Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Single Page: It's like I'm different from everybody else

By Ivan Brunetti
Originally published in Cerebus: High Society #10

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Single Page: I don't like the look of this one

By Doog!
Originally published Cerebus Bi-Weekly #25

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Single Page: More divine, more divine!

Written and drawn by David Morris
Originally published in Cerebus #152

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Single Page: I never told you those things!

Written and drawn by the great Trina Robbins
Originally published in Cerebus Bi-weekly #21

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Single Page: Hedgehog with a mohawk

By Dan McMurphy
Originally published in Cerebus Bi-Weekly, November 24 1989

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Single Page: Small change

By Roberto Corona
Originally published in Cerebus: Church and State #27

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Single Page: Horseshit luck!

Art and story by Dan Day
Originally published in Cerebus Bi-Weekly #13

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Single Page: Threatening to devour

Script: John Milton Pencils: Douglas
Originally published in Cerebus Bi-Weekly #19

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Single Page: I Still Think Of You, Jim Henson



Back when people actually cared about what happened in Cerebus The Aardvark, just before Dave Sim nuked most of his audience from orbit with a view of life and the universe that was breathtakingly sexist and offensive, Sim offered comic creators a tiny platform in the back of his comics, giving artists exposure to an audience eager for new alternative comics.

This would evolve into multi-pages previews of comics from other self-publishers, but at one point he offered up a single page, with no rules about what could go on that page. Anything goes.

And for a while, the Single Pages were some of the best value comics available, with one page offering up a wide variety of styles and techniques from some established pros like Evan Dorkin and eddie Campbell, and lots of enthusiastic amateurs who nobody ever heard of again.

There were a few dozen of these Single Pages, and instead of providing some actual goddamn content, I'm going to share some of them over the next few days. (There would be more, but I recently traded up up bunch of Cerebus bi-weekly comics, which had the addition, for the earlier original copies, which didn't, and oh fuck I'm boring myself to death...)

They vary greatly in actual quality, but this Jim Henson tribute from Jim Aubry, published in Cerebus #162, is always my favourite, and the saddest bloody single page story I've ever seen. That look on Ernie's face as he fades away...

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The secret origin of the Tearoom of Despair

It was exactly 10 years ago, and we were somewhere near the monastery on the pillars of Meteora, when I realised what my name was.

The lovely wife and I had just got married, and we celebrated by heading off around the world for six months. At this point, we were 30 days into a 46-day tour around Europe, and disaster had struck: I'd run out of things to read. The scenery around Europe was mindblowing, but a lot of the travel was along anonymous highways, with just grey walls and straight lines of trees to see out the window. We were on a tight schedule to get around the continent, so there were hours and hours on those dull roads, with nothing to do but sleep, drink or read. (Or all three.)

This was before the ubiquity of e-books, so almost everybody else on the tour had their own dogged paperbacks, and they'd all get handed around. I'd already burned through Robert Fisk's 1200-page History of Civilization in less than a week, and got through my Carl Hiaasen omnibus in two days, so was desperate to read anything, and there were no Enlish-language bookshops about. So I read the only Harry Potter book I've ever read, and even choked down a James Patterson novel. I got five books into Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen saga, and never actually finished the series, which isn't much of a problem, because I can't remember a single thing about any of those books.

What I do remember is this - staring out the window because there was nothing else to do, and deciding at some point that I needed to get a lot of the bullshit about comics and movies and other debris of pop culture out of my skull and into some sort of online journal, right about the time blogging became terminally uncool.

It was always going to be called the Tearoom of Despair, but I couldn't use my real name, because I couldn't bear the endless jokes about The Cure. I needed a fake name, and as we were traveling through the Greek countryside, and I saw these giant pieces of rock stabbing into the sky. And while I felt so fucking far from home, I knew that wherever I went, or whatever I did, I was always going to be Bob from Temuka.

It took another 18 months before I actually started publishing in the Tearoom, but that was where it really started, and I haven't stopped since.

This is the 1000th post at the Tearoom of Despair.

A thousand posts of ill-thought comments, and ridiculous opinions about the dumbest shit. A thousand posts of trying to convince the world that Love and Rockets is as good as it ever was, that Doctor Who really is the best TV show ever, and that Frank Miller still has something worthwhile to say. A thousand posts of bullshit, and half-arsed opinions, and desperate pleas for attention.

