Thursday, 2 August 2012

Reset issues 1 & 2

Reset is a 4-issue mini-series by Peter Bagge, published by Dark Horse as part of their Dark Horse Originals line.  I consider myself a Peter Bagge fan but, if I’m being honest, that is based mainly on my love for Neat Stuff – a comic that ceased publication more than 20 years ago – more than a love for any of his later work, and I was never even that keen on Hate.  I liked it, but I certainly didn’t love it, maybe because I just couldn’t relate to Buddy Bradley’s grunge adventures in Seattle in the same way that I could relate to his time living (and arguing) with his family in Neat Stuff’s Bradleys stories.  When Hate started, I was still living with my parents, even though I was in my early twenties, and when it ended, I had not long met and moved in with the girl I would eventually marry, and I have never shared a house with anyone I wasn’t either related to or romantically involved with, which may explain why I enjoyed Hate more towards the end of its run, when Buddy married Lisa and moved back in with his parents.  I bought every issue, and even replaced them with trade paperbacks a few years ago, but it’s still something I only ever read the once (a situation I really should rectify) and I wasn’t particularly upset when the series ended.  I continued to follow Bagge’s work for several years after Hate, and even bought the first few Hate Annuals, but a lot of his more recent work didn’t seem that funny at all, more like an outlet for his increasingly conservative views (like Chester Brown, Bagge is a Libertarian), and eventually I stopped following his career entirely.

Reset, then, is the first new work from Peter Bagge that I have read in quite a few years.  It’s ostensibly a sci-fi story, about a washed-up comedian called Guy Krause, who is offered the chance to take part in a virtual-reality experiment.  This experiment involves Guy putting on a virtual-reality helmet and reliving moments from his own past, starting with his high school graduation.  His actions in the virtual-past have no impact on the real world – this is not a time travel story – but Guy is able to do things differently in the virtual-past, and is able to hit a ‘reset’ button if he screws things up again.  In fact, these first two issues mostly take place in the real world, because Guy hits the reset button A LOT.  At one point, Guy walks out but is forced to come back for financial reasons, when he loses an acting job to ‘a better-known has-been’, but most scenes involve Guy arguing with his new employers.  He wants to know their motives, how they managed to gather so much information on his past, and the real purpose of this virtual-reality invention.  Is it just an expensive porn thing, that allows men to go back in time and screw girls who rejected them the first time around?  Probably not, but its real purpose is still not clear by the end of the second issue.

So far, Reset isn’t exactly hilarious, but these two comics raised quite a few smiles, and even a few sniggers.  Guy is a grouchy bastard, of the Studs Kirby variety, but he’s also a self-aware grouchy bastard, who is able to take criticism, so he’s not completely unlikable.  My only complaint about these two issues really is that a bit too much time was taken up with arguing, and not enough time was spent in Guy’s virtual past.  I’m sure this sort of idea has been explored many times before elsewhere, but as someone who regrets almost everything I ever did or said – I don’t trust anyone who says that they don’t have any regrets! – I find it a fascinating one, and I want to see where Bagge goes with it.  Sure, while in his virtual-past, Guy does try to pick up a girl who called him a ‘spaz’ at his high school graduation, uses his knowledge of future events to win money betting in Vegas, and even picks up a couple of whores at one point, but not before he has a couple of attempts at convincing his parents not to divorce, and tries to convince his dad, who (presumably) died of lung cancer, to see a doctor (after his first heavy-handed attempt, his employers hit the reset button and tell him to try again, but without sounding too much like a ‘teenage Nostradamus’).  Even after winning a lot of money in Vegas, his first thought was of paying for his dad’s operation and paying off his parents’ mortgage, all of which was quite touching, and despite the James Bond-style cover for #3 that is shown at the end of #2, suggests that this series won’t be straying too far down the obvious routes that a less mature creator might have gone down.

I will definitely pick up the last two issues of Reset – or at least buy the trade if there is one – and reading these has inspired me to see what else I’ve missed by Bagge in recent years.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Champions Classic Volumes 1 & 2

I’m still not buying any new Marvel Comics*, and since DC announced Before Watchmen, I’ve decided to stop buying new DC comics, too (but I’ll keep buying Vertigo titles, at least until Scalped ends).  I still have quite a few unread Marvel and DC graphic novels in my read pile, though, so I may as well review them as I work my way down the pile.  Why should I be the only one to suffer?

Between them, these two books collect all 17 issues of Marvel’s short-lived Bronze Age series, The Champions, plus some Champions-related stories from various other comics.  The Champions were a super-group consisting of former X-Men the Angel and Iceman, plus Hercules, Ghost Rider, and their leader, the ‘beauteous’ Black Widow.  After a while, they were also joined by Darkstar, and Black Goliath appeared in a couple of issues, too, but was never officially a member.  They called themselves The Champions because, according to their millionaire founder the Angel, they were Champions of the common man – a message that is repeated throughout the series – but during the stories reprinted in these volumes, they actually do very little for the common man.  Indeed, most of the threats they face are either otherworldly (mad gods and aliens), geopolitical (crazy Russians), or threats from rival super-humans (the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants).  They also spend a lot of time fighting faulty equipment in their own headquarters, or dealing with malfunctions in their vehicle, the crappily-named Champscraft.  I suppose saving the world from any of the aforementioned threats does benefit ‘the common man’, but surely no more than it benefits ‘The Man’?  And it’s not as if most of these characters have much in common with the common man, is it?  The Angel is a millionaire, Hercules is a god, Ghost Rider is half-demon (or something like that), the Black Widow is a former Russian spy, and Darkstar may not even be human, although I don’t know for sure because her story continued in comics not reprinted in either of these volumes.  Don’t get me wrong, The Champions weren’t a bad team, considering they were clearly just a bunch of spare characters someone at Marvel decided to sling together during their lunch break, but their raison d’ĂȘtre was flawed from day one.

Volume one collects The Champions 1-11, and for the most part, these are not great comics.  In fact, the first three issues, written by Tony Isabella, the series’ main writer until #8, are pretty dire.  I actually put this book down after reading the first issue and didn’t pick it up again for over a month.  In these issues, the various Champions are thrown together when mad god Pluto attacks the campus of UCLA and tries to get Hercules to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, so that Herc won’t be able to stop him when he attacks Olympus (or something like that – I lost the will to live long before I got to the third part and can’t quite remember now).  The weak story is not helped by some fairly basic art from Don Heck on the first two issues, and hurried-looking art from George Tuska and Vince Colletta on #3.  Issue 4 contains another weak story, written by guest-writer Chris Claremont, in which the Champions fight some super-strong homeless people – the brain-damaged victims of a mad scientist – but at least they actually do help some common men in this issue, which also contains hurried-looking art from Tuska and Colletta.

Tony Isabella returns for issue #5, the first part of a two-part story featuring a villain called Rampage – ‘the recession-born super-villain who could be you’ (if you were a mad scientist who was capable of building an exo-skeleton suit that gives you super strength).  Despite this bold claim and more bland / hurried-looking art (Don Heck on #5, Tuska and Colletta on #6), this was actually a perfectly decent two parter.  Here, a scientist loses his business during the recession (that’s the recession of the 1970s, not the current one or any of the recessions that have fallen between then and now – honestly, you’d think we’d be able to see these things coming by now!) and then loses his mind and decides to use his super-strong costume to rob banks so that he can pay of his debts and start again.  Technically, a mad scientist is probably not a common man, and by siding with the banks against Rampage, the Champions are actually fighting for ‘The Man’, not the common man, but I think they had Rampage’s best interests at heart, and at least Rampage was a somewhat sympathetic villain.  In this appearance, at least (he reappears several times and becomes more evil and less likeable with every appearance), his motives are understandable – he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wants his business to succeed.  And while I can’t imagine any kids being that interested in reading a story about the recession, I thought that side of the story made this two-parter a bit more interesting than previous issues.  Unfortunately, #7 kicks off a very dull four-parter in which the Champions are attacked by the Griffin and a bunch of Russian super-villains, including Darkstar, who eventually joins the Champions, and the Crimson Dynamo, who is the evil son of the Black Widow’s pal, Ivan.  Tony Isabella kicks off this story, along with Tuska and Colletta, but then poor old Bill Mantlo, the series’ new regular writer, has to finish it off, with very bland art from Bob Hall on the final three issues.  Thankfully, though, the quality of the comic takes a quantum leap with #11, with the arrival of young John Byrne on art duties.

