Monday, December 22, 2014

The beautiful disgust of Charles Burns: X'ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull

Charles Burns' latest comic is, like all of his great previous comics, a straightforward narrative of real world angst and horror, floating on an ocean of hidden depths that are full of strange and scary ideas.

Presented in three hardcover albums - X'ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull - over the past couple of years – it's been the story of Doug, a young guy in a semi-modern world who can only perform, in any way, behind a simplified mask of his face.

It's a story of regrets and shames and failures in a deadly familiar world of dull towns and duller people, but it's also a story that has come unstuck in time and takes place in multiple realities, with moments in the real world twisted and shaped into something a whole lot stranger.

And like all of his other great comics, Burns' newest tale can leave you feeling queasy and uncertain, while delivering a gut punch of artistic brilliance.

It's actually a lot easier to follow the story than it first appears – there are only really two main narratives that intertwine and crossover, and it's easy to follow both of them, especially now that it's possible to read the whole thing in one go.

The narrative does break down on a disturbingly regular basis, but it's really only in the transition scenes between realities that you get the crazy, spooky, trippy shit. And these moments of the uncanny also help to delineate the two parallel stories, and keep everything rocking along at an enviable pace.

And it certainly helps that Burns' line is as clean and fluid as ever. He's been an absolute master with his moody black and white artwork, and now the injection of colour gives this new story an extra vitality. It's often just bright, open colours – one character even remarks how pretty the colours of a seedy red light district are – but that just throws old horrors into a new light, and they're just as yuck as you always feared.

After all, for all the bright, open art, it is still a pretty emotionally heavy book, with the main characters are constantly upset by their own failures and inadequacies, or running in fear, both metaphorically and literally.

The characters are struggling with mortality, and seeing themselves grow older, and finding out they're not as exceptional or special as they thought they were. Doug discovers he has far more in common with his father than he ever really thought, but can't stop himself from heading down the same sad roads.

This sense of inevitable failure contributes to the oppressive mood that clashes against that bright palette There are evil forces, like a violent ex-boyfriend lurking on the edge of the narrative, just out of view, or the ultimate terror of a disembodied voice echoing through a shitty intercom, a fear that manifests in more than one way.

The body horror is there, just like it always is in Burns’ comics. And it’s just as gross as usual, with people with no noses or decaying limbs or strange reproductive organs. It’s disgusting and fascinating and relentlessly inventive.

But the real meat of Burns' comics is inside the head. Doug is also revolted by responsibilities, and acting like an adult, and then disgusted by his own weaknesses in that regard.

Doug is a useless shit. He almost gets a happy ending, with a woman who loves him for what he is, and not what he pretends to be, but he's still whining about the past, and he doesn't even confront it, just shoves it all inside where it mixes with the comics he read, and the people he'd met.

And when he’s rejected for being weak, it’s totally justified, and awfully real. The real horror isn’t in the writhing food and violent attacks, it’s in the crushing realization that Doug is going to be just as useless as his father, as his own mediocrity sucks him in with its inexorable gravity.

It all boils over in the other world we see in this story, one full of disgusting food and foul-mouthed little green men, where Doug's dreams force him to confront ugly truths. He drifts away into this world when it all gets a bit too much.

Telling this kind of story, and raising these kinds of issues, is a lot harder than it looks. It's all too easy to fall into grim despair, with no hope, and that's a valid tune, but it's awfully monotone, and life doesn't really work like that.

So there is the odd dose of dark humour, even in the worst moments – Doug's despair that a punk singer has never heard of Burroughs, and the way she's actually apologetic about it; or the concerns at getting stiffed on a bill.

It’s funny how the cartoon Doug stumbles through his new world, and the fact that he doesn’t even question it, even though that just makes it even more harshly melancholic when he makes the same pitiful rejections as his real world counterpart.

The comic might sound all a bit much, but it's full of lovely little touches like this. It's terrifically paced, raising mysteries and paying them off much later in the story, and compelling as hell. 

And it doesn't matter if the final book doesn't offer up easy answers for what's going on. The breathless blurb on the back of Sugar Skull from The Guardian wonders how on Earth Burns is going to tie up all the “carefully planned loose ends”, as if that’s the point of it.

That's bound to be disappointing for some, because there are loads of loose ends left at the end, and even the relationship between the two realities is totally spelled out – the world of breeders and gross omelets is part dream, but also just as real as anything else in the book – there is still some uneasy unanswered questions about this parade of freaks and  humans with pin-prick eyes.

This open ending, where there are still multiple interpretations of what’s going on, and the story requires multiple re-readings to get a grip, is sadly rare in this age of instant gratification. The questions are sometimes more interesting than the answers. You don’t need to know if Tony Soprano was whacked or not, or what the creature behind the Winkies in Mulholland Drive is really up to, to enjoy those stories, and the ambiguity even brings added depth.

Charles Burns' new comic is an oppressive fever dream of mundane modern life, and doesn't offer up any easy answers. It's pretty fucking good.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Zarjaz! A life bound to 2000ad

It's always been there.

I've worked in different jobs in different towns, and lived in different houses with different people, but it's always been there.

It was there when I was five years old, and it was there last week, which means I can map my entire life to it. I can't help mapping my life to it, because it's been a constant background. It's always been there.

There has always, always been 2000ad.

The Galaxy's Greatest Comic was first published in 1978, so I'm three years older than it, but you're not really a person for those first few years of life, so they don't really count. As far back as I can remember, I was always reading 2000ad.

My Nana worked in a second hand bookstore in the early eighties, and I would go in every week and swap a grocery bag full of comics for more comics, so she was almost totally responsible for an obsession with comics that has never, ever faded. I still remember her handing me #152, with the first appearance of the Fiends on the Eastern Front, and a couple of years later, I was stunned by the cover of #302 - 'OLD BEN'S A ROBOT!?!'

A kid of the eighties couldn't ask for a better comic than 2000ad. It was full of surprisingly complex stories built around incredibly simple and basic characters, with stunning art by some of Britain's best ever. You had Bolland doing Judge Death, and Carlos Ezquerra's Strontium Dog, and the balls-out mentalness of Kevin O'Neill's Nemesis The Warlock, and literally dozens and dozens of other examples.

I finally became a regular reader of 2000ad, getting every issue every week, in 1984, and I can even remember the exact issue, and that I got it from the Highfield bookshop in Timaru. It was #381, with poor old Alpha getting tortured on the cover, and that left me a lot to catch up on, and I'm still trying to find some of those earlier issues, but I was hooked on 2000ad for life. It's an addiction that beats any drug.

Thirty years ago, I bond with my best mate Kyle over The Judge Child Quest, and we wait forever for them to reveal what's in Kano's black box at the end of the first Bad Company. And then there was the time I was convinced they were about to fold 2000ad into the Eagle comic, just like they did with my beloved Scream comic, and that's the worst thing in the world.

