Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Going Mongo

The Tearoom of Despair is going on another regrettable hiatus, as the proprietors are buggering off to Mongolia for a month to visit places that sound like they were named by Klingons. The lovely wife is glad we’re going to a country where I won’t spend half the time in bookshops, but she doesn’t know I’m determined to come home with a Mongolian comic book. Even a translated issue of Archie will do.

Normal service will resume on September 1. Expect woeful tales of Vertigo comics that made me cry and some Liefeld love.

Fortunately, there are shitloads of good comic blogs and websites to go to instead. Go look at Dylan Horrocks' site, where he’s started putting up regular comic pages again, or read Sean T Collins’ brilliant essays on Batman RIP and David Lynch. The Savage Critics are a bunch of lazy arses, but are always worthwhile, and ex-2000ad editor David Bishop shows how hard it is to break into UK television writing while making a solid and professional living as a writer.

Tim O’Neill is often wrong and I always like it when he argues the point, while Andrew Hickey is always wrong , but his arguments are irrefutable. Fear for Spatula Nik – he is starting to realise how much American comics cost when they arrive at the bottom of the world. Love Dirk Deppey – he knows what’s good.

And so do Mike Sterling, Dorian Wright and Alan David Doane. And so do The Stones, Paul O’Brien, Grant Goggans and the mighty J Caleb Mozzocco. And dozens of others that talk about great comics and terrific movies and wonderful television and I just love it all.

I don’t know what internet access in the Gobi Desert is like, but I’m about to find out. You lose track of everything when you’re travelling, but that just means there is a whole bunch of good stuff to come back to when it’s done.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Not that special

When it comes to DVD releases, there is apparently nothing worse than a vanilla disc. The lack of anything outside the work itself is usually greeted with the expected disdain and disappointment.

Some of this is certainly deserved, especially when a vanilla release is used in a cynical bid to squeeze more money out of an enthusiast, when it is followed by the release of a more extra-packed version somewhere down the line.

But now that DVDs have been the dominant form of delivering visual entertainment for several years, (and are even on the way out), I've found that when it comes to special features, I really don't give a shit. While there are some extra bits and pieces that really offer something new and interesting, I rarely bother checking out directors commentaries or extended scenes, unless its a creator or project I have a particular fascination with.

Extended scenes are usually one of the worst cases. Having watched a film only to see a scene again soon after that goes on and on, only to have one extra line somewhere in the middle of it. Electronic press kits and interviews with cast and crew are also put on there seemingly just to pad out the disc and make it seem like a worthwhile purchase, repeating the same information over and over again.

After watching one too many, I can only assume that movies are made by a lovely bunch of people who are all very happy.

You can only hear the same anecdote so many times. The stories that come up at comic and science fiction conventions, repeated in a thousand forums. I've never attended any sort of Doctor Who gathering and even I'm sick of the eyepatch story.

As a medium that has never been slow to jump on any kind of bandwagon, comics have leaped with joy onto the special features train, with director's cuts, sketchbooks and scripts. Hard covers come with pages of superfluous material. Some of this is a little interesting, but you can only look at sketch pages for so long.

Marvel appears to be getting into the habit of filling out trade paperbacks with material from trade publications and its own handbook series. Pages of pages that try to convince you that Boom Boom is a great character. There are undoubtedly readers out there who swallow up this information wholesale, but is it to much to ask for a vanilla trade paperback? I'd be happy with that.

The first collection of the current series of that latest Punisher War Journal comic has the worst special feature I've ever read. Rather than have something new, it simply reprinted the first issue in black and white. The issue that is already in the comic.

Unless you're a huge fan of Ariel Olivetti's bulbous figures, it's hard to figure out just what the attraction is. And when the main cost of getting comics over here is the damn freight, a package which is 20% heavier for no good reason is also 20% more expensive. It's the unavoidable math that wipes much of the savings made in massive editions that run into hundreds of pages. The price per page ratios of something like the Essential or Showcase books are skewed.

It's almost as if, somewhere along the line, the package has become more important than the material. A movie or comic or novel or any work should be able to stand on its own merits, you shouldn't need the background. While interesting, it rarely revitalises. While illuminating, it can detract from the original material. David Lynch never does any bloody commentaries.

