Thursday, 31 May 2012

Books: Fantastic Four: First Family

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Fantastic Four: First Family
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Chris Weston
2006




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


The writer/artist ratio is a strange one. Well. Actually - no - maybe not that strange. Most of the time if I'm checking the names on the cover it's the writer and not the one that did all the actual heavy lifting [1]. I mean - yeah - it's important how a book looks and stuff - but nearly all of the time - a great writer will make a comic worth reading (even if it looks like trash) but a great artist is often only as good at the stuff they're told to draw (a good example: Dave Gibbons: I mean - the guy's a really great artist obviously - but the only two books of his that I would really rate as being worth your time are Watchmen (because: duh) and his Martha Washington (which he did with Frank Miller and which you should really try if you haven't already) - while everything else he does is right kinda - alright - (sorry Dave)). But then - there are exceptions to every rule: and for me that exception is Chris Weston.

Yeah, yeah - I know that I have already declared my love for all things Weston elsewhere on here but I think it's worth reiterating just once more: guy makes every comic he draws into something well worth your time. He just makes everything look so scrumptious and at the same time slightly off-centre and peculiar - with a sense of framing and page layout (check out those moments when the background disappears and it's just a character's head framed against the whiteness) that always makes everything as dramatic and exciting as possible plus (oh man I wish everyone could follow his example) he never scrimps on the background detail - so it feels like everything takes place in a fully realised and properly fleshed out world.

So then - who's the other guy - Joe Casey? Who's that again exactly? The name rings a bell - although I have to confess - in order to work out what bell it was ringing - I did have to do the wikipedia [2]. Which is where I found this pretty close to self-parody sentence (underneath "biography"): "During Casey's run at Marvel Comics people started to recognize his talent as a writer, especially in regard to his work on the book Cable. He took the story in a different direction than had been previously established. Cable went from a multi-gun toting tough guy to a more spiritualized leader for the Askani." And - hell - maybe that means something to some of you (I know who Cable is - but no idea who the Askani are - or even if they're real or some made-up faux Native American thing [3]) - but - damn: if that's how people first started to notice his talent as a writer - then guy doesn't sound like that much of writer. (I mean - I know it's unfair to compare other people to Alan Moore - but compare and contrast "he made the tough guy to the tough guy with a spiritual side" to the kinda mischief Moore got up to with - say - Swamp Thing). Of course - that's his mainstream comics work which - one would guess - is always going to be written under market pressures and doing what you're told by the publishers - but then the only other thing I've read by him was a little bit of Gødland (which is a translucent Jack Kirby homage) but didn't get very far - but then I'm not much of a Jack Kirby fan.

Point being: I don't care anything about Joe Casey - but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is a nifty little comic.

But on to the Fantastic Four and radiation: There's an old Superman story that I read way, way, way back (I think it was in some collection or the other - and I doubt that Islington have a copy - but anyway): it was a Fantastic Four pastiche that told the story of the crew of the NASA space shuttle Excalibur getting infected with somesort of space radiation - only instead of giving them awesome super powers - it gives them awful radiation sickness (which makes a lot more sense when you think about it) and they all die in horrible ways with Superman (who can't really do anything to help) just kinda stands there and watches them - with jaw agape (mmm "agape" is a nice word). Obviously - it's really good [4] and kinda freaked me out about radiation and stuff. Because - yeah - radiation is scary and it can make you weak and sick and it can kill you. Which - if you think about it - just makes it sort of weird that some many of superheroes out there seemed to rely (back the day before the all got rebooted and stuff) upon radiation in order to make them super: Peter Parker and his radioactive spider, Bruce Banner and his his gamma radiation and - finally we get to the point - The Fantastic Four and their cosmic radiation.

Because - yeah - going out into space and being bombarded with cosmic radiation is most likely going to result with people like the Superman Fantastic Four pastiche (horrible death) than the more mainstream Fantastic Four (fun happy superpowers) but that's something that most iterations of the characters don't tend to touch - instead they focus on the family squabbles and the adventuring: but not this book - this is a book that's prickling with so much radioactivity that if you held a geiger counter up to it - it would start to click - it would start to click a lot. A lot of that has a lot to do with Chris Weston (like he says in the Comic Book Resources Interview (link below): "I suppose if you had to summarize my style in a single sentence it would be "weird shit rendered realistically."") he has a way of making the familiar figures of Reed, Susan, Johnny and Ben seem ever so slightly grotesque - with Ben Grimm himself looking less like a superhero and more someone suffering from chemical burns (I mean - maybe that's a slight exaggeration - but the point is: this is a book that real makes you feel the effects of their metamorphosis so that it's more than just - hey! now we're super! - and more: oh my god our bodies have radically changed - which as a bit of a Cronenberg fan is you know: a welcome stylistic choice).

And - yeah - the writing is good too. It knows what to show and what to leave unseen (there's a nice jumpcut which works pretty nicely) and everything rattles along in a pacey franatic way that gives you everything you need to know whilst making sure that nothing gets too bogged down - plus: there's a lot of nice touches in the art (ha - Emmerich Street!).

Elsewhere here I've already mentioned about how crazy and self-involved superhero stories can get - but rest easy: Fantastic Four: First Family is pretty much an origin story so you don't need to know anything prior before going in - plus (bonus): everything wraps up by the final pages - so you don't need to worry about trying to find out what happens next. In fact - the whole thing kinda feels pretty for what a Fantastic Four film should be like (maybe they could do a reboot?).

Superheroics (with a touch of dread) and radioactive mutant monsters as the heroes and the villians = great stuff.

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[1] Evidence: writers can churn out books a lot faster than artists can. Like - for every one book an artist can create - a writer can do three or four or five (at least). It's like actors and directors - just by virtue of how much they have to do - directors only ever manage about (if they're lucky) one film every year and a half or so. And - continuing the thought but flipping the roles - that kinda helps explains maybe why generally more interested in directors rather than actors - being that directors (by their very defintion) control everything and so get to be more "auteur-y" (that's a word right?) and stamp their individual take on stuff - while actors just kinda tend to do what they're told - and it's kinda the same with the writer/artist relationship in that (in the main) it's the writers who are coming up with all the stuff and directing the actions - while the artist is sorta the actor -just (and I know this is massively unfair - but oh well): get the script and do what they're told. So writers = directors and artists = actors - it's just that writers (like actors) can do things a lot more quickly while artists (like directors) have to take things more slowly. Ok.

[2] And whilst doing the wikipedia and checking out his bibliography I saw all the X-Men stuff he's wrote and thought oh right all this time I thought that it was Joe Carey who was writing all those X-Men stuff. Except of course there's no such writer as Joe Carey (altho according to google there is a Lieutenant Joseph "Joe" Carey who was (is? will be?) a 24th century Human Starfleet officer and assistant chief engineer on board USS Voyager during its seven-year journey through the Delta Quadrant - but I digress) and I was getting him mixed up with Mike Carey - who wrote The Unwritten (ha - and that's a great little sentence!) and Lucifer and stuff - and also - yes - he also does do loads of X-Men stuff too. So I thought I mixed them up - but turns out I didn't - and I made up a writer that doesn't exist - and (most importantly) I'm an idiot or (then again) maybe it's good that my brain hasn't been playing that much attention to who writes all those X-Men stuff because - let's face it - there's more important things. But - whatever.

[3] I checked. Yawn. They don't even sound that interesting. They're just a made-up religion / resistance group thing whose motto is: "What is, is" and meditate in the lotus position, but levitate upside down. etc. I mean - yay - I learnt something new today - but I get the feeling it's never to prove useful. Oh well.

[4] And - as I found out watching this (it's called the The Death and Return of Superman: "A somewhat-mostly-accurate educational" parody film by Max Landis (son of John Landis and director of Chronicle) starrring Elden Henson, Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore, Morgan Krantz, Simon Pegg and many more- yeah - you kinda need to watch it) I found out that the Mr Fantastic stand-in eventually turned into - very a pretty long and convoluted process [5] - into Cyborg Superman (who looks all sorts of amazing) and just goes to show that - I dunno - something about superhero comics.(My best guess: That they're stupid)

[5] You think I'm exaggerating? Fine (then read what it says on his wikipedia page): "Though Henshaw's physical body expired, he was able to transfer his consciousness into the LexCorp mainframe. Now able to control technology, Henshaw appears to his wife in a robotic body. The shock of this bizarre rebirth is too much for Terri and in a fit of insanity, she jumps to her death from the nearest window. By this point, Henshaw's electronic consciousness has begun to disrupt Earth's communications networks. Using NASA communications equipment, Henshaw beams his mind into the birthing matrix which had carried Superman from Krypton to Earth as an infant. He creates a small exploration craft from the birthing matrix and departs into outer space alone. Henshaw spends some time traveling between planets, bonding with local lifeforms to learn about the culture and history of various worlds. Henshaw would later come to believe that Superman was responsible for the tragedy of the Excalibur after learning that around the time of the accident, the Man of Steel had thrown a rogue Kryptonian artificial intelligence (the Eradicator) into the sun. Henshaw believes that this created the solar flare that resulted in the Excalibur crew's transformations. Over time, Henshaw becomes delusional and paranoid, believing that the Man of Steel had intentionally caused the deaths of himself, his wife, and his crew, then driven him from the Earth. Arriving on a planet controlled by alien overlord and Superman foe Mongul, Henshaw learns of Warworld and forcibly recruits Mongul as part of a plan for revenge against Superman. With Superman apparently dead after his battle with Doomsday, Henshaw decides to pose as him in order to destroy his reputation. To that end, the Cyborg claims to be Superman reborn, the result of the hero's body being pieced together and revived with technology. The Cyborg then uses knowledge obtained from Superman's birthing matrix to construct a body that is genetically identical to Superman." HAPPY NOW?

