Friday, April 30, 2010

A Perfect Match of Stupid Director and Stupid Topic

"Sony has invited me to Berlin with a group of journalists to report on the filming of a new Roland Emmerich movie, Anonymous. Emmerich, who directed 2012, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, is making a film about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.* In the movie, Rhys Ifans will play Edward De Vere, the earl of Oxford; with Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth; and David Thewlis as her chief adviser. (The cast list doesn't seem to include the man from Stratford as a character.)"

The Batrachian and the Beautiful


The Bad and the Beautiful, directed by Vincente Minelli, starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Gloria Grahame, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan and Walter Pidgeon (1952): A fairly early Hollywood movie about Hollywood, The Bad and the Beautiful won a number of Academy Awards and has dated remarkably well, all things considering. We follow the career arc of Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas) from rags immediately after his bankrupt father's death to riches and back to (almost) rags again within a frame narrative.Three characters (star actress, star director and star writer) who Shields both helped and screwed over on the way up (literally in the case of Turner's actress character) provide a subjective triptych of Shields' career in film. Will they agree to work with him again and help him restart his career? There the movie ends.

The screenplay zips along (and won one of those Oscars), and Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame (another Oscar) give stand-out performances in what is basically a comic melodrama. Cinematic in-jokes abound (one feature is obviously meant to be the original, much-lauded B-movie Cat People; a Germanic director seems to be a carbon copy of Erich Von Stroheim), as does a surprising amount of sexual innuendo, the funniest bit of which is completely wordless (the Latin lover character Gaucho stares appraisingly at a woman's butt as she gets into the backseat of a car. Frankly, I'm surprised the shot got past the Hayes Office). The movie ends up being a paean to the old Hollywood studio system, a system that doesn't exist any more, when placed in the hands of an innovative thinker such as Shields. Recommended.


The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth (1944-1951): Five linked stories form this collection/story cycle following the efforts of a diverse group of individuals attempting to forestall Cthulhu's always-imminent invasion of our universe from his prison on the intermittently sunken island of R'lyeh in the South Pacific. The quest narrative, and Derleth's tendency to literalize pretty much everything about H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (a name Derleth himself coined after Lovecraft's death in 1937 to describe a loose-knit collection of stories by Lovecraft and others about ancient alien 'gods' who want to return to Earth), tend to dampen the horror elements while highlighting how similar certain aspects of the Mythos are to high-fantasy constructs such as The Lord of the Rings.

Technically, we're dealing with a fellowship (no women allowed) trying to stop a Dark Lord from taking over the planet; the last story here was even published in 1951, the same year as LOTR came out in hardcover in England. In any event, it's an enjoyable romp with some striking scenes (the desert journey to the Nameless City and a brief depiction of the war between the relatively benign 'Elder Gods' and Cthulhu and the rest of the Great Old Ones are particularly nice). Having read a lot of Derleth in a short span, I will say that I'm heartily sick of the evil, sea-dwelling Deep Ones, who Derleth almost reflexively plugs into his stories as the 'infantry' of the Great Old Ones. A little more Tcho-Tcho or Mi-Go would be nice. Heck, I'd even like to find out what a Voola or a Dhole is. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bartleby the Giant


Big Fan, written and directed by Robert Siegel, starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan (2009): Every enterprise that has fans, has fans who are obsessive fringe-dwellers, and that's as true of professional football as it is of Star Trek or comic books. But because sports fandom is much more culturally accepted in the U.S. and Canada, many people would never view the act of, say, painting one's face before going to see a big game in the same light as dressing up as a Klingon to go to a Star Trek convention, even though the two acts are pretty much the same act.

Written and directed by the writer of The Wrestler, Big Fan examines the life of Paul Aufiero, a New York Giants fan who seems to live almost entirely through his football team. He carefully scripts what he'll say on radio call-in shows. His 'real' life is almost entirely non-existent -- only one friend that we see; a dead-end, low-paying job as a parking lot attendant; a family that finds him frustrating and baffling. At 36, Paul still lives at home with his mother. This could have been the most depressing movie about fandom ever.

