Saturday, March 29, 2014

Money for nothing

A little bit of poverty can be good for the soul. It helps you realise what is important in life. What really matters. What you can live without.

Poverty sucks. I've been there – I was a minimum wage kid whose first job was in a fat factory, and when I first left home, my weekly food budget was a mighty $17 a week. And I know there is always the chance I'll be there again. It's not something I particularly want, but it's something I know I can deal with.

After all, money isn't everything. It's not as important as love, or fun, or ethics, or comic books.

Which is why there will never, ever be any advertising on the walls of the Tearoom of Despair, and why every offer to actually make some money from this bullshit is politely declined.

I work as a news editor for New Zealand's biggest newspaper, and I fucking love my job. I'm an addict for breaking news, and I couldn't be in a better position to get that fix. I even manage to convince myself that it's a serious and important job, but all I really know is that I'm good at it, and I enjoy it, every single day.

I've been offered writing work for various websites since this blog started, and the pay – if any - is minimal, so it was no big deal to politely turn down the opportunity. But earlier this week, after writing a blatant love letter to Deadwood, I got an offer to write a semi-regular entertainment column for the paper's website about movies and TV and all that shit, and I'd actually get paid for it.

I was deeply, deeply flattered, but I still turned it down.

It was the right thing to do, but I still felt bloody weird about it. It seemed the kind of thing I would have killed for a decade ago, or even five years ago. Getting paid to watch film and TV and write about them and win friends and influence people? Isn't that the goal of all? To make a living out of it?


There's no such thing as money for nothing. There are responsibilities and obligations and deadlines that come with getting paid to do something. This is that work ethic that I grew up with, and one worth living by.

I genuinely enjoy writing about the entertainments I love, and I genuinely don't want to make any money out of it. In my day job, I write lots and lots of short, sharp news pieces, and this blog is where I get to use loads of adjectives and rave about BPRD comics or the lovely wife or anything I bloody well want.

I have been an entertainment reporter, and mixing work and play really didn't work for me. I stopped doing regular film reviews years ago, even though I've had plenty of opportunities since, because it was ruining the movie experience. It was great to get into loads of free films, but you'd spend half the time trying to think of a good intro for the review, and the rest of time trying to remember the little details.

I'd rather pay to see a movie, and enjoy it as as experience, without worrying about what I'm going to say about it. Unless I really, really like it. Or really, really loathe it. And that's what this blog is for. This is where I get all that stuff out of my system.

And this is where I'm not obliged to do anything I don't want to, and that's worth far more to me than cash.

This is not to devalue the fine work that many full-time entertainment writers do, and I do feel bad when I do things like that Deadwood piece for free, and undercut their livelihood. It's a tough fuckin' gig – the entertainment reporters at my paper put in some damn long hours and produce a mountain of copy, and they're worth every cent. You need a lot more motivation than the odd free film or CD to do that.

And it's even harder for the freelancers, who are constantly looking for new work, and always taking on a bit more than they should, just in case. And then have to worry about taxes and insurance and all that crap.

A while back I read about a lecture about internet writing, where the guy doing the presentation asked how many people wrote stuff for free, and how they were all mugs who were being taking advantage of, because you should only write things that were financially viable, otherwise there was no point. And there didn't seem to be an option for doing it just because you fucking enjoy writing.

It's always heartening when an artist does take some kind of stand. Adam Yauch's last wish was that his wonderful beats wouldn't be used to sell shit, and Alan Moore turns down tens of thousands of dollars in easy movie money on purely ethical grounds, and it's always, always funny when people make fun of Moore for it, because they just can't even grasp the idea that money isn't the most important thing in life.

It's easy for me to say all this right now – I'm part of a double-income couple with no kids, and we live in an okay flat in a really nice part of town. I can turn down opportunities and write for free because I can afford to. But shit, as long as I've got enough money for my weekly 2000ad fix, I'm pretty happy.

I do hoard comic books in the anticipation that one day I won't be able to afford new ones, but even that day might never come. Back when my food budget was $17 a week, my comic book budget was twenty. There was always room for new comics.

But for now, I live in the great paradox – my smug financial viability supports my punk tendencies to just get out there and fucking write something. And that's not that bad a paradox to suffer, and one I'm not willing to upset.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Deadwood: Blood, mud and hope

(This post was originally written for

Deadwood first appeared on American television screens in March 2004, a full decade ago. It only lasted three short seasons, but still walks tall as one of the great TV shows of the 21st century.

Created by David Milch and produced by US television network HBO, Deadwood told the story of a mining camp at the centre of the Black Hills gold rush in the late 1800s, and its transformation into a genuine town. It blended fact and fiction - Wild Bill Hickock really did meet his end at Tom Nuttall's No. 10 saloon, but Alma Garret was pure invention - to tell the story of the men and women who spurred that transformation.

It's as smart, intense and stylish as any other great programme of the past decade, but it was also unique, coming with a large amount of theatricality, some lyrically profane dialogue and a surprising amount of optimism. While it may have been muddier and bloodier than most US shows, Deadwood also had a lot more hope for the future of America, and for humanity in general.

