Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two out of Three are Bad


The 13th by John Everson (2009): Everson's first novel, Covenant, was an interesting horror novel with a bit too much sexual violence for my tastes. His second, Sacrifice, was something of a bollocks -- the characters were paper-thin and annoyingly giggly and coy at the most inappropriate points in the narrative, and it seemed like the only two constants in the novel were increasingly grotesque yet oddly perfunctory scenes of sexual atrocity, and the construction of protagonists who were as banal as they were incompetent. 'People who get hit in the head a lot' seems to be Everson's second-favorite trope, right after 'Every female character will get sexually assaulted.'

There were enough flashes of originality in the first two novels (and especially the first) that I figured I'd give Everson a chance when his next novel came out. And for the first 200 pages of this 320-page novel, it seemed like I'd made the right choice. Oh, the heightened level of sexual violence was still there, but it at least seemed to be hitched to an interesting story that justified the events, if not the lengthy descriptions of some of them. And then, around page 200, The 13th went off the rails as completely and spectacularly as any novel I can remember reading.

The 13th is a gobbledegooky, supposedly Babylonian ritual meant to incarnate the Babylonian god Ba'al in human form. To do so requires human sacrifice. A lot of human sacrifice involving mothers and babies. Fun stuff. 25 years before the main narrative of the novel, a cult in a small town tried and failed to complete the ritual. Now, the cult is back, kidnapping and impregnating women in order to try again. And only a callow, Olympic-level bicyclist and a plucky but inexperienced female cop can, maybe, stop the ritual.

What threat does a completed ritual pose to the world? I have no idea. The novel never lays out the stakes. I have a feeling that it may guarantee a good corn harvest, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. And I READ the fucking novel.

Everson's most annoying tics throughout his three novels are that no major female character can be anything less than spectacularly alluring, male protagonists have great difficulty controlling their libidos, and the heroes, perhaps in a nod to realism gone horribly wrong, generally prove to be amazingly incompetent by the time the novel ends. The 13th adds a new toy to Everson's toybox: the 120-page climax.

Yes, more than a third of this novel can justifiably be called the climax. That's a lot of climax. And almost all of it takes place in basement of the evil hotel where an evil stem-cell researcher is attempting to finish the ritual of the 13th with the help of the evil cult which turns out to comprise pretty much everyone in the stupid small town the novel is set in.

During those 120 pages, which take place over the course of about 6 hours, the heroes get knocked out and imprisoned at least twice; they pretty much fail to save any of the imprisoned women and babies from being tortured, mutilated and killed; and the disembodied gods Ba'al and Astarte show up to spout dialogue that sounds like rejected wacky-god dialogue from Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the heroes run around in circles a lot, in the nude (don't ask), getting sexually assaulted by incorporeal gods and demons, while various awful things are described at great length. But really, once you get to the third or fourth sacrifice scene, not only is the power to shock gone, but the whole megilla starts to feel more like an outsized parody of your typical torture horror film than it does like serious horror.

Everson also gives us another relatively new trope that I reflexively blame on Buffy, specifically Season 7 -- that's the obligatory Half-Assed Internet Search Scene. Certain horror stories once relied on forbidden occult knowledge that one at least had to go to a library to access. Unfortunately, the age of the Internet has brought us the scene in which a character learns everything he or she needs to know by typing in a few terms on Google. I realize that if The Necronomicon existed it would be available for download on Project Gutenberg, but the search scene here rivals Buffy's Season 7 Google of 'evil' for 'search least likely to yield the results you need without further clarification.' Give me a moldy set of the Revelations of Glaaki any day.

On the bright side, the hero now drinks a lot of Guinness. Everson's protagonists in his first two novels spent so much time ordering Miller Genuine Draft that I began to wonder of the Miller Brewing Company was a sponsor. So I guess that's a step up. Really, not recommended at all except as a study in how a horror novel can go horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.


Essential Captain America Volume 2 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, John Romita, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott and others (1967-70): Captain America becomes increasingly Spider-man-ized in this second collection of his early post-1960's-resurrection adventures. Translation: he's plagued by various self-doubts and woefully hung up over a woman. Thankfully, he also has a number of cool adventures with great art by Kirby, Steranko and Colan, though if you're like me, you're starting to wish Modok and the Red Skull would take a vacation for several years, and that the Cosmic Cube, one of Marvel's all-time Ultimate Plot Devices, would never, ever, ever appear in a comic book again. No such luck. Fun, though occasionally a bit grating.

Onslaught: The Complete Epic Volume 4 (2nd edition) by everyone at Marvel and their dogs (1996): Onslaught was meant to be the Marvel crossover to end all crossovers (well, at least for a year), as a villain born in the X-Men books would ultimately threaten the entire Earth. Part of the editorial mandate of the crossover was to set up Marvel's 'Heroes Reborn' titles, with new adventures of non-X-men Marvel heroes to take place on a new Earth sans X-Men. Marvel's top-selling books (basically the Spider- and X-titles) would steam along on their own in the regular Marvel universe along with all those Marvel characters deemed too minor to reboot (hey, Dr. Strange!).

Sometimes one can only evaluate a megacrossover constructed as much by marketing and sales decisions as by artistic decisions the same way Samuel Johnson evaluated a dog that can walk on its hindlegs -- one isn't amazed that it does it well but that it does it at all. The plot mechanism that creates two different Marvel universes doesn't make a lot of sense, and has the added misfortune of setting up a final battle that would be completely incomprehensible without an awful lot of captions to explain what's going on.

Oh, yeah -- Onslaught is an evil psionic being created when Professor Xavier's evil impulses collide with Magneto's evil impulses. So he's sorta like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, only nigh-omnipotent. As ultimate comic-book villains go, he makes the Anti-Monitor look and sound like Milton's Satan. Not recommended.

