Thursday, October 31, 2013


My real name is Bob Smith, which is about the most generic English-speaking name you could possibly have. This means that people are always forgetting my name, unless they're fans of The Cure, and that usually means I have to smile at their crap jokes about how boys don't cry or the fact that it's Friday, and I must be in love.

Those jokes never get old.

So when I decided to start writing this blog, I needed a new name (which is nothing new in internet culture – I already had a couple of discarded alter-egos), and it didn't take long to come up with something.

People always forget that I'm Bob Smith, but they usually remember when I tell them I'm Bob from Temuka.

I haven't lived in Temuka for more than 10 years, but it's still my home town. It's small – only about 4000 people – and it's located right in the middle of the East Coast of the South Island, about 200km south of Christchurch and 20 kays north of Timaru.

I was actually born in Timaru – another modest town of around 30,000 people - and spent the first nine years of my life there, before my family moved out to Temuka on the night David Lange's Labour Government came into power in 1984.

I move there when I was nine and stay there until I'm 18, and that's a fairly significant period in anybody's life. I came back ten years later for another couple of years, before moving away for good. A lot of my family and my very best friends still live in Temuka, and I still visit about twice a year.

I still think of myself as a Temuka boy, and while I’ll probably never live there again – not after marrying a proper city girl – it’s still one of my favourite places in the world.

But the main reason I used the town name here, and the reason I'm writing abut it now, is because it's the town where my love of comics became a full-blown obsession, and every time I head back home, literally every single street is somehow tied to some kind of comic in my mind, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in my head. 

I always associate comics with the places I first got them, or read them. I buy comics when I travel overseas and sit them on the bookshelf to remind me of the lazy afternoon when we went wandering around Dublin, or a frenetic day barrelling around the stores in New York.

But it’s not just like that for the big travels – I have a stupidly good memory for where I first read hundreds and hundreds of comics in the dullest places. I can still look at a Whizzer and Chips I bought in 1982 and remember that I first read that in the kids’ ward at Timaru Hospital, and I can remember the exact spot on the street, down the south end of town, where I got to the big twist at the end of Morrison and Yeowell’s Zenith.

I can’t help tying my ego to the places I live in, and I can’t help tying them into the comics I happened to be reading at the time, and I definitely can’t help remembering it all when I go back to the town where I lived half my life.

Especially in a town where I really did get more and more obsessed with comics. While a lot of friends grew right out of them in those long teenage years, I just loved them more and more.

Temuka is a tiny town, so there wasn't a hell of a lot to do when I was growing up there. In summer, you could go swimming down the Opihi River, and that was about it. It's a flat town, so you could bike anywhere, but there wasn't really anywhere to go.

But even in this tiny town on the arse end of the world, there were comics. There was no comic shop for hundreds of kilometres, but there were two small bookstores that had a surprising amount of material, (even if it wasn’t all that consistent), and more than half a dozen dairies where you could find all sorts of material.

There was the dairy on Maude Street where I found the best free gift ever, and the dairies on King Street would often have semi-recent DC comics for a dollar like this one. The shop on Denmark Street was the place here I got the last issue of Camelot #3000 and the first issue of the New Warriors, in that unfortunate order.

Temuka Stationery was a great bookshop for finding random issues of the Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition), but Baird's bookshop was the best store. I bought every issue of 2000ad between 1986 and 1991 from there, and was an eager subscriber to multiple X-comics. You were still guaranteed to miss an issue a year, but it was still pretty regular. Mr Baird used to write the New Zealand price on the cover in ballpoint pen, and I still own a lot of comics with his distinctive $2.85 on it. These marks still drive my mate Kyle bonkers, but I like 'em. They remind me of home.

The town wasn't just a supplier, it was a setting. I still associate GI Joe comics with the Temuka High lunch area, and the Inferno crossover is undeniably linked to the Temuka RSA. Cam Kennedy’s Judge Dredd art (and Jon Pertwee Doctor Who) will always be associated with the Temuka TAB, and I still have one of the Eagle comics I found on a bench down Hill's Creek.

I remember reading the first issue of Marvel's short-lived Nightmare on Elm Street magazine in the spacies section at Lester’s fish and chip shop, and I remember someone stole it from me while I was playing Rastan. And I remember reading my first proper Sandman comic while sitting in the grandstand down the Temuka Domain.

Soon after I learned to walk, I learned to read while I walk, and the streets themselves are drenched in memory, because I would always read my new comics on the walk back home. I nearly got hit by a train while reading the T2 comic adaption while ducking through the train yards, and I got stuck in all sorts of worlds on those wide, empty streets.

And that’s the house where I begged Mum to get me an Indiana Jones comic (and moaned when she got the wrong one), and there’s the house where I got in so much fucking trouble because I used sellotape to put my 2000ad star scans up on a wallpapered wall. And there’s the house where I got stoned for the first time and read an Aquaman comic, and it’s literally just around the corner from the house where I first saw Bolland art on an American comic.

