Inside John Byrne’s studio

For those of us of a certain age the name John Byrne is associated with the X Men.

As well as his Superman reboot.

Over the last decade or so Byrne’s been doing bits and bobs away from Marvel or DC, though there is a rumour he’s working on an X Men book again. Byrne has a pretty Marmite reputation with fans but this is someone who helped change modern superhero comics, and really probably deserves more credit than he gets.

The video below is a fascinating tour round his studio and his collection of original art. It should make you supremely jealous. Enjoy.

Should superhero comics be political?

A comic shop chain Coliseum Of Comics,  in America released this statement by their owner Phil Boyle the other day via Bleeding Cool in regards ‘political comics’.

Publishers, get your politics out of my stores!

We live in a climate of polarity, with people being violently opposed to issues and events. Note the word “violently” and then think about what you’re bringing to our stores.  With every new proclamation from either the White House or CNN we have a new round of vitriol coming from the opposing side. 

I’ve always told my staff that we are the safe zone from what’s outside our doors.  I’ve been touting this policy before safe spaces were a thing, not because we need to be protected but because we provide entertainment. To be crystal clear, we provide entertainment. We are not mouthpieces for any polarizing cause nor is our shelf space for rent to any organization, left, right, or center.  If you want to support fighting cancer or bullying, all good. No one is fighting for worse cancers or more bullying.  If you want to put Planned Parenthood or the NRA on my stands, you’re getting no traction in my stores.  We are not for sale and we’re not going to undermine our store’s tranquility for your cause-of-the-month.

Get your politics off my stands.  Get political figures off the covers.  Get poorly disguised villains out of your books.  Get back to telling stories that don’t remind people of the vitriol and bile being spewed from every direction; we have enough outlets for that. You’re not being clever.  You’re not being altruistic.  You’re costing me the carefully built atmosphere that has allowed me to sell your books over the last 3+ decades to people of all races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientation as well as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and no doubt a few anarchists as well.

Don’t screw that up.

It is frankly, a childish inane statement which is me being nice. The idea that the medium of comics is to purely ‘provide entertainment’ isn’t just restrictive on the medium itself, but it’s actively restricting your business by just having comics which meet your restricted world-view.

Now it is entirely down to Boyle as to what he sells as after all it is his business, but stripping politics from art, any sort of art, is just an attempt to sterilise art. From looking at his website, it is clear he’s focusing on superheroes and fantasy, which as said is fine, escapism is a glorious thing but you can’t live in a world of escapism and you can’t cut politics out of the superhero as the superhero’s origins are rooted in politics.

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Take Superman for example. In his early years he’d fight crooked landlords, corrupt politicians and generally act like a socialist working class hero fighting for the common man. Another example is Captain America who was designed as a propaganda tool to help fight the Nazis. The X-Men were a metaphor for any persecuted minority. Early Marvel comics in the early 1960’s pumped out anti-Communist propaganda so characters like Iron Man and The Hulk are rooted in politics. In the 1960’s Marvel and DC published comics which tried to deal with the issues of the time to draw people in and reflect the world they live in.

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In fact the drug awareness comics DC and Marvel did in the 1960’s were widely praised at the time, if however they seem somewhat clunky to a modern eye.

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Then there’s the link between costumed crime fighters and the Ku Klux Klan. Superheroes are inherently political; not to mention powerful, fantasy figures that can provide people with entertainment but underneath all that spandex is a seething mass of politics to be used by creators as they wish, and consumed by readers accordingly.

What Boyle seems to be doing is calling for his shops to be a ‘safe space‘. Now Boyle is quite clearly coming at this from an American right wing point of view, but the idea that someone can demand creators cut politics out of superhero comics is as said at the start of this; painfully childish. I’d wonder what the likes of Boyle would say if for example, Batman started cheering on Donald Trump and beating up Mexicans for a laugh, but the point is that superhero comics are just fine doing politics of any political slant.

The only thing that matters is whether the comic is good and it is perfectly possible to do a massively entertaining comic with a serious political slant. Not every comic has to be serious, but the fact we’re seeing cries for a genre of comics to be turned into mindless pap (well, beyond what they are right now) is just depressing but I suppose a sign of how fucked as a culture we seem to be when people demand a genre rooted in politics denies itself a chance to express itself beyond childish power fantasies for teenage boys.

