and that companies that have made millions from certain characters and series should always, always acknowledge and suitably reward the creators, and they should always respect their work and opinion.

That’s all obvious. It’s obvious that the creator should always have the primary rights to their creation. It’s obvious that creator rights begin and end with the creators themselves.

But it's not as black and white as it used to be. I might be just as militantly opposed to creators getting fucked over as I ever was, but now I can’t help seeing that there are all sorts of grey areas.

Image fucked up the utopian ideal of creator rights – all those arguments in eighties convention hotel rooms  faded away like the smoke after Youngblood. That didn’t mean the battle for creator rights wasn’t worth fighting any more, it just meant we couldn’t pretend that this would usher in a golden era of great comics. (It can certainly be argued that it eventually did, but it would take years and years, and that definitely wasn’t how it looked in 1993.)

And there certainly are people still fighting the good fight – Peter B Gillis has recently stuck to his guns on the possibility of Strikeforce Morituri becoming a TV show, and has the undisputed moral high ground, (especially if reports of some incredibly ham-fisted attempt to grab the rights are accurate). Gillis is smart enough that he wasn’t tempted by the breathless offer to “get exposure”, and would rather hold on to his rights as they are, and deal with any new version of his story on his terms.

And that’s something I can rightly get behind. But when that line of thinking means I could have missed out on the greatest comic story I’ve ever read altogether, I’m suddenly more conflicted.

Judge Dredd is the most thrilling, exciting and stylish comic story I’ve ever read. It’s now been running for almost four decades, and has grown as a story to become this vast, weird tapestry, with real emotional depth and storytelling that can take decades to pay off. And if the original creators got all the rights they were morally entitled to, it might never have existed in its current form.

In David Bishop’s Thrillpower Overload, the absolutely essential history of 2000ad, the original publisher John Sanders repeatedly makes the point that he had no great attraction to the title and he was quite willing to shut the whole comic down in the early days if it got too problematic, but it kept making money for the company, so he was happy to let it run. But he also repeatedly stresses that giving the actual creators any slice of the pie, or any kind of overall control, would have made the comic strictly unprofitable, and he would have cancelled it without a second thought.

Which means those creators who have made Dredd such an incredible long-form story would never have even got the chance if they had got what they really deserved.

This is a deeply selfish opinion on my part – screw the creators, I just want this crazy 37-year story. And I can't help but hope that if they hadn't worked on Dredd, they would have created something just as lasting, and as deep. But it's far more likely that they would have faded away from comics altogether, and we might not have even heard these rich creative voices on this incredibly versatile and adaptable comic.

Besides, while it is noted that John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are the original creators of Dredd – and it was incredibly satisfying to see their names come up first on the credits of the most recent Dredd film – writers like Pat Mills & Alan Grant and artists like Brian Bolland & Mike McMahon have all contributed vital aspects to the look and feel of the Dredd world, and dozens and dozens of other creators have added interesting pieces to the story. Don't they deserve something too?

The issue of multiple creators on work-for-hire mainstream comics clouds things considerably. The truth about who created what can easily be distorted or lost over time, and while there is usually a primary original creator, it's not that simple.

After all, some creators can't even agree on the definition of the word. Lee and Kirby had entirely different definitions of what ‘creator’ actually meant, and they both have valid points that are irreconcilable. Wolverine first appeared in a comic by Len Wein and Herb Trimpe, but John Romita designed the look of the character, and the incredible popularity of the character is almost entirely thanks to Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne – they all the credit, and they do deserve some rights, (which they are, admittedly, extremely unlikely to get).

Wolverine has generated millions of dollars in revenue over the years and those responsible for that popularity should certainly get a slice of the pie, but it's hard to advocate for those slices when nobody can be sure who really deserves it, even those who had a definite hand in the creative process.

These kind of situations keep getting more and more complicated - I long ago lost track of the deep, sticky mess of the Marvelman mire. It is always a little surprising when something like that can actually get sorted out, and series like Marvelman do actually get published again, (even if the credits do get horribly over-complicated).

I'm always going to be on the side of the creator who takes on the corporation for their moral rights. But the simple black and white ethics that I could once stand behind have been eroded by uncertainty and recriminations. Creator rights are an essential part of any major artistic movement, but working out which creator to support just isn't that simple.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Where comics live

A large portion of my superhero comic diet in the 1980s came in the form of cheap black and white Australian reprints. You could get a whopping hundred pages of story for 99c, but it was on the cheapest paper, and comics were often cut up and re-pasted to suit the new format, with the seams clearly visible.

