Thursday, November 26, 2015

These things are true

* Whenever I buy a lot of bronze age Marvel and DC comics, and read them all in one go, I get this slightly horrible feeling in my throat and eyes, like they are full of dust. It can take days to go away, but old comics are always worth a sore throat.

* Last night I had a dream that I was running late to get to work, but then I ran into Alejandro Jodorowsky who was watching a cricket game at the Auckland Domain, so I had to stop and talk to him about his last movie, and then it all turned out okay, because Chris Pratt showed up and took me to work on his flying skateboard.

* I think the constant and blatant misreading of the goddamn Batman scene in Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All Star Batman and Robin used to be funny, but now it's just old.

* I hate coriander so much, and it drives me crazy, because when I go to a restaurant and look at the menu, and they're full of succulent meals, but then they've got coriander in them, and they might as well shit all over them, because coriander tastes like watery death.

* The other day I made a point about mens' fashion in the eighties and nineties, and when I used examples from the first Die Hard and Michael Mann's Heat to nail my argument, I felt an enormous sense of well being.

* Sometimes I think that one scene in Miller's Crossing, where Tom tells Leo that he never says “I told you so' and hates everybody who does, and then turns around and says 'I told you so' at the earliest opportunity, is the best analogy for 90% of what happens on the internet.

* I own eight books about Hammer's horror movies, but I only own seven of the actual films. Nature is out of balance.

* I'm only one issue away from completing a 20-year quest to get all of Ennis/McCrea Demon comics, but I don't want it to be over. It's my last great search.

* On the other hand, there are still 89 issues of 2000ad to go.

* I'm now into my third month of an extraordinary Storage Wars binge, and I thought I'd totally be over it by now. BUT I'M NOT.

* Klaus is the first Grant Morrison Comic I didn't immediately snap up as soon as I saw it in about 22 years.

* Still, Lazarus is the first Greg Rucka comic I've ever bought on a monthly basis, largely due to the extraordinarily strong world-building.

* I always read magazines backwards. For some stupid reason, I always start at the back, and work my way forward.

* After reading about it - and looking for it - for years, I found an original 1977 copy of Robert Mayer's Super-Folks in the op shop just around the corner, which was almost as balls out exciting as finding that $1.50 copy of that Fortune Hotel paperback - where Morrison first really talked about his Kathmandu experience that one time in the supermarket where my mum used to work. There is still a part of me that hopes to run across a copy of Lovely Biscuits, although it's pretty unlikely.

* Then again, I did score a copy of The Dying Days by Lance Parkin, the only eighth Doctor New Adventure, this week, and I've been after that fucker since 1997.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Too many dicks in the DCU

You can't blame people in the DC universe for getting a bit stressed out about life. They never know when one of their beloved superheroes is going to go apeshit and wipe out a whole city in some grotesque way, or when their whole world might get destroyed by some planet devourer, or when their entire timeline is rewritten so they never fucking existed in the first place.

These are some unique pressures, especially if you're not on the eternal merry-go-round of life and death that the iconic heroes go though. It can't be easy, living in a city like Gotham, where the Joker might just decide to poison the whole city's water supply because why not, or in Metropolis, where Lex Luthor could happily push you under a train if it slightly annoyed Superman.

But they still don't have to be such a dick about things.

I'm certainly used to the mindless mob and stupidity of dumb prejudice of the civilian population of a superhero universe – that came from years of reading X-Men comics. But it's still fascinating to note that there are comics where the people in them are just such total dicks, it's hard to take them seriously.

And it's more than enough  to put me right off a story, when the levels of obnoxiousness get farcical. Because if they're so annoying, who can be arsed following their stories?

It certainly killed my interest in the Batman Eternal series, which I decided to give a crack when it showed up in the library, because I still like Batman comics, just not enough to buy them, and I don't mind reading new comics that are actually a year old.

It looked nice enough at first, but kicked off with an awesomely dumb and stupid sequence in the very first chapter.

