Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Journal of record

The Comics Journal is an easy magazine to poke fun at. It sometimes gets so myopic in its examination of comics culture that it goes right up its own arse, while refusing to acknowledge that the lights have gone out. With an editorial focus that has raised sneering to an artform, it can be willfully dismissive of works that deserve attention, while focusing on others that have had their fair share of notice.

And yet, it remains the best magazine about comics I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, offering in-depth analysis that has changed my entire opinion of certain comics, while warning of potential danger spots ahead.

And it has some of the best interviews with comic writers, artists and editors that have ever peen published in any medium. Conversations that go on for dozens of pages, covering a massive amount of comics history, with fascinating people talking about their fascinating lives.

The early days of the magazine were a little clumsy, partly due to inexperience in the editorial department and partly due to an overall lack of genuinely progressive comic books. The magazine could only talk about Will Eisner or R Crumb for so long, before having to acknowledge that the Uncanny X-Men was the most beloved comic of the period.

But it eventually found its feet somewhere in the mid eighties. The launch of Amazing Heroes allowed it to jettison much of its mainstream content and focus on the rising tide of independent publications. (A tide that the Journal’s publishers took advantage of to publish its own excellent titles, including the immortal Love & Rockets.)

By the time it had reached an issue number in the triple digits, the Journal had established itself as the place to go for news of new projects or deep analysis that was unavailable anywhere else in comicdom.

In my mind, it first reached its peak somewhere around #130 and every issue of the magazine for the next few years featured some incredible writing looking at some of the great projects of the late eighties, from creators who were arguably hitting their own peak in their craft.

The Comics Journal was absolutely churning with excitement at the time, as many of the arguments that Gary Groth had been spouting for years turned out to be true. Like many others, he could see the hunger for comics that had more of an intellectual focus, rather than the broad strokes of emotion and sheer dumbness many comics had been happy with for decades, and he was very, very good at articulating the desire for these works. That hunger eventually blossomed into a whole new area of comics that is now well-established, one outside the dominance of Marvel and DC, where great projects lurk and inevitably find an appreciative audience.

As the new guard of independent creators such as Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes and Chris Ware came into their own, the Journal was tracking their progress every step of the way, pointing out obscure gems and overrated lumps of waste.

And despite an already high level in quality, the interviews around this time reached a whole new level. They grew from lengthy, in-depth looks at careers in comics into monoliths of information that drilled down to the most esoteric of details, while also giving wide swaths of data about the history of the medium.

I was 19 when I discovered The Comics Journal, after only ever seeing the occasional issue of Amazing Heroes or Hero Illustrated. An odd magazine shop in the odd city of Christchurch was going out of business and was selling off its stock at ridiculously cheap prices. The dozen or so issues of The Comics Journal that I got from that shop are almost falling to pieces now, because they were just full of so much good reading, packed with tons of tiny bits of information and entertainment.

There was Neil Gaiman interviewing Los Bros Hernandez in a lively chat and Groth getting some fantastic stories out of Frank Frazetta. (At the time I thought I didn’t like Frazetta, but this was mainly because I was a fucking moron when I was 19, and that interview helped me overcome my own ignorance. It also convinced me that Frazetta might be older than stone, but he was just as hard and could still take me in a fight with one hand tied behind his back.)

There were also terrific interviews with Clive Barker, Roberta Gregory, Scott McCloud, Seth and Grant Morrison, right before he got stuck into The Invisibles. Each one opened my eyes to new ideas, new thoughts and lots of lovely new comics that I had to try out. Each subject had much to say, and I soaked it all up like a comics sponge.

One that still sticks in my mind is the interview with the great Joe Kubert in #172.  Kubert’s crystal clear view of the early days of comics, right up through his work on the war comics of the sixties and seventies, were a true eyeopener and it was marvellous to get a glimpse of the mind behind the sheer stylistic power of his pencils and the vast history that lurked beneath the surface. That particular magazine obliterated a tedious three hour train journey I had to take at the time, and I can still remember the thrill of finding out I was only halfway through the monstrously long interview as the journey was coming to an end.

From then on, I was always interested in what the Journal was doing, even though it has always proved incredibly difficult to get hold of issues. But those few that I have managed to get have been greatly appreciated, especially the fantastic Kevin Eastman interview in #202, which was another eyeopener in terms of how fucked up the comics business can sometimes get.

But it steadily got harder and harder to locate the individual issues and attempts to get it imported through magazine and comic shops proved fruitless or prohibitively expensive. Eventually, I lost touch altogether. The internet still provided plenty of information and the odd good interview, but it just wasn’t the same.

And then I moved to a town that actually knew how to stock a good library, and that love for all things Journal flared up again. I’ve devoured the last dozen issues, eagerly snapping them up as soon as they appear on the shelves.

I do feel a little guilty about not actively supporting the magazine when I get so much enjoyment out of it, but the current price pushes it way beyond anything I could afford on a regular basis, (especially with the NZ dollar tanking against its American equivalent in recent months).  And while I still enjoy many of the features and interviews (and am particularly pleased to see some of the internet’s finest comic writers in print), there are still vast sections that I’m just not that interested in.

I’m still not sure about Kenneth smith’s articles and if it’s a joke about its own inherent unreadability, it’s one that goes right over my head. The section given over to reprints of ancient comic strips and other oddities from the past century of comics is always worth a look, even if the style of days-long-gone can be a little hard on modern eyes. There are still long articles that look at the overall industry or the minutiae of specific works that are skim-worthy and rarely connect with me, although it is nice to see topics covered that are otherwise ignored and these articles will certainly find an appreciative audience for this fact.

Overall, it is still an absolute pleasure to sit down with a new issue of The Comics Journal and read about the craft and love for the medium that is out there. It is often lamented that there is not a midway ground between the Journal and Wizard where a third comics magazine option can find success, but that is no reason to ever cast aspersions on the Journal’s achievements.

The magazine has consistently provided meaty reading on the entire medium, highlighting works that deserve all the recognition they could muster, while unafraid to call a spade a useless tool. It has recorded the history of comics with style and panache, has published the liveliest letter page in magazines and has been unfailing in its bid to raise comics as an art form. There is still a long way to go on this score, but the Journal shows no sign of giving up the fight.

And that's nothing to sneer at.

* * * 

Thanks for all the hard work to Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Michael Dean, Dirk Deppey, Milo George, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Darren Hick, Eric Evans, R C Harvey, Robert Rodi, Matt Silvie, Heidi MacDonald, Jan Strnad, everybody else who has chimed in over the years and the grand old men: Gary Groth and Kim Thompson. Excellent work, everybody.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

27 reasons why I like music

Trying to explain what you love about a perfect song or gig or melody can be an exercise in futility, but I'm all about the futile, so here are 26 moments in time where music rocked my world.

* Seeing my best mates get up on stage and get their rock 'n' roll on.

* Listening to Pink Floyd on the headphones for first time and freaking out over the stereo chuckle in Shine On. It made me think somebody was coming up behind me.

* Watching music videos late at night after I got home from the pub and spinning out over Bic Runga, Queens of the Stone Age and the Prodigy.

* Hearing Let It Be drift over the rooftops and into the garage where I had passed out, right before I met Captain Marvel.

* The first time I brought the album of a band I knew nothing about, except for the one video I'd seen. It was D-A-D and the album was No Fuel Left For The Pilgrims, and it was fucking awesome.

