Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Know what I want, don’t know what I need

There is no better experience in a comic shop than finding something that you didn’t even know existed, and having to get it straight away because you don’t know how you ever lived without it.

I can spend hours looking for that perfect book, going over and over shelves again and again.

I am a browser. I like to browse.

Digital utopians have been writing obituaries for brick and mortar bookstores since the 1980s, promising us all that we will be able to buy any goods, or seek out any services, without suffering the discomfort of actually leaving the house. And they’ve certainly been proven partly correct.

The recent demise of the massive Borders chain and the almost total annihilation of its brand was the end result of years of consolidation and losses. It’s so easy to order books through Amazon, or win an online auction, and get it shipped right to your doorstep. You literally do not need to leave the house.

The internet has radically increased ease of access to both new and old books and comics and movies. If you go to enough effort, and are willing to spend enough money, there is almost literally nothing you can’t find somewhere on the internet.

I’ve used both Amazon UK and US to ship books and DVDs all the way to the arse end of the world, and it’s usually cheaper than the local option. And while it’s no fun, it’s worth it to get things I thought I’d never get to see.

This incredible array of choice, combined with a once-undreamt-of accessibility to almost any comic, book, or DVD you could ever want, have had a hard effect of stores, and tens of thousands of once proud bookstores have vanished like a whisper in the wind.

That’s life, that’s progress, and that’s a shame, but it’s not all bad. There are still plenty of quality bookstores all over the place, offering all sorts of lovely new work. Every decent sized city has one decent bookstore, full of hidden gems and gleaming new fiction.

I can spend hours in a decent bookstore, taking the time to look through sections I wouldn’t usually bother with, looking for something very particular, even though I don’t know what it is.

I always know it when I see it. It could be something I’ve been after for a while, or something I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about, or something new by a trusted creator.

And if I’m very lucky, it will be a complete surprise

This week it was The Show Must Go On, a collection of Roger Langridge’s daftest cartoons. It’s a collection of all his stuff that didn’t have a home, all sorts of odd strips that showed up in self-published zines, obscure anthologies and web experiments. The thoroughly decent souls at Boom Studios have now given all this stuff a home.

I’m been a fiend for Roger Langridge’s work since the early Knuckles. I first started really following his work after the – pretty shitty – Straightjacket Fits. I love Fred the Clown, think the Tarquin stuff in Zoot is still hilarious, and think he draws the best Fin Fang Foom. And I had no idea The Show Must Go On even existed.

To be fair, I’m a fiend for a lot of comic writers and artists. It’s easy to lose track of what’s new, and what’s old, from all these different creators.

And when I first saw The Show Must Go On sitting on the shelf at a local comic shop, I thought it was more Fred The Clown, but I quickly realised it was 200 pages of Langridge art I’d never seen before.

Most of it is written and drawn by Langridge, with a couple of stories scripted by future Judge Dredd writer Gordon Rennie, and it’s page after page of pitch-black humour, lame puns and gorgeous artwork

Langridge’s comics are so dense, and his sense of humour so idiosyncratic, that it really works best in short, sharp doses, rather than one quick read. So I knew it would take me weeks of pleasurable reading to get through this latest book, while I can get through one of Marvel or DC’s latest collections in a 15 minute bus ride.

These were all fine justifications, but this brazen hussy of a book had me at first sight. As soon as I saw it, I knew I needed it, and 10 minutes after first becoming aware of its existence, I owned a copy of The Show Must Go On.

This doesn’t happen to me when I buy stuff over the internet. Everything I have ever imported from overseas has been targeted products – I wanted specific things, and I bought those specific things. It was efficient and easy, and I had absolutely no urge to spend more time looking for other things I might be interested in.

There is a tactile enjoyment in browsing the shelves in a shop that is lost on web surfing. Using computers is too much like work, I literally spend my entire working life in front of some kind of screen, I want to use a computer as little as possible in my spare time.

There is also the idea that something might seem a lot more attractive if I can pick it up in my hands and walk away with it straight away, rather than rely on the random insanity of the global postal service. I do get some heinous buyer’s remorse sometime, and it only gets worse in that interminable wait between purchase and delivery.

But mostly it’s because I can never think what to look for. When I get online at somewhere like Amazon, I draw a blank when I think of what I want to look for, and always end up searching on the same old names like Morrison, Moore and Ennis, and always come away with nothing new.

It’s possible to take in a huge amount of information while scanning a shelf that dozens of heated clicks can never match, and it’s far easier for a classy cover to catch the eye when it’s sitting on a shelf, rather than beaming out of a screen.

I never find weird little things like obscure charity comics created by my favourite people online, and I never would have got into Scalped if I hadn’t been able to pick up the first trade, flip through it, and fall in love with the way R M Guera draws people kicking in doors.

