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#21 [Oct. 4th, 2010|08:18 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#21 ALEC – Eddie Campbell
(Top Shelf)


“The nicest thing in this world is just to be with your friends. No big story need come of it. The adrenalin may not flow. But those things are necessary too.”

Eddie Campbell’s autobiography begins as a chronicle of the cheerful misadventures of his drinking buddies – you get the impression he’s writing it all down as proof against alcohol-induced amnesia to come – who gather around a pub that has its identity protected from the incursions of nosy future comics historians by being renamed ‘The King Canute’. Campbell’s best friend ‘Danny Grey’ is likewise protected by pseudonym, in his case because of one or two charges that may still be outstanding at the time of publication. Having renamed the pub and its best customer, Campbell goes on to rename himself as well, dubbed ‘Alec McGarry’ for the purposes of authorial distance.

It works well, as the Alec McGarry of the early chapters is a very different figure from the Eddie Campbell who has emerged 600 pages later. As well as eventually dropping the pseudonym he drops his youthful lack of ambition, becomes a successful (struggling) artist, marries and has three kids. The kids just sort of arrive and then insinuate themselves into the narrative until they’ve practically taken over in a way that feels very natural. Alec/Eddie’s not even drawn the same, as Campbell changes his art style back and forth as he goes. The pages fill up with borrowed panels from other comics as he gets caught up in the graphic novel boom and bust, widen out as he moves to Australia and acclimatises to the open spaces and then narrow back down again as he fills his new life with family and furniture, not to mention a crowded period running a self-publishing company out of the front room. Danny Grey helpfully reappears at each stage of Campbell’s life, their shifting relationship highlighting each change in circumstance.

The art becomes looser and more improvised for a while as Campbell’s life catches up to his retelling of it, turning into one-page anecdotes with titles like This Happened Last Night and This Happened Yesterday. It also begins to include odds and ends from his grand doomed projects, like a book about famous drunks and a history of humour that spins out of a mention in an earlier chapter about how difficult it would be to write a serious study of funniness.

The grandest and most doomed of all projects is the overarching one, squeezing an entire life onto the page. As Campbell gets older he starts looking back past the young Alec and towards the younger Anthony, the middle name his parents called him when he was a kid, who wore his father’s old shirts as painter’s smocks. Meanwhile he’s writing about going grey and ironing his pants for a new job as courtroom artist, pondering when he’ll travel to old man’s town and join the closed-mind fraternity. He’s taking two steps forward and one step back simultaneously, racing against himself while racing against death.

Campbell’s attitude to death is another thing that noticeably changes. Young Alec fantasises about his own funeral and who’ll turn up and what they’ll sing, while later he starts to imagine being caught up in ‘The Dance Of Lifey Death’ between the Grim Reaper and a naked, matronly mother life figure. Middle-aged Campbell is tormented by an insomniac terror he calls The Snooter who takes the form of an insect who buzzes around the bedroom on humid Queensland nights, filling his head with thoughts of the futility of existence.

Mostly what it’s about though is living the good life, and how he fills it to bursting with friends and family and far too many bottles of wine. There are worse role models to have.
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#22 [Aug. 22nd, 2010|12:34 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#22 ALAN’S WAR – Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second)


“At 18 I only knew how to ride a bike. So the first motor vehicle I ever learned to drive was a tank.”

If the experience of being a soldier is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror like they say, Alan’s War is about those long periods of boredom. It’s the story of Alan Cope, a G.I. in World War II who was drafted and then bundled off to Europe at the tail end of his teens. His experience of the war wasn’t one of battles – he only fired a machine gun once and his Purple Heart was awarded for injuries sustained after falling out of a barn – but of exploration. This memoir often reads like a European driving holiday that just happens to be undertaken in a tank instead of a Volvo.

Years after the war, when the retired Cope was enjoying his twilight years in France, he crossed paths with cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert. The story the young cartoonist extracted from the old soldier is a fascinating one despite the relative lack of action, full of the little details that don’t always make it to the History Channel. His training seems almost as dangerous as the war, the new recruits routinely being fired on with live ammunition just to teach them to keep their heads down. Later he hears from a friend in another unit, who were among the first American soldiers in liberated Paris. His friend had a totally different experience of World War II, spending most of it enjoying the company of grateful French girls.

