Saturday, June 30, 2012

Game Of Thrones: Another year of obsession

When the second season of Game of Thrones finished a few weeks ago, it ended with a suitably epic cliffhanger, following the first season’s lead with an ending that proves the story the show is telling is bigger, stranger and far deadlier than it might appear. 

But by the time the last notes of the last music over the final end credits faded away, I was already feeling a bit lost. When I fell hard for the show last year, I still had all the books to go, and there was plenty of story gaps still to be filled. But in that past year, I’ve devoured all the remaining Westeros stories (with the exception of the most recent Dunk and Egg story), and read innumerable essays on the lives, cultures and histories of this incredible world that George R R Martin has created.

I’m up to speed and, like everybody else, patiently waiting for the next book in the series and the next season of the show.

But I do feel a little lost now, and wonder if the same obsession I’ve had over the past year will survive the next 10 months, without new material to feed the fire.

It probably will, because I fucking adored the second season of the television series.

The Bear And The Ho Fair (A mummer’s farce)
By Lady Janye of West Auckland

CERSEI: You sent my daughter off to relative safety on the eve of what's probably going to be a vicious and bloody war when I had clearly planned for us all to commit suicide by Ser Wilko Johnson! Now you will pay the price because I have found - YOUR HO!

*Soldiers bring in said ho*

TYRION: ohthankgod that's not my ho.

CERSEI: What was that, Stumpy? Planning to have a cry about it?

TYRION: Ahem, yes! Yes, that is my ho! Oh, how could you have found her? How could you be so dastardly and clever and yet still produce psychopathic inbred children? It is a riddle without solving! Oh, woe-ho is me!

HO: Well, we haven't really seen each other in a while….

TYRION: YES I LOVE YOU TOO HONEY! You be brave now, my most favourite of hos!

HO: Sure, whatevs. Just don't forget that I'll be stashed in the dungeon or wherever.

After falling for the books so hard, it’s a little surprising that many of the moments I enjoyed so much in the second season weren’t in the novels - that terrific interaction between Twyin Lannister and Aria Stark, Jaime charming and killing his cousin, Bronn and The Hound having words in the pub, Khal Drogo threatening to seriously fuck up anybody who keeps him from his love, even that bastard death.

The television show is full of moments like this, little pieces of character and plot that could not be done in the books because of forced perspectives, or were necessary because TV is a different medium with a need to keep faces on screen, and after becoming so familiar with the books, anything new is instantly apparent, and was usually rewarding in some way.

There were still a lot of great moments from the books that translated beautifully to the new medium – Peter Dinklage selling the hell out of the moment when Tyrion realises that after all his plans and schemes, he still has to lead the attack; or the beautiful way the Brienne and Jaime scenes are exactly what is expected, while still managing to be genuinely funny.

All these little moments – both new and old – sit inside this grand tapestry of a story which just gets so richer the deeper you go, and is superbly paced, with the entire second season moving up towards the big battle in the ninth episode.

But the television show is more than just a retelling of the plot – it has its own style and mood, and does things the books can’t.

After all, the novels don’t have that astonishing score from Ramin Djawadi, who took his own previous themes from the first season and twisted them into strange and horrible new pieces. The King’s Arrival – once a powerful and firm, but fair, piece of pomposity -  becomes something darker and nastier when that dick Joffrey is on the Iron Throne, and the final piece of music in the season took the show’s main theme and slowed it right down to a dirge for the walkingdead, one that was getting faster and faster. And who doesn’t love The National?

The show was also – for all its budgetary limitations - visually impressive – from the green fire on the Blackwater to the endless cold of the North of the Wall (or Iceland). The show also made terrific use of real locations - wars are planned next to pounding surf and tense negotiations take place on cliftops, lterally right on the edge of war.

The land is a major character in this story, but it’s in the faces of the people who live on it that the real story is told. A servant girl with a secret tells an insanely powerful lord that anybody can be killed, the looks of confused concentration when a lone boat is spotted in Blackwater Bay. The series has meaty actors making the most of meaty roles, experienced actors with a lifetime of living finding humour and humanity in amongst the sad soliloquies, and youngsters with incredible depth.

The casting of the younger roles is a real success of this adaptation. The wrong kid actor can kill a whole story, but Maisie Williams holds the laser gaze of Charles Dance, and Alfie Allen shows the tragedy of Theon in those big, shocked eyes. It’s hard to believe these are some of the very first roles these kids have ever had, (and even hard to believe that this Allen is that Alfie.)

