Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Vampire Sun


Seven Soldiers of Victory Volumes 1-4, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Doug Mahnke, Simone Bianchi, Fraser Irving, J.H. Williams III and many others (2006): The original Seven Soldiers of Victory were a super-hero team of the 1940's whose members were pretty much all non-powered superheroes of the masked vigilante school of crime-fighting. Indeed, DC's gun-slinging Western superhero of the time, The Vigilante, was a charter member.

Morrison's modern reconfiguration of the team turns the Soldiers into a fairly powerful lot who manage to be the only super-team in history whose members almost never meet one another. Yes, they're the post-modern Justice League. Two framing issues surround 7 different miniseries, each focused on one hero. Put together, this somewhat odd configuration follows the Soldiers as they defeat an ancient enemy of humanity, the Sheeda, who periodically destroy all civilization on Earth. Why? Because they're hungry. And dinks.

Prophecy says that the Sheeda can only be defeated by a superhero team comprising seven members, so the Sheeda side-project involves tracking down seven-person teams and eliminating them. The bizarre nature of the new Seven Soldiers pretty much makes this Sheeda strategy unworkable, and while things look crazy for awhile, the Seven Soldiers remain cool in the face of a super-powered army of what initially appear to be evil, blue-skinned elves (Sheeda = Sidhe, get it?) but which actually aren't. Elves, that is. They are blue-skinned and they are pretty evil. Even the original Vigilante has to come out of retirement to help in the fight. Twice!

Among other things, this maxi-series was a run-up to Morrison's Final Crisis of a couple years later -- his reconfiguration of The New Gods will play into that series, as will mysterious government agency SHADE and SHADE operative Frankenstein. Well, the creature Frankenstein created, who also now goes by the name Frankenstein and is a mighty, sword-wielding force for Good. Frankenstein is joined by The Bulleteer, Zatanna, Klarion the Witch-boy, The Manhattan Guardian, Mister Miracle and The Shining Knight in the Seven Soldiers. I think it's a great series with great art, but your results may vary depending on how many obscure DC heroes and villains you know (Mind-Grabber Man? Really?). Highly recommended.


The Essential Conan: The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard (1935), edited and with commentary by Karl Edward Wagner (1977): This is the only Conan novel written by Conan's doomed creator, Texan Robert E. Howard, before his suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. And for a first novel, it's surprisingly well-constructed and tight. Howard would write several more Conan adventures after this one, but in Conan's chronology, this is the last adventure (though not The Last Adventure -- Conan is in his mid-40's and hale and hearty when we leave him).

Here, we find Conan as the King of Aquilonia, Aquilonia being one of Howard's imaginary pre-Ice Age European countries during the time called The Hyborian Age. Conan is a surprisingly fair and just king, but that doesn't stop intrigue against him, as several native and foreign enemies bring an uber-powerful wizard back from the dead in order to further their political aims. Conan's army falls in battle to the magically aided enemies, Conan is captured, and soon the wizard's plans put the entire world in danger of being plunged into a second age of darkness. Only a mysterious magical item linked to the wizard can be used to defeat him.

In a lot of ways, this novel resembles the later Lord of the Rings, only with Conan and a lot shorter. Howard excels in the creation of oddly imagined supernatural threats, bloody battle scenes and, of course, the character of Conan himself -- alternately morose and jovial, fatalistic but unbowed. Howard's Conan was always more like a hardboiled detective than a traditional fantasy hero. Editor Karl Edward Wagner did the admirable job of restoring available Conan texts to their original published form with some emendations derived from Howard's own final drafts, and with period illustrations throughout. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rag-and-Bone Shop

The Shining, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers (1980): While watching The Shining over the course of three nights on my PVR, I realized that, for me at least, I'd found the perfect way to watch it. The Shining has always been a movie of dazzling parts held together by a plot that shudders and jolts to a complete stop at points. It may be that Kubrick wanted to make a much longer movie, or it may be that Kubrick never intended the plot to work all that well in the first place. This was not a film-maker that gave a crap about pleasing an audience in a traditional way, after all.

The basic plot is this: failed writer Jack Torrance, wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny take the job as winter caretakers at a Colorado hotel located in the Rockies. The hotel closes from November 1 to April 30 for the winter, leaving the caretakers the only people for miles. Danny has a psychic talent called "The Shining" which gives him premonitions of the future, causes him to see things, and occasionally results in his body being taken over by the benevolent but creepy "Tony."*

Overlook head cook Halloran also has "The Shining." He cautions Danny about the hotel's ability to show people illusions, and tells Danny to signal him telepathically should anything go wrong over the course of the winter. The Overlook Hotel itself has been the site of a number of murders and atrocities over the years, not least of which was a previous caretaker murdering his wife and twin daughters before killing himself. Over the course of the first five weeks or so of caretaking, hilarity gradually ensues.

Certainly, enjoyment of the film requires one to forget about Stephen King's novel. In the novel, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in the movie) is a good man undone by alcoholism and circumstances and, of course, by the hotel. In the movie, Torrance is a physically abusive nutcase barely hiding his unravelling psyche from his wife Wendy (Duvall) and son Danny (Lloyd) even as the movie begins. There's very little sense that Torrance actually loves his family, and his fairly rapid descent into a homicidal fury suggests a sub-text of family violence and monstrous fathers that doesn't exist in the novel. Wendy, a blonde beauty in the novel, becomes the awkward Duvall in the movie, and Torrance-POV shots at key moments in the movie are probably the least flattering shots of Shelley Duvall ever put on screen. Of course, that's the point: Torrance's real view of his wife, allowed to fester by the hotel, is that she's a hideous shrew.

Production design and camera work are key here, as they are in all of Kubrick's films once he had complete creative control. The interior of the snow-bound Overlook Hotel is subtly alien and off-putting both due to size and colour scheme; the rugs alone might drive almost anyone off the deep end. Certain things work really well as horror -- the looming hedge maze is an improvement over the novel's homicidal hedge animals -- while others seem to verge on parody. The red-and-white washroom is really pretty hilarious.

That line between hilarity and horror -- or horror and horror-parody -- is crossed and recrossed throughout the film. One of Kubrick's stated aims -- to make a horror movie in which the lights stay on as much as possible -- is pretty much achieved. Certain scenes and images (especially the blood-torrent-spewing elevator) play more like parody, and the revelation that 'Redrum' is 'murder' spelled backwards lands with a dull thump, as does the 'shocking' photographic revelation that ends the movie. I believe these thuds are intentional: Kubrick seems to be aiming to scare people and make fun of horror tropes at the same time, maybe never moreso than in the fate of Halloran in the movie, much altered from the novel.

Nonetheless, there are enough startling moments -- the revelation of what Jack's been typing for weeks, Jack's pursuit of Danny through the hedge maze -- to allow the horror to outweigh Kubrick's parodic play with the horror. Kubrick's film also serves as a companion piece to his own 2001: A Space Odyssey: rather than watching humanity evolve from killer ape to Star Child, we watch Torrance devolve back into a killer ape chasing his own son through the hedge maze, his urge to do violence ultimately destroying him while Wendy and Danny are saved by Halloran's altruism and Danny's cleverness. Recommended.

* Who, in the novel, is Danny trying to telepathically warn himself from the future, Danny's middle name being 'Anthony.'