Friday, November 29, 2013

The Cartoon History of Everything

Will Eisner always used to say that you could teach anybody anything if you put the lesson in the form of a comic, and then he went on to prove it on an industrial scale with decades of P*S army maintenance comics.

If there wasn't such a prejudice against the form, every school textbook would be full of comics, because if you want something to stick in the mind, give it something visual to hang on to.

After all, nearly everything I know about history I learned from Larry Gonick.

Gonick's books are both massively popular and criminally underrated. He has more than a million copies of his Cartoon Guides in print, but there is little real appreciation for his art and technique. His books make complex subjects more simple and easy to understand, but sometimes the books and the storytelling have to get complex in their own right.

He's actually created a wide variety of strips and books, but it's the Cartoon Guides and Histories that are his crowning achievement. He takes dry, dusty facts, and brings them to life with efficiency and humour, and he makes it all look so easy.

It's the humour that is the first thing to grab the attention, and makes a lot of Gonick's subjects so palatable. History is full of unpleasant people committing appalling acts, and even though I remain an eternal optimist, I have to concede the human race has been built on a foundation of blood and terror.

The Cartoon History Of The Universe books frequently feature scenes of genocide and massacre, as entire cities are put to the sword, their homes destroyed and the earth salted. It could all be a bit too grim, but Gonick lightens the apocalyptic mood with awful puns and visual gags.

There will frequently be a bystander commenting on the action, and pointing out the horrible absurdity of it all, defeating the reputations of the monstrous personalities who shaped our history. Every now and then the voice of reason will pop up and make history's greatest monsters look agreeably daft, especially with Gonick's talent for googly eyes and wide-mouthed astonishment, which is always funny.

Bringing this kind of humour into super-serious subjects like history doesn't diminish the lesson – it enhances it. Making fun of terrible deeds and terrible people is one of the best ways to beat them; there is a reason why cartoonist David Lowe was on Hitler's death list.

 History is full of upsetting incidents, but the odd joke can help the details stick in the mind, which is awfully useful in Gonick's history books, because he has a lot of stuff to get through, and he hasn't got the space to dwell on matters before moving onto a new subject, often on the other side of the world.

There is an efficiency in Gonick's books that is just staggering – he packs in centuries of incident from around the world in a couple of hundred pages. A powerful civilisation that ruled the known world for decades can be dealt with in a matter of pages, and judicious use of footnotes allow Gonick to take short side trips along the alleys of history. He only has three or four panels in these footnotes to look at some issue, but you can tell almost any story in the world in three or four panels, if you cut it right down to the bone.

Some of those notes are ridiculously clever, and the way Gonick puts his story together is often quietly impressive. His solutions for age-old problems like the depiction of Mohammed are deceptively simple, and his ability to boil a complex and convoluted  series of events down to the pertinent details is sensational, especially when he doesn't lose that twinkle of dry humour when he's rushing to the point.

These Cartoon History books have to be efficient, because there is so much to get through. But this is just another appealing aspect of the books – they don't just tell the story of the Great Powers of the Western World. They spend a lot of time in Latin America and Africa and Asia, well away from the concerns of white men (who usually come crashing into the narrative at some point).

Some English kings barely rate a mention, while the rise and fall of Mayan culture is thoroughly examined. This multicultural approach to history, and the way it tells the big story of how all the world's different cultures and civilisations have smashed into each other, means the books are constantly enlightening.

Gonick always wears his own innate prejudices on his sleeve, often passing judgement on characters, making them look ridiculous and psychopathic. No reading of history is every going to be purely objective, because the author is a constant presence, but he's always up front about it.

Besides, there was never any chance of it ever being objective, once Gonick decided to tell this story as a comic book.

Because art is never, ever objective. It's always told from somebody's perspective - that's the big difference between art and all the other beautiful things in life that are just chaotic nature.

Gonick uses his art to tell the story, and that inevitably prejudices the tale, so he doesn't bother pretending to be objective, giving it all up in the name of his shaky, lively art style.

