Thursday, April 30, 2009

All around the world!

Back in 2007, two months after I got married to the prettiest girl to ever smile at me, we left New Zealand to take a look around. She wanted to see the great wonders of the world, and soak in the culture of some of the world’s greatest cities. I just wanted to see what the comic shops were like.

It was a five-month voyage, going from Australia to Japan to England to Scotland to another 18 goddamn countries in Europe in 46 days to New York to home. It was a good little trip, taking in the sights, the architecture, the culture, the terrain, and, most of all, the comics.

A couple of times I failed miserably in my attempts to hide the fact I was more excited about randomly rolling across a comic shop than I was about going inside another bloody church, but I managed to keep my impulses submerged, for the most part.

As sad as it is, the comic book store, any comic store, is still a wonderful place for me. I'm not that jaded yet. I didn't step inside my first one until I was twelve years old, and didn't live in a town where I could get along every week for another eight years. The gaps in my collection are decades old and the opportunity to go inside a new store to see if they can help me fill these holes is overpowering.

So every time I arrived in a new town or city, I would have a look around. I got quite a good system going on, using the internet, phone books and sheer instinct to track down shops, eventually bringing home a sizable haul of comics, books and odd little magazines. (Although it didn't get as bad as a two-week holiday in Sydney in 2004, coming home on the plane through massive turbulence with a carry-on bag stuffed with dozens of 2000ad issues, getting the main luggage, and another sizable pile of thrill-power, in at just over the weight limit.)

Mind you, Sydney is where it started in 2007, heading to the crusty old King's Comics for the third time in six years, finishing off a demented attempt to collect all the issues of Keith Giffen's Heckler, while getting the Julie Schwartz tribute issue where Morrison does Adam Strange. Filling in days by the beach and pool with the odd Doctor Who novel, and more train trips into town with Doctor Who magazines to buy more issues of Shade The Changing Man that I don’t really need for $1 each.

There are other comic shops around the corner, but the glorious mess of Kings makes it my favourite. A filing system that seems intended to bemuse and the surliest staff who ever surlyed, but a good place to kill a few hours. A day trip up to the beautiful city of Newcastle finds one more, but nothing special to get here, and Japan, the next stop, is where all the real action is.

That's if I could read the language. But everything everybody says about the Japanese love for their comics is there, along with fantastic ramen, convenience stores that are actually convenient, ubiquitous vending machines and young girls serving food in a French maid's uniform. There are piles upon piles of comics at every train stop, entire forests in a short stretch of the line. I still buy one, just to have a look, and the stories inside seem to have something to do with baseball, haunted houses or ferrets with nun-chucka, but that's as much as I can figure out. Further investigation is curtailed when I accidentally leave the comic in the hotel room we stay in on our last night, before heading to the UK.

The first piece of reading material I ever buy in England is a brand new issue of movie magazine Empire, the only publication I've bought every month for more than 10 years. But the comic shops in the centre of town don't disappoint, from the mighty Forbidden Planet to Orbital Comics and Gosh, each offering up their own charms. Walking in the door of Forbidden Planet is an embarrassingly emotional experience, as the 12-tear-old inside that cried when he couldn’t get to the comic shop that appeared in a Nemesis photo-story in 2000ad finally got his reward.

The wife, on the other hand, liked Orbital Comics, because it had the comfiest couch in the UK, and she was able to commiserate with other comic widows as their men got terribly excited over comics like an issue of Swing With Scooter for 20p. I also finally track down the last issue of Sandman I needed at Orbital, filling a hole in that collection that has been biting at me for more than a decade.

(Two weeks after returning to New Zealand, I see that issue in two different comic shops.)

A quick sprint around the island shows that Forbidden Planet stores are fucking everywhere and that you should never pass up issues of NextWave and Ennis' Midnighter series if you see them for sale for 50p each. The best comic buy doesn't even come from a comic shop, after a chance encounter with the Cartoon Museum, (just around the block from the great British Museum), turns up an exhibition of Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland on the walls, so I have to buy a copy from there. That heavy fucker becomes a burden in my backpack, but it’s still worth it.

Over to the continent, and any reading material is seized upon during ten-hour coach trips through countries where service station people genuinely seem to despise you and there is nothing to see out the window except other coaches full of people heading to the same places you're going.

I still can't help looking in the bookstores of every town we stop in, and still regret missing out on buying a couple of issues of the Diabolik comic that seem to be sold in every Italian store. There are plenty of odd reprints, including Civil War in Spanish or some older Batman comics that look horribly unofficial, with new covers and exotic languages hiding the same old shit behind them. Still, at least the appeal of Batman punching the Joker in the face for the billionth time is universal, even if Bats snarls his dialogue in Greek.

After a month and a half of wandering around Europe, I finally stumble across the first comic shop to sell issues in English in Amsterdam. I hadn’t been looking at them in other European cities, content to soak up sun on the beaches and explore the glorious architecture of the grand former powerhouses, but it’s still nice to see something I can read.

It's a pleasing store to wander into in an Amsterdam haze and I find that one issue of Grendel Tales I've been after forever, and a ridiculously cheap copy (Thanks, exchange rate!) of a Tom Strong book keeps me happy. There is an unfortunate piece of paranoia during a dive into the stacks of back issues in the basement, where I end up convinced it's all going a bit Hostel, but it all works out nicely in the end.

After a quick return trip to London and back to those same stores for a look, it’s off to the home of modern comics and the grand old US of A. I fail to find anything in Washington, partly because it's the weekend and everything appears closed, mainly because there are spaceships in the Smithsonian to gawk out. A quick burst of the Amtrak and we're settled in Harlem for a few days, and it's the last burst of sightseeing, made a little easier by frugal budgeting on the earlier parts of the voyage.

Wandering the streets of midtown Manhattan I manage to miss comic shops I read about 20 years ago, but soon find Jim Hanleys by the Empire State, Midtown Comics and the ubiquitous Forbidden Planet. One planned visit is made to the mighty Rocketship in Brooklyn, where co-owner Alex Cox is busy celebrating a role-playing game victory from the night before, while making some shrewd points about retailing as he puts out the new releases.

It's in New York, on the last two days of our five month voyage, that I get fill in issues of Miracleman and Swamp Thing and The Demon, odd little individual issues that I've never been able to find before. Miracleman #6 is a particularly grand score, since I have been unable to find it anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, despite easy location of the rarer later issues in the short-lived series.

The hardest part of this leg of the trip is finding a comic that screams New York, so that when I see it on the bookshelf in years to come, I will always associate it with those few days in the world’s greatest city. In the end, I go for the first arc in Ennis’ Punisher Max story and the magnificent Tales Designed To Thrizzle, both of which are just odd enough to feel right, both of which are all about that incredible city.

And then that was it. I was heading back home. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t sleep.  Still horribly hungover from the last night in Manhattan, cranky and heading back to a cold New Zealand winter with no job and no home, unable to handle the whimsy of Science of Sleep.

So I turned off the movie, got out my carry-on bag and started reading all of these wonderful, crazy comics. All around the world, they were one of my major targets, in cities I had always dreamed of visiting, in countries that staggered me with their beauty, it was these results of the global search for those issues I wanted that got me through the last part of the voyage and now sit proudly on bookshelves, taunting me with their foreignness, even though they’re exactly the same books that I can pick up from a comic store two blocks away from home.

And now it’s starting all over again, and the wife and I are off on another month long holiday. Back to London for 24 hours, another quick burn around Ireland and a few weeks in Cairo.

In two days I’ll be back in London for Free Comic Book Day, and I can’t fucking wait. The wife has already been warned that I will have to buy a copy of David Bishop’s Thrill Power Overload, an excellent history of 2000ad, although I will take on the full responsibility for lugging it around for the rest of the month. Along with a few other things I plan to pick up, it promises to be a massive pain in the arse when I’m living out of a backpack, but I don’t mind at all.

Because comics books from the other side of the world are worth it.

* * *

The Tearoom of Despair will be closed for the next few weeks as I stumble through the Great Comic Shops of the World, so you’ll have to get your buttered scones, horror and futility elsewhere.

