Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Conversation

Never mind all those Dads who say that there isn’t any smart writing on comics these days, and that the art of critical thinking has been irreparably diluted by the sheer amount of material on the internet, and that things aren’t as smart as they used to be, and all that bullshit. They don’t know what they are talking about.

There has never been a more better time for rich and thoughtful essays, blogs, reviews, interviews about comics. The world is full of this sort of thing, and we all have access to it. This is a Golden Age of Comic Thought, and more fool you if you can’t see it.

Those same Dads are always moaning about the dire state of comics journalism, and can’t see the vast forest of knowledge past their few ignorant trees. But this sort of complaint about the lack of critical thought is nothing new.

In an interview with the Comics Journal in 1994, Neil Gaiman and Gary Groth had an exceedingly pleasant conversation that strayed into the area of comics criticism, and both men took the opportunity to bemoan the fact that there wasn’t a wide range of critical writing. They both managed to dredge up a few examples, (and did an admirable job of not mentioning the Journal itself, which is, was, and will always be a fine source of critical thinking), but for the most part, they despaired about the lack of real thought on comics.

But that was 1994, eighteen years ago, and things have changed. The age of the Internet was just about to kick in, and neither man could have predicted the explosion of writing about comics that would produce, to the point where the kind of thing that were aching for in that pre-web age is now everywhere on a daily basis.

To be fair, there is still a lot of crap to wade through. A recent blog post by Dave Lartigue perfectly nailed the laziest of critical thinking – throwing in a couple of post culture reference is not the same as critical thought. Lartigue’s piece – which was better than zombie apes and pirate ninjas dueling with light-sabers over one of Gil Gerard’s white leotards that has caught fire, with bacon – pointed out that there are smarter ways to express enthusiasm for something without resorting to easy referencing

But while there are plenty of examples of this, all over the place, there is also a lot of really intelligent and thoughtful writing on the internet, with more showing up every single day. In blogs alone, there is Colin Smith's unwaveringly polite devotion to comics craft, or the brilliant pieces of character analysis on Tim O’Neil’s site, or J Caleb Mozzocco’s ongoing quests for simple pleasures. Group blogs like Savage Critics, the Factual Opinion and Mindless Ones have individual identities that demand excellence and decry mediocrity.

Lovely people like Tom Spurgeon, Graeme McMillan and Sean T Collins provide essential linking,  and old warhorses like the Comics Journal are still helping out, with strong writing on both print and screen.

And this isn’t even getting into comic videos and podcasts. There are too many to keep track of, and not enough free time in the day to listen to them all, although it is possible to follow a couple faithfully (I never miss an episode of House to Astonish and Wait, What?)

All of this, and so much more, creates The Conversation, which I think is always worth listening to.

The Conversation about comics is a vast and sprawling thing, that spreads between a dozen main websites and dozens more blogs and online columns and magazine articles. It’s never talking about one single thing – the only thing connecting all these threads together is an interest in the form, medium and business of comics.

Sometimes, a large part of the conversation gets fixated on a single aspect of the medium – in recent months, Before Watchmen has been on a lot of peoples’ minds, and has generated an incredible amount of debate and reasoning. It can all get a bit much, (especially when the only sensible option for dealing with this kind of appalling idea is to give it no oxygen at all), but it’s not everything.

There are still hundreds of other parts in the Conversation which are more interested in things like Chris Ware’s new box of books, or the new stash of mini-comics snapped up at some dreary suburban comic convention, or a debate on the merits of some almost-forgotten artist from decades ago.

Sometimes it can get into things I’m not bothered about – I’m right behind everybody who says the Kirby estate deserve a bigger cut of the Avengers pie, but a lot of this discussion gets bogged down in a boring focus on the money. And while it is a phenomenal amount of money, it’s not the most important part.

There isn’t as much talk about the fact that concepts and ideas that Jack came up with decades ago are finally becoming the most absolutely mainstream thing, and the ideas that he had with Stan back in the day, and passed on and built upon by hundreds of other talented creators, are now taking root in the minds of a new generation. I’m far more interested in hearing that side of the deal.

It's an endless discussion. It's loud, occasionally obnoxious and can get very, very weary. But while there has never been more rubbish to wade through, the riches that can be dug out are like nothing else.

The Conversation – as far as I’m hearing it – is composed of all sorts of voices saying all sorts of different things, talking about everything to do with comics. There is loads and loads of smart thinking, some really charming humour and an unbridled love for comic books. Anybody with any interest in the form, medium, industry and life of the comic book world can't help eavesdropping, and might even contribute to the beautiful noise.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Classic X

I used to have hundreds and hundreds of X-comics, but I now have more issues of Kick-Ass than the Uncanny X-Men.

