Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sorry, Johnny

Beating up kids is never a good look, but if I could go back in time to 1988, I’d find my 13-year-old younger self and give him such a slap.

Because I hated John Hicklenton when he took over from Bryan Talbot as the artist on Nemesis The Warlock so much, and I was such a dick about it, cursing the artist and the 2000ad editorial staff for ruining the strip. There may have been actual tears.

What an arsehole.

* * *

Nemesis The Warlock was always the freakiest looking series in 2000ad¹s stable of stars. Judge Dredd was the Lawman of the Future, Rogue Trooper was an outlaw soldier in a chemical war and Strontium Dog was the bounty hunter who fought prejudice and bad guys with no faces across the galaxy.

But Nemesis was something else. Created by the mighty Pat Mills and the even mightier Kevin O’Neill, he didn’t look like any other hero in comics, with his hooves and utterly unique snout. I still can’t quite figure out how his mouth worked, but the design was so striking that it really stood out as a unique character. Especially when he didn’t even appear in his first two stories.

And he was the alien, and our descendants were the bad guys, but it was the old story of fighting against prejudice. It just happened to take place in a world where people skated along the edge of vast stalagmite apartment blocks on electric boots and drove in and out of black holes. It had zombies and aliens with sharp mouths where their hands should be, and magnificent armour and architecture.

After O'Neill's first Nemesis story wrapped up in a glorious baroque apocalypse, Jesus Redondo stepped in as artist for Book Two and contributed a thoroughly acceptable effort with some really neat giant spiders. O’Neill was back for part three and got to draw giant robots powered by pulley and rope tear into each other.

Bryan Talbot came in three episodes into part four with another brilliant interpretation – moody as hell, with a wonderfully '80s design sense and a flair for action that is still woefully under-appreciated. By 1987, Talbot was off and O’Neill came back for five issues with the twisted melodrama of Torquemada the God – another brilliant headfuck.

And then John Hicklenton came along, and I hated his art from the first issue.

* * *

It was messy, it was anatomically dodgy, it was dark and dank, he couldn’t draw mouths properly, his characters were all ugly, necks don’t work like that and there was something terribly wrong with Torquemada’s nose.

* * *

I’m looking at that art from The Two Torquemadas again right now and I can’t believe what a wanker I was. This stuff is 22 years old and still looks rich and full of texture and personality. It’s mental and messy, in all the right ways.

Sometimes the pacing gets a bit skewed and his panel transitions are a bit muddled, but there is just so much goddamn raw talent on these pages. This sense of design in the armour and clothing and buildings, which actually repulsed me at a younger age, was just so far ahead of its time, it’s still fresh and interesting.

Go forward a year to Book Nine: Deathbringer and it’s even better. At this stage of the Nemesis cycle, the eternal enemies have popped up in modern Britain. And since this is written by Pat Mills in the late eighties, it gets a bit Right On, but Hicklenton excelled at the contemporary world. The art is all gloomy horror, kitchen sink despair and shapeshifting nasties in the dark.

Hicklenton went on to do some Dredd comics and other bits and pieces during the 1990s that were even more wonderfully repulsive, but it still took years to appreciate. He was back with Pat Mills in 2007 with the remarkably incoherent Blood of Satanus III and while the hand seemed a little shakier, it was still a bold line when it needed to be.

It was while reading that last story that I was inspired to dive back into Hicklenton’s past work and take a look with a mature eye. And I did a complete about face. I had hated his art for decades, but had to admit I’d always been wrong, because this shit was brilliant.

When I did a bit of internet trawling and discovered that he had produced much of his work while multiple sclerosis was kicking the shit out of his body, my admiration for his talents was only amplified.

* * *

John Hicklenton died earlier this month. He was only 42.

Sorry it took me so long to get into your art, man. I’ll do better next time.

* * *

I would also like to say sorry to Dick Giordano, but I don’t really need to, because I always thought he was a deadset legend.

Although I knew he’d been having trouble with leukaemia, it was still a shock to hear of Giordano’s death, a week after Hicklenton passed on to the next world. Sadly, it wasn’t shocking that when I involuntary cried out “Oh no! Dick Giordano is dead!”. Nobody in the room at the time knew who I was talking about. I should have got used to that reaction when the same thing happened when Kirby died, but it still burns a bit.

Because Giordano was a legend, and like his sweet little TwoMorrows autobiography pointed out, he changed comics, one day at a time. He was a smart editor with a genuine editorial voice, and a sharp artist who knew what worked on the comic page. Anybody who grew up reading DC comics in the eighties knew Dick well from his “Meanwhile…” columns, a refreshingly open hype page, and he had a hand in almost everything of note produced by DC during his time as executive editor.

And I liked Dick because after he went into semi-retirement, he would still do the odd bit of inking. And he only seemed to do it on comics that were reasonably worthwhile, popping up in the credits of things like Starman and The Invisibles. After a while I figured out that if Dick was helping out with the pen, then it was a little seal of approval that invariably turned out to be right.

