Monday, December 30, 2013

Beast of 2013: Fury – My War Gone By

I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I try to list the best comics of the year, even though that hasn't stopped me from trying in the past. It can take me years to get to some good stuff, because there is just so much good stuff out there, and the twin tyrannies of geography and economy mean some things take a while.

But it's more than that, because I really only have this problem with comics. I can say with absolute certainty that Doctor Who was my favourite television show in the past year, (although Breaking Bad was clearly the actual best). My favourite album was easily the latest Queens of the Stone Age, my favourite single was a Kanye and Gravity was the only movie I saw twice this year. In the same week. On the same giant screen. I can even name my favourite infographic on 2013 – it's the one in Tim Leong's Super Graphic book that compares the number of people The Punisher has killed in movies to the number he has slaughtered in comics.

But there are so many great comics, I can't really pick a favourite. It was another strong year for Judge Dredd, as chinface struggles on in a city totally broken by the mega-death toll of Chaos Day, with no guarantee it's ever going to recover. Daredevil remains stylish and clever, Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics are achingly beautiful, there are new Sergio Aragones comics coming out regularly and the various Fables comics have been tremendous in the last 12 months. And Love and Rockets is always good.

But some of the best comics I've read this year were published two or three or eight years ago. One of my absolute favourite comics of 2013 was Spain's Cruising With The Hound comic memoir, which came out a couple of years ago and featured comics created decades ago, so can I count that as a best comic of the year? What about the last volume of Joe Colquhoun's Johnny Red comics which I got a couple of months back, which are still as energetic and gritty and powerful as anything being published today?What about the collection of DC's Solo comics, which only came out this year, and features some of the finest comics published seven years ago?

And what about all the mini-comics and web stuff and self-published gems that I have only just started hearing about, that I haven't got to yet? A lot of people are rating Copra as the best comic of the year, but I've never even seen a copy anywhere, and will be lucky to get to it in 2014, let alone the past year.

Or maybe I just think too fucking much.

Because if you put a gun to my head, and said I had to pick one comic that I enjoyed and appreciated more than any other comic in 2013, I wouldn't even hesitate. It would be Fury – My War Gone By.

It was my favourite monthly comic of 2012, but it only finished halfway through the year, and capped off 13 issues of  war, horror and Fury.

Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov have been into this same dark territory before with the Punisher, but they spread the canvas far wider in the latest Fury comic, in both time and geography, while still exploring the very darkest recesses of the modern human soul. It spans decades, as lives flash by in a handful of scenes, and unspoken regrets pile up at a regular pace as the American Dream curdles in a foetid mix of greed and avarice and warmongering.

Fury: My War Gone By – which is named as the slightly less poetic Fury MAX in the small print – is an incredibly efficient and stylish story, and my favourite comic of 2013.

A large part of the appeal is Parlov's excellent artwork, lurking beneath fine Dave Johnson covers. Parlov is particularly good at capturing the chaos and confusion and carnage of combat, showing men staggering around with horrific injuries in unsettling detail, and drawing some appalling horrible scenes – one panel late in the series of a bootprint was easily the most disturbing thing I saw in a comic this year.

But he is also fantastic in showing the weight of years, as the corrupt politician grows more and more pig-like, his aging wife still looking fine as she gets older, while the weight of wars and the horrible guilt that Fury feels start to show on his face. He's an old, old man by the end of the series, and not just because he's at least eighty by the final scene, but because he's seen – and done – terrible things..

It's no wonder the years of conflict etch their pain into Fury's face, especially when he loses all the big battles in this series. Each three-issue arc ends with Fury failing, and another little piece of the real American spirit curls up and dies. Fury engineers war to satisfy his own battle lust, but he is just left with ashes in his mouth. And he is ultimately neutered by the war machine he helped create – he might break every bone in Barracuda's body in the penultimate issues, but he still doesn't get to pay the horror the man has inflicted in kind.

Ellroy's American Tabloid series is obviously a huge influence on this comic, with the same stench of driven men unbalancing the world as they wage secret wars against nebulous enemies, but Ennis has something else to bring to this tale - Nick Fury. Like all the great Marvel heroes, Fury is a brash and charismatic character, always out to do the right thing on the street level, and unwilling to take any crap from anybody who gets in his way.

But that simplistic approach to life smashes into the hard realities of shadow operations in the world's darkest corners, and a lot of My War Gone By's appeal is there in that incompatibility. Even the ultimate warrior and complete spymaster has no real place in a world where American soldiers commit atrocities for money, and his attempts to mitigate the damage accomplish nothing.

It could all be dour and depressing, if the story didn't rock along at a phenomenal pace, with an incredible efficiency unseen in many modern comics as entire story arcs are dealt with in three-issue bursts. Ennis isn't writing for the lowest common denominator with Fury, and if you can't keep up with the historical background, you're going to get left behind.

And that efficiency seeps all the way down to the individual scenes, which are often accomplished with a minimum of fuss.There is a scene involving a young Laotian boy who stumbles across Nick Fury and Frank Castle out on a mission, and they know he will go tell on them, but they don't have in it them to kill a kid, so they let him go, and the whole debate is over with in four panels. (Later, a noble enemy says this act of compassion was the Americans' greatest mistake).

I just read an article last week about Lone Survivor, a movie version of a real-life military mission that went wrong for similar reasons, after the soldiers on a delicate mission let a bunch of innocent sheep herders go, and the filmmakers told the author of the book that even though there was no argument about the decision amongst the real life soldiers, they needed to have more of a debate in the movie, because they said it was dramatically necessary, and that's just total crap. 

There is no need for that bullshit. No need for fake drama and false tension, bot if the story is good enough, not when you can get straight to the fucking point.

There is no bullshit in Fury: My War Gone By. No pointless posturing, no dramatic flab. It's a lean, mean beast of a comic.

And in between the frequent and intense action scenes, there is a profound sense of grief for wasted conflicts over ideology. When Fury meets the noble enemy again, decades after their war ended, the only thing the two men have in common is that they were too tough to die, and are both destined for hell for all the terrible things they had done. They shake hands, and go their separate ways again, with no hatred, and plenty of old man regrets for the way the world turned out.

Fury: My War Gone By would probably have been my favourite book of 2013 even if it was just a stylish, efficient and intense action comic. But it's also an existentially melancholic look at the soul of America, as seen through the eyes of its greatest warrior, and there is a quiet plea for peace, buried in all those explosions. That's more than enough to make it the best comic of the year.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Comics make the best presents

Christmas is a time for spending with your loved ones, for reflection on the most important events of the year gone by, and for volunteering for the Xmas Day afternoon shift at work so you can avoid your weird in-laws.

It’s also a time for gift-giving, and getting, and there is always going to be a greedy little part of me that looks forward to that part the most.  And my favourite presents are always comic related.

Even though I was one of those annoying kids who works out Santa isn’t real by the time I was four, (“But there’s NO WAY he can get around the world in one night!”), I still pretended I thought he was real for years, for the extra presents, and there would often be some hardback UK annual or random comic pack amongst the Christmas and birthday haul.

As I got older, people stopped buying me such childish things for presents and I started getting annoyingly useful things like gift certificates and comfortable shoes and sensible shirts. And that was a total bummer, until I met the lovely wife and she started giving me the dorkiest things on the planet, and my affections for her go through the bloody roof when she whips out a shiny new comic book for a present.

I love getting books for Christmas, because there is always a part of the day when they are perfect. It’s sometime after lunch, when everybody is full and lethargic, when all the conversation dries up and everybody just wants to sit around digest.

