Friday, April 18, 2014

Am I a dick because I like Robot Chicken, or do I like Robot Chicken because I'm a dick?


Critical consensus can be a useful thing – the mass of thought that goes into multiple reviews of pop culture debris generally find some kind of common ground, where we can all agree that something is great, or rubbish.

It can take a while – it's always fascinating to watch the general opinion of a Stanley Kubrick movie shift over decades – but we can all concur on some things. Great films and TV shows become classics that last the ages, while the mediocre and disappointing vanish in time.

There is always dissent, and always a revolt against peer pressure. There is always somebody who dislikes The Godfather or Breaking Bad, and there is always somebody willing to stand up for The Spirit movie or The Big Bang Theory. Even if a lot of critics you trust dismiss something, doesn't mean you're guaranteed to hate it.

There are certainly some comics and TV and movies I like, even though all my cool friends sneer at them. Or do I like them because of the sneers?


It's easy enough to say you like something like Deadwood or Prophet – everybody can agree they're brilliant, and the few dissenters only give that majority some context. I can even get away with an undying love for Judge Dredd, even though he's a total fascist bully, on an argument of deep satire and exhilarating thrills.

It's harder to say you actually quite like comics by Frank Miller and Mark Millar, and I've failed to convince people in the real world that their work has any worth art all. People whose opinions I treasure as absolutely valid write these comics off as without merit and actively harmful, and I will never persuade them that they are beautifully illustrated nonsense, (and I do like some beautifully illustrated nonsense).

It's even harder when it's argued that these types of story are actually morally repugnant, because once you start seeing these comics as totally sexist and homophobic and racist, you'll never see them any other way. And there are valid points of view over institutionalised prejudice that should be closely examined, even if a surprising amount of critics can't see the satire in all the muck.


(I would like to re-iterate a point that I've made before: the people who sneer at the stuff I like are completely welcome to voice their opinion. I disagree on some fundamental things with my dearest loved ones – the Jarmusch argument is never going to be resolved in our household – so I can handle it if some critic on the other side of the world doesn't share my viewpoint.

My distaste is, as ever, directed at those who might agree with me, but want to shut the conversation down, or start playing the man instead of the ball. Other opinions should always be available, because that's how a free society works.)


While there are parts of these comics by Miller and Millar – and similarly loathed movies and TV shows- that I do find morally dubious, I'm still grown up enough to acknowledge that ethically dodgy moments in a story can also be viscerally exciting, and sometimes the two natures of the moment can work together to create something new.

Like all good people, I despise any kind of institutional prejudice, and I won't tolerate any story that is unequivocally in favour of that kind of status quo – Birth Of The Nation might be a technical marvel, but it can fuck right off with its KKK heroism. And I'll never put up with any story that truly sets out to bully people in the real world.

But that is the only line I really draw in the fiction I consume. I can enjoy things that are silly and stupid, if they're pretty enough, and I have a soft spot for anything that deliberately tries to offend people, or gross them out. After all, if you're going to try and be that kind of offensive, you might as well go all the way, or go home, (an attitude that makes something like Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit such a pleasure).

Some stories might be ideologically unsound, but as long as they aren't openly dicks about life and people, there is usually some worth.


I have read some appalling things in comics, as characters who are supposed to be horrible creatures show just how horrible they can be, but unless they're documentary or essay comics, I don't really get upset, because it's not real and – like almost everybody else on the planet - I can tell the difference between real life and fiction

Which is how I can be an ultra-pacifist who enjoys war stories, and somebody who abhors violence in the real world, but never gets sick of the way the human body is brutalised in The Raid 2.

And I sometimes, I just think that shit is funny as hell – I can find something totally fucking dubious and still laugh at it, because it is a total joke.

Which is a long, long way of saying I fucking love Robot Chicken, even when all my cool mates think it's dumb.


The most common criticism of Robot Chicken is that it always goes for the easy (and stupid) laughs, and is often doing nothing but nerd pandering. But that doesn't bother me. It's a harsh and stressful world out there, and at the end of a long day, I can use all the pandering to my tastes and easy laughs that I can get.

But I also have friends who refuse to watch it because they find it way too problematic. They only see sexist jock humour and tasteless gross-out humour, with a strong streak of misogyny and outright racism. It's not just some dudes fucking about with their toys on TV – it's a symptom of everything that's wrong with the world.

And if that's what they see, even if the creators had no such intentions, then that's a totally valid argument, and one I can't really argue against without sounding like a total tool.

So I leave it alone, and I don't talk about it with them, and I don't mention that I still watch it every week


Because I do find it funny, and when it's not funny, that's okay, because each sketch is literally seconds long, and another one will be along shortly. I still only get about three-quarters of the jokes, but my lovely wife only gets about a quarter of them, and she likes it just as much as I do.

It is a show that is genuinely tasteless and unrepentantly offensive, but I like things that push those envelopes, because if you're going to go down that road, you might as well go all the way.

The unusual effect of this is that the most distasteful things become incorporated into the mainstream, and we go from hysteria over the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to your Grandad watching some CSI bullshit every night, which is filled with gore that would make Gunnar Hansen hurl.

In it's own lowest common denominator way, Robot Chicken and its dorky puppets and ridiculous pop culture fascinations are heading down that road at top speed, and I'm all for it. This isn't the end of something, it's just the way the world works – always changing, always growing, always getting grosser in search of a good laugh.