And yet in a way it isn't, because the movie's quite careful -- and quite empathetic -- in its construction of Paul's love affair with the Giants, and why it is that his entire imaginative life orients around the team. His family members are jerks and, as he points out to his mother at one point, his successful-lawyer brother cheated on his first wife for years with the fake-boob-enhanced secretary who is now his second wife. He holds the far more financially rewarding jobs of his brother and his brother-in-law in barely concealed contempt: his job allows him all the time in the world to indulge in his fannishness, his real life of vicarious thrills, victories, defeats.

Paul doesn't think he lives a life of quiet desperation, though in many ways he does. Patton Oswalt -- a stand-up comedian best-known for being the voice of Ratatouille -- invests Paul with a weirdly jaunty nerdishness in his refusal to be part of the responsible, 'real' world of work. He's like Bartleby the Scrivener had Bartleby cheered up and found a sports team to cheer for. But otherwise, he prefers not to.

And then one day, a series of events leads Paul to be beaten into a three-day coma by his favourite Giants player. The bulk of the film then focuses on how Paul can deal with this fact, especially as the NFL suspends the player, his brother plots a $77 million lawsuit against the player, and he wrestles with the question of just how much he loves the Giants (and hates the rest of his life).

There are clear movie antecedents for this character and this narrative, from Taxi Driver to The King of Comedy to the terrible Observe and Report. The care taken with the small details that define this character and his world makes this a character study worth watching, surprisingly funny and sad at points (generally simultaneously), and with a 'shock' ending that helps define his character once and for all. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Don't Drink the Water.


The Mask of Cthulhu by August Derleth (1936-1953): Or, a minor Cthulhu Mythos collection of five stories from Ballantine's paperback horror line of the 1970's. Derleth was inordinately fascinated with Lovecraft's fictional New England seaport of Innsmouth, the subject of Lovecraft's late-period novella "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," in which miscegenation between humans and frog-like Cthulhu-and-Dagon worshippers known as the Deep Ones has led to a certain dangerous wackiness about the inhabitants of Innsmouth. That dangerous wackiness leads to the only U.S. Armed Forces vs. Batrachian Horrors action that I know of in Lovecraft's entire oeuvre, as the U.S. Navy opens up a can of whoop-ass on the Deep Ones, and indeed Innsmouth itself.

Squamous, batrachian horrors living in or under houses with gambrel roofs make appearances in several of the stories collected here, pretty much always up to no good (and by 'no good,' I mean 'plotting the destruction of all of humanity'). Derleth's tendency towards liter-mindedness, lengthy stretches of exposition and a somewhat unLovecraftian bipolarization of the ancient aliens into Good and Evil camps makes his stories less horror than dark, tending-toward-epic fantasy. It actually makes me wish that Derleth had gone all out with 'his' version of the Mythos and come up with some sort of epic, lengthy take on Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones.

One of the curiosities of Lovecraft's work that gets repeated here is Lovecraft's association of the whippoorwill with evil -- in the Cthulhu Mythos, they seem to operate as sinister psychopomps and harbingers of doom. It's the sort of curious construction that makes me think Lovecraft was kept awake at some point by a particularly vociferous whippoorwill and decided to get his revenge in writing. Recommended.

The Old Gods Waken


The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (1945): I'm not sure how much Lovecraft is really in this novel -- I'd guess Derleth fleshed out some prose fragments and possibly a short plot outline. In any event, it's steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos, following the ill-fated relocation of a retired British man to his ancestral mansion near the fictitious New England city of Arkham. I think this may be Derleth's strongest work as a writer (his status as a publisher who kept the work of Lovecraft and others in print until it came back into style in the 1960's has never been in doubt; Derleth is an incredibly important figure in American fantasy fiction for that reason alone).

The structure is interesting and effective (three narratives, each picking up where the last one leaves off), and Derleth controls his tendency to over-explain everything to do with Lovecraft's fictional mythology-that-isn't-really-a-mythology (because the gods are really aliens and their powers ultimately derive from vague but potentially explicable sources). The result is an enjoyable novel of doomed genealogy and ancient evil, similar in many ways to Lovecraft's short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, only not as intentionally funny.

