Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comic shop shenanigans (All new. All different.)

So I came back from a short holiday and went to the comic shop on a Saturday morning, just like I've done almost every Saturday for the past six years, and it was just gone, man.

The doors were locked, and the store was empty. A couple of weeks ago, it had been overflowing with comics, shoved into every corner of the store. Now it was just bare walls and empty shelves. It was fairly disconcerting, especially when I'd been assured that it would be business as usual, three days before I went on holiday.

Comic shops come and go, but this one lasted longer than most, and died just as fast as the rest. It's now going to be reborn in some new form. And while it won't be quite the same, it'll still be okay..

Because I still live in a town with two proper comic shops, so all is right with the world.

It wasn't always like this. I didn't live in a town with a comic shop until I was 19, and there has been a good decade in the next two where I've been living in a small town with no comic shop access. I still get excited when I walk into some new store, eager to see what they've got. It's a buzz that never dies, (until I find that this new store has all the same shit as the last old store), and it's still the best way to get my full-on comic fix.

I've literally been around the world looking for comic shops, and I've moved towns based on the easy availability of comic books. I've been living in Auckland since 2007, and the first thing I did when I moved to the city was set up an account at a local. I chose the one that I'd been dealing with on mail-order deals, when they were sending issues of Seven Soldiers out into the Marlborough wilderness. I liked the owner, he was a sarcastic bastard, but he was never mean, and that was my Saturday morning home for seven years.

I later discovered the other decent comic shop in town actually got its books on time, and they got plenty of copies, but I never changed, even when my local was getting to be a month behind at one point. I didn't mind that much. I'm used to waiting for my comic books. And I like being loyal.

And then, suddenly, the manager got kicked out by the owner, and new faces showed up, and the comics got even later and more disorganised, and they were cleaning out the back room and finding things like a complete run of Zot!, and then I went on holiday, and when I came back, it was just gone, man.

The manager who got kicked out was the reason I stuck with the store, and he's opening his own shop tomorrow, so after some slight disruption, it'll be business as normal. I will set up a list there of monthly comics, but it will be a very, very short list these days, with less and less incentive to get the monthly fix (Thanks again, Hit-Girl.) But I really like loyalty, so I'll stick with the devil I know.

By complete coincidence, the only other decent comic shop in town, the one which has always been plentiful and timely, also chose this moment to shift into new premises, just down the street from its old location.

It's moved into much bigger and sexier premises, with room to move, and room to display everything properly. It opened last weekend and is a gorgeous looking comic shop, with prominent displays of things like local comics by local folk, and a 'How To...' section and sections for people who are only into Conan, or Doctor Who, or Robert Kirkman. For years this store was crammed into a slim shop, and if you had more than two people looking at the new releases at any one time, you were screwed.

No matter how sexy the new shop looks (and it looks pretty sweet) I haven't switched my allegiances to the new store, even though I know a couple of other readers who have. But I have been getting all sorts of odd comics from them since then, buying Fury and Fatale and Batman Inc straight off the shelves. It really is a weird freedom, just buying my comics off the shelves, without putting my name on a list anywhere.

But I will set up another one at my reborn local, because there things get missed, and I'm left hanging at the end of stories, or stranded in the middle of them. I still haven't tracked down the last Morrison issue of Action Comics, and I missed two issues of Fury, which is driving me a bit crazy.

But I will get them. Maybe even this coming weekend, when I go back to my old home towns, and check out the shops down there. They're not the ones I'm familiar with, but that's half the fun.

My Dunedin local -the first shop I ever became a regular at - closed down years ago, but that’s nothing new; there are several other Dunedin shops that only exist in my memory, right back to the very first. A new store opened a couple of years back, and buying a Miller Daredevil comic saved my life one weekend. It's also moved to new premises since then, and it all looked mighty tasty the one time I got to stare in the window. (Nothing makes me sadder than staring in the window of a closed comic shop on a Sunday morning, seeing hints of glory, but unable to get inside…)

My Christchurch local had to move out of town after its last store fell down around their ears in a devastating earthquake, which is an extraordinarily good reason to move. It's now on the edge of town, and is conveniently close to the airport, and I get to drop in every time I pass through the wounded city. (It has somehow now become The Shop Where I Buy Jack Staff Comics, and I'm really not sure how that happened.)

I’m still fairly astonished that Timaru actuallyhas a comic shop these days (even if it is another result of fall-out from the quake). I would have cried with joy if there had been a comic shop when I was 15 and lived in Timaru. Now it's just become another shop to check out.