The thrill of finding something I never knew I wanted, like a collection of Roger Langridge comics is the best part of browsing, but I just love taking my time in a good book or comic or record shop, and digging around.

(As for the latest unearthed gem, it’s taken me a week to get 72 pages into the Show Must Go On, and that’s some real value for money in my entertainment.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

You can fight City Hall, says the Antichrist

How come Chronicles of Wormwood – a comic that is full of sexual deviancy, outrageous violence and sheer perverseness – manages to teach a valuable moral lesson that a Green Lantern comic can’t?

Esteemed blogger Colin Smith recently pointed out the appalling moral failings of a new Green Lantern comic. In it, John Stewart - a brave hero who has a history of fighting against social injustice and intergalactic threats with the same fervour – faces off against some rich and corrupt men and realises ‘he can’t fight City Hall’.

Instead of calling bullshit on this claim, and taking the sleazy developers down, John Stewart just kinda wanders off and moans about the fact that being a superhero isn’t fun anymore.

I have no idea if the storyline has resolved this ridiculous introspection. For all I know, Stewart has found his balls, and found a way to fight the man, no matter how powerful he is. But it says a lot if his first reaction is to give up, go off and have a moan abut it.

There was a similar negative reaction to another moment in a recent Marvel mega event, where Spider-Man just shrugs and takes off. A hero who has faced down Thanos and the Silver Surfer, who will die before he lets his friends down, decides to give up, and it’s not just completely out of character, (and utterly contradicted in dozens of different places), it’s also the oldest and dullest storytelling trick – this must be a bad menace because even Spider-Man thinks he can’t take it down, so it must be bad.

I like my superheroes to be better than me, and it is profoundly unsatisfying when they turn out to be moral cowards, or simplistic fools. I get enough of that in the real world, I don’t need it in my superhero comic.

There are plenty of superheroes who are much, much funnier, smarter and braver than I am, and I never get sick of reading stories about them. While the case of the whining John Stewart was disappointing, there is always a new issue of Daredevil or Action Comics or Secret Avengers to wash that bitter taste out of the mouth.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before a comic would come along and tell me that yes, you can fight City Hall, and that it’s absolutely a good thing to do if City Hall is corrupt. I just didn’t expect it to be in the Chronicles of Wormwood.

Chronicles of Wormwood: The Last Battle by Garth Ennis and Oscar Jimenez wrapped up a couple of months ago, but was barely noticed, largely because the last issue came out almost a year after the penultimate one. It also had typical Avatar covers that managed to be both totally bland and utterly grotesque, which saw them sink into the mass of gore in the Avatar section of the comic shop.

But there was still a decent comic beneath those intentionally horrible covers. The art by Oscar Jimenez is stronger than Jacen Burrows’ usual scratchy efforts in the first Wormwood comic, and it’s a typical Ennis script, which manages to mix some genuine sweetness in amongst all the depravity.

The Chronicles of Wormwood series (which should not be confused with Ben Templesmith’s excellent Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse) is all about an antichrist who doesn’t want to do what he is told, so he becomes a television producer instead and enjoys life, rather than trying to destroy it for all time. His best pals are Jesus – who nobody can lie to – and a talking rabbit, and he can do one impossible thing every day.

The Last Battle sees Danny Wormwood grow up a bit and stop lying to his girlfriend, while also dealing with a fresh attack from the very dead and utterly odious Pope Jacko.

There are lots and lots of knob jokes, some alarmingly imaginative swearing, disgusting demons, gruesome and disturbing gore and all sorts of perversion. It is a pretty cynical comic about a lot of things – the willingness for people to do something awful if you pay them enough, or some bluntly satirical jabs at the state of modern television.

But it’s also about growing up, and taking a path of kindness and co-operation over one of fear and paranoia. And it’s about standing up to City Hall.

When pope Jacko lays out his master plan for Wormwood, he tells him that they will ultimate ascend into political glory and bring about the long-awaited and long-postponed apocalypse, because, after all:

And he’s almost right. You can’t fight City Hall, because it’s too big and mean and tough. But you can still fuck it in the face.

The power of the Establishment has been blatant all over the world in recent weeks, with the casual use of mace one of the most obvious signs of institutional fear. Physically fighting back against that kind of power is morally inadvisable and personally dangerous.

But the little guy can always fuck City Hall, if he gets in the right position at the right time. Entire governments can be screwed over by the actions of an individual, and terrible corruption can be exposed by one person who is willing to tell the truth, or at least stand up for the idea that they’re right. You can’t beat up City Hall, but you can still make sure it’s doing what it is supposed to.

