Friday, December 25, 2009

Jaromir Jagr Superman Mullet


The Tower by Simon Clark: More horror goodness from Clark. A nascent rock band gets a gig house-sitting "the most haunted house in England" for a month. I'm pretty sure you can figure out the basics of what happens next. Yes, everything goes swimmingly and everyone goes for punch and pie at the end. Well, no. Clark's flair for sympathetic characterization pretty much carries the day here -- it's that more than anything else that causes people to compare him to Stephen King. Recommended.

Penguin American Supernatural Tales edited by S.T. Joshi (c. 2006): As one-volume horror survey volumes go, this is probably the best I've ever read. As always, one notes omitted authors (no Edith Wharton, for example), but in this case Joshi does a terrific job of juggling great but much-anthologized works by major writers (Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" to name two), lesser-known works by well-known writers ("Night Surf" by Stephen King and "The Events at Poroth Farm" by TED Klein, to name another two), and fine work from semi-obscure major writers (it's always a pleasure to see work by Thomas Ligotti and Karl Edward Wagner, especially work I haven't read before, and a terrific tale by Caitlin Kiernan closes the volume). The whole thing will run you about $13 in trade paperback for over 400 pages of stories and notes, so I'd say highest recommendation.

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (2nd. edition) edited by August Derleth and somebody else (c. 1980): This anthology of tales by H.P. Lovecraft and others originally appeared around 1970 and then got released again after Derleth's death in the late 1970's with a handful of stories added and some subtracted. The volume gives one a pretty good overview of the growth of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (not named by him but by Derleth after Lovecraft's death in 1937) from its early 'shared world' status to a veritable cottage industry in the horror world by the late 1970's. The selection here is a bit wonky, primarily because somebody decided we should see the whole literary game of oneupsmanship between the young Robert (Psycho) Bloch and Lovecraft in the 1930's, as first Bloch killed a thinly disguised Lovecraft in "The Shambler from the Stars" and then Lovecraft returned the favour in "The Haunter of the Dark" and then Bloch added a coda in the late 1940's with "The Shadow from the Steeple."

With those two stories and the excellent "Notes Found in a Deserted House", Bloch gets three entries in the collection -- one more than Lovecraft! Clark Ashton Smith's "The Return of the Sorcerer" is another odd choice, though I do love the inclusion of Frank Belknap Long's "The Space-Eaters", wherein yet another thinly disguised Lovecraft gets killed off in a story that only an Evil-Dead-era Sam Raimi could probably do justice to. The inclusion of Philip Jose Farmer's "The Freshman" is nice, as is the decision to include a Fritz Leiber novella I'd never read before, "The Terror from the Depths." All in all, highly recommended for those who like their horror cosmic and occasionally quite verbose.


John Byrne's Compleat Next Men Volume 2 by John Byrne with Mike Mignola (1995-96; collected 2008): By the time Byrne created Next Men, then published by Dark Horse and here reprinted by IDW, he already had career-defining runs as artist and co-plotter on the X-Men, and as writer/artist on the Fantastic Four and Superman, on his resume among a variety of other projects. The speculator-fueled comic-book collapse of the mid-1990's ended Next Men two-thirds into its story, though this volume that completes the run does have an ending of a sorts.

This may be Byrne's best work, and it bears comparison with the revisionist superheroic stories like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns that preceded it. With Next Men, Byrne creates a world of plausible superheroes played out within a world of government conspiracies and time-travelling super-villains. Powered individuals are created by a genetic 'trigger' in all humans, intentionally triggered under lab conditions and then uncontrollably spreading through sexual contact. By the year 2112, humans and 'mutates' are at war -- and that's just the beginning of the story (or maybe the end), as we then move back to the 1990's and the liberation of the Next Men from the virtual world their creators have kept their minds trapped within for entire generations of mutates.

The story moves like an angry train towards its (sort of) conclusion -- this is probably Byrne's most tightly plotted comic-book work -- but Byrne finds plenty of time to develop his characters both foul and fair, and to speculate on just how much fun it would be to be invulnerable at the price of losing all physical feeling, or super-strong when that strength makes it almost impossible for you to touch another person. Highly recommended.