The show wasn’t perfect – there were a few missteps and moments that fell flat, but the quality is so high for most of these series, that these tiny faults appear as petty nitpicking, and there are plenty of other places to find that sort of thing, if you’re so inclined.

Interlude, part two:
The Slight Drizzling of Castamere (Another mummer’s farce)
By Lady Janye of West Auckland

TYRION: Stannis and his army are coming and Stannis knows the city and he knows which gates are strong, and which gates are made of mud. Like the Mud Gate.

BRON: *cleans fingernails with dagger*

TYRION: He'll land here at the Mud Gate…wait a minute. Why the hell do we *have* a Mud Gate? Did we run out of iron? Steel? Picket fences? Fat children?


Later that day, when the battle begins:

THE HOUND: RAAAA!!! Let's kill people! If any of you die with a dry sword, I'll romance your corpses just like that Tom Petty music video!!!




So now that the second season is done, and it’s another ten months – and counting - until the next new episode.

And so I don’t have the books to read again, don’t have all those plot mysteries to solve, don’t have all that history to get into.

And so what? There’s always more, even in the paths I’ve already trodden. There is the Concordance – which promises to get into all sorts of other stories in this world – and a new Dunk And Egg (and the last one too,) production of the next season is about to kick in, and the Winds of Winter is coming. At some point.

Until the next new thing, there is also the past to trawl through, new depths to explore, new theories regarding the fates of three Freys, or subtle poisonings. I literally lie awake at night wondering if the Dragon With Three Heads has to share the same blood, or how many manifestations of the Bear And The Maiden Fair there are in the story, (I got about nine so far).

There is always more. I may have read all the books and essays and wiki entries I can, but there is always more history, more background to fill in, and that’s how I’ll get through the next 10 months.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

So I go a little mental when video shops close down

I know we’re all supposed to be into the minimalism of digital these days, but I like stuff. And I find the experience of browsing a bookcase full of chunky comics, esoteric novels and endless DVDs to be absolutely preferable to skipping through a computer folder. It’s an aesthetics thing.

So when a local video store went under recently, and sold off his catalogue of titles for $2 each, I went a little crazy on it and bought 30 movies (and a Doctor Who DVD). I also appreciate the irony of digital killing the video store.

They were all totally worth two bucks.


1. Kill List 

It was totally worth two bucks because: Kill List is probably my favourite film of the past year. I dig that deeply creepy vibe, and by the time the main characters are running away from crazy people in animal masks through pitch-dark tunnels, I was really, truly, terrified as fuck. It stars The Yawning Horror That Lurks In The Afternoon Sun, and Tyres from Spaced. The first time I watched it, I had nightmares for days, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give anything.


2. Fearless Vampire Killers 

It was totally worth two bucks because: I’ve never seen it before. I haven’t seen a lot of early Polanski, even though it’s always rewarding when I finally get around to it.


3. Jackass 3

It was totally worth two bucks because: If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough. And people getting smacked in the face in ultra-slow motion is always, always funny.


4. Matewan

It was totally worth two bucks because: John Sayles somehow makes worthy films that don’t feel like they’re bashing you around the head with the Worthy Stick, probably because he never forgets the little triumphs and humour in everyday life, while pointing a righteous finger at societal injustice.


5. 28 Weeks Later 

It was totally worth two bucks because: I have a definite fondness for 28 Weeks Later, because it has got one or two incredibly good sequences, and I remember seeing a giant poster for it while wandering around a deserted London at six in the morning, which was all kinds of unsettling. But I never bought it until it was too cheap to refuse because I hate the ending so much, mainly because it suggests that the American army’s blunt cruelty was actually right after all.


6. Diary of the Dead 

It was totally worth two bucks because: Diary of the Dead is even worse than 28 Week Later, filled with unlikeable characters and painfully obvious metaphors, but it’s still a George Romero zombie film, so there is always something. Hello, weird deaf Amish farmer with a big box of dynamite!


7. Somers Town

It was totally worth two bucks because: I never miss a Meadows film.


8. In the Name of The Father

It was totally worth two bucks because: When Gerry goes out the front door of the courthouse, I always want to rush out and punch a policeman in the face (with joy, not anger). Top soundtrack, too.


9. Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors 

It was totally worth two bucks because: The Amicus portmanteau horror movies are always worth a look – even if one of the stories is rubbish, it doesn’t matter, because a new one will be along soon enough. And they all have that weird seventies vibe that I do find creepily unsettling. But even with all that love and even though I saw things like The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From The Crypt years ago, I never saw this one, because I really thought it was a piss-take with a title like that. Turns out they were dead serious, which just makes it funnier.


10. The Guard

It was totally worth two bucks because: The smile on Brendan Gleeson’s face at the very end of The Guard is the single greatest enigmatic smile in cinema since the end of O Lucky Man! Plus, Mark Strong is awesome. Double-plus, the DVD comes with a terrific short film, which somehow has half the cast of Game of Thrones in it.


11. Machete

It was totally worth two bucks because: “Machete improvise.”


12. The Castle 

It was totally worth two bucks because: The Castle is easily the second best Australian film ever made, (after Mad Max 2, obviously). Endlessly quotable and genuinely heart-warming.


13. Taste the Blood of Dracula 

It was totally worth two bucks because: Somewhere towards the end of this film marks the exact moment the Hammer Dracula films went from ‘Not that bad actually’ to ‘that was bloody awful’, and all the hamfisted attempts to make it groovy by moving it into the modern day never got that mojo back.


14. The Lives of Others 

It was totally worth two bucks because: The bit at the end when you see the dedication in the book breaks my fuckin’ heart every time.


15. Die Hard

It was totally worth two bucks because: Die Hard is absolutely one of my favourite movies ever, thanks to an airtight script, some terrific action staging and unexpected moments of real humanity. But it was so easily available that I never got around to actually buying it, because I knew I would some day, and kept putting it off. I kept seeing it cheaper and cheaper, and still didn’t get it, but by the time it got down to a couple of bucks, I had no excuse. Which is a really, really boring way of saying I love this motherfuckin' film like it was my own child.


16. Die Hard 2: DIE HARDER

It was totally worth two bucks because: It didn’t have an airtight script, the action was often clumsy and real humanity got lost in the snow, but I still love the way John McClane spits out insults and other shit-talk under his breath when he’s fighting for his life.


17. Master of the Flying Guillotine 

It was totally worth two bucks because: That is one crazy-ass weapon, and some even crazier foley effects.


18. Red Hill

It was totally worth two bucks because: I like movies where the main character keeps getting the shit kicked out of them, but they just keep getting up. I also like movies where a silent, possibly noble, killer takes out a bunch of horrible people with absolute judgment. And I love movies where some kind of primal force of nature shows up as some sort of metaphysical and metaphorical summation of the whole film. So Red Hill was certainly my type of movie.


19. Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 

It was totally worth two bucks because: It’s probably my favourite of the Powell/Pressburger films, because of the balls it has in not even showing the pivotal duel around which the whole film revolves, and because it’s a remarkably humanist approach to a film made in 1943 that suggests that the enemy isn’t that different from us and that the Germans aren’t that bad, and because Deborah Kerr was smoking hot in an army uniform.


20. Four Lions

It was totally worth two bucks because: “Well, it must be the target. I just shot it!”


21. Be Here to Love Me 

It was totally worth two bucks because: The life story of Townes Van Zandt is depressingly familiar, but man, that voice…


22. Super

It was totally worth two bucks because: The moment where Frank totally loses it at the climactic moment is actually kinda shocking, and even a little bit moving, but it’s the wicked humour that saturates the rest of the movie that makes Super stand out from all the other real-life-superhero-who-is-actually-completely-mental films.


23. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

It was totally worth two bucks because: The messiness of the narrative is a perfect fit for this adaptation of Tristram Shandy, and while it certainly gets far too self-indulgent and self-conscious for its own good, that’s the point of the whole thing. Besides, it’s always fun to see Steve Coogan play Steve Coogan – those moments when he realises he will never be as huge as he thinks he should be are priceless (even if those moments are not as cruel in Tristam Shandy as they are in Coffee & Cigarettes and The Trip).


24. Zombie Holocaust 

It was totally worth two bucks because: Zombie versus shark.


25. Cube 

It was totally worth two bucks because: There just aren’t enough movies that mix up complex mathematical theory and extremely violent gore.


26.  Triangle 

It was totally worth two bucks because: I also always dig films about time travel that end in an eternal paradox that gives everything an absolutely tragic dimension. There aren’t enough of those films either.


27. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures 

It was totally worth two bucks because: The news that they are actually, seriously, going to make a new Bill and Ted film is great news. Bogus Journey is my favourite Bill and Ted film, probably because they play 20 Questions while falling into hell, but Excellent Adventure is still brilliant. I think the films really work because the main characters might be airheaded musicians, but they’re actually genuinely nice guys, and a future based on the philosophy of being excellent to each other is one I’d actually like to live in.  Plus, time travel.


28. Meet the Feebles 

It was totally worth two bucks because: I watched it for the first time in more than a decade the other night, and it was still gross enough to still make me feel a little sick. That’s fairly impressive


29. Silent Running 

It was totally worth two bucks because: Another one I had never seen before, which is just shameful, but it was just the one early seventies cerebral science fiction film that I never quite got around to seeing, (c’mon, there are a lot of them), so I’m fixing that discrepancy now.


30. Lost Highway 

It was totally worth two bucks because: David Lynch likes the fish burger meal at McDonald's with a chocolate shake. But he really likes coffee shops.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wold Newman (or: The Ubiquitous Doctor Shade)

Every couple of years, I get sucked into the fiction work of Mr Kim Newman, and it is taking me longer and longer to get out of that pleasurable pit again, because there is always more and more of it, and it's always entertaining.

I genuinely think Newman is the most entertaining writer on the planet, and I always love his work - from his numerous pulp-culture drenched short stories and novels to his meticulously researched and very funny non-fiction work.

When it comes to movies, he remains the one reviewer I invariably can trust (I’ve even come to concede that he was probably right about Army of Darkness), and when I pick up one of his books, I know I'm going to be entertained and absorbed. Whether it’s as his whiskey drinking alter-ego Jack Yeovil, or as Mr-Strokey-Beardey Critic, or as a horror writer who finds queasy terrors in the midlands of England, or as a builder of his own worlds.

There is so much of it now, that when I start reading Newman’s books again, I end up reading nothing else but Dark Future, Anno Dracula or Geneviève stories for weeks and weeks after, and it’s always totally worth it.

1. Pulp Friction!

Orgy of the Blood Parasites was going to be called Bloody Students, and that sums up the brilliant nastiness of Jack Yeovil’s hard-boiling debut. The only Yeovil novel that wasn’t part of a series, (although the name popped up on numerous genre-related reviews), it took Cronenberg horror to a nice English university, unleashing primal rages between the exams, and slaughtering its cast with unbridled enthusiasm.

Sometimes I think Yoevil’s books are my favourites of all Newman’s work. They’re so busy and rushed and packed, but even though Newman reportedly wrote most of them in a couple of weeks, there is still room for fun and excitement, with a healthy “anything goes” attitude.

The Warhammer fantasy books are better than they should be - Drachenfels starts with an epic quest, gets that crap out of the way in 20 pages and gets into the real story, which somehow turns into an extraordinary satire of the movie business in a medieval setting, and ends with my unashamedly favourite last line in any novel ever. Beasts in Velvet is a giallo murder mystery, right down to the gruesome deaths and weird perspectives (I’m still chuffed that I figured out what the dead man wrote on the barrel he was buried in), and all of the Geneviève stories have hidden depths, just like the smile of the incredibly old teenage girl who drifts through the tales. 

The Dark Future books are even better. They’re set in a world where anything goes, post-apocalyptic shenanigans banging up against Things From Beyond The Veil. It’s a series of books that are loaded down with noble heroes with tarnished souls, disgusting villains that kill you if you’re lucky, and a small mountain of pop-culture references.

Jackie catches JFK in bed with Marilyn in the early sixties, Nixon becomes president and epically bad pollution turns most of the US into a dangerous wasteland, filled with roaming teen gangs, and genuine monsters in all shapes and sizes. But it’s okay, because Colonel Elvis Aron Presley didn’t sign that contract for the devil, so there is still hope.

They area  painfully unfinished series of books, and I would give anything to read United States Cavalry, the once-promised conclusion. But I still end up reading the whole series all the way through, over and over again, because they’re so silly and so funny, and so noble and so passionate.

One book has Jason Voorhees, Michael Myersand a small army of fictional murderers taking part in a nuthouse riot – and that’s just a sidebar to the main event where a young punk girl staring down an unfathomably ancient evil. I know that I’m in the right place

2. Reel Life (or: ‘I didn’t raise my daughter to be a severed head.’)

The Dark Future might be still unwritten, and it has been an agonising wait for some of his books, but I still read new words by Kim Newman every month, in things like Sight and Sound and Empire magazine.

