One of the great pleasures in life is seeing a stylish and smart new action film at the cinema, but I barely get the chance any more, because they just don't appear at the cinema at all. My severe disappointment at the news that John Wick is going straight to DVD inspired this rant, which was originally written for nzherald.co.nz
Keanu Reeves might be an unlikely action star, but in the right film, he can be spectacular – no modern actor could have matched his perfect performances in Point Break, Speed and The Matrix.
At first glance, John Wick - Reeves' latest film – looks ridiculous, with Reeves going on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge after evil gangsters kill the dog that his dying wife gave him - but it just might just be a worthy addition to this minor pantheon of Great Keanu Action Flicks, according to overseas critics. But Kiwi audiences will have to take their word for it, because it is not going to screen in New Zealand cinemas.
Despite having a cinema release date for some time, John Wick is now destined for a DVD debut in this country. It performed fairly solidly at the US box office, (making more than double its production costs), and its impressive 84 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating shows it has struck a chord with many critics, (47 Ronin, Reeves' previous major release, which did appear on our screens, scored a lamentable 14 per cent rating), but Roadshow NZ has decided that nobody in this country needs to see it in the theatre.
It's frustrating, but it probably shouldn't come as a surprise – there has been a real drought of decent action films at local cinemas for some time, even though they are out there being made. There are some notable exceptions, and brilliant action films like The Raid 2 get a short window, but that is becoming increasingly rare. For the rest of 2014, the only film with any kind of action is the third Hobbit film. There are plenty of fluffy romantic comedies, worthy dramas and kids flicks, but almost nothing that would get the blood pumping.
And 2015 isn't looking much brighter, with almost all of the action movies on offer so far being dull, bloated blockbusters with more CGI than actual stunts, or tired retreads like Taken 3, proving that even the awesome sight of Liam Neeson punching people to death has sharply diminishing returns.
New Zealand film distributors might have figures and algorithms that prove they can only make money in certain demographics, but they're killing the joy of going to cinema if you don't fit into one of their boxes. There are loads of kids films, especially over the summer holidays, and there are plenty of nice, safe and slightly patronising movies about old people falling in love, but the pleasures of seeing something original and interesting for anybody in-between are being lost.
It's not just action films – the only horror films that get released are the boring jump-scares of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, while genuinely tense and innovative horror films like You're Next, Kill List, Berberian Sound Studio and It Follows make brief appearances at film festivals, before slumping out on DVD, even though they are designed to be experienced in the cinema.
Horror films aren't for everybody, but there is surely an audience hungry for cheap thrills that is being totally ignored. In the golden age of action cinema (otherwise known as the late 80s), it felt like there were truly great action films at the cinema every other week, with classics like Die Hard, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Terminator 2 and Robocop receiving wide releases, but those days are gone.
The Guest, a follow-up from the makers of You're Next that stars Downtown Abbey's Dan Stevens, is another interesting and stylish action film that is being ignored, (and it's sitting at 91 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes), and it's no use getting excited about anything else that looks interesting on the horizon, because we just won't get to see it.
It's particularly frustrating, because there has never been more choice in entertainment, with punters offered more opportunities to see things in a huge variety of formats. But the cinema is still the best place to see intense and original action films, and it's the one place you can't see them.
There is still some great action on television – the fight choreography on Game of Thrones is breathtaking- and there remains a healthy, happily direct-to-DVD market for cheap and cheerful action films, with minor stars like Scott Adkins building a cult following with his extraordinary physical prowess, (honestly, Undisputed III: Redemption might just be the greatest action film of the past decade).
But that thrill of seeing something a stylish, slick and smart action film in a theatre, sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, is one of the great pleasures of cinema, and it's a thrill we are constantly being denied.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
The biggest record store in my town has a fairly impressive rack of comic book trades and hardbacks, devoting half a dozen bookcases to the art of the four-colour funnies, and offering up a wide variety of comics for surprisingly reasonable prices.
I sometimes wonder what it all looks like to a non-comic reader. If you didn't know anything about them, what would it look like to you? What would stand out, and what would grab the attention?
I've been deep in the world for comics since before I can read, so I'm always looking for specifics on the shelf – who published this, and who drew that. My interests in comics has become ridiculously refined over the years, and I always know exactly what I'm looking for.
