Monday, March 27, 2017

T B Grover saw the future

I'm pretty sure companies that make law enforcement equipment are now actively going through old Judge Dredd stories for ideas. A people-dozer that pushes all the troublesome elements together was used in the Rumble In The Jungle story from 1983, by T B Grover and Ian Gibson.

Grover - one of Dredd creator John Wagner's many alter-egos - was definitely taking the piss, but nobody in this post-ironic world seems to have noticed that.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Steve's story

Steve Dillon left behind a phenomenal body of artwork when he died last year. It still wasn't nearly enough, but there was a lot of it. He teamed up with some fine writers in that time, and every now and then, just occasionally, he would write his own stories, and they were always slightly more personal and heartfelt (except for the last original Rogue Trooper story he did for a 2000ad Winter Special, which was just mental).

This effort, from one of the A1 comics published by Atomeka Press in the early nineties, is one of the more personal ones.

Friday, March 24, 2017

More real ads from a fictional universe

A while back, I posted a bunch of scanned-in fake ads from the Marvel universe that were printed in the 1992 Marvel Swimsuit Special, and lamented that I couldn't find the 1992 Marvel Year In Review that had even more of them.

I found the Year in Review, and these ads are even better, with some primo Mignola Doctor Doom, and the New Warriors. Everything is better with some Mignola and Speedball.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

That time Harvey went to the UK for his movie

I've been reading back through the 23 years of Empire movie magazines I have stored under the bed for the past few months, and in between the dated reviews of forgotten classics, breathless previews of movies that were barely worth the effort, Kim Newman's eternal Video Dungeon and thuddingly laddish humour, there is the occasional gem of a feature.

Like this comic adaption of Harvey Pekar's trip to the UK to promote the American Splendor film in the early 2000s. Harvey merged with the infinite a few years ago, but there are still loads of his comics out there, and his prickly and gentle observations of his own absurd life, which sometimes show up in unexpected places, are always worth a look.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The beast of Bernie Wrightson

Despite a long career creating some of the most creepiest ghouls, swamp monsters and Frankensteins in the world, this picture is the one that I always think of as the most Bernie Wrightson picture ever.

It's from the Cycle of the Werewolf book, a slim volume by Stephen King that is deeply beefed up by Wrightson's illustrations. This was the most hardcore book in my high school library, and I must have got it out a dozen times as a teenager.

There is all sorts of other gore saturating the book - there are ripped-off heads and slaughtered pigs and other queasy delights, but the casual brutality of this face-ripping always stuck in the brain the longest.

There is just something about the soft, rippling fur - and even the softness of the victim's jacket - that comes up hard against the sharp claws and ripped flesh. And an injury to the face, with the gore coming through as the shocked features fall away, is always a horrible thrill.

Bernie Wrightson should have enjoyed a long and relaxing retirement after a lifetime of horrors, and his death this week is an absolute tragedy. But his bloody body of work is eternal.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Footrot Flats: Goodbye, Murray.

Murray Ball - arguably the greatest cartoonist New Zealand ever produced - has gone on up to the big back paddock in the sky, passing away this week at the age of 79.

These are some words I wrote a couple of years ago about Ball and his fantastic, brilliant and charming Footrot Flats. Ball was a deadset legend, and his comics will never be forgotten.

My favourite Foot Flats strip, ever since I was eight-years-old. Click to make bigger!

Footrot Flats is the story of a dog and his mate, down on a farm at the arse end of the world in a strip by farmer Murray Ball that lasted between 1975 and 1994. Over those years, it was a hugely popular daily comic strip, spawning all sorts of spin-offs, including a pretty decent movie and a dodgy-sounding theme park at its heights.

Footrot Flats was in every newspaper in the country, and everybody loved it – I bonded with my paternal Nana over Footrot Flats as a kid, and I remember how excited we both were by the prospect of an actual movie.

It was the first New Zealand comic strip to reach that kind of mass appeal in its home territory, and nothing has come close since. (While there are plenty of fine cartoonists in Aotearoa, local newspapers inevitably choose safe comics from overseas, like Zits, or Hagar The Horrible, or Garfield).

And that popularity was deserved, because it was a rich strip from a simpler, less media-saturated time. It did romanticise the rural lifestyle, but never hid the dirt and filth of the farmyard. Ball, who lived the life he drew about, could get into devilish detail on a rotting goat’s carcass, or a steaming pile of rank manure – everyday sights for the farmer, but endearingly shocking to everybody else.

