I recently had the pleasure of being invited to the Madame Tussauds Blackpool Marvel Experience opening night. It was a fun evening and I left feeling impressed with the quality of the experience and all the exhibits.

Being a podcast about 20th Century Pop Culture this kind of thing is perfect for me. I got to get a photo with Sid Rotten, Freddie Mercury and the Two Ronnie’s. I was a happy little nerd to begin with.  So to top it off with the main reason I was there was awesome.

The exhibit is split into four areas each focused on different parts of the comic experience. The first is a faux comic book shop displaying a wide array of modern Marvel comics, many of which I have read. However the thought struck me that this was a missed opportunity. The racks could have been used to demonstrate the evolution of the Marvel universe from its Birth in the early 60’s to the Modern Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which the exhibits focus on. Although this may be filled differently when open to the public.

Moving past this you enter the second zone with a smouldering Hemsworth Thor. The statue is excellent, not only is the face spot on the Thor Avengers movie costume is perfect. Set up like an ice cave you also get to see if you are worthy by trying to lift the Asgardian war hammer Mjolnir.

Beyond this is zone 3, an open area with several excellent Marvel Heroes and photo opportunities. The goliath Hulk looks incredible (see what I did there!). He is accompanied by the meanest mother fu… er, greatest spy master Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury and your friendly waxwork Spider-man.

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In my opinion, the best is saved for last where you will have the chance to have a picture with a full size Groot. It looks stunning and who doesn’t want to join the Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s not the largest exhibit but it is an excellent celebration on the modern Marvel Universe. All the displays are great with (mostly) life like statues and loads of interactive elements. They are a slice of British pop culture heritage and to have this joined by some of the most iconic characters in modern pop culture is wonderful.

I congratulate the team that worked on this for capturing the essence of wonder and imagination that Marvel and the MCU inspires.  It’s a well worth a visit for anyone holidaying in Blackpool.

Excelsior!

The “Circus Theory” of entertainment, Or why Marvel need more fire eaters

When I spent my spare time dressing in lycra and throwing other men around a squared circle I learnt a lot about how to organise a show to maximise the enjoyment of the audience. It’s a simple theory that my close friend and co-host Mike has quoted at me so many times – a show should always be like a circus. In itself it sounds a bit daft, so let me explain.

The Circus is a single show, you sit down and for an hour or more you are entertained. However, the key is that during that time you will experience so many different acts. It could be the acrobats swinging through the air, the Clowns tumbling, the stunt bikers or the fire eaters risking their lives, if you don’t like one you will like the next, or the next. There will be something that keeps you on the edge of your seat and you will go away thinking about.

We applied the same idea to a wrestling show. You would have a hard hitting match between two technical experts, a fast paced highflying stunt-fest, a dramatic tag team match, a comedy match and finish with a no holds barred hard-core match. They were all wrestling matches but we added in variety so that there was always a match that would stand out for everyone in the audience. 9 times out of 10 this worked perfectly (as long as the matches were good!).

In essence … variety is the spice of life.

So how does this apply to Marvel? I have read Marvel comics on and off for years and enjoyed quite a lot of what I have read. In the last few years however I would say that the majority of what they have to offer is stale and cookie cutter bland. It’s not for want of trying; they have introduced new characters and had some interesting and talented creators work for them. The problem is the majority of the output is a homogenous mass of superhero noise with a couple of outliers that try, sometime successfully, to break the mould (Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight, Tom King’s Vision, Jason Aaron’s Mighty Thor). They are all slight variations of the simplest of acts; flashy crisis / event driven cartoons with snappy dialogue and humour. This sounds like a good comic, right? It would be but when it makes up 95% of the companies output it gets very boring.

Even when they start with a flair for something different, like Jason Aarons Doctor Strange run, they soon fall back into the standard fare. It’s like the “House Style” leaks into everything and eventually makes it all the same. They have the their “Fresh Start” coming in May 2018 which I am sure will be a loud and fabulous tidal wave of more of the same.

DC isn’t completely free of this but they keep it contained and seem to have found a way of using it. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, the stories often run in cycles and they will never push the boundaries too far. At least in the main run. They use it like a warm blanket, a patchwork quilt of continuity and nostalgia. The difference is that they are actually different characters. The Superman books always feel different from the Batman books which feel different from the Green Lantern books etc.