But if all you had to go on was a collection of books, beaming their covers out into the world, what would look good?
It's all pretty subjective, but some publishers really do a better job of presenting their face to the world than others. Unfortunately, despite decades and decades of experience with creating great comic covers, DC is not currently one of them.
The bookshelf full of DC comics really can't be that appetising, with cluttered covers that are far too over-coloured and over-designed, and a sheer weight of dull product.
The glut of the New 52 has spread through into the collected editions, with dozens and dozens of awfully average comics racking up multiple editions. There is no cohesive look amongst the individual titles, and they're all yelling at you, drowning each other out in white noise. Even Batman – the most iconic of all superheroes, and the hardest to screw up – often has too much going on.
There is the odd nicely-designed collection from DC, especially when they start morphing into the Vertigo books, but they're drowning in this sea of ill-thought posing, dull melodrama and over-use of text. It's particularly painful because DC used to be all about the brilliantly catchy cover, with the company's bronze age highlights always found on its fantastically designed covers.
Superman and Batman and Green Arrow and the Flash might be some of the biggest characters DC has, and the movies and TV shows they spawn must surely have some people looking to the original source, but there is nothing pretty to see here.
There is more of that unearned enthusiasm on Marvel's face, but also signs of hope. There is that same churning mass, with some of the unexpectedly popular Deadpool books offering little in the way of innovation or real style.
But there is also a pleasantly large amount of good design work, with some terrific use of white space and sparse, iconic artwork. The Moon Knight and Hawkeye books use this approach to look absolutely lovely, and the more a Marvel cover breaks everything down, the more eye-catching it becomes.
Even the Avengers and X-books, which invented most modern notions of superhero clutter, have some slick looking books on the stands, looking unexpectedly stylish and enticing.
Next to the Marvel monolith are the smaller publishers, and this is where I think the real treasures are found, but again, I know what I am looking for. This is a total mash-up of all kinds of comics, and it can get disturbingly random – Adventure Time books are sandwiched between Prison Pit and Tank Girl, which is going to get somebody in trouble some day, but that randomness is part of the charm. It's always interesting to see what weird pile of independent comics you're going to get in a non-specialist comic store, you could end up with anything.
But that also means that section belongs to readers who are just not interested in superhero nonsense – My Little Pony for the enthusiastic kids, Darwyn Cooke's Parker for the more thoughtful grown-ups. And it's also a bright and colourful section, with fantastic covers on books by Charles Burns, Dan Clowes and Art Spieglemen aching for some browsing.
And somewhere in the vast gulf between Persepolis and Harley Quinn, there is the Image comics, and it has to be the most enticing section of all.
It's a section anchored down by The Walking Dead – hands-down the most successful gateway comic in the past decade – and offers more of stand-alone thrills of a single story.
I've had a mental catalogue devoted to the deep minutiae of the Marvel and DC universes since I was four, but I know that's abnormal, and most people don't give a shit about what ties into what, they just want to read a straight story. And Image has somehow become the company that serves up that kind of smart, stylish story, with something for everybody.
After all, I don't give a damn about Saga or East Of West, but they both have enthusiast fans, so they must be doing something right. And these are the shelves where I buy the latest Prophet book, or the odd Brubaker thing I miss.
There is some sparkling variety in there, at an excellent price – you can get most of the first trade paperbacks for the price of two new X-Men issues from the comic shop up the road.
It's not a huge selection, and the variety only goes so far, but look at all those lovely covers, bringing that shelf to life. There is excellent design work going into the presentation of these Image publications – sharp colours, simple layouts, eye-catching logos.
But I can't deny that I just think the Image stand looks so much better than the bigger publishers' sections, and so much more welcoming to the new reader. We all judge a book by its cover (even if we all hate to admit it), and Image has some fucking awesome covers.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Nothing makes you feel old quite like getting stuck in a rut of liking the same old shit.
We live in a play-list age, where you can put all your favourite bits together, and there is so much of it, you don't need anything new. You can just listen to the same favourite tunes, and read the same kind of authors, over and over again.
It's so easy. It's too easy.
