Gods And Monsters – X&HT Saw Avengers Assemble

Superheroes are mythology. They stand above us, their concerns otherworldly, epic. The fate of worlds rests on their shoulders. They have little time for us, the people they pledge to protect. We get in the way. We’re cannon fodder. However much they claim to care, superheroes pledge their fealty to larger concepts than we can embody. They owe allegiance (and often claim ownership) to flags, cities, whole worlds. The people that give life to those ideals are messy little details, and boy does it ever get annoying just when you’re about to deliver the coup de grace to Dr. Villain and all of a sudden there’s a bus full of schoolkids that’s about to drop off a cliff.

And heaven help any mortal that a superhero chooses as a companion. A life of peril and an early, messy death awaits. The flimsy protection of a secret identity is no help once the mask inevitably comes off. I could reel off a loooong list of companions, wives and lovers that have lost their lives while their super-powered paramours have wept a single, perfect tear and moved on to the next battle.

And goddamit, Avengers Assemble does nothing to break that poisonous cycle.

 

(Are there spoilers after the cut? Are there EVER, True Believer!)

Continue reading Gods And Monsters – X&HT Saw Avengers Assemble

Comics And Kony

Unless you’ve been living in a cave without any kind of wifi over the past couple of weeks, the name of Joseph Kony must be familiar to you. The leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, terrorist and psychopath, Kony is the subject of an awful lot of media attention–despite the fact that no-one really seems to know where he is now or what the LRA are up to.

I’m not here to discuss the film that brought Kony, however belatedly, to the world’s attention. I won’t mention the astonishing speed with which social networks helped it to go viral. I’m not even going to talk about the breakdown of the film’s director over the intense scrutiny over his motives and the finances of his production company, that led to his arrest for public nudity and masturbation. However hilarious that might be.

Instead, I want to look at two depictions of the Uganda that Kony has helped to create, both of which use comics to come up with very different takes on the situation, and on how it has created it’s own breed of monsters.

Continue reading Comics And Kony

Comics Will Break Your Heart: the rise and fall of Ashes

Late last year I enthusiastically covered a Kickstarter-funded comics project by writer Alex DiCampi and artist Jimmy Broxton–a gritty SF tale called Ashes. The art and story looked great, and I happily put $30 down to support the book and snag a signed hardback when the work was done.

I wasn’t alone. Ashes hit its funding target with a week and a bit to spare, and earned another $6K in the process. It was a win for all concerned, a triumph of the self-funded, self-published model.

Yeah. About that.

Continue reading Comics Will Break Your Heart: the rise and fall of Ashes

Best of 2011: Rob’s Twopennuth

After sterling work from my guests, it’s my turn to talk up the work that floated my boat over the last twelve months. This is by no means a complete list, but we’d both be here all day if I went down that route. In no particular order, then, but sorted in terms of delivery vector, here we go. Titles are clickable and lead to further reading, viewing or listening.

 

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Probably, if I was to be brutally honest with myself, my film of the year. The triumphant return of Lynne Ramsay to the director’s chair, a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton and a new rising star in Ezra Miller made this brutal examination of a woman’s relationship with her bad seed son a must see.

Drive

Best soundtrack of the year, for sure. Nicholas Winding Refn’s homage to the driver movie gave Ryan Gosling the breakout role of the year, and provided some of the most powerful visuals of 2011. A touching love story and a chilly, unflinching crime film all at once. If nothing else, everyone has an opinion of the lift sequence.

The Woman

Best horror film of the year, hands down. Pollyanna Mackintosh astonished in the title role, never vulnerable, always in control, even when chained to a garage wall. The Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum script explored issues of power, gender and the myth of normality in a world of Lynchian suburbia. Funny, thought-provoking and bloody scary.

Warrior

David A. Russell’s The Fighter was a remarkable and Oscar-worthy piece, but for me the fight film of the year was Warrior. Gavin O’Connor’s film gave the much-maligned field of mixed martial arts a sense of gravity and worth. Nick Nolte as an ex alcoholic boxer and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as his two sons who are pitted against each other in a winner-tale all tourney give riveting and utterly believable performances. A Rocky for 2011.

Rango

Animation of the year, in a tough field that included Miyazaki’s beautiful Arrietty. But Gore Verbinski’s loving and lunatic acid western was genuinely like nothing else on screen this year. Full of mind-boggling moments and set-pieces, screamingly funny and life-affirming, this was Pixar by way of Jodorowsky.

