Friday, May 31, 2013

Fred Dagg's Meaning Of Life

It's been a busy week for the Tearoom's proprietor, and his lovely wife is away for the weekend, so he needs to stay up all night tonight eating junk food and reading comic books. So instead of a regular post, he's going for a transcript from a presentation by Professor Fred Dagg, a fictional creation of Mr John Clarke, speaking at the University of Taihape about the meaning of life, somewhere in the nineteen seventies.

You can find a video of this performance here, (and there are a couple of other cracker tunes by Dagg here and here), but I needed a transcript for ridiculous reasons, and this felt like a good place for it.

After all, every time I wonder what it is all about, I think of the Dagg.

Fred Dagg on The Meaning Of Life

“It seems eminently suitable that we should ignore very briefly the peripheral areas – however valuable - in the wonderful tapestry of science, and I think we should have a crack at addressing ourselves instead to the perpetual cosmic giant killer - the question of what is life.

“It's been worrying scientists for thousands of years. Mind you, they're a jumpy bunch of garcons, your science boys, and they do tend to worry very easily. And I feel that the very least we can do is to spend a few moments of our very valuable time in quiet and restful contemplation, as to what it's all about and why we're here.

“And then after that we can have some lunch.”

“Now, as to the business of when life actually got going, there is very, very little argument amongst the lads who are working in that area – of course, some of them are getting on a bit now and the smallest upset would have them toppling into the afterlife, so they do like to sit around and agree with one other and knock off the departmental port.

“The actual day of the beginning of life is not known, because of course the National Geographic was in a very adumbral phase at that stage. It is known, though and generally agreed by the boys, that if the first man who ever lived was alive today, he'd be pulling around about $47 million a week in old age pensions.

“There have been several old boys located in various spots - for instance, there was bogman who was located in a bog. We don't actually know what he was doing in the bog, but he was located there.

“Now science slowly, with the help of these discoveries, has been piecing together the story of man's evolution, and there seems very little doubt that man is descended from Neanderthal Primates, as we scientists call them, or in lay terms, mummy and daddy.

“Of all the many turning points and crucial stages -  from primitive ape-like creature through to the sophisticated and marginally less primitive ape-like creature that you see about you at zoos and football matches - the most curious development of all is that of the human brain.”

“The human brain has got man into a lot more trouble than has previously been supposed and unless we come up with some way of putting the brain out of commission or obviating some of the more ludicrous effects of the brain, then I don't think life's going to get any better.

“Now the main shortcoming of the human brain is that it has led to all this discussion about the meaning of life. Which is not really very healthy. It's quite a dangerous business, because the more you think about life, the less likely you are to reach a conclusion. That is, if you don't count including that you aren't going to reach a conclusion as an actual conclusion.

“Now, of all the attempts to work out what life is actually about, one of the more interesting ones were the boys that reckon that you don't know anything. You can't know stuff, these guys reckoned, because when you think about it – and you'll just have to accept the term think about it there until the man arrives with the official phrasebook - all your so-called knowledge about the world is based on your perceptions, and your perceptions are just a touch more fallible than people have cared to admit.

“It has been suggested by some that you can't know things because your perceptions are notoriously fallible, for instance, the visual sense has been known to play tricks. Sometimes when you think you see something you don't actually see it, and sometimes you don't see something or you say you don't see it, and it's common knowledge around the village that you saw it. And of course that can lead to trouble.

“Now you can't go drawing on any conclusions – that's what these garcons reckon - from that sort of thing or you'll make a monkey out of yourself in open court. Now, this is what Bishop Berkeley  reckoned and this argument applies to all the senses.

“Now Samuel Johnson, who was, well, kind of a... well, he was fat. Let's face it. He was a fat person. He reckoned that he'd cleaned up the problem one day when he kicked a stone, and he stated with relative certainty that he was rewarded with a godly sharp pain belting through his bunion. Now, of course, you could say that Samuel only thought he kicked the stone, when he in fact he was home in bed eating crumpets and thinking up some one-liners for a 21st speech we was writing for Saturday.”

“The whole business of doubt was perfected and refined a little later on by a character named Rene Descartes, who was a member of the French nation, and after he'd finished with it, there wasn't a whole lot of mileage left in it. And the up and coming apprentice thinkers decided to give the whole area a swerve and get onto something with a bit more class where they could show off a bit better.

“What Rene did was he started doubting things. Now once you start doubting your perceptions, you get on to realising you can't be sure if you're here, or maybe you only think you're here. Which is a bit of a worry and it's only a matter of moments before you're picking spots of light off the wall and putting them in a basket, and pretty soon you'll find yourself in a tight white overcoat in a room full of Napoleans and Lord Nelsons. Which is the principal fallacy of Rene's idea.

“Of course, in the 20th century, we have produced a fair array of theories about what life's actually about and probably the existentialists take the butt of confection for getting closest to thinking they had it all worked out. They used to hang about in the Paris area, which is in what we used to call Gaul, and talk about how terrible life was and how they didn't know if they'd really get to the weekend. They reckoned life was a pretty dreadful business and was filled with a thing called ennui.

“Now, ennui is a terrible thing, and seems to have roughly the same effect as terminal boredom. Ennui actually is a French word meaning Henry. And the story goes that once you get a touch of the Henry’s, it's all downhill and the only way to relive the symptoms is to whip down the harbour and pull a wave over your bonce and call it a day."

