Comics should be good

Let me say it straight up – I fucking love comics. Superhero comics, horror comics, crime comics, art comics, autobio comics, indie comics, all of them. I’ve loved them ever since I discovered the racks of black and white The Brave and the Bold reprints cluttering up the local book exchange when I was like 8 years old, and barely a week has gone by since that I haven’t devoted some time to the Ninth Art of words, pictures and the link between.

Which is why it saddens me to read bad comics and to write about reading bad comics, as I did on the weekend with my massive LJ essay on the failure of the DC Comics reboot. It makes me especially sad to say bad things about bad Batman comics. It hurts me.

I would much rather read good comics and write about reading good comics, which I have decided to do tonight. Specifically I want to recommend five non-superhero comics, all available in collected form, that make me very happy and that everyone else should be reading too.

Atomic Robo (Red 5 Comics)

No other comic in Christendom contains as much joy and explosions per square inch as Atomic Robo. It’s the story of the eponymous hero, a wisecracking, two-fisted robot created by Nikolai Tesla in the 1920s who now heads a scientific thinktank and hits problems until they go away. Said problems include bigger robots, Lovecraftian monsters, evil scientists, Nazis, robot Nazis, Stephen Hawking (he’s such a douche) and Doctor Dinosaur, surely the greatest character find of 2009.

Comparisons to Hellboy – another series about a two-fisted weirdo using his two fists on monsters and Nazis – are inevitable, but completely wrong. The tone of Robo is something unique, a heady mix of subtle and obvious humour, absurdity, pulp action and the joy of science, with little of the darkness of Hellboy (a series I dig, don’t get me wrong); ditto the smart-mouthed and remarkably human character of Robo himself. Writer Brian Clevinger fills the series with inventive plots and crisp, hilarious dialogue, and the slightly disjointed animation style of artist Scott Wegener give the characters life and personality. This is the kind of comic for which the medium was invented.

Proof (Image Comics)

Another series that gets inappropriately compared to Hellboy is Proof, once again because it features a big, monstrous protagonist who pits himself against other monsters. In this case the monster is Bigfoot, also known as John ‘Proof’ Prufrock, a special agent of a secret Lodge that finds and protects cryptids – legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Mothman and the Dodo. Some key differences is that Proof isn’t all that two-fisted, prefers talking over fighting, wears expensive suits and wants more than anything to find other sasquatches, fearing that he is the last of his kind.

Proof is a clever, well-crafted series that takes the core premise (‘what if Fox Mulder was Bigfoot?’) and runs with it in a direction that you wouldn’t expect. Rather than focusing on action (although there’s plenty of that), it’s very much a character-driven comic that uses the crazy world of the Lodge and cryptids as contrast for the internal lives and needs of Proof and his strong supporting cast. Writer Alex Grecian occasionally lets the story and cast get a bit confused, but not for too long, and the scratchy lines and heavy colours of Riley Rossmo’s art convey both horror and moments of humour. It’s terrific stuff, and the second trade includes paper dress-up-dolls!

Dungeons & Dragons (IDW)

It’s obvious that a comic based on the world’s best-known roleplaying game would be a Bible of nerd esoterica that could appeal only to the lowliest basement-dwelling geeks that sleep with a fistful of d20s under their pillow. But I guess no-one told writer John Rogers (Leverage and Blue Beetle) and artist Andrea de Vito this, and so they went and produced an awesome comic that mixes hilarious character comedy with rousing fantasy action that can appeal to anyone with a pulse.

This isn’t just a series about a group of heroic adventurers that fight evil in a fantasy world. It’s The Lord of the Rings as a a caper movie featuring talking skulls, zombie orphans and fights with orcs. It’s the A-Team, except BA is a dwarf with a hammer and Face is a kleptomaniac halfling that stabs bad people. Mostly bad people. It’s a wonderful comic that blends the truly fantastic with believable character motivations and voices, with both stirring action and laugh-out-loud humour that isn’t just tacked on. Plus zombie orphans. I know I mentioned them already, but they’re worth repeating.

Locke & Key (IDW)

From fantasy with a touch of humour to horror with a touch of fantasy. Locke & Key is the story of the three Locke children who move to the family estate of Keyhouse after their father is brutally murdered. While trying to stitch their lives back together, they stumble upon the ancient mysteries of Keyhouse – the well occupied by a dangerous spirit, the Ghost Doors that pull your soul from your body, the Anywhere Key hidden from a terrible evil and the secrets and needs of the family they love.