As the events of the novel take place near fictional Dunwich and involve the always entertaining Great Old One Yog-Sothoth (both the gatekeeper and the gate to the other-dimensional realms where the Great Old Ones were imprisoned by the relatively benevolent aliens traditionally known as the Elder Gods), the novel also works as a companion piece to Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," in which Yog-Sothoth gets up to all sorts of shenanigans in the hills surrounding decayed and inbred Dunwich. I can't say as I was ever scared, but I was entertained. Recommended.

Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub (1999): Straub's novella gives us the reminiscences of a former graduate student who, on one fateful night, interviewed a great jazz saxophonist named here only as 'Hat' (for his ubiquitous, eponymous hat) just months before that musician's death. The student, looking back twenty years later in the retrospective narrative mode I always think of as Great Expectations Structure, tells us the disturbing story-within-a-story the saxophonist told of one strange Hallowe'en night in Mississippi when the musician was 11.

One of Straub's great narrative gifts has been to make what should be complex and perhaps distancing narrative structures seem instead organic, natural -- 'non-threatening', if you will. His novels and short stories have always been invested with a wide and deep concern with The Matter of Story, how to tell stories, how to create narrative from existential chaos. But Straub does these often-metafictional things without distancing the reader from the characters or the densely described world they inhabit. It's a hell of an accomplishment, one that most postmodern writers never come close to achieving. Pork Pie Hat is an affecting story about stories in which Hat's Hallowe'en story opens a door onto one of Straub's major thematic concerns -- the Sublime, the wonder and terror of existence, and how the Sublime can arise out of the normative and even the most base human actions. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The World's Worst Bodyguard

Yojimbo (Japanese for "Bodyguard"), directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune (1961): Yojimbo has been remade twice -- once as Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood; once as Walter Hill's Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis. The original pits a sardonic wandering samurai in 19th century Japan against an entire town of criminals who, through guile and swordplay, the samurai attempts to wipe out. It's interesting how the movie balances slapstick comedy with often portentous drama (wind, rain and fire are occasionally apocalyptic elements) in a way that's peculiar to Kurosawa.

It helps that Mifune's samurai occasionally looks weirdly like Bugs Bunny in a cartoon with a really high bodycount, with a couple of the more comic bad guys filling in for Elmer Fudd. This is pretty much essential viewing, and a much shorter go than Kurosawa's epic masterpiece The Seven Samurai. The translation occasionally slips into hilarity. In response to a dying gangster's "The gates of hell...I'll be waiting for you there!", the samurai exclaims, "What a guy!" I'm not sure why that's so funny, but it really is. Kurosawa's compositional skills amaze throughout, as does his ability to rapidly shift tone from comedy to tragedy. Followed by a sequel, Sanjuro. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rickard's Red

I don't really have anything against Rickard's's just that the TV ads with the three barflies and the bartender spouting 'clever' lines recommending the brew really beg for new lines...

Rickard's's what's for dinner.

Rickard's Red...nothing beats the taste sensation when cough syrup collides with Molson Canadian!

Rickard's Red...because you're too cheap to buy Smithwick's.

Rickard's made with fresh Tang crystals!

Rickard's's full of flavour. Unfortunately, that flavour is ass.

Rickard's with 20% more dog!

Rickard's Red...when you're drunk, all beers taste the same anyway.

Rickard's Red...tastes as good coming up as it did going down!

Rickard's Red...the unofficial beer of the Communist Party of Canada.

Rickard's Red...tough on dishes, mild on hands.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

None Blacker


Blackest Night by Geoff Johns, Peter Tomasi, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke and others: This megacrossover DC Comics event sees the Green Lantern Corps -- a sort of universal police force -- faced with an enemy that can seemingly resurrect the dead and make them evil, and which wants only one thing -- universal destruction. In other words, just another day at the superhero office. Power rings for every colour of the spectrum make the universe a very crowded place, especially as the Undead Black Lantern Corps also has nifty power rings and an unquenchable desire to eat people's hearts. Whee!

