Thursday, January 31, 2013

My head is not yet full

I was having a few drinks with some comic-literate people a few weeks ago, and talk inevitably swerved in the direction of the Nth Man. A late eighties military-porn comic with disturbingly metaphysical machinations, the Nth Man only lasted about a year, but is still fondly remembered by some.

Well, by me, anyway. I have every issue in a box behind me and after talking about it again here, I’m probably going to end up digging it out and reading the whole damn thing again tonight. I really dig the action scenes, and the way the title character remained unmovably driven, even when reality goes all skew-whiff

So when somebody in the group was adamant that it was the work of Chuck Dixon, I was even more unwavering in my argument that it was written by Larry Hama, because I knew I was right, and didn’t have to resort to Wikipedia to verify it. The fact that the Nth Man was created by Larry Hama and Ron Wagner was an indisputable fact, lodged away somewhere in my brain.

So I had to convince everybody that Hama was the proper writer, by showing off my Hama knowledge, dwelling mostly on his GI Joe and Wolverine work, but also making a point of mentioning his appearance on M*A*S*H.

When I was done, I saw a familiar look on one guy’s face, and heard the inevitable question – how did I know all this shit?

And I just felt like somebody from Eltingville. I don’t know how I know all this shit.

I just do.

I’m sometimes concerned by the amount of trivia in my head, at the amount of completely useless bullshit bouncing around my brain-box. This can’t be healthy.

Without resorting to any reference work, I could give fairly details biographies of minor characters like Drax the Destroyer and Dum Dum Dugan, and I know who created Nightcrawler and Shanna The She Devil. I could name most of the members of the Suicide Squad, and I know Ambush Bug’s real name.

I know what comics were edited by Dez Skinn and Archie Goodwin, and I know who published Mister X.

I can still name a half a dozen characters from Ghost World without cracking open the book, and if you gave me a piece of paper, I could probably name at least three dozen residents of Palomar. I know more about Knuckles the Malevolent Nun than is really healthy and, given time, could probably name every single series that ever appeared in 2000ad. In order.

Is this healthy, having a brain full of this stuff? And if it isn’t, how come I keep shovelling more in?

I do sometimes run into people who have far more comic knowledge than me, and I would only do okay in any Eltingville trivia-off. And when it comes to wider society and other pursuits, I’m far from alone. I have friends who possess breathtaking knowledge of music or wrestling or a particular sports team. Many people have incredible enthusiasms. And even though I know a lot about film and television, comics are my thing.

This isn’t so bad, and I only feel a freak about the amount of comic shit I know now and then. I’ve also just been listening to an old-ish interview with Patton Oswalt, where he talked about the virtues of being enthusiastic about things – even massively unimportant things – because who wants to really walk through life with nothing more than a shrug and a ‘meh’?

But surely all this information could have been put to good use. If I had dedicated that mind-storage space to academic work, or towards more creative endeavours, who knows what could have happened? Do I really need to know all this crap? Shouldn’t I have used that energy to improve my station in life?

On the other hand, it doesn’t do any real harm, and I’m always up for more. I recently bought a bunch of Comics Journal back issues, and have used them to pour even more data into my head.

(A brief aside concerning the surprisingly small world of comics in this part of the world – I bought the Journals blind in a Trademe auction on the internet, and the seller turned out to be the gorgeous Matt Emery, who was using the sales cash to get more of those lovely Dan Dare books he was talking about here. How ‘bout that?)

I just finished reading issue TCJ #210, an issue from 1999 which I’d been after for ages, largely because it featured the fairly controversial 100 Best Comics of the Century. I knew that the list had pissed off a lot of people, but I’d never read it for myself, until I got this chance.

And I loved it – it was a curiously dated list, and it’s fascinating to look at what was fashionable in comics criticism at the tail end of the 20th century, and I kinda wish the Journal folk would do another one, just to compare the differences (For instance, I doubt Understanding Comics would crack the top 50 again) The list is also full of really good writing about really good comics, but the thing I loved most about the list was the number of comics I hadn’t even heard of.

I’ve now found room in my brain for things I didn’t even know existed a week ago. There are now files in the system inside my head for Harvey Kurtzmann’s Jungle Book and Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum and Jack Jackson’s Los Tejanos and Carol Tyler’s The Hannah Story and Krigstein/Feldstein’s Master Race and Kurtsman/Elder’s Goodman Beaver and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. And those files definitely need further elaboration.

To be fair, those were the only comics on the list I hadn’t actually heard of before, but that’s a shocking lack of knowledge on my part. I thought I knew a lot, but I don’t know shit, and that’s something to rectify.

It isn’t a limitless pit inside there, and some things inevitably slip out. I’m a lot vaguer on things like Ron Marz’s Green Lantern comics, or the finer points of the Omega Men, than I used to be. I get a sadistic enjoyment out of reading old issues of Wizard I bought in 1994, because they often remind me of things I had forgotten all about.

Things fade over time, but it’s only the mediocre and bland comics that get forgotten. I never forget all the good stuff.

