Monday, February 28, 2011

The Waterboy

Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell (2009): Gavin Meadows, self-employed as a walking-tour guide of historic Liverpool, finds out more about the city's long (founded in the 13th century) and somewhat bizarre (even in non-fiction) history as he searches for his missing father. Campbell grew up in LIverpool, and a number of his previous novels have been set either there or in his early-career Liverpool stand-in, Brichester. Here, he visits all-out historical horror on his home, blending real and fictional in an unnerving, escalating fashion that builds upon the quasi-documentary accumulation of detail so central to H.P. Lovecraft's best work.

Campbell uses first-person narration here as he did in his previous novel, The Grin of the Dark. As first-person narration had previously been rare in Campbell's long-form output, I wonder if he had more ideas related to unreliable narration than The Grin of the Dark could profitably address. Gavin Meadows is much more reliable than the narrator of the previous novel, but we do get some (self-doubting) moments as Meadows tries to wrestle with whether or not what he's glimpsing is real or somehow an ongoing hallucination brought on by stress.

See, Liverpool was built partially on reclaimed marshland and, indeed, a reclaimed pool. Beneath the ground, ancient tunnels proliferate, some now being rediscovered, some still hidden. Above the ground, the rain seems to fall incessantly. And everywhere and increasingly, Gavin starts to see things that don't appear to be quite human, even as the police seem to take his father's disappearance lightly. And as Liverpool gradually succumbs to a rising damp, Meadows struggles to keep his own thoughts straight against the onslaught of historical facts that sometimes threaten to overwhelm his reason.

Long-time horror readers will recognize Campbell's nods to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Festival", though this is in its own odd way a much 'gentler' story, or at least a more ambiguous one related to the malignity of Liverpool's 'other' residents. Still, if you're ever in Liverpool, you may want to avoid drinking the water. Or bathing in it. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Best American Comics 2007 (collected from mid-2005 to mid-2006), edited by Chris Ware and Anne Elizabeth Moore:


Jerry Moriarty. Dad Watches (Endpapers) from Kramer’s Ergot

ii : Ivan Brunetti. The Horror of Simply Being Alive from Schizo

* iv : Art Spiegelman. Portrait of the Artist As a Young %@#*! from Virginia Quarterly Review and The New Yorker

xii : Anne Elizabeth Moore. Foreword

xvi : Chris Ware. Introduction

* 1 : R. and Aline Crumb. Winta Wundaland from The New Yorker

4 : Sophie Crumb. “Hey, Soph, Whazzup?” from Mome

* 5 : Alison Bechdel. The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death from Fun Home

33 : C. Tyler. Just A Bad Seed and Once, We Ran from Late Bloomer

* 40 : Lynda Barry. Ernie Pook’s Comeek (Excerpt) from Ernie Pook

44 : Lauren Weinstein. Skate Date, Waiting, and John and I Go to the Movies from Girl Stories ix

49 : Vanessa Davis. Untitled Diary Strips from Kramer’s Ergot

* 53 : Gabrielle Bell. California Journal from Mome

65 : Ivan Brunetti. Six Things I Like About My Girlfriend from Schiz0

66 : Jeffrey Brown. These Things, These Things from Little Things

75 : Ron RegĂ© Jr. fuc 1997: We Share a Happy Secret, But Beware, Because the Modern World Emerges from Kramer’s Ergot

91 : John Porcellino. Country Roads—Brighton from King-Cat Comics and Stories

95 : Jonathan Bennett. Needles and Pins from Mome

* 106 : Kevin Huizenga. Glenn in Bed from Ganges

118 : David Heatley. Sambo from Mome

* 121 : Sammy Harkham. Lubavitch, Ukraine, 1876 from Kramer’s Ergot

* 132 : Miriam Katin. Untitled (The List) from We Are on Our Own

144 : Ben Katchor. Shoehorn Technique from Chicago Reader

* 156 : Adrian Tomine. Shortcomings (Excerpt) from Optic Nerve

175 : David Heatley. Cut Thru and Laundry Room from Mome

* 177 : Gilbert Hernandez. Fritz After Dark from Luba’s Comics and Stories

* 201 : Kim Deitch. No Midgets in Midgetville from The Stuff of Dreams

219 : Anders Nilsen. Dinner and a Walk from Big Questions #7: Dinner and a Nap

* 230 : Charles Burns. Black Hole (Excerpt) from Black Hole

240 : Gary Panter. Untitled (Discrete Operations Vehicle—Burning Gall) from Jimbo’s Inferno

