Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Tag: comics (page 1 of 4)

Legion S1 (Some Thoughts…)

I meant to blog about TV in 2017 for the last month or so. There were two shows in 2017 that stuck with me more than anything, and trying to get my thoughts on the challenging weirdness of Twin Peaks: The Return into shape proved to be a tricky task. There was also Legion, which I adored, but blogging about it didn’t happen for various reasons, and seemed destined to be one of those ‘blog posts I never get around to’.

And then, this weekend, I spotted that there’s a quote from my SFX review of Legion on the back cover of the UK release of the Blu-Ray:

This boggled the heck out of me – getting cover quotes is always great, getting a cover quote on something I loved as much as Legion is a rare treat – so I had to write something.

There’s a hell of a lot to write about – the Wes Anderson-influenced production design, the trippy cinematography, the retro Sixties styles, the way it joyfully ignores any continuity with other X-Men related media and is all the better for it, the strong performances, the jaw-dropping use of music, the fact that episode seven contains an extended sequence that’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on television in years, the kooky joy of Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement as the 1960s-obsessed psychonaut Oliver Bird…

But the thing I love most about Legion is what it reminds me of.

We have a lot of superhero shows right now, and some of them are definitely ‘for adults’ – but up until now, that’s principally meant the Marvel Netflix shows, which are a very particular (and uneven) kind of mature that’s worn out its sense of novelty and welcome surprisingly quickly. None of them have really managed to capture what grabbed me about American comics when I first started reading them – they’re all going for relatively formulaic structures but with more monologues, more intensity and more ultraviolence. There’s no sense of them trying to do anything different, except in how adult they can be – a habit that, outside of S1 of Jessica Jones, hasn’t come across very well.

Legion, however, feels different in almost every conceivable way. There’s an infectious sense of invention and creativity to the show, an adventurous desire to push the envelope – and what it reminds me of are the truly weird, artistic and adventurous comics that came along in the wake of graphic novel landmarks like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, you had lots of dark and gritty tales of vigilante justice, superhero stories but with added intensity and violence and upset – but you also had genuinely weird and adventurous stories that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Comics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, The Sandman, Enigma, Hellblazer – boundary-pushing, unpredictable comics that were giving a sandbox to interesting writers who really wanted to see what comics could do, and wanted to do expand the limits of the everyday mainstream comic.

Legion captures that feel better than anything I’ve seen in our current deluge of superhero media. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the mind-expanding thrill of opening an early issue of The Invisibles, or Alan Moore’s epic run on Swamp Thing, or Neil Gaiman’s ambitious work on The Sandman. I can forgive Legion its flaws – like the weird pacing, the way certain characters get forgotten about, the way it peaks too early in episode 7, or the relative lack of conclusion in the eighth and final episode – for the way it uses superpowers as a way to look at mental illness, alongside the way we interact with the world, other people, and our memories. There’s a scene in episode 3, where two characters simply sit down and talk about their abilities in a calm and open way, that’s one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen in a superhero show, and Legion delivers unexpected moments and stylistic curve-balls like that throughout its run. Season 2 is apparently due to arrive sometime in April – I have no idea where it’s going to go next, but I can’t wait to find out…

The Obligatory (and Rather Belated) Thought Bubble 2013 Post

Thought Bubble was the weekend-bef0re-last – the Leeds Comic Convention that’s ended up a fixture in my yearly schedule – and this year certainly did nothing to make me change my mind about that. It’s the first time me and my girlfriend Emma actually did it as a proper weekend, going up on the Friday night (as the event itself is Saturday–Sunday), and I’m very glad we did, as it made life an awful lot easier. Comic Conventions are always a very different vibe to SF literary conventions, and this year was just as friendly, diverse and colourful as ever, with a large number of cosplayers, and a whole variety of comic folk, from small-scale indies to big-level Marvel/DC folk.

It was a great time, but I’ve got the worrying feeling that I didn’t quite make the most of it. It’s probably the curse of huge expectations – I’ve basically been looking forward to this since last year – and of peaking way too early, thanks to the first thing I did on Saturday being queueing for a while to get sketches from artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – but the con did feel a little broader and less easy to take in this time. The three halls were huge, and packed full of stuff, which made it easy to miss things, and also I ended up frequently caught between considering whether or not I wanted to queue for other artists and potentially get sketches (the first year I’ve tried to do this seriously), or if I wanted to do other stuff like visit panels, just browse, or – rather more importantly – eat.

