Friday, April 27, 2012

27 things I liked about The Avengers movie (and one thing I didn’t)

Like anybody with more comics than sense, I was incredibly eager to see The Avengers – the chance to see Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s magnificent creations on a big screen, doing what they do best, was just impossible to resist.

So after convincing my long-suffering wife that we were still young and cool and could go to a midnight screening of the movie, I ended up seeing the film for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday morning - and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

It’s not a great movie, but it is a very good one. It’s almost certainly the best Marvel movie produced so far, and it’s most definitely the best Hulk movie so far, with the Green Goliath actually put to some good use for once.

There was a lot to like, a few things that just didn’t work and one major thing that I didn’t like, and here they are:

(Warning: Semi-spoilers abound, I’m not about to ruin anything important, but most of this probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen the film yourself.)

27 things I liked about The Avengers

1. It opened in New Zealand a week before the USA, and after waiting months and months and months to get things like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Attack The Block or Cabin In The Woods, it’s bloody nice to get one back.

2. My lovely wife freakin’ loved the film, even at that late hour, and actually suggested seeing it again because she said she missed too much when she was laughing..

3. I was laughing too - the comic timing of the Incredible Hulk is impeccable.

4. In fact, a lot of the success of the Hulk in this film is thanks to Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Banner, which is really nicely done. So much more zen than Bana or Norton, so that when he loses his shit, it has real impact. And his last line before his final transformation in the big climax is just terrific.

5. The other great thing about the Hulk is that he gets to totally cut loose and smash things, and that never gets old.

6. Beautiful women in SHIELD uniforms.

7. One surprisingly long shot in the climactic battle, when you get to see everyone spread out over a wide Manhattan battlefield.

8. The way the easy charm of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark gets him what he wants, and the way it hides his insatiable (and dangerous) curiosity.

9. The fact that I never saw the joke in the last shot coming, even though it is totally set up.

10. The completely unexpected, but still familiar, face that pops up in the mid-credits sting, and the way the guy in the seat behind me at the screening lost his shit over it. (He said what I was thinking.)

11. Hulk versus Loki.

12. Captain America coughing up his ten bucks.

13. Thor returning a headbutt to a man with an armoured face.

14. The sheer sight of these insanely powerful creatures kicking the living crap out of each other.

15. Agent Coulson’s great stiffness.

16. “I watched you while you were sleeping.”

17. Loki’s grin.And his magnificent hair.

18. The Black Widow’s interrogation technique.

19. Hawkeye’s utter lack of fear.

20. The best Galaga joke ever seen in a movie.

21.  Harry Dean Stanton’s brief appearance

22. And the fact that they got Jenny Agutter and Powers Boothe in there as well.

23. It’s no surprise that Joss Whedon handles the mix of action, humour and melodrama so well – he’s been doing that on a regular basis for nearly twenty years. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

24. Every one of the Marvel films put out so far have had a shared tone – an absurd realism that takes incredibly goofy concepts and treats them incredibly seriously, and if The Avengers work as a team and concept to build films on, it is because of this shared vibe.

25. There is a bit where Captain America has to move a lever at a crucial time, and he STANDS HIS GROUND.

26. In fact, I am surprised by how successfully Captain America has been integrated into this film universe. He is a bit corny, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of corn in your diet, and even the ultra-patriotism thing is easily digestible, when you’ve got a hero with guts, who always does the right thing, stands up to all bullies and has an excellent tactical brain.

27. Stories about ordinary people with gifts and guts, facing off against cosmic threats, are always welcome..

One thing I didn’t like about The Avengers

1. Would it have killed them to put Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s names in a prominent position in the credits?

And some things I was indifferent about:

1. The dull score – a decent theme is imperative for a great superhero film, and this, like almost all of Alan Silvestri’s scores, is just functional.

2. The crowded nature of the story was unavoidable, with so many lead characters, and while everybody got a moment or two, there wasn’t much room in the story to breathe. Efficiency sometimes comes at the cost of the emotional.

3. The alien menace was never really given any weight, no matter how many giant robot fish things they fired at New York.

4. Even though there is a definite Marvel vibe, The Avengers is almost totally style-less. The really great superhero films all have a definite and distinctive style – you can’t mistake a Tim Burton Batman for a Christopher Nolan Batman. The Marvel films all skew to the retro side, but there are times when they could really do with a really idiosyncratic eye.

And that’s about it.

Look, I know there are some people who would really like to see Avengers fail, because they love to politicise everything, and can’t help but see The Avengers as a symbol of a huge and heartless company that made its fortune by exploiting its talents over the years.

And I know there are other people who are so desperate for The Avengers to succeed, because they pray that any new genre blockbuster will cross over into a wider audience and legitimise their grubby little comic habit.

