Reading at the Shenzhen Writers Afternoon

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Last week on a Sunday afternoon I participated in an event in which writers based in Shenzhen can read their works aloud. It was part of the Shenzhen Book Exchange, which is an interesting sort of amateur library that English-language readers put together to promote reading and finding books while abroad. I’ve borrowed a lot of books from there, and donated a few myself.

 

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Reading in #Shenzhen

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While at it, I decided to print some of my one-page comics and share them as little books. That went over pretty well. (They don’t work very read aloud but great to give away.) Now six pages long. The working title of this slowly-growing anthology is “A Random Assortment of Cautionary Tales.”

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I can #comics .

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I am somewhat afraid that I’m not very good at reading. The audience seemed attentive, but maybe I read too fast. Ah well, I’m not quite an actor but I hope the words are interesting.

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Reading from my new story THIS MODERN LOVE:

 

As much as the point was to share my works, it was also much fun to organize the event in that I found new writers in Shenzhen to work with as well as help to edit for translations. While I’ve read at the book exchange before, and I had a ‘Shenzhen Writers Night’ earlier in the year, this was the first time putting those two in particular together and I think it was a good forum for the city’s literary scene. I’m lucky to have come across these great authors, both established Chinese and (such as me) aspiring American. Here they are with links to their works below:

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Xie Hong
 is the Chinese author of 14 books, and he also writes in English. He studied in New Zealand in the English department of the Waikato Institute of Technology. Xie has won the Shenzhen Youth Literature Award as well as the Guangdong New Writer Award and New York Award. He will share some of his experiences in writing, and read poems or excerpts of short stories. He read from his poem collection The Story of Time, and the short story Casino.

http://lithub.com/on-xie-hong-master-of-chinese-unreality/

http://blog.sina.cn/dpool/blog/xiehong

 

Greta Bilek is a self-published travel writer and author of the book China Tea Leaves. Writing about travel in China, she finds inspiration in ancient poems, historic travelogues, stories told by Chinese friends and more. This is her second time presenting at the Book Exchange, sharing reflection from the road and experiences of taking on layers of cultural traditions as an expat.

http://www.chinatealeaves.com/

 

Tiga Tan is the scriptwriter and novelist. She has written more than 300 episodes of TV series for Shenzhen’s children’s channel and the animated series Fuwa for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She is author of “G.O.D.I.S.E.T” a science fiction novel. She read from her short fairy tale “So Long, Aga.”

 

Nicole A. Schmidt is a published author, poet, educator and editor. She shared poetry, creative non-fiction and art she has created while in China. She is the author of Inside a Young Soul, and runs NAS Writes as an editing platform.

https://about.me/nicoleaschmidt

https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Young-Soul-Nicole-Schmidt/dp/1507800452

 

 

I hope you will take the time to look up these writers and learn more about their brilliant works! I’m honored to have had the chance to share the creative side of Shenzhen.

I’m looking forward to the next event already…

 

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South Africa Part I

Being an expat living in a major Chinese city of millions – with thousands of Westerners within the English-speaking foreigner scene – you never know who you will meet and what part of the world they may introduce you to… particularly when it comes to romance!

As I’ve written about extensively, it just never seemed to work out with me and Chinese girls. I haven’t followed up on those old blogs in a while, but know this of my present situation: I have not been lonely over the past year.

In the summer of ’14, I happened to fall for an artsy South African girl. Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say there were some interesting stories along the way. I’m not going to share all those personal stories at this time. Suffice to say it’s been serious, intense, and loving.

I am however happy to share the fact that last holiday (Moon Festival coinciding with National Day) she took me on a tour of her home country. An entire new continent I’ve never been to, a whole other land. I am still in awe of all I had seen.

I must admit, it was a challenge at times. Sad though it may be, at this late stage in my life this was actually the first time I had ever met a girlfriend’s parents! Wow. Really? Well, that’s me.

I was rather nervous. There was, in actuality, the issue of class. White South Africans tend to live in the suburbs, in gated communities, walled off by electric fences. I grew up a step below, and over the past half-decade gotten comfortable living in the lesser developed end of a developed city in developing country.

South Africa in actuality may be one of the most unequal countries in the world, but I’m not saying that my girlfriend’s family are that rich. Just normal middle class. Yet even that is tricky for me to be comfortable with. I liken myself to a starving artist-writer in China mind you, not some trader-businessman.

Really, it wasn’t that bad.

All that said, the country is full of beauty like no other… I can see what people love so much about Africa.

My lovely did an incredible job of planning this trip. (How could I plan? I followed her. And it worked out very well that I did.) Everyday, off to a new place. New sights to see. New wonders to behold.

Off we went.

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Day One

We flew in from Hong Kong. Transferred at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the view from the aircraft of exquisite waterfalls and Mt. Kilimanjaro. My first time entering the Southern Hemisphere. Wish I could have explored Ethiopia more. Next time.

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Though we were tired, I was determined to start exploring right after landing. Being picked up from the Johannesberg airport was almost a disappointment; I’d wanted to learn about trains right off the bat. But it was tiring after the second flight being over ten hours.

The driver took us to the guest house in Melville, the hip part of town. On the drive over I stared out the window and took pictures. The highway only showed what looked like middle-American suburbs. In fact, much of what I would see of the middle-class homes and shopping malls pretty much reminded me of American suburbs.

Melville was awesome. Full of vegetarian restaurants (we ate Mexican food the first night, yum!), used bookstores (I spent way too much money), and most importantly of all a comic book shop. Outer Limits: I got an old Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud I’d been wanting to reread and share for ages.

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They didn’t have the latest One Piece manga volume, but later I did find it at a shop in Pretoria.

And Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture still hadn’t come out yet, always late.

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Day Two

By the second day my ears no longer popped and jetlag not too bad, we hung out some more in Melville and bought vintage clothes at this cool place made out of trucker containers called 27 Blocks. After some errands at the bank, I got a Sim card for my phone. Another highlight was simply going to a grocery store. Again, due to the western context, it was nice to simply be in a supermarket.

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We checked out and took a tuk-tuk driver to downtown Pretoria, at the City Bowl area near the Gautrain station. There, although heavy with all the luggage, we went to yet another bookstore (found a used Warren Ellis graphic novel) to meet up with Eleni –  blogger of Greek Meets Taiwan – who lives in the area. It was tricky to find the time, but small world that it is one might as well take advantage, and had coffee with her boyfriend and talked about education.

A lot of interesting talks showing me how it really is in South Africa…

Running a bit late, we took the Gautrain to Pretoria. This was the moment. My girlfriend’s dad, first time ever in my life to meet him. Although I did talk to him on Skype the week before. It was cool, no big deal at all. Nice man.

The dad and his wife – I would meet the mother later (now that I think about, perhaps divorced parents is one of the things that brings us together) – drove us out for dinner. We stopped by at a hoity-toity golf club where I did not feel comfortable at all. But it was interesting to see their scene. I was treated to an endless array of delicious meals, put on weight, and I’m very grateful he invited me into his home and was so kind.

The house in the suburbs was as suburban as ever. Except as said in South Africa they have electric fences. Stayed in our own guest bedrooms, watched cable TV, and caught up with my online life.

