Thursday, August 25, 2016
What would you do if you had a time machine? Would you go back and kill Hitler, or find some answers to some of the biggest questions in creation? Would you follow up some of history’s greatest mysteries, or travel to the future to see how it all works out? Or would you use the technology to be in The Smiths and be a shit to Morrissey?
Mark Millar’s comics often come with the stench of hedonistic wish fulfillment, and can come off as little more than daydreaming about what he would do if he had fantastic superpowers. It’s there in almost all of his superhero comics, and is more obvious in books like Super Crooks and Superior. MPH, his Duncan Fegredo-drawn comic about working-class super-speedsters, was the most obvious example until now, as Millar had his heroes use the ability to travel incredibly fast to amass ludicrous amounts of personal wealth and play crazy practical jokes before the inevitable comedown.
But at least MPH pretended to have a story underneath all that self-indulgence, even if it was the most simplistic thoughts about class and race. Chrononauts, which was drawn by the great Sean Murphy and published last year, doesn’t even have that, and might be the most superficial thing Mark Millar has ever written. Which is saying something.
The ‘heroes’ of Chrononauts are a couple of jerk dude-bros, who crack the secret of time travel, and use it to blast around the timestream, stealing credit for things like The Beatles’ music, Breaking Bad and Harry Potter, and conquering some of history’s greatest empires by using rad future technology.
It’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to feel any sympathy for these shitheads as they leave piles of dead bodies and time paradoxes behind them. Some trite moralising at the end about making time to spend with your loved ones comes far too late to give a damn.
The rest of it is infantile fantasizing – ‘If I had a time machine, I’d snog Cleopatra and shoot dinosaurs with a bazooka and make dumb jokes at the birth of Christ’ – in search of a story. I just read it half an hour ago, and couldn't twll you much more about the comic than that.
Because that’s it, there is nothing more. I’m certainly a Millar apologist, and can usually find something nice to say about his most vulgar works, but sometimes even he leaves me cold, and this one did.
Shit, I even liked The Unfunnies, and this comic didn't work for me at all.
At least, like almost all of Millar’s comics, it has a decent artist, and while it seems like a waste of Sean Murphy’s time to be working on this rubbish, he still makes it look great.
After all, Millar may occasionally go off the rails, but his ability to give artists cool shit to draw is undiminished, and Murphy seizes the chance to render rampaging dinosaurs, ancient badass warriors, gangsters and pop stars.
His sketchy detailing gives his comics an energetic pace, while he gives the humblest of background characters some supremely goofy expressions, helping them to stand out from the crowd.
But even with Murphy's best efforts - I can only hope that he made enough from the movie option to justify this crap - it’s that adolescent wish –fulfillment that starts to grate after a dozen pages.
Millar has been doing the whole ‘what cool things can you really do with awesome superpowers and crazy technology’ things for most of his career, and it’s one of the few tics he still regularly uses from the days when he used to slavishly copy Grant Morrison’s style. Morrison did it all first in Zenith, more than 30 years ago now, when he realised that if he was superhero, he wouldn’t go around getting into punch-ups, he’d be trying to get on Top of the Pops instead. Millar is still following in those footsteps, without really adding anything new.
There is always the possibility that Millar is taking the piss, and that you’re supposed to think of the main characters in Chrononauts as fucking idiots who deserve all the shit that comes down on them, but it's too awfully sentimental about them to argue that case. I think we're actually supposed to give a damn about them.
It'll make a great movie trailer. Shame it's just an awful comic.
Monday, August 22, 2016
There's really only one joke in all of Icelandic cartoonist Hugleikur Dagsson's comics - with no regard for taste, morality or niceness, they're all going for the "I can't believe you said that" reaction.
This could get pretty tedious pretty quickly, and sometimes it does if you're reading page after page of pure nastiness. But Dagsson also really commits to the offensiveness - the go hard or go home philosophy - so you've got to give him credit for that. I'm just not leaving it lying around on the coffee table in case some poor schmuck stumbles across it.
Dagsson's comics are collected in books with charming titles like 'I Hate Dolphins', ‘My Pussy Is Hungry’ and ‘Is This Supposed To Be Funny?’, and the artist makes no secret that he is out to shock and annoy. The back cover for I Hate Dolphins boasts a long and negative review, which says the artist is "utterrly without talent" and his work is ‘vile, crude and disgusting’. (The review is footnoted by a cartoon of a mother throwing up in her baby's pram.)