I've spent countless hours writing this out, and have posted every single thing with a 'fuck it, that'll do'. I still lie awake at night wondering about the next post, and have now racked up nearly 700,000 words on the dumbest subjects.

It's been going a lot longer than I thought it would last, but I'm hardly going to stop now. I feel like I'm still just getting started.

Still, real life is a right arse sometimes, and the Tearoom is in a semi-low content mode at the moment, and that will continue for a couple more weeks, with the help of The Single Page.

It doesn't mean I don't care. I still love you all. Here's to the next 1000 posts.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The speed of Dillon

Artist Steve Dillon broke into the comic industry as a teenager, largely for two reasons - 1) because he was bloody brilliant, with a sharpness to his line that was immediately appealing, and 2) because he was fast as hell.

For a perfect example of both of these attributes, you don't need to look any further than the lost episode of City of the Damned, a Judge Dredd story from the early 1980s where Judges Dredd and Anderson travel a decade into their future to see the results of a predicted apocalypse.

It's a classic Dredd tale, as our heroes overcome the deep horror that their beloved city has become, and save the day by ensuring this apocalyptic nightmare will never come to pass. Like all the great golden age Dredds, it was written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, and featured work from a variety of the comic's best art droids.

These included Dillon, who was a perfect fit for this gritty, hopeless future, and it was all going swimmingly, until the actual climax of the thing, when most of Dillon's art for a crucial episode vanished from the 2000ad offices.  

The colour centre-spread was still there, which was just as well, as it was a massively pivotal scene where Dredd gets a bunch of his undead former colleagues to step aside, purely with the use of his own imposing authority. But the rest had disappeared, and under a supreme deadline crunch, Dillon stepped back up and redrew the required four pages in record time.

A couple of years later, the missing art turned up again, and 2000ad readers were able to see and compare the two versions, and it was absolutely bloody fascinating:

It is an invaluable insight into the young artist's methods, just by looking at the slight alterations made to the story. You can study the difference between the two, (the published version on the left above, and the 'lost artwork' on the right), and try to see if the pressure of the deadline forced Dillon to make any shortcuts, or just take note of the way characters switch sides, or move differently (body language was one of Dillon's great under-rated skills).

Other artists frequently sketch out their layouts beforehand, but it's so unusual to see two pieces of complete and finished art like this. Dillon had already had a rehearsal run on the pages, and even though the replacement pencils were churned out at an incredibly fast rate, they're arguably better, with a slightly tighter focus on some of the figurework, and even more detail - see how the panel where Anderson's face is in shadow on page four on the original, but more fully revealing in the redo, or how the sizes of the actual panel are tighter, or more open.

When we lost Steve Dillon recently, we lost one of the modern greats. His worth is evident in the hundreds and hundreds of pages of comic artwork he did, but you can see it best here in these four pages, quickly whipped up to save the day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Romero's devil was always in the details

George Romero never really liked being pigeon-holed as a horror director, but he was asking for it, because he was just so very good at scaring the shit out of us. All modern horror films - and a large amount of crime, thriller and comedy movies - owe a debt to Romero.

He brought horror out of the gothic castles and into rural and urban America, using his movies as broad and biting allegories on the state of the world, and he didn't flinch from showing just how brutal things could be. Many of his films were pleasantly ambiguous about this world of ours, and some of them were bluntly pessimistic.

While the broad strokes of his metaphors were obvious, Romero really made an impact on viewers with the deft use of tiny details and little moments that made his stories sing with terror, and give his movies life.

There was the soft slipping of the sheet covering Roger as he comes back in Dawn of the Dead, and the nasty villain telling the ghouls to choke on his intestines at the end of the Day. The sheep in the field in The Crazies, running past a tiny massacre; Martin's inept clumsiness as his romantic delusions crash into real life; Ed Harris' smile as he rides on out of this world in Knightriders. A zombie on a horse in Survival of the Dead, the unsettling cleanliness of Creepshow and the Amish dude's chalkboard in Diary of the Dead. The meathook at the end of the Night, the belly button ring in the Land, and the detail that went into that fucking eye in The Dark Half.

One that always stuck in my mind as desperately horrific in its banal finality was a tiny bit at the end of the original Dawn of the Dead - a zombie crashes into a display cabinet in the cosmetics section of an overrun department store, and then an undead foot steps on it, splattering goo over the floor.