So Alan’s War is as individual an account of World War II as the name suggests. It’s one man’s memories collected together with no grand scheme underlying them. What makes it an invaluable story is the way it follows his life long after the war is over and shows the atypical effects it had on him. Alan’s War is also a wonderful argument for listening to the unique personal histories of our elders as Guibert did, even if they can’t be boiled down into a message or a moral, while we still have the chance.
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#23 [Jul. 31st, 2010|10:50 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#23 SCOTT PILGRIM – Bryan Lee O’Malley
(Oni)


“Is it like in Super Mario 2?”

You may not know it but if you played video games as a kid you’ve been infected by them. One day you’ll be hauling furniture into a moving van and you’ll flash on Tetris, thinking all you need is one of those damn t-shaped blocks to finish this row. Or you’ll step outside on a foggy morning and scan the skies for the winged monstrosities from Silent Hill. For bonus points you won’t be worried because you can’t hear the radio static that warns of danger in the game. For bonus bonus points you are the kind of person who casually talks about bonus points.

Bonus points, along with bonus lives, level-ups, power ratings and other bits of game paraphernalia colour everything that happens to Scott Pilgrim. His life is made up of metaphors that came straight out of a Nintendo in 1988. Scott’s in love with a girl who brings a lot of baggage to the relationship, so naturally that baggage manifests as end-of-level bosses he has to defeat in Street Fighter-style battles to continue dating her. (And sometimes the baggage is an actual magic bag she carries around that connects to a subspace subconscious straight out of a Mario game.) When Scott gets a job he scores experience points, when he goes to the toilet he’s emptying his pee bar. That slightly brain-damaged way of seeing the world in terms of save points and unlockable achievements is how his world really works.

Of course, any kind of entertainment can add itself to the texture of your life, if you’re that way inclined. A song that fits a moment perfectly can drag it out of your memory; a cooking show can make you julienne carrots with a carefree disregard for your fingers. Scott Pilgrim is about those things too, but as strange as it gets when it’s literalising them it remains as accurate a representation of what it’s like to be in your 20s as you’ll find. Specifically what it was like to be a 20-something in the 2000s and the kind who cares about Sonic the Hedgehog and indie rock, but still. No matter how outré it gets, Scott Pilgrim is full of the kind of details that make you laugh, or cringe or wince, with recognition.
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#24 [Jul. 3rd, 2010|07:03 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#24 PHONOGRAM: THE SINGLES CLUB #4 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie
(Image)


“Dancing is imminent. The room is primed. Adventures!”

Phonogram: The Singles Club is a comic book about something as non-Comic Book Guy as you can get – clubbing. The comic-booky thing about it is that in Phonogram’s world music is magic. Or more precisely, being obsessed with music is a magical act. And fair enough too. In Phonogram “I’m on the guest list” are literal magic words, but if you care enough they may as well be an incantation in the real world too.

This issue focuses on two DJs for five hours, almost every panel a shot of the two of them – Seth Bingo, who wears ironic t-shirts and disdain for your favourite band, and Silent Girl, who doesn’t say very much and therefore invests the things she does say with Zen-like wisdom – doing their thing in the DJ booth. This would be boring to look at if it weren’t for Jamie McKelvie’s ability to invest every hair-toss, arm-cross and hip-swing with personality, and the setting allowing for sight gags like a certain Blondie single glowing radioactively.

One of the things a great pop song can do is take a sentiment that’s as clichéd as they come and make it worth listening to for the two-minutes-thirty that it takes to understand why that sentiment was enduring enough to become a cliché in the first place. For instance: if you love something, set it free. In this case, set it free at a monthly club night, or anywhere else other people will have the chance to appreciate it and share a little of that love. Seth Bingo and Silent Girl are the kind of obsessives who don’t just like the music they like, but are driven to proselytize at you about it no matter what you think. They will do inappropriate things to your eardrums with mid-’00s Swedish pop and there’s nothing you can do to stop them, so you may as well enjoy it.

Of course, one of the other things a great pop song does is make you want to dance. Phonogram is a comic you can dance to.
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#25 [Jun. 8th, 2010|08:24 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#25 BRITTEN AND BRÜLIGHTLY – Hannah Berry
(Metropolitan)


“Nowadays I don’t get out of bed for less than a murder. I don’t get out of bed much.”

Fernández Britten is a private eye who used to specialise in catching unfaithful lovers, a depressing job that left him morose and suicidal. After the conclusion of his cases the paranoid and jealous clients remain paranoid and jealous while those whose suspicions were correct are never happy to have them confirmed. The dejected detective swears off investigating affairs, preferring to make himself useful by investigating murders instead. At this point, as is typical in noirish fiction, a dame arrives with a case for him to solve.

