Friday, October 23, 2015

I have no idea what is going on

When DC first announced Crisis on Infinite Earths, somewhere in the 1980s, one of the most repeated rationales for the series was that the DC multiverse was getting too confusing. There were, after all, a good half-dozen main universes to keep track of, and DC management thought this was far too complicated for the kids.

Which is still hilarious in hindsight, because their comics became infinitely more complicated, convoluted and confusing over the next few years after Crisis, as soft reboots clashed with hard restarts. And it all seemed so unnecessary, because it was absurdly easy to tell the difference between all the different universes in the first place – Earth 1 were the hip modern things, Earth 2 were the cool old dudes with silver in their hair, Earth 3 was where they were all opposites, and Captain Marvel’s Earth was just cleaner than everybody else’s efforts.

So I used to scoff and sneer at people who didn’t understand the concept of multiverses, because it was so easy to keep track of. I was 10 and could figure it out. My mum could tell the difference between Superman and Ultraman.

But I can’t scoff any more. Because now I honestly have no idea what is going on.

Consider the Ted Kord version of the Blue Beetle – a daft and fairly generic superhero who I still have a lot of affection for, based primarily on his leading role in one of the greatest superhero runs ever. I liked Ted, and was suitably gutted when he was shot in the head 10 years ago, mainly to show how rotten everything was getting. (Good job, DC!)

But I honestly couldn’t tell you if he’s currently alive or dead in the regular DC universe, or young or old, and whatever. I saw him show up in some Convergence-related comics, but I don’t know what that means, or if it means he is sticking around. I don’t know if the Dan Garrett version is still a thing, or if all those adventures thtat Jaime Reyes got up to still actually happened in current continuity.

And that’s just one character – I am totally baffled by vast stretches of the DC universe, and sometimes I don’t even recognise anything familiar. I could still keep track of things, even when I wasn’t even reading any of the damn comics, as recently as a couple of years ago, but I’m just lost now.

It’s not just DC. Marvel has unleashed a vast number of related titles spinning out of their biggest characters, all just as confusing. I could give a history of the X-Men in detail up to about Uncanny #300, and can give broad strokes for the next 15 years, but get a bit lost after that.

And now, with all their Secret Wars shenanigans, I don’t know what the hell even counts as the real world any more. This patchwork approach is great if you just want some kind of action-figure plotting, with zombies versus Ultrons versus Doom, but it blows the whole idea of a coherent universe right out the window.

Which undermines a lot of the appeal of the Marvel Universe, on a very fundamental level. If it is a mish-mash of different worlds, than nothing matters, and nothing is important. You can make a big deal out of killing Wolverine, but when there are 20 other versions ready to step in, it just becomes a confusing mess of real/not real – Schrodinger’s Marvel

This all used to be so easy. I know part of the reason is that I’m an old fart who doesn’t really give a shit about 94% of all superhero comics anymore, but that’s been the case for the past 20 years, and I could still keep a coherent view of the big picture. I still read collected editions from the library, and it was easy to keep up with the hype of the big events in these perennial heroes’ lives

Not any more. I’m so lost, and there are three main reasons why.

The first is that there are just too many revamps, restarts and reboots. The big comic companies are so obsessed with giving new readers jumping-on points, that it becomes impossible to work out where to start. When even a title with a concept as simple as Secret Avengers has had three different restarts in three years, with little obvious sign of what came first.

And the full reboots they keep pushing out never work, because they’re no full enough. They never go all the way and start from scratch, too scared of upsetting a loyal readership, so they have to make sure that things like the Killing Joke and Civil war really, actually happened, even though there is no way they fit into the rapidly sliding.

This drive to keep making things contemporary leaves the companies with a bunch of concepts and characters that are instantly dated, and ones that nobody in their right mind wants to follow.

The second reason I’ve got so lost is a storytelling one – too much time travel, too many alternate versions and too much time spent dicking around in new dimensions.