Which is absolutely fine. It all gets a bit goofy sometimes, but can also be oddly epic, as legendary characters from history launch themselves into bold endevour. Gonick's characters are always jiving around the panel, bringing history to life with their hysterical eagerness, and sometimes the big battle scenes are actually bloody impressive, and sometimes he captures the aftermath of some big battle, and his effortless line blurs out, unwilling to dwell on the horror.

History isn't just facts and figures, it's people doing crazy shit to other people, all the way down the centuries, and there is plenty of crazy shit in Gonick's art, so it all matches up nicely.

And all that humour, efficiency, cleverness and groovy art make Gonick's books pretty damn charming. They're so good, I almost bought the Cartoon Guide To Statistics at a comic convention the other week, until sanity prevailed and  realised I was about to buy a textbook.

He completed The History of the Universe a couple of years ago, but there is still plenty of history to come (there's that eternal optimism again), and plenty of other historical and educational avenues for Gonick to take. Why aren't all school textbooks full of comics, when the lessons can be this much fun?

Monday, November 25, 2013

To love, and be loved.

Over the past week, I've made it pretty clear that I really do think Doctor Who is the best fiction ever, and this is a fantastic time to be following the series, with the 50th anniversary of the show, and all sorts of relevant celebrations to mark the occasion.
I've certainly been celebrating it – I've been gorging on audio plays, reading Doctor Who mags (both old and new), catching up on some favourite old episodes, re-watching the recent Paul McGann mini-episode, dipping in and out of several reference books, I adored An Adventure In Space And Time when I saw it on Friday, and earlier this year I got to see four Doctors up on the same stage.

The crown jewel in the anniversary celebrations was the big special episode that premiered over the  weekend, featuring the return of David Tennant and Billie Piper, and the appearance of John Hurt as a new, tragic side to the Doctor. It was in 3D, and played in sold-out cinemas, and was screened in a worldwide simulcast premiere. It even played on New Zealand television screens early yesterday morning, which still feels bloody weird, when I used to wait years as a kid, waiting for episodes to screen here.

It was a chance for Doctor Who enthusiasts to all join in the same adventure, at the same time, breaking down barriers of geography and culture – everybody getting in on the fun.

Except for me. I totally missed it because I was flying home from a mate's birthday party.

Sometimes I tell the wife that the only thing I love more than her in the world sometimes is Doctor Who, but that's not really true. There are brief, fleeting moments when it is the best thing ever, and I feel a real emotional connection that it really quite powerful, but that's still nothing compared to her smile.

It's not just Doctor Who. It is fun to pretend that the main reason I go travelling around the world is to see what the comic shops are like. It’s fun to pretend that I travel just to see what sort of comic shops are out there, and while I do absolutely enjoy hunting them out, they are just a bonus.

I really travel to see crazy shit, and find out how people live in far-off places, and go scuba diving in Egypt and snowmobiling in Lapland and things like that. And, most importantly, I do all these things with my lovely wife, and we share all these wonderful experiences, and often relive them together. She is there for almost all of the greatest moments in my life, and none of them involve going to a comic book shop.

I’m not denying that I can go a little crazy in book and comic shops when I go travelling, and sometimes I drag the poor wife halfway across cities on the far side of the world to see if they have any Eddie Campbell comics, but I’m really there for the experience of these foreign lands, more than anything.

I care about my entertainments, and I can get passionate about them, but I'm still baffled by people who care so much that anything they don't like drives them into a total rage, even if that's the default setting for any kind of discourse on the internet. 

I’m just still not convinced that things like art and entertainment are always worth getting passionately angry about. Art is a great thing - and many would say it is the greatest thing humans are capable of - connecting us as individual people and pushing us forward as a species. It’s a record of who we are and how we think, and shows us unseen facets of our hidden selves.

But even though I can be – and have been - profoundly moved by great art, none of it compares to the moment the love of my life said she’d marry me, or any time my dad tells me he is proud of me, or even any time I can do something nice for any loved one. I certainly don’t begrudge anybody who does think great art is more important than real-world relationships, but that ain’t me.

So I can spend a large part of my week (and, for that matter, my whole life) neck-deep in Doctor Who and all its riches, but miss the most important part of the whole celebration, and I don’t feel conflicted at all.