The rest have gone in various purges – eaten up in online auctions, swapped with mates and given away to kids – but I’ve held onto a few X-books – I still love a lot of the incredibly weird mid-eighties New Mutants and X-Men annuals and specials (especially when Art Adams was involved), and I will never, ever get rid of my Alan Davis Excalibur comics.

I’ve also held on to the first 45 issues of Classic X-Men from the late eighties, partly because it’s always nice to have the brilliance of those wacky and still-meaty Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne comics, and partly because of those absolutely mental backups.

Even though the X-Men are now nowhere near as groovy as they once were, there have still been millions of words singing the praises of the original comics that were reprinted in Classic, so there is no need to go into that, although it could be noted that they still stand up a lot better than their other contemporaries of that time. Byrne’s art is as polished as ever, nobody ever drew a screaming face with quite the same passion as Cockrum, and Claremont laid out a storytelling template that was so rich, he could go back to it again and again, and its influence ended up seeping into almost every mainstream superhero comic.

All those imitators and dilutors couldn’t change the fact that they’re great comics, but they’re not the main reason for holding on to these comics in this particular format. It’s the little extras, which included some splendid covers and frontispieces, (with our man Adams playing a large part in that as well), an early example of remix theory showing up in mainstream comics, and some fantastic back-up stories.

Those back-up strips managed to be something that really was all new and all different at the time these X-comics were published. Even though they were centred around stories that were more than a decade old at the time (and are now more than three and a half decades old), they also brought a late eighties sensibility to mid-seventies comics.

It’s easy to see, even under the guidance of the same writer, a subtle evolution of the mutant story. There was only a decade or so between those original Uncanny X-Men and the Classic reprint series, but the growth was there as the clunkiest of characterisation gave way to surprisingly subtle storytelling.

After all, it had been a significant decade of change for superhero comic books. It followed another huge seismic shift in the decade before, where the DC heroes went from charming clunkiness to streamlined speediness, and Marvel took its soap operatics to the cosmic level.

But there was still another sizable shift in regular superhero comics between 1975 and 1986. Storytelling evolution is always with us, and fittingly, the X-Men were at the front of this evolution for much of its history. The artists from the X-books redefined popular art comics in the mid nineties, (for better or worse), Morrison's x-run was the centrepiece of Nu-Marvel and its current average-ness is indicative of super-hero comics as a whole.

But under the deceptively soft line of John Bolton, the back-up stories told tales set in and around well-known comics, adding depth to those more simplistic stories and showing just how bad things were in the background.

Sometimes they were surprisingly uplifting and there were little moments of triumph for common decency, like Nightcrawler walking down Main Street, USA without hiding his real face, but they were also stories where an innocent woman gets her throat cut to prove a point to Magneto, or where Sebastian Shaw has the Hellfire Club brutally shot to make way for his own Hellfire Club, filled with his psychopathic and snappily-dressed mutant buddies.

The work by Claremont and Bolton has a strange, dream like quality. Never strictly canon, and all the better for it, these side-steps often showed an affinity for mood over plot. Even though Claremont could cram a lot of plot into these short stories (especially when he did something about a character with a real history, like Banshee,) Bolton’s art gives the stories an atmosphere that is oddly unique.

Bolton’s art was terribly unfashionable at the time, when names like Lee, Liefeld and McFarlane started appearing in big mainstream comics, but it still absolutely beautiful work, capturing Wolverine’s scowl, mad space wars and vast existential terrors with equal aplomb. It certainly stands up a lot better than those early Image founders’ efforts.

Things got even odder when Ann Nocenti, still doing marvellously weird things in titles like Longshot and Daredevil, started writing the back-ups, and brought out Bolton's sense of weirdness even stronger. Nocenti was less inclined towards filling in gaps, and, thankfully, was more interested in telling her own tales. They’re still creepy and memorable and often involved some kind of disturbing body horror that would be right at home in a Cronenberg film, and oddly fitting for a comic about mutation and evolution.

While these back-ups often told the story behind the story, the other extra material in Classic X-Men were all about the gaps between the panels. Additional story pages featuring all new material, cut and pasted into the old narrative, adding to the complexity and covering over youthful indiscretions.