I’ve been getting Empire every month since 1993, and it didn’t take long to realise Newman (or Yeovil) was writing most of the reviews for films that I was interested in – all the gross horrors and cheesy sci-fi’s – and he was usually right. I’ve trusted Newman’s opinion for nearly twenty years, and it’s never steered me wrong.

After all, his criticism is always fair, and usually manages to find something – anything – nice to say about a lot of the films he watches. It’s still worth following up a Video Dungeon recommendation. So much of genre film is inherently worthless, you need a trusted voice to find the gems amongst the filth.

And he knows what he is talking about, because unlike many reviewers who think relatively slick movies like the Hostel or Saw films are as bad as things can get in cinema, Newman really has seen it all, and his film knowledge is actually scary.

It’s there in all editions of the excellent Nightmare Movies, where Newman categorises a vast amount of movies into various sub-genres, and finds interesting ideas and themes stretching across dozens of movies. He’s also written excellent books on western movies and apocalyptic cinema, and his first proper book to be published was non-fiction – the fun Ghastly Beyond Belief with pal Neil Gaiman, which is a list book of funny quotes from genre literature and cinema – some of it is incredibly funny, although poor old E E (Doc) smith gets an intellectual kicking.

The knowledge shown in Newman’s non-fiction work seeps through into fiction, and they also share an undisguised enthusiasm for all this horror rubbish. It’s still there in every issue of Empire, and every new short story.

3. The horror, the horror

Newman’s stand-alone novels and short story collections cover a wide range of genres and styles, but there is always, always horror in them.

Jago, the Quorum, Life's Lottery, Bad Dreams and The Night Mayor, along with several collections of short stories, call upon a host of weird influences. It’s the same sort of humorous horror that British horror fiction is so good at, a Grand Guignol of such grotesqueness, it manages to be incredibly funny and genuinely disturbing at the same time, especially because everybody is so bloody repressed. Built on a base of Hammer horror, with a fair amount of Amicus and those old Rank chillers added for taste.

Newman’s horror books can be nakedly brutal – in the climax of Jago, the hero, who is already suffering the worst toothache in the world, bites down on a mouthful of pins so the pain can override a psychic nightmare. But they can also be subtle – I took three goes at the kitchen-sink Choose-Your-Own-Adventure fun of Life’s Lottery before I realized it was a story about the horror of the mundane, and that it’s about ordinary lives full of wrong choices that skate around the edge of something vast and old and malevolent and ultimately lead to your doom. Unless you cheat, and then all will be well.

There are shadowy figures lurking in the background of these short stories and novels, who appear over and over again – Derek Leech, born in the Thames filth and a multi-media Mephistopheles for a New Wave Britain (and the narrator of Life Lottery), or Doctor Shade, slithering between universes, a dark presence in a dark car.

But while these books share more than the odd character, they also share feelings of deep dread, the sense that something crushingly normal has gone terribly wrong, and a whole lot of body-horror. Newman is from the Video Nasty generation of UK horror writers, and shares a bleak and bloody view of modern horror on the council estate that has also been mined by diverse voices such as Clive Barker, James Herbert and Ramsey Campbell.

But there is also hope – even though there are often horrible things happening to innocent people, the only ones in Newman’s horror fiction who are truly damned are those who deserve it and almost embrace their fate, (most notably in The Quroum, where Leech gets four souls for the price of one,) and the bleakness is balanced by the occasional piece of simple kindness.

After all, there always has to be some hope in the darkness, or what’s the point?

4. Somewhen else

The first Kim Newman book I ever read was Anno Dracula, which I picked up off the new release shelf at the Timaru Public Library in 1993. This was a good place to start, especially since I’d just seem Bram Stoker’s Dracula the week before, and it was very easy to imagine Richard E Grant as the devilish Doctor Seward in the book.

But the thing I really loved in that book - and the thing I still adore – was the author’s willingness to throw in an incredible amount of references, with vampires and other dubious characters from movies, books, television and comics filling the pages of the books.

It’s the sort of series where you see references to the work of a Professor Langstrom at the Gotham University during a conversation between Doctor Moreau and Herbert West, or where a prime suspect in a later murder mystery is Superman, or where Biggles takes to the sky to fight giant vampire bats, or where James Bond actually physically transforms from Connery to Bond.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did the same sort of thing, but it’s no use playing “who did it first?’, because Phillip Jose Farmer wins that argument every time, and it’s not just about the fun. While it is immensely pleasurable to get a reference to some incredibly vague story, it gives the story added weight.