However, please stay tuned over the coming weeks, as the keys to the shop are handed over to Mr Smith, who promises to do horrible things with the premises, every couple of days or so.

In the meantime, if any loyal readers can recommend any good comic shops in the centre of London and Dublin, especially ones that have a decent selection of recent 2000ad back issues, I would be eternally grateful.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Dylan Horrocks talk about the digital distribution of his comics and working for the man. By the end of it, my brain was a little bigger.

It’s always nice when smart people say smart things about their smart work and I always liked Horrocks’ comics. I still have several issues of Pickle that I bought from the University of Otago bookstore for three dollars sometime in the nineties. And Hicksville is a stunning slice of pure comic that has more emotional resonance than a thousand superhero comics, while still celebrating the power of all the wonderful, wonderful comics that were ever dreamed. And all those lost masterpieces, and what they brought out in people.

I’ve never really heard many comic writers or artists talk about their work in person, probably because I live a million miles away from the rest of the world. I only went to my first comic convention last year and I’m thirty-fucking-four.

The internet has made it so much easier to catch up on conversations with comic creators, with great transcripts of interviews and the move towards more video. This one is a two-edged sword, as video interviews can shatter finely tuned perceptions of what creators are actually like. It can actually be pretty demoralising to find that somebody you always thought as pretty fucking cool is a complete fucking dork.

And this perception gets a lot more skewed when it comes to bloggers and other internet personalities, especially when they take to the podcast. I wish many of them would just step away from the mike, because with the distance from the written word eroded by instant voice recognition, it can get a whole lot painful. (Although I’m now completely fucking jealous of Tucker Stone, now that he has turned out to be just as funny on video as he is in print. Motherfucker.)

However, all this didn’t mean shit when I saw Horrocks speak, because he was genuinely amusing, perceptive, bloody smart and super cool.

The first thing I liked about hearing Horrocks talk was that for such a slight guy, he has a booming and massively infectious laugh. Although he is painfully self-deprecating, he can be quite emotionally open, from laughing about the Warners office building, which was just a bit too much for a boy from Aotearoa, to admitting that the cover to the second issue of Batgirl that had his name on it nearly made him cry.

This genuine openness meant the lucky few who had shown up to him speak felt his disappointment when he told us about the moment he realised he wouldn’t be working with the Barbara Gordon character, all groovy boots and stunning red hair, when he accepted the assignment to write the Batgirl comic.

But while it was fascinating to hear about what the writers of the Batman comics wear on their feet, it was even more interesting to hear Horrocks talk about the digital distribution issues that comics need to deal with soon.

As somebody who has dabbled in corporate-owned comics while slicing out his own unique and highly respectable corner of the medium, Horrocks’ main point seems to be that it’s pointless to fight the zeitgeist. People who try to do that get crushed beneath the wheels of  history.

Horrocks delighted in pointing out that there was opposition to recorded music, as performers thought it would kill their touring livelihood, as well as hesitation against the move towards home movie viewing that was sparked by the video recorder. Go back far enough, and you’ll probably find some monks moaning about that bloody new-fangled printing press putting them out of business.

Horrocks argued that anybody who has tried to halt history has been doomed to failure, and there is no reason why this isn’t happening again in the current transition.

The most refreshing thing about Horrocks’ attitude was his sheer wicked glee at seeing his work distributed on the internet, blown away that somebody would care enough about the things he created to bother doing that.

Hicksville has been a huge success for Horrocks, translated into a dozen languages and published around the world. But he still faces the massive problem of getting his work out there. He has worked with reasonably sized comics companies that have seen his work get into the hand of thousands of readers, something that he is truly grateful for.

And yet, if the difference between self publishing mini comics and publication through an established company is a readership of thousands, what does digital distribution offer?

Even with that success Hicksville has had, the one thing that Horrocks has created that was seen by far more people was one little cartoon he did on a piece of New Zealand copyright legislation. This legislation was spectacularly vague and could have resulted in real harm, until the government bowed to pressure from a wide variety of sources and pulled it.

During the backlash against the proposed moves, Horrocks was asked to produce a small cartoon on the subject, which he duly did and released out into the world.

You can see it here. Go have a look. It won’t hurt you.

That cartoon was picked up by a number of local political and technological sites, but Horrocks was also astonished to see it adorn the front page of The Pirate Bay.

As the biggest torrent site on the net, The Pirate Bay attracts millions of people looking for easy downloads, almost all of whom were exposed to Horrocks’ cartoon. For somebody who was still stapling his own comics together a decade or so ago, this kind of exposure was unprecedented.

The fact that it was The Pirate Bay that gave Horrocks more eyes on his work than ever before is pretty ironic, considering that site has been held up as the poster boy for internet evil, offering illegal downloads that harm the copyright owner, who then claims the artist is the ultimate victim.

Horrocks is one creator who doesn’t seem to have been harmed too much by the site. He even seemed quite chuffed to have a set of his Hunter: The Age of Magic comics available for download, if only because it meant he didn¹t have to disappoint people who asked them where they could read it. With no chance of a reprint and the individual issues lost in a thousand discount bins, now he can just throw them a link. It can be painful to have written a comic that people who want to read it can not read.

So Horrocks has put his money where his mouth is and started putting stuff up on the web. It gives him a greater exposure and is a surprisingly good motivator to get something done every day. To read his work on a daily basis gets a little hard to follow sometimes, but who has a right to complain when there is this much free comic coming so regularly? I’ll still buy the collected edition, because I’m not a cock, and after the painful wait for Atlas #2, it’s just bloody lovely to see new and regular stuff from the artist.

Seriously, don’t be a dick. Go have a look. It won’t hurt you and may be rewarding. If you haven’t read Horrocks’ comics, spend the fucking money and catch up, because he’s really that good.

And he’s bloody entertaining. The rest of the talk at the Auckland City Central Library a few weeks back was just stuffed with good anecdote and love for comics.

He talked about the danger of quoting Spice Girls songs, (despite the solid footing of fair usage) and the difficlty of being the writer of a Batman comic who still has a hard time finding a Bat-costume for his kid.

Still, Horrocks made a bit of money with his brief sojourns into mainstream comics and came up with a couple of nice moments, so it wasn’t a complete loss. At least the man was always acutely aware of the fact he was working for a corporation and that this means covers and ad placement might not always been to tastes, and could sometimes cross the line into completely offensive.

But he still recognized his place as a cog in a massive media machine, just there to service the brand in a corporation that is bigger than anything, and kept his eye on the prize of his own marvellous cartooning.

This has turned into a Dylan Horrocks love-a-thon, and I’m cool with that. This is a good place to stop, with five other things I learned from listening to Dylan Horrocks talk about comics:

* The impact in a powerpoint shift from covers to Horrocks’ DC work to his own, marvellously crude Pickle cover can be fucking stunning.

* Let the man write and draw a Barbara Gordon Batgirl comic. I would buy it, and so would all my friends.  

* We’re all sick of the clichĂ© where anybody in a wheelchair in a comic or cartoon is a goddamn computer expert

* I don’t know shit about NZ comics.

* But I always fucking knew Scott McCloud was wrong about fucking micropayments.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Looking forward

One of the very, very nice things about comic books is that there is just so much fucking good stuff out there, it’s impossible to keep track of it all.

I firmly believe that no other medium matches comics for sheer regularity of brilliance. There is a whole bunch of really, really good shit out there that I haven’t caught up with, or is due to come out over the next few months, stuff that I’m looking forward to reading more than any movie due over the next year.

Most of these come from the usual suspects, creators who have crafted stories of astonishingly high quality over the years. There is still a general drive to make comics more of a mass medium, but living in the entertainment ghetto has its advantages, with more idiosyncratic visions and exceptional storytelling on an incredibly regular basis than any other medium.

No wonder I can’t keep track of everything Ed Brubaker or Gilbert Hernandez do.

So, with that in mind, here are a totally random bunch of comics that I’m truly looking forward to reading in the immediate future –


* Fables. Following this in book form and love the fact the main plot has all been wrapped up nicely, and the comic is still ongoing. Inevitable spoilers are unavoidable in this wait, but they only increase the anticipation.

