Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when going to comics cons was an important, regular, and ever-present part of my life. My year’s calendar was, if not planned around it, then at least the dates were written in as soon as I knew them.

Partly of course this was because for a dozen years I, together with Dave Gibbons, ran the hypotheticals panel, which so many people were so kind about over the years.

I haven’t been to a comics con for some years, now. Oh, there are lots of different reasons for that, including but not limited to my occasionally-referred-to pretty much complete nervous breakdown earlier this decade,

But I do have to admit that the past year or so, I’ve started feeling an ‘itch’… and a growing wish… to immerse myself once again in that culture.

Why now?

No bloody idea at all. But it’s there, it’s definitely there.

An easy get-out would be to give credit to/blame (delete as appropriate) to the fantastic comics now being produced; so many incredibly good comics are being created by supremely talented artists and writers.

It’d be easy… but inaccurate.

Because there were as many very good comics being created and released and talked about and promoted last year. And as many the year before as well. And the year before that.

One of the best comics of the past few years – Kieron Gillen’s and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine – is wrapping up now after five years or so. It didn’t suddenly become good in the past year. I didn’t suddenly discover it in the past year. It was superb from the very first issue, and kept being good. And their earlier collaborations were also very good indeed.

Greg Rucka’s and Michael Lark’s Lazarus started in 2013 and has been flat out amazing since the very first issue. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal has been going since 2006, when I was still attending comics cons. It’s still going, and it’s still incredibly good.

And yet the last time I went to a comics con, actually took part – either to do something there or just as a paying punter – was 2012, the year of the final hypotheticals panel.

So, what’s changed?

I’m not sure.

OK, I mean, yes, all right; I’ve changed, to a certain extent. As alluded to above, there’s a chunk of 2011 – 2016, very roughly, in which I wasn’t.… well, take your pick. I wasn’t well, I wasn’t ‘me’, I wasn’t that together, I wasn’t… well.

And the thought of being in a large crowd – and thankfully, comics cons are much busier these days than they were when I started going – wasn’t something that much attracted me, It still doesn’t, to a large extent.

Bu that’s not it. Because although I’m ‘better’ than I used to be, I’m not ‘better’ than I was a year ago, or 18 months ago.

So why now?

Perhaps it’s social media. Yes, that thing so often referred to disparagingly, has led to me seeing in real time how much fun people are having at events in which I used to have so much fun. I get to see video clips of people I know having a blast.

Maybe that’s something, because the only reports you used to get back in the day were – at best – decent reviews after the event of con reports, and they were so much a part of the con experience that even I wrote some.

And one at least that people seemed to like.

There are half a dozen UK comics cons these days; from the very small to the enormous, but there are a couple of in London, and one in Leeds, the wonderful Thought Bubble, that I’m starting to get itchy feet for.

We’re coming up to the end of 2019, and next year will be 20 years since the very first hypotheticals panel. I doubt Dave and I will do anything publicly to mark the occasion, although we’ve not discussed it, to be fair.

But if I’m going to return to comics cons, to get my feet wet again, that seems as good a reason as any to do it.

huh. 20 years. I really ought to do something to celebrate. I wonder what.
 
 
Something else, tomorrow…

With more details about the tv adaptation of The Sandman, and having listened to an interview with Neil about how it’s planned to bring it to the small screen, it seems as good a time as any to do this.

I’d always planned to redo this at some point, as – as I’ve mentioned before – we all change through our lives, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit opinions you’ve expressed to see whether or how you’ve changed, and whether or how your views and answers have.

It started when I was reminded of a question I was asked when I did an #askbudgie hashtag on Twitter. Possibly knowing of my friendship with Neil Gaiman, I was asked

If you were one of The Endless, which one would you be?

My answer at the time was, as far as I recall, entirely truthful.

I think like most people, I feel like different aspects of each of The Endless at different times… As a general rule though, I don’t ever really feel like a character created by someone else. I’m more of a self-made person who has a healthy disrespect for my creator.

I think it still applies, in the main. But only in the main, self-deprecation and all.

But, just for fun, why not, budgie…?

So, what do each of The Endless mean to me? What elements of them do I recognise in my own character? Or at least, do I have anything to say about the concepts?

(At this point it occurs to me that some reading may not have the slightest clue what I’m talking about. OK, very quick explanation. Neil Gaiman wrote a book entitled Sandman, in which he created The Endless, seven characters that embody universal aspects. So, Destruction does not represent destruction; Destruction is destruction. Dream is the concept of dream, and rules over a realm of dreams, which is where we go when we sleep.)

OK then.

Destiny
I actively dislike the idea of people having a ‘destiny’ or a ‘destined fate’, set in stone long ago, and with an unchanging end, even if the journey isn’t planned. And no, this isn’t a claim for ‘free will’, unfettered and unreserved. I’m a product of my own life and experiences. I’m the sum of my own experiences, for good or ill. I could, I suppose, choose to do lots of things that I wouldn’t normally do, that would astonish poeple who know me. That I don’t do them, because ‘that’s not me’… is that a conscious decision not to do it? Or am I merely acting on social and life learned programming? A bit of both, surely.

I once heard some philosophy students discussing ‘free will’, and when learned habit supersedes it. Is it truly an expression of free will to, say, flush the toilet, or to turn off the light when you leave a room?

If it’s inconceivable to you to do Thing X, can you ever claim that you’re exercising free will when you don’t do Thing X?

So, individuals have some say in their own decisions, but habits and societal constructs restrain many from actions which other societies might encourage. And freedom of action does not mean freedom from the consequences of those actions, anyway. But no, I’ve never thought that my life, nor my eventual end, was destined to be whatever it ends up.

Fiction enjoys the concept of a couple being destined to meet, or there being a ‘soulmate’ for everyone. Given the above, it won’t surprise you that I have nothing but mockery for such concepts.

Death
Ashkenazi Jews are traditionally named after those who have died, so you grow up knowing that you were named for someone who’d died.

So, yeah, I was aware of the concept of death from a very, very early age. (In my case, I was named after my mother’s maternal grandmother, Leah.)

On the other hand, I can’t remember the first person I heard of who’d died; not celebrities, but someone I knew, or a relative of a friend. Certainly – while I was still very young – I learned that this friend or that friend had ‘lost’ a grandparent.

And while I never knew my dad’s parents, my maternal grandfather died when I was 17, my grandmother when I was 19. On neither occasion, though, was death was a foreign concept by then; I’d already been to ‘the grounds’ (a colloquialism for a Jewish cemetery), and had attended funerals or stonesettings from the age of about 14 or 15.

There used to be a convention in Judaism, by the way, that you didn’t go to the grounds while your parents were alive; largely, that’s been abandoned now, for the better I’d argue. No one’s first funeral should be for your parent.

As for what happens after death… I have no idea. Not a clue what happens to you ‘after you die’; to you, I mean. Not your body, not your remains, but to you, as a concept. If I had to guess, I’d say… nothing. My own preferred option is, also… nothing. Your body stops, you stop, you.. end, and the world goes on without you, goes on quite well in almost all cases.

It’s one of the things I do like about my religion. Yes, ok, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but basically it comes down to ‘we don’t know what happens after you die… and what’s more, we can’t ever know what happens.’

I like that.

I choose to think nothing at all happens. I can’t know, obviously, but that’s what I choose to believe. Nothing happens. To you, again. Your relatives, and friends and loved ones will miss you, of course. Of course.

But life goes on.

Your work might continue to matter, especially creative works, but you? Nope. You’re gone. And life goes on.

As it should do.

Dream
I rarely remember dreams; nightmares, yes, but dreams of the less unpleasant, less horrifying, less nightmare-y, type, no.

Occasionally, yes, of course. But only very rarely. And even then, they’re the ‘puzzling’, mystifying type, not the genuinely ‘nice’ kind of dreams.

I have no idea whether I never have nice dreams, or whether I merely never remember them. I’n not sure which would be better, and which worse.

However, I wish I did remember nice dreams. I wish I did occasionally wake up, and think ‘oh, that was nice…’

Instead of waking up covered in sweat, heart racing, suddenly shocked back to reality. (Why yes, I do sleep alone, why do you ask?)

It’s the nightmares I remember, clearly and in detail. Yeah, I’d rather not, to be honest. 

Destruction
While nature destroys tangibly on a daily basis, the destruction of intangibles, like hope, and wishes, and rights, and democracy around the world, does far more damage in every time frame (short-, medium- and long-term).

It’s a constant amazement and continually impressive to me just how people survive such destructions, and what’s more some thrive in resistance to it. Their bravery and determination is a never ending source of inspiration to others. I use the word ‘others’ advisedly; their bravery doesn’t inspire me, which says more about me than them, and nothing good.

What has struck me more and more over the years is that destruction doesn’t have to be complete to achieve its aim. What’s almost worse to me – as a concept – than unfettered destruction is when destruction stops short of absolute, when something is permanently maimed, damaged for all time without complete extermination.

Complete destruction at least allows for the cauterisation of a wound, perhaps. Stopping short, allowing a faint ember of hope that will forever be denied? That’s when destruction becomes malicious; that’s when destruction becomes… cruel.

And that can move me to tears.

Desire
I read some beautiful writings about desire earlier today and it reminded me once again that it’s something I don’t understand properly, and never will. Desire is overwhelming. It’s neither a want nor a wish, but a need.

I’m genuinely in awe of people who are that open, that honest, and that authentic, to admit their desire for a person (or people), or a lifestyle. And equally in awe of people who admit to others, especially to those who desire them, that they are both desireable and desired.

I don’t understand it properly.

I can, just about, understand the desire for others, both physically and otherwise. But a desire for me? Again, either physically or otherwise, but especially physically? No. I not only don’t understand it, but I’m always mistrustful when I’m told it exists. And that mistrust is seldom wrong, in my experience.

Oh, I understand it in theory, how it’s written about, how it’s overwhelming, and more than once have written about it in a story convincingly enough to fool people. Or at least they’ve been kind enough to say that it has, that I nailed it.

But the true idea, the concept of being desired, properly…. physically or otherwise? The idea of being desired to the point of monopolising someone’s thoughts and dreams and wants, and needs?

That must be wonderful to experience. It must be fantastic to be a part of. It must be great to enjoy and revel in.

I bet.

Despair
The flip side of desire, and I’m equally in awe of people who are that open about Despair as well.

Again, I don’t think I truly understand it. But in a wholly different way than when it comes to desire. For what others describe as ‘despair’, true despair, I regard as… Tuesday.

And that’s not wholly an exaggeration. A small one, maybe, but not really. It’s not the despair of thinking nothing can ever get better, but the certain knowledge that it won’t, the utter and complete knowledge based on life experiences and your own past. I’d never suggest that what people go through isn’t despair, merely that from the outside, you never, never, know the truth about someone else’s despair.

Delight/Delirium
What was once delight is now delirium, at least in The Endless. The latter is more appropriate for the 21st century. It’s impossible not to be at least slightly delirious if you’re attempting to truly understand global politics nowadays. Global politics? Hell, any politics. I mentioned on Twitter the other day the old line about “if you’re not confused, you don’t understand the situation.”

The comedian Mark Watson chipped in with a suggestion that surely that applies to the entire human condition; it’s a fair observation. Politics was never simple, but, now, too many regard you as delirious if you try to acknowledge complexity, let alone highlight it.

Here are The Endless, drawn by Bevis Musson, in the order they’re written about above.

Something else tomorrow..

Housekeeping: Got caught up with a load of tech stuff yesterday – all too complicated and boring to go into here, and would involve lots of whinging – so skipped posting yesterday. The tech issues – and my irritation – have both continued today, so I’m pulling out an ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ post.
 


 
Maybe because I’m getting older, maybe because I tend to like being in structured environments, but I like knowing what ‘the rules’ are. And having those rules applied fairly, sensibly and rationally.

Possibly, that explains why I always so enjoyed both Warren Ellis’s various Forums over the year – The warren Ellis Forum, The Engine, and Whitechapel – and what was my online ‘home’ for the first few years of my online life: CompuServe’s Comics/Animations Forum. You knew the rules, you saw them applied fairly, and I liked that.

I also liked the community that built up there. I wrote in detail about why I liked those place here.

I also like traditions, the ‘it’s May, so it’s…’, or it’s “February, so it’s…”

And even leaving aside the birthdays thing, my own year these days tends to have four of those:

  • if it’s January, then it’s this

  • if it’s February, then it’s this

  • if it’s August, then it’s this

  • if it’s the end of November, it’s this

One tradition that stretches back to CompuServe’s Comics/Animations Forum, which I haven’t done since I left the Forum, is the ‘draft’. For a start, the sports ‘draft’ is, if not uniquely American, very much not a UK thing. We don’t do it over here. So I was fascinated at first and then faintly bemused by the whole concept thereafter.

But the Comics/Animation Forum ran a draft, every April, a couple of ‘drafts’ in fact, to coincide with the start of the Baseball season over the pond.

The idea was fairly simple: everyone got to select ten heroes (and then, in a second draft, ten villains) that fit a theme that you’ve chosen, but have not disclosed. You pick one hero a day, but if someone else has beaten you to it, tough, you have to choose another one.

Digging out from old notes, here were the rules for the 2002 Drafts.
 

Rules for 2002 drafts

It’s time once again for the Annual Super-hero Draft.

Usual rules in effect: You are drafting a team of super-heroes (along the lines of a Rotisserie Baseball league). There will be 10 rounds (hence 10 heroes), one per day.

In fairness to those with limited access, rounds will only take place on weekdays and will be posted at roughly 10am East Coast time, my access permitting.

If you miss any round you can catch up by posting more than one pick at once.

Characters will be drafted on a first-come-first-served basis.

No duplicates are allowed (parallel universe versions are duplicates, successors are not—even where they started out parallel and became successors by retcon).

You may release already drafted characters at any time, at which point they become fair game.

The heroes draft much contain heroes, the villain draft must contain villains. This is the superhero draft; so try to keep it to superheroes. If someone wants to run a “really cool anti-heroes” draft or a “real world heroic people” draft, go right ahead.

If a team misses five rounds in a row without notifying the Commissioner, he will presume that the team has dropped out, and the team-members will be released.

