Friday, June 30, 2017
Put it in the back pocket
For somebody who has been collecting the damn things for nearly 40 years now, I still treat my comics absolutely terribly. They're always getting ripped, or faded, or stained by food.
I've got thousands of the fuckers, and they're all stuffed into boxes or chucked on bookshelves or crammed into the cupboard. None of them are slabbed to preserve them for all time with an expert grading. Half of them aren't even in any kind of protective bag.
If you're not in it for the money, who cares what condition they are in? It's not the thing that matters, it's the story within, and in some cases, every crease and rip in the original object has its own tale to tell.
I've never, ever bought a comic as an investment. I once almost bought two copies of the Claremont/Lee X-Men #1 issue, but even as young and dumb as I was then, it just seemed like a waste of precious comic budget money.
I did use it as an excuse plenty of times as a kid, justifying the cost of new comics to the family by pointing out that these things could be worth serious coin one day - 'But Dad, Ghost Rider #1 is worth $30 now!' - and, to be honest, I still play that same card with the lovely wife, to justify more storage space for this stuff - 'But dear, my complete Preacher run could buy us a car!'.
I'm just not a gambler, and the whole investment thing is a side of comics I'm not interested in playing with. It's fascinating to watch - I used to be a voracious reader of price guides just to see what people thought these things were worth, and what that said about the state of the industry - but I ain't no player.
Comic books were always supposed to be a disposable - one read and you're done. What kind of mental defective would want to read it again? That's part of the reason why old comics, even though they had print runs of hundreds of thousands of copies, still command big prices these days, because they were thrown out, and just seen as trash.
The paper is a lot slicker now, but it's still that same format of floppy paper, dished out serially, with an industry that is all built around what's coming next. Investors have been insta-slabbing their collections for years now, with a lot of comics preserved without ever getting cracked open.
But I don't buy these things to keep safe and pretty in a vault, I just want to read the fuckers, which leads to general wear and tear, and I might as well abandon any attempts at keeping it pristine. They're not designed that way.
Even though I adore the physical object, I don't care if it's perfect. Nothing in life is perfect.
Besides, I like comics that are a bit roughed up, and have a history to them. As long as they're not missing chunks out of them, I'll take a creased-up copy of some Silver Age nonsense any day, especially when they're a lot cheaper that way.
Comics have always been hideously expensive by the time they get to this part of the world, and there isn't the vast amounts on the market that you find in the US, which pushes up the back issue prices, and you can end up paying phenomenal amounts for the few mint copies of key historic issues that actually exist in the country. Drop it down a couple of grades, and you can buy multiple crappy copies for the price of one perfect example. It's simple economics.
This lacklustre attitude towards comic preservation and conservation means that I can literally read them to death, especially the ones I had as a kid.
I've still got comics that I had when I was 7, random issues of the X-Men and Action Comics, that haven't just lost their covers over the years, the first four and last four pages have also been shed over time and lost. I hold on to these ragged things for pure sentimentality - and because I can still feel that youthful obsession with all things superhero burned into the page - but there really isn't any value in these tattered comics.
Sometimes I get the chance to upgrade - a couple of months ago I could've swapped the Excalibur issues I read the hell out of in the 1980s, which are only held together by sellotape and good intentions, for almost totally mint copies, basically for free, and it wasn't even the tiniest bit tempting. I've put a lot of work into those Claremont/Davis comics, I'm not going to give up on them now.
Even comics like my beloved issues of the Invisibles are showing their age, with fading and binding completely breaking down over the past 20 years, probably not helped by all those Saturday afternoons spent reading them on the beach with a bottle of Scrumpy, looking for the meaning of life in Grant Morrison comic books. Doesn't matter, not when there is a bit of my younger self seared into the pages.
I'm not a total fool - I still take enough care of them these days to keep them readable, and alive for as long as possible.
