Sunday, October 4, 2015

Marvel can't laugh at its own jokes

Marvel has built its superhero universe on a foundation of deadly seriousness. That drive to treat the goofiest damn concepts like ancient gods and modern super-soldiers with utter seriousness has set the entire tone for its entire comics canon, and has transferred handily into its staggeringly popular movie series.

It goes back to the days when Peter Parker was still trying make the rent while ducking the nefarious clutches of Doc Octopus, and carried through the cosmic angst of the seventies. It was there in the desperately unironic scratchings of the 1990s, and was there again in the new blood of nuMarvel, into its current confused incarnation.

But with the kind of talent the company has attracted over the years, it can't help making fun of itself every now and again. It just doesn't need to always look so embarrassed by it afterwards.

When I was at my peak Marvel obsessions, sometime in the early teens and the late 1980s, I honestly had no idea if Not Brand Echh was a real thing or not.

I would see snide mentions of it in letter columns and bullpen bulletins, but all the old Marvel stuff I read was in reprints, so I could never see the checklists that would have confirmed its existence. I would see them talking about Forbrush Man and this strange, vague title, without getting any of the context.

I was eyebrow-deep in Marvel Handbooks and buying any piece of Marvel-branded rubbish that made its way all the down to my part of the world, and I really couldn't tell if Not Brand Echh was some weird joke I wasn't getting. (To be honest, I still don't even really get the joke of the title itself. Is it an ad gag? Is DC Brand Echh? What does that even mean?)

And in the few articles I saw about the early days of Marvel, nobody ever talked about the title. If it was mentioned, it was only ever in passing, and everybody moved on quickly, embarrassed by the comic, like it was the drunk uncle who shows up at Christmas dinner and always makes terrible racist jokes.

It was only a few years ago that I got my first copy of this fabled comic, and it turned out to be exactly what I expected, some daft and silly jokes about Marvel's sixties output, along with a couple of soft jabs at the opposition.

It's not bad, with some loose artwork from the Golden Age of Marvel – there is some lovely Kirby and Colan art, and it always provided a wonderful outlet for Marie Severin's lovely, vibrant cartooning. Like every single superhero parody ever, it all owes an enormous debt to Kurtzman and Wood's Superduperman, but this is Mad-lite - while it is still crazy enough to still have some energy after all these years, it's a lot tamer than some of its counterparts.

So, however much fun the creators were having – and Stan Lee and Roy Thomas' scripts looked like they're were glad to make fun of their own icons - it only lasted 13 issues, and it was lucky to make it that far. It was quickly ignored, and was only properly reprinted in a Masterworks edition this year, (once they'd reprinted every other single early Marvel comic). 

The embarrassment was clear from the start – every issue of Not Brand Echh had a banner proclaiming that it obviously not a good comic, because humour comics could never be as good as the latest superhero slugfest. So Marvel stayed away from the humour for the most part, and was once again a very serious house in a very serious world.

There were still odd things like the occasional Fred Hembeck comic, or the awesomely deadpan Howard the Duck, or non-Universe titles like the Crazy humour mag, but they were definite exceptions to the rule.

But by the 1980s, there was a whole new generation of writers and artists, who were - almost to a person -  total smartasses, so it was only a matter of time before it got back into the joke business, with a new version called What The-?

After a four-issue limited run, What The-!? actually lasted a good couple of years, making it arguably Marvel's most successful parody comic. It followed the Not Brand Ecch pattern of gentle ribbing at the expense of Marvel's biggest characters (and creators), and wasn't afraid to take the odd genuinely affectionate potshot at the Distinguished Competition.

A lot of the jokes that filled What The-?! are seriously dated, but this is some interesting meta-commentary on the comics business that you wouldn't find in Power Pack. And there is a strong line-up of creators, with some grizzled veterans slumming it, and a bunch of young talent given some of their first shots at proper professional work.

So you'd find Hembeck was still there, and the great John Severin would pop in for a Nick Fury gag strip, while you could find Kurt Busiek and Kyle Baker getting up to some mutant merriness and some very early Mike Mignola art on a Wolverine parody.

What The-!? eventually faded away, as the creative talent got thinner, and Marvel hasn't really tried to do any more ongoing parody comics since, and hasn't even reprinted its eighties efforts in any format.

It still puts out the odd goofy comic, including the occasional Spider-Ham comic, but most of its parodies tend to be one-off things put out to tie in with the latest big crossover event, or can be found in the occasional gathering of alternative artists like the most recent Strange Tales comics, or a true oddity like Pete Bagge's Spider-Man comic.

On the other side of the big two superhero universes, DC never really had anything as overtly parody of its own comics as Marvel did, unless you count the various Mad parodies, but its general superhero universe has always been a bit more comfortable with its goofier elements.