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Links: Comic Book Resources Interview with Chris Weston.

Further reading: The Twelve, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: 1234, Fantastic Four: Worlds Greatest / The Masters of Doom, The Filth.

Profiles: Chris Weston.

All comments welcome.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Events: Islington Comic Forum 2012/06

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The Islington Comic Forum is a big table full of comic books with a bunch of people seemingly selected from a United Colours of Benetton advert (there's no such thing as an average member) sitting around and discussing/arguing/sharing their thoughts and ideas about one of the most exciting and diverse mediums on the planet (nowadays if you're talking about something that's just "all about superheroes" my first guess is you're talking about films - but whatever). It's a little bit more chaotic than a book club but with the same sort of relaxed and open friendly atmosphere: all presided over by an excitable librarian who has pretty much read every comic book out there (even the terrible ones) and is willing to tell you where you're going wrong with whatever you're reading (and is most happy when people disagree with him). If you're curious as to what sort of books we discuss - then take a look around this blog - every book here has been included at one point or another. And if you want to know what sort of things we talk about: - well - it's never really that properly thought out but we touch upon everything from the best way to construct a story, to how far genre limits can go all the way to if Frank Miller was right about who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. Oh (and I think this is the best bit) you can take all books home. 


There's also a book of the month (so that at least we can all talk about something we've all read). This month it's: Scott Pilgrim Vol 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'MalleyIf you get a chance please read it. You can reserve yourself a copy here. (For those of you that don't get the chance - don't worry - you can still come and join in with the discussions).

The next one is: Tuesday the 26th of June / 6:00pm to 7:30pm in the Upstairs Hall at North Library Manor Gardens N7 6JX. Here is a map. Come and join us. All welcome. 

For more information (or if you have any questions and/or would like to be added to our email list: we send out a reminder a week before with a list of the books that are going to be available) you can email us here

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Books: Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls / Prisoners of the Sun

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The Seven Crystal Balls
By Hergé
1948





Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/

Prisoners of the Sun
By Hergé
1949





Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


Ok - I'm gonna be honest - pretty much the only reason I'm writing about these Tintin books rather than any others is because they're (probably) going to be the ones that Peter Jackson's Tintin sequel is going to be based on (see: the internet). But - hey - it's all good right? And at least it's not Asterix! [1]

My main memory of reading this books the first time round is the fear. There's this one moment in The Seven Crystal Balls (as mentioned by Noah Berlatsky in that Hooded Utilitarian link below) that gave me the total and absolute creeps - even looking at it now in the daylight I can still feel a faint chill moving down my back - and I'm back to being 11 years old hiding over the covers and trying to erase the images from my mind as I try to get to sleep.

But all that's by the by - because it doesn't really matter how scary those few panels are - what about the rest of the books surrounding it?

My theory about Tintin (and I don't know if there's anything out there that backs me up on this) is that in some respects he's the proto-James Bond. To explain: As hard as it may be to believe nowdays in the world of EasyJet - but there was once a point when it wasn't possible for the average person to travel aboard to exotic and far-off locales and so - a big part of the thrill of Bond (the books and especially the films) was that it was the nearest that the man on the street [2] would get to seeing Jamaica, Hagia Sophia, Miami Beach or whatever. Looking over the Tintin books - it seems that maybe there was a lot of that sort of thing was going on with everyone's favourite boy reporter. I don't know of any other character that has travelled so widely: Russia! The Congo! America! South America! Nuevo Rico! Shanghai! Scotland! Syldavia! The Sahara! Morocco! The West Indies! Iceland! Khemed! The Moon! Tibet! The Red Sea! The Lesser Sunda Islands! San Theodoros! [3] and of course - Marlinspike Hall (which apparently exists in England, Belgium and New York).

In these two books (after some detectiving around and getting all the elements of the plot into place) the destination for our intrepid band of heroes is Peru. Of course to my jaded mind Peru doesn't seem much of a exotic destintion (hell - what is nowadays?) but I'm guessing for those good folks back in the late 1940s it was up there with space travel - whilst nowadays to my jaded eyes - hanging out with llamas and climbing mountains these feels a bit like hanging out with Michael Palin (albeit with a little more slapstick).

Of course - because this is Tintin I feel almost duty bound to mention racism - and yep - towards the end there's a big point twist that doesn't really scan [4] relying as it does upon the idea that non-westerns wouldn't have any idea about how astronomy works which - sorry Hergé - it's the kind of thing that passes you by as a kid but doesn't really past the plausibility test now.

So - all in all - I'd say that there's better Tintin books out there and definitely ones which will give you much more bang for your reading buck. Except - it does still have those creepy panels so maybe it's worth a little peek just for that? I'll leave it to you to decide.

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[1] Joke. I'm not going to wade into the whole Tintin versus Asterix thing because as a child I read and enjoyed both (altho - truth be told: I've read all the Tintins but probably only about 1 third of Asterix) and while - yeah - Asterix can be a lot more cerebral (all those references!) and the wit is a lot sharper (even back then it was always much more likely that I''d find myself laughing with an Asterix book rather than a Tintin one - because let's face it - slapstick just isn't that funny in cartoon form) Tintin just feels more streamlined and elegant and built for much more adventurous purposes - and if I have to choose between a horse and cart and a rocket then - sorry guys - I'm going to go with the rocket every time (it goes into space!).

[2] Ha. Everytime I think of the "man on the street" I think of the Sid Vicious line. I'm not linking to it - but feel free to google it.

[3] Some of these places may be made up.

[4] On the Adventures of Tintin wikipedia page it puts this down to the influnce of Mark Twain - and Hergé's attempt to protray "Incas in awe of a latter-day 'Connecticut Yankee'." But whatever.

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Links: The M0vie Blog Review of The Seven Crystal Balls / The M0vie Blog Review of Prisoners of the Sun, Hooded Utilitarian Article: Tintin and the Racist Dream, Sean T Collins Review of the Seven Crystal Balls.

Further reading: Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn / Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin: Destination Moon / Explorers on the Moon, The Photographer.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Books: Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book

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Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book
By Gerard Jones
2004





Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


So. This is my 300th book post (and if you count the posts about other stuff - it's actually the 331st). So what the hey - let's make this special (any excuse - right?)

If you didn't already know: It wasn't my idea to set up this blog - the idea actually came from the people who came to the Comic Forum meeting - who said that they wanted a place to hang out online (although that hasn't gone so well - HELLO? GUYS? WHERE ARE YOU?). There was another Islington Comic Forum blog before this (see: here) run by a guy called Steve Hawkins and so I thought that it could be cool to start something like it that held up books I really liked and said: "Hey! Look at this! This is good!" (and you know: it's good to have something for when I send out the monthly email - there was a point when I used to write little one line blurbs for all the books - but now I can just put a in a link). Back when I first started out I didn't really think that things would get this far - I mean - as I'm sure you can all tell - I'm not really much of a writer (and it's not really what I want my life to be about - in my free time I much prefer making music - yes I know: Scott Pilgrim eat your heart out - and as a medium it feels like I'm much more into music and films than comics - but whatever): but it's been fun evolving from short little descriptions of what a books about (and trying not to give the whole plot away like most so-called reviewers tend to do) to - well - using the book as a springboard to try and talk about other things (and not always successfully I know - there's a lot of books that I've given short shrift to - mainly just because my shift at the library would be ending and it just seemed easier to click "publish" rather than just wait until the next time I was at work). And there's starting to be more times now when I've found myself writing stuff at home (much to the chagrin of my girlfriend) which I guess means that I'm taking things more seriously (and there's so many posts on here that I'm planning on going back and re-writing) and also - because - I guess that it's important to try and use whatever small influence I have (and I realise that it's very very small type of influence) to do somekind of good (because that's the kinda of thing Superman would want): and so - instead of going: "Hey! Look at this! This is good!" I'm going to try and go: "Hey! Look at this! This is good! And also: think about all the stuff that surrounds it." [1]

Because: from where I'm standing - 2012 seemed to be the the year when comic fandom discovered it's radical side and/or it's social conscience. Not so much that it has anything to do with the Arab Spring, Wikileaks, Occupy or anything like that - nope - the inspiration for the revolutionary fervour sweeping the interwebs (best place to start for anyone curious would be this 4thletter article: Before Watchmen: “there’s a war going on outside no man is safe from” which includes a link to a Comic Journal interview with iZombie writer Chris Roberson who got so sick with the moral compromises that come from working for DC that he decided to quit/get fired) comes from two places: The Watchmen prequels and The Avengers movie.