And of course I'm looking forward to seeing my family and friends when I go back home for the weekend, but I'm genuinely excited to check out the comic shops too. Especially when they're in a new location.

Because you never know what you're going to fin. There is no guarantee I'll find those missed issues I'm after, but there is a certainty that I'll buy something, because there is always something, if I look hard enough.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hit-Girl cheated me

It's been no secret that I adore Mark Millar and John Romita Junior's Kick-Ass comics, and the more openly offensive and shamelessly tasteless they get, the more I like 'em.

And I enjoyed Hit-Girl just as much as the rest, even though it wasn't quite as blatantly shocking as Kick-Ass 2. It's just as funny and as energetic as the rest, and while there is a slightly sour whiff of redundancy over it all (there really wasn't any need to fill in these gaps), I always like it when creators go balls-out in an effort to entertain.

But I still feel cheated after buying issue five.

All right-thinking people justifiably see the Kick-Ass comics and movies as hopelessly adolescent, and ideologically screwed, but I don't see that at all.

There is a bit towards the end of the Hit-Girl mini-series, where the tiny titular character gleefully slaughters a bunch of convicts on death row - men who are trapped in little metal boxes, and have no defence when somebody sticks a machine gun through their bars.

Now I am 100% anti-death penalty, because I truly believe society has to be better than its worst examples, that we're not going to grow as a species by clinging on to stone age eye-for-an-eye philosophies on a societal level. But even I thought the bit where Hit-Girl kills a bunch of death row men (while quipping that she's saving the taxpayer some serious money) was pretty funny.

I don't find this hypocritical at all, largely because Kick-Ass isn't real. It's a story, and I like hyper-violent stories, almost as much as I'm turned off by real-world violence. I don't agree with the politics of many of the characters in Kick-Ass, but I don't have to, to enjoy their adventures.

Besides, she is a real psycho, who talks to dead people and kills many people without mercy. She's clearly not right in the head, so seeing her do something I would find reprehensible in the real world just kinda proves my point.

But I still feel cheated at the end.

I can dress it up in all the social philosophy I want, but I still have to admit that I just like well-done action comics, with lots of blood and bodies flying through the air, and big car chases, and a dash of humour.

John Romita Jr remains one of the great modern action artists, his deceptively sketchy line conveying proper power and speed. And he is fantastic at showing the effects of violence – the pain, and the mutilated flesh.

And Millar always gives his artists what they want, and serves up a preposterous smorgasbord of action absurdity. Sometimes the pop culture references get in the way a bit, but at least they are always up-to-date.

Plus, you know, it's always fun to see an unstoppable killing machine unloading on repulsive people, and it's refreshing that this time it's a 12-year-old little girl, who's just a raging goblin of carnage, instead of the usual Big Man.

But I still feel cheated.

And the reason I feel cheated after buying Hit-Girl #5 isn't anything to do with the comic, which, obviously, I greatly enjoyed, it's because of the pricing structure. Because the last issue of a five-issue mini-series had a 66.89 per cent increase in price, which only corresponded to a 19.05 per cent increase in story. And it just seems a bit mean to pull a trick like that on the last issue of a limited series.

Mark Millar has made a big deal of keeping his comics at a $2.99 price point, when other similar products are now asking for $3.99 an issue, and it has certainly worked for me. I wouldn't have tried something like The Secret Service if it was a third more expensive, and when it doesn't work – like when Super Crooks #1 left me cold – it's easy to check out again.

But while Millar proufly trumpets the fact that his comics are a dollar cheaper than everybody else (even boasting of the fact in a cover tag line), the Millar Model Of Making Money always sees the last issue of a Millarworld mini series come in at five bucks.

This is usually justified by a decent increase in story. When Kick-Ass 2 kicked up in price on the final issue, it gave more than a dozen extra pages – a good 61.9 per cent increase for that 66.80 per cent price rise – and when Superior finished, the final issue had an extra 75.19 per cent of comic, almost a bargain for that familiar price rise.

But issue number five of Hit-Girl has four extra pages. Four. Fifty cents a page, much of which is made up of telling the same joke the comic has already made six times – that if you try and travel around the world to train up like Batman, people are going to rip you off.

Four extra pages isn't super-sized, it ain't extra-sized, and it's not even double-sized, it's just a-little-bit-bigger sized. Almost doubling the price for that (and a 27.27 percent increase in shameless shilling for other Millarworld comics) is just naked price gouging.

And that fifty cents extra a page is in US dollars. In my part of the world, it's more than a dollar a page for that extra story. What the shit, man?