Justice League of America: A Midsummer's Nightmare by Mark Waid, Fabian Nicienza, Jeff Johnson and Darick Robertson (1996): This miniseries kicked off the mid-1990's revival of DC's Justice League of America title, a revival which would see Grant Morrison, Waid and primarily artist Howard Porter make JLA a top-selling book again, in part by having it focus on DC's big names (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman chief among them) rather than the revolving-door, increasingly minor hero lineups that always seem to be the fate of any book involving the League. The Justice League confronts a villain old (Doctor Destiny) and new (Know Man) in what reads like a blueprint for the rebooted regular JLA title that would follow. About the only off-putting thing about the whole enterprise is that Superman is still in his ridiculous post-Death of Superman mullet, which he puts into a ponytail when he's Clark Kent. Seriously. It's like DC was gearing up to have a grunge Superman but balked at the last moment, leaving us with early 1990's Jaromir Jagr Superman.

JLA Classified: Kid Amazo by Peter Milligan and Carlos D'Ensa (c.2007): Amazo is one of those JLA-specific villains who's almost impossible to write well. But everyone eventually writes an Amazo story. Amazo is an android designed with all the powers of the Justice League, which begs the question of where this thing is getting all that power from. I don't think anyone's ever answered that question satisfactorily, though better post-Silver-Age writers have either limited Amazo's powers in some way or, in Mark Millar's case, used them to set up a fairly funny superhero joke, as superhero jokes go.

Milligan here goes the route of Amazo possessing the powers of the JLA's big 7 (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) while Amazo 2.0 -- or 'Kid Amazo' -- is a cyborg who has all those powers too but also possesses the ability to think exactly like all the members of the JLA. This all pretty quickly degenerates into a standard issue grim-and-gritty JLA story that seems as if it were penned in the late 1980's, as the heroes squabble and Kid Amazo (who didn't know who he really was for several years) finds out he's been screwing his 'mother' for several months...and she knew about it. Fun stuff! Amazo's creator gets away at the end and all the heroes act really pissy for much of the story. Milligan's a fine writer on a lot of stuff, but standard superheroes really aren't his forte. Really, really not recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dave Stieb vs. Roy Halladay: The Road to Victory

I'd actually forgotten how good Dave Stieb was over his first 12 years. Unfortunately, Year 13 brought the injuries that limited him to ten more wins for his entire career, so in a weird way Stieb, like Roy Halladay, pretty much left the Toronto Blue Jays after 12 seasons. Dig those crazy 80's complete-game numbers!

Dave Stieb's first 12 seasons with the Jays:

3.39 ERA
1.21 WHIP
1557 SO
2666.1 innings pitched
101 complete games

Roy Halladay's 12 seasons with the Jays:

3.43 ERA
1.198 WHIP
1495 SO
2046.2 innings pitched
49 complete games

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Defiance, Inkheart, Stone of Destiny

Defiance starring Liev Schrieber and Daniel Craig, directed by Edward Zwick (2009): This is a very well-intentioned movie about how the Bielski brothers saved hundreds of Eastern European Jews during World War Two by escaping the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and establishing a community in the forests of Poland and Belorussia. Director and co-writer Zwick previously dealt with a little-known aspect of war in Glory, which focused on the efforts and sacrifices of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

Here, he gives us Jews killing Nazis and collaborators and, occasionally, one another in what I'm sure some wag somewhere has described as a real-life version of Inglourious Basterds. It's a grim but hopeful film, marred somewhat by a cliched ending and by its own over-length. Things drag quite a bit in the middle, and about 20 minutes of judicious editing could have made this quite a gripping film. Craig and Schrieber are good as the bickering senior Bielski brothers, while Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell holds up well as the youngest of the brothers.

The Stone of Destiny starring Charlie Cox and Robert Carlisle, written and directed by Charles Martin Smith (2009): Based on a true story, this amiable, well-acted caper comedy about the attempt of four twenty-somethings to steal back Scotland's Stone of Destiny from the British in 1950. The stone is Scotland's long-standing symbol of royalty, which is why the British walked off with it in the 13th century and never gave it back, instead eventually incorporating it into the British Coronation Throne.

Against a backdrop of rising cries for greater Scottish political independence from Great Britain, a group of college students decide to try to do what others have failed at over the centuries -- repatriate the stone, in this case from Westminster Abbey. Various shenanigans ensue, including problems related to sneaking a 600-pound block of sandstone out of Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve. Short (96 minutes) and to the point. Writer/director Smith was Toad in American Graffiti and Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, and parts of the film were worked on in British Columbia.

Inkheart starring Brendan Fraser and Andy Serkis, directed by Iain Softley (2009): Based on a children's series I'd never heard of until the movie came out and dumped somewhat unceremoniously by its studio in the wastelands of February, this movie is a fairly light-hearted fantasy that's much better than I expected it to be. Fraser plays Mort, a 'Silvertongue' who can read characters and objects out of books if he reads them aloud at the price of sometimes sending something from the real world into a book.

