Thursday, November 26, 2009

All the young punks

“They’ll bury me a punk,” says Domino, bitching about the Pistols on CD, just before his brain gets fried and his head gets twisted off in one of the last episodes of Zenith.

Sometimes, I know exactly how he feels.

* * *

There is one moment in time when I became a punk for life. Somewhere in 1995 and I’m watching the No Fun episode of the BBC documentary Dancing In The Streets – all about the punk and reggae scenes of the seventies – while reading John Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.

There is a flow found in the BBC series and Savage's book, from rockabilly to Roadrunner to Max’s Kansas City to those dingy little rehearsal rooms in Soho, picking up with the heavy reggae influences of the time to create something new and exciting.

And that flow goes back even further in Lipstick Traces, back into a history of absurdity and individual freedom. Marcus draws a long and tenuous connection between the Dada artists of the early 20th century making it rain inside cabs and Johnny Rotten’s sneer, but I can see the deal: ideas and visions sparking across decades. Grinding guitars and screen printing genius: it’s all the same.

They’ll bury me a punk after this.

* * *

What does punk mean, anyway?

It’s loud, obnoxious and pisses off all the right people. It can also be ideologically sound, smart, funny and emotionally devastating. Just like music should be. It diversifies into a thousand different genres and movements, but it always comes back to the music.

It’s not a particular sound. Buzzsaw guitars and a sneering lyric do not make a punk song. It’s a short, sharp shock to the system, something that wakes you up and pisses off quickly.

It’s youthful stupidity and breaking stuff apart to see how it works. It might not go back together the same way and might be a little jarring at first, but at least it’s something new.

It’s an energy, a raw enthusiasm.

It’s life in less than three minutes.

It’s anybody can do it.

* * *

And that music. That wonderful, wonderful music that came out of all this.

Like any musical movement, there is plenty of trash, but the good stuff can be better than anything. Short catchy songs with killer melodies, driving beats and noisy guitars will always find an appreciative audience.

And like any other music, it’s a style that attracted its fair share of stone-cold geniuses: musical kings and queens who crafted songs of heartbreaking fragility, hidden beneath a whirlwind of noise. They showed up in New York and LA and London and Manchester and all over the world, all making some righteous noise.

* * *

And it seeped into the world of comics in the most organic way. The wave of British comics creators that swept over mainstream comics in the 1980s - a tsunami of hair, amphetamines and cultural wealth - had many of its roots in the punk ideal. Creators like Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot and Alan Moore cut their artistic teeth in the fabled UK Art Labs of the ‘70s, but hit their peaks in the wake of punk idealism, which filtered through into their comics.

And it’s still there. Punk comics in every town – the fanzine mentality that will never die. Most of these proto-efforts go nowhere, but sometimes they produce something wonderful.

Once upon a time, there were none more punk than Los Bros Hernandez and that freewheeling storytelling and joyous self-indulgence is still there in everything they do. Nobody told them you had to live in New York and draw adventures of men in tights to make it in the comic biz, they just went out there and did it.

Anybody can do it. The old punk credo of picking up a guitar, learning three chords and getting out there to form a band applies to comics more than anything else. Whip up a few pages of art and words, run off a few copies and staple that shit together. Put it out into the world, see what happens.

Sure, it can be crushing when nothing at all actually happens, but at least you’re trying.

* * *

It’s a bit harder to do all that in the movies as singular visions get swallowed up by the vast machine of movie making.

But it can still be done. Low budget films with high ideas – usually young and hungry directors who scrape to pull their projects together and sometimes manage to squeeze some art out of their work.

And some make a whole career out of it. Directors as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Spike Jonze have kept their punk credentials intact for their films, pleasingly refusing to cater to their audiences, but always worth watching.

* * *

It’s like this: Da na a na na naaa DA DA DA naaasaaaa!

* * *

They’re still out there, god bless ‘em. Refugees of ’77, bouncing up to the front of the crowd.

At a recent Buzzcocks gig in the centre of Auckland, the average age of the crowd was about 47 and that’s including some shockingly young boys up the front. (Got to hand it to those guys, sneaking out to slam it with the Buzzcocks in a good way to spend a teenage Saturday night.)

But for some, that fire never fucking burns out. That passion, that vigour – it never dies.

They’ll happily bury me a punk.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A month of $1 cinema

All movies fall into four categories. There are those that I will see full price in the cinema, as soon as possible. There might be as many as two dozen of these every year and they rarely disappoint.

Then there are those that I can wait for on DVD, and get them out as soon as they become a new release. Sometimes I will see them in the cinema, but usually I can wait.

TV movies are right down the bottom. If they are on when I'm seriously bored, they might be worth a look, but I won't go out of my way for them.

And then there are the dollar DVDs. The local video store has a fantastic selection of back-catalogue DVDs that can be hired for $1 a week. While it has a superb range of TV shows that I have been greedily snapping up, it's the movies that I end up getting out week after week.

With less than three months from new release to back catalogue, I can wait for almost anything and the vast majority of the movies I watch tend to come from that $1 selection.

I might end up with a eclectic group of films, ranging from none-more-arty European films from the 50s that I've never got the chance to see, through to the latest blockbusting mediocrities. I watch them all. I can't help it.

In the last month, these have included:

Seraphim Falls
With meaty acting and enough narrative drama to keep the whole thing ticking along nicely, Seraphim is a small treat of a movie. Liam Neeson wants to kill Pierce Brosnan for somethin' he did during the Civil war, and Brosnan might just give him that death, if he can stop running for long enough. It's all leading to a slow crawl of a trek across a harsh desert, but pays off with an ending that is suitably cathartic.

Felt like it was just getting going, but then it stopped. What happened to the bit where it all turns to shit for Little Johnny Rambo and he gets tortured, and then breaks out and goes 'Raaaaa!'? It's just not a Rambo film without that.

There Will Be Blood
An essential watch at the cinema, but one that required a second viewing to determine whether I actually liked it or not. I honestly could not tell the first time and I'm still a bit fuzzy about many of my feelings after a second viewing. Although it was a hell of a lot funnier the second time.