Run, Brett, Run

Someone on Around the Horn was going on about how Peyton Manning was super-great because unlike Bradshaw, Montana or Elway, he only had, maybe, two Hall-of-Famers on his team at any one time. Which begged a couple questions. Did Tom Brady have ANY Hall-of-Famers on the New England Patriots when they won their three Super Bowls? And which Hall-of-Famers did Elway play with? Did I miss something? All of which has nothing to do with this link.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Conference Championship Weekend: Beware the Kicker!

What was supposed to be another wildly unpredictable playoff year is now only unpredictable because of the AFC's New York Jets, the only non-1 or 2 seed remaining. And those zany Jets and their rotund coach, Rex Ryan, have really grown on me. Well, any team that beats the San Diego Chargers is OK by me. The Chargers are the most hateable current team. Year after year, they're pissy and arrogant even though their current Philip Rivers-led configuration hasn't made a Super Bowl, much less won one.

Watching a red-faced Philip Rivers run around screaming at the officials after the Jets' Darrelle Revis hauled in an improbable interception of Rivers, I realized that Rivers is so annoying that I wondered if the Chargers get an extra penalty or two every game because the refs get so sick of being screamed at. Certainly, Vincent Jackson's kick of the challenge flag later on in the game didn't necessarily look like a 15-yard penalty, but who am I to judge? And if I'd been listening to the Chargers whine and complain all day, I'd probably have taken any chance to throw a flag too. They're just that hateable. So now the Jets move on to face another high-powered offence with no running game in the Indianapolis Colts.

Over in the NFC, the championship will be the Resurrection Bowl, for a player (Minnesota's Brett Favre) and a team (the New Orleans Saints) that also stands as a symbol of a city in the process of resurrection (New Orleans, natch). The Saints are a genuine feel-good story, while I guess Favre's a feel-good story if you're a Favre fan. I myself am not, though I do have to give him props for having the best statistical season of his career at the age of 87.

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: I don't trust the Vikings because I don't trust Brad Childress to coach worth a damn. And the Saints have an actual Dome advantage if their fans can scream really, really loudly -- that should disrupt the Vikings' offence, while the silence during Saints' offensive plays should work to slow down the Vikings' line compared to their suffocating home-field performance against Dallas last week. Also, I don't think the Saints will miss what was it two, three field goals? WTF is up with field-goal kickers this post-season? They're playing like it's 1969. New Orleans Saints 38, Minnesota Vikings 27.

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts: And here we have Irony Bowl. The Jets are probably in the playoffs because the Colts decided to take a knee on the remainder of their season during their game with the Jets in Week 16, pulling the starters midway through the third quarter with a 15-10 lead. The Jets came back to win and The Legend of Rex Ryan was born. Prior to The Longest Knee, the two teams had played close -- the Colts had required a return TD to go ahead. The closeness of this game, like pretty much every game this playoffs, will depend on turnovers or the lack thereof. The Jets' superior running game can beat a high-scoring team if the #1 defence creates turnovers and the offence avoids them. And the opposing team misses makeable field goals. I don't think the Colts are going to miss field goals from 40 yards and in the way the Bengals and Chargers did -- Matt Stover may be a hundred years old, but he's played well in the playoffs before and he seems automatic from 40 and in. Operative word this playoffs: 'seems'. I'd like the Jets to win, but they need a lot more things to break just right than the Colts do. Indianapolis Colts 23, New York Jets 16.

Record to date: 4-4 (1-3 Wild Card round, 3-1 Divisional Round)

Friday, January 22, 2010

2009: The 25 Things That Entertained Me Most

TV and film:

J.J. Abrams and company for Star Trek, Fringe and Lost: No previous producer/director has had the trifecta that Abrams had in 2009. He rebooted a moribund franchise (Star Trek) with a big-grossing film that most critics loved. His new show (Fringe) quickly earned a cult following and critical love. And Lost barreled towards its final season with a time-twisting penultimate season that I thought was its best since Season 1. That's entertainment!

Torchwood: Children of Earth: The Doctor Who spin-off only appeared in 2009 as a five-part miniseries. But what a miniseries! While the bleakness of the show's view of politicians may put some people off (and win others over, of course), Torchwood nonetheless holds out hope for the better angels of humanity's nature as well. In this case, a shock ending really does shock in the horror of its necessity.

Doctor Who: The End of Time Parts 1 and 2: Some Who fans found the end of David Tennant's run as the Doctor a bit self-indulgent -- he gets the longest goodbye in Doctor Who history. Actually, it may be longer than the goodbyes of all previous Doctors combined. Nonetheless, this two-part movie wraps up a lot of threads from the previous five years, and finally fills in more of the reasons behind the Doctor's trauma over the Time Lord/Dalek Time War that occurred some time just before the series rebooted in 2005.

NBC's Thursday night comedy block: Or at least The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. It's somewhat fluky that the three best network comedies are all set at dysfunctional workplaces.

Elvis Costello's Spectacle with...: The interviews are usually fascinating and the musical sequences quite good. The greatest episode of the debut year of Costello's music interview show had to be the Police episode, which demonstrated, if nothing else, how much Sting dislikes Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, and vice versa. Costello, who once upon a time mocked Sting for his "ridiculous [Jamaican] accent" on early Police songs, gets in some subtle shots.

Super Bowl XLIII: Not the best Super Bowl ever, but possibly the one with the most super-duper plays (Larry Fitzgerald's two 4th quarter TD catches that brought the Arizona Cardinals back from 13 down, Santonio Holmes' tightrope catch to win the game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and James Harrison's epic 100-yard interception return for a TD to end the first half. Whew!)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report: Losing George Bush as a rich source of laughs actually seems to have reinvigorated Stewart, Colbert, their writers, performers and most guests. The ongoing ridiculous acts and speech acts of politicians, pundits, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and various celebrities provide enough fodder for a dozen satirical news shows.