251 : C.F. Blond Atchen and the Bumble Boys from The Ganzfeld

263 : Ivan Brunetti. My Bumbling, Corpulent Mass from Schizo

264 : Tim Hensley. Meet the Dropouts from Mome

267 : Paper Rad. Kramer’s Ergot from Kramer’s Ergot

280 : David Heatley. Walnut Creek from Mome

* 285 : Dan Zettwoch. Won’t Be Licked! The Great ’37 Flood in Louisville from Drawn & Quarterly Showcase

315 Contributors’ Notes

326 100 Distinguished Comics from August 31, 2005 to September 1, 2006

Endpages Seth, Wimbledon Green

Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, Acme Comics Novelty Library) may need to be kept away from the editing desk. He's a brilliant writer/artist, but his writerly tendency towards tales of woe pretty much informs this entire collection. So too does an overemphasis on autobiographical comics -- and autobiographical comics dominate the Indy comix scene in much the same way that superheroes dominate the mainstream. Fine, non-autobiographical stories by Kim Deitch and Gilbert Hernandez surface towards the middle of this collection like welcome oasises of comedy and sorrow.

There's other good work here, though I'm not a fan of excerpting longer works to shoehorn them into a collection like this. There's also some truly godawful experimental comics work included, Kramer's Ergot being the worst offender -- it's like a Victor Moscoso piece as translated by an unartistic child. I'd forgotten that Gary Panter had disappeared for awhile. The piece here reminds me why this was a good thing. I've starred the stuff I liked. For the most part, the best pieces avoid the obsessive and often humourless navel-gazing of a lot of autobiographical comics, through talent or subject matter or both. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21 (2009), edited by Stephen Jones (2010):


Stephen Jones – Introduction: Horror in 2009

Michael Kelly – The Woods
Joe Hill & Stephen King – Throttle
Barbara Roden – Out And Back
Ramsey Campbell – Respects
Simon Stranzas – Cold To The Touch
M. R. James & Reggie Oliver – The Game Of Bear
Chris Bell - Shem-El-Nesime: An Inspiration In Perfume
Michael Marshall Smith – What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night
Nicholas Royle – The Reunion
Simon Kurt Unsworth – Mami Wata
Richard Christian Matheson – Venturi
John Gaskin – Party Talk
Terry Dowling – Two Steps Along The Road
Mark Valentine – The Axholme Toll
Robert Shearman – Granny’s Grinning
Rosalie Parker – In The Garden
Stephen Volk – After The Ape
Brian Lumley – The Nonesuch
Michael Kelly – Princess Of The Night
Stephen Jones & Kim Newman – Necrology: 2009

Another fine 'Best of Year' collection from uber-editor Jones. The page count seems to have been clawed back by about 100 pages, though Jones seems to have compensated by choosing fewer novellas and more short stories. The Necrology and Year in Horror sections are exhaustive and invaluable as always, while I can't fault the wide-ranging selection of horror and dark fantasy contained herein. I actually liked all of these stories; the selection seemed more influenced by M.R. James than usual, perhaps fitting for a collection that includes a posthumous (for James) M.R. James collaboration.

The first team-up between Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill (that's Joe King's nom de plume) is a hoot, an homage to Richard Matheson's "Duel" (adapted into an excellent movie directed by Stephen Spielberg). Canadian Michael Kelly gets two (!) short entries; Ramsey Campbell offers a thematic sequel to his much earlier short story "The Sneering"; creepy goings-on occur at university reunions ("The Reunion"), the Canadian North ("The Woods"); Cairo ("Shem-El-Nesime: An Inspiration In Perfume"); Africa ("Mami Wata"); Viet Nam ("Two Steps Along The Road"); and in New York after the death of King Kong ("After the Ape"). Highly recommended.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Batman and Robin: Batman vs. Robin, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke and Scott Hanna (2010): Morrison keeps tying together plot threads while managing entertaining mini-arcs within the overall 'Return of Bruce Wayne' storyline. We also get more of England's Batman and Robin, the Knight and the Squire, along with the relatively new Batwoman, British crimefighter The Gravedigger, more shenanigans from Batman baby-mama Talia Al Ghul, and the evolving relationship between Batman's son Damian Al Ghul (the new Robin) and Dick Grayson (the new Batman).

Grayson's insecurity about taking over as Batman leads him to attempt to revive what everyone believes to be Batman's beat-up corpse, recovered and identified by Superman towards the end of the events of Final Crisis. Luckily (or unluckily) there's an undestroyed Lazarus Pit in the coal country of England. As a Lazarus Pit can bring just about anything back to life, off the new Batman goes.

