Thursday, January 29, 2009

Men in Hats

This is not about comics, but it is about pictures.

There are some things that always scary the pants off me: Slow zombies moaning in Italian. Clowns. Photographs of ghosts. Clones. And men in bowler hats.

The other night I made the mistake of flicking through a book of Rene Magritte’s art before going to bed. I then had one of the worst night’s sleep of my life, haunted by dreams of days that were night, pipes that didn’t exist and men in bowler hats staring at me.

It was the hatmen that were the worst. Looming over me in dreams, pushing me back into consciousness with unreasonable force, lurking in the dark for a few seconds before I recognised my jacket on a hook.

Rene Magritte was not a master. The Belgian painter could be crude and obvious, and occasionally showed a dearth of new ideas. But he could tap into a primal fear that still resonates.

It’s the same fear that feeds Victorian ghost stories by the likes of the great M R James. The world was becoming a place of iron and stone, and the immaterial was the great unknown. The unknown invading the normalcy of life was the worst thing imaginable.  

And then this bloody Magritte comes along with his fake pipes and big apples where faces should be. Some of his most famous works showed a variation on a single idea: a man in a bowler hat, staring without emotion, often multiplied and duplicated in the same image over and over again.

These men would be staring in through windows, impassively watching you and still exuding menace. They could be floating in the air, unconcerned by the laws of gravity. They could have their back to you, hinting that something horrible would happen if they just turned around.

I first saw one of these paintings at a young and impressionable age, and I’m still suffering the nightmares, a quarter of a century later. That horrible man stalks me in my sleep and has never yet caught up with me, not yet.

Not long after I saw this art for the first time, the charmingly British Sapphire and Steel started playing on local television. It was interesting and atmospheric and sometimes got a bit silly for its own good, and it also scarred me for life.

It was Assignment Four that did it. It had people trapped in photographs burning to death, a hidden figure in every picture ever taken and a man in a bowler hat that had no face.

The Magritte influence is unmistakable, and has never been denied by the show’s creators. It has taken the obvious next step of portraying a man with a blank expression by creating an entirely nothing face. This faceless creature is almost revolting in its wrongness, the blank skin where expression should live is dead, but it still talks.

(There is a similar horror in the early eighties Twilight Zone film, where the sister of the boy can do anything is seen, staring in terror at cartoons on a television, a blank space where her mouth should be. It’s another thing I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for nine-year-old boys, although it always worked out nicely for me.)  

Without a face, it is impossible to tell what the creature is looking at, so you can only assume he is looking at you. It’s that same uncanny surveillance of the Magritte works, and the same utter lack of emotion.

The man who is both literally and metaphorically faceless is the ultimate extrapolation of the uncaring businessman, the creature that will stand by and let you die if there is profit to be made. Not a real person, but a poisonous, sick attitude that looks good in a pinstripe.

Nearly all of the world’s leading businessmen are incredibly charming and personable. They have to be to get what they want. The image of that the bowler hatted man personalises the side of them that wants something, and will do anything to possess it. Whether it’s power or money or knowledge, it’s that drive to obtain it.

It’s the industrial age carnage machine of the early twentieth century, which burned away centuries of hatred, but built a few new ones. It’s the methodical genocide of countless innocents, their horror and misery forever preserved in brown ledgers of tightly wound numbers.

And when the man in the bowler art multiplies, it all gets so much worse. As one of the crowd, the man is free from any personal responsibility, and able to commit any menace. There is no conscience in the crowd, just blank, calm nothingness. Oblivion.

It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. And I can’t stop looking at it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A caring, sharing Dark Knight

The Batman that appears in the current Brave and the Bold cartoon is a fantastic character. It is a Batman who can smile and joke, while still maintaining his ultra-competence. He can admit his failings, is willing to mentor the next generation and is always up for a bit of friendly competition with a super rival. He is as smart and resourceful as ever, and still understands the importance of a good right hook while showing a fair amount of genuine compassion.

He’ll be lucky to survive two seasons.

Frank Miller has occasionally pointed out that many of the imitators of his Dark Knight Returns spectacularly failed to see the point, and the grim and gritty wave that followed his work were all looking at the wrong thing. Miller’s Dark Knight is an angry, bitter man, full of regrets at the start of the tale, but the entire point of the story is that he learns to change. He tries to recapture the past by going after a few muggers and street gangs, but he moves on past that. An old man can change his ways, and by the end he has faked his death, risen again and become re-energised and alive, with a whole new plan.

(It’s become a little depressing to see how many readers of All Star Batman and Robin have also failed to see this exact same thing. The character at the start is definitely Batman, but he is certainly flawed. He is a bit too angry, taking things a bit too far, and it is the slow introduction of Robin that changes that. The series is nearly a dozen issues old, and Robin has already made Batman better, on both personal and crimefighting levels.)

But readers of that 1986 work appeared to be too much in love with the part where Batman breaks the mutant gang leader’s back on his operating table made from sewage. For the next two decades, the grim nature of Batman was brought to the forefront of the regular comic. He was literally broken and put back together, and unfortunately turned into a bit of a dick along the way.

There is no denying there are some fine stories that have been told with a teeth-gritting Batman, but there is still plenty of scope for a lighter version. There is nothing wrong with a Batman who is a bit of a psychopath, if it is executed correctly. But there is also nothing wrong with having a Batman who cares.