* The Wolverine story that Mark Millar is doing now. I’ll definitely buy the book, because I’m a little whore for the Millar, as previously established.

* Love and Rockets New Stories #2

* Batman and Robin. Batman and Robin! BATMAN AND ROBIN!

* And any more issues of the All Star version that show up. At this stage, any further comics would be little gifts of pure awesome.

* The Flash: Rebirth. Don’t care enough to be excited about it coming out every month, but enough to follow reaction and eventually read. I have a weird emotional attachment to the Flash and wish only the best for the Scarlet Speedster, whoever is under the mask.

* The Walking Dead. I don’t care if they’re not cool any more. Zombie movies are the best. So I still can’t figure out why I haven’t read any Walking Dead yet, but I will.

* Scalped is more fun than I ever expected it to be and I’m still two books behind. That’s going to be something I’ll have to catch up on soon.

* 100 Bullets. Now that it’s done, I will have to start from the beginning again, because I got completely fucking lost around #50 and couldn’t remember who was who. This had a fairly detrimental effect on reading the later books, but once I got that all figured out again, all will be right with the world.

* Any more Battlefields comics that Garth Ennis does. I’ve still to get the second one, but the Night Witches was an absolute gem of a comic and the standard has been set.

* Seaguy. And, frankly, anything else by Morrison. Because he’s my favourite.

* There is a hole in my head where more Manga should be, so I’m looking to fill it with some Battle Royale, more Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, those last few Barefoot Gen comics I haven’t seen yet and the Lone Wolf and Cub comics that I missed. There are some there in the middle, but I got lost in the format changes and can’t remember what’s what.

* Nikolai Dante raising his army of thieves and whores and bringing down an empire. Years and years of plot machinations are reaching their climax in this strip and it’s fucking marvelous to see it unfold every week in 2000ad.

* More of those big black and white books that print comics I liked as a kid.

* The Muppet Show, because of Roger Langridge.

* More League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Because I’m not scared of not getting references.

* Darwyn Cooke’s adaption of The Hunter? Oh fuck yeah!

* There was just so much talent poured into the new Omega The Unknown series, so they must have produced something worth reading.

* More Hercules and Iron Fist and all those other second-tier titles that rely more on charm and good ideas than fanboy whimsy.

* More Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog by John Wagner. Cos Wagner is the best.

* Anything by Dangerous Dan Clowes, but the Death Ray in particular. I keep meaning to read it, but it just doesn’t happen.

* The last issue of Planetary.

* That Brian Wood comic about Vikings. I’ve tried to like Wood more, but never really connected, so I’m a little wary. Looks like fun anyway.

* Anything Evan Dorkin or Chris Ware or Joe Sacco or Peter Bagge or Kevin Huizenga or Eddie Campbell do. And a lot of things they’ve done over the past few years, that I haven’t got around to yet. That’s a fucking rich vein of comicolgy to mine out there.

* A thousand other great comics that are out there, waiting for this reader. The ones I don’t know about from unknown creators, the ones that transcend the medium and leave me breathless. I can’t wait for those suckers.

* And all those ones I’ll remember ten seconds after posting this.

* The Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos trade that I just got out of the library today. As sad as it sounds, the Infinity Gauntlet once blew my tiny little mind and I’m genuinely excited about finally reading the comics that led up to it. In fact, I think I’ll start right now.

Happy reading, chums! I know I’m set for a while.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dredd's dead!

Sometime in the next few years, Judge Dredd will die.

The character is still made of stone, with a couple of tiny sentimental cracks, but he's getting old. Along with 2000ad, he has aged with the comic’s readership and Judge Joe Dredd has gone from being the most feared and respected lawman of Mega City One to a gruddamn legend over the 30+ years of comics he has appeared in.

He has crossed the Cursed Earth, making it in a crawl fight with killer military robots; he rallied against the mad tyrant Cal, when all seemed lost; he wiped out the Soviet city that had invaded his world; and has never been afraid to face down Judge Death, who can kill with a touch.

It only took a few years for the doubts to show in Dredd's impeccable law skills. Seven years into the run, and the relentless and incredibly violent action, jet black humour and punchy irony could only go so far. Dredd began having doubts about the justice system, and how it worked against the citizens he was supposed to be protecting. He managed to hold those doubts at bay with tight boots for a while, but they wouldn't stay still.

Eventually Dredd gave up entirely and walked off into the Cursed Earth. It led to one of the single best twists in 2000ad's history, when the burned and scarred Dead Man, a natural born killer without a past, discovered he was, in fact, Judge Dredd. He ended up returning to the city and saving it from the dark judges for the fifth time, and chose to stay. Judge Dredd wasn't the sort of man who ran away.

The next few years Joe, through sheer force of will, introduced truly democratic elections (the Judges won), and became more open about showing his doubts. There was still the law to uphold, but Dredd, the man of stone, saw that the law could not be as rigid as he was and needed to change. The most recent theme in the ongoing Dredd saga has seen the big man make a stand against mutant prejudice, a deeply unpopular move that is still undoubtedly the right one.

The fact that Dredd is quite happy to change the status quo shows that his primary creator, the mighty John Wagner, is just as bored with the stagnation that comes with any long-running character. Dredd has aged and genuinely evolved in the hundreds of stories he has appeared in. Sometimes he has taken a step or two back into simplicity at the hands of lesser writers, but Wagner has gently steered the character back on course.

Over the past decade, Wagner has produced some phenomenal work on the storyline, especially with the creation of a supporting cast unequalled in modern British comics.

Amongst this cast, there is Judge Rico, a younger version of Dredd, a clone that hasn’t gone bad, who has lived up to his genes. And if there is one thing you can count on in the crazy world of Mega-City One, it’s that he will be Dredd’s replacement.

Replacing characters is never easy for any company that relies on its trademarked characters for revenue. There have been various attempts to replace Bruce Wayne as Batman, but they have never been anything other than obviously temporary. Wally West made a good job of being the top Flash for 20 years, before being quickly usurped when Barry Allen made his recent return.

Poor Wally has often been held up as the legacy hero who overcame that legacy to become his own man, so it was unsurprising to see the disappointment that greeted Allen’s return. It remains to be seen if anybody still cares about Barry enough to support the resurrection, or if this is just another temporary stumble on the rocky path The Flash has been running for the past few years.

Back across the Atlantic and Dredd is running out of time. His replacement was introduced almost 10 years ago and has had time to build up as a supporting character, with the cast themselves often commentating on the inevitability that Rico will take over from his older clone brother at some point.

Rico has no first name, but has proven to be a brave, smart and resourceful judge who has inherited the older Dredd’s flexibility (He also inherited the older judge’s apartment in one of the stunning little six-pagers that Wagner excels at, showing that while Judge Dredd believes totally in the Law, his own judgement has not always been 100% perfect, and he knows it.)

Rico has even surpassed the old man in one impressive aspect. While Judge Dredd has always had the finest jaw in comics, Rico’s chin is even more impressive after he got it shot off and replaced by a steel copy.

It’s been interesting to note the slow path taken in Rico’s development. After initially proving himself, he has only appeared in a relative handful of stories, showing the resourcefulness and determination that is synonymous with the Dredd name, while also hinting at offering the nightstick of justice a slightly more human face.

Like Dredd, he is tough, but fair, (but mainly tough). Unlike Dredd, Rico has shown to be more willing to open his mind to new ideas at a much younger age. He has taken on board many of Dredd’s teachings, while also making enough mistakes to learn his own path.

In short, he shows the potential to be an even better character than the one he is set to replace.

The Judge Dredd strip has always been a lot smarter than it looks, with the hundreds of stories in the series creating a surprisingly complex world that offers some thematically meaty material. Full of clear, crisp storytelling with a minimum of bullshit and just enough humour, getting straight to the point without skipping on the action. Dredd has changed as his city has changed, but over the past few years, he has recognised that it is also getting away from him.

