Sunday, April 30, 2006


Disclaimer: This isn’t going to be very good, but I thought somebody should make an effort.

Having just finished watching Mirrormask with the wife, I have to say that I’m glad it had only a limited budget, else it might have been even longer and more interminable than it was. There are some halfway cool and moderately creepy parts in it, but mostly it’s fucking stupid and senseless.


To people who actually know who Neil Gaiman is, he’s generally recognised as the writer behind the Sandman series of comic books, which DC Comics published between 1988 and 1996, and continues to republish regularly, launching a new edition of the collected trade paperbacks (ten books collecting 75 issues), or TPBs, approximately every week. I was into these books for a while a few years back, and I think I got up to about the sixth seventh trade before giving up on them. Firstly, because they are pretty expensive (nearly $30 per volume), and secondly because the art is uniformly shocking across the entire series (despite a roster of pencillers, inkers, and colourists, which one would think would overcome any problems with artistic burnout or exhaustion). Thirdly, I gave up on them because it was all a bit wank, really.


It’s hard to really explain why I think this. Comic book series, like television series, generally consist of a series of “arcs” built into a series of stories. So you have the 75 issues, the “Sandman tale”, and inside those 75 issues you have a couple of dozen different stories, and each of those stories straddles maybe six or seven “arcs”, which are usually character arcs. It takes a lot of planning, I would imagine, to develop this sort of multithreaded storytelling, especially over such a period of time, and to Gaiman’s credit he pulls it off pretty well. Each of the multi-issue or one-shot stories are excellent, and what arcs I was able to detect were also reasonably well executed. As standalone books they would all be pretty good, but the problem is the central character of the Sandman, some sort of god, who looms over the entire series, and Gaiman’s problem was that, for the sake of cohesiveness, he had to link all of the stories, somehow, to the Sandman character. This is where the series fails, because the vast majority of those links are pretty tenuous. Should we be concerning ourselves with the actions and motivations of Sandman, or with the characters in the stories, or what? When I actually stopped to think about it, I realised that despite Gaiman’s writerly chops, my interest was waning – I no longer cared about Sandman because I had been given no reason to, and for a book called Sandman, that’s a bit of a problem. It pulls you in too many directions at once.


Supporters of the series will tell me that I am an idiot or a philistine with a short attention span, but the fact of the matter is I just don’t care to spend $300 on shitty drawings and a cobwebbed plot that has no real reason to exist. Perhaps one problem was that I was taking the books in one big dose over a period of weeks, when the story itself was told over close to a decade, but I don’t think that’s it – Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series, which was 66 issues long, can easily be read in one sitting (though you wouldn’t). The art is excellent, the violence cheering, and the stories and arcs reasonably compelling. The central character, Jesse Custer, turns out to be a bit of a knob near the end, and if you think about it too hard a lot of the conceits of the series turn out to be fairly embarrasing, and some of the dialogue will make you cringe if you’re not speed-reading your way through the thing, but Preacher is vastly superior to Sandman, because it has a direction that it’s obviously going in, and regardless of what bumps you encounter along the way, you want to know what happens in the end. It’s a good read, and worth a look.


I’ve recently started on a couple of other comic book series, as well as knocking over a few standalones. There’s the Frank Miller Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and Daredevil: Born Again, which are all great, and can be read independently of your knowledge of superheroes, though some background will enchance the experience.


The Filth, a 13-parter collected in one volume, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine, is…okay. I think it probably needs to be read closely, and more than once, because it seems to be a bit all over the place and a little too drugged-out for its own good.


Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a comic book masterpiece, as most people know, and can be read again and again without any decrease in pleasure. Every self-respecting individual ought to own a copy of it. V for Vendetta and From Hell are fairly decent as well, and so are both League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, but none of them come close to the sheer brilliance that is Watchmen. You really ought to try it.


