Saturday, 30 October 2010

And So, Farewell!

Most every Monday from next week onwards, as long as my subscription copies arrive, I'll be posting a review of the new editions of both 2000 ad and the Megazine on my other blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics. I hope anyone who's found something of interest in the pieces which have been published here will consider dropping in there at some time in the future. But this blog will be closing down from today. For awhile, I'll post the new weekly pieces here after I've put them up on TooBusy, with the comments disabled on ThatRemindsMeOfThis, but there'll be nothing new published here from now on.

I'm tremendously grateful to everyone who has on occasion dropped in on this blog. Thank you for popping over. It's been an absolute privilege to have you visit.

I can't say how much I appreciate the comments that some folks have been so kind as to leave. If I were to list names, it'd make it seem as if I thought those good people were part of the story of this blog, but of course, this blog was just an infinitesimally tiny part of theirs. What's more, I'm absolutely honoured that that was so.

Finally, for whatever little it's worth, my gratitude and sincere admiration is owed to the creators who've been so good as to leave a comment here, who've Twittered a gracious word or posted a link or mentioned the blog in a podcast and suchlike. To write your names would be to namedrop, and your tolerance and support, to whatever much-appreciated degree, shouldn't be turned into an advert for this blog's once-existence. Thank you very much for being so kind.

A splendid time is wished from me to everyone who's reached this last line in this last entry on this little blog, of which I find I've been very fond. I shall miss it.

Thank you and good night!


Wednesday, 13 October 2010

How Dirty Frank Won My Heart:- Rob Williams & D'Israeli's "Low-Life" In 2000 ad Prog 1706


Like a man who's survived all that fuss with the red and green lenses and is finally presented with an optician's prescription which makes the world look far clearer than it'd been for a long while before, the seventh chapter of "Hostile Takeover" by Rob Williams and D'Israeli provided this now-happy reader with three moments that've transformed the serial from being less than the sum of its parts into a convincingly beguiling tragi-comedy.


It was laughing at the panel to be found at 4.2 - below - that made me realise I was changing my mind about "Low Life". And it was a great howl of a laugh, actually, the kind of unexpected and joyous whoop that marks a change of heart if not yet opinion, because no story that's quite as funny as that in part can be entirely disregarded as a whole.

It was a laugh rooted in the incongruity of Dirty Frank rolling off a brilliant punchline immediately after a panel depicting a gruesome massacre, a bloody business which was instantly revealed as the straight man for Frank's gag as much as a grisly plot-point in its own right. And just as the fact of the massacre set up the black comedy of Dirty Frank's joke, so does his apparent buffoonery provide the comic-book jaded reader with a means to engage with the butchery. After all, mass-killings are far, far more prevalent than everyday kindnesses in comic books, and as a consequence the slaughter of all those dubious gentlemen from the East is unlikely to move an audience more familiar with comic book bloodshed than comic book kisses. But by grounding Dirty Frank's outburst in humour, in the reader's grinding experiences of Twenty-First century air-travel, the audience is elbowed out of the banal business of another bloody scene of future butchery. Instead, memories of the casual callousnesses of budget airlines compels a strange and sideways measure of sympathy for the victims of the Judges' execution squad; we've not been sprayed with bullets, or anything in any way comparable to that fate, of course, but it is possible at a not-too-considerable stretch to imagine those cheap-fare companies joking about how such a problem-solving strategy as machine-gun fire might resolve their never-ending struggle to dehumanise their wretched customers. As Mr Williams has Dirty Frank say;

"Heavy Firepower! Murder! Screams! The culling of the innocents!" (Beat: new speech balloon) "Economy class at its natural solution!"

Well, it is, isn't it, and for the first time I was convinced that Frank was worth listening to, that he was more than merely a vehicle for some rather sad outsider humour. His ludicrous cry of "Gott In Himmell!", for example, issued at his first sight of the bloodbath, only makes the whole business more amusing as well as more shocking. More amusing, because Dirty Frank is revealed as man who's so disordered he's reduced to expressing himself as an SS officer stereotype from a Sixties war comic, and more shocking, because he's the only character on view who can make the Mega City One of 2132 ad as affecting for us as any human enterprise should be for a reader.

Or to put it another way, he's the Fool, the audience's co-conspirator, who knows what he can't express and who expresses it clearly to the gallery, who's too disordered and too wise in his madness to inhabit his world without revealing its hypocrisies and its sufferings too, and who stands for "us" in the midst of all of those who belong to "them".

Which is not, I'd contend, as a reader new to Dirty Frank and "Low-Life", a role he's been effectively fulfilling in "Hostile Takeover" up until this point. Until now, he's just been a fool amongst many others, not The Fool, more pronounced in his foolishness than his fellows but hardly a character that might be used to illustrate Fo's belief that "Comedy makes the subversion of the existing state of affairs possible."

For in truth, Dirty Frank has come across too often in "Hostile Takeover" as a gelded, disordered eccentric used mainly to deliver up drollery, as if mental disorder was funny in itself, and the strip's suffered for it.