I’ve got no problem with time travel stories – Doctor Who is still the greatest TV show in the history of everything – but when they’re happening so frequently, and in so many different comics, any rules invariably go out the window, and you end up with multiple versions of the same character, adding to the whole cacophony.

And with multiple worlds and universes in both Marvel and DC continuity, neither publisher can resist breaking down the barriers between them. Wolverine might be dead (and we all know how temporary that is going to be), but there are 12 other versions of him running around the place, so it’s not like we’re going without.

It turns any noble sacrifice to mud, when there are a whole multiverse of replacements, and it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the different versions, no matter how much the creators sweat to make them stand out.

The third reason is that there are too many comics. Way too many comics.

It was easy enough to keep track of, say, the X-Men when there was just the one Uncanny title and a couple of spin-offs, but when there are up to 12 X-comics coming out a month, it’s easy to let things slip. Sales are a mere shadow of what they once were, and further dilution of the more successful brands and characters can’t help, especially when it makes it harder to keep track of everything.

And so I’m genuinely lost by it all. Maybe, once upon a time, there might have been a spark of interest in following this complicated trail as far as it can go, but that enthusiasm is long since extinguished.

There is certainly an audience for this tightly-woven incoherence. And I don’t mind if they scoff at me for getting confused by it all. They’ll be old and confused one day too.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Warren comics freak me out, man

Horror was always my thing, and I could handle almost any kind of horror comic as a kid. I devoured all of DC's safe and cosy horror comics, feel in love with British weekly efforts at the genre, and even resorted to the crappy Charlton ghost comics if there was nothing else available.

But I couldn't handle all of them, because I also had access to some of the horror comics published by Warren, and they freaked the fucking shit out of me.

All these years later, they still do. But they are so good looking, I can not look away.

When I was young, there were always copies of Eerie and Creepy and Vampirella floating around - there were some weird kids who happily collected everything they published, and they were the sort of comics my groovy uncles were always reading - so they were part of a regular adolescent comic habit, along with more usual kids fare like Whizzer and Chips and Richie Rich.

The adults didn't like me reading them, and even though this was infuriating when I got one taken off me when I was nine, they were right. Because these were not for kids.

These weren't the sanitised and safe stories that you found in House of Secrets and Unexpected and Weird War Tales, the type of comics that even my Mum liked to read. These were something different. Something dirtier, and more dangerous, and grosser. And proper scary.

They were horror stories for older teenagers and young adults, with more nudity and outright sex than any other mainstream horror comic. They peaked in the 1970s, with stories of fluid sexuality and mind-blowing alien trippiness coming out every month.

Vampirella was their most popular character, and while she starred in more groovy pin-ups than any other comic character outside Conan, there was never really a classic Vampirella story. They were a bit greasier and slicker than the usual vampire fare - Dracula looked horribly out of date next to the groovy inhabitants of the planet Drakulon (but has dated far less badly since then.) And they ramped the sexual overtones into overdrive, blasting the reader with oceans of beautiful bodies in between the eternal war of the undead.

But the publisher's real bread and butter titles were the short story horror anthologies, with multiple titles offering up cheap thrills over the years. Eerie and Creepy were easily the most successful, both lasting for more than a decade in a crowded marketplace, their main point of difference their willingness to get a bit dirty, in both art and script. They weren't just full of spooky pictures, they were full of spooky ideas that kid just can't get their heads around.

The stories were also strangely clumsy, and always seemed just a bit top-heavy or over-excited, or had dumb twists that landed with dull thuds. These weren't the clean twist endings of the regular horror titles, these were weirder and more unpredictable, and it all added to the uneasiness.

It even extended into the pages and pages of ads that were always crammed into the back of the magazines, because they were full of toys and records and magazines and posters and calendars and books and Battlestar Galactica jackets that I would never, ever see in the real world. They rarely got as far as 1980s New Zealand, and certainly not down my end of the country. I had no way of ever getting my hands on them.