“From these examples you can see the dangers of thinking too much about what life is about and whether or not it's worth living. Now I have studied most of the better known theories and if I understand them at all, which is a pretty dubious proposition, and if I'm here at all, which again, there is some doubt, not to mention cold water being thrown on that at the present point in time.

“I must say that they're not very helpful, all these theories, not really very helpful at all. Now a mate of mine – bloke named Bruce Baylis who's lived up the road from us ever since he moved in – he reckons that he exists. He's quite positive that he exists, and if he doesn't exist, he reckons why does he have to pay tax?

“He reckons that even though he does get the Henry's a bit, now and again at the end of the financial year, he's convinced that he's here. And if some people reckon they're not here, well, that's fine with Bruce and they can buy their own beer.

“He seems to have – in his terms at least – dispensed completely with the traditional worries about his own existence, although there are those who claim that Bruce is a wee bit closer to the simian primates than most people reckon.

“Now Bruce is called a na├»ve realist and I don't know that he's not right, myself. I've seen a few existentialists in my time - I've been to funerals - and they don't seem anywhere near as happy about things as Bruce does. And if we're all imagining we're here until we're all imagining we've bitten the dust, then I think it's a lot easier on the wife and kids if we imagine ourselves to be a bit happy about it.

“I'm not suggesting we all become like Bruce. Wouldn't do to revert completely to being chimps, but somewhere in between Bruce and the rest of the scientific world, there lurks a workable hypothesis which I reckon we should all get our teeth into.”

Monday, May 27, 2013

Driving around town, looking for the Justice League

I never had the guts to drive around the big city, until the Justice League International made me.

My absolute peak of comic book obsession came at the same time I got my first job, and my first car. Instead of scrimping and saving every cent I could to keep up with the X-Men, I suddenly had a disposable income for the first time ever. And instead of spending all afternoon walking or biking halfway across town to get the latest Adventures of Superman or Namor The Sub-Mariner, I could get them in a ten minute drive.

Even better, I now had the means, funds and desire to go to other towns, and see what sort of comics they had. I could even go to the big cities like Dunedin and Christchurch if I wanted to, where they had actual comic shops, and I could finally fill in some gaps that had been niggling for years, and try some crazy new comic.

The only problem was that I was 16-goddamn-years-old at this time. In New Zealand, you can get your drivers license at 15, and because I lived in a fairly rural community on the arse end of the world, I needed to get my drivers license as soon as possible, if I was going to go anywhere.

So I was driving around my first car before my sixteenth birthday, and had my first proper paycheques after a summer picking asparagus, and because I was a complete fucking dork, all I wanted to do was spend that cash on comic books.

But, like I said, I was hooning around a semi-rural community, and was shit-scared of driving around a big city. I remember looking at maps of the city streets, wondering how the hell I was going to handle all that extra traffic, and whether I could get around the city without going anywhere near a roundabout.

But all those comics that I knew were sitting in city shops had a powerful allure. Nobody was going to take me to get them, unless I got them myself. I had to man up, if I wanted to get them.

What I needed to spark that off was a new obsession – some new comic title that I could get heavily into and would force me to get off my hick arse and get into town. Something where I had to get as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible. Something with strong art and sophisticated scripting, something with wit and passion and action.

Hello, Justice League International!

I did get the first issue of the Giffen/Dematties Justice League, soon after it came out, but for some reason it never really grabbed me, and the cryptic Sam-Neil-looking dude somehow put me off..
It took me another few years to try it again, and the very first regular issue was #59, which was a spectacular piece of bad timing, because #60 would be Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire's last, before Dan Jurgens took over the comic. (Which is a bit unfair on the Jurgens Justice League, which I honestly believe is vastly under-rated, if not outright slammed as utterly mediocre by many.)

I've talked about my love of the Justice League Awesome before, and how that love was all too late, with almost all of the issues picked up in the back issue bins. But after getting that penultimate issue, I was hooked, and wanted more, even though it was a task that required dozens and dozens of comics, none of which I would find in my home town (except for #34, which was remarkably easy to track down).

But there was a big city just down the road, and I knew for a fact there was a bookshop that had a sizable pile of Justice League goodness, because I'd seen them there the year before, when I didn't give a damn about the JLI, and I knew they were going dirt cheap, and I wanted 'em so bad.

All I had to do was go and get them.

And of course, in the end, there was no drama at all. I got in the car, drove around the big city for the first time, and got the comics I was after. (I still have them today, too). It turned out that driving around a big crazy city was just like driving around a small boring town – just more spread out.

But it was a glorious afternoon. It was more than 20 years ago, but can still remember sitting in the car outside the Sydenham dart hall, waiting for my parents so I could drive them home with a small pile of Justice League brilliance. I only got a couple of dozen, and it would take years to complete that particular collection, but that was where it all started.

It wasn't just a love for the goofiest Justice League of them all that kicked off that day, it was the freedom to go wherever I want, and the comic addiction that spurned me on. I ended up taking that 90-minute drive between Christchurch and my home town at least a hundred times, taking the opportunity to see films that didn't come to my town like Reservoir Dogs and Robocop 3 and stocking up on Garth Ennis Hellblazer and John Byrne Alpha Flight to start off, before feeding a renewed frenzy for all things 2000ad in the early years of the past decade.

And I drove all over the fucking country, buying comics in Invercargill, Gore, Waimate, Dunedin, Kurow, Queenstown, Pleasant Point, Hokitika, Westport, Ashburton, Kaikoura, Blenheim, Nelson, Wellington, Palmerston North, and Taupo, before going overseas and driving round strange, foreign cities and towns. Now I live in Auckland, the biggest city in the country, and I drive to get my comics every week, and I still go on road trips for my comics – I just went to Hamilton yesterday to buy Thanos and BPRD and Godland comics.