Of course, a joke's just a joke, and even a well executed one doesn't of itself bring a comic strip into focus and make it function as it might. But then, that single joke isn't the only element of "Hostile Takeover" that helps ground the story and compensate for whatever confusion and underachievement has come before. For this week has also brought with it the emergence of Dirty Frank as a point-of-view character who's more than a confused and rather emasculated bystander. Rather than being a baffled and rather piteously peripheralised figure, Frank is here shown both taking the lead and grasping truths that his more typical fellows can't. In that, he's more than just the outsider who can communicate the meaning of his world humorously to us in ways denied to the other citizens of 2132 ad. He's also starting to fulfil the role of the knight errant, and far more a Chandleresque protagonist than a Cervantian one too, and so now he's become our hero as well as our representative in the strip.

It's a point that can be illustrated at 7.2.5, where our disordered hero is shown being tailed by several of his fellow oddities from the Wally Squad. There we're at last shown in clear focus that, despite his mental infirmity, Frank has skills which his fellows lack beyond his unquestioned bravery, dedication to the job, and unintended predeliction for quipping. Alone as he is in the sensory overload of a Big Meg street, Dirty Frank has the capacity to focus his attention upon details which escape all of those around him. He can spot and categorise the corruption that's escaped the unthinking observers, that hidden and unpleasant truth that the more respectable and supposedly sane members of society can't. Indeed, even his fellow members of the Wally Squad can't fully grasp what he perceives and processes. "Why does Thora want is following Frankie anyway?" asks Judge Coil at 1:3, "Aside for the obvious reason: to observe a complete lunatic at large in order to avoid eventually becoming like him?" But Thora, and presumably those lined up with her, know that Frank's a more substantial man than Coil suspects, a truth that's evidenced by the "complete lunatic"'s private investigations.

And if he's at his lowest ebb by the last page of this tale, there's also the sense that our Frank's got everything he'll need to close this matter successfully. He's his skills, his conscience, his unconscious ironic distance, and now, through daring and sacrifice, he's earned his chance to deal with the dragon in her lair.


So, Dirty Frank's now more precisely placed as our representative in 2132 ad, and he's explicitly established with the unfamiliar reader as a protagonist of some substance. More than just a loyal if mind-battered foot-soldier, he's the Detective Fool, and the balance of the strip has shifted from being a rather muddled narrative to one in which Frank is placed centre-front and worthy of being there. And, in combination with those two components, there's a third matter to be found in "Hostile Takeover: Part Seven" which defines Dirty Frank as a figure of greater substance than he previously seemed; his untypical and uncompromising integrity. "These are Dirty Frank's comrades of longstanding. Justice should be their myopic goal", Frank records in his "case notes" at 2:5, and, as a result of displaying such probity, he's transformed into Serpico and Avila and Ciello, "our" man against all of "them". Before he was one of a gang, or he seemed to be, and now he appears to be the only one capable of stopping his "comrades" from the worst of crimes. And though there's a great deal of reason to doubt whether Thora's game is as nefarious as it's seeming at the moment, it's effectively Dirty Frank against everyone else, which of course marks him out as the last honest gunslinger in town.

In truth, he's a believer, a man committed to his service and its principles, clear-minded in the terms of his duty even as he's somewhat confused as to everything else. The very presence of that word "comrades" in his notes reveals both his naive integrity and his vulnerability, his desperate need to trust those around him just as he surely can't rely on Mega City One's citizenry itself. And regardless of what I might think of the fact and principles of the Judicial State, the expression of Frank's devotion to his duty while others fatally betray their comrades lends him an absolute dignity that ennobles the character and ensures that I'll be reading carefully next week.


It's not that Dirty Frank should have by necessity stood revealed as "Hostile Takeover"'s sole apparent hero from the tale's first chapter, strong and competent and shiningly decent. After all, heroes need to be confused, and sidelined, and rendered helpless, so that the pleasure of their fightback and the catharsis of their victory is intensified. But this story was confused in itself, and particularly for the new reader, as we've discussed before, and the need for a clear heroic centre to the tale increased as "Hostile Takeover" became more challenging and opaque. After all, if a plot is slippery and hard to make sense of, an engaged and sympathetic point-of-view protagonist gives the reader something to hold onto, as any who love the occasional mystery or thriller can testify. But to provide a tale without either clear plot or straight-forward protagonist when chapters are being doled out in tiny weekly installments is to risk losing both the momentum of the tale and the enthusiasm of the reader.

But a Dirty Frank who's suddenly active, if somewhat beaten-up, and following his own agenda, who's uniquely competent and fiercely honourable, who's Serpico-ised to the degree he has no allies at all, and who's a Fool that speaks for us all rather than a fool in his undies eating popcorn, is a character that serves to lock every other narrative component securely and satisfyingly around him. After all, we'll put up with any degree of confusion if the likes of a Marlowe or a Shardlake or a Rebus is there at the centre of things, or actively searching for the centre of things.