* Pogoing around my bedroom to U2 when there was nobody in the house.

* Waiting up late on a Friday night while exhausted from a full week of work, just to see what was coming up on Radio with Pictures.

* Reading England's Dreaming and Lipstick Traces in the same month as I saw the No Fun episode of Dancing in the Streets. Now they'll bury me a punk.

* Trying to decide between Def Leppard's Hysteria and Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of A Seventh Son in the Dunedin Deka store in 1988. I chose the Leppard because they gave me a free badge, but the Maiden wasn't far away.

* Dodgy dancing to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on a rock at the end of my world.

* Pashing a girl I had a crush on for years while Pale Blue Eyes was playing in the background.

* Seeing Lindon Puffin power through Queen's Somebody To Love in a small bar in Picton. He was playing to about a dozen people, but in his head he was playing to thousands.

* Seeing Iggy and the Stooges a couple of years ago, and realising they still had it.

* The moment Shayne Carter's guitar sparked the acid in my head on New Years Eve, 1995. I had to go because it got a bit much, but that last note is still reverberating through my head.

* The blasting call to arms that is John William's main Star wars theme, and the way it would get my seven year old heart racing.

* Hearing Alice Cooper sing Only Women Bleed on my car stereo during a routine drive between Timaru and Christchurch, and fucking losing it over the song.

* Every time I crack open a free CD off the cover of a music magazine, and the hope that lies within.

* The first three times I saw Shihad live.

* Going to a school disco and dancing badly to Billy Idol and MC Hammer

* Walking into a New York bar and hearing the Pogues sing Sally MacLennane.

* Rocking out to Faith No More's Angel Dust when I should have been pouring hot fat into little pottles.

* Bombing around the big city to The Streets during a journalism school field trip.

* The first cassette tape I ever owned, (Sergeant Peppers); the first record I ever owned, (Queen's Greatest Hits); and the first CD I ever owned, (Pulp's Different Class).

* Getting stoned in the morning sun to Portishead, just before the turn of the century.

* Listening to a massive amount of kiwi music on a coach taking us all around Europe (although the Scribe got a bit much...)

* Watching Neil Young float through Cortez The Killer earlier this year at the Big Day Out.

* Hearing the girl I love sing along to God Only Knows, the day before I asked her to marry me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Big Book of Big Books

The Big Book series published by DC’s Paradox Press imprint in the 1990s were incredibly entertaining, consistently well written and drawn, and massively informative. They were just too big to last.

In the wake of the enormous success of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in the late eighties, DC became surprisingly experimental with its imprints. One idea was Piranha Press, which featured the magnificently named Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children, (a title that still gets attention in the comic store, 20 years after it was first used) and other great titles such as Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn, Marc Hempel’s Gregory and Bill Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith’s fantastically odd Epicurus The Sage.

The imprint only lasted for four years, but lived on under a different name as Paradox Press. The difference between the two imprints was small, with Piranha having a slightly more humorous focus, (Howard Cruse’s wonderful Stuck rubber Baby began at Piranha but was eventually published by Paradox). But Paradox lasted a bit longer, squeaking its way into the new century.

In that time, the imprint carved out its own successful little niche in comics, at a time when DC was more focused on its superheroes dying and getting their backs broken.

Without the attention, the imprint produced some fine and solid work, including future movie properties Road to Perdition and A History Of Violence. There was also another appearance of Wagner, Grant and Smith’s perpetually troubled comic The Bogie Man, Reinventing Comics, Scott McLoud’s slightly less successful follow-up to Understanding Comics and several volumes in the mighty Gon series.

Even with this occasionally spectacular work, it is the Big Books that have proven the standout of the late imprint. For several years, each book presented an incredibly amount of information with humour and style, resulting in works that remain remarkably readable, a decade after they were published.

Eventually they petered out, and have fallen out of print altogether. Which is sad, considering the massive amounts of talent that worked on them. It all just faded away, with the final Big Book of Wild Women, in a state of perpetual pre-production since 2001.

But while they lasted, they were magnificent. Some of them were certainly better than others, some benefited from a stronger focus, while others stretched the boundaries of their own definitions to come up with something worthwhile.

Despite the massive size of the books, they were filled with short, snappy stories, and if one was dull, the reader could just go onto the next. It was series that truly rewarded dipping into at random.

The first out of the gate was The Big Book Of Urban Legends, and while it was one of the least factual books in the series, it was also one of the most entertaining, as the wit of long-time comic writer Robert Loren Fleming combined with the knowledge and passion of urban legend chronicler Jan Harrold Brunvald to produce a smart and funny series of short comic fables. The book also had an air of genuine creepiness around it, helped by the dark style of artists with a huge range of styles, from Howard Chaykin to Shary Flenniken

The series took its first major turn towards actual facts with the next book, the Big Book of Weirdos. While not as absolutely compelling as its Urban Legends predecessor, the volume was still packed with fascinating tales of the lives of Caligula, Henry Ford and the Marquis de Sade. These stories made great reading, even if the sheer repitiveness of much of the weirdness made it more of a book to dip into, rather than read in one go.

The scope was widened a little for the next volume, The Big Book of Death, which was another book that probably shouldn’t be read in one sitting, if only because it could bring on a disturbing bout of existential angst as readers become acutely aware of their own mortality. Still, writer Bronwyn Carlton managed to treat the darkest of subjects with the lightest of touches and tales of the guillotine, mad murders and weird burial methods made for interesting reading.

The Big Book of Conspiracies remains the high point of the entire series, as it captured the ultimate paranoia of the 1990s with a good dose of wit and charm. Doug Moench went through every major conspiracy of the 20th century, and in a remarkable feat, pulled them all together into one giant narrative, looking at the ultimate conspiracy of aliens and spooks.

It’s still a cracking read, a decade after it promised we would end up behind barbed wire fences, it’s just a shame that Moench didn’t bring the light touch he showed in this book to the Batman comic he was writing at the time. At the very least, he had a grand conspiracy comic in him that would have made The Invisibles look like a masterpiece of non-fiction.

Legendary cartoonist Gahan Wilson gave the Big Book of Freaks an odd dignity, as people with odd and interesting deformities were shown first and foremost to be people with their own pride and dignity. Most similar to the Weirdos big book, as it speed through fascinating lives in concise biographies, Wilson’s stories were, as ever, informative and fun.

The Big Book of Little Criminals was the first non-obvious title in the series, but proved just as interesting as any other book, as it dealt with less well-known subjects as its predecessors. Minor mobster and incompetent thieves finally got to shine, even if the vast majority of them came to a sticky end.

The next few volumes, the Big Book of Hoaxes, the Big Book of Thugs and the Big Book of Losers, all have their own charms, even as the series fell into a fairly predictable pattern. There is still a lot to like and still a lot to learn. Each book is more than worthwhile, but the format was starting to get a little stale.

Doug Moench came back with a semi-sequel to his conspiracies book with the Big Book of the Unexplained, which carried some of his pet theories forward, while also taking a much wider focus. This broader view meant it wasn’t quite as successful as its predecessor, but it also gave Monech the opportunity to cover more esoteric subjects, or just plain strange experiences with Bigfoot.

Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner brought another strong vision with his Big Book of Matyrs, even if this is the one volume that suffers the most from repetition. After a while, the sight of seeing good and just people continually going to their deaths gets a little hard to churn through. The sheer horror that many of them endured is almost unimaginable, although the levels of faith on display are extraordinary.

