Saturday, 3 March 2012

MMC - Extra Portions 1

Over the years, I've read, written or heard about thousands of comics and someone suggested that I do a column or two about things I'd recommend. Now, the thing is, I think he was talking about the here and now, but that would be a wee bit impossible, especially as I don't read comics any longer. So that kind of precludes everything that has happened since 2003...

That said, there have been a number of comics and series that I look back on fondly and here is a selection of stories I think you should check out. Whether they have stood the test of time is an unknown for me, only you can decide whether or not something I liked was actually a piece of shit and for others this might be a real jolt of nostalgia. Let's see, shall we?

Captain Britain - already covered in the main section, this Dave Thorpe, Alans Moore & Davis, story is arguably one of the best ongoing series ever to appear in a UK comic. Groundbreaking, emotive and very, very riveting; I shan't go about it, read the original entry in Part 47 of My Monthly Curse.

Daredevil - Everyone tends to talk about Frank Miller's first two spells on this Marvel series, but Ann Nocenti and a fledgling John Romita Junior turned this series, for a couple of years at least, into a complex mixture of minimalism meets philosophy meets despair. It was arguably the first comic that took a hero too far; reminiscent of the above Captain Britain story, it follows the fall and eventual resurfacing (not rise, by any understanding) of a man who doesn't seem to understand anything about his life and his surroundings any longer. Outstanding highlights include the fantastic A Beer With the Devil and a double-sized issue where DD gets his arse handed to him, repeatedly, by a group of second-rate bad guys who the blind hero would normally dispatch in seconds.

Towards the end of the run, the series got just plain weird with guest stars including the Silver Surfer, The Inhumans and what is essentially the main story about the fight between Mephisto and his son Blackheart. Nocenti stuck around for a while, but the replacements for Romita failed to elevate the appearance above mediocre, which subsequently made Nocenti's unusual themes lose their impact. However, the biggest crime was that Nocenti never got the chance to do much more in comics and that is also a big tragedy.

The Griffin - Dan Vado & Norm Felchle (unfortunate name, if you think about it) created a strange 6 part hybrid of Rebel Without a Cause, Superman and Alien Legion, with some thrash metal Muppets thrown in for good measure and a banana.

The story is simple - Matt Williams is a high school jock with limited future because of his crazy ways; one night while railing against society he is offered the chance of becoming a super powerful hero as long as he enlists for a superior race of aliens in their seemingly never ending war against their greatest foes and for a long time Matt is the champion and is committed to the cause above and beyond the expectations of his 'masters'. He has everything he could ever want, but essentially he is a prisoner, performing in wars that his keepers no longer have the ability to win. When he seems to win the war, Matt decides it's time he went home to see the people he left behind, so he goes AWOL and inadvertently sets into motion the possible destruction of Earth.

The art is stylised, the script kind of suggested that Vado had a bright future and it was neatly tied up with only the barest hint of a sequel, which never, to my knowledge happened and that makes this an excellent stand alone story to be enjoyed and, at times, savoured. Some of the twists and turns are not obvious and I'm still of the opinion it would make a quite brilliant action movie.

We3 - Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's contribution to this list is possibly the most recent thing I've read and fallen for. It is a truly heart-wrenching tale of cybernetic organisms - a dog, a cat and a rabbit and just kicks ass big time. This is Morrison at his simplistic best - no weird shit, no existential bollocks, just a damned good story with an uplifting ending, although the one fatality from our trio of heroes upset me because she was the real hero. If you love your animals, love a great action adventure and want a story that will stick with you for a long time, this has few rivals.

The Incredible Hulk - Peter David's first spell at the helm introduced us all to one of the definitive Hulks, well, actually several definitive Hulks, but let's not split hairs (or purple pants). With initially Todd McFarlane and then newcomer Dale Keown, David literally reinvented the green giant in such a way that probably no other comic character has been changed so drastically, yet kept total faith in Lee and Kirby's creation.

This was my favourite book for several years; the consistency was of the highest levels and Marvel had arguably the finest superhero writer of his era; David wrote sparkling and evocative stories that sometimes completely ignored history and made you wonder how come no one had ever thought about doing what he did. He was let down by Marvel's inability to manage themselves properly in the early 90s - they never seemed to realise that 95% of the people who bought the book was buying it for the writer; the extremely good artists they attracted only made it sumptuous eye candy; once they started to impose the artist du jour on the writer, cracks started to appear and the flow was lost. Gary Frank was a good addition to the art chores, but over a year of David's scripts being crucified by below average artists like Jan Duursema, meant that by the time the young English artist joined the team, you could tell that David was losing faith in his long term plan.

