Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Rural Ghostbuster

Planet Stories: Who Fears the Devil?: The Complete Silver John Stories by Manly Wade Wellman, introductions by Mike Resnick and Karl Edward Wagner (2010 this edition): God bless the relatively new Planet Stories imprint, which is trying to bring out-of-print fantasy and science-fiction classics back in affordable, over-sized and reasonably priced paperbacks. It's a worthy project, and I hope profitable enough for them to continue. At the very least, you should go buy this book, the two entries by C.L. Moore and Robert E. Howard's Almuric from their back catalogue. Oh, and the Kuttner and A. Merritt volumes too.

Manly Wade Wellman, born early in the first decade of the 20th century and dying in 1986, wrote to the end. He was a pulp writer in many genres, but it was the regional horror-fantasies of the short stories of this volume and the five Silver John novels that represent the pinnacle of his reputation, works of startlingly original regional American fantasy rooted in the legends and songs of the rural American Southeast.

Nothing like them had appeared before the Silver John stories found a home in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the early 1950's (though two of the stories here, "Frogfather" and "Sin's Doorway", date from the 1940's and may, Wellman maintained conditionally, be formative stories of John the Balladeer before he took up his silver-stringed guitar). The last story chronologically was written only a few months before Wellman's death.

Silver John (or John the Balladeer), never given a last name, wanders throughout the wilds of the Southeast, centered roughly in North Carolina. He carries a silver-stringed guitar and an encyclopedic knowledge of both myth and traditional regional songs. And he battles the forces of evil with those tools, his faith, and his essential goodness and decency. Silver is a bane to most things supernatural, though John will also occasionally use white magic (derived from such real spell books as The Long-lost Friend -- you can order it online!) and natural counterforces (woods such as hazel and cedar) in his wanderings.

John is endlessly curious about the origins of songs and of stories he's heard, and that drives some of his wandering, though he also does so to bring aid to friends and strangers alike who've been confronted by such things as witches, warlocks, the mysterious and malign Shonokins, the lurking gardinels (living, carnivorous houses), the weird creatures that may or may not be malign, and a variety of other back-country legends both 'real' and invented by Wellman (the line blurs sometimes, not least of which because Wellman collected stories from the people of the areas he wrote about, stories that in some cases were extremely regional in focus -- the gardinel and the stories of the Ancients Ones who mined the hills before even the Indians came may have a basis in truth. Or maybe not.)

Throughout it all, Wellman pulls off one of the most difficult feats in all fiction -- he makes good both interesting and attractive. John's neither a prude nor a teetotaler, and he's humble about his abilities in the face of supernatural evil. The scene in which he summons the ghost of George Washington to defeat a malign 300-year-old warlock is both emblematic of the series as a whole and deeply strange. But this stuff happens all the time. And maybe it does. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jarvis Poker the British Joker

Knight and Squire: 'For Six', written by Paul Cornell, illustrated by Jimmy Broxton (2010-2011): DC Comics' Knight and Squire first appeared in an adventure with Batman and Robin in the early 1950's as the "English Batman and Robin," again a couple of more times over the next ten years, and then not at all until writer Grant Morrison excavated them from DC's mine of unused characters first for a cameo in JLA in the late 1990's and then more fully in other, later projects.

They're now "legacy" heroes -- the Knight (Cyril) was once the Squire, while the Squire (Beryl), a young woman, is a family friend. They played fairly pivotal roles in several Batman storylines of the last four years; here, though, they get their first extended solo adventure in, well, ever.

And it's a pretty jolly adventure at that, rife with jokes about, and references to, British pop culture on all fronts. Cornell and Broxton create about 130 new supervillains and superheroes to populate DC's British landscape, and put a fairly benign British spin on the whole superheroing enterprise, with villains and heroes meeting once a week in a magical pub where violence is impossible.

Most of the heroes and villains are peculiar to Great Britain but there are "cover versions" of American heroes and villains as well. Most notably, there is Jarvis Poker the British Joker, a non-homicidal villain whose imminent death from cancer drives the plot of the final two issues of the miniseries.

Cornell and Broxton make a nice team, and the book ably walks a line between the purely satirical and the (relatively) straight-faced. Another miniseries with this superhero universe-within-a-universe would be nice. Is there a British Lex Luthor too? Recommended.


Paul, written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, directed by Greg Mottola, starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Jane Lynch and Sigourney Weaver (2011): Pegg, Frost and director Gregory Wright (absent here) have previously given us British metapop confections Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. With Superbad director Greg Mottola subbing for Wright here, the action moves to America, and while things take awhile to really get going, the result is another humourous meditation on American pop culture -- in this case, centered on alien contact and invasion movies.

Pegg and Frost play an aspiring artist and science-fiction writer respectively, delighted to have taken a vacation from England to go to the mega-geeky San Diego Comicon and then onwards for a vacation touring famous science-fiction and UFO landmarks across the Southwest in a rented motorhome. Their characters are more genial and less sharp-edged than we've seen them assay before, fitting for a movie that's ultimately more genial and less sharp-edged than we've seen them do before. The whole enterprise is really quite warm-hearted -- there are villains, but almost no one gets killed. Almost.

Stopping to check out a car wreck in the desert, the two meet up with Paul, an alien who looks like a traditional Gray and talks like, well, Seth Rogen when he's being genial and funny, as opposed to Seth Rogen when he's mailing it in or Seth Rogen in a part Seth Rogen isn't really equipped to play. After much confusion and several faintings, the two agree to drive Paul to his retrieval area.

Paul's been stuck on Earth since he crashed his spaceship near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The U.S. military abducted him then, and he's since been helping both them and Hollywood out with various alien ideas (he consulted on both E.T. and The X-Files) under the mistaken impression that he's a guest of the U.S. government. However, his technological and cultural knowhow exhausted after 60+ years, Paul is now expendable -- the powers that be want to dissect him to find out how his healing and invisibility powers work. Luckily, a sympathetic government agent managed warn him of his coming vivisection; Paul escaped; the government now pursues.

