Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nice floor

When John Byrne's work was first inked by Joe Sinnott, he was keen to find out what the veteran artist thought of his pencil work. When Sinnott praised a piece of floor that Byrne had drawn, describing it as something Kirby would have produced, Byrne was understandably chuffed with the praise.

Sometime later, he came to the realisation that Sinnott was probably just being overly polite and had searched for something nice to say about Byrne's art, eventually finding something fairly inconsequential to praise. Or maybe Byrne just drew a really good floor.

Byrne's anecdote came to my mind recently when I finally got around to reading the full version of Katsuhiro Otomo's massive and monumental Akira series. Despite reading the odd piece here and there, and enjoying the movie when it was first released, it took a shamefully long time, mainly due to an unnatural fear that manga comics would laugh at my haircut and call me names. But after reading all of the six volumes published by Dark Horse over a single weekend, the one thought that really stood out for me was that Otomo draws some fucking fantastic floors.

I know it's a ridiculous thing to pick out from the saga, which bounced between hyper-kinetic action sequences, emotional catharsis and apocalyptic psychic duels with ease. The shame in the time it's taken me to get around to reading it was overwhelmed by the highest of expectations for the saga, and Otomo surpassed them with ease. Especially during the big climax which fills the entire last volume, taking the story to brilliant new levels that mix a falling laser satellite, spirituality, giant mutated psychic children, running motorcycle battles and empathy for a lonely little kid.

The sheer amount of material available and an inability to connect with the screaming dialogue and wide-eyed look has made it hard to know where to begin with manga. I've tried the odd series, but Akira really does deserve its reputation as one of the pinnacles of the form. Beyond the breathtaking cast of characters, Otomo's art is a thing of beauty, hugely detailed.

But the thing that amazed me the most is the sheer amount of energy in his work, with things flying about and pushing through and demanding to be looked at. While they stand in marked contrast to the quieter moments, they still loom over everything else, the insane amount of detail taking the tale into a class of its own.

And, for me, it comes back to those goddamn floors. While the biggest-selling DC comic can produce an issue that is almost totally devoid of any kind of background, Akira's art is full of little touches that improve the reading, pushing the story forward. And Otomo's floors are part of this, always keeping the reader chugging along nicely, drawing the eye along to the most important part of the panel, the strict lines given it a sense of design that American followers of the so-called manga style rarely seem to pick up on.

Akira really is a masterwork, and one that will be pored over and studied for generations as a prime example of how to tell a massive sprawling epic without losing touch of the finer details, from the way some characters come together in touching little moments, to showing city-wide destruction on a massive scale.

Those floors aren't just my way of finding something nice to say, they're the only way I can really pick something out of the genius soup, giving one tiny example of as truly excellent comic.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spoiling the future

I had to stop reading the best 2000ad website on the internet, because I was totally ruining it for myself. is an excellent site, offering up regular reviews of the galaxy’s greatest comic, along with some fairly deep synopsis action and the odd brilliant interview. The comic takes 10 weeks to get to this side of the world and for the past five years, I’ve been regularly peeking into the future – seeing what’s up next in Judge Dredd, getting the vibe for established strips that haven’t even started here yet.

But with Nikolai Dante barrelling towards a suitably spectacular and apocalyptic conclusion and the long-term Dredd story taking some fascinating turns, it’s time to step away from the spoilers. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but I’ve managed to last three weeks so far and I only tried to check the website once and it didn’t load so that’s the universe telling me to stay the hell away. That’s not obsessive thinking or anything, right?

Okay, so I tried it a few more times and it was down. It’s back now, but I think I’m safe, even if it’s a little worrying how hard it is to still avoid going to look up a few spoilers.

* * *

The first book when I made the conscious decision not to skip to the last ten pages to see what happens was A Feast Unknown by Phillip Jose Farmer, which I read when I was 17. For years beforehand, I’d routinely skipped ahead to see what happened to the main characters, and might even read the last dozen pages to see how it all worked out.

I was going to do that with Farmer’s Tarzan/Doc Savage, before realising it would actually be enjoyable to read it like the author actually intended. When that turned out to be the case, I made a habit of it, and have never been tempted to skip to the end again.

It took me 17 years to figure this out.

* * *

If I had to make a list of the best ten storytelling twists in adventure-based comic books, 2000ad would account for half of them. Finding out the nature of the universe at the climax of the last Zenith, the Dead Man remembering his name and the McGruder comeback a dozen issues later: no comic has impressed me with its ability to wrong-foot the reader more than the weekly British sci-fi institution.

I can still tell you exactly where and when I was at each of those moments above. In two of them I was reading the comic while walking down the street and I literally had to stop because I couldn’t process the brilliance of the twist and walk at the same time. I just wanted to grab on to the nearest person walking by and talk about how brilliant it was, and almost did.

And for the past five years I’ve been ruining that pleasure by reading the plot synopsis that comes up every week at I couldn’t help myself, I couldn’t stop myself from reading it. Even though it telegraphed absolutely brilliant moments, like the concluding part of the Amerika story in Nikolai Dante, I kept on doing it.

Because 2000ad is still the best comic ever and I’ve always been interested in what was going on, even when I made the unfortunate decision to step away.

