Thursday, July 27, 2017

The speed of Dillon

Artist Steve Dillon broke into the comic industry as a teenager, largely for two reasons - 1) because he was bloody brilliant, with a sharpness to his line that was immediately appealing, and 2) because he was fast as hell.

For a perfect example of both of these attributes, you don't need to look any further than the lost episode of City of the Damned, a Judge Dredd story from the early 1980s where Judges Dredd and Anderson travel a decade into their future to see the results of a predicted apocalypse.

It's a classic Dredd tale, as our heroes overcome the deep horror that their beloved city has become, and save the day by ensuring this apocalyptic nightmare will never come to pass. Like all the great golden age Dredds, it was written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, and featured work from a variety of the comic's best art droids.

These included Dillon, who was a perfect fit for this gritty, hopeless future, and it was all going swimmingly, until the actual climax of the thing, when most of Dillon's art for a crucial episode vanished from the 2000ad offices.  

The colour centre-spread was still there, which was just as well, as it was a massively pivotal scene where Dredd gets a bunch of his undead former colleagues to step aside, purely with the use of his own imposing authority. But the rest had disappeared, and under a supreme deadline crunch, Dillon stepped back up and redrew the required four pages in record time.

A couple of years later, the missing art turned up again, and 2000ad readers were able to see and compare the two versions, and it was absolutely bloody fascinating:

It is an invaluable insight into the young artist's methods, just by looking at the slight alterations made to the story. You can study the difference between the two, (the published version on the left above, and the 'lost artwork' on the right), and try to see if the pressure of the deadline forced Dillon to make any shortcuts, or just take note of the way characters switch sides, or move differently (body language was one of Dillon's great under-rated skills).

Other artists frequently sketch out their layouts beforehand, but it's so unusual to see two pieces of complete and finished art like this. Dillon had already had a rehearsal run on the pages, and even though the replacement pencils were churned out at an incredibly fast rate, they're arguably better, with a slightly tighter focus on some of the figurework, and even more detail - see how the panel where Anderson's face is in shadow on page four on the original, but more fully revealing in the redo, or how the sizes of the actual panel are tighter, or more open.

When we lost Steve Dillon recently, we lost one of the modern greats. His worth is evident in the hundreds and hundreds of pages of comic artwork he did, but you can see it best here in these four pages, quickly whipped up to save the day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Romero's devil was always in the details

George Romero never really liked being pigeon-holed as a horror director, but he was asking for it, because he was just so very good at scaring the shit out of us. All modern horror films - and a large amount of crime, thriller and comedy movies - owe a debt to Romero.

He brought horror out of the gothic castles and into rural and urban America, using his movies as broad and biting allegories on the state of the world, and he didn't flinch from showing just how brutal things could be. Many of his films were pleasantly ambiguous about this world of ours, and some of them were bluntly pessimistic.

While the broad strokes of his metaphors were obvious, Romero really made an impact on viewers with the deft use of tiny details and little moments that made his stories sing with terror, and give his movies life.

There was the soft slipping of the sheet covering Roger as he comes back in Dawn of the Dead, and the nasty villain telling the ghouls to choke on his intestines at the end of the Day. The sheep in the field in The Crazies, running past a tiny massacre; Martin's inept clumsiness as his romantic delusions crash into real life; Ed Harris' smile as he rides on out of this world in Knightriders. A zombie on a horse in Survival of the Dead, the unsettling cleanliness of Creepshow and the Amish dude's chalkboard in Diary of the Dead. The meathook at the end of the Night, the belly button ring in the Land, and the detail that went into that fucking eye in The Dark Half.

One that always stuck in my mind as desperately horrific in its banal finality was a tiny bit at the end of the original Dawn of the Dead - a zombie crashes into a display cabinet in the cosmetics section of an overrun department store, and then an undead foot steps on it, splattering goo over the floor.

There is something in that extraordinarily small moment that enforces the reality that this really is the apocalypse, really is the end of the world. The inhabitants of the mall have kept it remarkably clean and tidy as they used it as their own giant bunker, but when the dead reclaim it, they trod over everything, and make a hell of a mess, and nobody is ever going to clean it up. That paste, splattered across the floor, will lie there for a thousand years, and nobody will ever wipe it away. This is the new world, where all that materialistic bullshit means nothing. Nothing at all.

