Thursday, December 27, 2012

I without a Face

'V' for Vendetta: written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd (1981-89; collected 1990): Now that V's Guy Fawkes mask has been appropriated by both the Occupy movement and Anonymous, it's getting hard to remember what a violent, anarchic fellow Alan Moore and David Lloyd's original character was. The dystopia of the graphic novel is about ten times worse than that seen in the movie adaptation, and V himself (herself? itself?) ten times more violent and ten times more problematically justified in that violence.

The story started life in the pages of England's Warrior comic magazine in the early 1980's, alongside Moore's other early opus Marvelman (aka Miracleman). If Miracleman was Moore's push-the-limits take on Superman, then V was his Batman: a Batman fighting a dystopic future Britain that strongly resembled the world of George Orwell's 1984. A Batman whose true face and true identity remain forever hidden from the characters in the story and from readers as well. When you put on a mask, you become a symbol.

Moore was initially reacting to the heightening nuclear tensions of the early Reagan/Thatcher era, and to the ruthless economic and social policies of those two genial abominations. The dystopia of the graphic novel is a Great Britain that avoided direct nuclear conflict thanks to its Labour Government severing all nuclear ties with the United States in the 1980's.

The U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. are presumably smoking, irradiated ruins. Great Britain fell into chaos and was soon under the control of a far-right party which now rules with an iron fist and a hatred of civil liberties and anyone different. There are no non-white ethnic groups left in this Great Britain; gays and lesbians have also been exterminated or forced underground.

And so rises V, a mysterious, anarchic freedom fighter who possesses the improbable fighting and planning skills of Batman and the homicidal justice-seeking of the Shadow. Also, he loves Motown music and Thomas Pynchon. He's Anarchy personified, set against Fascism. And he knows he's a monster, which makes him oddly sympathetic, and the ending quite moving. Moore has given him some of the qualities of Mary Shelley's hyper-educated Creature in Frankenstein.

The reactions to the book have been quite telling over the years -- this is, ultimately, a book with a terrorist as its protagonist. But he's a terrorist fighting a terrorist government, a monster set against monsters. And Moore is fairly clear throughout that V's violence isn't to be romanticized, and that there must a price, a price V knows. Having lost his essential humanity at some point, V fights now to allow people the Free Will to choose their own humanity. But Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.

In any case, this book remains thrilling and bracing today, and perhaps even more relevant in a world of perpetual war with shadowy terrorist groups. David Lloyd's moody art hits the right notes, though the book would be better if the entire thing was done in the Black and White of its early Warrior episodes: colour really does nothing to improve Lloyd's art, and indeed somewhat mutes it at points. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Norma Jean Agonistes

My Week with Marilyn: adapted by Adrian Hodges from writings by Colin Clark; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndyke) and Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh) (2011): The major attraction of this enjoyable little film is the portrayal of Marilyn Monroe by Michelle Williams. Williams doesn't really look like Monroe, even made up to do so, but she absolutely nails the film's portrait of the troubled actress, helping to make her a fascinating character first and an actual real person being portrayed on film second.

The rest of the film -- ostensibly based on the experiences of 23-year-old 3rd-assistant-director Colin Clark while making The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios in 1956 -- is a bit of a self-congratulatory piffle, especially in the second half. Colin Clark turns out to be the only person in the world who understands Marilyn, and they have a week-long platonic romance during the shooting of the film (directed by and starring Laurence Olivier). Did they really? Well, all the people who could have confirmed Clark's version of things were dead by the time he published his first account of these events, so make of that what you will.

Technically, this is a mainstream version of science-fiction fandom's Mary Sue plot device, in which a character based on the writer saves everybody in a piece of fan fiction set (originally) in the Star Trek universe. Oh, go look it up.

But regardless of how 'true' the movie is, the only real problems with this particular Mary Sue plot lie in the opacity and superior smugness of Colin Clark. As he's in every scene, Clark's nobly disingenuous upper-class savoir-faire gets a bit wearing after awhile, especially when the movie switches from the light comedy of its first half to an exploration of Marilyn's problems with her handlers, publicity, acting, Olivier, Arthur Miller, drugs, alcohol, family history, and assorted other things in the second half.

Everyone in the world except Colin Clark is against her! Imagine that, in a movie based on autobiographical material by Colin Clark...except that Clark's real-life observations about Monroe were much less flattering, though much of the film's story still comes from the book versions of Clark's diaries. Two books, in fact. Because Marilyn Monroe can make people money.

Among the other players, Kenneth Branagh is delightful as Laurence Olivier (whom he resembles not in the slightest), as are Julia Ormond as Olivier's then-wife Vivien Leigh and Judi Dench as British acting legend Sybil Thorndike (Dench, who first met the late Thorndike in 1958, observed that My Week with Marilyn gets Thorndike's kindness to younger actors pretty much spot on). In the small sub-genre of Movies Like This, My Week with Marilyn is inferior to My Favourite Year and Me and Orson Welles, but still enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nails

JLA: Another Nail: written and pencilled by Alan Davis, inked by Mark Farmer (2004): Alan Davis's alternate-world Justice League storyline continues here a year after the events of The Nail. Superman is gradually becoming accustomed to life in the outside world, a horribly wounded Green Arrow continues to rail against superheroes in the media, and Something Bad appears to be invading the universe.

Davis' art is great, very much in the tradition of Neal Adams, but with a distinctiveness all his own. And the story is epic without losing sight of small character moments -- it would be the perfect superhero comic book from 1985. Indeed, the basis for the continuity of the book is the 1980's pre-Crisis DC Universe with a few added flourishes.

Davis also comes up with an explanation for the existence of the ridiculously powerful JLA foe Amazo that's so perfect, it should be canonical. DC really needs to package this up with The Nail in a Deluxe edition. It looks terrific, it reads beautifully, and Davis' JLA is a lot more charming and interesting than what we get from the normal title these days. Recommended.

Blue World

Blue World: written by Robert R. McCammon: containing "Yellowjacket Summer", "Makeup", "Doom City", "Nightcrawlers", "Yellachile's Cage", "I Scream Man!", "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door", "Chico", "Night Calls the Green Falcon", "Pin", "The Red House", "Something Passed by" and "Blue World" (1981-89; collected 1989): Superior collection of Robert McCammon's 1980's non-novel-length work (though the title story is nearly the length of a short novel). The collection encompasses psychological, science-fictional, and supernatural horror, along with two works of suspense ("Blue World" and "Night Calls the Green Falcon").

One of the standouts is "Nightcrawlers," filmed for an episode of the 1980's Twilight Zone revival. A Viet Nam veteran walks into a highway diner, and bad things happen. It's an excellent bit of science-fictional horror, and also seems to be the precursor to a novel that never materialized.

Many of the other stories are set in McCammon's home-state of Alabama, generally in small towns you really don't want to visit ("Yellowjacket Summer," "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door," and "Something Passed By."). The latter is an extremely effective bit of Cthulhuesque cosmic horror that dwells on the effects of a dimensional incursion without worrying about the how, why, or who.

"Night Calls the Green Falcon" is another stand-out that would make a terrific movie. An aging, forgotten, and psychologically damaged former star of a children's superhero serial about crimefighter the Green Falcon finds himself dropped into a real-life mystery that he initially has no real desire to tackle.

But tackle it he does, sometimes literally, dressed in the faded remnants of his movie costume. The story strikes a nice balance between the childish idealism of the superhero and the realities of the real world that's much more heart-breaking (and ultimately heart-warming) than the vast majority of adult superhero comics of the last thirty years.

Finally, there's the title novella, a plunge into a hard-boiled world of porn, sex, and serial killers with a Roman Catholic priest and a strangely innocent female porn star as its two protagonists. It verges on hard-core at points, but it's ultimately a story about conventional and unconventional morality set in San Francisco's famous Tenderloin district. McCammon's deft third-person narration is really on display here as the narrative moves seamlessly from the thoughts and actions of one character to another and another and then back again. Recommended.

The Aniston Effect

Wanderlust: written by David Wain and Ken Marino; directed by David Wain; starring Paul Rudd (George Gergenblatt), Jennifer Aniston (Linda Gergenblatt), Justin Theroux (Seth), and Alan Alda (Carvin) (2012): Some day, years from now, someone will write a computer program that will remove Jennifer Aniston from all movies not entitled Horrible Bosses or The Good Girl and replace her with someone funnier. Anyone funnier.

