What I thought of ‘Monsters’ by Barry Windsor Smith

If there is a single comic you must buy in 2021 it is Barry Smith’s Monsters.

Starting out back in the Jim Shooter era of Marvel Comics as a Hulk origin story it was never published there (there’s no way this could have worked then) then passed through a variety of companies over the decades before Fantagraphics grabbed the chance to publish this. Well done to Gary Groth and Fantagraphics for doing so as this is extraordinary stuff.

Telling the story of Bobby Bailey, who ends up being the obvious ‘monster’ visually but this is a book full of monsters, and by the end we see the worst of them all. However this isn’t just a ‘monster on the loose’ story but a story of families destroyed by war, and the military itself with Bobby becoming a sort of MacGuffin who motivates all the other major characters in this book. Yes, there are wee hints and traces of that Hulk story here, but Bobby is an altogether more pathetic version of what is basically a power fantasy.

In fact there’s very little to glorify here. People die needlessly or are humiliated in death with the general mood and atmosphere being hard, grim and terrible, especially when dealing with the extended scenes of domestic abuse. As said, this is not a Hulk story, but one about people trying to make their lives better and not taking the chance to do so, or in Bobby’s case he takes a chance to better himself with disastrous consequences. If all of this makes the book seem a grim read that’s right, but this is also incredibly uplifting as well as tragic Smith does put the reader through a lot here and throughout 300 pages plus of art which is among he’s finest of his career. There’s stuff done here with a pencil and ink I didn’t think capable of doing.

Monsters does have issues. The ending, although satisfying just sort of stops plus we don’t see much of any of the story through Bobby’s eyes which I can understand why does rob the story of a viewpoint. These are minor quibbles as this is a wonderful bit of comics that tops off an astonishing 50 year career of someone who started as a Jack Kirby clone before imposing his look upon Conan and then carving his path in the industry which ends with this masterwork that will be his monument for when historians talk about the industry at this time.

You need to get this comic. Go get it now.

What I thought for The Suttons

COMICSCENE REVIEW – “THE SUTTONS” by PHIL ELLIOTT – ComicScene Comic Club

Back in the 1980s there was a surplus of outstanding quality comics in a diversity of genres, many of them are now lost in the folds of history and the dominance of the Watchmen/Dark Knight/Maus narrative of history. One of those comics lost was Phil Elliott’s superb strip, The Suttons. Running from 1985 to 1991 it tells the story of a young couple, Julie and Dave, living an ordinary life in Maidstone adjusting to becoming parents and bringing up their first child and more.

It would have been easy to have elements of grimness in this pandering to the comics of the time then, and indeed, now, but Elliott keeps everything gentle, with some of the strips being genuinely touching and bursting with a humanity, not to mention decency, that just makes you feel good reading them. That’s the joy of these comics; they’re just about an ordinary middle class couple living a nice life and it’s a perfect read. It is a crime Elliott had to crowdfund this collection as a publisher should see the quality in front of them but it seems crowdfunding is the only option for some creators.

The collection is available by emailing Elliott directly at phil@elliott-design.com

What I thought of Falcon and the Winter Soldier

The Marvel Cinematic Universe must be like living in an ongoing hellscape rather than a world of wonders. Mad gods can wipe half the universe out of existence, while enhanced people and super-powered individuals stomp round the planet caring nothing of borders and international treaties, and you don’t know if giant alien craft are going to come crashing upon you. You would literally be living in terror, yet here people live in a mix of normality or an unsettled refugee.

Then there’s the entire character of Sam Wilson who we first see acting on behalf of the US armed forces, and I assume the US government, in doing slightly dodgy things in the Middle East, but by the end of the series he’s rewriting what it means to be Captain America while being a tool of that nation’s colonialism. He’s no more a hero than John Walker who for much of the series is painted as a villain but in reality, this is a normal human being asked to fight people with superhuman abilities, and his unpreparedness costs the life of his partner who is Fridged as soon as the show can.

On top of this there’s the shonky pacing and plotting of the series. This series feels like a film expanded to nearly six hours so there’s so much padding with characters literally just standing there spouting exposition in flatly shot scenes which reminded me of how soap operas look To be fair some of this horrible disjointed feel can be put down to the break in production because of Covid 19. That said, it could have lost a couple of episodes and been better for it.