That’s the best time of the year to dig into a brand new book, or any kind of comic at all. I still remember the one time in the mid-eighties when my Aunty Val and Uncle Soul gave me half a dozen comic packs with three arbitrary issues in each, filled with random Legion of Super Heroes and X-Men and Planet Terry comics, and it was pissing down with rain outside, so we were all trapped inside, and I was cool with that, because I had my new comics, and was busy in the corner, poring over this strange, shiny comics and sparking long obsessions with those titles. (Well, maybe not the Planet Terry so much.)

Growing up, my long-suffering family realized I would always be a grumpy little shit if I didn’t get some kind of book for Christmas, so there would usually be something along those lines, and even if it was a comic I didn’t care about, I always, always appreciated the effort, (and would usually make a valiant effort to get into it).

As well as that, there was almost always a Footrot Flats book floating around, and I also became hooked on the annual Giles books that my Nana would receive every year – I never understood the politics, but the old battleaxe granny and those midget children with no necks were universally hilarious, and I associate these comics with Christmas as much as rich food, good company and blatant alcoholism.

I can also look at some of these presents and feel a real emotional attachment to them. Comics like the Blade Runner book my Nana Smith got me some time in the early eighties. I was just too young to see the film, and I was crazy about seeing this new movie with Han Solo in it, and I wasn’t allowed to go, and it was just about the first time I ever encountered the concept of INJUSTICE, but then my Nana gave me this thing, and all was right with the world.

It was a cheap reprint of the Marvel Comics Super Special #22, with the whole movie collected together in one sharp 45-page adaptation, with a lean script from Archie Goodwin and the usual fine art from Al Williamson. I didn’t get to see the film itself of years, but I knew every beat of it from that adaptation, especially with Williamson capturing the dark mood of the individual scenes.

Nana Smith passed away in 2000, and thanks to gifts like this (and a stint where she worked at the best second-hand bookshop in Timaru), she was the reason I still love comics more than any other medium. I’ve still got that Blade Runner book, and while the hardback cover is starting to come away from the slick interior, it’s still one of my absolute favourite books ever.

New Christmas comics predictably dried up when I left home and went out into the world, but there has been a resurgence in yuletide geek pleasures in recent years, thanks to the extraordinarily lovely wife.

Each year, she asks me what sort of book I’d like for Christmas, and I give her a short list of options, and she comes back with something spectacular.

The very first Christmas comic she ever gave me was the complete Bone collection, and I was genuinely touched by the effort, because I’d only mentioned how I’d like to read it once in passing, and she went out of her way to track it down.

Nobody had ever gone to such effort to get me a comic book I was after, and she’s done the same for every Christmas we’ve shared together since. Another year she got me the complete Milk and Cheese hardback from Evan Dorkin, which I didn’t even know had come out, and that was a true highlight, because any wife that will get her husband a Milk and Cheese comic for Christmas is a very special wife indeed.

And while she does still get me desperately needed dull things like socks, she also got me Charles Burns’ fucking excellent Black Hole collection for this year’s Christmas. There has been a dire absence of Charles Burn’s masterpiece on my bookshelves, and it’s been something I’ve been meaning to get for years.

I’ve read the local library’s copy of Black Hole more than half a dozen times, but it’s such a fantastic comic that I’ve always wanted a copy of my own, and now I finally have.

It might seem a little weird reading Black Hole at this time of year – it’s a deeply unsettling,  moody and disturbing story of teenage angst manifesting itself as mutant growths which gets inside the reader’s head and twists and turns like a black snake – but it’s also a deeply fulfilling and meaty comic that takes time, energy and effort to read.

In other words, it’s a perfect Christmas comic. Just like all the rest.

The best birthday present I ever got was the Judge Dredd roleplaying game, but we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The List

Holy shit, I am such a fucking dork about comics sometimes.

I know this, because half of The List – which tells me what comic books I need to be able to square away portions of my collection - vanished a couple of months ago, and I've been totally lost ever since.

It was easy enough to misplace. A couple of decades of evolution have seen The List reduced to two business card-sized pieces of cardboard, filed with vital numbers and weird shorthand notes in ballpoint pen. I lost one of those cards around the time of the most recent Armageddon convention here in Auckland, and it's probably gone forever, although I have vague hopes that it will one day fall out of one of the Major Bummer comics I bought at the show.

That was only a few months ago, but there have already been at least three occasions since then when I desperately needed that list, and I've already accidentally bought half a dozen comics I already owned without it.

I have to make a new one soon. It's going to take hours and hours. And it's fairly embarrassing how much I'm looking forward to it.

There comes a tipping point when you go from a regular comic reader to a total goddamn obsessive, and in my case, it might be the day I decided I needed a list to keep track of what I was after.

Dodgy distribution in this part of the world, combined with my own slowness to catch on with the good shit, means a large proportion of the comics I own have been bought out of back issue bins, and totally out of order.

It didn't feel like some massive geek threshold when I drew up the first one, it was just an obvious necessity. 2000ad was the first thing on the first list I ever made in the late eighties, when I was snapping up vast numbers of ratty old back issues at school fairs and second hand shops, and I needed to keep track of what I still needed to look for. I also remember that Alan Moore's Swamp Thing was the first addition, in a 10-year search to track down all those back issues.

That first list was on ratty old school notebook paper, but I soon discovered that they fell to pieces too quickly, especially when I was constantly getting it out, and I eventually evolved to cardboard and even then it was some trial and error until I discovered cut-up white backing boards were the best and holy fucking shit I am SUCH a fucking nerd.

I know I could do all this shit with a spreadsheet or database or something like that, but that's just a step too far, even for me. And besides, ink on paper is still the greatest technology ever for ease of use.

I also know I could've just got everything with some savvy internet shopping, and I have resorted to that in extreme cases, but shit, where's the fun in that?

The List has got smaller, as I've filled out particular runs and completed minor sub-collections, like a run of Hitman, of those Swamp Things, or dozens of other little series. (There are now less than a hundred issues of 2000ad to look out for, and that's taken more than 30 years.) But it's still a vital part of my comic collecting, because I really don't know if I've got that issue of Cerebus or not.

Cerebus might be the best example of a List comic – I've only ever bought three issues of Dave Sim's series brand new, I've just been getting the series in large chunks out of $1 and $2 bins. And while most of them stick in the brain as something I've got, sometimes the covers all run together, and I need to list out exactly what I need.

It's a long-term project started 18 years ago, and it'll probably take another 18 years to track down the last 100 issues I'm after, at least it's something to always look out for.

The Cerebus covers are usually pretty bloody good, and many of them do stand out, but sometimes designs and motifs were repeated. And while this can result in some rewarding artistic flow between issues, it becomes a pain in the arse telling them apart, and I'm back to The List again.

It doesn't help when you get modern covers that are utterly non-distinctive, more concerned with the same old posing shit than anything actually stands out from the rest. And the absurd number of variant covers mean I really can't judge a book by its cover, because it might be totally unrecognisable on the front, with painfully familiar interiors.

And then there are a lot of covers reprinted elsewhere, so I see them on a missing 2000ad and pass them by, because it was used as a cover on Best Of 2000ad Monthly. Or comics have been lost entirely and I can never remember which one, (some ended up in the ocean once due to a misguided attempt to prove that material possessions don't matter, and I've spent years trying to reclaim them).

I'm old and forgetful and there is just so much shit out there, and I can't keep track of my comics without The List.

I usually feel weirdly embarrassed when I have to whip The List out, because there is no way to do it without looking like a total fucking dork, but I do it anyway, otherwise I end up with three copies of the same issue of Pete Milligan's Human Target number eleventy.