 

Day Three

Already my third day in this land, and then sadly it started to get boring.

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Button Masher T.O.

Hi there, gamers!

Although my nerdy tendencies are primarily focused on the medium of comicsI do have more sides to myself as shared in this old post: Casual Gamer

With this in mind, I hope it is appropriate to interview Mr. Corey van den Hoogenband of the website Button Masher T.O.

 

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http://buttonmasherto.com


Let’s begin. Firstly, how would you describe the Button Masher T.O. blog?

 

Button Masher T.O. is a joint project among a handful of writers, podcasters, and video creators, covering and sharing the nerdy junk they love in Toronto and beyond. We’ve
been around for just over half a year and are proud to say we’ve had over 30,000 visitors, collaborated with several other talented bloggers and sites, and had articles upvoted to the top of various gaming subreddits on more than one occasion.

 

 

What is the backstory to the creation of Button Masher T.O. and what led you to write for it?

 

So Nic and myself, along with Damion, were the three original founders of the site, and the whole thing with Nic is that our entire ten-year friendship has essentially been one long conversation about video games. We met in the schoolyard talking about fake cheat codes we imagined for Soul Calibur II, and solidified our friendship through countless rounds of Smash Bros Melee. Seriously – COUNTLESS.Nic and I had been wanting to do something like Button Masher for years, and around December I felt really compelled to share a lot of gaming opinions. I write for another Toronto based arts blog that respects video games as an art form, but I knew that they weren’t really the place for games discussion – that’s just not what they cover. So rather than sulk at the fact my current site won’t publish my gaming stories, I opted to unite with Nic, along with Damion, to create a new site that would host all our gaming outbursts. Enter Button Masher T.O.

 

What is your personal process by which you get an idea for a post, and how do you go about writing it?

More likely than not, the process begins with me jumping out of bed late at night to grab my phone and make a memo about what it is I want to write about. I can say with confidence though that in my experience the key to writing a successful article is writing about what you care about and why you care about it. There’s going to be a million other sites covering the exact same news stories whether that’s gaming, politics, what have you – and readers can get that same news anywhere. What’s going to bring people towards your article is how you perceive that news. Your opinion is your greatest ally – and if it differs from everyone else, even better!

If you wanted an example, early in July a trailer dropped for the “A Matter of Family” Batgirl DLC for Batman: Arkham Knight. I noticed that in the trailer Harley Quinn, a character I think is great, is sporting her original outfit from the ’90s Batman cartoon. Instead of writing an article saying “Check out this new trailer!” like everyone else did, I wrote something along the lines of “Harley Quinn Goes Old School in New Batgirl DLC.” Even a month later, that article brings in at least 30 visitors a day.

 

Are there any writers who particularly inspire you?

I think I’m influenced most greatly by Greg Miller and the rest of the guys at Kinda Funny. I’ve been reading Miller’s stuff since he first showed up at IGN in the late 2000s, and his style of writing worked in such a way that it didn’t feel like text on screen, it felt like your nerdy friend telling you why you would or wouldn’t like game x. I hope my writing comes across the same way to readers – that there’s a guy on the other end who’s excited to tell them about whatever the article is about.

 

Now that the Button Masher podcast is up on iTunes, can you share some interesting things about making a podcast?

Without a doubt the hardest part of a podcast is starting each episode. Once the ball is rolling you feel fine going for 30, 40, 50 minutes, but I know whether it’s me on Podcast Engage or Nic hosting CineMasher, we always do four or five intro attempts before we get it right. “Heeeeello internet and welcome to the… no no no that was way too lame.” Picture that but in ten plus variations each episode.

 

I see you cover a lot of cool nerdy pop culture, focusing on video games but not exclusively so. From Muppets to Bojack Horseman, what are some of your favorite non-gaming franchises and stories?

Well the whole idea of not exclusively covering games is an extension of our longing to just share and celebrate the stuff that we would talk about anyways if Nic, Damion, the others, and myself were sitting around at a bar. When it comes to non-gaming I’d say some of my personal favourite franchises would have to be Batman: The Animated Series, Breaking Bad, the A Song of Ice and Fire books, and most recently this exceptional comic book series, Saga.

 

What were your favorite games growing up?

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was the first game I got addicted to. I was too young to beat the game’s first temple so I’d just run around exploring Termina as Link until my three day cycle ran out, then I’d start again and repeat. You wouldn’t believe how excited I was when I found an old Nintendo Power Magazine with a walkthrough of Majora’s Mask’s dungeons and realized there was more to Zelda than just cutting down bushes. My life was changed…I’ve yet to figure out if that was for better or worse.

 

What are your favorite games currently?

Right now I’m obsessed with Batman: Arkham Knight. I caved and bought the 40 dollar season pass, so hopefully it’ll supply me with the Batman fix I desperately crave all the way up until the new year. I’m a weak, weak man.

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Epic Fail Comic Con

One of the things I’ve missed out on by living in China is the glory of comic conventions. I went to the San Diego con — biggest in America, a number of times. I used to go to small ones in Cincinnati. Buy discount bundles of comics, get some signed by artists and writers. In San Diego, of course, many big-time celebrities to gawk at. Pretty much the funnest thing there is to do.

I did go to an animation festival in Shenzhen a few years back, and it was fun. Students making CGI films, Japanese manga translated into Chinese. But no Western comics.

With the popularity of the Marvel films all over the world, Wizard World — and I’d gone to a Wizard World in Chicago back in the day — decided to host their first convention in China at the nearby city of Guangzhou. Imagine my pleasure at hearing this!

Then imagine my extreme disappointment when I went last month and it was an abyssmal failure. 😦

Now, I didn’t expect much. Wizard World Guangzhou was beaten by the Shanghai comic con, and the reviews weren’t great. Just a bit of cosplay, toys to buy, and very little actual comics to purchase but apparently at least a few. As Marta Lives in China had written about: https://martalivesinchina.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/shanghai-comic-con/

What a long story the failure of the Guangzhou con. Where to even start?

Only a few days before schedule I’d suddenly heard that they changed venues. Guangzhou, host city of the large scale international Canton Fair, should know how to do big events. China has trade conventions all the time; I’ve been to many. Yet the new venue was suspiciously small. Apparently they built a big tent or something.

We arrived Saturday in the afternoon, and heard from friends that they’d been waiting in line in the scorching heat for several hours. Two Americans in China has more details here: http://www.twoamericansinchina.com/2015/05/the-big-con-nightmare-guangzhou-comic-con.html

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Nothing but long lines. Hours and hours of this. We decided to go eat nearby, in no hurry to join the lines and wait, and gather some intel.

Finally, after hours of walking in circles just wondering if the line was even moving, the story had been pieced together. Turned out the the original venue had backed out. There were rumors they wanted to overcharge the westerners at the last minute, and/or they double-booked. Probably another stupid boring trade show about cell phone parts or something. Gosh forbid they do an exhibition with some culture.

Fanstang, the incompetent Chinese-based organization working with Wizard World (and Wizard bears responsibility too), only had time for this very small alternative location. Seemed all the vendors were cancelled. Couldn’t even buy a dang T-shirt. I never did get to see the inside, but a few others had and said it was extremely disappointing.