Up until this week, Dirty Frank has seemed placed more at the edge of events than the heart of the tale itself, and perhaps that's where he'll be when next Saturday rolls around. But for the moment, "Hostile Takeover" seems like his story rather than a series of plots occuring to a large number of characters which will, eventually, be tied together in one fashion or another, and the tale is all the stronger for being more obviously that of Dirty Frank's.


Monday, 11 October 2010

"But, Why?" :- Some Concerns From The Blogging Margins Concerning 2000 AD prog 1706


What is this thing, this "2000 ad", that it should sold using the cover to this week's issue? What is its target audience, and how might they be attracted by this latest in a rarely-interrupted sequence of bizarrely unenticing covers?

What other science-fiction adventure comic, full of werewolves and zombies, future-cops and space-opera pulp shenanigans would so consistently present itself to the world with such a lack of commercial ambition, such an absence of zest and zip, such a strange counter-intuitive passivity where the business is surely the grabbing of the reader by the throat while insisting that they must now, right now, read this comic!

Indeed, what mainstream science fiction product from any medium fighting for its life in today's marketplace would consistently position images such as the above on its cover? After all, it's not just this is a relatively limp, if pleasant and competently-executed, painting, it's also that it doesn't even accurately describe what's inside the prog itself.


What is it that this cover is telling the reader to expect from the interior of this comic? Well, there's a castle, a blasted heath, a ghostly and yet handsome head looking fondly on, a windswept and heart-heavy man in 19th century dress aiming a gun; why, it's a gay Gothic romance about to end in tragedy! (Perhaps the owner of t'mill is about to be shot for letting the floating head die when he tried to protect his ancestral land from the encroachment of industrialisation?) And though I really would buy a gay comic book Gothic romance tragedy, I really would, for its audacity and its difference as well as its capacity to annoy the homophobic irritants of this world, a gay Gothic romance is not what awaits the reader herein.

Perhaps, the thought occurs, this cover is a homage to those strange girls comics which once haunted the newstands, The Buntys and Mistys, the contents of which some kind folks have been good enough to explain to me on this very site. But, then, why would anybody do that? Why would an editorial team sign off on a cover that hearkened back to a genre which died long ago for want of readers? Surely that would be evidence of the kind of mouth-swallowing-tail inter-textuality which marks a decadent and commercially unambitious enterprise?


It is, I fully recognise, quite a lovely design in many wistful and nostalgic ways, but it does seem to be the product of a mentality which has abandoned the business of catching the eye and quickening the pulse of the casual buyer, given that the only hint of action is buried at the bottom left-hand corner of the piece, the area of a cover most likely, I'd've thought, to be most obscured on a rack or shelf.

It's a strange business, this cover. The chap at bottom-left isn't even immediately identifiable as Dante, for he looks older and bereft of humour and dash, so it's obvious that the cover isn't aimed at diehard fans who know what they like and insist on getting what they recognise. And yet, the cover is so locked into a long-dead romance genre that it's hardly reaching out to anyone beyond the hardcore reader who'll buy the comic regardless of what's on the front of it.

In essence, it's neither directly targeting the established fanbase nor designed to attract a new one, and it seems instead to exist in a strange non-commercial space where the self-referential objet d'art might exist and not prosper.


But what most concerns me is that the cover seems to be not only disconnected from potential audiences, but from the content and indeed traditions of 2000 ad. For surely the pages of "The Master Of Kronstadt: part 2" herein contained more than enough arresting, exciting and quite frankly absurd images for the least engaging of artists to create a eye-shocking and exciting cover from. (*1)

Consider; there's a beautiful blond vampire in military jodhpurs who's trying to bite to death a science-fiction villain with heat-projecting powers while one-pilot laser-firing bombers attack a castle between two towers of which Dante is swinging, as Dante of course would, to save the day!

*1:- that's no coded slight directed at Mr Davis and his art, which I've consistently expressed a strong liking for within these entries.


Now, what is going on here, that such an incredible source of quite frankly fun imagery is being ignored for a cover which can't even gather the force to portray the antagonist as anything other than rather handsome and ghosty in a dead Mr Darcy way? (You'd never guess that that apparition of a face represents the bad guy of the piece, would you?) Is it that folks are ashamed or even ignorant of the magazine's pulp roots, and of the vigour that a fusion of low culture and high ambition generates? Has research indicated that open conflict or an accurate reflection of the comic's contents serves as a purchasing turn-off? Is the bottom left corner of a page really the place to put the only tepid hint of threat on a cover? For, to be frank, this is just the latest in a fairly long, rarely interrupted sequence of covers which would be pretentious if they weren't so lacking in ambition and content and verve.

It's a science-fiction adventure comic book, this 2000 ad. If it's Dante's turn for a cover, I'd say that it'd be a good idea to have;

(1) an immediately recognisable Dante,
(2) an eye-catching and arresting design which doesn't have such a subdued pallet,
(3) a beautiful uniformed and teethsome vampire, a cruel heat-firing villain and our hero half-flying to the rescue,
(4) and a laser-firing plane and exploding castle too.

Because the sense of a comic book which has abandoned the search for casual buyers and indeed much of its ambition and subversive daring shines dully off a great many of these recent covers. It's as if nobody wants to reach out, laugh heartily, demand the reader's attention and reaffirm that some kinetic and profane enterprise is still being carried through here.