The somewhat unlikely trio proceed to have adventures as they attempt to get Paul off-planet ahead of government pursuit. Along the way, they pick up a fourth party member played by Kristen Wiig -- a socially backward fundamentalist Christian creationist they have to kidnap from a trailer park lest she reveal their location and plans to the government. Luckily, Paul's telepathic powers show her that the universe is actually more than 6000 years old and that "eyes didn't just happen!", and she becomes a foul-mouthed agnostic with a driving need to lose her virginity to Pegg's character.

The whole thing's a lot of fun, especially if you've seen the TV episodes and movies Paul refers to both explicitly and in passing. There are also some nice background bits of business, some surprisingly funny stoner comedy, and maybe a few too many jokes about Paul's junk. Recommended.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earth to Sucker Punch: You Suck!

Sucker Punch, written by Zack Snyder and some other guy, starring a bunch of people (2011): The most surprising thing about Sucker Punch ("from the visionary director of 300 and Watchmen!") is that Jon Hamm is in it, briefly. Did he lose a poker game to writer/director/"visionary" Zack Snyder? Did he get paid a lot? Are they former roommates? Maybe we'll never know.

But we do know that Sucker Punch is one of the most deliriously awful movies ever made in the history of the universe. It's bad enough that it's almost never boring; thinking about it afterwards will, however, cause your eyes to bleed. If Snyder actually writes any of the new Superman movie he's attached to direct, we may get something in the Elektra range of bad superhero pictures.

Do you really want to know the plot? OK. A 20-year-old girl with a porcelain doll's blank, round face, an eight-year-old's pigtails and a hooker's clothing sense gets really mad at her Wicked Stepfather when her mother dies (or is perhaps murdered), and while trying to protect her younger sister from the stepfather, maybe she shoots and kills her stepsister, or maybe she just gets blamed for doing it.

This girl is called Baby Doll. She gets sent to a mental asylum for wayward girls that appears to have been dropped into the movie from the video game Painkiller. The stepfather bribes an evil orderly to have Baby Doll (she is, so far as I can recall, only ever called 'Baby Doll' in the movie) lobomotized in five days. Her female friends are Rocket, Sweet Pea, Blondie and Amber. As stripper names go, the movie really only lacks an Ayesha, and maybe a stripper with her pubic hair shaved into a Nike swoosh.

Blank-faced, espressionless-but-glycerine-tear-producing Baby Doll imagines a second reality in which she and the other inmates are actually stripper/prostitutes imprisoned in a strip club/bordello. In this reality, Baby Doll is such an awesome dancer that she can Hyp-Mo-Tize men while she dances, allowing her friends to round up the four objects they need to escape.

But, see, when Baby Doll dances, she's fantasizing that she's undertaking crazy adventures in various syncretically derivative science-fantasy landscapes (say, World War One with steam-powered German zombie soldiers, or a WW2 bomber taking on a dragon in what looks like an outtake from Lord of the Rings). Her and her gal pals undertake all these third-level adventures while dressed in fanboy fetish-wear, mostly lingerie, guns, robots, ninja swords, high-heeled boots, that sort of thing. WE NEVER ACTUALLY SEE BABY DOLL DANCE.

Yeah, I know you've just tried to process the idea that Baby Doll's escape fantasy is to be a stripper/whore who's going to be raped and probably murdered in five days by "The Big Roller" rather than a mental patient and that to escape that escape fantasy, she's an underwear-wearing ninja in a series of adventures that completely destabilize the idea that the 'top' level of reality is sometime in the 1950's or early 1960's, especially as all the music for the action sequences comes from long after the seeming milieu of the top level. Unless Bjork's "Army of Me" came out thirty years earlier than I remember.

Moreover, the top level's too stylized to represent any sort of narrative touchstone, and becomes moreso when the entire escape plan from the asylum is staged within the second level of the fantasy, leaving the viewer completely in the dark as to whether or not anyone actually died in the escape attempt, and if so, how and why, and frankly, really, who gives a fuck? There aren't any actual characters in this anyway, and the women are such stylized fetish objects that the whole thing feels like a role-playing game for sex dolls and the fan-boys who love them.

But to get a PG-13 rating, the movie eschews actually nudity and sex. To top everything off, a musical sequence cut from the main narrative of the movie plays under the closing credits for no apparent reason. I shit you not. This thing is so awful it may become a cult classic. It may ALREADY be a cult classic. Recommended only as a truly awful movie, awfully made and awfully written.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frankenstein's Broody Error

Dick Briefer's Frankenstein, written and illustrated by Dick Briefer, edited by Craig Yoe (1940-1953; collected 2010): Briefer's Frankenstein was the first on-going horror character in comic-book history, making his (its?) bow in 1940, in stories with a strong flavour of the misanthropic adventures of Marvel's (then Timely's) humanity-hating Submariner.

Briefer's first Frankenstein, his origin relocated to 1940, was somewhat like Shelley's original -- a highly articulate monster who worked to keep his creator alive while simultaneously wreaking havoc on everyone and everything else. In one gonzo bit of business, Frankenstein creates a crocodile-headed monster to fight his original creation. As this battle will take place on top of the Empire State Building, I'm thinking he should have gone with something other than a crocodile hybrid.

Over the next 13 years, Briefer's monster would be rebooted twice, once as the loveable star of a humour comic book, once as an inarticulate, murdeous, lonely brute. Yep, that's pretty much 90% of the history of Frankenstein riffs all in one comic-book series. Briefer, a chameleonic artist, altered both art and writing to suit each phase of his creature's comic-book adventures, though in all three cases, the creature's nose would be located freakishly high on its face. A terrific snapshot of a little-known series, impeccably produced by Craig Yoe and his people -- though I'd have traded the oversized pages for smaller pages and more stories. Highly recommended.

