Book Review – Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim cover

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Kleid

I remember the excitement back in 2000 around the arrival of Powers the comic book, co-created by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming – Bendis was a rising star of indie crime comics and the book seemed to be a perfect fusion of his noir approach and superheroes. Fortunately, the excitement was justified – Powers was a great comic book from the start, about detectives in the Chicago Powers Homicide Division, a book filled with sex and violence and swearing and death, but also infused with love for the genres and a serious sensibility in Oeming’s moody art. Powers also introduced two great lead characters: Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. Walker’s long history was examined in the comic book in the infamous ‘monkey-sex’ issues (and I love that a comic book with shagging monkeys has been adapted into a live-action television series, even if we’ll never see that incident on the show …), but Pilgrim’s history was not. Until now.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 3)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 poster

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, it’s time for the last in my little series of disappointing comic-book movie sequels. I cared so little for The Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t see it in the cinema and didn’t bother to compile my thoughts on it in its own post – I included it in a collection of reviews of DVDs, and I didn’t even give it the prominence its alphabetical status warrants. Obviously, I wasn’t first in line to see the sequel, or even rushing to watching it when available to view at home.

Although I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and particularly his chemistry with the always fantastic Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, I didn’t need any more Spider-Man films by Sony; however, because Marvel has proved that there is money to be made from superhero franchises, Sony was going to give us a sequel whether we liked it or not. And like it we did not.

The film suffers from money-grabbing instincts – it spends more time setting up sequels and spin-offs (does anyone really want a film about the Sinister Six? Really?) than it does concentrating on the job in hand – namely, making an entertainment film that would engender in people a desire to see more films about the lead character and implausibly minor characters from the small collection of supporting villains because that’s all Sony has to try to milk money out of comic-book fans.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a classic case of completely missing the point of the success it’s trying to emulate: Marvel built up the films slowly, drip-feeding the future and sneaking in Easter eggs (well, except for the heavy-handed tactics in the less-than-stellar Iron Man 2); Sony forces it down your throat in one go – it’s like they hadn’t learnt the lesson of Spider-Man 3, stuffing it with too many villains and making a film nobody liked (even if it made money). It’s sad to see the great Paul Giamatti slumming it here in the hope of something more in a spin-off that is never going to happen. It’s a shame to see Chris Cooper spending his limited time in bed, waiting for future promises of more screen time that are now dust in the wind. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous of the plotlines involving Richard and Mary Parker and the secret subway train nonsense. Having Electro develop the power levels the equivalent (and look) of Doctor Manhattan didn’t help matters, creating a truly bizarre finale in the electrical pylons. No wonder Sony had to face facts and work with Marvel from now on …

However, the worst crime in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is believing that because it happened in the comic books, it had to happen in the film. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film (although you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t), but Gwen Stacy dies in the film, and the only reason is because it happened in the comic book. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I felt that a group of white men in control of a genre that is dominated by white males thought it was perfectly natural to kill off one of the few great female supporting characters, just to make Peter Parker even sadder.

When Gwen appeared in the first film, I hoped that this would be part of the Marvel trend of not being completely beholden to comic-book lore – Iron Man’s identity is not a secret, Thor is not pretending to be a doctor with a limp, Ultron isn’t created by Ant-Man, Captain America isn’t a humourless dullard – and using the comic books as basis not blueprint. Gwen, as portrayed by Emma Stone, is smart, resourceful, funny, independent, principled, believable – everything that comic-book movies are lacking apart from Black Widow (Mary Jane in the first trilogy wishes she had half the gumption of Gwen). Stone’s onscreen chemistry with Garfield is great, and it looked like there might be a female character in a comic-book movie that could be an inspiration, a role model, a woman who was more than accessory to the male superhero … until she was killed off in an updating of the famous scene from the comic book.

It’s mind-boggling to witness the decisions of white men who have ignored the concept of Women In Refrigerators while retaining a sensibility from 1980s action films (that women exist only to be captured or be killed to motivate the male hero) and who completely believe that Gwen’s death MUST occur only because it happens in the comic book and adds a layer of tragedy to Peter Parker. A character who constantly carries with him the guilt of responsibility for his beloved uncle’s death, so he is clearly in desperate need of even more guilty and tragedy … This level of misery porn is one reason why I’ve never been a big fan of Spider-Man, and I naively hoped that it wouldn’t make the transition to a film made in the 21st century. I was wrong. We’ll see what Marvel can do to help, but I’m not holding my breath.

And that’s everything off my chest about those three films. I hope I don’t have to do this again, film studios.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 2)

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For movie poster

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Yesterday’s Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie sequel was Kick-Ass 2. The next comic-book movie sequel that was a disappointment was Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I can understand why it ended up on Netflix, like Kick-Ass 2 (Netflix UK does not get the best choice of films).

Unlike Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 has the same writer/director team as the first film; like Kick-Ass 2, it uses comic books as the source material, additional Sin City storylines from Frank Miller’s catalogue (plus two original stories he wrote for the film) as the basis of the film; another similarity is that Sin City 2 includes most of the original cast (including interesting new faces such as Christopher Lloyd and Ray Liotta). Yet another similarity is that I enjoyed the first film (see my thoughts on Sin City), which is another reason why the sequel felt even worse. Like Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 is not a good film in its own right and not a good sequel to the first film made nine years previously.