But they were ridiculously cheap, and they were absolutely everywhere, and the original comics didn't always make it over from the States, so this is where I first discovered things like Byrne's Fantastic Four and Miller's Daredevil. And this is why I thought a simple four-part World's Finest story was the greatest Superman/Batman story ever.

It clearly wasn't. But the version in my head, where the comics really live, still might be.

World's Finest issues 285-288 were reprinted in one chunky comic by Federal comics in the simply-titled 'Superman and Batman' comic in 1984, which means I was nine when it showed up on shelves – primed for some slick super-action.

And Superman and Batman delivered what I needed – it had the world's mightiest chums facing a physical, psychological and spiritual attack from the sexy Madame Zodiac and a giant smog monster in a goldfish bowl. There was ultra-slick art from Rich Buckler, staggeringly stylish illustrations by Trevor Von Eeden, and chunky simplicity by Adrian Gonzales to finish it off.

The story saw the world's finest team battle monsters and prejudice and man's inhumanity to man, and it was not afraid to show the vulnerable side of these iconic heroes, who were genuinely shaken by their dealing with the paranormal. It ended with Batman fighting off the possession of the smog monster, and blowing up a crowd of his own clones.

I thought it was the best Superman or Batman comic I'd ever read. I was only nine, so there hadn't been a lot of competition at that age, but it ended up having an effect on me that was more profound than more obvious classics like the Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke, which I wouldn't even get to for another decade.

But as much as I loved it, it was still just a black and white reprint, and I never took care of those, and I somehow lost my copy of Superman and Batman years and years ago, and it didn't matter. There were plenty of other great Supes/Bats comics to replace it.

And then I saw it in a second hand bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and I obviously had to get it. I hadn't read it in more than 20 years, which meant there was a weird sensation of recognising every single page on some level, while not remembering any of it.

I suddenly remembered how I hated Von Eeden's art on chapter three as a kid, even though his ultra-distinctive work is obviously the most interesting about the whole thing now. I remembered reading that comic on the old grandstand down the Temuka Domain, and even remembered that my Mum had bought the comic for me during an afternoon in Ashburton.

I remembered how much I loved it.

It's just a shame the comic itself isn't that good.

It's not awful, it's just not that good. There are some nice character moments between Bruce and Clark, and it was one of their stories where their friendship is the key to saving the day. Von Eeden's work is, as noted, the most interesting thing about these comics now, but the whole thing does rock along at a decent pace.

But in the cold light of adulthood, it's also terribly clunky, and runs out of juice to an alarming degree in the final issue. Some of that is due to the comparatively dull Gonzales art, but a large part of it can be read in the credit boxes, with Cary Burkett – who wrote the first three parts – suddenly replaced by Mike W Barr and Marv Wolfman for the fourth chapter. They're both fine writers, but are clearly wanting to get this whole thing over with so they can move on to more interesting things – the smog monster casually murders Madame Zodiac purely because there are only a couple of pages to go and things need to wrap up now.

I don't regret re-reading the comic as a grown-up, and shattering old ideas about the quality and worth of this story. It's good to reconsider these opinions. And it's fascinating to compare the actual comic with the idealized one that lives in my head.

That's where comic really live. Not on the page, or on the screen. They live in the minds of their readers, and they don't always exist in the same way. We all bring our own experiences, opinions and prejudices into any story we enter, and it all changes over time, until the story we think we know is not the one that was first presented.

There is a space in my head that is utterly devoted to keeping track of the worlds of Los Bros Hernandez, and I've read them dozens of times over, but I can still go back to work produced 20 years ago and find something new. In this case, the comic that lives is my head is actually inferior to the printed version, because there is more there that I haven't even seen yet. (Of course, I think Love and Rockets is the best thing ever, so the differences between the real and imagined version are actually fairly slight.)

There is concrete certainty in a printed comic (something that can be oddly missed in digital versions) - any issue of Spider-Man or 2000ad is a fixed object. But in the place where comics really live, they are malleable and ever-changing, and sometimes that means that a dull World's Finest Comics can really be the world's finest.

Rich Buckler's line is a lot less assured and shakier than I remembered, and the story is nothing special. But I'll always have a fondness for this adventure, because that version that I always had bouncing around inside my skull is the most fantastic thing ever.

