Monday, June 30, 2014

Messy comic shops are the best comic shops

The comic shop that is depicted in the first issue of Evan Dorkin's recent Eltingville Club series is a horrible, horrible place. And it's horrible because it's true.

There are really places like that – where females are made to feel incredibly uncomfortable, where a mean owner gouges kids out of their pocket money, selling them shit and sneering at them for buying it.

There really are comic shops that are just filthy, and dirty, and smelly, and actively intolerant of anything outside their meagre sphere of experience or taste. Dorkin's excellent comic is a spot-on portrait of all the worse aspects of a comic book shop – a place of sneering and unwelcome dishonesty built on a bedrock of undeserved entitlement.

There are comics shops like that out there. I've been to a few of them. Fortunately, while this type of store was once the norm, it is now very much an exception, and there are lots and lots of other kinds of comic shops as well.

I literally travel the world to see what the comic shops in Stockholm and Sacramento and Ulan Bataar are like. After an adolescent starved of any kind of comic store, I've been to dozens and dozens in the past decade. Comic shops are always my favourite shops, and I've always got an eye out for a new one. I will literally cross the world to check one out.

Some of them were the fleapits seen in Dorkin's comic. Dark, dirty stores with surly staff that couldn't be more unwelcoming, with poor selections of worthy comics, carrying the same old crap as everybody else and refusing to even entertain the notion of changing their ways.

But out of all the comic shops I've been to, those kind of stores are the definite minority – certainly less than a tenth of all the shops of visited. Those kind of places can survive for years on a cliente who rumble on through sheer inertia, but they also drive away new business, and they easily vanish.

The vast majority of comic stores I've been to have been bright, friendly businesses with knowledgeable and helpful staff. They may have a different focus on a different kind of customer, but they all share an honest urge to help their customers find the comics they're after.

All of these places are clean and tidy and welcoming to any new face. The cliché of the nerd fortress is built on some truth, but it's not the reality for most comic shops.

And while they all share a professional, clean and friendly attitude to selling funny books, they are all slightly unique. Many stores don’t bother with anything that isn’t produced by the biggest publishers, others only have a cursory selection of Marvel and DC comics. Some have exceptional Manga libraries, other stores might have unexpected Doctor Who or Star Trek collections to sell off.

Some stores devote a huge amount of space to kid’s comics, or hipster delights, or sword & sorcery nonsense. Some actively court new female readers by making the stunningly simple move of offering them something they will actually want to read. (This is a controversial approach, but pretty damn effective.)

None of these stores are going about things the right or wrong way, they’re just offering up different things to different customers, and making a living where they can.  Who can blame them for that, even if they don’t offer everything you might be after?

I like all of these stores, and I usually find something worthwhile in every single one I go into, and I’m proud to support them as much as I can.

I like the bright, inviting and clean stores, and I like the way they demolish stereotypes of the unwelcome nerd enclave. But my favourite stores, the ones I really do travel the Earth in search of, are the messy ones.

When I say messy, I don’t mean filthy or dirty, I just mean a store that has a lot of weird, esoteric product. Things I’ve only heard about, or seen ads for decades ago, or didn’t even know existed.

I’ve been reading comics for more than three and a half decades, and have literally read tens of thousands of issues over the years. But the world of comics is vast, with hundreds of talented writers and artists creating thousands of brilliant comics for almost a century. As much as I read, and as much as I discover, there is always more. As much as I think I know, there is always more.

And that’s why I like the messy stories best, because that’s where I find these things. Things I’d never even heard of, even with favoured creators involved. A well-organised store is good if you know what you are looking for, but a messy store is where you find the things you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Messy stores have things like piles of pristine Bronze Age comics stacked in a corner, going for insanely cheap prices. And messy stores are where you stumble across pieces of brilliance that completely avoided your radar – early printings of lost collections, small press gems, unknown reference books and the strangest of mini-comics.

They can also be places where you can load up on beloved comics without having to mortgage the house - these are the sort of places where I can load up on early issues of Peter Milligan's Shade The Changing Man and John Ostrander's Suicide Squad for fifty cents each.

Messy stores can also be gross stores, and that can be off-putting to civilians. They’re never going to be that welcoming, by their very nature, because they are full of piles of weird esoteric stuff that could put off anyone. But they can also be friendly, cosy places, where new customers are given free rein to rummage for four-colour gems.