But I just wanted to see these beautiful characters and concepts in a film that isn’t unbearably cheesy or embarrassingly stupid. I just wanted to see some crazy super-punching, and good people with guts doing the right thing

And that’s what I saw.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sons of a Carpenter – Attack The Block and The Raid

It’s hard to explain how crushingly disappointed I was by John Carpenter’s The Ward from 2010, when I finally saw it on DVD earlier this year. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it was almost exactly what you would expect from that kind of story, from the troubled back-stories right down to the inevitable twist. There were no real surprises.

And while that was perfectly okay, I always expect more than perfectly okay from John Carpenter films, even if he hasn’t really delivered anything more than that in two decades.

He lost his mojo somewhere around the period where he did the terrible, terrible remake of Village of the Damned, and even though there have been the odd sparks of that old Carpenter magic in things like Ghosts of Mars or Vampires, they have still been extremely poor movies.

Especially when you compare them to the films Carpenter did as a hungry young filmmaker – Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Halloween and The Thing are all slices of raw and jagged genius, and even mid-period films like They Live, Big Trouble in little China, In The Mouth Of Madness and Prince of Darkness have more good points than bad.

So even if Carpenter never makes a great film again – and I really do believe he still has the potential to do something brilliant – at least he has a fine body of work behind him that will continue to excite and inspire for many years to come.

That inspiration is all over the place in modern pop culture. Carpenter was doing things in the nineteen seventies that seemed extreme and taboo-bending, like killing off cute little kids and offering only the bleakest of endings, but now that sort of thing is regularly served up on network television in endless torture and crime show, the shock diluted by sheer ubiquity, the taboo becoming bland.

His influence is also obvious in endless waves of intense horror, action and science fiction films that try to capture that same spark that Carpenter once showed. Some of them are blatant – the Thing remake/prequel/whatever fed off Carpenter’s original film like a succubus without adding anything new, and other remakes of his films, including Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, have been notably inferior to the original.

This kind of carcass feeding should not be encouraged, but it is pleasing to see filmmakers who pick up the right things from Carpenter’s film, and generate similar moods and vibes, while crucially doing their own thing.

There have been two excellent examples in recent months of this, neither of which were American, but neither could still be none more Carpenter.

The first of these is Attack The Block, Joe Cornish’s excellent British film about aliens with big fucking glowing teeth who make the mistake of invading a London housing estate. It’s scary and funny and fast-paced and unexpectedly tender, and while Cornish shows plenty of film influences from all over the place, it’s the work of John Carpenter that seems the primary source.

It’s not just the sparse synthesized score, although that is the most obvious thing lifted from Carpenter's films, and shows that the simplest tunes are still the most effective. It’s also the fact that it has the same pacing as a classic Carpenter, going from grim to fucking mental with speed and has characters who seem pretty reprehensible, but who show hidden depths and strengths when the shit goes down.

Attack The Block is a film that takes its time getting to know the characters, while still cracking into the plot at a running pace. The main protagonists aren’t just dull thugs, they’re young confused men who actually have a sense of responsibility, so when the craziness kicks off, they almost end up doing the right thing by default. (Helped by some great acting too – John Boyega is going to be a goddamn star.)

The movie shares a mood of creepy efficiency with some of Carpenter’s finest – this could easily take place in the same world as The Thing, with both films grounded in a I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing reality. That reality extends into the action sequences, where things don't always go to plan.

Jack Burton is a tough talking idiot in Big Trouble In Little China who knocks himself out right at the start of the big final battle, the gang in Attack The Block escape the aliens by riding their bikes down steps, trying to do clever things they’ve seen on YouTube and everybody ends up painfully falling on their arses.

This attention to detail, a continued ramping up of tension and focus on real humanity are all shared by Cornish and Carpenter's film, but Attack the Block still has its own unique story and setting, and doesn't slavishly follow Carpenter's rules, bending them enough to produce something new and interesting. That's the way to soak up the influence.

The other film that left me with a definite Carpenter vibe was another film directed by a British filmmaker, but this one came from the other side of the world – The Raid.

The Raid is just as good as everybody keeps telling you it is, and is highly recommended. Its director and star richly deserve any success coming its way, because Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais' successful partnership makes The Raid one of the most exciting action films of the past decade.

It shares the same pace as Attack on Precinct 13, with a short burst of rapidly increasing dread soon exploding into unceasing action, and also uses a minimal score to terrific effect.

The Raid is very definitely its own film - it has moments of crazy balls-to-the-wall action that are more energetic than anything Carpenter ever dreamed of - but the influence is still fairly obvious, if you go looking for it. There is one bit in particular that is pure Carpenter: a group of police are trapped in an open stairwell, and above them is only darkness, but then the camera pans up – painfully slowly - into the darkness and the gloom gradually reveals a gang of armed gang members, all ready to unleash some fury.