And it's just so egregious to do that in the last chapter of a serialised story, because if you've lasted four-fifths of a story, you probably want to see how it ends, and the only other option is to pay much more for the hardcover that came out a week after the last issue. It'll be there, sitting there on the shelves, telling you that you shouldn't have bothered with monthly comics, because there is no value for money here.

And it has soured me on buying Millarworld comics in serial form. I'll get the last issue of The Secret Service, because I think that comic is fucking ace, and after all that moaning, I'd still pay ten bucks to read the last issue of that. And I'll get the last Kick Ass comics, because I do geuinely enjoy them as much as I keep saying I do, without any irony.

But I think it just makes more economical sense to wait for the collection soon after the serial (or even better, wait six months and get it for dirt-cheap at a convention), and sod the monthly fix. The last few issues of every Millarworld comic is always fraught with delays anyway, so it's not-exactly-monthly.

It feels like better value for money to get it all in one place, and there less chance of being made to feel like a chump.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I hate you, Captain Sunshine

Last week I bought a comic that I hate so much it makes me want to cry.

It's not a modern comic, and this is none of your modern hate, built on irony or nostalgia or 21st-century sensibilities. This is primal loathing – hatred of this comic is written deep in my comic-loving DNA.

I hate this comic so much, it makes me sick to look at it. I hate it so much, it made me wary of all locally produced comics in New Zealand for years, until Horrocks, Langridge and Wills came along. I hate it so much, I actually repressed the memory of its existence for almost three decades.

I hate you so much, The Adventures Of Captain Sunshine.

Which is a shame, because it really isn't as bad as that loathing suggests, and the thing I hate most about it also has a spectacular pay-off.

I've talked about this comic before. It's nothing to do with the Venture Bros character. It's a New Zealand comic published in 1979, designed to promote a wristwatch sundial, an idea that is exactly as stupid as it sounds. It was written by Peter Farrell, Roy Middleton, Reuben Sandler, and Colin Wilson. Wilson also did the art for the comic, and the talent that would take him on to greater heights in Europe is still there, if a little clumsy.

It's about some space arsehole who comes to earth to beat up men with moustaches and lecture the rest of us about the harm we're doing to Mother Earth. I think. I never really could follow it.

There were tens of thousands of these comics published, and a promised second issue never happened, with stories of a warehouse full of Captain Sunshine crap persisting for years. There were still copies of Captain Sunshine spread all over the country, choking bookshop shelves, and eventually flooding out onto the second hand market.

I hated, hated, hated Captain Sunshine when I was a kid. My first distinct comic memory is hating it. I hated the boring plot, and the clumsy dialogue, and the stupid characters and the way it was everywhere and I never wanted it, and I hated how cheap it looked with its tatty paper cover, compared to the glossy things on the front of American comics. (2000ad and other British weeklies always overcome the bog-paper cover limitations with some astonishingly strong cover design work, which Sunshine certainly didn't have.)

I despised Captain Sunshine so much, that I completely blocked it out of my mind, and forgot it even existed for a good few decades, until I saw some art from it at an exhibition in Wellington nearly three years ago, and suddenly remembered how much I hated it.

Even though I am a massive fan of Colin Wilson's artwork, and am always pleased to see it pop up again, I saw his art for the first couple of pages of Captain Sunshine, and the memory was so bad, I could remember drinking horrible orange cordial at my auntie and uncle's place, one sunny morning in 1980.

It was properly stunning, and my surprise at this long-repressed memory almost overcame the other feeling I had – an intense loathing for this comic, that still makes me mad today.

I kept seeing it for sale on the internet, with copies usually changing hands for about ten bucks. But I was never tempted, until I saw it in a second hand bookshop in Auckland's beautiful Onehunga last Saturday, on sale for two dollars. Even though it made me want to spit when I picked it up, I had to see if I really did still hate it that much, and I had to see what was so bad about the whole thing. Look at it with the modern eye.

And the first answer was yes – I really do still hate it that much. I loathe the main character, the comic's pissy portentousness and the flat, dead dialogue. I hate the way one of the main secondary characters looks a lot like one of the Guardians of the Universe from Green Lantern, and I always fucking hated the Guardians of the Universe. I hate it when Captain Sunshine yells out 'LET'S DO IT THEN!' really loud when they come up with a plan. I hate the pretentious-as-fuck History Of The Universe section in the first two pages, because it's the same pretentious-as-fuck History of the Universe section that always showed up in seventies sci-fi comics.

But most of all, I hate the colouring. Oh, I hate it so damn much.

