Tuesday, July 31, 2018

It's about to get fictional in here

Starting tomorrow and continuing throughout August at the Tearoom of Despair...

Secret agents for the new century – replacing bullets with compassion, while still up for some kung fu when it's needed. Conforming to no ideology or creed, other than to save the innocent and prevent all harm, they are bound to no government. Their technology is smarter than yours, they’re trained in tactical compassion, and they’re here to save the world. Who needs Bond when you've got L.O.V.E.?


A serialised novel by Bob Temuka

Friday, July 27, 2018

Justice League Amazing

Nobody expected too much of Grant Morrison's Justice League comics when they were first announced. There was some bafflement from the likes of Wizard magazine that they were giving the title to 'that weird Vertigo guy', while more high-brow commentators felt the Scottish writer was taking a giant step back, away from worthier, artier endeavors and into futile mainstream silliness.

Even though Morrison had already unashamedly shown that he still had a wide-eyed affection for the dopiest aspects of superheroes in Animal Man, or had already done his own version of Crisis On Earth UK in Zenith, nobody seemed to expect too much.

They certainly didn't expect it to instantly become one of the defining comics of its generation, influencing the direction of superhero comics in so many ways, both good and bad.

JLA blasted out into the world in late 1996 and 22 years later, it still shines with the fresh rush of new ideas and proven concepts. Even now, after it has been remixed and ripped off and covered over and over again, it's still massively entertaining and brilliantly stupid.

This version of the world's greatest super-team burst out of the gate just as Hollywood was embracing CGI and going for impossible vistas and ultimate stakes, and doing it while cutting up the editing and shaking the camera as much as possible.

Morison and Porter's JLA is just as giddily incomprehensible as an early Michael Bay film, vast parts of it don't make any sense if you think about it for too long, but if you just go along for the ride, you'll get some cool moments.

And the comic delivered on that promise, giving these strange and iconic characters some of the coolest shit they would ever do - Batman figuring out who the Hyperclan are, Superman wrestling with an angel for all creation, Green Arrow figuring out how to use the dumb boxing glove arrow, everyone in the world becomes a superhero and just wants to help, the ultimate last-panel wink from the far future. JLA delivered it all.

It brought in widescreen action that would be copied and emulated by many of Morrison's peers, often to striking effect. There was absolutely no fucking about, especially in the first year, with each world-shattering threat dealt with solidly within two issues.

Morrison's plots were super sharp, and still managed to get in some weird little asides, and you can find desperate attempts to put a bit of poetry into the caption boxes, which sometimes work, but often just stick out as clumsy and forced.

But Morrison's truly great idea for JLA was the most blindingly obvious -  bringing the band back together, and for the first time in more than a decade, stacking the team with the best of the best. This wasn't just a brilliant marketing hook, it also created an insanely strong team dynamic, filling the team with incredibly competent professional super-heroes who always got the job done, without ever leaving humanity behind.

It had the solid spine of the big three, and made you really believe that Martian Manhunter and Aquaman had always been an essential part of the League, and had the new generation of legacy versions of Flash and Green Lantern trying desperately to live up to the name (and largely succeeding, but only when they weren't working together, b
ecause they always turned into arsehole bros around each other). And with the greater sandbox of the entire DC universe, anybody could pop up, anytime, to help the heroes, or hinder them.

Morrison's plots had to work around all sorts of DC office politics - Superman turns blue, Wonder Woman turns dead and comes back, the Genesis wave smashes right into the Rock Of Ages, which is 
already super tight. Most of these backroom changes are gently smashed into the narrative, and largely gets away with it by dispensing with a lot of the characterisation.

With the reasonable assumption that readers had four other Superman comics a month to get inside the big guy's head and show his home life, there was room for one where he was taking on massive threats to all existence with the best teammates in the world.