The Watchmen prequels because of how it's the latest and maybe most blatant example in a long long line of the folks at DC being unscrupulous in their dealings with Alan Moore (who - let's be honest - even if you can't stand his Mr Twit style facial hair - is someone who everyone who reads and enjoys modern day comic books owes some small debt of gratitude) and The Avengers movie which (regardless of whether or not you enjoyed it) stands in a morally dubious place because even tho it's broken book office records (taking in something like $200 million in it's first three days): not a penny of that cash will be going to the family of the person who created all those characters and concepts in the first place: Jack Kirby. (But - hell - David Brothers describes it all so much better than me here).

But I guess the main point is this: for an industry that has built itself around the idea of the superhero and all the truth, justice stuff that comes with it: it's coming as a bit of a shock to it's loyal readers and supporters to discover that under the hood - the bad guys have been running the show (*Gasp*! It's as if Mark Miller's Wanted was right all along!). Or to put it another way - I can't imagine a Superman story ending with Superman saying that everything is alright because hey - we're sticking to the terms of the contract. ("Oh well - in that case - you guys take care now! And I'll just fly off this way!")

Yes - we all know that all businesses are there to make money and look after their stockholders and that if they were human beings then they'd all be psychopaths: but it's becoming clear that the comics industry is - even when compared with the low low standards adopted by all the other entertainment industries out there - pretty damn sleazeball (like: you don't see Steven Spielberg vowing to quit making films or complaining about the way he's been treated or anything like that).

So. Cut to: last month's meeting of the Comic Forum - and we're all discussing Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin. Things started off jovial - quite a few people digged the day-glo attitude and the pop art simplicity and all that - and then we started to veer off in a different direction and we start talking about the way that Grant Morrison - well - operates. I think that someone was saying that they were a little bit disappointed by how it didn't really feel like they weren't getting the whole story and it felt like it was a little bit - incomplete. "Ah" I said (Except I'm not exactly sure if "Ah" was exactly the thing that I said or indeed any of the stuff that follows - but hey I'm trying to make a point here - so just roll with it and let's pretend that I did.) "That's because Grant Morrison's Batman stuff isn't something that you can just dip in and out of - it's more like each story is a little piece of the pie - and if you want to really feel full satisfaction - then - well - you've gotta catch them all and all that. Because the thing about Grant Morrison's mainstream superhero stuff - is that he's basically the ultimate corporate writer - a company man in that he writes stuff that - while it has lots to recommend it and other merits and all that - it also works to make people buy as much stuff as possible (see: The Black Casebook - which is a load of old Batman stories from way back when - repacked as part of a: "Hey - The Grant Morrison Batman stuff isn't going to make sense unless you read this - so BUY BUY BUY): and yeah - ok - so maybe this is being a little bit harsh - and maybe we can just take him on face value when he says stuff like he just wanted to explore the continuity and make a more three-dimensional Batman (or whatever): but the fact is - that reading his stories does have the (unintended or not) consequence of making people go out there and buy more and more comics (because otherwise the whole story isn't going to make sense). And there's no way that a writer could be more corporate friendly. Which is why - I guess - lots of comic critics have gone off him (According to Matt Seneca he's a "small and miserable man." While David Brothers opts for the slightly less harsh: "stooge.")"

And that small push kinda knocked us off Batman and Robin and into talking about - well - how the sausage is made and the Watchmen prequels and Jack Kirby and all the rest and - basically - how the comics industry (not to put too fine a point on it): was set up - and continues to be run by people - with - well - let's just say: a very loose attitude to morality [2].

I was all like - yeah - you guys should check out 4thLetter! and The Hurting [3] - and all the rest (because - hey - it's the 21st Century right?). But then two other members (independently of each other) were like - erm actually Joel - the best place to start with this stuff is with a book called "Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book" by a guy called Gerard Jones - because he lays it all out and goes into the history of how the comic book industry first got started and goes into the roots that - erm - continue to sprout the weeds that grow today (metaphor!).

Aha! A book you say! Well - hell - as a librarian - I'm all about books! And trying to get people to read them! And if people are recommending a book over websites - then it must be pretty good - right? And - hey - yay! - Books! Books! Books! (Although the old timey yayness was slightly mitigated by the fact that someone showed me the cover by using their iPhone - but hell - at least they didn't just said I should download it on to my Kindle [4])

So - I reserved myself a copy - and finally we can be done with all this preamble and actually get down to talking about it...

So - like we said - Men Of Tomorrow is a history book about the birth of the thing that we now call "comic books" (or - *sigh* - if you really insist - "graphic novels" - altho - technically - that didn't come until 1980s - about 40 years later - and also: like Alan Moore said (and he's my one man comic guru whose every proclamation is gold being poured into my ears): "It's a marketing term... that I never had any sympathy with. The term 'comic' does just as well for me... The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book' and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel Comics—because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel...." (taken from: here). But - whatever. The thing with the all pictures and the superheroes flying around and doing superstuff: Men of Tomorrow is the story of how it all began.

Of course - because it's a popular history book (as opposed to a dry bit of academia) it makes sure to provide the entertainment along with all the historical facts and knowledgeable titbits and it's pretty canny in it's use of subtle (and not so subtle) foreshadowing [5] - so that it feels less like a dry recitation of the historical facts and more like a story - never skipping over a chance to drop in a little moment of human interest [6]: and yet always keen to point out where the facts differ from the rose-tinted legend [7].

From reading about it afterwards and looking at the affectionate quotes at the back (the top one's from Alan Moore!) and - I guess - from the fact that two people at the Comic Forum were like - hey yeah read it: it seems that Men of Tomorrow as secured a special place somewhere between comic geekdoms heart and it's brain (it's heain? Brart!): it's a story of the genesis of a medium so many love so much - and I guess - you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been (or something like that). But the one thing that struck me as I made my way through it's pages is how I didn't really care. (Wait - that sounds harsh - let me try again): I mean - as you can tell from reading this blog and the fact that (yeah - let me say it once more) - this is the 300th post - I like comics. I really do. I think that they're great and smart and funny - and hey comics - do you want to go out for a coffee sometime or what? But pretty much all of the things that I really like about them (and I guess it has this in common with music and films): is that the thing I find myself most excited about is where they'll go next. In that - I'm a sucker for things on the cutting edge and a self-defined futurist - not in the sense of the art movement or that I think I can predict what happens next (and I'll take this point to quote a lyric from the latest Future of the Left album: "I have seen into the future/ Everyone is slightly older." - Andy Falkous I love you) but in that I like seeing and hearing and experiencing the things that haven't been done before. And I mean - it's not that I'm into the new over the expense at all else - and I'd rather take something that was well constructed and thought-out and good - rather than something that was just shiny and new - but: well - I guess this is all just my roundabout way of saying that - mostly - I don't have a lot of time for stuff that's old: for the past and the history. Like - maybe I'm just misunderstanding everyone else (always a possibility): but I just don't get why people are still interested in old time comic books from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. I've already mentioned Alan Moore twice already and there's a good reason for that: Alan Moore and the whole vanguard he came up with (Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and - I dunno - Art Spiegelman I guess if I have to) were pretty much the first people to write comic books that grown-ups could enjoy. There's a almost semi-mythical headline somewhere that goes: "Bang! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" (can anyone point out the first instance of this?): that as much as it has been derided contains a fat load of truth namely - for a long, long stretch of time: comics were just for kids. And while - yeah - I do love the handsome and (mostly) intelligent grown-up it's become - I don't really wanna spend time hanging out with it when it was still wearing nappies - does that make sense?

But then again - hey - history is important (right?) - and it is interesting watching the birth of a medium and (and this is what got my interest) the introduction of business practices that still hold sway today (in a nutshell: "Writers and artists believe in an ownership that transcends money and contracts, but salesmen and accountants don't."). Of course - way back in the day no one had any idea that comic books would amount to anything - but with the introduction of Superman and the rest of his buddies - for a while there at least (according to one survey) "ninety precent of fourth and fifth graders described themselves as "regular readers" of comic books." Of course this was a development that no one was really expecting which is how the entire ended up being run by some of the most shady characters around - namely street-hustlers and ex-socialists (the horror!).