Creepshow 3
Who even know this existed? While I have an inordinate amount of fondness for the first two Stephen King-led movies, it was an utter surprise to see this sitting on the shelf at the DVD store. Unfortunately, it is absolutely awful. Terrible acting, zero sense of style and stories that make no kind of narrative sense in any way. Good gooey effects, though.
(Thirty seconds of research has revealed that the directors of this were responsible for the execrable Day of the Dead 2: Contagium, so I really only have myself to blame.)

Sukiyaki Western Django
Tarantino was painful to watch, but those poor Japanese actors forced to spout mangled English were even worse. It sure looked nice and had a suitably chaotic and ridiculous climax, but all the shrieking can get a bit much.

The Wave
Punk teacher shows German students how easy it is to fall into fascism by turning them into fascists. Surprisingly, it all goes horribly wrong.

The Right Stuff
Hired because it's fucking awesome and the wife had not seen it. I keep meaning to buy a copy, but have never seen one for sale around these parts and couldn't wait any more. The wife and I both have a total crush on early-80s Sam Shepard now.

The Inglorious Bastards
The original film, given a spanking new release in the wake of Tarantino's effort. Even though it never got a theatrical release back in the 70s and features some appalling Italian acting, it is still a ruthlessly entertaining film as the titular bastards mow down hundreds of German soldiers with glee. It's clumsy and sometimes stupid, but is wonderfully relentless. That's enough for me.

The last X-Files film
Bloody hell, that was boring. No spectacle, no real spark and Mulder remains the worst FBI agent ever, constantly doing stupid things that put himself in danger because the plot needs him to.

Rogue Assassin or War or something
You can usually get something out of movies that involved Jet Li and Jason Statham beating each other up, but this film didn't quite cut it, no matter what title it was given. Maybe it was because the two men never really fought each other until the climax, which got a bit dreary and lacked the touch of the spectacular it needed. That twist was rubbish too.

Lost Boys 2
Oh dear. Using Kiefer's brother to play the lead vampire in this must have seemed like such a good deal in theory. Shame he turned out to be an utter charisma vacuum.

The Exterminating Angel
Luis Bunuel's 1962 film has a bunch of upper-class people inexplicably unable to leave a room after a dinner party, reverting to natural savagery as the food, water and medicine runs out. It might be a scathing indictment of the bourgeois, but it's also the freakiest film I've seen in a long, long time. There was something deeply creepy about the way nobody could leave or
enter the house it was set in, and the lack of any explanation for the mystery and the understated way it affects all those around it really hits home.

10,000 BC
Couldn't even bear to watch it properly by the halfway point and set the fast forward for the rest of the film, with added subtitles to keep track of what the score was. There was apparently some shouting and yelling and people making faces at each other.

Straight To Hell
Alex Cox's film features horrible people doing horrible things to each other and freaked me out in a way only low budget films made in the 1980s can. And yet, the bit where the entire cast sings Danny Boy was oddly moving and has remain stuck in my head for weeks. Even the dirtiest, messiest and nastiest films can have a heart.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can't get enough

I can never, ever get enough of these seven comics:

Aparo Batman

Everybody knows Aparo Batman is the only real Batman but it’s still astonishing how many adventures of the Dark Knight Detective Big Jim actually drew. There is that massive run on Brave and the Bold – which gave him a chance to portray everybody in the DC Univesre with his unique hyper-hard bodies and sexy, sexy eyebrows – but there were also significant portions of the regular and spin-off Batman titles – thousands and thousands of pages worth. While he was often overshadowed by the flash of Neal Adams, he was solid as fuck.

He was getting a bit sloppy around the whole Knightfall thing but he could still draw a great furrowed brow, which more than made up for any stiffness.

And he’s gone now. He died in 2005, leaving behind a massive body of work from his decades of Bat-art. I will always, always buy some Aparo Batman comics if I see them going cheap. Sometimes I just like to go to a comic shop with a good back-issue selection and just look at the covers. They still pop.

Judge Dredd by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra

These gentlemen have been working on the same character for more than three decades and have had the enviable opportunity to develop and grow that character accordingly. Both writer and artist have an unsurpassed sense of storytelling that have gradually evolved over their years in the weekly grind of British comics.

They’re working on Strontium Dog at the moment and that’s almost as brilliant, but after years of collaboration, a Wagner/Ezquerra Dredd story is still something special and always worth looking out for.

Grendel Prime by Matt Wagenr

I always find Grendel Prime far more interesting than Hunter Rose and that makes no sense at all. Rose is a complex man, driven by dark desires and vicious wryness, Prime is a brain in a robot who brings death wherever he goes.

But I still dig the big robot. That singularity of purpose, the way it never, ever stops once it has set its squishy mind to it.

It’s a damn shame the future history of the Grendel universe has lain dormant for so long. It was one of the most fascinating aspects of Wagner’s saga and is still open and ripe for storytelling opportunities.

Wagner hasn’t completely abandoned the entire continuity, with some powerful use of future portents in the most recent Hunter Rose series. So there is always the chance Grendel Prime will come out of the wild again, and I’ll be waiting. While keeping a safe distance.

100 Horrors by Paul Chadwick

I think he got up to number nine. I still have nightmares about the one that featuring an alien ray burrowing through the planet, but most of them made me laugh. Chadwick retains an absolutely singular sense of irony and humour and comics that feature that are always a lot better than the happily preachy ones.

Nikolai Dante, drawn by Simon Fraser

The Tearoom of Despair has already been embarrassingly eager about this 2000ad comic strip and has no desire to bare all like that again.

But as the Adventures of Nikolai Dante rush towards an undoubtedly tragic and spectacular conclusion, every bit of Fraser art is welcomed. John Burns is a fine, fine artist and creators such as Paul Marshall are capable of filling in with style, but Dante has always been Fraser’s strip. It has so much energy and

JLA written by Grant Morrison

I like Hitman more than Preacher, and sometimes I like Morrison’s JLA more than The Invisibles.

And I fucking love the Invisibles.

Love and Rockets

Always the best.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the side with the butter

Eight long years after the collapse of the Twin Towers that horrible day in 2001, the date itself has become a nounand the cultural rubble is still falling.