Bringing in characters from other pieces of literature negates the need for unnecessary background. A vague reference to the fate of poor dim Carmilla can actually have resonance for anybody familiar with her story, and when there are huge amounts of characters, there is a lot of depth. You don’t even need to see the name Fu-Manchu to know of the incredible schemes and plans the Oriental mastermind is working on in the background of Anno Dracula, and when a vampire Moriarty dreams of the centuries he can spend working on an Ultimate Mathematical Theory Of Everything, it adds a sense of tragedy that the “real” Moriarty couldn’t put aside his hate long enough to pursue the numbers.

I really, really like all of the Anno Dracula books. They’re full of action and humour and some incredibly satisfying plotting. I love playing Spot The Reference, and I don’t mind when I don’t get them all, because I might the next time.

I’ve been reading this series of books for nearly two decades, and I never, ever get sick of them.

On the other hand, I only just got to read the Diogenes Club books in the past six months, after stumbling across all three of them at a local library.

It’s almost the same world as the Anno Dracula series, but just a little closer to reality. The Diogenes Club breaches the gap between Arthur Conan Doyle and Adam Adamant, high octane cerebral adventures in the world of super spies and supernatural shivers.

It was a bit much, reading all three of the books in a two week stretch, and I've already forgotten a lot of the details of these stories, but they will be worth coming back to. All of Newman's stuff is worth coming back to.

Although Newman’s books have often been incredibly hard to find, and some – like the Diogenes Club books – fetch stupid prices on the second hand market. But the Anno Dracula books are now out in lovely new editions from Titan, with even lovelier extra material, and even though I have bought all of the books, the new editions were impossible to pass by.

So I'm looking forward to cracking into the Vampire Romance story in the new edition of the Bloody Red Baron, and I'm extremely excited that Johnny Alucard is actually happening. And there is the Hound of the D'Urbervilles, starring Colonel Moran, another collection of linked stories, and more new short stories in strange places and thoughtful reviews and essays in the expected places, and I still haven't read Back in the USSR, or the Doctor Who novelette he did, and it's all so much bloody fun.

Because it's all about the blood and the fun.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Surfing the skies with Kenny Who

Even though the entire comic medium is built on a foundation of characters beating the crap out of each other, there is still a painful lack of great action comics over the past few decades. It’s a lot harder to capture the momentum of a good action sequence than it looks.

A good piece of strong action art is about power and body language, and it has to move and flow, or it comes out all stilted and pained. Jack Kirby, as ever, showed the way, and there are plenty of terrific action artists working in modern comics, including the fluidity of Paul Pope and the sharpness of Frank Quitely.

But for a masterclass in how to do a stunning piece of action comics, go see a five-part Judge Dredd story that ran in 2000ad 1986: Midnight Surfer.

Marlon Shakespare – aka Chopper – first appeared in a Dredd story called ‘Unamerican Grafitti’ in 1981, which featured the young punk trying to stand out from the crowd by literally scrawling his name on the greatest city in the world.

It’s a cracking story, showing that there will always be some people who will do anything to feel alive in a city of 800 million, even if it’s insanely dangerous. It was one of the first Judge Dredd stories to show just how horrible it could be to be one of the crowd, packed together in skyscrapers, but also that the human spirit could soar and even, in the story’s ultimate twist, inspire something mechanical to live.

It was a terrific introduction to Chopper, who even got the last laugh in the story, with his smiley-face icon (years before Watchmen) appearing on the symbol of a fascist law system in the dawn light. And it became one of the first real classic stories in the Judge Dredd canon, with the title character’s bullying nature highlighted in an interesting new way that would yield rich results over the years.

It was surprising to see a boy’s-own comic like Judge Dredd tackle these issues, and even a little subversive for its time in its distrust of authority. But it was even more surprising when Chopper returned to take another shot at the man in Midnight Surfer, and that this sequel would end up being one of the strongest examples of great action comics I would ever read.

Four years after Unamerican Graffiti, Midnight Surfer – which ran in 2000ad progs 424-429 – was less than 50 pages long, but is damn near a perfect comic – economical, moving and exciting.

It featured Chopper literally taking to the sky to surf the air on his hoverboard, and his quest to prove himself the best in the world. By the end of the story, the whole world would know his name, and know that he was the greatest skysurfer on the planet, and that was worth risking his life and freedom.

And if Dredd was a bully in the first Chopper story, he was the outright villain in Midnight Surfer, a symbol of a crushing society that shoots to kill for the perp’s own good.

