The Wicker Man
REPOST: London Film Festival 1998

Return Of The Unholy Trinity (plus one)

Hey, kids! Covers! From my reply to a letter dated August 3rd 2000, on the old site: "Sadly, I think my comics reading days are drawing to a close. At the time when I wrote the relevant pieces, Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles and Preacher were the only three monthly books I was buying regularly: The Invisibles has finished, Preacher finishes next month, and I haven't found any permanent replacements for them yet. I'm still willing to be surprised, though."

Six years later, after a couple of weeks out of the country, I hit the comic shops to catch up on the issues I've missed while I was away. And I suddenly realise what I've bought. Two comics by the writer of Transmetropolitan. One comic by the writer of The Invisibles. Two comics by the writer of Preacher. And one more by some other guy.

Maybe I'm not as willing to be surprised as I thought I was. But here, since you ask, are the details of my current monthly comics shopping list.

NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E. #7 (of 12), writer Warren Ellis, artist Stuart Immonen, publisher Marvel.
I don't do tights, really. With the odd exception (see below), it's rare that I'll pick up a straight superhero comic - they just don't interest me any more. Warren Ellis, meanwhile, hates superhero comics with a white-hot passion: but appreciates that as a writer in the medium as it stands today, he can't avoid them completely. So he's gone down the standard path trodden by many British comics creators before him, and taken the piss. Nextwave exhumes a group of C-division superheroes from the depths of Marvel's back catalogue, and sets them against an array of fabulously stupid enemies headed by Dirk Anger, a thinly-disguised caricature of Nick Fury. Ellis' rigidly schematic approach is what makes this work as a parody: every story is two issues long, where the first issue is mostly setup so that the second can be almost entirely made up of fighting and explosions. It makes odd-numbered issues like this one a little dull by comparison, but Stuart Immonen's cartoony artwork makes this absurdly easy on the eyes, even while Ellis' dialogue is toying with language and imagery dangerously close to the line for a non-adult comic. (At one point Tabitha Smith, having stood too close next to some exploding monsters, yells "Ew! Ew ew ew ew! They shot their muck all over meee!" The punchline more or less writes itself.)

THE BOYS #1 and #2, writer Garth Ennis, artist Darick Robertson, publisher DC Wildstorm.
And when British writers aren't trying to make superheroes look stupid, they're trying to kill them instead. This country has lots of superhero hunter characters in its comics history, from Marshal Law to Garth Ennis' own Hitman. The Boys - introduced here in two debut issues published just a fortnight apart - are a team who whack members of 'the long underwear brigade' for the CIA. The opening arc The Name Of The Game is a textbook introduction to the crew - Butcher, The Frenchman, The Female and Mother's Milk - through the eyes of potential new recruit Wee Hughie, an ordinary Scottish bloke who saw his girlfriend become collateral damage at the climax of a superhero fight. Too early to say as yet where this one is heading: it's a theme that's been done to death before now, but Ennis' legendary storytelling skills and the return of Darick Robertson (from Transmetropolitan) on a monthly book could take it into unexpected areas.

A MAN CALLED KEV #2 (of 5), writer Garth Ennis, artist Carlos Ezquerra, publisher DC Wildstorm.
Garth Ennis' Kev books could be seen as yet another angle on the sending up of superheroes. Kev Hawkins, disgruntled homophobic SAS man, first appeared in a number of spoofy adventures with The Authority, a rainbow coalition of heroes guaranteed to rub him up the wrong way for comic effect. The third of their adventures together, The Magnificent Kevin, didn't quite manage to marry the comic and violent elements of its plot in the way Ennis is renowned for: but I can forgive him a lot for issue #4 coming out on the day I was made redundant, when I brought it home to find that it climaxed with Kev shooting his boss in the face at point blank range. Sometimes catharsis is all you need. But I digress. A Man Called Kev follows on from The Magnificent Kevin, and is the first Kev story not to feature The Authority at all: having established the impact of his Jonah-esque bad luck on a superhero universe, this is a story that takes place in the real world, and it reads all the better for it. It's mainly building towards the next issue's revelations as to why the latest shitstorm in Kev's life is heading his way: but as a result, a large part of this comic consists of two old mates talking about the past, which is the sort of solid character work that Ennis can do with his eyes closed (helped by the reliably expressive art of Carlos Ezquerra).

ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #5 (of 12), writer Grant Morrison, artist Frank Quitely, publisher DC.
Meanwhile, you won't get Grant Morrison joining in with all this anti-superhero catcalling, because he believes in them. He has a genuine affection for the genre, which makes him the ideal writer for the Man Of Steel in DC's All-Star series. (Plus, he's cool enough to attract someone like me who'd normally find it more socially acceptable to be seen reading animal pornography than a Superman comic.) The All-Star books take DC's classic characters, lose all the decades of continuity and tortuous history that have built up around them, and create stories that just use the key elements of the mythology that everyone knows. Or, more accurately, the key elements of the mythology that everyone knows from the movies: this is DC trying to catch people on the way out of Superman Returns and reminding them that hey, they do comics too. Morrison's Superman has all the basic stuff you want, none of this re-imagining bollocks - Clark and Lois working at the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen being his best pal, Lex Luthor being evil. But Morrison has over two decades of comics scripting under his belt, and his skill at making these old familiar tropes look brand spanking new is a joy to observe: for example, in this issue where Clark Kent is interviewing Lex Luthor in prison, and trying to keep his identity secret in the middle of a prison riot. Frank Quitely's art is, as ever, gorgeous, but the usual detail he brings to it makes a mockery of the original plan that this would be a monthly comic. Not that anyone's complaining, mind - this may be 'just' a superhero comic, but of the six I'm reviewing here it's the one that repays careful re-reading the most.

