Sunday, September 21, 2014

Losing the Legion of Super-Heroes

I used to be the kind of obnoxious dork who would sneer at people who moaned about how hard it was to follow the Legion of Super-Heroes. I had no time for complaints about the vast number of characters and editorially-tangled continuity of the 30th-century stories.

After all, it wasn't that bad. All the characters were clearly delineated with their own distinctive costumes and powers, (and, over the decades, a surprising amount of them even developed genuine personalities). And all the big continuity reboots didn't really matter if the key components of the Legion were still there, especially when there was only one hard restart in the comic's first 40 years.

All those weird teenagers, and all that vast history were always part of the Legion's appeal, and if you couldn't keep up, you would be soon left behind. I lost contact with the Legion a  while back, but still had a vague idea what was going on, and followed it in library editions right up to the end of that last Waid/Kitson reboot. I knew what was what.

Not any more. My 15-year-old self was an annoying little shit, and somewhere in time, he's sneering at me, because I have no bloody idea what's going on in the Legion any more.

I was pulled into the orbit of the Legion of Super-Heroes through the 'Five Years Later' stories, the most notoriously obtuse and complex period in the comic's 50-year history. It was not a place for new readers - building on events in stories from years and years ago, and taking away all those easily identifiable costumes and code-names – but that's where I came in.

And the fact that I couldn't understand what was going on was a large part of the charm, (it literally took me years to work out who Salu Digby was), especially when I had a hard time tracking down issues in my part of the world, picking up random issues here and there, and I came at the whole thing from a totally non-linear perspective. It was intriguing, and I was hooked, and I was always working out new little things.

I followed the Legion all the way until Moy cuteness got too much, and didn't bother with later attempts to reinvigorate the team. It was all the same old shit, especially when they reverted to a complicated version of the original team again a few years again, taking ti back where it all started.

A sense of inertia creeps into the whole concept, left spinning its wheels in some idealised version of seventies superheroics. Instead of looking forward and growing up, the Legion was trapped in its own past.

There is currently no Legion of Super-Hero comic, and the break could be the best thing for it. The most recent version – spun out of the largely mediocre New 52 comics – ended after less than two years, and I just read the collection of the last eight issues, and even though it is in the trusted hands of Levitz and Giffen, I have absolutely no idea what was going on.

It's not the usual complaints – there are a bunch of new characters, but they're all visually unique and introduced properly, so that isn't a problem. But it felt like there were entire scenes missing. Things like the death of major characters have so little impact that they happen off-panel – Duo Damsel loses another version of herself in her usual obligatory sacrifice, Sun Boy gets his head caved in and then eaten and Star Boy is crushed by a falling building – and it all means nothing.

And I have no idea who these people are, because it's never really made clear what sort of history they have, or what universe they live in. It seems like a Legion that never went through that 'Five Years Later' wringer, but did experience things like the Great Darkness Saga, and it's never made quite clear. And even after spending an embarrassingly large part of my life trying to figure out Legion lore, I'm genuinely lost

It's made even more jarring by the fact that there are moments where the creative team nail it, like the brief little vignettes that get the character moments just right, and there is some lovely Kevin Maguire artwork on a couple of the chapters.

But I'm essentially adrift, and those brief doses of loveliness are offset by a general confusion and malaise, with no real drive to even figure out what was going on. Large parts of Legion history have been hard to follow, but intriguing enough to find out more – this just feels like a comic that is spinning wheels, stuck in neutral, a thousand years in the future.

So I've become one of those people that I always looked down on, interested in the Legion, but baffled by most of it, and giving up on it altogether.

But so what if I've disappointed my younger self with this current Legion apathy? Teenage Bob was a moronic geek, and I've got more important things in my life than remembering what planet Cosmic Boy came from, or wondering why Ultra Boy doesn't shred his hands when he uses super-strength, but can't use invincibility.

There will still always be a fondness for these teenagers in space and their mad adventures. Those personalities that took decades to develop are still there, and there is still that sense of boundless optimism, even in the darkest of times, that makes the Legion so strong.

And there is also hope that there is a future for the Legion again. Comic book concepts can come back from these kinds of sabbaticals, stronger than ever. They can also fade away, but while the Legion's history is often wiped out or written over, its legacy can survive the fall of universes.

I still hope that there will be more interesting and stylish  Legion comics to come. It could be time for something new, or for a return to core basics, but the right creators could still breathe life into this dusty old concept.

There is still plenty of love for the Legion out there, no matter how many times they keep losing us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nice guys finish first in Dredd's dangerous world

Mega-City One - the setting for the long-running Judge Dredd comic - is an incredibly vibrant, weird and dangerous place to live. There is the constant fear of nuclear apocalypse, a recent virus turned the city into hell on earth (and reduced the population to less than 94 per cent of its peak), and every now and then, Dark Judges from another dimension are going to show up randomly and slaughter a whole lot of you.

Random spree shooting are a daily occurrence, the law have awesome firepower that is frequently deployed and extreme violence is everywhere. Every now and then, there is some grand mega-epic, and Dredd saves everybody by being the rod that will not break, but millions of innocent souls are still going to die horribly.

Dredd’s world is a hard world, and you'd think it would be harder on the nice guys. But in Mega-City One, nice guys somehow finish first.

There are still plenty of plenty of nice guys who meet unfortunate ends in the on-going saga of Judge Joe Dredd. A sunny disposition isn’t actually going to save you from a hail of high-powered shrapnel, and plenty of lovely, innocent people are occasionally unceremoniously incinerated by those bloody Sovs.

Even the slightest of stories can come with a large body count, and it becomes a vicious cycle, as the insanity of the situation causes more people to snap and go futsie and go on a killing spree, making the situation even crazier, inspiring new massacres. Plenty of nice people are taking the midnight bus to Resyk.

But one of the great secrets of Dredd's storytelling success is that a whole lot of the people who do meet a messy end write their own fates – dying due to stupidity, incompetency, greed or selfishness, often meeting their maker in the form of justice from Dredd's lawgiver.