While the first signs of wear and tear mean nothing to me, I still make sure they are stored in a dry, cool environment, and there are regular checks for any kind of mould infestation, because damp and fungus destroys everything. Mouldy comics are no use to anybody.
But still, sometimes, when I buy a new comic book from the fine local store, I take a pathetic and perverse delight in telling them not to bother with the bag, and stuffing the comic in my back pocket as I head out the door.
The shop people are rightly horrified - their whole business is built around taking care of these things, and getting some kind of future investment out of them. I reckon they should be glad there are still idiots like me, trashing their treasured issues, because that makes them rarer for all the rest.
I don't want to worry about the responsibility of keeping my comics safe and clean. I just want to read the bloody things.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 10:02 PM No comments:
Monday, June 26, 2017
Doctor Who: Death at tea-time
Doctor Who is a kids’ TV programme about a lovable old duffer, roaming around the universe in a blue box with pretty companions and getting up to all sorts of adventures.
It can also be surprisingly brutal sometimes, with astronomically high body counts racked up in seemingly innocuous stories. It’s all fun and games and banter until the death rays come out, and then it’s corpses by the truckload.
The show’s 54-year history is soaked in blood, and while you can pick any era for examples of just how cruel the carnage can get, there are some periods that are particularly bloodthirsty, loading up on the murder at tea-time.
After a literal lifetime as a Doctor Who fan, I’ve been slowly watching the whole series in a row for the first time ever, and it's taken a while to get through the black and white era, Especially when a lot of those episodes don't exist anymore, except as barely watchable reconstructions.
It's still been great going through the Hartnell and Troughton years, finding new appreciation for things like the Myth-Makers and the Macra Terror, but it's a relief to get into the seventies, where the episodes all still exist, even with an overdose of seven-part stories.
So I'm getting stuck into the Pertwee years now, watching some episodes I haven't seen since the eighties. The show has got nailed down to an earthly setting, and there is a lot more location work, and the whole TV show has never looked more earthy and real.
And while there is still a lot of silliness going on - the budget is still about five quid an episode, and Pertwee can never miss an opportunity to indulge in some unnecessary mugging and gurning - the 'real world' setting is taken to the logical conclusion, and clashes with alien intelligence lead to loads of innocent blokes getting killed.
In the first few episodes of Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor, there is a noticeable ramping up of the death and carnage. Sometimes it's bad guys meeting ironic fates, and sometimes it's UNIT soldiers being wiped out by creatures impervious to their rifle fire, and sometimes it's just some poor commuters standing at the bus stop.
There are people dying of a mega-plague launched by the original reptilian masters of the Earth that is only just cured before it wipes out all of humanity; shoppers and people going to work on a Tuesday morning are gunned down by living shop mannequins in the street; dazed alien lifeforms in astronaut suits kill anyone in their way with a touch; and a whole world gets wiped out by lava boiling up out of the earth's surface - it's okay, it's just a mean and nasty parallel world, but a few people still need to be throttled by green, panting caveman before the say is saved.
Soldiers, policemen, farmers' wives. Nobody was safe from death from above.
There was always a lot of death in Doctor Who, right back to the first episodes in the early sixties. The final Troughton story alone featured all sorts of war-related brutality, and the Daleks had literally murdered billions of people before they ever appeared in colour on TV
But it isn't just the numbers that makes these killings just a bit more traumatic, it was that setting, and the blazing new colour of the new decade. These deaths weren't taking place on a wobbly set, these were taking place on city streets, in suburban homes, and in local forests. This wasn't the staged theatricality of set-bound filming, this was dirty, and rough, and clumsy, just like real life. Pertwee always had a good point about the Yeti in Tooting Bec - it really was more powerful to have these monsters crash into the real world, rather than on the third moon of Arrtaabarrga.
And it was all so casual, all these bodies lying around all over the place - it rarely seemed to be too traumatic for the characters as least. There would be the usual gritted teeth at some unfortunate casualty, but they would be back to cheap quips before the end credits. Life goes on, for most, anyway.
