Friday, April 29, 2016
Back in the late 1970s, the whole world went apeshit for science fiction in the wake of Star Wars, and New Zealand was no exception. There was a Coca-Cola robot that looked like R2D2 rolling about, and you could get these phenomenally groovy promotional stickers with your ice-cream, with gorgeous art by Kiwi comic great Colin Wilson, in full on Moebius-mode (with a dash of Chris Foss):
Like Wilson's appallingly ubiquitous Captain Sunshine, these things were everywhere when I was a kid, but I totally forgot they ever existed until I stumbled on them on the internet a few days ago, and I can't believe I ever forgot them, because now I can remember speaning a lot of time wondering why the Incredible Hulk was being affected by the mind probe, or why the Zygons from Doctor had traded in their groovy suckers for an insect look, (although, to be fair, they are shape-shifters...)
They also did some stickers that reproduced Ralph McQuarrie's awesome concept artwork for Star Wars, but you can find that art anywhere. These more homegrown things are almost lost, and are pretty enough to remember.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Is the gun battle that rips apart the entire world of Michael Mann’s Heat the best action sequence ever captured on film?
Yes. Yes, it is. I mean, just look at it:
Michael Mann knows how to do action, and has proven this over and over again. The strident momentum of his old-school warriors in The Last of The Mohicans, the thudding fisticuffs of the big fights in Ali and the beautiful nonsense of the compromised climax to Miami Vice are all smart, awe-inspiring and thrilling scenes that any other film maker would proudly claim as a career highlight.
Even in the collaborative world of film-making, he is a true auteur - his films always have this meticulous dedication to detail, paying off with huge and absurdly thrilling moments.
But even with all this brilliance, the absolute high point of Mann’s thrill-making comes two-thirds of the way through his truly epic crime saga Heat, when a highly-planned armed robbery suddenly turns into carnage on the streets, and 20 years on, it’s still as hard-hitting as ever.
The entire sequence has weight, with realistic outcomes and proper consequences. The whole film is leading to this point and, crucially, sticks around for all the tragic aftermath. All of Los Angeles – the great city which, with the extensive location work, is silently the real character of the movie – is visibly traumatised by the outbreak of extreme violence in its streets, and everyone is left wandering stunned and shattered by the events.
It’s violence as theme, and with purpose. It’s a horribly necessary part of this kind of story, the one where it all goes wrong, and nothing can be the same again. And even with all that, it still manages to be an intensely exciting and thrilling scene. As terrible as it is to see peoples’ lives destroyed by the beast within, it’s still pulse pounding stuff.
After all, Mann is one of the consummate craftsmen of modern cinema, and when he nails down the action, he uses the ultra-cinematic tools of sound and editing to hammer it onto the screen.
While film is a largely visual medium, the shootout in Heat is nothing without the sound-work, and it starts with the music. Initially, it’s a sinister throb with a steady, ticking pulse as the robbery is carried out, and then cuts out completely when the shit goes down. The initial burst of action is all soundtracked by the sound of high powered gunfire echoing off massive buildings, the absence of the music barely noted.
And that gunfire is so loud, and so shocking, it's a hard, guttural punctuation point on the film. Some films are needlessly loud, but in a Michael Mann film, you should be wincing when shotgun blasts are going off next to your head, because there are consequences behind it. The echo of the exchanges mean there isn't a quiet moment, with no time to breathe, or think about those consequences.
And then the music fades in again as one of the key characters takes a crucial hit, and the adrenaline rush of the scene begins to peak. It slowly builds up again, right up until the last shot is fired, and is barely noticeable, while building to the point where the moment when Pacino looks down his sights at his final target is literally breathtaking.
And it's a masterclass in editing as well, with several dozen tiny moments and small cuts giving the scene life. Look at the split second where it all kicks off – Val Kilmer is heading towards the car with a big shit-eating grin on his face, which suddenly disappears, there is a tiny cut to his point of view and the glimpse of armed cops, and when it comes back to him, and he’s already bringing up his own automatic rifle and is blazing away.
