I got interviewed by the Nerd Stash about horror, storytelling and making comics! Hopefully it all makes sense. We talk about Grin, a few of my influences, and what I think makes a good comic.
I remember my uncle talking once about the stages of getting old. One day you realise that it isn’t weird or untimely if people of your parents’ generation die. A while later, it’s no longer weird when your peers do.
There’s another one in between, i think, when it happens with your heroes. The generation that was doing what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it. Not the people you wanted to replace, the people you want to join.
Darwyn Cooke ‘s death earlier this year hit me harder than I expected, and Monday morning on the way to sell my comics at Armageddon Expo I read Steve Dillon has died. We’ve never met, never spoken, but Hellblazer and particularly Preacher loom big over my teenage years. He was 54. Younger than my dad. I always assumed there would be more of his stuff for me to read. I was still learning from it.
Thanks Steve. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to join you and say it in person.
Originally published in NZ Musician Magazine
The Jury & The Saints have been busy the last few years. Since forming in 2009 they’ve toured with Paramore, made a couple of EPs and an album, signed with German label SPV, and just recently they put out their second full-length release, which they recorded in Germany with rock producer Alex Lysjakow. I sat down with singer Jesse Smith and guitarist Rowan Crowe to drink watered down coffee and talk about life as international musicians.
The band recently toured in Germany, before recording an album in Germany, for the label they’re signed to in Germany. I had to ask: what’s up with these guys and Germany?
To hear Rowan tell it, it seems more chance and opportunity than any planning on their part. “It’s funny, it just happened to be over there that they loved the music – you know it’s big choruses and gang singing and rock music, I guess.”
“Apparently because there was a bunch of stuff coming out of New Zealand that was good, every week they’d check the New Zealand charts,” Jesse says. “And because we were punky kind of rock they thought ‘oh yeah, this could work.’”
The Jury & The Saints signed with SPV at the beginning of 2013, and then in the middle of the year the band went to Germany for six weeks. Three weeks of touring (playing to 6,000-strong crowds with a Deutschrock band they assure me you’ll never hear of outside of Germany) was followed by three weeks recording what would become their second album, a life experience Jesse says he’ll never forget. “We ended up in a tiny town just outside Berlin for three weeks, staying at this weird little hotel just round the corner from the studio. The landlady didn’t speak a word of English, and was an alcoholic – so it made for very interesting conversation.”
The band didn’t know Lysjakow before they recorded with him, and it was the label’s suggestion that they work together. “But we were psyched with what he did,” Jesse tells me. “He produces a lot of rock,” says Rowan, “and coming from a punk background I think he gets it more. It needs to capture that energy, that essence of what it is, or else it’s …” he gives an exaggerated shrug.
It seems like they’ve managed to capture that energy – the album has been well received overseas. Along with the interest in Germany there have been high-scoring reviews from magazines and websites like Kerrang, Rock Sound and AltCorner. But the positive buzz overseas can feel oddly distant when the band’s back here in New Zealand. “It’s one of those things where it feels like you’re having a dream at night and then you wake up the next day,” says Rowan. “It doesn’t feel like reality. You get these things from the label saying ‘this is incredible that you guys got this!’ But when you’re here it doesn’t feel like it’s happening, so you just go [shrug] – oh welp, guess I’ll keep cleaning windows!”
Their bio describes TJATS’ sound as ‘stadium rock’, but their pop-punk roots aren’t far from the surface. Jesse was in Streetwise Scarlett while Rowan played in Goodnight Nurse, two of the bigger bands in New Zealand’s mid-2000s pop-punk scene. As Jesse puts it: “pop punk was just slowly fading out back then. Now we’re trying to resurrect it. We gave it a break, rewrote it, let it mature and we’re taking over again.”
They’re open about their enthusiasm for the genre. “Pop punk’s still my favourite because it’s so happy,” Rowan says. “It just makes you want to have fun. But then hardcore has that aggression and energy that no other genre has.”
And while their tastes these days include bands like Brand New and Balance and Composure, one of the big names that comes up as an influence is Blink-182.
“It’s not like we sound like them, but it’s the influence of just … being silly, you know? Having fun,” Rowan explains. “I like that instead of people trying to be cool or real serious about it, they just have fun and do it. And for me, how they’d just be silly when they play live – I love that. I think that’s a big part of how we started as well, just silly and fun. I guess we’ve got better at playing since, and actually focused on that, but also on putting on a really fun show so people leave going ‘I had so much fun tonight’. That’s what I want – I want people to come and actually feel like they had a good time, instead of feeling like they came and watched a band that was trying to get more famous.”
