Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tying the world together (and getting your end away) with Philip Jose Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer was tapping into something powerful when he had Doc Savage and Tarzan literally cross cocks that one time, and we're not just talking about the obvious throbbing members.

Farmer's A Feast Unknown brought together the two pulp heroes under legal-friendly aliases and is still a ridiculously entertaining action romp, 45 years after it was published in 1970. It's just a tiny slice in Farmer's massive bibliography, but it's one of the most crucial, and most fun.

The fun is self-evident, with the adventure icons racing through a fevered fight against the usual mysterious and vast global conspiracy, while all their clothes fall off. But the importance is seriously under-stated, because Farmer was playing around with some big, culture-defining ideas decades ago, and the mainstream pop world is only just catching up.

Farmer was always the totally harmless, slightly inappropriate and enormously entertaining drunk uncle of late 20th century science fiction literature. He had big ideas about life and existence and consciousness and this wonderful, strange universe of ours, but he was never afraid to get a bit dirty and grubby, and his best works were always a wonderful amalgamation of the gutter and the divine. 

He found a huge audience with his Riverworld books, one of the greatest high concepts in all of science fiction, as everybody who ever lived wakes up on the banks of a world-spanning river, with no explanations or clear purpose. He also got into some seriously psychological shit with his World of Tiers series, even writing a book about the series' real-life use in psychotherapy, and he wrote a genuine Kilgore Trout novel, which pissed off Kurt Vonnegut Jr enormously.

And he wrote dozens and dozens and dozens of other novels and essays and short stories, often targeting subjects that were traditionally taboo in sci-fi worlds, like sex and religion, and all the messy stuff in-between. His stories certainly weren't for everybody, and every now and then he could get genuinely offensive, but they were often more thoughtful than they looked, and just as exciting as they promised.

I came to Farmer by accident – his works weren't found in my local libraries, not even in the adult section, and I would have missed him entirely if I hadn't heard about him from an article in some random issue of Starlog. But that was enough. This is somewhere in my mid-teens, somewhere in the early nineties, and his fiction sounded incredibly enticing, and like nothing else I was reading at the time.

I soon found some slightly soiled copies of his work at the local second hand bookstore, and I was off. His work had a vitality that was often missing in other pulp pastiches, and he always remembered that while man was reaching for the stars, he was mired in physical desires. Sex and death often intertwined, which was incredibly appealing as a teenager, and gave his stories their own swagger.

And, best of all, he made connections between fictions that was remarkably addictive, building up this vast chronology of the fantastic, dating back thousands of years to the time of Opar, and pushing these stale old heroes into strange new territories.

His books could still prove maddeningly hard to find – I still haven't read the Mad Goblin/Lord of The Trees stories, because I've never seen them bloody anywhere – but I still couldn't get enough of this kind of obsessive cataloguing. And as Farmer ended up tying more and more characters into the same world – the world of the Wold Newton family – I was there for the ride.

There were other writers who did similar things before Farmer, and there had been intricate fictional universes in the world of comic books, but not on the scale that Farmer worked on. In his fantastic fictional biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage, he laid out a vast tapestry of ultra-heroism, all dating them back together to a single event – the falling of a meteor in England in 1778.

This real-life event was, in Farmer's hands, the catalyst for all the great heroes of 20th century action yarns, spawning legacies of grey-eyed and steel-jawed heroes. They were often related, and Farmer sometimes even made the argument that different heroes were the same person, cracking under the weight of multiple identities and convoluted histories.

In a long career full of brilliant ideas, this was Farmer's greatest. Bringing the heroes together, and saying they all existed in the same fictional world, was a fantastically strong idea that still resonates, today, and still produces fictions that make billions and billions of dollars.

Farmer's ideas of a shared world reached some strange moment of perfection in the slightly sleazy prose of A Feast Unknown, promising a universe where everything counted, and where everything was connected. It's a small world in the pulp universe, where these indomitable heroes could barely go to the store without stumbling across some other adventurer on a desperate mission of their own, teaming up for the greater good.

It's an idea that has been almost totally drained of anything exciting and new now, and recent attempts to build shared universes in movies and comics and novels has led to some regrettable efforts, but they can still prove both artistically and commercially viable, and both the successes and failures all owe their debt to Farmer.

