Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scary Stuff, Kids

Comics:


Haunt of Horror, written by Richard Corben and Chris Margopoulos, based on stories, poems and fragments by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by Richard Corben: Haunt of Horror brings together about two-dozen generally loose adaptations of an assortment of pieces by American horror-fiction Titans Poe and Lovecraft. Corben's best-remembered work is probably still Den, the sword-and-sorcery series from the 1970's that was adapted into the sword-and-sorcery segment of the Heavy Metal movie in which John Candy voiced the hero. Corben has become a supremely gifted horror and fantasy writer/artist over the intervening decades, and his work here really achieves some nicely creepy effects.

One of the decisions that makes this an interesting volume is that Corben doesn't try to adapt any of Poe's or Lovecraft's more famous, longer works. Instead, he focuses on short pieces that can be profitably adapted ("Dagon", "The Telltale Heart") and on poems and prose fragments which he adapts loosely, very liberally (Poe's "The Raven" doesn't much resemble its source, while several Lovecraft poems which were originally all about mood here become the inspiration for much more concrete scares.

Overall, I really liked this approach to adapting these two icons -- the pieces chosen were all of suitable length, and there are many suitably grisly, mysterious and cosmic vistas throughout the book. I wish Corben, who's already adapted William Hope Hodgson's minor masterpiece of a horror novel, The House on the Borderland, would turn his pen to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" or Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." That would be sweet and tasty. Highly recommended.


Tom Strong Volume 6, written by Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Joe Casey and others; illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Jerry Ordway, Paul Gulacy and others: Among other pleasures, Alan Moore's America's Best Comics (ABC) imprint at Wildstorm offered tantalizing glimpses of what Moore's comics career might have been like had he not vowed to never again work for DC Comics after a dispute over money owed (or not owed, from DC's perspective) to Moore and artist Gibbons for various knickknacks derived from, and special editions of, Watchmen. Justifiably or not, DC managed to alienate their most popular writer over a matter of what was probably a few thousand dollars, scuttling at least two series that were already in the planning stages: the Watchmen prequel Minutemen and the dystopic, apocalyptic DC Universe 'What if?' series Twilight of the Superheroes.

Tom Strong, the adventures of a long-lived 'science hero' and his family and friends, reads a lot like Moore's take on pulp hero Doc Savage, but there's also a fair amount of Superman thrown into the mix. Is this what a potential Moore Superman project might have looked like, just as Moore's Promethea looks a lot like a metafictional, apocalyptic take on DC's Wonder Woman? We'll never know.

Of all the ABC-Universe books, Strong is the one that's both the lightest in tone and the "straighest", for lack of a better term (as this has nothing to do with sexual orientation). Moore plays his usual metafictional games throughout the book's five-year run, but Tom Strong is pretty much a cynicism, parody-free zone -- in this sense, it prefigures Grant Morrison's nouveau-Silver-Age All-Star Superman.

Here, in the final Tom Strong volume (for now, anyway) Tom and his family and comrades must deal with the end of the world. But prior to that, guest writers that include long-time British fantasy great Michael Moorcock (Elric) and several guest artists put Tom through a variety of crises -- the Moorcock piece brings in characters from Moorcock's own multiverse of characters, including a sinister descendant of albino sword-and-sorcery character Elric, along with what appears to be the soul-eating sword Stormbringer from the same Elric series. The art and writing are all top-notch throughout, though one probably needs to start earlier in the series to get a full grasp of the dynamics. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Just Like Heaven


Books:


Getting into Death and other stories by Thomas Disch: Tom Disch's range as a writer was fairly breathtaking. He wrote in pretty much every genre imaginable, producing fine work in every case, including children's books (The Brave Little Toaster). Part of the American 'New Wave' of science-fiction writers in the 1960's, he never stopped branching out -- and he started branching out pretty early. This collection of Disch short stories from the 1970's shows off the writer at his wide-ranging best. The title story and several others have no fantastic elements at all, while other stories range from the darkly humorous rewriting of myth ("Apollo") to sad but weirdly funny ecodisaster ("The Birds").