It was, after all, a company that once had Batman and Robin teaming up with Jerry Lewis, and Don Rickles showing up in a a Jimmy Olsen comic. And one of it's most successful comics of the 1980s – the brilliant Justice League International books – almost set the tone for its entire universe, with gentle ribbing of its biggest characters.

That sense of self-parody has faded a lot in the recent Geoff Johns era, where everything has gone a bit Marvel and turned into all seriousness, all the time, but DC can still easily make fun of itself, without worrying too much about who might get offended by their gags.

Marvel would much rather hope you don't notice the dopiness, and would much rather you look at the latest same old All-New, All-Different seriousness. They're still too scared to admit that all this superhero craziness is just nonsense a lot of the time.

But there is nothing to be embarrassed by here, and even something unique to be found in the older parody comics of the sixties and eighties. It's where you can find that intriguing meta-commentary on the state of contemporary comics industry, and some puns, while still groan-inducing, are eternal.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Superman's swinging nineties

When they killed off Superman in 1992, we all knew he wasn't going to stay dead for long. No matter how much DC pretended that it was totally for reals this time, it was only matter of time before Superman was back streaking across Metropolitan skies.

So when he did come back, mullet and all, it was business as usual, and he was off fighting for truth, justice and the American Way again. Millions of poor nameless souls had to die in the apocalyptic inferno of Coast City to get Superman back up and running, but comics' greatest and most iconic superhero was alive.

But that mega-selling storyline did manage to kill off something for good, because the Superman comics after his resurrection inevitably got blander as they got more popular, and they never really managed to recapture the surprisingly sweet and smart Superman comics that preceded it.

The run of Superman comics that led up to the character's temporary demise are largely forgotten now, with a long-lost continuity full of events that never happened, according to current DC lore (although they somehow managed to make the whole death storyline stick). They don't count, or matter, anymore.

But it remains an interesting little chapter in the character's history. It had been half a decade since John Byrne and chums had restarted the character in a blaze of post-Crisis publicity, and the character's titles had grown after early stumbling efforts to make the character relevant for a jaded eighties audience.

The Super-creators dealt with this issue by doubling down on the soap opera aspects of Superman and his large supporting cast. With four titles – Superman, Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Man Of Steel and good old Action Comics – they essentially turned Superman into a weekly title, with a new Super-title appearing on the shelves every seven days.

Despite DC's difficulties in creating a weekly comic – the recent Action Comics Weekly serial didn't even last a year – the weekly Super-titles actually held together pretty well, especially when you could easily follow the order with big, friendly triangle numbering on the covers.

There was some real confidence in the storytelling, in both script and art, with multiple plots being juggled at once, and a constant raising of the stakes. Superman would lose his powers for a month or two, or bugger off into outer space for a sci-fi epic when the going got too rough. Clark Kent would finally propose to Lois, and then had to at long last reveal his true identity to her. He would disappear into time, and fight his way home again.

It was probably necessary to get all four titles to get the full story, but it was also possible to follow just one or two of the titles. They regularly crossed over, but they also had different focuses on different aspects of Superman's adventures. Some of them were more about his personal life, some of them were balls-out action, and some of them were about his large cast of characters, from Lex Luthor to the Daily Planet crew

It helped that each book had its own distinctive art team – Dan Jurgens's art sometimes looked like he'd cut out and pasted each individual character onto the page, but he had a pleasingly simple line that offered maximum clarity; Tom Grummet's art on Adventures was just as clear, with a slightly sharper line; Jackson Guice's Action art was full of stilted action and outstanding emotion, and Jon Bogdanove's art was the most Jon Bogdanove art ever.

These differences meant it was possible to just get one or two of the titles, and you didn't have to worry about the rest. There were inevitable moments where the reader would be left behind by an incident that happened somewhere else, but the tenant of maximum storytelling clarity meant it was totally possible to get by, without having to buy every single super-title.

I know it was possible, because I got hooked on Superman comics a full year before the Death storyline, and was amazed by how slick the Super-world has become.

I was only about 16 at the time, and had been a predominantly Marvel kid for the past few years, high on X-angst and New Warrior awesomeness (although there was always, always room for some Batman). I'd been vaguely interested in Superman over the years since the reboot, and was just as excited by Byrne's vision as anybody else, but had drifted away from DC.

And it was a combination of late Justice League International and new Superman comics that got me, and the crowd scene in the Panic In The Sky storyline in particular. Those scenes where ALL the DC heroes gather to fight back against some monstrous threat were a staple of the big crossovers, and were always a great snapshot of the current universe. The one in Superman #65 was an intriguing introduction to the latest generation of heroes.