It still throws a massive amount of ideas at the wall and when they stick, they stick hard. It’s a comic that’s not afraid to kill off vital characters, or to drag a story out so far beyond absurdity that it’s almost profound again.

The Dredd strip remains the bedrock of each individual issue, precisely because it’s always a solid and entertaining read. Remarkably, right now it’s as good as it’s ever been. The massive ongoing story – steered by writer John Wagner, who has now been working on the character for more than 30 years - has seen Dredd exiled from his beloved city. While it till manages to get in a few good thrills and laughs, the series is also saying some really interesting things about the nature of prejudice, the corruption of power and the price of stone-cold conviction.

The Dredd story alone is worth the $7.50 the comic costs every week. That ratio might not be as good as when I was paying 33c an issue in the early eighties and the comic was packed with great action comics, but it’s still good enough. There is usually something I genuinely don’t care about – Sinister Dexter has been spinning its wheels for years and weren’t that likable top start with, while more recent stories like Necrophin and Ampney Crucis Investigates have failed to thrill.

But there has also been the odd bit of brilliance in the other stories – new strips like Stickleback and Zombo are getting more impressive, firmly established stories like The Red Seas and Shakara always welcome and Clint Langley’s art on the ABC Warriors remains murkily astonishing.

Along with the latest twists and turns of Nikolai Dante, I’m genuinely excited to pick up a new issue every week and I just haven’t been able to wait to see what happens, even if I know I’m handicapping my own enjoyment.

This time, it’s only taken me another 18 years to realise this.

* * *

It was Dante who sparked the will to resist easy answers - after learning of massive plot developments in the past few issues, which still won’t show up here until next month, I realised I had to stop.

This also means staying away from the main 2000ad website, and other related blogs like the thoroughly excellent 2000ad: That Reminds Me Of This, but I’m managing so far.

It is harder than I thought it would be, but I’ve only got another six issues or so to go, and I’ll be into the stuff I haven’t spoiled for myself. Then there should be some rewards.

I’ll still read the reviews after the issues come out, and I might take a quick peak to see what stories are coming up, but I’ll stay away from the details. Keep the future unknown.

I still often read 2000ad while wandering down a street, because I’ve never been good at waiting out that bit between when I buy it and the point I get to my destination. So I’m looking forward to the next shocking twist, and this time, I don’t think I’ll even try to stop myself from accosting the nearest innocent soul and telling them all about the galaxy’s greatest.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lost in the Library #6 : Infernal retirbution and pointless noir

Hellblazer: Pandemonium
Jamie Delano and Jock

Delano’s writing voice has gained in strength since he was a regular writer of John Constantine’s adventures back in the late eighties, and he now has a much defter touch. Those early Hellblazers look clumsy and over-earnest, but since leaving the monthly title, Delano has turned in the odd piece of Constantine magic, and it gets better every time.

The Horrorist, with David Lloyd, was a satisfyingly sickly experience and the happy shininess of Philip Bond made the 2020-set Bad Blood a tasty little treat. Now, with Pandemonium, Delano has teamed up with Jock and produced the best Constantine story in years.

It really shouldn’t work – set against the backdrop of the Iraq War, the comic certainly has the potential to hit you over the head with the Worthy Stick, but it’s a smart and angry tale full of ancient power, modern idiocy and divine retribution.

And it is surprisingly shocking – one plot turn is so traumatic it takes a few pages to sink in. Constantine doesn’t even get time for tricks or anything, but the lucky bastard still talks his way out of a terrible through the usual infernal poker games.

In Delano’s hands, there is the great contradiction and hypocrisy in Constantine that many fine writers have failed to pick up on. He shows righteous fury at those with power fucking over the little guy and gives some soulless government types a dose of crippling humanity, but he also uses souls as an ante into the poker game in hell. He’s no better – the brilliant thing is that he is totally aware of this.

Jock provides some suitably grubby artwork for the storyline and still manages to catch that wicked glint in John’s eye - he could do some brilliant work on the title if he was given the monthly comic, which has been stuck in a mire of perfectly acceptable and thoroughly unexceptional artwork for a long time.

But Pandemonium is still a meaty and satisfying comic - Constantine is certainly getting old, but in the right hands, he is as sharp as ever.

* * *

Buffy The Vampire Slayer v5 and 6
By Joss and his mates

It’s a little odd how every comic based on Joss Whedon concepts don’t really work. The dialogue his characters spout on screen can be charming, funny and moving, the exact same words on the comic page just sit there and look kinda funny.

The season eight series is still a whole lot better than some of the awful, awful Buffy comics that preceded it, but it’s hard to care when the spark Whedon coaxed out of his idiosyncratic actors isn’t there. Stylised dialogue is a lot harder to pull off than it looks when there is no personality or voice behind it.

The new tales are readable enough and this collection does benefit from the relative brevity of the stories, but this whole season eight thing is dragging out a bit too far, and Buffy’s whole Slayer Army thing seems a little half-arsed. It’s as if nobody has really sat down and thought through the full implications of where it’s going, happy enough with a paper over the cracks with idiosyncratic dialogue.