Pushing Daisies Season 2: Brian Fuller's dandy, whimsical fantasy series lost all of its early traction in 2008's writer's strike and never reclaimed it. Still, a delightful romp.

Reaper Season 2: The funniest supernatural series since G vs. E seemed to be cancelled simply because the CW suddenly started trying to woo more of the Gossip Girl crowd. So sad.

Nurse Jackie Season 1: Edie Falco is terrific as a self-destructive, self-sacrificing, snarky and cynical nurse with a prescription drug addiction. Probably the densest half-hour on TV right now.

Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman, starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga: A nearly pitch-perfect comedy for adults.

Watchmen, directed by Zac Snyder, starring Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley and a cast of dozens: Not nearly as great as the comic, but still the most thoughtful superhero movie ever made.

I Love You, Man starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segal: Goofiest buddy comedy of the year, with the added bonus of an extended Lou Ferrigno cameo and an odd subplot involving Canadian rock legends Rush.


Them Crooked Vultures, self-titled debut: An unholy synthesis of Led Zeppelin, mid-70's Bowie and a number of other 70's rock bands from Dave Grohl and friends.

Pearl Jam's Backspacer: They seem to have been around forever, but Pearl Jam has never rocked out quite so much as they do on this, their 300th album or so. "The Fixer" was fun, but so is the rest of the album.

The Beatles Remastered: Finally, and cheaper than the previous CD versions have been since they came out in the early 1990's.

CBC Radio 2: Pretty much the only broadcast radio station I listen to. The live material after 7 p.m. is probably the highlight of the programming day.

Print, comics, and web:

Slate: Yes, I use the Washington Post's web spin-off for a lot of my news and analysis. And you should too.

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons. Hilarious and wonkily informative.

Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli and others. The best war comic with a recurring protagonist ever created. I'm not even sure what I'd put second.

The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Superlative metafantasy for ll you kids who've outgrown Harry Potter.

Cold, Hard Football Facts: The most incisive and occasionally sarcastic football analysis on the Web.

Batman and Robin by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Philip Tan: Bruce Wayne seems to be dead, so the first Robin -- Dick Grayson -- retires his Nightwing persona and takes up the mantle of the Batman. And because he's got some self-doubt, Batman becomes human again. It's too bad Bruce Wayne is slated to return later this year.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause: Revisionist superhero horror. The Plutonian, Earth's greatest and most-beloved superhero, goes on a genocidal rampage. Why? And how can he be stopped?

Urban Gothic by Brian Keene: One of the bloodiest, most grotesque horror novels you're likely to ever read, Gothic reinvigorates the 'dumb teens menaced by bloodthirsty freaks' subgenre.

Under the Dome by Stephen King: Well, I liked it. Also, it's superheavy so you can use it as a doorstop or a weapon.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Angels in the Outhouse

In honour of the completely wacky looking Legion, starring Paul Bettany as the archangel Gabriel and Dennis Quaid as some guy with a shotgun (opening January 22), my list of favourite angels from the movies.

1. The Exorcist III (1990). Oddly enough, the novel the third Exorcist movie was based on was called...Legion. Hoo ha! A surprisingly effective horror movie that generated almost no box office, The Exorcist III has terrific acting turns from George C. Scott, Jason Miller and Brad Dourif. At one point, Scott's police detective has a weird dream set in what appears to be a departure lounge for the afterlife. There's even an angel playing a trumpet, which I've always assumed was a veiled reference to Jack Benny's angel comedy, The Horn Blows at Midnight. But that's not what makes this scene great. What's great is that Fabio and Patrick Ewing have cameos as angels, complete with white robes and giant white wings. Fabio and Patrick Ewing! That is fucking ridiculous!

2. The Prophecy (1995). This is one of those revisionist Christian fantasies for which the creators make a lot of shit up and hope it sounds plausible. But what makes it awesome isn't its out-of-left-field collision of fake Christian mythology and fake Native American spirituality. No, it's Eric Stoltz and Christopher Walken playing angels and Viggo Mortenson playing Lucifer! Christopher Walken is typically awesome playing Christopher Walken playing Gabriel. No dancing, though.

3. Dogma (1999). No, not for Affleck and Mattttt Daamonnn. For Alan Rickman as the Voice of God, Metatron, who's snarky and anatomically incorrect when it comes to his groinal area. Technically, Metatron isn't exactly an angel -- he's more like God's press secretary, and he used to be the prophet Enoch. Still, pretty funny.

4. Diablo II Expansion Version: Lord of Destruction (2001). OK, so it's not a movie. But the folks at Blizzard did some fine design work on Tyrael, the angel who occasionally helps your character out. And by 'occasionally', I mean 'not much at all, you lazy bastard. Even Deckard Cain gives me unlimited free identification of magical objects!' Basically, Tyrael's role is to bitch about you not arriving fast enough to save his angelic ass from imprisonment at the hands of Baal and Diablo, and to let you do all the dirty work fighting the forces of darkness while he chills in the Pandemonium Fortress. As a plus, he does finally do some heavy lifting by destroying the WorldStone in the awesome final animation sequence, and he also gives you 2 skill points for killing Izual. So I guess he's all right. Plus he has cool wings.

5. Wings of Desire (1988). Oh, those sad, compassionate angels wandering around Berlin and occasionally running into Columbo's Peter Falk. This is pretty much the only film directed by art-house legend Wim Wenders that more than ten non-Germans have seen, and it's occasionally gloomy, existential fun. The only really bad thing about this movie is that it got remade as City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. Sweet fancy Moses!