No wonder I associate this comic with toxic orange cordial, because it looks like they used orange cordial to colour this thing. Either that, or they used some high-quality felt-tip pens to fill in-between the lines.

It's splotchy as hell, and all faded oranges and yellows and reds. Captain Sunshine's uniform is, notably, just a sea of yellow and orange. It makes it one of the most repellent comics I've ever read.

They were going for some kind of groovy seventies effect, as if the world within the comic was being lit by lava lamps. But it's all washed out and wimpy, and besides, lava lamps make me feel sick too.

The colours do get better as it gets going, becoming clearer and far more palatable, but the first half dozen pages are just nasty.

But what I didn't remember about the comic until I actually read the damn thing again was that all this dusty colouring actually pays off, when the title character jumps into the sea to talk to some whales, and there is a two-page spread of vivid blues that suddenly bring some life to these pages:

It's the one moment of genuine artistic merit in this wretched comic, some real serenity in the cheap and clumsy chaos.

And I also can't fault the comic for its ambitions- there is a blatant environmental message in this 1970s comic. It's not much more than 'SAVE THE WHALES', but it's so earnest and awkward that it's actually kinda charming. And you can't really blame the creators for attempting to putting something with a message into a tie-in comic for an idiotic wristwatch.

And I do appreciate Wilson's art in the comic, even though it's not much, and it's far from his best. Moebius comics always freaked me out a little, but I somehow found Moebius followers even weirder, and this is about as far out as early Wilson gets.

But. I. Still. Hate. It.

I once hated it partly because it was everywhere and his easy availability offended my adolescent sensibilities, when I was going crazy trying to find issues of more important comics like Scream and Sergent Rock. It's a comic I always associated with shitty bookshops in shitty holiday towns. Sometimes, all I wanted was a Superman, and all they would have is Captain bloody Sunshine.

I'm over that now, because it's a proper slice of history, and it is a bit rarer, and my views on NZ comics are a lot more mature.

But every time I glance at the cover of The Adventures of Captain Sunshine, I feel a bit sick and angry and I hate it so much I want to cry. I'm fairly astonished that a few flimsy paper of cheap newsprint can still have that kind of an effect on me, but that doesn't actually make me feel any better, so I'm gonna go hide that comic in the bottom of a box somewhere, and get it out of my sight for a few more years.

He's came to save us all, but Captain Sunshine can fuck right off.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nemo – Heart Of Ice (“Hey Roe-Anne!”)

I first heard 'Heroin' by the Velvet Underground 22 years ago, when it was one of only two non-Doors songs on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's movie. (The other non-Doors song was Carmina Burana. It was, after all, an Oliver Stone film.) And while I used to fast-forward past that dirge of a Lou Reed song a lot when I first got that soundtrack on tape, I've since come to appreciate the Velvets a lot more than The Doors.

So I must have heard Heroin several hundred times over the years. But it was only a couple a weeks ago that I suddenly realised that at the comedown climax, Lou Reed isn't saying hello to some girl name Roe-Anne, he's singing the TITLE OF THE DAMN SONG.

And while nobody pronounces 'hero-inn' as 'hero-ann', I had somehow overlooked this blindingly obvious fact, every time I've sang along to that song, all through the years. And it was one of those shocking moments when you realise that you've missed something blindingly obvious, and that you're really not as smart as you thought you were.

We all like to pretend we're cleverer than everybody else, but sometimes it takes a Lou Reed song to realise that we're not.

It won't take me two decades to understand all the blindingly obvious parts of the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, but it totally could have.

I got Nemo: Heart Of Ice last weekend, and on my first read through it, I was totally fucking lost. I couldn't understand a damn thing I was reading. I got lost in scene transitions, and couldn't understand what characters were doing, or what their fates were.

Even before the bit where Moore and O'Neill gleefully take to the narrative with literary scissors borrowed from William Burroughs and deliberately confuse the reader with some mixed up panels, I just couldn't follow the story.

To be fair, I was monumentally jetlagged at the time – I got it on the day we arrived back in town from more than 30 hours of air travel, trying to stay awake on a long and lazy Saturday afternoon in a desperate bid to realign the body clock. I probably would have had trouble following Sugar And Spike in that frame of mind.

But the kind of exhaustion that opens you up to jetlag can also break down the cynicism barrier in the brain, and I can often find my emotional floodgates opening to an embarrassing degree. It happened on that last leg of that long day-and-a-half of flights, when I watched Cloud Atlas on my dinky plane screen and got into it just a bit too much.

There was none of that with Nemo. There was no connection. I didn't feel anything. I just felt stupid.

