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#9 [Feb. 16th, 2011|05:18 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or spend all your money on them and wind up homeless, wrapped in your favourite Calvin & Hobbes strips for warmth)


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#10 [Feb. 15th, 2011|06:03 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

(Internet Archive)

“I’m done, the man who told me Welch rare bit is a harmless dish is a liar.”

The first step in making Welsh rarebit is to convince yourself you are not making cheese on toast with a fancy name. No, this is cooking. It’s foreign, even. This is no ordinary toast. Go out and buy sourdough bread to help convince yourself of this fact.

Heat a frypan and then add the mixture of things I am about to tell you about. If you do not have all of these things, don’t worry. Like most remotely fancy meals, Welsh rarebit started as peasant food a million years ago, and peasants were not noted for being picky about whether they used dijon mustard or cayenne.

Use dijon mustard. Add a teaspoon of it to a small mountain of cheddar cheese (about a cup), as much cream as you think your poor heart can stand and three tablespoons of beer. Drink the rest of that bottle of beer while you cook. Some may tell you that chilli pepper jam is also a valid ingredient. Ignore these people and add two egg yolks if you’re bored by the ingredients so far. Also, salt.

You probably had to buy a six-pack of beer to get those three tablespoons. Now would be a fine time to drink the rest.

Fry all of the stuff together with a knobble of butter in the pan until it is a big mess of artery-hardener. You know what, we may as well add a splash milk to complete the dairy quadfecta. It will become good and goopy when the cheese melts. Spread it all the way to the corners of the four slices of sourdough toast that I have not actually told you to toast yet, but which you should have started toasting on both sides already. Put them back in the grill with maybe a slice of tomato and one of those odd-looking mushrooms from my backyard on top. You will only need two slices to feel full, but make four just so that you can get good and sick, which is the effect we are aiming for here.

When the goo has melted and is starting to golden brown, take them out of the grill. Drizzle Worcestershire sauce and sprinkle pepper over the top. Then try to eat them without dying.

The first one is quite tasty, in that it tastes like tomato and mushroom on top of a hillock of bland creaminess. The second one is more so and you should be feeling full by the end of it. I know I am.

Winsor McCay’s comic strip Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend ran in the New York World-Telegram from 1904 under the pseudonym of Silas. Each Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend is essentially the same formula – a disturbing dream that ends with the dreamer waking up and swearing off the consumption of cheesy meals before bedtime.

I’ve only once had the experience of a big meal causing strange dreams. It was pizza, so perhaps there is something to the idea that cheese is some kind of hallucinatory dream-fuel.

“There probably is,” says the Fiend.

I polish off the last of the second slice.

“Well done,” says the Fiend, sounding impressed. He is red but only on Saturdays. During the week he’s in black and white; on Sundays he doesn’t exist at all.

“Thanks,” I say, picking up the third slice queasily.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” asks the Fiend.

“I’m going on a vision quest. I’m nearing the end of this 100 Comics To Read Before You etcetera project, but it’s getting hard. There are all of these great strips and single-panel comics and webcomics, but it’s hard to wank on about what they’re ‘really about’ for a few hundred words when they’re so succinct. Even wordy Winsor McCay’s strips are pretty self-explanatory. Look, just read one. What can I add to that?”

I take a bite, inhaling like I’m slurping noodles to cool down the molten core of cheese.

“Surely there’s a healthier approach,” the Fiend says in his cream-smooth voice.

“It’s better than smoking magic cigarettes. Rarebit has a history in comics. Have you heard of Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends?”

“Let’s say I haven’t.”

“Comics artist Rick Veitch kept a dream diary. He’d give himself 15 minutes to record his dreams of the night before in comics form, which was appropriate because his dreams were heavily influenced by all the comics he read and drew. He’d dream about machines that looked like they were drawn by Jack Kirby, and about other comics creators. After Alan Moore, who he’d worked with on Swamp Thing, announced that he’d become a practising occultist, Veitch dreamed about the two of them hunting demons together. It was great.”

The Fiend raises a single, sharply angled Winsor McCay eyebrow.

