The clanging chimes of Brexit doom

The Tory cabinet has agreed a draft withdrawal from the EU, so basically the shit that’s been coming since June 2016 is about to hit big time. Assuming Theresa May survives the week, this deal won’t make it through the UK Parliament as Brexiters on the right will vote it down and Lexiters on the left will vote it down as they want a no deal scenario, while everyone else will be put in the position of voting for a deal which is wank. As we’re running out of time (Article 50’s clock is ticking) there’s only a handful of possibilities left, with the two most likely being…

1/ Theresa May clings onto power til the spring when we leave the EU with no deal and merry hell breaks out.

2/ A General Election is called. Labour get the most seats but not a majority which they would have if they dealt with the SNP/Greens/Plaid but the Bain Principle is too strong, so they’ll say they’ll extend negotiations but they can’t. So as Corbyn wants to leave, merry hell will break out with another election likely shortly after this.

There’s one glimmer of hope. The Scottish Parliament launched legal action to see if Article 50 can be reversed unilaterally. That decision rests in the hands of the ECJ and we’ll find out on the 27 November. In short; we’re fucked unless the ECJ rules we have a chance to reverse this lunacy. If we can even then that requires leading figures in the Tories and Labour to reverse their lifelong opposition to the EU.

So, there’s a glimmer but really, we’re fucked. Of course those political leaders on the right and left won’t be but hey, who thought they actually cared in the first place?

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RIP Stan Lee

Stan Lee is dead at 95 years old. For me Stan is eternally wearing an open-necked shirt and a bad wig as he sailed through the 1960’s into the 70’s.

The first time I met Lee he looked like this. That was waaaaaaay back in the late 70’s when he came to the UK (something he did often as his wife Joan was from Newcastle) to sign copies of Hulk Weekly.

By this point Stan had barely written a word of comics in years but every Marvel comic opened with the legend, Stan Lee Presents… so us young folk assumed Stan was still there working away but by 1979 Stan was at best a figurehead as he pushed all of Marvel’s characters to a variety of film and TV studios, with at best varied results. However I’d also grown up saying ‘Stan and Jack’ because the idea of separating Lee from Kirby during a still astonishing period of creativity during the 60’s that saw Marvel develop from a company going out of business to a cultural phenomenon.

Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four remains the peak of what Marvel could do in the 60’s. The first 101 issues contain no filler. Every issue drops a new character, or concept or story that’s simply glorious and instead of spending a year developing an idea to death, Kirby and Lee would use two or three issues at most before moving onto something else. Take the run from FF Annual #3 with the wedding of Reed and Sue through to #44’s introduction of the first Inhuman, to #48’s introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, ‘the sublime story This Man, This Monster in #51 and the introduction of the Black panther in #52.Any single issue would be something for most creators today to hang their C.V up on. Kirby and Lee were firing them out monthly.

Stan Lee helped shape me. Marvel’s tales of two-dimensional morality were great and with the visuals of a Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Wally Wood they were perfection. Of course I wasn’t to know that Kirby, Ditko, Wood, etc were being ripped off thanks partly to Stan’s myth-making. I only cared about the comics which brings me back to that first time I met Stan. He was everything I expected. Charming, witty and bigger than Galactus.  He may have spelled my name wrong but fuck it, Stan Lee signed my comic!!A decade or so later someone nicks it.Ah well.

Second time I met Stan was at one of the UKCAC‘s in London. He wasn’t a guest but was in town and heard there was a comic convention on. I remember Mike Lake and John McShane sticking their head into the free bar which Titan Distributors stuck on for dealers on the Friday evening telling everyone that ‘fucking hell guys, Stan fucking Lee is outside signing stuff’. Carrying as much free beer as one can, I stuck my head out the door and yes, there was Stan fucking Lee signing stuff. By this point I was aware of the stories that circulate both in and out of public domain but fuck it, there’s Stan fucking Lee reducing dealers, distributors and assorted hangers on to drooling fanboys. I mean I knew what he’d done to Kirby and Ditko especially, I knew he didn’t have anything to do with creating characters he still carries a co-creator credit on and I’d read Kirby’s vicious caricature of him; Funky Flashman, which featured a pathetic Roy Thomas trying to convince Stan to hand over the family jewels to him.

