Sunday, April 28, 2013

Three things nobody needs to know

There are many, many things that nobody needs to know about anybody else, but this is the age of sharing, so here are three of mine, in painful detail. (Besides, it’s my hot blog, I do want I want.)

Thing #1: I hate everybody (sometimes)

So it was Record Store Day the other day, so I wandered on along to the biggest store in town, which was celebrating the day with some fine live acts. The place was packed, and I only got about 10m inside the door. But I only lasted five minutes before I had to go again, because it was extremely hot and sticky, and because I’d just finished a nine-hour shift at work, and because it was one of those moments in life when I fucking hated fucking everybody.

You know what I mean? One of those days where you're not feeling any kind of connection to humanity, and everything you see just pisses you off more, and you hate everything about everybody.

It doesn't ever last long, but sometimes I fucking hate everybody. And Record Store Day was one of those days.

I hated the old fogeys with grey beards, thinning hair and a Buzzcocks tee-shirt that was one size too small, nodding their heads out of time to a beat they couldn't follow, determined to prove they were stil hip. Still with it.

And I hated the young punks, sneering at everything in the world, but refusing to give up their spot by the Star Wars bobble-head dolls. They hated me right back, so at least there was some agreement there.

But I also despised the even younger punks, who had just discovered something amzaing, and had to tell the whole damn world about it, even though the whole damn world couldn't give a shit.

And I hated the college-aged douchbags in their ironic white vests, loudly declaring that the only reason they were there was to see if the “hot political reporter” from the TV news who was doing a DJ set was as good looking in real life. They didn't give a shit about the music, and there were far too many high-fives for this day and age. And since it was apparently okay to judge people by their apperances, it's probably fair to say that these guys were fuck-knuckled stupid white trash hicks with delusions of humanity, and deserve to be shoved into a sack with a rabid weasel and tossed off a bridge. (I also hated the DJ, just on general principle.)

And I felt proper hatred for that dick who was standing outside in the rain, blocking the entrance as he smoked a cigarette and watched the action without joining in, because he was just a bit too cool for that, even though he was not cool enough to pull off that ponytail he was rocking.

And the goth kids who were wearing too much leather and too much hair for a muggy Auckland afternoon, and stinking the whole joint up

And the guy who was sitting down behind me, loudly explaining to his docile mate that Steven Moffat was the worst thing to ever happen to Doctor Who, and they should do it right by adhering to the styles and standards of the old series, and the sense of jealousy and entitlement in his spiel was so dense it almost became matter. (This was actually the week before, at a Doctor Who thing, but I was still angry about it a week later.)

And I wasn't the only one giving filthy looks towards the guy who had brought his five-year-old daughter along, because he was still cool, even though he was a dad ; he could take his kid and it was never too late to get her started. He was a Cool Dad. Even though she was clearly NOT having a good time.

But most of all, I hated that one guy who only made it 10m inside the door, and lasted five minutes before running like a terrible coward, and writing about it on a motherfucking blog. So busy judging everybody, instead of joining in with the fun on a nice Saturday afternoon. He sneered so much his lip now aches, and deserves to be shunned as the outcast he is.

Yeah, fuck that guy the most.

Thing #2: I’m totally not gay (But I sometimes wish I was)

So I always thought it would be nice to be a bit gay, mainly because it would piss off all the right people. Even though I was always into girls, I always thought there would be a part of me that wasn’t all conformist and boring, and could play for the other team, under the right circumstances.

Even after I got married to the most wonderful girl in the world, there was still a chance, and we would often joke about how I would totally turn gay for Fassbender, or Statham, or 80 per cent of the All Blacks.  There was always the chance, and there was no denying that these were some fine looking men.

And then I had a dream where I got intimate with one of those All Blacks. It was quite nice – lots of cuddling and spooning. And in the middle of that dream, one thing became clear – I wasn’t that into it. I wasn't grossed out or anything, it just wasn't doing nuthin' for me.

This was actually quite gutting, because it meant I was just another dull old hetro-sexual after all. Just another dude who digs chicks. Nothing interesting to see here.

Oh well, I'm still quite chuffed when a gay guy says he likes my shirt, and even though I have no stake in the issue, I was extremely moved when our country legalised gay marriage last week.  (I’m still somewhat baffled by the whole idea of homophobia in general, because it’s not any of my fucking business who anybody else falls in love with. Why would it be?)

While I kinda wish I didn't have that dream, because it shattered a few illusions I had about myself, it's also nice to set the record straight. (I also once had a dream where I found out how I would react if I actually ran into a proper ghost, but that’s another story altogether.)

Thing #3: I can still be pretentious as fuck

So we all go through a period in our lives where we can be pretentious little fucks, and for most of us, it’s the teenage years. That’s when we spend all of our time attempting to impress people with our knowledge of art and literature and other important shit, without having a goddamn clue what we’re talking about.

That’s the time in your life when you want to be taking music very, very seriously, and sit around reading collections of T S Elliot poetry and telling everybody that The Sandman is opening your eyes to the possibilities of the comic book medium.

My tolerance for all things pretentious snapped quite suddenly when I was 20, about halfway through a cinema screening of Peter Greenaway’s Baby of Macon, when I was overwhelmed by the sheer bullshit of the movie. This sparked a backlash against anything with any hint of pretension. I kept right away from prog rock, refused to sit through any movie that took itself too seriously, ditched the vast majority of my Vertigo comics and limited my poetry intake to the odd Walt Whitman or Edgar Allen Poe verse.

And that became the time in my life when I was all about the punk rock – not just the music, but the whole DIY ethos that could be applied in all mediums, convinced it was the only valid form of artistic expression. That’s when I got heavily into the sharp, clear writing of the great crime writers of the mid 20th century, because they managed to tell taut, tight stories about the human condition without ever getting ostentatious on it. That's when I only wanted songs that lasted three minutes or less. That's when I wanted movies that didn't choke on their own seriousness (and lasted less than two hours).