Dick Giordano always knew what made good comics, and he never stopped trying to make them.

* * *

You can find some good examples of Hicklenton’s art here, there is a really neat 2006 interview with him here, and Pat Mills gives him a proper sending off here. If you want to see what Dick Giordano left behind, open up any DC comic since 1973, and his fingerprints are all over it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go way! Bating!

Too lazy to blog today, I'd rather sit and read the latest edition of Russell T Davies' The Writer's Tale that I just got today and maybe watch a shitload of Trailer Park Boys.

So instead I'll just link to this review I did this week for Boy, a new film from New Zealand that's made by the guy who is going to play Pieface in the Green Lantern movie. It's a pretty choice film.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The End?

Nothing appears to scare the extreme fanboy like change. The illusion of change is all well and good, but the status quo is much more comfortable.

Some comic readers shit their pants when they heard the surprising news that Disney had purchased Marvel for eleventy billion dollars. One of the many fears that have come out of the whole affair is the idea that Disney just sees Marvel as an intellectual property farm that no longer requires monthly comics. That there really isn’t any need to produce Spider-Man or Fantastic Four every four weeks, that there have been enough stories to spin off into a thousand new properties, that series that have been running for decades could just stop.

I say there is no reason to be afraid of this. I say it sounds like a good idea.

* * *

Chances are, the changes on the ground level from the recent restructures of both Marvel and DC will be barely noticeable. Companies restructure all the time, at least every three or four years, because that’s how businesses spark growth. And trust me ­ I’m a mild-mannered business journalist by day ­ companies fuckin¹ love sparking growth. You can get good solid growth by playing it safe and easy, or you make the company look sexy to shareholders and investors by making bold moves that make a lot of money, and carry a
shedload of risk.

So DC gives Paul Levitz the boot and Mickey Mouse owns Razor Fist, and Superman will still be published tomorrow and there will always be something new every Wednesday, for a while at least. These comics must still make money, or these companies wouldn’t even publish them, (because that’s something else businesses like ­ things that make money). Lah deh dah, life goes on.

Except what if it didn’t? What if the word came down from on high that the monotonous monthly grind was seen to be damaging the brand and preventing far more lucrative multimedia deals and they had to be shitcanned? What if there would be no more regular comics fix? What if they had to stop? What if there was no more Action Comics or Incredible Hulk books every bloody month?

Wouldn’t it be brilliant?

* * *

There can never be enough comics. The world could overflow with self-replicating and self-aware alternative comics and I’d happily drown in paper overflowing with autobiography and teenage wanking.

But there really doesn't need to be a new Batman comic every week, or a new Daredevil, or a new Terror Inc. There are just so many superhero comics out there, far too many for anything to stand out. Blending painfully from one series to the next, stories meander around entire universes of titles, and so what?

Entire lines of comics with tightly regimented styles are all the same, all a bit dull, all a bit pointless.

Teen Titans has had absolutely nothing new to say for two decades, but it’s still there, still being cranked out every month. It only seems to exist because it has always existed, and there are still some people out there who genuinely fear a world without the Titans Tower.

* * *

What if Spider-Man stopped at issue #36? We’d still love him, and there still would have been plenty of stories, in different formats, in different ways. But it carried on, and there have been some terrific stretches in the ongoing saga, there have also been a few terrible ones and so many average ones. They're the damaging ones, average comics are nothing comics published to fill a gap.

I still think there would have been some form of Spider-Man comic if Ditko left. The character certainly struck a chord with the popular consciousness and would have been well known from cartoons with groovy theme songs and that awful, awful Nicholas Hammond thing that I thought was the bee’s knees in 1980.

It he hadn’t been stuck in that monthly pattern, Spidey could have showed up in full-sized books. If there was only one spider-Man a year, you could guarantee it would be something worthwhile, produced by the best talent the copyright owner could grab. If that had happened, there would have been dozens of stone-cold Spider-Man classics that the monthly grind just never had.

There were certainly odd bright spots in the 675,000 Spider-Man comics produced since 1963, but not as many as there should have been.

* * *

What if Crisis On Infinite Earths had actually ended monthly comics and every Superman story since then had been its own standalone title, sharing consistent features, but free of all continuity and just focused on the story?

Would that have been worse than what we got?

* * *

I know I can handle not having a slice of Morrison every week if I can get a slab of it every couple of months. I’m right behind the latest change in the Love and Rockets format. Even many of the monthlies I get are left at the comic shop until a couple of built up. The only ones I actually get every time a new issue comes out are any new Morrison, the obligatory Mark Millar comic and the latest issue of Jack of Fables.