I'm going back through those Major Bummer comics I got at Armageddon tonight, and if the list doesn't fall out of it, I'm going to have to create a new one.

It's going to take hours to create a new List, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was some part of me that really enjoys the process. Some part that really digs going through all the comic boxes again, and finding those niggling, itchy gaps between issues, and marking them down for something to look for.

And that's when I know I am the biggest fucking nerd in the world, getting my kicks from list making and number tallying. There is nothing dorkier.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Now that one got sequelitis

While it had no chance of matching the hidden depth, long-running complexity and balls-out craziness of the original comic, last year’s Dredd movie was a fine film in its own right.

It could never match the ongoing comic strip, because it’s not a 35-year-long story like the comic is. But it still managed to strike the right tone of dead serious absurdity, with some brutally efficient storytelling and crazy stylistic tics, including a new interpretation of the overall look of Mega City-One.

I’ve been a Judge Dredd fan since I was four years old, and I thought the latest movie version was terrific. It didn’t condescend or compromise, it featured some wonderfully restrained performances and didn’t overwhelm a simple story with flashing bells and explosive whistles, while never shying away from some ultra-violence.

It also didn’t find a huge audience at the cinema, but is proving predictably popular in the secondary home movie market, and there has been a recent groundswell for support for a sequel, including a 2000ad-endorsed petition calling for a second Dredd film.

But as much as I enjoyed the movie, I don’t really care if they do a sequel or not. I can understand why some fans of the film are eager for more, but I’m happy enough with just the one.

It’s not enough to get one film out of a beloved comic book series these days. It’s not enough for characters to make it off the page and onto the screen; it has to get a franchise, otherwise it’s written off as a failure, even on an artistic level.

You can’t blame studios for trying to launch new franchises – the biggest box office hits of the past few years have almost all been part of a longer series. A successful franchise can literally generate billions of dollars in revenue, and can provide years of solid returns, and can even unexpectedly result in new ways of telling long-form stories

And you can’t blame the readers and viewers for wanting more – if you enjoy one film enough, there will always be loads of goodwill going into further instalments, even if that goodwill can rapidly evaporate (also known as the Matrix syndrome).

But sometimes one film really is enough. Something like Gravity, which will undoubtedly influence many other movies over the coming years, is hard-wired to stand on its own, and there really is no need, or demand, for a Gravity II.

And two sequels that came out this year, both originally based on distinctly different comic books, help prove the argument that more isn’t always better.

The first Red and Kick Ass films weren’t the most ground-breaking or innovative movies, but they were both solidly entertaining. Based on comics written by Warren Ellis and Mark Millar, the movies both had a bit of style, and some sharp lines, and some easy-to-digest high concepts.

They were both reasonably succesful, just enough to see the sequels get a green light, and the second installments in both series were released this year, to massive indifference.

There isn't anything intrisically wrong with the films, no critical mis-step that crippled the stories they were telling. Red 2 beefed up the cast of the original movie, and took the show to Moscow, while Kick-Ass 2 followed the lead of the comic sequel, and brought in a bunch of new faces to get stomped on. Both movies upped the stakes of the first installments, but that was just what everyone expected them to do, and both films fell with a collective thud.

It's entirely possible that those initial high-concepts - the OAP assassins and hyper violent street-level superheroes – only really had enough gas for one movie. The sequels took things to new levels of violence and intensity, but the initial concept is still the same, and leaves both films with a 'seen it all before' vibe.

It’s also entirely possible that both films were propelled by a single joke, one that just isn’t that funny after it’s been mined for a movie. While it remains a delight to see the super-classy Helen Mirren kick the living crap out of young fools, it’s not the happy revelation it was in the first Red film.

It’s also notable that the second Kick Ass film was not as hard-edged or mean as the second Kick Ass comic. It made a point out of not killing dogs or little kids, which is obviously morally justifiable, but once you start pulling back on the hardcore follishness of something called Kick Ass, you’re just left with an increasingly pale imitation. (I’m pleased to say the most recent Kick Ass series, being published now, is just as gloriously nasty as ever.)

Poor sequels do diminish decent movies (unless they're stone cold classics – Jaws is still as awesome as ever, even with the awful, awful sequels). Instead of one decent Kick Ass or Red film, there are these flabby, unnecessary additions, stretching a meagre story much further than it really needs to go.

I'm always happy to be proved wrong, and there are certainly sequels that build upon the first film in a series. After all, The Dark Knight is demonstrably better than Batman Begins (and I'm one of the crazy bastards who is convinced that Dark Knight Rises is better again).

Movie sequels can improve and build on the original film, although they still depend on the original film doing well enough to merit a sequel, otherwise you end up with one-offs like the Adventures Of Buckeroo Banzai or The Golden Compass – films which promised much for their second instalments, but could never deliver.

But nobody wanted (or got) sequels to things like the Ghost World and American Splendor films. There was no demand for a Harvey Pekar franchise, even if there were plenty of other Harvey Pekar stories to tell. One was enough.

So while the Dredd filmmakers promised to get deeper into the weird and wild world of Mega-City One with sequels that would go into the Cursed Earth and introduce the Dark Judges and everything would be bigger and more spectacular and all that, the chances of another film are actually pretty slim, so all those ideas get left on the shelf (until the next reboot in a decade or so).

And I’m fine with that, because at least we got one Dredd film out of it all, and that was one more than we had a couple of years ago. I would certainly go and see a sequel if it actually defied the odds and was made, but it’s not the end of the world if there is only the one Dredd.

Besides, if you ever really do need a sequel, there is always the comics.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Giving in to the devil in paradise

So we're on holiday in Honolulu, but we're far from the usual tourist areas, and the lady at the convenience store has to ask when she hears our accents: what are we doing in that part of town, and why did we walk all the way over there?

She doesn't look any less baffled when I tell her I was there for the comic shops.

I'm a total hypocrite, because after recently claiming that my ongoing search for comic shops all over the world wasn't really that important, I still dragged my lovely wife halfway across town to see what Hawaii had in the way of stores.

Because I always get preoccupied with the thought of checking out the local comic shops when we go on holiday, and I can get incredibly grumpy if I don't get the chance. I don't mean to, and I know that I'm doing it, but that doesn't stop me from acting like a real arse.

Luckily, we were celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary on the trip, so she is used to all that crap, and headed it off by going on a long walk across town with me so we could check out some stores I had scoped out on the internet. (It helped that she's training for a 100-kay walk early next year, and needed some kind of long hike during a holiday on the sand.)

The shop we did find even had a good wife corner, where she could sit down and flick through an Elmore Leonard book, and I could dive into the back issues, and sort through the bewildering amount of slightly rare books and magazines.

I love spending time with my wife and she likes spending time with me, but I'm always a bit surprised that she'll spend any time at all near a comic shop. But she lets me do the incredibly dorky thing for a certain amount of time, and I go with her to shoe shops where my opinion is always less than valid.

And, best of all, she doesn't let me second guess myself. When I go to comic shops that I am unlikely to ever visit again, I'm always talking myself out of buying something a bit bigger or more extravagant, and I always, always, always regret it, and the itch gets worse and worse, and I can end up sitting here years and years later, kicking myself for not buying that damn Diabolik comic.

She is also familiar with this foolishness, and after we went to the shop, we got some lunch, and when that was done, she made me go back and buy that The Art Of Matt Wagner's Grendel hardback that I'd been eyeing up. Even though I got a couple of crucial back issues and the last Hectic Planet trade I was after, I wanted something substantial that would always sit on the bookshelf – art as souvenir.

