Tuesday, May 31, 2011

31 Days of Comics #31

Shaolin Burning
By Ant Sang

Capturing martial arts in comic form isn’t easy – kung fu is all about movement and momentum, two things comic books are always going to be lacking.

Some artists – including Frank Quitely and Paul Gulacy - capture the eerie beauty of martial arts through a series of ultra-still images, capturing the crackle the anticipation and the snap of a sudden movement.

Shaolin Burning author Ant Sang has spent much of the past decade in New Zealand animation, producing some fine design work for the successful Brotown cartoon, but he also did a lovely comic called the Dharma Punks as a very earnest young man, and getting almost two hundred pages of comic art from him in one go is a real treat.

Shaolin Burning spins a new tale out of the old story of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, sometime in the 17th or 18th century. The legend says only five monks manage to survive, but in Sang’s story there is a sixth – Monk Who Doubts.

His bloody trail of vengeance parallels the story of Deadly Plum Blossom, an unwanted child raised by a Shaolin nun, and after many adventures throughout China, the two meet in a cave in a desert and reach an unexpected understanding.

Even though Sang put a lot of work into the storytelling effort – he proved it with charts at a recent writers festival – the story does feel a bit disjointed at first, before reaching that surprisingly elegant end. The odd use of some 20th century slang is also a bit jarring, even if the sentiments remain the same in any language.

So it takes a bit of work to follow the story, but that’s easy enough because Ant Sang draws some fucking brilliant kung fu.

It might be that animation background, or all that doodling he did in the margins of his school books, but Sang captures the moment of violence unleashed perfectly. These aren’t just warriors posing, they’re moving, punching, slashing, stabbing and kicking, always moving forward.

It’s all rendered in thick ink, giving these creations weight. When a small girl unleashes a punch of unbelievable power, it’s all there on the page. Sang’s line is consistent, but can also get wild when the fists and fury start flying. His style is his own, but there is a bit of Paul Pope in there, (which is no small praise, considering Pope is one of the finest action artists in the medium), and like any New Zealand action artist, there is a lot of Martin Emond (most obviously in the graceful three-page direct homage to Emond: ‘The Legend Of Ma Ti Fu Ken’ that Sang sneaks in there).

It’s all about that perfect moment, capturing that bit of beauty in the perfect physical movement. It isn’t easy to capture these moments in comics, but it can be done.

Monday, May 30, 2011

31 Days of Comics #30

The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #22
By David Micheline, Jim Owsley and Joe Brozowski

I was nine years old in the summer of 1984, and I was all about Indiana Jones.

Weirdly, I had managed to miss Raiders of the Lost Ark completely – and it would be another three or four years before I eventually saw the first movie – but I had been to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom three times at the cinema, and would have gone to see it every day if they would have let me.

These were the last days of the pre-video age, but that didn’t do me much good. The only chance I had to enjoy Temple of Doom over and over again was to get the comics. Marvel’s three issue adaptation of the movie was a fairly average affair by David Micheline and Jackson Guice, but they had terrific covers and little bits that had been cut out of the movie, so I wanted them bad.

But this was New Zealand in 1984, and expecting any consecutive issues of an American comic book was foolhardy. I got #1 and #3 easily enough, but I couldn’t find #2 anywhere.

So when my Mum said she was going to get the new Indiana Jones comic from the bookstore when I had the flu, I was excited as hell. When she ended up giving me The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #22 instead, I was horribly disappointed. I didn’t even say thank you, because it wasn’t what I wanted, and because nine-year-old boys are little shits.

Twenty seven years later, and I’ve still got that comic. I did get that #2 of the Temple of Doom comic a few years later, but got rid of all my Indiana Jones comics years ago, except for this one. (I really wish I still had #14, because it was the other Inidana Jones comic I loved as a kid, and because I just found out it was drawn by – bloody hell – David Mazzucchelli, but I haven’t seen it around in ages.)

I’ve still got The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #22 because when I read it I can feel the aching embers of that passion for All Things Indy, and because it’s still a surprisingly okay comic.
Artist Joe Brozowski could be mistaken for John Buscema if you squinted hard enough, and with a plot by Micheline and a script by Jim Owsley, things hum along nicely, with an ancient macguffin, trains tearing through the countryside, copious exposition, a failed raid on an indomitable fortress, Indy fighting a bear by shooting it with a champagne cork and a villain consumed by a demonic black flame.

Owsley would later change his name to Christopher Priest, and the kind of quick banter he would become known for is already in place. Indy’s thought balloons during his fight with the bear are priceless, showing his real fear as he blusters outwardly, and thinking about how much he hates those red shoes Marion is always wearing as he is crushed to death.

You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. I ended up reading this comic a thousand times in that summer of 1984 and I love it still, from the price that is still etched on the cover in ballpoint pen ($1.19 in NZ money) to the final result of a contest of wills. It was one of those cornerstones in my history of reading comics, a single issue that sparked a fire that still burns today.

Thanks, Mum!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

31 Days of Comics #29

Grendel #20-23
By Matt Wagner, Hannibal King, Tim Sale and Joe Matt

The fifth phase in the development of Matt Wagner’s Grendel concept must have been baffling to a lot of people when it originally started in 1988. Readers used to the adventures of an anti-hero stalking the streets in the most awesome mask in comics were suddenly thrust 400 years in the future, with four issues bridging the gap between the near and far futures.

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise - Wagner had been taking consistently interesting steps on the Grendel ongoing title for more than a year, killing off Christine Spar, having her successor burn out in days and taking a trip back to the Hunter Rose years with some startling storytelling experimentations.

Even so, Wagner begins #20 with a warning to the gentle reader that the next few issues are going to be a bit of a ride, and they will have to hold on if they want to get to the end.

Wagner’s decision to take that leap into the future made his Grendel concept so much more interesting than a man (or woman) behind a mask. It became a malevolent icon, a cultural being that existed in many forms simultaneously. It would eventually evolve into a symbol for honour, willpower and determination, but that was much further down the line.

In issues 20-23, Wagner has enough to do getting Grendel into the collective subconscious of humanity, and has to deal with the breakdown of civilisation, life in a hard oil-starved world and the return of religious forces as the main political power on the planet.

It’s a lot to get through, and there are also little one-off stories to be told, of a detective who got too close to the Grendel legend, of the head of a multinational corporation inadvertently bringing about total war through his own short-sightedness, of a girl torn between loyalty to her family and the lure of a sexy new future, and of a failed bid for Popedom in a scary and media-saturated future.

But it never feels like a slog, with some terrific art from Hannibal King and Tim Sale, while Joe Matt was there to contribute some appropriately queasy colours. They’re also still fun to read, because Wagner is still playing around with the format of a comic. There are no real conversations in these issues, just one word sentences and rhyming slang and pictograms and an omnipresent narrator that seems to be coming from inside the character’s heads.

There is also a terrific narrative trick, where every issue starts with a specific sound – a thump, a boom, a clang and a click – and people reacting to that noise with horror and despair for some unknown reason, before the story flashes back to show what that sound really means. It’s a trick that works surprisingly well.

It all works so well that the next storyline is all set up and ready to go. Orion Assante and Eppy Thatcher are waiting, and so is Grendel Prime.

Wagner hasn’t done much with his future world in the past decade, focusing instead on the earliest days and the adventures of Hunter Rose. These have been typically meaty and inticing stories, but it’s the future that remains unwritten. There was a brief appearance of the future at the climax of Behold The Devil - which ended up contributing to the death of Hunter Rose because he realised he wasn’t unique – but there has been no continuation of these weird and wonderful Grendel story for quite some time.

Wagner has been his usual busy self in recent years, contributing fine stories for things like the Green Hornet and Zorro, but Grendel remains his most magnificent creation, and any more tales of that evil icon's evolution will always be welcome.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

31 Days of Comics #28

Batman Incorporated #6
By Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

Apart from the venerable 2000ad, this was the only new comic I got this week, so this is all I’ve got to talk about.

I get one comic, and it’s a bung one. Four random pages are the victims of an unfortunate print error, and have been cut slightly shorter, with no binding to the rest of the comic. The pages fell out when I opened up to read it for the first time, and it took me a while to figure out where they went in the story. I’m still not sure I got it right.

It doesn’t really matter, because I’m fairly certain I didn’t miss any pages and I’ve always had an inexpicable fondness for bung comic books. And besides, re-inserting random cut-up pages into the narrative of an individual comic book is just the sort of non-linear thinking that Morrison is going for in Batman Incorporated.

It’s been an oddly soul-less comic so far, especially when there was so much naked sentimentality in his Batman and Robin stories, but Batman Incorporated is starting to find its groove, especially now that Chris Burnham is on art duties. Yankick Paquette is a fine artist, but his superhero work can often feel flat, while Burnham’s line is open and wild.

He sometimes wears the Quitely influence a little bit too obviously, but if you’re going to emulate somebody, you could do a whole lot worse. (I certainly never minded it when Steve Rude got his Kirby on.) It’s not as sharp as Quitely, but Burnham shows a willingness to mess with the movement on the page, and uses body language to stage action sequences in remarkably inventive ways.