Crisis on Infinite Earths - by Marv Wolfman & George Perez. You could argue that this deserves no place on anyone's must read list, because it isn't really a story more of a long winded homage to bygone days. You could also argue that it created something DC never anticipated - a jumping OFF point, but it was pretty much the most ambitious idea ever attempted in modern comics.

I've talked about Crisis a lot over the years, because I love it. I love the pointless deaths; the heroic deaths, the ridiculously contrived situations, which evoked memories of a time when DC was much simpler to understand despite it being like a rat's maze of contradiction. DC seemed to realise that continuity was Marvel's big contribution to comics and pretty much its greatest asset and the only way they could hope to rival their young competitors was to reinvent their own universe and get rid of 50 years of stories that the fanboy editors of DC saw as the real hurdle to them re-establishing themselves as #1. But these guys grew up with these heroes, so they just couldn't start again, they had to give the die hard DC fans an ending of sorts.

It was poorly produced, suffered all manner of problems and ignored huge swathes of history because the powers that be wanted no change to Batman at all. At the time of Crisis, Batman was probably the only real competition Marvel had and DC editors felt that changing the character, the way they intended to with Superman, would be more detrimental to sales than stimulating. However, at the end of the series, we're treated to one of the most uplifting of ambiguous endings ever and an era had gone.

Detective Comics - Most people will cite The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke as defining Batman comics, but after the furore of the, to be honest pretty poor, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams issues, the character needed stimulating and in the mid-1970s the team of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin produced half a dozen or so issues that might have been as classic as other stories had DC not been plunged into a financial mess that almost sent them to the wall.

It's an era of DC that had a lot of shit, a big lot, and little stuck to anything, yet despite their problems they had two of the hottest artists of the time in Rogers and Michael Golden producing wonderful little stories which seemed light years away from the usual DC dross. I'm betting these have stood the test of time the worst, because of the era they were created; but I can't help think that if DC hadn't imploded, this team might have gone on to great things.

However, Englehart really struggled to stay a top writer; Rogers seemingly disappeared for years before returning with an almost unrecognisable style, to draw the Silver Surfer for Marvel, with Austin, who spent many years inking The X-Men and other top titles. Yet this era of Detective and the odd issue of Batman Family had stories that stood out like a sore thumb compared to most everything else being produced by anyone.

Fish Police - Steve Moncuse was an unknown and he returned to that level, but for a while Fish Police was the reason I returned to comics. It was bright, colourful, funny, refreshing and essentially a quite British styled series that lost its way when Moncuse decided to introduce a story to explain the comics origin. But the first 16 issues and Special are a wonder to behold, with at least one side-splitting moment in each and usually from a kind of breaking the 4th wall aside; such as when Gil, our hero who just wakes up one day as a police fish in an underwater world, ponders why there is a need for stairs.

It's colour-saturated noir for the most part, which eventually got lost in an exercise in ego massaging; but the first part of the story is just plain bonkers.

The Thing and The Hulk in Big Change - is a Marvel graphic novel by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson and is worth buying for the comedy than anything else, especially when Ben Grimm persuades his savage green companion to use reasoning rather than his fists to stop a fight, with results far more devastating than you could imagine.

Gumby's Winter Fun Special by Steve Purcell and Arthur Adams is still, possibly, one of the funniest things I have ever read and it still makes me chuckle even now. You don't get comics like this any more - full of cartoon characters, the devil, Santa Claus, moles, monsters, a journey to the centre of the Earth and everything else you can throw in and get away with. It is just 48 pages of utter madness and amazingly evocative of Art Clokey's original, but perhaps with a vat of LSD thrown in for good measure. Is especially worth checking out for the panel of Gumby and Pokey being carried around in buckets because it's too hot for them to be in their normal forms.

It was also one of the first things I ever saw Arthur Adams draw and frankly if you can't see the man's genius in this you have shit in your eyes.

Amazing Adventures #34 by Don McGregor* and P. Craig Russell was possibly my favourite comic of all time for many years. It looked good, read brilliantly and delivered the deaths of at least two major characters in a bloodthirsty and pointless manner. I had never read anything like it before and it belonged to a series that I had little or no time for before and sadly after.

Killraven was a character created out of the ashes of HG Wells War of the Worlds story, it was set in the near future and was Marvel's kind of version of Jack Kirby's Kamandi - it was about a band of freedom fighters trying to rest control of the world back from alien oppressors. This 'resistance' had pretty much been whupping the Martians' arses in most issues, but #34 was a game changer and amazingly (if you'll pardon the pun) was years ahead of its time.