Actually, funnier isn't even necessary: we just need someone who isn't a black hole that devours all laughs when the camera is on her. Her film career is only rivalled by Ed Helms' last two seasons on The Office, in which he's become The Man Where Laughs Go To Die. It's as if the two of them somehow generate a malign radiation known as Unlaughter.

Wanderlust comes from many of the same writers and directors and actors who gave us the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer, a fine parody of pretty much every teen movie cliche. Here, they're a little hamstrung by the dictates of a conventional narrative, though there are still some satisfyingly bizarre moments. Also, you know, Aniston.

Paul Rudd and Aniston play a down-on-their-luck New York couple who, through various misadventures, end up staying the night at Elysium, a hippie commune turned bed-and-breakfast near Atlanta. Things seem much more appealing there than back in the real world, so they end up joining the commune. And things get wacky. Well, they already are wacky -- David Wain and Ken Marino love the wacky. Wackier. Things get wackier.

There are a few dead moments not caused by Jennifer Aniston, along with a final plot twist that requires one character to suddenly become a hypocritical jerk without any development of said jerkiness. The cast is a lot of fun, the movie's nice and short, and there's a weirdly compelling sub-plot involving a nudist who's written a political thriller. If only Jennifer Aniston were not the female lead! Lightly recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Submarine Zombie Nazis Must Die!

The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon (1980): This enjoyable, overstuffed, pulpy as all get-out early novel from McCammon gives us a World War Two U-Boat filled with undead Nazis terrifying a Caribbean Island in the late 1970's after the explosion of an old depth charge releases the U-Boat from its burial beneath tons of sand on the ocean floor.

One of McCammon's strengths throughout his career has been the density of his inventiveness in his novels -- stuff just keeps on happening even when it doesn't necessarily build from anything or to anything. Here, that density gives us three Ahabs in search of their great black-hulled Nazi whale, one of them suddenly appearing with about 60 pages to go. It also gives us a former Nazi Ishmael who shows up and then has almost nothing to do. Was this novel edited down from a much longer manuscript? I wonder.

Anyway, an expariate American scuba diver with a tragic past which will, of course, become a vital part of the story's machinery is compelled to unearth the submarine that's lain on the sea floor since 1942. It's the same sub that shelled the small Caribbean island of Coquina during World War Two before being sent to its apparent death by several sub-chasers and a lot of depth charges. But rise it does, to the astonishment of all, whereupon it drifts into the harbour and gets stuck on a reef. So the good people of Coquina elect to tow it into an abandoned military dock despite the fact that the sub managed to kill one fisherman during its trek into the harbour.

And from within the decades-sealed submarine...is that the sound of someone pounding with a hammer? Well, let's open it up and find out!

Did I mention that Voodoo plays a role as well? Of course it does. And undead zombie Nazis with an unquenchable thirst for blood and the ability to use tools. They can smash you with a hammer or fix a submarine. These are not your garden-variety stupid zombies. They have an ethos, and it's called National Socialism!

All in all, The Night Boat is a wild romp that pays off on enough plot threads to be pretty thoroughly enjoyable. McCammon would write much better novels, but no more enjoyable ones on the basic level of pulp melodrama. Recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sexual-Harassment Gargoyle

Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle): adapted by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; directed by Sidney Hayers; starring Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy Taylor), and Maragret Johnson (Flora Carr) (1962): It's an all-star writing team-up as genre greats Richard Matheson (Duel, Hell House, a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) and Charles Beaumont (a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) adapt Science-fiction-and-fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's terrific 1940's fantasy novel Conjure Wife for the big screen.

The action is moved to England and compressed in time, doing some violence to the original, but the result is still an enjoyable, fast-paced bit of modern horror-fantasy set in the cut-throat world of academia. Yes, academia. Professor Norman Taylor seems to have led a charmed life both personally and professionally. And he has. But he's about to find out the cost. And witchcraft is involved. And possibly Sexual-Harassment Panda.

Two bits of goofiness mar the very beginning and the very end, seemingly added by a nervous studio. But they're minor. This story of modern witchcraft has some real thrills and horrors awaiting, along with one pissed-off eagle-shaped gargoyle. The film-makers do a nice job of suggesting as much as possible, a necessity given the budget and visual effects limitations of the time. The most chilling scene relies on no visual effects whatsoever -- just Tarot cards, a match, and an increasingly panicked Norman Taylor.

My main beef with the movie would be that the scariest line of the novel -- and the events that flow forwards from it -- have been replaced here by a more conventional ending in which our protagonists are quite a bit less intelligent than they are in the book. Oh, well. Still a superior tale of magic and its discontents. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Fires of Creation

The Shadow: The Fires of Creation: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Aaron Campbell (2012): How could it have taken this long to join Scottish master of ultraviolence Garth Ennis and ultraviolent pulp-hero The Shadow? In any case, here it is, and it's mostly awesome. Thank you, Dynamite Comics!

The Dynamite/Ennis take on the Shadow brings something more of the supernatural into things than were there in the original -- the Shadow at least dimly sees the future, and has been entrusted by what appear to be mystical forces with the protection of the Earth.

Set a couple of years prior to the U.S. entrance into World War Two, The Fires of Creation sees the Shadow's alter ego Lamont Cranston working with US military intelligence prior to the formation of the OSS (Operation of Strategic Services, later the CIA) to stop a mysterious Japanese expedition into China from finding something extremely dangerous that could allow the Axis to win the war.

Ennis does a nice job of melding Shadowy violence with a narrative that at times resembles mid-century spy works by writers that include Graham Greene and John LeCarre. Along the way, the Shadow's mysterious origins are touched upon -- the criminals of Hong Kong remember his first forays into crime-fighting, and the Japanese soldiers running the mysterious operation are well aware that the Shadow is something to worry about. A lot.

Aaron Campbell's art suits the material. It's clean and illustrative, with a nice touch of darkness and murk when required. I think Campbell is still learning when it comes to layout (well, who isn't?) as there's a somewhat confusing bit towards the end of the story in which it's difficult to figure out which way (or where) a character is going, and while that's cleared up in later pages, it's an odd misstep for what's otherwise a solid job of comic-book illustration.

Unlike the pulp magazines, in which the Shadow often plays supporting character to lieutenants like Margo Lane and Harry Vincent, The Fires of Creation makes the Shadow the main character, something more common to the popular Shadow radio series. There are echoes of Howard Chaykin's revisionist comic-book Shadow of the 1980's, but Ennis' character doesn't parody the original in any way: he's a committed bad-ass whose cause is righteous. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Moon Trap

Moon by James Herbert (1985): James Herbert has often been called England's version of Stephen King. This isn't a bad comparison, though King doesn't usually have at least one vaguely soft-core, five-page-long sex scene in almost every novel. The comparison is made more interesting by King's analysis of Herbert's early novels in King's non-fiction horror survey, Danse Macabre.

I've certainly enjoyed the half-dozen or so Herbert novels I've read, and I enjoyed Moon. Herbert's good characters are sympathetic, if occasionally a bit too aesthetically pleasing when they're women (the protagonist's girlfriend is stunningly beautiful...why is this necessary?). Come to think of it, there's a thematic reason it's necessary, one that constitutes a spoiler alert if I explain it further.

Herbert is generally more ruthless than King, or at least more arbitrary when it comes to the question of who dies, and when -- there are a couple of wrenching sequences here that derive a lot of their power from that surprising arbitrariness, and Herbert's decision to not tie certain plot and character threads up neatly.

The plot recalls King's The Dead Zone: protagonist Jonathan Childes has psychic flashes. They once helped him stop a serial killer. But they also made him a media flashpoint when people found out that he was the only useful psychic to ever work on a police investigation. So he moves from England to one of the Southern coastal islands to try to lay low, and to hope that the psychic flashes are a thing of the past. But then horrifying visions start again.

Childes' skepticism about his own powers generates a fair amount of drama as we go along, as do the apparent limits of those powers: he can see what the killer is doing in his mind, but he doesn't know where, and he can't glean the killer's identity from these psychic links. This last becomes quite a problem when the killer suddenly realizes that Childes is psychically observing the killer's actions, and manages to start pulling information out of Childes' head that immediately puts his ex-wife, his daughter, and eventually everyone around Childes in mortal danger. It all makes for a quick, enjoyable read with some moments of visceral and existential horror. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Corporations are people, my friends!