Unfortunately, my definition of the “good stuff” is disturbingly broad, encompassing everything from deeply esoteric art comics to the latest X-Men comics, so while some stuff slips away, most of it just gets piled up on top of old knowledge, stretching the brain’s capacity to fit in more information about Quentin Quire.

In real life, I do try to hide how much bullshit I really know – one of the reasons for this blog is an opportunity to show off how much crap I know, without freaking out normal folk with my babbling on about Jim Sterenko or the comics in Doctor Who magazine or the history of Jonah Hex.

But sometimes I can’t help myself, especially when somebody is patently wrong about a known fact. I won’t be able to help myself then, or any time the talk turns to the Nth Man again.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sweet Teeth

Stories about plagues wiping humanity are, by their very nature, pretty damn grim. It’s hard to find laughs in mega-death body counts, and hopelessness & nihilism are usually the order of the day.

But sometimes these stories show that even when things are at their worst, there are some things that are worth fighting for. Sometimes these stories aren’t all about hatred and fear, but about small doses of kindness and compassion and hope in the darkness, with love lighting the way into a new world.

Sweet Tooth turned out to be one of those stories.

It was never my favourite comic, but Sweet Tooth was always a good, solid read every month. I only started getting the series because it was one of Vertigo’s attempts to get new readers by offering the first issue for a dollar, and it totally worked, because I only picked up the first issue on a whim, and I just kept on getting every one after that, every month.

I kept buying it mainly because it had its own distinctive look. Jeff Lemire’s art is messy and slobbery, which ensured Sweet Tooth didn’t look like any other book on the stands. At a time when so many of DC regular comics – including some fairly dull superhero efforts from Lemire – have the same tediously scratchy stylings, Sweet Tooth had its own distinct look, which even managed to be a great fit for the brown colour palette Vertigo insists upon.

It also had idiosyncratic actions scenes that were always well-paced, while many of the individual issues had interesting things going on in the story structure, sometimes splitting the narrative in different directions, while maintaining a strong sense of symmetry.

And even though Lemire did occasionally work with other artists on the book, his own regular art ensured that Sweet Tooth was the product of a singular vision, one creator’s voice, something that is also fairly rare in DC’s current stable of titles. It was always Lemire’s story – and nobody else’s – and there was never the sense he was pandering to anybody, anywhere.

That kind of distinction doesn’t seem to go a long way with the general comic-buying public. Sweet Tooth was never a huge seller, so it wasn’t that surprising when it was announced it would end with the fortieth issue.

Even though the news it was ending was slightly disappointing, it did feel like the story came to a natural conclusion. There was a suitably tragic climactic storyline, with explanations and revelations and one of the main characters finally getting to make the sacrifice he had been after for so long, but it never felt rushed or compromised.

The final issue came out this month and proved, somewhat unexpectedly, to be something of a happy ending. Most of the action in the series took place over several months (with flashbacks that sometimes dated back more than a century), but #40 went forward years and years into the future, to show how things worked out for the main characters, and I always love stories that give a glimpse of how everything ultimately turns out, especially when they actually work out okay.

It doesn’t happen straight away – the final war still has to be fought and there is the worrying suggestion that the same old cycle of anger and tragedy could restart all over again, until someone stands up and declares that it doesn’t have to be like that anymore.

And so, after more than three years of death and despair and hatred and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, these characters get the happy ending they really deserve.

The final issue is also the first one in the whole series that is genuinely post –apocalyptic. This apocalypse isn’t over in moments, it’s going on for years and for most of the series, Armageddon is still happening – Sweet Tooth wasn’t the story of survivors trying to rebuild the world, it was the story of the last dregs of humanity finally fading away, to be replaced by a new world.

No wonder the series was choked with grim misery - the end of a species is nothing to chuckle about. But the new world that rises from the ashes of the old, dominated by a race born of old gods and new men, does offer clear hope for the future, because it’s a world that has learned the lessons of the lost world, ushered in by good men with playoff beards who are willing to die to protect an innocent future.

The comic has a suitably blunt environmental theme, a warning that nature is bigger and more powerful than man, and will only take so much before lashing out. But it doesn’t overwhelm the story of Gus and Jeppard, and the people they met on the road to the new world, both innocent and cruel, both man and beast.

It doesn’t even matter that most of these characters aren’t even strictly human. As Matt Santori-Griffith pointed out in this excellent essay, Sweet Tooth harks back to a long tradition of stories set in the future and featuring characters who are strange hybrids of beast and man, but that doesn't mean the characters aren't without their humanity.

Gus has his goofy antlers, but he’s still just a boy who doesn’t want to be alone in a cruel world, and that’s more important than all the modern genetic manipulation and ancient biology that fills the story.

Ultimately, this was the thing that made Sweet Tooth a comic that was worth getting every month, even if it was never the first one I would read in any weekly stack – there is still love in the darkness, and Gus learns to let all of the old fear and hatred fade away, along with the last humans.

