Comics

A Personal Guide to the World of Comics

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Posted by M J Spiller (1st Jan 1993, 17:32)

Originally printed in Xenomorph, ICSF's 1993 Fanzine.

  1. Introduction
  2. British Comics
  3. American Comics
  4. Writers
  5. Comic Shops

Introduction

Do you think the Sandman is a candy coloured clown from some fairy story or other? Do you think that Cerebus is just a misspelling of the name of the three headed dog of ancient Greek legend? Do the references to Alan Moore and 'The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' in Pop Will Eat Itself songs confuse you7 Well if you do here I am to enlighten you and if you don't either you're a comics fan already or you don't think, which is a serious problem which is probably best handled by your nearest hospital and a brain transplant. To most people 'comics' means the 'Beano' or the 'Dandy' and their clones, or the 'Bunty' and similar. When most people grew out of these comics they moved to music, films or books (or the other gender). But there was also the option of older comics.

British comics

(i.e. '2000AD') There is only one mass circulation comic in Britain which aims at a market older than 12 (well actually 'Jackie' and stuff probably count as comics but I'm ignoring them) and that is '2000AD', home of Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Slaine. '2000AD' is aimed at mid to late teenagers and has been the birthplace (as comics creators) of many of today's top comics creators. Judge Dredd is a permanent feature of '2000AD' (give or take a few issues). He is the ultimate fascist, Judge, jury and executioner in a crime-ridden, over-crowded, under-employed, disaster-prone futuristic society, complete with mutants, cloning, space travel and psi-powers. Story-lines range from blood fests through suspense to indepth characier analysis. Supporting storylines include:- Slaine, the story of a Celtic hero; Nemesis and Torquemada, the story of an alien and his fight with the human re-incarnation of Tomas de Torquemada the leader of the Spanish inquisition (Ah Ha! No-one expects the Spanish inquisition); Rogue Trooper, the lone survivor of a troop of experimental genetically engineered soldiers and the ABC Warriors, a group of seven robots who have been sent on a mission to save the universe from the breakdown of causality and have recently converted to the cause of Khaos. The strength of '2000AD' is the script-writing; the outlines of the plots above may sound a bit inane and some stories are just written for the body count (notably Flesh) but many stories ask awkward questions of you the reader, like what would really happen if some very fast aliens visited earth? or would democracy be an improvement for Judge Dredd's stressed society?

American comics

If there are precious few British comics there is an over-abundance of American comics available on import. These can be easily split into ones produced by the majors, Marvel and DC, and independents produced by the rest of the comics industry.

Marvel

Marvel has the biggest market share despite specialising to a large extent in super-hero comics. Its two most popular comics are 'Spiderman' and 'X-men'. The 'X-men' is the story of a group of mutants with super powers who all live in the same house and have adventures (yes that is the age group aimed for, early teenage boys). 'Spiderman' should need no explanation but if you happen to have hidden from America successfully throughout your childhood, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and decided to put on a blue and red costume with web slingers on each wrist. A mint copy of 'Amazing Spiderman' No. l costs thousands of pounds today should you find someone selling. One significant event in Spiderman's past was the Secret Wars in which he used a natty new suit and then discovered that it was in fact an alien symbiote. So he got rid of it and it took over some hapless bystander and turned him into the astonishingly popular hero Venom. Another spin off from 'Spiderman' is 'The Punisher' who started as a guy with serious mental problems, the vicious gang killing of his wife and kids had made him go out and machine gun people he suspected of being criminals. But he has degenerated into just the fans favourite psychopath.

DC

DC is owned by Time-Warner which might explain why their two biggest comics, 'Batman' and 'Superman', have been adapted for film in recent years.

All four major characters mentioned so far have several monthly comics each, in fact with several Marvel specials this month anyone intending to buy all the Spiderman comics this March would have to spend over £30 and over £40 for all the X-Men comics. I would not recommend either as good value for money. A lot of super-hero comics are crap and those that are good are best enjoyed by readers below the age of 16 or so, usually younger. But there are good comics out there which are worth reading. The first thing to look for is an "approved by the comics code authority"; avoid these like the plague. They mean more or less the same as PG or 12 on films and are carried on most of Marvel's output. DC have some very good titles which are aimed at the older reader with adult themes. In an attempt to make these easy to identify DC has recently created a subsidiary label for them called Vertigo.