Byrne Out

Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne Volume 0, written by Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Bill Mantlo and John Byrne; illustrated by John Byrne, Joe Sinnott, Pablo Marcos and Dave Hunt (1979-80; collected 2010): What do you do when you decide to collect stories preceding the stories in Volume 1 of a reprint series, but want to keep numbering in sequence without renumbering the other entries? Go with zero. Though if there are any other John Byrne Fantastic Four stories uncollected, further volumes will have to go with fractions, or maybe irrational numbers.

Before Byrne started his 50-issue run as the writer and (usually) artist of the Fantastic Four in the early 1980's, he drew and/or wrote the Fantastic Four in several other issues of their magazine and other Marvel comics. That's what's collected here. It's all pretty enjoyable, though I never thought longtime FF inker Joe Sinnott was a particularly good match for Byrne's pencils. Oh, well.

The two-parter at the end of this volume, written and illustrated by Byrne, marks the first time he did that double duty on the FF's own magazine. It certainly points ahead to Byrne's interests when he would take over the comic about a year later, or at least his science fictional interests. Those stories not written by Byrne do serve, when set beside Byrne's later efforts, to highlight the fact that Byrne was the second-best writer the Fantastic Four ever had, after Stan Lee. The other volumes in this series are far more essential, but nonetheless Recommended.


24 Season 2. Written by Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow, Howard Gordon, Virgil Williams, Gil Grant, Maurice Hurley, Michael Chernuchin, Andrea Newman; directed by Jon Cassar, Bryan Spicer, Stephen Hopkins, Frederick King Keller, James Whitmore Jr., Rodney Charters; starring Keifer Sutherland, Carlos Bernard, Elisha Cuthbert, Dennis Haysbert, Reiko Aylesworth, Jude Ciccolella, Glenn Morshower, Penny Johnson, Sarah Clarke, Paul Schulze, Michelle Forbes, Sarah Wynter, and Xander Berkeley (2002-2003): I'm a left-winger who mostly enjoyed the 24 series for what it was -- a pulp thriller hybridized with an office melodrama. Indeed, only The Office dwelt more on the frustrations of the workplace during 24's eight-season run. In the Counter-Terrorist Unit, your bad boss and annoying co-workers are often a greater threat than nuclear weapons and biological threats.

I can see why presidential candidates on the Right kept invoking Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) during the last presidential election. He's always right, he's surrounded by idiots and enemies, and he's more patriotic than Captain America (and, ironically, played by a Canadian). Of course, the series established over and over again that politicians are almost universally weasels; the only thing Jack Bauer would do with John McCain or Mitt Romney would be torture them for information, because they'd undoubtedly turn out to be part of an evil conspiracy to start World War III.

Season 2 parallels Jack's hypercompetence and hyperpatriotism with that of President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), one of the most presidential fictional presidents I can think of. Both men intuitively know what's right, have a few loyal supporters, and are opposed by well-meaning incompetents and malign foreign and domestic powers. The whole thing makes for a thrilling ride, and a fairly deft bit of parallel plotting.

Alas, Season 2 also gives us the worst sub-plot in 24 history, Jack's daughter Kim (Elisha Cutherbert) and her endless, increasingly ridiculous adventures throughout the day. None of the adventures have anything substantial to do with the main plot, and could conceivably have been allocated to a spin-off series called The Perils of Kim Bauer. They're funny for awhile, unintentionally funny, but eventually, if you're like me, you'll start fast-forwarding right around the time Kim gets caught in a leg-trap in the woods and gets menaced by a mountain lion, only to be rescued and briefly imprisoned by a well-meaning survivalist before somehow getting involved in a convenience store hold-up.

Kiefer Sutherland does a nice job embodying someone who looks like an Everyman, but who dishes out more punishment than James Bond and Batman put together, and takes more punishment than Ash in the Evil Dead movies. The supporting cast is mostly solid, with Xander Berkeley's annoying CTU boss George Mason, made heroic by fatal radiation poisoning early in the story, and the reptilian former First Lady (Penny Johnson) being standouts. Highly recommended.

Beedle Balm

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (2008): One of the prime selling points of Rowling's Harry Potter series was always its user-friendliness, a trait that extended to the way in which magic operated in Rowling's fictional world. A teenaged wizard could go toe-to-toe with a middle-aged master of magic and hold his or her own, or even prevail, because the magicking exams in the Potterverse were not known for their rigor.

Not only could a kid dream of being a wizard, but of being a really powerful wizard pretty much right out of the gate. And magic was, of course, in-born -- Muggles couldn't become wizards because magic is genetic (I assume). That any sane Muggle government in a realistic milieu would devote a lot of time and energy to figuring out ways tom exterminate the dangerous minority of magic-users among them pretty much goes without saying. But the Potter series was about wish fulfillment, cool adventures, camaraderie and life lessons.

This small, slight but sort-of-charming book of five Potterverse fairy tales, contextual mini-essays "by" Dumbledore, and further annotations lays out some of the children's stories of Harry Potter's world. All of them bounce off the lessons of the larger series in some way, either directly ("The Deathly Hallows", obviously) or metaphorically (the others illustrate various lessons related to magic -- don't be a dink to Muggles, don't expect magic to be able to do everything, don't store your heart outside your body, and so on, and so forth).

It's a nice little book, nicely designed. In its own way, it highlights the thinness and arbitrariness of Rowling's fictional universe more starkly than any of the main books in the series of seven, but complaining that Rowling isn't Tolkien or Le Guin doesn't seem to be all that useful: she is what she is as a writer, no heavy lifting required. Recommended.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Out of the Darkness

Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics by Cornell Woolrich, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg (1934-35; collected 1988): Woolrich's contemporary fame rests pretty much on the fact that he wrote the novel that Hitchcock's Rear Window was based on. A prolific writer of suspense short stories and novels, Woolrich was one of the first American pulp writers to be lionized in France for his noirish work (The Bride Wore Black remains Woolrich's best-regarded suspense novel).