Jesse adds: “We want to put on a show that if someone comes and they had to bring their mum because they were too young or something, the mum would have a good time as well. Even if she didn’t like the music, she could have a good time anyway. We’re not super precious about being … something, we’re just trying to create a good time for people, I guess.”
And good times on stage for themselves, too. Like the time they threw sausages out into the crowd and got told off by Paramore’s tour manager. Or the time Rowan shot Jesse in the face with a confetti cannon. “It was such a mess. The problem was that we’d already thrown out the sausages, and so people were throwing everything back on stage and it was mixing raw sausage with confetti… it was like PVA glue everywhere.”
Despite the goofing and mess-making on stage the band tries to stay down to earth, balancing the music and touring with real life. Three of the four band members have families, and have to balance rock & roll with being husbands and dads. But Jesse denies that there’s any contradiction between making shouty punk music and having small children. “If you’d met my children it’d make sense. They’re all insane,” he laughs. “But for me the idea of musicians having to be these young dudes with no wives or kids to be cool is something that I want to destroy. I dislike that ‘rockstar’ idea, so I’m happy to go against the grain, you know? I think part of what I want to do is just be a normal dude but also do what I love doing – and not let music control my life and every single aspect.”
Straightforward enough. But the tone seems like it’s threatening to get to deep, so we go back to joking about watery coffee and sausage throwing, and not too long after that Jesse and Rowan have to go back to work.
When I was a kid I couldn’t afford to buy many comics, and the libraries didn’t have the collected edition pool that I’ve come to rely on today. My Spider-Man and X-title reading was sparse and erratic, with big gaps between the issues I could actually get my hands on. Because of this I felt like I was always dipping in and out of the stream of the stories, briefly popping my head into the room to hear a snippet of the ongoing conversation.
My knowledge of the world got built out of ephemera as much as source material – the cartoons, the action figures, but most of all the Fleer Ultra trading cards.
Fleer trading cards were a window into a world that I knew the cartoons only skimmed. Characters I’d never heard of, or knew only by name; events that, for me, always happened off-panel. I’ve still never read ‘Fatal Attractions’, but it loomed large over everything.
The trading cards didn’t fill in all the blanks, of course, and I think that was part of what made them magic – I knew that they were just little glimpses of an even bigger world, a world where hundreds of stories were happening all at once, a swarm of characters’ lives all intertwined, a world where the tiny shards I saw hinted at even bigger battles and wilder adventures.
I’m catching up with a lot of the classic 90s stuff now, and while I love it for both genuine and ironic reasons, in some ways it’s making that world a little smaller.
Ultra Fleet is, in part, a love letter to that era of superhero comics, but more so to the one-step-removed medium that I read them in. Trading cards are such a product of their time, it seems, such a thing of the 90s, that it’s hard to imagine them working today (I guess in terms of filling in the blanks for poor comic-deprived kids like me they’ve probably been replaced by Wikipedia, and as far as collecting goes, I dunno. Pogs? Yu-Gi-Oh? Who knows what these damn Millennials are into).
I’m not trying to ape the Fleer Ultra style, or the 90s Marvel world. These cards will be in my style about characters and adventures I’d like to read now. But my interests are shaped by my influences, so some of that stuff’s bound to creep through. I still regularly wear a jacket over a hoodie, and I can’t help but blame that at least partly on Nate Grey.
Ultra Fleet comes out of my somewhat neglected webcomic Jenny Music, and while people who’ve read those adventures will recognise characters, and get a bit more backstory for them from UF, neither one is necessary to enjoy the other. Some of the other stories that feature in Ultra Fleet may one day get made for real – either as part of JM or as standalone things – but a lot of them won’t, I don’t think. Some of these stories can only be seen in glimpses, with the rest filled in, the connections made and conclusions drawn, however your imagination sees fit.
It’s how I read comics for a long time, and the comics were more magical for it.
Originally published at makeshift.co.nz
So in a muddled impression of a good older brother I went with my younger brother to Armageddon this year. He’d never been and I hadn’t been for years. It was an… interesting experience (he says diplomatically) but one of the highlights was the new ActionMan Adam book by local artist Marc Streeter.
Marc’s been a friend of Makeshift for years so some good words about him here are long overdue. His ActionMan Adam character has been around for a while, and this book combines older stories with some new ones, and brings readers up to date for the upcoming online comics which will continue Adam’s adventures in life and love.
Marc clearly has a genuine warmth and affection for his main character which is rare these days. With comedy it’s far too easy to resort to cruelty and cheap shots for laughs (which I’ll have to put my hand up for at times), but he doesn’t. Possibly because the character is based on a real-life friend of Marc’s, possibly just because he’s a genuinely nice guy himself. Or maybe both.