(I'm really amused by the fact that my Dad, whose idea of teaching me to drive was to send me out on a dark and stormy night and hope for the best – won't drive around my home city when he comes to visit, because he thinks they're all crazy up here....)

I'm not scared of roundabouts any more, although I do still get a bit freaked out when I go overseas and have to drive in more big cities like San Francisco or Sydney, but it's never as stressful as I think it's going to be, and there is always a place like Comix Experience or Comics Kingdom in those cities, that is worth a scary drive.

It can get pretty lonely on the arse end of the world, especially when you can't get a goddamn comic book when you need it. Driving around in a car does something about both of those problems. I still like to hit the road to look for comics, because there is always a new series to get into, and always a new road to drive.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Moving pictures: The arc of the human body in superhero films

Superhero movies can often be more trouble than they’re worth, with too many artless, pedestrian films in the past few years. Unless they have a distinctive style, they’re just terrible, or, even worse, forgettable.

For every worthwhile superhero movie, there are half a dozen mediocre ones, as rock-solid concepts like the Fantastic Four and Daredevil fail to translate to film with any life or vigour. Even though they’re often based on some outstanding comics, the films just feel like bland product. No style, no love.

But some of them…

Some of them can really move, man….

My single favourite moment in any superhero film ever is the bit in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film where Spidey first slings his webs and swings down the street. It’s a split second moment – Peter Parker is chasing after the man who killed his uncle, and comes to a section of the city where it’s too far to jump, and all he can do is swing.

And it all starts to go wrong – we’ve already seen Peter Parker unable to figure out the swing thing earlier in the film – and he’s heading for another face-plant in another brick wall when he sends out another web line, and uses his momentum to carry him forward to the next, and he starts swinging down the street.

There is no other part in the Spider-Man films – or any superhero film - that matches this moment for me. Seeing Spidey swing down the Manhattan street, almost bouncing along as he moves gracefully through the city landscape, really was the moment that I always wanted in a Spider-Man film. The whole movie hasn’t aged that well, and some other parts of the film are just cringworthy, but I don’t care about that, because I got to see Spidey swing, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

(Incidentally, when I did visit New York a couple of years after the film, and after a lifetime of Marvel comics, it was extraordinarily pleasing to see that it was the only city in the world where Spider-Man would work, with all those tall, looming buildings. All I could think about when walking down Broadway was that Spidey could easily leap from building to building in this modern metropolis. (And all I could think about when I was on the subway was the Inferno crossover from the late eighties…)).

Storywise, superhero movies often take a lot from the original comics without really improving on the source material, but one of the things film can do that comics can’t is movement, so it’s baffling that more thought isn’t put into the body language of a cinematic superhero.

The art of cinema does some things better than any other medium, including montage, the use of sound and music, and the movement of a human body in intimate detail.  Plays, ballet and other dance-based arts don’t have the immediacy that film can bring - you can’t follow a live performance sitting on somebody’s shoulders - but film can get in close, or back away, as the subject dictates.

And this is the big thing film does that comic books can't. Comics are a static medium, with talented artists able to create illusions of movement and speed, and even the best animation is never quite as graceful as the humble human body. Characters sit on the page, but move across the screen.

I’ve got movement on the mind mainly because I’ve been watching a bunch of Michael Mann films recently. (You can’t just watch one – I caught the last five minutes of Miami Vice on TV the other night, and had to watch the whole film again the next day, and then had to watch Heat and Last of the Mohicans to get the Mann out of the system.)

One of the things I like most about Mann’s films – and there are a lot of things I like in Mann’s films - is the way the characters move across the screen. You can read entire motivations and whole backstories  in the way one character scratches his eyebrow, and everything you need to know about somebody can be seen in the way they walk.

Even though this can be seen in every movie (and TV show) Mann does, the best example is still the two main men in Heat, with Al Pacino a barrel of energy, popping across the screen, while De Niro is smooth, fast and methodical in every move he makes.

It’s frustrating that more filmmakers don't take the time to care about how somebody enters a room like Mann does, but that's what makes his films so memorable, slick moves, sharp turns and sudden action. It's even more frustrating that nobody really thinks about that kind of movement in superhero films

Even within the limitations of the four-colour medium, the best superhero artists have always captured the grace and power of gods and aliens and mystery men – something superhuman.

Some superhero films take the common man route, bringing superheroes down to our level, and having them move like mortal men. Others go to far the other way – and end up trapped in a land constant slow-motion and overblown visual effects.

But then there are films like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies, where everybody is walking around like they're in a Michael Mann film. (Jim Gordon could totally take down Neil McCauley.) The best performances are those who use their body language to do their talking – Heath Ledger's slinking, darting physical performance as the Joker is a large part of the character's success in that film.

Batman is – of course – still stuck in those big bloody rubber bat suits, and it was a minor technological miracle when they changed the suit so he could move his head slightly to the left. No film has yet been been able to capture the grace of Batman swinging between Gotham towers.

But there is always hope. I like the way Superman moves in the trailers for his new movie, including the rockin' super-punching and  the way Henry Cavill walks as if he's holding on to the planet, because he'd fly off into space if he let go.