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The only discernible point of this thing was to look at a few celebrities.

I felt silly taking pics with the crowd, but what else was there to do?

This guy is Stefon from Vampire Diaries, so I’m told. Paul Wesley.

20150530_143243The bald guy walking away is, believe it or not, is Dominic Purcell the older brother from Prison Break.

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And this girl on the right walking away is Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I don’t watch. Actress Chloe Bennet.

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And that is unfortunately all I got.

The biggest name was Lee Pace, Thranduil from the Hobbit and Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy. Whatever.

 

I took these pictures when the celebrities were leaving. It was scheduled until 6:00, I figured the last hour or so could be enjoyed there, but at 4:00 the stars got fed up and left. It was over.

The remaining crowds were not happy. It was very difficult to get a straight answer about refunds. Finally, an American in charge told me the rest of the story. The police wouldn’t let the people in, as there were something like 7000 tickets sold but the venue could only hold several hundred people. Yes, that big a discrepancy. Only “VIP” tickets would be let in the next day, which cost 500 yuan, and absolutely not worth it. They were still figuring out details on regular-priced ticket refunds and sending signed autographs or something.

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In the end, what a clusterfuck. An epic China fail if ever there was one.

What bothers me the most is how much it embarrasses China. Talk about losing face. All these celebrities, who have much social capital, are left with a terrible impression of doing business in China. These people are not impressed with Guanghzou. If this worked it could have been a lot of fun for fans and opened up Western pop culture to this grand country. Instead, it reinforced the worst examples of how China is not quite yet ready to be a modern country. I’m very sorry about that, but what other conclusion can be drawn? It’s true.

The lesson is to tread carefully in China, and don’t have high expectations.

 

That said, with my low expectations we still had some fun in China.

Next post: an overview of the Redtory arts district in GZ

COMICS FAN

Goodreads: Comics

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Beginnings:

Comics One

Growing Up With Comics

 

Eras:

Marvel 80s

Marvel 90s

Marvel 2000s

 

DC 80s

DC 90s

DC 2000s

 

Currently Reading

 

Favorites:

X-Men

Superman

Batman

Transformers

 

Indie:

Independents

Vertigo

 

World:

Manga

Manga – Shonen Jump

European and British

 

Authors:

Alan Moore

Neil Gaiman

Grant Morrison

Geoff Johns

Gail Simone

Jim Starlin

Warren Ellis

What I’m currently reading – Comics: Epilogue

My epic summary of all my favorite comics has now concluded.

I shall now epilogue this blog series with a simple post about what I am currently reading.

 

In the end, I hate to say it, it’s still kinda about Marvel vs. DC.

Consider that both mainstream superhero comics are simultaneously promoting very similar continuity-rebooting crossovers about alternate universe locales being stolen away and various versions of characters fighting each other: Secret Wars and Convergence.

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I got a free preview for Secret Wars. Now all the universes are dying, and the Ultimate and 818 will combine! Or something. I do like Jonathan Hickman and followed his Avengers run, which all led up to this. Guess I’ll do the graphic novel eventually…

 

Convergence is interesting, in that it’s less of a big deal but it includes callbacks to DC eras I once enjoyed and now miss. Specifically the pre-52 DC of the 90s and 2000s! I do love that Wally West is the Flash and has a family, and Clark Kent is married to Lois Lane (by Dan Jurgens no less). What can I say? I’m sappy that way sometimes.

Also, I’ll definitely be reading New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and Nightwing/Oracle by Gail Simone.

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Speaking of DC and parallel Earths, Grant Morrison on Multiversity. I finally completed the story with the final issues and they are very, very good. Not Morrison’s best, but what could ever be that brilliant? Fun cosmic action as only he can do it, of course with many metafictional elements. One of the best things is that it’s self-contained without requiring endless crossovers to tell the story of Ultra and multiple Supermen against the archetypal hordes of cynicism. Perhaps there will be a sequel but I hope it doesn’t take too many years to come out.

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Speaking of brilliant, the highly literary League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil. I want to round out the Nemo trilogy with River of Ghosts. It’s already been out but I haven’t gotten the chance to purchase it yet. Damn you Hong Kong comic shops last week! After tthis hat, perhaps no Moore comics for another decade. So story of Captain Nemo’s daughter in Nazi South America better be good.

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Speaking of acclaimed British authors, Neil Gaiman. Sandman Overture, the late update to the 90s classic, has been coming out very slowly. The incredible art by J.H. Williams is worth it, but I may be regretting already buying the individual issues and not waiting for the inevitable reprint. Dreams, dreams, dreams.

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And speaking of Vertigo: Fables. The long-running series about fairy tale people hiding out in modern New York — the greatest currently published by DC/Vertigo — is ending after all these years. The trade paperback editions actually sell more than the magazine issues, so the final issue 150 will apparently also be a full graphic novel volume 22. That’s an amazing idea. But will take until late July to be completed by artist Mark Buckingham.

Whatever will happen to Snow White and rivalrous sibling Rose Red and the Camelot metaphor? I’m dying to know. Writer Bill Willingham hasn’t been apprehensive about killing off a lot of major characters; anything could happen.

So good, I even got my girlfriend to become a Fables fan.

Meanwhile, I’m catching up on spinoffs like Fairest.

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Can’t leave out my favorite Shonen Jump manga One Piece! By the hilarious Eiichiro Oda, Volume 74 has been released for over a month, how can I be so late?! Super stretchy pirate Luffy in the tournament and fighting against warlord Doflamingo must be one of the great all-time manga climaxes. Dressrosa, what a country. I heard a certain guy from Luffy’s past isn’t dead after all. I. Need. To. Read. Now.

All you people reading the scans are way ahead and even the anime is past that, yet I still insist on supporting the official Viz translation.

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And that’s it. Those are the comics I currently read.

(At least the ones I buy. No comment on pirated online and such.)

Thanks for following along with my blog, all you comics fans out there! It was fun sharing, and even if you aren’t a fan I hope I introduced you to some possibilities of new reading materials. Read and read alike, it’s good for you 🙂

European and British comics

In one of my last comics-themed posts, I would like to round it out with my forays into European comics.

Let’s not forget there is a whole planet Earth of this medium. There’s Japan, obviously!

 

Interestingly, Scott McCloud in the brilliant essay Understanding Comics studied the basic underlying structure to Western and Eastern sequential art forms. McCloud concluded that American and European storytelling is fundamentally the same even if the subject matter varies; while Japanese comics from romance to space opera use an altogether different mindset of “directing” techniques.

 

Anyway: America tends to get the most attention with all the expensive superhero movies these days. But for decades the problem in the West was that comics were assumed to be for children and not given serious thought by social critics.

Meanwhile in Europe, graphic novels have had a strong tradition of recognition by adults and kids for decades. It’s that avant-garde sentiment, y’know.

Firstly, Great Britain. Those originators of the English language tend to be better at writing in general. Ever noticed that? All the great writers are British, from Shakespeare to Vertigo and Image. They called it the British Invasion, the comics version not the rock version, ’twas the 80s not 60s. (Like rock music, America invented it and the British improved it.) As I’ve written about extensively.