6. Constantine (2005). I wouldn't call this a good movie exactly, but it does feature Tilda Swinton as an androgynous, somewhat loopy Gabriel. Yes, with the release of Legion, the archangel Gabriel has now been played by Christopher Walken, Tilda Swinton and Paul Bettany. That's got to win some sort of award for weirdest trio of oddball actors to portray the same character in three different movies.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Avatar: Politics made easy

Why Republicans hate Avatar

NFL Divisional Round

Ah, the unpredictability of the NFL playoffs post-2000 and especially 2005 and after. Last year, a team about as stone-cold as you can be entering the playoffs nonetheless made it within one Santonio Holmes catch of winning the Super Bowl, while last year's Super-Bowl-winning Steelers fielded the 7th-worst point-scoring offence for a Super Bowl champion ever.

Last week, during which I went a hilarious 1-3, the hottest team in the NFL over the second half of the season fell to an improbable overtime defensive touchdown (that would be Green Bay). Hot team Dallas buried Philadelphia, which had been hot until it played Dallas the week before in the season finale. And over in the AFC, 9-7 wild cards New York and Baltimore buried the Bengals and Patriots in fairly convincing fashion.

A lot of storylines came out of last week's playoffs about why teams won or lost. However, everything boiled down to one thing: turnovers. The losers pretty much turned the ball over like drunken sailors on leave or, in Cincinatti's case, missed two makeable field goals to squelch any comeback possibility against the Jets. Missed makeable field goals are turnovers in my book (and technically they are in real life, too), and only another turnover by Green Bay saved Arizona's Neil Rackers from a lifetime of regret about that awful hook on a really makeable field goal at the end of regulation.

On the other hand, turnovers are fickle. Green Bay forced the most of them in the regular season, but it was the Cardinals -- whose entire defensive philosophy boils down to 'Please, God, let us force three turnovers while the opposing team piles up a jillion yards of offense' -- that won the game. The Saints have the reborn Darren Sharper, a monster of interceptions this season and throughout his career.

Now what?

Heaven knows. Since I don't, I'm going to base this week's predictions on which team's name could win in a fight.

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts: This fight would really depend on how many ravens took on how many colts. I mean, if a whole flock of ravens took on one colt, then the ravens would win. But in a balanced battle of equal numbers, colts would eventually trample ravens. Indianapolis Colts 27, Baltimore Ravens 21.

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings: Vikings and cowboys would be pretty evenly matched in any real-world battle that only involved hand-to-hand combat...but cowboys have guns! Lots of them! Dallas Cowboys 35, Minnesota Vikings 24.

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints: The ultimate religious battle, as I'm going to shelve the bird meaning for the Cardinals, despite the fact that the bird is on their helmets. Cardinals are pretty high-ranking church officials, but saints -- saints are all-time hall-of-famers! New Orleans Saints 63, Arizona Cardinals 59.

New York Jets at San Diego Chargers: The Dodge Charger was a fine automobile, but it wasn't any match for a jet of any kind. New York Jets 27, San Diego Chargers 23.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tales of Interest

"His powers are even more depressing. Aviax has the amazing ability to transform into any bird, one of the many creatures in nature less capable of fighting crime than a regular human."

"The Star Wars Holiday Special was broadcast on TV in 1978 as a fine-print stipulation to the fiddle contest that George Lucas lost to the devil."

Fan Theories from Cracked

Fan theories that make movies better...

Dreams with Sharp Penises


Beast House by Richard Laymon (1986): I've generally enjoyed the late Laymon's horror stories when I've come across them in anthologies. This is the first novel of his I've read. It comes from relatively early in his career. A small coastal California town offers the 'Beast House' as its main tourist attraction, a house wherein terrible murders have periodically taken place since the early 20th century.

In 1979, two female friends -- Tyler and Nora -- travel there so that Tyler can reconnect with an old flame who's now a police officer in the coastal town of Malcasa. Along the way, they're saved by two recently discharged Marines from an angry driver. At the same time, a successful writer of non-fiction books about hauntings shows up in Malcasa with his assistant at the invitation of a young woman who's found a diary by an early 20th-century woman who writes about her violent sexual encounters with the beast, which she calls 'Xanadu.' Soon, various horrors, many of them violently sexual, are visited upon our group of characters. This is what happens when some bizarre subspecies of humanity develops a penis with teeth. I would love to understand the evolutionary mechanics behind that particular adaptation, especially since the (male) creatures appear to be able to eat with those befanged penises. Oh, the humanity!

Laymon's novel is a fairly brisk page-turner, as much a thriller as a horror novel. There are a few too many coincidences to allow for a complete suspension of disbelief, and there's a certain unbelievable laissez-faire feeling to the after-climax that seems designed solely to allow for a sequel without taking into account what the authorities would actually do when confronted by the revelations of the final pages. Enjoyable but pretty slight.


Batman: The Black Casebook by Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, Sheldon Moldoff, Dick Sprang and others, selected and introduced by Grant Morrison (1953-1964; collected 2009): During the 1950's and early 1960's, Batman and Robin appeared in hundreds of stories that are now considered uncharacteristic and, frankly, a little goofy as they travelled to other planets, fought bizarre creatures both alien and Earthly, encountered various forms of mind control and in general just had a lot of bizarre adventures. Most Batman readers and writers since the late 1960's have considered these stories to be 'out of continuity' as they're difficult to reconcile with the urban vigilante Batman who fights grotesque but human villains in a quasi-realistic milieu.

When Grant Morrison started writing Batman in 2006, he began dealing with a number of these adventures as if they'd actually happened in one way or another to the in-continuity Batman and Robin of 2006. He brought back the Club of Heroes -- costumed crime-fighters from various lands who try to emulate Batman's career that include England's The Knight and the Squire, Italy's Legionary and France's Musketeer. And his Batman suddenly turned out to have a 'Black Casebook' which contained all the cases that didn't comfortably fit into Batman's 'normal' crime-fighting duties. Ultimately, the villain behind Morrison's Batman R.I.P. storyline would turn out to be a minor, unnamed character from the paranoiac early 1960's story "Robin Dies at Dawn" (included here), while part of Batman's emergency defense against mind control proved to tie into the 1950's story "Batman - The Superman of Planet 'X'", in which Batman apparently travels to another world to help the Batman of that alien planet.