Although the two stars of the show are two young geeky Jewish men from Cleveland: Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster who first had a dream of a man who could fly (or more accurately - first had a dream of a man who could jump really high: the flying came later and (as with some many things) - nicked from elsewhere). The kind of guys who were so starved for female company that they hired a model to play Lois Lane just so they could meet a girl - (and Lois Lane ended up looking nothing like her). Tracing their early beginnings and awkward missteps - which doubles as an exposé of the first sproutings of what has become known as "Geek Culture" (although - hell - looking around I guess nowadays it's just "Culture"): whose most significant step came when one science-fiction magazine (Amazing Stories) decided to publish people's full addresses on it's letters page - which allowed fans to communicate with one another and thus beginning a cross-fertilization of friendships and ideas that spawned an underground movement that then took over the mainstream - the book follows Siegel and Shuster as they start gathering their influences and combining the ideas that would make them immortal up until that fateful moment when Superman first saw print: "Jerry and Joe got a check for $130. They signed a release surrendering all rights to the publisher. They knew that was how the business worked... None of them could have foreseen how they would change the popular culture of America. None of them could have imagined how different their own lives would become, how huge the money and the fame and the ruination would be."

When I first started reading it my quick capsule review was going to be "Citizen Kane x Broadwalk Empire + Comic Books = Men of Tomorrow." Citizen Kane because William Randolph Hearst makes a few appearances early on - and it does that same kind of showing the rise of people up through the publishing industry (altho that is a bit of a guess - as still - to my eternal shame - I still haven't sat down and watched Citizen Kane yet). Boardwalk Empire - because it's the same kinda time-frame and does all the gangster stuff - altho it's mainly stuff on the periphery - if you're expecting gun fights and mob hits - then you're reading the wrong book - there's more stuff about balancing the books than there is about concrete shoes: it's all more of "people with connections" type of thing and the type of guy who talks a lot without actually ever doing that much to get his hands that dirty (like one of the other stars of the book Harry Donenfeld - former pornographer and con-man - who - through a series of lucky flukes - ends up rich and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams). But - like Boardwalk (which for some reason I've watched 1 and a half seasons of - altho I wouldn't really describe myself as a fan) - it does get all the period details right and you do get a nice sense of life as it was lived back then [8].

And it doesn't skimp on the rest of the pantheon of comic creators: as we also get treated to the secret origins of (to name just the most well known three) Bob Kane, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (albeit in the guise of their Clark Kent style alter egos: Robert Kahn, Jacob Kurtzberg and Stanley Martin Lieber - and how cool is that?). And it's fun after spending a lifetime only knowing the names from what they've created to actually get a sense of what these people were like as - well - people. It's like finding out that Shakespeare (real name: Wilhelm Shackstein?) was really into regicide or tupping white ewes (or something?) - it just makes you realise that all these ideas and comic book mainstays didn't just magically spring into existence out of nowhere (which - obviously - is what the Big Two would like to believe) but rather reflected in lots of bizarre ways the hopes and neuroses of the people who made them: so Jack Cole - the creator of Plastic Man - he's almost exactly what you would expect - wild and crazy and impulsive and William Moulton Marston - the creator of Wonder Woman - well... I'll leave that one for you to discover yourself.

Stuff I learned from reading Men of Tomorrow: Gerard Jones writes very lurid prose: Best example: "A few months later he moved his mistress into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. That two-towered palace on Park Avenue was the pinnacle, the twin peaks of the hustler made big, the great tits of the bitch goddess of Manhattan herself." (my best guess: he's a failed superhero writer he's somehow got caught writing popular history books). Also (altho should have realised before): the upstanding image of the superhero was created not down to any moral concerns - but because the publishers wanted to avoid the wrath of the censors [9]. Truth, Justice and The America Way? Hell - who could disagree with that? (Apart from - you know - the ever-so slightly crazed psychiatric avenger Fredric Wertham (author of: Seduction of the Innocent!) who it seemed was prone to saying stuff like: "If I was asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children, I would say that they were conquered by Superman.") Plus (and this is another thing that I should have figured out myself): if it seems that comics are stale and stuck in the same never-ended loops and battles it's most likely coming from the editors and the publishers (who don't want to rock the boat - even if it's sinking) rather than the writers and the artists as in - In 1940 (barely two years after Superman was first introduced to the world) Jerry Siegel tried to change one of Superman's central conceits - namely: letting Lois Lane into the secret of Clark Kent's secret identity ("Then it's settled! We're to be - partners!" Superman smiles down at her. "Yes - partners!") But the powers-that-be never published the story [10]. Because - hey - "It was the character and the appearance of creative continuity that mattered, not the writer or the artist." And that's how you stall and stifle an art-form.

But topping all of those was an insight that I didn't really expect: like I said Men of Tomorrow is - mainly - the story of the creators of Superman - Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster and it's a story that - altho tipped with gold and glory ends up in lots of depressing and sad places (the worst I think is when - in a desperate bid to create a new character they create the most lame superhero of all time: "Funnyman" - which just adds to all the tragic dimensions - but then again there's also the point where - after all seems lost - Jerome ends up back writing Superman - but only as a freelancer - which seems like the most ignoble twist of all). And yet and yet - after spending time with these guys - and especially Jerome - who it seems had quite a few issues about being the underdog ("But he was about to learn that the world was not a superhero script, and victory does not go to the most injured and most angry.") that I wasn't as much on their side as I thought I would be. Because - yeah - I do agree with creator's rights and I do think it's awful how the comics industry has screwed over so many people, so often, so much: but the things that Gerard Jones says made me feel that (in solidarity with what would become DC) that maybe these guys did just get lucky - and what was so important wasn't the fact that they were great writers or great artists - but merely they were in the right place at the right time. Of course I realise that a lot of me thinking that is down to the fact that (like I said above) I don't really respect or admire old time comic books that much so yeah - I'm prejudiced and really I should be more respectful to the guys who (inadvertently) gave birth to something that has brought be so many good times. And - daganmit - it's not as if I'm saying that the people who ran the corporations were the good guys (because they weren't) but maybe (and this is a good place to leave this on I guess - so I will): yeah - real life isn't like it is in the comics and (oh well): maybe superheroes don't exist after all.

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[1] Also: as you can probably tell - I have recently discovered the joy of footnotes! Which - erm - I don't know what - but - hey! Look:  Footnotes! Yay!

[2] Or maybe I should just say "crooks."? Hell - I'll say it - crooks.

[3] Of particular note: The Four Laws of Ethical Comics: 1. Ideas belong to their creators. 2. Any permanent transfer of intellectual property ownership from a creator to a corporation is and always has been morally wrong. 3. Permanent intellectual property transfer under any circumstances is and has always been theft. 4. All money made my corporations from the exploitation of stolen intellectual property is and will always be stolen money. (I agree with the above).

[4] For those unaware: Kindle's are the swore enemies of all librarians everywhere. And no - I don't own one and don't plan to either - and for anyone who knows me who's reading this - please don't buy me one because I would hate to have to smash it in front of your stupid face.

[5] "They're write and draw a comic book strip based on an action hero of their own creation and sell it to Humor Publishing. To make it stand out, they wouldn't copy Dick Tracy or any other strip but take their inspiration, like Buck Rogers and Tarzan, from the pulps. They'd draw on Gladiator and the ads for Doc Savage to create a pulp adventure about a brawling do-gooder of extraordinary strength... He even had a title: The Superman."

[6] So: there's a nice bit about how Frank the chauffer acts as more of father than a kid's own father takes a bit tear-jerky even if it does sound like something someone would say in a Spielberg movie: "He went to very baseball game I was in. He'd sit there and watch, and on the drive back he'd talk to me about it. My father went to one of my games. And after a couple of innings he just stood up and left. Frank stayed."

[7] "Jerry Siegel was a young man of commercial instincts, and when he saw that Superman was going nowhere with Joe, he went looking for another collaborator."

[8] Like this lovely sentence: "Such promises of perfection flourished in the 1920s. The breakdown of old orders and wonders of technology came together to make any imaginable future seem realizable, if only the right system or device could be found: scientific socialism, fascism, positive thinking, technological progress, spiritualism, or health regimens."

[9] Speaking of - can I just say that I love this comics condemnation: "The effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude black and reds spoil a child's natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teacher throughout American must band together to break the 'comic' magazine." (There's a part of me that's half tempted to use this as the blurb on the flyers for the Islington Comic Forum).

[10] "DC was changing it's philosophy of editing. In the beginning... The writers and the artists decided what their heroes would do and sent the pages in. Now, with one colossally lucrative property under their control and other with potential, Jack Liebowitz and Whitney Ellsworth agreed that they needed more editorial control. Jerry Siegel might have started the Superman industry, but that didn't give him any right to mess it up now that so many people were depending on it."

