Friday, October 31, 2014

Lost in Armageddon

It was somewhere just past the 3d lenticular Walking Dead wall hangings that we got stuck. The crowd had reached a point where there was no room for anybody to move, and we were all stuck at the crossroads between the video gaming hall and the stalls full of replica steampunk weapons.

It was my mate Kyle’s first Armageddon geek convention in Auckland – the biggest nerd event of the year – and he'd travelled all the way from the South Island for a day at the show. It started out as a bunch of trading card and comic book dealers gathering at a racecourse hall in the mid-nineties, and now attracts tens of thousands of happy nerds. The trading card dealers are all long gone, but there are still a few comic stands out there, and that’s why I’m there.

Kyle is there for other things – a chance to get an autograph and photo with a current Doctor Who companion is a ‘no-brainer’, so he’s flown up from down south just for that. The lines for this briefest of interactions is surprisingly fast, and he’s free, so we go to walk the con floor, get about 20m and get hopelessly, helplessly stuck in a sea of geek.

It’s no use moaning about it. I’m still taller than 90 per cent of the crowd, so I can see over their heads and see that the hall has become hopelessly gridlocked. The showgrounds has wide, clear aisles, but there are just too many people, and one hopelessly impractical Silent Hill cos-player getting stranded at a crucial juncture can bring everything grinding to a halt.

So all we can do is wait for a moment to clear, and take more interest in those lenticular wall hangings than they deserve. The only other option for freedom is to start treading all over the seven-year-old in a Captain America costume beside us, and that would not be a good look, so we just help shield the little guy from the flow of the crowd.

Earlier in the day, Kyle and I got into the exhibition space early through the magical power of media passes, so got a chance to scope out all the stands before the day actually started, and now that he’s got his scrawl and pic, he’s happy. We would bolt altogether and go for a quiet beer somewhere, but there is one more stand I want to get back to, because I'm not done with the comics just yet.

There is a brief surge in the crowd, nothing violent, more a moment of relief, and we get to backtrack down the aisle a bit, but we only get 10 metres before everything grinds to a halt again.

At least we’ve got a different view and, improbably, it’s a comic stand. High end back issues, where 9.8-grade issues of the Claremont/Miller Wolverine #1 and mylered-up issues of early Fantastic Four comics go for hundreds of dollars.

It's good to check out all those gorgeous covers while we're stuck here, but this is not my market – I crave the old stuff, but don’t give a damn about the condition, so I’m more happy buying 20 $1 issues of DC war and horror comics from the 1970s from a different stand, rather than one half-way decent issue of mid-sixties Justice League.

(I always have weird regrets from these kind of things – I see a comic that I desperately want, but it’s just a little too expensive, and then I wish I’d gone back and I regret it forever, and it comes at this booth – that Spider-Man v Super-Man Treasury edition is looking a little ragged for thirty bucks, but I’ve never seen it for less than $50 in this part of the world, and I’ve just about talked myself into getting it, and then there is a gap in the crowd, so we bolt for it, and I leave it behind, and that was two days ago, and I’m still cursing myself as a stupid fucking wanker for passing on it.)

Even without that titanic team-up, I still come back with a small pile of comic goodness, and some fairly inexplicable awfulness

The day before the crush, on a Friday night preview, my American friend Nik somehow convinces me that I should really get all five issues of Trouble, the universally panned romance comic by Mark Millar and Terry & Rachel Dodson, for a whole $2.50, and it's actually an easy sell, because I do still like those creators, and have always been fascinated by the vastly negative reaction to this series.

But it will be a while until I get around to reading it, because there is a whole bunch of other good stuff. Beautiful little oddities like The Joe Kubert School Presents: 1st Folio #1, Charles Vess' The Book Of Night and Buck Godot: Zap Gun For Hire. Crucial gap fillers, including the inevitable 2000ad and Vertigo comics. That small mountain of ratty war and horror comics, and Tom Spurgeon's sweet hardcover book about the Romita family.