And I still like watching Spider-Man swing through the streets. Each new Spidey film since the first one has improved on the original's movement, and while none of them have the awesome impact of that first swing through the streets, there is little I like more than watching Spider-man swing, baby, swing.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Trade missions: Sandman, Scalped and the Goon

I'm totally addicted to comic books, so every now and then I go into a comic shop, and I'm determined not to leave until I buy something. I don't know what it is when I walk in the door – I just want a new comic. I get a comic itch that must be scratched.

Sometimes, this isn't as easy as it should be. Looking around the store, I'll have everything I really want, and everything that is left is just too expensive or too mediocre.

That's when it's a good time to pick up part of a series that I've had my eye on for a while, even if there are still many other parts to collect. That's when it's a good time to complete another decent chunk of a long, complex story.

That's when I need a trade mission.

My very first trade mission was Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I only started getting it on a monthly basis with the World's End arc, two-thirds of the way through the series, and I was desperate to read the earlier parts of the story. Fortunately, it was one of the first long-form comic series to be completely collected, and it was relatively easy to get all the other pre-#50 issues in book form.

This was in the early nineties, and I had never really been able to read such large chunks of a single comic before. I still remember the absolute delight I felt when I was 150 pages into The Doll's House, and realised I still had a 100 pages to go, because I was enjoying the story so much. After a long diet of bite-sized 22-page comics, something that went on for hundreds of pages, and used that length in an interesting way, was just wonderful. I loved the trade paperback format for comics, and I still do, with bookcases full of them these days, (including those Sandman volumes, which I still dust off every couple of years).

That first mission took me about a year, because I didn't live anywhere near a comic shop, and I could only get my hands on a new book about once every two month or so. But I eventually got them all, and had the whole story, and after a lifetime of piecemeal comic reading, where there was no guarantee that every monthly chapter would show up, that was the way to go.

The first few years of getting trade collections of significant comics were a little feverish, as I completed runs of things like Sin City or Grendel fairly quickly, but then I started buying series in book form that weren't so immediately exciting, even if they could end up proving just as rewarding.

Ever since those Sandman days, there has always been some other series I've collected in that way. There are always comics that rack up a phenomenal amount of issues before I can ever get to them, which turns into a phenomenal amount of collected editions. And once I decide to get into a series, it could take years to get them all, simply because there were so bloody many of them. Series like Jeff Smith's Bone, or The Walking Dead, or the first Ultimate books, racked up more than a dozen trades, very quickly. (It's certainly arguable that Marvel's Ultimate universe lost a lot of its sheen once there were so many books it became a chore to collect them all.)

But while I'm always grateful when something large is collected in one, easy format – the Bone complete edition is still my absolute favouirite example of this – I also like chipping away at a long run of collections. They can be quite expensive in this part of the world, it's still unusual to find a decent-sized trade paperback that retails for less than forty bucks, and that's the main reason for taking so bloody long, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

If there are more than six books in a series, the pattern is always the same – a few tentative steps, (usually sparked by some kind of cheap deal), followed by a long period of consolidation, picking up books here and there, when I see them on sale, or when the itch needs scratching, followed by a blitzkrieg of the last few volumes.

And that's how it's gone for the past 20 years, ever since Sandman showed the way. When I desperately need a comic fix, there is always another trade to go for. It's never as good as finding something I've been after for ages, or – even better – finding a book I didn't even know existed but have to have RIGHT NOW (the most recent Bagge book was one of these), but it's better than nothing.

That's what happened with Scalped, the most recently completed trade mission. There were seven books out by the time I picked up my first one, and it's taken me nearly three years to complete the series.

Scalped was always a comic that I would enjoy immensely while I was reading it, but it would never stick in my mind afterwards. I'm not sure if that's my fault or the comic's, but it did mean it had to be read in large chunks of three or four books, or I would keep forgetting about it.

So I just kept chipping away at it, and got stalled for a long time because I got mixed up around book six over which ones I had actually got. (the covers, while certainly distinctive, didn't really help.) Until I got the last three books in one weekend, and the mission was done. And it's pleasing to see that Scalped is one of those series that really does read better in one go, even if it's hard to read all ten volumes in one sitting..

Of course, once I was done with Scalped, I needed a new mission. One that I could take my time with. Preferably, one that didn't have a convoluted story that could be impenetrable if I happened to read the books out of order, and something that would always reward when that itch needed scratching.

I came very close to finally going for the BPRD collections, because that's a comic that has got better and better over the years, to the point where I'm seriously considering getting in in monthly format, even this late in the game. But instead, I've gone for The Goon.

I've always admired Eric Powell's spooky crime shenanigans from afar, picking up the odd issue and enjoying the few books the local library got in. It's has consistently strong art and a goofy sense of grotesque humour that I find extremely appealing. While wandering around my local store, looking for something new to get into, I picked up Chinatown and The Mystery Of Mr Wicker, and it was a nice, self-contained way into The Goon's sizable story, and it sparked an appetite for more.

So The Goon is my latest mission, and it might take a couple of years to complete it, but that's what it's all about. There's no need to rush these things. Good missions take time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's all about the merch!

A few years ago, I went to an amusement park just outside Sydney which had a vague Marvel superheroes theme, which basically amounted to a couple of blokes in sad costumes and the odd garish painting around the park.

Like any attraction, the exit was out through the gift shop and after I'd had my fill of the roller-coasters, I had a look around to see what they had. And I can still remember how disappointed I was that while they had plenty of products with superheroes slapped on them, there weren't actually any comics.