When my mate told me he was having his birthday party on the 23rd, I knew straight away that it was on the weekend of the anniversary, and that there would be a great chance I’d miss out on something important, because I had to travel three-quarters of the way down the country to go to the birthday.

There was bound to be something missed (especially when I have fine form of just missing big Doctor Who moments because of travel – I’ve been stuck in Heathrow twice while new Who is buzzing through the air around me).

And when it was finally revealed that there would be a simulcast and that it would be at a certain time, my plans were set, and I knew I’d miss out on joining in with the fun.

For one brief, tiny instant, I considered not going to the party altogether, but fuck that.

I love Doctor Who with the white-hot power of a thousand suns, but I’d never let that get in the way of an actual real relationship. In the most extreme example, the despair I would feel if Doctor Who disappeared forever is absolutely nothing compared to the pain of losing a loved one, and I can miss a history-making episode of a television show because, well, it’s just a fucking TV show.

I chose a skody old mate over the best television show ever, and that's the way it should be.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with being passionate about your entertainment, although that passion is often gobbled up by the Rage Monster, with fans of something incredibly dorky often driven into total anger by silly, trivial things.

I’m certainly passionate about all sorts of dorky shit, but I also think it helps to have a bit of perspective.

It might sound incredibly cheesy, but I really do believe the most important thing in this life is to love, and be loved, and it’s as simple as that. A TV show can move me, and make me think, and make me laugh, but it won't love me like my wife does, and it won't share the experiences we have together.

Besides, after all that, I did end up seeing The Day Of The Doctor a couple of hours after everybody else, so it ain’t all bad.

Unsurprisingly, I thought it was magnificent.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

101 more reasons why Doctor Who is the greatest TV show ever

In my last post, I came up with three reasons why Doctor Who is the greatest fiction in the history of everything.

But that was too easy, and didn’t cover all the little things that I love about the show – the weird jokes and tiny inflections – and also didn’t deal with the big, epic moments of life, and death, and cups of tea.

So here are 101 more reasons why Doctor Who is the greatest fiction in the history of everything:

1. That thudding, pumping and otherworldly theme music. It’s not just a fantastic tune, it’s a beautiful metaphor for the whole damn thing.

2. The no-space in The Mind Robber and Warriors’ Gate.

3. All of the Doctor’s mates flying the TARDIS together and towing the Earth back to its proper place in the universe at the climax of Journey’s End.

4. The show’s charmingly desperate need for cliff-hangers, which often saw individual episodes end on nonsensical notes. There might be fewer multi-part stories now, but it’s a tradition that has been proudly carried on to the new series.

5. The Special Weapons Dalek, and the way the other Daleks look at it as an abomination.

6. The Ninth Doctor takes Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen out for dinner in Cardiff.

7. The unnecessarily long pan across the dead beach at the start of The Leisure Hive.

8. Zoe Herriot’s arse in that spangly catsuit.

9. Zoe’s brains, especially on the occasions when she was actually smarter than the Doctor, and that was even sexier than the catsuit.

10. Ace’s bombs.

11. The moment when you discover what the object is that is getting everybody so hot and bothered in Lawrence Miles Alien Bodies, and the fact that it’s just one of dozens of times when everything about Doctor Who changes forever.

12. The thrill of the montage of all the Doctors at the climax of The Eleventh Hour, and the way the new ‘un walks right through them, straight into the role.

13. The mystery faces of the Doctor that appear during the mind duel of The Brain Of Morbius, and the fact that every serious Who fan has their own serious ideas about what it all means.

14. Nicholas Courtney sneaking into the background of Silver Nemesis.

15. The nudge-nudge, wink-wink cut to black right in the middle of Vengeance on Varos.

16. The just-revealed fact that it wasn’t the Eighth Doctor that fought in the Time War.
17. “You've touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you think when your time came you'd really have to do more than just ask?”

18. The whole last ten minutes of The Doctor Dances, but most especially the part where the Doctor gets one good day, and everybody lives. I always hoped Doctor Who would be good when it came back on telly, but I never really expected it to be genuinely great.