Even though it was never my favourite comic, I got a little emotional reading the last issue of Sweet Tooth, and seeing Gus grow old, surrounded by friends and family – he is still always that little boy in a cabin in the woods, even as a proud leader and ever prouder father, but he isn’t alone at the end of the world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Last night The Invisibles saved my life: One month later…

For the past dozen years, I’ve been wondering where I would be at the exact when Dane stood in the street at the end of The Invisibles and told us OUR SENTENCE IS UP. 2012 seemed so far away in the nineties – I was going to be 37, which was, like, ancient. There was always a good chance I was never going to make it. That none of us would.

But the years rolled by, and I still wondered where I would be when Timewave Zero hit, and then we were deep in a new century and 2012 was nearly here and I was still here and we were all still here and suddenly it was December and the moment was now.

And at the exact moment – right at the minute – that the Supercontext unfolds at the end of The Invisibles, I was lying on the couch, snuggling up to the wife and watching Metalocalypse.

If that had been the end, it could have been worse. But it wasn’t the end. It never is.

I remember the first time I heard about the Government making long-term plans for 2013 – it was still the early 2000s and the idea that we’d need to make plans for anything past 2012 seemed a bit laughable. Didn’t they know the world was going to end in 2012? And if it didn’t end, something was bound to happen – some lift in technology or consciousness or something.

It wasn’t just The Invisibles telling me there was a definite end point in history. I first heard about the Mayan calendar in the Death of The Fifth Sun segment in The Big Book Of The Unexplained by Doug Meonch and Rick Parker, published at the same time as the second volume of The Invisibles. It ends with the narrator – in the inestimable form of Charles Fort – portentously informing the reader that after 2012, there are no more suns.

But by the time 2012 rolled around, everybody was laughing about Mayans, and criticising Terrence McKenna’s maths, and nobody was talking about the Invisibles

I will always love The Invisibles, but I won’t ever love it again like I did when I was 23.

I fell hard for it in the nineties, but that’s 20 years ago now, and life has moved on. Reading it with a jaded 2013 eye, a lot of it seems clumsy and extraordinarily dated, tied to a certain era, where pre-millennial tension collided with post-ironic optimism.

But The Invisibles defined my won personal nineties as much as things like Pulp, The Prisoner and the Doctor Who New Adventures did. It might be tied to specific space-time co-ordinates in my life, but that’s beyond the fading reach of time passed, so it won’t ever fade.

By the time the first volume reached its climax with a metaphysical mindfuck in the House of Fun, the Invisibles wasn’t just a monthly comic book, it was a blueprint for life. And I’m pretty sure this made me an insufferable jerk, but I had some laughs.

I would get filthy drunk at least once a week – like, really fucking loaded – and read an issue or two of The Invisibles as the head buzzed with a dozen glasses of port inside. I still cringe when I think of the night I drank too much gin and sobbingly declared that I was in Queenstown when an impossible photo was taken, but I’m not ashamed of the time I stayed up all night drinking Scrumpy and watched the sun come up over St Kilda beach in Dunedin, surrounded by scattered copies of The Invisibles.

I haven’t sat on a beach and drunkenly cried over Invisibles comics in years, although I do think I’m still totally capable of doing it again.

I do still read a random selection of Invisibles comics about once a year, and give the whole series a proper re-read every three or four years, and I still like it a lot. It’s always wittier than I remember, and I still notice little games and tricks in the narrative, but it is also dated, and I’m not as enamored by the groovy ultra-violence and terribly unfashionable narcissism as I once was. It was always an arrogant comic, but that’s not that cool anymore.

So I can see its flaws so much better than I used to, now that’s it’s not quite so beautiful anymore. Some parts of it still sing, but other parts are over-familiar and just a little too arch.

I don’t blame the comics for all this. I blame me. The comic hasn’t changed, but I have, and Morrison doesn’t always do it for me anymore.

I still read all his stuff, and it’s all enjoyable, but sometimes when I read his work now, it feels like there is just too much thought going into it, and it’s too knowing and ironic, and storytelling flow is sacrificed for cleverness.

It’s still better than the vast majority of mainstream comics, and sometimes it’s better than all of them, but it’s just a little disappointing that in December 2012, at the end of history promised in the Invisibles, Morrison was still doing the same old shit – the two comics he had coming out that month were another Batman thing and a story about a hard-bitten killer who starts seeing a magic little dragon flying around him.

After seeing nuclear nightmare stories like The Day After and Threads as a kid, I always believed the world would probably end in my lifetime in some kind of apocalypse, a idea reinforced by all sorts of films and books about plagues, nuclear war and giant rocks from space over the years. While The Invisibles offered up the kind of Armageddon I could get behind, where everybody got what they wanted, it was still the end of the world.

But humans can be pessimistic bastards who always think they will be around to see the end of the world, and we’ve been thinking that since we first staggered out of the caves. It’s a weirdly conceited idea that we will be the special ones to see the last full stop of humanity, after millennia of progress. We can panic about Mayan calendars and hadron colliders all we want, but our own ends will doubtless be a lot more mundane that a total apocalypse.

So even though I bought into The Invisibles, heart and soul, and had the odd feeling the world could really end in 2012, I still got on with my life in the past decade-and-a-bit since the comic ended, and it’s been the best ten years of my life, getting into a career that I actually like and meeting I girl I actually love.