Distinctive in profile with his big nose and sunken eyes, Britten snoops and mopes his way through a rainy 1940s London with his partner, Stewart Brülightly. Though born in Ecuador, the repressed Britten is stereotypically British, while his partner is a lecherous teabag. Literally – Britten carries a teabag around in his pocket, carrying out private conversations with it that fill the gaps where normally he’d be delivering exposition to himself. Brülightly, brew-lightly, get it? Yes, it’s very odd. Hannah Berry’s post-war London is strange in several ways. Most significantly, every eatery seems to provide some hidden service that isn’t on the menu, that only investigators and ne’er-do-wells know about.

Britten’s plan to find meaning in his life and cheer himself up by investigating a murder turns out not to be such a great idea. Murders are messy and even people who aren’t spending weekends in the loveshack have dark secrets that are better left unknown for the peace of mind of everybody involved, even those who aren’t already talking to their teabags. Digging through closets looking for skeletons, the noir private eye always teaches his clients the same simple lesson: the truth hurts.
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#26 [Jun. 5th, 2010|11:25 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#26 THE MUPPET SHOW COMIC BOOK #1–4 – Roger Langridge
(Boom!)


“A Muppet Show comic book? Oh no, they’re back to corrupt a whole new medium.”

There have been plenty of comics about the Muppets, but this is The Muppet Show Comic Book, which doesn’t just borrow the characters but the entire format of the TV series. It’s a variety show on the page, with skits, recurring segments like Pigs In Space and the Muppet News and even song-and-dance numbers. The transition from screen to page goes surprisingly smoothly – the news sketch usually ends with a mishap related to one of the headlines befalling the newsreader, so when one of his lead stories is that The Muppet Show has been reformatted as a comic the disaster is the page being turned on him. Of course there’s also a backstage plot to each episode, a character-driven story taking place behind the scenes that is handily resolved in the nick of time for a show-stopping finale.

Before working on The Muppet Show Comic Book, Roger Langridge created Fred The Clown, a comic in which horrible things happened to the title character strip after strip. Its balance of vaudeville and surrealism was somewhat similar to the Muppets, which he matches the tone of perfectly. His likenesses of the puppets are mostly spot-on too, though his ragged, crazy-eyed Gonzo is his own take on the character – the personality remains unchanged, however. Gonzo is still overconfident to a fault and will flirt with literally anything, even the show’s props. The Swedish Chef is another character transferred faultlessly, with dialogue that reads like there was an earthquake during a heavy metal convention in Umlautopia and now we’re drowning in the tidal wave of punctuation and accents that follows.

The balcony critics, Statler and Waldorf, are another essential part of the show replicated here. Jules Feiffer once said, “Critics mean little to a play, except life or death.” (Appropriately enough, he quit his career as a playwright and became famous for his comics.) Statler and Waldorf serve a valuable purpose, and they know it. The Muppets perform the kind of low-budget, seat-of-your-pants, learning-experience amateurishness that every performer starts out doing, the kind of stuff that you only get better at by doing and doing often and often doing badly. Early in every artist’s career they have to get up on the proverbial stage and be showered in heckles and metaphorical rotten fruit. Everybody has to be Fozzie Bear at some point. Statler and Waldorf may be cynical, impossible-to-please old fusspots but they keep coming back every night and hogging the best seats in the house.

The series was relaunched later with a different artist, but these four issues are pure fan mail. There’s no need for them to expand on the subject matter; it’s enough that they recreate it and homage it. The Muppet Show Comic Book is fan mail to Jim Henson for creating a show that was essentially fan mail to theatre, and especially to the people backstage who turn the cogs, please the divas and keep the production going. It’s inspirational, really. Possibly even Muppetational.
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#27 [May. 29th, 2010|05:49 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#27 TEKKON KINKREET: BLACK & WHITE – Taiyō Matsumoto
(Viz)


“This entire city is like their backyard.”

