Saturday, December 29, 2018

Fuck 2018

It’s been an awful, awful year. My dear Dad passed away in January, and things haven’t got much better since then. We had to have our cat put down in May, an old buddy of mine from Timaru died of a heart attack a couple of months later, an old workmate was killed in a crash while driving the work truck near Rangitata soon afterwards and a cousin who once gave the wife and I the best advice we ever had died suddenly recently. When it turned out that a man shot dead by police down south last month was my Mum’s cousin, it wasn’t a surprise after the year we’ve had.

Frankly, 2018 can fuck right off, and there have been some hopeful signs for a brighter year ahead, but I'm done with this one.

I’ve dealt with all this shit the same dorky way I always have, but burying myself in comics and novels and movies and TV shows, and writing about a tiny fraction of them here at the Tearoom, and they really did all help. I remain baffled that people get angry and annoyed by their entertainments, and think they’re doing it all wrong.

I haven’t learned fuck all else from this year of shit, mainly because I’m still processing a lot of it. Most of the time it just feels like this world is full of random awfulness.

But the advice from my late cousin Kerry rings as true as ever. Two weeks after I first hooked up with the lovely wife, she met my entire extended family at my Nan’s 90th birthday, and we were talking to a slightly drunk Kerry about our plans for the future, and saying how we were taking things cautiously, and he only had one thing to say:

Don’t fuck around, mate. Don’t fuck around. Whatever, you’re planning to do, don’t just talk about it. Just do it. Life’s too short.

We’ve used Kerry’s advice a hundred times over the past decade. Whenever we had to make a big decision about anything, we turned to this advice, and asked each other ‘what would cousin Kerry say?’.

Because life is too short, and if there is one thing I can take away from this hell year 2018, it’s that it’s always best to not waste time, because none of us know how much time we’ve got left.

Just don’t fuck around, mate.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The beauty of Doctor Who

While this year's run of Doctor Who had some phenomenal acting, especially from Jodie Whittaker and crew, and also showed some much-needed sense of inclusion and diversification, it was a series that wasn't that inspiring. The last episode - before the New Years special - managed to be dramatically tedious and ridiculously under-whelming, which is hardly the best note to go out on. (Maybe they should have ended it with the frog.)

 But at least it looked bloody beautiful....

Friday, December 21, 2018

Pulp: Catch us at it, in the front room

In the great catalogue of dodgy Britpop tunes from the mid-1990s, Pulp's two albums - full of killer beats and universal themes - still reign supreme, and are just as vital in this future world as they were way back then.

Different Class and This Is Hardcore are both as vital as ever, confronting the despair behind getting everything you ever wanted, and marvelling at the sheer joy of spending the night with somebody well out of your league, and everything in between.

I always had a massive soft spot for the gruntier guitars and unashamed sentimentality of Elastica and the Manics and Supergrass, and I've recently been playing the big Oasis tunes with alarming regularity, but I could listen to Pulp forever. Anytime, anywhere, with anybody.

It always takes me ages to get behind a new technology. I was still sticking with the video tape collection until the late 2000s, and cassette tapes were still good enough for me in 1996.

But then I was at some party early in the year and it was somewhere on the wrong side of 4am and everyone was shattered and lying around watching music videos on the TV, and they played 'Disco 2000' and everything perked right up again. There was no need to sitting around and feeling miserable, this sharp, lively music was telling us all, just get out there and fucking live it up a bit.

I went out to the local record store the next day and listened to the whole album in the shop, and it sounded so bloody beautiful, I had to buy it on CD. I got a free Pulp tee-shirt with it, but had to go and buy a CD player on hire-purchase to have something to listen to it on.

The CD player spluttered and died years and years ago, but I've still got that disc. And you can bet I've still got that tee-shirt.

Unlike the vast majority of its contemporaries, Different Class isn't tied to a particular time and place, it sounds like it could have recorded yesterday.

It's slick and vibrant and energetic. The band had already put in the hard yards by this stage of their careers and were a total fucking unit, loud and fast and alive. Jarvis Cocker was the archest frontman you could ask for, doing fabulous things with his fingers, and he was backed by a crew that always delivered the lift his lyrics called for - Candida Doyle was an absolute monster on the keyboards.