So, for better or for worse, I still associate my childhood with 2000ad – not just the greats like Dredd, Alpha, Halo Jones or Sam Slade, but all of it - Ace Garp and the Meltdown Man and the Mean Arena and the Mean Team. Every week, there was something wonderful waiting in the pages of the new issue, and I never missed it.

And so 2000ad is stapled to the memories of my life, always in the background, always associated with particular times and places.

It's still there when I'm a teenager, and I can't go back to those issues from the late eighties and early nineties without feeling that queasy thrill of adolescence. All those weird issues with sexuality and finding my place in the world soak into the pages of my 2000ad collection.

It's still a bit of a psychosomatic thrill, reading issues from the late eighties, and feeling that old confusion when I see Liam Sharp's thick and meaty art, or Simon Bisley's murky depths, or John Hicklenton's lovely nastiness. The comic itself goes through it's own adolescence, trying to hook into the cool kids with more sex and violence and politics and dance music, and it feels just as lost as I am sometimes, but it still resonates with me, more than ever.

And then, just as I become a young adult, there is an alarming drop in quality, and I stop getting 2000ad altogether, somewhere in the early 900s. My faith in the comic, which had been so unshakable, was irreparably damaged by things like Michael Fleisher's appalling Rogue Trooper and Harlem Heroes comics, or Mark Millar's hamfisted attempts to be shocking and new, and the ratio of good to lame in each individual issue had shifted entirely the wrong way.

But I never got rid of them, and even in the absence of getting 2000ad every week, it's still there in the background. I move town five times in the period I'm not getting 2000ad, and I'm still trying to find out where I fit into this world, but I still get the odd issue - maybe once a year or so - just to see what it happening.

And after 10 years, one of those random issues clicks, and I'm suddenly stunned by the quality. And the things I've missed out on – Colin Wilson back on Judge Dredd, new brilliance like Nikolai Dante and all sorts of slick thrills.

It's still not perfect - I never, ever get into Sinister/Dexter, and there is still always one rubbish story every issue  - but Dredd just gets better and better as he grows older, and there is still that joy of new stories and new characters shoving their way into the 2000ad pantheon.

So I start getting it again, and I've never stopped, and now that period of time is always going to be associated with the first years of marriage, and life in the biggest city in the country, and feeling like I did finally find my place in this strange, wild world.

I'm still in that phase now. All things must pass, and the Now soon becomes History, and I have no idea what that next phase in my life will look like, but I know there will always be that backdrop of this silly little comic.

Despite those youthful fears that 2000ad wouldn't last, it's still there at the local newsagent every week, and there is more and more of it every year.

Every few years, I do a prog slog, which is a lot more fun than it sounds. I go back to the earliest issues I got, and read every issue of the comic I have in order. It used to take a few days, now it takes weeks, but it's a terrific way of reacquainting myself with the comic.

And it's a terrific way of dredging up my own life, remembering where I was when Judge Dredd actually took the long walk, or when Nikolai Dante went off to war, or when Cloud 9 downloaded into my dreams after reading Zenith for the first time. There are some extremely specific moments in 2000ad that are bound to some extremely specific parts of my life, in extremely specific locations, but it's more than that. It's everywhere.

Every house I've ever lived in, or every town where I've settled, or every where I've ever been, there has always been 2000ad. Long may that last.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dylan Horrocks - A Magic Pen interview

Last week, I had the extraordinarily good fortune of sitting down with Dylan Horrocks for a couple of hours and talking to him about his new comics - Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen - his first long-form book since Hicksville.

Like his comics, Horrocks is a smart and thoughtful interview subject, and he was often chuckling away at his own pretentiousness, so it wasn't quite as heavy as it often appears in print here.

This interview was originally published in a severely edited form for It contains mild spoilers for The Magic Pen. You can still read the story at although it won't be completed there until early next year.


You actually serialised the story online before collecting it in a book. What was the idea behind that?

The initial impulse to serialise it online was very simple – I was struggling to draw a long story. I was working on a very long story called Atlas, but that had stalled. And I had started the Magic Pen and another story called The American Dream, but they had also stalled.

So I was really struggling to do these long stories, and I decided if I serialised them online, then every time I finish a page, I can post it to the website and it feels like I've really achieved something. Like I've actually published something new, and people can see it

So, in a way, choosing to do it online was primarily a strategy for encouraging me to actually keep working. It was like a gold star chart, every time I finished a page, I could post it online and it was like getting a little gold star on the chart on the fridge.

Were there any unexpected side effects of going online that you didn't see coming?

I have been pleasantly surprised by people engaging with the story as a serial. I wasn't really expecting that. So the joy of serialising a story for an audience that is reading it page by page and responding to it like that has been a real pleasure.

Did it make you try and make every single page worthwhile in some way?

A little bit. But to be honest, I haven't really catered it to online readers at all. On one level, I'm like the world's worst web cartoonist because I never planned it as a web comic or designed it as a web comic. There were long gaps where I didn't post a page for six months, and I was erratic. All the things that people say you must do, I did none of it. I broke every rule, and it's because I didn't go into it to build an audience online, I just went into it to give myself some small incentive to keep working on it day by day.

Do you know how big your online audience was?

I have no idea, I almost never looked at my stats. My guess is that more people will read the book, partly because I didn't actively build it for a web comic, and the people who do really well in web comics work very hard to build that audience, and I didn't. So I assume that web audience is quite small.

Did you script out the whole thing before you started?

No, not at all. My main strategy was to write a couple of chapters ahead. So I would write a chapter, start drawing, and try and have a chapter or two written by that time I had finished drawing that. I didn't always manage that, sometimes I was writing a page ahead of what I was drawing, but that was the basic plan.

There were certain moments where I got stuck, like the moment where Sam refused to go in the direction I wanted him to. I wrote that scene many times, and I found myself unsure of which way to go. And the final version was the last version I wrote, and it was more of a sudden impulse to kind of throw my hands up and admit in the story that it's not working.

And it actually opened the whole thing up. As soon as I wrote that line about how I wrote it one way, but Sam won't play, it opened up the rest of the book.

Did you ever panic about actually finishing the story when you got to those points in the book?

Not so much panicking as just desultory about it. I was used to being stuck at that stage, and it was basically my normal state at that time.

Did your work rate speed up as you got towards the end of the story?

Oh God, yes. Most of the book was drawn in the last year or so. At a certain point, I actually got around to getting an agent, and we talked about how to structure the book because I had originally planned it as a trilogy. And he talked me into doing it over a single book, and I'm very glad he did – I actually think it's much stronger for that. And he was talking to publishers and I realised I really needed to write the rest of this thing properly, so I actually sat down and scripted out the rest of the book at that point. And then I had publishing contracts and deadlines and then I had to finish it.

