Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Consider the traveling

I don’t want digital comics because I love the physical object, hate computers and get all my favourite ideas from a printed page, but my wife’s primary reason for not buying an e-reader is that she would always be worrying about it.

She doesn’t want to sit by a pool in Fiji with the device, because she wouldn’t be comfortable leaving a piece of sweet technology lying out in the open when she goes for a swim or gets a cocktail, but she’ll leave that surprisingly high-brow paperback romance sitting there.

So yeah - we’re off to Fiji next week, and I’m leaving the laptop at home, because even though it’s got hundreds of hours of brilliant movies and TV shows and games, from the Venture Bros to O Lucky Man! to Grand Theft Auto, I just can’t be fucked taking care of it.

Instead, I’m going to take a couple of paperback books. Something dense and entertaining. I have an irrational fear of running out of things to read, and when I’m in a non-English speaking country, I am constantly considering how much reading material I’ve got.

Even with two or three books in reserve, I wonder if I’ve got enough. Even when I’ve got massive books to get through. (The best traveling book I’ve ever had was Robert Fisk’s The Great War For Civilisation, because that fucker took me weeks to get through on those long and endless European motorways.)

We’re only away on a short trip this time, but after literally weeks of consideration, I’ve got it sorted. Almost. I’m taking A Game Of Thrones, because I’m still a little bit obsessed with the TV show, and Lance Parkin’s aHistory, an almost complete history of the Doctor Who universe. Both will take me hours and hours to read…

The Martin book is 800 pages of close text, so that should last a few days and I already know the Parkin book can keep me going – I read it all through a two-week trip around the States, and I didn’t even get to the UNIT years.

I’m genuinely conflicted about the third choice – a recently-purchase copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Corner or the new edition of Kim Newman’s brilliant Anno Dracula I just got?

Probably both – that way I’m guaranteed to never run out of something to read on those big, empty Pacific Island beaches.

I also have to take some comics, because I always need some comics. It’s an addiction. I can’t go a week without comics, and sometimes it’s just what I need. I got a bit emotional reading For The Love Of Carmen on hilltop near a Mongolian lake, and recovering from food poisoning in the Gobi Desert – 300km away from the nearest sit-down toilet in a country with no roads – was made a tiny bit easier by the JLA/Hitman comic by Ennis and McCrea.

I need them, but I don’t need much and you just don’t require tonnes of material, a couple of issues is enough and I get an inordinate amount of pleasure in picking and choosing. The Tank’s DARK KNIGHT TOO of some issues of Dork? Or both? Something with superheroes, or something with a real emotional truth that will make me cry when I’ve had too many cocktails on the beach?

All these issues could be resolved with an e-reader loaded up with all sorts of wonderful stuff, but where is the fun in that? Books don’t take up that much room in your pack, despite what tech-heads tell you. If a paperback in the pack is too heavy, you might as well stay at home, because there are much harder things to deal with on a decent overseas trip.


This isn’t normal, is it? Even the wife, who is uncommonly excited about a couple of chunky Charlaine Harris books that she is taking, listens to me babble on and on about this shit, gives me that look that makes me realise I should just stop talking about this endless contemplation.

But I take my entertainments seriously. I can’t help it. I’ve got the attention span of a three-year-old hopped up on his first decent dose of sugar sometimes. I thought you were supposed to grow out of this shit, but it hasn’t happened yet.

There is no rush for that, nor for a desperate grab for new technology. I can take my big and funky paperback books on these trips, and I don’t have to worry about dropping them in the pool, or charging them up, or having them stolen. They’re just books, and while they are everything to me, they are also easily replaceable.

So yeah, off to Fiji, back in August, and fuck the future.

Friday, July 15, 2011

No future

When it comes to changing formats, it’s the same for comics as any other medium - digital versus physical is an interminable argument that keeps going around in circles while things slowly and inevitably change anyway. But both sides are right, so that fight is never going to end.

I say: bring it on. I say you cannot fuck the future, sir, the future fucks you. I say I’m not interested, but that doesn’t mean I should try and stop other people.