So they became ghost toys, weird little detritus if pop culture that only existed in the back pages of Vampirella. I loved reading these old catalogues, and imaging what I would indulge in if I lived in the States and could actually get these things, but they were just pathetic fantasy.

It all added to the discomforting nature of the Warren comics. They weren't just freaking me out, they were taunting me with their adult themes and situations, and mocking me with their impossible toys and books.

So I would always read the odd Warren comic, but I was never hooked, and never really sought out any issues. I would still see them around, but I would never bother seeking them out. As I grew up and went through the usual awkward teenage years, they made me feel even more uncomfortable, because everything in the whole world made me uncomfortable then. And without that base obsession, it was easy to not bother, when there were plenty of other things to discover.

And I'm strangely glad that I wasn't into them for so long, because I've discovered all that other stuff, and the Warren comics are a whole new world opening up for me now.

I still think the stories are clumsy, even with scripts from noted pros like Archie Goodwin, Don McGregor and Doug Moench, and hungry young punks like Bruce Jones, Steve Skeates and the mysterious T Casey Brennan. But I've come around to their wonderful tastelessness, and I'm not so creeped out by all those mature concepts.

Some of the craziness still skeeves me out, but holy crap, they are full of such beautiful art that is still alive and powerful, all these years later. They had master artists like Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, John Severin and Richard Corben doing some extraordinary work, freed from the constraints of four-colour superheroes, and allowed to go crazy. 

It's all grey-washed tones, but pencillers like Tom Sutton and Russ Heath, with his extraordinarily smooth lines, gave the black and white stories extra depth and polish, while keeping storytelling clear and calm. And there was a  host of foreign brilliance, artists like the magnificent Jose Ortiz, bringing new textures in to mainstream monotone comics.

The plots might have been clumsy, and so many twist endings just never work, but the art was of a real high standard, and the design departments responsible for these timelessly beautiful comics could show modern horror publishers a thing or two.

So after years of ignoring Warren Comics for back issues of Suicide Squad, Grendel and the Nth Man, I now happily pick up sexy collectons of Corben's work, and other nice chunks of the the classic comics. And I still pick up the odd old issue, with its mysterious stains and all.

The toys in the back still seem like an impossible history, and the gross stories on yellowing paper look as sick as ever, but I can not look away.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sandman Overture: The anti-story equation

This will spoil the hell out of Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams III

Sandman was a story about stories. You could tell this, because every now and then, the story would stop dead, turn to you and tell you to your face that it was a story about stories.

This was always a large part of Sandman's charm, along with Death's cheery disposition, Todd Klein's maniacally perfect lettering and Morpheus' ever-groovy haircut. Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics have never made any secret of what they are, and often used those meta-textual expectations to subvert the deepest-set traditions of the comic medium, while always appearing faintly surprised that it was allowed to get away with it.

So when the latest Sandman comic comes to an end with the usual meta-shenanigans, it's not much of a surprise. What is a surprise is how much Gaiman takes a torch to that charming and cosy sense of storytelling, and burns the whole thing down with glee.

There is still an energy to Gaiman's Sandman comics, even though it's been 20 years since the series finished. You can still see how intoxicated Gaiman became when he realised he could tell a story about anything he felt like in the pages of Sandman, with a small army of terrific artists - including Bachalo, Zulli, Jones, Thompson, Talbot and many, many others – only too eager to bring those dreams to life.

It found a loyal, if overly goth, audience, and was many peoples' introduction to Gaiman's tone of measured humanity getting mixed up in crazed fantasy. It's not a comic for everybody – it could be awfully earnest, blatantly sentimental and far too clever for its own good – and some of the monthly comics now look a little dated and naive.

But it was still a comic that valued the dreams and desires of trans people in modern New York as much as those of Emperors of Ancient Rome. It was a series full of experimentation with comics form, while nailed down in classical storytelling techniques that were immortal.