Breaking Bad was about the death of the American economic dream, The Wire creator David Simon freely admits that his series was about the destruction of an American city, and Tony Soprano laments in the very first episode of The Sopranos that "things ain't what they used to be".

 In contrast, Deadwood is all about the creation of a civilisation, and the shaping of that American dream. Set in the midst of the industrial revolution, Deadwood features a group of wildly individualistic characters who somehow come together to form a town, often against their better interests, and often quite baffled by their instinct to group together.

Deadwood becomes a place where living legends like Wild Bill strikes up instant friendships with Seth Bullock, or where grotesques like EB Farnum and Steve the Drunk find common ground with sneering scoundrels like Al Swearengen, or noble souls like Charlie Utter.

They're rugged men and women who instinctively drift towards a lawless territory, and establish a place for themselves there. There are plenty of knives at throats, and imagined slights that turn into real homicides, and outright tragedy, but by the time an old-world monster like George Hearst rolls into town, they're standing together against him, determined not to resort to a violent confrontation they could never win.

(The fact that it's old world monsters like Hearst that inevitably win the war, and end up influencing the whole direction of the 20th century, lends a melancholic air to citizens of Deadwood's struggle against him, but also accentuates their indomitable fighting spirit.)

Deadwood's transition from an anarchic mining camp to a proper town is a confusing and complicated process, and there is still a lot of violence to be done before it can happen - the series ends with Swearengen on his knees, washing the blood stains of a murdered innocent out of his floorboards and wishing he could think of something pretty to say - but an order is established over those 36 episodes, and a town rises from the mud and chaos of nature.

Some of the characters that spark this creation are downright horrible, and nihilism is everywhere - Doc Cochran's faith in existence is shattered on the battlefields of the Civil War; but there is also hope - Cochran finds some small joy in helping the helpless. Several main characters, including Calamity Jane and the various dope fiends, give in to intoxicants, but Jane also rolls up her sleeves and helps out during a deadly smallpox outbreak.

The town grows in the three seasons of Deadwood, and the people who live there grow too, and there is some pain from that. Swearengen goes from a murderer who is willing to slit a child's throat to protect himself, to a man who leaps off his balcony to help save Mrs Garret from an assassin's bullet. Bullock keeps his anger in check and realises that he can't escape his obligations, but he can find some joy in them. Joanie Stubbs attempts to become her own boss, with sadly horrific consequences.

These characters were brought to life by an outstanding cast. Paula Malcomson gave Trixie truly unexpected depths, and Molly Parker gave Alma Garret unexpected strengths. Fine characters actors like John Hawkes, Leon Rippy, W Earl Brown, Garret Dillahunt, Powers Boothe and Brad Dourif have rarely been better, and it's little surprise that current series like Sons of Anarchy and Justified feature regular appearances from Deadwood alumni, with Justified also featuring a coiled Timothy Olyphant as a modern-day Bullock.

Ian McShane cast off the Lovejoy typecasting with his extraordinary portrayal of Swearengen, a roaring beast of a man who could only reveal his true feelings and fears while he was getting a blow job, and the only one who had the guts to give a suffering Reverend a dignified death - and has coasted on the power of that role in an increasing number of crusty mentor parts.

While there was always plenty of strange, lilting dialogue, many of Deadwood's most moving and touching parts were silent, and the entire cast brought a strong physicality to their roles. This could manifest in Bullock's rigid-backed rage, or in moments of sudden, disturbing and brutal violence, including the most brutal street fight ever filmed, when Hearst and Swearengen send their men in to fight to the death.

The violence was sometimes unbearably brutal, and tempers were often short, but there were also times when the camp came together to toast a success, or watch a novelty, like a happy fool on a primordial bicycle.

It's these moments, that live outside the history books, that make Deadwood so epically intimate. The sheer loyalty of Dan Dority, Johnny Burns and Silas Adams; the dignified and quiet love story between Sol Star and Trixie; Mr Wu connecting with America through the extraordinary use of a single expletive; Ellsworth's journey from a miner beholden to none into a mourned husband; Cy Tolliver's strange drive to help Joanie's bid for independence; Blazanov's disgust at the sight of bullies in the new world; Hostetler's guilt; any time Seth Bullock really, really wanted to beat somebody to death, but restrained himself.

These small moments are where civilisations, legacies and great television are made.

Read more:
Deadwood was also the title of a historical novel by Pete Dexter, published in the '80s. It also features Charlie Utter as a main character, although it has strikingly different versions of Bullock and Swearingen (sic). It is less about the building of a civilisation, and more about the strangeness of the times.

Deadwood: Stories of The Black Hills is an excellent behind-the-scenes book, with in-depth musing from David Milch, and passionate essays on the characters by the actors who played them. It is unfortunate that the book promises that everything will wrap up nicely with a TV movie that was never made, but it's still a thoughtful read.