Philip Jose Farmer merged with the infinite in 2009, but the ideas he left behind are getting bigger and bigger, as shared universes become the ultimate breeding grounds for lucrative franchises.

Farmer really tied it all together, and it's an idea that had been refined with a number of rollicking League of extraordinary Gentlemen stories by Moore and O'Neill, or Kim Newman's bloody fangtastic Anno Dracula series, and anything becomes possible, and anyone can meet anyone.

Farmer sometimes wrote himself into his own stories, using the most obvious pseudonyms, which means that while he is no longer with us, he lives on in his own fiction. Maybe one day we will wake up on a Riverworld, and he'll be there. I doubt he'll be smug if he was proven to be right about everything, but I'm sure he'd be proud.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Stray Bullets: Cooking up some more cool beans

David Lapham’s Stray Bullets is a brutal, lyrical and efficient crime comic, but it's also one giant, 50+ issue flashback. The opening issue, published and set in the 1990s, saw two hitmen have a spectacularly bad night, and ended with one of them walking away from a car packed tight with corpses, as if it was no big thing.

The following issues of the ongoing comic story have been set nearly 20 years earlier, and show how this criminal world – where such awful carnage can happen – was built up.

And now Lapham is back doing new Stray Bullets comics every month, and they’re just as sharp and harsh and beautiful as ever. They fill in more of this world with fascinating detail, as crime wars, blood vendettas and all kinds of insane shit goes down in the 1980s.

The good fortune of Lapham’s return to Stray Bullets cannot be over-stated, because it really looked like he had burnt out on the world of Virginia, Beth, Monster, Spanish Scott and the inevitable Amy Racecar.  After a flurry of activity in the nineties, the delays between issues got longer and longer, and the final issue of a multi-part storyline simply failed to appear as promised in 2005.

Lapham needed to get away from Stray Bullets, because he had a family to raise, and there was better money to be made working in corporate comics, and nobody can blame him for that. But the enthusiasm of his return to that world is still striking – finally finishing off that last issue and putting it out at the same time as a whole new series, along with a huge collected edition of the entire original series.

After sweating his guts out over the first few issues, Lapham has gone on to produce a dozen new issues of Stray Bullets over the past year, and the creator is going hard out to prove he hasn't lost the fire, with some spectacular results.

The first arc of the revitalised series featured the continuing saga of of Virginia Applejack, and her ongoing suburban horror survival story. After running away so many times, and falling into worlds of death and abuse, she's trying to settle down somewhere.

She's really making a go of it. It's not really her fault she has to keep killing motherfuckers who mess with her.  

Stray Bullets is an ensemble comic, with a crazy cast of memorable characters, but it's also Virginia's story. She's smart and funny and proud, and is constantly dancing on the edge of destruction without ever quite falling over. She doesn't take any crap from anybody, even if she knows where that attitude will take her.

She writes her Amy Racecar stories to make sense of her world – putting her frustrations and fears and horrors into fiction and firing them out into the world - but her own story is mad enough.

The second set of new Stray Bullets comics go even further back, explaining what was really going on in stories published nearly two decades ago. Lapham is playing the long game, slowly revealing information, over years and years.

Sunshine and Roses is full of moments of insanely tense drama, given extra wallop with the knowledge of where these characters are heading, and where they will end up. The differences between Beth and Virginia, a generation apart, begin to blur as the same old cycle of violence and retribution start all over again.

It a complicated and convoluted story – characters come and go, appear and disappear – and it’s also incredibly uncompromising in its complexity.

The basic plot is actually quite simple – it's just another decade-long war for a criminal empire – but it's told from the very edge of the story, from the perspective of beautiful fuck-ups and loveable drop-outs.  The unseen Harry lurks around the edge of the narrative, running the whole show with an unseen face, and even his main rival during Virginia's time - the cold Kretchmeyer – has only just been introduced as another young punk out to make a name for himself.

This ground-level view of the story is one of the real appeals of Stray Bullets. These people don't even get close to the Godfather's den, but can still feel his wrath when they cross him.

This doesn’t mean the story is grim, the characters are often total fuck ups who are the agents of their own misfortune – the most recent issue had some darkly funny bits involving a giant harpoon.  But it can be a brutal and unforgiving world – just ask Virginia Applejack.