Overstreets World of Comics-Comic book documentary from 1993

This is a cracking find. Overstreet’s World of Comics is a documentary based around the San Diego Comic Convention in 1993 and details the world of comics as they were in those days just before the great comics bubble of the early 90’s went POP! It’s a fascinating watch to see how people thought that comics were going to be a huge investment for the future, and that comics coming from the likes of Valiant were massive investments. They weren’t. The entire market went down the toilet and a number of the companies featured in this film like Topps, went under, and companies like Marvel nearly went bankrupt.

What is striking is how comic focused San Diego was then as opposed to the big pop culture event it is. It’s about the medium of comics and there’s a lovely bit in the film about Golden Age artists like Murphy Anderson, a history of EC Comics, as well as a great interview with Jack Kirby, the man who built the house that Marvel are now exploiting for their films like The Avengers and Captain America.  It is however, Todd McFarlane who hogs a lot of time on the film because at that time Spawn was the biggest selling comic in the world, selling around a half a million to a million copies on average per issue. There’s a certain sad irony looking back at this seeing McFarlane talk with such idealism; something that vanished when the money started flooding in.

The film does have some amazingly tacky music running through it that makes it feel like a health and safety training video you see on the first day of a new job, If you can ignore that then this is a great bit of archive, if only to see Stan Lee say with a straight face that he hates taking from what other people have done….

My top 20 Comic Book films-8-X Men 2

I did my top 20 horror and SF films last year, and found doing the lists to be more fun than expected, so in a massive bit of logic here’s my top 20 films adapted or inspired from comics. I need to point out I mean comics, not ‘superhero comics’ which is a lazy, and incorrect way to describe a wonderfully varied medium and it’d also cut out some bloody good films!

Previously, in this list at #20, X Men19The Crow18Heavy Metal, 17, Spider Man ,16The Avengers, 15Danger: Diabolik, 14The Dark Knight Trilogy , 13A History of Violence12Kick Ass , 11,Spider Man 2 , 10, Barbarella and 9, Batman Returns.

Next up is X Men 2, or X2, or the sequel to the first Bryan Singer X Men film.

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X Men 2 is pretty much the perfect modern superhero film. It’s got engaging characters, plot, subtexts, action, metaphors and lots of people in leather jumpsuits hitting and tabbing each other with their adamantium claws. It really is one of those rare cases where the sequel is not only as good as the first film, but actually totally surpasses it. Yes, it sometimes does get swamped by the amount of characters in it but most of the time all the various plot threads seem to be going somewhere rather than just hopelessly flailing around hoping that everything sorts itself up during it’s running time.

This is also the film where Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine clearly becomes the main character in these films which is obviously why producers decided to make an awful and a slightly less awful couple of Wolverine solo films, though the entire film hinges on Stryker, the character played by the always superb Brian Cox. Without him there’s no plot so in effect he becomes the film’s MacGuffin.

Singer puts a lot of work in this film to make it work as it’s own beast as opposed to a sequel, and what most expected at the time, a middle film in a trilogy that he’d complete. Sadly, Singer decided to go away and make Superman Returns and some worthless shite hack made a third film that’s not even worth wasting any more spite upon. I do look forward to Singer’s return with Days of Future Past if only to see if he’s remembered how to make a good film as he’s not done one since X Men 2. I can but hope….

Next up, who was the law again?

My top 20 Comic Book films-20-X-Men

I did my top 20 horror and SF films last year, and found doing the lists to be more fun than expected, so in a massive bit of logic here’s my top 20 films adapted or inspired from comics. I need to point out I mean comics, not ‘superhero comics’ which is a lazy, and incorrect way to describe a wonderfully varied medium and it’d also cut out some bloody good films!

So, lets kick off with what’s widely accepted to have kicked off the modern superhero film, Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film.

