I was in London's Chinatown on Monday. Gerrard Street. I love it there. It's the sort of society anyone would love to live in; great laughing crowds spilling out of the myriad restaurants on to the street, hanging round in their groups to talk with the restauranteurs and each other, warm chains of friends and neighbours all down the street. Laughter and the rich scents of Chinese food, gold and glitter in the windows. Like Icelandic music, the fact that I can't understand a bloody word of it conspires to make it that much more wonderful, I think. I almost dance up and down the street; I'm in the mood to subsume myself into something pretty and alien. And Chinatown's a hell of a lot closer than Reykjavik.
I'm here partially at the suggestion of my friend, screenwriter and new comics author Adi Tantimedh. Adi's writing some stuff for DC, and has some fiction up at Steven Grant's http://www.atventure.com. Adi, caning the Net half to death from his New York eyrie, has aimed me at Gerrard Street as the best place to hunt down Hong Kong movies on Video CD.
Adi lives part-time in NYC, part-time in London, and haunts these places in the pursuit of films that no-one else has seen. We'd gotten into conversation about Hong Kong cinema, and I'd wondered out loud what'd happened to Ringo Lam. Ringo Lam directed some blistering action films, including one of Chow Yun-Fat's finest hours in CITY ON FIRE, before following compatriot John Woo across the Pacific Rim in search of the Yankee dollar. John Woo got over the trauma of having to direct the troubled Belgian action-hack Jean Claude Van Damme. Lam didn't, and was never heard from again. At least, in the Anglophone nations. Turns out he went back to Hong Kong and just started all over again. But Hong Kong cinema doesn't have the heat on it of a few years ago, when Quentin Tarantino could be counted upon to bullet out a spread of soundbytes on the subject -- hell, we're talking about back when people cared what Quentin Tarantino had to say. So nobody seemed to make a big deal about the retrenchment of Ringo Lam. And he has made some extraordinarily beautiful films since he returned to Hong Kong.
Video CD is an alien format in the West, but it's hugely popular in Asia. It uses a mature software standard recognisable by most computers to encode a movie into reasonable video over two ordinary CDs. And vast numbers of them have English subtitles as a matter of course. And because they're so plentiful, and because it's such a simple medium, they're cheap. I walked out of there with eleven brand-new films for well under a hundred pounds. In a country where a new film on videotape costs upwards of twelve pounds, and a film on DVD upwards of sixteen pounds, that is pretty damned impressive.
Adi gave me a few titles to look out for, and I'd gathered some others from my own research reading -- luckily, English variant titles are normally printed on the spines of the jewel-box inlays. But some of them I chose at random. Couldn't read the blurbs on the back, obviously. I always wanted to learn an Asian language, but my ability in other tongues has pretty much atrophied to "mon pere wears brown boots" and "ou est le gasworks?" in recent years, unless you want to count the heroic act of ordering a bratwurst without mustard in German over New Year. So I went by the titles. The images. The covers.
That's something you should try next time you go into a comics store. Try selecting your purchases by the title and the cover. The cover design and layout. The sense of a thing as an object, and how it communicates its content and intent. Just like you would a Hong Kong VCD, where you can only read the title and perceive the imagery.
Try it. Imagine you know nothing about comics, that you can't read the credits; that you simply know what you like, as it were. Would you pick up most regular DC and Marvel superhero comics, with their plain colouring, cookie-cutter cover design and normally fairly bloody ordinary art? I don't presume to answer for you. But after you've looked at them a while, you'll note that the vast majority of comics have very similar cover design sense. Company mark in the top left. Title next to it, eating, say, the top quarter of the page. Barcode, bottom right, credits nearby (if there are credits). Same kind of production job done on the art. Same kind of art, really. They start to blur together after a while.
This, strangely, is not the case with my little stack of VCDs here. Hell, it's not the case with the couple of hundred music CDs I have in the office here. For Christ's sake, I can't line up the last month's worth of novels published in this country and get the same effect -- and I went down to my local Waterstone's bookstore this afternoon to try it, which garnered me some concerned looks. I still haven't shaved my beard back from its winter mountain-man state, and it must have baffled and worried the Waterstone's staff no end to see Grizzly Adams rush in wearing a five-hundred pound jacket and start manhandling and rearranging their last five weeks' worth of stock in a manic and purposeful way.
So. Think about this. How did this all come to pass? How did we end up with a medium typified by such bloody ugliness? We wonder why people outside the culture don't wander into comic shops on a whim and browse successfully. But go to your local comics store this week. My local store, the fine INTO THE VOID in Southend, devotes a large area of shelving to the week's new releases. There they all are, on several shelves, each a yard or so wide, so you can see the entire slate of new releases en masse. Maybe your store does something similar. Go down and take a look at it. And I mean, a long look. Imagine someone who knows nothing about comics coming into that store and looking at that mass of new releases. After a while, you'll begin to see why he or she just turns around and walks out again.
Comics are plain, conservative, old-looking objects. And this sacred bloody ugliness bores into the brains of people immersed in the culture too long, until they see nothing wrong with it. Have you seen the first issue cover for SHOCKROCKETS, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's opening project for the Gorilla Comics imprint at Image? Kurt's got a good eye and he knows what is Right. I happen to think Stuart Immonen is a terrific commercial comics artist. Which leaves no excuse whatsoever for that horrible shrieking logo and the general standard-issue cover sense. To do it just as well as everyone else is is no longer good enough. It is no longer an excuse to say your comic's design is no better or worse than anyone else's -- and certainly SHOCKROCKETS will not stand out negatively against the pack. But the rot has to be stopped somewhere.
There is no pretension in wanting your comic to not look like a bloody comic. Because comics look bloody awful right now. Reach for something else.
Comics need to be beautiful objects that you want to handle and dip into because they look so good. Like my pretty Hong Kong VCDs here. And I must admit, so far I'm having a great time with these movies. Guns and kisses: you can't go wrong.
I can be contacted by email about this column at email@example.com. My genuine award-winning website, full of all kinds of wonderful stuff, is http://www.warrenellis.com. There is a COME IN ALONE discussion area here on CBR.
INSTRUCTIONS: Read HONG KONG BABYLON by Fredric Dannen and Barry Long (1998), listen to I FEEL SO GOOD: THE ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS OF BIG BILL BROONZY by Big Bill Broonzy (Indigo, 1994), and hit The Hong Kong Movie Database at http://www.hkmdb.com. Today's recommended graphic novel is DARE by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes (Fleetway). Now begone.