That wouldn’t be enough on its own, the house style does leak in. So what has kept them a step above? They acknowledge that variety is important. They have multiple worlds they dip into time and time again and use them to try something different; Earth 2 in the New 52 era was interesting for this. They have Else World stories, like the current “Batman: White Knight” story that is playing out an idea that could never be used in the main Batman book. In addition to that they have created imprints that have stretched the possibilities of comics and the superhero world. Swamp Thing, Constantine and Sandman all pushed the boundaries in ‘Vertigo’ during the 90s. More recently they have created the new Imprint ‘Young Animal’ which has allowed creators to push the boundaries of imagination with Shade the Changing Girl, Doom Patrol and Mother Panic, all of which can and do interact with the main DC continuity.

So what we have is two companies producing very similar products:

The first company producing a large quantity of similar products centred on a central style. They rely on customer good will and nostalgia or the love of specific characters that then appear in almost every book (Deadpool at the moment). The result is that customers start to drop off as they tire of not being challenged or being given something slightly different.

The second seems to have learnt a lesson. They also court the sense of nostalgia that exists for their top tier characters and have a habit of over saturation for hot property characters (Harley Quinn, we’re looking at you!). However they have also found a way to challenge those ideas and concepts. Moreover, they have created avenues for creators to really push the boundaries of imagination. A sandpit part of the universe that not only has Batman and Wonder Woman but also a snarky English magician con-man and a team of heroes that live on a teleporting transvestite street called Danny.

I will always want something fun and exciting from my nostalgia character superhero books. They are the bread and butter of the comic book industry and when done well can be great, we all love the acrobats. These are not always enough, for me at least, sometimes I want something different like a fire eater. Then I will look to the fringes and check out something like Doom Patrol or Hellblazer. That means my money is going to go the company that will provide me a Variety Show in their superhero offerings.

Dr Strange or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Mouse

Last night, while talking about the new Star Wars film a friend of mine mentioned that she hadn’t seen and wouldn’t watch The Force Awakens or the Last Jedi. I can understand this if her reasoning was that she wasn’t a fan of Star Wars or Sci-fi but when I asked why she stated “I hate Disney.” Now that is a pretty strong statement. To hate something, anything is a definitive position so I wanted to know more about how she had gotten to this point.

When I asked, she explained that Disney was a cynical money making machine that takes any property it can get its hands on an rape it for every penny. The properties she was most update about and used as examples were Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood. Getting to the core of it she felt that Disney was responsible for taking elements of British Culture and repackaging it or Americanising it and then selling it back to the younger generation.

During the discussion, she asked, why can’t anything be kept sacred and just have the purest form be given to each generation? I have my own opinions on this and as I drove home I thought about it more and why I’m actually ok with Disney and how they treat properties. I am a fan of the Marvel movies and have enjoyed all of them, to varying degrees. However, despite some missteps one of the things that I think Disney has always been spot on is the characterisations and adaptations of the main characters. They have evolved the characters but kept their soul.

As I do with most things I broke it down into different elements, which I have highlighted below. These are probably commons sense but they are worth repeating.

Evolve or die, but keep the essence

When my friend mentioned the fact that Disney had ‘raped’ the Winnie the Pooh books and that the A.A. Milne estate should not have sold the books, something very important struck me. I haven’t read the Winnie the pooh books since I was a kid. Also, that I am more familiar with the Disney version than the original, not that I think they are that different. Is this a bad thing? No, the fact is that is if the Disney version did not exist then the original would probably be lost to time apart from the few that pass the stories or books down the generations. However, that would not last forever.

The fact that several generations have had newer, glossier versions has meant that they have been introduced to the characters old and new from Hundred-acre wood. Each iteration a slightly updated version, keeping it relevant. The Key however, and this is what Disney have cracked, is keeping the essence of the character. Pooh Bear is not the only character that has survived through evolution.

To provide an example of both sides of the coin let’s look at a couple of other characters. The best one I can think of in recent years is Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think any other character has benefitted from evolution. The original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are great and worth being read, more on that later, but a stuffy Victorian detective is not an easy sell to a modern audience. So over time you have had different versions, each providing something new to the mythos while bringing the old to a new audience. In the 80’s we had Spielberg’s ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ and Disney’s ‘Basil the great mouse detective’, I’m a fan of each and it was the former that introduced me to the original stories.