There is a telling moment near the start of Origins, the most recent Dredd epic, where the man notes that he is a little out of touch with the rest of the Judges and isn’t totally sure about who to trust with a vital mission. It’s thrown out there, one line in an epic that redefined Dredd’s origins, but it also says a lot about Dredd’s age, and the idea that his time is done.

He is still a magnificently hard bastard who is just too tough to quit, but the world has moved on. Dredd hasn’t been just Dirty Harry with a bucket on his head for a long, long time, but while he has certainly changed, the world around him has changed even faster and left him behind.

This has been set up in the strip for years, and one of the delights of reading it is the knowledge that it could all end tomorrow for Judge Joe Dredd. He has reached that point where his demise is inevitable.

The way Dredd will go out remains a mystery, although there are two main options. The first one is the most obvious, as Dredd dies magnificently, sacrificing his life in a epic struggle to save the innocent at the climax of a vast storyline that out-actions every Dredd story ever, giving the man the end he deserves.

The other way is just as likely, but a completely different death. It’s entirely possible that Dredd will meet his end on the streets of Mega City One that he loves so much. Taken down by a punk or gangster or simp who just gets lucky and does what millions of others have failed to do – take down Judge Dredd.

For all the epics and sagas that the Judge Dredd story has seen, this might be the most thematically correct way to end his tale. While Dredd is the first man the world turns to in a crisis, he has always been, first and foremost, a lawman on the street, breaking heads that need to be broken, savings the lives of those who need saving. It’s where he belongs and where he may end.

And beyond that, it’s not difficult to see what the overall picture will be. Rico stepping into the older man’s badge, ensuring the continuity of the Dredd name and character. The foundations for this fundamental shift in the strip has been laid, and John Wagner is the only one who will decide when to move on.

It’s just such a pleasure to see this shift starting to take place, especially in the sealed status quo of so many other comics. Actual change and growth goes against the very strengths of some of the world’s greatest superheroes, but that won’t stop Dredd. Not much does.

Not even death.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Entering the House of Hammer

It’s not even midnight, but it’s probably still the latest I’ve ever stayed up on a Sunday night. I’m only nine, after all, and it’s sometime in early 1984. And I’m waiting for the monster to come and scare me.

I waited until Mum and Dad went to bed, reading comic books under the duvet with my flashlight and listening to weird radio plays on the lowest possible volume. I’m not scared of the horror film I want to see, but I am too terrified to sneak out into the lounge for another hour after the house falls silent. I don’t want to get caught.

I’d seen the movie listed in the newspaper yesterday morning and had spent all weekend waiting for the Sunday Horrors to start. I had read about this exact movie in an odd black and white sci-fi movie magazine six months earlier and had been fascinated by the photos I’d seen there. I knew it was a waste of time asking the parents if I could watch it. They would barely let me see the Incredible Shrinking Man, and it was on very late on a school night.

But I didn’t care. Satisfied that everybody in the house was asleep, I crept into the lounge and turned the volume of the television all the way down before switching it on.

The first thing I see is legendary Australian actor Charles Tingwell getting stabbed in the back by a ghoulish Philip Latham, (who was about to show up in the Doctor Who Five Doctors special as Lord Borusa) and strung up like an animal to bleed retina-scorching red blood, followed swiftly by the resurrection of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who then goes on to feed on the gorgeous Barbara Shelley.

The film is Dracula, Prince of Darkness, and this is the exact moment that I fell in love with Hammer horror films.

I’m no longer tired and watch as Shelley returns as a vampire, only to be staked by Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor and his well-meaning monk mates, before Dracula is (somewhat lamely) consigned to the depths of his own moat. When it’s done, I’m off back to bed, more tired than I’ve ever been, although it still takes me a long time to doze off.

I’m a little nine-year-old zombie for the next few days and it takes a few nights good sleep before I recover. Still, the fear of getting caught for staying up hours and hours past my bedtime and watching forbidden films means I make the best effort to appear as normal as possible, and I do get away with it.

While that tiredness quickly faded, the impression that Hammer’s unique brand of horror leaves on me still shows no sign of fading, a quarter of a century later. Over the years, this love for all things Hammer was only intensified by the general lack of availability.

It was 20 years before I managed to see the last Christopher Lee-starring Dracula and there are still a pile of films that I haven’t been able to see, including Plague of the Vampires and Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde.

Still, it’s a lot easier these days to see these 45-year-old films than it might have been a few short years ago. The flood of DVD releases and the ability to download over the internet has filled several significant gaps in my knowledge of Hammer heritage.

It’s a far cry from the days of reading a short synopsis in magazines and books and wondering what these films were actually like. For a long time there, Hammer films were released on video fairly rarely and had been pushed off late-night television screens by other, more recent, low-budget wonders. I can still remember the thrill of finding Horror of Dracula in the back room of a tiny and dark video store, where tapes had been gathering dust for 10 years, waiting for that one fan.

The funny thing is, there was inevitably disappointment with the finished product. Those short plot summaries I had read about were light on detail and my mind filled the blanks with all sorts of nonsense that was notably lacking in the final film.

And yet, I still dearly loved the films, for all their faults. They were frequently dull (while still overwrought), often rehashed the same themes over and over again (the misunderstood monster was one well Hammer went to a few times too often) and had difficulty hiding the two and a half bob budget they worked under.

But they could also be exciting and gruesome and terrifically entertaining. When it comes to letting loose from the restraints of Victorian repression, Hammer could rarely be beaten. The heroes and villains would all be impeccably suited to start off, with sharp ties and large, ornate gowns, but it invariably degenerated into manly men fighting with ripped shirts and undead woman roaming around cold graveyards in the dead of night, wearing the nightware they were buried in.

The sex appeal of some of these films was thunderous, although I say that as somebody who has sometimes got a little too intimate with them sometimes. But there is something for everybody. Virginial blondes and noble fiancées with the squarest of jaws. Dark eyed gypsy women and cute little victims, buff father figures and some of the best beards in cinema.

The sets could also be occasionally astonishing, with the Hammer production team getting the absolute best out of their budgets, creating vast, gothic spaces with a couple of planks of wood. This goal was certainly helped by some truly gorgeous location work, where an English forest could double for the dark depths of Transylvania. And there were always plenty of castles, ruins and stately homes to use as backdrops.

And while it all got a bit too silly, it was given (occasionally unearned) gravity by some of the actors who would emote through every single line like they were back in the Royal Shakespare Company. The likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee gave the creatures and madmen they portrayed a dignity and self respect often lacking in other horror films. When Cushing would get that cold look in the eye as he went about another vivisection, or Lee would howl with despair and lost dignity, you knew these were men who really meant it, men who were only just clinging to that line between British reserve and utter madness.

These massively charismatic lead performances were well supported by a legion of supporting actors and bit players, who could play scared villagers and resolute companions, while there were always loads of buxom beauties to be saved or avenged. Either way didn’t require much acting beyond a decent set of lungs

With their period setting, vague locations and dreamy plots, many Hammer films are almost timeless, but changing with the time is what killed them in the end. A few too many attempts at hipness left the studio looking old and tired by the mid seventies, groovy updates that never caught on.

Hammer all faded away like Dracula in the sun in the end. There is still a little life in the ashes, although it shows no signs of ever fully leaping back into action.

And maybe it’s for the best. Hammer films can be a little difficult to watch with a cold 21st century eye, they’re slow and sometimes horribly, horribly stupid. They were an incredible source of inspiration and a major evolutionary step in horror cinema, but that doesn’t mean they’re always that good.

And yet, I’m still keeping an eye out for those few I haven’t seen, and I would always take Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in all its clumsy kung fu glory over anything else. Because Hammer films aren’t scary, or clever, or exciting, but they are stylish and occasionally innovative and sexy.

And sometimes, they make me feel like a nine year old kid again, sitting alone in the silence and the dark, waiting for the monster to come.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pop of the Tops

After four months of intensive and boring contemplation on the nature of graphic novels and how they pertain to ‘top 10’ lists, along with a painful amount of thought on the matter of comparing wildly different books based purely on the medium, the Tearoom of Despair is proud and a little bit ashamed to present its top 10 comics list of 2008.

