Sunday Salon: How I learned to love comics

The Sunday SalonGrowing up, my Dad bought us the Beano every week and I loved to read about the Bash Street Kids and all those other characters. But then I got too old for the Beano and I never replaced it with other comics, turning instead to novels.

When I met Tim he wasn’t a big reader of comics either, but he owned a few and had read a few more, and over the years he’s increasingly become a big fan, to the point where the staff at our local comic shop know him by name and we’ve started to invest in comic book storage boxes. I’ve always liked Tim’s taste in books, so I figured I should see what this comic thing was all about, in case I was missing out on something.

I didn’t feel interest in classic superhero stuff at first, because they all have these huge decades-old universes that call back to all that background, and even outside of superheroes I was tentative of where to dip my toe, so I opted mostly for one-off graphic novels.

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Graphic Novel Week: Mini reviews

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

To conclude this fantastic week of graphic novel celebration, organised by Kristilyn of Reading in Winter, I have written mini reviews of all the graphic novels I have read lately. I didn’t get through all of my reading list I set myself on Monday, but considering I was busy three evenings out of the five I don’t think I did too badly!

Transmetropolitan 1Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street
by Warren Ellis (writer) and Darick Robertson (penciller)

Spider Jerusalem is a sweary, drug-addled, weapons-loving misanthropic journalist who retired to the mountains when fame started to make people actually like him. Now he’s running out of money and his publisher is threatening legal action if he doesn’t finally stump up the two books he’s contracted for, so he reluctantly returns to the one place where he knows he can write – the City. Ellis and Robertson depict a frightening future, a world that has got more extreme in every way. There is clearly a lot of Hunter S Thompson in Spider, but in a world where his brand of truth-telling is more badly needed than ever. Spider talks/coerces his way into a job writing a weekly column and as the words begin to flow, he becomes fractionally less awful as he has somewhere to channel his hatred, anger and misery. There’s great black humour in the words and the artwork – I definitely recommend paying attention to the details in every frame as there are so many stories being told here.

“I’ve shut off the mine-fields and the intelligent guns. For the first time in five years, there is nothing menacing in my garden. Five years of shooting at fans and neighbours, eating what I kill and bombing the unwary. Five years of being alone. I can’t begin to describe the ways I’ll miss the mountain…I could cry. I really could. Journalists do not cry. And I am a fucking journalist again.”

This collection published 1998 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 2Transmetropolitan Vol 2: Lust for Life
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

In this volume, Spider Jerusalem gains a glamorous assistant called Channon who is both a fan and capable of handling his ridiculous habits, and starts finding himself a series of subjects for his column “I Hate It Here”. Often several pages in a row are, effectively, his column, calling attention to the poor and desperate of the city. He repeatedly breaks or bends the law not just to get his story, but also to exact small revenges on those he feels have failed the city in some way. There is one incredible and moving story about a woman called Mary who is revived from cryogenic sleep to find herself alone in a bewildering and inhospitable future. In another story, Spider visits a series of reservations created outside the city to preserve old cultures, where the desire for authenticity has stretched to removing the anti-cancer gene that humans have developed. It begins to be clearer in this volume how Spider comes to be so very fucked up. This is a truly fucked-up world and anyone who keeps their eyes open and dares to care is going to find their nature twist. It’s powerful, entertaining stuff.

“Mucus and soundbites. I remember this feeling now, from the last days before I went to the mountain. The sudden feeling that this place is Not On Your side. I’m hiding now. And writing. I can’t stop, even now. This goddamned city makes me write even when it wants me dead.”

This collection published 1998 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

Transmet 3Transmetropolitan Vol 3: Year of the Bastard
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Spider Jerusalem was made famous years ago by writing a bestselling book about a presidential election campaign so now he is desperately trying to ignore the approach of election time, while his editor and readers clamour for his opinion on it all. Inevitably he is sucked into following the election of an opposition candidate for the current president, known as the Beast. Spider is accompanied by his new assistant Yelena, in many ways the opposite of Channon – a brooding, resentful girl who disapproves of Spider in every way. But Spider is busy now figuring out what the two main candidates have to hide and which of them is capable of beating the hated Beast. Ellis is careful not to use words like Republican or Democrat but there is still plenty of applicable-to-real-life insightful political commentary here, phrased as always in Spider’s spleen-filled invective.