As megacrossovers go, this is certainly mega. Would someone who doesn't have an intimate understanding of DC Comics history as it relates to the Green Lantern Corps enjoy this? I dunno. I think probably not, because there's a lot of back-history to digest along with all those pilfered hearts. I enjoyed it, but even I got sort of weary after awhile. My fault, really, as I tried to buy every associated miniseries with titles like Blackest Night: JSA, and while many of those miniseries were interesting on their own, there were a bloody awful lot of them.

The writing on the 'mainline' portion of the saga -- Geoff Johns on Blackest Night and Green Lantern and Peter Tomasi on Green Lantern Corps -- is solid. There are spills and chills and thrills, space battles, epic speeches and what-have-you. Ivan Reis, who draws the main miniseries, really has become a top-flight Green Lantern artist. The on-going revelation, though, is artist Doug Mahnke, who first on Final Crisis and now on Green Lantern shows a flair for the cosmic that's actually somewhat rare in superhero comics. He's becoming a star in his own right, and here's hoping DC keeps him on books that play to his strengths. Recommended.

Flash: Rebirth by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver: Barry Allen, DC's Silver Age Flash, took a dirtnap from 1985 to 2008. But now he's back, and prior to the new ongoing Flash series, Johns and Van Sciver reveal why this particular Flash is back, and what the hell the new Reverse-Flash is up to. It makes for a solid miniseries, though very very very very busy at times -- all of DC's superfast heroes make an appearance, while Barry also gets a new portion of backstory retconned into his personal history. Do all superheroes need tragic motivation? If our universe were a contemporary superhero comic, then all policemen would have become policemen because someone in their family was murdered, though probably not by a time-travelling lunatic. So it goes. Recommended.

Strange by Mark Waid and Emma Rios: Dr. Strange has been Marvel Comics' premiere super-magician since the early 1960's, when he was co-created by the Spider-man team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. But apparently he did some silly thing or another recently, and had his Sorcerer Supreme sobriquet -- along with most of his power -- stripped from him and handed to D-list magicman Doctor Voodoo (nee Brother Voodoo). Here, Strange tries to mentor a young woman with nascent magical powers while also trying to pay off enough of a karmic debt to get his own powers working again. The whole thing goes down smoothly, leaving room for a new ongoing Strange series should sales merit. Recommended.

Justice League: Cry for Justice by James Robinson, Mauro Cascioli, Scott Clark, Len Wein and others: Justice League of America writer Robinson's miniseries serves to set up his now ongoing run on the JLA while also putting a number of lesser-used DC heroes through their paces prior to placing them on the main team. Green Arrow and Green Lantern, fed up with supervillains never remaining in jail for more than ten minutes, create a newer, meaner Justice League spin-off that soon finds itself involved in a supervillain's scheme, to ultimately tragic results for a number of those involved. Despite the grimness, there are a number of fun moments here -- who doesn't love Congo Bill/Congorilla, the super-powered gorilla with a human mind? Recommended.

Astro City: Family Album by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross: Busiek's Astro City series manages to combine metafiction with a variety of other approaches to superheroes in a consistently pleasing manner. Astro City itself basically stands in as a history of the superhero comic book from its inception in the 1930's to the present day, with heroes and villains and 'tone' changing in relation to the ways in which a particular time (say, the 1970's) portrayed superheroes. The result is one of the most delightful superhero comics ever created, and one which gives Busiek wide latitude to tell virtually any superhero story in any style he wishes.

