Monday, July 28, 2014

Kirby sets us right

There is a never-ending and pointless debate in comics criticism over the relative values of words and pictures, over whether the script or artwork is the most vital part of a comic story.

It'll never end because there are valid points for both sides of the arguments, and it's totally pointless because the obvious answer is that the beauty of comics isn't just in a brilliant story or gorgeous art, it's in the alchemical magic of their synthesis.

But we still all have our own prejudices, and I'm no exception, so for a long, long, long time I was certain that the script was the most important factor in a good comic, and I would put up with shitty art for a clever story, but ignore wonderful art if it was on a terrible script.

Jack Kirby set me right.

Kirby set a lot of us right.

I never liked Jack Kirby comics when I was a kid, because I was young and stupid, and I'd been raised on the clear, dynamic and slick lines of Neil Adams, John Byrne and Alan Davis, and Kirby's art looked blocky and “old” and yuck. I never appreciated him while he was alive, and I still feel rotten about that.

Shortly after he merged with the infinite in the early nineties, I started to realised that a lot of things that I liked about those slick mofos had been done first by Kirby twenty years ago. And the art that I thought so dated in the early eighties proved magnificently timeless as more years passed, and the energy and passion of his artwork only sank deeper into the page, ready to explode into the heads of a new reader.

And Kirby's larger-than-life and insanely optimistic art was a perfect fit for this strange new millennium, as ideas he crafted over hectic weekends spawn billion-dollar blockbusters - movies and mainstream culture finally catching up with the artist's decades-old vision. Kirby psychedelia is timeless.

For the past couple of years, I've been a full-on Kirby fiend. I only got my first ever original issue of his Fantastic Four run a couple of years ago, but since then I've bought another dozen or so – usually beaten up and going cheap, but still colourful and dizzying, even with a torn cover.

And while he did a more than a hundred issues of the FF, that's just the tip of the iceberg, with the artist producing an astonishing amount of pages over the years. The years of solid draftmanship before his Marvel renaissance, all those other institutions he created with Stan Lee and chums, the long gazes into the weirdest recesses of the human soul that was his seventies work, and a last flare of Victory for minor comic companies.

Even now, 20 years after we lost Kirby, I’m obsessed with his wonderful, wonderful work. I’ve finally come around to The King, and I’m deeply embarrassed that it took me this long.

After all, all I had to do was give up on the idea of the story being the only thing that really mattered.

This is the line. This is where I finally realised that the story was an important part of a great comic book, but it wasn’t the only thing. This is where I finally got over the idea that the script was everything.

I’m not saying that all the scripts on Kirby comics were awful – some of Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four scripts are simply sensational and Kirby's own stories have a powerful momentum that never wavers – but they can also be clunky, clumsy beasts. Kirby’s Fourth World stuff is dripping with cosmic philosophising and crazy ideas, but they can also be overwrought, over-dramatic and sickly sentimental.

What I am saying is that these things just don’t really matter. If anything, the clumsiness only enhances the power of the art, and it’s the art which gives these comics their power, and renders them eternal.

And after Kirby showed me the way, I was more than happy to follow. I stared buying comics where I didn’t give two shits about the plot or dialogue or character motivations, I just got them because they looked beautiful.

So while I still enjoy the delights of a crisp, clean script, it’s not the only thing I search for in the comics I enjoy any more. Something with stylish or moody or colourful art is just as important as anything else.

One of the interesting side effects of this new-found appreciation of the art over story is that it has also started seeping into my enjoyment of TV shows and movies, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve become less convinced that the script is the only thing that matters.

This is, of course, not the impression you get from much criticism of mainstream movies and TV, where critics get to show how smart they are by banging on about poor scripts, without ever really explaining whether they’re talking about dialogue, plot or storytelling.

I can still be turned off by a poor movie script, but I can also enjoy films with storytelling weaknesses, if they’re stylish or moody enough. It means I can still enjoy something like Prometheus, which has plot holes you could drive a truck through, because I love the intense mood, wonderfully oppressive atmosphere and beautiful visuals. Some of it doesn’t make sense, but that’s not everything.

The structure of a story can be shot to hell, but if it offers a more visceral experience, who gives a damn? Luc Besson's new Lucy movie might be hilariously dumb - I've yet to read a review that didn't point out the flaws of the 10% brain theory - but I just want some of that glorious Besson action. Who cares if it's dumb if it's beautiful?