There was always a bit of love for the pretentious that never really went away – I always liked Grant Morrison’s comics, and the more up their own arse they went, the more I liked ‘em. But in general, when it came to art and stories, I wanted truth, and only truth, with no delusions of grandeur.

But then I grew out of that as well, and learned to appreciate the bollocks a bit more, because at least they were trying to do something meaningful, and when the world sometimes feels like it is devoid of all meaning, that can be comforting. Something can take itself so dead seriously that it becomes funny again, or can even be enjoyed for it's efforts.

So now I'm looking forward to the new Sandman comic this year, and I feel real fondness for things like the Cloud Atlas, which was courageously self-important. I still don't dig the poetry but I've stopped sneering at it, and I can even handle the odd bit of prog rock.

Moaning about stuff being self important ends up feeling like an act of self importance, and it's best not to worry too much about whether something is pretentious or not.

Which ends up making me one pretentious motherfucker.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lone Wolf & Cub: Walking the white path

Ogami Itto's death stare is almost the best thing in Lone Wolf and Cub. Koike and Kojima's epic saga is brilliant in so many ways, but the death stare never fails to impress.

It's the stare that Ogami throws out just before he unloads on some fool, part of the aura of death he must project before he takes another man's life. It's a slight squint of the eyes, a heavy furrowing of those awesome eyebrows and the shutting away of all compassion. It is a warrior preparing to perform his art, and it's going to be bloody business.

Sometimes it only happens for a panel, sometimes it stretches on for pages, but it happens a lot in Lone Wolf and Cub, and it's effective every time. It's the death stare, and it brings oblivion.

My knowledge of Japanese comics is woeful – I read every new volume of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service for kicks, I've got through all of Akira about half a dozen times, and I was genuinely disturbed by a lot of Barefoot Gen, but that's almost it.

But there is also Lone Wolf and Cub, and it's easily my favourite Japanese comic, even though I came to it quite late. I was vaguely aware of the Shogun Assassin movie growing up, but the first time I saw a proper Lone Wolf reference was in an issue of What The-?!, Marvel's lame humour comic. In it, Lone Wolverine is taking Chris Claremont around in a cart, and when they are confronted by assassins, the duo kill them with the razor sharp edges of Claremont's internal monologues.

I didn't get that joke for years.

But when First Comics started presenting them in handsome – albeit thin – prestige format comics, I finally got that joke, and finally got the brilliance of Koike and Kojima's wonderful comic.

Even though the tale often gets bogs down in the complicated politics and clan loyalties of 17th century Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub is the simplest of stories – a wronged warrior pursues a slow path of bloody vengeance, accompanied by his very young son. It's a story that is dripping in philosophy, while never skimping on the blood.

There of dozens of stories throughout the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of Lone Wolf and Cub, and they're unrelentingly brilliant. Each story is very familiar - Ogami and Daigoro roll into some new part of the country, unleash some hell, and roll on again – but the variations are infinite. There are stories of vengeance and honour, and blood and thunder, and peace and contemplation.

Ogami Itto is a lost soul, bound for hell, but he stands up to bullies, and the corrupt, and the foolish, and he never fails to fulfill hos oath. There are all sorts of parables in these pages as Itto takes step after step along the white path - stories with an environmental theme, stories that judge the cost of human progress, and stories that remind the reader that sometimes, the best thing in life is an act of simple kindness

There are philosophical stories, heavy on Buddhist teachings, that can be as blunt as a clenched fist, or as sharp as the finest blade. The Lone Wolf knows that he is walking a path of damnation, and there is existential drama in his willingness to take those steps. When he encounters truly holy men, he is humbled in response, and when he meets evil men, he is noble in defiance.

And all that philosophy inevitably ends in some kind of bloodshed, which also makes Lone Wolf and Cub so compulsively readable. When the babycart assassin explodes into action, Goseki Kojima's pages spring into life – these forty-year-old comics are still packed with vitality and movement, and Kojima's heavy use of thick ink lines grounds it all in a dirty reality. The pacing of the action is also extraordinary – moments that take a dozen pages to get to are over in a split second, while a simple stare-down between two foes can last for pages (and if they're standing there thinking about the various attacking moves they could perform, it can go on for dozens of pages).

This is why the comics remain the best version of Lone Wolf and Cub, despite some succesful adaptations. These moments can take as long as the reader wants – they can linger on an infinite moment before death, or speed through a moment of high action. The reader controls the time, and that control is put to great use in the Lone Wolf stories.

Unsurprisingly, given my deep affection for stories that mix up intense action with pop philosophy, I fell hard for the Lone Wolf comics when I first read The Gateless Barrier – a story where the Lone Wolf is hired to kill a holy man, who is so pure and noble that no assassin can take on the karma of his death.

It's a story that involves the main character sitting around, trying to breach a barrier with no gate, before he makes a spiritual breakthrough and is strong enough to carry out one extraordinary moment of poetic violence, and it's one of my absolute favourite comic stories ever.

This dichotomy – the struggle between the base violence of the real world and the aspirational beauty of a better one – has rarely been more blissful or moving, in any format.

I first read that story, and much of the earliest part of the Lone Wolf and Cub saga, in the English reprints published by First Comics in the late eighties, the ones that came with some gorgeous covers by Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz and Matt Wagner. It's a nice format, even though the volumes are painfully thin – usually only about 48 pages long – just enough to get in a decent story, but over too quickly.

The only Lone Wolf I actually own are the two-thirds of the First comics, and while they're still rewarding to dip into, the collection is incomplete.

The easiest collection to acquire in English are the little digest comics, and while I like them, the pages need room to breathe, and feel stuffed into the smaller format. I did use them to see how it all turns out at the suitably epic end, but I wish they would publish a cheap Showcase-type collection like they did with Akira, hundreds of full-sized pages on cheap newsprint. It's the perfect comic for that format, which makes its absense all the more puzzling. (ADDENDUMB: Good timing!)

At least there are always the movies, which are exceptionally easy to get hold of. I really like the films, even though they simplify certain aspects of the vast overall story and complicate stuff that didn't need to be complicated. There is still enough of that Lone Wolf genius on screen, seeping up from the page, but I mainly like them because I love the way Tomisaburo Wakayama's wonderfully shabby Itto just runs into a vast horde of bad guys and starts hacking away, and ends up killing everybody.