And while the characters have clear Major Company analogs (Busiek's First Family clearly resembles The Fantastic Four, while Samaritan is a Superman stand-in), Busiek and artists Anderson and Ross do a fine job of investing these homages with unique characteristics and problems of their own. This collection of seven issues from the original run of Astro City focuses on smaller problems of superheroes and supervillains alike while also giving us glimpses of other stories (the fate of The Silver Agent, for instance) that won't be written by Busiek for years to come. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Houses Without Doors

Houses without Doors by Peter Straub: The title, from Emily Dickinson, suggests the desperate straits of many of the characters in the novellas and short stories contained herein. In horror, Straub's concerns have often been with presenting the wonder that can accompany terror, which is to say that his works attempt to suggest the Sublime and the unknowable. This collection, Straub's best, is pretty much unrelenting in its depiction of characters trapped within various circumstances, supernatural and natural, that cannot easily be escaped, if at all.

The short novel that closes the collection, Mrs. God, owes a lot to Robert Aickman's eerily ambiguous horror stories, as Straub notes in the afterword, but the novel is a bit more 'muscular' than Aickman, if that makes any sense -- the situation is a bit more explicable than that in many of Aickman's great stories, and the whole thing is rooted in a particular type of Hell that anyone who has gone through graduate studies in English with an eye towards making a career in academia will recognize. Mrs. God is also weirdly funny, though it's certainly not a light romp. And while there are explanations for many of the odd events that plague an American sessional lecturer during his stay at an English mansion that was once the playground of the literary and artistic elite, some things can't be explained -- which is fine because, per Ramsey Campbell, "explanation is the death of horror."

In another long piece, "The Buffalo Hunter," Straub gives us a lonely, emotionally damaged young man with an extremely odd fetish (he's obsessed with baby bottles) and an even odder 'power' (he can be transported into the pages of the books he reads). I find the awfulness of several pages of this story almost unreadable, not for supernatural horror but because of the abject vicarious embarrassment created by the protagonist's attempt to have a normal date with a normal woman. It's pretty much all the squeamish social moments in a typical episode of The Office dialed up to 11. The ambiguous ending of this story defies easy judgment.

Straub has had a long and distinguished career -- if he didn't work primarily in horror fiction, the mainstream would celebrate how good he's been both here and in the fine novels he's been writing since the 1970's (Ghost Story, Shadowlands, Mr. X, Koko, Mystery, The Hellfire Club...the list goes on and on). And he can be funny amongst the horrors, the hauntings and the haunted. Highest recommendation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Get Kraken

Clash of the Titans, directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes: The original Clash of the Titans wasn't very good, and the remake proudly follows in that tradition. The original mashed up some different Greek hero stories; threw in the Scandanavian Kraken, Burgess Meredith and a mechanical owl clearly related to R2D2; and then added in some Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsters. This remake replaces Burgess Meredith and the owl with an immortal hottie; removes all the human and monster female nudity (ultimately, we live in a far more prudish mainstream movie environment than people did in 1980: strange but true -- the topless Medusa now wears a sports bra, and Andromeda doesn't come anywhere near a nude shower scene); scrambles, folds, spindles and mutilates Greek mythology even more than the original; and throws in some Arabian djinn who resemble no djinn ever imagined by Arabians.

Some occasionally nice effects related to Hades quickly become boring as they're used again and again, and Sam Worthington demonstrates once again that he's the 21st century's answer to Dolph Lundgren, only more wooden and in far bigger budget movies. In a half-assed nod to The Lord of the Rings, there are a number of long shots of people walking. There are also a number of long shots of giant scorpions walking. I think a six-year-old boy might enjoy this movie. I myself didn't really.

Date Night, directed by Shawn Levy, starring Steve Carrell, Tina Fey and Mark Wahlberg: A movie with Fey and Carrell really should be funnier than this movie. Maybe next time they team up, they'll write the script. Still, I laughed out loud a number of times. Carrel and Fey play a suburban husband and wife who accidentally get involved in some shenanigans in New York. Tame but still recognizable hilarity ensues. Mark Wahlberg has a nice supporting turn as a security expert who never wears a shirt, and James Franco and Mila Kunis also fare well as drug-addled, incompetent blackmailers.