It’s a prime slice of classic-era 2000ad, with the usual witty and pointed script by John Wagner, but it’s the extraordinary art of Cam Kennedy which brings real power and grace to this story, finding sublime beauty in a tale of crazy people blasting through the sky on flying surfboards.

Kennedy is one of the most under-appreciated action comics artists of the last few decades, at least outside the UK. He never really broke into the States, even though he dabbled in Batman, Punisher and Lobo comics, and was the artist on one of the few Star Wars comics that actually had some weight to it. (Although his apathy towards US comics is clear in the first Kenny Who? story in Judge Dredd, which is a wickedly pointed piss-take of American comic industry practices, about a year after Midnight Surfer.)

He hasn’t done any art for American comics since 2003, although there has been less Kennedy art in general over the past few years (apart from a lovely adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped with Alan Grant).

It’s a real shame that Kennedy seems less interested in comic art these days, because his work is always spectacular. He has a distinctive chunky style that can take some time to get used to, but it’s well worth the effort.

Kennedy honed his skills in the brutal world of UK boys adventure comics in the eighties, bringing a fuzzy dynamism to Rogue Trooper, Fighting Mann and the VCs, before nailing down that jagged and lose line that would define his work for the next few decades.

Midnight Surfer gave Kennedy the chance to give his style its greatest platform, giving his art the room to breathe in the typically claustrophobic setting of Mega-City One. The story of competitive sport of sky-surfing could have been an extremely silly one, and while Midnight Surfer certainly features its fair share of absurdity, the story has a lot more emotional depth and sheer action to make it soar.

Kennedy’s work speaks for itself. While his stylistic flourishes frequently result in grotesque-looking characters, he has a grasp of body language that always grounds his art in the real world, but also gives the figures in the panel real weight.

Look at the way Chopper leans into his punch that sets off the fire alarm, only to gracefully glide between two sliding doors:

Or check out this page! The way an incredible death-defying feat is portrayed with some simple long panels, lying on top of each other, broken by grim determination, giving the reader all the information he or she needs to grasp the gravity and danger of his feat. (I also love the 'Blast!'):

Or Chopper’s elation at completing that impossible task, brilliantly brought down to earth when the only witness is a clueless citizen and an apathetic robot.

And all of that is just from one five page sequence in the story – there are dozens of other pages of art that are just as fluid, and flowing, and exciting. The climactic race through the city is real pulse-pounding stuff, and surprisingly harsh – one minor character wipes out and apparently ends up impaled through his arse – but when Chopper emerges from the tunnel, carrying the reigning champion to safety, it’s utterly triumphant.

Tharg knew a good thing when he saw it – it’s notable that of the six issues of 2000ad that ran the original Mindnight Surfer, three of them featured Kennedy’s Chopper on the cover. The character came back for Oz – and the ending of that race still breaks my fuckin’ heart – and then the equally marvellous Song of the Surfer. That was the peak for the character, and even though there were some nice little stories, including a beautiful Marty Edmond-illustrated tale from Garth Ennis and an oddly stilted story by Wagner and Dylan Teague (that still gave old Jug a decent send-off,) Chopper had really finished his race.

Kennedy didn’t do any more of the Chopper stories, although there was some more sky-surfing beauty in a Gordon Rennie-written story from 2006. It had the same grace as Midnight Surfer, but lacked the heart of the original story and ended up being pretty bloody bleak.

I was 12-years-old when Midnight Surfer came out, so you know it blew my socks off. I read it again for the first time in ages the other week, and even though the paper is starting to get brittle, there is still energy and passion in those pages, twenty-six years after they were published.

I still let out a little cheer as Chopper achieves the impossible, and the city rises and cries out his name. Following Chopper's triumph is a hell of a ride, and remains eternally exciting.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Who is your favourite superhero?"

Every now and then, I get asked what my all-time favourite comic/movie/TV show/album is, and I always have real trouble with the question. How do you compare two vastly different stories or bits of art, just because they share the same medium? Is Catch-22 better than The Cold Six Thousand? Is Withnail and I better than 2001: A Space Odyssey? Should we really have to choose? Can’t we like them all for different reasons?

Mention that you read comics with some regularity, and the first question is always: ‘What’s your favourite comic?’ That’s easy enough to answer, although I always have to point out that I cheat and have two absolute favourites: I adore Love and Rockets for the packed narrative that has stretched over decades, while 2000ad is my other favourite, simply because the stunning breadth and quality of stories.