“Um, no offence. It was just a dream.” I shovel in another mouthful of rarebit. I’m slowing down, I can feel it. My brain’s still going but my heart rate’s dropping and I chew the cooling gunk like a cow on cud. Oh god, all this dairy, I’m becoming a cow. Don’t think about it or it’ll happen and you don’t want to dream about having udders. Big pink things dangling and swinging.

“What you’ve done then,” says the Fiend, “is summon a demon to ask for advice on a comics project.”

“Yes. Oh god, I’m becoming Alan Moore. Find me a razor, I must shave!”

“Calm down,” says the Fiend. “Finish off that slice and I’ll tell you what to do.”

I choke it down, tiring. It feels like I’ve been eating for ages, like I was born with this stuff in my mouth and will die the same way. It’s exhausting. It feels like I have been eating since the 11th of December, 2007. I think I’m at risk of getting sick of whatever this food is a metaphor for. I don’t even like cheese.

“Here’s what you do,” says the Fiend, one hand on the back of my chair and the other on the table, one foot flat and the other pointed toe down like a 1910 gentleman. “Stop writing about them. Let them sell themselves. All you need to do is pick them out and show them to people. You don’t need to write something 1,000 words long to explain this. Your work here is done. Swallow that last mouthful and go to sleep.”

It makes so much sense. Why didn’t I think of that? My head gently touches down in the cloudy softness of the fourth and final slice.

The last thing I hear before losing consciousness is the voice of the Fiend. “Sweet dreams,” he says.

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#11 [Feb. 13th, 2011|10:42 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#11 GLACIAL PERIOD – Nicolas De Crécy
(NBM Publishing)

“And apart from children, what beings are naïve enough to express themselves through drawing, in your opinion?”

In a distant, frozen future a team of archaeologists trek across a landscape of glaciers and seracs in search of the treasures of the past. With them are several genetically engineered dogs, who have been enhanced with pig DNA to make them more human without actually making them more human, because that would be creepy. One of them has also been given a sense of smell so powerful he can ‘smell history’. That comes in handy when they discover a cache of artwork from the Louvre.

Glacial Period was one of a series of comics commissioned by the Louvre, which means Nicolas De Crécy had free rein to incorporate its art into his own. As the team of squabbling academics explore, they try to deduce what the past was like based on this art and often are hilariously wrong – one comes to the conclusion that we must have had thick skin, like walruses, to survive the cold in such thin clothes. Confused by the strange concept of hanging images on walls they presume a sequence, and try to construct a story from them. Essentially, they try to read the Louvre like a comic book. As they do, famous paintings become the panels of the comic we’re reading. But the story the historians create is their own; they see what they want to see rather than what’s there. Even when they come across pieces that are literally able to speak across the centuries to them, the future re-shapes them to become whatever they need.

It’s a message so clear it doesn’t need to be examined further or explained, one that might just have a chance of surviving the centuries and any frozen apocalypse to come.
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#12 [Feb. 12th, 2011|09:42 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#12 RANMA ½ – Rumiko Takahashi

“She’s really a very sweet girl. She’s just a violent maniac.”

Pretending that the setup of Ranma ½ really matters would be beyond me, so I won’t. Let’s sum it up quick and dirty: teenager Ranma is a star of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling who suffers from a curse. Cold water turns him into a girl; hot water turns him back into a boy. Boy or girl, he’s almost undefeatable in a fight. This leads to violent solutions to the love triangles beyond counting he/she is trapped in. Also his father is sometimes a panda.

In Ranma, everyone solves their problems with challenges. If two girls like the same boy, then obviously they have to resolve this with a rhythmic gymnastic wrestling match. If someone steals your pet pig, that’s an issue that can only be dealt with by a combat skate-off. Even something as simple as noodle delivery becomes The Anything Goes Miss Martial Arts Takeout Race. You know how in dance movies every problem in the world can be solved by dancing? Particularly if it’s some kind of dance-off in which somebody gets ‘served’ and then somebody else ‘steps up’ in extreme cases ‘to the street’? Ranma is like a dance movie with martial arts instead of synchronised boogying. There is no difficulty that cannot be overcome by finding someone’s weak point or kicking them through the ceiling.