The last half dozen books covered a dazzling array of subjects. Sometimes, that repetition factor began getting a little high, as the Big Book of Vice and the Big Book of Scandal tended to overlap in subject matter. The Big Book of Grimm was one of the simplest, exposing the disgusting origins of many of our favourite fairy tales, while unearthing a few gems that have been largely forgotten. The Big Book of the Weird Wild West, the Big Book of the 70s and the Big Book of Bad were all so massively wide-focused that the individual writers were able to indulge their own interests, even if they could have benefited from a little more detail.

And it all ended with the 70s book, with the aforementioned Wild Women remaining in limbo. Going back through them now, it is easy to see why the series faded away, even beyond the obvious fragilities of the comic market.  With such a huge number of pages to fill, some worthwhile stories get lost in the crush and the interest inevitably flags.
Still, one thing that should never be overlooked is the artists who came in to illustrate these weird and wonderful tales. While restrained by the strict nine-panel grid formula, there were still some extraordinary art from some extraordinary artists. Over the dozen or so books in the series, the artists involved include the following stars:

Kevin Maguire, Dick Giordano, Mike Zeck, David Lloyd, Eddie Campbell, Bryan Talbot, Walt Simonson, Kevin O’Neill, Trina Robbins, Carlos Ezquerra, Frank Quitely, Steve Dillon, Phil Winslade, Joe Orlando, Simon Fraser, Richard Sala, Fred Hembeck, Roger Langridge, Linda Medley, Barron Storey, Teddy Kristiansen, Peter Kuper, Richard Case, Colin MacNeil, Joe Staton, Marshall Rogers, Kieron Dwyer, Bob Fingerman, Ivan Brunetti, Sergio Aragones, Colleen Doran, Sam Glanzman, Gahan Wilson, Paul Guinan, Joe Sacco, Rick Geary, D’Israeli, Ty Templeton, Rian Hughes, Eric Shanower, Jason Lutes, Howard Cruse, Paul Pope, Mick McMahon, Mark Badger, Art Adams, Evan Dorkin, Al Davison, Keith Giffen and the mighty Hunt Emeron. 

If you don’t like many of the names in that list, then you’re reading the wrong blog, friend.

With so many great artists with their own unique styles working on so many interesting subjects, the Big Books are still stylish pieces of work. And with so much information presented in such an entertaining manner, they are an valuable addition to any comic collection and are a constant source of amusement.

If nothing else, they reinforce the old idea that truth will always be stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In dreams

You know you've got it bad when you dream of finding the perfect stash of sought-after comic books, only to feel real and true despair when you wake up and realise it never actually happened.

A few years back I got absolutely obsessed with 2000ad again, for the fifth time in my life. My time away from the Galaxy's Greatest Comic had been longer than usual this time and I had more than eight years of catching up to do. Unfortunately, with less issues being shipped into New Zealand than in days past, there were a lot less available on the second hand market. And while I managed to buy literally hundreds of individual comics in a short space of time, there are still some massive gaps, some missing issues that I've never been able to find anywhere.

Now, I regularly dream of stumbling across a big old pile of those missing issues. Nothing else in the dream is constant, it's always different imaginary stores in imaginary versions of familiar towns, but that big old pile of 2000ad goodness is the same every time. It's become such a regular event that the last I time I had this dream I became aware I was dreaming as soon as I saw them, managing to get all that idiotic despair at not actually buying some treasured comics out of the way even before I woke up. (And indulging in some harmless lucid dreaming in the seconds before consciousness crashed in.)

The actual details of these dreamed comics never extend much further than the covers, although one time I did get the chance to read one of those stories, featuring a Zenith/Judge Dredd crossover. It was awful, although it had some lovely Steve Yeowell art. I don't know what this means.

But that ain't so bad, waking up to find I still got those holes in my collection. I still got time to find those missing comics and there have been two or three occasions when I have stumbled across a huge pile of cheap 2000ads for sale and I have gone a little overboard (especially the time I had to smuggle more than 150 issues across the Tasman Sea.)

In time you can get hold of damn near anything, provided it isn't ridiculously scarce and has never been reprinted. The worst part about dreams like this are when you discover comics that never existed in the first place. Some of them are just as awful as that Zenith/Dredd tale, where my brain has become the world's worst cocktail mixer, taking two great flavours and blending them into a big old pile of crap. But some of them...

It's stupid, but I still ache for comics that I held in my dream-hand, only to have them evaporate with the return to the real world: A horror fable by Dave Sim that featured dog men and bat women, Jack Kirby's Solaris, a collection of Bryan Talbot's Doctor Who stories, a lost Dracula story by Grant Morrison and Joe Kubert, and The Egoriffic Adventures of Homage Jones by Mark Waid and Alan Davis. None of these ever existed outside the mad misfirings of my subconscious mind, but that doesn't mean I still don't mourn their unavailability.

It's similar to the feeling I had the first time I read Seth's Wimbledon Green, with mythical comics passing into legend in the story itself. The question of whether it ever existed in the first place is almost, but not quite, overlooked in the narrative. It's the ultimate dream comic within the story, where the act of owning the physical object drives the increasingly bizarre and oddly moving tale.

Dylan Horrock's superb Hicksville also stirs up the same emotions, in the finest possible way. The library in the lighthouse, where the greatest comic creators of all time have been allowed to run wild and create the epics they always wanted to tell, but were unable to find a place for in the horribly commercial world of comic publishing. To read of these comics that never were is to be reminded of the worst aspects of the business, but, more importantly, it also brings to mind all the lost opportunities of the medium, of what could have been created.

All the dreams of wonder that never became anything, and will never exist outside libraries of dreams. These libraries exist in every one of us, and are a crucial resource that should be cherished.

Sometimes stories and songs can emerge from the collective unconscious depository, and while we are only left with the pale reflections of the dreamt tale, we must be satisfied with what was created. We can wake up from the dream, but we don't have to let it fade.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

End of the Week

Dawn of the Dead

Whenever anybody brings up the original Dawn of the Dead, horror purists delight in boring the shit out of everybody by talking about it very loudly and with great authority.

If they're not claiming that the remake has thrills, where the original has a heart, they will be proving with solid evidence and diagrams that it should have ended with the deaths of everybody involved.

They may have a point, but they are still wrong. The fact that the film ends with that thinnest slice of hope in the bleakest of takes turns the ending right around.

Five minutes from the end of the movie and it's all turned to hell. The shopping mall fortress, bought with a huge sacrifice, has been breached and the dead are coming for the living, led by a recently-deceased main character.

All hope is gone. Peter, the staunch and angry hero who always did what he had to do to survive, is tired and can't go on. He's shut out the horror of the new world for so long, but he can't do it any more. Telling Fran to go, he leaves her to be the last woman standing as he moves to a nearby room and prepares himself for death.

Fran gets up to the helicopter, but just sits there, as the dead come closer. The final survivor, she isn't sure if she has that strength to go on, especially when she is about to bring another life into the world. So after hearing Peter shoot himself in the head, she ends the film by thrusting her head up into the helicopter blades, killing her instantly and confirming that she won't return to plague the world.

