Friday, September 30, 2005

Stretching the concept

Ultimate Fantastic Four: Doom (#7 - #12)

I was never interested in the Ultimate Universe, mainly because I had experienced Marvel's two previous inglorious attempts, New Universe and 2099. The former wasn't all bad: as far as I can remember, the concept was going to be that there were superheroes in our real universe, something which started blatantly false and which became more so once the entire city of Pittsburgh had been annihilated, but there were one or two good titles like Starbrand and an awful heap of dross. New Universe died, and died quickly, so I figured, without paying it any attention at all, that Ultimate would go the same way.

What I hadn't noticed was that Marvel was willing to put considerable resources into the Ultimate Universe, to the point where it seemed to be to the detriment of its regular titles. Some claimed the Ultimate Universe would eventually take over, and our dear old 616 Universe would be put out to grass, like a dearly beloved old cart horse no longer able to pull a load.

Maybe that was the plan, maybe it still is. Go ask Joe Quesada because I haven't got a clue.

Anyway, Ultimate Fantastic Four is writer Warren Ellis' take on Stan Lee's classic quartet, and he does a fine job, suggesting that underneath his rough, tough, alternative persona there is actually a quality spandex writer struggling to get out. Ellis attempts to rectify the FF's major problem - the overwhelming intellectual superiority of Reed Richards, so often used as a "get out of jail free" card for writers looking for a resolution. Richards is slightly younger, with a passing resemblance to former Buggles front man Trevor Horn. Mercifully, Sue Storm receives a major intellect boost, becoming a biogeneticist capable of telling Reed he doesn't know what he's talking about. Ben is lighter, more approachable and less cliched, and Johnny is simply less irritating.

Ellis has fun showing the interactions between the four, particularly when Ben and Johnny are mocking Reed (and, I suppose, Stan Lee) for calling his vehicle the "Fantasti-car" ("Is that the Fantasti-door?"). The first three issues of this arc are probably as good as the Fantastic Four gets.

My interest started to wane once the main action gets going. Partly, it's Ellis' style. Far too many of his pages have nothing of interest on them. But partly, it's the villain - Doctor Doom. I know Dr Doom is the FF's main villain, their Magneto or Green Goblin, but I'm afraid he's never interested me. Roll out Galactus and I'll be putting on my cycle clips, but Doom? I think Blastaar troubles me more.

Come to think of it, Magneto and the Green Goblin aren't exactly fascinating, either. Maybe there's something about the air of major villains: their predictability.

Maybe it's the name "Dr Doom". It is, was, always will be just silly. In Ultimate Fantastic Four, Doom is Belgian, and his surname is Van Damme, so he's presumably related to the somewhat leaden actor Jean-Claude. Doom unexpectedly turns out to be descended from Vlad the Impaler. But the name "Van Damme" grates somehow. I don't know how I'm supposed to react. Is this a joke by Ellis? Maybe I'm missing a play on words, but otherwise, it looks like Ellis doesn't think naming is important. I'm always bugged by authors who do that. If they're not treating it seriously, why should the reader?

Doom turns out to be a tattoo artist in a Copenhagen squat, amassing an army through his novel use of skin decoration. He and the FF have a rumble, he loses, not before Ellis has a sideswipe at a US General's belief that his writ runs as far as a major European capital. Clumsily done in parts, but well-written and funny, I thought.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

So how does it feel being forty?

On a scale of one to ten (where 1 = the feeling you get as a fly skips onto your nose as you idly lounge by a tropical pool counting your multi-million pound inheritance, and 10 = watching a re-run of the 1992 election with a braying horde of ex-public school Tory-voting accountant rugby boys with halitosis and ringworm), it rates as an 8.3.

Which is roughly how it feels when an aggressive toddler smacks their play telephone into the bridge of your nose just as you drift into R.E.M. sleep.

This too will one day be yours. Unless you're older than me.

"Forty is the new thirty" gets 369 hits on google at the moment. It'll be 370 soon.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Slow Duck Coming

Marvel Max Howard the Duck #1 - #6

"Better than Shakespeare", said one breathless reviewer on Amazon. Now I'm not quite sure if they'd ever read him, but bigging up something higher than the Bard is asking for disappointment.

This mini-series was one of the multitude of good things to come out of Bob Harras' replacement as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics by Joe Quesada. Quesada has always come in for criticism (that goes with the job), but his first couple of years were an absolute joy, if only because it was evident he enjoyed comic books for their own sake.

Under Quesada, after two decades in permafrost, it suddenly became possible for Marvel to publish Howard the Duck again. Funny thing, a change in editor.

The first striking thing is that there is no duck on the cover of any of these issues. I'm relying on memory here, but I believe there was some legal problem with Disney and Howard looking too similar to Donald Duck, a creation who, if US laws weren't controlled by rich, sinister, lobbying corporations, would be long out of copyright anyway. How Marvel was unable to publish Howard on the cover is something which escapes me, given it had previously managed to publish a colour series, a black and white series, several specials and a Hollywood movie with Howard plastered all over them. But that's business.

Instead what we have on the covers is a mouse (Howard gets mutated by some means or other), which is just going to cause utter confusion for the majority of comic readers who have never read Howard the Duck.

It's an uneven series, this one. Howard, satirical, bitter and absurd, was always difficult to write, and Gerber has difficulty establishing the flow of his first series. You would guess it would probably take a few tries to get into the swing of writing Howard the Duck again, and matters weren't helped by having in mind two decades of material and only having six issues to push them out.

The first issue was well done but rather underused arch-villain Doctor Bong. The second is perhaps the funniest, as Howard goes through a set of whole body mutations,

here with a nod to the Basselope in Berke Breathed's much-missed Bloom County.

Howard and Beverly then get arrested by heavy-handed and incompetent Homeland Security soldiers. Always topical, Howard the Duck. Issue #3 is a Man-Thing-esque satirical sword and sorcery romp.