There are a couple of moments like that, when the action slows down, while the tension only racks up, where the film takes its time before the next explosion of violence, and it's just as effective now as it ever was.

Both of these films don’t just rely on the simplicity of a decent score, a mood of malevolent menace, and a story that sings with sheer efficiency, and they don’t just rely on the fact that they both take place in singular confined spaces, filled with characters that you end up liking, no matter how reprehensible they first appear.

But soaking up these kinds of lessons that John Carpenter started teaching more than 20 years ago certainly doesn’t hurt a film, as long as the new generation remember to bring something new to the table.

Because when they do, any disappoint I feel with Carpenter’s most modern efforts doesn’t really matter, when the results are this good.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Armageddon that Flagg! (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Howard Chaykin)

Somehow, when I had a deep fever for smart and independent adventure comics from the 1980s, and was obsessively hoovering up as much of Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Scott McCloud’s Zot and Paul Chadwick’s Concrete as I could get my hands on, I managed to completely miss out on any of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg.

I never bought a single issue of Flagg. They were surprisingly hard to find and the few issues I did see looked busy and confusing, and I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t even quite grasp what the basic concept was.

So while I went on to follow everything Wagner, McCloud and Chadwick have done since the eighties, I never had the same compulsion to follow Chaykin, because I never read his most applauded work.

I’ve sorted that out now.

I picked up the big 2008 hardcover collection of the first 14 American Flagg comics over the past weekend, at the hideously crowded Armageddon geek convention in Hamilton (where it was being held for the first time).

It was so crowded that it took me a while to find the only two booths that were selling comics, and I might have gone a bit overboard. I went with my mate Kyle, and while he was happy with his Doctor Who autographs and insanely cheap recent X-Men comics, I loaded up on everything from Lobo to Brilliant to Doktor Sleepless to Sock Monkey. I bought far more Mark Millar comics than is healthy, got most of Ennis’ Jennifer Blood for a buck each and overdosed on a small mountain of Hellboy comics.

I also got some sweet book deals – the first two Age of Bronze collections, two X-Men First Class books, a Groo paperback and some Jonah Hex for five bucks each. But the best deal was that American Flagg book, which I got on special for $35.

Considering it cost more than $100 when it first came out, this was a blinder of a deal, and it seemed like a good way to finally give Chaykin a chance.

This first impression of American Flagg, and the wider world of Chaykin, is pretty positive. It’s funnier, and more tasteful, and more adventurous than I expected. It’s just as complex as I always feared, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a comic that is nearly thirty years old, and there has been some inevitable dating, with jokes about Crystal Gale (a name I literally hadn’t heard in years until I read this comic yesterday, leaving that joke a little flat), as well as a particularly eighties obsession with things like pirate television channels and subliminal programming.

American Flagg can be over-thought and overwrought, and there are some awful, awful haircuts on display, but there is also a lot to love about the comic.

There are some terrific action scenes which are brief and full of impact. Chaykin had got the hang of decent action body language during his years in the trenches for corporate comics, and used Flagg to find his own voice.

Over the first dozen issues of Flagg, you can see Chaykin nailing down that chunky/fuzzy art style that is now instantly familiar. The artist was still not quite there, and sometimes his influences are a bit too obvious, but they are also all over the place – one bit will be pure Gil Kane, and then there will be a sudden Drew Friedman moment.

The design of the comic is unmistakably something from the 1980s, but all those sharp lines and busy pages are still effective, and there are some endlessly entertaining sound effects that compliment the entire look of the book, while still inspiring the odd chuckle.

American Flagg was a comic that was full of humour, thanks largely to Raul the talking cat and the robotic Luther Ironheart, but also because of the absurd society that Rueben Flagg and his friends & enemies lived in – a world that had become used to casual carnage, but still had a lot of the old world’s hang-ups.

And yet, the comic’s attitude towards sex is also refreshing. While it’s impossible to be unaware of Chaykin’s fondness for erotic comics, Flagg is far more tasteful than I expected.

It’s still full of crazy sex scenes, but they are treated so matter-of-factly, without really dwelling on them. It’s a surprisingly mature way of dealing things (real mature, not Lobo mature) – there is no adolescent giggling. Sometimes people have sex, and they probably enjoy themselves, but while many of American Flagg’s contemporary comics were so determined to show what they can do that they somehow made sex boring, it’s just another part of life in 2031 America.