The first Sin City film was ridiculously violent, highly stylised, with a colour palette derived from the comic books and (at the time) a unique look, and it had a freshness, a vitality, a distinctive tone; the sequel is leaden, scattershot, pedestrian, a faded copy, the stories coming across as footnotes to the stories in the first film. I couldn’t believe that the sequel was made by the same creative team, who seemed to be genuinely making a proper Sin City film instead of some sort of parody film. As I said in my tweet, the last line of the film summed up the viewing experience: ‘It soils everybody.’

The first film managed a balance between the ‘realism’ of the setting with over-the top action, the verging-on-pastiche dialogue, the rather bleak view of women, and some clichéd aspects of hard-boiled fiction. The sequel decided to forget to bother with that and just go balls-out for unbelievable action – a young girl slicing off the heads of disposable gangsters while jumping impossibly high in the air; people standing across a courtyard from each other and firing machine guns and somehow surviving – and force terrible parodying dialogue in the mouths of good actors. It made me feel sad for people I like when they appeared in the film – poor returning Rosario Dawson, poor newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt; the only person who comes out of it with dignity is Eva Green, a terrific actor who manages to generate the right insane intensity for the role within the movie so you can’t take your eyes off her.

Frank Miller’s comic-book work was entering into self-parody by the time he was only doing Sin City work (which was around the time I stopped buying any Miller comics), and it has a been a long time since he was a vital contributor to the form (the Dark Knight Returns sequel was hideous, and I’m not looking for the upcoming third instalment), so it’s unsurprising that this sequel feels uninspired. The film also suffers because Miller’s own directorial debut, the dire film adaptation of The Spirit (or, rather, Frank Miller does The Spirit as Sin City, completely missing the point), which destroyed a lot of affection for the Sin City film style by using the Sin City style inappropriately and making a truly horrible film (as I tried to encapsulate in my blog post about it).

Another thing: Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a film as good as Sin City since, seemingly regressing to making films that are cinematic releases but look and feel as if they should have been released straight to video (and yes, I deliberately used the word ‘video’ because that’s how archaic they feel); this leads to a lack of strong directorial vision in charge of this sequel that nobody was clamouring for anymore. The only positive is that the film did not do well theatrically, so at least it brought us the possibility of no more Sin City films and, even better, no more films by Frank Miller.

Come back tomorrow for the final Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 1)

Kick-Ass 2 movie poster

It used to be that, as a rule of thumb, sequels weren’t as good as the first film. The exceptions to this were so small that you could easily list them (The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens) and stay confident in the generalisation. However, there was a slow turnaround in the fortunes of sequels so that it was no longer a small list, and the rule of thumb was no longer a rule. In comic-book movies, this trend had significant outliers – Blade II was better than Blade, X-Men 2 was better than X-Men, and Captain America: Winter Soldier was exponentially better than Captain America: The First Avenger – but, unfortunately, there were still examples that seem determined to adhere to the original maxim. I wanted to use to talk about three of them.

I love comic books and I love films, so I love the combination of both (see my ‘comic book movie’ tag for evidence); I tend to see them mostly in the cinema and then blog about them. However, there have been comic-book films that I haven’t had the desire to watch on the big screen, and, when I’ve watched them at home, I didn’t have any desire to talk about them on the blog. Three comic-book movies that fit in this category all happen to be sequels, so it seemed sensible to jump on a theme and collectively bash them instead of doing ‘proper’ reviews (I use the sneer quotes to denote that what I do aren’t proper reviews).

Kick-Ass 2
I recently watched Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For on Netflix, and I’m glad I didn’t see them in the cinema or pay money specifically to see them. Both films suffer from seeming like parodies of their originators, almost as if they are knock-offs instead of direct follow-ons (and I enjoyed Kick-Ass). In Kick-Ass 2, blame can be laid at the feet of writer/director Jeff Wadlow – instead of recapturing the specific tone of the first film, which mixed ultra-violence with style and a tongue firmly in its cheek, Wadlow thinks that lots of violence and Hit-Girl spouting clichés when she dispatches gangsters in action scenes scored to bizarre musical choices are all that is needed to repeat the success of Kick-Ass.

Jim Carrey, who actually gives a good performance, notably came out against the violence of the film before it came out, but it’s possible he’d seen an early cut and was using any excuse. The sequel also uses the casting decision of the first film of using British actors as Americans (Iain Glen pops up as a mafia boss, Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan as bereaved parents, Andy Nyman as a psychotic gangster, Daniel Kaluuya as an MMA fighter turned villain, and Benedict Wong as a Chinatown boss), and I still can’t work out why John Leguizamo decided to be in this.