It's worth noting that the professional craftspeople and tradespeople working on this silly little television show at the time had all lived through the horrors of the second World War, and a fair few of them had fought in it.
They were used to body counts as a fact of life, and that casual acceptance of it jars with these days of health and safety. Don't make a fuss, keep calm and carry on, even as your neighbors house is bombed to bits. And if a spaceman shot your wife, it was just not worth dwelling on, old boy.
Some of the trauma inflicted the show's young audience by these early Pertwee adventures filtered through over the years, and would show up in the stories created by new generations.
One of the best was David Bishop's excellent Who Killed Kennedy, a spin-off from the New Adventures line from the nineties, where unabashed fanboys ran rampant over Who continuity, finding new depths in silly old stories.
And those depths were found in one of the main characters in Who Killed Kennedy, a UNIT soldier, who is one of the faceless army men who were frequently used as cannon fodder, who has a total breakdown after seeing his mates murdered by little green men, going right over the edge when the actual devil appears in The Daemons.
The poor sod is, of course, turned into a brainwashed assassin, but who can blame him for losing his marbles, with all that slaughter and very human trauma, in the battles against interstellar evil.
More than four decades later, and Doctor Who still has an impressive body count, and while the current series does have admirable 'everybody lives!' moments, it's a rare episode that doesn't end with some kind of mortal sacrifice.
But it's still never quite as traumatic as those poor extras in seventies haircuts, collapsing in the street as an alien nightmare stalks the grey and wet city. As a show, Doctor Who took a big step forward with thw Pertwee years, it's just a shame so many people got squashed by the footprint.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 2:46 PM No comments:
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Should've had a wank instead!
Posted by Bob Temuka at 6:15 PM 1 comment:
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Terror, gore and the best horror on the newstand
The magazine format had a good, long run as one of the world's premiere media formats, but they're just not the mass medium they once were. But some specialised, niche publications can still find an audience that can last a long time, and are, somewhat remarkably, still out there on a fairly regular basis.
It is with considerable happiness and no small admiration that I note that two of the nastiest, goriest magazines I've ever read are still out there, still educating new generations of horror fans, and still showing lurid pictures of some fucked-up film gore.
When I started working full-time and earning my own money in the early nineties, before I developed a crush on the Empire movie magazine that is still going on every month, my two favourite magazines in the world were, undoubtedly, Fangoria and The Dark Side. One from the US and one from Britain, and both devoted to all things horror.
They were addictive reads, especially since I'd been a total horror hound throughout the teenage years, watching dozens and dozens of movies on video tape, tracking down the most obscure shit, and staying up late on Sunday nights for a glimpse of something scary and new.
All that horror, and there were still some things I could never find - it took me forever to track down all the decent Hammer films, and it would literally be decades before I could track down some of the weirder, more esoteric stuff. There would be thrills in finally tracking down something as monumental as the original Last House On The Left, or even something as obvious as Driller Killer.
It's all on YouTube or easily downloadable these days, even some of the most obscure nonsense, even stuff that was massively controversial back in the day, but that just takes the fun of the hunt out of it, really.
But in those pre-internet days, when it came to reference books and general writing about horror films, pickings were slimmer than a desiccated, devoured corpse. There were a couple of big, glossy hardback books that I ate up, and would read and read over again, fascinated by details of German somnambulist nightmares of the silent era, or the strange shifts in tastes and tolerances over the decades, or the gruesome tiny details of modern slasher films.
As in-depth as these things could be - and they could go pretty fucking deep - they were still trying to cover a century of scary movies, and there were literally thousands and thousands of films in the genre. They couldn't get to them all, or would only have the most perfunctory information.
But monthly publications always had lots and lots of pages to fill, and while that kind of immediacy meant they were always bound to the whims of the latest news about forthcoming nightmares, they could also provide a long, dark look at all sorts of horror, from all sorts of eras.