These new bits fleshed out the past in incredible detail. It wasn’t always a good thing – it could disrupt the flow of the original work (something George Lucas was still figuring out more than a decade later) and they could make the whole thing a bit wordy for its own good, but there is the odd bit of depth. They gave none-more-eighties- villains like Apocalypse and Mr Sinister background roles in stories that were printed years before they first appeared.

Directors' cuts are everywhere now, but this early example of a remixed mainstream comic book was just as clumsy and oddly endearing as you would expect. It’s easy to sneer at these efforts, but hell, I still find it fun to try and figure out where the seams are.

Eventually, they stopped bothering to insert new stuff and the back-up stories dried up. Bolton stopped doing them after a couple of years, and there were some inspired efforts (including that Jim Lee fellow), they weren’t quite the same, and often tied into more modern X-comics in a way that left a bad taste in the mouth.

By the time they got to the end of the Byrne era, the Classic X-Men editors decided to ditch the additional material, and just do straight reprints (although there were still some lovely covers to come by the likes of Mike Mignola and Adam Hughes).

I stopped getting it soon after this, but I never got rid of that run, and even went to the effort of filling in the few gaps I had. (It took more than a decade.) Because even though these classix are now available in variable formats, and some of them are lavish and sexy, I like the Classic X-Men comics and their weird little extras the most.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Moving. Just keep moving.

The lack of activity at the Tearoom of Despair over the past week can be blamed on one simple fact – we had to move house, and even though we were only moving a couple of blocks down the road, it was a hell of a lot of work.

All self-inflicted, of course. It would have been a whole lot easier if I didn’t have literally dozens of big boxes full of comics, books and magazines. It would have been a lot easier if I just got rid of the lot and went minimal.

It would have been a hell of a lot easier, but this was never going to happen. I look at all those boxes I’ve now got piled up in the new spare room, full of all this crap, in stacks that are taller than me, and I love it all, more than ever.

Every time in the past few weeks when I told somebody I was moving, they would lurch into immediate sympathy mode, usually followed up with some horrific moving story of their own. Which means there must be something wrong with me, because I actually really like moving.

Okay, I could do without some of the back breaking labour of actually shifting these things. While it is decent exercise and can give you guns of steel, I also ended up with scrapes and bruises all over my body, in the oddest of places. It’s taken three days for my arms to stop aching, and all that labour killed the appetite, leading me further into the Realm of the Unwell.

But it’s worth it. I truly love the sorting, the organising, the opportunity for new display options, the excuse to have a dig through those forgotten boxes in the bottom of the cupboard, and find old issues of Amazing Heroes I didn’t even know I had, or old diaries that still make me laugh, or videotapes full of esoteric bullshit.

I like the opportunity to take stock, but because I’m a lazy bastard, I never end up doing it until I absolutely have to. You can’t put it off dealing with this stuff any more when you have to shift it. And you never know what you’re going to find.

During one of the recent excellent Group Think things Tom Spurgeon does on The Comics Reporter, he asked readers to chime in with their thoughts on digital comics, and what they actually wanted, and what they would pay for digital stories.

I didn’t participate, because I would have been that wanker that rains on everybody’s dreams of the future. Because I wouldn’t pay a single damn cent for a digital comic, but happily spend thousands of dollars every year on print comics. I have absolutely no interest in comics unless I can have the paper to flick through.

Even though I try to kid myself when I say I’m all about the story, I do have a real fetish for the printed page that looking at something on a screen never, ever satisfies. (Plus, y’know, technology hates me, and digital devices can fail in dozens of ways that a book never will.)

But one of the things that genuinely surprised me about the comments left on Spurgeon’s roundtable was how important space was as a consideration. Many people appear to have switched to digital comics because the act of storing them is just too hard.

I never thought of it as work. Whenever I’ve moved house, I’ve never asked anybody else to move the boxes of comics, because they’re my responsibility. (If they keep offering, I’m not going to say no, though.) They’re all mine, and if they have to be moved to a new location, than I’m the one who has to do it.

There are still a lot of boxes – my 2000ad collection alone fills nine full banana boxes – but I can fit them in a couple of carloads, and it’s never that much of a bother. I get so much enjoyment out of all these things, it’s worth a little effort. And pain.

There will always be an issue of storage space, especially when we’re moving into another small-ish flat, but I’m efficient with my space.

I have two sisters, so when I was growing up and when we were moving around a lot, I always ended up in the tiniest room in the house on my own while they shared the other big one, and I got very, very good at storing my geek shit. I still am, and can slot away every Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore comic I own under the bed.

