Too serious about comics.

Best Comics of 2013: A Matter of Life

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amatteroflife80dpi_lgJeffrey Brown originally came to popularity with his “Girlfriend Trilogy” – an interlinked set of ruthlessly honest works (Clumsy, Unlikely & Any Easy Intimacy) that helped define the character of autobiographical comics for the 00s alongside the likes of James Kochalka and Craig Thompson. In the years since then Brown has diversified, releasing pop-culture parodies, two volumes of observational cat comics, animating a music video and making a film – but it’s not unfair to say that the various autobiographical works he’s released in that period weren’t exactly breaking new ground. They stuck heavily to the template of his earlier pieces, and even though they were still funny, well-observed and relatable, they had a tendency to feel tempered by Brown’s advancing age and the more stable emotional context of having settled down.

That’s all changed in his latest offering. A Matter of Life feels like Brown re-focusing on his autobiographical work, bringing to it some of the additional invention and vigour that he’d previously been ploughing into other endeavours. For the first time, this autobiographical work is presented in full colour. For the first time, it opens with a multi-page sequence of meditative illustration, rather than throwing you straight into the autobio material. And for the first time, it presents its themes overtly and consistently. That’s not to cast aspersions on anything that’s come before, but where Brown’s previous autobio was by character uncertain and raw, A Matter of Life feels confident and assured. It’s the work of someone with something to say, about huge topics like religion, life, death, fatherhood and family.

At the same time, it retains those qualities that made Brown’s work so readable in the past. At times it’s hilarious, at times its touching, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Like all good autobio comics, it doesn’t just help you understand someone else’s experiences – it can help you understand your own too. And it looks as good as Brown’s work ever has, from the bright, bold, textured colours to the note-perfect facial expressions and body language. The cover alone is a brilliantly crafted and realised image, but Brown has taken as much care with every page inside, and it’s rare you can say that about a comic of any sort.

The usual disclaimers do apply, of course – if you find autobio comics insular, naval-gazing and self-indulgent then there’s little here that’ll likely change your mind. But if you’re a fan of Brown, or the genre (and we are) then it’s as strong as anything you’ll find within it. If anything, the main problem with Brown’s work is that it’s so consistently good that it’s almost hard to notice when he puts out something even better. But A Matter of Life is a visible leap forward for him as a creator, and when composing our best books of 2013, it felt wrong not to acknowledge it for that reason alone.

James Hunt | 23rd December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: Batman Incorporated

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batmaninc13It’s that time again! Over the next ten days, we’ll be running through our ten favourite comics of 2013 – the first seven are in no particular order, followed by two individually-chosen runners-up, and a unanimous Best of the Year to be revealed on the 31st…

It’s fair to say that the high watermark of Grant Morrison’s epoch-making run on Batman was reached some time ago – although your own mileage may vary as to whether that happened around the time of the Black Glove storyline, Batman RIP, or the Dick Grayson-starring Batman & Robin (as far as I’m concerned it’s the middle one). The momentum of the whole thing was seriously hampered by the New 52 relaunch occurring slap bang in the middle of Batman Incorporated - partly as it meant Morrison seemed distracted by a disappointing Action Comics run, and partly because of the ridiculous continuity retcons that were never going to reconcile with this intricate and all-encompassing long-form story.

As Incorporated drew to its conclusion, however, some of the spark of the run’s better moments began to return – to the extent that despite an erratic shipping schedule, every issue (aside from the non-Morrison fill-ins) that came out in 2013 was individually fantastic. It helped that Morrison was working with a consistent artist once more – and, what’s more, an artist who had developed from being a reasonable substitute for Frank Quitely into a genuinely excellent and inventive superhero storyteller of his own. But it was also noticeable that, after a fair amount of meandering around the place (and despite the brilliance of the cliffhanger that first introduced it, the “round the world” concept of Incorporated had simply never resulted in any particularly compelling stories), the drama was back in full force. Kicking off with January’s issue #7, the stakes were raised, the human tragedy hit home (the impact of #8 managing to survive having the major plot point deliberately spoiled in the press in advance), and the story actually became about something again.

Crucially, Morrison was finally able to finish spelling out the second major message of his Batman run (the first, of course, being “every story is true”) – that as the most enduringly popular exponent of this most serial of storytelling forms, one thing that will always remain true is that Batman will keep coming back, the stories will keep going around on the same cycles, and that that’s actually kind of okay. Realising that his final issue was an opportunity to ease Batman into a new beginning (one that, in fact, had already overlapped with him) liberated Morrison from having to deliver the sort of truly satisfying, closure-laden and downright spectacular ending that it might have seemed like the seven-year run demanded. It was enough, simply, to remind us that whatever might happen, whatever might seem to be taken from him, and whatever anybody might attempt to change (whether that’s Talia showing up to wreck his life, or DC deciding to handwave away most of his backstory for the sake of a new banner to put on their books), the Batman abides.

I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.