Fangoria was, unsurprisingly, the slicker product, full of Hollywood madness and big budget make-up effects. But the best parts of the magazine were always when it took detours down the grimy, sleazier parts of the US film industry, covering movies with breathless enthusiasm that would never be heard of again, often not even good enough to get a DVD release.
And it could also, for a magazine available in respectable newsagents all over the world, be exceptionally gory, showing the gruesome fates of cinematic victims in wide-eyed glory. For close-ups of the sheer artistry of Tom Savini and his chums, you couldn't beat the Fango.
That devotion to the gruesome actually meant the magazine always had a wide net to cast, and it could cover things that weren't strictly horrific, like SFX-laden blockbusters and violent crime sagas - Fangoria was the first place I ever saw talking about John Woo films, in David J Schow's amazingly insightful Raving And Drooling columns.
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, The Dark Side was a bit grottier and grosser, with more of a love for Eurotrash filmakers like Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco and a horde of other dirty old pervs behind the camera.
Even better, while it had plenty of news and reviews of all the latest terrors, The Dark Side was more focused on history, with some long features on stuff that was amazingly obscure, and definite articles on super-nasty Italian zombie epics.
For a long, long time, it also had an invaluable A-Z review of every goddamn genre film ever made, which was incredibly comprehensive, issue after issue, taking months just to get through the 'C's.
It wasn't just these two magazines, they were just the biggest, and the most consistently entertaining and informative. There have, of course, been all sorts of other magazines and publications about horror films, long before these publications first came out, and even more in the years since. (Famous Minsters of Filmland is the most obvious example of this, and keeps getting resurrected more often than Dracula, but it was never my magazine of choice - I just couldn't take the truly horrific puns.)
Some of them were more focused on the gore side of things, or were purely all about the VFX, and they could be good enough, but none of them ever had the charm or longevity of these two magazines. Most of them were wiped out as the audience migrated online, to discussion forums and Facebook groups, the community expanding far, far beyond the confines of the printed letter page.
You never really grow out of a love of horror films, but you can get too old to be that obsessed about them, and I haven't bought Fangoria or the Dark Side regularly for 20 years now. But they're still out there, even in this mediapocalypse, even in this age of social media and apps and hot takes.
They might not be as regular as they once were, but they still show up in my local newsagents every few months, and I still get the odd issue, just to check in on the scene, and see some gross new thing I've never heard about anywhere else, or a new write-up on the secret lives of horror auteurs.
When it comes to movies designed to scare the shit out of you, or at least make you feel a bit queasy there is always something new to look forward to, and always something old to revisit. And one of the best places to find them is in the pages of the magazine.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 1:32 PM No comments:
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Nine dumb questions about superheroes
I'm 42 fucking years old, and I still lie awake at night sometimes, wondering what the hell is going on in the superhero comics I read.
I thought by this age, I'm be a bit more worried about grown-up things like mortgages and children and a career, but no, I'm still there in bed at 3am in the morning, wondering about how Clark Kent's glasses really work, or why trying to figure out who has been an Avenger.
This is never going to end.
Was Humphrey Bogart a young movie star in the 1970s on Earth One?
If all the big DC superheroes respawned in the Silver Age on Earth One as young and hip, and were carbon copies of characters that had existed 20-years earlier on Earth Two, were there other high-profile individuals who were also cosmically reborn?
It just seems a bit unfair if the only options for this rebirth were people who were wearing tights and a mask. Was the Humphrey Bogart of Earth One born in 1930, and did he act for Coppola and Scorcese in the seventies? Or an updated version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an atomic-powered wheelchair?
Of course there wasn't, because the silver age heroes would always be seen interacting with the celebrities of their age, such as Don Rickles or JFK, but this still strikes me as cosmically unfair. If Superman keeps coming back as someone new, why can't anybody else?
Was Civil War II really sparked by Thanos robbing a bank?