As wide as his allusions to society got, Romero was an incredibly subtle filmmaker, and he managed to raise big questions about race relations, just through casting decisions, that didn't need him to spell anything out. And it was in the tiny moments that made Romero a genuinely great filmmaker.

I hope he wins all the posthumous accolades he can, and that everybody makes dumb jokes about his career living on past his death. He would always grit his teeth beneath those enormous glasses whenever people made jokes about that in front of him, but you could always tell George was digging it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hello, Doctor.

The new Doctor is always the best Doctor.

Soon after it was announced today that Jodie Whittaker would be taking on the lead role of Doctor Who - and becoming the first female actor to do so - my local newspaper had a story up on its website saying that the decision had divided fandom, with hordes of man-boys crying into their cornflakes over the move.

If there is one benefit to living in a bubble created by social media algorithms, it's that I didn't see a single person complaining about the change, they were all 100 percent positive about it, and so am I. Even the people who didn't give a shit about the show were grudgingly happy that it was trying something different. Even one of my very best mates, who has been decrying possible femininity in the TARDIS for years, is a big fan of Whittaker's work, and is now excited about the possibilities.

(Okay, I did see a shit tweet from Ian Levine, retweeted by a incredulous friend, but Ian Levine is a contender for being one of the very worst people in Doctor Who fandom ever, so who gives a damn what he thinks?)

Overall, by far, there was a positive reaction, probably because it's a fundamentally decent and right decision. Doctor Who has survived this long by changing for the times, and this change has come again, and not a moment too soon. A female Doctor opens up all sorts of new storytelling possibilities, is empowering for a significant part of its audience, and takes the show into unexpected territory. Why would anybody ever complain about that?

Even though the programme isn't going to fundamentally change - there will still be loads of bonkers adventures in space and time, with a central figure is never cruel or cowardly and is just as strong as she ever was - this is something new for the 54-year-old  show, and that is always, always welcome.

Doctor Who fandom has had a huge and welcome influx of girls and women over the past decade, and it's only right and proper that they get some proper representation on this silly show. The future belongs to those 10-year-old girls geeking the hell out on YouTube, and it's about time they got a decent role model like the 13th Doctor.

Of course, it would be nice if these kinds of announcements actually took place in a story, rather than an oppressive PR blitz, but the video announcement of the new Doctor was a powerful statement of intent, and the thrill of the new and different.

I'm delighted to stay along for the ride.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Is that the meaning of life up on the bookshelf, or just a really spunky hardback?

Any kind of decent magical instruction will include the need for a totem - an object or thing that can be raised to ultra-significance by time and effort. It could be anything, but if you push enough thought and love and memory into the thing, the more important and powerful it becomes. It might mean nothing to anybody else, but it can literally become your own holy grail or philosopher's stone.

I've tried it a couple of times over the years, but it never really takes off, usually because I always lose the bloody thing just as it really gains in significance. The lovely wife and I have a little travel Buddha that always goes on every big trip we take, and we always rub his big belly for luck, and we usually get it. We've almost lost him a couple of times too - he almost got left on the roof of a taxi in Dubai and left behind in a hotel room in Winnipeg - but he's hanging in there for now.

But what about that bookcase, filled with comics and books, standing guard over my living room like a living monolith? It's always there, and it's filled with fiction and emotions. Is this my familiar? Is this my totem? Am I really that fucking shallow?

Oh yeah. I'm that fucking shallow.

There are nine bookcases in our small flat, and they're all solidly packed out with the usual chills and thrills, but the large one in the living room is definitely the big daddy.

It's five tall shelves high, reasonably deep and solid as fuck. It cost us several hundred bucks, and it's worth every cent. It looms over our living room, and is a constant beautiful distraction, because all the best stuff goes on that one. It is, quite literally, a showcase into my tastes and inclinations.

It's 80 percent comic books, all the Love and Rockets, all the favourite graphic novels and trade paperbacks and all the Big Books. Big, thick and deeply gorgeous art books anchor the whole thing, and favourite digest-sized comics fill all the gaps.