The esteemed critic at Gateway Monthly isn't wrong about the last part, but is wrong about the humour. It is funny, once you get past the moral gag reaction.
Because Dagsson has a go at everybody - children, parents, Santa, cute animals, people with rare genetic disorders, Lenny Kravitz, grieving relatives and the entire concept of love. He takes a giant dump on everything that is good and decent in the world, and doesn't even wipe afterwards.
On their own, out of context, these cartoons are just appalling, and impossible to defend without sounding like a total prick. But when read in a decent chunk, Dagsson's cartoons have a numbing effect, which means when he really goes out there, it's just silly. And as a dedicated statement to sneer at all the nice people, his books are almost admirable.
They can also be crude, and they can be obvious, and they can be mean, and they can be very, very clumsy, and if you're the kind of person who is easily offended, you should really back away from his cartoons. Don't run, just slowly back away.
Crucially, Dagsson manages to do all this while avoiding the usual boring sneering 'anti-PC' snark. These kind of cartoons often reek of a political ideology, but there is none of that here. Dagsson really does hate everybody equally, and all faiths, cultures and creeds can go fuck themselves.
The art is sparse, to put it lightly - people are barely stick figures, and the cartoons hang in a large, blank and empty space. They're all tiny snapshots, with no continuity or progress, just someone doing or saying something really horrible at the exact funniest moment.
This blankness is another part of the appeal, and helps any reader dissassociate themselves from the very real pain and horror that Dagsson is making fun of. Watching the real life plight of children in places like Syria is unbearably tragic, a stick figure of another kid broken up into little pieces is just dopey. You can't take that seriously, no matter how noble your intentions are.
I always drink the local beer when I go travelling, and I always try to get a local comic, so I got the Dolphins book from the Nexus shop in Reijkavijk. It's not exactly representative of Icelandic humour - which is much dryer, and more polite - but it was close enough.
I've had it for more than a month, and still haven't read the whole thing, because when it becomes numbing, dozens and dozens of pages of nastiness gets a bit much. And I won't leave it out on the coffee table, because people might get the wrong idea about the type of person I am to laugh at this shit.
But I still like to sneak a peek every now and again. Because I still can't believe he said that.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
The Further Adventures Of Indiana Jones #14: It’s always been David Mazzucchelli’s world, I just didn’t know it.
David Mazzucchelli is a comics genius. Everybody knows this.
His work on Daredevil and Batman comics in the late eighties was absolutely superb, with sparse, clear action scenes, and characters full of weight, both dramatic and physical. He could have done anything after that and, brilliantly, forged his own path into art comix, with the complex adaption of City of Glass, and the vast Asterios Polyps.
There are some lengthy gaps between his big projects, but Mazzucchelli's work is worth the wait. Everybody knows this. I even knew it before I had any idea who he was.
Before he was a stone-cold genius, Mazzucchelli was another jobbing comic artist, and took any assignment he could. After getting his foot in the door at Marvel, his name would pop up on issues of Master of Kung Fu or X-Factor. And in 1984, he did an issue of the Indiana Jones comic that Marvel was publishing at the time.
He only did one issue, before moving on to do Batman: Year One or something. It was just another job and I’d be surprised if he even remembered doing it. But that issue blew my freaking mind.
I had a brief obsession with Marvel’s Indiana Jones comics around the time of Temple Of Doom, but because I was a poor kid on the arse end of the world, I could only get my small, sweaty hands on a few issues. When I did, I would literally read them to pieces.
The 14th issue of the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones was one of them, and I must have read it a hundred times when I was a kid, until it was burned into the deepest recesses of my memory. It was exciting and a bit spooky and had a great Bret Blevins cover (Blevins would later adapt the Last Crusade movie), and it was almost the perfect Indiana Jones comic.
Mazzucchelli’s art was – as should be expected for a eager newcomer - pretty generic under 'The Saint's' inks, and there wasn’t much sign of the crazy genius that the artist would become. But he had a great sense of pacing, right from the start, and there are certainly premonitions of the intense, exciting action scenes he would craft later in the decade.
Indy leaps through flaming bridges, dodges falling boulders in the rain, swings across precarious cliff faces, and narrowly avoids getting his head taken off by an ancient sword swung by Pondexter The First. It’s a Marvel comic from the eighties, so it’s full of wordy exposition, but it still rocks along at a fair clip, and the artist still gets to do creepy, quiet moments, full of shadow and expectation in an empty resort in a thunderstorm. There's even room for a tiny bit of romance.