There is something in that extraordinarily small moment that enforces the reality that this really is the apocalypse, really is the end of the world. The inhabitants of the mall have kept it remarkably clean and tidy as they used it as their own giant bunker, but when the dead reclaim it, they trod over everything, and make a hell of a mess, and nobody is ever going to clean it up. That paste, splattered across the floor, will lie there for a thousand years, and nobody will ever wipe it away. This is the new world, where all that materialistic bullshit means nothing. Nothing at all.

As wide as his allusions to society got, Romero was an incredibly subtle filmmaker, and he managed to raise big questions about race relations, just through casting decisions, that didn't need him to spell anything out. And it was in the tiny moments that made Romero a genuinely great filmmaker.

I hope he wins all the posthumous accolades he can, and that everybody makes dumb jokes about his career living on past his death. He would always grit his teeth beneath those enormous glasses whenever people made jokes about that in front of him, but you could always tell George was digging it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hello, Doctor.

The new Doctor is always the best Doctor.

Soon after it was announced today that Jodie Whittaker would be taking on the lead role of Doctor Who - and becoming the first female actor to do so - my local newspaper had a story up on its website saying that the decision had divided fandom, with hordes of man-boys crying into their cornflakes over the move.

If there is one benefit to living in a bubble created by social media algorithms, it's that I didn't see a single person complaining about the change, they were all 100 percent positive about it, and so am I. Even the people who didn't give a shit about the show were grudgingly happy that it was trying something different. Even one of my very best mates, who has been decrying possible femininity in the TARDIS for years, is a big fan of Whittaker's work, and is now excited about the possibilities.

(Okay, I did see a shit tweet from Ian Levine, retweeted by a incredulous friend, but Ian Levine is a contender for being one of the very worst people in Doctor Who fandom ever, so who gives a damn what he thinks?)

Overall, by far, there was a positive reaction, probably because it's a fundamentally decent and right decision. Doctor Who has survived this long by changing for the times, and this change has come again, and not a moment too soon. A female Doctor opens up all sorts of new storytelling possibilities, is empowering for a significant part of its audience, and takes the show into unexpected territory. Why would anybody ever complain about that?

Even though the programme isn't going to fundamentally change - there will still be loads of bonkers adventures in space and time, with a central figure is never cruel or cowardly and is just as strong as she ever was - this is something new for the 54-year-old  show, and that is always, always welcome.

Doctor Who fandom has had a huge and welcome influx of girls and women over the past decade, and it's only right and proper that they get some proper representation on this silly show. The future belongs to those 10-year-old girls geeking the hell out on YouTube, and it's about time they got a decent role model like the 13th Doctor.

Of course, it would be nice if these kinds of announcements actually took place in a story, rather than an oppressive PR blitz, but the video announcement of the new Doctor was a powerful statement of intent, and the thrill of the new and different.

I'm delighted to stay along for the ride.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Is that the meaning of life up on the bookshelf, or just a really spunky hardback?

Any kind of decent magical instruction will include the need for a totem - an object or thing that can be raised to ultra-significance by time and effort. It could be anything, but if you push enough thought and love and memory into the thing, the more important and powerful it becomes. It might mean nothing to anybody else, but it can literally become your own holy grail or philosopher's stone.

I've tried it a couple of times over the years, but it never really takes off, usually because I always lose the bloody thing just as it really gains in significance. The lovely wife and I have a little travel Buddha that always goes on every big trip we take, and we always rub his big belly for luck, and we usually get it. We've almost lost him a couple of times too - he almost got left on the roof of a taxi in Dubai and left behind in a hotel room in Winnipeg - but he's hanging in there for now.

But what about that bookcase, filled with comics and books, standing guard over my living room like a living monolith? It's always there, and it's filled with fiction and emotions. Is this my familiar? Is this my totem? Am I really that fucking shallow?

Oh yeah. I'm that fucking shallow.

There are nine bookcases in our small flat, and they're all solidly packed out with the usual chills and thrills, but the large one in the living room is definitely the big daddy.

It's five tall shelves high, reasonably deep and solid as fuck. It cost us several hundred bucks, and it's worth every cent. It looms over our living room, and is a constant beautiful distraction, because all the best stuff goes on that one. It is, quite literally, a showcase into my tastes and inclinations.

It's 80 percent comic books, all the Love and Rockets, all the favourite graphic novels and trade paperbacks and all the Big Books. Big, thick and deeply gorgeous art books anchor the whole thing, and favourite digest-sized comics fill all the gaps.

