Thursday, September 28, 2017

Far, far away

I don't remember much about the first time I went tripping on acid - it ended up being a very messy, incredibly confusing and slightly enlightening night - but I still vividly remember freaking out in the bathroom at the KFC in Timaru.

I was staring in the mirror, trying to get a grip on things, and trying to deal with the fact that I was so very, very, very far away from home, and I had no idea how to get there, and my head was spinning and I had to get out of there, but it was such a huge distance to get home, and I was stuck.

I wasn't, of course - my mate Simon was driving us around and could take me home at any point. Also, crucially, I was actually only about 17 kilometres away from home, which wasn't very far at all.

Last year, while visiting Iceland with the lovely wife, we drove up to one of the most northern points of the island, and before we turned around and headed back to Reykjavik, I made us stop for a photo because that was, as far as I could figure, the furthest away I would ever get from home.

This time, I really was several thousand kilometres - and at least three plane rides - away from home, so this was a lot further than the local KFC. If we went any farther north, we would start coming around the other side, so without actually going off into space, this was as far as I was ever going to get.

I wasn't tripping this time, so there wasn't anything to panic about, although I almost got the rental car stuck in the Icelandic sand getting the hell out of there.

We're heading off on another trip at the end of this week, right around the world, but mainly in the Scandinavian countries, because they're so fucking pretty. While I still get a day to check out the finest book and comic shops in London, most of the time I won't be speaking the same language.

I'm going far, far away again. 

The Tearoom will remain open while we're away, but things are going to get tediously and embarrassingly confessional for the next month. Like, really fucking dorky. You have been warned.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The peak of geek

I'm not as dorky as I once was, and I've always wondered when that nerd tsunami peaked. So, using the finest research methodology, I've finally managed to exactly work out what point in space and time I was at my dorkiest. I based it on the one month in history where I owned more comics than any other month.
It took a while, but it was easy to figure out in the end. Unsurprisingly, it was the bloody nineties. August 1993, to be exact.

I worked this out because instead of having useful information like 'how to fix a car' or 'how to arrange a mortgage', my brain is instead capable of recalling any comic I've ever owned since I was 7-years-old, purely from seeing the cover. All that fucking useless information is still rattling around in my head, doing no good at all.

But it did mean I could use the database of comic covers at Mike's Amazing World, which showed all the comics put out by the biggest publishers over the past few decades, and figure out which month was the most frenzied for comic buying. It took a couple of weeks, but when I needed to do something to switch off from the world for a while, I would go through and count out how many comics I got from that month.

It wasn't not entirely exhaustive or scientific in any way - there were some comics that were missing from the list (a lot of small publishers aren't in that database, so no Love and Rockets, or anything like that); and I only did between 1985 and 2000, because I already knew that was when I bought the most comics, by far.

I wrote it all down and it looked like this:

That might just be the nerdiest fucking thing ever posted on the internet, and I know that is a high bar to hurdle.

Jesus fucking Christ, what a fucking dork.

But as nerdy as it was to do this, I'm still nowhere near the levels I was in August 1993, because I have, at one time or another, owned 58 individual comic books published this month.

The nerdiness remained high, all the way through these years. There wasn't a month of published comic between 1985 and 2000 where I didn't end up buying at least 10 issues, and there are several years when I don't get any less than 30, every single month. This was, to use the technical term, a fuck-tonne of comics.

But August 1993 was the peak - it took a while to get to that point, and it never got quite that frenzied again. That was the high point of comics for me, and it's not hard to figure out why.

It's worth noting that there were always more comic buying at that time of year, because there are always a tonne more actual comics published every American summer.

That's when there were more crossovers, and annuals, and a lot of regular comics would go on a bi-weekly schedule for a few months. 1993 was particularly bad for all this - there was the Reign of the Supermen and Knightfall bollocks going on, a bunch of annuals introducing characters that nobody would ever care about again, and several thousand Infinity Crusade crossovers, as well as all the usual nonsense. June to August was always going to be packed with comics.

But really, it's all personal history behind this surge and ebb - 1993 was my first year out of school, my first year earning a wage, the first year I could buy anything I felt like.

Plus, I had a car, and I could get out of my tiny town and to the big smokes of Christchurch and Dunedin, raiding the comic shops there, and coming home with a back seat literally covered in comic book goodness.

It was also that time in my life when I went through that weird tipping point between a deep obsession with all things superhero, and the first faltering steps into 'mature' comics. A few years earlier, and it was all Marvel and DC, a few years later and they're the rarity.