So there might have been the slightest twinge of disappointment that I didn’t enter the Supercontext in the arms of the lovely wife last month, while a funny cartoon played on the television, but it was only slight. I’d rather see what happens next.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fables: 18-up

It’s a little disconcerting to realise that when Hellblazer comes to an untimely end soon, Fables will be the longest-running title with consecutive numbering published by DC. It’s around the 125-issue mark - seventeen collections and dozens of spin-off volumes - and the only DC title in triple figures. Nothing else comes close.

It’s not the actual numbers that are weird – comic numbering is just a matter of marketing these days - it’s the realisation that Fables has been trucking along for a good decade now. Bill Willingham’s story still feels like one of the new kids of the Vertigo line, when it’s really an old man.

Fortunately, even after 10 years, it’s still a quietly entertaining mix of conflict, humour, fairy tales and humanity, with some of the most consistently gorgeous art in mainstream comics.

It is widely regarded that Fables stopped being an essential read once the Great War it was leading to was actually dealt with, but I’ve found the post-empire Fables comics to be far more interesting. With the inevitable success of the rebellion, the comic moved into a more uncertain era, as the collapse of a multi-realm empire turned out to have some unexpected consequences.

The immediate effect of the aftermath was that everything went wrong almost immediately, and the main characters, (those who weren’t slaughtered), were sent running for their lives from an impossibly powerful villain.

But even that storyline wrapped up a year or so ago, with one of the primal forces of the universe sacrificing itself for love. But things remained grim, with the most recent storyline putting a bunch of children through terrible ordeals. 

Just like in the old stories.

Fortunately, Fables isn’t always depressingly dour, with plenty of lighter periods in the comic’s history. And while it has certainly been a pretty grim comic for the past couple of years, it’s never been gritty, thanks to Willingham’s deftly light touch, and to the lovely artwork from Mark Buckingham.

The first few years of the title saw several changes in artists, although clean clarity – with just a touch of individual style - was always the main goal, giving the fantastical a grounding in something like reality. But Buckingham has been the main artist for some time now, and is still clearly relishing the chance to draw all kinds of heroes and monsters in all kinds of settings, something new every month.

Buckingham was a ferocious experimenter in his youth, with comics like Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman giving him the chance to play with a bewildering amount of styles. But he soon settled in a clear, flowing line that gives his figurework a malleable freedom, while never obfuscating or overwhelming the script.

When they do get some guest artists in, it’s people with similar stylish simplicity, like P Craig Russell or Zander Cannon or Adam Hughes or Shawn McManus or Gene Ha. But it’s Buckingham who has been the main artistic force behind Fables in its latter years, and who continues to keep it looking so good.

It would be difficult for anybody to find hard faults in Buckingham’s work, but Willingham’s story isn’t so universally admired. Some readers can’t get past the writer’s politics, and read hidden agendas in the most innocuous of storylines (or, in the case of something like the Israel analogy Willingham did once, can see the obvious agenda in the most obvious storyline). Other critics have written off Fables as a bit twee, or a bit over-simplified, or a bit rambling.

But with Fables, Willingham – whose superhero comics are always a bit clumsy and weak – has found a voice that delivers an entertaining and thoughtful take on the concept. The whole idea of fairy tales in the real world is nothing new, and there have been several television shows that have shamelessly taken Willingham’s ideas and done their own stories around the same concept, but they do not have the same light touch as Fables.

It isn’t the crazy idea of things like Snow White and the Big Bad wolf being a happy couple in modern New York that makes Fables so appealing, it’s the characters of Snow and Bigby, and the way they interact, and talk, and love, and fight, and would die for each other. Flycatcher’s journey from lowly janitor to the greatest of kings is genuinely moving, and the death of Little Boy Blue leaves an aching hole in the middle of the story.

There are still some spectacular set pieces and real humanity, in there among people who aren’t even remotely human, but Willingham will just as often swerve left when the story is going right, and enjoys cutting off the set piece at the knees, to focus on the effects on the main characters.

And they are main characters who grow and change, even if they stay the same physically. The fact that Fables more or less takes place in real time is a real rarity in regular, monthly comics, and the characters who aren’t in the comic for a couple of years go of and have a couple of years worth of life, unseen by the reader, is one of the storytelling techniques that make Love and Rockets such essential reading, down through the years.

Regular character building over a decade of monthly comics is always going to produce some depth, and Willingham and his artistic partners have used that depth to their advantage, giving the heroes and villains of Fables – all of whom are centuries old - new life..

I was deeply fond of the Jack of Fables spin-off and bought every issue, because it could have gone anywhere, and usually did. But I also wasn’t that gutted when it reached a natural conclusion with its fiftieth issue. It was a joke that had run its course, and it fittingly ended by literally blowing up the vast cast the series had built up over four-and-a-bit years.

Even though a few of the characters have had their happy endings in recent issues, Fables still shows no signs of stopping, and even if Vertigo does finally fade away, DC would be extremely foolish not to keep it going.

It might have reached its own natural conclusion when the great and evil Empire was destroyed, but there are always more stories to be found in the happily ever after.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Missed! (Try again later)

Distributing something as relatively unimportant as comic books around the world is pretty low priority, when compared to things like food supplies and medicines, but it can still be frustrating how much of a half-arsed effort is put into getting physical comics where they’re supposed to be.

