Sunday, 31 August 2014

I went to Sheffield Comic Con & met Mel Bush & two Doctor Whos!!!!!

I've had an amazing weekend at Sheffield Comic Con. As well as spending far too much money on Iron Man comics and Doctor Who DVDs I was also able to meet Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, and Bonnie Langford. All three were wonderful, but McGann and Langford were particularly nice and seemed to be going out of their way to help the people posing for photos with them to feel at ease. Which was good for me as I was in bits with nerves and hero worship.

I attended two Doctor Who Q & A panels. The first featured McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Frazer Hines, and John Leeson, while the second consisted of McGann, Langford, Louise Jameson, Terry Molloy (who did his Davros voice!!!), and Dan Starkey. I asked the first panel to name their favourite Doctor Who story. Sophie Aldred said hers was Curse of Fenric as it was the first time we saw a darker side to Sylvester's Doctor. Frazer Hines said he enjoyed the challenge of arguing with himself in Big Finish's The Glorious Revolution, in which he plays both Jamie and the Second Doctor. Then John Leeson went off on a tangent that had nothing to do with my question but was nonetheless very entertaining. 

At the second Q & A I was able to tell McGann, Langford, Molloy, and Jameson how much I love their Big Finish work, and that I was particularly glad that Big Finish have given McGann and Langford a chance to shine (given their brief stints on board the TV version of the TARDIS). I then asked if there were any Big Finish adventures coming up in which the 8th Doctor and Mel would work together. They both seemed very interested in the idea and said they'd suggest it to Big Finish. 

I would have loved to have got a photo with every Doctor Who star present this weekend but my wallet (and my nerves) couldn't take the strain. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic experience meeting some lovely people.

I bloody love Doctor Who!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

RIP Jim Petrie

"Enjoy this curry, Fatso."
An hour ago I read on the Beano website that Jim Petrie has died. He was one of my favourite artists when I was a kid & his work had a massive influence on my own art work and my sense of humour. Yet weirdly, until I read that sad announcement sixty minutes ago I didn't even know his name.

Despite my woeful ignorance regarding the identity of a man whose work helped mold me into the person I am today, I still often think of his Minnie the Minx strips and laugh. That sounds like the type of insincere twaddle people write about someone who's just died, but it's true. One strip that always makes me laugh whenever I remember it was about Minnie's dad's efforts to get his daughter to have a bath. The strip began with Minnie, covered in muck watching Eastenders on the telly and cheering a growling image of Leslie Grantham on the screen; "Go on, Dirty Den! Be dirtier!"
Found the actual strip by Googling 'Beano 1988'! Living in the future is great.

Petrie also drew a series of film/book parodies starring a Minnie supporting character, Fattie Fudge. These strips (written by Craig Ferguson) involved Fudge's attempts to gorge himself on food while playing the role of the protagonist of whichever film or book was being parodied. To this day I can't hear the famous Macbeth line "Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble" without mentally finishing the line with "MacBroth drinks it at the double!" while picturing a bekilted Fudge gleefully downing a witches cauldron of broth.

The Fat-Tum of the Opera

Whenever I draw cartoons I still unconsciously (and unsuccessfully) try and emulate Petrie's' s style. His Minnie would often leap into the air, legs akimbo, stretching her beret above her head in triumph. It's a pose that I find cropping up in my work a lot, but of course it never looks as good. Petrie also had a fantastic way of drawing spindly fingers and knobbly noses, and I'll often find myself trying to give my characters similar features.

It's a real shame that it never occurred to me to find out the identity of the man responsible for these cherished memories. My ignorance not withstanding, Jim Petrie was a true comic book legend. My condolences to his friends and family. A proper obituary can be found here and Lew Stringer (another favourite artist of mine) has a number of examples of Petrie' s work on his blog.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Top Five Best Comic Book Writers Ever!