19. Bill Nighy’s speech about the ecstatic beauty of Vincent Van Gogh’s art.

20. The way the Third Doctor’s frilly sleeves would flail about when he was laying some kung fu from outer space on some pitiable fool.

21. The bit with the wires in Genesis of the Daleks.

22. The idea that the entire Time War, and all the devastation and death that came from it, all started with that bit with the wires in Genesis of the Daleks.

23.  Romana and the Doctor, punting away in an episode that will never be finished.

24. Ian Chesterton’s tie.

25. Jo Grant’s hair.

26. Peri’s bald cap.

27. Those gross, gross, gross giant maggots in The Green Death.

28. The beautiful structure of the plot of the Dalek Invasion Of Earth. Everything I ever need to know about plotting, I learned from that novelization.

29. The use of ELO in Love & Monsters. And I frigging hate ELO.

30. The Masque of Mandragora. Just that story title. I really like it a lot. I think it’s terrific.

31. The suckers on the Zygons.

32. The brains with eyestalks in The Keys of Marinus.

33. The hiss of an Ice Warrior (or Ice Lord).

34. That one time Ice Warriors weren’t total dickheads.

35. Abslom Daak, DALEK KILLER!

36. The use of a cricket ball to propel the Doctor through space in Four To Doomsday.

37. The slightly unexpected death of The Third Doctor in Interference.

38. The moment in The Parting Of The Ways when the Ninth Doctor’s hologram is talking around Rose, and then he looks right at her.

39. The massive data dump that occurred when I learned the answer to every single question in the Second Doctor Who Quiz Book from Target, in some mad attempt in 1984 to win a competition for every single Target book published, and I never heard anything about that competition, although I did get a Target badge in the mail, which was just confusing.

40. The First Doctor’s absolute and invincible stubbornness.

41. The Valeyard, and all he promises/threatens.

42. “Oh my God, I’m the tin dog.”

43. The endless running around in Paris in City of Death.

44. The moments where the voices in Midnight go from past to present to future.

45. The fake Sarah Jane’s face falling off in The Android Invasion.

46. The cracking “chap with Wings” in-joke in Paul Cornell’s No Future.

47. Those funky high collars the Time Lords use for their formal duties.

48. Gemma Moffat’s cheeky-as-hell “Hello Dad!”

49. The bit at the start of the Chase where the Doctor and Barbara sunbathe. While fully clothed.

50. Everything about the Time Crash mini-episode, but especially when 10 stops everything to gush about 5.

51. The cup of tea in the Doctor’s hand in the cover scene of The Also People, as he has a natter with some sentiment battle spaceships which have enough firepower to put a hole in the galaxy and are all very, very pissed off.

52. The Doctor’s explanation for how the TARDIS manages to be bigger on the inside at the start of Robots of Death, and Leela’s quite-right statement that it all sounds a bit silly.

53. The tiny, epic conversation between Unstoffe and Binro about the state of the universe in The Ribos Operation, and the look on Binro’s face when he is told he is right about other worlds.

54. The face of the Doctor in the opening credits

55. Vicki’s formal gown in The Crusades.

56. Sarah Jane’s Andy-Pandy outfit in The Hand Of Fear.

57. Tegan’s accent.

58. The ridiculous miming when Donna sees the Doctor again at the Adipose Industries headquarters, and that terrific punchline.

59. "One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”

60. The characters’ accents in Spare Parts.

61. The fact that I’m still not that sure what actually is going on in Ghost Light.
62. The cup of tea that sparks the Tenth Doctor into full action in his first adventure.

63. The Fourth Doctor knocking over the wine goblet in contempt in Warrior’s Gate.

64. The sad fate of Dodo in nineties novels. Soon after reading Man In The Velvet Mask and Who Killed Kennedy, in which she catches a terrible disease and is ruthlessly murdered, I had a vivid dream about the character, which was the saddest goddamn dream I’ve ever had in my life.
65. “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”

66. The slow journey through the long decades in Father Time.

67. The weird anti-twist involving the spaceship in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

68. Any time the Daleks or Cybermen would appear in front of some grand London landmark.

69. The John Simm Master, tapping out the sound of drums on the table in Downing Street, after he’s just murdered everybody else in the room.