But it was pretty big, and even though it cost twice as much back home, it was only the start of the holiday and I would have to lug it around between the islands, and I didn't really need it. Not really.

Not really.

She knew that look, and made me go back and get it, and it wasn't that fucking heavy, and now it's sitting on the desk next to me, and it's bloody beautiful.

We did spend most of the time on the beach, and snorkleing, and going out to Pearl Habor, and hiking up the Diamondhead, and all the other things you're supposed to do in Hawaii, but apart from food, the biggest expense on our trip was probably printed things, because we're both total book nerds.

On the first day in town, we were in the local Barnes and Noble, checking out the deals, and she bought things like thick, luggage-busting hardbacks of F Scott Fitzgerald and Sherlock Holmes books and I bought things like an original Fairest graphic novel by Bill Willingham that I didn't even know existed, and the Best of Milligan and McCarthy book, which I was looking for an excuse to get.

We go to another branch on Maui after breakfast on the beach, and we decide our luggage could use another brick after all, so we get the George RR Martin-edited Dangerous Women anthology with the new Westeros history lesson, and that was another one I wasn't going to bother with, until she made me buy it.

She made me.

The Fairest book features a bunch of different (and fine) artists telling the story of super-agent Cinderella's worst week, and it's impossible to read without considering Willingham's recent announcement that he was ending the series, because there are an awful lot of loose ends that are starting to get tied up.

And I wasn't sure about the Milligan/MCarthy book, partly because McCarthy recently turned out to be one of those old farts who hasn't realised there are some things you can't say in a public forum without sounding like a complete douchebag (because they're completely douchebag things to say), and mainly because I already had Skin and Rogan Gosh and the Sooner or Later stuff. But I'd never even read the Strange Days stuff before, and McCarthy's endlesly inventive design work is really like nothing else on Earth, and always meshed nicely with Milligan's perfectly arched eyebrow, so there was really no question about getting it at all.

We were easily the dorkiest tourists on Waikiki beach – I was reading a new Doctor Who magazine between swims, and scratching up the covers with the sand, while also getting weird ink blotches on the Alan Moore book by Lance Parkin that I packed for the trip. (Which proved to be a great little read, even after reading all the other books about Moore, and has pushed me into re-reading a lot of the big man's work, especially the ABC stuff.)

And she was reading some book by Arthur Miller about institutionalised prejudice, and that Elmore Leonard she got from the comic shop, and that was pretty close to heaven.

Holidays are the best time to get some proper reading done, because you can make lots of time to get proper reading done.

The convenience store lady doesn't get why I would walk through some of Honolulu's most average suburbs just to go to a comic book store, and I want to tell her that it was messy and full of one-off books that I just couldn't buy anywhere, and it was totally worth the effort.

I also want to tell her I found Fury Max #8 there, and I made a weird little squeaking noise when I found it in the bin, because I couldn't find that bastard issue anywhere in the southern hemisphere, and it's totally made my holiday.

But I don't think it would ease her confusion. At all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Looking for Jimmy's End: Part five of five

BT: Moore has always been sneaking songs into his comics, which is probably the worst possible medium for conveying music, and he's always dabbled in recording tunes, so it's no surprise that he'd put a lot of thought into the first proper soundtrack for one of his works.

I do tend to dismiss a lot of his earlier singles as pure novelty - after burning through Watchmen, From Hell and V For Vendetta, the lovely wife said she thought Moore was a lot less cool after she heard March of the Sinister Ducks, although she does sometimes sing snatches of the lyrics while she's doing housework. And I alwys thought the Gangsters Never Die song was deeply, deeply annoying.

The diegtic approach is always a fine idea - it certainly worked for The Wire, which only broke that rule for the obligatory end-season montage. And it is another fairly obvious David Lynch influence, Lynch is always pulling that sort of trick, and even making fun of it on occasions with various lip synching jokes. And Lynch is another filmmaker who juxtaposes cheeery love songs with awful events, although that's a trick that every hack movie maker has caught onto in recent years.

I certainly didn't notice the overlap between the films, but that's another of those things you can only do in a film, or a series of film. Y'know, I think that might be one of the things I like most about these films, they're clearly having so much fun making them, and revelling in all the little tricks and illusions that cinema brings. It's the sort of thing rookie filmmakers always do, and I always find it really charming, even if I'm grimacing at the more embarrassing moments. A little enthusiasm goes a long way.

KS: So, do you have any favourite or effecting moments from the films? I've been watching them again, when writing about the songs, and have come across one or two parts which jump out when in context with the rest of the films.

I'm thinking particularly of the scene where Faith is speaking on the phone making her 'emergency' call. at a certain point the inflection in her voice drops and it goes from risque patter to a dead toned statement. It's scary and sad, particularly when you see it in relation to Matchbright's taunting in 'Upon Reflection'.

It's the combination of those two scenes, along with her conversation with Jimmy when they are dancing together, that you begin to get a sense of Faith as someone who is paying a very heavy price for something that is not her fault. Suddenly her character springs into sharp relief and becomes more complex and so do the films by extension. 

BT: I'm not sure if there is any one moment that really stands out over everything else, although I am a total sucker for any scene where characters enter a state of climactic transcendence. When I try to think about my favourite bits from the film, it tends to be more of a mood or atmosphere that captures my fancy.

I like how sensual all those exact preparations are in Act Of Faith, and how Faith's home, and the music and even the act of stuffing some plastic in the mouth takes on a smooth, sexy context. And I really like it when it all suddenly sours and all those rich visual tones and thick sounds suddenly become stifling and rotten, and becomes too much for Faith as she chokes on her last breath. That switch is really well done, and emphasises the horror, as her silly little ritual goes horribly wrong.

Upon Reflection is still my least favourite of the films, because it's just so mean, but watching it again, it's remarkable how much detailed information is packed into that single static and warped shot. A Professional Relationship is much more palatable, and while it does expose how heavy handed some of Moore's dialogue can sound when it comes out of actual mouths, I could listen to Moore talk bollocks all day long.

There are more individual moments in the full Jimmy's End film, and my favourite scenes usually involve Darrell D'Silva looking totally befuddled as he wanders around slowly, but I do like the slow dance scene, mainly because I always like a slow dance scene, especially when the dancers are using their dance to hold off total despair.

And again, there is that moment of "the loight", when the brightness of the world overwhelms everything and leaves the story on a note of hope. They're strange little films full of strange little people (some of whom might be strange big gods), but we're all part of the same divine light, and sometimes we need to be pushed into it, or we'll be trapped by our own guilt.

That's why Jimmy's End feels so optimistic to me, even with all the cruelty and venom. Moore's stories have often been all about the eternal desire to drag ourselves out of the filth and into the light, and this is another fine example. 

Which is why I'm also very keen to see the last film in this series, to see what sort of fun they're having with a bow tie that wraps everything up. Moore always likes his works to be well rounded and full of synchronicity, and a series of short films is a good medium for that sort of thing.

As a long time reader of Moore's work, it's pleasing to see how much he's enjoying this new medium, getting to craft his small cinematic gems without interference from money-men or bull-headed collaborators.  I hope he makes some more, once that final film was done, and turns this late-career interest in movies into another decent chapter in his story.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Looking for Jimmy's End: Part four of five

KS: Another thing about the spoken word pieces and the virtues, or not, of adapting them-with some small regard to Mr Eddie Campbell's work (which, I hasten to add, I really, really like too.)