The Commissioner’s decisions may be appealed once. If you disagree with a ruling, you may state your case and the Commissioner may reconsider, but he will not be drawn into an argument…final rulings are just that.

The Commissioner

 
What sort of themes did people come up with? Well, over the years there were themes such as “heroes that started out as villains”, “second generation heroes”, “heroes that wear flags as part of their costumes”, “villains that are relatives of heroes”, etc.

Now I’m not a sporty person, but this seemed fun and silly, and needed some thought if you wanted to do it properly… so I took part most years.

Here’s some I did over the years: Obviously, I’m revealing the theme upfront here – in the originals, I only revealed at the end, as the format required. So what follows below is effectively the final reveal.
 


 

OK, you can call Team Budgie’s drafts this year Small Heroes, since they’re named for the “Rabbi” David Small books by Harry Kemmelman.

  • The first novel is entitled “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late”, so I drafted The Sleeper.
  • As I said when picking my second round draft, Wally West (The Flash) at one time needed food and calories all the time because his metabolism burned them up so fast. That seemed to fit with the second in the series, “Saturday The Rabbi went Hungry”.
  • The third novel was “Sunday The Rabbi stayed home”. Who feels “more at home” every day of his life than The Human Target?
  • The fourth novel caused me some problems. I couldn’t see anyone that fitted “Monday The Rabbi Took Off” until as I said, I realised that Superman was available.
  • I originally tagged Wolverine for my fifth pick, “Tuesday The Rabbi Saw Red”, as in “seeing red”, i.e. being angry. Once that idea had bitten the dust, I realised that Cyclops was an even better choice, since he quite literally “sees red”.
  • My sixth pick was easy. “Wednesday The Rabbi Got Wet”. Does anyone need to know why I chose Fathom from the Elementals?
  • “Thursday The Rabbi Walked Out”. Well, so did The Envoy (David Harstein) walking out on The Four Aces in the Wild Cards Universe, not reappearing for 30 years and even then, under a fake identity. He was my seventh round pick.
  • Now things got a tad harder. My eighth round pick had to link to “Someday The Rabbi Will Leave”. Who leaves more often than Access, crossing between the DC and Marvel Universes like we cross the road?
  • The ninth round drove me nuts until I remembered the ultimate scene from CAMELOT 3000. Then Sir Percival became the obvious link to “One Fine Day The Rabbi Bought A Cross.
  • My final draft pick had to link to “The Day The Rabbi Resigned”. I couldn’t really think of anyone that was an “obvious” pick, until I realised that the new Robin (Tim Drake) has a new costume, complete with a new design of the letter ‘R’ on his costume. If that’s not a ‘re-sign’-ing matter, I don’t know what is…

I thangew.

Or another year:

  • Wally West, as The Flash dashes around everywhere: Dasher
  • Barry Allen was the fastest man alive, someone who knew how to do a Quick-Step: Dancer
  • Venus is a goddess of love: Cupid
  • And Luke Cage‘s “Sweet Christmas!” gives us: Father Christmas
  • There you go, people, Santa and his Reindeer.

When it came to the villains that year, by the way, I cheated… and used the same theme. Of course I cheated – they’ve villains!

  • Spiral, from the X-Men, did her magic by dancing: Dancer
  • From Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, Thunderhead: Donner (or Donder)
  • Electro is as close to Lightning as I could get: Blitzen
  • The Purple Man. OK, purple is close to red. I’m colour blind. Sue me: Rudolph
  • And it has to be the Grinch who is the counterpart to: Father Christmas
  • There you go, people, Santa and his Reindeer… again.

In other years, I used the titles of Sandman collections, the titles of the events in the Decathalon, the Bill of Rights, even the first ten verses of Genesis, Chapter One…

So why am I boring you with this? telling you about this?

Because on a day when I’m pissed of about tech, and with myself over not being able to get it working properly, I don’t think it does any harm to miss the silliness of such things, the community that both thought this was fun, and took part, and also admired the thought put into something entirely silly.

So, yeah, basically I miss CompuServe.
 
 
More silliness tomorrow, since it’ll be Saturday.

55 plus 29: Comics art

Posted: 15 September 2019 in 55 plus, comics
Tags: , ,

For no reason other than ‘why not?’, some scans of comics art I’ve collected over the years, and some I’ve collected on my then much younger son Philip’s behalf.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My ex-wife was a huge Mickey Mouse nut. Mike Collins was nice enough to have some fun for her…

 

 

 

 

 

  

Mike Collins – whose work you’ll see elsewhere on this page, kindly did a portrait shot of Phil, aged 10. Mike was the artist on Doctor Who and did something just a bit special. (He’s also still storyboarding for the show… a man of very many talents.)
 

 
 
When Phil was a young lad, he had to have a couple of very painful operations on his hand… and carried his arm in a sling for a while.
 

Some comics artists were kind enough to cheer him up with a little protect I entitled #leftarmincast…
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
And just to round it up, not exactly art that was drawn for me, but art about me? No. Art in which I feature? Again, no.

But art nonetheless.

Now, something else tomorrow…

In 1995, after long years of studying, I qualified as an accountant. This had several effects upon my home life, the most relevant here being that my wife actually saw my face again.

For the first year of our marriage, the most common view she had of me was of the back of my head, as I worked on some potential exam question or another. And then, suddenly, with no warning, but with the arrival of that bit of paper that said “Congratulations”, she was faced with the prospect of having to look at me on a regular basis.

This was obviously too much for one person to bear, so she did the only sensible thing that would pretty much guarantee that she’d only see the back of my head again: she bought me a modem.

Almost at once I discovered “the Internet”, a wonderful resource… for wasting time.

This was, of course, back before anyone had even thought about what became Twitter, was before Facebook, before Flickr, before… well, before most everything that makes your internet experience what it is now.

But yes, I got online the weekend after I qualified as an accountant.. So, unlike perhaps many, I’d wager, I can remember to within a couple of days the exact date I ‘got online’.

Thanks to a previous correspondence with the comics writer Tony Isabella, I headed straight for Compuserve’s Comics/Animations Forum, the message board at the time, where I could correspond with…and for heaven’s sake, actually chat to, comics professionals: writers, artists, editors.

A large number of professionals not only visited the Forum/message board, but actually chatted with fans about their work, about books that had just come out, and what’s more… shock, horror – they engaged in constructive dialogue about their work. People like Warren Ellis, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, Chris Claremont. Over the next few years, some became friends. A couple remain friends to this day.

It was the first message board, let alone comics’ message board, I belonged to, and the welcome I received from both pros and fellow fans was warm, inviting and, I’m wholly convinced, the reason why I hung around, and discovered other boards.

Now, there weren’t that many rules in the place. Not many were needed. I’m not pretending it was a golden age of internet interaction, but it was certainly a politer one day-to-day. But there were some rules… the three most important being:

  • no personal attacks (attack the argument, not the person making the argument)
  • no repeated invitations to chat/interact, and…
  • everyone had to use a ‘real name’, or at least, not an obviously fake one. The last rule was in place simply because it was regarded as a courtesy to others. It was a little easier to talk about the latest issue X-Men when you’re not talking to “Remy LeBeau”. You could use a format of “firstname (nickname/handle) lastname” but your ‘real sounding name’ had to be there.

As I say, it was a different time.

(Oh, and that’s when and where I resurrected the nickname “budgie”, a name by which far more people know me now than know me as ‘Lee’, and after almost 25 years, a name I much prefer to go by, to be honest.)

For the most part, the Forum/message board was a [mostly] polite, [mostly] interesting, and [mostly] fun place in which to hang.

Doug Pratt, the owner of the Forum never let members ‘mistake a light touch for a soft one’, and troublemakers were, on occasion, ejected from the Forum.

Only once can I remember a thread that turned really nasty. Someone had raised the question of gay characters appearing in Strangers In Paradise. This came up every so often, but on this occasion… well, the brown smelly stuff hit the round whirly thing. The hit rate went from a couple of hundred messages a day to a few thousand, and those with, shall we say, less than enlightened views about homosexuality found a voice: and that voice, with all its poison, spewed forth. And fifth and sixth for that matter.

It was the only time I can recall where Doug outright killed a thread and banned the topic from future discussion in the Forum. (The ban, by the way, was lifted shortly thereafter when the subject matter came up, and it was discussed sensibly – I have no idea why that particular subject on that particular day hit the hot button, but these things happen.)

As I mentioned above, Warren Ellis was a member of the Forum before he left and set up The Warren Ellis Forum on Delphi in 1998. It ran for four and a half years, and was, beyond peradventure, the best comics message board of the time. And, to my mind, the best message board I’ve ever belonged to. The next two best were also both started by Warren: The Engine, and Whitechapel.

I think it’s worth considering why The WEF was so successful. Yes, it was the right board at the right time, but why? The simple answer I guess is that it possessed certain attributes that made the WEF insightful and fun. Doesn’t help much explain why it was a necessary part of my online life for so long, though, does it?

So, what made it so good? In general and for me?

The sense of community that existed in the Forum
Despite a regular posting membership in the thousands, there was an actual sense of community that was very deliberately fostered by Warren. There were regular (and by regular, I mean weekly) get-togethers of Forum members in London and New York; less frequently, they also took place elsewhere. But anyone mentioning that they were visiting either New York or London would get a “you are turning up to the Drink-Up, aren’t you?” message… and they were welcomed with open arms, and a drink, when they did turn up.

Despite organising various events, including promoting a “Help Top Shelf” campaign, this sense of community in the WEF was never more clearly expressed though, than on 11th September 2001, and in the days following. Certainly, along with the television news, the WEF was where I found out what was going on in New York. (And the successor Forums did similar on 7/7. That mattered in the days before Twitter and Facebook.)

After a while, because of the traffic in the Forum, and the number of repeated threads that arose, one member started an FAQ that all newcomers could read, covering what was discussed in the Forum and also answering most of the FAQ that Ellis got asked. It was probably the first genuinely useful examples of the form that I encountered.

Another Forum member maintained a place that had recent photos of WEF members. If you were curious as to what the person you’d been talking to – or even arguing with – looked like, then you could more than likely go and see for yourself. Again, it made a difference.

The WEF Forum was definitely not a place for children
Despite the notion that comics are for all ages, the WEF most certainly wasn’t. It was an Forum for adults, if not grownups, and subjects were often discussed, some of which I’d have felt most uncomfortable children witnessing.

That adult nature of the place had the likely, some might say inevitable, consequence that swearing, if not actually encouraged, was seen as merely part of normal conversation. Oh, I’m not saying that’s the reason why so many people visited and posted there; instead I think that the Forum didn’t pretend to be anything other than a site where adults post, and as such, swear words weren’t regarded as anything over which to be upset.

The occasional “fuck” never did anyone any harm. And both fans and pros obviously didn’t mind that much or they wouldn’t have posted there in the numbers they did.

Presence of working comics pros
As with the Compuserve Forum, yes, the presence of pros there was a factor. The fact that Warren set up threads specifically encouraging pros to plug their upcoming work (and was not amused when non-pros posted in that thread) didn’t hurt matters. A simultaneous thread was usually set up for the discussion of what was in the other thread… but the first one was purely for plugs, promos, and additional material that didn’t find its way to Newsarama, Comicon or the other news/plugging sites.

The Dictator
Warren Ellis ran the Forum as a benevolent dictatorship, and sometimes not that benevolent. There was no arguing with him and everyone knew it. So they behaved, or they were out. That’s fair enough – everyone knew the rules going in, and no one could cry about it later. Such a place wasn’t for everyone. That’s also fine, and there were any number of other places for comics discussion. (Warren, by the way, was far from the only one to have that rule in place, and compared to The John Byrne Forum, Warren’s place was a flat out perfectly fair and just democracy.)

Seeing Is Believing
This ain’t relevant so much, in fact, it’s hardly relevant at all now, when anyone can easily with a few clicks or presses upload high definition images to any online platform but remember, the WEF started back in 1998. Because it was on Delphi, with their easy WYSIWYG interface, Warren encouraged people to post images. That ease of use allowed artists to strut their stuff, and pros to plug upcoming work with images. It was used that to good effect, and members and pros often posted ‘teasers’ from upcoming scripts, together with the associated art.

Something Old, Something New…
Warren took – or at least seemed to take – great pride in the place, and enjoyed throwing something new out to the members, which, combined with the sense of community mentioned earlier, leads me straight into…

So that’s what you look like!
The previous points linked with Warren’s almost indecent love of new technology led to something entitled World Wide Wednesday: he challenged as many people as possible to post a webcam image of themselves, taken within a 24 hour period.

(OK, he usually cheated; he started it at midnight London time and allowed it until midnight the following day, wherever the poster was). He said later he was hoping for 200 images at best. Almost 600 images, either webcam photos or very recent (as in within the past week or so) photos, were posted to the Forum. Occasionally, he’d add a requirement, say ‘a pic of you with something you bought this week’, or ‘a photo of your most recent haircut’.

“They like it, they really like it!”
The speed of responses could be frighteningly fast. I was once involved in thread where a couple of hundred posts appeared online in four hours. Doesn’t sound much, does it? When a Twitter thread can get hundreds of responses in minutes. But – once again – this was before Twitter, and the responses came from a couple of thousand regular posters, not a selection of a few million people. People enjoyed posting… and reading other’s responses. And then arguing like hell over them… often slamming the arguments, never by slamming the people making them.

“Sorry, you are?”
It may seem trivial, but it’s not. There was always a “Start Here” discussion running, where newcomers to the Forum could introduce themselves. And there were sub-threads of it; “Start Here – writers”, “Start Here – artists”. I believe there was even a “Start here – medical people” on one occasion; there was certainly a “Start here – accountants. Which brings me on to…

The Incredible Gestalt
One of the glories of comics fandom, I’ve always found, is the wide range of jobs held and experiences… well, experienced, by those who love comics. The WEF had an large posting membership, and I couldn’t count the number of times that someone would ask a question about one esoteric subject or another.

Unfailingly, within an hour or so, there’d be a half dozen messages from different people attempting – seriously – to answer the query. Yes, of course there was the occasional gag response, but overwhelmingly, they were genuine, serious, honest attempts to answer the questions.