Artistically, most of the world has moved on, although fears and worldviews and themes stirred up in the dust of the falling towers are still plainly there. It was a different story in the weeks after the event, with comics joining in with the general cultural confusion over the event. This saw the publication of several different books that produced a huge variety of stories and images, with an even greater variety of quality.

Unsurprisingly, the books produced by the most mainstream American comic publishers fared the worst. Squeezing the destruction of that day into the Marvel and DC universe was often ham-fisted to the point of actually generating humour out of a tragic event, with Doctor Doom's tears over Ground Zero standing out as the most misguided moment in any tribute.

Frankly, on worlds that frequently see entire cities destroyed with the loss of millions of lives, it is hard to see how the events of September 11 would even make a dent in the culture of these places. If anything, it once again showed that slapping brightly coloured superheroes created decades ago into a realistic setting is doomed to failure, no matter how good the intentions.

There were some genuinely moving and thoughtful stories in Marvel and DC's books that dealt with the date, but the ratio was much higher in those produced by publishers outside the usual superfist market. There were still some truly awful comics created in these books, with many creators taking the easy route out and retelling exactly how they heard the news and how it brought their whole world crashing down when they realised that bad things sometimes happen to good people, but there were still many that gave interesting perspectives on the event and its overall effects.

As is often the case in comics, one of the very best of these stories came from the pen of Alan Moore. Working with his creative and literal partner Melinda Gebbe, Moore gave us This Is Information, a genuinely moving meditation on the destruction and the events surrounding it. While a common foreign perspective of the event is that America brought down the destruction upon itself with short-sighted and massively violent foreign policies stretching back decades, Moore doesn't take this position, something that is especially admirable when considering how clearly and entertainingly he laid out the facts behind those policies in the brilliant Brought To Light with Bill Sienkiwicz.

Instead, Moore cuts through all the bullshit by presenting something that is absolutely drenched in pure humanity and empathy for all those involved. He baldly states how even one human life has so much more complexity and importance than the biggest building in the world, and how the destruction of that life throws it all into perspective. And in one of the most moving things Moore has ever written, he chooses a side.

In the aftermath of September 11, the idea that you were either with America or against it was repeated often, from bloggers with no power beyond their keyboard to Presidents with more power than they should probably have. For a lot of people, it really was this simple. There were bad guys and good guys and the only way to deal with the bad ones were to put them down like a diseased animal.

This idea is a standard in some of the great fictions people have produced for centuries, from ancient ballads to John Wayne westerns to Sin City. Unfortunately, the real world isn't that black and white and doesn't really work like that.

In This Is Information, Moore shows he doesn't care about this great divide between the white and black hats. In The Great Game of retribution and nationalism and death, always the death, he can't choose a side. Instead, he chooses life.

Moore chooses anybody with enough love in their hearts to stand up against the despair, he chooses humanity at its best, at its most pure. He chooses us, if we can be strong enough to transcend our own hatred and fear. He chooses your side. He chooses you.

In just a few short panels, with a sheer economy of words that is staggering, Moore makes it clear that there aren't any really sides, outside what we choose to see, outside of what we make up in our heads.

The same thing can be seen in Grant Morrison's Invisibles, where – sandwiched between all the time-travel and sexy assassins and witchcraft and explanations of the universe - the simple lesson that there never really were any good guys or bad is right fucking there.

The series kicked off with a tagline asking whose side you were on, but by the time the comic finished, just in time to kick off a whole new century, it had made it abundantly clear there really was no difference between the “good and evil” factions facing off against each other, where apocalyptic horror wastelands were just another facet of the Invisible College.

Despite their very public differences, Moore and Morrison share many storytelling interests, and their ability to see things from the perspectives of all involved is one of their finest. And it's one that must go a hell of a lot further than the printed page, out here in the real world.

There are so many out there who believe they are surrounded by enemies, and that the only way to survive is to fight back. But if we can step back from this destructive impulse and see it for the stupidity it is, then maybe we can see there is a side that has no side, that is outside death and revenge and horror.

That's the side I want to be on.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two Phils and a dose of DC diplomacy

I really liked Philip Tan’s artwork in the last issue of Batman and Robin and I don’t even need to be ironic about it.

It’s the rushed, messy quality of it all. It certainly looks like Tan has been under some deadline pressure, but that just gives his work all a raw, energetic vibe. Jim Lee can be a fantastic artist, but his style of excessive cross-hatching has had a lamentable impact on individual styles over the past decade. Stripped of the time to do that, Tan just slaps the art and produces some surprising results.

There are bits in here that look like an off-day Paul Pope panel, (and while that sounds bad, I really do mean it as a huge compliment.) The action all gets murky and crazy, and that works with the story just fine.

I didn’t like Philip Tan when this started, but I do now. He was the odd one out in a stellar line-up of artists, but he was perfectly fine.

* * *

Biggest disappointment of the year: discovering that Red Herring wasn’t going to have full artwork from Philip Bond.

Red Herring is one of those tiny imprint Wildstorm comics that nobody really cares about. I think it sells about 5000 copies in the US direct market. While it has the thoroughly capable David Tischman on script, it’s a fairly inert low-grade conspiracy thriller that sometimes works, but usually doesn’t. It also has some terrible names for characters.

But I still ordered it because it had Philip Bond on art duties and I get everything he does. I find Bond’s art so massively appealing. It’s something about those squat, weighty bodies and pixie faces. From Endless Summer to Time Flies to Vimanarama. I even have an illogical fondness for shitty little mini-comics where the artist is blatantly swiping Bond’s style. (And when it comes to shitty little mini-comics, Bond imitators are only outnumbered by Jim Mahfood lovers, although some manage to combine the two quite well.)

So the first two issues of Red Herring had some full-on Bond art and it was wonderful, even if it seemed a little restrained. And then the third and fourth issues are out and Bond is reduced to a “storytelling” credit, with David Hahn on full art duties.

And Hahn is okay and the layouts all have that Bond storytelling skill, but it’s just not the same. The covers are still good, and the title of the third issue is my favourite individual comic title of the year, but I signed on for Bond. Not the imitation.