Long ago, in ancient Mesopotamia or Sumer or someplace like that, the priestesses of the demon Pazuzu, bringer of disease, were engaged in a religious war with the priests of the god Marduk or Baal or Dagon, or whoever.

We have an unpleasant relic called the "doucheblade" - it's worth buying for that name alone.

By issue #4, Howard and Beverly are in the "boarding house of mystery", which is just an excuse for Gerber to have a pop at whoever he wants. So we have a Warren Ellis pastiche-

Bloody third world types do this every soddin' night. And every soddin' night, I have to sic a bleedin' demon on one or the other of 'em, just to get some soddin' bleedin' sleep. Shite, I'm so bloody knackered it's a great soddin' pain in the bleedin' arse, bein' a tragically post-modern alcoholic magus with a soddin' nicotine addiction and a long bleedin' string of bloody dead girlfriends.

Purely on a side point, why do Americans always portray English character missin' the final 'g' in their verbs, when Americans are doin' id all the time?

Then we skip onto a gentle Neil Gaiman tease: the Interminable, the Seven Goth dwarfs who are Snoozy, Cutey, Dicey, Ditzy, Mournful, Mopey and Doc ("the other six are all my fault. I embody hard drugs").

Top that off with a parody of addled gonzo hack Hunter S Thompson and you have classic, bizarre piece of Howardry.

We also have a scene for which the phrase "too much information" could have been invented. After Beverly has a sex session with an imaginary being (don't ask).

Howard: Sleep tight, toots
Beverly: Ummm, I may never be tight again

Issue #5 has an all-powerful TV presenter Iprah ("Something about her voice. I want to resist, but, suddenly, I feel so...validated"), whom Howard defies by proclaiming his "hostility towards other sentient beings...stems from the willful stupidity, wanton self-centeredness, and rampant incivility of other sentient beings."

And then Gerber decides to pump his pro-smoking views:

Insensitivity and smoking. The only two unpardonable offenses of the new age. Never figured I'd get to commit both at once.

I'm guessing here that Gerber is a smoker. Smoking, which is inhaling carcinogenic fumes till you get taken to hospital, is the sort of issue which, if he were a non-smoker, Gerber would surely take the polar opposite line. Howard would marvel at the stupidity of hairless apes indulging in such a clearly self-destructive habit. As it is, Gerber takes the martyr line of a fourteen year old behind the bike sheds - a hostile society oppressing our brave, non-conforming inhalers. As such Gerber comes close to proselytising for the smoking industry. There is a certain irony in a pro-smoking writer ending up in hospital with a lung condition, pneumonia, as Gerber recently has. But predictable, because that's what happens to an awful lot of smokers.

The final issue wraps up with a guest appearance by a rather melancholy God. And Howard the Duck ends, perhaps forever, with Howard waddling off down the street.

The first time I read these issues, I was confused and disappointed by much of it. But, and this is classic Howard the Duck, you keep noticing things you missed before, so it's a good re-read. Is it Shakespeare? Of course not, but well above average comic writing, all the same.

Is it fifty already?

Wow. I've reached fifty posts, which makes "Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish" almost middle-aged, in blog terms. And highly appropriate, given I turn forty tomorrow and I'm looking forward to telling you all how it feels to have the last drip of youth drain from your bones (hint: it's a shitter). Birthdays are always poignant for us late September babies, knowing that we owe our existence to the alcohol-fuelled excesses of our over-amorous parents in the Festive period. But forty...oh well, it's better than the alternative. And if I have a few grey hairs, at least it's not come out in handfuls and my gut doesn't hang off my trousers like a bean bag.

Anyway, Harvey Jerkwater at Filing Cabinet of the Damned introduced me to Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month, where you have thirty days to polish off at least fifty thousand words, and "it's all about quantity, not quality." Perhaps as a sign of incipient midlife crisis, I'm going to do it, so I probably won't be posting much in November, and I'll cut down a bit in October as I have plots and characters to think about.

If any other comics bloggers are doing it, perhaps we could arrange an informal award ceremony? "Kevin Smith Award for Least Number of Words Written", "Bill Mantlo Prolific Award", that sort of thing?

Fifty thousand words is easy, right? I mean, the above review is just under a thousand, so two of them every day for a month and I'll be sorted. Put like that, it looks quite painful. Ah hell, I like offering hostages to fortune - I give you my personal guarantee that I'll complete it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

In praise of Steve Bell

Steve Bell is a political cartoonist whose work appears daily in the Guardian, a left-wing newspaper. His cartoon, "If..." has been going since the early 1980s.

Bell is a rough cartoonist, both in style and content. In today's cartoon, for instance, we find Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, urinating on a British soldier.

I'm puzzled by this one, since Bell is anti-war you might expect him to favour Kennedy, the only party leader to come out against the Iraq War. But Bell, typically, cannot resist an opportunity to stick the boot in.

Here he is showing Foreign Secretary Jack Straw coming off a military plane as a corpse is loaded on the back:

Not exactly hilarious, but Bell often isn't trying to be funny. He's a commentator.

But you get humour as well:

Bell has developed a particular love of George Bush, who he portrays as a trumpet-mouthed chimpanzee.

One of Bell's specialties is caricature. His Thatcher was monstrous and insane, while his John Major wore his underpants outside his trousers, a grey-faced weedy superhero. John Prescott, former left-wing firebrand and now Tony Blair's Deputy Prime Minister, is a cuddly, docile lapdog. With perhaps excessive cruelty, Bell calls the dog "Market".

Chubby Home Secretary Charles Clarke gets called an "elephant's testicle", complete with trunk for a nose.

Tony Blair, as many other cartoonists have found, resists easy caricaturing, so Bell resorts the default position of mockery.


The Guardian also published Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury", a sophisticated strip which in its own way is as radical and subversive as Bell's work. But Trudeau, in contrast, goes for subtle lampooning. I love both styles, though I imagine that Trudeau in person to be an educated, self-deprecating sophisticated, while Bell must surely be a scruffy Trotskyite.*

Steve Bell has published countless books, some of which are available at amazon.