Furthermore, since one of the skills people had in abundance was a good memory, if the question had been asked previously, someone would always be able to post a reference back to the previous thread, without the now sadly ever present snarky ‘Can’t you use Google?”

Painful Purchases
A weekly discussion on who bought what… and why. Every week, the subject would be different. One week it might be purchases bought from habit, and brand new purchases. Another week, it’d be major publishers, and independents. A third week might bring anything you’ve started buying in the last year – what keeps you buying it?

One Careful Owner
As I mentioned previously, Warren cared about the place, and took care over it. His constant presence (at a time when that seemed to be a rarity) in what could so easily have merely been a vanity project, but was more, just made the place more comfortable to hang around in. The Filthy Assistants he recruited to help him run the place – a wise move – were chosen carefully and made life so much more pleasant.


So do I miss the place?

In some ways yes, just as I sometimes miss Livejournal, but not that much, to be honest. The Warren Ellis Forum was the right place at the right time, and a place whose time had come… and has now gone. But the principles behind the best of the reasons for its success would serve as a pretty good place to start if you’re setting up a community online, and in real life.

And I do miss the “feeling like a neighbourhood bar, with a decent landlord, in the last hour before throwing out time”.

One more thing, about Warren’s place(s): it was incredibly funny. I think I had more genuine Laugh Out Loud moments reading threads in that place than any other single Forum to which I’ve belonged.

While writing this, I somehow stumbled over this which I’d previously missed; definitely worth reading. Take a look: An Oral History Of The Warren Ellis Forum.

OK, enough… something else tomorrow.

A very long time ago, I wrote some comics: three stories in Trailer Park of Terror, and one issue of X-Men Unlimited. Well, half of an issue.

Well, that’s quite not fair, to me. I’ve written more comics stories, including a graphic novel; Those stories, however, were the stories that were published.


Actually, here’s a quick ‘story behind the stories’ tale.

In the latter story, I got to write some X-Men characters, which was fun. And I’m still pleased with the story, even though there was an… incident involving the final panel.

At the time, Juggernaut was trying to be a good guy, and Cyclops was headmaster of Xavier’s school. The story explained how Juggernaut ended up on staff; there’s more to it than that, including Wolverine ‘testing’ Juggernaut’s temper, in every sense of the word. The tale ended up with Cyclops and Juggernaut shaking hands.

Just that, with appropriate word balloons.

Except that’s not what saw print.

Why it didn’t see print wasn’t my fault, nor the artist’s – the incredibly talented Travel Foreman, who made my writing look good. It was a… mistake… by Marvel.

When I got the pencils through, from Marvel, there were individual panels where I was grinning like a loon.

Not only because of the quality of the art, and how Travel had precisely got what I’d intended to convey when writing the script, but also because he’d drawn some additional things into the panel, things that were so obviously gags that they would be (and were) removed when it was inked and coloured: the occasional humorous word balloon, for example.

The reason I know they were removed was because they were removed; both the inked and coloured pages I saw didn’t have the silly stuff in them.

And one of the bits of silliness ‘gags’ was a sparkly heart behind the final panel, which was a shot of a handshake between Scott Summers and Cain Marko.

Here’s the unlettered, but inked and coloured panel, as sent to me by Marvel:

So all was well and good.

And then the comic came out… and the final panel, as it saw print?

Hrm. Yes. Neither Travel nor I were, as you’ll appreciate, exactly overjoyed at the re-appearance of that damned heart….

And more than one reviewer said that they loved the story, but ug, that last panel…

In the interests of fairness, though, I have to say that Stephanie Moore, the editor on that book, was an utter delight to work with throughout and I can only imagine that someone else in production had a complete brainfart when they put that damned heart back in…

You know, I don’t have many “behind the scenes” stories about my short career in comics (for obvious reasons), but I think you’ll agree that’s a doozy…

(As for why they are shaking with their left hands, well, that’s partly mine, and partly Travel’s fault. The panel description was ambiguous at best, as I recall, and Travel drew it with them shaking hands right-handed. it was only afterwards that we realised that the panel had to be flipped in order for the word balloons to be able to be read in the right order…)

I’m still quite happy with the opening page though.


Anyway, back to the main thread of this post.

There are loads of comics characters that I’d have loved to have written stories for.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s because I wanted to write “a Batman story” or “a Superman story”. Which is absolutely the wrong way to approach it. Unless you’re hired to write them, obviously. As a general rule, if I have a story to write, the idea comes first then ‘who needs to be in this story’.

But sometimes it’s been me accepting my own fun challenge: “can I write a story that’s absolutely a Batman story or a Superman or a Captain America or a Fantastic Four story that doesn’t betray the basic tenets of the character… but that DC or Marvel would never in a million years publish?

(Odd that I’ve never, however, managed to come up with an idea for Batman that would qualify for both, to my satisfaction, but it’s surprisingly easy to do it for Superman. I wonder if it’s because in order to do so, it’s easier to come up with a workable story in which Superman’s circumstances are ostensibly permanently changed than it is for Batman.)

I’ve written some just for fun; never been submitted; occasionally I’ve referred to them as examples that’d never go anywhere, but mostly, just for fun.

But here are two WFH/licensed characters I’d actually want to pitch stories for. (No detailed story ideas in what follows, for all sorts of reasons, including, I guess, legal.)

Nightwing
While in no way at all denigrating the fantastic work done by the creators of some fantastic comics over the decades with Dick Grayson, I think I’ve only rarely enjoyed comics where he’s the lead character.

Mainly because no one seems to know what to do with him. An obvious step when taking over a book or a character is to change things. Well, writer after writer has changed where he lives, what aspect of his character on which to concentrate, who his friends are, and – so I understand in the latest iteration – his name and personal history. After being shot in the head, he’s come to, groggy about the details, thrown away much of what previously mattered to him, and now goes by Ric Grayson.

As the ‘role’ of Robin has been taken on by first one character then another, then another, DC took the decision to make each of those who’ve worn the ‘R’ specialise in one thing or another. Tim Drake was almost as good a detective as Batman, but nowhere near as accomplished in other spheres. Damien Wayne is almost as good a fighter as Batman, but… Jason Todd was almost as, perhaps more, ruthless as Batman but…

And Dick Grayson retrospectively became the superlative athlete (understandable given his in story background), who could fight quite well, and was a better-than-ok detective.

That never made sense to me. He was the first trained by Batman, and Wayne would have tried his damndest to give him every skill at the best level.

There’s an old one-shot (done as an issue in the Titans Solo run, as I recall) in which Batman is captured by a bad guy… and Dick Grayson finds him… by being smart, by being clever, by being… a detective. Another issue – early after Tim Drake was introduced – had Grayson training Drake in how to observe. Just that: how to… notice things.

I can get that DC want to keep Batman the best (in the Batman circle of books, anyway) at everything, but with due respect to the others who’ve worn the Robin outfit, the Dick Grayson I’d want to write would perforce inherently acknowledge Batman’s superior skills in most things, sure, but would go out of his way to train himself so that no one else would easily make that mistake.

I’d want to write a Nightwing who combines all the skills he learned, and just do the job differently. He could effectively be a clone of Batman, but he chooses not to. Using all the skills but just presenting in a different way to the observer. For the past however long it’s been, he’s not had that choice.

Modesty Blaise
Yeah, the big one, the single character I’ve wanted to write since I first read her stories. Also the single character over whom a superbly talented writer friend of mine – a lovely, kind woman – would cold-bloodedly, and with forensic skill, maim me in order to deservedly get the job herself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see new, clever, fun stories about Modesty Blaise, Willie Garvin, Steve and Diana, Sir Gerald… and I’m sure KellySue would write far better stories than I could even dream of. (If you’ve not read her work, you’re missing out. I’d unreservedly recommend Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly without hesitation.)

But gods yes, would I love to have the chance to write the characters, to create a gloriously depraved yet entirely logically consistent set of bad guys for her and Willie Gavin to encounter, fight, and defeat.

There’s so much unexplored history there, so much you could delve into while telling a ‘current’ story, so many ways you could who just who the characters are and why they matter, to each other and to the reader. and, my heavens, I’d love to write the relationship between Willie Garvin and his Princess.

Besides, hopefully, we’d get more Jamie McKelvie art to salivate over, and that’s never a bad thing.

Oddly, I saw the kitsch 1960s Modesty Blaise movie was on telly the other night. Its’ unremittingly awful 99.4% of the time, but I’d quite forgotten that at one point Monica Vitti dresses up as Modesty from the strip: black outfit, chignon, bow, quiver. She looked fantastic in the classic outfit.

It genuinely made me sad all over again that they’d not, that they’ve never, made that movie.

And that they probably never will. (I’ve not seen the Tarantino My Name Is Modesty movie, which is a kind of prequel, taking place before she meets Willie Gavin, nor the 1982 Modesty Blaise US tv pilot, where both Modesty and Willie are… Americans. Yeah… No.)

 
 
Something else, tomorrow.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

(For part 1 of ‘one-offs’, about individual television episodes I will rewatch whenever they’re shown, click here)

I mentioned last week that even in ‘baddie of the week’ tv shows, in every medical drama, in every sitcom, an individual episode will stand out for some reason; the guest star will knock it out of the park, the writing on that episode will particularly impress, the specific plot will reward rewatching.

The same, of course, applies to long running comic books, which are also serialised drama/fiction. And as with tv, there are too many, far far too many, for me to list all of them, the individual issues that mattered to me, that I’ll dig out and reread every so often. Picking ten isn’t meant to imply that they’re ‘better’ than the others; it just means they’re the ten that sprung to mind when writing, ok?

But here are ten. Of course with some series, there are multiple issues, but as with Part 1, I’ll limit it here to one issue per series, in some case per character.

Oh, and where I can, I’ll list the creative teams. Apologies upfront to any I don’t know at the time of writing; I’ll slot them in if I discover them later.

OK then.

Iron Man: “Star Hunter” (Vol 1, issue 237)
Writer: David Michelinie, Bob Layton; Penciler: Jackson Guice; Inker: Bob Layton; Colourist: Bob Sharen; Letterer: Janice Chiang
I love this issue. Everything about it. The plot is sharp and clever, a one character issue in which Tony Stark (Iron Man… oh shit, you didn’t know? Oops.) investigates why satellites have been going offline and discovers the real story behind SDI: an artificial creature, created specifically as a satellite killer, designed to adapt to whatever circumstances it finds itself in. The art flies off the page, the captions and thought balloons aren’t intrusive and make sense given the circumstances – most of the issue is silent, the station’s in vaccuum – and the final couple of pages linger in your brain long after you’ve put down the issue. In them, Iron Man kills the creature, after introducing an atmosphere into the satellite… and he gets the shock of his life when the dying creature speaks. When Iron Man asks why the creature tried to kill him… and did kill its creators, the answer is simple… and still chilling: “It was what I was created to do.” It’s rare that I can look back, decades after an issue saw print, and can remember almost panel for panel what happened in a story. Iron Man #237 is one such story.

 
 
The Flash: “Shot In The Dark” (Vol 2, issue 30)
Writer: William Messner-Loebs; Penciller: Greg Larocque; Inker: Larry Mahlstedt; Colourer: Carl Gafford)
Wally West is at the cinema on a date, watching a movie when he notices everyone has frozen around him, as has the movie; he feels something in the back of his neck, the pressure slowly increasing. He reaches behind him and disovers it’s a bullet. Another almost silent issue, but this time not because of a lack of oxygen, but because the entire issue (bar the first couple of pages) takes place in about a tenth of a second. I’ve now seen this kind of thing done any number of times on the tv show, and in movies, but this was back in the late 1980s and it was the first time I’d seen it done in a comic book. West had automatically flipped into ‘Flash Time’ the moment his body felt the bullet touch it, and it took a moment or two – subjective time – for his brain to catch up with his body. The issue is great at handling the physics of momentum, and how it feels to be in that state, and how the slightest relaxtion – when he realises what’s going on – means someone could die, almost does, if he is blasé about it. Great writing, great art, really nice colours.
 
 

Sandman: “Men of Good Fortune” (Issue 13)
Writer: Neil Gaiman; Penciller: Michael Zulli; Inker: Steve Parkhouse; Colourer: Robbie Busch; Letterer: Todd Klein
Despite the official title of this story being “Men of Good Fortune”, I find it impossible to think of this by any other title than “The Hob Gadling story”. This was one of the few Sandman stories that I immediately reread the moment I had finished it. The story is deceptively simple: a ‘common’ man announces to his friends that he won’t die… in 1389. That’s all, that he simply won’t have it. As luck (and a Neil Gaiman script) would have it, Morpheus and Death are in the ale house when he makes his statement and Death agrees to forsake him. Dream does not inform him of it directly, but merely says that he will meet Gadling “one hundred years hence” at the same spot. After a hundred years, they meet. And a hundred years later. And another hundred years… You see the best and worst of humanity summed up in a single character, the highs and lows a man can be brought to. The final panel sums up a relationship. over 600 years in the making, in eleven elegant words. Gaiman excels himself in this story and Gadling remains my favourite character in the entire Sandman saga. Todd Klein also seems to do that little bit extra in this book…

 
 

X-Men: “Elegy” (Issue #138)
Writer: Chris Claremont, John Byrne; Penciler: John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Colourist: Glynis Wein; Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
This is the epitome of how you do a ‘what you may have missed’ or ‘what has come before’ or even ‘Previously…’. Anyway, it’s a catchup issue. The issue after the Dark Phoenix Saga ends, with the death of Jean Grey, the conceit of the story is that it’s her funeral… and the entire story is done as a reverie of Scott Summers at funeral. From his meeting with Jean – as it was in continuity then, anyway – through various adventures, various teams, and various identities. And takes it through to her death. No, stop sniggering, you at the back. No one at that time expected her to come back. Repeatedly. But it’s a great lesson on how to tell a story – because it is still a story being told – catchup or not. There’s a personal element to me liking this issue as well. It’s one of two things that got me back into comics after some teenagerly absent years. (and maybe that’s an entry all on its own…) Claremont’s script is great, and Byrne and Austin deliver. Wein’s colours are usually ignored when this issue is talked about, and they shoudn’t be; they help set the tone throughout.
 