There are a number of comics writers whose work I love. James Robinson, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Mark Waid, Stan Lee, Denny O' Neil, Garth Ennis, Scott Snyder, Dan Slott, Roger Stern, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Marv Wolfman, J. Michael Straczynski, and Jim Shooter are just some of them. But for this article I've attempted to list the creators whose work has given me the most joy throughout my entire life. The writers whose words and ideas stay with me long after I've put the comic down.

5. Gerry Conway

If I'm reading a comic from the 70s/80s & I think "Wow, this is bloody good" more often than not I find it's been written by Gerry Conway. In 1972 at 19 years of age Conway took over writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man from Stan Lee. That's pretty damn impressive in itself. According to Conway, in order to make up for his lack of experience and maturity he "wrote instinctively and from the gut". The imagination, creativity and sheer range of ideas on display during his Spidey run is testament to this. Conway's contribution to the Spidey universe is almost as big as Stan Lee's! Under Conway Spidey had his first encounters with the Punisher, the Jackal, Man-Wolf, and Tarantula. Conway was not only the writer who cloned Spider-Man, he was also the writer who married Aunt May to Doctor Octopus! But despite all these amazing ideas Conway is probably most famous for killing off Gwen Stacy. That particular story has been imitated and referenced (most recently in Amazing Spider-Man 2) more than any other Spidey story, save for the origin. But the shock of Gwen's death is by no means the only reason it's remembered. It's one of the most powerful superhero stories ever written, Peter Parker's grief and rage burns from every page and we feel like we're experiencing it right alongside him. We also get a deeper insight into Norman Osborn's madness and its destructive effect on his son than we ever got before, and we witness for the first time the hidden depths beneath Mary Jane Watson's party girl facade. This story defined Spidey and his world almost as much as his origin.

But Conway didn't just make his mark at Marvel. Among Conway's many achievements at DC was a lengthy run on Justice League of America, where he wrote some of my favourite Justice League stories of all time. These include a tale involving the League getting their minds swapped with the Secret Society of Super-Villains, and an adventure where the League help Zatanna discover the origins of the sub-race of magical humans to which her mother belonged, Homo magi. Conway also wrote several of the best Justice League/Justice Society team ups, including an Agatha Christie style murder mystery on board the JLA Satellite HQ and the very first team up between the two teams and Jack Kirby's New Gods. 

While these are my personal favourite examples of Conway's work they are by no means the only examples of his significant contribution to the history of super-hero comics. He co-created Firestorm with Al Milgrom, Vixen with Bob Oksner, and introduced Jason Todd and Killer Croc to the Batman mythos. He also wrote the very first Superman-Spider-Man team-up. Without Conway the world of super-hero comics would be a very different place.

Essential Reading

The Amazing Spider-Man #121–122, 143-149 (1973-1975)

Firestorm #1-5 (1978)

Justice League of America #163-168, 171-172, 183-185 (1979-1980)

4. Peter David

If all Peter David had managed in his career was his Incredible Hulk run then he'd still be lauded as one of the best super-hero comics writers ever. But David is also responsible for lengthy, much loved & consistently brilliant runs on Aquaman, Supergirl, Young Justice, X-Factor, and many more. One of the things that makes David's Hulk run so incredible (see what I did there?) is that he understood that change is an integral part of the character. When Stan Lee wrote the first six issues of Incredible Hulk he experimented with the character, changing his status quo from issue to issue. David followed Lee's example and during his run readers barely had time to adjust to Hulk's life as a fugitive from the military before he suddenly became a mob enforcer for a Vegas casino, and then a leader of a secret organisation, and then a bearded tyrant from the future! Under David, Hulk was a green skinned savage, a grey skinned pervert, and a pony-tailed boffin in a muscle vest. But it never felt as if David was making changes because he didn't know what to do with the character. Throughout all the many transformations David kept a firm grasp on the core of the character. David understands the Hulk like only a few others do.