However, the most successful evolution of the character has come more recently with the BBC series Sherlock. The essence of the character has been maintained but they have moved the setting to modern London. This has stood head and shoulders over the American versions (Sherlock Holmes movies and the Holmes TV series) not because its British but because it has better writing and acting. This version has reignited interest in the character and the concept of the great detective.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin and a character born in the same period, Tarzan. The film released in 2016, The Legend of Tarzan looked glossy and well-made but it was a flop. Having seen it I can understand why. While the special effects and acting were all good, the story was so A to B simple that it may have engrossed an audience in the 1930’s but something more needs to be done for a modern audience. I would even go so far as to state that the Disney version (1999) is a better version and story. So, the character of Tarzan is little known by younger people and if is at risk being considered an anachronism and being cast aside. This is tragic as the character and concept are fantastic and in the hands a good writer and director I can imagine a modern telling making an interesting social commentary on nature vs. nurture, what it is to have mixed heritage and / or how the modern social class structure treats people.

The point is, that without these modern versions the character of Sherlock Holmes would become irrelevant, just as Tarzan is at risk of being. In this fickle world if you’re not relevant then you get taken over by other characters that are. This means that some amazing parts of culture past get lost and forgotten. I could add in a list here of so many great characters that have fallen by the wayside because they either failed to adapt or evolve (think The Shadow vs Batman or Alan Quartermaine vs. Indiana Jones). 

Grant Morrison provided a Limbo world for such characters in the DC universe. Introduced in Animal Man #25 and then expanded upon in Final Crisis. This concept is further explored in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. These forgotten characters are all in there, waiting to be rediscovered and given a new glossy coat, ready for a brand-new audience.

Gateway drugs

With new iterations of characters not only do we get more relevant versions, more people are made aware of the original source material. The newer versions are a gateway and that is a good thing. In all cases the original and / or the best iterations of things do not go away, they are always there. However, if they are presented to you directly then you need to be given a map.

Consider Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes again. The original stories for each are really good and should be visited again and again by old and new audiences. Yet, do you think sales of the books of these stories would be as high-without BBC’s Sherlock or Disney’s Winnie the Pooh? Of course not.

As I mentioned above I was introduced to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories after seeing ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. I now have a wonderful Hardback collection that I dip into now and then. As a kid I don’t think I could have been sold on Sherlock and his detecting solely on someone telling me about them. In order for me to get through the older language and story structure I needed to already be invested in the character. My first taste was free, I had to work to get more and it was worth it.

The same can be said of Winnie the Pooh. The books are great but in the market of so many children’s books why pick up one book about a little bear over another? Well, if your child has seen the Disney version then they will choose Pooh Bear, probably the better choice. If they love those books then hopefully they will pass them on.

More than that it will hopefully open the doors to other literature that they may not have thought about otherwise, as they get older. A.A. Milne might lead to Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Or Conan Doyle might lead to Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming. I am willing to bet that more people reach these other authors and stories via modern films and comics than picking them up directly.

As a final note, regardless of what you think about the 2001 – 2003 Lord of the Rings films it cannot be denied that those films opened a door to both Tolkien and Fantasy Fiction for a whole new generation. Book sales soared and people got hooked. There is a knock-on effect. Without those films, we would not have ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Shannara Chronicles’. You can enjoy these both as books and TV shows.

Selective selection

A further point that my friend made was the absolute glut of merchandise that Disney produce to sell to kids. As well as all the half-hearted cash-in tie ins and spin-offs. Now as a comic book geek, I am very used to this mentality and how to deal with it. While I completely understand her point, there is a truth that must be accepted, Disney is a business and it is supposed to make money. It will produce whatever it can to make money it is up to us as consumers to vote with our money.

I know that I can go into almost any supermarket in the western world and buy some form of Disney merchandise. Does that mean that it’s all top quality and worth having? Not at all. It is therefore up to me to select what I buy and what I buy for my kids. Buy quality and what matters to you. If you want a bath towel with Cinderella or Yoda on, you can. If you don’t want to dilute your version of a character then simply walk on by.

There is no point getting upset about merchandise or add on products, they will always exist. However, you can use them to enhance your pleasure or ignore them. That is up to you.