It did really help to have those kind of things. The thing is, it had been a long time since I'd finished a book. I finished Hicksville in 1998, and I'd written – and drawn – a lot of comics since then, but I hadn't finished a new graphic novel. And I probably could have spun this story out indefinitely if I didn't have those deadlines


The Magic Pen does have a very European feeling to it, but it’s also very much a New Zealand comic, and also a comic about New Zealand comics, with a large section of faux-1950s science fiction based on the real comics of cartoonist Eric Resetar. Are you worried about losing an audience who have never heard of somebody like him?

The King Of Mars by Evan Rice is a comic in there that is directly inspired by Eric Resetar’s comics, especially Crash O'Kane: An All Black On Mars, which is just the best title for a New Zealand comic.

There is a lot of things I love about Eric Reserter’s comics, and I had just so much fun when I show Evan Rice’s comics in there. They were just so much fun to both write and draw. I just completely indulged myself.

Actually, one of the inspirations for that section, apart from Eric Resetar, was a comic that my father drew for me when I was nine or ten, and I spent a few months living in Bougainville with my mother, because she was a social anthropologist doing field work there, and we lived in a village in the bush for a while. It was quite an experience.

But my Dad would send me comics, so there was always a British comic I would get every week, which was Battle Picture Weekly or 2000ad, and my Dad would send me a bundle of four issues of Battle or whatever. But one time he sent me a comic he had actually drawn, and it was about a New Zealand farmer – a Fred Dagg type of character – finding himself in Berlin in 1944 and gatecrashing Hitler's bunker and beating up the Nazis - the whole time wise-cracking in New Zealand slang. And it was the most amazing comic. I've lost it over the years with all my house shifts, somehow it got lost and I bitterly regret that.

Was he a decent artist?

He was, actually. When he was a teenager, he wanted to be a cartoonist. He won a prize and he was going to either print up a comic or do a book about astronomy, which was his other great obsession. And he choose the astronomy in the end, but I always wondered what would have happened if he'd continued..

Do you feel like you're showing some of Kiwi comic history to a wider audience with The Magic Pen?

It wasn't really my intention, I didn't do it to push the history of New Zealand comics, but I'll be delighted if people do. Particularly if people in France or Germany or Italy. If anybody from there became interested in early New Zealand comics and artists like Eric Resetar, I would be delighted.

Were any of your overseas publishers confused about this very Kiwi background for the comic?

Not so far. They embrace it. I remember when I was doing Hicksville, I asked my then-Canadian publisher if it was a problem that these stories are so full of really obscure New Zealand history, and meditations on our place in the world, and he said people loved that because it was 'kinda exotic'. So hopefully that's the response we'll get for this.

But here in New Zealand, we watch and stories from all over the world, and don't worry if we don't know the whole history or context behind a TV show or book.

Exactly. New Zealanders are very used to reading stories set in other countries all over the world, and we're so used to it that we take it in our stride, and we treat stuff we don't know about as something we can find out about, and it'll be fun to do that. And I do know some writers who do get asked to 'Americanise' their stories, especially children's authors, and there can be a constant struggle there. Which is strange, because I find that children in particular are always more open to stories in far-off places.

But with the old comics section in the Magic Pen, I really wanted to not hold myself back on making things as New Zealand as I could. Mostly just for the fun of it, but also one of the biggest pleasures of Hicksville has been hearing from New Zealanders responding to the New Zealand-ness of the story in a way that none of my readers overseas really can. Some of the conversations I have with myself and the culture while making my comics are specifically about living in New Zealand. And those are conversations I want to have, so I feel very strongly that I'm not going to avoid being very specific and particular about New Zealand in my stories, because it's the only way to have that conversation with myself.

And you've got a glossary at the back for anybody who gets too confused.

Exactly, if they don't know what a tuatara is, they can look it up


One of the central themes of the story is the question of whether somebody should be morally responsible for their fantasies, and you even have Sam stop the story cold and wonder if there really is any need for it. Did you ever have a clear answer to that question?

There is a moment when it stops and turns on the question of whether you should be morally responsible for your fantasies, and there isn't a clear answer.

I wanted Sam to ask that question. I was asking that question. About a third of the way through the book I realised that one of the reasons I was writing it was to try and answer that question for myself. I guess the story is about our relationship with fantasy and part of that is the ethical dimension of fantasy.

And do you think you came close to that answer?

The key thing is, I never go into a story with a specific point of view that I want to communicate. A lot of the fiction writers I talk to write fiction for the same reason. We're trying to make sense of the world, and trying to understand things. I guess there are polemic fiction writers, but they tend to be pretty boring, really.

Part of the strength of fiction is that it allows you to really pick away at the limits of complexity, because it's kind of what life is like, and with the Magic Pen, I wanted to ask that question, and so I put characters into situations that forced the issue. And then I could see what it is in that situation, and see how it felt.

Sam is a fairly autobiographical comic character who has been through a lot of the same things you have, and even produced some of the same sort of comics you have, but does he surprise you with the places he goes to in the story?

Yeah, everyone says he's so autobiographical, but his name is Sam! And he doesn't have glasses like I do.

But he does still surprise me. I did write different versions of that scene where he struggles with that question, and when I was first planning that story in my head, it went in quite a few different directions. But one of the main themes of the book is my own reluctance to go in certain directions as a writer, my desire to go in certain directions and my fear of going there.

Were you concerned with the reaction to some parts of the book? There is a large section that could be written off as a male power fantasy, but then you have the characters sit down and talk about how it's such a male power fantasy.

I have honestly felt nervous at times about it. Very, very early on, before I had actually written any of it, I was visiting some friends in New York – a very good artist named Megan Kelso and her husband – and I was talking about this book, and how I was nervous about its reception. And she said, well, you've been talking about it for the last few hours. She said that fear was clearly a sign that this was very important to me, and I should totally write about it.

I immediately knew she was absolutely right, so I took her advice. The reason I was thinking about writing this story was that they went to a very important place for me – a place that was scary, but it was scary because it was so important.

But The Magic Pen opens with two epigrams, there's one from Yeats and one from Nina Hartley, so it's the poet and the porn star. And the quotes say very contradictory things about fantasy and desire, and I really wanted to start the book with those two quotes presented with equal weight. I really think they have equal validity. I wanted those quotes to start a debate, and start a conversation on the very first page of the book and then the book continues that conversation, and tries to do it with a variety of voices and a variety of perspectives, and also to test those two assertions in different directions, and just see how that process can enrich my own way of thinking about the issues that were raised.

Do you feel you came to a conclusion, or is it still an ongoing process?

Well, I don't want to spoil the book, but yes and no. I feel as though I have a clearer perspective on it than when I started it. But in a way I don't want to spell that out.

The main thing now is that now that the book is out, I'm hoping to see that conversation expanded, from being just me and myself and my characters, to being a conversation that other people are getting involved with.