It is enjoyable junk fun if you don’t think about the horrible contradictions it throws up, or how the writers struggle to see the world without an American lens on, but like WandaVision before it this was a way to get Sam into being Captain America while pushing the MCU plot along a bit. Unlike WandaVision it was not as good and less cohesive as a work in its own right. Next up is the Loki series which does at least promise a break from the norm of the MCU.

One last thing, vast chunks of this series, including dialogue, was lifted from the works of people like Mark Guenwald and Ed Brubaker, but beyond a small credit hidden away these people, or their surviving families, get nothing even though Disney/Marvel make millions from these things. I’d assumed Disney were paying creators but it appears not to be the case. I wish MCU fans were as passionate about creator rights as they are about how cool Sam’s new costume is…

What I thought of Godzilla Vs Kong

There is no way one can review or talk about this film as you would any normal film. This is a film called Godzilla versus Kong where two giant monsters twat the hell out of each other for our entertainment. Yes, there is a ‘plot’ but it is complete and utter nonsense, while the script is complete garbage as some very good actors say some appallingly written lines but it does not matter a jot as this film features Godzilla and Kong headbutting each other. The acting is just above ‘Michael Caine turning up for the paycheque’ level, and in some cases people try to do more than what’s needed with a thin bowl of gruel but this film features Kong hitting Godzilla with an enormous glowing axe. The direction by Adam Wingard is sometimes clunky, but it is ok as when he’s directing scenes which feature Godzilla trying to beat the shit out of Kong by throwing him through skyscrapers then he’s done his job well.

This is a film for 9-year old me. I would have killed to see this film then. I would have done it decades later if the pandemic had put off its release much longer. This is fun, junk entertainment well made that looks fantastic at times, and yes, the script sucks but the final half hour of fighting in Hong Kong (a city here with an endless supply of skyscrapers to trash) looks fantastic, but this is a big budget peice of entertainment that will never, ever enter the lists of best films ever made but does take up a place in my favourite films because this is Godzilla versus Kong and I can’t ask for more than that.

What I thought of Zack Snyder’s Justice League

The whole reason this film exists isn’t just down to a fan campaign like no other since they cancelled Star Trek in the 60’s, but the launch of HBO Max and the cinema closedown thanks to Covid meant that Warner Brothers were looking for a quick hit, and this with a readymade fanbase would be just that hopefully. The 2017 version completed by Joss Whedon is an odd beast that doesn’t work but does have some good scenes, but as a whole it was a mess. Snyder’s departure from the film is part tragedy because of the death of his daughter, and partly business as WB realised a 4 hour epic would not work in most cinemas with a film that came off the poor Batman V Superman.

Which brings us to the 4 hour epic streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Sky/Now TV over here in the UK. It’s a film I’ll probably never watch again, at least in the full version but this is probably the best of Snyder’s three DC films but it is a mess. There is literally no way this would work in cinemas to bring in the numbers Warners want as few casual cinema goers would sit through a film of this length unless it was coming off a massive success which it wasn’t.

Snyder’s JL starts at the end of Batman V Superman with Superman’s death cry ringing out around the world which is a bold opening sequence, however the 4:3 ratio takes some getting used to (after all, this is 2021 and we’re not used to films in this ratio) but it sets a grim, grey funeral tone for the film which I can understand with Snyder’s tragedy being exorcised onscreen. For much of the running time this tone doesn’t relent and with the film having very little intential humour (more on this in a minute) much of the first two hours is set-up and exposition which makes it often a chore to get through. It does give all the League a good backstory or introduction but scenes go on far too long or the construction is so poor that the scene becomes bloated and pompous. In the case of The Flash, it goes over old ground the TV show has done, and done better than this.

There’s two scenes in particular which highlight the problem. One is Aquaman’s walk along the pier during a storm, which just goes on and on and on. It also brought to mind this bit of classic comedy from The Comic Strip Presents.

