Thursday, April 28, 2011

Graphic novel mistakes and three dimensional irony

The eagerness of movie studios to pump out films in 3D is further proof that nobody learned anything from a terrible mistake the comic industry made a good 25 years ago.

It’s easy to see why the studios go 3D as often as possible – they can charge more money and offer more of an ‘experience’. While there are no easy guarantees of financial success with a 3D film, there has been an extraordinary amount of money made over the past couple of years, so it’s no wonder a blockbuster without some kind of 3D element is a relative rarity.

Which is the whole problem – selling 3D films as an event that can only be fully experienced in a cinema becomes a whole lot harder when any old piece of shit gets a post-production conversion.

Especially when some of those conversions have an effect of the actual quality of the experience. Many people walked out of the recent Clash of the Titans remake with a decidedly low opinion of the conversion process, and anybody soured by that kind of experience is unlikely to be convinced by ads telling them that Thor must be seen in 3D to get the Full Effect.

It’s especially aggravating when there is the odd movie that takes full advantage of the 3D process, and does deliver that type of experience that is often promised and rarely delivered.

Avatar made more money than God, even though James Cameron never found an iconic cliché he didn’t like, because it delivered a huge, colourful experience. A new film by Werner Herzog – who is going through a wonderfully bizarre and fascinating late career surge – brings 3D into a French cave where some of the earliest and most well-preserved cave art ever found lives. None of us are ever going to be allowed into the cave where they were found, so 3D offers a new richness to the experience.

But now that every second movie requires those ugly, ugly glasses, it actually becomes harder to find the good stuff amongst the bad.

This has all happened before, but since it happened in the media ghetto of comic books, nobody seemed to notice.

Read any old issues of Amazing Heroes from the 1980s, and there is a real excitement in the air, as creators as diverse as Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin and Los Bros Hernandez and Dave Sim and Chris Claremont and loads of others produced thoughtful and intelligent comics that were so good they broke out of the four-colour ghetto and got noticed in the real world.

Media coverage of these comic books rarely got past the ‘Pow! Zam! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!’ (and to be honest, hasn’t got much better in the next 25 bloody years). But it also raised awareness of the good stuff, and got their books shelved in prime positions in big bookstores.

So anybody who heard about Moore’s blistering examination of Thatcher’s Britain in V For Vendetta, or Spiegelman’s heart-wending tale of personal tragedy hidden beneath mouse masks could walk into almost any bookstore in the English-speaking world and find a copy of their works.

Or so the theory went, with Graphic Novel sections opening up everywhere for the first time in the late eighties. The few collected comics that made it into bookstores weren’t shelved in the humour or science-fiction sections any more. They had their own shelf.

The problem with this became evident very quickly, with only a few genuine classic comics widely available, the stores needed to fill the shelves with something and the big comic companies were only too happy to take advantage of the fact.

So that’s why anybody in the late eighties went to their local bookstore for some for thought-provoking comics was greeted with tonnes of fucking Spider-man and Batman comics.

I’ve loved Spider-Man and Batman since I was a kid, and always will, but Marvel and DC learned all the wrong lessons from this new avenue of opportunity, slapped together any recent superhero comic that was even slightly okay and pumped them out there.

There were still the occasional superhero comic that got collected that were worthy, but nobody who was new to the whole idea of reading comics wouldn’t even know where to start.

The ‘graphic novel’ isn’t the greatest and most perfect term for serious comic books, but it’ll do, and it was just the right kind of hook that appealed to an older, more discriminating reader who wanted a bit of complexity and emotional truth in their funny books.

But any gains that were made in the 1980s were instantly undercut as this tsunami of shit and mediocre comics covered everything. The chance that the world might actually take comic books seriously was fumbled.

Things have got better. The comic business never really learned its lesson, and continues to pump out vast amounts of mediocre tie-in books to event-based storylines that will be forgotten next Thursday, but there are so many good comics out there at the moment, and it can be surprisingly easy to find copies of something like Blankets or Ganges.

But there was a real opportunity in the late eighties for a quantum leap in the medium’s evolution, and the way it is perceived as part of modern society, and it was lost.