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Links: Charles Shaar Murray Review, SF Site Review,

Further reading: Kirby: King of Comics, Alan Moore: Storyteller, Superman: All Star Superman, Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby, Supergods,

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Books: The Silence of Our Friends

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The Silence of Our Friends
Written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Art by Nate Powell
2012




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


Wowzer.

I wasn't expecting much when I sat down with this. I just thought it'd be something relativity light to go with my lunch outside in the sunshine. Nate Powell's artwork looked simple and inviting and it didn't seem like something I'd have to struggle to get into. (On that count I was right - there's a tendancy for "serious" comics to kinda act forbidding - with artwork that tends to skew to the uninviting and headache-inducing - but one of the many things that's great about The Silence of Our Friends is that everything is presented so clearly that I can't imagine anyone not being able to get into it: it's all like - hey - welcome - how's it going? Would you like to sit down? How about I pull you up a chair and get you something to drink?). I mean - I knew from looking at that cover with all that black [1] that maybe it had like a dark undercurrent or something - but from the poses my best guess was that it was some sort of buddy cop thing? Like 48 Hours only as a comic book maybe? Or - judging from that hairstyle and the thick glasses on the main dude - maybe like a Watergate thriller type thing? Uncovering state secrets and the whathaveyou?

Well - no - turns out it's based on childhood recollections (one of the authors is the son of that white guy in the background) and it's all set in the history (namely: the late 60s all the way over in Houston, Texas): and there's people trying to do their best in a world that's seemingly doing everything it can to beat them down.

So why the "Wowzer"? Well - obviously - as an enlightened 21st Century world child I know that racism is bad bad bad bad bad [2] however - that doesn't mean that I like to read or watch or listen to simple Sesame Street type polemics telling me what I already know (and agree with) in a boring dull way ("This episode of Sesame Street was brought to you by the letters "Don't" and "Be" and the number "A racist.") And - you know - being so cocky and arrogant - I guess I just kinda felt like I'd heard it all before and there was no more stories I could hear from that whole "civil rights" era of history [3]. But - of course - I am an idiot. Because that "Wowzer" comes from The Silence of Our Friends making me feel in my gut the desperation of what it felt like to live back then and what it meant to try and do the right thing - and presenting that in a way that feels utterly unvarnished and as raw as an open wound. Like - yes - there are bits of this book that you will feel like you've seen play out before (but then I guess that's the thing about racists - they tend to be pretty one-dimensional) but then there's other parts that will hit you in the face like a slap: making simple points seem monumental. I could list all the great scenes and say how and why they work so good - but I wouldn't want to spoil it - and you'll know what I'm talking about when they roll around.  

All in all: good stuff.

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[1] Oh lordy - I just read that line back and realise that it sounds like it could be racist (!!!) So - just to confirm: I mean the background colour and not - like - anything else. Ok? Ok. Ok.

[2] I was tempted to try and write something frivolous or wannabe funny like "racism is silly" or something dopey like that - and if not that - then something with lots of swearing like "all racists are ____" - but then just settled for my go to of picking a simple word and then repeating it lots of times. But just to confirm: racism is an ugly belief for ugly people and it's both wrong and abhorrent: so don't be a racist - ok?

[3] Of course - if it's a civil rights thing with Captain America going up against Iron Man then - WOO! - count me in and pass the popcorn!

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Links: Comic Book Resources Review, Comic Book Resources Interview with Nate Powell.

Further reading: Swallow Me Whole, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Books: The Marvels Project

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The Marvels Project
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Steve Epting
2010




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


That Mitchell and Webb look (which is like Peep Show - only not as clever, dark or funny) had this sketch where one Nazi - noticing the skull emblazoned across his hat - asks another Nazi: "Hans - are we the baddies?" To which the answer (obviously) is: yes. Yes. Yes. And yes again. For if there's one thing that our culture has taught us since the start of World War II all the way to the current moment it's that: the Nazi's are baddies. The ultimate baddies. The baddies to beat all other baddies. None more baddie. The baddies to rule them all etc. If you're looking for a quickest and easiest shortcut to make someone look evil just make them a Nazi, get to proclaim their love of Hitler and draw them with a swastika (just ask Charles Manson): you don't even have to bother with any other sort of characterisation or distinguishing marks or anything like that - it's like the way that the bad cowboys in old films used to wear black hats - being a Nazi clearly and simply and totally marks you out as a bad guy [1].

And for those very reasons - (and as strange as this may sound to say) Nazi's have been a bit of blessing for stories of action and adventures and - particulary - superheros. Because not only are an easy shortcut to badness - but they also have the whole evil image thing down pat: those skull on the hats for one thing, not to mention the thigh-length boots, all the the facist-style marching and that intimating salute (designed - apparently to show the underside of your hand to whoever you give it to). Which is why they've been utilized  in films from everyone from Marathon Man to Indiana Jones and in comics - well - everywhere.

There is a down-side to the use of Nazis-as-bad-guys tho - one which The Marvels Project seems unaware of. Namely - that while it's alright to use the Nazi's as your antagonists - things get a little more fraught when you start to refer to the actual atrocities they commited. For this reader mixing elements as cartoony as a villian whose head looks like red skull with references to the holocaust is like mixing ice cream with dog poo: at the very least - it's distasteful [2].

But - let's back up a second: what is The Marvels Project about anyway?

Well - set in the late 1930s and early 1940s it's a period peice that takes all the early Marvel stories featuring the likes of The Human Torch, Namor and Captain America and retells them to make them a little more realistic and gritty. I don't know if there's anyone who read those comics when they first came out who'd still be bothered to read this book now (they'd have to be - at the very least - 90 years ago) - so it's a little bit nostalgia-by-proxy - it isn't anything that anyone can be geninuely nostalgic for - but you can kinda squint your brain and pretend.

For me - the only way that I really know about any of this kinda early-days-of-Marvel stuff is by reading Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels book (and there's even a few points where the cross-over directly - isn't that image of New York being hit by a tidal wave the same in both?): and it's the one book that I was most reminded of when reading The Marvels Project. However - whilst Marvels manages to make it's superheroes seem more realistic by hiding their exploits under a veil that the reader doesn't really get access to - The Marvels Project by letting the reader into every nook and cranny of it's superheros lives just makes those same superheroes seem less and less believable [3].  

Yeah - maybe it's just time that I stop reading superhero comics. I didn't much enjoying reading this book - and by the end just felt kinda demoralised and sorta spiritually exhasuted and I could ask myself was: "what's the point?" There have been lots of worthwhile books that I have discovered my making my way through lots of pages of men in tights - but at this point it's starting to feel that the well has run dry and there's nothing much more to wow or thrill me. About the only thing I did like with The Marvels Project was the background appearances of some of the characters from The Twelve (does that mean that The Twelve has reused old Marvel characters? Or is The Marvels Project referencing The Twelve directly? Altho on second thoughts - who cares?)

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[1] My pitch for a film (if anyone's listening) would be set sometime during the World War II and have a bunch of Allied troops and Nazi troops getting stuck in some dingy place together - coming up against some evil Lovecraftian monster - and being forced to join forces in order to fight it (because - hey - if something is even worse than Nazis then you know that it's got to be really really really bad).

[2] Altho - it's not impossible to get that sort of high/low combination right: see Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Uniforms book (link below) - which manages (somehow) to mix "war is hell" with wizards and dragons and make the whole concept sing.

[3] I call this "The Batman Problem": as in Christopher Nolan's Batman films where the more effort he expends into making Gotham City seem like somewhere that could exist in the real world - the more you start to feel the ridiculousness of the fact that the hero is a man dressed like a bat.  

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Links: Pop Dose ReviewEspinasse's Super-Read-Of-The-Week Review,

Further reading: MarvelsThe ShadowThe Twelve, DC: The New Frontier, Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms.

Profiles: Ed Brubaker.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Books: Marzi

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Marzi
Written by Marzena Sowa
Art by Sylvain Savoia
2011




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


BORING!

Yeah - ok: I know - it's a word that I use a hell of a lot. Not just on this blog (where actually I've tried to cut down my use of it: like a fat kid trying his best not to put his fingers in the candy-bowl): but also in real-life: especially when dissing - well - all the music and films that I don't much care for (and yet my friends all rave about) [1].

Recently me, my girlfriend and my literary flatmate (for some unknown reason) decided that it would be a good idea to re-watch the Kill Bill films: we hadn't seen them since they had first come out at the cinema - and although they hadn't exactly set our worlds on fire (I think my general reaction was - the first one: a shrug and a "yeah - it was alright" - and the second one: a feeling of having been somehow cheated) - we hoped that maybe watching them next to each other (instead of waiting six months or however long it was between when they were released) would make them work more: sing better - join in heavenly unison or whatever. I dunno.

