Things I’ve written: a few novels, a few short stories, a column on this very website extolling the virtues of comics as a medium for speculative fiction. Now, for better or worse, I’ve written an actual comic too: Rogue Trooper, published by IDW, issue #1 of which is in comic book shops and digital outlets including but not limited to Comixology this very week.
So what happens when a novelist tries to write a comic? Herewith, a select few of the very many things that have occurred to me as I’ve begun to learn this new craft.
We’ve arrived at what’s going to be the last of these columns for a while, quite possibly for good. But we’ll get to the signing off bit at the end. First, a comic that feels kind of fitting as a coda to this whole rambling discourse about the medium.
Why fitting? Partly because it’s heroic fantasy – Conan, THE heroic fantasy some might say – and that’s a sub-genre my own prose writing has often ventured into, so it feels kind of right that I finally get around to talking about it in this here column. Oddly, compared to horror or science fiction at least, secondary world fantasy in general is a speculative genre that hasn’t acquired really hefty traction in the comics medium. The reasons for that aren’t entirely obvious to me, but in any case Conan is an exception, having a loooong list of comics in his history. This volume of which we speak today is the first in a continuing run by writer Brian Wood, paired with a succession of interesting artists.
More importantly, it’s fitting because this is an adaptation of a story about a character who has been the subject (victim might be more apt) of several adaptations in the film medium. It therefore gives me a chance to parade my pro-comics bias by insisting that this is a better and more interesting adaptation than any Conan movie has been.
John Higgins was an important part of the process that turned younger me into a dedicated fan of comics. The truth is, though, that back then I probably didn’t really understand just how important he was, because his original specialty was colouring comics and my appreciation of the absolutely crucial and skilled role such folks play in the medium was, I confess, rudimentary in those early days.
John coloured Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, two of the iconic and in many ways transformative comics of the 1980s, and his work on them undoubtedly broke new colouring ground. His talents don’t remotely end there, though. He’s an accomplished comics artist, with a diverse body of work that includes lots of output for 2000AD in the UK and the big US publishers.
As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a writer, which brings us to the excuse for this interview: the publication by Titan Comics of a re-mastered collected edition of Razorjack, a character and series he created, wrote, illustrated and coloured. We talk about that, of course, but cover a lot of other ground too …
When I first started reading manga, I had a self-imposed rule (more of a guideline, I suppose): don’t start reading a series unless you’ve got a pretty good idea how many volumes it’s going to run to. I was trying to defend my time and budget in the face of manga’s tendency to produce series that just go on and on and on …
Well, so much for that. Two new series here that could go on forever, for all I know. I couldn’t resist trying them anyway, since one is by an artist I particularly like and the other is the hot new thing in manga, both in Japan and the West. A proper, license-to-print money kind of hit.
These two comics share the age-old manga theme of man vs monsters. In both we have Humanity at Bay! Barely Sentient Monsters on the Prowl! Elite Young Heroes Rising to Mankind’s Defence! In fact, they have an enormous number of similarities, but they still manage to be utterly and completely different. I like it when that kind of thing happens. One’s mecha sf, one’s … well, kind of hard to categorise but let’s call it a horror/sf hybrid.
First a quick PSA: Commenters on the last W&P column harangued me into buying and watching the movie Dredd, so if anyone wants to know what I thought of it, I’ve obediently done a very brief review of it in that comments thread. Such is the awesome power of the SF Signal commentariat.
On to today’s business. I’m a pretty hard sell when it comes to superhero comics. Much as the idea and the underlying tropes of them still appeal in theory, the actual material rarely grabs me as it once did. Not because it’s deteriorated — in significant ways, most superhero comics nowadays are better than the ones I enthusiastically devoured as a youth — but because what I value and enjoy in comics has changed as I’ve aged (boy, have I aged), and the price of comics these days makes me waaaay more impatient with anything that doesn’t provide what I’m after.
There are exceptions, though: bright little corners of the superhero universes that deliver the sort of craft, coherence and entertainment that I seek. Those qualities, when they’re present, more or less invariably arise from an uncomplicated source: talented writers and artists given enough freedom to produce tonally and narratively consistent stories that project their distinctive creative voices.
In evidence of which I offer two series, which just so happen to be written by a couple of guys I reckon to be amongst the best current writers of mainstream superhero comics, despite being wildly different in style and voice…
In its mere fourteen or so years of existence, IDW has become one of the success stories in US comics, having already established itself as the 4th biggest publisher of comics sold through comics specialty shops (the top two are obvious, the third’s Image, for anyone who’s curious).