70. Derek Jacobi’s switch between the lovely and compassionate Professor Yana and the malevolent and immortal Master.

71. The low chuckle that always announced the totally surprising appearance of Anthony Ainley’s Master.

72. The Roger Delgado Master watching Clangers on a prison television set.

73. The daily singalong between all the souls trapped on New New York’s motorways in Gridlock.

74. The ninth Doctor’s genuine fear at seeing a lone Dalek had survived.

75. The DVD conversation in Blink.

76. The fact that the Doctors rarely get along with each other when they do their big anniversary team-ups.

77. The Eighth Doctor’s perfect shoes.
78. The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon. Hardcore Who people often hate any attempt to bring the taste of the musical into their beloved science fiction, but I always dig it.

79. For that matter, I liked  the singing in The Rings of Akhaten, too.

80. The fact that it only took them one episode to realise that Kamelion was a really, really bad idea.

81. The Controller standing up to his tyrannical masters in Day Of The Daleks.

82. “Always take a banana to a party, Rose! Bananas are good!”

83. The bit in one of the New Adventures where Benny orders a pint of vodka.

84. The cactus Doctor in Meglos. Rubbish story – fantastic visual.

85. Romana’s desperate, clawing attempts to stop the Movellan bomb going off on Skaro.

86. “Your leader will be angry if you kill me – I’m a genius!”

87. MC Escher’s mad perspectives invade Doctor Who in Castrovalva.

88. Brian’s diligent study of an inert black box in The Power of Three.

89. Any time the Doctor takes an older person along as a companion – sometimes Wilf and Evelyn are my favourite companions ever.

90. The bit in Transit where the Doctor comes barrelling out of an interpalnetary travel tube system, and maintains his footing.

91. The trippy matter transportation in The Daleks’ Master Plan.

92. Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart standing up against ultimate evil at the end of Battlefield, without ruffling a hair.

93. The convention-favourite story about the eye patches.

94. The trip to the wrong 1980 in Pyramids of Mars.

95. The skull door appearing in Nyssa’s room in Terminus.

96. The part in ..Ish where the Doctor and Peri forget the name of the TARDIS.

97. The fight between Salamander and the Doctor aboard the TARDIS, and the sheer joy of actually seeing it for the first time a few weeks ago.

98. The bit with the cat in The Dying Days.

99. Adric’s death. Most Doctor Who fans are rightfully glad to see the back of the annoying little twerp, but he died when I was eight-years-old, and I was bloody shattered.

100. “Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere the tea’s getting cold.”

101. The TARDIS.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why Doctor Who is the greatest TV show ever

With the 50th anniversary next weekend, New Zealand's biggest newspaper asked me to explain why I think it's the greatest television show in the history of the universe.

They gave me 600 words to do it. 

I could've written 60,000.

Doctor Who is a cheap, cheerful and cheesy British show for kids, starring a madman with a blue box who can go anywhere in time in space. It's also the greatest television programme ever made.

I've been convinced of this fact right from the start - my earliest TV memories involve Tom Baker hiding away from some Daleks in a quarry, and I've followed the show with absolute passion ever since.

I still only remember the date of John F. Kennedy's assassination because it took place the day before Doctor Who first started, and I got a bit emotional when I saw the fifth Doctor's console at the Who exhibition in Cardiff last year. The discovery of missing episodes in Nigeria this year was - as far as I'm concerned - the biggest news story of 2013, and there is a part of me that genuinely thinks Doctor Who And The Dalek Invasion Of Earth is the best book ever written.

And when the show came back in the 21st century after a 15-year hiatus, I was delighted to see the series was as good as it ever was, and even occasionally great. It's grabbed the attention of a whole new generation, and secured its immediate future through sharp scripts and cool casting.

The series celebrates its 50th birthday next weekend, and it is still as fresh and surprising as it was in 1963. There are many factors behind its longevity, but its appeal can also be summed up by three reasons:

1) Doctor Who stories can be about anything

The only thing all episodes of Doctor Who have in common is the Doctor and his Tardis - and the fact that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. But anything else goes in a new episode.