Burnham will undoubtedly sort his own style out and shows real promise, if that detail doesn’t wear him down first. Alex Ronald was one of the first real artists to follow the same path Quitely was travelling, especially when he was following Frank on Missionary Man, but was just starting to find his own real voice when he went off to do CG illustrating and modelling for the past decade. (Although a tiny bit of googling reveals something about some kind of vampire Nazi she-bitch comic for Waster.)

Morrison’s skipping style of storytelling means those munted pages could go anywhere, but it also allows Morrison to get a lot of information across in a very small space. By the end of issue six, he has his army of Batmen in place, ready to fight a noble war against the big next menace.

Batman will win that fight, because that’s what Batman does, but the real threat is his own bat-hubris. He has created an organisation more powerful than any nation, with nobody to answer to. It’s all bound to end in tears.

I really hope it doesn’t, because we’ve all read that story a million times before. It really would be nice to have a large benevolent organisation that doesn’t automatically self-corrupt in some way.

It would be nice to have something new and interesting happen in a Batman comic.

31 Days of Who #27

(I’m giving the comics a rest for another day before getting into the last few, because I’ve got a mental theory about Doctor Who’s current season that I want to get out of my head. And because I haven’t written anything about Doctor Who in weeks.)

I’m all about the new Doctor, whoever he is. It’s that excitement of the new and shiny, combined with a wonderful uncertainty, because I often have no idea what is going to happen next. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. A lot.

In the old days, stories were sometimes stretched over a matter of weeks. Between them, the Dalek Master Plan and The War Games were spread over half a year when watched weekly, which is a long time to think about what is going to happen next.

It’s something that has been lost a bit in the hour-long adventures of 21st century Doctor Who, but there is still some long term mysteries that are now spread out over an entire season – What’s up with Amy’s pregnancy? What really happened out at that lake in the middle of nowhere? What’s up with River Song? Who is that little girl?

So here’s my grandiose and absurd theory. It’s probably already been brought up somewhere else, but I haven’t seen it. (It’s probably on one of those big who message boards, but I can’t read them. People there are unnecessarily mean and nasty about stuff I genuinely love, so I can’t do that.)

I reckon this whole storyline with Amy and the Doctor is going to end with Mr and Mrs Pond giving birth to a whole new race of Time Lords, who are going to be different this time.

It’s a theory made up of wild speculation and careful examination of several facts. The fact that Amy’s pregnancy is in a state of quantum flux is only to be expected when you’re dealing with the birth of beings that will exist in every time simultaneously, or the fact that something regenerated in that New York alley, or even the joke about the time head baby, because Steven Moffat loves making bizarre and nonsensical jokes that turn out to be REALLY IMPORTANT.

And it fits an overall theme that has been running ever since the Moffat/Smith thing got rolling. On one very obvious level, the first season was all about growing up and finding somebody to grow up with. It was a season that was all about that wedding in the final episode.

So it’s only natural that the season after that would be all about the next step in life, and creating babies and building families. The first two episodes were dripping in this stuff, a TARDIS was born in a new body in Neil Gaiman’s excellent episode (probably my single favourite complete episode since The Girl In The Fireplace) and there is already one whole new lifeform born in the current two-parter.

(I don’t know how the pirates fit into it, but they’re pirates. Not fitting in is what they do.)

It would also fit Moffat’s template of a Happy Ending Every Time. He likes to go out on a high, and bringing the Time Lords back would certainly fit that deal.

It’s a dodgy theory that has lots of holes – not sure what the death by the lake is about, or what River in up to – and it will probably be blown out of the water by the very next episode, but it’s something worth thinking about.

There is always something worth thinking about in Doctor Who.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

31 Days of Comics #26

The Judge Dredd Collection #1
By John Wagner and Ron Smith

One of the most appealing things about reading Judge Dredd stories is their brevity. The vast number of Dredd stories have been little more than six pages long – they make their point quickly, and move on.

There is still scope for stretching out a story for a more satisfying result, but it is notable that even the biggest, most world-changing event-driven storylines in Judge Dredd’s history are still only about 150 pages long, or the same length as any average six issue run in an American superhero comic book.

It’s harder to do this than it looks, probably because Dredd co-creator John Wagner makes it look so easy. Wagner is so adept at crafting tiny bits of Dredd’s story with craft, wit and humour in six-page slots, but even more impressively, he can still do it in just one page.

There are 48 one-page stories in The Judge Dredd Collection, a compendium of Daily Star strips all written by Wagner and drawn by Ron Smith during the most classic era of 2000ad. They started doing this weekly strip in the Daily Star newspaper in 1981, and this collection followed four years later, with another three collections to follow.

The Daily Star strips are remarkable examples of precise and concise storytelling. They are usually between nine and eleven panels long, but still manage to have a set-up, pay-off and witty closing line from Joe Dredd in there, while also making some sort of satirical or ironic point.

There are stories of scientific experiments going horribly awry, future diseases getting out of control, 22nd century fads and crazes that are more trouble than they’re worth, and horribly ironic bureaucratic nightmares, all drawn with the absolutely palatable art of Ron Smith – one of half a dozen definitive Dredd artists who excels at crazy action, fluid figurework and sheer panic, but fluffs some important details.

Apart from the creators, the only two things every strip has in common is Dredd – often acting as some kind of straight man – and Mega-City One. The future New York and its future-shocked residents form much of the Dredd strip’s fun. They’re irrational, mental, obsessed and armed to the teeth.

But if there is one point to take from this collection of 30-year-old newspaper strips, it’s that these people might be irrational, mental, obsessed and armed to the teeth, but they’re still got to live together in a community. Anybody who is too selfish, too arrogant, too ignorant or too violent usually meets some sort of ironic fate, and if they’re lucky, it’ll be a quick and painless bullet from Dredd’s Lawgiver.

The Daily Star strips feel like a continuation of the classic Graveyard Shift story, from the same creators at the same time, which fleshed out Dredd’s world with remarkable ease by simply showing the average night in the life of a Mega-City judge.

Like the Graveyard Shift, the newspaper strips each highlight one little new aspect of Dredd’s world, building up a solid base of complexity that the strip would feed off for the next few decades. Wagner and Smith were creating a world in this comics, and it’s one that is still thriving.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

31 Days of Comics #25

Starman #35
By Keith Giffen, Peter David, Jason Pearson and Bruce Patterson

The unexpected success of Justice League International, and it’s refusal to take all these complicated superheroics seriously, had a number of delightful side effects, like this random issue of Starman.

The eighties Starman comic is the most average superhero comic of its era, with the most competent and dull creators in Roger Stern and Tom Lyle. It lasted 45 issues, and I once had a dozen or so, but I got rid of them years ago.

All except for Starman #35, because it still makes me laugh.

Keith Giffen’s Justice League success meant he could do damn near anything he wanted in the DC Universe, so you would often see him pop up as a plotter or penciller on the oddest DC titles. You could never predict where Giffen would show up next, but his unmistakable humour and naively influenced art were always welcome.

So if Giffen wanted to do an issue of bland old Starman, a comic that had just about the height of mediocrity and would be taken out behind the chemical sheds and shot in less than a year, it was probably something worth reading. Even if it did have Mr Nebula, the Cosmic Designer – the silliest of JLI’s silly characters in it.

The worlds of silliness that Justice League International would sometimes take a detour through are often held up as its worst feature, but at least it was something different for a change. There have been decades of awful teeth-grittingly serious stories about the greatest super-team ever, it’s hard to begrudge a few years of nonsense.

So Mr Nebula is a pisstake of Galactus who descends on helpless worlds and redesigns them until they’re utterly FABULOUS. Starman runs into Nebula’s faithless herald The Scarlet Skier, and ends up roped into a ridiculous fight with Mon-El, who was still bumming around the outskirts of the DC universe as the righteously named Valor.

Giffen is joined in all this craziness by the amusingly chunky art of Jason Pearson, and the scripting of Peter David, who never met a pun he didn’t want to have a long and passionate affair with, so they’re a good fit.

Giffen’s sense of humour has come back into fashion, and there are plenty of people who remember all that eighties JLI silliness with real affection, and series like Justice League: Generation Lost have been busy re-incorporating many of the major aspects of the earlier series.

To be honest, I’m happy enough to stick with the old stuff, and things like this issue of Starman. That JLI tone is really hard to nail, and even the original creative team of Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire have had difficulty regaining that fire in the last few years, largely because Andy Helfer was always the fourth vital ingredient, and modern editors are too timid to tell the old guys to cut back on the words.

Whenever I put together a pile of comics to sell off, Starman #35 always starts on the sell pile, but always ends up back in a box somewhere. And while I might be bored with more recent attempts, there are many more oddities like Starman #35 still to be found. (I’m still finding new iterations of the JLI #1 cover out there.) They’re always worth a laugh.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

31 Days of Comics #24

Brain Capers #1
By Mario Hernandez

You can always count on Jaime for the emotional intensity and melancholic wit, and Gilbert will always bring the intensity with outrageous sex and violence, but you never know what you’re going to get from Mario.