Things have changed, of course. They always do.

Last time I went back, Baird's Bookshop was long gone, replaced by a $2 shop, and Lester’s fish and chip shop, and that back room of spacies at Lester's - where I spent a vast amount of my teenage years - doesn’t exist anymore. But there are still those vast, empty streets, so full of memory, and every time I go back, I make a point of going for a bit of a wander, and get lost in the nostalgia.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Love and Rockets: 'They got it under control'

Why is Love And Rockets still the best comic in the world, even after all these years and all these stories?

Because it just obviously IS the best comic in the world. That’s why. Anybody can see that.


* Because it's still funnier, smarter and more emotionally rich than anything else out there

I only bought Love and Rockets New Stories #6 - the latest annual offering- a couple of days ago, and I've already read it half a dozen times, and it's as good as it ever was.

It's always as good as it ever was. The comics that the Hernandez brothers are producing these days are just as strong as anything they’ve done in the past three decades, and it’s still incredible to see how much life and passion their stories still contain.

The day the new Love and Rockets comes out is always a good day, and when it only comes out once a year, it's a very, very good day.

* Because both Jaime and Gilbert's comics remain superb examples of pure craft

After marching to the beat of their own drum since the early eighties, the level of high craft the brothers use to tell their stories is still breath-taking.

All of the comics in New Stories #6 have strict rectangular panel layouts, but their storytelling is effortlessly complex – Jaime cuts all the fat from his plots and zeroes in on pivotal moments in a story that covers a surprisingly large amount of time in two-page bursts, while Gilbert continues to slide around in time and space, filling in back-stories and answering old questions with a minimum of real fuss.

They also have a fantastic sense of pacing, as the stories build to unexpected resolutions, but the sublime simplicity of their tales is often masked in easy-flowing panels, attractive characters and flagrant disregard for standard beats and twists. Some individual pages are brilliant – Jaime has one character tell an embarrassingly open story about school uniforms, with the speaker adrift and vulnerable in blank white spaces, before opening up to the reactions to her story from the other people in the room, which ranges from smug amusement to outright bafflement, and you can tell what everybody in the room is thinking at the same time, and it's a beautiful and silent cacophony.

(Plus he does that thing with the same static shot repeated over and over again, with just the dialogue, the expressions on the character's faces and their body language changing in each panel and it still works every time.)

* Because there is a sense of history that never overwhelms anything

Another side-effect of decades of distinctive and original comics is that both writers continue to play off their own continuity in new ways, checking in on beloved characters and taking their story forward.

Beto's stories are always full of ghosts - sometimes literally – and the latest issue sees the new generation becoming obsessed with the old, and the line of righteous fury and big tits between Maria and Killer. A snippet of film featuring Maria opens new doors as movie comments on life which comments on movies (a recurring theme in Beto's recent work).

There is also more time spent in Palomar, and after the last issue's need to fill expectations for new stories somewhere south of the border, the appearance of the town and its beloved characters in this issue is more organic and natural.

Meanwhile, over in the world of Locas, Jaime is making a conscious effort to steer away from the easy beats, built up by years of fine stories, that his long-suffering characters bring to each story, and has introduced a slew of new characters in his new stories. There is no Maggie, or Hopey, or Ray, or Doyle, or Izzy, but after the latest issue, I'm just as interested in Ishmael's story, and where it is going.

There is still pay-off from the past with the resumption of a wrestling match left hanging years ago, but it's notable that it's Angel and Vivian, two characters who have only been around for less than a decade, who provide that glow.

And there is a whole new lot of young punks, about three generations below the characters we've been following for decades. Cute punk chix, (including one nameless girl who appears to be the impossible lovechild of Terry and Hopey) and dopey skateboarders, successors to legacies they don't know anything about.

* Because they can do what they want

Jamie can create a whole new family dynamic if he wants, and Gilbert can still do some crazy shit about furry monster women sucking out the soul of a dude with a Prince Valiant haircut, if he wants to.

It’s their hot comic, they can do what they want.

* Because it comes in huge chunks of brilliance

The hardest part about the annual format that Love and Rockets has been published in for the past six years is the long, long wait between issues, but it also means there is a huge dump of brilliant comics, all at once, and it can literally be stunning.

And across dozens and dozens of new Hernandez brothers' stories, there is that craft again, married up with the endless experimentation. The longer format that comes with annual release has allowed them to tell huge, sprawling stories, but New Stories #6 is deliberately choppy, with 25 individually titled stories. Most of them are variations on the longer story arcs, but there is a pleasant efficiency to all these short stories.

Because it still takes me a while to figure out those endings

This is nothing new - it took a third reading of Human Diastrophism before I really figured out what was happening at the end there - but I still love the way the endings to the Hernandez Brothers' stories usually leave me slightly baffled, and can often take some time to work out. 

I still can't tell whether the brief moment when Maria sees her daughter and granddaughters on the street is a happy or sad ending – Maria remains enigmatic to the end.