There were ties and tee-shirts and frisbees featuring Elektra, the Punisher, Captain America, Wolverine, Cable and dozens of other characters, but no sign of any of the comics these characters first appeared in. No collections, no single-issues, no digests, nothing.

And I also remember how I wished I lived in a time when it wasn't all about the merchandise, and when the comics that actually generated all that crap were more important. Which is fairly ridiculous, because it's always been all about the merchandise.

One of the reasons I like buying old comic books instead of any collected edition is the chance to see old adverts for other comics and toys and Battlestar Galactica jackets and army sets and Shaun Cassidy tee-shirts and x-ray specs. Even the most rubbish bronze age comic features a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist of the time, as seen through the ads.

So when I was poking about in a second hand bookstore recently and found a copy of The Heroes World Catalog #2 from 1979 – which is nothing but advertisements for all that shit – I had to get it. It was a comic book-sized catalogue produced for the Heroes World chain of comic stores, edited by big Joe Kubert, and put together by his students of the day, (including Tim Truman, Tom Mandrake, Ron Randall and  Jan Duursema). Oddly, there are very few photos of the products they are trying to flog off, probably because photos never produce well in comic book newsprint – most of the ads have some kind of original art and some book covers are actually redrawn for the catalog

It is a fascinating object, produced just after the first Star Wars film, at a time when everybody saw how much George Lucas raked in on the merchandising rights, and tried to get a piece of the action, with all sorts of toys, lunchboxes, underoos and primitive electronic games, featuring all the major superheroes and other examples of 1979 nerd culture.

Unfortunately, this rush to cash in on the vast new market for geek merchandise meant that comics were pushed out of the way. In this 44-page thing, just half a dozen pages – right at the back – are reserved for actual comics. There are more pages devoted to wheeled toys than the actual things where those characters were created, developed and grown.

And who can blame them? There is always more money in toys than comics, and it has probably always been that way. There has been all sorts of cheap merchandise produced in tandem with comics ever since the Golden Age, much of which now commands collectors prices that are as high as the contemporary comics, and comic creations that somehow strike a chord with readers are soon used in a hundred different products, in a hundred different ways.

This focus on product over story certainly worked for Heroes World – in the years after this catalogue was produced it grew to become the third biggest distribution company in the country, before a spectacular destruction at the ham-fisted hands of Marvel (which almost took the entire damn comic industry down with it).

There is still plenty of money to be found in the comic business – there are hundreds of new comics being published every month, and no comic that makes no money lasts very long at all, so there are plenty of profits in comics. But those profits pale into comparison to the money they can make on spin-off products. Movies might be the ultimate merchandise, and Marvel's extraordinary box office success over the past few years made it the multi-billion dollar behemoth it is today.

When Disney paid that billion-dollar price for Marvel, the one thing it kept banging on about was the character bank it had purchased, snapping up the rights to thousands of Marvel characters (the fact that most of these characters were of the level of, say, Red Raven or Blastaar, was mostly overlooked.) The actual comics didn't really figure into it. It was all about the copyright.

I'm still half-convinced that one day the people who make the real money in these companies will decide that the ridiculous over-saturation of DC and Marvel comic product is doing actual harm to the character, with too many sub-standard stories diluting the value of its brand, and that they will ensure the comic lines - as we know it – are ended.

I'm not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing.

I'm not even saying that merchandise is an inherently evil thing - I'm partial to the odd toy or tee-shirt, although I never go overboard with it. But what is undoubtedly bad, and shameful, and just plain mean, are the deals that ensure comic creators – the actual people who come up with the ideas that generate so much profitable merchandise – are frequently squeezed out of the benefits.

Marvel and DC have both lost many of their best creators thanks to arguments over merchandise - Alan Moore was legitimately pissed about editorial interference and proposed classifications systems in his final days at DC, but those Watchmen buttons were the last straw.

But the companies will keep screwing the creators over. drowning out cries of outrage by stuffing $100 bills in their ears. Because that's where the real money is - not in floppy comics that barely register in modern culture, but in products and spin-offs that garner huge cash returns. Like it or lump it, it's always all been about the merchandise, and that's unlikely to ever change.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Five books that rekindled the comic love

After being swamped in the awfully neutral tones of the DC universe in the last post, I needed to read some good stuff to get back in the comic groove.

Fortunately, it's 2013, and there is loads of good stuff. Like these five books.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl
by Faith Erin Hicks

It's maddening to see the default setting for superheroes is ultra-serious, when there is still so much fun to be had. In a perfect world, Faith Erin Hicks' Superhero Girl would sell more than the JLA.

It still might, because these types of light, funny superhero comics are infinitely more timeless than Superman's collar. It's not as twee as it first appears, and each strip is bright and colourful, and genuinely humourous (I especially liked King Ninja at the job interview), and that never goes out of fashion.

Shamefully, this is the first of Faith Erin Hicks' books that I've really read, largely due to availability, and also because I'm a total loser when it comes to digital comics. But it won't be the last.

Avengers vs Thanos
By Jim Starlin and chums

This is the kind of trade paperback I used to literally dream about when I was a spotty teenager – all those impossible-to-find issues of Captain Marvel and Iron Man and Warlock where Thanos first appeared. (I like Thanos. A lot.)

As a slightly-less-spotty 38-year-old, I'm still quite chuffed it was put out, because I still haven't read any of these stories. I'd never even seen anything before he showed up in Adam Warlock's often-reprinted story. I knew all about it, thanks to in-story recaps and the indispensable Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition), but I'd never actually read the comics.