This ending was still part of the plan late into the making of the film, with various documents and photographs confirming the creation of prosthetics and script changes. But then Romero changed his mind, and decided to have a happier ending. Whether he was forced into it by producers who would not stand with a bleak ending, or whether he made the move for artistic reasons, it was still a fantastic idea.

As the dead close in on Peter, and he's about to pull the trigger, he snaps and you can almost see the thought bubble appear over his head: “Nah! Fuck it! I ain't going out like that!”

Firing the bullet he was about to use to end his own life into the face of the nearest zombie, Peter makes his break for survival, punching and kicking his way past a horde of zombies, the music swelling to preposterous degrees. With impossible skill, he fights his way to the roof, just manages to get on the chopper with Fran and together they escape the death below, and literally ride off into the sunrise.

Giving horror endings a bleak denouncement is part of the genre and still lives on today in films like The Mist or a plethora of low-budget gorefests. But the fact that Fran and Peter escape to the end credits is one last blast of hope into the film, right at the end.

They don't have much fuel, and there is a good chance they will soon die anyway, but they will go down fighting for their last breath. They are alive and following the one impulse they have over the creatures that overrun their world: the need to survive.

In a world of the dead, they are alive.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I still love this shit.

Evan Dorkin recently said that if his 12 year old self could see him now, he kick his older self in the crotch and tell him to get the fuck outta here. All these movies based on Marvel comics and old cartoons that are halfway decent and he doesn’t even bother to see them. It’s the House of Ennui after a while and who cares if Captain America is dead? It’s never been the same since Kirby left.

I don’t want to end up like that, but it’s happening. I’m an absolute fiend for a good blockbuster and I still couldn’t be arsed going to see Transformers and the Fantastic Four movies. They just looked too mediocre and life is too short.

I still went to see Watchmen as soon as I could and I liked it a lot.

And there is always something good to look forward. A good blockbuster trailer sells you on the movie in two and a half minutes. I still remember the rush of the first Independence Day trailer and its impact on a theatre, or seeing the preview for The Matrix during a rugby adbreak.

There are three films that I know shouldn’t be good for me, but I can’t help myself. They’re all based on known qualities that have disappointed in the past and I still watch the latest trailers three or four time a week and never get sick of them. I’ll be there on opening night, if I can.

 * * *

X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I shouldn’t because the last x-film was boring. It went nowhere interesting and everybody involved mixed up looking intense with looking bored. And they killed Cyclops. Poor Scott.

I was always liked Cyclops best. He was a bit of a jerk, got awfully smug and treated his women badly. He would whine about the unfairness of the world. But you could always count on him in a fight. His tactics were legendary. He was Mr Cool under real pressure and a master at working out the angles.

And then there he is in a new Wolverine film, blasting away with his eye lasers. Fucking-a. That’s still an impressive power when Scott goes all mental on it.

Other than that, the bit that really sold me in the last trailer is the part where the dude shoots Wolverine in the motherfuckin’ face and just PISSES HIM OFF. That gives me the dorkiest chubby in all creation.

It looks like it might go for deeper waters than the idea really deserves, leading to lots of shots of people looking haunted and mournful and shit. Fortunately, this seems to be balanced out by some mental motorcycle madness and people with incredible abilities beating the shit out of each other.

Also, exploding helicopters. So, you know. Could never turn down an exploding helicopter.

 * * *

Terminator: Salvation

I shouldn’t because the last Terminator film was boring. It went nowhere the franchise hadn’t been before and was a bit confused. And forgot to use the awesomest music that ever awesomed.

And then the new one has Sam Worthington doing something interesting and more exploding helicopter things and Christian Bale being all intense and people getting rifle butts to the face and I still have a secret crush on the Charlie’s Angels films.

Oh God, I hope they use the music, in some way. If they don’t, I will not like it.

 * * *

Star Trek

I shouldn’t because the last Star Trek film was boring. I can’t even remember what it was called and to be honest, I haven’t got excited about Star Trek since 1992, when I bought a special TV aerial for $78 just to see some new Next Generation.

But fucking hell. That last trailer? That’s a work of goddamn art, that is.

It’s sexy. It’s loud. It’s got Kirk shagging alien birds and taking charge. It’s colourful. It’s because ‘James T Kirk was a great man. But that was another life’. It’s seeing these wonderful, wonderful characters built up over decades of stories, in their absolute prime. Kicking arse and writing their own legends.

It’s Bruce Greenwood, who I always knew would make a fantastic old guy, double-fucking-daring Kirk to be a man. It’s John Cho, bringing it with a sword to save the universe, Simon Pegg, bringing it with the charm and Karl Urban, bringing it with the best brow in modern cinema. It’s the unfamiliarity of Pine and Quinto, letting them inhabit their new roles. That cheeky salute Pine chucks out, or the steely and logical determination that Quinto looks to have mastered. It’s everything I like about big, loud space movies.

When I was seven, I walked 11 kays to go se Star Trek 2 and it was fucking worth it. I raged against the world when I missed Star Trek VI at the cinema and had to wait six goddamn months for a video viewing.

I would do the same for the new one if I could.

And I can’t. I won’t be able to for two weeks after its global release. It’s killing me inside. I try to pretend it doesn’t and sometimes I even convince myself.

* * *

(Dorian is so much better at these things.)

I’m also looking forward to Inglorious Basterds, because that rush I got from Reservoir Dogs still hasn’t faded; Public Enemies, because Michael Mann is Always Good; and Crank 2 because it’s JASON STATHAM.  Everything else can wait for $1 DVD night.

Oh man, I hope I never get sick of big, loud movies with a bit of brain, charm and energy. It’s good to have something to look forward to. It’s the crazy shit that shows us crazy sights that help make life worth living.

And if I get sick of that, I am totally punching my future self in the balls.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Last night The Invisibles saved my life.

This is the way the word ends.

* * *

Sometime in 2000, I make my friend Brian drive me 200 kilometres one wet Friday night after work, so I can get the last issue of The Invisibles. Working on a delivery dock at the town’s biggest department store lets me get away early if I need to and we’re in Christchurch by seven.

I get drunk in the car on wine with a Millennium label and we all get stoned in the Port Hills as usual before heading back home. I’m saving the comic for the right moment.

When we get back, I lose it in the back seat of the car and panic, before finding it under a blanket. I take it inside and think about reading it.

I don't want to.

I don't want it to be over.

* * *

I don't have a job, or a girlfriend, or a home. But I do have the first three issues of volume three and read them over and over and over again.

Philip Bond is the sexiest artist alive and I feel free.

It's 1999.

* * *

The first issue of The Invisibles was released in mid-1994. I was 19 at the time. This explains a lot.

* * *

I give all of volume one to one of my best friends after he has devoured Watchmen and Sandman and all the usual suspects.

When he gives it back to me, he tells me his entire flat thought the comic was evil.

I don't give him any more to read. I don't give The Invisibles to anybody else after this. 

Let them find out for themselves.

 * * *

Walking to work on a cold winter morning, and the streets are empty and slick with last night’s rain. A taxi goes past and I see the reflection of its sign in the shop window of a second hand bookstore. It all comes flooding back and I arrive at work a bit dazed.

It’s all right. I’m young and alive.

* * *

 “Ha ha! Not today, you bastards! Not today.”

* * *

For a while there, I buy into the entire philosophy. Wanking for magic and playing around with the esoteric. It works, just like they said it would. The everyday starts dripping with significance. Every morning there is a turbocharge of unlikeliness and I drink it all up.