Most of the stories in this collection are almost defiantly loopy, suggesting Batman as a precursor to such outrageous later heroes as The Creeper, The Tick and The Flaming Carrot. That isn't to say that the stories are knowingly skewed -- they're more like Atomic-Age fairy tales featuring Batman and Robin, fantasies of transformation, instability, dread and wonder. And there's a strange but undeniable logic to these sorts of adventures being published when they were, during nuclear fear of the 1950's, with the first hysteria about flying saucers kicking off in the U.S. in the late 1940's and early 1950's, and with space travel appearing more plausible every day. This certainly isn't a Batman collection for people who want the character to at least somewhat resemble Christian Bale's version. Or Adam West's version, for that matter. But it is a wild ride. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bill Clinton vs. Captain America: The Road to Victory


The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions by H.P. Lovecraft and others: H.P. Lovecraft made a portion of his meagre living editing other people's stories. This Del Rey edition of the revised Arkham House volume collects 'primary' revisions -- in which there's very little of the original writer's work left in the finished story -- and 'secondary' revisions, which are closer to being collaborations. While some of the stories here are pretty minor, there are also some solid stories ("The Night Ocean" is an evocative and subtle secondary revision) and works as good as many of Lovecraft's 'own' ("The Mound" and "The Horror in the Museum" are fine additions to the Cthulhu Mythos, while "The Loved Dead" is a creepy bit of Poesque necrofetishism). Technically, the oft-collected "Abandoned with the Pharoahs" could be included here for the sake of completism -- it's the novella Lovecraft ghost-wrote for Harry Houdini -- but this is such a giant collection that it's hard to fault any omissions. Highly recommended for Lovecraftians; recommended for anyone else.


Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, Between Here and There, Easy Kill and The Way Home by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli and Pat Masioni (2008-2009; collections ongoing): The original Unknown Soldier was a Silver Age DC World War II hero who was a master of disguise, his real face always covered by Invisible-Man-type bandages. That hero's adventures ended in the early 1980's with the cancellation of most of DC's war titles. Subsequent attempts to resurrect the character have usually erred on the side of almost self-parodic grim-and-grittiness.

In this adult-oriented Vertigo title, Dysart and Ponticelli wisely throw out pretty much everything of the original character, keeping only the bandages and the overarching idea of 'one man's war.' The primary setting is now Uganda in the early oughts, where an African-born, American-raised doctor and his wife are attempting to raise global awareness of the terrible violence of Uganda's civil war. But the doctor's having nightmares about becoming violent himself, about something or someone living inside his own brain who's pretty much an expert at killing. And pretty soon, the doctor's part of the conflict, his self-scarred face hidden behind a mask of bandages.

Reductively speaking, the new Unknown Soldier is part Jason Bourne, part Jeckyll and Hyde. However, the setting for the series -- war-torn, divided Uganda -- gives us a milieu for a war comic that's rarely been even nodded at, ravaged post-colonial Africa. The stories and sub-stories are heart-breaking, and Ponticelli's art stands firmly in the tradition of Harvey Kurtzman's great war comics for EC in the 1950's, meticulously realistic and realistically bloody. There aren't many works in any medium that manage to make violence both thrilling and nauseating, sometimes at the same time. One of the things that highlights the quality of the series for me is that after 15 issues, we still know very little of what's made the doctor into some sort of pre-programmed killing machine with a conscience, and the slow pace of the revelations seems perfectly natural to the story. We aren't dealing with a puzzle piece. A great on-going title that deserves all the accolades it's getting. Highest recommendation.

The Greatest Shazam! Stories Ever Told by Bill Parker, Otto Binder, Denny O'Neil, Martin Pasko, Jerry Ordway, C.C. Beck, Kurt Schaffenberger, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Curt Swan and others (1940-2008; collected 2008): DC's editorial policy on its line of 'Greatest...' collections has never seemed more political and less quality-oriented than on this volume. Fawcett published the original Captain Marvel of the 1940's and early 1950's -- he who said Shazam! to change from young teen Billy Batson to Captain Marvel and back again.

For a time in the early 1940's, Captain Marvel outsold Superman. Why? Because it was the best superhero book in a still-young sub-genre, with crisp art and lively, fantasy-heavy stories pitting Captain Marvel against a terrific rogue's gallery of such weirdos and grotesques and Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, IBAC, King Kull the Beast-man and Mr. Mind, a hyper-intelligent worm (though he was drawn to look more like a fuzzy green caterpillar with eyeglasses and a little mechanical voicebox to translate his worm-language rantings into audible English). These were comics for children that an adult can read and enjoy now, and the imminent DC collection of the +20-part WWII Captain Marvel epic, The Monster Society of Evil, makes me feel all tingly inside.

DC would eventually exhaust Fawcett in court over similarities between Marvel and Superman, with Fawcett ceasing publication pretty much contemporaneous with the near-death of super-hero comics in the 1950's. Marvel would eventually publish its own Captain Marvel in the 1960's, hence DC's use of Shazam! on covers and promotional literature, despite the fact that their hero is still called Captain Marvel within. DC relaunched the good Captain in his own book in 1974, originally with pivotal original artist CC Beck drawing the book. But Beck would soon leave, and the book would soon become most notable for the reprints it ran of vintage Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Family stories during a period when Shazam! was a 100-page Giant. Once DC decided that Marvel should exist within the same universe as their other super-hero titles, most post-1980 attempts to revive the title either made the character far too realistic or, somewhat bizarrely, oafishly and naively dim.

