Saturday, April 26, 2014

The great comic floods of 1993 and 2007

So there are times when I have to go without a regular comics fix – when economy and geography deprive me of new stories.

But the universe likes a bit of balance, and that means there are other times when I'm spoiled for choice, when I'm ploughing insane amounts of spare cash into new books, when I'm quickly filling up large boxes with new stuff, and it takes weeks or months to get around to reading some things properly.

It actually happens quite a bit – mini-avalanches of new stuff all coming in at the same time, a tsunami of the good shit. If I've got any spare money, chances are I'm eyeing up some comic to spend it on, because I can always use more and more and more.

But there are some times when it gets out of control, and just as there was a horrendous drought of new stuff around the turn of the century, there were two times when the addiction to comic books got a bit crazy.

The first time was in the early nineties, when I was in my late teens. I'd been utterly addicted to all things Marvel and DC and 2000ad for all my teenage years, but the small amount of money I made doing odd jobs meant I could only afford a select few new titles every month, (especially at NZ prices), with most of my income going into cheaper, tattier back issues.

And then I was out of high school, and expected to be an adult, and nobody is really ready for that, but I did the best I could. I didn't go to university, lasting just three days before deciding I'd had enough of sitting in classrooms, (I still don't have any kind of degree, and neither does the lovely wife, but we have taken some smug pleasure in being the boss of people with various high-falutin' honours).

Instead I went to work, in a succession of shitty jobs – my very first proper employment was working in my Dad's fat factory. Looking back, the money was terrible, but it was infinitely more than I'd ever had in my life, and I was the king of the fuckin' world every payday. I had plenty of money to spend on rent, and on movies, and on my car, and on some booze and a little dope, and on comic books.

I had way too much money to spend on comic books.

I was still stuck in small town New Zealand, but I now had a car – and was free to go to cities that did have comic shops, and things got crazy. I would return from Christchurch or Dunedin with a back seat covered six-deep in comic books, building up a huge collection in a short period of time.

I was heavily into John Byrne, and would hunt out any issues of his Alpha Flight or Fantastic Four I could find, (I found all his AF, but fell woefully short on the FFs), but I was also hopelessly fond of every post-Crisis comic DC published, and while I finally snapped up things like The Killing Joke and the Fark Knight Returns, I also stocked up on terrible series like Haywire and Sonic Disruptors, and even more terribly bland comics like Starman and Firestorm.

It was even worse back home. I could only get to these cities every couple of months, and there were sod-all comics actually getting through to Timaru, and I bought every one I could find. Which meant I was soon lumbered with a large pile of things like DeFalco/Ryan's dull Fantastic Fours, and more post-Byrne Superman comics than I would ever really need.

But there was also the good stuff – I was just getting into things like Sandman and Doom Patrol and Love and Rockets and every thing Alan Moore ever sneezed out and so much more, and I bought up huge amounts of genuinely great work.

I got heavily into things like Hellblazer and Grendel and the v4 Legion of Super-Heroes at this time, and while I got rid of those Starmans and FFs and Alpha Flights years and years ago, I still own the individual issues of these better series that I bought, so long ago.

This was in the days before there were widespread collections – it was easy enough to find the Watchmen and V For Vendetta books, but I had to really search to find any issues of Doom Patrol and Animal Man. But, flush with money and free with the car, I found them.

Things calmed down a bit – I eventually found all the Swamp Things I needed, and I realised I didn't need all those bland superhero comics, and got rid of the vast majority, flogged off for cents in online auctions. I still made hundreds and hundreds of dollars out of it.

I settled into a steady pattern of monthly buying, followed by that dry patch somewhere around the turn of the century, and restarted it again with little effort.

There was only one more time I got a little crazy, and even though I am a proper adult now, it wasn't that long ago.

Seven years ago, the lovely wife and I moved to the biggest city in the country, and I was making more money than ever before, and we're a horrible smug couple with no kids, and I suddenly had access to three different comic shops, my first conventions and a huge amount of second-hand bookshops, and yeah, things got crazy again.

I wasn't just digging out the last Marshall Law I needed, or that copy of The Birth Caul I'd been after for years, I was hitting the dollar bins, and loading up on the past decade of mainstream and alternative comics, looking for the gold in the dirt, finally digging on Charles Burns and Joe Matt and Harvey Pekar and a dozen other talents.

And I was going to my very first conventions, and coming home with a back seat full of comics again, only this time there are dirt-cheap hardcover beauties and passionate little mini-comics mixed in with the Byrne comics.