And that was it, I fell hard for the Superman comics. The character wasn't over-powered, and you really got a feel for the daily life of the world's biggets superhero. The comics had neat cliffhangers, were full of inventive new characters and churned through the stories. There was an invigorating pace to the whole exercise, and while I could only get half of them in my part of the world, that was enough.

Of course, this honeymoon period lasted about a year before Superman died, which was a big damn deal at the time. There was lots of drama leading up to the big fight, with a long, slow and ominous build-up, and then it was all on, and Superman comics suddenly started selling mega-tons of copies as his final battle began.

It was inevitably disappointing on a story level, turning into a straight-up slugfest, but awfully exciting as spectacle, with each issue counting down to the final blow, the number of panels on the page reducing to the all-splash page spectacle of Superman #75. 

There was no doubt where the story was going in the lead-up to the death, everybody knew it was coming, but there was a great unpredictability to the aftermath. With Superman entombed and the world moving on, anything could happen to the titles.

What happened was Reign of the Supermen, a massive storyline of new hope, super-powered imposters and galactic revenge. The drama, mystery and action was sustained for a good few months, and Superman was restored to life. As his death loomed, it looked like nothing would ever be the same again, but it was business as usual fairly quickly.

The merits of the whole storyline could be argued on thematic levels, but it was an unqualified success in the sales charts. Unfortunately, rather than being seen for the freakish one-off sales event that it was, there was an instant expectation for the Super-books to maintain that momentum, and it didn't take long for the wheels to get wobbly as the creative teams buckled under the pressure.

The push for bigger and bigger storylines, combined with an increased editorial scrutiny that stifled individual creativity, resulted in blander stories and art, and the magic was gone.

Efforts to keep the interest up by killing off the Clark Kent identity, or destroying Metropolis, or turning Superman into a bright blue electro-punk nightmare just showed how well the earlier stories had maintained the balance of the epic and the emotional, a balance that was hopelessly lost.

With those usual difficulties in getting every issue when you're living on the arse end of the world, it took me several years to get all the chapters of the death and resurrection storyline, and I was soon burned out by the Super-books. They'd helped respark another interest in the vast DC Universe, but I'd moved on. I tried the Super-titles again for a few weeks in the late nineties, but it just wasn't the same and that was it. Apart from the odd Morrison-written saga, I haven't bought a regular Superman comic since 1998.

Fortunately, that crazy weekly schedule means there is still a buttload of issues I missed the first time around, and I still happily get the odd back issue, and it's been a pleasure to fill in those gaps, and see how some of those stories worked out. Superman comics are a lot harder to create than they look, and the team that told his adventures leading up to his greatest battle did a fine job.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Avatar's real horror: When bad art ruins great stories

Once upon a time, when I was young, dumb and knew it all, I would loudly proclaim that the most important component of any great comic book was the script. The writing was the thing. Everybody knew that.

So I found it easy to overlook some awful art on some terrific stories, and knew a strong script with weak art was always more interesting than a weak script with strong art. There were always plenty of beautiful collaborations between equally talented creators, and a whole bunch of sexy writer/artists out there, but I was always more interested in the words than the pictures.

Now I'm an old fuck, and I've gone all over to the other side, and I can't stand any kind of comic with lousy art, no matter how good the script was. I found my limit, and that limit was Avatar comics.

There are two comics that Avatar currently publish, both written by two of my favourite authors. The scripts are as strong as they have ever been, with solid characterisations and complex plotting. They're both clever and humanistic stories.

And they both feature bog-awful art that feels like some motherfucker is rubbing sandpaper on my eyes, and I just can't get past it.

The first is the latest volume of Garth Ennis' War Stories, with the writer continuing to produce some of his most heartfelt and raw stories of pointless conflict. It's a series that is obviously close to Ennis' heart, and he has now told a couple of dozen stories of bravery, cowardice, strength, honour, atrocity and tragic pointlessness, through several different publishers.

And when the series was first launched by Vertigo, sometime in the very late nineties, they had the advantage of being bloody beautiful, with masters like Dave Gibbons, Cam Kennedy, Dave Lloyd, Dave Gibbons and the mighty Carlos Ezquerra. They were incredibly good looking comics, giving a strong visual element to these stories of war.

That lasted two volumes, and then the series came back under Dynamite, under the 'Battlefields' banner, and while Ezquerra was still there, the other artists of a slightly lesser calibre. There was still some solid stuff from the likes of Russ Braun  and Peter Snejbjerg telling new and angry stories of night witches and long-forgotten atrocities, and while they weren't as good to look at as the earlier volumes, they were still more than good enough.