For it's not that the illustration isn't competent. Of course it is. It's just dull compared to the form and content that might be there, and it feels weary as well as stylish, unnecessary as well as considered, and irrelevant rather than vital. It belongs in a coffee-table book where gifted artists pay their respects to 2000 ad by imagining what the comic would have been like if it'd been a western, or a crime book, or, yes, a gay and rather fey Gothic romance.


After a year of psychopaths torturing and killing people in small rooms, of Maybe and Skinner and the remarkably predictable if at times entertaining behaviour of their breed, now we have, oh dear, another apparent psychopath torturing people in a small room in "Judge Dredd". Worse yet, for the sake of the reader who's wearily familiar with the whole trick, here we have another bad guy strapping down and torturing a Judge, which also happened, oh, exactly two weeks ago. In fact, it was just two weeks ago that we were also shown Dredd taking responsibility for a Cadet too, meaning that the various rushes of deja vu that are jumping me at this moment are struggling to do anything more profound than baffle their victim with their many competing cries for attention.

And it doesn't matter if next week shows that everything isn't as we think it may be, because the effect of a cliffhanger promising more of the same after so much more of the same is to neuter the mind's ability to want to engage with what's coming. And this is especially so after last week's tale by AL Ewing, which shockingly didn't actually have one of these damn psychopathic villains so much as a group of typical Big Meg citizens behaving, in a finely exaggerated way, as typical people do, with all the jealousy, ambition, desire, and stupidity of the unpsychopathic life. Once, the key business of "Judge Dredd" was to show how the world imposed by the Judges upon the ordinary woman and man was taking typical human frailties and intensifying them even as Dredd and his breed claimed they were protecting law and order. Now we're so often away from the realm of the typical and so regularly lost in the well-worn paths of the pathological that, quite frankly, Judge Dredd's adventures are becoming, whisper it, somewhat boring.


Thursday, 7 October 2010

Six Things I'd Like To See Happen In "Age Of The Wolf"


I'd like to see Rowan develop more of a substantial and individual personality. It's laudable and brave to create and present a lead character who, beyond an untypical degree of skill on a motorbike, is as everyday and unremarkable as most of us out here in the real world are. But Rowan is so very, very average that she's very, very uninteresting, and giving her magical powers doesn't of itself make her any more compelling a character. She's passive unless she's forced to act, she seems to lack an interior life, she has no apparent desires or ambitions, and she's not spoken a single witty line or expressed one out-of-the-ordinary idea in the six chapters we've known her. As a consequence, it's particularly difficult to empathise with her character or sympathise with her situation.


I like to see the individual chapters of "Age Of The Wolf" constructed so that there's a more substantial change of mood both within them and between them. At the moment, disaster follows disaster without any intervening change of pace or mood except for the fact that events keep becoming bleaker and more destructive. In truth, there's only two types of scenes that we've seen in the 30 or so pages that've been printed so far. In the first, Rowan doesn't understand what's happening to her, and she's passive. She might be confused or upset, comforting a friend, talking to a stranger or weeping before her dead mother, but she's essentially an uninspiring bystander. In the second, she's running away from wolves or running towards an island, which at least is an active business, but it's not an inspiring one, because there's a limit to how interesting a chasing wolf can be when it can't ever win, or a beckoning island when we've little idea of what's waiting there.

I'd like to see moments of humour as well as those of terror, respite and reflection as well as escalation and fear, victory as well as defeat, and, particularly, some moments of light to break up all that darkness.


I'd like to see "Age Of The Wolf" evolve away from being the comic book equivalent of a chase movie. For there's a sense that the reader is simply watching a woman running away from a wolf towards an island, and there's little to make us think that Rowan won't survive the pursuit, give or take a hand or two. After all, there's a limit to how many times a big wolf can be thwarted before the wolf itself seems like an embarrassment rather than a menace, and after 6 episodes, the business of always running and yet somehow never being caught has become rather wearing.


If Rowan would benefit from being fleshed out and made more interesting, then the tale as a whole could do with a supporting cast beyond the similarly flat Pete. The brief appearance of Rowan's whinging, deceased Mother provided some other focus of attention, though it can hardly be said that she was a character so captivating that the readership might long to see her again. She was, in truth and I believe by intent, thoroughly irritating, and it's to be hoped that the big bad baddie of this tale isn't just effectively a self-involved and uncaring middle-class sitcom mother.

And given that all we have to represent the forces of disorder are Rowan's mum and a mute and conspicuously ineffective wolf, the introduction of some more compelling antagonists would greatly excite the interest, just as Rowan as a heroine would benefit from some friends and allies who were more engaging than the one-note, London-Eye-climbing Pete.


This has been an end of the world story where so few people are on show that the battle seems already lost. It would very much help to get a sense that life beyond Rowan and Pete is still extant and, in particular, worth worrying about. The little we've seen of the survivors so far has left them seeming both emasculated and unworthy of making it through this catastrophe, which is a shame, because if we can't care for the mass of the victims in a tragedy, we can't care for their world or the possibility that it might one day be restored.


