Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Moving out of home with Marvels and Mr Punch

I have no idea what the hell I'm doing when I move out of my parents' home, somewhere in the mid-nineties. I've just turned 19, and in a spectacularly ill-advised display of independence, I've moved hundreds of kilometres away, to live in a shitty flat in Dunedin.

I don't have a job, or a girlfriend, or a car, and I have no fucking idea what I'm doing with my life. Almost all of my friends went off to university, and I followed some of them to the new city, but I couldn't bear the idea of spending one more goddamn day in school.

I'm so freaked out by it all, and I'm so fucking scared of the world, and because I'm 19, I'm so fucking scared of anybody seeing how so fucking scared I am, so I hide it all beneath the usual adolescent bullshit and bluster.

And the comics I bought that first weekend I moved out of home still reek of that fear and bullshit, while still providing an invaluable link to the past, and the glorious promise of future possibilities

I'm on the dole when I first move out, so it's life on an incredibly strict budget. I somehow survive on a food budget of $20 a week – which means lots of cornflakes, pasta and $1 pies – and also put aside $15 for booze – just enough for a couple of riggers and a scrumpy cider, or the cheapest, nastiest bottle of vodka, anything to get through the blasted weekend.

My comic budget, however, was $30 a week, because I knew my priorities, and would frequently forego things like lunch in favour of a new issue of From Hell or Legion of Super-Heroes. It's still an expensive habit, and I have to give up long-running Spider-Man and Superman runs, because there is only so much I can actually afford.

But I don't have any money to actually go out and do things, so when I'm not going for long, rambling walks around the city, I'm spending vast amounts of time stuck inside my shitty flat, and reading my comic books over and over again really do help. I'm pretending to be a proper adult, but I'm still a teenager and when it all gets a bit much, and too big, and too scary, I always have the comics to dive into, and get away from the world.

And when I first set up in the city, and have paid my first bond and rent, and have all the plates and cutlery and towels I need, the last of my setting-up money goes on a couple of fancy comics. This is the first time I've ever lived in a city with a comic shop before, and I'm going to mark the goddamn occasion with some comics that I'll keep forever.

Again, this is the mid nineties, and the whole trade paperback thing was just really kicking off, with the big comic companies suddenly realising how much money there actually was in collected editions, so I snapped up two recent and new comics in this great new format.

They say you figure out your tastes when you're 19, and set yourself on the type of movies and TV and comics and music you're always going to like. I don't know about that, but one of the first things I did on that first weekend as an adult was head out and get Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, and Mr Punch, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and I still think they're both bloody brilliant, all these years later.

Marvels was a happy connection to the past. I had to give up most of my Marvel comics I was getting, which wasn't that hard because, again, it was the mid-nineties. But Marvels' trawl through the history of that weird and wacky universe was such a wonderful capture of how crazy it all was.

On those long winter nights of the first year on my own, when there was only a two-bar heater to offset the wind creeping in through the dodgy windowsill, there was real warmth in this utter sentimentality, and in the startling realism of Alex Ross' light sources.

All my Marvel comics were a long way away – it would take a couple of years before I got all my comics together again – but everything I had always loved about the universe could be found in this one new book. It was pure comfort.

But it wasn't all unfettered nostalgia - Busiek's script was also a sign of the future, and of new possibilities, which was just as welcome in this terrifying new world.

It was a more introspective tone than Marvel's usual bombast, with a fond retelling of classic tales given new depths. Just as much as Ross inspired a mini-boom in static, painted superhero comics, Busiek's script promised a more complex, yet warm, voice to this sprawling universe.

Gaiman and McKean's Mr Punch couldn't more different on a superficial level, but had that same connection to the past and future.

The book actually made me feel less homesick, not just because of its wistful, nostalgic and slightly perturbed vibe, but because the creators' earlier work, Signal To Noise, was the only proper graphic novel in the library at the town I had just left, and I had read that book over and over again in the previous few years.