He's all graceful and shit when he's preparing for battle, and in one-on-one duels, and when he strikes his first stance, but the fight choreography is just wild and clumsy, and endlessly entertaining. Floatey/dancey swordfighting amongst the trees with superhuman skill can get a monotonous - sometimes it's fun just to watch a warrior go completely apeshit, even if he looks a bit silly doing it.

At least Wakayama has still got that death stare down, and when he whips it out, serious shit ius going to go down.

The death stare is almost the best thing about Lone Wolf and Cub, but there is also something stronger, and deeper, than a gaze of deadly concentration, and it's there in the babycart that Itto rolls ahead of him. It's the moments between the Wolf and his cub, when they face off against impossible odds together, or in the painful moments where they are seperated by dire circumstances.

It helps that Daigoro is so damn cute, in all of the mediums he has appeared in, with those massive eyes, emotive lip and silent demeanor, but it's that relationship between father and son that takes the story onto a new level. It's more important than any philosophy, or any death stare. On the path of death, there is still love, and that redeems all.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fear of a camp Bat

Old issues of Amazing Heroes from the eighties remain fascinating items, because of all the trivia they come loaded with. I really do enjoy finding out about forgotten feuds and controversies, or reading about coming comics that never materialised, or even just finding out about something that had stayed under my radar for decades.

They are also an invaluable insight into fanboy mentality. With the internet, that sort of thing is all out in the open now – it's not hard to find out what your average geek thinks of your comic book controversy. Sometimes, there is a comic so bad that everybody knows about it, and occasionally you get a comic that has almost universal love, and it's not hard to find out about them either (even the dissenting opinions just reinforce the consensus).

I got a small pile of Amazing Heroes from the very late eighties recently, and while it's almost interesting to read about things like The Maze Agency and Airboy, it's the collective mentality that is most fascinating, as everybody gets in behind Jack Kirby in his fight against Marvel, and everybody knows that Watchmen is opening the door to a new age of sophisticated suspense in superhero sagas, and everybody knows this is the dawning of a new age of super-serious comic books.

 And everybody knows that the sixties Batman TV show was the worst thing that ever happened to comics, and Tim Burton better not let any of that camp nonsense infect his new movie.

Like a lot of people, I loved the Batman show as a kid, loathed it as an adolescent, andlike it again as an adult. If you like your Batman to come with a huge dose of grim 'n' gritty, chances are you still think it's a terrible thing that is best forgotten.

But the consensus has changed over the past couple of decades, and there is a lot more fondness shown for the sixties television version in the 21st century. All the deadpan seriousness, bulging tights and bright, colourful sound effects still hold up, thanks to that knowing wink.

 And after years of quietly denying it ever really happened, (apart from one brilliant bit of nonsense from Ellis and Cassady in the Batman/Planetary comic), DC is now putting out a comic set in that pop-soaked world, gleefully tapping into this newfound fondness. It's still plainly a show for kids, but there is no shame in admitting you like it as an adult.

It wasn't always like this. And in the months leading up to the 1989 Batman film, there was a blatant terror in fandom that the Burton film was going to be silly.

Even though the Adam West Batman had been off the air for two decades by that point, it was still the most popular pop culture item to be associated with comics. The use of its cheesy sound effects in newspaper article headlines swiftly became a cliché, but that's because it was what the general public thought all comics were like.

Even after all the truly mature works that had come out in the seventies and eighties, comics were still primarily seen as a juvenile medium, and the Batman show was often held up as the ultimate example of this. Which drove many comic fans – who were desperate for legitimacy – absolutely bugfuck mental.

They cursed any media attention that still banged on about the show, and were unable to convince anybody that Batman stories could be serious and grown-up. Reading those old Amazing Heroes, and there is some ferocious condemnation of the television show. Batman fans who wanted a Dark Knight instead of a Caped Crusader tore into the series.

In one issue alone, the television show is described as 'irritating', 'childish', 'ridiculous', 'foolish', 'harmful' and 'shameful'. Even the one writer who admits that he liked the story has to do it in the form of an apology.

This idea, that Tim Burton – who made a Pee-Wee Herman film – could be influenced or infected by this silliness when he made his film, was terrifying.

And it's easy to forget what a big deal the Batman movie was in 1989. It was the first major comic book movie in years, and was propelled by an astonishing media blitz that guaranteed success. Whatever anybody thought about superhero comics, it was going to influence the public perception for the next decade.

So when it turned up all shrouded in deep shadows and hellish fog, there was a palpable sense of relief. It was still pretty goofy – Nicholson's Joker is all over the show – but it was also treated fairly seriously. There was no winking here.

I was 14 when it came out, and I certainly felt that relief, because when you're 14, you deeply, deeply care what other people think of you, and you're convinced everybody is judging you by your tastes in movies and books, and I was convinced that a silly Batman movie would be too embarrassing for words.

I loved that first Batman film – it was one of the first films I saw multiple times in a theatre – because it was big and epic and dark. The bit where the newsreader laughs herself to death after being poisoned by her hairspray was directly responsible for onr of the worst nightmares I ever had in my life, but I don't hold that against it. Any kind of film that can get that kind of reaction from my subconscious works for me.

Twenty-four years on, and that Batman film hasn't aged that well. With Burton's insistence on huge sets over real locations, the film feels claustrophobic and stifling. And the storytelling is clumsy, filled with awkward exposition and half-thought-out scenes that don't really go anywhere.

Ironically, it's the campy shit that stands up better now, Nicholson's hollering is strangely timeless, the absurdity of the story is part of the charm and the gaudy spectacle is still striking. The later Batman films played up on this more and more, and were inexorably pulled in by the cultural gravity of the sixties show, getting campier and campier, and dumber and dumber, until the nadir of Batman and Robin. (Which now has some brave souls who are willing to stand up for it.)