The other appeal of Stray Bullets is the same as it ever was – this is a stylish and slick looking comic. Lapham’s storytelling is always absolutely clear, even when the plot twists and turns in on itself, and his figurework has a wonderful flow to it.

Lapham is also does some tremendous character work, nailing just the right shy smile or steely gaze. None of his characters – apart from the mirror Beth/Virginia thing – look like any others, and that's not just helpful with a huge cast of characters, it's essential to sum up everything about a person with a few short, sharp panels.

And while his art does pop in colour, Stray Bullets takes place in a monochrome America, where colour and light would be out of place. It's just as stark and sharp as it needs to be.

There is still a lot of time to fill until Stray Bullets gets back to the 1990s, but it’s heading to that car full of corpses - and the horrible feeling that the original body in a bag that the killers were hauling around is someone we know.

Hopefully, there are plenty more Stray Bullets to come, to fill in that long gap. Lapham's latest enthusiastic streak should be encouraged as much as possible because these comics are entertaining as hell, smart as fuck and stylish as shit.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Looking for a super path: DC at the turn of the century

You don't know you're living in a certain Age until it's over, and nowhere do you see that better than with DC Comics. The publisher has been there since the start of superhero comics and the Golden Age, and is a clear thermometer of certain eras – you can pick the start of the Silver Age by an issue of Showcase.

The line into the Bronze Age of comics is less well delineated, but can still be seen in issues of Brave and The Bold and Jimmy bloody Olsen. After that, it gets a bit more confusing, with talk of Platinum or Aluminium Ages, but that just sounds stupid. I like to think of the eighties as the first great Post-Modern Age, and the nineties as the Ironic Age, although I'm concerned that this sounds just as fucking stupid.

Whatever the case, around the turn of this past century, DC Comics were running out of steam after the injection of new thrills in the 1980s, and the enormous sales success that came with Superman's death. Even if the company didn't really know it, it was casting about wildly for a new direction to take the comics in. Some kind of new tone and feeling for the 21st century.

Fortunately, they had a few options.

The first path was the Morrison path.

In the late nineties, Grant Morrison had overcome superhero fatigue by going epic, pushing the iconography up front, while still holding onto the silliness of superhero nonsense.

His JLA run was deceptively simple, gathering together the biggest and most popular heroes again to fight bad guys on the cosmic scale, and made it look really easy. The uninspired rip-offs of his ideas that followed showed just how hard it was, although they also inspired other slices of genius - Warren Ellis took things even wider and crazier with his Authority and Planetary comics.

The problem was, Morrison made it all look too easy, and it really wasn't, as subsequent uses of his strange characters has proven. His heroes are still the same square jaws that were running around in the 1960s, but had weird, idiosyncratic twists that were often overlooked when they went out into the greater playground of the DC Universe.

Morrison's style – of forward-thinking, heritage-embracing, day-glo optimism -  certainly influenced other corners of the DC Universe at that time, with writers like Tom Peyer digging the same attitude in Hourman, and still does, with the recent Dial H For Hero comic by China Melville proudly showing off its Morrison influence.

The second path was the Johns path.

By the year 2000, Geoff Johns was still the relatively new kid on the block, but showed a talent for superhero fun and games with Stars and STRIPE, and the fairly well-received Day of Judgement crossover comic

His long Justice Society of America run set the platform for the themes Johns would explode all over the DC Universe – it had even more of an eye on history, but was not afraid of naked melodrama, with grieving heroes crying in the rain, and limbs ripped from bodies on a disturbingly regular basis.

It's a diluted form of the superhero carnage in London seen in Alan Moore's Miracleman, with shock value that was always slightly pulled back. Following the example of James Robinson's Starman comics, Johns lathered on the personal angst to cover up this shortfall, and found a huge audience who liked to see superheroes call each other by their real first names.

The third path was the Waid path.

Just as the real heroes came up with a third option when offered a monstrously dire either/or decision, Mark Waid's comics took the best ideas of Morrison and Johns, and made them their own.

He even got there first, with both of the other creators openly acknowledging his Flash comics as major influence, and it is arguably the most influential DC comic of the nineties, with his legacy ideas carrying across to every single major character in the universe.

By the time this whole millennium thing was winding up, Waid was still perfecting his own ideas about the tone of the DC Universe, with interesting mis-steps in the Kingdom Come spin-off series. It wasn't long before he got his chance to create a definitive Superman origin with the Birthright comic, and Waid had a strong editorial hand, capable of weaving his ideas out amongst the wider multiverse.