While it is still, first and foremost, a science-fiction programme, the show's concept gives it access to any era of human history and any location in the universe. This means Doctor Who stories can be shameless comedies, romantic dramas or grand, sweeping historical epics. They can be about the survival of a small group of people in impossible circumstances, or the saving of the whole universe. There are no limits.

2) Doctor Who changes with the times ...

If the show had stuck to a formula, it would be remembered only as a 60s throwback, but it changes with the ages, the stories reflecting the eras they were produced in. It started as an educational primer on history for children, before going through various stages of sophistication. Some of the 80s' stories got very political, and the 21st century incarnation of the series hasn't been afraid to wear some of its ideologies on its sleeve. The most obvious change is, of course, the regeneration of the main character himself, and this is also part of its enduring charm. Nothing stagnates when the Doctor goes through a radical physical and psychological rebirth every few years, and the various facets of the his personality can be seen on the surface of different faces.

3) ... but it's still the same story

The character played by Matt Smith, with his big boots and bigger chin, mucking about with the Ood in 2013 is the same character played by William Hartnell, who was learning how to talk to the Sensorites in 1963. There is a clear continuity that has never been thrown away or rebooted, over the five decades of storytelling.

This means every story, no matter how unimportant or silly, matters in the grand scheme of things. It gives it a sense of history that no other TV show can match - even something like The Simpsons is stuck in an eternal status quo, while Doctor Who moves onwards and upwards.

Doctor Who has also survived so long because it has had some mercurial writers, some stunningly attractive young actors there to ask the Doctor questions and, in the past few years, some bloody good special effects.

The 50-year mark is an anniversary worth celebrating, with the "Day of the Doctor" episode being simulcast all around the world next Sunday morning, and showing up in 3D cinemas for special screenings on the same day. David Tennant and Billie Piper are back and John Hurt is a mysterious stranger. Nothing will ever be the same again. But the real excitement in the Doctor's 50th year is that it goes on, with planning for next year's episodes already under way. A new Doctor - played by fantastic Scottish actor Peter Capaldi - is on the way and the story goes on, with a new adventure in time and space every week.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sandman Overture: Full of unusual questions

I came to Sandman at a very, very pretentious point in my life – I was just at the right age for its lofty ambitions, complicated storytelling and daft jokes, and I was just self-important enough to think it was all so very mature.

It was also a vital gateway comic, taking me by the hand and gently leading me away from a purely spandex-based comic diet, into the vast and wonderful world of alternative comics. I was reading Neil Gaiman and chums' Sandman before I ever got hold of Watchmen or Love and Rockets or anything really good.  And while I would have found those things even if Sandman never existed, it might have taken a lot longer to get there.

I still have a deep fondness for Sandman, and re-read the whole series every couple of years, and it’s always slightly smarter and funnier than I ever remember. But I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the new Sandman comic which has just come out, especially because it wasn’t just a totally nostalgic thing.

It is still largely a nostalgia thing, because I have always taken Sandman just a little too seriously.

When the last issue of the regular series came out, I went to read the comic book in the Dunedin botanical gardens, because it was a lovely day to sit in the park and read a good comic, and then the weather changed suddenly and it pissed down with rain and I ended up hiding underneath a bridge, and that’s where I read that last issue, and the pages are still a little crinkled.

Nearly a decade later, Sandman; Endless Nights came out when I was in journalism school, and I had to give up all comics completely for 18 months, even my beloved 2000ad. When I graduated, I won some prizes and they gave me lots of money, and I immediately turned around and spent half of it on a bloody big bag of weed and a whole bunch of comics that I’d missed, and one of them was Sandman: Endless Nights, and it still reeks of stoned indulgence.

Then it’s the past weekend, and it’s 2013 already, which means it’s 20 years since I first fell for Sandman, and here I am, sitting in a park, reading a new issue of Sandman, and it’s still enormously satisfying.

As pleasurable as these lazy afternoons in the park with a new Sandman comic are, the series really did finish with it’s 75th issue, more than 17 years ago. That was still a bold move at that time – comic companies just didn’t stop publishing highly successful series just because the creator said so – and it’s easy to overlook how bold it is, now that Bill Willingham can wrap up Fables and get little more than an “about time too” reaction.