And so what we get here are about 80 pages of original Captain Marvel goodness, somewhat compromised by a lengthy 1940's Joe Simon/Jack Kirby Captain Marvel story that is, frankly, not all that good. Then we get about 120 pages of various Captain Marvel stories spanning the various DC reboots of the character up to the present day. The best of those reboots, Jeff Smith's recent Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil, can't be included here because of length. A Jerry Ordway/Peter Krause story from the most recent ongoing Shazam title, Power of Shazam from the 1990's, is nice and earnest and heart-warming and pretty much entirely lacking in the zing and zip of the character at its 1940's best. The other recent stories are also exceedingly minor.

The one stand-out from the post-1950's material doesn't technically star Captain Marvel at all. "Make Way for Captain Thunder!" is a standalone story from the early 1970's Superman title by Martin Pasko and Curt Swan. DC was already publishing Shazam by this time, so I assume having Thunder stand in for Marvel was either a rights issue or an editorial decision related to when and where DC wanted an official crossover between the Marvel Family and DC's mainline universe of heroes. In any case, this story -- in which a dimension-lost Captain Thunder and Superman battle before the Man of Steel figures out how to cure Thunder of his villain-created madness and send him on his way back home again -- is a fairly light-hearted delight. It also demonstrates that Curt Swan drew the best-looking 'realistic' Captain Marvel of them all, regardless of name. Alex Ross's hyper-realistic Captain Marvel, so creepily effective in Kingdom Come and used for the cover here, has always looked sinister and not a little bonkers to me. Cartooning doesn't necessarily translate to more realistic forms of representation without a lot of reworking.

In any case, my recommendation of this volume is highly qualified -- you do get some vintage 1940's and 1950's Captain Marvel along with the Pasko/Swan story, but that's still less than half the volume. If you ever see the Harmony hardcover Shazam! from the 40's to the 70's, snap it up. Well, unless it's $200, which is what it sometimes goes for. But you'll also find equally good or better selections of vintage Shazam! reprints in back issues of those 1970's 100-page giants. So hit the back-issue bins!

Captain America: Operation Rebirth (2nd edition) by Mark Waid and Ron Garney (1995-96; coll. 2008): Marvel re-reprints the mid-1990's 'Death of Captain America' storyline with six more issues of context before and after that storyline (entitled 'Operation Rebirth'). Writer Waid and penciller Garney are one of the three or four great Captain America creative teams, and this storyline is a lot of fun. Not only do we get the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube, staples of Captain America stories for decades, but we also get what must be the lengthiest appearance of a real-world American president in a super-hero comic prior to Marvel's various Obama projects. Seriously, Bill Clinton appears in multiple issues here. It's like some bizarre Marvel sequel to "Superman's Secret Mission for President Kennedy." Highly recommended.

Sebastian O by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell (1993; coll. 2004): Zany postmodern shenanigans from Morrison and Yeowell. In a high-tech, fin de seicle Victorian England, dandy assassin/aesthete Sebastian O battles to discover a sinister conspiracy while remaining witty and impeccably dressed. Weird fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fearless 2010 NFL Wild Card Round Predictions

The NFL playoffs have become almost as unpredictable over the last five years as, say, umm, anything. The last time a #1 seed from either conference won the Super Bowl was New England after the 2003 season. Rules and penalty-calling favour the passing game more than at any time in the NFL's history, making passing and the ability to defend the pass (or at least slow it down) far more important than running and the ability to run. Remember last year? Pittsburgh had a mediocre running attack; Arizona had no running attack. But unpredictability is the key. Going into the last two playoffs, the Giants in 2007-2008 and the Cardinals last year looked to be one-and-doners. So they instead went to the Super Bowl, with the Giants winning and the Cardinals losing in the last minute.

Thus, I make my wild-card predictions with absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

New York Jets at Cincinnatti Bengals: The Jets have the league's best rushing attack and #1 rated defense. If it were 1987, they might actually have a better record than 9-7. But it isn't 1987. The Jets did beat the Bengals last week by a ridiculous 37-0, so I'd have to be crazy to pick the Bengals, a Cinderella team for which midnight seems to have already struck. But the Jets have a truly bad quarterback in Mark Sanchez and whoever's backing him up, while Carson Palmer is a better-than-average quarterback for Cincy. For some insane reason, I think quarterback play will swing this game. BENGALS 23, JETS 9.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals: Two great passing offenses that taste great together. Green Bay went 7-1 in the second half of the season; Arizona is the defending NFC champ. On paper, Green Bay has a better offense and a better defense. But there's just something I don't trust about GB coach Mike McCarthy. CARDINALS 38, PACKERS 28.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: Ah, on-paper theories. On paper, Baltimore's point-differential suggests they should be 12-4 or 13-3, or even better. Instead they're 9-7 and only beat the Raiders by 8 to make it into the playoffs. The Patriots have a defense that's gradually played better over the last month of the season. They don't have Wes Welker, but when the Patriots won all those Suepr Bowls, they didn't have Welker, Randy Moss or anyone really comparable (sorry, Deon Branch. How's Seattle, btw?). Frankly, I think the Ravens are whiny losers and I can't stand John Harbaugh's histrionics on the sideline. Tom Brady's going to win this one on muscle memory alone. PATRIOTS 31, RAVENS 19.

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys whipped the Eagles 24-0 to claim the NFC East and relegate the Eagles to a 6 seed. By all rights, the surprisingly hot Cowboys should win and go on. But I have no faith in Wade Phillips, Tony Romo or the Cowboys' defense, for that matter. I think this game will turn into a pass-crazy track meet before it's done. Also, the Eagles always seem to play better as underdogs than favourites in the playoffs, and if they're going to melt down, they'll melt down in the NFC conference championship game. EAGLES 34, COWBOYS 21.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kirn, directed by Jason Reitman (2009): Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who splits his time between giving motivation seminars on how to eliminate all of one's attachments so as to be a better money-maker and working for a firm that contracts him out to other firms to fire people.