Jim Woodring once explained in the TCJ why he thought it was difficult for comics to engage in a manner as deeply or directly as a really good novel. Basically, he felt that when a novelist describes something, even something as simple as a table, we are bringing something of ourselves to that table when we imagine it. When we see a table in a comic it is the cartoonists table we are seeing. There is not quite the same personal connection.

For a work like The Birth Caul which was 'just' words and voices, until good fellow Eddie Campbell picked up his pen, there is a tremendous power in those limits. Moore is talking about the very stuff of life here. Fucking and conception and birth and death-the whole shebang. When you bring yourself to that, when you strain your imagination to render those words into understanding and personal interpretation, then I think your pushing at the very edge of yourself, making yourself bigger. That's good.

BT: I get what you're saying about the spoken word pieces and how they force the imagination into bigger and bigger spaces, but comics are still my favourite medium, and it's in that weird space between writer and artist that I like so much (even if it's a single writer/artist).  A comic story isn't a story until it's been drawn, and the artist has to interpret and edit the tale. There is a certain amount of laziness in letting Eddie Campbell supply the visuals for Snakes And Ladders, but he also sells the pain of Arthur Machen, falling into black waves of despair. As much as I love Vocie of the Fire, and as much as I'm looking forward to Jerusalem, I just like the stuff with the pictures more.

Which brings us back to the Jimmy's End films, and the collaboration thing, and I think it's really funny that he has more direct collaborators in this - including Jenkins, the cinematographer, the actors, and everybody down to the tea boy - than anything else he has ever created, but it also feels pure MOORE in a way that his comics mostly aren't, and his stage presentations are.

I guess the whole point is that everyone involved, from the director through to the fans who put money into the Kickstarter, is in awe of Moore and his work, and want his vision to get on a screen without any compromise. I assume that many of the creators only got involved in the first place because Moore was on board, and I know that the vast majority of the people who do sit down and watch these films are only doing so because they have enjoyed Moore's past works. I know that's why I'm here.

Because Moore's stuff is almost always worthwhile. There have been a few comic projects that have been inevitably sundered by shite art, and a couple where he really didn't put any effort into it at all, but for the most part, his comics, prose and stage shows are incredibly thoughtful, emotionally rich and downright clever, and I have no hesitation in putting these new movies in that latter category.

For people who don't like Moore's work - and that's perfectly all right, because it's different strokes for different folks - I imagine these films will be tedious and self-indulgent, but I think they're just super.

How would you rate them in the Moore Pantheon?

KS: So far I'm rating it pretty high. I'm thinking at this moment somewhere just below Promethea, which ranks in turn below a couple of the spoken word pieces, V, Unearthing, From Hell and Voice of the Fire. So, maybe, somewhere in the top ten?  For a final decision I'm waiting until I see 'His Heavy Heart'.

 Before banging on about something I haven't seen I thought we should touch on one of the other successful collaborative relationships that contribute so much to the films - the songs. I like them. They are an essential part of the rich atmosphere of the films. As Alan and Mitch tell us, in one of the promotional videos or interviews that are out there, the films music is all diegtic.

That is, sound that originates within the environment the characters are in. If we can hear so can they. At times this makes for a slightly muffled soundtrack but it also makes for richly atmospheric moments. Check out the part when Jimmy enters the club and is walking down that awful piss yellow hallway.  Strains from 'In the Past Again' echo around him, drawing him deeper into the story and onwards toward his impending fate. It is creepy and unsettling in no small part due to that ominous serenade.

 The song also serves as a nice overlap with 'Upon Reflection'. In that nasty little short the song begins in the bar just as Matchbright starts to brutalise Faith and marks the point, somewhere else, that Jimmy enters the building.

 Surprising, when you get to hear the songs unimpeded they are lush, romantic and melancholic. I suspect that they get closer to the heart of what Moore is seeking to evoke/impart than the surface level of the films does.

 "Every song I hear on the radio,
sounds like something from before.
Different words and different scores,
but much the same.
And the ghost of the times I had back then,
they still follow me around.
Those dead old melodies,
it's like their haunting me,
and won't let the present be."

 Crook and Flail, the producers of the material, the music wranglers, do a superb job of realising Moore's words. I have no idea of how much they talked to him before beginning the process but this isn't the first time they have worked together  and I suspect they are in tune enough to go it alone or with minimal guidance.

 As for 'His Heavy Heart', I'm real keen to see it. The Kickstsarter site tells us:

 1. There's glitter, gold and rust

2. There is a smiling man with an inappropriate personal soundtrack

3. Traditional rules and regulations of processes are observed.

Apparently that last bit involves Egyptian funeral rites so it's probaly not for the faint hearted.

I'm really not sure what to expect. Given Moore's public musings on the nature of space and time it's possible we can expect some sort of return to the start of Jimmy's mis-spent existence but other than that I'm not so sure.

I like that.  


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Looking for Jimmy's End: Part three of five

BT: We were talking about collaboration and the people Moore works with, which might be a good segue into Unearthing, and why you thought it was a dilution of pure Moore.

KS: I don't really think his vision has been dissipated by film, I just thought I would say that to get a reaction.

Indeed it seems that the films are drawing on the big man's strength for collaboration and producing something new and involving. Jimmy's End feels different from what has gone before. I can't put my finger on exactly what is unique except to say that the cycle of films have their own atmosphere that is rooted in the setting, (which might be why we keep coming back to workingmen's clubs). It will interesting to see what happens if Moore and Jenkins get to make The Show, since, apparently, that will be set out and about in Northampton (or at least a version of Northampton).

Unearthing, the prose piece, is one of my favorite Mooreisms. It is a love letter to an old, dear friend. It is also a bravado piece of writing. It is dense and engaging and beautiful and sad and enigmatic and very, very, very spooky. Unearthing is prose which you can get wonder around in-as long as you are prepared to risk getting lost and never finding your way out. In short, I think Unearthing is massive.

I don't really like the photo adaptation of it. It seems besides the point. Unlike the things we have been discussing Unearthing was never conceived of as a collaboration. To make it one seems forced and takes away from the power it has been when it was 'just' words on the page:

"The ceilings gone, the room opening up into a space above that isn't night, and something stoops, leans in from outside, gathering identity with its approach, It pushes its unfathomable face down into our aquarium, displacing world, spilling reality on heaven's front floor."

Or this:

"Jim, his father's barrack-room nativity just one twist further down the helical ancestral staircase, mans the rocket battery that's stationed on the golf course, uphill from the former gibbet-fields. Phosphorus tracers hyphenating giant blackness, boom and siren, recoil shuddering the green and distant firebursts pluming from the cower of the city."

I mean, does that writing need pictures? Does it want someone to go through and change the font size and type? Every page has at least twenty bits of writing which are just as captivating. I rest my case.

Moore's commitment to community is admirable and it kind of makes a lie of his claims that he would like to be a hermit and just left alone. I also really like the fact that he seems to know the dirt on everyone. There is that great interview where he, along with Pat Mills, talks about Ken Reid. Moore's contribution is about the personal tragedy and circumstances of Reid's life. There is his great obituary for Robert Morales and I really love his introduction to Richard Corbean's adaptation of House on the Boaderlands where he gives the DL on many old pulp writers. Moore's own description of his telephone relationship with Morales reminds me of Michael Herr describing Stanley Kubricks use of the telephone:

"...he was one of the most gregarious men I ever knew, and i didn't change anything that most of his conviviality went over the phone. He viewed the telephone the way Mao viewed warfare, as an instrument of protracted offensive where control of the ground was critical and timing crucial, where time was meaningless, except as something to be kept on your side. An hour was nothing, mere overture, or opening move, or gambit, a small taste of his virtuosity...I've been hearing about all the people who say they talked to Stanley on the last day of his life, and however many of them there were, I believe them all."