All the stories are standouts, though some stories stand out more than others (ha ha). The title story gives one a dying novelist who can't really be said to have connected with anyone in her life, though her friends and children continue to attempt to connect with her (or believe they already have). "Getting into Death" ends in a thoroughly humane and human manner, though not in any way that one will see coming. "The Planet Arcadia" reads like a demolition of any number of standard science-fiction tropes (First Contact chief among them), its poisonous satire accentuated by the distancing effect of the elevated diction. "Slaves" reads like J.D. Salinger transplanted to the late 1960's college scene; "Yes" reminds one of the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick.

At least two of the stories could be seen as horror fiction. "Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory" uses a basic situation we see in another Disch short story -- "Descending", not collected here. Quite simply, what happens when one can't find one's way out of what is supposed to be a finite space, in this case the graveyard where a brother and sister have gone to lay flowers at their parents' grave. It's a dandy and deceptively tricky story. Frankly, I have no idea what's really going on. "The Alien Shore", a novella of perhaps 15,000 words, is the masterpiece of the collection, a subtle and ultimately really disturbing tale of alienation, failure and the nature of reality. It's also a Grade-A mindfuck. This is pretty much as good as a collection of short stories gets. Highly recommended.


The Businessman: A Tale of Terror by Thomas Disch (1984): Disch produced a quartet of novels in the 1980's and eary 1990's that were marketed as horror (they'll return to print in August 2010, so mark your calendar). The Businessman was first, set at the dawn of the Reagan era. In it, the businessman of the title murders his wife Gisele and gets away with it until her ghost finally frees itself from its grave and begins trying to torment him.

Is it horror? Well, sort of. Horror elements abound (ghosts, a murderous husband, seances, ouija boards, psychic readings and a demonic possessing entity chief among them), as do horrific moments. However, so too do lyric moments, meditations on life and death, domestic comedy, farce, and the tragicomic presence of the ghost of the (real) poet John Berryman, who wanders the Earth as a ghost still bearing the injuries of his successful suicide, dying for a stiff drink or three.

Disch's book review columns for Twilight Zone magazine in the early 1980's repeatedly demonstrated that Disch had no time for certain horror-genre tropes (or most writers, for that matter -- Disch was an entertaining reviewer, but he was also a quintessential Mr. Grumpypants). The novel certainly takes the piss out of a lot of things -- ghosts and seances chief among them -- while managing to horrify at points even as it satirizes. For instance, stupid people make the best conduits for spiritual communication, we discover, while the purgatorial dyslexia inflicted upon Berryman's ghost makes his communications as seances pretty much completely nonsensical.

The most striking creation here is the afterlife, or at least the small portion of it that we see. See, there's what amounts to a greeting area, complete with recovery rooms where newly dead souls get used to their material deadness. The whole thing depends pretty much on the expectations of the dead person and the other souls he or she is dealing with, so that when Gisele's staunchly middle-American, middle-class Catholic mother arrives in first stage of the afterlife, she pretty much sees it as a cross between a hospital and a hotel. Some souls move rapidly on to the less corporeally oriented levels of heaven; some stick around in the waiting area for awhile; some are doomed to roam the Earth for one reason or another. Jesus makes a cameo, wearing a Salvation Army officer's uniform, flying in a dirigible. The gateway to heaven rests inside a potholder. It is, all in all, a wild and genre-busting ride. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ode on the Mammoth Cheese (Weight over seven thousand pounds)

In honour of Father's Day, possibly the worst poem ever written -- "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese" by 19th-century Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada poet James McIntyre. Enjoy!

Ode on the Mammoth Cheese

by James McIntyre (Poem composed 1866-67)

Weight over seven thousand pounds.

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please.
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to to send you off as far as
The great world's show at Paris.

Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.

We'rt thou suspended from balloon,
You'd cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Legion

Comics:
Legion of Superheroes: An Eye for an Eye, written by Paul Levitz with Keith Giffen, illustrated by Keith Giffen, Steve Lightle and Larry Mahlstedt (1984-85; collected 2008): The Legion of Superheroes (LSH) were (and are) a thirtieth-century group of super-powered teenagers from a broad assortment of planets who made their debut in a Superboy story in Adventure Comics in the late 1950's.