You could smell the silage in the ink, and that gave the strip a raw, sketchy vitality It was also wildly popular because the characters were so recognisable, (at least in NZ). There was the upright farmer, the hippie neighbour, the cheeky hussy, the stern Aunt and the pampered pet. And there was the Dog.

While there was no shortage of weird and wonderful characters wandering in and out of the farm gates, the Dog was undoubtedly the central character, and this was Ball's best move. He didn't even have a name - except for the terrible, and never-spoken, one given to him by Aunt Dolly - but had plenty of personality, and was one of the few animal characters to freely roam the fields and comment on all the action.

Ball’s line gave characters like the Dog a mix of heavy realism and goofy cartooning. Dog was a little more anthropomorphic that Snoopy, but not much more, and was, first and foremost, a dog: endearingly innocent and unflinchingly loyal. He was confused about many things in life - like why the humans took such great pleasure in using their bats to smack the crap out of cricket balls - but was also in tune with the never-ending cycle of life and death that exists in the rural world.

The secondary characters, like the feisty feral cat named Horse (who was easily the toughest thing on the farm), or Coochie (the pragmatic pacifist who loved all life and couldn't even cut down a tree growing through his front room), were often funnier, and a source of more punchlines, than the Dog, but he was the heart and soul of the strip, just as any good farm dog is the heart and soul of the farm.

And Ball's art was also full of soul, because it was vivid, and sharp, and fast, and very, very funny. He could find laughs in gross-out humour, or in a look of desperate pleading. His characters often looked like they were having a good time, and there was something eternally funny in the way he would have figures stalking about in the far distance, (which is oddly reminiscent of the work of British cartoonist Giles, another youthful favourite)

Like all good comic strips, Footrot Flats dealt with the big issues of life in four panels of patter and slapstick. Universal themes led to universal truths and the strip was firmly in favour of anybody who stood up to the bullies and arseholes in life. There was humour in adversity and straight-up silliness, but greed, pride and foolishness were always punished, sometimes with the help of an electric fence or the righteous fury of Horse.
But the philosophical musings on life - watching the sun go down over the fields and asking 'what's it all about?' - were never at the expense of a good comic punchline or deadpan reveal. It was a genuinely funny strip that sometimes made big points about the meaning of life, and you couldn't ask for more.

Like Peanuts, politics also never got in the way of a good laugh, either. Ball was a fairly classic rural liberal socialist, and his thoughts on feminism and environmentalism became more prevalent as the strip went on. But it was also a world where the All Blacks selector was infinitely more powerful than the Prime Minister.

The strip was most popular during the Muldoon and Lange years, where New Zealand fought itself over apartheid and told the US to stuff off with its nuclear vessels, but there was barely a hint of all that in the strip (and when it was dealt with, it was always at its most oblique, and in favour of things like common sense and not-being-a-dick).

There were plenty of life lessons in Footrot Flats. They weren't always that obvious, and sometimes they were a bit too obvious, but they were there. 

I've loved these two strips since before I could read. Make bigger by clicking!

I always associated Footrot Flats with Christmas growing up, because it was Christmas Day when we often visited relatives who lived on farms, and because I’d usually get some kind of Footrot Flats books as a gift, usually from Nana Smith.

And I loved them, and I devoured all of them that came my way. After the barbeque, and before the early evening swim down the Opihi river, it was always Footrot Flats time, and even though the strip finished years ago, it still is.

It's the perfect comic for a time of peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. Even those bloody Murphys and their bloody pigs...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

This one-person book club is harder than it looks

I was around about the 250,000-word mark in Alan Moore's Jerusalem novel - still nowhere near halfway - when I realised that I really, really needed to read more new novels by new authors.

Part of it was the sheer enjoyment I was getting out of Moore's book, because it was so good to get right into something meaty and rich, something with a bit of fucking ambition, and some fucking scale to it. I keep falling out of the habit of this kind of deeper reading, but I also keep falling into it again, usually sparked by something like Jerusalem, and I'm left wondering how the hell I could forget about this pleasure.

But there was another factor - I also wanted to read something new, by authors I'd never read before, because I was reading the same writers I had been reading for bloody decades now, and that's a hell of a rut to get stuck in.

I needed the discipline of reading something regularly, and the drive to try something new on a regular basis. I needed a book club.

But I also fucking hate sitting around telling a group about my feelings for a book, despite the narcissistic streak that has been keeping this stupid blog going for eight years. I wanted to read books that didn't require an instant opinion, that I didn't have to talk about.

