Thursday, 24 January 2013

My Reading Year 2013 Part One: The Year I Stopped Reading Comics

No more of this!
And so another busy year hurries into the past without even having the good manners to kiss us goodbye. This one has been busier than usual for me and so has seemed to pass quicker than ever. I’ve moved house and been busy with renovations, and had my first year in a new job. These haven’t left a lot of time for some of my usual pursuits but I’ve had a lot of fun and discovered a whole new talent for painting and decorating.

In amongst it all I’ve still found room for reading and blogging from time to time. I finished off my H P Lovecraft series and wrote series on MarvelEssential Warlock and I, Robot. I wrote a few reviews and read a few reviews elsewhere on blogs and review sites here and there on the internet. It all made me wonder where the genre was heading and while I’m not sure if I read widely enough any more to be entitled to an opinion on the matter, when I started thinking about it I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that science fiction is dead.

But that’s all coming next week!

This got quite long, so I’ve decided to split it in two, one part on comics and one on prose. This is the part about comics. I’m going to talk about 80s Marvel vs DC, a new take on Ghost Rider, and how The Invisibles and Ex Machina showed me the benefits of reading comics in trade paperback and convinced me to give up pamphlets.

If any of these topics are of interest to you, read on!
I date the time I became a real comic collector to the summer of 1983 when I first went to a real comic shop. Over the thirty odd years since then I’ve been buying eight or ten issues. It’s always been a big part of my reading – that’s hundreds of pages a month, even if I never blogged about or kept track of them in the same way as I do with books. I’ve decided however, that the end has come – I’ve shut down my standing order at Gosh Comics and have sworn off pamphlets, perhaps for good.

Times being as they are it comes down largely to money. Buying collected editions is cheaper than getting comics by standing order – those same six comics cost about two-thirds of the price when bought as a collection. This year I also rediscovered the library. I’ve been a keen library user at various times in my life, particularly when money’s tight, and we’ve got a brand new one near us with a great selection of brand new graphic novels.

As if these conveniences weren’t enough, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between reading comics piece meal month-by-month and the rapid consumption of a series of collections. It’s like the difference between watching a TV series on broadcast channels or DVD. When I gobble up a show in a few months, rather than the years it might normally take to play it, I really get in to the rhythm of series and become immersed in it. It’s the same with comics: those little bits and bites seem rather unsatisfying by comparison.

I suppose I’m stating the obvious to a lot of you. Consider me a late adopter.

Of course I’ve read lots of graphic novels and collections before, but The Invisibles was the first long series I read wilfully and in order, and the one that really convinced me that collections and graphic novels are the way to go. I read the whole series over a few short months – right about the time I moved house, in fact – and it really grabbed me. I’m pretty sure I would have lost patience with it over six years and sixty something monthly issues as the story slowly unfolded. Taken in big doses, though the patterns and deeper plots were more apparent and the longueurs are easier to tolerate as you quickly move on to the next episode.

I’d always been interested in The Invisibles, but I probably wouldn’t have read Bryan K Vaughn’s Ex Machina at all if I hadn’t found the complete run of collections at the library. It’s an interesting idea followed through with conviction and nicely produced. I liked the way the story played out overall, but there was a bit of filler on the way. It felt a bit like a high-toned network TV series to me, like A Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica or Heroes, or perhaps The West Wing with sci fi alien super-heroes.

In the two mainstream companies, creative teams are focused on producing satisfying arcs over a series of issues with an eye to the long-tail of life on the bookshelf. The greats of the 1980s showed the way: Frank Miler with Electra: Assassin, Alan Moore with Watchmen and especially Neil Gaiman with Sandman. I read a great example this year, Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron, Tony Moore, Tan Eng Huat and Roland Boschi, a rather nice hardback (library once more) that collects about thirty comics from a distinct ‘run’ on the character, with its own take on the back story, supporting cast and events.

Ghost Rider is a great example of a character that had a great look but never had a story worthy of his origins. I read two Marvel Essentials of the stories form the 70s, which feel a bit random, like they don’t know quite what to do with the character. In the 90s he was rebooted from 70s rocker Johnny Blaze to post-Goth he-devil Danny Ketch, but I haven’t read any of those.

This book gives Ghost Rider a story that lives up to his great look. It’s really great fun, done with an eye on action and a ghoulish sense of humour. It has the mythic feel of an 80s dark super-hero re-vamp – Swamp Thing, The Demon by Alan Grant, or Grant Morrison’s Kid Eternity. Unlike a 90s re-boot, it doesn’t ignore the back-story, but revels in it, mashes it up and turns it on its head. It’s also more or less self-contained, using the back-story intelligently and tying up the most of the loose ends. In the end, Ghost Rider’s left in a steady state ready for the next team to take in another direction – he could just go back to being in the Champions again if they wanted.