Unfortunately, he accidentally released a number of characters from a fantasy novel called Inkheart nine years previous to the events of the movie, also trapping his wife inside the novel, leaving him to raise their daughter alone. Inkheart is so out of print that he's spent nine years trying to find another copy while the villains, led by Andy Serkis's Capricorn, have been enjoying crime in the real world, and Paul Bettany's somewhat cowardly, fire-starting juggler has been trying to track down Mort with the aid of a highly intelligent ferret to get both of them back into the book.

Various shenanigans ensue in this surprisingly low-key and relatively intelligent movie, as various creatures from mythology and stories (including Toto, the Minotaur and the crocodile from Peter Pan) try to help or hinder Mort in his quest to save his wife and stop Capricorn from releasing the Big Bad of the world of Inkheart, The Shadow, into our world. Not a great movie, but diverting and fairly well-acted by Serkis, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent as the reclusive author of Inkheart.

When Adults Attack


Blood Crazy by Simon Clark: This novel is a dandy apocalyptic thriller, equal parts Stephen King and John Wyndham with a little New Agey cuckoobanana psychology thrown in. One fine day, everyone everywhere over the age of 18 starts trying to kill everyone 18 and younger. Yikes! The narrative follows protagonist Nick Aten as he first tries just to survive, and then tries to figure out what's going on and why.

The problems of organizing teenagers into viable survival groups allow for some Lord of the Flies-style shenanigans, while the travails of various survival groups in combatting the increasingly organized but ant-like adults also allows for much angst and action. The explanation for the situation reminds me a lot of group and mass psychology tropes from 60's science fiction, especially Dune, Quatermass and the Pit, and a Doctor Who serial called "The Daemons." All in all, a dandy, compulsively readable novel from Clark, whom I grow more fond of with each new novel.

Comics Collection:

Essential Doctor Strange Volume 4 by Roger Stern, Chris Claremont, Gene Colan, Marshall Rogers and several other writers and artists (c.1976-1981, Collected 2009): The relatively brief Stern/Rogers run on Doctor Strange was one of the good Doctor's career highlights. Well, actually anything written by Stern is a career highlight -- he's Doc's second-best writer after Stan Lee. Claremont (long-time X-Men writer) takes Doc a bit too far into the realms of self-pity, but Stern gets him back again.

My only real complaint about the volume (other than the non-ending to the year-long Dweller in Darkness story, caused, I assume, by Stern being replaced by Claremont for a couple of years) is that it features the semi-famous Marvel House Ad from 1981 that promised us Frank Miller taking over the art chores on the book. Now there's a fascinating 'What if?' scenario, as Miller never did make it over to Dr. Strange.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Spiritus Mundane

The Spirit starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johannsen and Eva Mendes, directed by Frank Miller (2008): With adaptations of Miller's comics 300 and Sin City having scored high on the Hollywood coolness factor (though personally I find 300 boring and not a little detestable), it was probably inevitable that he'd get to direct a film himself, especially as he was listed as co-director on Sin City.

Why the powers that be decided to have him co-write and direct an adaptation of Will Eisner's beloved and seminal Spirit series from the 1940's is a good question. Miller interviewed Eisner for Eisner/Miller (a nod to Hitchcock/Truffaut), and has been compared to Eisner throughout his career. This movie, though...whew, what a mess. An enjoyable mess, but a mess nonetheless.

The original Spirit series is justifiably famous for the way it pushed the early boundaries of 'how' comic books worked both structurally and narratively. In a lot of Spirit stories, the eponymous hero -- a cop left for dead who's returned as a hero -- is secondary to a short story about another character. In others, the Spirit is essentially second-banana to some boundary-pushing on the graphics front, perhaps no better epitomized than in the increasingly complicated splash pages in which the Spirit's name would be worked into some complicated representation of the story one was about to read.

The Spirit was also fairly tongue-in-cheek about heroics and super-heroics -- the Spirit's only 'power' was his ability to take a beating. The Eisner Studios surrounded its hero with a variety of femme fatales with suggestive or even simply comic names (Sand Saref and Plaster of Paris both show up in the movie), rendered in full 40's vavavoomity.

Basically, if you want an idea of what made The Spirit special, pick up DC's The Best of the Spirit. It'll run you less than $20, and it's a darned good volume. But the movie...