Change is coming

Before we finish I want to acknowledge that I understand that not all versions of a character are very good or in some cases even appropriate. I have used English and Western characters for my examples because that is what I grew up with and relate to. However, I am very aware that Hollywood and Disney have butchered and converted characters form other cultures into western versions. This has been and still is a weakness of character evolution and adaption in almost all formats.

However, change is coming. There is a wave of young creators that understand that diversity is a part of adaptation and evolution. Several cases of white washing have occurred and been called out by audiences in the last few years. The loudest being for 2017’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. A weak adaptation was affected further by western casting over obvious Asian choices.

We live in a much more diverse and varied world and audiences have started to make their preference known. We are about to enter an era of new diverse characters or old characters evolving to remain relevant. The next version of Sherlock might not be your Dads Sherlock but that doesn’t mean either version is incorrect, just that they are part of an ongoing story of evolution.

The question is who will be at the forefront of this next era of diversity in character evolution or truer adaptation? Time will tell, but lets come back to Disney. In 2018 we have Black Panther (which I am so excited for) with a majority black cast and African setting. Not something we would have got even 10 years ago. Beyond that we have got the live action Aladdin which is casting Middle Eastern and Asian actors to tell this story of Arabian Nights. That’s not to say that we are there yet there is lots of work to be done and it needs to be handled with quality and sincere productions.

I hope for a world in which my 4-year-old daughter has access to the Winnie the Pooh books and the Holmes stories. Yet she also has exciting new characters and new iterations of old characters that have been evolved to meet the desires of future audiences and say something interesting about the world they now inhabit.

Summary

The great thing about fiction is that it’s like water. It can be poured into any container, mixed with other things, even change form to fit what you want it to do but you can always take it back to its essence. Disney have poured water into many different containers and diluted it with all kinds of things. In some cases it’s become something amazing other times a stodgy mess – but the pure water will always be there for anyone that wants to take a drink.

My Secret Origin

Everyone has a story, an origin story if you will, about how they were first introduced to comics. It changes from generation to generation, country to country and person to person but they are always interesting. In Britain there are several comics that will almost always be mentioned, for the younger readers there is the Beano and the Dandy. They are filled with whacky Comedy anthologies containing looney toon level characters with very British twists.

I got these sporadically for years as a young kid and got an annual for each every Christmas. As far as I was concerned these were comics. I was aware of Batman and Superman but only in the sense of characters that were toys and appeared on other merchandise. It was not until years later that I would learn about them and their full and complex mythology.

So how did I bridge that gap between Dennis the Menace and the Dark Knight? My Nan took me and my sister on a lot of day trips in the summer holidays. She couldn’t drive so we travelled on coaches to the destinations. These journeys could be incredibly dull and I loved to read so what better way to pass the time than reading comics?

Before one of these journeys I was given some money to buy something to entertain myself with. So I trotted into the local newsagents, my money in my hand not knowing that on this occasion my life would change. I looked through the usual magazines and kids comics, not really interested in what I was looking at. That was until I noticed an orange cover sticking out from the back. Pulling it out I was confronted with a helmeted character astride a bike clad in guns and a large gold eagle. It was an issue of “The Complete Judge Dredd”.

I opened the pages and flicked through the black and white art. It contained several chapters of the classic Cursed Earth saga, Judge Dredd and a bunch of cohorts travelling across the radioactive cursed earth on a mercy mission. I was hooked!! But I wasn’t finished there. As I pulled out the issue of Complete Judge Dredd, I uncovered that week’s issue of 2000AD. I was noticed it because the same character, Judge Dredd was it. My chubby little hands grabbed it from the shelf and opened it up. I couldn’t believe it, these stories were in colour!

I purchased both comics and ploughed through them several times that day. However, the one thing that struck me hard was that neither of them contained the end of the stories. I had to get the next issues to see what was going to happen. I went back to the newsagent a few days later and asked when the next issues will be in. They told me and I was back week on week absorbing the mad beautiful sci-fi horror that was early 90’s 2000AD.

As is very obvious from my previous blogs and podcasts, I did not stop there. As the title of this blog states, 2000AD was my gateway drug into the comic world. It was and is such an amazing comic and a staple of British pop culture.

After a couple of years of the 2000AD world I came across a Forbidden Planet in my home town. Holy Shit!! There are shops dedicated to this and so many other wonderful comics!! It blew my tiny little mind. My obsession was about to go to the next level … but that is a story for another day.