While the comic version was careening from broken back to plague to earthquake to apocalyptic disaster, the cartoon series created by a few enterprising Warner animators in the early nineties took a lighter path. It was still ultra-noir, but there was tragedy and joy and excitement, and every now and then, Batman could risk cracking a smile.

The Batman who shows up in the movies seems doomed to play second fiddle to the villains, with some fine actors in the batsuit reduced to relying on grimacing, posing and dodgy voices. The rubber never let them free.

It’s unfortunate that Batman and Robin, the lightest of the Batman films was also the dumbest, a considerable achievement in the series, especially when the previous film had Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones trying their best to out shout each other.

It’s even more unfortunate that the relative failure of that film was blamed on this move away from a grim Dark Knight. But while George Clooney offering a cheeky grin might have put some people off, the oppressive neon light scheme and retarded script have to take much of the blame for the turnoff.

The movie franchise was almost killed stone dead until Christopher Nolan had a few bright ideas. His movies certainly have their flaws, but also connected with audiences on a massive scale, to the point where Warner execs are now keen to use their Dark Knight model on their other superhero properties. By this theory, the success wasn’t down to some extraordinary actors and a complex, engaging script, it was because Batman was a bit sad.

But he doesn’t have to be that way. A Batman who is more in touch with his feelings can still be an intriguing character, and after decades of scowling from rooftops, it comes as a true breath of fresh air. 

At the climax of the Planetary/Batman crossover by Warren Ellis and John Cassady, something extraordinary happens.  After a couple of loving pastiches of Batman’s interesting past, Ellis and Cassady take the Batman idea into the future, and give the reader something new.   

Looking like a superhero from five minutes in the future, this Batman is still as hard as granite, but more in touch with his emotions. Justice is served as always, but this Batman is able to offer up truly sensitive solutions to the same old problems. His war on crime never ends, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a dick about it.

It’s a character that might never be seen again, but then again, there is always hope when the portrayal from Adam West and the writing of Bob Haney is back in fashion. The cartoon Brave and The Bold owes a lot to its namesake, and it is nice to see the old stories receiving a lot of love from readers in a new century. The Showcase collections of these bizarre, confusing and joyful stories are finding a new audience, who can handle a Batman who cracks jokes.

The Batman has always been a dark avenger of the night, but there is no need to be miserable about it. There have been many interpretations of the character in the past seven decades and they are all valid. Especially the happy one.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bullets: Part Two

* There is nothing on God’s green Earth that is sexier than the way Jim Aparo draws a woman’s eyebrow.

* Everything I ever need to know in life I learnt from the ValueTales by Spencer Johnson MD

* When I’m driving around motorway spaghetti junctions, I sometimes find myself humming Star Wars music and pretending I’m in that goddamn trench.

* Was there ever an Earth-2 Aquaman?

* I still don't understand why 2000ad hasn't adapted Big Dave Bishop's Thrill Power Overload as a comic strip.

* Serge Gainsbourg really was a dirty ol' bastard, wasn't he?

* Why did DC's Paradox stop producing the Big Book Of... series? I bought every single one of those suckers, and would gladly buy more.

* The first Doctor Who New Adventures book that I ever bought was Return of the Living Dad by Kate Orman. This was a fantastic place to start.

* I always thought I was a fan of the Legion of Super Heroes. Turns out I just dig Keith Giffen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I live my life to a Love and Rockets beat

The woman at the counter gives me a funny look when give her the money to buy House of Raging Women. I’m standing in a weird little remaindered book store that won’t exist in a week, and she looks at the bright pink and red colour and asks me if I really want to buy it. Really?

It’s 1992, and I haven’t heard much about Love and Rockets, but everything I have heard has been gold. It’s only two bucks, which means it costs less than half the price of an X-Factor comic. It’s got to be worth a look.

This is, without any doubt, the best two dollars I have ever spent in my entire life.

For more than a decade and a half now, Love and Rockets has been the only comic where I've never missed an issue. The mix of mature storytelling on multiple levels, fantastic characters and fine art keep me coming back, and every new issue sends me diving back into the backstory, keen to see how it ties together to something that happened years ago, to see how the story has been shaped. Or maybe it’s just because the newest stuff has reminded me of what I liked the first time around, and I'm heading back in a vague drive to recapture that moment.

That British collection of Jaime's work that was sitting amongst faded cookbooks and Mack Bolan novels in the warehouse book sale was the gateway. I can't remember the first time I ever heard of Love and Rockets, but I was certainly aware of it when I saw it in that horrible, personality-free bookshop.

I devoured that first book, and was hopelessly confused. It took a while to work out that some of the stories were not in order, and several vital parts of the narrative were completely missing.

Still, I was hopelessly hooked. Fortunately, the new obsession happened around the same time I bought my first car, and a comic shop 200 kilometres away was selling issues of the series for three bucks each.

Those first half dozen random issues are easily the most damaged in my collection. Read to pieces, as the jigsaw came together. No wikipedia, no internet at all to fill in the gaps. These issues that lead off the second half of the original series featured the first few chapters of Jaime's fantastic WigWam Bam, and several chapters of Poison River. I still had no idea what was going on, but I was getting there. There was more than enough to get hooked on, with the promise of a vast, sprawling background beginning to shine through.

