Sunday, March 1, 2015

MPH: My fantastic Fegredo face failure


• This post contains spoilers for MPH •

Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo's MPH might go down in history as Millar's most irritating comic ever, which is a high hurdle to climb.

Millar's plot never really goes anywhere new, and his characters are appallingly self-aware, speaking to each other in broad platitudes, instead of anything approaching actual conversation. It's also another blatant bid for movie money, and on the ideological scale, it's dodgy as hell, with the politics coming off like they were created by a 19-year-old kid who has just watched every episode of The Wire.

All that, and it was still a fantastically entertaining read, and it's almost all thanks to the typically wonderful art from the mighty Duncan Fegredo.


Like a lot of his peers, Fegredo started his comic career with a wave of relentless experimentation – his work on Grant Morrison's Kid Eternity comic showed how easily he could have followed artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean into scratchy abstraction, while his work on the Enigma comic with Peter Milligan was heroically ambitious.

But he soon found his own voice as a comic artist, with a thick line surrounding lots of delightfully delicate details. He had really nailed his style down by the time he worked on Milligan's criminally under-rated Girl comic in 1996, and spent the rest of the next decade showcasing his work in a bizarre variety of comics, including work on 2000ad titles, Vertigo short-story anthologies, Spider-Man books and Kevin Smith comics.

He found the perfect outlet for his wavy and centered art in a fruitful collaboration on Mike Mignola's Hellboy from 2007-2011, getting to draw an apocalyptic battle at the end of the world, without forgetting to show the pain in the title hero's brow. His work had power and life.

Fegredo has been reasonably quiet since helping to send Hellboy to hell, but then Mark Millar did what Mark Millar does best, and gave a great artist something awesome to draw.


MPH is a story about the world's first super-powered human, and he's an ambitious working class criminal who can run faster than light. The five-issue series is packed with set-pieces at supersonic speeds, action and melodrama all peaking at terminal velocity.

Fegredo captures this world perfectly, nailing the high-speed shenanigans as people blast forward on a forced perspective, right off the fucking page. And he's just as good at the moments between seconds, where everything stands still as a speedster wanders through a silent world.

This is harder than it looks. Creating that frozen world is particularly impressive in the comic medium, which is nothing but frozen slices of time. Creating the illusion of one person walking through a world of statues takes real storytelling skill, and Fegredo certainly has those chops.


Fegredo's art has noticeably evolved, even since his Hellboy days. His line is surer, more defined. The artist, who inks his own work, still has that distinctive wriggly linework, but it's harder and more certain around the edges.

The action sequences in MPH certainly benefit from Fegredo's well-deserved confidence, but he is also a master of character work – he draws some of the best goofy grins and wild gesticulating figures in modern comics – and no two characters ever look the same, they all have their own idiosyncratic touches. And his ability to create recognisable and real faces on those characters left me wide open for the story's final curve ball.


For all its speed – and the plot does move pretty fast - the story of MPH is ploddingly predictable. The wish-fulfillment angle offers up hedonistic thrills, but even the inevitable come-down and rejection of materialistic concerns is a well-worn path.

Even the time-travel shenanigans which blast through the final issues of MPH could easily be seen coming, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in comic books where people run faster than the speed of light. They're going to come unstuck in time. It’s only to be expected.

All that, and I still totally didn’t see the final issue’s twist coming, and I feel like a happy fool for missing it, especially because it’s a plot development that almost entirely succeeds thanks to Fegredo’s fine work.


The twist comes out right at the climax of the story’s big final fight, and reveals that a mysterious character hanging around the edges of the story is actually one of MPH’s main protagonists, who got lost in time and had to spend decades waiting for it to catch up with him, so he could rejoin the story.

And it's a blindingly obvious twist, hidden in plain sight, but that doesn't mean you don't see it coming. It's the kind of twist that could feel like a frustrating deus ex machina, but it is really set up right from the start, and Millar has been playing totally fair. (Although, the fact that the two characters spoke the same way meant nothing, because all Millar's characters speak the same way. I cannot tell you how happy I am that other people have started noticing his 'What are you talking about?' thing)

But Fergedo has also been playing totally fair, and once you realise these are the same characters, it's all there on the page. The young and old characters share the same body language and facial structure, hidden beneath different hair and decades of time. They're obviously the same person.