But, as usual, I take it all a bit far. I become convinced that the awful things that are happening to good people I know are a direct result of this dicking about.

So I stop.

I still won't have an Ouija board in the house.

* * *

Morrison turns me on to all sorts of music, and most of the time he’s right. Except for Kula Shakur, who are fucking rubbish.

I’ll read his stuff until the day I die, but I honestly did think a little less of Morrison when he said My Chemical Romance were one of his favourite bands. They’re fine lads and all, they’ve just got a ways to go yet.

* * *

All things considered, The Invisibles is the best three in the morning comic I’ve ever read.

* * *

I’m genuinely and profoundly moved by that bit where Superman Gold turns back and winks at the end of DC: 1,000,000. It’s all the fucking Invisibles, it’s all fucking connected.

In fact, an issue of JLA that features an explosion in San Francisco is mirrored by the same thing happening in The Invisibles. In two comics I got on the same fucking day. This must have been planned.

* * *

I like Preacher a lot more to start off with, there is a lot less pretension in the Ennis/ Dillon comic. The two comics start up at the same time and Preacher has Arseface and TC and Cody, while The Invisibles has only got smelly France and that bald git. It’s Best Man Fall that does it.

When this comic comes out, the local Film Society is having a Lindsay Anderson retrospective. The White Bus, This Sporting Life, If… and the transcendental O Lucky Man. Two great tastes that go together.

It’s Audrey I still feel sorry for, even though I know it all works out for her. Poor Bobby never stood a chance. Ordinary people, their lives all messed about and chopped up by forces happening far beyond their comprehension.

Every henchmen has a story, every dead body had its dreams. It takes King Mob a long, long time to realise this and think of something better.

* * *

Sitting on the beach, staring out to sea and I know that Britpop is dead, and I don’t know whether to blame Pulp for This is Hardcore, a song that strangely horrifies me, or Grant Morrison for v2 #16.

I staple a photocopy of the cover of that issue to my work cubicle, along with a couple of panels from Flex Mentallo.

I’m convinced that King Mob is going to die some time in the last half of volume two and am genuinely concerned for Morrison’s health if that happens. I really am taking this all too seriously.

* * *

And in the park, down by the duck pond where I memorised bits of Kublai Khan, I read about King Mob blowing up a mansion and giving ontological terrorism a go. For some reason, I've never felt more alone, but I’m glad to see Mob is still here. The wretched paranoia that soaked the series gives way to pre-millenial freedom.

All I want to do is dance.

* * *

Sometimes I think I'm still there in that park, and on that beach. Any second now I'm going to realise the last 10 years were just an Invisibles illusion, and there is no such thing as time.

* * *

It's six o'clock on a Sunday morning, and Steve Yeowell is making me feel a little sick. I've got the second issue on my lap as I sit in my car, but I haven't turned the page. The sun is coming up over a silent Dunedin, and every time I look down, a poor homeless girl is horribly murdered.

My future is unwritten, but I don't feel right.

* * *

A month or so before that last issue, I'm sitting on a bench in the centre of town, reading the penultimate comic. The street is busy, with hundreds of people walking around in all their beautiful, stinking glory. I finish the comic in 10 minutes and have to sit there and have a think about it.

Two hours later I'm driving home and I realise who saved King Mob in the phone booth, and a new pattern is formed.

* * *

Time is never as flexible as I think it might be.

* * * 

Phil Jiminez’s art takes a while to get used to, his art like flexible waterbodies, flowing through the story. When things break down and the Hand of Glory is activated, his work goes with it.

Sometimes, it feels like the story is all happening around the edges of something big and wonderful, something that is never quite seen. It moves through the narrative like the ghost of a whale, occasionally bumping up against the narrative and sending everything apeshit.

* * *

There’s something wrong with Fanny’s trip to the other side in Sheman. I still feel guilty about my initial reaction to the story, when I got confused and sickened by stupid stuff, back before I stopped being a dick.

* * *

Not being a dick has worked out surprisingly well in the past five years. Thanks, Invisibles!

* * *

The three covers for Entropy in the UK remain my favourite covers of the entire 1990s.

* * *

It’s cold on the roof, but I’m wrapped up warm. There is beer here and a the bass beat from a live band coming through the building and good conversation and I can just about read about Boy’s origin in the orange glow of the street light.

It’s How I Became Invisible and the chills and conspiracies in the story seep into my bones. In three hours I’ve passed out in the hallway again and I’m so ashamed. I just can’t do anything about it.

Then I’m going home again, counting off the steps and pavement slabs to keep the legs moving. I’ve lost my glasses and my booze and I think I gave my wallet to Greg earlier, but I’m not sure. I have an iron grip on The Invisibles #20. Dignity comes and goes, unlike comic books. 

Some things are worth holding on to.

* * *

I started thinking about The Invisibles again a couple of days ago and ever since then fate has been fucking with me, unlikely coincidences are all over the bloody place. This is usually what happens.

* * *

Suddenly …

* * *

I read most of The Last Temptation of Jack while standing in line for a quarter pounder at McDonald’s. It’s all so transcendent and I forget how to order when I get to the front of the queue. How can you decide what burger to eat when it feels like a road map for time travel has just downloaded into your head?

* * *

It’s hot and humid and Lord Fanny never looked sexier than on the cover to #14 of the second volume. This one is all about the sex and I’m still a bit messed up about that stuff. The adolescent drive fading and I’m still just as stupid.

* * *

When I’m 15, I make the conscious decision not to skip to the end of a novel for the first time, halfway through A Feast Unknown by Philip Jose Farmer. Before this, I’d ruined the ending for myself in nearly every book I’ve read up till then. I knew who fell in battle at the end of The Hobbit, three hundred pages before I got there.

And then I realized that is was better to read all the way through and it made reading a lot more enjoyable. I still have to stop myself from spoiling too much, but I’ve been getting better.

Ten years after Tarzan and Doc savage crossed cocks, I realize that while it takes a week for the comics to get to me, the internet has information right fucking now and I have to stop myself from looking at The Bomb to see how volume two ends. I manage, most of the time.

Ten years after that again, and I still check in on Barbelith in a twice-weekly basis. There is some marvellous conversation there, even if I could never figure out the politics.

* * *

I must be fucked up, because that Backstreet Boys song is actually all right and I want to dance to it. I look like a dick, but that’s because I keep seeing the Harlequin out of the corner of my eye.

What the hell was in that tab anyway?

* * *

I’ve just pissed off another friend who won’t speak to me for another eight years and Grant Morrison might be dead tomorrow. Mark Millar has taken over the comic's letter page, providing regular updates and it’s a good shot of mortality for this 22-year-old reader. For a while there, it really looks like he might not make it as his face is eaten by a virus.

What would have happened to comics then?

* * *

Last night, The Invisibles saved my life. It’s made me a better person and while there are a lot of comics that have done that, nobody does it better.

* * *

 “What's this?”

“It's a new comic by Grant Morrison. A Vertigo ongoing.”

“I loved Zenith.”

“Steve Yeowell is doing the first couple of issues.”

“I'll get that.”

Peaking on life, off to the pub every weekend, out and about, shaking it all around. If you don't have the best time of your life getting out there at 19, you missed a lot.

Need new comics fix, X-Men just not doing it for me any more. Discovered Love and Rockets last year, got a little obsessive over that, and looking for something good and new.