In that Green Lantern comic, John Stewart has no plan beyond A) beat things up. He has a magic wishing ring that can literally create anything he thinks of, and he can’t do anything to fight the Man. Danny Wormwood has a guy nobody can lie to, and one Star Wars-obsessed little rabbit, and he digs out the corruption at the core, before it gets a chance to spread and gain power.

This can’t be right. Why is the Antichrist teaching me a lesson that Green Lantern can’t? Why do so few superheroes have the smarts and balls to tackle a complex issue without coming off as total dickheads?

If somebody can use a rabbit literally fucking a man in the face to say something about the right way to deal with corruption, why can’t you say the same thing with a decent superhero like John Stewart?

Even if a Green Lantern can’t fight City Hall, you can. Listen to the Antichrist. He knows what he’s talking about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comics that time (mostly) forgot

There are thousands of comics produced every year - hundreds of different titles from dozens of publishers. Some of them fall through the cracks of comic’s collective consciousness, some of them were once hailed and are now barely remembered.

Somebody cares about all these comics. There are comic readers who can swear that the weekly version of Action Comics from the late eighties is a genuinely enjoyable comic, and I know somebody who thinks the Nightbreed comic published by Epic is the greatest comic ever created.

I care about some of them. My interest in superhero comics peaked sometime between 1988 and 1999, and there are some comics from those periods that nobody talks about any more, and I think they can use all the love they can get.



Vext was an astoundingly silly comic from Keith Giffen and Mike McKone that lasted for six whole months in 1999. Giffen’s silliest comics are always taken out behind the chemical sheds after less than a year, and Vext is no different. Part of a mini-wave of genuinely interesting super-heroish titles DC debuted in the very late nineties, Vext didn’t even last as long as Chase or Chronos or Hourman or Major Bummer, and is the least well-remembered of that crop.

It’s a comic that doesn’t go anywhere, but that’s the whole point. Vext is an unemployed god of misfortune, dumped into the DC Universe at the turn of the century. Pitched somewhere in the vast comic wilderness between Giffen’s Justice League work and his Ambush Bug misadventures, Vext features super-heroes standing around looking vaguely awkward, a patron deity of ill-timed flatulence and the issue-long adventures of the Strepto-Commandos of Company Q.

There are whole issues where nothing really happens, which give the impression that Giffen has just sat through an eight-hour Seinfeld marathon, and huge amounts of exposition dumped out in a comedy dialogue. But it also has McKone’s art at his very slickest – and he can do slick. He also does some good exasperation (and there is a lot of that in Vext), and the briefest bursts of action don’t gt in the way of his comic timing.

Vext was also a very traditional title in some senses - it has supervillians who are almost always the cause of their own downfall, loads of plot exposition that doesn’t mean anything and the odd unexpected explosion.

But it also has several charming aspects – the lead character is affably clueless about the entire world, there is some general mockery of racial stereotypes and there is a bunch of story crammed into the whole thing.

A comic book about the god of misfortune was never going to last long, because the world isn’t quite that ironic yet. Frankly, it’s remarkable it lasted six issues, so I suppose we should be grateful for that much.



It’s slightly odd to think of the original Longshot limited series as forgotten – it was damn popular for a couple of years in the mid-eighties, with places like Mile High Comics charging upwards of $20 for a copy of the first issue as demand soared.

Most of this demand was fuelled by the fact that Longshot was Art Adam’s first major project, and his ability to use thousands of tiny scratchy lines to create ridiculous amounts of detail was eagerly devoured by comic readers, right from the start.

But within a few years, and after the character’s story was effectively all tied up with Jim Lee’s last issue of the X-Men, nobody really cared about Longshot anymore. Maybe it was his simple-minded (but never dumb) attitude, or his somewhat obtuse power, or the fact that any story since then has been another retread of Longshot v Mojo that doesn’t need to be told, or maybe it was just that bloody mullet. Nobody really cares about Longshot any more.

(Well, except for Peter David’s current X-Factor series, where the character has been making some interesting appearances, but we’re concerned with the past here.)

There was plenty more sublime Art Adams to get into after Longshot, from Gumby and Monkeybrain & O’Brien, all the way up to the recent Ultimate X, and that whole style that Adams pioneered (and subsequently evolved away from) in the Longshot comics doesn’t look so cool after two decades of pale imitations.

Once one of the hottest back issues on the market, Longshot is now more of an interesting curio – the debut of some truly original creators, a laudable attempt to bridge the gap between Marvel street level superheroes and the demand for a more mature level of storytelling (Longshot’s contemporaries were things like Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns and… er… Secret Wars II.)

It’s also a profoundly weird comic - dense dialogue and parts that are pure nightmare, spineless creatures building perfect beings with four fingers, and innocent stuntwomen strapped to the front of insane flying ships.