This is largely because Mario is the least prolific of Los Bros Hernandez, producing only a few dozens comic pages where his brothers have crafted thousands. He was there at the start of Love and Rockets, and popped up now and again with some slice of Californian weirdness, but creative blockages slowed everything down, and it can’t have helped when your kid brothers start being hailed as two of the greatest cartoonists of the late 20th century.

There were still bits and pieces, and by 1993 Mario had enough material for a comic of his own. There may never have been a Brain Capers #2, but there is a number one.

Mario doesn’t shy away from showing his guilt over his crippling creative inaction, with a cover that features him kidnapped by his own creations, tied up and dragged behind a hot air balloon with an embarrassing lack of difficulty, as his art supplies rain are thrown out around him.

The lack of a chunky body of work means it’s almost impossible to come into something like Brain Capers #1 with no expectations, and the fact that he had the same nature and nurture as the creators of Death of Speedy and Heartbreak Soup is also inescapable.

But taken on its own merits, Mario’s comic is a lot of fun, a little bit disturbing and wonderfully unpredictable.

There are eight stories, and there is nothing like a common theme. There are painful little pieces of autobiography that look like they have been stabbed on to the page, and a crazy sci-fi conspiracy story. There are small true-life stories that are slightly confusing and horribly familiar, mixing it up with the absolutely mental Fake Foreign Funnies.

Some of these stories seem to be crucially missing a point, some of them are meandering messes, but they’re all interesting, have a slightly off-kilter wit and are occasionally very, very funny.

If you don’t know what kind of story Mario is going to write at any given time, you’ll be just as surprised by his art. Some of the stories in Brain Capers have that same wild and flowing line that he displayed in his Love and Rockets stories, but here Mario has a crack at half a dozen different styles in this book, going from real-world detail to simple open cartoons at the flick of a page.

Even though there is still a lot of experimentation in their art, Gilbert and Jaime both established their respective styles more than 15 years ago and their art is unmistakable. But gaze upon any random page of Mario’s work and you might be looking at something all new and all different that he never uses again. You never know what you’re going to get with Mario, and that mystery is immensely enjoyable.

Monday, May 23, 2011

31 Days of Comics #23

Son of the Gun #1: Sinner
By Alexandro Jodorowsky and Georges Bess

No matter what medium it’s in, a story by Alexandro Jodorowsky is probably going to take a bit of work to fully appreciate. It takes a reasonably strong constitution to sit through something like The Holy Mountain in search of transcendence, and it takes a lot of effort to really get into his sprawling, messy and beautiful Metabarons comics.

But his Juan Solo stories, drawn by Georges Bess in the mid-nineties and reprinted during the brief and wonderful Humanoids/DC Comics collaborative publishing era, are a lot easier to take in. There is still a lot of over-complication in the tale of Juan’s rise and fall, but it’s the story of a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top.

This does not make Juan a likeable character as he betrays anybody he can for his own methods, and shoots anybody who gets in his way with the pistol he suckled on as an infant. But he is aware of his own unhumanity, and judging by the way the series kicks off, that self-awareness ultimately destroys him.

It’s a simple enough tale, even when it gets all political, but this is a Jodorowsky story, and his usual flair for arresting imagery and brutal savagery is there in Son of the Gun. It starts with the main character as an old man willingly taking part in his own crucifixion, then flashes back to his birth, where he was abandoned as a freak for having a fully functioning tail, and after he is rescued by the ugliest dwarf since Don’t Look Now, he uses an old pistol as a pacifier and gets his nutrition from a dog’s teat.

There are severed hands in the sangria and a President ordering the execution of his own traitorous daughter, and the first half ends with Juan at the top of his powers, with a long, long climb back into redemption ahead of him.

(I have to confess, I still haven’t read the second half. Distribution of the Humanoids/DC comics was always marginal at best, and I haven’t ever seen that second volume anywhere. I’ll be sure to get it when I finally do see it. It’s on the list.)

Jodorowsky has created some of the most fascinating grotesques in fiction, and the Juan Solo comics are full of ugly, ugly people, all depicted with all due care by Bess, a French artist who has melded that classic European formalism with some real Latin fire. There is a huge dose of mid-period Moebius in Bess’ line, but his pages also look like they’ve been baked in a wood-fire oven.

It all combines to produce a lovely little comic full of people doing horrible things to each other. Jodorowsky was having obvious fun while writing the story of Juan Solo, and his idea of fun is beautifully unique.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

31 Days of Comics #22

The New Gods #2
By Jack Kirby

I bought this 1971 comic this weekend in okay condition, and it cost me about the same as a brand new issue of a regular 2011 comic. It’s a shame that nothing on today’s stands has anywhere near the power and energy of this 40-year-old issue.

It’s prime Kirby, in that period where he had almost total creative freedom and was pumping out 20 pages of incredible art every week. There are only a couple of pages in New Gods #2 that have more than four panels, and it has half a dozen splash pages (including one double-page spread), but it’s still packed with action and overwrought drama – you really get a full story that still forms part of a vast ongoing tapestry.

Orion bashes the hell out of Darkseid’s attempt to artificially stimulate fear, flying around with real momentum and leaping into savage battle, and there are the usual flailing arms and hysterical over-reactions from the most minor of characters.

Kirby is still building his mad and beautiful Fourth World at this stage, and it’s interesting to see a Darkseid who isn’t quite the mighty unknowable God he would evolve into – he first appears in this issue chilling in an office chair and even bothers to compliment Desaad on his latest malevolent invention.

This comic has been reprinted several times, but it’s still fascinating to pick up the original comic and see it how it was first presented to the world. I still get a kick out of reading the advertisements in old comics, and they can be a fascinating history lesson. (Of particular interest in this issue is an advertisement for cheesy Woodstock bracelets and pendents, which show that by 1971 the festival had already become an event of mythological proportions for the Love Generation – “No one who was there will ever be the same!”)

Even more interesting is the text page by Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, who were serving as the King’s loyal assistants at that time. I’ve never seen that published anywhere else, and it’s a fascinating thing to read.

The text page does get a bit caught up in its own hyperbole – “While other artists are doing stories, Kirby is doing pageants” – and has that weirdly obnoxious geek tone – “In fact, if you’re any sort of a comic scholar, you’ve no doubt begun a careful study of this magazine” – but it’s still a peek behind the curtain at the production and thought that Kirby put into this new epic tale, long before the New Gods became stale and over-familiar.

Besides, the hyperbole and sniffy claims of brilliance are warranted, because New Gods #2 is a wonderful comic. It’s arguably Kirby at the very peak of his creative powers and manages to be big and important without losing any of its wit, excitement and humanity.

There wasn’t anything sitting on the new release shelf at my local comic store this weekend that came anywhere near the quality level of this comic that Jack Kirby slugged out in little over a week back in 1971, but that’s why he’s the King, and everyone else who follows is just one of his subjects.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

31 Days of Comics #21

The Boys #54
By Garth Ennis and John McCrea

There has been some criticism that the most recent issues of The Boys have been nothing but an info-dump, as Garth Ennis sidelines the main action in favour of filling in the background.

These criticisms are half-right. There is a massive amount of info getting dumped on the reader, but there is more to it than that. This comic is not just preoccupied with peeling away the layers of The Boys’ world, it’s a comic that is showing its anger at the short-sightedness and greed of those with unmitigated power, and the poor fucker who has to pay the price.

The last issue before this one saw Ennis in familiar territory, both as an sad ode to the efforts of the ordinary fighting man of WW2, and as a sharp indictment of the use of superhumans in this most human of conflicts.

But in #54, the most recent issue, Ennis goes beyond the end of the war, and starts looking at the gruesome mess that makes up its aftermath, and the birth of the modern spy network.

James Bond has ruined the idea of spies for most of us, but as Ennis reminds us in The Boys, a spy is not “impeccably dressed assassins in an Aston martin,” he’s more likely a “seedy little man you wouldn’t like at twice”, who is also a spiteful, bitter malcontent.

In this issue of The Boys, it’s genuinely fascinating to see Ennis move into this new post-war world, and point out that the post-war years were a messy confusion that saw a brash war-winning America run up against an ages-old enemy that had several hundred years of clandestine experience to draw upon.

An examination of the horrors or war is almost adolescent when compared to the dark games that took place in its aftermath, and this is where Ennis goes with his latest dig into The Boys’ history. This is a secret history that is painfully familiar, even our real world history doesn’t haven’t Men in Tights.

It’s a good sign for the (admittedly short) future of The Boys, and there is some suitably craggy artwork from the mighty John McCrea in this issue. The artist started with some watercolored bleh-ness in Troubled Souls, moved into some sharp and fluid characterization in Hitman (thanks largely to some sterling efforts from the criminally underrated Gary Leach) and is now in a whole new world with a craggy line on recent comics that looks rushed, but conceals hidden depths.

The Boys is coming up strong on its end, but gets even more mighty with every issue, and it’s a tale of corrupting power that is always worth reading.

