Monday, February 20, 2017

WildStar won’t make you rich, Joe Dirt


I’m such a fucking dork, I'm 42-years-old and I still obsessively try to figure out what comic books I’m seeing when they show up on screens in movies and TV shows.

It’s so dumb, but I keep doing it, every single time.


Like all idiotic obsessions, it started young, and then really got out of control in the teenage years, and I just never fucking grew out of it.

In my defense, I was a totally rabid comic book fan growing up, living in a small town that was very far away from any comic book shops, and I was getting by on the meagre offerings at the local bookstore and dairies. I was hungry to consume any comic book I saw, but there wasn’t much to eat at all.

But sometimes, they’d show up on the TV, or in the odd movie, and they would flash by on screen, and I couldn't focus on anything else anymore. I’d always try to figure out what they were. Like most teenagers, I spent an embarrassingly large amount of my teenage years with my finger on the pause button of the video remote, but unlike most other teens, I wasn't looking for brief flashes of movie star nudity, I was trying to work out if that was a copy of The Human Fly that showed up on an episode of CHIPs.


One of the best sources to seeing comics out in the wild of the wider world was the news. There were so many news stories about comics 'growing up' in the late eighties and early nineties, and getting into socially relevant shit, like the AIDs epidemic or the Rodney King beatings, and funny books full of swears and titties and blood. The stories would always go the same way, with obligatory referencing of the 1960s Batman TV show and sometimes would get somebody like Alan Moore to pontificate on what it all means, but the bit I always like best about these news stories was the part where they would go to the local comic store and find out what the local geeks thought of all this.

And as sad as it sounds - because I was so outside the loop that I didn't even know things the The Comics Journal existed and literally got my comic news from Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins, or their subscription pages -  those news reports are where I first heard of Love and Rockets, or some of the gloriously stranger Batman titles of the late eighties. Seeing their covers flash by as the news report did a sweeping pan across a comic store somewhere on the other side of the world was genuinely illuminating.

I used to tape all those news reports, and I’m pretty sure I still have a lot of them still somewhere in the back cupboard, buried at the end of dubbed copies of Robocop and Apocalypse Now. 


But as good as those news reports were, it was even more exciting when saw them on the movies - like the Nightmare on Elm Street movie with the comic nerd (part five, maybe? they all run together after a while), and there is a long pan across a bunch of Marvel comics scattered across the floor, and there was a genuine and pathetic thrill in seeing an issue of X-Men I had.  (They didn't save the nerd, he still got sliced to bits by Freddy.)

Long before nerd culture was fucking everywhere, dumb, schlocky films like The Ambulance, starring Eric Roberts, with its slight connection to the comic-book world, were as good as it got when it came to seeing comics up on screen, and I would always try to identify individual issues when they appeared.

It wasn't always easy. I’m still trying to figure out what the comic is that Clarence shows Alabama in True Romance. It ain’t Spider-Man #1 like he promises, that’s for damn sure.


I’ve lived in towns with comic shops for 20 years now, and been to them all over the world, and I still sniff out news reports and movie appearances of comics like a dog chasing a squirrel.

It happened again the other day, and I wish I could say it was while watching something good. But it wasn’t, I was watching Joe Dirt 2.

I can’t justify watching Joe Dirt, it was a terrible film, with a wasteland of laughs, and I watched the whole damn thing because it was two in the morning and I had nothing better to do. But then there was the part where Joe Dirt goes back in time (don't ask why, I don't have a fucking clue), and he gets the bright idea to buy some old comic books, hide them away, and cash them in decades later

And I looked at it, trying to see what issues he was going for. Was it an early FF, or the first appearance of Wolverine or something? It must be something big to be worth a lot of money years later.


Wait... Is that….?


Is that fucking WILDSTAR?


It is fucking WildStar!

Al Gordon and Jerry Ordway’s WildStar comic was an early Image superhero effort that didn't last very long at all - he got half a dozen issues of his own, and turned up in a few other Image comics, most notably The Savage Dragon. While it's certainly a professionally put-together comic, WildStar is precisely nobody's favourite superhero, and even the biggest comic nerds would find little worthwhile to say about it.