It does take place in the Marvel Universe, with She-Hulk, Doc strange and Spider-Man all showing up, but it’s far from the halls of the Baxter Building, and a long way from a perineal Westchester estate. This is a dirty and nasty corner of the Marvel Universe, with every speck of filth lovingly rendered by Adams. There are still kids playing space games, but also outright slavery, a malevolent little sidekick that turns into bloated, dangerous menace and a dead parrot.

Ann Nocenti’s script does overcook the story occasionally, but for a novice writer, it’s an assured, witty, moody and well-thought-out tale that didn’t feel like anything else on the stands at the time, and has only become more unique over the years, despite the pale imitations.

Nobody cares about Longshot anymore, but his debut series is a weird and wonderful book that shouldn’t be overlooked. Good luck with it.


Guice/Baker New Mutants

Bill Sienkiewicz left the New Mutants comic broken in the wake of his brilliance. It couldn’t go back to regular superhero art, not after all those remarkable things he had done, so the one 1980s Marvel comic that seemed pre-programmed for mediocrity continued to be an incredibly interesting book.

Around about the same time Ann Nocenti was doing terrific things with that Longshot book, she was also editing the New Mutants, and managed to keep the post-Sienkiewicz shock to a minimum. Chris Claremont’s scripts were some of his freewheeling eighties craziness, and while it all looks a bit dated now, it’s also packed with incident – the entire cast die, come back to life, go to Valhalla and are overcome by nerves at a local school dance. Anything could happen.

Fortunately, there was also terrific work by idiosyncratic artists like Steve Leialoha, Rick Leonardi and Mary Wilshire to ease the blow, before Jackson Guice became the regular penciller.

Guice’s art is classical superhero, and he often goes for big movements buried beneath a soft line. It can also be incredibly stiff, sometimes to a distracting degree (the JLA: Gates of Hell thing he did with Warren Ellis is the worst example of this stiffness). But he can also be the perfect artist for certain material, and his mid-eighties style was made for the New Mutants’ mix of mutant angst, teenage longing, metaphysical musing and goofy action scenes.

A lot of Guice’s work lives and dies on the strength of the inker, and it’s here that Guice’s art becomes something else. It helps that he had proven talents like Terry Austin and P Craig Russell pitching in to ink his pencils, but there are also half a dozen quietly extraordinary issues inked by Kyle Baker.

After work as diverse as the Cowboy Wally Show, Nat Turner, Plastic Man, King David, The Bakers, Baker’s brilliance is well known, but his inks on New Mutants are proto-Baker, and not even mentioned on his wiki page.

This was when he was learning his craft at Marvel under Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Larry Hama and Jim Shooter, hoovering up any advice he could get and churning out enough work to evolve his own style. The New Mutants comics are before his terrific work on the shadow, and just before Cowboy Wally, but his artistic signature is all over these six New Mutants comics between #40 and #47 in late 1986. It’s all over their faces.

Baker’s strength is in the expressions and emotions on his character’s faces, and this gives a vitality to Guice’s pencils that is often lacking. There are brooding eyebrows, delicate noses and a startling variety of lips. Baker’s early work is a direct descendant of the looser, more cartoony, style, but there is something affecting in the way he and Guice combine to convey super-teen angst.

The joy of these slightly clumsy New Mutants issues is that Guice and Baker are very different artists, but their styles unexpectedly meshed so well together here. Their careers both went off in separate direction, but these early comics of theirs are only gaining in fascination as the years pass by.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not enough comic in my comic

One of the things that is most enjoyable about buying back issue comics from a couple of decades ago are the advertisements. We all hate them when they are new, but give them enough time and they shine a sociological light on the darkest recesses of pop culture.

It’s not just the obvious stuff, like the sea monkeys or the $1.79 locker of army soldiers or the Hostess cake stuff or the X-Ray specs, it’s the stuff we’d all rather forget that often resonates most strongly.

While it’s not surprising to see how many ads there are for Star Wars products late seventies comic books, it’s a little astonishing to see how many David Cassidy tee-shirts there are in endless seventies adverts, and how big somebody like that teen heart-throb can get, before crashing back into obscurity.

The first attempts to make serious money out of this bizarre little hobby we call comic books can also be seen in these thirty-years-old advertisements. Some of the most well-known Golden Age comics were actually worth hundreds of dollars by the 1970s, and mail-order companies realised that advertising in then-modern books was the best way to reach their customers.

(As somebody who hit prime superhero fascination sometime in the mid-eighties, I still have an inordinate fondness for those yellow Mile High advertisements that listed huge amounts of comics for sale for 50 cents each. I used to go through them with a magnifying glass, composing imaginary lists of what I would buy if I had the undreamed-of sum of $100. This is about as sad and pathetic as I ever got in my comic obsession.)