And, best of all, the Dharma Punks, the only comic I've ever helped Kickstart, is finally available in a collected edition, and I arrange to pick up my copy at the show, and congratulate Ant Sang on finally getting it out. Trouble can wait, when there are three-hundred pages of kiwi punk comix to devour. 

But before I can get to all that, I have to get out of here alive. We get a bit further towards the corner of the hall before we’re stuck again, as we’re hit face-on by a surge of people from a panel starring Richard Dean Anderson, but then we duck down past the dude with the awesome Judge Dredd tee-shirts (I already got three), and we're almost free of the mass.

It could be so easy to freak out in this situation. It’s actually a good vibe. It's like a good concert, where there can be long frustrating lines for refreshments and toilets, but everyone is just stoked to be there, buzzing off their favourite band, just like we're buzzing off our favourite comic, or game, or TV show.
And when we all get stuck, there is no need to panic, especially with so many kids around. Nobody gets really shitty and everybody waits patiently for a gap, even if- Shit! There's some room! Go, go, go!

And then we’re free, ducking down a side corridor and coming out near that stand with the weirdest and most wonderful comics available at the show. This is why I'm here.

I'm here for the place where I can get two (2!) Dave Cockrum tribute books, a rare early Knuckles the Malevolent Nun comic, some Milligan/Aparo Batman, the first three issues of Toxic, the last four issues of Marvel's Vampire Tales, random issues of Bizarre Adventures and Savage Tales, a Young Blueberry album and dense issues of Deadline & the Comics Journal – all for less than fifty bucks.

I don't care about the long lines, or the crowd compression, or the sheer weight of nerd that descends on the Auckland showgrounds every year. Not when there is such treasure to be found.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Censorship can really fuck you up

As long as there has been art, there have been people wanting to cover it up and keep it quiet.

Censorship exists in that brutal space where individual artistic freedom slams into the blunt wall of society's moral code – it was there when ancient Christians hacked the cocks off Roman statues, and again and again in the past century - when William Gaines failed to explain why a severed head was in good taste, when the UK Government lost its shit over video nasties in the early 1980s, and when US artist Mike Diana's comics were deemed so gross he was actually legally forbidden to draw anything.

The crusaders for good taste stake their claim on the moral high ground, and don't even understand why there is resistance to their meddling and editing. But they're also hilarious in their piousness, especially when all their efforts don't mean shit, because censorship never really works. And sometimes it just makes things worse.

I know where I stand on the argument: artistic freedom is paramount, and no matter how disturbing or offensive things get, I always know one simple rule – and it's one that 95% of people figure out while they're still kids – it's not real. It's okay, it's just fiction.

There are writers and comedians and other know-it-alls that are deliberately provocative, trying as hard as they can to be offensive, and my little punk heart thrills to see them trying to get a reaction, and while it's also so terribly adolescent, I don't think you can ever shut them up. After all, how will you ever learn what people really think if you don't let them speak?

I'll always stand up for the little guy. I proudly get the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund annual issue every year, even if fully half the stories are always painfully, painfully earnest. After all, I have a fascination with intense fiction – the kind of stories that go all the way, and then some – and that leads to regular frowning and muttering, and even to outright cutting or banning, if enough people get their knickers in a twist.

It doesn't work. I remember watching Robocop on TV, somewhere in the early nineties, and after they cut all the swearing and violence out, it just made it all more noticeable in its absence, especially when the cuts took out key parts of the plot. It was laughable, especially when they would dub over horrid swear words, and mother fuckers would become melon farmers.

Censorship invariably brings attention on the thing it's trying to suppress – I would never have heard of Mike Diana if his artistic rights hadn't been trampled upon. In a typically brilliant episode of Father Ted, an attempt to say 'down with this sort of thing' makes a dodgy filim all the more enticing, because nothing makes people want to see something more than somebody else standing in the way, saying they really shouldn't.