Unfortunately for Mr Dirt, I could get you five copies of WildStar for a buck, and they are literally worth less than toilet paper. Like many of the Image comics, there were tonnes more printed than needed, and with all due respect to the creators, they have been stinking up quarter bins for two decades.

Maybe this was the joke all along - Joe Dirt is as dumb as shit, and rather than paying for his children's future, he is literally buying something that will lose value over the years, rather than accrue it. WildStar comics might be worth something in the far future, when Earth is a burnt-out cinder circling a bloated sun, and a single copy of WildStar preserved in mylar is the last sign of human civilisation, but they aren't worth dick in the here and now.


I think I’ve given Joe Dirt 2 more of my brainpower than this dumb film could ever expect.

I’m sure I’ve learned my lesson, and the next time a comic book flashes across the screen, I'm sure I will be able to resist rewinding and pausing, 'just to see'.

I’m sure.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Suburban horror stories


Monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein are eternal, but even as their stories are often stylish and moody and occasionally beautiful, they're very rarely genuinely scary.

All that gothic shit - the castle up on the hill, the upper class characters' struggle for repression - is a lot of fun, but they weren’t terrifying, or even unsettling. They were just fun.

Scary came along when the horror went into the suburbs.


There have been suburban horror stories for as long as there have been suburbs and horror, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bland conformity of quiet, boring suburban life really started to get going.

American TV anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s certainly found plenty to feel queasy about in the back yards and silent streets of suburbia. Loads of Alfred Hitchcock’s macabre crime stories took place behind the closed doors on the fringe of a city, while the science fiction nightmares of the Twilight Zone and deeply creepy scares of the Night Gallery often set stories in the same stupefying and dull worlds.

The big budget movie scares of the 1970s - the truly terrifying Exorcist and the gross deaths of The Omen -  still took place in worlds of high diplomats, and where parties featured famous astronauts hanging out. But the cheaper and nastier side of the film business started to find new terrors lurking in the suburbs, and by the mid-seventies, babysitters and moms on their own were a common target of maniacs and psychos. This wasn't the rugged landscape of Transylvania or the vast British moors, horror movies were taking over the streets outside the window.


It didn't start with Halloween, but John Carpenter's masterpiece set the template for the whole sub-genre. The arrival of Michael Myers is signified by the empty streets, silent nights and sinister breezes in the trees. He stalked through the dark gardens and killed teenagers whose parents weren't home, because they had their own middle-class neurosis.

Sure, the suburbs were boring, but they were safe, far from the blight of inner-city crime and rural creepiness. This was happening right outside the fucking door, in the kind of places where this shit did not happen.

And for the vast amounts of people in the western world living in a town just like Haddonfield, this could be genuinely unsettling in a way the old gothic horror never could be.


When I was 10 or 11, my big sister and I watched Prom Night, one of the innumerable Halloween rip-offs that filled video store shelves in the mid-198s0s (and this one had the mighty Jamie Lee in it as well). There was already a crawling uncertainty that something like a slasher film could happen here, in our own boring little town, and right at one of the tensest moments in the film, there was a sudden, savage knock on the window right behind us, and I swear I genuinely almost shit my pants in fear.

It was just my half-cut Dad, who had left his keys inside, and was coming home with Mum from the local Town and Country Club with a bucket of Kentucky Fried, but for a second there, it was all real - there really were monsters roaming the streets outside, waiting with knives and machetes and garden shears, and they were coming into our fucking living room.


Many of the best horror films of the next decade took advantage of this familiarity to really twist the knife, and usually add something new to the terrifying mix.

Nightmare on Elm Street had the same black horror lurking beneath the tasteful pastels of suburbia, and then took that extra step further, and starting attacking the bored teenagers in their nightmares. They couldn't even get away from the crushing conformity of their world in their dreams. There was literally no escape.

Meanwhile, George Romero went straight to the heart of the suburban dream by setting Dawn of the Dead in the new town square - the local mega-mall, and splashed brains, guts and gore all across the shiny facades of the local chain stores. If the new monsters weren't coming for you in your living room, they were getting you where you shop.