 

The Incredible Hulk “He’s Back” (Issue #372)
Writer: Peter David; Penciller: Dale Keown; Inker: Bob McLeod; Colourist: Glynis Oliver; Letterer: Joe Rosen
Peter David’s long run on The Hulk, though with the very occasional ‘blip’, remains one of my favourite long runs on any comic by any creator. David is, I’m sure, sick of reminding people that it wasn’t he who came up with the idea of the Hulk being a multiple personality (it was Bill Mantlo’s, for the record), but it was certainly Peter David who took the idea and ran with it. And despite the later retcon by other writers, the eventual amalgamation of the “Green Hulk”, “Bruce Banner” and the “Grey Hulk” into an integrated personality was, for my money, the best issue David wrote, with the possible exception of the final issue, but it’d be cheating to include that one. There’s just nothing wrong with this book. The final panel “I’m home…” is worth the price of admission on its own.

 
 

Moon Knight “Scarlet” (Issue 5)
Writer: Warren Ellis; Art: Declan Shalvey; Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
I loved Warren and Declan’s short run on Moon Knight, treating the character as a sort of half-urban myth/half-consulting detective. In this issue, however – a story that is, by their own admission, Ellis’ and Shalvery’s take on The Raid – Moon Knight knows there’s an abducted young child in an abandoned hotel; the only way to get her back is to wade through 20 or so mob guys, all of whom will quite happily kill anyone who comes to rescue the child. So Moon Knight goes in to rescue the child. It’s a 20 page fight issue, floor by floor. It’s gorgeous, brutal, and the injuries are forensically accomplished, and portrayed. Not my normal ‘preferred’ style of story, but somehow this one always gets me. Glorious use of the medium and each page is wonderful. Huh. I just realised. Another, pretty much, silent issue.
 
 

Fantastic Four “This Man, This Monster” (Issue #51)
Writer: Stan Lee; Art: Jack Kirby; Co-plotters: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Wow, this one’s going back to stone age… How the hell do you follow a three parter that introduces Galactus and the Silver Surfer in which you save the planet? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby deliver a masterclass in early Marvel, let alone early Fantastic Four. A simple, elegant, story, beautifully and stylishly executed: someone steals The Thing’s powers and goes off to the FF’s HQ, thinking Reed Richards does it for the glory. Learns he doesn’t and sacrifices his life in the Negative Zone to save Richards. At its heart, it’s the story of a man’s redemption from a life of selfishness, by the most selfless act one can perform. And as for Ben Grimm? Delighted to no longer look like The Thing, he goes to a woman he like and turns back into The Thing just as she was about to see the ‘real’ him. It’s cleverly written, wonderfully draw, and it’s a perfect synergy of their individual talents. Just great.

 
 

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City “Dinner At Eight” (vol 1, Issue #6)
Writer: Kurt Busiek; Artist: Brent Eric Anderson; Colourist: Steve Buccellato; Letterer: Richard Starkings/Comicraft
For a series that asks, better than any other book, to my mind, the ‘what would it actually be like if super powered, and supernatural, ‘people’, good and bad, existed in ‘real life?’ question, this is an odd one… because it subverts that entirely. This isn’t about normal people reacting to super-powered characters in their midst, but the reverse, super-powered people doing – or trying to do, anyway – something… ‘normal’. This issue is, basically, ‘what if Superman went on a date with Wonder Woman?’, but in their civilian identities. (That might seem disparaging to Samaritan and Winged Wonder; it’s not intended to be; the super-man and super-woman characters start from those archetypes, and very, very quickly move away from it.) I love this issue. Everything about it just… works. The guilt both feel about taking some time away from crime fighting is obvious and understandable, despite promises from their comrades to step in. They can’t… relax. And they know it. and they know the other can’t, and they understand it. As always with Astro City, it’s a delightful character study.

 
 

Holy Terror
Writer: Alan Brennert; Artist: Norm Breyfogle; Letterer: Bill Oakley; Colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
A bookshelf edition, and an Elseworlds title at that, but it’s within the ‘rules’ I set up for myself – a single issue – so there. Holy Terror is my favourite Elseworlds book. Now, in case that sounds like “faint praise that damns”, it isn’t meant to at all. It’s one of my favourite all time comic books. It starts from the premise that Cromwell remained in power in the UK and that England won the War of Independence with The Colonies. America is in effect would now be called a Fundamentalist Christian State. Bruce Wayne is a novice priest who finds out that his parents weren’t killed by a common mugger as he had always believed but were executed by the State. He becomes The Batman in order to find out why and who ordered it. It’s a superb book with many twists in it, including a wonderful sub-plot throughout about The Green Man, someone rumoured to be an alien… and it’s not who you think it is. Written by Alan Brennert, whose work never disappoints, with art by the wonderful Norm Breyfogle.

 
 

The Wicked and the Divine: (Issue #1)
Writer: Kieron Gillen; Artist: Jamie McKelvie; Colourist: Matthew Wilson; Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Where the hell do you start with a book like WicDiv, as it’s known to its fans? At the start, obviously. Which start, though? And that’s a question that in order for me to answer it in any way that even came close to making sense, you’d have had to have already read the book. Every 90 years, twelve gods are re-incarnated; they live as gods for a maximum of two years. A wonderful concept, expertly delivered… with wonderful scripts, beautiful art, clever stories, and twists and turns of the best kind: those you don’t see coming but in retrospect seem if not invitable then at least perfectly sensible. So, why am I choosing the first issue? Because nothing makes sense – literally in two cases – without having read and understood the first issue. Add to that the commencement of one of the best ‘normal person interacts with the abnormal’ storylines I’ve ever read, and a shock ending that still gut punches you even though you know it’s coming… Both Gillen and McKelvie are doing the best work of their already sparkling careers, and it’s been a pleasure being along for the ride. Special call out for the covers, which have both been original and stylish.


Final note: while writing this entry, I had so much fun, reliving the stories, the sheer talent shown throughout, and I thought… y’know what, maybe at the end of the run, I’ll do another ten… it’ll be equally as easy and as much fun.

And then I deleted the entry in error and had to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. It was less fun after that. So, there may well be another ten at the end, but don’t hold your breath.


If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s coming tomorrow. See you then.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

The “willing suspension of disbelief” is of course a necessary part of the contract between the writer of fiction and reader. The writer agrees to produce as “real” a world, situation and environment as possible, and readers agree for their part to willingly suspend their incredulity while enjoying the work in question.

This unspoken agreement between writer and reader works very well, and has done for centuries, if not longer. In fact, it works so well that like Shakespeare’s comment that some customs are more “honoured in the breach then in the observance”, you only realise you’ve partaken in this unspoken agreement when you’re forcibly required to unwillingly suspend your disbelief. 

There can be any number of things that disturb your willingness to suspend your disbelief. First and foremost there’s bad writing. Bad dialogue, bad descriptive passages, ludicrous plotting; all singly or together can remind you that this is fiction, that the characters aren’t ‘real’ and – at least in my case – that inevitably leads to the question: why should I care what happens to them?

Occasionally, real life intervenes. Whether real life experiences show up poor research on the part of the writer, or a writer – through no ‘fault’ of their own – creates a situation that fails to resonate with the reader or resonates too strongly. I lost a brother to a specific medical condition. If I ever see that condition portrayed on screen or in a novel, the comparisons and contrasts to real life make it almost impossible not to wrenched out of the fictional world. 

But without doubt the easiest way for a writer to disrupt the flow flow of willing disbelief suspension is to write contemporary fiction and date it with a link to actual personalities and events.

I’m thinking primarily – but not solely as you shall see – of serialised comic book fiction here. Comic books have always had a problem with time. I don’t mean a problem with time travel; that’s a whole other matter which I’ll probably come back to at some point. 

But super hero comic books set in America cannot resist the urge to link to specific Presidents  sooner or later. Both Marvel and DC (and they’re still, as they have been for a long time, the two big players in superhero comics) have had storylines involving the ‘current’ president. Which kind of makes sense when the books are designed to be disposable episodes and makes no sense at all when they’re intended to be read and reread and collected and bound and paperbacked and ‘absolute edition’ed. 

For all the grief that the Superman line got when they made Lex Luthor President, and for all the failures in the stories that followed – and their were many – I thought it a brave and clever choice and the stories still work better and disrupt that suspension of disbelief a lot less than reading a story featuring Bill Clinton as President, when that story is supposed to have only happened a decade or so back…

Of course it’s not only comic books. 

Any novel set in the future, where the future is now in the last? (1984, I’m looking at you. 2001: A Space Odyssey? You sit in the corner with 2010: Odyssey Two.) I’m not entirely sure why I don’t have this problem with books set a century ago, even if they were contemporary when they were written. I suspect it might be because they are set so far away from my own personal experiences (hey, I’m old but I’m not that old) that I have no idea whether or not the situations portrayed are ‘real’. That said, I think I’d still be thrown out of the story were, say, the novel to portray a famous personage at odds with everything I know about them. 

It’s always a shock – although it shouldn’t be – when while watching an old tv programme or movie and a ‘current’ date is shown, or even worse when a programme set in the “future’ identifies the year in which it is set… and it’s now years, decades, in the past.

It still comes as a surprise when I watch UFO and realise from the opening credits that it’s set in 1980. Or the programme that told you from its title that it was set in 1990. But without doubt the worst is when you see a programme or a movie and its stated incidentally.

Take Callan, the fourth series of which I’m currently rewatching. In the first episode, (during which David Callan has been captured by the KGB and is being interrogated) he’s shown his gravestone – his Section has written him off and – at this time – have buried ‘him’ both figuratively and literally.

The depressing bits?

1. Callan was 41 when this episode takes place. 41. That’s a a full decade younger than me. Bloody hell- I’m much much older than Callan was.
2. If he was still alive, he’d be 84. Callan at 84 doesn’t bear thinking about.
3. The only way to make it ‘better’ is if he’d have been killed before now…

Something less depressing tomorrow. 

I was thinking about Amateur Press Associations today. I received a thick white envelope through the post and it reminded me that for some years, that meant one thing: Comicopia. As far as I know Comicopia is still running, though it’s been a while since I’ve been in contact with many of the then members. 

One section of Comicopia I always enjoyed was by the Canadian artist Gabriel Morrissette;  his sections were full of little sketches and drawings, revealing the full insanity that’s inherent in a comic book artist. 

One three panel gag, illustrating the effect Jack Kirby’s art had on him, has stuck with me. In the first panel, a child is looking at an unopened comic book. The boy then opens the book and there’s a small explosion. The final panel has the kid’s white eyes looking out of a smoke blackened face, singed hair smoking above it.

Have to say that was pretty much the affect on me when I saw US comic books for the first time. Because the first comics I read weren’t US super-hero comic books. They were weekly British comics, mostly black and white, or black white and red to be precise: comics like The Beano, TV21, Scorcher (including Billy’s Boots), Whizzer and Chips etc.

(It’s worth remembering at this point that the only accurate answer to the question Whatever happened to WHIZZER & CHIPS, BUSTER, WHOOPEE! and all the other great British comics? is My mother threw them away.)

Despite me enjoying those British comics, there was no real feeling of loss if I didn’t read them. I had plenty of other things to read, and only rarely –  with certain strips  – did a story continue from one week to another. Most of the strips were just gags surrounded by a setup for the gag on one side and a set up for the next gag on the other.

And then there was Look-in.

Now, I have no idea of the readership of this blog, but I’d put good money down on the table that not one in twenty UK readers has a clue what I’m talking about and not one in five hundred US readers does.

Look-in was ostensibly a television listings magazine for children; indeed, on the final two pages of the weekly publication there were listings for childrens’ shows being broadcast the following week. Importantly though, there were also adaptations of popular kids’ and ‘family’ television programmes of the time, continuing over several weeks. I come across some of these stories on the web every so often, and I’m usually impressed at how well much of the art still stands up today. The stories? Hmm, well, I’m less impressed with them these days. For more about Look-in, check out Lew Stringer’s blog. You might want to start here

Yet even with Look-in, there was something missing, something that just wasn’t there.

In the early 1970s – yes, I am very old – one week when I was ill, my father picked up some comics for me for me to read. I’ve no idea why he chose the comics he did; if he bought me comics, it was usually one or more of the aforementioned British weeklies. But no, this time he picked up a British reprint of an American comic book featuring this character named Spider-Man. I’d never seen anything like it, and I didn’t know what the hell it was, but I wanted more; I needed more. Of course, being seven years old in the 1970s – see, I told you I was old – it wasn’t immediately apparent how to get more. 

Skip forward a couple of months and I’m at Heathrow Airport. No, I wasn’t running away or anything; it’s not that kind of story. We were off on holiday as a family, and, waiting to board, my parents took me and my brothers to the news kiosk to get something to read on the plane. I still recall the thrill when I saw  real US comic books. Not the British reprints in black and white, but the actual comic books. So I bought the two whose covers most interested me.

Which ones? These:

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Yeah, I know – part of the reason I read comics today is because of characters like Grotesk and Brother Voodoo. Frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks to parents who, despite the comment above, actively supported my comics reading, I then got the Marvel Treasury Editions, then the regular British reprints, including X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man… (There was also a brief flirtation with 2000AD but the less said about that, the better – it’s embarrassing all around.)

Now all of the above begs a question: What about DC?

Well the truth is that I wasn’t interested in DC Comics… because I’d hardly seen any. Until, at a friend’s house, I came across Batman: From the 30s to the 70s, a selection of black and white reprints of Batman tales. (It was some time before it actually occurred to me that the originals had been in colour.) He didn’t have the companion volume for Superman, so I didn’t get to read Superman for some years afterwards – and when I did, I was slightly disappointed. The Batman always did (and still does) struck me as a far more interesting character to read, and to write.

But for the moment, I was far more concerned with Marvel Comics.

And I devoured the comics. I guess that at some point I realised that these comics were written and drawn by people. After all, the Marvel comics had those funky credits. Nevertheless, I can’t, unlike others I know, pinpoint the exact moment I started realising that the comics I really enjoyed tended to be written by the same people or drawn by the same artist.