And the songs finally got the full blasting production they deserve. Common People has far more meat on its bones than the previous album's Do You Remember The First Time, even though they're equally epic on a songwriting level. The whole Different Class album - even the softer tunes - had this new weight to them, and this new substance makes the whole thing truly timeless.

It helped that the whole album was so fucking identifiable, and still feels like it's speaking truths that haven't eroded in time, because we've all been there. The songs were about feeling like a misfit in the nightclub, or being lost at a giant party, or facing up to yet another Monday morning and doing it all over again. They were about this feeling called love, and about just sitting around in your underwear in somebody's else's room.
It's all a bit sordid, and sometimes a bit sad, but always real. I'd never been to fuckin' Sheffield - I'd never even been out of New Zealand yet - but all these feelings about this messed-up world we live in were so real and recognisable. Confusion and elation and everything in between are always universal, we all feel it.

A couple of years later, and it's all gone to shit a bit. Post-Cold War optimism is taking a weird path and souring into pre-millenial paranoia.

This Is Hardcore is a blatant plea for help. It starts with a blaring note that sounds like an emergency siren - the sound of loneliness, turned up to 10 - and doesn't cheer up much from there. The band had the success they'd been chasing for a decade, and it was just as hollow as anything else.

What do you do then?

While there is still room for a party - and still room to party hard - it's a hell of a hangover. We're all on the slow slide into decrepit obsolescence, no matter how many pills we're taking. There are a few glory days to come, but the world is moving on without us, and it's hard to hang on.

Again, we're not all rock stars, but it's music that was still speaking truths to people on the other side of the world. We might not be having an existential crisis every time we do the dishes, but it's still always lurking there in the soap suds.

And we've all had a taste of some kind of success, and had a quiet freak-out that it doesn't feel like we thought it would. That success doesn't always mean fulfillment, because where do you go when you've got everything you ever wanted? And how long will it be until everybody finds out you're a fraud anyway?

Pulp's music can make me feel lots of big, scary thoughts about the world, but they also make me want to rock out, all night long. There isn't a human emotion that you can't find reflected back at you in one of the songs on these two albums.

Who hasn't driven around town with their one mate who was into the same band as you, singing the lyrics to the big songs loudly and often wrongly, but it doesn't matter, because it's just such a fucking banger of a tune?

Who hasn't put on the title track on This Is Hardcore at top volume on the stereo and then pointed the speakers straight into their ears and screamed along? Is there a better way to cry into the void?

Both of these albums are more than 20 years old now, but I've never stopped listening to them. They're my desert island discs, and I still listen to them constantly. While other old favourites from that period come and go, Pulp is eternal.

I never saw them live - and probably never will, not if the whole band isn't there - but that's okay. I don't have to be there in person to connect to this music, I've been connecting to it for two decades now.

Pulp did some great stuff before they made a move with Mis-Shapes, and they did some fantastic work after The Day After the Revolution played out, but these two albums stand ahead and shoulders above anything else they did.

If I wanna dance, or just wallow in the futility of existence, Pulp is there, and always will be.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Abandoning the pull of regular comics

As long as I've lived in a town with a comic shop, I've had a pull list – a folder or slot where the shop owner would put aside issues of my favourite comics for me without fail, and I could pick them all up at once, at my own convenience.

After years of futilely trying to get full runs of ongoing comics through the dubious distribution in this part of the world, haunting bookshops and supermarkets and corner dairies for the latest Fantastic Four, this was an amazing new privilege. It meant I could never miss the latest issue of Preacher, or Concrete, or Hate, or the Legion of Super-Heroes, because they were guaranteed to be there every week.

When I moved to new cities, there were always new comics to be put aside at some new store, always some new series by a trusted creator, or something that had hugely positive buzz. I always loved the pull list, and it has been an ongoing pleasure cleaning out that folder every week.

But I just don't need one anymore, and I'm going back to the shelves.

I'm shutting it down, even though there are loads of brilliant comics coming out every week, I don't have that hunger to get them as soon as humanely possible. I can wait for the collection, because it's easier and cheaper, and I've finally broken the addiction for that serial fix.

I only get a few comics every month as it is now, and most of them are going to wind up in the next few months. When there are no more BPRD comics to get, there isn't any need for a pull list.