*legal note: this is what I imagine he's like, but I'm sure he's actually wonderful to meet in the flesh, and not a member of any far left organisations at all

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Desolation Low

Desolation Jones #3

Last week I wondered whether Warren Ellis' mind was wandering when he was writing Iron Man. Now I've got a good idea of the direction it was heading to.

I started reading Desolation Jones on the Newcastle-London train, and soon found myself covering up pages when people went by. After a while, I figured I was doing this because I was reading pornography, and felt rightfully ashamed of myself. It appears that writer Warren Ellis is entirely unable to distinguish between examining the dark side of the human soul and writing masturbatory sewage.

Desolation Jones is about low-lifes in the porn industry. Its "hero", Mr Jones, has grey skin - I'm not sure why, but I am sure I'm never going to seek to find out. He talks with a porn actress in a bar, then he hits someone. That's it, plot-wise. In the meantime, we have twenty or so pages of demoralising, obscene, misogynistic garbage.

Braving discomfiture for the sake of the blogosphere, I open this comic for the very last time. It starts with a film maker having an argument with an unnamed redhead about an actress (well, porn actress, but I'm going to abbreviate) who has a yeast infection. The redhead meets Jones, apparently a private investigator. They say "fuck", "dick" and "ass" quite a lot. Then they go to a bar. English gentlemen always get their dates drunk and stoned, says Jones, it's the only way we can get people to sleep with us. Speak for yourself, Warren.

In the bar, they have a seemingly endless conversation about the porn industry. I'll just give you some random snippets: "home-video", "neurotic", "jerked off", "letting some freak do you"...and so on and on and on. Then we get to the really ugly part: Jones is getting stoned as the actress talks. She drifts off into talking about all the things she would allow men to do to her, which is just about anything as long as they're violent or demeaning. This is a sneaky, cowardly trick by Ellis. By having her say these words, the writer risks exposing himself as a creepy, woman-hating moron. But the fact that Jones is on drugs means we can't judge whether she actually said these things, or whether Jones is fantasising. A sort of post-modern, ironic, lad-culture excuse for writing things that should be left unwritten. But it doesn't work - conversations like this should be left to And as for drawing a child saying "I ripped my clitoris and labia when I was a kid. Gymnastics accident, would you believe. So it takes a little work to get me off", well, how nasty is that?

There's a certain clinical feel to this, which makes me wonder if Ellis has a subscription to Abstracts of the Royal Society of Gynaecologists. Or could it be that Ellis, apparently so desperate to shock, is unwilling to expose us to the actual language women in the porn industry might use for their genitalia? And no racial epithets either? Even in the bar scene, I feel he could have upped the ante in terms of the violence and level of coercion the actress was willing to accept. Warren, Warren, you shy little coquette, I almost get the feeling you're holding yourself back.

Following a short diversion with a woman with a sex toy dressed as a nurse (how unlike the dedicated professionals at my local hospital), Jones explains his mission in life: I just kill people, Frank. I kill them and fuck their heads and leave their bodies in the street as a warning. I was disappointed by this revelation, because I'd been guessing Desolation Jones was the story of a Bromsgrove pastry chef who comes to Los Angeles in order to find the perfect recipe for making petit fours.

Periodically, censorship-hungry right-wingers have a go at the comics industry. They can't help it, because it's just part of their nature. Thankfully now is not one of those times, because if it was, my heart would be made of lead as I stood up to proclaim the right of creators to produce comics like this. As Voltaire might have said, "I fight to the death to protect your right to say this, but that doesn't stop your work being an unadulterated pile of disgusting, vile gobshite" .

"Made in England Part 3" is the title. I wish it hadn't been.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Birds of Spray

Birds of Prey #85

Your comprehensive monthly guide to all the flying blobs of blood, spittle and snot in the ongoing gorefest that is Birds of Prey. It's not a spoiler, honest.

Page 8/9

Top panel - Three sprays of blood and saliva in one panel. Result! Two teeth go flying
Bottom panel - One displaced tooth and a big splop of blood.

Page 14

First panel - One sploshed nose results in a blood cascade
Fourth panel - Canary takes one in the cheek, resulting in a forked horizontal splash
Fifth panel - Now the blood's drooling out of her mouth

Page 15

Third panel - Right hook from Wildcat results in blood gush from top and bottom of villainous mouth
Fourth panel - Canary spits blood and molar into her hand
Fifth panel - She's now got blood dribbling from the corner of her mouth

Page 18

Second Panel - Left foot kick to villainous face results in vertical blood spout

The clean-handed double nostril nose spurt:
only a Sensei master can be this profound

Third panel - Flat right handed punch results in dual blood spurt from both nostrils
Sixth panel - Close up of drooly blood splash
Seventh panel - One final nose dribble

Final score

Blood splurges - 14
Lost teeth - 4
Kicks in the nadgers - None, disappointingly

So, on our arbitrary scale (blood = 1 point, tooth = 3, nadgers = 10), this issue gets total aggro points of 26. Which is not much worse than the centre of Thetford on a Saturday night.

Moments of enlightenment

Road marks on a new reader's quest to understand this book. Please don't help me out here - it's much more fun working it out for myself.

Page 1

Dinah - her surname isn't "Crenshaw", it's "Sui Jerk Jai". Huh?

Page 2

Dinah has a load of dudes with her. One's Huntress. Another's Wildcat. Are the others Birds of Prey as well? Simone's decided not to tell us.

Page 4

Barbara's surname is Gordon! And there's her Dad. Isn't he the tashy cop in Batman? I feel like a light has gone on in my brain.

Page 5

The dudes have names, but sadly they don't mean anything to me. One of them is clearly Clint Barton.