First off, the unknown Gabriel Macht -- who plays The Spirit -- isn't to blame for this mess. I actually thought he did a pretty good job with the messily characterized hero that was written for him, a hero whose portrayal jumps all over the map, from campy to straight to satire to, well, I don't know what. It's a godawful mess of writing, as if Miller couldn't decide whether he loved the material or hated everything about it and comic books in general, a sourness that's certainly been there in Miller's comics work for a couple of decades now.

The movie looks great at points. The femmes fatale look great. The narrative is silly and jumbled. Samuel Jackson is a nightmare of tics and yelling as super-criminal The Octopus, a character we never actually saw (except for a cigarette) in the Spirit series, and which we see way too much of here. There's some gratuitous Nazi stuff that makes no sense. And the whole thing has been lifted out of its era and plunked down into one of those anomalous movie landscapes in which cellphones and massive helicopters exist side-by-side with 40's clothing, hairstyles and faux-40's-noir dialogue.

All in all, a mess. Enjoyable at points, but a mess.

Friday, December 4, 2009

'X' Hits the Spot


New X-Men: 'E' is for Extinction; Imperial; New Worlds; Riot at Xavier's; Assault on Weapon Plus; Planet X; Here Comes Tomorrow: Written by Grant Morrison, Illustrated by Frank Quitely, Phil Jiminez, Chris Bachalo, Igor Kordey, Ethan Van Sciver, Marc Silvestri and others (2001-2004): Grant Morrison's early 21st-century run on New X-Men turned out to be one long, almost self-contained story, so I'm reviewing all 1,000 pages or so of it at once for my second time through it.

Morrison has often been portrayed as the mad, metatextual genius of the superhero comic book, but for all that, his runs on X-Men, Batman and JLA have been big sales successes with at least one eye on the past history of those books. His X-Men, premiering after the successful first X-Men movie, nods at least passingly to new readers more familiar with the movie than the comics, putting the X-men into leather outfits rather than their traditional superheroic garb. That done, Morrison takes off at a gallop through both classic characters and situations from the X-men's heyday of the late 1970's and early 1980's and newly introduced twists, turns and extrapolations of the all the familar tropes of the X-universe and of superhero comics.

And so the Phoenix returns, Magneto apparently dies, Cyclops has relationship issues, a lot of humans hate and fear mutants and vice versa, a former villain (in this case The White Queen) goes straight and joins the X-Men, Wolverine finds out stuff about his mysterious past, a group calling itself the U-Men kill mutants and harvest their organs so as to improve themselves, the weapons program that helped 'create' Wolverine is examined, the Shi'ar Empire shows up, Professor Xavier turns out to have an evil twin (sort of), the Beast's physical appearance changes again, new mutants enter the fold, old mutants die, the mutant nation of Genosha is destroyed in a massive act of anti-mutant terrorism, and a glimpse of the future finally reveals who the real master villain is, and how mutants and humans alike will become extinct if someone doesn't do something about It.

It's all a wild ride through X-history, and unlike many modern comics creators, Morrison manages to tell an epic tale that nonetheless leaves everything pretty much back at status quo when he leaves the book. Admittedly, that status quo would almost be where the X-books were when John Byrne left as artist back in the early 1980's, but as the Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-run was the greatest in the book's history, that's not so bad. All in all, this is probably the greatest long-form X-story ever told.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

King, Conan, Bat, Spider


Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009): At 1072 story pages, Under the Dome is King's longest novel since the complete and unexpurgated Stand came out in 1990 and his third-longest novel overall, also trailing It (1986). King originally started writing the novel back in the 1970's, abandoning it twice before finally starting over to write this one. Thus, the concept of a city trapped under a dome (really more of a capsule extending 47,000 feet up and down) predates The Simpsons Movie (2008). But there were also a number of science-fiction stories and novels that also dealt with such a predicament prior to the Simpsons.

As he did in such novels as The Stand and Salem's Lot, King deploys a large cast of characters for the roving eye of the third-person narrative to examine. The entire town of Chester's Mill, Maine, population about 2000, gets enclosed within a mostly impermeable dome (it allows a small amount of air and water flow, along with all forms of radiation) one October day. Over the course of the next week or so, life under the Dome becomes more and more fraught with problems as the power-lust of a Christian fundamentalist town selectman and the brain-tumour-enabled madness of his son lead to a large-scale reenactment of Lord of the Flies.