The Nolan films went back for the real-world darkness, but it's notable that some of the most successful parts of the series – things like the Joker's unearthly cackle, or Bane's voice of high villainy – are also the most absurd. Crucially, Nolan knew that the more serious you take these things, the sillier they're going to get, and it's no use ignoring it.

But it's 2013 now, and there have been a lot more superhero films under the bridge since then, and few of them have that cultural weight that the first Batman had. There has been enough variety for the general pubic to realise that superheroes don't all have to be one style – they can be as silly or as serious as they want – there is room for both camps.

And this is the quiet, knowing triumph of Adam West's Batman. There is nothing wrong with a deadly serious Batman, who lives on pain and vengeance, but there is also room in that vast utility belt for some Bat shark-repellent.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday recycling: Who break

There was supposed to be a blog post here today about the most terrifying thing late-eighties superhero fans could contemplate, but I spent the weekend at my very first Doctor Who convention, and got to see Doctors 4-8 on stage, and I’m not saying it was the greatest day of my life, but it’s certainly in the top 100, and I got into so much that I haven’t written anything for today.

Besides, I bought the latest Doctor Who Magazine, an issue of Vworp Vworp, several cheap audio plays (including Jubilee and Spare Parts) and Harry Sullivan’s War, so I’d rather get stuck into that lot, instead of productive blogging.

So instead, here's some recycled posts about Doctor Who books. Normal service will resume on Saturday.

An extraordinary thing happened to me on the way to the pub 
Originally posted July 29, 2009

It’s the Tom Baker that catches my eye.

A couple of weeks ago and I’m walking down the street near my flat, on the way to the pub for a Saturday afternoon catch-up with an old workmate. It’s a miserable day and the footpaths are packed with material put out for an inorganic collection programme running that week. Mainly old mattresses and television cabinets, surrounded by all sorts of old junk.

Wandering past one of these piles, I carry on for another few metres before I decided it really was Tom Baker I’d seen on top of one of that broken-legged desk. It was him, the fourth Doctor’s unmistakable hair and Baker’s own unique grin. I have to go back and have a closer look.

It’s sitting on top of a beaten-up box and I’m not expecting much. It’s probably just some old, tatty magazine with little worth reading, an old Starlog or SFX that gets breathless about long-forgotten geek interests. But then I turn it over to look at the cover and it turns out to be a late 1980s issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine, the best publication to ever cover my favourite television show.

DWM issues are still pretty rare around these parts and it’s good to get hold of any back issue, especially one that is sitting unloved on the street, ready to be carted away. I check underneath to see if there are any other unfamiliar issues and see another Doctor Who logo, so I dig a little deeper.

Wait a fuckin’ second….

When I’m nine years old, the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary special is my bible. It’s a nice, chunky magazine that is packed with information and I read that fucker until the cover falls off. Then I read it some more and the first and last few pages also fall off and then I finally put it away, having memorised all the information I need.

At this stage, I’d only read a couple of the Target novelisations and seen a few handfuls of episodes, but the local television has just started running them from the early days (claiming, bizarrely, that the Mind Robber, from deep into the second Doctor’s run, is the earliest complete story available and starting from there).

And then I got this magazine and it had a full episode guide, with the briefest of synopsis and details about the Doctors and every companion they had and stories about the behind the scenes people and even some weird fan convention photos that fascinated the fuck out of me.

Doctor Who was always on the television, but it was the printed page that got  me hooked on the show. It’s the magazines and books I find over the next few years that fill me in the background of this great, great series.

This is the mid eighties. This isn’t just in the days before DVD box sets, this is before many of these stories even got a video release. The local video store had some beaten up copies of the very earliest video releases featuring stories like the Seeds of Death, Revenge of the Cybermen and the ubiquitous Five Doctors, with annoying things like credits edited out. But apart from that, there was nothing.

 A whole generation of Doctor Who fans could only read about the older stories, as there was no chance of seeing them anytime soon. If a new episode was missed, tough luck. It might get repeated somewhere, but the chances were slim.

Amongst all the novelisations and magazines, the best source of info turned out to be the official Doctor Who magazine. First published in the late seventies as a weekly, it soon became an indispensable part of the entire experience. It’s not just the story details it gives, it’s the huge amount of background detail and analysis of classic stories that make it so damn useful.

It also helped to be full of interesting comic strips, from a variety of fantastic creators, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgeway and many, many more, including the odd story from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

The magazine got a lot of mileage out of the series when it was still on its original run, breathlessly introducing every new Doctor or companion, and eagerly scooping up any snippet of information.
Remarkably, the magazine got even better in the years following the cancellation of the original run.

Wild speculation often filled the pages, and little of it turned into reality. (The magazine must have told us that the Doctor was definitively back a half dozen times before Russell T Davies came along.)

But with no show, the level of analysis came to the forefront, and the magazine became a much richer experience because of it. There was always new product, including original novels and audio adventures, but without that ongoing television saga to follow, the publication still managed to get some great in-depth pieces out of the overall Doctor Who culture.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy to get hold of copies of the magazine. It has always been on newsstand, but has also been a fairly pricey read in this part of the world, and if an issue was missed, it was so hard to find might as well have been a lost episode of The Celestial Toymaker. Back issues would rarely show up on the second hand market, and while it was possible to pick up older back issues now and then, they proved pretty elusive.

So when I see Tom flashing his big cheesy grin on that pile of inorganic refuse, I know I’ll be happy if I get a single back issue. It’s something, which is always better than nothing.

But wait a fuckin’ second…

I’m late to meet my friend at the pub, because something much more important has come up. Turns out that one issue of the Doctor Who magazine was just the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole pile of the things. I have to get them home.

I know I look horribly skody, swiping a bunch of magazines from a pile of inorganic refuse, but I don’t care. Walking down the street with a box that is starting to fall apart, all I know is I’ve found the kind of score that doesn’t come along very often.

I get them home, stash them away safely and head back off to the pub. I apologise for the delay and get the beers in, but can’t stop thinking about that beautiful pile I’ve got sitting back home.