The story in #11 is nothing special – the first few pages introduce Black Goliath, who saves the Champs when the Champscraft malfunctions, and then our heroes spend the rest of the issue fighting some shadowy aliens, former foes of the Hulk, joined by guest stars Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid – but Byrne’s slick, Neal Adams-inspired art makes the whole thing seem so much more classy than previous issues.

Byrne stuck with the series until more or less the end, pencilling issues 11 to 15 and inking #17 over George Tuska’s pencils, so at least half of Champions Classic volume two – which reprints The Champions issues 12 to 17, as well as Champions-related stories from Iron Man Annual #4, Avengers #163, Super-Villain Team-Up #14, and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man 17 and 18 – looks great.  Again, the stories in this volume range from perfectly decent to dire, and with the exception of the story from Spectacular Spider-Man issues 17 and 18, which isn’t particularly good but benefits from being pencilled by one of my other favourite Bronze Age artists, Sal Buscema, it’s the Byrne issues that are perfectly decent and the issues pencilled by the likes of Bob Hall and George Tuska that are dire (George Tuska wasn’t a bad artist, but he was either past his prime or hacking it out here). 

I’ve often thought that the old Marvel method of producing comics, where the penciller drew the comic working from a (sometimes very loose) plot and the writer wrote the dialogue once the art was finished, put an unfair amount of pressure on the artist, and this certainly isn’t the first collection of old Marvel comics I’ve read where I’ve noticed that the quality of stories has varied a lot according to who was pencilling the comic, even when the writer remained the same (with the exception of the story from Avengers #163, which is written by Jim Shooter, all of the stories in volume two were written by Bill Mantlo).  However, reading this book, I started to feel some sympathy for the writers who had to work using the Marvel method, and often had the job of polishing up some real turds, or at least had to try and add dialogue to stories that hadn’t quite ended up as planned.  For example, on the last page of the story from Iron Man Annual #4, pencilled by George Tuska, Iron Man is shown blasting Modok out of the sky, after which he crashes to the ground and explodes, but this was either not the story Mantlo wanted to write, or else didn’t make Iron Man look heroic enough, so Mantlo had to write some dialogue that completely contradicted what was shown: ‘I still have a reserve of power drawn from the cradle!  By feeding it to Modok, maybe I can stabilize his circuits and stop him – before he crashes to the ground!  Don’t resist, you fool, I’m trying to save you!’  (I think John Byrne’s success in the 1970s was as due as much to his skills as a visual storyteller as his slick style, even though he wasn’t officially writing any of the comics he drew.)    

Iron Man Annual #4 was a rotten comic anyway, like most of the other odd comics that padded out this volume, either because they featured guest appearances by the Champions or because they tied up some of the (many) loose ends left by the series sudden cancellation.  The real low point of the book, though, is the story which started in Super-Villain Team-Up #14 and ended in Champions #16.  Here, Doctor Doom manages to release a gas that puts everyone in the world under his hypnotic control but leaves Magneto and the Beast (who eventually enlists the aid of the Champions) free to try and stop him, because he (Doom) craves a challenge.  It’s as stupid as it sounds, and as dull as Bob Hall’s art.  As with the first volume, the high points of volume two are the handful of issues that John Byrne was involved with. 

The Champions spend the first few pages of the two-part story that runs through issues 12 and 13 fighting the Stilt Man, who somehow manages to hold his own against them and get away – he is eventually defeated by Black Goliath – which was surely an early sign that this title was doomed to cancellation?  From there they fight and then team up with the Stranger, who has left a bomb that is capable of crushing the universe lying around and needs their help finding the runestaff of Kamo Tharn, which is the only thing that is capable of defusing it.  They travel to another dimension to fight Kamo Tharn, but it turns out that the runestaff was in a broom-closet in a New York hospital all the time, which is bloody typical!  It’s not a brilliant story by any means but it’s okay and thanks to John Byrne (inked by Bob Layton), it looks great. 

Another two-parter runs through issues 14 and 15, this time featuring the menace of Swarm, who is basically a bunch of killer bees in a cloak, although the Champions spend the first half of #14 pissing around fighting faulty equipment in their headquarters.  This is better than the last story – not brilliant but perfectly decent, even good – and once again lifted to another level by John Byrne (inked by Mike Esposito) at his Bronze Age best.  Byrne’s final appearance in the book is in #17, in which the Champions fight the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (minus Magneto) and some Sentinels.  Here he is credited as ‘embellisher’, inking over George Tuska’s pencils, but he manages to pretty much drown out any trace of Tuska and make the book his own.  It doesn’t look half as good as the issues Byrne pencilled – it looks more like the work of the modern, scrappy Byrne – but still looks better than any non-Byrne issue of the Champions.

The series ended suddenly, with many questions left unanswered, and the story surrounding the dissolution of the Champions had to be told in Spectacular Spider-Man, in which Spidey teamed-up with the Angel and Iceman against Rampage.  In these comics, we also found out why the Champscraft kept going wrong, and why the machinery in the Champions’ headquarters kept attacking them (their contractors used cheap building materials, which seemed like a pretty weak explanation, especially as at one point the machines took control of Rampage’s empty exo-skeleton and used it to attack the Champions).  Other plot threads were left hanging, though.  Apart from the variable art, perhaps the biggest problem with this series is that it never really found a direction.  Throughout the series, plot threads were hinted at but never developed.  Iceman spent the first few issues saying (to himself) that he was going to leave the team as soon as they were established but didn’t actually leave until after the series was cancelled; Iceman had a crush on Darkstar but nothing came of it; there were hints that Darkstar may not have been human, but if her true origin was ever revealed, it wasn’t in these books; and there were hints of a relationship developing between Hercules and the Black Widow, but nothing came of this, either.

All in all, The Champions wasn’t a particularly great series, and I can’t recommend buying these books unless you are a big John Byrne fan.  My affection for Bronze Age John Byrne is so great that I will be keeping my copies, and I will probably end up re-reading the Byrne issues again at some point.  I’ll be very surprised if I ever find myself re-reading any of the other issues, though.

Cost: These books have a cover price of $19.99 each, which probably works out to about £14.99 each these days.  Both volumes are currently out of print but they seem to be readily available used, at prices up to about £20 each.  I bought my copies last spring, as part of a collection of about 80 Marvel graphic novels.  I paid £400, kept back about 20 books for myself and sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for nearly £500, so these didn’t really cost me anything in cash terms, just the time it took me to sell off all the unwanted books.

*Okay, I’ll admit it.  I did recently crack and buy a TPB collecting all the Claremont / Byrne issues of Marvel Team-Up (apart from the Red Sonja issue), but that is the only Marvel book I have bought since last summer, and I still haven’t seen the Avengers movie, which I like to think contributed to its failure at the box office.  That showed ‘em!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Iron Man : Doomquest

One of the things that the craze for repackaging has taught us is that not every comicbook merits a reprint, particularly not in a glossy hardback book. I had high hopes for Iron Man : Doomquest. I still consider the Michelinie, Romita Jr, Layton era of Iron Man to be the high watermark for  Ol’ Shellhead, and Issue 150, one of those collected in this book was one of my favourite comics at the time. Of course, at the time, I would have been eleven years old.

So lets discuss the contents. In Issue 149 of Iron Man, our titular avenger gets in a kerfuffle with Doctor Doom and at the climax of the issue the two are catapulted into the unknown. In the double sized issue 150, it turns out that the unknown is Camelot, whereby Iron Man fights alongside King Arthur whilst Doom joins up with Morgana Le Fey before they find a way back to the present day where the status quo is restored.