Inside Job

If there was one must-see film for all the wrong reasons this year, it was Charles Ferguson’s documentary on the collapse of the global financial markets. Flint-eyed with a righteous fury, Inside Job skewered the greed, venality and hubris of the men who believed they were too big to fail. Show this to anyone that thinks our financial woes are down to public sector pay or pensions.

13 Assassins

My foreign language film of the year. Shocking, brave and sumptuous, Takashi Miike brought us a work of astonishing grace and authority. Like Inside Job, this tells the story of powerful men who believe they are untouchable. Unlike Inside Job, those men face a town full of traps and the sharp end of a sword. There’s no justice anymore.

Elbow: Build A Rocket Boys!

Tender as a first kiss, heady as your first pint, Elbow’s 2011 album made friends with everyone and cemented their reputations as the country’s finest boozy balladeers. A big fat woozy hug of an album, that sticks to your ribs and will definitely keep you warm this winter.

Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Any year with a Tom Waits album in it is a year to celebrate, and 2011 saw the arrival of his best work in years. Perhaps not his most experimental work, but one where he hammered new fences in and prowled his property with a snarl and a shotgun. No-one else does it like Tom, and Bad As Me was the moment where he proved it. You will be satisfied.

Wilco: The Whole Love

This is an album that goes from minimal bleeps and drones to lovely, weary pop stylings to hammering motorik–on the first track. Wilco have never been more ambitious, more experimental, more widescreen than on The Whole Love. But they’re still accessible and effortlessly rewarding. There’s no art of almost here; this is the real deal.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead

It’s been a grand year for folk-rock, and although a lot of people have been raving about Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver’s sophomore efforts, the more satisfying album for me was The King Is Dead. Filled with lovely ballads and proper stompers, this was a rich and enduring treat. A simpler album than their epic The Hazards Of Love, but that’s no bad thing when the end product is so uplifting and heartfelt.

Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know

Miss Marling had always been an almost girl for me; great songs, but I was never quite drawn in. But A Creature I Don’t Know grabbed me by the lapels and yanked me in for a big sloppy snog. I finally figured it out: she’s embraced her inner Joni Mitchell, and grown up into a smart urban troubadour in one graceful move. There’s still mud on her strides, but she wears really nice boots now.

Manga Music

Hip-hop doesn’t get any more high concept than this. Geek MC and one-man music empire Akira The Don puts together a mixtape based around the soundtracks of all his favourite old-school anime, invites a ton of lairy rappers over to freestyle over the top, and comes up with an absolute gem. Why watch the throne when you can watch Fist Of The Northstar?

Game Of Thrones

Lazily praised as The Sopranos with swordplay when it first came out, the HBO version of the GRR Martin fantasy series is richly textured, strange and beautiful. The shocking plot twists and brutal deaths of central characters made the show one of my few TV musts of the year. Immersive and utterly addictive. And unlike The Sopranos, this has dragons.

Community

I’m late to the party, but a USB stick with the first two seasons has changed my mind. The most geek-friendly comedy on the box (those of you screaming for the I.T. Crowd or The Big Bang Theory need to watch this) is an extraordinary feat of sustained metatextuality and full of characters that change and grow and don’t again. Remarkable stuff that frequently has me snorting my morning coffee through my nose on the train into work.

Phoneshop

The surprise of the year. An unpromising pilot through the Channel 4 Comedy Lab last year and a late night Thursday slot rang warning bells, and I missed the first season. My mistake. This ensemble show on the life of the staff at a suburban mobile phone franchise has cracking performances and a part-improvised script that shows off a cast on top form. It’s consistently hilarious and deeply twisted.

Rev

Also back for a second season, this sweet-natured show featuring Tom Hollander as a put-upon priest in the worst diocese in London avoids all the cliches and comes up with a programme that works on all sorts of levels. Like all the best sitcoms, it’s part social commentary, part character study–and all funny.

SVK

More in the nature of an intriguing experiment than a success, Warren Ellis and Matt “Disraili” Brooker’s SVK is a book that quite literally works on two levels. The detective story, which Ellis described as “Franz Kafka’s Bourne Identity”, ships with a UV torch that you can shine onto the page to reveal hidden dialogue and thoughts–a neat way of showing the lead character’s telepathic ability. A slim volume, but packed with ideas.

Casanova: Avarita

Speaking of books packed with ideas. Matt Fraction and Los Bros Ba return with a second run at the exploits of reality-shafting, universe-killing superspy Casanova Quinn and give the whole shebang a decidedly metaphysical spin. Darker and tougher than Volume One, there’s still room for Matt, Gabriel and Fabio to crank up the gleeful strangeness. Any riff on Kung Fu Panda is always welcome.