The film suffers from the contradiction of pretending that it’s a film about superheroes in the real world but still having comic-book action that defies the laws of physics (the bit at the end where Hit-Girl gets an adrenalin shot and practically becomes Jesse Quick) and a plot that doesn’t make any sense. The only good decision made in the film is that it doesn’t opt for the horrific rape scene of the Mark Millar–John Romita Jr comic book, and the only bit I genuinely enjoyed was Hit-Girl using a shock baton to cause a bullying teenage girl to (digitally) vomit and shit her guts out. I may have a strange sense of humour …

Even though Matthew Vaughan was a producer, he seems to have taken a hands-off approach, and the film feels like a sequel for the sake of money, instead of being an adaptation of a comic book. This is something that connects the three films – come back tomorrow for the next Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Writer Top Five: Peter Milligan

Continuing with the theme of my favourite works by a writer I enjoy: today is the turn of Peter Milligan. The man, the mystery, the enigma (deliberate reference – see later); Milligan is an unusual writer who revels in his unusualness and intelligence and literary passions. His website is called Ineluctable Modality, which comes from a quote from Ulysses by James Joyce, meaning approximately ‘A particular form of sensory perception or mode in which something is experienced or expressed that is inescapable or unable to be avoided’. If that doesn’t give you a sense of who Milligan is and what is writing is about, then you should read some of the stories I mention.

Milligan first came to prominence, like many British comic book writers, at 2000 AD – in the mid-1980s, he started to write Time Twisters (the traditional route for new writers) but soon found acclaim with his first ongoing strip, Bad Company, a sci-fi-set war comic with art by the late Brett Ewins; this led to other strips, such as Hewligan’s Haircut with Jamie Hewlett, and Bix Barton with Jim McCarthy, but he also wrote his first work for DC in 1989 – Skreemer, a six-issue mini-series with art by Ewins that was a mix of gangster films and Finnegan’s Wake. Despite not doing as well as it deserved, Milligan was given more work at DC, as well as continuing to work in the UK in 2000 AD, Revolver (the Rogan Gosh strip, later collected by DC) and Deadline (the Johnny Nemo strip).

His DC work included writing some Batman stories and a short run on Animal Man after Grant Morrison’s acclaimed run, but it was his reinvention of Shade, The Changing Man that would put Milligan in the firmament of British comic book writers who rose to fame in the 1990s. It was completely different from Steve Ditko’s original version and stood out for its weirdness, maturity, adult themes and singular voice. Perhaps due to this success, a publisher was found for Skin, the story of a young thalidomide skinhead in 1970s London, with art by long-time collaborator Brendan MacCarthy, a powerful and disturbing book that was to feature in Crisis but the publishers were afraid to print.

Shade, The Changing Man would become one of the books that started the Vertigo imprint at DC, and it is arguable that Milligan’s best work was done for Vertigo. Enigma, the eight-issue series with art by Duncan Fegredo, is a marvellous book about identity and sexuality; there was also The Extremist (art by Ted McKeever), Face (with Fegredo), Egypt (with Glyn Dillon), Girl (with Fegredo), The Eaters (with Dean Ormiston), The Minx (with Sean Phillips), The Human Target, and Vertigo Pop London (with Philip Bond).

However, during this time, he also wrote for Marvel, doing an X-Men mini-series (The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Jean Grey) and, even more bizarrely, launching an ongoing series for Elektra, with art by Mike Deodato Jr. This would lead to his best work at Marvel, taking over X-Force with issue 116 in 2001 and, with art by Mike Allred, completely changing the team and the concept to that of a satire of modern celebrity, eventually becoming X-Statix a year later. He would go on to write various mini-series there, including a Wolverine/Punisher story and a Dead Girl/Doctor Strange mini-series, as well as a three-year run on X-Men, before recommencing work with DC at the same time. He has mostly stayed there, doing various things (The Programme, Infinity Inc.) in addition to various Marvel mini-series (5 Ronin), with only Greek Street and a long and well-received run on Hellblazer sticking out in his resume. Recently, he was part of the DC Nu52 reboot, launching Justice League Dark (featuring the rebooted versions of Shade and John Constantine) and Red Lanterns, and subsequently taking over Stormwatch; in addition, he’s been working with Valiant on some of their titles (Shadowman, Eternal Warrior, Bloodshot), as well as a Doop mini-series at Marvel, keeping all his options open but keeping in the superhero camp instead of the interesting, absurdist, literary work for which he is known. This is the edited highlights – he has written many, many more comic books of different characters for different companies – so trying to pin down Milligan is hard, something I think he enjoys.

My five favourite Milligan works:

5. Hewligan’s Haircut
Hewligan cuts his hair because he is leaving a lunatic asylum, only for it to form an impossible hole in the middle that you can see from any angle. And so begins a surreal odyssey in which Milligan and Hewlett (before Tank Girl and Gorillaz) show off, have fun, and enjoy themselves in an entertaining fashion. It shows that Milligan has a sense of humour and that you can mix the silly with the literary in a comic book with great results.

4. X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl
It has Dead Girl in the title, but it’s basically a team-up with Doctor Strange, and Milligan is the perfect writer for Doctor Strange, so this was probably the only way he could get his hands on the character. A villain is bringing back Marvel characters from the dead so he can be revived himself, and only Doctor Strange and Dead Girl can stop him, in a lively (pardon the pun) story with nice pop art from Nick Dragotta.