It would very much help this reader if each individual chapter of "Age Of The Wolf" was constructed in a way that was more deliberately calculated to compel the audience's attention. For example, the key final panels on each page in Chapter 6 are remarkably uninvolving and unenticing. The trick of an effective page turner, of course, is that it presents an enigma of some sort within the context of a scene that's interesting in itself. But consider, for example, the final panel of page one, where we're shown two faces looking fearful, but we're not provided with any clue about what they're frightened about. Two frightened people in an already fraught situation doesn't constitute an enigma so much as business as usual, and that panel required more than that to inspire the reader to turn the page with some alacrity.

Page five, for one, does at least end on a genuine enigma, but it's a mystery that's diluted by the fact that the reader can have no idea what's happening. Blood seems to be causing flowers to grow, but is it the blood from the wolf's mouth or from Rowan's stump that's doing this? And why might we be interested in flowers growing from blood, when we've been given not a hint of why this might be important? It's as if we're supposed to be fascinated in a strange phenomena simply because it's strange, but the reader needs more information in order to care about the likes of fast-growing flowers, because, in themselves, they're just not that interesting a chapter-closing incident.


Friday, 1 October 2010

The Valiant Hypocrites & The Hopeless Protagonists: Heroes Pretending To Be Heroes, Or Not, in 2000AD Prog 1704


It's an odd thought, or at least it is to me, to realise that the comic book heroes I turn to for my mindless escapism these days are no more in charge of their own lives than I am mine. I have no idea how I managed to miss that fact. I'd always assumed that the stories of wish fulfillment that I was willingly retreating into were in truth presenting some considerable measure of my wishes being fulfilled. But it turns out that I seem like to enjoy reading about characters who are incredibly frustrated, disappointed in what they've become, unhappy at their life's work, and compelled by duty to pretend to be someone somewhat different from themselves in order to live up to the expectations and needs of others.

Bloody Hell. What am I wasting my money on with my 2000AD subscription? I might as well just take photographs of my own life, paste them up on the 'puter and pretend that what I'm looking at is a heroic enterprise worthy of being immortalised in a comic strip rather than a life spent stumbling and plodding along just like everyone else's.

2."Defoe: A Murder Of Angels, Part 5" writer: Pat Mills, artist: Leigh Gallagher

I. "Who else would want the job but people like us? The lowest of the low." asks Defoe of his comrades this week (3:6-7) as they mow down the front rows of the endless hordes of levitating zombies. Even given my limited experience of the potato-skulled ex-Roundhead, it does seem safe to conclude that he's not just unhappy in his work, but in every other aspect of his life as well, if life he has away from the zombie-killing and the occasional pint.

It's not simply those damn zombies, or even the fact that he's surrounded by allies that he either doesn't trust, or respect, or both. It's not even the fact that he's reduced, in his attempts to save one little corner of the world from the undead, to sweet-talking an alcoholic magician with offers of free beer in return for the necessary assistance which will keep him alive. Most of us are surrounded to one degree or another by poltroons and knaves, and if we don't exactly have to bargain alcohol with the Ravenmaster, there's something of the sort going on with some influential individual or other out there "among them English", as Eli Lapp says to John Book at the end of "Witness". But Defoe is triple-burdened, locked in such a state of physical exhaustion and spiritual malaise that even his less-disastrous hours look far, far worse than most of our most challenging ones. Alienated by the natural order of the world and it's "overwhelming majority" of "fools", broken by the tragic loss of his family, and dismayed by the absence of the Leveller's vision of a democratic and republican England, Defoe would still be a miserable and bitter man even were every single zombie to disappear from England in the space between his next two pistol shots.

II. Time was when heroes had the autonomy to pick and choose their fights, and indeed much of what they did with their free-time too. At worst, most of even the anti-heroes had a cause to serve and be forced to salute to which the reader if not the characters themselves might believe in. But Defoe has nothing to live for except the business of killing the zombies and those who seek to profit from them. Zombie-killing is a less a mark of heroism for his character than the only thing he's got left to do that might profitably fill his hours. It's closer to a hobby in some ways than it is a mission, for what else would he do? It's a business that at times blots out the thoughts of what once was and what'll never be for him. Certainly, his isn't a fate which will lead to him sharing, with either enthusiasm or resignation, the lives of the better sort who find privilege in the England of Kings, those "painters, librarians and ladies companions" (3.5), for it's not as if Defoe has embarked upon a career that will advance his own interests into the rulling class or its flatterers.

He's where he is because he's where he is. There's not really anywhere else for him to go.