It’s that beat, in which the character registers the danger and instantly acts, that makes it so fast, while so easy to follow. He's acting on instinct, and the viewer isn't left wondering what is going on, or why he is reacting this way. It's all so clear, and you're already being carried away on that ocean of noise.
And it's right through the whole scene, immersing the viewer right in the middle of a stunningly dangerous gun battle, but keeping all of the action clear, and out in the open, with no need to rush these things.
There is also a notable lack of slow motion in the whole scene, a rarity in most action scenes these days - just one tiny moment of DeNiro lifting up his rifle at the precise moment when he knows it's all really gone to hell. That says it all - there isn't any need to show off.
After all, like all Mann films, it’s about professional, self-aware characters, and there is no need to slow down the action when they're constantly moving forward. None of them - cops or robbers - stop moving during the battle, they keep surging forward, trying to escape, or trying to capture.
The battle rages across several blocks of vast, wide streets and the film finds characterisation in the actions people make in the heat of the moment, rather than anything they ever have to say. Everything you need to know about Vincent Hanna is in the way he doesn't stop charging after his prey, and everything you need to know about Neil McAuley is in the way he blasts away at him, without caring about who is in the background.
And so when the bullets do find their marks, on both sides, it's tragic. Characters who are actual people, who we only saw joking and laughing with their friends a half hour ago, are struck down and killed instantly, with no mistaking of their fate, and showing those consequences of the event again.
It's this professionalism, this dedication to the reality of the moment, that ultimately makes the scene. Heat was born out of the stone-cold driven capers of things like Richard Stark's Parker books, but are also given a dose of reality.
Mann got the stories that form the basis of Heat, and this scene, from real cons, who spent lifetimes taking down real scores, and that dedication to their real lives that makes it. These aren't children playing silly games. These are people who are not going to stop, until somebody else stops them, and that's the way it inevitably goes.
And this scene, this wonderful, loud, energetic,exciting scene, is just one part of this sprawling masterpiece. Heat is one of the great films of the 1990s, with coffee shop confrontations from two of the late 20th century's greatest actors, a willingness to address hard truths about a life around the law, some absolutely stunning cinematography and Tom Sizemore saying things like 'The action is the juice".
But the firefight on the streets of LA is still the crowning achievement of this film, and is still so good in 2016.It's just as thrilling, and just as well-made as it ever was, In this age of CGI-augmented bullshit, it's real, and truly gritty, and undoubtedly the best action scene ever captured on film.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
1. Every time Gene Colan draws vampires turning into mist.
2. Any time a Chris Ware character falls over their own tongue, causing other people to storm away in disgust.
3. Any time Superman has to use super-ventriloquism to save the day.
4. Tony Broke teaching Ivor Lott a lesson in capitalism.
5. Every time Marshall Law says he is a hero hunter. (He hasn't found one yet.)
6. Every time the Phantom punches some poor sap in the jaw, leaving his skull mark on their face.
7. Seeing Namor trying to woo Sue Storm, and she gently, but firmly, reminds him that he smells of fish.
8. Seeing Red Torando or the Vision gets ripped to pieces, and all their arms and legs are lying around everywhere.
9. Julius Schwartz appearing in the Ambush Bug comics.
10. The Lieutenant Marvels.
11. The way Sean Phillips draws guns firing.
12. Any time the Midnighter tells somebody exactly how he is going to kill the shit out of them
13. All of the full-page intros to DC horror comics of the seventies, with some ghoulish host introducing the comic.
14. The letters page of an American superhero comic, three months after Mick McMahon has done a fill-in issue.
15. Harvey Pekar's awesome 'waddaya gonna do?' shrug.
16. Any time a comic book reaches issue #1000.
17. Itto Ogami's squinting of the eyes.
18. Any story that has a title that starts with "Lo! There shall come...."
19. Spider-Man eating with his mask half-off.
20. Seventies Lana Lang, newscaster extraordinaire, calling people "luv".
21. Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, just hanging out, being mates.