The worst case of censorship I ever saw, (and its hilariously awful consequences,) was a few years ago when the lovely wife and I were in Egypt. It was the hottest part of the day, and everyone was getting in out of the sun, and we were chilling in our hotel room, with the air conditioner on maximum.

One of the few English language stations was playing old movies, and Billy Wilder's marvellous The Seven Year Itch came on, and it was just the thing for the long wait for the shadows to lengthen: a witty, clever story of life in the big city.

It's a terrific film, with one of Marilyn Monroe's greatest performances. And it's a stifling, claustrophobic and muggy film, set in the confining skyscrapers of New York in the middle of a stinking hot summer, with all sorts of temptations to let off a little steam.

It all famously reaches a head in Marilyn's scene with the subway wind blowing up her dress, and it's not just a gloriously iconic moment in cinema, it's a real moment of release of all the frustrations of the film, finally giving it some room to breathe. While watching the film in my tiny Cairo hotel room, I knew that scene was coming, and craved that breathing space in provided in the story.

And then they cut it right out.

The Egyptian TV that we got to see had no problem with a bit of the old ultra-violence, but physical intimacy was right out. No holding hands, no embracing, and definitely no kissing, even in something that was more than half a century old.

And definitely no Marilyn Monroe enjoying herself.

It was easy to see the cut, and you could even understand the motives of the censors (without ever having to actually condone it). But it threw the whole movie out of balance – without this moment of pleasure, the film was just stuffy and hot, and massively unsatisfying. Without any contrast or release, there was almost no point to the whole film any more.

In trying to keep minds uncorrupted, they left them frustrated, which doesn't work out for anybody.

And then! On the flight home, the lovely wife was watching that awful Australia film, starring Huge Jackman and Nikki Kidman, and she was really into it, because that's the sort of thing she's into, and it was all leading up to the moment when the rugged man and determined woman finally embrace and...

They cut out the kiss, because we were on an Emirates flight, and they didn't want to corrupt us with images of face-locking, and the lovely wife almost punched the screen in emotional frustration.

She said it was the biggest tease ever, with no reward. A harmless little romance movie becomes something deeply frustrating.

A year after we left Egypt there was a revolution against the government. I'm not saying a national government was overthrown because of an oppressive approach to entertainment that denies any kind of real release or relief from the stress of modern life, but it probably didn't help.

We all need our entertainments to get through this slog of a life, and any film that is thrown out of careful balance can become incoherent, or actively subvert the actual message of the movie.

That's why you can't trust people who try and stop you experiencing your kind of art, especially when they're telling you it's for your own good. Because that kind of closed mindedness isn't good for fucking anybody.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

They might be superheroes who fuck, but they're still just fucking superheroes

A good friend of mine named Max (not his real name) had a real alcohol problem when he was younger. It cost Max his marriage and his job, and he was a hair's breadth away from falling into homelessness.

But he pulled back from all that, and slowly got his shit together. But when Max tells people he had alcohol issues, they often don't believe him, because he still enjoys a wine with dinner or a beer at the rugby. He doesn't get drunk anymore, but he'll still savour a couple of drinks.

Max's reasoning is that  if he gave up the booze completely, it would still be running his life, even through its absence, and his method of avoiding chronic alcoholism meant he couldn't give it that much power over his life. He's always clear that this doesn't work for everybody – most former alcoholics can't taste a single beer without falling into addiction, but it certainly works for him.

Comparing a terrible issue like alcoholism to superhero comics might be a little trite, but this is (mostly) a blog about comics. Trite is what I'm here for, so I'm going there anyway.

For decades now, I've been reading essays, articles and interviews (and in the past few years, watching videos and listening to podcasts), bemoaning the impact of the superhero genre on the comic medium, convinced that comics would only thrive and grow if everybody stopped reading bloody Spider-Man comics. After all, there were so much good non-superhero comics out there, why couldn't everybody be reading Eightball instead?