James Cameron might spend a lot of time trying to convince people that 3D is not a fad, but as long as huge amounts of inferior examples overwhelm the few good uses, he won’t be convincing anybody.

Pumping out the graphic novels and 3D films might make brilliant short-term business sense, but also ensure that the long-term gains will be all the harder to achieve.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dead Who

Spoilers for Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

Seven minutes into the latest series of Doctor Who and everything changes again. It’ll change back again soon enough, but it’s still a remarkably somber and downbeat way to get a new season started.

Doctor Who is all about change. While it has maintained a heart of ethical, philosophical and moral certainty – as well as strict storytelling principles – over the past four decades, it has also been a television programme that is all about adapting to the new and keeping up with the modern.

This change is there even before the big, honking plot twist that comes in at that seven minute mark of The Impossible Astronaut. The Doctor’s companions are still his companions, but for the first time, they also have a life of their own to get back to. This isn’t a brief glimpse inside Nyssa’s bedroom; Amy and Rory have their own home and are busy building an actual life in between adventures.

It’s only a brief glimpse in a different way of travelling with the Doctor, but it’s something new. Now that the TARDIS isn’t getting mixed up between Brighton and Fang Rock, and can actually go anywhere it is supposed to, it’s nice to see that companions can actually duck home between travels for things like a decent night’s sleep, a home-cooked meal and making babies.

But then there is a summons from the Doctor and the Ponds and River Song and the man himself are off on another adventure into a beautifully photographed America that gives the story a surprising amount of weight, and then the Doctor gets killed.

It looks pretty final, and the kind of death that would be impossible to undo, but this is Doctor Who, where the impossible can be explained away with half a line of dialogue. After all, at the climax of the last series, the Doctor was completely wiped out of existence, only to show up at Amy’s wedding because she really, really wanted him to be there. And the last time the Doctor showed up on the Sarah Jane Adventures, the whole story revolved around his apparent funeral, only for everything to turn out nicely again.

So there is a very good chance that it will all be settled by the next time the end credits roll, although it might take a whole year’s worth of stories to completely set things right.

But it’s also a curiously somber start to a new series, with the crushing inevitability of the Doctor’s death pushing down on every other minute of the premiere episode, no matter how charming the Doctor is in the White House.

It’s an oddly disconcerting start to the new series, mainly because the viewer has to face up to the Worst Possible Outcome right from the very beginning. The rest of the episode is full of all the usual wonderful things – some strong acting from the core cast, another last minute twist and the Doctor looking incredibly clever by noticing something blindingly obvious, but we’ve just seen the main character brutally gunned down in mid-regeneration. It’s always going to be hard to lift spirits after that.

It might just seem weird because each new series of Doctor Who since Eccleston put on his leather jacket has kicked off with a real sense of celebration. After years of where there was no Doctor Who on television at all, the creators seemed as surprised as anybody that there was actually new episodes coming out, and each new premiere was an absolute celebration of the fact.

But it’s a show that has also been back for more than half a decade now, and that glow has worn off a little. I still did an embarrassed little fist pump at the opening credits of the Impossible Astronaut, pleased beyond belief that I was about to see a brand-new episode of Doctor Who. But thanks to its own surprising success with a mass audience, modern Doctor Who has become its own institution, and doesn’t really need to trumpet the fact every year.

So it’s become a series that can lead off with a massive downer, but any dramatic weight this downer creates also saps at the energy of the programme and series that usually hits the ground running is left moping along in a depressive mood.

It’s all going to be fixed, and the inevitable happy ending will taste all the better after starting from such a low place. And it will be fun to see how they get out of this latest predicament.

But this kind of mood is usually saved for the end of a Doctor's life - stories like Waters of Mars show exactly why his time is up, while the entire final season of Tom Baker's run is drenched in weary melancholy.

So to see the series go to this place while the Eleventh Doctor still feels fresh and new is a interesting decision, but to see a possible end when it's just getting started is jarring, and overshadows everything else in the Impossible Astronaut.

Friday, April 22, 2011


I found a ticket for a Las Vegas monorail in a jacket pocket the other day. On the back of it, somebody has written this little sentence in biro:

“This is a fact: James Bond is always cool.”