I was definitely tending more towards DC over Marvel at this time, just because Marvel was stuck in a post-Image funk, while DC was really getting into the iconography of their characters, and were more willing to mess with the formula. But the days when it was all things superhero for Bob were numbered.

Most of these comics that I bought from August 1993 are long gone, the majority disappeared during the usual purges, when I realised I didn't need all those Infinity Gauntlet sequels and spin-offs, and all that post-death Superman, and all those endlessly awful X-comics, and they all went to new homes.

I do still have a small fuck-tonne of them though, sitting in boxes under the bed, a metre away from where I'm typing this. I've still got all the Legion of Super-Heroes and Flash and Cerebus the Aardvark comics I bought at the time, and most of the Vertigo from that period (I still can't get rid of Kid bloody Eternity). I still got the Miracleman and the Lobo. I definitely still have the 1963 comics and all the Garth Ennis books, (this month's issue of Hellblazer is arguably his best single comic of this period), and I was just reading the Batman comic with the sweet Arthur Ranson art the other day.

I've had most of these comics for almost a quarter of a century, and they've survived multiple purges, so as much of a cultural wasteland as August 1993 was, it still had some merit.

I got caught making this list at work a couple of times at work, and I couldn't admit what I was doing, because it was just so fucking nerdy. But it was pleasantly addictive, and mildly educational. I'm glad I did it.

I'm also still fucking glad I'm not 18 anymore, because outside of the comic obsession, I was the usual late-adolescent mess. But all I have to do is look at these covers and it takes me right back to that heady rush of young adulthood. Maybe it's worth using up all that brain space after all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Scented candles and stunted growth

I wish my younger self could see the emails that go between me and the lovely wife these days. I wish I could just forward them on to 1998, and let 23-year-old me recoil in horror.

He'd be appalled by the joy of a good salad, and the appreciation of jeans that cost more than twelve bucks. He'd be disgusted to see me shed more of the anarchism in my political philosophy, and wouldn't believe how much I need to go to a proper barber's this weekend so I can look good in Sweden.

Most of all, I like to think that my younger, dumber self would be making this face when he found out about my current enthusiasm and appreciation of scented candles:

This whole nature of time business means we're all always changing, all the time, becoming more normal or more strange over the years, or usually a mix of both. This is the way of universe, and fighting against it is like taking on the strongest river current, you're just going to drown.

Tastes change and slip over the years, opinions and obsessions that were once important and indispensable become forgotten and disposable. Just and hold onto them for too long, and you'll either drown, or just turn into another dead rock in the river.

We should always be looking for something new. It's all right to listen to the classic rock radio station while you're at work or driving around town, but if that's all you're listening to, you're not getting anywhere in life.

Like a lot of folk on this small blue dot, I have an insatiable hunger for something new and interesting. I have my favourite directors that provide endless brilliant cinema, but nothing beats some slick new kid. I'm on an active quest to find new favourite authors, and the search for new tunes goes on and on.

My greatest failure in this regard is the comics. I stick to old favourites, long after they've gone off and reek of desperation; and I am frequently disappointed by all the latest hip comics, finding it incredibly difficult to find anything in the heaving morass of the modern comic book industry.

I still try, and I win small battles, but I think I'm losing the war.

It's hard, and not just because of pure nostalgia. It's hard because all that old stuff is so fucking good.

I'm not winning this war of new appreciations, because all of my 10 favourite movies ever were all watched in that age between the late teens and mid-twenties. That's when I watched all the good shit that had been made up to that point, and figured out what I liked the most, and it's still the stuff I like the best.

That's when tastes in fiction became solidified, and a little bit calcified. I'll always think The Prisoner is one of the great TV shows of all time, even as the production looks increasingly more dated and cheap (the ideas, mind you, still shine eternal). It ain't changing.

My easy list of my five favourite films hasn't changed since 1998 - it's still Dawn of the Dead, Withnail and I, 2001, O Lucky Man and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. I've seen loads of other brilliant movies in the years in the past 19 years - and some of them have been transcendentally good -  but nothing that I've loved as much as those five.

Likewise, my favourite comics have been Love and Rockets and 2000ad since about the same time, and show no sign of shifting off that list anytime soon, because any contender is going to have to display decades of brilliance before I'd even consider them.