Stuff like Greek Street and Sweet Tooth are easy enough to put off for a couple of months, but it’s actually bloody hard putting off things like Garth Ennis’ Battlefields comics. I always want to read these as soon as possible, but want to read them all at once. Saving up the monthlies gives me a couple of months on the eventual collection and are still cheaper, most of the time.

It wouldn’t make any difference to me if they went straight to book, if that was the first way to get them.

* * *

But who cares about this whining little bitch? The only ones who would really suffer if the entire comics industry shit itself again are the poor old retailers. They have been screwed over by distributors and companies so many times over the decades, I’m convinced that anybody who lasts more than 10 years in the business must have Balls of Steel.

Retailers like Brian Hibbs still make a solid case for the business sense behind the monthly comic, and it’s disingenuous to argue the point with somebody whose entire livelihood depends on it. But as Hibbs has recently pointed out, the comic companies seem to be doing there best to kill the periodical, and if the people making the most money off it can’t see a way to make it a truly sustainable industry, what chance does it stand?

* * *

Because that whole business model of selling comics is broken. It’s survived all sorts of setbacks, but has only really worked several times in the medium’s history and when it has, it’s been built on a boom and bust cycle that just isn’t sustainable for solid growth.

The whole industry is changing and for all the talk of going digital, nobody really knows how it’s going to end up. All I know is that breaking things down is a good start before building something new and the assault on the monthly format from collected books and the digital arena can only produce interesting results.

And that’s all I’m asking for: get us off this ride, get us off this need. Give us new and wrap up the old. Spider-Man doesn’t need it, he will still live on in movies and television and cartoons and video games and yeah, even comics.

There will always be comics, they’re too much fun to ever totally lose an audience. But the never-ending battle doesn’t need to go on forever

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Back in the lighthouse

After reading Hicksville once a year every year since 2002, it was about time I bought my own copy. It had been so easily available in libraries in every town I’ve lived in, so I never needed my own.

And then Dylan Horrocks puts out a new (and affordable) edition with a brand new 14-page introduction that touches on his love affair with comics and how important all the stupid little things can be. And he shows off a bit of the art in public and it would have been rude not to buy the comic after all this time.

I can’t abide rudeness.

* * *

I was looking at that original art yesterday morning, in a small art gallery just off K Road in central Auckland. I never really got to see much original art until a couple of years ago and it still amazes me how good it looks in the flesh. The best printing technology in the world can’t capture the life that still pours off the page where it was first drawn. There is something vibrant and deep about good original art, especially in black and white. Even the little imperfections, where the artist got a bit carried away with the white-out. It all helps.

Horrocks was only showing the art for a day and a half, so I was glad to get in there. Last year I missed some Brendan McCarthy art on a wall in London by two days, and I’m still a bit pissed about that. But I did have the extraordinarily good fortune of stumbling across the Cartoon Museum in that city back in 2007 and finding a display of Bryan Talbot’s brand new Alice in Sunderland pages. That was well worth the five quid it cost to get in.

(Huh. It seems to be all about the Tintin. Both Talbot and Horrock’s pages both featured Tintin homages. Maybe I’m just all about the little Belgian dork.)

After seeing those Talbot pages, it was only right that I bought the actual book from the place. They had been good enough to show off some of the original art, it seemed right to give them a bit more cash. I was always going to buy the book, because Talbot’s stuff is always, always worth a look, why not give it to the good bastards at the cartoon museum?

So after looking at Horrock’s stuff today, I had to finally gat that book. They were still cleaning up after the launch party from Friday night and were good enough to let me in quarter of an hour before they actually opened and let me have a quick look at the art – it was only good and proper to buy a copy.

Horrocks did a signing at the launch party and I would have gone, only there was a dire need for margaritas, and I’ve never been too bothered about getting stuff signed. The book’s the thing, not the signature.

* * *

And it’s a beautiful book. If you haven’t read Hicksville, you’re everything that’s wrong with the world and when the revolution comes, it will all have been your fault. A backcover blurb from the Village Voice says it’s “extraordinarily moving”, but that barely covers it. It’s a smart, whimsical, slightly sad and extremely funny comic, the crudeness of the rendering only upping the emotional sting.

In his new introduction, Horrocks talks about dreaming of lost and unknown comics, of his own personal joy and memories of producing the original comic and the dread of accidentally killing your love for the medium. It’s a brilliant little few pages and will resonate with anybody who ever dreamed of finding something so good it couldn’t possibly exist.

Me, I dream of 2000ads. I still often have that same bloody dream, finding an elusize haul that turns out to be nothing but a dream. And I still feel unaccountably depressed about it when I wake up.

I have also dreamed of going to that lighthouse and reading Tough Guy Comics by Jacob Kurtzberg and Harvey Kurtzman’s History of War. I asked a psychology student what all these dreams were all about and he said they just meant I spent too much time thinking about comics. He was probably right.