* * *

The political situation in the DC Universe must be pretty bloody messy, but I can’t help reading a short bit of diplomacy seen in a recent DC comic over and over and over again, and it’s so bloody funny because it sums up the complex global political landscape of that world so well.

It’s chapter nine of the Tangent: Superman’s Reign 12-issue series – written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by Carlos Magno – and the fascist black Superman from the Tangent Universe has gathered all the world leaders together to lay out his plans.

And this is how the rulers of the world, people of diplomacy, respond:

“No! Never!”

“You kidnapped us! We will never follow you!”

“Release us! Return us to our people!”

“You will pay for this!”

“We shall never cooperate with you! My security force will have your head for your actions!”

“As will mine!”

“You are a dead man!”

“Who are you to be so audacious?”

“There isn’t a person here who will follow you!”

“Egypt will never be yours!”

“Even if you have the means, you have no right!”

“Earth’s protectors will stop you!”

“No one elected you to do these things!”

“You weren’t given the right to rule – to tell us what to do!”

“You won’t get away with this!”

“You’re no Superman!”

“The real Superman will find you! And when he does you’ll be done for!”

Somebody got money for writing this dialogue. All said while waving fists in the air. After the bad guy hovers away, everyone just stands around looking stupid, as if they just realized that there are better ways to argue points of liberty and freedom than throw lame threats around.

I don’t know why, but that cracks me up every time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Doctor never loses

There will be a new episode of Doctor Who this weekend. There will be a new adventure in time and space. And I can’t wait. Even though I know I will bawl like a baby through those opening credits.

It has happened damn near every time I’ve watched a new episode in the past five years. Those opening credits spark up, a new Doctor Who episode starts and it quite literally moves me to tears, every single time.

I can't help it. From the moment it starts with that screech, (that one that still sounds like it's coming from the end of time), I get that weird chill down my spine and the horrible lump in my throat. By the time the logo comes up, I'm wiping away the tears. It's sad and pretty goddamn pathetic, but it happens every time I sit down to watch a new episode.

A lot of it is that music, a simple enough little tune dreamed up by Ron Grainer and the suitably scientific sounding Radiophonic department at the BBC more than 40 years ago.

With a thudding bass line and unearthly wailing, the theme has, fittingly, stood the test of time. It can be endlessly reworked while still remaining unmistakable, and in its own way, manages to sum up much of the appeal of the show itself.

The solid rhythm that underlines that theme can – if the point is stretched just far enough - be seen as the most basic and oddly linear of plots that almost all Who stories adhere to in a strict episodic format. All that high-tech blaring that goes with it represents the craziness that gets slapped on top of that plot, all the outrageous sci-fi concepts and characters that the writers delight in dreaming up.

Then again, it could just be a fucking good tune. That, at the very least, is hard to deny.

Even harder to deny is how well it goes with the visuals in the opening credits. Apart from the period when the show was produced in the eighties, the credits have featured a display of something truly out of this world, showing a trip through the time/space vortex, broken only by the sight of the Doctor's beaming face or credits spinning up through history towards the viewer.

All of this is enough to make the credit sequence once of the greatest in television history, but for this sad, pathetic viewer, it's so much more than that.

The thing is, when I sit down to watch a brand new episode of Dr Who, I know what I'm going to get: A tale with heavy science-fiction and horror elements featuring a time-travelling force for good who never, ever loses, although the cost can sometimes be more than even those Gallifreyan shoulders can handle. It will be a story with humour and humanity, compassion and action, a girl with a nice arse and lots of running down corridors, death and sheer, glorious life.

Of course, my love for this programme doesn't completely blind me to its faults: A history of dodgy acting and dodgier sets, undisguised plot padding and stretches of dull dialogue. That's okay. What is more remarkable is that the new series often lives up to the expectations built up by that opening piece, with whole episodes of sheer fucking genius like The Girl In The Fireplace, to little moments that fill me with emotions I sometimes forget I have, like that bit in The Parting of the Ways where the Doctor's recording is talking to Rose after he made her go home in the Tardis and it turns and looks RIGHT AT HER.

And there is even more to it than that for me. Doctor Who has always been my favourite television show, even though I didn't always acknowledge it. Right from the time when I was a really little kid and thought there were two different versions of the show, one with that white-haired old guy who fought dinosaurs with judo chops and one on another channel with the curly-haired guy with the scarf finding disembodied hands in quarries.

From there, I was hooked for life. Reading the Target novelization of the Dalek Invasion of Earth over and over again and never once getting sick of it; throwing a massive tantrum because I was missing the second episode of a repeat screening of the Mind Robber to go to a stupid school production; realising as I got a bit older that Wendy Padbury and Katie Manning actually looked damn fine in those mini-skirts; becoming massively obsessed with reading the New Adventures, just as Virgin lost the rights; subscribing to a goddamn fanzine; hearing about this new series and even though I knew it was in good hands, getting pleasantly surprised by how well they pulled it off.

I love, love, love everything about the new series. I can see why people get annoyed by the overblown pomposity of it all, but the sillier and madder it gets

So now, here I am, on the far side of 30 and married and responsible and all that, with all the little pressures and big stresses that go with adult life, and it all falls away when I sit down to watch Doctor Who.

Because when I sit down and watch The Waters Of Mars, all will be well with the world.

Just a little bit, it all goes away and all that matters is the enjoyment of watching a television show I love more than anything else ever screened. Because Doctor Who is off on another adventure in time and space.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My mate Garth

When he was 20, Garth Ennis was writing Judge Dredd and I’ve been jealous of the prick ever since. If he wasn’t the best writer in comics, it’d be pretty easy to hate him.

* * *

I keep my comics in banana boxes: they’re sturdy, easy to move and store hundreds of issues. On top of them I scrawl a brief description of what’s inside. One of them has eleven different titles on it, from Secret Origins to Minx to Ultimates. One of them just says ENNIS.

