Saturday, April 17, 2021

The oldest civilisations on the newest platforms


I like all sorts of documentaries - ones about music and movies and war and the human condition and all that stuff. Nothing beats real life for weirdness and insane plot twists. I've overdosed on true crime documentaries, but am up for just about anything else.

Lately I've been absolutely addicted to films about the most ancient of times, and can't get enough of the birth of civilization. The exact moments when we really pulled together as a species, and got our shit together. The first farms, the first cities, the first wars and kings and social structures.

There's still so much mystery lurking there, in ancient times, but we're figuring more stuff every day. And any video that can explain it all and bring it to new life with funky graphics.  

I've been inside the great pyramid, and crawled inside the tombs of Newgrange, walked around the empty homes of Skara Brae - and seen that they liked to hoard their dumb shit as much as we do - but that's as close as I've ever got to history. And nobody has invented a time machine yet, and Doctor Who has still failed to turn up, so the videos will have to do for now.

Friday, April 16, 2021

True Faith: Shoot 'em in the head

I was there for the earliest comics Garth Ennis ever published, when they showed up in Crisis. They were clumsy and derivative and preachy and ridiculously earnest, but he already had a great ear for dialogue, and his instinctive grasp of pacing was right there from the start.

Still, there was a moment where he really stood out for his peers and became a longtime favourite, and all it took was a particularly nasty bit of outright murder.

It's at the end of True Faith, where the young student at the centre of all the bloody confusion shows up at school with a bottle of vodka and a gun. A bullying teacher confronts him, and in one glorious full page spread from the deeply underrated Warren Pleece, gets his fucking brains blown out.

After years of terrible school shootings, it's a deeply problematic conclusion to the story, but I was a young arsehole, and was just impressed by how Ennis's story had  actually followed through, and didn't wimp out. He just straight up murdered the cunt. 

In similar comics of this era, you'd expect some kind of ironic detachment, or even some storytelling cowardice, and the gun would be empty or broken. Young Garth was having none of that and pulled the fucking trigger.

It's the philosophy that some things can only be sorted out with extreme violence in Ennis' later Punisher comics, and with a conclusion that ends in a long, cold dark of a life. True Faith's Nigel doesn't get that far, and is bound to be killed 10 seconds after the story ends.

But Pleece also gives Nigel flicking you a cheeky grin in the final panel, because you really thought he wasn't go to do it, and he fucking showed you.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Legend of Baron To'a: Sorry about the language, mum

The legend of Baron To'a is a terrific Tongan-New Zealand film with a definite vibe of its own, showcasing a slice of culture that doesn't get nearly enough attention, even here in the South Pacific.

Thankfully, it's more than just worthy, and is loaded up with some balls-out fight scenes, a hugely charming cast of beautiful brown faces and a great bit involving a dog and a fence. And one of the excellent dudes from my local comic shop does some background wrestling during a barbecue, which is always nice to see.

It's also massively sweet at heart for something that is so full of dropkicks and suplexes, which can be seen right from the start, when the filmmakers begin the movie with a short message thanking God, their families and the Tongan royal family for the privilege of making the film, and throw in a quick apology for all the swearing and occasional human nastiness.

When so many films revel in their ability to shock and awe, this small display of humble grace is a ridiculously endearing way to start a movie. Most of them should begin with something as personal as this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The floating world of 3D bubbles

While 3D comics can be a pain in the arse, losing the dynamism of the artist's line in the fuzziness of a faked new dimension, the thing I always dig most about these comics isn't the actual art, no matter how thrusting it is. It's the way the speech bubbles work.

They're just hanging there in space, on an whole other level from the penciled and painted art. The stark whiteness of the bubble giving even more depth as the action takes place on a bulging paper tableau behind them. Bubbles and captions are always floating in space, but they float higher in 3D.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Say it, Spidey villain

There is no actor alive that has managed to spit out a threat against Spider-Man in a movie without sounding totally goofy. There have been some fantastic actors that have given it a go, including Willem Defoe and Rhys Ifans and Michael Keaton and Jamie Foxx and many, many others, and they've all failed to really get across any sense of threat or menace. Just saying the name of the web-crawler out loud is utterly ridiculous.