3. Bad Company
This story was where I first discovered Milligan, back in 1986 in the pages of 2000 AD, so will always have a place in my heart. A future war story on the planet Ararat where humanity fights the alien Krool, it is about Danny Franks, a new soldier, who is saved by the misfit Bad Company led by Kano, and then joins them in their fight against the Krool, if he can survive … The story was about the craziness of war with a literary bent (Danny keeps a diary) and the violence and its effects on the people who fight them. A really great 2000 AD story.

2. Enigma
A marvellous examination of sex, love, death, superheroes, and lizards, with beautiful expressive art from Fegredo and powerful writing from Milligan in a story about Michael Smith, an ordinary bloke who has forgotten about his imaginary childhood friend, the Enigma, who used to have his own comic books, until a serial killer strikes near to home and Michael investigates, only to find the Enigma in the real world. The reality and character of this book linger long after reading, and it’s a moving story of two people finding each other. A great series from the Vertigo heyday.

1. Shade, The Changing Man
Was there ever a better distillation of Milligan than in the pages of Shade, The Changing Man? Admittedly, he had more time to explore interests in an ongoing series, but it’s a book that grips you from the start: Shade, a ‘madness agent’ from the planet Meta, has taken over the body of the psychopath at the moment of his execution in order to stop the American Scream, and has to use the help of Kathy George, the woman who lost her parents and boyfriend to the killer, to do it. And then it gets really weird … The plots aren’t the main thing about this book, and Milligan was more interested in the madness and the characters, and he had Chris Bachalo developing into a talented comic book artist to help him. There is some argument that it should have stopped at issue 50 instead of 75, but it was always interesting and different, and that’s something that’s hard to achieve.

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Author Appearance: Warren Ellis at Foyles

I have been very fortunate to see several of my favourite comic book creators giving talks or in conversation – Alan Moore and Alan Davis in the same day, and Grant Morrison at a similar event at Foyles – and this was another enjoyable personal appearance from a favourite creator. Warren was in The Gallery at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in conversation with journalist/author Sam Leith, specifically to talk about his new novel, Gun Machine, but conversation obviously took in comic books, as would be expected, and Warren – smartly dressed in jacket and waistcoat and with a freshly shaved head – was in a warm and funny mood with a desire to share. These are my hastily scribbled recollections of the night.

We were told to turn our phones to silent at the start – we could keep them on and tweet about the event, as would be expected of @warrenellis, but Warren said that we would only be tweeted by his friends with horrible questions to ask him. Before talking about Gun Machine, Warren was asked about his first book, Crooked Little Vein. Crooked Little Vein was written to shut up his new literary agent (he was with an agency in LA, but the New York office took over and he was inherited by a new agent who constantly pestered him until he wrote 10,000 words of something he considered unsellable; however, two weeks later she phoned him to say, ‘I’ve sold it’, which is why she is still his agent). Crooked Little Vein, Warren said, was written to prove to himself that he could write a novel – if he hadn’t been pushed into it by his agent, he probably wouldn’t have tried prose for a few years, which was something he was thinking about. Now, with Gun Machine, he wanted to see if he could write a good novel (‘But please buy copies’, he joked). He had the spine for the novel and proceeded to write it from page one, word one through to the end, with only one jump when the Warren of that day didn’t consider himself up to the job of writing that passage, so he jumped to the next section and returned to it another day; he said that you are only as you can be on that day, which could be due to something like having only five hours sleep because the cat jumped on his head, but you just have to keep writing – write, write, write and get the bad stuff out of you.

Another thing about Crooked Little Vein: the cooking recipe at the back of the book was the editor’s idea, taken from Warren’s website, and something he’d only put up as a joke. He gets mocked by his daughter when he cooks at home – she pretends to swing a plague bell, shouting ‘Unclean!’. He said she texted a friend ‘Dad cooked and unusually I didn’t die’. ‘Horrible child’, he called her, but you can tell it’s a joke – why else would he have got her a horse?

Gun Machine came out of discussions with Legendary, the studio adapting his Gravel comic book; they wanted to keep the story based in the UK because they thought the USA didn’t have the necessary history, whereas they thought the UK had the weird history that the book needed, calling it ‘mystic’, to which Warren thought, ‘Yeah, we walk around with twigs in our hair and live in Stonehenge’. It got him thinking that the US did have a lot of history, particularly New York. He hasn’t been to New York in over a decade, since he nearly took a flight from Los Angeles to New York on 11 September 2011, but changed at the last minute to reroute the day before via Chicago. He admits that it can keep him up some nights. Anyway, the idea started there, with Mulholland Books saying they wanted a book but it had to be a mystery/suspense book because that’s what they publish, so the two things came together. He used his own memories of New York, used a friend who lives there for research and Google Street Maps to virtually tour the places he used to walk around – it showed him a tree where he knew one didn’t exist 12 years ago, so he put it in the book as a location where a victim was found pinned to it.

He said he used the James Herbert trick – he didn’t describe his male protagonists, and figures showed that something like 95% of his books were bought by men, because they could all project themselves onto the hero without being taken out of the story by physical descriptions (something used in manga, which Warren said is called masking). Tallow is not described in Gun Machine, which is why Reg E Cathey, an African American actor, could do the audiobook and it doesn’t conflict with the book.