I'm frequently lost when it comes to the ins and outs of the big superhero universes these days – too much fucking product, and not enough motivation to churn through it all – but from what I could figure out, the whole spark for one of the latest rounds of gritted teeth super-confrontations was a battle with Thanos, who was busted while trying to commit an armed robbery.
Is that right? That can't be right. Thanos – an embodiment of existential entropy. Thanos - a hardcore cosmic nihilist who is literally in love with the personification of Death, a being of unimaginable motives and abilities who has become the most powerful creature in creation on half a dozen occasion. Thanos – the bank robber?
This is a question that could probably be answered by reading a tonne of CW2 comics, but that sounds like far too much fucking work.
Does Batman look a bit naked without his cape?
Why, yes. Yes, he does.
Why are modern blockbuster movies copying the business plans of 1990s failed superhero universes?
In the aftermath of the massive initial success of the Image comics line in the early 1990s, when comic stores were ordering millions of these awful, awful comics, all sorts of publishers tried to get onto that bandwagon by producing their own complex and interconnected universes.
Rather than letting them grow semi-organically, like the Marvel and DC worlds did over decades, all the publishers tried to skip past that difficult and boring set-up process, and go straight to the big, important stages, imploring readers to leap straight into a huge commitment.
Unfortunately, largely due to the general mediocrity of the product, hardly any of them lasted more than a year, and nobody cares about them at all these days. It was a ridiculous idea to expect that kind of goodwill without bothering to build any of it up.
Movies are copying a lot of ideas from comic books these days – the biggest films in the world are only just catching up to what Jack Kirby was doing fifty years ago – but this is one idea that should've been left to the four-colour funnies.
What is the exchange rate for those coins in John Wick?
This isn't a superhero question - unless you count Keanu Reeve's uncanny quick-draw ability – but I can't stop wondering what the gold coins everybody uses for pay are actually worth.
I figure they're about $1000 each, for what they usually get, but they're used to pay for everything, including cars and powerful hand weapons and body disposal and waitress tips, and there is no consistency. I can accept the sub-culture of snappily-dressed killers in these films, but only if its economy is sound.
Why the fuck can't I get Copra in this country?
I've read so many good reviews for Michel Fiffe's Copra, for goddamn years now, and I still haven't had a chance to read it.
I've ordered it specially through the local comic shops, twice, and it still never happened. This might be the lamest curse ever, but it's still a fuckin' curse.
Why can't superheroes age in real time?
I love a good Spider-Man comic, but I still wish they would actually age the character in real time, living in the now instead of some weird Marvel time. It almost all kept up with the first few years of the character, when he left High School and went off to college, but he's been stuck at the same age for more than 40 years now.
It would have been easy enough to get around if you're still determined to have Peter Parker behind the mask, you can just say that the spider bite slowed the aging rate or something. And while that would mean an aging out of various periphery characters, it would give the surviving Spider more depth as he grew and changed over the decades (and would solve all the pesky continuity issues, that surround his ongoing adventures, with no need for any rebooting).
It worked for Judge Dredd. He is now an actual pensioner, and still kicking arse.
How did they fuck up the Authority?
I was reading the first Authority comics by Ellis and Hitch recently, and they're still so tight – so fucking in the pocket – that I can't believe how quickly they fucked that up.
The methods and tricks on the surface of the comic have been fully integrated into 'normal' superhero comics, with the pacing and tone and economy are found in almost every serious super-comic today, but the characters that started it all have been sucked into the wider DC Universe and fully dispersed. That's just remarkable.
Was Adam West the best Batman?
Why, yes. Yes, he was.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 12:43 PM 1 comment:
Saturday, June 10, 2017
Wrong criticism can be the best criticism
It's easy to spot the best pop culture criticism - it's the stuff you don't agree with, but still makes a good argument for the other point of view. It might not be strong enough to actually change your original opinion, but you can't fault the other person's conclusion, based on the argument they've made.
