Monday, September 29, 2014

Fun with Beto and Bumperhead

Gilbert Hernandez’s Bumperhead comic book is a big important work, by a big important creator, full of big important themes.

It’s about the ache of missed opportunities and the relentless march of time. It’s a semi-autobiographical story with a large injection of 21st-century magical realism. It’s a painfully accurate portrayal of youthful ennui and the way it fades over time. And it’s a story about the important things in life, and how we can all so easily miss them while they are there.

This could all get a bit much, but luckily, like almost all of Beto's work, Bumperhead is also a shit-ton of fun.

There has been a wicked sense of absurd humour in all of Beto’s comics, going all the way back to the B.E.M. days. His Palomar stories could be grim, dour and depressing affairs, with terrible things happening to good people, but they were also drenched in humanistic amusement. His stories are about love and loss, but they’re also about good friends goofing around on the edge of the darkness.

The massive breasts he gives many of his female characters is that same kind of silly joke – one that many people don’t get and just can’t get past – a touch of quiet craziness that contrasts against all the dark and complex parts of his stories. Human Diastrophism is a profound comic story, even with the stoned surfer dudes staggering through the chaos, and even his deepest sagas have strangely and funny moments.

It’s still there is his current work, especially in the one-off graphic novels that he creates for various publishers in between the usual Love and Rockets gigs. Crazy ideas, freaked-out humour and unashamed thrills bounce up against big themes of life and death, and create something new.

It’s a total punk rock aesthetic – get on with it and sneer at the things you love, but love them all the same, and mercilessly take the piss out of them at a dozen beats a second because we all might be dead tomorrow. And don’t forget the self-righteous smirk.

So it’s unsurprising to see that way of thinking reach its peak in Bumperhead, which has a large portion of the story set inside the seedy clubs and jagged sharp haircuts of a small town punk rock world. It’s just another part of life for the exquisitely named Bobby Numbly, and his story in Bumperhead makes it one of Beto’s best comics in years, even with his fine track record.

There is certainly still a melancholic streak in the book – losses pile up, friends are made and lost and won again, fathers have hidden families, and the intoxication of youth quickly fades away in this stifling suburbia.

But there are also lots of great jokes about crazy girlfriends and drunken foolishness, and the whole story is enormously entertaining as it skips through the pleasures and pitfalls of a normal life.

Calling Bumperhead great entertainment might seem like a back-handed compliment – great and mysterious works aren't supposed to be easy.

Fortunately, it's a book that also tackles this question head-on. Characters argue the merits of complex progressive rock over simple, obnoxious punk tunes, and it's an argument that nobody wins, because there are merits in all sorts of music. You don't have to pick sides.

All the arguments over musical tastes in Bumperhead come with the sweet sting that it really wasn't that important, and not something worth losing good friends over. Music is so important to the young, with adolescents finding community and purpose and life in particular musical tribes, but the old know that anybody can like what they want. It’s no big deal.

Hernandez's goofy and exact cartooning is another large part of the charm – multitudes can be read in the expressions on his characters' faces – and he keeps the story clean and sliding along. His black and white starkness also helps, although it would be fascinating to see a coloured version of this comic, with the neon yellows and greens and oranges on the front and back cover proving to be incredibly eye-catching.

And the free-wheeling and clear storytelling that Beto has perfected over decades makes it even easier to accept the stranger aspects of this latest work. Time is totally fucked up in Bumperhead – some characters grow younger as the years go by, and some just swell. A computer from the modern world is spitting out secrets in the past, as the story drifts into the unreliability of memory.

In the end, it doesn’t fucking matter why they start as kids in 2014, and end as old men, sometime in the 1930s. Just go with it, it doesn’t hurt. Specifically weird inconsistencies can drag you down, or just add to the whole strange milieu of the work.

Like all good slices of autobiography, Bumperhead has the details of a particular point of view, but the wide recognisability of universal longings. We've all been young, and we might not all have been shouting Alice Cooper lyrics out the bedroom window at two in the morning, but we all wanted to shout something.

It's almost embarrassing, how much of Bumperhead is recognisable. The things that you just don't understand as a kid, the awkwardness of teen love, the crushes on perfection, the long stretches of young adulthood that feel like a slow slide into oblivion, the fear that you’re getting dumber by the day, the reinvigoration of loudly getting out there in the world again, the happy charms of bumping up against the same people over and over again in life..