Watch more:

Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller feels like the unmade pilot for a Deadwood series from the early '80s, and shares similar themes, moods and complexity.

 This video essay from Matt Zoller Seitz and Steven Santos is a terrific look back at the show's artistic success, and features narration from Jim Beaver, who played Ellsworth.

 For those who don't have the time to watch all 36 hours of the show, there are plenty of Deadwood's most pivotal scenes that can be found on YouTube, including Bullock's rage-fuelled arrest of Hearst, the killing of Wild Bill, the town leaders' confused display of common decency and many, many more.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Thrillpower overload on dull suburban streets

Tharg the Mighty, 2000ad's mostly-fictional editor, is always warning Earthlets about the dangers of too much thrillpower, when a comic gets so thrilling that the reader just can't stand it any more, and it's always funny and charming when he does it, partly because it's actually fairly true.

Because while I can usually handle the mild dose of thrillpower in my weekly prog, I can name three exact moments when I did really did overdose on it.

They all came when I hit three of the best storytelling twists I ever read, in issues of 2000ad that I was reading while walking along dull suburban streets, and I can remember exactly where I was on the street when each one hit.

I get a bit weird when it comes to things like this. I can imprint bad experiences on great comics, and I can remember exactly where I was when a great comic story takes a massively unexpected twist.

It's no surprise that these things keep happening while I'm out on the street – I still read most of a new issue of 2000ad while walking away from the store I bought it from. It's just the way I've always read the weekly comic. I get addicted to that thrillpower hit, and I need it, every week, as soon as I can get it, even if it takes more than two months to get here. (Hell, back in the day, it took six.)

And while I'm still floored by the occasional twist or turn in a modern issue of 2000ad, none of them have the impact that these three had.

(Spoiler warning for 20+ year old comics. )

TPO #1 Dead Man in Hei Hei

The first time it happened, it was The Dead Man. I'm 15, it's late summer in 1990, I'm in Christchurch staying with my Aunt and Uncle for the holidays, and I literally can't believe what I've just read.

The Dead Man had been running in 2000ad for a while, and was a straightforward mystery quest through an apocalyptic wasteland, that took a sharp turn into the spectacular when it was revealed that the Dead Man was, in fact, Judge Dredd.

I knew the series was set in Dredd's world – there were numerous references to the Cursed Earth – but I had absolutely no idea this was coming, and the next week until the next issue is one of the longest in my life. It doesn't help that the actual Dredd story in the same issue is a throwaway gag story about a bloke who turns into a fly, offering no clue to this new revelation.

Of course, it was Dredd, and that reveal sparked months of intense Dredd action, but I'll always remember exactly where I was when it all really kicked off – outside a dusty bookshop in a dusty part of Christchurch.

It's the kind of twist that only could only happen in an anthology comic with a history of creating new characters, and a history of filler stories. Taking one of those apparent fillers and making it crucial is the ultimate 2000ad twist, and one it has pulled off several times since.

And it's effective each time it's wheeled out for things like Lobster Random or Sinister Dexter, but none of them come close to being as mindboggling amazing as that Dead Man turn.

TPO#2: The Queen returns on King St

It's only a few weeks later when Judge Dredd blows my tiny little mind again. I'm back home in Temuka, walking down the main street on a sunny afternoon after school, reading about this crazy old woman that the Dead Man Dredd has run into on his trek back to the Big Meg and BLOODY HELL IT'S MCGRUDER.

This isn't quite as shocking as the Dead Man twist, but everyone knew that no judge ever returned from the Long Walk, and the revelation that the stern, proper McGruder has turned into a mad, hairy hag is a stunner, especially when her insanity doesn't stop her from being the natural leader she always was.

But it was also one of the first big signs that Judge Dredd wasn't just a story, it was a proper saga, with storytelling taking place over a period of decades. As more and more Dredd history is piled up, there are more and more references to past events, and that's become an essential part of the series, because there are ramifications and repercussions from Dredd's actions. You can't kill hundreds of millions of people without them.

McGruder's return came out of the blue, and stopped me dead on King St, but it also showed that characters grew and evolved outside the strict panels of the regular story. In later years, the sudden re-arrival of Vienna Dredd, almost three decades after her one appearance, triggered a new phase of the story – one of legacy, one of history.

McGruder ending up sticking around for a few more years, and while she got progressively crazier, she was given one of the best send-offs in comic history, where Dredd gives her the noble death she deserves. But Dredd – both the character and the strip – endures.

TPO #3: Eternity in an hour on Otipua Rd

Now it's 1992, and 2000ad is going through a bit of a bright spot, with the silly overkill of Judgement Day in Dredd, and the one Robo-Hunter story by Mark Millar that wasn't a total waste of space, but Zenith is clearly the best thing in the comic, even if it's getting progressively more grim. It's Phase Four, and it's all colourful and clean, but every week it's getting worse and worse. There's death, Armageddon and universal apocalypse closing in on all sides.