I’ve ended up feeling as if there’s an awful lot I missed. I did catch the writer’s panel on Sunday, with people like Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Brandon Graham talking wonderful sense about the writing life, and it’s once again left me feeling like I need to get off my arse and try to actually fit some comics writing into my already busy-as-hell life. That was the only panel I properly caught, unfortunately (which wasn’t helped by the awesomely user-unfriendly programme, which was a tabloid-sized newsprint-style magazine, and laid out in a way that made the programme hard to unravel), but while there may have been a bit of directionless drifting at times, I also took in some excellent comics, and got to catch up with a whole variety of friends as well.

It also didn’t help that the mid-con party, which last year was awesome, was this year somewhat marred by an organisational snafu that led to us having to queue for almost forty-five minutes in the freezing Leeds cold, thanks to them not having enough bouncers to cover the venue’s capacity. (We kept being told “the venue’s full” by certain people – only to find there was plenty of room once we got in). Thankfully, I’d brought wine with me that helped keep me warm (and slightly mitigated the fact that I wasn’t in any way dressed for cold weather, having not expected to queue at all), and we did end up having a brilliant time on the dancefloor once we got inside, but things didn’t always feel quite so smooth and effortlessly fun as they did last year, which was a small shame.

However, there were still plenty of highlights – like getting more comics from John Allison, the artist behind fabulous webcomic Bad Machinery, and getting to have a chat with artist Cameron Stewart while he signed and sketched in my copy of his fantastically creepy comic Sin Titulo. I also, in a moment of pure what-the-hell managed to get ace designer and artist Rian Hughes to sign a copy of his gorgeous art book Soho Dives, Soho Divas. And, on Sunday, after having given up on the plan of getting anything else major signed, especially by Brandon Graham, an independent artist who writes the bonkers SF saga Prophet, me and Emma had said our goodbyes and we were literally about to leave – I was in the entrance foyer to the main hall, waiting for Em – when I actually ran into Brandon Graham. Again, in one of those moments of mad impulsiveness, I grabbed the chance to just say “Hello, just wanted to say that I really love your work”, and he actually ended up doing a sketch for me there and then, which also gave me the chance to briefly geek out with him over the pleasures of mid-1970s Doctor Who (a big influence on Prophet) and Blake’s 7. The sketch was awesome, and the whole encounter left me in a complete daze for the rest of the evening – and while there may have been a few ups and downs for my personal Thought Bubble experience, overall it’s just made me even more determined to make sure I don’t miss out on stuff next year….

(I would have included some pictures, but I seem to specialise in taking the least interesting con photos ever. My iPhone 3GS has the magical capability of taking an environment packed with colour and fun, and turning it into nondescript shots of people milling around lots of tables. Next time, I shall do better…)

The Casanova Project: Adventures in Book Design

The minute I found out that custom book binding was a thing that actually existed, and that people were using it to create their own hardback collection of comic books, my first thought was: Uh-Oh. Because right then, I knew I was in trouble.

I’ve been a design geek for ages. I spent a big chunk of the 2000s doing CD mix discs as presents for friends and family – doing them incredibly lavishly, so that they weren’t just random mixes, they were themed experiences that had been tracklisted and mixed together to a boggling degree. (You can see some of my previous work over at my design Tumblr, Discs of Fury). The potential of taking some of the comics that I’d been collecting and turning them into a uniquely designed book that I could design how I liked, of maybe even adding a small section of extras at the back… well, it blew my mind. It gave me lots of ideas, and one of them was doing a collected edition of Casanova – the mind-melting comic book by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. It’s a saga of multi-dimensional espionage and action that’s massively influenced by 1960s cult movies like Danger: Diabolik, and is also one of the most out-there and experimental comic books I’ve ever read. It’s stuck with me a lot over the last few years, and I liked the idea of giving it the lavish edition it deserved. It’s always a bit vexxing when a comic I love gets a half-hearted presentation, or is given a nice presentation but other, lesser comics get something an awful lot better. This was the chance to redress the balance, with something deserving.

And of course, because this is me we’re talking about here, it all got a little out of hand.

