Thursday, June 26, 2008

59. Portrait of the Critic

March 1998: A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Sinister Dexter was being forced into double-duty to accomodate a tough schedule with not enough series in the drawer and some weeks to go before some new material was ready to go. Prog 1086 saw this reach a real extreme, with over half the comic given over to the Gunsharks for a three-part story called "Lyrical Bollards" by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis. Other stories this week include Durham Red by Abnett and Mark Harrison, and Judge Dredd by John Wagner, Cliff Robinson and Alan Craddock, with a cover painted by Jason Brashill.

In a very odd coincidence, I'm writing this shortly after Simon Davis was awarded the runner-up prize in a competition by the National Portrait Gallery for his piece Portrait of Amanda Smith at Vincent Avenue. But it isn't the acclaim and congratulations that Davis is due that makes this blog particularly well-timed, though he is surely due both. It's because "Lyrical Bollards," with its delightful snaps at the critical establishment of the highbrow art world, perfectly anticipated a rather strident piece by the writer Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard on the 13th.

For many years, I've considered what the purpose of criticism is, and how best to draw the line of appropriate commentary. I think that generally, these days, I really only want to talk about things that I enjoyed because I wish to recommend them to my friends, which does not make me an honest critic in the academic sense, but then again, nobody is employing me in such a way either. When I was being paid by a newspaper to review records, I was still ensuring the things I enjoyed made it into the paper, but also the things I really didn't like, because those were the most fun to write. I often get the feeling that readers' eyes pass right over words and phrases that indicate pleasure, in favor of ones that deconstruct. Face it, more people probably took the time to read that demolishing I gave Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga a few weeks ago than any given collection of old newspaper strips I've championed lately.

Sewell's essay (available, at the time of writing, here) is useful in explaining the backstory behind the NPG's annual competition, and I suppose he's due a little thanks for the brief history lesson. Sewell and the Standard chose paintings by Davis, Tim Okamura, Tom Phillips and Nigel Wood to illustrate the piece, and they're all wonderful pieces, full of energy, expression and talent.

Not to hear Sewell tell it, however. Here are some sample words from his essay about the quality of this year's entrants: "entirely devoid of quality," "beastly thing," "slipshod," "impoverished," "ghastly formless face," "vile," "vulgar," "crassly amateur" and "crude to the point of incompetent caricature." For the most part, Davis escapes the inferno of ugliness, but while I appreciate a well-written tirade against bad art more, perhaps, than most people, and was incredibly pleased with bon mots such as "Robert O'Brien's portrait of his grandmother has something painterly about it," I was sad to see such devastatingly well-worded criticism being applied to something so ill-deserving.

Admittedly, I only saw the pieces used to illustrate the article and not the full exhibition, but even with Tom Phillips' piece, which attracted the bulk of the vitriol, I think Sewell's completely mistaken anyway. Fine art isn't like films or albums or even comics, where there should be several levels of editorial input between artist and audience. (You might argue that in some cases, be they recent Star Wars movies or Grant Morrison comics, the finished product might have been a good deal better had an editor been assigned to tell the artist how pureile or incoherent their work has become, but I digress.) Frankly, what I see, and what the National Portrait Gallery seems to have assembled, are a number of genuinely wonderful pieces which really reflect the artists' viewpoints and emotions - perhaps with a stronger influence from photography than Sewell would prefer, true - painted by artists much more talented than me. Wood's self-portrait is especially vivid and moving, two adjectives you can't generally apply to Star Wars films, Final Crisis comics or, say, Hilary Duff records, and this is especially striking as, if I understand correctly, it was prepared in a variety of techniques over a sixteen-year period.

It's certainly true that, to paraphrase a passage in a collection of Roger Ebert essays, there's nothing quite as fun as reading a really good critic tee off on a really bad movie, but Sewell's elegant dissembling of these artists was every bit as ill-advised as Ebert's tirade against David Lynch's Blue Velvet in that book. That's not to imply I'm getting defensive over art that I enjoy being savaged by some meanie of a critic, as some of the very best critical essays I've read, most memorably Jon Wilde's intensely negative review of Secrets of the Beehive, one of my favorite David Sylvian albums, force fans to reconsider the art from a different perspective. Unfortunately, Sewell's point, presumably that the National Portrait Gallery should exercise tougher guidelines in selecting pieces worthy of their shortlist, is lost within the ball he's having kicking those painters around.