I fear change, but I also crave it, and always seek it out. That's how I've lived my life – I've never lived in the same house for longer than three and a half years, and I've never had a job that lasted four years. You gotta keep trying something new. You can't just see the same scenery on the way to work every day. You can do the same old shit day after day, but there are only so many days in a lifetime, and variety really is the spice of life.
Change can make me feel a bit sick and confused and weird. And excited and alive and free.
As in life, so it goes in entertainment. It's awfully comfortable reading, watching and listening to the same old shit, proven stories with a track record of emotional connection are understandably enticing. And there is nothing wrong in building up a rich library of established favourites, and revisiting them over the years, like old friends.
But there has to be something new. Man cannot survive on nostalgia alone, or he slides into inertia. There has to be novelty.
Fortunately, there is always novelty. Even after more than a century of innovation and invention, the art of cinema can still be outstandingly original (even if that originality can be awfully rare), and TV still beams small slices of head-splitting brilliance amongst the churn of idiocy into the living room every week. There is always something brilliant and new to watch.
And there is always something new to read in the wide and wonderful world of comics. I do still buy everything by favourite creators, but I'll also give something new a go, any time. You never know when you're going to stumble across something brilliant, unles you try. I still enjoy going through the big Previews catalogue, looking for something new to try, looking for something that looks sexy or exciting.
I still have to be a realist about it all, and despite numerous attempts at grimly determined optimism on this blog, I have to admit that the vast majority of new comics I try out are fuckin' awful - often morally and artistically repellent. But it's easy enough to ignore all that and keep trying, searching for some kind of sublime beauty or unexpected connection. It's totally worth it.
I like the same old stuff I’ve always liked and I don’t want it to be changed, because that’s hard and awkward and weird. But I also like that hard, awkward weirdness – it’s exciting and new and reminds me why I’m alive.
And there is nothing quite like finding new music, like hearing a song for the first time that speaks to your soul, or thrills you to the very core. Great new music is a reason for living, and we live at a time where there is so fucking much new stuff, gatekeepers of taste are required to keep track of the tiniest fraction of new music. It's all out there, on YouTube or Spotify or whatever, all available for anybody who wants it.
But the paradox is that we also have the ability to create our own play-lists, and can merrily spend all our time listening to the same old stuff, without having to worry about the new. Even the most narrow of musical tastes has thousands of hours of music to satisfy and collect together in one long list, without having to resort to anything new.
Even a half-arsed playlist can still contains thousands and thousands of songs, which can be used as a soundtrack for life, the mix-tape mentality annihilating the importance of an album – no ups and downs in quality or mood or rhythm, just the never-ending great stuff..
Having all your favourite songs ever in one place is great, but can leave you listening to the same brilliance over and over again, and losing the ability to track down new thrills. Which is why, after a decade of abstinence, I've started listening to the radio again.
The same things that drove me away from the radio – things like the awful, blaring adverts and moronic DJs – are still there, but it is still, after all this time, a magnificently valuable source of novelty.
I skip between half a dozen radio stations, including hard rock, student and pure pop stations, looking for new stuff, and getting fed a regular amount of it. It's where I find music I never would have heard otherwise, pushing me into finding even more. I still like listening to the same old intense shit I always liked, but now I'm hearing things I never could have imagined. (It's also brilliant for reminding me of old favourites I'd forgotten about, or never truly appreciated before.)
We're losing that art of browsing - buying the usual books online is infinitely less satisfying than stumbling across something unexpectedly wonderful on the shelf of an actual store, and the random tunes that a radio station shoves into my world are always welcome with their unpredicted charms.
I know what I want a lot of the time, and that's easy enough to find. But it's the stuff I don't know I want that is actually needed, and I don't mind admitting I need help with it.
My musical tastes are painfully predictable, but they haven't atrophied just yet. There is still a bit of vitality and life in there.
I'm listening to the radio even as I write these words, and it's played songs I never could have chosen myself, filling my head with new sounds. And as long as there are new sounds to hear, I'll be seeking them out.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
One day a computer is going to kill me.
They're going to find me slumped over a keyboard somewhere, blood leaking from my ears, with a heart stopped by pure rage, because a piece of technology wouldn't do what it bloody well should.