Locke & Key is the comics debut of author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns) who writes like a past master of the medium. It’s a chilling, thrilling, often heart-wrenching series about wounded children thrust into a world of both beauty and horrors and forced to fight for their survival and for each other. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez is a surprising choice for this in some ways, but his exaggerated and slightly-cartoony art proves to be a perfect contrast to the darkness of the story, creating a crazed mix between Narnia and The Shining. Lovely stuff, and if there’s any justice on this bastard planet the recently-produced pilot will be turned into a full TV series.

Hamlet (Allen & Unwin)

Slightly cheating for the last recommendation, as it’s an original graphic novel rather than a series, but it’s breathtaking and brilliant and if you can’t break your own rules for that then what’s the point of having rules in the first place? The story of Hamlet is well-worn ground by now, but creator Nicki Greenberg reinvents it with the same genius she brought to her incredible retelling of The Great Gatsby as a story of monstrous dandelions and sea-horses.

This book depicts Hamlet and all his compatriots as inkblots, changing shape and size against a background of clock parts and torn tapestries, pulling on faces like porcelain masks and ripping themselves into sticky shreds with the force of their emotions. The violence and despair Greenberg pulls from the black blob of Hamlet is matched only by the deranged whimsy of every other character, and she explores every possible corner of the conceit to create a surreal, gripping world where the splatter of darkness creates urgent depth against gaudy backdrops. It’s so good.

I could mention many others, such as Scalped (which I’ve discussed before), Morning Glories, Chew, Umbrella Academy and a pile of interesting Vertigo titles. And maybe I will some other time. But these five are on my mind a lot, and they deserve to be read by everyone. Especially you. Because comics fucking rock.

(PS – if you’re a Melbournian, the only place to buy these is the fantastic All-Star Comics in Lonsdale Street. Tell them I sent you.)


Straight Outta Thursday

Hi everyone,

I’m striving to get back to my original concept of short, breezy mid-week post and longer weekend posts, so I’m gonna attempt to quickly chat about a few things tonight and then get back to writing playing LOTRO cleaning the fridge the cool mysterious things we writers all do in our personal time.

First, a sad note: Australian fantasy author Sara Douglass died this week of cancer. She was one of this country’s most successful and prolific epic fantasy authors, and the success of her work in the 1990s contributed to the genre becoming more financially viable  for publishers in the 2000s

Her death is a personal shock and sadness to a great many fans. I’ll be honest, I’m not one of them – I never knew her and never read any of her work. But that doesn’t mean I don’t regret a successful writer, and by all accounts a lovely person, being taken from both genre readers and society as a whole.

More to the point, I have read an essay of hers, ‘The Silence of Dying’, about the layers of social avoidance around acknowledging our own mortality and that of others, and it’s a moving and insightful piece. You should all read it.

Second, two book recommendations. I’ve been reading Steve Erickson’s Zeroville and Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red lately, and they are both amazing books.

In terms of ambition, Zeroville – a history of 1970s Hollywood, obsession, the story of Abraham and Isaac and the way meaning emerges from fog through the imposition of narrative – is an incredible book. Erickson also wrote The Sea Came in at Midnight, another excellent book, and he’s a true craftsman of tone, structure and theme. His books don’t really end cleanly or make a lot of narrative sense at all times, so they won’t appeal to everyone, but if you like arty literary stuff with a big big dose of magical realism and menacing absurdity, this is the real deal.


Tomato Red doesn’t aim at anything like the same territory; it’s a more unassuming country noir tale of losers trying to get out of their dead-end world and doing a bad job of it. Its power comes not from the story but the narrative voice, a warm, funny yet sad tone set by the viewpoint character, a man who knows life will kick him in the balls but still stands legs akimbo when the job demands it. I’m enthralled by this book, and wish I wasn’t about to finish it – but I’m now about to track down everything else Woodrell has written in the hopes of finding more stories and voices like this.


For the curious, I’ve written exactly zero words of Arcadia over the last two weeks, as I have instead been writing about kayaks. Not for a novel or ebook, but as a freelance job. It paid well, so it took priority. Now that’s done, I hope to get back into the novel – I’m in the last chapter of Part I, and I need to find a way to raise the stakes and put things in a state of change prior to skipping ahead three months. Plus I want to work in some mentions of Jesus and Alan Jones in there.

Finally, it’s hard to write with a cat biting your elbow, so I’m going to stop here ow ow ow let go damnit.


2011 – an incomplete year in books

I’ve been a very slack writer this year.

You might assume I was talking about my low output and avoidance of working on Arcadia, and that’s a pretty justifiable assumption.