It might sometimes be punching down when it should be punching up, and some of my dearest friends will never forgive it for that. And it might be the stupidest fucking thing I've ever had to defend ideologically, but fuck, Robot Chicken rules, man.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Superdeath


The first time I saw somebody die in a superhero comic, it freaked me the hell out.

I can remember the exact moment – I was only about six or seven, and reading a typical seventies Superman story, with the usual ultra-solid Curt Swan art, and a couple of men were standing guard over something when the bloody Parasite flew in out of nowhere, and turned the ground beneath the guards' feet into lava.

It was all very tasteful, they just fell into the ground and their helmets were left comically bobbing on the molten surface, and things carried on. I can't remember what happened in the rest of the comic, (although I can safely assume it involved Superman punching the crap out of the Parasite), but I never forgot that bit with the guards.

It was a fleeting moment in an insignificant comic, but it haunted me for ages, the way characters could die in horrible agony like that, in a bright and colourful superhero story.

People didn’t die in superhero comics. Did they?


Of course, I was only a little kid, so I was pretty damn na├»ve, and there was plenty of hideous death in superhero comics. But it wasn’t as prevalent as it is these days, where any average supervillian rampage is built on a pile of innocent bodies. There were still plenty of noble sacrifices and innocent tragedy, but it really wasn’t something you often found in the simplistic and clean world of an average Superman comic.

The funny thing is, I was reading a lot of 2000ad and horror comics at the same time, and wasn’t bothered by the carnage in them at all. I didn’t bat an eye when Dredd sentenced hundreds of millions of people in East-Meg One to death, and was similarly unmoved when the dinosaurs in Flesh chomped up annoying eight-year-old boys. These victims usually deserved their fate, and lived in scary worlds where sudden death always lurked.

They lived in harsher worlds, where there wasn’t a Superman who could swoop in and save them. The deaths could be just as horrific, but they weren’t as weirdly upsetting as seeing it happen in a Curt Swan comic.


I'm not really talking about the deaths of major characters – that stopped having any effect a long time ago, and seeing a superhero die is more likely to induce yawns than thrills. It can be funny to see creators insist that they really, really mean it this time, but they always come back, sooner or later.

It's the background characters, the random victims, the Z-list characters, that I still feel sorry for. They don't get any noble resurrection, or anything like that. They're just there to show how super serious things are getting, until you get to the point today where superhero comics gleefully wrack up huge body counts. There is barely an issue of a modern DC comic book that doesn’t have some kind of multiple homicide, usually for the sole purpose of pretending that characters with all the depth of a puddle of piss are actually totally badass.

There is so much carnage, it’s essentially meaningless. Massacres that would be world-changing news on Earth Prime are a weekly event in the modern superhero universe, and it doesn’t matter.

Modern comics are full of adolescent ideas about eye-for-an-eye retribution, delivered with massive buckets of gore, and it all means nothing. What’s the point?


It was a slow process, getting from Swan simpleness to overcomplicated megadeath. Ideas of mega-violence seeped in from alternative comics in the 1980s, while major action films of that time raced to have the biggest body count. Mark Gruenwald wasn’t a weatherman, but he knew which way the wind was blowing, and he made one of the first major pushes for real superhero carnage with Scourge.

Half of the characters in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition: Book Of The Dead from the late eighties were Scourge’s victims, and it was truly shocking to see a bunch of Marvel villains meet their end through Scourge’s explosive bullets at the Bar With No Name in Captain America #319.

It was so shocking, it’s been done a few hundred times since, which has diminished the effect slightly. The stakes kept getting raised, with less and less effect, until whole worlds were destroyed without mercy, and billions of people die.


There have been hamfisted attempts to show the impact of this carnage. Following the horrific events of September 11, American comic creators took that idea and crafted storylines specifically addressing these themes of the damage left behind.

Unfortunately, this led to little more than Civil War, in which the price of collateral damage from super-brawls was shown to be just too high. The basic idea was rock solid, and if Marvel hadn't been so intent on showing that pretty much everybody involved in the entire tale was a complete dickhead, it might have been easier to see the overall point. It also didn't help that there had been plenty of other terrible super-hero related disasters that everyone just got over quickly, and it was never fully explained why this one incident was the one that caused everyone to lose their collective shit. (The death of so many children was, unfortunately, precedented.)

But since then, any idea that we could see the full impact that super-hero battles might have had has been more or less ignored, and we're back to mass devastation, without those darned awkward consequences. Worlds will live and worlds will die, but seeing the deaths of our counterparts thrown away so casually is an unimaginative and simply horrific sight.


The DC Universe has a long and proud history of relying on carnage on a massive scale to move things along and give fake gravitas to the situation. Frankly, if I was a former resident of a place like Coast City, kicking back in the DC version of heaven where everybody hangs around on grassy plains looking at pretty waterfalls, I would be pretty fucking pissed that my death, and the deaths of all of those around me, served little purpose other than sending Green Lantern a bit mental for a little while.

Blowing up cities and worlds has been a staple of science fiction and super heroes for many years, and the biggest loss of life can be seen in the fatal-tastic Crisis On Infinite Earths, in which trillions of lives were lost to entropy, even if it was never made entirely clear whether these deaths actually happened, since the people involved ended up never existing in the first place.