The authors of these very serious think-pieces are always at pains to point out that they don't actually read the silly things, (except the odd Morrison comic, but, you know, he's one of the 'good' ones), but that they are all obviously tarnished with infantile power fantasies and deep-seated misogyny, while the treatment of the iconic superheroes' creators also allows them to take a warm and smug position of moral superiority.

I read and listen to these things because they can be both genuinely thoughtful and unintentionally hilarious, sometimes in the same piece, but I don't really ever understand them.

If they really don't like superheroes that much, why the hell do they spend so much time and effort talking about them?

I guess my first issue is that I'm not even remotely interested in defining what a superhero comic is. That just leads to tedious arguments over genre definition – the single most boring discussion you can have about your fiction – and nobody wins those. I still occasionally see long message board discussions or Twitter conversations that spend a lot of time and effort trying to work out if Judge Dredd is a superhero or not, and all I can think is: Who gives a shit? Does it really matter? Judge Dredd is a great comic, who cares what category it goes into?

I can certainly understand the frustration when things like Youngblood sold a million copies, while people ignored the ongoing brilliance of things like Love and Rockets. But I stopped getting upset about the tastes of the general public not matching my own when I was a goddamn teenager, and realised it didn't matter what was #1 on the pop charts, I could just listen to the stuff I liked. And just because I liked it, doesn't mean everybody else has to.

I don't shed tears over the state of cinema when the Transformers films rack up billions, despite being total bollocks, while interesting movies die at the box office – I'll do my bit, but I can't make everybody like the good stuff, because everybody won't like the good stuff.

But the main issue, is that once you decide you don;t like something anymore, or grow out of it, or remain eternally baffled by it's popularity, why spend more time dealing with it? Move the fuck on.

I really, really don't like Geoff Johns' interpretation of superheroes, so I don't read Geoff Johns' superhero comics, and that's all okay. He certainly had his fans, and his stories do resonate with many people, so I can stand aside, and move on.

In fact, I'm genuinely not interested in 95% of the superhero comics published every month – the vast majority are tedious, unimaginative and bland. And it's incredibly easy to skip past them and zoom in on the stuff I really want.

Because I do still like a smart, stylish superhero comics, and there is still that 5% of the good stuff.  Sometimes it shows up in the strangest of places, and sometimes it appears from the most trusted of creators, but there are still some wonderful superhero comics out there.

And I love the good stuff, because I love the ideal of the super-hero. I know the actual comics can be horrible, but their foundation on fairness and justice and compassion is timeless.

You can rail against them all you want, but those kind of ideals never die, no matter how bad an individual comic can get.

It's only going to get worse, as superheroes seep further into all aspects of modern culture. Cinema and television can now do big epic superheroic shit without resorting to making it jokey, and some of the biggest movies of the current age feature men in tights. (Or kevlar, or rubber, or whatever the hell they use now.)

But don't worry about it. That's Max's point – a pint of cold cider on a warm summer's day is just refreshing, nothing more. He doesn't sit there making a point of avoiding past temptations, he just ignores them and gets on with his life.

Again, that's not for everybody, and I have other friends who I am super glad they will never drink again, but if it works for somebody in a big, life-changing event like alcoholism, it can work in the silly world of comics.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Them's fighting comics

I like stylish and smart comics – comics that make you think, while looking good. I like complex sagas and humanistic aches, and I’m always looking for comics with a bit of thematic, emotional and spiritual depths.

There are plenty of comics that are both intellectually stimulating and terribly moving, and we could always use more. They make us all better people.

But sometimes, all I want to read is a comic book featuring two characters beating the living crap out of each other.

Kirby was the King because he brought power and motion into the funnies like nobody before him, but the lessons he taught have been diluted through the generations. Fight scenes in modern mainstream comics are usually painfully generic – a whole lot of posing followed by uninspired fisticuffs, as characters run around unbound by realities like gravity or momentum.