If there’s a downside to these new style comics, it’s that they can feel little thin. The Ex Machina volumes were quick reads, and I’ve been reading Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors and those definitely feel like single issues stretched out over a lot of pages.

On the other hand, Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase editions are good and chunky but tend to begin in the middle of the story and leave you hanging at the end. They don’t read as if they’re planned out to quite the same degree as comics today and they don’t really have story arcs in quite the same way. This means they can be a bit corny, as the stories lurch from one bizarre death trap to the next, but I love it when creators rise to the challenge of the material and the commercial pressures that drive it.

For example, I had low expectations of Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 5, picked up for £4 in a cut-price book shop. It features Ben Grimm, The Thing, Teaming up with a different guest hero in each issue. It’s clearly a cynical attempt to cross-promote characters and titles across the Marvel line, but is still much more fun than it needs to be.

Simple pleasures
Ben’s a down-to-Earth sort of hero who likes nothing more than hanging out at the local bar for a beer, helping out the folk who live in the neighbourhood, or hurling insults at the Yancy Street Gang. The ongoing story-lines are focused on Ben’s relationship with the blind sculptor Alicia Masters, rather than the usual super-hero melodramatics.

It’s a glimpse into the stuff that goes on in Ben’s life when the Fantastic Four are offline, and there’s a slight sense of heroes letting their hair down. He teams up with a romantically inclined She Hulk who pursues Ben around the desert (under the usual sorts of contrived circumstances) and he ends up locked in a decontamination chamber with her for three days. There’s an issue where he’s in hospital after a particularly nasty fight and has to put up with bossy nurses, a constant stream of well-meaning super-hero visitors and some not-so-effective attempts on his life by B and C-list villains. Sandman makes a few guest appearances in a sub-plot that rather nicely rounds both him and Ben out.

Look out, Ben!
The light-hearted folksy atmosphere almost makes you overlook the fact that this title has little reason to exist except as a marketing tool. The occasional appearance of an A-lister like Spidey or The Avengers suggests that maybe this title also required a little help sales-wise from time to time.

In contrast to this, the read two DC Showcase editions from the same era had a slightly stifling atmosphere of worthiness. All Star Showcase and All Star Squadron revived elements of DC’s Earth 2, an ‘alternative’ Earth where DC characters began their careers at the date of their actual début, so on Earth 2 Superman first started fighting crime in 1938, Batman in 1940 and Wonder Woman in 1941. Some are different versions of familiar characters: Earth 2 Flash wears what looks like a British army helmet with little wings, and Green Lantern is a mystical type in a puffy-sleeved pirate shirt and a high-collared cape.

Power Girl: immediately appealing
All Star Showcase – which was published first – picks up their story in the late 70s. On this Earth, he heroes aged in real time, rather than existing in the eternal present of the modern super-hero Batman and Superman are retired, and a new generation of superheroes continues the fight against crime. Power Girl is Superman’s cousin, The Huntress is the daughter of Batman, and so on. Dick Grayson is now US Ambassador to Earth 2’s version of South Africa which is ‘ruled by its native inhabitants’. (‘Altogether, a slightly SANER world,’ we’re informed.)

All Star Squadron came along a few years later and covers the story of the Earth 2 heroes during World War Two. I read this one as a monthly in the 1980s, from about number 20 and filled it in with sporadic back issue purchases so I’d read some of these before.

Both come across as a bit stiff these days, especially when compared with the zanier Marvel style of the time. There’s a real sense of handling a legacy with care. They cleave so closely to super-hero clichés that there aren’t really many surprises in either book. The heroes are good hearted and true, and both titles feature feisty ‘modern’ female characters to make up for Wonder Woman originally joining the Justice Society of America as its secretary. In later issues, Squadron even attempts some anachronistic racial integration with the introduction of black American hero Amazing Man into the the group’s ranks.

Yes, very appealing...
However, the villains in both are all pulp stereotypes of mad scientists, dodgy foreigners, bug-eyed monsters or safely non-Satanic pulp-mystical entities. Disappointingly, Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman are retired in Comics and spend a lot of time out of action for one reason or another in Squadron, although Roy Thomas provides a good answer to the old question ‘why didn’t Superman just fly to Berlin and punch Hitler’s head off?’

Instead of the big three, we follow a core group of more obscure heroes from the era and a few new creations to fill out the ranks. In Comics, Power Girl and Huntress are immediately appealing and there’s something about groovy Dick Grayson the diplomat and playboy wonder that’s weirdly fascinating. On the other hand, the older characters are all very dull – Green Lantern loses his business and gets depressed, Wildcat starts feeling his age and gets depressed, Star Spangled Kid struggles to find his place in the world after thirty years in suspended animation. And gets depressed. Maybe Paul Levitz intentionally made them miserable old gits to make the new cast more appealing.