But we're all so stuck in our bubbles of taste, and we often fly off the handle if anything pierces that precious membrane. We'll never learn anything that way.
In entertainment, as in life, we should welcome other views, even if we think they're completely fucking wrong.
We have to listen to different opinions. We have to consider other points of view. You can still have our own take on a movie, or a comic book, or a novel, or an album, and your opinion on something is just as valid as the other guy's. Neither diminishes the other, just because it exists.
What a fucking awful world it would be if we all agreed on the same shit.
There are dozens and dozens of podcasts about movies, and some of them are awful, and a lot of them are mediocre, and some of them are excellent, but the only one I never, ever miss is Travis Bickle on the Rivera, a weekly podcast about all sorts of movies, with three regular hosts who know their shit, and are happy to spread it.
It's the best because it's the funniest, and the meanest, and the most opinionated as fuck. They're a good gateway to things I'd never heard of before, hooking me on the brilliance of Johnny To or Isaac Florentine, and they're the modern age's foremost experts on the beautiful canon of Tony Scott.
I've listened to every episode of their show, all over the world - they're a good filler while waiting at the airport - and I've cranked it to one particular episode that was pure soundtrack a hundred times. It's one of the few patreon things I have set up, contributing an meager amount of cash to the podcast's creators every month. I don't want the bonus stuff they give you for it, I just figure they're worth paying money for. They're worth it.
And week after week, I disagree with a lot of things they say. Some episodes they drive me crazy with their wrong-ness, and I couldn't agree less with everything they're saying about some dumb movie.
Sometimes it's the baffling idea that Quantum of Solace is the best Bond film, or that Batman V Superman is worth anybody's time, or that the Transformers films have any goddamn merit at all. They have an unashamed soft spot for failed blockbusters, and half the time it feels like they're just trying to piss off the nerd herd. (Which, y'know, can be reason enough for any opinion. Fuck them dorks.)
And they take repeated shits on stuff I know and love - I don't care what they fucking say, Doctor Who is the best TV, and the easy, slick entertainments of the Marvel films are like the best Big Mac burger. I can like this bullshit, even if people whose opinions I trust and follow tell me I'm being a fucking idiot for doing so.
It doesn't matter, none of that matters. They're still fuckin' funny, and fuckin' passionate, and fuckin' informed, so they can talk about what they want.
I want to hear from people with different ideas about the media I consume, I don't just want to passively consume it, and then sit around with like-minded folk, all agreeing on the stench of its brilliance. I want to be challenged and confronted with some hard goddamn truths, even if they sound like lies at first.
If a critic is witty enough, and well-informed enough, they can be opinionated about any bloody thing, and most people will have to concede they have a point. You certainly shouldn't cave in easily on your own ideas, but having some other ingredients for the stew of opinions in your brain is always tasty and welcome.
As long as I'm certain enough of my own opinion, I welcome all others, and a podcast that tells me I'm absolutely wrong about absolutely everything is a fucking necessity in life. How else will I ever learn where I'm going wrong?
That doesn't mean I always have to like it, especially when a different opinion is treated like its an objective reality. Other opinions are always available, but that doesn't mean they're all automatically valid and true.
There are always some critics that go too far, and descend to troll-like levels, but they can be easily ignored. I recently decided I wasn't going to bother with one prominent critic's work because he just couldn't leave the preconceptions aside when he went into something, and it was all getting a bit predictable. He's still got his audience, but there is always plenty of other writing and broadcasting to get stuck into. Having an open mind doesn't mean you have to blindly follow everyone all of the time.
Still, it's easier to handle it a different opinion when it's somebody saying good things about something you hate, because when it goes the other way, we can all take that stuff a bit too personally.
We can't help it, assaults on personal tastes are, understandably, fucking personal, and if somebody implies that you are a goddamn moron for innocently liking something, the only natural first reaction has to be a total 'hey, fuck you too, buddy'. But if you can bite back that bile, and actually listen to a different opinion, it can enrich your own experience.