So I went the lonely-fucker route and set up a one-man book club. I would regularly tackle a new book every month, and then when I was done, I could just put it away. I didn't have to talk to anybody about it. Other than this post, I'm not intending to discuss any of the books I read on this blog.

It seemed like a good and easy plan, at the time.

Membership to this club is strictly limited, but it's still a club, so they have to be club rules.

So I set some up - I would get a new book from the local excellent bookshop at the start of every month. It had to be a book I'd never heard of before, that I would just see for the first time on the bookstore shelf, and all I had to go on was the cover and the blurb on the back.

It had to be something published (or republished) in the past couple of years. It had to be an author that I'd never read before and, ideally, somebody I'd never even heard of before. Even more ideally, it would be somebody from a completely different culture from mine.  I didn't want any recommendations, and followed no reviews.

Other than that, it could be anything - any genre, any setting, any mix of characters. One fiction, one non-fiction book, every other month, just to keep on top of things.

It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be, especially with the novels, and every book I browsed through sounded so fucking twee, or trying so hard to impress literary nerds, with clumsy as fuck allegories and desperate attempts to craft heart-wrenching pieces of undisputed genius.

And I quickly found out that there were a bunch of new unwritten rules to follow - I didn't want no pop history, focusing on the story of fuckin' lemons or cock rings or some shit; nothing where the author goes on a personal journey, and especially nothing about connecting with their fucking boring family; no 'romantic memoirs'; no novels set in the afterlife, (I've had enough of that for a while after the Moore book), and especially when there is an extra twist, like it's Lincoln's son in purgatory or something; no satires about slavery; nothing about ruthless killers with hearts of gold; absolutely nothing set in Victorian times with flowery language which shows up how dirty everything was.

Unfortunately, it appeared that this covered 90 percent of the novels and non-fiction being published, and options were suddenly and surprisingly limited.

The little local bookstore is absolutely brilliant, but all these new rules cut down the options. I just want something new, something that doesn't sound like every other fucking thing on the shelf.
I've been a member of this sad book club for a few months now, and at the start of every month, I'm on the hunt again. I spent more than an hour in the store yesterday, looking for that new thrill, and rejecting dozens and dozens of other books.

I did eventually find something that sounded pretty interesting, even though it's a bit of a southern gothic crime thriller, which is nowhere near as far outside my comfort zone as I would have liked, but it'll do. For another month at least.

It's not like I'm only reading the one book a month - I'm still reading tonnes of comics and magazines and the usual reference books about esoteric horror films on the side, but they're far outside the remit that has been set for the new stuff.

And there are still a bunch of authors that I have been following for years, and I'm still reading those old favourites, as well as the new thrills. I've got two new Kim Newman novels coming in the post  that I'll get through in a couple of days, and I'm always reading the new slice of sniper porn from Stephen Hunter, or the latest dollop of Florida foolishness from Tim Dorsey, because those dudes will always be my pulp authors of choice.

But there is always room for something new in the diet. As comfortable as the old boys are, there is always a place for a new taste.

I do truly believe that the more books you read, the better you become as a human being. There is nothing like a thick, juicy book for mental exercise. The discipline of getting through something like that, and the rewards often contained within can give you a very slightly better understanding of this universe of ours, and your place in it.

And I can't think of a better way of expanding the mind than by trying something new. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, but this quest has turned out to be more arduous than anticipated, and it remains to be seen if it will pay off.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

All the Avengers: Go hard or go home

Filming for the latest Avengers movie has now started, and even though some of the core cast could apparently only muster as much enthusiasm as a damp fart at the thought of spending hours upon hours yelling at green screen things, the long voyage of desperately positive hype for the grand climax of the Marvel movie universe has now begun.

The film-makers are promising its massive audience that this is really it, the big deal, and everything has been leading to this climax. It won’t be the end of the Marvel Universe, but it will be the end game it has been playing towards for more than a decade.

And even as the hype begins, the moaning and groaning about the unwieldy cast has also started, with plenty of cultural commentators already going weak at the knees at the thought of keeping track of a massive cast of characters, and about the inevitability of a crowded, superficial mess, bursting at the seams.

I say fuck that. I say bring it on. I say throw all the ingredients into the mix – the whole damn lot - and see what happens. After years of this shit, anything less would be a cop out.

I enjoy the Marvel movies, even though they can, in general, be fairly mediocre when it comes to creating original storylines. There has been some great character work, some sharp dialogue and some terrific moments when all that dopey reality bounces up against something truly cosmic.

And their extraordinary success is fascinating - all these dopey concepts created decades and decades ago, finding a rich and lucrative new audience, and generating billions of dollars. All that dumb shit we used to read growing up is being watched by everybody on Netflix, and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man are actually, truly household names now.