And it also took me an embrassingly long time to work out what the big deal was with the Black Widow song.

* Because it's still got some rasslin'.

And while it's a neat call-back to the greater Locas world, and the only (background) part that Maggie plays in the latest set of stories, seeing Angel in action in the squared circle was magnificent, because nobody draws some fun rasslin' like Jaime does.

And you gotta love the way Tonta's hair pokes out of the holes in her luchador mask.

* Because it's funny as hell sometimes

Anything with the lovely Angel is hilarious, especially the last panels on the Crestfallen Angel pages and her reunion with Vivian, and her first appearance at the wrestling was the funniest damn thing I've read in a new comic in ages.

Beto's crazy shit stories are also still funny, with the usual biting punchline, and there are still laffs in Killer's Sad Girl stories, nestled between anicent family betrayls and losses.

These can be big stories, dealing with big important themes, but they're also funny books.. 

* Because it is the best

But mainly, Love and Rockets is the best comic in the world because it's the most entertaining, thoughtful and stylish comic produced in the past three decades, and a long line of brilliance continues with New Stories #6.

Same as it ever was.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Go 'way! Readin'!

Posting at the Tearoom of Despair has been pretty irregular in the past couple of weeks, (the content itself has always been damn irregular), and this is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

It's the usual bullshit reasons, involving long work hours and travel and getting out of the bloody house and all that crap. But it's also because I've got so much cool stuff to read, and that takes time.

I just finished re-reading Mark Waid's Daredevil comics, many of them for the first time since I got 'em, and I'm damn near done with Elmore Leonard's Raylan novel (which is so wonderfully sparse that it takes a fair amount of attention to follow). Then I have to crack on with the quite-chunky Joe Kubert tribute book from TwoMorrows that I just got out of the library, and I also got Craig Thompson's Habibi out at the same time, and I don't think I'll get through that doorstop in one night.

I also got the new Love and Rockets the other day, and that takes at least three re-reads to fully appreciate, and invariably leads to a dive back into the comic's history.

But, most of all, I scored a review copy of Adrian Kinnaird's thoroughly fucking excellent From Earth's End: The Best Of New Zealand Comics, and all I wanna do right now is sit down in a quiet place and devour that 450-page motherfucker.

So the next proper blog post won't be until Friday, when I do something about that new L&R (Spoiler: It's still fucking awesome). Keep cool 'till after school.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mad's malcontents: Drucker deadpan, Martin malleability and Aragones awesomeness

Many of the great modern comic creators rightfully cite Harvey Kurtzman's Mad comics as a major influence. That uncompromisingly anarchic humour, the refusal to bend to any authority figures (or good taste) and the crazy, flowing storytelling has all had a major impact over both mainstream and alternative comics for decades.

But I was far too young for all that. I came to the original Mad comics relatively late in life, and while I certainly appreciate that stuff, my own particular fondness for Mad comics was formed far earlier.

Many comic readers go through a Mad magazine phase, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It's a comic that is perfectly primed for a specific age group – somewhere between 10 and the proper teenage years  - and it's stuck to the same winning formula for decades.

Each issue of Mad was always packed with dozens and dozens and dozens of jokes, with crazy, stylish and accessible art. It made fun of Mom and Dad and teachers and celebrities and advertisements and general human stupidity, and had an absolute icon in Alfred E Neuman. There were terrific movie piss-takes and a generally immature sense of humour which still manages to get the laughs.

I didn't reach that age group until the late eighties, and while many would argue that the comic was well past its prime – it had certainly seen a decline in sales since its heydays in the seventies, when readership topped two million – I still thought it was the funniest frickin' thing around.

Like all good twelve year olds, I laughed and groaned and laughed some more at all the gags the usual gang of idiots came up with, mesmerised by spoofs of the latest Batman and Star Trek films and digging on the short one-page, or even one-panel, jokes, and enjoying many of the endless puns and relentless sight gags.

I could barely tell the difference between Kirby and Ditko at that age, but there were some Mad artists who were my definite favourites. And while the jokes could be maddeningly hit and miss, you could always count on the quality of the best, and three artists in particular.

The movie and TV satires were one of my favourite things in every issue, and it wasn't for the gags crammed into the top of every panel – it was the wonderful caricatures.

Mad had a fairly regular crew for the satires, and there were some really strong work from Angelo Torres and Jack Davis, whose art came with loads of messy charm, but there is no doubt that Mort Drucker is the king of the piss-take caricature.

Drucker's subjects are often surprisingly pleased with his efforts, probably because he would exaggerate the chin or nose or some other prominent feature, but never amplify things to the point of absurdity, so that his Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks or James Cann were still strikingly handsome, even when comically overstated.

He could rip off the iconic pose from any movie poster in the world and give it a goofy spin, but Drucker has also been brilliant in panel-to-panel comics – his figures had real life, wriggling and jiggling through panels, and diving into the action with hysterical glee.