The Invisibles? Shit yeah, I'll give that a go.

* * *

I cave in and read the last issue in half an hour, savouring every crinkle in Quietly's art, drinking in the talk of a narrative you can catch like a cold. I feel the love of the AllNOW and reach out for that last full stop that goes right off the page.

It's four o’clock in the morning when I finish, and the house, the town, the whole fucking world is quiet. I sit there for another three hours, patting my cat, and by the end of it, he’s so floppy his bones must have turned to mush.

I don't want to go to bed.

I don't want to do anything.

I don't know what I want.

* * *

And then I start up all over again.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Don't care

The weird and wonderful world of comics is like any medium, full of odd little controversies and big heated arguments. Some of these things are so ridiculously trivial, they make us all look bad. Others have a direct bearing on the future of the entire profession and ask fundamental questions about its possibilities.

Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, I find myself unable to give a flying fuck about the following:

* The fate of Scans Daily.

* The price of Kramers Ergot

* Statues of Mary Jane

* How to get kids reading comics

* What’s going to happen to webcomics

* Anything to do with Diamond

* What last weekend at the box office means.

* The definition of graphic novels. (What’s so fucking bad about calling them comics?)

* Bookscan numbers

* The political controversy that spits up every time a newspaper cartoonist draws something remotely dodgy

* The debate over variant covers. (There is no debate, they are retarded.)

* Pulping comics over something that isn¹t even remotely dodgy

* Boycotting a title. For any reason.

* Pictures that show tentacles in close proximity to a woman’s breasts

* Company insiders offering juicy tips

* Who is going to play your favourite comic character in the upcoming movie

I like comics that make me laugh and think. I don't care about anything that does not result in this. Neither should you.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The highest concepts

Vertigo has carved itself a respectable slice of the comics industry. A lot of the comics that have been released under the Vertigo logo in the past 15 years are pretty rubbish, but they have been outweighed by some absolute gems, from vast sagas spanning time and space to idiosyncratic mini series and one shots.

These days, it is facing far more competition from other publishers who have seen the benefits of the Vertigo model, and gone after the same customers with quality comics. The benefits of creative freedom and ownership that Vertigo pioneered are obvious to everybody.

Vertigo does still have a few advantages over its competitors. It has access to the magnificently deep pockets of its parent conglomerate and has established itself as an imprint that can handle lower readers on its periodicals if the collected editions pay off.

There has always been strong editorial guidance at Vertigo, with Karen Berger leading from the front since the very beginning. But it’s the type of editorial control that offers creators the freedom to tell the sort of stories they want to tell, with minimal interference outside a vaguely guiding hand.

Vertigo has also benefited from a series of titles that have been the spine of the line. Each title has had a finite life as its primary creators strive towards a specific climax, but while they are all completely idiosyncratic and irreplaceable, they have all still been succeeded by another comic that has been steadily picking up readers and become the new success story of the Vertigo brand.

The first to hold that brand together was the mighty Sandman. A slow burner to start off with, it kicked into life somewhere around the Season of Mists and showed that there was an audience that was hungry for comics that didn’t treat them like an 8-year-old moron. Comics that offered more than the traditional slugfests and broad emotions.

And once Sandman faded away, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were there to pick up the sales slack with Preacher, a comic that couldn’t be any more different than Sandman, but which inherited its role as the biggest Vertigo title. There were certainly other popular series running at the same time, including Grant Morrison’s Invisibles and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. But while these books had the most devoted of fans, they didn’t make that popular connection with audiences that preacher or Sandman had made.

And when Preacher reached the end of its run, there were several other series that have been touted as the new backbone. Fables has certainly grown in popularity over the years it has been running, with some new spin-offs of its own, while Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets have both completed massively successful runs, leaving behind a body of work that continues to attract new readers.

What is most interesting about Vertigo’s attempts to build a successful platform title is that for a company that is so heavily reliant on the burst of new ideas and fresh takes on old stories, it is also one that relies heavily on projects that have a single clear idea to use as a selling point.

Y: The Last Man, DMZ and 100 Bullets are three recent examples that have been built on rock solid ideas, even as each series went off in a completely different direction.  They were launched on the basic ideas of the last man in a world of women, a 21st century war on the streets of Manhattan and the offer of righteous and unpunishable vengeance, before turning into meditations on vastly different subjects.

It’s the high concept idea that Hollywood has fallen in love with over the last couple of decades that gets these series going, before the creators are able to take them into more idiosyncratic areas. If it can’t be summed up in one snappy sentence, Hollywood producers usually don’t want to hear about it, and comic fans seem to display that same reluctance.

There have been many ongoing series launched by Vertigo, only to sink without a trace before reaching their second birthday. And while some of those certainly bring the quality, their relative failure to connect with audiences can often be attributed to the vagueness of their premises.

Summing up interesting and complex works like The Exterminators, Testament and Crossing Midnight in a single high-concept idea was never easy, and each title did not provide enough of a hook to pull readers in.

That hook is imperative for bringing in new readers, but swiftly becomes unimportant as each series finds its feet. Nobody cares if 100 Bullets went years without offering anybody one of his special briefcases, but that one good idea was enough to get things moving before Azzarello got deeper into his own unique conspiracy.

Y: The Last Man has stayed a lot closer to its selling point, if only because the comic saw the entire social and political strata of the world forever changed. But even then, Brian K Vaughn has managed to go off on his own wild tangents that have little to do with the overall idea, but everything to do with the characters who inhabit this strange new world.

The One Good Idea isn’t absolutely necessary, and Hellblazer is one example of a long-running and successful comic that has relied more on the individual visions of its creators than any high concept. The idea of a working class mage remains a core part of the comic after more than 250 issues, but the hook is more about the creators that have come and gone during Constantine’s run.

It’s a little depressing that an imprint that has prided itself on its intellectual reach has had to resort to short, snappy concepts, but it is still bringing in new readers looking for something a little different, and that’s always worth something.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can't be arsed!

Although the Tearoom of Despair tries to have something to say three times a week, sometimes we just can't be arsed.

Fortunately, we can always nick something from 1990 Grant Morrison, writing his Drivel column in Speakeasy magazine #107:


If any of you bothered to read the latest issue of ‘Amazing Heroes’ you will have come across a rather intriguing editorial. This editorial offered a dozen or so points of evidence which proved fairly conclusively that all the writers in British comics are actually only two people. According to ‘Amazing Heroes’ there is the guy who writes ‘Judge Dredd’ and there is the guy who does post-modern things to DC superheroes. Pointing to the undeniable similarity of names like Pat Mills, Pete Milligan, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano – who “doesn’t quite fit the theory but you know what I mean” – the ‘Amazing Heroes’ editorial staff make the startling claim that all these people are, in fact, one single person. Preposterous, isn’t it?

Except that it’s true.

I can’t go on anymore, living this vile lie. I confess, I confess. I am Neil Gaiman. I am Alan Moore. I am Jamie Delano and Pat Mills. ‘Grant Morrison’ is only another of my fictional alter-egos. I am also the richest man in Britain and I work a 24-hour day. It’s all true. What more can I do? I promise to wear a hair-shirt and regularly flagellate myself in front of a blown-up photograph of Cannon and Ball. So the thing is, now that you know I’m Alan Moore, don’t you think you should all rush out and buy ‘Doom Patrol’? It’s only selling 34,000 copies you see, which really isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the author of ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Killing Joke’… and ‘Sandman’, and ‘Hellblazer’, and ‘Marshal Law’ etc etc.