When I hit my teenage years, I sort of drifted from comics a bit. Oh I still read the occasional one here and there, but like many of my friends, comics just didn’t play a large part in my life.

A friend of mine, Regie Rigby, will, if you ply him with enough drink, tell the story about how I’m responsible for getting him back into comics (it involves a letter I wrote being printed in an issue of Batman) and I know that Dave Gibbons has written publicly about what got him back into comics – a Gene Colan cover of Green Lantern. With me, though, it was something different entirely. Well, two different somethings really. The first was catching up with an old school friend, the other was getting stood up on a date.

When I came home at the end of my first term (semester) from uni, I went to a friend’s house to play catch-up. We’d gone to different universities, and hadn’t seen each other for several months. While there, he asked a fateful question: “You used to like the X-Men, didn’t you?” and asking that, he tossed over an issue.

Uncanny X-Men #138.

  

I discovered later that the book was a couple of years old by the time I saw it, but after being away from comics for a while, the effect upon me was astonishing. The cover just hit me between the eyes. I didn’t know what to look at next: Who were all these characters? These weren’t my X-Men. What were all these covers in the background? What an amazing “Win a Toys ‘R’ Us Shopping Spree” banner! No, maybe not that last.

And Cyclops? Leaving the X-Men? Impossible. I had to read more. And what I found, when I cracked it open, was something that so many comics promise to be, but aren’t: the perfect jumping on point for a new reader.

Because, of course, Uncanny X-Men #138 is a ‘what has gone before’ issue, summing up the history of the X-Men thus far in 22 pages. Not only was I hungry for more story after having read the issue, I was incredibly impressed by the art. Hard to believe there was a time when I’d never seen John Byrne art before, isn’t it? Even harder to remember a time when John Byrne’s art was good.

That might have been it, though. I might have never bought more comics, except for getting stood up a couple of weeks later when I returned to Manchester.

We’d arranged to meet on a specific street corner in Manchester, just outside the City Centre. And she never showed. After an hour or so, when I finally gave up – hey, I was optimistic back then, ok? – I headed back to my halls of residence, passing, on the way, a small shopping precinct that I’d never previously noticed. I wandered in, out of curiosity, and discovered The Holy Grail: a comics shop.

A shop that just sold comics. Extraordinary! I had to be dreaming, but no, when I walked in, all I could see were… comics. The window display was.. comics. Lining the wall were… comics. And on the shelves… comics. Comics, comics, comics. As far as the eye could see. I’d never seen so many comic books in one place. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but not by much. I remember standing there in disbelief. And then as if in a daze, slowly, picking up half a dozen comics (probably the last time I left a comic shop with so few purchases.)

I went back the following day, having read the comics I’d purchased. And the next day. And it was on the third visit that my life changed. They were unloading the latest delivery. And it suddenly occurred to me that the books, different issues, that these new deliveries appeared… every… week…

Oh dear.

It’s an axiom that every comic book is someone’s first.

You’ve just read about some of mine.

Why not take a moment to wallow in nostalgia and remember yours..?

When I started this countdown to the 2015 general election, I wrote that while most of the entries would be about the forthcoming election, there’d be the occasional entry that wasn’t. The one about Doctor Who was one of them. This is another, kind of. Well, it is about the British political system, kind of. And it’s not at all… kind of.

You’ll see.

There are times when I’m honest enough to admit that I envy of the American political system. As a Brit, I admire the fact that America has a written constitution, or to be more precise, a single codified document entitled: “The Constitution”. I like the separation of powers, the checks and balances, that permeate the American electoral system, although I remain gently puzzled as to why anyone still supports the polite fiction that is the electoral college.

However, what I’m most jealous of Americans right now is that they don’t have an election in a month, so can quietly ignore all the speculation for another year or so. .

One of the more amusing aspects from over here for an admitted politics junkie and comic book reader, watching the preparation for the American elections are the comics websites and columnists who take a look at various comic book characters and identify which candidates, in the writer’s opinion, the characters would vote for. And in, some cases, which comic book characters the writer would vote for as President. It happens every four years or so. Indeed, in 2004, Tony Isabella polled his readers with the question:

“Which comics character would you vote for as President of the United States?”

Tony’s first choice, by the way, would have been Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning. Pierce came in fourth in the voters picks though, the top three being, in order: Barbara Gordon, Reed Richards, and Charles Xavier. Of course, that was before the first was rebooted as part of the New 52, the second started blowing up planets to save the Earth and the third was, you know, murdered. 

Since we’re in the middle of the British general election campaign though, it occurred to me that a similar poll, even if it wasn’t limited to British comic book super-heroes, wouldn’t work; the skills necessary to run for election as the head of government in a parliamentary system are wildly different from those required in a presidential system.

Given that, in theory anyway, anyone can run for President (what’s that line about “In America, anyone can become President… that’s the risk you take”?) there are a set of specific political skills that are needed, as well as shedloads of money, and in today’s politics, an ability to appeal to the base when getting the nomination, and everyone else when you are the nominee.

But in the UK, a parliamentary system, you need a whole other set of political skills to get to be Prime Minister. For a start, you need to be the head of a political party, which will likely entail being part of the process for twenty years plus, and having been elected half a dozen times to Parliament, climbing the greasy pole each time.

Not only that, but you have to be elected as head of the party by not only the party membership, but also, depending upon the political party, your fellow Members of Parliament, and possibly the trade unions.

For example, under the current system, after the resignation of the previous leader of the Labour Party after he lost the 2010 election, a number of Members of Parliament stood for the leadership. Of the five, only one was a back-bencher and even she had been a minister at one point. The other four had all served in Brown’s Cabinet  and had been members of parliament for years…

But since the majority of people reading this are American, let’s take a look at the current Prime Minister, David Cameron.

After some years as a “Special Advisor”, he first ran for office in 1997. He didnt win, but he was back in 2001, and was first elected as a Conservative Party Member of Parliament in that year, the year in which Labour won its second term in office under Tony Blair. Cameron’s party lost that election, as they did the next one as well, but he was elected as MP for the constituency of Witney. He almost immediately served on the Home Affairs Committee. Because his party was in opposition, any front bench position (so called because the MP addresses the house from the front bench) is called a ‘shadow’ spokesman. From 2003, he was a shadow minister in the Privy Council Office and was in 2004 appointed front bench spokesman for local government, and in the same year became a member of the shadow Cabinet. After the 2005 election, he held the portfolio of Shadow Secretary of State for Education, but only briefly, as he then ran for – and gained – the leadership of his party. And in each of those positions, he was facing his opposite in the House of Commons during debates and questions. And this merely increased when, in 2010, he became Prime Minister.

So he’s faced a number of internal party appointments, and had been actually elected to the House of Commons in two general elections (2001 and 2005) before he became Leader, after which his party got the largest number of seats in the 2010 election.

And as the leader of the largest party after a general election, he moved into Number 10 Downing Street a few days after the election, as soon as he could command a majority. None of this “getting elected, and then not taking office for two months” for us…

So his political skills involved facing not only the public in a general election campaign, but facing his political opponents in the House of Commons answering questions and in debate pretty much every week the House of Commons sat for almost a decade before he became Prime Minister. (Both his predecessors as Prime Minister -Blair and Brown had even longer to prepare, Blair over a decade and Brown fifteen years)

[So, I’m not entirely sure when any of them would have found time to be a super-hero, by the way.]

Certainly a different set of skills from that required to run as President, I think you’d agree. Note that I don’t say a better or worse set of skills, merely a different set.

Especially since a parliamentary system doesn’t have any element of “The President Proposes and Congress Disposes”. With a decent working majority, The Prime Minister and his executive can do pretty much anything they like.

What’s interesting is that under our political system, you don’t have to be a British citizen to stand for election to parliament. To become a Member of Parliament a person must be 21 or more years old and be a British citizen, a citizen of another Commonwealth country or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. So Steve Rogers/Captain America could never stand for Parliament, but Sean Cassidy/Banshee could. You do, however, have to swear allegiance to the monarchy if you get elected in order to take your seat in the house, by the way, which is one reason why Sinn Fein MPs, despite being elected, never taken their seats…

But leaving aside that requirement for a moment, it does occur to me to wonder which characters from comic books could handle the political skills required under our system.

Well, what springs to mind, given the number of hustings and elections a person would have to go to, is that the person would need a skill, talent or power that involves convincing a large number of people at one time… and the problem is that all the characters I can think of who’d do that… are villains. And they’d likely not have the patience to wait around for the decades necessary, now, would they?

Zebediah Killgrave, The Purple Man is the first that I think of. Apart from anything else, he could persuade the authorities that he is a British citizen, and so pass the first hurdle. He could then persuade the Leader of the party to resign, and thence convince his fellow MPs and fellow constituents to vote him in as party leader. OK, he’s just circumvented 20 years. He then gets the Prime Minister to call a general election, and bingo. Could he then persuade the electorate?

Sure – after all, in Emperor Doom (1987), written by David Michelinie and drawn by Bob Hall and Keith Williams, Doctor Doom used Killgrave’s power to conquer the Earth. The UK? Wouldn’t take him long.

I know what you’re thinking – the British Electorate would never take anyone seriously who had colour that weird.

And of course, you’re right… as the orange skinned Robert Kilroy Silk discovered quite some time ago…

Back tomorrow with something a tad more serious.

It’s been said that all fiction starts with the words “What if…?” Now this is patently untrue, since of the hundreds, if not thousands, of novels I’ve read, not one of them started with those words.

Just at random, a novel I recently read, for example, commenced with the words:

Feeling the gun against the nape of her neck, Joan Bowden froze.

See?

But I can understand the sentiment of the old saw, since at one point or another, the author of the novel must have thought “what if there was someone called Joan Bowden, and what if she had a gun against her neck?” Of course, the process is more complicated than that, since the opening words, despite setting the tone for the novel, and foreshadowing a later traumatic event in Balance of Power by Richard North Patterson, only form a periphery to the main thrust of the book.

It’s convenient that I thought of that novel, and double-checked the opening line, as it plays into something that’s been on my mind a lot this week, especially since I was chatting with some comedians in Edinburgh about different takes on the same essential centre of a joke.

This novel is the third in a series of novels featuring a recurrent cast, including a President of the United States, his family and the members of Congress with whom he exists and battles.

But if I wanted to look for a series of novels featuring a regular cast, it’s not as if I’d have to look far. From the pulp novels of the early part of the last century, through Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels through to JK Rowling’s happy cast of young wizards and witches, there has always been a segment of the novel publishing industry that has brought out books containing a cast of characters from previous books. It’s easy to understand why: familiarity with the characters breeds loyalty towards the characters. Moreover, even when the subjects are franchised out to different authors, as with the Remo Williams, Destroyer series of novels, the loyalty still often remains.

Sound familiar?

Take a look at the comics on the shelves next time you’re in your comic shop. The vast majority will feature the same characters as the previous month. The vast majority? Almost exclusively is more realistic.

I believe it was Warren Ellis who, when once railing against the predominance of the super-hero genre in the field of comics once gave the analogy of walking into a bookstore and seeing hundreds of novels, 90% of which were nurse romances.

However, the difference in this respect is that despite there being many examples of novels being merely one in a series, in a brand, most novels published feature original characters. Even where an author writes and is known for writing an ongoing series of works of fiction containing a repeating cast, they often write books featuring other characters.

There’s one other major difference between the comics featuring repeating characters and novels doing the same. No one seems to want, expect, demand or even request to see different versions of the characters. No one asks to see, for example, what Harry Potter would have turned out like had You-Know-Who only managed to kill Potter’s mum. Now before anyone jumps up and down on me, I’m deliberately excluding the ‘alternative history’ novels, such as those by Harry Turtledove, since they ostensibly deal in the ‘real’ world, not extrapolations of event changes in a pre-existing fictional environment

imageIt’s difficult to identify precisely where this kind of comic book story started. Despite Marvel turning it into a brand in its own right with the title What If…? (of which more in a moment), by the time the first issue was published in 1977 containing the story What if… Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?, it was merely part of a long tradition.

imageIt could be argued that DC started the trends with their ‘imaginary stories’ in the Batman series, wherein first Robin dreamed of a future where he was Batman, with Bruce Wayne’s son as ‘his’ Robin and then later, Alfred Pennyworth would write an extrapolation into the future, with Dick Grayson as Batman II with Bruce Wayne Jr as Robin II. You think I’m kidding? They actually had the II on their costumes (see cover of Batman #145).

Is that cheating? Including ‘future’ tales as alternative takes on current continuity. I don’t think so, because with the occasional exception of a device that didn’t exist at the time, the stories could have been set at the same time as the ‘real’ stories were set. This is markedly different, for example, from Kingdom Come and Earth X, wherein the fun for the reader was seeing what would happen to the characters in 20 years or so.

But does that tradition of playing with current continuity and situations go back beyond those ‘imaginary stories’?

(A sidebar, if I may: I’ve always thought that Alan Moore’s opening captions to Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the last Superman story before John Byrne’s revamp in 1985, were about the best there could be: “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, that tradition and how long it’s been around. Well, I’ve only anecdotal evidence, but I recall reading a British reprint of a 1950s Lone Ranger comic wherein, while recovering from an injury, the masked hero reflects upon his life and wonders how different it would have been had the events that caused him to become the Lone Ranger not occurred.

I’d welcome even earlier examples, by the way.

The point being that for at least fifty years, say, there has been a ‘reserve’ story in the back of the minds of many comics writers, best summed up as “What if things had been different for this character?” It’s easy to appreciate why this story comes out every so often: it allows the writer to do whatever they like to the characters, and by means of simply ending the story, leave the characters precisely as they were, while hopefully telling a story that resonates in some way with the audience.

Sometime in the mid-1970s though, someone at Marvel Comics realised that, as long as the stories were good enough, they didn’t need to break the regular run of a title to run one of these stories which were popular with the comics reading public. Instead, the stories could appear in their own title.

And that’s precisely what they did, with the aforementioned What If…?. Now it has to be said that some of the stories were pretty dire, but some of them did exactly what they were intended to do: to tell an entertaining tale. The only problem, if problem it was, was that it ran a coach and horses through Stan Lee’s oft quoted reason for recaps in dialogue: “every comic book is someone’s first.”