Plus, of course, that's the age where you've got the most freedom and disposable cash, before other adult things become more important. Maybe all my favourite shit was made before this century because little things like a partner, a family, children, travel, scented candles or a career get in the way.

Who has got the time to keep on top of all the new stuff, especially when going back and revisiting all the old best stuff is so consistently rewarding?

I'd like to meet my younger self, but I don't think I would actually like him very much. He was so fucking stupid, and weird, and poor, and ideologically pure, (or so he thought). Just another dumbarse working class hero, when that was something to be. He would probably be up on his high horse about some goddamn thing, or more likely, just drunk in the gutter.

The meeting would still be worth it, just for the scented candles revelation.

I do have a genuine interest in scented candles. I don't know where it came from, but I got really excited recently when my workmate Tom told me his partner made them, and I ordered a strawberry and champagne one from her, and it was absolutely fucking delightful. Our house now smells like love and happiness forever.

Young Bob would be appalled - it would be a waste of hard-earned cash for something so frivolous, it literally dissipates in the air, perpetuating the capitalist nightmare that is driving this world towards oblivion by giving in to the narcissistic drive to hide the world's bullshit beneath a pretty smell.

I don't care, our house now smells like love and happiness forever. Fuck off, young Bob. It ain't 1998 anymore.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Why am I bothering with The Orville?

Nobody has the time, money or inclination to follow everything in modern pop culture - you have to choose what movies or TV or novels or comic books you bother with. It's not hard, you can base it largely on personal taste, recommendations and the past form of the creators involved.

And sometimes, you can find yourself watching or reading something that everybody else has written off, partly because you want to see if it is bad as everybody says it is, and partly because there is a definite cheap thrill in digging something that nobody else does.

The first reason is how I ended up watching The Orville this week, but I'll probably keep watching it because of the second.

People who are total contrarians about everything they watch, read and hear are, unfortunately, usually boring as hell. You're allowed to like stuff that other people hate, and vice versa, but if you base all of your opinions on what everybody else is thinking, in some vain attempt to stand out from the crowd, then you're unlikely to have anything interesting to say.

But it still happens - I'll end up liking something more because I've been told it's bad for me, and I will have affection for something everybody else sneers at just because... well...

Fuck you, buddy. That's why. I can like what I want. We all can.

It would be a boring world if we all liked the same shit, and I welcome different opinions. But there is also that knee-jerk reaction against the great nerd hive-mind, especially when it gets too enthusiastic, or too scathing, about a particular movie or TV show.

While I can't follow everything, I still check out half a dozen nerd sites almost every day, just to keep up with the play, just to see if there is anything good coming. That great nerd hive-mind is easy to see from this perspective, even if it isn't exactly that impressive.

It's all harmless enough, but it gets bloody boring when there is some kind of great geek consensus reached, where it's already taken for granted that, say, the last season of Game of Thrones was poorly written, or that Frank Miller doesn't have anything interesting left to say about super-heroes, or that JJ Abrams coming back to Star Wars is going to be a great disaster, (I certainly don't agree with any of that).

Like a lot of people, I often have some affection for TV shows that absolutely everybody else has written off as dumb trash, and that affection only increases in proportion to the amount of hate lumped upon it. If it's taken for granted that I'm a fool for doing so, then I'm a happy fool.

I must be some kind of fool, because after 6000 articles, essays and tweet telling me it was bad for me, and I should avoid it at all costs, I still watched the first episode The Orville - the new Seth McFarlane show that is a totally shameless Star Trek rip-off.

All the smart people know that Family Guy is the worst show, and Seth MacFarlane is a smug, arrogant prick who is the worst embodiment of boring privilege, and the humour is so lazy, don'cha know?

I don't give a shit about any of that, I think Family Guy is fine, and sometimes a lot of fun. Scatological and slapstick humour has it place, just like narrative-driven laffs do, and most of the best people I know are smug, arrogant pricks. I mean, I never went far enough to watch American Dad or The Cleveland Show, but shit, I'll still watch a new Family Guy any day.

So when The Orville dropped onto my TV screen the other night, I didn't just automatically skip past it like any sane person would, partly because of that tolerance for that kind of humour, and partly because of some lingering and idiotic contrarian impulses.

After all, it couldn't be as bad as everybody was saying - they never are. There is a dull 'everything is awesome/everything is awful' that a lot of cultural criticism boils down to, and that leaves a lot of room for stuff that's just.... okay.