Yes, he's a professional firer for companies too wimpy to do it themselves. Bingham spends about 300 days of the year on the road, and would spend more if he could -- his apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, site of the company's headquarters, is pretty much empty, and his only consuming interest appears to be becoming only the 7th person in history to collect 10 million air miles on American Airlines.

The gist of the plot is as follows: Bingham's company wants to save money by having all the firing done by teleconferencing; Bingham shows them the problems with this idea; Bingham and the young, female hotshot who came up with the idea of teleconferencing go on the road so she can see how firing people works; Bingham begins to get attached to a travelling female executive with whom he's started an initially sex-focused relationship; Bingham has to go to his sister's wedding; people learn better, sort of.

Up in the Air (doesn't that sound like the title of a basketball movie?) works on the basis of the charm of its actors, fairly sharp dialogue writing, and the increasingly assured direction of Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking).

Indeed, Clooney's charm is such that it's easy to forget that he's really quite a dick for most of the movie -- and didn't Norm on Cheers have a similar job for one episode, albeit within only one company? The scenes in which Bingham goes back to his small town in Wisconsin for his sister's wedding don't quite work, and will probably give some conservatives a few paragraphs of ranting on Hollywood's depiction of everyone living in the flyover states as gormless boobs, or perhaps boobless gorns.

The movie portrays pretty much everyone in the small town as a comic grotesque, and never manages to make it clear that this is simply Bingham's view of them, or that this is some sort of sudden shift into social satire about how soulless people view salt-of-the-earth types, or that this is actually what small-town people are really like. It's as if the airplane had landed in a kinder, less funny Melonville.

Other than that problematic plot divergence, the movie really does sing at times, and the ending is blessedly free of a completely sentimental resolution. Also, Sam Elliott makes a cameo that seems as if it's wandered in from a Coen Brothers movie, so that's good too. In a year without many decent Hollywood dramas or comedies, this movie does stand out, not as a masterpiece, but as a solid piece of entertainment for people over the age of 12. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The End of 2009


The Order (2002) by Kurt Busiek, Jo Duffy, Matt Haley, Ivan Reis, Dan Jurgens, Chris Batista and others: Marvel's Defenders never get enough love, though their most powerful four-person line-up (Hulk, Sub-mariner, Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange) is about as powerful as four-person supergroups get without creating a team with Galactus on it. Their long-term cast of secondary heroes (Valkyrie, Black Knight, Nighthawk, Hellcat, Gargoyle and a few others) isn't bad either -- I mean, any of those could probably at least take Hawkeye in a fight. Come to think of it, Hawkeye was in the Defenders for awhile.

In any case, this was the six-issue finish to the Defenders' short-lived, early 21st-century title. For reasons that are explained in the narrative, the Big Four go boopy and decide to force peace on Earth by almost any means necessary while the secondary Defenders try to figure out what's gone wrong with the big guns. It's quite a bit of fun, and it's nice to see the Defenders kicking everyone's ass, even if for dubious reasons. In many ways, this is The Last Defenders Story, as they wouldn't be treated seriously again and Marvel's current continuity makes it difficult to reunite the group. As such, it's a pretty good one -- indeed, better than most of those [Insert Hero Name Here]: The End miniseries Marvel's been doing for the last decade or so. Recommended.

JLA Classified: The Hypothetical Woman by Gail Simone, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Sean Phillips and Klaus Janson (2007): If someone ever gets a Justice League of America movie off the ground, they would be well-served to give this six-issue arc a read. In many ways, it's an ideal blueprint for a JLA movie. The heroes deal with both 'real-world' concerns (deposing a murderous dictator at the behest of the United Nations) and the super-heroic catastrophe that develops from that action. The dictator, granted asylum in China against the wishes of the JLA, comes up with a pretty good plan: he asks the various rogue states and dictatorships of the world to let him deploy their anti-super-hero weapons against the JLA. They'll have plausible deniability and possibly a world without super-heroes, and the dictator will get both revenge and power. And so they do, and he does, and hilarity ensues.

Simone does a great job of combining Silver-Age wonkiness (she comes up with a particularly interesting spin on Starro the Star-Conqueror, an early JLA foe who seems to be a giant, telepathic, alien starfish) and nods to the problems of imagining super-heroes within an at least nominally realistic world. Garcia-Lopez, one of DC's great artists of the 1970's and 1980's, is in fine form here -- he's one of the few super-hero artists other than Gil Kane whose art can justly be described as 'balletic.' Highly recommended.

Flash: Emergency Stop by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Paul Ryan and John Nyberg (1997-98; coll. 2008): Morrison and Millar's relatively brief stint scripting the adventures of The Fastest Man Alive gets off with a bang, as the Flash battles...an evil super-costume called The Suit. It's perfectly in keeping with the Flash's Silver-Age adventures, which is sort of the point -- for several years in the 1990's, the Flash under Mark Waid and then Morrison and Millar was the lone bright spot in a super-hero comic-book industry descended into cynicism and ultra-violence. Actually, several characters discuss this very thing in one of the issues collected here. Oh, Morrison and Millar are cheeky monkeys! But they do give good Flash. Recommended.

BPRD Volume 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski, Ryan Sook and others (1998-2002): Unless I'm missing something, the Golden Army of the Hellboy movie makes about a three-panel appearance herein prior to getting blowed up real good. And Hellboy's not around all that much, as he's left the BPRD (the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) to go walkabout, leaving things in the able hands of Abe Sapien, Roger the Homunculus, Johann the gaseous spirit-guy voiced by Sean MacFarlane in Hellboy 2, and Liz once she gets rescued from her sabbatical gone pretty much awry. There's lots of great stuff involving underground civilizations and weird water terrors and other things. Recommended.