And there were loads of other smaller, less well-trodden paths, with odd and strange comics published by the company that didn't fit into any category, and could have inadvertently sparked a new renaissance.

Imagine a DC where the dark, savage and warm humour of Ennis and McCrea's Hitman comics set the tone for the big crossovers, and the joyous carnage that would result. Or imagine if Giffen's marvellously crazy nineties work had the popularity of the things he did a decade earlier, and we were still all reading Vext comics. Or where Miller's second Dark Knight was actually celebrated for the joyous piss-take that it is.

Or just imagine a world where Peter Bagge's strange little Sweatshop and Yeah! Comics that DC put out at the time turned out to be massive successes, spawning a new golden age of situational cartooning and comics about pop stars in space for the company.

But you have to just imagine it, because Johns won, of course, setting the tone of years of DC adventures on the macro-cosmic scale. It was his style that caught the eyes of both editors and readers, leading to bigger and bigger comics, more events, more rebuilding of the universe, and another bloody Superman origin.

The success pushed other writer to follow John's style and it was most obviously emulated by Brad Meltzer in the brain-searingly popular Identity Crisis comics, which took all that crying in the rain to the logical extreme, even if nobody really wanted to see the Elongated Man sobbing over his dead wife.

It worked out all right for DC – they sold shit-tons of comics on Johns' name. And Morrison and Waid and all the rest still did their own thing, in their own corners of the universe. Everyone got what they needed, even if it wasn't always in the portions they wanted.

While it could be argued that the new film where Batman and Superman out-angst each other is the ultimate development of Johns' style, it really all reached a peak with the New 52 initiative, where the main editorial credo seemed to be 'Do it like Geoff'.
But his Superman and Justice League aren't clicking like they used to, and that's only fair. It's another new decade, and time for something new.

DC knows it too, with some slightly more experimental comics coming down the pipeline – including, hilariously, a new Hitman spin-off – and we won't know for years what has really caught on. It could be something unexpected, or it could be another revival of past glories. It should be fun seeing what happens next.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max – Fury Road: Fanging it across the post-apocalyptic wasteland

When it comes to the art of cinema, there is nothing more exciting than watching some mad son of a bitch put his life on the line for some crazy stunt. It's been a constant thrill, right from the beginning of film – the lunatic antics of Harry Lloyd and Buster Keaton are just as exciting now as they were 100 years ago.

Over the years, stunt masters have evolved the art of putting themselves into harm's way, and men like Yakima Canutt and Vic Armstrong did things no sane human being would do. But they did it on film, for all the world to see forever more, and that made them legends.

The rise of cheap and easy CGI has led to the loss of genuine human danger in the big spectacle movies, but there are still tonnes of great stuntmen in movies and television  - Game of Thrones, for one, continues to show a wonderful disregard for stunt people's health and safety – and there are still beautiful nutballs like Tom Cruise, who is quite willing to strap himself to the outside of a goddamn cargo plane for the thrills.

And George Miller is still making Mad Max films, somehow finding a whole new generation of mental Aussie bastards willing to jump around on vehicles travelling at insane speeds.

After a lifetime of loudly declaring Mad Max 2 to be one of the greatest films ever made, and 29 years after a trip to the Thunderdome blew my brain right out the back of Dunedin's St James movie theatre, my own expectations for the new film could not have been any higher.

The continual delays only fuelled those expectations, as the film was pushed back by financial disasters and genuine Acts Of God, but Miller and his collaborators kept at it, and eventually carved a new Mad Max film out of light, dust and velocity.

And after years and years of talk about it, suddenly there were photos of actors on the set, and then there were the remarkable trailers, which promised a whole new level of post-apocalyptic mayhem, and I didn't care about Star Wars or The Avengers or Pitch Perfect 2 or anything else any more. I just had to see this film, above all else.

Those kinds of expectations frequently sour. There have been dozens of films over the years that didn't live up to their trailers, and The Phantom Menace still holds the ultimate prize for building hope up with a terrific promotional campaign, but it was a hope that shattered under the mediocrity of the finished films.