The Boys Volume 4: We Gotta Go Now: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson (2008-2009; collected 2009): Black Ops group The Boys delve into the secret history of the G-Men, superhero-corporation Vought American's (very) thinly veiled version of the X-Men and all their X-books, X-teams, and X-merchandising. As superhero groups in the world of The Boys go, the G-Men may be the most awful of all when their secret origins are revealed. But how will The Boys fight several hundred angry, crazy superheroes with a bewilderingly wide array of superpowers? Excellent question. Recommended.


The Boys Volume 5: Herogasm: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and John McCrea (2009; collected 2009): Corporate-owned superheroes. Just like the comic books themselves! CIA-affiliated Black Ops group The Boys continue their investigation of superhero corporation Vought American and the legion of super-heroes created, controlled, and owned by them as the heroes of the world have their annual team-up against a force too powerful for them to combat singly or in small groups. It's a crisis and a not-so-secret war!

Well, no. In reality, the heroes and some villains annually go to a tropical island where they debauch themselves for a week on the company dime: the company-wide team-up is all about sex and drugs, not saving the world. The greatest threat to the world is the superheroes themselves and the corporation that controls them. The Boys do learn a lot more about both the secret history of recent events and what the World's Greatest Hero, the Homelander, is really up to. None of it is pretty. Recommended.


The Boys Volume 8: Highland Laddie: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and John McCrea (2010-2011; collected 2011): Depressed by recent personal events and by his work with The Boys, Scottish team-member Hughie (he whom artist Darick Robertson originally drew to look pretty much exactly like Simon Pegg) returns home to the north of Scotland for some soul-searching. Almost certainly the most Scottish superhero miniseries ever written. Recommended.


The Boys Volume 9: The Big Ride: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and Russ Braun (2011; collected 2011): As things gradually move towards a series-ending climax (still three volumes to go, though), we learn terrible secrets about the first go-round for The Boys in their battle against Vought American and its corporate superheroes. We also learn about the first appearance of said superheroes during World War Two and the subsequent history of both the superheroes and the CIA's attempts to find out what Vought American is up to. We also learn even more about the insane sex lives of superheroes. And one of The Boys will not make it out of this volume alive! Recommended.

 

Justice League Volume 2: The Villain's Journey: written by Geoff Johns; illustrated by Jim Lee, Gene Ha, Gary Frank, and Ivan Reis (2012): The new Justice League battles a couple of new menaces, refuses Green Arrow's request to join the team, and ponders its role in today's fast-paced, modern society. The new Shazam's interminably long origin story also begins. People yell at Batman. And Superman and Wonder Woman kiss.

Jim Lee's new costume designs for DC's major heroes really are fussy and distracting. Superman needs his red shorts back. And everyone needs to stop wearing armor like the Avengers all did in that terrible 1990's Avengers cartoon that didn't feature any of the major Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor). Most of the heroes here are pissy almost all the time, which in today's superhero comics is what substitutes for camaraderie and characterization. Lightly recommended.
 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Swedish Maiden

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (1992): Multiple-mystery-novel-award-winning mystery novel (whew) featuring Inspector Morse and the faithful Sergeant Lewis as they investigate a year-old murder case that lacks a body, a suspect, and quite possibly a murder.

A mysterious and possibly clue-filled poem from an anonymous source reboots the investigation when the poem appears in the newspaper, the allusive and elusive poem almost certainly related to the whereabouts of the 'Swedish Maiden', the young Swedish woman who disappeared in the Oxford area the previous summer. Soon, Morse will cut short his vacation in Lyme Regis (where parts of Jane Austen's Persuasion took place, everyone keeps telling everyone else) because when it comes to cases with weird twists, the opera-loving Morse is the Oxford PD's go-to guy.

The novel is almost fiendishly convoluted, and those convolutions lead Morse and Lewis into an even more labyrinthine-than-usual path through the assorted strata of Oxford society. Morse remains lonely and drunk for much of the novel, though also sometimes bafflingly attractive to women. It must be all the alcohol. And the opera. And the first name, initial 'E', that he never gives out.

The Way Through the Woods also explores the attitudes of Morse's colleagues towards him, along with the almost high-schooley politics within a police department. Of course, Morse in books and on TV, and Lewis's own spin-off series, all examine the social and political entanglements that connect everything in Oxford -- town and gown, high and low. As above, so below. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Robert Plant Does Not Like Heavy Metal

Chuck Klosterman IV by Chuck Klosterman (2006): Hilarious and thoughtful collection of essays, mostly on pop-cultural issues, by the almost always engaging Klosterman. He manages to come up with sharp analysis without being (too much) of a pretentious bastard. His notes on the pieces, which span ten years of his writing, are often refreshingly candid about what he thinks succeeds and fails in hindsight.

Klosterman's weaknesses could be described as a love of over-generalization and an occasional bout of a sort of odd political futilitarianism masquerading as hard-won cynicism. When he lurches into politics, the results are often intellectually embarrassing. So thank heavens he doesn't do so very often.

There are a lot of high points here. The two I'd pick as most representative of Klosterman's charms are a hilariously cranky interview with Robert Plant (cranky on Plant's part, that is, the crankiness mostly aimed at people other than Klosterman except when Plant decides that Chuck's theories on Led Zeppelin are full of crap) and a ridiculously useful column explaining the differences between one's Nemesis and one's Arch-Enemy ("If your Arch-Enemy decided to kill you, your Nemesis would try to stop him."

Other great pieces include a profile of (The Smiths') Morrissey's largest American fan-base (Los Angeles-area Latinos, apparently), the annual Goth pilgrimage to Disneyland, and Klosterman's bizarre visit with Val Kilmer. Recommended.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Naked Came the Earth-man

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912; revised 1917): The first hit novel for Burroughs, who would soon also create Tarzan. A Princess of Mars holds up well as a science fantasy that inspired such later works as Star Wars (words that include Sith, Banth, and padawar crop up in the Mars series, as do numerous plot and conceptual similarities). Former Confederate soldier John Carter gets teleported to Mars (known as 'Barsoom' to its inhabitants) in a second body while his first body remains in a cave on Earth. Interplanetary shenanigans ensue.

Burroughs draws at least partially upon Earth history for his alien races: the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks come across as a debased Sparta to the Athens of the red-skinned, human-like residents of Helium. John Carter reintroduces concepts such as compassion and kindness to animals to the Tharks and his best Thark buddy Tars Tarkas, leading to major social changes among the green-skinned giants.

Carter has certain advantages over Martians: he can jump relatively long distances and kill enemies with a single punch thanks to his much denser body, caused by Earth's greater gravity. These things impress the Hell out of most everyone he meets, as does his white skin colour. And he does take up the White Man's Burden, helping to (re)civilize the civilizations of Mars. Burroughs really should have paid Kipling royalties for this and Tarzan.

And Carter will eventually fall in love with the red Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Oh, and everyone on Mars is naked most of the time with the exception of ornamental jewelry and/or armor. Hubba hubba! Of course, almost all species on Mars -- including red and green Martians -- are oviparous. Will John Carter and Dejah nonetheless be able to produce viable offspring? What do you think?

We're also shown the canals of Mars, here the last remnants of the great Martian oceans, and various ancient Martian cities, decaying and occasionally inhabited by the green Martians, who no longer build anything themselves except for weapons and, well, more weapons. The civilizations of Mars are all ancient and somewhat retrograde: Burroughs was taking some of his cues in this from contemporary Western theories about China, the standard example of a decaying civilization living off the momentum of long-ago glory. John Carter is the first truly new thing on Mars in centuries or perhaps millennia.

There's plenty of swashbuckling here, along with pitched gun-battles, strange sights, giant white apes, loyal frog-dogs, and a gigantic atmosphere plant to keep everyone on Mars alive and breathing. It's all quite a bit of fun. And it ends on a cliffhanger! Recommended.

Sinister Balls

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939; revised 1948): Probably the first science-fiction novel to be based on Charles Fort's pseudo-scientific speculations that human beings are the property of something alien, and Sinister Barrier is not shy about its influences -- there are pages of direct quotes from Fort's work, excerpts which consist mainly of quotes from various newspapers and what-have-you about unexplained phenomena. Specifically, Russell uses Fortean clips about flying energy balls (!!!) and mysterious disappearances to concoct a tale of flying energy balls that occasionally make people disappear.