* * *

But that lighthouse and the Hicksville lending library do exist, somewhere inside all our heads. We still haven’t read the Best Comics Ever Produced, but we know they’re out there. We just have to find them.

And the search for that perfection is a worthy journey. It can take you from Hicksville to Hellboy to Rasl to the Uncanny X-Men to Zero Zero. While there is nothing that might be as good as the comics that came be found in that bloody lighthouse, there is a lot of thought and fun to be found in the best comics.

We all want the best in comics and we’ll gladly take what we can get. But if I could get to that lighthouse….

My favourite panel in all of Hicksville is the first one on page 211. It’s just a guy sitting in a dark room, reading. His face is blank, but everything he thought he knew was wrong.

It’s a terrific moment and the best thing about it is that I am so fucking jealous of Leonard Batts, sitting reading the best comics ever, and seeing his entire view of history shift. Those are the moments that make life worth living and Horrocks fucking nailed that scene.

The second best bit in the whole thing is that very last page, where Mort sees his own lighthouse.

* * *

Despite his despair at once losing his mojo for comics, Horrocks still produced new stuff more or less regularly at his website here. On current form, I won’t be buying that stuff until about 2025. I’ll try to do better than that this time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


This will be short because I forgot to blow on my morning pie and after losing it again I spent the past day sitting around feeling sorry for myself and playing with the GI Joe figures I bought for $2 each the other day.

Always blow on the pie. Safer communities together.

* * *

I like a good action figure.

I was always into them, thanks mainly to Star Wars. Those Kennar figures, while incredibly crude by the standards of today's toys, were absolutely brilliant. I flushed C-3PO down the toilet, broke the left arm off three different Walrus Man figures and loved them all, even the freaky pastel ones like the Could City pilot with the oddly placed arm.

Walrus Man is called something else now, but he’ll always be Walrus Man to me.

The fact is any male who was aged between five and ten sometime between 1977 and 1983 had some sort of Star Wars toy. They were everywhere, and after decades of action figures that were little more than repainted versions of Barbie's Ken, they found a ravenous audience.

I had a few other action figures as a kid, Star Trek: The Motion Picture figures which were even more basic than their Star Wars counterpart, although surprisingly sturdy, (I still own all three of them – Kirk, Spock and that bald chick.) And I also had great affection for Starbuck and Cylon figures from the original Battlestar Galactica, which weren't sturdy at all, forcing me to play with a one-armed Cylon and a no-armed Starbuck forever.

And that was about it for decent action figures in my universe 25 years ago. Until the GI Joe figures came to town and I discovered that the best action figure ever made was the Cobra Commander in Battle Armour, the third version of the master villain, released in 1987.

That one up there, on the right.

* * *

That Cobra Commander figure was the first proper GI Joe I saw, and it was fucking fantastic.

With some amazing articulation, it could move in ways I’d never seen toys move before, creating infinite posing opportunities. It was nice and spiky and had some sweet guns that he could point at things.

Over the next two years, I went completely apeshit for GI Joe. Ended up buying dozens of those figures and got a bit obsessed with the Marvel comic book at a worryingly influential age. Armoured figures were my favourite, and the various blank-faced Cobra troops were the best.

* * *

The best thing about the GI Joe figures, especially the ones that were all armoured up, is that they didn’t just have to be GI Joes. You could make up your own stories about them, and they could get insanely complicated.

I had all the detailed history and mythology of an alternate Earth where World War Two never ended sorted out by the time I was 11. You couldn’t do that with bloody Transformers. They were always Transformers, nothing else.

But Cobra Commander didn’t have to be Cobra Commander, he could be the hard-bitten warrior poet of a special strike force operating behind enemy lines in a place where decades of technological development had been dedicated to the Art of War. That saga incorporated every action figure I had (even no-arms Starbuck) and I can still remember the vast majority of it, even though none of it was ever written down or chronicled in any way.

This is what toys are supposed to do – encourage and enflame the imagination, and nobody did it better than GI Joe.

* * *

And then I got older and got interested in girls and booze and all that crap, and the toys went into a box in a cupboard and that was that.

But I would still get them out now and again and play around with them when nobody was looking. Most of them ended up getting lost over the years and those rubber bands in the middle that held the legs to the body got increasingly fragile, leading to lots of dismembered torsos, although I still held onto a few favourites. I still have that Cobra Commander and a Tech-Viper figure which has remarkably remained intact, despite the usual experiments with firecrackers.

I never really stopped buying toys, but moved on to figures from movies and comics. The explosion in the variety and styles of action figures, especially those with comic characters, over the past two decades has been remarkable.

I can still remember the excitement at seeing some rudimentary X-Men figures on the back cover of the Claremont/Lee X-Men #1, with little idea that there would be literally hundreds of different X-figures available by the end of the decade. In the end, I never bought any of them, although I would still love a good, classic Nightcrawler.