Make comics available for all readers, in any damn format they want. Get some new blood into the medium. I don’t like digital comics, and won’t ever pay for one, but the industry shouldn’t do it because I don’t like it. They’ve got me hooked on comics for life. They can do whatever they want.


I heard somebody say the other day (I think it was Graeme in a Wait, What? podcast at the Savage Critics, which is my favourite thing to listen to while I’m playing 10-year-old computer games) that for every one digital comic DC sold, there are something like 650 physical sales, which is just an extraordinary fact.

Because that means for all the talk – including this blog post – digital sales are an infinitesimal part of the marketplace. These things are selling in the dozens, when they need to be selling in the thousands to be economically viable, and there is no sign of that happening in the immediate future.

The other side of that argument is the opportunity – a massive void of potential sales, just need to tap into it. There is a hope that digital will become the new newsstand, (ignoring the fact that libraries are the new newsstand, now that they’re filled with comics), and that there is this vast consumer base out there who don’t know they want comics until they see them.

I work in the online section of a major daily newspaper, and I think print and web are both important. This isn’t a war. But I keep telling people we are about 10 years into a 20-year cycle of incredible change when it comes to digital delivery of news. We’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot to sort out, and it’s going to take time.

Digital comics are undoubtedly going to increase in sales, and not just because they’re starting from that startlingly low base, but it’s going to take time. A long time. In the meanwhile, there is ample room for speculation and prediction.



There is a weird blindness amongst people who adopt quickly to new technology; they find it hard to understand that everybody isn’t in the same boat as them. Somebody who has owned an iPad for years and relies on it for their entire media fix can find it hard to believe that everybody isn’t in the same boat.

But there are valid reasons for not wanting to read comics on a computer device. There is always the idea that some people just can’t fucking stand reading comics on screens, but that’s just personal taste and that’s almost always completely indefensible.

But there are other reasons why I don’t dig the digital.


Reason #1: Physical object as an extension of individual personality

I’m a total bookcase snob. I can’t help it.

If I come around to your house and the only books in your bookcase are a Dan Brown novel, a Lonely Planet guide to Thailand and a Garfield book, I’m going to think less of you. Sorry.

I don’t even have to agree with your tastes to give you an unconscious pass – a couple of my friends have excellent collections full of books about motor-racing and dog breeding. It’s not my thing, but it’s better than the alternative – people who only read because they have to, or because somebody with a microphone told them to.

I put too much thought into considering bookshelf display options. What books, comics and DVDs go into boxes, which go into secondary bookshelves in the spare room, and what gets displayed in the lounge, for all the world to see.

Fortunately, nobody is as freaky about this stupid shit like I am and people rarely notice these efforts, which makes theme blatantly narcissistic and totally pointless, which is a big part of the thrill.

And now I can’t tell, because a lot of people are ditching the physical object entirely and keeping an entire music, movie and book collection on one little electronic box.

It’s perfectly fine to subtly browse a bookcase but grabbing on to somebody’s laptop or tablet and scrolling through it when you meet them for the first time is a real social mistake. Now I don’t know what to think.

The other thing that attracts me to a bookshelf is the inherent beauty of any sizable collection. I adore the look of a mad variety of books, both as a group and as individual items. I can fall in love with binding, or an embossed font, or an imaginative use of colour.

Two comics books I am hungering for are the next editions of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker stories and Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, and not just because they’re smart works by terrific artists, but because they are beautiful objects, with a heft and character that remains incredibly charming.

Like any passion, this love of the physical isn’t always a logical one - I’ve had well-intentioned and misguided affairs with things like New Warriors #1 before – but it’s an undeniable one.

Digital comics may deliver the same story, but that don’t deliver that tactile experience of print. One is a series of electronic yes/no signals, the other is ink on paper. They’re all just delivery systems, but some of them are prettier than others.


Reason #2: Fuckin’ computers

I’ve written and lost two full-length movie scripts and a novel in the last ten years. They weren’t any good, but I enjoyed writing them and I really wanted to re-read them recently, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. I’ve shifted between three home computers over these years and somewhere down the line, some things got lost.

I’ve lost entire albums and movies and writings that were stored on faulty hard rive, forgotten in some lost file and then lost in a catastrophic reboot.