By the mid-1930's, Woolrich had already published two well-regarded but light-selling realistic novels of the Roaring 20's, gone to Hollywood and failed there as a screenwriter, and finally returned to New York, where he would live and write until his death in 1968. All that, and he was a tortured homosexual in an America that shunned sexual difference. Whee, what a great fucking time the golden hued past was! Let's get back there as soon as possible in our Conservative time machine!

While Woolrich would write across all genres early on in his third career as a writer, his strengths lay in suspense oriented around a flawed or even murderous protagonist -- some stories parallel the efforts of fellow chronicler of the urban and suburban damned James M. Cain in 1930's suspense classics that include The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Woolrich's prose was never the equal of Cain's, or the slightly later starting Jim Thompson's. But he had a flair for propulsive action and for telling detail which we would now call period detail, though of course Woolrich lived in that period. The Depression-haunted streets of New York, marathon dance competitions, the interior of the Statue of Liberty, a high-end gambling resort just across the Mexican border -- all these locations and more make Woolrich's stories sing when it comes to establishing a potent and dark sense of time and place. These aren't great stories, but they are compelling portraits of a lost time and place submerged in exterior and interior darkness. Recommended.

Falls the Shadow

The Shadow: Blood & Judgment, written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin (1986): 1986 was the year that three comic-book-industry-changing books came out from DC Comics -- The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and this violent, sexy and irreverent reimagining of the old Shadow radio-and-pulp character. The other two are still in constant print; alas, because this is a treatment of a character licensed from another company, The Shadow: Blood & Judgment has, so far as I know, only been available in used bookstores and on EBay since about 1989.

That's a shame because it's fucking awesome, though I can understand why oldy timey Shadow fans like Harlan Ellison squeaked and gibbered with outrage when Chaykin's miniseries first appeared. It's revisionist on almost every level, making the Shadow both an even more bloodthirsty avenger of crime and an even bigger bastard in his personal life than was ever imagined in the old pulps and radio shows of the 1930's and 1940's. Somewhat confusingly, the confusing opening of the Alec Baldwin Shadow movie of the early 1990's sort of lifted some of its concepts from this miniseries and not from the original pulps. So it goes.

As a back-issue-bin bonus, this miniseries spawned an even more irreverent and hilarious ongoing series that ran for 19 issues, an annual, and a Prestige Format two-issue Avenger miniseries spinoff. In that later magnum opus, writer Andrew Helfer and artists Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers and Kyle Baker took about as much piss out of the Shadow (and really out of weird avengers of crime in general) as one could without completely deflating the concept.

I like reverence as much as the next guy, but Chaykin's take is giddy fun involving characters who are generally really, really well-dressed (no one draws natty clothing like Chaykin) and often really, really perverse. Unfortunately, the grim-and-gritty late 1980's comic marketplace took its cues from the violence of this and other books but pretty much left out the humour (mostly black) and the stylishness. Still, this is thrilling stuff, even moreso in the context of today's moribund Doc Savage and Avenger DC reboot universe, First Wave. Someone should have hired Chaykin et al. to steward that one. It might have got cancelled just as quickly, but at least it would have been awesome sauce while it was being published. Highly recommended.

A Perfect Getaway. Not.

A Perfect Getaway, written and directed by David Twohy, starring Timothy Olyphant, Milla Jovovich, Steve Zahn and Kiele Sanchez (2009): Twohy's an interesting writer even when he botches something (like, say, Chronicles of Riddick); here, he's more in his wheelhouse with a lower-key thriller like the underrated Below and The Arrival (the latter with a surprisingly restrained Charlie Sheen playing a climate scientist of all things!).

Jovovich and Zahn play newlyweds vacationing in Hawaii. A male/female serial killer team is killing newlyweds on Oahu. Zahn and Jovovich are on another island on a three-day nature hike in a mostly deserted jungle. They encounter not one but two sets of increasingly suspicious fellow vacationers, one of which they end up hiking and camping with (Olyphant and Sanchez).

Zahn's character is a slightly whiny screenwriter; Olyphant is a macho blabbermouth claiming to be a Special Ops veteran. Another couple, dominated by the hulking Chris Hemsworth (Captain Kirk's father in the Star Trek reboot and Thor in the upcoming Thor) seems to be following them. And so does someone else. And they're a two-day hike from civilization. And cellphone reception is lousy. And Olyphant's fiancee is really, really good at gutting and dressing a goat.

Who's the killer? Is there a killer? The movie builds fairly slowly -- it's old school -- but when the time comes, it both rewards the building suspense and plays fairly with the audience in terms of what it's presented, and how all that ties together. A nice 90 minutes. And the title works on at least two levels!!! Recommended.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


America's Best Comics, written by Alan Moore, Peter Hogan, Steve Moore and Rick Veitch; illustrated by Art Adams, Sergio Aragones, Jim Baikie, Kyle Baker, Hilary Barta, J. Scott Campbell, Zander Cannon, John Cassaday, Claudio Castellini, Frank Cho, Dame Darcy, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Melinda Gebbie, Michael Golden, Adam Hughes, Phil Noto, Kevin Nowlan, Kevin O'Neill, Jason Trent Pearson, Humberto Ramos, Alex Ross, Eric Shanower, Rick Veitch, Al Gordon, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and John Totleben (2001-2003; collected 2004): This collection is essentially a portmanteau of stuff that doesn't fit into any of the other collections of Alan Moore's America's Best Comics universe, anchored by a lengthy dimension-hopping adventure of Tom Strong's daughter Tesla. The shorter stories are all pretty solid; of greatest interest, probably, is the bizarre but appropriate League of Extraordinary Gentlemen board game. Sketches and early design work fill out the volume. It's all good, mostly clean fun. Recommended.

The Helmet of Fate, written by Steve Gerber, Steve Niles, Gail Simone, Tad Williams and Bill Willingham; illustrated by Scott Hampton, Shawn McManus, Duncan Rouleau, Peter Snejberg, Phil Winslade and others (2007): One of those odd non-miniseries miniseries that DC occasionally plays around with -- as originally published, this was five one-shots with different writer/artist teams, and really worked best as an adjunct to the Day of Vengeance miniseries and the subsequent ongoing supernatural team series Shadowpact.