The aliens decide to strike back and send an assassin charged with killing Killraven and his band of merry men. After killing two central characters with ease and seriously wounding another, our hero is left to fight the ruthless Martian killing machine and discovers to his dismay and anguish that the 'man' who killed his friends isn't a man at all but an unfeeling robot; so even when Killraven gains his revenge, all he can hear is the laughter from the robot that has decimated his family and life. It was a really shocking ending.

It left me slack-jawed in awe; it was so good I revisited the entire series and couldn't find much to endear it me, yet this one issue had more power, more shocks and more pathos in it than anything Marvel had ever done before and was the first comic I can recall that basically offered the example of the ultimate futility of war. It's worth checking out if you can actually find it and Russell's artwork has never been bettered.

* McGregor was one of the first creators I ever met in person and this set me on a path that was to bring me into contact with the group of people I wrote about in the main section - the ones who for a while made up Dez Skinn's entourage.

I'd pretty much been talking up the brilliance of Amazing #34 all the way back in the late 1970s, and I'd also been a big fan of his graphic novel A Remembrance of Threatening Green (which he produced with Marshall Rogers) and this had come to the attention of Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie who were helping organise the Bloomsbury Hotel Comic Convention. McGregor was one of the star guests and they needed a retrospective and fluff piece about the writer and I got asked to write it. I'm pretty sure what I submitted was a piece of crap, because they got someone else to do it at the last minute, but I was young and the disappointment didn't last for long - I'd expected a lot of rejection in my quest to write. As a result, the organisers gave me a guest pass and included my name in the Special Staff index and I got to meet McGregor, talk to him and basically tell him that I'd written the original article on him but it had not seen print. He was a strange man and I never really took to him.

However, George Perez, who I also met at the same event, proved to be a great guy and I still have a Vision sketch he did me. Had it been 30 years later, I have no doubt that because of the Internet I would have done McGregor justice and also built up a relationship with Perez, who, at the time, was one of hottest properties in comics art.

With hindsight, this might have been the first real opportunity I had of breaking into that clique and I blew it because I had not paid attention in English lessons enough. I had got to a level at school where I knew that I was a more ... exciting writer than my peers; some of my stories and poems had teachers scratching their heads in disbelief that the shit who did nothing but fuck about in class could produce such good, if grammatically awful, stories. So subsequently, when people were learning about verbs, adjectives, syntax, and all those important things you need for the future I'd set myself, I was sitting at the back of the class flicking bogeys at the nerds and acting like a chimpanzee.

This was never more acute than when I dug out the first novel I ever wrote, back in 1982. It was done on a typewriter, word processors were the thing of science fiction at the time, and being a lazy bastard, if I went wrong I attempted to right the wrong rather than scrapping pages and have to retype them. So when I sat in the loft, flicking through the pages, I wondered why on Earth I'd kept the thing. It was, for the most part, unbelievably awful, but it was 200 fullscap pages of single spaced type and I'd had an idea, started it, done the middle and finished it by the time I was not yet 21. If nothing else, that made me proud. What also made me feel slightly better about this original manuscript was that, in places, it showed the true potential my teachers had seen. Yes, it was full of apostrophes in the wrong place, bad sentence structure, dangling prepositions and split infinities. In places it read like a drunken man's rant and in others it made absolutely no sense at all, like I'd forgotten how to write in English, but had failed to notice it on the page (and proving the theory that you type what you think you've typed rather than what you have actually typed).

Yet, in places it absolutely rocked and I sat, slightly amazed, at the 10% of it that showed I had potential. I attempted to rewrite it in 2008 and got about 400 words into it before I realised that it didn't do anything for me and the time to write or revisit it had passed. I also, with hindsight, learned something about the people who read your work; three people read The Future, a tale about a boy with the power of God, the girl he loved and a mentally retarded (that term was still okay to use in 1982) serial killer. Two of the people were friends who raved about it, but they knew me and probably were impressed that I could write something so big and the other person was my old English teacher, who incredibly skilfully managed to avoid saying anything about it that she thought might upset me; but the truth of the matter was, she didn't need to tell me that it was shit, I realised that all by myself.

Next time: the rest of my recommended list, plus some other guff.

1 comment:

  1. Annie Nocenti's back.

    Marshall Rogers couldn't draw to save his life, even if he had one anymore.

    DC and jumping-off points: they seem determined to keep offering the chance to walk away; August 2011 was a pretty big one.

    If you've binned your copy of Big Change and want a replacement, bell me.

    Oh, and well done for including We3, no matter how much love it gets that book remains underrated.