And now they're published by Avatar, and the great thing about that is that they are more regular than ever, with ongoing monthly installments of combat horror. But when they come out looking like the comic equivalent of Sunday morning hangover puke, more isn't necessarily better.

The scope of the War Stories comics has grown under the Avatar logo, and the stories have been set in unexpected worlds. Even with thousands upon thousands of war comics over the past half century, it is still a new thrill to see stories set during the Six Day War, or ones that getting into political arguments about Irish soldiers fighting England's war.

But the flip side to this kind of creative freedom and specialisation is that it doesn't always attract the biggest audience, and the lower sales leads to cheaper artists to stay alive, and the results are some terrible looking comics.

Under godawful and painfully insensitive 'good girl' covers, the figure-work is shapeless and ugly. There is no weight or form, and no energy or enthusiasm. Giant tank battles are reduced to inconsequential mush by weak lines, and moments of high emotion land with a dull thud. It's like getting a local community theatre group to star in your epic. I've been enjoying the War Stories from the start, but not when they are this slapdash, and may have to give it up.

The other Avatar comic that I almost like, but can't get past the art, is Alan Moore's Providence.

Despite a long and deep admiration for Moore's comics, I was admittedly less enthused with the whole idea behind Providence – the really appealing and eternal aspects of Lovecraft's stories are his ideas of enormous and vast horror from beyond the veil, and not his plots and characters. When it comes to Lovecraft, the devil really isn't in the details.

But it's a big serious comic by a big serious writer, and the first few issues have proven to be beautifully intricate and complex, but that's the only beautiful thing about it. Jacen Burrows art is – as usual - so flat, so dry, and so weak, it leeches away any goodwill from the comic. Just as Neonomicon felt like a big pool of nothing, this weakness leaves me with no feelings towards Providence at all.

Now, if it had somebody like Mike Mignola on art duties, it probably would be my favourite comic of the year. Hell, if it had one of the artists regular used on Mignola's little universe – the strongest roster of artists in mainstream comics – it could be great. But it doesn't. It has the usual Avatar rubbish.

Avatar has been around for a while now as a publisher, and it obviously have some fans who dig its various works. The company consistently take things to extremes, with a go-hard-or-go-home philosophy I can only endorse.

They do attract more fine writers than just Moore and Ennis, with scripts from the likes of Kieron Gillen,  Jamie Delano and Warren Ellis, which are big on high concept and outrageousness, but have the same clumsy, stilted art as every other goddamn Avatar comic.

Right across the board, the Avatar comics are as ugly as sin to my eyes. It prides itself on its uncompromising horror, but the real horror is in the presentation. The entire art direction of the publisher baffles me, because it just look so cheap and nasty. And not in a good way.

Because life is too short to waste on nasty comics, so I didn't bother with Providence past the first two issues, waiting for the inevitable collection to show up at the library, and I don't think War Stories will last much longer.

I'd rather spend my time loading up on fancy art books that focus on favourite creators, and any weird sketchbook collection, because sometimes I don't even need the story any more. I can just look at beautiful art all I want, without having to worry about the ugly.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Storage Wars: Inside the storage locker of secret shame

Reality TV is not my thing, and I've always been a total goddamn snob about it. I've never been able to watch an episode of Survivor, or The Amazing Race, or Big Brother, or any competitions involving singing, cooking, or getting knocked off things by giant colourful balls.

When it comes to my TV entertainments, I'm all about the narrative fiction. But in the past year or so, there has been one reality TV show I can't get enough of. Part of it's because it's so damn entertaining, and part of it's because it says all sorts of interesting things about modern culture. But mostly it's because it appeals to my deepest, dorkiest nature.

I just can't get enough of Storage Wars.

It was all sparked by overseas travel – when you're barrelling around the world, you always end up chilling out in hotel rooms at weird hours, skimming through dozens of channels to find something worth watching.

You can usually find some kind to movie to watch, but there are always three shows that are always on, wherever you are in the world, whatever time one you're watching. The first one is Seinfeld, which is still awesomelly funny and worth filling in 25 minutes with, and the second is The Big Bang Theory, which is still incredibly unfunny and not worth anybody's time.

But if you don't see those two TV shows, you will find some Storage Wars, the show where buyers bid on abandoned storage lockers and dig around inside for treasures. The original California show has been going for years, with multiple spin-offs in Alaska, Texas and New York, and it is in heavy rotation on channels all around the world.

I first saw it in a Stockholm hotel room, jet-lagged and wide awake at 3.30am in the morning, watching the New York crew dig through the big city detritus. And then I started watching it on a more regular basis, totally ironically, and then I started watching it totally unironically, and now I can never pass it by.

Because it is bloody entertaining, (even though the main protagonists often turn out to be selfish jerks), and the way each episode breaks down into three separate sections – the auction, the cleaning out and the cashing up – keeps each episode rocking along nicely.