But the sheer casualness of it all sits at odds with the much-vaunted realism of current comics. If we can have Superman break down into a teary, gooey mess every time he stubs his emotional toe, is it too much to spare a little sympathy or show some basic fucking human empathy when so many lives are casually wiped out in appalling comics like Countdown to Final Crisis, which killed billions in a futile bid to make Superboy Prime seem interesting?


After all, we can be talking about the extinction of all life on Earth, and while the DC Multiverse still has dozens of other duplicates, this does not excuse the carnage. While the few differences actually shown in the comics seem to go no deeper than the face under the superhero cowl, these worlds must surely have truly unique forms of art, literature and culture, that would be forever lost.

And the greatest tragedy must be the people themselves, the vast majority of whom would have nothing to do with super-heroes and their adventures, but who pay the ultimate price for them.


And the weird effect of all this is that the carnage just looks lazy. It's easy enough to have a room full of people machine-gunned to death in a random Batman comic, but when they're all doing it, it's just boring.

There are better ways of raising the stakes and intensity in a superhero comic. And if they cut back on the carnage a bit, to the point where it is shocking to see people die, it might actually mean something.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A strong Image


It didn't take long for Image to become a joke, back in the nineties. Within months of the publisher's founding, it had already built up a legacy of remarkably unprofessional behaviour and lousy, lousy comic books.

It even destroyed the whole perfect ideal of creator ownership – if only these artists could throw off the shackles of the big publishers they could do wonders, or they could do exactly the same shit they were doing before, only worse.

I still got the odd Image comic over the years, because there were always one or two gems worth following, but they floated in a river of utter shit. So I'm not just surprised that Image is still going strong 20 years later, I'm amazed that it's somehow, after all this time, become my favourite comic publisher.


I now get half a dozen Image comics a month, which is about half of my regular monthly input. I've never bought that many regular Image comics before.

It's not really due to any particular fondness for the publisher themselves, other than Image's commendable habit of getting the hell out of the creators' way, and letting them get on with it.

I dig the resurrected thrills of Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage and David Lapham's Stray Bullets, and the beautiful illustrated slices of Mark Millar's world that are Jupiter's Legacy and Starlight. I adore the existential noir thrills of Fatale, and Prophet is just peachy.


That first issue of the new Stray Bullets is an absolutely cracker – a brutal return to that brutal world, with a story that pulls no punches. It also does that Stray Bullets thing of skipping around all the major events and showing this harsh, strange world through the eyes of somebody who stumbles across the stories of blood and revenge, without ever getting – or needing – the full picture.

Despite the brutality, it's almost comforting to enter the world of Stray Bullets again, and it's certainly reassuring to read some new Minimum Wage as well. Fingerman's comics are still charmingly clumsy and unexpectedly heavy, but it's also a treat to see his old characters grow up a little, and realise they really are getting too old to be fuckin' about so much.

I like Mark Millar comics, which accounts for those other two Image titles I regularly get, and I'll follow Brubaker and Phillips onto anything, even if Fatale is finishing up soon.

As for Prophet....


Prophet is fucking awesome.

It's a dense, stylish and mindbending comic. Brandon Graham and chums have carved out a properly mental sci-fi epic, set thousands of years in the future, in a universe that has moved on without humans. It's the usual story of solid individuals standing up against a vast galactic empire, but it makes no concessions, or spends any time making sure you're keeping up with it, and that abandonment of strict narrative laws is simply liberating.

I often have no idea what just happened when I read a new issue of Prophet, and it can take months – and several re-reads – before I figure it out. When so many stories are so easily disposable, Prophet intellectually worms its way into the head. Hilariously, the only reference points are to old Rob Liefeld comics, but everything else is up for grabs – physical forms change and grow into monstrous unknowns, and even the food the characters eat is unrecognisable. This is no Star Wars, where seventies haircuts are still in fashion in another galaxy – there is little recognisably human here.

Graham has already proven adept at world building with his previous comics, but his collaborators are just as inventive, with the various artists creating these new worlds with imagination and style – it has one of the finest color palettes in modern comics, and whenever the art gets scratchy and unclear, it only adds to the complexity.


And those references to old Image comics reveal that Prophet has a great joke at the core concept – this smart, stylish comic is using some of the worst characters ever created in comics. They might have evolved over the millenia, but half of Youngblood is still running around the universe and getting into mischief.

This does occasionally give the comic some unexpected depth, as the weight of centuries is peeled back, and you remember that Die Hard was the one who was usually posing just in front of Badrock in some godawful comic you never could read, and that they've gone through so much since those long lost days (which are now two decades away from where we are now).

But it's mainly just really, really funny to see these characters re-purposed, and given such heft and passion. It makes a dent in the idea that there are just bad characters, instead of characters used badly, because there was nothing great or special about any of these creations, not until they raised their heads again under Prophet's alien skies.


The most impressive thing about Image in 2014 is that creator-led comics like the ones I pick up every week are the new norm – not the exception. Instead of building up vast, over-complicated universes of the same old shit, Image comics are often tightly self-contained visions of the world, offering up unique thrills and chills.

And there is such a wide variety, with something for everyone. I get these six, but that's just my tastes, and I could be buying half a dozen more if I had slightly more affection for respected creators like Kirkman, Rucka, Fraction or Hickman. Established creators like these writers and their collaborators are often visibly enjoying the ability to do what they really want, and new names are making their own mark. The fact that many of the Image series kick off with a dirt cheap collection also helps, as it makes it a lot easier to pick something up when you can get six issues of content for the price of two.