Sandman came to a very definite end with #75 in 1995, ending the a story of an omnipotent personification of the Universe's ability to dream, and his very bad decisions. It ended with some Shakespeare and a glass of wine, but it never really went away.

While he embarked on a stellar career as a full-time novelist, Gaiman would often find the time to tell some new story of the Endless, popping up in some Vertigo anthology here and there, with some eight-page story. They were charming enough, and more than a little predictable, because they were all about how you should always, always be careful what you wish for.

There was a whole book of Endless stories, with beautiful art from Barron Storey, Frank Quitely and others, but this was more of the same. Any ideas about a 20th anniversary series came and went, with Gaiman under other obligations - it literally wasn't worth his time to spend any of it writing a comic book.

And then all the deals were suddenly done, and over the past year and a half, Sandman Overture has been coming out semi-regularly, offering a story of what happened to Morpheus, in the time leading up to his imprisonment in an English cellar at the start of the monthly series, all those years ago.

It did take a long time to come out, with laughably optimistic promises of a bi-monthly schedule quietly swept under the carpet. But it did reach its conclusion recently with the release of the sixth issue, (with decades of high-priced reprints and collections to come).

It's the art that first grabs the attention, with Gaiman giving JH Williams III all sorts of other-wordly tableaux to draw, and the artist gleefully responding, with a bewildering amount of different styles. He gets to do his version of Jack Kirby's bombast and Charles Vess' ultra-delicate line, sometimes in the same panel.

If there is even a panel to cram them into - with the opportunity to craft a literal dream world, Williams III smashes, dissolves and melts the barriers between individual panels, or crafts them out of background elements. It can be hard to follow, but any worthwhile comic takes a bit of effort, and this is beautiful enough to try.

Gaiman's story is a typical take of the end -and rebirth - of the universe, all carried off with his customary whimsical touch, that gives it all a feel of the intentionally anti-climactic. Gaiman's apocalypses might have death tolls in the trillions, but always end up centred on a couple of characters standing around talking, and Sandman:Overture is no exception.

It has been full of tasty little easter eggs for fans of the original series, unlocking a few minor mysteries that had been left hanging around for years, checking in on old favourite characters and featuring specific call-backs to favourite chapters of the Sandman story, (especially the one about the cats).

And there are important and fundamental additions to the entire Sandman mythos, just thrown in there for the hell of it. After all, it's not like anybody was desperate to meet the Endless' parents, but you still got him to visit them both, and there was even less need for them to be the poetic coupling of Time and Night, but it's just the sort of glorious literalness that Sandman was always so proud of.

But Sandman Overture isn't quite as safe and cosy as it looks. Intriguingly, it also ended with one of Gaiman's most nihilistic statements about the power of stories. It ends with everybody noting how pointless the whole thing has been, because it will be a story that nobody remembers, and doesn't really matter.

Hope literally dies – twice! - in this story, and it comes dripping in melancholy, because we all know how it's going to turn out, and we all know it's going to end with Morpheus trapped for decades in a grotty cellar.

While it sheds new light on the infinitely complex relationship between Dream and Desire – she/he will bring about his destruction, but they might actually understand each other better than any of the other Endless – Sandman: Overture ends with everybody forgetting that it ever happened.

And it's not like it matters, because this is a fictional story, and it's not like it's real or anything. This story is already a part of Sandman, but it's also an anti-story, lurking around near the starting point of this strange saga.

It's all a bit of a joke really, and you can hear Gaiman chuckling away if you hold your ear to the page, because of course he thinks stories matter, and even the silliest comic book has something to say, even if nobody in the actual story learns everything. But it does give the story a bit of extra bite, a sharp edge in all the cosiness of a celebratory story.

There will be undoubtedly be more stories of the Endless, with Gaiman unable to stay away from that metaphysical pantheon for too long, but this Overture has come to a jarring and unsettling end, just as unsettling, and just as funny, as all the best dreams ever were.