Fergedo's faces are some of the most recognisable in comics, and they all look ruggedly characteristic, and when that is paying off on a fundamental storytelling level like this, it's still pretty fucking impressive.



And it's still absolutely delightful to get suckered into a decent storytelling twist like this. To not even see it coming, even when you're marvelling at how different all the characters look, that's still a thrill in this jaded world of modern comics.

Hopefully it won't be too long before Fegredo is given another meaty story to get into, but it will be worth the wait. because his work is always welcome. His art is stylish, and smart, and beautiful to look at. At any speed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Three great short comics about famous people








Drew Friedman is a comic god, and his greatness is etched into the granite of the medium. He's still killing it - check out his Clowes! - and still has the wicked eye for the right wrinkle on the right face. You can see his gallery of fine art prints here.


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I can't find anything else Chris Aubry ever did, so I can only assume the artist realised he (or she) had achieved comic perfection with this strip, and never had to do anything ever again.

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I don't know why this is my favourite Fun strip, but it is. Go buy Evan Dorkin's comics. Buy all of 'em. Because they're good!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What can you get for a dollar? The universe!


Most comic shops have them, even if they're hidden away beneath items with a higher sale value. The dollar bins - which sometimes go as low as a quarter, or even a dime – are where old comics go to die.

They're frequently full of total mediocrity, usually by their very nature, because these are the comics they just couldn't sell. The over-ordered and under-loved: faded relics of forgotten universes, Marvel and DC comics that utterly failed to find a proper audience, and oceans of small press dreck.

But there are still absolute gems lurking in every dollar bin. Slightly damaged bits of sheer comic brilliance going for a song, or entire runs of stylish, idiosyncratic fun. And they remain one of the best places to get kids hooked on comics.


My first dollar bins came long before I ever got near a comic store, down here in New Zealand. They showed up everywhere – in corner dairies, remainder bookstores, toy shops, department stores, airports and supermarkets. Bulk cheap comics dumped down on the arse end of the world, and hungrily devoured by any comic dork that stumbled across them.

I honestly don't know where they came from – whether they were a by-product of overprinting or printed for a specific goal, but some bright-eyed entrepreneurs kept scoring huge amounts of these silly things and sening them across the Pacific for a new audience, starved on four-colour funnies.

This is the 1980s, and if there were any comic shops in New Zealand, they were far away from me. But there were boxes of these comics all over the country, hidden in the smallest towns, and it was always a delightful chore finding them.


Interestingly, they were almost always DC comics, rarely anything else. There would be the odd stack of Marvel comics, but they were never the good ones, just loads of Dazzler and US1 rubbish. Sometimes there would be ugly Charlton comics that nobody wanted, at any price.

But it was DC comics that ruled, and I was constantly getting hooked on them, just because they were the comics you'd find in the strangest of places.

The crazy DC Comics Presents.... issue by Starlin with Superman and Hawkgirl, found in a cafe on the Kaikoura coast, the stack of mind-bending Action Comics by Wolfman and Kane that appeared in a box at the Temuka dairy with the awesome spacies out the back; and the endless search for prized Brave and Bold comics in small towns were my sisters went to marching competitions.

Brave and Bold comics were always prized most highly, because you got more bang for your buck with Batman teaming up with some random hero, and because Jim Aparo is, was and always will be the greatest Batman artist ever, and because they were almost always single-issue sagas, which was important.


There was a maddening randomness, because you never knew what would show up, and a multi-part story might never get resolved. It took me 20 years to find out how the Justice League of America's war with Mars – which led to the formation of the famed Justice League Detroit – actually ended. (Although I still can't tell what Zatanna is doing on the cove of #229 - she's either floating in the air, or she's eight foot tall..)

But these cheap comics, which could show up anywhere, were the ultimate gateway drug. They got me hooked on the medium as much as 2000ad, my first comic shop, the Unknown Soldier and the Tuesday comics I got from my Nana's second-hand bookshop ever did.