When DC Comics reorganized its multiverse of superheroic Earths into a single universe during and after the Crisis crossover event, no major DC title suffered more than the Legion of Superheroes (LSH). Why? Primarily because Superman had no longer been Superboy as a teenager, and Supergirl simply never existed. As Superboy joined the LSH in their very first appearance and appeared in most of their major adventures, this presented something of a problem, as did the elimination of Supergirl from continuity.

This book collects the first six issues of the LSH's first 'direct-only' title, which premiered in 1984 as a result of the LSH reaching new heights of popularity under Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen and LSH uber-inker Larry Mahlstedt. The newsstand LSH title, in existence for more than a decade, ran new stories during the first year of the new title's existence before switching over to reprints of the direct title. In the direct title, things started off with a five-issue storyline pitting the LSH against its opposite number, the Legion of Supervillains. It's probably the second-best multiissue 'epic' storyline of the entire Levitz/Giffen era of the LSH, trailing only the 'Great Darkness Saga' in my estimation. Superheroics abound, along with nice bits of characterization and a couple of truly iconic LSH covers.

One of the fundamental weirdnesses of the Legion books of this time is that Giffen, whose popularity as an artist helped make the LSH a candidate for the direct/newsstand experiment, would leave the book as full artist by issue 3 and as designer/plotter/consultant a few issues later, though he would return a few years down the road. Young artist Steve Lightle stepped in and soon proved to be an able replacement, but it really does seem at times that what was supposed to happen with the direct book never quite happened. The Crisis, and a late 1980's shift towards 'grim and gritty' superheroes, were both coming, and neither would benefit the Legion. Years of retcons and reboots would follow -- indeed, until this day -- to deal with the issues arising from Superboy and Supergirl's elimination from continuity and much-later restoration.

At the time of this book, though, these things were still the future. I do wish DC had started this (relatively) new reprint series at the dawn of the first Levitz/Giffen era, though, and not at its twilight. That was when I first started collecting LSH, so I'm biased, but I'd also say that the whole run -- including this volume, which really acts as a 'conclusion' for that great collaboration -- represents, along with late 1970's/early 1980's Claremont/Byrne X-Men and the (mostly) contemporaneous Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans, the peak of superhero teams for the entire decade, and maybe for the entire history of that sub-sub-genre. Highly recommended.



Legion of Superheroes: The More Things Change, written by Paul Levitz, illustrated by Keith Giffen, Steve Lightle, Ernie Colon, Mike Machlan, Mike DeCarlo and Larry Mahlstedt (1985; collected 2008): The second reprint collection of the LSH direct-only title is a bit more low-key than the first, primarily because it consists of standalone and two-part stories and not a multi-issue epic. Standouts include the revelation of where the menacing Sun-Eater came from, and LSH member Timber Wolf's mission to fulfill the last wishes of deceased Legion member Karate Kid (who predated the Ralph Macchio character by about twenty years).

Superboy also makes what I believe is his last (or possibly second-last) appearance in 'classic' Legion continuity prior to the Crisis and John Byrne's Man of Steel Superman reboot, which would change him from a young Superman to the inhabitant of a pocket universe created by one of the Legion's oldest and most dangerous foes in an attempt to create a super-powered nemesis for the Legion. It's all now a lot like reading the end of an era that no one knew was the end of an era at the time -- enjoyable but slightly sad. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Back in the Day

Comics:


Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, written by Roy Thomas, Steve Engelhart, Tony Isabella and Gardner Fox; illustrated by Ross Andru, Rich Buckler, Frank Springer, Tom Palmer and Frank Giacoia (1972-72; reprinted 2010): So far as I know, this marks the first time DC has reprinted comics that were originally published as Marvel books and were not inter-company crossovers per: Superman and Spider-man, et al. That's because the rights to these Doc Savage comics have reverted to the original copyright holder, while DC is now attempting another revival of Doc Savage, in its FirstWave imprint.

