September 16, 2018

very British crews

I’m in the current November-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine with a piece about Paul Grist’s comic Jack Staff, a strip which grabs British humour comics and British humour generally in a big warm bear hug.

My appreciation of Paul Grist and his Will Eisner/Frank Miller homage Kane is on record from a long time ago, but Jack Staff is a more expansive gesture, half nostalgic swoon for old comics and half mournful eulogy for acres of British cultural history. The fact that Image Comics picked it up and turned it into a colour strip for US readers who may or may not have recognised Harry H Corbett when he turned up as a vampire hunter is just another layer to conjure with. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.

Supplementary material: Back in 2012 I spoke to Paul Grist about his comics and career for a magazine article which was ultimately unpublished. Some quotes from it are in the Comic Scene article, but the whole interview is here on this site.

Elsewhere: For Tripwire I read the new graphic novel adaptation of Yellow Submarine, which Titan commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles animated fantasia. Bill Morrison’s background at MAD magazine and Bongo Comics makes him a crafty choice to work at the point where animation and comics overlap, and this particular comics adaptation of a film certainly resembles its source—which is more than you used to be able to say for those old issues of Marvel Comics Super Special. Even having to pretend the film doesn’t have a note of music in it isn’t fatal to the book overall. But at some point this rip tide of nostalgia that’s now tearing constantly at our footing will have to be tempered.

August 19, 2018

old soldiers

Rebellion didn’t say how much it spent buying up the output of the old IPC Youth Group and having half of the UKs entire comics output for the 1970s and 1980s delivered into its warehouse in tankers, but presumably it was not chicken feed. The publishers did say up-front two years ago that the plan was for new stories with the old characters, ie. an active return on the investment, which now turns out to be reworkings of them into something more in the current superhero vein by active 2000AD creators, and a connected universe for everyone to rub shoulders in. You don’t have to be too averse to nostalgia to wish that this wasn’t quite so inevitable. The reprint programme has already shown to at least one reader that the frantic brevity and excess exposition inherent in the UKs old weekly anthology format do not necessarily make the best impression, when the strips are gathered into large sequential runs and the stories’ end-points recede endlessly away from you towards the horizon. The stand-outs so far are probably the calmer material from Misty and The Beatles Story reprinted from Look-In, which are self-contained and neither hectic nor lunatic; but for the boys comics stuff it’s not the easiest task to see exactly which audience is being fostered here, beyond the literal appeal to people who were reading 2000AD in 1977 plus those who wish they had been. Finding a way to treat the loopier old stuff as cultural works rather than IP fodder might be a better destiny for it. Or at least consider making a break from the standard vein of 2000AD, which seems entirely predicated on nostalgia already. But all this is easier to say if you’re not the one signing the cheques at Rebellion.

In any case, the original version of Herr Doktor Von Hoffmann, embittered old Nazi and maddest of mad scientists, has had his original adventures reprinted in a collection called Von Hoffman’s Invasion that I reviewed for Tripwire. No coincidence that his attempt to bring fictional 1971 Britain to its knees allowed a real-world 1971 boys comic to address a painful grievance, involving the World Cup and the West Germany football team. Also for Tripwire, a collection of Judge Dredd stories involving apes, mostly as adversaries although lately one of them as an ally. Science-fiction loves a good primate, and in 2000AD they always feel like one of the few strong ties between the black satire of the Dredd strip and the whimsy of Silver Age DC Comics, territory that 2000AD usually treats as a hinterland of no major interest.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Frank Miller’s position in the comics culture these days seems to be a hinterland all his own, and the conclusion of Xerxes from Dark Horse Comics has caused even less of a ripple than its launch, which itself did not look like much. At the time of writing, no one’s even bothered to put it on Wikipedia. There’s a contingent of readers who will never forgive Miller for Holy Terror and his apparent swing to the political right after 2008, some of whom had only just forgiven him for The Dark Knight Strikes Again anyway. Another bunch remain convinced that the man’s linework reveals hidden misogynist wickedness before the ink is even dry. Most reviews of Xerxes seemed determined to just parse the plot and skirt around the issue of the art altogether, as if worn out by the effort of looking at Miller’s sinuous, boneless DC superheroes last year on the covers of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Exhaustion might actually be the default critical response to Miller now. But some of the cartooning in Xerxes is as enlivening to look at as anything off the presses this year.