22. Any time a Peter Bagge character spazzes the fuck out.
23. Mek-Quake ripping apart some unfortunate droid, while yelling "Big jobs!".
24. Every time a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes gets married.
25. Locas folk having a conversation without saying anything.
26. The sheer honesty of Joe Matt's appalling penny-pinching.
27. Hellboy's smackdown talk as he beats the snot out of something horrible from beyond the veil.
28. Every time Captain Haddock swears.
29. Hunter Rose, chilling out and enjoying a glass of the reddest wine, just after he has spilled several barrel-loads of the other red stuff, under his Grendel face
30. The 'shit just got real' moment in every single Mark Millar comic ever created.
31. Any scene with the Enemy Ace hanging out with his wolf.
32. Any Eddie Campbell story about Danny Grey.
33. Any time Jarvis serves breakfast to the Avengers.
34. Somebody eats one of Swamp Thing's tubers and trips off their fuckin' nut
35. Every single one of the X-Men's "oh no, not again" plane crashes.
36. All the times Concrete's sheer weight breaks a chair, or a table. Or a truck.
37. All the 'something fell' moments in Cerebus The Aardvark.
38. Any glimpse of Uncle Scrooge's poignant past.
39. Every time Ra's Al Ghul calls Batman 'detective'.
40. Every appearance of Arcade's pinball machine of doom.
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Somebody asked me, just the other day, whether I liked the movie Batman best, or the comic Batman. I said it was complicated.
I said that I had put a lot of thought into this type of thing, because while I don't know shit about a lot of stuff, I know my bat-shit, so I told them that while the movie versions of Batman have been an array of interesting interpretations that delight and frustrate, from the Saturday morning serial thrills to the popdayglo delights of Adam West's caped crusader, through the Burton gothic and into late nineties brash shouting from Schumacher and Nolan's new century style, up to the current glory of the Batfleck, who is a monstrously good Batman right up to the point he resorts to murder, the number of movie interpretations of the character pale into tiny significance next to the many and varied interpretations of the concept that are seen in the comics – after all, DC have been continually publishing his adventures for damn near 80 years now, every month without fail, with generations of new Bat-creators coming and going, refining and expanding and extrapolating the idea, and that's why you get all the mental alien shit in the fifties, and the bare-chested playboy adventuring of the seventies, and the whole very, very serious Bat that kicked off in the eighties,
and then you extrapolate that out over decades and decades and decades, and at least three whole new generations of creators and readers, and you have people like Bill Finger and Doug Moench and Steve Englehart and Jerry Robinson and Kelly Jones and Carmine Infantino and Norm Breyfogle and Dick Sprang and, yes, Bob Kane bringing something new to the bat – and that's not even counting the one-off masterpieces where it's certainly arguable that Batman is truly defined, with creators like Moore, Bolland, Pope, Miller, Mazzucchelli and dozens of others, and then you have things like Legends of the Dark Knight, which redefined and reconstructed the character every five goddamn issuses – and now you have the new post-millenial mind and body bending, with a bright, sharp veneer, that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have done with the character in the past couple of years, and you end up with a mad and huge history, with all sorts of interpretations, and while they all stick to the same template, with the batcave and Robin and Alfred and Jim Gordon Ace The Bat-Hound and all that, you can get any kind of Batman, and so sometimes he's a Batman who tosses villains in a cell with a smirk and a quip, and sometimes he's a Batman who is a dark avenger of the night, and sometimes he's a Batman with a science-fiction cupboard, and sometimes he's a Batman who is a strictly street level dude, and sometimes he's a Batman who threw it away for a porcelain monkey, and there is room for them all, with a basic core concept that is rock solid and still ultra-malleable, so we can have any kind of Batman we want, and any we could need in the future, and shit, I still don't know why the Batman of the future, as envisioned by Warren Ellis in his Planetary crossover hasn't shown up again yet, because that felt like a bright and new variation on the basic Bat-theme, with a compassionate, but still firm, Bruce Wayne looking for new solutions to old problems, and the failure of anybody to take this any further is one of the great mysteries of pop culture, and one of the things I just don't understand, and it feels like every time I watch Star Wars again, and I wonder why C-3PO is blathering on about there being no escape for the princess this time, and then says he doesn't recognise her when she shows up in a funky blue holo later, and I can't tell if the droid is lying, or if I'm missing something, and it's still bugging the shit out of me, and I could probably just google that shit or something, but who can be arsed, and this doesn't have anything to do with Batman at all, so really, when it comes down to it, between movie Batman and comic Batman, it's comics all the way, and that doesn't even address the fact that the two mediums feed off each other, with the most recent movie version almost totally story-boarded by the Dark Knight Returns, while there hasn't been anything as cinematic in any comic ever as the moment in DKR where Batman comes powering down the street on that big fucking horse, so yeah. It's complicated.
