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.