Saturday, September 28, 2013

'There are a lot of me here'

One of my favourite cheesy quotes – and I have no idea where I first heard it – is that you might, as a person, be one in a million, but that just means there are hundreds of you on the internet.

I run into myself all the time, at gigs and screenings and comic shops and online. It's always quite startling, although ultimately comfortable.

I'm not alone. You're not alone. We're never alone.

I'm a white male in my late thirties, married and living in an English-speaking country. My politics are a libertarian-socialist-anarchist-compassionate mix, and I'm an extreme pacifist who still likes incredibly violent fiction.

Rugby is my sport, journalism is my work and comics are my favourite entertainment, although I'm also passionate about good movies, TV, novels, music and theatre (and probably in that order).

All this doesn't exactly make me a beautiful and unique snowflake. I'm always running into people who have a scarily similar worldview, especially on the internet, where we can all take the time to sound smarter than we really are.

But even though I live in a country with a relatively sparse population, I also run into myself all the time in real life. It's hard to feel unique when you're in a crowd of people who look just like you.

The most extreme example is recent memory was an Urge Overkill gig, where I got a bit drunk and became convinced that I'd travelled into my own head, Being John Malkovich-style. (Either that, or I'd turned into the John Simm Master when he turned the whole world into himself.)

More than 90 per cent of the crowd were blokes who were my age (estimate independently verified). They were all into Urge Overkill from long before Pulp Fiction, and had all gone out on a wet Tuesday night to grab a handful of the past, for a little while at least.

We were all very well behaved, and reasonably well-dressed, and we danced politely, and we were all quite impressed by Nash Kato's ridiculously freaky guitar playing.

There some women, some young dudes and a couple of old crusties there, but the vast majority were males of a very specific age. Interestingly, it's not a race thing – there were Japanese and Maori and Indian versions of me, with the same tastes and interests. Race is no barrier to dorkitude.

And there I fucking am again, at the screening of Suspiria that Goblin were playing at. Lots of me, even if the ages skewed a bit younger, and more of them convinced their girlfirends and partners to come along, but it was the same sort of film dork, heavy into intense Italian blood and gore. (Notably, the more likely it is that I'll be in a crowd of me, the less likely the lovely wife will be coming along.)

It was a fucking great movie experience – even if I'm convinced I ended up genuinely cursed by the cinematic witches, because the following weekend turned into one of the shittiest of my life – but I was genuinely thrilled by the screening, and had a big old goofy grin walking out of the theatre.

And they all had that same goofy grin, and I saw it everywhere in the theatre lobby and I didn't feel so unique in the world. I was just another dork, in a crowd of them.

But it was also weirdly reassuring, sharing that experience with a theatre full of people who were digging it as much as I did. There really was a sense of community there. I really did get a sense that I belonged there, among the same film lovers.

I'm wearing the same tee shirt as that guy in the comic shop, and that dude at the Manic Street Preachers show has the exact same hairstyle as me. I'm surrounded by me at the The Thing/American Werewolf In London double feature at the Queen St cinema, and while I'm pleased to see the huge young female following that has entered Doctor Who fandom, there is still a significant minority of aging fans just like me at the four-Doctors convention earlier this year

I do find the classic doppelganger concept deeply creepy. The idea of an exact double who invades your life and usurps it, so that your own loved ones don't know the difference, is the stuff of primal nightmares. I was always freaked out when I read articles about real life historic cases in The Unexplained, and I'm already a bit freaked out by the trailer alone for Richard Ayode's new double film.

But all these guys I see at all these places might share my exact tastes, but they've got their own mix in there, and there are all sorts of subtle differences. Different passions, different lives, different everything.

They remind me of me so fucking much, but they're not total doppelgangers. And we're all sharing the love, so there is no real harm done.

Some of my mates are into a lot of the same crap I am, but a lot of my best friends are also genuinely disinterested in things I love - some of them wouldn't read a comic if I paid them, and others genuinely (and wrongly) think Doctor Who is the worst programme ever. But we also share interests in other things, like horror films, or a particular sport, or favourite bands.