And yet, even with all that danger, and even with all that death, sometimes the only reaction to mad absurdity is to be nice and polite. It can’t hurt, and it might just keep you alive.

It worked for Walter the Wobot, an extraordinarily annoying robot with an extraordinarily annoying speech impediment, who only ever wanted to wash Dredd’s socks. Walter is the one free robot in this city of the future, and was granted that freedom by feeling empathy and sympathy for humans.

Walter is, for all his annoyances, just a nice guy, and is still there after three decades of chaos, surviving direct involvement in some of the most calamitous events. Every now and then he has a breakdown and goes a bit crazy and has to be blown apart, but he's always coming back, and all he wants to do is help somebody with the washing. (He might have finally given up on getting any affection out of Dredd himself, but he's still a great pal.)

In fact, Walter might have finally found the perfect home, as he is now living with Mrs Gunderson, a nearly blind and totally deaf senile old lady, who has proven to be the single nicest person in the entire crazy city.

She is the only person besides Dredd to have had multiple run-ins with Judge Death and somehow survive – in one memorable interlude, Death had to admit she was the only truly innocent person he had ever met. She is a lovely old lady, who stumbles through scenes of terrible carnage without really noticing anything, and is always hilarious.

She still shows up in the odd episode, and is as endearingly batty as ever. Her and Walter make a nice little odd couple, tottering through the wreckage of a smashed world, wondering if they left the gas on back at the flat, blissfully surviving the world's harshest city.

There are plenty of other nice guy survivors - Max Normal is still bopping around somewhere. The pinstripe freak might still be a little dodgy, but he always liked seeing bullies get their just deserts. He could play with the system, but was always his own man, and disappears for years, only to show up again on the far side of a shuggy table.

It's even arguable that one of Dredd's greatest foes – the great Mean Machine Angel – also survives multiple run-ins with Dredd because he's inherently nice. He's only mean because of awful surgery, and is an innocent at heart, and has been allowed to shuffle off into retirement, taken in by a caring and sharing son, another bright face in the darkness.

Even the Judges aren't exempt, with a new generation of men and women showing a more progressive side of the law. They're still judges, so they're not exactly nice, but it's notable that the slightly more flexible Benny and Rico have survived for years now.

Smiling at Mega-City's craziness is the best reaction you can have. You can go a bit far, and become officially mental, but that just gives you all sorts of metatextual headaches, so you're best off just being a bit sensitive.

It still works, even in the grim post-Chaos Day city, with a cracking story about a sensitive Klegg from Rob Williams and Chris Weston recently running in 2000ad. He might be a massive reptile with massive sharp teeth hanging around a city that was scarred on a primordial level by his kind, he's also the only Klegg to survive longer than one story.

He might risk getting accidentally shot on his way to take some books back to the library, but he endures.

The one thing all these nice folk have in common is that they're always pretty drokkin' funny. It's hilarious to see that Klegg waving enthusiastically at Dredd, or to see Mrs Gunderson narrowly escape awful harm without even noticing.

Besides, to maintain a positive attitude in a world of such mega-death and horror is to cast a deeper light into the darkness of Dredd's world. And it's also part of that great British stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on, even if the world is going crazy, because going on about it isn't going to fix things.

It's a hard world, but there is no need to be rude about it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

More laughs, more films, more comics, more everything

There's always more.

Just when you think you know everything, there is always something new to watch, or read, or listen to.  There is always something new to think about, and always a new way to feel. There is always more.

There’s always more laughs.

I'm hard-wired to love slightly subversive British TV comedy shows – raised on a steady diet of Monty Python, The Young Ones, Blackadder and Red Dwarf. I can't get enough of the shouty anarchy and unexpected seriousness and surreal madness and surprising emotion, and I never tire of seeing fine character actors behave like complete tits.

And there is always more comedy to get into – the alternative British comedy scene of the 1980s evolved into the darker, smarter comedy of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci and chums, bringing the existential uncertainty of the modern media age into the living room with tactical use of profanity.

A large part of the appeal is that there are actually relatively few episodes of individual series, and shows like The Office and Fawlty Towers build their monumental reputations on a small number of episodes. This can be consistently melancholic, as beloved series are always ending, but it also means there are plenty of new things to find.

And I love hunting for the new, and finding out about series like the sublime 15 Stories High or the magnificent Nathan Barley or a dozen other little slices of stylish comedy. And there are so many talented comedians and actors, all creating new shows, and it can take years before I hear about them, or track down their work.

And sometimes, even the work of comedians I already know and love can slip by, and it can be a long, long time before I even notice. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Steve Coogan – and the more excruciating it gets, the better, especially when he plays himself – and followed it since The Day Today, and even though I deeply enjoy cheap nasty horror films,  I somehow totally missed the Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible series, a biting piss-take of those cheap, nasty horror films from more than ten years ago.

I finally caught up with it this week, and it’s not great, but it is something that’s right up my alley, and I’m slightly baffled that it took me this long to get to it. Even in this relatively niche world of UK comedy, there are huge amounts of material to find, and experience. Some of it will be awful, some of it will be fine, and some of it will be great, but there is always more laughter.

There’s always more movies.

UK comedies are a big enough pool to jump into, but if you're into something as general as Movies That Make You Feel Something, there really is no bottom, because there is more than a hundred years of film, and more every day.

The Story Of Film, Mark Cousins' epic documentary about the history of movies all over the world, can take a while to get into - especially with Cousins' clipped, quiet accent - but is ultimately compelling, because it opens up a world of cinema in an easy, accessible style.

It covers the whole history of cinema, bouncing around the globe, and when it gets to the seventies, it is obliged to focus on America and the impact of the film school kids, and it suddenly got really boring.

The films that are discussed in this section certainly aren't boring, and the stories behind their production is fascinating, but it's one that's been covered a million times over, and there is little new to say.

American cinema between 1969 and 1980 is the most analysed period of movie history – all the stories have been told, and pass into legend. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains the definitive account of the times, but there are hundreds of other books that pick apart the movies from those days, and the well of new stories is almost dry.