Tear It Up, Terry Downe, in issue #28 was a good key to Jaime's continuity, and remains one of the finest six page stories I have ever read. Snapshots of a relatively minor character's life, around which the others revolved. A bit sad, a bit funny and dense with information. Perfect.

That early nineties summer was one of those summers that went on forever, reading and re-reading those issues over and over again, sitting on the grass beside a swimming pool on achingly hot days, getting wasted every night and sleeping in till two. It's what being 18 is all about.

There are a few more issues here and there, but it would literally take years for these holes to be filled. #42 is the first regular issue I got, and I haven't missed one yet. The tail end of the first volume throws up a few surprises, and huge doses of emotion. The climaxes of issue #50 are staggering, Jaime's fantastically fake twist ending throws up something new before settling back down again, while Beto walks away from Palomar, leaving just a big enough crack to come back in a bit further down the line.

I still can't get enough during the dying days of volume one, and Beto's Blood of Palomar book opens the door on his own idiosyncratic universe for me for the first time. Another marked down graphic novel in a significantly nicer book store, just as much confusion, but all the same rewards. Still should have kept the Human Diastrophism title, but when the relationships between the myriad characters become clear and that ending comes closer, it is shattering.

This is getting close to the turn of the century now, and finding issues ain't any easier. On average, I can find one of the reprint books every couple of years, no credit card and the usual prejudices of geography makes getting it from the source too hard.

And then the new series starts up, and keeping track of Beto's prodigious output becomes slightly easier. In the gap between the two volumes of Love and Rockets, Jaime's storytelling takes several quantum leaps, and the stories he provides for the 20 issues of volume two are ridiculously well done. The past comes crashing in, but there is still movement into the future, along with all the black demons, giant dogs and old ghosts the reader can handle.

Me, I'm still living my life to a Love and Rockets beat, right to this day. Moving towns and the collection gets slowly better, with greater travel and the joy of the internet finally completing the collection three years ago. The first nine books in the Complete Love and Rockets, and the regular issues from #26 on up. The last book that remains difficult to find is the second, Chelo's Burden, but the wife takes care of that, and it's done. (Two weeks after she orders it directly from the States for almost $60, I see it in a store for ten bucks.)

And then Fantagraphics comes out with the Palomar and Locas mega-collections, and the latest format, which reprints everything in smaller, handier volumes. And it all looks so sexy again.

But I can't trade up. Love and Rockets is my favourite single comic ever, and every single one of those issues resonates with a time and place. A friend who I made read an issue in the background of a shitty, shitty zombie movie we're making on VHS tape, on a cold winter's night. The issue I bought with a $20 note I found on the ground, when I was right on the poverty line. The comics bought from shops that don't exist any more, or purchased from good people, some of whom aren't here any more either.

Switching to an annual format, and it's hard to handle the gap between issues, but it always has been. A bit of patience will bring just reward. Beto is still pumping out work of ridiculous quality at a pace that keeps him feeling close, and the prospect of dozens of pages of Jaime's art in one go is heart-breakingly wonderful.

I've tried to recapture that fire that Love and Rockets sparked in me many times since I found that first book, but nothing else has come close. There is nothing wrong with Strangers in Paradise or Hate or Eightball, and much to love, but they are not the same.

Part of it is, admittedly, little more than bullshit nostalgia, but it's a comic that is still entertaining and thrilling and, most of all, moving. Each slice of comic magic from Los Bros Hernandez is pure joy, a shining light that went a long way past superlatives a long time ago.

I've been living my life to that Love and Rockets beat, and it's one I have no intention of ever falling out of step with.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Martha Jones

She comes from a slum in the future, one of the very worst places on Earth. She is poor, and with no prospects, she joins the military. There, she becomes desensitised to the horror of war before rediscovering her own humanity. Eventually, she escapes into the stars, escaping the world in her own spaceship. Out, free and alive.

Her name is Martha Washington. And Halo Jones.

It's a good story, and has been well-told both times. Martha Washington was created by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, and in a series of blackly humorous mini-series published by Dark Horse, she refused to give in to the death around her, fought for the sake of fighting and killed for nothing. She eventually escaped into science fiction, blasting off into the universe with good friends and a purpose in life.

A few years earlier, The Ballad of Halo Jones premiered in 2000ad. Written by Alan Moore and brilliantly illustrated by Ian Gibson, the six-page strip was designed specifically to be as far away from the “tough guy with a gun” 2000ad formula as possible.

Gibson had been a mainstay of 2000ad since the early days, proving his talents on long-running series such as Robo-Hunter. Moore, who had created some of the most memorable six page sagas in the comic's history, was also the obvious choice. His first multi-part story for 2000ad managed to take a blatant imitation of ET, the most popular movie in the world at that time, and make it sing.

Skizz was a story of many dimensions, with the connection to the Spielberg movie only the most obvious one. Moore's socialist roots lie deep in his beard, and Skizz's story was about an alien stranded on Earth, while also telling the tale of the working class rising up against a fascist state in search of something miraculous and wonderful, showing that every man has his pride, some have a little style, and some of them are stars.

Moore's attention to character and setting detail also shined through on Halo Jones. Living on the Hoop, a vast enclosed area that houses the unemployed, vagrant aliens and the usual future-cults, Halo is a young woman who faces life-threatening adventures when she wants to go out and buy a cup of synthetic coffee. She has a loyal robot dog, a dumb best friend and a sweet old landlady who suffers a horrible fate. By the end of the first series, Halo is off into the universe, as a stewardess on the galaxy's greatest star liner. Spurned by several doses of tragedy, she is out.