What I haven’t mentioned in those extensive writings is the sci-fi anthology series 2000 A.D. Almost everyone, from Moore to Morrison, got their start there. I’ve read the occasional B&W shorts in reprint form.

Furthermore, if I am getting into 2000 A.D. then I must get into Judge Dredd.

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Yes, the Stallone movie was awful. Sorry about that. However the 2012 film was quite good.

What you may not know is that the comic is legendary. Going all the way back to 1977, the fascistic judge has had a prolific career. Written by John Wagner, the saga of Mega-City One is one of the most hardcore dystopias ever portrayed in fiction. I came across the graphic novel Tour of Duty, and was impressed enough to go back and read a whole lot. That good. Robot Wars, Cursed Earth, Judge Death, The Apocalypse War, Day of Judgment. Lots of mutants and genocide and critiquing the American dream and so forth, ain’t no harsher more biting stories than those. Dredd is the quintessential outsider’s take on Americana, and what a take those Brits can scribe.

 

Then there’s the continent. The French-speaking world in particular.

Belgium is famed for Tin Tin by Hergé. Even living in China, I found some English-translations of the classic albums. European comics tend to come in a certain oversized slim album-sized editions.

It’s fun and all, as Tin Tin and Snowy traverse the world. But wasn’t my favorite. Stories like The Blue Lotus are a bit racist, admittedly. Won’t even get into the African stuff.

I’d recommend The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure because of the very fine 2011 Spielberg animated film.

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My favorite French comic ever would definitely be Asterix.

Luckily, I happened upon the Shenzhen Children’s Library which contains a great collection of the albums. Free to borrow! I must have read about twenty. Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the complete series is totally funny and hold up well today.

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Many of the best hail from the 1960s and 70s. Asterix and Cleopatra, Asterix at the Olympic Games, Asterix and the Roman Agent, The Mansion of the Gods, The Great Crossing. Gotta love that Obelisk, and I wish I could get ahold of some potion…

 

I even found some second-hand Smurfs comics in Shenzhen. Also from Belgium, by Peyo. Not bad, and very nostalgically indicative of the 1980s Hanna-Barbera cartoon from my childhood. Read a couple of them in English, and the library even has plenty translated in Chinese so as I can brush up on my 中文.

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“La la la la la la. la la la la laaaa!”

 

Hey, didn’t I say European comics were for grownups?

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Time for Warren Ellis, comics writer

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/765636-ray?shelf=warren-ellis

 

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That’s just a blurry pic I took at Comic Con ’07 or ’08. He is SO funny in person.

 

Warren Ellis is a damn interesting writer.

He’s British, smart, and touches on occulty themes, and yet he was not part of the original 90s “British Invasion” of comics writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison.

His work is violent, intelligent, sometimes dark, with a wicked sense of humor.

In my youth I read some of his Marvel work, like Thor and British X-spinoff Excalibur. I had mixed feelings, because it was that kind of “grim and gritty” style of postmodern comics. Ellis, similar to another (Irish) writer Garth Ennis, clearly hates the superhero genre. He has no use for it, other than a method of making a living sellilng comic scripts. In a perfect world these authors could do other genres without having to slum it among the capes. So they write heroes, all the while cynical and despising what heroism stands for. Still, makes for interesting stories at times.

Warren Ellis is a much sought-after writer for both DC and Marvel, but he rarely does mainstream work anymore. And that’s good.

I became a real fan of the Wildstorm era. Wildstorm, if you recall, was Jim Lee’s company within Image Comics, after all the big name stars left Marvel in the early 90s. Those early comics more than often shit, but Lee ended up with more staying power than, say, Rob Liefeld.

One of those Wildstorm books happened to be Stormwatch, which wasn’t anything great. Seemed another overblown X-Men rippoff about a government team or something. Warren Ellis came upon the title with little fanfair, and it soon gained critical acclaim. No one saw that coming.

I missed it the first time around, but around the mid-2000s I was ruffing it in Los Angeles and enjoyed going to a downtown library. They had an extensive graphic novel collection. I had little money and lots of free time. So I decided to catch up and see what I’d been missing.

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Stormwatch was cool, but eventually all the characters were killed off and something new came along: Authority. That’s what it was truly all about.

Authorty, illustrated by Bryan Hitch (of Ultimates fame) was one of the first “widescreen” comics. Every issue was epic. It starred Apollo and Midnighter — a gay version of Superman and Batman, and Jenny Sparks the spirit of the Twentieth Century. Unapologetic in its epicness, they fought gods and aliens and were always high-level high-concept.

 

Moreover, Warren Ellis’s greatest legacy would be Transmetropolitan. Those graphic novels I ever so cherished, as they kept me going during my starving artist years…

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Published by Vertigo, and that’s more like it. Actually was originally published by DC’s “Helix” imprint, but that went under and only Transmetro remained to become one of Vertigo’s most successful.

The story of gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem in that Hunter S. Thompson vein, but in an unidentified bizarre sci-fi future. There were crazies with alien DNA, a Nixonian character affectionately referred to as “the Beast”, and an even worse President called the “Smiler.”

Each issue punched you in the face and laughed loudly while doing that. Anarchy and journalistic integrity and weird post-science concepts. At 60 issues, by far a record for Ellis. Well done, sir.

 

In the 2000s Ellis continued with some Marvel projects in the midst of the more mature Quesada era. These weren’t quite rated R books from Image or Vertigo, but better than anything else out.

Nextwave Agents of H.A.T.E. was a cult hit, full of B-list characters like Machine Man and Boom Boom fighting against the Beyond corporation’s ‘Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ H.A.T.E. being a hilariously biting satire of S.H.I.E.L.D. The whole comic was full of pithy one-liners, nothing else like it from Marvel. First arc was about the dragon Fin Fang Foom and had many comments about purple underpants and lack of genitals. Only lasted 12 issues, which is unfortunately typical for Ellis.

Delicious art by Stuart Immonen.

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Meanwhile at Marvel, Mr. Ellis wrote the Iron Man: Extremis storyline. You may recognize the nanotechnological elements in the film Iron Man 3, based off the comic.

 

Outside of the superhero world, we have Fell. This award-winning comic simpler in scope, starring detective Richard Fell in a very dark crime drama.

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There were other little books here and there I read, miniseries from Image and Wildstorm post-bought out by DC.

Global Frequency, pretty cool. Typical Ellis, an elite team of agents fighting the secret forces of incomprehensible technology and great mysteries (un)revealed at the end.

Ministry of Space, an alternate reality take on what if proper British gentlemen won the space race.

Red, more spies. The bad movie was based off that, sorry.

Supergod, apocalyptic religious-transhumanist themes published by Avatar Press. I’d recommend a lot of his latter years work from Avatar.

Yet even Warren Ellis sometimes misses the mark. Personally, I had to give up on the webcomic FreakAngels

 

The ultimate Warren Ellis opus would absolutely have to be Planetary: Continue reading

Jim Starlin – Marvel Comics 1970s and Thanos of the Power Cosmic

Previous: Marvel 2000s

Allow me to take a moment to express my fondness for the works of Jim Starlin.

Since Guardians of the Galaxy – and yes the Avengers – has become mainstream, everybody knows Drax the Destroyer and Gamora and the Infinity Gems/Stones.