III. Of course, the old Leveller would never want to be anywhere other than standing with the lowest of the low, for what else are the most beloved of the Lord and worthy of England? Defoe's where he is because it's where he believes he deserves to be, and where no doubt he feels he ought to be too. But it's a strangely helpless place to find a comic-book hero, with no hope, damn little power, and no status quo to restore or kingdom of justice and promise to create beyond his own temporary survival. Most other characters in 2000AD have at least a cause to believe in and to actively serve, and even, in the case of the various Judges, a State to participate in. But Defoe doesn't seem to be a man with anything much to serve at all, not even in the terms of his own standards and conscience. He's just an individual like so many out here in the real world, serving his time, filling his hours, doing what he can as bravely as he might, and persevering because that's what people do. In that, he's not much of a traditional hero at all, and for a comic book lead placed in what appears at first glance to be the role of line-leading protagonist, he's as emasculated in his world as most of us are in ours.


"Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down."


The received explanation for the relative unpopularity today of the traditionally square-jawed and decent-minded breed of action hero, from Dan Dare to Superman, is that the audience no longer believes in the ideals of a peaceful and polite world which those characters represent. I wonder if that's so. Perhaps it's not that we don't believe in truth, justice and whatever national way you care to mention, but that we can't delude ourselves in these days that any political system would permit us to act according to those more innocent beliefs. It's not that we've lost our simple-hearted, and perhaps simple-minded, faith in what might once have been labelled "goodness", but that we've gained the knowledge that states are founded upon hypocrisy and compromise and stupidity, realism and factionalism and self-interest, and that if Mr Deeds does ever indeed go to town, he'll either ends up corrupted or heading home with a heart saturated with disillusionment.

Kal-El and Colonel Dare aren't too good for us, perhaps, but they may be too good for any version of the world that we can strain to believe in.

What a perfect symbol, therefore, for such a state of pragmatic and principled pessimism is Defoe, a man that has tried his very best to be a good husband, a good father, a responsible democrat, and a loyal man of God, and who's now reduced to the business of striving not to get eaten by zombies.

"Nikolai Dante: City Of The Damned, Part 5" writer: Robbie Morrison, artist: Simon Fraser

I. It's this previously-unrecognised preference for the politically powerless hero that leads me, at least in part, to hope that Nikolai Dante hasn't transformed himself from broken drunkard to hero of the people and the single-handed winner of wars in the space of around 5 pages over the past 2 episodes of "City Of The Dammed". For if Dante has just been a little down-in-the-mouth for the last few chapters, and if he's capable of rousing himself back to full psychological health through the means of a few frowns from his mother and the pained suffering of his ex-comrades, then he's obviously not been suffering to the degree that it had seemed. In fact, if he can knit himself together that quickly and that effectively, then I'm less impressed by his marvellously heroic return than I am contemptuous of his bar-room self-indulgence over the past few months. No trauma that can be shaken off so completely can be considered to have been truly traumatic, unless the assault on Vladivostok just happened to coincide with the end of Dante's period of psychological instability, a happenstance too fragile in its unlikelihood to sit easily with this reader at least.

II. Of course, I realise that it's most likely that Dante's cry of being "too cool to kill" is intended to mark the return of the heroic Nikolai to the fullest measure of his former state-humbling powers, but I do hope not. Perhaps I'm so used to sympathising with heroes that are victims of their lives, prisoners of their own fate, that I can't switch the mental gears to cope with a character who can overcome the worst of disasters with a few months off boozing, a touch of guilt-tempered determination and a considerable slice of derring-do. Or perhaps I can't believe in a man who can practically single-handedly charge and collapse lines of laser rifles, who can, in a high-tech world, turn battles through his individual martial valour. For although Nikolai Dante is by his very design intended as a throwback to a more innocent tradition, of Flynn and Fairbanks Jr, there's something somewhat distasteful about the idea of a man who is indeed "too cool to kill!". For if we're supposed to care about the dangers inherent in the fighting experienced by Dante and his cast, then we need to believe that there's some danger there rather than an insubstantial bun-fight. And if we've retreated all the way back to the simple narrative physics that presents us with the equation "ND (our man) + B (Bravery) + RC (The right cause) = V (victory)", then we've travelled back to the times when simply being one of us and in possession of a pair of testicles was the same as being invulnerable and virtuous.

III. It's certainly an uncomfortable business, to be reading of Dante's life-preserving coolness while watching crowds of previously hopeless female warriors cheering him on. Couldn't one of them have been so brave, so cool, perhaps? After all, Dante has no high-tech protection anymore, so what does protect him from death on the battlefield that couldn't protect any other character?

Why should we believe that this man can turn battles simply by his presence, by his idiot habit of charging headlong into lines of ray-gun wielding professional soldiers?

It's not just a daft business, this rot about war being some great big sport for the bravest man to turn. It's an untruth that encourages the thought that victory goes to the daring and good and the noble of blood, and defeat to the unworthy and timid and common, and it's the kind of thinking that I'd have thought would have long disappeared from our comic books.

For if "Nikolai Dante" is a strip which wants us to be moved by Dante's psychological collapse, and to take his enemies seriously as they murder their way across Vladisvostk, then it also has to take the business of war seriously too. Otherwise, the mental despair seems as thin and sentimentally cheap as the fighting does, and the whole often-entrancing confection collapses under its own lack of weight.