It doesn't get all that much better for her from there. The second book opens with an incredibly well-done prologue, which shows the legend she becomes while reminding the reader of the events of first book. Moore and Gibson show that she ended up going further than anybody before her, striding across the universe as a legend, a myth that will never die, while reminding us all that anybody could have done it.

Back on board the star liner, and Halo is on the slow trip out between worlds. She cuts herself off from the past, uncovers a betrayal, ignores the most nothing person in the galaxy and saves a Rat King. It doesn't end very well, with Halo alone at the edge of the solar system, still trying to escape that prison that just keeps getting wider. Spurred on by the rest of existence, she is almost away, but still has a long road to travel.

Martha Washington doesn't have it much easier. In the first series by Miller and Gibbons, Give Me Liberty, she grows up in a cold, miserable social prison. The only ones to show her kindness and humanity die ugly deaths, so she's off to join the army, and sees all sorts of horror.

None of it punctures her indomitable will to live, and this skill sees her avoid certain death a remarkable number of times, her sheer bloody-mindedness turning her into the military's great secret weapon. She is sent into further danger, on special missions that have significant impact on ongoing conflicts. Occasionally reflective, she never ceases to be amazed at the stupidity of war, but still gets on with the job and does what needs to be done.

Halo isn't surprised by the futility of war. Joining the army after reaching dead ends across the galaxy, Halo is in a pretty low place when she signs up. The death of her oldest living friend almost pushes her over the line into complete madness, but she gains a thousand-mile stare and salvation in the old professionalism of the military.

The war she fights is nasty, battlefields of unimaginable gravity that time can't even escape, but it still ends, and she eats fruit on one of those deserted battlefield. An old decision has massive repercussions, and one last betrayal sees her take charge of her destiny. Seizing the moment and slamming another door on the past, she makes off with the greatest starship in the universe. Free.

Martha Washington's later series see her save the world, and ensure the peace. She comes through a few more close calls, and has to fight off the brainwashing of an artificial intelligence. It's a long, hard road, but she comes through okay, and ends up exploring the galaxy with a good crew on a strong ship. She raises herself up from the horror of her beginnings to set the way for us all and doesn't wait for us to catch up. Free.

Halo's story ends here. Although there were some vague indications she would go on to become a feared pirate queen of the spaceways, her later appearances were limited to pin-up pages and a scathing look at the way 2000ad treats its creators, disguised as a one page tribute to the Mighty Tharg in the landmark #500. This Gibson-illustrated page also marked Moore's last writing for the comic.

Martha got her ending, even it was generally regarded with a sneer and a yawn by the general comic community when it was first released in 2007. A 16-page epilogue, giving the character a good send-off, as her spark of life passes into infinity, the story might have been called Martha Washington Dies, but it was the only one that didn't live up to its title. Martha lives on, in the determination of those she leaves behind, and in the imaginations of those who followed her path.

Both women sailed off into futures they thoroughly deserved, and while it would always be a pleasure to see more stories featuring the characters, they have each earned a bit of peace and quiet.

And freedom.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


* Apparently, there is this guy at one of the comic companies, who does stuff, and some people think this guy is rubbish at his job, because he uses some characters in a way some people don't like, and all these people know what's right and don't understand why nobody is listening to them. Or something.

* It's okay. I'm listening to you.

* I once spent one hour in a bookstore trying to decide whether I wanted to buy a comic adaptation of The Hobbit in a trade paperback format. Then I went away. Then I came back two hours later and bought it. Then I took it back another hour later and walked off with my money. This is the only time I have ever returned a comic book to the store I bought it from.

* Every time I get the urge to look at a pro-wrestling website, I just get depressed because one of the guys I grew up watching in the late eighties has died. YET HOGAN ENDURES!

* I once accidentally told a workmate that there was a teenage girl version of Wolverine running around the Marvel universe, and that she had once been a prostitute. The look on his face made me realise I could never, ever talk about comic books with him again.

* The first wank I ever had was when I was watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness one late Friday night when I was 14. It was an accident.

* I don't know what Joe Matt and Chester Brown were on about. I don't feel better about telling the world that, at all.

* I have had a nightmare where I was stuck in a room with Brown and Matt, but Seth was entirely enjoyable company.

* One time I was watching The Wild Bunch, and when they blew up the bridge in the middle of the movie there was an almighty booming noise from outside. A car had crashed right outside my window, and given the explosion some extra grunt. It was awesome.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Young Romance

I know I'm not supposed to like him really, but I want to have Mark Millar's babies.

I'm happily married and the sight of other mens' penises doesn't do anything for me, but I love Mark Millar. I don't care if this sounds a bit gay. I want to have my way with his Crohns-ravaged body and leave him gasping for more in that sexy, sexy Scottish burr. I want to go on the cover of Hello! magazine, declaring that I have a hidden passion for a wee Glaswegian with big ears. I want to kiss him on the mouth.

I wasn't always like this. The first time I noticed his name, it was after reading the Silo story he did for 2000ad. I was too young and stupid to appreciate Dave D'Antiquis' smooth black and white art, but I could recognise when the writer was ripping off Die Hard. That movie is the best action movie ever made and any direct theft would not be tolerated.