In all my travels, I’ve found a few perfectly messy comic shops. They’re out there in Sydney and Amsterdam and Dublin. I thought I found another one in Brisbane the other week, but it was bloody closed. I was gutted, because they really are rarer than the awful shops like the one in the Eltingville comic.

But I still keep looking. These are the shops I dream about,  and hunt for, and it's a hunt that never gets old.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art and drawing

I read comic books before I could read, but any ambitions I had of being an actual artist died years ago, at a very young age. I was only seven, so I'd only been at school a couple of years, and I could draw a mean stick figure, but I swiftly discovered any attempts to go beyond that were total failures.

I kept drawing, because that's something that little kids do, and I was a particular fan of scrawling out these weird, massively complicated battle scenes involving crashing aircraft and rope bridges over rocky chasms. I could also draw a pretty wicked TIE fighter.

But there was no illusions of talent. The figures I crammed into those battle scenes were weird blooby things that looked more like Slimer from Ghostbusters than actual people, and I could never draw that TIE fighter at any angle other than straight or side-on.

Even as a dumb little kid, I could see how clumsy my efforts were- lines don't go where I bloody well wanted them to, things never connected with any life and it was just horribly amateurish drivel.

It was painful, and I desperately tried to bring my pictures to life, but the line was never quite in the correct place, and I could never get the goddamn noses right, and it was frustrating as hell, and an awfully young time to realise that you might actually never be all that good at some things.

Getting together the right words was always easier, you can say almost anything with words. But you can do even more with words and pictures and I was crippled with a lack of any artistic talent.

So as a life-long comic reader, I remain in awe of anybody who can pull images together to tell a story. That still doesn't stop me being a judgemental prick about it.

Art appreciation is always subjective, but as long as you know what you like, and why you like it, then you're never wrong.

In terms of comic book art, my tastes have rarely changed, and I've always liked artists that can draw a good punch. My tastes are simple enough to easily define, but broad enough to take in all sorts. Above all, I like simple, smooth lines, artists like Jaime Hernandez, Steve Yeowell and Alan Davis, whose work always has a luscious fullness and depth, creating the slickest of slick art.

I’m in love with that silky clean line, and can never ever get enough of it. I've always loved art that uses it, and I always will.

But the wonderful thing about this vast and strange medium of comics is that there is a bewildering variety of styles and  techniques, an infinite canvas of possibility as artist after artist after artist refines their style and work, and create something out of nothing.

And I like a lot of them, and while the smoothest art – which also includes artists like Will Eisner, Jim Aparo, Amanda Conner, Alex Toth, Adam Hughes, Mark Buckingham and Darwyn Cooke - is the tastiest, I adore all sorts.

I love the bright grotesque deformations of Kevin O’Neill, Walt Simonson, Peter Bagge and Mike McMahon, and I love the world-outside-your-window realism of Bryan Hitch, Neal Adams and Alex Ross.

I love the sharp certainty of Brian Bolland, Wally Wood, George Perez, Dave Gibbons, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and John Cassady, and I love the visceral energy of a Jack Kirby or Goseki Kojima or Stuart Immonen or Paul Pope or Jill Thompson or John Romita Jr page. 

I love the round faces of a John Byrne, Carmine Infantino, Colleen Doran, Keith Giffen or Jim Lee character, and I love the deep and heavy blacks that seep off the page in Frank Miller and Mike Mignola’s work. 

I love the scratchy detailing and relentless effort in the artwork of Frank Quitley, Arthur Adams, Robert Crumb, Carlos Ezquerra, Evan Dorkin, Joe Kubert and Bryan Talbot.

I love the stiff, precise and exact constraints of Steve Ditko, Curt Swan and Geoff Darrow, and I love the fierce experimentation of a Bill Sienkiewicz or Jim Steranko or Dave McKean or Moebius or David Mazzucchelli,

I love the rock-solid professionalism that doesn't leave a line out of place that you see in Gil Kane, Jeff Smith, Ramona Fradon, Michael Allred, Osamu Tezuka, Steve Dillon and John Buscema's work, and I love the simple, clear nightmares that exist just beneath the surface of an Alison Bechdel, Dan Clowes, Dave Sim, Chris Ware or Charles Burns page.