It's a big fucking bookcase, and while some things have a permanent home, there is a constant recycling of books through it. It's always changing, or growing, or shrinking, as the things I want to display change.

It's full of all sorts of crap, but it's not really anything unusual. There is nothing really that unique about my big bookcase, you'll find such bookshelves all over the world, in all sorts of homes.

But this one is mine, and I've put a lot of work into it. That constant shuffling is necessary, to get the right mix, and I'll never be properly satisfied with what it is saying.

Still, it looks sexy as hell. There are stories of infinite scope and endless novelty in those pages. There are literally universes on those shelves, entire sagas taking up one tiny corner of a shelf.

I always judge other people by the bookcases they have in their homes, and I expect to be judged by others for my own efforts. There is a lot going on in this bookcase, and it reveals a lot about my perspectives on the world, with doses of great literature pressed up hard against unashamed genre trash. All these books, all these comics, they're me.

And there is meaning in each one - I can remember where I got most of the volumes up there, and some of them are gifts, given with the greatest of affection, and some of them are comics that I've bought in shops all over the world, from Iceland to Invercargill.

We've only had this bookcase for a couple of years, but it's already charged up with the memories of where, when and why I got the things inside, dating back decades. It's all significant. It's all important. Nobody else should give a shit, but it all means something to me.

Even the shelves themselves have meaning - the bookcase was a gift from the lovely wife, to celebrate my 40th birthday. It's a solid and immovable symbol for our time together, and of the great affection we have for each other.

Bookcases are the only piece of furniture I never get rid of, unless they literally fall apart. I still have the small three-shelver that was literally my only piece of furniture when I first moved out of home, and it's storing all my cheap and cheerful paperbacks in the corner of the spare room.

Other furniture will come and go, but that big arse bookcase will be here to the end.

In the chaos and fear of this vast, unblinking universe, the bookcase is solid, and special. It's my totem. It's a big fat metaphor for everything I care about, and a solid-as-shit chunk of the world, taken up with enough books and comics to legitimately crush me to death if it ever went over. (This is a fairly likely fate, but what a way to go.)

It's dripping with significance. I can't fit it into the pocket like the travel Buddha, but it's always there, always waiting back at home.

And it's storing and displaying most of the finest things I've ever read, and some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen. Stories that changed the chemicals in my brain, and art that is so achingly perfect it's hard to hold back the tears. That's all got to count for something.

The shelves are deep, and my affection for things on there is even deeper, and that might actually make me shallow as fuck, but that's fine by me.

I've got my totem, and it's nearly as tall as I am, and a shitload heavier. It's full of all the memory and emotion I've poured into it for most of a lifetime, and it just keeps giving back.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The bad boys of Crisis - Skin and The New Adventures of Hitler

There was a glorious surge in interest in 'mature readers' comics in the late eighties in the UK, with the phenomenal mainstream success of comics like Watchmen and Maus sending publishers scrambling to fill new titles with political and socially aware comic strips (that also happened to be full of blood and tits).

There were terrifically anarchic efforts like Tank Girl, and the scattered work by the wider Deadline crew, and there were high-profile attempts to tap into this thirst for grown up comics. This included Crisis, the bi-weekly comic from the publishers and creators of 2000ad, which tried so hard to be one of the most edgy comics of its age, and never quite got there, although it was politically volatile and nakedly ambitious.

An ambitious failure is always far more interesting than a dull success, and Crisis had its share of both, but always tried to find the limits of grown-up comic books.

Remarkably, it actually found those limits, and even as Crisis took on some stories that were too hot for other publications, they discovered that the line was drawn at story about a thalidomide baby who grew up to be a little shit of a skinhead.

Of course, the Crisis comic was far from the first comic to take on political issues, while chasing an adult audience. Comic creators had been heading out into those uncharted waters for decades, with various explosions of underground and alternative comix.

But you didn't have to go to the local head shop for this fix,  Crisis showed up on regular newsstands, shelved near issues of the Beano, with some surprisingly hardcore content filtering its way into mainstream retailing.