I was still getting monthly fixes – the first regular comics I started getting in the city included The Boys and Morrison's first long Batman run – but I was also finding tonnes of comics I'd never even heard of before, and I was growing out of some particular comics, and into others, and the transitional period was surprisingly short.

I calmed down again after a year or so, and went back to the auction sites to dump most of the dollar purchases, and I only go that kind of crazy when we go to places like England, and return to NZ with bags stuffed with comic wonders.

Now I get about eight or nine regular comics every month, and usually some kind of nice-looking book or collection every couple of weeks, and I still go a little crazy at conventions, but that's just a couple of days a year.

A lot of the comics that get talked about on this blog floated into my collection during these flood periods, and after two years of the most recent madness, I opened the Tearoom of Despair, and all that enthusiasm and fanaticism bleeds out here.

A lot of stuff gets wiped away in these floods of comic enthusiasm, but the debris left behind is so rich, I'll never run out of things to get excited about.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The great comic drought of 1999

Buying new comics has been a weekly ritual since I was eight years old. If I don’t get some sort of comic fix every week, I get grouchy and grumpy. I know this is a stupid thing to do, but it happens, all the same. That’s how addiction works, and I’ve been fuckin’ addicted to comics for 35 years.

So there haven’t been many weeks since 1983 when I haven’t gone without some kind of new comic. There has almost always been 2000ad, (except for one notable exception), and I’ve often had a habit that has cost me more than $50 a week, (which, to be fair, is only about US$20 worth of actual comic). I still head along to the local shop every week, and if nothing new has come in, I always walk out with something – some long-desired back issue or shiny new trade. There’s always something new to try.

Even when I first moved out of home, and was totally broke, I still bought piles of second-hand comics from a local store, filling out runs of the 2000ad spin-off Crisis and John Byrne’s Superman run. I barely had enough money to eat, but I had enough money for those Action Comics team-ups.

The only times in recent years when I’ve gone more than a week without a comic fix is when I’ve gone travelling in foreign countries, and it proved impossible to find a comic shop in the Gobi desert, (although I still saw Tintin comics for sale, and would have bought one, if I didn’t already own them).

In fact, apart from the first few years of life, when I was more concerned with learning how to walk and not poop in my pants than who was drawing the X-Men, there has only been one time in my entire life when I went without any new comics for a significant period of time. It was one of the last great summers of my youth, and I’m still trying to catch up.

In late 1998, I was 23 years old, and I’d been out working almost non-stop for six years since leaving school, and I’d just moved back home and couldn’t find a job, so I got a flat with my best mates and we spent the whole summer on the dole - getting high, going swimming down the river and eating barbecue. Sometimes all at once.

It was the Last Great Summer Of My Youth, and I highly recommend it, especially if another good mate is living over the back fence and has a bloody big dope plant growing in his back garden. That was a good summer.

It was also a very, very poor summer. I had enough money to get loaded and have a good time, but I was stuck in a town with no comic shop, and no decent comics were available in the local bookstores anymore. I didn’t have the money to make any kind of regular mail order worthwhile, and I could only get on the internet for about half an hour a week, so I had little idea of what was even out there.

I had given up 2000ad a couple of years ago, and was right in the middle of a decade-long sabbatical from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic that I have regretted a million time since.  I wasn’t buying any of the few Marvel and DC comics that were in my area, and I’d even stumbled in the last stretches of much-loved comics like The Invisibles and Preacher. I wasn’t buying anything any more.

But I hadn’t given up on comics.

If ever there was a time when I could have walked away from comics for good, this was it. I went several months without getting anything new, and if that fascination with four-colour bullshit was ever going to die, this was it.

But I loved comics just as much as I ever did, and hungered for them just as much. I spent those long summer days reading back issues and dreaming of the cool comics I heard about, knowing I would catch up one day.

I was cut off from almost all comic culture, and was surprised by how I wasn’t worried about getting those last few issues of Preacher and The Invisibles, even though those two comics defined my nineties in a way no other comics did. I did get them all, and still managed to get the last issues of both series within days of their release, but I did end up reading those endings out of order, skipping around the climaxes.

But I knew I would catch up. I always knew the summer would end, and I've have lots of lovely new comics to seek out. That's how it always worked.

That summer ended a long time ago – round about the day the first Matrix film came out – and I ended up getting a proper job and buying my own comics again like an adult - but I’m still trying to track down some of the comics I missed that year.