I still think the wonder of comics is in the melding of art and script - even with writer/artists, it's a glorious amalgamation of styles and points of view.

But after a lifetime of chasing the story - to the point where I only gave a damn about real life shenanigans - now I'm just happy to sit and enjoy a pretty picture without worrying about the structure that supports it, and Jack Kirby was so fucking good at pretty pictures.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Art without artifice – the world of Brown, Matt and Seth

The search for art – for anything that might be stylish, beautiful, funny, thoughtful or moving enough to get a reaction – is eternal, so you can end up looking forever.

My hunt for Art with a capital A takes me all over the fucking show. I'm looking for art in a GI Joe comic, or in dopey horror novels that never fail to disappoint. I catch glimpses of it in Namor The Sub-Mariner, and drown in it with the Doom Patrol.

In the fine words of Mr Nobody from that last comic, I want art for breakfast and art for tea. It's what we're here for.

And while I can sometimes find the sublime in a superhero comic, there have been times I've been convinced that you could only find real art in comics when you strip away all the artifice, and tell open, autobiographical stories.

I always liked the silly stuff, but as I grew older, I also needed something a bit more recognisable.

So for a significant portion of my adult life, I was utterly convinced that you could only find real art in real life stories. As much as I loved Clowes and Bagge and Los Bros Hernandez and all the usual suspects, they often veered off into horrific or surreal strangeness, and sometimes I wanted something a bit more real.

Harvey Pekar led the way with his straight-up portrayals of modern life, but I've only come to appreciate his comics in the past few years. For most of my twenties, it was the work of Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth that was the highest ideal of this real world focus.

Of course, I'm making that bold claim on tenuous grounds, because it was hard to find copies of Peepshow, Palookaville and Yummy Fur down on the arse end of the world, so I could only get the odd issue, here and there.

But what I could get my hands on, I loved for its honesty and openess. Their comics inhabited a recognisable world of power bills and bus stops, of failed relationships and hopes for new ones, of plain old shame and embarrassment.

They were still stylish representations of the real world, with obvious exaggeration for comic effect, but it was easier to relate to Brown's guilty yearnings, Matt's remarkable pettiness or Seth's wistfulness for the old days than anything in any other comic I was reading. And it all came with just a dash of that kitchen sink magic realism that I found so tasty.

There were still small lessons to learned from big companies and their convulated universes – these comics all take place in their own strange little world, where they would often wander in and out of each other's stories, giving different perspectives on the same events, or just laughing at themselves.

Because it was always funny when you'd see Joe Matt protrayed as a greedy, selfish asshole in his mates' comics, but it was even funnier when he managed to make himself look even more like a greedy, selfish asshole in his own comics.

There was no shame here, the artists taking ownership of their foolishness and silliness. Exposing your worst traits to the world takes a fair amount of fearlessness, but it's hard to be scared of anything too embarrassing when you've already revealed your deepest wanking issues to the world.

After that, what have you got to fear? No need to be worried about someone finding out your deepest, darkest secrets, when you put them down in words and pictures and sell thousands of copies. Exposing yourself on such a vast scale, even for the world of alternative comics, takes some balls.

It was easier to put up with the uncomfortableness when Seth, Brown and Matt all had a distinct and pleasing cartooning style, with easy to read, comfortable lines. Even when they were dealing with deeply unpleasent subjects and stories of misery and deprivation, they were always eminently readable.

And while they shared the same emotional themes, their comics were all absolutely distinvctive. Joe Matt's stuff was always the funniest, Brown's comics could go anywhere, from biblical times to the absolute childhood of Underwater. And it's surprising how autobiographical early issues of Palookaville actually are, after all these years of getting used to Seth as an arch-formalist.

As the years rolled on, Brown and Matt's gaze went even deeper inward, bringing up new depths of embarrassment. The last few books from both creators have left a lot of readers baffled, and some have been outright offended.

Seth moved away from the purely autobiographical, focusing his stories on days gone by, and finding real depths in that ache for the past, an ache that can never be cured. But he still offers up the odd little slice of autobiography, and while the three artists rarely appear in each other's comics any more, it's good to know they're still out there, doing their own thing, because I always knew that was the only place you'd ever find real art.

I was wrong, of course. You can find real art everywhere, if you can be bothered to look, and bothered to look with the right eyes. There is beauty on advertising billboards, and in X-Men comics, and on the walls of the local gallery, and on restaurant menus.