David is also responsible for making Aquaman a force to be reckoned with. Geoff Johns has garnered a great deal of (well deserved) praise recently for tackling the fish jokes head on and showing the world just how badass Aquaman can be. But David was doing exactly that back when Johns was still writing fan letters to Superboy. David's Aquaman was not a guy to be trifled with. In one memorable issue the Sea-King invaded Japan in a gigantic, skull-shaped, telepathic, meteorite-spaceship. David deftly blended soap-opera, super-hero action, and political intrigue to make Aquaman one of the best comics of the 90s. His Aquaman origin story, The Atlantis Chronicles is a genunine epic masterpiece and it's a crime that it's never been collected as a hardcover or even a paperback.

I've barely scraped the surface of David's many achievements. In Supergirl he explored religion and identity. In X-Factor he explored the lives of mutants living on the fringes of Marvel's superhero community. In Young Justice he actually made Red Tornado interesting! Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to superhero lore was his Spider-Man story, 'The Death of Jean DeWolff'. This grim but compelling, Death Wish inspired tale gave us an insight into the anger and frustration that Spidey carries around with him and had repurcussions for the character that are still being felt today.

And if all that wasn't awesome enough, he created Spider-Man 2099!

Essential Reading

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 (1985-1986)

The Atlantis Chronicles #1-7 (1990)

Aquaman: Time and Tide #1-4 (1993)

Aquaman #0-46 (1994-1998)

Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect (1993)

Supergirl #1-80 (2002-2003)

3. Alan Moore

A bit of an obvious choice for a Best Comics Writers list, but tough, Moore deserves his reputation as one of the greatest comics genius of all time! I'm finding it a bit hard to write about him to be honest because he's made no secret of his contempt for modern superhero comics and their audience. He recently stated;
These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not 9 to 13, it's nothing to do with them. It's an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year-old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it - they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal.
Crikey, he's really got my number! I've read and loved a lot of Moore's work but it's his superhero writing that's resonated with me the most. But I can't help but feel uncomfortable writing about my love of his superhero work when Moore would probably see that love as evidence that I'm a philistinic, emotionally stunted man-child. Balls to him though, I'm going to do it anyway.

Moore's probably most famous for Watchmen, the 12 issue maxi-series in which he takes the concept of the superhero to it's logical and terrifying conclusion. But my personal favourite of all of Moore's work is Miracleman, in which he takes the concept of the superhero to a completely different but equally logical and terrifying conclusion. Only Moore could turn the superhero genre on its head twice, in completely different ways. Miracleman is quite simply the most powerful and affecting comic I've ever read. Scenes from the comic clung to me for days after reading it. I went to sleep thinking about it every night for a week after I first read it. It's uncomfortable and horrific in places, and it demands that its readers asks themselves serious questions about the superhero myth and what it really means. But the story is so compelling and the characters are so real that it's never a difficult read, quite the opposite in fact.

Another favourite of mine is Moore's work on Supreme, a cheap Superman knock-off created by Rob Liefeld. Rather than take Supreme as another opportunity to reinvent the superhero genre, Moore seemed to decide to have a bit of fun with it. Given a Superman rip-off to write Moore set about making Supreme the greatest Superman rip-off there ever was. Supreme is Moore's love letter to the Superman comics he grew up with in the 60s. Every aspect of Silver Age Superman's life has an equivalent (Radar the Hound Supreme - Krypto the Super-Dog, Suprema - Supergirl, Darius Dax - Lex Luthor, Supremium - Kryptonite, The League of Infinity - The Legion of Superheroes, etc), and when Supreme has flashbacks of his past they're in the form of stories written and drawn in the style of 40s, 50s and 60s DC comics. This all sounds quite self indulgent but it really isn't. After all the deconstruction and hard questions of his older superhero work it's fantastic to see exactly what drew Moore to superheroes when he was a child. Moore's love for the imagination and fun of those old comics really shines through. And of course, at the core of all the fan wank are great stories and great characters.

Moore has been responsible for so many of my favourite comics; The Saga of Swamp Thing, his Superman stories, The Killing Joke, Tom Strong, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Captain Britain, and V for Vendetta. If he didn't want emotionally subnormal man-children like me writing about him he shouldn't write such amazing comics.