One moment, they're trying to push each other's spending up, then they're diving head-first into somebody's left-behind life, and then they're off finding out some facts about the crazy shit they find.

Besides, you really find out about a culture when you dig though its crash. In an interview with EW earlier this year, Rainn Wilson said that if aliens came to Earth and wanted to know everything there was to know about modern US culture, they could just watch a Storage Wars marathon, and he's not wrong. You can see everything there is to know about a society by looking at what they leave behind.

But the best thing about it, and they thing that really appeals to me in particular, is the way it scratches an itch for finding buried treasure in pop culture.

Anybody who is into pop bullshit like comics for long enough has that same dream, of unexpectedly stumbling across some hidden treasure. We've all got an eye out for a Detective Comic #27 in the middle of some random thrift store, or that stash of early-bronze age Spider-Man comics at the school fair.

In my own experience, it has happened only a couple of times – finding the first issue of 2000ad for a buck in a second hand bookstore, and getting the first issue of Bone for fifty cents at a record and CD store.

There are even legendary finds, well-known in comic culture, like the Edgar Church collection which kickstarted the whole Mile High retail empire – I might not ever stumble across a cupboard full of mint Golden Age comics like that, but I can't help tasting that thrill when I read about it.

The problem is that these things are, by their very nature, rare as shit, and you can go out there looking for it all forever, without finding anything cool. Who has the time to search through all the rubbish of a modern life, looking for the cool shit? Who has the money to put into that kind of search? Who can be fucking bothered?

The Storage Wars crew can.

Out of those three sections of Storage Wars, it's that middle one that's the best, because anything could happen when they start digging through these lockers. There could be anything in there.

And yeah, it's mostly junk, and the stuff that brings in the real dollars is usually boring shit like furniture or weird antiques. But I love living vicariously though these beautiful treasure hunts. I don't have the time, patience or inclination to go through all this junk, but that doesn't mean I don't want to find out what other people have found.

And sometimes they do come up with the geek goods – some collection of fascinatingly obscure trading cards, or some carefully framed piece of original comic art, or the first issue of Mad – and as jealous as I am, I'm glad that these things have resurfaced from forgotten lockers and are on their way to a new, loving home.

I came to Storage Wars late, so there are dozens and dozens of episodes to catch up on, and I'm making up for lost time. I don't need to be trapped in a hotel room on the other side of the world at awful o'clock in the morning, I can watch it any time.

Some of my more intellectual friends have been horrified when I revealed this secret addiction, seeing Storage Wars as nothing more than trash television. I might as well have revealed a predilection for one of the million godawful shows about fuckin' home renovations.

They might be right, but I reckon there is always room for a little trash in the modern televisual diet.  And when Darryl or Boggart or Mary or one of the dozen other storage warriors go digging for treasure, I'm quite happy to look over their shoulder to see what cool shit they find.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Deadpool wants to kick your ass

It's not hard to see the appeal of Marvel's Deadpool character. He is a ruthless killer with an unfailing sunny disposition, constantly racking jokes as we wades through blood and guts. He has the usual tragic back-story, but that doesn't stop him getting up to hi-jinks, right up to the cosmic level. And he has a sweet red and black costume.

Deadpool has been around for more than two decades now, and has starred in hundreds of issues of his own comics, and he will be getting a big old blockbuster to call his own in the new year. He is undoubtedly one of Marvel's most popular characters.

But it's still pretty frickin' surprising exactly how popular he is, because sometimes, he appears to be the most popular Marvel hero of all, without any actual classic stories to back that up.

I certainly understand the popularity of Deadpool, because I saw it right from the start – almost.

We all sneer at Rob Liefeld now, but his appearance on the pages of New Mutants at the very end of the 1980s was tremendously exciting at the time. I'd been reading the New Mutants regularly for the past three or four years, and it had felt like a comic was really flailing around for a direction for the past 18 months. And then Liefeld exploded on the scene with his ridiculous anatomy and   frenzied, clumsy cross-hatching and a vast reservoir of enthusiastic ideas.

Most of those ideas didn't go anywhere, and it would all end in tears and X-Force, but I loved the new taste of Liefeld's modern line, and eagerly bought each new issue. But thanks to the ridiculously spotty distribution of comics to the arse end of the world, I missed the issue that introduced Deadpool, and only caught up with him on his second appearance.

But along with other new things like Cable and those cute stripes on the New Mutants' pants, Deadpool was a perfect part of this new direction. Something a bit more pointed and vicious for the tough 1990s, and he instantly became a favourite character. It did mean I still never got to read his first appearance for years, because his first appearance suddenly cost fucking heaps, and I could never afford that.