The isolation means I have an undue fascination with the slightly weird new superhero comics that DC did around that time – things like Hourman, Major Bummer, Vext and Chronos, which all seemed to be waging a weird battle for setting the direction of DC over the next decade, (unfortunately, Geoff Johns and the JSA won that particular battle),  and I’m still fascinated with them

It means I missed out on both the Authority and Planetary, Warren Ellis’ best long-form comics, and it took me years before I scratched that itch. I saw little more than a few online reviews when they both launched, and it took me a couple of years to even tell the difference between the titles, and another five before I actually read the full stories, after indulging in bulk online purchases.

And it means I still think I’ve missed some of the various Luba-related comics that Beto pumped out at the time, and I’ve accidentally bought the same issue of Luba Comics And Stories three bloody times since.

I don’t regret that summer, and I managed to survive several months without new comic input, so I know I could do it again in the future, if I really had to. But I haven’t had to since, and unless I’m off somewhere remote and interesting around the world, there has been a regular fix.

It was a great fuckin’ summer, even without the comics, and it was nice to know I only grow more fond of them through their absence.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Am I a dick because I like Robot Chicken, or do I like Robot Chicken because I'm a dick?

Critical consensus can be a useful thing – the mass of thought that goes into multiple reviews of pop culture debris generally find some kind of common ground, where we can all agree that something is great, or rubbish.

It can take a while – it's always fascinating to watch the general opinion of a Stanley Kubrick movie shift over decades – but we can all concur on some things. Great films and TV shows become classics that last the ages, while the mediocre and disappointing vanish in time.

There is always dissent, and always a revolt against peer pressure. There is always somebody who dislikes The Godfather or Breaking Bad, and there is always somebody willing to stand up for The Spirit movie or The Big Bang Theory. Even if a lot of critics you trust dismiss something, doesn't mean you're guaranteed to hate it.

There are certainly some comics and TV and movies I like, even though all my cool friends sneer at them. Or do I like them because of the sneers?

It's easy enough to say you like something like Deadwood or Prophet – everybody can agree they're brilliant, and the few dissenters only give that majority some context. I can even get away with an undying love for Judge Dredd, even though he's a total fascist bully, on an argument of deep satire and exhilarating thrills.

It's harder to say you actually quite like comics by Frank Miller and Mark Millar, and I've failed to convince people in the real world that their work has any worth art all. People whose opinions I treasure as absolutely valid write these comics off as without merit and actively harmful, and I will never persuade them that they are beautifully illustrated nonsense, (and I do like some beautifully illustrated nonsense).

It's even harder when it's argued that these types of story are actually morally repugnant, because once you start seeing these comics as totally sexist and homophobic and racist, you'll never see them any other way. And there are valid points of view over institutionalised prejudice that should be closely examined, even if a surprising amount of critics can't see the satire in all the muck.

(I would like to re-iterate a point that I've made before: the people who sneer at the stuff I like are completely welcome to voice their opinion. I disagree on some fundamental things with my dearest loved ones – the Jarmusch argument is never going to be resolved in our household – so I can handle it if some critic on the other side of the world doesn't share my viewpoint.

My distaste is, as ever, directed at those who might agree with me, but want to shut the conversation down, or start playing the man instead of the ball. Other opinions should always be available, because that's how a free society works.)

While there are parts of these comics by Miller and Millar – and similarly loathed movies and TV shows- that I do find morally dubious, I'm still grown up enough to acknowledge that ethically dodgy moments in a story can also be viscerally exciting, and sometimes the two natures of the moment can work together to create something new.

Like all good people, I despise any kind of institutional prejudice, and I won't tolerate any story that is unequivocally in favour of that kind of status quo – Birth Of The Nation might be a technical marvel, but it can fuck right off with its KKK heroism. And I'll never put up with any story that truly sets out to bully people in the real world.

But that is the only line I really draw in the fiction I consume. I can enjoy things that are silly and stupid, if they're pretty enough, and I have a soft spot for anything that deliberately tries to offend people, or gross them out. After all, if you're going to try and be that kind of offensive, you might as well go all the way, or go home, (an attitude that makes something like Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit such a pleasure).

Some stories might be ideologically unsound, but as long as they aren't openly dicks about life and people, there is usually some worth.

I have read some appalling things in comics, as characters who are supposed to be horrible creatures show just how horrible they can be, but unless they're documentary or essay comics, I don't really get upset, because it's not real and – like almost everybody else on the planet - I can tell the difference between real life and fiction

Which is how I can be an ultra-pacifist who enjoys war stories, and somebody who abhors violence in the real world, but never gets sick of the way the human body is brutalised in The Raid 2.