I just read this little comic for the first time in more than 25 years, and it’s still a cracker of an Indiana Jones story. With a straightforward plot of possession from the horrifically underrated David Michelinie, it’s a neat little one-off.
And I had no idea that it was Mazzucchelli's art that I had enjoyed so much, all those years ago. He was still finding his voice as an artist, but he was getting there.
Of course, when I read it back in 1984, I had no idea it was a one-off, and thought it was the most important Indiana Jones comic ever, and I spent years wondering what was the ghost Marion might had seen. Discovering later on that it was just a random fill-in that didn’t really mean anything was a full-blown existential crisis for a while.
But even if it is just a fill-in, it's a swift little adventure with some promising early art from a modern master of the form.
It's always worth finding, or rediscovering, little archeological treasures like that.
Monday, August 15, 2016
When Jeff Smith finished his wonderful Bone comic a decade ago, it was clearly done. The story which he had been telling since the early nineties reached its natural conclusion, all the plot points were tied off, and there was nothing more to say.
That did not stop Smith from returning to his greatest creation, of course, and he put out a new Bone comic recently, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first issue. It was a great surprise, but also a little concerning. Was there any need for a new Bone story? Was there anything more to add?
Not really, as it turns out. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Bone: Coda came out last month as a softcover book, packaged with a lengthy essay on the creation of Bone by Smith, and the entertaining, insightful and only slightly patronising Bone Companion by Stephen Weiner. It’s an all-new 35-page comic that starts immediately after the end of Bone, with the cousins heading out into the desert, heading for home, and getting into another wacky adventure.
And it ends with the cousins heading out into the desert, heading for home, and probably getting into another wacky adventure. There was no great addition to the Bone saga, no vital piece of information to impart – just a big, creepy animal messing up the Bones’ day.
As the title suggests, it’s just a little coda, and is a lot of fun, as fun as any of the other great Bone stories.
It’s funny, with the usual great comic timing, goofy body language, zipping one-liners and mad eyebrows. Smith revels in the slapstick, and always finds humour in the quiet moments between the frenteic action.
And he’s still a great action artist, pacing out a crash or fall over multiple open panels, living in the calm moment before the sudden impact, capturing the uncontrollable grace of bodies flying through the air, and the dusty, awkward landing.
And it is nice to see these characters again, and see them interact, just like they used to. Smiley Bone’s idiotic grin is still hiding a big heart and bigger balls, (and he is bloody great at lateral thinking), while Phoney Bone is as mean and selfish as he ever was, and just as brave and helpful when it really counts. Fone Bone is still the straight man who holds it all together, and Bartleby the friendly rat creature is just as sharp as the rest of them.
But the best thing about the new comic is that it really is as superfluous as it claims on the back cover. Comic nerds get so hung up on only following stories that matter, like the latest summer mega-crossover, but there are real pleasures in a story that isn’t weighed down by metatextual depths, or its claim to be at the centre of some huge, sprawling saga.
Instead, it is what it is. It’s just a story that is getting by on its own merits. It doesn’t have to matter. It can just be fun. Any fears that it might pick at some thread of the greater story and unravel the whole damn thing, or that it would make the fatal mistake of showing the town of Bownville, are totally unfounded. It’s just a fun adventure.
Jeff Smith’s Bone got suitably epic for a while there, but this is more than enough for one last little story, as long as it doesn't matter.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
I thought I was doing pretty well this time. I thought I had it all under control. But I thought wrong. There is no getting this comic book monkey off my back.
I've made little secret of the fact that I view international travel as an excuse to visit comics shops around the world. Sure, it's fun to go inside the great pyramid of Giza, or ride the Mongolian steppes, or see the Loch Ness Monster, but what I really want to do is go back to the store in Dublin with all the cool Megazine issues I've been after.
Still, I tried to take it easy with the comic obsessions on this latest month-long trip, and I really did manage it for a while. But only a while.
It helped that the first few countries we went to on this trip were non-English speaking countries like Germany and Japan, so I could just focus on the culture and food and landscapes and shit, instead of sneakily looking for comic shops.
I did still stumble across a store in Frankfurt, but managed to restrain myself, because almost all of their product was in the German language – it was genuinely surprising how much superhero crap gets translated over there - so it was easy to move on.