I get pretty fucking excited about films I really want to see, but I always have to reign it in during the days leading up to see it, otherwise I can't bear the disappointment. But I couldn't help myself with a new Mad Max.
Comic legend Brendan McCarthy contributed to the look of the film, (look upon his works, and marvel), and it looked incredibly stylish and intense, and it looked and sounded like absolutely everything I loved about the art of film. How could I not be beside myself with anticipation?

And so, after seeing the film on Thursday night, I can safely say it didn't just meet those unrealistic expectations, it blew them out of the fucking water, and then ran over them multiple times with a 4WD made of buzzsaw blades.

Mad Max – Fury Road is just as good as everyone says it is. It's unrelentingly excellent, with strong and hopeful subtexts anchoring a roaring, thrashing beast of a film. It has some stunning production design, creating an extraordinary and strange post-civilisation world, and is surprisingly thoughtful, without ever belabouring the point.

It's also still proudly and shockingly Australian, with both a hard-out and hard-case mentality, and the film stands as proof that the Ocker accent is strong enough to survive the nuclear flames. Everything in Max's world is getting steadily crazier, evolving into new absurdity as the radiation of the landscape warps minds and bodies, but it's still recognisably Aussie.

It's a story that doesn't stop moving, with no room for lengthy exposition – you find out who people are by how they react and what they do when the shit goes down, with just enough dialogue to both lay down the universal themes - “we are not things!' - or get genuine laughs: the 'Mediocre!' line is the funniest in the whole series.

But even as the white-line nightmare that is Max's life spreads and overwhelms the whole  world, the film doesn't ever lose sight of the humanity amidst the whirlwinds of chaos. Tom Hardy is an ideal new Max, properly feral when pushed too far, utterly dedicated to his own survival, with just enough of the sort of charm and tenderness that Mel Gibson used peeking through.

Other than his usual transformation from selfish, crazy loner to somebody who will happily sacrifice himself for others, Fury Road is not really Max's story. It's the people he runs across in the wasteland who are the real protagonists. Charlise Theron is absolutely fantastic as Furiosa, taking her destiny into her own hands; Nicholas Hoult manages to give real life to a crazed and suicidal fanatic, and the various actresses playing the wives, who are all scared, strong survivors, are the beating heart of the story.

These actors all give the story real depth, giving whole lives to characters with efficient grace, but the best thing about the new Mad Max are those astonishing in-camera effects, and the crazy bastards who bring the mayhem to life.

They're leaping around, body-slamming each other on top of moving vehicles, with the screen roaring with veolicty and momentum. They're driving new vehicular nightmares at top speed across the brutal sands of nothingness.

Here, the art of the stunt is still alive and kicking like a rabid mule. Here, the sons of Lloyd, Keaton, Canutt and Armstrong are keeping that thrill alive, thumping their way through the movies, their antics looking grittily real in a world of CGI weightlessness.

It's been a good week for great expectations because I got the same happy thrill from the new Faith No More album - fears that it would be another half-arsed effort by asnother past-their-prime band were blown apart by Sol Invictus.

But that joy is nothing compared to the breathless beauty of a new Mad Max film, fanging it across the movie screen. Max lives in a brutal world of fire and blood, but there is still sheer art to be found out there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fantastic Four's greatest adventure

There is a new Fantastic Four movie coming out soon, and it shows an impressive willingness to shake up the core concept a bit, messing around with the FF formula in a bid to create something new.

This has inevitably led to the usual tedious debates about what the one, true FF actually is – many are adamant that the stunning work Lee and Kirby did for the first 102 issues remains a high water mark that nothing else has come close to, while others prefer the cosmic/domestic craziness seen in later comics by Byrne or Straczynski or dozens of other creators.

The arguments are all pointless, because everybody has their own subtle idea of how the FF works, and what their greatest period was, and what the general theme of the comic is. And as far as I'm concerned, the only one, true Fantastic Four is the one that creeps through strange haunted houses and battles their ultimate foe – the mighty Doctor Weird.

I never had much of a connection to the Fantastic Four. I've really only bought it regularly every month twice. Once was during the interminable DeFalco/Ryan run, and my only excuse for that is that it came out at a time when I was buying every single comic I could find. (link to the driving story) The other time was when Mark Millar was writing it, and there is no excuse for that.

The Lee and Kirby comics were well before my time, and I was shamefully late in falling for their charms. I have, at times, been interested in later efforts on the comic, but have only ever read them in back issues and collected editions.