This is what’s inside:

Fury: Peacemaker. Every issue of Dicks and Adventures of the Rifle Brigade. The first three issues of Tangled Web. 303. Unknown Soldier, both Bloody Mary comics. Every issue of Goddess and a shamefully few Hitmen comics. Every issue of Just A Pilgrim bar one, and every War Story bar two, which I can’t find fuckin’ anywhere. The first six Midnighter comics and all of the Chronicles of Wormwood. Every issue of Punisher that Steve Dillon drew. 12 issues of The Demon. Battler Britton. Thor: Vikings. 90% of his Hellblazer issues and 100% of Preacher. Punisher – The End, The Cell and The Tyger. Three Battlefields minis. The first 32 issues of The Boys. The Ghost Rider series with the horrible art, and the War Is Hell one with the great art.

There’s more, scattered all over the show, in that pile of 2000ads and on the bookshelf in the main room, where the Punisher max series gets a place of pride, because it’s that fucking good.

* * *

I will read everything Garth Ennis writes, because it’s always good. Sometimes it gets a bit too obvious, sometimes it gets a bit too silly for its own damn good, but there is always something worth noting. A turn of phrase, a slice of humanity served up to you in a story about people getting shot in the face, a dumb joke. There is always something good in there.

* * *
And sometimes, it’s just spectacular.

Take Punisher: The Tyger. That’s one comic that had no right being as good as it was. A simple story with an easy plot: young Frank realizes the world is a horrible place. Excellent art from the great John Severin help make it look attractive, but Ennis’ pacing, subtext and execution of the plot is flawless. The use of Blake’s poem and that explanation for that stupid bloody skull that is worthy, clever and truly poetic. It’s a fantastically simple story that says multitudes about the character, what he represents and what it means for all of humanity.

And this is just one of his comics. It’s not even the best of the Punisher one-shots that Garth did. The End and The Cell were both incredibly complex and equally horrific tales with a weary resignation for all the world.

Nobody expects this from a Punisher comic, but its fucking brilliant when it does happen.

* * *

Whenever Ennis starts a story about soldiers, you can always rely on some cocksucker piping up to complain that he only ever writes war stories and needs to branch into other genres if he is ever going to get anywhere in the foetid world of comics.

This usually means they would fall over themselves to see Ennis give Batman the same treatment he gave the Punisher, but sneer at his war stories because they’re not important in the Grand Continuity.

(They don’t matter? The greatest horrors of the 20th century and the vast events that surround them don’t compare to seeing the Joker dropkicked right back into his Arkham cell? Really?)

Geeks love to put everything in their right little boxes, and this includes defining a creator by a particular genre. By this reasoning, Geoff Johns is the current god of superhero writers. Chris Ware is the king of 'Oh God, Why Is This Happening To Me' comics. And Ennis is that guy who writes war comics.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the finest comic stories ever created have appeared in war comics, pushing aside testosterone fuelled action blasts to show the true horror of conflict and the effects it has on the human soul. From Kutzmann's tales of terrified action in the Korea War, to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhon's sublime Charley's War, comics set against a background of battlegrounds and conflicts can be emotionally devastating. Ennis has contributed his fair share of tales like this, something the writer must be congratulated for.

Unfortunately, comments about the fact that Ennis is working on another war story often present this as a negative feature. That the Irish writer is falling into a well-known subject, taking the easiest route to get to a story.

Considering the amount of new superhero comics that flood the shelves every week, complaints about a bit of variety in there are stupid and illogical. If Ennis wants to square things a little by applying his easy flow and sharp insight to comics books about war, you can’t blame the man.

(And thank God he never uses is superheroes in combat settings. It’s all right seeing them on the home front, digging out ratzi spies, but they just look wrong on the grime of the battlefield. The recent team-up between The Flash and the Blackhawks in Brave and the Bold was far more tasteless than anything in Herogasm.)

There are a millions of stories that could be told with a war background, the intensity of combat and the horrendous toll of human life. You can plunge into the depth of depression and depravity of trench warfare and still find hope in a flower that has avoided the bombs.

Most of mankind have managed to avoid getting into wars for decades, but our ancestors lived with these horrors on a regular basis, and they helped create the world we know today.

There is almost no story that can’t be told in a war setting. It covers all the bases of basic drama, and tells us something about ourselves, about humanity, and about how fucked up we can be sometimes.

I’ll never get sick of Ennis stories set against the background of war. His Battlefields and War Stories are some of the best he has ever written. The fact that his tales of war are often his most emotionally satisfying is a testament to the idea that much of the horrific shit going on in these stories actually happened. That is what happens when you drive over somebody with a tank or fill a confined space with fire.

* * *

He also writes a wonderful Superman too.

* * *

The dialogue Ennis puts in the mouths of his characters helps, with each given a rich, idiosyncratic vocabulary that conveys so much characterisation. It’s there in the captions, where Ennis manages to find just the right phrase to enrich the story and it’s there in the interactions between characters.

It’s all subjective, this dialogue thing. I can’t say why someone like Brubaker has characters that sing like Pavarotti, while Geoff Johns’ characters sound like they’re reciting dialogue from a hot teen musical.

As far as this reader goers, Ennis writes the very best dialogue in comics. His words are lyrical, his conversation are sincere. It’s just sad that this remains so rare in modern comics.

* * *

And then there is the humour.

Ennis recognises the humour in everything, and the lower humanity goes, the blacker the humour gets. At one level, there is the hard slapstick of Dicks and a significant part of Ennis’ work does sit at this low-brow level.

And then there are the dead serious works, bemoaning the human condition and showing the worst the world has to give. But even then, there is the humour of absurdity – the nervous laugh at transgressive gore, amusement at the limits the story strives to breach.

Because it is a laugh, this whole world is so crazy and so odd. There are laughs to be found anywhere, even in the horror of the skies over the Russian Front in The Night Witches.

Because we have to laugh to get through the tough times. Humour isn’t just an entertainment, it’s a coping mechanism, and there is nothing worse than a serious story with no sign of this human trait.

* * *

And that’s why I keep reading Ennis’ comics. It’s the humanity. A fierce hatred of all injustice anywhere, combined with a healthy disregard for those in authority, are all well and good, but the sheer humanity on display makes them unmissable. Ennis’ characters feel like real people, with all the awkwardness and unpleasantness this can bring.