Hot Tub Time Machine, directed by Steve Pink, starring John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry: I think this movie has underperformed a bit at the box office because its ideal target group -- people in their early 40's -- don't go to movies that often without children in tow. Oh, well. Also, the depiction of the 1980's is in many ways more nostalgic than sarcastic, which means that young, Axe-product-addicted punks who believe that their time is the only cool time will probably be slightly confused by the movie. In any event, I have to endorse any movie in which someone projectile vomits on a squirrel, and in which subsequently that action has dire consequences for the space-time continuum. Sort of. At least if you cheer for a particular football team. Or own Google.

Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, and Helena Bonham Carter: So far as I know, this is the first Tim Burton movie in history to have too much plot. The frame story is clunky and somewhat stupid, and the Wonderland part is pretty much stuck in that fantasy movie quest groove, for all the absurdities of the landscape and the characters. Still, the acting is excellent, and the character and set design are quirky and occasionally lovely.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

You're All Alone


The Sinful Ones (a.k.a. You're All Alone) by Fritz Leiber: It sometimes seems as if science fiction exists partially to repeatedly ask the question 'What is reality?' and then offer a nearly endless variety of possible answers to that question. Fritz Leiber's short novel starts off in the 'One ordinary day...' mode before quickly veering off into one of the more disturbing examinations of 'reality' ever put to paper. You're All Alone, Leiber's original title for the novel, sums up this paranoid fantasy about whether or not a person can ever be certain of the reality of the people and things around him or her. In a very vague way, this is a vacuum-tube era version of The Matrix, but without kung fu or computers or any easy answers. Or a Messiah, for that matter. Highly recommended.


Essential Fantastic Four Volume 5 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Romita, John Buscema and others: Jack Kirby's last twenty or so issues of his original Fantastic Four run appear here, along with a handful or issues illustrated by other hands. We again do a lot of revisiting of villains and situations, including Mole Man, the shape-changing alien Skrulls, the Submariner, Doctor Doom in what may be the best Doom story ever, and the antimatter Negative Zone and its bizarre inhabitants.

The most pivotal storyline included is that of the birth of Franklin Richards, first child of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl. He'll undergo some serious rapid aging over the course of about twenty issues, going from birth to what appears to be two years old, prior to settling back into the more sedate 'normal' world of superhero aging. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 5, 2010

From Hell's Heart


Hunger for Horror ed. Robert & Pamela Crippen Adams & Martin H. Greenberg: The 1970's and 1980's were the Golden Age of genre reprint anthologies, before the bottom starting dropping out on a lot of things in the publishing business (most of them related to short stories). Thanks to his work with Isaac Asimov and others, Martin H. Greenberg has his name on an awful lot of those genre anthologies, primarily in the realms of science fiction, fantasy and horror. This theme anthology collects horror stories that feature food and eating, and it's an enjoyable jaunt from the always acidic Ambrose Bierce to the 1980's. I'm not sure that Michael Bishop's bizarre bit of metafiction about a man who turns into a planet-sized tomato qualifies as horror, but it is pretty funny. Recommended.

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber (1977): Leiber was a restless giant of genre writing, producing major work in science fiction, fantasy and horror from the 1930's until his death in the early 1990's. His mature prose style managed to be allusive without being overwhelmingly dense, with a narrative tone that foreshadows Neil Gaiman, only tougher minded. He wrote one of the seminal "bridge" works in American fantasy fiction, 1940's "Smoke Ghost", which suggested that an industrial age would spawn its own peculiar new horrors rather than simply regurgitating the ghosts and vampires of the past. Much of his horror fiction worked within that vein which he helped to create, positing modern incarnations of vampires ("The Girl with the Hungry Eyes") and witches (Conjure Wife) that were no longer tired, anachronistic tropes.

This novel manages to gently satirize cosmic Lovecraftian horrors while at the same time seriously investing in the possibility of new horrors that far outstrip the old in malevolence and power. Two books purchased at a used book store in San Francisco turn out to be a seemingly loopy explanation of how cities breed new supernatural horrors called "paramentals" and a lost diary of real-world fantasy writer Clark Ashton Smith. And then things start to get strange for the protagonist, a fantasy writer and recovering alcoholic in his late 40's. My only complaint about this novel is that one wants it to be longer -- it clocks in at under 200 pages, leaving one wishing for more but also impressed at Leiber's brevity in a world dominated by 500-page horror novels. Highest recommendation.


