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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Monday, 27 June 2005
Official seal
As much as the world of comic books might want to see itself as escapist, it can no more escape politics than any other media.

There are
Friday, 24 June 2005
Vat
You might have thought this blog doesn't do politics any more but when we compare spooks (the wiretapping kind) with crooks we quickly see that it is not so much the action but the directive that determines which is which. This is, in fact, the whole bone of contention with anarchists. What makes one group a terrorist organisation, another 'freedom fighters'?

Sanction by the government, that's what.

It seems inconceivable that people would vote for a government that uses torture and rendering as part of its method for extracting information or exacting revenge, and yet that's exactly what has happened. A pretty hollow freedom to defend, one would think.

Any old act of persecution has to be examined in the light of whether it's a government agency doing it or some arbitrary psychopath. It's pretty desperate when it depends whether we give the authority for bullying and intimidation; these acts are intrinsically ones of bastardry and cynical expediency and should be viewed as such.

The other side of the coin is that killing some dude walking to get the morning paper is straight out murder but kill a senator or congressman - especially at the podium, making a speech - and it's
assassination


Posted by berko_wills at 3:57 PM NZT
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Thursday, 23 June 2005
Deep and steep in darkness
I don't suppose anyone wants their dark fantasy exposed but thanks to Tim Berners-Lee it's easy to do just that. It's like someone else has gathered all the footnotes for your thesis and you can skip where'er you wish.

So having dispensed dark fantasy, it is time to start tailing spies and secret agents. As much products of the War as supersoldiers and suchlike, they can still cause a commotion.
Really, who can refuse the lure of espionage, especially when it is so inextricably linked to our world history.

Unless you have a standing army, world domination requires scheming and a knowledge of that world; a private artillery; a supply of goons with some global outlook and another language under their belt.

Of course there has to be a secret weapon every now and again, and a fight with the saboteur. Terrorists now face the might of the US army but there was certainly a time when their clandestine activities were countered by shadowy figures from our side.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:34 PM NZT
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Sunday, 12 June 2005
Cup o' joe
Detectives are dotted through comic history in backup stories and anthologies as well as the handful that found themselves in the spotlight such as The Spirit and Dick Tracy. But what of the accusation that superheroes are largely jumped up cops or 'guardian angels' beating on the brat?

The Spirit is one domino mask away from looking like your regulation dick yet the idea of the vengeful spirit is crossing into more of a hyper-reality until it takes on more power than you could imagine in The Spectre, another copper. Dick Tracy has the futuristic gadgetry and bizarre villains. The number of guys who look like gumshoes with a few scraps of costume to give them a half-hearted heft into herodom is extensive. So why deny a connection. And Detective Comics having as one of their flagship characters, the World's Greatest Detective, is no coincidence. The Shadow of the Bat is over a number of spinoff 'detective-like' storylines like the Human Target, who disguises himself as the intended victim and then (hopefully)prevents the act before a shot is fired.

The odd hybrid me-tooism experiment that was Atlas Comics produced the shortlived Police Action which gamely tried to bring back actual police as the stars of a comic book.

Stan Lee, ever one for playing with the formula, didn't have that many costumed cops. His superheroes, perhaps as part of the push to be more 'realistic', were centre stage for the tragedy of their transformation, not their desire to fight crime.

Posted by berko_wills at 5:56 AM NZT
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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Clink
Crime comics are morbidly close to horror in many ways. Though it was necessary to argue in court art vs gratuitous display with a decapitated head; not necessarily out of repugnance for this so much as that it was more immediately shocking, and easier to build a case against, than the more nebulous (but perceived) notion of encouraging delinquency in the readership.

I do think that breaking every plot down to Good vs Evil is biblically overdetermined. Good vs Bad perhaps, since true evil extends beyond the bag snatcher IMO.

Crooks in comics, as in many works of fiction, are useful for telling a story. They act as a quick counterpoint to the protagonist. The early costumed heroes had a steady supply of generic hoodlums with hats and guns to contend with.