Vertigo

All Vertigo's output is worth reading. At the moment there are 7 continuing titles:- 'Sandman', 'Swamp Thing', 'Shade, the Changing Man', 'Animal Man', 'Doom Patrol', 'Hellblazer' and 'Sandman: Mystery Theatre'. Two more are about to join this select band, 'Black Orchid' and 'Kid Eternity'; and there are 3 current mini-series: 'Death: The High Cost of Living', 'Enigma' and 'Sebastian O'.

Sandman

'Sandman' is perhaps today's most pointed-to as what-comics-should-be comic. It is also one of my favourites. In one of the Hans Christian Anderson stories a man dressed like a medieval jester visits little children in their sleep and sprinkles sand on their eyes making them dream; this comic bears very little resemblance to that image. The Neil Gaiman comic involves a tall, morose anthropomorphic personification who dresses in black, has black spiky hair and black holes with occasional distant lights where his eyes should be. The Sandman cares little for ordinary people, works to ensure the Dreaming runs smoothly, prefers original stories to adaptations and falls in love with the wrong women.

The Sandman also has a bunch of siblings, the Endless:- Destiny, the oldest, is chained to his book and is blind; Death, who manifests as a fifteen year old Goth with a penchant for ankh jewellery; Destruction, a tall, red haired and often bushy bearded man who wears armour and a sword and was there before the first thing was created; Desire, a man-woman (whichever it chooses at the time) who lives in the heart of "the threshold" and is generally suave and sophisticated unlike his/her twin sister Despair who is fat, short, naked and dirty with a very sharp fish hook made into a ring; Delight was a beautiful young girl but she grew up into the adolescent Delirium who has rapidly changing punk attire.

So far 'Preludes and Nocturnes' chronicled the Sandman's escape from imprisonment by a magician and his recovery of his power and tools from various places. The 'Dolls House' tells of the age's Vortex, Rose Walker, who would destroy the Dreaming if left unchecked. 'Dream Country' is a series of short stories including what Shakespeare paid for his plays and the fate of Calliope, Muse and one of the Sandman's previous loves. 'Season of the Mists' is the story of what happened when the Sandman decided he had been selfish when he consigned Nada to hell for rejecting him a few aeons ago and set off to rescue her. 'A Game of You' is the story of one night for a bunch of 6 students and the like in New York made difficult by Barbie's dream which was wrecked by the vortex. 'Brief Lives', the current storyline, tells of Delirium's search for Destruction who left his realm on auto pilot 300 years ago.

Hellblazer

'Hellblazer' is a chronicle of the life of John Constantine. John is an ordinary Londoner, drinks G&T, wears a yellow trench coat, smokes silk-cut, has a long list of dead friends and is last in a long list of Constantines who "walk amidst the flotsam of lives they have sacrificed, for their own purposes, 'til friendless and alone they needs must make the final sacrifice". 'Hellblazer' does not have as good a set of back-issues as 'Sandman', there are more of them but the ones written by Delano were on the whole pretty turgid. John has managed to get cured of lung cancer though there were strings attached. He has dealt with a demon possessing a member of the royal family. He has dealt with the Damnation Army and the Resurrection Crusade simultaneously. He has hung out with hippies for a while.

Doom Patrol

The Doom Patrol is the only team in the Vertigo fold. There is Dorothy, the last Neanderthal and a teenage girl and Cliff Steel who died decades ago and whose brain was put in a robot body with six legs and an apelike torso. Unfortunately, I have been unable to afford to buy many 'Doom Patrol's and so have not read many so I can't tell you more or who the other members of the team are.

Swamp Thing

'Swamp Thing' is the chronicle of a creature which was born from the swamps of Louisiana by the intervention of the Parliament of the Trees. Swamp Thing absorbed the memories of a dead biologist Alex Holland in the process of its birth. He has married a woman called Abby Arcane and they have managed to have a child called Tefe (this was a tricky one when he's not even the same taxonomical kingdom as her and doesn't actually have the right wedding tackle).