These types of memories can be painful, but it's hard not to laugh at your own foolishness. If you don't, who will?

And this is where Bumperhead triumphs, generating emotional warmth and storytelling energy. There are going to be literal and metaphorical heart problems, but it's not worth crying about.

This is how great comics get you, with something you can laugh at, or something that can make you remember things worth laughing about. And there aren't many people who can make you do that like Gilbert Hernandez can.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Superman's world is a Swan world

After decades as the ultimate example of the iconic superhero, Superman is eternally recognisable, while still coming in several definitive forms.

For some purists, the only right and proper Superman is Joe Shuster and Wayne Boring’s barrel-chested strong guy, while others can only think of the character in the more modern forms crafted by artists like John Byrne and Jim Lee.

They're all wrong. As somebody who first encountered Superman as a young kid in the late seventies and early eighties, I can confidently proclaim that it’s obvious that the only real Superman is a Curt Swan Superman.

Because all the good Superman comics at that time were drawn by Curt Swan, and it had been that way for decades. He produced more great Superman artwork than anybody else in the character’s long history, and – twenty years after his death – he remains a gigantic figure in Superman's never-ending story.

This was partly due to the fact that Swan was an incredibly prolific artist for years and years and years, drawing Superman and his chums in hundreds and hundreds of comics stories. Always fast and always precise, Swan was frequently called in by DC editors to help out on a bewildering variety of titles, including the Legion of Super-Heroes, Jimmy Olsen and Aquaman, before his undoubted talent put him amongst the cream of Superman artists.

I grew up surrounded by Swan’s comics, both the original issues and the vast amount of black and white reprints that were always around featured Swan’s Superman heavily. He was always there, meticulously filling in the Metropolis skyline, crafting a supporting cast that was always instantly recognisable and sending his powerful figures flying off into space.

As definitive as he is – and if you ask me to picture Superman, it’s a Swan face I see – his style still changed and evolved over the years. Half a century of creating comics will do that, and his line would come more refined and delicate as he got older, and his figurework would stiffen into fixed and immovable forms.

Even his Superman became sharper and starker as the years rolled by, but also more expressive and strangely contemplative (mainly due to the best furrowed brow in all comics).

A lot of that evolution was in the hands of his inkers, who could produce startlingly different results from Swan’s pencils, and the artist would have his own favourite embellishers. Some scholars can tell the difference between a Murphy Anderson or John Forte-inked page of Swan’s art by the thickness of Clark Kent’s glasses, but sometimes the differences between inkers were plain and obvious.

But they all came from the same original artist, and even looking at Swan’s pencils, you can see the art refine over the decades. His Superman was initially indistinguishable from the more established artists – he even ghosted Wayne Boring in some strips – before becoming the solid figure of the 1970s and beyond – a Superman who was always straight-backed and clear-eyed.

And when artists like Nick Cardy and Neil Adams came along with their flowing, unrestricted line and fuzzy texture, Swan didn't blink, and doubled-down on his own style, and it became even more mannered, and more precise, with a new discipline of clarity that would prove to be a huge influence on a new wave of clear artists like George Perez and Brian Bolland.

And Swan remained in a league of his own. The only artist who came close to portraying a definitive Superman at this time was Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, who was wasted on fill-ins and licensing work. That licensing meant his version of Superman was the one the general public saw more of than any other, as he popped up on beach towels and underoos, but it was still not the ultimate Superman.

It’s also worth nothing that Jim Aparo – for many, including me, the definitive Batman artist - infused that clear line of Swan’s work with the loose energy of the new guys to create his own legend. An Aparo Batman complimented the Swan Superman perfectly.

It could be argued that by the seventies, just when I think he was reaching his peak, his art had actually atrophied into a strict style that it would never outgrow. His figures were still expressive and emotional, but they could also be incalculably stiff, and Swan's crystal clear storytelling was soon overtaken by younger, more flowing artists.

Swan evolved over the decades, but he finally, slowly, fell out of fashion, and his Superman saga essentially ended with Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, a fitting send-off for any artist.

Swan was still working, right up to the end, and would show up in strange places, like the an entry in the Marvel Universe handbook, or a biting issue of Mark Millar's Swamp Thing, or on the cover of some strange little independent comic company.