After all, it isn’t easy to stage a good fight scene in this static medium. Action scenes are all built around movement, and that's the one thing comics can’t do. Instead, they have to create the illusion of movement through smart staging and thoughtful use of the space between panels to build the notion of a live beatdown.

There are still plenty of modern artists who can draw a mean action scene – Stuart Immonen‘s action scenes in recent X-Men comics are vibrant and alive, and the sheer power of Frank Miller’s art often blinds me to the dodgy ideology of his stories.

And there are still plenty of good action scenes in comics, you’ve just got to be prepared to look for them among the mountain of mediocre mayhem. There are still great fight scenes lurking in a new Shaolin Cowboy or BPRD comic. I’m usually only truly blown away by a nice piece of action once a month or so, but sometimes you get a double dose, in the unlikeliest worlds of noir and laffs.

There were two tastes of terrific action in the small stack I brought home from my most recent visit to the friendly local comic shop. The comics they appeared in couldn’t be more different, but they both came with pure thrills.

The first one was in Matt Wagner’s latest Grendel comic, so that wasn’t much of a surprise, because Matt Wagner’s Grendel comics often come with clear, distinctive action scenes, (his second Batman/Grendel story is often sneered at for a lack of complexity, but has some of the best smackdowns in comics). But the fight scene in the opening pages of issue two of Grendel vs The Shadow #2 was still excitingly unpredictable.

The appeal of crossover comics like this is that you get to see iconic characters who have never met before truly test themselves against a worthy opponent, and it’s enormously satisfying to see The Shadow kick seven kinds of hell out of Hunter Rose.

Hunter Rose is a great character – arguably one the greatest comic characters to be created in the 1980s – but he is also a bit of an insufferable prick. Arrogant beyond words and bitingly callous, the only times he is really put through his paces is when he takes on another powerful figure, usually from another universe.

And The Shadow definitely wins the first fight between these two - after Grendel ended up back in the Shadow’s era through some kind of time travel shenanigans, the two were always bound to clash – with Grendel’s cocky arrogance see him losing the battle, and his wickedly lethal fork.

It’s pulse-pounding action, with blows landing with a cracking ferocity, and Grendel’s flying attacks coming up against the brick wall of The Shadow’s unbreakable will. It’s clear, concise action, as two uber-men with extraordinary skills show off their moves, which include hypnotism, smoke bombs, and wicked jabs at nerve clusters.

The second issue ends with an imminent rematch, as Grendel uses his smarts and his natural sneakiness to get the upper hand, and the concluding part of the story is bound to feature more of the same magnificent fisticuffs. Bring it on.

The Shadow and Grendel are fighting in a dark world of stark colours and intense sneers, but there was a second blast of decent action in last week's comics, in an entirely different world - a world of swords, and sorcery, and cheese dip.

I didn’t start getting Groo vs Conan because I was desperate to see some kind of titanic clash between two quintessential barbarians, I got it because Groo comics are always jam-packed full of laffs, and the comic's inherent silliness only amplified when contrasted against the moody seriousness of Conan. Conan has cracked about four jokes in his entire history, and although his po-faced seriousness can often be hilarious, it's usually not intended to get that reaction.

But that makes him the perfect straight man to Groo, as Conan wrestles with the unbelievability of Groo's seriousness before the mayhem starts. That's not surprising, and it's not surprising that the sub-plot of an addled Aragones running around the city, totally out of his mind and imagining the whole crossover, is also hilarious.

But what was surprising was how exciting the actual battle between these two swordsman actually is.

When they finally throw down, it’s a proper fight, with Groo's furiously pumping arms and legs against Conan's slower, more powerful bulk. It really shouldn’t work, with Tom Yeates’ textured Conan smacking up against Aragones’ usual rubbery line, but it does, and that contrast only helps build up the flow of the action.