Talk to any comic shop manager for five minutes, and you’ll head horror stories of distribution nightmares – shipments lost, books billed for that never arrived, and a huge effort to get things sorted out again. It’s nothing new, but it certainly hasn’t been helped by the fact there has been one company that has had an almost total monopoly on the distribution market for more than a decade and a half.

It can be bad enough in the States, where the comics just need to be shipped around the country, but getting them overseas puts too much stress on the distribution system and there are inevitable breakdowns.

It’s not as bad as it used to be, when a missed issue of Uncanny X-Men might be unavailable for years, but it’s still happening. 


 Comics used to be everywhere in New Zealand, every bookshop and every corner dairy had some kind of collection of comic book fun. But it was always crazily random – one store might always get the Justice League of America semi-regularly, another place might be the only shop in a hundred kilometres to offer Avengers comics.

And it was always late. Until the mid-nineties  - around about the time the internet became ubiquitous - American superhero comics were always at least three months behind, (and independent comics might take years to show up). 2000ad took at least five months to ship over from the UK, I could tell because each new issue had an old cover date.

Now they usually arrive here within days of being released in the States, which makes it a hell of a lot easier to avoid spoilers. But I can still remember the thrill of going in to my first comic shops and finding issues of GI Joe or Excalibur which were three whole months ahead of the stuff I was reading, at an age when three months was an eternity. And I can still remember how insanely jealous I was when my mate Kyle got to go to Christchurch and got a copy of X-Men #4 by Claremont and Lee when I hadn’t even got a copy of the first issue yet (and it also became one of those issues that NEVER SHOWED UP AT ALL).

And it wasn’t just random and late. It was always maddeningly inconsistent. The first time I really tried to follow a monthly American series was The Further Adventures Of Indiana Jones when I was eight, and I only managed to get four issues before missing the next two, and only getting one more issue before it disappeared entirely, two-thirds of the way through the comic's run.

2000ad was the worst – possibly because it was coming from literally the other side of the planet, probably because it was a weekly comic – but every now and then, at least once a year, an issue would never appear on local shelves. It would take me so long to find these missing issues that I can still remember the individual numbers amongst a thousand issues, because I spent so long looking for them, (419… 463… 642… 912…)

They often didn’t even arrive in the country, (or at least the South Island, which was the same thing when I was 12), and I ended up finding these ached-for treasures in places like Sydney and Dublin. Finally scratching that itch felt so fucking good.

It is much better than it used to be and there hasn’t been any of those long-lost comics since I started living in towns that actually had comic shops.

There is the odd missed issue, but that can usually be picked up on back order, and even if there is a gap, it’s one that can be filled in reasonably quickly.

I also travel a lot more than I used to, and come back to New Zealand from overseas trips with luggage bulging with vital comics, finding those elusive issues by dragging my poor wife down back alleys in London, Amsterdam and Ventura County, looking for those gaps.

But I’m still a little surprised that there are still missed issues, even in this sci-fi year of 2013. I can live with the fact that we don’t have jetpacks and rocket cars, but it’s still annoying that comic distribution remains so spotty.

My local store sometimes goes through terrible droughts of product, as shipments remain stuck at LAX as low-priority items for weeks, as vague delivery promises went unfulfilled. Unless international shops are willing to pay way more for premium shipping rates (which would put some of them out of business faster than the Flash), these products can be deliberately left to languish, no matter how much I need my fix.

And while distribution issues here pale in comparison to the States, 2000ad is maintaining a fine 35-year tradition of the missed issue, especially around this time of year, when the arrival of regular comics is severely disrupted by Christmas and New Year. I usually pick up the new issue of 2000ad every Thursday (and we’re only about 10 weeks behind these days, so we’re getting there), and there wasn’t one on the Thursday between Xmas and New Year, but the next week the comcis picked up again as if they had, leaving out number 1808.

I keep expecting these gaps to show up, because there are still a couple of similar holes in my 2000ad collection from recent years, some of which I still haven’t filled in. This one is particularly painful, as the thoroughly bloody excellent Dredd/Low Life/Simping Detective story is really starting to take off. There is always the chance it will suddenly show up sometime in the next couple of weeks (which has happened before), but it’s more likely that the people in the warehouses who are sorting all this stuff out don’t really give a shit about comics, and will just carry on as usual, leaving that itchy, itchy hole.

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s no gaps with digital comics. But they’re not proper comics, so that doesn’t count.)

It’s not that bad (and it’s such a First World Problem that I feel a little embrassed by it). I’m always gutted when I realize there has been a missed issue, but it’s not the end of the world.

After all, anybody who has tried to read any kind of regular comic will be used to the weird, non-linear way we often read them. While many comics are packaged together in nice, thick collections these days, my reading experience of something like, say, the Teen Titans has been all over the show. I never read more than a couple of issues of the Wolfman/Perez stuff in order, and figuring out what the heck was going on was half the fun.