So for the first two weeks of our latest trip, I only shopped at one comic store – the terrific Nexus shop in in Reykjavik, which had both an excellent selection of comic offerings, and reasonable prices, (everything else in Iceland is expensive as hell). I got some Bryan Talbot, because I always buy Bryan Talbot books from Northern comic shops. I had to get the Tale Of One Bad Rat this time, because I'm pretty sure the arsehole I lent it to in 1997 isn't going to return it anytime soon.
Even when we spent a weekend in New York, I showed admirable restraint, even when I was walking down streets where I knew stores were nearby. It was too hot and there was too much good shit to eat and cool shit to look at.
But I'm only human, and I still stopped in at St Marks Comics, on the recommendation of a blog comment from a lovely reader, and I got some of the DC Digests I love so much, and some Marvel Age annuals. That was all I needed - I had to get to Peter Luger's steak joint, goddamnit.
Then we were up in Canada looking at polar bears and beluga whales for a week, and there wasn't much up there on the Tundra. So it was a comic store in Winnipeg, on the first leg home, that broke me. We were wandering around the middle of town, trying to fill in time before going to see the new Star Trek film, and suddenly I was standing in a shop full of some super rare Doctor Who Missing Adventure novels and the one issue of Ennis and McCrea's Demon series that I had needed to complete a 22 year search.
I also walked out of there with the last issue of Peter Milligan's early nineties Detective Comics I was after and the one issue of Jim Starlin's original Warlock comics that I'd been looking for forever, and I just gave in. This was the last stretch of the holiday. This was my last chance.
To my usual shame, and with huge apologies to the long-suffering wife, I went a bit mental after that, and stopped in as many shops in Houston and Baton rouge and New Orleans as I could. Mostly I stocked up on $1 reading copies of Silver and Bronze age comics, (the type you never see going back home for less than $20), and I came tantalizingly close to filling out the holes in my BPRD and Hellboy runs - by the end of the week, I've snapped up 21 different Mignola-verse comics
Some of the stores were more games than comics, but I still found some cheap Sgt Rock comics, and tie-ins to the X-Men's Inferno crossover that I didn't even know existed, until I found them sandwiched between a tonne of Voltron titles and New 52 books. There was always something.
I'm such a fucking nerd, that I still get a kick out of paying US cover price for new comics, when I'm used to paying three times as much back home.
A lot of strip-mall stores blend into one, especially when they're all loaded with the same Harley Quinn and Deadpool comics as everywhere else. But some stood out.
I have to make special mention to Robert at the store in Baton Rouge, who tried so hard to give me something memorable to take away, only for me to bat away his suggestions with a grossly casual 'Yeah, I got that', or 'Dude, I've been reading that since the eighties'. I still got some sweet Haney/Aparo Brave and Bold comics, but I wish I could have got more.
The other memorable store was Cresent City Comics in New Orleans, which is in a relatively new location, and might be the best organised place I've ever been to. Even the wife has been to enough stores now to recognise that this was put together nicely.
I had to reward such efficiency, so loaded up on a bunch of recent back issues I'd missed, as well as the beautifully superfluous new Bone comic and the shiny, flat new Wonder Woman book by Morrison and Paquette. It was only at the very last shop that I finally found that Criminal comic with the kung-fu werewolf, which was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was looking around the whole world for that fucker.
There's always regrets. I wish I had got the last few Hellboy comics that I saw in Houston, but thought I already had. And the King-Size Kirby book at the Nexus store that was such a good deal, but would take me way over the weight limit in my bag. I still wish I'd got it. I could have made it work.
I could justify anything. There was always a stunning deal, or there was something just around the corner from a store, or I could find just about anything in these crazy places.
I stopped trying to justify it when the wife pointed out that I sounded like a junkie, eager to plead the case for my next fix. She's not wrong, and it's all the same unbeatable logic - addicts will justify anything because all they want to do is get really, really high, and all I really, really want to do is go to comic shops.
I really did think I was over this stupid obsession, but it's as strong as ever. I'll do my best again to hold out for a while on our next trip, but I don't fancy my chances, not when I can grab beat-up issues of bronze-age Spider-Man for a buck.
And not when I've still got nine BPRD issues to go.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
When I was 10 years old, I was terrified by the idea that they might stop publishing 2000ad – or, even worse, merge it in with boring old Eagle – and it would be gone forever.
I wasn't scared of growing up, or spiders, or clowns, or the inevitability of death, or anything sensible and normal like that. I was scared that my favourite comic in the world would go away. I knew what my priorities in life were, and the ongoing reliability of 2000ad was number one.