Instead, I bought the odd Aliens figure and have a fine selection of Boba Fetts and the other odd Star Wars toy that looked good on the shelf, but that was about it.

I’d given up on the GI Joe toys. They were for kids.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I had to buy some presents for my young nephews and a local toy chain was tossing its haul of GI Joe movie action figures out the door at ridiculously cheap prices.

After buying a small armful of the toys for the kids, I kept one for myself. Just to play around with and to see how the toys had evolved.

They’re certainly a lot more detailed and can move in ways those eighties Joes couldn’t, and while they’re not quite as charming or colourful as their earlier equivalents, I liked the Viper figure I got so much I went back and bought another half dozen for myself.

So here I am – a 35-year-old man still playing with his toys while he watches Michael Haneke films on DVD. I’ve always been a compulsive fidgeter, and they give me something to do with my hands, but mainly it’s because they look so damn cool and because they slotted in nicely to that vast war saga that’s been sitting in my head for more than two decades. Within minutes of ripping open the packages, the figures had new names and new purposes and I’m 12 all over again, drunk with storytelling possibilities that are too silly to share.

Toys don’t get any better than this.

* * *

Some people never take them out of their containers. That’s just wrong.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

See you next Wednesday

Wednesday Comics cost me about $112 all up. And it was totally worth it.

Now that the series is done and long gone, with just the collected edition and vague promises of further volumes to come, it’s still difficult to evaluate how successful it was. It appeared to do reasonably well sales wise – nothing outstanding, but certainly solid and attracting readers who seem to treat out-of-continuity tales like they’re the plague was always going to be a tough shot.

On a creative level, it was a mixed bag. Some of the weekly series was just rubbish, some of it was more entertaining than it had any right to be and some of it could be occasionally brilliant, which is enough for my money right there.

The creators were certainly a drawcard. The predictably brilliant efforts of artists such as Paul Pope and Kyle Baker were complimented by fine work from Jimmy Palomitti and Amanda Conner, who somehow managed to do the cutest and sweetest Supergirl story in years without becoming too cloying, or Karl Keschel and Brenden Fletcher’s Flash, which used its own temporal confusion to take full advantage of the massive page.

(It certainly helped that Keschel drew the best Flash-leaping-through-the-air poses I’ve ever seen.)

When it came to the characters that showed up, there was also a good mix of the usual big names and some oddball choices, with those oddballs generally providing better results than their more well-known contemporaries.

But for my money – and it was a shitload of money that you better not tell the wife about – the main drawcard behind the comic, the one thing that brought me in every couple of weeks, was the fact that it was something different. Not just the fact that it didn’t look like anything else out there, but that it was something self-contained that didn’t choke on its own self-importance.

There are plenty of perfectly average comic books out there, especially from the big two publishers, comics that can easily be ignored. Wednesday Comics’ format was the most obvious bit of experimentation, but there was also a fair bit in the stories themselves.

Some were still falling within that perfectly average range, but others tried so hard to do something different. They didn’t always succeed, but I’ll take a noble failure over a bland success any day.

Outside of Grant Morrison’s stuff, I don’t buy any other DC universe title currently being published. They all look and sound the same after a while. Generic covers, generic storylines, generic everything.

So Wednesday Comics had that going for it, right from the start. Now that the entire Marvel Universe now revolves around the Green goddamn Goblin, I’ve essentially given up reading Marvel superhero comics altogether, but I still WANT to read Marvel superhero comics. I want to enjoy them.

I just don’t want small slices of an impenetrable supersaga. Comics like the various Avengers books become almost unreadable for a significant portion of each year when they need to tie into the latest mega event, as they leave too much of the narrative to unfold in other comics entirely. And seeing all that bollocks recently seep into something like Daredevil, which was doing a nice job of carving its own little corner of the world under Ed Brubaker’s had, was just depressing.

Back at DC, a complete disinterest in the ongoing monotonies filling the pages of Superman and Green Lantern comics doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy any stories featuring those characters.

And these were some lovely stories in Wednesday Comics, something for everyone. Ignoring continuity altogether worked out well for most of the stories and to actually read a superhero story that has a proper ending, instead of spinning on to the next month, was remarkably refreshing.

Reading the entire 12-part stories in one go can be a mammoth logistical task due to the sheer size of the thing, but it is also pretty rewarding. The Wonder Woman strip got lost up its own mythology and tiny scribblings on a weekly basis, but was perfectly acceptable when read in a row, and even somewhat rewarding.

It did, unfortunately, also show that strips like the lead Batman tale were not as complicated, original or interesting as they first appeared, while several others had less pure, original plot than the Sergeant Rock beating that lasted for two months.

But there was enough for me to spend $9 a week for 12 weeks, and I’ll do it all over again if DC decide to push the experiment out for a second showing.