King's characters are more well-rounded here than they often are -- the nominal villain, "Big Jim" Rennie, is loathsome but understandable. Small towns and big towns are always afflicted by people like him. The rapid descent of Chester's Mills into chaos and then malign reordering has been especially well imagined by King. For all that, the town's survival or lack thereof remains in doubt until the last few pages, when a human-created wild card combined with the air-retaining qualities of the Dome put the town into the Final Jeopardy round.

For a near-1100-page novel, Under the Dome moves quickly and assuredly to its climax. You'll probably end up liking a number of characters, which makes the ruthlessness of King's narrative -- this is not a novel where all the 'good guys' survive, or even most of them -- all that much more appealing. Perhaps most appealingly, none of King's major characters are writers or artists. After Lisey's Story, Duma Key and Cell, that's something of a relief.

The Essential Conan: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, edited by Karl Edward Wagner: Even though there are hundreds of Conan books and comic books both new and out-of-print, finding unexpurgated, un-'improved' versions of Robert E. Howard's original stories from the 1930's isn't easy. The successful paperback packagings of the Conan stories from the 1960's edit out the saltier parts along with the most overt sexism and racism.

Beyond that, the editors of the Conan stories for Ace Books also needed to fill as many paperbacks as possible. That's not easy -- there actually aren't that many Conan stories relatively speaking, though in total they probably equal about one Lord of the Rings. Not bad, given that Howard committed suicide when he was 30 and that he wrote more than a hundred stories about characters other than Conan. The editors of those Ace Books 'retrofitted' a lot of non-Conan Howard stories to be Conan stories, changing names and place names, and they also finished up some story fragments and wrote entire stories based on Howard's notes. Howard's original barbarian would eventually be buried under all these additions.

Howard's Conan is indeed the supreme fighter of the movies and short-lived TV series. However, he's also extremely bright, a master of dozens of languages and dialects by his mid-20's, and a highly competent military tactician and strategian. The pre-last-Ice-Age Hyborian world he wanders through is a crazy quilt of countries that resemble historic countries from across the breadth and span of human history -- essentially, dynastic Egypt, 19th-century Afghanistan, Golden-Age Greece and 1000 AD Scandanavia are all contemporaneous. And magic, of course, works.

In this collection, Conan combats a number of menaces human, natural and supernatural. The stories are superior adventures for the most part, and one recognizes certain scenes that the makers of the first Conan movie cherry-picked for that movie, most notably the crucifixion of Conan in "A Witch Shall Be Born." Conan can take punishment with the best of adventure heroes -- in the story, he apparently recovers from being crucified without the aid of magic as he does in the movie.

Howard's prose style is also quite interesting, much moreso than that of most of his imitators. While Howard was relatively young when he wrote about Conan, he was a voracious reader who also apparently swallowed a thesaurus, thankfully after checking the definitions contained therein. The result is prose that moves from the descriptive to the baroque, along with a sense of story structure that grows by leaps and bounds over his short career. If you enjoy fantasy but have only experienced Conan through other media or through various new Conan novels, I'd recommend looking up Karl Edward Wagner's attempt to bring the real Conan back from the 1930's.


Secrets of the Batcave by about 100 writers and artists (1940-2001; collected 2007): A fun collection of predominantly Golden Age Batman stories involving the Batcave, its development, and the various trophies found inside. Of primary geek appeal are the stories detailing the origins of the giant Lincoln penny and the robot T. Rex seen literally hundreds of times in the background of hundreds of scenes set in the Batcave over the last few decades. The filmmakers really should get around to giving Batman a trophy room. Because giant pennies are cool.

Essential Spider-man Volume 4 by Stan Lee, John Romita, Jim Mooney, John Buscema and others (c. 1969-1970): The evolution of Spider-man into the most tormented superhero of them all continues apace here as the book zips ever closer to Stan Lee's retirement as a full-time writer. The legendary John Romita does a lot of design and layout work here, though he pencils relatively little of this collection, leaving Jim Mooney and others to ape his style as best they can.

Where original Spidey artist Steve Ditko's Spider-man actually looked like a gawky teenager (well, at least for awhile) and his characters looked at least nominally realistic, Romita's Spider-designs are slick, action-oriented work -- really, the defining Marvel art-style of the 1970's. Spider-man's popularity exploded under Romita's pen, but I much prefer Ditko's art (and his often wonky plots and villains). Still, quite enjoyable, though Peter Parker's angst does get grating after awhile. Subsequent writers would tone this down a bit -- there are times where Parker sounds as tortured and whiny as Lee's Silver Surfer, also being published at roughly the same time as this version of Spider-man.