There may always be a part of me that is convinced you can't really have art unless you take away all the artifice of this contemporary world. But there is a far larger part of me that knows that restricting yourself to just one type of thing, whether it's mainstream bollocks or alternative real-world heartbreaks, is pointless and limiting, when there is so much to appreciate.

After all, sometimes a pretty picture is just a pretty picture, and all that storytelling architecture that surrounds it isn't always that important. And while this is something else that took me a long, long time to figure out, I did get there in the end.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just try not to blow it: The mind-bending films of Lindsay Anderson

Film Society members can be the wankiest wankers who ever wanked. If they’re not creaming their pants over the way Truffaut uses establishing shots, they’re sneering at you for getting excited about pictures with a dash of genre in them.

But they still have their uses. While we are now lucky to live in an age where even something as French as Eyes Without a Face can easily found on the internet, or be picked up from the local DVD store for a couple of dollars, it wasn’t always like this.

When my love for film ballooned into a full-blown obsession sometime around 1993, the most frustrating thing in the world was reading about all these fantastic movies that never quite seemed to make it to the arse end of the planet. Even something as well-known as Citizen Kane proved surprisingly hard to find, and getting hold of work by the likes of Nicholas Roeg proved incredibly difficult.

I also had a ridiculous amount of trouble trying to get hold of Hammer horror films, which were another magnificent obsession that I went through, and I only just managed to find Count Yorga on YouTube last month. Finding any interesting films could be a real chore

So when I ended up in a city with a decent film society in the mid nineties, it was only natural that I would join up and sit with a few dozen other people in an uncomfortable lecture theatre to watch a 40-year-old print of Battleship Potemkin.

I’ve completely forgotten many of those films I saw in my two years with the Dunedin Film Society. This isn’t that surprising, considering there were a few I walked out on, unable to stand the sight of people moaning about ducks flying to Moscow for the winter while staring out windows for another goddamn half-hour.

But some of the stuff they screened was just incredibly good and made an undeniable impact on this particularly impressionable brain. The two main things I got out of that film society was that it showed me how fucking brilliant Peter Sellers was, and it totally turned me on to Lindsay Anderson movies.

Sellers could play anything. Sometimes he would try a bit too hard, but the results were always incredibly entertaining. They showed half a dozen of his films over a couple of months, and no two characters were the same. He would be having a laugh in The Mouse That Roared one week, playing a seventy-year-old cinema projectionist in The Smallest Show On Earth the next, and two weeks later, he would be more uptight and upright than a plank of wood in It’s All right, Jack.

It was no secret that Sellers could be a prick behind the camera, but in front of it, he was a star. He would throw himself into characters that would, in any other actor’s hands, be utterly repellent. But they’re just so bloody charming and oozing charisma, they’re impossible to hate.

Sellers could make the loathsome Clare Quilty in Lolita a likeable rogue, or even pull off all three roles in Doctor Strangelove – his 'Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!' is still one of the great moments of 20th century cinema. A proclivity towards silly disguises and sillier voices aside, he could also reach unexpected depths of emotion, given the right part, and his real last role in Being There was heartbreaking.

The films Sellers were in ranged from grindingly average to heartbreakingly genius, but the Lindsay Anderson films they showed at the Society were all stone cold brilliance.

I knew about If… long before joining the society, but then they showed all of the Mick Travis films, the White Bus and This Sporting Life, and I was utterly stunned by how much I loved them all.

This Sporting Life featured a magnificent Richard Harris as a brute who uses his self loathing to get smashed into the mud of a rugby league field, and The White Bus was a 46-minute preview of the quietly beautiful surrealism that would later saturate his films.

But while If.. was justifiably lauded, as the themes of teenage rebellion were universal, I just couldn't identify with that whole boarding school mentality. And then the Mick Travis that turned up in O Lucky Man is a a young man who is heading out into the world with the confidence and naivety of youth, unsure where he's going, but going there anyway, and seeing some weird shit along the way, listening to pop music and dressing in flashy clothes, but ultimately wondering what it's all about.

That guy I could identify with.

I always hate having to pick my favourite film of all time when people ask – how the hell do you compare The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and 2001: A Space Odyssey? - but if I'm really pushed, I'll always, always go for O Lucky Man!

It’s a bit weird and rambling and messy, but it’s also full of depth and incredibly funny, with some magnificently dated musical accompaniment from the great Alan Price. While some parts are genuinely disturbing, Malcolm McDowell is so ridiculously charming that the film cruises by on his innocent smirk, bemusement and drive for success.