It's not over, I'll still get some regular comics. I'll always still get 2000ad off the shelves every week until it inevitably goes digital, and will always seek out the latest issue of Love and Rockets as long as I live. I'm still going to try and get all the latest issues of Stray Bullets and Lazarus for as long as they last, and while I might miss the odd issue without the safety net of a pull list, I know I'll get them sooner or later. But not having anything specifically put aside, not anymore.

The regular serialised comic book is still my favourite way of consuming comics. While they have long been sneered at as floppies and pamphlets by all the cool kids, I still get a buzz from them that no other publication can match.

It's partly the freshness – the monthly comics are the newest of the new, the very latest adventures and all the new developments. When so many readers are willing to spill all of a story's secrets and twists as soon as humanly possible, you've got to get in early. And there is always the gorgeous cheap thrill of a really good cliffhanger, being forced to wait a month or so for some tense resolution never gets old.

And it's the objects themselves, these dinky little things, these strange sheets of paper and ink that can contain multitudes. These objects that are made to be disposable, but can be archived for generations. Some individual comics might not be as satisfying as a complete object in themselves these days, but a lot of them still are.

I'm never giving up comicbooks altogether, the passion for the medium has been there since before I could read, and shows no sign of really dying down yet. The lovely wife and I went to Melbourne for a long weekend recently and yeah, the city is groovy and beautiful, and the food there was fucking amazing, but I really went for the comic shops, and was stoked to come home with some crucial issues of the Judge Dredd Megazine and The Comics Journal.

So even if I'm not in every week, haunting the store to see if they've got the latest issue of Mage in yet, I'm still going to be in there once a month or so, just to see what's new.

After all, anything with the tiniest piece of interest or buzz inevitably gets collected into hardcovers and trades and other collected editions are all fun. Not everything, but even Giffen's 5YL Legion is getting a collection soon.

They look much better on the bookshelf than the flimsy issues do, much more grown up. But they're still a chronicle of things that happened, as opposed to the serial issues, which are full of things that are happening right now. Giving up that kind of immediacy is undoubtedly going to be one of the hardest habits to break.

I do feel a little bad about abandoning my retailer, even if I'll still be an occasional visitor. I've been a regular customer of this store since I started getting the Seven Soldiers comics in the mail, but I'll have to close the file.

But my local store has also been dicked over by Diamond on multiple occasions over the past year, and more than a couple of issues have been missed. So even that promise of Every Issue Ever has gone out the window, and if you don't have the guarantee, you don't have anything.

There's also the feeling that the collection has been getting a little baggy, a little unwieldy, and that I don't need to keep adding to it so regularly. I don't need all the comics I have, and the collection has got up to a state where it would take me years and years to reread everything I've got, so it's not like I'm going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

Plus, I just need the fucking room for something more important than funny-books. That happens sometimes.

Besides, the way we all consume entertainment is changing all the time, and I can live with that. I can deal with serialized comics going the way of the video store, because trying to hold back that kind of change is futile, and bound to end in utter frustration.

Even if I don't have a pull list anymore, there are still new comicbooks to get. There's always more, no matter how irregular the purchases get.

There's nothing like a great new comic – that alchemical mix of thoughtful words and gorgeous pictures, just released out into the world - and I'm up for something new

New comic day was always a Tuesday as a kid, and for the past eight years or so it's been a regular Saturday morning mission, mainly due to unavoidable shift work hours. There was always something new waiting in the folder, whenever I managed to turn up.

But there won't be anything waiting for me specially anymore. Any new comics are coming straight off the shelves, and while I've lost the guarantee of a brand new issue, that's nothing new, and I can handle it.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The last video store in town

The last video store in central Auckland - a city of 1.6 million people - is closing down at the end of the month, and even though that day has been a long time coming, I'm more gutted by that than I thought I would be.

I honestly thought it would last longer, and that its focus on arthouse and film festival movies would keep it running with a loyal cinema-literate clientele, but it's been eaten up by the same entropy that has wiped out the entire video rental industry.

Like almost everyone else on the planet, I moved away from renting videos a few years ago, but it's still a bummer to see them go.