No matter what the situation or plot, this is a constant in Garth Ennis’ comics, and could be seen in the earliest days of Troubled Souls, when the main characters try to break out of the cycle of violence they are in, by treating each other as human beings.

It’s still there, in The Boys and Battlefields and everything else Ennis has on his plate. That humanity ensures I’ll always be there to buy everything he does.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Doing the two four

The best time to go to a 24-hour second-hand book sale is early in the morning, but not too early. These places get surprisingly busy at three in the morning, but only stupid people get up at 6.30 on a Sunday morning to drive across town and browse tables full of musty books.

I was there at 6.55 and there were six other people in the hall.

It was great! There were no long, slow browsers there, you could be up and down an aisle in minutes. Looking for key words, key authors, key works – you can do that with a bit of speed.

And I was out of there before eight, with a bunch of new books and I was so chuffed I went and bought eighty dollars worth of meat. I did spend a lot of time trying to decide if I needed the Astronomy A-Z by Patrick Moore, ultimately leaving it because it was so out of date and I really wish I’d bought that now, but I only need a few old books to keep me happy.

There were so, so many bad books on those tables. So many family dynasty sagas set in the 1920s and featuring smart, spunky heroines, plenty of Dan Brown and Bryce Courtney and Wilbur Smith, if that’s your thing. There was also some really good stuff I already had, including the first two parts of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid trilogy. But it was easy enough to ignore all that, and this is what I got from the Auckland 24-hour book sale at seven on a Sunday morning:

Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis.
Made into the classic Get Carter film, with Michael Caine at his double-hard best. Gritty British crime fiction can get bloody sordid, and Lewis was one of the finest at it. He died horribly young, but still produced a number of dirty, gritty crime books that are still a heavy influence on the British crime genre. I haven’t actually read the book the film is based on, but have read other novels by Lewis, so quality is assured.

Blake’s 7: Scorpio Attack, by Trevor Hoyle
Sometimes it gets a bit difficult to justify my love of Blake’s 7, but I had no hesitation in grabbing a 156 page tie-in novel from 1981 because I do still absolutely adore the television series. And a quick breezy read, designed for 14-year-old nerds from the early eighties, is a good little bonus, especially since I had no idea they produced original novelettes at the time of the show.
(Last week I almost bought the 1980 Blake’s 7 annual for $20, but ending up buying some Doctor Who fanzines instead. I should have gone with Blake.)

Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason

There were a few shining examples that stood out from the onslaught of Vietnam War-inspired movies, television shows and books that hit popular culture in the late eighties. Sometimes it took a bit of time, and it did take a while for the charms of something like Full Metal Jacket or Casualties of Ware to become obvious, but Chickenhawk - a brilliant first-person account of flying helicopters into warzones – received a warm welcome from the start
I remember the book as a refreshingly unsentimental look at one aspect of the conflict, and Chickenhawk also benefited from the author’s willingness to write about incidents where he was a complete dick. Books about war are always good, but books about war that show people acting like people in horrific circumstances are always much better.

Eden’s Promise, by Cassie Edwards.

“Beautiful, wild-eyed and golden-haired, Eden Whitney was the most delectable woman Zach Tyson had ever found trussed up in the hold of his pirate ship.”
My wife loves this stuff, and I can see why.

Didn’t you Kill My Mother-In-Law by Roger Wilmut and Peter Rosengard.
I got this book out from the library half a dozen times when I was 15 and thought the people in this book – alternative comedians who revolutionized stand-up comedy in Britain in the early eighties – were the coolest fucking people I’d ever seen.
They mostly just look a bit stupid now.
I am still looking forward to reading the book, as many of the people profiled in it went on to do some wonderful things. (Many went on to do some terrible, terrible things, unfortunately.)
And the new style of comedy, not more than a quarter of a century old, was revolutionary. They really did do wonderful things with comedy which have lasted the test of time. Seeing the Young Ones as a youngster in the middle of a grey decade had a profound influence on this young Bob, and it still makes me laugh.

Viz comics – Holiday Special and The Big Pink Stiff One

Viz has always been an appalling comic, relying on crude sexism, disgusting bodily functions and violence for cheap laughs. But it also appeals to a lot of people who never pick up any other kind of comic. I have one mate who will never read any sort of comic, but loved Viz. (And also the Dicks comics by Ennis and Mcrea. He thought that comic was the bee’s knees.)
After all, it’s still going, so someone must still be reading it.
I bought these books cos I knew I could always flick them on over the internet, and I probably will. But I still had a read of them last night, and the sheer onslaught of swearing, gross nudity and unfeasibly large testicles is still oddly endearing. Maybe I’ll hold onto them to give to my mate…

Spitting Image: The Giant Komic Book

A fascinating read, even if I have no idea who most of the UK politicians skewered in it are. But there is some great art from the likes of Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins (back when they were both pushing UK comics to be all they can be through Deadline), and other lovely talents like Hunt Emerson and Oscar Zarate, who are always welcome. The actual writing on the dozens of strips in the book veers from tedious to nonsensical to interesting and all the way back again, but for a spoof comic about overseas politicians who all retired decades ago, it’s surprisingly readable. Especially for $2.

Apart from a quick flick through, I won’t be looking at any of these books for a while, as I’m about to crack into the long-awaited Blood’s A Rover, the third part of James Ellroy’s aforementioned American Tabloid saga, and that will take a while. And then I’ll be reading nothing but books about Doctor Who for the next two months (and I’m starting with Return of the Living Dad). But it’s always nice to pick up a few cheap books, and know I can ride into the valley of death on a huey, or head off on another space adventure with Avon and his crew, or get some cheap laughs out of the cheapest of humour, whenever I want.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ambush Bugged

There have been plenty of unusual comics come out over 2009 - from the where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from climax of Asterios Polyps to the ongoing monstrosity that is Teen Titans - but Ambush Bug #7 might just be the oddest comic of the year.

It only slipped out quietly last week after months and months of delays, when the creators apparently ran into the usual problems with DC editorial. Comic companies always like to think they can take a joke, but Ambush Bug always seems to go a bit too far.