Leith asked him about cities, which play an important part in the novel, mentioning Jack Hawksmoor as a previous example. Warren said that cities are an inherent part of his being – half his family is from the East End and he’s lived in or near London all his life – and he can feel the many different levels of history around him when he walks around a big city, feeling the layers beneath him when he walks around London.

He knew Gun Machine would be a novel instead of a comic because it was going to be a very internal story, which wouldn’t work as a comic book (imagining telling his artist, ‘Pages 19 to 45, Tallow looking sad’, in nine panels per page). An aside: he mentioned an anecdote about working on The Authority with Bryan Hitch – they used to discuss scenes before Warren scripted, which Warren thought Hitch would remember, so when it came to the double-page spread of the alien armada in battle with the US Air Force above Los Angeles, Warren wrote ‘The fleets engage’. He got a phone call from Hitch, ‘spitting blood and nails’, because it took him a week and a half to draw it. An interesting aside: when describing Alan Moore’s ultra-controlling scripts and his possible attitudes to the artists who will read them, because Alan wants to control EVERYTHING, Warren used the phrase ‘human meat puppet’ – he said he wouldn’t go that far, but you got the idea.

Warren talked about comic books and how he got into them: he started at the age of three with the weekly comic that had strips based on television shows of the time, such as Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and Star Trek, then he had 2000 AD at the age of nine and he was never the same. As he said, when you open the first page of 2000 AD and see a dinosaur with a mouth full of chewed-up cowboy, Superman comics paled in comparison. But that’s Brit comics for you – he mentioned reading a Dan Dare strip at a young age (which he thought was stuffy at the time) where there was a splash page of a spaceship over Jupiter with a hole in the side and people falling out and their stomachs expanding and exploding due to the vacuum – ‘I never want to read anything else ever again!’ He talked about how comics for him were about generating new ideas, telling new stories, reflecting the times as you go along. He doesn’t want to do the new versions of the company-owned mythologies the way Grant Morrison does. It’s a personal thing, and he doesn’t have the same affection to superheroes because he didn’t read them growing up.

He talked about the difference between prose and comics – in comics, you have to be a journalist, keeping to a word count (citing the maxim of ~28 words per normal-sized panels) and chiselling sentences to full effect and with minimum words, always bearing in mind the artist (he cited that for Colleen Doran, he only has to write the acting of the characters because he doesn’t have to worry about the background and mise-en-scène, whereas other artists require more detail and cinematography). Also, the 20-page limit is a very restricting amount of space to tell the story effectively and requires a lot of craft and effort. However, a novel has no word limit – he could keep on going and take his time.

For someone who has written so much, he said he still dislikes what he has written, even what he wrote the day before. (My theory: he’s mentioned before that the pace of monthly comics meant that he was essentially writing first drafts – therefore, he didn’t get the luxury of disliking what he turned into his editor, and so he kept writing and we got to enjoy his output.)

He said that people keep asking him when he’s going to bring back Spider Jerusalem, which he can’t understand because he finds the character so annoying. He was asked about writing comics set in the US – crass commercialism, on his part, because ‘they don’t want stories set in Southend’. Although it was mostly a chat between Warren and Leith, there were some questions at the end, such as what is his next book about; however, Warren said he couldn’t say anything because he’d been muzzled by his publishers.

A few name drops: Michael Moorcock told him that Elric and Jerry Cornelius were his way into the worlds he wrote, which isn’t the way Warren thinks; he doesn’t return to old characters because he always thinks that new stories demand new characters. William Gibson said, about Gun Machine, ‘this is a compliment, but I found it peculiar’.

An hour in Warren’s company wasn’t long enough – I could have listened to him discuss his work and his approach to writing for hours (we did get to hear him after the talk because he was still miked up, which I found rather amusing), because he’s a smart chap with a very thoughtful, analytical mind when it comes to his craft. He’s also very funny, with an infectious laugh and a desire to entertain and amuse, borne of a natural storyteller (although don’t expect him to direct – he specifically said that he’s only a writer when asked if he wanted to take after Garth Ennis). If you get the chance, I would recommend seeing in Warren in person.

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Saturday at the London Super Comic Con

I think this is the first comic book convention I have attended which gave me an actual, not metaphorical, headache at the end of the day; I’m trying to work out if it was because I enjoyed the con too much or if I’m an inexperienced attendee. Despite coming home to pain killers and an early night (I am so old), the London Super Comic Con (or LSComicCon for short, used as the Twitter name) was a lot of fun because it was primarily a convention about comic books.

My headache didn’t start until I came home, but it might have been set in motion by the queue to get into the con. Having learned my lesson from attending Saturday at the London MCM Expo in the same location last May, I arrived with pre-purchased tickets (a birthday present from my lovely girlfriend) – this was originally the only way you could attend, but the organisers changed their minds the night before when Stan Lee, the guest of honour, appeared on The One Show the night before (where Chris Evans got the name of the con wrong and Stan was only on for 10 minutes despite it being an hour-long show on Fridays) and they announced that tickets would be available on the day.