It doesn’t take me long to get the issues in order and see what I’ve got, and it’s a true treasure haul. Every issue of Doctor Who Magazine from #89 up to #210, along with a dozen special editions, including a decent copy of that Radio Times magazine that disintegrated under my obsessed hands.

It’s been a few weeks now, and I haven’t even made a dent in that pile. There is just so much material to get through, but even with the vague browsing I’ve managed so far, it’s still fascinating to see how the show evolved during the late eighties, with the actual magazine blossoming into something new after Sylvester McCoy walked off into the sunset with Ace. More analysis, more fiction, more experimentation. The introduction of the New Adventures novel range were a pretty big deal at the time, even if it has led to a massive amount of similar auxiliary product. At the time, NAs were unique.

There really is a whole lot more of these magazines to get through, and I’m looking forward to it. I sometimes wonder if I should knock on the door of the house I found the magazines outside and thank the person who decided to dump them, because I am incredibly grateful to have the chance to read this stuff.

I dream of finding hauls like this, and still can’t really believe how easy it was to find them. It really is the kind of opportunity that comes along very, very rarely.

Thanks to Tom Baker and his unmistakable grin, and the decision to walk to the pub instead of driving, I ended up with a pile of great reading. I’ve always love Doctor Who and always will, and a decade of unlikely magazines only reinforces that love.

Especially when they’re free.

Who's the best?
Originally posted December 8, 2011

When I get obsessed with comics and books and TV shows and movies, I want to know everything about them. When that obsession lasts more than three decades, I soak up a whole lot of information.

I have spent a significant amount of his life with my nose buried in a Doctor Who reference book, and I can honestly say that Lance Parkin’s aHistory – a comprehensive history of the Doctor Who Universe – is easily my favourite.

Reference books used to be an absolutely invaluable source for any kid who was crazy about Doctor Who. Before the internet, before episodes were easily available for viewing on DVD or YouTube or download, reference books were sometimes the only thing you could use to find about more about Doctor Who.

After all, by the time I was born, the Doctor Who production team had created 12 years worth of stories, and there was a lot more to come over the next decade, and I could barely keep up with it all.

Target novelizations were excellent for reading about past Doctor stories, but even though those books were everywhere, there were still vast sections of Who continuity that I was painfully unaware about.  (The fact that Target books sometimes had completely different names to the televised stories didn’t help.)

But reference books offered a better glimpse inside Who continuity. A classic magazine produced by the Radio Times for the show’s 20th anniversary was my bible for years, and I literally read that thing to pieces. Whenever I think of a particular point in the series history, I automatically think about its position on the pages of the episode guide in that magazine. (I’m not joking – I always think of the Key To Time stories as the ones going down the right hand column of one page, and the Dalek Invasion of Earth is sitting at the top of the second page in the guide.)

Over the years, there have been plenty of Doctor Who reference books to help fit in the gaps. Some of them were a bit too fixated on the behind-the-scenes stuff (which was always fascinating, but there are only so many times you can hear the same old stories of creating such wonder on an incredibly small budget), or offered up dodgy background material that didn’t always conform to anything else in the series (like The Gallifrey Chronicles and Cybermen).

My favourites were the ones that focused on the stories, rather than the production or anything else. I wanted to know about the Doctor’s adventures, not about the special silver paint used to colour the Cybermen’s shoelaces.

So when Lance Parkin’s chronological stab first got a decent printing from Virgin in 1998, I was always keen, and I must have read that book all the way through a dozen times.

It put all the televised and novelised adventures – at that time – into order, starting with an older universe containing its own Time Lords and its destruction with Event One back in 13,500,017,903 BC, and ending with our own universe consumed by its successor, the realm of Saraquazel.

Considering how obsessed I was with the Virgin New Adventures at this time, without actually being able to get my hands on the majority of titles, it was an invaluable resource, and it was a real kick seeing ho wit all stacked together, all the Doctor’s adventures in Time and Space with his ever-resourceful companions.

But in the decade that followed the publication of A History of the Universe, the amount of Who material increased by an incredible amount, with new television, novels, audio adventures and comics.
It’s almost impossible to keep track of it all. The audio plays from companies like Big Finish have had spin-offs of spin-offs, with whole series of non-Doctor adventures taking place in the same universe.

It’s easy enough to just follow the TV show, (although with the Moffat’s tendancy for intricate time-twisted solutions, even that can be asking a bit much sometimes). But with all this other new material, I just can’t keep track. I’ve never heard Evelyn Smythe's voice, or read a third of all the comics produced in the past five years.

But I have got aHistory, and that helps a lot.

If I want to check out how many times the Doctor was on the Titanic, or what exactly he was really up to during World War 2, it’s all there. Any voyage the Doctor has taken on screen, or page, or through speaker, has all been catalogued and put in some kind of order. (Well, every adventure up to the 2007 second edition of the book that I have. There has been even more since and an update is inevitable.)

It’s a massive, thick and detailed work, and I’m surprised Parkin produced it without going totally mental, found in a corner somewhere gibbering about the 1980 reference in Pyramids of Mars and how it relates to Sarah Jane’s birth date.

Because he’s dealing with a chronology that involves the entire history of the universe, created by hundreds of writers over all sorts of mediums. There are inherent inconsistencies that just don’t match up. The New Adventures had the world decimated by plague and war before 2010, when the Eleventh Doctor was wandering around a completely recognisable world.

Chronology only becomes a problem when you take it too seriously, and Parkin treats these inconsistencies with some half-hearted explanations and a bit of a shrug, which is the right way to go about it. There has been an extraordinary debate over the past four decades regarding the UNIT years, and Parkin has to deal with it. His solution doesn’t make a lot of sense if examined too closely, but it’s a game effort.

Parkin – who has also written some very fine Doctor Who novels over the years – shuffles everything in some kind of order, while gleefully pointing out the inconsistencies, and wrapping them up with closed-off alternate timelines and the fact that the Doctor is a terrible name-dropper who is prone to extreme exaggeration. It almost all makes sense.

All this passion and research is poured onto the pages of aHistory. It just goes on and on, dense with information and hidden meaning. I might not be able to afford all those Big Finish productions, or follow all those expensive Doctor who comics with the poor art, but I can still use this one book to see how all those adventures play out.