This is a company that got scared of The Authority doing bad things to super-villains, and 10 years later bases entire crossovers around once-banned thrills. Or always find something objectionable in Alan Moore’s comics every single time, just enough for the man to singe his beard with rage.

But then editors come and go and everybody thinks they’re so much cooler than their predecessors and we’ll show how much fun we are with more Ambush Bug and then it all goes horribly wrong.

This new series, the first for the character and concept in fuckin’ years was deeply weird. There were tons of lovely one-liners, but it turned out to be a load of sound and fury, signifying in-jokes.

Cheapjack Matrix riffs and Twinkies jokes are to be expected from Ambush Bug, but by the time you get to a character wearing a paper bag on his head that says “Not Dan”, it’s impossible to know what’s been cut out, what had to be shuffled around, or whatever the hell it means.

There is no plot, which is all right, because the comic keeps telling itself about this. It doesn’t help that its saddled with a real cut and paste mentality, but it was always going to be all over the show. That’s what Ambush Bug is about.

It’s all quite chipper about it, right up until a downbeat ending, with the bug wandering off into a white void, essentially telling the entire DC universe to go fuck itself.

“They can massacre each other, for all I care.”

Bye, Ambush Bug! Come back in another 15 years!

And then at the end, there is a preview that consists of five pages of Batman smoking, ordering whiskey and shooting at people with twin pistols, and that makes perfect sense in comparison.

Is that it? After taking this metafictional thing as far as you can go without Keith Giffen coming around to your house and kicking your ass, is there anywhere else to go but off into the void?

Man, this comic got in my head so bad that I had a dream the other night about it, where Giffen had a new art style that made me sick when I looked at it. What is going on here?

For a while therem I couldn’t tell if the framing art in this comic was by Keithy. It’s a much simpler, cartoony style that shares the draftsmanship of Giffen’s regular style, but is a lot looser and faster.A bit of experimentation never does anybody any harm, but it turned out it was Tiny Titans artists, and that’s fine.

If Giffen is gone, it’s not forever. Giffen is a lot more forgiving than someone like Affable Al Moore, who will never, ever write a Spider-Man comic. He has always taken his shit-stirring with a healthy dose of good humour and will find loads of willing publishers who can use his talents.

I don’t know what will happen with Bob Fleming, but I thought he died years ago, so I was just grateful to get anything more out of the old bastard. And it is nice to have Al Milgrom and his inexplicable charms back; his page in Marvel Fanfare seemed so important once, his art was consistently average and he always had an excellent mustache. You can’t hate a man with an excellent mustache.

But this new series didn’t make me laugh like the Nothing Special, which is still my favourite, mainly for the Julie stuff. And it didn’t have the impeccable comic timing and youthful enthusiasm of the first two mini-series.

Still, Pat Brosseau musing that he could take Milgrom in a fight did make me laugh out loud, and so did our most distant ancestor, screwing up the timing for a history lesson, and that might be enough.

But the really strange thing about this comic is the fact that it’s all about itself. It only exists to comment about itself, make the odd wistful monlogue about how comics used to be so much more fun, and move on to the next stupid joke, usually making fun of the creative team, or a DC editor who really should know better. You shouldn’t try and shut up the loudmouth, that just makes people look closer. Even if it’s not worth looking at.

I don't know if Ambush Bug is worth looking at.

I don't know what the fuck is going on.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The future is unwritten

It's more than a little ironic that while the big two super hero universes have been stuck in a state of sliding stasis for decades, they have both been eager as hell to skip forward into the near-ish future to show how things turned out, (or, more likely, stayed roughly the same with a few random developments).

So while poor Franklin Richards has been trapped in adolescence for far longer than most current comic readers have been alive, there have already been numerous examples where we have seen a glimpse of a future where young Frank is all grown up, without having to bother with all that awkward stuff in-between.

Overall, Marvel seems more interested in skipping into tomorrow than its distinguished competition. (Although it could be argued that Kingdom Come is the most influential DC comic of the last two decades, with the DC universe moving in a direction to give that four-issue series continuity credibility, only to shift it into one of its parallel worlds.) And there have certainly been other glimpses of this universe, including the legendary Dark Knight Returns, a recent stab at a future for the Teen Titans, and, most notably, the Armageddon 2001 series, which made the slight error of actually putting a solid date on events, giving us possible destinies that are still in the future for the heroes involved, while technically taking place eight years ago.

But Marvel seems to have built up more possible futures for its characters, with almost every hero having their own outcome. These can range from various 'End' tales that the company was infatuated with several years ago, (some of which defied insurmountable odds by actually being rather good), to entire lines of comics.

While the search for new storytelling avenues made such tales a little inevitable, Claremont and Byrne have to take a fair bit of the blame. Their original Days of Future Past started off as a fairly inconsequential story at the tail end of their classic collaboration, and has grown to spawn an entire mini-genre of Marvel futures. The template is all there in that two-issue tale, with surviving heroes still battling evil and stupidity, a world forever changed and the usual random line-up of grave-stones. This little story ended up spawning a whole pile of X-tales that spiralled out of this timeline, with several characters making their way back into regular continuity.

Other Marvel creators seemed to have taken their fair share of inspiration from the Future Past, and have opened up a wild number of divergent futures. Some show up for an issue or two, (including as part of the various What If? comics) before vanishing into the timelines, while others, including Killraven's War of the Worlds future, (which eventually to led to the Guardians of the Galaxy timeline of the 30th century) and the 2020 where Iron Man gets some gnarly teeth and cogs added to the armour, pop up fairly frequently.

With the “real” Marvel universe continuing to chug along at a snail's pace, Marvel has even jumped into the future with both feet with entire lines of comics. The 2099 universe certainly had its occasional charms, (thanks mostly to Peter David's Spider-Man), but was too far removed from a recognisable Marvel world to be of much interest to most fans, eventually spiralling down to a fairly lacklustre end. The M2 line of comics had plenty of links to the current versions of the characters, but never really made it past a loyal base of readers, who somehow still kept Spider-Girl chugging along nicely for years, despite threats of cancellation every second Thursday.

Alex Ross and Jim Kruger have offered yet another version of the near-future with the incredibly dense Earth-X stories. While offering enough differences from normal continuity to make these tales impossible to align with the present Marvel Universe, it followed the well-trodden path of random deaths, falls from grace and eventual transcendence, familiar to anybody who has been interested in the final fates of their favourite men in tights.

Further into the future and there are even more possible outcomes for everybody. DC has had their fair share of flights into far-flung tomorrows, from the 25th century that produced Booster Gold to Abra Kadabra in the 64th, and the world of DC 1,000,000 in the eight hundred and something century. It has also produced the most successful and long-running glimpse of the future with the Legion of Super-Heroes franchise, although its ties to the modern world have frequently been its undoing, as slight changes to the current continuity produce massive knock-on effects for that happy bunch of teenagers.

Over at Marvel, the far future has also been touched upon, with the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as minor characters like Death's Head travelling out from the year 8192, or Kang from yet another version of the 30th century. Right down the end of the line, John Byrne came up with the sadly-unfinished Last Galactus Story, with the universe ending with the big purple fella cracking open and blasting away the universe with all that energy that he has been chowing down on for eternity.

But it's still the stories closer to home that resonate more, giving the reader a sense of closure to popular heroes, given them their Ragnarok, and avoiding the sheer banality that sets into any long-running tale.

Peeking into the future might provide the cheapest of thrills, but it also ensures all bets are off, and that anything could happen. Most importantly, they give these fine characters a chance to put their feet up, and put their never-ending sagas to rest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Krokodil Tears

On Monsters' Row, they were going wild. Voorhees had wrenched his door off, and was being held down by a dozen officers. Rex Tendenter hung naked from his bars like a monkey, chattering like a mad creature. Staig, Mizzi, McClean and Brosnan were howling like beasts. Etchison was laughing uncontrollably, plucking his eyelashes out one by one. Myers just stared at the walls of his cell, unperturbed by it all.

Voorhees got a cattleprod away from one of the officers, and shoved it through a uniformed chest. Hector Childress clapped as the blood sprayed, and called for more. Tendenter leaped to the floor. His bars had been bloodied. He licked the fast-drying red greedily, smearing his face. Colonel Reynard Pershing Fraylman lay on his military-perfect bunk, his tongue lolling, his face blackening. He had been struck dead early in the riot, brought down by a burst blood vessel. Norman Bates shouted in a womanish, high-pitched voice.

Voorhees had killed five of the guards, by now. Tear gas cannisters exploded and Staig swallowed his tongue, choking quickly to death. Three hefty officers in transpex riot gear jogged through the door, and levelled their guns. Rubber bullets bounced off Voorhees' broad chest, and spanged against the bars.

"Don't freak around," shouted a sergeant who was trying to hold his arm onto his shoulder, "kill the motherfreaker..."

Norman Bates cringed at the bad language.

The riot bulls levelled semi-automatics, and filled Voorhees's chest. The hulking moron kept stumbling onwards.

"Come on guys," shouted the sergeant, "plug the fat..." He was cut off by the next burst. Ricochet bullets slammed into him, and he relaxed, his arm slipping into his lap. Three other officers died in that volley, and Voorhees kept walking.

The riot bulls put ScumStoppers through Jason Voorhees's eyes, and the back of his bald head exploded.

"What a mess," said Norman. "This will never wash out, you know, never. This dress is ruined!"

They were still screaming. Tendenter dipped his fingers in Voorhees's spilled blood and brains, and raised the chunks to his eager lips.

"Freak," said Officer Kerr, "it's time we settled these bastards' hash once and for all."

He shot Tendenter between the eyes, and the Bachelor Boy slumped, still smiling, in his cell.

Childress realized what was happening, and ran to the back of his cell, hiding behind his bunk. Officers shoved their rifles through the bars and shot the chainsaw murderer through his bedding.

"Who's got the keys?" asked Kerr.

"No one."

"We do it through the bars then," said Kerr. "Sandall, you take Myers with the burpgun.
He's the worst of them."

Sandall shoved his weapon through the bars, and looked into the empty eyes of the Haddonfield Horror.

Even without a mask, his face was a blank. He flipped the safety catch, but the murderer moved too fast for him, and he found himself hugged to the iron. His head wouldn't fit through the gap, but Myers pulled it into the cell anyway, leaving ears, hair and chunks of flesh on the metal.

"Myers has got a gun. Take him."

The sirens stopped, and more officers arrived. Myers tossed the gun into the corridor, and sat down again.

"What's going on here?" asked Deputy Warden Crighton.

"The monst... the inmates attempted escape, sir."

"There'll be a full enquiry, Kerr."

"Yes, sir."

Crighton looked down Monsters' Row, at the corpses jumbled against the walls.

"Freak, what a mess! This is worse than the Tasmanian Devil's leftovers."

Rex Tendenter was buried in the asylum grounds while an overwhelmingly female crowd of over 300 piled lavish floral tributes against the walls of the institution. The widow of Officer Lyndon Sandall, who had been one of five mourners at his modest funeral a week earlier, threw a petrol bomb into the crowd. Sixteen died, forty-one sustained serious burns, and Clara Sandall moved into Sunnydales' Low Security Wing.

The home had kept Dr Proctor's "confinement area" empty for him, just in case he was ever recaptured. Nobody really wanted him back.

Meanwhile, Jason Voorhees's body disappeared from the morgue.

- Pages 251-253, Krokodil Tears by Jack Yeovil.

Yeovil is the hard-drinkin' alter ego of the superbly hirsute Kim Newman, and Krokodil Tears was part of an insanely entertaining series of books Newman apparently wrote in a matter of weeks, sometime in the very early nineties. Hitting all the right pop culture and post apocalyptic buttons, they remain my favourite trash novels ever, even if the saga never got the ending it deserved. Krokodil Tears isn't even the best, with the adventures of Colonel Elvis Aaron Presley (retired) in Comeback Tour taking the cake, but this scene, with a bunch of fictional psychopaths losing it as, elsewhere, vast eldritch gods battle on multiple planes of existence is the funniest bit in the entire series.

That bit where Myers throws out the gun and sit back down still makes me laugh.