When I was much younger, a cousin of mine had a brilliant Fantastic Four collection which he would let me read. But they were always just a little too clean and white-bread - I was always more of an X-Men or 2000ad kid – and the claim of being the World's Greatest Comic Magazine felt a little arrogant.

But I did have one story featuring the Fantastic Four at their most fantastic, and I've still got it today. It's the Big Little Book adventure called The Fantastic Four in The House Of Horrors.

The Big Little books were these strange little paperbacks, thick and tiny, with a prose story and a full page of cartooning on every other page. They were around for decades, and were a useful stepping stone in childhood reading habits – I totally used them as a step between things like Noddy books and the more sophisticated reading of, say, a Terrence Dicks Doctor Who.

They usually featured cartoon or TV tie-in characters – the Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy had multiple books, and I still have a crazy Goofy adventure stashed away somewhere in the cupboard.

And sometimes there was a superhero one - a primary school classmate once made me insanely jealous by bringing 'The Cheetah Caper', starring Batman, into school. But I got my own back, because I had the Fantastic Four one, and it was brilliant.

It was called The House Of Horrors, and it featured a freakishly powerful illusionist named Doctor Weird who could turn into literally anything, no matter how spectacular or boring. He could be a bead curtain of snakes, or an elemental force, or a tiger, or a lamp. Nobody knows!

So he calls out the FF, says he’s going to take over the world, and challenges them to come to his house on the edge of town, (which is also pretty weird, because I’m pretty sure Manhattan doesn’t have spooky old houses standing in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the city). They go there, split up, get defeated by Doctor Weird, team back up again, and defeat the bad guy, whose powers bounce back on himself, and he disappears himself, forever!

The Big Little Book is full of illustrations by Herb Trimpe at his ultra-simple late sixties best, and they tell a story full of mundanely surreal moments, like Reed Richards tying himself in knots, or empty rooms full of odd death traps.

The fact that it’s not actually a comic book – it’s an illustrated novelette – means there is also a weird disconnect, with the characters shouting in silence, their dialogue taken away and bolted down into prose on the side of the page.

It actually gives the book a spooky vibe, in a way that very few other FF comics ever managed. The team is boldly venturing into the unknown, into a world where nothing is real, and where a broken chair with a rusty spring can take down the mighty Thing, or the FF are literally chasing smoke.

It's so awfully dorky, it's kinda charming. There are some other nice touches – The Invisible Girl is the only one of the team not to fall victim to one of Doc Weird's evil traps, while the boys tie themselves up in knots, which is pretty progressive for a sixties superhero story.

It's not the most awesome adventure they ever get into - Doctor Weird really isn't of the same level as Doctor Doom, or Galactus, or even the Mole Man - but it is an easy-to-read and slightly addictive taste of the Fantastic Four's adventures, and that's enough.

Doc Weird really did disappear himself, forever. He never appeared in any of the comics, and I doubt the Big Little Books fully fit in with modern Marvel continuity, so this one strange little story is as far as he goes.

I don’t expect this FF to be the definitive version for anybody else, but this will always be the real Fantastic Four to me, in a way that psychedelic craziness of the very best FF comics never really will be. Who needs to save the universe, when you've got a spooky haunted house to roam around in?

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Multiversity: Funny books at the end of everything

Despite all the gaudy costumes and silly superpowers, it is possible to take superhero comics far too seriously. The big comic companies positively encourage that seriousness, with a big push for their most 'important' stories, conveniently ignoring anything that points out how bloody absurd they really are.

And it's certainly possible to take Grant Morrison's superhero comics too seriously – because they're full of big, weird themes, and plotting that is complex to the point of being obtuse. Morrison's superheroes are stranger, stronger and smarter than the average capes 'n tights brigade, so you're almost obligated to take them seriously.

Which is a bit of a shame, because sometimes, they're really, really fucking funny. Even in the darkness of despair, there's a grin.

Almost all of the Multiversity comics that Morrison and his strong roster of artists have produced over the past year have ended on a down note, where all seems lost as the trumpet sounds for the end of the world. With the notable and vital exception of good ol' Captain Marvel and his chums, who are just too darn positive to ever really corrupt, everything is screwed for everyone.