But that's okay, because there are other similar small renaissances in cinema, all over the world, and while one hour of The Story Of Film had little new to say, the other nine opened up all sorts of new doors.

And it's not just the obvious and infinite worlds of Bollywood or East Asian cinema, there are fascinating stories to discover in the quietest and strangest places in the world, and there can be beauty in a 1930s film from Iran, or in the bleak masterpieces coming out of modern Eastern European cinema. Gloriously, it never ends.

There are always more comics.

I love great comedy, and I love great movies, but comics are still my main bag, and they still offer up the most unexpected pleasures and the best thrills.

I don't just read the things, I soak myself in reference books and historical accounts, finding out all the stories behind the stories, and all the different versions of the truth. Back Issue Magazine is one of only two regular magazines I get every month or so, and I go to other libraries around town to find biographies of Curt Swan or books about the art of Alex Toth.

That kind of immersion inevitably leads to repetition – due to an odd coincidence, I read about background behind Avengers #200's appalling treatment of Ms Marvel in four separate reference books, saw it discussed on three different blogs, and heard somebody talk about in in a podcast, all within a week or two.

They were the same old stories about vindictive creative and editorial moves that led to that comic, but by the fifth mention, I didn't really need to hear about it again, and it really can feel that there is nothing new to learn about the weird and wacky world of comics, if the same topics keep coming up again and again.

Which is, of course, total horseshit. I keep reading about the same events because I keep reading books about those characters, creators or company, and even after 35 years of reading comics, I'm still delightfully stunned by how much more there is out there.

Make no mistake - it's a wonderful sensation, finding out about some slice of the comic world that has so far passed me by. Just this week, I've finally fallen for the easy-going charms of Ramona Fradon's art, and actually made a shamefully-overdue effort to dig into some of Phoebe Gloeckner's comics.

And there are whole worlds of stuff that I still have barely touched – my knowledge of European comics or Manga barely stretches past the usual suspects, and I'm only restrained by time and expense, but they are worlds I would love to explore further.

And the flood of great comics never stops – every year old favourites produce stunning new work, and new faces create comics that feel like they've been doing them forever. Keeping up with the latest slices of genius is hard enough, without the whole long history of the form to consider.

This is the pleasure of it all – that there is always something new and meaty to get your teeth into. Whatever you’re into, whatever the medium, or the style, there is always something more, and there are always thrills in chasing it down.

I'm terrified of falling into a rut, of just reading or experiencing the same old shit, over and over again, and I'm always looking to try something new. Because there is always something new to try.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Iron Maiden: Barren wastes and decaying grins

This is the six hundred and sixty-sixth post at the Tearoom of Despair, so it's only right and proper that I should dig about in my cupboard of secret shame, and find something a bit satanic. Something a bit heavy.

Something a bit metal.

I was a little headbanger in my mid-teens, and so were all my mates. If it wasn't chunky, we weren't interested. I still liked the odd Pink Floyd or Queen or MC Hammer tune, but I craved that pounding, driving, thundering metal beat.

I had the obligatory mix tapes full of Slayer and Black Sabbath, I had the scruffy denim, I had the sneer at conformity, and I might have had a mullet. It was the late eighties, which isn't much of an excuse, but it is all I got.

I got into heavy metal through the safe hands of mid-period Def Leppard, and soon found my own favourites in the world of metal. Despite finding my was in through Armageddon It, I really wasn't much for the hair metal rubbish, (even with a shameful soft spot for Poison), I liked it heavy and intense and pure. No limitations, just real rock.

There were weird omissions – I never really got into Metallica – but I liked the churn of Megadeath and the parts of AC/DC where they really showed off. I raced after the driving rhythms of Anthrax and – oh man, I honestly hadn't thought about this band for twenty years until this morning - pounded my head silly to D-A-D. (Which brings us back to the hair again. I could never get away.)

But most of all, I was all about the Iron Maiden. How could you not be?

Iron Maiden had the most thundering riffs, the most glorious album covers and the ugliest drummer in the entire history of music. They managed to Keep It Real while still being incredibly pretentious – their Rime of the Ancient Mariner is still magnificent, for a bunch of working class blokes.

Born in East London during the great British metal boom of the early 1980s, Iron Maiden was built on Steve Harris' none-more-metal basslines, chugging away through every one of their great tunes, and soared to new heights through the fantastic wailing and extraordinary charisma of vocalist Bruce Dickinson.

And the group brought a much-needed taste of silly theatricality to the metal scene, thanks largely to the use of the greatest mascot ever. It was a wonderful combination of monstrous art and chugging guitars.

I fell for the Maiden. I fell hard.

I saw the cassette copies of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son on the shelves of the Deka store in Dunedin and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and I somehow convinced myself that it was some sort of key to a strange world, away from the mundane reality I was stuck in. I was only 12, and only a 12-year-old boy would think that an Iron Maiden album would reveal the secrets of the universe, but I really fucking liked that cover.

And it got inside my head.

I'm sitting in a school hall, waiting for an exam to finish, and it's sometime in 1989, and I've finished, but I can't leave the hall for another ten minutes, so I sit there and scrawl out the lyrics to Run To The Hills on my notebook, and I'm surprised to realise I know all the words, without bothering to try and remember them.

Ten years later, I'm catching up with my mate Spook for the first time in ages, and we get wasted in the Port Hills, and then cruise around Christchurch, and Run To The Hills comes up on The Rock radio station, and we rock out, and fuck me, I still know all the words.

Seven years after that, I'm in a karaoke bar in Osaka, belting out Run To The Hills after getting smashed on sake and oysters, and I've only been married to the lovely wife for a few months, but I can tell she's impressed by the fact that I don't need to read the lyrics on the screen, and can do the full metal performance.

For a while there, everyone I knew had at least one Iron Maiden tee-shirt, or an Iron Maiden poster on the wall, even if they really didn't care for the music, because the artwork was so fucking cool.