I don’t think it’s my handwriting, but I really can’t be sure. It certainly sounds like me, because I could agree more. James Bond IS always cool.


We get the Bond we deserve – there was a brute and arrogant Connery for a sharp and harsh sixties who was a bit cooler than all his successors, but sometimes it got a little bit too cold. So it all kicked off again with a surprisingly timeless Lazenby interlude and a pointless return for Connery, before a more laid-back and slick Moore came on board for a groovy seventies.

Moore is a little uncool right now, but his kind of ironic wryness will come back into fashion again. The only problem with this approach to Bond is that it cannot help falling into silliness, so the series went back to exquisite hardness from Dalton in the eighties in two movies that were too serious for their own good, but funny in a straight-faced way. Brosnan brought it into the 21st century with some post ironic charm and steely determination, but also degenerated into boring silliness.

But just like Doctor Who, the current Bond is always my favourite, because it’s always new and interesting and fresh. I saw Casino Royale on the morning of the day I got married, and I was still buzzing from it while waiting for the ceremony to start. Quantum of Solace was another occasional step into murky confusion that the series has always made, but Daniel Craig is a powerful presence.

He had me at the bit in Casino Royale where he leaps from one tall crane to another over a perilous drop, a solid and brutal unstoppable force. And then there was the remarkable moment where he emerged from the surf and everybody in the cinema – men and women – went “Phwoar!” But it was the crash to credits at the very end of the film that meant Craig was the best Bond ever (until the next one, of course).

It’s in that split-second gap between Craig uttering the most iconic of iconic movies lines and the moment that the Bond theme, arguably the best in the business, finally kicks in.

There had been a conspicuous absence of the music during the film, but by the end Craig’s Bond has been put through the wringer, been betrayed, tortured and fucked over, and he still comes back in a fine-looking suit and a giant fuck-off gun, with a cool smirk and hard eyes..

By the end of the movie, he is James Bond, and the music and that line signify he deserves it.

And doesn't he just know it.


I don’t trust any man who didn’t go through a James Bond phase at some point.

I was completely addicted to the Bond novels and films when I was 13, and what 13-year-old wouldn’t be? It was easy enough to read all the books - On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was always my particular favourite – but it took a few years to get my grubby little hands on all of the films.

But man, I bought into the whole Bond thing hook, line and sinker. When you’re that age, and you’re desperately trying to figure out how the world works and what your place in it is, Bond can be like the Bad Uncle of Dispensing Advice.

He can teach you that any problem can be solved by slapping around the right person, that a prodigious alcohol intake is necessary for a sharpened focus, and that women are to be used and discarded.

But he also shows you how to walk into any room and instantly own it, how to maintain a decorum of honour in a world of shadowy betrayals, and how to look good in a suit. While he frequently goes rogue for plot machinations, he is also a fiercely loyal Briton, with a hyper-ego that shines so brightly it barely exists.

I’m still trying to walk like James Bond. Show me a man who doesn’t.


The thing I always like most about Bond, more than anything else, is the fact that he never ever gives up. He can be brutal, and can be a common bully to get what he wants, but he won’t ever give up.

It’s always there, in all the books and all the movies. It’s there even in the most unflattering portrayals, including Moore and O’Neill’s version in the League of Extraordinary Genetlemen, where Bond is a brutish lout whose gadgets blow up in his face, but he keeps on coming. Or in Kim Newman’s excellent Judgment of Tears (aka Dracula Cha-cha-cha), where a certain Hamish Bond is another loathsome braggart who doesn’t stop, and also accomplishes the admirable feat of physically transforming from a Connery bond into a Moore bond.

Bond never gives up, never gives in. His willpower is unbreakable, and he will do whatever it takes to fufill his mission. That’s why every time a new Bond film comes out, I get the chill. There is a very good chance it is going to be awful, but there will always be a spectacular piece of ridiculousness, and that’s always worth a look.


James Bond is always cool.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Warriors away!

An old fact that I recently found in the deepest corner of the Wardrobe of Secret Shame – I was once physically aroused by a copy of New Warriors #1.

It wasn’t the creations – although both Nita and Firestar were smokin’ hot – or the creators, it was something about the shape of that comic and the colours, and the glossy cover, and the way the staples were spaced.