I think it is something that is talked about already, but often the conversation is less a conversation and more a repeated statement of a simple position that people have. It's a conversation that has always been going on and is still going on, it's just that I wanted to have it with myself about the particular aspects that I was interested in. And so I first have the conversation with the book when I'm creating it, and then it goes out and other people have their own conversation with the book, and I'm just looking forward to hearing those conversations, because that will open up my own discussion in a new direction.

But as important as the fantasy aspect is to the characters in the book, one of them at the end quite clearly states that nothing in fantasy matches the beauty of his own family in the real world.

I guess some readers can see that it's me arguing that it is better, but every time a position is taken in the book, I try to undermine it very quickly. I didn't want to be afraid to take positions, but I wanted each position to be just one perspective, one position, one answer, and to never forget there were plenty of other answers that might be just as valid.

I simultaneously want the book to be questioning of our relationship with fantasy, but also a celebration of that relationship. So some characters embrace the real world, and others take off on a real journey. And it's the possibilities, and just the sheer visceral pleasures of fantasy.

So when Sam is thrust into someone's erotic fantasy, and put at the centre of that, he's ambivalent, and he's not sure if he should reject it. I wanted to raise questions about questions about the politics of that fantasy and so forth. But at the same time, I wanted them to be visually pleasurable and I wanted to indulge the prurient pleasures of those fantasies, and so sometimes the pictures are doing that at the same time as the characters are worrying about it, and I'm worrying about it. And that's because I really want the reader who is wrestling with the ethics of fantasies to be also wrestling with the pleasures and joys of fantasy.

Did you rediscover your own joys in fantasy while making this book?

I actually kind of did! I was feeling pretty jaded about fantasies, particularly wish fulfillment fantasies after writing superhero comics, and I didn't really like those comics. There were some things I did like about those kind of characters, but there were also things that I was more unsure about.

When I was doing them, I felt like I was plugging into someone's else wish fulfillment fantasy, not my own. I felt I had inherited those worlds and those characters and many of the underlying assumptions that drive the story from other writers, and all of those writers were working in a particular corporate entertainment structure that had its own priorities about what makes a good superhero story. And you also have to deal with reader expectations and genre conventions and all that sort of thing.

So at the time, it didn't feel like I was exploring my own imaginary landscape, or my own daydreams.

And is that where the Magic Pen first got started?

That's exactly where it began. That was the very beginning of it, with me feeling like I'd lost my way into my own imaginary landscape.

And that's where it stared in about 2003 or 2004, with me just day dreaming about it all, and going from there.


Around that time, you were doing some writing work for DC Comics, including a run on Batgirl. How did your experiences as a writer for a big company push you in the direction of Magic Pen?

It did feel like I'd lost my voice, both my writing voice and my drawing voice. Partly because when I was writing for DC, it often felt like I was adopting a voice, writing in someone else's voice.

I was struggling to find my own way of writing those comics, because I didn't grow up reading superhero comics. It was Tintin and British weekly comics, and then it was Robert Crumb and French comics by creators like Moebius, but superhero comics were not a big part of my reading as a kid, they just didn't do it for me. And when I was teenager, there was some that I read, like Frank Miller's Daredevil and as soon as Alan Moore started writing Swamp Thing, I followed those because I had been reading his work in 2000ad, but I only ever read superhero comics for particular writers or artists, never for the characters. The characters were of no real interest to me.

So when I was in a position of writing stories about Batgirl and Batman, I didn't have a life-long obsession to draw on. I didn't have an idea that I'd constructed over the years of 'this is how I would write Batman' or 'this is what Batman means to me'.

You do see that obsession in some good writers, like Grant Morrison, who is never ashamed of his huge love for superheroes, but still does his own thing with them.

Yeah, and he went into that with a clear vision of what he wanted to do. And Alan Moore did too. I mean, Moore could be hired to write the text on the back of a cereal packet and he'd have a clear vision of what he is after.

But I didn't. And I stumbled around a bit, trying to find my own version of how I would write superheroes. I did have some kind of vision, but it was something that I could never imagine that DC would want to publish, so I didn't go down the road. Because my idea of superheroes in how they're written in the small press and alternative comics. Things like Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman or Glenn Dakin's Captain Oblivion, which mostly consisted of the superhero - who was a minor character in that story - sitting around in caf├ęs with his friends talking about the meaning of life, or how he can summon the courage to talk to a girl he's met. That's how I would write superhero comics if I could do them however I wanted.

You did do something along those lines for the Bizarro Comics book.

Yes, I did a story for it that was drawn by Jessica Abel, which was such a treat, and it was Mary Marvel and Supergirl having their annual met-up over cake and coffee to talk about their lives, because they're old friends. And Supergirl is still a superhero, and Mary Marvel retired a long time ago, and is just leading a nice ordinary life. But they still meet up every year and it's just a little awkward, because Mary really doesn't want to be a hero, and she looks at Supergirl's life and thinks, 'Oh my God, what a nightmare'.

But that's the kind of thing I did like doing with superheroes. If I could just write Batgirl with not a single fight scene, I would be happy.

But I don't understand why we don't see more of those sort of comics, because things like Bizarro comics are timeless and will sell for years, but the regular stuff from just a few years ago has already been wiped from continuity, so DC can't do anything with it.  They even wiped out your Batgirl stories now and gone back to Barbara Gordan.

To be honest, that's probably a good move. I actually feel like Barbara Gordon's such a great, strong character.

Did you think that was the Batgirl you were going to write?

Yeah, I did. I really didn't know anything about the DC Universe at the time. I thought 'Oh, Batgirl! I remember her from the old sixties TV show', but it wasn't that Batgirl. There was no go-go dancing, and no frilly pink motorbike.

Did you still get to put a little of your own style into your Batgirl run?

Well, I tried. That's the thing, almost every issue, I tried to get something out of it. Because the Batgirl I was writing had a completely different costume that had basically a full-face gimp mask and black leather from head to toe, and it really creeped the hell out of me.  Now, for some people, I'm sure that costume really is a joyful fantasy, but that's not really how I saw it. So, for me, it wasn't a really happy place to be.

So every issue I would try and find some excuse to get her out of that creepy bondage mask. I don't want to say too many bad things about BDSM, because I have a lot of respect for that community, but I just wanted to get her out of it.

And these are basically kids' characters.

Well, they aren't really for kids anymore. There are some kids comics, and at the time I was at DC, they were some of the most appealing things, but they didn't get the comics fandom excited. Things like Teen Titans Go! were really fun and really nicely drawn, with good characters.

But the regular DC ones are so dark and bleak and nasty, and it's been like that for so long, ever since things like Watchmen and the Dark Knight in the eighties. Every now and then somebody tries to bring fun back to comics books, and then it gets beaten down again.