Almost all of the comics that are bouncing around in there are better than the real thing, in some way. In that place where comics really live, there are no disappointments, just a love for the medium that will never fade.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A fiend for the magazine: Weird shit, movies and comics

Even in this digital age, I'm a fiend for a decent printed magazine. I was genuinely bummed out when the last dedicated magazine store disappeared from the town centre a year or so back, but there are still plenty of informative and entertaining publications that I regularly follow.

I read every issue of Fortean Times and New Scientist, and find out about new tunes through three different UK music mags. I never miss an issue of Sight & Sound or SFX or Total Film, (all thanks to the local library), and I've been getting Empire magazine monthly since they put True Romance on the cover.

I miss the odd issue of The Economist and The Listener and Time and Entertainment Weekly, but there is only so much time in a life, so they're only occasional treats. I recently started ordering Back Issue magazine, which scratches a nerd itch with disturbing pleasure. I still always end up owning far more issues of Doctor Who Magazine than I thought I had. I read all sorts.

I like magazines about entertainments and weird shit and overseas current affairs, and it's probably in that order, too. I also hoard random issues of long-gone monthlies - if I can’t get rid of my Wizard magazines, I'm never getting rid of the music mags with those moving Joe Strummer obituaries in them.

I like all sorts of magazines – I like getting a solid dose of information, all with beautiful photos and art and graphics. I like the way they are so disposable, but sturdy, so the ones that survive their first few months of life become hard-copy relics of a culture gone by.

But I have three clear favourite magazines: one is a dead series about weird shit, another is a long-running publication about high-falutin' comics that has gone through some radical makeovers while maintaining an intellectual rigour, and the third is about movies.

Empire magazine is the most obvious one – I’ve been buying every issue I can get my hands on since 1993, and it’s still an enjoyable read every month. It captures the joy and beauty of going to the cinema, and while it can be overly enthusiastic about films that obviously aren’t worth the attention, I trust the reviewers more than any magazine on Earth, and I never miss anything that gets the five-star treatment in its pages.

I’ll never forgive the Australian edition – both because it fucked up my collection of the UK version, and because it’s notably inferior to the original magazine. But it’s easy to ignore it now that I bought a subscription to the proper version - my first ever subscription to anything, ever. I’d still prefer to buy it off the shelves, because a lot of the fun is seeing it on the shelves, but I’ll take it where I can get it.

It’s still my favourite regular magazine, and a strong mix of history lessons and future yearnings. The most recent issue was its 300th, and it was packed with fascinating trivia, including script pages of the big diner scene in Heat annotated by Michael Mann, an absorbing behind-the-scenes look at Seven and personal reminiscing by some of cinema’s greatest modern directors, and my favourite thing was a goofy shot from the upcoming Dumb and Dumber film, which I’m looking forward to with unhealthy  expectations. (That first film was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had in the cinema, as me and my slightly stoned mates struggled for breath through the laughter.)

The subscription is due again soon, and there will be no hesitation in signing on again for another year of cinematic goodness.

The second great magazine, which has provided decades of thoughtful entertainment, is The Comics Journal.

It’s morphed into an annual brick of a publication, hundreds and hundreds of wonderfully-designed pages, dense with text and information, but I will always love that smaller, more regular format. I never got any regular issue of it brand new off the shelves, (because they never fucking showed up on the shelves anywhere), usually picking them up months or years after they were first published, but the magazine has an intellectual fire that lasts for a lot longer than a month.

That fire often swerved into outright nastiness, and one of the most interesting parts of reading older issues is reading about the various long-forgotten feuds the Journal sparked during its lifetime. But it was a nastiness that was fuelled by an unmistakable passion for the comics medium and its potential. And while those passionate thinkers were often left disappointed by the reality of mediocre comics, this drive for something better made it the greatest magazine ever devoted to comics.

Plus it had some fucking excellent interviews, that stand as monuments in comic journalism, and invaluable mementos of the medium’s history.

The third greatest magazine ever is The Unexplained, a weekly series published between 1980 and 1983, which scared the living hell out of me, and opened up my head to a wide variety of deeply, deeply weird shit.

It was, as the title suggest, a magazine devoted to things like ghosts and UFOs and monsters, but the best thing about it is that it soon ran out of all the obvious things to write about, and starting getting into some really strange subjects, like slips in time and vast hidden conspiracies. This is the place where I first read about all those things, long before I got a bit obsessed with them in the paranoid nineties, all laid out in a tight, strict format.