Mr Punch was a completely different book, with a completely different tone, but that combination of creators always felt like home, and always helped with the homesickness.

And there it was again, all that possibility. After years of regular, mainstream comics, something as experimental as McKean's collages and Gaiman's breakdown of anything were intoxicating, and inspiring me to seek out more challenging stuff.
This was, to me anyway, a new way of telling tales, with the script leaving out key elements of the story, with the real tale in the spaces in-between moments, in the things left unsaid. It was such a pleasure to have something that credited the reader with a bit of intelligence, even if I still haven't figured out what was really up with the mermaid, all these years later.

As terrifying as all this new responsibility and expectation was in my life, there were always new ways at looking at things, and new ways of telling stories, and can help someone at their most vulnerable.

All this is 20 years ago now, but I still own those books. They're still on the bookshelf beside me, and they're just as fun and interesting and comforting.

I'm certainly a different man to the one I was all those years ago. I've figured out some things, got my shit together in others, and positively excelled at one or two things in this life.

I still don't know what the fuck I'm doing, but I'm getting there. And there are always more comics – both old favourites and new thrills – to get me through the worst of it.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Scourge: Justice is served!

The late, great Mark Gruenwald wasn't a brilliant comic book writer – his plots were often hackneyed, his characters were damp, and his dialogue was cheesier, and riper, than a 17-day gouda – but he was a terrific ideas man, and he could see which way the wind was blowing.

He was way ahead of his time with his Squadron Supreme series in the 1980s, with ideas and concepts he introduced there still being successfully mined by contemporary creators. And he could see the audience for superhero comics getting more bloodthirsty, so he got Scourge to walk into the Bar With No Name in an issue of Captain America, and blow away 18 supervillians with some explosive bullets.

In this day and age, when Wolverine happily guts anybody who looks at him funny, or when every second superhero comes equipped with some high-powered weaponry, it's easy to overlook how unsettling the Scourge saga was in 1980s Marvel comics.

The Scourge character (or characters) popped up in a dozen different Marvel comics over a year or so, shooting some costumed villain dead in cold blood, hollering 'Justice is served!' and disappearing again. He (or she) could show up anywhere, or kill anybody, and the random violence was often used as a grim punchline to some other ongoing storyline.

While many of Marvel's top talents had their shot at a Scourge cameo, it all came to a head early in Gruenwald's mammoth Captain America run. Some of the villains banded together and met at the Bar With No Name to discuss the murderous problem, only to be brutally killed by the bartender. And then Cap took down the villain, only for him to be killed by yet another shadowy killer, in a Russian doll of psychopathic vigilantes.

This kind of carnage would become regular fare in the trigger-happy 1990s, and there had certainly been plenty of death and gore in Marvel comics before, with the Punisher mowing down legions of unnamed goons since the seventies.

And it was certainly the sort of things you saw in plenty of For Mature Readers comics at the same time, with even the immortal Batman dragged into some awkward adult violence. This sort of violent nihilism wasn't exactly unknown in comic books at the time.

But this was something new for Marvel in the 1980s, as the company tried to shake off the stagnant air of a 20-year-old comic company, looking for a new direction. And the sheer amount of corpses left behind was new, with damn near half of the Book of the Dead volumes of The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition) filled up with Scourge's victims at that time.

And it was just so brutal. Scourge killed women and cowards and reformed henchmen. One female victim met her end while showering after a wrestling match, and the killer frequently appeared out of nowhere. He could disguise himself as anyone, and any character could suddenly become a cold-blooded murderer.

Editorially, Scourge might have been nothing more than a good excuse for disposing of some of the Marvel Universe's dorkiest villains, including some that went all the way back to the earliest days of the publisher. But it was also unsettling, and you couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor bastards who ended up facing the wrong end of his gun barrel.

The history of Scourge was later revealed to be a vast conspiracy, and some version of the character still pops up every now and again. And even all those villains that were killed have been resurrected, with The Hood bringing almost all of them back to life for no real good reason a few years ago.