In theory Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander—a title you assume Dark Horse marketing had little say over—is part-prequel and part-sequel to 300, although the plot is more of a loose improvisation than a history lesson. Several generations of Persian kings are thwarted by internecine conflicts within their own house, and by resourceful Greeks putting aside their own fractious disagreements to foster a democratic project that looks like it could go either way. Xerxes shows every sign of becoming a despot, but more than once the real focus seems to be on unreliable hearsays and what you would have to call fake news, the accumulation of legend and lies onto fact like layers of dust until the roots are hard to discern.

Meanwhile the art has changed from 300s bronze-wash firelight into something properly rococo, with the bodies of Darius I, then Xerxes I, and finally (skipping over a ton of history) Darius III seeming to be embossed with ornamentation right there on the page. Miller’s current colourist, Alex Sinclair, was tarred by some of the general unhappiness with The Master Race, but in Xerxes the high-contrast palette seems completely in tune with Miller’s wish for heft and mass, legend and fate. On occasion Persian flesh is jet black, sometimes with hints of matching physiognomy, which opens more trapdoors of interpretation while also shunting the cartooning even closer to iconography, religious or otherwise. It can’t be as simple as saying that all this is just Miller hacking further into the undergrowth of expressionism, but that’s surely a big part of it. Expressionist figures ask for pity, as Robert Hughes once wrote, and the strong kings of Xerxes, drawn as terrible old gods of the past, dead and bent double in their holes in the ground or slumped dying on their thrones, are pitiable in vastly larger ways than Superman was when Miller gave him wrinkly leggings and a neck wider than his head.

News that Miller has recovered the film and television rights to Sin City from the smoking crater where The Weinstein Company once stood probably doesn’t bring that work much nearer to a live-action return—tough to imagine a studio green-lighting Sin City Anything at present—although if it means that Miller is emerging from the hinterland, I’m all for it. Frank Miller remains the best argument against conformity, complicity and self-conscious prudery in movies made from comics, simply by proving that the two forms will forever fly apart like magnets,” says me about the last Sin City film, but then I’m also the guy who did not hate The Spirit, and from a few years further down the track that film looks more like an authentic reflection of its maker at that moment than it even did then, odd conflicted intentions and all. At this point, with the calamity of Holy Terror still looming over Miller’s every pen stroke like a thundercloud, the five issues of Xerxes feel more compelling, more authentic in their cartooning, more drastic in their methods, than any two-decades of British comics combined. It’s a product of cultural wartime, saturated with artistic tensions, which sprints straight past the fragile nostalgia of Rebellion’s Treasury project and roars off into the future.

One looks at the figures, not the ground. Hence the theatricality of his failures. But like his successes, these too are the work of an utterly compelling artist who will die without heirs. No one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. But to ignore him is equally absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone paint, the human figure in an age of photography.

– Robert Hughes on Francis Bacon, 1985

August 7, 2018

lone wolf and cub

It’s been mooted that Denis Villeneuve might be a not-great director who just directs the hell out of the scripts he takes on, which sounds like one sign of a great director to me. The difference between Sicario and Sicario 2 Soldado is mostly down to the change from a high style to something more routine, and since Taylor Sheridan wrote both scripts the likely source is the swapping of Villeneuve for Stefano Sollima—who, whatever else he does, does not direct the hell out of it. Sheridan doesn’t do the new man any favours, leaning into that old standby The Strong Man’s Dilemma, and doing without meaningful adult women at all—apart from a cheery US soccer mom earning a crust through people trafficking with a baby in the back of her car, which is the best moment of pointed commentary in the film—but it’s Sollima who finds ways to shoot Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro that come straight out of the Cannon Films catalogue circa 1991.

The general Cannon-ness has convinced a few people that Sicario 2 Soldado is a Conservative work, even though one thing that actually survives the sequel-manufacturing machine is Sheridan’s uncertainty that good people are righteous warriors able to change the world. Or good men, anyway. There’s been an attempt lately to banish Wind River within 12 months of its appearance, on the theory that its female character was made naive and out of her depth—as if an arc that starts there was a regressive thought crime by definition. Wind River is sedate and mournful, and more indirect proof of the influence of Sollima and Villeneuve on Sheridan’s scripts, since he directed that one himself. There’s also the small matter that Wind River shreds toxic masculinity, takes it to the absolute cleaners; but why let facts get in the way of a philosophy. I reviewed Sicario 2 Soldado in the September issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

August 1, 2018

a kick in the urals

The August issue of Comic Scene UK magazine has an article by me about Octobriana, a cult character not so much out-of-copyright as off-the-reservation. Created via a good old-fashioned comics industry rip-off so muddied that it’s not clear how much the perpetrator even benefited, and in theory now a vehicle for everything from porn to political satire, her infinite flexibility might not have done her visibility or earnings potential any favours. But the air of anarchy that arrives with her every time she rocks up somewhere is always at least entertaining.