Black and White are two savage, orphaned street brats living in an abandoned car in the slums of Treasure Town. It may sound like a bonus level from a Mario game, but Treasure Town is a genuine concrete jungle, a crime-ridden exemplar of urban decay where nobody even cares that the streets are overrun by wild animals. Black and White are essentially two more of these animals; they’re even nicknamed the Stray Cats. The older Black is worldly and clever where the younger white is naïve to the point of ignorance. At 11 he still relies on Black to tie his shoelaces and has only just learned to count to 10 (he spends a lot of the comic showing off this fact). Black seems much smarter by comparison, but he’s not a genius – his elaborate plan to deal with their counterparts from the next city over encroaching on their turf is to lure them up to a clock tower, wait till it strikes five and then hit them with a stick until they give in.

Though it’s only loosely touched on in the comic and it comes from the mouth of a homeless alcoholic, who is the closest thing Black and White have to family, the two Stray Cats are the living embodiments of Treasure Town. For reasons of its own the city has chosen them to be its representatives and given them vague powers, such as the ability to fly, or at least leapfrog around the skyline and pose strikingly on narrow ledges and poles.

As well as being its representatives, Black and White are Treasure Town’s defenders. The threat they defend it from comes in the shape of Serpent, a mysterious foreigner who is behind a plan to clean up the city, getting rid of its gangs and strip club and moving in a theme park called Kiddie Kastle. It may seem like an improvement, but Serpent’s methods are beyond suspect. He brings the city’s exiled yakuza back as his agents to deal with the lesser gangs and plans to clean up the streets by sending killers after the urchins. The Disneyland he wants to create only has the veneer of innocence, while the gap-toothed, violent and filthy White, who carries a roll of toilet paper on his belt to wipe his constantly leaking nose, has its actuality. To ram the point home, White is obsessed with trying to make an apple tree grow in the thin soil of his back-alley Eden and the angle-faced Serpent looks downright reptilian.

While the kids make a stand to protect their home’s squalor like they’re protecting a sandpit from someone trying to shuffle them off to play somewhere more hygienic, they also have to deal with each other. Black and White are balanced opposites whose separation, when it inevitably comes, turns out to be more of a threat to Treasure Town’s essential character than redevelopment. Black and White, experience and innocence, are as necessary to each other and to the life of the city as Yin and Yang.
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#28 [May. 17th, 2010|08:25 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#28 STRAY BULLETS #6 – David Lapham
(El Capitan)


“I sort of had a hail of bullets in mind.”

Stray Bullets explores the fallout from the kind of events that would be centre stage in your typical crime drama. Its cast are low-rent crims and ordinary bystanders whose lives are drastically affected by the violent actions of gangsters and professional thugs, tossed around on the ripples made by the passing of bigger fish. One of these ordinary bystanders is a girl named Virginia Applejack, whose presence in any issue of Stray Bullets is a sign that things are about to get especially nasty – her life is just a string of horrible occurrences one after the other.

Issue six is different. This issue travels inside Virginia’s head to show her fantasy alter ego, Amy Racecar. Amy is a bank-robbing tough girl, a Bonnie who doesn’t need a Clyde to slow her down. The story of Amy Racecar as imagined by this little girl is a bullet-happy daydream dripping in blood. The people who try to stop her once she becomes a celebrity who gets pestered for autographs in the middle of robberies, from the President to the head of the FBI, are all dopey caricatures of ineptitude who thoroughly deserve everything they get – just like her mother and everyone else who runs her world. In Amy Racecar’s world even God is just a useless doofus who pulls silly magic tricks like an amateur-magician uncle.

The way the story combines a childish worldview with garish violence is a sign of how disturbed its teller is, but it also shows how she’s coping. Between the lines she’s just a messed-up kid making sense of a messed-up world, learning to deal with grief and pain by enlarging it and painting it on a great big canvas. Plenty of kids daydream about their teachers and parents dying extravagantly violent deaths; Amy Racecar just takes it one step further until she’s knocked off every duplicitous authority figure in the entire world.
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#29 [May. 10th, 2010|07:49 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#29 NEXTWAVE – Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen
(Marvel)


“Superhumanity is a wildflower, in this strange America. It grows unchecked, and I considered for many years how to best garden it.”

Bear with me for a moment. I’ll get to the point soon enough.

By the later years of the 18th century the landscape paintings of masterful Dutch artists like Rembrandt had become commonplace enough to be used as designs on wrapping paper. Dutch items smuggled into Japan were wrapped in these prints and a young Japanese artist who would become famous under the name Hokusai was inspired by them. He went on to create Japanese interpretations of the style, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, an iconic image that’s incorporated into Stuart Immonen’s artwork on the front cover of Nextwave #1.