I mean, "vulgar"? Really? I've seen Johnny Ryan comics and I've seen Tom Phillips' painting, and the one that's vulgar ain't the one hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

Anyway, that worked for a change of pace mental health break, I think, but I'm afraid that, with this installment, we'll have to begin an abbreviated schedule for a few weeks. I'm rereading along with my children, and they'll be visiting relations in Tennessee next week, returning the next, then spending two weeks in Kentucky with their mother, and then spending a week at summer camp in Alabama. So we'll be back on the tenth in time for Dredd to match wits with the serial killer the Angel of Death, and then take a short summer vacation. Until next time, then!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

58. Time of the Preacher / Long Time Gone

February 1998: While 2000 AD enjoys a face lift and some great stories including the first outing for the new-look Durham Red, along with guest artists Steve Yeowell on Sinister Dexter and Henry Flint on Nikolai Dante, the Mighty Megazine is undergoing the most radical, thus far, of its many reinventions. You may recall that the comic has had to accomodate some reprints along with new strips in order to continue, and that much of 1996-97 featured a rather fractious, combative relationship with its readers. The lengthy reprint of the Dredd adventure "Necropolis" had come to an end in vol. 3 # 35. For the next three issues, much of the page count was taken up with the three-part Predator vs. Judge Dredd, which was also published simultaneously as a three-part miniseries from Dark Horse. This proved to be among the weaker intercompany crossovers that featured Dredd, with uninspiring art by Enrique Alcatena and a surprisingly tame, beginners-level script by John Wagner. At one point early on, a perp whom Dredd has arrested protests that he has the right to a jury trial, to which Dredd has a snappy comeback. That might be considered a reasonable introduction to the judge system to those readers of Dark Horse's Predator comics who don't know the character or the concept, but honestly, the notion of anyone in Dredd's universe making such a protest when jury trials had been abolished at least thirty years previously is a bit weak.

Throughout these three issues, editor David Bishop had dropped strong hints about big changes coming to the Meg, but the revelation is nevertheless a massive surprise.

Preacher was the next project for Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon following their acclaimed run on Vertigo's Hellblazer in the early 1990s, some of which I plan to reread shortly. The series, which began in 1995, focussed on Jesse Custer, a small-town pastor who, shortly after a crisis of faith that ends with him chewing out most of his congregation while they're out at a bar, finds himself possessed by a creature called Genesis which had been imprisoned in Heaven. Genesis gives Custer the power to command absolute obedience of anyone who hears his spoken word. Custer and his associates decide to travel the country in an attempt to find God, who abandoned the throne of heaven at the moment Genesis was born, while pursued by the angel of death, the Saint of Killers, who has been assigned to kill Genesis.

I do not like Preacher. I almost like it, and I happily concede its cast of fantastic characters, especially the Saint and a bizarre, severely wounded dimwit called Arseface, are wonderful, but the story careens from one completely over-the-top episode of extreme no-holds-barred depictions of sex and violence to another with barely a pause for breath, and not an ounce of discretion or restraint. I am perhaps one of those fuddy-duddies who find situations a bit more dramatic when we're not shown every detail, and more comedic when the writer is forced to poke at convention, rather than ignoring it completely. This is probably why I just don't own very many Garth Ennis comics. Freed from restraint, his power to shock becomes, instead, the power to bore.

The Preacher reprints will run for 26 issues, covering the material (assuming Wikipedian accuracy) included in the first three (of nine) collected editions. Interestingly, I see that the fourth edition contains some Carlos Ezquerra artwork which I have not seen before; that sounds worth looking into! At any rate, there is no new material included in the Megazine's reprints, although the larger page size may be of interest to that title's fans, who'd like to see Steve Dillon's glorious artwork printed a little larger.

Along with Preacher, the new-look Meg includes a 17-page Dredd episode and one other reprint. For issues 39-41, this is Blackheart, a period crime piece by Robbie Morrison and Frank Quitely that previously appeared in a Dark Horse anthology. It will be followed by a Sin City story by Frank Miller before the slot is given over to reprints of the Daily Star's Judge Dredd newspaper strip.

As for me, this proved to be the time to stop ordering the Megazine. I have a nearly complete run of this period, almost all of which were obtained in lots for much less than the US price, which at the time was $5.99, but these are mostly issues that I picked up later. Even with the staff discount I enjoyed, this was, at the time, a real case of the value being lower than the cost. After all, I'd picked up the first three issues of Preacher back in 1995 and decided against continuing, and now I had the dubious pleasure of paying for it again at twice the US cost, in a magazine which would have fewer Dredd pages than Preacher pages. Blackheart at least had the appealing Frank Quitely artwork, but the announcement of Frank Miller reprints was what finally did me in, because I've always disliked that guy's stuff.

And so finally, after so many years of the Meg not being distributed in America, only sixteen months after I finally started getting it (with vol. 3 # 24, I believe), I said I'd had enough. Turns out there is too high a price to ask for Wagner-scripted Dredd episodes, and, for me, it was the price of Preacher.