But actually, I mean that I haven’t been reading as much as I should – because the number one skill required for a writer, above grammar and sentence structure and blah blah narrative and all that, is reading. Reading the shit out of other people’s books, working out what makes them work and what doesn’t, and reminding yourself every day that the written word is something you love and want to work with.

Behold the magic of reading! (or possibly porn on an iPad)

And to be honest, I ain’t read shit this year. The main reason for that is because I have a 9-to-5 job (that occasionally encroaches upon my weekends), and it doesn’t leave me a lot of reading time during the week, other than the hour’s bus ride to the office each morning. And, since it’s first thing in the morning and the coffee has only just begun to hit my system, I spend many of those rides reading more immediately accessible texts like graphic novels, RPG sourcebooks or Words With Friends.

As for nights and weekends, those tend to be taken up with other activities – washing dishes, writing blog posts, playing games or getting drunk with friends. Sometimes all at once.

So it’s been a very bad year for reading, and I’ve been feeling abashed about it for a while. Because, seriously, reading is the backbone of writing, and writers that don’t read don’t write anything worth reading. Which worries me, because this is a year when I’m doing more writing (and writing about writing) than ever before.

To get some perspective, I went through my library accounts to see what books (as opposed to DVDs and graphic novels) I had borrowed this year, since that where I get 99% of my reading material. And here’s the list of what I read in 2011 from the start of January to the end of August, sorted by author:

Keith Baker, The Fading Dream

Felix Gilman, Gears of the City

NK Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms

Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars

Kelly Link, The Wrong Grave

Tony Martin, Lolly Scramble

Grant Morrison, Supergods

Charles Portis, True Grit

Annie Proulx, Close Range: Wyoming Stories

Annie Proulx, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2

Annie Proulx, Fine Just the Way it is: Wyoming Stories 3

Greg Rucka, Keeper

Greg Rucka, Finder

Greg Rucka, Smoker

Greg Rucka, Shooting at Midnight

Greg Rucka, Critical Space

Greg Rucka, Patriot Acts

Greg Rucka, Walking Dead

Greg Rucka, A Fistful of Rain

The Sleepers Almanac. No. 6

Peter Temple, The Broken Shore

Peter Temple, Truth

Jennifer Toth, The Mole People

Catherynne M Valente, In the Night Garden

Catherynne M Valente, In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Catherynne M Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed

Chuck Wendig, Irregular Creatures

Walter Jon Williams, Implied Spaces

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind


Okay, I may have been wrong about how little I’ve been reading.

That’s 29 books over eight months, plus any I might have forgotten, and not counting the half-dozen or so books I started reading but then gave up on halfway/partway/three pages through. That’s pretty respectable, I think. And leaves me wondering when the hell I managed to read them in the first place.

Maybe I read at night when I sleep. That would explain a few things.

Anyway, there are conclusions to be drawn from that list, like the fact that I’m not reading enough literary fiction at the moment, and that I hope Greg Rucka’s new thriller comes out soon. But a better conclusion is that sometimes reading becomes like breathing – when you need something to survive, you stop noticing that it’s there. If you’re serious about writing, you read – even if you think you’re not reading. Because words are your air.

That said, I don’t recommend you do what I used to do when I was younger, which is read books while riding a bike. That way likes madness and head injuries.

As an aside, here is my to-read list at the moment, all of which I have to hand or on order:

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God (I got halfway through, had to take it back to the library, and will return to it soon)

Steve Erickson, Zeroville (note: not the same guy as the author of the book above)

Felix Gilman, The Half-made World (started it this week)

Stephen King, Under the Dome

Benjamin Law, The Family Law

Kirstyn McDermott, Madigan Mine

Greg Stolze, SwitchFlipped

Catherynne M Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Daniel Woodrell, Tomato Red

That should take me through to the end of the year and beyond, I would think.

What about you? Anything that you’re desperately immersed in at the moment, pumping life-giving text into your brain?

And speaking of being a very slack writer, I haven’t done any work on Arcadia this week – too many other distractions. Okay, I wrote like a hundred words, but that’s too small to note; I’m throwing it back.

So you can call me a lazy dickhole. I’ll bear that cross once more.

linkage reading

Let’s talk about ME for a change

Heya, everyone.

After the last couple of very long posts about writing philosophy and the like, I feel the need to kick back with something light for this mid-week post – and something much easier and quicker to put together. (Although it’s still over 1000 words. I really suck at brevity sometimes.)

So, in no particular order, here’s a bunch of things that I’ve been doing, seeing, reading or planning.