Swamp Thing has pretty much total power over plants; he can tune into alien plants and has been cast adrift in space and cast adrift in time. He is known in the DC magical community as the current plant elemental as there have been a long line of plant elementals which have looked more or less like him and have a roughly the same powers who have tired of their duties and joined the Parliament of Trees. Swamp Thing hates being called away from his wife and wants to live alone, apart from the world with his family. Abby's previous husband Matt Cable spent years in a coma and then died. As he died in his sleep he was allowed to spend some of his afterlife in the Dreaming becoming he Sandman's companion even.

'Swamp Thing' has been written in several styles through the years. It started as a generic super-hero (well a sort of mutant hero) comic written by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in which Swampy was actually a strange mutation of Alex Holland the dead biologist. Then Alan Moore and John Totleben took over. They killed Anton Arcane and Swampy was overwhelmed by Sunderland corporation. A handy plan/man biologist examined Swampy's corpse and decided that Swampy was not a strangely mutated Alec Holland but a plant which thought it was Alec Holland and told Swampy this; hence he killed the Old Man Sunderland in a fit of rage (the biologist had made himself scarce). Moore is probably the most critically acclaimed writer of the '80s. One of his Swamp things was the first DC news- stand distribution comic (i.e. you didn't have to go to a comic specialist shop to buy it) which wasn't approved by the comics code authority. Read it, it's issue 28 or so and ICSF has a copy of the Titan reprint, so no excuses there.

Shade, the Changing Man

'Shade, the Changing Man' is the story of an alien called Shade from a place called Meta where he had happened to live quite happily with his fiance Mellu. His job had been to travel to Earth and investigate. When he found madness he was supposed to apply a suppresser which lobotomised the subject. However his boss, Wizor, sent him on a one way trip to Earth using the irradiated dust of an unfortunate victim of Wizor's research programme which had been made into "the Madness Vest". This put Shade's mind in the body of Troy Grenzer - a convicted serial killer - who was about to be executed in the electric chair. Using the power of the Madness Vest, Shade escaped from the chair and got as far as a handy car which happened to belong to the daughter of Grenzer's last victims. She, Kathy, was not pleased about driving Grenzer around and did so in a daze.

The arrival of Shade had catalysed the arrival of the American Scream, the personification of all of the beloved US of A's neuroses: JFK, Hollywood, moral decay, guilt, hippies and consumerism. When Shade had defeated this he started having problems with the stubborn residuals of Grenzer. Shade had at this point fallen in love with Kathy but Grenzer manages to get into bed with her first (Grenzer pretended to be Shade). Alter dealing with Grenzer, a more brutal side of Shade's personality appeared and managed to get off with Lenny, Shade and Kathy's travelling companion. However this Hades personality also managed to get killed. Shade and Hades blocked the realisation that they were dead out of their minds for a while but once they realised, Hades died and Shade started to look for a new body.

The body he found was female and he had to exorcise a few demons from her past (figuratively, not literally like 'Hellblazer') before he could hold the body to a male configuration. However he also found that Kathy and Lenny had been having an affair (yes, with each other) while he had been incapacitated by his death. Shade decided that this wasn't working right and decided to die properly, so he forced the angels to allow him to be reborn in the body of a convenient mindless inhabitant of a mental asylum. The only thing which I think is wrong with this title is that Death from 'Sandman' has not made an appearance. Other than that this is a great comic and the way it deals with the females in the storyline and the love triangles is almost without peer.

Animal Man

I haven't read much 'Animal Man' (I have got a limited budget you know) but it's about a guy who can empathise with and even control animals, but he died in a car accident recently and he too managed to claw his way back to life. (Death is often temporary for comics characters because when one writer leaves and a new writer joins a title one or other will often kill the hero or main villain and the new writer will bring the hero back to life while attempting not to strain the reader's suspension of disbelief. Oddly the deaths of Superman and Shade didn't involve new writers.)

Death: The High Cost of Living

This is a spin-off mini-series from Sandman. Death, sister of Sandman spends one day per century alive to stop herself getting callous. In one previous century, she talked the day away with a Chinese peasant about his hopes and plans. In this century she is spending the day with a depressed young man called Sexton Furnival, but Mad Hettie, an old (200 odd) tramp, wants to find her heart which she hid from Death to live this long.