Because nothing drives me into a red rage like malfunctioning technology. I know this is the ultimate first world problem, and I know it's bloody stupid, but it's the only thing that gets me punch-the-wall angry on a regular basis.
And knowing just how stupid it is just makes it worse. If I lose my shit when Solitaire keeps crashing on the new version of Windows, I hope to God nobody can see me, because I'm throwing a petulant little tantrum over bullshit, and nobody looks good doing that.
(Although, seriously, how do you fuck up Solitaire? How do you fuck up the most basic game you've got? Microsoft somehow managed, and it drives me fuckin' bonkers!)
People always assume I'm good with computers, because I look like the sort of dork who is good with computers, and because I'm good at quickly picking up tech-related things. But even though I can bluff my way through most of it, I usully don;t have a fucking clue what I'm talking about.
I did do some IT work for a couple of years in the mid nineties, and I was okay at iyt, but then a network I'd set up wouldn't work and I'd get all worked up about it. I did like the problem solving aspect, and fixing an itchy glitch was the best feeling, but there was always more frustrations that joys.
But shit, that was 20 years ago now, and technology has exploded since then, and I could never keep up. The way the internet works might as well be magic, for all I know. I even work in an online world, but I have no idea how it all works. When people are surprised by this, I also point out that I'm a bloody good driver, but I ain't no mechanic.
So I know it's bullshit, but man, when a computer doesn't do what it is told, or locks up for absolutely no reason, or steals 30 seconds of my vital and important life which I could have spent wanking, I'm a quivering mountain of suppressed rage.
If it happens in an office environment, I hold it together enough to not make a scene, because you never want to be known as the dude who lost his shit that one time, or you'll ALWAYS be known as the dude who lost his shit that one time, but I'll be quietly mashing the mouse into the desk with white knuckle intensity.
But when it happens at home, that's when things get really shameful. I have these giant banana boxes full of comics stacked near the home PC, and when things don't go my way, those boxes can take a pummelling.
They're actually quite good for that - punching paper is easier than punching oak or steel. But sometimes the computer locks up, or shuts down with unfinished work left unsaved, and I punch the shit out of a box of comics, and it still hurts like hell, and if I hurt it enough, I might realise how fucking stupid I'm being and calm down. I might.
I can't tell if the anger malfunctioning technology stirs in my soul comes from the same place that loves the fucking things when they're working fine. My life-long enthusiasm for video games remains undimmed (as I discovered this week while catching up with the latest version of GTA). New technology remains fascinating, if only in ideal, and current computers free us all from the shackles of geography.
Without modern computers, I wouldn't be able to find out that Bruce Campbell is coming back for new Evil Dead half an hour after it was announced, and I wouldn't be able to write meta-tastic blog posts about that time I punched a box of comics in computer-induced rage, and share them with the world, and anybody who can be bothered reading them.
Thanks to technology, this is the Age Of Communication, where we can all talk to each other, about anything we want. I truly think this is a great thing, demolishing nationalism's toxic propaganda and exposing great injustices on a global scale.
Which is all when and good, but when that enforced patch update has been stuck at 93% for 20 minutes, locking everything on the computer, every piece of tech ever created can go get fucked, I'm pushing for a return to the stone age.
It also drives me crazy because there is no reason for technology to malfunction – all of our tech operates on the most basic binary level, where everything is 'yes/no'. Never 'maybe'.
This is an absolute clarity that Steve Ditko could only dream of. There is something even a little spiritual in the fundamental truth of a binary language, and its clear lines of demarcation.
So I can handle it when a human makes a fuck-up (unless it's intentionally malicious), because humans are these vastly complex creations which sometimes do things for no good reason whatsoever, but computers don't have that freedom, or complexity. They work or they don't. Yes or no. Nothing else.
Again, I don't want to live in a world with computers. They make life easier, and more fun, and more engaging. I use them every day, for both work and pleasure.
But I don't use them for everything, and I never, ever read books or comics or magazines on a device, despite plenty of good arguments for a digital life. It's partly that weird thing of making a pleasantly pointless pastime feel like work, but it's mainly because I just don't trust the technology to always work. Even putting aside battery issues, you still can't beat a printed object for ease of use.