Gaiman has still been doing little bits and pieces about his precious Endless here and there, but they have all been short, sharp shocks. Even Endless Nights was a collection of short stories, when Gaiman's strengths have always been more suited to novel-length stories.

Which is where Sandman Overture feels more like Sandman than any of those short pieces, and not just because it's a rare starring role for ol' Morpheus himself. It’s a story that has room to breathe and ramble on a bit. There are parts that might even be thoroughly unnecessary, but it can be argued that everything about Sandman is thoroughly unnecessary, and that's where its charms really lie.

The first issue of Sandman Overture takes its time getting to the point, with some flagrant “This is going to be bad, isn't it?” with Destiny and Death, before mucking about with the Corinthian again, without any real new insights into the teeth-eyed monster (although JH Williams III finds a new way to make him a little more repulsive, with the view from inside those tiny mouths).    

But so what? There's five more issues to come, and Gaiman only has a couple of beautifully indulgent set-up scenes, before the story kicks in. The first chapter ends a little abruptly, and it's not the first time Gaiman has ended a section with an omnipotent creature left confused and discombobulated, but it's still works, especially when the story asks a question about the Sandman's universe that has probably occurred to more than a few readers over the years.

Of course, it helps when you've got somebody like J H Williams III doing the pictures, with the artist instantly becoming one of the finest talents ever to work on a Sandman comic.

Any complaints that the series is being stretched over a year are instantly rendered void when you see the effort Williams is putting into his usual gorgeous designs, with his malleable palette well suited to the slippery world of a dream, while also hard-nosed enough to get to the bloody point, even when he's drawing a sequence featuring talking flowers.

Williams is just as ambitious with his compositions as Gaiman is with his story - few artists could pull off the double-page spread of panels as teeth in a murderous mouth, or have the comic slip inside the pages of Destiny's book, with such comfortable experimentation, let alone do them on consecutive pages.

And Williams isn't all crazy, elaborate designs. He also still doe some fine figurework within these constructions, and his version of Morpheus has the usual long-faced gloom, but doesn't really on the crazy hair for personality, finding it in tight eyes and extraordinary cheekbones.

Dave McKean's cover isn't bad either, mainly because it doesn't really look like a Sandman cover, which is what all the best Sandman covers look like.

It is a pity that DC felt compelled to stuff the first printed edition of the first proper Sandman comic in nearly two decades with adverts for other Vertigo comics, giving the whole presentation the feel of a glossy catalog, (which is especially galling when a couple of gatefold pages push the price up further, and over the crucial $10 mark in local money).

And Gaiman's voice – that occasionally insufferable authorial voice which bends at the very limits of tweeness, with it's calculated asides and easy-going narrative flow – is unleashed at full power in Sandman, and anybody who finds that grating will be in agony by page four.

But if you find Gaiman's voice harsh, then you probably shouldn't be reading a Sandman comic, because it's almost nothing but that voice. I fucking love it still, and I fucking loved this comic, far more than I expected. There are enough unusual questions and pretty pictures to keep me happy until the next issue, until the dream starts up again.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Twit of the Year

Somebody ended a conversation with me the other day by telling me to DM them on Twitter, and they were gone before I got the chance to point out that A) I don't know how to DM anybody because I'm a technology idiot, and B) I'm not on Twitter.

The first point is entirely my fault. I worked in IT in the nineties, which means my tech knowledge is woefully and uselessly out of date, and I have made little effort to keep up with things since. I just can't be arsed learning how to use Skype or any other modern technology miracle unless I really, really have to. I still use a computer every day, but I only learn what I need to make it do what I want. Technology hasn't quite passed me by, but I'm making little effort to keep up.

The second point, about not being on Twitter, did make me wonder why I didn't get a account and join in that conversation, and I really did think about setting one up, for a good 30 seconds, before I talked myself out of it.

I don't have anything against Twitter as a concept – it's a valuable source of information and communication, once you separate out the vast amounts of white noise. As a journalist, it's a brilliant source when big breaking news is going down, and an absolute nightmare when there is no clear information, just rumour.