As kung-fu heroes, the characters in Ranma ½ can catch swords with their bare hands and balance on poles, but their ability to perform ridiculous feats is taken even further. Every kick sends someone into the sky and punches come by the hundred (per second). When Ranma is almost pushed out of the ring during a bout by a gush of water from a firehose, he fights back by swimming upstream through the torrent. The laws of physics are violated as casually as in a Looney Tunes cartoon, and Rumiko Takahashi draws it as cartoonishly as one.

Those characters who aren’t heroes know it. One thug carries a stopwatch so he can time how long it takes for him and his mates to be defeated, since it’s obviously inevitable. Even the locations seem to understand what’s expected of them and self-destruct spectacularly whenever it’s time for another round of escalation.

For all that, it’s also a romantic comedy (with gender-swapping) that artfully juggles a massive cast of confused characters, all of whom have reasons to be in conflict with everyone else. Those characters just happen to be incredibly skilful violent maniacs.
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#13 [Jan. 21st, 2011|05:14 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#13 THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS – Lewis Carroll, adapted by Kyle Baker
(Classics Illustrated)

“Kitty, let’s pretend that you’re the Red Queen.”

Writers love to bring out the darkness and insanity of the Alice stories when retelling them, but a straightforward adaptation is plenty dark and insane because there’s so much of madness in them already. Alice’s virtue is her common sense, a clever child’s understanding of the rules of the world, and in every chapter of the books it’s shown to be useless in a world that doesn’t realise it’s supposed to follow any sort of rules at all. Nonsense beats common sense, and outnumbers it too.

Where Wonderland is a daydream place Alice falls into while lazing around on a summer day, Looking-Glass Land is a place she explicitly and consciously creates, laying down its boundaries while talking to her cats. Alice is the kind of child who has a vivid internal world, which is the sort of thing people say about children who are asocial and neurotic. Her opening monologue flits from topic to topic with as much connection between them as the locations in a dream: “That’s three faults, Kitty, and you’ve not been punished for any of them yet. You know I’m saving up your punishments – Suppose they saved up all my punishments. What would they do at the end of the year? I should be sent to prison, I suppose.

Alice is a crazy cat lady in training. In 40 years’ time, she’ll be eating pet food on toast. In 60 the neighbours will wonder why nobody realised she was dead until the cats had been eating her for a week. She’s a cranky always-knows-best in training who spends the story constantly being confronted by people who earnestly believe incredibly stupid things but will not be convinced that they’re wrong.

Kyle Baker’s artwork is perfectly suited to witty back-and-forth banter between bigmouths, it’s exactly what Why I Hate Saturn is all about, and here he also gets to play with sudden reversals in tone and expression of a cast of nursery-rhyme caricatures. His Humpty-Dumpty in particular is a triumph of smug shiftiness.

At the end of Alice’s journeys there’s a puzzle, another of the book’s existential quandaries about the nature of dream and reality. Of course, like most of Lewis Carroll’s riddles, no answer is given. There isn’t one. There’s nothing but the staring eyes of a cat who'll never care how mad you've gone.
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#14 [Jan. 19th, 2011|06:30 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#14 THE PIRATES OF CONEY ISLAND – Rick Spears, Vasily Lolos

“It’s those damn comic books. They rot the brain I tell ya--”

Gangs of street kids with colourful themes brawl with each other and hijack cars while a Cadillac everybody wants that casts no reflection cruises past in the background. Sounds pretty simple when you sum it up like that, but The Pirates Of Coney Island is all about its style, not its plot. It’s a self-described “manual on how to be awesome” with all the attitude of a sneering high-schooler’s pencil case covered in pictures of knives and skulls.