They were so cheap, and when you're a kid, you beg or borrow all the pocket money you can get, which might not be much, and if you have to choose between lunch and a Steve Englehart Green Lantern comic, there isn't really any choice at all.


The best haul was at a toy warehouse in Dunedin in 1986, I was an 11 year old looking for Super Power figures, and I found a massive rack of DC comics from the early to mid eighties, going three for a buck. That meant I could get eighteen for the price of one Parademon, so I loaded up on Amythest and Red Tornado comics, and the fantastic Mirror Universe invasion story in Star Trek. And I got the Super Powers comics themselves, which were, bizarrely, the first time I ever got Kirby, and he didn't even really do the art.

The most disappointing haul was an unexpected bunch of late eighties Marvel mediocrity that choked the shelves at a local supermarket a few years later. A lot of New Universe shit, but also did get me hooked on Nth Man, and the issues of She-Hulk that Gerber and Hitch did were pretty good, so it wasn't all bad.

The last haul was another toy warehouse in the early nineties, and it was lots of DC from the previous couple of years -  Superman going off to have a cry in space and getting turned into a star gladiator, the ruthless mid-run issues of Ostrander and Yale's Suicide Squad, and first tastes of the Wally West Flash.


I haven't really seen that kind of overflow in the public world for more than 20 years. As news-stand sales dried up and the direct market sucked up the spare comics, those kind of unexpected piles of total comic goodness faded away.

But if the direct market couldn't sell them all at full price, they discounted the shit out of those comics, shoving them aside and selling them off cheap, and the tradition goes on. It's a lot crazier, with more than just a random few DC comics, and stuff from everyone, but still happily random.


I still plunge into the dollar bin at any store I see, and I've bought a tonne of comics from them. Literally a tonne - about a third of all the comics I own were bought in dollar bins.

Dollar bin diving isn't as rewarding as it once was, because I've filled those minor collections I was building up, and found a lot of the strange little oddities that always grab the attention.

But I still check 'em out – I always get Cerebus or Hellblazer or Hellboy comics I missed if I see 'em going cheap, and I'm still, after all these years, still rabid for any Brave and Bold comics I can find going cheap. They're always welcome.



Besides, they're not really for me any more. I've been hooked on comics a long, long time, and I don't need insanely cheap special deals to get me into the habit. I'm already there.

Nah, dollar bins are for the kids, pulling together whatever pocket money they can get, mowing lawns for extra cash, and delving into that inexpensive randomness. Taking a side in the kids' eternal dilemma between candy and comics, and finding something new to get into. You never know what that might actually be, whether they fall for superhero or monster or crime comics, but it's the best place to start.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Love and Rockets: 'Blast or bomb, either way somethings's gonna explode'


At some point in your life, your very best mates are more important than your family - they are your family for a while - but then you grow up and you don't have to see them every day, or even every week. If you're mates with somebody for long enough, you can go months, and sometimes years, without seeing each other, and when you catch up again, it's like no time has passed.

You've been through so much together, and have such a shared history, that there is an unbreakable bond. You might even fall out over stupid shit over the years, but it never really lasts.

With decades of some of the smartest, funniest and genuinely moving comics ever created, Love and Rockets has been a very good friend over the years, and while it’s been too long since the last visit, it's still absolutely brilliant to catch up with it again, and find out what is going on.


Beto's work is a more regular chum, who is always stopping for a catch-up over beer or coffee. His ridiculously prolific work-rate means he has produced almost half a dozen new comic stories since the last issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories, while maintaining an equally ridiculous high level of quality – books like Bumperhead and Loverboys are as good as anything he’s ever done.

His Love and Rockets comics always have some fantastically improvised crazy sci-fi action comics, including fast-paced and manic adaptions of the movies his more serious characters appear in, but he's also adding new levels to his generational saga of Luba's family with practiced ease.

All these years of comics, and there are still secrets from the past to be revealed, and another new generation of the strange and powerful women in that family. Beto lays in another layer of depth to a saga that is already richly deep.
 

Deep, and still bloody funny, with absolute slapstick and playful jokes about parentage still infusing his comics. There is always a chuckle in Beto’s work, no matter how dark it gets.