And while it is weird to be in a crowd of people who are just like me, almost everybody is just like me in some small tiny way. I sometimes hear something uncannily similar to my own worldview coming out of the mouths of people who I thought I had nothing in common with, and you can forge connections with complete strangers over shared affection for a TV show. There are half a dozen people at my work who have almost nothing in common, other than a fierce love of Breaking Bad, and for the past few weeks we're talking about nothing else after a new episode has come out, and then is a real connection there, made across social and cultural boundaries.

There are an awful lot of me out there, people who wear the same clothes and have the same interests and same opinions. But I also see the same things in nearly everybody, and no matter how less unique that makes me feel, it lets me know that I'm never, ever alone. We're never, ever alone.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lobo: Who is the main man?

Lobo has always been dirty and smelly and rampaging, and his level of histrionic violence has always been incredibly silly and incredibly funny. Many right-thinking people are turned off by this big foetid mess of Lobo comics, but I am deeply fond of the character.

His glory days are long behind him, and that's not just in a sales capacity – there hasn't been a decent Lobo comic in years. It's a lot, lot harder to do that character than it looks like, which is why there are almost zero decent Lobo comics that don't have Keith Giffen and/or Alan Grant involved. (Lobo is, notably, one of the few DC characters that Grant Morrison just couldn't get his head around.)

So I haven't read a new Lobo comic in years, but there is still a part of me that is that 14-year old rebel I once was, screaming 'Fuck yeah, Lobo!” at the back of my skull, so I still follow the character, and when I saw that one of the special villain issues that DC is doing at the moment starred the latest version of Lobo, I had to try it out. See what he was up to.

The results were fraggin' disappointing.

DC's most recent reboots have been played fairly safe, with only minor tweaking of the major characters. (After all, the small cosmetic changes to somebody like Superman where enough to generate a flood of online bile.) So when they first brought Lobo into the New 52, he was basically unchanged, even if he was saddled with a painfully unnecessary back story involving some lost love.

But the idea of Lobo as a dirty old biker appears to be deeply unappealing to DC, who have ordered a total redo of the character, and he appears in a comic that is either called Justice League #23.2 or Lobo #1. I can't really tell.

Anyway, there is the new version of Lobo, and frankly, he's just another space-poser, with slick hair and a tight bodysuit. A humourless arsehole, engaging in forced banter, boasting and moaning in an interminable interior monologue. He's wincing in pain, and dancing around his enemies and slicing them into pieces with his laser “choppers”.

He's just another evil dickhead, selling off slaves to their doom, but “violent, sociopathic dick” isn't exactly a unique selling point in the modern DC universe, where every villain is willing to throw a baby under a truck, (and many heroes aren't that morally better)..

To be fair, this is actually quite close to the original version of the Lobo character, as he appeared in The Omega Men back in the day. But, with all due respect to Roger Slifer, it wasn't until he put on the leather jacket and started committing mega-mayhem that the character became palatable and popular.

Fortunately, there are still tonnes of Lobo comics out there, featuring the hyper-violently funny version, and there are so many, it's taking me decades to find them all. When he was mega-popular in the mid-nineties, DC pushed out a lot of Lobo comics. They even held off on doing an ongoing for slightly too long, but produced a shitload of one-shots, mini-series and other specials.

Things with titles like Portrait of a Victim, A Contract on Gawd, Blazing Chain of Love, Infanticide and the excellent Unamerican Gladiators. That last one had some brilliant Cam Kennedy art, and there was strong art in most of these comics, even if it tended to register as VERY HEAVY on the metal art scale.

(Metal art is deeply unfashionable, which makes it almost cool again, and after sneering at bulging muscles and apocalyptic landscapes for years, I've come back around to appreciating extreme comic art. I also almost bought my first Iron Maiden tee-shirt in twenty years the other day.)