#1 One mini-comic I found and read in a toilet out the back of a redneck pub, but had to use the paper for a wipe. I can’t remember its name and the artist was doing that weird thing amateur dudes do with the bridge of the nose, but it did the job.

#2 Token superhero comic. Oh, you know. The Morrison one.

#3 That one that was wrenching and moving and strange, the one that made us all laugh and think, and whenever we try to tell anybody how good it is, we can’t string together a single coherent sentence to describe that love and sound like complete morons.

#4 Biting back against the hate with that comic that everybody else sneered at or ignored, but you read it when you were a bit wasted and found it oddly moving. Tastes can be funny like that.

#5 Whatever issue of Acme Novelty Library that came out. Or if there was an Eightball, that one.

#6 Token superhero comic number two. The Marvel one that three people read and rave about. They do their best, with long essays going into severe detail on why nobody else isn’t reading it, but nobody still cares.

#7 Oh yeah, a reprint. Reprints are always good and there was that Essential or Showcase book that reprinted a bunch of comics that you read the fuck out of when you were eight and you thought you’d forgotten about it. But you were wrong, professor! Dead wrong! Because then you cracked open this puppy and it all came back, didn’t it? Every panel still resonates, every character is an old friend and you remember everything. Nostalgia can be bullshit sometimes, but it’s not too harmful.

#8 That one by the guy who I met online. I think his name is Shane.

#9 The biggest, most expensive comic that came out all year. That shit has to be worth it.

#10 Love and Rockets

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The colour of Life

I never thought I had a problem with black and white comics. Growing up on a steady diet of 2000ad goodness meant I had to read each issue printed on paper stock that was roughly one level up from the stuff we use in the toilet. This printing budget also meant the readers had to make do with one simple dose of colour on the two-page spread in the middle.

This tiny section, usually reserved for Judge Dredd, was the only burst of four-colour goodness outside the covers, with some occasionally dodgy results. (One case, from an early-eighties issue, still stands out in my mind as the single worst bit of colouring I've ever seen in a professional comic, taking some of Ron Smith's gooey and detailed artwork and splashing random dollops of colour all over it, with one pile of dead mutants painted a bright aqua.)

On top of that, black and white Australian reprints of American comics were a regular feature of New Zealand bookstores right up to the late eighties, with companies like the mighty Murray and the slightly slicker Federal often packing together 100-page comics of vaguely themed super-hero or horror comics into one big package, offering the cheapest of thrills at the cheapest of prices.

Eventually the Australian reprints faded away (although still exist in some form, with slick, bright and colourful reprints of Spider-man, Simpsons and Transformers comics), while 2000ad made the gradual transition to full-colour. Even if the first few years saw an unfortunate tendency to attempt to copy Simon Bisley, leading to some awfully brown and sludgey books. Considering the bright and vibrant blues and oranges Bisley brought to his own paintings, this was even more regrettable.

By the time I got on the internet in the mid-90s and was exposed, for the first time, to the whole range of comic fandom, I would come across some readers that simply could not read any black and white comics, a position that I found more than a little baffling. By this time I was convinced that Love and Rockets was the greatest comic I'd ever read, (something I still tend to believe every time a new issue comes out) and was regularly enjoying work by Dangerous Dan Clowes and Pernicious Peter Bagge. To even refuse to open these comics because of a lack of colour seemed, frankly, fucking retarded.

But hell, maybe they have a point, at least when it comes to superhero comics. The use of black and white in the alternative world may stem from cheaper printing costs, but many creators have so much bloody talent they have turned it to their advantage. Jamie Hernandez, for example, may produce work that looks gorgeous in the few coloured pieces he has done, but his use of heavy inks and smooth lines just looks a whole lot better in monochrome.

On the other side of the comics divide, DC and Marvel have both produced thick, cheap collections of their large back catalogues, something they should be credited for. But to actually sit down and read an entire collection of, say, silver-age Aquaman comics quickly becomes an absolute chore. The sheer simplicity of the art styles and repetition of story tricks becomes wearing long before the book is finished. They're still fine to dip into and read the odd story now and again, but too much too soon, and it all blends together.

I never really noticed how much of a turn-off it was until I recently bought a couple of silver-age Adventure Comics and World’s Finest issues, and saw all that lovely Curt Swan art the way it was originally intended to be seen, with these bright capes and shining icons, all helping each individual issue stand out from the next.

In another case of colour bringing joy and life, I recently got the first couple of Jack Kirby Fourth World omnibus books out from the local library and enjoyed the hell out of them, reading the whole damn thing in one sitting. Granted, this is The King we're talking about, and it's the King working at his most imaginative, let off the leash and throwing fantastical ideas all over the place, backed up by a crazy ear for dialogue, (which isn't anywhere near as bad as sometimes made out).

But the colours bring the whole damn thing to life. With decent paper stock and a dose of pure primary colours, the stories scream for attention, smacking the reader over the head whenever the attention starts to wander. It’s a technocolour blast instead of a monotone dirge, and allows the New Gods to blast off the page straight into the head.

I enjoy the simpler colour schemes of these comics a whole lot more than modern colouring techniques. Today's comics might do all sorts of interesting things with tones and shadows, but simple colours just look better on flat two-dimensional pictures.

For me, no Spider-man cover of the last 20 years has been as effective as those produced right up till the 1980s, each providing a variation on a scene from the comic inside in bright yellows, reds and blues. It's almost like the trend towards CGI actors, which still have a long way to go before they stop looking so fucking creepy. When it comes to animation and comic colouring, simpler really is better.

Sometimes we think of the past as monochrome, but it never fails to amuse me when I visit a museum and they have a display showing what all those marble columns really looked like, smothered in bright orange and red dyes, vivid splashes of tasteless green and purple shining through.

Human beings have always liked splashes of colour and they still amuse us on some primal level. If we can see the wonder in a field of yellow grain, or the clear blue sky above us all, then we shouldn’t ignore a slice of such beauty in our comic books.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Skite Trek

Thanks to a few extraordinary cases of good fortune, I was able to see new Star Trek, Red Dwarf and Doctor Who over the long Easter weekend. God save the Geek in me.

* * *

No spoilers here, because that would be mean.

* * *

At first, I thought I would be the last person in the world to watch the new Star Trek film, when it came to people who were really hanging out to see it. The world premiere date turned out to be the worst possible day of the year for me, due to a spectacularly unavoidable bit of international travel. If it was a day earlier or later, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that May release date was painful.

And then somebody at Paramount decided to have a NZ screening two days after Sydney got the world premiere and I owe that person a beer.

I hadn’t given a damn about Star Trek since Picard dealt that last hand in the closing seconds of the Next Generation, despite a couple of good films and a nice stretch of DS9 that followed. But right from the start, the new version looked like it was doing everything right, from a stripping down to the core appeal of this franchise, while adding something bright and new and sexy.

I think the sex appeal is something that’s been missing from Trek for decades. While there were actors who made those Starflet uniforms of the last couple of decades look bloody good, they were the exception, rather than the rule. Some of the performers who have appeared on Star Trek in all its forms over the past few years are undeniably attractive people who still manage to look like sacks of potatoes in those one-piece suits.

(It’s notable that the most blatant attempt to sex up the franchise in recent years saw the introduction of Jeri Ryan to Voyager doing her very best to play a sexy, sexy robot. Whether this says more about the creators or the fans of the show remains a mystery for the ages.)

But it quickly became obvious that the new Star Trek had sex appeal in spades. Not just in the obvious good bodies way, but it had the sexiness that comes with youth and vigor and excitement and intelligence and eagerness, attributes that Star Trek has often forsaken in the name of professionalism and technobabble.

JJ Abrams and his crew went back to that raw sensuality of the original series, where Kirk is too much man for any shirt and green skin just adds to the erotic appeal. This sexuality in Star Trek has come back to life with the new movie and cast. While the focus is still on explosions in cold vacuum, the enduring nature of friendship and inescapable destiny, the latest version also has everybody giving each other the glad eye and they all seem to be one step away from a giant space orgy that would send Leonard Nimoy’s eyebrow into the stratosphere. There is at least one interesting relationship among established characters that casts a new shadow over their entire histories and came as a genuine surprise.