It’s not the sort of book that you can burn through in one sitting – my lovely wife gave the book to me as a Christmas present last year, and after reading it steadily for most of the year, I’m still only up to the 23rd century.

But it is a book built for dipping in and out of – and an ideal travel book (It is big and bulky, but I have never, ever complained about the weight of my books.) Parts of a long road trip around the American desert earlier this year are seared into my brain alongside earnest consideration of whether a Cyberman Empire actually existed, or whether there are more than one Dalek timelines.

(A couple of months later, I watch a new episode and see the Doctor sitting in almost the exact spot in Monument Valley where I stood in February during that same trip, sparking a chain of unlikely coincidence that climaxed when the Doctor literally made a house call in October. Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story.)

Back in the day, when you couldn’t see old episodes anywhere, you could only read about them, and dream about them. It was years before a repeat of a William Hartnell story showed up on television, and all I could do was soak up plot synopses and faded photos in old magazines. They were enough to spark the imagination, and while the actual productions often turned out to be slightly awful when I finally saw them, I still love the stories.

aHistory taps into that feeling – and I spend more time than I’d like to admit wondering what that Zagreus business was all about, without hearing a single Eighth Doctor audio that didn’t have Lucie Miller in it. It’s that feeling that there is always more to read about, always new adventures in time and space to follow.

Two new Who
Originally posted August 23, 2009

It’s a long, cold year for people who dig Doctor Who. Even though it’s nothing when compared to the great gap of the 90s, it’s still missed. After four years of fantastic television, a couple of specials spaced months apart is a brilliant way to build anticipation and keep the series fresh, but I do genuinely miss it.

We’re all a bit spoiled, really. That break between The Seventh Doctor and Ace wandering off in search of a cup of tea and the Ninth grabbing Rose’s hand and telling her to run for her life was a tough one. It feature some occasionally spectacular novels and one TV film that tried its best, but the idea that Doctor Who could come back felt more and more remote every year.

And then it came back and it was so good and suddenly Doctor Who wasn’t old vid-fired DVDs and great novels with terrible covers any more, it was a massively successful television series that didn’t have to compromise to fit with mainstream tastes.

The decision to take it off for a year is a sound one. It’s an excellent one to differentiate between the Davies/Tennant era and the Moffat/Smith one. It means we don’t get sick of it, it means we appreciate it all a bit more when it does come back.

But I still miss it.

There are still the new novels and audio adventures, even if they feel a little unnecessary now. There are also plenty of books and magazines that remind me of everything I like about the television, while still showing me something new.

This week, I’ve been indulging in a couple of new Doctor Who publications. One is a dense and in-depth look at the inside of a writer’s head, while the other gives a broad overview of the appeal of the show, by drilling down into the details.

Doctor Who: The Writers Tale
By Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Davies has taken a fair bit of an online kicking from dickheads who don’t know what they are talking about, accusing him of storytelling laziness and sneering at him for being populist while vaguely hinted at some ill-defined and ill-mannered gay agenda.

I’m only a quarter of the way through this book, but if there is one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that Davies is about as far from lazy as you can get, unashamedly populist and massively gay, although I still really don’t understand why this is supposed to be such a bad thing.

The Writers Tale is 500 pages of correspondence between Davies and Cook, essentially a year long interview with Davies explaining the writing process while he’s doing it, chugging through the fourth season of the show with copious amounts of raw script. Davies is also amazingly open about the whole process, his part in it and the 3am terrors, when he convinces himself that everything he writes is shit.

And it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. There have been several thousand behind the scenes books on the series over the years, but none of them have crawled into the head of the main creative voice on the programme and taken a look around like this book has.

With the hindsight that comes with the familiarity of the episodes he’s working on, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a story take shape, even if Davies’ first drafts are surprisingly resilient, with many familiar lines and moments that survive every aspect of the rewriting process.

It’s also interesting to see Davies explain why he does the things he does, forced to always think about the budget he has to work with, while always trying to push the limits of British television capability.

It really is a fascinating book. It’s not just the best book I’ve ever read about writing Doctor Who, it might be the best book I’ve ever read about writing television altogether. Davies is intellectually naked here, always aware of the pressure that surrounds his position, while relishing the opportunity to craft a definitive chapter in his favourite television series.

I really hope he doesn’t take all the online criticism to heart. Some people are only too eager to rip one of his stories to pieces because it upsets their precious sensibilities. But if they could understand the actual storytelling process and all the limitations and liberations that come with it, they might actually have something interesting to say.

(Davies is a nice little sketch artist too, so if this Doctor Who thing never really works out, he could always find a home on the Beano.)

Doctor Who: 200 Golden Moments
Edited by Tom Spilsbury

The UK-based Panini Magazines, which also publishes the regular Doctor Who Magazine, (along with several American comic reprints), has put out plenty of special editions covering the history of Doctor Who since the new series started five years ago.

In fact, this is the twenty-second. But while the previous 21 have been packed with fascinating trivia and amazingly fresh anecdotes, this is the first one I’ve actually bought.

Because while the others are full of behind the scenes trivia and broad overviews of distinctive periods in the show’s history, this one focuses on the little moments, picking 200 tiny little slices of Doctor Who, summing up everything that is great and wonderful about the Doctor and his adventures in time and space.

Every story is covered, from Hartnell hiding in a junkyard, to Tennant striding the silky sands of San Helios. Some of the top moments are unexpected, some are obvious. Some are full of grandeur and operative vigor, others are tiny little character moments or good scares.

There are the Cybermen walking in the shadow of St Paul’s and the Doctor wondering if he has the right to wipe out the Daleks at their genesis, but there is also Jamie’s anger at being used by the Doctor to prove a point, or the Doctor telling Martha about the silver leaves of Gallifrey.

As somebody who has loved Doctor Who his entire life, I don’t mind admitting that it can be a terrible show sometimes, with ridiculously bad production standards only eclipsed by some horrendous acting. But even the most unloved of stories have their moments of charm, every story has one bit that makes it all worthwhile.