Most of all, now everyone knows Thanos.

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But for it goes way back. When I was a precocious teen in the 90s, I couldn’t help but fall for the Infinity Gauntlet crossover. It was so epic, so cool. Thanos the all-powerful against a horde of superheroes and space beings. Followed by the exponentially-less cool Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, it was the epitome of overblown early 90s comicbook crossovers. What better to be introduced to the grand Marvel Universe?

The real story of Jim Starlin goes back much further that that. The cosmic escapades I am describing explore one of the great long-form stories of our time, with about forty years of history.

In the 1970s Marvel Comics was on top, having surpassed DC in the previous decade’s Silver Age quality. The medium was full of wonder, although it did get ridiculous as much as it got experimental. The Defenders, Howard the Duck, Jack Kirby’s Captain America. Comics hadn’t exactly grown up by then, no Claremont X-Men yet, but there was much fun to be had in the disco era.

 

Jim Starlin first got his break in 1972. He wrote and drew three issues of Iron Man, in which the metallic hero fought the Blood Brother aliens. And suddenly it was revealed they were working for the master villain of all time: Thanos.

The cosmic saga had begun.

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It was in the pages of Captain Marvel that the saga truly unfolded. Starting with issue 25, the eponymous Marvel character finally found his own voice. The Kree alien (actually named “Mar-Vell”) was joined by the cosmic being Eon to become a protector of the universe, and was faced off against Thanos powered by a cosmic cube. The universe was just barely saved in the end.

I came across the trade paperback collection in my youth and I’m glad I did. The Infinity crossovers of the 90s made more sense with the backstory. That was the beauty of being into superheroes, to go back and endlessly collect and learn the whole story… Baroquean really…

There was also Tbe Death of Captain Marvel, the first official graphic novel of Marvel. A sort of proto-crossover, it was simply about the Captain getting cancer and retiring from the world of the living. In typical fashion, Starlin explored themes of the afterlife and the psychedelic depiction thereof.

That was back when characters stayed dead.

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Starlin is known just as well for Adam Warlock, a random character created by Kirby, who later became a sort of Christ-like figure. The artificial humanoid died and resurrected himself a number of times, just as often to fight against Thanos as he did ally with the mad Titan. An unlikely antihero.

The original build up of the Infinity Gems in comics was harder for me to find. I tracked down some rare reprints, an unsuccessful miniseries from the mid-90s. Weird stuff. Another villain was the Magus, who was Adam Warlock from the future and had started his own evil religion. Warlock had to erase the timeline to win. I think we can all relate to these kinds of psychological adventures.

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It was a grand cosmic mythology, on par with Kirby’s Fourth World. The universe was a place of alien empires, tyrants with omnipotent power, and strange abstract beings overseeing the functions of all reality.

By the way, speaking of Kirby, Jim Starlin explained in interviews that Thanos wasn’t based on Darkseid — DC’s megavillain of similar stature — but rather  more based on Metron originally. What with the floating chair.

 

Starlin is mainly well-known for the space operas, but he also had a diverse career. Even wrote Batman in the 1980s during the Death in the Family arc with poor dead Robin II. Cosmic Odyssey for DC as well, and his own creation Dreadstar. In later years, Rann-Thanagar War comes to mind.

 

But Starlin’s greatness is really showcased with the cosmic stuff.

In 1989 he wrote Silver Surfer (no longer illustrating) in a prelude to the Infinity Gauntlet. The anthropomorphic nature of Death had brought Thanos back from the grave, to harness his power and bring an evil balance the universe.

Much has been written of the ‘Infinity Wars’, the return of Adam Warlock and his multiple personas. It was Marvel of the 90s okay, and it was great. The followup series Infinity Watch wasn’t that great but it did further expand the mythos, as Warlock led his own ragtag team. Pip the Troll and Moondragon may not be top-tier franchises, but Drax and Gamora certainly grew in popularity in that series. And look that them today, full-fledged movie stars!

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Marvel Comics – the 2000s

Previous: DC Comics 2000s – Gail Simone

Goodreads Shelf: Marvel

 

Back in my twenties, the prime of my life. Although I said I swore off Marvel, it didn’t take long for me to get back into the so-called ‘House of Ideas.’

It was Joe Quesada in the 2000s who headed the new era of mature storytelling for a certain biggest American comic company. He did away with the archaic comics code authority stamp, that self-censorship system imposed during in the 1950s ‘juvenile delinquency’ scare, Quesada was right to disregard, and mainline Amero comics became more like PG-13 films or prime-time television dramas. DC followed suit eventually as well, took them long enough.

I particularly had to take notice when Grant Morrison was invited to write New X-Men. That changed everything. By the by, Morrison’s first for the company (at this time, never mind the 90s Skrull Kill Krew), was Marvel Boy. Totally awesome, with high concept ideas such as a humanless corporation villain and interstellar immigration policies. And a Fantastic Four miniseries illustrated by Jae Lee.

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So, while I was already there I decided give some other X-Men a go. Chris Claremont went to X-Treme X-Men, after his return didn’t work out. I gave it a chance. Chuck Austin in Uncanny was, unfortunately, considered among the worst runs ever.

 

Geoff Johns on Avengers, as said.

 

Then, Mark Waid got to write Fantastic Four! A lot of fun, and joined by the late Mike Weiringo of Flash fame. The first family of the Marvel Universe were seen as ‘imaginauts,’ as they explored time and space and other universes. Doctor Doom got a bit of an occultic retcon, and it was well done indeed. I love when Fantastic Four is done right.

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Earth X came out in 1999, but I read the graphic novel a year or so later. Created by Alex Ross initially (written by Jim Kreuger) following DC’s Kingdom Come, the dystopian premise was a future in which everyone has super powers except for Captain America.

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Jim Kreuger followed it up with Universe X and Paradise X, and I read all with great anticipation. Kreuger told a sort of final chapter to the Marvel Comics saga, revealing every secret character by character, giving a bittersweet farewell to everyone from Spider-Man to Galactus…

 

(Do prepare to see a lot of pics with Captain America standing there inspiringly, in this blog)

 

Meanwhile, the next big thing was to be the Ultimate Universe. Starting with Ultimate Spider-Man — written by Bendis whom I rarely cared for — it was a separate reality that was supposed to reboot everything for the sake of newer readers. Unburdened by decades of continuity, the Ultimate universe started anew with fresh modern takes on the various franchises.

Marvel Millar wrote Ultimate X-Men, and it was not good at all. Millar is an interesting writer; he’s pretty much a hack and yet a very entertaining hack. These days he’s only concerned with making comics to serve as movie pitches, such as Kick-Ass and Secret Service.

There was one masterpiece that stood out. Ultimates, by Millar and brilliant artist Bryan Hitch. That is, specifically the 13-issue Ultimates and sequal 13-issue Ultimates 2.

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There wouldn’t even be the Avengers film phenomenon if not for Ultimates.

Millar was very successful at turning the Avengers into an incredibly awesome action movie franchise. Of the ‘widescreen’ style, written snarkily like the wittiest rated R cult classic, there was Captain America as WWII badass, homicidal Hulk, and biggest impact of all was Tony Stark/Iron Man as self-obsessed genius asshole. Thor as a new age guru was an interesting take. The super team and S.H.E.I.L.D. were all presented bit fascistic if you analyze too much, yet what a ride.