It's a vast, sprawling saga. which has remained surprisingly focused, with a plot scaffolding spread across more than a dozen films, over 10 years. Sometimes it gets a bit clumsy, and you get Thanos floating on a big space toilet for no reason, but that's just the equivalent of the six panel sub-plot in classic Marvel comics, keeping Plot B ticking along while Plot A is being dealt with. What worked for comics works remarkably well in other medium.

Still, the new Avengers film is going to have dozens and dozens of roles, with all sorts of characters crashing into each other, and it only takes a few seconds of googling to find hand-wringing hot takes on the amount of characters one movie will have, and how it's an obvious symptom of the death of cinema.

(They've been predicting the death of cinema for about 60 years now, but the fucker won't die.)

Anybody getting in a pre-emptive opinion right now will be hoping like hell they'll be able to say they told us so when it all goes tits-up, but if I had to make a prediction, I think the audience will be able to handle the large cast. It's not that hard. We can handle it.

After all, even though superhero comic readers still struggle with a general perception that they are sub-literate morons, the comics have been doing it for years, with huge casts of characters. Even the most low-key crossover event features a huge cast of superheroes and villains, and anything less would be disappointing.

This has been going on for decades, to the point where it really isn't that big a deal anymore. Mark Waid's current Avengers comic had the modern team working with two other line-ups from the comic's past thanks to the usual time travel fun, and it's all so casual. Sure, you've got two Thors and several Captain Americas, but it's no big deal, because this goes down all the time, and there isn't any need to waste space going too deep into it. Just get to the point

Still, considering I've completely lost all fucking track of where the Marvel comic universe is going in the past few years, maybe that's not such a good example. I don't even know who the goddamn herald of Galactus is at the moment.

The thing to remember about these crazy, crowded movie events is that you're not going to get in-depth characterisation, or anything in-depth at all, and that's okay, because almost all of the characters have all got their own movies to get all their angst and emoting on.

After all these bloody films, you can hit the ground running. You don't need to spend half a film setting up the lead characters, they can just go hard out straight away. Again, this has been going on in the comics for years - the best Justice League of America comics have always been the ones that go from zero to epic in three panels, because there are plenty of Superman comics in to get some character depth from.

This does, unfortunately, create a good sign for the forthcoming Justice League, which wants the thrills of the Avengers team-up, without all that messy risk of giving these characters their own movie first, so any characterisation is going to come after the fact, or be shoe-horned into a big, ensemble film. Either way, it's going to have a negative impact. 

There will, inevitably, be complaints that giving everybody who has ever appared in a Marvel film a few seconds of screen time is just fan service, which I never understand, because it's not like Marvel characters are the sole reserve of dorks now. My Autny Val is a fan. She never understood my fascination with superhero comics growing up, but she'll watch the new Thor film, for sure.

There were the same complaints about the new round of Star Wars movies, because they were full of in-jokes and references that only apparently mattered to the hardcore Star Wars fan. Never mind that  more than half the fucking population of the whole fucking world are probably hardcore Star Wars fans, (even if they won’t always admit it), it's just easier to sneer at the nerds.

But I saw screw it. Chuck it all into the mix, all of it. This is everything that has been building since the first Iron Man and Hulk films. If there was ever an end-goal for all the dumb TV shows, and all the dopey movies, it's here. And if they're going to go crazy on cameo appearances, then go all the way, throw it all in, and see what happens.

There is no harm in giving the Agents of SHIELD three seconds of screen time, or seeing the Netflix Defenders doing their street level thing, even as the Guardians of the Galaxy are flying over their heads, while the other big guns get to flex and fight.

The unparalleled success of the Marvel movies is evident in all the imitators trying to get their shared universes up, (still a lot harder than it looks, otherwise everybody would be doing it), and this is the time to celebrate that success. It might come at the expense of some emotional depth, but this is not the film for that.

This is the film to go crazy.

After all, anything less, anything that is held back for whatever reason, will leave a significant part of the audience feeling shortchanged. What is the point of holding back now? Why bother saving something for later?

Put it all out on the table, and get the barest taste of the sprawling, mad magnificence of Marvel's super-heroes. We can all keep up.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Trainspotting 2: Off the tracks

Halfway through the original Trainspotting film, Mark Renton realises he has to get out. It becomes clear to the character that as much fun as it is to sit around with his mates and do heroin and talk crap about James Bond, he's got to get away from all of it, or he'll always be there, trapped in an endless rut.