And those are just my absolute favourites - there are literally hundreds and hundreds of other artists I adore and enjoy, from Aragones to Wireingo, and that's why I'll never get sick of comics, because there is always something new and beautiful to look at. Always something new to discover. Always something cool to look at.

I can even appreciate artists that aren't to my tastes, as long as they have that distinctive and consistent style. I might not always like the way their line moves, but I can always acknowledge the effort, and appreciate that other people might dig it.

What I can't abide is anonymous, dull art. A painful amount of monthly comic books are saddled with tenth-generation Jim Lee clones, pages of over-rendered nonsense, dubious colouring effects used to try and hide deficiancies in anatomy and panel-to-panel progression.

If your work doesn't stand out, if your art doesn't represent a specific point of view on this overcrowded Earth, then why bother? My artistic skills have still not progressed far beyond the odd stick figure, but I still feel qualified enough to recognise the shit, and avoid it as much as possible.

I never stopped trying to draw, even with a singular lack of talent. I still took art classes well into High School, and I still sit there today, doodling away in my notebook during important meetings at work. It never turns out right. I can't make the pictures do what I want.

And I still can't get the noses right, but it's always fun to try.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Things to do when you're alone

I racked up too much holiday time at work, mainly because I kept working through public holidays. I had so much they made me take a week off. There are worse problems to have.

But the lovely wife has just started a new job, so she can't get any time off, so we can't go anywhere. I was stuck at home, with nothing to do all week.

I could think of a few things to do, and I made a list to keep track of it all.

1. Read Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard

I've been happily visiting the world of Anno Dracula since I stumbled across the first book in the Timaru library in the mid-nineties, and I just stumbled across the latest book in the Auckland library in the mid-nows, and I still don't get all the references, but I do get the jokes.

2. Watch the first 10 minutes of Raising Arizona again

If I was stranded on a desert island and could only have 10 minutes of entertainment for the rest of my life, it would be this 10 minutes.

3. Sort out some comics

Even after numerous purges, there are still piles of weird comics in the cupboard – boxes full of things like the Exploits of Spider-Man and strange horror comic reprint things printed on toilet paper.

I keep telling myself I'll get rid of them this time, but those horror things still freak me out on a fundamental level, and I can't get rid of anything that actually affects me like that, not in this world of blessed superficiality. And the Exploits of Spider-Man was a 100-page reprint thing from the UK that I bought for a while in the early nineties, and they're full of horrible things like Motormouth, but they're also full of early Ditko Spider-Man and shit, if I can't get rid of my Wizards, I'm not getting rid of the only Ditko Spider-Man I have to hand.

4. Watch all the Bourne films

The second best thing about the Bourne films is that they're about the idea that compasison is a virus, and that once it infects a super-serious assassin, it's going to spread through all the other super-serious assassins, and they all can learn to be human again.

The best thing about the Bourne films are the fight scenes.

5. Read Preacher

Damn, it must be nearly a decade since I read Preacher. No reason for this, but something worth rectifying.

6. Put 2000ads in order

There are something like 1800 individual issues of 2000ad and several hundred other Megazines, sci-fi specials and annuals sitting the corner of the spare room, and it's a pile that is only growing.

Keeping them in some semblance of order is a constant process.

7. Go for a walk

It's cold outside, but it gets the fuckin' blood pumping. And that last Queens of the Stone Age album is EXCELLENT walking-around-town music.

8. Start watching Mad Men again

It's always interesting to see how it takes great actors a little while to get into great roles. Jon Hamm is a lot less glacial as Don Draper in the early episodes, although Vincent Kartheiser's Pete Campbell is a proper shit, right from the start.

There is a long way to go until that sublime song and dance number, but it's a hell of a ride.

9. Go visit family in Australia for the weekend, if doesn't take all weekend to get there.

And if, you know, you have family in Australia.

10. Go check out Brisbane comic shops while you're over there, and pick up some sweet comics like Jack Kirby's Spirit World hardback and that recent Thanos annual because it feels like a lost chapter of the Infinity Gauntlet, and then go to that one shop that had a bunch of crazy old shit in it, but it's inexplicably closed, so you hang around for half an hour in case the owner comes back but he never shows so you're left out in the rain and it's the worst thing ever.

If, you know, you can be arsed.

11. Eat lots and lots of home-made pie

Australians are a wonderful people, but they can't make pies for shit. I keep trying them, and they're constantly disappointing.