(Sorry if this one was a bit vague, but it's 11.53pm on a Saturday night and I'm DRUNK as FUCK, and rocking out to some Ennio Morricone with some clearskin red wine, so this is as good as it gets...)

Friday, May 20, 2011

31 Days of Comics #20

Teen Titans Year One #6
By Amy Wolfram and Karl Kerschl

Teen Titans should be the ultimate Pop comics, but they’ve been stuck in the Dad Rock dirge for decades.

It’s all Wolfman and Perez’s fault. They took the Teen Titans to whole new levels with a bit more characterisation and long-term planning than the usual early eighties DC superhero team, helped considerably by Perez’s ultra-detailed art.

But like Miller’s Daredevil or Moore’s Swamp Thing, the Wolfman/Perez comics were so influential that nearly every new Teen Titans since then has attempted to emulate them, with diminishing returns. They can now arguably be held up as the perfect example of Everything That Is Wrong With DC – an almost toxic property that had been mismanaged into nasty mediocrity.

Now it’s a comic full of serious stories about people getting eaten by a giant mutant dog from some ancient kid’s cartoon. It has no tone of its own, it’s just playing the same old song as all the other DC team comics. Teen Titans should be groovy – but it’s just a whole lot of nothing. What’s the point of it, if you can’t tell the difference between the Titans and the Outsiders, or even the Secret Six? It’s all one tune.

It’s a real pity that most of the cleverest and funny ideas for Teen Titans comics have been in things like the Teeny Titans, while the real thing groans under the weight of its own gritted teeth.

And then there are things like Teen Titans: Year One by Amy Wolfram and Karl Kerschl, and they get just about everything right. It’s a fast paced and energetic adventure that ends up inside Robin’s head, and is a reminder that the Teen Titans are a team because they like hanging around with each other. You have the best times with your friends

With Dick Grayson’s unique lifestyle, other super-teens are always going to be the only ones who understand the pressures, but these kids are friends because they like each other.

It’s something that’s been missing from the Teen Titans for years, that these guys can get together and have a good time, and it can be fun.

Teen Titans Year One is saturated in this idea, and Karl Kerschl’s art is as splendidly fluid and propulsive as ever, creating the perfect atmosphere for this neat and fun comic.

Comics like this are still a relative rarity, and I haven’t enjoyed a regular Teen Titans comic since 1992. I’ve tried – I keep getting the books out of the library with high hopes, but it’s just more of the same mediocre monotone.

There is a distinct possibility that the Teen Titans will never be cool again, but you never know. It could be time to bring in creative teams who aren’t 35-year-old dorks with no fashion sense, or maybe even an actual teenager who knows that a younger audience don't want the same old shit that their parents like.

At least there are little oddities, like this six-issue series, which is a good reminder that there is a good song in there somewhere.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

31 Days of Comics #19

Star Wars: Boba Fett: Bounty on Bar-Kooda
By John Wagner and Cam Kennedy

There have been a few smart, fun and witty Star wars comics over the past couple of decades, but there has also been a whole bunch of mediocre ones. Dark Horse were examining how complicated and boring a Star Wars story could get with their Knights of the Old Republic series long before George Lucas showed how it was really done with the prequel movies.

But every now and then, somebody has an inspired thought at Dark Horse and brings in some eminently suitable creators, and you end up with something like Boba Fett: Bounty on Bar-Kooda, by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy.

These creators went on to do several Boba Fett stories, but this is the first, and is a terrific example of how to deal with licensed properties.

The first thing they do is dump all the complicated mythology and tell a simple story of Boba Fett hunting some bounty. There are still fat, ugly Hutts and space junkers commanded by alien pirates, but there are no Jedi, no mention of the Force, there isn’t a Really Clever appearance by Luke or Han or Chewbacca, both the rebellion and the imperial forces are barely mentioned.

Instead, it’s a story that could take place at any point in Boba Fett’s lifetime, and benefits from being a simple story told effectively.

Wagner has been mixing his absurdity with his high-tension action for decades on Judge Dredd, and there is plenty of both in Bounty on Bar Kooda. Unlike most Star wars comics, it’s got a few decent jokes in there, largely due to an incredibly stupid bunch of pirates being taken in by a couple of magic tricks.

“I’m not apologizin’ to no cards--!” SPAKK! “You’ll do what you’re told!”

It all gets a bit too close to extraordinary silliness, and Wagner definitely gives Boba Fett too much to say. (Lines like “Guard you tongue! I have not concluded my business!” and “I trust no one has given this fugitive succor…?” don’t do anybody any favours.) But he also throws in tons of action and explosions and speeder bikes, a couple of decent fistfights and a Hutt romance that still manages to be slightly sweet, no matter how gross it gets.

Fortunately, he has the excellent Cam Kennedy as a collaborator. When you’re doing some crazy space action, you want Kennedy, because nobody draws people running away while blasting enemies with an unfeasibly cool firearm like Kennedy draws them.

Cam ‘Kenny Who?' Kennedy is one of the great action artists in modern comics. He always grounds his figures in their environment, with body language that takes into account little things like momentum and gravity. Scenes of Boba Fett (or Judge Dredd or the Punisher) shooting the bad guys can be extraordinarily graceful and powerful.

He also draws the best fat arses, so he was perfect for this bunch of ugly, ugly aliens.

All of the Wagner/Kennedy Boba Fett comics are worth tracking down, and they get even more propulsive and absurd as they continue. It's a pity Star Wars comics are often so monotonously serious, when they could be as fun as this.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

31 Days of Deadwood #18

When I haven’t been rambling on about random comics over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching Deadwood again, and it’s such a pleasure to be reminded of how goddamn good it is. It’s so enjoyable that I’m going to give the bloody comics a rest for the day and talk about one small thing that helped make Deadwood one of the best television series ever.

The wife and I just finished re-watching the first year of Deadwood, and while it’s still a show that is finding its own voice, it has already established a gorgeous tone. This was a television show full of big ideas – it’s not just about the West dying with Wild Bill Hickock or the dangers of colonial life, it’s a story about the birth of a new society, where people who have had enough of the old world start out afresh to make a new one.

It’s there when Al Swearengen grudgingly welcomes the hardware boys into his camp, or the savage American bond between Al and Mr Wu. It’s there in Doc Cochran overcoming his crippling cynicism and helping people as much as he can, or in the slow establishment of positions a growing community needs – fire marshals, health inspectors and officers of the law.

All that is nothing without some kind of genuine connection to your fellow human being, that drive for a society full of like-minded people, all helping each other along. And when the characters in Deadwood find the compassion in the muddy streets of the camp, that’s when they found their new world.

Take the tragic case of Reverend Smith – a man afflicted with a terrible disease, who never gives up on hope and loses himself in hopeless and nonsensical sermons. In a society that has no community, he could have been ignored or abused, but he finds friends in the camp.

In one of his last lucid moments, the poor reverend walks into that hardware store and tells Sol Star and Seth Bullock that he does not recognise them as his friends. With calm assurance, they convince him that he is truly among friends, and offer to walk him home. It’s the smallest acts of kindness, such as this, which bring these remarkable people together.

Soon, the Reverend is beyond saving, and as Doc Cochran pleads on his knees for God to spare the man’s suffering, it’s Al who sends the Reverend out of this world. He hides behind his usual display of callousness, but he sees Reverend Smith as a good man who tried to do only good, and terats him with care and respect at the very end.

It’s these little doses of empathy that grow into a strong streak of compassion. By the final season, this leads to the moment when Bullock clumsily produces an impossibly elegant letter about the life and death of somebody who was barely a footnote in the story, and the other leaders in the camp decide to print it, so that they can show their monstrous enemy that they care about any human life, and that there is no such thing as collateral damage.

There is still a long, muddy and bloody road before Deadwood becomes a truly civilised place, but they’re on their way.

There is still a load of other moments in Deadwood that manage to be hilarious, intense and genuinely emotional, from Al’s blowjob soliloquies to Dan Dority’s relationship with Silas Adams to the sweetness of the Sol/Trixie union to the complex inhumanity of people like George Hearst and the abominable Mr Wollcott to the ongoing comedy of EB Farnum.

But it wasn't the flowery language, the undisguised violence or Shakespearean tragedy of it all that made Deadwood so wonderful. It was the empathy damned characters would show for each other, finding their humanity in this inhuman place. Compassion is everything, but when you’re trying to create a new world, it’s just about the only thing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

31 Days of Comics #17

Vertigo Resurrected #1
By lots of people

These random 100-page spectacular comics that DC keep putting out might sit low on the sales charts, but they are a great way to get a decent chunk of good comics without having to resort to endless $1 bin diving.

It’s easy enough to find issues of Vertigo’s Weird War Tales, Heartthrobs and Flinch if you can be bothered, but it’s even easier to get something like Vertigo Resurrected #1, and get some of the best stories those comics produced. There were quite a few of these anthology comics a few years back – I only just realised there was a Weird Western Tales one - and it’s easy to get bogged down by a large number of mediocre stories.