It has pictures! I promise it won’t be boring. Well, not that boring anyway.


So I said I’d get back to work on Arcadia, and I have – but I haven’t worked very hard on it. Too many other things on my plate in the last couple of weeks.

So here’s the pitiful update to the wordcount tracker:

Less than 1000 words over the course of two weeks. You may feel free to call me a useless dickhole.

Mind you, I did a fair bit of other writing with two long posts here. And neither of those were as long as the extended essay/rant I wrote on my LiveJournal a couple of days ago about – of all things – the upcoming reboot and relaunch of the DC comics superhero universe.

Yes, that’s the one with Batman. You may have noticed that I am a guy with Opinions About Batman.

Anyway, I find I’m more comfortable talking about that sort of thing – both bitterness and nerdiness – over on LJ than here, where I want to keep the focus on what I create (and think about creating) more than what I do for fun. Or rage.

In any case, there’s some 2300 words there about how grumpy I am that they’re giving Superman shoulderpads and a plastic suit; read at your peril.


Continuing on the supers bent, I’m reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods, his treatise on the superhero concept and how it reflects core drives and elements of the human condition.

It’s interesting stuff, hampered a little by a lack of focus – or more precisely a focus spread across three or four separate works. There’s a history of the superhero comics industry and genre, an autobiography of Morrison, a discussion of his philosophies about superheroes and society, some material on chaos magic and use of magical thinking, and at one point a 14-page essay on which is the best Batman movie. (He liked The Dark Knight, but then again so did the rest of us.)

I’m enjoying it, certainly, but I think I was expecting more. Perhaps unjustifiably. It’d be intriguing to see what readers with less knowledge of comics history, and of Morrison’s body of work, make of it.

I’ve also been reading a comics series called Scalped, and holy shit you guys, this is some great stuff. It’s a crime comic set on an Indian reservation ruled by corrupt tribal elders and plagued by drink, drugs and general hopelessness. Then along comes a shitkicker former resident called Dashiell Bad Horse – surely the best name any character anywhere has ever had – to stir up trouble, largely against his will, but in part because he just can’t help himself.

This is violent, hardboiled grindhouse crime that is at the same time clever and layered. Writer Jason Aaron brings a grounded, merciless edge to everything, writing about bloody fistfights and meth lab raids while simultaneously exploring themes of family, spirituality and the weight of history. Artist RM Guera fleshes that out with moody, rough-edged pencils and a controlled colour palette that occasionally opens out to show the liberating (or suffocating) landscapes and expanses of the reservation.

Really enjoying this stuff. Read it if you like to see people yell motherfucker while getting their head broken open, but still want to feel like you’re partaking of something with intellect and merit.


I’m very bad at watching TV, which I know sounds weird. I can’t be arsed watching it on my own; I have to have someone there with me to share the experience, or else I get bored and wander off to do something more interactive like read, play video games or bitch about comics on the internet.

Anyway, watching the new Doctor Who series – and by that I mean the Eccleston one – is high on my to-do list. I also want to check out Leverage, which I hear is really good, and Bored to Death. And I’m just waiting for the second season of Community to come out on DVD so that I can grab it straight away.

Anything else I should be checking out?


I’ve been more or less obsessed with two albums for the last 3 months – My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days and Los Campesinos!’ Romance is Boring.


 This seems to imply that I am in fact a 22-year-old art school student, rather than a 40-year-old editor and writer.

Ah well.

Anyway, these albums are awesome, but I’m no music journalist so I’ll leave it at that.

Other Stuff

Cameron Rogers posted some extraordinarily kind things about me and this site last week, which was hugely flattering. I rather love his statement that I write ‘like an eloquent, furious Soviet’. I’m not 100% sure what it means, but it sounds fucking boss. I’m contemplating returning the favour with some kind of interview or Q&A with Cam in the next week or two. We shall see.

I’m taking a week off from the day job, in order to avoid going mad and stabbing someone after five straight months of editing maths textbooks. During that time I plan to ride a few bike trails, work on Arcadia (and get more done), and write an article for Inscribe, Darebin Council’s quarterly journal on local writing and writers. That won’t come out until November (silly print media), but it’s hugely flattering to be asked to contribute.

I might also put together some more free fiction for the site and for Smashwords. We’ll see how time shakes out.

Your Turn

So, what’s happening? What are you reading, watching, playing, attending or having inappropriate relations with? Comment now, don’t be shy.

And stay tuned for Sunday, where I talk about a subject dear to my heart – grammar and punctuation. You have been warned.