I like the puzzle of putting things in the right place. The nearest digital equivalent to all this is cutting and pasting files into new folders, and I don’t stumble across a fascinating 100-page interview with John Byrne in his prime in an issue of David Alan Kraft’s Comic Interview by right-clicking on stuff.

My parents always rented houses when we were growing up, so we were always moving, and by the time I was 30, I had lived in 33 different houses. (I can’t even name all the streets anymore.) We moved into this last flat more than four and a half years ago, which was, by far, the longest I had ever lived in one place in my entire life.

Maybe that’s why I ached so much more after this shift. I was out of practise, and, well, I’m thirty-seven, not eighteen. There are more aches and annoyances than ever before.

We were also firmly entrenched in that last place, and there were things in there that I hadn’t seen in years, and it was always nice to stumble across some comics that I had bought, and completely forgotten about.

A good collection of comics is never stagnant, and over the past five years I have got rid of more than I have got new, but there was still a shitload to move. But now it’s all done, and in the new place, I get more display options. I spend a lot of time figuring out if the Iron Fist comics are good enough to warrant a living room place - (They do. For now.) – and whether that Knight and Squire book belongs on the bookshelf in the spare bedroom. (Sorry, Knight and Squire, but you were just a little too arch.)

It’s a total pain in the arse sorting all this out, and moving house can be a huge inconvenience.  But it’s totally worth it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Happy happy. Joy joy.

The comic industry can seem a grim and miserable place sometimes, with companies screwing over creators and bitter feuds in this tiny community developing over decades, calcifying into some real hate.

All that bile and sadness can really gnaw away at anybody with a real enthusiasm for comics, but it’s always easy to find a few happy things in all this misery. There is always something to look forward to, or to enjoy over and over again, and it wasn’t hard at all to come up with a short list of comic things that make me happy:

* The manner of Chris Roberson’s exit from DC Comics was wonderfully noble, even if it’s tragic how rare that kind of stand really is. It’s not really that hard to say you don’t want to work for a company with dodgy ethics. There are always other options.

* Jeff Smith’s Rasl is reaching its conclusion with unexpected (and welcome) speed. I honestly thought it was going to be another big epic, but it has turned out to be a tight and fast-paced piece of scientific action.

* After all this time, it was incredibly satisfying to see Katarina Dante, pirate queen of the Pacific, finally getting her revenge on Dmitri Romanov at the climax of the entire Nikolai Dante saga. (I thought it was going to be Jena, but Captain Dante was far more apt.)

* The CENSORED Howard Cruse was the best of the Free Comic Book Day comics I read, partly because I’m always fond of seriously shameful autobiographical stories, (and it doesn’t get more shameful that shooting your load every time you put pen to paper), but mainly because I was tickled by the idea that what I thought was behind the big black bars was actually a lot filthier than what it probably actually was.

* I had a brilliant moment of realisation when I discovered that The Losers Showcase that I had just got out of the library featured dozens and dozens of pages of gorgeous John Severin art. I can never, ever get enough Severin. Even though he’s a goddamn comics legend, I still think he is incredibly underrated and worthy of more appraisals.

* Thanks to the same book, I finally made the distinction between artists Russ Heath, Ross Andru and Russ Braun, which had been bugging me for ages. It was the Ted Nugent/Todd Rundgren thing all over again.

* I also love looking at the art in the letters page of old issues of Amazing Heroes, because you always find well-known artists doing odd things well before they were famous, like Paul Chadwick drawing Kitty Pryde, or a John McCrea Spirit, or Bruce Timm doing an exceptionally Gil Kane-y Green Lantern.

* Even though Alan Moore keeps saying he is done with comics, there are likely to be loads more League of Extraordinary comics still to come, and this is a good thing.

* A recent rediscovery of an old diary reminded me how much I loved Matt Wagner’s Grendel comics back in the day, so I went back and read every single one of them in the past week, from the earliest black and white (and incomplete) Hunter Rose stories, up through Spar, Orion and Prime, to the last Grendel Tales, and back to Rose for black, white and red misadventures. It was an extremely rewarding experience.

* The promise of more Palomar stories in Love and Rockets #4 is just as exciting. I know Beto has been reinvigorated by doing all-new things in the past decade, but I genuninely do miss Heraclio, Carmen, Israel, Jesus, Chelo and all the rest.

* Seeing Tony de Zuniga’s art on a Kull story in a recent Dark Horse’s Savage Sword 80-page comic was a pleasant surprise. Outside of the rare appearance in a Jonah Hex comic, I had not seen any of the artist’s work in years, but I adored his stuff in Marvel’s black and white horror comics of the seventies, and I had assumed he had retired. But there it is, instantly recognisable, and as beautiful as it ever was. The joy is obviously tarnished by the fact that the artist passed away three days after I read that comic, but his art was as strong than ever, right to the end.