I would be fascinated to hear your comic’s origin story, what was your first comic? Where did you see it and what did you feel about it? Please let me know.

List of 5 comics you may not have heard of that deserve a film adaptation

You will notice from the dates on the series below that I am breaking my own rules again but this is my blog so it’s ok every now and then. So, I am listing comics series that I think are underrated and would also translate the big screen awesomely.

1.    Elephantmen (2006):

In a future war a corporation has found a way to fuse Human and Animal DNA to create super-hybrid soldiers. They are programmed for war, violence and killing, the perfect soldiers for the future battle field. They fight for many years but when the war ends they are liberated, helped and rehabilitated to be useful members of society. They take on jobs and live their lives but to many they are dangerous genetic freaks, they are The Elephantmen.

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The series is noir sci-fi and primarily follows Hieronymus (Hip) Flask a Hippopotamus, who works for a law enforcement agency.  Using his natural and trained skills he takes on a series of mysteries that start to centre in on the other Elephantmen. As he interacts with them we find out more about the world, how they have managed to move on, or not.

As well as being a fantastic sci-fi series in the vain of Blade Runner it challenges the ideas of what former soldiers go through when they come back to society. It also highlights the theme of what makes us ‘Human’ and whether we are victims of our nature or if we can push against it and be more.

This series would make a fantastic film franchise, especially now that the special effects have reached a level that can make Hip and the other Elephantmen so real. This could be much more than a summer blockbuster; this could do what great sci-fi always does; say something about who and what we are, using something out of this world. This could be an awesome mix of story and visuals.

Elephantmen is written by Richard Starkings and individual volumes and a Mammoth collection are easily available on line.

 

2.  Blacksad (2000):

What if Disney animated an adult focused noir detective series populated by anthropomorphic animals living in 50s America? Well you would get Blacksad. Think Zootropolis written by Raymond Chandler.

The series centres on John Blacksad a private detective and black cat, as he falls into different pulp style detective stories. He is your stereotypical gum shoe, a hard-nosed detective with a heart of gold. He can’t refuse a beautiful dame or a victim in danger.

The first story is straight forward and a great homage to its many pulp sources. However the second and third stories make a shift to become more political statements. ‘Arctic Nation’ deals with the concept of racial segregation in a small town. The story doesn’t mess around and includes a racially motivated lynching near the beginning and gets even darker at times. The third story ‘Red Soul’ deals with the McCarthy era witch hunt for communists. This story has some heavy themes about how your politics and how you act on them can define you.

There have been several attempts to create an adult focused animated movie, very few of them have been successful. This series has so much potential to tell action packed important stories about who we are using Disney like characters. I am convinced in the right hands this could be amazing.

Blacksad is a Spanish comic written by Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido. English translations are easily available on line. 

 

3.    Skullkickers (2013):

I admit I haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons; however I have enjoyed a lot of fantasy novels and films so I am well aware of the tropes and clichés that the genre is populated with; the medieval environment, swords, sorcery, dwarves and elves on and on it goes. Keep those in place and make it a madcap action adventure series written by Jim Zub and you get a refreshing take on an old story. Two nameless warrior mercenaries wandering the land looking for money and adventure, a massive muscle bound barbarian (nicknamed Baldy) and a tough as nails dwarf (nicknamed Shorty); from there we start the story.

The great thing about this series is the fact that the majority of the fantasy elements are taken seriously. The threats are serious; it’s actually our heroes that provide the comedy in the midst of the action. They are living the life they want and they are having fun doing it. There is nothing deep or thematic in the book to read into. This is designed to be popcorn fun action and it succeeds. Think Guardians of the Galaxy mixed with Tolkien.

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Also the art is perfect for the series; it’s simple and bold with great character designs and excellent imagination.

Skullkickers could be an amazing action adventure franchise, a balls to the wall summer tent pole blockbuster that would rival Lord of the Rings and out do World of Warcraft. I can see Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Baldy, it would be awesome.

Individual volumes and oversized collections are available on line.

 

4.    Rogue Trooper (1981):

War is hell, but what if you were created for the sole purpose of existing and fighting in that hell? On the far off planet of Nu-Earth in the distant future a war has been raging for years between two armies, the Norts and the Southers. The war has lasted so long that the atmosphere of the planet is unbreathable with poison gas. To provide a more robust army the Southers create Genetic Infantry (GI) soldiers that can breathe the atmosphere. They’re stronger, faster and more resilient; they will bring the war to an end. However, in their first major engagement in the Quartz Zone they are almost all massacred. The Norts knew they were coming and ambushed them.