So, now that we know who writes all the British-based comics, I think we deserve to be told the name of the person who writes all those awful American-based comics. This person is an affront to human intelligence, and I demand that we find him now and feed him at once to a herd of ranting Rottweilers.

* * *

And for good measure, here is 1990 Warren Ellis in the same magazine, writing a review of The Agent, a long-forgotten Marvel comic by James Hundall and John Ridgeway:

Mummy bought me this big comic. It's got James Bond in, only he's called something else. Pictures are by some old man, done with his toenails. I am five, and the comic Mummy bought me is crap.

* * *

I don't know who owns these words, although the copyright probably belongs to Morrison or Ellis or Speakeasy or somebody. Fuck it, give them to Mick Anglo.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday venting

Dear thief,

I hope that when you stole those Promethea comic books from my letterbox the other week, you appreciated what you got.

It took an extraordinary amount of effort to get those comics, and I was greatly looking forward to finally reading the entire series in one go, only for the comics to disappear in the hour they were sitting in our building's mailroom.

I just hope you appreciate the esoteric and broad vision of Moore and Williams III, and the way these fine gentleman articulate the appeal of magic and it's impact on the physical and metaphysical worlds. I hope you dig the wordplay and occult games that litter the story and the depth and human feeling of a work that makes a grasp for the divine.

But I highly fuckin' doubt it. Choke on 'em, you cock.


P.S. You can stick that Robot Chicken DVD you also stole right up your arse too.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Time's up

If I was trapped in a dangerous situation, surrounded by death and horror, and I could only call on one person to save me, I wouldn’t beg for the help of Superman or Spider-Man or the Green Hornet. I would ask for Jack Bauer.

I always forget how much I fucking adore 24. When a new season sparks up, I grudgingly watch the first couple of episodes, and then Jack does his thing, and I’m hooked for another year.

I have only ever missed one episode, the third one that ever screened. Apart from this early indiscretion, it’s a perfect viewing record. Towards the end of the season, the enthusiasm sags a little, but it’s worth hanging around to see how it goes. And then there is the break, and I start to miss the sight of Jack shooting people in the face, and the whole cycle starts up again.

Sure, on an ideological level, it’s pretty goddamn unsound, and it repeats the same plot tricks over and over again, but 24 also has some of the best action scenes I’ve ever seen on television, mixing it up with a level of intensity that is rarely seen anywhere.

After seven seasons, it has also become a fascinating study of the physiological depths a man can reach before he finally snaps. Jack Bauer has killed more people than cancer, and gets on with the job every single time. But sometimes, it just all gets a bit much for Jack and he starts to break down.

It’s usually towards the end of a season, or it could come randomly at any point. Jack will be sitting in his car, or waiting for somebody to get their shit together, and he will have a couple of minutes to really think about what he is going through.

And it hits him, all the shit he has gone through, all the horror his loved ones have had to suffer because of what he does. All the innocent people who have been slaughtered, and all the good people who have died trying to stop the horror of these long days.

And it all gets a bit much for him, and he breaks down and starts crying. He genuinely appears to be a man who just can’t take it any more, who just can’t do it. It’s too much.

And then somebody taps on his window and there is a job to do and he has to go kill somebody and he can get through it. For a few more hours at least.

It’s hard to hold a few tears against Jack. If anyone else went through what he goes through, they would be a gibbering wreck. It’s also hard to hold anything against him when he also happens to be the baddest motherfucker on the planet.

If you fuck with Jack, he will kill you. If you fuck with his friends and family, he will kill you. At one point in the show, he actually died, only to come back to life and kill the people who murdered him. If you are stopping him from completing a mission that will save innocent lives, you are dead if you get within reach of him.

Jack is the living embodiment of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. As improbably as his survival is, he is still the closest thing to a real-world Batman. For years now he has pushed himself to the limit for his job.

His propensity for torture is easily the most controversial aspect of the show, especially when it filters through into the real world as justification for a horrendous act. But in the context of the programme and the events it depicts, torture is the only option, and as horrible as it is, it’s never anywhere near as bad as the possible ramifications, usually involving a nuclear or biological weapon.

The interesting thing about Jack torturing somebody is that it’s become such a convenient plot point that even the characters are constantly commenting on it now. A torture scene might give up the information that Jack needs to get to the next level of the game, but it has also become a deeper metaphor for US policy, one that can be read in a variety of interesting ways. Jack has never enjoyed torturing people, but sometimes it’s his only option, and he has suffered mightily for it.

Sometimes the tables do get turned on him, and he is the one strapped to a table with metal sticking into his arm, fighting off electrical and chemical agonies. In the 24 universe, this is some justification for Jack’s actions, as people who clip jumper leads to somebody’s testicles can’t really complain when they face the same fate.

As hard as it is to see old Jack sizzle under torture, there is always the comfort that comes with the absolute assurance that he is going to escape and reap some righteous vengeance. All the bad guys have to do is turn their back on him for a second, or let their guard down for an instant, and he’ll have them. And his vengeance will be just and swift.

The same thing goes for any capture. Jack will always escape. Stuck on a plane heading for South America with a cabin full of heavily armed drug dealers, handcuffed and suffering a particularly nasty bout of heroin addiction? No worries, Jack will be out of the cuffs, take down a couple of bad guys using only his ankles and have a gun pointed at the head bad guy in a matter of minutes. Guaranteed.

It’s this predictability that can sour the experience of watching 24, but it’s also oddly comforting. Jack will always get the job done, even if it takes some huge sacrifice. There will always be a mole in CTU. Jack’s bosses will never understand that everything would be so much simple if they listened to Jack.

Anybody who has watched more than a couple of episodes will recognise these tricks, and the show’s insistence of slapping on crazy plot twists at the top of every hour does little to conceal them. In fact, it would be a twist if there were no twists.

But still, 24 hasn’t got by for seven seasons without shaking things up. The supporting characters have the life expectancy of a cancerous mayfly, and the status quo didn’t extend much further than Jack himself. The latest season has already dumped the high-tech impersonality of CTU headquarters, and I never realised how much I missed that distinctive ring tone of CTU until it was gone.

Every year, I am relieved to see Chloe or Kim or Audrey or somebody else Jack cares about make it to the end. It was also nice to see Tony resurrected. It’s easy to forget that when the series started Tony was the dick in the office, but his refusal to betray Jack to a bigger dick later in the first season redeemed him, and was the first indication that 24 had depths that went further than the gimmick concept promised.

The realtime thing might be a gimmick, but it’s been a massively effective one, that is still effectively used by the creators on a regular basis. Hear any sort of time limit come up in discussions and you can guarantee that there is a climax coming three episodes down the line. It does get a little weird that the characters don’t seem to notice that events seem to reach a head at the top of every hour, but when Jack tells CTU that he’s 20 minutes away from the terrorist headquarters halfway through the episode, the audience know they have been promised a kickass action scene in the last 10 minutes of the episode.

And there is no middle ground here. After seven years of bombs and guns and torture, everybody knows whether they like this shit or not. If the predictability got a bit too much, you would have bailed years ago. If the entire ideology of the show is repulsive, chances are you’ve never sat through an hour of it anyway.