The surprise factor in the new Trek is, well, surprisingly high. While still part of a vast continuity that stretches hundreds of years, a time travel plot shenanigan means anything could happen, but it doesn't invalidate 99% of all the other Star Trek. It's still one part of one big saga, while also offering the flexibility of unexpected plot twists. There is a humdinger of a kick to Trek continuity's nuts half an hour into the film, but these are still the same great people doing the same great deeds. I really liked that.

Acting is very strong, right across the board. Each actor captures the charm of the original portrayal without falling into impression, with Pine and Quinto doing nice jobs of making the characters their own. Pine isn’t Shatner, but is Captain Kirk, which is the way it should be.

It’s not perfect. The plot is a typically dull Trek affair and has holes that you could pilot a starship through, the whole thing is sometimes complete nonsense and has a propensity for going for cheap laughs. It is stuck in high gear for the vast majority of the film, which gets things going at a sprint, even though it starts to run out of puff 90 minutes into it.

But everything else is shiny and new and alive. Production design is stellar, from those marvelous costumes to the best engine room Star Trek has ever had, it all looks spectacular, even if they overdo it with the lens flare.

While it's not perfect, there are a thousand little touches that make up for the few dud stretches, from the excellent use of a piece of 20th century music at the start to the final fate of Captain Pike at the end.

If you ever liked Star Trek at some point, this is for you. Now I have to go to the DVD store and hire some Star Trek, because I like it all over again.

* * *

The new Red Dwarf isn't very good, but it is very nice to see the old crew back together. And if I take off the beer goggles of nostalgia, it was always a bit rubbish. Fantastic ideas, terrible execution.

Sad but true: I once cried because I fell asleep in front of the television and missed an episode of the fourth season.

* * *

And Doctor Who?

Well, it’s still an absolute pleasure to see some new Doctor Who. After that decade and a half of dormancy, to see those opening credits flare up on a brand new Doctor Who adventure in time in space is actual bliss.

With that much good will, it takes more than a couple of slightly irritating characters to wipe out that buzz. Russell T Davies is still a deadest legend at writing some sharp characterization and comes out with one really bloody good scene with the chops and gravy moment.

It’s also nice to see UNIT be UNIT and while Lee Evans is guaranteed to annoy the piss out of many Who fans, I still find him just hovering on the right side of irritating, (he sold me with the Bernard bit.)

Now I’m looking forward to The Waters of Mars and the inevitability of the Doctor’s death. The last few episodes of any Doctor’s incarnation are invariably my favourite periods of the show, right through its history. It is just so nice to be able to enjoy another transition.


Over the long weekend, I also watched The Nines, which was pretty fucking good, and The Signal, which also impressed. Who needs to go on holiday when there is all this mind candy?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Wetflower Smithslice

When British writers began making the pilgrimage to New York to work on childhood idols in the 1980s, some were left behind. While the likes of Moore, Morrison, Gibbons and Gaiman have all carved out respectable and rewarding careers working on American comic books, others never made that fundamental connection.

John Wagner is easily the finest action writer in modern British comics, but other than a few brief flirtations with Batman, he has had a miniscule impact on Americans. (Only directly, of course. Many of those British writers who have bought their idiosyncratic styles to the US have freely admitted that seeing what Wagner was doing in Battle, Action and 2000ad in the late seventies was a large influence on their own work.)

There are plenty of other UK creators who have been loved in Britain, only to be ignored in the States. Writers like Gordon Rennie and Robbie Morrison have both produced minor masterpieces in the pages of UK comics, only to get lost in the crush across the Atlantic.

Another writer who started getting attention in the UK at roughly the same time Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar did, but never got the same American attention as his contemporaries, is John Smith. A writer that can sometimes get painfully obtuse, Smith is also capable of crafting some fantastic action scenes and has managed the enviable feat of writing some really good Judge Dredd stories.

(Which is a lot harder than it looks. Ennis, Millar and Morrison have all produced some very poor Dredd stories, trying to hard to emulate Wagner.)

Although Smith’s writing can certainly be an acquired taste, with a tendency towards obscure plots, fractured narrative and silly made-up words, it can also be incredibly rewarding and entertaining.

Appearing in 2000as for the first time in 1986, Smith served the usual apprenticeship on the comic’s Future Shocks series, crafting some creepy little six-page shockers. He soon brought his own creations to the table with the beautifully odd Tyranny Rex. Created with Steve Dillon, the series started off as an odd theme of musical piracy involving clones before branching out into reality shaping and spirituality in cyberspace.

Smith was then chosen to help launch Crisis, 2000ad’s ‘mature readers’ big brother. While Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra kicked off their half of the debut issue with the angry political screed Third world War, Smith and Jim Baikie went for the superhero jugular with New Statesmen, with government-controlled super-people ripping each other minds out in psychic battle as America falls apart.

When it was published in 1988, New Statesmen was one of the crowd of deconstructionist superheroes, but it holds up quite well two decades on. Smith’s genetic tampering themes are a little bit stale a decade into the new millennium, but are still just fresh enough to be tasty. And while there are certainly narrative confusions abounding with the massive cast of characters and detailed world-building, Smith keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, daring the reader to catch up.

Despite gaining a swift reputation for plot confusions, Smith has also shown an ability to tell a simple, straight-forward from the beginning. When Rogue Trooper got bogged-down in a post-war angel of death agenda, Smith teamed up again with Steve Dillon, (ably assisted by Kev Walker) and ignored the current continuity altogether with Cinnabar. Although Smith was still keen to lay on the gooey ultraviolence and organic technology, Cinnabar ended up being the best Rogue Trooper story in years and remains a highlight of the character’s 25-year history.

A couple of years later, he again showed an ability to craft the smartest and funniest action comics with the sublime Slaughterbowl, the only strip not written by Morrison or Millar when the two Scotsmen took over 2000ad for eight weeks. Slaughterbowl was a nasty, venom fueled tale of serial killers achieving fame by running over other killers with genetically bred dinosaurs loaded up with rocket launchers, but it was also a cracking read, rocking along to a magnificent final twist in between panels of men ripping out other people’s throats with their teeth.

While he was showing that he could write a good action scene as well as anybody, Smith still manage to indulge his own fascinations with 2000ad series such as Indigo Prime, Revere and the memorably snappy Danzig’s Inferno. Smith teamed with some fine artists on these stories to produce truly memorable results. Simon Harrison did the best art of his career on Revere, Sean Phillips crafted some extremely strange visuals for the extremely strange Danzig’s Inferno and Chris Weston managed to be occasionally astonishing on Indigo Prime.

Weston and Smith’s collaboration on that strip reached a climax with Killing Time, a stunning piece of work from both creators. The 1991 series saw a group of Victorian English folk on a train taking a jolly adventure into time and space, only for everything to go horribly, horribly wrong when a certain Jack T Ripper amongst the passengers started slicing up the others to call down unimaginable evil. A seriously downbeat ending and some imaginative uses of gore towards the end (Mr Ripper coming to an unfortunate end through the strings of a harp is a highlight), mixed well with Smith’s usual metaphysical musings.

This would have been the best thing Smith ever produced if he hadn’t had the skill and good fortune to unleash Devlin Waugh upon the world. Since his first appearance in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1992, Waugh has been a constant source of wit and energy in a a variety of stories in both the Megazine and 2000ad, never failing to lighten up a tale when he appears.

A camp homosexual exorcist from the Vatican with the face and mannerisms of Terry Thomas and the biceps and propensity for violence of Schwarzenegger, Waugh added vampire to his list of character traits in the first story, while still holding on to his charm.

Waugh is part of Judge Dredd’s universe and has run into the legendary lawman on several occasions, but has also had plenty of his own tales to tell. These include several other encounters with vampires and other demons, as well as the epic Chasing Herod/Reign of Frogs/Sirius Rising story in 2000ad, ably illustrated by Steve Yeowell and oddly moving in its portrayal of a psychic apocalypse.