Fortunately, the lovely wife is very, very good at making pies.

12. Try and watch Her again

I can't get past half an hour of Her, even though people with impeccable taste keep telling me it's great. I'm just sick of films about sensitive dorks.

Speaking as a sensitive dork, who was literally getting all weepy five minutes ago at the beauty of Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission, I can honestly say I don't want to watch movies about me. I'd much rather watch Jason Statham films.

13. Watch 36 episodes of Louie

On the other hand, I can't get enough of this sensitive dork.

14. Read more Kem Nunn books

Because Kem Numm books are good.

15. Stay up all night watching new music videos

Because nothing on Earth makes me feel older than a lack of pop music knowledge.

16. Watch more films starring Emily Blunt or Eric Bana.

I will watch anything with these actors in them.


I just think they're peachy.

17. Go to the pub and watch some football

I don't give a flying fuck about the football world cup, but it's still easy to get into the individual games, if you sit down and watch the whole thing. Some of them have been absolute corkers, and you don't have to have a stake in the thing to appreciate the skills.

I do care about the rugby, and the England team have been bloody strong on their NZ tour this year, but they're still not strong enough.

18. Watch Hammer House of Horror


19. Go to some random second hand bookshop in town and dig around to see what you can find.

The last time I did this, I got some Best of Drawn and Quarterly collection from 1993, with some terrific comics by Doucet, Drechsler, Fleener, Kuper, Matt, Mazzucchelli, Sala, Seth and loads more, for two bucks. Score!

20. Catch up on some blog posts

Yeah. I totally failed at this.

21. Do nothing

Sometimes I just like to sit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I'm on holiday and my head is still not full

I'm on enforced holiday, and that theoretically means I should have more time to sit and write more witty, thoughtful and blog posts. In reality, I can't be fucked and I'd rather sit around and read comics all day long.

Because my head is not yet full.

My head is not yet full 
Originally posted January 31, 2013 

I was having a few drinks with some comic-literate people a few weeks ago, and talk inevitably swerved in the direction of the Nth Man. A late eighties military-porn comic with disturbingly metaphysical machinations, the Nth Man only lasted about a year, but is still fondly remembered by some.
Well, by me, anyway. I have every issue in a box behind me and after talking about it again here, I’m probably going to end up digging it out and reading the whole damn thing again tonight. I really dig the action scenes, and the way the title character remained unmovably driven, even when reality goes all skew-whiff

So when somebody in the group was adamant that it was the work of Chuck Dixon, I was even more unwavering in my argument that it was written by Larry Hama, because I knew I was right, and didn’t have to resort to Wikipedia to verify it. The fact that the Nth Man was created by Larry Hama and Ron Wagner was an indisputable fact, lodged away somewhere in my brain.

So I had to convince everybody that Hama was the proper writer, by showing off my Hama knowledge, dwelling mostly on his GI Joe and Wolverine work, but also making a point of mentioning his appearance on M*A*S*H.

When I was done, I saw a familiar look on one guy’s face, and heard the inevitable question – how did I know all this shit?

And I just felt like somebody from Eltingville. I don’t know how I know all this shit.

I just do.

I’m sometimes concerned by the amount of trivia in my head, at the amount of completely useless bullshit bouncing around my brain-box. This can’t be healthy.

Without resorting to any reference work, I could give fairly details biographies of minor characters like Drax the Destroyer and Dum Dum Dugan, and I know who created Nightcrawler and Shanna The She Devil. I could name most of the members of the Suicide Squad, and I know Ambush Bug’s real name.

I know what comics were edited by Dez Skinn and Archie Goodwin, and I know who published Mister X.

I can still name a half a dozen characters from Ghost World without cracking open the book, and if you gave me a piece of paper, I could probably name at least three dozen residents of Palomar. I know more about Knuckles the Malevolent Nun than is really healthy and, given time, could probably name every single series that ever appeared in 2000ad. In order.

Is this healthy, having a brain full of this stuff? And if it isn’t, how come I keep shovelling more in?

I do sometimes run into people who have far more comic knowledge than me, and I would only do okay in any Eltingville trivia-off. And when it comes to wider society and other pursuits, I’m far from alone. I have friends who possess breathtaking knowledge of music or wrestling or a particular sports team. Many people have incredible enthusiasms. And even though I know a lot about film and television, comics are my thing.