Hark: A Vagrant

I’ve been a fan of Kate Beaton since she had a madeonamac blog, so I’m enormously smug to see everyone else catch up this year. Her history-obsessed strips are effortlessly hilarious, and her comic timing is impeccable. She makes it look easy, damn her. Probably the purest and most talented cartoonist working today, and you need the collection of her strips on your shelves. She’s made Napoleon COOL again, dammit!

Habibi

This. Blew. Me. Away. Best graphic novel of the year by a light year, Craig Thompson’s massive tome takes ideas of love and loyalty, the language we use to express them and the way it both unites and divides us to create a story nested within a tale folded into a romance in every sense of the work. One to come back to and cherish again and again.

rediscovery: A Princess Of Mars

The upcoming live-action movie of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic led me to reread the original, which I remember loving as a kid. Yeah, sure, it’s rough round the edges, and a bit old-fashioned in attitude and language. But it’s also a proper no-holds-barred pageturner, stuffed full of imagination, action and adventure that starts on the run and just speeds up. It’s a fast read, and available for free on Project Gutenberg. Proper storytelling from a master of the pulp form.

rediscovery: John Lee Hooker

Goddamn, I love John Lee. Curmudgeonly, contrary, innovative. He shook off easy rhyme patterns in favour something twitchy, febrile and earthy (“I see my baby walking down the STREET/She looking good from her head down to her TOES”). Spotify are pushing John Lee a lot recently, and it’s given me the chance to reacquaint myself with an old friend.

 

in 2012 I’m looking forward to: Prophet/King City

Comics discovery of the year for me, shamefully, putting me back behind the curve, is the astonishing Brandon Graham. His loose yet detailed, cartoony yet precise art does my head in. A more relaxed Geof Darrow, his books are filled with asides, footnotes and rambling offramps. He has two big releases out for 2012. A writing gig with Simon Roy on a reboot of a cheesy Rob Liefeld Image book, Prophet, reads like the most excitingly French SF-style book of the new year. A survivalist-punk story of a supersoldier revived far too late for a mission that no longer exists, in a world that has evolved without him. A far-future Conan. Has a preview.

The BIG news is a proper release for his magnum opus, King City. A slacker Transmetropolitan. Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled without the bombast. It’s got all the side shenanigans, puzzles and games that were in the original flimsies. This will be one to stow alongside Habibi on your shelves and cherish, true believers.

also: GBV

I mean, we’re all excited about this, right? The return of the most clangularly tuneful hookladed beer-fuelled band on the planet! We’re all practising our Salty Salutes, yeah? To the band whose out-takes and bootlegs outnumber the official releases by a factor of fifteen and are frequently better than the real records? The glorious reunion of Pollard and Tobin Sprout? Anyone?

Fine. Be like that. But 2012 is all about Guided By Voices to me.

 

and: The Muppets

because The Muppets. Because. The Muppets.

 

We’ll be back after Conspicuous Consumption Day for the X&HT Review Of The Year. If you thought this post went on a bit, you’re in for a shock. Whoooole lotta stuff happened in 2011.

Happy Saturnalia, Readership.

Holy Heck: The Fall Of Frank Miller

It’s never good to watch your heroes fail. When you base your art and your writing style on the work of a man that you worship and respect, only to find that he is only human, and the sort of person you’d go out of your way to avoid at a party, then the hit is even harder. Somehow, his mistakes rebound on you. All of a sudden, people pop out of the woodwork, saying how they’d known that the guy was a jerk for years, how his work was a clear indicator of his inner malaise. All of a sudden, you look like a fanboy and an idiot.

That’s what I’m going through at the moment, Readership. Because my all-time comic hero Frank Miller has apparently just outed himself as a close-minded, ill-informed rightwing jagoff.

Continue reading Holy Heck: The Fall Of Frank Miller

Print Works: Habibi, Ashes and dire digital downloads

Now, I loves me the ebooks. The Kindle I snagged for last year’s birthday is going strong, and stuffed full of goodness. It’s revolutionised the way I acquire and consume digital long-form fiction–oh, ok, how I buy and read books.

And yet, when it comes to comics and graphic novels, I’m resolutely and unrepentantly old-school. If it ain’t on print, I don’t want it. A lot of that, I guess, is down to the kind of comics I like to read. I’m no fan of masks and capes, and Marvel and DC for the most part leave me cold. I can’t remember the last time I bought a comic – either the flimsy glossy American pamphlet or good old sheddy English newsprint. It’s trade paperbacks and graphic novels for me, at. I’d much rather read a story all at once rather than wait for it to eke out on monthly 22-page instalments.