Marvel made two attempts at Doc Savage comic-book success back in the 1970's, when the Bantam reprints of the original 1930's and 1940's pulp novels were a sales success and a big-budget Doc Savage movie loomed on the (1975) horizon. This standard-comic-sized, colour book was the first attempt, running eight issues that adapted four classic Savage novels. Ross Andru's art is really nice, and nicely inked by Tom Palmer, and Engelhart and Isabella do a good job of capturing the feel of the original pulps. 40 pages or so of comic book to adapt a 60,000 word novel isn't much, though -- the issues sometimes feel like 'Great Scenes from Doc Savage.' Still, these are fun in their own way, and I'd forgotten that comics great Jim Steranko did two covers for the series.

A later Marvel attempt at Doc Savage appeared in eight magazine-sized black-and-white issues that I really, really hope are in the reprint pipeline, even though I own the original issues. There, with most of the scripting by Doug Moench and a lion's share of art by Tony DeZuniga, Doc Savage got the comic book he deserved, in part because the editors wisely learned from the mistakes of Marvel's first attempt and had Moench and the other writers do original stories rather than cramped adaptations.

One of the unfortunate results of the rights to Doc Savage no longer lying with Marvel is that the two team-ups Doc did with Marvel heroes -- Spider-man and the Thing from the Fantastic Four -- will probably never be reprinted. Darn! In any case, recommended.


War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle, written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Howard Chaykin (2009): Chaykin drawing a period-piece war book about World War One Allied aviators in the Royal Air Force's volunteer corps pretty much trumps any complaints I have about the actual story. And it's not that Ellis's revisionist story about an obscure Marvel hero called The Phantom Eagle (albeit named within the actual story only briefly, and somewhat in jest) is bad. I'd just rather have Chaykin write the story as well: his 80's work on revisionist interpretations of The Shadow and Blackhawk (DC's WWII aviator team) showcased Chaykin's writing at its snarky, complicated best.

But we do get Chaykin drawing vintage airplanes and vintage clothing, along with a blowjob scene that can only play like an homage to the (in)famous blowjob scene towards the beginning of Chaykin's Blackhawk miniseries. Other than the blowjob scene, though, the book is surprisingly light on sex, another downside: if you're going to have Chaykin draw a book, there should be some stipulation that there be 10 pages of women in various stages on undress or, barring that, snappy outfits. Along with his contemporary Walt Simonson, Chaykin is one of the few artists who makes clothing interesting, indeed, one of the artistic draws of a book. Highly recommended for the art.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I Should Be Drinking A Toast To Absent Friends...


Movies:


Brain Candy, written by and starring The Kids in the Hall (Dave Foley, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch) (1996): Critics pretty much universally panned Brain Candy when it came out, and it is indeed a bit of a mess. I do think it's quite funny at times -- the satire of Big Pharm, while a bit obvious, is pretty much spot-on, maybe moreso now than in 1996.

There's very little plot: scientists invent, but don't test throughly, a drug that makes the clinically depressed happy ("It's like the temperature inside your head is always 72 degrees!"); the drug, dubbed Gleemonex, becomes so successful that the pharaceutical company successfully gets it turned into an over-the-counter drug that pretty much everyone on the planet starts taking; civilization as we know it comes to an end ("Crime is down. So is tourism, surprisingly.").

The Kids play pretty much every major character male and female -- never has any comedy troupe, including Monty Python, been so deliriously drag-happy as the Kids in the Hall. Scott Thompson's ridiculously repressed Family Man homosexual provides the most sustained laughs of any of the stories-inside-the-main-story, though Bruce McCulloch's Danzig-meets-Trent-Reznor rock star also shines, especially when he takes the drug and turns into a Dayglo Made-for-TV hippie right out of The Monkees or Laugh-In.

The bottom line is that if you never found the Kids in the Hall funny, you won't find this movie funny. If, on the other hand, you can hum along to "These are the Daves I Know" and can explain why you're the guy with the good attitude towards menstruation, you'll enjoy seeing this. It's aged remarkably well. Brendan Frasier appears in an unbilled cameo, and Janeane Garafalo is apparently somewhere in a crowd scene. Recommended.