But the very best thing about old advertisements are the house ads, showing covers from other series from that publisher. It’s an absolute joy to run across a full page ad featuring contemporary comics when I’m halfway through a random issue of Teen Titans from 1975, when DC had people like Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert producing bloody beautiful cover designs.

There can also be a cheap thrill of an ad in the back of an Avengers comic promising the debut of a new series called Tomb Of Dracula, or seeing other historic issues jumbled up with a bunch of comics that were forgotten the month after they were published.

So that’s something to look forward to in 2042, because current Marvel and DC comics are choked with house ads.

Consider Action Comics #3 – another imaginative and witty script from Grant Morrison (even if the xenophobic reaction to what appears to be first contact with an alien race in the new DC Universe is massively disappointing), with some rushed artwork from Gene Ha and Rags Morales that occasionally hits the mark.

But it’s also a comic book that is literally half full of advertisements, with just twenty pages of comic in a forty page-issue. There is just not enough comic in my comic.

The rest of it is full page spreads for comics and characters I’m not interested in, padded out by blatant advertorial and silly back-matter. The editors are trying to give something the substance of a decent DVD extra, but it’s just lots of art we all saw on the internet three months ago, and creators revealing that they are really excited about working with Creator X on Character X. It’s bad enough when Marvel’s collections are padded out with pointless interviews from Marvel Spotlight, doing that in a flimsy single issue is just wrong.

This would be a lot easier to swallow, if the comic didn’t cost 33 per cent more than most of its contemporaries - $3.99 for a twenty page comic is bad enough, but when you’re paying that much for that much advert, you’ve got to start wondering why you’re paying it at all.

With exchange rates and shipping costs, these $3.99 comics cost nearly ten bucks in local money, which means every page is costing me fifty cents. Which also means that a two page spread costs me $1, and that is a harsh and difficult investment to make.

(I’m also still bitter about the way The Boys was jacked up in price with absolutely no explanation two-thirds of the way through it’s long – but limited – run.)

The ad situation isn’t as bad as a few years back, when NuMarvel choked the life out their stories with a ridiculous amount of advertising, destroying any storytelling or dramatic drive by cutting up every page. But that kind of thoughtlessness is still there, (whoever decided to put a full page picture of an intentionally smug blonde news anchor for the Onion News Network right next to the most dramatic part of All Star Western #2 almost destroyed that moment entirely).

These ads will be fascinating for future comic scholars, but in the here and now, they’re nothing that hasn’t already been all over the internet for months, all the art previews and creator interviews are almost totally worthless when there is so much of that for free for anybody with a net connection of any kind – expecting readers of a Morrison comic to pay extra for a couple of interviews with Dan Jurgens is asking a bit much.

I don’t mind the twenty-page comic, especially when writers like Morrison can tell super-compressed stories, cutting whole scenes down to one pertinent panel.

But there is little real value for money, and if this kind of ratio of story to ad just does not stack up. If continued, it would surely see me drop one of my deadest favourite superhero comics, because of dollar double-page spreads and extras I didn’t ask for or want in any way.

There is always more value in actual comic, and it’s good to hear that the writer of the excellent Brave and Bold is coming in with some back-up stories in future issues. While DC is still making the classic mistake of thinking that people read Grant Morrison’s comics for his characters and concepts, rather than for his Celtic wit and deft storytelling touch, Sholly Fisch is a terrific writer of short, sharp entertainments, and it will be interesting to see if the humour and humanity of the cartoon comic’s stories can be transferred to current continuity.

But it’s the thoughtlessness of padding out these comics with things that might actively put people off the title that really bites, along with the blithe and arrogant presumption that they can charge whatever the hell they want, people will still buy it. While this has short term gains, there is nothing to be gained in annoying the small amount of readers modern comics have left with inappropriate use of ads.

There might be a solid business plan behind masses of house advertisements, but that doesn’t mean it makes editorial sense to mess with the flow of a story like this.

It’s good to support comics in their monthly format, if only so the artists involved get the chance to do things like eat and clothe themselves while they’re working on a project. And collections are often little better, with the interminable Handbook entries and pencilled versions of pages you read five minutes ago.

It might sound picky and pedantic, but the use of advertorial and the lack of value for money is one of the main reasons why I don’t buy more than half a dozen comic books every month, even though I am actually interested in reading so much more. Ten bucks for twenty pages of superhero comic just isn’t worth it, no matter who is writing it, and it’s just easier to not bother with new comics, and wait a few years – or decades - before coming back to these stories.

I can wait.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Golden Boys

It’s still remarkable that most of the iconic comic characters that we all know and love were created in such a short period of time, just seven decades ago. While it is now almost impossible to imagine a world without Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman, they all blossomed into life in the same short span of years, along with hundreds of other characters who are still popping up in new comics, from Captain America to Ma Hunkel’s Red Tornado.