Amongst lots of pretty well-received material based on licensed properties, like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek, the company’s also produced two of my very favourite comics of the last few years: Locke & Key, which I’ve talked about here before and hope to revisit when the final collected edition is published; and Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of the Richard Stark Parker novels, which I’ll sadly never discuss here because they’re pure crime fiction, but I can assure you they’re very, very good.
Now, IDW has launched a full frontal, no-holds-barred assault on my affections by directly targeting my childhood. Using a Judge Dredd comic. As it turns out (says he coming back to edit the intro, having discovered that what follows didn’t turn out quite as expected), that means I’m about to mostly talk about my childhood, the oddities of Dredd as a character, US vs UK sensibilities and various other odds and ends. But I do talk the comic itself a bit too, so all is not lost.
As a paid up member of the geek squad, there are two animation studios that I naturally revere above all others: Pixar and Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ghibli is, I don’t suppose many folks round here need telling, the spring from which such wonders as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and (personal favourite coming up) My Neighbor Totoro have flowed. As I understand it, its origins can be traced to the success of a much earlier film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was an adaptation by Hayao Miyazaki (subsequently one of Ghibli’s co-founders) of his own manga.
I’ve never seen the film version of Nausicaa (I’d quite like to now – I assume it’s worth a watch, but maybe someone can confirm?), but I gather it’s a somewhat slimmed down version of the story told in the manga. That’s easy to believe, as said manga covers a lot of ground. Ground that’s so strewn with the themes, preoccupations and tropes that pervade Studio Ghibli’s later output that it feels completely convincing as the seed from which that great tree has grown. It almost feels as if all Miyazaki’s subsequent filmic output is hidden here in the pages of Nausicaa, in embryonic form.
Our zombie overlords have stuck around as an all-conquering pop culture meme a whole lot longer than I thought they would, to be honest. Although I’m not instinctively fascinated by the entire sub-genre, I do like certain iterations of zombie fiction. I’ve even kind of written some myself.
But I don’t read the head honcho of zombie comics, The Walking Dead, any more (all that suffering finally became too much for me, delicate little flower that I am). Fortunately, there are other takes on the risen dead out there in the world of comics, so I thought I’d take a look at a couple of them.
One, Revival, is the first volume of a new continuing series which is perhaps not strictly about zombies, but definitely about the living dead. The other, The New Deadwardians, is a self-contained story, complete in one volume, that’s certainly about zombies but also about vampires, thereby doubling its quotient of zeitgeisty pop culture icons.
They both demonstrate that a bit of imagination and lateral thinking can squeeze fresh and interesting blood even from a stone that’s been pretty much squeezed to death already .
Any period of superhero comic addiction, such as I briefly enjoyed in my youth, leaves you with one or two favourite characters. It’s kind of the point: these characters are immortal, corporately-owned properties, their value to their owners largely measured by the persistence and financial implications of the attachment they instil in readers.
For me, there were plenty of favoured characters back in the day, but there was only one true favourite: Daredevil.
So here comes a look at three different takes on Daredevil: one from the 1980s, one from the 2000s and one from right now. I don’t let my nostalgic inner fanboy out to play in these columns very often, so just this once I thought I’d give him some air.
I could offer the further justification that it’s a simple little case study in the extended life of corporate superheroes, and the effect story-telling trends and gifted writers have on them. It kind of is, but honestly I’m just a bit of a DD groupie.
A while back, I said 2012 was notable for two things in comicsworld: Image Comics and sf. (Advance publication schedules suggest 2013 will also be notable for two things, btw: Image Comics and sf.)
I also said Saga, flagship of the trend, was a certainty for a Hugo nomination and a potential winner. Still true. If Saga doesn’t get a graphic story Hugo nomination I’d be a bit uncertain about the point of the category, to be honest (but I’m sure it will, so no worries). If it doesn’t win … well, tastes vary and webcomics have a heavy advantage over print. But it’s certainly the most accomplished sf/fantasy comic, of the broadest appeal, I saw last year.
So Saga’s probably my favourite 2013 Hugo-eligible comic. But only by the narrowest of margins, because it was not the most unexpected, exhilarating, deep-genre Hugo-eligible comic I’ve read. That prize goes to yet another Image sf product: Prophet.
It too would be a worthy nominee or even winner of the Hugo. It won’t win, may well not get nominated (but there’s still time to get those nominations in!), because not enough people are reading it; it’s nevertheless remarkable, and feels more deeply rooted in the soil of the sf genre – prose, film, everything – than any comic I’ve read in a while.
