Monday, April 30, 2018

I still can't get my fucking comics

When I was teenager and living out my peak comic nerd period, I had to learn to live with missing out on issues of my favourite comics because I lived in a town of 3000 people on the arse end of the world, and it was pure foolishness to expect every issue to show up on the shelves of Baird's Bookshop.

Most issues of X-Men or 2000ad would still come through on a regular basis, but there would also be regular omissions, when the process to distribute these tiny pamphlets of joy would break down, and nothing would show up. I had absolutely no say on what would appear, and had to take what I was given.

I can still remember exactly what issues were missed, and because the nearest comic shop was several hundred kilometres away, it would literally take years to fill those holes in the stories. You could make the most of it – there can be something pleasantly non-linear about this kind of reading experience – but the missing holes were an aching void that would take a long time to fill.

I got used to this in small town life, but I'm still amazed that it still happens now, even though I live in the country's biggest city with two dedicated comic shops. I'm still on the arse end of the world and I still can't get my fucking comics.

There are two main reasons for this - customer loyalty and distributor douchebaggery. Most of my regular comic buying is through a store I've been supporting for about 15 years, long before I even moved to this city. The owner is a great, smart retailer who has supplied me with thousands of doses of comic brilliance over the years, and still does his best to feed that never-ending addiction every week.

But he's been totally screwed over by Diamond, with unexpected invoices and delayed shipments, and weeks can go by without anything, and then a month's worth of product will drop at once, but there is always something missing. He's stuck with a distribution monopoly, and can't do much about it, and I still have to take what I've been given.

When I got talked into signing up for the latest 16-part Avengers bash-a-thon, the only ones that came through were parts 2, 7 and 12. I ordered a regular supply of Matt Wagner's new Mage comics, and got issues 0, 1 and 5. I might be into the non-linear aspect of reading monthly comic books, but this just isn't really that satisfying

I could always go to the other store in town, who are fine people and get their comics on a timely basis because they can afford (just) to get a premium service, but I can't bail on my dude now. I don't have much to really offer the world, but I got loyalty. I'm with him to the end, no matter how many BPRD comics I'm going to have to hunt out somewhere else.

Of course, 2000ad has always been a constant in my comic life, and getting a new issue every week off the news-stand and reading it in the street is an eternal pleasure, and I only have to miss three or four issues a year.

I don't know who does the distribution for them, but they get very confused, especially around Christmas time, when the comic takes a four-week break after a big annual special. My local shop missed three of them altogether, including the special, and tried to make me pay $22 for the next one (the regular price is currently $8.80).

Once upon a time, there were hundreds and hundreds of dairies, bookshops and supermarkets that sold 2000ad, now there are only a couple, so I'm going to have to go buy the missing issues online. It still feels like cheating, but it's the only way.

The regular printed periodical comic book is still my favourite form of the medium, followed closely by big, chunky collections, while reading them on a phone or computer is of no interest at all. I want to consume them like this, because I worship the object as the most sublime form of entertainment I know.

But I think I'm going giving them up, and just waiting for the inevitable collection.This is getting ridiculous.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

This is what happened when the wife watched too much Veronica Mars

While I like to think that I'm pretty good at holding petty grudges and making oblivious arch-enemies, when it comes to things like that, I am just a child compared to my lovely wife, who can muster a righteous, incandescent fury that is glorious to watch.

She's an incredibly kind, warm and generous woman, but if you ever mess with her or her loved ones, your arse is grass, pal. She will do anything necessary to get her recompense or revenge, and will hold on to that grudge until the end of time.

As somebody who has always been attracted to strong, powerful women, I find this aspect of her sexy as hell, and am constantly grateful that the love of my life tends to direct this anger towards things like noisy neighbours or douchebag co-workers.

But sometimes it still really does freak me out how far she will take these things, like the time she ended up hiding from a thief behind an elevator shaft in a deserted car park at five in the morning. That might have been going a bit far.

The thief in her office didn't steal from the company they all worked at, he stole from his workmates, which is probably worse. The money disappeared from a staff lottery fund one night, and while it was only fifty bucks, it was an unforgivable breach of trust.