So I'm completely ignorant of superhero comics these days. I don't read them, I don't watch the movies.  I only catch what is happening third-hand, and I'm conscious that there are some very smart, positive things being done in superhero comics right now – I've read a bit of Matt Fraction's stuff, and I've heard very good things about Kelly Sue Deconnick. There are interesting things happening, but I don't want to pretend I know what's going on.

But when you tell people what you do for a career, do people still assume you're doing that kind of thing?

Yeah. The one question I usually get is 'what character do you draw?', and I need to come up with a snappy answer to that.


Sam does rediscover his love of his comics by the end of the book. Is that similar to how you feel now?

It really is. I feel as though with the questions I was asking with the books were questions that had given me a hard time at various points in telling this story. There were moments where I really agonised over the issues I was exploring, but with those questions, I feel as though I have a much clearer set of feelings about that issue. I say a set of feelings because I still don't have a single, simple answer, I just feel I have a much better understanding of my response to those questions.

So in terms of writing and drawing comics, the last couple of years of working on The Magic Pen were the most fun I've had making comics ever. The physical process of drawing is so much more pleasurable for me now. Every part of it.

Do you feel more confident with what you're doing?

It's more that I've made my peace with drawing. I have had many periods in my life when I felt like I was at war with my own drawing. It was so hard to make it do what I wanted it to do. And I was so aware of the limitations of my drawing, and I was trying so hard to draw differently.

Your style has definitely changed a lot over the years. While the work in the Magic Pen is obviously your style, you’ve come a long way from Hicksville. Not least because it looks fantastic in colour.

That’s great to hear because I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing. There is one page that I’m just waiting for somebody to say ‘what were you thinking’ because the colours are so garish and kind of digital. But I just wanted it that way, so I just gleefully embraced it.

But when I put together Incomplete Works [a collection of Horrocks’ various unreprinted comics] earlier this year, that was really interesting because I was looking back over 30 years of my work, and it was very clear that my drawing style and my approach to drawing had gone through so many different stages and reinventions.

I was more experimental with my art when I was younger, and it was partly because of my lack of confidence in my own drawing. I’m just not a natural draftsman, I find it very difficult o draw accurately or competently, and I still do.

So often when I started a new story, I would think ‘how can I do this, how can I draw this is a way that doesn’t completely embarrass me, how on Earth am I going to pull this off?’ So I would try all kinds of different strategies and techniques to produce something that was tolerable.

And now you’re more comfortable with that?

I am. That will probably change again down the line.

The turning point for me was when I stopped trying to draw like other people and decided that I could only draw like me. That I couldn’t actually replace my drawing hand with somebody else’s, or replace my brain with somebody else’s, and force my body to draw differently. Obviously, I tried lots of different styles, but all those drawings had the same flaws and limitations, because that’s just the reality of how my body draws, and I can’t change it.

So, in a way, the turning point was just accepting it, and embracing that fact. So now I feel increasingly less tormented by own inadequacies, and I’m very conscious of my own inadequacies, I’m just less upset by them. They’re just things that I have to live with, so I might as well learn to enjoy them.

Obviously, I work very hard at improving how I draw, it’s just that I’m not fighting with it, the way I used to. I’m exercising it. I’m working to make the drawing muscles stronger, rather than trying to do weird surgery on myself or take steroids to change those muscles into something they’re not.

I wish I did have a more loose, expressive line, like the European creators I admire, but I just can’t do it. I’m an awkward artist.

But the way you tell a story in The Magic Pen – even the fact it’s coming out as one complete story on its own – does have a very European feel.

Well, I know when Alison Bechdel compared her to Herge in her blurb for the book, it made my heart skip a beat in happiness. A lot of people compare the drawing to the clear line style of Herge and people like that, and that’s interesting to me, because at a certain point I tried very hard to go in a different direction. When I did Atlas #1 in around 2000, I was looking at a lot of new wave French cartoonists, lots of dry brush and loose drawing and I love that stuff.

But I eventually came back to deciding to just draw the way I’d always naturally drawn, which is actually quite clear line in the style. So I just accepted it. And once I stopped fighting it, to me it felt like it just finally blossomed. The whole time I was trying to force it into a shape that it wasn’t naturally comfortable in, and as soon as I stopped trying to do that, it was like I took off the ropes and was able to run around and have fun.


One of the other themes of the Magic Pen is that the whole culture of fantasy isn't just specific to a particular society or gender or age, and you have somebody like the Alice Brown character, who represents a new generation of younger girls who really get into fantasy.

Alice Brown is actually my favourite characters in the book. To me, she's kind of the hero of the book. I did do a one-page cartoon called 'Alice Brown, What A Clown' while I was still in the early stages of The Magic Pen, but to me, that was a celebration. She's getting picked on, she's a nerd and she doesn't fit in and she's so desperate to, but at a certain point, she's like 'fuck it, I'm gonna be me', and she starts embracing it.

Alice is partly inspired by a number of cartoonists that I have met or followed online, and also some students I've had, and all sorts of people have fed into Alice Brown. In a lot of ways, she represents to me the future of comics, and the hope for comics. Certainly for fun comics.

But she is into a lot of things that other people might sneer at, like slash fanfic...

She really is. And that's another thing, in the chapter where Akio is into his hentai, and you have Miki being threatened by the tentacles, you could read that as an attack on fanfic, but Alice is quintessentially a fan-fic cartoonist, and hopefully the book actually celebrates what she is doing. So there is nothing in the book that I'm trying to outright condemn, including Akio's hentai. It might come across that way, but I'm actually not wanting to, because even when there are things that make me really uncomfortable about particular fantasies in comics, at the same time I'm aware that there are other things about them that are interesting.

I'm much more interested in looking at those interesting aspects of it and finding out what's going on there. But also, not being afraid to criticise. 

But getting back to Alice, because she's so cool. I'm very conscious that women are currently producing many, if not most, of the comics that get me excited. Especially online where people like Kate Beaton and Julia Wertz are doing some of the most interesting comics in the world right now, and they're using the internet in really smart, interesting ways, and building strong. Readerships.

I won't be at all surprised, if in the next 10 years, the majority of prominent cartoonists are women. I think the change has been so dramatic and rapid, I actually think they will be the majority before too long.

Fandom is becoming increasingly female, and it's so good. It's such a breath of fresh air. Instead of just having the same conversations over and over, there are a whole bunch of new conversations coming up as well. Women have always been involved in comics, and in creating comics, but it's like there has been a dominant narrative about what fandom means and the history of comics, and that narrative has helped shape how people see comics. So the women who have been involved have been much less visible and often have been deterred from really hurling themselves into it, for all sorts of reasons

What do you think is behind this shift? Is it a societal thing, or is it because of the internet or anything like that?