Capturing the exact likeliness of a particular actor is never easy and does put horrible constraints on the poor artist who has to avoid making every profile look like the publicity shot they’re cribbing from. The pressure on the various artists working on the current incarnation of the comic have an especially hard time when vital plot beats are based on somebody from Buffy’s past showing up unexpectedly and can fall flat because that looks nothing like Seth Green.

The current Buffy series is unnecessarily clumsy – but as previous comics based on the concept have shown before, they could always be a lot worse.

* * *

Daredevil: Noir
By Alexander Irvine and Tomm Coker

An excited blurb on the back cover of this gives Marvel some major kudos for “knowing what we want and delivering it”, which is a bit weird considering this is just the same old Daredevil, with muddy art, obtuse characters and a vague 1930s setting.

This comic doesn’t really do anything that the regular series hasn’t done, apart from a slightly different Bullseye – “This time, HE’S A SHE!” – giving the whole book a sense of futile pointlessness.

One of the major irritants about the whole Noir line of comics that Marvel has been putting out is that they seem to stick to a fairly rigid definition of what noir actually is. There are loads of morally dubious characters, a vague period setting and lots of moody artwork that make it extremely hard to figure out what’s going on, especially when the creators are trying to set up a whole new continuity.

But the films and books that kicked off the whole idea of noir decades away were a surprisingly versatile bunch. There were all sorts of stories and styles that shared a certain blackness, but there weren’t these obtuse rules over what noir should be.

It’s like 70s punk – at first there wasn’t a particular style of music, it was just the pure DIY aesthetic that saw Talking Heads on the same bill as the Ramones. But as time went on, punk just came to mean a particular kind of buzzsaw guitar and sneering vocals and that diversity was lost. The Marvel noir comics feel a lot like this: so stuck in a pattern that really have nothing new to say, in any decade.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Time has no cost

Smart people who make movies with low budgets know you need some good ideas to cover up the lack of spectacle. This works well for comedy, because it is always killed by big budgets – films like Tropic Thunder destroy themselves with too much money, and no amount of cash was ever going to make Evan Almighty better than one minute of Withnail And I.

Horror is another good idea for films with limited funds, and that lesson was driven home by the extraordinary – if belated – success of Paranormal Activity. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to scare people, you can do that by showing nothing. Horror films with an abundance of CGI are just tedious, a dark room with something slightly wrong in it is infinitely scarier than any over-rendered demon.

Science fiction is a bit harder to do on a budget, but it can be done. It is easier to do special effects than ever before, and there have been a plethora of science fiction films with cheap CGI. They tend to be sunk by their own limitations, but every now and then, they hit the mark.

One strand of films with low budgets and high ideas has produced some really satisfying work: films about time travel.

They don’t need a huge amount of special effects, travelling up and down the timeline can be as mundane as sitting inside a workshop, or walking into the loo at the local pub. Often, the special effects are in the head as plots twist and turn around a concept that is literally impossible to understand.

On television, Doctor Who has managed to show all of time and space for decades on the budget of four quid and an oily rag, and while that was sometimes quite obvious with wobbly sets and wobblier acting, it still managed to spark the imagination of its audience.

As a calling card for smart young film-makers, low budget time travel films give them a chance to show off how clever they can be, even if they occasionally over-reach.

Donnie Darko worked very well as a showcase, helped by a genuinely creepy atmosphere, some great performances and some new reasonably new and satisfyingly fucked-up ideas about the way the universe works. For a primary example of too much money, look at Kelly’s follow-up film – Southland Tales. It was sadly unloved long before it was even released, as the extra money saw indulgences run riot.

Back down at the lowest of budgets, there is Primer, where time travel involves sitting inside a shed for eight hours. It’s a thoroughly grey movie full of mumbled technical explanations that somehow manages to be one of the most accurate depictions of an altered state of mind captured on film.

It starts out boring and barely understandable, and then the story starts looping in on itself over and over, and it really is like tripping off your nut. People who take drugs in movies often see a whole bunch of pretty colours, but they don’t capture the confusion of being really, really high.

Nothing makes sense, but is still totally familiar. Everything is significant, from the ties the characters wear to the things they listen to on headphones. And then it’s all over, and you’re not sure what happened, but it feels indescribably important.

It’s a pretty hard film to get into, but rewardable in all the ways good, cheap science fiction can deliver.

For another example of cheaparse time shenanigans, you could do worse than watch Patrick Meaney’s beautifully bizarre internet-based series The Third Age. It’s a satisfying slice of multi-time paranoia that wears its influences on the sleeve a bit too much, but manages to get a lot out of its obviously meagre budget. While there is little in the way of physical time travel, the series has no problem with making its characters become mentally unstuck in time.

The idea of travelling back into your own past and mucking around with it isn’t confined to any one culture, and has shown up in films produced all over the world. One of the most effective movies of this type to be released in the past several years is Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes.

A Spanish production that features people over-reacting in a way European people on film usually do, the story sees a fairly hopeless sap stumble into a series of experiments that keep him looping back and forth over the past few hours. A typically intricate jigsaw puzzle of a film that takes a few dodgy logical leaps to keep the timeline flowing, Timecrimes is also an entirely satisfying and weirdly creepy experience. Dressing up as your own hooded antagonist and attacking your past self might keep the structure of time intact, but it’s also a wonderfully weird narrative hook.