So this is where Bendis stashed Hawkeye

Last page

Brainiac's virus is sorted and Barbara's moving her toes: she's going to walk again. She's doing a Xavier - that slaphead's been in and out of the wheelchair more times than the audience stooge at Dr Cagliastro's Mystery Healing Roadshow.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Mommy, mommy, they're killing Iron Man

Iron Man #4

Normally, I don't do knocking reviews. Much to my surprise, I've found it's more enjoyable writing about good comics than bad ones. But this one is exceptional in just about every way.

Iron Man, a long running technology-based book, has stumbled on for many years. Apparently the least of Marvel's concerns, a series of uninterested writers have produced at best average scripts. This is true even going back to the 1970's. A few, like David Michelinie, have showed its potential, but most haven't.

If I'm honest, I've been buying out of nostalgia and because I've got too damn many of them to stop now.

So then Marvel, as part of its Disassembled storyline which reformed the Avengers and killed (or whatever) Thor, decided to put Warren Ellis, a great writer whose style is eminently suited to Iron Man, on the title. Which got me thinking that finally Marvel had woken up to this one.

And then...and then the issues started slipping. Issue #3 came out sometime in the New Year. It's been over six months. Now, apparently, this is the "fault" of Adi Granov, the artist who neglected to notice he was agreeing to draw a monthly comic when his schedule only allowed for four a year. But it's not his fault, of course. If Granov couldn't or wouldn't produce the art, then Tom Brevoort, the editor, should have handed the job to someone who could. If Brevoort isn't capable of doing this then he should be removed.

And presiding over this fiasco is Joe Quesada, editor in chief. If a book slips one month, there's been a foul up, but that's comics. Two months is the editor's fault. Six months is the E-i-C.

You have to wonder if this is an Iron Man problem. Does Marvel want to kill this book? Would they have let Amazing Spider-Man or Uncanny X-Men slip by six months? Doesn't seem likely, does it?

Anyway, here's the much anticipated Iron Man. Tony has had a car held over his head for the last half a year. Off we go:

Villain (forgotten his name): You're going to burst inside that suit when this hits you. They're going to have to pour you out.
Iron Man: Oh well.
Iron Man (thinking): No no no. Don't you dare.
Villain: Oww. You bastard...doesn't matter. Not important. I have all the time in the world now. Leave the little things behind.
Iron Man (thinking): Come on, come on. Give me the secondary systems.
Boy in car: Mommy, Mommy. The fires are coming this way...
Woman in car: I know the doors won't open (sic). Oh god, oh god!
Iron Man (trapped underneath car): I don't feel very successful...Iron Man to all points: I'm going to be immobilized in about a minute and a half ...cough... Could use some ...cough... help. Well, that's a help.

That is the first seven pages of the comic I waited half a year for. To summarise: villain hits Iron Man with car.

I'm a decompression fan, but this is just taking the piss. Now the delay wasn't Warren Ellis' fault, but you might have hoped Marvel, by way of an apology, would attempt to make this a bit special.

And look at this:

Woman (forgotten her name): Okay, it's just us. Tony sent you?
Iron Man (having taken mask off): Yeah.
Woman: Tony?
Iron Man: Not so loud...please.
Woman: You're Iron Man?
Iron Man: What does it look like?

Four issues ago, Tony Stark gave a news conference where he announced to the world that he was no longer going to be Iron Man. This is an old friend of Stark's. Is there any sense in which the above dialogue could happen? Since Tom Brevoort doesn't seem to see a problem, let me rewrite it.

Woman (forgotten her name): Okay, it's just us. Tony sent you?
Iron Man (having taken mask off): Yeah.
Woman: Tony?
Iron Man: Not so loud...please.
Woman: So you're back to being Iron Man?
Iron Man: What does it look like?

There you are, Tom, that wasn't difficult, was it? Plot unchanged, continuity ensured, and audience not treated like blithering idiots. Ellis appears not to have read any Iron Man since Captain Britain Weekly folded into Super Spider-Man, but you know your stuff. This isn't about continuity, it's about credibility.

And then Stark is trapped in his armour - didn't he fix it so it came off with a ping? It's apparently too heavy - but he spent months perfecting it and Marvel made a big thing about that. He's decided to become a cyborg using extremis (can't remember what that was) so that his control systems will become part of his body. He's seriously injured and his enemy is approaching Washington, so is he going to ring the Avengers? Hell, no: This fight is mine to the finish. Remind me again why you fund the Avengers, Tony? So they can sit on their arses in Stark Towers sipping cappuchinos while you experiment on death's door with insane technological procedures? I swear Ellis can't have spent more than ten minutes on this plot. And that's without mentioning a lumbering anti-KKK diatribe which makes Reggie Hudlin look like George Orwell.

Ellis is off this book in two issues. Pound to a penny this cyborg extremis stuff will be written out in five more.

Marvel obviously doesn't give two hoots about Iron Man. It can't be bothered to put it out regularly, and when it comes out it's like the writer had more important things on his mind. So I'm dropping it.

Monday, September 12, 2005

And Robin shall restore amends

The Sandman: Dream Country (#17 -#20)

Anna said she wished she was fourteen
I said I wished I was Shakespeare

Gerard Langley

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is a strange beast - a set of tales set in the world of dreams, the eponymous (anti?) hero being the lord of dreams, Morpheus. Morpheus often isn't the centre of attention, which is left to a parade of characters who range from mildly unhinged to grotesque and on to murderous. At its worst it drags into the gutter mind of psychopathic killers and B movie horror stunts, but Gaiman's Sandman doesn't do "bad" in any significant way.

This book is a collection of four separate tales which allowed a breathing space between the sublime madness of The Doll's House and Season of Mists, which I haven't read yet. In it we see a Gaiman stretching his literary muscles, and showing off his influences (something that might ordinarily be quite hidden) with a mastery which borders on boastful.