The same mindset can be seen in the race for high definition excellence, where companies seem so concerned with making things look pretty, the actual meat is lacking. Personally, it took a very long time to make the switch from video to DVD, it was more about the amount of cheap material available, rather than anything to do with picture quality. Why would you pay fifty bucks for a Blu-ray edition of The Sorcerer's Apprentice? Who does that?

The first time I saw the Wild Bunch was on a 10-year-old rental video tape that had been played through thousands of machines. It didn't make the ending any lets powerful. Just because you couldn't see the sweat on William Holden's face doesn't mean you can't see how weary he is.
It's the story that matters, the way it moves us, the way it makes us think. Not the number of pixels on a screen, or the amount of behind-the-scenes footage that clogs up a slow-loading disc.

If the entertainment industry put more effort into this core concept, it might not be losing so many of us.

And they don't need to convince me how great Boom Boom is. I already fucking know how awesome she is.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Three comics

This week I bought three comics, all written by British creators I’ve been following for 20 years. I still love their work, with few real disappointments in all those years and this rut of thought-provoking work is too good to escape.

* * *

Batman #701
By Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel

The news that Grant Morrison would soon be leaving the Batman title slowly leaked out this week, and after the next Batman & Robin arc, it looks like he will be gone after several years of top-quality Bat-action (although there is some sort of announcement coming.) If he really is stepping away from monthly Batman adventures, it is a real pity, as his Batman comics continue to be funny, invigorating and thoughtful, and I have a thing for funny, invigorating and thoughtful comics.

This brief return to the main Batman title is a thoroughly unnecessary filling-in-the-gaps that still plays to Morrison’s strength on the title. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Morrison’s plots are mere silvers of story, but his characterisation and ability to nail crucial moments is as sharp as ever.

Dig this: “Think fast, Batman.” His survival skills are unparalled, thanks to his ability to make crucial decisions instantly, and the closing pages show that Batman is fully aware of his impending doom and the trap that is existentially clicking into place around him. But he can also think his way around any death trap, because he’s just that smart, and he’s still got some time.

Dig it: “…” Tony Daniel’s art is rushed and scratchy and clumsy and so much better than it usually is. There are bits where Batman can’t hide behind his cape and he looks misshapen and odd, and I actually really like it. Daniel usually overworks his line into a bland Jim Lee homage with no life, but he really does have an appealing ugliness sometimes.

Look at that page where Batman is talking to Ellie and it’s all so wrong, but that’s why I love it. It’s mental! It’s like when poor Phillip Tan had to follow Quitely, and by the final issue his work had devolved to mad splashes of random posing, and it felt like a Paul Pope comic. He’s still not as remarkable as Frazer Irving on Batman & Robin – who can do wonderful things with that bloody cowl – but Daniel should go for it more often.

Dig some more: “You remember me, right?” Only criminal scum should be afraid of Batman.

Dig it the most: “When I get back we’ll fix everything.” Batman’s super-competence can often come across as super-irritating, and there have been far too many comics where Batman just seems like an obnoxious jerk know-it-all. But in the right hands, Batman does have super-charm, and any arrogance is apparently deserved, because he will come back, and he will work with good people to fix everything. It’s a statement of fact. Compassion is logical and charm is useful, but he will fix everything.

* * *

Greek Street #13
By Peter Milligan and Werther Dell’edera

It was also announced this week that Greek Street would be wrapping up with #16. The only surprising about this was that it took so long. When a series kicks off with the main character screwing his Mum and then accidentally killing her, it’s fairly remarkable it found any audience at all. A $1 debut issue doesn’t go that far.

There will be more to say about this series soon in the Tearoom of Despair, but the latest arc – Ajax – is rapidly turning into the most interesting tale from Greek Street yet, as a veteran of the Afghanistan war drifts around the edge of the main story and is sucked into one of the oldest tales ever told.

There is still a little bit of character weirdness in the comics - sometimes these people don’t really act like people in order to get the plot shuffling or sometimes just to make sure the point is made. There is a certain amount of cliché there, but that’s partly the point of the whole thing.

Besides, Milligan has been mixing kitchen skink melodrama with ridiculously esoteric madness for years now and know what he is doing. It’s all done in three issues, but it should be fun to see where it goes in those final pages.