Until Marvel, inspired by a tiny cameo at the end of the Avengers film, decided it needed to get as much Thanos out there as possible, and cobbled together this collection.

It's fascinating to see how the character evolves, especially when almost all of his development is steered by Jim Starlin, who plots and draws the vast majority of this big 500-page collection.  Thanos isn't quite the nihilistic demi-god he will become, and it's interesting to note that while he is a rip-off of Darkseid, he also shares that initial character clumsiness with the DC villain.

But that does work itself out, and by the time he literally walks through a hole in the universe into Warlock's saga, he is almost fully formed and recognizable as the character he is today – verbose, eloquent and utterly ruthless. It all climaxes in the Team-Up/Two-In-One annuals where Thanos is a legitimate threat to all existence that must be stopped, no matter what the cost.

The stories in this collection are fairly clunky to the 21st-century eye, but they are also energetic, fast and effortlessly epic. I might not have had the chance to read them when my Marvel zombiness was at its heights, but I'm glad I got there in the end.

Peter Bagge's Other Stuff
By Peter Bagge

So I went to Free Comic Book Day and got the new free 2000ad because it had new Dredd and Zombo stories in it, and I saw a copy of this book, and I didn't even knew it existed, but I wanted it so bad, but it was forty-five bucks, and I didn't want to spend that much right there (plus, I'd actually read most of the content in the book, in one place or another), but then for the rest of the day, all I could think about was how I should've bought it, and it kept bugging the shit out of me, so I went back to the shop ten minutes before it closed and snapped it up.

I was right to do so. This book is excellent. Like the Thanos collection, this collects all sorts of scattered Bagge (although most of it has appeared in Hate, in one form or another), including his collaborations with Crumb, Moore, Tomine, Clowes, Ryan, Hellman and Los Bros Hernandez.

It's not as tightly focussed as his earlier Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me, which collected his cartoon reporting, but the looser Bagge's stuff gets, the better. Other Stuff is funnier than that book, even if there is that same sociological satire, because it has Bagge people wigging the fuck out, and nuthin' is funnier than that..

Batman: Cover to Cover

My recent disappointment with the look of DC comics is all the harsher because they can sometimes look incredible, especially when the company has some of the best designed characters of the 20th century.

After all, it has Batman – a character whose design may be the most effective of the past century, with his blend of deep, dark shadows and ostentatious goofiness, and nothing highlights that like Batman: Cover to Cover, a collection of various Batman covers from the first sixty-something years of the character.

The book came out in 2005, and it's already a bit dated, with Jim Lee getting a bit too much love, and a heavy weighting towards the post-Crisis years. But the book also has pages and pages of gorgeous, full-colour Bat-covers, from all periods, in all sorts of styles, and they show that DC has a history of strong art, innovative design and terrific colours, a heritage that it should always try to live up to.

Sometimes, I just want to sit around all day and look at the covers for Batman comics. Sometimes, I do just that.

Four Color Fear
Edited by Greg Sadowski

It's easy enough to sample the output of EC's horror comics from the 1950s – they've been reprinted often in a variety of formats, and some of the most famous stories are comfortably familiar.

But the great thing about the world of comic books is that there is always more to uncover, and there were plenty of other comic companies who followed EC's lead and dabbled in macabre fiction. Four-Colour Fear, a 2010 book from Fantagraphics, digs up some of these rotting corpses for 300 pages of monsters and madmen.

The EC comics were incredibly slick productions, with a fine roster of talent producing great comics. Their contemporaries didn't have the same level of quality control, and many of the stories in Four-Colour Fear are really clumsy, in both story and art.

But, oddly, the clumsiness ends up making the stories more disturbing- the way demons and ghouls just turn up without any dramatic entrance, as if the supernatural is just an everyday thing, helps fuel a sense that anything could happen, at any time, and that something horrible could be coming to tap on the shoulder of ordinary people caught up in a nightmare.

Some of the stories are reasonably well-done, with strong plots leading to gruesome pay-offs, along with gorgeous art by the likes of Jack Cole, Wallace Wood, Basil Wolverton and Joe Kubert. The book also features a small selection of covers, and while most of them are the usual mix of grotesque horror, a couple of them are pretty damn stunning. William Ekgren's covers for Strange Terrors #4 and Weird Horrors #7 are extraordinary:

The flashes of genius amongst the gore in these comics can be breathtaking, and there is still plenty of creepy fun with the rest. And that, along with the other books, is all it takes to remember how much I love comics.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No style, no love (or, How Samurai Jack and DC lost their mojo)

Even though many comic readers cling to the misguided belief that comics will only achieve a serious status in modern culture by overcranking the prose, comics are still an inherently visual medium, rather than a literary one. A comic could have the smartest and most meaningful plot, dialogue and characterisation in the world, but you need great illustrations to make a great comic book.

It's all a matter of style, and the very best comics always feature art that is distinctive and stylish – a pure artistic vision that can only come from the pen of an individual. Any comics that come with bland, generic and derivative art barely qualify as a comic. They're just product.

Shit, no wonder I'm reading less DC comics than any time since forever.

I inhaled all four seasons of the fantastic Samurai Jack recently, falling hard for it's streamlined storytelling, crazy action and quiet moments of humanity and honour, all smushed together in a kid's half-hour cartoon. But the thing I liked the most about it was the crazy stylisation in the animation, with bold jagged lines, sparkling colours and slick movement. It really didn't look like anything else.