Of the deployed GIs only Friday survives, left to wonder the war torn landscape not fighting for any side, just trying to survive. He is not alone in this journey; he has three others with him. Each of them dead and their personalities replicated on a chip and installed on a piece of his equipment (Helm, gunner and Bagman – the names sort of explain themselves).

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Rogue trooper and has been running for 35 years and has built up a fantastic sci-fi mythology. I wouldn’t even try and touch on it here for fear of missing something out. If you want to know more I strongly suggest you check it out on line.

There are so many story opportunities in this series and so many ways they could be told. My preference would be a gritty sci-fi war story, imagine a sci-fi take on Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Black Hawk Down.

The complete stories are being collected in volumes and available on line.

 

5.    Half past Danger (2014):

The tag line for this 6 issue limited series says it all really – Dames, Dinosaurs and Danger! This is blockbuster comic making at its best. Written and drawn by Stephen Mooney, it homage’s pulp novels, serials and classic adventure tales. It wears its influences on its sleeve and parallels or comparisons can be made between characters in this book and so any others; Indiana Jones, Doc Savage and Steve Rogers.

Set during World War 2 the series follows Tommy ‘Irish’ Flynn as he is shanghaied into joining a small band of elite soldiers. Their mission is to stop the Nazi’s from capturing and weaponiseing Dinosaurs from a long lost Island.

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Like I say, this isn’t particularly original but it is a whole lot of nostalgic fun with beautiful art and fun dialogue. The images could be used as story boards they are framed in such a cinematic way.

Harrison Ford it clearly too old for Indy (despite a new film being produced!). It’s time for a new adventure series to take the centre stage.

A great hardback edition is available on line.

British Invasion Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Sound of her Wings"

Like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman produced what can be considered his statement of intent issue after completing the initial arc on his primary series, and being asked to carry on. However, that is where the similarities end. While Morrison moved away from the main character of Animal Man to have a look at the weirdness of the wider world, Gaiman turns inward to take a direct look at The Sandman.

After breaking out of his capture and re-establishing himself as the master of dream, Morpheus is depressed and feeling lost. Just as it is acknowledged in Gaiman’s Black Orchid, Morpheus echoes the feeling that the end was an anti-climax. After taking his revenge and being away for so long where does he stand? The whole issue circulates around this issue with a conversation between Morpheus and his Eternal sister, Death.

Death in this series is very different representation that we are used to. In this case Death is represented by a young cute Goth girl. She has been around a long long time and has the wisdom of ages. However, she isn’t going to be direct with her knowledge and wisdom other than to tell Morpheus to stop moping.

From this perspective we can break the issue into three acts. We start with several pages of Morpheus ‘moping’ and contemplating his place in the universe. These pages have minimum dialogue but are filled with expression.  This is typical Gaiman, giving his stories room to breathe and using the art to tell the story.

The second act starts when Death strolls into the story and starts a conversation with her Brother. We learn more as the conversation progresses about the two and the relationship between them. Death is the older sibling and is coming by to tell her brother to sort himself out, stop moping and get back to what he does best. In one conversation the universe escalates to start introducing The Eternals and provide more nuggets of history for the characters.

The conversation leads to the third and final section when Morpheus is talked into accompanying Death as carries out her job.  We experience a series of lives ending both old and young, one incredibly young. It is during this section that Gaiman starts to bring his theme to the fore, as Morpheus starts to understand his place and what he needs to do next. It becomes clear that this isn’t just Morpheus on this journey; Neil Gaiman is on the same journey and excising the constraints of the first story arc. By the end of the story both Morpheus and Gaiman have come to a clear conclusion, while they may have responsibilities they can carry them out in whatever way they want.

This issue is a real turning point for Gaiman. There may have been independent success before this but this is the point at which Gaiman cracks the code and realises that he is able to apply that same approach and style to everything he does. The series could have ended with the first arc and been a well-crafted fantasy horror story set on the edge of the DCU. Following this issue we are off the edge and Gaiman is free to make the series whatever he wants it to be. That is why this is the statement of intent for Neil Gaiman; in itself it is an interesting single issue, in the context of the whole series it is a conversation that sets up everything that comes after.