But Stan had a way to make you forget the stories and swallow the myth whole. This is basically what Stan’s done for the 21st century; sell the myth of Marvel and now he’s passed away and it’s impossible to tear apart the man from the myth that he’s spent 60 years cultivating.

So what did Stan actually do?

Without a doubt he sold Marvel Comics. The Fantastic Four would be an interesting alternative to the Challengers of the Unknown and probably sold well enough, but without Lee’s lines of dialogue punching up Kirby’s art, not to mention Lee’s careful stewardship of Marvel during the 60’s, we’d not have billion dollar films today. In fact superhero comics might not have lasted into the 70’s as DC’s superhero revival of the late 50’s was losing steam by 63, and they had to adapt to the world Marvel created. And Lee saw comics as an art form; a medium to tell stories that can’t be told any other way or to cultivate talent which couldn’t be cultivated in any other medium. His attempts to mainstream Underground Comix of the age testifies to that.

Stan Lee took what he had to push comics, and in a stab to the Gamergate crew, pushed a liberal agenda of basic human decency in editorials which spoke to us, the reader. it made us feel good about ourselves and for many of us having hard times or looking to escape, Stan sold us what we wanted. He gave us joy. The same sort of joy a wee boy getting a Hulk comic signed felt all those years ago.

There’s going to be a time and place to give Stan a real tribute that is warts and all the complexity that come with it. All that can be said for now is that for those of us with a long history in comics, Stan is a complex figure but his passing may not come as a shock. 95 is a good age, but with Lee’s passing another link to those early days of comics from the Golden to Silver Age is gone.

So lets remember Stan the showman. Stan the Man.

100 years later the streets are lined with the dead

A century ago today the Great War as it was known then, and World War One as it’s known now, came to an end. Four years of bloody conflict saw millions die. For generations their deaths were remembered not as glorious sacrifices with many surviving soldiers refusing to wear the poppy, the symbol used for remembrance ceremonies because they couldn’t face living with the lies that took them to war. Today the act of remembrance itself is drifting away to be replaced by a triumphalist mix of British exceptionalism and imperialism that helps resurrect the lies that saw millions join up in 1914 only to die in blood, mud and shit somewhere on a battlefield.

A generation lost for nothing. They didn’t die fighting for survival as in the Second World War; they died for Britain’s imperialism and after the war to end all wars, many wanted nothing to do with fighting.

Those are the ones who came back. Millions didn’t. The street where you live could be full of those boys and men who died during that war. We’re all familiar with the stone cenotaph’s that are in virtually every British city, town and village, but do you know the names of those who died where you live?

Thanks to the website, A Street Near You, you can look and put names to buildings, assuming those buildings still stand after a century.There’s people like this near me.

Second Lieutenant Walter Daniel John Tull
Middlesex Regiment
Date of death: 25/03/1918 (aged 29)
Son of the late Daniel Tull; brother of Edward Tull-Warnock, of 419, St. Vincent St., Glasgow. Former professional footballer with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, he was also previously a FA Amateur Cup Winner with Clapton FC. He played more than a hundred first team games for Northampton Town before the First World War intervened.

But most are sad wee memorials for people who died decades too young.

Private Joseph Ayton
Seaforth Highlanders
Date of death: 16/04/1918 (aged 19)
Son of Jane Ayton, of 51, Dorset St., Glasgow, and the late George Ayton.

Private Robert Hardie
Highland Light Infantry
Date of death: 25/09/1915 (aged 19)
Brother of Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, of 135, North St., Whiteinch, Scotstoun, Glasgow.

With these people you have an idea of a life led, family and even community as it is entirely possible these boys know each other living streets away from each other. There’s the cases of people who don’t even have a first name which may well be lost in history.

Gunner Donaldson
Royal Field Artillery
Date of death: 16/05/1917 (aged 24)
Son of James C. Donaldson, of 89, North St., Anderston, Glasgow.

There’s around 30-40 names in a five minute walking distance of where I live. In all those names only one has a face to go along with the name. That’s the man below.

Second Lieutenant William George Teacher (HU 118927) Second Lieutenant William George Teacher. Unit: DCompany, 15th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. Death: 14 May 1916 Killed in action Western Front Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205389533

Second Lieutenant William George Teacher
Highland Light Infantry
Date of death: 14/05/1916 (aged 22)
Son of William Curtis Teacher and Eliza Rowena Teacher, of Kilarden, Dowanhill Gardens, Glasgow.