Continue reading Print Works: Habibi, Ashes and dire digital downloads

Jodorowsky Week: The Incal

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It’s a great pity that one of the world’s most visionary directors, Alejandro Jodorowsky, has never been given the opportunity to helm a big science fiction movie. His work has always tended towards the widescreen while exploring the inner spaces of the human consciousness. Crazy Spanish epic berserkaloidity.

He came close, of course, and his years of preparatory work on a version of Dune that he promised would give all the effects of LSD without needing to take the drug are legendary in their own right. They spawned a documentary, and are famous for tangentially introducing HR Giger to Ridley Scott–a meeting without which Alien could have been a very different beast.

However, I’d argue that Jodorowsky has made his SF epic, a work of astonishing depth, scale and complexity. A work that was, for a while, so rare that fanboys would buy the French versions and learn the language just to be able to enjoy. A work that encompasses all of creation, the nature of good and evil, and includes amongst it’s characters the greatest bounty-hunter in the universe, a dog-headed freedom fighter and a concrete seagull.

You’ve got it, true believers. I’m talking about The Incal.

Continue reading Jodorowsky Week: The Incal

Atwomic Pizzas

I’m still trying to get my head around the geography and zoning of Oxford’s fair city. I prefer it to London if I have a spare day off and nothing better to do. But, as someone with heavy links to the Smoke, I can’t help but find parallels between different areas. For example, I think of Jericho as the Islington of Oxford. It’s full of chichi bars and restaurants, a nice little art-house cinema and a general relaxed upscale vibe.

The Cowley Road, on the other hand, is closer to Camden–lively, multicultural, funky and fun. Here’s where you’ll find all the cheap, good-value curry houses, the O2 Academy, and most importantly for greedy old me, the two Atomic restaurants.

Atomic Burger has been a source of simple pleasure for a while. The pop-culture theming is so deliciously over the top that it moves from tack to an art statement. The signature burgers are named after icons from Elvis to Chuck Norris, and they’re remarkably good, generous and flavoursome.

No ice cream for me, thanks.

Now a partner restaurant, Atomic Pizza, has opened a ten minute hike down the way (like Camden High St, you forget just how long the Cowley Road can get, especially when you’re weak with hunger) and it’s a blast. Bigger and brighter than the burger shack on the way back to St. Clement’s, the pizzas are again themed, although you can also build your own. I’m especially intrigued by the burger pizza that they offer. The food is as bold and brash as the setting–eating next to Han Solo in his ROTJ block of carbonite was an experience, I can tell you.

The excuse for the visit (apart from a raging need for a 15″ pizza, the Gambit in case you’re wondering, chicken, bacon and cajun BBQ sauce) was a meet-up with some Twitter pals, @LizUK and @Gergaroth, with Liz’s mate @jowyton along for the ride as well. It’s always a thrill to finally have a face-to-face with people you only know from their online presence, but I’ve always found it works nicely. Gets the tedious small talk out of the way quickly so you can concentrate on the good stuff. Deciding on appropriate T-shirt film quotes for the staff, for example. The boss was up for the game as well. Mind you, he was the one wearing the Inigo Montoya t-shirt that started it off in the first place.

The setting helped the whole session to be silly, uproarious fun, and we’re definitely doing it again after Christmas. Although I shan’t be risking the legendary Godzilla Challenge – a full-size pizza with a triple order of fries, chili, cheese and their weapon-grade Godzilla sauce on top. You get a T-shirt if you finish. Or if you don’t. And hopefully a lift to the hospital afterwards.

You can find both restaurants up and down the Cowley Road. They’re not easy to miss. Links to the menus and videos of a Godzilla Challenge winner below. I don’t think you can go wrong for a fun night out in Oxford.

Atomic Burger

Atomic Pizzas

The Atwomics, replete

State Of The Noir Nation

Dark fictions flourish in dark times. As we lurch from financial crisis to social meltdown,  our reading habits change and our idea of what constitutes light relief gains some weight. This is a simple truth that the editors of new anthology title Noir Nation understand all too clearly. It’s the perfect time to launch, and the premiere issue is stuffed as full of hardboiled treats as an old fashioned sweetie shop.

A well-curated genre collection will take pleasure in the display of a wide range of voices, opinions and stories. Noir Nation hits all the buttons hard. It’s broad, wide and deep in scope, which suits a journal with a truly international remit. Standout stories for me include Tristan Davies “Surgeons”, which introduces us to a doctor who makes Gregory House look like that nice English actor Hugh Laurie, and RF Warner’s “Dog Of A Different Breed”, the story of a drug run gone bad, an unfortunate incident with a dog, and a serial killer with a yen for poetry and gameplay.