Some of the comics are blatant attempts to sell a TV or movie concept, but that doesn't mean they have to be awful comics, and one of the more notable legacies of the company is that it was founded by artists, and the artwork is, in general, pretty bloody good. The strong art varies in style and effect, but there is a lot more effort going into the visuals than you see at companies like Dynamite and Avatar.



There are still signs of the old Image around - McFarlane and Larsen are still there, laudably doing their thing through thick and thin, and there are those cheap thrills in seeing Suprema evolve into a being of light in Prophet.

But the modern Image, the one that offers up smart, stylish and self-contained stories, is the one that I find most attractive, and make it my favourite publisher. That's no joke.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Don't look back, (even if you've got an extra life)

If I had a time machine, the first thing I'd do is go back and talk to lost loved ones, one last time. All of space and time to choose from, and I'd still most like to talk to my Nana again.

The second place I'd go to is the Library of Alexandria, where I'd grab some of those scrolls before they were lost forever, because that's what Carl Sagan would do.

But the third thing I'd do is go back to a time when there was a Wizards video game arcade in every town in New Zealand, loaded down with old twenty cent pieces, and I'd play every damn video game they had.

Fortunately, you can't go back in time, because I know the past isn't as good as I remember. But while I can never, ever recreate that old rush, there is still an undying fondness for those dark, dingy dens full of beeping lights.


In those pre-Playstation days, playing video games at home was prohibitively expensive, unless you settled for a cheap Atari rip-off with six slightly different versions of Tennis on it.

But this was also the days when video game cabinets started appearing everywhere, in every city and every tiny town, and you only needed a tiny bit of change to play those, and if you did it right, you could make that change go a long, long way.

I spent a measurably large portion of the 1980s in video game parlours. Entire Friday nights and Sunday afternoons would disappear down the back of Lester's fish and chip shop. Whenever the family visited a different town, the second thing I would look for – after scouring the shelves of local daires and bookshops for comics – were the video games.

I didn't have any particular favourites, although I was never really a fan of any racing games. I liked the wrestling games, and the shoot-em-ups, and the puzzlers. I liked barbarian adventures a lot, especially Black Dragon and Rastan, and after months of practise, I could make twenty cents last hours. There were a couple of games that could even be played indefinitely. Once you knew the tricks.


The parlours were always slightly dodgy places, full of kids who stunk of cigarette and marijuana, and sneaked around the back to sip on rocket fuel. I saw at least three full on brawls in video game parlours, but I only had to step away from my game for one of them. Most of the time, you could just carry on.

The parents didn't really approve, but that was part of the fun, and it got me out of their hair for a while. Besides, I liked hanging with the dodgy kids – you always knew they might pull a knife on you one day, but they were usually funny and had great taste in music.


I spent years in those arcades, in towns all over the South Island. I played Galaga in Invercargill and the fancy new Star Wars game in Christchurch and Time Pilot everywhere.

These places faded away in the nineties, as it became possible to play games like Doom without going out the door, or spending a small fortune. They didn't all disappear overnight, but it was an inevitable disappearance.

There are still some parlours around today, but they're usually bright and sanitised oddities, offering up a pitiful selection of racing games, dancing things and big-gunned mayhem.

I still see the ghosts of all those old parlours, especially when I drive past the buildings now and see they've been turned into banks and cafes. I still mourn their loss, and those days long gone.


But I'm not going to try and recapture them, because that never works.

It would be easy enough to do – all those games I have such a fondness for are available. You can buy DVDs with hundreds of those eighties classics encoded into them, and there are plenty of websites that offer Flash recreations.

I've given in to the temptation a couple of times, and I played Rastan for the first time in more than 20 years the other day – and it was rubbish. Dull and repetitive gameplay, with graphics that were so much worse than I remember. I was bored in literally seconds. You can't go back


Because I'm not just chasing those old games, I'm chasing that sense of freedom and excitement I had when I did go arcade hunting in small towns on the arse end of the world. I'll never get that back again, even if I could go back in time and walk inside those lost parlours again.

It doesn't help that there have been several quantum leaps in video gaming technology over the past 20 years – after years of Grand Theft freedom and photo-realistic imaging, blocky pixels trapped in a platform format are just dull.

The simplest games are always the most addictive, but not if you have to squint at the screen to see what is going on.

It's like going back and watching the TV you liked as a kid. As a grown man, I've been pleasantly surprised by how well things as random as The A-Team or The Young Ones have held up over the years, but then I catch 10 minutes of Knight Rider or The Dukes Of Hazzard, and I'm bummed out by how bad they are – they were once my favourite things ever, but now they're unwatchable. The production and storytelling quality that we take for granted these days weren't always there.


It's worth noting that movies and comics fare better in this regard. Great movies never date - I watched Blade Runner for the first time in years the other day and it was just as spectacular and cool and thoughtful as it always was. Great movies are immortally good, and it's always a pleasure to see them again.

Great comics are also timeless - Kirby's most energetic work still has more power than anything the main comic companies are publishing today. I still read a lot of comics and watch a lot of movies for almost purely nostalgic reasons, but old stuff can still be genuinely and objectively good.