And the army of writers who volunteered for the special do a remarkable job of catching that charm in their short pieces. Familiar names like Paul Cornell, Kate Orman and Gary Russell snapping up the opportunity to talk up their own little favourite moments of their favourite show.

It's still a good few months before The waters of Mars and the final two stories of the Davies/Tennant run, but there is plenty of good reading to fill in the time.

Friday, April 12, 2013

State of X

The X-Men comics are far from the sales juggernaut they used to be, watered down through a combination of product over-saturation and painfully mediocre stories over the past few decades.

But Marvel keeps on trying to capture the past fire and make the X-Men relevant again, relaunching the X-books every couple of years (and in recent times, every 18 months), in a desperate bid to grab the fickle comic reader's attention.

Usually it doesn't work, and after a brief burst of optimism, the new direction usually turns out to be more of the same old shit, regurgitating ideas that Chris Claremont already thoroughly mined decades ago. Occasionally – very occasionally – it does actually work, and you get something like Grant Morrison's run, which actually made the Children of the Atom sexy and interesting again for a good couple of months, before swiftly reverting to the dull and overcomplicated status quo, mere minutes after Morrison was done.

The latest relaunch and reinvigoration of the X-Men is part of the overall Marvel Now initiative, which has actually been generally successful, with some strong writing and stunning art on a number of key titles. For the X-books, the big idea involved bringing in Brian Michael Bendis and letting him run with the concept for a while.

The announcement that Bendis would be the new writer of the main X-books wasn't actually that exciting, with the writer's long stint on the Avengers franchise starting to run out of steam several years ago (although his Ultimate Spider-Man remains consistently entertaining). The idea that Bendis would bring his unique style of dialogue and plotting to the X-books looked like it would just be more of the same as his Avengers work, with more moaning about prejudice.

But so far, it is turned out pretty well.

There are still far too many X-books, including multiple versions of X-Force, but it's easy enough to just focus on the two main titles – All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, and ignore the rest.

These two titles are the backbone of the X-line, with one focussing on Cyclops and his merry band of mutants taking on a more proactive (and scary) role – there isn't actually that much difference between that group and the various versions of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – and the other title starring a younger version of the original team, brought into the future to see the consequences of their actions.

While it's easy to moan about the fact there are so many X-books (and that's an old record to play, dating back more than 20 years), one of the nicest things about this relaunch is that these two comics are all you need to follow the story. There are a few details that get lost between the cracks, but you don't have to buy 13 issues to follow one story, it's all rocking along nicely in these two titles.

As enjoyable as they are, the two Bendis books also have their negative aspects. The dialogue can be clumsy – Bendis' teen-speak remains as slightly tone-deaf as ever – and when it comes to the main characters, he hasn't got every voice right just yet.

And while they are reasonably self-contained, there are some things happening off panel that can be a tiny bit maddening, when they're not important enough to explain in the opening recap page (I still haven't figured out why Magneto is rocking the bald look).

And it is a little disappointing that the story still requires normal people to freak the hell out in the sight of all mutants in order to chew through the big plot machinations. There isn't anything as bone-headed and clunky as the 'Don't call me mutant' moment from Havok in a recent issue of Uncanny Avengers, but it would be nice if people didn't get all violent and primitive at the sight of somebody different. That's something that's long-played out in the X-Men, and there must be new, smarter ways to deal with interactions with the ever-hysterical Marvel public.

So it's not perfect, but very, very few comics are, and there is still enough good stuff in these comics to balance the bad, resulting in one of the most succesful X-relaunches in the past decade.

The most obvious bright spot is the art - Stuart Immonen's work is as satisfying as ever on the All-New book, his action scenes are still impressively idiosyncratic and he also does the best wavering lower lip in comics. Even though he has worked on a number of high profile projects, Immonen is still strangely under-valued, but his art is continuing to evolve, so it always looks fresh and new, and his X-Men work is no exception.

The insane schedule for All-New X-Men has seen ten issues released in a matter of a few months, so there has already been some extensive fill-in art, and while it is still fairly solid work, Immonen is the real deal.

Meanwhile, Uncanny X-Men sees the return of Chris Bachalo to the X-books, which is always welcome news. Bachalo has been in and out of the orbit of Planet X for about 20 years now, and his art is as messy and chaotic as ever, but he also reins in the insane close-ups and blotchy figures for this latest work. His storytelling is clearer than it has been in years, without losing that wonderful design work he brings to all his projects.

Beneath the gorgeous art, Bendis is also doing some nice work, and refreshes the X-book with a tight focus on a few characters, some basic storytelling tricks (that always work) and a pleasing willingness to get to the point.

Even though he is still finding his feet with the X-books, Bendis may actually be more suited for the X-Men than the Avengers. The Avengers are the professionals, but the X-Men are more of a family – they don't choose to be mutants, and all live together under the same roof, more or less.

The Bendis banter feels a bit more real when it's coming between people who have spent their whole adult lives together, rather than a team which has all its members drop in or out. And when it sometimes even comes out of the mouth of the grown-up terrorist Cyclops, it makes the whole comic a bit less grim.

Bendis also keeps the interest going with some basic storytelling moves, including the simplest of cliffhangers, which are blatant attempts to keep the reader coming back, but no less effective for their obviousness. And for a Bendis comic, he actually gets to the point quickly, but crucially raises more questions as he does so - when it looks like one major character has switched allegiances at the climax of Uncanny #1, he has come clean by #3, but it's still not clear if he's actually telling it straight.

But the most appealing thing about the new X-Men comics is that they are actually going somewhere. After years of spinning its wheels, trying to get out of the mudhole the ‘NO MORE MUTANTS’ mess put it into, the X-books have actually rejected the usual status quo, and are trying to get somne growth into the main characters.

The big mistake new writers often make with the X-Men is a ‘back to basics’ approach. There is nothing wrong with having the characters adhere to their core concepts, but of all the major mainstream superhero comics, the X-Men is the one that is most suited for evolution and change, ever since the day they decided to replace the original whitebread team with a cast consisting of a Native American, an African, a Russian, a Canadian, a German and an Irishman.