By this film, Anderson had gathered a company of remarkably distinctive character actors (who often played several characters in the same film), and also perfected his blend of kitchen sink magical realism, working class ideals expressed through quiet surrealism.

Mick is beaten down by the great powers of society – no businessman, policeman, politician, judge doctor or scientist can be trusted, and the only real human warmth is found in the creative industries of the movies and rock music.

It's no surprise that Grant Morrison often cited it as an influence, and cheerfully ripped off its strange vibe in his Doom Patrol and early Invisibles issues, because it's a film that's deeply weird – the whole chocolate sandwich sequence is intensely strange in a very Northern English way, an intense torture scene in interrupted by a tea lady, easy money in medical experimentation sees the head of a man horribly grafted onto an animal’s body and a demonstration of a terrible chemical weapon is all business and dry numbers.

Which was all right, because I was okay with the weird. I also have a deep soft spot for films that end in a big song and dance number, so when all the actors and the characters they play (no difference, same thing), show up at the end and dance the end away, it's all just wonderfully groovy.

And it was also exactly what I needed in my life at that time - not just the weirdness and the strangeness and the chocolate sandwiches. In the end, all Mick Travis needs to do is smile, and everything will be okay. He could live in misery and ideological confusion, or he could just beam a Buddha smile and dance.

It's perfect.

Travis came back (and lost his head) in Britannia Hospital, a film which was much angrier about the deep injustices of modern society, but still ended with a giant brain in a jar quoting Hamlet. And Lindsay Anderson kept himself busy with a variety of projects, (you can find a splendidly bitchy television essay on Free Cinema here).

But he did reach some kind of artistic high with O Lucky Man! It's not a film for everybody, but it's so unique, so weird, and so joyful, it'll always be my favourite.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Doom Patrolling

Grant Morrison’s comics are often criticised as being “weird for weird’s sake”, which is a fairly baffling complaint, because weird should always be for weird’s sake.

When it comes to films and movies and comics and TV, you’re more likely to find proper art in weird shit, more than you would in boring old story structure. The weird and strange should always exist purely for its own sake, contrasting against normal and predictable storytelling convention. Even the strangest of the strange fiction is grounded in some kind of reality, but crazy shit can always add flavour and spice and life to that reality.

So anybody who writes off Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol as nothing more than weird nonsense is missing the point. It is full of weird nonsense, but that only makes the moments of raw humanity shine ever brighter.

I always liked it when things get weird – the best parts of Twin Peaks always took place in the Black Lodge, I've managed to watch all of Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle and anything that descended into vague, queasy and surreal strangeness was all right by me.

By my late teens, I was in the mood for something like that, because that's what teenagers like. And even though things like Namor the Sub-Mariner scratched that itch with its cosy weirdness, I wanted things that went totally bugfuck crazy. And one of the first places I looked for this was in Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol comics.

I was already a solid Morrison fan – he was the first writer who I ever bothered to remember from a comic’s credit box – and everything I heard about this new Doom Patrol sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, I was still growing up on the arse end of the planet, and everything I knew about this Doom Patrol run was taken from issues of Hero Illustrated and the Comics Price Guide. This mystery made it even more alluring.

And the first issue I ever found was The Beard Hunter, which was a fantastic place to start, even if it included none of the main characters and was a totally inconsequential story about a lunatic who hunts men with beards. But it was hilarious, taking the piss out of all the macho bullshit like The Punisher and Cable, and it was weird as shit.

I finally got access to a comic shop a year or so later and got the last six months of Morrison’s run as they came out, and had to go backwards to fill in the story, which was another incredibly apt way to read Doom Patrol. It proved incredibly hard to find a lot of the earlier issues, and I never read the whole story until the collected editions came out a decade or so later.

It didn’t matter that I had the whole story, just like it didn’t matter that a lot of that story didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. It was still hilarious, and it was still pleasantly weird, and it was still a lot more human than I ever expected.

It’s the humanity of the lead characters that often gets lost in the discussion of the series – yeah, Crazy Jane is genuinely crazy with strange powers that burst out from her various personalities, and Rebis was a hermaphrodite creature of metaphysical black energy, but they were also people in a way so many superhero characters aren’t. They were often maddeningly inconsistent and incredibly glib about outrageous events, just like the real people they are.