Digital preservation is a great thing, because art and stories can be stored in multiple places without any degradation over timer, but it’s also fucking easy to lose stuff. Ironically, digital preservation means the entire history of comics is available for all time, long after these pamphlets have crumbled into dust. But in the short term, their very immateriality makes them disposable.

I still got comics I’ve had since I was five years old. They’re beaten up, often coverless and are starting to seriously fall to pieces, but I’ve still got them. I can’t hold on to digital copies, both literally and figuratively.

Maybe I just don’t like technology because it doesn’t like me. I worked in IT for a few years in the 90s, and the one thing I discovered there is that while I am a generally easy-going soul, computers that don’t do what they’re supposed to drive me into a FUCKING RAGE. So I went and delivered furniture instead.

I have seen my own death. Some day in the far future, I’ll be trying to download Interimnable X-Men #6q9 by Grant Morrison III and the captured essence of Jack Kirby’s ghost, and my antique slabware will tell me it can’t find a source gene to run the exo-file, and I’ll get so angry my heart-o-tronic 6000 will explode like a piñata stuffed with three tones of C-4.

These things will kill me one day. It’s only right that I should fear and loath them.


Reason #3: Books are sharks, man.

Despite the technology boom of the past few centuries, there is still no cheaper and easier way to get ideas across than in a book.


Reason #4: Travelling blues

There is one more reason, but I’ll get into that in the next post, because this is where things start to really ramble, and because I have to go work out what books are coming with me to Fiji…

Monday, July 11, 2011

It’s the Journal

The most recent edition of The Comics Journal is an absolute monstrosity – 624 pages long, packed with all sorts of discussion, review and contemplation of comics. It’s frustratingly pig-headed, has its head stuck firmly up its own arse and compulsively readable, which means that while it might be a bit more infrequent, the Journal is as good as it ever was.

I’ve had it for about a week now, and have barely made a dent in it, (although, to be fair, I’ve had a deluge of terrific reading material in recent weeks.). But I have read Tim Krieder’s surprisingly fresh article on Cerebus, a dense interview with Joe Sacco that happily focuses on one particular work and the vaguely dull Decade In Review by Marc Sobel.

Sobel’s article is the most frustrating – far too short to really get to grips with some of the most monumental changes the comic industry has seen since 2000, while settling for stating the blindingly obvious instead of bringing any new perspective. (Didja know that there have been lots of webcomics in the past ten years, or that there are a lot more collections than there used to be?) It also has that classic Journal disdain for anything resembling superhero comics that is evident in its grudging acknowledgement that these things exist, but that’s to be expected – this is The Comics Journal.

The Cerebus article is also a bit wobbly at parts. Despite Mr Krieder’s bafflement, the metaphors for the comic industry – like the ever-evolving Roach - that Sim sprinkled throughout his series are not a vital part of the narrative and can be easily ignored, and your first exposure to Cerebus does not necessarily automatically become your favourite period of the series. (I should know - #186 was, regrettably, my first exposure to the character.)

But the Cerebus article does a nice job of handling the inevitable criticisms of Sim’s work by simply acknowledging them as stated facts – over the years, the Journal has done a thorough job of pointing out the painfully sexist hole Sim dug for himself, so there isn’t any need to go over all that again.

Instead, the article take more interesting turns, by pointing out Sim’s own revision of his personal history, retelling things in ways that just don’t stack up against the facts, (Sim might claim that his female characters are all vapid, but that isn’t evident in the narrative), or pointing out that getting through pages and pages of deeply theological small text is hard work, (although there is some delightful shadowing of this in the Journal itself, with 122 pages of deeply theological small text about Robert Crumb’s Genesis.)

It’s also an article that confronts the large reputation that overshadows any other of Sim’s achievements - no new reader can come to Cerebus without the dreadful knowledge of how it all works out - while still finding room for a few nice words about Sim’s beautiful comic timing and his evolution as an artist.

Part of the article can be found online, but it’s a great read in its entirety, and this kind of thinking and writing about a comic that is often deliberately overlooked is always welcome.