* * *

The Boys #44
By Garth Ennis, Russ Braun and Darick Robertson

Early on in Preacher, a minor character turned out to be a terrible serial killer, and when asked why he did it, he just shrugged. He killed people because he could kill people, that’s all there was. It was so easy, and meant nothing, and this utter lack of a moral compass made this evil person so dangerous.

That danger increases exponentially when you’re talking about a being with Superman-level power. As The Boys thunders towards a suitably horrific climax, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that head superhero Homelander is going to be responsible for most of it. While the comic’s real villains remain the faceless corporation that shits on lives for bottom line boosting, the Homelander’s terrible nihilism can only end in rivers of blood.
As a plot, this is nothing new, and writers have been playing around with this idea for decades – Alan Moore took superpowered destruction about as far as he could in Miracleman, while Mark Waid is also currently mining the same vein. But Ennis has an endless imagination for disturbing depravity and the fact is that Homelander is a genuinely disturbed character. This will not end well.

In the latest issue of The Boys, he is seen curled up on the floor in a hole in the ground, whining pitifully that he can’t do the things he can do. He has already pushed the limit of what’s acceptable and got away with the senseless slaughter of hundreds of people. He’s a ticking time bomb with massive destructive capabilities and the limits he has to force on himself have actually driven him bugfuck crazy.

The Boys remains a solid and dependable book, and has built up a sense of impending doom over the past few years that is primed to deliver. It’s all coming to a head – over the past six months, secrets have been exposed that threaten to ruin everything. This latest issue is no exception, with one of the biggest inadvertent secrets of the series unveiled in the closing pages, and it will be a real pleasure to see how it all plays out.

Unfortunately, that may take a while, as I’m going to stop buying The Boys once the current story ends. I’ve just noticed that it’s another comic to make the 33% jump in price, which in local currency, is just a bit too much. It’s a shame, making that leap two-thirds into a story, just when things are getting really interesting. But it’s not economically justifiable.

I’ll still going to buy the comic when it gets collected, because I really am fascinated by how the story will turn out, but that monthly fix of The Boys, which I’ve genuinely enjoyed for the past four years, is almost over.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Abandoned Cars

Sometimes you just want to drive on forever.

It’s that weird feeling that creeps in on a long overnight drive. Travelling along black highways and dark roads, sealed in this noisy and warm tin box, the mind can go to some strange places. The horizon is gone and it feels like you could punch on through the darkness into forever, moving on the endless road.

It can also get pretty damn depressing as the head spins over and over. Start a long drive in the wrong frame of mind and you can end up going a little mad. And if you’re having a real bad time – if your life is slipping through your fingers into the gutter as you fumble for the keys – night driving can take you right out there to the long, dark depths of the soul.

Most of the characters in Abandoned Cars – a terrific book of Tim Lane’s short stories collected by Fantagraphics a couple of years back – have driven themselves into a very bad place. They all suffer from the burden of living in the modern world, bent crooked by the weight of failed relationships, destroyed families and the big lie of the American Dream. Most of them are on that drive into oblivion, even if they’re physically standing still.

Every abandoned car has a story and Lane cracks open the bonnet to show the pain. The drivers all want out, but don’t have anywhere else to go, so they go there anyway. They’re all driving somewhere, and sometimes they drift off the side of the road peacefully and sometimes they impale themselves on oak.

Even characters that have the comfort of daily routine – joints in the morning before work – drive other people other with their mundane schedule. We’re all fighting time, but we don’t have to make ourselves so miserable.

Deep within the barroom psychosis, Lane looks into the abyss and thinks about spitting into it. The drive that leads to destruction can also be a powerful and satisfying personal experience. While each story in Abandoned Cars ties together in a thick knot of dread, the best story sees Lane go on a blatantly autobiographical adventure, and head out for an adventure by jumping on trains.

He gets to tell the world that he is the dark romantic and it’s worth any cold danger. He comes back to the world with new eyes and is still completely lost up his own arse. There are no revelations or answers on the road, but at least he’s looking. We all have to start somewhere.