Fuck I love that book*. Everyone should read it. (*Kubrick by Michael Herr).

Humour is one of those things in Moore's work which I have not always responded to. While I agree with you about D.R & Quinch and Abelard Snazz, (and I would add Jack B Quick to that list), I have sometimes found the laughs lacking in other works. I like the Bojefferies for many reasons but I just don't find it that funny. The humour all seems a little forced. Indeed one of  the things I most admire about the series is that Moore has  said how difficult it was to write. Every word was carved in granite was his summary I believe.

Thinking about that last paragraph I realise it is utter nonsense. What I should of said is that the parts of his work which are funniest are often the droll, almost throw away comments made by characters. "Big Figure. Small World" says Rorschach as an overture to the unpleasant mayhem which is about to play out in and around his jail cell. I laugh each time I read that line. 

One of the works where the humour flows in a very natural way is Big Numbers. It's full of the everyday laughs that get people through their lives and has moments of absurdity that are in keeping with Jimmy's End. "I don't think there's any need to use language" is one of my favorite lines from that series. The section where Christine calls her father on the phone and has to listen to him berate a visiting priest is gold.

BT: I always found the funniest bits of the BoJeffries Saga were the parts where it just got full-blown weird - like when one character tries to build a working model of the Atlantic Ocean in the living room...

The photo adaption of Unearthing is the only version I've seen, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I do have a real love/hate relationship with some of the imagery. Like I said before, the more mundane it gets, the more I like it, but some of the photos are just so literal, it's really cringe-worthy.  And the constantly shifting text really does irritate more than anything else.

But I don't think the fact that it was never conceived of as a collaboration should be held against it. Neither were the comic adaptions of Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul that the esteemed Mr Eddie Campbell did were ever meant to be comics, but after finally listening to the recordings of the performances, I have to say the comics are vastly more entertaining and moving. I don't have a lot of time for adaptions of Moore's short text stories and music lyrics, but when interpreted by a talented creator like Campbell, they can be absolutely delightful.

All that said, I got totally bogged down in the Jenkins-illustrated version of Unearthing, in a way I don't think I would have if it was purely prose, and still haven't finished the final ten pages, two months after I got it.....

That jocularity is back in Moore's tone whenever he goes on about being a hermit - he is quite clearly committed to his community in a way few creators bother with. We all hear about his public spats with people like Steve Bissette, but he also appears to be extremely loyal to his mates, and anybody who does breach that loyalty is just cut off forever. It means he sometimes sounds like a bit of a cunt, but at least he stands by his principles, and has moving things to say about people he genuinely liked, like Bob Morales (Most of the obits I saw after Morales' death were fixated on the fact he once did a slightly-controversial Captain America comic, but that Moore piece makes it clear he had so much more to say). And he's always been an incorrigible gossip, and more well-read than he really admits, so any introductions or essays are always well-researched and argued.

Getting back to the movies, one part of collaboration that Moore can't do much about is the acting in the Jimmy's End movies. I got my own thoughts on it, but don't want to pollute yours yet, so how do you feel about the acting efforts? Do you like the largely amateur cast? Do Moore's words lose or gain power when they have to be articulated by other people? Do they really just belong on the page?

KS: I think, by and large, the acting is pretty good in the films. Certainly there are bits and pieces that don't work. The guy doing the voice on the telephone in 'Act of Faith' is awful and Melinda Gebbie as Lil doesn't really come across,  but as a whole I thought they did well.

 I imagine that directing the actors is one of the most difficult things to get right when making a film, especially if you are someone that comes from a technical background and that's how I see Mitch Jenkins, someone used to focusing on lighting and mood but now having to deal with the messy complexities of hitting marks and the actors line delivery and ensuring that the performances all have a compatible tone.

Having said all that I think Jenkins has been making leaps and bounds in that area since the project started. You can see that emerging confidence reflected in Alan Moore's performance and the in promo's used for the Kickstarter campaign.

Moore did not come across for me in 'Jimmy's End'. While the finale was great he was basically doing one of his spoken word performances. The section in the changing room came across as clumsy. At the time I wondered if they were having to cut around an amateur performance. 

The behind the scenes short was an eye opener. Here you get a sense of the relish Moore is bringing to his role along with an understated confidence. There's a moment that I love, just after he finishes his monologue, Metteron drops his affable mask and you get a glimpse of the scary prick under the makeup. "I don't like him Dad" said Seamus when he saw the clip. The relish is also there in "A Professional Relationship" and that section is one of my favourite parts of the cycle.

Darrell D'Silva is also great as Jimmy but what I really love is his part in the Kickstarter promo. You get a sense of Jenkin's just allowing him to play around with his performance while keeping the shooting simple and to the point. Underneath it all is a slight tension and unease that resonates with the tone of the cycle. Lovely.

Personally I really like the spoken word performances and would rather listen that read them. 
Like 'Unearthing' they are dense and at times difficult but well worth the effort.

I can remember when I first heard Moore read a piece of his own writing. "Oh, I get it now" I thought. "All those text panels I skipped in Swamp Thing were meant to be read aloud. Of course". At the core of Moore's creative essence there is a performer and raconteur - you can take the man out of the Northampton Arts Labs but you can't take the Arts Labs out of the man.

One of the nice things about more, um, fuller bodied writing is that there is always something new to discover. These pieces are designed with that in mind. To some extent your meant to drift in and out of them and to be overwhelmed. I think fugue is the word that always comes up. That would probably be even more so in their original incarnations as performances. I would dearly love to attend one before I cark it.

Like the original Unearthing, and the movies, there is more than a tang of the occult in Moore's utterances. But their real power resides in their very human core. You can relate to the stories and messages even become ensnared in the net they cast out. Check out the note Mr Eddie Campbell posts at the conclusion of his The Birth Caul adaptation;

"Somewhere towards the end of this project, Eddie Campbell casually mentioned in conversation with his mother that he was working on a book entitled The Birth Caul. "Oh" he was informed, "you were born with one of those. The midwife said "Look! He's got a wee cap and veil."

I can imagine the weird thrill that must of come with that chat.

All these performances are heavily emotive. You can hear it in Moore's voice and you can feel it in your belly and chest. More than once I've teared up as I listened to the rasping vocal. Push through the dense verbal web and you will find forgiveness and understanding and respite.

At times too they spotlight Moore's astonishing talent for turning the incomprehensible and alien into something understandable and personable. The Birth Caul's rendering of childhood is haunting and beautiful but where it really jumps up and starts to mess with your head is the description of conception and development in the womb.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Looking for Jimmy's End: Part two of five

BT: So the setting of these films is either a way-station on the road to the infinite, or a grotty little working class club. I have to admit that working men's clubs do freak me out a bit, and they are bastions of outdated social values, but they have their good sides, too. It's not just the cheap beer, (although that helps). My parents are straight-up working class stiffs and they have a great time down the club, catching up with mates, playing a couple of pokies and having a jug or two. There is a real sense of community and camaraderie in these places, that is often overlooked in this day and age, when everybody has glued their nose to some iBullshit.

And all of Moore's major works over the past few years have been about the community around him, and it gives those works more of an emotional resonance, because he's talking about people and places that mean a lot to him. Moore is also perfectly comfortable hanging out with his working class mates in working class places and he knows there is worth in these social occasions.

The setting for these films is a gloomy, claustrophobic place, but it's also a place that people go to so they can be with other people, share stories and have a laugh.