The first story, Calliope, is to all intents and purposes a classical morality play. Richard Madoc is an author with writers' block. He visits an unpleasant older author, Erasmus Fry, and buys from him a captive nymph, Calliope. He takes the wretched Calliope home, imprisons her, rapes her, and immediately finds himself able to write. Calliope is now his muse, a divine woman with the ability to inspire creativity. Madoc becomes rich and famous. Calliope, trapped now for sixty years, called on Oneiros, her name for the Sandman. Oneiros visits Madoc and asks him to free Calliope. When Madoc refuses, Oneiros overloads Madoc's brain by unleashing all his dreams. Driven to insanity, Madoc frees Calliope, and she in turn persuades Oneiros to end Madoc's madness. In the final scene, Madoc is left a shell, bereft of creativity.

The most shocking part of this is undoubtedly the rape of Calliope. Now rapes don't occur often in comic books, and when they do, they tend to make their mark, both within the story and in the outside world. This rape, though in no way gratuitous or sympathetic to the rapist, is low-key. The point of the story is Calliope's imprisonment, not her rape.

This is a story rich in classical references, and has all the hallmarks of stories found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a stitched together, tumbling stream of diverse folk tales which nevertheless holds together as one book. The rape of Calliope is best seen in this light: rape in Roman times did not, at least in stories, have the stigma it has now, and nymphs, particularly ones who went to wash in rivers, were often subjected to it. Calliope, incidentally, appears in Metamorphoses, though only to recount another story.

Two classical elements which Gaiman stitches into this story are kairos, the correct moment for an action to take place, and hubris, excessive pride. When Oneiros visits Madoc, Madoc is presented with an opportunity to free Calliope and escape without punishment for his despicable actions. By refusing, he is showing his hubris, his kairos is past, and retribution is inevitable. It's possible Gaiman is unaware that this is the type of story which could have been written in antiquity, but I doubt it. Gaiman seems to put intent into everything.

The second story, A dream of a thousand cats, could be, if you stripped out the grizzly bits with drowning kittens, almost a children's tale, reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm.

And then we're onto A midsummer night's dream, whose title suggests that Gaiman is about to indulge in some hubris of his own.

You don't take on Shakespeare lightly. His language is archaic, his plots were a bit ropey and he has a enormous herd of Grade A Slappable thesbian fans, but you can't read Shakespeare without concluding he was one of the most gifted users of the language that English has ever known. In weaving a Shakespearean story into his own, Gaiman is almost inviting us to judge between him and Shakespeare, something no writer would be wise to do.

But Gaiman gets away with it, because he is knowledgeable, loves Shakespeare's work and is highly talented himself. He makes an excellent choice of play: by picking A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's dreamy comedy of libidinous Athenian druggies, rather than a more heavy-going tragedy like Hamlet, Gaiman is making sure Shakespeare's characters won't look out of place, and also ensuring he can have some fun.

There's a healthy dollop of recursion in this story, where there are multiple layers of stories. So we have Gaiman writing a story about Shakespeare, who appears acting in a a play which partly consists of actors doing a play. A story within a story within a story, if you like. Characters from Shakespeare's play appear alongside Shakespeare. It's all a bit complicated, has buckets of Shakespeare quotes and it's a joy to read. It even has some quality humour.

Shakespeare's Robin Longfellow: Thou speak'sk aright. I am that merry wanderer of the night
Gaiman's Robin Longfellow: "I am that merry wanderer of the night"? I am that giggling-dangerous-totally-bloody-psychotic-menace-to-life-and-limb, more like it.

What's also striking is Gaiman's knowledge of Shakespeare's works, and of his times. Gaiman's Shakespeare has done a deal with the Sandman: in return for his gifts, he has agreed to write two plays for him. A Midsummer Night's Dream is the first, and while Gaiman doesn't say which one is the second, The Tempest is the obvious candidate. These two plays both mix freely the everyday and imaginary worlds and play with the idea that dreams are a form of reality, which is, of course, what Gaiman is doing. That A Midsummer Night's Dream is an early Shakespeare work and The Tempest is his last is a superb touch: Gaiman is explaining Shakespeare's career by making these two plays the bookends of Shakespeare's deal with the Sandman.

And I love seeing Shakespeare's actors like Richard Burbage and Will Kemp: being actors before cinema, their performances are entirely lost to us, yet they still maintain a certain fame. Include a reference or two to Christopher Marlowe's death, and you have in Gaiman a writer who has either thrown himself into his work or, more likely, creating something from a pre-existing love.

The question I can't answer is how this story would appear to someone who didn't know Shakespeare's play. Are the references too obscure? Well, anyway, it's a good excuse to get to know some Shakespeare, which is overwhelmingly a better thing than chasing down, say, the Vision and Scarlet Witch limited series.

The final story, Facade demonstrates in its murkiness how comic book continuity, even when well handled, still has a degrading effect on the quality of a book. In it, an immortal character called "Element Girl" obtains release from life. It's not a bad story, but I found it confusing and opaque until I'd read it a few times. Continuity, while indulging its existing readers, demands a degree of study and patience in its new ones. This story's theme of immortals finding life unbearable (like Salman Rushdie's Grimus) also has, I believe, a classical provenance.

This final story also highlights one of Gaiman's few weaknesses. Too often, Morpheus is used as a plot device in order to resolve everything. Sometimes you feel like if you whistled up Morpheus early, you could have everything resolved in three pages.

So, all in all, we have four stories which demonstrate that you don't have to write a fifteen part mega-plot in order to create something quite special. Gaiman shows himself to be literate, clever and surprisingly affectionate towards his characters. Comics simply can't get much better than this.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Entertainment about comics

Good morning, Mr Quesada. I know you're not one to stand on ceremony, so can I call you "Joe"? Love your office, Joe. Was that signed by Patrick Stewart himself? Cool.