Despite outward appearances, the members of the Doom Patrol were some of the most human characters in comics – Cliff Steele couldn't feel anything, but he still had fleshy emotions, and always did what needed to be done. Dorothy was just glad to be with people who didn't go on and on about how ugly she was, and Rhea just wanted to see the world through that freaky eye on her chest. Even Danny The Street just wanted his friends to be happy (and fabulous).

And they were going through some heavy shit, but could be surprisingly well adjusted. Both Rebis and Rhea were perfectly happy in their new forms, and weren't bothered by what other people thought of them. As a metaphor for any kind of sexuality, these freaks were fantastic role models.

Yeah, it could pretty fucking weird, and that's fine, because weirdness never ages. But it was also pretty fucking horrific - creatures like the Scissormen or the Candlemaker didn't just kill their victims, they changed them into something horrible. It could also be pretty fucking funny – the fight between brain and brain, and Cliff's weary exclamations at all the crap he had to put up with, are still hilarious.

It could also be pretty fucking creepy, and could get quite quesy and sick, as people go through nauseous transformations, with unsettling shattering of assumptions and human bodies.

And it could also be pretty fucking moving.

It was the weirdness that got me started on the Doom Patrol, but it was the humanity that made it my favourite comic in the world for a while. They travelled through alien landscapes and haunted artworks, but the focus was on Jane's desperate bid for a stable love, Cliff's efforts to help, and Dorothy's wide optimism.

I'd only been reading the Doom Patrol for a few months when it ended, but the story about Jane and the Empire of Chairs still felt like a punch to the soul.

On its own, it's a perfect little story about the benefits of having a fantasy world in your head, even if nobody else can understand it, and about that fact that you can find great truths in things that aren't real. And it was a plantive plea for a better world out there, somewhere past our narrow horizons, and we could all use a few pleas like that.

I rarely get that gut reaction to superhero comics, and that passion for the Doom Patrol led directly into an overall obsession with all things Vertigo that lasted for years, (even if Morrison's Doom Patrol was never actually a Vertigo comic, wrapping up the month before the imprint was launched).

The Doom Patrol carried on, because even the most artistic and idiosyncratic mainstream comic book is still a commodity. Rachel Pollack's stories had some nice moments, and various gems of worthiness are generated any time a new version of the Doom Patrol comes along, and some comics, like China Mieville's recent Dial H For Hero, go for that same weird vibe, and grab some readers.

But I'll always think that there was no more Doom Patrol after Morrison left, if only because he leaves these strange, wonderful people in a good place. Cliff and Jane are safe forever, Rebis gets an eternity of novelty, and Dorothy faces the real world with optimism and cheerfulness.

If anybody deserves a happy ending, it's the Doom Patrol.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Namor The Subversive-Mariner

For such a defined character, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is hard to get right. It's easy for creators to overdo the arrogance, or, even worse, underplay it, and his stories can sometimes get bogged down in tedious Atlantean politics. (Atlantean politics are the second most boring thing in all of comics, beaten only by vampire politics.)

So while he may be one of the earliest and greatest of all Marvel characters, he's a tough fit. Namor's own solo series rarely last longer than a year or two, and recent attempts to integrate him more closely with the X-books made some kind of sense – he's been acknowledged as Marvel's first mutant for several decades – but his imperious rages didn't really fit in a world of mutant angst.

But there was one time when a Namor series actually worked, when somebody tried something different, taking him out of the deep water and into the shiny world of corporate affairs. After years of damp squibs, John Byrne's early nineties Namor comic was a refreshing blast of salt water.

One of the side-effects of a teenage love of horror novels was that my comic consumption dropped dramatically for a while. I was still on-board with long-running obsessions like 2000ad and the Uncanny X-Men, but was drifting away from the world of comics.

And then Marvel released a bunch of shiny new books that were young and hip and slick, and I was just the right age to fall for them. The New Warriors was a particular favourite, but I also had a soft spot for Valentino's wonderfully cluttered Guardians of the Galaxy, and I truly loved John Byrne's Namor book.

In this series, Namor enters the ruthless world of corporate affairs, generating his wealth by literally picking it up off the sea floor and using it to take down fat cats that the law is scared to touch.

It was a surprisingly bright and colourful comic for its time, because most mainstream comics from the start of the nineties were busy learning all the wrong lessons from the Dark Knight Returns. This was both literal and metaphorical - there was a lovely clean colour palette and Byrne's art would never be this slick again, but the stories were also hopeful and optimistic.