I was going to keep my eye on this Mark Millar guy. He was as bad as Michael Fleisher.

This decision looked like a good one at first. Millar gave Robo-Hunter a good going over, managing to miss the point of the strip by several light-years. It was unfortunate that Ian Gibson had stepped away from the story several years earlier, or Millar's work might have stood up a little better. But the Casanovas art team never really clicked with the script and the whole thing was dead in the water.

But then something happened, and Millar gave me a flirty wink from the other side of the dance hall. The odd nice idea, good line or awful joke began showing up in his scripts. As he was trying to impress boob-obsessed 12-year-old boys with work like Babe Race 2000, or pulp-culture obsessed students with Red Razors, he managed to get the insidious Insiders into 'adult' comic Crisis. A genuinely bleak prison story with no redemption waiting at the end of any sentence, it ended with a convicted killer giving the fingers to the world. He is a piece of murdering filth, true scum, and Millar somehow makes the moment uplifting.

Another little Crisis oddity still resonates, as Millar and John McCrea filled a few pages in #31 with Her Parents, the story of a teenage boy picking up a girl from her parents house, so they can go to the new James Bond film. That's it, that's the whole story, but the stamp of recognisable dread, of living room nightmares and the crushing knowledge that Connery will always be the best Bond.

That Millar. He's all right, isn't he? Seems to like a laugh.

There were still some terrible, terrible Judge Dredd stories in the young man, but even Grant Morrison wasn't at his best with that character. When the two teamed up on Dredd, something was definitely off, although they both managed to wring a little humour out of it all. (Big Dave was loads better.) Canon Fodder showed a lot of promise before running out of puff. He had also seen publication in comics from UK imprint Tundra, but outside some dated shock value, The Saviour is just a bit dull these day and is best left in the late eighties.

And then he went to America, and if there was one thing Mark Millar was supposed to do in this life, it was go to America. British comic writers, raised on a diet of faraway comics where New York exists in the same imaginary world as Gotham City, love America, to the point where Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis made the permanent move to the USA.

Millar is still in his Scottish land, but his heart is in America, and given the chance to show what a big softie he really is, he seized the opportunity. Outside a dedicated few, nobody cared about the comic adventures of the cartoon version of Superman, even though they were often meticulously crafted, while also being a hell fo a lot of fun. After Scott McLoud produced a fine dozen stories for Superman Adventures, an assortment of fill ins were printed, before Millar had a go at the comic.

And it was phenomenal. It was sweet, it was witty and there was loads of punching. Superman came up against his fair share of impossible situations and overcame them with strength, honour and compassion.

Millar is still a bit of a bad boy at heart though, and his Swamp Thing, also produced around the same time, was evidence of that. Given a short boost from Morrison, Millar was soon off on his on, crafting stories that were just the right side of horrible. With the capable hands of Phil Hester at the art table, Millar grew in confidence with his first regular monthly series, coming up with a variety of short, shocking stories and long arcs that built in existential horror before climaxing in a spectacular fashion. By the end, Swamp Thing found his own humanity within omnipotence, evolved a little bit further and brought a bird back to life.

And even Anton Arcane, the most evil motherfucker on the planet, was even given his own little dose of redemption, and it was his apology and ability to change that saved the world from annihilation.

That was it. The courtship was over. I was Millar's boy.

Since then, I've loved his ultra-hyper Wolverine and the steady build up of his Ultimates arcs. He gave The Authority a surprisingly fitting off-kilter feel, (although Frank Quitely also has to take a lot of the credit there). I somehow missed Trouble, but get loads of guilty pleasure from Wanted, with that last page a source of real glee.

Civil War was unmitigated rubbish, but the shine goes off any relationship after long enough. It might have been a lot easier to handle if every character didn't act like a complete arsehole, but the usual Millar tricks in dialogue and plotting were getting a little bit too noticeable anyway.

I still buy Kick-Ass, because it makes me laugh, and Fantastic Four, because it's just the right kind of silly. I'm behind on War Heroes, 1985 and the current Wolverine run, but there is still plenty of time for that.

Because I love Mark Millar, and I don't care who knows it. Sometimes I don't know what the hell he is doing or where the fuck he is going, but I'll read his stuff until the day I die, and usually get something out of it.

I promised my wife that she could run off with Angelina Jolie if she ever got the chance, but she doesn't know that I would drop her for Millar in a man moment.

I also have a total crush on Paul Rudd, but I know I'm not the only heterosexual male out there with that one, am I?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flexing It

This is a true story. It's probably not that interesting and goes on a bit, but isn't that just like real life?

When I was five years old, I was lying in bed late at night. I was woken up by the sound of two people walking down the street, past my bedroom window. They were talking quietly, but the sound of their boots tramping on the gravel of the footpath drowned out their hushed voices.

Standing up on my bed, I peeked out the bedroom window and saw Superman and Batman walking together, heading down the street with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

They didn't look entirely like real people, but they didn't look like they had been drawn with pen or ink, either. They were something in-between. (The only was I can describe it is that they looked a little like Homer in that Treehouse of Horror episode where he goes 3-D, and in the end winds up in our world, still looking like a cartoon character, while still something else, something not quite right.)

Eventually, the two super-heroes walked out of view and I lay down and went back to sleep, confident that all was right with the world and that the super-heroes were there to take care of me, just like they always would.