In issue 249 of Iron Man, our titular avenger gets into a kerfuffle with Doctor Doom and at the climax of the issue the two are catapulted into the unknown. In the double sized issue 250 it turns out that the unknown is the future, whereby Iron Man fights alongside an infant King Arthur, and Doom joins up with the Iron Man from 2020, before they find a way back to the present day where the status quo is restored.

First things first. The second story is such a homage to the first one that the first three pages of issue 250 are a scene for scene re-enactment of the opening to issue 150. But that comic was 8 years previous, and in the days before trade paperbacks, your casual reader would have had little idea. David Michelinie had been away from the title before he and Layton were reunited as a dream team, but this slavish reimagining of the earlier story, enjoyable though it is, reveals a paucity of imagination.

Unfortunately, pairing it with the earlier issues doesn’t do the later story any favours. Even by 1981, Romita Jr was a phenomenal talent, soon to leave Iron Man for The Amazing Spider-Man. Working with Michelinie and Layton, they had brought a real sense of drama to Tony Stark’s tales and set the template for much of his future, particularly with regard to his alcoholism. Romita Jr’s Iron Man was crisp and dynamic, never static or clunky. The splash page of our two combatants arriving in Camelot, reproduced on the cover, is a fine example of his artwork.

The second story pales by comparison. Layton may be a good storyteller, but he’s not in the same class. His characters lack the grace that they possessed in the earlier story and at the tail-end of the eighties, they’ve unfortunately inherited the big hair and outlandish fashions that mean these issues have dated much more than the earlier ones.

In an ideal world, these two stories wouldn’t be in the same book and the inadequacies of the latter wouldn’t be so glaring. The book still has a superlative example of a story told in the Merry Marvel Manner. It’s just a shame that it has to follow it up with a poor imitation.

Cost : I bought it from Excelsior Comics in Bristol at the bargain price of £8.99. It’s available at £10.19 from FPI. If you enjoy your 80s Marvel, that’s probably a good price.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The O Men Book One / Spandex: Fast and Hard

The O Men Book One is the first of five books that will eventually collect and complete Martin Eden’s long running O Men series, with this volume collecting the first eight issues (that’s issues 1 to 7 and 0).  Spandex was my first exposure to Martin’s work, so I had never read any of these comics before, but it turns out that Martin was a talented storyteller even when he started out in the late-1990s.  His art and lettering have improved a bit since these issues were originally released, but this is still nicely drawn – the way he draws faces always reminds me a lot of the art of the Luna brothers but there is also a touch of Love and Rockets here, and he always drew lovely hair – and his superb sense of page, character and costume design was present from day one.

The O Men are a group of British super heroes, put together by Doctor O from the remains of his previous team, the Psi-Squad, to tackle some of their old enemies, who have escaped from a maximum security women’s prison.  And that’s just the first of the two story arcs collected in this volume.  In the second story arc, the team try and enjoy a quite night out and end up tackling a villain called Frenzy, who feeds on people’s anger and brings out the worst in people.  These comics wear their influences proudly, and I was reminded a lot of Vertigo books from the 1990s as I read this – Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and even early issues of Sandman – but it is still very much its own thing, and mature in the best sense of the word – not full of sex and violence for the sake of it, but confronting real issues in a mature way.

I enjoyed reading this a lot and was hooked by the time I got to the end of the first page.  I can’t wait for book two.

Speaking of Spandex, Titan Books have just released a hardcover collection of the first three issues.  This book has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention, and not just because it features Britain’s first gay superhero team, but because it’s a really bloody good superhero comic.  It’s a shame that it doesn’t collect more than three issues (although issue four was the first part of a four part story, so I can see why it doesn’t) but there is plenty of reading here (and some special features) and unlike in your average comic by Brian Michael Bendis, stuff actually happens (there may be a whole generation out there by now who aren’t used to things actually happening in a 20-page superhero comic).  Despite being another ‘mature’ title, and slightly rude in places, this is very reminiscent of those classic Claremont / Byrne issues of the X-Men, and as those were the comics that got me hooked in the first place, that’s no bad thing at all.  And the series actually gets better after issue three, so book two (come on, Titan!) will be even better.

Cost: O Men book one is available direct from Martin for £8.00 including postage, which is a bargain.  Spandex book one is a little pricey at £14.99 (that’s Titan Books for you) but it’s available cheaper online.  I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon and only paid £7.50 including postage (I've just checked and it's still £7.50).  Mind you, it must be quite easy to keep your prices low when you are dodging corporation tax (which hasn’t stopped me ordering from them, but I do feel dirty every time I buy something from them now).    

Monday, 14 May 2012

Popeye Vol.4: Plunder island HC / Popeye: Strong To The Finish - The Great Comic Book Tales By Bud Sagendorf HC

‘Plunder Island’ is the fourth of six oversized volumes collecting all of E.C. Segar’s Popeye-era Thimble Theatre strips, while ‘Strong To The Finish’ is a collection of Popeye comics from the 1940s and ‘50s, written and drawn by Segar’s former assistant Bud Sagendorf and originally published by Dell (these were comic books, rather than newspaper strips).  The Segar book is every bit as good as the three volumes that preceded it – brilliant cartooning and laugh-out-loud funny gags.  The only difference this time around is that the Sunday strips fill the first half of the book and the dailies fill the second half (it’s usually the other way around) but otherwise it’s business as usual.  I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Segar’s Popeye, and the whole book was thoroughly enjoyable, but highlights in this volume include: Wimpy’s excessive scrounging and his repeated insistence, when confronted by someone he has pushed too far, that he’s not Wimpy at all (‘Jones is my name – I’m one of the Jones boys.’); a strip in which Popeye tricks some savages into shooting all of their poisoned darts at him so that they use up their ammunition (Popeye is so tough that being covered from head to toe in poisoned darts doesn’t bother him at all); and a brilliant sequence in which Popeye survives having his neck broken in two places during a fight (‘I wouldn’t mind it, but the poppin’ of me neck bones makes me nervous!’) and then carries on fighting with a broom tied to his neck as a splint (Olive Oyl: ‘You’re not going to fight him with your broken neck!’  Popeye: ‘A’course not!  I yam go’ner fight him with me fisks.’).  Great stuff!

The Bud Sagendorf book is something that I’ve been looking out for ever since I saw a copy in Gosh Comics last year, although I was previously unaware of Sagendorf’s work.  It’s certainly a great-looking book, from the spinach can cover design, which carries over to the back cover and even the inside of the front and back covers, which are designed to look like the corrugated metal interior of a tin can, to Sagendorf’s fantastic art.  I even love the old-style colouring and paper stock, which make these stories look more-or-less the way they would have looked when they first appeared in print more than half a century ago.  Unfortunately, the book itself was a bit of a letdown.  These are good children’s comics, probably aimed at very young children, but the stories and gags were too simplistic for my tastes – stories about Popeye boxing Martians, or Popeye eating some spinach which causes people to shrink, etc., which seemed to drag on for pages and then end very suddenly – and worst of all, so were the characters.  Popeye was more or less himself, albeit with a bit of his edge missing, but the supporting characters really seemed to be missing something – particularly Wimpy!  In Segar’s Popeye strips, Wimpy is a despicable human being, an arch scrounger – very funny but loathed by more or less everyone within the strip.  In Sagendorf’s Popeye, however, Wimpy is reduced (or should that be elevated?) to the role of Popeye’s loyal sidekick, a role that could have been filled by anyone, and he doesn’t do much (if any) mooching at all.  Still, as I said, this is a great-looking book, so I reckon I’ll probably hang on to it and flick through it from time to time. 