The other thing about the workingmen's club setting is that it is terribly mundane, in the best possible way. One of the things I did like about the Unearthing book Jenkins did with Moore (and we'll talk more about this, and our differing opinions, later), were the shots of an utterly mundane setting, with the implication that transcendence can be found in ordinary flats and houses. That there is something magical in the inanity of a milk bottle or a kitchen table. Jimmy's End does a bit of this, and the fact that it's set in this place which is pretty banal, despite the fancy trimming, gives it an extra heft of reality.

I know that the strangest things that ever happened to me always happened in the most ordinary surroundings.

I also have to say I really, really like the glossy look of the film, with the garish colours and eye-searing sharpness. I just like purple. To be honest, I'm massively impressed by the production values of these films - when it was announced that Moore and Jenkins and some of their mates were making some films, I expected something a lot more low-rent, but the democratization of movies that digital technology has allowed directors and cinematographers to create some beautiful images on shoe-string budgets. There is some terrific imagery in all of these films, which I really wasn't expecting. I came for Moore's script, and stuck around for the sweet camera shots.

It does get a bit too glossy, and it's almost an uncanny valley kind of thing, where it all gets too sharp, too real, and you can see the artifice of the film. (Kinda like the problem people had with The Hobbit in 48fps). Some of the lighting is just too bright, and there could be a lot more shadow.

But let's face it, while Mitch Jenkins has a very talented eye, it was the words that we both came for, isn't it? Isn't that why we're really here, because we've both had the back of our brains blown off by Alan Moore's comics?  You're the only person I know who is more obsessed with Moore's work than I am, but before we dig into his script, maybe we should explain our own histories with Moore, and your triple whammy...

KS: I said to you the other day that it was a triple whammy but part of me thinks it's more like an ongoing initiation (and as Moore and Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson will tell you, the initiation is always ongoing, the initiation never finishes).

With that said there is indeed a triplicate of starting points with Moore's work. Reading experiences I recall as having a  profound effect on me in one way and another. They are the first three comics that come to mind when I think of my initial encounters with the mind and work of Alan Moore.

My first memory is seeing a 2000AD that had arrived from the future, Prog 350 to be precise. It was being held by Thomas Bates, the eldest brother in a family of four boys. They were English immigrants and one of the perks of that status was periodically receiving gift packages from relatives in the UK. These contained exotic sweets, enviable toys and comics that were ahead of the local ones shipped to New Zealand on container ships (a three moth trip). Thomas was showing the off the page where DR & Quinch are pleading their intentions to go, like, straight man. I could write hundreds of words about that image. How fresh and strong it was, how idiosyncratic even in a comic with a history of singular art. Artists with styles so strong they turned school kids into opinionated critics and rigorous aesthetes by the time they were ten. I know now that it was written by Moore but it was Alan Davis that caught my imagination. Having said that it is a prime example of Moore being able to tailor scripts to the strengths of individual artists. DR & Quinch played to Davis's strengths; exaggerated character and creature design, explosive cartoon mayhem and a highly disciplined control of every aspect of the pages composition.

Second was the first issue of Warrior magazine. I secured it from a second hand bookshop in Campbells Bay on the North Shore. It was a badly lit shop buried in a crap mall, a bit sleazy really. So, I brought Warrior #1 and read it. Then re-read it again and again and again. Well, I re-read two stories; Marvel Man and V for Vendetta. The rest of it was a fine, great even, but those were the stories that stood out. It is impossible to emphasis how fresh they were. We live in a time when the re-boot is not just a cliche but a grim reminder of how sterile and exploitative corporate culture is. Marvel Man was an explosion, a re-defining of parameters, while V blazed forward into new, unknown, territories. Again both comics featured strong artists. Gary Leach, who should be given a VC for services to letratone, and David Llyod, who redefined noir just for comics, deftly mashing up Orwell with Coronation Street.

Third was Swamp Thing, more specifically third was The Anatomy Lesson. That one fucked my head. This was the real gateway drug. The real initiation. It was the first time I came across the idea of our personality being little more than a shell, nothing but a collection of ticks and habits. This was overwhelming, terrifying even, and as I read the issue I could feel my head expanding until it broke open. After, I'm sure my consciousness was a little bigger, a bit more pliable, and the world was a stranger, spookier place.  Years later I can see this reading experience, (as in 'Are You Experinced'), formed the consciousness raising beach head that Grant Morrison would storm with The Invisibles and through which I would learn that life, and myself, were malleable things that I could change and play with.

You look back at that summary and the question that comes to mind is does Mitch Jenkins fit into that tradition of strong artistic partners? Moore himself has said is what he has learned about writing film scripts is the necessity to leave room for others to do their job. Plainly he has always done that but maybe in film you have to leave even more room. Enough space for the the director and actors but also the DOP, the lighting technicians, the artistic director, the props people, the score composer, probably even the caterer.

Does this dissipate the intensity of Moore's work? 

BT: My first exposure to Moore's stuff wasn't as metaphysically mental as yours - the very first time I ever really noticed his name on something was in the Abelard Snazz stories, closely followed by DR and Quinch, and I thought they were abso-freaking-lutley hilarious. I still think Moore achieved some kind of humorous nirvana with the "Jog for your lives!" moment. So I've always associated his work with a strong sense of humour. The main influence on his work is still probably Harvey Kurtzmann's Mad comics, and even his darkest works have a small streak of humanistic humour.

I certainly still hear it in interviews he does, where you read them and he comes off as a bit of an arse, making ponderous comments about the state of comics and his place in it, and then you actually hear his voice, and he's chortling away happily, and it's hard to take any of his pronouncements so seriously.

I did have a blow-the-back-of-the-skull moment with his Swamp Thing though, although it was the first annual Moore did, where Swampy went off to heaven and hell and everywhere in between, searching for his lost love. It was a well-structured story with some groovy appearances from some of DC's great magical characters, but the idea that Swamp Thing could just let go and drift away from his body blew my ten-year-old mind. And that bit when he runs into the soul of the real Alec Holland kept my mind spinning for years.

Moving on to the issue of collaboration, you definitely have to make more room for other viewpoints in a film. Even though I remain a massive fan of Voice of The Fire, I do think Moore is always sparked by the presence of a co-creator, and this has made him suited to the rough and tumble world of comics, where two main viewpoints of both writer and artist are merged together to create something new. (Unless it's a writer/artist thing, which is a different kind of alchemy altogether.)

But film is a far bigger collaborative effort, because you're not just working with a director, you're working with a DP, and a set designer, and the actors, and, even on a small film project like this, dozens of other creatives, right down to the caterer. They're all adhering to a specific vision, but it's more of a shared vision than a specific writer's.

This is not a bad thing. It's just a different thing, I don't think it dissipates the intensity of Moore's vision, but it does force him to make it something it might not have been, and that kind of surprise is always welcome.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Looking for Jimmy's End: Part one of five

Jimmy’s End – and the films surrounding it – are part of a relatively recent film project written by Alan Moore and directed by Mitch Jenkins, revolving mainly around the various nefarious things happening at a spooky old workingmen’s club where people who might be dead wander through, lost and confused.

Like much of Moore’s work, the films are thoughtful, stylish and occasionally baffling, and they’re certainly worth discussing. So I’m delighted to be joined in the Tearoom by Kiwi comic creator (and previous contributor) Kelly Sheehan for a daily dialogue about the films and surrounding ephemera. He's the only person I’ve meet in real life who is more passionate about Moore’s work than I am, and I know that, because he bothered to import all of the performance CDs, and I just borrowed them off him.