It also helps that the fight at the end of #3 of the crossover is really, really funny, with Groo spouting silly lines – “Groo moves with the speed of a duck!” - or stopping in the middle of the battle and trying to remember what his great skills actually are (probably something to do with having a good memory).

The two characters clash with confounding calamity, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful mess.

The fact that both of these comics are crossovers mean there can’t really be a result to all this fighting – Groo can’t slay Conan and The Shadow can’t put Grendel down for good.

But that's okay - I'm not in it for the thrill of who-beats-who,  it's the fun of the fight itself, and even in this gloriously static medium, there is some fast-paced action to savour.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Welcome back to Twin Peaks

When David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks made its debut in the early nineties it quickly scored a massive audience, hooked on the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. But that success was fleeting, and the series was cancelled after just two seasons, as the audience fell away in their millions.

It was just too weird, and in the end, too uneven for the world, and it's notable that the strange and beautifully distinctive residents of Twin Peaks immediately gave up their central position in the early nineties US TV zeitgeist to Beverly Hills 90210, with its clean cut kids.

Twin Peaks returned a couple of years later with the intentionally baffling Fire Walk With Me prequel - which is only now really being generally recognised as a great Lynch film - and that was all there was for more than two decades, until it was revealed yesterday that Lynch and Frost were returning to Twin Peaks for a new series in 2016.

I could not be more excited about the fact that my favourite gum is coming back in style.

I can't watch Twin Peaks in the daylight, it's always been a late, late night thing.

It's somewhere in the nineties, and I finally get to see the whole series when it was, at long, last repeated on TV – DVD box sets are still more than half a decade away. But it's only being shown at two o'clock on a weekday morning, so I set my alarm clock to wake me up right on two with a blast of Britpop, watch the episode and go back to sleep for another few hours and have some fucked-up dreams.

It downloads directly into my subconscious, and leaves the real world feeling flat and uninspired, because I'm walking through a boring old world, but in my head, the owls are not what they seem, and there are places beyond space and time that can be soaked in fear, or open with great hope.

It's still early days into the return of Twin Peaks, with no announcements regarding the return of crucial cast members, although it has been confirmed that Lynch will direct all nine episodes.

Nothing else is known, but one thing is certain - it's bound to infuriate some fans, delight others, and baffle the rest.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of Twin Peaks in the history of American television drama. It put charm, complexity and sheer weirdness onto primetime screens, and proved to be massively influential.

It helped break the 'case-of-the-week' structure that was predominant in television at the time, with a long-running story that refused to offer easy, or quick, answers. Lynch and Frost famously never wanted to reveal who the killer was at all, and the caving in to network pressure on that issue was a huge nail in the series' coffin.

Twin Peaks also offered a unique creative vision - it's a complete world of strangeness and detail that could only come from the perspective of these creators, and that's a lesson that other important shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Deadwood took to heart, to tell their own stories, in their own way.

It's still somewhere in the nineties, and it's still somewhere in the early hours of the morning, but this time I'm really, really fucked up, and I've just staggered home from the pub, and somehow Fire Walk With Me is playing on my shitty video player.

My mates were laughing at the woman in the red dress, but I can't take it, the whole thing is so fucking emotionally and thematically rich. I've been regularly listening to the soundtrack, and Laura isn't just a victim – she sacrifices herself to save her friends, and maybe the world.

And then they go to the nightclub, and the music is pulsing and the lights are flashing, and the lights in the room I'm sitting in start stuttering for a moment, and it's all real, man, and it's profoundly terrifying for a good three seconds, followed by an enthusiastic euphoria at the weirdness of it all.

The world really is a weird place, and it's awesome.

Lynch drifted away from the show after the first season, and went off to create some of the creepiest and most unusual movies on the 1990s, but did return for the final episode, ending the series on several painful cliff-hangers that are still unresolved.