III. But perhaps there's hope that "City Of The Damned" is as complex and brutal as Dante has often been as a strip this year. Perhaps the panel of Dante whipping the bad guy's head into pulp is telling us something about our hero's state of mind? Could it be that his bravery is a forced and necessary bravado, and might the unpleasant violence applied to the execution of Ushakov be a measure of Dante's despair rather than his war-winning masculinity?

Because a bare-chested, unbloodied and battle-turning Dante, a hero simply because he's a hero too cool to kill, simply reflects that rather distasteful myth that war is won by playground daring and goodness, but a Dante who's pretending to be heroic, or who's been so brutalised himself that he's lost his moral core, and even his desire to take care of himself, would be a far more interesting figure.

That Dante would be a man of and for our times too, trapped at the top of an embattled hierarchy just as Defoe is trapped at the bottom of his, trying to win something worthwhile from an impossible situation while struggling to retain a measure of his faith while doing so.

Like we do, in our own little and mostly unremakable ways.


Tuesday, 28 September 2010

2000AD 1704 & "Iron Man: The Movie"; How Judge Dredd & James Rhodes Didn't Speak Their Mind & Were All The More Moving Because Of It


Every once in a while I'll catch the first of Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" films as it fills up the slack hours of the Sky Movies schedule. Mostly, I'll let it play with the sound turned low and my attention focused elsewhere, for I've little interest in watching the punch-ups for a sixth or seventh time, while the scenes under the mountains of Afghanistan always stuck me as overly-worthy. In fact, for all I'd argue that "Iron Man" is one of the finest superhero movies ever, if not the finest, it's only the character moments that I can still watch over and over again. Pepper Potts electrocuting Stark as she cack-handedly inserts a new artificial heart into him, insisting that he never asks that of her again, and being told in return that Tony has no-one else he can turn to. Stark himself glad-handing the military brass as his weapons flatten the landscape of a nation which will soon come very, very close to bearing his unmarked grave. And my favourite scene, and possibly the single most touching and yet appropriately underplayed moment in any superhero movie that I can think of, wherein Tony Stark is finally rescued from the desert he fled into when escaping captivity. It's a scene completely stolen by Terrence Howard as James Rhodes, who, as Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark collapses in exhaustion to his knees, places a single and unshowy arm protectively round his friend's shoulder and, without misty eyes or sentimental expression, tells Stark;

"Next time you ride with me, alright?"

It's a scene I adore, a scene that I get misty-eyed and sentimental over every time, because it tells the viewer everything they'd ever need to know about the friendship between these two characters, and yet it doesn't do anything as banal or wearing as state its case directly or expressing its meaning explicitly. Rhodes may be declaring his love for Stark, but he's not doing anything as unlikely and overbearing as saying so. What's more, he's alluding to all the depth of fondness that his military heart can't easily express within an everyday statement which establishes very clearly how he views the relationship between the two men. For there's no doubt that he respects Stark as a genius, but he's aware that his friend is also a dilettante and a narcissist, and Rhodes carries an absolute conviction that Stark needs a strong self-disciplined man who's extremely good with very big guns to protect him. When it comes to matters of the intellect, Rhodes may well on occasion defer to Stark, but in any situation more threatening than the purchasing of breakfast in a suburban Burger King, Rhodes regards himself as the alpha male. It's his job to look after Tony, it's a responsibility he assumes without qualification, and he intends to keep the man away from harm as much as he can do from now on.

In fact, there's the strong sense that Rhodes considers Stark something of an idiot, that he's caught between a long-experienced frustration with Stark and an emasculating anger at the situation his friend has become embroiled in. There's that shadow of a weary father boiling down all the various rules of what to do here and what not to do there into a simple, forceful statement that might, just might, keep the little tyke before him out of trouble for a day or two more;

"Next time you ride with me, alright?"

Yet in his restraint, we're also being told that this is a man for whom emotions aren't easily recognised or expressed, and because of that, the very fact that he's so awkwardly communicating himself physically as well as through something of a wisecrack becomes all the more moving. And it's such an incredibly succinct statement of the relationship between the two men that it's remarkable that Marvel Comics haven't noticed how ably it defines how each might relate to the other in the Marvel Universe too. Rhodes, it seems, considers himself to be Tony Stark's older brother, in awe of the "kid's" gifts, and yet absolutely convinced that the neighbourhood bullies, or the Mandarin and the Melter, or whomever, will steal Stark's lunch money as well as his repulsor rays if the good Lieutenant Colonel isn't around.

But how very much less affecting and indeed interesting would the scene have been if Rhodes had been given the following words, if the character had been required to state what he thought and felt literally and precisely rather than being permitted to dance so briefly and movingly around the business of being honest to himself as much as Stark;

"I've been worried sick. I've missed you and I've blamed myself for your predicament. You don't know how to look after yourself, but I do and I should have done better. I'll get you home and we'll make sure you never get hurt again. Or else."

2. "Judge Dredd: The Skinning Man: Part 5" writer:-John Wagner, artist:-Ben Willsher

There's some considerable part of this narrative restraint and emotional inhibition in Judge Dredd's discussion with the wounded Cadet Connors in the last chapter of "The Skinning Room" in this week's Prog. Connors has been impaled by the psychopathic Skinner and lies shaking on the floor of Reysk as Dredd approaches him;

"Doesn't look too bad. Med wagon's on its way. Maybe next time, Connors, you'll come in a little sooner with the daystick."