This is not actually a complaint - sheer goofiness is the indispensable secret sauce of all superhero fiction, no matter how many noted comic scholars detest the idea that they aren't always taken absolutely seriously. Superheroes are an inherently dopey proposition, and long may that continue.

But as hard as they strive to bring some realism and grounding into superhero movies, nobody can sell the seriousness of a dangerous situation by yelling about Spider-Man.

It doesn't matter what universe he's in, or what kind of Spider-Man he is, the goofiness is right there in the name, man. There's just no getting around that. Embrace it, or go home.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Who's that Cable?

It's easy to sneer at now, after seeing all the terrible comics that came afterwards, and seeing how they collapsed into plot illegibility when Claremont left, but the changes to the X-Men comics in the very early nineties were outrageously exciting at the time. 

I was 15-years-old, which may explain things. It was right at the age when you're supposed to give up stupid things like comic books for girls and going to gigs and partying and all that. But yeah, girls were great and sneaking into gigs was intoxicating and getting wasted was great fun, but I could do those things and still read the X-Men, because things were heating up in those books, as Lee, Liefeld and Portacio let rip.

We weren't stupid, we knew the new artists had issues with some fairly basic things things like anatomy and storytelling, but the new generation of artists were splashing their enthusiasm right there on the page, and all that cross-hatching was ideal for young comic readers who hadn't had the chance to appreciate the finer levels of art.

And it wasn't just about the art, the stories also took off. After years of Claremont's tight control, there was a definite feeling that the writer was flailing about for a new direction, with no actual X-Men team for more than a year. When these artists started getting their hands stuck into the plots, they dumped in so many new characters and storylines and mysteries, eager to please a younger audience.

I ate that shit right up. While Lee had been dazzling for a while, it's much easier to forget how exciting the Liefeld comics were. So what if he couldn't draw feet? His sense of costume design was right on the point of the zeitgeist, and he was only too glad to offer up dozens of new characters, unafraid to lose the copyright to them to Marvel, because he was so sure he could come up with a dozen more.

The new kids also served up a load of great new mysteries - why did Stryfe and Cable both use the same 'stab his eyes' expletive, who was this Tolliver prick, and what the hell is an external anyway? The comics looked great and posed great new questions.

It didn't last long.

Cable's mystery evaporated in months. They kept Wolverine's history a secret for decades, but his background as the missing Summers baby seemed to come out ridiculously fast (although I only had it confirmed when I saw this fact written on a copy of X-Men #201 at David's Book Shop in central Christchurch, because there was no internet and the only comics journalism I had ever read was one issue of Comics Values Monthly from two years ago).

Just a couple of years after he had debuted in a blaze of big guns and bugger pouches, Cable's entire history was being told during Scott and Jean's honeymoon, and that was that. And yes, after the relaunch and the big creatives heading off to Image, and nobody cared anymore about all these concepts, while still mining them for dreary, never-ending stories for the next decade.

But there was a couple of years there when it was all taking off. So many years and so many bad comic books later, and they're still shiny as hell.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

It's like making love underwater - but with, you know, more control

The production values always carried a lot of the jokes in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, but I could just listen to these absolute fucking meatheads talk shit all day long... 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The unexpected familiarity of Handbook panels


There is something weirdly satisfying in reading collections of old comics and finding panels that they used the to fill out the entries in the Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, in their original context.

DC's Who's Who went for original art, and got some stunning portraits from many, many great artists - it's where you go for Jaime Hernandez doing Legion of Super-Heroes girls, - but the Handbook just cut and pasted panels from recent comics, spending the minimum of effort to wipe out the word balloons.

I didn't have access to reprints or original comics when I was a full Marvel zombie, but I did have all the handbooks, and would sear those entries into the brain. So when they show up in the original story, they're a sudden blast of the familiar. I know those panels like the back of my hand.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Goodnight, Billy

The end of Billy Connely's stand-up career has hit me particularly hard, in a way that I never really expected. 

I always liked Connolly's standup for the same reason everyone else in the world does, he's a natural storyteller. He would never be the first name on my personal list of history's greatest comedians, but he's always been a solid top 10, and have seen many of his best routines many, many times.

He was always such a lively and vibrant performer, full of life, always there, always absolutely fuckin' brilliant because he's the best 'guy in a pub telling you some crazy story' anybody ever heard. So cheerful and astute and loud.