I'm still looking for Lobocop, (mainly because of the art by the late, great Kiwi artist Marty Emond), I almost got the Kevin O'Neill comic convention special once (but the  seller was asking a preposterous price), and I've never even seen an issue of the 1996 Death and Taxes miniseries. But I keep stumbling across more of them, and this week it was a prestige format thing called Lobo: Bounty Hunting For Fun And Profit. Something I never knew existed until I found it in the back issue bin at Arkham comics last weekend.

Written by that man Alan Grant, who always got the right level of absurdity into his violence, it has some more fucking fantastic art from O'Neill and Emond, and a rare appearance in US comics for Robert McCallum, a terrific Scottish artist who shared the blocky detailing of Frank Quitely, (who was also coming up at the same time), but who eventually disappeared into film work after being screwed over in comics once too often, doing concept art for films like Pacific Rim and Scott Pilgrim

It might not be the greatest Lobo comic – that's still the absolutely mental Simon Bisley stuff – but like all the best Lobo, it's a totally disposable story that is just an excuse for chuckles and carnage, as Lobo reveals the “secrets of his deadly trade” to the reader, (which largely consist of shooting people in the face for any reason).

That's more like it.

There have been worse reboots in DC's new 52 – if you dig suave, slick and serious anti-heroes who are vaguely omnisexual and know how to pose with their weight on one hip, the new Lobo certainly ticks all those boxes.

But I just like the filthy version better. I know he is immature and obscene, but he's my kind of psychopathic maniac. I'm half-hoping that the new version will show up for two panels before ending up on the wrong end of the original's hook-on-a-chain, (which, as a symbol of violent anarchy, is far more timeless than laser choppers).

That could happen, but I don't care enough to find out. I'll probably read about it on Wikipedia. It's not like I need the new stuff anyway. I've got too many old issues still to fragging find.

Friday, September 20, 2013

My life on the Never Ending Board

A couple of days ago I was mucking about on the internet, indulging in meaningless nostalgia, when I stumbled across a piece of fiction I wrote back in 1997.  That's right in the middle of my fan fiction phase and it was exactly as terrible as you would imagine.

But it was still fascinating, especially when I couldn't remember writing that particular bit of fiction. It was completely missing from my memories of those days, so I got to read a short story that I'd essentially written to myself, 16 years removed.

It wasn't all bad – I made myself laugh at a Prisoner in-joke. (I was 22 in 1997. Of course there was a Prisoner in-joke). And it basically made sense. But the writing was overheated and breathless, and trying so hard to be really, really clever, and it's definitely the work of somebody with some serious self-worth issues, which may still be lingering. Which is a little troubling.

But even though I'm too embarrassed to even search for all the other stuff I did at the time – which I'm fairly sure is still on the internet somewhere - I don't regret my fan fiction days at all.

There is no shame here.

I never intended to start writing fan fiction. It just happened.

There are four million people in New Zealand, but we all live on the arse end of the world, so there is bound to be feelings of isolation. I've talked before about how the internet changed everything, and made me feel like I was part of a greater community. I ended up gravitating towards the Comic Book Resources message boards, in the days when it was clad in sickly purple and yellow word balloons, and that was my first home on the web.

It didn't take me long to realise that all the cool kids were writing their own stuff in one particular section of CBR that was devoted to fan fiction, and that looked like a hell of a lot of fun, so I started doing my own stories and putting them out there in the world.

They weren't strictly fan fiction – they weren't stories devoted to Batman or Doc Savage or anything like that. The setting for all these stories was a multi-universal street that ran forever, and that just meant any character from any comic or movie or TV show or novel or song could pop in for an appearance, but the vast majority of stories that sprouted up on CBR's Never Ending Board featured the writer's own creations.