And those Captain America comic are as clumsy and stilted as most of Mark Gruenwald's stories, but they have those hints of the future, that plenty of other creators still use. While Scourge's victims never lasted long, the legacy of his initial appearances still lives.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Kenneth Anger: How to influence modern culture

Underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger made esoteric magickal movies that appeal to literally dozens of people. They're infused with satanic ideas, truly queer scenarios, ritual fun and games, deeply droning soundtracks and mad cosmic opera.

They have their charms - especially Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising and their ultra-trippy imagery - but they're certainly not for everybody.

I've watched them all, getting drunk one weekend in 2001 and hiring them all out from Alice In Videoland in Christchurch, and I just got a funky DVD of his works imported from the UK. But I don't think I've ever recommended his films to anybody I know, even the biggest movie nerds I've met.

And yet, with such a limited audience for his crazy and beautiful ideas, he's still managed to influence modern culture in two huge ways. Some of the greatest artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers of our time have managed to influence culture in similar ways, and they only manage to do it once throughout their long careers.

Kenneth Anger did it twice.

The first instance took some time to catch on, but can now be seen in nearly all of the films showing at your local multiplex. Unless they are some science fiction of fantasy nonsense, or have some scintillating synthesizer, modern movies are saturated with pop songs, often to excellent effect, often to mediocre effect.

And yet, the transition from full on film scores to pop magic is only a relatively recent addition to the story of cinema, and Anger kicked it all off with Scorpio Rising.

It's a short film, totally gay in the best possible sense of the term, with a heavy focus on leather, motorbikes and the occult. And it would be the nothing more than the smallest footnote in the history of film if Anger hadn't done something fascinating with the soundtrack.

He put modern pop songs onto the film, and there was a sudden zing of divine beauty, as images and sounds combined in a whole new way, offering new juxtaposition and energy to the filmed image.

It still took a while to catch on, but one young filmmaker who took note of the movie was a Mr Martin Scorsese, who has become an artist at matching a good tune to a good image. And Scorsese has gone on to influence a thousand thousand other filmmakers, to the point where any movie set in the modern day feels weird without some kind of musical accompanist. It's given films as different as Pulp Fiction, Sleepless in Seattle and the Guardians of the Galaxy a whole new level.

It might seem like a trivial and silly thing to inject into modern culture, but it's still there, and Anger still did it first.

His second big influence on everything was even bigger, and can be seen in almost every newspaper and news bulletin on earth.

When Anger wrote his Hollywood Babylon books decades ago, they were written with a gleeful malevolence, as Anger picked the scabs off Hollywood's biggest stars. A minor player in the game of cinema ever since he appeared as a child in a 1930s adaption of a Midsummer's Night’s Dream, Anger was only too happy to share some of the biggest secrets he heard.

So Hollywood Babylon became the first place to really dig the dirt, and serve it up to a huge audience. It's where most people first found out about James Dean's habit of putting cigarettes out on himself, or saw the horrific effects that WC Fields' lifetime of drinking had produced, and there was plenty more murder, intrigue and malevolence behind Tinseltown's bright lights, with plenty of nasty photos. It didn't even matter if most of it probably wasn't true.

It was still scandalous, and still seen as dirty and grubby, but Anger's books showed there was an insatiable demand for celebrity dirt, and it's spawned an entire industry of salacious gossip today. Actors and musicians and other celebrities live and die by this strange news cycle these days.

The tabloids and mainstream news outlets that took Anger's style and ran with it might not be prefaced with a quote from Aleister Crowley, like Hollywood Babylon is, but they all owe debt to Anger's first efforts.

Kenneth Anger is still kicking around now in the year 2016, when so many other good and godly people have passed on, which says something about the health benefits of Satanism.

But I like to hope he sees some of the beautiful mess he has left behind in his idiosyncratic career, and the way we all came around to seeing movies and celebrity culture the way he does.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What is best in life? Holy Moley, there's some new Miracleman coming out!