But while I associate these great pieces of entertainment with the theatres, houses and streets where I first experienced them, the appeal of all those old game parlours was always about the place, and their strange, wonderful appeal.


I can't go back and play those games in those places again, and that's okay. The fondness for that time and that place and the feel of a perfect joysticks will never fade away, but that's all right as long as it's just a fondness, rather than an obsession that I'm still chasing.

I'm not the dorky teenager hanging around the video games any more. I have new ways of finding those thrills, even if I'm not hanging around with the dodgy kids anymore, and something to feel fond about in another few decades

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Things to do



The lovely wife is away all this week, and I'm falling apart in misery and reverting to bad behaviours. Which means I'm spending the whole week sitting on the sofa, eating bad food and watching lots and lots of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I'm certainly not in the right frame of mind to be blogging properly, so instead of writing the usual bullshit, I'd rather suggest nine other things that you could be doing with your time.



1. Listen to Garth Ennis talk about his comics

Ennis' comics may have a well-deserved reputation for gross laughs and ridiculous violence, but they can also be genuinely thoughtful and moving, and it's always a pleasure to listen to the man talk about his work.

This recent hour-long video interview is a fantastic discussion of his recent works, and while it's great to hear that he will be doing more Punisher comics and a lot more War Stories, it's more interesting to hear him talk about his own fondness for some of characters that he has created over the years...


2. Watch Drug War

Another fine recommendation from the gentlemen at the fantastic Travis Bickle On The Riveria podcast. I might not choose it as my favourite film of the year, but it's a super straight-up, super-tight story that doesn't waste any time getting to the point, and isn't worried about leaving slower members of the audience behind.

Plus, those deaf-mutes are totally badass.


3. Read the new Nemo comic

The latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic from Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is actually a fairly simple story of blood and revenge, because all Nemo stories are about blood and revenge. The complicated continuity of the League's world is starting to get top-heavy, and the mix of real life uber-assholes like Hitler and Mussolini with their fictional equivalents really doesn't work that well.

But it's worth reading to drink in O'Neill's marvellous architecture, as he creates a Nazi Metropolis of impossibly tall gothic statues and infinite levels of fear and loathing. O'Neill letting lose on buildings that can't possibly exist remains one of the real pleasures of modern comics.



4. Listen to the Flaming Lips do Dark Side of the Moon

Every now and then, I become absolutely convinced that Dark Side Of The Moon is the greatest album that was ever created. It doesn't last that long, and I usually go into another heavy punk phase as I rebel against all that seriousness and complexity and madness, but I'm certainly in a Floyd hole right now.

Fortunately, instead of listening to the album over and over and over again, I can now easily find other cover versions of the album. They're never as good – never as pure – as the original, but they're often surprisingly listenable, and sometimes they come close to being as strong as the album.

The Flaming Lips have probably come the closest.


5. Go for a walk

It's a lovely day outside.

6. Start reading BPRD

Seriously, it's so damn good.

And Howards – a mild-mannered and scrawny agent who happens to have CONAN THE BARBARIAN living in his head – is my new favourite character in anything.



7. Stay up until four in the morning watching full-length stand-up comedy shows on YouTube.

Because what's the point in going to bed, if she's not there?


8. Read something new

I have an entirely rational fear of getting stuck in a rut when it comes to new entertainments. Reading the same old comics, the same old authors, the same old music.

It got particularly bad with my novel reading recently, when I couldn't remember the last time I read something that wasn't by Kim Newman or George R R Martin or Philip Jose Farmer (or wasn't another bloody Doctor Who book). So I got my mate Kelly, who works at the local library and is incredibly well-read, to offer some suggestions, and now he gets random novels put aside for me, and I don't know what they even are until they show up on the hold shelf.

It's so good. I've enjoyed a couple of Pete Dexter books (and Kelly really blows my mind when he says things like 'Yeah, you notice how the guy in Train never actually says he's a cop?'). I burned through the easy thrills and pop culture stauration of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and now I'm knee-deep in some of Kem Nunn's surf noir.

If you get stuck in the same rut, ask your most well-read mates for suggestions, and then make them make you read them. You won't regret it.


9. Watch some Twin Peaks

At her previous job, my lovely wife was given a giant man-shaped cushion with the faces of Eric and Alcide from True Blood on it as a promotional item, because that's the sort of thing she would get. It now sits in our living room, stuffed in behind the sofa, and sometimes when I'm walking around the house late at night, I see a glimpse of Alcide and his beard and long hair peeking around the edge of the sofa in the gloom, and every time it reminds me of the moment in Twin Peaks Laura Palmer's Mom remembers seeing evil Bob peeking out from under the bed, and I swear I hear the Man From Another Place saying “Wow, Bob! Wow!” in the back of my head.

Fuckin' Twin Peaks, man. It's still as swell as ever.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Money for nothing

A little bit of poverty can be good for the soul. It helps you realise what is important in life. What really matters. What you can live without.

Poverty sucks. I've been there – I was a minimum wage kid whose first job was in a fat factory, and when I first left home, my weekly food budget was a mighty $17 a week. And I know there is always the chance I'll be there again. It's not something I particularly want, but it's something I know I can deal with.

After all, money isn't everything. It's not as important as love, or fun, or ethics, or comic books.

Which is why there will never, ever be any advertising on the walls of the Tearoom of Despair, and why every offer to actually make some money from this bullshit is politely declined.