The same concession for effort can be seen in Lane’s art. It’s occasionally clumsy and tries a little bit hard with its chunky blacks and wavering faces, but it’s charmingly clunky, generating real mood and wonderful ugliness.

And occasionally, it’s just beautiful - catching the dead eye of a lost soul, or depicting an era of fast cars and loose women that never really existed in the first place. The world has moved on from many of the characters in Abandoned Cars, and Lane leaves them stranded in their own personal oblivion.

It’s not a nice place to be and all they can do is try and drive their way out of it. What else is there? Drive, baby, drive.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bob Fingerman's From The Ashes

Have a nice apocalypse.

After recently finishing off Barefoot Gen, Bob Fingerman’s From the Ashes probably shouldn’t be quite as enjoyable as it is. But it’s such a surprisingly sweet and tender apocalypse story, it’s hard not to like it.

In its 10 volumes, Barefoot Gen shows just how horrible the use of nuclear weapons on human beings is – the recurring image that keeps coming up in the book is the dying of Hiroshima, eyes burnt out, shuffling along with the hands held up so that the melted skin that drips off their fingers doesn’t drag on the ground.

It’s a terrible vision, all the more horrific because it actually happened like that. By the end of the first volume, half of Gen’s family have slowly burned to death in front of him, and it takes a long while for things to get any better from there.

And yet, Fingerman’s comic suggests a much happier Armageddon. There is still an undercurrent of horror in the wake of vast mega-death and one blinding dose of disturbing in a hospital bed, but it’s a much lighter End of the World, even if fundamentalist stupidity survives even better than the cockroaches.

Fingerman’s “speculative memoir” has the world fall apart around Bob and his wife, standing in the ruins of New York City. Something terrible has happened, and while details are light, our heroes adjust to the situation reasonably well – making the most of things and delighting in small pleasures like a toilet that still flushes.

They’re not alone in the strange new world of rubble and radioactivity, and the gentle unpredictability kicks in when they come across other survivors. Just because people have turned into zombies and mutants doesn’t mean they have to be jerks. When the mutants are put to work under an unmutated gun, they complain that they’re too educated for his shit – and they’re right.

The zombies are no bother because they’re dead so they don’t need to eat anything, and everybody still stays away from the cannibals, but that’s just because they’re obnoxious foodies. Even armed faceless drones in hazmat suits have their own doses of personality.

Bob and Michele’s ability to get along with the many diverse groups stands them in good steed and they soon settle into their new lives on a ruined earth. The horror of the situation doesn’t really hit them – Bob is too worried that a pair of leather pants make him look more like a Village person than a Road Warrior and Michele is just glad to have an excuse to ditch her blackberry.

There is still conflict in the wasteland and Fingerman’s politics start shining through when the couple are enter a bunker community devoted to making babies and ruled over by a beautifully bizarre cross between Bill O’Reilly and MODOK.

A proudly outspoken liberal, Bob doesn’t stand for this and is sent off into manual labour for giving Bill a taste of his opinions. In the comic’s notes, Fingerman worries that he’s behind the times by focusing on right-wing extremism just as Bush and crew were packing up their gear, and he’s a little right. Taking the piss out of people like O’Reilly isn’t as much fun as it once was, they were a lot more entertaining when they were trying to defend the most heinous practices of the US government, they’re just a bit irrelevant in opposition, predictably hateful and a bit tired.

Bob and Michele are separated by this big hairy political metaphor, grow tails and come together again and it all wraps up nicely for everybody (except the zombies, who just kinda fell to pieces, and the millions of dead). Even though there are still virulent plagues and mass slaughter, the story just drifts along, and a big explosive climax is deftly side-stepped.

There is still one bit of real existential horror that lasts seven panles and is quickly written off as a heat-stroke hallucination, but life goes on in the new world. By the very end, nature is clawing its way back and some nicely vivid closing pages end the book on a high, after the monotoned ruins and bunker.

Bob Fingerman is a smart comic creator and knows that a real life apocalypse would be truly terrible, but in his head and in his comics, it doesn’t all have to be so bad.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Criminal – The Sinners

It's a matter of morality.

Almost all of the conflict generated in each Criminal story is driven by the moral decisions characters make. While many of the lead players in the story are absolute professionals, they are often undone by their own consciences. Even if it helps save their souls, there is always a price to be paid.