And it just kept getting worse, through every issue, as body counts rose and all hope shrivelled up, until you get to the Ultra Comics issue, which is just nihilistic to the nth degree. It's a comic that reached a point where writers and critics whose opinion I trust and value were actively repulsed by it, seeing the themes and ideas within as actually harmful.

And then the final issue came out last week, and one of the main characters is an eight-foot tall bunny who can shrug off decapitation due to the cartoon laws of physics that rule his world. And if that isn't a sign that Morrison isn't taking things as seriously as some people think he is, then the constant cracking of jokes certainly is.

The Multiversity #2, drawn by Ivan Reis, sees DC heroes from dozens of alternate worlds team up to beat down the bad guy – a extra-dimensional and existential bunch of thugs named the Gentry. And that's exactly what they do, with multi-trillions of lives saved and a new team of super-guardians established, a new force to help defeat greater menaces that flare up towards the end of the story.

It's ultra-fast paced and very, very serious about defeating evil, but it's also crammed full of goofy gags, with Captain Carrot even taking a panel to point out how absurd it's all getting, and that absurdity will always triumph.

There are the cutest little versions of the Justice League being used as vessels for the ultimate evil; Aquawoman turning out to be the biggest, baddest native life-form in her universe; a Rubik’s cube being used as the engine for utter destruction; the Hellblazer's awful cockney accent; the way the Savinas are so easily taken care of; vampires craving lattes and Americanos; and the final – perhaps ultimate - joke that the cost of saving all of reality works out to be about eight hundred bucks.

As stylish and smart as these comics get, it's in the humour that the humanity lies. It might put off those readers who can't bear the wink of irony – something that worked perfectly fine for super-comics for decades and decades – but it's the dumb jokes that give the vast cast of the story their humanity.

Of course, it could be argued that the humour distracts from the deeper, darker themes, and is designed to do that, part of the uber-story that I'm being distracted by daft one-lines distracted y the

But I'm not going to argue that point, because that's sucking all the fun out of it.

Multiversity hasn't been the greatest superhero comic – it hasn't been been the greatest Morrison superhero comic. The constant rush of other-wordly versions of beloved characters becomes a chore to keep track of – there are so many different versions of Batman, giving a shit about any of them takes some considerable effort

It's not confined to Morrison's stuff, or even DC – even Spider-Man has recently spent months lost in a crowd of alternate versions of himself – but the avalanche of Sight Different Versions of favourite characters just keeps diluting the original concept.

Still, it is interesting – and again, quite funny – that none of the Justice Incarnate team at the end of the story are from the main DC universe, with the heroes from the regular continuity missing out on the mega-threat entirely.

There is an interesting side effect for the story taking place outside the confines of regular continuity – you're left with characters who are echoes of the regular one. The African-American Superman is still a totally valid Superman – he even has the right costume and attitude and everything - but he's still just another version of the original, cooked up by a couple of young dreamers in the 1930s.

These echoes of familiar characters extend to strange versions of  entire worlds and universes – long-ignored continuities dusted off for the 21st century.

They're familiar, but they're still not the same worlds that Kanigher, Haney, Fox and so many other great writers came up with – they're new, changed versions. All these echoes give the Multiversity comics a strangely haunted feeling, which feels fitting, because its supposed to be a haunted comic, isn't it?

Modern superhero comics are still stuck at the level of the late adolescent, where everything is so serious, and there is nothing to laugh about, and

A new round of catastrophic crossover comics is about to roll out, with Everyone fighting Everyone for the sake of Everything, and there will be a lot of gritted teeth and bowed heads and very serious agonising over sacrifice and loss and what it means to be a hero and blah blah blah...

With worlds living and dying and living again, there probably won't be room for smiles or ironic, optimistic winks. Superheroes are too busy and serious for that.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Prisoner: Falling out of the world

Every now and then, there comes a fictional character who can't be broken or compromised in any way. Somebody who will never go down, even when things get really, really weird. Someone with astonishing willpower and the drive to use it, somebody that you can't help but admire and want to emulate..

Somebody who will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.

Somebody like The Prisoner.  

The Prisoner was a 17-episode television show produced in Britain in the late 1960s. It starred Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, an ex-spy kidnapped and dumped in a trippy seaside prison. The system want to know why he resigned, and will resort to the most bizarre  methods to crack his resolve.