Well, OK, there's more to the novel than that. And it's set in the then-far-flung future of 2015, when humanity has developed gyrocars and video-telephones but not television. Hunh?

Anyway, leading scientists start dropping dead from either heart attacks or suicide. A hyper-intelligent government investigator tries to find out why. They were experimenting with a drug combination (which included mescaline and methylene blue!). It caused the human eye to be able to see more of the visual spectrum. And what they saw killed them!

Enjoyable, fast-paced, and paranoid fun in its first half, the novel drags a bit when humanity launches its attack on the things that it couldn't previously see. Invisible balls of energy have been feeding on humanity's emotions for millennia. There's certainly more than a whiff of such later paranoid classics as They Live here, though both horror and social commentary are soon replaced by the mechanics of the science-fiction thriller. And several pages of quotes from Charles Fort. In any case, a lot of fun, and something Hollywood should look into adapting. It would make a great movie. Recommended.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Life on Mars

John Carter of Mars: adapted by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon from the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs; directed by Andrew Stanton; starring Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), James Purefoy (Kantos Kan), and the voices of Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Samantha Morton (Sola), and Polly Walker (Sarkoja) (2012): A lot of critics attacked the source material for this movie as the reason for its North-American box-office failure because, as we all know, we are way smarter and cooler now than we were in 1912, and, like, those old-timey books all sucked, eh? Twilight is so much better.

Well, yeah. In reality, the filmmakers seemed to take cues from the makers of the similarly misguided (though much worse)  Green Lantern movie by highlighting exposition and technobabble, substituting Screenwriting 101 bullet points for the original motivations of the characters, and making some terrible decisions when it came to the computer-generated effects.

Still, I can think of a lot of financially successful science-fiction movies John Carter surpasses: the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy, the last two Matrix movies, the Transformers movies, Iron Man 2...actually, it's a pretty long list. This isn't a terrible movie: the acting is pretty much universally solid, the performances far better than anything Lucas elicited for the Stars Wars prequels (or Michael Bay elicited for any of the Transformers movies).

It was originally a simple story, immensely popular for its time: former Confederate soldier finds himself on Mars, meets girl, saves planet. That was the first John Carter novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, entitled Under the Moons of Mars when first serialized and subsequently titled A Princess of Mars for book publication. It was the first novel of the immensely popular Burroughs, who also created Tarzan.

Here, the visuals are striking, well-thought-out, and mostly capture the descriptions from the Burroughs Mars novels. Woola the loyal Frog-dog both looks and acts exactly as he does in the first novel (his species is indeed the fastest land-creature on Mars. or 'Barsoom' as the natives call it); the giant, green, six-limbed Tharks look pretty spot-on, though they've been made a wee bit shorter than they are in the novels so that they can comfortably share a frame with humans.

However, the filmmakers unwisely chose to go understated with the colouring of the Red Martians, a decision that makes the ability of everyone to figure out that John Carter isn't from around here quite baffling -- he pretty much looks exactly like a Red Martian, who are supposed to have a rich copper hue but instead look as if they've all got a mild sunburn.

The worst story-telling decision is the labourious frame tale. It's partially in the novel as well, but there it takes up a handful of pages while here it takes up nearly a quarter of the movie. Bad decision. Also a bad decision was throwing in material from later Mars novels: much of the technobabble and tedious exposition while on Mars derives entirely from this interpolated material lifted from later in the series, as too does Mark Strong's villainous White Martian.

Along the way, the filmmakers also throw out some nice character-building material in favour of their own Screenwriting 101 Character Motivation Chart: suddenly John Carter has a wife and child who died during the Civil War...and this explains everything! Including why he's such a goddamned jerk for the first half of the movie, whereas in the first novel he's heroic and courteous and a re-civilizing influence on the noble but somewhat degraded Green Martian Tharks ('Thark' is a tribal name and not the species name for all Green Martians. Because The More You Know).

The biggest visual miscue, one which really throws one out of the movie and occasionally into muffled hysterics, is the decision to give John Carter the jumping abilities of Superman. The CGI for much of this jumping clearly depicts a John Carter who has no weight whatsoever, making him look like a cartoon character regardless of how finely he's rendered.

This is again not in the novel -- Carter can indeed jump a long way in the books, and he does have super-strength related to the Martians thanks to growing up on a planet with much higher gravity, but he doesn't defy the laws of motion, action, and reaction. The movie-makers seems to have decided that lower weight also equals lower mass. Or maybe they just fell in love with their goofy visuals. But if you ever end up on Mars or the Moon, remember this basic fact: running into a wall at 100 miles an hour on the Moon will kill you with the same force as doing the same thing on Earth. The Lunar astronauts walked with that weird, cautious jumping motion because it's dangerous to get yourself going too quickly when you're not fighting as much gravity.

So it goes. It's an interesting partial failure, in any event, and certainly not deserving of the hatred poured upon it by the media. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Wallpaper Attacks

Midnight Frights: A Collection of Ghost Stories edited by Charles Eastman containing "The Signal-man" by Charles Dickens, "Man-size in Marble" by E. Nesbit, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Cigarette Case" by Oliver Onions, and "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1980): Nifty little collection of ghost stories that doesn't really seem to have been selected for the audience it nonetheless ostensibly seems to be aimed at. The chills are a bit rarefied. And Onions deploys Britishisms that gave me pause at certain points. Odd selection for a young-adult collection put together in 1980.

The Dickens story is an understated character study. The Nesbit story goes pretty much exactly where one thinks it's going to go, and does so in style. "The Cigarette Case" is a nice little piece, though not one of Onions' scarier offerings (the scariest being "The Beckoning Fair One", one of the ten or twenty greatest ghost stories ever written in English). "The Horla" is a fascinating bit of proto-science fiction from the prolific de Maupassant, himself doomed to die young and insane.

And there's "The Yellow Wallpaper." It's scary as Hell. It's also considered a piece of proto-feminist fiction (as indeed it is), so it gets a lot of love in the Academy. It's a terrific story that, while traditionally read as a tale of pure psychological horror, does leave a slight amount of room for a supernatural explanation. Totally bravura, one might say, in its first-person narration that slides gradually into horrifying madness, a madness that seems somewhat justified by the way the female narrator is treated by her well-meaning but controlling husband. You can also read it as a parable about post-partum depression. Seriously. Overall, recommended.

Armies of Night

Solomon Kane: The Hills of the Dead by Robert E. Howard with Ramsey Campbell containing the following stories:
"The Hills of the Dead",  "Hawk of Basti" (Completed by Ramsey Campbell), "The Return of Sir Richard Grenville" (poem), "Wings in the Night", "The Footfalls Within", "The Children of Asshur" (Completed by Ramsey Campbell), "Solomon Kane's Homecoming" (poem) and "The Mystery of Solomon Kane" (Introduction) by Ramsey Campbell (1928-1968; 1979):

Bantam's second (and last) 1970's volume of the adventures of Robert E. Howard's quasi-Puritan monster-fighter takes place mostly in Africa. Not historic Africa, but an Africa almost as fantastic as the world of Conan the Barbarian. Howard aficiando and acclaimed horror writer Ramsey Campbell finishes two Howard fragments here, to solid effect -- the seams don't show.

This time out, Kane battles an army of vampires, an army of carnivorous hawkmen, a couple of lost civilizations, and an unnameable Cthulhuian horror. He gets a lot of help from his African magician pal N'Longa and from the ancient staff N'Longa gives him to fight evil with, a staff the stories tell us may predate the existence of the Earth itself. Solomon Kane fights for an ostenibly Christian God, but he does so within a fantastic framework that resembles H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, one in which evolution is taken as a given.

Howard's racial sensibilities will offend some, though they seem surprisingly progressive in a "White Man's Burden" sort of way. N'Longa is a great help, and Kane spends a lot of time liberating African slaves or fighting to save villages from terrible supernatural menaces. He's a real gent. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godzilla's Roman Holiday

20 Million Miles to Earth: written by Bob Williams, Christopher Knopf, and Charlotte Knight; directed by Nathan Juran; starring William Hopper (Colonel Calder), Joan Taylor (Marisa Leonardo) and Bart Bradley (Pepe) (1957): One watches this movie for the Ray Harryhausen-directed stop-motion animation, which still has the power to amaze. Actually, it may amaze more now: the creature effects were painstakingly done by hand with models. CGI didn't exist. And Harryhausen (perhaps most famous for his work on the Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts) is in rare form in what was his favourite of all his movies.