In fact, this is something the Journal does better than anybody else – focus on one work and really attempt to get to grips with it. The internet is full of terrific writing, but it can often feel that anything that came out last week is already old and past it, and genuinely quirky and wonderful comics can be greeted by a brief and intense burst of interest, followed by an aching silence.

The Journal is playing a long game, and is only too happy to drill into a significant new work. There are dense reviews, interviews and analysis for comics like Eddie Campbell’s brilliant Alec omnibus, or Joe Sacco’s terrifically detailed Footnotes in Gaza, or Crumb’s Genesis comic.

That discussion of Genesis is the biggest focus in this beautifully bloated magazine, and is just as intimidating as Crumb’s actual comic. There is a long interview with the artist himself, and then dozens and dozens of pages that examine the work.

I’ll get to it in time, but there is so much else in the new Journal to look at first. The next thing I’m digging into is the conversation between Al Jaffe and Michael Kupperman, because that can’t possibly fail.

There is so much in this publication, but that just means there is something interesting for anybody who loves the medium. As ever, the Comics Journal is full of things I don’t agree with, but I can never argue with its passion.

Friday, July 8, 2011

2000ad: Still surprising after 34 years

It wasn’t easy, but I swore off reading anything on the internet about 2000ad about a year ago, and that decision is still paying off handsomely.

It might take ten weeks to get around to this side of the world, but I manage to avoid almost any indication of what is coming up. I still pick up certain bits and pieces of information – I know Nikolai Dante is back very soon because Tharg told me and Colin has been raving about its brilliance again – but I generally have no idea what is going to be in any individual prog until I grab it from a shelf at the Victoria Street Newsagent in Auckland.

And so it was a genuine pleasure to crack open the latest issue of 2000ad the other day and discover an episode of Judge Dredd that has been drawn by Bryan Talbot.

I’m a fiend for Talbot’s work – I feel in love with Luther Arkwright at a worryingly impressionable age, adored the Nemesis The Warlock stuff he did after Kevin O’Neill bailed and look forward to his next Grandville comic with great enthusiasm – but I didn’t know he had drawn a new Dredd, his first work with the character in a quarter of a century. (He did do more Dredd after that story, but it was in Diceman, the 2000ad ChoseYourOwnAdventure spin-off, where he got the chance to draw Judge Death and his black-hearted cohorts.)

His latest work - Caterpillars - is a lovely little story with a great emotional twist in 2000ad prog 1730, written by Michael Carroll. It features Talbot’s usual sharp line, but has a new feel with Talbot’s son Alwyn supplying some distinctive inks and colours. That detailed Talbot art that looks like it was etched into the paper by hand is smothered in Talbot Jr’s fading haze, but it works really well for the story.

And at least it is something different. Talbot has been a ruthless fan of experimentation throughout his comics career, even if it hasn’t always been incredibly obvious. To see his art with a new sheen and a new glow is delightful.

New blood is the best blood, so it’s also worth noting that writer Michael Carroll has been doing some splendid stuff in Judge Dredd in recent months. The comic has certainly be suffering with a lack of stories by John Wagner so far this year, but Carroll has contributed several fine one-off stories that have been much better than expected.

It’s deceptively hard to get the Dredd tone right, Robbie Morrison’s Nikolai Dante is the best character in 2000ad these days, but his Judge Dredd is always a bit off, and the less said about the efforts of Mark Millar’s Dredd, the better.

But there are still those who play the right tune. Gordon Rennie’s stories can pass for a Wagner tale in the dim light, and Al Ewing is another writer to quickly merge his own style with the rigorous demands of Mega-City One.

Carroll has only contributed half a dozen stories so far, but there hasn’t been a clunker among them. They are short little tales that usually come with a nice twist and some small emotional resonance, along with the required amounts of gunplay humour and deadpan action.

It remains to be seen if he has anything to say beyond this, but he’s off to a fine start.

All in all, it’s a terrific reminder why 2000ad is still my favourite comic, and something I genuinely enjoy getting every week. There are still plenty of things I don’t like about the current comic – Flesh is another glorious Pat Mills mess that isn’t quite hanging together and things like Dandridge, Necrophim and Ampney Crucis do nothing for me – but there is always something worthwhile to find in every issue.