And The Orville is okay. I actually like the way the characters react to stressful events with dumb jokes and lame one-liners - because that is what people actually do in real life. And it's actually nice to have a Star Trek-type story that isn't bogged down by the boring need to play up to the iconography of the 51-year-old series, and can just get on with the business of some slightly goofy sci-fi nonsense.

I know there are better shows I could be spending my day on, but it's harmless enough, and the amount of bile flung in its direction starts to feel a bit forced. McFarlane has been making his silly shit for decades now - if you don't like it, you're never going to - but it ain't the end of the world.

(I can't fucking believe I'm writing about this goddamn average piece of shit show when all I want to talk about is the new Twin Peaks, and how it is undoubtedly the best TV of the decade. But a curious effect of watching the recent series is that I had absolutely no interest in reading anything anybody had to say about it afterwards, mainly because everybody seemed so hell-bent on explaining every fucking thing, so I can't add to the cacophony, even though in real life I can't stop fucking talking about that last 20 seconds of the series and all the doppelgangers and Harry Dean Stanton and a thousand other pieces of the show.)

In the end, I just don't know how how much of the critical talk about this dumb new show is a knee-jerk adolescent reaction to MacFarlane's humour and his pissing on the Star Trek iconography, and how much of it has genuine insight.

I still delight in reading takes that are completely different to mine, because I'm never gonna learn anything otherwise. I'll be amazed if The Orville goes any further than this first season, but I'll stick around. All that bad blood doesn't harsh my buzz.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Never enough time for all this reading

Who ever just reads one thing at once? Don't we all have a few decent-sized books on the go? Aren't we all also filling out the day with a selection of magazines and articles and comics and whatever? It's not just me, right?

There is just so much great stuff to read, enjoy and absorb, and I've only got a short lifetime to get through it all. Better crack on.

A lot of the most rewarding reading experiences lately have come from the one-person book club, which is working out quite well.

A bit too well,  to be honest, because now when I go into the local bookshop at the start of every month, looking for something new, I'm worried I won't be able to find anything that matches the high standard of the things I've already read. They've been so bloody good, I'm start to dread the inevitable disappointment.

Still, it's paying off now. In fiction, the recent great stuff has included Emily Ruskovich's slow, mournful Idaho, the brutal and beautiful theatricality of The Yid by Paul Goldberg, and the unexpected turns in the road through John Darnielle's Universal Harvester, a journey that ended in strange new territory.

They've all been fantastically rewarding reads, and a further impetus to keep this book club thing going. At the moment, I'm hurtling through David Grossman's short, sharp A Horse Walks Into A Bar, and that's another one that's living up to the deal. So far.

The other half of my book club is all about the non-fiction, so I've been piling on that, although most of the factual books I've been reading - things like Brenna Hassett's Built on Bones, and The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt - have been in the safe topic regions of history and science. I've got to try a bit harder, although at least I haven't gone for the easy options of books about movies and music.

The most recent one was a cracker of a book about the criminal Kiwi underground in the 1950s, at a time when the pubs closed at 6pm, which was hugely interesting, and surprisingly useful for another writing project I've been working on. It all comes around.

It took me more than a year, here or there, but I just finished up a recent project to re-read all my Empire movie magazines - hundreds of issues, dating back to the early nineties.

It got a bit laborious there for a while, especially when there was some real fallow periods for great movies, but it was a fascinating experience going back through the years, tracking unspoken trends in cinema, and seeing the surprisingly slow dissolution of 90s lad culture, and checking out the initial reaction to films that have calcified over the years into 'total classic' or 'utter stinker', and realizing how many movies have been made over the years that have just been totally forgotten by everyone, everywhere.

The best thing about it was, of course, the painfully personal connection I have to these silly magazines - that issue with Kenneth bloody Branagh pretending to be Frankenstein is the first one I bought after moving out of my parents' place; there are the ones with Brandon Routh's Superman I got just after we got married; that Star Wars cover went all over Europe with us a decade ago.

There are almost half a dozen banana boxes full of Empires under the bed now, but I'm not getting rid of any of 'em, no matter how outdated they get.

Once the Empire project was done, I went straight onto another big British re-read, by going through another massive 2000ad prog slog, focused on the past 1000 issues of the galaxy's greatest comic.
Again, there are a bunch of weird trends that run through 20 years of a weekly publication, that become more obvious in one big binge-read. Sinister Dexter goes on and on too long, and even Nikolai Dante gets flabby when he goes through his pirate phase, but it doesn't last long, and picks up again with the return of Simon Fraser. Dredd just gets deeper and deeper, and there are entire series that were passable entertainment in weekly chunks, that become great reads in one go - Gordon Rennie's stories benefit particularly from this.