But while he was crafting out his own corner of British comics that saw characters and themes from one Smith story often cross over into another, Smith joined the other writers looking to crack America. Back to proving himself with a tryout story, Smith knocked his out of the park with Counting To Ten in Hellblazer #51. Working with his old mucker Sean Phillips, (who also co-created Waugh), the issue is a supremely spooky and nasty story that has been justly celebrated. (See the Mindless Ones for the best writing on this issue you’ll ever read.)

That was enough to get him the obligatory Vertigo mini-series designed to star a low-list DC Universe character. The Scarab was originally pitched as a Doctor Fate miniseries before evolving into its own thing. Largely ignored by readers, it has never been reprinted and joined dozens of other Vertigo hopes in the dustbin. Even Smith admitted getting bored with the whole thing and reverting to his own stock cliches to finish it off.

No wonder he never really bothered with any more American comics, (although he did apparently do some Vampirella work a few years back). In fact, his comic work dropped off notably over the past decade or so. This has worked out rather well for the writer, as his usual tics can become irritating if bunched up, but become more charming when spaced out over several years.

Smith has kept his hand in a number of further 2000ad stories, including the Devlin Waugh spinoff Pussyfoot 5, Leatherjack, which took his love of mad scifi words to unnatural lengths, and the recent Dead Eyes, which made up for a lingering sense of drabness by whipping out a great last page twist that tied it nicely into his greater work.

Smith has always done this, with clear lines drawn between wildly different tales that bring it all together. With Smith’s unique worldview, it certainly makes sense to see characters from indigo Prime show up in other stories, or villains from previously unconnected stories appear in the Judge Dredd continuity. It’s Smith’s universe, we just live in it.

And that’s one of the things I like most about Smith’s work. While confined to the ghetto of modern British action comics, he has carved out his own world, his own unique take on the universe and reality that offers a myriad of storytelling possibilities. It can be extremely difficult to get hold of his worldview, primarily due to the aforementioned predilection for mashing up words and plots in equal measure.

But after 20 years of comic writing, John Smith has developed into a genuinely mature comic writer capable of funny and entertaining work that also gets the brain buzzing. What more could a reader ask for?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Killjoy was here

While the meaning of life remains a mystery to us all, I can’t help thinking that finding a little bit of joy in your daily routine has got be a part of it. Watching the sun rise over the ocean, or eating a particularly fine hamburger, or the smile of a loved one. These are literally the things that make a life worth living.

I rely heavily on entertainment for these little blasts of daily joy and am frequently rewarded. A really good episode of a television show, or a movie or a song or comic that is entertaining, emotionally rich and intellectually stimulating can leave me on a natural high that lasts for hours.

And there is nothing in this world that kills that joy faster than the sound of a thousand fanboys bitching.

When I finished watching the final episode of the latest season of Doctor Who one Monday morning in July, I had to go for a walk around the park afterwards because I felt emotionally drained. It was everything I loved about the long-running show. It was big and loud and smart and made me laugh. It sometimes it got a bit silly, but that’s a vital part of the concept anyway. I can live with that.

It was also undeniably tragic and the cost of saving everything that had ever existed was high. When the stakes are that serious, it’s nice to see them solved with a bit of charm and warmth, instead of shooting, but there is always a price to be paid.

There were some things that went in a direction I didn’t expect and I didn’t like some of those plot turns. But I want that in my entertainment. I need stories to go to places I never dreamed they would go, because otherwise why bother with fiction at all?

By the time I returned home, I was still buzzing on it all and wanted to see if others had enjoyed it as much as I did. Nobody I knew in real life had got around to seeing it, but the world is a small place in the 21st century and I headed online.

This was a terrible, terrible mistake.

I headed along to a group blog devoted to the programme, certain that they would be all about the initial reaction. Entering that site two days after the show had first screened in the UK, there were already several postings on the subject.

I knew the finale wouldn’t find universal favour on the blog. It was one where every second thought Russel T Davies had was dissected into incoherence before being sneered at and tossed aside. It was one where the slightest sour taste from an otherwise fine episode could be magnified until it dwarfed the good aspects of a show.

But it was also a blog where the writers genuinely loved the show and honestly wanted the best for it. I was sure that while there would be the odd dissenting voice, they must have enjoyed the climax as much as I did and were only too willing to let their pleasure be known.

What I got was people complaining that the big, loud climax of the episode, where planet Earth is dragged back across time and space by the most powerful machine and mind in creation, was so bad and cheesy they actually had to leave the room for a bit.

They were left with bitter tastes in their mouths, where I had found contentment. According to the fans on the blog, Journeys End was a structural, conceptual and creative bellyflop from the high dive board.

Which was okay. I could live with that. It certainly wasn’t the reaction I had, but it was easy enough to see that there were things other viewers of the show would cringe at.

But the thing is, going by internet reaction, these were the feelings of the vast majority of people watching it. And it just wasn’t true. Leaving aside the extraordinarily positive reaction the public showed in the BBC’s own satisfaction index, a poll on the group blog showed that two-thirds of the site’s readers actually liked the finale, when that ratio was switched around with the actual blog writers.

Poking around on the net some more, there was still some fine writing to be found, essays and articles that enriched the experience, pointing out thematic twists and overreaching arcs that I had missed on first viewing.

But the incredibly negative reaction got to me. Maybe they were right and the stuff I found exciting and stimulating really was rubbish. Maybe my judgement went out the window when it comes to a television show I’ve had a genuinely emotional relationship over the decades.

No! No, it’s the children that are wrong.

This reaction against the lazy negativity has been put to the test over the past year with the release of a number of comics, movies and television shows that I’ve enjoyed, including Speed Race and Final Crisis, only to be baffled by the reaction of some of those who could not find a single good word to say about them.

It all reached some kind of personal apocalypse when Battlestar Galactica recently wrapped up. Going into the final episode, it was obvious that no matter what kind of ending was offered, it would never find favour with everybody. The surprisingly complex series appealed to a wide range of people by touching on a number of interesting and complicated themes, while also offering up loads of space sex and star violence.

But in reaching so high, it was destined to fall, at least in the minds of some viewers. With some watching for the action scenes, others were tuning in for the vigorous philosophy that sometimes involved people punching each other in the face.

There were plenty of other appealing aspects, from special effects that were occasionally truly spectacular to theological and existential debates that were thicker than glue to some extraordinary uses of music. The downside of all these aspects is that while they all melded together beautifully, there would always be significant members of the audience who would find their tastes challenged and almost insulted.

So when the last episode wrapped up with that particular ending, using the mystery nature of the divine as a catch-all explanation for the extraordinary coincidences and conclusions made by the characters, it was instantly obvious that this would not be popular with many people.

With this in mind, I still couldn’t help myself from reading some fine analysis of that climax and what it all means. Alan Sepinwall has been a favourite for a long time and didn’t disappoint, while Sean T Collins and Thinking Patrick also made a number of excellent points. There were several others that also helped me appreciate the finale in a number of interesting ways.

And then there was the hate.

At first, it was easy enough to ignore, but I couldn’t stop myself from checking out more and more writing about the programme. And there seemed to be more and more people that disliked the final episode so much it appeared to have destroyed everything they had ever liked about the show. A cute robot montage at the end and a couple of unanswered questions and Ron Moore was dead to these people.

And again, I was left utterly baffled by just how much people disliked it. There was no love here, from people who had watched every episode and professed to be amongst the show’s biggest fans. The fact that the character in Baltar’s head could be seen by others and the disappearance of somebody who died last season was automatically stupid and worth standing up and yelling at the screen while watching it with others. This weird anger can’t be healthy.

The fine people at the marvellous Stuff Geeks Love website have often written about the terrible habits and trends that geeks show and this unwarranted antagonism has been a source of many threads on that site. There is a lot of humour in pointing out the stupidity of this behaviour, but there is also a sense of tired resignation that people still feel the need to express themselves in such a thoroughly obnoxious manner.