The weekly series started with a horrific train crash that kills dozens of people, and in the immediate aftermath of it, a bunch of authority figures stand around yelling at each other about whose fault it is. While people are lying maimed and dying around them, they don't drop everything to help out in any way they can, they just stand there and act like gigantic douchebags.

Not only that, but they're leaping to instant conclusions about the cause of the terrible accident, which could apparently all be caused by a stray bullet hitting a power box on the wall, rather than waiting for the facts. I'm sure the people lying there in mangled wreckage a few metres away are only too chuffed to hear what the priorities are there. Look at them pose stoically as people bleed to death in the crushed wreckage behind them:

If you start a story with a tragic event, you have to convince your audience that these are real people who are suffering, or it's all hollow and false. If the first people on the scene of a terrible accident aren't instantly leaping to help, in any way they can, they're not real people. They're freaking monsters

Later on in the comic, the lead dickhead from that scene also personally sets free a psychopathic murderer, who instantly turns around and straight up kills a couple of people, which takes arseholeness to actual criminal levels.

I'm sure the series has its merits, but I didn't want to read any more after that, because if the comic doesn't care about the characters acting like the worst humans in the world, and just uses nameless victims that nobody cares about to propel its dubious tragedy, I'm not going to give a shit. I went off and read some Squirrel Girl comics, and had a grand old time.

There is still a place for the humble douchebag in a superhero comics - I love both Guy Gardner and the mighty Lobo, but they're obvious joke characters, and if you're going to sell something as serious and important, you can't have everybody acting like laughable buffoons.

Especially when everybody is acting like an irredeemable arsehole. You need to have some decent people to contrast their awfulness, and you want the fatheads to pay the price of their idiocy.

So many modern comic writers confuse surly and snarky arrogance for interesting character development. It's there is the superheroes, and it's there in the supporting cast. And it's been like this for a while for DC, in an era where Geoff Johns is the biggest influence.

One of the last Johns comics I ever read was a Flash comic from a couple of years ago, that saw Barry Allen start up work in a new police lab, with new workmates. And they were all such dicks to him, snide and rude and arrogant to somebody that had just met and want to work with.

I could see what the writer is going for, hoping to spark drama off these personality clashes, but it just ended up feeling forced and fake. Because no workplace is that sociopathic, or it will fall apart. You have to be nice to the people you work with every day, or things will get messy very quickly. One arsehole is enough to destroy a stable work environment, an office full of them is doomed.

It is arguable that this is all a side effect of the freelance life, that a comic creator forced to spend lots of time on their own in a small room, bashing away at their stories without the constant interaction with colleagues, bosses and minions, and that it seeps through into their stories, because an adversarial attitude towards building a career is how they think people work together. But this really might be reading too much into it.

All I know is this - superhero comics that are full of scowling fuckwits are just not that interesting. Every character, no matter how small, has to bear some resemblance to an actual human being, or they really are nothing more than lines on the paper.

Batman Eternal was popular enough to spawn a currently-running weekly sequel, and did feature a surprisingly high level of quality in the artwork. There can even be some admiration at the labyrinthine plotting actually managing to hang together.

But when it falls down at the most basic level of characterisation, full of cyphers who spit nonsensical plot twists rather than actual conversation, then that's not something I'm ever really going to follow.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Losers: A short statement on violence

Despite a powerful thirst for fictions that are full of extreme violence, gore and other intentional offensiveness, I remain a total pacifist in real life, and deplore all uses of violence.

I'm been in two fights in my entire life and they were both awful experiences. I fucking can't stand guns, and despise the macho culture around them even more. I do believe I am priveleged to live in a time and society when I can follow the path of Gandhi, Dr King, and Albert from Twin Peaks, and preach non-violence as the ultimate conflict resolution.

I do still like a good argument. Modern human civilisation is built on a foundation of strong and healthy debate, and it's good to nut out complex issues with words, rather than fists. There are billions of us, and we're all going to disagree with each other on social, moral, theological matters, but we don't have to actually fight about it.