Even after reading several hundred pages in the past few days, I’m still a bit baffled by large parts of American Flagg. I still don’t understand a lot of what’s going on, and I don’t even know how to explain the core concept to somebody else – “He’s a law enforcement officer for some weird post-collapse post-government society, who also moonlights as a pirate TV broadcaster” is about the best I can do

But while the work can still be confusing and obtuse, the work is deliberately disorientating, just like all glimpses of the future should be. There can be a dozen different things clamouring for the reader’s attention on a single page, and it can take a long time to figure out what is actually the important bit. There should be some kind of information overload when you're dealing with the culture shock of the future, and there is plenty of that here.

Comics that require that kind of effort are invariably rewarding, and American Flagg ends up offering all sorts of narrative riches. There is no grand unifying theme, but loads of smaller ones, from issue to issue. American Flagg is about holding authority figures to account, and it’s about adjusting to a fast paced world that is in danger of utter stagnation, and it’s about showing compassion to the weak and defending them from bullies.

It’s about America, and it’s about a man named Flagg.

The second best deal I got at Armageddon Hamilton, after American Flagg, was a copy of Chaykin’s Time². Everything was suddenly coming up Howard.

I’ll give it a while before I get to that book, because there is real danger of a Chaykin overload, and there are all those Hellboy and Sock Monkey comics for a change of pace.

But I am looking forward to getting my teeth into Time², and I will be more open to more of his comics in the future, however strange it gets.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2000ad: Drokk, Diavolo and the Dog

As an anthology, the quality of 2000ad will always vary wildly, with both genius and crap often found beneath the same cover. But every now and then, the science fiction comic goes through a period of real greatness, where the brilliant stories overwhelmingly outnumber the mediocre. It might not be perfect, and there is still likely to be one duff strip amongst it, but the good significantly outweighs the bad.

So even though I only just wrote about how brilliant I think 2000ad currently is a few weeks ago, we’re back in the pages of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic again today, because the sheer bloody brilliance of the ongoing adventures of Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and Johnny Alpha can not be ignored.

Judge Dredd is in the middle of an incredibly long and complicated story that could have enormous repercussions, Nikolai Dante is reaching its ultimate end, and Strontium Dog proves that Johnny Alpha is, was, and always will be top dog.

I’m still two months behind the UK – I just got #1770 the other day - so it seems a bit stupid to rave about these strips mid-storyline, when the rest of the world has already seen how they turn out, but my enthusiasm for these comics makes my hands shake.

Over the past few weeks, I have been getting genuinely excited about each new issue of 2000ad, eagerly buying each new issue straight off the stands every Thursday at that newsagent opposite the Sky Tower, because these three comics are just superb. Grey Area is still just terrible, and Absalom is only very good, but Dredd, Dante and the Dog are all superb examples of tight, thrilling and emotional action comics.

Judge Dredd

One of the tremendous benefits if telling one long story about one man over a period of 35 years is that hard decision and decisive actions taken decades ago can continue to have enormous repercussions.

Judge Dredd’s destruction of East-Meg One way back in the Apocalypse War was one of the great ‘Fuck yeah!’ moments in the 1980s, but this is a comic where killing half a billion people actually has consequences that can never really be avoided, even if it takes them decades to manifest.

Dredd’s enemies still hate him and have been trying to strike back at him, launching innumerable attacks over the years. They launch assassination runs, they put him on trial for genocide and they try to poison his whole city, but he keeps pushing them back with his directness and willpower. And the hate keeps going.

‘Day of Chaos’ is the story of their latest effort, and has now been running for months and months, and remains more tense and dense than any other comic I’m reading these days. Each six page slice of the story is packed with enormous amounts of plot, brief slices of extreme violence, great big dollops of daft humour and unexpected moments of real humanity.

There are no certainties in this latest piece of the Judge Dredd story, and it could go anywhere, and past mega-epics have shown that no character is safe, not even old Joe.

There has been some brilliantly dynamic art on Day of Chaos from the likes of Ben Willsher and Henry Flint – artists who are far more at home with gritty sci-fi than they ever are with gaudy superheroes – but John Wagner remains the main man behind the genius of the Dredd strip. His stories are as sharp and clever and funny as ever, he plays the long game like no other creator in all comics, and he still gets Dredd’s voice better than anybody.

Nikolai Dante

There is a moment early on in the Wedding of Jena Markarov where Nikolai Dante is being tortured in the dungeons, and all looks bleak. The ultimate bad guy of the entire series is incredibly powerful and completely in control of the situation, and all looks lost, unless you’ve read more than a couple of Dante stories, and then you’ll know this is just business as usual.

Dante has been down in the dungeon getting tortured half a dozen times in his long-running storyline. He’ll get out, and his shit-eating grin will be plastered all over the world again, and he’ll lead the fight against utter tyranny and pure dickishness.

It takes him about 20 pages to escape this time.