It was a sad day when we lost Curt Swan in the nineties – his name never appeared on the Top 10 Hot Artists lists in Wizard magazine, but he was still producing strong work, right throughout his working life.

And I think Swan would be quietly pleased to see that his artwork has already aged far more gracefully than the work of that new breed who replaced him. Swan was all about keeping it clean, and that extended from an individual line through to the storytelling of the whole comic, everything was always easy to follow, and always clear. And the fashions might be looking a bit chunky these days, but a Swan comic never really gets old.

We all took Swan's brilliance for granted for so many years. That's just what Superman comics were always supposed to look like. But now I can look back at his artwork, and find new delights, and new beauty.

After all, Swan did so many damn comics, so there are still always more to find, even after a life immersed in Superman stories. And they're never confusing, or ugly, or hard to follow. They're good, solid Superman comics, and Swan's work still flies.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Losing the Legion of Super-Heroes

I used to be the kind of obnoxious dork who would sneer at people who moaned about how hard it was to follow the Legion of Super-Heroes. I had no time for complaints about the vast number of characters and editorially-tangled continuity of the 30th-century stories.

After all, it wasn't that bad. All the characters were clearly delineated with their own distinctive costumes and powers, (and, over the decades, a surprising amount of them even developed genuine personalities). And all the big continuity reboots didn't really matter if the key components of the Legion were still there, especially when there was only one hard restart in the comic's first 40 years.

All those weird teenagers, and all that vast history were always part of the Legion's appeal, and if you couldn't keep up, you would be soon left behind. I lost contact with the Legion a  while back, but still had a vague idea what was going on, and followed it in library editions right up to the end of that last Waid/Kitson reboot. I knew what was what.

Not any more. My 15-year-old self was an annoying little shit, and somewhere in time, he's sneering at me, because I have no bloody idea what's going on in the Legion any more.

I was pulled into the orbit of the Legion of Super-Heroes through the 'Five Years Later' stories, the most notoriously obtuse and complex period in the comic's 50-year history. It was not a place for new readers - building on events in stories from years and years ago, and taking away all those easily identifiable costumes and code-names – but that's where I came in.

And the fact that I couldn't understand what was going on was a large part of the charm, (it literally took me years to work out who Salu Digby was), especially when I had a hard time tracking down issues in my part of the world, picking up random issues here and there, and I came at the whole thing from a totally non-linear perspective. It was intriguing, and I was hooked, and I was always working out new little things.

I followed the Legion all the way until Moy cuteness got too much, and didn't bother with later attempts to reinvigorate the team. It was all the same old shit, especially when they reverted to a complicated version of the original team again a few years again, taking ti back where it all started.

A sense of inertia creeps into the whole concept, left spinning its wheels in some idealised version of seventies superheroics. Instead of looking forward and growing up, the Legion was trapped in its own past.

There is currently no Legion of Super-Hero comic, and the break could be the best thing for it. The most recent version – spun out of the largely mediocre New 52 comics – ended after less than two years, and I just read the collection of the last eight issues, and even though it is in the trusted hands of Levitz and Giffen, I have absolutely no idea what was going on.

It's not the usual complaints – there are a bunch of new characters, but they're all visually unique and introduced properly, so that isn't a problem. But it felt like there were entire scenes missing. Things like the death of major characters have so little impact that they happen off-panel – Duo Damsel loses another version of herself in her usual obligatory sacrifice, Sun Boy gets his head caved in and then eaten and Star Boy is crushed by a falling building – and it all means nothing.

And I have no idea who these people are, because it's never really made clear what sort of history they have, or what universe they live in. It seems like a Legion that never went through that 'Five Years Later' wringer, but did experience things like the Great Darkness Saga, and it's never made quite clear. And even after spending an embarrassingly large part of my life trying to figure out Legion lore, I'm genuinely lost

It's made even more jarring by the fact that there are moments where the creative team nail it, like the brief little vignettes that get the character moments just right, and there is some lovely Kevin Maguire artwork on a couple of the chapters.

But I'm essentially adrift, and those brief doses of loveliness are offset by a general confusion and malaise, with no real drive to even figure out what was going on. Large parts of Legion history have been hard to follow, but intriguing enough to find out more – this just feels like a comic that is spinning wheels, stuck in neutral, a thousand years in the future.

So I've become one of those people that I always looked down on, interested in the Legion, but baffled by most of it, and giving up on it altogether.