And there is so much debate in the 21st century, with everybody getting thair two cents in on any goddamn issue. It can go far with hateful and hurtful language used, and can achieve a level of physical violence with harassment and hatred, but most of it is just words, floating through the digital ether.

But those that do resort to physical violence instantly lose any argument they might have been making. No matter how thorough or valid or righteous it might be, the first one to try and physically hurts the other forfeits their entire argument.

You could be arguing an incontrovertible proof – that the Earth is round, or that prejudice based on sexual orientation is awful or that Donald Trump is an absolute shithead – and I won't be on your side if you need to hurt people to make your point.

You don't just lose the argument, you end the conversation, and whatever truth you had to reveal to this world is gone forever. All people will ever remember is how awful you were.

The only message that violence sends is that the people responsible for it are too stupid, or too psychopathic, to say it any other way, and they have nothing to say to the rest of us.

The recent attacks in Paris, and other similar massacres all over the world, are deploringly common, and the people who carry out these atrocities lost the arguments they moment they fired their first weapon, even if that message is as simple as the same old 'my god is bigger than your god' bullshit.

They might think they are carrying out missions of retribution and justice, but all we see is the carnage and horror they leave behind. We don't hear anything they're trying to say.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Here comes Jim Lee!

The X-Men were the undoubted superhero success story of the seventies and eighties. Chris Claremont's deft characterisation and constantly simmering plot lines made his long run as lead X- creator a commercial and critical success, but it also helped that his comics were drawn by some of the most dynamic action artists available.

The title soared on the back of Cockrum's manic enthusiasm, Byrne's solid slickness, Smith's smooth, fluid line and Romita Jr's chunky sketchiness. They were often a slow burn, taking their time to find their feet on the X-Men, before becoming one of the great superhero artists of their age.

But some of them made an immediate impact, and changed everything with one quick issue. That's what it felt like when Uncanny X-Men #248 came out in mid-1989, and the world got a proper introduction to Jim Lee.

Make no mistake, Marc Silvestri was doing a phenomenal job on the series in the late eighties. It was an unashamedly modern style, so sexy and vibrant, and so very different from the title's previous artists.

Silvestri absolutely nailed it with some fantastic issues during the Inferno crossover, giving demonic New York a modern gloss, and produced a wonderful Brood story that grew from moody atmospherics to full blown super-carnage with deft ease.

After putting in some hard yards on generic superhero stuff like Web of Spider-Man and generic barbarian stuff like King Conan, Silvestri became the definitive artist for the Australian era of the X-Men. And his comics, with the distinctive inks of Dan Green, still look pretty beautiful, so it's not his fault everyone got excited about this new kid Lee.

As good as Silvestri was, he couldn't quite keep up with the monthly grind, especially when the Uncanny title went bi-weekly in the summer months. Fortunately, the X-Men always attracted a high calibre of fill-in artists, coming in to pinch hit for an issue or two.

Usually that meant the gooey reliability of Rick Leonardi, who often alternated with Silvestri, and sometimes that meant some stone cold brilliance from the pen of a Barry Windsor-Smith or Alan Davis.

The comic would periodically go through small eras between the major artists, where there would be a bunch of artists getting their shot at the prime time. Even Rob Liefeld got his one shot at the Uncanny title, shortly before Lee was given his slot.

Some of them did graduate to becoming the main X-artist, like Silvestri, who took almost a year to really secure the top role, and some of them drifted away, often to spin-off X-titles. No matter what, it was usually high quality work all the way

Even so, Jim Lee was something special, right from the start. He had been doing the odd piece here and there for Marvel, including a short run on Alpha Flight that was read by exactly three people in Toronto. But his work on Uncanny X-Men #248 was a revelation.

It was some of the slickest art seen on X-Men in a while. His work had that solid build of a John Byrne figure, with the jagged line of the new school. I was 14 when this issue came out, neck-deep in X-Men obsession, and Lee's art instantly looked like the future.