There is undoubtedly a romantic streak in those early days of American comics, moments that can be seen in Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, and in Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, with young men locking themselves up in overheated apartments and making comics for three days straight, taking breaks only to go get some more beer and fried chicken.

All those comics are so crude, but set templates that are still followed slavishly every week for the next seventy years in a single weekend of frenzied activity. Young men facing a world war dug into myth, pulps and their own imaginations to come up with new heroes for an age that needed ‘em.

They can look old and dusty now, (and we have to overlook the appalling racism and sexism that often crops up if we ever want to really appreciate them). These comics were produced all those years ago on cheap paper, and the physical objects are becoming yellower and more brittle every year. But the stories can still be startlingly modern. For most of us on the planet, there has always been superheroes like Batman and Namor, the Sub-Mariner, but there are also still loads of people who lived in a time when these concepts didn’t even exist. Super-heroes have dominated the comics medium for decades, but it really is still a young medium.

This relative newness has been used for an excuse for some shockingly poorly crafted comics over the past few years - as creators intentionally break storytelling rules that have been built up for years, only to discover there were actually really good reasons why these rules existed in the first place -  but that doesn’t make it any less true. Stories evolve over years and decades and centuries – they don’t stay still, and the superhero still has a long way to go.

Not that they were thinking of this, back in Manhattan, in those art studios, in the spark of creative innovation and commercial ruthlessness in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They could never have imagined that their characters would still be going strong in the 21st century, in a bewildering variety of mediums.

It was still a troubling time in the good ol’ days – terrible things were happening in Europe and Asia, and the world had only just dug itself out of a horrible economic hole. There were still examples of ridiculous prejudice and hatred, and millions were still suffering all over the world.

But like Harry said in The Third Man, centuries of Swiss peace gave the world the cuckoo clock, and the horrors of WW2 gave us incredible innovations in medicine, engineering and all the basic sciences, while also giving birth to the modern idea of the superhero.

This monolithic character had ancestors, most recently in the pulps, but going all the way back to good ol’ Gilgamesh. But it was also something big and bright and new, with a fictional vigour that is still going strong.

All these young writers and artists of comic’s golden age were running on pure enthusiasm and creative freedom, and produced it in startling amounts – there are dozens and dozens of remarkable and idiosyncratic creators like Fletcher Hanks out there, waiting for re-appraisal with a twenty-first century eye.

The creators were screwed over in rotten business deals that left them with nothing after they were responsible for some of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century. You never learn anything if you idealise the past, and the success of today’s biggest creators owe everything to the men and women who spent their lives in anonymity.

But their deeds are etched in the bedrock of history now, and the crooks who took advantage them are long gone and forgotten. Everybody knows about Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson’s contribution to proto-Batman, and while it’s a tragedy that Finger died without seeing his credit come calling, we can still celebrate his achievements.

Golden Age superhero comics can now look crude and clumsy, but they are also full of simple beauties and absolute lunacy. All these stories and art, churned out over those immortal weekends of the medium’s earliest days can still teach us something about storytelling and build for the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Well look, I’m never going to be the best judge of Simon Bisley’s artwork, because I was 14 years old when I opened up an issue of 2000ad and was confronted by THIS:

So after THAT, he had me hooked for life, and I love everything he does. He caught my eye with the sleekest Joe Pineapples and meanest Blackblood in ABC Warrior history, I got every issue of Lobo he ever did, and bought a couple of issues of Doom Patrol even though I had them in a collected edition, just because I wanted those beautiful Bisley covers. I’ve got the insane Melting Pot comics, and Bad Boy and the one issue of Global Frequency he did and I love ‘em all.

From several interviews he has given, Bisley has laughed at the idea of formal art training, and this uneducated enthusiasm is there in everything he does. The Biz is part of that breed of artist who believe power is an entirely reasonable substitute for craft. Fortunately, he is also one of those artists who has talent to burn, and he often sets it alight for fun, right there on the page.

With the type of projects he chooses, this style of art isn’t just a benefit, it’s absolutely essential. There is no way Lobo would have become so popular in the early nineties without that extreme and sloppy Bisley art, and the wild freedom to do anything - unconstrained by things like artistic logic or reality - made those Doom Patrol covers the best looking comics on the stands.

This is nothing new, but as time has gone on, his influence has settled in more deeply, even if it’s not as obvious as it once was. It’s almost impossible to underestimate Bisley’s impact on British action comic art in the early nineties.  Dozens of artists started chasing after that rush of Biz that came from those very first paintings of the Horned God, even if like all the best drugs, nothing beat that original high.