In a gesture of un-Armageddon-like creativity and initiative, Marc was offering his comics in two forms – one with its traditional, printed cover, or another which, for just a few more dollars, would feature a one-off, hand-drawn sketch by the artist himself. I couldn’t resist that offer, not just for the pleasure of owning something unique and hand-crafted but also to watch someone who can properly draw draw properly. He does shading and everything. The comic looks rad. he was quick too, or he would have been if I hadn’t kept distracting him with questions about comics or demanding to see the pictures on his phone of the guy dressed as Starscream.
Sitting next to Marc was another Makeshift cohort, PodgyPanda. Along with his usual selection of gorgeous cartoon prints and sketches he’s now got some laser-engraved wooden pieces which are amazingly cool. I assume they’re still for sale if he hasn’t already sold out, head along to his website for a look.
Originally published at notwhatwemeant.com (no longer active)
Okay, so there were those Batman films recently, the cool ones. And there’s Arkham City which I haven’t played yet but it’s supposed to be pretty sweet. Batman’s kind of the hip, with-it thing these days, as far as DC characters go.
Which is weird. Cool kids shouldn’t like Batman, they should like Superman. Not because he’s a better character (because he isn’t, he’s naff as all fuck), but because he’s one of them.
Superman is the super hipster.
I mean just look at him. His glasses, his hair, his clothes. The only thing stopping him from riding a fixed-gear bicycle is the fact that he can fly. If Clark Kent existed in the real world he wouldn’t be a reporter, he’d be posting about his exploits on tumblr.
DC (and its monolithic parent, Time Warner) have put a lot of work into making Batman cool, gritty, relevant. But with Superman they played the long game. Because he’s looked this way for a long time. He predates the hipsters by decades. He can say he was into oversized spectacles before they were cool and genuinely mean it. This scene must have been repeated endlessly in the DC offices: “Should we give him cool spiky hair?” one illustrator asks. “No,” says the editorial staff, “Let’s keep the overly slick, combed back professor look.” “But kids don’t think that’s cool!” wails the illustrator (this is probably happening somewhere around 1998). “Don’t worry,” says the editor, “They will eventually.”
And now that time has come. Cassette 9 and Whammy are full of people dressed like Clark Kent, all sweater vests and thick-rimmed confidence.
It totally lines up with the music, too. Superman is like the Mumford & Sons of comics: quietly powerful, emotive yet twee. He would listen to alt-country. Batman, by contrast, is like Slipknot or Mudvayne – deep-seated rage processed through technical, acrobatic proficiency. That’s not even remotely hipster.
And the whole ethos of Superman fits with indie kids these days too. Superman is a god who pretends to be a geek, and they can totally get on board with that. They like the idea that awkwardly dressed, meek-mannered nerds can secretly be something awesome because it supports their belief that despite being awkwardly dressed and fucking bland themselves, they’re right in thinking that secretly within them there’s something unique and special. Even if they can’t fly, they can express this uniqueness by listening to Pavement on vinyl and hunting down just the right pair of second-hand, brown leather shoes.
Finally, Superman is outdated. As an idea. He’s not timeless the way DC would like to portray him. Batman is timeless – obsessive revenge is a human constant. And the X-Men are timeless, because there will always be underdogs and they will always feel freakish in a way that can empathise with blue fur or an inability to touch other people.
But Superman isn’t timeless, not really. He’s a mid-Twentieth Century idea. The clothes, the hair, the hopeful, America-best attitude, the idea of having a ‘pal’ like Jimmy Olsen and a dog that wears a cape (I mean he even works at a fucking newspaper – since when have they been relevant?). These things all scream 30s-to-50s America. And the storytelling is an older style, too – no complicated ethical grey areas, no weary anti-hero grimacing. Just a good man trying to do good, hard work. An American making the world a better place, because he has the power to do so. That’s an idea from before the Vietnam War if ever there was one.
But what’s that got to do with hipsters? Everything. Superman is from the past. That means he’s retro.
So think about this, you indie fucks, as you’re rolling up the cuffs of your Bane-inspired cargo pants, or ironically writing ‘Why so serious’ in the About Me section of your pinterest account. You’re backing the wrong horse. You’re following the wrong hero. Batman isn’t for you, because Batman is about rage and actual nastiness in a way that you will never need to consider. Go with Superman. Accept your nice hero. Your big blue boy scout. A hero for whom being dapper and quietly smug is enough, just like you.