Casanova Custom Bound Edition Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Fabio Moon - Front Cover

Casanova Custom Bound Edition Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Fabio Moon - Spine Casanova Custom Bound Edition Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Fabio Moon - Back Cover

 

This is what I ended up with, and it’s a bit of a monster. 12 issues, in all. An 8-page intro section. 4 page dividers between the first and second miniseries, and between the second and third. And then, at the back, 160 pages of extras (totalling the 60 pages of extras that appeared in the first two-colour run of Casanova back in 2006-2008, along with interviews with Matt Fraction, a script, and 30 pages of art by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon). All of which I designed myself, and tried to get looking as nice as possible.

(A note for anyone who’s thought “Hmm- looks like the graphics on the cover are a bit stretched” – you’re right. The bookbinders made a bit of an error with that, one they are hopefully (fingers crossed) going to be fixing very soon.)

I spent a huge amount of effort on this. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to design, and tried multiple versions of the cover before finally getting it right. The back cover took me almost as long, and while a few mistakes were made, a lot was learned, and I know a hell of a lot more about printing and book design than I ever did before.

One of the main reasons I did this was because Fraction, Ba and Moon were all going to be at the Thought Bubble comic con in Leeds that I was going to, which gave me a deadline and also resulted in me pulling out all the stops to make it as impressive as I could. The end result was being able to get it signed by Matt Fraction, and getting a bit overwhelmed with how amazed he was by it (I often get reduced to slightly embarrassed grinning and thinking “Don’t say anything stupid!” in these situations), and I also was able to get both artists to do quick sketches in the front and back of the book, which basically left me in a state of complete fanboy shock.

Casanova Custom Bound Edition Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Fabio Moon - Sketch by Gabriel Ba

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I’ll definitely be doing this again. Despite some things not going according to plan, there’s nothing like having an idea and then being able to turn it into a physical thing you can hold in your hands – a unique object that isn’t quite like any other graphic novel or comic collection out there. I might just go a little easier on the extra material next time…

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Super Hexagon (or, Curse You, Kieron Gillen)

Curse you, Kieron Gillen.

It’s not enough for you to be a brilliant comics writer and games journalist. It wasn’t enough for you to pull off one of the most impressive final issues of a mainstream superhero comics run that I’ve ever read – the wonderful, meta-textual Journey Into Mystery, starring a teenage reincarnation of Thor villain and trickster god Loki. It wasn’t enough for you to instill in me an intense desire to play the boardgame Risk Legacy, despite the fact that I’m very good at buying boardgames and then never playing them.

Oh, no. You also had to get me addicted to Super Hexagon.

There I was, casually reading through your excellent review of the gaming year over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I read about the game Super Hexagon. It was probably the retro-looking graphics that appealed, and I was looking for something new and exciting to play on my iPad (having found that while indulging in my nostalgia for GTA: Vice City on the iPad was kinda fun, the iPad control system turns any car chase into virtual suicide). I looked on the App Store, and lo and behold – it was even on special offer. Only 69p. So I clicked ‘Buy’.

And that was pretty much it.

Super Hexagon is INSANE. It’s an incredibly simple game, and the look of it brings back memories of vector-graphic classic Tempest, except that your task as player is to steer a tiny triangle past the various obstacles that are speeding towards the centre of the screen. Hit one of them, and you’re dead. Simple, eh?

Er, no.

You see, Super Hexagon is fast. Seriously, headspinningly fast, and scored with a pulsing electro-dance beat just so you’re in no doubt exactly how fast it is. And it’s absurdly tricky. I’ve been playing it every day for a week, and I’ve finally got to a point where I can pretty regularly last for over 30 seconds per game – and this is on the easiest possible setting. The game begins with a notice saying ‘Headphones Recommended’, and I’m pretty sure this is so that if you’re playing it within earshot of anyone, they don’t end up driven mad by the cool female American voice intoning “Game Over” every five seconds. Because trust me – when you start playing, that’ll be about as long as you last.

It’s dizzying and thrilling in equal measure, relying on pattern recognition and very fast reflexes – you have to watch the entire screen as you play, and there are certain structures which still send me into a fatal tailspin the moment they appear. It’s the kind of game where even the slightest error will instantly kill you, but the sheer challenge of weaving through this adrenalised, perspective-shifting hailstorm of geometric shapes will keep you going. I’ve managed to last up to 45 seconds (on the very easiest setting), and I’m counting that as a major acheivement. There are other, harder levels – ‘Hexagoner’ and ‘Hexagonest’ – as well ones that you have to unlock which, frankly, I don’t even want to *think* about right now.