I'm a grown man now, and plenty of other things freak the shit out of me, like all proper grown-ups. But the thought of 2000ad going away is still there in the top 10 things I fear.
To be clear, I don't think the comic is going anywhere any time soon – under the steady Tharg-ship of Matt Smith, 2000ad is still a great comic with an incredibly loyal audience. There are still the old favourite strips and characters, and there are still noble attempts to do something new. Most of them fail, but not all of them, and the highlights are truly worth the effort.
There is still a kick in my weekly ritual of buying the latest issue off the shelves of my local shop. The habit is still strong, more than three decades after it started, and I expect it to continue for a while yet.
But nothing lasts forever, and print publications know that better than anybody. 2000ad has made it more than a decade and a half past its namesake year, but there is a good chance it won't make it to 2100ad.
At least, there is a good chance the print version won't make it. Inevitably, the future lies in digital, and there is no reason the comic can't live on in electronic form for a thousand years.
The comic and its publisher made early and faltering steps into the digital realm years ago, and became a trend-setter in delivering a weekly dose of thrillpower to readers' tablets, phones and other devices. There were a few mis-steps along the way, like there always are, but the digital arm of 2000ad delivers a strong, reliable product every seven days (as well as the Megazine and other specials).
And it's just unavoidable that one day, the costs of producing an actual physical object – including printing, shipping and distribution expenses - won't add up, and it will finally disappear from the shelves of book stores, comic shops and newsagents. As print moves from mainstream culture to niche market, the accounts don't balance like they once did.
Rebellion, the comic's owners, have made no secret of the fact that they see 2000ad as an IP farm, producing crazy characters and story-lines to spin off into more lucrative areas like movies and video games. The comic needs to stay alive in some form for this to continue, and a digital half-life is better than nothing.
So it's bound to happen, sooner or later. I can't blame them for considering it, but it will still end 2000ad for me.
I'm just shallow enough to toss away 30 years of habit if the comic goes fully digital, and put a full stop in a ludicrously long obsession. I've tried, but digital comics are just not for me – it feels less real, and somehow makes reading comics more of a chore. I think it's a brilliant format for other folks and their needs, but paper still matters to me.
If there will still big trade paperback collections reprinting the latest adventures of Johnny Alpha or Zombo or anything else under the 2000ad banner, I'd almost certainly be on board for that, but the ritual of the weekly serial would be over.
I still love 2000ad, like I love no other comic on earth. At its very best, it's smarter, funnier, deeper and more exciting than anything else out there. Just look at the Judge Dredd saga, which has been going through yet another period of brutally strong storytelling in the past couple of months, which more than justifies the ever-expanding cover price alone.
Picking 31 of my favourite moments from the past 2000 issues to fill in on this blog while I was off gallivanting around the world for a month was an easy as shit way to keep things ticking over (and resulted in an inexplicable surge in traffic on this site, with most of it coming from Russia. Go figure). I could have picked 2000 moments from the comic's history, if anything, it was hard to whittle it down from the first 70 or 80 that came to mind.
I was a little disappointed I couldn't get more Strontium Dog or Robo -unter in there, but unsurprisingly a lot of them came from the golden age of the comic, which I was young and foolish, but that's not just the 10-year-old inside me saying that. It's because the comic at that time was delivering smart, unpatronising stories with gorgeous art by the likes of Bolland, O'Neill, Gibbons, Wilson, Ezquerra, Gibson, Davis, and McMahon every week.
This set a very high standard, that no comic has ever matched.
(I was also surprised how many of my favourite moments were comedic ones. For a comic with a reputation for intense action and astronomical body counts, it's often the daft one liner or complex punchline that really sticks in the mind. The only moment from the past few years – the sensitive Klegg breaking out into song – was there just because of the funny looks I got on the bus when it literally made me laugh out loud the other week.
The dark, deadpan humour of something like Dredd is not always appreciated, not even by some of the strip's biggest fans, but it a huge part of the story's appeal. You can't take these things too seriously.)
So if it does fade away into digital, I'll miss it. It will certainly help to know it's still rocking along out there somewhere, in a format I just can't muster any enthusiasm for, but I'll still deeply miss getting it every week.
Still, there is even some weird little part of me that would welcome such a full stop. I've got boxes and boxes of these bloody things, and the lovely wife would certainly appreciate it if I stopped adding to the pile.
But it's still a real fear. I'm not bothered by snakes or ghosts or anything like that, but I'm still dreading the day they announce the death of 2000ad.