It also wasn't shy about wallowing in its title character's long history, reuniting the Invaders, half a century after WW2, and frequently using events at the birth of the Marvel Universe to launch the story in new directions.

And some of the new directions were charmingly weird, with outrageous villains and side-characters popping up, some strange business involving severed heads that were actually still connected to the bodies, and Namor riding around on a giant Griffin. The weirdness never overwhelmed the story, but gave the series just enough flavour to make it stand out amongst Marvel's other superhero shenanigans.

But the best thing about Namor, and the reason it worked so much better than any other crack at the character, was its quietly subversive look at the world of multi-national corporations.

Corporate big wigs had often been the villains in many Marvel Universe stories, dating right back to its earliest days. Writers with a hole where their ultimate villain should be could always insert Roxxon executive #723 into the role.

But this wasn't a problem that could be solved with punching – these stories usually ended with the hero taking some comfort in the fact they took down a company's super-stooge, tempered by the melancholy that they couldn't really touch the corporate mentality that kicked the whole thing off.

Namor had his own melancholies, but he never let any slight against his personage or kingdom stand, and once the surface world started messing up his underwater world, it was on, and he was taking this fight all the way.

In a way, this was refuting the hippy tactics in the fight against multinationals of the past – corporate wrongdoers don't give a shit about sit-ins or boycotts, they're sharks in an ocean of global finance, ceaselessly eating more and more. Almost totally unstoppable, unless they run into a bigger shark.

And Namor has always been the biggest shark. His haughty arrogance was, for once, a true asset, because he was in a world of arrogant arseholes, where the guy with the biggest dick won the argument, and Namor had no problems in that regard.

You didn't bring down these bad guys by punching them in the nose, you joined in their own game and destroyed them with their own methods and rules.

This was a surprisingly adult theme for a 1990 Marvel superhero comic. Comics with copious blood and tits had “mature reader” warnings slapped all over them, but this was a properly mature superhero comic – solving problems through understanding the enemy, assimilation and amalgamation, rather than violence.

The themes are particularly resonant after the last decade of high rolling bankers butt-fucking the world, and the environmental issues that also made Namor such a hip new thing in the early nineties are still totally relevant – the seas are still being depleted of vital life and choked with oil from catastrophic spills.

This Namor comic also had plenty of exciting action to offset the boardroom dramatics. Namor was also a hair's breadth away from ripping off his suit and throwing himself out the window, even after he loses his sweet little ankle wings. Byrne's portrayal of Namor himself captured the tight majesty of the character, and his Namorita was never cuter.

Byrne's actions scenes also had an impressive sense of pace and scale, and there are less of the exposition dumps that would fill up the creator's later works.

In fact, this is the last time I was ever really obsessed with a comic by John Byrne. I enjoyed plenty of his works still to come, especially the Next Men comics, but a passion that first flared into life when I got my six-year-old hands on a copy of X-Men #138 never flared that brightly again.

Byrne's run on Namor only lasted a couple of years, and as soon as he was gone, he went back to being a generic damp thug with bad art and a ponytail. But thos are a great couple of years, and a great John Byrne comic.

It was good enough to keep me interested in comics at a very changeable time in my life, and left me ready to move on to something new in my comic diet. I thought I was growing out of regular superhero comics – I never really did – and I wanted something new. Something weird.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The limits of horror

I always liked horror stories – some of the earliest comics I can ever remember reading involved cheap, nasty horror comic reprints with gushing black blood – but there was a definite zenith to my love of all things horrific, and that was somewhere in the late eighties.

I was a young teenager at that time, and what teenager doesn’t love horror? After my obsession with GI Joe comics died out, I suddenly became mental for horror stories – horror movies, horror comics and horror novels.

I loved it all, but I soon found my limits.

It was a very good time to be a horror fan – the early eighties video tape boom saw distributors fill hungry racks with anything they could get their hands on, and that saw an explosion in easily available horror cinema. Small video shops in the middle of nowhere could suddenly have impressive collections of Umberto Lenzi or Lucio Fulci films, or obscure exploitations flicks from all over the world. (Unless your government didn’t like them…)

Which was fortunate for me, because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where there was nothing better to do on a Friday night than go round to a mate’s place, steal a couple of nips from the parent’s liquor cabinet and watch something gross and gory.