Thanks for letting me come and see you, me being a mere reader and all that. I know you're a busy man, Joe, so I'll keep it short. You're also a good man, and you must understand that I never take cheap shots at you on my blog. Oh? Well, I did once threaten to come to New York and happy slap you, but I was just joking. Thank god you've got a sense of humour. You are comics through-and-through, Joe, and without your "Marvel Knights" range a few years ago, I swear comics would have been lost to me. You made them fun again, and I owe you. That Daredevil you drew with David Mack, it's one of my favourite comic books ever.

Why am I here? Well, I'm worried about what the future might hold for us. I saw on Newsarama that Marvel has changed its name to "Marvel Entertainment". Great name, by the way, and congratulations on not being put off by that being the name of the company when it filed for bankruptcy. Things are going well right now, so why worry about past mistakes?

But it got me thinking, What if Marvel is out-growing comics?. I mean, how much do you make out of selling little printed magazines, as opposed to cinema multiplexes? For instance, how long would it take for Fantastic Four monthly to take in the same revenue as the film version? That long? Wow. So if we added up all the revenue from Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man and Astonishing X-Men it still pretty much pales into nothing compared with having one Hollywood blockbuster, doesn't it? Even if you included Cable and Deadpool as well. And that's without the boost in merchandising that a film brings. So even if a film boosted a comic's sales by 50%, the comic still wouldn't be pulling in much money, would it? I'm trying to get this straight in my head, Joe, but haven't we got a chicken yoked up with an elephant?

On a side point, Joe, do you realise your new UK retail arm sells everything except monthly comics? I trust you, so I know there must be solid commercial reasons for this, but it looks like, well, like your organisation don't really care much about comics.

Marvel Entertainment is a publicly listed corporation, isn't it? I'm not an expert on US corporate law, but doesn't that mean you have a statutory duty to maximise shareholder value? So if you were to discover, say, that comics revenue is utterly dwarfed by film revenue, then you would be negligent not to pursue the latter. And if plot developments in a monthly comic were potentially to damage a character's marketability, then you pretty much have to put a stop to it. And, for consistency's sake, characters in comics are going to have to conform with those portrayed in the films, even if the film characters are partly based around the actors playing them. And, what's worse, the more successful films you have, the larger the number of comic book characters whose development is going to be constricted by corporate concerns. I just wonder - and I'm sure I'm worrying unnecessarily - if my favourite books are going to end up preserved in Hollywood aspic.

So if you're an entertainment company, then your main function is to get ahead in the entertainment world, and that means making alliances with film and TV programme makers. And if some of those grew up loving comics, then they might get a big kick out of working on characters they used to read. They might not necessarily be the best writers to work on any given book, but, when it comes to getting a director or writer to work on the big screen version of Swordsman loves Mantis, it doesn't hurt to have a stable of film creators already doing work for you, does it?

And - this worried me most - I don't really see that Marvel needs to produce comics any more. You have enough characters and plots to fill a thousand movies. Your famous "five thousand characters" were built up by creators who gave up their greatest creations for pretty much nothing, but that doesn't happen now, does it? If you're Grant Morrison, say, or Warren Ellis, you would have to be an idiot to give up control of your ideas. So the best ideas are creator-owned now. Keep publishing comics for the next thirty years and I doubt you would gain more than a tenth of the stock of good characters you already own. What I'm saying is comics aren't even much use as a character kindergarten.

If comics stopped tomorrow, would Marvel Entertainment be that badly affected? What about in five years?

Now I'm hypothesising, Joe, but what will happen to Marvel Entertainment if superhero movies go out of fashion? You wouldn't retreat back to comics, would you? I think you'd start producing science fiction or action films or television dramas or whatever happened to be fashionable. I truly wonder whether Marvel Entertainment might wake up one day and finds that it no longer needs comics or superheroes.


And then there's these crossovers, Joe. The thing I most respected you for was killing the yearly "big event". I know you said that "Infinite Crisis" was corporate-driven and "House of M" creator-driven, and I'd like to think you're right, but to be honest, I have difficulty in seeing the difference. And now it turns out that "House of M" isn't the end of matters. There's something called "Decimation" coming after it. And after that? It's not even annual, it's a never-ending crossover now. On both channels, Marvel and DC. Joe, we're almost friends, right, so can I whisper something?

I don't give a fuck about universe changing storylines.

They all feel the same. Endless bluster and fighting. Explosions. Everything in 48-point type. I want to believe they're going to be great, and I do buy them, but the truth is they have a long track record in disappointment. Go back and read Disassembled, if you don't believe me.

And they'll never change the true reality, which is that of a team of creators coming together to tell us a story. Let the writers write, and the editors edit. I love comics, Joe, and what I want to read are stories, not events. What I find strange is that when you replaced Bob Harras (how is Bob these days?), you seemed to understand that. We don't communicate any more, Joe. Maybe I've changed, maybe you. Actually, I'm pretty sure it's you.

Is this a corporate revenue thing, Joe? If DC kicks it all off, do you have to wade in too? These crossovers damn near killed Marvel a few years ago because we all got sick of them. I think your creators are better than they were ten years ago, but I fear it'll happen again. Crossovers stamp out creativity like a virus. Even as we go out and buy them, we will work out eventually if you are playing us for idiots. Right now, Marvel and DC are using up the reserves of goodwill they have spent the last few years building up.

Comics, every single one, should have something special about them. Funny or sad, exciting or mournful, direct or complex, something that makes us glad that we bought them. Not corporate statements or marketing plans or favours to film makers, just literature. If you take it away from us again, then we'll desert you, just like we did your predecessor.

So there are dangers ahead, Joe. Anyway, it's been great to meet someone I admire so much, and say hello to Stan next time you see him. Is there any chance of a free T-shirt?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Who are they, what are they, why are they?

Birds of Prey #80 - #84

Starting reading DC has changed my opinions about comics. That gorgeous, wretched munge of past stories we call "continuity" looks very different to the new reader. Since all comics die without new readers, their views (despite their manifest ignorance of their reading material) are disproportionately important. For now, and I suspect for a good time to come, I'm a new reader. What I'm saying - was it Groucho Marx who said "I have a theory about this but I'm not sure I believe it myself?" - is that my opinions of DC's comics matter because I don't know what the hell is going on.