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What’s amazing about watching this for the first time in probably a decade is how amazingly cheap (if one can call a 75 million dollar film ‘cheap’) it all looks,with only the opening set in Nazi Germany looking even remotely cinematic at all. It is for all intents and purposes a glorified TV film  with a bunch of actors who were unknowns (Hugh Jackman, James Marsden), famous for TV or theatre acting (Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart) so the only person coming close to being an Established Film Star is Halle Berry who even then wasn’t at the level she is now.

The plot for what it is, is standard superhero stuff for the comics. Bad guy Magneto wants to mutate world leaders and help start a race war. Good guy Professor X and his X Men want to stop them and bring together mutants and humans through peaceful means. There’s a few vague set-pieces and a showdown in the Statue of Liberty that’s a bit underwhelming followed by the promise of something larger happening should there be a sequel.

If it sounds like I don’t really like the film as I’m concentrating on the more negative aspects of the film, then that would be wrong. I do like the film but it’s snuck itself into my top 20 because although the plot is awful, it’s the first time that Marvel managed to get it’s superheroes to work in film. It showed that not only would they work, but they’d emerge onscreen in the same one or two dimensional glory of their comic book counterparts. There’s also the excellent performances of McKellen and Stewart which do a lot of heavy lifting that the other actors fail to do mainly because their parts are so painfully underwritten they have nothing to work with.

It’s an enjoyable bit of fluff that opened the door for some very good films indeed, and not just from the superhero genre but from the wider world of comics. It forced producers to look at comics more seriously so for that and the two central performances it’s in my top 20.

There, I didn’t even mention the shonky CGI……

Next time, dig out the black eyeliner and black trenchcoat…

Hide and Seek

The first comic I remember reading is Asterix in Switzerland and I was probably three. In fact it’s one of the earliest memories I have and it’s a golden one as I still chuckle at it because it’s such a bloody great piece of comics but at three I just liked Obelix, and didn’t get the puns regarding the English translations of the original French names til much later but I digress..

It was the first thing I remember reading though I know I was reading earlier than that but it was this book that stood out and opened up a world to me so I went from Asterix, to Tintin, to DC (especially The Flash and the JLA) and eventually Marvel Comics through their Marvel UK reprints such as Mighty World of Marvel with that funky Hulk transfer which I nagged to get ironed on a t-shirt so I could be a cool five year old.

It was at this point I started collecting. I’d moved onto the hard stuff as my older brothers were buying American Marvel of DC comics, plus the odd Gold Key or Charlton comic. I started getting into the Hulk thanks to the simply glorious art of Herb Trimpe, the first American superhero artist whose name I remembered because it sounded so weird to a boy living in Glasgow who was five or six. So I tagged along with my brothers as they searched for comics.

This is where I need to make a point to any younger reader here who is wondering what I mean by ‘search’. Surely there were comic shops? Well no,this was the early 70’s in the UK and in Glasgow when distribution of American imported comics were at best patchy, though DC had slightly better distribution than Marvel, it was still a search to get an issue you might have missed and with the first few comic shops in the UK several years away and the first shop in Glasgow years away beyond that (1980 if I remember right) you had to know where to go.

This meant being shown the ancient sources of four-colour fun. So at the time I lived in Possilpark,  and in the mid-70’s the family moved to Milton which was a case of moving from the fire into the frying pan but this is a topic for another time, let’s stick to comics and how to get them.

There were shops which sold comics, and McGhee’s, the newsagent near where we lived in Milton was one, as was on in the middle of Possil but the trick was to find where you could get the hard to find stuff. So by eight or nine (75/76) I knew the chemist in Possil who had a load of American comics under the counter in boxes they’d had sitting there for years which even had Warren Comics as well as Marvel and DC; I knew the newsagent on Maryhill Road  who had spinners full of comics going back to the late 60’s; I knew the old bookshop by Partick station that was full of strange men in long coats that looked a wee bit crusty and stained but it was here I found my first American comic I bought with my own pennies and it was a Herb Trimpe Hulk!

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From here on I expanded my territory. I already knew of the three stalls at the Barras that sold comics, and it was here I picked up JLA #30 for 50p!

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I still have that comic. I genuinely love looking at it, and taking it out it’s bag to smell it because the smell of an old comic is like nothing on Earth One or Earth Two.

But back to the trail..