* I know this isn’t comics, but the fact that Mad Men gets better every single season gives me an enormous feeling of well being. This latest series is so fucking good, so effortlessly rich, that it is a pure joy to watch, even if it does give me terrible nightmares.

* Speaking of nightmares: Oh my Grud, the Dark Judges are coming back. They’ve basically been on ice since Necropolis, which was – blimey – 22 years ago now. Even Judge Death has been off the scene for nearly ten years, and Fear, Mortis and Fire’s return to the pages of Judge Dredd is insanely exciting.

* I love the enthusiasm and slight embarrassment in this blurb from an ad for the first Fantagraphics issue of Love and Rockets, which appeared in the October 1982 issue of Amazing Heroes: “No kidding! LOVE & ROCKETS is Madness unleashed! Super-science! (Fantasy.) High adventure! (Low-to-medium adventure.) Monsters! (Super-heroes.) Epic battles! (Petty squabbles.) Human drama! (Satire.) Naked women! (Clothed women.) Love! (But – no rockets!?!)”

* Another Parker book by Cooke soon. Good. A likely long delay until the next one because of all that Watchmen nonsense. Not so good.

* In August we’re going to the UK for a couple of weeks and I’m gonna go to the Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury, and Gosh and Orbital, and I’m gonna find the comic shops in all the big British towns and cities, and I’ve already started looking up things on the internet, and I’ve already started apologising to the long-suffering wife for dragging her around to all these places. I’m so excited, I think I’m gonna burst.

* There are dozens – probably hundreds, maybe thousands – of new comics already out there that I still haven’t heard of, that are going to blow my socks off one day. There is so much great stuff out there, it can take years to get to it, so I better not waste any more time.

The Tearoom of Despair is now closed for the week for existential renovations Normal service resumes next Monday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Straight to Hell, Boy

Mike Mignola and his pals have been producing excellent Hellboy comics for nearly two decades now, crafting a massive and far-reaching epic that manages to be creepy, exciting, goofy, spooky and beautiful, all at the same time. The Hellboy comics and the various spin-offs are some of the most stylish and visually exciting action comics on the stands, and the stories are always rewarding. Hellboy has spawned a miniature comic empire of its own, and produced two reasonably successful movies. Hellboy comics are emotionally rich and full of powerful action, and have been for years.

I think it’s about time I started buying it.

In my defense, I was there at the start, buying all four Seed of Destruction comics off the shelves of one of the first comic shops I ever went to, although that was mainly because I was a John Byrne completist at the time, even if he was just doing the dialogue. (Although I had been a huge fan of Mignola’s work ever since he showed up in an early issue of X-Force and did a dozen pages that made all the hot artists of the time look like the amateurs they really were.)

But I lost track of Hellboy, and somebody borrowed those first Hellboy comics and never ended up giving them back, and the next thing I knew there were dozens of Hellboy comics, and even more spin-offs, and I didn’t even know where to start. By the time I even realised BPRD was a thing, there were half a dozen trade paperbacks, and now there are Baltimore and Witchfinder books to check out.

It’s a small mountain of reading material to get through, and even though every single book in the Hellboy universe has been thoughtful, rewarding and entertaining, it can still take a long, long time to get through it all.

Even though I quickly lost track, I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, and have read almost all of the Hellboy world comics, in some form or another, and almost completely out of order. Some through friends, most through local libraries. It can get very confusing, but it’s always worth it, because they always turn out to be fucking awesome comics.

They are always beautiful books, from both an art and design perspective. Mignola’s use of negative space and thick colour have influenced a small stable of artists who still have their own identifiable style – Duncan Fegredo’s beautiful work always, always looks like Duncan Fegredo art – helping to create a cohesive world that has a certain style, look and feel all of its own.

And the long game that Mignola is playing is rewarding, often in unexpectedly moving ways. Plot elements set up in the very first Hellboy stories are only just paying off, and the world has enough depth and feeling, so that it actually means something when somebody is betrayed, or makes the ultimate sacrifice.

Hellboy comics are always good.

They’re so good that you never really see them show up in the cheap bins, which is where I usually get started on something that is too big to follow. Pick up a few issues from a few different $1 bins, and before you know it, you’ve got enough of a huge comic that it is relatively painless to fill in the gaps. I’m still collecting things like Cerebus and Bacchus this way.