I know I shouldn’t read these idiotic criticisms, but there is always the chance there might be the odd good point or revelation, or a new way of looking at what I had seen. And I do try to understand where these people are coming from, even though I feel like their adolescent sense of entitlement burns me with its with stupidity and I can’t believe that with so much shit in the world, with so much horror and misery that people are living with, that their focus on fucking television shows and other entertainments they don’t like betrays a retarded sense of proportion.

I guess the thing that really gets me isn’t that these people are whiny little bitches with no sense of perspective. It’s that they claim to be genuine fans of the work, while missing the point of it entirely. It’s like people saying that Garth Ennis’ run on the Punisher is their favourite comic because he’s always shooting people in the face, but all that stuff about existential horror is stupid. Or that The Sopranos was no good if an episode went by without any whacking.

How can people who claim to identify with works like these fundamentally miss the point of them? I still can’t figure out why so many superhero fans can be homophobic and misogynistic dicks, when they grow up reading about characters who are fundamentally opposed to such prejudices.

I know this long and illiterate blog post is little more than bitchiung about bitching, but I do hope the haters can let a little love into their heart. With all that bile they release, this illogical hate towards people who are doing their best to entertain them can’t be healthy. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

It’s been a Love and Rockets weekend.

When stuck for something to read before going to bed on Friday night, I picked up the House of Raging Women book, volume five of the complete Love and Rockets, because I hadn’t read it for a while. So that was my weekend fucked.

I’ve mentioned before that I get a bit obsessive on this comic. It shows no sign of easing and after finally, finally completing the L&R collection a couple of years ago, it’s just so much fun to dip in and out of its history, looking for new takes on a familiar story and usually finding them, non-linear reading of a complex work.

(This can be surprisingly rewarding sometimes and not just with Los Bros Hernandez. The second time I read Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, I read it by starting at the last chapter and moving backwards to the first. This produced some remarkable results in the reading experience.)

So it’s been a weekend of sitting in the sun and bombing around 1982 to 2008, stopping by for a swim in the Poison River before some BEM for breakfast. Follow it up with the painfully sad climax to Wigwam Bam before giving Mario another go.

It’s a weekend of going into the mountains after Jesus in the heat and cowering from Penny Century playing superheroes in one of the 100 Rooms. And wondering if the information Beto revealed in the sketchbooks about Maria being both Fritz’s daughter and mother was ever put down in comic form. And remembering what it felt like to walk all over town looking for a record somebody borrowed, because you had no money for petrol.

After more than quarter of a century’s worth of top-class stories, Love and Rockets is an astoundingly complex work that is nothing to be afraid of. It offers work that is constantly impressive and crushingly human.

Both Hernandez brothers are absolute legendary at characterization and have saddled these wonderful people they write about with so much love and history and tragedy and plain old strangeness. Rena in the ring, Maggie working on a spaceship, Heraclio getting drunk with Tipin Tipin and Martin after Carmen kicks him out. The ongoing crisis of Ray D an his easy friendship with Doyle Blackburn. Dead children and the people who still look after them. The ghosts under the tree and the people who see them. Histories hidden in a small smile, earth-shattering events hidden between the panels.

It’s also been a weekend of free food and reading a trashy Hellblazer novel and hearing Dylan Horrocks talk about digital distribution of his comics, which was easily the most fascinating thing I’ve heard all year. That’s a pretty fuckin’ good weekend in my book.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Living in Spoilage

There once was a time, back in the dark old days before the internet, when I didn't have a fucking clue what was going to happen in a comic book until I actually read the bloody thing.

With no comic shops around for hundreds of kilometers, (and when you're a kid with no income and no access to decent own transport, they might as well be on the far side of the moon), just about the only form of information came in advertisements in other comics, Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins and the very, very occasional comic-related publication that I stumbled across.

The lack of knowledge wasn't confined to comics, of course, and it was always a vague mystery as to what was going to come up in movies and television shows. The mass appeal of these mediums meant there was a little more information than in comic's ghetto of popular culture, but there was still a lot of ignorance. For a long, long time, all I knew about ET was that it was something so popular they made shoelaces with pictures of the main character on them.

This level of blissful ignorance lasted right up to the mid-90s. I can still remember reading the Death of Superman and the only clue I had that it wasn't permanent, (outside the obvious knowledge that super-heroes never really die), was in the next issue box at the end of each super-issue.

I almost shat myself when those boxes started saying there was no information about upcoming issues towards the end of Funeral For A Friend. This probably says more about my naivety than my pooping habits.

Things have changed, as they do. The internet has been the prime mover behind this, but access to other parts of information, from the explosion in different television options to an increased access to magazines have all helped. Now it actually takes a conscious effort to avoid details that can be a vital part of a movie experience.

Fortunately, people have, by and large, adjusted and the idea of spoiling details is seen as a major social faux pas. This doesn't prevent some from delighting in the misery of others, but, by and large, folk are pretty good about this sort of thing. (Although sometimes the desire to avoid revelations can be bad enough, with any review that bangs on about a magnificent plot twist almost as bad as something that spells it out, with anticipation leading to an assumption of the revelation before it is due.)

But still, the level of those who shriek of spoilers when the slightest hint of data is revealed sometimes baffles me. Even if I know how a movie is going to end, it doesn't make it any less worthwhile. Those who say there is no need to see something because they know the final outcome seem to be missing the entire point of a story. That it is not just a series of vague events leading up to an eventual conclusion, but an actual tale with something to say beyond the plot mechanics.

For example, after watching the first two seasons of The Wire on DVD, I couldn't help myself and looked up details on the internet. Thanks to the genius of local programmers and DVD importers, the later seasons played at the most ungodly hour possible, with no sign of any release of any box sets of the last three seasons at all. Outside of illegal downloads and the necessity of personal importation, there was little chance of seeing how things turned out, so resorting to Wikipedia to find out the fates of essential characters felt like a viable option.

(It didn't really work like that, and I ended up seeing all five seasons in less than a year...)

And yet, even though I knew who died a few episodes from the end, and who is forced into retirement, it didn't make me any less eager to see those episodes. The big plot manoeuvres may have been revealed, but that's not what the programme was about. The cyclical nature of things, with a new generation coming in and making the same old mistakes as the last, is a fine wall to hang a plot on, but personally, I watched the programme for the details.

It's the little things, the bits that tie together and bind and create the overall themes that hit the mark. It's the characters who live their lives, one piece at a time. It's not to see if McNulty is going to keep his badge, the character is so much more than that.

There are, of course, still programmes where the big plot twists are a significant part of the reader's enjoyment, and avoiding any spoilers is only possible if the viewer is only able to see the latest episode as soon as possible. I might feel a little guilty torrenting American television shows, but as episodes of Battlestar Galactica which screened recently in the States are still months away from appearing on local screens, avoiding the answers that lie behind the series will be impossible without completely cutting off from the wider pop culture web, or by downloading episodes hours after they screen on the Sci-Fi channel. Not a hard choice.

(Although it could be argued that spoilage could have helped the viewing experience, even with something as shock-heavy as Galactica. Watching the final episodes and spending so much effort waiting for the final shocking twist, the magnitude of the achievement was only noticed on a second viewing. The big questions aren't always the most important ones.)

With comics, it's a little bit easier, with issues coming out days after their US release. It's easy enough to avoid details, there is little media coverage to avoid, and comic book readers are, by and large, surprisingly good about spoilers. With many mainstream comics relying pretty on shock deaths and last page guest appearances to keep the ongoing plot machine working, a lot of comic people are very good at keeping quiet on the big events, for a few days at least.

Sometimes they can go a bit far in the other direction, and leap down the throats of anybody who lets slip with the most minor of details, adamant that knowing what happens on page three has destroyed their entire enjoyment of the comic.

This is something that has always confused me. A good plot is a vital part of any tale, but it's not the whole thing. In his Writing For Comics essay, published a couple of years back in a nifty new form by Avatar, Alan Moore vaguely defines plot as what happens in a story, but not the story itself.

Living in the spoileriffic age, details and bit and pieces of a tale are always going to leak through, and rather than stress about what is lost, we should all enjoy the things around the plot. Because all that mood, characterisation and style is so much more important than the latest guest star.