Of course, I did understand lots of it and there were some great jokes, and the usual Moore thing of a dozen major themes all crashing up against each other like giant icebergs. My favourite in the Nemo book is the uber-story of the main character – poor pirate Janni, who is trapped by her own genetic and literary heritage.

I love the way she has to undergo a catastrophically traumatic experience in order to grow as a person. This is how she makes the transition seen in the Century books, between 1910 Janni, so full of hate and fire, and the more tolerant 1969 version, preferring to withdraw from a world that has disappointed her. But she can't just change like normal people do, making a slow and conscious effort to be a better person. She has to literally go to the ends of the earth to overcome her own legacy.

(I might be reading too much into this, but it also reminded of some of Shakespeare's best royal plays, where kings and other rulers can't change without something calamitous happen to them. In order to act like a human being and understand the world, King Lear has to lose everything, and Janni is trapped in that same sort of thing.)

So sure, I got all that stuff, and it is always appreciated to get that kind of thoughtful story, with the usual beautifully grotesque work from O'Neill. It's a terrific looking book that is as good as any other series set in the world of the Extraordinary Gentlemen.

But I just couldn't follow the flow of the comic, when I read it on that hazy Saturday afternoon. Bits and pieces fell into place, but it just wouldn't make a coherant whole. I didn't even try to unpick the non-linear bit, but even the straightforward parts sailed right over my jet-fucked head.

I was lost.

Fortunately, there is this thing called the internet, and it's become amazingly easy to outsource part of our brains. Now you don't have to hold a complete filmography of Taylor Hackford in you head, so you can predict whether the new Parker film will be any good. Not when there is the IMDB. Freeing up brain space for other useful things.

And the internet is also good for instantaneous reaction, so when I read a challenging (but rich) comic or see a confusing (but rewarding) film, I can be online in seconds, and find all kinds of thoughtful analysis within minutes.

Television can prove particularly useful for this kind of instant analysis. Most of the great TV of the past decade and a half has been heavily serialised, long-form narrative fiction, and it can be hard to keep track of who was whacking who in The Sopranos, or why Raylan Givens wants to kill his dad this week.

The first thing I do after seeing something meaty on TV is see what Alan Sepinwall or Sean T Collins has to say about it, because they have proven to be trustworthy critics who provide quick and concise commentary, who will point out all the subtle storytelling things I didn't get the first time around, and all the obvious shit I shouldn't have missed.

So after feeling all at sea with Nemo, it made sense to go to the net, and try and sort it out.

So I checked out even read the exhaustive Jess Nevin annotations (something I usually don't bother with), and read a few essays and reviews.

And I picked up a few blindingly obvious things that I missed, like the way the story also is about the way there is no place for a matriarchal power in the 20th century, (despite the best of efforts, even old goddesses and young pirate queens have to rely on men), or the way it touches on the diminishing returns of pastiche and homage (each generation is watered down further).

And then I read the comic again, and that's when I really felt stupid, because it's a bleedingly simple story. The research helped, but when I went back, it was another Heroin moment. It's just a big chase comic. It's pretty simple, and all the bells and whistles and weird scene transitions don't hide this fact. It's b;lindingly simple, and my inability to follow it was idiotic.

Everything is getting faster and faster, and things I could have pondered for years or let slip by, blithely unnoticed, are now obvious in moments. There is a slightly regretful loss of mystery, but it's also nice to have a few answers, so quickly.

And I have to admit, I enjoy those little mental thunderbolts that hit when I get to one of these golden revelations, and they're always more powerful than the shame of my own stupidity (unless I've shared that stupidity with other people, and then I just feel foolish as fuck).

And it might take me 20 years to figure out that the main lyric in a favourite tune is THE NAME OF THE DAMN SONG, but I can still sing 'Hey Ro-Anne!' if I want to. And I did get there in the end.

I just get there a whole lot faster these days, with a little help from my friends.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Simple pleasures for simple folk

It doesn’t take much. Not really…

I like driving around empty cities late at night, listening to the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack on cassette tape, like it's 1994 or some shit....

I enjoy looking for comics in foreign countries. All I could find during our recent trip to Sweden was the usual Spider-Man reprints and translated editions of The Phantom, in the magazine rack at a very convenient service station in Lapland.

There was a third comic in that rack that seemed to be full of crime and mystery comics (including translations of Ian Edginton and I N J Culbard’s excellent Sherlock Holmes adaptions,) which I now wish I had bought back home with me, back from the land of ice and snow. Even if I can't understand a bloody word.