I work as a news editor for New Zealand's biggest newspaper, and I fucking love my job. I'm an addict for breaking news, and I couldn't be in a better position to get that fix. I even manage to convince myself that it's a serious and important job, but all I really know is that I'm good at it, and I enjoy it, every single day.

I've been offered writing work for various websites since this blog started, and the pay – if any - is minimal, so it was no big deal to politely turn down the opportunity. But earlier this week, after writing a blatant love letter to Deadwood, I got an offer to write a semi-regular entertainment column for the paper's website about movies and TV and all that shit, and I'd actually get paid for it.

I was deeply, deeply flattered, but I still turned it down.

It was the right thing to do, but I still felt bloody weird about it. It seemed the kind of thing I would have killed for a decade ago, or even five years ago. Getting paid to watch film and TV and write about them and win friends and influence people? Isn't that the goal of all? To make a living out of it?


Nah.

There's no such thing as money for nothing. There are responsibilities and obligations and deadlines that come with getting paid to do something. This is that work ethic that I grew up with, and one worth living by.

I genuinely enjoy writing about the entertainments I love, and I genuinely don't want to make any money out of it. In my day job, I write lots and lots of short, sharp news pieces, and this blog is where I get to use loads of adjectives and rave about BPRD comics or the lovely wife or anything I bloody well want.

I have been an entertainment reporter, and mixing work and play really didn't work for me. I stopped doing regular film reviews years ago, even though I've had plenty of opportunities since, because it was ruining the movie experience. It was great to get into loads of free films, but you'd spend half the time trying to think of a good intro for the review, and the rest of time trying to remember the little details.

I'd rather pay to see a movie, and enjoy it as as experience, without worrying about what I'm going to say about it. Unless I really, really like it. Or really, really loathe it. And that's what this blog is for. This is where I get all that stuff out of my system.

And this is where I'm not obliged to do anything I don't want to, and that's worth far more to me than cash.


This is not to devalue the fine work that many full-time entertainment writers do, and I do feel bad when I do things like that Deadwood piece for free, and undercut their livelihood. It's a tough fuckin' gig – the entertainment reporters at my paper put in some damn long hours and produce a mountain of copy, and they're worth every cent. You need a lot more motivation than the odd free film or CD to do that.

And it's even harder for the freelancers, who are constantly looking for new work, and always taking on a bit more than they should, just in case. And then have to worry about taxes and insurance and all that crap.


A while back I read about a lecture about internet writing, where the guy doing the presentation asked how many people wrote stuff for free, and how they were all mugs who were being taking advantage of, because you should only write things that were financially viable, otherwise there was no point. And there didn't seem to be an option for doing it just because you fucking enjoy writing.

It's always heartening when an artist does take some kind of stand. Adam Yauch's last wish was that his wonderful beats wouldn't be used to sell shit, and Alan Moore turns down tens of thousands of dollars in easy movie money on purely ethical grounds, and it's always, always funny when people make fun of Moore for it, because they just can't even grasp the idea that money isn't the most important thing in life.


It's easy for me to say all this right now – I'm part of a double-income couple with no kids, and we live in an okay flat in a really nice part of town. I can turn down opportunities and write for free because I can afford to. But shit, as long as I've got enough money for my weekly 2000ad fix, I'm pretty happy.

I do hoard comic books in the anticipation that one day I won't be able to afford new ones, but even that day might never come. Back when my food budget was $17 a week, my comic book budget was twenty. There was always room for new comics.

But for now, I live in the great paradox – my smug financial viability supports my punk tendencies to just get out there and fucking write something. And that's not that bad a paradox to suffer, and one I'm not willing to upset.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Deadwood: Blood, mud and hope

(This post was originally written for nzherald.co.nz)


Deadwood first appeared on American television screens in March 2004, a full decade ago. It only lasted three short seasons, but still walks tall as one of the great TV shows of the 21st century.

Created by David Milch and produced by US television network HBO, Deadwood told the story of a mining camp at the centre of the Black Hills gold rush in the late 1800s, and its transformation into a genuine town. It blended fact and fiction - Wild Bill Hickock really did meet his end at Tom Nuttall's No. 10 saloon, but Alma Garret was pure invention - to tell the story of the men and women who spurred that transformation.

It's as smart, intense and stylish as any other great programme of the past decade, but it was also unique, coming with a large amount of theatricality, some lyrically profane dialogue and a surprising amount of optimism. While it may have been muddier and bloodier than most US shows, Deadwood also had a lot more hope for the future of America, and for humanity in general.


Breaking Bad was about the death of the American economic dream, The Wire creator David Simon freely admits that his series was about the destruction of an American city, and Tony Soprano laments in the very first episode of The Sopranos that "things ain't what they used to be".

 In contrast, Deadwood is all about the creation of a civilisation, and the shaping of that American dream. Set in the midst of the industrial revolution, Deadwood features a group of wildly individualistic characters who somehow come together to form a town, often against their better interests, and often quite baffled by their instinct to group together.

Deadwood becomes a place where living legends like Wild Bill strikes up instant friendships with Seth Bullock, or where grotesques like EB Farnum and Steve the Drunk find common ground with sneering scoundrels like Al Swearengen, or noble souls like Charlie Utter.