The stories only really worked if they played against the readers’ expectations, knowing the title from which the story was drawn. Whether it was what If…Phoenix had not died? or What if…Captain America had been elected President?, the fun for the reader came from seeing what would happen to familiar characters when one pivotal event was changed. On the whole, as I recall, the heroes usually had a harder time of it in the alternative history than they did in the ‘real’ Marvel Universe. Only rarely (as in What if… Spider-Man’s clone lived?) did they end up happier as a result of the changes.

After a respectable run (47 seven issues over seven years), the first series ended. It was to reappear a couple of times, including a 100+ issue nine year run in the 1990s (including an incredibly good tale by Valentino and Leifeld: What If… Wolverine was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.?) probably my favourite of the run.

Despite their head start with the imaginary stories of Batman and Superman, DC Comics got into the game relatively late. It could be argued (in fact DC would argue) that the first of their alternative histories was The Dark Knight Returns, but later books carried a special brand: Elseworlds. To quote from the blurb that accompanied each bookshelf edition – DC went the whole hog on these, on the probably correct assumption that playing with the histories of characters established for 50+ years would be bought to keep:

“In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places — some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist.”

In other words: imaginary stories.

Some of these tales were incredibly good (I recommend without hesitation Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle’s Holy Terror), while others, to put it kindly, stank.

Over the past few years, both DC and Marvel have slowed publication of these alternative takes on their established characters, reasoning, I presume, that after Kingdom Come, The Kingdom and The Dark Knight Strikes Back from DC and Earth X, Universe X and Paradise X from Marvel, the comics reading public needed a break. (Or, to put it perhaps more accurately, that after being deluged with expensive books, the public wouldn’t buy any more.)

When the two of them re-entered the market, DC in particular did it in a very different way releasing Detective #27 written by Michael Uslan, an extra-ordinarily clever book conceived around the concept of Bruce Wayne being Batman without actually having to become Batman.

The fascination with seeing what would have happened to favourite characters had one thing changed in their history appears unique to comic books, though no less fascinating a concept nonetheless. Even Dark Horse got into the act with their alternative continuity of the Star Wars universe. Now, you might think that this contradicts my statement that it only happens with comic books. Well, no – despite the fictional universe being created in the movies, look where the alternative history appeared: in a comic book.

Those who are fans of the alternative continuity lark often defend their liking by saying that the stories allow the writer to explore, and the reader to appreciate, new facets of the characters, ignoring both that (a) the moment the history changes, so do the characters, and also that (b) if the story is set back far enough, the character back then was markedly different in most examples, from the character of the same name that’s being published now.

My own take on that is simple, and recalls the no doubt apocryphal story of a famous politician (I’ve heard it that it was variously, Mao Tse-Tung, Henry Kissinger and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson) being once asked what would have happened if Soviet Premier Kruschev been assassinated instead of President John F Kennedy. “Well,” comes the eventual reply, “I seriously doubt Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs. Kruschev.”

What If…?

Elseworlds.

Imaginary Stories – don’t ya love ’em?

Time on my hands

Posted: 19 August 2014 in comics, fiction
Tags: ,

Let’s talk about Time Travel. And comic books.

Time travel stories in monthly comic books featuring continuing characters always suffer from, and always will suffer from, a huge limitation, when compared to opposed to any other form of fiction. That limiting parameter, which is of course, the necessity for characters to survive, is precisely what led to What If…? and Elseworlds tales being so popular. Because what is a What if…? other than the consequences of a time traveller going to the past and changing a crucial event?

So I’m a sucker for time travel stories; always have been. Doesn’t matter whether it’s novels like There Will Be Time or The Time Patrol tales, both by Poul Anderson, movies like The Philadelphia Experiment or the numerous comics books stories over the years, I get sucked in; and of course, my guilty not-so-secret is that despite the script always having at least one character warning the others against changing anything in the past “in case it changes the future”, that’s why I read the damn thing: to see what the consequences are of such meddling.

With rare exceptions though, time travel stories set in the past tend to concentrate on “a character learning something”, one of the classic “there are only five/six/seven* [*delete as appropriate] stories”. Whether it’s a character learning something about his origin, or solving a long forgotten but unsolved crime, the temptation to ‘mix in’ is strong for characters, sometimes too strong. Could any of us blame Bruce Wayne, given the opportunity to travel back in time and save his parents, if he did so? Or Peter Parker saving Uncle Ben?

However, while the past is already written and a change in the timeline requires an overt act of commission or omission, the future is an open book, blank pages ready to be written on. I guess it’s a pity then that so many of these stories are dystopic in nature. (c.f. Marvel’s Age of Ultron most recently, and Age of Apocalypse a wee back further in subjective] time and DC’s Armageddon 2001, even further back.)

I infer from this, unfortunately, that most super-hero writers don’t think that super-heroes will eventually make a difference. Or at least one to the benefit of humanity.

The first comic book time travel story I actually recall reading was from a British reprint of Fantastic Four #19, wherein the team go back in time and encounter Rama Tut. This turned out to be quite a popular time to visit, since the story has been reproduced from other characters’ points of view, including Doctor Strange and the West Coast Avengers, each of them in their own books visiting this critical (!) time. In the latter, the writer obviously decided to have a bit of fun with the whole ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, since he had Moon Knight create the very weapons that, a couple of thousand years later the character would discover and use as a super-hero.

However, the multiple visitors thing do remind me of the classic science fiction story Let’s Go To Golgotha by Gary Kilworth. In this startlingly original story, a group of time travelling tourists visit the village of Golgotha only to discover that all of the massive crowds witnessing the crucifixion are time travellers… the natives are sitting at home instead, not caring about yet another state execution of yet another criminal.

Time travelling has been a staple of super-hero storytelling since at least the 1950s, with Batman regularly using “hypnosis” (and sometimes a “time ray”) to travel back in time, via the offices of a Professor Nichols. For some reason, despite the hypnosis, Nichols quite happily sent back Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson… and then on other occasions Batman and Robin… and didn’t learn of their identities. Lord, people kept themselves to themselves back then.

During one of these stories, Batman travelled back to the Old West and managed to inspire a Batman in the 1800s. In fact, given the number of other Batmen he discovered over the years, it’s quite astonishing that Bruce Wayne’s eventual appearance in the cape and cowl was anything other than inevitable.

Batman was, of course, far from the only character to indulge in time travel. Superman, and especially Superboy had a number of time travelling adventures, and even Jimmy Olsen was transported back in time and space, in one story, ending up on Krypton before the explosion. And neither was this limited to the “goofy” tales of the 1950s. In the not too distant past ok, twenty-odd years ago, a storyline entitled Time and Time Again had Superman bouncing around the time stream, suffering from amnesia (a common story device for time travellers) and a darkened costume (a less common story device, I’ll admit).

Even leaving aside John Byrne’s version of OMAC, (OK, well, I liked it) it seems at times as if almost every major character has indulged in time travel at one time or another: Superman, Batman, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers, The X-Men… hell, even Green Arrow got in on the act; in a 1946 story, Date With Diana, both he and Speedy end up in the ancient past, where they meet Diana, the legendary goddess of the hunt.

All of these stories are of course, in complete contradiction of Hawking’s Rule: If time travelling was possible, time travellers from the future would already be here.

And we know they’re not here… Unless, of course, that’s just what they want us to think. No matter: some of these stories worked superbly, some weren’t too bad at all… and then there were the others.

Without making a long list of which stories ‘worked; and which didn’t, and despite my love for the very concept, I do wonder whether on occasion, they’re a crutch for the writer upon which to rest. Going forward in time is easy. Readers love speculative fiction in comics and as upmteen (a technical writing term, you understand) story arcs prove, you can do pretty much whatever you like to the future version of characters… precisely because the characters will never be allowed to get that old. Being fair, it’s not exactly an original concept: teenage heroes in particular see a dystopic future and don’t like what they see.

The first team time travel story that addressed the ‘darker versions of themselves’ issue involved, I think, The New Mutants; in issues #48 to #50 of their book, published in 1987, the team was split in two and scattered forward in time, both sets of characters ending up some thirty years in the future. One set of kids ended up in a post-Days of Future Past New York, where they discovered mature versions of those that hadn’t made the trip with them, battle-hardened, battle-weary soldiers. Simultaneously (if you’ll forgive the use of the word) the younger versions of these characters had travelled to an alternate future, one which seemed a paradise to them, having come from a world that at best tolerated mutants; here, the mutants ran things and the humans were oppressed. Of
course, it was the grown up versions of those that had not travelled with them that ran that so-called ideal society.

When the children were reunited, the awkwardness each set of kids felt around the other was palpable. Well, how at ease would you be with a friend, if you’d seen an adult version of that friend as a cruel veteran of a decade long war? Or as the fascistic leader of a totalitarian society?

Going into the past is trickier, but other than giving the writer a chance to get some retroactive continuity into canon for his own pet theory or story, there are almost none I can recall that genuinely accomplished something that couldn’t have been shown another way.

I say “almost”, because there are three “visiting the past” storylines that I still remember very fondly, and that did accomplish something unique in each case.

The first occurred during Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man. After his family has been killed – don’t worry, they come back later – Buddy Baker is distraught and borrows a time travel unit from Rip Hunter to visit the past. Although he knows that he mustn’t interfere, the sight of Baker, hidden, watching his daughter play while a tear runs down his cheek is still, years later, very moving. Morrison doesn’t rest there, though – he ensures that Animal Man encounters immortals during the trip. Of course, this being a Morrison book, the have coffee while discussing the nature of time. An intelligent, moving tale. And perfect art by Tom Grummett, as opposed to the earlier issues’ Chas Truog. (I’m sure some enjoyed Truog’s work but it had the awful effect for me of always being aware of the art… in a bad way; it always made me think ‘urgh, maybe it’ll get better next page. It never did.)

Rip Hunter pops up again in Time Masters, a wonderful eight issue mini-series that deals with a group of characters’ attempts to stop a multi-thousand year old conspiracy. The very scope of the story could not have been achieved without time travel and it’s a damn pity that Bob Wayne didn’t write much else, concentrating instead on his Marketing and PR career for DC. There’s just nothing wrong with either the story, the art, the emotional beats hit during the series. Just nothing at all.


The other story is the entire run of one of my favourite comic books DC ever published: Chronos. Addressing multiple paradoxes about time travel (including what happens if due to your meddling, you don’t exist?) the book had one of the best concepts and best endings ever. Instead of a time traveller ensuring that he didn’t interfere with time, Gabriel Walker would interfere… because, according to the one major conceit of the book, he was always supposed to. So for example, he introduces Thomas Wayne to a young socialite named Martha in the Silver Age of DC Comics; he also works on the Kent Farm in the 1880s.

Talking of the Kents, and the ending I referred to a moment ago… on the final pages of the final issue, Gabriel Walker turns up in Kansas and begs a ride from a childless couple driving past. He directs them to a field not far from Smallville and then, thanking them for the ride, he leaves them… He’s planned it so that as they drive home, they’ll pass near Kal-El’s rocket ship as it plummets to Earth. As he says at the end of the book, he has ‘a front row on history’.

Given the quality of those and other stories, I guess that what gives me a headache about time travel stories isn’t that they’re done at all, but that they’re done well so infrequently. Often, the plot can’t survive the weight put upon it by logical inconsistencies… that are there just to make the story “work” as in the convoluted – to put it mildly – history of Kang. On other occasions, the characters act… well, out of character. That could be explained by the different social mores and culture of the time period, but it never is.

And yet time travel stories still retain that certain something that gets readers interested. I suspect part of the reason is that time travel stories in which the established past does change have what you might call “inherent suspense”. No one reading a story in which, say, Peter Parker went back to ‘save’ Uncle Ben would believe for a moment that by the end of the story, Ben would be anything but dead. The interest is seeing how.

I’ll end with my favourite quote about time travel, from the most well-travelled of time travellers, Doctor Who: “That takes me back… or is it forward? That’s the trouble with time travel, you never can tell.”

If you read super-hero comics, sooner or later, in a day-dream or seven, you’ll wonder what super-powers you’d like to have.

The best answer to this, of course, is “America”, but leaving aside the political satire for once, what super-power would I actually want?

Well, I’ve an extra bone in my foot … at least I did have until I had it removed some years ago, and its removal and a few other problems with it have been well documented here and elsewhere.

So, no adamantium feet for me, dammit. But if you do wonder what powers you’d like to posess, even if you’ve only a semi-decent knowledge of super-hero comics over the past few years, you’ve a few hundred powers to choose from.

Running down the most obvious:

Flight: This is the power that most egregiously springs to mind. The power to lift off, fly anywhere you want to and, presumably land safely, although I suspect that landing is probably far more difficult than it looks. Getting up in the air is one thing, but landing? As David Gunson said in his incredibly funny What Goes Up Might Come Down, A good landing is defined as one after which you walk away….

Add to that problem the small but inconvenient fact that I have no sense of direction and would just as likely go in the wrong direction to my destination. Furthermore, given the current state of the world’s media, and the ghoulish fascination the public has for anything different, I suspect that this power would be one which would be difficult to keep to yourself. And what’s the point of a super power that you never get to use, eh? So, flying’s out.

Telepathy: Sorry, you couldn’t pay me enough to have this power. I know my own limitations and I don’t think I’ve got the willpower to be able to only read in people’s minds what I want to discover. I suspect that if telepathy genuinely existed, i.e. the power to ‘read people’s minds’, anyone with such a power would be quickly driven insane. No, not from the ever present background psychic buzz that would be around, but from the overload of trivial information that would of necessity be attached to the important information. Say I want to discover whether or not I’m getting a pay rise, so I take a peek inside my boss’s noggin. And, immediately, I’ve faced with the knowledge that he needs to get the car fixed at the weekend, because there’s a nasty knocking sound under the bonnet and he really hates the latest song released by that band that he loved when no one knew them but they’ve sold out and does his daughter really have to eat in the car and leave the wrappings on the backseat and who’s been smoking in the back room and now that the election’s been called he really should decide who to vote for and… and… and…

You see the problem?