Funny People, written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill (2009): Movies about stand-up comics don't appear all that often. Funny People, like Punchline before it, may demonstrate why: it's impossible to make a comedy about stand-up comics that doesn't suck. Scorsese's The King of Comedy was actually pretty good, but any humour in it was the humour of unease and embarrassment, and had nothing to do with the routines of the characters: Robert DeNiro's aspiring comic, Rupert Pupkin, was just a couple tics off Travis Bickle, while Jerry Lewis was astoundingly, intentionally, caustically unfunny as an unsympathetic prick of a talk-show host.

Funny People focuses on Adam Sandler as a stand-up comedian who's now a hugely successful movie star. But he's dying of a rare disease and, additionally, suffers from writer's block. So he frequents comedy clubs, looking for young comics who could both write material for him and hang out with him. Because Sandler's character has no friends! And he pines for the love of his life who's now married to an Australian businessman. Sandler hires Rogen's struggling comic to be his buddy, and hilarious and touching life lessons are learned.

Actually, they really aren't, and the sudden about-face of Sandler's character seems tacked on by studio insistence, probably immediately after they realized that Apatow had delivered a $70 million comedy with almost no laughs in it. Or good lines. Or drama. Or likeable characters. It's like someone gave Broadcast News a frontal lobotomy and changed its focus from TV news to stand-up comics. It's hard to believe that the guy who made The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up made this.

Well, not so hard -- pretty much everyone who always appears in a movie by Judd Apatow (and occasionally in movies only produced by Judd Apatow) appears here, and as with Apatow's two previous hits, brevity remains a problem: the movie's made too long by scenes that either needed serious editing, or to be seriously edited right out -- Sandler and Rogen's visit to the long-lost love seems to go on about half-an-hour longer than it should have, and a Thanksgiving scene just sits there, both dramatically and comically inert. None of the actors are particularly bad in the movie -- it's just that there's nothing much for them to work with, a problem that seems to lead Sandler to ad-lib penis jokes whenever possible. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Posthumous Collaborations


Comics:


Jack Kirby's Galactic Bounty Hunters Volume 1
by Lisa Kirby, Mike Thibodeaux, Karl Kesel, Steve Robertson, Richard French, Scott Hanna, Mike Royer and Jack Kirby: The 'Jack Kirby's' part of this title from the early oughts pretty much approximates the 'Gene Roddenberry's' in the titles of Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda. The great Kirby -- co-creator with Stan Lee of such characters as the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Hulk and the Mighty Thor -- who died in 1994, didn't really create this book -- it's instead extrapolated from unused character sketches and ideas, primarily from his early 1980's Pacific Comics title Captain Victory. One of Kirby's daughters, Lisa, worked with others on the writing, while 1980's and 90's Kirby inker Mike Thibodeaux handles the majority of the pencils.

The basic premise here is that a seemingly boring comic-book writer artist with a wife and two kids -- one, Garrett, a teen-aged boy with an all-consuming magic hobby -- turns out to be a member of the 'Galactic Bounty Hunters' whose adventures he chronicles in his famous comic-book of the same name. The son only learns this after he's been kidnapped by an old foe of the now-retired Bounty Hunters. The father gets the band back together, and they rush to save his son.

The creative team does a decent job of approximately late-period Kirby sci-fi wonkiness, dialogue and tendency to break stories down into very short chapters, each with its own title and blurb. Some of this approximation comes from what amounts to posthumous self-plagiarism -- an amusement park for criminals here is pretty much the amusement park for criminals there, over in Kirby's 1970's OMAC title. Given that Marvel Comics has been living off rewritings and recombinations of Kirby characters and concepts for years, I don't see this as a problem.

The father and mother in the book are super-heroic homages to Kirby and his wife Roz, while budding magician Garrett recalls both Kirby's super-magician Mister Miracle and the real-life inspiration for that character, comics writer/artist and escape artist Jim Steranko. I had fun, anyway. Recommended.