Once again, this was a huge shift in horror, because suburban life was so fucking boring, and things like that did not happen here. But they really did happen there, behind the thick drapes and huge garage doors.

Every slice of suburbia has some kind of horror stories, of some horrible mass murder, or some terrible attack, or some sad suicide. Small towns and city fringes weren't immune to this kind of thing. They didn't happen as often as they did, but that just meat they had a powerful impact when they did, psychic scars across the streets.

In this sense, The Virgin Suicides might be the ultimate suburban horror story, because it's that hypocrisy behind that blinding normality that is the real villain, and claims the lives of the unfortunate title characters. Their world didn't need a new kind of monster to show up, they were living in it all their lives.


Film-makers are still going into the suburbs to find new depths of horror. The recent It Follows has that same strange mix of teens wise beyond their years, absent parents, conflicting emotions about sex, and the slow, oncoming dread of banal normality. The monsters are still out there in the tastefully landscaped shrubbery.

A tiny bit further down the social scale, and true working class horror films are still around, but often hide the dull realities of living from paycheck to paycheck beneath a scent of dirty glamour. And attempts at inner-city horror are usually embarrassingly patronising, although the odd new nightmare, like Wes Craven's People Under The Stairs, manages to stay on the right side of things.

But suburbia was supposed to be safe and dull and quiet, and when somebody starts smashing into houses with a butcher's knife raised high, it will always have an extra impact.


Whenever he was asked about the decision to strand Doctor Who on earth during his 1970s run, actor Jon Pertwee used to use the example of a yeti on a loo in Tooting Bec as more jarring and unnerving than encountering it on some far-off planet. And while a place like Tooting Bec still sounds weirdly exotic to somebody on the other side of the world, Pertwee was on to something - that combination of other-worldly horror and the mundane nature of reality is always potent.

Like so many kids of the late 20th century, my reality growing up was that dull suburbia, where nothing interesting ever happened, and everybody was nice to each other, and it was so quiet at night I wanted to scream. There are much worse places to grow up, but as scary as suburban horror stories could genuinely be, there was always a small slice of delight at the monster ripping that safe and boring world apart.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cage versus Cage

As long as he keeps on fighting the good fight and goes home for noodles afterwards, it doesn’t matter if he’s involved in a brawl with Doctor Moreau’s rejects on a lost island, or angsting on Netflix. Luke Cage is always Luke Cage.

For a character who seems so inflexible, and so rigid in his awesomeness, you can still do a lot with a Cage.


All of the most iconic of comic characters – legends like Batman, Spider-Man, or Judge Dredd – share a common strength: you can have a thousand different takes on the character, while still remaining true to a core concept that is rock solid, but allows for multiple interpretations.

As long as Batman is a force for justice in Gotham City, he can be the fun thrills of the 60s TV show, and also be the grim-dark avenger of the modern era, and both versions are equally valid. You can have your own favourite iteration, and somebody else can have theirs, and everyone gets along.

It doesn't have to be somebody as big as Batman, it can be someone as apparently set in stone as Luke Cage. The Power Man has been a lot of things in his 40+ year history - the hero for hire who will slap down Doctor Doom to get his money; the friend and ally of Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon; a 21st century New Avenger; and a father and husband who is part of the domestic heart of the Marvel Universe. It's been a fairly natural progression, but there is always room for new and unexpected side-trips, and the big man has made a couple of those recently.

In fact, Luke Cage's profile has never been higher, with his own TV show as part of Marvel's Netflix ambitions. It got a generally positive reaction, had a great soundtrack and set up Cage to be the hard spine of the forthcoming Defenders mini-series. Even with some gentle ribbing at his original look of open yellow shirt and metal tiara, it was awfully faithful to the comic Cage.

Meanwhile, in comic book land, a Cage comic from Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky was published at around the same time, and with huge, garish splashes of panel-splitting fisticufss for entire issues, it couldn't look less like the Cage TV show.

But you don't have to choose between them. They're both fine stories, in their own different ways.