Whether it’s the return of a goddamn comics legend like Talbot with something new and interesting to show off, or the gradual development of a new talent, or even something as energetically idiosyncratic as Bob Byrne’s Twisted Tales, every single 2000ad – all 1730 of them – has something worthwhile.

And Dante is back next week. Diavolo! That’s always good news!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Home of the brave

There was tonnes of media attention for the X-Men: First Class, Thor and Green Lantern movies in my part of the world in the weeks leading up to their releases here, but I haven’t seen one single advertisement, trailer or anything for the new Captain America movie yet.

There is a thoroughly wearisome and fairly hypocritical disdain for American culture in New Zealand, with people sneering at yanks while lining up for the latest slice of Transformers bullshit. It’s nothing that ever rises above the level of dull snark, but it can be found throughout the country.

It’s easy to see why, America is the biggest nation on the planet, and there have been inevitable abuses of that power – those who pushed American Imperialism in the latter half of the 20th Century have a lot to answer for.

But America also produces a lot of the best comics, movies, fiction, technology and radical thinking on the planet. Back in the eighties, Alan Moore once wrote a terrific pro-American essay that pointed out that yes, the CIA was up to dodgy stuff in the jungles of Central America, but this was also the country that produced people like Louis Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick and Jack Kirby, and to write off all American culture as crass and loud was extremely misguided. To blame all Americans for the actions of a powerful elite is ridiculous.

So yeah, Captain America might be a walking symbol of absolute nationalism that might seem crass to many peoples of the world, but I still think he kicks arse.

And, unexpectedly, many of the things I like about Cap have shown up in the latest trailer. It’s arguable that Captain America is just about the only super-hero who works in a World War II story without doing some kind of disservice to the people who fought in it, because he isn’t really incredibly powerful – he’s just slightly stronger and faster than everybody else – and because his main superpowers are an ability to lead men into combat and good ol’ guts.

Cap has got the guts to take down anybody. It was there on his very first cover, punching out Adolf, and it’s there in the new Captain America movie when creepy little Steve Rogers dives on a grenade or stands up to a bigger bully. Cap doesn’t hesitate to do the right thing, and he’s the true moral centre of the Marvel Universe. It all turned to shit for the Marvel superheroes in the past few years, when the Green goddamn Goblin took over anything, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it would not have happened on Steve Roger’s watch.

(It’s also a possible explanation for the wholesale slaughter of Skrull soldiers during Secret Invasion, which still bothers me. There was just something a bit wrong about super-heroes who had taken vows to never take a life forgetting all about them ‘cos these guys have green skin. Captain America knows there will be casualties in combat, but not if they can be avoided.)

The other terrific thing about Captain America comics – from Kirby to Gruenwald to Brubaker - is that they often confront the whole idea of Captain America head-on. Steve buckles under the pressure and wonders if he can carry the weight of that shield all the time, and then he goes and stops the uber-nazis from winning World War Three with a black market cosmic cube, and he’s back on track. The comic has also been riddled with metaphor and meaning since its very beginning, tackling all of America’s biggest issues with blunt analogies.

So lying politicians literally turn into snakes, the Falcon comes along to point out that, brother, racism ain’t cool, and the President is the leader of a vast and shadowy cabal of self interest and blows his own head off. (Political scandals always ended slightly more dramatically in the comics…..)

And at the heart of it all, there is Captain America, dealing with the changes and beating the crap out of evil. He’s good at that.

As a country, America still needs to sort out a lot of the shit it has messed up over the decades, but it’s getting there. And that doesn’t mean I can’t thrill to the idea of Captain America punching a nazi in the face, or leaping through the air, or charging down the top of a train travelling at full speed, or throwing that shield for all it’s worth, whether it’s in comics or movies. He's got the guts to do the right thing, and that transends all borders.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I am a bullet

* Здравствуйте, Johnny

The most enjoyable comic I’ve read all week was Johnny Red: Falcons First Flight by Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun. I knew Johnny as a big John Cooper-drawn slab of meat, and am intimately familiar with Colquhoun’s work on Charley’s War, and I’d even read bits and pieces of these early stories, but reading it all in one go was a spectacular experience.