Essential Avengers Volume 6 by Steve Engelhart, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema, George Tuska, Joe Staton and others: In many ways, I found this collection of about two years of early 1970's Avengers stories the most satisfying Essential Avengers volume I've read (and I've read all of them up to this volume). Marvel's superhero group with an ever-changing line-up doesn't have Captain America around for most of these adventures, but it does have Thor and Iron Man to accompany lesser-knowns like Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Mantis and the Swordsman.

The success of this volume rests to a great extent on the shoulders of writer Steve Engelhart, who looks more and more to me like a great and underappreciated master of superhero shenanigans on books like Avengers, Green Lantern, Silver Surfer, Captain America and Batman in Detective Comics. A large portion of this book is taken up by the Celestial Madonna saga, an occasionally loopy epic (the climax involves a woman marrying a plant) that nonetheless seemed a lot more satisfying to me than the much-more-beloved Kree-Skrull War Avengers storyline of a few years earlier.

Editor Roy Thomas's love of obscure continuity questions makes its mark here, as the Vision is revealed to be the original Human Torch and villains Rama Tut, Kang the Conqueror and Immortus are revealed to be the same person at different points in his (time-travelling) timeline. But Engelhart makes it all fly, and wraps it up the appropriate melodrama, superheroic self-sacrifice, and Avengers infighting that the Avengers book at its best is all about. There's a giant, period-specific dollop of Eastern Kung-Fu mysticism thrown in, primarily through the character of Mantis, a mysterious woman with killer martial arts skills and a murky past. All of this goes down nicely.

Artists come and go on the Avengers, as always, to greater and lesser effect. The pairing of Sal Buscema and Joe Staton (known more for his pencilling) is an especially nice one here, as is one issue pencilled by John Buscema and inked by the late Dave Cockrum. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Revenge of Beretta


Books:


The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard: This relatively short hardcover anthology was released during the vampire boom of the 1970's, which explains the production values -- it's printed on amazingly thick and luxurious paper. It's not a great anthology by any stretch of the imagination (for one, it's too short to be so), but it does contain a number of fine stories. Most importantly, one gets the terrific novella "Carmilla" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, a pre-Dracula vampire tale that manages to be both sporadically erotic and genuinely horrifying. I've also got a soft spot for E.F. Benson's somewhat murky "The Room in the Tower" and Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla", also included here, as is the deleted prologue to Dracula, "Dracula's Guest." Recommended, though I was disappointed that Dracula was not in fact the editor.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Collins produces a great Young Adult science-fiction novel here, in the first part of a trilogy that's satisfying on pretty much every level. In a dystopian future, war and environmental disaster have left most humans in North America confined to zones dedicated to specific agricultural, industrial and mining purposes, all ruled dictatorially from another zone.

To fulfill a Bread-and-Circuses mandate while also demonstrating its absolute control over everybody, the government stages The Hunger Games every year. Two teenagers from each zone a male and a female) are dropped into an artificially manipulated 'game' zone in which they must compete to the death until only one winner remains alive. We follow our appealing, pragmatic, rebellious protagonist as she is selected for the games, undergoes training, and then must battle to win while trying to come up with a way to keep her fellow conscript from her zone alive.

Collins creates lively, appealing, flawed characters, and she really ratchets up the tension during the length section of the novel devoted to the games themselves. What I also like about the novel is the growing realization on the part of the reader that this future must be a long, long way from now: genetically modified plants, animals and insects abound; the technology available to the government is staggeringly advanced; the majority of the people, kept from both this technology and from any understanding of their true history, mostly have no conception of 'our' time. We've become less than myth.

This is a dandy achievement in a sub-genre that includes works like The Running Man, Series 7 and "The Most Dangerous Game." Highly recommended for anyone 14 or over.


Movie:


Iron Man 2, written by Justin Theroux, directed by Jon Favreau, starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Scarlet Johannsen, Sam Rockwell, Garry Shandling and Don Cheadle: The first Iron Man movie was notable for the unusual fact that the non-superhero sequences were far more interesting than the superhero battles, primarily because of the charm of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony "Iron Man" Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering personal assistant "Pepper" Potts.