The Sinners – the fifth story in the Brubaker and Phillips comic – is a fine addition to this established history of painful morality. Tracy Lawless is as dangerous as ever. His family’s history of spilling blood mixes with the cold eye and sheer logic of the absolute soldier. But he has enough burdens on his soul and needs to ensure that those he targets deserve their fate.

These pangs of conscience are noble enough – unfortunately, Lawless lives in a world where nobility is a detriment. The Sinners of the title refer to every character. All of them - even Lawless, who lives and may die by his strict code – is damned.

Some, like the exceedingly dangerous Chester of the loathsome Sebastian Hyde, gave in to their own nihilism a long time ago, but as well as being the usual morality play, The Sinners is also a story about those who justify the horrific things they do. Blood is shed in the name of revenge or loyalty or sheer morality, but that doesn’t make the end result any better.

Even for the Triads, who make a pleasingly predictable debut in this series, it’s all just business and they will justify everything in the name of profit. In a world of professional criminals, the gangs that rule Chinatown have centuries of experience and are scared of nothing.

Despite this widespread justification for violence, the things Father Mike does with his revenge squad are particularly abhorrent. His plan to seize control of the city is logical and smart – nobody sees kids – but the price paid is a terrible loss of innocence. These boys are damned before they can shave and there is real tragedy in the fate of the one kid who just can’t give in to the darkness. Poor Evan has just as much reason for revenge as anybody else, but he just doesn’t want to.

But it’s the story of Tracy Lawless and the reason he was becoming the worst hitman in the world that keeps this latest Criminal story rich and fresh. At the start of the book, he can’t do it any more. He will still take out those who fail to meet basic moral standards, but he just can’t just kill people because they’re stupid and disrespectful.

By the end of the book, all sorts of bad shit has gone down and Tracy is glad that he is going back to the war, where he can just follow orders for a while. He has done his bit for his family and shaken the Criminal world up through sheer force of will and moved on, leaving it to sort itself out.

These characters are given real life through Brubaker’s words and Phillip’s pictures. Brubaker is one of the best dialogue men in comics – some of his characters can sound a little similar, but that’s just because they speak with the simple economy. Brubaker writes about people with no time to waste, so there is no use for wasted words. His sense of pacing and plotting is ideally suited for crime comics and he’s been doing it enough to know when he is in danger of overcooking the story.

Sean Phillips is the perfect collaborator in this regard. Phillips has also moved past periods of intense experimentation into a rock-solid style. None of his characters look the same, they are all distinctive in some way, making it easy to tell the diverse cast apart. He also contributes a real mood of dread and suffocating danger, and the final panel of the whole book is particularly effective – a strangely horrific image of a grinning man in the shadows with a gun.

Unfortunately, that’s it for a while. Brubaker and Phillips both have other interests and are next producing another Incognito series, which is typically satisfying while still lacking some of Criminal’s unique charm. Criminal is now pushed back to a much longer schedule, with a break of more than a year between stories.

That’s okay. There are now five brilliant Criminal books that offer up endless re- readability pleasure and I’m quite happy to join the mass waiting patiently and eagerly for the next story, whenever it may come. This kind of story is always worth the wait.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sunday thoughts and Monday observations

I was genuinely chuffed to work out that Cable was actually Cyclop’s son and when it finally hit me, I actually rang somebody up to tell them how brilliant I was. It took me two years to figure that one out, but considering my main source of comic news at the time were the Marvel Bullpen pages and the Johnny DC column, that’s not that bad.

* * *

I still have an inexplicable fondness for video tapes. I love the way they would grind and groan, but if something was wrong with them you’d take it out of the player, give it a good bash and it would be all right.

I like that video tapes can last decades years, when that Great Escape DVD I bought last year ago is already fucked. I liked the chunkyness of it, I liked the extraordinary cover art you would sometimes see on terrible horror films (an art that has been photoshopped out of existence) and I always liked the freedom it gave to watch anything I wanted.

No video ever skipped on me, taking me past entire climaxes of movies with a skip and a shrug. For something so slow, they were perfect for my short attention span – you could watch five minutes of one film before switching over to something else, and it was ready to go again at exactly the same point it was left at. No chapter skipping, no long-arse opening menu thing to navigate, no boring old piracy warning that you can’t fast-forward through.