When I arrived at just after 10am, when the con was supposed to start, the queue to get in was outside the main entrance to the ExCel Centre, snaking down the stairs and almost to the water. I joined the queue and it took an hour (which felt longer) to get to the entrance to the con itself, which was at the other end of the exhibition centre, and another fifteen minutes of queuing in the con itself before I had got my shiny plastic pass on cord (like a backstage pass at a gig) and was allowed in properly.

An aside: while waiting to get in, I was amused to notice that there was a Zumba instructors conference in the ExCel at the same time – there would be no problems with attendee crossover there, despite the fact that the instructors looked like how comic book artists draw female superheroes: slim, healthy women with exposed stomachs and tight tops (although nowhere near as pneumatic as the women who grace the covers of far too many comic books).

My first impressions were that the space wasn’t as large as used for the MCM Expo, which was held in a different hall near the main entrance, and that there weren’t as many people as the MCM Expo. There were lots of people, but they were mainly queuing for Stan Lee: as the main draw for this event, his presence had attracted a huge crowd of people who were there just for him. He hasn’t attended a UK con for decades, so it was something of coup to get him; at 89 years old, the man is doing amazingly well, full of energy and charm, but I don’t know if he’ll be back for another con in this country.

Another initial impression was there weren’t as many cosplayers as had attended the MCM Expo. The MCM Expo seemed to be mainly about the cosplay: there were hordes of them inside and even more outside, who I began to think hadn’t bothered to enter the Expo but just hang around outside to enjoy the atmosphere. The LSComicCon had a good showing of cosplayers, the majority keeping to comic book characters (for example, there was a very good Galactus roaming the hall), and they made for an impressive sight when they were in the queue to enter the cosplay competition at the end of the day; however, they were in the minority compared with the other attendees.

One of the main attractions for me was the presence of such a stellar Artists Alley: the impressive line-up included Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kevin Maguire, Brian Bolland, Jock, Sean Phillips, Mark Buckingham, Duncan Fegredo, Jim Cheung, Phil Jimenez (see here for a full list – Mike Deodato Jr unfortunately missed his flight, so he wasn’t there on Saturday). There were also some writers in attendance (Fred Van Lente, Mike Carey, Paul Cornell) but I wanted to see the artists. It was great seeing them in person and seeing some of them sketch (I saw Chaykin knocking out a Logan sketch with consummate ease) but I realised that I was an amateur when it came to attending a con to see artists: the long queues for the artists were full of people who had bought small comic book boxes for signing or small suitcases on wheels with stuff to sign. Having suffered enough queues for the day, I left the professionals (both the artists and the people who wanted stuff signed) to their own devices.

Instead of standing in a queue, I attended two panels where I could sit down and listen to people talk about comic books: How To Write A Comic Script and 35 Years Of 2000AD. The first had Fred Van Lente, Mike Carey, Kieron Gillen, Andy Lanning and, briefly, Simon Spurrier – he relinquished his seat at the last minute in response to Paul Cornell’s Panel Parity, allowing Tammy Taylor to take his place. It was an interesting panel, with each giving an introduction, talking about how they broke in, their experiences with different script formats (the first script Carey saw was Alan Moore’s ridiculously dense script in the back of the Watchmen trade paperback, so for years he thought that was how you were supposed to write them) and how they approach writing. The sound system wasn’t great, but Van Lente easily made himself heard (he is American, after all), and Gillen was effusive and cheeky on various topics (for him, plot and character are the same, and writers who aren’t interested in people are not proper writers in his opinion), and it was a shame that the panel had to end as soon as it did.

The second panel I attended was a cosier affair, as the three artists on the panel talked about their work. Jock, Duncan Fegredo and Brian Bolland chatted about their cover work for 2000AD (Bolland was surprised to discover that one of his old covers is appearing on a stamp for Royal Mail; he also thought that they could have chosen a better and more classic cover) as led by a chap who I assume is an editor at 2000AD but whose name I didn’t catch because the sound system was even worse in this panel. The artists were nice blokes, sharing a nice camaraderie; Jock and Fegredo were very happy to have done Dredd covers for the comic that was so important to them, and they had a lot of respect for Bolland. Bolland was a great panel member, sharing little anecdotes and talking about how he didn’t have the time he does now and how the covers and classic artwork was put together so quickly. He also talked a lot about Mick McMahon, saying that he was in awe of him and how McMahon was the one who designed Mega-City One; Jock had to step in and say how Bolland had defined Dredd to the majority of people. Another enjoyable panel.

As I said, the focus of this con was comic books and that was the great aspect of it. The booths of comic book companies such as IDW and Markosia, the small press sections, the portfolio review booth, the guests and the stalls selling comic books (I did enjoy myself picking up cheap trades and issues missing from my collection, after fighting my way through the others with similar intentions) were all about comic books and not about movie tie-ins or games or television shows. This was reflected in the audience, which seemed to skew older and had a larger proportion of men than the MCM Expo.