Then there’s the Wonder Woman scene in London where she saves a class of schoolkids from terrorists which was a short, to the point scene in 2017 and is now a bloated mess with bad CGI terrorists being smeared across walls before Wonder Woman spouts the most inane form of feminism (‘you can be anything’) to one of the survivors. It’s a scene supposedly weighty but it’s a nonsense. It’s the sort of scene a teenaged boy who spends too much time online would find ‘badass’ but it just makes one of the few female characters just another violent killer. And here’s the issue with superheroes. You can make them ‘real’ but you can’t ever make them authentic because the nature of what a superhero is reduces characters to 2D models of what a real person should be.

As for the second half this is when all the set-up pays off, and with Snyder being a fan of Chekov’s gun, there’s a lot of things paying off from Cyborg’s relationship with his father and acceptance of who he is, through to The Flash accepting who he is, or Aquaman accepting who he is and so on. The villian Steppenwolf is a badly designed generic baddie who is fighting for the main baddie Darkseid, who is also poorly designed with poor CG. Both had good and great Jack Kirby designs respectively but this film was born out of DC’s disastrous New 52 reboot, and suffers because it takes so much from that mess. Ben Affleck’s Batman is probably the highlight of the film, though Henry Cavill’s Superman is essentially an extended cameo which is a pity as the best thing which came out of the 2017 version was giving Cavill a chance to actualy play Superman instead of some Emo version of the character via Kid Marvelman.

Anyhow, eventually the Justice League come together after a pointless McGuffin chase, fight the baddie, defeat him in a way which sets up a sequel which won’t happen and then we get a load of epilogues that would make Peter Jackson call time. These scenes set up films which have happened, will happen but not as intended here or just won’t happen like Affleck’s Batman solo film.

Is it the ‘masterpiece’ fans are saying it is? Fuck, no. There is no need for this film to be four hours long. A good producer would trim at least an hour, then there’s the 4:3 ratio which is the Imax ratio which is fine, but why not save that for when cinemas reopen and it can be seen in that ratio? Also the script is awful at times as Snyder is trying to create this great mythic thing (which at times he nearly does) but wooden, empty cliched dialogue does not an epic make then Snyder has never been anything but a visual filmaker. Visually at times Justice League looks extraordinary which makes me wish I could see it on a big screen with great sound as the action scenes are great. I especially like the scenes of Darkseid’s first attempted invasion of Earth which is so over the top that the film, finally becomes fun before it crawls back into brooding exposition. Snyder’s overall vision is to be applauded though, even if much of it is ponderous nonsense. There’s nothing like this directorial vision out there in regards to superheroes, and he takes the fascistic nature of superheroes head on, even if it comes over as ripped from Ayn Rand’s notebook. Marvel try to deal with some of the themes Synder engages but either runs away from the consequences of it or just tries to ignore the logical inconsistancies of superheroes. Snyder doesn’t care so we get the full vision.

As a film Justice League is a real director’s cut. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s appalling sometimes it has an overinflated view of itself but as an experiment it’s an oddity while being one those things that may well end up changing how films are made in a post-Covid world and its vocal, and sometimes aggresively so group of fans did the near impossible in getting a film studio to cough up the millions to make this film happen in a perfect storm. Whether it could happen again is debatable though the film’s early success may not last the week, I’m glad such a thing exists only to push others to do better.

Basically watch this if you’re a superhero fan, or maybe a student of cinema but otherwise this sometimes entertaining, often infuriating, sometimes dreadful film will be four hours you’ll never get back. Be aware of that going into this and commiting to the full experience.

What I thought of WandaVision

Marvel’s first Disney+ series had a lot of heavy lifting to do with there not being anything released from Marvel in over a year thanks to Covid, plus it had to prove Marvel’s TV output could match the film output. WandaVison succeeds when it tries to venture off from the Marvel formula and fails when it slides back into the Marvel formula.

The story is essentially about Wanda’s grief after having to kill her lover, The Vision, in Infinity War in order to save the universe from Thanos. In the small ton of Westfield she’s formed her own reality based round old American sitcoms in which she’s recreated The Vision, as well as forming her two children. The hundreds of people living there are being controlled by Wanda as characters in her sitcom. At the same time the US government are trying to find out what’s going on so we get a mix of old and new characters with a gron up Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel being the most notable.