In the aftermath of that first Bisley explosion, he was seen glowering in interviews behind dark glasses, long hair and a fucking big motorbike. Bisley was one of the few real superstar artists 2000ad ever produced, but while somebody like Brian Bolland forced everybody who followed him to be as clean and detailed as possible, Bisley inspired others to go crazy with the paintbrush. Look at any random issue of 2000ad a couple of years after the Horned God’s debut, and you can guarantee that at least 60 per cent of it will be muddily painted art (which looked like crap on 2000ad’s cheap paper.)

There were diminishing returns in this style: artists as diverse as Clint Langley, Carl Critchlow and video director Chris Cunningham all started out by being told to ‘do a Bisley’, before they all found artistic success by branching out into their own style.

One of the great things about Bisley, and something many of his initial imitators struggled with, was that he didn’t do everything in just one style – his work on Slaine is very, very different from his work on Lobo, which is very, very different from his work on Melting Pot, even though they all share the same vigorous vulgarity.

Even on Slaine, he would switch between lush, painted vistas and crude, ugly penciled faces to devastating effect. Some projects have been rushed and incoherent, others have been fully painted, and his overall style has seen several major evolutionary leaps.

Twenty-two years on from Prog 626, and Bisley is still doing the business. After years of relative quiet, during which he did the odd album cover for Danzig and comics for companies with names like Berserker and Full Cirkle, he has been chipping in on Peter Milligan’s Hellblazer comics over the past couple of years, resulting in drawings of the main character that look like this:

And this:

And this:

Hellblazer is currently blessed with the talent of Giuseppe Camuncoli, an artist who is making a mighty contribution to the comic with his moody and blocky art. As the series’ regular artist, he has taken on Milligan’s own brand of effete and spooky madness with glee.

But Bisley has also done some typically stunning covers, and the odd story inside, and this is a new Biz entirely.

It’s still the same square jaws and goofy kicking, still the same wired and aggressive body language, still the same odd splashes of colour. There is still plenty of devious energy and loads of evil sly looks and wicked grins and angry old punks spitting their anger at the old fascist enemy. There is also still some crazy exaggerated poses being thrown about, but it has all been suitably toned down, and the stories take place in a recognisably dirty England that is haunted by too many old ghosts, and defended by one cranky old git.

Because it’s also more restrained, with a newly murky palette from his colouring collaborators highlighting this restraint. All this craziness never comes at the expense of the story, and never overwhelms the tale it is telling. While this has been obvious in Young Bisley’s work, the ongoing dedication to just telling a well-crafted story is absolutely admirable. His storytelling skills have aged like a fine wine, and while that browner tone is the most obvious indication of Bisley’s evolution, it’s the panel-to-panel transitions that really show the maturity.

In some time travel-related parts of the current Hellblazer run, the reinvigorating shock of seventies punk is captured perfectly by Bisley (who would only have been a teenager at the time) in scratchy gloom. Kevin O’Neill did something similar to terrific effect in the dying pages of the most recent league of Extraordinary gentlemen, (although that example was particularly shocking after the psychedelic apocalypse in a London part).

While Bisley is proudly part of a long line of British artist who specialise in the grotesque (which includes artists like O’Neill and Critchlow), he is still very much his own man, doing his own thing. It grows and matures, but it is always, always unmistakably the Bizness.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Omac and Ultimate X: When bad writers turn good

It’s incredibly easy to write off certain comic creators who have produced years of terrible work, with no signs of improvement in the near future.

After all, there are hundreds of comics published every single month – why on Earth would anybody ever continue to buy something they won’t enjoy, unless it’s for brand loyalty or sheer completism?

I never really gave up on Jeph Loeb, because I never had a lot of faith in him anyway. While his Halloween Batman stories have a lot of fans, they left me cold, and I could never get into the equally-lauded ‘coloured’ Marvel series or Superman: He’s Just A Big Ol’ Farmboy.

(Although any lack of enthusiasm I had was surely fuelled by the fact that I never really dug Tim Sale’s superhero art. Sale is one of those artists whose art is always a pleasure to read, but he just isn’t really suited to tights and fights.)

Many smart people say Loeb’s Superman/Batman run is just big dumb fun, but the dumb often overloaded the fun, and it had some of the most godawfully literal captions in comics. But then he started writing the Ultimates, and everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

While I still maintain a perverse interest in really bad superhero comics, Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum were a bridge too far, and were simply appalling awful. Muddled storytelling, ham-fisted shocks and characters that stopped acting like actual human beings left a bad aftertaste. An eagerness to offend was not balanced out by Marvel’s refusal to admit its Ultimate toys were totally broken.

And it looked like they didn’t learn everything, because they kicked off the whole line again with Jeph Loeb taking a leading hand. While it was comforting (and slightly disappointing) to see Bendis and Millar still doing their thing, nobody could have had much hopes for the Loeb comics.

I don’t know how the New Ultimates title with Frank Cho turned out, because I haven’t read any of that, but I did read Ultimate X in the past week, and was pleasantly surprised.