Irredeemable Volume 2 by Mark Waid and Peter Krause (2009): The Plutonian, the world's greatest superhero, has gone bananas. Millions are dead, both superheroes and supervillains are on the run, and no one has figured out yet what exactly happened to turn the Plutonian from a loveable, Superman-like champion of justice to a genocidal prankster who can hear people complaining about him pretty much anywhere on the planet...and act on that, if he feels like it. Great, great stuff. And why are there so many African-American superheroes with electrical powers? Highly recommended.

What if? Classic Volume 5 by Mark Gruenwald, Jo Duffy, Mike Fleisher, Mike Barr, Steven Grant, Roger Stern, Peter Gillis, Frank Miller, Alan Kupperberg, Ron Wilson and others (1981; collected 2008): The Frank Miller-illustrated 'What if Matt Murdock had become an agent of SHIELD?' is fun. Pretty much the rest of the book is depressing stuff, as the first run of 'What if?' had settled at this point into a rut of depressing alternatives to famous Marvel storylines and events. It was sorta like a preview of the late 1980's and early 1990's. What if Phoenix hadn't died? She destroys much of the universe. What if Korvac had remained alive? He destroys the entire universe. What if Wolverine killed the Hulk? Wolverine and Magneto end up dying as well. What if the Thing ran off in a hissy fit instead of staying with the Fantastic Four? Well, pretty much every superhero in the Marvel universe never gets his or her superpowers. You get the idea. It's quite a run of dismal results. Not recommended.

When Swamp Thing Left Birmingham


Swamp Thing: Riverrun by Mark Millar, Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Chris Weston and Phil Jiminez (1995; uncollected): Given writer Millar's superstar status in comic books over the last decade, I don't why DC Comics hasn't collected his lengthy run on Swamp Thing. Just another mystery of DC's often bizarre collected editions policies (Showcase Presents Booster Gold before Jonah Hex Vol. 2? Seriously?).

Grant Morrison and Millar came onboard Swamp Thing after a lengthy run by Nancy Collins and pretty quickly got Swamp Thing out of the domestic life he'd been enjoying with Abby (and later daughter Tefe) since Alan Moore was on the book in the mid-1980's. Once Millar was established, Morrison left for about a dozen other DC books.

In this seven-issue storyline, Millar has Swamp Thing jumping to different alternate worlds which may or may not be 'real' -- they also may simply be the dying hallucinations of a suicidal writer who won't stay dead, and so asks Swamp Thing to get her 'out' of the world of her own stories in which she's trapped. This is an 'arc' structure used to good effect by previous Swamp Thing writers Alan Moore and Rick Veitch. Moore had Swamp Thing compelled willy-nilly through space for several issues, while Veitch had the same thing happen related to time. Indeed, Veitch's writer/artist run on Swamp Thing came to an end when Swamp Thing jumped to the crucifixion, complete with a cover depicting Swamp Thing as the cross upon which Christ was crucified. That issue never actually saw print, making it one of the most legendary of unseen comic-book stories.

In any case, Millar is in top form here. The writing's sharp and occasionally disturbing, and the situations are quite clever, with the 'Nazis won WWII' reality being especially interesting. Of course, it's not collected, so you'll have to hit the back-issue bins to read it. Oh, well.


The Watchers Out of Time and Other Stories by August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft: Fantasy fiction owes a huge debt to Wisconsin writer/editor/publisher Derleth, whose Arkham House kept writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith in print during the 1940's and 1950's before the horror boom began in the 1960's. He also introduced Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley to the world, to name just two.

While Edgar Allan Poe had possibly the worst literary executor ever, Lovecraft had possibly the best -- maybe a bit over-eager and a bit too quick to italicize important paragraphs in Lovecraft's stories, but otherwise just about the best friend a dead author who never made much of a living from writing while he was alive could hope for. That Lovecraft earned a Library of America edition in 2007 is as much a testament to Derleth as to the Revelator from Providence.

Derleth made something of a cottage industry out of writing stories based on fragments and notes left behind by Lovecraft after his death in 1937, enough to fill several thick volumes. This book collects some of the best. Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos was a bit happier than Lovecraft's -- there were a lot more ways to thwart the forces of darkness, and they were far more frequently constructed as forces of darkness rather than Lovecraft's conception of the uber-dangerous Great Old Ones as being beyond concerns of good and evil, which were ultimately just human constructions anyway.

Derleth's primary 'tic' -- italicizing final paragraphs -- is in full bloom here, and the selection of stories is a bit Innsmouth-heavy for my tastes, but the whole thing is worth reading if you've run out of Lovecraft to read or re-read. I think the best story is the short and evocative "The Fisherman of Falcon Point", which reads as much like a dark fairy-tale as it does a story set in the world of Cthulhu and Dagon and all those other crawly super-beings itching to return to Earth and turn us all into either dinner or experimental subjects. Recommended.

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons: Simmons, a regular columnist at ESPN.com, assesses pretty much every aspect of the National Basketball Association one could want. And then some. The book is meandering, digressive, and laden with footnotes -- all in all, a messy joy to read, rife with pop culture and porn references sprinkled amidst the assessments of the 96 greatest NBA players ever, the best teams ever, the biggest MVP voting screw-ups, the size of Dennis Johnson's Johnson and why the fallaway jumper is the preferred shot of superstars who never quite break through to win an NBA title.

His analysis is thought-provoking and occasionally hilarious, especially when he's taking shots at Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, or singing the praises of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale. Highly recommended for people with at least some knowledge of basketball, pop culture, and pornography.