A returning American Venus expedition rocket gets hit by a meteor and subsequently crashes off the coast of Sicily. Some intrepid Sicilian fishermen rescue the only two survivors before the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean. One survivor subsequently dies from the toxic effects of the Venusian atmosphere, but team leader Col. Calder survives. Where's that two-foot-long specimen bottle we brought back from Venus, asks the Colonel?

Alas, annoying fishermen's child Pepe sold the blobby contents of that bottle to a travelling zoology professor and his M.D. daughter in exchange for the money to buy a cowboy hat. I feel like there are hidden depths of symbolism and allegory already at work here. And from that blob hatches a two-foot-tall bipedal lizard creature with a face like a catfish, an Ymir, one of the natives of Venus.

And then the Ymir starts to grow at a rate only slightly slower than the Blob, but with no eating of people. The Ymir gains mass simply by breathing Earth's atmosphere. Frankly, this is something you'd think would excite the scientists, but no one even blinks at this astonishing ability. People in the 1950's were idiots.

While the rest of the movie is solid and workmanlike, the Ymir sequences are terrific. The creature is cleverly integrated into a number of shots of the actors, but it's when he's off on his own that he really shines: fighting a dog, fighting an elephant, climbing the Colosseum, yelling a lot. Our friend the Ymir isn't a naturally hostile fellow, though his colossal growth rate soon threatens Rome. Indeed, unlike King Kong he isn't even interested in eating humans: he prefers elemental sulfur.

So the movie turns into an at-least-partially intentional indictment of man's violence against the unknown. The Ymir is caged, electrocuted, attacked by a dog, attacked by an elephant (!!!), bombed, grenaded, rocketed, gassed, pursued by helicopters, and pretty much given the worst welcome to a planet any creature could have. He even gets a pitchfork stuck in his back by an angry farmer. Honestly, we're approaching the Deliverance category of bad vacations. Thank God he didn't land in the Appalachians.

And all because the U.S. government wants to understand how his lungs filter out Venus' toxic atmosphere so that men can return and strip-mine the place for rare minerals. Oh, allegory, where is thy sting? So far as I can tell, the Ymir just wanted to see the sights of Rome, but while he does tour the Colosseum, he never gets to relax in a sidewalk cafe. Scenes of the soldiers firing rockets, machine guns, and grenades willy-nilly into the Colosseum are unintentionally hilarious. It's like something out of a Michael Bay movie. Or Team America: World Police. Recommended.

Duck and Cover

The Carl Barks Library: Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes: written and illustrated by Carl Barks (1948-49; collected 2011): Writer-artist Carl Barks may be the most-read comic-book creator of all time. It may not even be close.

At its peak, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories -- the comic book in which Barks' tales of Donald Duck and friends appeared -- sold 3 million copies a month upon first publication and millions more in reprints over the decades. That number dwarfs anything the superhero sub-genre in America ever achieved. More importantly, Barks wasn't just popular: he was a tremendous storyteller.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics Carl Barks Library comprises a nice selection of three long stories, several shorter ones, and a few one-page 'gag' strips. Barks wouldn't settle on the final personalities of his versions of the Donald Duck characters for a while, but already they're distinctly different from the one-note cartoons, at least in the three long adventures. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are helpful and curious, and while Donald is frequently exasperated, he still makes for a surprisingly good adventure hero. Only Uncle Scrooge remains undeveloped -- it would be a couple of years before Barks would make him a crusty but loveable participant in the adventures, rather than the Ayn Randist asshat he is here when he briefly appears.

The stories are enjoyable and often enjoyably odd, with the Andes adventure being the stand-out here -- square eggs, square chickens, and an entire Native American civilization dealing with a case of cultural contamination from North Americans that's left them all speaking with parodies of Southern accents (!). The cartooning is clean, the colours vivid, and the incidental action occuring in the background and away from the main action quite witty in a way that would anticipate the more crowded panels of Mad.

All in all, this is a delight, and a testimony to one of America's finest all-ages storytellers in any medium, at any time. Barks was truly "the good Duck artist." Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Emotional Rescue

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993): This solid little Young-Adult-targeted dystopia has sold a gajillion copies and spawned three more novels set in the same fictional universe. Lowry's dystopic model is far more Brave New World than 1984, though not entirely either.

Neil Postman suggested that dystopias tend to fall between the two poles of pain-based (1984) and pleasure-based (Brave New World) control of the citizenry. Lowry's citizens are taking something a lot like Huxley's Soma, only moreso: they feel nothing strongly, and some things they feel not at all. It's a dystopia of emotional and physical subtraction: no pain, no pleasure, no problem.

The trade-off for the full range of human feelings is a peaceful, well-ordered existence in which even physical pain and accidental death are almost non-existent. But our young protagonist Jonas will soon learn both the secrets of his community and the secrets of himself.

The Giver is a dystopia, not dystopic science fiction: many of the qualities of Jonas's world fall apart when examined too closely. The same can be said of a number of classics of dystopian literature that include Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Orwell's 1984. A dystopia may be an allegory about a condition that already exists and/or of a condition that could exist if things keep on going the way they're going (The Handmaid's Tale satisfies those criteria). It doesn't necessarily hold together as a plausible imagination of a workable society (again, The Handmaid's Tale satisfies that criteria: it really isn't science fiction).

Figuring out what the conditions are that Lowry sees in the here-and-now as deeply disturbing enough to imagine a dystopia around them is part of the enjoyment of reading the novel. It's concise and moving and possessed of appealing characters. Its only real problem is that it ends in a rush. It doesn't overstay its welcome. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Men, Women and Sledgehammers

Silent House: adapted by Laura Lau from the Uruguayan movie of the same name written by Gustavo Hernandez; directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau; starring Elizabeth Olsen (Sarah), Adam Trese (John), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Peter), Julia Taylor Ross (Sophia), Adam Barnett (Stalking Man), and haley Murphy (Little Girl) (2012): In the tradition of both Hitchcock's Rope and the Uruguayan horror movie it remakes, Silent House was shot in a series of continuous takes that were then edited so as to look as if there were no edits at all.

The seams don't show as much as in Rope, in which Hitchcock had to have the camera dive into a wall or door every eight minutes to hide the edit. That's because of digital effects and the murkiness of much of this movie, most of which takes place inside a house without electrical power.

Twentysomething Sarah, her father John, and her father's brother Peter are working to clean and repair the family cottage/lakeside house, which has been sold to new owners. Commence the escalating horrors! Is it a ghost story? A slasher movie? Could there be a twist ending?

Elizabeth Olsen, the younger and pronouncedly bustier sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, does a pretty good job here running the emotional gamut from screaming to trying not to scream to running to hiding. She definitely looks at the handheld camera a couple of times, though, which knocks one a bit out of the film world. But this is a tough acting assignment, as the camera is either on her or looking over her shoulder for the entire movie.

Olsen does a good job overall establishing both viewer sympathy and a growing sense of unease at what she's seeing, though given where the plot goes, a higher-cut, darker-coloured top might have been a good idea. Or not. This is a movie in part about voyeurism and objectification, which means that the amount of time the movie spends centred on Olsen's cleavage can ultimately be read as an attempt to increase the discomfort of the viewer at the pronouncedly anti-erotic climax of the film. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It Only Seems Like Eternity

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 16: The Eternity War and Others: written by Roy Thomas and J.M. de Matteis; illustrated by John Buscema, Bob McLeod, and Ernie Chan (1980; collected 2008): Workmanlike Dark Horse reprints of Conan adventures originally published by Marvel Comics in the early 1980's. The only item of historical note is that this collection bridges the transition from writer Roy Thomas to other writers on the Conan colour comic book.

Thomas had written the Marvel Conan pretty much by himself since the comic started publication in 1970. But 1979-1980 saw Thomas out at Marvel and in at DC, where he'd soon be writing his self-created sword-and-sorcery book, Arak, Son of Thunder. While two Conan Annuals present some of Thomas' last Conan work for the next ten years or so, a young J.M. de Matteis does nothing to embarass himself here on the included issues of the monthly book: but Marvel's Conan was, like a a lot of other Marvel comics of the time, pretty bland gruel.