I still regret not buying an issue of Diabolik the one time I went to Italy six years ago, and I think this might also haunt me forever.

There were also some other comic books at the airport, in English, and they sure had a fine selection of Robert Kirkman and Mark Millar comics. And not much else.

I can’t get enough of arguments over whether Judge Dredd is a fascist.

(My usual answer is “Well…. yeah.”)

I watched – and really enjoyed - The Killer on a crappy old VHS tape the other day. I don't think I've ever seen it on anything but crappy old VHS tape, and it would be weird to see it in a more pristine condition. (I did try to find it and Hard Boiled on DVD when I was recently struck by the urge to see them again for the first time in years, but they proved surprisingly unavailable in my corner of the world. Plenty of Better Tomorrows, but not a single Killer).

The colours were bleeding as much as the bad guys, the music was pitched at levels that could cause permanent ear damage, the dubbing was atrocious and hilariously out-of-sync, and sometimes the tracking on my 20-year-old video player couldn't catch up with damage to the tape and it would be a haze of static.

But The Killer is still a great fucking film, and all the technical horrors can't kill its style and energy. In terms of film coolness, it's unparalleled, and the action is always fast, violent and graceful.

I'm slow to get on board the HD bandwagon, long after it's become default, but that just means I can still watch a video tape every now and then, without getting too bothered about the quality of the presentation, and losing sight of the actual story.

I still adore the hunt for comic books I’ve missed. Recent comic shop shenanigans has left me without a set monthly list for the first time in a decade, and I’ve missed several key issues of series I’ve been following. I missed #3 of Hellboy in Hell, and issue #8 of Batman Incorporated (where somebody apparently dies?) is proving hard to track down, and I’m fairly sure I’ve missed an Action Comics somewhere (although that might just be the storytelling).

I don’t mind. It gives me something to search for. I still love tracking down elusive back issues in weird comic shops, and can put up with the odd delay and non-linear reading experience. (Hellboy in Hell #4 was still bloody brilliant, even with the missed issue.) It gives me a reason to find new comic shops, and something to dig out.

I know I could get them all online in half an hour, but you kids know that’s NO FUN.

I like finding a new favourite band, even though it can take a lot of work. But I'm scared of growing old and getting stuck in tastes that are defined by what was cool when I was 19, so I keep trying new stuff, and I'm overjoyed when it pays off.

There is so much music to try out and sample, before committing to an opinion, so a gatekeeper is always welcome. And my favourite gatekeepers remain British music magazines. I still get hold of every issue of Uncut and Mojo magazines, and I always give the free CDs that come stuck to the covers a whirl.

It can actually be a bit of a chore, getting through it all every month, and there is always guaranteed to be some tunes on those CDs which are actively irritating, and there is always going to be many which are totally bland and same-old-shit. But there are also hidden gems, by people I've never heard of before, who get their songs stuck in my head, and I have to find out more about them.

Sometimes it's just one song from that band that I really like, but that's enough Sometimes there's no accounting for taste, but that's life. And sometimes it's just a total ear worm, but that's the enjoyable price of something new.

I love drunk film and TV commentaries. Like, ones where the writer or director or star gets completely shitfaced and just talks rubbish for the whole thing.

I really like the performances of Paul McGann and Colin Baker in the Doctor Who audio plays, but I don’t rate Sylvester McCoy's Doctor that highly.

Which is weird, because McCoy is always my third favourite Doctor overall. This love is what comes of being raised on a diet of Fenrics, remembrances and ghost lights, and then getting drunk with New Adventures fun in the nineties. I like the way McCoy hams it up in almost every scene, and the way that gives his quieter moments more power. And no other Doctor ever did more with a squint.

But in the audio, McCoy's malleable face isn't there to soak up the overactivity, and it's just a bit much.

I also think I rate McGann and Baker's performances so highly because both actors are still working like they've got something to prove. Both of their interpretations were cut painfully short, and both have provided some extraordinary work in the Big Finish series of new Who adventures. McGann has given his Doctor a more earthy tone, and is evolving in a good old sourpuss of a character, while Baker's Doctor is still full of the histrionic shouting, which is marvellously theatrical, but has also learned to grow with age, and mellow out a bit more.

Both actors also do a good job of dealing with a problem that plagues this medium – the part where an actor has to make a pointed note about something, and has to mumble something to themselves to keep the story rolling. Baker and McGann handle these moments a lot better than McCoy.

You can hear McCoy squint into the microphone when he makes the pointed comments, while the others are a bit more natural.