It's a big fucking bookcase, and while some things have a permanent home, there is a constant recycling of books through it. It's always changing, or growing, or shrinking, as the things I want to display change.

It's full of all sorts of crap, but it's not really anything unusual. There is nothing really that unique about my big bookcase, you'll find such bookshelves all over the world, in all sorts of homes.

But this one is mine, and I've put a lot of work into it. That constant shuffling is necessary, to get the right mix, and I'll never be properly satisfied with what it is saying.

Still, it looks sexy as hell. There are stories of infinite scope and endless novelty in those pages. There are literally universes on those shelves, entire sagas taking up one tiny corner of a shelf.

I always judge other people by the bookcases they have in their homes, and I expect to be judged by others for my own efforts. There is a lot going on in this bookcase, and it reveals a lot about my perspectives on the world, with doses of great literature pressed up hard against unashamed genre trash. All these books, all these comics, they're me.

And there is meaning in each one - I can remember where I got most of the volumes up there, and some of them are gifts, given with the greatest of affection, and some of them are comics that I've bought in shops all over the world, from Iceland to Invercargill.

We've only had this bookcase for a couple of years, but it's already charged up with the memories of where, when and why I got the things inside, dating back decades. It's all significant. It's all important. Nobody else should give a shit, but it all means something to me.

Even the shelves themselves have meaning - the bookcase was a gift from the lovely wife, to celebrate my 40th birthday. It's a solid and immovable symbol for our time together, and of the great affection we have for each other.

Bookcases are the only piece of furniture I never get rid of, unless they literally fall apart. I still have the small three-shelver that was literally my only piece of furniture when I first moved out of home, and it's storing all my cheap and cheerful paperbacks in the corner of the spare room.

Other furniture will come and go, but that big arse bookcase will be here to the end.

In the chaos and fear of this vast, unblinking universe, the bookcase is solid, and special. It's my totem. It's a big fat metaphor for everything I care about, and a solid-as-shit chunk of the world, taken up with enough books and comics to legitimately crush me to death if it ever went over. (This is a fairly likely fate, but what a way to go.)

It's dripping with significance. I can't fit it into the pocket like the travel Buddha, but it's always there, always waiting back at home.

And it's storing and displaying most of the finest things I've ever read, and some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen. Stories that changed the chemicals in my brain, and art that is so achingly perfect it's hard to hold back the tears. That's all got to count for something.

The shelves are deep, and my affection for things on there is even deeper, and that might actually make me shallow as fuck, but that's fine by me.

I've got my totem, and it's nearly as tall as I am, and a shitload heavier. It's full of all the memory and emotion I've poured into it for most of a lifetime, and it just keeps giving back.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The bad boys of Crisis - Skin and The New Adventures of Hitler

There was a glorious surge in interest in 'mature readers' comics in the late eighties in the UK, with the phenomenal mainstream success of comics like Watchmen and Maus sending publishers scrambling to fill new titles with political and socially aware comic strips (that also happened to be full of blood and tits).

There were terrifically anarchic efforts like Tank Girl, and the scattered work by the wider Deadline crew, and there were high-profile attempts to tap into this thirst for grown up comics. This included Crisis, the bi-weekly comic from the publishers and creators of 2000ad, which tried so hard to be one of the most edgy comics of its age, and never quite got there, although it was politically volatile and nakedly ambitious.

An ambitious failure is always far more interesting than a dull success, and Crisis had its share of both, but always tried to find the limits of grown-up comic books.

Remarkably, it actually found those limits, and even as Crisis took on some stories that were too hot for other publications, they discovered that the line was drawn at story about a thalidomide baby who grew up to be a little shit of a skinhead.

Of course, the Crisis comic was far from the first comic to take on political issues, while chasing an adult audience. Comic creators had been heading out into those uncharted waters for decades, with various explosions of underground and alternative comix.

But you didn't have to go to the local head shop for this fix,  Crisis showed up on regular newsstands, shelved near issues of the Beano, with some surprisingly hardcore content filtering its way into mainstream retailing.

And not just in the terms of sex and violence - the comic kicked off with some hardcore political screeds and subversive storytelling ideas. Writer John Smith brought his usual brilliant fractured narrative techniques to grown-up superheroes in the New Statesman, while Pat Mills' immaculately researched Third World War unashamedly took to its soapbox to deliver harsh polemics on the injustice of third world debt levels (while still having loads of action and peril).