Everyone knew who did it, because there was only one office douche who would do something like that, but nobody could prove anything, and he had a close family member slightly up the corporate chain, so if anybody was going to accuse him of anything, they needed to be bloody sure.

The wife certainly did, and wasn't going to just sit there and take that kind of rudeness. We were watching a lot of TV detective shows like Veronica Mars and several danish crime series like The Killing and The Bridge, and I have no doubt the exploits of the take-no-shit women in those shows inspired her to get off her arse and do something about it.

So when they gave the thief a subtle time window in which he could return the money, the only way somebody was going to catch him was to get up at four in the morning and stake-out the scene, which is exactly what she did.

I knew I'd never talk her out of it when I saw the cold fire in her eyes, but I also knew she could take care of herself if things got ugly. She'd had self-defence training and her trusty pocket-knife, and she'd been aching for years to stab any dick who tried to fuck with her, (she once almost stabbed a taxi driver in Cairo in the neck with her pen, but that's another story altogether). I thought she was mad, but I knew she'd be safe.

Unfortunately, her nemesis got to her work before she did, so she couldn't catch him in the act, and had to hide away when he was coming out, ducking behind a lift shaft. He didn't see her, which was fortunate, because she had no good explanation for what she was doing, either than trying to catch a thief.

In the end, another of her co-workers - who probably thought of himself more as Sherlock Holmes - got the thief to confess and he was tossed out of the job, (although, with those family connections, he got off a lot more lightly than he should have).

This was all a few years ago now, but the lovely wife hasn't forgotten what that guy did, and certainly hasn't forgiven. She still checks in on him now and again, pleased to see he's still a total fuck-up, and just a little fuming that he almost got away with it all.

A lot of my ethics and morals that allow me to get through this life come from Superman and Batman, so I certainly can't judge her for being so influenced by Saga Norén and Sarah Lund, and can only be grateful she doesn't share those characters' self-destructive tendencies.

And I'm even more glad when she just wants to wear big chunky jumpers, instead of tracking down thieves in the middle of the night.

I'm not worried for her, I'm worried for the people she goes after. If her co-worker/thief had peeked around the corner of that lift shaft that cold early morning, he would have got a blade in the face. It's what those badass women would do.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Avengers aren't that complicated

There is already a bunch of pre-criticism about the new Avengers film - because nobody waits until they've actually seen a film before passing judgement on it these days - and while some of the moaning will undoubtedly have some validity, I just can't get with the idea that these films are getting too complicated to follow.

There have been well over a dozen films set in the Marvel universe so far, each introducing their own cast of characters, each adding new locations and aspects to this sprawling cinematic universe, each with their own themes or goals (although things like "daddy issues" and "giant shit falling from the sky" are repeated motifs).

But I'm baffled by the idea these things are too hard to follow. They're not complicated, there are few mysteries or dangling plot threads, each film is pretty much resolved in itself. They're pitched at an audience with the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, which covers most of society, and anybody who finds these things too complicated probably has bigger problems in life.

The new film has something like 40 main characters, but they're all blocky, basic archetypes, with the odd nuance or shtick. Keeping track of all their shenanigans is a piece of piss, requiring very little proper brainpower. These things don't rack up massive grosses by befuddling their audiences.

I'm off to the NZ premiere of the new film in a couple of nights, and the guy I'm going to said he had problems keeping track of it all, and all I could think is: pal, if you think this stuff is too complicated, try reading the monthly comic books for a while.

I'm not blessed with great brainpower - as the idiotic ramblings on this blog for the past nine fucking years should have made quite clear - but I don't feel the need to go back and re-watch every Marvel film before we head into the climax of the series' second phase. I think I've got this.

It probably helps that I have been immersed in Avengers-lore for nearly 40 years and have read hundreds and hundreds of Avengers comics over that time and that's been pretty easy to keep track of (except maybe the Kang stuff, because the whole point of Kang is that his timeline makes no sense at all). I might not remember every single individual panel, but nobody needs to do that. keeping track of the big picture stuff is enough.

There's this insane idea that you can't go into a movie sequel without remembering every single scene that has happened in the previous installments, but that's not true at all. We all remember the big stuff, every thing else, it's all mood, or characterisation, or world-building. To use a classic film example, nobody gives a flying fuck who actually killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, it's still an amazing movie without that being ticked off a plot checklist.