I thought the first one was much more enjoyable (mainly I guess because I knew what to expect - I mean in news that will shock absolutely no one - I'd say that Quentin Tarantino has a pretty big mouth: which while it can be entertaining in places [2] - isn't really that good at setting up audience expectations for his films: I mean I can't be arsed to find the quotes he gave before Kill Bill came out: but I was expecting a much more epic-feeling spectacular extravaganza than the much more intimate-seeming film that - you know - it actually is) but the second one - as cool as bits of the first half of it can be (that whole trapped-in-the-coffin scene [3], the Raising Arizona-style trailer fight) the end was - well - a whole big mess of let-down and disappointment because (and this is best way to say it) it's just boring.

Yes - of course it's complicated. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it: but it does all this stuff and playing with audience expectations and zagging when you thought it's going to zig and all the rest and yeah-yeah-yeah - I get it. But that doesn't make it any less boring: you know? [4]

When speaking about the film with my literary flatmate afterwards - I was like: "yeah - it's too bad that the end of the film is so boring."(or something like that) which promoted him to say: "You see - I don't know what you mean when you say that. What is boring supposed to mean exactly?"

Of course - this got me thinking. Hell - what did I mean when I called something boring? What's the essence of boring? What makes a thing boring? Where does it reside? And - you know: etc etc etc. I mean - I didn't say any of this at the time - I think we got distracted by something else that came up: but it stuck with me: gnawing at my ankles like a small misbehaving dog.

My plan was that I would sit down at some point and try my best to write down all my thoughts about what makes a thing boring in this post for this comic Marzi - seeing how at the time I read it I thought it was one of the most boring things I had maybe ever read (at least for that year): which - ha - is why the very first word of this whole thing is "boring" smashed out in big fat capital letters.

But then - I don't know: it kinda got buried by all the other stuff - other blog things, other work things, other life things and so I pushed it to the attic of my mind and threw it on top of the expansive "things to do"pile (because there's never enough time in the world to do all the things you want: oh well).

And then: this week - I was writing some emails to my friends and the word came up again. We were talking about Grizzly Bear [5] and well - I said some things and they said some things and then we got stuck on what exactly "boring" was supposed to mean [6] (or rather - you know: to be specific - what I thought boring was supposed to mean). Which made me think of Kill Bill 2 and this post and made me go scrabbling up into my mental attic to look within my "things to do" pile: because - hey - as much fun as it would be to send ages writing an email that only my friends could see - it would be better to write something that I could also share with the world - right? Right.

You still with me? Ok then. So - I guess this thing you're reading now is my attempt to elucidate exactly what this word "boring" means to me and how exactly I use it and why (or at least - that's the plan: let's see how it works out).

The most obvious and boring way to start this off would be to say "Webster's dictionary defines boring as...." [7] but the problem there is that Webster's dictionary (or the merriam-webster website at least) doesn't have a good definition ("Definition of BORING : causing boredom : tiresome <a boring lecture>"). So - screw them and let's skip on to the free dictionary which offers a whole bunch of synonyms ("monotonous, tedious, irksome, tiresome, humdrum") and then goes on to say: "These adjectives refer to what is so uninteresting as to cause mental weariness. Boring implies feelings of listlessness and discontent: I had never read such a boring book."which seems like a much more fruitful place to begin our investigations: especially in my head at least - "boring" (here comes the binary thinking) is on the bottom end of the line that on the end says "interesting." [8] And (for this human at least) the thing that makes a film or a piece of music or - hell - even a comic book - worth my time: is how much of the "interesting" side it can give me. And boring (at least how I use it) is the lack or absence [9] of interesting things.

But yeah - of course: all that really does is shift the problem: because now instead of trying to work out what boring is - I need to try and explain what interesting means. Which - hell - is another very good question.

I guess the first thing coming down from my brain is that anything can be interesting: you know - it's all a matter of perspective. Our world is normally pretty quick to make snap judgments about what's worthing watching or listening to or whatever based upon whatever quick capsule summation you can give it [10]: which often strikes me as being a little unfair. I mean - yeah: there's obviously loads of fluff and trash out there and we all need to have some sort of flitter in place (sad as it is to accept - there's no way you can watch and read and listen to everything: like I said before - there's just not enough time in the world) but I think there's also the problem of being too defensive and closed-off and not being open to the fact that - well - if you can make a film about a rat being a cook then [11] - really you can make a story about frigging anything and (hopefully I don't sound too much like the trailer for a film when I say this) but the only limit is our imaginations (which I'd say - on a good day - can probably chuck out 2 or 3 ideas a minute: which isn't too shabby at all).

So yeah - anything can be interesting and (oh well) it's not really something that you can ascertain before you start reading or listening or watching (or whatever): I mean - yeah - speaking personally I do have an interior checklist of things that push my buttons (mostly - it must be said: science-fictional concepts like personal identity, consciousness, the nature of time: stuff like that - but that doesn't mean that's all I like: at least I very much hope not) but I do my best to not keep myself from trying out new things: new flavours, new experiences - and sitting down in front of something new I always try to be as open as possible as I can be (whether or not this is possible is another matter entirely).

And that spark of interestingness? Well - obviously tastes will vary and etc: but for me there's - what? - three main things that make something interesting to me (you ready?)

1. Show me something I've never seen before. You know: originality and all that. If you can show me something new: use a combination of familiar elements and place them in some-kind of previously-unseen combination then I'm yours (good recent example: the Cloud Atlas film. I mean yeah - every part of it is cliché - but I've never had six story-lines played together all at once before: so for that reason - it's - you know - an interesting experience to have).

2. Show me how smart you can be. There's nothing as great as reading/listening/watching something that feels like it's been made my someone really smart: like Lena Durham's Girls (especially the second season is just non-stop excellence mainly because every part of it feels like they've spent ages working out how to get every single part of it exactly right. [12]) or Dan Harmon's Community [13] (I mean - the first three seasons at least - before he got kicked out and it all went downhill [14])

3. Make it immediate. This one I guess is the hardest to properly define - but I guess it has something to do with stuff like jazz and - well Grizzly Bear (the guys who kinda helped kick-start all of this in the first place). Because yeah - although I can listen to a Grizzly Bear album and appreciate that it's a new step for guitar music (and one of the only guitar bands signed to Warp I know I know): there's still something about them that's - I dunno - too tucked away, too comfortable with just staring into it's own navel: because yeah - even tho it's got complex time signatures and loads of subtle touches of production: it doesn't really seem to care about reaching out and making a connection: it's more a case that you have to go to it. And so the parts don't pop or sparkle in anykind of interesting or beguiling way (at least - not for this listener) - which: I guess - is what makes me find them so very boring.

Trying to tie this altogether then: if you can do one of these three things (or hell - maybe all of them at once) then you've got something that's not boring: something that's going to both entertain and nourish me spiritually and intellectually and whatever else. And yeah yeah - I know - it's all subjective and whatever (I know): but the point is that not everything needs to have pop hooks or whatever: like everything else - there's pop music that can be boring and there's pop music that can be interesting (and the same with every other genre of music [15]): and - hell - it's why the end of Kill Bill 2 is such a let-down: because once it springs it's little twist - things stop happening and the sense of immediacy is lost (I mean: yeah - ok: I guess you could make the argument that it's something that you haven't seen before: but it's more like it's swapping one mode / one genre for another: and you don't win any points if your romantic comedy ends with a science-fictional twist (altho that would be amazing and can someone please make that happen please?) when that science-fictional twist just has the characters sitting in the space chairs and remarking how comfortable they are for 30 minutes [16])

But - yeah. It feels like there's more stuff to say: but I guess that'll do (for now at least) and (phew) now that's all done - let's maybe talk about this comic book. Yeah?

(Takes a breath).

So. In case you can't tell from my crazy surnames (one of which comes from a famous footballer: or at least so I'm told) I'm Polish. In that - one of my grandparents came from there (I'm also German, Ghanian, and there's a little bit of Irish and French mixed in there too - what can I say? I'm a world child - form a circle): I've never been there myself - but I hear that it's very nice - if a little cold. And also something about vodka? (They drink a lot of it apparently). But anyway - you'd figure that I'd be receptive to a comic book biography thing of someone growing upin 1980s Poland under Communist rule - but you'd be wrong.

What is the point of this book? Ok - yeah - I get that you grew up in a place where things were slightly different to how things are where I grew up and yeah you had to queue for food and didn't have chocolate to eat every week and blah blah blah - but so what? And why am I reading about this? This is just someone unloading every little thing from their childhood with picture attached and I have no reason to care and oh god just trying to make my way through this book is like crawling headfirst through a vat of very sticky treacle with a ball and chain of totally boring wrapped around my skull.