The internet has certainly helped, in all sorts of way, but there has been a huge social change. Ultimately, it's just feminism, in all sorts of good ways. It's been generations in the making, these social changes, and there are all sorts of things that have played into that, but you can't downplay the role of women who stood up and said they're not going to play this game any more. They're going to play THIS game. And there are particular women who have had a huge impact on comics in the last 40 years, by simply doing their comics and putting up with all the bullshit they've had to take from male fandom and male creators. And likewise with fandom.

Is that something that you're trying to say with this book? That the future of comics and fandom and fantasy in general is in good hands?

I really do. I feel like this is a really good time to be involved in comics. I don't think there has ever been a better time to make comics. Parts of the industry are in terrible financial state, but there are so many new ways to get your comics out there. It's an amazing time to be making comics and there are so many amazing comics getting made. There has never been a better time to be a reader of comics. You can go to the public library and find shelves and shelves of amazing old comics from all over the world, comics by women, comics by trans cartoonists. It's just an amazing time to be reading comics. When I was growing up, the idea of going to the library and seeing any comics – apart from Asterix and Tintin – was virtually unheard of.

It's a golden age of comics, and it's a golden age of fandom, and when I go to conventions, I love the explosion of cosplay that is going on, because cosplay is such a creative way to practice fandom. You're not just buying stuff. And girls and women have led the cosplay scene, and continue to, and it's often used in really, interesting smart ways. I love the gender-bending cosplay that's a whole scene unto itself.

The thing I find interesting is that fandom is streaks ahead of the industry that's producing the stuff for them. And fanfic is an incredibly creative, interesting and experimental part of geek culture. I just feel like the fans are way ahead of the corporate franchise holders.

Alice, in a way, is my enthusiastic, heartfelt cheer for what's happening in fandom and webcomics and cartoonists. I feel this is such a great time, because it's being led by fans and led by a whole generation of young creators who are not sitting around waiting for somebody to let them do something, they're just going for it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

His name was Wally West. He was the Flash.

The current success of The Flash TV show shows there is a lot of juice in the whole Fastest Man Alive concept, even after all these years. I think it’s genuinely nice to see the character still strike a chord, because The Flash has always been one of the most thoughtful and dynamic superheroes, ever since Jay Garrick slapped a tin pan on his head and took to his heels.

In the comics, Barry Allen is back as The Flash after several decades as a lost hero, fallen in some noble battle, and thanks to things like the TV programme, he’s still probably the character most people would consider to be the definitive Flash.

But I still miss Wally West. And I still really, really miss Mark Waid’s Wally West.

After the apocalyptic Crisis On Infinite Earths turned Barry Allen into a skeleton jiving through time, it was Kid Flash’s time, and he graduated to his own series as the scarlet speedster in the late eighties.

Despite some solid, entertaining stories by Mike Baron and William Messner-Loebs, the series never really kicked into high gear, but that all changed when Waid came along, and gave the whole comic a blast of powerful enthusiasm that made it one of DC’s most interesting titles of the nineties.

Suddenly, Wally West was almost as excited about being a super hero as Waid obviously was to be writing them. Wally loved saving people and out-smarting villains and doing the right thing. His best friends and mentors were all superfolk, and he was a true legacy character who went through an unexpected and unprecedented period of growth as a character. And Waid’s enthusiasm for writing that story was just as infectious.

It’s so easy to take this comic for granted, because Waid’s fantastic Flash run in the 1990s has been copied and cloned so many times, but it really was an absolute breath of fresh air at the time it was published. The influence of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns – then less than a decade old - on mainstream superhero titles was almost total and the entire genre was trapped in a state of gritted teeth and anguish.

And then here comes Wally West at light-speed, and he’s actually enjoying the role of The Flash, and speeding around Central City with a smile on his face. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops - he faces plenty of horrific villainy and unavoidable sacrifice and terrible carnage - but he doesn’t spend all his spare time brooding and moping about. He just saves who he can, and since he can move faster than light, he can save just about everybody.

And he was a character who used his powers in new and imaginative ways to stop the bad guys. He didn’t just blast them into oblivion with over-sized guns, he took them down using inventive and ingenious methods.

Wally didn't need high-caliber weapons, not when he had Flash Facts.

The major influence of Wally West on other superheroes at the time was the fact that he was DC’s first truly successful legacy character for decades, using the speed of his adventures to move the story past the inertia of the status quo.

Waid wrote Wally’s adventures as a superhero - including battles against the usual Rogues and journeys to the far side of time and space - for most of the nineties, but he also wrote Wally's adventures as a young man finding his place in the world. For the first few years of his own title, Wally was, simply put, a bit of a shit, and he remained a bit of a shit for Waid’s first few issues

But then he actually started to grow as a character. He became more aware of his responsibilities, both as a superhero and as a regular person, and his personal life became far richer and easier to relate to. It was a slow, organic process that essentially took Waid’s entire run to play out, but it was a pleasure to follow,

Especially when we are unlikely to see that kind of growth again in a monthly superhero comic - if the universe doesn’t reboot first, the odds of a writer staying on one title for long enough to make those kind of incremental changes are tiny, (although Waid is making a fair go at it for the moment with his consistently strong Daredevil stories, which have now racked up dozens of issues).

Wally faced his own legacy very early on in Waid's run, when he had to deal with the sudden and unexpected return of Barry Allen, and was ready to step down in favour of his returned mentor. It turned out to be the Reverse Flash of course, and Wally found his self worth by totally beating Barry's greatest foe.

From that moment on - as Wally liked to tell us every single issue in poetic repetition - he was The Flash. He became a crucial member of the Justice League, and never looked back over his shoulder, incorporating Barry's legacy into his own, and moving it on.

DC took note over the nineties, and tried to push a lot of their other characters in similar directions, with Green Lantern and Green Arrow giving way to the new generation, and even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all replaced.

None of these other replacements were as successful as Wally, because the new generation didn't have his charm, and they didn't have his decades of continuity, dating back to the 1960s, which did create a complexity in the character, even in the cookie-cutter world of the modern superheroes.

Wally also had a strong supporting cast, with a team of super-speedsters, both old and new. Waid's run also had generally strong art, ranging from the perfectly-adequate (Greg La Rocque, Oscar Jimenez) to the actually-bloody-good (Mike Wieringo), with only a few duds, (Paul Ryan’s art can be charmingly open, but he was all wrong for the kinetic character, which is why the loose, scratchy art of Carmine Infantino remains the definitive version of the character).

And Wally's legacy was also built on a strong run of tight, fun and exciting storylines. He faced off against Lovecraftian horrors and super-speeding ninjas, dealt with his own imposters and new versions of old foes. And sometimes, Wally's abilities were his own worst enemy, and he couldn't stop himself from merging with the inter-dimensional speed force.

But Wally always found his way home again. He kept coming back, like he always did, and it was always charming, because it was his love for Linda Park that was a beacon leading him home.