It has to be said that the majority of people were there for Stan Lee – the queues for signing and photos were amazing (Rich Johnston has video footage of the con and Stan at Bleeding Cool, although there should be a warning because he is an awful cameraman; it looks like really bad found footage and will cause nausea if watched for too long) and Stan’s panel, which I didn’t attend, was standing-room only – the panels I attended were only about a third full. The crowd loved him: the roars of approval when he arrived on stage and then left at the end were deafening. Perhaps they should have called it the Stan Lee Convention …

According to Johnston, the convention seems to have been a success with around 8,000 people, and publishers/vendors/creators selling everything they brought with them. That’s good news because it means the LSComicCon can continue and improve, and we can have a regular comic-specific con that is well organised and enjoyed by all attendees. Just as long as I don’t keep getting headaches by attending them.

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Book From A Library: The Science Of Superheroes

By Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

I’ve been reading comic book superheroes for a long time now. An unrelated fact is that I trained as a scientist (I even have a PhD in biochemistry). In all that time, I have never had a problem with the use of science in superhero comic books. Science is for explaining the wonders and mysteries of the universe; comic books exist to entertain me, with a side order of informing me when appropriate. When I saw this book in the library, I wanted to read it because I couldn’t understand quite why it existed – they do know that comic books are fictional, right?

The title is a little misleading – this isn’t a book explaining how superheroes can work within the constraints of the laws of science. It examines aspects of science that are related to aspects of superheroes. This is a significant difference, but it makes for an interesting read. The first chapter was particularly fascinating, as it discusses the Drake equation (which provides an estimate of the number of intelligent species in our galaxy) to demonstrate the possibility of Krypton, before talking about a book called Rare Earth, which examined the various factors in the Drake equation and show that, instead of many planets with life on it, habitable planets are quite rare – the habitable zone is more complicated, possibly requiring a gas giant like Jupiter to exist as a magnet for comets; for biological life to evolve requires three billion years, which requires a G2 type star (a lifetime of ten billion years) that are not very common. The authors use this to explain why Jor-El sent his son to Earth – there was no other choice. They then go on to explain that Krypton can’t exist because the size it would need to be for Superman to be as strong as he is on Earth is impossibly large for a planet with that gravity to exist. Fun stuff.

The next chapter talks about cosmic rays and gamma radiation, stating the obvious fact that the Hulk wouldn’t exist, but then proposing a theory for the Green Fluorescent Protein version of the Hulk, based on real science anabolic steroids and genetic manipulation. The third chapter talks about the possible contents of Batman’s utility belt and the basis behind the Cataclysm storyline, which is a bizarre choice of subject among all the various facets of Batman. The fourth chapter talks about underwater superheroes, which takes in Plato’s description of Atlantis and the aquatic ape theory of the evolution of man (which states that early humans spent more time in water than we do now, something I hadn’t heard of before), before talking about the mechanics of living underwater (breathing fluids and withstanding pressure).

The fifth chapter talks about Spider-Man – how almost none of the attributes of ‘spider powers’ relate to actual spiders, before discussing clones because of the infamous Clone Saga. The sixth chapter uses the Green Lantern concept to discuss black holes in detail as a possible source for the infinite energy required to power the Green Lantern Corps. The next chapter uses Ant Man and the Atom as starting points for discussing the Square Cubed Law in relation to shrinking and growing, with an aside for atomic structure and some quantum mechanics. The eighth chapter talks about the Flash: after stating that stories with someone moving that fast would be really boring because criminals wouldn’t be any sort of challenge, they examine the impossibility of moving at the speeds mentioned in the comics. This involves discussion of the calories required to power the speed, not being able to see or hear properly, causing sonic booms, the trouble with momentum and a thorough discussion of the speed of light – if the Flash actually moved at the speed of light, he would have infinite mass (i.e. all the mass in the universe), which is impossible.

The ninth chapter uses the X-Men to talk about the theory of evolution (giving a good kicking to Creationism while they are it); the tenth chapter talks about science fiction comic books in general, and how they ignore science for the sake of telling a fun story in a short number of pages, and a mention of the Grandfather Paradox when discussing time travel (which allows for a section on Einstein-Rosen bridges). A lot of this might sound like nerdy nitpicking, but that’s not what the book is about – it just wants to ‘edutain’ on the elements of science involved in the comic books they love. They leave the final chapter to talk about Carl Barks and his use of accurate science in stories of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, just to prove that they’re not haters.

The last chapter highlights the love the authors have for comic books – the science may invalidate the accuracy but it doesn’t stop the enjoyment. Each chapter has a very informative introduction to the characters and the comics in a historical framework, providing excellent overviews of the development of the science fiction superheroes of the Silver Age. The book is a very enjoyable combination of superheroes and proper science, essayed in a highly readable style.

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My London Comic Book Mart Experience

The National Collectors Marketplace is a regular mart for comic books, trading cards, books and merchandise related to science fiction, film and TV. According to the website, it is the largest of its sort, hosting 130 tables in the Royal National Hotel near Russell Square in central London. When I arrived on a wet Sunday at the beginning of the month, I could believe the claim to size.

The hotel had three large rooms packed with sellers – I recognised Paul Hudson, who owned Comic Showcase (one of the shops I frequented in my youth) until it closed down in 2006, and Incognito Comics (I used to buy from the Canterbury store when I lived there) had a huge stall of boxes filled with 25p comics – with the emphasis on comic books. And the comic book fans were there in force to buy from them; I arrived 30 minutes after the doors opened at noon, and the place was packed. Unfortunately, these readers of comic books hadn’t taken to heart any of the ideals of altruism and looking out for your fellow man that populate superhero stories, because they didn’t care about anyone or anything else apart from finding comics at a good price.