You could take the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man and throw it off the Empire State Building, and then run over it in a cab, and then roll it up and kill a wasp with it, and still read the damn thing when you're done, while my friend had an iPad that shut down if you farted in its general direction.
I can't take that kind of aggravation, not with my comics. Comic books are pure pleasure, I can't taint it with my tech issues. I just can't.
So that's why I know my fate, and it's face-down on the desk. I hope it's a long time in the far future, that sees me bursting a blood vessel over the Windows 17.X installation, falling onto a keyboard made of squid or some shit.
Computers that don't work are not worth this kind of aggravation, but it's there, bubbling away. It could be argued that it's a good form of stress release that wouldn't be unleashed in an anti-social situation, but that doesn't make my hand ache any less.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
This week, I have been spending most of my spare time reading magnificently chunky World Of Ice and Fire book, intersperse with a final heroic push to finally finish off Lance Parkin's epic AHistory: A History Of The Doctor Who Universe.
As a result, my head is far too full of vast, complicated and contradictory chronologies to string a coherent thought together, let alone write anything for this blog. Instead, I need to come down from the data overload by going for long walks in the sudden sunshine, playing 10-year-old video games, and watching some Adam Curtis' films, which are surprisingly relaxing.
Normal service, such as it is, will resume later this week.
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
I turn 40 early next year, and I'm going to try and ignore the eternal wail of mortality by spending part of the big day driving around Jeff Lester's favourite Portland comic shops.
I also take comfort in the fact that while I am now officially an old fuck, the world is a very, very different place from what it was 40 years ago, and I see it most obviously in five comics that came out the year I was born.
1. Uncanny X-Men #94
I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or not, but it is somewhat startling to realize that the huge success of the X-Men title, including all of Chris Claremont’s monumental run and the past 20 years of hits and misses, has only happened in my lifetime.
It’s fascinating to go back and look at these early Claremont/Cockrum issues now, and see how they are slightly above-average superhero comics of the time, but now tempered by the knowledge that these silly little comics are laying the foundation for something that will change superhero comics forever.
Throwaway lines spawn huge, sprawling, decades-long stories, and there is a palpable sense of the creators throwing everything into the mix, just waiting to see what sticks – the latest Sentinels upgrade, or the dopey Ani-Men, or the Shi'ar craziness, or the weird demons that live down the back of Professor Xavier's garden, or those freaking leprechauns.
This is where it all starts, and it's still got a lot of evolution to come, and it's there right through my life – Death of Phoenix at age six, rabid fanaticism as a teenager, active disinterest coming and going as an adult. Like it or not, I've been molded by the X-Men.
2. Battle Picture Weekly #1
Across the Atlantic, Battle was a sister comic to 2000ad, focusing on war instead of science fiction, and published a couple of years before the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic premiered. Even though both comics shared a lot of the same creators, Battle never really reached the same level of quality as 2000ad, with frequent filler stories that were never more than average in art and story. It still lasted more than a decade, but eventually choked on silly juvenile bullshit.
But it was also an important bridge between the awfulness of earlier British war comics, with painfully simplistic stories with one-dimensional characters and bland, boring art, transforming into something new.
There was still a lot of ‘Achtung! Britisher scum!’ going on in Battle, especially in the earliest issues, but it also wasn't afraid to show the horrors of war, with strips like Charley's War and Johnny Red focusing on flawed heroes, caught up in massive, world-changing events, and the horrors they inevitably bring.
Creators like Pat Mills and John Wagner pushed the war comic into new depths, and take those lessons on to comics like Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock, and Battle remains a crucial step in that growth.
3. Strange Tales #181
Some Marvel Comics went pleasantly strange in the 1970s, and writers dropped acid to experience new perspectives, and tried to get their trippy revelations down in four-colour glory.
A lot of those comics are almost unreadable now, as some of the basics of comic storytelling, essential for any kind of reading comprehension, slipped by, but others are timelessly and wonderfully fucked up.
I came to Jim Starlin’s Warlock comics at a very young age, only a couple of years after they were published, and they seriously scared the piss out of me, because they just didn’t make any sense.
And of all the Starlin comics of that era, this one, with the piles of dead clowns buried in trash and diamonds, was the freakiest. It was the sheer pointlessness of the surreal horror that stuck, and still sticks with me.