But I have never seen issues of Hellboy of the dollar bin. They never really filter through into the second-hand market. People who buy Hellboy tend to hold on to Hellboy.

Until a couple of weeks ago where - at the same place I was finally turned on to Chaykin – I picked up a couple dozen of Hellboy issues from the Gotham Comics stand for a buck each.

This was a good score.

It was a mix of the past 15 years worth of Hellboy, little one-offs like Hellboy Jr, or stories with beautiful art by the likes of Kevin Nowlan and Richard Corben, a few random pieces of the overall tapestry, and – most interestingly – all of The Fury storyline.

The Fury is the one of the peaks of the Hellboy story, with the main character’s time on Earth coming to a spectacular and horrific climax. It’s suitably apocalyptic, with thousands, possibly millions, of innocent people incinerated by fire from heaven, and Hellboy in the centre of it all, trying to stop the end of the world with punching.

His blunt force does work, and Hellboy does bring a halt to Armageddon with his tenacious will and fucking giant fist, but does end up making the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say this is where Hellboy dies – it’s been promised since 1993, and the next series is called ‘Hellboy In Hell’. After all, he was often promised that his story would not end with his demise, and that he would never know the peace of the grave.

Mignola is coming back with Hellboy in Hell, which is terribly exciting news, because even though the work of Fegredo and others has been outstanding, (especially with the weirdly trans-atlantic feel of the series), Mignola is still a master, and never looks happier than when he is drawing a new Hellboy story.

So that’s where I’m finally jumping on the Hellwagon. The promise of more Mignola, the fact that The Fury was just so good, and the obvious fact that the storyline is at such an interesting position that I really can’t wait for the inevitable collection. I want to know now what is happening in Hellboy. I have to see where it is going.

And if I’m coming on too late, if this is the end of Hellboy completely, now that he has finally come to his long-prophesised death, then that is okay, because I have a lot still to catch up on, and plenty of older material to devour.

I do feel a bit guilty that it has taken me this long to really dig the Hellboy, to the point where I will be buying every new issue from now on, but hell, better late than never.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Comic Book Men are all right by me

Even though I have just been digging right in the back of my Cupboard Of Secret Shame and coming back with horrible nineties diary entries, there is always room for more, and I do have a new addition to pack in there:  I really enjoyed the Comic Book Men television show and hope they do loads more.

I didn’t see a lot of positive reviews for it, with the most common criticism being that it reinforced stereotypes about the masculine dorkiness of the comic book store, a stereotype that many other retailers have spent years trying to overcome in a bid to welcome new demographics.

And there was certainly some of that, but I still tuned in every week, and enjoyed every episode, because I can never get enough of seeing comic shops on television.

In that same clean-out that turned up those painful old diaries, I found a stash of video tapes I hadn’t watched in years and years. I had to have a look at them, just to see what was there, and found a lot of them had weird music videos and movie trailers and news items about geek culture from the early to mid nineties.

I had taped the first mention of Pulp Fiction on Entertainment Tonight and movie montages from the Academy Awards and the trailer for Casino, which I think is still the first great movie trailer I ever saw. There was tonnes of this stuff.

Most of it is on YouTube, but a lot of it isn’t, so a lot of those videos avoided going into the rubbish skip. There is one Oscars montage in particular, from somewhere at the turn of the century – a collection of great documentary moments, scored to the Beatles’ Let It Be – that I have an unbelievable fondness for, finding it an accurate summation of the 20th century, from the horrors of war, to the noble humanity of the fight for freedom, to the beauty of humanity’s greatest art, to the eccentricities of individuals like R Crumb.

(I should digitise all those clips, but even though I do look like a total nerd, and do have a vaguely useful natural ability to use computers, I don’t know shit about technology or IT, and have actively avoided updating my tech knowledge for more than a decade now, and I can’t even use my iPhone properly, and it’s all because nothing drives me into a rage like computers that don’t do what they’re bloody well supposed to do and I have no idea how to turn video tape into a digital file. So I hold on to the tapes.)

As well as crazy slices of pop culture like that Oscars montage, I also obsessively taped any news items that mentioned comic books, and there were a surprising amount of those.

There were the dudes at Mark One Comics in 1992, talking about the Death of Superman, and there was the NBC story about Rob Liefeld doing a terrible comic inspired by the Rodney King riots.

At the time I taped these filler news stories, I had an obsessive relation with comic shops. I’d only been to two ever in my entire life, and I almost mythologised these stores I saw on TV, and would go back and forth on the tape, trying to recognise the comics on the shelves behind them, and being blown away because I recognised a Love and Rockets cover for a comic I had never read (and wouldn’t for another good decade).