Long-time Conan artist John Buscema was only doing breakdowns by this point, leaving it to other inkers to put perhaps too much of a hard edge on the final art (Buscema was apparently chronically dissatisfied with Ernie Chan's work as an inker/finisher which, given the eternal perversity of Marvel Comics, probably explains why Chan finished so much Buscema work). Chan would be a good inker for Buscema if super-heroes were involved but on Conan a lighter hand (or maybe a moodier one like Alfredo Alcala) would have added some sorcery to the cleanly, blandly depicted swordplay.

I'll tell you, though, Buscema really had problems with drawing horses. And don't get me started on the Manotaur, a creature as badly designed as its name was badly chosen. Only recommended for Conan completists.

Duets

21 Jump Street: based on the television series created by Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh, written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill; directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; starring Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Mollie), Dave Franco (Eric), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters) and Ice Cube (Captain Dickson) (2012): Hilarious comedy reboot of the not-so-good 1980's TV series that introduced Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco to the world. Cops pretend to be teenagers and bust crimes at a high school. What could go wrong?

Almost obsessively filthy-mouthed, the movie makes good use of Jonah Hill's weirdly earnest nebbish personality by setting it off against Channing Tatum's seemingly dumb but well-meaning jock. They weren't friends in high school, but they become so in police academy. And now they're assigned to take down the suppliers of a dangerous new super-drug at a local high school. Will they also purge the demons that have haunted them since senior year?

Ice Cube swears and fulminates as the captain. Dave Franco stirs up echoes of the early, burn-out charm of his older brother James. Actors from the TV series make surprise cameos. Hill again shows his gift for slapstick, but Tatum also demonstrates comic timing and physical prowess. Who knew he was funny? Oh, and a guy gets his dick shot off. Also, Korean Jesus. Recommended.



The Raven: written by Richard Matheson, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Roger Corman; starring Vincent Price (Craven), Peter Lorre (Bedlo), Boris Karloff (Scarabus), Jack Nicholson (Rexford Bedlo), Hazel Court (Lenore) and Olive Sturgess (Estelle Craven) (1963): Screenwriter Richard Matheson is an American treasure for his short stories, novels, and screenplay work, pretty much all in the thriller, horror, and fantasy genres. You can look him up.

Here, he takes Edgar Allan Poe's poem and turns it into a horror-comedy about dueling wizards (Karloff and Price), a snivelling second banana (Lorre), and a shockingly young Jack NIcholson as a young romantic lead. The wizard's duel is witty and surprisingly good-looking given the technical and budgetary limitations the film faced. Roger Corman's direction is relatively sharp. The acting is pretty much all first-rate, with Karloff uncharcteristically loose and funny as the nefarious Scarabus.

Price is great as he usually was. Holy crap, though, The Raven really highlights his height -- Price, an uncharacteristic-for-Hollywood 6'4" towers over 5'11" Karloff and dwarfs the 5'5" Lorre. Everyone seems to be having a good time, and Matheson even sneaks in a reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie he had nothing to do with. The only creepy moments involve the really nice make-up design on a couple of corpses. And by 'nice', I mean 'grotesque.' Recommended.

Get on the Bus

Inspector Morse 1: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (1975): Before Inspector Morse became a beloved PBS franchise that would have its own acclaimed run of episodes and then two spin-off series currently on the air, it was a series of mystery novels by Colin Dexter.

This first installment shows Dexter's early brilliance in combining an American mystery trope (the hard-drinking, tarnished knight of a detective) with the enduring British trope of the detective story per: Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Detective-Inspector Morse is moody, mercurial, and the highest of all high-functioning alcoholics. He solves crimes in and around the Oxford University area, which apparently has the highest murder rate east of Detroit.

In Last Bus to Woodstock, he teams up with stoic, salt-of-the-Earth Detective-Sergeant Lewis for the first time, a match made in heaven as Lewis remains grounded and methodical even as Morse's investigation wanders all over the map. Morse, erudite and self-pitying, almost blows the case, in part by doing something that would definitely blow the case if he did it and was found out in a contemporary investigation. Lewis puts up with insults and Morse's occasionally bizarre need to keep secrets from his own partner until he's proven right. Like many self-pitying people, Morse has an enormous ego and an attendant fear of appearing to be wrong or misguided.

But Morse is also devastatingly insightful, which explains why he's stayed on the force so long. He's also a lonely bastard throughout this first novel. Dexter's portrayal of both character and British police procedure is top-notch, and the novel never less than engaging.

While it's set in the relatively recent mid-1970's, the novel gives us a mystery that simply couldn't happen today thanks to changes in society and technology. It's a murder that relies to a great extent upon the difficulty of making a truly private telephone call in Oxford circa 1975. Lend it to your kids to show them what telecommunications was like in the Oldey Timey days. Skype would scuttle the entire plot. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gods in New York

The Eternals Volume 2: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer (1977; collected 2006): Jack Kirby's loopy, inspired riff on Chariots of the Gods comes to an early end, to be revived approximately every ten years afterwards by other people, including Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. on a real dud of a 2006 revival.

While the 2000-foot-tall alien Celestials continue to wander around Earth as part of their 50-year judgment, the Eternals and their foes the Deviants continue to mix it up on a variety of fronts. We follow Eternal Thena and her two Deviant charges, liberated from the Deviant gladiator pits, as they track down a time-travel menace in New York. An unnamed Eternal dubbed The Forgotten One struggles to stop an ill-advised Deviant assault on the Celestial mothership orbiting Earth.

Phew, what else. An ancient mind-controlling menace gets released from its prison below New York, and even the Eternals know fear. A science project designed to look like the Hulk gets animated by cosmic rays and proceeds to destroy New York. Man, New York takes a pounding. Admittedly, as the home of many of Marvel's heroes, it really should be completely depopulated by the late 1970's. How many times can Galactus show up on your streets before you get the message?

Kirby continues to follow different groups on different adventures, often ignoring other protagonists for several issues. It's highly unusual for a Marvel comic book of the time, but it does allow Kirby to develop a large variety of characters. It certainly died too soon. Recommended.

Sex Change

Next Men: Scattered: written and illustrated by John Byrne (2011): 15 years after the last issue of John Byrne's Next Men ended on a cliffhanger, Byrne finally finishes the story, starting here. You'd be well advised to read IDW's two phone-book-sized collections of the original series, and more recently than I did. The first new issue does supply a fairly rapid-fire synopsis of the first run, but even then I was a bit fuzzy on what had come before.

The four issues included here launch the comic into a wild time-travel story that recalls Byrne's brilliant, under-rated OMAC miniseries of the early 1990's in its complexity. It's fascinating and fun and unresolved, partially because some of the story may be a virtual reality fantasy. Other bits may be dreams. And several of the timelines we're shown seem to contradict one another, suggesting that we're looking at multiple timelines created by different alterations in the past occuring at different times. Got all that?

Byrne's art looks sharp, and the writing is solid. Whether or not our genetically engineered superheroes can save the world from the megalomaniacal energy vampire that one of them accidentally empowered through sexual contact remains to be seen. Yes, super-powers are a sexually transmitted disease. Seems reasonable. Recommended for readers of the previous series.

Happily Ever After, In Hell

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels (1995): Pagels adapts some of her scholarly material on the social dynamics of early Christianity into a book for laypersons, with admirable results. The origins recounted here are not of the mythological variety; rather, Pagels explores the human and social origins of Satan in particular and demons in general.

Part of this exploration must go into the Old Testament, in which "the satan" was an angel of the Lord tasked with putting obstacles in the path of a good person who was straying. The Book of Job and subsequent works gradually altered this dynamic, making the satan -- or perhaps just Satan -- into an angel who tests the faithful. But it wouldn't be until the development of various first-century cults, and ultimately Christianity, that an actual independent Adversary of God would arise.

Pagels clearly explains, develops, and supports her argument as we move through the synoptic Gospels and other early books of the New Testament. Christianity tended to demonize its early opponents, first the Jews and then heretical components of early Christianity, especially those with Gnostic tendencies.

The demonization of the Jews in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John increases as a component of how long after Christ's life they were written; the guilt of the Roman authorities decreases along the same timeline, until Pilate -- historically a real bastard of a Prefect, even for Roman Prefects -- has become an ineffectual man who sought to save Jesus, a portrayal that seems extraordinarily unlikely given the non-Biblical historical record's evidence both of how the Roman Empire worked and how Pilate himself governed.