They're rugged men and women who instinctively drift towards a lawless territory, and establish a place for themselves there. There are plenty of knives at throats, and imagined slights that turn into real homicides, and outright tragedy, but by the time an old-world monster like George Hearst rolls into town, they're standing together against him, determined not to resort to a violent confrontation they could never win.

(The fact that it's old world monsters like Hearst that inevitably win the war, and end up influencing the whole direction of the 20th century, lends a melancholic air to citizens of Deadwood's struggle against him, but also accentuates their indomitable fighting spirit.)
 

Deadwood's transition from an anarchic mining camp to a proper town is a confusing and complicated process, and there is still a lot of violence to be done before it can happen - the series ends with Swearengen on his knees, washing the blood stains of a murdered innocent out of his floorboards and wishing he could think of something pretty to say - but an order is established over those 36 episodes, and a town rises from the mud and chaos of nature.

Some of the characters that spark this creation are downright horrible, and nihilism is everywhere - Doc Cochran's faith in existence is shattered on the battlefields of the Civil War; but there is also hope - Cochran finds some small joy in helping the helpless. Several main characters, including Calamity Jane and the various dope fiends, give in to intoxicants, but Jane also rolls up her sleeves and helps out during a deadly smallpox outbreak.

The town grows in the three seasons of Deadwood, and the people who live there grow too, and there is some pain from that. Swearengen goes from a murderer who is willing to slit a child's throat to protect himself, to a man who leaps off his balcony to help save Mrs Garret from an assassin's bullet. Bullock keeps his anger in check and realises that he can't escape his obligations, but he can find some joy in them. Joanie Stubbs attempts to become her own boss, with sadly horrific consequences.


These characters were brought to life by an outstanding cast. Paula Malcomson gave Trixie truly unexpected depths, and Molly Parker gave Alma Garret unexpected strengths. Fine characters actors like John Hawkes, Leon Rippy, W Earl Brown, Garret Dillahunt, Powers Boothe and Brad Dourif have rarely been better, and it's little surprise that current series like Sons of Anarchy and Justified feature regular appearances from Deadwood alumni, with Justified also featuring a coiled Timothy Olyphant as a modern-day Bullock.

Ian McShane cast off the Lovejoy typecasting with his extraordinary portrayal of Swearengen, a roaring beast of a man who could only reveal his true feelings and fears while he was getting a blow job, and the only one who had the guts to give a suffering Reverend a dignified death - and has coasted on the power of that role in an increasing number of crusty mentor parts.


While there was always plenty of strange, lilting dialogue, many of Deadwood's most moving and touching parts were silent, and the entire cast brought a strong physicality to their roles. This could manifest in Bullock's rigid-backed rage, or in moments of sudden, disturbing and brutal violence, including the most brutal street fight ever filmed, when Hearst and Swearengen send their men in to fight to the death.

The violence was sometimes unbearably brutal, and tempers were often short, but there were also times when the camp came together to toast a success, or watch a novelty, like a happy fool on a primordial bicycle.

It's these moments, that live outside the history books, that make Deadwood so epically intimate. The sheer loyalty of Dan Dority, Johnny Burns and Silas Adams; the dignified and quiet love story between Sol Star and Trixie; Mr Wu connecting with America through the extraordinary use of a single expletive; Ellsworth's journey from a miner beholden to none into a mourned husband; Cy Tolliver's strange drive to help Joanie's bid for independence; Blazanov's disgust at the sight of bullies in the new world; Hostetler's guilt; any time Seth Bullock really, really wanted to beat somebody to death, but restrained himself.

These small moments are where civilisations, legacies and great television are made.


Read more:
Deadwood was also the title of a historical novel by Pete Dexter, published in the '80s. It also features Charlie Utter as a main character, although it has strikingly different versions of Bullock and Swearingen (sic). It is less about the building of a civilisation, and more about the strangeness of the times.

Deadwood: Stories of The Black Hills is an excellent behind-the-scenes book, with in-depth musing from David Milch, and passionate essays on the characters by the actors who played them. It is unfortunate that the book promises that everything will wrap up nicely with a TV movie that was never made, but it's still a thoughtful read.


Watch more:

Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller feels like the unmade pilot for a Deadwood series from the early '80s, and shares similar themes, moods and complexity.

 This video essay from Matt Zoller Seitz and Steven Santos is a terrific look back at the show's artistic success, and features narration from Jim Beaver, who played Ellsworth.

 For those who don't have the time to watch all 36 hours of the show, there are plenty of Deadwood's most pivotal scenes that can be found on YouTube, including Bullock's rage-fuelled arrest of Hearst, the killing of Wild Bill, the town leaders' confused display of common decency and many, many more.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Thrillpower overload on dull suburban streets


Tharg the Mighty, 2000ad's mostly-fictional editor, is always warning Earthlets about the dangers of too much thrillpower, when a comic gets so thrilling that the reader just can't stand it any more, and it's always funny and charming when he does it, partly because it's actually fairly true.

Because while I can usually handle the mild dose of thrillpower in my weekly prog, I can name three exact moments when I did really did overdose on it.

They all came when I hit three of the best storytelling twists I ever read, in issues of 2000ad that I was reading while walking along dull suburban streets, and I can remember exactly where I was on the street when each one hit.

I get a bit weird when it comes to things like this. I can imprint bad experiences on great comics, and I can remember exactly where I was when a great comic story takes a massively unexpected twist.