Even though geek culture is now everywhere, and even though I’ve now been to literally hundreds of shops all over the world, I still do this – if I see a news story about comics on the TV, I’m checking out the background, to see if I can recognise any of the comics on the shelves.

I have done this when the story has been about a shop I go to every single week, which is just wrong, and I certainly still do this when the camera goes roaming around Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash.

Even though I still have an inordinate fondness for Kevin Smith (except when he does superhero comics) , there are things I really don’t like about Comic Book Men – I never like the moment when somebody who thought they had something really valuable finds out it’s only worth a couple of bucks, and the way some people can’t hide their complete disappointment is always a tiny bit heartbreaking.

And there is too much dude humour on the programme. Despite some laudable efforts, comic book shops are still incredibly male places, and that amount of dumb testosterone in the room means there is going to be a lot of toilet humour, usually at the expense of their fellow man. That sense of humour doesn’t always translate well into a television format - people who have been giving their friends shit since they were all in grade school might seen like the funniest people in the world, but they just seem like bullies when you only see them for less than an hour a week.

And the little missions – heading to the flea market, putting on a zombie sale - they come up with every week just come off as the gratuitous padding they are. Sometimes it feels like the show would work a lot better in a half-hour slot without it.

But there are also moments in the show that I do genuinely enjoy, and it’s not just the same old little thrills of recognising that issue of Hellboy that Ming is flicking through.

Because in a show like this, you can’t fake a genuine enthusiasm for something like comic books. You either got it or you don’t. In his introduction for Jonathan Ross’ Turf comic, Mark Millar writes about how you can tell when somebody is faking geekiness, and how it’s always obvious. It’s right to be suspicious of anybody who starts saying how much they love Jack Kirby’s Spider-Man (unless they are talking about the King’s brief role in the character’s genesis).

And the Comic Book Men might be occasionally obnoxious and rarely funny, they do love their comics. When somebody comes in with some gorgeous original John Buscema Silver Surfer art, there is nothing staged about the way store manager Walt breaks out in the cold sweats, or the goggle eyes on Mike when somebody whips out a copy of All-Star Comics #8

That’s the pay-off for all that crushing disappointment when somebody finds out their Aliens doll isn’t worth shit. Somebody comes in with some old comics that they don’t know anything about, and find out they’re walking around with a box worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of comics in it.

Bloody hell, even I got a bit excited about seeing some guy comes in with a Detective Comics #38, and there was nothing phoney about the way the Store staff barely contained their shit.

There was another part of one episode that I really liked, because it was so painfully familiar.

They’re rummaging through a pile of random comics at some yard sale, and it looks like the usual nineties painfulness, and then they stumble across a lovely little vein of  fifties and sixties Jimmy Olsen comics, and Walt the manager’s slightly less comic-geeky friend is trying to talk to him about some other dorky thing, and Walt looks at him for a second, blinks, and then says ‘yeah, yeah’ and just totally ignores him, because he’s busy, damn it, seeing what other little beauties are in the pile, and doesn’t have time for any other bullshit..

Man, I have done this to my poor friends and family far too often, and I always feel bad about it afterwards, but when there is just enough time for one more look around the store, they can wait, damn their eyes!

It's these little touches of painful familiarity that I like so much about Comic Book Men, but I also like it when people come in with real treasures. And I like the show because comic shops are my favourite shops in the whole world, and I’m always keen to hang around one for a while, and see what they got. Even if it’s just on television.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It’s 1995, and I am such a dork

I came across an old diary while I was cleaning out the house this past weekend in preparation for moving, and I can’t stop flicking through it. It’s from 1995, and I was 20 years old, and I’m pretty sure I was at my most extreme dorkiness, because in between pages and pages of moaning about old mates and existential dilemmas and the lack of a job, the diary is weighed with thoughts about the comics, books, music, TV and movies I was gorging on at the time.

And it’s hideously embarrassing. I forgot how much of a nerd I was and how much I cared about things that mean absolutely nothing to me now, but my own ponderous pretensions also make me laugh so hard that I had to copy some of them down here and share them with the world.

A little masochism is good for the soul.

Saturday, February 4, 1995:

So there I am, in Video Ezy, looking for something vaguely interesting to watch and I’m just about to go up to the counter with a Jackie Chan movie when I see it. The Killer. John Woo.