Obviously, all of this is totally impossible.

But I still remember it. The memory is as strong as anything else from that point of my life. (Although I should probably note that the one thing I remember above all else from that period is reading one of those '70s Joker comics while my Dad went off to work at six in the morning.)

The thing is, when I was five years old, the idea of seeing super-heroes going for a stroll along Tawa Street was perfectly natural. The idea that they were entirely fictional was not something I had fully wrapped my head around. Both Superman and Batman were on television fairly regularly, I could read about their exploits in the comics, and when you live on the arse end of the world, Metropolis and Gotham City feels just as real as New York City or London.

Eventually, inevitably, I grew up and put away those ideas. Super-heroes weren't real. They had never been real. Only a kid would think they are.

Cut to 18 years later. I'm 23 years old and completely fucking obsessed with Flex Mentallo. The mini series had been out for a good couple of years by then, but I've already read my copies so much the covers are falling off.

No girl, no car, no money. But at least I've got the comics and an unhealthy taste for the cheapest wines known to humanity.

A new Saturday ritual: Heading down the beach, knocking a bottle or two of red back and reading comics. Self-awareness go: I know I'm a sad piece of shit who probably scares little children and makes adults sneer, I just don't care. Not when I have these wonderful, crazy, comics.

And Flex is the best of them. There's always a couple of random Invisibles issues and a few other comics to keep me company on those eternal Saturday afternoons, but Flex Mentallo is the only constant. Everything about it just sings. It all clicks into place with my brain.

It's not the big fat honking metaphor for the comic industry and its ages that gets me so excited, and it's not the razor sharp dialogue and brilliant action scenes, (although they certainly help.) It's not even the multiple levels of reality, where secret code words open up whole new dimensions, or the way The Hoaxer fools everybody, or the fantastic Quietly art, his hyper-detail capturing the Most Accurate Depiction of a Messy Coffee Table ever to be represented in a comic book.

It's the little things, the digressions, the personal touches that reach me, cutting through the fog in my head, speaking to me as few comics ever had.

From the connection between comic books and sick kids forced away from home to spend a few nights in a big, scary hospital, to wandering the streets as a fucked-up adult, lost in the geographies of my head and the wider world, Flex sings to me. Right from the start, and the simple joys of an egg sandwich and sitting around an airport, watching folk come and go.

There is an argument here that Flex might represent the most auto-biographical work Morrison has ever produced, outside the obvious teenage angst diary entries that helped form St Swithin's Day. The odd thing is, the more personal Morrison seems to get, with his Wally Sage ruminating on his wasted life, the more I feel it myself. Resonances of my own past crop up again and again. Late night parties with parents and their friends, rocking with the cool old folks on a special occasion, enjoying cookies and coke and being allowed to stay up a little later than usual. Hooking two mirrors up to face each other and feeling convinced that the eternal reflections that result give a glimpse into other dimensions. And, most of all, the impossibility of certain memories – Sage can't figure out why there are a group of odd boys squatting in a corner and who is holding his hand, and hell, I'm still wondering what the fuck Superman and Batman were doing in Timaru in 1980.

And it was still happening, there on that beach. Digging the groove, digging the vacuum: I can't help looking at my own hand when Wally thinks his is melting, I can't stop myself from responding to The Hoaxer. When Morrison writes that this is not a comic, but a hyper-dimensional object experiment, I fucking believe him.

It's 10 years on since then, and I haven't studied Flex to that degree since the turn of the century. That obsession has become another part of my past, slotting in with all the other feelings and memories that helped create the man I am today. I've moved on, become someone different, just like we all do, just like we all should.

But I still sometimes hear the call of Muscle Mystery, promising me that the world is a lot stranger, and crazier, and more wonderful than I could ever imagine. That those memories I have of impossible things are just as valid as the memory I have of eating breakfast this morning.

And that super-heroes are real.

I also saw Captain Marvel once in a dark garage, but that's another story altogether....

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eating the imaginary mongoose

Most teenagers live in a permanent state of embarrassment. If they're not mortified by the changes in their bodies, they push away anything that could be seen as childish in a desperate attempt to appear more adult. With a refreshing lack of nostalgia, favourite toys and fictions are tossed out in the trash.

This is to be expected. This is normal. It doesn't stop teenagers from being sad pieces of shit in general, but it's still all right.

The comic book medium tends to take a bit of a kicking at this stage in life. The idea of having pictures to go along with words is still seen an inherently childish by a large proportion of the population, (although convincing these same people that movies and television are just as childish is pretty damn futile.) Many comic readers come to the conclusion that they have grown out of the medium and give them up entirely. That's their loss.

But as they get older, those that stick with it invariably become dissatisfied with the simple nature of most basic comic books. They're not going to be happy with the simple morality plays that feature the barest of characterisations, the most basic of plots and simplest of dialogue. They are going to want something a bit more complex, a little more challenging, a little more grown-up.

This is still a Good Thing. Although there has been a constant call to make comics kid-friendly and accessible to ensure the next generation is always keen to get their Spider-Man fix, there is still plenty of room, even in the ghetto of men in tights, for comics that don't treat the reader like a complete moron.