So Vertigo Resurrected is a fine sampler of these stories, and there are some really good stories in there. But the main attraction is the lead story, which can’t be found anywhere else, because it was never printed in the first place.

Vertigo’s refusal to print Shoot, even though Phil Jimenez had completed the art, had the unfortunate effect of abruptly curtailing Warren Ellis’ eminently suitable run on Hellblazer, and the fact that it has now seen the light of day raises the faint possibility that Ellis could return to the character somewhere down the road.

I really hope he does. It’s a trite cliché, but Ellis really was born to write John Constantine. He gets the character is a way few people can. Peter Milligan is doing some remarkably entertaining and thoughtful work on Hellblazer right now – more than two decades since he started writing the adventures of Shade: The Changing Man – but it’s a comic that outlives its creators, and it would be genuinely interesting to see what Ellis could do with the character now.

Maybe it’s just a matter of hindsight, Shoot isn’t as shocking as it might be. It might be because the whole idea of young people refusing to live in this sick, modern world has been done several times since, or because Shoot has been easily available on the internet for anybody who wants to find it. It might have a queasy twist, and makes a couple of great points about 21st-century apathy, but anybody who is shocked by Shoot must be living in some kind of shell.

There are tons of other neat comics in Vertigo Resurrected, including Morrison and Quitely’s New Toys, in which the artist proved that nobody gets an emotion out of a blank face quite like Quitely, and more nasty fun from guys like Azzarello and Ribic and Seagle and Milligan and Willingham.

Apart from Shoot, the other two stories that made me buy this comic when I saw it in a Vegas comic store came from predictably solid creators. There is a nice story of soldiers gone wrong by Garth Ennis that features some lovely restrained art from Jim Lee, reigning in the histrionics to tell a tale of five men in a car, and there is a sharp examination of callous colonial indifference in a Brian Bolland story that is worth the price of the comic all on its own.

Finding gems like this isn’t always easy, but when they are offered up in something as easy and accessible as Vertigo Resurrected, it’s hard to turn away.

Monday, May 16, 2011

31 Days of Comics #16

American Splendor: Unsung Hero
By Robert McNeill, Harvey Pekar and David Collier

Harvey Pekar’s usual American Splendor comics manage to be both infinitely fascinating and utterly mundane. While his stories of finding the right panel beater and looking for a lost book that is sitting under his phone are incredibly tedious, his detailing of modern life in the late 20th century will only become more interesting as time goes by. People will be reading Harvey’s comics for centuries, and they will only become more and more poignant.

Before his recent death – an event that was totally unsurprising, even though Harvey wasn’t as old as he always made out – Pekar would occasionally turn that idiosyncratic eye for detail on somebody else’s life. He produced a number of fine comic biographies, including several on his favourite blues artists, but he is also the perfect vehicle to tell the story of Robert McNeill.

Lance Corporal McNeill fought in Vietnam, earning a Navy commendation medal for bravery and resourcefulness. McNeill was just another soldier fighting a war he didn’t understand, but he has some stories to tell, and Harvey is there to listen.

Like all good war stories, Unsung Hero shows how futile and pointless any war is: Lance Corporal McNeill is killing people he doesn’t hate, obeying orders that come from people he does actually despise. Death is lurking outside every tent and LZ, and the randomness of it all is the most horrifying thing.

But Harvey’s no-bullshit credo also means Unsung Hero is full of the tiny insights that often forgotten in war movies. McNeill talks about the natives’ anger behind their smiles, the dangers of running into a hornet’ nest in the hostile jungle, his copious marijuana use (and the fact that it causes him to break down during a firefight), and the spooky detail of a little girl coming up to the fence and telling him that ‘VC come tonight’, leaving him to stew in paranoia for days until the attack does finally come.

While there are racial tensions in the story that seem to be about to blow up at any moment, McNeill is more concerned with getting through his tour and heading back home. His irritation at having to do a special handshake called the Dap is especially funny, especially when he says he only did it because they called him an Uncle Tom if he didn’t.

By the end, all those other things don’t matter, and all McNeill is worried about it getting back home. His conviction that he is going to catch a bullet at the last minute overrules everything. Even though he is sitting there telling the story to Harvey 30 years later, his paranoia gives the final pages a real tension, and there is true relief when he really does get out of it all.

David Collier’s art for the story is a textbook example of non-flash storytelling that gets the job done. There is a crudeness that fits McNeill’s razor-sharp ramblings, but never any confusion about what is going on, although there is a nice Alfred E Neuman at one stage, and a sadly beautiful moment where McNeill watches his buddies take fire up on the hill, when he’d dodged one of his last nights up there.

The loss of Harvey Pekar was a harsh one, but with comics about his own life and the lives of people like Robert McNeill, he has left an inarguable record of the Way Things Were. That’s a hell of a legacy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

31 Days of Comics #15

What If #6: What If The X-Men Lost Inferno
By Danny Fingeroth and Ron Lim

The What If stories are a nice idea, but are often undermined by a lacklustre editorial effort and frequently average creators. While there have certainly been odd gems published by Marvel under the What If? banner over the years, they are frequently little more than average.

What If The X-Men Lost Inferno? was the sixth issue in the late eighties revival of the title, and at first glance it looks like another exercise in mediocrity. It’s written by Danny Fingeroth, who somehow built a writing career on little more than annual-filler stories, and drawn by Ron Lim. Lim had not yet found his shiny niche on the Silver Surfer, and his perfectly average pencils are not the greatest at selling Hell on Earth, although he does draw a mean demonic Wolverine.

But despite these early harbingers of boring, this What If remains one of my favourites. Partly this is because I fell hard for the whole Inferno crossover as a rabid 13-year-old Marvel zombie – I still rate comics like the Daredevil issues very highly – but there are other reasons.

There is nothing duller than a What If that ends with all the main characters getting slaughtered, but this is one of those comics that starts with that idea and takes things from there. By page four things are literally as bad as they get, with the earth devastated by demonic forces and humanity rounded up for labour and food.

There are still a few heroes left to fight the good fight, but when the comic opens with Wolverine feasting on a newborn baby – something that was genuinely shocking in 1989 still has some power in the gore-saturated superhero comics of the 21st century – and when characters like Captain America, Thor and Spider-Man are swiftly and brutally executed, things aren’t looking good.

There is more pain and suffering to come, but the thing I always liked most about this particular timeline is that it starts at the darkest of places and gets progressively more grim, until it ends on a surprising up-note. This isn’t the story of everything going horribly wrong, it’s already as bad as it gets, and the fact that anybody makes it out alive , and that humanity isn’t wiped out is a nice factor.

In particular, it’s about the only time Rachel Summers got something close to a happy ending. Of all the Marvel universe characters, she had the shittiest upbringing, got fatally wounded by Wolverine when she tried to murder a murderess, was highjacked by Mojo and had to run around Excalibur with the most uncomfortable-looking uniform in history (all those spikes).

So to see Rachel freed of her phoenix curse and become one of the few left who start humanity all over again is surprisingly touching. When the world plunges into an Inferno, any bright spot shines all the greater, and the usual misery of any given What If can still have some hope.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

31 Days of Comics #14

Swamp Thing #60
By Alan Moore and John Totleben

Alan Moore’s brief and passionate DC affair was already soured by the time his Swamp Thing stories shambled to a conclusion, and he was clearly getting a bit bored with it, but there were still little touches of beautiful storytelling at the end.

Swamp Thing #60 – Loving The Alien - is the work of a writer challenging himself to do something different with the snot monster, welded onto the framework of a truly unearthly artist.

It was the first Swamp Thing published in the New Format, back when that actually meant something, which gives the comic some unearthly hues and colours, It’s barely a comic, with nothing but full-page illustrations of a truly alien life form and its encounter with the title character.

Totleben worked with Moore on his final Miracleman stories, and that remains the high point of the creative bond between the two, but Swamp thing #60 is a small piece of vast brilliance.

This is the story: there is an incredibly large and ancient creature that is an organic, mechanic and chemical lifeform that looks like a giant crocodile's head covered in machinery, a massive sea shell and some clocks.

(I swear, I spent five minutes looking at the picture of this thing and trying to think of words to describe it, and THAT’S the best I come up with.)

So a space travelling Swamp Thing, who has now evolved into a non-physical being capable of transmitting its conscious anywhere in the universe or afterlife, runs into this creature, somehow creates a body out of its impossibilities, only to be sliced and dissected and his essence used to create a new life.

Swamp Thing escapes, leaving behind his seed, although it’s something he’s unlikely to mention much now that he’s back in the DC universe. It’s a bit of a traumatic experience for the ex-Mr Holland, even if he’s really not sure really what happened to him.

But Moore always has one terrific idea hidden in his beard, and in this comic it’s the decision to tell the story from the alien entity’s perspective. From a human point of view, it’s monstrous, but it’s just something old and sad and alone that finds a new novelty in this cold and vast universe, and uses it to create new life.