But the real humour was often in the deadpan expressions, with Drucker giving all the characters straight faces as they dealt with absolute absurdity, spitting out dorky jokes with barely a hint of actual emotion. Sometimes the scripts were full of cliché and banality, but those Drucker deadpans were always, always funny.

I would savour the satires, and they would often be the last thing I read in an issue, because I always like to save something meaty to finish on. But the first thing I would always read in a new issue of Mad would be the Don Martin cartoons.

Martin's stuff was always ridiculously popular, and he's somehow still a totally underrated artist, with his wide open style looking deceptively primitive. As a kid, it was bloody easy to copy his style, with those vast, hooking noses, hinged feet and drooping eyes, and this accessibility made Martin's work incredibly readable, and you could gloss through a Don Martin funny in seconds.

He also had a fairly black sense of humour beneath that simple style, and when it got gross, it got really gross – he could do things with bodily fluids that were disturbingly sticky, and when his characters slammed into something, there was a disturbing dampness about it all as figures crumpled into a wet, bloody mess.

His figures would bend around to the point of absolute absurdity and bolt along the page with reckless speed, and it was all so pleasant to look at, and this malleability meant his work was always worth stopping to check out, on that first flick-through.

And then there was Sergio Aragones, and if I have to tell you how brilliant Sergio Aragones is, you're in the wrong place, brother. Groo is one of the great works in modern literature, Aragones' painfully rare autobiographical comics are the main reason comics were invented, and the amount of work he did for Mad over the years has always been incredibly impressive.

Mad always lived by the rule that if you threw enough crap jokes at the wall, one or two might stick, and Aragones is the personification of that, filling up the margins with tiny comics, and doing two-page spreads with dozens and dozens of figures. The margin comics always raised a wry smile, were sometime laugh out loud funny, and – ever now and again – insanely clever, as Aragones bent the art around the corner of the page and got another joke out of that infinitesimal space.

Aragones made sure every kid parting with his hard-earned cash felt like they got their money's worth, in both quantity and quality.

There were other great talents that stuck with Mad over the years – If Martin's work could be gross, Al Jaffee's was often genuinely grotesque, while Dave Berg's dad-jokes barely raised a groan, but his graceful linework, particularly on the characters starring in his strips, made them eminently readable; and Antonio Prohías' Spy v Spy was always worth a look for its sheer inventiveness, even if it rarely got an actual chuckle out of you.

You grow out of Mad after a while, but there is always a new generation of young kids. Mad is still going, and while I'm now decades past the target demographic and haven't read an issue in many years, I hope there are still some young punks out there, grooving on the latest generation of the usual gang of idiots.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Blake's Eleven

Every eleven years, just like clockwork, I get the terrible urge to go back and watch every episode of Blake's 7 all over again.

Eleven years is just enough time to forget a lot of the fine details, but still follow most of the story. I barely watch any episodes outside that eleven-year cycle, but each time it comes around, it's irresistible.

And each time I see something new in this silly little television show.

Blake's 7 was a British science-fiction series from the late seventies, with dedicated people trying to create Star Wars spectacle with a budget of five quid and the fumes from an oily rag. They did their best.

It's the story of a bunch of freedom fighters battling against the terrible grip of an intergalactic federation and it's just as infinitely cheesy as it sounds, but it was also bleak, thoughtful and – occasionally- very clever and moving. It had some superb acting, backed up by rock solid characterisation and unexpectedly grim fates for some beloved characters.

It only lasted four years, but managed to survive the loss of the title character for half that time. It's well-remembered for its final ending of total carnage, which more than makes up for some of the other terrible episodes that came towards the end. There have been several attempts to get the concept back onto screens over the decades, but none of them have actually happened, although there have been some groovy audio adventures in the past few years.

I don't care if they never bring it back. I just keep coming back to those original episodes, over and over and over again.

It all starts when I'm only about five years old and I glimpse bits of the show on TV. It's a lot scarier than Doctor Who, which I've already fallen for, and the tiny bits I see are weirdly disturbing, and while the details are lost, I can still remember the discomfort.

I can also still remember a dream I had at that age: I'm on Servalan's command ship, surrounded by Mutoid pilots, and the ship has lost power and is falling through space forever, and it's not going to stop, and we go so fast the crew burst into fire, but they turn into bright, burning angels who rescue me from the endlessly-falling spaceship.

Looking back, this is a surprisingly deep dream for a little kid to have, which may be why it stuck in my head for all this time. The other thing that stuck in my head was a wary respect for this crappy British science-fiction nonsense.

I still feel oddly uncomfortable thinking about Blake's 7 when I fall for it again, 11 years later. Now I'm 16 and it's the very early nineties and Blake's 7 might be just about the uncoolest thing on the planet, but I find the first few episodes in a local video rental place, and it's got me again.