And even though he is always willing to point out that it's a real team effort, most of the credit for Samurai Jack's brilliance is given to creator Genndy Tartakovsky. When he followed up Jack with the best Star Wars cartoons ever created, it really looked like he'd found a place in modern culture for a distinctive vision, one that was both creatively and commercially successful.

But when he made the leap into full-feature filmmaking last year, it was crushingly disappointing when the result turned out to be Hotel Transylvania, a totally generic piece of computer animation.

It still had some of the Tartakovsky pacing, especially during the action scenes, but instead of the distinctive style generated by pen and ink, Hotel Transylvania has the same look as a dozen other CGI kids films – the same over-realistic backgrounds, mushy human faces, and washed out pastels. There are still hints of Tartakovsky's style in the exaggerated chins and updated monster designs, but it's buried beneath that cloying layer of artificiality.

If there is no style, there is nothing, and the disappointment I felt when I saw Hotel Transylvania was the same I feel when I flip though an issue of Previews. There is still plenty of good stuff coming out every month, but there is also too much bland anonymity.

DC is the biggest culprit, churning out too much mediocre comics just for the sake of maintaining a market share. The New 52 relaunch was a perfect place to diversify its superhero line into a broad range of styles, but soul-crushing deadlines, editorial panicking and a dedication to quantity over quality meant the art of most of those 52 comics was simply sub-standard.

There are, of course, exceptions - Moritat's art on All Star Western has been fantastic (and the back-up artists aren't too shabby either), and Chris Burnham has been doing a bang-up job on Batman Incorporated, but they're islands of stylistic brilliance in an ocean of medocrity.

It's funny to look back at things like Back Issue magazine and see the kind of covers that editors like Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert used to reject in the sixties and seventies – brilliant work by Neal Adams and Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo that still wasn't quite good enough for the editor. In contrast, a lot of the current artists on DC comics, some of whom have been in the business for years, show a stunning disregard for storytelling, or even basic body language, and wouldn't come near a printed page if the standards of the past had been held to.

Books like Demon Knights needed their own look, a chunky and dark style would have suited the story well, but it ended up with the same scratchy, clumsy, washed-out bullshit that so many other books share. John Constantine makes the leap from Vertigo to the regular DC, and that means his art also has to be as generic as possible, a severe letdown after the last few years of Hellblazer, when Giuseppe Cammuncoli and Simon Bisley were doing wonderful things.

Almost all of their biggest artists – with some notable exceptions, including the always-reliable Doug Mahnke and often-brilliant Cliff Chiang – share a fondness for the overworked line, covering up art deficiencies with complicated muscles and silly digital effects. There are too many third-generation Jim Lee clones, which shouldn't be surprising, considering the best superhero artist of 1992 is still the biggest artistic name in the company.

And the colours aren't helping – Grant Morrison's Action Comics become surprisingly hard to get into when they're covered in muted greens and pale browns. There is no sense of design in the colour schemes, or any flow. It's all over-complicated bollocks, from art to colours, to big 'master-plans', and that's why the only DC comic I'm getting at the moment is Batman Incorporated, which will finish soon.

The story isn't quite so bad at Marvel, which has also committed to a line-wide relaunch recently, without forgetting to load up on actual talent.

Most of Marvel's biggest books have excellent art and a bewildering amount of brilliant styles, with artists like John Romita Jr, Chris Bachalo, Daniel Acuna, Jamie McKelvie, Esad Ribic, Javier Pulido, David Aja, Alan Davis, Chris Samnee, Mike Allred and Stuart Immonen all bringing their typical A-game to various books. The most recent issue of Uncanny X-Men is drawn by the magnificent Frazer Irving, and his usual gorgeous art actually fits in nicely with the look of the book.

Marvel's best comics – including Daredevil and Hawkeye – both have a beautiful colour scheme taht compliment the efficient stories and staggeringly solid art, with people who actually put some thought into how the comic's palette will run, rather than hacking it out.

The talent pool is fairly thin. Marvel is just as bad as DC at over-saturation, and beyond the main titles and a few smaller gems, there is still plenty of mediocrity. But at least they're making the effort.

After all, they're still better than DC, and other individuals and companies have shown it is possible to create a line of comics without resorting to bland conformity. Just look at Mike Mignola's mini empire of comics.

Mignola and his talented collaborators have created a number of comics - including Hellboy, BPRD and numerous spin-offs - that all have a deliberate look, without swamping the artist's individual style. These books all have strong use of shadow and a heavy black line which unites artists as diverse as Duncan Fegredo, Guy Davis and Mignola himself. Combined with an impeccable design sense, these books all look beautiful, complimenting the crazy stories they tell.

A lot of my passion for individual art styles comes from growing up on a steady diet of 2000ad, and gorging on the instantly recognisable artwork that filled its weekly pages, and this is why I'm repulsed by dull same-old same-old shit.

It's a comic that can have a bewildering amount of different styles beneath the covers - recent issues have mixed up the old school blockiness of Carlos Ezquerra with the stark, glowing lines of D'Israeli, while still finding room for Henry Flint's multi-coloured madness, the straight-up storytelling of Patrick Goddard and Steve Yeowell's latest work, which has him drawing people like they're characters in a Terrence Dicks book (which is a good thing).

This is where mainstream comics are at their best - when they have artwork that doesn't look like anybody else, and give the reader something startling and new. The dullness that captured the creator of Samurai Jack has also caught DC Comics, but it really doesn't have to be that way.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Spoilers in space!

Through her connections as a hard-hitting entertainment reporter, my lovely wife got us free tickets for a preview screening of Star Trek Into Darkness on Monday night, so we got to see it a few weeks before most of the world. I am a Star Trek geek. She is not. We both thought it was terrific.

