Comics, Myself

A Winter’s Chat with Alan Moore

Kickstarter is a site that  been one of the most interesting things on the web. What is Kickstarter? A way to solicit funding for projects. Any kind of project at all, just as long as it’s original. All you need is a goal amount and people can pledge a sum to help you meet it. The project gets funded if enough people pledge and the goal is reached – or surpassed. Most projects usually have different funding options, with corresponding rewards based on the amount you contribute.

And the kind of projects that you see on the site range from the humdrum to eye-poppingly awesome. From producing independent cinema and music albums to developing quirky products like Twine, from producing custom-made espresso machines to starting mobile libraries, Kickstarter is becoming a hub for amateur musicians, artists, technologists and – well, anyone at all – to connect directly with their intended audience.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the comics projects. There has been a lot of them. There was a project on an all-female comics anthology, catchily named Womanthology that gained quite a bit of buzz, and a 109,000$ backing. Writer Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer kickstarted their American tour last year, raising 133,000$ (out of a $20,000 goal). Digital Manga Press broke new ground in manga publishing by first proposing reprints of an out-of-print volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth – a 3950$ goal yielded 8800$ in crowdfunding. Emboldened thus, they recently launched another Kickstarter, one to publish another adult graphic novel by Tezuka, called Barbara. This one still has 5 days to go, and is at 14,600$ for a proposed 6500$ goal.

One particular project that caught my eye was Joyce Brabner’s Kickstarter to install a desk and statue in honor of noted comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, in Cleveland, his hometown. For those not in the know, Pekar is one of the pioneers of American autobiographical comics. His long-running series American Splendor, based on his own day-to-day adventures, began in 1976 and went on till his demise in 2010. Since he could not draw comics himself, the illustrations were provided by a variety of artists, ranging from alternative gurus Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco to modern-day cartoonists like Gilbert Hernandez and Richard Corben.

Among the rewards that the Pekar Kickstarter had, the most surprising was something that cost 99$. A Video conference with Alan Moore. THE Alan Moore. You know, the guy I keep obsessing about and keep mentioning at every single opportunity. Would I pay 99$ for a video conference with Alan Moore? Seriously? I would have happily paid twice that amount, and that’s as honest a statement as I can express without melting into maudlin sentimentalism and fan-wankery. I paid the money last year, felt flushed with happiness and altruism and nervousness at the thought of actually being able to watch the Mage of Northhampton speak.

And then I forgot all about it.

News of the actual conference came in early February – it was to be held on Saturday. I was a little disheartened to learn of the date because I had other plans that day, but as it turned out, I was able to attend part of the conference, knowing that Brabner would undoubtedly put up the video sooner or later online. There was some level of an honor system involved, where we were not supposed to share our passwords to the conference with any non-backers. Some payment issues involved with the hosting company.

Regardless of how he comes off in interviews (more than a little disgruntled with the state of affairs around him, that is), Moore is a genuinely funny person. He’s also capable of carrying on a conversation without losing his train of thought or the erudite charm that marks his writing. The conference obviously did not have us all talking to him at once, it was more of a broadcast where he would answer questions that the backers had sent to him prior to the event. But the air of quiet theatricality he brought to the proceedings – hunching his shoulders and rolling his eyes at times, sipping on his cup of tea, and even showing off his shoes – this was something that paid for itself within the first few minutes. And continued for much longer.

In the course of two hours and thirty minutes, Moore talked about fans and celebrities, his thoughts on the comics industry, and the possibilities of the comics medium. He went into detail about his thoughts on digital comics, where he distinguished between gimmickry in online comics and actual utilization of this new medium. (“comic companies are taking the same regrettable formulae from the last few decades and plopping them online”). About process, and how he finds all the little details that make his works so much richer. (“You research the place until connections start to emerge.”) He spoke briefly of his beef with Grant Morrison (“I was someone famous that he could slag on”) and about Jerusalem, his upcoming novel, which he calls the biggest work of his life and has about five more chapters to go. There are moments where he astounds – like his aversion to video games because he does not want his audience to control the narrative (“I am a fascist with narrative”). Or when he compares Pro wrestling to Greek theater.

And in the answer to my question, he name-drops Craig Thompson. Hoo ah!

Well, you can see the video for yourself, it’s online now. There are glitches in the recording from time to time, but ignore them. 2 and a half hours of Alan Moore goodness will make you happy, I guarantee it. Umm, feel free to donate some money to Joyce once you are done at Not only does she deserve a bit of your money, but she’s also planning to organize a second instalment of An Evening With Alan Moore very soon.

Kickstarter is not the only sponsor-game in town, though. There’s Sponsume, which incidentally has an Alan Moore-involved project going on right now, where you can pay for a V For Vendetta paperback or mask signed by Moore. I am a little cash-unrich at the moment, and I’ll pass.

Comics, Manga, Reviews

Great Teacher Onizuka: A Review

This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.

Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: Four and a half stars

Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.

That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.

But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.