It might have taken me a while to catch up, but things got fucking weird in the mid-seventies, and who would want it any other way?
4. Footrot Flats
For many comic strip fans, Peanuts is generally regarded as the pinnacle of the form. Unless you live in New Zealand, where it was always, always Footrot Flats.
Life down on the farm could be harsh and cruel, but it could also be human and funny, and Footrot Flats captured that contrast perfectly. It first started appearing in 1975, but soon became a hugely popular and incredibly funny fixture in almost every newspaper in the country, and spawned a surprisingly dark – and still faithful – cartoon feature in the late eighties.
For 20 years, the story of the Dog, Wal, Cooch, Cheeky, Rangi, Aunt Dolly & her beloved Prince Charles, Pongo and the unmovable Horse the cat ruled New Zealand’s funny pages, and a full shit-ton of collected books were sold every year (and still smell like Christmas to me).
Nothing has spoken to so many Kiwis at the same time, and it's highly likely nothing ever will again – many NZ newspapers don't carry any real comic strips at all, (although some are still reprinting Footrot Flats, 20 years after they're gone).
But for two glorious decades, everyone was happy to visit the farm. It's the one comic my Nana and I could love equally, and it's still a wonderful cultural touchstone that is still funny as hell.
5. The Joker #2
The short-lived comic starring the Clown Prince of Crime is another comic I came to at a very young age – and Joker #2 is actually one of the very first individual stories I ever remember reading.
In fact, it’s irrevocably tied in to one of my first existential dilemmas, because I still have a vivid memory of sitting in my bed at six in the morning somewhere in the late seventies, reading this comic, when my Dad left for work, and I just couldn’t understand why he had to go away every day, and the misery of being separated, even if only for a few hours, was everything, and all I could do was read this comic to help me feel better.
And I’m still doing that today – escaping into these strange and wonderful worlds of comics when it all gets a bit too much. I might be nearly 40, but there is still some part of me that is that confused little kid in the 1970s, reading a Joker comic to keep the fears – and tears - away.
NOTE: This list was originally created for Tom Spurgeon's fabulous Five For Friday feature at The Comics Reporter. Please go and make your own list for Tom when he asks for them, I keep forgetting because it's Saturday here when it happens and I'm never on my bloody computer then.
Friday, October 31, 2014
It was somewhere just past the 3d lenticular Walking Dead wall hangings that we got stuck. The crowd had reached a point where there was no room for anybody to move, and we were all stuck at the crossroads between the video gaming hall and the stalls full of replica steampunk weapons.
It was my mate Kyle’s first Armageddon geek convention in Auckland – the biggest nerd event of the year – and he'd travelled all the way from the South Island for a day at the show. It started out as a bunch of trading card and comic book dealers gathering at a racecourse hall in the mid-nineties, and now attracts tens of thousands of happy nerds. The trading card dealers are all long gone, but there are still a few comic stands out there, and that’s why I’m there.
Kyle is there for other things – a chance to get an autograph and photo with a current Doctor Who companion is a ‘no-brainer’, so he’s flown up from down south just for that. The lines for this briefest of interactions is surprisingly fast, and he’s free, so we go to walk the con floor, get about 20m and get hopelessly, helplessly stuck in a sea of geek.
It’s no use moaning about it. I’m still taller than 90 per cent of the crowd, so I can see over their heads and see that the hall has become hopelessly gridlocked. The showgrounds has wide, clear aisles, but there are just too many people, and one hopelessly impractical Silent Hill cos-player getting stranded at a crucial juncture can bring everything grinding to a halt.
So all we can do is wait for a moment to clear, and take more interest in those lenticular wall hangings than they deserve. The only other option for freedom is to start treading all over the seven-year-old in a Captain America costume beside us, and that would not be a good look, so we just help shield the little guy from the flow of the crowd.
Earlier in the day, Kyle and I got into the exhibition space early through the magical power of media passes, so got a chance to scope out all the stands before the day actually started, and now that he’s got his scrawl and pic, he’s happy. We would bolt altogether and go for a quiet beer somewhere, but there is one more stand I want to get back to, because I'm not done with the comics just yet.
There is a brief surge in the crowd, nothing violent, more a moment of relief, and we get to backtrack down the aisle a bit, but we only get 10 metres before everything grinds to a halt again.