But so what if I've disappointed my younger self with this current Legion apathy? Teenage Bob was a moronic geek, and I've got more important things in my life than remembering what planet Cosmic Boy came from, or wondering why Ultra Boy doesn't shred his hands when he uses super-strength, but can't use invincibility.

There will still always be a fondness for these teenagers in space and their mad adventures. Those personalities that took decades to develop are still there, and there is still that sense of boundless optimism, even in the darkest of times, that makes the Legion so strong.

And there is also hope that there is a future for the Legion again. Comic book concepts can come back from these kinds of sabbaticals, stronger than ever. They can also fade away, but while the Legion's history is often wiped out or written over, its legacy can survive the fall of universes.

I still hope that there will be more interesting and stylish  Legion comics to come. It could be time for something new, or for a return to core basics, but the right creators could still breathe life into this dusty old concept.

There is still plenty of love for the Legion out there, no matter how many times they keep losing us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nice guys finish first in Dredd's dangerous world

Mega-City One - the setting for the long-running Judge Dredd comic - is an incredibly vibrant, weird and dangerous place to live. There is the constant fear of nuclear apocalypse, a recent virus turned the city into hell on earth (and reduced the population to less than 94 per cent of its peak), and every now and then, Dark Judges from another dimension are going to show up randomly and slaughter a whole lot of you.

Random spree shooting are a daily occurrence, the law have awesome firepower that is frequently deployed and extreme violence is everywhere. Every now and then, there is some grand mega-epic, and Dredd saves everybody by being the rod that will not break, but millions of innocent souls are still going to die horribly.

Dredd’s world is a hard world, and you'd think it would be harder on the nice guys. But in Mega-City One, nice guys somehow finish first.

There are still plenty of plenty of nice guys who meet unfortunate ends in the on-going saga of Judge Joe Dredd. A sunny disposition isn’t actually going to save you from a hail of high-powered shrapnel, and plenty of lovely, innocent people are occasionally unceremoniously incinerated by those bloody Sovs.

Even the slightest of stories can come with a large body count, and it becomes a vicious cycle, as the insanity of the situation causes more people to snap and go futsie and go on a killing spree, making the situation even crazier, inspiring new massacres. Plenty of nice people are taking the midnight bus to Resyk.

But one of the great secrets of Dredd's storytelling success is that a whole lot of the people who do meet a messy end write their own fates – dying due to stupidity, incompetency, greed or selfishness, often meeting their maker in the form of justice from Dredd's lawgiver.

And yet, even with all that danger, and even with all that death, sometimes the only reaction to mad absurdity is to be nice and polite. It can’t hurt, and it might just keep you alive.

It worked for Walter the Wobot, an extraordinarily annoying robot with an extraordinarily annoying speech impediment, who only ever wanted to wash Dredd’s socks. Walter is the one free robot in this city of the future, and was granted that freedom by feeling empathy and sympathy for humans.

Walter is, for all his annoyances, just a nice guy, and is still there after three decades of chaos, surviving direct involvement in some of the most calamitous events. Every now and then he has a breakdown and goes a bit crazy and has to be blown apart, but he's always coming back, and all he wants to do is help somebody with the washing. (He might have finally given up on getting any affection out of Dredd himself, but he's still a great pal.)

In fact, Walter might have finally found the perfect home, as he is now living with Mrs Gunderson, a nearly blind and totally deaf senile old lady, who has proven to be the single nicest person in the entire crazy city.

She is the only person besides Dredd to have had multiple run-ins with Judge Death and somehow survive – in one memorable interlude, Death had to admit she was the only truly innocent person he had ever met. She is a lovely old lady, who stumbles through scenes of terrible carnage without really noticing anything, and is always hilarious.

She still shows up in the odd episode, and is as endearingly batty as ever. Her and Walter make a nice little odd couple, tottering through the wreckage of a smashed world, wondering if they left the gas on back at the flat, blissfully surviving the world's harshest city.

There are plenty of other nice guy survivors - Max Normal is still bopping around somewhere. The pinstripe freak might still be a little dodgy, but he always liked seeing bullies get their just deserts. He could play with the system, but was always his own man, and disappears for years, only to show up again on the far side of a shuggy table.