It was lavishly illustrated and, for the most part, incredibly well written, with a team of writers and researchers taking complex subjects  and making them accessible for any reader, with a touch of scholarly authority. They might have been gullible, but they were passionate. Writers like the great Colin Wilson. (I was a little shocked to find out Wilson died a few months ago, and nobody seemed to really notice – his book The Outsider brought existential philosophy to the English-speaking working class, he was a noted scholar of the occult and his novels were totally mental).

Reading them now, I'm still a little freaked out by the photos of ghosts and spontaneous combustion victims, and still weirdly unnerved by the dense theology behind some of the world's greatest mysteries. And I know that a few minutes of wiki-surfing will reveal that many of these mysteries - including things like the Turin Shroud and the screaming crystal skull - are total bollocks.  But I still have almost all 150+ issues stored away, next time I need a dose of that weird shit.

The age of the mass market print publication might be coming to an end, but it ain't dead yet. The book shops and magazine shops are fading away, but that just means you might have to put in a little effort, and that's always rewarding.

I'll keep getting Empire every month, and I'll keep buying any back issues of the Comics Journal (there are still more than 200 to find), and I'll keep looking for those maddening few issues of the Unexplained I'm looking for. Nothing beats a good magazine.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Dharma Punks: Blatant plugging

While there will be no advertising here at the Tearoom Of Despair, I don't mind doing a favour for a mate, so I'm here to plug the reprinting of The Dharma Punks.

The Dharma Punks is a terrific New Zealand comic that has been out of print for a decade or so. Creator Ant Sang has spent the last decade designing the look of the country's most successful animated series, and writing & drawing the excellent Shaolin Burning. But his grotty punk epic – his first major work - has been sadly out of print for a decade and finding all eight issues of the series has proven impossible in the past few years.

But now a group of local comic nerds have launched a publishing group with the specific aim of getting the Dharma Punks, and other unavailable Kiwi comics, back into print. They launched a fundraising effort last week, and reached their original goal within a few days, and I was only too happy to chip in, especially when I'm getting a terrific 400-page comic book out of it.

Their Kickstarter page is here, and it's worth contributing to, if you're into smart, stylish and slightly foreign comics. It could be prohibitively expensive to ship a copy out of NZ, (but shit, now you know how it feels when you go to one of Drawn & Quarterly's awesome sales, and get hit with a massive postage bill at check-out which more than cancels out any savings), but there are ridiculously cheap electric versions available, if you're into that.

I've only managed to grab three issues of the series, but I can't recommend the Dharma Punks highly enough. Sang's art has a youthful energy that matches the ambitions of the young punks it depicts, with goofy-looking motherfuckers drawn in a thick, dark line. And as Dylan Horrocks says here, it's just nice to have a comic that's About Something, other than how cool the creators are, and The Dharma Punks is certainly that.

It will be good to finally actually read the whole thing. It's always good to read a great comic.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Always Star Wars

When I was a kid in the mid-to-late eighties, my Dad would let me go down to the video shop and rent something out for the family. He knew I could be trusted to get something that everybody could watch, I knew I couldn't get anything too horrific or adult. A bit of exploitation cinema could sometimes have something for the whole family, but the safer, the better.

The only instruction he ever gave me was that I could get whatever I wanted, but I was not - under any circumstances – to get one of the Star Wars films.

He had to tell me every time. And he was right to do so, because if he didn't, I definitely would be coming back with some Star Wars and an excuse that there was nothing else. Even though I'd seen all of the films many times, I wanted to watch it over and over and over and over again, and I had to be restrained for my own good.

I was eight when Return Of The Jedi came out, so that was me: hooked for life. At that age, the Star Wars films weren't just movies – they were absolute phenomenon.

And it didn't feel like a weird little obsession, like some of the comics and TV I liked – everybody was into Star Wars. It seeped into the culture like nothing else before, and nothing since. Star Wars was a Big Deal, and everybody was into it.

The films weren't even on video when I first fell into a life-long Star Wars obsession, (and nobody I knew even had a video player until I was nine), but there was regular re-releasing of the films at the cinema, and all those wonderful toys and books and records and tee-shirts.

I hungered for Star Wars action figures with a fierce, narrow-eyed passion that I've never really matched since, and the cool ones like the Stormtrooper or Boba Fett never got down to my town, down on the arse end of the world, but I still snapped up every Hoth Soldier #2 and Captain Fabulous, the Big Gay Bespin Pilot I could find.

I still have some of them today, but most of them have had their arms and legs snapped off. The ones that are in the best condition are the Princess Leia figures, because I didn't play them to death like the cool C-3P0 and Darth Vader figures. They were girl's toys and I was a little boy, and little boys are sexist little shits who never want to play with girls' toys.