There’s a bit of information about William. We even know where he’s buried. We know he died at the height of the war. We know his death was utterly and totally pointless and seeing as most men who fought in the war didn’t have the vote, they were unable to change their future or current circumstances. Many of those conscripted were fearful of being shot or suffering the dreaded white feather which bullied men and boys into joining up.

And here we are in 2018 with the sound of Rule Britannia bouncing down the streets of the Cenotaph in London. There’s annual outrage at footballers refusing to wear a poppy because of what Britain did to their countries in the past, and Remembrance Day becomes a celebration of war, imperialism and exceptionalism for many. Meanwhile soldiers die in our streets a century on because now, as then, men (and now women) are thrown to the wolves once the British state has done with them.

We seem to have turned full circle. Imperialist songs play their tunes of glorying war as the very act of being a pacifist is again seen as ‘traitorous’. Flags are flown triumphantly while men and women die in overseas wars of conquest and their comrades return to be abandoned by the very state which sold them a lie. Of course the people who sent them to war, or bullied them to war, have their descendants today doing the same things only slightly differently.

100 years on the streets are lined with the dead and we’ve remembered little and learned nothing from their deaths. We’ve let past generations down for what? That’s what I’ll be thinking about today, not selling war as a price we have to pay because most of the time, it isn’t.

What I thought of ‘Outlaw King’

The first thing to get over in David MacKenzie’s Outlaw King is that it’s a de facto Braveheart sequel. It’ll never admit to being so officially and while director and cast alike do refer to Mel Gibson’s film there’s nothing official to say it is, except for the fact that you need to have the knowledge of the story of William Wallace before entering this film.

What the film does do is tell the story of Robert the Bruce who fought the invading English army in the First War of Scottish Independence and in particular the story of the Bruce. Indeed for the first half hour or so it strives for historical accuracy as much as possible, barring a obviously telegraphed Chekov’s gun (well, more of a swordfight) in the first reel that pays off in the end. The first half hour is also tediously slow and dull with some of the only fun being when Chris Pine’s accent (which on the whole is fine) slips into his own, or some hybrid accent with a tough of William Shatner thrown in.

Then about half an hour in, Outlaw King kicks into gear, forgets about being a historical drama and decides to become a gore-soaked exploitation film as Pine’s Bruce starts his bloody war against the English, who also become less nuanced and more like the slaughtering, raping baddies the story needs them to be because we don’t want nuance, just leering baddies who we cheer being sliced graphically in half by a sword. In fact the best way Outlaw King works are the scenes where Robert’s forces are fighting superior numbers and winning because the film isn’t about history, but telling the myth.

Outlaw King also looks astonishing on a reasonably big telly, so it’ll look even better on a cinema screen. It uses the landscape of Scotland so well that it becomes it’s own character as it supports Robert on his struggle which ends here not at Bannockburn as those aware of their history may expect, but at the battle of Louden Hill (I assume just in case there’s enough demand for a sequel) is presented here as a muddy, bloody swamp of death and the aforementioned Chekov’s Sword is brought into play.

Overall Outlaw King isn’t the film it couldn’t have been. It tries hard not to do a Braveheart, but dips liberally from that film, and when it tries to be political (at several times it’s quite clearly speaking to the audience in a 21st century post 2014 context) it doesn’t have that clarity of vision Gibson’s film did which may have been simplistic, but was also effective. What the legacy of Outlaw King may be I don’t know as it’s too early, but as an effective action/adventure/exploitation film flying the Netflix banner it’s a flawed, sometimes dreary bit of entertainment that doesn’t fly til it shrugs loose it’s chains and then it repays your faith in the film in steel and blood.

The comics industry is run by crooks and mobsters…

In my last blog I spoke about whether comics sales had declined, and laid out the question  ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’ and said the failure of the direct market with a mix of talent/imagination being in short demand being blamed for this. I’m only partly right as the blame also lies with the big companies who act often like thugs from a Warner Brothers 1930’s gangster film.

Hyperbole right? Well not really. The entire comics industry was forged in the world of mobs and gangsters as laid out in Gerard Jones’s excellent book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic BookIndeed as late as the 80’s, the mob had a hand in the distribution pie as Jim Shooter points out in his blog.