There was the Dadamerican, and Buried Alien, and Joe Grendel, and the Mighty Hank, and Wet Willie, and Merlin & Cowman, and the Scarlet Dragon, and Wheat Lad, and Goldenager, and Rydgen, and Hatman, and Sharpshooter & Snow Sabre, and Paper Bag Boy, and OzBayt, and the Phantom Scribbler, and the White Knight, and Amyzon, and Typo Lad, and literally hundreds of other characters, long before I even started writing things.

The stories had only been running a few months by the time I joined in, and there were already recognisable cliques amongst posters, but the other writers - who were often indistinguishable from the characters they created - were incredibly welcoming, and I ended up writing a couple of dozen stories featuring my own creations, and it was marvellous.

I've still got a few stories I did from those days saved on my hard drive, in dusty old computer folders that haven't been opened since 2006. And there are a few that are still floating around on the web, (usually on sites that still have big, flashy nineties ads on them), but I don't think I could bear looking for them.

Because, despite the fantastic encouragement I got at the time, they really are unobjectively terrible – the first fumbling efforts at proper writing, all spat out for the world to see. The last few times I ever looked at that work, I cringed like a motherfucker. They're impossibly clumsy, and the two major influences on my writing at that time were – by some way – the Invisibles and the Doctor Who New Adventures, which were both pretty goddamn self-indulgent, so it wasn't pretty when I added my own ego to the mix.

When I do stumble across something that I wrote back then, I do see glimpses of what I was going for, but I generally failed to pay it off. Sometimes I got it right – I was so pleased with one action sequence involving a moving car and a hatchet that I have used it several times since - but in general, it's mostly rubbish.

But I don't regret spending all that time thinking and writing about those silly little stories. Most of the feedback that was produced was unhelpfully positive, but I figured out how to plot stories, and work with other writers (and their creations), and it was a great place to leech off all those youthful enthusiasms in my writing.

And there was such freedom in fan fiction writing. The ability to do whatever you want when you're not trying to please anybody but yourself was enormously liberating. The whole idea of just writing for fun - not to make money or reach a huge audience - but just for the fun of putting words together to create a viewpoint.

I was also going through a fairly difficult period in my life (again, I was 22, and we're all going through difficult periods at that age), but all of that was forgotten when I switched off and went back to J Street to add a brick to a huge wall of stories.

Sometimes it really helped - on the day I found out one of my oldest friends in the world was quietly ripping me off I started writing the adventures of a Jerry Cornelius rip-off called Dr Skin, and the Therapeutic Skin Jobs (as they were super-cleverly called) really did make me feel better. That sort of writing didn't help with proper trauma, but it certainly made me feel less grumpy on blah days.

I never made a conscious decision to stop writing fan fiction, it just faded away, as things tend to do in life. I wasn't alone - nobody has written a new J Street story in years and years. I do occasionally start writing another Therapeutic Skin Jobs every couple of years or so, but rarely finish them
I never really gave up fiction, and have even collaborated with several NEB writers on move scripts and prose things, but that was still just writing for kicks, not for any greater consumption.

And now I've got the Tearoom of Despair, which satisfies almost all of my writing urges on a daily basis. (I did finish off another short novel last year, but I haven't written any proper fiction since then.) There isn't the charge of collaboration, or the kick of a really good story idea, but it's basically the same thrill as fan fiction writing. This writing is all for fun, not for fortune and glory, and that's the way I'd like to keep it.

We do all think less of something when we hear it is fan fiction - 50 Shades of Grey never got over being a Twilight fan fiction for many people - and there is just cause for this, because the vast majority of it is terrible.

But I think it's also a hell of a lot of fun, a great way to purge the worst habits of fiction writing and a terrific way to meet people who are into the same things as you. I've only actually meet the Dadamerican and The Mighty Hank in person, but I have made some great friends through all this silliness, (and lost a few, too. Nope Callahan! Where are you, man? Email me at bobtemuka at Hotmail!).