When I was finished explaining all this, I couldn't tell if the person who had asked me the original question was alive or dead, but they were definitely unresponsive.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Wait, Roger Langridge has been doing a diary comic about returning home to New Zealand with the family for the first time in years?
I love diary comics! I love Roger Langridge's comics! I love comics about bittersweet returns to old home towns that aren't home any more, and all the weird and complicated emotions of reunion, tempered by familiarity, and all that!
I love comics.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Even after all these years, even after all the things that have been written and said about it, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen remains a monumental achievement in modern comics.
It’s undoubtedly the most successful – both commercially and critically – comic book with literary aspirations ever created. Its own success screwed over the creators, with Moore and Gibbons only getting the full rights back if the collected edition dropped out of print, something DC has certain to avoid.
There have been countless analytical examinations of the comic, its creation, and the whole culture around it, and they're still going on now, and they’re still rewarding. It’s also an easy target for angry young writers about comics, looking to make a name for themselves by ripping into the beloved book, a sight that has become so familiar it is almost comforting. It has reached that level of strange parody.
Watchmen is 30 years old now, and still as alive and exciting as ever. Those awful Before Watchmen comics and the dull movie version may have diluted the brand, but the story, the art, the whole damn comic is still a shining beacon of achievement.
After all, we’re still talking about it now. And we usually talking about the technical brilliance, the precise symmetry and subtle storytelling, the sheer cleverness, the beautiful craft-work of the thing. There is, after all, so much there to unpack and examine and put back together.
That kind of thing is great for scholars and masturbators, but the thing that makes Watchmen so alive after so long isn’t the fearful symmetry or the grand, operatic themes. It’s the people.
With Moore, it’s always about the people. When the writer first entered the US scene, he caused a bunch of spluttering about the fact that he wasn’t really bothered with the plot side of things, and was far more interested in mood and character. Dense, complex and pointless plots were a hallmark of the bronze age of comics, but with more of an interest in alternative comics, Moore didn’t really place much importance on the events that got things moving.
Instead, he ramped up the atmosphere, went hard on the subtext and took the startling decision to treat his characters like actual human beings. This resonated with readers, and Moore has provided the depth they were after, all the way through his career.
For all of its environmental posturing, Swamp Thing is really the story of a unusual couple finding peace and love in the marshes, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen saga is really The Adventures Of Mina (And Allan), and the Ballad of Halo Jones is all about one woman’s need to get out. Just out.
He has made a strong and beautiful career out of giving two-dimensional characters extra depth. It could be difficult to name his best plot from his long career, but a dozen names instantly spring to mind when you're asked to name his best characters.
In Watchmen, he gave weird Charlton analogues real personalities, and set them on a helter skelter race to the edge of the apocalypse. It’s the people that populate the Watchmen world that make it so rich - even Doctor Manhattan is fundamentally defined by his lack of humanity. But they're just like us - they’re missing pieces, and unsure and paranoid and alone, and still all coming together to do the right thing, when they have to. Even the Comedian gets that joke..
And it’s extended right down through the cast, right to the smallest role. Moore has made no secret of the fact that the street corner scenes were his favourite in the finished product. Outside the histrionic drama of the superheroes, there was real emotion to be found in the complexities of everyday life, where each character has their own story, their own strengths and weaknesses, all living together, comforted by small things like a shared name.
By the time they’re all gathered in the streets for the apocalyptic climax, they’re not just background characters – they’re the sad sack psychiatrist that can’t help sticking his nose into other people’s problems, no matter how much it screws up his own life; they’re the suspended cop who is still trying to do the right thing; they’re the awkward couple who just can’t make it work. They’re real people.