There are still some terrific little scenes where Morrison nails the characters -  there is a part towards the first year of the comic where Superman talks down an extremely angry bystander and ends up shaking his hand, all in the background of the main plot, or the part where the bloody Sandman convinces Kyle Rayner that he will make a better Green Lantern because he knows what fear is - but there wasn't room for much of that when there were vast cosmic nightmares to outsmart and beat up.

Looking at it now, Howard Porter's art has generally aged a lot better than anybody could have expected. JLA came out when online discourse was really getting going, and there was some vitriolic sneering at Porter's art on the message boards, and general lamenting that DC couldn't put a stronger draftsman on the comic.

I might have been responsible for some of that, because I always thought Porter's art as busy and ugly. It's still clumsy, but under John Dell's slick as hell inks and a case study example of a turn-of-the century comic. It might be a little too busy and scratchy for modern eyes, but it isn't unreadable.

While the figurework is often still awkward - people just don't bend in that way, and arms don't do that - there is still an energy to the action, and it's still sparkling. Sometimes literally - every other page has sparks flying of some forge, or the sharp brakes of a bat-cycle.

Porter had the unfortunate timing to be working on the comic while truly great pencillers like Frank Quitely and Alan Davis were working on JLA side-projects, but there is some genuine mythic craziness in the artist's efforts.

And then it was all over, Morrison was in and out again in barely more than 30 issues, and while he has returned to the characters and concepts over and over again, nothing has had that spark of the time he had all the big boys and girls working together.

Some of the characters and concepts burned out fast - you never really see a lot of Zauriel, for instance - but people are still copying the vibe, most recently with Scott Snyder's own unabashed love for Morrison's ideal. The never ending battle goes on.

The ideas about pacing and character that appeared in the comic were soon everywhere in modern comics, and every month there are more desperate attempts to replicate JLA's cool moments. These only get more tired as time goes on, even with a writer as talented as Snyder, but you can't go wrong by going back to the source.

I fell hard for the Justice League during the previous great era, and still have huge affection for the surprising depth of the Justice League International.

There wasn't very much depth in the JLA era, but I always loved it just as much. I was a full-on Invisibles devotee at the time, but also adored the full-speed mentality of the superhero efforts. I always do.

Thge thing that so many of the imitators forget about Morrison's superhero comics is that he takes them all dead seriously, but also isn't ashamed or embarrassed by how incredibly silly they were sometimes. While his comics often got gritty as hell, he always always embraced the absurd, and the best superheroes are the ones that don't forget how preposterous they are.

And they don't come much more preposterous than the JLA, a team of enormous power, beating the big bad guys with strength, smarts and weapons-grade empathy and compassion.

Even with the DC universes greatest heroes on board, nobody expected much from Morrison and Porter's JLA, but we all got a superhero comic for the ages.

Monday, July 23, 2018

True stories

I'm only six or seven when my mate Pete asks me to come around to his place after class to read his Buster comics, but I get lost going down an alleyway, and the experience is so big and scary that it permanently scars my brain.

By this age, I'm aware and fond of both Narnia and the worlds of Doctor Who, so I'm used to magical kingdoms hidden in mundane life, and travels to other dimensions. And that's what it feels like when I cut through the block and see the streets on the other side.

It's still the same large town I grew up in, but slightly wrong, slightly off, and I feel like I've gone to another world, one dimension over.

I'm still not sure if I ever came back.

Around this time, I also see Batman and Superman walking down the street outside my house, like they've just popped into my world for a quick chat, because that's the sort of thing that superheroes do.

It's only a couple of years later when I have my first big existential crisis, 10-years-old and living in our first house in Temuka, and I'm stuck staring into the mirror after a shower, because I have no fucking idea who I'm looking at.

Who is staring out from behind those eyes? Who am I? Who is even asking, pal?

It all does my young head in, and I have to go read some Indiana Jones comics to calm down, and put all this shit out of my mind. Indy always helps.

I spend a lot of the 1990s getting drunk and reading Grant Morrison comics down on the beach, but this is something new.