The Return of the Jedi bubblegum card set was the first major collection I ever put together and actually completed, and it taught me valuable life lessons about negotiation and compromise that all kids should learn. I read every issue of the Marvel Comics series I could find, and even though my critical facilities were still working themselves out, I knew the comic reached a peak with those Goodwin/Williamson issues that it would never match again.

I got the Star Wars calenders every year, and seared the storybook adaptations – the ones with the lavish photos - into my brain. I had an Empire Strikes Back cap that I wouldn't take off my head for two years, until it literally fell apart. I read every magazine article about future plans for the movies, and believed every word I read about the 18-part plan, and that Boba Fett was really Leia's mum.

And all my friends and schoolmates were as obsessed as I was. We were all Star Wars kids. Everyone was.

Because those movies – those first three films released between 1977 and 1983 – were sheer bloody perfection.

I eventually had all three films on lovely, lovely video tape, and I ended up taking them for granted for so many years. I just watched them this week for the first time in years, and they're still so beautiful.

There is a tactile reality to these films - the crazy creatures and impossible technology and awesome architecture were grounded in worlds of dust, ruffled hair, scuffed boots and hurt feelings.  The Star Wars films were based around some goofy concepts, but they were always taken dead seriously – a beguiling mix that has also proved successful for Marvel movies in the past decade.

They were all George Lucas' vision, but they were brought to life by a small army of extremely talented trades and craftspeople, with a large number of essential collaborators, including Ben Burtt and his marvellous sound team, John Williams and his ear for thrilling bombast, and Ralph Mcquarrie and the blazing alchemy he poured into his paintings.

They all created this world of pure excitement, and unmatched thrills. A universe of charming rogues and fast-paced action, with some of the sharpest action editing ever attempted in film, changing the whole grammar of the blockbuster film.

And they changed everything, and were so addictive, because they were so much fun. There were parts that were so incredibly exciting it was almost unbearable – the moment in the first film where Han Solo and Chewbacca fly in out of the sun to save Luke at the end of all things is still ridiculously powerful, the speeder bike chase in the Jedi is still too fast to quite follow, and there is some real energetic brutality in the final moments of the fight between Luke and Vader on Cloud City.

All that backstory was fascinating, and I had my own ideas about what the Clone Wars were all about, just like everybody else. And the characters were drawn in such broad strokes that it was impossible to resist falling into their trials and tribulations.

But Star Wars was infinitely re-watchable because of those great set-pieces – I could never get sick of the sphincter tightening flight through the asteroid field in Empire, the leap across the chasm in the first film is a fantastic bit of daredeviling and I'm never quite certain that Lando and the Falcon crew are getting out of that exploding Death Star in time.

So that was it – I never got over how much I loved those films. I might not need to watch them every day anymore, and I might have even gone a couple of years without watching them, but that fondness never died.

I still followed the saga into comics and novels, although I bailed out of the Expanded Universe after half a dozen books, and lost all interest in the comics once Cam Kennedy finished up. I saw all of the re-released movies at the cinema in the late nineties, and that was during my biggest drinking days, and I was drunk as fuck when I saw the horrible new effects, so I didn't mind their intrusion that much.

And then the prequels came along, and I enjoyed every single one of them, because there was always the odd set-piece or scene that still shined – the podrace in the Phantom Menace is a masterclass in editing, and the various lightsaber battles were terrifically thrilling.

But the stories were hampered by tedious plots and grating comedic relief, and were often over-busy and over-thought. I lost most of my faith in the Star Wars story sometime around the asteroid belt scene in Attack In The Clones, a replication of the Empire chase scene, with none of the thrills, just busy visuals and a grating score.

There is still the odd spark of genius in the past ten years of Star Wars, especially in Genndy Tartakovsky's fantastic Clone Wars shorts, and the new films are sparking some interest again, but the fondness shows no sign of blossoming into a proper obsession again.

Still, I'll always be a Wars Boy. I also like Star Trek, but it's a Beatles and the Stones thing – you can love both but if you really had to choose, there should only be one answer. Trek is sexy and optimistic, but Wars is always the first choice.

Star Wars has always been the first choice.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Passion for the unreal: Why it's okay to care deeply for stupid shit

As one of the biggest Game Of Thrones nerds in the office, (but not, notably, the biggest), I had the great pleasure of getting roped into a weekly round-table round-up of the latest episodes of the show. We’ve done four so far.
The most direct feedback I’ve got on it so far was in a comment from a reader named Roscoe which insinuated that I was thinking just a bit too much about this silly TV show, and that I “needed to get out more”.