Having been pummelled by the Spectre in a suicidal (and successful) gambit to get that loony, near-omnipotent supernatural avenger back under control, longtime DC mystical hero Doctor Fate has been reduced to its essence -- a magical helmet without a human partner/host -- and flung into space by Captain Marvel to let fate find it a new, um, Fate. It meets up with a handful of DC's supernatural heroes, some of them newly rebooted 'legacy' heroes (Ibis the Invincible and Sargon the Sorcerer), some of them just new (Black Alice), some their old loveable selves (Detective Chimp and angel-on-assignment Zauriel).

And that's about it. The helmet and the heroes have an adventure; the helmet moves on. Nothing is really resolved, as Steve Gerber's subsequent Fate stories in the Countdown to Mystery miniseries would reveal who the new Doctor Fate would be. Still, the writing and art are for the most part top-notch; it's a shame that none of these spun off into at least a miniseries (so far as I know). Recommended.

Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walt Simonson Volume 2, written by Walt Simonson and Danny Fingeroth; illustrated by Walt Simonson and Rex Valve (1990-91; collected 2008): Marvel pushes the acceptable lower page limits of comic-book collections here with a volume that collects just five of writer/artist Walt Simonson's early 1990's run on the Fantastic Four. And one of those is a fill-in issue that basically reiterates the point of an earlier John Byrne FF, complete with a reference to that earlier, better story.

We do, however, get the FF's loopy adventures in an alternate reality in which Stalin is still running the Soviet Union in 1990 (shades of Command and Conquer!). Simonson does shine here doing the fast-paced science-fantasy stuff that's been his strongest suit as a writer/artist ever since he did Thor in the mid-1980's. The reconstituted FF takes a bit of getting used to (at this point in their history, Ben Grimm isn't the Thing, but his girlfriend Ms. Marvel is the (a) Thing. But she's not the original Ms. Marvel. And female Things look pretty much identical to male Things, though she wears a top for modesty's sake so we don't really know how anatomically correct she is). Short but fun. Recommended.

Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walt Simonson Volume 3, written by Walt Simonson; illustrated by Walt Simonson, Art Adams and others (1991; collected 2009): Walt Simonson's FF run continues, or possibly ends...Marvel really isn't big on supplying context in its reprint volumes. Marvel's first family of superheroing battles Doctor Doom and a time-controlling adjustment bureau angered by the FF's meddling in history.

Cosmic shenanigans proliferate, Reed Richards shows once again why he's the most dangerous member of the Fantastic Four, and Ben Grimm goes through yet more mutations and permutations of his rocky, orange self. Hopefully there's a timeline out there somewhere in which Simonson wrote and drew a Superman comic for several years -- the combination of lightheartedness and the cosmic is pretty refreshing, much like a Junior Mint. Recommended.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Botch Sauvage

First Wave, written by Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Rags Morales, Ed Bryant and Phil Winslade (2010-2011): My God, what a fantastic fucking botch DC Comics' resurrection of pulp hero Doc Savage in his own weird little comic-book universe turned out to be. Cancellation now seems to be set in stone, and all I really care about is whether or not DC will still publish the Showcase compilation of Marvel's great, short-lived Doc Savage B&W magazine-sized comic of the mid-1970's. Now that was a resurrection!

It looked so promising to begin with, as Doc, an alternate take on Batman, the Spirit, the Blackhawks, the Avenger, and a number of other reconfigured DC characters would fight evil in a reimagined 1930's where the inventions of Doc and other heroes and villains had essentially started the 21st century 70 years early.

Unfortunately, grimness and moral murkiness dominated -- it all felt like a reboot from the grim 'n gritty late 1980's. Furthermore, this introductory miniseries took forever to get anything going in the way of an interesting plot, and was perennially late to boot (as in, close to 18 months for 6 issues). And here and in the First Wave Doc Savage series, fun was pretty much nowhere to be found. Instead, we got a grim slog and a paucity of likeable characters.

I suppose a further problem arose from the concept itself (that is, a universe reconfigured by Doc's presence). Alan Moore's Doc Savage homage, Tom Strong, pretty much followed the same premise. The difference lay mainly in the fact that Alan Moore was writing that in his full jolly metafictional mode, making Tom Strong's adventures a delight whereas NuDoc just kept giving me more and more of a headache.

Future pulp reboots should probably leave Azzarello out of the mix -- I can think of few good contemporary comic-book writers less suited to updating a frothy pulp hero originally aimed at a readership of 14-year-olds. Tom Strong is awesome, though, as are the appearances of Doc-like heroes in Warren Ellis's Planetary and Dave Stevens' Rocketeer. Buy that stuff instead. It may be time for the original Doc to be reabsorbed by the eternal slurry of the pop underverse. Not recommended.

On the Darkside

Lost on the Darkside, edited by John Pelan (2005):


** At the Circus of the Dead by Tony Richards
** This Body of Death by Maria Alexander
** The Blood of Ink by Joseph A. Ezzo
** Unblinking by Ramsey Campbell
** The Dirty People by David B. Silva
** Glyphotech by Mark Samuels
** Spider Dreams by Michael Reaves
** Behind the Masque by Jeffrey Thomas
** Last Stop by John Pelan
** A Bottle of Egyptian Night by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
** Roadside Memorials by Joseph Nassise
** Comforts of Home by Michael Laimo
** The Call of Farther Shores by David Niall Wilson
** Our World, How Fragile by Paul Melniczek
** The Crawl by Gerard Houarner

A so-so original horror anthology from the mid-oughts. Ramsey Campbell delivers, as he usually does, with a tale of madness in academia. The Richards story has a nice, dark Bradbury feel to it (not least because it deals with a travelling carnival). "Glyphotech" deservedly made at least one year's best anthology -- it's a peculiarly modern horror story about business-oriented self-help seminars. Jessica Amanda Salmonson's story isn't horror at all, but rather a melacholy but ultimately triumphant story that begins where many horror and fantasy stories do begin -- in a mysterious curio shop. The other stories are mostly solid but unspectacular, and at least two uses of fairly hoary old tropes (the vengeful 'inanimate' object and the recursive dream) really needed a few more passes to make them sing. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, starring Zac Efron, Clare Danes, Christian McKay and Zoe Kazan (2008): Having graduated from high school musicals, Zac Efron does solid work here as a high school student who manages to get himself cast in the career-making staging of Julius Caesar by Orson Welles and the Mercury Players in 1937 New York.