Even as it crushes the last nutrients from Swamp Thing desiccated corpse, it does so with affection and love, happy enough to have found some sort of companionship in the endless void.

Love is everything, even for a creature that is literally beyond our comprehension. I might not even be able too adequately describe what this creature looks like, but I can recognise the craving for love that exists within it, and exists within us all.

31 Days of Comics #13

Food for Thought #1
By Moore, Morrison, Campbell, O’Neill, Mills, Lloyd, Gibson, Gibbons, Emerson, Davis, Baikie, Smith and Talbot

It’s always a pleasure to stumble across another old comic done created to raise money for charity, because you get some incredible talent doing some incredibly idiosyncratic things. And I’m all about incredible talent doing incredibly idiosyncratic things

They’re always worth a look. Something like the Comic Relief Comic saw creators like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis and Mark Millar and Pete Milligan team up to write a story drawn by artists like Simon Bisley and Philip Bond.

That particular British comic was one of the more successful and popular efforts, largely due to mainstream media support, but there were plenty of others. There was Heroes for Hunger and that X-Men thing where they got everyone from Alan Moore to Stephen King involved

I always think I’m on top of these charity comics, but then another one shows up, like Food For Thought, a 1985 comic edited by Gary Millidge, Matt Ginn, Dave Whitwell and – blimey - Warren Ellis, with all the proceeds going to Ethiopian famine relief.

I’d never even heard of the thing before I found it recently in a back issue box, but I had to have it - This comic has a page of ABC Warriors and Nemesis the Warlock done by Mills and O’Neill that I’ve never seen before (and a Slaine from Mills and Pugh), four pages of Eddie Campbell, Morrison writing and drawing one of his last Stargrave stories, an Alan Moore/Bryan Talbot comic about dinosaurs, a Ron Smith Judge Dredd and things from Alan Davis and Ian Gibson and Dave Gibbons and David Lloyd and Hunt Emerson.

Like anything, there are stories and art in this comic that are stupid, pointless and hamfisted, even if their heart is always in the right place. But there are loads of delights to be found in this 52-page comic.

It’s a pity that charity comics usually end up forgotten. This kind of stuff never gets reprinted, usually due to complicated rights issues – with everybody doing it for free, that’s always going to happen.

The causes also fade away into history, as new concerns and new charities battle for attention. At least there are things like Food For Thought out there – earnest comics that exist in a specific mind and place. The world moves on, leaving behind these tiny documents filled with big ideas.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

31 Days of Comics #12

The Adventures of Superman Annual #3
By Louise Simonson and Bryan Hitch

Armageddon 2001 is always my favourite of all the big annual crossovers, although comparing it to things like Bloodline or that interminable Eclipso stuff isn’t saying much.

It wasn’t the shock deaths or apocalyptic endings that appealed – even though there is always something weirdly compelling about seeing the bright and shiny DC universe go completely to shit – it was that each Armageddon 2001 story was a standalone tale, where anything could happen. Superman could retire, or become president, or a ruthless dictator, or just bugger off into space with Maxima after the tragic death of Lois Lane.

That’s what he does in this annual, and it’s nice to see the big man get something like a happy ending. Apart from that, it’s nothing special, like a whole lot of early nineties DC comics were. But this twenty-year-old comic still has some charm, is written by the always dependable Louis Simonson, and it features some incredibly early art by Bryan Hitch.

I’m fairly sure there are examples of his earlier work available, including a Doctor Who comic written by Grant Morrison, but this is still primordial Hitch – he hasn’t even got into his Alan Davis emulating phase. I actually thought it was drawn by Art Thirbert for a while, because there was six months there where every DC book looked like it had been inked by Art Thirbet. (He’s still out there in the inking trenches, but for a second he managed to be everywhere.)

While Hitch’s work has been weirdly underwhelming in the past couple of years – comics like the Fantastic Four and Captain America: Reborn have looked as good as ever, but lack some spark – the incredible leap in quality his art took around the turn of the century is still remarkable to look back at.

There aren’t many traces of that later inspiration in this Superman comic, but there are moments when one of Superman’s expressions looks just like Ultimate Captain America. The earliest signs are there. And even though Hitch is keeping things as basic and simple as possible, there is a real momentum in the panels Superman flies through.

Adventures of Superman annual #3 isn’t a great comic, but it’s all right, and it’s always fascinating to watch an interesting artist’s development. It would be even better to see what Hitch could do with Superman now. Armageddon 2011, anybody?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

31 Days of Comics #11

Zoot Suite
By Andrew and Roger Langridge.

A New Zealand comic artist found massive critical and commercial success with his work on a well-loved puppet property, but you couldn’t find that stuff in his native country because of rights issues. That’s mental, and that’s why I haven’t read Roger Langridge’s Muppet comics yet.

His Thor comics have infinite charms, although it was slightly disappointing to discover that even a really good Thor comic is nowhere near as good as the swinging dick of Kirby Thor. Knuckles the Malevolent Nun tried a bit too hard to be nasty, Fred The Clown tried a bit too hard to be sad, and the less said about the Straitjacket Fits comic, the better. So it was kinda surprising to realise Langridge’s Zoot comics were still my favourite work of his.

There is loads of that wonderfully blocky cartooning in this early wook, and with his brother Andrew, Roger Langridge’s comics are baffling, mysterious and can go fucking anywhere. There is a story about being out at night and stuck far from home that is drenched in universality, and a story about the Worst Date Ever that is also painfully familiar – we all know a Tarquin.

In between these little pieces of painful fun, there is a dictionary of Oubliettes, the adventures of No Shit Man, Spitoon Funnies and the world’s slowest Egg and Spoon Race (a strip for the lazy cartoonists).

Much of it is utter nonsense – the endpapers of the collected Zoot Suite feature the word “blardy’ repeated over and over again – but it’s all good fun and wonderful to see proto-Langridge as the artist quickly nails his style.

I usually buy any of Langridge’s comics as soon as I see them, but I had to go all the way to San Francisco to get Zoot Suite. It shouldn’t be that hard to get comics by an Auckland boy, but they’re always worth that extra effort.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

31 Days of Comics #10

Sergio Aragones Destroys DC
by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier

Sergio Aragones is the God of snappy cartooning, and his work is always profoundly entertaining. In 1996, he did two comics for Marvel and DC where he went in there and messed around with these highly lucrative franchises, bringing his weird humour and that groovy doodling to all these self-important characters.

There is little difference in the quality between the two comics, but the DC one is strangely more satisfying. Ever since the days of Not Brand Echh, Marvel has been taking the piss out of its characters, and there have been plenty sine, including the occasionally entertaining What The-!? and that Fred Hembeck book where he killed off the entire Marvel super canon.

But DC is different, and while there have been plenty of spoofs and satires featuring the DC characters, few of them have actually been published by their own company. After all, the best of these joke comics are undoubtedly the Superman and Batman spoofs that ran in the early days of Mad magazine.

Sergio Aragones Destroys DC sees the man himself try to change his style, and with the reluctant aid of the ever-dependable Mark Evanier, he does super-heroes the way he sees them.

The results are almost exactly what you’d expect: Superman is a raging buffoon, Batman is a dim-witted detective and Wonder Woman is gleefully sexist. The only thing that really dates it is the appearance of the post-Zero Hour Legion of Super-Heroes, and there is no real plot, as Sergio keeps telling us, with the final appearance of a grim n’ gritty Johnny DC a mere formality.

But the jokes are still funny. And this is why Sergio is a god - it’s not just that he perfected his line at a ridiculous young age and had a long and mind-bogglingly productive career over decades - his humour is universal, and he dumps massive amounts of it into his comics. There are a good half dozen jokes on every page, a few goofy expressions and some terrifically wonky body language. This is what makes Aragones comics always worth buying.

And there is often just one joke that hits all the right buttons, somewhere in this beautiful avalanche of jokes. In this comic, it's this one - Superman rushes off to save the day, and a kindly old couple on the apartment balcony calmly watch him go:

“Kent’s flying around again, Agnes.”

I was reading this on the bus last night and that bit made me laugh out loud again. God bless Sergio Aragones.

Monday, May 9, 2011

31 Days of Comics #9

The Defenders #39
By Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema

For some reason, I hated the Defenders as a kid. I just didn’t get them, probably because every other team had their own purpose. The Fantastic Four were the family, the X-Men were the outcasts and the Avengers were the premiere team. Things like the Defenders or the Campions looked like they were just there to keep the copyrights going.

Now I go back and read what Steve Gerber was doing in 1976 and it’s just brilliantly mental. Most of the Defenders comics I had read in the past came from the last year or two of the title, when it was the most mediocre Marvel comic in the world, so it’s nice to see why it was so good, and see the title at its best.

Like many seventies Marvel books, Defenders #39 is packed with incident that carries the idiosyncratic wink of its writer. Steve Gerber comics always feel like they’re written for just one guy – Steve Gerber – and it’s always nice to see the usual Marvel teeth-gritting action through the perspective of such a unique personality.