And I do believe that increased communication is a good thing, because once everybody in the world starts talking to each other, it brings down political, cultural and social barriers. There are, of course, always plenty of people using communication to put up new walls, but how can you really invade a country that has people you follow on Twitter?

And it's obviously a great way to keep up with friends – we're all so scattered these days, tweets can be the only connection between us around this cold and lonely world.

But I just know that it would take me an hour and a half to say something inadvertently offensive, or tweet something unforgivably stupid. I know that my first reaction to anything should not – under any circumstances – be trusted, and if I start saying things publicly without putting any thought into it, I would rapidly be exposed as the total Guy Gardner I really am.

I know this would happen to me, because I've seen it happen with others, over and over again.

I started the Tearoom of Despair about half an hour after the golden age of comic book blogging finished, (another magnificent bit of awful timing on my part), and a lot of the writers who inspired me to get up on my own rickety soapbox had moved on from regular blogging. Many of them shifted their main public profile to Twitter, and many shut down their blogs altogether, reminding everybody they were still alive with regular, and even prolific, tweeting.

I used to read all their blogs, but I don't follow their twitter feeds, because I always prefer long and thoughtful reactions to art and culture. But some fine comic bloggers who used to write insightful and contemplative pieces on the medium are stuck in an endless round of sneering at #fuckingnerds and moaning about Joss Whedon.

I'm not saying they're wrong, I'm just saying that I preferred it when they rambled with their points, just like I like to ramble and if I started flicking off quickfire reactions to various things, you'd all see what a miserable old fuckwit I really am, and who wants to see that?

It's not just comics – some of my favourite political writers turned out to be temperamental, arrogant and judgmental douchebags when you got their instant reaction to something. Even those who weren't terrible people would make ill-judged tweets, or their messages would lose their tone in naked text. Things get misunderstood and never resolved.

I'm obviously still a narcissistic little shit, because I've got this blog that's all about me me me. But I can take my time thinking about what I'm going to say, and I can pontificate at length, which is always a fuckin' laugh.

After all, I started writing this post a year ago, abandoned it, came back to it a few weeks ago, abandoned it again and then finished it off this morning. It was much more wimpy, and waffling, and there was a part where I directly insulted every comic creator ever, until I fixed it with a tiny bit of rewriting.

And I think the editing is what I would miss most if I set up @bobtemuka. I'm a professional news editor, so I'm quite good at cutting and reworking and pushing and pulling words and sentences and paragraphs into the proper shape. But I also have to tweet the odd thing for work, and I'm always nervous as shit about that, because I can't take it back if I get something wrong in there.

I'm convinced I'd regret most of the things I'd tweet within minutes of doing it, so why bother? I'm never 100% happy with these blog posts, and I often feel I've completely failed to make the point, and that's over a thousand words, how could I ever adequately explain myself in 144 characters?

Technology has passed me by in a lot of ways already – work gave me an iPhone and it took me 12 months to figure out how to turn it on, and I'm always at least two years behind on the latest TV/computer/ music playing thingy. 

But my twitterphobia isn't a tech thing – I can wrap myself around almost any technology if I really, really have to - it's a human being thing. I know I'm missing out on some vast conversation, and making contact with new friends, but it would also expose my inner jerk, and there is certainly enough of that already.

Monday, November 4, 2013

From Earth's End: There's always more

Despite never really living anywhere else in the world, my knowledge of New Zealand comics has been absolutely woeful, so I might just have been the exact target audience for Adrian Kinnaird's From Earth's End, a history lesson and cultural snapshot of Kiwi comics.

So I scored a review copy from work, and jumped right in. I knew about a lot of the big comics and important creators, but it's the tiny details that I love the most. Weird little comics that literally don't exist anymore, and creators that came and went, vanishing into the past.

Needless to say, I thought the book was excellent, and I said so in my review. I also got Adrian to choose his ten favourite covers, and did a gallery of that.

I still fucking hate Captain Sunshine, and his beaming face on the cover of the book makes me feel emotions. But he's just the tip of a massive iceberg of weird New Zealand comics and creators, and it was an absolute delight to dig into it.