“Two days in this whirlwind have left me shipwrecked and abandoned. Even the stuff I’ve been shooting in order to, Holmes-like, keep my interest in the world alive is failing me now. I’ve played the game like a good little whore, snarled and cursed on cue…I’ll let myself sleep soon, and hope to hell the world doesn’t seem so goddamn fractured when I wake up. Having said that, I also hope I wake to find half this city committed suicide in my honour.”

This collection published 1999 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 4Transmetropolitan Vol 4: The New Scum
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

It’s time to elect a new president – will it be the Smiler or the Beast? Spider Jerusalem interviews both candidates, savagely digging for the truth, for which man will be the lesser evil. There are glimpses too of the “New Scum” – the city’s poor for whom Spider has declared himself spokesperson – but this is largely another political volume. After the revelations of Year of the Bastard there is little hope that the outcome of the election will really change anything, so this is the bleakest volume yet. There is some light relief from Channon and Yelena bickering but overall I struggled a little to maintain the excitement that had had me reading eagerly through these books. Still gotta love Spider’s columns though.

“And there you have it, reader. The Beast believes in something, perverted and filthy as it is…I was so shocked that I almost forgot to plant the guerilla neurotransmitter gel…And that, Mr President, is why you’ve been hallucinating having sex with speed-crazed Barbary Apes suffering from irritable bowel syndrome for the last week. And now you know what it’s like to have you as president; what it’s like to be constantly fucked by someone who stinks of shit.”

This collection published 2000 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 5Transmetropolitan Vol 5: Lonely City
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Oh man. While volume 4 had me doubting this series, volume 5 has me convinced it is the greatest comic series I have read. Ellis really stepped it up a notch, I felt. Back on the city streets, Spider Jerusalem and his assistants stumble across a hate crime that doesn’t seem to be getting proper attention. When Spider calls the police out on it in his column, he unleashes a horrific series of events. Despite the futuristic setting and indeed the futuristic aspects of the crime itself, the rest of this storyline could terrifyingly easily happen in the real world today; arguably it has already happened over and over. I was chilled to the core and my fandom of the series fully reawakened. Also, this volume has an introduction by Patrick Stewart. Seriously. Cool.

“You went to all the trouble of conceiving me, and giving birth to me, and raising me and feeding me and clothing me and all. And yeah, whipping me from time to time, and making me live in a house that’s freezing fucking cold all the goddamn time. And you make me cry and things hurt so much and disappointments crush my heart every day and I can’t do half the things I want to do and sometimes I just want to scream. And what I’ve got to look forward to is my body breaking and something flipping off the switch in my head. I go through all this – and then there’s death? What is the motherfucking deal here?”

This collection published 2001 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

Ex_Machina,_the_First_Hundred_DaysEx Machina Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Tony Harris (pencils)

Imagine The West Wing with superpowers, well, just one specific superpower really, but even so – amazing combo, right? Civil engineer Mitchell Hundred just became mayor of New York City, running on a campaign of independence, promising to unite left and right, but everyone knows he was really elected because he outed himself as the Great Machine, the first superhero, and his last super act before hanging up his hero’s suit was stopping the second plane from hitting the World Trade Center on September 11th. Now in true Jed Bartlett style, he must wrestle with the petty and ridiculous when he’d rather be tackling the big issues. But there’s the added difficulties of the NSA demanding he no longer use his special powers and a freak snow storm threatening to cripple the city. There are lots of great female characters, lots of interesting political machinations and I’m eager to see where this goes next.

“‘Ms Padmilla, I admire your tenacity, but I do have a press secretary.’

‘Yeah, one who refuses to divulge the origin of your psychic rapport with machinery.’

‘First of all, I’m not psychic. That’s just dumb. And secondly, you know damn well the NSA has ordered me not to comment on any “extra-normal abilities” I might have.’

…’Are you an alien?…What kind of pseudonym is Hundred anyway?’

‘For the last time, I am a thirteenth-generation American. My ancestors renamed themselves after Brandywine Hundred, the division of Delaware where they settled. And unless you can prove to me that Myles Standish – captain of the fucking Mayflower – was an alien, I’m done answering retarded questions about my planet of origin.’

…’Let’s roll…Ahh, shit! She’s gonna quote me on “retarded”, isn’t she?'”

This collection published 2005 by Vertigo Comics.