Cost: I’m pretty sure my wife bought me ‘Plunder Island’ for Christmas, so that one didn’t cost me anything, but it has an RRP of £21.99 / $29.99.  You can usually get the Segar Popeye books online for around £15.00 each but they are well worth buying even at the full cover price, and very good value considering their size and the amount of material included (it took me a week or more to read ‘Plunder Island’, while I read the Sagendorf book, which has a similar page count, in two short sittings).  ‘Strong To The Finish’ also has an RRP of £21.99 / $29.99 and can also be found online for nearer £15.00.  I guess I always suspected that this book might not be as good as the Segar books, otherwise I would have happily paid £15.00 (or more) for a copy, but instead I waited until I managed to find a copy ‘on the ration’.  I eventually bought a new copy from an Amazon Marketplace seller for £7.35 (£4.55 plus £2.80 P&P), which I thought was a great bargain at the time – and I’m still happy to have bought it at that price – but I’ve since seem another Amazon Marketplace seller selling new copies for £3.00 (plus £2.80 P&P).  At that price, it’s worth buying a copy just to look at the pretty pictures, and to admire the brilliant cover design, which I think was my favourite thing about the book.         

Friday, 13 April 2012

Captain America - Death of the Red Skull

I can't begin to understand Marvel's publishing wiles, but this is a strange book to release. Granted, its got a story from the Shooter era that spans a lot of issues before this was the done thing, so it makes a natural book length collection, but the tone of it is all over the place, for reasons that I will come to shortly. In addition, its the tail end of writer JM DeMatteis run on the title. He worked for around three years with Mike Zeck in an under-appreciated run of quality and intelligence, before the penciller left for fame and glory and Secret Wars.

Zeck was replaced by Paul Neary, and DeMatteis left under a cloud around issue after issue 300, collected in this volume. Neary would eventually become a great Cap artist, but the reason for the shifting tone in this volume is because he goes through a series of inkers, and the finished art changes hugely each time. It's not until the last couple of issues when he is paired with Dennis Janke that the artwork finds any form of consistency, which is a shame. I'm especially surprised at how badly his pencils clash with the inks of Josef Rubinstein.

Equally strange is the decision to include issue 291. This is an obvious fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo and Herb Trimpe, that features none of the supporting cast and Cap on his motorcycle. It does nothing to the story other than get in the way, even if the art is lovely.

But I still loved it. DeMatteis had built up a strong supporting cast by now, and by having the Red Skull threaten all of these, it becomes a real ensemble piece with a true sense of jeopardy. And obviously, by featuring the 'death' of Cap's arch-enemy, it was trying to get rid of some of the baggage, and tell a story of real import.

Sadly, its not to be - politicking and the variable quality stop it from being as good as it could be, but as a piece of 80s nostalgia, I really enjoyed it.

Cost : It's got a cover price of $29.99. It's around 15 pounds from the usual online retailers, some of whom probably even pay Corporation Tax in the UK. At that price, it's worthy of your attention.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Viz: The Cleveland Steamer

Like a lot of people, I stopped buying Viz in the mid-1990s.  In my case, this was because, thanks largely to the quality of the text pieces, I felt that it was turning into one of the things that it was parodying – a British tabloid newspaper – and all the adverts for sex chat lines that had started to appear in the comic did little to sway this feeling.  I think I had also stopped finding a lot of the strips funny, or at least had started to tire of some of the characters.  Maybe casual sexism and knob jokes just stopped being funny for a while after I met my wife, but if this was the case, then it really was just for a while.  Still, for few years in the 1980s and 1990s, Viz was the funniest thing I had ever read, and I still remember seeing it for the first time in Forbidden Planet in London, in about 1985 / 1986, and laughing out loud in the shop as I flicked through my first issue (issue 13, I think).

I have bought the odd issue since the 1990s – after seeing it in a shop and being surprised that it is still going – but I’ve usually done little more than flick through it once I got it home.  A few years ago, I even started buying up some of the annuals I had missed out on, in an attempt to catch up, but even then I did little more than flick through them once I had them.  But when I saw this latest Viz annual listed on the website of discount book chain The Works for just £2.99 (RRP £10.99), I was unable to resist ordering a copy – and I actually read this one!

I was a bit worried to start with, as the first dozen or so pages barely raised a smile, never mind a laugh, but maybe I just read those pages when I was in a bad mood, because it soon got a lot funnier.  The division between comic strips and text pieces is about 50/50 – was Viz always so text-heavy or do they just select more text pieces for the annuals these days? – but I still think of Viz as a comic more than anything else.  And it’s a great comic.  There were surprisingly few new characters here, considering how long it’s been since I last read Viz, but it was good to see most of the old characters again.  I never did find the Fat Slags or Sid the Sexist particularly funny (although I must admit that, in this book, strips featuring both characters made me laugh) but Roger Mellie, Man on the Telly, is simply one of the greatest comic characters ever created (I always did find swearing funny).

As well as surprisingly few new characters, there were surprisingly few new creators working on the strips in this book, with most of them seemingly produced by artists who were working on the comic 20 years ago.  Mind you, that’s not a bad thing, as most of them are genuine comic geniuses, even if I couldn’t name many of them, or say who draws what, because only Lew Stringer (Pathetic Sharks, Felix and his Amazing Underpants) seems to sign his work.  The artist who drew ‘Sting’s Fantastic Journey into Outer Space’, ‘Bono’s Incredible Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’, and ‘The Clockwork Mountie Grand Prix Boxing Jungle Boy of the Foreign Legion’, as well as a lot of the other strips in this book, is particularly good (yeah, I know I could find out who he is in no time at all if I Googled him, but I can’t be bothered right now).

Of course, the letters page was always the funniest thing in Viz, and along with Top Tips, it still is.  Probably.   The quality of the rest of the text pieces was variable, though.  Some were brilliant – I particularly enjoyed the one about Jeremy Kyle being adopted by the scientific community as the standard unit of measurement for a c**t, after the previous standard c**t, Jim Davidson, had degraded over time, and there was another great one where Gary Lineker recalled some of the hilarious backstage mishaps that had occurred while filming his Walkers Crisps commercials (basically, all of these mishaps involved some kind of mix-up with his pay cheque, which left him livid) – while others were only mildly amusing and some I just skim-read because they weren’t funny at all, or else dragged out a lame joke over too many pages.

Overall, though, I enjoyed reading this quite a lot.  I recently bought the two annuals before this one – no, I haven’t read them yet, but I will – and I intend to track down the rest of the annuals I’m missing (and read the ones I already own but haven’t read yet).  I even bought and enjoyed a recent issue of the comic – still full of ads for sex chat lines, I’m afraid, but some very funny fake ads for things like ‘Uncomfortable Holidays’ and ‘Indoor Sky Diving’ more than made up for them.  In fact, I’m even thinking of subscribing to the comic, so that I don’t miss out on all the stuff that doesn’t make the annuals.  I may grow bored with Viz again at some point, but right now, after a very long break, I’m excited about reading it again.  This was £2.99 well spent, I think. 

Friday, 9 March 2012


These monthly UK comics published by Panini reprint three issues of the Fantastic Four and cost £2.95 each. If you subscribe, the price per issue is £2.12, which means that each strip, a single US comic, costs just under 71p. If you like the Lee/Kirby era Fantastic Four and are intrigued by the more recent Jonathan Hickman run then subscribing should be a wise move. I didn’t think that the series would be cancelled mid sub, did I!

Four issues of FFA open up with Spider-Man/Fantastic Four by Christos Cage and Mario Alberti, a companion series to Spider-Man/X-Men. The story follows the characters encountering each other during memorable periods in FF history from the very beginning, although not the most memorable encounter of all from Amazing Spider-Man number one, to the modern day. I found the series a little underwhelming. The writing and art are perfectly okay but the narrative felt a bit too much like an exercise in continuity and not enough of a celebration of memorable phases from FF history.

Sitting at the centre of the comic and rushing to fill the gaps left by the other strips once they have gone, is Jonathan Hickman’s contemporary interpretation of the team. Hickman is clearly a strong, confidant and imaginative writer. This is the first time I’ve read anything long form by him and it seems clear that he is taking his time which is fine when you’re reading a bunch of issues together like I did here but must have been difficult with the originals every month. The art throughout, by Neil Edwards, Paul Neary and Steve Epting feels weighted with portents at times.