The second question that usually comes up when you admit you’re a dirty, stinking comic reader is: ‘Who’s your favourite superhero?’ And I find that a lot more difficult, because I just can’t compare, even though I’ve really tried..

My immediate, visceral answer to that question is usually Batman, because Batman is Always Cool, and because there have been so many more great Batman stories than any other superhero.

But I also dig the Hulk, for totally different reasons. And I love the way Spider-Man never gives up, even when life serves him up a double-sized shit sandwich. And I adore the ideals and purity of Superman, and have a soft spot for Lobo comics.

Even within the subculture of a subculture that is superhero comics, there is a huge amount of variety on the most basic and thematic levels. Anybody who sneers at anything to do with superhero comics is writing off all sorts of stories, in all sorts of formats and styles.

There have been arguments of the exact definition of a superhero for decades, and the issue is still fantastically unresolved. Is Doc Savage a superhero? Is American Flagg? Is Fantomas, or Swamp Thing, or Zot?

My usual answer to this dilemma is a “why not?” It doesn’t seem like that big a deal to label any individual with a distinctive look and set of skills, operating in a hyper-real environment on a platform of fairness and justice, as a superhero. There may be different degrees to which they can serve as aspirational models – we might all try to be as brave as Matt Murdock or as loyal as Ben Grimm – but there are even limits here: I don’t think superheroes should kill, although that never stops me enjoying a good Punisher story.

But even though it is bloody convenient to put them all under a label, I still can’t compare superheroes all that much, because they can just be so different.

Even if you narrow it down to comic published by Marvel and DC since the sixties which feature people in bright, skin-tight costumes beating up other people in bright, skin-tight costumes, there is still a huge variety of different genres and themes playing out.

Take Superman – the biggest and most iconic of any superhero. He stands for certain rigid principles, while also showing tremendous compassion towards humanity. He is the ultimate ideal of humanity’s potential, showing the way forward for all of us, while still standing up to brute bullying wherever he finds it.

A lot of what makes the superhero so appealing – this mixture of absolute power and absolute responsibility – is definitely inspired from the big man. Nobody wants to disappoint Superman.

He could rule the world in the blink of an eye, but lives as a common man, always keeping his strength under control. He always, always does the right thing, and never gives up, and always figures out how to beat the bad guys.

He is a superb moral guide, never patronising and never lying, and that’s a moral guide worth following.

He is Superman.

And then take Spider-Man. Even though he is Marvel’s equivalent to Superman when it comes to sheer iconic popularity – to the point where the first ever crossover between DC and Marvel simply had to be those two – they operate on two completely different levels.

Superman lives in a world where excellence is rewarded, while the universe takes a giant shit on Spider-Man’s life, over and over again. And he takes the punches, and rolls with them, and he never gives up, not ever.

Petey Parker has been metaphorically buried beneath a giant pile of dripping metal for decades now, and he always pushes it off. And never for selfish reasons – it’s to help his Aunt May, or his wife, or a random stranger who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Parker can never get a break, even when he is soaring over the city, but he perseveres, because it’s the right thing to do.

And then – in the Marvel universe alone - there are the driven geniuses like Doc Richards, or primal forces of nature, like Bruce Banner (who was both genius and power). And there are the old stories made new, like Thor, or groovy kung fu thrills in Iron Fist.

And even singular characters never quite fit into simple categories. Over the past couple of decades, the Flash has been a happy hero who combines incredible power with strong smarts, a family saga stretching across generations and a straight-up police procedural with some funky twists.

Even though they team up, and work together, and slap each other on the back at the end of an adventure, all these superheroes are telling different stories in their own different comics, and comparisons start to look silly.

But on reflection, with all due thought and consideration given, I guess I still have to go with my gut and say Batman is my favourite.

If there is one thing all superheroes have, no matter how powerful or skilful or lucky they are, it’s that they never, ever give up.

And Batman – with his awesome fists of justice – has the will to seek justice like no other man who ever lived. That willpower, that determination, is there in every version of the character. It doesn’t matter if it’s cartoony fun or over-egged psychodrama, Batman never quits, and that’s why I love him the most.

Addendumb: Forgot to mention that this entire train of useless thought was inspired by the lovely gentlemen at Comic Books Are Burning In Hell, the new podcast at The Factual Opinion. They all take a crack at this question and came up with three completely different answers, which got me going.