We know the good guys lose, because Doctor Peyne is telling the story at the end of the world, talking about the rest of humanity – and the super-heroes who stood up to the Lloigor - in the past tense. But it's still shown in excruciating detail, as the sun turns black, and humanity is wiped out in the background. Zenith and Peter St John, the old hippy turned conservative, put up a brief fight, but they have no chance against multi-dimensional monstrosities and are utterly destroyed.

And then the universe belongs to these giant, mad gods, who annihilate space/time with their velocity, and prepare to break into all universes and all corners of existence, and then...

Yeah. Turns out, these mad gods were actually imprisoned in a sentient pocket universe that has been hanging around since the start of the series, and Peter St John totally played them for chumps. The world is saved, because it was never lost.

This is where I am when this hits: In Timaru, walking to buy a new TV aerial so that I can pick up the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my first proper paycheck. Every week, I've been desperate for some hope, some light in the last Zenith story, but there has been none of that.  Everything is wrong, everything is dark, everything is lost. And then everything is okay again.

I've read a lot of Grant Morrison comics since Zenith, and some of them have got fairly fucking grim, but there is almost always hope, and there is almost always some kind of happy ending. Sometimes I still don't see them coming.

He did the same thing with Final Crisis, with the whole world turning to shit until Superman sings a song, although it's worth noting that the horrendous future glimpsed in his Batman run is still there when he finished, and the final issue of his long Batman stint was uncharacteristically melancholic, as the notion that Batman And Robin Will Never Die becomes more threat than promise.

But nothing has stopped me dead in my tracks like that Zenith twist. The Lloigor were out in their place, so I'm still there, in pristine space-time, standing still in thrillpower shock, on dull suburban streets.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Building Stories: Joy from misery

I came to Chris Ware's comics at a very miserable time in my life. I first read Jimmy Corrigan around the turn of the century – during a period where I had no job, no girl, no car and no prospects.

No future.

And then I started reading Ware's precisely melancholic comics, and they actually made me feel better. Because they were a lot funnier than I expected, as all those grim silences between lost characters end up becoming more than a little absurd. And they also helped because they gave me the kick up the arse I needed to get out of a rut.

Nearly fifteen years later, and I'm a long way away from that moaning little git I was in my early twenties, but I still dearly love the relentless and meticulous worlds Ware creates, and they still make me laugh, and they still make me think about my place in the universe.

I finally got the chance to read Building Stories in the past few weeks, when pal Nik gave me the box set to look after while he moved house, (this worked out well for him, as it’s a significantly sized object that he doesn’t have to worry about). It costs well over a hundred bucks in this part of the world, and as rewarding as Ware's comics always are, that was still just a bit too much for any comic story.

But even though it took almost two years to get to it, I was delighted to finally get my hands on the comics, and even more delighted that Ware's stories are as precise and sombre as ever.

It is still a bit intimidating when the box is first opened, and there are a number of dense comics of various sizes within, and it's especially daunting when there are no clear indications of what order they would even be read in. But Building Stories is a surprisingly easy and engaging read, and that lack of order turned out to be a major bonus.

And there is still that same sensation I felt, of connection with miserable characters, and the weird, miserable shame of a possible life.

The Building Stories comics do look complicated, but are really incredibly easy things to get through. It can be genuinely discouraging to look at these sprawling, dense pages, especially if you’re not perfectly in the mood for some fictional misery.

But Ware knows what he is doing, and each page is as easy to follow as a decent Donald Duck comic. There is a consistent narrative flow, and absolute logic to the packed pages. Any time it gets a bit too complicated, Ware throws in a helpful arrow between panels to show you where you should be going.

And it also helps that Ware’s art is so consistent and exact – every character might share that same worried brow, but you could never mistake one character for another, even as they age decades between the panels. The characters’ presence in the physical architecture of the story is always absolutely distinct, and there is never any confusion about where they are in life, or in those cramped, empty rooms of dying buildings.

Some of the larger pages of Building Stories have up to a dozen different stories happening on the same spread, but they're easy to follow, and it often doesn't matter which ones the reader tackles first, as the benefits of non-linear storytelling kick in. It's all the same story, no matter what order it's in.

And that extends to the whole package – the Building Stories box comes with more than a dozen separate books and pieces, and there is a definite order to them, as the few main characters grow old and change and move on, but there isn't an absolute need to follow that line. It’s just as rewarding to dip in and out of these lives, especially when the stories are separated by a lifetime of years.

In fact, it's arguably fore learning of the events that led to that fate.

Reading the comics in this way, along with Ware's extraordinarily pleasant cartooning style and the fact that some of his main characters are anthropomorphic bees, makes them a genuinely entertaining read.

But they are still miserable stories about miserable people, and this misery is the thing that is most often picked up by most people talking about the comic.

It's a different kind of misery in this latest work – the adolescent fears, worries and concerns of his earlier work grow into middle-aged angst, with more than one character feeling stifled by the rigour and exhaustion of a normal life in the suburbs. The details have changed, but the fear remains.