There is a lot of cringing at its inherent cheesiness, but it's also suitably miserable and bleak for a gloomy sixteen-year-old. There are tiny sparks of hope in Blake's 7, but they're always crushed beneath a leather fascist boot. Blake and his chums keep battling on, but they're fighting an enemy that is too strong and powerful, and while they win their fair share of skirmishes, they ultimately lose.

All that cynical misery reaches its climax in the very last episode, but it's not the bit where all the main characters are callously gunned down that is so bleak, it's the appearance of Blake, and the fact that he has been broken, just ground down by the struggle, until he is barely a man.

The entire show was built on the idea of this man who is willing to stand up to the corrupt system, and bring it down. But the Blake in the final episode has given up on all that revolution nonsense, and is alone in the cold, cold universe. Without his friends beside him, he has fallen into cynical misery, and when he is finally shot down, it's more of a mercy than anything else.

I'm still half-convinced it was actually the Blake clone, who wandered off earlier in the series, but the point remains the same. And as supremely uncool as Blake's 7 was when I was sixteen, it was just another sign that this really was a pointless, random and nihilistic universe.

It took me a couple of years to see all of the episodes this time around, because the final ones weren't on videotape and I had to wait until they ended up on late night TV, and by the time we reached the end again, I had a much more positive outlook on life, but it was still thrilling to see how grim it was.

Eleven years later and Blake is back, playing on TV in some ironic time slot, and I start watching it again and fall for it all over.

Now I'm 27 and far away from the teenage nihilist I once was, and while all the misery is still cool as fuck, it's the humanistic angle, and the relationship between the characters, that appeals the most.

They might not have been able to afford the spectacle, but that just gave the creators more space to lavish attention on the characterisation, until you get to the lump-in-the-throat moment where Blake tells Avon that he always trusted him, right from the beginning, just as they face certain death, and it is genuinely powerful.

It's also frequently funny. Avon always has a sharp quip, and Vila's unbeatable self-preservation skills are matched only by his cowardly retorts. The relationship between these two men is also fascinating, because they are friends and comrades, and Avon will wipe out a planet to save Vila, but will not hesitate for a second to sacrifice him if it will save his own skin.

There are all sorts of meaty moments like this in Blake's 7 when I come to it in 2002, and I churn through the entire series on DVD in a matter of weeks.

Now I'm 38, and I finally get around to buying the series on DVD. It's taken so long because it's ridiculously expensive in this part of the world, which is all kinds of ironic, because it really looks cheap as hell.

The lovely wife watches a bit of an episode for the very first time, and she can't get past the cardboard sets and extraordinarily crappy special effects, but I've got through the first season again in less than a week, and I don't care about how cheap it looks. I never really care. Complaining about that is like going to a play at a theatre and complaining that the sets don't look realistic there. It just doesn't matter, not when the stories are still that strong.

And I still love the creepy mutoids (and their inner-self angels), and the dark cynicism and the sheer humanity, just like I did in the past. But it's more than that.

I love those broad, sweeping storytelling strokes, but I also love the tiny touches each time I come back, even if I forget most of them every eleven years. I love the way Travis says "I WILL kill you, Blake," and the way Servalan slinks across the screen, and the hard, rigid designs of the various spaceships.

It's a treasure trove of small delights, right down to the sound design, like the tiny musical sting that accompanies every single teleportation shot, or the groovy noise that accompanies Orac when he pops into life, or the dour, sour voices of all the computers in the series.

It's the smallest things that are the most attractive about Blake's 7, not the big space saga aspect. They're the little touches that I forget every time, and are always a delightful reminder, just like they've always been, and will be again, in another eleven year's time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Me, my mates and comics

Some of my best friends in the world hate comic books, and wouldn't read one unless you paid them. Others are into them just as much as I am. It's a good mix.

I never force comics onto my mates, but I'm there if they ever express an interest, and some of them give it a go, and I always remember what they like, so I can recommend something in the future.

Trumpy really, really dug Dicks, Chris gave Love and Rockets a go, (but ultimately couldn't get past the big tits), Samantha thought Peter David's Hulk comics were the best superhero comics ever, Anthony bought all the Vertigo comics that were too weird for me, Suzy gave me her beloved copy of School Fun #2, Glenn turned me on to Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and I turned Simon on to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Kaz said the Big Books were the bee's knees, and Brian thought Big Dave was the funniest fucking thing he'd ever read.

I bonded with one of my oldest and best friends in 1985 over a mutual appreciation for the Judge Child Quest. I introduced him to the X-Men soon afterwards, and he still gets Uncanny X-Men every month, which is bloody useful when I've got an X-itch to scratch. We grew up together in a small town of 3000 people, so there weren't too many other people who shared our mutual obsessions, so we had no choice but to be best mates.

His tastes are a bit more refined, and mine are all over the show, but it's still an ongoing debate over which of us is obsessed by Doctor Who more, and after being friends for more than a quarter of a century, our Who collections have actually melted together. I tend to get the books and audios, and he gets the toys and magazines.