This was the other great secret of Iron Maiden's success – they had, by far, the coolest album covers. All featuring the mighty Eddie The Head and all created by a bloke called Derek, Iron Maiden's album covers in the 1980s were portals into other worlds, realities of sci-fi madness and horrific gods.

Some of the single covers were gross and tasteless – we all hated Thatcher, but we didn't want to butcher her in the street – but the album cover art was sublimely mental.

The covers even come with their own little satanic symbol (that I still know how to draw perfectly), and they all starred Eddie, the group's decaying, grinning mascot.

Eddie goes through a strange evolution over the eighties – starting off as a punk nightmare, growing into a cyborg nightmare, evolving into something godlike, and moving into the realm of weird, incomprehensible supernatural.

Those images were visual crack for young teenage boys, and all my mates plastered their bedroom walls with Somewhere In Time and Aces High posters. I wasn't allowed to put posters on my wall – they were banned after an earlier incident involving some 2000ad posters, some cellotape and some wallpaper – but I still had half-a-dozen tee-shirts, and proudly wore my favourite Live After Death one underneath my proper shirt at my high school formal ball.

I grew out of metal, like most of us do. We grow up, our tastes broaden, and we move onto something new. After a while, all that metal chunkiness gets monotonous, and you look elsewhere.

I even gave up on Iron Maiden, not long after No Prayer Left For The Dying. Even the art work was becoming a bit safe and predictable, and I wasn't surprised to recently learn that they started using new artists around the same time I became disinterested, none of whom could match Derek's earlier efforts. (They even lost Bruce for a while there, although they sorted that out.)

But I still love living to those old albums that blew my tiny little mind. Powerslave turned  30 this past week, and it's still an absolute blast, after all these years. Eddie's Egyptian death stare still glares out of that glorious cover, and the title song is still just a tiny bit more complicated than it needs to be, and that Ancient Mariner is still spooky and epic.

It's also still a bit silly, but that's the whole point.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Eight great new comics

There is a small avalanche of crappy comics coming out every week, with tedious storylines, bland art and the same old predictable shit, and it’s all too easy to get a bit despondent at the state of modern comics. But it’s just as easy to find the real gems in that avalanche, if you can be bothered digging them out.

The beautiful thing is, of course, that we will never all agree on what makes up the gems, and what is just the rubbish, because we’re all weird human beings who don’t all like the same stuff. But these are some (but by no means all) of the current comics that have been rocking my world recently.

Dark Horse Presents
By Darrow and McCarthy and a bunch of other people 

The secret of a good comic anthology title is that you need to have two stories that are absolute blinders if you want it to succeed. Then there is room for a couple of decent-but-not-excellent strips, and it doesn’t matter if the last couple are awful. The balance is maintained.

2000ad has followed this pattern for decades. Dredd is almost always good, there is always one other series that is a real standout (in the ones I’m currently reading, that’s undoubtedly the fantastic Indigo Prime), and the others usually fill out the ratio nicely.

I haven’t been a regular reader of Dark Horse Presents, in any of its incarnations, because it usually only had one great story every time, and that was never enough, especially when that decent story will inevitably be reprinted in its own collection. I wasn’t going to spend nearly NZ$20 on a comic just because I wanted that one Evan Dorkin strip, not when I can wait for it to be collected.

But the very latest incarnation of the anthology series hits the mark nicely, with two stunners in its first issue – the ultra-detailed Geoff Darrow is back with a Rusty and Big Guy comic that is just an excuse for another glorious panorama, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), while Brendan McCarthy creates whole new colours with his latest dreamy effort.

Anything beyond that – and that includes fine comics by David Mack and Steve Parkhouse and others - is pure gravy. I don't know how much longer they'll maintain that ratio I need, but I'll be there as long as it lasts.

Dicks: To The End Of Time, Like
By two boys who should know better

Dicks remains the one of the most truly offensive, gross, stupid, ridiculous comics available and I love it.

Jokes about porn and wanking and Irish republicanism can be puerile, obnoxious and infantile, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.

By Richard Sala

At first glance, the comics of Richard Sala appear to take place in a colourful and bright world, with his cartooning style giving people cute button eyes and noses. And then the murders start.

Sala's stories are actually fairly bleak affairs, with young innocents meeting horrible fates. A terrifically prolific artist who produces a decent book every year or so, Sala's stories feature monsters and lunatics doing terrible things, and sometimes they're justified, as fat cats meet richly-deserved ends, and sometimes they're just nasty. But Sala's cartooning is so cute, and all that carnage comes with a wink, giving his comics a unique flavour

His latest is Super-Enigmatix, an online comic about a super-criminal in the mold of Fantomas or Diabolik, bringing death and terror to the masses in a bid to tear down the whole rotten system. He's a total bastard, happily throwing away the lives of his female henchmen in recent chapters, and his gleaming and flashy surroundings hide a truly wicked sense of humour.

I'm a print dork, and this is honestly the only webcomic I bother to keep up on. Sala's worlds aren't very nice places to live in, but they're worth dipping into every couple of weeks.

Stray Bullets: Killers 
By David Lapham

After a lot of pretty boring superhero and Vertigo-lite comics from David Lapham in the past decade, I honestly didn’t expect much from the return of Stray Bullets, but still got the first issue just to see how it was doing.

And I'm happy to be proved wrong - Stray Bullets remains a vicious gut punch of a comic, with strong pacing, and good story kickers, and some lovely moody art.

I still don't like the Amy Racecar stuff, but the new comic is just as bold and intense as it ever was.

New Lone Wolf and Cub
By Kazuo Koike and Hideki Mori

I know it's a little bit wrong to carry on the story like this, especially with no Kojima, but Daigoro is still such a total badass.

Trees/Supreme Blue Rose
By Warren Ellis and friends

I have a vague, ill-formed theory that the underlying grammar of most modern comics is fundamentally broken. The language of comic storytelling was built on stressful inspiration decades and decades ago, and the current grammar is still built on a lot of Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s, as refined by Mark Millar more than a decade ago.