But even people who can't tell Wonder Man from the Beast can keep track of complicated narratives that stretch over years - professional wrestling has some insanely convoluted plots going on both inside and outside the squared circle, and trashy soap operas can keep storylines going for literally decades without the audience ever getting too lost. Some of the details may fade, but the storyline endures.

Like all the rest of the Marvel movies, the new Avengers film looks like it will be competent and crowd-pleasing, with odd moments of surprising cleverness and transcendental beauty. It will probably make all the money in the world.

But it just ain't that complicated.These things never are.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Paperbacks From Hell: The sweet smell of rot

The mass-market horror paperback novels of the 1970s and 1980s were, by their very definition, disposable. They were designed to be read once on boring commutes or long flights, usually by somebody who was a bit embarrassed to be reading something so crass, and then discarded. Nobody ever went for literary immortality by writing about giant killer crabs.

The books have had a long half-life in second hand bookstores over the years, but nobody really collects this stuff - absolutely nobody is hugely interested in The Collected Works of Shaun Hutson - and they are slowly starting to rot away, out of both physical existence and their place in the history of the novel.

But they're not totally forgotten, not when there are books like Grady Hendrix's recent Paperback From Hell, which traces the history of this sordid sub-genre from its birth from a flailing romance book industry, through to a quiet end as any kind of cultural force somewhere in the 1990s.

Hendrix is undoubtedly enthusiastic about all the nasty shit that showed up on bookshelves over the years, but also doesn't hesitate to point out that there is a lot that is insanely problematic about many of these books - they often dish up lashings of rampant sexism and homophobia, and frequently veer into outright and unmistakable misogyny.

But there are also crazy, mind-bending ideas and plots that are totally bonkers and utterly unpredictable, and loads and loads of gorgeous cover art from the likes of the astonishing Jill Bauman or the iconic Jim Thiesen.

A lot of people would argue that there is no way these books can be intellectually or morally healthy for anybody, but I devoured this kind of thing when I was in my teens, and other than the usual despair over our meaningless existences in this vast and cold universe, I think I turned out okay.

So many of the sub-genres Hendrix exhumes from their literary graves for Paperbacks From Hell are queasily familiar - there are all the books about heavy metal-laced satanic cults, and novels about the horror lurking beneath the pastel surface of stifling suburbia (a theme that is always massively disturbing in its banality). There are novels about alien abductions, killer hospitals, haunted houses, collapsing cities, creepy-ass children, and sick, demented twists on the usual vampires and werewolves.

There were slightly less gory books for young adults and some surprisingly hardcore novels for snobby adults who were above all that unpleasantness, but didn't mind digging into Silence of the Lambs when it was marketed as a thriller. There were blockbuster chills from authors like King and Barker, and a huge numbers of books about nature gone wrong, with killer rabbits, bees, ants, slugs, pigs, dogs and cats. (I always had an inexplicable soft spot for Guy N Smith's Crabs novels, but James Herbert's Rats books were the undeniable best.)

All these nightmares - and many, many more - are lurking within the pages of Paperbacks From Hell, and it's a compelling compendium of these gruesome tomes, while never taking these things too seriously.

These objects have a half-life of about 30 years, and are even starting to disappear from the faded shelves and deep backrooms of second hand bookstores, (also, second-hand stores are disappearing themselves as the secondary markets go online). But there will always be some glorious freak who is determined to get their hands on every book in the Satan Sleuth series, and plenty of others who are happy just to read about them instead.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Real life gets in the way

I really should be writing more about some of the weird wonderful things I've read and watched lately, because while indulging in the dorkiest of fiction doesn't fill the emptiness inside me, it does help, and writing about it helps even more.

Instead, I'm busy fuming about the waiter at a fancy cafe downtown who made fun of me the other day for having two menu items with strawberries in them, like it was the funniest fucking thing he'd ever heard of, and I just can't let it go. I just really fucking like strawberries, I don't need any berry-shame to go with them, thanks.