And now that's all done. The health problems might not be as bad as the tabloid press made out, but Connolly has had to give up the stand-up and live shows.

And I think I'm more bothered by it than Billy is. He's hanging out in Florida, living out his days on the American swamp, and getting everything out of life he can. But the knowledge that this beautiful mad fool, owning the fucking stage, can only be found in fuzzy old videos anymore, is properly heartbreaking.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Gotta stop thinking about the explanations for kids stuff

Decades of post-modern culture pop analysis bullshit has absolutely ruined me and vandalized my cultural appreciation, because I just can't appreciate things for what they are.

I can't just get lost in a movie or TV show without thinking about how they made it and the challenges involved in making those images. And I can't stop watching dumb kids programmes and wondering how they logically worked. What is the economy of these cartoon worlds? What are the physics of the thing? How do they function?

Do they eat meat in the wonderful dayglo world of Hey Duggie, where every piece of life is anthropomorphized? Who supplies the ingredients for their Pinky Ponk Juice to the dwellers In The Night Garden? Is Thomas The Tank Engine like Cars, and take place is a post-Terminator society?

The answers to all these questions is, obviously: IT DOESN'T MATTER. But I still can't just enjoy things for what they are, and have to dig them apart and look at them for revisionism and explanations

This bothers me a lot, but the lovely wife has no problem in imagining Thomas and his 'really useful crew' as a bunch of crims planning a heist, and just thinks it's funny. And the kid just likes the sedate and colourful adventures. I just need to get over myself and find the child inside, before I ruin it for everyone.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Stealth on the Blu Ray shelf

I spend way too much time thinking about the first blu-ray I ever saw on the shelves, and how it was a copy of Stealth, the Josh Lucas and Jessica Biel-starring 'jet fighter with a brain' film that absolutely nobody demanded.

I just wonder if it went to a good home. It cost $40 so if it was bought and paid for, it went to somebody who could really appreciate Stealth for the cinematic masterpiece it so clearly must have been, somebody who needed to see it in the highest possible definition. I bet it's still there on the shelf in their house, gathering dust as everyone goes streaming, but just waiting for the day that someone, somewhere says 'We should watch Stealth on blu-ray'. Its day shall come.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

And it all seems larger than life

It took me a while to warm to The Chills, but I eventually got to the 'I'm a haunted alien youth' stage like everybody else, and listened to them alone in a dark room with a deep bottle of vodka. It's just what you did in Dunedin when you're a young 'un. 

And the recent documentary about the life and times of chief Chill Martin Phillipps was absolutely excellent, and not just because I ache for the past Dunedin, my absolute favourite city in the world as a kid.

It's because I also felt very seen when Phillipps is sorting out his 'collection'. It was so easy to see my own habits in the way he has built up this vast amounts of pop culture bullshit, with lines of DVDs snaking around the hallway, old boxes full of older toys and comics and records and all sorts of clutter.

And in between the heartwarming story of Phillips writing some of Aotearoa's very best songs, and the starkly brutal reality of his recent health issues, there's all this trash in the singer's house, cluttering up his world. And he's wondering how the fuck he ended up with a dog toy that means nothing to anybody, and is just a little chewed up piece of rubber.

I'm no Kondo head, and I like my stuff, but a collection has to be refined and curated and sharpened as often as possible, or it can take over your life, and that's no fun for anyone. Even melancholic pop genuises like Martin.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Everyone can do a journalism, can't they?

The Daily Planet has the worst fucking subs in the world. Their big lead stories are full of flowery words, have intros that are stuffed with passive language and they always bury the fucking lede in the fucking fifth paragraph. Does anyone actually look at these things?

No newsroom I've ever worked for have put out copy this sloppy - editorials disguised as straight news, feature-type writing on breaking events and just terrible news judgement. Journalism is something that anybody who writes think they can do - after all, they consume a lot of it - but there are still rules, motherfuckers, and they are there for a reason.

The Daily Bugle is as bad as almost any other fictional newspaper, but stands out. You don't see as much in other artifical newsrooms like the Daily Bugle, because the writers at that paper are supporting characters. But Lois Lane and Clark Kent are meant to be award-winning reporters, and their finished copy that goes to print looks like deranged rants, with outrageous headlines. 