So telepathy is out, unless it’s a very defined and refined telepathy, about which more in a minute…

Next up?

Well, Invisibility is tempting, I’ve got to say. The knowledge that I could discover what’s going on around me when no one knows I’m there. Probably the best way of living up to Robert Burns’

O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!

But you know what? I’m not so sure I’d want to know that necessarily. Surely there are times when ignorance is bliss. No, despite the obvious temptations, I think I’ll pass on this one as well.

Super-speed is another one that I don’t think I’d really like, to be brutally honest. So I could run fast? Who needs that? I’ve a car when I want to get somewhere beyond walking distance, and anyway, from what I’ve seen from Flash or Quicksilver, it’s only objective time that’s affected. Subjective time isn’t affected at all. Peter David nailed the problems of speedsters for me in an issue of X-Factor when he had Doc Samson interview the team members and the following dialogue ensued:

QUICKSILVER: Tell me doctor… Have you ever stood in line at a banking machine behind a person who didn’t know how to use it? Or wanted to buy stamps at the post office, and the fellow in front of you wants to know every single way he can ship his package to Istanbul? Or gotten some counter idiot at Burger King who can’t comprehend “Whopper, No Pickles?”

DOC SAMSON: Well… yes… I suppose…

QUICKSILVER: And how do you feel on those occasions?

DOC SAMSON: Impatient. Irritated. A little angry sometimes.

QUICKSILVER: Precisely. Because your life is being slowed to a crawl by the inabilities or the inconvenient behavior of others. It’s not a rational or considerate attitude to have, but there it is. Now, Imagine, Doctor, that everyone you work with, everywhere you go your entire world is filled with people who can’t work cash machines.

OK, so if I’m dumping super-speed, how about super-strength?

Well, to be honest, I can’t imagine a more useless power to have… unless you’re fighting super villains. Seriously, so I’m incredibly strong? What can I actually use it for? Opening tough pickle jars? Finally managing to tear open the wrapping on a blank video cassette? Nope, I can’t think of a single solitary use of super-strength, beyond possibly feeling comfortable holding The Complete Bone at arms’ length; and since I don’t like Bone, that’s probably where I’d put it – at arms’ length.

Magneto’s powers? The power to control metals? I take it back, there is a more useless power than super-strength.

Thinking further, the number of super-powers that exist in the world of comic books that appear only to exist so that they’re there to use to fight super-powered beings of another persuasion are legion. John Byrne, in a column in John Byrne’s Next Men freely admitted that when he created Alpha Flight, the primary consideration as to what powers they had was that they group had to be able to be convincingly hold their own against the then group make-up of the X-Men.

And yet… and yet… after due consideration, I keep coming back to the one super-power I’d really want, and it comes from a character in an X-Men story, or to be more precise, in X-Men vs. The Avengers.

The series, written by Roger Stern and drawn by Mark Silvestri (apart from the final issue which was credited to Tom DeFalco/Jim Shooter as writers and Keith Pollard/Joe Rubinstein as pencillers), saw print in 1987 and featured a character that I don’t think ever appeared again. A pity, since the power The Light had was simple, discreet, and just about perfect.

He had the power to instantly know whether or not someone was telling the truth.

Simple as that.

And you know what, that’s a power I’d like to have.

It’d made dealing with some submissions editors a whole lot easier for a start…

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about comic books. Let’s address that now.

I was rereading Watchmen recently. It’s one of my favourite standby hardback collections, i.e. a book that if I want to read something, I know I won’t be disappointed. Every time I read it, I’m rewarded by spotting something new, some element of the structure or story that I hadn’t noticed previously. I suspect that’s as much to do with the changes that I’ve gone through over the years I’ve owned the book as it is to do with having missed something in the past.

(I certainly remember, when first reading it, finding the ‘backmatter’ prose in each issue tough going, as I did the ‘pirate’ story within a story; now, I’m old enough, possibly mature enough, to appreciate their inherent worth.)

Now, despite my reservations about the whole “this is how super-heroes would really act” ( I kind of agree with Peter David’s take on the ending – the world wouldn’t come together in response to the attack; they didn’t after 9/11, after all), I noticed something that has been poking into my consciousness whenever I read any number of super-hero comic books or almost any comic books, really.

And that is that there’s no realistic connection to, or association, with the day-to-day successes in their “real lives”. I’m not even talking about the monumental things like weddings and funerals, but more mundane things.

To show what I mean, let’s take an example from real life, all the more relevant since many super-heroes, even those in teams, have ‘day jobs’.

I used to have a day job; I was Director of Finance and Administration of a company; when I was promoted to that role, I was overwhelmed by the number of emails and invitations out to the pub to celebrate my success. And, sharing my success with those people just added to the enjoyment I was experiencing.

Aaron Sorkin summed it up beautifully in a relatively early episode of The West Wing, in which Josh Lyman says to the President and a colleague:

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy. And I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph.

That’s it summed up right there: tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy angle is more than taken care of in comics. I can recall, without really trying all that hard, many occasions where death or personal disaster have struck denizens of Marvel or DC and other characters are quickly there with sympathy, help, advice. The sort of thing that would and does happen in what we laughingly refer to as ‘real life’. Jason Todd is killed by The Joker, and Dick Grayson is shown being consoled by his girlfriend. And then there was Identity Crisis, during which various spouses (and ex-spouses) went not so gently into the night; sympathy exuded from the page in bucketloads.

But what about the triumphs, eh? What about them?

Where, for example, were Bobby Drake’s friends when he qualified as a CPA?

The man had, after all, just spent several years studying for it, and he got it.
And who did he tell? Well, we don’t know that. But who was there at the pub to wish him congratulations? No-one.

Matt Murdock, Daredevil. In all the years we’ve seen him in action as a lawyer, he must have won some decent cases. You don’t get the reputation that he apparently has as a lawyer without winning big a few times. And who of the people that are supposed to be his friends ever calls him up to say “Hey, Matt – nice win!”? Exactly.

Reed Richards, inventor extraordinaire. You’d think that if he came up with a great invention, then Tony Stark would telephone to say “well done”, wouldn’t you? But, no.

And it’s not just Marvel. Clark Kent may not be the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist he once was – blame Nu52 for that – but he was still one of the best writers the Daily Planet had before he jumped ship. So why don’t those in the Justice League who know that he’s Superman (damn, I haven’t spoiled anything for anyone there, have I?) make a comment or two about a story he’s written that they really enjoyed?

Barry Allen aka the Flash is a CSI; given his resources, it would be perfectly believable for him to have come up with a new technique. And to be congratulated for it by his colleagues and friends.

It’s not even limited to the adults. DC’s Teen Titans book is full of teenagers; you’d expect that they’d be pleased for each other when they’ve had a good test result at school, or won a personal victory of some sort, or even got a smile from someone they had a crush on. Well, wouldn’t you?

But, no, because that’s not the way that it happens in comic books.

Comic books have their own set of rules and conventions, and it appears that one of them is that the little daily triumphs escape unacknowledged.

Of course, it’s not only the little ones that go unnoticed.

Wouldn’t it be cool if just once, after [insert your favourite hero] defeats the world- or city-endangering plans of [insert your favourite hero’s arch enemy], there was some acknowledgement that they’d done well from their peers?

But it’s a serious question. We all know that a friend in need is a damn pest, but don’t you like to celebrate friends’ triumphs? So what makes the super-heroes any different?

One answer could be the old standard about “there are 20 pages a month, twelve months a year; you don’t see what they get up to the rest of the time.” This is what I refer to as “The Wolverine Excuse”, since it explains how he can be in seventeen books in one month. OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. That explanation works, but only to a limited extent. All the emotional support, cheering and celebrating? Happens off panel, my friend. Well, that would be ok if it was the occasional celebration that we miss. But it’s not – celebrations, because they’re so rare , becomes conspicuous by their presence.

Another explanation could be called the “Live Fast, Die Young” excuse; i.e. because their lives are lived at such a pace, what us normal people would consider worthy of celebration is merely the flannel and froth of life to them. They’d no more celebrate things outside their costumed identities than we’d celebrate getting the right change when we buy a newspaper. The problem is that this excuse works no better for me than the first, since it’s perfectly natural to want to share your friends’ triumphs. no matter how great or petty. And it leaves out the fact that even celebrations by non-powered characters are rare.

Finally, one could argue that the reason we don’t see it is a matter of choice because when people are celebrating, there’s no conflict. And without conflict, there’s no drama. As I say, an arguable case.

It’s not, however, an argument you’d win.

No drama, no conflict during celebrations? Even leaving aside the tensions that run riot at a family get together, all you have to do is look around at any ‘formal’ party and there are stories beneath the surface. Even in the midst of celebration there can be dramatic tension.

Of course, there is something to be said for the current attitude. If every time work colleagues get together this happens, it’s worth keeping everyone apart and non-communicative:

I wanted to check something earlier, and I knew Warren Ellis had referred to it in his superb collection of columns entitled Come In Alone. So I looked it up this afternoon, while waiting for someone to pick up some stuff from the house.

I found what I was looking for fairly quickly and then, as is my wont, started flicking through the collection and came to the conclusion that Warren Ellis is wrong.

But do me a favour, don’t tell him that he’s wrong, ok? (I value your and my own body – and their non-eviscerated state – too much for that.)

He’s not wrong about much, I’ve found over the years. But about this, yeah, I think he is. You see, he says that reading comics is a solitary hobby. That you may watch the telly with someone else, may go to a movie accompanied, but comics reading: that you only ever do on your own. Well, yeah, he’s not so wrong there.

Of course he’s not; I can’t ever recall a time when I gathered two or three friends together and waited for them to finish page seven of the latest issue of, say, Warren’s excellent current run on Moon Knight, before turning over to page eight to discover precisely how the title character has solved the crime.

OK, so where do I differ with Warren’s comments?

Well, from where I’m standing (or sitting at the moment anyway) where Warren was wrong was to imply that that the enjoyment one gets from comic books is limited to the immediate enjoyment one gets from them while you’re reading them. There’s no doubt that reading the comics forms, for me at least, a large part of my enjoyment… but there’s another part that I enjoy. The part that every fan of anything would recognise: talking with friends about the book. Analysing, guessing, and generally bitching about it…

(Now it may be that it’s me that’s wrong here. Maybe I’ve inferred too much from his comment, and if so, then I apologise, but Warren’s overseas at the moment and he’s far too busy to hunt me down. Besides, Warren’s a friend, and I know he’ll forgive me. Eventually. Once I’ve sacrificed a few dozen sheep and ohgodpleasedon’thurtmeagain…)

But back to the post-match analysis. By its very nature it is – has to be! – anything but a solitary activity. I mean, some people might enjoy only talking to themselves and never getting any disagreement, but I don’t think that Richard Dawkins is a comics reader anyway.

No, part of what makes the comics reading public – and given the readership of this blog, that probably includes you – a community, is that we talk to each other. Oh boy, do we talk to each other. Whether it be groups of people meeting for a drink, or chatting online, or conversing on message boards.

And who, for many years, ran several of the most successful and must-read message boards? Step forward, Mr Ellis.

There have been many definitions of ‘literature’, but the one I most like is’that which you would wish to read again’. If you accept that definition, than there’s no way you can exclude comic books from the category of literature. Developing that, if you do read some comic books again (and to be honest, one of the joys of comic books for me is that I can read them again) the odds are that you’re going to approach that rereading from a slightly different perspective each time. For a start, the second time you read the story, you’re coming to it already familiar with the story. That in itself surely must change your appreciation of the tale. You may not appreciate it more nor less, but it will be a different appreciation. How could it be otherwise?

And one of the glories of talking to other people about something you’ve enjoyed, and appreciated, is discovering how many (or how few) people share not only your initial appreciation, but also your new take on the story.

Comics? Something you do alone? Only in two aspects: creation and immediate consumption. Everything else is enhanced by company.


I’ve stated elsewhere that the idea for my daily braindump GOING CHEEP is a straight steal from Warren’s MORNING, COMPUTER. If you’re going to read only one daily braindump, you should read… mine!, but if you want excellent short morning reads, read Warren’s. It’s quickly become a daily essential read-absorb-thinkabout-thenthinkaboutsomemore for me.

The following post has gone up at Whitechapel, the board started by Warren Ellis, but fairly recently taken over in a bloody, horrific coup by Si Spurrier, the superbly talented writer of [recently] X-Club and A Serpent Uncoiled:


You know, I was going to call this The F-art Fiction Challenge, but Si overruled me.

As some of you may be aware, I had a writing thing going for several years entitled The Fast Fiction Challenge. The rules were simple: people challenged me with a four word title and a word to use in the tale and I wrote them a story of exactly 200 words.

I answered about 500 challenges, and in 2010 wrote 150 stories in 150 days. And yes, I published a couple of collections of the stories.

Well, Si and I got together over Christmas and decided it was about time I did some more of the stories. And it felt like an opportunity to widen the spectrum of art-challenges for you guys on this board.

Hence this new challenge:

The Art of Fast Fiction

OK, THE RULES.

Monday morning, 9th January, I’m going to put up a previously written Fast Fiction. It’ll be exactly 200 words, as previously stated.

Artists here will have until Saturday evening, say midnight British time, (4pm Pacific) to put up either a one panel spot illustration or a two page comic book depiction of the entire story. Hey, I’m limited to 200 words – you’re limited to two pages. The art can be pencilled, inked, coloured, lettered… entirely up to you.

Saturday night/Sunday morning, Si and I will pick a winner and announce it. The winner gets to pick a new four word title and word (no matter how weird or mundane) and let us know, and I’ll write a new story which will go up on Monday at noon UK time… which will start the whole thing running again.

So you get six days, (Monday through Saturday) to showcase your art and/or story-telling abilities.

Something we have to be very firm on upfront: this isn’t a call for anyone else to write new prose stories here or to suggest story ideas. As has been stated here before, the moment we start inviting folks to post their own fiction we get into all sorts of trouble. So: this is ART ONLY. The only thing the winner gets is to suggest the title and (occasionally, at my whim) possibly an extra challenge to make it a bit more fun for everyone involved.