It’s also incredibly easy to find the odd synopsis or review that helps fill in the gaps, and I’ve already gone to the fine fellows at Everything Comes Back to 2000ad to help figure out what was going on in that missed issue of 2000ad.

And I know I’ll still find that issue sometime, somewhere, somewhen. Everything else is detail, and I can sort out my own distribution.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Age of Marvel

I must have had a dozen issues of Marvel Age at one point, back when I was a prime Marvel zombie. This is the late eighties, and I was in my early teens, and those Marvel Age things were incredibly informative and entertaining.

Of course, I got rid of them ages ago, in one of my very first great purges, sometime before the turn of the century. By then I was a grown up, and even though I still had a huge affection for Marvel – and still do, to this day – I also knew that Marvel Age was just advertorial for the great Marvel monolithic machine, churning out more mediocre product, and trying to sell it as something new and different. So they were all gone.

Except for the one issue of Marvel Age that I just found buried in a box beneath a bunch of embarrassing fiction I wrote as a teenager. And looking at it now just makes me feel one thing – I might hold on to this one, because it’s from my time as a faithful Marvel fanboy, and it was a simpler time.

All of the Marvel Age issues I once had were confined to a single era – the very late eighties, because that when I was between 12 and 14-years-old, and that’s the prime age for Marvel zombification.

There is something about that age that makes Marvel so attractive. Avengers and X-Men are just a bit more grown up than Richie Rich, and young teens don’t give a shit (or even notice) if you’re pandering to them. They just want some sexy action.

Marvel comics have always been pitched at this demographic. They might do some stuff for little kids, and – very occasionally – there will be a genuinely post-adolescent comic from the company, but Marvel has always shamelessly targeted twelve-year-old boys who just got their first part-time job to pay for their habit.

It certainly worked for me. Between 1986 and 1990, when the comic world exploded with tonnes of great and important works by the likes of Spiegelman, Moore, Los Bros Hernandez and dozens of others, I was burying myself in the cosy comfort blanket of Marvel continuity, obsessed with figuring out what Doctor Strange’s relationship with Eternity was, or how New York was going to survive the Inferno crossover.

No wonder I bought every issue of Marvel Age I could find, because they were full of background details and checklists and creator interviews and short history lessons. Marvel Age was always a total shill for the company’s books, but for anybody who was that obsessed with those comics, and because the internet was still a decade away (and I could never find any issues of things like The Comics Journal or CBG), it was a goldmine of information.

And it sometimes felt targeted directly at me. In that lost issue I just found, there’s an ad for the first Excalibur comic, which is about to become my absolute favourite comic for the next three years. And looking at all the titles listed in the big Marvel checklist at the front of the magazine, the only one that I didn’t own an issue of – at one time or another – is the motherfucking Care Bears. (I even had a copy of Alf #1 at one point.)

I bought copies of Marvel Age because it was the only place I could find an interview with somebody like Larry Hama, right at the slim moment in time when I thought GI Joe was the greatest comic ever, and I bought it because it gave me a glimpse of the Marvel universe, beyond the few titles I could find, or even afford.

At one time, Marvel Age was an absolutely invaluable source of information, both behind the scenes and concerning future projects. But now I suddenly find them equally fascinating from an historical perspective. The issue I just found is exactly quarter of a century old, and offers a glimpse of time gone by, of long-cancelled comics and half-forgotten creators who eventually get chewed up and spat out by the Marvel corporation.

There is zero chance any of these will be reprinted, but there are still things worth reading in them, not least of which is the double-page Hembeck gag-fests in the middle (and I love me some Hembeck). 

There are also interviews with comic creators, some of whom are sadly no longer with us, and there are some history lessons about the Marvel Universe. The one I just found has an excellent write-up of Marvel’s graphic novel collections that makes me want to chase up more of them (especially when they’ve got art by the likes of Berni Wrightson, John Bolton, Michael W Kaluta and Charles Vess in them). Although I might give Super Boxers a miss.

It’s all about selling the new book, but there is also something oddly charming about the way they are so relentlessly positive, (unless they’re talking about the aborted JLA/Avengers crossover). There is none of the bitterness or creator mud-slinging that every other comic magazine of the period had, and even though this was another era of internal strife for the company, with changes in ownership, Jim Shooter’s last days and the continued mistreatment of its founding fathers, but there is no trace of any of that in Marvel Age. It’s only about the comics.

It's hard to get too cynical about this kind of enthusiasm.

My Marvel Age isn’t that special. It’s easy to think of it as the blandest of comics during the blandest of decades, and there is certainly an element of truth, with solidly dull artists like Keith Pollard, Ron Frenz, Al Milgrom and Alex Saviuk (all of whom I’d still rate above most of the amateurish scratchy bullshit seen in DC’s New 52 books), on top books like the Fantastic Four and Thor, and most of the comics are written by weary journeymen, who have been doing the same old shit for too long.

But there are also doses of brilliance, largely thanks to the non-Marvel Universe titles. Marvel was publishing brand new Moebius comics in the late eighties, and there was regular Groo fun every single month, and the New Universe did get unexpectedly interesting after The Pitt, and Byrne hadn’t become a total parody yet, and Claremont was still doing interesting new things on the X-Men, especially with Marc Silvestri taking over as regular penciller.

