Friday, September 30, 2022

Brink: Seeing the conspiracy everywhere

There's a very funny moment in the latest volume of Brink, the thoroughly excellent 2000ad strip by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard. The series, which features the last of humanity are clinging to existence on giant space stations packed with a despairing population, explained the origins of a word that has been used in connection with dark eldritch gods from the deep nothingness, and it turned out to be something very banal. 

It's a moment that is almost thrown away, but it's also a delightful summation of how conspiracy theories grow out of misunderstood or lost information. The series has been about how humans who have been stripped of all hope turn to sects and cults for answers, and there have been horribly clear indications that there is something supernatural going on, with words that make people literally sick, and video that turns trusted friends into murderous automatons.

But there's also a good chance that there really isn't anything there and that it's all in the collective head of the last of humanity, who are filling the gaps with their own fears and monsters, and the perversion of a technical slogan into a terrible word is the clearest indication yet. 

The big dopey conspiracy theories always fall over because human beings don't work that way - the best argument against the faked moon landings or 9/11 is that thousands of people would have to shut the fuck up about it forever, and that never, ever happens.

But in Brink, there is a voice coming up from the deep, and it could very well be something vast and monstrous, or it might just be the echoes of a depressed humanity, seeing patterns where there aren't any, unable to recognise their own cries. 

The past few years have shown us that we don't have to live on the brink of existence in the cold vacuum of space to poison our brains, but it doesn't help.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Stuck to the cover

The cover price of an American comic book didn't mean shit to godless foreigners like me. By the time they ever got to any shop near me and through freight and exchange rate hikes, they were costing three times what the cover promised. A 75c issue of Alpha Flight would be $2.15, so it had to be bloody worth it.

So almost all the local comics had some kind of price sticker on them. Comics were so worthless to many sellers that they just scrawled the local price on the cover in irreparable ink - I still have so many comics with the owner of Baird's Bookshop's distinctive scrawl - but they mainly came with some kind of sticker.

And I always hated them and had to get them off straight away, to get as much of the cover as pristine as possible. It's a bit of a compulsion, and I've always had the same issue with old videos and DVDs that I bought from the local stores before they all disappeared, (getting the Video Ezy New Lynn sticker off a disc without leaving behind enough glue to jam up in the payer was a goddamn art).

But when it comes to comics, sometimes it takes so much patience to get it off without damaging the cover and you can't rush it, and after all these years, I've become a goddamn expert at it. I know exactly how slowly to pull something off, and the exact moment it's all gone wrong and the cover is starting to tear.

It was always bad enough with stickers, but leave them too long and they can become a complete mission. Because I know what happens when you leave them so long or pick up a comic second hand.

I spent about an hour recently getting a big 'NEW TITLE' sticker off an old 2000ad sci-fi special from the 90s, and there was was one local distributor who did comics for just a few months in the 90s, but left a garish yellow sticker that was hugely difficult to peel off without damage at the time, and near impossible now. I wasn't able to clean the sci-fi special, and you can see the sorry attempt in the photo above.

I've now been getting new comics from the local comic shops for a long time, and they know the value of things and never have any stickers, but I still get them off my 2000ads that I get at the local newsagent as soon as possible, before they become a permanent fixture.

Like many things in my comic reading life, I have become such a fucking expert for something that is of absolutely no use whatsoever in the real world. It's always the way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

You were always right, Len Biehl

I wish I could say the first critic who I really stated to notice by name was someone like Pauline Kael or Kim Newman or Roger Ebert or someone like that. But if I'm honest, it's probably the three-claw reviews a letter writer named Len Biehl would faithfully send in to Marvel Comics Presents every issue that first caught my attention.

For a brief period when I was all about the Marvel, I was getting MCP faithfully every two weeks. And with no internet to find any other opinions on the matter, for a few months Biehl's bullet-point review of every eight-page chapter - featuring Wolverine or Ghost Rider or whoever -  were smart, perceptive and very funny. I never saw Len's name on any other letters page, and have no idea what happened to the dude in the past 30 years, but I do enjoy his reviews of the comic as much as the comic itself.

Older Bronze Age nerds might have had their Uncle Elvis or TM Maple or whatever, but Len was my guy, for just that brief period of time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Legend of Luther Arkwright: Clean living might save us after all

Bryan Talbot has been creating Luther Arkwright comics for more than 40 years, and they have been consistently wonderful - full of esoteric concepts, batshit crazy science and mad philosophical ideas, wielded to the driving engine of a solid action comic. 