I have issues with more modern versions of the FF sometimes. The Thing doesn’t seem to be funny anymore, The Human Torch seems to have switched from adolescent brat to spoilt, shallow, yuppy brat while Marvel seem so determined to avoid portraying the Invisible Woman as a sexist stereo-type that she has become the most unfeasibly well adjusted character in comics which, in a group of men with personality quirks, might ironically be sexist. Hickman’s stories here feel like Fantastic Four: The End with the core team often being downplayed with other characters brought to the fore, such as Franklin, Valery and the Future Foundation. Because I know that The Human Torch is scheduled to die, the tone seems to be that there is a future for The Fantastic Four, it just doesn’t involve them.

Some stories are very affecting, such as the Thing’s week as Ben Grimm. The idea of knowing he was only going to spend a set period in human form from the start is great in its simplicity and execution. The strongest demonstration of Hickman’s skill as a writer comes with “Month of Morning”. This silent story drawn expressively and powerfully by Nick Dragata follows the surviving members of the group after the supposed death of The Human Torch. It’s a wise and confident writer who knows when to be quiet and let the artist do his thing. My decades of off and on familiarity with the characters shouldn’t distract from what Hickman achieves with these stories.

Of course, all of these modern strips are burdened by appearing alongside the original version by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the rear of the comic. These comics, reprints of issues 74 to 78 from the 1960s, zing with humour, drama and character. Galactus is back and he’s bloody starving and because he’s promised not to eat Earth he wants his exiled herald the Silver Surfer to find him somewhere else to eat. Kirby’s work makes my heart open in these beautifully drawn tales of scale as the hunted hides between the atoms from the vast.

The default position of the Jack Kirby Fantastic Four is at least in the moment and even in the future, unlike this actual comic itself. Although it’s a shame to see it cancelled before the completion of Kirby’s run, everyone involved, whether directly or tenuously, should be happy that it’s lasted for as long as it has. Fantastic Four comics published in the UK have never lasted very long so a six year run is something to be proud of.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Area 10 GN

This book, part of the Vertigo Crime series of OGNs, is something I picked up on a whim.  I saw an ad for it in the back of the latest volume of Scalped, thought it looked quite interesting, and then noticed a copy going cheap on eBay, so I placed a bid and won it for £1.99 (plus £2.10 for postage), which wasn’t bad at all, considering the RRP is £10.99 / $12.99.

The story is about a New York detective called Adam Kamen, who survives getting stabbed in the forehead with a screwdriver while hunting a serial killer nick-named ‘Henry the Eighth’, because he decapitates his victims.  When he gets out of hospital, Kamen discovers that his perception of time has been altered, and he can see brief glimpses of possible futures.  This leads us into a whole load of stuff about trepanning – the practice / pseudoscience of drilling holes into people’s heads to relieve pressure on the brain and/or increase awareness.  In Area 10, most people who survive trepanation have the ability to predict the near future, and towards the end of the book, one character drills a hole into his own head to give himself an advantage during a fight!

If you can get your head around the sci-fi twist – the idea that trepanning allows people to see into the future – this is actually a decent read, although, for the most part, it’s a fairly typical detective drama.  Kamen has an ex-wife, a dead kid (I’m not sure if this part of the story was ever satisfactorily explained), falls for his sexy psychiatrist, and may or may not be Henry the Eighth himself.  Writer Christos Gage has written for film and TV and it shows, as this reads a lot like a three or four star thriller, the sort of thing you might enjoy watching on DVD on a Sunday afternoon but you’re glad you never went to see it at the cinema, you’d probably never want to watch it again, and you’d never declare it a classic, perhaps because some elements seemed over-familiar, and perhaps because it contained one twist too many.  It is, however, beautifully illustrated by Chris Samnee, whose black and white art is both simple and photo-realistic at the same time - he's like a modern version of David Lloyd.  Based on the story alone, I doubt I’d want to hang on to this – I liked it just fine, I just didn’t think the story was a keeper – but I will probably hang on to it for a while, as I might want to flick through it and look at the pretty pictures again.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

SPANDEX 6 by Martin Eden

The story OMFG not only reaches its penultimate episode this issue but so does Spandex itself, as revealed by Martin Eden in the editorial. Although this is something that Martin had always intended, it’s still sad to learn as Spandex is the best superhero comic currently being produced. The dynamics and emotionally intense adventures remind me very much of early Wolfman and Perez New Teen Titans and sometimes Claremont and Byrne X-Men. In fact, in this issue, Neon’s rescue of the rest of the group is reminiscent of Wolverine’s rescue of his team mates from The Hellfire Club, the story in which the character came into his own and is considered a classic in X-Men terms.

Martin’s artwork is deceptively simple and undeniably strong. One look at the cover demonstrates that he is an artist who knows when to stop. Just one extra line could have distracted from the subtle sadness in Diva’s eyes. In this issue, we see some more of his artistic versatility in a number of more detailed flashback scenes.

Martin’s writing is strong also. His dialogue is tight and unencumbered while his pacing dramatic. Martin is a creator of powerful and occasionally audacious character ideas. See this issue’s climax for a good example.

If you’re a bit slow on acquainting yourself with Spandex then the good news is that Titan Books are scheduled to publish a collection in a couple of months. However, three good reasons to buy the self-published singles accompany this issue, them being mini-comics drawn by T’sao Wei, Garry McLaughlin and On The Ration’s Robert Wells. These fun, hand produced extras are the sort of thing that only self published comics can provide you.

Issues of Spandex can be ordered from here.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Death Note Black Edition Volumes 1 & 2

Death Note is a hit manga series – and when I say hit, I mean that the various books have sold millions of copies between then – written by Tsugumi Ohba and with art by Takeshi Obata.  The series was originally serialised in the pages of Shonen Jump magazine and then collected into twelve volumes, but these Black editions are slightly oversized reprints of the original books, collecting two books per volume, with mostly black covers and even black page edges – perfect for the emo kid in your family!

Our ‘hero’ is Light Yugami, a brilliant but bored student who finds a Death Note – a notebook dropped by a similarly bored Shinigami (death god) called Ryuk.  This notebook has the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it, and Light quickly sets about trying to rid the world of evil by writing the names of hundreds of criminals in the book, some of them convicted (or wanted) for relatively minor crimes, as well as anyone who threatens his plans (including innocent FBI agents and even their widows).  Although he plans to rid the world of evil, Light is actually a cold-hearted, callous little fascist, and rather hard to like.  The real hero of the book, then, is the mysterious ‘L’, another young genius who is helping the police with their investigation.

Although I claim to be a bit of a comics expert, I have read very little Manga.  I read some of the Lone Wolf & Cub reprints First Comics published in the 1980s, some of the Akira comics Epic Comics published in the 1990s, and more recently I read Osamu Tezuka’s brilliant Buddha books and Ode to Kirihito, but I think that’s pretty much it.  However, I have been keen to read more – I just didn’t know where to start – and I bought these on a recommendation.  These are the first Manga books I’ve read that haven’t been heavily Westernised and still read from right to left – not only do the pages need to be read from right to left, the panels on each page need to be read from right to left, and even the word balloons within each panel need to be read from right to left – which was a bit of a shock to start with, but I soon got used to it.  Being a Manga novice, I thought a lot of the art looked a lot like the art in most of the other Manga I’ve seen, but then I suspect that a Japanese reader picking up a DC super-hero comic for the first time would think all the art looked the same in those (actually, that’s a bad example, as even I think the art in most DC super-hero comics looks the bloody same).  There were some characters who stood out, particularly Ryuk, who looks like a Goth version of the Joker (with wings), and L, who has great hair and looks really cool but still manages to look like an antisocial genius, but to my uneducated eyes most of the other human characters were typical Manga figures.  Which isn’t to say that the art isn’t good – it is – and the backgrounds in particular are incredibly detailed.  Actually, they are so detailed that I found them quite distracting, because I kept wondering how they were done – were they computer generated, had the artist drawn over photographs, or had they just been lifted from an Ikea catalogue? – but I often find myself distracted trying to figure out what inking materials certain artists use, so maybe that’s just me.