On the other hand, when it comes to different opinions, there is nothing quite as fulfilling, interesting and entertaining as somebody really getting stuck into the love they feel for something everybody else - including me - has always written off as pure trash. It's far, far easier to reassess the hate, instead of questioning the love.
It's just so easy to let things go, and to even crave an opinion that you know you're going to hate. If you're always disagreeing with a certain critic, than you can count on that disagreement as a form of quality control, and if they start slagging something off, it becomes an instant must-see.
Still, I'm still not going to go see the new King Arthur film like the Travis Bickle podcast told me too. I'll give them cold, hard cash to tell me that I'm wrong, but two hours of Charlie Hunnam grimacing? I'm stupid, but I'm not that fucking stupid.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 7:38 PM 2 comments:
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
'I told them to fix their hearts or die!'
It's been another rough, tough and busy week - don't act like you don't know - so there is no new post today, due to the demands of modern living.
To be honest, I'm happily stuck in a deep, deep Twin Peaks hole at the moment, watching all the old episodes, sparked by the recent revitalization of the series. I could literally spend all day talking about the use of doppelgangers (not just Coop) and other spiritual echoes in the new episodes, or how glorious it is to have artists working in a mass medium format who have absolutely no interest in giving their loyal audience what they want, but I find that after every single new episode I have zero desire to see what anybody else thinks about it, so I'm not about to to add to that cacophony.
Although I will say this - while it is obviously a strange and difficult path, I still absolutely follow the Tao of Albert Rosenfield:
Normal service will probably resume on Saturday.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 12:46 PM No comments:
Friday, June 2, 2017
Still Uncanny, after all these years
It's now 40 years since Chris Claremont and John Byrne started their run on Uncanny X-Men, and all these years later, there is still a modern gleam to their adventures, with the light of the future still bouncing off Cyclops' visor.
The stories can look clumsy and cheesy to modern eyes, but they still stand tall among their 1970s peers for sophisticated action and sublime characterisation. A lot has been written and said about this relatively short run on one single comic in the past four decades, but there are always new uncanny treasures to be found in these X-Men comics.
My first exposure to the wonders of this work was at a young age, but right at the tail end of the collaboration. I was barely in school when I read Uncanny X-Men #138, the one after the death of Jean Grey, and instantly fell for its chunky delights.
That particular issue was a great primer to start from, going over the past 100 and something issues of adventures and prejudice. It still took me years and years before I actually read those issues they were summerising in #138's graveyard soliloquy, usually in reprints, so a comic that was more reference book than actual story was extremely welcome.
In fact, the only Claremont/Byrne issue I had for ages was the Phoenix: The Untold Story comic, which was inexplicably everywhere in New Zealand. It might not have counted in the grand scheme of things, but the fancy, bright paper and behind-the-scenes round-table at the end of the comic made it more than worthwhile.
I have the whole run now, in the Classic X-Men format from the late '80s, where the stories were sometimes remixed and redone, which can be irritating as hell, but also gives the reader a better view inside Claremont's head, and the vast, wonderful X-plan he was immersed in for years. I still get those issues out every now and then, and I still marvel at their beauty, and their unashamed sincerity.
It's a stone-cold classic of a comic, and while there is the odd, noble attempt to tear it down and burn it all, the comic is an immovable monolith that often sits near the top of broad comic surveys.
It wasn't always this way - in their earliest incarnations, the X-Men were always the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe, shoved away to the side of Lee and Kirby's grand tapestry, and only coughing back into life in the mid-70s as Marvel's latest desperate attempt to pump some diversity into their whitebread line, a truly international team of characters with richly different backgrounds.
Those low expectations that came with the first issues of the relaunch were its obvious strength, because nobody really gave a damn, so Claremont could do whatever he wanted, and with the hyperactivity of Dave Cockrum, it quickly became a shining light in mainstream comics.