The other multi-book series’ that I’ve started reading recently are Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, and Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. Two books in, I’ve decided that Transmet is a little immature and hasn’t aged very well (even though it’s only a few years old), but it’s a good read and I’ll probably persevere because the world Ellis has created is an interesting and vivid one. I’m not a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson, in fact I hate him and am glad he’s dead, but I appreciate what he did and I appreciate that Ellis would want to pay tribute to him with the character of Spider Jerusalem.


Y: The Last Man has a pretty good premise: Yorick Brown and his little monkey Ampersand are the only two male animals on the planet after a mysterious virus wipes out every other male, and they embark on adventures. It sounds pretty stupid written down like that, but it’s compelling and the first volume can be got for cheap, so you can taste it and see how you like it. The series is still going but the first six or so collected editions are available, so if you drill through those quickly enough you could probably start grabbing the monthly releases along with everybody else.


Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. I think I’ll start grabbing Strangers In Paradise for my wife (superficially – really they’ll be for me) and after I’m done with all these kiddie books I’ll probably get back to reading some proper stuff. Like, uh, Vernor Vinge.


Tell me of your comic book experiences.


At 1:21 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Not much, apart from Howard the Duck (the original as well as the recent early-2000s effort) - a bizarre but brilliant 1970s satire; Fray - comics scripted by Joss Whedon about a 'vampire slayer of the future - very dark, but very good; Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, a disappointing attempt at an 'avant garde' comic from a modernist/SF master that just ends up being confusing; and a whole bunch of other forgettable comics (on account of, I've forgotten what they're about).

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Apart from Asterix and Tintin I was never one for comics. I read From Hell, and while I enjoyed it I still haven't bothered reading any other graphic novels, although I probably will. Watchmen sounds good.

Neil Gaiman is overrated. I've never been able to finish any of his books, although I'm told Anansi Boys is good. But then, I was told that about Neverwhere and American Gods, too. Of course he did co-write one of my favourite books, Good Omens, but he co-wrote it with a genius so how could he not come away looking good.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger TimT said...

How good were Asterix and Tintin?

Stay away from the new Asterix books they're releasing, though. They're getting worse and worse. The writer died some twenty years ago, only about five years ago, the artist decided he was going to write some new ones. They're terrible.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Yes, I've noticed some titles advertised that I hadn't heard of. It's sad that they're milking the series like that. You'd think the artist (Uderzo? Or was he the writer?) would have enough cash after how ever many million sales worldwide.

At 3:51 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Who knows?

One of the titles released was in fact legit - a collection of Asterix 'shorts' first published in the late 1960s, and all quite charming.

The rest were dodgy: the latest is a bizarre science-fiction allegory with the Gauls representing France and aliens representing the United States.

On the other hand, they've just published 'Nicholas' in English - it's written by Goscinny, the Asterix author, and it's a fricking hilarious children's book that's been popular in France for years. I got one for my brother's birthday (because his name's Nicholas, geddit?) and it was so damn good I had to get a copy for myself.

At 11:42 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Oi. So, I'm leaving in, like, a week and a bit. I should like to get together for a few golden darjeelings beforehand. Explain yourselves!

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Martha said...

My kids read Tintin over and over, but surprisingly I've never gotten into the world of comic books. Don't know why, because it seems like it would be a good fit. Though I've read a bit of Neal Gaiman, and quite frankly, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. I have read Maus I & II, and those are brilliant, but I guess they're not really the same genre.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Having dinner with a bunch of my flatmates relatives and friends (all later middle-age types) a few weeks ago. One of them had written a book, and her friend said, 'She had NEIL GAIMAN launch her book'. *Directs a meaningful look in my direction*

The reaction?

ME: *emotionless grunt*

FLATMATE: Who's Neil Gaiman?

Love to down some amber fluid sometime, James, name a time and place. I'm free on the weekend, and will be *somewhat* richer by then.

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Antonios said...

Read Joe Sacco, now!

It's comic book journalism and it's breathtaking.

And 100 Bullets is way cool.

Barefoot Gen comes to mind as a stand out as well.


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