The Legend of Luther Arkwright - recently released in hardback as a 240-page original graphic novel in glorious black and white - is apparently Talbot's last word on the character, and even after all these years, the comic is going out on a typical high.

Talbot has produced stories about the trauma of sexual abuse and the intoxicating depths of history and folklore, so it's not surprising that the new Luther Arkwright is a deeply humanistic work, not afraid to shy away from the blood and misery that we can inflict on each other, but also looking for the light that shines through in acts of kindness and empathy. 

For all the complexity of travelling between parallel worlds, it's a simple story - Arkwright is fighting for us all in his final battle against the next step on the evolutionary ladder, which is too genocidal for Luther's tastes. And he fights for all humans everywhere, because even after all the terrible things human beings are capable of, they are also still capable of things like love and creation and friendship and generosity, which are always worth fighting for.

Typically, Arkwright's battle is fought on multiple worlds at multiple times, and a different timeline is only ever a furrowed brow away. Like many in his generation, Talbot is obviously appalled by how peace and love ideas have metastasized into never-ending conflict and hate, and uses the opportunities of the 'What If' to stick his boot in.

The other worlds show how easily the current civilization can slide into apathetic fascism, and it's all pretty bloody depressing how possible it looks. But there is always an English Rose of rebellion that will  rise and new generations of freedom fighters ensure the fight for freedom never ends, especially when you've always got mad old bastards like Harry Fairfax by your side.

As grim as some worlds can get, there are also worlds of science and cooperation, full of people who can actually get along with each other (even if they had to brutally depose their authoritarian and religious leaders before they could get started). There is hope for everybody.

Especially when the complexities of good and evil can be reduced to something as binary as being a good person and being an arsehole .Luckily, while Luther was always about embracing your inner aura, the main character is still a multiversal assassin who sometimes has to assassinate some multiversal arseholes.

All this, the death and science and metaphysical catastrophe, is brought out through Talbot's bright, clear, black and white line. It's so bold and confident and always gorgeous, and there is even some unexpected pathos as hints of his older style, with the deep heavy rendering of his youth returning for some particularly gross parallel worlds.

If this Talbot's last word on Luther Arkwright, it's as fine an epitaph as anybody could ask for. On any world.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Finding the love for comic books ain't that hard

I never blame the comics when I start to fall out of love with them - it's always my fault. I'm getting old, I'm stuck in my ways, the new comics that all the cool kids seem to like seem strange and clumsy to me and maybe I'm just getting too old for comics, as I slide towards 50.

This has happened to me half a dozen times since I first learned to read with comics and I usually get over it fairly quickly, but have really struggled with it in the past year or so. Through the terrific local library system, I've been reading all sorts of comics - mainstream superhero nonsense, artie independent comics of heartbreaking genius and there's just been disappointment after disappointment.

Superhero sagas that go nowhere and have no grandeur or sense of wonder. Corporate clutching at tired copyrights. Desperate attempts to generate some sweet IP revenue with the lowest of high concepts. Biographical comics of historical figures that have no style or energy.

There are still the endless pleasures of the occasional Love and Rockets comic, and the few monthly US comics I still get are full of gorgeous artwork and fun stories. 2000ad still delivers, every single week.

But you can't just stay in your safe lane forever if you ever want to learn something about the world, so I do keep trying to find new stuff, and do find so much of it to be dull or derivative. I'm far too old to abide ugly art on my comics, no matter how good the writing is, and I need comics that sing to me, or at least don't try too hard.

I know it's a me problem, because these things must have some kind of an audience, and there do seem to be people out there genuinely loving a lot of things that leave me cold. They're not wrong, I'm not wrong, we're all right.

Because it's not the comics' fault, it's me. I know this, because I found the love again last week, in some wonderfully unexpected places. Hello again, old love.

In a few days, in between the latest go at a 2000ad prog slog (which is always rewarding), I read a couple of truly meaty books, and tried some new regulars that were just fucking fun, and was introduced to some new digital stuff, and read a mate's mini-comic that was unexpectedly touching, and I haven't even got to the new Kate Beaton book yet.

I'm fucking into it. I fucking love comics. I love them so fucking much.

The world of comic books has grown so much since I first stumbled into it as a toddler, and it's grown far faster than I could ever get tired of it, and I look forward to more years of unexpected discoveries and cosy delights. 

And big, fat comics that I want to read in one sitting, with no distractions, because there's nothing better than that. I'll talk more about one of them tomorrow, because sometimes it's all Arkwright on the night.