Christian McKay makes a convincing Welles, ego and talent and all, and Danes provides a light romantic touch as the troupe's assistant manager. Efron's character is complete fiction, but much of the events here are real, or at least reality-based: Welles's drastically shortened Caesar, performed in modern, Italian-fascist costumes, did indeed help take the young impresario's reputation to the next level.

And Welles was young -- in his early 20's -- and talented and something of a dick. Nonetheless, he inspired great loyalty among many of his actors, and we see that at work here, along with his genius, his manipulativeness, and his glory-hogging ways. Really, we only miss seeing Welles's famous appetite for food and drink, which would ultimately make him the gigantic, tragic figure of 1970's Gallo wine commercials and talk-show-host jokes about his mighty girth, but never about his mightier talent..

The rest of the cast does yeoman's work embodying the mostly real members of Welles's troupe on the cusp on stardom, of War of the Worlds, of Citizen Kane, and so on. One can see how Welles came to make Citizen Kane (for which he took too much creative credit), but also how he alienated the studios, leading to the tragically re-edited Magnificent Ambersons (still a great work in bowdlerized form) and decades of scrambling to make movies without much funding while taking well-paying roles in other people's movies (none more towering than Welles's Harry Lime in Carroll Reed's The Third Man, opposite his old Mercury pal Joseph Cotten). Highly recommended.

Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek, written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Elizabeth Moss, Rose Byrne and Sean Combs (2010): Even movies that have only been produced by Judd Apatow have that odd (for today's comedies) gentleness about them, like a bassline behind the surface dramatics.

Russell Brand reprises his Aldous Snow character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a wonky rock star given to non sequitirs and epic drug and alcohol abuse. Jonah Hill is the low-level record company employee who suggests having Snow stage a 10-year anniversary show at the Greek theatre in Los Angeles. Sean Combs, straining and heaving mightily in an apparent attempt to replicate Tom Cruise's bizarro-hilarious performance as a studio exec in Tropic Thunder, is the executive who approves Hill's plan -- and sends him off to pick up Snow in London, England to get him first to New York for the Today Show and then to L.A.

All Hell breaks loose, of course, of course.

There are a lot of laughs here. Hill is gradually perfecting a somewhat unusual comic character -- the neurotic fat guy -- and he has some killer moments here, including a ridiculous bit in a limosine as he tries to stop Snow from getting stoned and drunk before the Today smoking all the pot and drinking all the booze in the car. Russell Brand possesses a weird, oily likeability, and he and Hill play pretty nicely off each other. They're not Laurel and Hardy, but they're also not Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, thank God. Rose Byrne and Colm Meaney have nice supporting bits as Snow's estranged WAG and father, respectively. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No Conan

The Robert E. Howard Library Volume 7: Beyond the Borders, edited and with an introduction by T.K.F. Weisskopf (1996):


1 · The Voice of El-Lil
34 · The Cairn on the Headland
61 · Casonetto’s Last Song
67 · The Cobra in the Dream
76 · Dig Me No Grave
95 · The Haunter of the Ring
117 · Dermod’s Bane
125 · King of the Forgotten People
152 · The Children of the Night
173 · The Dream Snake
182 · The Hyena
200 · People of the Black Coast
213 · The Fire of Asshurbanipal

Conan creator Robert E. Howard may have more variant editions of his many stories than almost any other 20th-century fantasy writer. This volume comes from Baen Books' 1990's Howard line, and focuses on non-Conan, mostly horror and dark fantasy tales set in the 1920's and 1930's. Lost civilizations, African shenanigans, and supernatural investigators predominate, along with a Howard stand-by, the ancestral memory story (or maybe more accurately the 'reincarnation recalled' story).

Most of the stories here are slight but interesting -- Howard was an inherently interesting writer, which is a lot rarer than you may think; even his prejudices can be fascinating. I really like contemporary dark fantasy tale "The Cairn on the Headland", with its suggestion that the pagan gods were actually demonic, possibly Cthulhoid forces from Outside. Howard also has some fun with an evil phonograph recording ("Casonetto's Last Song") and various evil animals, men, and lost races. Editor Weisskopf completely whiffs on one of Howard's real-world historical references (Weisskopf seems to think Howard made up a religion which is in fact is a real one). Oh, well. Lightly recommended.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reduction of the Innocent

The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!, edited and commentary by Jim Trombetta (2010): Once upon a time, in the early 1950's, comic books created the sort of hysteria in the United States now only reserved for violent videogames and sexual innuendo on Gossip Girl. Horror, crime and war comics ruled the newsstands in the early 1950's, with superheroes gradually fading away.

Then, psychologist Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent came out, with its condemnation of comic books as causing everything from illiteracy to homosexuality to, well, lesbianism and probably more homosexuality. Wertham really had a bee in his bonnet about homosexuality, bondage and the then-popular 'Injury to Eye' motif. A sensational murder case in Dawson involving kids and comic books gradually came into the public eye in the U.S. (it also spawned the "crime comics" section of the Canadian criminal code). Government hearings were held. And American publishers caved, instituting their own censorship body, the Comics Code Authority (blessedly defunct since 2008).

Comics would never be the same again, as their immense post-war, non-superheroic popularity began waning, and continues to wane to this day as anything other than a provider of ideas to Hollywood.The reign of the comic book as the preeminent form of children's entertainment had ended.