Very quotable. Cap: “SURRENDER??!! You think this letter on my head stands for France?” And when the villains overtake Manhattan: “The Great Satan has been liberated.”

With the climax of the first volume fighting aliens, familiar? I must admit I am definitely invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I fully give the Ultimates their do!

 

Other Mark Millar impacts included the crossover Civil War. Which will be getting a movie.

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I didn’t read most crossovers of that decade. Secret Invasion by Bendis, no way. Fear Itself, yawn. Civil War was on of those cynical ‘realistic superhero’ tales in which Captain America goes to war with Iron Man over government registration of superhumans. The trade reprint seemed worth a read at the bookstore but not buying.

Spider-Man famously gave up his secret identity at the time, siding with Iron Man and revealing himself on camera as Peter Parker. Obviously, there was a retcon soon after and that never happened; back to the ol’ status quo for Spidey.

Afterwards, Cap was assassinated and resurrected Bucky/Winter Soldier replaced him for a while. I read some of Ed Brubaker’s run, it was critically acclaimed and so on, but kind of boring with all the predictable resurrections.

 

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Gail Simone – more DC 2000s, and brief word on women in comics

Previous: DC Comics – 2000s

It’s been said that the comics scene — American superhero comics specifically, at least –is too much of a boy’s club. There are some legitimate criticisms in that, and I hope the field will prove more inclusive in the future.

I did like Louise Simonson’s 80s X-Men spinoffs, and Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi in the more indie vein. I grew up with Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 as for Japanese manga. Japan has always had plenty of female-friendly markets, and independent comics are surely more diverse.

Yet I have to admit that throughout the 2000s, the largest bulk of my reading centered on mainstream comics (mostly DC) by these authors: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and Mark Waid.

Do allow me to add one more to the list: Gail Simone!

And I hope I’m not coming across as too affirmative actiony here, I really am a big fan.

Ms. Simone started out gaining prominence in the scene with her Women in Refrigerators blog, making the point that violence against women is often a plot point to motivate the male protagonist. And that’s not a very cool thing if you want to get more readers of the other 50% of the population.

She started writing Deadpool for Marvel, though I never read it I have heard good things, helping to build up the popularity of the character who is getting a movie. Deadpool is dark comedy, which is one of Simone’s best styles.

She truly has a brilliantly sick sense of humor.

 

For me, it began with Birds of Prey by Chuck Dixon. The series was great, as previously mentioned Barbara Gordon had become crippled and turned her talents towards being a sort of superhero tech operator. She mainly sent Black Canary on Bond-esque missions.

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Gail Simone took over the writing, and Oracle was further joined by Huntress and Lady Blackhawk. The series actually became even better.

There was a hiatus, and at the Brightest Day event she returned to Birds of Prey with a new number 1 and it was most certainly on my pull list. Although that only lasted 12 issues, because of Flashpoint. See why I don’t like reboots?

 

I enjoyed Birds of Prey plenty, and then I became a rather hardcore fan during the Villains United minseries as as part of Infinite Crisis crossover.

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The premise was that all the villains were teaming up into a grand secret society, with an inner circle led by Deathstroke, Black Adam, Lex Luthor, and Talia al Ghul.

Villains United wasn’t actually about the society, it was about a ragtag group of villains who wouldn’t play along. Deadshot, from the old Suicide Squad I loved, and a re-amped Catman, Rag Doll, Bane, and the new character their leader Scandal Savage — the daughter of Vandal Savage They became the mercenary group Secret Six (I’d list all six, but it wasn’t stable as some died and were replaced).

I knew something awesome was in the works. Best antihero villains-themed cover ever. The Six eventually got another miniseries, and then a long-running series that I followed to the bitter end. More below.

 

Simone wrote Wonder Woman for a while there by the way, and it was very well-received. So rarely is the character done right, a lot of those mythological epics are hard to do well. The new mega-villain Genocide was introduced. With a tweaked origin and a barbarian saga in mind, ’twas no George Perez but still quite good.

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And then I moved to China in late ’08.

I continued to read Secret Six throughout my time in China. I brought all my back issues with me. Bought the new ones at my comic shop in Hong Kong.

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Geoff Johns – DC Comics 2000s

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Met at comic shop opening L.A. Comic writers are always such nice guys.

Geoff Johns largely WAS the face DC Comics of the 2000s, in my twenty-something resurgence as a hardcore comics geek I basically read every single one of his books that entire decade.

 

Note: Goodreads Shelf: Geoff Johns — that 68 at last count

 

Johns is not going to win any big literary awards and change your life, and that’s not the point. He is a great entertainer, a great storyteller, never dumbing down and utilizing the best aspects of the superhero genre. Throughout the 2000s, he was particularly skilled at taking complex continuity and streamlining into a way that pleased hardcore fans and newcomers alike. Nowadays is a different story, but that’s what it was like at the time.

I remember first discovering the former screenwriter’s first published Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. at the very beginning, a certain humble 12-issue series about the Star-Spangled Kid, an update on old Golden Age retired heroes. It was the perfect start. Nothing grim and gritty (although later I’d learned the main character Courtney Whitmore was based on Johns’ deceased sister), just fun comics with respect towards history.

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This also concerns Starman. Written by James Robinson in the 90s, Starman was one of DC’s finest works. Another legacy comic about a modern take on the Golden Age, Starman was very different from the norm. Jack Knight might be called a hipster hero today. His dad was the original Starman, and he was a normal, cultural guy with tattoos and good taste in movies, forced into the life.

Ultimately James Robinson ushered in the new JSA: the Justice Society of America. Thanks must also go to the success of the JLA at the same time, and DC was trying harder with classic team books.

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Geoff Johns wrote from issue 5 and up to the end, and it was something special indeed. Unlike previous incarnations of these characters in Infinity Inc., the new book was ambitious and quickly became the centerpiece of the DC Universe. Arguably more crucial than the Justice League themselves. The society saved the world, introduced new mythos, let the original Flash and Green Lantern and Wildcat mentor the next generation, and not to mention a return to glory for Hawkman.

 

As for solo heroes, Geoff Johns took over The Flash…

This was back in the Wally West days, not Barry Allen like the new show currently airing. Barry had died way back in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event in the 80s, long replaced by his now grown sidekick. Wally was more of an everyman hero, without a secret identity, but still very much in the mainstream superhero scene.

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Flash already had very high standards, thanks to the extremely talented Mark Waid, and Johns – joined by artist Scott Kollins – focused on Wally as a sort of working class hero in a pseudo-Detroit. The villains were given the utmost important, with the Rogue’s Gallery often being the stars.

The Flash became my favorite hero of all.

I still really miss Wally West…

 

Geoff Johns was gaining traction, and got noticed by Marvel Comics. He had a brief run over on the flagship title The Avengers, as well some other miniseries such as The Vision and The Thing. He did as well there as expected – he was perfectly suited to Captain American in particular. Sadly, it was over all too fast and Johns signed on to be exclusive with DC and the run abruptly ended after a mere 20 issues. Avengers after that became New Avengers  by Bendis and I was no fan; that was point I cut off all Marvel and focused only on DC.