Things got a little freer in the comic after the initial stories reached the end of their runs, and there were some safely charming stories, and a couple of genuinely thoughtful early efforts from Garth Ennis. It was all getting a bit safe, but Crisis was always looking out for something to rile up the squares, and it wasn't really that hard to find it. Actually publishing it was another story.

Once Crisis had been established, and was really looked like it was running out of puff, the comic got a powerful shot in the arm from The New Adventures of Hitler, the rip-tickling adventures of a young Adolf Hitler hanging out with family in England before WW1.

Proactively ideologically unsound, the strip was written by angry young Grant Morrison and drawn by his frequent - and welcome - collaborator Steve Yeowell. It had some of the most vomit-inducing colours in a modern comic book, and was far goofier and sillier than its title suggested.

In fact, apart from the general concept of portraying Adolf fuckin' Hitler with anything remotely resembling sympathy, the comic was actually pretty safe, skating on a thin edge of easy surrealism - Morrisey is in Hitler's cupboard - and showing that Hitler was always a bit of a tool.

It certainly wasn't condoning Nazism, and happily took some cheap shots at the whole fascism things. The strip also took great delights in comparing Hitler's ideas to Thatcherism, which the UK was only just starting to shrug off at the time of the comic's publication.

It was a liberal-baiting title, but unthinking nationalism was the real target of this story. It's all literally farts from a flatulent bulldog, or shit in an overflowing toilet, disguised as the Holy Grail.

The New Adventures of Hitler was originally intended for another publication, but got turfed out of that magazine, purely on the politically dodgy nature of the whole idea, rather than the actual content. It didn't take long for Crisis to snap it up, and publish it. There was the usual reaction of mild outrage, but it wasn't really a huge deal.

Crisis needed to publish it, because it was in danger of losing that edgy image it had set out to conquer. Although it had run into some predictably religious strife with Ennis/Pleece's True Faith, the anthology comic had already blinked once, and nobody was going to take them seriously if they did it again.

That blink was the unnerving and unflinching Skin, another in a devastating run of good comics from the team of peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, with their usual acerbic wit and ultra-trippy visuals.

The strip was advertised in the comic as a coming attraction, and was ready to go, but never showed, reportedly because the printers wanted nothing to do with it. After a short spell in limbo, it was eventually published by Tundra, and has been reprinted several times since.

It wasn't actually that much of a surprise that it caused such a fuss before publication, because Skin is genuinely disturbing, but also brilliant in its humanity - victims of medical malpractice are still people, and can still be completely dickheads, if they wanna be.

Martin Hatchet is a little shit. A victim of the appalling thalidomide cluster-fuck, born with tiny arms, who doesn't give a shit about your sympathy. As one of his mates notes, the poor bugger can't even reach far enough to have a wank, so you can't blame him for having some anger issues.

But Martin has his mates, and finds a community among the other skinheads, and they just treat him as one of the lads. Their white power ideology is awful and moronic, but they still find a place for him.

Martin does, admittedly, end up ripping off somebody else's arms and tying them to his own, in an orgy of grim violence, but as confronting as the story is, it's truly progressive in giving this type of person such an unpleasant voice.

While Crisis kept trying to freak out its readers, it ran out of energy and was gone within a couple of years. It remains little more than a footnote in the history of British comics, but it still influenced a new generation of comic creators, willing to take up the cause of saying something outrageously offensive.

It's hard to imagine either of these two particular strips being published these days, where the most superficial reading of a story can overwhelm any measured reaction, and it's nearly impossible to imagine it showing up on the shelves of the local newsagent.

But for a while, there was a genuine effort to get this type of material into the minds of as many people as possible. Skin and the New Adventures of Hitler didn't spark another wave of craziness, but shit. At least they tried.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This lack of bookshop is bad for everybody

This is a city of more than 1.5 million people, and getting bigger every day, and there isn't a single bookshop on the main street in the centre of town.

There are a couple of excellent bookstores, just a few streets off the main road, and a record shop that has a brilliant selection of esoteric literature and funky non-fiction, but there isn't a single dedicated bookshop anywhere on the main street. No chain stores, no classy independent stores, no second-hand stores. Nothing.

This isn't good for me, and it isn't good for you. It isn't good for anybody.