And then there is the mysterious fuckhead who straight up stole a bottle of wine from me on Friday night, and I really do feel like my building up the world's lamest rogue's gallery. 

I really need to get a life, because I think this current one is getting too petty to go on for much longer.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The ABC Warriors: Time is a flat circle

The mighty Pat Mills has been telling the adventures of the ABC Warriors in 2000ad for decades now, with the story sticking to the same core cast of robotic warriors, while also evolving in strange new directions.

Mills' ABC saga has had several iterations, while always remaining absolutely true to the writer's themes and ideas - the original Ro-Busters stories were a savage metaphor for the persecution of the working class, the Warriors got all Khaotic in the late 1980s and 1090s, and the characters are still trying to increase the peace in current issues.

The Warriors are a bunch of violent robotic crusaders, but there simplicity means they can handle a huge variety of stories, and Mills has always been a fiercely inventive writer, only too willing to take them to new places.

It has helped that there has been astonishing art on this story over the years - comic masters Mike McMahon, Ian Kennedy and Dave Gibbons defined the personalities of their robotic cast in the early days, Simon Bisley showed the world what he could do with his sleek, oiled and muscular efforts a decade later, while Clint Langley's mecha-gothic fumetti are a perfect fit for the modern era.

But it's always been Mills' story, and in recent years that has branched out in some odd new directions, while spiraling back in on itself at the same time - recent issues of 2000ad ended up telling two ABC Warriors stories at once, from both ends of the characters' histories. It's the sort of thing that could only work in a long-running anthology like 2000ad, while high-lighting the writer's great versatility.

A few years ago, Mills returned to the Invasion storyline that was in 2000ad's very first issue with Savage, telling a far grittier and more political story of an invasion of Britain. The title character is still a complete nutter with a shotgun, just like he always was, but has ended up blasting away at the entire military-industrial complex as well as the hapless Vogan grunts. The most recent volumes have seen the way the ABC Warriors were introduced to the world, right up to specific characters like the dastardly General Blacklood. This is where their eternal war begins.

Meanwhile, in the very same issue, Mills and Langley are dealing with the same robots thousands of years in their future, where after many, many adventures across all of time and space, they are starting to turn on each other, as if it's the the logical conclusion to their never-ending efforts to make the universe a better place. The two stories even feature the same character in the odious industrialist Howard Stark, shortly after his human body has been destroyed and his brain shoved into a robotic body, and years later, hoarding gold after spreading his greed across the galaxy.

It's a fascinating way of telling two new stories, the kind of storytelling you can only have with the longevity and flexibility of something like 2000ad. Even though they feature the same characters, the Savage and ABC Warriors strips are dealing with totally different themes, styles, ideas and goals, while still being part of the same mega-story Mills has been telling since 1978.

Mills comics are as cleaver and intelligent as they have ever been and he's still a writer who has never met a pun he didn't like - his key duo is named after the world's most famous musical creators. And after all these years, he's still incredibly inventive - there is a plot device in Savage which is used as both a torture instrument and an explanation for the sudden explosion in sci-fi concepts in the world, while still remaining true to the gritty vision of the author.

After all this time, it's still brilliant to see Mills can still come up with new ways to tell his stories, and his strips remain a vital ingredient in 200ad's ongoing success. He's not stopping anytime soon - the writer is pumping out both factual and fictional histories of the modern British comic scene, and there have been promises that a Joe Pineapples series by Bisley is on the way (although very, very slowly - and Mills still isn't afraid to mix everything up, and tell the same story from both ends.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Leftovers: Nobody is doing this alone

When you're going through an awful bereavement period, The Leftovers is either the very best or very worst TV show to be binge watching. I burned through the first couple of seasons in days just recently and I'm still not sure yet.

Behind that staggeringly high concept of the show - an unexplained event where two percent of the world's population suddenly vanish - and a pleasing unwillingness to explain any of its mysteries, The Leftovers is full of weird, weighty themes and post-modern analysis of our culture, and is about family and home and our place in the universe.

Most of all, for this suffering soul at least, it is about grief and the human ability to deal with it. It's something we all go through - we all lose people we love at some point in our long and tragic lives. And when it happens to you, it can be so fucking traumatic that it can genuinely make you feel like nobody else has ever suffered it in the whole history of humankind.