But the direct market came along, shifted the focus of distribution from newstands to specialist comic shops, the mob were gone, and for a while it seemed like the crooks and charlatans running the industry were gone, or at the very least, reduced to a handful and the business became professional. Some creators even became famous outwith the comics bubble and some even became very rich by finding a formula and selling it to film or television to be developed.  However creativity was reduced as companies moved away from being creator focused to being focused on developing ‘properties’ created by men and women paid little to nothing who if still alive, watch corporations and their executives grow fat and bloated from their work.

If this sounds bitter, it’s because this is a sad truth of the industry. There’s the tales told at convention bars in the early hours that aren’t able to be told in public for obvious reasons of publishers doing their best to wreck people. Some of these stories are leaking out as people die, or they’re being used as part of Howard Chaykin’s splendid Hey Kids! Comics!, which outlines the history of comics that’ll never be told on a Marvel or DC film making of documentary.

Comics, or at least the world of superhero comics, are not free of old-school gangsters, but they’ve been replaced by the thuggery of the corporation. Fans of the corporation and it’s ‘property’ are a thing now as they defend corporations against the sons and daughters of those creators who in many cases died in perjury. The corporations that are now Marvel and DC have chased away creativity for formula, as a whole as there is some diamonds in the rough.

So we have an industry whose works are more popular than at any time since the American comic book was born nearly a century ago, and an industry struggling to sell comics but both Disney and Warners see comics as farms for the real money in films, TV and merchandising. Yet there’s hope. The internet has opened up comics to more people, while creators who would never get a foot in the door of the Big Two are now making themselves known through self-publishing online. People are coming into the world of comics who love the medium and aren’t just speculators who won’t be around in a few years.

Things are getting better but right now the industry is suffering development pains, so it’s down to those who can to help guide things through to we all come out the other side better than the past.

Today is America’s chance to help save the world

Today are the midterm elections in America. A more detailed picture can be found here, but to boil it down to basics, it’s a chance for people to resit Donald Trump and what he’s bringing with him. Because Trump’s just the start of this new era where far right hardmen dominate politics across Western politics try to take control not in a neoliberal, or Thatcherite way, but full-on fascism. These people are also intent to turn the clock back so all the hard fought civil rights and liberalism won in the 1960’s onwards is turned back.

America isn’t the only nation on the brink. Over here in the UK thanks to what Brexit has unleashed we too stand on the verge of something awful coming but the opposition is weak and patchy, whereas in America it seems people have (on the whole) dropped worries about ‘centrists’ or the sort of political purity only the few can preach about in order to actually do something in resisting Trump and all he brings.

So you’ve got plenty of time left to vote over there. From over here made sure it’s as blue a sweep as possible and send a message to Trump and his bootboys that you’re not going to let him win. Early signs are positive but every vote counts, so good luck and hopefully this is a turning point.

Have comic sales declined?

One of the big arguments of the Comicsgate lot is that sales of comics have declined because women or black people are writing them, so obviously that’s meant a serious decline.

In the real world, there’s a variety of reasons why sales have declined (the fact sales of superhero comics from Marvel and DC aren’t in dispute, the reasons however are) from video games, the internet, and pretty much everything you can think of. There are no simple answers.

Yet we actually live in a new Golden Age for comics. I can walk into any bookshop, see a comics/graphic novels section and see a variety of comics in a mix of genres from a vast swathe of creators of all sexes and races, and as for sales figures it turns out things are a lot more complex than we all firstly assumed with the theory that sales figures have been flat for 20 years with that argument going into its own complex grounds.

Sales of superhero comics through the Diamond catalogue are probably in terms of numbers, around the same but now so split and fractured among different companies that the Big Two (Marvel and DC) don’t get the market share they did. Then there’s digital and there’s also the elephant in the room that is piracy. Plus there’s the real evidence that for the Big Two, sales have declined with a top seller barely scraping 100k per month at a time when superheroes dominate the cultural landscape.

The question that has to be asked isn’t ‘why sales have dropped’ but ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’. That’s a question that has an answer and it involves the failure of the direct market mixed with the lack of talent/imagination of the companies themselves. That’s also a question answered in the next blog…