Generally speaking, the physicality of comics is quite a big deal to me. I don’t get the same satisfaction from reading this stuff digitally as I do from the paper and ink version. To be honest, if money was no object I’d be reading all my favourite series in hardback, since a hardback collection or graphic novel that’s had care and consideration lavished upon its production is one of (my) life’s minor delights.
Alas, money is an object, so my collection of hardbacks is strictly limited. The most satisfyingly chunky and heavy of all are the four volumes of B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs. You could kill a decent-sized rat with one of these things. Possibly even a small dog. You can get the story in other more modest formats but I happened to get the first volume in hardback, and couldn’t bring myself to switch thereafter. (Hang-ups about format continuity = sign of slightly nerdy fanhood, I suspect).
Fortunately, I’ve not regretted that choice, since it’s been a very entertaining and interesting fictional journey.
Before I get into the specifics of The Manhattan Projects, a new series from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra, one passing observation: The Manhattan Projects exemplifies a couple of notable trends in comics in 2012 (the flagship for both of which is Saga, discussed last time around).
The first is the resurgence of its publisher, Image Comics, which has become the vehicle of choice for a pretty dramatic new wave of creator-owned comics from well-known writers and artists. The second is the dominance of speculative, and especially science, fiction as the genre of choice for those talented creators. 2012 has been, in part, the year of those two things in comicsworld: Image Comics and sf. If you’re not an habitual comics reader you won’t have noticed, of course; but the comics industry as a whole sure has.
Even if they’re both part of a bigger pattern, though, Saga and The Manhattan Projects are as different as different can be. If Saga was all about understated, relaxed mastery of the medium, The Manhattan Projects is crazy, dense, inventive, satirical, provocative, flashy and all about being uniquely itself. It’s really a whole lot easier to experience the thing than to describe it, but for my sins I’m here to attempt the latter.
Before I even laid eyes on the first collected edition of Saga, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples, I had it pegged as a certain nominee for and potential winner of the 2013 Best Graphic Story Hugo. The online comics commentariat had greeted the series rapturously. The internet was awash with folks calling it the best sf comic of 2012, and there were plenty calling it the best comic of any kind.
I already knew Brian K Vaughan has some remarkable technical gifts as a comics writer, and therefore pretty much believed the hype. I was prepared to be entirely blown away by Saga. When I did read it, though, I was not blown away. I liked it well enough, but was not struck dumb by its awesomeness.
Then I thought about it for a bit, I read it again, and – belatedly – I got it. Saga is very good, just not in quite the dramatic ways I was half-expecting. It’s not wildly innovative in technique or narrative; it’s not a revolutionary statement of new possibilities for comics. Rather, its goodness – perhaps even greatness – is of the comparatively quiet, unshowy sort, making the difficult and sophisticated look simple and effortless (and thus, perhaps, invisible). It’s all about the craft, this one.
I talked about Demon Knights, the Paul Cornell-scripted series from DC, in this column not so long ago, and thought it’d be fun to follow that up with a chat with the man himself. Here’s that chat, but first just a word or two of intro.
Paul Cornell’s got a pretty remarkable body of work under his belt, from the writing point of view. He’s a screenwriter, novelist and comics writer of very considerable experience. He’s also a knowledgeable and sincere fan of all things science fictional, as regularly demonstrated on the Hugo-winning SF Squeecast, where he’s a regular.
The two comics series that currently have his name on them are the aforementioned Demon Knights from DC (though since this discussion, it’s been announced he’ll be handing over those writing duties to a successor shortly) and Saucer Country, his creator-owned series from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Also imminent is the first in a series of novels, London Falling, more info on which will be revealed in what follows.
On with the talk …
In 1954, Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent was published, and the US comics industry was never the same again. His angst over the corruption of young minds by comics led fairly directly to all manner of stifling consequences, not the least of which was the near extinction of a previously thriving market for horror comics. (And, perhaps indirectly, the rise to dominance of the smothering comfort blanket that is the superhero genre).
Japan never had a Wertham to contend with. There, a million strange and unsettling flowers have been allowed to blossom unhindered in the comics medium; including, notably, some pretty full-on horror blooms. I can’t imagine what Wertham would make of modern manga. Quite possibly, he’d have a seizure of some sort, the poor chap.
I am consistently caught off guard by manga, in a way that US comics very rarely manage. I regularly have my brain twisted into shapes to which it is unaccustomed. (Wertham would not approve). Witness today’s example, which in the space of just three volumes took me from ‘This is rather silly, but kind of creepy’ to being genuinely startled by its disturbing closing chapters. Plus, it changed the way I look at snails, which is … well, no comic’s ever done that before.