The migration of the second hand trade to the online sphere has had an obviously massive effect on brick and mortar stores, and is slowly wiping them from the map. Again, this is a city with hundreds of thousands of people living, loving, sleeping and reading in it, and there are barely a dozen second-hand bookstores across this whole city.

I'm a fiend for the second hand bookstores, and used to spend entire days criss-crossing the city, looking for something new from the old shops. I once calculated that a town or city had, on average, about one decent second-hand bookstore for every 10,000 people, now you're lucky if there is one per 100,000.

Another really good second hand bookstore near me disappeared recently, with the owner shutting up shop, and moving out of town, driven out by high rents and futile returns. It got replaced by a low-end fashion outlet. They always get replaced by something boring like that.

You can't blame people for buying all their books through places like Amazon, because it's cheaper and so easy to get the most obscure publication dropped into your lap. No effort, all reward.

I've bought a couple of dozen books from Amazon in this century, and hundreds and hundreds from actual shops. Getting something online is sometimes the only option, especially with a lot of books never getting imported to this part of the world. Sometimes it's the only way.

But browsing can be a fucking chore in this e-market, a dull, aching journey down the bottom of a click-list, forced to rely on algorithms that are trying to pick my tastes but never give me anything unexpected, or follow the purchasing patterns of similar customers. It's no fun.

And another reason it's no fun, is that it's so easy. There is no hunting for that one last book in a series you need, no joy of discovery. It just comes in the post, like a proper party pooper.

But I know that, for some bizarre reason, people prefer cheaper prices and easy convenience, and the second hand market is no match for an online trading auction. The book store trade has been choking to death on this for ages, with both big chain stores and small outlets going down the tubes, and the sheer amount of bookstores is dropping off across the world.

And what replaces them? Blank stores full of expensive and fundamentally useless phone technology. Shoe stores, and clothes shops, and health food outlets. Sheer narcissism over intellect, nothing beyond self-reflection, and no chance to take on another different points of view in some chunky publication.

It's the symptom of the age, this painful and vainglorious self-involvement. When we go shopping, all the bookstores are gone, so nobody is asking 'what can I learn today?', because they're too busy wondering 'does my arse look big in this'?

It looks fucking humongous, if you're asking.

There are still some bloody great bookstores out there - the few that have survived have been the sturdiest and strongest, with good selections and knowledgeable staff, and they often seem to be packed with eager customers, who just want a good substantial read.

But rents in the city still creeping up, and a lot of their clientele are hooked on their fucking phones, and as the print trade passes away from the mass market to the niche thrill, it all gets more expensive, and it's a slow, inevitable spiral to something a lot smaller, and harder to find.

Books are a highly-evolved creature that, for many people, still beats the unreliability and pixelation of digital format, so there will always be a place for some print, but it's not going to be everywhere, like it once was.

I fucking miss them, and a little part of me despairs every time I see another one has gone. I have no interest in going to the local malls anymore, with their one, sad chain bookstore that is more of a kids' stationery shop than anything else, and there isn't much in the centre of town either.

Binging on a Netflix TV show is the modern equivalent of reading a decent novel, and we're all still looking for information, but it all comes for free, on screens and direct downloads. Why bother with something as big and unwieldy as a book, just because it has far more information and truth and thought than can ever fit in an online article.

I'm fully aware that I risk accusations of being a fucking luddite, scared of technology and hanging on to a past of bookstore nirvana that has long since passed.

But it's not a fear of the future, it's a dismay at the lack of interest in intellectual stimulation, replaced by the constant self-involved hunger for name-brand merchandise to make you look good.

Don't worry about the clothes and shoes you wear, worry about the brain shriveling from lack of use. That isn't healthy for you. it's not healthy for anybody.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Put it in the back pocket

For somebody who has been collecting the damn things for nearly 40 years now, I still treat my comics absolutely terribly. They're always getting ripped, or faded, or stained by food.

I've got thousands of the fuckers, and they're all stuffed into boxes or chucked on bookshelves or crammed into the cupboard. None of them are slabbed to preserve them for all time with an expert grading. Half of them aren't even in any kind of protective bag.

If you're not in it for the money, who cares what condition they are in? It's not the thing that matters, it's the story within, and in some cases, every crease and rip in the original object has its own tale to tell.