This isn’t so bad, and I only feel a freak about the amount of comic shit I know now and then. I’ve also just been listening to an old-ish interview with Patton Oswalt, where he talked about the virtues of being enthusiastic about things – even massively unimportant things – because who wants to really walk through life with nothing more than a shrug and a ‘meh’?

But surely all this information could have been put to good use. If I had dedicated that mind-storage space to academic work, or towards more creative endeavours, who knows what could have happened? Do I really need to know all this crap? Shouldn’t I have used that energy to improve my station in life?

On the other hand, it doesn’t do any real harm, and I’m always up for more. I recently bought a bunch of Comics Journal back issues, and have used them to pour even more data into my head.

(A brief aside concerning the surprisingly small world of comics in this part of the world – I bought the Journals blind in a Trademe auction on the internet, and the seller turned out to be the gorgeous Matt Emery, who was using the sales cash to get more of those lovely Dan Dare books he was talking about here. How ‘bout that?)

I just finished reading issue TCJ #210, an issue from 1999 which I’d been after for ages, largely because it featured the fairly controversial 100 Best Comics of the Century. I knew that the list had pissed off a lot of people, but I’d never read it for myself, until I got this chance.

And I loved it – it was a curiously dated list, and it’s fascinating to look at what was fashionable in comics criticism at the tail end of the 20th century, and I kinda wish the Journal folk would do another one, just to compare the differences (For instance, I doubt Understanding Comics would crack the top 50 again) The list is also full of really good writing about really good comics, but the thing I loved most about the list was the number of comics I hadn’t even heard of.

I’ve now found room in my brain for things I didn’t even know existed a week ago. There are now files in the system inside my head for Harvey Kurtzmann’s Jungle Book and Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum and Jack Jackson’s Los Tejanos and Carol Tyler’s The Hannah Story and Krigstein/Feldstein’s Master Race and Kurtsman/Elder’s Goodman Beaver and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. And those files definitely need further elaboration.

To be fair, those were the only comics on the list I hadn’t actually heard of before, but that’s a shocking lack of knowledge on my part. I thought I knew a lot, but I don’t know shit, and that’s something to rectify.

It isn’t a limitless pit inside there, and some things inevitably slip out. I’m a lot vaguer on things like Ron Marz’s Green Lantern comics, or the finer points of the Omega Men, than I used to be. I get a sadistic enjoyment out of reading old issues of Wizard I bought in 1994, because they often remind me of things I had forgotten all about.

Things fade over time, but it’s only the mediocre and bland comics that get forgotten. I never forget all the good stuff.

Unfortunately, my definition of the “good stuff” is disturbingly broad, encompassing everything from deeply esoteric art comics to the latest X-Men comics, so while some stuff slips away, most of it just gets piled up on top of old knowledge, stretching the brain’s capacity to fit in more information about Quentin Quire.

In real life, I do try to hide how much bullshit I really know – one of the reasons for this blog is an opportunity to show off how much crap I know, without freaking out normal folk with my babbling on about Jim Sterenko or the comics in Doctor Who magazine or the history of Jonah Hex.

But sometimes I can’t help myself, especially when somebody is patently wrong about a known fact. I won’t be able to help myself then, or any time the talk turns to the Nth Man again.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Hellblazed: The dull second life of John Constantine

I kept putting off reading the final issues of Hellblazer. I didn't want it to be over – it was only 300 issues old.

The last few years of Hellblazer were surprisingly strong, certainly the best thing that Peter Milligan has done in the past few years, as Milligan's ageing working class dandy aesthetic found a suitable outlet in this cranky old character named John Constantine.

I've always had a deep fondness for John Constantine, ever since I first saw him mentioned in a Teen Titans comic, and the Hellblazer was a powerful gateway drug, taking me by the scruff of the neck and dragging me away from juvenile superhero comics and into a weird and wild world of adult comics.

I came to Hellblazer halfway through the Ennis run, and I was 19, and that was the perfect time for a bit of nihilistic magik fun, and I snapped up every issue of the comic I could find. There was no comic shop anywhere near me, so I would drive hundreds of kilometres to catch up on issues because I loved the weird twists, the sharp art and the gross horror. And I friggin' loved John Constantine.