I’ve made no secret of my extreme admiration of the Nikolai Dante comic, and I still think it is one of the most energetic and powerful and rich comic I’ve read in the past decade.

The story of a real rogue caught up in a long war between two enormously powerful Houses that have set the world on fire, it showed that the typical 2000ad mega-warrior didn’t have to be celibate (although, to be fair, Slaine and Johnny Alpha both got their fair share of the ladies), and managed to tell a story that balanced the awful horrors of war with some outrageous swashbuckling, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

It’s that well-balanced mix of sex, violence, honour, humour and adventure that will be desperately missed when Nikolai Dante reaches its end soon, but it’s quite nice that a regular comic serial running for 15 years in weekly installment will reach a natural conclusion, still going out on a high.

And this final climactic serial by co-creators Morrison and Fraser is suitably spectacular – whether it’s Viktor Dante ruling the skies, or Elena Kurakin and Katarina Dante fighting side by side against the Imperial hordes for the last time, or the mutual destruction of two gigantic metaphors for the previous miserable dynasties, it’s just as spectacular as it needs to be, and I am breathless to see how it all turns out.

Strontium Dog

If the Judge Dredd storyline is only the latest serving in some vast and enjoyable 72-course meal, or if Nikolai Dante is now the main course of an extremely satisfying feats, then Strontium Dog is pure comfort food.

It’s just so reassuring to see Wagner and Ezquerra craft the new adventures of a resurrected Johnny Alpha with as much care, attention and humour as ever. That comfort is there when you see Johnny mingling with other mutants in the Doghouse, or when he takes half a dozen panels to work out which other Dog has been paid to terminate him, or when he quickly blasts away some real scum, or when he makes an awkward apology when the voice in his head makes him punch his only real friend in the face.

It’s also fantastic to have no idea where the story is going. Wagner and Ezquerra have been doing past adventures of Alpha for more than a decade now, but they were always weighed down the inevitability of Johnny’s final fate. Now that he is back, anything could happen, allowing all sorts of pleasurable speculation (I’m particularly fond of the idea that the voice in Johnny’s head is Nelson Bunker Kreelman, his dear old utterly psychopathic Dad, hitching a ride back into the world of the living inside his mutant son’s skull.)

Generally, resurrecting a dead comic character should be frowned upon, as every return cheapens every other demise, and makes the most tragic experience people can go through seem offensively silly. But I can’t frown at the return of Johnny Alpha, not when it’s handled so well. I just couldn’t stop grinning like a loon when I read it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

There wasn’t enough brown in my Flex Mentallo

Even though I knew it was coming, it was still surprising to actually see a Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery collection on the shelves of the local comic store. I remember seeing a solicitation for that book in a previews catalogue back in the late nineties, and the constant delays and baffling legal action made it look increasingly unlikely it would ever get released.

But there it was, sitting on the shelf in a snazzy new cover by Frank Quitely, ready for a new generation of readers.

I have a long and sordid history with Flex – for a couple of years it was my absolute favourite comic in the universe, and I would read it at least once a week (usually while drunk or stoned), and find something new every time. I bought the last copy of the first issue at the last minute from Bag End Books in Dunedin, fell in love with the series with the silent scream in space at the end of issue #2, and intentionally destroyed my original copy of #4 in some cack-handed attempt at a magical sacrifice.

So I know Flex Mentallo reasonably well, and the very first thing I noticed when I actually looked through the book was that it had all been re-coloured, to make it look more like a big serious comic with big serious themes, when the last thing you should accuse Flex Mentallo of is seriousness..

I understand why they do it. It’s a deluxe hardcover, and in order to justify the spiffy new treatment (and spiffy new price), somebody decided the comic needed a new paint job. I know Quitely was never happy with the original colours, and colouring technology has come a long, long way in the years Flex was trapped in that legal limbo.

But while the new colours really do give the artwork added depth, and are generally exceedingly tasteful, I do think it’s a pity there isn’t the option of getting the story in its original, four-colour garishness, because I still think the original work was far better.

I’m not saying comic creators and companies shouldn’t recolour their old comics. There have been some very successful recolouring efforts over the past few years, and besides, it’s their comics, they can do what they want with them.

But I would be lying if I said I thought the recolouring of Flex Mentallo was an improvement, because I really don’t. The added texture and depth does come at a cost – the original colouring was often garish and occasionally tasteless, but most of the superhero comics Flex was paying homage to were often garish and occasionally tasteless. These original colours – so harsh and bright - gave Quitely’s exquisite pencils an added bounce and optimism that the Hero of the Beach can only have approved of.

All those bright yellows and pinks and neon blues might look a little dated now, but they’re all more interesting than the gradients of brown and grey that replaced them.