And not just in the terms of sex and violence - the comic kicked off with some hardcore political screeds and subversive storytelling ideas. Writer John Smith brought his usual brilliant fractured narrative techniques to grown-up superheroes in the New Statesman, while Pat Mills' immaculately researched Third World War unashamedly took to its soapbox to deliver harsh polemics on the injustice of third world debt levels (while still having loads of action and peril).

Things got a little freer in the comic after the initial stories reached the end of their runs, and there were some safely charming stories, and a couple of genuinely thoughtful early efforts from Garth Ennis. It was all getting a bit safe, but Crisis was always looking out for something to rile up the squares, and it wasn't really that hard to find it. Actually publishing it was another story.

Once Crisis had been established, and was really looked like it was running out of puff, the comic got a powerful shot in the arm from The New Adventures of Hitler, the rip-tickling adventures of a young Adolf Hitler hanging out with family in England before WW1.

Proactively ideologically unsound, the strip was written by angry young Grant Morrison and drawn by his frequent - and welcome - collaborator Steve Yeowell. It had some of the most vomit-inducing colours in a modern comic book, and was far goofier and sillier than its title suggested.

In fact, apart from the general concept of portraying Adolf fuckin' Hitler with anything remotely resembling sympathy, the comic was actually pretty safe, skating on a thin edge of easy surrealism - Morrisey is in Hitler's cupboard - and showing that Hitler was always a bit of a tool.

It certainly wasn't condoning Nazism, and happily took some cheap shots at the whole fascism things. The strip also took great delights in comparing Hitler's ideas to Thatcherism, which the UK was only just starting to shrug off at the time of the comic's publication.

It was a liberal-baiting title, but unthinking nationalism was the real target of this story. It's all literally farts from a flatulent bulldog, or shit in an overflowing toilet, disguised as the Holy Grail.

The New Adventures of Hitler was originally intended for another publication, but got turfed out of that magazine, purely on the politically dodgy nature of the whole idea, rather than the actual content. It didn't take long for Crisis to snap it up, and publish it. There was the usual reaction of mild outrage, but it wasn't really a huge deal.

Crisis needed to publish it, because it was in danger of losing that edgy image it had set out to conquer. Although it had run into some predictably religious strife with Ennis/Pleece's True Faith, the anthology comic had already blinked once, and nobody was going to take them seriously if they did it again.

That blink was the unnerving and unflinching Skin, another in a devastating run of good comics from the team of peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, with their usual acerbic wit and ultra-trippy visuals.

The strip was advertised in the comic as a coming attraction, and was ready to go, but never showed, reportedly because the printers wanted nothing to do with it. After a short spell in limbo, it was eventually published by Tundra, and has been reprinted several times since.

It wasn't actually that much of a surprise that it caused such a fuss before publication, because Skin is genuinely disturbing, but also brilliant in its humanity - victims of medical malpractice are still people, and can still be completely dickheads, if they wanna be.

Martin Hatchet is a little shit. A victim of the appalling thalidomide cluster-fuck, born with tiny arms, who doesn't give a shit about your sympathy. As one of his mates notes, the poor bugger can't even reach far enough to have a wank, so you can't blame him for having some anger issues.

But Martin has his mates, and finds a community among the other skinheads, and they just treat him as one of the lads. Their white power ideology is awful and moronic, but they still find a place for him.

Martin does, admittedly, end up ripping off somebody else's arms and tying them to his own, in an orgy of grim violence, but as confronting as the story is, it's truly progressive in giving this type of person such an unpleasant voice.

While Crisis kept trying to freak out its readers, it ran out of energy and was gone within a couple of years. It remains little more than a footnote in the history of British comics, but it still influenced a new generation of comic creators, willing to take up the cause of saying something outrageously offensive.

It's hard to imagine either of these two particular strips being published these days, where the most superficial reading of a story can overwhelm any measured reaction, and it's nearly impossible to imagine it showing up on the shelves of the local newsagent.

But for a while, there was a genuine effort to get this type of material into the minds of as many people as possible. Skin and the New Adventures of Hitler didn't spark another wave of craziness, but shit. At least they tried.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This lack of bookshop is bad for everybody

This is a city of more than 1.5 million people, and getting bigger every day, and there isn't a single bookshop on the main street in the centre of town.