It's no surprise that these things keep happening while I'm out on the street – I still read most of a new issue of 2000ad while walking away from the store I bought it from. It's just the way I've always read the weekly comic. I get addicted to that thrillpower hit, and I need it, every week, as soon as I can get it, even if it takes more than two months to get here. (Hell, back in the day, it took six.)

And while I'm still floored by the occasional twist or turn in a modern issue of 2000ad, none of them have the impact that these three had.

(Spoiler warning for 20+ year old comics. )



TPO #1 Dead Man in Hei Hei

The first time it happened, it was The Dead Man. I'm 15, it's late summer in 1990, I'm in Christchurch staying with my Aunt and Uncle for the holidays, and I literally can't believe what I've just read.

The Dead Man had been running in 2000ad for a while, and was a straightforward mystery quest through an apocalyptic wasteland, that took a sharp turn into the spectacular when it was revealed that the Dead Man was, in fact, Judge Dredd.

I knew the series was set in Dredd's world – there were numerous references to the Cursed Earth – but I had absolutely no idea this was coming, and the next week until the next issue is one of the longest in my life. It doesn't help that the actual Dredd story in the same issue is a throwaway gag story about a bloke who turns into a fly, offering no clue to this new revelation.


Of course, it was Dredd, and that reveal sparked months of intense Dredd action, but I'll always remember exactly where I was when it all really kicked off – outside a dusty bookshop in a dusty part of Christchurch.

It's the kind of twist that only could only happen in an anthology comic with a history of creating new characters, and a history of filler stories. Taking one of those apparent fillers and making it crucial is the ultimate 2000ad twist, and one it has pulled off several times since.

And it's effective each time it's wheeled out for things like Lobster Random or Sinister Dexter, but none of them come close to being as mindboggling amazing as that Dead Man turn.


TPO#2: The Queen returns on King St

It's only a few weeks later when Judge Dredd blows my tiny little mind again. I'm back home in Temuka, walking down the main street on a sunny afternoon after school, reading about this crazy old woman that the Dead Man Dredd has run into on his trek back to the Big Meg and BLOODY HELL IT'S MCGRUDER.

This isn't quite as shocking as the Dead Man twist, but everyone knew that no judge ever returned from the Long Walk, and the revelation that the stern, proper McGruder has turned into a mad, hairy hag is a stunner, especially when her insanity doesn't stop her from being the natural leader she always was.


But it was also one of the first big signs that Judge Dredd wasn't just a story, it was a proper saga, with storytelling taking place over a period of decades. As more and more Dredd history is piled up, there are more and more references to past events, and that's become an essential part of the series, because there are ramifications and repercussions from Dredd's actions. You can't kill hundreds of millions of people without them.

McGruder's return came out of the blue, and stopped me dead on King St, but it also showed that characters grew and evolved outside the strict panels of the regular story. In later years, the sudden re-arrival of Vienna Dredd, almost three decades after her one appearance, triggered a new phase of the story – one of legacy, one of history.

McGruder ending up sticking around for a few more years, and while she got progressively crazier, she was given one of the best send-offs in comic history, where Dredd gives her the noble death she deserves. But Dredd – both the character and the strip – endures.


TPO #3: Eternity in an hour on Otipua Rd

Now it's 1992, and 2000ad is going through a bit of a bright spot, with the silly overkill of Judgement Day in Dredd, and the one Robo-Hunter story by Mark Millar that wasn't a total waste of space, but Zenith is clearly the best thing in the comic, even if it's getting progressively more grim. It's Phase Four, and it's all colourful and clean, but every week it's getting worse and worse. There's death, Armageddon and universal apocalypse closing in on all sides.

We know the good guys lose, because Doctor Peyne is telling the story at the end of the world, talking about the rest of humanity – and the super-heroes who stood up to the Lloigor - in the past tense. But it's still shown in excruciating detail, as the sun turns black, and humanity is wiped out in the background. Zenith and Peter St John, the old hippy turned conservative, put up a brief fight, but they have no chance against multi-dimensional monstrosities and are utterly destroyed.

And then the universe belongs to these giant, mad gods, who annihilate space/time with their velocity, and prepare to break into all universes and all corners of existence, and then...


Yeah. Turns out, these mad gods were actually imprisoned in a sentient pocket universe that has been hanging around since the start of the series, and Peter St John totally played them for chumps. The world is saved, because it was never lost.

This is where I am when this hits: In Timaru, walking to buy a new TV aerial so that I can pick up the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my first proper paycheck. Every week, I've been desperate for some hope, some light in the last Zenith story, but there has been none of that.  Everything is wrong, everything is dark, everything is lost. And then everything is okay again.

I've read a lot of Grant Morrison comics since Zenith, and some of them have got fairly fucking grim, but there is almost always hope, and there is almost always some kind of happy ending. Sometimes I still don't see them coming.

He did the same thing with Final Crisis, with the whole world turning to shit until Superman sings a song, although it's worth noting that the horrendous future glimpsed in his Batman run is still there when he finished, and the final issue of his long Batman stint was uncharacteristically melancholic, as the notion that Batman And Robin Will Never Die becomes more threat than promise.

But nothing has stopped me dead in my tracks like that Zenith twist. The Lloigor were out in their place, so I'm still there, in pristine space-time, standing still in thrillpower shock, on dull suburban streets.