Now it's really close to the end of the century and I'm stoned and drunk in my mate Shane's backyard after a decent Saturday night party, and it all gets a bit much and I fall over backwards off the picnic table. But I don't pass out, and I realise I'm in big fucking trouble when it comes to being a normal human being, because I think I just can't do it anymore.

This whole society and civilisation thing is just a joke and we're all operating on auto pilot. It's all an act, and it's all a movie. We live out our lives to a script, and the worst part is that I always hoped I was living in a Jim Jarmusch film, but I'm really a character in a Whit Stillman movie, without any of the money.

Later, when I get my shit together, I realise it was such a spinny experience because Shane's backyard had a wicked slope to it, and I'd fallen off the seat backward, and all the blood had rushed to my head. But I think I'm still following the script and reading my lines. Even here, even now.

Somewhere around there, I also meet the big red cheese. But I was very, very drunk.

Not long after I get married to the smartest, most beautiful woman I've ever known, I'm dozing on the sofa one Sunday afternoon and have a vivid daydream that doesn't feel like anything else.

As I snooze, I'm jumping off a building like it's a GTA video game, and land in something that looks like a swimming pool, but it's not, it's portal to another dimension and I fall right in. And it's like a pink liquid that smells like roses and stretches on forever, and it's full of living creatures out there, moving around in the infinite gel.

Sometimes I see glimpses of this other world in movies and TV show, anytime there is a large amount of viscous pink shit on screen. This happens far more often than I ever expect.

This is now happening once or twice a day. So I'm sitting there, thinking about the usual dumb shit, and I feel like I'm right on the edge of something genuinely profound, something approaching the actual meaning of life. Something incredibly important about the nature of existence, some insight that is right there, on the tip of my mind.

And it's never quite there. There is some leap I just can't make, an impenetrable mental wall that never quite falls or is overcome. But I'm so fucking close.

Still, if I ever snap through this dumb fugue, I'm not expecting to become a truly enlightened being. I'm mainly sure I'll just turn into Doctor Strange

I might not get the funky cape, but maybe I can figure out what this world is, and how it works, and where my place is in it. Maybe I can understand why all I can do is try to explain the mysteries of the universe though the shit I read, watch and listen to. There must be a reason for it all.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Not coming to a cinema near anybody

When people talk about the experience of going to the movies these days, it's often in fairly negative terms – about how it's a pain in the arse even getting to a theatre; and how they charge way too much for tickets and snacks; and how projection issues fuck everything up; and how other people are noisy, rude and inconsiderate; and why would you even bother when you've got a sweet home theatre set-up in your lounge?

There is a lot of merit to these complaints, and I've had my fair share of movies ruined by all these factors and more – a screening of Blue Velvet that was fatally undercut by a crowd that loudly and ironically cackled at everything, or the time someone was using an iPad to keep track of their internet auctions right through a goddamn Jim Jarmusch movie.

But I still totally believe the best place to see a new movie is at the cinema. I might not worship at the cinematic altar like I once did, but I always want to see as much as I can on the big screen.

I just really wish there was more to see.

I still try to get out to the movies as often as I can, because all the pain is worth it for the perfect screening.

It's a chance to get out of the fucking house and into the world for a while, without having to worry about the niceties of actual social interaction. Movies always look great on the massive screen, and the immersive sound that bounces around the cavernous space of a decent-sized cinema.

And the crowd is always bound to have one arsehole who can't turn off their bloody phone for five minutes, but seeing a thrilling or funny movie in a crowd can be enormously fun when you're syncing in with other peoples' reactions, and the midnight screenings they put on for the latest huge franchise are always dorky as fuck, but there is also always a glorious enthusiasm that can be infectious.

I'm such a superficial motherfucker, one of the things I like best about seeing something in the cinema is that I have to concentrate on what's happening in the story, with no distractions, and nothing to take my mind off the movie. I'm not going to miss anything because I'm eating my dinner, or petting the cat, or checking my emails. I'm only in that moment, blocked away from the rest of the world.