It’s all a bit of bullshit nostalgia, but I’ve been left behind a bit on the digital revolution and the desire for ultra-mega-uber HD. I still watch almost every movie these days on DVD, but without any kind of Tivo-like product, I still use video tapes for any shows on TV I want to record. It does the job.

It’s not the prettiest format, or the easiest, but it’s still good enough. The content is more important than the presentation.

* * *

Nearly 20 years after I first saw Army of Darkness, I still truly believe every film ever made would be two to seven percent better if they all ended with the line “Hail to the king, baby.”
It was shattering to discover the S-Mart epilogue wasn’t the original intended ending to the series – it beats the pants of any time-travel sling-shotting.

* * *

Warren Ellis yelled at me once over the internet and he was right to do so. This is hardly unique, but I have tried to be more careful about what I say online ever since.

It was during the briefest of visits to the old Warren Ellis forum, where an awful attempt at humour saw the big man smack me around the head with his virtual cane and send me on my way with tear-filled eyes and shit in my pants. I didn't mean any offence, but he rightly showed me that a lack of intention doesn't always translate over the digital medium.

I still feel embarrassed by another poor performance in the CBR chat room, where another bad joke saw Gail Simone slap me down and leave me feeling shamed and sore. This took place more than ten years ago, and I still feel awful about it and wish I had a time machine so I could wipe the incident from history.

A certain amount of these misunderstandings is only to be expected, especially when one first starts posting and chatting on the web. We've all written something that doesn't quite make as much sense as we really thought it did and have been unable to take the stupidity back.

Still, a lesson was learned and learning about ways to behave is part of living in a modern society. Just because you're not talking to somebody on a face to face basis doesn't mean there is any need to be rude.

Ever since then, I've done my very best to avoid offence and keep discourse as polite as possible, which isn’t always easy when the default setting for a lot of online discussion seems to be stuck in a pattern of over-heated rhetoric. There has still been the odd occasion when something has been taken the wrong way, but the vast majority of my online encounters have been pleasant and rewarding.

And yet, there will always be those who use the anonymity of the internet to throw baseless accusations around and deliberately rub people up the wrong way. It can be a little difficult working out exactly what these folk are getting out of the interaction, other than some pathetically smug sense of superiority.

Most of the time I am completely bewildered about the way the internet turns some people into complete jerks. Is it the lack of face to face contact? This has stopped anybody from acting like douchebags in real life, but hidden behind a pseudonym or the safety of distance, the bravery to put on an act of complete unlikeability is certainly bolstered.

Occasionally, two people looking for a fight will run head first into each other, with all the usual resulting fireworks. Sometimes it's entertaining to watch from the sidelines as two people rip into each other. Mostly it's just tiresome, as self-importance is raised to an artform, while trash-talking is reduced to the lowest common denominator.

This kind of behaviour is never limited to one simple area of the internet, and you're bound to find unspeakably rude behaviour on boards devoted to the art of knitting as you are likely to see them in the comments sections of comics blogs. But if there is one place where it's particular distasteful, it's in the political arena, where everything conforms to an ideology and facts can mean anything.

One of the things I hate about political discourse is the absence of basic courtesies. Anybody who dares disagree with the point of view of somebody else runs the risk of name-calling which can sometimes become outstandingly vile. With lines of support clearly delineated on left and right lines, it’s all just noise.

Sometimes comic creators and readers get sucked into stupid online arguments. Some, seem to thrive on it, but they inevitably degenerate into personal insults, and any constructive debate is smothered.

I was bought up to believe that there really is no excuse for rudeness. Was that normal?

* * *

There are a couple of comic books and magazines that I have loved to death. I’ve had them for more than two decades and I used to read them over and over and over again, until they have been pretty much destroyed.

The cover goes first, a slight tear turning into a major gash, and the staples giving up their grip after years of being carted around and stepped on and thrown about. The damage didn’t stop there, and eventually half the damn thing is gone, accidentally torn off, ripped up and vanishing into the ether.