And I sometimes, I just think that shit is funny as hell – I can find something totally fucking dubious and still laugh at it, because it is a total joke.

Which is a long, long way of saying I fucking love Robot Chicken, even when all my cool mates think it's dumb.

The most common criticism of Robot Chicken is that it always goes for the easy (and stupid) laughs, and is often doing nothing but nerd pandering. But that doesn't bother me. It's a harsh and stressful world out there, and at the end of a long day, I can use all the pandering to my tastes and easy laughs that I can get.

But I also have friends who refuse to watch it because they find it way too problematic. They only see sexist jock humour and tasteless gross-out humour, with a strong streak of misogyny and outright racism. It's not just some dudes fucking about with their toys on TV – it's a symptom of everything that's wrong with the world.

And if that's what they see, even if the creators had no such intentions, then that's a totally valid argument, and one I can't really argue against without sounding like a total tool.

So I leave it alone, and I don't talk about it with them, and I don't mention that I still watch it every week

Because I do find it funny, and when it's not funny, that's okay, because each sketch is literally seconds long, and another one will be along shortly. I still only get about three-quarters of the jokes, but my lovely wife only gets about a quarter of them, and she likes it just as much as I do.

It is a show that is genuinely tasteless and unrepentantly offensive, but I like things that push those envelopes, because if you're going to go down that road, you might as well go all the way.

The unusual effect of this is that the most distasteful things become incorporated into the mainstream, and we go from hysteria over the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to your Grandad watching some CSI bullshit every night, which is filled with gore that would make Gunnar Hansen hurl.

In it's own lowest common denominator way, Robot Chicken and its dorky puppets and ridiculous pop culture fascinations are heading down that road at top speed, and I'm all for it. This isn't the end of something, it's just the way the world works – always changing, always growing, always getting grosser in search of a good laugh.

It might sometimes be punching down when it should be punching up, and some of my dearest friends will never forgive it for that. And it might be the stupidest fucking thing I've ever had to defend ideologically, but fuck, Robot Chicken rules, man.

Monday, April 14, 2014


The first time I saw somebody die in a superhero comic, it freaked me the hell out.

I can remember the exact moment – I was only about six or seven, and reading a typical seventies Superman story, with the usual ultra-solid Curt Swan art, and a couple of men were standing guard over something when the bloody Parasite flew in out of nowhere, and turned the ground beneath the guards' feet into lava.

It was all very tasteful, they just fell into the ground and their helmets were left comically bobbing on the molten surface, and things carried on. I can't remember what happened in the rest of the comic, (although I can safely assume it involved Superman punching the crap out of the Parasite), but I never forgot that bit with the guards.

It was a fleeting moment in an insignificant comic, but it haunted me for ages, the way characters could die in horrible agony like that, in a bright and colourful superhero story.

People didn’t die in superhero comics. Did they?

Of course, I was only a little kid, so I was pretty damn na├»ve, and there was plenty of hideous death in superhero comics. But it wasn’t as prevalent as it is these days, where any average supervillian rampage is built on a pile of innocent bodies. There were still plenty of noble sacrifices and innocent tragedy, but it really wasn’t something you often found in the simplistic and clean world of an average Superman comic.

The funny thing is, I was reading a lot of 2000ad and horror comics at the same time, and wasn’t bothered by the carnage in them at all. I didn’t bat an eye when Dredd sentenced hundreds of millions of people in East-Meg One to death, and was similarly unmoved when the dinosaurs in Flesh chomped up annoying eight-year-old boys. These victims usually deserved their fate, and lived in scary worlds where sudden death always lurked.

They lived in harsher worlds, where there wasn’t a Superman who could swoop in and save them. The deaths could be just as horrific, but they weren’t as weirdly upsetting as seeing it happen in a Curt Swan comic.

I'm not really talking about the deaths of major characters – that stopped having any effect a long time ago, and seeing a superhero die is more likely to induce yawns than thrills. It can be funny to see creators insist that they really, really mean it this time, but they always come back, sooner or later.

It's the background characters, the random victims, the Z-list characters, that I still feel sorry for. They don't get any noble resurrection, or anything like that. They're just there to show how super serious things are getting, until you get to the point today where superhero comics gleefully wrack up huge body counts. There is barely an issue of a modern DC comic book that doesn’t have some kind of multiple homicide, usually for the sole purpose of pretending that characters with all the depth of a puddle of piss are actually totally badass.

There is so much carnage, it’s essentially meaningless. Massacres that would be world-changing news on Earth Prime are a weekly event in the modern superhero universe, and it doesn’t matter.