It was partly the material, there was something new and fresh and exciting about the team of Marvel misfits that teamed up. Each bringing some odd personal history, each leading off to a secret back-story that I knew nothing about. The mystery was slightly intoxicating.

But it was just the whole package. The whole thing that had me falling in love with comic books all over again.

When I was 15, I was at one of those points in life when I really thought I should give up comics. Most of us go through it at some stage – some vague idea that maybe comics ARE just for kids, and it’s time to box them up and put them away.

It’s a weird post-adolescent idea, that you should give up something you enjoy that does no harm. It’s bizarre to think that I could give up an entertainment that I thoroughly appreciate, just because you’re convinced everybody will think you’re a weirdo, but it made perfect sense to me when I was 15-years-old.

After all, there were important things like girls and booze and a career to think about, not childish things like the effects of various colours of Kryptonite. I got into this funk half a dozen times during my teenage years, and always got over it, usually thanks to the unbridled thrill-power of classic-period 2000ad.

But I was serious this time – or as serious as any 15-year-old gets – and I was really definitely absolutely seriously thinking about giving them up this time. I was genuinely considering going cold turkey on a medium that I’d enjoyed all my life, because I really thought that was what you were supposed to do.

And then I bought the first issue of New Warriors from a local dairy. I hadn’t quite kicked the habit, and was always open for something new, so when I saw it in the store, I knew I had to have it.

And then I took it home, and I couldn’t stop reading the damn thing. I couldn’t stop gazing at that perfectly average cover. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

I loved it. I loved the slick art and the dialogue that tried a bit too hard and these lame-arse characters and the whole damn package. And one night, sitting on my bed, looking at this comic with an embarrassing amount of affection, I realised I was never, ever going to give these things up.


The first two years of New Warriors had a number of effects on me – it made me a Bagley fan for life, and left me with a staggering amount of affection for Speedball (which coalesced into actual fury when I saw what Marvel did with the character over the past decade.)

New Warriors was also the first series where I was able to get in on the ground floor. I was just as fascinated by Marvel’s other titles at the time, such as John Byrne’s Namor and Jim Valentino’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but I missed the first few crucial issues.

Distribution was always a matter of blind luck in those days, but I managed to mostly collect New Warriors from #1 with only a little difficulty. (It only took me six years to find a copy of #10, where the Warriors battled the Hellions, shortly before the semi-villainous teens were cruelly killed off. It took me more than 20 years to find Camelot 3000 #2.)

Other stuff like X-Men and Avengers and Fantastic Four were far too historical, there was no chance of ever collecting an entire series, although my best mate is making a commendable and life-long stab at getting all of the Uncanny X-Men since 1986, and still has 150 issues to go....

So, in the weirdest way, New Warriors felt like my comic book. It was bright and slick and motored along at a decent pace, revitalising old characters with a surprising amount of charm.

In those first two years, it kept up standards of bright art and fast-moving stories. There was a sweet little bit of alternate reality a good five years before age of Apocalypse came along, the occasional guest appearance by the Fantastic Four and the Punisher and Namor and some truly unexpected twists and turns.

A well-established status quo came apart very early on, with one character off to jail for murdering his father. Surprisingly, he was actually guilty as hell, giving the storyline some genuine weight.

But the team stayed together and It all wrapped up nicely beneath the cardboard cover of #25. It wasn’t quite the same after that, with a young Darick Robertson giving it all he had in the art, which wasn’t quite as shiny as Bagley, who was off to devote his full attention to Spider-Man.

I’ve read all of Bagley’s comics since then with unbridled happiness. His line is still stark and jagged, but it’s still slicker than a slick thing in Slicktember, and I can always appreciate that. Fabien Niceza’s work was – unfortunately – never quite as satisfying, with his style tragically involved in a hit and run with the X-Men juggernaut in the 1990s.

I stopped getting New Warriors somewhere around #45, when a rotating band of guest artists made the New warriors look like everybody else, and I was never really tempted by any of the half-arsed resurgences of the team.

I was personally miffed when the New Warriors became shorthand for gross superhero incompetence in the wake of Civil War, but so what? I still got those first two years worth.