Seb Patrick | 22nd December, 2013

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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magicwordsIt’s tempting to wonder if anything new really needs to be said about Alan Moore or his career at this point. Despite moving out of mainstream comics some time ago, he remains the go-to figurehead for curious broadsheet or television journalists who’ve decided they want to profile someone in the industry; and from the controversy over his non-involvement in the Watchmen movie (and indeed, before that, the V For Vendetta movie), to the co-opting of V’s mask by the Anonymous movement, there’s always been some ongoing storyline that keeps his personal profile high even when that of his actual written output is low. We all think we’ve got a handle on Moore, and that we know what he’s all about – even when that handle involves willfully misunderstanding the tone of comments made in interviews, and choosing to take his theatrically-declared disenchantment with the superhero industry personally.

It’s unlikely that Lance Parkin’s new biography will win over a fortysomething Green Lantern reader who sees Moore’s comments as an affront to everything they stand for – although they’d be well-served to read the chapter in which Parkin meticulously spotlights just how textured and devilish his sense of humour actually is, as it’s a facet of his character that comics blogs and news sites tend to miss entirely – but for those who are already positively inclined towards him, it’s an enlightening and entertaining trip through his life and work. Without quite feeling truly exhaustive – Parkin admits the futility of striving to cover absolutely everything in the fullest detail, particularly those passages of his career that have been written about almost constantly since the 1980s – it nevertheless offers plenty of fresh perspective, both factually and interpretively, even to the most seasoned Moore fan.

Crucially, while so much previous writing on Moore centres solely on his work, this is far more – and indeed, as a priority – a biography. To that end, perhaps the most eye-opening chapters are those that cover a period so rarely written about: the time between Moore’s leaving school, and arriving on the comics scene. While his late ’70s cartooning as “Jill de Ray” et al has been discussed elsewhere (although even then, Parkin finds more to dig into than most, and the reproductions of Maxwell the Magic Cat strips are a constant delight), it’s genuinely fascinating to read about his involvement in the Northampton branch of the Arts Lab movement; and while Moore has always sought to define himself by the idiosyncrasies of his home town, it’s rare that anyone else looks at how it shaped his development as an artist, as Parkin does here.

When moving on to Moore’s actual career, meanwhile, the liveliest sections are those that land either side of his most celebrated and widely discussed transatlantic work. The story of Marvel UK, Warrior and the rest of the early ’80s British comics scene could happily expand into a terrifically entertaining book of its own, while Parkin is more interested than most Moore scholars in exploring exactly why the 1990s Image work, and the assorted and curious publishing and ownership situations around America’s Best Comics, actually occured. And having taken such careful steps to get inside Moore as a person, the various disputes and controversies that have arisen throughout his career feel less like the random, unreasonable kicking-out of a madman that the comics media so often like to portray them as. That’s not to say the reader will always agree or sympathise with Moore in any given situation – and Parkin certainly doesn’t, occasionally directly admonishing him – but there’s always at least an attempt to understand why they occur.

While Parkin’s fair-mindedness and attention to factual detail might be the most obvious assets the book has to offer a hardcore Moore fan, as a publication in its own right its strengths lie more in the author’s zippy and engaging writing style (no surprise to anyone who knows his Doctor Who work, but it makes reading it an absolute breeze without ever feeling simplistic or lacking), and in its physical presentation. It’s always a delight to see a book that’s so firmly aware of itself as an object in this heavily digital age (and I say that as someone who reads plenty of ebooks) – and while its heavyweight cover, gorgeous blackened page edges and title-bearing paper strip undoubtedly contribute to the slightly eye-watering £20 RRP, their effect on the book’s desirability can’t be denied.

From a perspective like ours, it’s difficult to judge whether Magic Words will carry much appeal beyond the comics fandom that reveres Moore so – I’d like to think so, as it’s an accessible and entertaining read that should engage anyone with an interest in captivating British eccentrics, but it’s fair to say that reading about the ins and outs of Marvelman’s publication history occupies a distinct niche. However, purely on its merits as an Alan Moore biography for people who want to read an Alan Moore biography, it’s hard to imagine it ever being bettered.

Magic Words is available now, published by Aurum Press.

Seb Patrick | 9th December, 2013

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 11 (November 2013)

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altcover11We’re back! And sooner than usual! Well, it would have been, if technical problems hadn’t caused us to be releasing this episode a full week after we recorded it. Anyway, unless you think such topics are now horribly unfashionable, listen on to hear us talk about Sandman Overture #1, Thor: The Dark World, and the conclusion of the X-Men: Battle of the Atom crossover. And then finally, when Seb takes on James in the ongoing Obsessed With Marvel quiz, there can only be one winner. Clue: it’s probably not going to be Seb.

OR IS IT?

No, it’s probably not.

BUT IT MIGHT.

You can download the MP3 directly here, listen to the episode in your browser via the player below, or get it for your preferred player via our iTunes and standard RSS feeds.