It's even arguable that one of Dredd's greatest foes – the great Mean Machine Angel – also survives multiple run-ins with Dredd because he's inherently nice. He's only mean because of awful surgery, and is an innocent at heart, and has been allowed to shuffle off into retirement, taken in by a caring and sharing son, another bright face in the darkness.

Even the Judges aren't exempt, with a new generation of men and women showing a more progressive side of the law. They're still judges, so they're not exactly nice, but it's notable that the slightly more flexible Benny and Rico have survived for years now.

Smiling at Mega-City's craziness is the best reaction you can have. You can go a bit far, and become officially mental, but that just gives you all sorts of metatextual headaches, so you're best off just being a bit sensitive.

It still works, even in the grim post-Chaos Day city, with a cracking story about a sensitive Klegg from Rob Williams and Chris Weston recently running in 2000ad. He might be a massive reptile with massive sharp teeth hanging around a city that was scarred on a primordial level by his kind, he's also the only Klegg to survive longer than one story.

He might risk getting accidentally shot on his way to take some books back to the library, but he endures.

The one thing all these nice folk have in common is that they're always pretty drokkin' funny. It's hilarious to see that Klegg waving enthusiastically at Dredd, or to see Mrs Gunderson narrowly escape awful harm without even noticing.

Besides, to maintain a positive attitude in a world of such mega-death and horror is to cast a deeper light into the darkness of Dredd's world. And it's also part of that great British stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on, even if the world is going crazy, because going on about it isn't going to fix things.

It's a hard world, but there is no need to be rude about it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

More laughs, more films, more comics, more everything

There's always more.

Just when you think you know everything, there is always something new to watch, or read, or listen to.  There is always something new to think about, and always a new way to feel. There is always more.

There’s always more laughs.

I'm hard-wired to love slightly subversive British TV comedy shows – raised on a steady diet of Monty Python, The Young Ones, Blackadder and Red Dwarf. I can't get enough of the shouty anarchy and unexpected seriousness and surreal madness and surprising emotion, and I never tire of seeing fine character actors behave like complete tits.

And there is always more comedy to get into – the alternative British comedy scene of the 1980s evolved into the darker, smarter comedy of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci and chums, bringing the existential uncertainty of the modern media age into the living room with tactical use of profanity.

A large part of the appeal is that there are actually relatively few episodes of individual series, and shows like The Office and Fawlty Towers build their monumental reputations on a small number of episodes. This can be consistently melancholic, as beloved series are always ending, but it also means there are plenty of new things to find.

And I love hunting for the new, and finding out about series like the sublime 15 Stories High or the magnificent Nathan Barley or a dozen other little slices of stylish comedy. And there are so many talented comedians and actors, all creating new shows, and it can take years before I hear about them, or track down their work.

And sometimes, even the work of comedians I already know and love can slip by, and it can be a long, long time before I even notice. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Steve Coogan – and the more excruciating it gets, the better, especially when he plays himself – and followed it since The Day Today, and even though I deeply enjoy cheap nasty horror films,  I somehow totally missed the Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible series, a biting piss-take of those cheap, nasty horror films from more than ten years ago.

I finally caught up with it this week, and it’s not great, but it is something that’s right up my alley, and I’m slightly baffled that it took me this long to get to it. Even in this relatively niche world of UK comedy, there are huge amounts of material to find, and experience. Some of it will be awful, some of it will be fine, and some of it will be great, but there is always more laughter.

There’s always more movies.

UK comedies are a big enough pool to jump into, but if you're into something as general as Movies That Make You Feel Something, there really is no bottom, because there is more than a hundred years of film, and more every day.

The Story Of Film, Mark Cousins' epic documentary about the history of movies all over the world, can take a while to get into - especially with Cousins' clipped, quiet accent - but is ultimately compelling, because it opens up a world of cinema in an easy, accessible style.

It covers the whole history of cinema, bouncing around the globe, and when it gets to the seventies, it is obliged to focus on America and the impact of the film school kids, and it suddenly got really boring.

The films that are discussed in this section certainly aren't boring, and the stories behind their production is fascinating, but it's one that's been covered a million times over, and there is little new to say.

American cinema between 1969 and 1980 is the most analysed period of movie history – all the stories have been told, and pass into legend. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains the definitive account of the times, but there are hundreds of other books that pick apart the movies from those days, and the well of new stories is almost dry.

But that's okay, because there are other similar small renaissances in cinema, all over the world, and while one hour of The Story Of Film had little new to say, the other nine opened up all sorts of new doors.