It's part of why people who can't get off their fucking phones are such an affront to all things cinema - all the light pollution is a terrible distraction, bringing a bit of the outside world into the sanctity of the theatre, and should be stamped out with extreme prejudice.

And yet, I'm still only going to only a couple of films a month on average. All that bold talk about the best way to see a movie, and I'm lucky if I see more than two dozen a year.

This is partly because I'm not the young dork I once was. I'm not the same the guy who would see every fucking thing I could, or would go see Twister and the first Mission Impossible film five times each, somewhere in the mid-nineties. (I regret all that Twister a bit, but not the MI. At all.)

I just don't have that appetite for soaking up everything I can, multiple times. Not anymore. There is so much else to do, and so much better things to do with my time.

But maybe I would if there was something actually worth seeing, if there was something with there was something worth the time, money and effort to get into that room.

Instead, there is nothing worthwhile showing up here in this part of the world for weeks. The stuff that actually sounds interesting doesn't come to the cinema or is pissed away on streaming services. Forget about something like Sorry To Bother You, that looks far too interesting for audiences around here.

Even 'arthouse' theatres here in the biggest fucking city in the fucking country are choked with the safest, most generic films, instead of anything that could be the tiniest bit transgressive or provocative or interesting in any way.

All I'm looking for is something that is emotionally or dramatically intense, with a bit of goddamn style. That's all.

Instead, the ones that do come to a theatre anywhere near me are of very little interest - inane blockbusters with cookie-cutter plots, braind-dead and safe comedies, endless goddamn biopics (I don't ever need to see the life story of some munter musician ever again) and a huge amount of movies about middle-aged French people fucking each other.

These films do have an audience, and I'm not demanding that all films cater to my whims, because that's fucking crazy. But it feels increasingly like there is nothing else, and anything that could be genuinely brilliant in drowned in a sea of mediocrity.

Still, it's not all grim. There is the big local film festival coming up over the next couple of weeks, which is always a fun time.

There are still a lot of movies in that line-up that are achingly earnest and worthy, but there is also some sick and strange shit that will be great to see in the theatre, with all the other depraved film fans.

And there is another Mission Impossible coming up soon, and the usual promise of some slick stuntwork. I won't be going back to see it again and again like that previous entry in the series, but you can bet your arse I'll be there opening weekend.

But the rest of the year looks pretty fucking dire, and once I overdose on festival goodness, it could be a long time before I'm back in that dark room, waiting for a decent filmmaker to paint with light.

All I want is style and thrills and tension and intensity. It's what the movies are for and when it comes to experiencing them at their best, nothing else comes close to the cinema.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Laurence v Mads: You know they can fight

One of my favourite showbiz stories of the past few years comes from the set of the gloriously gory Hannibal TV show, where after a season of mind-bending murdering, cast member Laurence Fishburne went up to the producers and said 'you guys know I can fight, right?' and Mads Mikkelsen is all like 'yeah, I can fight too', so they had a couple of scenes where the two beat the ever-lovin' shit out of each other, and it's beautiful as hell.

I could watch these two men fight over and over again, all day, every day.

Forever and ever, amen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Nothing is perfect in this flawed world

There is a lovely grace note right at the end of Alan Moore's Miracleman comics, where the big man is looking out over the world he has changed forever - where poverty and hunger and disease have been essentially eradicated, and where anybody can become a superhuman and fly through the skies - and concedes that the society he has created isn't perfect. That there will always be something that isn't ideal, no matter how many nuclear bombs you teleport into the sun.

And the big man is chilled about this, and perfectly happy to let that imperfection stand, because there is real beauty in a diamond with the most infinitesimal flaw, or in a poem that has a misjudged word.

It doesn't mean perfection is impossible, just that the whole world is a more interesting place without it.