Modern comics are full of adolescent ideas about eye-for-an-eye retribution, delivered with massive buckets of gore, and it all means nothing. What’s the point?

It was a slow process, getting from Swan simpleness to overcomplicated megadeath. Ideas of mega-violence seeped in from alternative comics in the 1980s, while major action films of that time raced to have the biggest body count. Mark Gruenwald wasn’t a weatherman, but he knew which way the wind was blowing, and he made one of the first major pushes for real superhero carnage with Scourge.

Half of the characters in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition: Book Of The Dead from the late eighties were Scourge’s victims, and it was truly shocking to see a bunch of Marvel villains meet their end through Scourge’s explosive bullets at the Bar With No Name in Captain America #319.

It was so shocking, it’s been done a few hundred times since, which has diminished the effect slightly. The stakes kept getting raised, with less and less effect, until whole worlds were destroyed without mercy, and billions of people die.

There have been hamfisted attempts to show the impact of this carnage. Following the horrific events of September 11, American comic creators took that idea and crafted storylines specifically addressing these themes of the damage left behind.

Unfortunately, this led to little more than Civil War, in which the price of collateral damage from super-brawls was shown to be just too high. The basic idea was rock solid, and if Marvel hadn't been so intent on showing that pretty much everybody involved in the entire tale was a complete dickhead, it might have been easier to see the overall point. It also didn't help that there had been plenty of other terrible super-hero related disasters that everyone just got over quickly, and it was never fully explained why this one incident was the one that caused everyone to lose their collective shit. (The death of so many children was, unfortunately, precedented.)

But since then, any idea that we could see the full impact that super-hero battles might have had has been more or less ignored, and we're back to mass devastation, without those darned awkward consequences. Worlds will live and worlds will die, but seeing the deaths of our counterparts thrown away so casually is an unimaginative and simply horrific sight.

The DC Universe has a long and proud history of relying on carnage on a massive scale to move things along and give fake gravitas to the situation. Frankly, if I was a former resident of a place like Coast City, kicking back in the DC version of heaven where everybody hangs around on grassy plains looking at pretty waterfalls, I would be pretty fucking pissed that my death, and the deaths of all of those around me, served little purpose other than sending Green Lantern a bit mental for a little while.

Blowing up cities and worlds has been a staple of science fiction and super heroes for many years, and the biggest loss of life can be seen in the fatal-tastic Crisis On Infinite Earths, in which trillions of lives were lost to entropy, even if it was never made entirely clear whether these deaths actually happened, since the people involved ended up never existing in the first place.

But the sheer casualness of it all sits at odds with the much-vaunted realism of current comics. If we can have Superman break down into a teary, gooey mess every time he stubs his emotional toe, is it too much to spare a little sympathy or show some basic fucking human empathy when so many lives are casually wiped out in appalling comics like Countdown to Final Crisis, which killed billions in a futile bid to make Superboy Prime seem interesting?

After all, we can be talking about the extinction of all life on Earth, and while the DC Multiverse still has dozens of other duplicates, this does not excuse the carnage. While the few differences actually shown in the comics seem to go no deeper than the face under the superhero cowl, these worlds must surely have truly unique forms of art, literature and culture, that would be forever lost.

And the greatest tragedy must be the people themselves, the vast majority of whom would have nothing to do with super-heroes and their adventures, but who pay the ultimate price for them.

And the weird effect of all this is that the carnage just looks lazy. It's easy enough to have a room full of people machine-gunned to death in a random Batman comic, but when they're all doing it, it's just boring.

There are better ways of raising the stakes and intensity in a superhero comic. And if they cut back on the carnage a bit, to the point where it is shocking to see people die, it might actually mean something.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A strong Image

It didn't take long for Image to become a joke, back in the nineties. Within months of the publisher's founding, it had already built up a legacy of remarkably unprofessional behaviour and lousy, lousy comic books.

It even destroyed the whole perfect ideal of creator ownership – if only these artists could throw off the shackles of the big publishers they could do wonders, or they could do exactly the same shit they were doing before, only worse.

I still got the odd Image comic over the years, because there were always one or two gems worth following, but they floated in a river of utter shit. So I'm not just surprised that Image is still going strong 20 years later, I'm amazed that it's somehow, after all this time, become my favourite comic publisher.

I now get half a dozen Image comics a month, which is about half of my regular monthly input. I've never bought that many regular Image comics before.

It's not really due to any particular fondness for the publisher themselves, other than Image's commendable habit of getting the hell out of the creators' way, and letting them get on with it.