They keep on coming, these cheap, nasty and lovely time travel films. Unsurprisingly, there have been a few that have gone for laughs, such as Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel.

This British effort isn’t entirely satisfying, but is charming enough, with that Irisdh bloke from the IT crowd, the Scary Movies girl and Shakespeare from that Doctor Who episode keeping the time travel tribulations flowing. It’s not the type of film that bothers with any real explanations, but loves playing around with a paradox and features one genuinely great giant mutant ant gag.

Like all these films, it gets hideously complicated by the end, but generally all ties together. It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but at least it tries to be clever in the first place.

And that might just be the most appealing thing about low-budget time-travel films. They try so hard to be impressive and rely on their own smarts to do so. When the big blockbusters seemed determined to lower their intelligence levels by as much as humanly possible, making the effort to mess around with the audience’s heads as much as possible can only be applauded.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Book of Batman

The worlds of R Crumb and Batman haven’t really crossed paths in the past few decades, but after reading Crumb’s Book of Genesis adaptation and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne in quick sucession, it’s not hard to make all sorts of connections.

These are creation myths and legends: stories from when we had just figured out this civilisation thing, the first humans figuring it out as they go along. Taking those first steps away from the animal world and into something stranger and smarter.

It also helps if you happen to be watching The Ascent of Man, the BBC documentary from the 1970s that featured Doctor Jacob Bronowski and his slightly humourous speech impediment, wandering around the world, tracing the rise of mankind. Two episodes it and humanity has just worked out how to cut wheat without losing the good stuff. There is still a long way to go.

And there is still a long way to go in Genesis, especially when Noah has to kick things off all over again. As Crumb gleefully points out in his commentary, the Book of Genesis was the amalgamation of at least three written sources regarding the Creation, and it’s fascinating to see them all mashed up under Crumb's pen, as he faithfully reproduces the first book of the bible, with added boobies.

After a whole bunch of begotting, it gets into those weird morality plays that fill much of the early part of the Word of God and leave this reader with little in the way of spiritual encouragement, and loads of pitiful worries that the ancestors of us all were, well, fucking bonkers.

But the early stuff, where there is only Adam, Eve and the kids, remains my favourite part of the whole bible, because it uses some fairly complex metaphors for the growth of man, from that moment when we first stood out on the world and thought about the future.

No matter what creed you align yourself with, the birth of man is a fascinating piece of history. The use of tools, the establishment of agriculture, those first drawings on those cave walls, all those eons ago.

It’s all the more fascinating for the lack of any real record, and the oldest stories mankind produced are often vague and hard to follow. The very first part of Genesis is about all we’ve got and that’s been heavily twisted and edited over the centuries. So why not add some Batman to the birth of humanity? It couldn’t hurt.

There are no gods in the Return of Bruce Wayne, just ideas and concepts that are powerful enough to spark the dawn of modern consciousness. It’s an amazingly satisfying comic, clever and fast and funny.

There was a terrific moment in a recent episode of the Brave and the Bold cartoon where Batman finds that another version of himself has spontaneously emerged and Batman accepts the fact that his existence is so logical, it was bound to be repeated somewhere in the infinite universe.

Return of Bruce Wayne #1 does something similar with Robin, showing that wherever he turns out, no matter what situation he’s is, Batman will always have a Robin. That’s just one of many wonderful tiny little touches that fill the comic – there are all sorts of others, including the white necklace, the use of caveman grammar, the godlike appearance of Superman and Booster Gold, and the sheer visceral thrill of the scene where Batman puts his costume on and kicks some fuckin’ caveman ass.

But the best thing about it is the way Batman has such a huge impact, just by showing up at this crucial juncture of human history. With his unstoppable fighting style and little knife, he’s like the monolith in 2001, showing Young Man how it is done and influencing human history through force of will, an impeccable sense of justice and strong eye for a good visual.

As the introduction of Mr Wayne to the regular DC universe, this comic could scarcely be more satisfying. It is certainly helped by the usual consummately clean artwork of Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, although it might have been elevated to a comic of pure bloody perfection if they’d brought Joe Kubert, who has made no secret of his fondness for drawing protohumans in his various Tor storylines. While Sprouse remains a fantastic action artist, the story could have used a bit of that dirty Kubert thrill. To be honest, it’s not a shame Andy Kubert didn’t do much more than the cover – like his Dad, he draws excellent caveman.

But this a minor point in a great miniseries and with Batman coming closer to home with the climactic shunt into puritan times, his return looks set to be an entertaining and thoughtful story. It’s certainly got off to the best start, going back to the very beginning of us all and leaving his mark on the universe.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vulgar distractions

There has recently been a large amount of critical writing about the comics of Mark Millar and Garth Ennis, accusing both writers of creating offensively gratuitous comic that have no artistic merit whatsoever.

While this is nothing new – both writers have taken critical hammerings since they shared the pages of the UK’s Crisis comic – it has been more notable in recent weeks with the gleefully vicious backlash that followed the release of Kick Ass, while a number of intelligent readers have been vocal about dropping The Boys in the past few months.