This will fill this blog for the next five days while I’m off in Hawaii, looking at lava.

So. They’re great little films, but what does it all mean, anyway?

Bob Temuka: Moore literally does put all his cards on the table in one of the Jimmy's End films – a cinematic image he's had in mind since the eighties, according to the recent Fashion Beast comic. So it's only fair we do the same. What do you think the films? Do you like them?

I know I enjoyed all of the films, and watched them within hours of getting them. Time will only tell if they stand up against the great works in Moore's career, but I found the films funny, smart and surprisingly slick. At some points they're massively cheesy, but an undercurrent of absurdity helps offset the darkness of the story.

I like some of the films more than others, and I dig the way they are all structured around the one magical night. Sometimes it gets a bit nasty, but that's another part of the pleasantly variable tone. And sometimes it wears its influences on the sleeve just a little too obviously, but that's inevitable in a debut feature like this.

So, on the most basic level, what did you think? Are they a bit silly? Are they too serious?

Kelly Sheehan: The answer to the most obvious question, do you like them, is, of course, yes. In fact, I dig them the most.

Together they add up to a creepy whole, (well, almost whole), which leaves you more than a little uneasy. The ideal response to films which were originally billed as 'occult, noir-flecked pieces'. The tone of all four is about right; grim, claustrophobic, brooding. The comedy comes with a very sharp edge and, as you say, a sense of absurdity. The absurdity of lives unfulfilled. The absurdity of bad choices repeated. The absurdity of being in an unfamiliar bar at four in the morning by yourself and with no idea how you got there.

In short, things we can all empathize with. That mundane undercutting grounds the films nicely, though some might say it's not so much a grounding as a miring in a bog of depression and darkness. Whatever, that sense of the everyday is a constant feature in Moore's work and the fact that he makes it sing and resonate, without losing sight of the heartache and pain, is one of the reasons I love his work so much.

Today my pick of the lot is A Professional Relationship, though my favourite bit in any of them is when Matchbright tells Jimmy he's here because that's what easiest, that he's followed the path of least resistance. Chilling. Made me think about my life and what I'm doing with it.

So, that's what I thought.

Also, I like the fact that the cycle's atmosphere is so particularly English. Jimmy's End resonates with David Peace's Red Riding Quartert, Get Carter, Morcombe and Wise, Peter Cook and Dudley (no relation) Moore's Bedazzled.and even Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. All firmly rooted in the English sixties and seventies with their sleazy bars, bad cops, shitty class system and awful comedians (and I'm not referring to Pete and Dud here).

Have you seen the behind the scenes video? It's worth watching for the Frank Metterton part at the start. He describes how he is playing a character called Alan Moore "who has grown up to be an embittered, monstrous figure." While I wasn't really convinced by Alan in Jimmy's End itself, (well, the bit in the dressing room, the closing monlouge works just fine), the 'making of' made me think that he might just pull this off.

There also does seem to be more of a link between Jimmy's End, the spoken word performances and prose. in that work in these areas has a more direct relationship to his occult preoccupations. While that is present in the comics, (Promethea being the best example), there is not quite the same palatable undercurrent of weirdness that goes with that territory.  The end of Jimmy's End itself features a monologue which would not be out of place on the The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels CD. It was like Moore had driven one of his spoken word pieces at high speed into the back end of Jenkins' film, (in a good way).

BT: Well, his performance pieces almost always have a crack at reaching the sublime, some moment of transedental awareness, and Jimmy's End also has that going for it. It's a good theme, worth returning to again and again, and it is often surprisingly satisfying on a plot level.
But yeah, the films do get a bit nasty and mean sometimes, especially in the Upon Reflection part, but they are also more than a little bit silly, and that balancing act has long been a standard in Moore's work. The part where the grand climax is suddenly undercut by Moore's big golden face groaning about "the loight" is suitably shocking, and has made me laugh out loud every time I've seen it. I think Moore's work in general is often mistakenly criticised as dour and gritty, because everything he has done has some small element of silliness, because his stories are always about human beings, and human beings are inherently silly creatures.

It's all just too absurd. Which is also very, very English, and I saw all sorts of other influences in the films as well - there is a definite creepy Lindsay Anderson "chocolate sandwich" vibe, and a little of Sapphire and Steel as well, with very strange things happening in mundane places.

And this is set in a workingmens' club, which is about as mundane as you get with its working-class gloss. My parents are still members of some of Timaru's finest clubs, and I always find them strange places to visit. There is always a hint of despair and wasted opportunites and bloody cheap beer. I still associate them with Unknown Places That Kids Aren't Allowed, and spent more than a few afternoons waiting in a stinking hot vehicle in the car park, waiting for Dad to finish his last jug at the club. The idea that I'd have to pass through one of those places to my eternal reward is more than a little horrifying for me.

Also, "the absurdity of being in an unfamiliar bar at four in the morning by yourself and with no idea how you got there" is dead right. I got the existential shits from that a couple of times. One time I woke up in the pitch-black basement of a 150 year old pub in Dunedin, and it took me an eternity to get out of there, and when I got to the surface, I was alone in the pub, so I jumped out a window.

Which has very little to do with Jimmy's End, really, but is a neat story at parties.

What do you think of the setting? It's bright and colorful, but you know it stinks of stale booze, old smoke and hopelessness. Is that the right place for this kind of story?

KS: For sure it's set in the right place.

 As you point out it's a setting which brings with it a palatial sense of despair alongside the suggestion of confinement and doomed dreams. Even if it was not set at night there would be no natural light in the Jimmy's End Club. The atmosphere is smothering, choking even, as if all of this is taking place in some sort of isolated, pocket universe. Metterton and Matchbright are petty tyrants in their own rotten borough. Strange that, the occult and the supernatural should bring with it a sense of the infinite. 

You know, the working man's club is not really an institution which brings with it progressive social values, particularly the idea of equality of the sexes. There is a barely concealed rank misogyny that seems to simmer in many scenes. Obviously this is most apparent in Upon Reflection but Matchbright's treatment of Faith at the start of Jimmy's End is almost as appalling in its contemptuous restraint. I don't for a minute think this is a reflection on Moore or his attitudes but rather part and parcel of the haunted nature of the location and the time and place it is reminiscent of.

The question of influences is an interesting one. Everyone seems to cut straight to David Lynch because there are a few curtains thrown in there (and I really do wonder if they were just part of the clubs decor that Jenkins decided to exploit on the day). I much prefer your suggestions of Lindsay Anderson and Saphire and Steel. What Mitch Jenkin's seems to have added to that mix is gloss. You can see it is in the camera movements and the colour schemes and the slick edits. I'm not sure if I'm entirely down with some of those creative decisions. That might be because my current preference is for someone like Ben Wheatley and his complete embracing of a mundane naturalism that allows for concentration on the action/performance at hand. But that's not what Jenkins has gone for. Indeed it is all very well for me to make these observations but it brings up one of the problems of writing about a project which is only partially complete. Jenkins has said that should the next section of the project be made, the movie titled The Show, it will be set in an everyday Northhamton. So maybe I should just shut up and wait and see.

I should add that I do like the colour schemes used in the film. There's that hallway, the one with the sickening nicotine patina, the washed out, shitty brown of the bar walls and furniture, the violent, burning red of the dance hall and toilet and that awful purple in the dressing room (where Meterton lays his cards out on the table....)

"Chocolate sandwich", indeed.

BT: Dude, Oh Lucky Man is the best film ever, because I still have nightmares about the guy with his head grafted onto a sheep.