The ongoing debate as to whether the depiction of burglars and kidnappers has a deleterious effect on impressionable minds has to be tempered by explicit statements that Crime Does Not Pay and with Batman's famous motivation for choosing his identity:"Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot".

There hasn't been as much use of the uniform police because there is an attraction to a more vigiliante approach to law enforcement (if you can even call busting someone's jaw for a holdup 'law enforcement').

Private eyes and gumshoes have seen their turf taken over but there's been a resurgence of late.

And bank robbery and slayings remain popular staples.

Posted by berko_wills at 4:07 PM NZT
Updated: Tuesday, 7 June 2005 11:09 AM NZT
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Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Goblins and goblets
Yes, while monsters can include both the axe murderers and the supernatural, by convention the term is mainly used for those big weird looking creatures that don't fit any other description. You won't find many ghouls in a book called Where Monsters Dwell.

Even with gi-normous creatures, there's a question of association. Ogres and sea serpents fit the classic mold well, but we think of them as creatures of myth and legend, and sea serpents have the same problem of adaptation we saw when looking at adventure - they thrive on mystique, in a narrative build up containing the unknown and the unseen; which is dashed when you have to draw the thing.

Let's consider poisoners:
  • traditionally they sit within that genre so reviled by our friend, Dr Wertham, the crime comic. That is if we see them in a fairly straight setting slipping something into their victim's drink - say, to get at the inheritance.
  • if the cops apprehend this fiend, it's still crime, though if the police take centre stage as protagonists, it will likely be 'detective', a subset of the crime genre
  • obviously if the poisoner holes up in a haunted house, it's horror, but the genre also seems to incorporate those tales where the cad comes to an untimely end through divine (or diabolic) providence
  • if the poisoner wears a bright costume and calls himself Toxin it's superhero
  • if the poisoner is laying them out in the trenches it's war

All clear?

Posted by berko_wills at 4:04 PM NZT
Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2005 3:53 PM NZT
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Friday, 20 May 2005
Upsize
Do monsters really belong in horror? Sure if you were being swooped on by Mothra or had Godzilla stomping on your apartment building, it might have you issuing the odd bloodcurdling shriek, but the chances of some more mundane terror or madness occuring are greater. Monsters (the fictional kind) are fun - they're just big lumbering lummoxes and don't have the unpleasant association that any of our cavalcade of animated cadavers possess.
Plus they'd be fun to draw. Jack Kirby thought so and, indeed, one of the more noteworthy runs of monster comics were created by Lee-Kirby, with them weaving monsters into their superhero tales as well.
Between Kirby's pulse-pounding pencilling and Lee's claim to the cornball (who else would come up with a title like "ZZZutak the thing that shouldn't exist"), they all but cornered the market on fun monsters.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:52 PM NZT
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Sunday, 15 May 2005
Slab
Here's an interesting fact I only discovered when I was looking up postal charges to England: you can't send horror comics in the mail to the UK.

Fine, I thought, I've been wanting to write the piece on horror comics for this long so here's the sign. I can't imagine why there should be a one-sided traffic in horrific storylines (or if the restriction applies to not competing with the retail importation of The Many Ghosts of Dr Graves) but I'll leave that for others to ponder.

Harlan Ellison doesn't like the term 'horror' when applied to fiction as he feels it should be reserved for real life events. He prefers macabre and so do I; but I'd say we're stuck with horror now.

Given that horror creators have an unpleasant tendency to want to involve we, the reader, in the impact, yea the fear, of the monstrous tableaux unfolding, perhaps it suits their purpose to have the horror that happens and the horror one only imagines, intertwined.

Though there is the counterclaim that we have the fictional horror played out so we don't have to experience the real thing. We have vampires and werewolves to give us the creeps instead of homicidal burglars and people sneaking things that can get us into deadly peril, into our luggage or into our drink. They, along with mummies and an assortment of other undead are more readily depicted in comic book form in any case.