As a set up it’s interesting, and the first half of the series is superb. Using the sitcom format renders an odd surrealism into the series as the viewer tries to work out what’s going on with what are entertaining pastiches of each era of sitcom featured from the 1960s to the 2010s. In terms of storytelling it is brave as the Marvel formula is by now a well oiled machine, and the films don’t verge too far into anything too different to that which they’ve set out so far. WandaVision deliberately challenges the viewer and in doing so allows Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany to flex their acting chops. The first half of this series is wonderful and bold. Then they play their cards too early and the series falls into traditional storytelling techniques which is a shame. Part of the problem is that WandaVision is there to push along the unstoppable plot which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe so this has to set up half a dozen things which follow it which makes for a less than satisfying end where we kick a Big Fight Scene or two masked in some good lines to give the idea this is something more than what it is which is well done superheroics.

I do hope though that Marvel decide to become more adventurous off the back of this rather than just sitting in their formula and endlessly repeating itself.Also sacrificing chunks of storytelling to cram in the relentless MCU plot is tiresome when it leaves so many dangling ends which may well take years to complete.

WandaVision though is overall a triumph of the superhero genre. It tries to break free of Marvel’s sometimes static direction by using less green screen unless needed, which makes it feel more organic.Having characters developed for longer was good to see, even if it still is firminly lodged in two dimensions. True it does swerve some of the bigger questions, like for example Wanda basically mind-raped the people of Westfield, while Monica’s glib dismissal of the population’s fear and hatred of Wanda continues my belief that the MCU isn’t a universe full of wonders but a cold, dark dystopia where literal gods walk the Earth without challenge. Civil War touched on this, but they pulled back on how awful it’d be to be there.

Marvel are in a good place as people have been so starved for their films that any possible exhaustion has been postponed thanks to Covid, but if it tries more like WandaVision while working hard to avoid the obvious, then it’ll have a strong future creatively. Though in future I wish they’d credit comics creators higher up the credits as this series quite literally took chunks of dialogue from various comics creators with the most minimal amount of credit they couold give.

What I thought of some recent comics…Part two

Last time I gave a lot of recent comics a good and well-deserved kicking, especially DC’s titles which are mainly awful at the minute so I’ll start this off with something different from DC which is an excellent comic book.

The Other History of the DC Universe is a sequel of sorts to DC’s History of the DC Universe published 35 years ago, but this time it focuses on DC’s black and other minority characters in a five-issue series which dissects what it would be actually like to be black in DC’s superhero universe. Written by John Ridley (the screenwriter responsible for 12 Years a Slave) makes it clear from the issues published so far that it’d not be too much fun.

Drawn by various artists over the five issues, this promises to be an important series for DC who haven’t always been great with minority characters or representation as a whole. This could well be an important work when completed so get on board now.

Department of Truth is a massive disapointment. A great idea that there’s groups of people fighting to present the world in a certain way with one unit run by the not dead Lee Harvey Oswald is a great idea and at times it does work. The main issues with this is writer James Tynion makes great concepts but I couldn’t care less about any of the characters. This is a high concept series so it either needs a good everyman to have this world explained to them, or we as readers are dropped in this insane world and we pick it up as we’re going along.

The other problem is Martin Simmonds painted art. It frankly is a mess with characters wading through this shit-grey palatte at times and the entire thing having often such poor storytelling that I had no idea what’s going on. This is a shame as when it does click it can be great, and if rumour is true it’s heading for a TV adaptation which will make this a huge book for Image, maybe even fully replacing The Walking Dead in monthly sales, but otherwise this is disapointing.

Since the first Iron Man film, Marvel have struggled to find a decent selling let alone readable comic featuring the character. Part of the problem is that awful Civil War crossover written by Mark Millar which has hung round the character’s neck for over a decade. This may change now as Marvel have a decent title which looks like it’s selling better than before.

The creative team of Christpher Cantwell and Cafu don’t do anything spectacular. They just strip the character free of much of the crap built up over the last few decades just to concentrate on simple superheroics which creates a readable version of Iron Man in the first time for ages.