It was there as Storm's jaw suddenly became three-dimensional, signifying her strength and power:

and it was there when Havok and Dazzler tried to out-sex each other as they pounded the Aussie outback:

Silvestri's art was wonderful, but look at the difference between the two artist's vision of Psylocke, with this example from Silvestri, just a few issues before Lee's fill in -

- compared to Lee's version of the same idea. (Fortunately, the idea of Betsy Braddock swimming around in her underwear was something that Claremont really liked to put in his comics, making it much easier to compare the two.)

Silvestri's art had a flat stillness that could explode into jagged action, giving his work some nice contrast, but Lee's comics were just chunkier and slicker. With Green doing the inks for Lee's fill in, his art would never be as scratchy as it was here, but it had a new sheen that looked exciting and fresh. And it was dynamic, human figures bending in motion and thrusting out towards the reader - a look that is still being ripped off by sixth-generation imitations of Lee's style.

(Although I have to admit, looking at the differences between these two examples, I can never stop thinking of an old Cracked magazine article that pointed out that the entire point of the renaissance was that artists discovered how to draw a woman's breasts.)

It was no surprise when Lee was soon back on the title, coming in for a brutal little three part story that set Wolverine up against Iron Man's main enemy the Mandarin, while introducing the all-new 99% more ninja Psylocke.

By #268, which saw Wolverine team up with the Captain for some WW2 hi-jinks, Lee was obviously the top artist for the Uncanny X-Men. His timing was superb, with a young audience keen for something a bit glossier than the old Marvel style, and he surfed in on a new wave of brash young artists, only too keen to give the kids what they wanted.

Lee's year or so run on the X-Men repaid all that promise shown in his first fill-in, and the X-Men hadn't been this exciting in a long, long time. Claremont was always good at playing to his artist's strengths, and gave Lee lots of awesome shit to draw, leading inevitably to a relaunch, and one of the highest selling comics in human history.

Eventually, Marvel decided Lee was more important that Claremont, and ditched the writer, a move that was swiftly exposed as a terrible mistake when the artist pissed off to Image with the other cool kids, and the X-titles were left stranded and alone.

You can't blame Lee – he has built up an astonishingly successful career, rising to the position og co-publisher at DC Comics. His art is as slick as it ever was, and he picks and chooses his projects at will, given complete artistic freedom, because he still knows what the kids like, all these years later.

I continue to be completely unsurprised by his success, or how much people still like his comics. It was all there in an X-Men fill-in comic from more than a quarter century ago, just waiting to explode.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

'It's still full of imagination and ideas and artfulness'

There was supposed to be a post about the absolute awesomeness of Jim Lee's early comic career, but I haven't written a single word of it, because I spent my day off sitting in the sun reading that new Dunk and Egg book and drinking clean-skin wine. Who wouldn't?

I've also spent the day watching a lovely new video essay about an alternate history of New Zealand film, and listening to five hours of arguments about whether Tony Scott or Ridley Scott was the best, with  a surprising conclusion. So it's not like I've totally wasted my time.

Lee will be next. In the meantime, I would like to point out how proud I am by the fact that I lasted three whole months at my new job before writing a Doctor Who article. It is a new record, after all.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Heading Dog That Split In Half: Getting whispers down on paper

Folk tales are an inherently oral tradition, they are stories passed down through whispers and rumour over generations, becoming more and more embellished, the more times the tale is told and the more voices that tell the tale.

But they also make fantastic comic stories, with writers and artists bringing an extra layer of artistic licence to the story, getting it down in words and pictures that are still open to interpretation, and still open to more embellishment.

There have been many comic books telling these kind of stories over the years, and the successful ones are those that have a tighter focus on a particular place or era. And a new book in this sub-genre of tall tales has a strong focus on the slightly impossible hidden history of New Zealand.

New Zealand is still a young country – as a united nation, it is not even two centuries old. There is no evidence that man ever set foot on the islands more than a thousand years ago, and 175 years after its founding document was signed, it is still finding its feet as an independent nation.