Her first best destiny is probably rampaging through alternative comix in a cloud of hardcore sex, like the Larry Welz strip from 1972 up above, although John Short and Gabrielle Noble have lately had her emasculate Vladimir Putin and allied her directly with Pussy Riot. Which more or less brings her back to where she supposedly started, even though she actually didn’t. Buy Comic Scene UK here or in comic shops.

July 29, 2018

max mon amour

I guess by now you can get a doctorate in Mission Impossible scholarship and write a thesis about the 70/30 live vs. digital mayhem directed by Christopher McQuarrie and, say, the stuff in Avengers Age of Ultron that was on the tv when I got home, where the ratio is the other way round at best. But in the end it’s just about the effect and the affect, like always. This Impossible and the previous one have made the most of McQuarrie’s brawny traditionalist style, which helped me give Rogue Nation the thumbs-up in Sight & Sound, despite the film’s simmering stupidities. Fallout inevitably gets even sillier, and the franchise has now reached the point where it would capsize back into camp if McQuarrie wasn’t playing a straight bat of Sam Fuller-ish dimensions. The cycle by which Ethan Hunt and his team are perpetually framed and then disavowed and then betrayed and then blackmailed is now as inevitable as moonrise, but when (any) James Bond had wound up on top of the Tate Modern chimney, it would have been an unconvincing bit of Pax Britannica mummery with the joins showing. When it happens in this film, it’s more muscular altogether—and once again, McQuarrie’s Anglophilia is showing.

The actors in the Cruise Crew are a cross-section through the franchise’s different directors like rings in a tree, but Fallout does better by Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg than Rogue Nation did. And I had bags of time for Vanessa Kirby, swanning around Paris and London in swish white outfits and established to be the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character in the original Mission Impossible film. Coiffed and vocalising with that exact aim in mind, Kirby’s impersonation of Redgrave is so effective she should get a spin-off series of her own. Cosmic balance is restored when the film does rather worse by Rebecca Ferguson, returning as Ilsa Faust, a character name adrift without a purpose once the film leaves any noir pastiche a long way back in the rear-view exploding fireball. But then Fallout has an overall purpose that neither of the last two Impossibles had taken up, and manoeuvres Ethan Hunt into moving on from his already long-gone wife.

As well as landing Fallout with a case of The Strong Man’s Burdens and closing the story of Hunt’s love life, a topic keeping absolutely no one awake at night for the twelve years since M:I:III, this leads to a couple of dodgy dream sequences that teeter on the brink of self-parody. They probably dive right in, although the momentum of the film ploughs onward at such a rate of knots that your objections are lost in the hurricane. The first one has Hunt imagining his psycho-killer nemesis, played again by Whispering Sean Harris, officiating at Hunt’s wedding, a scene presumably aiming for the mythic but landing nearer the dyspeptic. The second has Hunt seeing his ex-wife and his arch-enemy framed as a couple in an ethereal dreamlight, looking as if Hunt had come home early and caught them in the wardrobe. Brian De Palma gave Hunt a Freudian reverie about castrated father-figure Jon Voight back in 1996, but that one didn’t make me nearly burst out laughing.

July 25, 2018

indexed, briefed, debriefed, unpublished

The Prisoner landed on British TV in 1967, but I was oblivious until some mid-1970s repeats and an article in Comics Unlimited which made the show sound like the most exasperating brainstorm going. The same cycle probably helped spur Marvel Comics to prepare a The Prisoner comic in 1976, and maybe nothing captures the state of Marvel in 1976 better than the fact it somehow ended up with two different first-issues of the series before publishing neither of them.

Titan Books has collected the original pencil art for both aborted versions, one by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer, the other drawn by Gil Kane (plus apparently Joe Staton) and written by Steve Englehart. The results are not milestones for anyone involved, but Kirby’s mid-1970s style is endlessly fascinating to stare at, and Kane’s aggressive cartooning makes the show look like it was dreamed up by Sam Fuller. I reviewed the book for Tripwire.

Alex Cox wrote a typically puckish analysis of The Prisoner last year, which I reviewed for Sight & Sound magazine and discussed a bit here. He reaches some conclusions which would probably never have occurred to anyone at Marvel, or possibly anyone watching the show.