Monsters proved irresistible to both creators and readers alike since the imagination can run wild without (necessarily)riling the censors or breaking with tradition. They're the all purpose creature of the genre, shambling, stomping, slithering their way through allegory and cheap gory thrills with equal abandon. And they're 'easier to deal with' than the monster who suffocates a small child and rapes the corpse, then pleads leniency on the grounds of diminished responsibility. We can watch the stake being driven through the heart of fictional monsters and know that this does nothing to combat the thrill killer or the serial sadist in real life.

Perhaps this is a furphy and it is as relevant to say we have never fired a handgun but read Dick Tracy and the Lone Ranger, never had powers of any kind but still 'identify' with Blue Bolt.

Perhaps, too, horror stories play on our fear of the unknown. We are repelled by the work of cruel despots but we read about them in newspapers and current affairs magazines. They have no business hiding waiting for us in some dark corner like a dark creature will. They cannot seep through our walls and enter our dreams the way demons and ghosts can.



Posted by berko_wills at 10:45 PM NZT
Updated: Monday, 16 May 2005 12:50 AM NZT
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Saturday, 30 April 2005
Aged
From the mentions of Golden Age characters in this blog you might get the impression that the best you could say* for the Golden Age with its crude exposition was that it was a primer for what was to follow. Even looking at Golden Age characters given a second (or third) run through magic or suspended animation or an elixir of youth or just to coach the younguns, there's something vaguely ridiculous about them.

My favourite golden age gonzo is actually a male adult/boy ward (so suspiciously prevalent in comic books of that time), The Eagle and Eagle Boy. Considering many of the misconceived flapping furies that have inhabited comics, what's so special about these guys?
Well, here's the thing, The Eagle gets his power of flight by drinking a potion - more convenient than inspired from a plotting point of view - but, and here's the clincher, Eagle Boy accompanies him by riding on his back!!!

But before we get carried away, I'd maintain that Doctor Fate is best realised in his very earliest incarnation, living in a tower that only he can mystically enter.

The correlative to this is Red Tornado. A rather embarrassing character viewed in these pc times, she was originally Ma Hunkel, a joke character with a one-shot appearance in the Justice Society of America. In the Silver Age revamp, though, the character becomes a male android with a lower half literally like a tornado. The character's never taken off, as it were, and that's because it really shows the way in which there was a little too much sheen applied in the streamlining of these character properties. It would probably have been better to simply leave Red Tornado out of the picture.

In case you're wondering, the Ages pretty much stop there. Nobody can decide whether subsequent periods in sequential art history should be dubbed the Nickel Age or Cadmium Age and really it's superfluous. The groundwork has been done. This is not to say that there were not significant episodes like the grim'n'gritty redefining of origins that was the eighties, they just don't have a name.

Posted by berko_wills at 6:39 AM NZT
Updated: Friday, 6 May 2005 4:02 PM NZT
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Sunday, 24 April 2005
Belchin' was a gas
Is 'the other Dan Brown' right - are we not an exclusive club anymore? While I'm talking about comics only being available in a paper bag, there's new movies being released featuring an ever widening array of characters from the comic books, the collectors market is ever burgeoning - and will pay for the near mint. Great writers and inspired cover artists flourish. Editors display a canny knack for producing the kind of stories we fans are clamouring for. Characters that once seemed irredeemibly lame, got a makeover by artistic teams from across the pond in a way that nobody could have hoped for. And they're still doing it.
Writers and artists are crisscrossing from indie to mainstream to alternate to underground and finding an audience and a market where'ere they go.

The doomsayers weren't completely wrong: whole companies imploded, with some characters like the prize-winning Nexus moving more than once. The black and white boom died out and the 'satire of a satire is weakened in the attempt' that was the bad clones of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, deservedly carked it to unsportsmanlikely like cries as to who was homage, who was humour, and who was cheesy low grade rip-off not fit for a bog roll.

There was scandal threatening to creep into (or seep out of) bullpen bulletins and there was, and continues to be, creative misfires until the cows come home.

But that's all in the nature of the beast.


Posted by berko_wills at 5:04 AM NZT
Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005 3:50 PM NZT
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