And once that adventure's over, it's time to descend into the weird labyrinth that is stately Wayne Manor in order to finally figure out why it seems like someone's been sending message from various points in the past, hidden in various places throughout and beneath the ancestral Wayne family home.

Meanwhile, Mexico-based super-crime-boss El Penitente is on his way to take over Gotham City's crime; a mysterious man claiming to be Bruce Wayne's not-really-dead father Thomas arrives in Gotham; rumours swirl that Wayne's father was a Satanist and his mother a drug addict; and Damian has to fight off a hostile takeover of his own body. Whee! And what the hell is in that mysterious wooden box from the secret rooms of Wayne Manor? Wouldn't you like to know. But not yet. Cameron Stewart's art is excellent, hyper-real in the Neal Adams mould with just enough drollness to make everything fun among the weirdness. Highly recommended.

Batman and Robin: The Return of Batman, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frazer Irving, Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham, Alex Sinclair and David Finch (2010): And...he's back. Or is he? Yes he is. Or is he? As El Penitente's evil masterplan plunges all of Gotham City into chaos, even Batman and Robin may fail to pull out the win at the last second. But who's that riding to the rescue? Oops, it's one of Batman's greatest villains, so pissed off by the absence of the 'real' Batman and the spotlight-stealing perversities of El Penitente and crime super-group The Black Glove that he (or she) has temporarily switched sides.

And when it's all over, Bruce Wayne will reveal a shocking secret to the whole world.

Yes, he's Iron Man!

Wait, no he isn't.

Pretty much everything left unanswered in The Return of Bruce Wayne gets answered here, including the identity of El Penitente, the importance of Damian Al Ghul's ability to read a ledger, what's in the 'ancestor box' and why, and the final mystery of the life story of that bat that flew threw the window of Bruce Wayne's living-room all those years ago to give him a good idea for a crime-fighting costume when he was a "hero without a totem." The various Bat-artists do fine work here as well. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Infinite Regress

Superman and the Legion of Superheroes, written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank and Jon Sibal (2007-2008): The pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Legion of Superheroes (LSH) (from the 31st century!) gets reinserted into official DC continuity by Johns and Frank in a pretty enjoyable reunion adventure with Superman, who now remembers being a member of the Legion as a teenager because he actually (again) was a member as a teenager. Several 31st-century years after Superman/boy last visited the Legion, they send a Time-Bubble to get him (though first they have to telepathically unlock his hidden memories of being in the Legion).

Hilarity ensues in a 31st century gone boopy, where a xenophobic Earth has banished aliens and a human-only new Justice League are acting like a bunch of dinks. Superman comes through, and various threads are introduced that lead directly to the subsequent Superman/LSH miniseries Superman: Legion of Three Worlds, and then to the current new Legion stories in the relaunched LSH and Adventure Comics. Fun space-opera action with a lot of old 'friends' from my youth, though I can't believe the evil Justice League killed Legion of Substitute Heroes member Doubleheader. That's just wrong. Recommended.

Day of Vengeance, written by Judd Winick and Bill Willingham, illustrated by Ian Churchill, Justinano and Walden Wong (2005): One of several lead-ins to 2005-2006's DC megacrossover/reboot Infinite Crisis, Day of Vengeance tells the tale of a war among DC's supernatural heroes. The Spectre, the most annoying and powerful magical being in the DC universe, has gone crazy again after being stripped of his latest human host, once-and-future Green Lantern Hal Jordan.

Seduced by dark 'god' Eclipso, the Spectre sets out to destroy ever other magic-user on Earth. Only a ragtag group of C-list magic heroes (The Enchantress, Nightshade, Detective Chimp, Blue Devil, Ragman and that guy whose name I always forget) can stop him, or at least help Captain Marvel stop him. Fun but inconclusive -- the actual climax to this would appear months later in its own special after Infinite Crisis, and lead into the short-lived and much-missed (by me) magical team series Shadowpact. Recommended.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growing Pains

Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely, Philip Tan and Jonathan Glapion (2009): Having Bruce Wayne out of the picture for two years turned out to be a godsend, primarily in the form of the Batman and Robin title. First-Robin Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing) reluctantly gives up his own superhero identity (Nightwing, natch) to give Gotham City its hero back, with the genetically modified, League-of-Assassins-trained, 10-year-old Damian as the new Robin.

Both experience job-related growing pains both existential (Dick doubts himself; Damian is a spoiled, potentially homicidal brat) and mundane (people keep noticing that the new Batman, who's supposed to be the old Batman after a temporary layoff, is a good six inches shorter now). Much zippy, occasionally macabre fun is had by all: the Batman R.I.P. storyline has left a number of new villains roaming the streets of Gotham, including Le Bossu and Professor Pyg, and Batman and Robin have to hit the ground running in order to deal with them. Luckily, Damian has got the new flying Batmobile working.