Essential Reading

Miracleman (1982-89)
A Dream of Flying 
Red King Syndrome 

The Saga of Swamp Thing #20-64 (1984–1987)

Supreme (1996-1998)
The Story of the Year
Judgement Day
The Return

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Deluxe Edition Hardcover (2009)

2. Geoff Johns

The thing that makes Geoff Johns such a fantastic writer is his ability to uncover and bring to the surface the simple, core truth of a character. When Johns writes a character he strips away all the clutter and baggage that character has amassed over the years and finds that unique, defining quality that made the character popular in the first place. He has a knack for being able to convey years of character development and plot points in a few lines of dialogue. In a few lines he can explain why he thinks any particular character is cool and why you should too. Johns is King of the 'Elevator-Pitch'. He does this better than any other writer and as a result he's written some of the most accessible superhero comics ever created.

His work on JSA probably best exemplifies this. The Justice Society of America is a team of Golden Age superheroes and their successors. They were a team of B, C, and D List heroes who had been through a number of different writers and a number of status quo changes. Johns took each and every one of them and, (without discarding much, if any of their backstory) molded them into characters you could pitch to a TV executive or, more importantly a potential fan in just a few sentences. For example Power Girl and Hawkman were two JSA members with histories that were inextricably tied up with convoluted, contradictory and discarded storylines. They were considered by many to be broken characters. Johns streamlined both characters into something that could grab you, without losing anything that made them who they were. Of course, they had always been amazing characters, but it took Johns to see the potential through the clutter and show us just how amazing they were.

Over the years Johns has done the same thing for Green Lantern, Booster Gold, Legion of Superheroes, Flash and his Rogues, Shazam, Cyborg, Superboy, Aquaman, Lex Luthor, and even Superman. Most recently in the pages of Justice League he made me a massive fan of the Metal Men in just one issue. When he worked for Marvel he wrote a Vision mini-series that I guarantee will make you love the Vision.

Johns is also master of the 'F**k-yeah' moment. Whenever a comic has made me literally punch the air with joy and shout "f**k yeah!", most of the time it's a Johns comic. Johns' Superman doesn't just defeat Brainiac, he grinds Brainiac's face into the mud and says "Welcome to Earth!" Under Johns' pen, Green Lantern doesn't just rise from the dead, he rises from the dead at the eleventh hour "with plenty of damn will!" Johns throws a lot of pretty big threats at his heroes (he's gained a reputation for maiming Z-List characters), but when they eventually win, they really WIN!

If you're reading this because you want to get into superhero comics I can unreservedly recommend pretty much any Geoff Johns comic as a good place to start. He will make you love these characters as much as he does.

Essential Reading

Justice Society of America #5-77, 81, Annual #1 (2000-2006)

The Flash #164-225 (2000-2005), The Flash: Iron Heights (2001)

Green Lantern: Rebirth #1-6 (2004-2005)

Action Comics # 844-846, 850-851, 855-870, Annual #10-11 (2006-2008)

Blackest Night #0-8 (2009-2010)

Justice League #1-50 (2011-2016)

Forever Evil #1-7 (2013-2014)

Batman Earth One Vol 1-2 (2012,2015)

1. Grant Morrison

Ever heard of B'wana Beast? He's an obscure 60s superhero with the power to merge any two animals together to form a chimera. If you had the power of B'wana Beast, and you were to merge Alan Moore and Geoff Johns together into one unholy super-creature, you would have created Grant Morrison. Morrison has Alan Moore's imagination, intellect, vision and creative ambition merged with Geoff Johns' love of superheroes, knack for stripping characters down to their 'elevator-pitch', and ability to craft a perfect "f**k-yeah" moment. He is, to my mind, the perfect comics writer.