British Invasion Review: Grant Morrison's "The Coyote Gospel"

Grant Morrison had been given the green light to write his four issue miniseries for Animal Man and it was a success. The bods at DC knew that if they were going to take a chance on Arkham Asylum then Morrison needed more exposure and if Animal Man was working, why change anything. So they asked him to continue, but after finishing your story what do you say? How about shifting focus to a coyote that has been sent to the DC universe from a parallel animated world?

While the first four issue of Animal Man dig into the weirder mythology of the DC universe, issue 5 creates its own weirdness. It’s an absurd existential tale about sacrifice and fear. Again, I won’t go into deep detail but I will cover the salient points, in fact I am barely going to mention Animal Man himself at all.

The main elements in the issue are the revelations about a coyote that walks around the desert on two legs and a man that loses everything but his faith. The issue opens with optimism and a trucker that has turned his life around for the better. During a conversation with a hitchhiker we learn that he’s a gay man in the 80’s that has found a loving partner and is doing well, he has even found religion. Then they meet the bipedal coyote … and run him down with a truck. This could be the end of the story for both the trucker heading home and the dead coyote. However, we quickly learn that this is far from the end when the coyote’s broken body heals.

The story picks up a year later for these two and in that time a lot has happened. The trucker has lost everything; his partner was killed in an accident. His mother had died from cancer, he had lost his job and the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the hitchhiker he helped a year before has also been killed. Tracking it back he pin points the start of his bad luck on the day he ran over the devil, or as we know the coyote. Now he wants revenge.

After running through several attempts to kill the coyote in some very looney toon ways, the coyote meets Animal Man and presents him with the truth. We learn that he is from a world of cartoon characters, beset by constant violence but where no one can die. Sick of this endless cycle of pointless violence he goes to see his creator and partition him to intervene and stop it. The creator agrees, on one condition, the coyote will be transported to another world to suffer again and again, thus saving his world from violence.

The book ends with Animal Man stating that he cannot read the script he has been given that contains the truth. The Trucker finally kills the coyote believing he has killed a / the devil, thus saving the world.

To stop there for a moment, we are really getting into the Morrison-isms that I have always enjoyed. The concept of parallel or multiple worlds will come up again and again in everything from Doom Patrol, Batman, Final Crisis and of course Multiversity. It is a core conceit of the DC universe that Morrison is a master of. Also, woven into this issue and some of those other stories, especially Final Crisis is the idea of a “creator”. This is returned to later in his Animal Man run, when Buddy Baker actually meets Grant Morrison. In this series and Final Crisis we meet characters that have been forgotten and exist in a limbo waiting for a creator to pluck them out and use them again.

Moving from the purer Morrison ideas, the heavy religious overtones of this issue cannot be missed. From the truck drivers cross and mission to kill the devil, the evangelist on the TV in the Baker home to the idea of the Coyote sacrificing himself to endless punishment to save his world from violence.  Of course the irony being that a man of faith has killed a being that is on a mission of pain for the purpose of peace.

I think because of his longer list of stories behind him Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing 21 is a better statement of his ability; it is better structured and tighter plotted. However this issue from Morrison is like an experiment, he throws in some good ideas in a loose construct and it comes together brilliantly. It’s no wonder he comes back to the ideas again in the future. Of the three issues I am discussing, this is my favourite.

British Invasion Review: Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson"

For Alan Moore his statement of intent came with his American breakthrough. He had done a lot of work in the UK and it had gotten some attention. However, writing for Swamp Thing gave him exposure to a much wider audience. His first issue on the series was a wrap up of the previous writer’s story; in fact the issue is actually called “Loose ends”. With issue 21 he was able to start taking the series in his direction.

In issue 20 Swamp Thing is shot and presumed killed. In issue 21 we literally get a lesson in the Swamp Thing, where he came from, what he is and how he works. I am going to try and avoid spoilers but I will give the basics. The person that had Swampy ‘killed’ has kept his body and brings in Doctor Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, to analyse the body. As he learns more and more, so do we. We and Swamp Thing also find out by the end of the issue what he really is.

This issue is a literal rebirth for the character, not only does he awaken from the dead but when he does so everything about the characters essence has changed. This issue takes what started as a mutated Man and transforms him to something much more mythical.