At first I thought about asking Roscoe if he was inviting me out on a date, but then I just let it go, because I had to do some of the moderation for all our online comments last week, and at least 23% of my soul died doing that, so, you know, fuck Roscoe. Who gives a shit what he thinks?

Besides, I’m not embarrassed by my passion of all things Ice And Fire. We can all use a little passion in our lives.

As the mighty Ghost Dog once reminded us, ‘matters of great concern should be treated lightly, and matters of small concern should be treated seriously’.

I don’t get genuinely upset with the fictions I consume - I can get annoyed or be appalled by current trends in mainstream comics or television, but that’s nothing to the anger I feel at real-world injustices. There were tonnes of valid points made over Jamie fucking Lannister's horrific behaviour in last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, but I do wish the dreadful events in Nigeria got a tenth of that attention. One is a TV show that's not real, and the other is a situation where hundreds of teenage girls can be kidnapped into a life of unimaginable horror, and nobody fucking does anything.

But I do still care about the entertainments I inhale on a daily basis, and they do make me feel smarter and more empathetic and a better person and all that. I do genuinely care more about those horrible events in the real world, combined with the frustration that I can't do a fucking thing about it, except talk about it. But you can’t obsess on that kind of thing without falling into some kind of dark pit of despair, and you can still be passionate about things that aren't real at all.

So I do care about the dumbest shit. I do get properly excited when something is properly stimulating, and sometimes that makes me the Biggest Fucking Dork In The World, but I'm not ashamed. We should never be ashamed of this crap.

After all, what's the alternative? Passive consumption of entertainment? Taking it all in, but not giving a damn? Greeting some fine piece of thrilling art with a meh? Fuck that. Where's the fun in that?

I do believe that we are put on this world to experience love and beauty and wonder and fun, and our entertainments aren't just total time-fillers, they're part of that life-long experience. We love the silly love songs and the terrible TV soap operas and the mindless blockbusters, because that's part of what we're here to do.

And it really can be something to live for – I can't die yet, I haven't seen the new Doctor Who, or read the latest Love and Rockets. It's a major theme in Jim Jarmusch's terrifically languid Only Lovers Left Alive, as immortals only find the energy to get out of bed by discovering some new thrill or novelty, stimulated out of existential despair by an emotional musical performance in some random bar.

If that's good enough for vampire Tom Hiddleston, it's good enough for me.

So when people make fun of me for thinking too much about this shit, I just take it with a slightly pained smile. I got a little over-enthusiastic talking about Garth Ennis' Punisher Max series last week, ("no, you see, the Long Cold Dark is his LIFE"), and I could see I was losing the person I was talking to, but I couldn't stop myself.

Because I do get passionate about this shit, and it's not worth trying to hide. It's who I am. I care about these things, and I'm not ashamed of it.

I care about Vance Astrovik, Devlin Waugh and Archie Andrews. I was genuinely worried about the fate of Rusty bloody Venture when that giant disco ball fell on him. I still enter the local comic shop with a dorky skip in my step ever week, desperate to see what Daredevil or the BPRD crew or the Eltingville Club are up to.

I've had surprisingly powerful emotional outbursts after reading the silliest comics, and I had to swallow back some tears at the end of the new Spider-Man the other night, even though the film itself is deeply average, and even though I have had decades to deal with that particular twist in the Spidey-saga.

I care about Robocop and Animal Man and Gob Bluth. I don't want Judge Dredd to ever die, but I know he will. I love all this stuff so much, I can't fucking shut up about it.

I'm feeling slightly melancholic by the fact that Fables will be wrapping up soon, although it's balanced out by a satisfaction that it will get a proper ending. I care about Marsha Washington, Enid Coleslaw and Kitty Pryde.

I care about all sorts of shit, hundreds and hundreds of little things. on a deeply fundamental level, because it's so much fun, and intellectually stimulating and beautiful.

So when people get excited about things I don't like, I don't really judge them for their passion. (I might judge them for their taste, but that's fairly harmless.) I think Coronation Street is the worst thing in the history of forever, and I still have nightmares about Ena fucking Sharples, but I would never belittle those who love it, for loving it.

I care about comics and stupid horror films and forgotten TV shows, and sometimes I care too much, but I don't think I need to get out more. I can still care about this stuff and have a normal life on the side.

It's not hard.