Putting aside continuity for another day, what most strikes the new reader about Birds of Prey (and pretty much every other DC comic) is how inaccessible it all is.

Chris Claremont was the master of new reader accessibility. In every single comic he wrote, you'd see something like

Her name is Storo, or Ororo. Her name means beauty. He's Wolverine. He's the best there is at what he does.

Now I've been driven to distraction by this stuff over the years. Why are you telling us this, Chris? We bloody well know. Why the same formulae? If you have to say this, why not find different forms? And the answer is that he knows it's repetitive, but he doesn't care. Every comic book which has ever been written has had a new reader opening it. It's not repetitive to that person. Claremont's not writing for us at all. He figures if we're regular readers, we'll just ignore it and skip on to the story. Which we do.

Birds of Prey, on the other hand, takes the other approach. It holds onto its secrets like a toddler with a lollypop. Want to know Oracle's surname? A description of Dinah's powers? A full list of members? Why they're called a "community"? Whether the woman with the cap does anything other than fly planes and hang out with Oracle? The reason for the existence of "Birds of Prey"? If the information is in there, it's difficult to find. Five months on, and I have no idea why the Birds of Prey exist. Sure, I can see they fight crime, but are they government, non-government, privately funded? Do they have a headquarters? If any kind person wants to tell me the answers to these questions, please resist the temptation. I want to find out the old-fashioned way - from the writer.

In the meantime, for the good of the internet community, I have created a classic Stan Lee blurb which, in the absence of any better information from writer Gail Simone, I shall be using as my explanation for this group.

Caught in a shower of radioactive sleet and savaged by mutant protoplasm, the Birds of Prey were given magical but curiously unpleasant powers. Now, guarded by their bald mentor Barbara Splobble, they keep the streets of Gotham free from crime, and maintain a ceaseless watch for their arch-enemy, Pogon the Reprehensible, Master of the Thirty-sixth Dimension.

Gail Simone is a gifted writer. What sets her apart is her ability to write personalities. Many writers (I wouldn't want to name names, but you could probably have a go) struggle to make their characters appear as individuals. But there is a lightness, a dexterity about Simone's stories which make them a pleasure to read. Such as the scene where Barbara attempts to apologise to Huntress by telling her every embarrassing thing that has happened in her life. Few writers would think of this, and fewer would succeed in making it work. Simone writes well, and she breathes a life into her characters.

But (and isn't there always a "but"?) there's a problem. It's the violence. Teeth are knocked out, windpipes are elbowed and faces are headbutted. Sometimes you can't turn a page without coming across an unfortunate with blood and mucus splurting from his nose. We have two separate testicular assaults, which should at least give Sleestak plenty of material for his "Groin Injury Saturday" spot.

Is it gratuitous, this violence? Well, let's look at this.

As can be seen, Huntress has just stitched up this mafioso so he's going to have to rat to the cops. She's also given him a karate chop to the oesophagus. He's beaten and helpless. But he called her a slut. So, in the manner of a lairy, beered-up thug in a pub car park, she stamps on his head while making a "hasta la vista, baby" quip ("No one said you needed all your teeth to enter the program"). No, Gail, teeth are likely to be the least of his worries. Stamp on someone like this and you'll break their jaw. Brain damage could result, either from the violent impact itself or from a bone splinter. This is attempted murder, and all because he used an insult.

If you don't think there's something wrong about this scene, just transpose it, and have Wildcat stamping on the head of a female criminal. Is that OK? Here, of course, we're getting into gender differences and what is acceptable to be portrayed for a man and woman being different. Undoubtedly true, but writers are supposed to be using their insight to think ahead of the rest of society. Female-on-male violence is less prevalent than male-on-female, but that doesn't make it acceptable - I know a man with a partially collapsed lung after an assault by his wife. We should expect more from Gail Simone, whose Women in Refrigerators provided such an invaluable service by pointing a (perhaps implicitly misogynistic) streak of violence against women in comics. This scene makes it seem like Simone is saying that it's all right to have people in refrigerators, just as long as they're not women.

So do I disapprove of violence in comics? No, but (scenes like the above one excepted) I think the main problem is that the depiction of violence is uninteresting. Any talk that torture is inventive is wrong - it's pathetically easy to think of new ways to damage a human body. Corkscrew appendectomy, cheese-grated genitals, hydrochloric acid up the rectum - there's three ideas I've just thought of. Portrayal of violence should be minimised because it doesn't lead anywhere (how many times is Simone going to be able to portray a man's genitals being kicked before it becomes ridiculous?), and because it's all been done. At times, Birds of Prey is like flicking between an arthouse movie and a slasher pic.

But, on the other hand, examination of the motives for violence, or the aftermath of its effects, is well worth covering in a comic book. And Simone, with her flair for characterisation, would be one to do it so well.

Is Gail Simone the main offending writer here? I very much doubt it. This is a dock Warren Ellis could easily stand in. Not to mention dozens of much less imaginative writers, but I don't tend to read their output. As much as anything, my accusation is that Simone is not writing to her potential.

I have a feeling I'm going to regret saying that - Gail Simone is known to patrol the internet by night, and she has a Huntress-style robust manner of dealing with miscreant bloggers. Fortunately, she can't accuse me of posting spoilers - by the time my comics get to me, it's like they've been rowed across the north Atlantic by a wee fellow who stopped for a fortnight's lobster potting in the Azores.

And one last thing: the OMAC project tie-in connection was tenuous, to put it mildly. DC's marketing department is beginning to resemble Marvel's despotic Harrasid Caliphate during its Onslaught period. And that, kids, is not a good thing.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Yearning for battle?