Waid's story of Wally's courtship of Linda took almost his entire run, as their feelings and affections grew and grew, before the run climaxed with their wedding. This kind of relationship is the ultimate status-quo killer, but superhero comics could use a few more killers like that.

After all, it was just so nice to see a couple who always had each other's backs, who always stood by each other, no matter what, but still grew as people, without getting trapped in the same rut. They grew as people and as a couple, and that made The Flash one of the most unabashedly romantic superhero comics ever.

Their love was not bound by time and space (a plot point that is still getting some mileage in current blockbusters), and meant Wally could always find his way back to her.

But he’s not coming back any more. Barry Allen returned a few years ago and usurped his own descendent, and the New 52 reboot saw Waid's entire run booted into non-continuity, like it never happened.

But I followed Wally’s adventures all the way through, and while I’ve got rid of a good 90% of the comics I bought in the 1990s, I’m never getting rid of my Waid run and I don't care if they don;t count any more. They're a fantastic run of comics, and while they might not matter to the great DC tapestry anymore, they will still always be valid to me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dharma Punks: No such thing as a blank generation

Most young men would hate to admit it, but sometimes they just need somebody to talk to. Our stupidly macho culture tells them to bottle up their emotions, or people will make fun of them. It's slowly changing, thank goodness, but young guys can still get sneered at if they dare to reveal their true feelings.

They live in a world where the best nights ever are the ones where you just stay up all night walking and talking with other people. Heading out into the dark with a best mate, or a strange girl you don't know, and unloading all your deepest thoughts.

There is a lot to talk about, because it's a world where you don't quite fit in with everybody else, so you're casting about for an identity. It's a fluid world, where change is inevitable, and unfortunately open to manipulation. It's a moody world, where anything could happen.

That's the world of the Dharma Punks.

The Dharma Punks was an eight-issue New Zealand comic written and drawn by Ant Sang and published more than ten years ago. Sang went on to do some terrific design work for the Bro'Town animated series, and produced the fantastic Shaolin Burning comic, but the Dharma Punks has been out of print since 2003.

It's now finally been collected in a new edition by Earth's End publishing – and it's 400 pages of youthful enthusiasm and despair. And it's brilliant.

It's the story of Chopstick, a young punk in Auckland in the mid-nineties, who has been roped into an exceedingly dodgy art-terrorist plot to ruin the opening of a big new multi-national's fast food chain. It's a story full of tragedy and hope and pure punk rebellion.

It's set in that definite time and place - but it's ridiculously easy to identify with, even after all these years. In her introduction to the collected edition, novelist Elizabeth Knox confirms with her young son that Dharma Punks is still true, he tells her “this is how it is” for young people.

We might not have gone to the same clubs in the same towns in the same years, but those feelings of loss and abandonment that come with young adulthood are universal.

We might not have known these people, but we know how they are feeling, and how scared they are, and how scared they are of showing how scared they are.

But it's also not total misery all the time – being young and free and alive and not a bloody kid any more is fucking great, and you make the best friends of your life at that time, and get up to all sorts of adventures. Adulthood with no responsibilities is a golden time, even if you are living in shitty flats in shitty parts of town. Especially if you are living in shitty flats in a shitty part of town.

It's that time in your life when you stand up for something, even if (especially if) you don't fully understand it. The Dharma Punks is full of this charming nostalgic ache, because you really only get one shot at that time in your life. (Some people stay there, with unfortunate results).

I know I cringe with terrible shame at how goddamn stupid I was every time I think about that point in my life, but fucking hell, I had some fun.

Chopstick's long, dark night of the soul sees him freak out over his potential terrorism, avoid a lethal kicking from cartoon skinheads, meet up with a strange and empathetic girl and literally walk out past the edge of the city and into the ocean, out on the end of the world.

He ends up in strange parts of town at one in the morning with no clothes, after his midnight swim. He punches somebody out in the middle of a gig, and has to get out of town for a while when it all gets too heavy in the end.

Chopstick is confused and charmed, terrified and triumphant. He has no idea what is going on most of the time, and gets by somehow.

Come on. We've all been there.

It is a bit of a male fantasy, but Dharma Punks does still have strong female characters who call the male characters on their macho bullshit, and they bring a welcome perspective to this story of lost people in the big city.

Sometimes you just want to grab the characters by the shoulders and shake them and tell them it's all going to get better, and there are parts of the book that are a bit clumsy, like the Kurt Cobain thing, or the whole skinhead subplot, which never carries the proper weight it should – there are surprisingly few repercussions after they beat two Asian guys to death.

But it's a clumsiness born of youthful enthusiasm, and it's hard to hold that against it. There is little so charming as a young comic creator showing off what he can do.

And Sang can do it. His art has a welcome thick, dark line, with big, soulful eyes on his characters, and they look like the love children of David Lapham and Guy Davis.

Even with a sprawling mess of sub-plots, Dharma Punks is also strongly paced, and the fact that it is largely set over the course of one night gives the story a sense of throbbing urgency.

And you care about the characters. Even the dopiest side character has a rich depth, with Sang's art bringing them alive, and his rich naturalistic dialogue adding more spark.

Punk rebellion is often mistaken for nihilism, and just because you want to tear everything down doesn't mean you don't want to build something better in the ashes. The characters in the Dharma Punks are angry and confused, especially after they all went through a terrible tragedy, but they're also full of life.

It's good to have this snapshot of that world, and all those feelings, back in print, for the young to recognise, and the old to remember.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The great existential detectives: Batman & Cooper

Great fictional detectives like Hercule Poirot, Columbo, Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher are great at solving murders and other criminal mysteries. They can unravel a locked-room killing, or prove the guilt of a villain based on his cologne, with great skill and panache.

Their stories can be enormously entertaining and engaging, but there is always the hint of a wasted potential about these kind of characters, that this sort of intelligence and insight is only being used on purely material matters. It feels like the loss of a wise man, who instead of raising our spirits, is mired in the mud of the real world.

That kind of deduction and analysis is wasted on crime, when it could be used to help crack the meaning of life. A detective is all well and good, but we've lost a philosopher.

Fortunately, there are some cases of these kind of brilliant minds examining the mysteries of existence. And one of the great weird detectives is the greatest comic book character of them all – Batman.

While the dark knight detective's adventures usually stay heavily in the real world, where there are mobsters and muggers to beat up, sometimes things get weird. It's only natural – the character has been around for decades and decades, and the character has followed fashions and trends in comic-noir fiction over that time, right into the realm of pop-art and back again.

And sometimes in those vast adventures, the caped crusader does approach fundamental questions of self and reality, and usually triumphs with gritted teeth. Unsurprisingly, this usually happens when somebody like Grant Morrison is writing him.

Morrison is one of the few modern Batman creators who isn't deeply embarrassed by all the weird shit Bats has gone through over the years, and even heartily embraces it. Morrison's Batman has a sci-fi closet that he doesn't want the guys back at the GCPD to know about, and sometimes he confronts the sheer bizarreness of his very existence.