Liefeld soon pissed off to help ruin the ideal of creative ownership with Image, but he left Deadpool behind, and Marvel was only too happy to take advantage of that fact.

After appearing on various X-books, he was given his own miniseries and his own series, and then that carried on for years, and at times, there have been three or four regular monthly Deadpool titles running at the same time. Any Deadpool fan had plenty of selection, and Marvel fed that unexpected appetite with everything they could.

With this sort of production, it was inevitable that some of these comics were actually pretty damn good – Joe Kelly kicked off a long run of strong comics in the mid-nineties, and there has been sporadic outbursts of quality with a broad range of creators having a crack at the character.

But as meaty as these stories could get, there was never anything that was an indisputably great Deadpool comic. While Batman and Spider-Man and all the great comic characters had their artistic high points, Deadpool just didn't have that classic touch, and if you asked five hardcore Deadpool fans for their favourite single story, you might get five different answers

Still, he remained popular enough to spawn that bewildering number of titles over the years, so Marvel obviously think he's popular enough to support it.

But while there are times when you wonder how Deadpool could support five or six regular titles at once, it's not just all pushing by the corporate Marvel machine. There is a grateful audience, and I see it at comic shops and conventions all the time.

Deadpool has become one of those characters that people who aren't actually total comic enthusiasts latch onto. That wicked sense of humour is far more appealing to the general public than the usual po-faced posing of the regular superheroes, and I've met heaps of people who want to read Deadpool comics, and only Deadpool comics.

I've had friends who never touch comics, but get hooked on the broad and bawdy humour of things like Millar/Morrison/Parkhouse's Big Dave or Ennis' Dicks, and I know people who love only Deadpool comics, and occasionally reveal surprising libraries of his comics.

We've seen this all before. DC's Lobo has a similar appeal to people who don't give a flying fuck about the Green Lantern Corps, at least before they recently prettied him up, although his anarchic star burned out so incredibly fast..

Even Marvel has gone through this whole thing before, with a particular hero catching on with the kids. You can date it all the way back to Spider-Man, whose role as the undisputed favourite single character in the Marvel Universe lasted for a few decades before Wolverine came along.

It's notable that after two decades, Deadpool is now at the stage Wolverine was in the 1990s, when his popularity reached a peak, only to be watered down with a succession of dull comic and unnecessary cameos. There have been the odd terrific Wolverine comic in the past 20 years, but the shine came off that adamantium skeleton sometime in the late nineties.

It's certainly arguable that there are even more popular characters these days than Deadpool – and I really think Ms Marvel is the best shot for the nest character to really seize hold of pop culture – but if the 12-year-old kids who run around the local comic shops are right, they're all about the Wade Wilson right now. And 12-year-old kids are always right about superhero comics.

So his new movie is a couple of months away and when it comes out again, it could give the character enough of a push to stay at the top of the game for another decade, or it could stink up the whole thing, or it might do both at once.

One thing that is clear - as clear as the horrific scars on Deadpool's face - is that he is not going anywhere for a while yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Such an idiot

I had a new post full of personal angst and reminiscing about comics all ready to go, and I was about to hit publish, and then I discovered that I'd already said exactly the same thing, only better, two fucking years ago.

I'm getting old, man...

So instead, here are a bunch of pictures of Beaker from the Muppets. Normal service will resume on Thursday with, I dunno, some shit about Deadpool or something.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Gimme some truth: Five terrific essay comics

Of all the wild and wonderful things you can do with the comic book form, essay comics are some of the most rewarding, and far too rare for their own good.

Although they are based around factual events, essay comics are not just non-fiction. They come loaded with a point of view, and there is inevitably some kind of artistic license in the re-telling of these events, some kind of perspective.

But while you can get a hundred different superhero comics every week, and plenty of tie-ins to toys and TV shows that you were really into decades ago, there are few decent essay comics coming out regularly, which makes them a little more precious.

Because there are some terrific ones out there, like these five.

by Warren Ellis and Raulo Caceres

Historical essay comics are particularly interesting, because history is full of crazy shit that blows our modern minds. The late, great Jack Jackson did some wonderful comics about the history of Texas and Native Americans, and Maus brought a nakedly personal aspect to the mind-bendingly horrific story of the holocaust.

One of the best is Crecy – a short one-off comic by Warren Ellis and Raulo Caceres, published by Avatar in 2007- which is a story of a pivotal battle in medieval Europe, one of those battles that changes everything for centuries. The comic form is used to easily explain the details of this complicated conflict, and it's always clear exactly what is going on.