As I said the other day, this was meant to part of a single post about a couple of comics from DC’s relaunched ‘New 52’ line, but I fumbled the well-intentioned ball of concise fun-focus and found myself writing about other stuff that popped into my head while reading. Result: two columns, not one.
So welcome to Part 2, wherein I take a look at a well-known but nevertheless B(C?)-list member of DC’s mighty character portfolio, Catwoman.
In a sense, this is all quite well timed, as some of the stuff I’m going to get into connects rather closely to recent discussions on the world-renowned SF Signal podcast. I’ll link to the relevant episode(s), down below. I’ll also just note, by way of getting my excuses in early, that I have more questions to offer than answers.
Some of the other stuff I’m going to talk about is not nearly so tricky, though, so that’s probably the place to start.
Last year DC Comics – one of the two corporate behemoths dominating the monthly comics market in the US – cancelled all their superhero titles, some of which had unbroken runs stretching back decades, and relaunched with 52 new #1s. It was a Hail Mary pass, prompted by long-running and cumulatively punishing declines in circulation. (Marvel, DC’s great competitor, is similarly afflicted and they’re also going to try something dramatic, if less ambitious, relaunching 20+ of their titles starting in October).
As a result of the DC relaunch a heap of collected editions is starting to emerge, all introducing new storylines, characters and/or status quos, all notionally good starting points for the new or lapsed reader. As a semi-lapsed superhero aficionado, I figured I’d test these fresh waters, in a quest for nothing more complicated than fun.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I failed to adhere to my self-imposed quest parameters, getting thoroughly distracted by non fun-related things like the structure of certain famous movie endings, the power of nostalgia and the objectification of women in superhero comics. Indeed, despite only trying to talk about a couple of comics, I got distracted at such length that I’ve split what was going to be one column into two.
Today, then, you get the first installment, which is the one in which I get sidetracked by movie endings.
Sooner or later, if you’re talking about comics with speculative fiction elements, the conversation’s going to get to The Walking Dead. This right here is that point.
Why? Because: best-selling comic in the US this July? Walking Dead #100. By a loooong way. Anniversary issues always get a jump in sales (in this case, more of a rocket launch than a jump), but even so here’s a black and white, creator-owned zombie comic dramatically outselling Batman, Spider-Man, any corporately owned and marketed superhero you care to mention.
I’ve read the first eleven trade paperback collections (out of sixteen available), so what follows is based solely on that much reading. It’ll also be spoiler-free, which is always my preference but – almost uniquely in the world of online comics talk – there is anyway a widely, if imperfectly, observed self-imposed ban on spoiling The Walking Dead. That tells you a lot about the nature of the series’ appeal, as I’ll get into below.
My expectation: this is going to end up with the subjective and objective colliding, beating one another about the head and collapsing in an unresolved heap on the floor, because I have issues with The Walking Dead that are in part to do with me, not the material. But that in itself is interesting, if obvious: the reader brings their own preferences, state of mind, entire life, to a text and the resulting amalgamated experience can be about much more than any inherent qualities of that text.
Superheroes are going to feature in this column quite a bit over the next few installments. Not exclusively, but pretty regularly.
I could waffle on at length about the fascinating idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of the whole superhero sub-genre that’s essentially run in the US by Marvel and DC, but I’m not sure anyone else would find it half as fascinating as I do (although, honestly, it’s one of the most unusual systems for creating, publishing, distributing and selling fiction you could ever imagine). So for now here’s just one proposition that sets the scene for the two titles I thought I’d talk about today.
Quite a lot of the long-running superhero series display a couple of apparently contradictory characteristics that can be an obstacle for the objective, casual (i.e. non-‘fan’) reader. They revel in dense and new-reader-hostile continuity, the established canon of past stories that exists in their respective shared universes; yet they also play fast and loose with the narrative, psychological or physical plausibility and internal consistency that are staples of most other kinds of fiction. Sometimes, superhero comics require not so much the suspension of disbelief as its ritual sacrifice upon an altar dedicated to the gods of never-ending, bombastic soap opera.
Finder is sf of a very distinctive kind that isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. I’m not even certain it’s wholly, or always, to mine.
But do I think it’s remarkable? Absolutely. I’ve got a feeling that if comics were regarded as a normal, integral part of the sf field by fans and particularly critics, in the way that novels, short stories and to some extent film/TV are, there would be those – not everyone by any means, but some folks – citing Finder as a major work in the context of that whole field and giving it a lot of awards.
Do I wish there were more comics like Finder in the world? Definitely; but not too many, because I’m not sure my attention span’s up to the job. I don’t think my descriptive faculties are up to the job of conveying what Finder is like, either, but it doesn’t do to let inevitable failure deter one so off we go.