There are also huge chunks of dullness, and the anthology comics always has at least one story every issue that never really connects, and they become easy to ignore and skip past, especially when there are stories with far more thrill-power waiting at the end of the prog.

In other comics - because there are always, always other comics - I finally got around to reading Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple's Omega The Unknown comic, which was gloriously all over the place, and doesn't feel like anything else the publisher has done in the past few years. (Especially since it came out - fuck me - 10 years ago!)

I also went back through some of Joe Sacco's Sarajevo stuff, just because it's still bloody good, and always worth going back to again. I balanced out the worthiness with some Dicks comics by Ennis and McCrea, because they're still my favourite 'couldn't give a fuck' comics, (although Jimmy's Bastards is my Ennis of choice at the moment).

I tried out a bunch of new superhero comics from the library, just to see what was going on, but it wasn't that encouraging. There is some beautiful art, especially from Marvel, but it's all the same old shit, and the portions are too big. The DC stuff in particular feels particularly uninspiring, and nothing under the ugly and bland Rebirth design is really hitting it for me. Someone keeps buying these bloody things though, so what the hell do I know? At least I keep trying, but I never really seem to get anywhere.

I usually have some sort of Doctor Who book on the go, and have done since 1981. But I haven't read anything in a while, so I keep thinking I need to re-read all the New Adventures from the nineties.

I want to do it partly because I only recently completed the set (that only took 20 fuckin' years), and largely because I have a thing for smart women with short, dark hair. So I could go back and read them all in one go, but there are just so bloody many. I don't know if I have that kind of enthusiasm anymore, no matter how much the books are full of time-traveling potential.

The New Adventures are going on the list, because of course there is always a fucking list. All the books I need to get to, or catch up on, or try out for the first time. All the recommendations from friends, all the ones with the ace reviews I read. Onward and upward.

We're off traveling again at the end of the month,so the things at the very top of the list are the reading material I'll take on the trip, something I put a huge amount of thought into, and actually finalized a few months ago. I've got a new Kim Newman book that I've been saving for the planes and hotels, a couple of chunky magazines, and a plan to pick up at least one of Pat Mills' two recent books about the British comics industry on the way. 

I'm off to see the world again, but that's no reason not to have my nose stuck in another book. Life really is too short for all this.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Love and Rockets: All those years ago

It's not hard to find examples of the undisputed brilliance of Jaime Hernandez's art - it's right there on the page in every new issue of Love and Rockets.

There are a couple of moments of quiet genius in the recent third issue of the latest volume of this exceptional comic, and they could only have come from an artist who had been deepening and enriching his ongoing story for decades.

If you're telling that kind of story, and you need to evoke a distinctive time and place - say, a California drug dealer's pad in the early eighties - you can do it with faint echoes, rippling down the years, without writing a word. You just do it all with body language and positioning.

Look at this, a panel from Jamie's magnificent Tear It Up, Terry Downe, from Love and Rockets v1 #28, where the title character of that wonderful short story arrives at the house of Del Chimney, back in the days before he got crucified on his floor.

That was published in 1988, but it's so slick and modern, it could have been yesterday. And it kinda was, because here's a panel from the most recent issue, published just a few weeks ago:

It's not just a callback, the two scenes are roughly taking place at the same time period, and feature a female character who doesn't want to be there, being ignored by some douchebag.

Without having to belabor the point, without having to explain every damn thing, Jaime takes the reader back to that place, showing that some reactions are universal, and filling in the background of his beautifully sprawling saga.This isn't just easy nostalgia for the 'golden age' of L&R, this is making it clear that it's all the same story.

And hell, if you are filling in things like that, why not take a single panel of Hopey at her young punk best from a mid-eighties strip -

- and then take the story right past that intimidating scowl in the new issue -

This is just great comics, operating on a level that spans generations, offering new insights on old events, and giving the entire thing more depth than you could ever possibly expect.

Love and Rockets: All these year later, and still just better comics than anything else out there.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Single Page: A single page

By Furtado
Originally published in Cerebus The Aardvark Bi-Weekly #9
Okay, I'm done with the Single Pages now.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Single Page: Great wasters from history

By Eddie Campbell, naturally
Originally published in Cerebus Bi-Weekly #7