A confrontation with cuckoo-banana second-Robin Jason Todd, now the Red Hood, also looms. Todd wants to replace the new Batman with himself, a Batman-surrogate who kills. Ultimately, this doesn't sit well with anybody, least of all Gotham's mob leaders, who up their violence levels to respond to this new crime-fighting threat. And they call in super-assassin The Flamingo. Seriously. He wears a lot of pink and he likes to eat people's faces, or watch them eat their own faces. He's ten tons of fun, in other words.

Frank Quitely'a art on the covers and the initial three issues is splendid as always, and Philip Tan is no slouch either -- though the book purposefully ran a relay-race of artist-exchanges every three issues, the result was pretty much always good. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Batman Beyond Forever

Batman R.I.P., written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Tony Daniel and Lee Garbett (2008): Batman finally faces the Ultimate Enemy he never knew he had...and then, as the last two issues tie into megacrossover event Final Crisis (also scripted by Morrison), he also has to face Darkseid, the DC Universe's amalgam of Satan and Dick Cheney. Seriously, though Darkseid was created in the early 1970's. Tony Daniel and Garbett provide some dandy artwork in the hyperrealistic tradition of great Batman artists that include Neal Adams and Jim Aparo.

But it's the story, bringing to at least partial fruition Morrison's first two years on Batman, that shines -- though it shines a lot more if you read everything over again. Morrison's made himself into the master of zippy high-density superhero comics. Almost everything he does rewards a second reading, indeed, almost demands it at points.

Old Batman stories and characters once cast out of continuity are hereby returned to continuity, often with odd spins. Fifth-dimensional prankster Bat-Mite returns as what appears to be a figment of Batman's imagination, there to warn him about what's coming -- but as Bat-Mite notes when Batman asks him if he really comes from the Fifth Dimension or if he's imaginary, "Imagination is the Fifth Dimension! Geez, some world's greatest detective you turned out to be!"

A bizarre old Batman story about an extraterrestrial Batman holds part of the key to Batman winning now against The Black Glove and its malign, possibly immortal leader Dr. Hurt. So does the Joker. And the Club of Heroes. And Batman's son, Damian. And Nightwing, the original Robin, and the current Robin. But Batman, poisoned, buried, mind under attack, has to carry a lot of the weight himself. And then, if he succeeds, he has to face the origin of all evil -- Darkseid himself -- with the fate of all universes depending on the outcome. And there this story ends, at the moment before Batman faces Darkseid, though later revelations would allow for Batman R.I.P.: The Missing Chapter about two years later, also by Morrison and Daniel, once certain things had been revealed in the due course of other stories. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here Comes a Candle

Batman: The Black Glove, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by J.H. Williams III, Tony Daniel and Ryan Benjamin (2007-2008): The main story herein sees Morrison use another story from Batman's much-reviled 1950's and early 1960's adventures as a key element in the ongoing 5-year-+ epic that is Morrison's Batman now.

The Club of Heroes: a mostly forgotten group of Batman-like heroes from various countries, brought together years ago by reclusive billionaire Mayhew, and now brought together again by Mayhew on his private island to...solve Mayhew's death. But it's a trap, part of mysterious super-crime collective The Black Glove's annual wagering-festival that pits Good against Evil for the pleasure and gambling entertainment of a handful of depraved super-criminal billionaires (handful? The Black Glove? get it?).

The most popular of these Club characters -- England's Knight and Squire -- had appeared before in Morrison's Justice League work, and now have their own (enjoyable) miniseries written by Paul Cornell. The rest -- the Musketeer, the Legionary, Wingman (!!!) -- are all reintroduced into Batman continuity here, so far as I know. They squabble a bit, still irritated that the Club of Heroes fell apart primarily because Batman had better things to do than join another superhero group (he was already in the Justice League at the time). And the Black Glove starts killing them off, one by one.

The art by J.H. Williams is gorgeous as usual, though a couple of shattered-glass-layout pages require a bit too much parsing to be enjoyable. That may not be his fault, though, as Morrison tends to lay out the layouts himself most of the time. The whole thing is weird, occasionally creepy fun, and, as it will eventually turn out, a reborn Club of Heroes will soon be key to the survival of Gotham City itself once The Black Glove -- and its mysterious leader -- finally goes all in to destroy Batman, all of his friends and allies, and Gotham City itself. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Evil Self is At the Door!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart (1931): Fredric March deservedly won an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, though it's his Hyde that still has the capacity to astonish. Jekyll's dark side, released by a potion Jekyll has developed, is played by March as a malignly energetic simian, a movie monster who generates neither sympathy nor pathos but only revulsion and horror. There really is something scary about March's Hyde, something I can say about very few movie monsters. Also, he has something of a conehead. That's scary in and of itself.