I don't regret spending all that time and effort on something as silly as fan fiction. It's a phase I have long moved past, and one that I'm not going to revisit all that often, but I'm glad I did it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


It's been a crazy busy week, so no full post this Sunday afternoon, but I still got comics on the mind, because I just wrote up something about a Kiwi comic anthology in my secret identity as mild-mannered news editor Robert Smith.

The comic is called Faction, it's really rather good, and you can read my interview with co-editor Damon Keen here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Love and Rockets Reader: Less analysing of the funnies, more partying

So after chewing my way through the Dan Clowes Reader last week, I was ready to read some more actual comics, instead of books about comics, but then I wandered into the local store and stumbled across one about Love and Rockets, so I had to have that.

I can never say no to new Love and Rockets, in any form.

The Love and Rockets Companion – edited by Marc Sobel and Kristy Valenti – has a lot in common with the Clowes book. They both came out this year from Fantagraphics and both focus on some wonderfully idiosyncratic comic creators and their ridiculously awesome comics. But the Love and Rockets book doesn't have the same scholarly ambitions, giving more space to interviews and character & chronological guides than any essays on the obvious intellectual worth of the comics, and there is absolutely no criticism of the work, in any way.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and perfectly suited to the free-wheeling, unpredictable and charming nature of Los Bros Heranadez comics. There is just as much insight into the creator's work in a twenty year old interview as there is on a modern essay on the trash TV the creator grew up on. The Love and Rockets book is a celebration of the comic's 30 years (and counting) on this planet, not a critical re-analysis.

Half of the book is taken up with interviews – and most of that stuff comes from previously published conversation – and the other half is filled with character guides, timelines, bibliographies and various bits and pieces. There is nothing new in there, but it proves surprisingly useful, and, in my case, even more surprisingly nostalgic for the dawn of the digital age.

The first two interviews are reprints from old issues of The Comics Journal, including the beautifully long interview conducted by Neil Gaiman in nineteen ninety something, and if there was any hesitation in buying this book, it was caused by the fact I already have those issues of the journal, and they're a significant section of this book.

I also didn't have the sweet discount I got the Clowes book with, and needed to pay the full sixty bucks for this thing, but I still bought it almost immediately. Partly because it is nice to have these interviews collected together in a book that can sit on a shelf, instead of in magazines that are shoved inside a box built for Chardonnay, but mainly because there are also a couple of new interviews, including a recent one from editor Sobel.

Because he knows he has got the history of Love and Rockets covered in the other interviews, Sobel doesn't bother with any of that, but offers up an intriguing snapshot of Los Bros in the year 2012, giving Mario, Gilbert and Jaime the opportunity to talk about their own legacy, and where they think their comics stand in the world. The brothers are all older now, and have been doing brilliant comics for decades, and they are still absolutely blasting them out of the park, but this most recent interview shows they are still modest and humble, and a little unsure whether the type of stories they are interested in telling are the types of stories their fans want to read.

(Thankfully, their answer to this dilemma is 'Fuck it, we do what we want'.)

The other half of the book is mainly filled with long timelines and longer character guides (the latter is 70 long pages of pure data), and it took me two days before I realised the dust cover also folded out into a massive family tree thing.

It's all reference, and anybody who has got through the complete L&R comics will find little new here. But they are also strong reminders of the fact that the Locas and Luba storylines have racked up decades of intense storytelling, and that it's easy to forget a lot of the delightful little details, and it is nice to have all the chronologies laid out in full, and it see glimpses of forgotten faces.

I also found it surprisingly comforting. One of the very first things I ever searched for and found on the internet was a L&R chronology and character sheet, and when I found them somewhere in the nineties, when I still hadn't got hold of that many comics, it was an invaluable resource. I printed out those suckers, and I've probably still got them stored away somewhere. Probably under those Journals.

The comic's brilliance is always obvious, but the details sometimes get lost, and I got immense enjoyment out of flicking through the character pages, remembering old faces, and old storylines. I don't look at the reference to figure out what happened any more, I look at it to remember everything I've forgotten. This applies equally to Who's Who and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (deluxe edition), as much as it does to the Love and Rockets Reader.