It’s all tragic, of course, and these people are all left dead and bleeding in the street from a massive psychic shock, and it hurts, because they were so real and recognisable. Gibbons may have trained for architecture, but he is a vital part of this – there is no mistaking the individuality of each character and their place in the world under his detailed line. Even in agony and death, each face is its own, and every body has its own language.
Even at the terrible end, there are signs of hope and humanity, with a crusty old man trying vainly to save a young man, and some small apologies before the monster comes.
And the crowd does win in a way, with the tiny epilogue. When the gods are finished playing their games, the future of the world is left in the hands of the biggest shmuck in the story, and he could change the world with some small decision.
It’s giving all the characters, no matter how fleeting, their own lives, so when they are snatched away in a psychic nightmare, it’s supposed to hurt. Each life, no matter how dull or mundane, has a complexity that is infinitely denser than any comic book can provide. Everyone has depths, from the kid on the corner to the man in the tower. And when they die, all that complexity gets reduced to a tragic smudge on the wall.
It’s what really matters and that beautiful craft comes into it again – look at the scene where the big, bad plot is revealed, and you’ll see the dense panels of info-dump are literally undercut by a panorama of the people Ozymandius is so willing to slaughter to make his point.
After washing his hands of mainstream comics, Moore would follow this line of thought through to Big Numbers, which examined a group of ordinary English folk and found unbearably deep complexity. It reached its logical end here too – Big Numbers became Moore’s great unfinished work, breaking the spirits of several artists who tried to get to grips with the infinite capacity of ordinary lives interacting with each other.
No wonder he went off to do Violator comics after that mess. Who can blame him?
But even as Big Numbers floundered, Watchmen thundered on and kept selling and gaining new generations of readers, and then they actually made a big, glossy motion picture out of it.
Unsurprising, with so much of that fairly dull plotwork to trudge through, the street corner scenes were the first to go in the movie adaptation. The filmmakers felt these parts were the least important, and hacked them all out to get inside a reasonable running time.
Logically, it was the right move, but it left the story fundamentally unbalanced. The movie became frenzied and manic, no matter how much slow motion was used, and lost the humanity. There were still signs of it -Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschah performance is painfully good - but they are lost in the noise.
You still can’t deny that technical achievement of the thing, but there is more to life than being clever.You've got to have a bit of humanity.
Watchmen is drenched in it, and that's what makes it so captivating, after all this time. It's the year 2016 and Watchmen is just as relevant and recognisable as ever.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
I'll probably never get to read the greatest comic book ever created, but there's no reason to cry about it. I'll still never stop looking for it.
Chances are, it's out there somewhere. Some heart-rending tale of absolute genius that will speak to me like no other comic ever has. The perfect comic, with perfect art and perfect story, and everything I've always wanted in the artform. I've had the fortune of reading some absolutely brilliant comics over the past few decades, but there is always something better.
But there is also the high probability that I'll never find it, because there is just so much out there, and more and more every day, and it takes so long to get to it all.
Since the time I was around five, there hasn't been a day that goes by without me reading some kind of comic, and I'm on comic gossip sites every day, and I'm sitting next to a stack of trades I got out from the library, and I just spent a happy Saturday afternoon trying to work out which issues of Jonah Hex and Cerebus the Aardvark that I still need to complete desperate collections. There are hundreds and hundreds of the fucking things, hiding under the bed, and in the cupboard.
And I haven't even scratched the surface of the medium. I've been doing this for more than three and a half decades, and every now and then I see how big the world of comics really is, and I feel like a child.
Going around the world opens up doors to a vast and tantalizing array of comics. Like most English speakers, I'm tragically mono-lingual, but I'll give anything a go, and always welcome translations of the best foreign comics.
And I'm barely getting my feet wet. I've only tasted the European flavour of comics in the lightest of manners, and sampled about 0.0000001% of Japan's magnificent Manga output (and that's largely just the usual big classics like Lone Wolf, Akira and Barefoot Gen).
I have no idea of what kind of comics they make in Russia, or any South American efforts, or have any clue about the sizable Chinese and Indian comic markets.