There are a couple of excellent bookstores, just a few streets off the main road, and a record shop that has a brilliant selection of esoteric literature and funky non-fiction, but there isn't a single dedicated bookshop anywhere on the main street. No chain stores, no classy independent stores, no second-hand stores. Nothing.

This isn't good for me, and it isn't good for you. It isn't good for anybody.

The migration of the second hand trade to the online sphere has had an obviously massive effect on brick and mortar stores, and is slowly wiping them from the map. Again, this is a city with hundreds of thousands of people living, loving, sleeping and reading in it, and there are barely a dozen second-hand bookstores across this whole city.

I'm a fiend for the second hand bookstores, and used to spend entire days criss-crossing the city, looking for something new from the old shops. I once calculated that a town or city had, on average, about one decent second-hand bookstore for every 10,000 people, now you're lucky if there is one per 100,000.

Another really good second hand bookstore near me disappeared recently, with the owner shutting up shop, and moving out of town, driven out by high rents and futile returns. It got replaced by a low-end fashion outlet. They always get replaced by something boring like that.

You can't blame people for buying all their books through places like Amazon, because it's cheaper and so easy to get the most obscure publication dropped into your lap. No effort, all reward.

I've bought a couple of dozen books from Amazon in this century, and hundreds and hundreds from actual shops. Getting something online is sometimes the only option, especially with a lot of books never getting imported to this part of the world. Sometimes it's the only way.

But browsing can be a fucking chore in this e-market, a dull, aching journey down the bottom of a click-list, forced to rely on algorithms that are trying to pick my tastes but never give me anything unexpected, or follow the purchasing patterns of similar customers. It's no fun.

And another reason it's no fun, is that it's so easy. There is no hunting for that one last book in a series you need, no joy of discovery. It just comes in the post, like a proper party pooper.

But I know that, for some bizarre reason, people prefer cheaper prices and easy convenience, and the second hand market is no match for an online trading auction. The book store trade has been choking to death on this for ages, with both big chain stores and small outlets going down the tubes, and the sheer amount of bookstores is dropping off across the world.

And what replaces them? Blank stores full of expensive and fundamentally useless phone technology. Shoe stores, and clothes shops, and health food outlets. Sheer narcissism over intellect, nothing beyond self-reflection, and no chance to take on another different points of view in some chunky publication.

It's the symptom of the age, this painful and vainglorious self-involvement. When we go shopping, all the bookstores are gone, so nobody is asking 'what can I learn today?', because they're too busy wondering 'does my arse look big in this'?

It looks fucking humongous, if you're asking.

There are still some bloody great bookstores out there - the few that have survived have been the sturdiest and strongest, with good selections and knowledgeable staff, and they often seem to be packed with eager customers, who just want a good substantial read.

But rents in the city still creeping up, and a lot of their clientele are hooked on their fucking phones, and as the print trade passes away from the mass market to the niche thrill, it all gets more expensive, and it's a slow, inevitable spiral to something a lot smaller, and harder to find.

Books are a highly-evolved creature that, for many people, still beats the unreliability and pixelation of digital format, so there will always be a place for some print, but it's not going to be everywhere, like it once was.

I fucking miss them, and a little part of me despairs every time I see another one has gone. I have no interest in going to the local malls anymore, with their one, sad chain bookstore that is more of a kids' stationery shop than anything else, and there isn't much in the centre of town either.

Binging on a Netflix TV show is the modern equivalent of reading a decent novel, and we're all still looking for information, but it all comes for free, on screens and direct downloads. Why bother with something as big and unwieldy as a book, just because it has far more information and truth and thought than can ever fit in an online article.

I'm fully aware that I risk accusations of being a fucking luddite, scared of technology and hanging on to a past of bookstore nirvana that has long since passed.

But it's not a fear of the future, it's a dismay at the lack of interest in intellectual stimulation, replaced by the constant self-involved hunger for name-brand merchandise to make you look good.

Don't worry about the clothes and shoes you wear, worry about the brain shriveling from lack of use. That isn't healthy for you. it's not healthy for anybody.