As beautifully expressive as Cockrum could be, Byrne's arrival as regular artist really pushed things through to the next level, creating the slickest, deepest and most exciting superhero comic of its time, and setting a template that is still being heavily mined by modern creators.
For a comic that liked to take plenty of time to show the team in civilian life, trying to get their heads around modern society without beating up bad guys, it remained a pure action-adventure comic that never stopped moving.
In just a couple of years, they fought Magneto and the Imperial Guard and the Hellfire Club and there was an extended period where half the team thought the other half were dead. Then there was the usual Savage Land shenanigans, the debut of Alpha Flight, the annoyance of Arcade, the reality spinning of Proteus, and the introduction of Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde and Dazzler in one go. And it's a run of comics that actually has a fitting and noble climax with the entire Dark Phoenix storyline and its tragic ending, before rounding things out with a couple of small epilogues, and a two-part story about a dark alternative future - a timeline which would create a thousand spin-offs of its own.
There was swashbuckling and raw emoting and cosmic craziness and a team that became a family. It was a series packed with incident and invention, and a plot that kept pushing forward all the time. Every issue was created with breathtaking enthusiasm, and that energy shines through in every page, every panel.
Even more importantly, it took a cast of cliches and broad generalisations and made them feel like people who you could actually give a damn about, even if they looked like blue demons, or African goddesses.
In these early days of the all-new, all-different team, it was soon obvious that like every great Marvel hero, each character had their own small flaws, but these flaws weren't just something to be conquered or overcome, they were part of the character's overall existence, in a way that is still fresh.
Nightcrawler would hide his pain at never fitting in beneath charming bluster, and that just made him even more charming. Colossus spent a long time feeling like a useless hunk of meat, consistently failing to prove his worth in big battles, only to finally save the day when facing an enemy which couldn't stand his metal grip. Storm could fly free, and still struggled with the trauma of being buried alive.
Wolverine would quietly battle his own animalistic urge to goo off on his own, and would make noble - and ultimately successful - efforts to find a place he belonged. Banshee had a comedic Irish accent, and then lost his bloody voice. Even the stick up Cyclop's butt, the thing that made him such a good leader, bent and broke beneath the weight of his love for Jean Grey and his own responsibilities to the team.
In the years since this run, Byrne has downplayed his artistic efforts, confident that his later work had more substance to it, but with the glorious benefit of hindsight, it's easy to claim that this is some of his very best work.
It's 40-years-old, but still slick as hell. The vital inks from Terry Austin gave it a sheen that Byrne would soon abandon for a more jagged line (foreshadowing the Image style of endless cross-hatching), and while that glossy smoothness of his X-comics started to look dated for a while, it is now nearly immortal in its ease and accessibility.
The pages are also bogged down with never-ending narration, copious thought balloons and needless dialogue, but it always flows just as much as the overall plot goes, individual scenes of action and drama becoming endlessly re-readable.
A lot of the novelty of this comic has been worn down by the intense influence it had on super-comics for years. Every new superhero team tried to capture that same formula, and it became the ur-text for this level of superhero team-building for other groups for a long, long time. The X-Men themselves have tried to recapture it too, with limited success. Even the latest iterations seen in the X-Men Blue and X-Men Gold comics are still straining for those heights, with simpler team line-ups, and a renewed focus on adventure over long-term angsting.
It's always good to see someone trying for those heights, and it should be little surprise that they barely reach them. Even the decade of Byrne-less comics that Claremont continued with never quite got there, even with hugely talented artists like Paul smith, John Romita Jr and Jim Lee. The Claremont/Byrne comics are just as fresh and fun and fearless as they were when I was that little kid, studying #138 like it was the bible. Everything I needed to know about mainstream superhero comics was in those pages, and it's lurking there still.
Posted by Bob Temuka at 8:14 PM No comments:
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