My life spent prowling up and down the video store aisles ended in 2015 when the store around the corner shut up shop. That was a genuinely shocking closure, because it was always packed and Steven, the excellent owner, still couldn't get the numbers to add up enough to keep it open.

Since then, I've kept up on the latest films through satellite TV service, getting my film fix from the six movie channels they have to offer. I have zero interest in streaming content, which means I'm missing out on a lot of great films by some of my very favourite creators, but the internet into our place is inexplicably munted, and it's impossible to watch a film without it getting stuck in a buffer zone, or restarting all over again.

Still, it's all so convenient now, with the sum total of cinema history available on my fucking phone, and able to be transmitted through the air to a giant television in the living room.

But it's not the same.

I still have an incredible fondness for the video store that'll never go away, because I literally spent hundreds and hundreds of hours cleaning out the shelves of shops in multiple cities around New Zealand. Getting through at least half a dozen films a week for years and years, getting through every single film in the arthouse and horror and science fiction and documentary and action sections.

And no algorithm based on previous viewings is ever going to match the enjoyment of wandering around a store, grabbing things at random, judging them by their lurid and often beautiful covers, trying to figure out if it's any good, based only on the breathless blurb and blurry photos on the back.

There was the straight-up joy of finding a film hat I'd been keen to see for years - I can still remember the thrill of a new store that opened in south Dunedin and had an impressive selection of Hammer horror classics - and there was the even bigger joy of getting into some random shit, or trying out my first John Carpenter or Sergio Leone or Tsui Hark films.

My favourite video store of all time is the Video Ezy housed in the lobby of the old Majestic Theatre in central Timaru (a cinema where I saw everything from Who Finds A Friend Finds A Treasure to Speed until it was replaced by the home video option.)

It had the best choice in town, and it took me years to get through everything they had to offer. When it first opened it had a fancy machine that would play any trailer you could want - a big fucking deal in the early 90s - and it as the only place in town to have The Killer and Withnail and I and Turkey Shoot and Doctor Who videos.

It closed down a few years ago, but nobody has moved into its spot yet, so the last posters put up by the Video Ezy team are still showing out on the street, and everybody in Timaru has now seen the poster for Outlander, the vikings vs aliens films with Jim Caviezel, more than any other movie poster in the town's history.

Video stores used to be a big business when there weren't so many entertainment options coming down the phone line. Some stores would do tens of thousands of dollars in business on a Saturday night, especially if it was rubbish weather outside.

But the lack of those Saturday night crowds got more and more noticeable over the past decade, until the internet finally started delivering on its promise of endless content, and nobody bothered going out in the world to seek their film entertainment, when it could just come to them.

There were some small advantages in all these store closures, because anybody looking to build up their own collection could get dozens of titles without paying huge amounts. Liquidated stock would be going out the door for crazy low prices, and no shop ever had the exact same stock as everybody else, so there were always gems to find.

Half my DVD collections, which numbers in the hundreds of discs, came from these sales. Ex-rental discs were sometimes scuffed and scratched, but when they were only a couple of bucks each, it wasn't hard to pick up rare classics and that piece-of-shit film you always had an inexplicable fondness for.

This last closure of the last store is one last chance. While the last few closures have been stores that were full of the same shit as everybody else, this is the place to get the really rare stuff - old pastoral horror films, early Argento and Cronenberg, and silent films from the 1920s, all for five bucks each. I couldn't let those go.

I'm mourning the loss of the entire industry, but I can celebrate that some of these films are going to a good home.

But still, it's all over now. There are no more video stores in town, and while there will always be more movies to watch, there won't be a specific place to go to and get them.

No more wandering down the aisles, looking for anything to stave off terminal boredom. No more scanning the new release shelf, to see if that one film you've been waiting to see for ages is going to show. No more hidden gems brought out into the light through the power of browsing. 

We've all moved on, and left video stores to history. But they'll always have a special place in my heart, as somewhere I could go and get lost in an entire history of cinematic excellence and shlock, all on the shelves together.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

'I don't believe in ghosts': Six hot takes on the latest Love and Rockets

1. Gilbert is all about the love

Beto leans hard on the love side of the equation in the latest issue of the world's best comic. His vast and sprawling saga takes a break from all the usual craziness for celebration and reflection, and it's full of old friends and family and neighbors and everybody is having a good time.