The Independents

This covers a lot of comics by a lot of different people so it's going to be impossible to be exhaustive.

Dark Horse, Valiant, Image

These three are the most popular independent companies at the moment. Dark Horse made its name in the late 80's with very popular adaptations of the 'Predator' and 'Alien' films. The miniseries 'Aliens vs Predator' was one of the most popular miniseries ever, and I liked it too. The Dark Horse version of what happened after 'Aliens' holds together a lot better than the film 'Aliens', which is best written off as a dream sequence. Dark Horse is going through something of a bad patch at the moment however.

Valiant and Image are both companies of the 90's, Valiant being set up by Jim Shooter and Image by a bunch of Marvel "Creators" (mainly artists) who were fed up with the contracts they got from Marvel and set up a company which let them keep all the rights to the stories they wrote and drew. Valiant has produced a range of titles which have gained a growing audience. This has made their early issues very valuable. Especially valuable are the gimmick issues. While Valiant's scripts (mainly by Shooter who has now left the company after a disagreement) have been critically acclaimed, Image has been beset by bad scripts. Only 'Spawn' by Todd MacFarlane has managed to maintain a significant readership and a regular schedule. However, 'Spawn' does deserve it as Todd is trying to create an ongoing series while the rest have found that it is more profitable to concentrate on first issues. To deflect criticism of his writing skills he has got some of the best writers in comics to guest-write on 'Spawn'. Alan Moore has done issue 8, Neil Gaiman has written issue 9, Dave Sim has written issue 10 and Frank Miller issue 11. Which so far (issue 8) have been if not earth-shatteringly good, pretty good and the artwork is as good as it gets. I'm going to buy the rest of the guest-written 'Spawn's.

Mirage (ie. 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles')

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' phenomenon exemplifies what can happen to a comic, when it is promoted to a certain audience. 'MNT'started as an underground comic strip, became popular, expanded and became more popular until it made it to the film industry and was made into a film aimed directly at young children (not that the comics were aimed at a mature readership or anything) which heralded the huge wave of popularity which of course peaked, with nowhere to go so 'TMNT' became yesterday's fad and started to fade. Dave Sim is well aware that he could engineer the same thing with 'Cerebus' but he refuses to do so on the ground that its not the right audience and he doesn't need the money.

Knockabout

Knockabout has published several of the funniest comics around. Probably the best is 'The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers', the story of three total drug addicts Phineas Freakears, Fat Freddie and Freewheeling Franklin. The Freak Brothers live for one thing and one thing only, DRUGS; they are experts on drugs, they use drugs all the time, they sell drugs for funds, they are druggies. Their main drug is, of course, pot. They spend their time stoned, making sure they stay stoned and looking desperately for the means to get stoned again. They are not totally drugs obsessed (sex is also involved) so I suppose Gilbert Shelton (the writer) is not that predictable.

Aardvark-Vanaheim (i.e. Cerebus)

I saved the best till last. Dave Sim stands alone [He's got BO -Ed]. 'Cerebus' is at the moment at issue 166 and will end with issue 300. Every issue will be written by Dave Sim and all the figures will be drawn by Dave Sim. The only other comics which have lasted past 300 (e.g. 'The Fantastic Four' and 'Batman') have (as far as I know) involved more than one writer and more than one artist, in fact lots of both. 'Cerebus' also has much tighter continuity than any other 300 issue series; with only a few early slips, it is one continuous story from issue 10. 'Cerebus' 1, 2 and 3 were present in last year's list of the top 50 most valuable comics published in the last 20 years and only 'TMNT' could boast a better rating by an independent and DC only had 3 titles mentioned.