Here, Trombetta focuses on the war, crime and horror comic books from 1946 to 1954 that weren't from the illustrious and much-loved EC line, delving instead into comic book stories and covers that in most cases haven't ever been reprinted. Historically, this is valuable; as reading material, this is astonishing. It's not just the violence, implied and otherwise, that amazes -- it's the nightmarish quality of the best of these stories, some of which seem to have come gushing out of some primal, nightmare-filled reservoir of the collective unconscious, some of which are firmly rooted in the terrors of the time.

Trombetta's contextual essays, though occasionally a bit thin in convincingly connecting certain historical events with certain horror tropes, are nonetheless valuable and fascinating overall. His contextualization of the rise of the idea of the menacing zombie horde within certain new and horrifying Chinese combat tactics during the Korean War is quite convincing.

What a dandy, entertaining, enlightening book this is both as a cultural study and as a collection of great covers and stories from a truncated period of comic-book hyperrelevance. Kudos to Trombetta! I want more! Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three Dooms for Sister Christian

How to Train Your Dragon, written by Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, based on the novel of the same name by Cressida Cowell, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill and Craig Ferguson (2010): Why are the vast majority of good fantasy films now animated?

Possibly because the idea guys have far more control there than on live-action films. How to Train Your Dragon, based on a series of children's books, is a fine fantasy, and the best dragon-centric fantasy film since Dragonslayer. Compare this to, say, the inept, idiotic but somewhat similar Reign of Fire, and wonder where so many live-action fantasy films went so horribly, horribly wrong.

The dragons are charming and occasionally scary, the characters nicely fleshed out, the fantasy world itself fairly rationally worked out. Jay Baruchel's voice work is solid as the young man whose theories and study of dragons ultimately change the way the entire embattled Viking island in the movie deals with the regular resource raids of hundreds of dragons (and at least a dozen different species of same). A lot of fun for anyone. One wishes the written fantasy worlds of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea or Gordon Dickson's Dragon Knight series would be lucky enough to get the animated treatment from filmmakers such as these. Highly recommended.

Sahara, written by Philip MacDonald, James O'Hanlon and John Howard Lawson, directed by Zoltan Korda, starring Humphrey Bogart, Bruce Bennett, Lloyd Bridges, J. Carrol Naish and Dan Duryea (1943): Bogart plays Sgt. Joe Gunn, in charge of an American M3 Lee tank in full retreat from Nazi forces in Libya in 1942. He and his crew collect a ragtag, multinational group of survivors on their way back to rendezvous with Allied ground forces, but soon find themselves forced to engage a much larger Nazi infantry and motor column (though thankfully no other tanks -- the M3 Lee, one of the first tanks mass-produced by the U.S. during the early stages of WWII, was relatively lightly armed and armoured, and would soon be supplanted by other, more capable armed vehicles).

Everyone from an Italian prisoner to a sympathetically portrayed Muslim Sudanese military men has to come together to defeat the Nazi threat, and hopefully find some water while doing so. Solid, fairly realistic war film with a solid cast. Recommended.

The Core, written by Cooper Layne and John Rogers, directed by Jon Amiel, starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins and Stanley Tucci (2003): When it comes to bad science, The Core may be the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. Or one that takes place in an alternate universe with radically different laws of physics. The US military accidentally stops the Earth's core from spinning.

In our world, the energy released by this stoppage would probably blow a significant portion of the Earth's crust and mantle into orbit, creating several new moons orbitting a dead Earth. In the universe of this movie, though, birds get confused and Earth's electromagnetic field starts developing gaping holes over famous landmarks that then get destroyed by solar radiation. I think the exploding Earth idea would have been a lot more interesting.

In any event, some plucky astronauts, academics and scientists get into a magical tunnelling subway train made out of a magical metal called Unobtainum (which begs the question, How did they obtain it?), a substance that can survive the high temperatures and super-pressure of the Earth's underregions. Apparently, nuclear explosions can restart the core's spin.

Hilarity ensues, a lot of people die heroically or at least semi-heroically, and the remaining heroes make it back to the ocean floor through an imaginary tectonic plate juncture near Hawaii, where killer whales sing to them in the voices of humpback whales. I'm not kidding. Hilariously bad, so I'm recommending it -- it makes Armageddon look like a documentary about NASA by comparison.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Light Entertainment

Born Yesterday, written by Garson Kanin and Albert Mannheimer, based on the play of the same name by Garson Kanin, directed by George Cukor, starring William Holden, Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford (1950): Delightful, sarcastic, alternately cynical and hopeful about the American political process. Crawford plays a powerful businessman who moves to Washington with his mistress (played by Judy Holliday, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role). He decides that Holliday needs some refining and polishing to fit into 'respectable' political society and hires down-on-his-luck journalist Holden to do the job.

But Holliday's character turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone expects, while Holden soon falls in love with her. Holliday, whose life was cut short in the 1960's by breast cancer, specialized in playing high-voiced ditzes, but in real life, she apparently had an IQ of 172 and managed to thwart the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities without being completely blacklisted or naming names (basically, she played dumb, and the politicians believed her). Badly remade with Melanie Griffith in the Holliday role in the early 1990's. Highly recommended.

Scaramouche, written by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel and Talbot Jenning, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, directed by George Sidney, starring Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh and Mel Ferrer (1952): Swashbuckling period piece set in France a few years prior to the French Revolution. Granger plays a (literal) bastard ne'er-do-well who gets pulled into fighting the aristocracy by the death of his friend at the blade of Ferrer's evil nobleman.

Granger seeks out the best fencing trainers in France so as to be able to duel the Marquis de Mains; the film climaxes with the longest sword duel in film history to that time, and it's a doozy that George Lucas ransacked for the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in much the same way he lifted sections of the climactic action of Star Wars from The Dambusters. Charming and frothy; Janet Leigh plays the most American French noblewoman in film history -- it's something about her accent that does it. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote, starring Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) and John Forsythe (Inspector Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation) (1967):

"Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 [1959] (UPI) -- A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged ... There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut."

Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" was a best-selling sensation when it first appeared in 1965, serialized in the New Yorker. It followed the case of Smith and Hickock, arrested and eventually executed for the murders of the Clutter family in what seemed to be a robbery gone horribly awry (the money Hickock and Smith believed to be in the house never existed).

Two movies (Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Capote, and Infamous) have been recently made about Capote's investigation and writing process for the book; countless critics have suggested that the book itself is fatally flawed, or at least skewed towards a certain inaccurate psychological construction of why the murders took place.

Richard Brooks' film remains a fresh marvel more than 40 years after its release -- in many ways, it's much less dated than the Oscar-winning Bonnie and Clyde of the same year, as good as that picture also is. Blake and Wilson give pitch-perfect performances as the two killers, locked together by their own insufficiencies and dire personal histories into a murderous pas-de-deux. One feels empathy for the two, especially Blake's tortured man-child, without losing sight of what they did.

The horror of the killings -- held back in the film's chronology until the killers confess late in the movie -- is stark and almost sublime, zero at the bone, to quote Emily Dickinson. The DNA of this film propagated almost endlessly, and is now there in everything from Law and Order: SVU to David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac. This is a very sad, very deftly written, performed and directed 'Whydoneit' which ultimately offers no real answer because there ultimately is no definitive answer.

John Forsythe does fine, understated work as the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who handles the case, and Quincy Jones supplies a fairly restrained musical counterpoint to the actions depicted and suggested on the screen. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Giant Penis That Ate England and Other Terrifying Tales

The Mammoth Book of Monsters, edited by Stephen Jones (2007):

"The Horror from the Mound" by Robert E. Howard
"Visitation" by David J. Schow
"Down There" by Ramsey Campbell
"The Man He Had Been Before" by Scott Edelman
"Calling All Monsters" by Dennis Etchison
"The Shadmock" by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
"The Spider Kiss" by Christopher Fowler
"Café Endless: Spring Rain" by Nancy Holder
"The Medusa" by Thomas Ligotti
"In The Poor Girl Taken by Surprise" by Gemma Files
"Downmarket" by Sydney J. Bounds
"Fat Man" by Jay Lake
"The Thin People" by Brian Lumley
"The Hill" by Tanith Lee
"Godzilla's Twelve Step Program" by Joe R. Lansdale
".220 Swift" by Karl Edward Wagner
"Our Lady of the Sauropods" by Robert Silverberg
"The Flabby Men" by Basil Copper
"The Silvering" by Robert Holdstock
"Someone Else's Problem" by Michael Marshall Smith
"Rawhead Rex" by Clive Barker
"The Chill Clutch of the Unseen" by Kim Newman

Dandy, wide-ranging collection of (mostly) reprinted monster stories with monsters familiar, unfamiliar, and just plain bizarre. Jones has become the the premier anthologist of his generation when it comes to fantasy and dark fantasy, his selections canny and often peculiarly excellent (I'd include the Tanith Lee story in the latter category, along with another odd but effective Gemma Files story). There aren't any real stinkers here -- a couple of stories strain for sublime or poetic effect and don't quite get there, but overall this is a fine selection of stories that I was mostly unfamiliar with.

True to his two-fisted Conan form, Robert E. Howard devises a way to dispatch one traditional monster that is hilariously apt; fellow, later Texan Lansdale's Godzilla story is also both hilarious and apt; Robert Holdstock's eerily reimagined Selkies offer a disturbing twist on an old monster; Robert Silverberg one-ups the not-yet-written-at-the-time Jurassic Park with a truly dangerous 'park' of reborn dinosaurs; R. Chetwynd-Hayes gives us a bleakly funny take on the hybridization and classification of classic monsters. Clive Barker's "Rawhead Rex" brings us a 'real' British monster of legend reconfigured in that distinctive Barker way (omigod, it's a giant, child-eating penis!!!); and so on, and so forth. Highly recommended.

Run Away! Screaming!

Zombie Apocalypse!: A Mammoth Book, created by Stephen Jones, written by Kim Newman, Tanith Lee, Michael Marshall Smith, Pat Cadigan, Sarah Pinborough, Scott Edelman and a cast of dozens (2010): This shared universe/'mosaic' novel sees nearly three-dozen writers portray a zombie apocalypse through memos, diary entries, tweets, blog entries, medical reports and a variety of other 'found' written objects, apparently collected and collated years or even decades after the war (shades of the Appendix to 1984, or the conference notes in A Handmaid's Tale). We don't really know how the later stages of the apocalypse went, or who won, leaving ample room for a sequel.

The specter of loopy old architect Nicholas Hawksmoor gets invoked again, as this zombie outbreak seemingly has both natural and supernatural roots in magical architecture and the Black Death outbreak in 17th-century London.

A nearly bankrupt, dystopian near-future UK plans a cheery national festival to get people's minds off living in a nearly bankrupt, dystopian near-future UK. In order to build, the government decides to excavate what turns out to be a "plague pit" of approximately 11,000 17th-century bodies adjacent to the surviving basement of a church built by fictional Hawksmoor disciple Thomas Moreby. Moreby believed in physical resurrection of the body after death through supernatural means.

You can probably guess the basics of what happens when ground gets broken on that ancient plague pit. What happens to Prince Charles and the long-entombed corpse of Princess Diana...well, you may not see that one coming.

The faux-documentarian format of the novel, pretty much as old as the English novel itself, which began life pretending to be real letters and journal entries, remains a solid way to jump from place to place and time to time in a narrative; it also eliminates any problems one might have with the different authorial voices at work here. Sentiment and personal tragedy bounce off the blackly comic, making for an occasionally jarring but ultimately rewarding reading experience.

The zombies of Jones and company aren't your average zombies -- the supernatural element eliminates some of the improbabilities of purely 'natural' zombie outbreaks, while the zombies themselves (and the world of the novel) end up being something of a riff on Richard Matheson's great quasi-rational vampire novel, I am Legend. Recommended.