It boils it down to a simple formula – X splash pages times Y number of caption boxes, divided by the power of snark, and it’s used so often that it’s become so fucking boring.

There are still plenty of creators who are looking at new ways of telling comic stories that don’t rely on that cack-handed formula and, happily, Warren Ellis is still one of them, even after all these years.

The stories he is telling in Trees and Supreme are still fairly simple and easy to follow, but it's the way he is telling them, with more of a staccato pace and no reliance on grand entrances to introduce characters, that is interesting.

The jury is still out on whether Ellis' efforts actually work or not – this kind of experimentation can lead to unsatisfying results, but fuck, at least he's trying.

Groo vs Conan
By Aragones, Evanier and Yeates

Conan stories are usually humourless affairs, which can be fairly off-putting, but also make him a great straight man to the cartooning force of nature that is Groo.

The contrast between Tom Yeates' dark and moody Conan and Arogenes' bouncy, excitable and stretched characters is always delightful, there is a terrific sub-plot featuring a delirious Sergio running around Central Park at night and falling out of trees, and it's a Groo comic, so there are a hundred gags in every issue. And all is right with the world.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Doctor Who: Future Shock

This article was originally published in the New Zealand Herald. There is also this interview with Jenna Coleman. Who was lovely.

For two-and-a-half long months last year, Peter Capaldi knew he would be the next Doctor Who, but wasn't able to tell anybody he had scored the role of a lifetime.

Instead, he would visit the Forbidden Planet comic store in the heart of London, sneak up to somebody reading the latest issue of the Doctor Who magazine, and stand by them, taking joy in the fact that the oblivious reader had no idea the next Doctor Who was standing right next to them.

It's something Capaldi will never be able to do again without being recognised. His first episodes as the latest incarnation of the Doctor - and his own take on the televisual juggernaut of a character - are about to be revealed, and he'll never be able to walk into any comic shop in the world again without somebody knowing exactly who he is.

Especially when the BBC is celebrating the latest season, and kicking off the second half-century of the show, by sending Capaldi and his latest companion, Jenna Coleman, on a 12-day, six-city worldwide tour, just days after they finish filming of the latest series.

The latest Doctor and his companion stopped in Sydney last week on the fourth leg of the tour, and despite the punishing work and travel schedule, the pair were unmistakably excited about the new direction of the show.

Capaldi admitted he was nervous about the reaction to his debut, because although he was an unashamed fan of the show growing up, that didn't help much with a 21st century version of the character.

"I think he is different because the show has changed very much from when I was a kid, so one has to be true to what it is now, as well as hanging on to the past. And that's one of the things I love about Doctor Who. It carries the past with it, but is also moving into the future."

The role was a new challenge for the actor after a lifetime of strong work in films such as Local Hero and TV shows such as The Thick of It, where his magnificently eloquent Malcolm Tucker found all-new ways to fit outrageous profanity into his day.

But even though Capaldi had appeared in Doctor Who in a supporting role during the David Tennant era, playing the Doctor himself is something altogether different.

Each Doctor has his own personality and style, and Capaldi says he found his way into the character through head writer Steven Moffat's scripts.

"I guess because he had me in mind, he's been thinking about who the Doctor should be and how he should behave. I try and put as little space between me and the character as possible. So I don't think hugely about it. I just get on with it and try to do it."

Capaldi couldn't help bringing two things to the role: his extraordinary eyebrows - which got a special cameo of their own in the Day Of The Doctor 50th anniversary special last year - and his Scottish accent.

Tenth Doctor David Tennant had to suppress his Scottish accent when he took on the role, but Capaldi said he was always determined to keep it.

"I felt that it was important that I bring the Doctor to myself, rather than add a lot of layers of acting technique to it. I wanted to bring him close to me, so it would just be a faster conduit between me and the camera and the stories.

"We did do some other accents and stuff, but I was very clear that what I wanted to do is this. It would just be me."

Capaldi's first moment as the 12th Doctor was the regeneration scene, when Matt Smith transformed in the blink of an eye into something new and unknown.

Fittingly, the only thing Smith had to pass on to Capaldi for that scene was the wristwatch he had worn as the 11th Doctor, passing the time along.

As the Doctor's current companion Clara, Jenna Coleman was there for the pivotal scene and the handing over of the watch and though rumours are circulating that she may be about to move on from the role, she is now on hand to take the Doctor's hand as he runs off down a corridor into a new era. Despite working through the Doctor's biggest year ever in 2013, she told TimeOut she did not have much advice to help Capaldi deal with the phenomenon.

"Not really. It's really difficult to explain, really, I think you just have to experience it. It's just something you have to experience and go with the flow and just enjoy it.

"You just have to take it day by day. It's so huge and it's such a big franchise, it's like being on a freight train that's moving really fast. Because so much happens - you meet the Queen and do things like Dr Who Proms and go off to Comic-Con and all these amazing things, not to mention the day-to-day filming. So it's its own beast."

But there is also a new, more unpredictable dynamic to the relationship between the Tardis crew, and Capaldi said an initial spikiness between the two would not be resolved easily.

"Occasionally we would find that the Doctor and Clara think that they're okay, but they're not, because the Doctor can change, and that triggers different changes with Clara, also.

"It becomes incredibly complicated," said Coleman, "especially because this Doctor is still trying to figure out who this Doctor is. So that kind of unpredictability and instability between them both is really interesting, from story to story over the series."

Capaldi had little problem summing up the appeal of the 51-year-old show, pointing out that it changes and grows over time, while also being able to tackle any genre.

"The great thing about Doctor Who is that you can move from genre to genre, week by week.

"So sometimes you find yourself in the middle of quite a sombre episode, and the next week, you are in an all-out slapstick comedy episode, and then the next week you're in a chamber drama.

"And there is one episode in particular, which I think is wonderful, where we have a monster where we're not even sure it's there, which is really quite scary, and there are really very few people in it.