Stevenson's original novella lacks many of the things Hollywood has always wanted -- a clear-cut conventionally moral lesson, a love story -- so the film adds these things, for the most part to good effect. Jekyll is a crusading saint in the movie, offering a free clinic to London's poor and working long hours there in between bouts of wooing his fiancee. But he's also obsessed with the idea that people have dual natures, and that the animal side of the consciousness can be released and perhaps even discarded with the administration of the right drugs. Well, you know how badly that goes.

Don't do drugs, kids. Especially drugs that release your dark side and cause you to physically transform into a monstrous, murderous pervert.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll has invented Red Bull.

The screenplay makes manifest the idea that Jekyll is driven in great measure by sexual frustration, and by frustration at the hypocritical propriety of late Victorian England: he wants to get laid, but he also wants to help people without being repeatedly pooh-poohed for his concern for the poor and working class. Hyde, once released, is a rapist and sexual sadist, a murderer -- but also "free" in the basest meaning of that word.

During Hyde's first appearance, March does a lovely bit of physical acting -- Hyde stretches again and again, apparently to work out the kinks from being confined for so long. And then he relentlessly pursues a music-hall girl whom Jekyll had earlier helped, ultimately to bring disaster down upon her (and, finally, himself). Hopkins, as the musical-hall girl, is first erotic and light-hearted and then progressively more terrified and broken-down. It's a gem of a performance, the most sympathetic and saddest in the film.

The movie was made and released before the Hays Office was created to censor movies, and so it's surprisingly frank for a 1930's picture. Mamoulian's direction is refreshingly ahead of its time for a sound film of this era -- the camera actually moves around quite a bit, and there's an odd but ultimately effective use of first-person camera at the beginning of the film. Given the size of a camera in 1931, the staging of the six-minute sequence must have been something of a nightmare. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Batman and Son

Batman and Son, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Andy Kubert, Jesse Delperdang and John Van Fleet (2006-2007): Nearly five years later, writer Gtant Morrison's first arc upon first writing Batman makes a lot more sense than it did at the time. Whatever his faults, Morrison has almost always been one of the best 'long-form' plotters the mainstream comic-book industry has ever had, though it takes a second reading to divine some of his twistier bits of set-up. Morrison built towards not only the Batman RIP storyline, Batman's 'death' in Final Crisis, and the Return of Bruce Wayne, but also towards his new Batman, Inc. on-going storyline. Five years of plotting. Great googly-moogly.

The greatest bit of weird genius throughout Morrison's (on-going) work on the adventures of Batman has been his attention to the elements of Batman history that most continuity wonks have been trying to forget for the last 50 years: the odd science-fiction and fantasy tales that dominate late 1950's and early 1960's Batman stories.

These are the stories that the majority of Batman fans have hated and shunned and mocked for decades. So Morrison says, how do I make these work with the Batman we know now? And can I use them as the foundation of The Batman Epic to End All Batman Epics (until the next one)?

And so Batman's adventures with the Batman of another planet; his interactions with magical nuisance Bat-mite; his battles with interstellar criminals; his membership in The Club of Heroes, a somewhat lame assortment of the Batman of many nations: these all become grist for Grant's mill. Somewhere out there, Batman's greatest enemy is waiting. And you haven't met him yet. Or have you?

Here, Morrison brings in what would eventually be the 'new' Robin -- Damian, the genetically altered product of a liason between Batman and Talia (daughter of super-criminal Ra's Al Ghul). Batman's dealing with a product of one of the funkier Batman villains introduced in the 1960's -- Man-bat, part-man, part-bat.

Talia's gotten hold of the Man-bat formula and has changed a number of members of her League of Assassins into ninja-Man-bats. And she's kidnapped the British Prime Minister's wife so as to be able to blackmail the U.K. into giving her Gibraltar, which she wants for the League of Assassins' new base. Or she may just be goofing around. Weird stuff. Also, the Joker mutates into a new, more homicidal personality! Groovy. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Unknown Soldier: Haunted House

Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, written by Joshua Dysart, illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli (2008-2009): Unfortunately, low sales caused DC to cancel this phenomenal series after just 25 issues -- though it obviously wasn't designed to run indefinitely, one certainly thought that there were another 30 or 40 issues to go beyond that 2+ year run. Meanwhile, there are still a billion different X-Men books on the shelves. Ptah!