Sometimes I stumble across something in another language in some weird place, or I try to buy up local comics on trips to Mongolia or Egypt or Tokyo, but these are always mad stabs in the dark, and little more than a reminder of how much I'm really missing.
And even the world of comics in my mother tongue is far larger than I could ever keep full track of. Each issue of the Previews catalogue comes with dozens and dozens of new titles every month, in bewildering amounts.
And what about all the things that are never slick or popular enough to make that catalogue? I love mini comics, but they're often a mystery to me. They can often be intensely localised – most of the mini comics I still own were done by real world mates - and there is so much shouting on the internet, it can be hard to find anything worthwhile.
When I read the kind of reviews that people like Rob Kirby write, I feel like a bumbling idiot, still too enamored with the usual suspects to really stretch out. Jesus, where do you even start?
Starting is hard enough, but there is a never-ending deluge of new comic, with a continuing onslaught of great new talent. A few weeks ago, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick put out a call-out to female comic creators to make their voice heard, and some random sampling of the women who replied - you can find them here - is intensely rewarding. There are tonnes and tonnes of great artists on that list. The wonderful pictures accompanying this text are just the shallowest effort at getting into it.
There are whole new worlds out there. There are so many talented new creators of all shapes and sizes coming through every year in both digital and print formats, offering unexpected delights and the electric fire of the future.
I'm doing my best to keep on top of it all, like any good nerd, but there is only so much time in the day, and keeping track of old favourites is hard enough. There are even vast holes in my knowledge of some fairly popular comics – I've never read an issue of Elfquest, or Wild Dog. (Although, to be honest, I probably never will.)
I know I'm personally far too enamored of intense, stylish and witty action spectacles to keep trying the new stuff, and love reading and rereading old favourites, over and over again.
But I'm trying, Lord. I'm trying. I got out a gorgeous and huge Wimmen's Comix book out of the library the other day, and that's full of great artists I'd never even heard of. Ignorance can be an excuse, but you don't have to give in to it.
And shit, this is just the relatively small medium of comics – there is way more music and movies and television that I'll just never get to, despite the best of intentions.
Forget the goddamned comics, what about the greatest garage band ever, the one I will never hear because they get lost in the vast amounts of noise that is modern pop culture? What about that TV show that everybody loves, but I never quite get around to?
What about the hundreds and hundreds of movies I've still got to get to. I only just saw the Treasure of Sierra Madre, even though I knew it was an undisputed classic that would greatly enrich my life. This shit takes time.
Hell, I only just read my first actual Parker novel by Richard Stark, which is some shameful shit to admit, and makes me feel like a heel and a coward, especially when I've seen and read more than a dozen film and comic adaptions of his work. When it's taking me so long to get to something as obviously brilliant as the Parker books, what chance does anything else have?
But you've got to keep trying, and there are plenty of good gatekeepers out there. I can use Joe MuCulloch's regular shipping previews for TCJ, or listen to what friends in the real world tell me about, because nothing beats word of mouth.
After all, the search for the Next Great Comic is an absolute pleasure. It's not really an effort, when the journey is so fucking good.
That perfect comic is out there, and while I might never find it, it's a shitload of fun trying.
NEXT POST: Something about Watchmen, because I'm a happy hypocrite.
Saturday, April 2, 2016
Getting up at four in the morning to go to work is rough, and still a lot easier than I thought it would be. My first ever job was similar hours, and that nearly fucking killed me, but now I go to bed at 8pm like an old person, and it's not so bad.
I do like driving around the city at 4.30am, it's like the world is my own personal go-kart track. Interestingly, a dirty old hard rock soundtrack is essential for this kind of thing. Some Zepplin or Skynard usually does the trick. Smooth jazz at that time of the day could be lethal.
It's been a week of tiny triumphs, and with these shifts, I'll take all I can get.
Other interesting side effects of these kind of working hours is an instiable desire for reading Jack Kirby comics, an inability to write blog posts that don't come drenched in sentimental tosh, and a slight addiction to TV shows featuring British people with speech impediments, wandering around foreign landscapes, giving history lessons.
The days also go fast, but the week goes slow.