Dark Horse Comics may well be hurt by the loss of the 20th Century Fox titles such as the Aliens books which helped grow the company to what it is today, but it still finds diamonds in among all the rough. Spy Island is one of those wee gems.

Written by Chelsea Cain and drawn by Elise McCall, this is a comedy romp with roots going back to Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, which isn’t a bad thing to be inspired by. It’s a load of great, fun nonsense with some great covers. A 4-issue mini which I’d recommend picking up.

And on the subject of great mini-series from Dark Horse, Mike and Laura Allred’s X-Ray Robot is a sheer joy. Now out in trade form I’d also recommend this typical surrealist bit of pop culture from the Allred’s just for a joyful, fun read from a team who remembers that superhero comics are supposed to be something other than grim and miserable.

And lastly, Al Ewing has come on leaps and bounds over the last few years, and his latest series, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, is a so far interesting SF drama set in a future where giant god-like figures are found dead floating in space so humans being what they are, decide to harvest their body parts for a vast variety of uses.

Drawn by Simone De Meo the whole thing looks and feels like a strip from mid-80’s Heavy Metal, which again, is not a bad comparison. It clearly has been written for trade collections, so it doesn’t quite flow well reading it monthly, then again decompression in mainstream comics is abused, but I feel here that Ewing is working towards something big but right now everything feels like set-up and backstory. This aside I’d pick this up as it looks lovely and as said, there’s a purpose for all of this, I hope!

The gory, filthy joy of Squeak the Mouse

One of the times in my life where I thought I’d be locked up for distributing ‘obscenity’ happened in the year of 1990 when I was still working for Neptune Comic Distributors and we could a shipment of comics, including the glorious Squeak the Mouse.

Comics shipped from the US would normally land at Heathrow, so over the years we built up a relationship with customs there, but this time we had to pick the shipment up from Gatwick where the customs lads were akin to the fucking Stasi! So imagine a young version of me, and another member of staff standing there watching customs decide to go through every single box and imagine my face when I spot Squeak the Mouse and think ‘oh fuck, that’s me fucking fucked’.

Just to explain, at this time the UK was suffering a wave of overt morality led by Thatcher who was trying to hide the disaster of her final days and the Poll Tax, a fiercly unpopular policy which helped her exit from power. Comics were just one thing being targeted by this new ‘moral majority’ with Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, and Lord Horror being the two main targets for these two-faced moralists. This meant that we dreaded Gatwick with its scary customs officials who didn’t look the other way, or just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork for nicking three copies of some obscure underground.

Just to explain why this may well be an issue here’s Cartoonist Kayfabe showing you Squeak in all its glory…

The gore wouldn’t be an issue that much, but the slightest sign of an erect penis, even a cartoon cat’s penis, would send customs insane, and seeing one go into a woman’s vagina, even a cartoon cat’s vagina would send them reaching for the handcuffs. By some small miracle we appeared to have the work experience officer or the blind one, or both as he picked up the obviously gory cover, flipped through obviously seeing enough erect cartoon cat cocks than one would expect to see in a lifetime shrug and put it back in the box. I made sure that box was firmly stuffed into the van and as we drove back to Leicester (where we were based) it felt like we’d stolen the crown jewels, or in this case a cartoon cat’s testicles.

Stupidily I sold my copies some time ago thanks mainly to a girlfriend reading them one day when I was at work and decided I was a bit more of a sicker freak than she’d expected, but that close call with customs nearly denied me a read of what is a fantastic bit of comics. Yes, it was the template for Itchy and Scratchy but don’t say it too loud, especially now The Mouse owns those characters but as a piece of comics it is one of those works fans of the medium should own, preferably wrapped in a brown paper bag and hidden underneath the matress.

As a wee bonus treat here’s an animated version of part of the first volume. Enjoy.

What I thought of some recent comics. Part one

The Covid pandemic made a small blip on publishing comics, but they’re coming out thick and fast with the Big Two especially turning out some uninspiring rubbish. DC’s Future State ‘event’ is an example of editorial coming up with an idea to sell comics and creative decisions made waaaaaay down the line.

Take the Flash issue as an example.