I dig the resurrected thrills of Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage and David Lapham's Stray Bullets, and the beautiful illustrated slices of Mark Millar's world that are Jupiter's Legacy and Starlight. I adore the existential noir thrills of Fatale, and Prophet is just peachy.

That first issue of the new Stray Bullets is an absolutely cracker – a brutal return to that brutal world, with a story that pulls no punches. It also does that Stray Bullets thing of skipping around all the major events and showing this harsh, strange world through the eyes of somebody who stumbles across the stories of blood and revenge, without ever getting – or needing – the full picture.

Despite the brutality, it's almost comforting to enter the world of Stray Bullets again, and it's certainly reassuring to read some new Minimum Wage as well. Fingerman's comics are still charmingly clumsy and unexpectedly heavy, but it's also a treat to see his old characters grow up a little, and realise they really are getting too old to be fuckin' about so much.

I like Mark Millar comics, which accounts for those other two Image titles I regularly get, and I'll follow Brubaker and Phillips onto anything, even if Fatale is finishing up soon.

As for Prophet....

Prophet is fucking awesome.

It's a dense, stylish and mindbending comic. Brandon Graham and chums have carved out a properly mental sci-fi epic, set thousands of years in the future, in a universe that has moved on without humans. It's the usual story of solid individuals standing up against a vast galactic empire, but it makes no concessions, or spends any time making sure you're keeping up with it, and that abandonment of strict narrative laws is simply liberating.

I often have no idea what just happened when I read a new issue of Prophet, and it can take months – and several re-reads – before I figure it out. When so many stories are so easily disposable, Prophet intellectually worms its way into the head. Hilariously, the only reference points are to old Rob Liefeld comics, but everything else is up for grabs – physical forms change and grow into monstrous unknowns, and even the food the characters eat is unrecognisable. This is no Star Wars, where seventies haircuts are still in fashion in another galaxy – there is little recognisably human here.

Graham has already proven adept at world building with his previous comics, but his collaborators are just as inventive, with the various artists creating these new worlds with imagination and style – it has one of the finest color palettes in modern comics, and whenever the art gets scratchy and unclear, it only adds to the complexity.

And those references to old Image comics reveal that Prophet has a great joke at the core concept – this smart, stylish comic is using some of the worst characters ever created in comics. They might have evolved over the millenia, but half of Youngblood is still running around the universe and getting into mischief.

This does occasionally give the comic some unexpected depth, as the weight of centuries is peeled back, and you remember that Die Hard was the one who was usually posing just in front of Badrock in some godawful comic you never could read, and that they've gone through so much since those long lost days (which are now two decades away from where we are now).

But it's mainly just really, really funny to see these characters re-purposed, and given such heft and passion. It makes a dent in the idea that there are just bad characters, instead of characters used badly, because there was nothing great or special about any of these creations, not until they raised their heads again under Prophet's alien skies.

The most impressive thing about Image in 2014 is that creator-led comics like the ones I pick up every week are the new norm – not the exception. Instead of building up vast, over-complicated universes of the same old shit, Image comics are often tightly self-contained visions of the world, offering up unique thrills and chills.

And there is such a wide variety, with something for everyone. I get these six, but that's just my tastes, and I could be buying half a dozen more if I had slightly more affection for respected creators like Kirkman, Rucka, Fraction or Hickman. Established creators like these writers and their collaborators are often visibly enjoying the ability to do what they really want, and new names are making their own mark. The fact that many of the Image series kick off with a dirt cheap collection also helps, as it makes it a lot easier to pick something up when you can get six issues of content for the price of two.

Some of the comics are blatant attempts to sell a TV or movie concept, but that doesn't mean they have to be awful comics, and one of the more notable legacies of the company is that it was founded by artists, and the artwork is, in general, pretty bloody good. The strong art varies in style and effect, but there is a lot more effort going into the visuals than you see at companies like Dynamite and Avatar.

There are still signs of the old Image around - McFarlane and Larsen are still there, laudably doing their thing through thick and thin, and there are those cheap thrills in seeing Suprema evolve into a being of light in Prophet.

But the modern Image, the one that offers up smart, stylish and self-contained stories, is the one that I find most attractive, and make it my favourite publisher. That's no joke.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Don't look back, (even if you've got an extra life)

If I had a time machine, the first thing I'd do is go back and talk to lost loved ones, one last time. All of space and time to choose from, and I'd still most like to talk to my Nana again.