There is almost always close family and friends, usually all stuck in the same spiral of sadness and depression, and you get through it all together, but you also get through it because everybody else you know isn't broken, and they pull you back to the real world by showing that life goes on, no matter how much your heart hurts.

But in The Leftovers, everybody is broken at the same time, and it breaks society, leading to things like doom cults making everybody else miserable until they are annihilated. One character loses her mother the day before the big event and her grief is outright stolen, and when the whole world is grieving some kind of loss, nobody gets to recover properly and is lost in their bereavement. (The few people who have just got over it and can't figure out what all the fuss is about inevitably appear appallingly hollow and wrong.)

It's an awful fate for any one person, let alone an entire society. Thank goodness we haven't to deal with such a huge and sudden tragedy in the real world, or I know we'd be just as broken.

Still, for all despair and desperation, it's an easy show to slam through. It's brilliantly acted - it's a goddamn mystery why Carrie Coon isn't the biggest actor in the world, Justin Therox does the best terrible karaoke scene in history and Liv Tyler is an absolute revelation. The writing can be maddening, but in the best possible way, throwing out the rule-books on structure and destiny an following its ridiculous premise out to its full and fulsome end.

It's also really funny and surprising, and comes packed with indulgent dream and afterlife sequences  that are also horribly familiar, because I'm still dreaming about my dead dad every night, and talking to him in hyper-real and impossible situations, every time I lie down to sleep. (Also, one of the last things my Dad ever said to me was that everything was so bloody weird where he was, and I can't stop thinking about that.)

The otherwordly moments could be accused of being weird for weird's sake - a criticism I always hate with a passion, because that's what weird should be - but they're just another reminder of this painful process we all have to face, and all have to deal with.

Because we're not alone. The whole world isn't broken after a personal loss, it just feels that way. You don't have to go far to see how truly horrible it would be if the world was really that shattered, because it's there in every frame of The Leftovers.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Dad was no nerd

When I was 16 or so, my Dad went to the pub with one of closest mates and told him he was worried about me. Like a lot of teenagers trying to figure out their place in the world, I was a hardcore nerd and Dad couldn't understand why I wasn't more interested in chasing girls and drinking beer, like all the other boys did.

He shouldn't have worried. Within a couple of years I was throwing up in the back of his new car after drinking too many cheap jugs of beer at the Mosgiel darts club, and I've been married to a wonderful woman for 11 years. I never stopped being a fucking dork, I just worked out I could still get pissed and talk to girls, while also being slightly obsessed with Legion of Super-Heroes comics.

Dad didn't understand why I wouldn't throw away my old X-Men issues, or why I spent all day in the second hand bookstore looking for the last Hardy Boys book I needed. He knew he had to tell me not to get a Star War when I got sent to the video store to get something for the family to watch, but he never really got why I could watch Return of the Jedi over and over and over again.

He could still be sightly dorky himself – Dad had a particular fondness for Strontium Dog stories in 2000ad (although he was never into things like Halo Jones), and I'm pretty sure he saw every z-grade ninja film from the 1980s. He just never really gave a shit about these things, never really got obsessed with anything. It wasn't his style.

While Dad was always a bit baffled by how much of a goddamn geek I was, the important things is that he never judged me for it. Sometimes he even encouraged it – I knew exactly how many beers he had to drink at a family barbecue before I could hit him up for the $4.25 I needed for the latest issue of Excalibur, and he never ever told me to get rid of all these bloody books and comics and videos I had, even when they started filling boxes and boxes that he had to cart between the houses we lived in.

This acceptance of my terrible nerdiness was just a tiny part of the reason I loved that man. He was loyal to a fault, a fantastic role model and the best boss I ever had. He didn't know how to lie and had a strong handshake, right up to the end.

Dad died a few weeks ago and this world is a shittier place without him in it.

I only found out about his concerns with my teenage dorkiness when his old mate got up and talked at the funeral service, but I'm so glad I got to show him he had nothing to worry about.

Despite his concerns, he let me be who I wanted to be, no matter where that road took me, and it all turned out okay. Rest easy, old fella.