The strength of the original is pretty much the strength of the sequel as well. Unfortunately, sequelitis sets in to such an extent that an abundance of new characters threatens to push Downey and Paltrow aside for long stretches of the movie. The movie grunts and sweats to not much effect because of the heavy lifting involved in getting characters such as War Machine, Black Widow and Nick Fury enough screen time to prepare us for upcoming Marvel-franchise movies Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. It doesn't help that director Favreau seems to be profoundly uninterested in the dynamics of action sequences -- we're subjected to lengthy CGI battles among various permutations of people wearing metal suits and robots, none of them executed with much flair.

What's supremely odd is that the movie replicates many of the flaws of another superhero movie sequel, Batman Returns. We get a filthy, vaguely disgusting villain who doesn't much resemble his comic-book progenitor (here, Rourke's Whiplash; there, Danny DeVito's Penguin). We get a superhero woman in a catsuit (Johannsen's Black Widow; Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman). We get a climactic army of rocket-wielding, civilian-threatening beings (Rourke's robots; DeVito's penguin army). We get a scene-stealing evil industrialist (Rockwell's Justin Hammer; Christopher Walken's Max Schreck). Both Iron Man and Batman are publically disgraced early in the movie. And so on, and so forth. The Penguin's army of of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs is actually a much more credible threat than Rourke's robot army, which proves incapable of much more than property damage.

Heck, Whiplash even has a pet bird -- a cockatoo, not a penguin, alas. Articles on the making of the movie have noted that Rourke came up with Whiplash's cockatoo companion himself, as if this were a bold bit of Method character creation and not, as I thought every time the bird was onscreen, Rourke unintentionally paying homage to the 70's cop show Beretta. So many characters. Recommended, though just barely.


Across the Pacific, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet (1942): This unremarkable wartime thriller gives us Bogart at the beginning of his stardom after more than a decade in Hollywood -- he even gets his name above the title thanks to the success of the previous year's Maltese Falcon. Astor and Greenstreet were also in the much-superior Falcon, while Falcon director Huston had to leave this picture with several scenes left to be done by another director thanks to wartime committments.

Basically, Bogart seeks to thwart a Japanese plot against the Panama Canal on the eve of Pearl Harbour. Unfortunate ethnic and racial stereotypes abound, including an American-born Japanese man who is really a Japanese collaborator. It's like a promo for the Japanese internment camps. And he wears really thick, distorting glasses! Ha ha! That is hilarious! Not recommended, though some of the visual effects and model work are unusually incompetent, even for the era -- both a ship and a plane appear to have been designed and animated by a five-year-old child with a bad case of the shakes.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Balls


Books:

Blockade Billy by Stephen King (2010): We get the titular novella and another novella, "Morality", which recently appeared in Esquire, all in a nice little hardcover package meant to suggest the children's sports novels of King's youth. Given that this just came out, I'd hazard a guess that Scribner's is aiming at the Father's Day crowd with this baseball-centric package.

King's chameleon voice hums along quite nicely in the title novella, a first-person narrative of a forgotten rookie baseball player of the 1950's. "Blockade" Billy was a rookie phenom of a catcher for the (fictional) New Jersey Titans in the 1950's, and the then-third-base coach of the Titans tells the story of Billy's magical month in the majors to, unh, Stephen King, who's really been showing up a lot in his own fiction lately.

The coach thinks and speaks a lot in archaic cliches -- this is entirely appropriate and, sometimes, appropriately annoying. But one gets a nice feel for baseball back in the 1950's, especially the whims and vagaries of how the farm system worked back then. I enjoyed "Blockade Billy" a lot, though the thriller aspects of it could just as easily have been cut: the 'twist' is really the weakest thing about an otherwise enjoyable piece.

The novella "Morality" operates in its own sub-genre of What Would You Do For Money? It's minor King, though in many ways it's superior to A Simple Plan, a novel and movie it resembles in its concerns, though not its plot or characters. Recommended.


Darker by Simon Clark (1996): This enjoyable, early-career Clark horror/thriller almost seems like it was written on a dare. Why? Because the basic premise -- and the engine that drives the plot -- involves a family being chased across the English countryside by what amounts to a giant, malevolent, invisible ball. The ball can crush anything. A mysterious stranger who goes along with the family may know how to stop the ball -- or he, too, may be malevolent. In the meantime, there's that ball, inexorably catching up with the family again and again and doing a whole lot of crushing. And you know, it works, it really works -- and would make an equally rivetting movie in the right hands. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball! Highly recommended.