Still, if I had to choose, I’m going for the idiosyncratic and crazy comic book over the moody, serious TV show every single time. I overheard somebody in the comic shop declare the other day that Tartakovsky's Cage was everything that was wrong with superhero comics, and I couldn't disagree more, because it's everything I look for.

Tartakovsky’s comic was a long time coming, and was first promised a decade ago, but that time wasn’t spent creating an intricate plot – Luke Cage and some other heroes get kidnapped by a bad guy and his animal army, and Cage beats the living crap out of them.

And that’s it. It’s stylish, a bit silly, fast-paced and simple – the whole series isn't much more than a compendium of fight scenes, and when Cage is knocked out, the comic devolves into a series of trippy splash pages that mean nothing, but look amazing. The whole thing could be read in 10 minutes, if the reader didn’t want to dwell on the details.


Which would be a mistake, because there are plenty of sweet details to dwell on. The comic has got a wicked sense of humour, with Tartakovsky’s impeccable comic timing unhindered by the boundaries of the comic panel.

By the time Cage is the last hero standing for the final fight against the big bad, and unloading with his fists, (which he brilliantly names “slamma” and “jamma”), the fight is gloriously breaking the laws of time and physics. Cage prevails, of course, and it all ends with smiles and dumplings. This simplicity of storyline might have outraged the dude at my local comic shop who was only interested in angst-ridden and miserable slices of grand superhero continuities, but I’m always a sucker for such a happy, complete limited series like this.


The TV show had a much bigger audience than the comic, but a lot less laughs.

As part of the Marvel/Netflix group of street-level superheroics, it has a certain aesthetic and tone it has to stick to, making it easy for the main character to slot into the Defenders. This leads to an inevitable sense of blandness, like the edges have really been filed off the story, and a more stylish and unique show is buried beneath the needs of the committee-style storytelling.

The Cage TV show did still go for a certain groove and swagger to set it part as its own show, by bringing race issues to the forefront, and by making music a key component. But it still suffered from that same flabbiness that Daredevil and Jessica Jones had, when there just wasn’t enough story to keep things sharp and focused for a dozen episodes, and it could easily have cut back a third of its season without losing any of its impact.

So while it occasionally opened up and got a bit looser - like with the sudden appearance of Method Man and his Cage-inspired rapping, or in the easy chemistry between Mike Colter's Cage and Simone Missick's Misty Knight - it stuck to the by now familiar rulebook.


On the surface, the Cage comic and TV show could not be more different, with dissimilar tones, needs and goals. But they're both recognisably Luke Cage, despite these different paths, and they both have some worth. They don't have to match up perfectly, there is just no need for it.

There is another new version coming, of course. There always is. Marvel recently announced a new Luke Cage ongoing comic and, unsurprisingly, it looks a lot more like the TV show that Tartakovsky’s unique efforts. It certainly makes sense, if the comic can grab even the tiniest slice of the audience of the show, it would be a runaway hit, and the comic company is obviously hoping the fabled new reader is on the look-out for something that looks a little bit like that show they liked. They're just giving those people what they want.

But while that it understandable, good art always gives us something we didn't know we wanted in the first place, and I didn't know I needed a Tartakovsky battle royale featuring Marvel's hippest heroes, and the zen violence from which Cage merges triumphant. But I really did.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

You're being such a fucking bully right now, America.


Moaning and groaning about the United States of America is almost a hallowed tradition in New Zealand. In this part of the world, everybody does it, from my young nephews to my old Nana. If complaining about how loud, brash and dumb America is was an Olympic sport, we'd be definite medal contenders.

It previously looked like that animosity reached some kind of apex in the mid-1980s, when the Labour government told the US to fuck off with its nuclear weapons, a stance that is still a source of real pride for almost all New Zealanders. David Lange's breath-taking articulation of the anti-nuclear ideal during an Oxford debate is truly one of the great moments in the country's history.

But we're entering into a new age of incredulous belief at the decisions our American cousins' government is making, and while there is fuck all we can really do about it on the arse end of the world, the side-eye is reaching epidemic proportions.


I love America. I've been there half a dozen times, and have visited New York, New Orleans, Seattle, Houston, Washington DC, Portland, San Francisco, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Alaska, and it's been a brilliant experience every time, with gorgeous, endless scenery, mind-boggling sights and some of the most generous and friendly people I have ever met.