Garish fairground purples, greens and reds dominate the colours. Zip-A-Tone dots ripped out of punk zines cover the backgrounds. The sound effects are big and comedic – everything goes brrmm! or hurgle! or especially kung-fu shaaa. The bad guy is so heavy metal that his sound effects have umlauts. Everybody carries a signature weapon, from slingshot to shuriken, and the violence is both cartoonish and gut-churningly grotesque.

The Pirates of the title are an all-boy gang who lapse into Arrr-speak while driving a van that flies the Jolly Roger and engaging in turf wars with the Cherries, an all-girl gang who rob stores between pyjama parties. It’s like Tank Girl having sex with The Warriors while Repo Man watches. As pretty a picture as that just painted for you, there’s a down side to reading The Pirates Of Coney Island. It’s an unfinished symphony, six issues out of a planned eight, and the final two have been delayed so long they’ve become lost treasures that may never be dug up. Welcome to the world of comics, breaking your heart since you learned to read.
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#15 [Jan. 2nd, 2011|10:52 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#15 COMIC BOOK COMICS – Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey
(Evil Twin)

“This comic is a work of historical scholarship.”

The history of comics is full of fascinating stories. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book Comics tells them in the same style they used in Action Philosophers! – narration focussing on the facts while the art plays it loose like a ragtime melody, mischievously lagging half a beat behind and poking fun at the characters you’ve just read about. They’re drawn like political cartoons: Walt Disney is a mouse with a moustache; the slow-working Harvey Kurtzman a tortoise. The story of one of the founders of Crime Does Not Pay being arrested for murder is drawn in the style of one of his book’s own true crime exploitation strips, which it resembles right down to the ironic twist.

It’s hard to imagine another way to tell some of these stories. When Will Eisner refused to perjure himself during a copyright infringement case – he’d worked on a Superman-ripoff called Wonder Man owned by Fox Features Syndicate – his former boss, Victor Fox, tried to have revenge by hiring away all of Eisner’s art staff. Fox placed an ad under the name of a made-up editor to advertise the jobs, not realising that Eisner’s art staff were all made up as well, pseudonyms he adopted to make his studio sound more impressive. It’s a story of secret identities that begs to be accompanied by a picture of Wonder Man being give a cease-and-desist by Lawyer Man and Lady Justice.

Comic Book Comics shows that the stories behind the creation of comics are sometimes as interesting, and as unbelievable, as the ones that take place within them.
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#16 [Dec. 30th, 2010|02:19 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#16 PLUTO – Naoki Urasawa, Takashi Nagasaki

“He said that when his time came... he just wanted to be chopped up, melted down and recycled...”

Pluto is a chopping up, melting down and recycling of a famous Astro Boy storyline: ‘The Greatest Robot On Earth’. The original is about a villain hunting the world’s seven best robots, who of course include Astro Boy. This remake takes one of those robots, a German-made android detective who is a minor character in the original, and makes him the protagonist. In doing so, it becomes a murder mystery.

What it keeps from Astro Boy is the sentimental tone. The cartoon’s sad violin music would play for two-thirds of every weepy episode, and a similar soundtrack would suit Pluto. Its robots make touching attempts at being human by taking the jazz musician’s advice, “fake it till you make it,” and applying it to everything. They copy people by drinking tea, eating ice cream, even crying, all in the hope that eventually they’ll figure out why we do these things and in doing so what it means to be human.

Meanwhile, the only robot to ever achieve ‘perfection’ is also the only recorded robot to have murdered a person; a mechanical Hannibal Lector who is visited in prison by our android detective, Gesicht, for advice when the killer begins targeting humans as well. The human victims are all former UN weapons inspectors, which is where Pluto veers into politics. In the war between a thinly disguised future USA and future Iraq that they failed to prevent, all of the seven robots served as peacekeepers of varying kinds. This allegory mostly exists to give each of the seven an opportunity to make some variation on the Iron Giant’s “I am not a gun” speech, each of them suffering some kind of trauma from the war and none of them emotionally equipped to deal with it.