But it's impossible to say what is so terrific about it without giving away some fairly vital plot details, so there are two reviews here – one short and safe, the other longer and needlessly detailed.

If you have any interest in Star Trek, and are looking forward to this film, I implore you to stay away from spoilers. I stopped reading anything about the new film two months before it came out, and was successfully surprised on a number of occasions. There was one wonderful little cameo that I never saw coming, a couple of fairly surprising twists on the formula towards the end, (which were actually blatantly telegraphed in the trailers), and when one of the main characters reveals his true name, somebody in our cinema actually said “Aw hell no!” out loud. You don't want to miss out on that kind of thing.

Star Trek Into Darkness (the safe version)

* Obviously, I thought it was excellent.

* I like the fast pace of modern Trek, and the way the story barrels on, barely giving a damn if you can keep up. Plot holes are skimmed over, in favour of spectacle and bright lights, a deliberate shift that has alienated some hardcore Trek fans, but revitalised it for everybody else.

* Like the first one, this film moves at warp speed, and the characters are all constantly running, jumping, flying and falling. All that relentless motion means you miss the more retrospective moments of classic Star Trek – long, pointed conversations in crew quarters are reduced to hurried snatches of conservation along the corridor. This is the price of the pace.

* This is the second film for the lead actors, and they're all doing a fine job, nailing the characters without resorting to impersonation. Like all the best Trek films, they all get something to do, and Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto sell the eternal friendship between Kirk and Spock. But all of the actors seize the opportunities given them, with John Cho and Zoe Saldana particular stand-outs.

* Alice Eve is also fine as the latest addition to the crew, although her big dramatic moment is almost ruined by the most baffling use of lens flare in any of J J Abram's films.

* That said, lens flare in 3D is kinda awesome, especially when it looked like the people getting up to go to the bathroom were walking behind the flare.

* And Benedict Cumberbatch's character is a much better villain that Eric Bana in the first Star Trek from Bad Robot. Any more on this subject would be spoiler.

And that's about it for non-spoiler stuff. Once again, if you're interested in this kind of thing, (and if you're not, you're on the wrong blog, brother), show some freakin' willpower and go away. Come back when you've seen the film. Because it's better that way.






I'm not joking, and I usually don't give a shit about spoilers.




You've done so well to avoid things so far, it's only a matter of days now...

Okay, then.

Star Trek Into Darkness (the super spoiley version)


* Wrath of Khan has always been my favourite Star Trek movie, and after this film.... it's still my favourite. Star Trek Into Darkness is trying so hard to be the WoK in this series, and sometimes that feels forced, but it also gives the movie an epic feel, as hatred and vengeance spans universes.

* And while I think Cumberbatch was brilliant a times - the reveal of his name is a powerful moment, thanks entirely to his voice - I still like Ricardo Montalban more; mullet, bared chest and all. The modern version doesn't get his Moby Dick speech or have that fire in his voice. On the other hand, this isn't a remake of Wrath of Khan, it's a remake of Space Seed, so if Cumberbatch comes back in twenty years time for his revenge, that could be something interesting.

* Also – as a work collegue points out in this spoiler-safe review – he's playing the part of the villian as if he is a vampire in a sixties Hammer Horror melodrama, which is just awesome.

* But there are a lot of homages to the first Star Trek II, getting more and more obvious as it goes on, until one of the climactic scenes has actual dialogue from that first film. It all leads to the noble sacrifice at the end, which is fairly predictable, because it's so heavily signposted in all the trailers, and it's the sort of cross-time story inversions that these filmmakers like.

* (Although the film did do a decent fake-out in the trailer with the big spaceship crash at the end, which was very well done.)

* The death is also a bit weightless when you consider the Tribble factor – an earlier get-out-of-jail-free scene, about two-thirds of the way through the film, which gives heavy hints of how the film will end, especially when it has dialogue like this:

KIRK: What's this, Bones?

BONES: Oh, that's a completely unrelated thing I'm working on, I'm trying to bring a tribble back to life.

KIRK: That'd be useful!

* But the nice side-effect of this sacrificial switch is that it drives Spock completely mental, and scenes where the man with a billion bottled-up emotions loses his shit are always impressive, in any universe. And the part where he runs down Kahn in the streets of San Francisco was great fun.

* As good as that was, the one scene cameo from a very familiar face may have been my favourite scene in the whole film - so good I don't even want to spoil it here. I just always like it when smart and charming characters say things like “I can't help you. However...”, and the way Khan's full name is used is just perfect.

* It's also another part of that relentless pace. The information given in that scene is something Spock was always going to figure out, so why not cut straight to the chase? This happens over and over again in this film, and you don't have time to moan about the plot illogicalities, or you'll miss the next scene altogether. The film starts at the climax of another mission, and within 15 minutes there have been explosions and exposition dumps and they're off and racing again, and I feel a bit tired just thinking about it again. In a good way.

* Blinging Klingons! It's always nice to see proper angry Klingons, and even better to hear somebody talk back to them in their snarling tongue about honour and revenge.

* And there are a dozen other little moments of pure Trek perfection like that in Star Trek Into Darkness, some epic and grand, others tiny and heartfelt. It's a movie about human determination, and the triumph of compassion, and crazy science fiction bollocks, and sweet sexy uniforms, and the silent eternity of space, and vengeance, and kick-ass aliens. What more could you want from a Star Trek film?