Enough stats, 'Cerebus' (yes it is spelt like that, it started as a typo) is the life story of Cerebus the Aardvark. He always refers to himself by name (e.g. "Cerebus is fed up..."), he is 3 foot high, grey, furry, the best swordsman in the continent and hates being called cute. There are several other major characters:- the Roach is a parody of the rest of comicdom, especially Marvel, his personality changes virtually at random from one comics character to another and his preferred name changes with his personality (so one day be is the Moon Roach and the next he is Punisheroach.) Jaka is the beautiful niece of Lord Julius, who ran away from home at the age of 12 to a life of dancing in taverns. Weissaupt is a tribute/parody of George Washington and has tried repeatedly to unify several countries into the United Feldwar States each time successfully until the reason for unification has passed. Lord Julius is the Grandlord of Palnu (a city-state) and is based on Julius (Groucho) Marx and is provided for comic relief. One of the few non-human characters in the comic is the Elf who is without a doubt the cutest person in the comic and is often Cerebus' only friend. Red Sophia is a parody of generic swordwomen (and Red Sonja the Marvel comic.) There are several major religions in Cerebus' world; the largest is a patriarchal monotheistic faith similar to current Christian organised religions (the organisations, not necessarily the beliefs). It believes that the one true god is Tarim (a male). The second largest is Cirinism named after its founder, Cirin being one of the three Aardvarks. Cirinsts believe in a female supreme being called Terim and in rulership by Mothers using female telepathy. There is a splinter group from Cirinism called Kevillism founded by Astoria, ex-wife of Lord Julius and daughter of Cirin. Kevillism is founded on the principle of rulership by unmarried women. The final major religion is Illusionism, founded by the legendary Suentus Po, the third Ardvark who is still around after hundreds of years because of reincarnation. Illusionism is based on meditation, anarchism, drug use and the belief that life is an illusion.

The comic starts with Cerebus as a Barbarian. He fell in love with Jaka, a dancer. He began to get involved in leading armies, unsuccessfully at first, then he got involved in politics. He was hired by Lord Julius, Grandlord of Palnu, then moved on from this and found himself in a city where Weissaupt was running the show, with help and hindrance from Captain Cockroach (Captain America) and Bunky the Albino (CC's sidekick). He then moved on again to the first major story.

In 'High Society', Cerebus started as the ranking diplomatic representative of Palnu to Iest, an eminently bribable position (which the potential bribers knew even if Cerebrus didn't) but was kidnapped, well, the McDrew brothers attempted to kidnap him. When Cerebus is unconscious he often enters an astral sphere. In issue 20 be was able to talk to Suentus Po whilst in a grey shimmering space which, if you photocopied the comic, could be arranged as a large Cerebus, and talk to his druggers, the Cirinists, when outside the grey space. Cerebus talked to Po about politics, then woke up back in his room in the Regency Hotel and discovered the Elf and the fact that he owed 12 000 crowns ransom to the Prime Minister. So Cerebus tried to blackmail a rich businessmnan who signed away 29 000 crowns. However, at this point, unorthodox economic revenge (a large pile of rock on the head of the businessman) was exacted by the Moon Roach, who was being controlled by Astoria, who offered to help Cerebus make lots of money. This appealed to Cerebus. She made quite a bit of money for him, then Cerebus tried to get re-elected, until Astoria realised they would be better off if he tried to become prime minister. At this point Jaka reappeared and Cerebus tried to buy her affections, so she left him. Cerebus became prime minister after a closely contested election against a goat (a normal goat [as opposed to a mutant star goat -Ed]) and was then launched into a series of crises. He invaded a series of countries for their wealth and found that they were as broke as he was and was then invaded by barbarians and deserted by everyone. Finally the church intervened and his reign was over.

Now begins 'Church & State', a full 50 issues long, in which Cerebus spent a while with a Countess. Then Weissaupt drugged Cerebus into marrying Red Sophia and to get a divorce he became the puppet prime minister of Iest when Bishop Powers nominated him as Pope. So Cerebus started to refer to himself as Most Holy and asked for every gold piece in Iest from the ordinary people before he would persuade Tarim that Tarim shouldn't destroy the world as worthless. In the end Most Holy, to avoid sentencing Astoria to death, jumped out of a window and ascended the Black Tower which took him to the moon. There he was told that he would die alone and unloved in a few years time by the [Judge Dredd? Pickles? Reinhold? -Ed]. His crusade had stopped in his absence as no-one had previously survived an ascension; Cerebus was however teleported down.

In 'Jaka's Story', Cerebus spends a while hiding from the Cirinist invasion force with Jaka, who has married a man called Rick. The book is about Jaka's childhood and also about relationships and people. Nothing much happens until a Cirinist patrol arrests Jaka and Rick while Cerebus was out. Then Jaka is coerced into signing a document saying dancing is wrong. Despite little happening in either, 'Jaka's Story' and 'Melmoth' arc good books.