Source: Excelsior! comic book shop, Bristol.

serenity 4Serenity Vol. 4: Leaves on the Wind
by Zack Whedon (script) and Georges Jeanty (pencils)

This picks up where the film Serenity left off (the previous three comic volumes filled in back story, both before Firefly and between Firefly and the film). The tone is pitched perfectly, depicting the crew dealing with the emotional and practical fallout from the film’s events while also setting up a new story thread and new characters – good, bad and wavering inbetween. Not every character gets equal air time (frame time?) – for instance, I hope that future volumes give Kaylee and Simon more story – and I also felt that Kaylee’s dialogue played her as dumber than she ever came across in the TV series. However, overall I thoroughly enjoyed this volume, especially the gorgeous chapter page artwork by Dan Dos Santos.

“Life’s a funny thing. We cling to it so dear. The thought of losing it pushed down deep with all the other dirty little things we don’t like to see the light of day. Yet it is so easy to take a life. We’re so soft. So fragile…We’re built to live but we’re so easy to kill. Does that seem right to you?”

This collection published 2014 by Dark Horse Books.

Source: Excelsior! comic book shop, Bristol.

Graphic Novel Week: reading list

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

As I mentioned last week, Kristilyn of Reading in Winter has declared 21–24 November Graphic Novel Week, which came just as I had decided to read all of the Transmetropolitan comics, so that was good timing!

These are the books I have lined up to read before next weekend. The top row are borrowed from Tim, the bottom row were bought today from Excelsior! comic shop.

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Transmetropolitan vol. 4: The New Scum by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 5: Lonely City by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 6: Gouge Away by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 0: Tales of Human Waste by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Ex Machina vol. 1: The First Hundred Days by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris
The Sandman vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
Serenity vol. 4: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

You’ll notice that the only one of those that’s completely new to me is Ex Machina, which I picked up because I am impatient for the next volume of Brian K Vaughan’s current series Saga. I’m not good at this whole waiting game you have to play when you like current comic series.

I was intending to pick up some more literary graphic novels such as The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins or Habibi by Craig Thompson but I think I have enough to be going on with.

It’s going to be a good week’s reading!

On not reading much and Graphic Novel Week

I’ve been a bit rubbish at reading again lately. Working too many hours, busy too many evenings and weekends; it’s all led to the inevitable crash that is the lupus flare. I curl up in bed or on the sofa with a stack of books and wind up watching TV or browsing the Internet instead because it’s all my brain can cope with. And I don’t mean watching good TV or reading good articles online either, I mean the mindless stuff. (Mostly. I have read some good stuff online lately. As long as it’s short I can cope with occasional thinking material.)

I feel bad for the books I try to read when I’m flaring, because I either give up on them or struggle through without really enjoying the process. I know all reading is about timing, but maybe I need to get better at identifying when to switch to the right kind of book for mid-fatigue. But what kind of book is that?

So far, I’ve found the best answer is comics and graphic novels. I’m not saying they’re all easy reads (I won’t be attempting any Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in my current state) and I’m sure I miss stuff when I’m tired just as I do with novels of the non-graphic variety, but I do tend to find them both manageable and enjoyable when I’m ill, which is no mean feat and something I’m hugely grateful for.

By fortuitous timing, Kristilyn of Reading in Winter has declared next week Graphic Novel Week. What a great idea!

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

I will be taking part by reading my way through Tim’s collection of Transmetropolitan, which I started today. And I’m sure I can talk Tim into a trip to Excelsior! comic-book shop to pick up some more reading materials. If my lupus has calmed back down I might even try to write something intelligent about graphic novels. No promises!

Anyone have any graphic-novel recommendations? Will you be taking part in Graphic Novel Week?

This is the way the world ends

Southland Tales books I–III
written by Richard Kelly
illustrated by Brett Weldele

These graphic novels are a bit of an oddity. After the belated success of the brilliant but odd Donnie Darko, writer and director Kelly went even more cerebral and complex for his next project, Southland Tales. Parts I–III are in graphic novel format, while parts IV–VI form the film Southland Tales starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake. Confused? Wait ’til you hear the synopsis!

I’m not sure if this was intended to be the project’s format all along (as a marketing ploy) or if Kelly couldn’t fit all of his ideas for this film into a sensible length but didn’t want to just discard some on the editing room floor, instead putting the overflow into these books. To be honest, the latter is how it comes across.