They certainly weren't resolved when Lynch made his final visit to the town, for the Fire Walk With Me movie. Fans of the show who expected Lynch to tie up loose ends were left unfulfilled, and even angry at the film's failure to provide answers, although some critics hailed it as one of the great horror movies of the nineties.

Lynch and Frost both moved onto other projects, and Lynch's next major TV series turned from commercial disaster to artistic triumph when the Mullholland Drive series was cancelled, and he used the bones of the pilot to create one of the best movies of his career.

But there was no more talk of Twin Peaks. Lynch said it was dead, and even the fabled directors cut of Fire Walk With Me, with featured cameos from many of the show's quirky characters, was locked away.

And now it's the sci-fi year of 2014, just a few weeks ago, but it's still the timeless, endless late night, and I'm watching Twin Peaks again.

It's that Fire Walk With Me footage, which I'd given up hope of ever seeing, suddenly out there in the world, and it's so familiar, largely because the full movie script was one of the very first things I ever downloaded off the internet, but there are also all those other forgotten characters, still shining in early nineties youth.

It's disconcerting, especially because the new scenes have no real soundtrack beyond the dialogue, even though they have been put together by Lynch, and the lack of music and that quiet Lynch drone of dread gives the unearthed footage a step towards cold reality.

It's all out there now.

But Laura Palmer did say she was coming to see us again in 25 years, and she was always true to her word, even if she was dead, and the return of the actual series was finally confirmed this week.

The fact that Lynch will direct the TV show is very good news, especially since he hasn't directed a feature in almost 10 years, since 2006's Inland Empire, and his brand of idiosyncratic fiction has been deeply missed.

After all these years of anticipation, the new series is bound to disappoint many, and can never live up to everybody's expectations. But the murder mystery appeal of Twin Peaks faded a long time ago, and the stranger parts of the show have a weird timelessness that still holds up.

A return visit to the town again after all this time is bound to be startling, unexpected and uncomfortable. Just like it should be.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Under the big sky (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Western)

There were only two TV channels available when I was a little kid, so the choices of entertainment on endless rainy Sunday afternoons was severely limited. One of the channels would usually be playing some kind of incredibly boring sport like snooker or golf or motor racing, and the other would probably be showing an old western.

And I hated the old westerns. Some of them would start with that Warner Bros sting, and every time I saw one, I would pray that they were going to play a Daffy Duck cartoon or something, but then it would all be black and white dust and scraggly bushes and boring boulders, and it would be just another damn western.

I was a Star Wars kid – the original films came out when I was between two and eight years old, which means I never stood a chance of being anything other than a Star Wars kid. And it led to a true fascination with the weird and wonderful worlds of science fiction, and things like 'real life' and 'realism' could piss right off.

After all, how could even the best Western ever compare to anything that had lasers and monsters and spaceships? All the cowboy movies ever had were endless dull pistol gunfights and women in huge dresses swooning over the passion of it all, and even as a kid, the ideological treatment of the native American population in most films was dodgy as hell.

That affinity for science fiction and fantasy naturally led into a teenaged horror obsession, and meant I would watch the worst nth-generation copy of an Umberto Lenzi film over anything with cowboys in it. And then I got bored with all that rubbish, grew up a bit, and suddenly, all I wanted to do was walk tall.

I finally got into the Western genre in my very late teens, and I walked in through a door marked 'CLINT'.

When you leave school and head out into the world, you don't know who you are yet, and all you can do is model yourself on the people you admire, even if they're fictional. I was happy to have some of Patrick McGoohan's enigmatic bluster from The Prisoner in my mix, and still prided myself on living up to Superman's moral code.

But Clint Eastwood was the coolest of them all, a man of very few words with the most intense squint in the world, and while I was (and still am) a total pacifist who abhors violence and can't stand the macho bullshit behind the use of guns in the real world, the same character that Clint played in almost all his movies still seemed like a brilliant role model.