I prefered it when comic books were seen as childish and beneath adult interest because at least that way everything was wild and free and crazy and lots of people did foolish things. This book tho - this is what happens when a medium becomes respectable. Quote from the author: ""As you can see in 'Marzi' there's not a lot of action in it, it's not like a normal comic book with different drawings and panels, it's very regular; it almost looks like a photograph album where you can see the photographs and Marzi is commenting on every picture... It's like a souvenir of my family, of my life in Poland." Because - yay - that's just what I want to read: someone's photo album with a running commentary.

It doesn't show the reader anything they haven't seen before. It doesn't feel like it's been put together with any great thought (apart from the thought of: "This happened to me." "And then this other thing happened." "And then this other thing happened." times like 100). And - well - none of it feels particularly immediate. Instead - it feels like slowly falling asleep and someone holding a pillow over your face. All of which to say: it's very incredibly and utterly and totally boring. So if you're thinking of reading it - maybe think about reading something else.

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[1] Sorry - I guess I should have included comic books and proper books in there too: but it's mainly music and films that me and my friends talk about (and which - I guess - is the appeal of the Comic Forum meetings: in that it's the once-in-a-month chance to meet up and chat with people who do know the difference between their Frank Millers and Mark Millars. So yeah - just a little plug there for anyone thinking of joining us....). 

[2] If you haven't seen the interview he gave with Krishnan Guru-Murthy about Django Unchained then - hell - what are you waiting for

[3] Altho - calling it the trapped-in-the-coffin scene makes it sound like a R Kelly joint. But whatever.

[4] And - god: the end of Kill Bill 2 is up there with the ending to Adaptation and Apocalypse Now in terms of creating the most annoying film conversations with people in how everyone who loves those films will always assume that if you didn't like the ending then that just means that you didn't "get it" - as opposed to: you get what it does: but you just don't like it (a distinction that seems simple enough: but - man: one it can take a long while to sink in with some people: if my own experience is any indication - of course - I blame the fact that we live in a culture that's pretty much always based on binary distinctions: you're either for it or against it, a man or woman, straight or gay, black or white: and there's nothing that exists in-between: but whatever - that's an argument for another day maybe...).

[5] In particular their song Knife.

[6] I hope they won't mind me sharing like this but basically the conversation went like this (ah the beauty of emails):

Me: damn grizzly bear are boring
(girl talk remix anyone? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlnLuUy5IEE )

Friend 1: "damn grizzly bear are boring. " and why exactly did you think I would like them?

Me: because you like boring music!

Friend 1: ouch

Me: sorry. too much?
i meant - erm - you mostly like boring music?
(that better?)

Friend 1: I think boring's the wrong word, no? Far too subjective... Is 'minimal' better? I do like some minimal music that's true, but I also quite like 'well complicated shit' as well. Aphex twin is a good example of both: Selected Ambient Works vs Chosen Lords. I love both albums and would probably kill or at least maim anyone who made me choose between the two.
So there.

Friend 2: agree with Friend 1 completely - I find r&b stuff like chris brown, frank ocean and similar whiny bullshit boring as hell, yet they have more fans than those of all of my favorite music put together. not to mention that most of my friends can't stand the music I listen to (dunno why I'm friends with them :)

Me: sorry - it wasn't my intention to my insulting (sorry). 
to explain myself a little bit better (hopefully): nope not boring meaning minimal (aklthough i totally understand how you could come to that conclusion) - more like: boring as in no pop hooks. Thom York's Amok (for me at least) kinda boring - even tho - yeah: I know there's a lot going on there. 
but this is just taste and semantics - so erm. yah.

Friend 2: oh well - in terms of hooks... I also think they are the most exciting bits and the parts that make me listen and come back for more and good songwriting usually has them - I think judge, jury is a pretty good song, very far from boring? (I know I said that already... will give the album more time) - it's all opinions. 

Friend 1: Hmmm I think you need to be careful with the word boring - like I said it's too subjective.  For me pop hooks (I'm thinking Britney et al) are mostly boring but not for other people. Other music that I find more interesting (i.e. more perceived hooks) they might equally find hookless and boring. Need the right bait to catch the right prey. music isn't radio friendly --> i.e. not that many hooks?"

Me: I feel like maybe I have to go away and write an essay about all of this in order to try and explain it properly.

[7] Which I think I read once as the number one worst way to open a wedding speech: but - hell - check it out - by admitting from the get-go about how cheesy it is as an idea I get to have my cake and eat it at the same time (because - as this is supposed to be a thing about what the meaning of the word "boring" is supposed to be: it makes sense to start off with the written definition - no?).

[8] I mean - obviously that just makes me think of Donnie Darko and "Well, life isn't that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love." "Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions." "Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else." But - in the interest of keeping things simple: let's just brush that aside for now - yeah? Cool. Thanks.

[9] I mean - I know that those are two words for the same thing: but it just sounded better to have two words there instead of just the one: okay? 

[10] A good example which happened today: am trying to get one of my friends to watch this film called Ping Pong with me because I think he'd like it (for whatever various reasons: but I guess mainly because it's a really good little film) - he asked me what it's about - and I told him (not very helpfully I guess) that it's about Ping Pong. So he was like: yeah - ok: I think I'll pass - it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea. With a little bit more cajoling I finally got him to come around: but it did make me think about the difference between what films are about (on the surface level or whatever you want to call it) and - you know - what they're about - underneath their skin. Taxi Driver is a film about a Taxi Driver. Magic Mike is about male strippers. Toy Story is about toys that come to life. But if you think that's all they're about then - well - you're missing out. Yeah?

[11] THE RAT CONTROL THE COOK!

[12] You don't believe me? Fine: then read this (Film Crit Hulk Smash: WHY GIRLS IS REMARKABLE) get back to me and we can talk.

[13] If you haven't watch it yet then I recommend you go over and read Grantland's recent profile of him (God Needs a Hobby Thirty-six hours on the road — and in the bar — with exiled TV genius Dan Harmon) and then start with Season 1. I know - you can thank me later.

[14] I haven't actually watched any of Season 4: but this Vulture article (Seitz on Community Season Four: You’re Just Some Sitcom That I Used to Know) manages to nicely sum up all my thoughts: "While watching season four of Community, I keep thinking about the post–Aaron Sorkin West Wing and the post–David Milch NYPD Blue. They were acceptable, at times very good, but they lacked that spark of mad crystalline poetry which proves that TV can be as much an auteur’s medium as cinema. I also think about the end of A.I. The android David’s mother isn’t really his mother; she's a facsimile created by luminous beings who’ve married strands of her DNA to David’s subjective, nostalgic memories, resulting in a creature that looks and sounds like the genuine article but that we know in our bones is something else, superficially close yet fundamentally false, and thus unbearably sad."

[15] Apart from - well - Jazz. (sorry Jazz). And yeah - I know that this is a massive overstatement (that probably isn't even true - but whatever): but Jazz is just so stupid people can think they're smart.

[16] I feel like the analogy is slipping away from me at this point - so maybe I should just say it's complicated and there's like other story reasons and you can't introduce a new character so late in something and then expect the audience to take them to their heart? Or something. I dunno. Whatever: it's boring and I didn't like it (maybe I should have just left it at that?).

................................................................................................................................
Links: LA Times Interview with Marzena Sowa, Comic Book Resources Interview with Sowa.

Further reading: Persepolis, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, Make Me A Woman, BlanketsLogicomix: An Epic Search for TruthJerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.

All comments welcome.

Books: Scott Pilgrim

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Scott Pilgrim
Vol 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2004




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/

Scott Pilgrim
Vol 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2005




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/

Scott Pilgrim
Vol 3: Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2006




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
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Scott Pilgrim
Vol 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2007




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/

Scott Pilgrim
Vol 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2008




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/

Scott Pilgrim
Vol 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

2010




Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:
http://www.library.islington.gov.uk/TalisPrism/


I think this is just going to be babbling. So - yeah - sorry for that. But hey - I'm passionate.

Sometimes people get confused between form and content - about the ways a story can be told and what the story is actually - you know - about. Take Citizen Kane as an example (it doesn't matter if you haven't seen it - it's more just something that everything can agree that is (well supposed to be at least) good - "the greatest film ever made" etc). The reasons it's good isn't because it's about newspaper magnates and it's isn't because everyone loves a story about a sled: it's good because of how it's filmed and how it's edited and how it's all put together (this is where I should probably admit that I haven't actually seen it). It's not about the content - it's about the form (got it?). Now - of course - with most things the form and the content are pretty closely intwined - if you hear that a film is a weepy romantic drama - well - you can close your eyes and already imagine what the actors are going to look like, what kind of camera shots they're going to use and the songs that'll play on the soundtrack. Ditto action films, cartoons based on fairytales and pretty much anything starring Adam Sandler etc etc etc. But just because something seems like it's a rule - that doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions. Just because you know what the story's about - that doesn't mean that you know how that story is going to be told. And just because we live in a world of Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Click and You Don't Mess with the Zohan - that doesn't mean that sometimes something can't come along in a Citizen Kane-like fashion and innovate and revolutionize and excite you in all sorts of strange and wonderful and sexy ways.