I’d also by 77 or 78, discovered newsagents by Queen Street station and Central Station that sold comics, another few shops/porno bookshops in the West End and pretty much every single place which sold comics over half of Glasgow.

See, part of the problem was that Marvel would distribute some of their American comics via newsagents in the UK as long as they weren’t titles published by Marvel UK, so there was a Spider Man Marvel UK title which meant the American Spidey dropped out of distribution, and so on. Also they were restricted to 12 titles if I remember right, so you were lucky to get anything at all! This is why if you look at some comic dealers boxes at marts or conventions now you’ll see some titles marked ”ND” which stands for ”non distributed’ which means it didn’t get a newsagent distribution in the UK. This was torture for collectors like me. It did help that my oldest brother used to go to Liverpool when they started their comics marts (they still run today) with an empty suitcase and return with a full one.

I also found by accident while having a Subbuteo set bought for me as a birthday treat a toyshop that had boxes, and I mean boxes, of Marvel comics which were slightly water damaged but readable, and more than a few were in mint condition.

At one point I had ten copies of this:

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What happened to these is another, more painful story but needless to say if I still had two or three of those today I could happily clear my debts and possibly take a month off work.

There was also a magazine stall by St. Enoch’s Square in Glasgow who sold more ballast comics, as that’s what all these were-ballast copies of comics that were doomed to be dumped somewhere between the ports on the Clyde and the US but some smart people saved them. In fact I know there was a warehouse full of these comics in Glasgow in 1978 because several people filled their boots, including a local collector called Pete Root, but more of Pete another time as he’s an important figure not just in the comics scene in Glasgow but quite a few people’s lives, mine included. Consider this a tease…

Anyhow. The amount of ND Marvel’s were ridiculous. Loved the X Men? Forget about reading from #102-108 because they were ND. Spider Man was out of bound and the Hulk, the comic which dragged me in, was nowhere.

By this point Marvel UK titles were running adverts for UK dealers and the first mail order services from the likes of Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in London and Forever People in Bristol, which ended up being my first contact with Bristol and what would end up becoming a large part to my adult life up to the present day but again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

These mail order services were frankly shite. Orders would turn up with titles missing, or comics damaged, or months late. Then one day one of my brothers came home and told me about the fact there was something called ‘The Science Fiction Bookshop’ in that other place, or Edinburgh as it was known to non-Glaswegians. This was around 79 and the SF Bookshop had been open for a good few years but who were we to know that?

My first trip there was sometime in late 1979 and I remember picking up a few issues of the Hulk, and picking this up…

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One of those ND issues of the X Men I needed! Little did I know it;d take another ten years to get all of them but it was a start! I knew a shop where I could get comics I couldn’t get in Glasgow, especially as all the sources I mentioned earlier were going or gone.

So when I hear or read about comic fans today moaning because the latest issue of Batman is an hour late, I have to point out how much easier things are for them now thanks to the network of shops that grew up in the 70’s and early 80’s, not to mention Titan Distributors, an associate company of Forbidden Planet who distributed comics to a growing network of shops across the UK. However it’s the comic distribution wars between Titan and Neptune, and in particular the personality war between Mike Lake (the MD of Titan) and Geoff Fry (the MD of Neptune) which got worse thanks to a comment made by myself to Geoff (for those who don’t know, I worked for Neptune) while travelling to London that made the war escalate to ridiculous (I will tell you dear reader of the races round London, the intimidation, the late night train journeys to Glasgow, and all the other battles in this war another time) degrees. All these things helped get where we are today.

By autumn 1980, Glasgow saw it’s first specialist shop, Futureshock, which is amazingly still open. However it was run by Bob Shaw (who has been mentioned before) and Neil Craig. These people were oil and water, but that’s a story for another time…

1981 saw Glasgow’s first comic mart organised by the local comics fangroup and the whole business with comic shops in Glasgow embarked upon a bizarre and messy few years before things settled down and AKA Books and Comics hit it’s Golden Age.

But for the 1970’s comics fan you had to be committed, patient and most of all obsessed to a degree beyond belief.

It’s now 2013. I sold all those ND X Men years ago even though it took me a decade to get them. Fuck.