All I’m left with are a couple of dozen pages or so in the centre, still hanging on to those staples, almost unreadable without the rest of the pages. They sit, seemingly unloved, in the bottom of boxes of other paper entertainments, and I will never, ever throw them out.

One of them is X-Men #151, a stunningly average issue focusing on Kitty Prude’s move to a new school. It also featured the entire team getting taken out by sentinels in an oddly spooky attack, with the White Queen, back when she was really bad, swapping bodies with Storm.

It was two and a half decades before I finally got around to reading the concluding part of that story, and I didn’t really care about the X-Men any more. But I’ve had that one issue since I was seven years old, and it might be the oldest comic I still own.

I’m also still holding on to my copy of the Doctor Who Radio Times 20th anniversary magazine, bought at a Dunedin bookshop in 1983. (Thirteen years later, I would buy my first Doctor Who New Adventures book from that same store, and it closed a week after that.) That thing was my bible for the next five years. Everything I needed to know up to the end of Peter Davison’s reign in the role. Companions, missing episodes, a full and clear episode list with a sharp paragraph for a synopsis. It also had a weird story by Eric Saward about where the Doctor came from, including a guest appearance from Susan, at a time when one just did not talk about such things.

I spent hours and hours going through that magazine. Cross referencing companions with episodes, burning this information into the young brain. When I try to think of the order in which Doctor Who episodes were created, I think of this magazine’s page layouts. It’s now missing almost 20 pages at the start and end, but I’d never throw it out.

All paper eventually goes down this path of oblivion. Even those that I have taken a small amount of care with crinkle and go weird. The huge varieties of new paper stock used in the 90s have already started to go a bit odd with age. Comics I've owned for 10 years are already faded and tattered, with the odd rip or loose staple. Last night I had some Invisibles and wine, and that last volume still reads sexy and new, but the paper is going off.

But I still love them. Given the chance to upgrade a bunch of Excalibur issues that are literally falling apart (mainly due to an extremely foolhardy attempt at fixing them up with sellotape), I decided to hold on to the originals. It’s all sentimental value – comics are the unfortunate souvenirs of my own personal history. Who cares if they’re falling apart? I’ll hold onto them, just like I have, through all these years.

* * *

Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary was an excellent series, putting a coda on 20th century pulp traditions by celebrating them and moving forward into something new, where genuine human feeling and emotions could actually be part of the narrative. But that one episode where it examines the influence of British creators on American mainstream comics in the 80s and the rise of Vertigo? That was fucking rubbish.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Galactic Guardians and the death of a minor obsession


The first place I ever saw Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, it wasn't in a comic book. It was on a towel.

As a kid, I had this beach towel, which got some heavy use over the years, mainly down the local rivers and ended up falling apart at about the time I turned into a sorry-arse teenager. It had a picture of the Guardians of the Galaxy on it, and even though I didn't have any idea ho they were, I thought Starhawk looked bloody cool.

A few years later and I'm deep in a Marvel mood of mind. I'd seen the Guardians show up in a few comic books, with one legendary appearance in The Avengers during the Korvac saga. The last issue of this storyline left the Guardians and most of the Avengers in a state of mental limbo, as they are casually slaughtered during the climax. They all came back to life in the same issue, but there was just something about that resurrection that left my nine-year-old brain a little confused, and I never saw the following issue that would have set it all right. Were they really back? Or were they really dead? And who were these Guardians of the Galaxy anyway?

It didn't take long to figure that one out, and they showed up, here and there, over the years, fighting against the Badoon and zipping around in time. I had a little trouble figuring out how the Vance Astro in the New Warriors was connected to the Vance Astro of the year 3000, but a bit of confusion is good for the soul.

And then I heard about the new series, launched by Marvel its early nineties blitz of titles that never made it to issue numbers with three digits. Writer/artist Jim Valentino had a pleasingly loose style, and all the right friends. It sounded like something worth reading.

Naturally, the first one I got to read was issue #8.

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It didn't make any sense. I had to know more and figure out what it all meant.

So what’s new? This is a fairly regular occurrence for any reader of mainstream American comics. Picking up a random issue of a title you might have heard about somewhere maybe, and being so totally lost as lots of people run about yelling at each other and dropping buildings on their heads. The first dip into a new continuity can be bracingly shocking, or just mildly confusing.