But every year that 24 comes back, I sit down and start watching the show, and I never miss an episode. It’s just like reading my favourite stupid comic books. I know they’re not good for me and I know they are riddled with faults, but when it’s all this much fun, I have no cause for complaints.

Besides, I don’t want to piss off Jack.  Because that opens up a whole universe of pain.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jerking around

Here at the Tearoom of Despair, we like to focus on the positive side of life in an effort to ignore the horror and the futility and the endless buttered scones.

But fixed grins and polite conversation only goes so far, and sometimes we have to let a little bile lose. Because I recently realised something after reading bits of the Sinestro Corps War too soon after slogging through a trade of Infinite Crisis.

I realised that I really, really fucking hate Superman Prime. Or Superboy Prime. Or whatever the fuck he is called.

I know I’m not supposed to like him. He’s an unrepentant killer who blames everyone else for his failings. Whenever he shows up, innocent people and the superfolk who protect them will die. He has no loyalty to anybody and will start whining whenever things start to go wrong.

But as a jerk, he just isn’t that interesting. And an annoying jerk that isn’t interesting is just an annoying jerk.

It’s surprisingly hard to create a good jerk in fiction. Coming up with a character that is selfish, foolish and utterly without morals is easy. Making the audience give a shit about that character takes true skill.

In current superhero comics, it’s a little hard to name the bigger jerk. A policy of portraying Iron Man as a total dick over the past few years has certainly elevated Tony Stark into a stone-cold wanker, and I wish I was lying when I say I’m still a little bit upset by Reed ‘Mr Sensitive’ Richard’s behaviour at Black Goliath’s funeral during Civil War.

A surprising amount of some true Marvel arseholes have also been toned down in the past few years. Megalomaniacal types such as the Kingpin, Magneto and Doctor Doom are still supreme douchebags, but have been given enough characterization over the decades to give them the complexity that makes them intriguing. The reasons for their callow disregard for their fellow man are laid bear, and their supreme egotism even starts to make sense.

In the DC universe of the new century, there is no competition for the title of biggest jerk. Despite an insistence of having characters like Batman, Green Lantern and even the mighty Superman act like complete arseholes in their own comics, it’s Superman Prime that takes the cake.

I just can’t stand him. He takes himself so damn seriously, with no sign of any wit or humour, but he’s also a crying little whine bag. He is immature, and completely lacking in any real emotion of feeling. There is no imagination there, he just shows up, a whole bunch of superheroes dogpile on him, and then he pisses off again, only to suddenly appear again a few more months down the line, torturing a fifth-dimensional imp or something.

Ultimately, it’s just another boring character in a universe that is choked with them. He might be a fiendishly clever metaphor for comic book readers who take the whole thing too seriously, but fuck those dorks too.  I don’t like them in real life, why would I want to read about a super-powered representation of them?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the great bad guys of modern superhero comics are almost tragic figures, fighting back against a world that has treated them badly, there is still a place for the unrepentant bad guy. Somebody who moves the plot forward through the power of his mighty jerkwadness. It’s just vital to make that character somebody worth reading about.

When it comes to making lovable jerks, one medium has more success stories than any other. In the half-hour sit-com format, it is almost mandatory to have that one character that gets all the laughs by being a bigger arsehole than anybody else.

But even in this corner of modern fiction, there is one jerk that stands above all others. A jerk who is so selfish he transcends the emotion, a man who cares only for himself and doesn’t worry one bit about who has to suffer for his own gain. Even in a show that basically relied on everybody acting like a bit of a jerk, he remained the undisputed king.

I’m speaking, of course, of George Costanza.

During the decade Seinfeld was on the air, George was responsible for some truly horrendous actions. He was directly responsible for the death of his fiancée through his own cheapness, and showed little remorse or genuine grief. He was magnificently selfish, and would go to any lengths to gain revenge for an imagined slight.

And yet, he was still an incredibly watchable character, one that audiences enjoyed following. Part of this was due to his sheer unpredictability, part of this was due to the fantastic dialogue the creators put in his character and part of it was the idea that as horrible as George could be, with parents like that, how could he ever turn out any different?

Whatever it was, it worked. There is a reason why George has been named the greatest sitcom character of all time. He is an incredibly funny and unpreictable character, while also being almost totally unredeemable.

Superman Prime is not funny. He is not interesting, or humourous. Once you’ve seen him rip some arms off and send poor Pantha’s head bouncing through the comic zeitgeist, there is nothing else there.

(The ironic thing is, the character’s lack of humour makes him little more than just a joke. And a joke that nobody is laughing at isn’t worth telling.)

And he just keeps coming back. One of the things that made George so watchable was the inevitable comeuppance that would come crashing down upon him. The worse his actions got, the greater the divine retribution that would come. He never learned from his mistakes, but he would always suffer for him.

But Superman Prime just drones on and on, a one-note wonder that goes nowhere, learns nothing, shows no development and manages to be intensely irritating. This is a man who wiped out an entire planet of innocent people, but has not paid any kind of price for his actions.

So if Superman Prime was booted off into Limbo, it’s hard to imagine that there would be many tears shed. He’s just another psycho in a universe full of them, and just another jerk that nobody wants to hang around with.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

DC Forever

* In an article about Secret Invasion in the good old Comic Shop News, there was an interview with Brian Bendis where the word 'Bendis' was used several dozen times. Searing the name of a brand into the minds of your clients is a legitimate marketing practise, but fucking hell, Marvel! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG

* Fans don't know what the fuck they are talking about. Stop giving them what they ask for, and give them something they don't, something that they didn't know they should be reading. Marvel! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

* Just because a character is popular, doesn't mean you should ruin that popularity by overexposing the character and diluting the appeal. Just because you can publish a thousand comics featuring Wolverine every month doesn't mean you have to. Come on, Marvel! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

* If you've got a crossover “event” comic that impacts on 80 percent of the titles you publish, make sure you've got most of it in the bag before you even think about solicitation, or it will all go horribly wrong, Marvel! Wrong!

* I have love for some of your comic books that makes me wife a bit jealous. Wrong, Marvel. VERY WRONG!

* And stop copying the others guys. THEY'RE DOING IT WRONG TOO!

*And for God's sake, don't listen to me! I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK I'M TALKING ABOUT

Marvel rules

* In an article about Final Crisis in the good old Comic Shop News, there was an interview with Dan DiDio where the word 'crisis' was used several dozen times. Searing the name of a brand into the minds of your clients is a legitimate marketing practise, but fucking hell, DC! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG

* Fans don't know what the fuck they are talking about. Stop giving them what they ask for, and give them something they didn't know they needed. DC! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

* Just because a character is popular, doesn't mean you should ruin that popularity by overexposing the character and diluting the appeal. Just because you can publish a thousand comics featuring Batman every month doesn't mean you have to. Come on, DC! YOU'RE DOING IT WONG!

*How can a Tony Daniel cover be an incentive, DC? YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG?

*If you've got a crossover “event” comic that impacts on 80 percent of the titles you publish, make sure you've got most of it in the bag before you even think about solicitation, or it will all go horribly wrong, DC! Wrong!

* I have love for some of your comic books that makes me wife a bit jealous. Wrong, DC. VERY WRONG!

* And stop copying the others guys. THEY'RE DOING IT WRONG TOO!

*And for God's sake, don't listen to me! I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT