Monday, December 28, 2009

The perfection of Who

There is a really lovely bit at the end of Alan Moore’s Miracleman story, after the world has been transformed. Poverty, hunger, war and disease have been wiped out. The Gods are living on the Earth and sharing their gifts with man, pulling us all up the evolutionary scale.

But even as he basks in the perfected world, the title character admits that it still has its problems, but that this only adds to the joy of the new world. After all:

“Think of the tedium: A sky perpetually blue without the smallest cloud to ease monotony, a poem with no word misjudged, a diamond with no flaw.”

Perfection is never absolutely perfect. Nothing will be absolutely flawless – there will always be some imperfection on some level. It puts the whole thing in context, gives it life, gives it an organic taste.

Nobody is perfect. Nothing is perfect.

So why do Doctor Who fanboys cry like little babies when they don’t get that perfection in their choice of entertainment?

* * *

The latest episode of Doctor Who was on the other night and was bloody brilliant. Splashes of stone-cold genius, backed up by the sheer unashamed populism of the show. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is all well and good, especially when there is still something for the smart set. A farting Slitheen is easy to stomach when you get Christopher Eccleston two episodes later, fucking lighting up the world when the Doctor realises he can save everybody at the climax of Stevie Moffat’s first story. Just this once!

That’s been the hallmark of Russell T Davies’ revitalisation of Doctor Who – appeal to as many people as possible, from chavs who just like seeing one of their own save the universe to hardcore fans who dig into that awesome mountain of continuity built up on the show after the past four bloody decades.

Part one of The End of Time keeps that trend intact. There’s a cafĂ© scene that has as much depth as anything else in the entire history of the series, because it’s one where the Doctor shows – for the first time ever - real, genuine fear at his coming end. There’s a marvelous and ridiculous climax that goes over the top, and then just keeps on going, with John Simms eating the shit out of every piece of scenery in sight. And then, just when that climactic screech is about to unleash, one of the basic founding stones of the past half-decade is ripped out of the series, with the Daltonator bringing the house down in the closing seconds.

Bloody hell.

So there is some unnecessary overage groping, the occasionally tacky special effect, some hamfisted Obama angle and plot holes that you could drive the Earth through.

So what?

* * *

The bits that make many geeks cringe are the bits that make their grandparents laugh. If you hate the slapstick, you hate your grandmother, and what sort of fucker hates their grandmother?

* * *

I really don’t get it.

What is this hunger for perfection? No work of art or entertainment is going to please everybody all of the time, because people just aren’t built like that. A moment like the transformation scene at the climax might seem genuinely creepy to some (especially with that horrible overpowered fluttering noise), while written off as pure cheese by others.

I know I shouldn’t feel too bad for Russ. He has brought back his favourite television show of all time, and made it more insanely popular than ever. It has been an absolute critical and commercial hit.

But I still feel for the poor Welshman when seeking out critical analysis of the latest episode. Hungry for analysis, the first three reviews I saw anywhere including the phrases “shower of shit”, “RTD does not understand how to do television” and the ultra-charming “everybody involved should have their home fire-bombed”.

Still, at least Davies has a sense of humour, and I’m sure he is delighted to see that the things often railed against by die-hard fans are the exact same things that have made the programme so ridiculously popular.

A bit of cheese, a piece of scenery chewing, this is the stuff the serious people hate, but make the show so popular in some wildly variant demographics.

Whatever Davies does, it will never be as good as the version in some people’s heads, the version that hits all their buttons and leaves the rest of us in the cold. The dim probability that these coruscating works of genius would actually find a mass audience seems to be lost on these misunderstood artists.

Complaining that a television show or book or comic is not as good as it should be is the easiest complaint of any viewer or reader. Easy snark makes easy criticism, but weary nihilism only appeals to moody teenagers and the melancholic elderly. Critics who maintain that they could do better – if they were only given the chance! – are the biggest dickheads of them all.

* * *

The ultimate question is – what do these people really want? They can bitch and moan about something they profess to love, but what do they really want?

A perfect episode, with nothing to complain about. Something that still manages to appeal to everybody, by giving them what they ask for.

Getting exactly what you want and expect?

How fucking boring would that be?

* * *

The final episode of the Davies/Tennant Doctor Who screens later this week. Then it’s off for more adventures in tine and space with a new face and a new style. It will probably be a bit cheesy, and a bit magnificent, and will have something for everybody.

Perfection isn’t required.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

All I need

It’s an hour until Christmas and while that may not be as exciting as it once was, it still means I’m getting some new comic in the morning.

When I was a kid and people would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, I could not tell a lie. I would tell them to give me comic books. All I wanted was more comics – any sort, Giles books, Sgt Rock, anything.

During my entire childhood, I received comics as a Christmas gift twice. I think my parents discouraged people from getting me any more. They were right to do so, I must have had nearly fifty. There wasn’t any need for any more.

But I still got some. If I was lucky, I would get one of those groovy comic packs – half a dozen random issues slapped into a bag and sold off cheap. I can still remember getting one that had one of the first Levitz/Giffen Legion comics and a Star Trek from early in DC’s go at the run. I read those comics until they fell apart.

I also got given the Judge Dredd roleplaying game sometime in my early teens. Even though I grew up around some avid D&D freaks, I’ve never, ever played a role playing game. But the sourcebooks for that game filled in some huge Dredd backstory at a time when I was ravenous for this sort of information. That’s was a good ‘un.

Now I’m all grown up and have a wife and everything, and I still tell people I want comics for Christmas. But I’ve got way more than 50 now, so I have to be a bit specific.

So every year for the last three years, I’ve made up the list. Ten comic books I really want, standalone books that I can always associate with the generosity of a gift.

I feel horribly materialistic about all this, but there are a bunch of comics I would really appreciate. And if I get three or four of the ten I list, I’m happier than Alan Moore’s ring merchant and still enjoy the element of surprise.

You still have to be careful what you ask for. You can’t go requesting something like a Johnny Ryan comic, because there is no way of explaining that shit away. That sort of thing needs to be bought by yourself. But something like Fables is perfectly fine, and I’ve been fortunate to get a few of books in that series as gifts in the past.

In fact, since I had the exceedingly good fortune of marrying a fine woman who appreciates my hard-on for comics and Doctor Who, (while never really sharing it), and she has bought me some cracker comics in the past few years. That Bone collection, the Paul Gravett-edited Mammoth Book of Crime Comics, the last Love and Rockets book I needed, and a three-foot tall Batman with a giant Fist of Justice.

She’s a keeper.

This year, I asked for a few stand-alone collections that have just come out – Brubaker/Phillip’s Incognito, Roger Langridge’s version of The Muppet Show, and the Wolverine comic from Millar and Niven that I can’t resist.

There’s some other stuff by Clowes and Bagge that would make my Christmas, and it would be good to finally get Black Hole and Hicksville. I’ve asked for it every year for the past three years, and I read these comics every 18 months like clockwork.

There are a few other superhero comics I wouldn’t mind getting – Iron Fist and some Punisher and a few more of those slightly off-centre titles like Hercules or provide a far more satisfying experience than the event-driven titles.

It is all a bit mercenary, but the sheer joy of getting nice, new and shiny comic book is always better than the forced grin caused by a shirt that’s uglier than Otto Sump. Christmas comics are better than anything, because it means somebody you care about knows exactly what you want and that’s the best feeling ever.

Merry Christmas, world!

Monday, December 21, 2009

I wanted that

I wish I was joking, but sometimes I lie awake at night wondering why I didn't buy certain comics years and years ago. I really wish I'd bought...

An issue of Diabolik in Italy. There are issues at every service stop in Italy, and I always had a look while I was waiting for paninis to toast during a nine-day tour of the country. They were fascinating and crude and I promised myself I'd get one on the last day, and then we didn't go near a service stop or any decent store on that day, and I missed out.


Infinity Gauntlet #5 from the second comic shop I ever saw. I got that issue two months later, but my regret for not getting it that time was so strong, there is still a lingering taste. That's not right.


Every issue of 2000ad from late 1995 to early 2004. What was I thinking?


A big pile of Tomb of Dracula comics at a small second hand store in South Dunedin. I was really poor, but really wanted them, and by the time I made up my mind to go get them, some other bastard had got there first. Have since read those issues in the Essential collections, and they were pretty rubbish. But that’s not the point!


Those Hitman comics I saw going to $1 at Comics Compulsion in Christchurch, shortly after the series ended. I always thought they would be easy to find later, but it's one series I never see going cheaply. Ever.


2000ad prog 387 from an Ashburton dairy. I was eight, and wanted it so bad, but I wanted an ice cream more. Another one that took me years to get.


Did buy, but gave away three months later: Uncanny X-Men #138, the one after Dark Phoenix died. For somebody who knew nothing about the x-books, this was the primer to end all primers. Then I lent it to somebody and didn't ever get it back.


Friday, December 18, 2009


The Christmas weeks are a kick in the head – too many boring dinner parties, too much rich food, too much of everything except time. Where does that time go? Grant Morrison will just tell you it’s in a direction you can’t point to, but that doesn’t help much from where I’m sitting, you bald nonce.

Lack of blog is a sin, so here are two articles I wrote in my daytime secret identity. One is a review of Avatar, the other one is some cowardly attempt to self-justify illegal downloading.

This is the one full of big blue people.

This is the other one.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Alcoholic: A mundane intoxication

We’ve all got a September 11 story in us. It’s just a shame that most of them aren’t worth telling.

It’s not just the published stories that merge into some giant perception, it’s the tale we all have – where were you on that day? What did you do? What did you see?

Some fell into a catatonic emotional funk that lasted a long, long time. Lots of people gave blood. Many didn’t move from the television. Some went out and bought Tomb of Dracula comics. Life went on, eventually.

It's not a good idea to read too many of the tribute comics published in the year after that horrible day. Not in a row. It all gets a bit much and while the odd beautiful gem can be found in the tedium, most of the stories are painfully forgettable.

The Alcoholic – by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel – is the fairly typical story of somebody who drinks their way through the worst life has to throw at them, mixing profound regrets with a shot of vodka and hoping for some brief oblivion.

An unashamedly autobiographical story, The Alcoholic sees 'Jonathan A' go through that first sweet phase of booze infatuation, enjoying the freedom of a teenage drinker, willing to accept the cost of incessant puking. He grows out of that phase, but keeps falling back into the bottle as romance and friendships move into uncomfortable territories.

And then there is September 11, which consumes a massive section of the story. Like the rest of us, the events took Johnny A by surprise and his life in New York turns into a harrowing experience over the following days, as he comforts and aids the woman next door who lost her husband in the tragedy.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this digression into Ames’ experiences during those dreadful days. His numbed reaction is hardly unique and while dealing with somebody who has been directly affected by the attack is something many readers would not have experienced, Ames never really gets beyond a “this sucks” level.

And his whole life story runs along similar lines – a childhood friendship is shattered by intimacy issues, loved ones are snatched away by mundane tragedy and Jonathan A slips into emotional degredation as relationships fall apart.

It’s all vaguely interesting, but never compelling. There are odd pieces of interest, including Ames' impressive ability to have a boozed up party with a bunch of girls he’s supposed to be teaching, but even this just leads to another low point which Johnny vows he will never reach again.

The book is an attractive package, with Haspiel’s fine and clean art giving the story an energy it doesn’t always deserve, while grounding the story squarely in the real world. Ames does genuinely care about the people in his life story and unlike a lot of novelists, he does have an excellent sense of comic pacing and some fine dialogue, and does come up with a killer punchline on the last page.

But it’s nothing new. Nothing that stands out from the multitude of booze-soaked writings that have appeared over the centuries. In his youth, Jonathon A dreams of being Jack Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson or Ernest Hemmingway, some of literature’s great drunks who have gone off and had adventures, only to return with glimpses at the raw side of the human condition.

But the hero of The Alcoholic doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything particularly remarkable. He muddles around a bit and ends up stuck in his rut. The book’s back-cover blurb might promise something “in the proud tradition of drunken writers everywhere”, but it’s more like being stuck at the bar with a boring old maudlin drunk who doesn’t realise he’s boring the piss out of you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fantastic Four #573: Smash it up.

No matter what weaknesses are inherent in his writing, at least Mark Millar puts a bit of bloody thought into his comics. His recent Marvel work has a grand masterplan simmering beneath it all, a personal continuity that has been offered to hundreds of thousands of readers.

The baby Hulk in the Wolverine story grows up to be the future Hulk who tries to beat up the Fantastic Four, where a human supermind from 1985 pits his imagination against an immortal worldkiller.

Built on a weird and conflicted reverence for the classic action beats that sees Millar strip stories down to lame insults and brilliant momentum, before building them back up again. He has got a lot of flack for an eagerness for super-degradation but that’s all part of the charm. His Captain America can be an arsehole, but he can still be a noble, valiant and admirable arsehole.

So the way a key part of Millar’s grand plan was so fundamentally fucked over in one issue of Fantastic Four was fucking genius.

Beneath an Alan Davis cover of alien waitresses and devious Gatecrashers, Fantastic Four #573 sees Jonathan Hickman tear up a bit of Millarworld, scatter the pieces into the wind and come up with something new.

The story is helped by the shameless Hitch homaging by Neil Edwards and Andrew Currie, which carries a lot of the superficial appeal of Hitch’s work, but is less consistent, with a slightly clumsy flow.

But Hickman’s plot is an even bigger homage. Some of Millar’s creations are summarily dispatched, including the hope of a Nu-Earth – devastated by page one.

There is some overcooked sentimentality – a Franklin Richards scene would be sweet if it didn’t try so hard – and some stylized hyperviolence – brain-squishing and head pulping. This could be a Millar comic if the reader was drunk enough, especially since it ends on a undeservedly triumphant note that the Scottish lad excels at.

Hickman is off somewhere new, and leaves the Millar plan behind. And that’s how it should be, all new creators on the World’s Greatest Comic have to walk that fine line between playing tribute to the past while taking the Fantastic Four something new, and sometimes that involves a bit of smashing shit up.

Break it down, build it up. Start it again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I know it’s bad when…..

Sometimes, I am such a fucking geek. Like when:

* I look at the cover of a random issue of Who’s Who and realize I can name every DC character on it.

* I scan through the latest Sight & Sound magazine but only read the Kim Newman reviews.

* I watch that bit in the musical episode of The Brave and the Bold where they’re surrounded by rock band names and laugh out loud because one of them is the Trenchcoat Brigade, but then the laugh dies in my throat because I realize they’re all DC superteams and I know every single one of them and I am such a fucking nerd. (For the record, as far as I could see, there are also the Female Furies, the Challengers of the Unknown, The Metal Men, the Tornado Twins, (are they still future-dead?), the Inferior Five, The Great Ten, the Monster Society of Evil, the Injustice Gang, the Revenge Syndicate and the Boy Commandos. The only one I didn’t recognize was the Rocket Rollers.)

* I hug the big pile of 2000ads in the corner of the room. I wish I was joking about this but I really did this the other day. Shit, I nearly had a thrill power overdose.

* I watch that Doctor Who/Handlebars video over and over and over.

* I spend my whole goddamn weekend rearranging comics into big piles, while friends completely change the landscape around their house with big diggers and giant wooden poles and I don’t feel bad about that at all.

* I pull the Classic X-Men comics out of the sale pile that’s building up in the other corner. Partly because Claremont and Byrne fucking rocked and mostly because those Ann Nocenti/John Bolton back-ups were bitchin’.

* I don’t even pretend I’m holding on to that issue of Wizard because it’s an artifact of a dead zeitgeist, and admit it’s because I bought it when I was 17.

* I look at the cover of a random issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition and realize I can name every Marvel character on it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Careful kids, hype kills!

Sometimes, having no access to a great piece of fiction can be a good thing.

Growing up in small town New Zealand, there wasn't a lot of choice or quality when it came to entertainments. Films I could easily read about in magazines and books were simply unavailable. That long-standing obsession I had with Hammer horror films without actually seeing many of them came out of this, the passion fuelled by the odd picture or synopsis.

All I had to go on was my idea of what they would be like. Over the years this would fire up into unrealistic expectations, and the inevitable disappointment that would hit when I finally got to see the Satanic Rites of Dracula was only to be expected. (Although Cushing and Lee remained, as ever, fucking brilliant and I still have a huge soft spot for all the cheap character actors that filled out the cast lists on Hammer films.)

Reading about semi-obscure movies like Performance sent my imagination into overdrive. What little I knew about it made it sound like the greatest film in the world, mixing haunted houses with fluid identity crises, with all the required sex, drugs and rock and roll.

When I eventually saw it, the film didn't stand a chance of living up to those expectations, and apart from tiny slices of pure liquid genius and the odd dose of fantastic dialogue (“I am a bullet”), it was less than the film I’d imagined.

It gets to the point where disappointment is almost a requirement, and any joy is bonus. When I was a lot younger, my favourite book in the entire world was Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, the novelisation of the BBC adventure adapted by the great Terrence Dicks. I must have read that a hundred times, long before I even knew which Doctor it was in the story (The cover, with the required Dalek action and a gas-mask and leather-clad Roboman, offered no clue. At first, I honestly thought it was the John Pertwee Doctor taking part in the story.)

It’s a great little book, with a perfectly paced plot that splits everybody up, sends them off on all sorts of adventures that shows the effects a devastating alien occupation has on the human soul, facing literally unimaginable horrors along the way. I can sometimes still hear the Slither moving around in the dark.

By the time I eventually saw the original six-part programme, 10 years after first reading the book and 25 years after it was first broadcast, I was used to the awful production standards of mid-1960s television production, but the wobbly flying saucers and clumsy action sequences still caused me pain.

It was still a fantastic story, and an absolute masterclass in how to keep various plot strands ticking along, with characters splitting up, reuniting, and splitting up again before all meeting up again at the climax.

But the actual presentation of the story suffered from the fact it was made by the BBC in the 1960s for about three pounds. The production crew got some great mileage out of empty British landscapes and a harrowing chase across London, with two women and a man in a wheelchair racing to a thudding drum beat, but the good bits were drowned in a sea of dodgy accents and cardboard sets.

It keeps happening. In recent years the one that hit me hardest would be Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, where I actually liked the basic ideas behind the character and concept a lot more than the stories themselves. There are still bits of odd genius and it is easier once you stop worrying about how Jerry could die and then reappear as an African lesbian, but the actual stories never quite reached the heights hoped for.

And that bled on into Matt Fraction’s Casanova comic. I wanted to like Casanova so, so much, and all the pieces were there. Smart young creators with unique worldviews, promises of super-sexy fast-cut sci-fi spy-action in exotic locations. But it never really clicked with me. The overabundance of sheer information can be overwhelming, combined with the general unlikeability of almost all of the characters, and it just doesn't click.

The obvious answer is that I should get out there and create my own, but we all need entertainment, and I should get over the idea that what is in my head is not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be. This is a common nerd affliction, now officially known as Phantom Menace syndrome.

I still suffer mightily from this problem, a situation that isn’t helped by the fantastic job many movie trailers are capable of in the 21st century. I actually find the trailers for things like the new Star Trek movie rather moving, a standard a two hour movie was always going to struggle to match. Occasionally it does. Often it does not.

But it’s not just that rabid expectation that is doing my head in. It’s the filling in the gaps, only to find that the actual product is nowhere near as good as I’d dreamed and hoped it would be.

This is part of the nature of collecting comics, or at least it was before everything got collected in big, funky books. Unless you were one of the few that has been there since the start, sorting out a decent Captain America collection without resorting to expensive reprints means you’re going to be reading it piecemeal – bits of Mark Gruenwald here, slices of Kirby there.

Reading stories that have giant holes in the narrative mean the reader has to rely on their own reasoning, deduction and imagination to fill in those spaces. And sadly, most of the time the real thing doesn’t stand a chance of being as good as we all hope it will be.

Because we always hope for the best, and the merely adequate is not enough to meet that ideal. Whether it’s waiting for a new movie or wondering what happened in AllNow Comics #69, that sense of anticipation can keep interest humming along, but it can also lead to pure disappointment.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Old memories, new junk

Sentimentality can be hard work sometimes. Especially when you’re inordinately attached to thousands of books and comics that take three full days to haul from one end of the country to the other.

They’d been sitting on a palette in the side room of a pet food factory for two years and were starting to smell a bit funny. A couple of dozen boxes, overflowing with Fantastic Four comics and Fighting Fantasy books. The bulk of a geek collection built up over several decades – most of the 2000ads I own, almost all of the Empire magazines I have, and hundreds of other individual titles and tiny collections of enjoyable runs. All the Flash comics Mark Waid wrote and all of the Justice League International books. All of my Lobo comics.

Despite the painful banality of most of this stuff, I do love it all, but was content to let it sit in that factory for years. I still had all the really good stuff, - I had all my Ennis and Moore and Morrison - I didn’t need the bulk.

But you leave something like that sitting for long enough and it just gets annoying, so over the past weekend I flew back to my home town and then drove back - more than 1500 kays with a car stuffed with all sorts of crap.

And at the end of all that, all that crap had to be unloaded, and now it’s all sitting in a messy pile in the corner of the spare room and most of them are rubbish and I will probably end up selling a fair chunk of it for fuck all and I really have to wonder why I bother.

I shouldn’t have to wonder about that. I know why I bother – I love these comics because I’m a sentimental old fool and they remind of the best of times.


There’s that issue of Byrne’s Superman where the big guy goes up against Mr Mxyzptlk for the very first time – I bought that on the same day I ever kissed a girl. I can’t remember her name but I remember her freckles and can recall finding that Superman comic with absolute clarity that wonderful summer day. I can’t get rid of that comic. I can’t get rid of that feeling.

And then there are the Peter David/Gary Frank Hulk comics that I bought the week I moved out of home. Living in a shitty flat in a new city far from home and I had to make a tent out of my blanket and put the heater under it to get warm. And I went without food during that weird and scary time to get those Hulk comics. How can I flick them off for $1 after that?

And there is the American Splendour comic with David Letterman in it, that a complete stranger gave to me on the same day a completely different stranger gave me a free ticket to the American Splendour movie. And the Batman comics with Gene Colan’s none-more-sexy Poison Ivy that I got given to me by my Aunty Val one Christmas – only the second time I ever got comics for presents. And the X-Men issue I got that one Friday night when I lost one the friendship of one of my closest mates forever while meeting a whole bunch of new people who are now amongst my oldest and dearest friends.

I can’t just throw these memories out. I just can’t.

But I have to do something. There are now four piles of comics in the corner that are taller than I am, and I’m well over six foot. There is that sentimental attachment to almost every single one of them, but it can’t go on like this, I can’t keep hauling this shit around, just because I like reading the old advertisements in these comics. Something has to give.

Nostalgia can be an insidious and cosy trap, and we can all end up circling its drain, wanting everything to be like we were when we were 12 years old. We have to move on, especially when social stagnation is the only alternative.

So it’s good and proper to ditch all these worthless pieces of paper – to just chuck them into a bin and move on with life without boxing it all up for the next move. It can just be so hard sometimes.

Last night I had to convince myself that I didn’t need a ratty old detached cover to a sci-fi and fantasy magazine published in 1992. It was a nothing piece of ragged paper, but it was also one of the very first genre magazines I ever really bought with my own money and the only reason that piece of paper is in such a bad condition is because I read that sucker until it started to fall apart in my hands.

And looking at that cover – with Gary Oldman’s Dracula on it – I could remember exactly how exciting it was to get that magazine, and read of all the new and wonderful things that were coming up. The fact that most of them turned out to be rubbish doesn’t even dent that nostalgia. I really was excited and it’s still nice to get a little taste of that every time I saw it.

But, in the end, I crushed that sucker up and tossed it into the rubbish pile, because it wasn’t worth holding on to any more.

And I know that I will eventually dump so much more, bits and pieces that I really cared about once, but now only exist in my possession for their memories. All that stuff can go and the memories will still be there. I don’t need this stuff and I’m increasingly convincing myself I don’t want it either.

Sooner or later, I might actually believe myself.

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

9 Days of Reviewing #10: I can't count

Liberty Comics #2

Sometimes a little kid comes to our door and tells us he is doing a walkathon and will I sponsor him, mister? Even though there is a good chance it’s some kind of scam, I’ll still chuck them a couple of bucks half the time, just for the effort they’ve put into their plea. Sometimes I just tell them to go away.

Other times, a kid comes to the door and wants to know if I’ll buy some candy. I’ll never say no to that. Charity is all well and good, giving smugness levels a welcome boost, but give me something for my money and I’ll support you every time. I’m just that selfish.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has done some wonderful work over the years in the name of artistic freedom, but I never gave them any money. I wish I had, but I’m on the other side of the world and don’t know how. It’s a lame excuse and I’m sticking to it.

But if I give you money and you give me a comic with some fantastic creators involved, I’m all over it. Liberty Comics comes in at about 13 bucks in local money and I have no idea how much of that actually ends up back in the defense fund’s pocket, but they’re welcome to it. Maybe they can buy a packet of chocolate biscuits for the next board meeting with the cash.

The fact that the two issues of Liberty Comics – both this year’s release and last year’s inaugural issue – are packed with all sorts of interesting comics is a nice surprise. This year’s effort wasn’t entirely successful, but you get that with any anthology. I haven’t loved every single story in a new issue of 2000ad for decades, but I keep getting it. Short, snappy stories always make me happy when they’re done right.

Surprisingly, creators like making stories about their right to make stories, and that has produced some witty and thoughtful pieces about free speeh. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of terribly heavy handed stories that overflow with self-importance, and that has certainly happened with Liberty Comics #2.

Some of them get painfully earnest, especially Brian Wood’s return to Channel Zero, which is so right-on it’s almost unreadable. Aaron and Moritat’s opening story looks lovely and is humourous enough, even if it’s ultimate lesson is little more than Nobody Likes A Dick.)

The issue closes out with Jim Lee illustrating one of Gaiman’s death-obsessed poems, and it’s nice enough. Gaiman’s poetry has always been a little too precious, and that’s definitely certainly the case here, but it’s built on a nice little conceit that’s amusing enough. And Lee’s art is that step away from his usual style that he whips out on occasion. He might not be able to resist some of his artistic tricks, but at least he’s trying something a little different.

There are also new pop-comics, including Allred, Johnson and Rich’s Mr. Gum adventure, and the lovely exploding heads courtesy of Fawkes and Stewart’s Apocalypstix. Both tales are slight while still hammering home the Free Speech angle, but sweet enough to overcome any offense.

Other than that, the Choker preview had some typically interesting Ben Templesmith art, (even if there really wasn’t that much else interesting about it), I have absolutely no idea what was going on in the Immonen’s segment, but still felt oddly satisfied by it, and some sordid superheroics from Paul Pope are always welcome, even if it’s a little weird to see him use his own original characters again after recently doing similar things with familiar faces in Strange Tales and Wednesday Comics.

Chynna Clugston’s one-pager is cute, charming and self-aware, but I might just be saying that because I hat the same people she does. There is a real unexpected gem in the first Painkiller Jane story I’ve ever enjoyed, adding a nice twist to the usual argument. All you need is love.

It also helps that Jimmy Palmiotti is developing into an interesting writer. I’d given up on his comics after some terrible tie-ins to the latest DC mega-saga and his recent columns in the back of the Back to Brooklyn comic he did with Garth Ennis recently didn’t do him any favours. But he produced the best thing in this comic, is consistently hitting some good notes on Jonah Hex and wrote the best Supergirl comic I’ve ever read in Wednesday Comics. Nice one, Jimmy!

Liberty Comics is not quite as fulfilling as last year’s offering, with more stories that miss their target than the first issue, but it’s another laudable effort, and still tastier than that school candy I can’t stop buying.