This level of attention to detail can also be found in the story.  The various characters spend a lot of time explaining their motives and theories, every aspect of the case is meticulously examined, we are shown a detailed diagram of Light’s complex, booby-trapped hiding place for the Death Note, and nearly every chapter (these two books contain 34 chapters between them) ends with yet another list of rules that accompany the Death Note (basically, anyone whose name is written in it dies, but there are a LOT of terms and conditions).  I really like the basic idea, but I did find myself wondering how they were going to drag the story out to six volumes long before I finished the first one, particularly as Light became L’s number one suspect quite quickly.  Fortunately, there were just enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and things got a lot more interesting about midway through the second volume, with the introduction of a second Death Note.  That part of the story seemed to be more or less over by the end of the end of the second volume – which was disappointing, as the holder of the second Death Note (a scatty young girl) was much more entertaining than Light – but I was still keen to know what happens next, so I ordered the next two volumes as soon as I finished reading these, and I will definitely be checking out more Manga in future.

Cost: These 400 page (approx.) volumes have a cover price of £9.99 each, which seems quite reasonable to me.  I bought my copies from Amazon, for nearer £7.00 each, but they are on sale more or less everywhere, even in ordinary bookshops and WHSmith – yeah, I know the Ultimate Spider-Man books and various Batman books are on sale in ordinary bookshops and WHSmith, too, but nobody actually buys them in there, do they?  These things actually sell! – and are often available as part of some kind of offer (3 for 2, buy one get one half price, etc.).  

Thursday, 23 February 2012


The story of how I got the book: The short story is, my parents got it for me for Christmas. The long story is that my Dad likes to do online surveys and is rewarded by the companies that run them with vouchers that can be exchanged for credit at online shops. So it has become something of a Christmas tradition for my Dad to ask me to convert these virtual vouchers to Amazon credit and then tell me to order something for myself for Christmas up to the value of £20 and no more. Some might say that this process is sapping the spirit of gift giving out of the festival but I don’t mind. As long as I get something that I want.

Kamandi The Last Boy On Earth: As a boy, I loved Jack Kirby’s Silver Age artwork but always felt disappointed by the stuff he was doing during the seventies. I remember owning a couple of issues collected in this book at one time and feeling that his frequent use of the splash page and double-paged spread was at odds with everything else that was happening in mainstream comics at the time. How was I to know that this was all you were going to get from comics thirty years later? I was, of course, wrong to feel this way, and one of the pleasures I have as an adult is buying collections of his work from this period, such as the Captain America Omnibus and The Eternals, and being able to recognise how great it is.

The surface premise of Kamandi is often described as a cash-in on Planet Of The Apes which was hugely popular at the time that the comics were originally published. Kamandi is a disturbingly muscular boy, like those troubling images of children who take part in body building competitions that your mates post on Facebook from time to time, who surfaces from an underground bunker he’s lived in for all of his live one day to discover that nature’s order has gone topsy-turvy. Humans are now stupid beasts and the animals are vertical, articulate and sophisticated people. There are communities of tiger-people and bat-people and dog-people and ape-people scattered across the shattered American landscape. Any animal you can think of is now evolved, except for horses for some reason, which every other creature rides around on.

The obvious narrative threads such as the animal-people never thinking of Kamandi as anything more than a beast beneath them despite him speaking their language and other demonstrations of intelligence are ever present throughout the twenty issues collected here. But Kirby’s thing is also to throw other back-of-the-brain elements into the mix such robot gangsters, nuclear men and mutant misfits. It makes this a conceit that could almost write itself into something that only Kirby could do. I’ve also grown to love Kirby’s story telling from this period where he drops us straight into the middle of the action from the start with a splash, elaborates with a double-paged spread and then makes fantastic sense of it all with oddly constructed narration.

The book production: I’m perfectly happy with the paper stock DC uses for these collections. It’s a low grade stock meant to represent the reproduction processes of the original comics. But I do know from talking to friends that not everyone is as laid back as I am about this and would prefer a glossier paper and so it’s something I thing DC should reconsider. I do, however, agree with the point of view that the binding of these books is too tight. It’s not just the double paged spreads where artwork is lost in the centre. Even single pages take a bit of spine cracking to read fully.

Final thought: I’m intrigued, when DC have flogged to death every other Jack Kirby creation from this period, such as The Fourth World, as to why Kamandi has seemingly been left untouched. The answer can’t be something as depressingly simple as it not being set in the DC Universe, can it.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Objects of (No) Desire: Before Watchmen

Last week, DC announced that they are going to be releasing a bunch of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, called, rather unimaginatively, Before Watchmen.  My first reaction to this news was: Is this a joke?  My second reaction was: I can’t believe it’s taken them so long to get around to doing something like this.  And my third reaction was: 35 frigging comics?!?  Good grief!  (Note: My actual reactions may not have taken place in this order.)

Morally, I’m not really sure how I feel about this project.  I know that Alan Moore does not approve and feels that he has been treated unfairly by DC over the years, although I don’t know all the details.  I do know that Moore and Gibbons were promised that the rights to Watchmen would be returned to them after the series had been out of print for at least a year, and obviously that has never happened because the book was much more successful than anyone could have imagined and, rather depressingly, is still the number one selling graphic novel today, about 25 years after its initial release.  On its own, this doesn’t seem like the worst thing to ever happen to a creator.  I mean, if Watchmen had gone out of print, I guess it would mean that Moore and Gibbons would now own the rights to a flop, and as it stands, Moore and Gibbons have done pretty well out of the deal (I think / hope).  Certainly, compared to the likes of Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby, etc., Moore doesn’t seem to have been treated that badly at all.  But just because he wasn’t shafted quite as badly as some other guys, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t shafted and that the shafting was enjoyable.  I also suspect there is much more to all this than I am aware of, so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the contractual side of the argument in much more detail (although, interestingly, Dave Gibbons seems to be happy with the deal, and even with Before Watchmen).  I have a certain amount of sympathy with the people who have been saying that it is somewhat hypocritical of Moore to complain about other people producing works using characters he created (or co-created) when a large chunk of his career has been spent writing stories about characters that other people created – Captain Britain, Marvelman, Swamp Thing, even Superman – and it is something he has continued to do, with Lost Girls and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Admittedly, most of the people who created these characters aren’t running around saying that they disapprove of their characters being used by Moore – and if they did, I’m sure that Moore would respect their wishes – but I think some of them probably would disapprove if they weren’t, err, dead.

My main objection to Before Watchmen, then, is not really a moral one (I do tend to side with Alan Moore when he says that he has been treated unfairly by DC, and I do tend to think that Alan Moore writing comics using other people's characters – particularly when the original creators are dead and the characters are in the public domain – isn't quite the same as DC farming out his characters to other creators, I just haven't quite worked out why I feel this way yet).  What I mainly object to is the sheer pointlessness of the project, the creative bankruptcy that it points to, and the idiotic way in which DC intend to publish it.  As I said, I am very surprised that DC haven’t tried something like this before, but I guess that at least one person working for the company – Paul Levitz? – realised that Watchmen was something that didn’t need a sequel or a prequel or anything like it, and is perfect as it is.

Before I go any further, I am going to be slightly controversial and say that I do not actually think that Watchmen is perfect.  It is a very good book, a very important book, and I loved when it first came out, but the last time I read it, which was a good few years ago now, I thought that a lot of the dialogue seemed quite forced and the whole thing seemed like a technical exercise more than anything.  Perhaps because so many modern creators have stolen so much from it, it even seemed a bit dated – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I still have a great deal of affection for it, but as fond of it as I am, the fact that this book is still the best selling graphic novel around, that most people’s first point of contact with ‘grown up’ comics is a (admittedly very good) DC superhero book from the 1980s, rather than, say, Love and Rockets, or something published more recently, is something that I find rather depressing – and I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore feels similarly.  However, although I do not think that Watchmen is a perfect comic, it is perfectly self-contained, it can be picked up and read without any prior knowledge of the ‘Watchmen Universe’, and that, I think, is one reason that it has been so successful.