With all due neutrality, New Warriors #1 is not a good comic, but if the 15-year-old me didn’t fall hard for it, he might never have been tempted by all the good stuff that was coming down the line. Vertigo comics were on the way to kick my arse, and if I had never stuck with comics, I might never have read any Dan clowes, or Peter Bagge, or Los bros Hernandez, or Adrian Tomine, or Charles burns, or Seth, or anything like that.

I dug out that old copy of New Warriors #1 the other day, and it’s looking a bit tarnished. The bottom left corner is a bit tattered, Al Williamson’s inks are terribly 1980s and all those mysterious plot movements are old and resolved.

But there is still enough of that old infatuation to merit another read. New Warriors #1 might be a faded old dame, but she is still sexy as hell.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Last weekend a comic book shop saved my life.

Change is inevitable in all aspects of life, but it can still be depressing. I spent a large part of a recent Friday wandering around my favourite city in the whole world and came away feeling all lost and confused on an existential level.

The city had changed in tiny, microscopic ways that people living there never even see, but I hadn’t been back in more than five years and it was painfully different.

It was really confusing, especially in the central business district. The city didn’t match the city in my head, and the few reference points I could recognise from the old days were all the more incongruous in these unfamiliar surroundings.

And then I found a comic shop, and all that rubbish didn’t matter any more.


I’ve been to Paris, Wellington and Amsterdam, but Dunedin has always been my favourite city in the entire world, ever since I was a little kid. It’s slightly closer to the South Pole than it is to the equator, a cold and dark place to be in winter, but it also has a lively young population due to Otago University, some fantastically ornate architecture and a population who like to read. A lot.

I used to go down to Dunedin during the school holidays when I was a kid and always had a terrific time in the city’s book and toy shops. I drooled over the James Bond 007 Movie Book, bought Alan Moore’s Twisted Tales for two bucks, grabbed a Super Powers Mantis figure and Star Trek #17 from a toy warehouse and got the much-craved first X-Men issue in the Fall of the Mutants crossover in Dunedin.

I found my first comic book shop there, and later on spent a large part of my first ever pay cheque on a huge stack of Alpha Flight and GI Joe comics. When I grew old enough to move out of home, I moved there and haunted the second hand bookstores for the next five years.

I got the first 12 issues of the ongoing Grendel series for five bucks from one store over near the Northern entrance of the city and 57 issues of Tomb of Dracula for twenty-five bucks from another shop in South Dunedin. There’s that store where I got Amazing Spider-Man #400, which turned out to be the last issue of Amazing Spider-Man I ever bought, and just around the corner is the one where I got the ultra modern and brand new 2000ad #459 with some Bryan Talbot Dredd.

There was also Bag End Books, which was my Local Comic Shop for a good five years. I got almost all of The Invisibles from them, along with dozens and dozens of those bloody Legion of Super Heroes comics with the Moy art and the last dozen issues of the first Love and Rockets.

We have a small spare room in our apartment that is packed with all sorts of shit, and I’d say a good third of the thousands of comics, books and magazines in there were bought in Dunedin.

Bag End closed a couple of years after I moved away from Dunedin, and even though I tried to visit the city as much as possible in the past decade, the spaces between visits were getting longer as I moved further and further away.

But it’s still my favourite city ever, so I was still excited about visiting it last weekend to catch up with old friends and look for comic books. Then it all got a bit much.


It might have been that weird new little mall that was eerily similar to one I dreamt about two decades ago, or the decaying shops down the south end of town, but I was left feeling lost and confused by this latest trip.

It all started so well – the first thing I did after picking up the rental car from the airport was drive to my three favourite second hand bookstores, and found some reliable treasures, like a Jimmy Olsen digest and a recent Judge Dredd magazine and some Gary Frank Hulk and Jim Starlin Silver Surfer and some Zot, a Milligan/Aparo Batman comic and Kirby Demon and Ditko Shade, so that was fun.

But as the day went on, the more differences there were. Some bookshops that I thought would be immortal had closed down, and bits and pieces of the city had shifted. Buildings I’d worked in no longer existed, that garage down the alley where I once saw Captain Marvel in a drunken hallucination was long gone.