Comics have been recoloured and repackaged since the very earliest days, but stunning advances in digital colouring over the past 20 years have encouraged comic companies to put out new and shiny editions of old favourites, with some snazzy new tones.

Sometimes it actually works, but sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes you end up with something like the recoloured Killing Joke from a couple of years ago. Like Quitely, Bolland was always a little disappointed in the original colours, but that was no excuse for the painfully dull new tones.

The greens, purples, oranges and yellows of the original book might have seared some eyes, but they were only fitting for a story about the Clown Prince of Crime. And while they have certainly dated, it’s slightly alarming to see how dated the recoloured stuff already looks, just four years after it was done. All those grey washes and tasteful rendering, and no pesky yellow Bat-emblem.

The sickly greens and oranges of the original Killing Joke may have been an unwanted by-product of the printing technology of the time, but they became a striking example of gaudy comic brilliance – a story about the Joker should never be that tasteful.

It is interesting to note how re-colouring efforts can quickly look just as dated as the original. The 1998 reprints of Matt Wagner’s first Mage series featured some lovely new tones that got rid of the fuzzy 1980s pastels that saturated the first printings, but – fourteen years later - the nineties efforts look just as dated in their own way as the 1984 work.

Must be time for another update, and some new, more modern efforts. (Must be time for some new Mage, too, now that the gap between Books two and three is exceeding the gap between one and two….)

It’s not all bad on the recolouring front - one genuinely good job of recent recolouring is the early Sandman comics. The first couple of years of the Gaiman title featured bold attempts at a sweeping colour palette that just didn’t work, and are now almost painful to look at, with Sam Keith and Mike Drinenberg’s art saturated in thick swipes of dark colour.

But – thanks to some sterling recolouring work - the art in the first Absolute Sandman edition is beautiful, as if somebody has wiped a thick layer of film off a renaissance masterpiece. Keith and Drinenberg’s organic art gets to breath and stretch out under the new palette, and stories like The Sound Of Her Wings and Tales in The Sand, or the whole bloody Doll’s House look beautiful.

It's a suitably thoughtful recolouring job that doesn't just assume that brown = serious, and makes the art so much more enjoyable to read.

I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the modern recolouring on some of Kirby’s Thor comics. There were a couple of books that came out last year to cash in on the movie that featured some of Kirby’s finest work from the 1960s, all drenched in 21st century colours.

It shouldn’t work, but the simplicity of the original Kirby colouring was designed to work on the newsprint page, and giving it some 21st-century touches gives these fifty-year-old pencils a new vibrance. New shadings and effects fit surprisingly well with Kirby’s blunt force brilliance, and it’s not hard to imagine the King making full use of things like Photoshop if he was still with us. .

I’m generally not bothered by colour; growing up on a steady diet of black and white comics (usually cheap British boys comics and cheaper Australian superhero reprints) means that while I can always appreciate a good – or even stunning – colouring job, I never think of it as indispensable. And as ugly as I find the new colouring on both Flex Mentallo and the Killing Joke, I still think they are great comics that rise above these dull tones.

But just because these things can be recoloured, doesn't always mean that they should be, and endless tinkering might lead to short term gains, but ultimate devalue the original work. And making crazy superhero action look as realistic as possible through 'proper' recolouring jobsisn't always a great idea, not when they are built on a foundation of four-colour fun.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Kick Ass 2: Ass kicked!

For all its macho posturing, cheerful offensiveness and outright tastelessness, Kick Ass can actually be a surprisingly sweet little comic sometimes.

Kick Ass 2 finally reached a conclusion recently, taking a year and a half to get through seven issues, and climaxing with a double-sized issue of murder, mayhem and an unashamed appreciation of super heroes.

The superhero genre has become a weird and mutated thing over the decades, and now the medium is choked with superheroes who kill, or are just plain old jerks. Nobody likes people who are better than them, so they’ve been dragged down to our level, and those capes don’t really work in the gutter.

There are still lots of great superhero comics – creators like Waid and Morrison idealise superheroes back up onto the pedestal where they belong – but it’s actually quite odd to finish Kick Ass and realise that it’s basically a love letter to all that is good and inspiring about super-heroes, buried beneath masses of profanity, casual carnage and piles of bodies.

Kick Ass is not for everybody, and everybody who writes it off as stupid, misogynistic, silly, offensive and bigoted have strong arguments for their cases, if that’s the way they want to read it.

But it is the only comic that has made me laugh out loud in the comic store this year, (it was the cover tagline: ‘This issue is dedicated to street-fighting!”). I am an ultra-pacifist in real life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a bit of cartoonish ultra-violence in my fiction, and the more grotesque it gets, the funnier it is. This is superhero absurdity, and I’m all about superhero absurdity.

And the way the book refuses to take its foot off the pedal, and just fuckin’ goes for it, still remains completely charming.