The second place I'd go to is the Library of Alexandria, where I'd grab some of those scrolls before they were lost forever, because that's what Carl Sagan would do.

But the third thing I'd do is go back to a time when there was a Wizards video game arcade in every town in New Zealand, loaded down with old twenty cent pieces, and I'd play every damn video game they had.

Fortunately, you can't go back in time, because I know the past isn't as good as I remember. But while I can never, ever recreate that old rush, there is still an undying fondness for those dark, dingy dens full of beeping lights.

In those pre-Playstation days, playing video games at home was prohibitively expensive, unless you settled for a cheap Atari rip-off with six slightly different versions of Tennis on it.

But this was also the days when video game cabinets started appearing everywhere, in every city and every tiny town, and you only needed a tiny bit of change to play those, and if you did it right, you could make that change go a long, long way.

I spent a measurably large portion of the 1980s in video game parlours. Entire Friday nights and Sunday afternoons would disappear down the back of Lester's fish and chip shop. Whenever the family visited a different town, the second thing I would look for – after scouring the shelves of local daires and bookshops for comics – were the video games.

I didn't have any particular favourites, although I was never really a fan of any racing games. I liked the wrestling games, and the shoot-em-ups, and the puzzlers. I liked barbarian adventures a lot, especially Black Dragon and Rastan, and after months of practise, I could make twenty cents last hours. There were a couple of games that could even be played indefinitely. Once you knew the tricks.

The parlours were always slightly dodgy places, full of kids who stunk of cigarette and marijuana, and sneaked around the back to sip on rocket fuel. I saw at least three full on brawls in video game parlours, but I only had to step away from my game for one of them. Most of the time, you could just carry on.

The parents didn't really approve, but that was part of the fun, and it got me out of their hair for a while. Besides, I liked hanging with the dodgy kids – you always knew they might pull a knife on you one day, but they were usually funny and had great taste in music.

I spent years in those arcades, in towns all over the South Island. I played Galaga in Invercargill and the fancy new Star Wars game in Christchurch and Time Pilot everywhere.

These places faded away in the nineties, as it became possible to play games like Doom without going out the door, or spending a small fortune. They didn't all disappear overnight, but it was an inevitable disappearance.

There are still some parlours around today, but they're usually bright and sanitised oddities, offering up a pitiful selection of racing games, dancing things and big-gunned mayhem.

I still see the ghosts of all those old parlours, especially when I drive past the buildings now and see they've been turned into banks and cafes. I still mourn their loss, and those days long gone.

But I'm not going to try and recapture them, because that never works.

It would be easy enough to do – all those games I have such a fondness for are available. You can buy DVDs with hundreds of those eighties classics encoded into them, and there are plenty of websites that offer Flash recreations.

I've given in to the temptation a couple of times, and I played Rastan for the first time in more than 20 years the other day – and it was rubbish. Dull and repetitive gameplay, with graphics that were so much worse than I remember. I was bored in literally seconds. You can't go back

Because I'm not just chasing those old games, I'm chasing that sense of freedom and excitement I had when I did go arcade hunting in small towns on the arse end of the world. I'll never get that back again, even if I could go back in time and walk inside those lost parlours again.

It doesn't help that there have been several quantum leaps in video gaming technology over the past 20 years – after years of Grand Theft freedom and photo-realistic imaging, blocky pixels trapped in a platform format are just dull.

The simplest games are always the most addictive, but not if you have to squint at the screen to see what is going on.

It's like going back and watching the TV you liked as a kid. As a grown man, I've been pleasantly surprised by how well things as random as The A-Team or The Young Ones have held up over the years, but then I catch 10 minutes of Knight Rider or The Dukes Of Hazzard, and I'm bummed out by how bad they are – they were once my favourite things ever, but now they're unwatchable. The production and storytelling quality that we take for granted these days weren't always there.

It's worth noting that movies and comics fare better in this regard. Great movies never date - I watched Blade Runner for the first time in years the other day and it was just as spectacular and cool and thoughtful as it always was. Great movies are immortally good, and it's always a pleasure to see them again.

Great comics are also timeless - Kirby's most energetic work still has more power than anything the main comic companies are publishing today. I still read a lot of comics and watch a lot of movies for almost purely nostalgic reasons, but old stuff can still be genuinely and objectively good.

But while I associate these great pieces of entertainment with the theatres, houses and streets where I first experienced them, the appeal of all those old game parlours was always about the place, and their strange, wonderful appeal.

I can't go back and play those games in those places again, and that's okay. The fondness for that time and that place and the feel of a perfect joysticks will never fade away, but that's all right as long as it's just a fondness, rather than an obsession that I'm still chasing.