My own fears and worries have matured along with them. Jimmy Corrigan was the story of a reasonably young man still trying to find his place in the world, Building Stories is more about the funk of middle-aged drudgery, and they’re both recognisable.

And they're something to avoid. When I first read Jimmy Corrigan, I recognised more than I would like in the main character, and I knew how easy it would be to turn out like that – a shy and stumbling lost soul, too terrified to make a proper human connection, in case it hurt too much.

And I desperately wanted to avoid that fate. I have a deep fear of change, of anything that upsets the current status quo, but I also crave it like nothing else. It might be painful, and hard work, but avoiding the road to Corriganville was something worth working for.

These days, I identify less with Ware's characters than I did when I first meet them, and even if I can recognise parts of me in them, I ain't no Jimmy Corrigan.

But even with this lack of identification, Ware's comics are still razor sharp, super smart and utterly moving. It can be hard to open them for the first time, especially when everything looks so incredibly complicated and downright miserable, but there are always simple joys to be found.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Superhero universes: Frayed tapestries and tasty off-cuts

Ever since the days when the Human Torch and Namor got into fisticuffs over the charms of the lovely Betty Dean, superhero creators have been weaving a vast, complicated tapestry, bringing superhero universes together as one giant uber-story.

Unfortunately, the tapestries that represent the current Marvel and DC universes are starting to look pretty damn frayed around the edges, and have been repaired and rewoven time and time again. Entire chunks have been hacked out, ill-judged additions have been stitched into the gaps and there are still holes everywhere.

I do still like superhero comics – and sometimes I like them a lot.  I don't ask for much, a little style, a dash of humour and a taste of intelligence, but the right superhero comic is still enormously satisfying, because it is horribly rare. And the only ones I get regularly any more have little or no connection to those big, unwieldy universes.

Because the off-cuts are always the best parts.

I had high hopes for the New 52 comics from DC - seeing it as an opportunity to do something new and distinctive - but felt ultimately left behind by boringly generic stories and painfully scratchy art, and I haven't bought anything set in the main DC universe for more than a year now. All the endless posing and pointless fighting. All that generic rubbish crossing over into other generic rubbish, as legions of uninspired creators copy what everybody else is doing.

But I still get two DC superhero comics every month – a Superman and a Batman comic that are outside the bubble of this strict current continuity. Adventures of Superman and Batman '66 might not be important, but they're loads of fun.

Each issue features short, sharp stories about the world's finest superheroes, featuring some lovely art from characteristic artists. The quality of the stories in the Superman book is wildly variable, depending on the creators involved, but it doesn't really matter if there is the odd duff one, when something new will be along next. You're not committing to six months of a comic to find out if anything is any good or not – it's all there on the pages of a single issue.

There is nothing wrong with drawing on aspects of a greater world – Adventures of Superman often features guest appearances from other DC superstars, but it's not going to have an impact on anything outside its individual story, and there is a simplicity and purity in that which is increasingly palatable.

The Batman book is based in the world of the old sixties TV show, which I've learned to love again, and which has that campy attitude that is looking increasingly timeless. The comic doesn't just rely on the cosy, comfortable world of this Dynamic Duo, but is often genuinely smart, with some terrifically clear and energetic artwork.

These comics are throwbacks to a simpler age, when editors were appalled by the idea of dragging a story over months, convinced the kids wouldn't keep up with it. But these sort of comics, which don't add anything to that vast, ugly tapestry of the regular Batman and Superman titles, and are more disposable, are now the exception. They're not important enough.

Fortunately, importance is a value I don't always need in my superhero diet.

But it's also notable that these stories are the ones DC is really pushing on the internet, publishing first in digital, because they know that the average punter isn't going to give two figs about a Green Lantern saga about emotional colours that stretches on for four years, but might read a brief eight-page Superman story, if it's charming enough.

The main DC universe has lost me, and loving comics is in my DNA, so what chance do they have of hooking in new readers, when it's that hard to swallow?

The Marvel Universe is quite a bit younger than its DC counterpart, but also hasn't had the clean sweep of a Crisis. It's a universe that maintains that everything that happened since the days of Namor and Human Torch still happened, in some way. The Marvel Universe is more structured, with various Spider-Man and X-Men and Avenger sub-worlds, but again, the more something ties into everything else, the less attractive it has become.

Mark Waid's recent Daredevil comics have been operating in their own world, with only minimal interaction with the greater universe, and that has made it an easy title to buy every month (the sharp scripts and sharper art also have something going for it), and I've even found a X-Men comic that exists as its own thing.

The world isn't starved of X-titles – there are at least half a dozen too many already, making it far too much work to follow them all. The main X-titles - featuring Bendis' tasty take on the titles and some phenomenal art from Immonen, Bachalo and Irving – proved to be surprisingly enjoyable, but I never felt the urge to start getting the comics, because they kept overlapping and crossing over into other books, and that's far more trouble than it's worth.