FELL #6, writer Warren Ellis, artist Ben Templesmith, publisher Image.
I know I said I don't do tights, but there seem to have been a lot of them here so far, ironic or otherwise. And who would have thought that in this day and age, we'd be turning to Image - who've built a reputation on having glossier tights than the Big Two publishers - for a dose of realism? Well, the sort of realism that includes nuns who wear Richard Nixon masks, anyway. Ellis' long-term projects always seem to have an overriding concept behind them these days, and Fell's concept was more daring than most: to do an open-ended run of a monthly crime comic, without any real pre-planning of overall story arcs, and to sell it for pocket change (1.99 of your Yankee dollars, to be precise - your average funnybook tends to cost $2.99 nowadays). On his Bad Signal mailing list, it was fascinating to watch Ellis jumping through economic and narrative hoops to make that work. The format he ended up with is a 20-page book, with 16 pages of densely-packed story - beautifully illustrated by Ben Templesmith in an unforgiving nine-panel grid structure - and four pages of accompanying text by Ellis. As an experiment, it's been brilliantly successful so far: issue #1 has gone into multiple reprints due to insane demand (though if you want, you can read it for nowt here). A series of one-off stories following Detective Richard Fell as he tries to rebuild his life in the hellish metropolis they call Snowtown, Fell is the ideal comic to have to hand when people ask you if you still read that stuff: show them a story like this one, where Fell's first date with bargirl Mayko inevitably ends up at a crime scene, and they'll understand. (Although the details of the crime - like most Fell issues, it's based on a true story - may well have them echoing Tabitha Smith's "Ew!")

PHONOGRAM #1 (of 6), writer Kieron Gillen, artist Jamie McKelvie, publisher Image.
So, yes, lots of comics by all the old farts I was reading six years ago - where are the new people? Well, here are some, though I admit I only know of them because of their intensive self-hype campaign on Warren Ellis' comics board, The Engine. They've picked up a few promotional tips from the man himself, most notably in putting the first ten pages of this issue up on the web for anyone to look at.  Dunno about you, but I was sold more or less straight away when I read those pages. Gillen's ambitions for this book, as laid out in a hefty essay at the back, are pleasingly enormous: the basic theme is to examine the concept of music as magic, at various levels of meaning. In this issue we're introduced to the concept of phonomancers, people like our protagonist David Kohl who understand the connection between magic and music better than most - at least Kohl thinks he does, until a goddess confronts him in the toilets at Ladyfest. So far it's all working beautifully at the surface fantasy level, the story's progression from profane to sacred aided by crisp black and white art from Jamie McKelvie (and some smart Britpop album cover pastiches on the covers). The deeper layers Gillen talks about aren't visible to me as yet, but that's presumably why it's a six-issue series rather than a one-shot. Anyway, it looks like I'm in for the duration: Phonogram has the kind of energy and imagination that brings to mind the glory days of Deadline magazine, and that's a very nice thing to be reminded of.

ASTONISHING X-MEN #16,  writer Joss Whedon, artist John Cassaday, publisher Marvel.
Yeah, I bought this one as well, but it's hers. Not mine. Hers.



I was going to chide you if you hadn't mentioned Astonishing - but you did, so I'm going to thank you instead.

And as you don't read it yourself, I thought I'd make a couple of comments for your readers, if that's OK.

I've never been a comics reader (well, not since childhood), but my Joss-worship led me to start getting Astonishing X-Men. Whedon has done an incredibly good job of writing a book which is accessible to people like me who only have a limited knowledge of the X-Men, taken from childhood comic reading and cartoons, and the more recent films, but which also appeals to long-standing X-Men readers. I'm sure there are dissenting voices, but I have read many comments to the effect that this is the best X-Book for a long time (in fact, since Grant Morrison's stint on New X-Men). As will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Whedon's work or reputation, Astonishing is strong on character, often with snappy dialogue, witty cultural references, and unexpected plot turns - and a strong young female at the centre. But as important to the joy of Astonishing is the wonderful artwork of John Cassaday. I'm not sure I would have got so hooked if the comics were not so beautifully drawn: flicking through other comics on the shelves of comic shops, I would say that Cassaday is one of the best out there. The combination of Whedon and Cassaday is one which make this a book worth trying, even for those of you who don't do tights.

Spank - if you ever want to give them a try, you know where to get hold of them.


If anyone's curious about Nextwave, Marvel have just put the first issue online for free:

You'll need to register with Marvel to see past page 5, but it's worth it for the bit later on where Elsa Bloodstone destroys a jeep with an electric guitar.


Some news relating to The Boys: Wildstorm have cancelled it six issues into a proposed sixty-issue run, but are willing to let Ennis and Robertson take it to another publisher. General consensus appears to be that it's been dropped due to concerns over the story content, as its sales figures were looking just fine.

It's a little bit irritating, because the last Wildstorm issue was the point where The Boys was *finally* becoming interesting: the initial hackneyed premise of good hitmen versus bad superheroes started to develop some fascinating grey areas, which will presumably be explored further when the series restarts in its new home. Mind you, issue 6 was also the one which featured a hamster crawling out of a dead superhero's arse, which may have influenced the publisher's decision to drop it.


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