In any case, the first volume of this iteration of DC's Unknown Soldier character sends its reluctant and brain-altered hero into the heart of the wars spinning off of Uganda's political situation in the early oughts, with government soldiers and Christian militia battling it out in the south of the country. Helpful text pages in each issue sketch out the causes of, and players in, this seemingly endless war, while the book itself manages to make violence both thrilling and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. One of the five or six best mainstream war books ever, and that includes the 1950's EC anthology books. Highest recommendation.

Clerks III: Batman Returns

Batman: The Widening Gyre, written by Kevin Smith, illustrated by Walter Flanagan and Art Thibert (2009-2010): Kevin Smith (yes, that Kevin Smith) and Batman make a somewhat problematic fit -- The Dark Knight and that patented oopsy-cutesy-risque Smith frank sexual dialogue don't mesh all that well. Would Batman's girlfriend really tell Batman's surrogate father Alfred the sexual details of why she calls Bruce Wayne 'DD'? And it doesn't stand for 'Daredevil', either.

Smith picks up where he left off in his previous Batman miniseries, Cacophony, presenting a Batman drawn heavily from 1970's Batman scribes like Steve Engelhart and Bob Haney (!). This Batman isn't the hypercompetent ubermensch of Grant Morrison or even Denny O'Neil -- instead, he's got a personal life, and he's riddled with enough insecurities about that personal life (and his life as Batman) that he's awfully soft and mushy under that crunchy exterior. It's not psychology, mind you, it's psychobabble.

There are certainly enough enjoyable moments -- one of Smith's advantages when he does comic books is that an artist stages thing, thus saving us from Smith's self-admitted visual crappiness as a director. Flanagan and Thibert do a solid, competent, vaguely 'retro' job on the art -- there's no discernible manga influence or really much cartooniness at all; the book would look perfectly normal to a comic-book reader who time-travelled here from the far-flung past of 1978.

One major caveat? The whole thing ends on a cliffhanger that I assume will be resolved in the next Smith/Flanagan miniseries. The plot? Batman starts working with a new costumed crime-fighter named Baphomet (!) while simultaneously re-connecting with 1970's Steve Engelhart/Marshall Rogers era Batman-girlfriend Silver St. Cloud. Will Batman justifiably let down his guard in both his public and private life? What do you think? Recommended.

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Bloody Hand!!!

My Bloody Valentine, written by Todd Farmer and Zane Smith, based on the screenplay for the 1981 film of the same name written by John Beaird and Stephen A. Miller, directed by Patrick Lussier, starring Jensen Ackles, Jaime King and Kevin Tighe (2009): 11 years ago, Tom Hanniger (Ackles) accidentally caused an explosion at the mine his father owned. One man survived by killing all the other trapped miners so as to conserve oxygen, though when he was found, he was in a coma. Ten years ago, that man awoke from his coma and went on a crazy killing spree, nearly killing Hanniger before being forced to flee into a collapsing mine tunnel.

Now, Tom Hanniger is back to sell the mine. Selling the mine will put everyone in town out of work because I guess in the universe of this movie, mines can be packed up and moved elsewhere, just like factories. This last is not the dumbest thing in this slasher-movie remake.

According to some wag on the Internet, the original My Bloody Valentine (1981) is one of the neglected high-points of the 'Golden Age of Slasher Movies', by which I assume he means the late 1970's and early 1980's, and not the age of 17, which is really the age at which these things seem interesting. Never has a Golden Age of any cinematic sub-genre produced fewer truly good films, though. That said, this is a pretty inept entry in the recent slasher-film boomlet.

Tonal shifts from horror-comedy to apparently serious melodrama jar the viewer right out of any ability to enjoy the movie on either level. Some of the CGI comes across so laughably that the gold old days of on-set special effects look awfully good by comparison -- a shot of a woman's head bisected by a shovel looks like something a talented 12-year-old whipped up in between Pizza Pops, for instance, while the nods to the 3-D this film was screened in are the same old throwing-stuff-at-the-camera crap we've been seeing from 3-D movies since the 1950's. ZZZZZZZZ.

Jensen Ackles, best known for TV's Supernatural, looks embarrassed and out-of-place here -- indeed, he looks like he's stuck in the Supernatural episode "Hollywood Babylon", in which his character hangs out on the set of a slasher movie that looks way more interesting than My Bloody Valentine. Some of the surprising slasher-film tropes expounded upon the the terrific film-criticism text Men, Women and Chainsaws play out here -- ultimately, the true protagonist (and only competent 'good' person in the entire movie) turns out to be a woman; Ackles, though he headlines the picture, is only in about half the movie, and his character is something of an incompetent boob. So it goes. Not recommended.