Luba is getting married again, Venus and her lovely beta male Yoshio are there for the party, and Steve - fucking Steve! - has finally hooked up with the gorgeous Guadalupe. Even long-dead Gato gets to see how things are working out through ghostly eyes. After all the shit they've been through, they all deserve a little happiness. For a while.

There are still the usual family dramas, but they're all back in Palomar for a good time, and nothing is going to ruin that. There have been plenty of emotional rockets still to be fired, but this is time for love.

2. Jaime is all about the body language

Jaime Hernandez has long been a master of characterisation through body language, telling you everything you need to know about somebody from the way they slouch - you don't need Lumina to verbally explain her despair when she is thrown into space jail, it's all there in the slope of her shoulders.

The latest issue also has a short spotlight on the terrifically stumpy Frank Lopez and it's just a joy to watch him storm through a world that just doesn't get him.

Frank is part of the new generation of characters in the Locas saga, but is instantly as interesting as many characters who have been in the story for years, as he barrels around town head first, with his small legs in huge cargo shorts pumping furiously, or achingly making his way home after another stupid beat-down. Everybody is telling Frank Lopez to go home, but hopefully he will be staying around for a while.

3. We now return to a regular schedule

The return to a quarterly schedule is so good, and not just because the reader is guaranteed a slice of pure comics goodness every few months.

It means stories mysteries don't lurk and fester in the annual wait, and readers don't have to wait so long for any answers. Hopey doesn't know why Ray is calling her in the middle of the night, and who knows if Fritz and Petra will ever start talking to each other again, but there is only a few months to the next chapter in the story. It's a much easier wait.

4. All is right in the world, because Casimira has still got her arm

No matter how strange things get, no matter how scattered Luba's huge family gets, no matter how many walls they build up between each other over the years, some things never change, and there is some comfort in that.

All these years later, and Casimira is still there with her broken fake arm, carrying it around as a symbol of her defiance at normative behaviour, and of her own fierce independence, one arm and all. Some things never change, and some of them never should.

5. L&R's sci-fi comics still aren't like anybody else's sci-fi comics

The Hernandez Brothers have both been sci-fi geeks from the start - their real world tales get a lot of mileage out of small doses of magical realism, but they have also enjoyed letting their imagination fly off into space, to see what is out there.

Gibert's science fiction stories have their own vibe of freaky sexiness and insanely gross violence, and often are done-in-one short tales. But Jaime's stories of super-science and rocket ships have their own tone, that is still like nothing else being produced in modern comics. A tone that can be pumped full of excitement, seriously creepy, or just plain adorable.
Look at what is going on in the panels up above from the latest chapter in his Princes Animus story. Insanely cute aliens are pledging their affectionto each other, only to use that token to fight off some old bastard in a robot suit.

What is even going on up there? Other creators could get an entire saga in those two panels, but Jaime is already moving on. Space is too big to linger in one place for long.

6. Everybody should get a chance to play baseball

Especially if they're not that good at it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

All Star Avengers: Ends of an era

It doesn't take long for a superhero universe to get incredibly convoluted and complicated. When a shared universe is being created by multiple people with different styles, ideas and goals, and they are producing regular material that keeps piling up, it's no wonder that continuity can get so tangled and inconsistent.

The creators of superhero movies over the past couple of decades have learned this lesson for themselves - after 19 films the Marvel Cinematic Universe is already far too complicated for some (even if it's still pretty fucking basic), and the X-Men movies didn't even notch up half a dozen entries before they had to pull a complete reboot to clean up the sordid mess (and look like they're going to have to do it again soon).

But the universes seen and experienced in the original comic books get far, far more complex and intricate, with dozens of new stories adding to the overall saga every month, and things rapidly reaching breaking point. Things have to start over every few years, and everything has to be new again.

And sometimes, a comic series will end up standing as a definitive end of an era, even if nobody really intended it to be at the time.

All-Star Squadron didn't start out as the last word on DC's original superheroes, and began as a celebration of the entire Golden Age era when it first appeared in the very early 1980s.
Working with his talented artistic collaborators, writer Roy Thomas used the comic to tell stories of the earliest days of the DC superheroes, and delighted in piecing together all the inconsistencies and contradictions of Golden Age tales into something that actually made sense. The relief that Thomas felt at finally getting everything to match up, years and years after he first started to worry about the mismatches, can be seen on every page on All-Star Squadron.