But the thing that makes Crecy so essential is the fact that it makes no apologies for the appalling events it depicts. While our 21st century minds are rightly repelled all by the slaughter, the story is told from the perspective of an English foot soldier who is only too happy to put the boot into some noble French arseholes.

It's almost the prequel for every other comic featuring a cynical British character Ellis has ever done, with the same angry working-class attitude and righteous indignation, willing to literally knife some aristocratic bastard in the eye. Crecy gives you the facts, but it also gives you the swagger, and Ellis could produce a 27,000-volume on English history from this level of dirt and filth, and it would never get old.

Brought To Light: Shadowplay
By Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz

A sideways history of America's vile involvement in shadowy international affairs, Brought To Light is a great rant of a political comic, with real anger in Alan Moore's script.  He lets a chummy and bloated symbol of American's intelligence agencies spill a few dark secrets, and makes no secret of how awful it all is.

This is not the American Dream, it's the nightmare, and with these much mad symbolism, you couldn't ask for a better artist than Bill Sienkiewicz, who heightens the truth with his obscure splashes of blurred colour and sharp edges and splatters of blood/ink. The vicious and brutal overthrowing of a democratic government never looked so good.

The Big Books Of...
By tonnes of talented writers and artists

The brilliant and much-missed Big Books, put out by DC's Paradox Press in the 1990s, have been lauded on this blog before, but they are also brilliant examples of the mini-essay,  with hundreds of tiny stories across the 17 books.

They show just how much information you can get across in just a few pages. Few of the Big Book anecdotes are longer than four pages, and some of them get in and out with a story of bizarre history in just a page or two.

With dozens of comics finest artists of the times getting their hands on this weird little stories, the Big Books are just as entertaining as they are informative - and sometimes just batshit crazy. And each Book has its own personality, with the uber-paranoia of the Conspiracy and Unexplained books contrasting hard against the straight horror of the Martyrs and Death books. They're still indispensable comics – hit and run history that leaves the reader gagging for more.

Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me
By Peter Bagge

Another great rant of a comic book, with Peter Bagge's cartoons for Reason and other specialist publications all collected in the same place, into a book that is bursting with truths from the margins of modern society.

Bagge's comics are a look at modern culture in all its ugliness, and the artist never hides how appalled he is by it all, or how embarrassed he is by his own inability to come up with any actual answers to the questions he keeps running into.

And there is some anger there, at stupid wastefulness and institutional bullying. Bagge often keeps it pleasingly down to earth, often having a go at something he sees in the world around him, but there is universal despair in his venting, and he often has equal bile for all sides of the political spectrum – even if you disagree with him, he makes a passionate argument.

And it's a Bagge comic, so it's also hilarious, with the usual bendy-kneed explosions of human outrageousness, and some of the stories with marginal people living marginal lives are gruesomely funny, and it all adds up to a vision of modern society that is slightly troubling. Luckily, it's still reassuring to see artists like Bagge are out there, holding up a comic mirror to it all.

Comic Book Comics
By Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

By the time they'd turned their attention to the history of comic books, Van Lente and Dunlavey had already had a major crack at essay comics with their jam-packed Action Philosopher comics, but they could be overloading, and sometimes a bit text and idea-heavy.

But their take on the history of comic books themselves has just the right mix of info and action, with cartoonish exaggeration and a totally biased focus on certain sections in the world of comics.

Even if you know all the stories already, and have read anything going about the Seduction Of The Innocent days, or the insane behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the 1990s, there is real delight in seeing the stories collected together, especially when they are told with such energy.

There are plenty of other great essay comics, and the definition is vague enough to incorporate all sorts of comics – it's arguable that Larry Gonick's History of the Universe books combine to form the single greatest historical essay ever, and Eddie Campbell's adaptations of Alan Moore's Snakes & Ladders and Birth Caul performances get both intensely metaphysical and deeply personal with their re-tellings of historical facts.

We could always use some more, though. This whole world really is wild at heart and weird on top, and much weirder than anything fiction can throw at us. It's good to see these stories of fact and fortune remembered and chronicled, and if you can get some laughs and some pretty art out of the deal, all the better.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Good shit!

The other day I was in one of the last good bookstores in town, and a young brother and sister came in with their mum. The eight-year-old boy proceeded to tell anybody who would listen that he had just read his first Terry Pratchett book and it was the best thing he'd ever read in his entire life, while the 11-year-old girl couldn't believe that her mum wouldn't let her read Agatha Christie books because they were “too mature” for her.

It's easy to worry about the future for humanity. But sometimes, the kids are all right.

Two weeks after giving them a lot more credit than they deserve, and more than 25 years after I first started looking for them, I stumbled across all the remaining issues of The Official Handbook of The Marvel (Deluxe Edition) that I was after, and it's going to take me weeks to get through them because they're so beautifully dense. Score.