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear, written by Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Graham Greene, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond (1944): The film opens with Stephen Neale (Milland) being released from a mental asylum where he's been incarcerated for two years after being convicted of mercy-killing his terminally ill wife, though his wife actually dosed herself with the poison he'd purchased. Because this is a thriller, there's a Nazi spy ring at work in the carnival opposite the train station Neale goes to after being released. In a case of mistaken identity, he's given a cake intended for a spy within which is hidden what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin -- the thing everyone in the thriller is chasing. Hilarity ensues.

It really seems as if Paramount was trying to make Ray Milland into a poor man's Cary Grant at this time, possibly because of Milland's odd mid-Atlantic accent. Milland's tour-de-force performance as an alcoholic in Lost Weekend was still a couple of years away; here, he's a sort-of dashing Hitchcockian 'Wrong Man' trapped in a thriller plot somewhat resembling that of The 39 Steps.

The whole thing with the cake is handled with right amount of drollness, and there are some really lovely set pieces cooked up by director Fritz Lang, he of German film classics M and Metropolis and a number of classic films noir once he fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930's.

This is indeed a 'dark film' in terms of photography, though incongruously light-hearted much of the time -- a comic-relief private detective is something of a botch. A gun fight in an English field being bombed by the Nazis looks terrific for something obviously done on a sound stage, and there are a number of other scenes in which the play of light and shadow creates an aura of menace the script can't quite maintain -- the narrative starts and stops a number of times, something quite odd for a film that's less than 90 minutes long. But Lang, strong on visuals, always seemed to be a bit weak on narrative momentum. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Best New Horror 15 (2003)

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 15 (2003) edited by Stephen Jones: The Mammoth series of annual 'Best of' horror anthologies has been a godsend for over two decades now, and even more of a godsend ever since the DAW 'Best of Horror' annual series ended with the sad and early death of its long-time editor Karl Edward Wagner. That the Mammoth series has at least twice the page count of the Wagner series, along with lengthy Necrology and 'Year in Horror' sections, makes it even more essential, if that's possible.

Stephen Jones is a voluminous and gifted anthologist, and the yearly Best New Horror has become one of the things I look forward to each year, like the Super Bowl or Fox TV's annual purge of all its best shows.

This anthology of stories from 2003 is the usual solid job, with good stories by perennials that include Ramsey Campbell, Glen Hirshberg, Caitlin Kiernan and Neil Gaiman, along with offerings from lesser-known and new writers. The great Gene Wolfe does one of his reality-bending bits with "Hunter Lake"; Hirshberg offers a melancholy new take on the Golem and the Holocaust in "Dancing Men"; Campbell expertly mines childhood fears in "Fear the Dead"; Toronto's Gemma Files comes up with a really awful innovation in the realm of puppetry with "Kissing Carrion" (also set in T.O.); Simon Clark and Tim Lebbon work wonders with a story about the great fantasist Arthur Machen's WWI story-turned-urban-legend "The Archers of Mons"; Joyce Carol Oates comes up with an atypically typical (for her) bit of nu-Gothic in "The Haunting." There's even a story set on an island in Lake Erie ("Lucy, In Her Splendour" by Charles Coleman Finley) and a creepy, M.R. James by way of H.P. Lovecraft story by Mark Samuels, "The White Hands." One of the pleasures of the Mammoth series is catching up with old friends; another lies in discovering "new" writers whose names you'll have to look out for, such as Samuels.

All in all, this is another fine addition to the Best New Horror series, and a useful reference book for the year in question. Jones is extremely catholic in his horror selection, with stories running the gamut from gruesome but natural horror to mind-bending examinations of the supernatural Sublime. Long may he run. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Showcase Presents Doom Patrol Volume 2, written by Arnold Drake, illustrated by Bruno Premiani and Bob Brown (1966-68; collected 2010): Ah, the Doom Patrol, DC Comics' weirdest and most Marvel-like superhero team of the 1960's. Like the X-Men, they had a leader in a wheelchair. Like the Fantastic Four, there were four of them, including an orange strongman, a super-genius, a person who could stretch, and a flying hero with energy powers. And yet the timeline for the creation of those three books makes plagiarism on anyone's part pretty much impossible -- though it has been suggested that a conversation on a golf course may have somehow influenced the rosters of those two Marvel and one DC super-teams. So it goes.