I love the American friends I've made over the years, through comic books and the internet and working in the media. They're all smart, funny and compassionate people, whether they come from Northern California or the eastern seaboard. They're all, to a person, utterly dismayed by the messages their homeland is sending in the year 2017, because, obviously, I don't have any nazi fucks for friends.

I love its ideals of equality and freedom that are entrenched in its founding documents, and the always noble efforts to live up to them. It's literally taken centuries to come close to actually reaching those goals, and judging by some of the shit going down every day in the USA, there is still a long way to go yet, but by God, at least they're striving.


And I love its fictions, and a lot of the greatest movies, TV, music, and literature have come from the 52 states. I adore Western movies and rock and roll, and I own more American comics than from any other nation, because they are beautiful and enthralling, and sometimes say something a lot deeper about their country.

Sometimes it comes in unexpected packages, like an issue of Garth Ennis and John McCrea's Hitman comic, published by DC back in the 1990s, when Superman shows up and Tommy unexpectedly articulates one of the very best attributes of the American Dream with his 'I'm American, what can I do to help?' speech.

Or when something like The Searchers, the classic western by legitimate old white fucks John Wayne and John Ford, which is a weird tribute to hate and prejudice and revenge, and then the movie shatters all that when the Duke finally catches up to his niece, and his voice breaks as he tells her he's taking her home, because he knows that path of hate leads to nothing..

And I love that these stories still show there is a lot of work to be done - Tommy Mongahan still plugs his mark seconds after Superman tells him that Americans should always strive to be the best, and there is no place for Ethan Edwards at the new world at the end of The Searchers, and all that western death leads to that climactic moment in the rain at the end of Unforgiven, where Clint Eastwood tells the town to do right, or he'll come back and kill them all, framed with the US flag flying above his head. That's American as hell, as well.


And one of the things I love most about America is its firm anti-bullying stance, right from the days when it stood up to Mother England, and right up until its current role as a true global peacekeeper, doing its apparent best to keep any other nation from picking on a smaller rival.

It's what makes Captain America such a great super-hero. Sure, he can be cheesy as shit, and is a living representation of a society that remains deeply problematic, but he will always, always stand up for the little guy, all day long.


It all goes wrong when the US thinks it's the victim, and justifies unimaginable horrors through this. A persecuted mentality that can be nothing more than privileged white fucks worried about the smell of sweet curry wafting down the suburban street, or could be a return to the appalling days of mass lynchings and other horrors.

This has been the United States' reason and rationale for most of the conflicts it has been involved with in the past century. It didn't go into Vietnam or Iraq to beat up the locals, it was part of the grand global fight against communism or global terror networks or whatever. In its own blundering, misguided way, it sold intervention on that same argument of just trying to help a smaller ally.

The United States has done terrible things around the world over the past century, and it's always taken that moral high ground of the endless fight against bullies and the people they terrorise, even if they ended up terrorising just as many people.


But the high ground has proven remarkably fluid lately, because the United States is being such a fucking bully right now. The executive branch of the White House and its groaning, gasping orange blimp of a leader is deliberately pushing around women's health groups - including ones that aren't even in the damn country - and amazed when Mexico won't cough up its lunch money for a counter-productive wall, whining that the much smaller nation is being “unfair”.

When he isn't complaining about the media reporting the things he says, the fuckhead-in-chief is whining that trade deals that are essential to the global market are mean to America, and that a Muslim ban - which is what it fucking is - that is literally going after 5-year-olds who might grow up to have ideas, is the only way for the poor, shaken US to feel safe.

That bullying was made even worse last week when the immigration ban was immediately backed up by the customs people on the front line, blindly following retarded orders, even though the ban was clearly fucked, in the legal sense.

Supporters of these ideas like to think they're getting tough, but they're just a bunch of fucking bullies, and America can do so much better than that.


When people have laid into the States around my part of the world, I've always stood up for it for all the reasons here, but that hasn't always been so easy in the past few weeks.