The future is being written in those issues of Marvel Age, and it looks squiggly. Names like Silvestri, McFarlane, Portacio and Lee are making their first appearances on the Marvel titles in the checklist. These artists will transform Marvel over the next decade, firstly with their artistic talent revitalising some of the company’s most tired titles, and then with the long and painful legacy they left behind when they shipped out to Image.

It wasn’t long into the post-Image Marvel before I fell out of love with the whole universe, disillusioned by terrible comics and a burgeoning awareness of how much of a shit the company could be towards beloved creators.

And that’s the other main reason why I haven’t just thrown Marvel Age #61 out with the rest if them. It’s a reminder of a time when all this stuff really mattered, and I couldn't get enough of it. And it's a glimpse into a Marvel that doesn't exist anymore, except in the heart of the 13-year-old boy hidden inside me.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Official Handbook of the Tearoom of Despair Deluxe Edition – Update ‘13


Real name: Unknown

Occupation: Journalist, lazy son of a bitch

Identity: Secretive

Legal Status: Citizen of New Zealand with no criminal record, except for that one time

Other aliases: Max Zero, Robert Smith, Robert Stewart, Stevie TV

Age: (Real life) Thirty-eight today (Blog life) Four today

Place of Birth: Timaru, New Zealand

Marital status: Blissfully and smugly married

Known relatives: The wife.

Group affiliation: Unlikely

Base of operations: Auckland, New Zealand

First appearance: (Modern) Tales to Admonish #27 (Tearoom UK) By Crikey Comics #723 (Golden Age) Stunning Wonder Super Comics #4

History: Raised by a family of feral comic books, Bob Temuka still gets all giddy and stupid excited when he finds a comic he really wants. He once almost fainted when he finally found the last few Garth Ennis Hellblazers he was after.

Bob now works at a job that requires him to write fast, consise breaking news stories every day, and late at night he dabbles in fiction, and in between he writes the blog, because it’s fun to go on about the things he likes, and it’s the only place that lets him as many bloody adjectives as he likes.

He has been on the internet since 1996 and used to post at CBR, but hasn’t done that in nearly a decade now. Bob is extremely useless when it comes to technology – despite a brief and thuddingly dull bit of work in IT in the nineties, and despite working in the online world. Computers that don’t do what they are bloody well told drive him into a rage, he has an iPhone which he never fucking uses and has absolutely no interest in digital comics. At all.

His favourite comic of all time is still probably 2000ad, although Jaime Hernadez’s Locas story is his favourite single narrative. He is a bit concerned that he might have grown out of Grant Morrison comics.

He thinks the best songs in the whole world right now are Mark Lanegan’s Gravedigger Song, that cover The National did for Boardwalk Empire, and Skrillex’s Ruffneck. The last film that made him cry was Hugo and the last movie to really, really make him cry was This Is England ‘88. His favourite TV show in 2012 was probably The Thick Of It, followed closely by Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Metalpocalypse and Mad Men. (He’s still a little bit behind on Breaking Bad.)

In real life, he lives in Mount Eden in Auckland and is married to a wonderful wife who on Saturday cooked him up three meals based on things the characters in A Song Of Ice and Fire ate. He doesn’t deserve her, and really does love her more each and every day. He don’t tell her this enough.

Sometimes she gets a glimpse of the true geek in him, but he tries to keep that away from her as much as possible. That’s what you lot are for.

This is the fifth year of the Tearoom of Despair, and there are more and more comics to talk about every day, so I don’t see any reason why it’s going to stop now. The next post will be about an issue of Marvel Age.

Height: Yes.

Weight: Yes.

Eyes: That would be an ecumenical matter.
Hair: Going grey, but not receding, like Magneto.

Strength level: Bob Temuka posses the normal human strength of a male of his age, height and build who engages in fuck-all regular exercise.

Known superhuman powers: Bob Temuka possesses an absolute love for good comics that outshines the glow from any other entertainment, combined with the overpowering need to know everything about them, and an unfortunate tendency to go on and on and fucking on about the stuff he likes. Unfortunately, this just means he often ends up sitting alone in the spare room of his apartment, weeping over old issues of Ragman and drinking gin.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Brave & The Bold / Superman Family: A lonely bell was ringing

Like the song says, there is something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone. And I was feeling a little lonesome last Sunday.

Oh sure, I’ve got a good life, with a wife I truly love and a job I really like, but that still doesn’t stop the existential shits from creeping up on me. Sometimes, like last week, it all gets a bit much, and there’s no point in anything, because existence is useless, and we’re all just sacks of meat, playing out strict and inescapable roles in the universe, and there’s no such thing as free will and there is just nothing, nothing, nothing.

I sorted it out by buying a bunch of late bronze-age comics books that showed up in a local second hand bookshop. Because life is just a bit more meaningful when it’s got some of Jim Aparo's Brave & the Bold in it.

I was obsessed with Jim Aparo’s Brave and The Bold comics when I was a kid, far more than the regular Batman titles with its strange Gene Colan or Don Newton/ Alfredo Alcala art. It was a lot more slick and sexy, and it was actually a lot easier to find Brave and Bold comics in New Zealand in the early eighties than almost any other comic. They were everywhere.