Weirdly, I haven't heard a single one of Peter Davison's performances, and sometimes he's my second favourite of them all, when I get all gooey and nostalgic.

My favourite Doctor of all time is, was and always will be the current one. But the second spot is always regenerating.

I've only skimmed the surface of the latest issue of The Comics Journal, which means I've read a 62-page article about R Crumb's lawyer, the Trondheim & Sacco comics and Tim Kreider's clear-eyed analysis of Chester Brown's true romance comix, and there are still hundreds of pages to go. I haven't even touched the Sendak and Tardi interviews, and it's gonna take months to get through this issue. Which is not a bad thing.

But the first thing I read was the Mort Weisinger Talking At Parties essay by Tom Crippen, because I can never get enough of that kind of speculative history about comic editorial departments, especially when you've got a right monster like Weisinger in charge for decades.

But I always feel a bit sad when I read about comic creators feeling shame at their profession, and pretending to be in advertising or magazine work when they were asked their profession, back in the good ol' days. If I had a time machine, I'd go back and tell them that people would still be fascinated by their work, well into the 21st century. I'd tell them that people would still be writing thoughtful and articulate essays and reviews and analysis of their work for decades after they were gone, and that they introduced pop culture ideas that would never die.

They can't all have been miserable sods – some creators have been rightly proud of their work over the decades, but I'd tell the miserable ones that they have a real legacy, and proper people with proper jobs who sneered at them are forgotten, while their work is eternal.

They probably wouldn't believe me, but I'd like to tell 'em anyway.

Monday, March 11, 2013

This magic moment: Explaining the panel love

Comics are a sequential medium, all of the over-thought definitions are clear on that. The artistic beauty of the form is the way things flow between panels, and the way the human mind fills the gaps and gutters between the pictures.

So focusing on individual panels is a fool’s errand. You can’t sum up the appeal of an entire comic book or strip with a single panel. As one correspondent rightly asked me, without the back story, aren’t they just pretty pictures?

Well, yeah.

But sometimes that’s enough.

A perfect panel for Timothy Tankersley, the correspondent who got me thinking about all this context malarkey

Roy Lichtenstein figured it out ages ago, and made millions by shearing away all context and capturing tiny slices of pure action. An individual panel can still have power on its own merits, and the simpler you make it, the more universal it becomes.

Many of the panels I did choose to spotlight over the past couple of weeks are still dependent on their context. Batman on a horse only works because of the long and claustrophobic build-up, and Charley Bourne’s grief is just one example of tragedy in the character’s rich story.

But there is also something deeply appealing about the single image, standing all on its own. One thing that comics does better than any other medium is giving the reader control of the time flow, and it’s so easy to linger on single panels, and draw out these tiny moments, and to get the very most out of it.

A single second of comic time can last as long as the reader wants.

A perfect panel suggestion from Tam Ianiado, from Superman Confidential #3

And some of them are just beautiful fucking bits of art, y’know?

Kelly Sheehan's idea of a perfect panel: This moment from Tim Kidd's Came The Dawn, a work in progress. Kelly sez Tim is capable of great moments of stillness that stop you in your tracks and bind you to the moment.

The main inspiration for this recent focus on individual panels, at the cost of context, was The Comics Journal. I’ve been reading tonnes of back issues of the venerable mag, (and still have tonnes more to get through, with the latest issue/monolith showing up in the mail yesterday, courtesy of top bloke Matt Emery,) and it’s got to the point where I have my own ideas about the best editors in the magazine’s history, and definitely favour some periods over others.

But one thing that has been consistently rewarding - right throughout the Journal’s history – is the use of single images with the interviews and reviews. They are often brilliantly complimentary to the text, or highlight unnoticed moments in a comic, or even offer a tantalising glimpse of something unavailable.

After all, I’ve read a lot of Journal issues that featured these little slices of comic, without actually reading the relevant issue. The few panels of Animal Man #26 that showed up in the Grant Morrison interview in TCJ #176 were the only examples of that comic I could find in my part of the world, and it was like that for more than a decade, until they were finally collected in a trade, so no wonder those individual panels from the magazine have greater resonance.

No wonder one of them was my Perfect Panel. (There is at least one other one on that list that is really only on there because it was used in a Journal interview…)

A perfect panel for Matt Emery from 2000ad #9, one of the first 2000ads given to him by his father. Matt used to think a lot about poor Judge Diablo, still loves the retro appeal of Ron Turner's art and likes the Dredd of early 2000AD when he wasn't "steroided up".