The book also has the best of the original L&R letters page, lists of the Brothers' favourite influences, and a checklist of the comics that I have already found useful, as I finally figured out which issues of Luba I actually missed.

One of the first things Jaime points out in the Sobel interview is that he has always had the attitude of someone on the outside looking in, and that's a pretty good description of the typical Love and Rockets reader as well. It's certainly how I have often felt over the years, but reading the Hernandez brothers' comics over the years have been an absolute pleasure, with wonderful stories told with joy and intensity, until I'm no longer looking in on the lives of the Locas and Palomar characters, I feel like I'm living it with them.

There are plenty of other tiny insights like that, lurking between the lines of the interviews and reference notes in this wonderful Companion, and it was marvellous to immerse myself back into their worlds, down to the tiniest details. I'm waiting for the next New Stories with the usual breathless anticipation, but this book is a good way to fill the gap.

I've been dancing to this comic's beat for more than half my life and I can never say no to new Love and Rockets, in any form. The L&R Companion might not have that much new to say, and it's not as absolutely brilliant as the comics it commemorates, but it's a fine addition to the Los Bros Hernandez library.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dan Clowes Reader: Analysing the funnies

Writing strong analysis about a specific comic work or creator is a tough task – the cultural baggage behind deep thinking about the medium means there is a fine line between pointless patronising and genuine insight.

The afterword in Gilbert Hernandez's lovely Marble Season book was an unfortunate example of the former, an essay with the noblest of intentions that ended up patting the reader on the head and patiently explaining out that it’s okay to like a comic book about kids getting up to mischief, because there are important and serious themes behind all the play, so don't be embarrassed.

Fortunately, the majority of the Dan Clowes Reader features examples of the latter, as the work of one of comic's greatest creative treasures is happily unpicked and examined, with no shame, and real insight.

The Dan Clowes Reader is a collection of essays, annotations, interviews and examples of Clowes’ comic work, including a complete reprint of Ghost World and several other un-reprinted Clowes comics, edited by Ken Parille and recently published by Fantagraphics.

It's a good looking book, well designed and lavishly illustrated with comic brilliance.

Clowes is, of course, the perfect subject for a book like this, with a huge body of outstanding work produced over the past couple of decades. His deceptively simple cartooning style masks the depth of his stories, which always feel real and honest. His dry wit is often mistaken for melancholia, and his comics are often laugh-out-loud funny, but they can also be tragic and sad. His best work often leaves the reader adrift in a sea of conflicting emotions, and that is in no way a complaint.

Each new Clowes book is a cause for celebration, and is eagerly devoured by any comic fan with a modicum of taste, and they remain rewarding for years to come. Even years after I've first read a Clowes comic, I can find new jokes, new perspectives and even new themes emerge from the work, sitting all along in plain sight.

The most obvious benefit of the Dan Clowes Reader is that it points out all the little tricks the reader may have missed, with Ghost World given a thorough examination in a number of illuminating essays and extensive annotations, pointing out every reference or in-joke.

Sometimes the annotations can get a bit too extensive, with valuable space spent explaining totally obscure figures like Homer Simpson and Ronald Reagan, and fairly dull reprints of fanzines and other ephemera that have passing mentions in Ghost World, but they are generally more rewarding than not, especially when it's revealed how many of the strangest events in Clowes’ comics are directly influenced by real events in his life.

Some of Clowes comics are oddly ill-suited to this kind of analysis. The artist reached his first major creative peaks in the nineties – the most ironic period in human history – and Clowes himself has pointed out the dangers of over-thinking his work, with the artist vigorously defending any charges of pretension, refusing to call his works graphic novels and referring to himself as a cartoonist.

But there is still so much depth and pure humanity in his comics, even in those stories he obviously dashed off for a laugh, that it’s not that hard to find extra meaning in the shortest and most incidental of his works.