And Beto’s art is as strong as ever, although – and this might seem sacrilegious – I do wish a lot more of his comics got the full colour treatment. His heavy line is ideal for filling in with bright primary colours that pop and sing – and his pinks and blues and yellows on the back cover only reinforce this wish.


And then there are Jaime’s comics, which are as beautiful as ever, and I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing about them. They’re just right in black and white.

His art is just as refined and confident as it has ever been, with bold strokes of humanity sprawled across his pages. He still captures restless youth like no other comic artist can, with wide googly eyes and naïve grins, and etches the decades into the faces of his older characters with the barest line.

His facial reactions are still the best, and the sort of things you see on real, actual people every day, so it’s notable how many of the dramatic moments in the new Love and Rockets are curiously faceless. From the cover onwards, character’s faces are hidden during moments of revelation and drama, giving them both quiet dignity and strange potential - the key moment in the book, where somebody reaches out for someone else, only to pull back, features no faces at all, but still lands a dramatic punch.

It takes creative guts to play away from one of your greatest strengths, but that's why Jaime is a trule great artist - he's never taking the easy road.
 

Jamie’s work is rarer than his big brother’s, and that just makes it all the tastier. It’s too long between new stories these days, but it’s always been too long, even when they were coming out every couple of months.

The ways his people - particularly Maggie and Hopey and Ray - have grown and changed is only accentuated by this rarity, and it can be jarring to see them so changed, even if they are still intimately familiar. The promise of rampant nostalgia in the new comic also helps, with promises of Daffy and Mike Tran (Mike Tran!) appearing, only to be cut off short and left for the next edition. Nostalgia can be fun, but it can wait.

Although there is still the hilarious moment where Henry shows up, for the first time since 1987, and man…

He's looking rough, dude!


Hopey and Maggie aren't looking rough – they look fantastic, growing into wise older women with the same old problems, still walking the hot streets of Hoppers, still quoting their own dialogue from years ago.

It’s almost comforting, and still mega-sad, to see that they still suffer from the same old anxieties, and have just piled up new ones on top of it, while learning to live with them all. Ray is still wondering how he’s ever gonna compare to Hopey in Maggie’s affection, but he’s still strong enough to let them go have an adventure together. They’re watching the same movie in two different places, but he know she’s still coming home at the end of it.


There is other fun to be had – Angel is still horribly bummed out, and the next generation of Jaime’s characters are still deftly sketched out, with Tonta hanging out with cute youngsters having cute comic-making parties, and making her friends life more exciting. (And hilarious - the pool race sequence is the funniest part of the latest book.)

And there is still that weird cross-pollination between the two brothers – they used to insert each other’s characters into the background of each other’s stories, now they merge ideas on a more fundamental level, with Jaime pulling Beto’s recent trick of using a fictional movie within the narrative to let loose on some crazy storyline.

Jaime’s effort – a terrifically violent science fiction story called Princess Animus – is a blast of fresh air through Jaime’s comics, and has Beto’s same infectious sense of fun. It might be a little frustrating that things get side-tracked so far from the emotionality devastating Locas stuff, but the side-tracks are where you often find the really interesting stuff.


Beto's latest round of Love and Rockets stories open up to new possibilities in the closing pages, with all sorts of secrets and lies being exposed. And Jaime's stories end with promises of more uncomfortable and spiky reunions – he is sticking with the one-story-spread-over-two-years format, means the full impact of all this middle-aged nostalgic musing – for good or ill – is still to be felt.

It might be another year, or longer, before those threads are picked up again, but there is still utter joy in a new issue of Love and Rockets, however long it takes.

Each new comic has so much craft, and energy, and humanity. Every visit is welcome.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Peter Davison: The open face of Doctor Who

Last week I got to talk to a genuine childhood idol about the best television show in history. And he was lovely.

This resulting article was originally published in the New Zealand Herald.


Three decades is just a short trip in the TARDIS for the Doctor, but Peter Davison is just like everybody else, and has to time travel the slow way – one day at a time. But 35 long years after he first signed on for the lead role in Doctor Who, he's still proudly involved in a world of Daleks, Zygons and Weeping Angels.