Many of these critics make some valid points about the superficiality of the comics written by these two gentlemen, but it’s too easy to write off pieces of entertainment as inherently immoral, which many have. Morality is the easiest argument to make because it doesn’t rely on much more than a gut feeling that something is wrong, and it’s a cinch to produce evidence that can back it up – especially when taken out of context.

The biggest problem with this is that there is the inherent implication that if you read amoral works, and enjoy them, then there is something immoral about your own perspective and personality.

Take this wonderful line from a recent post by the usually reliable Marc-Oliver Frisch –

Or, to make a long story short: If you've got a latent grudge against bitches, niggers and faggots—or if you harbor any other urges deemed morally reprehensible in your tribe, for that matter—then Mark Millar is the guy who will gladly scratch that itch for you, who will jerk you off in a way that doesn't make you feel bad about it.

Which left me feeling like just another sexist, racist, homophobic arsehole, simply because I thought Kick Ass was pretty funny.

* * *

It may be a humour thing. For all the warmth shown towards the likes of Monty Python and Blackadder across the Atlantic, there is still a fundamentally British sense of humour that many Americans just don’t get.

It’s real end-of-the-pier stuff: grubby jokes for adults to have a laugh about when the kids have gone to bed. Rarely intelligent, frequently vulgar and often seen as a guilty pleasure, this bawdy tradition lives on in the work of mainstream British comic creators.

Ask a British writer about the cultural differences between British and American writers, and they will start banging on about the storytelling genius of Dennis Potter – and rightly so. But press them a bit more and you might get them to admit there is also a fine appreciation for something like the Carry On.. movies, those lusty and busty phwoar-fests.

This grubby pleasure – often delivered up with a helping of irony to take out the sour taste - is not something you traditionally find in American humour, even with the odd brilliant exception.

This is why there are so many jokes about putting things in people’s arses in the comics of both Ennis and Millar. They both think it’s genuinely funny and don’t care about anybody who is offended by it. In fact, the more people that are offended, the funnier the joke gets.

But the point of the joke is often missed completely. There were quite a few raised eyebrows when it was revealed that Millar made the suggestion that the Death Of Superman should be followed by the ‘Rape of Wonder Woman’, and the distaste at the anecdote was somewhat justified.

But Millar wasn’t making fun of the act of rape, which is obviously a hideous and horrible thing to happen to anybody, or even Wonder Woman herself. Instead – and this seemed to be an obvious point – he was making fun of a corporate attitude that is only too willing to use a hideous and horrible event to sell more funny books.

Since Superman temporarily kicked the bucket, there have been plenty of comics that have used rape as the clumsiest of plot devices – until it got to the point where a key mini-series which influenced the next five years of DC super hero comics revolved around the rape, mindwiping and eventual murder of the Elongated Man’s pregnant wife.

Millar was joking, but the absolute seriousness of the dour Identity Crisis was far dodgier.

* * *

It’s also funny to see how much shock Millar can dredge up with his same old shite. He was doing the same things he’s been doing in Nemesis since the late eighties, when he had The Saviour eating babies and destroying faith.

He remains fond of the wonderfully adolescent narrative trick – “Look at me! Look how shocking I am!” Once he has got your attention, he often has something deeper to say. Even with all the sneering characters, he is still a big ol’ softie and has made some serious points by combining the superficial taunting with this streak of unashamed sentimentality.

Unfortunately, many readers think that there is nothing more to Millar than this shock tendency. It can be hard to find much humanism in the snarky Spider-Man comic he did, but it is still there. Whether anybody can be bothered looking for it, or will even recognise it when it’s right in front of them, is another matter.

I always read Millar’s work, because it is fast paced and farcical and devoted to the types of bombastic nonsense that superhero comics do best, but there are times when his work has been genuinely moving. From the two-fingered salute at the end of Insiders to the perfect distillation of the classic “pissed off people going to kick somebody’s well deserved arse” pose on the last page of Kick Ass #5.

The dodgy stuff on the surface gets lot of attention and puts a lot of people off. It’s not hard to offend people, but it is difficult to actually move them.

* * *

When it comes to comics that get a genuine emotional reaction out of me, Garth Ennis has written a fair few of them. Sometimes he gets a bit stuck in the pub, sometimes he relies on certain characteristic tics, but the Irishman can move continents with his ideas and themes, he can crank up the intensity to almost unbearable levels and he remains the single best dialogue man in the whole fucking business.

The relentless sneering at superheroes, combined with the routine jokes about buggering, have seen some readers fall off from The Boys (although the sales are, as usual for a longform comic from Ennis, remarkably stable. Readers who start reading long stories by Garth Ennis tend to stick with them until the end.)

But just as some readers get bored with the supershenanigans and drift away from The Boys, I’ve been enjoying the comic even more. The story is a slow build, but after a coupel of years of build up, developments are also coming to a head at great speed. While the comic has always been interesting, it has recently taken a turn into some fascinating territory.

Never mind the sodomy, there are other really interesting things going on – there is The Homelander’s bored destruction, daring the world to tell him off and disappointed when his actions have no consequences. Or Billy Butcher’s sheer inability to grasp the truth of Hughie’s situation, because he’s been trapped in a dark place for so long he just can’t comprehend an innocent explanation. Or the way Frenchie shows how to save the world with the way he first bonds with the Female, offering her food and cleanliness when she has only known filth and hatred.