The Ghost World reprint and accompanying analysis make up half of the Dan Clowes Reader, with two other sections on “Short stories , Boys and (Post)adolescence” and “Comics, Artists and Audiences”. These two sections are a little more unfocused than the in-depth detail of the Ghost World stuff, bouncing around between the years and only touching on some of the superb comics Clowes has produced over the past two decades.

But Parille makes some fine choices in putting together some of the short comics in these sections, showing the vast versatility of Clowes’ stuff. Some of his funniest and most nakedly honest comics are in there, including ‘Ugly Girls’ and ‘Just Another Day’, (which is one of my personal favourite Clowes cartoons, and might be the first Clowes comic I ever actually read).

There is some examination of his other substantial works, such as Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, The Death Ray and Wilson, but covering all these comics in the depth they deserve would create an unwieldy book, and you can’t blame the editor for mainly sticking to the shorter stuff.

After all, there is plenty to pick apart in the shortest of Clowes’ comic. An entire movie was spun out of the four-page ‘Art School Confidential’, the Rodger Young stories are dense slices of semi-autobiography and ‘Black Nylon’ says more about the absurdity of super-heroes in six-and-a-half pages than DC or Marvel manage in a year’s worth of publishing.

While the back cover blurb is excited about the fact that most of the short stories have never been reprinted, they will still be familiar to most of Clowes’ fans, but, once again, they are picked apart, examined and annotated to an almost exhausting degree. I certainly had no idea of the fascinating connection between Black Nylon and  Edwin S Shneidman’s ‘The Make A Picture Story Method’ until the Reader pointed it out, and there are dozens of other little examples of the story behind the story.

There are still times when the analysis gets a bit too far up its own ass in the final two sections, but most of it is still highly readable.  It still isn't the easiest book to digest in one sitting, getting that far inside any creators head can get a bit claustrophobic, but it is an ideal book to browse through at leisure, an essay or interview at a time.

This kind of thought doesn't come cheap, and I have to admit, I only got the book because it was essentially free due to a retailer discount card scheme. It cost sixty bucks in this part of the world, but I'm glad I used that discount on this book, even if its full of stuff I already own, (all right-thinking comic readers have Ghost World already).

Because it's always nice to see this amount of thought go into this kind of work, and strong analysis of a great funny book can be just as rewarding as the comic itself.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Slaine versus the El Women

One of the appealing things about the great 2000ad characters is that they can be utter douchebags, but that never gets in the way of a good story. Make no mistake, I consider the best 2000ad strips to be among the best comics I've ever read in my life, but that doesn't mean I actually like the main characters in those stories.

Judge Dredd is a fascist bully-boy, who only bends after decades of intense pressure. Zenith is an arrogant sod. Nikolai Dante is a liar and a cheat. Rogue Trooper's bio-chipped buddies had more soul than he did. Nemesis The Warlock thinks we're all a bunch of insects. Johnny Alpha was the only truly good man, and even that has been chipped away at in the past few years.

But the worst of them has always been Slaine MacRoth. He's the biggest dick of them all.

I'm only ten years old in late 1985 – so I still think girls are pretty icky - but even I can recognise the stunning beauty of Glenn Fabry's El Women when they show up on the cover of 2000ad Prog 420.

Fabry had recently stepped in as one of two regular artists on the Slaine strip, taking a foundation built on Belardinelli and McMahon, and taking the strip to new levels of popularity.  It's his first major mainstream work, and his style evolves noticeably over his first half dozen episodes. By #420, his art is the slickest in the world, with his pages containing strong texture, intense detail and flowing body language.

I really do think he's the best artist on the planet at that time, and then he gets to design the El Women, a bunch of lite-demonic females living in a weird landscape outside time, and their crazy hair styles, sharp smiles and pointy ears make the 10-year-old me feel a bit funny. Especially when Fabry gives them strange fantasy bondage outfits when they meet Slaine (although he is noticeably unimpressed because there is not enough meat on them).