The Trickster figure is always charming – that's always his best trick – but Constantine has always been a bit more than that. He's some relief from the ponderous worlds of demons and wizards, always ready to bring the arrogant down to size, always ready with a cheap line.

He came from a world of punk and low class, and that just made him more attractive as a character. He usually tried to do the right thing, and sometimes he was a right bloody coward, but he almost always won his games. He just always had to pay a high price.

I really do think John Constantine is the best corporate-owned fictional comic character created in the past 30 years – (oh shit, is it more than 30 years now?) - and that gave Hellblazer the strength to survive long enough to become DC's highest numbered title. It was only 300 issues old, but I guess that's still a lot of comics.

I drifted in and out of Hellblazer here and there over the past two decades, and I really didn't like some runs – Carey's stuff never really connects with me; and loved some others – Ellis' few issues were perfect blend of author and character, until he found that a book that should be able to do anything actually had some limitations after all.

Milligan wrote the comic for the last few years of the title, and with the capable help of artists like Giuseppe Camuncoli and The Biz, put a bit more fire in the belly of this late middle-aged character. The world might be getting younger, but Constantine was still cool.

The reinvigoration of the character got a bit bloody blatant when Constantine married a far, far younger woman, but Epiphany was a joy, happily revelling in the clich̩ of the younger woman with the much older man, and she was never a dull damsel in distress Рshe could take care of herself, and stand up to her husband's worst tenancies.

It was still razor sharp stuff, right up to the final issues, and it wasn't that much of a surprise when it was announced that it was coming to an end. It was a shame, but no shock.

It ended on a curiously tired note, with Constantine giving in to fatalism. He's still so sharp he can see his own cancellation coming, and there is nothing to be done. In the story, he can't ignore all the signs that he is going to die – for real this time - and he barely puts any effort into cheating his way out of this one. Beating the devil is easy enough, but nobody in his universe can beat the Time-Warner accounting department.

I also found it curiously melancholic, because this was the last link to a long-gone continuity - this is the same character who was bombing around with Swamp Thing in the 1980s, and while he has had little to do with superfolk for decades, this just means that Constantine avoided all the reality reboots that have twisted the DC Universe into something barely recognisable.

But all that's over now. Constantine is back in the 'proper' DC Universe, doing his thing with the usual cynical smirk.

And they're just awful comics, bereft of imagination and style. I still like John Constantine, but now that he's been roped back into the endless cycle of fight-death-rebirth-fight that is the modern DC Universe, I can't read his comics at all.

The ironic thing is that like the recent revamp of Lobo, the new version of Constantine is actually more like the original version of the character - John started out messing around with super conflicts, which is how he ended up in Teen Titans comics - but like the new Lobo, it ignores the fact that this is a surprisingly versitile character because it's broken out of that original template.

Even this could be all right if the Constantine comics now being published weren't as bland as any of DC's regular titles. The same scratchy detailing as every other comic, the same bright, boring colour scheme.

And the same lack of imagination, as Constatine throws around verbal curses and shots energy beams from his fingers.There is nothing new or exciting here. He's just wearing new gloves.

I finally read the last few issues of Milligan's run this week. I really didn't want it to be over, but all things must pass.

There is a nice joke, in that it could be interpreted that Constantine's final trick in the final pages of the final issues mean his newly-revealed nephew is going to inherit the name and continuity, that Constantine has defeated cancellation by taking himself out of the story altogether, leaving the young pretender in his place.

But that's stretching things, and even if it's true, it's a grim joke, because the new version is just a pale imitation. I can let Hellblazer go, and it's proving terribly easy to let Constantine go as well.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dogged: The strange second life of Johnny Alpha

Despite having one of the goofiest looking helmets in all of comics, Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog, is one of 2000ad's toughest characters. Born in the nuclear wasteland, dedicated to righting wrongs and seeing justice done, and despised by polite society, Johnny always got the job done.

It's the closest thing to a Western 2000ad ever had, a bounty hunter on the frontier of humanity, moulded in a brutal civil war, bringing law to the lawless. He had some trusty pals, and some bitter enemies, but he was never cruel, and he was never a bully. (He was also British, but nationalism doesn't mean anything out among the stars.)

Alpha died more than twenty years ago, sacrificing his life to save a bunch of working class mutant kids, and the story went on without him, before fizzling out after a couple of years. He came back about a decade ago, in all-new stories set long before his noble sacrifice, and they were terrific stories, mainly because they were produced by creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. But they still had a whiff of pointlessness. Once you knew how he was always going to end up, it didn't seem to matter so much any more.