And it's not just the obvious and infinite worlds of Bollywood or East Asian cinema, there are fascinating stories to discover in the quietest and strangest places in the world, and there can be beauty in a 1930s film from Iran, or in the bleak masterpieces coming out of modern Eastern European cinema. Gloriously, it never ends.

There are always more comics.

I love great comedy, and I love great movies, but comics are still my main bag, and they still offer up the most unexpected pleasures and the best thrills.

I don't just read the things, I soak myself in reference books and historical accounts, finding out all the stories behind the stories, and all the different versions of the truth. Back Issue Magazine is one of only two regular magazines I get every month or so, and I go to other libraries around town to find biographies of Curt Swan or books about the art of Alex Toth.

That kind of immersion inevitably leads to repetition – due to an odd coincidence, I read about background behind Avengers #200's appalling treatment of Ms Marvel in four separate reference books, saw it discussed on three different blogs, and heard somebody talk about in in a podcast, all within a week or two.

They were the same old stories about vindictive creative and editorial moves that led to that comic, but by the fifth mention, I didn't really need to hear about it again, and it really can feel that there is nothing new to learn about the weird and wacky world of comics, if the same topics keep coming up again and again.

Which is, of course, total horseshit. I keep reading about the same events because I keep reading books about those characters, creators or company, and even after 35 years of reading comics, I'm still delightfully stunned by how much more there is out there.

Make no mistake - it's a wonderful sensation, finding out about some slice of the comic world that has so far passed me by. Just this week, I've finally fallen for the easy-going charms of Ramona Fradon's art, and actually made a shamefully-overdue effort to dig into some of Phoebe Gloeckner's comics.

And there are whole worlds of stuff that I still have barely touched – my knowledge of European comics or Manga barely stretches past the usual suspects, and I'm only restrained by time and expense, but they are worlds I would love to explore further.

And the flood of great comics never stops – every year old favourites produce stunning new work, and new faces create comics that feel like they've been doing them forever. Keeping up with the latest slices of genius is hard enough, without the whole long history of the form to consider.

This is the pleasure of it all – that there is always something new and meaty to get your teeth into. Whatever you’re into, whatever the medium, or the style, there is always something more, and there are always thrills in chasing it down.

I'm terrified of falling into a rut, of just reading or experiencing the same old shit, over and over again, and I'm always looking to try something new. Because there is always something new to try.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Iron Maiden: Barren wastes and decaying grins

This is the six hundred and sixty-sixth post at the Tearoom of Despair, so it's only right and proper that I should dig about in my cupboard of secret shame, and find something a bit satanic. Something a bit heavy.

Something a bit metal.

I was a little headbanger in my mid-teens, and so were all my mates. If it wasn't chunky, we weren't interested. I still liked the odd Pink Floyd or Queen or MC Hammer tune, but I craved that pounding, driving, thundering metal beat.

I had the obligatory mix tapes full of Slayer and Black Sabbath, I had the scruffy denim, I had the sneer at conformity, and I might have had a mullet. It was the late eighties, which isn't much of an excuse, but it is all I got.

I got into heavy metal through the safe hands of mid-period Def Leppard, and soon found my own favourites in the world of metal. Despite finding my was in through Armageddon It, I really wasn't much for the hair metal rubbish, (even with a shameful soft spot for Poison), I liked it heavy and intense and pure. No limitations, just real rock.

There were weird omissions – I never really got into Metallica – but I liked the churn of Megadeath and the parts of AC/DC where they really showed off. I raced after the driving rhythms of Anthrax and – oh man, I honestly hadn't thought about this band for twenty years until this morning - pounded my head silly to D-A-D. (Which brings us back to the hair again. I could never get away.)

But most of all, I was all about the Iron Maiden. How could you not be?

Iron Maiden had the most thundering riffs, the most glorious album covers and the ugliest drummer in the entire history of music. They managed to Keep It Real while still being incredibly pretentious – their Rime of the Ancient Mariner is still magnificent, for a bunch of working class blokes.

Born in East London during the great British metal boom of the early 1980s, Iron Maiden was built on Steve Harris' none-more-metal basslines, chugging away through every one of their great tunes, and soared to new heights through the fantastic wailing and extraordinary charisma of vocalist Bruce Dickinson.