The Rising by Brian Keene (2004): The sub-sub-genre of talking zombies is well-represented by Keene's post-zombie-apocalyptic novel in which a father desperate to save his son has to travel several hundred miles through hordes of annoying, talking, gun-wielding zombies. Oh, and all wildlife above the level of insects also becomes zombiefied immediately after dying.

The zombies in this case have a quasi-scientific/supernatural explanation -- basically, they're demons who escaped from hell after a military supercollider experiment went horribly awry and ripped a hole in the side of the universe. And it's pretty much a rule of thumb that no experiment that ever ripped a hole in the universe ever ripped that hole through to someplace good, like the magical land of snuggle-elves or what-have-you. It's pretty much always monsters and demons. Keene's one of a handful of contemporary horror writers who can lay on the sex and violence (and sexual violence) without making things cheap or sordid. In a weird way, his novel is much like The Road, only the apocalypse makes a lot more sense (relatively speaking). Highly recommended.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Don't Stop Believing


Comics:

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire Volume 2 by William Messner-Loebs and Nadine Messner-Loebs: Journey, published first by Aardvark-Vanaheim and then by Fantagraphics, is one of the ten or twenty great comic books of the 1980's. It followed the adventures of hunter/trapper/postman/gun-for-hire Joshua "Wolverine" MacAlistaire in the wilds, the settlements and the forts of Michigan and environs in the early 19th century. It's a funny and character-driven book, the humour and character observation making themselves felt through both the writing and the delightful cartooning. The comparison most often made in reviews at the time was that the writing and art reminded one of Will Eisner. It's an apt comparison, though I also see a lot of Harvey Kurtzman in Messner-Loebs' art.

William Messner-Loebs wrote and drew the approximately 40 issues that make up the entire saga, now collected by IDW in two fat B&W volumes. The story structure is guided by MacAlistaire's wanderings -- while moving from place to place, he also attempts to deliver a mysterious package -- with a number of side-stories spinning off from the main narrative, as the book turns its attentions to the various settlers, soldiers, natives, Sasquatches, squirrels and comic grotesques whom MacAlistaire comes across.

Probably the most memorable character -- other than stubborn, clever MacAlistaire himself -- is writer/poet Elmer Alwyn Craft, an East Coast naif pretty much way out of his element in the wilderness. Craft begins as a parody of/homage to the writings and personal lives of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, but he soon becomes a distinct (and often distinctly annoying) character of his own. Craft also allows for some fairly sophisticated, understated play with the nature of history and stories -- his tendency to look for a narrative in events is repeatedly undercut by MacAlistaire's observations that life doesn't operate that way.

Various seismic shifts in the independent comics business would cause Messner-Loebs to end Journey perhaps before its time (though it does have an ending and an epilogue), and he would move on to work on mainstream characters that included the Flash and Wonder Woman. The two volumes of Journey stand as a great and idiosyncratic achievement, however, and also work wonderfully as Comics For People Who Don't Like Comics. My only real quibble with the reprint volumes is that they don't reproduce the covers of the original single issues. Hopefully, if sales are good, this could be rectified in a subsequent edition. Highest recommendation.


Justice League of America: Another Nail by Alan Davis and Mark Farmer: Writer/artist Davis's second exploration of a world where Superman didn't 'become' Superman until nearly a decade after his first 'real' comic-book appearance continues in high-epic, anything-goes mode. Raised by Amish parents, Superman finds the modern world confusing and difficult; the modern world, meanwhile, suspicious of super-heroes for decades in a Superman-less world, rushes to embrace the new hero. Meanwhile, some giant thingamabob is about to destroy the universe. Uh oh! Fun, breezy superhero stuff. It's too bad Davis didn't come from around these parts so that we could have gotten a few Super-Mennonite jokes, but so it goes. Recommended.

Walt Whitman's FROM OUTER SPACE

Neat.