But this is a science fiction comic book, and death can be solved in six-page chunks of bollocks dialogue,and Johnny Alpha came back to life, thanks to the efforts of his old mate Middenface McNulty.

(For a while, it did look like McNulty was giving his life away in returns for Alpha's, and I genuinely mourned the Scots legend, but then he survived anyway, literally because ancient god creatures found him charming and amusing, and he's still happily alive and kicking at the end of the most recent story.)

So Johnny was back, and there was even a Doghouse again, full of other mutant bounty hunters, and it would have been dead easy for the story to fit back in its old groove. You could have Johnny looking off into the middle distance every now and again as he contemplated the existential angst of his rebirth, but he could also get out there into the galaxy and do what he does best.

It would have been so easy to take that step backwards, so Wagner and Ezquerra did something else instead, and took the story a step forward into strange and slightly unsettling new territory.

Instead of using his Number Four Cartridge to take down disgusting villians on dusty planets, Alpha sparked the second great mutant uprising when he discovered that the Norm government had been secretly sterilising the mutant population with tainted food aid. Faced with extinction, Alpha and his mutant army went on a full-on offensive, determined to see those responsible face justice for their genocidal crimes.

The last round of Johnny Alpha stories dealt with the final battles of this war, with atrocities mounting on both sides, and it was full of action and passion, but it was also weirdly awkward and callous and confusing.

Ever since his return from the dead, the Strontium Dog stories are all over the place – the politics are dodgy, there are murderous dicks on both sides of the fight, and there is no status quo to grab onto. Dredd has his ups and downs, but he always has the city, and the other Judges, and the Law – Alpha’s latest war is little more than an angry cry in the dark.

Some parts of the stories are simplistic enough – when a bunch of racist American redneck Nazis show up towards the climax of the war, it’s enormously satisfying to see Johnny and his friends slaughter them without mercy. But there are also grimly funny moments, like when Johnny is talked out of massacring a bunch of old men, women and kids by Middenface, and then everyone just walks off as a group of prisoners of war are brutally executed behind them.

This is the hardest pill to swallow in the return of Johnny Alpha – if this character loses his sense of natural justice, then there is no hope for anybody. Middenface remains the voice of righteous reason – the fool is always right – but Johnny bloody Alpha shouldn’t have to be told the difference between right and wrong.

But the strangest thing about it is that it isn’t mischaracterisation, or lazy storytelling or anything like that. There are moments when Alpha acknowledges that he came back wrong, that he should have been left dead, because he isn’t the man he was. He did come back with a smoke monster living in his brain, and when he pushed that out into space, it looked like he could revert back to the good old Johnny, but that was just a feint and he was even harder and crueller than before.

There is ambiguity in this new phase in the life of Johnny Alpha, and much of it is intentional. Wagner is telling stories over years now, and the ultimate point of Johnny's return remains a mystery for now. Is there more Alpha to come, or was this just a strange coda to a strange life, one final encore that everybody cheered for, but nobody really wanted?

There will be more new Strontium Dog stories, not just because there are always more new Strontium Dog stories, but because the latest one literally ended with somebody saying “More to come on this one, I'm sure”. It’s more of a question about whether Johnny returns or not – his distinctive goofy helmet is seen blasted away by a giant explosion that takes out the architects of the genocide at the end of the latest story, but there ain’t no body yet, and if there ain’t no body, there ain’t no death.

I’ve been following the adventures of Johnny Alpha for more than three decades, and I really don’t mind if this is the end of his story. It might have been a little unsatisfying, but that might have been the point all along - when you wish for the return of a favourite character, you shouldn't always expect to get what you want.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Too damn long, too damn much

Comic stories can be any length - they can be eight-page marvels or long, complicated odysseys that run hundreds of issues. TV shows can be brilliant for years and years, or they can flare out quickly, leaving one perfect season behind. There is some debate about the length of the perfect music album, although all right-thinking people agree it should be less than an hour long.

But the perfect length for a movie is, was, and always will be 90 minutes.

An hour and a half is perfect for the ultra-immersive world of cinema. Almost every story can be told in this length of time, with enough pruning and editing. A properly giant story could be justified in pushing out to closer to the two hour mark, but anything over that is entirely unnecessary, and any filmmaker who can't tell a story in less than that is probably working in the wrong medium.