"I think it's unmistakably Doctor Who, but there aren't many larks in it. But at the same time it's quite funny, in a different way."

Coleman said the different directions the programme takes meant the two lead actors could have their own ideas on what makes a great Doctor Who story.

"Me and Peter are quite different. It is such a boy/girl thing. He likes the excitement and the explosions and the Daleks and all that, while I'm more into the ones that are a bit more fairy tale."

For Capaldi, his Doctor starts in the first scene of Deep Breath on a dark little beach on the banks of the Thames, and any romance he felt about the job took a hit when he had to hide himself away in the Tardis shell for the first time, squashed up against Coleman, with a props guy spraying a smoke gun at their feet.

It was a chilly, cramped start to his career as the Doctor, but after knocking off his first season, he is already getting the hang of things.

"I think in future I'm going to have a little electric fire in there, and a kettle. And some beverages."

 New face, new everything

Life-long Doctor Who fan Robert Smith says the first episode of the new Doctor points to a future of beautiful uncertainty - just like it should.

It's more than just a new face when a new actor takes on the role of the Doctor.

Some things will never change - there is always the Tardis, the snappy sidekick and a sharp coat - but a new Doctor means a whole new dynamic for the time-travelling sci-fi drama, with a new personality, new style and new tone for the overall series.

That dynamic is obvious in Peter Capaldi's very first episode. Deep Breath spends a lot of its extra-long running time asking who this new Doctor is, and leaves his companion Clara wondering what his nature truly is, and what he is capable of.

It's difficult to judge a new Doctor's era based purely on his first episode - the new incarnation is usually still recovering from the shock of his regeneration, before getting his head together and standing up tall to the latest monster.

But it's also clear from Deep Breath that this is a very different Doctor from his younger, more energetic predecessors - less friendly and open, but no less determined, and more compassionate than ever.

Of course, even with all the pressure of kicking off a new era, Deep Breath is still a Doctor Who story, so there are horse chases and desperate grappling with a monster - both verbally and physically - high over the streets of Victorian London.

Director Ben Wheatley brings a sense of gloomy darkness into the bright world of the Doctor, with lots of scowling and concerned looks, but there are also the usual light touches typical of an average Doctor Who adventure, including a couple of moments of outright slapstick humour.

It's this invigorating mix of scares and cheers that makes the series just as fresh and new as it was in the days of William Hartnell or Jon Pertwee. Doctor Who is always changing, and always becoming something new, riding the zeitgeist into a whole new generation.

And Peter Capaldi's new Doctor is just the ticket for that ride. He is not the cute and cuddly Matt Smith Doctor, or the dashing, verbose David Tennant Doctor, or the grim and Northern Christopher Eccleston Doctor.

He's something new, and it will be a pleasure to uncover his personality.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Kick-Ass: "Wait... Wait for it to be funny."

If you are going to take the piss out of super-hero comics, you have to really, really hate them, or really, really like them. One way or the other, or it just won't work.

There is no middle ground – Garth Ennis is supremely apathetic about super heroes, so his parodies always feel a bit too clever for their own good, and the super-decadence was always the most boring part of The Boys and Hitman.

But you can get away with it if you really hate them, because then you can rip into them with glee. Pat Mills fucking hates super-dorks, and that hate is a powerful driving force behind Marshall Law, and the amount of shit he puts them through in that comic is always, always entertaining

And you can totally get away with it if you adore superheroes. Without Mark Millar and John Romita Jr's love of all things superheroic – from the carnage of battle to the ultimate ideals – Kick Ass would have been a bloody grim comic.

The long-running Kick-Ass storyline finished recently, with the last issue of the third (or fourth; the jury is still out on the Hit-Girl numbering) series finally coming out a couple of weeks ago.

One of the main appeals of Kick-Ass is that the main character is constantly getting the absolute crap beaten out of him on a regular basis, and the only reason he wins any fights at all is because he’s a tough little bastard who won’t stay down. It’s that masochist subtext of superhero comics, made explicit text. We sometimes just like to see people get punched in the face. It's as simple as that.

And Kick Ass has also taken a critical beating, to match the in-story bruising. It’s ideologically unsound, outright offensive and gratuitously violent. This was never going to be a comic that people of good standing would bother with, and it always knew it, so it never bothered pandering to them.

But… I dunno…

I thought it was funny.

While I am a total ultra-pacifist pussy who deplores any real-world violence, I love bloody fiction, and it didn’t get much bloodier than Kick-Ass. It only takes a little tongue-in-cheek action for extreme violence and gore to become incredibly funny.

And for all its faults, I could never complain about Kick-Ass' willingness to go balls to the wall. If you're going for crazy, intense action, there is no need for a brake pedal, and this comic never shied away from making its situations EXTREME to the MAX, even if it led to the horribly unfunny moment where the bad guys mow down a bunch of kids.

(One of the failures of the second Kick-Ass movie is that it faced the same problem and blinked, and then joked about it, which didn't work at all. If you're not going to go all the way because you're too scared of what people will think, you've no business telling that story. Go hard, or go home.)

Still, thanks to some broken wiring in my brain, I have a soft spot for things that try and be offensive as possible, and Kick Ass went after some easy targets in modern culture, and gave away the game with the big shit-eating grin it always had. I still feel a tremendous amount of white male guilt about it all, but I just can't ever get offended by something I see in a comic book, because it's just a fuckin' comic book.

I just always thought it was hilarious how Hit Girl is clearly a psychopathic little shit who is genuinely mental - and I certainly don’t totally agree with her politics, but watching her gun down defenceless scumbags was never not funny. And seeing people complain that she wasn't a very good role model was ever funnier.

Of course she isn't a good role model. She's a psychopathic little shit who is genuinely mental!

But beneath all that happy anarchy, Kick Ass was built on a sheer, undisguised affection for super heroes. Not just Marvel and DC heroes, but the whole ideal of the super hero. What they mean, and what they represent.

There was always a part of Kick Ass that was maliciously laughing at how stupid the whole thing could be - the costumes, the masochism, the secret identities and all the fetishes, but there was also an unashamed love for the masks and heroism.