It had all been replaced. Time marches on and new stuff is always showing up, but I didn’t recognise it. Even the gorgeous new sports stadium they’ve built down by the water was oddly off-putting.

This is fucking stupid, right? Feeling down because a place you liked has moved on without you. Getting existentially depressed because that place you bought The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe edition) #18 isn’t there any more.

But sometimes you can dig the place you live in so much, it’s like part of your ego becomes defined by it. And even when you move away, there is always something you leave behind, something that unexpectedly resurfaces when you return.

I still got to cruise the old streets, and caught up with old friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, but I was feeling truly subdued. Until one of those old friends told me about a new comic shop in town. And who cares about the past when there’s a new comic shop?

I ended up hanging around town a little longer than expected, just waiting for that comic shop to open on the Saturday morning. It was a perfectly average store, but I managed to score that first issue of Daredevil Frank Miller ever wrote and drew (with the pulse-pounding introduction of Elecktra!) for twenty bucks, so that was a decent deal. I’ve never seen that sucker anywhere for less than fifty.

I thought that the beleaguered Comics Compulsion was the last comic store in the South Island of New Zealand, but I was happy to be proven wrong by Pop Fiction in Dunedin

Cities change and life goes on and there isn’t much I can do about that. But as long as there are still places to buy new comics, everything is right with the world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Fabled ending and a less than Fantastic beginning

“Great bird spirit! Why? Why did you lead us into this death trap?”

“No particular reason. I thought it’d be funny.”

(Spoilers for the last issue of Jack of Fables)

The most charming thing about the fifty-issue run of Jack of Fables was its free-wheeling ability to go anywhere and do anything. It took constantly surprising plot turns, while sticking to an incredibly rigid meta-textual formula, and then making fun of the whole thing.

The series has just ended with the extra-sized #50, which is made up of little more than endless splash pages in which the characters built up in the comic over the past four years all meet ignominious and pointless deaths.

It’s brilliant. It might be my favourite comic so far in 2011 – I certainly laughed out loud more than I have for any other comic book. It cut away to the boys in the commentary box talking about the action, blew up a truckload of cows (“Oh the bovinity!”) and killed off all the characters with gleeful abandon, with the thankful exception of that little blue bull.

Stories that end with everybody lying around dead – including things as diverse as Blake’s 7 and Hamlet - are usually filed under “Tragedy”, but the last issue of Jack of Fables is pure farce. It ended the only way it possibly could, a series that ended up choking to death on its own silliness, but still pulled off a cheery thumbs up as it was starved of life.

Besides, this is the Fables universe, where a bloody death can be nothing more than a painful inconvenience, and the series closes with Jack outwitting the Devils and hitching a ride as a ghostly figure – “What? You think just because the series is over I’m going to stop doing stuff?”

Jack of Fables got out while the going was good and ended up right where it started, but it’s a shame to see it go, if only because the Vertigo imprint needs a series with a sense of humour to balance out the endlessly complex original graphic novels and deadly serious ongoing titles with vast master plans.

It was also a series that could be deeply unmemorable, just by its very nature. When the lead protagonist is a selfish and hedonistic arsehole who drifts from story to story, it is always going to be hugely entertaining and instantly forgettable. The comic’s creators tried to get around this issue by constantly making fun of the idea, but it still failed to click.

But Jack of Fables was fun, man. And sometimes that’s all I want.


I’m genuinely sorry to see Jack of Fables go, but all jokes run their course and it’s wrapped up with a nice dose of carnage. In contrast, it was ridiculously easy to give up on the Fantastic Four again.

I really, really wanted to like Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four, but it ended up so serious and dour that it eventually turned sour for me. I had started buying the FF again a couple of years ago because of my weird addiction to Mark Millar and kept on getting it because Hickman was saying all the right things in interviews. Even though I’d really disliked The Nightly News, he was an obvious talent who had things to say.

But the Fantastic Four I dig is all about the sparkling pop power of the imagination and that never quite happened here. Eaglesham and Epting’s art always felt oddly restrained, creating a dry monotone of a book that deserved to sing.