The last time I regularly got an X-Men comic was during the Morrison period, which is over a decade now. But I've greatly enjoyed Jason Aaron and Ed McGuiness' new Amazing X-Men book, partly because it definitely fit that criteria, (and mainly because it looked like Excalibur).

There have only been a few issues of Amazing X-Men so far, but it's already more focused than the usual sprawling X-epic, with a tight team line-up and a tone of high adventure, and I'll keep buying it, as long as it stays its own book.

I already told my local comic shop guy that he could cancel my subscription to Amazing X-Men the minute they announce it is crossing over into other titles, and I'll stick to that, but there is more regret than I expected. I was disappointed to see Aaron is only on the title for the first six issues, although McGuiness and his endearingly rounded art is sticking around, because it is a stylish, funny and smart superhero comic.

And, most of all, I get everything I need in the one comic, without having to spread out into other, lesser works. The Amazing X-Men is still part of that frayed tapestry, but as long as it still holds on to its distinctive shape, right on the edge of all that mess, it'll be worth following.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

She's the one

My charming, smart and beautiful wife has been a constant background presence in this blog, right from the start. It's mainly because she's the biggest thing in my life. There is no one else.

I first meet her exactly ten years ago, we've been a couple for nine and married for seven. We've got no kids yet, because we like to travel, but we know that can't last forever.

Comics books are my favourite art medium, and I love them more than almost anything. But they don't smile at me in the morning and compulsively pinch my arse and hold my lonely hand.

I like art and the way it inspires and evolves and moves the human spirit, but art doesn't spoon up to you in the cold, cold night.

She's my alpha, my omega, my everything. My sun rises and sets with her. She's my kind of wonderful.

She makes me laugh more than any other person alive – her version of what Josh Homme should really sound like never fuckin' fails – and inspires me to be a better man, every single day.

I have quit good jobs because it started cutting into our time together too much, and we've both turned down free overseas trips, because we want to do that shit together. I barely socialise any more, because I all I want to do is go home and hang out with her.

We saw the Loch Ness Monster together, and cuddled beneath Mongolian stars. She dragged me into a packed five-storey nightclub in Prague, and we stood alone in Trafalgar Square, early on a chilly May morning.

She makes the meals, and I clean up afterwards. Her side of the bedroom is a chaotic mess, my side is tidy as hell. We just moved into our sixth house together.

I got into journalism to meet girls. It wasn't the main reason for getting into the business, but it was a big one. And I'm still amazed that it totally worked.

I first met the wife in February, 2004, on the first day of journalism school. She was late, and waltzed in while everybody was still introducing themselves. I thought she was pretty cool, and the cutest girl in the class.

She thought my name was Patrick.


We got married (twice) seven years ago, and I'm trying every day to be a better husband for her. I still refuse to let go of my grip on silly things like cheesy comics and dumb movies, but she's changed me in better ways. And she indulges some of my hoarding tendencies, but only to a certain degree

She'll never be totally convinced that I really do need all those Garth Ennis comics. But she won't stop me hunting out comic shops on the other side of the planet. (Probably because I'm always a miserable little shit if I can't go find 'em.) She's resigned to the fact that there will always be a pile of storage boxes in the spare room, as long as I keep it out of her areas of the house.

She's made it quite clear that if I ever cheated on her – which would be a fucking stupid move on my part – she would take all my comics out into the back garden and set them on fire. She's knows she could make some proper money if she just took them and sold them, but she would want to watch them burn.

Some people, if you push them far enough, just want to see the world burn. She is one of them, and her fire can be intoxicating.

She reads just as much as I do, and reads a lot more Great Literature – she's got a lot further into Ulysses than I ever managed, even if she hasn't quite finished it, a few years after she first started it.

She consumes vast amounts of trashy romance novels, and I'm going to get into trouble for even mentioning it here, but it's totally worth it, because her secret shame is so fuckin' cute. I've been reading terrible comic books my whole life, and I'm used to the sneers and derision, and I say she should be loud and proud with her trashy tastes, but she still hides them away when we have guests.

She doesn't read comics.

We enjoy the same kinds of movie and TV, for the most part. I'm more into the horror, she's more into the romance, but there is a huge amount of middle ground.

She really, really likes The Venture Bros.

We do tend to listen to different kinds of music although, again, there is a large area of shared love. I'm not a huge fan of some of her favourite bands, but I can always respect 'em.

To be honest, apart from a shared obsession with treading, we don't have a lot of hobbies in common. She's into horse-riding, and I can't stand the horrible things. She gets into the arts and craft, I spend a large part of my life keeping my 2000ads in order.

It can be healthy to hang on to a bit of you, when you pair up with someone for life. It's good to have your own interests. Our different hobbies usually see us going off and doing different things on the weekend, but we still make time for each other, and we still know what really matters.

Everything I do, I do it for her, but we don't have to do everything together.

I never had a girlfriend that lasted longer than three weeks until I met her. I had the usual embarrassing adolescent crushes on some comic characters, ever since Wonder Girl's red tights made me feel all funny when I was six.