By the end of this series, Kick Ass grows up and puts on another, more adult, uniform, but he doesn't regret being a super hero, even with all the blood and tragedy. Because super-heroes gave him hope, and showed him that any problem, no matter how huge or horrible, could be figured out and solved.

We could all be a bit more Batman, or be as smart and kind as Superman. You don't have to dress in spandex to have a moral code and always do the right thing. Even the Motherfucker - one of the nastiest characters in the story - learns this lesson in the end.

Kick Ass could be a supremely annoying comic, with smart ass characters and smart ass writing. The post-credit sequence in the final issue is painfully arch, and the panel where Millar ties all of his comics together in one big dorky continuum is incredibly tacky.

But there is a joy to it all. It can sometimes feel like a waste of time and effort, caring so much about stupid superheroes and their stupid adventures, but the heroes themselves have valuable lessons to teach us, and can lift us up to their level, if we're willing to take the chance.

That's something worth going for. You can laugh at how stupid something is, while wholeheartedly loving everything about it, if you believe that enough.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nine books, magazines and comics that made a great Tuesday afternoon even better

One of the extremely fortunate side effects of being flown to Sydney to hear the new Doctor Who talk last week was that I got a free couple of hours to kill in the centre of town in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, which meant I could hit up the local comic shops for the first time in a couple of years.

It was the perfect way to fill time between chats with famous people, and I managed to find a few gems in the back issue bins, and one appropriate brick of a book on the bookshelves, and a Bicentennial Battle in a glorious mess.

How do you make the greatest Tuesday afternoon even better? With comics!

Captain America's Bicentennial Battles
By The King

My favourite comic shops are messy comic shops, and one of my favourite messy comic shops is Comics Kingdom on Liverpool St in central Sydney. There are all sorts of weird gems in that place, hidden beneath unloved copies of '80s Doctor Fate comics.

I last went there in 2010, and it was just as random and colourful as I remembered when I returned. I came away with a couple of things I'd been after for literally decades, but it was the random shit I was looking for, and I found the ultimate example.

Maybe they were just too big, or maybe the print runs were too small to send stuff all the way around the world, but I would never see the treasury comics that Marvel and DC put out. The stories might eventually show up in cheap, smaller, black and white reprints from Australia, but those big-ass comics never made it to my end of the world.

And I ached for them, because I'd see them in the ads in the regular comics, promising exciting thrills and gigantic art that I would never see. That ache only grew over the years, as I'd read about those comics in things like Back Issue Magazine, and I did see the odd one floating about at conventions and stores, but they were always priced incredibly high.

So, of course, Comics Kingdom has a small box full of Marvel and DC Treasury editions in good condition for less than twenty bucks, and the only trouble I had was deciding which one to get. In the end, despite a longing for those big, important Legion of Super-Heroes tabloid comics, I had to go for Captain America's Bicentennial Battles by Jack Kirby, because if you can only get one bold, brash and bright Treasury Special, it should be the boldest, brashest and brightest.

Because it's a Kirby-psychedelic trip through the history of the USA, with all the right-on political correctness you'd expect in a comic from 1976. It's glorious and silly, and massive, and perfectly random.

Wimbledon Green
By Seth

The comic collectors and traders who make up the cast of characters in Wimbledon Green would doubtlessly sneer at me for implying that anything as mundane as a Kirby Captain America comic from the 1970s could be rare, but it's the same strange obsession, at different scales.

I'm surprised it took me so long to get my own copy, instead of mooching off the library, because Wimbledon Green might be my favourite Seth comic. It's partly because I recognise that obsession, and partly because it was a book created on a lark, with no hint of self importance or real pretension.

It still manages to be a withering portrayal of men destroying lives over trivial objects, but it's also a hilariously deadpan and subtly complex  story, even if it is just a lark.

2000ad # 761
By Tharg and chums

Even in this age of instant gratification, and the assurance that you won't ever miss anything you don't have to, I still miss the odd issue of 2000ad, and sometimes I have to travel to other countries to plug the gap.

As a reading experience, it can be a total pain in the arse, but it's enormously satisfying to find that one single issue you're looking for, especially when they're hard to locate.

Alec: The Years Have Pants
By Eddie Campbell

Every other time I've been in Australia in the past few years, I've thought I should get Eddie Campbell's excellent collection of his decades-spanning Alec comics, because it seems like the sort of comic that should be bought in the country that stars in many of his strips, but I've always decided not to, mainly because it's such a brick of a book that I'm pretty sure it will put me over the limit of my baggage allowance when I fly back home to New Zealand.

This time, it was a two-day business trip, so I had loads of spare weight in my bags heading home, so I had no reason not to load up on hundreds and hundreds of pages of real-life boozy autobiographical comics.

There are many reasons why somebody might buy a certain book at a certain time, and this is probably one of the dumbest.

Judge Dredd Annual 1985 / Star Lord Annual 1982
By TB Grover, John Howard and John Wagner

British hardback comic annuals weren't as rare as the Treasury comics, and some years there would be a huge variety showing up at the local bookstores in the 1980s, but not always. Some years, there would just be those same tantalizing ads, with no chance of actually reading them.

So the local shops would be flooded with copies of the Judge Dredd Annual 1981, or the 1986 2000ad annual, but I've still never even seen the 1983 annuals anywhere.

So I can never resist getting them when I do see them, even if they're $12 for books that have had coffee spilled on them, with the spine coming away. And they might be full of one-off, unimportant short stories and flagrant reprints, and that Star Lord annual might be a particularly cheap affair, with a Blake's 7 cover, just after the gritty space programme was unceremoniously dumped, but I don't care.

I'll get them anytime I see them, because I might never see them again.

Running Through Corridors
By Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke

The authors of this book watched every episode of Doctor Who, in order, two a day, and wrote to each other, saying what they think about the episode. It's going to take them months and months, and several books – the one I bought in Sydney, 20 minutes after Peter Capaldi grinned at me, only covers the sixties episodes.