But it is old enough to have its fair share of local legends and tall tales. Stories that might have a grain of truth to them, if you peek hard enough, but don't mind if you really believe them. They're still a good yarn, told down the local pub on a Friday night.

These are the kinds of stories told in the The Heading Dog That Split In Two by Michael Brown and Mat Tait, a cheeky and cheerful collection of folk tales from the land of Long White Cloud.

They are stories of mysterious tragedies at the local beach, and forbidden cross-cultural love affairs that became legend. They're stories of giant crayfish - big enough to build a dunny out of their shell - and of phantom war canoes with a crew of dog-headed warriors, seen just before a catastrophic volcanic eruption.

Some of these stories are well known – every Kiwi knows the story of the ghost whaka and the tragic destruction of the pink and white terraces in the Mt Tarawera eruption – but Brown, a writer specialising in NZ music and cultural history, also digs out some barely remembered ballads and hyper-local mysteries.

This oversized comic book isn't the first to get into local myths and legends, there have been a number of noble attempts at adapting Maori mythology, including Robert Sullivan and Chris Slane's excellent Maui: Legends of the Outcast graphic novel from the 1990s, and the occasional little newspaper comic about the weird side of NZ history, such as Ross Gore's 1950s serial 'It Happened in New Zealand'.

But The Heading Dog... does have an interesting focus on the post-colonial history of this country. Some of the stories rise from this culture clash between Maori and pakeha, while others were born in the rush of colonisation, as intrepid explorers from all classes build a country, far from the rules and standards of the old world.

And some of these stories are even older than the country, and can be traced back to folk stories from the old countries of Europe and elsewhere. As Brown admits in his enlightening notes on each tale, even the idea behind the title story can be traced all the way back to the great fabulist Baron Munchausen.

The charm of these stories, with their improbable events and unlikely characters, can often be found in the telling, and Brown and Tait tell their stories with humour and life, mixing up the style as much as possible.

Some of them are told in ballad, with sea-shanties of mysterious sailors, while others are more of a straight Believe It Or Not-type montage, laying out the facts for the reader to consider themselves, but there is a light-hearted joviality to the entire proceedings.

It helps that these highly unlikely and hugely entertaining tales are rendered in the thick line of artist Matt Tait, whose artwork really brings them to life. That dark and heavy line gives the stories a tone reminiscent of Charles Burns at his Black Hole best, with all the grim mood and mysterious exactness that style brings.

(Things get particularly Burns-ish at several points, especially with the meticulous body horror of the split dog, and the final page of characters losing their shit over the pure existential horror of the only local pub burning down.)

But it also sets these stories in stone, grounding them down in thick reality. No matter how outlandish the stories get, Tait renders them with a totally straight face, and gives them a false veneer of truthfulness.

This is a dream world these stories are telling, but the exact architecture of the background and the wide-eyed mania of the characters make these outlandish fables as real as the ink on the page.

There are only seven stories in this 150 page book, which gives each story plenty of room to breathe, particularly with the large pages, but which is also just a drop in this well of Kiwi folk stories. If these creators do more of these comics, or inspire other artists to take a crack at a local legend, there are certainly plenty of others stories they could have a crack at.

While comic collections like this book are painfully rare, there have been plenty of good prose collections of ghost stories and mountains full of witches and other outlandish yarns. More comic adaptions of these old tales would always be welcome.

To use a vast and unfair generalisation, New Zealanders are a fairly repressed lot, usually only able to express their emotions after having a few beers. We've raised passive aggressiveness to the level of an artform, and it all gets expressed in our fictions. Novels, movies and comics about isolation,  and simmering violence, and twisted families. Stories about idiosyncratic individuals, smashing up against a supremely conformist society.

These stories are more than just fiction. They're a portrait of a society, and a way to build the bonds of civilisation. They make great comics, and they'll always be a good yarn to spin, down the pub on a Friday night. As long as it doesn't burn down.