The most successful relaunches of the X-books have taken on this spirit of change, without worrying too much about the status quo. The least successful tend to make superficial attempts at change – usually some kind of random team line-up, while ensuring that the story itself is just the same old, same old.

The most surprising thing about the new X-books is that they do actually feel like they are going somewhere, in a definite direction. This is so surprising because the hook behind the current trend is that the original team have been brought into the future, and it initially appears that this is the ultimate back-to-basics approach. But these are not the same characters that Lee and Kirby came up with long ago - Jean Grey has emerged as the leader, while Cyclops is mentally crippled by his future actions.

And so the X-Men, a comic that has always had shifting loyalties and perspectives, moves into a more uncertain future, which is really the way it should be.

Like many comic readers, I went through an X-phase in my early teens, but apart from that Morrison run, I haven't really followed the title since 1993.

But now I've read the first ten issues of the All-New X-Men, and the first three of the new Uncanny series, and I do like what I see, and want to see more. That's evolution for you.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Gender issues in comics: Inevitable generalisations and naked truths

While this blog regularly features rants about the state of pricing in modern comics or something stupid that I read 25 years ago, it rarely touches on the really big issues – the ones that really matter in the world. I never really gets into things like racism and misogyny and homophobia in comics, even though the medium is regularly guilty of all these things.

Partly it’s because these issues are so big, that there is almost nothing worthwhile that can be said in a single blog post. You have to go deep on the subject to get anywhere. Some writers manage to dedicate their focus to specific issues, and have done a thoroughly worthwhile job of raising debate and pointing out problems, but it takes a lot of work to really get into the meat of the difficulties facing comics, and a long-term focus that I totally lack.

Sexism, racism and homophobia in the world of comic books should never be tolerated, or ignored, or justified, but they can still be bloody intimidating topics.

Taking stock of all the gender issues in modern comics is a full-time job alone. Especially when the treatment of both female creators and characters is fairly appalling, and continues to be fairly appalling on a regular basis.

It’s almost impossible to see the solicitations for any of the major comic companies without finding something ridiculously sexist, from an impossible pose to the brutal treatment of a female character. Strong female characters are abused or misunderstood, and the blithe misogyny of many mainstream comics is embarrassing for all concerned.

And the lack of female creators is even more shameful. High-profile relaunches from both big companies recently are been notable for their comparative lack of a female voice – DC can find room in their schedules for 52 new titles, but couldn't find much room for a feminine perspective, and then offered up things like the gross climax to Catwoman #1 instead – a potentially complex character once again reduced to cheap titillation.

That lazy default sexism, in both product and attitude, filters all the way though to the convention room floor, where many women can recall tales of deeply inappropriate behaviour. It's certainly there in the venom directed towards the new faces brought in by things like Twilight, insulting their vampires and telling them they don't belong in the world of geek culture, instead of welcoming the new blood.

These things are obviously wrong, and there is almost no need to keep banging on about them, because they are self-evidently ridiculous, and not worthy of any real thought. But they do keep on happening, and it's only right that they should be called to account.

But even though I have my own platform here, I don't really talk about it, for three main reasons.

Firstly, it’s just so hard to talk about this kind of thing without resorting to gross generalisations. When you’re talking about 50 per cent of the world’s entire population, it’s impossible to avoid making absolute statements. Not everybody likes the same thing, not everybody reacts the same way. To say that girls just don’t like comics as much as boys ignores the significant amount who do bloody well enjoy them. There are girls who like The Punisher, just as there are boys who are into Twilight.

But my own anecdotal experience certainly suggests that fact – over the past three decades, I've found boys were far more into comics than girls. I've tried to get female friends, sisters, cousins, girlfriends and a wife into comics, with varying degrees of success, but it's been competitively simple to hook boys.

I'm not entirely sure why this has been the case – weekly UK comics for girls were outselling their male counterparts healthily in the early seventies, and the incredible success of authors like J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer show that girls dig fantasy as much as guys, if not more.

This personal failure to intice girls into reading comics might be due to the fact that I'm coming from the male perspective, and the kind of comic I really dig tends to involve some kind of intense hyper-action, which they're not interested in at all. But it illustrates the problem – it's temptingly easy to make the bone-headed declaration that chicks don't dig comics when that's been my personal experience, but that ignores a huge number of female comic fans.

There is the creeping feeling that any kind of conversation about women reading comics is inevitably going to be some kind of generalisation, which only serves to antagonise those who it lumps in with the masses.

Even the idea that modern comics is inherently sexist is uselessly general, because it discounts the scores of great comics created by women and even more that feature strong female characters. We'll have no absolutism here.

There is also the obvious factor - so much of the blatant sexism seen in modern comics is just that: blatant. Pointing out that something like old issues of Lady Death is sexist is like pointing out that the sky is blue.

It still shouldn't be tolerated, but a lot of sexism stems from an extremely misguided attempt to be noticed, so why feed the fire and give idiots a platform they don’t deserve?

Ignoring it won't make it go away, but it won't encourage them, either.

The third reason why I don't really talk about gender problems with the comics medium on this comic blog is the most naked of truths - I am a painfully white and tragically heterosexual male. My people have had their say. Let other folk talk about the issues that actually affect them.

The only real solution for something as complex as this is time – attitudes change over the years, prejudices fade and innovators take major steps forward. No medium can survive on such blatent sexism, and the comic medium is certainly getting better at dealing with these issues, over and over again.

And a lot of that is due to the criticism and discussion that is generated by people who aren't willing to let these things lie. Catalogues like the often misunderstood Women In Refrigerators provide data, and the superb Hawkeye Intitative proves that ridicule is the best way to deal with ridiculous attitudes.

I can't talk about these things properly, but I'm so glad others do.

Change can also be seen in webcomics, where a pleasingly large proportion of online comics feature female creators, who aren't constrained by institutionilised barriers against diversity, and just get out and do it.

There is the future, and it might be a bit girly for some boys, but they'll get over it.