Uh... oh... crikey
The stories are fine examples of their limited type, and are immaculately crafted. The art is terrific in both. Comics benefits from solid work by Joe Staton, Keith Giffen, Ric Estrada and – amazingly – Wally Wood. These guys created the looks for Power Girl and Huntress that have endured for so long. In Squadron, Jerry Ordway’s inks give the art of first Rick Buckler and then Adrian Gonzales the glossy depth and subtle lighting that makes the pages glow with a no-expense-spared costume drama feel - if it were a TV show we’d maybe describe it as sumptuous.

However, neither of them leap off the page in the way that the stories and characters do in the roughly contemporary Marvel Two in One or Thor: The Black Galaxy Saga, which I also read this year (from the library, again). In Squadron I think Thomas sticks to ‘classic’ super-hero ideas of the Golden Age with care and a clear intent, but a little too closely for my taste. In the case of Comics, it looks like the creators just played it super safe.

They might all be a bit shoddy, but I love these cheesy old comics. The creative system of checks and balances in the industrial process of creating comics in that era means that most of these ‘standard super hero’ bollocks level books are at least good fun if you’re a fan of that sort of thing. I most definitely am and gobble up middle-rank seventies and eighties fare of this kind like the undemanding fanboy that I am.

This was also terrific fun!
A few individualistic creative peaks stick out amongst the old highly manufactured titles of the era, though. Gerry Conway and P Craig Russel on Killraven, for example, Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, and Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith on Conan. One of this year’s highlights for me was finally getting to read Jim Starlin’s first run of Warlock. It was everything I hoped it would be – cosmic, operatic, mystical and demented in the best possible way. His struggle with the Magus deserves to be to immortalised as a rock opera in full symphonic style with flaming stage effects and Meat Loaf on a flying trapeze.

As I mention elsewhere, an issue of Warlock was the first ‘American’ style comic I ever saw. And now it turns up again as I give up on the form altogether. I suppose it brings me to a handy journalistic full circle – a little bit bit contrived, but poignant nonetheless.

There’s a certain style of comics that came to maturity at the same time I did that appear to have gone on to become a major cultural force. It’s a combination of the American Marvel and DC, the classic-era 2000AD generation, Euro comics in translation in Heavy Metal and – especially later in the 90s – Asian anime and manga.

Between 1979 and 1989 comics went from kiddy joke pop culture to a major cultural force. In its modest way it was a bit like being a rock fan in the 60s, seeing the thing you love go from blues clubs and basements to mainstream success. I guess I’m now the comics version of the Mojo generation, one of those ageing hipseters that lionises Alan Moore and Jack Kirby and classic rock. I even drink real ale!

Back in the day, it felt so exciting. Collecting a monthly comic (or weekly, as 2000AD was in its day) is more than just a matter of following the story. It’s a feeling I’ve relished all my life, and I relish it still. I felt when I followed Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four. I felt it during the thrilling Dark Reign months at Marvel, where every month screwed Norman Osborne a little tighter. I remember the reveal at the end of Batman & Robin #12, where the Sexton is suddenly revealed to be The Joker. I showed it to my boy – then five years’ old – and he literary gasped. That’s the feeling of reading a monthly comic. It’s something about that cliff-hanger reveal, the suspense of waiting another month. Reading the latest issue – where all is revealed – becomes an event, in real time, that you can share with others.

A great series!
But now a new age begins and brings its own pleasures. I’ve used my new purchasing strategy to start filling in gaps in my recent collection and read complete runs. I bought the collections for the first couple of dozen issues of Fantastic Four and Future Foundation. I only started reading these from F4 #600 and Future Foundation #9, so I’ve been having fun catching up with the story and re-reading the later issues. I’m still working my way through the library where I’m considering Fables and The Preacher.

There’s also the possibility of buying new comics as they come out in collections – I’m keeping my eyes peeled for Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers. And in the meantime I picked up Essential Marvel Team-Up vol 3 and Essential The Punisher vol 2 at the discount bookshop the other day and they’re sitting now in my bedside table waiting for when I can get to them.

That’ll keep me going for a while, I think.