Kelly’s grand idea is an end of days tale, borrowing ideas from the Book of Revelation, as well as science fiction and the politics of paranoia. The story is set in an alternative reality where the US appears to be rumbling toward disaster following a nuclear attack three years ago and the all-pervasive USIdent controls security – from software regulating internet access to the committee deciding who can cross state lines.

World-famous actor Boxer Santaros wakes up alone in the Nevada desert with no memory. He is rescued by a drifter who takes him to porn star/wannabe serious actress/psychic Krysta Now who convinces him that they are in love and were about to make a film she has written prophesying the end of the world: The Power. As Boxer begins to research his role, reality and the screenplay merge together.

Then there’s liquid karma, a mysterious substance mined from deep inside the Earth that can be used to create a wireless electricity field – the answer to the world’s energy problem. But the creators are jealously guarding their secret, and in particular their discovery that liquid karma has some very troubling effects on humans, especially when injected directly into “volunteers”.

Sound like there’s a lot going on? I’ve barely scratched the surface. Which is a problem when these are pretty slim volumes. As it happens, I watched the film Southland Tales before reading the books and I really liked it. Either film is a better medium for such a complex story and large cast or the editing process clarified the film in a manner the books could have done with. They really do look and read like a storyboard and maybe Kelly should have seriously considered making this a mini-series. Maybe he tried but with only one sleeper hit under his belt and a story that touched on a lot of the paranoia of post-911 America it wouldn’t have been easy.

There is a black sense of humour in the dialogue and characterisation that prevents this from being as heavy as it sounds. Krysta acts dumber than she is, with such lines as “Teen horniness is not a crime” but then she recites haiku on stage at the strip club where she works and explains concisely to the manager how the performance is within the terms of her contract. There are also plenty of quotations from the Bible and T S Eliot’s “The hollow men”, if that appeals.

If you liked Donnie Darko and are intrigued by a retelling of the Book of Revelation with a lot of complex ideas thrown in, then I can recommend the film. Sadly I cannot recommend these books.

Published by Graphitti Designs Inc and View Askew Productions 2006

Super extra bonus review

Scott Pilgrim books 1–6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

So these books are a lot of fun. Considering it’s mostly boy geeks who are obsessed with them I was surprised to discover that they’re all about relationships. With a bunch of kick-ass fighting and geeky extras thrown in, that is.

Volume 1 opens with Scott Pilgrim aged 23, unemployed, living with (by which I mean scrounging off) his gay best friend Wallace in a one-bed apartment (that’s literally one bed, which they share, not that it’s awkward or anything) and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb that may or may not suck. Scott plays videogames all day and is still mooning over some girl he broke up with a year ago but somehow he’s like catnip to the ladies and we gradually meet a whole string of his exes.

Then, like some great karmic revenge, he meets smart, pretty, funny, mysterious Ramona Flowers. Or strictly, she starts appearing in his head and he’s already obsessed before he meets her in real life and asks her out. She says yes, with one condition: he has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

Scott seems sweet and unassuming, and also pretty gormless and very forgetful, but it turns out that fighting is the one thing he got good at in high school. Plus he’s been training hard on the videogames, so how could he not kick ass? In fact it turns out he’s better at doing that than growing up.

These books are funny, addictive and well drawn. There’s a whole array of secondary characters, most of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, believable people. Obviously some of them are just bad guys Scott has to fight.

There are some brilliant comic touches that may actually be entirely in Scott’s mind, warped as it is from playing videogames more than real life. When he defeats a bad guy – or evil ex – their body disappears and a pile of coins appears, like in an old platform game. And when he learns something valuable he gets experience points. Genius.

There’s a lot of meta referencing, which I liked, with characters saying things like “I’ll tell you in book 3”. And there’s a subspace highway that runs through Scott’s head, which is convenient.

The dialogue is at once realistic and very, very funny and, like all the best comics, background detail is used to great effect, usually comedic. The books are chock-full of quotable comedy and, despite a few big reveals, completely re-readable.

It goes without saying (almost) that I think the film of this by Edgar Wright will be brilliant and I can’t wait to see it. From the trailers it looks like the tone has been captured exactly. And it would be hard to dislike anything starring Michael Cera.

First published 2004–2010 by Oni Press in the US.
Published 2010 by Fourth Estate in the UK.

Book 1 ISBN 978-0-0073-4047-7