The Hipster Children understand that Preacher is a mature-readers title and they're not to read the series. But that's okay, there's plenty of fun stuff with Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante over in the weekly to entertain them. More on those next time!

(Preacher images are © Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

57. Ooh, Pretty, Shiny!

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

January 1998: When we last saw the sexy bloodsucking mutant bountyhunter named Durham Red, it was amid a cloud of rewrites, pseudonyms and a truncated storyline from progs 1000-1007. In the last part of that run, Dan Abnett took the writing duties, but it would be more than a year before Red returned to action. So prog 1078 spotlights her return in a lengthy storyline called "The Scarlet Cantos." The first two episodes are run together this week as a double-length "episode one," and she'll have a twelve-week residency. The plot involves Red being awakened from cryosleep more than a thousand years in her future, when mankind and mutantkind's war has escalated and devolved into a conflict of religious psychopaths. An ugly scenario has gotten even uglier, but there are big, wonderful, behind-the-scenes changes for both 2000 AD and the Meg at this time and while the story has some ugly elements, the finished product has never looked so gorgeous. Well, the changes to the Meg might or might not be wonderful, more on that next week. But the previous week's 2000 AD introduced new paper stock, and the artwork never looked so good.

Of course, looking at the result via a scan of the pages on your computer monitor sort of defeats the purpose, but I assure you, these pages look simply divine, with artwork that just leaps right off the page.

This initial story of the new, improved, future-set Durham Red is really good and screams of the promise the character has in this incarnation, but subsequent adventures sadly won't fare quite as well. The character is often looking in vain for a rationale to keep appearing but never really finds it, and she'll be retired in 2004 or so. But "The Scarlet Cantos" is genuinely excellent, and available as a Rebellion graphic novel.

Also in this prog, you've got Judge Dredd in the first of a six-part story called "Missing" by John Wagner, Lee Sullivan and Alan Craddock, along with Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Siku, and a Vector 13 by Abnett, Robert McCallum and Dondie Cox. Since, as I mentioned, Red got a double-episode opener, this does indeed mean that 80% of the prog was written by Dan Abnett!

At any rate, the paper upgrade and debut of Durham Red here isn't a patch on what's going on at the Megazine. Next week, we'll have a look at the debut of Preacher...

(Originally published 6/12/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

56. A Lot More Sinister Dexter

December 1997: Prog 1075 features Sinister Dexter on the cover. The art's by Siku and this week, it's the first double-dose of the gun sharks. The story, "Whack the Dinosaur" is written, as always, by Dan Abnett, and it's quite clearly a two-part episode, with a cliffhanger on page five and an oversized panel on page six, where the credits would normally go. This is going to become standard procedure through the spring of '98 as the editor deals with a temporary shortage of strips ready to go.

Honestly, I can't imagine that anybody on the planet cares about this other than me, but running the multi-part stories as double-length episodes was a real pet peeve at the time, because I'd have preferred to read the stories at the pace that Abnett scripted them. The worst offender was "Mother Lode and the Red Admiral," an eight-part adventure crammed into one month. It's become standard operating procedure at the Nerve Centre.

During this period, strips are being double-upped because prog 1078 is going to be a relaunch issue. However, the double-upping will resume in February when Vector 13 concludes and nothing is immediately ready to replace it. The series of one-offs is feeling quite tired by this point. There are still occasional gems, particularly "Time's Arrow," a very clever episode by Gordon Rennie and Patrick Woodrow that will appear in the next issue, but overall, the huge number of episodes in just two and a half years, coupled with the resentment towards the silly Men in Black, has run the series ragged, and it will be retired in February.

Also in this issue, Nikolai Dante wraps up a four-part story called "Moscow Duellists" by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser. This has proven to be the major success story of '97, and is now a semi-regular strip, with another run of episodes starting up next month. Nikolai and Jena's oddball courtship hits a wonderful snag in this episode. Not knowing Jena was listening, Nikolai pays her old tutor, who is dying, a genuine and heartfelt compliment, and then goes about his business being a boorish ladies' man and taking a couple of heiresses to bed, not dreaming that Jena would actually come to his door to thank him.

That leaves Judge Dredd, and he's in the middle of a very good three-parter by John Wagner and Paul Marshall. It's called "To Die For" and deals with a serial-killing instructor robot at a medical college assembling a body for an elderly, crippled professor with whom it's fallen in love. The discovery of the various bodies is depicted with a little discretion, but the situation is grisly enough to give each of my kids the heebie-jeebies.

Next week: Better paper is ordered for Durham Red's return.

(Originally published 6/5/08 at LiveJournal.)