Comics I read this year in no particular order (not including actual comics):
Body World by Dash Shaw
Red Son by Mark Millar
Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron, Tony Moore, Tan Eng Huat and Roland Boschi
Secret Warriors by Jonthan Hickman and verious
Earth X by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, John Paul Leon, Bill Rheinhold.
Marvel Essential Warlock by Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, Jime Starlin et al
Marvel Essential Super Villain Team-Up vol 1 by various.
The Invisibles by Grant Morrison
Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
WildC.A.T.S by Alan Moore et al
Ex Machina by Brian K Vaughn et al
Thor - The Black Galaxy Saga by Tom De Falco and Ron Frenz
DC Showcase All Star Comics by Paul Levitz, Joe Staton and others
DC Showcase All Star Squadron by Roy Thomas, Rick Buckler, Jerry Ordway and
The Inifinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim


  1. On SF being dead, I recently picked up "Distrust That Particular Flavour", the collection of William Gibson's non-fiction, and in it he says various things relating to that point. Most prominently, he feels that we don't have "Capital-F futures" (he feels "Neuromancer" is one) anymore, which is one reason why his recent stuff is SF set pretty much now.

  2. Yes, I think that's partly it but of course the idea of what 'capital F futures' means needs some exploring. I'd be interested to read what he has to say, but I guess I won't get a chanced to before I post my own thoughts... in just a few days!

  3. "Science fiction is dead." A big statement, that, and I look forward to seeing your reasoning. I came back here curious what you made of Rajaniemi's "Fractal Prince" - which I'm 6 chapters into. You seem less than enchanted!

    I've just finished back-to-back rereadings of "Canticle for Liebowitz" and "Anathem." Debating whether to seek out Varley's latest, "Slow Apocalypse." It's been slammed for excessive padding with LA street geography. (Anticipating the shooting script perhaps?) Authors can't be blamed, I guess, for wanting their share of coin via multivolume series deals, HBO and movie scripts, and tie-in merchandise. But it makes for tedious books.

  4. Hi again, Varleyfan!

    Hm, no one wants to talk about me stopping reading pamphlets!

    Oh well, the big article comes later in the week. I'm also going to be a away for a few weeks thereafter with spotty internet access so I don't know if I'll be around to pick up the comments... maybe I should have done part 2 first!

    I haven't read Anathem yet - definitely on my radar but not made it to the incoming list! I think Neal Stephenson's work is an interesting evidential point in the 'SF is dead' argument that I hadn't considered. He's definitely writing in an Asimovian tradition of what one might call 'the fiction of science', but he's a lonely voice today. Maybe one day I'll get to that. An interesting companion to Cantilce, too, I would have thought!

    The multi-volume HBO-series rights fiction is one of my chief suspects in the death of SF, so I'll cover that shortly...

  5. On The Fractal Prince:

    My 'SF is dead' theory is inspired by 'The Widening Gyre' review by Paul Kincaid in LA Review of Boooks and The Fractal Prince seems to commit two of the sins identified by Kincaid - no new ideas, reframing technology in a fantasy mode. Hm, I might add this in...

    Anyway, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of basic craft - words, grammar and etc - and anti-climax of the sobornost conspiracy reveal. Rudy Rucker's Postsingular deals with same idea and brilliantly extends the metaphor into more lit fic areas of 'what it means to be alive, actually'. For Rajaniemi this 'big idea' is just a maguffin to drive the thriller plot, which is poorly paced and crafted.

    A real disappointment after The Quantum Thief! As I say in my review, though, I'll probably still read the last one to see how it turns out, and I anticipate better work from this writer to come.

  6. Getting down to your original subject... I do take your point that collections and graphic novels have it all over the single-pamphlet comic format. It's exactly like my waiting for the season DVD of (let's say) Heroes to be released, rather than trying to watch - or miss it and forget to record it - each week. No ads, time gaps and other distractions. It makes it easier to pick up on minor plot glitches etc. but let's face it, what would we fans do if there were nothing to nitpick? Ha!

    Checking out the Paul Kincaid review... I haven't been following the Gardner Dozois collections, but I have read a handful of Hartwell/Cramer collections. Lately they introduce each new crop of stories with a lament about the parlous state of publishing in general and science fiction in particular!

  7. Hi varleyfan, I hope you maybe got some ideas of comics to try. If you're not a supers fan, there's so much else to try and UI'll be reading more in the coming year. I really would recommend the Ghost Rider - it was pure joy!

    And missing it/forgetting to record it is exactly why I like the box set culture. To be honest, it'd been a while since I engaged with TV series because I'm just too shambolic to keep up with a long-running series in the normal run of things.

    It's been a while since I've read a best of year, too, maybe five years? But I might read a few this year from different eras. I was also thinking about chasing down some of the Pan/Panther/Sphere collections of Golden Age material that I used to read as a kid. I've got Spectrum 3 (ed by Kingsley Amis) in hand to take a look at mid-60s hay-day SF, so I'll get to that eventually.

    I dunno, though, as my reading seems to be in decline. Less DIY, more sci fi! Let that be my warcry for 2013!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.