It all got a bit tedious at some points, with Thomas sometimes going to great pains to fix something that literally nobody else in the world gave a damn about, but the comic was also a heartfelt appreciation of the first great super-heroes, and suggested they still had plenty to say, decades after the world war that spawned most of them had ended.

And it all worked well for a while - the first two years of the title are some tight comics, with Jerry Ordway's incredibly shiny art and the original superheroes barrelling from one adventure to the other, and even getting a glimpse of their heritage in the shape of the newly introduced Infinity Inc.

But then came Crisis on Infinite Earths, and all the worlds were smashed into one, and all that history had to be rewritten to fit the new status quo. A lot of DC's titles were left high and dry by this cosmic change, and reading All-Star Squadron now, it's easy to see the heart being ripped out of the book. None of it really seemed to matter as much anymore.

And All-Star Squadron really does now feel like the end of an era. The massive change from Crisis, which saw the big guns like Superman and Wonder Woman wiped from WW2 stories, happen mid-issue, with a photo of the heroes changing between panels as the timeline reasserts itself. The comic carried on for a year or so afterwards and skewed straight into the Young All-Stars sequel series, but the era when it was really important to figure out how the Golden Age stories slotted together was over.

It's a little bittersweet, and sometimes straight-up sad - there is a moment where the Freedom Fighters travel between worlds and it's meant to be triumphant, but it's more depressing when you realise they're heading off to decades of death and defeat. And then the clear narrative that has been going on ever since Superman hefted that first car over his head is over.

Even though those characters have reappareared over and over again in the years since - and for the past few years those original heroes have been reimagined in several Elseworlds-type reboot - All-Star Squadron really did feel like the end of the DC multiverse, far more than the actual Crisis comic managed.

Across the publishing divide, Marvel hasn't felt the incessant need to constantly reboot its universe like its distinguished competition - the Fantastic Four who are still appearing in their own comic are ostensibly the same people who stole a rocket ship to beat the Commies in 1961.

But the company has also had plenty of soft reboots, and there are definite periods where the whole line is moving in a particular direction, and the publisher has its own examples of stories that feel like an ending of that era.

One of them came along a decade or so after All Star Squadron wrapped up, and like that earlier comic, Avengers Forever is a celebration of the tiniest trivia of a superhero universe, while also putting a solid full stop on the period it is honoring.

Avengers Forever is a cracking classic-era Avengers story from the late 1990s, with Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco building up their tale on the previous 30 years of stories with remarkable clarity, and producing a slam-bang action saga that spreads across all of time and space, and finds room for the most esoteric characters with a connection to the world's mightiest team.

But like All Star Squadron, it's also one of the last of its kind. Not long after Busiek moved on from Avengers Mansion, Brian Bendis moved in, and started on some major renovations of the entire Avengers concept.

Since then, there hasn't been that kind of deep dive into Avengers lore that you see in this series, not without things getting ironic to the point of parody. There are still some comics that deal with this kind of  Marvel superhero trivia, but they are rarely played straight as Busiek and Pacheco's efforts.

And most crucially, any new stories that take this road are not seen as 'important' as Avengers Forever was, and while the team has become massive movie box office stars, this 20-year-old comic feels just as much as a capstone as All Star Squadron did. Plenty of Avengers comics before this one did similar things, but very few did the same afterwards, and this is where it all ends.

There is certainly some melancholy in reading these comics now, knowing that things would never be the same again. Comics, like life, goes on, and sometimes it's so easy to miss these eras once they're passed.

But putting a capstone on a particular era isn't a bad thing, even if it wasn't always intended that way. It's nice to have one last crazy adventure, one last run of stories, one last appearance of these characters at their best. Especially when the comics themselves are as much fun, and so delightfully dorky as All-Star Squadron and Avengers Forever.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Great Moments in Cinema History #30: Raising Arizona (1987)

"And it seemed real. It seemed like us and it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away. Where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all children are happy and beloved.

"I don't know.

"Maybe it was Utah."