I've never, ever bought a comic as an investment. I once almost bought two copies of the Claremont/Lee X-Men #1 issue, but even as young and dumb as I was then, it just seemed like a waste of precious comic budget money.

I did use it as an excuse plenty of times as a kid, justifying the cost of new comics to the family by pointing out that these things could be worth serious coin one day - 'But Dad, Ghost Rider #1 is worth $30 now!' - and, to be honest, I still play that same card with the lovely wife, to justify more storage space for this stuff - 'But dear, my complete Preacher run could buy us a car!'.

I'm just not a gambler, and the whole investment thing is a side of comics I'm not interested in playing with. It's fascinating to watch - I used to be a voracious reader of price guides just to see what people thought these things were worth, and what that said about the state of the industry - but I ain't no player.

Comic books were always supposed to be a disposable - one read and you're done. What kind of mental defective would want to read it again? That's part of the reason why old comics, even though they had print runs of hundreds of thousands of copies, still command big prices these days, because they were thrown out, and just seen as trash.

The paper is a lot slicker now, but it's still that same format of floppy paper, dished out serially, with an industry that is all built around what's coming next. Investors have been insta-slabbing their collections for years now, with a lot of comics preserved without ever getting cracked open.

But I don't buy these things to keep safe and pretty in a vault, I just want to read the fuckers, which leads to general wear and tear, and I might as well abandon any attempts at keeping it pristine. They're not designed that way.

Even though I adore the physical object, I don't care if it's perfect. Nothing in life is perfect. 

Besides, I like comics that are a bit roughed up, and have a history to them. As long as they're not missing chunks out of them, I'll take a creased-up copy of some Silver Age nonsense any day, especially when they're a lot cheaper that way.

Comics have always been hideously expensive by the time they get to this part of the world, and there isn't the vast amounts on the market that you find in the US, which pushes up the back issue prices, and you can end up paying phenomenal amounts for the few mint copies of key historic issues that actually exist in the country. Drop it down a couple of grades, and you can buy multiple crappy copies for the price of one perfect example. It's simple economics.

This lacklustre attitude towards comic preservation and conservation means that I can literally read them to death, especially the ones I had as a kid.

I've still got comics that I had when I was 7, random issues of the X-Men and Action Comics, that haven't just lost their covers over the years, the first four and last four pages have also been shed over time and lost. I hold on to these ragged things for pure sentimentality - and because I can still feel that youthful obsession with all things superhero burned into the page - but there really isn't any value in these tattered comics.

Sometimes I get the chance to upgrade - a couple of months ago I could've swapped the Excalibur issues I read the hell out of in the 1980s, which are only held together by sellotape and good intentions, for almost totally mint copies, basically for free, and it wasn't even the tiniest bit tempting. I've put a lot of work into those Claremont/Davis comics, I'm not going to give up on them now.

Even comics like my beloved issues of the Invisibles are showing their age, with fading and binding completely breaking down over the past 20 years, probably not helped by all those Saturday afternoons spent reading them on the beach with a bottle of Scrumpy, looking for the meaning of life in Grant Morrison comic books. Doesn't matter, not when there is a bit of my younger self seared into the pages.

I'm not a total fool - I still take enough care of them these days to keep them readable, and alive for as long as possible.

While the first signs of wear and tear mean nothing to me, I still make sure they are stored in a dry, cool environment, and there are regular checks for any kind of mould infestation, because damp and fungus destroys everything. Mouldy comics are no use to anybody.

But still, sometimes, when I buy a new comic book from the fine local store, I take a pathetic and perverse delight in telling them not to bother with the bag, and stuffing the comic in my back pocket as I head out the door.

The shop people are rightly horrified - their whole business is built around taking care of these things, and getting some kind of future investment out of them. I reckon they should be glad there are still idiots like me, trashing their treasured issues, because that makes them rarer for all the rest.

I don't want to worry about the responsibility of keeping my comics safe and clean. I just want to read the bloody things.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Doctor Who: Death at tea-time

Doctor Who is a kids’ TV programme about a lovable old duffer, roaming around the universe in a blue box with pretty companions and getting up to all sorts of adventures.

It can also be surprisingly brutal sometimes, with astronomically high body counts racked up in seemingly innocuous stories. It’s all fun and games and banter until the death rays come out, and then it’s corpses by the truckload.

The show’s 54-year history is soaked in blood, and while you can pick any era for examples of just how cruel the carnage can get, there are some periods that are particularly bloodthirsty, loading up on the murder at tea-time.