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Geoff Johns kept going. Teen Titans debuted, fusing the 80s Titans fused with Young Justice. I didn’t love the art and I kinda missed Peter David, but it was very much worth reading. Robin, Superboy (now revealed to be… spoiler ahead… Lex Luthor’s clone!), and Impulse took up the mantle of Kid Flash.

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This would not be a post about Geoff Johns however, if I did not speak of his epics of epics: Green Lantern!

(Note many of the pics below I simply took myself, as I thought these comics worth saving in my China apartment right now)

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Mad genius of comics: Alan Moore

Goodreads Alan Moore

 

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There he is.

When it comes to literary comic icons, no man comes before Alan. So much has been written about the unofficial leader of the 80s British Invasion, who heralded the coming of Vertigo and then disavowed DC and all mainstream publishing. The mortal enemy to Hollywood who has had at least half-a-dozen films adapted against his wishes, unlike Neil Gaiman who always seems to rather enjoy his celebrity. Mr. Moore, the proverbial purist artist always refusing to compromise. The mad occultist who refuses to shave. The genius we all aspire to be and will always fail to live up to.

Documentary: The Mindscape of Alan Moore

 

I shall start with Watchmen, as most people have started with that famed tome. Though, please note I think Moore’s legacy is far bigger than that one superhero deconstruction — perfect work of controlled storytelling it may be — and I think he has since surpassed his early work time and time agian. More on that below.

I was about 14 when I read the full Watchmen in graphic novel form, having missed the original issues in 1986 as a small child. A reputation had long preceded it at this point and I was getting into comics on a deeper level at the time, so I was looking forward to reading and seeing what all the fuss was about. I had a whole Saturday afternoon to kill at detention, they made you sit around for 4 hours; I was not a good student at the time. I read the entire work in one sitting. I was, of course, blown away. And I did a book report.

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Watchmen came about when DC Comics purchased the Charlton library characters, Blue Beetle and Captain Atom and The Question, and Moore put together a proposal called Who Killed the Peacemaker? DC realized the status quo would be torn asunder, and they were going to incorporate them post-Crisis on Infinite Earths anyhow, so he was told to keep the plot but make up new characters.

Illustrated with precision by Dave Gibbons, it grew bigger than the usual story. Blue Beetle became the cheesy Batman-esque Nite Owl, Captain Atom as the one Superman of this world became the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan. They were archetypes as well as individuals.

Not only did Watchmen win the coveted science fiction Hugo Award, after that they changed the rules so comics could no longer win.

What struck me most of all were the extras between each chapter. Newspaper clippings, magazine interviews, notes, all the the world-building to show the authenticity of a hyper-realistic setting.

Also, the usual Alan Moore themes of rape and the illusion of time.

Watchmen has since become passé. Gritty realistic superheroes have been done to death, and Moore has specifically said in interviews he regrets causing that trend.

Personally I never watched the movie all the way through, and I don’t intend to. Mr. Moore is famously against all Hollywood adaptations, and some people find him a cranky old man. I moreover stand with him on that.

 

With that, let’s go some earlier Moore.

His mainstream days were relatively sparse, but every single one had an impact. There was Captain Britain, with Alan Davis. There was a bit of Superman, such as the classic birthday tale For the Man Who Has Everything, also illustrated by Dave Gibbons. And that final imaginary tale (aren’t they all?) previously mentioned, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

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Speaking of Superman: Supreme. In the 90s, Moore was invited to work for Liefeld’s creator-owned imprint over at Image. Supreme was a very obvious riff on you-know-who. It quickly became a brilliant satire/homage/deconstruction on Silver Age superheroics. The ‘Man of Majesty’ was both corny and endearing, engaging within a complex plot involving multiple realities and retroactive timelines.

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I should say that Moore’s American work really started with Swamp Thing, of which I’ve only read the first two volume. I know, I know, very late in the game on this. If I’m supposed to be completist the I better get to it. The Green, The Green…

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Going back a bit further, there’s Miracleman. Now, the backstory of that character is Baroquean inof itself. The British knockoff of Captain Marvel was originally Marvelman, given a reboot in the 80s and published on the American side by Eclipse comics. However, in fear of being sued by Marvel Comics they changeed the name to Miracleman. And then it was abruptly canceled, with the legal ownership thereof in legal limbo for decades.

This made the series very hard to read before the digital age. I did order the first arc on ebay and it was a great read. Finally, I read the entire series online. Don’t ask questions about the legality of that, please.

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Neil Gaiman’s brief run was interesting as well. A funny thing, now Miracleman of all things is owned by Marvel and they say they’re finally going to reprint the classic issues as well as let Gaiman complete his unfinished story! Guess I’ll believe that when I see it.

 

Meanwhile, Alan Moore in the 80s. There was the dystopian V for Vendetta, currently in print under the Vertigo banner, one of the first of his major comics that defied classification.

On the subject of V for Vendetta, this is very much the reason that I agree with Alan Moore on all things Hollywood. The film was an atrocity. It completely misses the point of the original, pretending to be a deep critique of American post-9/11 politics — taking place in the U.K. for no reason and badly done at that. It was supposed to be about Thatcherism. Moore was absolutely treated wrongly by the pretentiously stupid Wachowski Brothers. He was 100% right to disavow the film and have his name taken off.

In the end, the legacy lives on with those Guy Fawkes masks.

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Another mediocre movie based off brilliant source material, From Hell is a literary masterpiece like no other. This riff on Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories doesn’t really aim to solve it, there are deeper takes on the nature of reality at play.

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I remember when I read much of these graphic novels, I was living in L.A. during my starving artist period. How did I afford to read, you ask? I went to the library in hipster Silverlake and they had an extensive archive.

 

Back in the 2000s, Moore had started his own America’s Best Comics (ABC) with a host of deconstructionist characters. Tom Strong, among many others.

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Sandman. By Neil Gaiman.

Goodreads Shelf: Gaiman

 

This is it, the very core of DC’s Vertigo Comics

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Sandman. By Neil Gaiman.

I remember when I first got into Sandman. Freshman year of high school in the mid-90s, too young to truly get it but old enough to start reading such grownup material by the great Neil Gaiman.

I came across some defunct Wizard magazine issue, at the height of my superhero obsession, it was about villains and cosmic beings and mentioned the mysterious Endless. Then I got the proto-Vertigo issue of “Who’s Who” that focused on the mature reader’s Vertigo comics, teaching me the basics of that mythology.

I was intrigued. A reputation was forming. But instead of getting the latest Sandmans on Wednesday at the comic shop, it seemed this one was no mere monthly periodical. Seemed it needed to be read like proper books.

I did get the first graphic novel collection, Preludes and Nocturnes, which made for a slow start. Then I ultimately ordered the rest from a book publisher outlet, out of order. Reading about the fall and rise of Lucifer and the key to hell, stories at the World’s End Inn, and I tried to make sense of it storyline by storyline. It taught me much about Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and Edwardian occult groups.

One chapter won the World Fantasy short story award, I believe the only comic to do so.