People – mostly men – were flicking through the comics in the longboxes and not letting anyone get a look in. If you were lucky enough to locate a space to examine the comics, the people on the either side were not very friendly or patient. There was one chap who had spent all his money on comics and not an optician, because he kept his head absurdly close to the comics as he flicked through them. There were the hunters with their lists – computer printouts of spreadsheets for some, aged, folded pages of hand-scribbled titles for others – obsessively going through every box and every comic book to find their missing items. There were some ‘ordinary’ punters, but there was also a large contingent of the type of comic book fan who are examples of the stereotype that rest of the world sees: overweight, wearing superhero t-shirts that were too small, unfamiliar with personal hygiene (the smell in the rooms was a little on the ripe side).

I had intended to take some photos of the mart to accompany this reminiscence but I felt too awkward, too uncomfortable in the confined space with the crowds – if you want some photos, see the report by Dom of London Loves Comics. I’d been looking forward to rifling through comic boxes looking for bargains and trying to fill gaps in my collection, but I felt out of place and didn’t enjoy it as much as I had wanted. Oh, I wandered around and looked diligently through the boxes – I even found the five issues of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis at 50p each – and thought the variety of material for sale was impressive (trays full of Doctor Who novels in plastic bags, old British comics lying on tables, old cult films on DVD, original artwork, even old British porn mags). However, the experience left me little deflated and out of sync with my collecting hobby, which is a shame. I can’t fully explain it but I don’t have the urge to return to a comic book mart, even though I still have the desire to buy cheap comic books. It’s not to do with the National Collectors Marketplace, just an adverse reaction to my first interaction for a while with the hardcore comic collecting community. I don’t classify myself as a real geek because I don’t have the depths of geek-ness I perceive in real geeks, even though I’ve just spent 600 words talking about going around a room full of old comic books, but this was yet another sign to confirm my belief. Your mileage may vary.

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Book: Comic Creators On X-Men

It seems the right time to talk about this book after my long rambling review of X-Men: First Class. My love of the X-Men might have had some impact in my enjoyment of the film, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the books I read as a teenager nor my affection for the creators of that work.

This is a strange book: compiling a collection of interviews with writers and artists who have worked on the X-Men leads to a book that becomes dated the moment it is published, which is perhaps why I found this book for £2.50 in the sale section of Forbidden Planet. However, it is a nice way to provide a voice for creators from the previous generation and allow them to share their stories on what was once the dominant franchise in superhero comic books.

The book doesn’t interview everyone involved with the history of the X-Men – there are a lot of people who have had input in the >40-year history – and the book admits that fact up front. It’s a good list (although I would have liked an interview with Ann Nocenti, who edited the books at the times when they started to expand and become really successful, and Jim Lee would have been a good choice for an artist with an impact on the book): Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Alan Davis, Louise Simonson, Marc Silvestri, Bob Harras, Scott Lobdell, Chris Bachalo, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar.

Tom DeFalco, former Editor-In-Chief at Marvel, does the interviews but, although he tries to keep things on topic, he does have a tendency to ask more general questions than the remit of the book would suggest (such as talking to Neal Adams for several pages about his breaking into the field of comics and his work before starting on X-Men). Most creators are given an equal number of pages, although the pages do include boxed sections with historical information about the X-Men and some artwork and script pages; however, Chris Claremont rightfully gets the most pages, and there is a lot to talk about and is perhaps the most interesting for a reader who grew up on The Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants. The sections with Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum provide some nice details about the decisions that were made leading into the new version of the book that would become so popular, and some Cockrum character guides for some of the new characters.

The interview with John Byrne is interesting, including his thoughts on what happened and the work he did after the landmark run with Claremont (he did some Wolverine work, briefly wrote script over some plots before working on X-Men: The Hidden Years). We get different views on the Claremont/Byrne split from Claremont, Byrne and Louise Simonson (who was editor at the time), but the book doesn’t veer into troublesome areas too much – the section with Bob Harras seems to be deliberately diplomatic and avoid saying anything problematic (it was interesting to see that Harras had started out as a salesman in stores before lucking into an editorial assistant position at Marvel), even though he was in charge of the X-books in the most tumultuous time of its history: Claremont leaving the books, the rise of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld on the books before the exodus to Image, not to mention the trouble that Marvel was having in the mid-1990s and Harras’ elevation to Editor-In-Chief.

The interview with Scott Lobdell goes some way to making me reassess him – I’m one of those readers who stopped reading the X-books eventually after Claremont left, but not before I had read quite a few stories that he wrote, so I incorrectly associate him with the negativity I perceive with that time – and he seems like a decent human being. As with the other artists in the book, DeFalco spends too much time talking about how they work and got into comics when talking to Chris Bachalo, but the interviews with Grant Morrison and Mark Millar make up for this, and Millar isn’t in hyper self-promotion mode so he makes some decent points for a change. As a whole, the book is an oddity, but it is a sufficiently interesting oddity to warrant a purchase for a former X-fan like myself.

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