Speaking of poetry, there’s also room for a piece by Bonnie Parker. Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie Parker. Seems like she could shoot better than she could sling a rhyme, but it’s a fascinating curio from a famous gun moll.

The first ish also gives us a fascinating discussion on what constitutes contemporary noir (Alan Ward Thomas, the Eastern Hemisphere editor, pulls together a fascinating take that includes transhumanist SF, Alvin Toffler-style future shock, Cubism and Jung) and a forum on whether the genre has a moral compass. The jury’s out on that one, but there are equally compelling arguments for and against.

The one misfire is Jon Danko and Danda’s graphic novel, Fired On Deadline. It’s muddled, and text-heavy, with none of the bite of the prose pieces. It also, at least in my preview copy, looked as if it had been inserted at too low a resolution, leading to blurry, rasterised artwork. That’s a real shame, considering my predilections. It also does Danda’s lovely expressionistic art (he did the cover, shown above, which is a much better showcase of his talents) no justice. It’s apparently the first part of a larger work, and I’d be interested to see where Danko and Danda take the idea of Flamenco Noir. But for now at least, the whole thing looks like something of an afterthought.

But that’s a minor quibble regarding a strong anthology bulging with good stuff. You can pick it up at the Kindle Store and still get change from a poorly cephalopod. Noir Nation shows a genre that is in very rude health indeed. Live and goddam kicking.

Noir Nation at the Kindle Store

The Noir Nation site

The Lady and The Father: Burma Chronicles

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Journalism in comics has a much greater pedigree than you might think. Political cartoons have been with us since the Romans, who daubed parodies of disliked senators on the walls of their cities. To this day, the form has the ability to shock, provoke and anger to the point of murder, if you consider the case of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist killed for his depiction of Mohammed.

Travel journalism is less well represented. You could argue that Herge’s Tintin took place in such carefully researched and exquisitely rendered locales that it equated to a kind of travelogue – although it would be decades before we could see how accurately he’d got the moon. For most people, Joe Sacco’s work in Bosnia and Palestine is the definition of travel journalism – angry, passionate comics that get to the heart of the conflict.

A different approach is taken by French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, whose Burma Chronicles is out in a new paperback edition from Jonathan Cape in the UK. Delisle is married to Nadege, a Medicins Sans Frontieres administrator, and their journeys into strife-torn areas give him unprecedented access. The book tells of their trip to Burma at a point when the generals who run the show are beginning the next in a long series of clampdowns. As funding and visas are pulled, Guy, his wife Nasege and their baby son Louis struggle to find a life in a country that, officially at least, refuses to admit that they are needed.

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Delisle approaches his story from the opposite angle to Sacco. He is no journalist, and never agitates to get into the dangerous areas. He’s principally a house-husband, there to look after Louis, an adjunct to Nadege and her work. Tootling around town with Louis in a buggy, he becomes almost invisible, and is free to observe the everyday life of the people. He discovers that the place they have rented is just around the corner from the house where Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for decades. He never sees her, of course, despite vague efforts to at least walk down her street (an effort that’s finally rewarded in an unexpected way). But, as in life, she is an unspoken presence, a thread running through everything, binding her people together in the face of crippling poverty and brutal repression.

Delisle has a simple, clean style that again is the polar opposite to Sacco’s pyrotechnic, fish-eye-lens freakouts. He draws himself as an abstraction, a simple collection of lines that reminded me a little of the 1992 Olympic mascot Cobi. Otherwise, his settings and characters are picked out with care and grace. As we follow Guy, Nasege and Louis through their year in Burma, we get to know and care about them and the lovely, punished country around them.

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The story unfolds quietly, and always with a wry humour. Guy is lazy despite his best efforts, his promises to do more frequently washed away in the everyday tasks of looking after Louis or getting some drawing done. But he does, gradually, come to an understanding with Burma. There’s a lovely sequence towards the end of the book where he finally tries a three-day meditation retreat (granted, just round the corner from his house). Burma Chronicles is full of moments like these – the wordless, 24-panel pages of his trips to tourist destinations are sheer, joyful cartooning at it’s purest and most skilful.

If you need an antidote to the DC Comics reboot sturm und drang, Burma Chronicles fits the bill perfectly. It’s subtle, sharp and intelligent comics work, an incisive commentary on the state of Burma at a low point in the country’s history. Moving, hilarious and insightful stuff.