A lot of this issue deals with what it is to be human, and how we define ourselves. It is demonstrated that Woodrue, a plant/man hybrid villain from the DCU, uses synthetic skin to hide his true appearance, wanting to look human.  Does his appearance make him human?

There is also the man that had swamp thing killed, the old General, who lives and works in a digital office space, the king of his castle. The tower of steel and wires, as he sees it, a symbol of his wealth, but if you’re not engaging with society, are you human? Again when we learn what Swamp Thing really is, the question is presented: Are you a person because of the body people see, or the thoughts in your head.

This question is represented in the issue by book end images. The opening page shows Woodrue’s human face looking through a rain soaked window. The final page presents the same image, only now the human façade has been washed away and we see the Floronic man.

This is just one theme that I have picked out form the issue, a lot more can be taken from these 22 pages. However, just in presentation of this one theme we get to see the use of mirroring, which would be used in much more detail in Watchmen. As well as presenting juxtaposing ideas, like nature vs. technology and what it means to be human – Woodrue vs. the general. These are not only Moore ideas that he would visit again but more importantly the techniques used will be refined and used again and again in his future works. A lot of what came before is very good but this issue defiantly represents a turning point for Moore. This is a confident, well written story that being received well encouraged Moore to become more ambitious. 

"British Invasion: The invention of the modern comic book writer" Review

Despite my love of history and reading I haven’t read many biographies. I will admit to an attention span that needs something exciting every couple of pages to keep me going. So pages about someone’s childhood and family always become dry and my thoughts start to drift. However, there are a couple of biographies I would hold up as great examples of the genre that I really enjoyed. Mick Foley’s ‘Have a Nice Day: A tale of Blood and Sweatsocks’ and Kevin Smith’s ‘Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a fat lazy slob who did good’ kept me engrossed and I would recommend them to anyone. I can now add to that list Greg Carpenter’s ‘British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the invention of modern comic book writer’.

I should caveat that British Invasion is not wholly a Biography; while it does cover most aspects of the three subjects’ lives it also provides insightful and detailed analysis of their comic book work. The balance that this book strikes is perfect and written in an accessible fashion. This could have been a dry and dull text book but at no point is it overly academic but it also never dumbs down or patronises the reader.

The objective of the book is to provide a history of events and analysis of the impact of three of the most influential comic book writers of the last 30 years. Highlighting how these three men defined an era with some of the most well regarded and loved comic books ever. It achieves that objective and then some.

The history aspect is sufficiently detailed for the reader to understand where Moore, Morrison and Gaiman come from without getting bogged down in “this, then this and then this” listing of childhood events. I found it fascinating that three men from such different backgrounds could become so entwined historically and thematically. The rea historic detail comes later in the book chronicling how each of them entered the industry and then moved from work to work. This biographical context alone provided deeper meaning to the work they were producing. Knowing why and how Morrison created King Mob for ‘The Invisibles’ is one step beyond!

The book however goes further. This is where it is worth noting the author’s (Greg Carpenter) background as a college lecturer. Carpenter has taught courses on topics such as Comics, Shakespeare, Modern & Post-modern American literature and Screen-writing to name a few. So to say that he knows what he talking about is an understatement.

Carpenter’s analysis of the works, both popular and obscure, of each writer is fascinating and thought provoking. I lost count of the times that I dashed to my collection to read an issue or check the page of a book and seeing it in a completely new light, with more depth and meaning.

Having read this book it has achieved three key things for me that have changed the way I will not just read comics from Moore, Morrison and Gaiman but all writers and artists. Primarily, by providing an insight into the life of each writer I now appreciate more than ever how comic books are influenced by the personal situation of the contributors. Secondly, it has given me a deeper and richer understanding and love of the writer’s works. Anything that makes me love something more than I already do is always good. Thirdly, it has provided an education in the questions to ask and elements to consider when enjoying and experiencing any piece of art. I don’t and won’t claim to be able to provide any deep or meaningful analysis but knowing where to start is great. As an addition it has add a number of books I wasn’t aware of to my “Must read” list.

Overall, this is well written, accessible and insightful look at three genuinely brilliant creators that took comic books out of the spiral of silliness and proved that they could be art.

Greg Carpenter’s ‘British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the invention of modern comic book writer’ is published by the Sequart Organization and available through their website (sequart.org) and other book selling sites (I got mine from Amazon).