There might be a load of absurd superhero carnage, but all the way through the last issue of Kick-Ass 2, the reader is reminded of what superheroes are really all about. They hold the line until reinforcements come, they don’t resist arrest, they don’t hurt cops, they call an ambulance for a fallen foe. Even the people who are trying to stop them know they’ll always follow those rules, and use them to their advantage.

It’s the most blatant plea for the inherent goodness of super-hero comics from Mark Millar in a long time. His early Superman Adventures run betrays his absolute fondness for tights & fights, but it keeps popping up in his comics, no matter how cynical he tries to look. He loves the silly bastards who always do the right thing, and Kick Ass 2 hits that nerve.

Because even though the amateur superheroes in Kick Ass are slightly annoying, incredibly geeky and make matters so much worse until they spiral into a deadly mass brawl in Times Square, they’re trying to do the right thing.

By the end, Kick Ass’ narration is almost pleading with us to accept that there is still a definite place for superheroes, no matter how old they get – “We all just need s little colour in our lives and the certainty of a happy ending, because real life doesn’t always work out like that”.

This kind of heart-on-the-sleeve openness can be hard to take, but it's funny, and Millar is still hugely underrated for his pacing, and the comic barrels to a conclusion with real kinetic force.

Millar might not have been able to get away with it if he didn’t have John Romita Jr, because he just might be the best action artist currently working in American comics. Nobody who draws superhero comics can capture the power of an immaculate punch like Romita – just look at his World War Hulk comics, where insanely powerful punches literally set the air on fire around them.

Kick-Ass 2 #7 is 34 pages of mayhem, but under Romita’s pencils, it never gets boring. He captures the clumsiness of two guys flaying away at each other, and the solid and slick moves of the professional killers. And it’s smart - look at how the first punch Kick Ass lays on the Motherfucker is the same shot Hit Girl gets him with on the very first page of the first issue.

Romita has been laying these kind of pencils down for decades now, and his art has evolved out of early stiffness into some brilliantly loose and alive art.

No wonder he still looks like he is 27-years-old in the photo in the back of the comic.

On the last page of Kick Ass 2, it says it’s the end of volume three, which confused me for a while, and I chalked it up to a weird typo, which actually makes Millar’s claim to be part of the Big Three more valid, since the last time anybody made that claim it was Image and their books were riddled with odd typos, but then I realised that Hit Girl was probably going to turn out to be Volume Two, since it apparently takes place between Kick Ass 1 and Kick-Ass 2, so that explained that.

Sometimes I want a No-Prize sooooo bad.

I do have higher-than-average affection for Mark Millar comics. I frequently find them really funny and slickly entertaining, and sometimes they even manage to be unexpectedly moving.

I’m not a total fan – some of his work is just too Millar-ized. I never really liked Wanted (even though I thought that last page was a hoot), was surprised by how badly he handled Spider-Man, and we’re still not allowed to talk about his Judge Dredd comics without the required (and justified) sneering.

But I like more than I dislike, and I liked Kick-Ass a hell of a lot. And not in any ironic so-bad-it’s-good way - I just genuinely enjoy it.

Fortunately, while Kick Ass 2 has finally reached an end, there will be a Hit Girl series starting in June, which should scratch that itch. And I am truly excited about Jupiter’s Children (because I get truly excited about everything Frank Quitely does), and the preview of the Secret Service in the back of Kick Ass #7 has sold me on that series, largely due to some impeccable comic timing on that last page.

Besides, for all of Mark Millar’s annoyingly loud proclamations, he does genuinely love comics. While he tries to make his stamp on films, the UK newsstand market and the convention business, he shows an un-matched enthusiasm for still putting out his comics.

Which makes Kick-Ass 3 inevitable, especially when the latest series ends on a classic End-Of-Act-Two downer note. I can’t wait for that, because there is always a place in my heart for balls-to-the-walls action comics, and superheroes with a bit of soul.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I can’t get rid of that

There comes a time when all semi-serious comic collectors take a look at their collections and think: ‘I have got to get rid of some of this crap’, but there also comics that are almost impossible to get rid of, no matter how hard you try.

It took me a long time to get to that purge point – I was almost 30 before I had the first serious de-bulking of my comics. By that stage, I had nearly 50,000 of them, but I was stuck in the mindset that I couldn’t get rid of them. Any of them.

But when I took a closer look, I realised there were literally tonnes of comics that I could get rid of. I barely read so many of them, actively disliked some of them and was incredibly apathetic about so many more. I was growing up and getting married and going overseas, but – most of all – I was just tired of having all that stuff around, when it was wasn’t serving any purpose.