I can still enjoy huge, three-hour epics, and some of my favourite films ever are that long. There might always a part of me that wonders if it couldn't be just a little shorter without losing too much depth, but I really wouldn't cut a minute out of Bridge on the River Kwai or The Godfather Part II or O Lucky Man! or anything like that.

Some of my aversion to long films is depressingly physical – sitting still, unable to move at all, for more than a couple of hours can be literally a pain the arse, unless the film is totally engrossing. And the leg room at some cinemas can be unbearable for anybody who isn't a total midget, left with cramping calves and thighs as movies drag on and on. And there is certainly something appealing about getting in and out of a movie theatre quickly, leaving more time for other pursuits, instead of sucking up all the time.

But there are also strong storytelling reasons for a shorter running time – the constraints of a tight length often inspire filmmakers to be more ruthless and brutal with their plots, getting to the point without having to do a huge amount of set up.

This leads to the possibility that the story could leave some viewers behind, unable to keep up with a lack of backstory or expository action, but plenty of modern filmmakers manage to make sharp, clever, emotional, funny and deep movies without having to worry about the audience keeping up.

Gravity did this, lightly sketching in back-story for the characters with a pencil, rather than slapping it all in with thick, heavy oil paints. Gravity was a rare blockbuster that kept things incredibly tight and didn't waste any time, which gave it enough time to squeeze in moments of quiet grace amongst the flaming space debris.

It was just an hour and a half long, and I'm baffled by the fact that this is actually a relative rarity in the blockbuster world, because it just makes so much sense to have a shorter film.

After all, Gravity's healthy box office glow was surely helped by the fact that cinemas could get in twice as many screenings, show twice as many ads, and get twice as many punters as almost any other big studio bollocks.

The big movie studios insist on these overstuffed monstrosities, apparently terrified of leaving the audience feeling shortchanged by the show, and leaving them with soggy bloat that actually works against the spectacle. There are far more thrills in watching mad Aussie bastards jump from moving cars in 95 minutes of Mad Max 2 than there is in watching cartoon robots bash into each other for nearly 600 minutes of Transformer bullshit.

It's hard to blame the creators for taking advantage of the desire for long, drawn-out movies. Some of the great tragedies in cinema history involve an artist's vision being cut to shreds from an ignorant studio (Orson Welles never recovered from what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons), but the best filmmakers keep things tight. And Michael Bay is no Stanley Kubrick, and doesn't need all that time for the simplistic and silly stories he presents.

Even talented, idiosyncratic directors can get overwhelmed – almost every movie from Martin Scorcese since Goodfellas is exactly 20 minutes too long, and David Lynch's Inland Empire is a great, moody work, but was too much of an experience for a single cinema screening.

Look at the latest version of King Kong from a while ago, which added two hours to the pure silliness of the original, and added nothing really worthwhile, making the same points over and over, and filling the gaps with mindless energy and earnest yearning. Somewhere in there, there is an absolute cracking 100-minute version.

(Weirdly, I didn't mind that the Hobbit films were split into three, but would much rather have three tight 90 minute romps than the horribly bloated results. I do think they should be free to add or subtract things from the original story as they see fit, but they do go on a bit.)

And it's not just the big blockbusters. The digital revolution has led to an explosion in ground-level filming, which is wonderful, but freed of the limitations of film (mainly the cost), scenes can drag on and on, mumbling conversations that never end. It's so easy to keep things going, so why should you cut that shit right back?

And that seeps on into the big tentpole comedies, with naturalistic, heavily improvised comedy riffing attracting huge audiences, and that just encourages them to run long with scenes, desperately wringing any last piece of humour out of a situation. And then you  end up with the long scenes of Ron Burgandy's blindness that stopped Anchorman II stone dead, and it just didn't need it.

There is no denying that long form storytelling is awesome – I love comics and TV shows that have run for decades, and there is still a place for the odd long movie. I'll always enjoy seeing a talented filmmaker let rip with a vast canvas.

But when it's become the norm, and the only place to find tight little hour-and-a-half tales is in cheap exploitation nonsense, then something is wrong, because there is nothing like the ideal of a perfect little story, all wrapped up in a 90-minute movie.