It's the same in every medium - there is an incomprehensible headline in the new Justice League cut that is a piss-poor excuse for an Ayn Rand reference - but they keep publishing news stories in the comics that are absolute nightmares. It's been going on for years and years now and never gets any better, and there were two particularly egregious examples in some recent Superman comic by Bendis, and I wanted to take a red pen to my library copy, with something to fix in literally every line.

But there was also something new in these comics, and Bendis got it just as appallingly wrong. There's a Twitter feed, where the writer parcels out bits of information in the form of tweets. Whether that works or not as a storytelling technique is debatable, but while I can believe a man can fly, I can't believe that any news organisation would do this:

I get really nervous dealing with the biggest stories in the country and this is wise because if you fuck them up, you're fucking fired. There are no excuses.

And I love the social media and editorial teams that I work with, but if one of them put out something about a hot terrorist, one day after a mystery attack that killed hundreds, they would be fucking gone. Any media outlet would be rightfully crucified for that kind of shit.

The only horrible explanation is that the DC universe is such a nightmare that hundreds of people are getting killed all the time - gassed at the movies by the Joker, blown up in an airplane crash by Kobra - so it's no big deal when more are slaughtered, and everybody goes on their way.

But still, it's just bad media. And for fuck's sake, don't start a fucking news story with: 'In what he thought was a....', you absolute fucking child of a news writer. An old-school sub would eat your fucking face off for that.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Feeling dusty after the tidy up

I love sorting my comics shit out, and heaving around piles and piles of old paper to get them into some kind of order is something I can actually control is this weird world, and I'll take what I can get.

But more and more, for days after a good sorting, the eyes ache and there is dust in the back of my throat that won't come out. I was always mildly allergic to dust and dust mites, but dealing with comic books that I've owned for 40 years, and all that decaying paper, is the one thing that really gets things going.

It's not going to stop me, because this kind of zen calm is always worth a little irritation afterwards. It's only getting worse as both me and the comics get progressively decrepit, but I can only embrace the breakdown.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Daddy wasn't there!


There's more to life than daddy issues, despite what the movies keep telling me.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Barrie Chase gave it everything

For something with so much hysterical shrieking, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has aged amazingly well. There is some mindboggling physical comedy which is eternally funny, and these ancient and hilarious comedians are doing some extremely hectic shit. Watching Jonathan Winters literally demolish a service station with his fury is a sight to behold, and is rightfully one of the great slapstick scenes of all time.

But there's still nothing in the film that beats Barrie Chase and her super intense twisting around Sylvester's living room. Chase is the last surviving member of the main cast, according to the internet, and I'm sure that longevity can be partly attributed to her absolute commitment to the twist, in the face of all distractions.

That's art, that is.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Incomprehensible Thor

Reading some old Marvel comics is usually a nice, calming influence, and it's always fun to chill out on the overwrought melodramatics and spacey superheroics in simple tales of times go by. There's tonnes of them in the local library system, and I regularly load up on them.

And when it's something like a big, chunky reprint of the Thor issues where the whole Celestials On Earth thing is first sorted out, that was exactly what I was after. I read the earlier Eternals comics by Kirby that set up the scenario years and years ago, but had never seen that resolution in Thor #300. I knew what happened mainly from the detailed synopsis of the Marvel Handbooks, and had somehow picked up the fact that the Destroyer was heavily involved in the climax, but I had no idea how it actually went down.

So I'm reading the book and it's all going along nicely with the usual Eternal nonsense, until the disembodied eye of Odin starts retelling the Ring Saga, and I had fucking idea what was going on. There are multiple reincarnations of multiple characters, and things are happening for some reason, and there's a lot of words and if I genuinely can't follow what's going on as a 46-year-old, how the shit would I have been able to follow it as a kid?

I'm sure Roy Thomas felt it was all perfectly clear, because he spent his entire comics writing career always being perfectly clear. But he also liked squeezing old highbrow culture into his superhero comics and they just did not always fit. And with little knowledge of the whole Nibelungenlied saga - I think I read a P Craig Russell comic back in the 90s? - I was completely baffled by the whole thing and couldn't follow it at all.

By the end the comic suddenly remembers about the Celestials, and sorts all that out with a lovely big apocalyptic battle. And even though Roy went off to DC in the middle of all this thing, it is genuinely interesting to see how it all plays out. I just wish we didn't have to take the Ring road to get there.