And by demonize, Pagels means to literally demonize -- religious opponents of Christianity were the servants, pawns, and possessed creatures of the newly posited cosmic evil of Satan and his angels; the universe itself was a battleground for actual demonic forces and the forces of Good, though one where the battle was already won by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Even the word 'demon' was a demonization of the Latinized Greek term for non-human spirits who were not necessarily good or evil.

All in all, clearly written and extremely informative. As noted, this is not a mythological exploration per se, but instead a sociological and social one with applications that range far beyond early Christianity through the discussion of how particular religions construct the face of the enemy, and make 'it' inhuman. Satan is as much human as angel. Highly recommended.

Skulls and Bones

Solomon Kane: Skulls in the Stars: written by Robert E. Howard and Ramsey Campbell containing the following stories: "Skulls in the Stars:, "The Right Hand of Doom", "Red Shadows", "Rattle of Bones", "The Castle of the Devil", "The Moon of Skulls", "The One Black Stain", "Blades of the Brotherhood." (1928-1968; Collected 1979): Solomon Kane was Conan-creator Robert E. Howard's 16th-century Puritan monster-fighter whose adventures ranged from the English moors to deepest, darkest, most fictional Africa, there not actually being a lot of vampire cities in real Africa. That we know of. Because Solomon Kane wiped them all out.

Unlike Conan, whose battles against evil came mostly came as a by-product of his battles for money and power, Kane intentionally sought out evil. Howard is already more canny at a young age (the Kane stories were all written before the age of 25) than many pulp writers ever are: there are a number of fascinating writerly observations about Kane's personality throughout these tales, most of them about Kane's non-self-aware fanaticism and its pros and cons when it comes to fighting evil.

Kane is obsessive, and his faith is unshakeable -- and it often seems that that unshakeable faith brings powerful forces to his aid when he needs it. He can, however, fight his way out of almost any situation. And unlike Conan, he has the benefits of gunpowder and muskets.

Ramsey Campbell does a nearly seamless job of finishing up one Kane fragment ("The Castle of the Devil") in this late 1970's collection. The rest of the stories (and one poem) were finished by Howard himself, with the remaining Kane stories and fragments in a second volume. The adventures here aren't quite as fantastic as those in the second volume. Kane fights 'normal' brigands in one story, while in another the foes are human and the help from an African magician the only magical part of the narrative.

Howard's racism is noticeable throughout, though later stories set in Africa would make Africans much more sympathetic as Kane battled to save tribespeople from supernatural threats (again with the help of the canny African magician he first meets here). The action is involving, the portrayal of Kane fascinating, and the events sometimes move into the realm of the epic. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Needs Repairs

Aftershock and Other Stories by F. Paul Wilson (1990-2008; collected 2009): Wilson is the sort of literal-minded champion of plain-style prose whom some fans of fantasy and science fiction go completely gaga for. Stylistically, he makes Stephen King look like Thomas Ligotti and Thomas Ligotti look like James Joyce, thus pushing James Joyce into another prose universe altogether. At his best, he's a competent writer with some interesting ideas. He's also blazingly fast. If you don't like the new F. Paul Wilson novel, wait six months and read the next one.

Wilson promises in the notes included with this collection of short pieces that this will be his last original collection of short stories and novellas, as he's lost interest in the form. This claim may be a good thing if Wilson sticks to it, as the stories here range from the competent (the bafflingly award-winning title story) to the thuddingly bland (that would be at least half the collection). If the ideas aren't strong and strongly developed, Wilson has nowhere to fall back -- his is a plain and often cliche-ridden style with a tendency towards personal macro-phrases that pop up again and again in his work along with certain tropes and plot mechanisms.

For instance, a lot of women in Wilson's universe have breasts that are not too small and not too big but just a perfect handful. Common criminals tend to be physically ugly. Horror stories often centre around the punishment of a lazy male, sometimes guilty of murder, sometimes guilty of, um, laziness enabled by inherited money or the occasional bout of physical incompetence that the universe inevitably punishes with death. Most people other than the heroes and their close acquaintances tend to be either scum or sheep, something one sees in Wilson's Repairman Jack novels as well.

After all, Wilson has won about a million Prometheus Awards for fiction that champions the libertarian ideal. And Wilson's introductions and notes here show us just how concerned he is with productivity and money. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and apparently a lot of people like relatively unornamented, occasionally sentimental prose. So it goes. Not recommended.

Undead Puritans in the Hands of an Angry God

Showcase Presents The Spectre Volume 1: written by Gardner Fox, Neal Adams, Steve Skeates, Michael Fleisher and others; illustrated by Murphy Anderson, Jerry Grandenetti, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Jim Starlin and others (1966-1983; collected 2012): The first collection of the Spectre's Silver- and Bronze-Age adventures at DC Comics is quite a bargain at over 600 pages for less than $20. It's also a bargain because of the 20-year period spanned by the collection. It's like a miniature cross-section of DC Comics in three different decades.

The Spectre was created in 1940 by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Baily. He began as a murdered detective -- Jim Corrigan -- who was brought back to a sort of un-life by a mysterious voice whom most writers have strongly hinted was God.

Charged by the voice with seeking revenge on evil, Corrigan found himself host to one of the odder-looking superheroes of any age of comics, the Spectre. He seems to be dressed in white with green trunks, cape, hood, and boots. He isn't. The white part is the Spectre's body colour, ectoplasm or dead white flesh, depending on the writer. Yeesh.

The Spectre started off as judge, jury, and often very creative executioner. But he wasn't all that popular, though I've always been a bit confused about how companies assessed popularity in the 1940's comic-book industry. The Spectre never had his own book, and his adventures were usually eight to ten page shorts published in the anthology book More Fun Comics. They don't title comics the way they used to!

In any case, the powers that be at the comic-book company that would eventually be known as DC Comics soon changed the tone of the Spectre's adventures and paired him with a comic sidekick who eventually became the lead in the strip, with the Spectre as a helpful ghost. It was quite a comedown. The Spectre continued to act more like his original self in the Justice Society's adventures, but the late 1940's and early 1950's would soon end the ghostly creature's adventures.

Then came the Silver Age, and two Earths of DC characters, one being established as the home of the Golden-Age versions of everyone from Superman to Green Arrow. And finally the Spectre returned in the mid-1960's, less vengeful and more cosmic, in what seemed to be an attempt to emulate Marvel's supernatural hero Dr. Strange. The literal-minded Murphy Anderson was mysteriously chosen for the first few adventures collected here, written by the high-speed human typewriter of DC's Silver Age, Gardner Fox. They're certainly interesting stories, though the Spectre is a bit off a stiff. And not in a good way.

Different artists and writers followed in relatively quick succession, all sticking to the Spectre's new role as loveable cosmic avenger. Only towards the end of the Spectre's short-lived 1960's series does the character's vengeful streak come out, resulting in the hero being reprimanded by that Voice again just prior to cancellation.

There's some splendid cosmic art here from Neal Adams, along with some weird stuff from Jerry Grandenetti, who seems to be channeling the art of Dr. Strange's Steve Ditko in some of his more outlandish character designs, and the spirit of unintelligibility in some of his weirder page and panel layouts. Grandenetti can't make undead Puritans scary but he gives it the old college try, God bless him.

Five years after that 1969 cancellation came the character's post-Golden-Age career highlight: ten adventures in Adventure Comics (briefly retitled Weird Adventure) written by Michael Fleisher with help from Russell Carey and mostly illustrated by perennial Batman artist Jim Aparo. Fleisher returned the Spectre to his violent roots, in the process getting away with a surprising amount of graphic violence for a 1970's comic book.

The Spectre turned people into wood and then buzz-sawed them into pieces. He reduced them to skeletons. He melted them into screaming pools of dying goo. He cut them in half with giant scissors. He chopped them up with flying cleavers, fed them to alligators, and had magically animated stuffed gorillas tear them limb from limb. It was awesome.

Aparo illustrated all this with a weirdly unsettling matter-of-fact style augmented by suggestion rather than illustration at certain points due to the censorious Comics Code Authority: scissors man, for instance, is shown as being cut in half at the waist, but curtains are wrapped around the character below that waist. The empty area where the legs were is just a deflated expanse of curtain. Fleisher also works around things by having a character turned to wood before being segmented into pancakes of flesh, though Showcase's B&W reprint eliminates the colouring that made the character woody in the original publication. Now he's just a pile of flapjacks made out of person. Mmm.