Davison is returning to New Zealand next week to host the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular at Vector Arena – with a full orchestra performing music from the TV programme, and some familiar monsters dropping by.

Speaking to the Herald from Sydney, Davison said he had no idea he'd still be involved in the Doctor Who universe when he first stepped down from the role in the early 1980s.

“I thought I would leave discreetly by the back door and that would be it. But it soon became obvious it was going to go on for a while.”

Davison still plays The Doctor in audio adventures, teaming up with the same companions that ran with him down endless neon corridors in the eighties, and has even reprised the role for television a couple of times, usually for charity events.

Davison says the Symphonic Spectacular is, at heart, a simple concert featuring the music of Murray Gold - the show's composer since its return in 2005 – but it just also happens to have monsters roaming around, and villains taking over the show for a while.

“There is all this amazing music, but it's also a real dynamo of energy, where you're really interacting with the audience.”

The show made its New Zealand debut in Wellington last year and is coming to Auckland for the first time after a short tour around Australia. Davison says it attracts a diverse audience, with the programme enjoying a much broader fan base as it has got older.

“The crowd is all ages and all the degrees of Doctor Who fandom, from hardcore fans to casual people who have been dragged along by their children.”



The constant evolution of Doctor Who over its 52-year history means the show is continually reinventing itself, with seven more versions of the main character – and seven different actors to play him – since Davison's days. It's had its ups and downs, with the TV series in a coma for most of the nineties, but Davison says he wasn’t surprised when it became a critical and commercial success on its return, due largely to the sheer quality of the new show.

He was it was “enormously gratifying” to see that Doctor Who, in the hands of head writer Russell T Davies, still had a grip on popular culture, even if he was slightly envious that it had came back as such a prestigious programme

Along with the programme's ability to go anywhere in time and space, and tell any kind of story, the enthusiasm of the programme's creators is part of a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps it ticking along, year after year, like a good watch, he says.

“Doctor Who seems to is attract the creative mind, and they’ve grown up with it and become devoted followers, and then they get involved in the production of the programme, and it all carries on.”

Davison still watches the current show, with Peter Capaldi now in the lead role, with his sons, and admits he has to occasionally ask them what’s going on, with simple stories that are sometimes “incredibly complex”.

But he his obviously proud of his contribution to the TV institution, especially when he started a trend towards “younger” doctors that has seen the energetic talents of David Tennant and Matt Smith used in the role.

“I think my era looks a bit less out of place, but there was also more vulnerability and sensitivity in the role long before I came along. That really started with Patrick Troughton’s second doctor – who is my Doctor – and that’s something that’s been developed more in recent years.”


Davison's biggest contribution to the world of Doctor Who in recent years was The Five(ish) Doctors, which he wrote and directed for 2013's 50th anniversary. A light-hearted look at the fandom around Doctor Who and the pressure of playing the character, it brought together Davison with fellow ex-Doctors Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann.

Davison said the 30-minute film started off as a small idea in his head, and when he asked various people to be involved, virtually everybody said yes.

“I think it worked because we were making fun of ourselves while still staying true to the spirit of the show. If I have a good enough idea, I might do something similar, but I don’t want it to be half-hearted. Besides, it would be hard to get a cast together like that again, especially when I'll probably have to pay them next time.”

Thirty years on since the days of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa, and Peter Davison is still the Doctor.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Comic book love in the year 2015


Feeling jaded about comic book shops is only natural when you go to a huge amount in a short amount of time, and find the same old shit in most of them. It's bound to happen.

My real concern with my recent comic shop overdose was that I was becoming jaded with comics themselves. That all those piles of dull, average comics sitting in dull, average comic shops  were slowly eroding my love of comic books themselves, and that I was finally, at 40-years-old, growing out of the medium.

Not a chance.

Since returning from my latest travels, I've been catching up on the comics I bought overseas, and catching up on the ones that started stacking up at my local store, and getting some neat bargains over the past weekend, and there have been some fantastic comics in there.

I might be a bit bored of comic shops, but I still fucking love the comics. I fucking love them as much as I ever did.