As usual with lists like these, the embarrassment is all in the exclusions. I didn’t have any Eisner, or Kirby, or Crumb, or Kurtzman, but I still found room for some bloody Ultimates. There is no real defence here, just some brief shame that these were the first dozen or so panels that leapt to mind when I thought about it.

I just like some stylistic intensity in my fictions.

A monster learns to be a man in this panel from Fantastic Four #51. Because it wouldn't be a collection of perfect panels without some Kirby.

So, just for the record, these are 13 of my favourite panels. There are thousands more, so I’ll probably come back to the subject again, on days when I’ve got no ideas at all.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Just like that (A perfect panel #13)

Charley’s War 
The panel where Charley reveals his mate is in the sack he is carrying 
By Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun 

Charley’s War never shied away from showing the brutal horror of World War One. Brave young men – on both sides - were torn apart by bullets and shrapnel, or drowned in filthy muck, or were executed by their own side for the most foolish of reasons.

But the terrible price paid was also visible on the face of a young man, who has just seen his best mate senselessly die, with death coming out of nowhere, reducing a man to the contents of a burlap sack.

Charley is carrying the remains of his friend in that sack, but is too weary for any grief in this panel. Ginger is just one among millions who pay the ultimate price, and all the shouting and wailing won’t change that fact. All he can do is tiredly state the obvious.

It was his mate Ginger.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Krak-KOOM! (Perfect panel #12)

The panel where Thor is in the motherlovin’ house 
By Millar and Hitch 

The things I always love most about the Millar/Hitch Ultimates comics are the haircuts – I genuinely think it’s the first superhero comic with great hair of the 21st century – but there isn’t one single panel that sums all that up. It’s more of a cumulative thing.

But the second best thing in their Ultimates run is this moment, when Thor shows up in New York to beat the living snot out of a rampaging Hulk. It’s a moment that’s been done dozens of times in Marvel comics, but never with this much power. It’s so powerful, that even though there are no sounds effects in this panel, I still hear a little ‘Krak-KOOM’ in my head every time I read it.

The massive lightening bolts, used to signify the arrival of a Real Power in the world, sinking down between the ultra-familiar Manhattan skyline. Ultimates was superbly paced, and Thor’s arrival comes at just the right moment in the story, taking things up a level, while keeping a foot in the real world.

Thor has the best hair in comics, and knows how to make an entrance.  Gods damn.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Responsibility! And power. (Perfect panel #11)

Amazing Spider-Man 
The panel where he gets himself out from under a big bit of machinery 
By Ditko and Lee 

Because life can be hard, and you can feel crushed beneath the metaphorical weight of a huge hunk of metal, but you can’t give up, or you’ll be trapped there forever. Spider-Man doesn’t give up. Not ever

No matter how heavy it gets, no matter how wet he is getting, no matter how hard it is, no matter how easy it is to give up, he doesn't.

So why should you?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something falling (Perfect panel #10)

Cerebus #97
The panel where things start to really get weird
By Dave Sim

Forget all the weird sex, intense religion and insane politics that ultimately overcame Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and the comic is often remembered for its solid cartooning, or as an exercise in sheer determination, or as a faintly humourous diatribe against the comic book industry.

But this is the moment where it becomes something stranger.

At the very end of the penultimate act of Church and State, Cerebus the Aardvark hears something fall, and it triggers something. It’s a signifier of change, and it always quickly wipes out the established status quo and heads somewhere transcendent.

The best thing about it is that I still don’t know what it all means. It might been an echo of his own death – Cerebus is, in his last moment alive, the something that falls – and it might be an echo of the past, but it’s one of those perfectly weird moments that doesn’t necessarily makes sense, but feels perfect.

Friday, March 1, 2013

There is somebody outside (Perfect Panel #9)

Grendel #19
The panel where Grendel shows he will never give up, accompanied by the best wig-out since Kutzmann
By Matt Wagner

Paranoia can be a dangerous thing – it can make you run away from the world and lock yourself up in a box, surrounded by boobytraps, and you still won’t feel safe, because you know something is coming for you, and you know it can’t be stopped, and you know it’s probably all in your head, but that doesn’t stop the fear, and the noise out on the fire escape is that final step before the end, which you won’t even see coming. Because sometimes you’re right to be paranoid.

Because sometimes, the devil really is outside your window.

(Do you have a favourite panel of all time that you want to share with the world? If you do, and you know you do, send a picture and some words to bobtemuka at hotmail dot com with the subject line: ‘YOU’RE WRONG, THIS IS THE BEST PANEL OF ALL TIME’, and I’ll add it to the list…)