I'm not the dorky teenager hanging around the video games any more. I have new ways of finding those thrills, even if I'm not hanging around with the dodgy kids anymore, and something to feel fond about in another few decades

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Things to do

The lovely wife is away all this week, and I'm falling apart in misery and reverting to bad behaviours. Which means I'm spending the whole week sitting on the sofa, eating bad food and watching lots and lots of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I'm certainly not in the right frame of mind to be blogging properly, so instead of writing the usual bullshit, I'd rather suggest nine other things that you could be doing with your time.

1. Listen to Garth Ennis talk about his comics

Ennis' comics may have a well-deserved reputation for gross laughs and ridiculous violence, but they can also be genuinely thoughtful and moving, and it's always a pleasure to listen to the man talk about his work.

This recent hour-long video interview is a fantastic discussion of his recent works, and while it's great to hear that he will be doing more Punisher comics and a lot more War Stories, it's more interesting to hear him talk about his own fondness for some of characters that he has created over the years...

2. Watch Drug War

Another fine recommendation from the gentlemen at the fantastic Travis Bickle On The Riveria podcast. I might not choose it as my favourite film of the year, but it's a super straight-up, super-tight story that doesn't waste any time getting to the point, and isn't worried about leaving slower members of the audience behind.

Plus, those deaf-mutes are totally badass.

3. Read the new Nemo comic

The latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic from Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is actually a fairly simple story of blood and revenge, because all Nemo stories are about blood and revenge. The complicated continuity of the League's world is starting to get top-heavy, and the mix of real life uber-assholes like Hitler and Mussolini with their fictional equivalents really doesn't work that well.

But it's worth reading to drink in O'Neill's marvellous architecture, as he creates a Nazi Metropolis of impossibly tall gothic statues and infinite levels of fear and loathing. O'Neill letting lose on buildings that can't possibly exist remains one of the real pleasures of modern comics.

4. Listen to the Flaming Lips do Dark Side of the Moon

Every now and then, I become absolutely convinced that Dark Side Of The Moon is the greatest album that was ever created. It doesn't last that long, and I usually go into another heavy punk phase as I rebel against all that seriousness and complexity and madness, but I'm certainly in a Floyd hole right now.

Fortunately, instead of listening to the album over and over and over again, I can now easily find other cover versions of the album. They're never as good – never as pure – as the original, but they're often surprisingly listenable, and sometimes they come close to being as strong as the album.

The Flaming Lips have probably come the closest.

5. Go for a walk

It's a lovely day outside.

6. Start reading BPRD

Seriously, it's so damn good.

And Howards – a mild-mannered and scrawny agent who happens to have CONAN THE BARBARIAN living in his head – is my new favourite character in anything.

7. Stay up until four in the morning watching full-length stand-up comedy shows on YouTube.

Because what's the point in going to bed, if she's not there?

8. Read something new

I have an entirely rational fear of getting stuck in a rut when it comes to new entertainments. Reading the same old comics, the same old authors, the same old music.

It got particularly bad with my novel reading recently, when I couldn't remember the last time I read something that wasn't by Kim Newman or George R R Martin or Philip Jose Farmer (or wasn't another bloody Doctor Who book). So I got my mate Kelly, who works at the local library and is incredibly well-read, to offer some suggestions, and now he gets random novels put aside for me, and I don't know what they even are until they show up on the hold shelf.

It's so good. I've enjoyed a couple of Pete Dexter books (and Kelly really blows my mind when he says things like 'Yeah, you notice how the guy in Train never actually says he's a cop?'). I burned through the easy thrills and pop culture stauration of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and now I'm knee-deep in some of Kem Nunn's surf noir.

If you get stuck in the same rut, ask your most well-read mates for suggestions, and then make them make you read them. You won't regret it.

9. Watch some Twin Peaks

At her previous job, my lovely wife was given a giant man-shaped cushion with the faces of Eric and Alcide from True Blood on it as a promotional item, because that's the sort of thing she would get. It now sits in our living room, stuffed in behind the sofa, and sometimes when I'm walking around the house late at night, I see a glimpse of Alcide and his beard and long hair peeking around the edge of the sofa in the gloom, and every time it reminds me of the moment in Twin Peaks Laura Palmer's Mom remembers seeing evil Bob peeking out from under the bed, and I swear I hear the Man From Another Place saying “Wow, Bob! Wow!” in the back of my head.

Fuckin' Twin Peaks, man. It's still as swell as ever.