To be honest, Hickman lost me a while back when he had Mr Fantastic stand up at a scientific conference and belittle and ridicule a number of colleagues in front of their peers because they had legitimately advocated caution in the pursuit of scientific excellence. It was obvious what the writer was going for – a new way of thinking free from the prejudices of the past – but it came off a mean and spiteful and petty thing for Reed Richards to do, and Mr Fantastic should never be mean and spiteful and petty. He should be helping his scientific chums up to his level, not smashing them down with his scorn.

So after the incredibly underwhelming death of the Human Torch – and most aggravatingly, the refusal of any character to acknowledge that this shit happens all the time and that Johnny will be back driving his hot rod down Broadway in no time– a new beginning with the Fantastic Foundation was also a terrific way to drop the title.

I gave it a quick look in the store and while that’s no way to judge anything, it was just more of the same, dressed up in new white costumes that already looked dated last week. More grimacing and smart people acting like idiotic dicks because they need to get the plot moving.

The craft is solid in these comics, and I’m sure they are finding an appreciative audience, but it’s nothing I want in superhero comics, so that’s another comic I don’t get every month any more.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blog from another universe #3: Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #5000

This month the Fantastic Four become the first superhero comic in history to pass the #5000 mark, with Jack Kirby once again producing the comic himself - writing, drawing, colouring and lettering the whole thing himself last Sunday afternoon.

Everybody knows that the Fantastic Four became something truly remarkable when Stan Lee choked on his own hyperbole at the first San Francisco comic convention in 1966, with Kirby using Lee’s untimely passing to take full control of the comic.

Kirby’s run proved to be spectacular as he turned down lucrative offers from DC in the early seventies to concentrate on the FF, and he built up the comic into something strange and wonderful.

But even with Kirby’s incredible track record of producing comics, it was still a surprise when the Fantastic Four comic became self-aware under Kirby’s pen with #186 and Reed Richards appeared in the Fantasti-Car above Times Square.

Mr Fantastic managed to convince everybody that he was simply travelling from higher up the dimensional scale, and just happened to appear in a universe where the Fantastic Four only existed in comic book form, but the Fantastic/Kirby court case in 1979 found that as the sole living creator of the comic, Kirby was owed all the material benefits of having the Fantastic Four in the real world.

Reed Richards was only in our continuum for three days, but left behind enough scientific notes and theories to change our technology forever and Kirbytech is now an integral part of modern society, offering Joe Average rocket trips to the moon for a weekend away and free, clean and powerful energy from the perpetual motion machine operating in the Negative Zone. It’s hard to imagine a modern kitchen without a Kirbometer, and Kirbytech chief executive Mark Evanier is promising instantaneous teleportation to anywhere in the universe by 2012.

Jack Kirby was the most obvious benefactor of the leaps in technology over the past 20 years. A heart problem was fixed in a weekend in the early nineties with nano-Kirbys, with Richards's innovations bringing Kirby’s idea of tiny miniature versions of Ben Grimm that clobber cancer and disease into reality.

Now in his nineties, Kirby looks and works like a sprightly 45-year-old, using time dilation technology and various cybernetic implants to produce several hundred issues of the Fantastic Four every year.

The continued innovations that Kirby has literally inserted into his drawing arm has led to some mean-spirited people pointing out that the artist now looks more like Deathlok than the Thing, but there can be few critics of the breadth and depth of his Fantastic Four comics.

In a world where people can go on package tours to the Microverse, Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four comics remain a thing of wonder. By focusing all of his considerable talents into one title – Kirby has turned down offers to do everything from an adaption of 2001 to Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen – he has created a remarkable ongoing story of incredible emotional complexity, intense intellectual evaluation and slam-bang action.

He celebrated the 1000th issue of Fantastic Four by having the Inhumans abandon their corporal form, only for the Invisible Woman to convince the ascended beings to perform at Live Aid in 1985 with a captivating set of Attilan toe-singing. He spent a decade on the Human Torch saga, sending Johnny Storm on a massively detailed ideological search for the self that saw him hurl fireballs at the existential void and finally confront the meaning of life itself on a Manhattan street corner.

Kirby has produced the Greatest Comic Magazine Ever, and continues to knock it out of the park on a regular basis. His Fantastic Four continues to sell more comics than all other comics put together and he remains the patron saint for all comic artists, with the founding and continued funding of the Stan Lee Art School.