These little moments and over-reaching themes makes The Boys so good. There are still gerbils up the arse, but they’re just the surface.

* * *

Of course, comic readers being what they are, they’ve been only too glad to make it personal, writing off Ennis and Millar themselves as vulgar and ignorant, usually because they write about vulgar and ignorant people.

One of the things that really bugs me about this sort of criticism is the assumption that characters behave in a reprehensible manner because that’s what the creator is really like.

Stunningly, writers in any medium are perfectly capable of writing about bad people without actually being bad people themselves, and that does extend to readers. I like morally flawed stories and characters, but that doesn’t make me morally flawed.

There have been claims that Ennis’ various war stories glorify combat, when even the most basic reading of any of his works reveals a deeply pacifistic voice. War is hell in Ennis’ stories, with almost no exceptions – these stories work because they are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, not because of the tank porn.

In interviews, Millar does sometimes come across as a bombastic oaf, but can also be surprisingly thoughtful. A generally liberal thinker who still enjoys writing about all sorts of characters, including loathsome people and likeable conservatives.

There is the odd character which does reflect Millar’s view – he has admitted Kick Ass is shamefully autobiographical, and deserves some credit for admitting that he could be a completely unlikable jerk when he was younger, rather than sugar coating it all in nostalgia. But there are a surprising amount of different character types in his comics, and they don’t all just parrot Millar’s own feelings.

* * *

Usually, I can let criticism of stuff I really like slide on by – I still bristle when people write off the magnificent Battlestar Galactica climax, but it doesn’t get to me. And I have happily admitted that I love the writing of these two gentlemen in the past, a love that has not been affected by any outside influence until now.

But there is something about these recent criticisms of these comics that has seen me produce a knee-jerk reaction like this poorly-thought out and rambling blog post. It’s partly because many of these criticisms have heavily implied things about me as a reader that I can not stand for. I may have felt like it for the briefest of moments, but I really don’t believe I’m a racist, homophobic and sexist jerk just because I happened to like a comic, and I will not accept people saying that I am.

But it’s mainly because it’s just so disappointing to see so many good comics written off for the most superficial of reasons. Almost every comic that comes from the ideas factories of Millar and Ennis have something more to say that might be immediately obvious. There is depth to their work and while it not hidden, it is a shame that it can be overlooked by the distraction of the vulgar.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


As a business journalist by day, I enjoy working out percentages just a little bit too much. Seriously, sometimes it gets me quite excited. And now it’s bled into real life, and I ended up analysing the shit out of the comics I get every month.

Having made the migration to a predominantly trade paperback diet, I only get less than a dozen issues every few weeks, and this is what gave me a maths chubby:

0.28% of the comic pages feature regular art by Alan Davis

36.4% of the comics have superheroes in them.

36.4% of them are miniseries that will end in eight issues or less.

54.5% of them have vaguer ends, but are likely to be done within the next five years.

90.9% of them have an issue number under fifty.

36.4% of them are Vertigo comics, a ratio I haven’t seen in 15 years.

18.2% of them are published by Marvel, although there is an Icon.

63.6% of them have a British person in the creative team.

9.1% of them are Mark Millar comics and another 9.1% were recently written by him.

27.3% of them are written by Garth Ennis.

100% of them are good reading. Comics are too expensive to spend money on things I’m not going to enjoy

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To days to come

Good googly moogly, I love the new Doctor Who.

* * *

Those few months between the final Tennant episodes and the new series were glorious – I hated the new Doctor with a passion, was concerned that it was all going to be stupid, even though I knew I would love it anyway, and was all full of weird angst and trepidation. Just like always.

And then there was a new episode and there was that odd stance that Matt Smith took when he finally gave a proper introduction and told the spikey eyeballs to leg it and he was my new favourite Doctor ever.

* * *

There is no critical analysis here - Doctor Who is my absolute favourite television show of all time and I just can’t do snark when it comes to that. I can overlook all the faults, all the cracks in the narratives and all the wobbly sets and all that, because it’s a show full of new ideas and humanity, and that’s all right with me.

* * *

Matt Smith honestly is my favourite Doctor, but the latest Doctor is always my favourite. Even when it all got a bit too bright and curly in the mid eighties, I’m always about the new guy.

When I tell people I love Doctor Who, they always, always ask me who my favourite one is. Sometimes I put a bit too much thought in it and come out with an overly complicated argument. It’s usually different each time.

Sometimes it’s Troughton or Hartnell, because they had the best dolly birds, and sometimes it’s the obvious Baker and sometimes it’s the other one. The fifth was the one I first fell for hard and often it’s McCoy and there really is no excuse for that.

But when I really think about it, it’s the new guy I’m really excited about. It’s so fickle. I was a Tennant boy until thirty seconds into the new series, and the Davies era already looks dated and weirdly old and too brown.

And I loved the Davies era – every damn episode of it, including Fear Her or Love and Monsters. When it was on, it was my favourite, but now it’s been replaced by a new man, and he’s replaced the affection for the old.