All of this is my massively roundabout way of saying: forget what you think you know about Scott Pilgrim. Forget that all the volumes look so small and the artwork makes it seem like it's for kids. The things which are fantastic and artful and deep and profound and beautiful don't always come in the packages you expect them to (flashback to 1941: "I don't want to go and see a film about some media guy") and - I don't care what anyone says - Scott Pilgrim trumps pretty much any other comic out there for depth, experimentation and human observation not forgetting - goddamn it - heart.

There's an old phrase that says: happiness writes in white. What that means is that it's much easier to write about sad and miserable things than to say why you love something (which would explain why a lot of the longest posts I've written have been about book I really can't stand: while the books that I really cherish have left me a little more tongue-tied). Scott Pilgrim was one of the first books that I wrote about on this blog and basically all I could manage was saying how awesome it was. Quote: "This comic is - for a lack of two better words - Totally. Awesome. And awesome in so so so diverse and seperate ways. Go on: The artwork is economical and precise like a laser. The dialogue crackles with jokes and truthiness. And the characters each buzz in different pitches and keys each fully formed and with their own seperate agendas. But beyond all that this comic is a joy for the way it absolutely encapsulates the mindset of a post-teen young twenty-something. It's like virtual reality for the soul. You will know every small over-and under-side of Scott Pilgrim that there is to know. You will feel the awesome-ness of his highs and declarations of birthday supremacy all the way down to the car-crushing lows - and the sound, taste and smell of his obliterated heart conducted through the careful use of telephones and glorius panel construction. Is this making sense? No? Well... I don't care. The six volumes also include: robot fights, recipe ideas, movie stars on fire, coins and enough love and romance to power the world and light up the darkest hollowest hearts in creation. In sum: READ THIS BOOK."

Since writing that I've always wanted to come back to this post and explain exactly why these five comics made such an impact on me and why I believe that they are so - i dunno - special. And seeing how we're fast coming up on the 300th book post I thought that maybe now would be the right time. 

Altho I've kind of made it a bit of a policy to not mention any tie-in films of the books I write about on here (for this purist it would sully a discussion of Watchmen to mention Zack Snyder's thing in the same space) I've gotta admit that the only reason I even bothered picking up a copy in the first place is because I heard that Edgar Wright was making a film based on it (this must have been back in 2008/2009). And for that at least I'm grateful.[1] But then talking about what makes this book so important to me - it's another director that I feel like I should talk about: Terrence Malick.

Have you seen The Tree of Life? If you watch the trailer you'll get a fairly decent idea of what it's like. Lots of gorgeous cinematography and hushed voice narration combining to make mediative statements about human existence and our place in the world. I mean - yeah - it's a beautiful as watching angels playing frisbee (or whatever) but - I guess because it's reaching for EPIC and IMPORTANT truths about LIFE, THE UNIVERSE and EVERYTHING it doesn't have many laughs. And even tho I was really looking for a long time to seeing it (watch The Thin Red Line and then we'll talk): coming out of the cinema I felt a little bit - unsatisfied somehow. Like an inch inside me had been failed to be scratched properly. Talking it over with my friends afterwards I came to the conclusion that - if you want to make a grand masterpiece that - I dunno - tells it like it is about how life works then it doesn't make sense to be solemn about it - which is what The Tree of Life is - if nothing else: it's very serious.  

And that was one of things that I love so much about Scott Pilgrim - because - hey (but don't get me wrong - it's a comic that underneath everything is very serious about everything that it does) but it also manages the difficult trick of underlying all of it's hidden seriousness with lots and lots and lots of really great jokes [2].

One of the other things I love about Scott Pilgrim brings us back to Watchmen again. Now for lots of people - Watchmen is the graphic novel for the ages: there is none finer and nothing else that does as much or proudly struts around in such a clever fashion and I pretty much agree with every positive thing anyone ever says about it. And yet... (let me see if I can make this clear...) the thing about Watchmen is that it's very much of it's time (and hey - what's not - right? [3]): in that the only way to really make a 'serious' comic book that people would read was to make it about superheroes (obviously yeah - Maus - but shut up I'm trying to make somekind of a point): and the only way to really play with structure and form and all the rest of it was to mess around with the superhero archetype because hey - in terms of comics - that's really all there was (to bring back Maus again: as fine and important and all the rest it is: once you get past the main conceit - it's not really a very experimental book - no?). What's so great about Scott Pilgrim (for me at least) is that it feels like (and - hey - who cares if this is factually correct - it's all about the way it feels right?) the first comic book to be able to play around with (and 'play' is the word for making sense of these books in that they're all about messing around and playing with the limits and boundaries of what supposedly can't be done in a comic book - or to flip that the other way: to show all the myriad [4] possibilties to lie with the precise use of words and pictures): if Watchmen was about superheroes then - for this reader - Scott Pilgrim is about showing you just all the crazy stuff you can do with comics: and that they don't have to be rigid and contained - but rather can be wild and free and expressive and all about capturing fleeting moments and stolen glances [5].     

But - hey - I haven't actually read it since just before I saw the film: so maybe I should go and revisit it and then write something a little bit more considered (altho just between me and you - I do have a little bit of the fear that it won't be as good as I remember it). But still: it's comic book heaven and one of the most delightful (and heart-breaking) things that I think I've ever had the pleasure to experience in my life.

So - if you get the chance - check it out.

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[1] Altho the film left me feeling all sorts of disappointed when it came out. Main reasons for that I guess were the fact that it was always a bit of a fools errand to try and squeeze six books into one film (I reckon he's much much better with films which he gets to design from the bottom up and - seeing how there's so many characters (beyond even all the evil exs) it seems like maybe it would have been better as a six part TV series or something) and also - yes yes - as much as I love Arrested Development and all the rest: Michael Cera was mis-cast has the lovable dopey lead. (Altho that does raise the eternal question of: who would make a good Scott Pilgrim?)

[2] And seeing how so much of this has been about films - I'd say that the one film that Scott Pilgrim really reminds me of in the way that it uses jokes to break your heart is Charlie Kaufman's demented and brilliant Synecdoche, New York. Both of which remind of this David Foster Wallace essay: Laughing with Kafka. (Oh: mentioning David Foster Wallace in a footnote! What do I win?): Best example relevant: Todd Ingram's special powers compare and contrast with the scene in the Kaufman film where Caden is forced to speak German to his dying daughter. That stuff's funny - but it also hits home.

[3] Indeed: "It's funny, but certain faces seem to go in and out of style. You look at old photographs and everybody has a certain look to them, almost as if they're related. Look at pictures from ten years later and you can see that there's a new kind of face starting to predominate and that he old faces are fading away and vanishing, never to be seen again."

[4] Ha - "Myriad" is a word I've often heard used but never knew what it came from: apparently it's the classical Greek word for the number 10,000 - which sounds about right for the number of possibitlies that these books blow apart. 

[5] I know that for comic book fans/geeks it's all about the opposition between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (which for those of you we don't know is kinda Blur vs. Oasis, Coke vs. Pepsi, Star Trek vs. Star Wars blood-feuds in that for people that aren't already emotionally invested - it's kinda hard to tell the difference) - but I'd say that there's a better comprassion to be made between Alan Moore and Scott Pilgrim (and dangnamit - I know I should replace the word "Scott Pilgrim" with "Bryan Lee O'Malley" - but it's just that I feel like I really know and intuit and have a deep spiritual connection with Scott Pilgrim the book, the character, the idea - while it feels like Bryan Lee O'Malley is just the guy who just happened to write it - which I guess could be taken as some sort of strange compliment? (I hope) but yeah - sorry Bryan!) But yeah: with Alan Moore on the one side representing comics as being slowly structured and careful built and expertly put together intricate machines while Scott Pilgrim (on the other side - playing computer games) is comics as feeling (because it's about feeling and - obviously obviously - Scott Pilgrim is probably one of the most intricately and obsessively put together comics out there) like everything just feel together in just the right way.

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Links: Focused Totality Review of Vol 1 and 2 / Focused Totality Review of Vol 3, Sean T Collins Review of Vol 4 / Vol 5 / Vol 6Savage Critic Review of Vol 5, Warren Peace Sings The Blues Review of Vol 5, iFanboy Review of Vol 5, And Another iFanboy Review of Vol 5Comics Alliance Review of Vol 6, The Comics Journal Review of Vol 6NY Times Review of Vol 6, Comic Book Resources Review of Vol 6, iFanboy Review of Vol 6Mindless Ones Article, Comics Alliance Interview.

Further reading: Lost at Sea, Solanin, I Kill Giants, Blankets, Orc Stain, Powers, The Umbrella Academy, Domu, 100 Bullets, xkcd, Anya's Ghost, The Perry Bible Fellowship.

All comments welcome.