So while there is no sign of that notorious murderous elf in this issue (although there is plenty of discussion of it in the letters page), there is still plenty of other stuff happening - Valkyrie spends the issue in a womens’ prison as a riot brews, Luke Cage teaches a street punk a lesson in manners and there is some earnest musing on prison reform in between the super-punching, all capably rendered by Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson.

There is so much happening, that it’s weird that it comes with one of those covers that takes a tiny moment out of the script and makes it seem really important. On the third last page of the comic Clea puts up a cosmic flare to distract those pesky police guarding the prison, and the cover interprets this as a moment when the team wars amongst itself:

“Back my fellow Defenders!” bellows Doc Strange “Clea must NOT be stopped!”

“Beans, Strange!” sez Luke Cage. “She’s turning the sun into a FIREBALL!”

It’s one of the most blatantly dishonest covers I’ve ever seen on a superhero comic, but it ensured that I grabbed the comic when I saw it in a local second hand bookshop, buried between issues of Elementals and Brigade. And it’s still better than the endless posed covers of many modern comics, like the Ultimate books that all look the same.

They really don’t make ‘em like this any more.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

31 Days of Comics #8

Green Lantern: Blackest Night
By Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke

One of the dubious side-effects of reading most of my superhero comics through the local libraries is that when the big event comics start filtering through, I end up reading a whole bunch of the tie-in comics without actually getting to the main event.

I still haven’t read World War Hulk, but I have read the regular Hulk, X-Men and Warbound tie-ins. The comics that crossed over from the Siege storyline are starting to filter through on my local library’s shelves, but there is no sign of the actual Siege comic.

So any time I try to get through one of these tie-in books, I hope that it will be able to stand on its own, and that it will be an actual story that doesn’t rely too much on plot elements happening in other books.

This very rarely happens, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse case of getting it all wrong than this Green Lantern book.

I’ve been halfheartedly following Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, and it’s been a little disappointing to see the good stuff in that series buried beneath ever-escalating wars, which usually consist of a bunch of weird aliens shooting different coloured beams at each other in the vacuum of space.

Apart from these confusing clashes, Green Lantern has been relatively simple superheroics, but I couldn’t follow this Blackest Night book at all. Characters come and go, and show up wearing different costumes or zombified without explanation. The introduction of the big bad behind all these resurrection shenanigans – which was obviously a big reveal in the main series – is here treated as almost an afterthought.

There is little sense of any climax, everything just rushes along at the same pace for hundreds and hundreds of pages until it comes to an abrupt stop, there are huge amounts of clunky dialogue (and the apparent desire to get the word ‘severed’ on every single damn page), any character development is staggeringly superficial and for a storyline with the simplest of concepts – DC heroes versus their zombified friends and enemies – it’s ridiculously convoluted.

All this sound and fury means nothing, and it’s even more frustrating when there are brief moments where Johns tones down the gory melodrama, and there are signs of real charm and interest. But it’s massively outnumbered by gratuitous splash pages featuring unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things.

At least there is the always reliable Doug Mahnke on art, and he really was born to draw ugly aliens beating up uglier aliens. It’s also notable that he drew every single page of this book, although it is sad that this kind of timely professionalism is a rarity in comic art these days, and the idea of one artist actually completing a whole story shouldn’t be such a novelty.

To be fair, much of the confusion I felt with this book was only heightened by the fact that I just started skimming through it around the 200-page mark, but it really shouldn’t be that much work to keep track of what’s going on in a Green Lantern comic. It might make a lot more sense when I do finally get around to reading that main storyline, but it won't make this terrible comic any better.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

31 Days of Comics #7

Captain America/Thor: The Mighty Fighting Avengers #1
by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnes

Today was the first day I ever managed to get into a comic shop on the Free Comic Book Day and actually get something for nothing. I'd tried before and failed spectacularly to get anything - I did end up wandering around the comic shops of London on the 2009 day, but was too late to actually get anything.

There were no excuses this year – but after years of reading about all these lovely free comics that were being sent out, I only settled for one: Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee’s Captain America/Thor comic

Most of the other free comics looked more like promotional pamphlets than actual comics, but the most appealing thing about this Marvel effort was the idea that you were getting a complete story. This isn’t something that is hyping up the next big mega-saga, it was just a simple little story featuring two of Marvel’s best characters

Focusing the comic around Thor was a good idea with the surprisingly entertaining movie coming out (especially when it somehow needed up opening in New Zealand cinemas last week – a whole seven days before the USA), but it was an even better idea to make it a sweet little addition to the Langridge/Samnee Thor comic, which came to a tragically short end a few months back.

Thor the Mighty Avenger got a lot of love, and while this was not enough to prevent an ignoble end at issue eight, it was enough to show that while it was impossible to catch that sharp brilliance and energy Jack Kirby brought to his creation, there was still a lot to be done with the Thunder God.

This free Captain America/Thor comic isn’t anything startlingly brilliant, it’s the sort of story that would have happily been told at almost any point in the history of the Marvel Universe. But, like the early Langridge/Samnee stuff, it has so much charm and sweetness, it’s impossible to hate.

After all, it’s got Captain America and Thor doing what they do best – taking down the bad guys with a combination of willpower and physical strength, bringing a solid shot of honour and power to the world.

The impact of these free comics on actual sales is still nebulous, but something as simple and lovely as this comic certainly can’t hurt. It’s just a pity that anybody who picks up this comic on a whim can’t find anything more than a couple of collections of these brief eight issues to carry on with. There are certainly plenty of Thor comics to try out, but few that will be as accessible and likable as this little effort.

I might not have tried out many of these free comic books, and may have missed out on some brilliant stuff, but this little comic is worth the price.

Friday, May 6, 2011

31 Days of Comics #6

Marvel Tales starring Spider-Man #200
By Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller

This reprint of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14 is one of my favourite Spider-Man stories ever, with a spooky and energetic story by two creators at their peak.

It’s hard to remember when comic annuals stopped becoming essential and became big comics filled with filler dreck. (I think it was three-quarters of the way through the Evolutionary Wars) They used to be big, important comics created by insanely talented people – something that was worth the extra money and effort.

Amazing Spider-Man’s 14th annual was one of the last greats, before Ace came along in 1985’s Spectacular annual and ruined it for everybody. Doctor Doom plays a game of Gods with Dormammu, leading to a horde of people turned into mindless drones and going to Central Park to “cavort in a dance of beasts”, before a big battle between Spider-Man and a nerd’s idea of evil, and a brilliant panel of Doc Strange bringing the pain to somebody who dared to mess with him.

It’s firmly of a time and place with Debbie Whitman and a swinging Petey Parker, even if it’s kinda hard to imagine Shrapnel going up at CBGBs after Talking Heads, but it’s also a timeless Spidey story that would fit quite happily in the current continuity. (Which also says something unfortunate about the evolution of superhero characters.)

Frank Miller’s art is at its most rounded and fluid, and there is already that exceptional use of negative space going on. Denny O’Neill was always at his best on little special projects like this, and delivered up plenty of action and gloom for Miller’s pencils.

I’ve never actually read Amazing Spider-Man annual #14, but I’ve had this story since I was 12, buying it brand new as Marvel Tales #200 in 1987. I used to own hundreds and hundreds of Spider-Man comics and now I have 34 – I somehow have more issues of Groo than Spider-Man - but these 34 comics are my absolute favourites, and Marvel Tales #200 is one of them.

(Another half dozen of other issues of Marvel Tales from the late eighties, mainly reprinting Claremont/Byrne Marvel team-up comics).

The great thing about reading this comic now is that it is actually starting show its age. It was one of the earliest comics to get that new printing process that gave 1980s comics more spark and pop, without having to worry about paying for more expensive paper. This was, after all, back in the day when comics would specifically mention if they were printed on Baxter paper in their advertisements.

The effect was colourful, but it did lead to some horrible colour bleeding and a lot of garish and unnatural tones. In the case of this particular story, that worked surprisingly well, giving the spooky New York city an extra ambience.

And now, 24 yerars after it was published, those colours used in that printing process have now run off the page. In particular, the comic is now covered in small pink spots where it’s all gone horribly wrong.

Or horribly right: This is a story from the Book of Vishani. It probably should look all messed up. It takes a modern comic and makes it look aged and learned. For a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up, that’s always going to be pretty damn appropriate.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

31 Days of Comics #5

Palookaville #1
By Seth

I only really got into comics by Chester Brown, Joe Matt and Seth in the last couple of years, but it’s been a massively rewarding experience and I’m looking forward to new works by all three creators.

It just takes me a while to get around to these things, which may have been why it was so surprising to see that Palookaville kicked off with an autobiographical tale about getting beaten up in the big city.

It shouldn’t be that surprising, considering the company he was keeping. Him and Matt and Brown were all about keeping it real, and telling it like it is. It wouldn’t take Seth long to realise that he could do that, while still telling stories about the weight of history and all the lost things in the world.

There are signs of it already in the prologue and epilogue of Palookaville #1, where the artist happily points out that nobody would ever guess he was once wandering around with long white hair. He’s already got the look that people remember him for – the arch ironic attitude towards everything is already there.