They trick to break him, and trick him, and cajole him into revealing his secrets. But he resists, fights, holds fast, maintains, and he beats them all.

It's a happily surreal serial, with anachronistic charm and genuine dread, tackling big issues of self and identity and resolve, while leaving crucial questions unanswered, and a climax that is deliberately mad and obtuse. It also featured some trampoline boxing.

It was McGoohan's show. He was fantastic as the unnamed lead character, refusing to be labelled as Number Six and standing firm against monolithic madness, and he wrote and directed the most pivotal episodes. The glory and shame is all his.

Fortunately, there is far more glory than shame. The Prisoner is arguably the greatest television show ever created - and sometimes I'll certainly argue it.

This I know: Sometime in the mid to late nineties, when I'm young and drunk and spending all my money on booze and comic books and giant cream buns, I convince myself that the last episode of The Prisoner is the greatest thing ever filmed. I watch it over and over and over again, night after night after night, until the dialogue is seared in my head.

I usually watch it when I'm a bit fucked up, because that's when things are really cooking. It was the prefect background for early evenings drinks, with the daft dialogue and mammoth subtexts firing up the head, and it was perfect for the end of the night when I got home, a blast of mad artistic energy after an evening at the pub.

This goes on for a couple of years, until the last episode is seared into my head. I love the previous sixteen chapters, but the climax is everything I look for in my fiction, and so much more.

It's the culmination of all the strangeness. In a last, desperate bid to break Number Six, they subject him to deep brainwashing and regression therapy, building him up again, and he still didn't break, and the system finally concedes to him.

Most of Fall Out sees the System hold a grand ceremony honouring his achievement. After gloriously vindicating the right of the individual to be individual, the assembly rises to him, and begs him to lead them, for he is the only true man there.

It's a strange metaphysical celebration of the self, while still something that is unreal, with biting dialogue that is sharply resonant without ever really making any sense. You don't have to know what a regrettable bullet is to have your attention drawn to it.

It's also an ode to rebellion, with acknowledgement of the revolution of youth, and McGoohan's approving smirk as he tells the young man standing in for all youth everywhere that he shouldn't knock yourself out,while also featuring the revolution of a member of the establishment turning upon itself. Leo McKern is marvellous as the career bureaucrat and former number two who finally gives the system he loved the stare, born again after literally breaking down during the failed regression plan. (The filming of the episode was reportedly so intense that McKern did actually have a breakdown, but he's back in fine form for the finale.)

And finally, it's about the triumph of Number Six, who finds out what happens when you beat the system and are given complete freedom - the system tries to bring you in, changing itself to suit your view. The ignored masses and political elite alike need him.

It's all a bit of a mindfuck, and just what I needed when I was 22 years old, and suffering the usual confusions about identity and self. McGoohan articulated all that existential messiness in a stylish and entertaining way that appealed to me like nothing else, save for the odd Alan Moore or Grant Morrison comic.

And it was funny and cool, which also helped and made it so endlessly rewatchable. The crazy tracking shots around the main hall in Fall Out, showing off the wonderful set design, and complemented with some incredible sound work, mixing the Beatles with 'Dem Bones' and blasting tones of authority.

And all that absurd humour - the inability of the mob to get past the word 'I', the slaughter to 'All You Need Is Love', the freed Prisoner's pantomiming explanation to a dubious cop, the monkey's face lurking beneath number two's mask, even that final revelation that the 'I' is '1'. Taking all this ridiculousness seriously would not be wise.   

It was the most perfectly insane thing I'd ever seen. And of course, given the choice to lead or go, The Prisoner burns another path and destroys the system instead, and what young punk doesn't like to see that.

My obsession with all things Prisoner cooled over the years, as these things always do, but I still have enormous amounts of affection for the series, and for what Patrick McGoohan was trying to say with it.

McGoohan passed away a few years ago, refusing to offer up any easy explanations for what he was saying, and greeting any in-depth analysis with that McGoohan snort of derision. He was awesome.

While McGoohan has gone, his work remains, and it's more than just a bunch of blistering acting roles over the decades – it's one of the finest stories ever put to film, as aggravating and resonant and marvellous and obtuse as it ever was, or will ever be. In the end, The Prisoner escapes into a world that is just a bigger prison. All these years later, he'll never be free of a devoted audience.