I’m sure I’ll recover from my addiction from this supercharged sugar rush at some point. I may even get to conquer one (or more) of the jaw-droppingly tricky levels of the game. But for now, the Super Hexagon icon sitting there on my iPad, daring me to ignore it, knowing that I’m going to fail.

Curse you, Kieron Gillen!

(I’m still gettting Young Avengers, though…)

Atom Bomb Blues – The Birth of the Watchmen (2009)

(Originally published in an SFX Special in 2009)

Remember ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ Remember how it was a gritty and realistic saga of superheroes in a world on the verge of nuclear apocalypse? Remember how the story started off with the murder of government-sponsored superhero the Peacemaker? Remember how it put a new spin on comic-book characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom and Nightshade?

Of course, you don’t remember that. Like the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President, the classic comic miniseries Watchmen never actually happened that way – but it could have, very easily. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking saga has been a landmark of quality for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t around, but Watchmen had humble beginnings, and there were many ways this influential classic could have gone in a very different direction.

In fact, it started life in the mid-Eighties simply as a way for legendarily hairy comics mastermind Moore to continue exploring his daring ideas for a different kind of superhero story. His incredible work on horror comic Swamp Thing had netted him awards and acclaim, but what he planned next was to team up with artist Dave Gibbons for a potentially challenging take on the classic superhero.

The basic starting point for Watchmen was the thought of playing with an entire superhero world – ideally using characters no longer being published – and treating them in a different and much more realistic way; subverting rather than following the usual rigid superhero continuity imposed by the big comics publishers. It was an idea that meshed with what Moore had already achieved with radical Brit superhero saga Marvelman (first published in 1982, and also known (for very complicated copyright-related reasons) as Miracleman), where he’d taken a familiar character and pushed it in a new and often shocking direction.

Soon, Moore had a loose concept for his story: one member of a superhero team would die, and the whodunnit mystery would allow him to explore interesting aspects of the superhero equation. And what was best was that it didn’t matter exactly which characters they used, as long as they were familiar. Instead of the usual super-powered action, this would be a tale *about* superheroes, and the emotional resonance and nostalgia of familiar characters would give the story a sense of shock and surprise when the reality of their world became clear.

At least, that was the theory – and after initially considering a team of heroes called the Mighty Crusaders (first published by MLJ / Archie comics), Moore eventually found a firmer structure when DC offered him the chance to use characters originally published by Charlton Comics – the rights were now owned by DC, they weren’t being published and were potentially ripe for reinvention. Moore and Gibbons leapt into action, and it’s here that the Watchmen alternate version ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ came together.

Thanks to most of the proposal being printed in the 1988 Graphitti Hardback edition of Watchmen (and reprinted in 2005’s Absolute Edition), we can get an idea of how ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ would have looked – and at first glance, the two projects are pretty similar in both plot and characterisation.

Each Watchmen cast member has their predecessor in the Charlton Comics heroes, and out of all of them, it’s the Question (who’d eventually become Rorschach) and the Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) who are closest to their Watchmen counterparts. The Blue Beetle is actually the oldest of all the characters, first seeing publication in 1939, and was always planned to be the most empathetic and human of Moore’s group, a Batman-style inventor and crime-fighter who’s sometimes aided by the powers of a mystic scarab.

Moore even worked the fact that there had been a previous Blue Beetle into the story (leading to the creation of Hollis Mason, the 1940s-era Nite Owl), while he also stayed close to the source material when dealing with the Question. One of the more distinctive characters created by famed comics artist Steve Dikto, he was a frequently ruthless crime-fighter who used an artificial skin known as ‘psuedoderm’ to render himself literally faceless.

Despite being a toned-down version of a previous Dikto character, the independently published Mr A, the Question is still a much darker, more extreme superhero, and Dikto’s right-wing beliefs in moral absolutes often came across very strongly in his Question stories. Moore’s own outlook was very different, but the uncompromising portrayal of the ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ version of the Question (and eventually Rorschach) owed just as much to Steve Dikto’s politics as it did to his characters.