Seb Patrick | 12th November, 2013

101 Comics: Part Three

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Part one covered 52 to Ex MachinaPart two was Fat Freddy’s Cat to The Punisher! What about part three? Well, read on to find out what my remaining thirty-four, alphabetically-sorted, instinctively-chosen favourite comics of all time are…

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Seb Patrick | 25th October, 2013

101 Comics: Part Two

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On to the next thirty-odd entries, then, in my alphabetical list of the 101 comics that instinctively come to mind when I decide to name my favourites. Introduction and part one here. But for now, onward!

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Seb Patrick | 24th October, 2013

101 Comics: Part One

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The format for this post is shamelessly nicked from the excellent Colin Smith, who recently posted a quickfire list of his 101 favourite comics – whether issue, trade, GN, strip or whatever – over on his blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. As he explained when introducing the list:

I’ve long thought that it would be a good idea for any critic – Sunday Supplement seer or Sunday League comics blogger – to make such a hefty disclosure of their preferences. Over the past few years, there’s been any number of times when I’ve wished I could point at such a list and say, “Actually, these are the creations that I’m most moved and inspired by.” Most often, it’s been me that I’ve wanted to point in such a direction. It’s all-too-easy to lose track of the things we love in the face of both babble and plenty. As such, what follows is nothing more or less than the 101 comics and strips – listed in alphabetical order – that I’d be most likely to rescue from a fire as of 14.14 on the 10th October 2013. Given how impossible it is to reach a definitive answer as to which options should be embraced, recantations and mea culpas are only to be expected.

I (Seb) liked the idea (not to mention the style of listing them) so much, and was also sufficiently emboldened by his suggestion that it’s A Good Idea for anyone who writes about comics to do, that I thought I’d do my own.

Here, then, is the first part (of three) of my list of 101, with the remaining 67 entries to follow shortly…

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Seb Patrick | 23rd October, 2013

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 10 (October 2013)

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altcover-shieldIt’s our landmark, double-figures, tenth episode! Hurrah! Well, it’s technically our eleventh, if you include episode 7.1, but we’re not Marvel, so we’re not going to resort to such shameless issue-counting tactics.

Anyway, this time around, we’re going CROSS-MEDIA in order to discuss the first three episodes of Marvel’s Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Assemble, before taking an in-depth look at issue #1 of Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly’s Three, and finally making some wild predictions about possible NYCC announcements that will probably already be out of date and wrong by the time you listen to them. There’s also just time to squeeze in another round of the Obsessed With Marvel quiz, as James returns to try and take the crown back from two-time reigning champion Rhys.

You can download the MP3 directly here, listen to the episode in your browser via the player below, or get it for your preferred player via our iTunes and standard RSS feeds.

Seb Patrick | 11th October, 2013

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 9 (August 2013)

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altcover-infinityOkay, so we have a couple of apologies, here. Firstly, we’ve only just noticed that in the post for last month’s All New Style Podcast Episode, we actually managed to, er… link to the previous one. So if you’re the kind of listener who clicks through to the site and tries to listen to the episodes from there, you won’t actually have heard our July episode yet. Whoops. Sorry about that. It is, however, something you could avoid by subscribing to one of our pod feeds – either on iTunes, or via good old regular RSS.

Secondly, we actually recorded this episode a week ago (on the day that both Infinity and Kick-Ass 2 were actually released), but due to James and Seb being snowed under with work and Rhys leaving the country almost immediately afterwards, we’ve only just managed to get around to editing it.

After all of these clusterfucks, if you still want to listen to us, you can do so at the link below, which WILL ACTUALLY BE CORRECT this time (and if you go back to the July entry, it’s now been corrected, so you can hear Rhys’ debut). In it, we discuss issue #1 of Marvel’s summer crossover event Infinity, the new movie adaptation of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2, and what exactly is wrong with DC comics and what the three of us presumptuously say we’d do to try and make it better. Then, as reigning Obsessed With Marvel quiz champion, Rhys gets to take on Seb this time around in an attempt to defend his crown.

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 9

Seb Patrick | 21st August, 2013

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 8 (July 2013)

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Avengers_16-674x1024We’re back! Bigger, and better than ever! Well, maybe not better but definitely bigger, in that we’re welcoming new team-member Rhys Williamson as a regular and ongoing member of the Alternate Cover crew. We’ve also got a slightly new format: rather than the usual set of reviews backed with more reviews, the podcast will now cover three discussion topics (one each) from all corners of the industry, before ending with a winner-stays-on head-to-head using questions from the “Obsessed with Marvel” quiz book so memorably introduced in the previous episode.

In this month’s instalment, Seb asks us to read the first two issues of Superman Unchained, James noses through the Harvey Award nominations (aka the Saga Vs. Hawkeye awards), and Rhys makes the case for Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run based on the events of Avengers #16. After that, it’s upstart Rhys versus reining champeen James in the battle for the Alternate Cover Obsessed with Marvel crown. Who is Sam Smithers? Why did Jane Foster and Thor break up? And what WAS Ben Reilly’s true nature? Only the true victor can answer these questions and more!

As usual, you can get us on iTunes here, or via the RSS feed here. Or you can even listen directly on the site via the link below.

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 8

James Hunt | 21st July, 2013

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