Smith’s performance is so beautifully mannered – he can’t even empty a glass without making a big thing out of it. He just tries so hard, especially when he needs to instantly go from lovable gurning to righteous fury, that it gives his Doctor a wired awkwardness which works beautifully. An old man in a young man’s body and bursting at the seams with the possibilities.

It’s there when he gets his gear off in the first episode, stripping off in front of the humans with no modesty, cheerfully telling them to turn their back if it bothered them. The Doctor is often accused of being sexless, but it’s more of an age thing – he’s seen it all, and needs a new intellectual thrill.

I do still love all the old Doctors, they’re all such splendid chaps. But I also love the fact that they all pass on and someone new comes in with fresh ideas and big plans. The evolving nature of the show is its greatest strength (and something that comic books could learn from).

* * *

The latest season has seen a fair amount of critical warmth, even if individual stories have taken a bit of a kicking from the usual quarters.

I can still ignore the parts that strike the wrong notes, because the good parts are so good. And there have been so many little touches in the Eleventh Doctor stories to keep me more than happy.

It’s the constantly surprising - and surprised - little touches from Smith, or the remarkably solid work from Karen Gillan as the faithful companion. It’s the little bell on the TARDIS console, and the way the Angels cliffhanger was resolved with something obvious that was still delightfully clever. It’s Murray Gold’s beautifully bombastic score and Liz 10 and a thousand other tiny little facets that all add up to one glorious whole.

Some of the criticism levelled at the current series is absolutely valid, other times it is just pedantic. And other times I honestly can’t figure out where the critic is coming from. (I genuinely got a kick out of reading something recently that said that certain developments on the show were “patently silly” – if you’re watching Doctor Who, who should be able to handle the silliness.)

While I am absolutely incapable of generating any negativity regarding new Who, I do still enjoy reading other people’s negative reviews. I don’t understand them, but they usually make good points

I do feel genuinely sorry for people who wished they could crawl into the ground during that bit in Journey’s End where the TARDIS and crew towed the stolen earth across the universe, because that worked for me in so many ways, and it’s a pity others missed out on that joy that I felt, feeling shame instead. But I was bouncing off the bloody walls. And the show keeps on moving me like that, on a consistent basis.

* * *

The gorgeous thing about Doctor Who is its broadness – it can appeal to little old ladies, snot-nosed kids and desperate grown-ups who still like to laugh. This also means a lot can be read into it, and I’ve already been quite chuffed to see it accused of swinging from a liberal to conservative sensibility complete with earnest use of Clash lyrics. (This was on the Comics Journal website, and I’m still not sure how tongue in cheek it was – insinuating that the Doctor should pick up his gun when they kick in his front door was just wrong.)

This habit of picking up on one thing and seeing your own agenda in the mirrored surface can sometimes get far too egregious. The most vile criticism ever levelled at the Davies era was that it was pushing a ‘gay agenda’ on the viewers. That agenda might be there, even unintentionally, but it always required the most myopic views.

There was a similar – and highly amusing – situation when the first issue of All-Star Superman came out, and readers who couldn’t recognised sereneness if the Goddess of Serenity showed up and slapped them in the face with a rose petal instantly decided that he must be stoned.

Read what you want into things, but don’t be surprised when it ends up saying more about you than the work.

As for complaints about the show’s morality, which certainly do have some validity, I’ve spent the past week watching a few late fifth doctor adventures, and they have all sorts of dubiousness going on. I’m not expecting much better when I watch the Time Meddler later tonight.

* * *

Still, the world could overflow with Who snark and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Since the new series started a few weeks back, I’ve fallen hard for Doctor Who, just like I did in 1980, 1984, 1989, 1995, 1999, 2002 and every year since 2005.

It’s the best show ever and I honestly believe it’s never been better. I may have been a bit blinded by the glare of the new, but it’s a glorious myopia that allows me to fall in love with the Doctor all over again.

It’s smart and bright and shiny and colourful, and as we barrel into the second decade of the 21st century, we could all do with something smart and bright and shiny and colourful.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

All my love to long ago

Back during the Easter break, I found myself standing in a cold and bare basement, staring at a piece of comic art I hadn't seen in more than a quarter of a century, and my mouth was filled with the taste of the worst orange cordial I'd ever had in my entire life.

* * *

Memory can unexpectedly spark across the decades. You might think you've forgotten something, but it can be sitting there in a dark corner of the mind for years, and all it needs is a decent trigger.

It's been well established that the sense of smell is one of the best triggers for unintended memory ­ - I could have sworn I caught a scent of 1998 the other day that made me ache to play Resident Evil 2 - ­ but anything can do it. Listening to a song after not hearing it in years can often be unintentionally moving. Even songs that were once hated can have real emotional heft years later, with their reminders of days gone by.

The biggest unexpected rush of nostalgia I had before that Easter experience came when I put some reggae on the stereo and then heard it from another room. Something about that particular skank, that unmistakable beat, vibrating through the walls hit me in a way I hadn't been hit in years, and it felt like I was seven years old again, shuttled off to bed while all the cool older kids stayed up and sneakily smoked cigarettes and listened to some Wailers. There was a sudden rush of memory and feeling that was almost overpowering and I had to sit down for a bit.

That's what happened in that basement when I saw Captain Sunshine.