Unfortunately, when it comes to superheroes, the comic industry seems to have come to the almost unanimous conclusion that the only way to do this is to bring those heroes into the real world. It's easy to blame it all on Miller and Moore and the few comics they produced with their collaborators in the eighties, but it goes back a bit further than that, with an entire industry of creators all keen to slip some of those burning real-world issues into their tales. From Peter Parker's worries about making enough money for the rent to Green Arrow giving Green Lantern an ideological bitch-slap in the O'Neill/Adams stories.

So here we are, decades after all that, and things really haven't got that much better. Books like The Ultimates took a fair stab at showing the geo-political ramifications of super-heroes, but the realism level isn't that much higher than anything else Marvel has ever produced, other than better haircuts, more inventive action sequences and dialogue that isn't as cool as it sounds in our heads.

Throwing super-heroes into the greater context of our reality gives the destruction left in the wake of any super-battle more weight, showing the consequences of actions, even if it is barely touched upon before the next Clash of the Titans gets going. The horrific sight of the Twin Towers falling apart undoubtedly have more than a little to do with this, to the point where any collateral damage will stir up memories of that day.

This is all well and good, especially since showing the consequences of actions is something super-heroes have been pretty crap at in the past. But as they gets more commonplace, the attempts at applying the real world to the super-heroes themselves gets even more annoying. Again, this is nothing new, but in the last few years the heroes of the regular DC Universe in particular have become mired in the idea, take these beings with wonderful, truly awesome abilities, and pulling them down, reducing them to our level.

Sometimes it's the little things. It seems to have become DC policy since Identity Crisis that heroes refer to each other by their first names, which is an odd little contradiction, considering the concept of that comic seemed to be built out of the idea that secret identities were actually pretty fucking important. And in a world where everyone is being monitored by villains, other heroes and the omnipresent shadowy government agency, referring to Batman as Bruce in the middle of a fight implies that these heroes really aren't too bright.

The thing is, if we treat super-heroes as anything like normal human beings, the whole concept falls apart at the seams and they turn into the horrible creatures seen in Marshal Law and The Boys. These are not normal people. They do not act like normal people. They do not think like normal people. This is what makes them super heroes, more than any wacky power. If your parents are gunned down in a shadowy alley when you're eight years old, you don't dress up as a flying rodent to avenge their deaths. In a fictional world of jetpacks and talking gorillas, where there is already a healthy suspension of disbelief, that's understandable.

Applying the standards we hold the average human being to on super heroes, and expecting them to remain likable, just doesn't work. This can be seen in the thousands of examples of superdickery that have been plastered all over the internet in the last few years. Superman acts like a dick if he was a real person, but if he's teaching Jimmy Olsen a valuable message about loyalty or honour or some shit, it's okay.

Even something as simple as Batman's ultra-competency would be met in our reality with disdain. Nobody likes a smart-arse. Batman gets away with it because he's going for the greater good. If he's like that all the time, he's just that guy in your office who delights in making everyone else look bad without realizing it, completely unable to work out why nobody ever invites him to after-work drinks.

And he's not that guy. None of them are. They really are better than us. If we have them act more like us, it diminishes the characters and even ourselves. Superman and Captain America and Batman and Mr Fantastic are what we should strive for. They shouldn't be dragged down to our level, we should be lifted up to theirs. The super-heroes are what we could be, and should be. We have to grow up.

Otherwise, we'll always just be those pathetic teenagers, sitting in our rooms listening to awful music, convinced that everybody else in the world is as miserable as us, unwilling to even consider that there is a better world out there.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

This is me

My name is Bob Temuka. I live in Auckland, New Zealand and I write words for a living, but this is for fun.

I like all the usual suspects when it comes to movies and music, but I fucking love comic books. For me, it’s always been the comics, ever since I was five years old.

Back in those days, my Nana worked in a second hand bookshop that groaned under the weight of all sorts of comics, and my Mum would take me in every Tuesday to swap a big grocery bag full of comics for another lot. Sadly, this was the best time in my entire life.

Since then, I’ve gone through all sorts of love affairs with different kinds of comics, with that love plunging over the edge into total fucking obsession with X-Men, 2000ad, GI Joe, Love and Rockets, The Invisibles, and Indiana Jones comics at one time or another.

I love the medium, but don’t care about the industry. I try to read the sales figures and my eyes get all blurry. The business bores the piss out of me. When it comes to the eternal debate over how to get new readers, I don’t have a clue, mainly because I don't honestly care.

The world was not crying out for another blog about comic books, there are plenty out there already. But I couldn’t help myself. I have to get some of this shit out of my head. It’s taking up far too much valuable space in there. And if the internet can’t be used as a place for a decent brain dump, then what’s the use of it? Mostly, I just want to geek out on my favourite shit, and say horrible things about awful comics.

I turned 34 yesterday.

My name is Bob Temuka. It isn’t my real name in the real world, but it is here. I like comic books. A lot. This is my blog.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Path of the Geek

Welcome to the Tearoom of Despair, another blog that is mainly concerned with comic books. Because the world really needed another one.

Please take the following quiz. Results are unimportant, but may be used for entertainment and education.

Step one:

You're barely walking, and your favourite uncle is reading scary horror comics, watching Hammer House of Horror and playing the guitar. Do you:

A) Read those horror comics until they fall to bits and have nightmares about blonde vampire women for years.
B) Watch Hammer House of Horror and have nightmares about phone boxes that bleed and disappearing houses for years?
C) Pick up the guitar and try and learn a few chords.