Because even though it doesn’t take much to do something different in modern mainstream comics, any sort of innovation – no matter how small – is a lot rarer than it should be.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That damn show

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure this is a lighter incarnation but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”
- Bat-Mite
The Brave and the Bold cartoon

* * *

Admit it, if you like superheroes, you fucking loved the Batman TV show as a kid. And then you hated it as a teenager. And then, if you grew up enough, you started to like it again.

* * *

The good bastards at the comic shop near my work put out a whole bunch of comic magazines on sale for $1 each. Issues of magazines I’d never seen before, many from the TwoMorrows publishing outfit – stuff like Alter Ego, Comic Book Artist and Back-Issue.

I had only seen a small handful of these magazines before, and was surprised how much I enjoyed their unashamed wallowing in nostalgia. The sheer amount of reproduced raw art is responsible for most of that enjoyment and a general tone of unabashed enthusiasm is highly contagious. After reading a long, rambling and highly enjoyable conversation between Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell, any reader will be convinced of the genuine worth of that mid-period Legion of Super-Heroes and that funk-tastic design sense.

But the writers often leave their inner fanboy showing a bit, most notably through their enthusiastic gushing over subjects few others care about. There is also the unfortunate tendency to dismiss the Adam West Batman as an unfortunate diversion from the true Batman which has tarnished the public’s perception of the character and pushed back any serious interpretastions of the concept.

The inherent fanboy can be heard in the sneering. It’s obviously an embarresment to all true Batman fans, a campy glitch in the history of the Dark Knight, the annoying uncle you have to acknowledge.

* * *

But it’s not. It’s brilliant. Turns out this annoying uncle actually has a good sense of humour and all sorts of stories to tell. The Batman TV show from the ‘60s is bright and colourful and cheerful and surprisingly ironic. It’s a bit stupid, but smart in ways that really matter. All those old showbiz hamming, chewing down on the gaudy scenery. Those catchphrases, those actors and that music, imprinted on generations. It’s brilliant.

* * *

When I was a little kid, the first television programmes I ever remember watching were Doctor Who and Batman.

That was my tastes rooted for life.

But I was genuinely excited about the Batman show when my brain was forming, and it was 20 years old then. There is something about that absolute deadpan that made it timeless.

Kids love it because it is loud and fun. It’s got a theme tune that is insanely catchy and these bright characters running around and having adventures. Its most obvious humour level is pitched somewhere around the eight year old’s level, so it always gets them laughing with the dumb joke.

I’ve seen kids in the 21st century fall over themselves in excitement when the Batman TV show was on television. They were eating that stuff up and asking for seconds. Their parents didn’t understand.

* * *

And then you get older and a girl catches you reading something meaty like The Killing Joke and laughs at you because she thinks it’s full of Fatman and Slobin and you’re like fuck that shit

* * *

I once had a lovely conversation with a girl who sometimes has to go out and do weather reports for breakfast television. They make her do the stupidest things, any old excuse to drag the waking eyes over to a TV screen.

She said she knows it’s all horribly embarrassing and tacky and cheesy, but if you show an inch of that knowledge, it just doesn’t work. The only way to avoid being embarrassed is to be as embarrassing as possible. Otherwise you just look stilted and awkward, and that’s much, much worse.

That’s how the television Batman works. There was just enough winking to show they were all in the joke, but not enough to be mean about it.

* * *

I watched it again in my early twenties and it was just stupid, so I filed it away as something best forgotten. Comics are serious business for serious young men. There will be no camp here.

And then I watched an episode with those kids I was talking about earlier, and it was bloody fantastic. The whole programme was dripping with deadpan irony and still played well – four decades after it was made.

It looked crisp and clear in a way that 70s television shows never do. It remains timeless and I can handle a Batman that digs the day.

* * *

That’s not everybody’s Batman. Many remain convinced that the tortured avenger of the night is the only valid interpretation of a cultural icon that is deserving of the respect its history deserves. Other people just like a Batman who grimaces and throws bad guys into meat grinders.

Others like a Batman who can be a bit competitive, while always fair. Who isn’t afraid to show others how it’s done and can do it with a laugh.

There have been a lot of thoughtful and genuinely mature stories about Batman that have been absolutely fantastic. There have also been a lot of goofy and funny stories that have been so enjoyable.

They’re all valid interpretations.

* * *

Nananananananana! Nananananananana! Batman! Batman! BATMAN! Nananananananana!

* * *

I still know loads of people who love reading comics, but wouldn’t be caught dead with them in public. While there are more people reading Sandman on the train than ever before, it’s still perceived as a child’s medium in western eyes. If you like it, you must be immature.

Well, so what? What’s wrong with liking a kid’s product if it’s smart and funny enough? It doesn’t do any harm. If people laugh at you because you get a bit over-excited about Batman and Robin, that’s their problem. It shouldn’t taint my enjoyment of it.