Another cast member superficially close to his counterpart was Thunderbolt, who’d soon become Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Orphaned and raised in a Himalayan lamasery, Thunderbolt was both physically and mentally powerful, able to access the unused portions of his brain – but while Moore finally cast him as the ultimate villain of the piece, things got sketchier when it came to some of the other characters.

Destined to die at the story’s opening, the Peacemaker was a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he decided to fight corrupt warlords and dictators as a costumed superhero (with the splendidly ridiculous tagline – “A man who loves peace so much that he is willing TO FIGHT FOR IT!!”). Moore’s plans didn’t go much further than him being a patriotic superhero who stumbled across a shocking secret that led to his death, and this version was a long way from his Watchmen replacement, the Comedian.

Things were even looser when it came to Nightshade (soon to be Silk Spectre) – Moore basically admits in the proposal that “she’s the one I know least about and have least ideas on”, and the only firm detail set down was that the US Senator’s daughter with mysterious, shadow-based superpowers would be Captain Atom’s only emotional link to the world.

However, it was with Captain Atom, the direct predecessor of Doctor Manhattan, that the project’s real potential became clear. The original Captain Atom was a fairly clichéd nuclear-powered hero, a military official transformed by an accident that gave him a selection of nuclear-related powers – but Moore’s idea was to tackle what being an immensely powerful superhero would do to a person, and to the world around him. A distant and emotionally isolated character, the Captain Atom of ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ pointed to the depths the project would reach, as well as being definitively unlike any superhero who’d come before.

If ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ had been given the go-ahead at this point, it would have been an interesting, gritty bit of superhero intrigue. However, so much of what made Watchmen unique was the detail around the characters, the way they transcended their origins and went in unexpected directions – developments that might not have happened if Moore and Gibbons had stuck with their ‘remixes’ of the Charlton characters.

As it turned out, though, things went very differently. The proposal was submitted, but DC’s reaction was a polite “No”. They liked the idea, but didn’t want to leave the Charlton characters in a state where they were either dead, or so psychologically messed-up that they wouldn’t be usable.

This could have been the moment where everything came to a screaming halt – but instead it became the turning point for the Project Soon To Be Known As Watchmen. Intially unsure that brand new characters could achieve the same emotional effect as established ones, Moore finally realised if he used the Charlton characters as a loose basis, he could still tap into the sense of familiarity and nostalgia he was aiming to both use and subvert.

On top of that, severing the links with the Charlton originals meant the story was now completely self-contained – and one of Watchmen’s ultimate strengths is that unlike many ferociously complex superhero mythologies, it doesn’t require any outside knowledge.

The proposal was reworked from the ground up, with the Charlton characters morphing into their new versions – and as they did so, the breadth and scale of the project started to increase. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and his quantum-related powers became even stranger, leading to the ambitiously structured time-hopping chapter “Watchmaker”. The Peacemaker transformed into the brutal, morally ambiguous Comedian, while the world of the story started getting more complex, and the characters became deeper.

Bolder experiments started to happen – like the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate storyline that mirrored the main plot, and the symmetrical design of issue 5’s chapter ‘Fearful Symmetry’. It was all adventurous, groundbreaking stuff, but at best, Moore and Gibbons were hoping to carry off a daring piece of storytelling. What they weren’t expecting was to transform the comic book industry forever…

Over twenty years on, and Watchmen has had a truly gigantic effect. Even more than Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s the title that kicked off the ‘graphic novel’ revolution – it proved comics could be just as legitimate and adult an art form as any other, and its intelligent, multi-layered approach to characterisation and storytelling has been felt in countless titles ever since.

Unfortunately, it also unleashed a torrent of two-dimensional copycats, with every other superhero title embracing ‘grim and gritty’ for over a decade, and comics suddenly being crammed full of shocking violence and near-psychotic costumed avengers. Even today, despite occasional stone-cold classics like The Ultimates and All-Star Superman, there’s the sense that superheroes are still trapped in the shadow of what Moore and Gibbons achieved.

Maybe it’s not beyond belief that some enterprising writer-artist team will one day achieve a superhero tale that goes way beyond Watchmen – but Moore and Gibbons have certainly given them a hell of an act to follow…

 

 

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