Sometimes this leads to obsession, ranging from a mild dose to full-on rage. Most of the time it's just mere interest, and in the case of Valentino’s GotG, this was as far as it ever really went, but that was enough.

The eighth issue of the series was one of the placeholders that mainstream comics are so very good at doing, moving off from a Big and Important climax and heading towards the next, with the usual amount of juggling sub-plots. When I saw it in a Timaru bookstore, I knew I had to have it, even though the first seven issues had never shown up in the town. That Saturday afternoon is still burned in my mind, even though it really was nothing special, sitting beside Caroline Bay and flicking through it, along with some recent Avengers and X-Factor action, the series clicked. A thousand years on, the Marvel Universe was a very different place, but Valentino laid out all sorts of mysteries about the fates of the world’s greatest heroes and villains, and I’ve just turned 16 years old and in love with superhero comics like never before, so I’m hooked.

The next few issues feed the mutant fever young teenagers can always identify with, as our Galactic heroes found a lost x-colony, with all the pain, misery and Phoenix rebirths that this would predictably bring. The Guardians made their way back to Earth and a tonne of new mysteries were piled on, just as the old ones were sorted out.

The book remained surprisingly downbeat – there was all sorts of carnage, somehow made worse by Valentino’s splendidly cartoonish approach to art, and there was no guarantee of a happy ending, especially when billions of people had been horribly killed before the series even started. There aren’t that many shits and giggles in the apocalypse, so Valentino did a good job of showing the character’s humanity, buried amongst the vulgar sci-fi. None of them were technically fully human, but they all had soul.

As a 16-year-old misery guts, the early nineties Guardian of the Galaxy really was one of my favourite comics. For a while.

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I never bought the five early issues I needed to complete the collection and bailed on the comic completely soon after Valentino bailed for Image. He stayed on as writer/plotter/vague presence in the background for a little while, but the drop in quality when his art disappeared was a good reason to quit. It was an irrational hatred of Kevin West’s art that saw me finally give up for good – West also finally got me to drop Justice League International, after sticking with it through that surprisingly good Dan Jurgens run – and I never bought a single issue past #33, or even read any of them.

Guardians of the Galaxy stumbled on for a few more years, and even made it as far as #50, but like almost every comic Marvel debuted in 1990, it didn’t make it to triple figures. Nobody really noticed when it finally died, nobody really cared.

I certainly didn’t. By that time, I was lost in Vertigo and Los Bros Hernandez and Dark Horse and Dan Clowes. I didn’t even notice when the last few Guardians comics came out, and it took me a while before I even noticed its absence.

That interest in the 30th century Marvel universe never really came back, and successive issues of the comic were sold off over the years, during periodic purges. It was easy enough to get rid of those Kevin West issues, and then the latter Valentino run went, with no second thoughts.

Eventually, I ditched the rest, getting rid of comics that I’d gone to a lot of effort to get back in the early nineties. I could still look at them and remember exactly where I’d bought it, but I need that bit of my brain to do aother stuff now, so that scrap of memory can go. That was a lot harder to do, but I haven’t missed carting all those issues around, when I just didn’t care enough.

Or so I thought – the other week, I was sorting out the box of Marvel comics I’ve still held onto after all these years and I found issues 8 and 16 wedged between issues of Groo and late eighties X-Men annuals.

And the weird thing is, I was really, really glad to still have them. I’d obviously held onto the earlier issue for reasons of unashamed nostalgia, but I really thought I got rid of the second issue years ago and I was glad to have another look.

Reading them with a 2010 eye, they’re clumsy and a bit crude and they really don’t stand up as individual issues, but they’re going back into that box of Marvel. Maybe I just feel sorry for it.

Because it was just another nothing series, published during a massive glut of product. The stories haven’t been reprinted in recent years and are unlikely to be. There is a new Guardians of the galaxy series, but it has little to do with the earlier (later) team, apart from appearances by Star Hawk and Vance Astro.

But I still care. I can’t help it. The slight obsession that lasted for a year is long dead, but there is still some fondness for this unloved comic, and I can’t dispute that.

I also once had a thing for the Wonder Man comic that came out at the same time, but that’s another sad story altogether.