Kyle has also been into 2000ad as long as I have, and I finally talked him into getting the weekly series again a few weeks ago, and he’s into it as much as ever. The other day he sent me a text, moaning that the local shop had not got the latest issue in, and he was particularly bummed, because it had some new Slaine in it for the first time in ages, and young Kyle loves some new Slaine. So I told him that I would get a copy from my local store and drop it off when I go down south again next week, and that it would finally allow me to pay an old debt.

Twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t get the latest issue of 2000ad because I’d done something wrong and was grounded for a week. (I can’t remember the crime, just the punishment, although it may have involved some form of rocket fuel.) And I was particularly bummed, because the latest issue had some new Slaine by Glenn Fabry in it for the first time in ages, and young Bob loved some Fabry Slaine. Kyle bought a copy for me, and dropped it around after school, and I never forgot how grateful I was.

That's fucking teamwork.

In the past couple of years I’ve made friends with two people named Kelly.

I met Boy Kelly after I said nice things about a comic he wrote, and we now meet up for breakfast every few weeks, usually to rave about some Game Of Thrones shit. He’s as passionate about comics as I am, and even more passionate about the work of Alan Moore, and I’ve never met anybody in real life who was into Moore comics more than I was. (This will become abundantly clear soon, when this blog gets taken over with a discussion between me and Kelly about Moore’s movies with Mitch Jenkins.)

I met Girl Kelly through work, and now we meet up for smoothies every few weeks to bitch about the industry. She could not more more disinterested in comics, and she keeps calling them cartoon books because I do a really shitty job of hiding how much it annoys me. She didn’t even know what a Dalek is, and still can't pronounce it properly, but then again, she is South African.

I like talking to Boy Kelly because he reminds me that my tastes are adequate, and that it is worth getting passionate about your fiction, and what it all means. I like talking to Girl Kelly, because she reminds me that all that crap is not really that important, not in real life.

In the past couple of years, I've also made friends with two people named Nik/Nick, because I figure the less new names I have to remember, the better. They're both totally into comics.

I've made loads of friends on the internet who share my obsessions to a scary degree, but I've only actually met a couple of them in real life, so that doesn't really count.

Ten years ago, and I’m at a film festival screening of the American Splendor movie, and a complete stranger comes up to me in the line and says he has an extra ticket for the film, and he gives it to me for free.

Due to an extraordinarily boring set of circumstances, I happen to have two copies of the same American Splendor comic issue on me at the time, (and it’s the one with Letterman swearing on the cover).  So I give one to the guy, and he’s just as stoked by this unexpected bout of bartering. His name is Mark, and we still trade emails every now and again, usually when a new Love and Rockets comes out.

Sometimes comics just bring people together.

Geoff once told me he'd totally burn my comics for simple heating, and Shane once picked up an issue of Flex Mentallo, flicked through it, said “yeah, nah”, put it down again, and as far as I can tell, that's the only time he ever read any comics. Even my lovely wife is profoundly disinterested in some of the greatest comics ever created.

Fortunately, friends aren't clones, and you'll never learn anything in life if you surround yourself with people who like all the same shit you like. There are always common interests or points of views between close friends, but they are not always the same things between different people.

I can always be friends with a comic fiend, but real mates don't have to care about this shit as much as I do.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

What if we're living in an Elseworld?

I met a new workmate the other day, and even though I had never met her before, I got to tell her that she'd had a profound impact on my life, because of a recommendation she made to somebody ten years ago.

Back in 2003, she suggested that my wife might like a particular journalism class at the other end of the country, and that's where I met her, and if my new workmate had not mentioned the Timaru course, I would not be working where I am, and I wouldn't be living in this city, and I might never even have met the love of my life.

I wonder about this a lot. What if that tiny recommendation hadn’t been made? Where would I be? How unlikely is it that I ended up where I did? How different could things be?

I've always wondered about this a lot. Suppose that car that just missed me when I was eight had actually connected. Imagine if I hadn't mean those split second decisions to quit that job, or leave that town.

Bloody hell, no wonder I always like What If and Elseworlds comics.

Marvel keeps bringing back What If...?, and I always have a sneaky fondness for them when it does. I like the way that anything goes in a non-continuity superhero comic. Anybody – even the bravest and mightiest of heroes – could fall, and plot twists could turn inside themselves when the story didn't have to connect with the regular series.

And while they depended on some point of continuity to bounce off, the stories in Marvel's various What If...? comics are usually complete in one go, with massive amounts of info-dumping, and some kind of resolution. A lot of What If comics are inane and lazily executed, but some of them shows sparks of life.

Some of the earliest examples, from the mid-seventies, are fascinating in the way they divert from then-current continuity, especially when those contemporary events are now old history, with a regular 1970s comic continuity that is now almost as unfamiliar as the alternate universe tales.