At least we’ve got a different view and, improbably, it’s a comic stand. High end back issues, where 9.8-grade issues of the Claremont/Miller Wolverine #1 and mylered-up issues of early Fantastic Four comics go for hundreds of dollars.
It's good to check out all those gorgeous covers while we're stuck here, but this is not my market – I crave the old stuff, but don’t give a damn about the condition, so I’m more happy buying 20 $1 issues of DC war and horror comics from the 1970s from a different stand, rather than one half-way decent issue of mid-sixties Justice League.
(I always have weird regrets from these kind of things – I see a comic that I desperately want, but it’s just a little too expensive, and then I wish I’d gone back and I regret it forever, and it comes at this booth – that Spider-Man v Super-Man Treasury edition is looking a little ragged for thirty bucks, but I’ve never seen it for less than $50 in this part of the world, and I’ve just about talked myself into getting it, and then there is a gap in the crowd, so we bolt for it, and I leave it behind, and that was two days ago, and I’m still cursing myself as a stupid fucking wanker for passing on it.)
Even without that titanic team-up, I still come back with a small pile of comic goodness, and some fairly inexplicable awfulness
The day before the crush, on a Friday night preview, my American friend Nik somehow convinces me that I should really get all five issues of Trouble, the universally panned romance comic by Mark Millar and Terry & Rachel Dodson, for a whole $2.50, and it's actually an easy sell, because I do still like those creators, and have always been fascinated by the vastly negative reaction to this series.
But it will be a while until I get around to reading it, because there is a whole bunch of other good stuff. Beautiful little oddities like The Joe Kubert School Presents: 1st Folio #1, Charles Vess' The Book Of Night and Buck Godot: Zap Gun For Hire. Crucial gap fillers, including the inevitable 2000ad and Vertigo comics. That small mountain of ratty war and horror comics, and Tom Spurgeon's sweet hardcover book about the Romita family.
And, best of all, the Dharma Punks, the only comic I've ever helped Kickstart, is finally available in a collected edition, and I arrange to pick up my copy at the show, and congratulate Ant Sang on finally getting it out. Trouble can wait, when there are three-hundred pages of kiwi punk comix to devour.
But before I can get to all that, I have to get out of here alive. We get a bit further towards the corner of the hall before we’re stuck again, as we’re hit face-on by a surge of people from a panel starring Richard Dean Anderson, but then we duck down past the dude with the awesome Judge Dredd tee-shirts (I already got three), and we're almost free of the mass.
It could be so easy to freak out in this situation. It’s actually a good vibe. It's like a good concert, where there can be long frustrating lines for refreshments and toilets, but everyone is just stoked to be there, buzzing off their favourite band, just like we're buzzing off our favourite comic, or game, or TV show.
And when we all get stuck, there is no need to panic, especially with so many kids around. Nobody gets really shitty and everybody waits patiently for a gap, even if- Shit! There's some room! Go, go, go!
And then we’re free, ducking down a side corridor and coming out near that stand with the weirdest and most wonderful comics available at the show. This is why I'm here.
I'm here for the place where I can get two (2!) Dave Cockrum tribute books, a rare early Knuckles the Malevolent Nun comic, some Milligan/Aparo Batman, the first three issues of Toxic, the last four issues of Marvel's Vampire Tales, random issues of Bizarre Adventures and Savage Tales, a Young Blueberry album and dense issues of Deadline & the Comics Journal – all for less than fifty bucks.
I don't care about the long lines, or the crowd compression, or the sheer weight of nerd that descends on the Auckland showgrounds every year. Not when there is such treasure to be found.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
As long as there has been art, there have been people wanting to cover it up and keep it quiet.
Censorship exists in that brutal space where individual artistic freedom slams into the blunt wall of society's moral code – it was there when ancient Christians hacked the cocks off Roman statues, and again and again in the past century - when William Gaines failed to explain why a severed head was in good taste, when the UK Government lost its shit over video nasties in the early 1980s, and when US artist Mike Diana's comics were deemed so gross he was actually legally forbidden to draw anything.