All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.

The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.

In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.

Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!


A Scandal in Belgravia

You start giggling approximately a minute into the opening of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, when a Bee Gees song begins to play. And the laughs just don’t stop, as writer Stephen Moffat and director Paul McGuigan create a rousing remix of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that is adventure laced liberally with humor.

Spoilery observations and tee-hee points:

Much of what I like about Sherlock is the innovative modern-day parallels that the series brings to the original stories. An American opera singer is transposed to a British dominatrix, a photograph becomes a bunch of photos and videos on a phone, and a region in Germany becomes a London district. A whole bunch of other Holmes cases are punningly name-dropped. The Speckled Blonde, The Geek Interpreter. The blog counter stuck at 1895. Well-played, guys, well-played.

Irene Adler’s War-Dress is a joy to behold.

“Brainy is the new sexy.”

I liked the way the central focus of the original Holmes story – that of Holmes having to find the picture for his client – is covered in the first 1/3rd of the episode, and the remaining portion is devoted to exploring this delightful – relationship? – between Holmes and The Woman. A relationship that involves her vital statistics, her pulse, her password – and of course, her death.

“It’s a bit rude, that noise, isn’t it?”

Great use of the supporting cast of the show – specially Mrs Hudson. Sherlock and Watson both show a tremendous amount of affection for this lady, played with just the right amount of eccentricity by Una Stubbs. Most of the regulars turning up at a Christmas party at 221B Baker Street (which also features the most uncomfortable deduction scene ever) is a treat, having them all being subjected to Sherlock’s moody quips and yet be around, most amusing.

Did anyone check out @TheWhipHand on Twitter? Or John Watson’s Blog? Also this, which is hilarious beyond belief, but please proceed with caution. The title of the blog gives out one of the most crucial plot points of the episode.

Crackling dialogues abound. One of my favorite scenes involves Mycroft and Sherlock in the corridor of a hospital where, between puffs of a cigarette, the two brothers stare at a grieving family in the distance. “Look at them”, Sherlock says. “They all care so much.” The camera frames the two brothers in profile, through an assymetrical frame on one side of the screen. “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”, he wonders aloud. “All lies end”,  the elder brother responds. “All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage.”  There is a reason why their mutual enemy refers to him as “The Iceman”.


All in all, Sherlock season 2 is a perfect example of how quality programming speaks for itself. Just today morning, Adi Tantimedh wrote about TV shows burning out, citing two once-popular shows that have jumped the shark in recent times thanks to lazy writing and needless season renewals. This show, on the other hand, proves that if you bring your best to the table, you can win over viewers regardless of production delays and non-adherence to an annual schedule.

“But initially he wanted to be a pirate.”

An excellent start to the New Year. Two more episodes lie in wait for us, and I have high, high hopes for both of them.

Concerts, Events, Music

Concert Diaries: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at the Wilshire Ebell Theater

I had not bought a CD since 2008. In a few months, I get CDs of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s recent tour, which I backed through Kickstarter. Also attended their LA show, which was a blast. It happened on All Hallows Eve. In addition to Amanda covering songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Neil reading out horror stories that made all of us in the audience sit lower in our chairs and try not to let tendrils of terror tickle our tummies (fuck yeah, alliteration!), we also had fans wearing Halloween costumes. Who were judged by the Dynamic Duo and then given access to luscious swag. The show also featured guest appearances by The Jane Austen Argument, a lovely Australian band. They’ve just released their first single, which has lyrics by The Gaiman himself, and their album is due for release in February.

Neil and Amanda totally behaved like newlyweds, or at least like teenagers out on a voyeuristic date. There was much public display of affection on stage between the two, and a completely aww-moment when Palmer scribbled down lyrics to the song “I Google You”, which was written by Gaiman once upon a time as a post-modern Sinatra-ish love song, and was supposed to be sung by him onstage, at which point he claimed to have forgotten the words. She then scampered up to him, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and then slipped him the scrap of paper with a dramatic “let’s-do-this-secretly-so-no-one-notices” gesture. Total heart-melt. And Gaiman singing “I Google You” turned out to be completely adorable too.

But anyway, I got myself a Christmas thank-you card from them, which was technically not a Christmas card because they sent it way back in November, but became a Christmas card just because I got it around Christmas. So yeah, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer sent me a Christmas card. How cool is that, huh?

The other thing I got today in the mail was a download code to a preview of the release. And what a preview! Two hours of music, storytelling and much hilarity. I am half-way through the 25 minute narration of ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’, a Lovecraft-meets-the-British-Countryside short story by Gaiman, and it drives away every bit of lugubriousness brought about a long and weary working day. It has the songs ‘Blake Says’ and ‘Runs in the Family’ by Amanda Palmer, and also a bunch of excerpts from question-and-answer sessions that the two had. It features great verbal interplay between the two, Palmer’s American drawl contrasting quaintly with Gaiman’s British accent, as the two speak of mixtapes, hobbies, dating and how the audience should behave in order to come off well in the recordings, for posterity’s sake. (“Scream during the singing bits, like you would in a rock concert. And be quiet and inhale sharply in the right bits when Neil reads.”)