If you answered C), you become a rock god in your own mind and play in dozens of shitty bands, before bouncing into the spotlight with a novelty single that everybody hates for six months. You are dead at 28, on just the wrong side of cool.
If you answered A) and B), read on. If you only picked one of these answers, the geek pull is not strong enough and you become a computer programmer with an interesting collection of clocks.

Step two:

You're starting school next week, but you just realised you understood every single word in that Unknown Soldier comic your grandmother gave you and now you can actually read. Do you:

A) Give up on this reading business now that you've cracked it.
B) Go get some more.
C) Build a fort.

If you answered C, you join the army at 18 and accidentally shoot yourself in the foot during training. You spend the rest of your life working in a respectable pet shop that specialises in hamsters.
If A is your answer, you are crushed beneath the wheels of a two-tonne truck at the age of eight when you cycle straight through an intersection without reading the stop sign.
If you answered B, life goes on.

Step three:

You're 10 years old and you've asked Mum to buy an issue of the Indiana Jones comic book. You're trying to get the second issue of the Temple of Doom adaption because that movie is just about your favourite thing in the whole wide world. She brings home an issue of the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones, which you can't understand. Do you:

A) Throw a big sulk, and then spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about not appreciating your bloody mother?
B) Save up your pocket money and buy a whip?
C) Become an archeologist.

That second option just lost you an eye and your depth perception. The third leads to a life of respectability, until an Incan Mummy bites your face off when you desecrate an ancient tomb. The first answer is the right one, because you get that second issue five years later and it's rubbish, so you end up throwing the whole series out. Now go give your Mum a call before reading on...

Step Four

You're still only 10 years old, and you're in the hospital two days before Christmas. Even though you don't feel so bad, everyone is making a fuss over you because they're scared you'll be in hospital over Christmas. You don't mind as the food is excellent, but your Mum asks you if you want anything to read. Do you ask for:

A) Whizzer and Chips
B) 2000ad
C) Playboy

If you asked for Playboy, your Mum will give you a clip over the back of the head. You're 10 years old! Go back and choose again.
If you're a Whiz-kid or a Chip-ite, you are massively entertained for two hours, and then get bored with the whole thing. No more comics for you. That's kid's stuff.
If you answered B, your Mum gets it so right and comes back with the Mean Team smashing people in the face with giant maces, Sam Slade shooting robots in Ian Gibson glory, Bryan Talbot's magnificent take on Nemesis the Warlock, some Wagner/Grant/Kennedy Dredd (which is about as good as Dredd ever gets), and a Pete Milligan/Barry Kitson short story. Read the drokk on...

Step Five:

You're still 10 in a year that never ends, and there is a competition to win every single Doctor Who novelization published by Target. It's a competition advertised on national television, at a time when Doctor Who is being aired in primetime. You enter once. Do you:

A) Sit by the letterbox every day for six months?
B) Have dreams where a big box of books show up on the doorstep, and feel genuine anguish when it turns out not to be real.
C) Get completely baffled by the arrival of a Target badge in the mail, one year after the competition, with no letter of explanation.

The answer is: D, all of the above. Move along, nothing to see here.

Step Six:

You're 13, and browsing around a small town video store on a Friday night at the tail end of the eighties. Between you and your mates, you have just enough money for one video for the night, some hot chips and a bloody big bottle of coke. What do you get out?

A) Die Hard

B) SummerSlam '88
C) Zombie Flesh Eaters

The answer is, again, all of the above. The zombie film first, then you come back for the wrestling the next Friday, and the Willis on a Building the next Friday, even though you've seen it a dozen times. It's a small town, what else are you going to do on a Friday night?

Step seven:

You're 15, and your best mate is trying to convince you to go halves in a bottle of wine. You have just enough for that, but if you buy it you won't have enough money to get that sweet issue #255 of the Uncanny X-Men that is waiting to be bought at the local bookshop. Do you:

A) Go get some chips.
B) Get the wine, get the wine, get the wine!
C) Hold on to that money and buy that comic later in the week.

If it's A, you're a fat bastard and die of a heart attack at 47, while making love to your sixth wife.
If it's B, you die of liver failure at 48 while breaking out of your seventh crack at rehab.
If it's C, you're going to live forever.

Step eight

You're 18 and earning your first money, and all you wanna do is buy comic books. Your big sister is flying off to another country when you have a quick look in the airport bookstore and find a whole bunch of early nineties DC comic books going for two bucks each. These include the first issues of Sandman, Legion of Super Heroes v4 and Hellblazer that you ever see, as well as a buttload of recent Superman comics and more Armageddon 2001 annuals than is really healthy. What do you do?

A) Say your farewells like a good brother and miss out on buying the comics because your whole family needs to get back home quickly.
B) Say goodbye and grab a quick couple of issues on the way out the door.
C) Say see ya! And race back to the bookstore and grab 30 of the very best issues, weighing up the pros and cons of picking up the Simonson/Bogdonave Man of Steel over the Loeb/Sale Time Breakers comics.

If you answer A, you're a good person, and good things will come your way. If you answer B, you make the odd mistake, but still live an honourable life. If you answer C, read on. Nobody ever said you were going to be likeable.

Step Nine

It's your 33rd birthday and you think about starting a blog about comics. Do you:

A) Forget it for the stupid idea it was.
B) Decide to give it a go.
C) Just fucking do it.