We’re now 40 years on from when Alan Moore revolutionised superhero comics with his version of Marvelman, and here we are several generations down the line and we have writers still trying to do ‘dark’ superheroes. In this case we have poor Wally West who has been generally treated awfully as a character by DC over the years who does his best to be a sort of Kid Marvelman type character. It’s all pretty derivitive from writer Brandon Vietti with decent enough art by Dale Eaglesham.

Moving away from DC’s BIG EVENT titles, the recent Joker War (out soon in trade paperback) which ran across the Batman titles is another example of the creative ditch DC especially seems to find itself in. Having given up even tryin to appeal to a wider audience in the mainstream titles, they now pitch at a more established, ageing readership.

Written by James Tynion IV (writer of the splendid series Memetic from some years back) this story sees the Joker and his new partner, Punchline (essentially a pornofied version of Harley Quinn) do their best to destroy Batman and company. Tynion is a good writer but this pushes this to ridiculous degrees so for example, we’re to beleive people will stay in a Gotham where tens of thousands have been murdered overnight, while a barely competent Batman eventually beats a murderous psychotic Joker and the bodycount rises, and rises and rises…

It’s as a bleak, nihilistic and depressing view of Batman as any DC have churned out over the decades since Frank Miller gave us Dark Knight, but like Alan Moore’s copycats, these people writing these stories today don’t have the skill or talent of Miller so credulity is stretched so a decreasing audience laps up the mindless violence in these dark, joyless comics. These comics also suffer from DC’s habit of hiring artists with poor storytelling which makes me wonder what the editors actually do?

Then there’s the ongoing road accident which is the Brian Bendis Superman titles.

Bendis hasn’t written anything worth reading in well over a decade and has been trading upon past glories for some time, but this run has been a complete disaster. He doesn’t get the character for a start, however it’s the overly wordy scripts (show don’t tell, this is comics after all) which again, editors should be returning but DC are paying Bendis stupid sums of money though with little return so far. The issue with Bendis is he needs to be reigned in and this doesn’t do this. I’ll see what he does when he leaves and starts Justice League, but I expect little or no change.

As for Marvel things are improving, however Jason Aaron’s turgid Avengers title displays all the problems with many modern comics in the writer has been brought up on a diet of comics and genre fiction, so we get recycled ideas from this.

It isn’t that this title is awful, but it’s just the same old stuff rehashed for the same old audience with little in the way of style or wit. A problem with many a comic coming from the Big Two. Stuck between pandering to an adult audience with one eye on the new readers who often get chased away thanks to the simply disastrous way companies, and fans, conduct themselves. Make these kids characters for kids but at the same time make it capable for adults to derive enjoyment out of them without having to read a bloodbath every issue or see someone like Bendis cram six word balloons into one panel.

I’ve realised I’ve been far too negative here, so in the next part some titles worth looking at…

50 years of the Overstreet Comics Price Guide

I’ve been reading this much of this week.

The Overstreet Price Guide is and essential for dealers and fans for 50 years now, and when I’ve been a ful-time dealer it was something I always had in my box of stuff I’d carry around with me in the shop or at conventions. It wasn’t always right, sometimes it’d be horribly overpriced but as a reference book it was essential though it never dealt with UK prices (I’ve often wondered why Overstreet never did a UK guide) which meant going on memory or relying on the often sketchy UK Price Guide Duncan McApline produces.

But 50 years for what was a glorified fanzine (it grew out of the fandom that sprung up of EC Comics, and in fact it’s often missed how EC drove what we know today as fandom) is extraordinary, as are the top reams of talent that have produced covers for it over the decades who’ve helped the Overstreet guide what it is. This celebration is a fascinating read of the backstory of the guide, plus the comics that have made it as after all, people really buy this to see what their copy of X-Force #1 is worth.

There’s some nice articles reprinted here too. Especially of interest is the interview with Bob Kane from 1989 which in hindsight misses out some large bits of history but is still fascinating, plus the article on ‘patriotic’ (some might say jingoistic) covers is nice, but most of the book just celebrates Bob Overstreet and what he’s done for comics for 50 years and although the guide is normally a book for the hardcore fan or dealer only, this is a more accessible book and a lovely bit of history. Go check it out if only for the galleries of beautiful covers…