Their attempts at learning by copying resemble children copying adults, made most obvious through the character of Atom, who is Pluto’s version of Astro Boy. While he’s the most advanced of all the robots in terms of human-ness he’s also stuck in the body of a child. Likewise, Pluto the series is a murder mystery that explores themes of identity – it’s basically Silence Of The Blade Runners – that’s still a kids’ story about robots. Without that child-like innocence though, it wouldn’t be able to get away with its almost mawkish side, which tugs on the heartstrings with a ruthless effectiveness.
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#17 [Dec. 10th, 2010|05:05 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#17 SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY – Grant Morrison, J. H. Williams III, Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette, Doug Mahnke, Cameron Stewart, Simone Bianchi, Ryan Sook, Pasqual Ferry

“Stay with me. I know it’s a lot of information, but that’s the way I work. Everything at once.”

A musical fugue contains multiple voices – whether instruments or actual singers – all clamouring at once in what would seem like a chaotic mess if the themes hadn’t been highlighted at the start so that later the listener instinctively picks them out of the din, making sense of the messy whole by focussing on only part of it at a time. Seven Soldiers Of Victory is a fugue in comics form. It’s also a crossover.

Comic-book crossovers rarely work very well. They sell a lot of copies because the more characters are involved in a story the more chances somebody will be invested in some of those characters – Pride And Prejudice And Zombies appeals to people who like Mr Darcy and people who like shambling corpses, right? – but they’re often a mess of creators working at cross purposes. Every creative team wants their hero to be central to whatever massive, unwieldy plot contraption had to be contrived to draw them all together, but that’s impossible in practice. That’s not to mention the jarring changes in tone and style, plot holes and the inevitable deux ex machina ending.

“Threadbare and ragged...the work of too many hands to ever fit properly...”

Seven Soldiers avoids that clash of cross purposes both by being the work of a single writer and by not having most of its main characters ever meet. Between two bookend issues, Seven Soldiers is actually seven different miniseries about seven different characters whose stories overlap and inform each other to varying degrees, but never actually get together to say, “Let’s go fight off that invasion!” and then pose for a dramatic double-page spread in brand new costumes.

They do fight off that invasion, though. The invaders are the Sheeda, and rather than being aliens or interdimensional monstrosities they’re our descendants from the distant future, a decadent Earth at the end of days called Summer’s End. Bored and jaded, they romp through time hunting the best humanity has to offer at civilisation’s peaks – the last time they were here King Arthur was around – and stealing our innovations to rejuvenate their own debauched and listless culture. Basically, they’ve come from the end of time to steal our trends.

“Can you see the pretty metaphor I make of this combat, Spyder?”

There’s a metatextual element here, as that’s an apt summary of where mainstream comics are in the 21st century: rapaciously pillaging the back catalogue for characters and concepts to dust off and revive for another round of nostalgic adventures. Amusingly, the Seven disconnected Soldiers who are our last defence against the Sheeda are all denizens of the back catalogue themselves. Klarion The Witch Boy, outcast from a secret underground society of Puritan witches, is a reimagined version of an old Jack Kirby character, as is the escape artist Mr. Miracle. The Bulleteer and the Manhattan Guardian are legacy heroes, taking on the mantles of older characters. Zatanna the magician is a DC character who’d been repeatedly pulled out of the box to go through some trauma and then shoved back in. The Shining Knight is a time traveller from Camelot and Frankenstein is, well, Frankenstein’s monster transposed to the modern day and given some of Hellboy’s attitude. The only protection against a future that wants to steal our ideas is a collection of old ideas revamped and freshened up, made relevant with a new coat of paint.

And maybe a brand new costume, because Seven Soldiers is a comic that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The Bulleteer is a satire of the way female superheroes are sexualised who nevertheless is drawn bending over provocatively as often as possible. The villains steal ideas from the past, which is exactly what Morrison is doing by writing these heroes. And if it didn’t end in a blatant deus ex machina, it wouldn’t really be a proper superhero crossover at all.
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In Which I Review The New N.E.R.D Album [Dec. 1st, 2010|02:13 pm]
Pharrell Williams should either stop letting his wang co-write his songs or start giving it a credit in the liner notes.

More at the link.
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