Colquhoun’s action scenes are superb - there is real momentum in these powerful planes flipping through the flak-heavy Russian sky, and his war damage remains the best in the business with the real misery and pain of the innocent victims of war on every page.

And it’s such a simple story that it’s a compelling one, with Johnny Red stuck in a predicament, with a large number of obstacles to overcome. But he’s a plucky little runt at the start of this series and he’s got the guts to be a good soldier, so he never backs down.

Tully is one of the old workhorses of British comics, producing decades of deeply mediocre war and sport comics without ever really writing anything that was actually truly awful. (That’s something that can’t be said for a lot of current writers.) But he keeps Johnny’s story chugging along nicely in four-page instalments without resorting to too much cliché.

Combining the best strengths of both Colquhoun and Tully, Johnny Red is a cracking comic that the reader can fly through with all the grace of Johnny’s beloved Hurricane.

* Diving in

My local comic shop was cleaning out its back issue stacks, so was offering 100 comics for $100, and I had a bunch of credit saved up, so I just fuckin’ went for it. It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon and it took me more than an hour to sort out what I wanted.

Even though they had been thoroughly picked over in recent weeks, it wasn’t hard to find the good stuff on the first pass through the bins – I finished off my Optic Nerve collection, got some Shaolin Cowboy down me, got some early Sub-Mariner comics from the 1960s and a few other little gems.

On the second round I got a big chunk of the current House of Mystery because there are some lovely artists in there, and a few of Rick Veitch’s last Swamp Thing stories, and things like Giffen/Grant/Bisley’s Authority/Lobo crossovers and some Stray toasters and some random Ellis and a bunch of Marvel Premiere issues.

On the third pass over, I bought a whole lot of X-Factor comics to make up the numbers.

* X hits the spot

So obviously – I ended up really enjoying the X-Factor comics. They’re mainly from the second year of the title, back in the late eighties, where husband and wife team supreme Louise and Walt Simonson started doing interesting things with the title.

As well as the always welcome jagged line of Simonson, there is also some reasonably early work from guys like Marc Silvestri and Big Dave Mazzucchelli, two remarkably different artists who still fit the comic nicely, with some savagely idiosyncratic styles already starting to emerge.

Even better, the Simonson team started looking at the whole concept behind the series and took it to logical conclusions. Bob Layton did his best as the original writer on the comic, but he was hamstrung by a truly awful premise, with the original X-Men posing as hate-filled mutant hunters to bring in the next generation.

It was a terrible idea and it all came apart in the second year of the title, with Angel losing his wings during the Morlock massacre, and later apparently dying in a helicopter explosion. (He came back blue within a year.)

Like the Johnny Red stuff, I read bits and pieces of these issues over the years, but it wasn’t until I got into the whole lot at once that it became truly rewarding.

I am speaking from a nostalgic platform, because I was 12-years-old in 1987 and thought the Uncanny X-Men was The Best Comic In The Universe Ever. I got mildly obsessed with X-Factor one summer around the time of Fall of the Mutants, but it was a summer romance and I was over it in a couple of years.

But it’s not just nostalgia speaking when I say these comics are pretty good – they are packed full of action and incident, and the comic takes its time to build up the supporting characters. All those runaway kids that X-Factor take in might be physically disfigured or emotionally crippled, but they’re also making progress towards a normal life.

They’re terrific comics, and a worthy last minute choice. It’s surprising what you can come back with when you dive in like that.

* Grant Morrison is haunting me again

Last night I had a dream where I was down the pub with a young Grant Morrison with a full head of hair and a softly spoken voice, and he was telling me that he was doing a bit of labouring work on the side to supplement his comic writing income, and how great it was to get out into the world and interact with normal people, while also getting physically fit.

This afternoon I was wandering through the sad debris of the once-might Barbelith message board, where I find a link to a 1990 video featuring Grant Morrison with a full head of hair and a softly spoken voice, although he is talking about Arkham Asylum, rather than the benefits of labouring.

I have no idea what this all means, or if it means anything.