After Fleisher and Aparo's delightful run (also collected on its own, in colour), the Spectre returned to a slightly less violent form of himself, guarding the boundaries of the universe and playing nice with other superheroes. The character's recurring omnipotence and near-omnipotence always seems to make him a hard sell. Later attempts at Spectre solo books have run longer than the attempts here, but none of them for that long.

The character has been rebooted an astonishing number of times, with different characters (including Green Lantern Hal Jordan during his dead phase) acting as hosts for the Spectre. Different explanations have been given for the Spectre's role in the universe, and why he needs a human host in the first place (short explanation: the Spectre, God's second attempt at a cosmic spirit of vengeance, goes completely loopy without a human host to ground him). As of 2012, he seems to be back again as the deceased Jim Corrigan, and sorta pissed about it. At least he's not comic relief. Yet. Recommended.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Screaming and Eels

The Woman in Black: adapted by Jane Goldman from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill; directed by James Watkins; starring Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps) and Ciaran Hinds (Daily) (2012): By all rights, this should be a movie about a young, early-20th-century British solicitor who travels to a small English sea-side town only to discover the town deserted, the residents all having moved to the United States, or perhaps even the Moon.

Given what's going on in the gloomy English east-coast town of Crythin Gifford, nobody would continue to live there. I don't care how good the fishing is. So one has to take this improbability and run with it, as one sometimes must when the devil vomits into one's tea-kettle.

Set just prior to World War One, The Woman in Black follows Daniel Radcliffe as that young solicitor, a widower whose wife died giving birth to their now-4-year-old son. Radcliffe isn't done any services by the early part of the film, during which he plays chronic grief as if it were chronic constipation.

He gets better as he's allowed to emote more, though he never seems to emote quite enough under the circumstances, which involve an isolated, supremely creepy mansion; children who keep committing "suicide" by jumping out windows, drinking lye, or lighting themselves on fire; a serial-child-killing ghost who enjoys screaming and sudden bursts of quick movement; a room full of creepy toys and an extremely disturbing rocking chair; and the tormented and occasionally screaming ghosts of dozens of dead children.

Both the movie and the novel it's based on are homages to something more literary than filmic -- the classic British ghost story as practiced by writers that include J. Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James. The mansion is the scariest character here, a marvel of set design, with the ghosts and the mise-en-scene coming a close second: a lot of the scares in the movie rely on something somewhat indistinct edging into the background before becoming more distinct and/or getting closer and closer...

Ciaran Hinds really has the only other role in this movie with any substantial lines, as a resident of the town who's been touched by tragedy but persists in not believing in ghosts. Also, he has a motor car that comes in handy towards the end. But would anyone be surprised that a place named Eel Marsh House is a bad place? Anyone? Recommended.

The Return

The Best Years of Our Lives: adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from the novel by MacKinlay Kantor; directed by William Wyler; starring Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle) and Cathy O'Donnell (Wilma Cameron) (1946): Winner of multiple Oscars -- including a Best Supporting Actor nod and a Special Oscar for Harold Russell, the real wounded WWII veteran who does lovely work here.

The Best Years of Our Lives feels at once fresh and Golden Age Hollywood, with sharp performances and a pointed script centered around the difficulties faced by both veterans and their families upon the homecoming of American troops from World War Two. The three male leads, played by Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Russell, face different problems: Andrews doesn't have a job available for him despite the fact that he's the highest ranking of the three; March is a banker who's suddenly and painfully aware of social and class issues; and Russell must cope with both the loss of his hands and people's reactions to that loss (including his own reactions to those reactions).

The stories of those three are woven together, along with those of their loved ones, into a bundle that may seem a bit too neat at the end, though it holds together better than a lot of contemporary studio films. It's a view into a foreign country of the past with the familiar of our time just beginning to surface (the chain drugstore that offers everything and has bought out the privately owned town drug store being one example of both the familiar and the long-lost, as the drug store still has a soda jerk). Post-traumatic stress disorder, a term that hadn't even been created yet, touches the lives of all three soldiers, as does their occasional resentment of those who didn't have to go to war.

But there's also the essential displacement felt by men who've been so long away -- March hasn't seen his wife or children in five years; Andrews has been away at war for far, far longer than he was at home with his married wife (Virginia Mayo) , the two of them having gotten married on the spur of the moment just before he shipped out, only a week after they'd met (!).

Russell's struggle is made especially poignant because it's obviously a real struggle; his work with his prosthetic hooks is so deft at times that one understands the surprise of many of the characters when they first see that deftness -- and Russell's character's desire to be treated like everybody else. There's an essential sweetness to him and to his story, as there is to all of the stories here.

William Wyler's direction concentrates on the performances -- there's nothing showy here, and Wyler prefers to keep the camera on his characters with little or no movement to highlight those performances. Myrna Loy does a lovely, warmly comic turn as March's wife. Teresa Wright is bright and earnest as March's now-grown-up daughter, and Mayo is shallow but understandably dissatisfied as Andrews' wife. Really a splendid, moving film. Highly recommended.

Sean Penn Not Included

Dead Men Walk: written by Fred Myton; directed by Sam Newfield; starring George Zucco (Dr. Lloyd Clayton/ Dr. Elwyn Clayton), Mary Carlisle (Gayle Clayton), Nedrick Young (Dr. David Bentley) and Dwight Frye (Zolarr) (1943): Noticeably cheap B-movie from PRC, the bargain basement of 1940's film production, Dead Men Walk takes place on about five sets. Maybe four. One of them is a patch of 'forest' that is apparently exactly as wide as will fill the screen when it's filmed.

The oddly famous George Zucco plays the two main characters, good Dr. Lloyd Clayton and evil vampire Dr. Elwyn Clayton. You can tell them apart because Lloyd wears glasses except when he doesn't, which is on at least four occasions by my count.

There's nothing really good about this movie, though it does feature some of the most inept vampire-fighting ever put on screen and Zucco is competent in his dual role. A fiery climax is surprisingly realistic looking, making one wonder if someone accidentally set fire to the sets and the director said to Hell with it and just started filming.

The fact that the young male love interest for Lloyd's vampire-beset niece is named Dr. David Bentley will be funny to a lot of UWO English department graduates. Weirdly compelling and only 62 minutes long, though not exactly recommended.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Early Adventures of Moore and Davis

Captain Britain: Jasper's Warp: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Alan Davis (1982-83; 2005): Alan Moore wrote one Marvel Comics character, and that was a character who at the time of the writing was almost exclusively only seen in Marvel's occasionally bizarre UK line: Captain Britain.

It's not Moore's first comic-book work, or even his first work on someone else's character. Nonetheless, this collection of Moore's Captain Britain work is fascinating both as a better-than-average early 1980's superhero story and as a foreshadowing of some of the themes and plot twists that would soon define Moore's career.

Moore picks up the narrative half-way through a story started by another writer, with Captain Britain and a ragtag bunch of friends and acquaintances trying to jump-start the development of a parallel Earth (Earth-238 to be exact; normal Marvel Earth is 616). Things rapidly go FUBAR.

As some of the pleasure of this volume lies in the plot twists, including the very early ones, that's really all I can say about the events of this volume. We do get some pretty wacky stuff -- the Captain Britains of all the parallel Earths essentially form a Captain Britain Corps charged with protecting the Omniverse from destruction. Of course, they're not really the Captain Britain Corps because not all of them are named Captain Britain: we meet Captain U.K., Captain Albion, Captain England, Captain Airstrip-One...and I'm not joking about that last one.

Moore seems more fully formed here than his artistic collaborator, Alan Davis, whose first major comic-book work this is. But the volume is worth looking at for Davis as well, and maybe moreso if one enjoys his pleasing, Neal Adams-influenced art (though Davis was and is a much better panel-to-panel storyteller than Adams ever was). Davis grows with astonishing rapidity here, and by the end of the volume he's recognizably entering his mature phase as an illustrator.

My one complaint...what the Hell went on with lettering in the Marvel UK line in the 1980's? This might actually be the worst lettered comic-book from a mainstream company I've ever read. Perhaps later editions fixed this problem with re-lettering. Boy, is it awful. Nonetheless, recommended.