Commercially, Doom Patrol was either the second-most successful of those titles in the 1960's, behind The Fantastic Four but ahead of The X-Men, which somehow couldn't become popular enough to stay out of reprints even with Neal Adams drawing the book.

Of course, Doom Patrol got cancelled around the same time as X-Men went to reprints and pretty much stayed in reprints for six years until Giant-Size X-Men #1 reinvented the X-Men, who would then gradually become Marvel's most popular book over the course of the late 1970's and early 1980's. DC tried bringing the Doom Patrol back in the mid-1970's, but it wasn't until the late 1980's that yet another relaunch lasted longer than the original run, and gave us writer Grant Morrison at his early, weirdest best.

Like many of Marvel's super-teams and supergroups, the Doom Patrol (Robotman, Negative-man, Elasti-Girl and the Chief) squabbled a lot. Well, they did have a hero named Negative-man on their roster! They fought distinctive, and distinctively weird, super-villains: Monsieur Mallah, a super-intelligent, beret-wearing gorilla; the Brain, a brain in a jar; the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man (A-V-M-Man for short), a guy who could turn into pretty much anything; Garguax, an alien with an army of super-powered plastic robots; and a host of other freaky supernatural and superscientific menaces. The heroes were occasionally self-loathing, seeing themselves as freaks, though ultimately they became like a PSA about embracing one's own difference.

Quirky writer Arnold Drake and underappreciated artist Bruno Premiani wrote and drew pretty much every Doom Patrol adventure from their first appearance in the anthology title My Greatest Adventure (they don't make comic-book titles like that any more!) to the last issue of their own comic, which was actually just My Greatest Adventure with the title changed but the numbering intact.

Along the way, they picked up green, shape-changing teenager Beast Boy (later of the Teen Titans) and grumpy telekinetic millionaire Mento (the fresh-maker!) as auxiliary members. The focus remained pretty much on the four core members, though, in all their freaky and occasionally crabby glory. Grant Morrison pushed them into areas of previously untapped weirdness in the 1980's and early 1990's, but much of that weirdness is at least implicit here, and often explicit. All that and perhaps the most shocking final issue of a superhero comic book of the 1960's. What's not to love? Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Showcase Presents Legion of Superheroes Volume 4, written by Jim Shooter, E. Nelson Bridwell and Cary Bates; illustrated by Curt Swan, Win Mortimer, Dave Cockrum, George Tuska, Jack Abel and others (1967-1972; collected 2010): The fourth Legion of Superheroes (LSH) Showcase volume takes us through a period of transition for DC's group of super-powered teenagers in the 30th century (and Superboy and Supergirl).

Artistic great Curt Swan leaves for full-time pencilling duties on the Superman books, and World's Youngest Comic-book Writer Jim Shooter follows a year or so thereafter. Legion stories shift from Adventure Comics to Action Comics to Superboy, losing pages every time. But Superboy would become Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes soon after the stories collected here. Dave Cockrum, one of the best artists the Legion ever had (and a pivotal co-creator of Marvel's new X-Men a few years down the road) pencils his first few stories here.

The best story here is the opening two-parter by Shooter, Swan and inker Abel, in which a handful of Legionnaires flee to 20th-century Smallville with the forces of Mordru the Mystic close behind them. Mordru's powerful enough to defeat the entire Legion by himself (Superboy is as vulnerable to magic as anyone else), and the two-parter is a mini-masterpiece of suspense.

One of the things the Legion did for Superboy was regularly place him in situations of real peril that didn't always have to involve Kryptonite. While the Superman books of the 1960's seemed perpetually stuck with a nearly omnipotent Man of Steel, the Legion books gave us a Superboy who could be hurt and even killed by the villains he faced. It made for a lot more drama.

After Shooter left, things got a lot less interesting, though the end of the volume brings young writer Cary Bates and the aforementioned Cockrum onto the stage, hinting at better days to come. One of the icons of early comic-book fandom, the Legion also looked forward to the dizzying array of superheroes that would come to characterize Marvel's 1980's super-hit X-Men: Legion members included such bizarrely gifted heroes as Matter-Eater Lad (who could eat anything), Bouncing Boy (who could bounce really well), and Chemical King (who could speed up chemical reactions).

Unlike later X-heroes and X-villains, the Legion members had helpfully descriptive names: one could actually tell what their powers were just by knowing their names, a far cry from characters with names like Holocaust, Marrow and Apocalypse. So it goes. Long-time artist Win Mortimer's art on the Legion here is better than I expected, partially because Jack Abel's inking gives the whole thing that peculiar weight and darkness that was Abel's trademark. Long live the Legion! Recommended.