This is a Batman who is open to mystical and supernatural events, because he's seen too many of them to fully discount their power. (At the far end of the spectrum, Marvel's Doctor Doom is another genius who embraces magic as an obvious boost to his own technological prowess). It's a Batman who accepts that there will always be weird, unexplainable shit going on in the world, and doesn't fight it or completely write it off.

It's a Batman who, when his mind and very identity is assaulted, has a back-up personality in place to keep the Bat-machine working, and approaches oblivion with a grim determination.

So when Morrison was given the go-ahead to (temporarily) kill off Bruce Wayne, the story couldn't have been more different from the usual hero-hits-bad-guy-until-he-can't-hit-anymore superheroic sacrifice. Instead, it became a metaphysical meditation on that sheer weight of strange years on Bat's back – and Batman stands tall and punches his existential crisis in the eye.

Batman is a corporate creation, with a number of different creators crafting their own version of the ideal Bat over the years, with all of them being equally valid. But the other great modern weird detective is a more singular vision, with just a couple of dozen appearances, although they are all to be treasured.

Agent Dale Cooper, the star of the Twin Peaks series, confronts strange horror with a straight back and determined jaw, but is also capable of great compassion and empathy. He takes down the bad guys, but also embraces a dying man and tells him it's all going to be all right, no matter what his sins were.

And when he faces unknown forces that mean harm to good people, he doesn't recoil in horror or disbelief, he stands up to it – an unmistakable force for good in a world full of evil.

Cooper also acknowledges that there is more to this world than the normality we all take for granted, and he investigates it. Thoroughly. Cooper has the straight edge and absolute certainty of the archetypal Joe Friday cop, mixed with the patience and openness of a Buddhist monk, and this perspective makes him the ideal man to examine the strange. He takes dreams, visions and prophecies seriously, and doesn't discount anything, just because he can't fully understand it.

Which makes the recent news that Twin Peaks is returning all the better. Cooper was a fascinating character as a young man, and it will be even more fascinating to see him approach the job with an older eye, especially if he's been trapped in the extra-dimensional Black Lodge for the past two decades.

Cooper has been trapped in his own mind-bogglingly weird case since the early nineties – who knows what pure insights he can bring to this jaded and cynical 21st century? It remains to be seen what mysteries he will see in this modern world, but he won't back away from them.

After all, the existential detective still strikes a chord, and is still needed in this day and age. This year's True Detective series had entire scenes of nothing but Matthew McConaughey's Rusty Cohle ruminating on the subject of time, space and place, and they were some of the strongest scenes in the whole series. He didn't actually have anything new to say, but it's always fun to see theories of fifth-dimensional space stapled onto the hot and muggy real world.

Even old favourites, who have sneered at the supernatural for much of its history, have taken on a slightly metaphysical course, with the BBC's latest Sherlock always delicately walking that line between the real and the unreal. (Although all that stuff with characters wandering around their own mind castles is just the wrong side of impossible.)

The world is a strange place, and the meaning of life is a painfully nagging mystery, one that aches to be solved. It's a puzzle that is beyond the reach of most, but our best fictions have the chance at grasping it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lights, camera, but no action

One of the great pleasures in life is seeing a stylish and smart new action film at the cinema, but I barely get the chance any more, because they just don't appear at the cinema at all. My severe disappointment at the news that John Wick is going straight to DVD inspired this rant, which was originally written for

Keanu Reeves might be an unlikely action star, but in the right film, he can be spectacular – no modern actor could have matched his perfect performances in Point Break, Speed and The Matrix.

At first glance, John Wick - Reeves' latest film – looks ridiculous, with Reeves going on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge after evil gangsters kill the dog that his dying wife gave him - but it just might just be a worthy addition to this minor pantheon of Great Keanu Action Flicks, according to overseas critics. But Kiwi audiences will have to take their word for it, because it is not going to screen in New Zealand cinemas.

Despite having a cinema release date for some time, John Wick is now destined for a DVD debut in this country. It performed fairly solidly at the US box office, (making more than double its production costs), and its impressive 84 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating shows it has struck a chord with many critics, (47 Ronin, Reeves' previous major release, which did appear on our screens, scored a lamentable 14 per cent rating), but Roadshow NZ has decided that nobody in this country needs to see it in the theatre.

It's frustrating, but it probably shouldn't come as a surprise – there has been a real drought of decent action films at local cinemas for some time, even though they are out there being made. There are some notable exceptions, and brilliant action films like The Raid 2 get a short window, but that is becoming increasingly rare. For the rest of 2014, the only film with any kind of action is the third Hobbit film. There are plenty of fluffy romantic comedies, worthy dramas and kids flicks, but almost nothing that would get the blood pumping.

And 2015 isn't looking much brighter, with almost all of the action movies on offer so far being dull, bloated blockbusters with more CGI than actual stunts, or tired retreads like Taken 3, proving that even the awesome sight of Liam Neeson punching people to death has sharply diminishing returns.

New Zealand film distributors might have figures and algorithms that prove they can only make money in certain demographics, but they're killing the joy of going to cinema if you don't fit into one of their boxes. There are loads of kids films, especially over the summer holidays, and there are plenty of nice, safe and slightly patronising movies about old people falling in love, but the pleasures of seeing something original and interesting for anybody in-between are being lost.

It's not just action films – the only horror films that get released are the boring jump-scares of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, while genuinely tense and innovative horror films like You're Next, Kill List, Berberian Sound Studio and It Follows make brief appearances at film festivals, before slumping out on DVD, even though they are designed to be experienced in the cinema.

Horror films aren't for everybody, but there is surely an audience hungry for cheap thrills that is being totally ignored. In the golden age of action cinema (otherwise known as the late 80s), it felt like there were truly great action films at the cinema every other week, with classics like Die Hard, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Terminator 2 and Robocop receiving wide releases, but those days are gone.

The Guest, a follow-up from the makers of You're Next that stars Downtown Abbey's Dan Stevens, is another interesting and stylish action film that is being ignored, (and it's sitting at 91 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes), and it's no use getting excited about anything else that looks interesting on the horizon, because we just won't get to see it.

It's particularly frustrating, because there has never been more choice in entertainment, with punters offered more opportunities to see things in a huge variety of formats. But the cinema is still the best place to see intense and original action films, and it's the one place you can't see them.

There is still some great action on television – the fight choreography on Game of Thrones is breathtaking- and there remains a healthy, happily direct-to-DVD market for cheap and cheerful action films, with minor stars like Scott Adkins building a cult following with his extraordinary physical prowess, (honestly, Undisputed III: Redemption might just be the greatest action film of the past decade).

But that thrill of seeing something a stylish, slick and smart action film in a theatre, sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, is one of the great pleasures of cinema, and it's a thrill we are constantly being denied.