I swear, I just about fainted. I couldn’t believe that I had been through that store so many times and completely missed it. Jesus, it’s the best movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction. It’s in a completely naff dubbed version, but Christ, what an amazing film. I could go on and on about it, but I know how I feel and I’m cool, so I will stop now.

2012 Bob: Dude, I know you. You were not cool. Especially when you tried to dress like Chow Yun Fat.

Sunday, July 9, 1995:

I now present my top 10 novels (or series) I’ve ever read, at this time, in no particular order – The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy series, The Stand, Catch-22, The Vampire Chronicles, the Riverworld series, the Wild Card series, Anno Dracula, The Dice Man, Carrion comfort and The Great and secret Show. I think it’ll be interesting to see how this changes over the next few years.

2012 Bob: Hitch-hikers, The Stand, Catch-22 and Anno Dracula might still be on the list now, but… Carrion Comfort? The Vampire Chronicles? What the FUCK?

Monday, October 2, 1995:

They’re out to get me. Aliens, the CIA, Nazis, Freemasons, Walt Disney. All of them, totally evil and dedicated to being bad. That is, if the Big Book of Conspiracies is anything to go by. Finally, a comic dedicated to pure paranoia. Presented in fine fashion, no less. With a healthy dose of wit and a measure of anger, this is the best book I’ve bought since, well, the Big Book of Urban Legends.

2012 Bob: All of the big Books were rewarding, but everybody was into conspiracy theories within a few years, and it just wasn’t as cool anymore.

And now a special appearance from 1992 Bob, who was 17 and dumb and writing another diary that was full of exclamation points:

Tuesday, February 25, 1992:

YES! Barely a week ago I believed I’d never get Infinity Gauntlet #5. Then I got it today! I almost screamed out for joy. Hopefully I won’t have to wait long for #6 (pleasepleaseplease) I also got X-Men #3 with the supposed death of Magneto. Wow! My two favs in one day!

I also got X-Force #5 (ho-hum) and Marvel Comics Presents #91 (Wolvie. Beast, Ghiost ider, Cable and Impy)

1995 Bob: Jesus, even I’m embarrassed by that.

2012 Bob: What the hell’s an Impy?

Wednesday, January 11, 1995

There are not many joys in my life at this point in time that compare with receiving comic books in the mail. Notable issues that I received today include Sandman #66 (MERV! MERV! Aw snot.); The Demon #55 (Hurhurhur); Angela #1 (NEIL! NEIL!); Hellblazer #86 (Ur… Sticky…); JLA #96 (Max is dead, long live the Max); Amazing Spider-Man #398 (Spider-Man? Dead? Nah… well. not yet); Star Wars Dark empire #1 (Can almost hear the Williams score); Flash #98 (Hold on, man. Hold on!); ClanDestine #5 (Davis is still the grooviest); Extreme Justice #1 (Hmmmmm…); Hulk #426 (HULK SMASH! Again?); Judge Dredd #7 (stick it to the man!) and Legion of Super-Heroes 65 (Is it hot in here, or is it just me…)

2012 Bob: I still have six of these comics.

Wednesday, December 6, 1995

Grendel: Oh god, that saga is surely one of the greatest to ever grace the comics page. Today I doubled my Grendel collection by buying four more – the entire Devil’s Choice story. Jesus, I find it hard to fully articulate how I feel about it. On one level, there is your basic ultra-violence angle, but underneath that there’s this wonderful subtext. This terrific undercurrent that gives the whole thing deeper meaning

It isn’t just glorified violence laid out in an extremely well-told manner. It’s a state of mind! Yeah. Why can’t I live with this code of honour, or rely on pure willpower to survive this life? It’s all possible

2012 Bob: There still isn’t a day that goes by without me asking myself: “What would Grendel do?”

Thursday, November 30 1995:

Today I came to the realisation of just how bad a state the industry’s in. In the Hulk it had one of those charts that in the letters page saying how much it was selling and so forth. The Incredible Hulk, one of the most popular titles in the world, is averaging just over 200,000 in sales. Fuck! I remember a time when I thought the lower 300,000s were bad. The whole industry is on the verge of fucking collapse. Shit.

2012 Bob: Check out the big brain on Bob!

Monday, September 25, 1995

Comic day! Yay! What’ve we got? Oh! A Wonder Woman comic by John Byrne! Great! And what’s this? Ah! An old Wolverine! It’s Byrne too! Cool! Anything else? Two Concretes! Yay! And…? Night of the Living Dead: London! Scary! Barker!

2012 Bob: I actually used to talk like this all the time. Sometimes I still do.