I know I should now probably start talking about how I'd like a million bucks, or world peace, or something impressive like that, but I'd settle for the last few issues of Who's Who that I need.

My favourite thing about the recently departed Hannibal – other than the otherwordly glory of Mads Mikkelsen – was the way the characters would spend entire scenes mumbling absolute bullshit at each other, as if they'd completely forgotten how to hold normal human conversations and could only speak in extremely mannered prose, and then there would be some kind of extraordinary visual moment of repugnant beauty, as if they'd hired Francis Bacon to come in and splash a few ideas around, or a kaleidoscope sex scene where everybody is everybody and it's all one big joke.

The next best thing about the show was – as this excellent article points out – was Hannibal's suits. There is dark horror behind his loose ties, and even deeper meaning in his pocket squares.

My wife caught me reading the first three issues of Occupy Comics – a crowd-funded comic thing which grew out of the whole Occupy movement – and mocked me for trying to change the world by reading a comic book. I told her I only bought them for the huge essay by Alan Moore on the relationships between pop and protest culture, but she's partly right, because I mainly got them because I really love comics that are really, really, really earnest.

I'm also a shameless romantic who thinks the original Brief Encounter is the most tragic film ever.

But I swear, the moment when Kenny Powers knocks out Reg Mackworthy's eye in the first season of Eastbound and Down to prove his love to April might just be the most goddamn romantic thing I've ever seen.

Another unexpected dose of  surprisingly moving romance came this week when I watched Jeremiah Johnson, and saw Robert Redford shave his beard off for his unexpected wife. It was so bloody nice.

I watched the film – an excellent slice of 70s historical drama, with Redford going out and getting lost in the mountains and getting into a weirdly noble blood feud with local Indians – based on the recommendation of Travis Bickle on the Riveria, the world's only movie podcast, and they didn't steer me wrong.

I did get a little concerned about the podcast recently when they seemed infeasibly excited about the new Fantastic four film, and was hugely relieved when they revealed that they were just being smartasses. I used to be so good at picking up sarcasm, but I'm fucking rubbish at it now.

The last ever Eltingville Club story by Evan Dorkin came out the other week, and it's just as full of gloriously painful moments as its tortured production promised.

The Eltingville stories always held up a mirror to the worst excesses of nerdom, and it was never a pretty picture. Vast over-reactions to the pettiest bullshit, and an escalation of awful that always ends up soiling the selfish and ugly characters.

Dorkin says this is the last story, and it took him a while to spit it out, so nobody could blame him for going back to doing stories about occult-battling cats and dogs, but this kind of loving evisceration of the horror of being a geek is always welcome.

I've been rewatching every episode of Doctor Who, in order, for the past year or so. But I keep getting stuck, because so many of the early episodes are missing, and you have to sit through bone-numbingly dull reconstruction efforts, so I'm still only halfway through the Troughton.

But forcing my way through every single story means I keep getting surprised by how strong some of the early stories are. I always really liked the odd story like Dalek Invasion of Earth, but I really hadn't had the chance to watch much more of the early years, and stories like The Myth Makers and The Macra Terror and Marco Polo turn out to be terrific, full of social commentary, deep subtext and outright humour.

There is still a lot of rubbish – slogging through The Savages or The Moonbase got me stuck a couple of times – but these fifty-year-old stories still have a bit of time travelling grunt to them.

My knowledge of seventies Marvel comics is very similar to my knowledge of sixties Doctor Who – I know far more about the stories than I know the stories themselves, but I'm trying to make up for lost time.

My latest extremely delayed realisation is that the Sub Mariner work that creator Bill Everett came back for just before he died is actually quite strong. I'd seen some of his Golden Age work, and it seemed fairly dynamic there, but his last few comics are really good. He'd wrecked his health and career with booze, but the man could still draw a mean swimming stroke, right up until the end.

I've been buying every issue of Empire – the UK movie magazine - for 22 years and it's still one of my favourite times of the month when I get a new issue. I've been re-reading some of the issues I bought back in 1993 for reasons too stupid to get into here, and man, my knowledge of early nineties cinema is so fuckin' tight right now.

It's amazing how much shit you forget about. I'm reading reviews of films I forgot even existed, even though I saw them in the cinema. The wife tells me I'm just a hoarder for holding on to all these fucking magazines for all this time, but she doesn't understand – I'm just outsourcing bits of my brain to these things, so I don't have to remember this shit.

When I left my last job, I swapped it for one that is just as satisfying and way less stressful, and when I went, they gave me a gift card to a comic shop, and I spent it on the King City collection, one of those beautifully big BPRD trades, and the first Transformers versus GI Joe book. I think I came out ahead on this deal.