Guided by a few key texts, my friends and I worked our way steadily through the horror section of every local video store. Every now and then you might get to see something that was actually good, like the first Nightmare on Elm Street or the criminally underrated Halloween III, but most of the shelves were full of abominable shit. And we ended up watching them all.

At least you had a fast-forward button, and if something did turn out to be unwatchable, you could always skip forward to the good bits. Most of these horror films had some kind of good bit, even if it was just laughably bad, and it was easy to ignore all the rest.

I was a lot less willing to put up with shit horror novels, because they were a significant time investment that you could not fast forward through, and that's where I reached the limits of horror.

At that time, Stephen King was still the undisputed master of horror fiction, after a decade crammed with classic novels. King, at his best, is one of the great American novelists, capturing life in the late 20th century like few others – in 200 years time, scholars will look back at his books to see how 20th century man lived and thought. But he was also able to craft deeply creepy stories about vampires and ghosts and clowns and Creatures From The Id and other horrific entities invading that normality.

But as prolific as King was, you could still get through something as dense as The Stand or It in less than a week, and I've always been a voracious reader, so I went hunting for more.

And there was plenty to find, and while I really enjoyed the horror fiction of writers like Joe R Lansdale and Dan Simmons, I tended to gravitate towards the UK horror writers, who were always a bit grittier and a bit nastier and a lot funnier.

James Herbert, who sadly passed away last year, was the king of this lot, and was particularly good at sketching in characters' background details, just before they were eaten alive by giant mutant rats, and also gave the reader loads of sex and violence to keep the plot humming. The third book in his Rats series, set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack on London, was particularly strong, and his version of The Fog, which included a road blocked off by a massive, violent orgy, was way better than any pirate zombie movie.

There were plenty of other worthy British horror writers from this period, including the supremely moody Ramsey Campbell and the brilliantly balls-out craziness of Clive Barker, but there was also a lot of hack work, and that's about as far as I went with horror novels, because you could only take so much Shaun Hutson and Guy N Smith books.

This is down in the cheap and nasty section of horror fiction, where legions of hack writers churn out derivative drivel that means nothing. They often have terrific covers, but they just were just garnish on a turd.

I read the odd terrible book by writers whose names I never saw again, and never sought out again. But there were two writers whose books I saw everywhere, and which I briefly tried out, only to run away screaming, (and not in fear) – Guy N Smith and Shaun Hutson.

I actually tried a couple of Guy N Smith’s books – his series of giant crab novels were silly fun, until I realised they were all the same, with paper thin characterisation and cookie cutter plots that saw the giant crabs emerge from the water, rip apart a few unfortunate souls with their giant pincers, and sod off again. A ridiculously prolific writer – he has written over a thousand short stories and magazine articles, a dozen non-fiction books and his most recent Crabs book only came out a couple of years ago – his novels filled the shelves of the second hand stores where I bought all the cheap horror novels I could get. They obviously had their audience, but that was as far as my love of horror would take me.

It certainly didn’t take me past the single Shaun Hutson book I read. I remember reading interviews with the splatterpunk writer, where he said he started writing after reading one of those Crabs books and decided that he couldn’t do any worse, but he also didn’t do much better. Smith’s novels were almost charming in their clumsiness, but Hutson’s books were just nasty and mean and unimaginative, with one-word titles like Slugs, Spawn and Assassin. They also found an audience - Hutson's books are particularly popular in the UK prison system - but I couldn't even finish the one I tried.

That was it. I was done with that kind of shitty horror.

I haven't read a Hutson or Smith book for 20 years, and I don't think I've missed that much. But I don't really regret trying them out. It's nice to know your limits, and see how bad things can really get.

And there was something inordinately entertaining about how silly they could get, with clumsy and copious gore, although there was a weird smarmy arrogance about some of these writers that could get a bit much.

It's easy to look back and laugh at these silly horrors now - and it makes the jokes in Garth Marenghi’s Dark Places all the meatier - but there is some disappointment that they weren't better, that the writers didn't try to do something new and imaginative and original, creating new avenues of horror, instead of sealing off that road.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Yo. Joe.

Back in the days when things like Watchmen and Maus and Love & Rockets were first blowing readers' minds, I genuinely thought GI Joe was the greatest comic book in the world.

In my defense, I was only 13-years-old, and only a 13-year-old boy would ever declare that GI Joe is the best comic in the world, so I can't really be that ashamed of my youthful obsession with all things Joe.