Marvel Illustrated Presents Moby Dick, adapted by Roy Thomas and Pascal Alixe: Herman Melville's Moby Dick resists adaptation in movies and comics, partially because of its great length and partially because of its idiosyncratic content -- a number of lengthy chapters explain at great length the nuts and bolts of things like whaling, rope-making and what-have-you, making it one of the most expository novels ever written.

Writer Roy Thomas has been the king of comics adaptation for decades now, beginning with his lengthy run on Conan the Barbarian, so he's a pretty good choice for any literary adaptation that one doesn't want to see diverge too much from the source. He does a nice job here of boiling down the narrative to fit into a 130-page comic, partially (as he notes in the foreword) by throwing out most of the exposition and expanding the length of the final battle with the Great White Whale in relation to the rest of the text. Thomas mainly resticts his writing to selections culled from the novel to supply both dialogue and Ishmael's narration, foregrounding the neo-Shakespearean Gothic of Melville's prose.

Pascal Alixe's art is a bit too cartoony and large-eyed to be wholly successful -- there are times when the characters are way too cute for what's happening to them. However, he effectively renders Moby Dick himself as a sinister, almost impressionistic force seen mainly as a series of inhuman body parts: the sublime and terrifying head, the tail, the harpoon-studded back with a dead man accidentally lashed to it. Recommended.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Superman's Past


Superman in the 40's by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and various: For a very brief time (say, 1938-1940), Superman was a vaguely socialistic fighter of tyranny both domestic (corrupt mine owners!) and international (anyone starting a war!) thanks to the agit-prop sensibilities of his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster (cousin of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster fame). But the character's meteoric success brought with it a corporatization of his sensibilities, so that over the course of the 1940's Superman transformed into the paternalistic "Big Blue Boy Scout" image that he's still sometimes viewed as today.

These 1940's stories offer a pretty fair glimpse of that transformation, and of the growth of Superman's supporting cast both in number and in depth (Lois Lane, for one, is a truly awful shrew for the first couple of years of the comic). Superman wasn't the best superhero comic of the 1940's (that would be Captain Marvel), but it had its charms, though Superman's inflationary superpowers would ultimately see him opposed more by pests than challenges by the time the decade ended. Remember, Superman couldn't fly when he started out (though he could jump an eighth of a mile), and while he was pretty tough, he could be hurt and even knocked unconscious by gas. Time would make him stronger and give him the plethora of powers he still enjoys today, at the cost of a certain measure of drama. Recommended.

Superman in the 50's by Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Edmond Hamilton and various: Superhero comics took a nosedive in popularity as the 1940's ended. By the early 1950's, most titles other than the various Batman, Superman and Batman titles had folded as horror and war comics gained a brief prominence. Superman in the 1950's was about as Establishment a figure as one could be, his powers now grown so great that only Kryptonite and the rays of a red sun could affect them (well, and magic). But this was also a time of Superman's ascendance to television success as played by the ill-fated George Reeves.

The stories here depict a corporate Superman occasionally bedevilled by pests like The Prankster, the Toyman and Mr. Mxyzptlk (aka Mxyztplk early in the decade). The elements of the Superman mythology would expand with the creation of Krypto the Super-dog (young Superman's Kryptonian pet), Supergirl, the Arctic Fortress of Solitude (lifted verbatim from the Doc Savage pulp novels of the 1930's and 1940's), assorted Kryptonian supercriminals who'd escaped the destruction of Krypton, space-criminal Brainiac, the Bottle City of Kandor, and various other elements. The Superman mythos was becoming a very crowded place!

The stories selected here are all quite interesting, though Superman comics in the 1950's don't represent a high point in the medium, even for the decade. It would take the Silver Age rebirth of heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern to start revitalizing the superhero genre which had somehow, in just ten years, become somewhat threadbare and worn. Recommended.