(As an example of the latter, I was once challenged to write one in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet; someone else wanted one in which more than 50% of the tale was told in dialogue, and yes someone once challenged me, entirely within the rules of the challenge, to write a 200 word sex scene.*)

OK, let’s see how this goes, yes?

See you Monday Morning.


So that’s it. This could be interesting, yes? Drop by and join in, why don’t you?

* Yeah, like I’m going to link to that one.

Art attack

Posted: 24 November 2011 in comics, personal, phil
Tags: , ,

Today – or rather this afternoon – has seen a bit of a change in the flat in which I live.

After having given in to the inevitable, I bought a new set of bookshelves, and moved some books and DVDs/blu rays around… but it didn’t seem enough somehow.

For the first nine months after I moved into the two bedroom apartment in Barnet, I kept the walls bare – not sure why, but as we approached the end of 2005, and I was going to have people with me for New Years’, I went out with Phil and we bought a stack of frames, and stuck up some various photos and comic art.

That was in December 2005, and with the occasional small change, the art’s remained the same since then.

Time for a change.

So, below is a snap of my living room, and the art I now have hanging on it. Sincere apologies for the lack of quality of the pictures – they’re in no way representative of the superb quality of the actual images. If you want to see the original art, well, pop around some time…

So, let’s start with a picture of the flat itself:

Feel free to ask any questions about the flat you care to, but the art? You want a bit more detail?

OK, since you ask:


From the pen of Bevis Musson, The Endless. I love this.

Then (in the general pic above) you have a couple of photos of my son Philip, a recent one (updated every few months) and a shot of him and my late brother, a couple of weeks before the latter’s death.

Next you have the gorgeous pencils of Paul Duffield, a double page spread from Signal, purchased this weekend at Leeds.

Moving across to the adjacent wall, we have:

The original art by Robin Riggs for You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly. So happy with this piece…

A page from my first ever published story in comics – It’s Murder Out There, by Tony Rollinson, and A Grendel sketch by Matt Wagner, obtained at a con…

A page from another Trailer Park of Terror story, this one It’s Been Done Before, art by Mannie Albeda… and a Daredevil con sketch by David Mazzuchelli

Wish these looked nicer: con sketches by Gary Millidge, Staz Johnson and Tom Grummett

Moving around again, the wall behind the couch:

Who else? A con sketch by Mike Oeming

A group shot of images done for You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly, by Messrs Sam Hart, Travel Foreman and Jamie McKelvie

Another piece done for You’ll Never Believe…, this beautiful art by Lea Hernandez

Now we’re out of the living room and into the hallway near the front door… A hypotheticals panel…

Con sketch by Barry Kitson, remember AzBats?

Who else but Jill Thompson?

A shot of Phil – aged 10 – coming out of the TARDIS by then Doctor Who artist Mike Collins who’s been kind enough to do so many sketches for me over the years… and who’s one of the finest drinking companions at a con you’ll ever find…

And – finally – a couple of pages from the X-Men Unlimited tale I wrote: pencils by Travel Foreman, inks by Tim Townsend, and colours by Danimation

Not a bad set, is it? And that doesn’t yet include the wonderful print I have coming from Jamie McKelvie…

This piece:

It’s been a busy few days, not merely limited to the usual busy stuff of shopping, catching up on correspondence, and watching slack-jawed at the rank stupidity of those who are supposed to be in charge of what we still refer to as democracies around the world.

Oh, yes, before I forget, if you haven’t watched the following by Keith Olbermann, excoriating Michael Bloomberg, you really ought to. (It’s funny – for years, I misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘defenestrate’ – I didn’t realise it meant ‘being thrown out of a window’; I thought it meant being ripped apart. Dunno why, but the word would seem to fit what Olbermann does here anyway. Hat-tip to Tony Lee for pointing me to this…)

Whether it’s the United States (see above), Italy – where the replacement of the satire-free (for how do you satirise someone whose career has been spent satirising the political process) Berlesconi with a non-elected government, or our own government who seem to believe that replacing health care with a video of the Health Secretary telling patients everything will be ok is sufficient, it’s enough to make one simply give up.

Except of course, that’s the point – you can’t give up on democracy. Don’t like the current government? Campaign for its replacement at the next election. And before anyone jumps in with “well, we can’t replace it for another three years,” look at it as having three years to campaign.

Personally, I feel the same about this government as I do about Boris Johnson as Mayor. It’s neither as horrifically bad as its detractors are painting it, nor as saint-like and necessary as its supporters proclaim. And in that, it’s no better nor worse than the past few governments, and maybe every government for the past five decades.

But it’s lied to us. Consistently and shamelessly. Far more than previous governments. Far, far more.

Our government lied to us. Before the election, during the election, and in the eighteen months since the election.

It’s not that the government – or the ministers therein – have told us things that turned out to be untrue. That happens. I may believe that if it occurs a minister should resign under the convention of individual ministerial responsibility, but that convention, like a genuine left-wing party with a chance of power, bankers with a social conscience and Spangles, appears to belong to the long ago.

And talking of conventions…

Yes, I know it’s a weak segue, since it’s been quite some time since get-togethers of comics professionals and fans in the UK have proudly referred to themselves as conventions. (And I miss it.)

But yeah, talking of conventions, I spent this weekend in Leeds at the annual (and now two-day) get-together named Thought Bubble. Part of the annual week-long arts festival held in that fair City, I’ve heard nothing but good things about TB for some years, and since (a) I had the time, (b) it was now two days, not one, and (c) it meant that I would see some friends I never really get the opportunity to see often enough, (and that includes some I see several times a year), I went up for it.

Leaving aside my post from Friday, which while partially accurate for this weekend as it is for every weekend spent at a comics con/festival/expo, it was a fun time.

The comics pros were in good humour, as they are at most such events, and the Friday night introductory party was as expected full of alcohol, comics pros and comics pros full of alcohol.

I hadn’t intended to – and indeed didn’t – attend any panels during the weekend, but spent both days chatting with friends, and comics prod, and… discovering. Discovering new creators, new creations, and how one hall seemed to be designed for about 80% of the number of people attending while the other room could have housed an echo chamber.

Interestingly, while I heard the venue described as “miles from nowhere”, I have to disagree – it was very close to nowhere.

It’d be daft to simply list the number of people I knew at the place, however, simply because I’d miss someone out, but among the delights I discovered and obtained was the first issue of a delightful book entitled The Peckham House for Invalids by Howard Hardiman, Julia Scheele and Sarah Gordon, about turn of the [last] century super-heroines.

More – possibly – tomorrow, but here are some pics… You don’t really need explanations for them, do you?

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It’s not often that I write anything that escapes beyond the confines of the venue in which I wrote it. This is one such thing.

It was originally written a few years ago for a column I wrote, and then reposted in my blog.

I’m rather proud of it, and since I’m about to be off to Leeds for Thought Bubble, and almost certainly won’t have time to write a full con report, I’ve returned to the option of reposting The Last Con Report You’ll Ever Need:

Enjoy.




Friday
So it’s [insert con name] again and I’m [really looking forward to it/quite looking forward to it/obliged to go, really]. Got my gear together and [shut the empty flat/said goodbye to my loved ones/dropped off the cat at neighbours].

I got ready to leave and found that [to my surprise/inevitably/unexpectedly] I was leaving home [earlier/later/the same time] as I had anticipated leaving.

I knew how to get there because I [had been to the venue before/spoken to the hotel/looked it up in advance] and as I hit the road, the traffic was [heavy/light/non-existent].

Although I [hit some traffic later/stopped off for a coffee/broke down], I eventually made it into [insert town in which convention is held], and thought it was [nice/a relief/depressing] to be back. I was staying at [a different/the same/the convention] hotel and when I drove into the car park found a space [immediately/after some time/eventually].

Checking in was [easy/a pain/interminable] and I nodded at [name dropped in the hope that it’ll make me seem more important]. He nodded back, [pleased to see me/sympathising/wondering who the hell I was]. We promise to [catch up later/ignore each other/pick on the French]. So that was [nice/cool/unpleasant].

I got to the room and [had a shower/lit up a the first of many cigarettes/changed rooms immediately].

I [grabbed some sleep/went for a swim/started drinking] and all too soon, it was dinner time. I’d decided to eat [at the hotel/out/to get some food inside me before the heavy drinking] and I returned to the bar to find [a pro you’ve never heard of, so don’t sweat it, but maybe if I mention him, I’ll get a sketch off of him next year].

Arriving [a day before most people/with so many others/at a pub] gives me the opportunity to [grab some fresh air/get my bearings/drink lots]. There are [only a few/some/many] people milling around and although I realise that they’re there for the comics festival, they’re [professionals, chatting about work they’re doing/hangers on/members of message boards].

The [launch party/seminars/drinkup] swings into gear and various comics [pros/wannabes/pundits] arrive. I see a familiar face and [want to punch it/scrounge a drink/exchange gossip]. The evening [passes speedily/drags/becomes mildly interesting] as I grab the opportunity to [talk comic books/strip/get drunk] without feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. It’s a [strange/nice/usual] feeling.

Besides which, embarrassment is impossible to maintain when [three people on stilts enter the room, dressed in leather with bat-wings… /that bloody T-shirt is doing the rounds/people are sniffing dandruff through straws].

Later, I see [name drop] talking to [name drop] and [name drop] and wander over [to introduce myself/ask for an autograph/embarrass myself]. We stand around, [chatting/feeling stupid/watching everyone else] and [name drop, but this time I use his first name, so I really do know him, ok?] [tells me to go away/lets me buy him a drink/tells a story that could be an amusing anecdote if he didn’t kill the last line]. He introduces me to the other [fellas/strange people/comics professionals] he was talking to… [name you’ve never heard of and another name you’ve never heard of] of [comic book company that is attending The convention just to say ‘please like me’].

Around 1:20 the hotel staff start to [shut the bar/beat up the stragglers/give up] and I head for bed…

Saturday
As I wake up, I’m [disoriented/wide awake/not alone] and it’s a second before I realise [where I am/that I’m conscious/who she is]. I have a quick [shower/shave/…] when it suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea [whether the cost of the room covers breakfast/if I ordered a newspaper/who she is].

I’m wearing [the item of clothing with a logo that I think everyone recognises, but in reality no one has a clue about] deliberately so that when I get to the [publisher] table, I can see their reactions… [insert smiley icon in the hope that a cringe-worthy moment will be transformed into a hugely amusing item].

So what are my plans for today? Well, obviously [you don’t give a damn/I have a panel to attend/I wish to buy enough comics to fill the grand canyon]. As always at [insert insiders’ nickname for con, so it makes me sound like I’m an insider], it’s best to [get drunk early/get drunk even earlier/take a trek around the dealers’ rooms]. I walk into the main dealing room. The first thing I notice is [a huge piece of artwork/the noise/the smell]. I see artwork for [current huge comics related movie] and think that I’d love that piece. Then I look at the price. It’s unbelievable that it’s that [cheap/expensive/price] and I [buy it/pass on it/shrug] before moving on.

The next thing I see is a desk with [current hot comic] and a man standing behind the desk with an [engaging grin/outstretched palm/elephantine nose]. I introduce myself to [creator who really wishes he was working on X-Men] and we [shake hands/ask each other who else we’ve seen/agree to get drunk later]. I notice the [famous publisher] table and walk over to it only to see [famous creator/a crowd/the background artist for one issue on a title that didn’t make it past issue #6].

I say hello to them and although [name drop] remembers me, there’s [only a faint air of recognition/contempt/joy and strewning of petals] from his companion.

The [famous publisher] crowd all look at the [item of clothing] and then studiously ignore it.

I continue around the dealing room, still hoping against hope that I’m going to find some of this week’s or even this month’s books on display. I’m disappointed. Not one dealer has recent books out. I’m more than disappointed; I’m staggered, but not staggered enough not to pick up a couple of [cult title that I got into six months after the cool kids had left it] trade paperbacks.

I wonder back around the room and see that [famous artist] is doing some sketches. I’d already seen some of his work in the black-and-white photocopy of [let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter what the title is – I got sent a preview copy and you didn’t, ha ha ha ha], so ask him to do me a sketch. He’s [surprised/more than happy to do so/sketching before I can finish the question].

I wander in and out of [a few panels/the bar/who the hell is she? It’s beginning to bug me now] and see nothing that grabs my attention and the [morning/hour/rest of the day] passes with me saying hi to [people who have no idea who I am].

[Someone who’s a legend in his own lunchtime] and I literally bump into each other as I’m saying goodbye to [name drop] and we remember that we’ve agreed never to discuss [controversial comic book title] with each other, since our views differ so much on it…

The awards dinner is [just starting/tonight/over] but I’m not attending. I know there’s nothing more [rewarding/humiliating/excruciating] than watching [friends/enemies/both] getting awards and receiving [boos/bows/booze] but I just can’t [deal with that/be bothered/stand up straight] right now.

The bar shuts around [1/2/6]-ish and once again I head for [my bed/someone else’s bed/another bar] before the dawn comes.

Sunday
I wake up [early/late/again]. I look at [my watch/the television/the remains of the packet of 200 cigarettes I brought with me] and [smile/wince/try to remember who I am].

I realise that I’ve got two and a half minutes to get [downstairs for breakfast/dressed/sober].

There are a couple of people from last night still around downstairs and it looks like they’re [barely human/still drinking/both] and I wish I felt as good as they looked.

After breakfast, I don’t even bother to look at the panels I might be missing. I don’t care – I’m too tired and I go upstairs for another hour’s sleep.

As I’m walking to the convention proper, I see [the organiser of the convention]. We get to talk for five minutes when I realise that [he hates me/he really hates me/he hates me with a passion that can only have come from me having murdered his pet]. So that’s nice.

I drop [another tab/my bag/by another couple of panels], but nothing memorable happens.

I go back to the dealer room and see some [regulars/old hands/convenient name drops] there. [Insert feeble in joke which maybe six people might get, and only then if they know in advance that I’m doing it.]

Oh looks like I’ve [said all I have to say/run out of time/couldn’t give a damn any more, what time’s Simpsons on?].

More next [time/post/week] if I can [remember what I did when I was drunk/be bothered/get the blackmail negatives back].

There, that should do it.