I loved the sheer nerd overload of the Multiversity Guidebook, and I always have a soft spot for this kind of obsessive cataloguing, especially when it’s full of tasty information.

My favourite revelations were the ones where you discover that Speed Freak, Magic Lantern and the rest of the Love Syndicate of Dreamworld from late in Morrison's Animal Man run, and that Hellblazer from Doom Patrol #53 are now actually official DC canon, just as real as the proper Batman and Superman. That's so groovy.


I love the intensity of the new Stray Bullets comics, as David Lapham continues to totally blow up the overall story, with terrific results. The latest story arc – Sunshine and Roses – kicked off with a great twist on the classic Mexican standoff that is just breath-takingly intense.


I love magazines about comics, and have been pouring through musty old issues of The Comics Journal and slick new issues of Back Issue magazine, and it’s particularly funny when they’re talking about the exact same things from the exact same era, but coming at them from exact opposite ends of the critical scale.

Old issues of The Comics Journal are loads of fun – the endless arguments and never-ending feuds that still faded away over time, the angry and justified demand for high quality and a death to hackwork, the gradual evolution of the magazine’s editorial vision away from anything that could be seen as mainstream, and back into something that incorporated all sorts of different views.

And new issues of Back Issue magazine are just as much fun, because they’re everything the Journal wasn’t – sheer, unabashed love for Bronze Age bizarreness that overlooks the more rank stupidity and celebrates the imagination.

There is totally plenty of room for both approaches.


I love that we got one last Jack story in Fables before the comic concluded, and that his story finished with him being King Of The Universe.


I love the smaller, denser trades of the Vampire Tales that Marvel published a couple of years ago, even if I still haven’t found volume one yet. Vampire Tales was the slickest of the Marvel black and white horror magazines of the seventies, and it is still full of scratchy terror, all these years later.

I never dug the Morbius The Living Vampires stuff – the endless guilt over his blood-letting was such a downer, but there were some fantastic Blade tales. One of those stories, with art by Gene Colan, sees Blade stab the shit out of a bunch of vamp kids, and I remember that scared the piss out of me when I was younger. So deeply creepy.


I loved that Venture Bros special that unexpectedly showed up on my telly at a Anchorage hotel room last month, because I'd been cut off from pop culture news, and had no idea it was coming, and it was epic and silly and tied off a huge amounts of loose ends that have been building for years, often with devastating swiftness.

(I know it's not a comic book, but fuck me, it was good.)


I love three things about the strange Miracleman annual that Marvel put out last month.

1) The charms of the Milligan/Allred story, which were boundless.

2) The heavy ripeness and overwritten angst of the Morrison story, which was exactly what you’d expect from a mid-eighties Morrison script, and was amazingly and comfortably familiar.

3) The fact that it even exists – rumours of a lost Morrison story become real, thirty years later, like a time capsule from the hellish days of Thatcher and misery rock. If something as immaterial as this can now be a real comic, anything could happen.


I love the realisation that Supreme: Blue Rose is the most Invisibles comic in years.


I love the latest Grandville book from Bryan Talbot, because I usually don't give a damn about anthropomorphic animals, but each album raises the stakes dramatically, in unexpected ways.

The new book gets unexpectedly theological, and there is this horrible hidden conspiracy in history that is being uncovered, and the consequences of a society full of talking, reasoning animals is really being properly explored. Further volumes are greatly anticipated, even if it's unclear how they could possibly get more intense than they already are.

I still love 2000ad, and look forward to more Dredd, Savage, Jaegir and even Gene the goddamn Hackman stories in the future.


I love sorting out which fancy comics get pride of place in the chunky, six-foot-tall bookcases that the lovely wife bought me for my birthday.

She was going to get me a watch or something like that, but I always lose or break them within a year, and if she really wanted to get me something I'd hold onto, she'd get me bookcases. The one piece of furniture that I still have from when I moved out of home is a bookcase. You can never have enough, and they are always treasured.

I literally danced a jig when they got delivered last week, and it's taken me days and days to get the balance right – making sure all of those Big Books from Paradox Press are still at hand, with the latest spunky superhero hardcovers anchoring some faded old paperbacks.

I'm still not quite there. I probably never will be.