It’s also surprising to see how his art sometimes looks like it was drawn by Richard Sala’s demented half-cousin. These aren't the crisp and rigid lines of Seth’s later architecture, it’s waving all over the show.

It’s still bloody entertaining, like many of these comics. Stories about how hard life is in the big city are always recognisable, and despite what movies tell you, getting beat up is a deeply traumatic experience that can’t be shaken off with a shrug. Young Seth’s helplessness and the sinking sensation that he thinks he deserved it are a universal experience, as well as the need to just get over it.

I’m desperately keen to read Chester Brown’s latest comic, and will buy everything Joe Matt ever does, but I’m always looking forward to Seth’s comics more than anybody else. Because he has that spirit of melancholy and old honour, presented in a gorgeous exactness.

They don’t look like anybody else’s comics any more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

31 Days of Comics #4

The Flash #129
By Mark Waid and Paul Ryan

While Waid does a good job of hiding it, he can be a shameless romantic, and this shines most strongly in his Flash run.

Much of Mark Waid’s Flash run has been unjustly overlooked and overshadowed by the popularity of Geoff Johns’ subsequent run, so it’s easy to forget that it was a bright beacon in an ocean of grim comics DC put out in the nineties. It was a comic that was occasionally thoughtful, surprisingly clever and driven at an exceptionally fast pace. Sometimes it got a bit weary, and sometimes it got a little lost in its own momentum, but it generally hit the target.

Issue #129 was the last by Waid before he took a break in 1997 and let some guys named Grant Morrison and Mark Millar play in the Flash sandpit, and is the final part of the Hell To Pay storyline, with that dastardly Neron making a play for Wally West’s soul.

Some of that weariness was seeping in by this stage, with Brian Augustyn coming in to give Waid a hand with the writing duties, the art by Paul Ryan is typically stagnant (and marvelously consistent) and it gets really, really cheesy.

Which is fine by me, because when it comes to food, women and comic books featuring people who can run faster than the speed of existence, I’ll take a double helping of cheese very time.

This comic has Neron – who has the worst design for a Devil figure ever – crying in pain over the damned of Hell. It has Wally West and Linda Park beating that devil when everybody else failed with their awesome love. It has the Rogues seeing the damage and death they’ve caused, and they’re genuinely horrified. (Fortunately, this comic came out before the Wrecker started massacring schoolkids.)

It has the bad guy defeated by the Power of Love, which manages to save everybody. Everybody knows Wally West is the fastest man alive, but he’s also the luckiest when Linda is in his arms. Because like any son of a bitch who has ever fallen in love with somebody, that’s what it fells like, and Waid taps into that sentiment with unashamed passion.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

31 Days of Comics #3

Dork #6
By Evan Dorkin

I never get sick of reading about the Eltingville comic book science fiction fantasy horror and role playing club, or the Northwest Comix Collective, because I always find the oblivious obnoxiousness of geeks funny, and because I get most of the jokes.

Dorkin often comes across as someone who is deeply ashamed of the amount of pop-trivia rubbish rattling around his head, but this kind of knowledge also allows him to produce some bitingly funny satire of the geek world.

None of the characters in Dork #6 show any hint of self-awareness, and this cluelessness about the abhorrent way they actually behave is what makes them so funny.

My favourite bit in the whole comic is when the Comix Collective go on a beer run and start screaming about the fact they can’t get Eightball and Underwater at the local convenience store instead of Archie and Batman and Sonic the Hedgehog, and down in the corner of a panel is a little kid enjoying the shit out of a Spider-Man comic with the thought balloon “Oh Boy. Spider-Man. I love Spider-Man.”

That bit gets me very time.

It’s impossible to pull off this kind of satire without actually being a part of it, and even though Dorkin does appear deeply ashamed of wide sections of nerd culture, he also shows every sign of once being the kind of guy who feverishly read every page of the Comics Journal and stayed awake at night wondering what would happen if Lou Ferringo and Nicholas Hammond got into a fist fight.

Dorkin might have filled his head with all sorts of trivial bullshit thanks to this misbegotten geek youth, but it also allows him to fill the page with all sorts of ephemera and minutiae, and much of it is very, very funny because of that knowledge.

The following issue of Dork is almost certainly Dorkin’s finest hour as he bleeds his soul out all over the page, but this amount of detail makes Dork #6 endlessly re-readable. These are not nice people he is creating comics about, and it is rather disconcerting to see how familiar much of their behaviour is, but they make me laugh.

Monday, May 2, 2011

31 Days of Comics #2

2000ad Prog 2011
By the Galaxy’s Greatest Creators, minus one significant name

2000ad finishes every year with a big 100-page special, and it is always one of the highlights of the comic’s year.

It’s a great place to launch new series, or bring back favourite creators on favourite creations, or just tell a little one-off story that actually gets some room to breathe. In the past, it has seen Morrison and Yeowell return to Zenith and Dave Gibbons doing Rogue Trooper again.

In most cases, the best story in each edition is, unsurprisingly, a John Wagner Dredd, with the co-creator of the character consistently producing funny and thoughtful stories for each annual edition.

The Judge Dredd story is the best thing in Prog 2011, with Al Ewing and Paul Marshall producing the wonderful ‘The Chief Judge’s Speech’. (See Colin Smith for the usual insightful analysis of this terrific story.) And there is Clint Langley’s last Slaine story, the unexpected return of writer Gerry Finley-Day and some Alan Grant Psi-Judge Anderson, but Prog 2011 is also full of perfectly average stories, and the notable absence of Wagner.

This is the first of these annual issues not to feature something by Wagner, and his absence is notable. It is also the first time there hasn’t been a Nikolai Dante comic, and while the character is on his way back soon, he is also missed in this celebratory issue.

Instead, there are things like Kingdom and Shakara and Ampney Crucis Investigates… and Necrophim – all decent enough stories, but nothing truly classic. Kingdom is getting interesting as Gene The Hackman’s world is finally explained and there is always some fun in the grotesque aliens Henry Flint comes up with for Shakara, but Ampney Crucis doesn’t really have much of a hook (and Simon Davis’ art is as stilted as ever), while it’s hard to give a shit about Necorphim. A story about the political games in Hell shouldn’t be this dully serious, and the endless and tedious backstabbing and betrayals are a poor substitute for actual plot developments.

I still look forward to every new issue of 2000ad every week, but it’s going through one of those periods where I’m not that wild about anything. But it will come around again. It always does.

It’s just a shame that Prog 2011 is a little disappointing, and raises some concerns that a post-Wagner 2000ad will be far poorer than already expected. The writer shows little sign of actually giving up on the Dredd for good, but nothing lasts forever.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

31 Days of Comics #1


In a startling change of pace, the Tearoom Of Despair is ditching the endless blathering about everything that comics is doing wrong and individual issues that made me cry when I was 14. Instead of squeezing these out of my head every few days this blog will instead offer up – for the next month – daily short reviews of individual comics from that teetering pile of comic-filled boxes in the corner of my spare room.

There will probably still be more babbling about everything the industry is doing wrong, and more wittering on about comics that made me cry, but it will be shorter. And daily.


The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man #1
By Peter Bagge

Hate creator Peter Bagge was probably as surprised as anybody when they asked him to do some Spider-Man and Hulk comics, but he didn’t let that stop him from doing bad, bad things to the characters.

Marvel’s reaction when they saw the final product – a decidedly unhealthy Spider-Man and a caustic and savage Hulk story – was somewhat less surprising. To the company’s credit, they did eventually publish these comics. They didn’t make much of a fuss about them, and the Hulk story got ripped up for the first Strange Tales comic several years after it was drawn, but they still published them.

The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man was the most successful of Bagge’s efforts, and is one of the best examples of alternative cartoonists bringing something fresh and vulgar to superhero comics.

Bagge’s Spider-Man story benefits greatly from a simple idea – what if the creation adhered to the strict ethical and moral views of its co-creator? It’s still slightly surprising to realise that Steve Ditko is still out there, producing impenetrable comics for the hardest of hardcore audiences. He is barely noticed by the comic world, but he is still out there, doing his thing.

So what if Ditko had seized cotnrol of the Spider-Man character? What if Spider-Man really did realise how juvenile the good guy/bad guy stuff is, and decided to become Master of his own Destiny? Well, he’d probably end up being the heartless head of a big corporation in the 1980s, delighting in the humiliation of a broke JJ Jameson until he gives it all up and goes off to live a secluded existence in a grotty Queens apartment.

It should be miserable, but it’s not. Partly because it really is bloody funny seeing Jonah get all excited about putting on the costume and squeezing the shooter, and partly because the concludes on a genuinely sweet note, as Petey Parker gets down and dirty with Gwen with genuine love and affection.

There is real bile in this comic, but it is nicely balanced out by a real fondness for Spider-Man and Steve Ditko’s worldview. Spider-Man disappears from the world to produce a large and unreadable manifesto, but he gets to snuggle up to his one, true love. That’s a better ending than most super-heroes get when they finally reach the conclusion of their story.