The people currently in charge at DC just don’t get the notion of a self-contained unit, though.  They also don’t seem to understand restraint.  These are the same people who recently re-launched their entire line of super-hero comics with 52 new titles in the space of a single month!  And very few of the ‘New 52’ comics that I sampled seemed fresh and new at all.  In fact, most of them appeared to be set in the same old DC Universe, and even referred to past events, so really they’d just done what comic companies have been doing for decades now – re-numbered some titles to boost sales in the short-term – but on a grand scale.  This move seemed to boost DC’s sales figures and profile for a while, and no-doubt made their shareholders very happy, but the success of the ‘New 52’ and the same short-term thinking that led to it has now led us to Before Watchmen, quite a few years after any kind of Watchmen prequel / sequel would have made sense.  I mean, although I never wanted to see any more Watchmen comics – certainly not ones that weren’t by Moore and Gibbons – I would have understood if DC had done something like this shortly after the release of the original, or even a few years ago, to cash in on the Watchmen movie publicity, but doing it now seems like an act of extreme desperation.  And not only are they doing it, they are doing it big time, with 35 comics – six mini-series and an epilogue – released over a period of just 35 weeks.  Even if all of these comics turn out to be brilliant, releasing 35 of them seems like overkill, to put it mildly.  I mean, there are currently only 12 Watchmen comics available, and they have been conveniently reprinted in one book.  Now, DC are preparing to nearly quadruple the number of Watchmen comics available.  And no doubt the reprint programme they have in mind for these comics is just as stupid as the decision to produce the comics in the first place.

Paul (Rainey) has often said to me that, if Watchmen were being published for the first time today, DC would not collect the series in one large paperback.  First, they would release it spread over two slim hardcovers, then two slim trade paperbacks, and then, a few years later, they would release the Absolute Edition, and it just wouldn’t get a chance to become the success it has been, released as a single, self-contained collection.  And I think he’s right.  There is no chance at all that Before Watchmen will be released in one paperback volume, because there will be too many comics to collect in one paperback volume, so no doubt it will be released as six slim (but expensive) hardcovers, followed by six slim trade paperbacks, and then somewhere down the line it will probably get released as an Absolute Edition.  In the short-term, the comics will sell very well, even if they are terrible, and the collections will probably do reasonable business, too, but the sheer number of books that will be available and the formats they will available in guarantee that Before Watchmen will NEVER be anywhere near as successful as the original, and in the long-term it will probably put people off of reading the original, because it will no longer be a self-contained story.  Rather than being a £12.99 (approx.) investment, becoming familiar with the ‘Watchmen Universe’ will soon be a somewhat confusing £100+ investment.  I usually try and avoid swearing on this blog, but the people in charge at DC (and Marvel) really are fucking morons.

I will not be buying or reading any of the Before Watchmen comics, of course.  I just don’t have any interest – not even in the Darwyn Cooke comics – and I now think a little bit less of all the creators involved.  I don’t really blame any of them for taking the money, and I’d understand even more if these were people who didn’t particularly like the original, I just don’t understand why any of them think that this project (DC seem to be calling it an ‘initiative’, even though it is the opposite of an initiative) is a good idea.  And I think most of them do actually think this is a good idea.  Looking around online the other day, I saw this quote from J. Michael Straczynski, one of the writers involved, who unintentionally summed up everything that is wrong with the project, and modern DC (and Marvel) comics in general:  ‘Every writer and editor on this project is a massive fan of the original book, and of Alan's work. As the months passed, we e-mailed each other with the smallest question of continuity, determined to be excruciatingly faithful to the original book because we know what's at stake. We want to add to, not subtract from, the quality of what Alan and Dave created. We know we have a hell of a legacy to live up to, and we're determined to achieve that.’ 

It’s the bit about ‘continuity’ that really bothers me, because continuity is the problem.  Continuity is the reason that I, a 42-year-old man who has been reading comics his entire life, don’t understand what the hell is going on in most comics I pick up these days, and I’m sure it’s a big part of why most kids are not buying DC comics anymore (but are buying Manga!).  Also, I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore couldn’t give a shit about how faithful these comics are to the continuity of the original.  Right up until the inexplicably changed ending, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie was faithful to the continuity of the original work – the one time I saw it, I was surprised just how closely it did follow the book – but thanks mainly to the sexed-up fight sequences, it still managed to completely miss the point of the original, and I’m pretty sure that Before Watchmen will, too. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

CLiNT 14

You may or may not be surprised to learn that I am still reading CLiNT. Two issues ago I came THIS close to stopping except that Mark Millar promised in an editorial that a full episode of Kick Ass 2 would appear next time after months of drip feeding readers the story with tiny glimpses and on this occasion his boast stuck. (I actually renewed my subscription because of this, meaning that I get a twenty percent discount on a £4.25 issue.)

Since I last wrote here about CLiNT, the good news is that it’s no longer pretending to be a lad’s mag and has come out as a comic. The bad news for the team of features writers is that most of the their content has been dropped. All that remains is the Badass Cinema column and, more fittingly, a major article on comics. So far we’ve seen pieces on upcoming Millar projects and an interview with Garth Ennis. In this issue, there’s a big twelve page piece on contemporary Marvel taking the form of interviews with three high ranking editors. I skimmed through that one and there was little of interest there that I could see although it was accompanied by some nice artwork. The illustrations seem to fall into two categories; 1) groupings of superheroes assembled using random-generator software and 2) various different versions of Spider-Man.

Thankfully, it’s another big episode of Kick Ass 2 this issue which sees the start of the big, bloody show down between the good guys and the bad guys. One of Millar’s boasts about Kick Ass which never stuck is that it is a whole new level of realism in superhero comics. Really, what we have is a hyper-violent version of early Spider-Man but without much of the humanity. Millar doesn’t want his bad guys to be anything more complicated than arseholes for fear that it will compromise that moment of exhilaration as they get their just deserts.

It’s seemingly a big penultimate episode for Superior too. Just like in Kick Ass 2, the bad guys are indiscriminately taking innocent life en mass without being burdened by something as inconvenient as a conscience or doubt. One of the bad guys is an empowered twelve year old who never once stops to think that maybe he’s going too far in his slaughter and, disappointingly, Millar never once stops to wonder why he doesn’t. It’s a twenty-four pages long fight scene built for the big screen and even tributes the climax of the second Superman movie. It’s a shame because despite what can be achieved using modern special effects, superhero fight sequences are still something comics can do better.

Zombies/war mash-up strip (yawn; zombies), Graveyard of Empires, I consider to be out of CLiNT’s scope. I understand now that the comic is limited in the amount of originated material that it’s able to run (despite often soliciting for submissions that, probably, never get looked at) that it needs to run reprint material but does it have to be non-UK? Another of Millar’s boasts that didn’t stick is that CLiNT is a British comic continuing the tradition of The Eagle and 2000 AD but surely he can at least run Image Comics material with more of a British feel to it such as Bulletproof Coffin by David Hine and Shaky Kane or Mud Man by Paul Grist.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Popeye Volume 2

I have On The Ration stalwart, Rob Wells, to thank for me reading this after his reviews of books from this series he posted here. If it wasn’t for him, I would never have imagined myself reading Popeye comics. For me, Popeye had been defined by the cartoon show of the 70s/80s in which the character fought Brutus (or was it Pluto) for the romantic attentions of Olive Oyl who was usually holding a crocodile’s mouth open with her outstretched legs. Popeye would squeeze a can of spinach into his mouth, punch Brutus/Pluto into the sea, save Olive from the beast before going through the whole sorry process for another ten minutes immediately after. Of course, like most extra media interpretations of comic strips, this cartoon series was several Chinese whispers removed from the EC Segar’s source material of which this is the second collection.

Popeye originally appeared in Segar’s daily newspaper strip Thimble Theatre ten years after it had started during the late 1920s. He proved so popular that it wasn’t long before he was the main character. It is easy to see why. Ugly of face, one of eye, big of heart, free with his fists and his manglification of the English language; Popeye was flawed but honest. He is what he is.

The first half of this book collects a run of daily strips from 1930 to 1932. Each day’s strip is usually six panels long, although it is not uncommon for the space for two to joined together for an extra sized one, and is part of a larger narrative. Popeye starts this volume by visiting the West, which as a sailor used to water he doesn’t like, before travelling around America and the world for other adventures.