* * *

Not that Captain Sunshine. This one. Drawn by Colin Wilson before he went off to do Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper and Blueberry and Star Wars, there was only one issue of Captain Sunshine ever published and it was put out as a promotional push for a wrist-watch that based on the principal of a sundial.

I'm still not sure how that worked.

* * *

Nostalgia is not always a good thing ­ - wallowing in the past has ruined a lot of modern mainstream comics, keeping them in a state of unfortunate arrested development, and it's depressing how rare it is to see a major Hollywood blockbuster that isn't based on something movie executives liked when they were kids.

Change is one of the great constants of the universe, and it is good. Nothing stays the same forever and it really shouldn't. Mental, physical and spiritual evolution is an ongoing project throughout existence and within our entertainments. We change and everything changes with us.

But that doesn't mean we can't still enjoy all the things that once meant so much to us. There is still worth in the past, there is still warmth to be found in specific memories. As long as we don't live in the past and recognise the importance of the now, there is nothing wrong with wallowing in memories.

* * *

I almost missed the comic exhibition that featured the Captain Sunshine art altogether. Down in Wellington for a party on a boat, it was a glorious coincidence that the Armageddon pop culture expo was on. I managed to get a bunch of old comics, including the first ever Fantastic Four annual and some Legends of the Dark Knight and one of Paradox's Big Books that I astonished to realise I didn't have, and was wandering back to the hotel wondering if I could live without Lance Parkin's updated Doctor Who timeline when I saw the sign for the exhibition on a doorway I was passing.

I knew it was on, having read about it on Adrian Kinnaird's excellent kiwi-comics blog From Earth's End, and was genuinely chuffed to stumble across it like that. My knowledge of New Zealand comics is spectacularly woeful, but I'm trying to make up for lost time.

And it was a real eye opener. The rooms the comic art was being displayed in looked like something out of a Saw movie, but there were examples of locally produced art going back decades, a fascinating hint of the medium hanging on in there at the arse end of the world. Comics endure.

(You can see some shots of it and a good wrap up on Adrian's blog here. He was shooting some of them while I was wandering about, but I'm not in them.)

Most of it was all new to me. Some of it, like Barry Linton's grubby laughs, was oddly familiar. But then I saw the first page of Captain Sunshine and I couldn't believe I had forgotten about it.

* * *

This is what I suddenly remembered when I saw that art ­ - sitting on the floor at my Aunty Val and Uncle Soul's place, reading that comic and drinking terrible, terrible orange cordial.

I know I was only about four years old, because that's when that comic came out, and that's when they lived in that house. By that standard, it's the earliest clear memory I have of reading comic books. I can remember reading a bunch of them when I was a little bit older ­ there were definitely issues of Richie Rich, X-Men and Ms Marvel by the time I was in school, but nothing as early as that Captain Sunshine stuff.

The weird part is ­ I had completely forgotten it had existed at all until I saw it again and the memory was so overpowering I swear I could taste that cordial in the back of my mouth. It was always there in my head, but it never popped up again in all these years, until now.

And no wonder, I haven't seen a copy of Captain Sunshine in a quarter of a century. Now I can remember seeing it everywhere when I was younger, in supermarkets and dairies and bookshops all over the country. There were 100,000 copies of that first issue produced and they ended up everywhere.

* * *

It was a warm and fuzzy feeling, seeing that art and feeling those memoriessurge to the surface. All that time ago, and it felt like it could have been yesterday.

And the really funny thing is that I think it only lodged in a deep part of my memory only because when I was a kid I hated the fucking thing.

I hated the cheapness of it, I hated the washed out and sickly colours, I hated the complicated sci fi of it, I hated the fact that it was everywhere and I couldn't read any other comics because that was the only thing that shop on the Kaikoura cost was selling. (At least they had the novelisation of Meglos.)

Whenever he talks about Marvelman, Alan Moore points out that he had a very low opinion of the comic as a youngster. If you couldn't get any Fantastic Four, or an Eagle or anything else, he would settle for a Marvelman, because it was still comics. It was still better than anything.

But his low opinion of Marvelman didn't stop him from having some genuine affection for the character, and that affection did shine through in his own crack at the concept. Just because we hate something as kids doesn't mean we can't have some feeling for it.

Because I would love to get my hands on an issue of Captain Sunshine now, but like all ephemera, it got lost in history. Even though issues of the comic used to clog second hand bookstores, they gradually faded away and I haven't seen one in years. Seeing the cover and first page was enough to bring it all flooding back and I can't help wondering how much more of a head trip it would be to read the rest.

* * *

It certainly helps that my appreciation of Colin Wilson has matured significantly over the years. He has only broken into the US industry relatively recently with Sleeper prequel Point Blank, a few issues of The Losers and a current commitment to the Star Wars universe, but he has decades of fine work behind him now.

His wonderfully grimy art, which also combines a real sense of kinetic energy with a detailed environment, is full of distinct characters. Any chance to read his his youthful and enthusiastic work is surely to be treasured, even with those awful colours.

* * *

But mostly I want to read it because it's a pivotal part of my personal comics past. It's certainly one of the first things I ever read, and definitely the first one I actually hated.

To retreat into that comfortable nostalgia, if only for a while, is not such a bad thing. Even with that cordial taste.