I'm only a little disturbed by how she matches some of those crushes, - she has a little Jewish heritage, just like Kitty Pryde, and can be as sharp (and soft) as the Black Cat, or as fascinatingly complex as Maggie Chascarillo.

She's everything I could ask for in a wife, all wrapped up in some fine curves and a killer smile.

She's everything to me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who criticises the critics?

Nobody criticises comics criticism quite like comics critics criticise comics criticism.

Of course, they can't see the wood for the trees, because there is a ridiculous amount of terrific criticism and strong reviews out there for anybody to find, if they could be bothered to look.

The idea that there just isn't any decent comics criticism at all any more, not like the good ol' days, keeps coming up again and again, and it always just sounds like fatuous nostalgia.

It does often come from a lot of critics themselves, bemoaning the fact that people aren't reading the same obscure things like they are, or penning long-winded think-pieces that reveal how appalling it is that tiny mini-comics out of Ohio don't get the same kind of attention as the latest Punisher relaunch.

But comic readers really do have an abundance of good criticism to choose from. It might take some time for it to appear, and it might by a case of quality over quantity, and it might actually take some effort to find, but it's out there.

Okay, so it can actually take a lot of effort to dig it out. It's not just a matter of googling a title and hoping for the best, because the first hundred search results are probably just trying to sell you something.

Comics criticism is like anything else in modern pop culture – you have to sort though a mountain of chaff to find the diamonds. Print and internet media are both drowning in worthless reviews, full of flagrant shilling, pointless plot regurgitations and simply terrible writing.

But it doesn't really take that long to find the good stuff, and it's always worth the work. It doesn't take long to work out which websites offer the best reviews, and which ones barely put any effort into them. It doesn't take long to work out which ones to avoid, and which ones to follow.

And it doesn't take long to figure out that there are some particular critics that are more enjoyable, informative and, well, more fun than others.

This is often a matter of taste, and not everybody has to like the same critics, or get get similar rewards from the same review. There is nothing wrong with this – some people will be more into the Don MacPherson style of reviews, while others would be more inclined towards writers like Noah Berlatsky. Considering their target audiences, they're both perfectly valid.

My own tastes towards particular critics and reviewers are fairly standard. I only just started getting my first monthly X-Men comic in a decade recently, but I never stopped reading Paul O'Brien's X-Axis reviews, and Joe McCulloch has turned the Comics Journal preview of the week's comics into a indispensable glimpse of beauty in non-American comics.

J Caleb Mozzocco still writes the best weekly mainstream comic round-up, even as price and taste force him to cover less and less actual titles, and I might not always agree with writers like Tim O'Neill or Sean T Collins, but I still appreciate their opinion and point of view.

I also read everything posted by the The Savage Critics, because they are a rare group effort that doesn't drift towards the lowest common denominator, and often feature reviews – like Abhay's latest – which have a curiously charming sense of self-loathing in their funny-book opinions.

Some of of my favourite critics don't reveal their opinion as often as they used to – Tucker Stone's always-hilarious Comics Of The Weak seems to have unfortunately fallen over since it found a home at the Journal, and Alan David Doane's fantastic rants have also gone quiet, (probably because Alan's love of mainstream has been totally broken by the inexplicable mega-popularity of Geoff Johns-type comics.)

But I still enjoy the odd pieces they do, which show up here and there, and there are always other thoughts and opinions to consider. Every day, more and more comic readers write down their opinion of something they've just read, and there are always new names to remember, and perspectives to share.

It can sometimes be a long time to wait for something specifically worthwhile, but that's part of the deal. It can take time for a proper critical consensus to form, once the work is divorced from the hype and ephemera that surround the initial release. It can take time for works to be discovered by just the right reader. And it can take time before genius is really recognised.

This isn't just confined to comics – it always took at least a decade before Stanley Kubrick's films became undisputed masterpieces – but comics are so fixated on the now and near future, and nobody cares about last week's shipment, even though some meaty works really do take some time to digest.

I only just read Chris Ware's excellent Building Stories comic box a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still looking for a really comprehensive analysis. There was plenty said about it when it first came out, but there hasn't been the really deep commentary that the book deserves since then.

(It certainly won't be coming from me, when I talk about the comic next week, because I'm far, far more interested in How It Makes Me Feels, rather than What Does It All Mean.)

But I also have total faith that this critique that I'm craving will appear, sooner or later. It might already be out there, and I just haven't found it yet. It might actually be the work of several different writers working on separate pieces, rather than one complete analysis. All I know for sure is that one day I'll stumble across it, and gain a richer appreciation for Ware's original work.

I've made the same argument before about the state of comics journalism, that there is more good stuff out there than anybody will admit to, and other viewpoints are equally valid, but I'm gorging on great critique, even if it takes some time and effort.

Putting time and effort into something might be incredibly unfashionable in the lazy, lazy 21st century, where we all demand instant gratification, but there is always a direct correlation between work and reward. It's just worth it.