The first 47-issue run of What If? ran out of steam surprisingly quickly – after covering the most obvious questions, swapping the Fantastic Four's powers or having Spider-Man's radioactive spider bite somebody else – and the comics were soon asking what would happen if Nick Fury was Nick Fury IN SPACE, or what would happen if Character X was a villain/hero instead of a hero/villain.

One pleasant side effect of all this was that a lot of the What If comics didn't have to take themselves that seriously – within the first year the comic asked What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become The Fantastic Four - and eventually there was an entire issue devoted to humour. This was usually greeted with a “Heh. Funny. Don't do it again” reaction from readers, but it gave the comic a lighter tone that it desperately needed, especially when a lot of the other stories went crazy with the tragedy.

It's also funny how many of the original questions have now actually happened in the regular Marvel universe – Phoenix and Elektra both lived and Spider-Man's clone wasn't destroyed in a chimney, but, sadly, most of the original run is actually pretty mediocre, as most of the creators take on their stories with a shrug, because they didn't matter. Not really.

 There were a lot more painfully average in the next major run of What If stories, which kicked off in the very late eighties and – surprisingly- lasted more than twice as long as the original, right through the nineties. Some of the latter issues are particularly mediocre, but there were also odd glimpses of quality, including solid work from Jim Valentino and Kurt Busiek, glimpses of greatness with writers like Joe Kelly and Dan Slott doing some of their first stories, and a genuine success with DeFalco and Frenz's Spider-Girl issue eventually spawning a whole new universe of tales.

This series was published during the age of the crossover, and at a time when Marvel was publishing dozens and dozens of titles every month, so it never ran short of questions to ask, but it still turned into a typically ugly Marvel nineties comic, which is hard to find any real affection for.

Marvel keeps putting out new What Ifs every now and again, usually based on a recent crossover, and the formula is still basically the same. The interesting thing about all What If...? comics is that they are free from bowing to continuity-imposed pressures, but still operate within the strict parameters of the Marvel Universe: you wouldn't get Spider-Man flipping out and killing Aunt May, or Captain America acting like a coward.  

DC's Elseworlds are a different beast altogether, because literally anything could happen, as long as the proper iconography was in lace. Superman could be a homicidal fuckwit, and Batman could be an incompetent boob.

The Elseworlds grew from a long tradition of DC's imagery stories, which almost uniquely centred on Superman and veered more closely to Marvel formula, asking questions like What if Superman married Lois Lane, or What if Superman split into two creatures, or What if Lex Luthor wasn't such a dickhead? (All of which, again, came to pass in the regular world.)

DC was more focused on creating a coherent single universe when Marvel was doing its What If thing, but after the massive success of The Dark Knight Returns and the more modest popularity of Gotham By Gaslight, DC realised that stories set outside the strict and increasingly complex single continuity could also be worthwhile.

It didn't take long for DC to run the concept into the ground, eventually devoting an entire annual line to Elseworlds stories, which was so average that it soured the whole thing.

But the great thing about Elseworld comics is that they gave all the power to the creators to create a new world, as long as they used the right names and symbols, and this resulted in some excellent comics.

There were plenty of pretty good What If stories, but no real great ones (although Frank Miler's Elektra story came close, because it gave Matt Murdock the well-deserved happy ending that he never got), but some Elseworld's are genuinely terrific. Paul Pope's Batman Year 100 has more thrills, chills and excitement than the previous ten years of regular Bat-comics, Millar's wild inventiveness and blatant sentimentality made Superman: Red Son far more palatable than the fairly crass premise promised and Kingdom Come had a massive impact on the way superhero stories would be told for the next decade.

Even DC's biggest success stories of the eighties - The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen - were Elseworlds before somebody came up with that catchy title, especially if you can't help comparing the Watchmen chacracters to their Charlton counterparts. There is real worth in these imagainer stories, which are just a bit more imaginative than most.

There is still some small part of me that is convinced that there are alternate worlds out there, just one Flash-vibration away. Worlds where my grandparents never even meet, or where I never left my home town.

It's both unsettling, because it raises questions about free will and a lack of uniqueness in this cold, cold multiverse, and reassuring, because there is usually a world where it works out okay.

My favourite What If and Elseworld comics are the ones where it all works out okay. The shock death of a beloved character is an easy way to grab attention, and a bleak everybody-dies-and-the-world-ends can sometimes be powerful, but imaginary stories like this can have happy endings too, and I'm just a sucker for happy endings, especially when these characters never get to rest. They could use it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pure movie: Gravity and Undisputed III: Redemption

No real spoilers here, unless you count the fact that I reveal that Yuri Boyka is the most complete fighter in the world.

Bloat is the enemy of all good film-making. There is nothing wrong with a long film if it's properly epic, but if you can't tell your story in less than two hours, you're probably in the wrong medium.

There are after all, approximately six billion more thrills in 94 minutes of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, than there are in 154 minutes of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.

But there are still filmmakers producing sharp, efficient and moving films that have no fat, and get straight to the point, and maintain consistent levels of intensity and excitement over the entire length of the movie.