This shit is not acceptable, and it's vastly heart-warming to see the people out on the streets, the lawyers on the floor at the airport, and the ongoing incredulity of most of the country at the incompetency and meanness of its ultimate leader. It's wonderful that there are still a lot of people who believe in the same America I do - of an open palm, rather than the closed fist (unless it's a Nazi. Give that genocidal fuck a right cross, that's what Cap always taught me.)

But it doesn't change the fact that this buffoonish administration is taking such pride in ideals that clearly go against everything that could truly make America great. I truly love the USA, but if things keep going down this horrific path, we're going to have to take a break from each other, because I never have any time for bullies.

Friday, February 3, 2017

What is the Tearoom of Despair?

The Tearoom of Despair was an inter-dimensional prison that first appeared in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol comic, and anybody unfortunate enough to look into the sleeves of the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. was sent there to languish in an old-school cafe that came with a menu of oblivion.

It's a world of horror, futility and endless buttered scones.


It's also the ongoing blog of Bob from Temuka, who uses it as an excuse to get all sorts of bullshit off his chest, and does this by rambling on about comics and movies and TV that nobody else really cares about, interspersed with embarrassingly dorky pieces of autobiography. It takes a high word count to justify the nerdiness sometimes.

This is the blog's eighth year, and I'm still not running out of things to talk about, even if it isn't always as easy to muster the enthusiasm sometimes, and I end up filling up a month with music videos, like an MTV hack. But there is always some daft observation of Legion of Super-Heroes fans to make, or comparisons to draw between the different versions of Luke Cage, or a thousand other dumb topics.

I'm starting to get worried that this might never end.


Look, I really do believe it is mentally healthy to get all this rubbish out of my skull and down into hard letters. I truly think I sleep better because I just get it out, and don't spend long hours in the night worrying about Geoff Johns' toxic influence on modern superheroes, because I've already moaned about it often enough. Now I can spend that time on more constructive activities, like worrying about dread oblivion and the howling nothingness of the void.

Any audience that I have picked up on this exercise in mental masturbation is, of course, greatly appreciated. And I like being told that I'm absolutely right about absolutely everything, just as much as any other fool.

One time, Eddie Campbell said I was right about some point I made about Cerebus the Aardvark, and I could have just died. I should have shut the whole thing down right there.


I try to keep politics out of it, partly due to general and tragic disgust at the overall global political scene, but mainly because I can't solve the clashing of political ideologies inside my own head, so how could I expect to solve them in the state?

For the record, I'm a horrible mess of anarchic socialism, where I want to smash the state, but don't mind paying high taxes to help my fellow man. I have a hard time finding anybody to vote for, with that kind of specific criteria.

Even so, I would have voted against Trump if I could have, because fuck that guy. America is being such a fucking bully right now, and I'll try to explain why that's so bloody disappointing later in the week.


Mostly the Tearoom of Despair is a place where I write about comic books, and the disproportionately profound effect they have had on me over the years.

It's still the best medium ever. All those words and pictures. You can do anything with all those words and pictures. I like all the movies and TV and music and plays and podcasts and novels as much as the next dork, but comics are my thing, and always, always have been.

You can't get that same kind of frenzied styling and intense storytelling in anything else. Besides, I've got thousands of the fucking things, so there is always plenty to write about.


One of my best buddies recently tried to start a blog about her thoughts on movies, but didn't really get going because she couldn't get the words of the screen to match the words in her head.

I had no useful advice. I'm still appalled by my terrible sentence structure and disgraceful grammar. I blame my English teachers at school, who were so busy asking me how I felt about things, they never taught me the bread and butter of nouns and adjectives and adverbs and all that.

But I keep on rolling, and try to put up something new here a couple of times a week, even if it's nonsense. That 10,000-hour thing, where you become some kind of expert after a long bout of industry – has got to kick in soon. Right?

I'm genuinely sorry for all the clumsy metaphors and incoherent viewpoints. I don't really know what I'm talking about, and I can't stop.


If you've ever read one of my blog posts, and made a quiet grunt of approval or agreement, I love you, unequivocally and completely.

This is the Tearoom of Despair. It goes on a bit.