In the 1950s and ’60s American publications that were destined to be pulped were sometimes rescued so that they could serve as ballast on ships bound for Britain, filling the hold and being destroyed on arrival before the valuable cargo came on board. Dealers found them first, however, and they made their way onto the market and around the country’s import restrictions. They included superhero comics, which must have looked very strange being stacked next to humour comics like The Beano and The Dandy, appearing in the newsagent’s in sudden and unpredictable bursts with no respect for issue-to-issue chronology. To children unfamiliar with the genre the garishly violent American covers must have looked like windows into an alien world.

Maybe Warren Ellis was one of those English children, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Nextwave makes real the comic that previously existed only in the imaginations of confused, intoxicated, non-American children. Its tagline is, “Healing America by beating people up.”

Nextwave remixes characters and ideas from other Marvel comics. Its stars are a band of ‘pirate superheroes’, mainly secondary characters from other books, on the run in a ship stolen from a group based on Marvel’s spy organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D. Where S.H.I.E.L.D. are controlled by Nick Fury, their Nextwave counterpart H.A.T.E. (it stands for Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) have a director named Dirk Anger and where S.H.I.E.L.D. fly around in an aircrraft carrier that is also an aircraft, H.A.T.E. have the Aeromarine, which is four submarines bolted together with rockets stuck on the back. They are very big rockets. If this doesn’t sound cool, check your inner 10-year-old’s pulse.

Breathless captions remind you of the premise of the current storyline, like so: “nextwave is a super hero comic about five people who have just minutes to prevent a town from being eaten by a giant lizard monster.” Immonen’s well-defined, thickly outlined world of American towns with names like Shotcreek and Abcess is constantly in peril from outlandish creatures – cyborgs, interdimensional critters who shoot kill-beams from their faces – and there is only barely enough time for a flashback to somebody’s horrible childhood to explain why they punch monstrosities for a living before it’s on at the speed of comics. “Monsters to beat up! Things to blow up! It’s the best job in America! NEXTWAVE GO!

Nextwave has all the energy of American superhero comics as imagined by someone who has only heard about their best qualities. If you ever missed an issue as a kid and tried to imagine what amazing things must have happened while you weren’t reading, this is what you would have come up with only better.

It’s like Rembrandt, but with lots more explosions.
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#30 [May. 6th, 2010|08:56 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#30 RUNAWAYS #1-18 – Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona
(Marvel)


“I’ve known our parents were evil since I was five. This perverted little gathering just confirms it.”

A lot of comics are about some aspect of growing up; it’s a natural preoccupation for a medium so often targeted at the young. Marvel Comics in particular have perfected the idea of characters who dramatise the move into adulthood by exaggerating it into something epic, as The X-Men and Spider-man do. The thing being exaggerated in Runaways is rebellion.

It’s a bit creepy when you meet someone whose worldview and politics are identical to those of their parents, as if they were perhaps grown in a pod rather than ever having gone through that phase of rejecting their parents' ideals. The characters in Runaways aren’t rebelling purely as a way of carving out their own identities, however. When they discover that their parents are a cabal of supervillains it’s a little more traumatic than being embarrassed because your folks said something racially insensitive in front of your new friends.

The parents in Runaways are members of a group called The Pride who secretly control Los Angeles – in fact, all of California. Setting the comic in LA rather than New York, where most of Marvel’s heroes and villains live, creates some distance from the crowded shared setting. Spider-man and Captain America are faraway figures familiar to the characters from computer games rather than people they expect to meet in rooftop battles.

The runaways in Runaways do, of course, become superheroes in rebellion against their parents, but of an atypical kind. Kitted out with powers inherited or stolen from their parents, they adopt codenames for all of two issues before getting bored of them and slipping back to their real names (even Gertrude, the one character who isn’t shocked to discover her parents are evil, presumably because they proved it by naming her Gertrude). Only Molly, the youngest member, ever tries dressing up like a crimefighter and then it’s in kitchen gloves and a towel.

Runaways isn’t really about growing up at all, and it’s certainly not about being the kind of outcasts who find a new family with kindly father-figure Professor Xavier and beery Uncle Wolverine. It’s about trying to convince people to call you by your cool new nickname, dressing like an idiot and cringing about it afterwards, kissing the wrong boy and thinking you’ve got everything figured out. Though the series was renewed after its initial run ended, it’s apt that the original didn’t make it past the teens because that’s the period it illustrates so perfectly.
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