And they're all getting along nicely for a while, and then Slaine kills them all. Because he's a dick.

To be fair, they're not really women, they're entities of evil who turn into “weird, slug-like” creatures after death, but Slaine gleefully slaughters them all when he discovers they are vulnerable to his iron sword, and callously kills one of them who is begging for mercy. He comes across as a bully, and I don't like bullies.

I've liked a lot of Slaine comics since the day I first read that comic in 1985, but I never liked the actual character after that episode of the strip. He is a bullying, arrogant cock, and there would be plenty of other examples of his status as a total arsehole over the next 25 years. He's always beating up people (and dwarves) who are smaller than him, he's boasting of his prowess as the greatest warrior in the world (which, to be honest, he is), and at times he stands by as more women and children are slaughtered in brutal war campaigns.

Slaine has been running more or less consistently in 2000ad for the past few decades, and there was still some great work to come, including Fabry's own later work, the stunning arrival of painted Bisley and the incredibly attractive faux-fumetti of Clint Langley. And while I thrilled to these adventures, I still didn't really like Slaine any more, and I never would.

That sequence in #420 put me off Slaine forever, but I don't want to imply that it was an inherently sexist or misogynistic scene. It's not saying that all beautiful women are evil slugs, it's saying that evil slugs sometimes take on the form of beautiful women to entice stupid men.

Pat Mills comics – especially his Slaine comics - can often come across as grossly offensive if read in a certain light, and the massacre scene in #420, and the sexually-charged lead-up to it, can certainly be seen as irredeemably sexist. But it's a morally clear choice that is Ditko-sharp, more of a simple good versus evil situation, with no grey. And Mills has consistently shown himself to be on the side of the downtrodden, the marginalised and the bullied for his entire writing career, with plenty of fine female characters in his bibliography.

But I don't have to like Marshall Law to like Marshall Law comics, and I never really like Slaine again. At times it is the best strip in the comic, but Slaine himself is irredeemable.

Later, when Mills returned to the concept during the Langley period, he had the El Women more obviously represent another aspect of the Goddess Slaine worships, figures of death and rebirth who don't mind getting killed because it's part of a natural cycle. Slaine even shows some mercy this time.

It didn't really help, mainly because Slaine was so huge at this point in the story, and he still looks like a monster, battling against these girls.

Slaine is still going strong in 2000ad, and the strip has celebrated its 30th anniversary with a greatest hits story, as Slaine is sent bouncing back through his timeline and reliving past adventures, with the added bonus that many of the original artists have returned. There has already been a McMahon retread of the sublime Sky Chariots story, and Bisley is also coming back for some full-colour fun.

And then, right in the middle of this celebration, there they are again, Slaine taking on the same women, by the same artist. And even though it's slightly different – they're immune to his iron and Elfric shows up a lot earlier – it ends with the same results, as Slaine bashes them all with a magic flaming skull.

There is certainly a pleasant nostalgia in seeing Fabry back on Slaine, and it's a fascinating example of the artist's evolution over the years, re-doing a story from the period where he really was the greatest, with noticeable variations in line and texture.

But it's also a sharp reminder that I just don't like Slaine,and that he's still an arsehole who kills a bunch of people and then wants to hurt them even more, because he likes to "cherish his wrath".

For all his faults, Slaine is still an honourable and noble man, and one of the greatest kings who ever lived. And he is certainly a lot better than almost every other character who is part of his saga, for he lives in an age of cruelty and literal barbarianism, where everybody is unlikeable to some degree. 

But while I have certainly changed a lot over the past 28 years, I still share my ten-year-old's distaste at the way he hungers for violence.

I'm certainly looking forward to the Bisley in the next issue, and I will enjoy reading more of his adventures - and there are more coming, with Simon Davis now taking on the art duties - but Slaine is still a fucking arsehole and it only took a retread of a massacre to remember the moment when I turned against him, and was never fully on his side again.