I had the extreme fortune of seeing two of these films over the past couple of weeks. One of them is a nail-biting examination of the human will to survive against impossible odds in an incredibly dangerous environment, and the other one is about blokes in prison beating the tar out of each other.

They're both pure movie.

Gravity is an excellent film. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it's a well crafted disaster film with a simple storyline. The shit hits the fan in the first five minutes, and it doesn't end until the last minutes of the film.

It's a brutally intense film, with several heart-stopping sequences and a deep, booming soundtrack that keeps cutting to the absolute silence of space with great effect. Sanda Bullock is heartbreakingly good as the main character, a woman who has nothing to live for except the drive to survive, and goes through moments absolute terror, tired resignation and total determination.

And it's an absolute visual treat, with the deadliness of space only matched by its beauty. Although I'm typically scathing of 3D versions in modern cinema, this is one movie that is worth seeing with the extra dimension, as it makes great use of this depth along the z-axis, with space debris flying past at supersonic speeds and the infinite depths of outer space sucking the audience in.

It's technically dazzling, but it also has a beautiful sense of pace, with moments of unbearable peril balanced out by short bursts of bliss – one moment where somebody reaches a state of temporary safety and curls up in a zero-gravity ball is unexpectedly moving, especially after the nerves have been totally shredded.

But even these moments of quiet calm are ruthlessly efficient. There isn't a wasted moment in the entire film, thanks to a sharp and clever script, which quickly sets up insurmountable obstacles, overcomes them, and then sets up more and more. It's particularly good when you realise that split-second decisions made earlier in the film mean the difference between life and death.

It certainly looks magnificent, but all that beauty is bolted onto a story that propels forward with the force of, well, gravity.

Gravity is a science fiction disaster movie, which gets quietly metaphysical, (there is even a scene when it suddenly turns into a ghost story). But it's also an extraordinary thing to see on the biggest screen possible, with the best damn sound system possible, because it really is an experience.

I was literally holding my breath while watching the film on an IMAX 3D screen on Sunday night, I almost burst into tears during the final shots and when it was done, I had to go have a lie down. It was exhausting.

Undisputed III: Redemption is also an excellent film. Directed by Isaac Florentine and starring the totally awesome Scott Adkins, it's probably the most ruthlessly entertaining film I've seen all this year. It will never gain the critical kudos that are being rightfully lauded on Gravity, but it's just as pure in its own way.

It's the story of Yuri Boyka, the villain of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, (which I still haven't seen, but will be getting to later this week). At the end of that first sequel, Boyka had his leg shattered, and is literally shovelling shit at the start of III. But then he pretty much heals himself – mainly by jumping at a wall and kneeing it ten thousand times -  and takes part in an ultimate prison fighting tournament, against the best fighters in the world, (which also gives the filmmakers the chance to throw a whole heap of different fighting styles into the pot and seeing what happens).

It's so fucking pure - there is nothing but the fight, and all the bullshit around it is staggeringly unimportant. When Boyka gets his big emotional scene, and reveals what really motivates him, he was put on the world to fight, and there is nothing else that matters. Boyka is just here to fuck people up, and he gets some weird peace out of that.

There are parts of Undisputed III: Redemption where almost ten minutes go by without some kind of fight, but there aren't that many, and as soon as any interest in the utterly pedestrian plot - which makes no bones about its ordinariness - they started bashing the crap out of each other, and each fight is so wonderfully over the top that it doesn't matter if it doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't matter if none of it makes sense - it's a film about fighting, and the bare dialogue and hackneyed plot are just there to drive the story onto the next confrontation. It's the sort of film that knows exactly what its audience is looking for, and just goes for it with every scrap of energy it has, and the results are occasionally spectacular.

Undisputed III was a direct to DVD film, and it actually came out in 2010, so I'm already three years behind, and staring down the face of a big rabbit hole full of other Scott Atkins films, which mainly seems to consist of an endless cycle of Ninja and Universal Soldier movies. But I'm ridiuclously glad that I got around to seeing it.

I watched it on a Tuesday night, because Sharknado was on TV, but was just too shit to watch, and because Tucker Stone had been raving about these films on the Factual Opinion podcasts for weeks, and then I watched it the next night again with the lovely wife, because she wouldn't believe me when I kept going on about how awesome it was. And when it was done, all we both wanted to do was go out and be the most complete fighter in the world, or at least have the ability to dropkick anybody who annoys us into the next century.

I don't mind some long films – I actually don't have a problem with the extraordinary length of the three Hobbit films, because I like epics to be properly epic – but when I see things like Prisoners are almost three hours long, they become something I didn't need to see at the cinema.

But to take a trip into another world, whether it's one that is hundreds of miles above our heads, or in a filthy prison somewhere deep in the Eastern bloc, and come back again in an hour and a half, is always an experience, especially when the films are as intense as this. These two movies are made for different purposes for different audiences, but they're perfect for anybody who just wants to mainline some pure cinema.