There is some perfection in art and culture - some sculptures can capture the truth of physical reality like nothing else, there are some small pieces of poetry that shoot right past perfection and rocket on into transcendence, and there are literally hundreds and hundreds of perfect little pop songs.

But it's much harder with longer stories. Even after thousands and thousands of years of storytelling, humans are still trying to nail the art of the long-form narrative and the stories we see in novels, movies and comic books. Sometimes we come close, most of the time we're way off, but we're still striving.

Even the best shit I've ever seen in my life isn't perfect.. None of my favourite movies and books come close to sheer bloody supreme bliss. They come nearer than anybody else ever does, for sure, but never quite get there.

They all fall short, even the things I dearly love with every fibre of my being. There will be a misjudged performance, or a clunky piece of dialogue, or a plot that doesn't quite reach what it's going for. It only takes one tiny thing to leave a mark in pristine perfection.

My favourite comics of all time are still Love ; Rockets and 2000ad, and both of them have moments and scenes and whole years of comics that are clumsy, or boring, or outright awful (especially the latter, which has its fair share of stinkers). My favourite TV show is, was and always will be Doctor Who, and there are huge sections of that series that are just unwatchable. O Lucky Man! is the best movie ever made, and I still find parts of it a bit tedious.

It doesn't matter. I don't love this things any less because they're occasionally a bit dumb. If anything, the rubbish makes the good stuff they contain just shine even brighter. It brings in the contrast.

But so what? Who wants perfection anyway? Is that what we really want?

After all, perfection is so fucking predictable- there are no surprises when everything turns out exactly the way you want it. There would be no room for nuance, or anything to compare the truly great moments against. And we all have so very different ideas of what that perfection even looks like - no story is going to blow everybody away every time. This is a fool's errand.

But this is the age of the noisy fool and we're such a fuckin' narcissistic society now, everyone wants everything their own way, and so many people are ready to throw their fucking toys out of the cot when they don't get exactly what they want.

The last Star Wars film had some dopey bits, and no Marvel film is ever great (although they're almost all some variation of pretty good). But anybody going looking for transcendent brilliance in a blockbuster is looking in the wrong place. It's a miracle these huge films make any sense at all, or even have some truly good bits, but it's so much easier to nitpick these things to death, instead of facing the fact that they aren't the Greatest Thing Ever Made.

Nothing is ever going to be good as what you can imagine. Sometimes it is a bit better, but usually there will always be some twinge of disappointment, even as the overall work shines. To focus on that disappointment, and to take it so bloody personally, isn't healthy for anybody.

We just need to grow the hell up a bit, and live with the inevitable disappointment. It's nothing worth losing your shit over. If you go into everything desperately hoping for perfect bliss, you have to live with the let-down.

We should treasure the bits we like, and learn to let everything else go. We shouldn't write off anything that doesn't met our exact standards, or scream into the void over the trivial shit that is part of the stories we tell ourselves.

There is still a place for criticism - you don't have to be totally blind to a story's fault, and can still moan about the bits that didn't impress us, but we can't take this shit personally. It's only a story. They're all just stories.

I just think things are just tastier when they're a bit messier, rather than smooth and clean and perfect.

This might be the worst metaphor I've ever used in the nine years I've been writing this goddamn blog, but I see it in my morning toast. My wife is a grade-A cook, who creates meals that are gorgeous and delightful and amazingly tasty. I am a super-privileged arsehole who gets all this wonderful food, but I still often turn out any offers of toast she wants to make, because she makes them too well.

Everything is spread smoothly and evenly on the bread, and that's fine, but there is no globs of joyous jam in one corner, or any mouthfuls of unexpected butter. It's all the same, all the way round, and the while serving has a slightly bland feel to it.

I don't know if Miracleman still likes a good piece of toast, but I think he'd appreciate the haphazard way I slap everything on the bread. That imperfection of spread makes the toast, far more than anything else, and makes the whole thing better.