It's a mammoth effort, and a pretty silly thing to do, devoting so much time and effort to this ridiculous little television show, and I'm totally going to have to do it too now.

Flash #71, Ronin #4
By Miller, Waid and LaRoque

Man, I've been after these fuckers since 1992.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Doctor will see me now

Earlier this week, I spent 20 minutes in a one-on-one interview with Jenna Coleman about her role as Doctor Who's latest lovely companion, and even got a grin out of Peter Capaldi when he overheard me saying how brilliant and experienced he was. I also got to see the two of them talk at length about the new series and their roles in two separate Q and A sessions, and saw the first new episode twice on a cinema screen.

I'm not saying it was the greatest day of my life,  but it was almost certainly the greatest Tuesday afternoon ever.

When he was asked about the Doctor being trapped on Earth, Jon Pertwee always liked to point out that seeing a monster wander around some alien world wasn't nearly as interesting as finding a Yeti on the loo in Tooting Bec. The unreal and the real, colliding in CSO-scalding brilliance.

The Third Doctor had a point - bringing that alien weirdness into our mundane reality is always pretty effective  - but as somebody who lived on the arse end of the world, it was an analogy that never really worked for me.

Because even though the Doctor Who production team would occasionally throw in a taste of the real world to contrast with all the weird stuff, that real world was still half a world away from where I was, and places like Tooting Bec, Perivale or the Home Counties could be just as exotic and alien as Skaro, Dido or Metebelis III.

There was always this incredible disconnection, all my life. New Zealand is an isolated country, cut off from the rest of the world by the prejudices of geography, and while this has been heavily eroded in this age of internet connections and cheap global air travel, it remains a big part of our culture and attitude.

And even with our strong British-based heritage, things like movies, TV shows, books and comics that come from the UK still have the whiff of the exotic. They came from far away, and Doctor Who was no exception.

It didn't stop the programme building up a passionate audience, half a world away, and I was one of them. But growing up, I never thought I'd ever really see these places, or meet the creators or the actors who played the Doctor and their companion. They didn't come to my corner of the world, unless cloaked in fictions.

And then I grew up, and while I never grew out of Doctor Who, that sense of UK otherworldliness slowly eroded. I got to go to London several times and see where the Cybermen stalked the streets beneath St Paul's, and follow the Daleks' path across Westminster Bridge.

I actually got pretty bloody emotional when I saw the 1980s TARDIS console, (along with a shedload of other props and costumes) at the Doctor Who exhibit in Cardiff, and some of the primary people involved with the show were suddenly a single tweet away.

And then, four previous Doctors were on a stage in Auckland last year, down to celebrate the 50th anniversary and they were just a few metres away, and they were all inordinately charming, and so polished at running a room. I've now seen McCoy and McGann speak multiple times, and it's always been a joy, and it's always felt a little unreal seeing them close-up, and I can't ever think of anything to say to them that they haven't heard a million times before, so I don't bother.

And then, one day the Eleventh Doctor rang my house to talk to the wife. She was interviewing Matt Smith for the local TV Guide, and I was freaked out a bit, and had to go for a walk around the block, until she'd finished.

We're both journalists, and that fact that she has interviewed Doctor Who has been brought up in arguments over who is more awesome in our household – I tell her I influence the national discourse and have personally pissed off the most powerful politicians in the country, and she tells me she's interviewed Matt Smith and Bryan Cranston. She usually wins that argument.

But it also meant that I might end up with a similar opportunity, and that's exactly what happened, as they flew me out to Sydney to cover the Doctor Who 2014 World Tour. I got to a couple of Q + A sessions with Capaldi and Coleman, (the main things I remember are that both actors genuinely love what they do, and that Capaldi has excellent boots), and I got a ten-minute interview with Coleman.

At first I thought I was going to have to interview Capaldi, and I was massively intimidated, after overdosing on Malcolm Tucker over the past decade, I even had an awful nightmare about it, where the interview went horribly, horribly wrong.

But it was also because I hadn't seen his take on the Doctor, so really wasn't sure what I could ask him about it. Even seeing his first episode never helps – you can't trust a Doctor's personality on their first appearance, because he always rooted from his regeneration.

And my favourite Doctor has always, always been the current Doctor, and there he was, being all charming and Scottish, and right there, talking passionately about the show.

When it turned out I was interviewing his loyal companion instead, I was actually a bit relieved. If I'd interviewed the Doctor, it might have got messy.

Jenna Coleman was, of course, incredibly nice and passionate about the show and her character, and the 10 minutes I had allocated blew out to 20 minutes, which is always a good sign. And I got that grin out of an eavesdropping Capaldi, so I got the Doctor to smile, which was the most geekily gratifying moment ever.

I'm such a goddamn professional, I didn't ask for an autograph or a selfie or anything like that (like I'd need such a memento to remember hanging out with the Doctor and his companion), and I don't think I asked Jenna anything she had heard a hundred times before, but she was a splendid interview subject.

I only showed my inner dork once, when I admitted just how much I'd always loved Doctor Who, but that was more than enough. I still walked out there feeling like I was floating two inches off the ground.

It's no spoiler to say that Capaldi makes a fantastic Doctor – mature, unpredictable and biting, but still compassionate and moral – and I have no doubts the immediate future of the greatest TV show ever is in exceedingly safe hands.

There can be no better way to spend a Tuesday, than having the Doctor crash into my world like that. I know they're only actors, doing their job, and I can still talk to them like they're proper human beings, but they're also living, breathing symbols of everything I really love about Doctor Who – the cleverness, the passion and the beautiful sarcasm.

Thirty years ago, I was wandering the banks of the Opihi River, wishing beyond hope that the TARDIS would be around the next bend in the track. If I did have a time machine, I would go back to that moment and let myself know that one day he'll be sitting in the same room as the current Doctor Who, and talking to his companion about him, and watching the latest episode of the greatest show in the galaxy before everybody else in the world.

I'm fairly sure I wouldn't believe myself.