His many, many films varied in quality from outright rubbish to sheer brilliance, but the best, without any question, was Unforgiven, and that film single-handedly finally opened my mind to stories being told on the the wide prairie winds.

Unforgiven has a shaggy and loose first two-thirds, but the just makes the apocalyptic good climax all the more stunning. The last third of the film is pure melancholic poetry, as William Mummy reveals that the weight of all his death-dealing is still on his shoulders, and that it's something he'll never get over.

He knows that violence is not the answer, but he still goes into Greely's shithole and kills everybody who fucks with him, whether they really deserve it or not, and then stands out in the rain under an American flag, and tells the survivors to make it right, or he'll kill every damn one of them, and that doesn't just rip apart the heart out of the Western, it's a concise and poetic way of exposing the heart of American itself, one of honour and friendship, crawling its way out of a bloody and muddy past.

Westerns didn't have aliens or hyperspace or teleporters, but they could come loaded with meaning and gravitas that space sagas can never really match, and after having my mind blown by Unforgiven, I started watching every Western I could find.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is the other great Eastwood film, not just because the lead character is a one-man army who can not be stopped, but because because there is iron in his words of life and death, and his willingness to leave the blood behind.

And the Eastwood hero-worship inevitably led to the Spaghetti Westerns, which could be lacking in the emotional depth of Eastwood's later work, although Once Upon A Time In The West is still a jewel of a movie, exposing new depths every time it's viewed.

But while they had their moments of  sad pathos, the Spaghettis were mainly just hugely entertaining with fantastic histrionic performances and set pieces of unbearable tension and excitement – the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is still one of the  tensest, operatic action scenes ever.

And once I'd got over my innate prejudice of the Western, there was no stopping me, and there was so much more brilliance to be found, and I'd follow any recommendation from anywhere, from movie magazines to the Preacher letter column.

I had always thought of John Wayne as a bit of a shallow caricature of a character, but after watching films like The Searchers, Rio Bravo and Stagecoach, I grew to appreciate his subtleties – the moment in The Searchers when he finally catches up with his lost niece after years and years of hateful tracking, and embraces her, still might be the most moving moment in all of cinema.

And there were always new lessons to learn - films like The Wild Bunch taught me the value of having a code, and of sticking by your word, even if it means your death, and more films articulated that unjust treatment of Native Americans that I had always felt uneasy about.

Westerns are the poetry of the common man in an uncommon land. It's a hard land, and taming that landscape inevitably sees characters taming their own souls, and becoming more civilised and more human.

They could get giant performances from Gary Cooper, Lee Van Clef, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and even Dean Martin. They splashed the wide open legends of America across the big screen, and confronted the country's own myths.

They helped teach me that genres don't really matter, and that great stories can be found on dusty roads, just as easily as they can be found on alien landscapes. And they featured some extraordinary stuntwork, of a kind rarely seen anymore.

And they were stories of people – broken men and resolute women, thieves and bounty hunters and herders – finding their place in this new world. What kind of young man could ever resist that?

The golden age of the Western movie ended a long time ago – cinema-goers became more interested in spectacle than introspection, and while the genre will never really die, there is just the odd tale of the Wild West .

By the time I got into them, there were few showing up in theatres at all. Occasionally you'd get something like the Quick And The Dead, an unashamed cartoon, or worthy efforts like Appaloosa, Seraphim Fall, or the magnificently melancholic Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford, or modern version of ancient themes like No Country For Old Men.

The best Western tale of the 21st century wasn't even at the cinema - Deadwood was the best of the great HBO series of the past 15 years, and re-examines a lot of the themes that made the Western great, while bringing something new to the table.

And even though Deadwood is ten years old now, and there are relatively few tales of the Wild West forthcoming, there are still some, and I'm on board with them all. I'll never get into space or fire a laser, but I'm ready to saddle up and ride into the sunset any day.