About the same time, the ability to sell comics over the internet in New Zealand became viable, and the idea of turning all that useless paper and useless stories into cash – any cash- was irresistible. So I started on a series of purges, and got more ruthless with each one.

I say this a lot, but this really was something else that was all Grant Morrison’s fault. I always remember an old 2000ad which had a rare creator interview with the Scottish artist, in which he was asked what his favourite moment in comics actually was, and he replied that it was the moment he realised he could just chuck them in the bin.

I never got the hang of the total purge, like Morrison advocated, I was just too emotionally attached to too many of the bloody things, but there were still plenty of them that didn’t have that same attachment and they were out the door.

Hundreds of perfectly average post-Crisis Superman comics (including the entire Death/Return of Superman, which took me years to accumulate, but didn’t actually hold up on re-reading), entire series I had somehow managed to amass without really enjoying. (Sorry, Guardians of the Galaxy), and thousands and thousands of random comic books, from damn near every publisher there every was.

I regret getting rid of a lot of it – I still wish I had those Hourman comics, and I went looking for some Englehart/Rogers Silver Surfer from the late eighties the other day, convinced that I still had them, only to discover that I must have got rid of them years ago.

But I don’t regret it that much. It’s always nice to refine a collection down to the essentials And thanks to reprints and libraries, I can always read those Reign of the Supermen comics whenever I get the urge. And my memories of things as awful as the Bob Harras Avenger comics are surprisingly affectionate, and don’t need to be ruined by the horrible reality. 

 I’ve still got thousands and thousands of comic books – there are nine boxes full of 2000ad product alone teetering in a frankly dangerous two-metre tall pile in one corner of this room, and cupboards and bookcases and boxes full of other comics all over the house.

I still go through the odd purge, (I just put a big chunk of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four up for sale yesterday), but it’s getting harder and harder to get rid of any more, because they all mean so much to me.

Mostly it’s because they’re just bloody good stories that I want to re-read over and over again, but there is also a huge amount of shameless nostalgia.

There are comics that can be pretty bloody awful, but I hold onto because they remind of a specific time and place in my life, and I never want to lose that. Things like the first two years of New Warriors, which I will always hold onto - mainly because they represent the absolute zenith point of my comic obsession more than any other comics I own.

And there are some random comics that I picked up over the years, that aren’t even as gaudily entertaining as the New Warriors, that are pretty average, and have little real nostalgic value. And while I’ve got rid of the vast majority of them, there are some that I keep putting in the dumping pile, only to keep saving them from that fate at the last second.

Comics like Adventures of the Outsiders #46.

Adventures of the Outsiders was the last issue in that weird experiment DC tried with the Outsiders in the mid-eighties, where three of the company’s team books became deluxe direct-only books, and the comics were reprinted a year later on newsprint for newsstands.

It was never going to work – you’d end up with weird things like Jason Todd showing up in a new Teen Titans comic after he’d just been blown up by the Joker – and the reprint comics all disappeared within a couple of years.

Issue 46 was the last Outsiders reprint issue, although its deluxe edition lasted a lot longer. It focuses on the female characters in the super-team, who end up in an adventure involving weird little Japanese mystic birds and some body-hijacking. It was – as usual – written by Mike W Barr and featured guest art by Jan Duursema.

Even though I am a total fiend for both Jim Aparo and Alan Davis art, this somehow ended up being the only issue of the Outsiders that I ever owned. And I can’t get rid of it.

There is some nostalgic value, to be sure. I bought this comic as part of a special comic pack from a Dunedin supermarket that doesn’t exist any more, about six months after the comic was published.

That pack was a gem – I also got Uncanny X-Men #219 when I was an absolute X-zombie, and the last issue of Miller/Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, which was my first real exposure to the glory of Frank Miller.

The Outsiders comic was the runt of that lot, but it’s still sitting right here on the desk beside my computer, 24 years later. Even though it went on the ‘sell’ pile so many times, it’s still there.

But it isn’t the nostalgia factor that keeps saving it. I’ve still got those X-Men and Year One issues to remember that particular slice of my life. It is the fact that it’s actually not a bad comic book.

It’s a densely packed, done-in-one story, showing that girls don’t always need the boys to save them. It’s actually pretty weird, and it literally took me years to really understand what was going on, with all the magic birds and mind-swapping.

And the art, by the incredibly underrated Jan Duursema, has a soft vibe that overcomes any young clumsiness, and remains charming, while also bringing some serious sexy. (Katana never looked more beautiful….)

The latest purge is going quite well, and I should get rid of three or four hundred comics in the next couple of weeks, and make enough money to go spend when I go to Armageddon in Hamilton with my best mate.

But the Adventures of the Outsiders #46 is going back in the box of other miscellaneous DC crap that has survived the purges for various reasons. I can’t get rid of it.

Not this time.