It was a toy tie-in that tried to suggest that military-industrial complexes didn't have to be all bad, and I quickly grew past that stage and was embarrassed by how much I liked it, but for a while there, I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

The GI Joe toys in the mid-to-late eighties were total game changers. So much articulation, so much detail, so many cool designs. I still think the Cobra Commander Battle Armour figure is the greatest action figure I ever owned.

I was 12 when I got hooked on the toys, in one last flare of childhood obsession, and I bought a few dozen of the little things. (I couldn’t afford the vehicle toys, but my mates could, so I just played with theirs.) Most of them are gone now, lost, given away or smashed to pieces and melted to hell when we stuck firecrackers up their arses, but I still have a few hardy survivors, including that Battle Armoured Commander. Even if he now has the leg from a gleefully destroyed Zandar.

One of the best things about these terrific toys was that they were infinitely adaptable, and you could use these strange armoured figures to tell your own stories when you played with them. The Tech-Viper could just be a Tech-Viper, but he could also be a superhero in alien armour or a weary soldier in some far-flung future war.

I didn’t really give a damn about the actual GI Joe mythology. I just liked the toys, so it took a while before I got in deep with the comics.

I'd actually read the first issue of Marvel's GI Joe comic. My wonderful Mum bought it for me when I was home sick from school one day. But I was only seven and I didn’t think GI Joe was anything special. The costumes were dull, and I was even weirdly put off by the way the slick paper they used for the first issue clashed with Herb Trimpe’s stiff posing. I didn’t ask for any more.

But a few years later, and I was primed for a Real American Hero after buying the new toys for a year. Issue number 64 suddenly showed up unexpectedly at my local bookshop, and even though I still associated GI Joe with that day I was home sick for school, I got it on a whim. And brother, it was brilliant.

It was just a simple catch-up issue between the big storylines, but there were high speed aerial dogfights, strange political intrigue, a weird little mystery at the GI Joe base (seen through the eyes of some new and colourful recruits), a blind ninja master teaching some goons a lesson with a ball-peen hammer and a grenade, and it all ends with a big party scene involving arm-wrestling and Yo Joe Cola.

This was the greatest thing I'd ever read.

Writer Larry Hama and his fine artists told stories of political machinations that happened to involve people wearing eagle and crocodile costumes. There was a lack of a long-term status quo that was refreshing in mainstream comics at that time – anything could happen. Cobra Commander could be unmasked as a goddamn beatnik and casually murdered, GI Joe’s operations were ever-expanding and the ultimate leadership of Cobra Island could change with a single arrow.

The ninja characters’ zen philosophising was a refreshing contrast with the exploding action, there was loads of snappy, hyper-stylized dialogue and there was something off-putting and creepy about the way that Cobra existed behind picket fences and two-car garages in dull suburban America.

There was also a constant blitzkrieg of strange new characters, and a toybox full of other older characters that could be used. The huge cast also mean that Hama could be pretty brutal with his creations, and sometimes he was quite blatant about it - at one point locking up all the dorkiest characters in a land-locked ship and letting them all starve to death.

I was absolutely smitten. The first time I ever really searched for comics in a different city, I was searching for GI Joe, and it was a copy of #67 that caught my eye in the very first comic shop I ever walked into.

I got a little desperate in searching for back issues, and had painful dreams about that place in Dunedin where I’d seen loads of back issues going dirt cheap, about two months before I got into them. (They were, of course, all gone when I finally got back there.)

I thought it was the greatest comic ever. For a while.

And then I was over it. I read it passionately for about a year, but then I was a proper teenager, and I'd (mostly) stopped playing with toys, and I was a nerdy little self-righteous dork who wasn't into fascist paramilitary groups solving the worlds problems.

I ditched all of the GI Joe comics I owned – even that eye-opening #64 - without regret, and moved on to other obsessions. My tour of duty with the Joes was over.

 There have been plenty more GI Joe comics since my time in the trenches, but I never had inclination to seek them out. Any real interest I had in that world is long gone.

Still, I recently had the chance to read those things I was so obsessed with again for the first time in more than 20 years, and it was one of those weird things where I don't remember a single thing about these comics, until I actually see the pages again, and I recognise every single panel. It's always been sitting there, locked away inside my head.

And I'm not so embarrassed by how much I enjoyed these silly comics anymore, not after reading them again for the first time in ages, because I can still see the things that hooked me, all those years ago – the flashy artwork, convoluted plots and characters, and all those wonderful toys.