That evening was full of fun, laughter, singing, reading, gasping, kissing, premature birthday wishes (Gaiman’s) and a whole lot of ukelele jamming. And, as AFP put it in one of her blog posts, it was a perfect post-wedding reception for two fan-families.

Another memory: On the way back from the concert, I met someone at the bus stop who happened to play the bassoon for Frank Sinatra. He had pictures of himself with Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro. I talked with him until the bus came, and then I took his card and waved goodbye.

Comics, Reviews

Pop Culture Update: Locke and Key

One of the genuinely distressing news of 2011 was the failure of the pilot episode of Locke and Key to be picked up for regular programming. This is bad for three reasons – because Locke and Key is one of the finest comic-books being published right now, and the success of the TV show would have no doubt brought in more readers to the series (consider how many people have read Game of Thrones this year, to get an idea of what I mean). Because from what I gather off internet reviews, the pilot episode is really well-made, with superb casting and a great script. But most of all, it sucks because a lot of shitty TV series got green-lighted at the cost of this. Seriously, makes no sense.

But still, the comic stands on its own. It is written by Joe Hill,  a man who, under normal circumstances, be known as Stephen King’s son; but right now, he’s known as the guy behind ground-breaking  genre novels such as Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It is drawn by Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Together, the two are magical. This book happens to be one of the most perfect collaborations I’ve seen, where the art enhances the story and vice versa.

Among the things that I love about Locke and Key is that it’s among the most structured comics I’ve read. Not a wasted, throw-away chapter, page or panel on this one. It helps that the story was already planned out into three acts, each act made up of 2 miniseries. This ensures that Hill knows exactly how his story is being framed, giving us just the right amount of information, teasing us with flashbacks and tertiary characters that flicker into the overall plot at the right time. Currently, we are on miniseries #5, entitled Clockworks, where the mythology of the world is being explained by a series of flashbacks. Which brings me to –

The fact that Locke and Key is one of those rare horror comics that gets horror. Which is not surprising, considering Hill’s literary antecedents. But really, do you have any idea how hard it is to do horror in comics without falling back into icky-gore-territory or ho-hum-shock-ending cliches? This book manages to creep into your head in strange ways – through childhood fears, unexpected plot twists, and by a genuinely frightening Big Bad Villain, one that manages to stay one step ahead of the protagonists at nearly every turn.

The first miniseries, Welcome to Lovecraft, introduces us to the principal cast of characters, the Locke family and the three siblings – eldest brother brother Ty, the sister Kinsey and the youngest, six-year old Bode. The death of their father brings them and their mother to their ancestral family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where strange things begin to happen. Bode, for example, finds a strange lady calling for his help from beneath a well. This is also where we start understanding that the tragedy that has befallen the family is not a random incident, but is connected to keys. Keys that do stuff, like turning Bode into a ghost. Or letting people go anywhere they want, or doing distressing things to their psyches.

Finally, Locke and Key is one smart comic that brings unexpected things to the fore on repeated reads. Small example: the second volume is entitled Head Games, and all the covers have a common theme.

In case the image on the right looks a little familiar, here’s why – it’s a riff on an iconic cover from the 1950s that was used by the US Senate to ban horror and crime comics. This particular cover was printed by EC Comics, run by publisher William Gaines, who founded Mad magazine later on. There is this legendary story of Gaines trying to defend this cover as tasteful in court. He did not do a good job of it – in his defense, he was completely doped up on cough medicine when invited to testify.

Oh, and the college the Locke kids go to in San Francisco, before they move to Lovecraft? William Gaines Academy. Ha!

But the smartness lies not just in homages or sly winks at the audience – the smartness lies in the way Hill seems to know exactly when to let certain characters take center-stage, or to subvert a known trope at just the right time, or to let a throwaway part of the scenery become a crucial cog in the battle between good and bad. The two, writer and artist, seem to have fun when telling their story, and that fun is infectious! One of my favorite single issues deals with epic battles and mundane day-to-day affairs, and there are those single-panel settings that hide worlds and untold stories in them, the kind that would make lesser writers milk them through crossovers and back-stories. Hill and Rodriguez do it in single wordless panels, the magnificent bastards!

All said and done, what is the series all about? It helps that every chapter starts with a one-page cheat-sheet, that tells you the bare bones of what’s going on and where we stand.

Locke and Key, ladies and gentlemen. The best fucking comic being published right now, BAR NONE. It helps if you get all the chapters and read them at one go, because every miniseries ends with cliff-hangers. And these are not your everyday, how-do-they-get-out-of-this-level cliffhangers, these are the holy-shit-this-did-not-just-fucking-happen kinds, the ones that make you grab for the next book in the series at 4 AM in the morning, even though your eyes are puffy and you’ve got to be at work at 9.