And the group brought a much-needed taste of silly theatricality to the metal scene, thanks largely to the use of the greatest mascot ever. It was a wonderful combination of monstrous art and chugging guitars.

I fell for the Maiden. I fell hard.

I saw the cassette copies of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son on the shelves of the Deka store in Dunedin and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and I somehow convinced myself that it was some sort of key to a strange world, away from the mundane reality I was stuck in. I was only 12, and only a 12-year-old boy would think that an Iron Maiden album would reveal the secrets of the universe, but I really fucking liked that cover.

And it got inside my head.

I'm sitting in a school hall, waiting for an exam to finish, and it's sometime in 1989, and I've finished, but I can't leave the hall for another ten minutes, so I sit there and scrawl out the lyrics to Run To The Hills on my notebook, and I'm surprised to realise I know all the words, without bothering to try and remember them.

Ten years later, I'm catching up with my mate Spook for the first time in ages, and we get wasted in the Port Hills, and then cruise around Christchurch, and Run To The Hills comes up on The Rock radio station, and we rock out, and fuck me, I still know all the words.

Seven years after that, I'm in a karaoke bar in Osaka, belting out Run To The Hills after getting smashed on sake and oysters, and I've only been married to the lovely wife for a few months, but I can tell she's impressed by the fact that I don't need to read the lyrics on the screen, and can do the full metal performance.

For a while there, everyone I knew had at least one Iron Maiden tee-shirt, or an Iron Maiden poster on the wall, even if they really didn't care for the music, because the artwork was so fucking cool.

This was the other great secret of Iron Maiden's success – they had, by far, the coolest album covers. All featuring the mighty Eddie The Head and all created by a bloke called Derek, Iron Maiden's album covers in the 1980s were portals into other worlds, realities of sci-fi madness and horrific gods.

Some of the single covers were gross and tasteless – we all hated Thatcher, but we didn't want to butcher her in the street – but the album cover art was sublimely mental.

The covers even come with their own little satanic symbol (that I still know how to draw perfectly), and they all starred Eddie, the group's decaying, grinning mascot.

Eddie goes through a strange evolution over the eighties – starting off as a punk nightmare, growing into a cyborg nightmare, evolving into something godlike, and moving into the realm of weird, incomprehensible supernatural.

Those images were visual crack for young teenage boys, and all my mates plastered their bedroom walls with Somewhere In Time and Aces High posters. I wasn't allowed to put posters on my wall – they were banned after an earlier incident involving some 2000ad posters, some cellotape and some wallpaper – but I still had half-a-dozen tee-shirts, and proudly wore my favourite Live After Death one underneath my proper shirt at my high school formal ball.

I grew out of metal, like most of us do. We grow up, our tastes broaden, and we move onto something new. After a while, all that metal chunkiness gets monotonous, and you look elsewhere.

I even gave up on Iron Maiden, not long after No Prayer Left For The Dying. Even the art work was becoming a bit safe and predictable, and I wasn't surprised to recently learn that they started using new artists around the same time I became disinterested, none of whom could match Derek's earlier efforts. (They even lost Bruce for a while there, although they sorted that out.)

But I still love living to those old albums that blew my tiny little mind. Powerslave turned  30 this past week, and it's still an absolute blast, after all these years. Eddie's Egyptian death stare still glares out of that glorious cover, and the title song is still just a tiny bit more complicated than it needs to be, and that Ancient Mariner is still spooky and epic.

It's also still a bit silly, but that's the whole point.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Eight great new comics

There is a small avalanche of crappy comics coming out every week, with tedious storylines, bland art and the same old predictable shit, and it’s all too easy to get a bit despondent at the state of modern comics. But it’s just as easy to find the real gems in that avalanche, if you can be bothered digging them out.

The beautiful thing is, of course, that we will never all agree on what makes up the gems, and what is just the rubbish, because we’re all weird human beings who don’t all like the same stuff. But these are some (but by no means all) of the current comics that have been rocking my world recently.

Dark Horse Presents
By Darrow and McCarthy and a bunch of other people 

The secret of a good comic anthology title is that you need to have two stories that are absolute blinders if you want it to succeed. Then there is room for a couple of decent-but-not-excellent strips, and it doesn’t matter if the last couple are awful. The balance is maintained.

2000ad has followed this pattern for decades. Dredd is almost always good, there is always one other series that is a real standout (in the ones I’m currently reading, that’s undoubtedly the fantastic Indigo Prime), and the others usually fill out the ratio nicely.