The crusaders for good taste stake their claim on the moral high ground, and don't even understand why there is resistance to their meddling and editing. But they're also hilarious in their piousness, especially when all their efforts don't mean shit, because censorship never really works. And sometimes it just makes things worse.
I know where I stand on the argument: artistic freedom is paramount, and no matter how disturbing or offensive things get, I always know one simple rule – and it's one that 95% of people figure out while they're still kids – it's not real. It's okay, it's just fiction.
There are writers and comedians and other know-it-alls that are deliberately provocative, trying as hard as they can to be offensive, and my little punk heart thrills to see them trying to get a reaction, and while it's also so terribly adolescent, I don't think you can ever shut them up. After all, how will you ever learn what people really think if you don't let them speak?
I'll always stand up for the little guy. I proudly get the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund annual issue every year, even if fully half the stories are always painfully, painfully earnest. After all, I have a fascination with intense fiction – the kind of stories that go all the way, and then some – and that leads to regular frowning and muttering, and even to outright cutting or banning, if enough people get their knickers in a twist.
It doesn't work. I remember watching Robocop on TV, somewhere in the early nineties, and after they cut all the swearing and violence out, it just made it all more noticeable in its absence, especially when the cuts took out key parts of the plot. It was laughable, especially when they would dub over horrid swear words, and mother fuckers would become melon farmers.
Censorship invariably brings attention on the thing it's trying to suppress – I would never have heard of Mike Diana if his artistic rights hadn't been trampled upon. In a typically brilliant episode of Father Ted, an attempt to say 'down with this sort of thing' makes a dodgy filim all the more enticing, because nothing makes people want to see something more than somebody else standing in the way, saying they really shouldn't.
The worst case of censorship I ever saw, (and its hilariously awful consequences,) was a few years ago when the lovely wife and I were in Egypt. It was the hottest part of the day, and everyone was getting in out of the sun, and we were chilling in our hotel room, with the air conditioner on maximum.
One of the few English language stations was playing old movies, and Billy Wilder's marvellous The Seven Year Itch came on, and it was just the thing for the long wait for the shadows to lengthen: a witty, clever story of life in the big city.
It's a terrific film, with one of Marilyn Monroe's greatest performances. And it's a stifling, claustrophobic and muggy film, set in the confining skyscrapers of New York in the middle of a stinking hot summer, with all sorts of temptations to let off a little steam.
It all famously reaches a head in Marilyn's scene with the subway wind blowing up her dress, and it's not just a gloriously iconic moment in cinema, it's a real moment of release of all the frustrations of the film, finally giving it some room to breathe. While watching the film in my tiny Cairo hotel room, I knew that scene was coming, and craved that breathing space in provided in the story.
And then they cut it right out.
The Egyptian TV that we got to see had no problem with a bit of the old ultra-violence, but physical intimacy was right out. No holding hands, no embracing, and definitely no kissing, even in something that was more than half a century old.
And definitely no Marilyn Monroe enjoying herself.
It was easy to see the cut, and you could even understand the motives of the censors (without ever having to actually condone it). But it threw the whole movie out of balance – without this moment of pleasure, the film was just stuffy and hot, and massively unsatisfying. Without any contrast or release, there was almost no point to the whole film any more.
In trying to keep minds uncorrupted, they left them frustrated, which doesn't work out for anybody.
And then! On the flight home, the lovely wife was watching that awful Australia film, starring Huge Jackman and Nikki Kidman, and she was really into it, because that's the sort of thing she's into, and it was all leading up to the moment when the rugged man and determined woman finally embrace and...
They cut out the kiss, because we were on an Emirates flight, and they didn't want to corrupt us with images of face-locking, and the lovely wife almost punched the screen in emotional frustration.
She said it was the biggest tease ever, with no reward. A harmless little romance movie becomes something deeply frustrating.
A year after we left Egypt there was a revolution against the government. I'm not saying a national government was overthrown because of an oppressive approach to entertainment that denies any kind of real release or relief from the stress of modern life, but it probably didn't help.
We all need our entertainments to get through this slog of a life, and any film that is thrown out of careful balance can become incoherent, or actively subvert the actual message of the movie.
That's why you can't trust people who try and stop you experiencing your kind of art, especially when they're telling you it's for your own good. Because that kind of closed mindedness isn't good for fucking anybody.