After a literal lifetime as a Doctor Who fan, I’ve been slowly watching the whole series in a row for the first time ever, and it's taken a while to get through the black and white era, Especially when a lot of those episodes don't exist anymore, except as barely watchable reconstructions.

It's still been great going through the Hartnell and Troughton years, finding new appreciation for things like the Myth-Makers and the Macra Terror, but it's a relief to get into the seventies, where the episodes all still exist, even with an overdose of seven-part stories.

So I'm getting stuck into the Pertwee years now, watching some episodes I haven't seen since the eighties. The show has got nailed down to an earthly setting, and there is a lot more location work, and the whole TV show has never looked more earthy and real.

And while there is still a lot of silliness going on - the budget is still about five quid an episode, and Pertwee can never miss an opportunity to indulge in some unnecessary mugging and gurning - the 'real world' setting is taken to the logical conclusion, and clashes with alien intelligence lead to loads of innocent blokes getting killed.

In the first few episodes of Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor, there is a noticeable ramping up of the death and carnage. Sometimes it's bad guys meeting ironic fates, and sometimes it's UNIT soldiers being wiped out by creatures impervious to their rifle fire, and sometimes it's just some poor commuters standing at the bus stop.

There are people dying of a mega-plague launched by the original reptilian masters of the Earth that is only just cured before it wipes out all of humanity; shoppers and people going to work on a Tuesday morning are gunned down by living shop mannequins in the street; dazed alien lifeforms in astronaut suits kill anyone in their way with a touch; and a whole world gets wiped out by lava boiling up out of the earth's surface - it's okay, it's just a mean and nasty parallel world, but a few people still need to be throttled by green, panting caveman before the say is saved.

Soldiers, policemen, farmers' wives. Nobody was safe from death from above.

There was always a  lot of death in Doctor Who, right back to the first episodes in the early sixties. The final Troughton story alone featured all sorts of war-related brutality, and the Daleks had literally murdered billions of people before they ever appeared in colour on TV

But it isn't just the numbers that makes these killings just a bit more traumatic, it was that setting, and the blazing new colour of the new decade. These deaths weren't taking place on a wobbly set, these were taking place on city streets, in suburban homes, and in local forests. This wasn't the staged theatricality of set-bound filming, this was dirty, and rough, and clumsy, just like real life. Pertwee always had a good point about the Yeti in Tooting Bec - it really was more powerful to have these monsters crash into the real world, rather than on the third moon of Arrtaabarrga.

And it was all so casual, all these bodies lying around all over the place - it rarely seemed to be too traumatic for the characters as least. There would be the usual gritted teeth at some unfortunate casualty, but they would be back to cheap quips before the end credits. Life goes on, for most, anyway.

It's worth noting that the professional craftspeople and tradespeople working on this silly little television show at the time had all lived through the horrors of the second World War, and a fair few of them had fought in it.

They were used to body counts as a fact of life, and that casual acceptance of it jars with these days of health and safety. Don't make a fuss, keep calm and carry on, even as your neighbors house is bombed to bits. And if a spaceman shot your wife, it was just not worth dwelling on, old boy.

Some of the trauma inflicted the show's young audience by these early Pertwee adventures filtered through over the years, and would show up in the stories created by new generations.

One of the best was David Bishop's excellent Who Killed Kennedy, a spin-off from the New Adventures line from the nineties, where unabashed fanboys ran rampant over Who continuity, finding new depths in silly old stories.

And those depths were found in one of the main characters in Who Killed Kennedy,  a UNIT soldier, who is one of the faceless army men who were frequently used as cannon fodder, who has a total breakdown after seeing his mates murdered by little green men, going right over the edge when the actual devil appears in The Daemons.

The poor sod is, of course, turned into a brainwashed assassin, but who can blame him for losing his marbles, with all that slaughter and very human trauma, in the battles against interstellar evil.

More than four decades later, and Doctor Who still has an impressive body count, and while the current series does have admirable 'everybody lives!' moments, it's a rare episode that doesn't end with some kind of mortal sacrifice.

But it's still never quite as traumatic as those poor extras in seventies haircuts, collapsing in the street as an alien nightmare stalks the grey and wet city. As a show, Doctor Who took a big step forward with thw Pertwee years, it's just a shame so many people got squashed by the footprint.