I came to Marvelman so late, he will always be Miracleman to me. Warrior never made it to my corner of the world in the 1980s, and it took me damn near twenty years to get all the Eclipse back issues. The first one I bought brand new, off the shelf, was Miracleman #24, the second part of the Silver Age.

It was a cracking set-up for the next phase of the Age of Miracles, and then the next issue was delayed, and delayed, and delayed, and just faded away in the end.

And then Marvel somehow sorted out all the rights a few years back, and started republishing all the wonderful Moore/Gaiman issues, with the express promise that the story would be properly finished this time.

And now, after 25 goddamn years, they have finally caught up, and the new stories are coming soon.

It's weird that Marvel hasn't made more of a deal about it. After flooding the shelves with reprints of the fifties stuff that absolutely nobody demanded, and then stringing out the Moore/Gaiman issues through a series of interminable backmatter pages and outright fuck-ups, they're actually at the interesting part, the new stuff, and I only noticed it buried in the back of the Marvel section of the Previews catalogue.

I would have thought it would be more heavily promoted, because after all this time, this is the stuff people are actually waiting for, but there is a much bigger deal made about the return of the bloody Micronauts in the new solicitations. I always hated the bloody Micronauts.

I'm glad I spotted it hiding there in the solicitations, and even gladder that this long, rambling story is finally coming to an end.

I'm not expecting many surprises - a fairly detailed timeline was written for the Miracleman universe 30 years ago, and Gaiman has often mentioned where his last episodes of the saga were heading - but it's nice that this 25-year wait is just about over.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What is best in life? The extraordinary artwork of Barry Linton

New Zealand artist Barry Linton has been killing it with his idiosyncratic comics and eye-catching gig posters for decades now, and remains a vital slice of Kiwi pop culture.

I was first exposed to his work at a very young age - one of my cool uncles liked to collect Linton's comic work in Strips and other mini-comics in the late 1970s - and it was my first ever exposure to a non-mainstream comic. I was only five or so at the time, so his gleefully adult comics creeped me out a bit, and I couldn't get my head around his use of phonetic language, but his goofy figurework and sheer energy have always been an attraction.

Barry is still producing his own comics, usually set in the distant past or far future, and an excellent look at his career has just appeared on NZ music archive website Audioculture here 

His comics still creep me out a bit, but there is no denying that he is a dead set legend.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What is best in life? Paul Chadwick's 100 Horrors!

Paul Chadwick's 100 Horrors short comics, which used to run in the back of his Concrete books, never got close to the magic 100 numbers before the artist moved on, but they were suitable eerie, with some nightmarish and simple tales of terrible things happening. And sometimes they were just bloody funny, (the one with a falling star is a cracker).

This one was always my favourite, and still sticks in my mind as a particularly dreadful way for the human race to go out. (Click on the images to actually read the darn thing.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What is best in life? Dani Moonstar and her Valkryie sisters

One time I got some terrible food poisoning while travelling on the edge of the Gobi Desert in outer Mongolia. It was survivable, but not pleasant, especially when you're camping in a place that is 300 miles away from the nearest proper toilet, in a country with no roads.

There was only one real bad night, when I was puking and feverish and lying on the hard ground in a shitty tent, drifting in and out of consciousness.

And at one point in the night, there were some wild horses running around outside my tent - which is really no surprise, because there are wild horses running around all over Mongolia - and I had a moment of clarity when I knew with absolute certainty that the horses were being ridden by Dani Moonstar and her Valkyrie sisters, coming to take me away to Valhalla.

It's both comforting and extremely embarrassing to realise that even if my most fucked-up moments, when I'm totally out of my skull with fever, the first things that always come to mind are the comic books I read when I was 14.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is best in life? Il Maestro!

It's the year 2016, and Ennio Morricone is still creating kickass music for kickass movies.

All is right with the world.