If the reader were unfamiliar with the character of Dredd, these words would read as flat and uncaring, but they're of course anything but, and the key to making sense of them lies firstly in the order in which Dredd expresses the two clauses of his brief statement. If the admonition to Connor about being too sparing with his application of violence had come first, the Cadet could have no doubt expected censure, if not expulsion, from the Academy as a consequence of his behaviour during this case. But

by placing the reassuring, if apparently disinterested, statement from Dredd that the terrible wound "Doesn't look too bad." first, we're aware that Dredd is expressing, as best as his autistic sensibilities can, concern and sympathy. For we know that Dredd himself wouldn't be able to hide any extreme disappointment had he felt that the Cadet had proven himself bereft of the Right Stuff, and we can be sure that Dredd's undemonstrative attempt to reassure the lad is rooted in professional respect rather than good manners and bourgeois compassion. (Dredd, of course, can express frustration, anger and disappointment far easier than any more unexpectedly revealing and empathetic emotion, which is why the slightest kindness on his part is always so telling.) A Dredd who was unhappy with Connors would find it next to impossible to say anything nearing the coffin-plate reassurance that he offers here, but he's letting Connors know that he's got a career ahead of him as well as a life, and so what seems like the least that any Judge could say to the Cadet in such a situation is in fact for Dredd a rather substantial and even somewhat emotional gesture.

And his advice about the night stick can be read, in that context, as Dredd's way of protecting the Cadet against future harm far more than it is criticism for its own sake.

But the mind shudders at the possibility that a lesser writer might have produced the following;

"Hang on, son. It's serious, but help's on the way. You'll live, I won't let you die, and if you learn from this, you'll make a great judge."

The screen-caps from the first Iron Man movie were found at My sincerest thanks to whoever did the hard work there.


Thursday, 23 September 2010

What I Don't Know Has Hurt Me: An Influence Map Of An Ignorance Of British Comics

Concluding the brief look at Influence Maps begun yesterday on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics;


What's possibly most revealing about these Influence Maps, no matter how awfully executed, is what's so obviously absent from them. (*1) For anybody glancing at the one above, for example, would be quite right in concluding that I haven't been particularly interested in British comic books at all. And though I can't say that that's a thought that I've been consciously mulling around in the past few decades, it's indisputably true, and it was especially so during the Sixties and Seventies, when I should've been gaining a taste for the indigenous fare. Yet, as a boy, I couldn't wait to leave the world of the Beano and the Victor from the cornershop newsagents behind, and despite my willingness to read just about anything I could with words and pictures placed together within the same panels, I'd always, always, reached for the glossier American product first.

*1:- The shameful explanation for how distastefully tacky my Influence Maps are is discussed over at m'other blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, for whatever that's worth


It's only now that I regret my lack of interest in British comics, for I'm absolutely sure that I've missed out on connecting with material which is not only of quality, but also redolent of a British culture that's now as lost as my own past is. For I've become more and more aware as time has progressed that the much of the mainstream of British comics that once seemed so unimpressively saturated with jingoism and complacency was at least in considerable part composed of as much rebelliousness as it was of deference.

It's a thought, I must admit, that first started to grow a tail and splash around when I re-read book 3 of "Zenith" in the mid-1990s, for I was so incredibly moved by the appalling deaths meted out to the analogues of the likes of Billy The Cat and Desperate Dan that it dawned on me that I must have cared far more for the characters than I had ever realised.

But those endless Commando booklets had never captured my attention, and the apparent tedium of yet another season with Roy Race escaped my powers of perseverance, and so I never even thought to check out "Battle" and "Action" in the mid-Seventies, because I just assumed that it'd be more of the same "Achtungs" and chirpy working-class cockney cannon fodder. As a consequence, I've never even succeeded in engaging with "Charley's War" on an emotional level, which is why it's shamefully missing from the map above, though I assure you, I'm working on the matter.

It's rather late in the day to realise how I regret not possessing the clear-minded recall and expert knowledge of UK comics displayed by the likes of Steve Holland (*2) and Lew Stringer. (*3) Until this afternoon, I'd simply not thought of how utterly ignorant I am where the comic book history of my own country is concerned, and now I find myself suspecting that for every much-read volume of "Dan Dare" and each well-thumbed copy of "Toxic" starring "Marshal Law", there'll have been any number of characters worth mourning the passing of, and, indeed, daydreaming the resurrection of too. And I sit here, with Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's estimable "Great British Comics" beside my keyboard, wondering where on earth do I start, and how?

*2:- Do, if you don't already, visit his "Bear Alley" site, and you can use the UK Blog of Honour link to your right to do so.
*3:- And his "Blimey!" is another must-frequent blog, again accessible to your right.

Your suggestions of any much-missed British comics and Brit-com characters, from small-press to "Commando", would of course be very much welcomed in the comments below.