In 'Melmoth', Oscar Wilde dies, Cerebus sits in shock at what has happened to Jaka and the publican who Cerebus pays with a gold piece transforms his place into a top class bistro with the interest.

So we arrive at the 150 mark, halfway through the Cerebus epic and almost at the current day. The current story is 'Mothers & Daughters' in which Cerebus discovers by chance that Jaka was not killed by the Cirinists but was only injured and so he kills the Cirinist who injured her and then finds that her telepathic cry for help has brought lots more Cirinist soldiers. Cerebus kills several soldiers and makes a speech to the crowd of onlookers which gathered to stir up a revolt which instantly collapses and Cerebrus teleports to the 7th sphere (the astral plane) to avoid a crossbow bolt. The Roach takes on the personality of Punisheroach and blows away lots of Cirinists with the semi-automatic crossbows he invented. At the top of the 7th sphere Cerebus finds the real Suentus Po, plays him at chess and loses. Punisheroach loses his virginity and falls in love with the prostitute he used. When he realises that she is a prostitute, he becomes morose and rejected and a 'Sandman' parody. Cerebus has now returned to Earth and is figuring out what to do next.

Writers

The writer of the comic is the one that holds your attention, the one who keeps your attention (I'm not talking to a bunch of artists am I?) and so to help you in your quest for a decent comic here is a selection of the best writers:

Dave Sim, writer of 'Cerebus'. Well you've just read that bit.

Neil Gaiman, writer of 'Sandman', yeah you read that as well. He has also guest written on a few other titles and has written:- the 'Books of Magic', 'Black Orchid', 'Signal to Noise' and Miracle Man'.

Alan Moore has not written anything for the last couple of years, saying that after 'Miracle Man' there was nothing further he could do with the super-hero genre. Fortunately you can easily obtain back issues by Moore. He has done 'Swamp Thing', 'V for Vendetta', 'Watchmen', some '2000AD' stories, Miracle Man' and others. He is now returning to the world of comics with a guest slot on 'Spawn' and a series of comics in the style of early 60s comics called '1963', also for Image.

Frank Miller brought comics to popular attention with his 80s story 'Batman: The Dark Night Returns' chronicling the end of the Batman legend. Other notable works by Miller include 'Ronin', his take on the Japanese Manga style and more recently 'Sin City' and 'Terminator vs Robocop', both for Dark Horse.

Garth Ennis, current writer of Judge Dredd and 'Hellblazer'. Both have been given a new life by Garth's writing.

Gilbert Shelton, writer and artist of 'The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers', has also written and drawn a whole series of projects for Knockabout.

Comic Shops

What do you mean you thought you could only buy comics at newspaper shops?! OK so many of you didn't think that but for those under that sad delusion, take heart: I once thought this but discovered otherwise when I came to London. There are several comic import shops in central London. The one you probably know of already is Forbidden Planet, but they take advantage of you poor comics neophytes by charging extortionately for back issues and PUTTING PRICE TAGS DIRECTLY ON COMICS!

There are also comic shops inside other shops; both Marble Arch Virgin Megastore and Hamleys have comic shops inside them, which are run by Stateside Comics who concentrate to a large extent on very old, and therefore expensive, comics. The Fantastic Store in the Tottenham Court Rd. Virgin Megastore is quite reasonable as is Top 10 Soho but my favourite shops are Gosh and Comics Showcase which are cheap, friendly and bag all their comics except their display copies.

Comic shops are different from newspaper shops in one important respect: newspaper shops can and do return extra papers and magazines to the printers for a refund. Comic shops deal with non-returnable comics and so they do have back issues, lots of them. Comics often assume a certain amount of familiarity with previous storylines, requiring the reader to collect back issues.

MG Spiller


About item:

- Cerebus 1: Cerebus
- The Sandman 1: Preludes & Nocturnes

Related items:

About author:

- Miller, Frank
- Moore, Alan
- Shelton, Gilbert
- Sim, Dave
- Gaiman, Neil

Related authors:


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