Seventy-five odd issues with various special editions. Eventually, I caught up to it all, and had to reread and reflect several times over in my life.

Vertigo’s greatest success. A uniquely popular DC comics for women as well (my sister read too). And goth kids.

What exactly was this comic, Sandman, so highly regarded? Why was it even called the Sandman? Hard to explain. Where to start…

Like many of the world’s greatest comics, the name was a jumping off point based off corny comics from the 40s and/or 60s. There was Golden Age Sandman, some detective with a sleep gun. There was the Kirby Sandman, a superhero battling in the land of dreams. All those characters were incorporated into Gaiman’s epic, though not the core.

Sandman was originally even in the DC Universe proper, with early issues including a few superheroes. That soon grew too small a setting and Gaiman wasn’t limited by continuity, though he toyed with DC history on occasion.

The main protagonist, if you will, was Dream of the Endless. Also known as Morpheus, ruler of the land of dreams. Dream was not a god because gods need to be worshiped to exist. He was a member of the Endless, which have higher origins. There was Destiny the oldest — who was a host from 70s horror comics, sister Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Sense a pattern?

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But you can’t write a monthly comic based off near-omnipotent beings. Oftentimes, this mythology was the starting point for short stories about other mortals interacting in this grand fantasy world. And the immortals, the demons, the witches, and the lovers. The historical figures. It’s tricky to claim one protagonist.

Let me speak a moment about Death.

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One of the most interesting creations was Gaiman’s interpretation of Death. Not a dark reaper, but a cutesy goth girl who gives great advice. You end up just adoring her.

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Suggested for Mature Readers: Vertigo Comics

Goodreads Shelf: Vertigo

 

We all like our quality television these days, don’t we? It’s a given that the new era of literature is television, started by HBO’s crime dramas and continuing on other networks. As we all agree. We all take it for granted that storytelling is evolving, and the once maligned medium of TV now produces the highest quality there is. Welcome to the Golden Age.

However, at least a decade before HBO rewrote the rules of television there was another maligned medium breaking all the rules. Comics never quite got the respect they deserved, but the proto-HBO of comics would still be Vertigo.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, DC Comics started publishing some very mature comics. It was very much the house that Alan Moore built. Starting with Swamp Thing and continuing with Watchmen and beyond, DC won award after award and their horror comics imprint began to get very literary indeed.

Mr. Moore has since disavowed DC Comics, and refuses to work with any mainstream publisher. He’s more of the INDIE camp these days… Yet, they owe him a great deal.

Alan Moore deserves a post all his own, coming soon.

Meanwhile, the most popular comics coming out of DC’s horror imprint in 1989 turned out to be Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It started out as a reference to an obscure superhero, incorporating various old 70s horror characters, and then it turned into one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time.

Issue 1 of Sandman simply said “Suggested for Mature Readers.” There was cursing, nudity, the whole bit. Like rated R movies. Was it risky for DC, the same mainstream publisher as Superman, to publish?

By 1993, there was a new label. It said Vertigo up there in the corner. Thus, Vertigo – a subset of DC – was born.

Neil Gaiman and Sandman will get a post all their own very soon as well!

And, you’ll notice both Moore and Gaiman are British writers. That’s another theme of quality comics – they tend to be part of the comic’s 80s British Invasion. Guess the founders of the English language tend to be better scribes.

Winning scores of Eisner Awards every year and popularizing the economic model of selling trade paperback reprints (i.e., “graphic novel” volumes) at bookstores, Vertigo changed the game forever and fully realized the medium’s potential. Finally, comics grew up.

 

Below are a few of my favorite Vertigo titles. Not meant to cover everything, just a few. As said, early Alan Moore and Gaiman’s most popular works – especially Sandman – will be covered later. Don’t you worry. I’ll also get into Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. All in due time.

 

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Firstly, Preacher by Irish scribe Garth Ennis was the most badass comic to read when I was in high school. Ennis, by the way, known for writing the Demon and John Constantine (an Alan Moore creation) in the Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer. A lot of up-and-coming writers would write Constantine over the years, it was Vertigo’s longest running series, but I didn’t usually follow.

Preacher wasn’t part of the greater “Vertigo Universe”, it was its own self-contained, creator-owned thing. Which is best.

I was determined to read it all, and snuck away at the bookstore to catch up on the graphic novels. I don’t think it was finished yet when I started back in the mid-90s, but by the time the last volume came out I read it to the end.

It was an American Western written with the perspective of the outsider, fully capturing and bottling that Americana essence. About Jesse, a preacher who fucks and drinks. And also on the lookout from a corrupt God. And had the superpower Word based off being possessed or something by the offspring of angel and demon. There were vampires and rednecks and the Saint of Killers and grungey-suicidal Arseface and Vatican conspiracies and an inbred descendant of Jesus Christ.

It was oh so blasphemous, so good.

I heard a TV show is finally in the works.

Let me add that I believe the Da Vinci Code ripped off Preacher. The Da Vinci Code was a terrible book as everybody knows, but most are unaware that the first work of fiction to successfully use those Holy Grail bloodline conspiracy theories was in fact Preacher. So, kudos to Garth Ennis and a hearty fuck you to Dan Brown.

In more recent history, I didn’t like Ennis’s superhero lampoon The Boys (it’s funny but enough already, we get it you hate superheroes). I am told I should be currently reading his series Crossed from Avatar Press.

 

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Books of Magic was one of my heartfelt discoveries, not particularly popular but I enjoyed it. Originally a one-off graphic volume by Gaiman, it was about a bespectacled young wizard but moreso a vehicle to tour the mystical sections of the DC/Vertigo Universe.

Then, the long-running series by John Ney Rieber and then Peter Gross continued the story of Timothy Hunter. His boyhood, his girlfriend Molly, Faerie connections, dealings with demons.

You may notice that it’s suspiciously similar to Harry Potter, the young Brit sorcerer in glasses with an epic destiny. Books of Magic was created several years earlier. And Tim was much cooler than lame Harry Potter. Gaiman actually could have sued J.K. Rowling, like many others did, but gentleman that he is he declined.

In my early 20s I hunted down every used graphic novel and back issue until I read the whole story, and when Rieber’s run concluded I picked up the issues written and illustrated by Gross. It was lovely. I didn’t read those newer ones about him grownup, Wartime or somesuch, I’ll always remember Tim Hunter as a boy.

 

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One of my absolute favorite things ever was Moonshadow, beautifully written by J.M. DeMatteis (remember I was a fan of his 80s-era Justice League) and elegantly painted by Jon Muth. By favorite things ever, I don’t mean one of my favorite comics, or even books/fiction, I totally mean one of favorite things ever.

Actually, was previously published by Epic – Marvel’s less successful imprint –but reprinted by Vertigo years later. I’m glad they did.

The very first painted comic, even predating Marvels. The watercolors by Muth have an altogether different feeling from Alex Ross’s oils. Surreal, dreamlike space saga about a boy exploring a ridiculous universe, spaceships and social satire and coming-of-age and sex, until enlightenment is attained.

I remember reading the whole book in one sitting on a quiet Ohio weekend as a kid, a thick book covering twelve issues and an epilogue.

A most perfect work of art, cannot be overstated. My heart aches in remembrance.

 

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