It took me fuckin’ years to figure this out.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Too much Nine

This week, I can barely put there sentences together before my brain gets distracted by something new and shiny. It’s weird because everything comes like a retarded haiku. I blame the humidity.

* * *

I’ve given up on DMZ and it only took four years. All of the characters are such fucking jerks, I don’t give a damn what happens to them. Especially Matty.

* * *

On the other hand, I’ve fallen hard for the current Jonah Hex comic. Bought the first dozen issues real cheap last week and thought they were right purty enough to buy more. Haven’t felt like this with a comic since Criminal.

* * *

The best issue of 2000ad to come out all year comes out this week, even if it’s taken 10 weeks to get here. It’s the annual 100-page Christmas issue, full of all the best strips and the start of a new year. Way better than the hardback annuals they used to do.

* * *

Got the first four issues of Die Hard: Year One, because I still get drunk and watch that first movie and think it's the besht movie ever. Enjoyed it more than I though I would until it all got a bit confusing towards the end. I blame the Chaykin.

* * *

I got a genuine emotional kick from the understated conclusion of Garth Ennis’ latest Battlefields. Happy Valley’s story performed a few corkscrew maneuvers of its own. Who’d fly a Wimpy?

* * *

Finally got to read Beto’s Birdland. Never seen it anywhere until I borrowed it off a mate I met through this blog. Just as creamy as I’d feared, with a wonderful kick in the butt at the end.

* * *

Peter Bagge has developed into an exceptional editorial cartoonist, especially when he gets all fired up. Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me is a fantastic series of rants and disbelief. Best read sitting in an airport lounge, waiting for a plane that’s been delayed.

* * *

Last week I found out a bunch of comics I’d been storing far away had been destroyed by water. They were worthless old Australian black and white horror and superhero reprint comics, some of which I’d had since I was eight. I’m still gutted.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


As one of the leading forums for serious discussions about serious comics since it was first published, The Comics Journal made a reasonably early leap into the digital world, with a well-established message board that is now more than a decade old.

I posted there three times in the late nineties, always talking about Love and Rockets.

The odd effort to spruce up its online presence since then has been a little half-arsed, with the only real success seen under the ruthless dedication of Dirk Deppey, whose tireless trawl through the weird world of comics remains the best source of good linkage in the entire medium.

But all that changed with its latest evolutionary leap, with the magazine’s publishers confirming that its print edition would be published only a few times a year and placing more of its content online for the greater world to read.

Taking such a big step inevitably results in teething problems, and the all-new, all-different TCJ site had its fair share – a clunky design and links that went nowhere were always expected, but Gary Groth managed to annoy a whole lot of people with a faintly condescending spiel about great writing on the internet, along with a blatantly condescending apology.

The Tearoom of Despair has made its brain-crush on the Journal abundantly clear in the past, and that love for meaty writing about meaty comics remains…. well… meaty. I hardly ever actually fully agree with Gary, but isn’t that the point?

For decades now, Groth has been one of the great raconteurs in comics culture – he doesn’t necessarily need you to share his view. He always seems to be up for an argument, and can manage an incredibly heated level of discourse without resorting to personal attacks. He is undeniably often right and just as wrong the rest of the time.

After years of this, it was no surprise that the tone of his welcome hit the wrong note with readers and writers, who had managed to find good writing and analysis of comics on the net without his help.

It wasn’t helped by the abrupt about-face over its content – slapping the entirety of the latest issue up on line, only to meekly pull it all back within a day. It was a classic mistake to forget about the impact on retailers who had made orders, but once this was explained, it was a lot easier to stomach.

Still, that didn’t stop some of the jeers and arguments, some of which pleasingly even came from within the orbit of the website itself. The Comics Journal had tripped up in its first real step into the online world and there were plenty of people – many of whom had been turned off by the Journal’s elitism long before - who found that really, really funny.

But who cares when the content of the new site is this good?

I can forgive any amount of teething problems if you’re going to offer up a massive five-part Kevin O’Neill interview. O’Neill is one of the greats of the modern comic world – a style so perverse it’s fundamentally offensive to some tastes, stapled on to a magnificent sense of design and comicbook pacing.

That interview is one of the reasons I will always have a soft spot in my heart for The Comics Journal, and why I can only welcome their increased online presence. Most comic book interviews on the web – including those with some highly idiosyncratic creators – seem to be based around a new project coming out. Reliably entertaining interview subjects like Evan Dorkin and Alan Moore only ever seem to get interviewed in conjunction with something new coming out.

And those online interviews that aren’t just fixated on the near future tend to be ridiculously ingratiating to the subject, to the point where they are barely worth reading. A recent round of interviews with Brian Bendis that looked back at his ten years at Marvel were so busy telling the reader how awesome the last decade has been, they forgot to say anything interesting.