Kirby has been reluctant to sit down for any kind of interview in the past decade, choosing instead to let his work speak for himself. And that’s not counting the fact that he has, through sheer force of will and imagination, changed the universe with his comics.

He has helped mankind take the next step up the evolutionary ladder, made everyday life immeasurably exciting for all of us, and produced the most exciting and thoughtful comics of all time. Fantastic Four #5000 is available at every comic shop, book store and news stand on the planet. Buy it and hail to the King.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Blog from another universe #2: Rob Liefeld’s Big Numbers

In an interview published in The Comic Journal shortly before it was engulfed by the Groth Singularity, Marvel publisher Todd McFarlane told the story of Rob Liefeld’s first phone call with Alan Moore.

McFarlane spoke of Liefeld’s wide-eyed enthusiasm at the idea that the bearded mage wanted to work on him on this ultra-trendy book he had been trying to put together - something called Big Numbers.

Liefeld had listened to Moore’s account of his troubles with the comic and the prospect that the series might go under, and the highly unusual desire to finish it with the artist from Hawk and Dove took many by surprise.

In an interview with Peter Hogan in 2002, Moore explained his decision: “I appeared to have broken both Bill and Al’s head with me impenetrable scripts, so I went down into the basement and did a bit of a ritual. This multifaceted serpent god told me to rip open that box of shit complementary comics DC kept sending me and chose an artist out of that.

“Well, the first one I see is this Hawk and Dove thing, so I decide. Right, this kid will do. He has a dodgy sense of anatomy and I’m not sure what’s up with all these lines, but I need somebody I can bend to my will.”

Moore said the decision by Al Columbia not to destroy his artwork for #3 inspired him to keep going, and to bring in a raw artist who might be able to work closely with Moore to finish the story.

After consulting with McFarlane, Liefeld turned down an offer from Marvel to be the latest artist on New Mutants to work on Big Numbers. (This move did, of course, lead to Dan Clowes’ interesting 14-issue run on the mutant title, a spectacular failure that saw the title cancelled permanently, although it is permanently available in collected form.)

Liefeld spent a long bank holiday weekend in the basement with Moore, and when he came out, he was an all new artist. He started from scratch, leading to some dodgy results in Big Numbers #4. There were a few distorted and unrecognisable faces in that issue, but also moments of quiet tenderness, like the climactic moment with Christine beside the scrap heap.

The most interesting thing about Liefeld’s next half-dozen issues of Big Numbers is seeing him evolve into one of the most important artists of the past quarter-century.

Because Liefeld was a revelation with his new experimentation: his use of photo-montage and stark charcoal backgrounds represented a dramatic step-away from the scratchy superheroes he had shown so far.

Using a series of artistic grants to buy equipment for his artistic experiments, Liefeld pioneered the use of computer effects in comics, until by the climax of Big Numbers, his use of the Mandelbrot Set as a basic design tool took the comic into new levels of emotional complexity. It was a stunning achievement, and after completing the series within six years, Liefeld was due a decent break.

Liefeld appeared to drop out of comics after that and after the crushing ending of Big Numbers, many thought he had given in to despair or burnt out. But he overcame a devastating illness caused by the black mould in his kitchen apartment to still show up in odd places, contributing a sweet little Black Condor story for the first Bizarro Comics, a riveting piece of melancholic autobiography in Zero Zero, and last year’s long awaited The Apocalypse: How I’d Do It,

That last graphic novel predictably topped many critic’s lists for the best of last year as Liefeld produced a tale of WW3 that was so brilliantly over-the-top it could almost be mistaken for a serious – if troubled – version of Armageddon.

Reading McFarlane’s interview again, the idea of a wide-eyed Rob Liefeld is an intriguing one, simply because it is hard to imagine the artist as anything more than an affable and modest little genius.

At the end of the interview, McFarlane mentioned giving Liefeld a gift – the original art for his first published page of Spider-Man art – only to see it up for sale on eBay the next day. Liefeld said he needed the money for some expensive art supplies only available in outer Mongolia, and because he had an overdue gas bill.

“That’s our Rob!” said McFarlane.