It was the Art that got my attention – you can’t go wrong with Art Adams on pencils duty. Adams has been producing his tight figures and fully-fleshed faces for 25 years now, and it’s as enjoyable as it ever was. It could be argued that his arrival on the comics scene in the mid-1980s was a direct influence on the artists who went off and formed Image, but we shouldn’t hold that against him, not when he’s drawing consistently beautiful work.

In fact, while Adams’ art in Ultimate X is instantly recognisable, it’s still come a long way over the years. His line is less craggy, with a softer flow that still barrels into his insane amount of detail. His ability to convey complex emotion in a furrowed brow is unparalleled.

So on that score alone, the Ultimate X-Men relaunch was worth a look. After all the other Ultimate Bollix, the fact that Jeph Loeb was writing it was a severe disincentive.

But even with years of bad form, you can’t write off anything without making some small effort to see if those bad expectations were justified. So I read Ultimate X, and think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read from Loeb.

Because underneath all those stupid bombastics and blunter than blunt narrations, Loeb is actually a really good character writer, who can get to the heart of a fictional person with a couple of scenes and a poignant expression. Or a really satisfying burp.

Having an artist like Adams certainly helps, because he can actually draw proper human emotions, (something a lot of Loeb’s collaborators – especially on his Ultimate books - have been completely unable to do). But Loeb is also due a fair bit of credit for the pleasant reading experience.

There is still a bit of grabbing random characters and throwing them at each other like they’re action figures, but it keeps the cast reasonably tight, and after the carnage of Ultimatum, it’s fitting that anything goes in the aftermath. (There is also an odd nostalgic rush for all those late eighties What If…? stories where the X-Men were all slaughtered and a random collection of mutants were bought together to form a new team, especially when Loeb reaches out and tries to justify Bruce Banner as a mutant…)

And while it is still clumsy, and there are still moments where people act more like plot movements than actual people, it ends without the usual brutal fisticuffs and takes its time to set up the cast. It might have a blonde pretty-boy teenager standing in as a Wolverine surrogate, but when he comes to Wolvie spawn, he’s still more charming than the try-hard Daken of the regular Marvel universe.

Ultimate X is not a great comic, or even a very good comic, but it isn’t that bad, either, and that’s more than you can say for almost anything else Jeph loeb has done in recent years.

Over at the Distinguished Competition, another writer (who also happens to have some incredibly strong editorial power) has also produced something surprisingly readable. Dan DiDio’s writing for the Outsiders title was nothing short of terrible, but his work with Keith Giffen on Omac is great fun.

DiDio’s Outsides scripts tried to be deep and meaningful, but DiDio’s strengths are as a micromanaging overseer with a ridiculously media-friendly personality. His attempts to be deep and meaningful came out all wrong, clumsy beyond belief and almost offensive in their lack of craft.

Like Loeb on Ultimate X, DiDio’s name on the credits of Omac was a severe disincentive, even though Giffen’s art is always interesting (and may help explain why it was the lowest selling of all the New 52 DC comics). It did seem unnecessary, as Giffen has proven his ability to be a solo scriptwriter over and over again, and it’s apparent connection to half a decade’s worth of completely shit stories about Omac (overseen by DiDio), was the final straw.

And then, astonishingly, Omac turned out to be a pretty good comic, and a large part of its appeal came from DiDio’s scripting. He’s ditched the heavy super-angst of Outsiders and cranked up the happy go lucky absurdity of an accidental superhero.

His clumsiness with narration and dialogue had a severely negative effect on any comic that made pretenses at real world relevance, but in the balls-to-the-wall rush of Omac, that clumsiness is absolutely fitting. Jack Kirby’s dialogue in the original Omac comics was not anything proper humans actually said, but it worked on things like Omac and Kamandi so well because these weren’t ever meant to be recognisable people of the 20th century – these were future people who spoke in wild gesticulations and massive amounts of exclamation points. If it don’t sound natural, it’s doing the job, and DiDio’s dialogue is many things, but it isn’t natural.

(Giffen is great and he ain’t no Kirby, but who is?)

These bursts of readability from these two writers are not likely to last long – Ultimate X has already been superseded by yet another relaunch and according to the numbers, Omac is unlikely to last a year. (Hopefully it will end with somebody like Doug Mahnke coming in and drawing an abrupt final panel where everything blows up, because that would be Cosmically Awesome.)

There isn’t much faith in the future, either. It’s hard to imagine DiDio’s style suiting anything beyond loud and shouty punch-ups, and Loeb’s next major work is an Avengers/X-Men series that already shows a dedication to stupid by focusing on the – as demanded by nobody – return of Cable.

But to get anything worthwhile from either writer is more than could ever be expected, and should be savoured while it lasts.