Moaning about the state of comics criticism is easy, but it's not nearly as much fun as putting in the effort to find the good stuff.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Scream! Scream like you mean it!

Scream was an incredibly short-lived British weekly comic that came out in 1984. It was a horror comic, in exactly the same way 2000ad was a science fiction comic, and featured many of the same creators, and much of the same dark sense of humour.

It lasted 15 issues.

It might have been killed so quickly because of low sales, but there also seemed to be a general perception that Scream was just a bit too distasteful, especially with its target audience of young boys. It was corrupting the young minds of those nine-year-olds with all that gore and those disgusting monsters and disrespect for authority and grim, death-soaked endings.

That may all be true, but all I know for sure is that I was one of those nine-year-old boys at that time, and I was absolutely gutted when that comic got cancelled. It might have been the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

Because Scream was my first real comic obsession, and the first obsession is always the best.

It was the first comic where I went rabid for every new issue, and couldn't miss a single one without some kind of adolescent meltdown. It was one of the very rare comics that was advertised on New Zealand television, (and may even be the only comic that ever aired on TV, as far as I know), and it was instantly something I could get behind.

I'd been reading 2000ad on and off for a couple of years, but that comic was already well into its 100s by the time I came on board, and there were always weird gaps. There still are. But then I saw the covers for the second and third issues on the telly and I knew here was something where I could get in on the ground floor, right from the start.

It also helped that Scream lived up to the hype, and turned out to be a comic that was full of deeply creepy stories, with some fantastic art.

With all due hindsight, the stories were obviously fairly average, even if some of their more obvious twists and turns still blew my tiny mind.

But Scream had a dark, grimy tone that was largely set by the dark, grimy art. For instance, plot-wise, something like The Dracula File was a standard version of the classic vampire, with Drac making another power play for England. But Eric Bradbury's art looked like it was covered in decaying filth, as the vampire's undead rot spread out into a modern world of bike gangs and MI5 agents. The late, great Jose Ortiz had his own sweaty detailing in the terrified faces of the unfortunate folk who ended up visiting the Thirteenth Floor, and Jesus Redondo's scratchy realism gave the fearsome Uncle Terry in Monster plenty of humanity.

But when it came to really gross and disturbing art, Jim Watson's work for the Tales of The Grave strip was the best. It was the usual Victorian supernatural vengeance kind of thing, but Watson's characters were always these haggard, desiccated soul, with the darkest eyes imaginable. It was another strip that was full of gross death and violent retribution, and it had a graveyard fog curling through its plots.

Watson's art was gloriously horrible, and sometimes it was properly terrifying as a dead man's face loomed out of the gloom, and I lapped it up every week.

There were some nice moments in the scriptwork for Scream's stories – the first episode of Monster was written by Alan Moore, and is an unsettling tale of a boy trapped in an isolated old house, with something in the attack. And a lot of the comics one-off stories had an efficient punch, even if there are a bunch of unfamiliar names in the credits (Which usually means they're more pseudonyms for John Wagner and Alan Grant.)

And while the scripts for most of the Scream stuff were sub-EC horror nonsense, I never actually got to things like Tales From The Crypt until I was a grown adult, and every 'BUT HE WAS THE MONSTER ALL ALONG!' twist was new to me.

 This comic came out thirty years ago now, and I can still remember which corner shops and small supermarkets I got them from, (many of which are still hanging in there). I remember that it was one of the few comics that my Mum liked to read, and it was no problem getting the 55 cents I needed out of her, because she would always read it straight after me. I remember having to properly hunt down number nine and finding it on a trip to Dunedin, and I remember really wondering what editor Ghastly McNasty actually looked like under his hood. (They revealed it after the comic was cancelled. It wasn't that Ghastly.)

And I remember the sinking dread I felt when #16 didn't show up.

 There had been no warning, some stories were in mid-stream, it was just over. It took me a few weeks to realise that Scream had been killed before it had even really got going, and I knew it was all over when a couple of Scream stories were added to the Eagle title that was running at the time.

Even the nine-year-old me knew that's what they always did with dead comics. It was even called Eagle And Scream for a few months, before it was just Eagle again, and even The Thirteenth Floor and Monster were eventually wrapped up.

 Scream did exist in some sort of shambling half-life for a few years, with Scream Holiday Specials coming out every UK summer, but the quality quickly went out the window, and the last one they put out wasn't even called Scream, and that was that.

But that fondness I had for the comic never died, and just last week I bought all 15 issues again, without hesitation. The original 15 comics I bought off the shelves in 1984 had been lost, stolen or just fallen to pieces through overuse, so there was no question about getting them all again.

And they're still clunky, and creepy, and occasionally beautiful. I still love Scream like vampires love blood, (and it is nice to find out I'm not the only one – some other little monster has put all 15 issues up on the web here). My inner nine-year-old is still gutted that there were only 15 issues, but that's still 15 issues of bloody perfection.