And B&B really felt like value for money, because you not only got the best Bat-artist doing most of the art, but you also got to see him take on Metamorpho or the Metal Men or Sgt Rock or a supremely sexy Supergirl or dozens and dozens of other DC characters. And the art was always so bright and clean and colourful, and Aparo drew the sexiest eyebrows in comics, and I love the way he would draw Batman kicking people, and the stories were simple done-in-ones, (sometimes in 17 pages or less…).

I had dozens of them when I first started collecting comics, and read them over and over and over again, until they all started falling to bits. I still have a few coverless ones left, three decades later, but the rest were lost over the years.

Because by the time I got to be a teenager, I wasn’t interested in that kid’s stuff anymore. B & B had been cancelled, replaced by the dull Outsiders, and Aparo’s art was just a bit too clean and simple, and the stories weren’t important in the Grand Batman Mythos, and I just stopped buying them.

Now, well into the second decade of the 21st century, and I can’t get enough of those comics, and obsessively hunt them out. Sure, it’s a desperate attempt to recapture my youth (fuck off – I’m 38 on Monday, I’m allowed to pine for my lost youth), but it’s also because these are bloody good comics that still stand up well, and are more visually and thematically exciting than the vast majority of comics being published in the new century.

I got a sweet little pile of B&B comics from that second hand bookstore last Sunday morning, with one of them - #186 – one I clearly remember as a favourite as a young ‘un. It’s an okay story, with some slightly spooky use of Hawkman, but I think I mainly remembered it for the bright pink cover. Look at this thing!

It’s so garish and glaring and tasteless to the modern eye, but I love it to pieces because of this, and because it grabs the attention. And it’s the kind of thing that makes it so easy to overlook the flaws of the comic – the way the art can be a little rushed sometimes, and the way the dialogue is clunky and clumsy, (I still have a little cringe anytime a superhero in a says “check!’)

Teenagers are idiots, and I was certainly no exception, because these Brave and Bold comics are excellent, no matter what I thought when I was 13. They might not be Important to the ongoing Batman saga, but they all offer a complete little package of groovy story and slick art, and I’ll always be up for more.

As simple and easy-reading as the Brave and the Bold comics were, they’re some goddamn Shakespeare compared to some other comics I also got at that second-hand store last week, but I have to admit I also fell for the charms of the Superman Family.

These Superman Family comics from the very early eighties are not complex comics. Easy stories designed for easy reading, and little more. But sometimes that’s all you need.

Superman Family was one of the last gasp efforts of the pre-Crisis Superman. Despite some great creative efforts from the likes of Kirby, the audiences for long-running series like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane had dried up, so they were slapped together with Supergirl and surprisingly durable ongoing stories about the private life of Clark Kent and Mr and Mrs Superman.

They’re the most basic stories with the most basic art, but the simplest stories are always the most addictive. The clear, wide line of mega-journeymen like Kurt Schaffenberger and Bob Oksner still looks sharp, 30 years on. Compare it to the nineties, where scratchification overcame storytelling, and looked dated two weeks after it was published, and now is genuinely repulsive. This earlier stuff is more timeless, and occasionally beautiful, with things like Win Mortimer’s terrific Supergirl.

I also grew up on this stuff, usually because these were the type of stories that would be reprinted in big, chunky black and white Australian reprints, and they were also stories that I ended up sneering at later in life, as I seriously considered whether I needed two issues of the Claremont/Lee X-Men #1.

And now, again, I find new charms in these simple stories. I love the way you get to see Superman interacting with the people in the city around him, just being a regular standard joe who happens to have x-ray vision and super freeze breath. And I love the way you get to see the Earth-2 Superman and Lois settle into cosy domesticity, putting their feet up after a lifetime of service, but still willing to rush into action when needed.

The thing I like most about these comics, and the thing that gives me hope in a world of meaningless shit, is that they’re full of nice people, helping each other out and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. These aren’t characters driven by vengeance or destiny or any of that bollocks, they’re just normal folk. (Who happened to be superheroes, or friends of superheroes, or girlfrends of superheroes). It's something that's is painfully rare in modern superhero comics, and something they could certainly use more of.

I didn’t just overdose on all these saccharine sweet DC superhero comics last Sunday morning. I also got Amazing High Adventure #1, the 1982 Marvel comic which I saw the ad for a hundred times in the late eighties and always wondered about, and it was both amazing, and full of high adventure, so that also helped me feel a little less alone in the universe. So did the World's Finest comic with a weird original Batman that I also saw advertised over and over again. And so did the half-dozen issues of the Langridge Bros’ Zoot comics I also got, because the Tarquin comics still make me laugh, even thought it felt weird to this isolated comic soul when I saw the address to send mail to was literally around the corner from where I live now.

So on a Sunday morning, when there was no way to hold my head that didn't hurt, buying a punch of decaying paper products filled the void in my soul a little bit, and that's not quite as sad as it sounds, because that paper was full of wild-eyed adventures that made me feel young again. No matter how old I turn on Monday.