So he fucks off to a shitty bedsit in London, and then gets dragged back, and then has to screw over and betray his best mates to fully cut all ties with his old life, before he can choose something new.

It's a good lesson for young people, because you don't really grow if you just do the same old things and see the same old friends your whole life. You've got to get out there on your own, and see what happens. In this world of ever-increasing connectivity, it's harder than ever to get out of these ruts, but it can be worth the extra effort to stop your friends tying you to the tracks.

Twenty years later, and there is an all new Trainspotting film, and while it's a fine continuation of this slice of Scottish skaghead losers, it's also telling exactly the opposite story - that the only people who really know you are the ones you grew up with, and that you can go home again, and you don't have to run away all the time.

It's not easy going home for Renton - there are those betrayals to atone for, harsh mistakes to confront, grieving family to comfort, and a Begbie to avoid. The movie also straight-up accuses Renton of taking a holiday in his own past, but he's not just visiting his history, he's confronting it, and getting the last monkeys off his back.

Ewen McGregor's magnificently smart-arse Renton spends a lot of T2 moaning that he's getting old and facing the fact that he's accomplished nothing really worthwhile with his life. But he still looks great, still has some crazy energy, still getting involved in shenanigans. He's getting too old to be going into nightclubs (even if it's a 80s night), but his ability to talk complete and utter shite remains razor sharp.

The movie freely admits that there is a desperate attempt to recapture some youth - one of the best things about the publicity has been screenwriter John Hodge admitting that getting old is complete shit, and nothing is as good as it was when you're young.

But it also shows there is life in these old fossils. As soon as Renton gets back, they getting involved in all sorts of mental adventures again, riding on top of cars, and being forced to march naked back into the city, and avoiding a likely fatal kicking by quickly coming up with a tune about dead Catholics.

They're still making new stories. Youth doesn't have a monopoly on that.

The new movie is unlikely to have the cultural impact of the first - there is always less of an appetite for middle-aged whinging then there is for young rebellion - and even the film-making does fluff some crucial moments.

The big Choose Life speech in the middle is so strongly overdubbed, it removes the spitting immediacy of the rant, making it feel focus-grouped into perfect shape for a 21st-century audience, and there is a sharp musical sting that is used way too often, and the appearance of the old drunk in the train station - and the explanation of where the Trainspotting title comes from - slips by so fast, lost in a rush towards an inevitable climactic confrontation.

But for every moment that feels a bit rushed and swept aside in the new movie, there are also plenty of other touching and tender moments, as the characters deal with their own pasts.

It really is somewhat sweet to see Sick Boy and Renton chilled out on the couch, watching some shite in the telly, still best mates after all they've been through, and all they've done to each other.  It's also always a joy to see them talking their way out of trouble, with verbose techniques that have only become more refined with age.

Spud is still Spud, but making him the author of the whole story is a great touch (even quoting the original book's opening line in his scribblings), and it's neat that unlike the book sequel, he actually finding an audience for his crazy little tales. Even Begbie learns a small lesson about being a dad among all his mindless violence, and becomes a very slightly better person (he's still a total cunt, mind).

I was 21 when the first film came out, and it blew up in my face - so fast paced, so fucking funny, and so mean when it needed to be mean. It was also stylish as fuck, with a killer soundtrack, and it was a film that had something to say.

And it was fucking right - I did need to get away from my best mates for a while. A couple of years after it came out, I wasn't getting anywhere living in a flat in Temuka, getting wasted on cheap pot every night with the guys I went to high school with and watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer marathons. I fucking love my friends and family, but I had to move away, if I was ever getting anywhere, and now I live nearly a thousand miles away, and I'm never going back.

(Only one other film that ever came close to pushing my life in a general direction like this, and it is, pathetically, Fight Club. Not the stupid macho 'you only find yourself by getting beat up' shit, but the part where Tyler Durden bullies a store clerk into becoming a vet, because 'it's too hard' was no fucking excuse at all, and I took that on board, and I went away and trained up to be a journalist even though it was hard to go back to school, which turned out to be the best fucking move I ever made in my life.)

And now I'm 42 and the second film has come out, and it's got new lessons to appeal to all the sad pieces of shit like me who are staring down the barrel of middle age, elderly life and the inevitability of death.

I do like that idea in the new one, of finding your true self by going home, but I'm not following it this time. I go back home every few months, and see the friends and family who know me better than anybody on Earth, and I love 'em all, and I also love going back to my new life at the end of the weekend away.

This life, away from all that crap, is the life I chose, and keep on choosing, every day.