I haven’t been a regular reader of Dark Horse Presents, in any of its incarnations, because it usually only had one great story every time, and that was never enough, especially when that decent story will inevitably be reprinted in its own collection. I wasn’t going to spend nearly NZ$20 on a comic just because I wanted that one Evan Dorkin strip, not when I can wait for it to be collected.

But the very latest incarnation of the anthology series hits the mark nicely, with two stunners in its first issue – the ultra-detailed Geoff Darrow is back with a Rusty and Big Guy comic that is just an excuse for another glorious panorama, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), while Brendan McCarthy creates whole new colours with his latest dreamy effort.

Anything beyond that – and that includes fine comics by David Mack and Steve Parkhouse and others - is pure gravy. I don't know how much longer they'll maintain that ratio I need, but I'll be there as long as it lasts.

Dicks: To The End Of Time, Like
By two boys who should know better

Dicks remains the one of the most truly offensive, gross, stupid, ridiculous comics available and I love it.

Jokes about porn and wanking and Irish republicanism can be puerile, obnoxious and infantile, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.

By Richard Sala

At first glance, the comics of Richard Sala appear to take place in a colourful and bright world, with his cartooning style giving people cute button eyes and noses. And then the murders start.

Sala's stories are actually fairly bleak affairs, with young innocents meeting horrible fates. A terrifically prolific artist who produces a decent book every year or so, Sala's stories feature monsters and lunatics doing terrible things, and sometimes they're justified, as fat cats meet richly-deserved ends, and sometimes they're just nasty. But Sala's cartooning is so cute, and all that carnage comes with a wink, giving his comics a unique flavour

His latest is Super-Enigmatix, an online comic about a super-criminal in the mold of Fantomas or Diabolik, bringing death and terror to the masses in a bid to tear down the whole rotten system. He's a total bastard, happily throwing away the lives of his female henchmen in recent chapters, and his gleaming and flashy surroundings hide a truly wicked sense of humour.

I'm a print dork, and this is honestly the only webcomic I bother to keep up on. Sala's worlds aren't very nice places to live in, but they're worth dipping into every couple of weeks.

Stray Bullets: Killers 
By David Lapham

After a lot of pretty boring superhero and Vertigo-lite comics from David Lapham in the past decade, I honestly didn’t expect much from the return of Stray Bullets, but still got the first issue just to see how it was doing.

And I'm happy to be proved wrong - Stray Bullets remains a vicious gut punch of a comic, with strong pacing, and good story kickers, and some lovely moody art.

I still don't like the Amy Racecar stuff, but the new comic is just as bold and intense as it ever was.

New Lone Wolf and Cub
By Kazuo Koike and Hideki Mori

I know it's a little bit wrong to carry on the story like this, especially with no Kojima, but Daigoro is still such a total badass.

Trees/Supreme Blue Rose
By Warren Ellis and friends

I have a vague, ill-formed theory that the underlying grammar of most modern comics is fundamentally broken. The language of comic storytelling was built on stressful inspiration decades and decades ago, and the current grammar is still built on a lot of Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s, as refined by Mark Millar more than a decade ago.

It boils it down to a simple formula – X splash pages times Y number of caption boxes, divided by the power of snark, and it’s used so often that it’s become so fucking boring.

There are still plenty of creators who are looking at new ways of telling comic stories that don’t rely on that cack-handed formula and, happily, Warren Ellis is still one of them, even after all these years.

The stories he is telling in Trees and Supreme are still fairly simple and easy to follow, but it's the way he is telling them, with more of a staccato pace and no reliance on grand entrances to introduce characters, that is interesting.

The jury is still out on whether Ellis' efforts actually work or not – this kind of experimentation can lead to unsatisfying results, but fuck, at least he's trying.

Groo vs Conan
By Aragones, Evanier and Yeates

Conan stories are usually humourless affairs, which can be fairly off-putting, but also make him a great straight man to the cartooning force of nature that is Groo.

The contrast between Tom Yeates' dark and moody Conan and Arogenes' bouncy, excitable and stretched characters is always delightful, there is a terrific sub-plot featuring a delirious Sergio running around Central Park at night and falling out of trees, and it's a Groo comic, so there are a hundred gags in every issue. And all is right with the world.