The second half features the colour Sunday strips from this period and is why the volume is the cumbersome A3 size that it is. Popeye occupies the top two thirds of the page while the bottom third is taken up with another Segar comic called Sappo, a humour strip about a seemingly childless middle aged couple. Popeye’s Sunday adventures are based in and around the same local and like all good sitcoms features a regular support cast and locations. Although usually part of a longer narrative, these are accessible alone. In this volume, Popeye’s Sunday adventures usually involve him preparing for a big boxing fight by playing craps with his mates down at the docks, eating hamburgers in Rough-House’s restaurant, wooing Olive and getting arrested for brawling. Often, he escapes jail by punching a hole through the wall to defeat his opponent in the highly anticipated boxing match before going back to jail of his own accord to serve the rest of his time.

Clearly, these are brilliantly drawn strips filled with full figure exuberance and very few close ups. Segar was prolific producing six daily strips and a Sunday’s page of a substantial size. But they are joyfully written also. Popeye speaks in a highly original mangled English but Olive and Wimpy, who makes his first appearances in this volume, have their own distinctive speech rhythms too. Segar was a great chorographer. In one Sunday strip, Popeye argues with Rough-House about his upcoming boxing match with a gorilla while Wimpy tries to help himself to a free hamburger (again).

I’m surprised at how timeless these strips seem to be. Or are these depression era yarns just relevant again? One reoccurring theme is Popeye receiving a windfall of money for a good deed and then going down to the docks to lose it all in a game of craps. The worrying theme seems to be that people like Popeye, people who have never had very much, don’t know what to do with money on the rare occasions that they get it. A couple of times, he tries to put it to good use. In one of the daily narratives he opens The One-Way Bank so he can make individual donations to the homeless. Unfortunately he was unable to resist giving attractive brunettes huge sums of money for fur coats and the like. In another story, he buys an orphan enough clothes to last her life time in a misguided attempt to provide her with security. Later he manages to reunite the girl with her millionaire parents. In a surprisingly moving moment, Popeye offers the rich father all of his sprize fight money to spend on his daughter.

Segar uses asterisks and hash-tags to cover for expletives, a method still used today in comics, usually those published by Marvel or DC. For example, if you’re reading an Avengers comic written by Brian Michael Bendis, you know he’s substituting these symbols for phrases like “mother fucker.” While reading volume one of Popeye I substituted these bits of texts with words like “fucking” and “shit”. It wasn’t until this volume that I realised that Segar was probably covering for words like “damn” and “hell”. The moment I used these words instead, a whole new rhythm opened up.

Of course, Popeye is all about the fighting. In the dailies, weeks can pass by before Popeye starts to lay into someone with his fists and its usually exhilarating when he does so because some sneaky bastard is getting his comeuppance. Even in these circumstances, it’s not unknown for Popeye to shake hands with him afterwards out of good, ol’ fashioned respeck. A Sunday strip, however, rarely concludes without Popeye having beaten somebody up. In the main it’s somebody who deserves a good sockin’, like some arsehole in the park looking for a scrap, but Popeye isn’t averse to laying an innocent passerby among the sweet peas if no one else is available.

It’s the fallout of Popeye’s violence that breaks the spell of the book for me occasionally. It’s not uncommon for Wimpy to end up with a black eye or for Olive to end up in a state thanks to him. A couple of times, Popeye violently shakes Olive in frustration. It’s shocking to my modern sensibilities to see this and confusing as to how to take the rest of the violence that occurs. Can it ever be slapstick if a man slaps a woman he’s in a relationship with in the heat of an argument? Even if he expresses regret later? Regardless, I get enough enjoyment from these strips and have enough faith in Segar as an artist not to let this put me off reading the rest of these collections.

What has surprised me the most about EC Segar’s Popeye is that it’s laugh out loud funny. In one strip, Popeye is being escorted in handcuffs to jail by a policeman but this doesn’t stop him going to the docks for a game of craps or visiting the restaurant for a sanrich. When he falls asleep under a tree, the obliging policeman frees himself and cuffs another, this time obese, officer to Popeye. When he wakes up he bursts out laughing and says, “Well blow me down! Tha’sa good joke on me!!” In the One Way Bank, a homeless guy repeatedly appears at the counter asking for money looking slightly different each time. He’s shaved his moustache off, he’s put on a pair of glasses, he’s wearing a false beard. It’s the humour that’s the most humbling thing about EC Segar’s Popeye for me. Each new generation thinks that they invented humour but it turns out that our great grandparents were much funnier than we ever are.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Objects of Desire; Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus 2

Despite the comic reading world becoming increasingly aware of the tiny, if any, royalty cheques silver age artists get from Marvel for reprinting their work, I still crave this book. Due out in a couple of months, it collects together Amazing Spider-Man issues 39 to 67 as well as annuals and other odd and sods from the first couple of years after Steve Ditko stopped drawing the character.

I can’t help it. I love Marvels Omnibus books. Actually, I love Marvel’s Omnibus books when they collect comics from this period. I don’t really care for material from the mid eighties onwards, but prior to that, I’m usually very tempted and if it features artwork by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, then I am usually overcome with desire. Unnerving, middle-aged longing. Of course, this book doesn’t feature artwork by either of those guys, it’s mainly by John Romita SR, an artist who I will confess passed me by a bit when I was a kid, so my pining for it makes it all the irrational.

Unfortunately, getting a copy of this book cheaply is proving to be very difficult. I’ve been watching it on Amazon UK and the lowest the price has got (for the tribute cover) has been £49. Currently, it’s listed at £56. I have a copy on order from Forbidden Planet International for £46 including P&P. If you order it from them now, then you can get it for fifty quid but I was able to order it for less because of a promotion they had when the book was first offered by Marvel a couple of months back.

Anyway, if Marvel are reading this, please can you publish the following Omnibus books; Fantastic Four Vol 3 (by Lee and Kirby), SHIELD (Silver Age Kirby and Steranko), Sgt Fury (Lee and Kirby) and Doctor Strange (by Steve Ditko)? I did tweet you this request a couple of months ago but nothing’s happened yet. You’re not ignoring me are you?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Too Much Sex & Violence #2

This is a shameless plug, not a review.  An objective review of this comic would be more or less impossible for me to write, as it is written by Rol Hirst, who has written many reviews for this blog, and I am one of the many artists – Stephen Prestwood, Neil Cavenham, Dave Metcalfe-Carr, Nigel Lowrey, Mark Renhard, Ryan Taylor, Tony McGee – who contributed to it.  Still, I read it yesterday and, in my heavily biased opinion, I thought it was great.

Too Much Sex & Violence is set in the fictional seaside town of Fathomsby, home to retired superheroes, vampire DJs, four-armed gigolos, and various other oddballs, including Sister Serena, a nun who offers a very unique service which male readers should find particularly distressing.  At first glance, TMS&V seems a lot like the TV series The League of Gentlemen, but now that we are two issues in, it has really started to distinguish itself.  I was particularly intrigued by the description of Fathomsby as a kind of retirement home for individuals with shady reputations ‘who have served their country in such a way as to be granted full immunity ... from all future prosecutions’. 

Rol clearly knows what he is doing here.  He has created some great characters for this series, has cleverly juggled the scenes to allow for a rotating crew of artists (I drew three pages for this issue, drew two pages in the first issue, and am currently drawing two pages for the third issue), and has produced a really, really strong script.  I am a fan of Rol’s writing anyway, but I was honestly surprised by how good this issue is.  It’s much better than the first issue, and that was bloody good.  He may want to consider taking up writing comics for a living.  I think he could go far.

As I said, I am not able to be objective at all regarding this series, so you should probably just check it out yourselves.  Both issues are available to order from Rol for £2.50 each (including postage within the UK).  Alternatively, both Gosh and Orbital in London have the first issue (Orbital definitely still have a few copies left, I’m not sure about Gosh) and if you are an Ace Comics customer, I know that Biff also has the first issue (it may be available elsewhere but you’ll have to ask Rol).  Hopefully, the same establishments will soon have the second issue, too.