Transforming Operational Neohuman Yearning for Battle, Logical Assassination and Immediate Repair

Whoever would have guessed?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Swan-song of the living dead duck

Howard the Duck #10

It may sound like a funny animal story, but it's not. Howard the Duck is a satire. The closest equivalent I can think of is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In it, Swift, hilarious, malicious and savagely ironic, portrays the journey of the eponymous hero through various realms, the most famous being Lilliput, where he is a giant. You can read it as an adventure story (I loved it as a child), but Gulliver is really travelling through Swift's England, mutated to appear as it might to a stranger.

In Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber takes the opposite approach. Howard is a duck involuntarily transported into a land of humans (or "hairless apes", as Howard would say). Swift has our traveller in foreign worlds, while Gerber has a foreigner in ours, but the intent is the same. Both poke their own world as mercilessly as they can manage.

Most importantly, you have to realise that Howard is not really a duck. Bill Mantlo (Gerber's successor) and the movie never said anything much more than, "Look! He's a duck! That's really, really funny!" But Howard's fowlness is only feather deep - eloquent, cynical, affectionate, outraged and sentimental, he is perhaps the most three dimensional person comics ever produced. This is in contrast with the people he meets, who are often grotesques or caricatures, serving primarily to show the absurdity of our world. Or sometimes just to tell jokes...

The title, "Swan-song of the living dead duck", is of course Gerber poking fun at himself, his "Song-cry of the living dead man". I can count at least three different word plays in this title. Which, when I think about it, is just showing off. The story itself is a rewrite of "Song-cry", and demonstrates how much Gerber had developed in just two or three years. It also illustrates how great writers work: if they fail to realise a story properly, they figure out why and then come back and have another go.

The purpose of the two stories is identical: the struggle of a rebellious soul to cope with bourgeois living. In "Song-cry", Brian Lazarus is never more than a cardboard cut-out tormented soul, so weak it is difficult not to feel contemptuous (you want to yell, "Get a grip on yourself"). But Howard, on the other hand, is an established, self-reliant character. His brush with mental illness is bound to be more affecting than Lazarus'.

The book starts with Howard emerging from his egg:

Note "Ted Sallis, consulting schizo" at the top. Ted Sallis is the scientist who became the Man-Thing. As for Howard, how can you not fall for someone with this way of describing their own birth?

Howard: Emergence! Big clucking deal! There I was in a bigger, more tepid blackness. So what?

Gerber now develops his theme, which is alienation. In "Song-cry", Lazarus was assailed by his own demons. Howard, though, is going to give us a lecture.

Howard: Now watch closely, kids. You're about to observe the process of socialization in action...mostly it's simple indoctrination, see? You're educated - largely informally, but nonetheless effectively - in a body of customs, mores, taboos. You learn not to yell 'Fire' in a crowded theatre - not to go 'Hubba-Hubba' at pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt - and most of all - you learn there's certain places you're supposed to tread lightly. One thing about indoctrination: some of us just don't take to it naturally.

And then we have this page:

"Kong Lomerate" - Gerber has a love of silly names (you wonder if Stan Lee ever realised Gerber had introduced a property developer called F.A. Schist). With the "CANCELLED" stamp, this is one of those rare moments when a story pulls back and says, "look, this is just a comic book." Used sparsely, as here, this is a good device, though it can do your head in.

Howard: Over time, of course, and after a succession of feather's-breadth escapes from the system, the strain begins to tell. In some, it evinces itself as anger, in others as self-doubt. For me, it was an overwhelming sadness...and utter apathy toward the very business of living. Outwardly, I'm sure it looked like cynicism - but a cynic's just a fallen idealist, right? Just a poor slob looking for any morsel of info that'll motivate him again.

This is Brian Lazarus through and through, but put much more deftly and sadly.

Howard then meets his girlfriend, Beverly.

Seeing a weary Howard traipsing back to the egg still makes me laugh out loud. But this is a troubling image: withdrawal from the world is a symptom of clinical depression.

Realising he's having a nightmare, Howard now meets Spider-Man.

Spider-Man: Listen, I brought you a present! Bury your beak in this, fella. If somebody'd given me a copy, I wouldn't be the wall-crawling mass of guilt I am today.
Howard: What is it - "Adam Bede" or "The Idiot"?
Spider-Man: Neither exactly.
Spider-Man gives Howard a copy of "When I say no I feel guilty - a guide to assertive behavior"
Howard: Aw, gwan, beat it! The last thing I need now is pop psychology, even if the title is germane to my situation.

Gerber, incidentally, writes Spider-Man dialogue better than a couple of dozen Spider-Man writers I could name.

Now Howard meets up with the equivalent of Lazarus' subconscious manifestations, some of his previous encounters:

This is so much more subtle than in "Song-cry": Lazarus was pulled apart by his demons, while Howard's are being mildly rude about him - "they weren't even taking me seriously".

Howard now moves on to discuss with Dr Strange (they were in Gerber's Defenders together) his problems with cultural conditioning and playing the role of hero - again echoing Lazarus' concerns. Then, following an attack by his arch-enemy, the Kidney Lady, Howard comes face to face with Canadian supervillain Le Beaver - "the only fight I'd ever walked out on - 'cause it was just too ludicrous", Howard plummets from Niagara Falls all the way down to hell, where his enemies await him. "I just hope I'm still dreaming - 'cause if this is for real, I'm going to get very depressed." And so it ends.

It's easy to review a bad comic. You point out its flaws, make some jokes and maybe some mildly unflattering comments about its author. But what do you say about a comic so good that it still enthralls you over twenty years after you first read it? In these years, Gerber was a writer absolutely at the top of his game, creating stories which could have come from nowhere but his head. And I know I tend to forget about artists, but this was Gene Colan at his most beautiful. There's a meme going around about putting your five favourite writers and artists together. I'm not even being slightly facetious when I say that it's already happened. Steve Gerber and Gene the Dean.

Was Howard the Duck the best comic ever? There are too many different comic genres for that to be a meaningful title, but...maybe.