The Comic Journal’s interviews – both in print and online – remain the best comic interviews around. O’Neill’s chat with Douglas Wolk touches on all the usual subjects such as his early run-ins with the Comics Code Authority, but also managed to cast new light on O’Neill’s work over the decades – both in the behind the scenes machinations, and in the craft behind every line on the page.

And they’re entertaining too – creators who no longer feel the obligation to do anything for the main publishers can be wonderfully candid about the sordid aspects of the business. O’Neill remains a proper gentlemen in his discussion, but is not above dishing the odd bit of dirt on those who have wronged him. (One particular aside got right up movie producer Don Murphy’s goat, but judging by Murphy’s history, that’s not hard to do.)

And while new interviews with weird and wonderful are still relatively few and far between, there is still the Journal’s 30-year history to check out online. Recent essays to show up on the website were written in the eighties and nineties, and take a surprisingly timeless look at on the artistic and commercial booms and busts of their times. This kind of thing is always fascinating.

Its audio history is also a bonus, and downloading conversations held years ago between giants of the medium is a real pleasure. Some sites go for the flash, with audio and video content showing up all over the place, but the Journal’s more restrained releasing pattern is a whole lot easier to follow.

I don’t want to sound like a total apologist for the Journal and its recent endeavours – there are still big things about the site that are irritating, and huge sections that have no interest for me.

But the good stuff is the best stuff. It’s still a thrill when Dirk links to this blog on Journalista, because it’s been the first place I go to for comic news every day for the past five years. Although, weirdly, I hope he doesn’t link to this one, because that just makes me look like a total kissarse.

Not that I really have a problem with that. I love the Journal so hard, I never mind when it doesn’t love me back as much. The sour times still pass and the sweeter moments taste better because of it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

This is important!

A while back, Sir Edmund Hilary - The Greatest Living New Zealander - passed away. He had led a long and fulfilling life. He deserved all of the admiration thrown his way, with his modesty only increasing that worth.

Along with the mighty Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, he was the first to climb Mount Everest. He was an explorer and humanitarian, dedicating his life to easing the plight of many, and was the only living New Zealander to appear on kiwi banknotes. In short, Sir Ed was a top bloke.

When he died, the entire country was united, for one brief moment. No matter who we were or where we came from, all New Zealanders could agree that the world was a better place because of Sir Ed, and a slightly sadder place without him.

Unfortunately, that feeling of community was almost totally sucked dry by the usual suspects, and Sir Ed's funeral, while still a powerful and moving ceremony, was soon turned into an Event. Television, newspapers and radio were all constantly telling us this was history in the making, that the funeral was a true event that was important and moving and poignant and on and fucking on.

The funeral itself was the subject of media saturation. The news aspect, that Sir Ed had passed on, was swiftly dealt with, but we were all told to keep watching, listening and reading about it, because the funeral was a National Event.

Unsurprisingly, while all this was going on, all I could think about were bloody comic books.

Over recent years, the mainstream comic industry has been devoted to making the big events out of nothing, with press release after press release intoning that the latest chapter in the ongoing mega-saga is important. There are plenty of companies who do this, but I'm picking on Marvel today, because they've got the whole thing down to a goddamn artform.

In the last couple of years, Marvel has stapled its entire line onto stories which don’t really hold up to this promise of importance. House of M was nothing more than glorified – and fairly dull - What If?, Civil War hid the oldest superhero cliches behind flash visuals and Big Moments, and the characters might have gone on and on about how bad the situation in Secret Invasion was, but the Marvel Universe gets invaded by Skrulls every five fucking minutes, so the impact of this latest incursion was hard to gauge.

For all the talk, for better or worse, Civil War actually had the largest impact beyond its own pages, setting a long storyline in motion that is still not quite wrapped up.

But for all its delusions of grandeur, the thing about Civil War was that was nothing new. The registration thing was handled in the '80s and eventually faded away, with Reed Richards taking care of the entire moral dilemma in one Walt Simonson written issue with little problem. Big Walt still managed to fit in gratuitous fight scenes with random villains, and then went onto more important things like helping Galactus destroy a future universe in a ridiculously fast paced tale.

And the whole idea of super-heroes turning on each other is about as old as you can get, ever since the Human Torch gave Betty Dean the glad eye and pissed off Namor back in the forties. (Although pissing off Namor is fairly easy. Take his last cookie and you've got a feud for life.)

But then the hype machine gets itself up and running and readers are continuously told that these are big and important and they’re not just stories – they’re Events.

And if it’s an Event, you can guarantee that Things Will Never Be The Same, but what's new? We’ve been promised that every time, and the law of diminishing returns means it lacks the punch it had, even though that original punch was more of a limp slap with a slice of cabbage.

It can't just be a story, it has to be an event, it has to matter, it has to be bigger than big.

We couldn't bury poor old Sir Ed without falling over ourselves telling each other how important it is. And we're losing the ability to tell decent stories about colourful superheroes without building them up like a house of cards, ready to fall at any time.