I first fell in love with Morrison's work when I bought the trade paperback of his first Justice League of America arc, New World Order. I was 15 and had gone off comics a bit. I bought JLA: New World Order on a whim, not expecting much from it. I'm pleased to say it sucked me right back into the world of comics fandom where I have remained immersed to this day. After reading it I remember phoning a friend who had also fallen out of love with comics somewhat and urging him to read it, declaring "I didn't know they made comics like this anymore!" Morrison's JLA run is typical of his work. It contains mind boggling concepts (such as a villain that can control coincidence, or a planet sized weapon that emits hate created by a race of extinct gods) but grounds them with characters who have understandable and relatable reactions and motivations, and enough "F**K-yeah!" moments to make your arm tired punching the air. During the course of Morrison's JLA run Superman wrestles an angel and holds up the moon, Green Arrow and the Atom take out cosmic badass Darkseid, and Batman outwits and defeats a man who can download the fighting skills of all the worlds' best fighters into his brain.

It's impossible to sum up Morrison's many ideas and innovations in a few paragraphs. He's had Superman perform twelve final super-feats before going to live in the sun to keep it burning for the next million years. He's made the X-Men fight villains from a stage of evolution even higher than homo superior. He's had the Flash race his childhood imaginary friend across the Universe. He's made Animal Man realise he's in a comic. In 2008 he gave us a company-wide DC Comics event of the sort we'd never seen before, Final Crisis, in which Darkseid takes over the world, the Justice League have to fight a cosmic vampire who feeds on stories, and Superman has to sing the Universe back into existence. He's just completed a huge run of Batman stories that incorporated every single version of the character from the past 75 years into one coherent narrative. He also killed Batman and had him fight his way through Earth's history in order to come back to life, introduced Batman's long lost son - Damien Wayne, and introduced a team of international heroes who are members of a Batman franchise. Most recently Morrison has revamped Superman by telling modern stories about the Man of Steel facing alien invaders and creatures from the 5th dimension in the fast paced, two fisted style of the character's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

As well as the mythology of the characters Morrison has also experimented with how a story can be told with comic books. For example, Seven Soldiers is comprised of two single issues that bookend seven mini-series about seven vastly different characters that can be read in any order to tell one hugely entertaining story.

However it's not just superheroes that Morrison is famous for. One of his most celebrated stories is We3, in which a dog, a rabbit, and a cat who have been made into living, cybernetic weapons work together to escape their captors and return home. It's the most absurd and violent comic ever to move me to tears. I never thought I could care so deeply for cybernetically enhanced pets.

But, as with Alan Moore, it will always be Morrison's superhero work that resonates with me the most. Morrison seems to really love superheroes. As far as he's concerned superheroes represent the best in all of us and the very fact that a race as damaged and flawed as us has created them is cause for joy and optimism. As the man himself put it; 
I love all the characters, but Superman is just this perfect human pop-culture distillation of a really basic idea. He's a good guy. He loves us. He will not stop in defending us. How beautiful is that? He's like a sci-fi Jesus. He'll never let you down. And only in fiction can that guy actually exist, because real guys will always let you down one way or another. We actually made up an idea that beautiful. That's just cool to me. We made a little paper universe where all of the above is true.
Morrison conveys his love for the superhero genre while expanding our minds with huge, abstract concepts, speaking to us through characters with authentic emotions and motivations, and using the medium of comics to its maxium potential. This is why he's my all time favourite comics writer ever.

Who's yours?

Essential Reading

Animal Man #1-26 (1988-1990)

Doom Patrol #19-63, Doom Force #1(1989–1993)

Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10 (1990)

JLA #1-41 (1997-2000)

New X-Men #114-154, Annual 2001 (2001-2004)

We3 #1-3 (2004–2005)

All-Star Superman

Seven Soldiers (2005-2006)
Seven Soldiers #0-1
Manhattan Guardian #1-4
Shining Knight #1-4
Klarion the Witch Boy #1-4
Zatanna #1-4
Mister Miracle #1-4
Bulleteer #1-4
Frankenstein #1-4 

Batman (2006-2013)
Batman #655-658, 663-669, 672-683, 700-702
Batman and Robin #1-16
Batman: The Return 
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1-6
Batman Incorporated v1 #1-8
Batman: Leviathan Strikes!
Batman Incorporated v2 # 1-13

Final Crisis #1-7, Final Crisis: Submit, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1-2 (2008–2009)

Action Comics #0-18 (2011-2012)