Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Underground Horror

The Chosen Child by Graham Masterson (1997): Solid and mostly riveting horror-thriller from the prolific and talented Masterson. And you'll learn tons of interesting things about the history of Poland, where the novel is set in the present day! It's like a twofer -- come for the horror, stay for the history of Warsaw.
In the late 1990's, something or someone periodically emerges from the sewers of Warsaw to kill and behead seemingly random victims. The murder as the novel begins threatens to derail the construction of an American hotel group's new Warsaw location, so Sarah Leonard, the Polish-American woman in charge of the hotel's construction, ends up inserting herself into the investigation, led by old-school detective Stefan Rej.

Soon, all hell is breaking out on a number of fronts as corporate and civic corruption, organized crime, and office politics threaten to derail the investigation. And the body count continues to mount both beneath the streets and above them.

The main characters here are surely drawn and sympathetic when they need to be, while the horrors caused by the killer -- dubbed The Executioner by the press -- are evocatively and brutally shown in several setpieces. The revelation of what The Executioner really is may strain one's suspension of disbelief -- it certainly did mine -- but overall Masterson manages a fairly fascinating mix of the police procedural and the supernatural thriller.

Rej is an especially well-drawn character, occasionally mourning the moral clarity of the bygone days of Communism while doggedly continuing his investigation regardless of opposition from above or danger from below. And the history of Warsaw, especially its opposition to the Nazis, really is gripping stuff. With a number of key scenes set in reeking, filth-clogged sewers, The Chosen Child generates a real sense of dread and bodily horror: it's about as cloachally horrible as a thriller can be. Recommended.

Thrillogy!!!

Unknown, written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson (Dr. Martin Harris), Diane Kruger (Gina), January Jones (Elizabeth Harris), Aidan Quinn (Martin B), Bruno Ganz (Jurgen), and Frank Langella (Rodney Cole) (2011): Serviceable action-thriller with Liam Neeson as a man who wakes up in a hospital after an accident to discover that no one seems to know who he is -- including his wife. Coincidences and absurdities abound and proliferate, and the whole thing seems to have been Frankenstein-assembled from parts of Total Recall, Regarding Henry and Frantic. Still, mostly competent and enjoyable, with excellent supporting turns from a weathered, mournful Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi investigator turned P.I. and Frank Langella as one of Neeson's university colleagues. Lightly recommended.


The Lincoln Lawyer, written by John Romano, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly; directed by Brad Furman; starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin) and Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor) (2011): Solid legal procedural makes excellent use of McConaughhey's somewhat seedy charm, casting him as an ambulance-chasing defence lawyer who finds himself belatedly fighting for actual justice. Director Furman keeps everything moving nicely, and the whole thing feels like a throwback to the 1970's, when thrillers didn't involve massive explosions and giant robots. A talented cast certainly doesn't hurt, with Phillippe, Tomei, and Macy doing superlative supporting work. Recommended.






Limitless, written by Leslie Dixon, based on The Dark Fields by Alan Glyn; directed by Neil Burger; starring Bradley Cooper (Eddie Morra), Robert De Niro (Carl Van Loon), Abbie Cornish (Lindy), and Anna Friel (Melissa) (2011): Failed writer Eddie Morra gets an IQ-boosting pill from an old acquaintance and suddenly turns into a hyperactive super-genius. Director Burger does a solid job of conveying the fast, weird rhythms of Morra's altered state of consciousness, and there are a number of clever setpieces. The ending is far too pat, and a major plot thread never gets resolved. Still, an enjoyable time-waster. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Captain My Captain

The Captains, written and directed by William Shatner; starring William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine (2011): The A&E interview series Shatner's Raw Nerve revealed something unexpected about the famously self-absorbed William Shatner: he's a very good interviewer. This documentary, co-financed by Canada's Movie Network, takes Shatner on a journey to meet and interview all the captains of Star Trek, up to and including Chris Pine, who played Captain Kirk, the role Shatner originated, in the 2009 movie Star Trek.

Really, the only complaint I've got is that the film, which runs just north of 90 minutes, is too short. And that's not a complaint I make often. What we do see of Shatner and his interaction with the other actors (along with Trek regulars and guest stars that include Christopher Plummer, whose illness while headlining Henry V at Stratford in the mid-1950's gave understudy Shatner his first big break as an actor) is quite fascinating at points. He and Patrick Stewart, Pine, Kate Mulgrew and Scott Bakula really do seem to get along.

And then there's Avery Brooks. They seem to get along too, but Brooks (Captain Sisko of Deep Space Nine), as Shatner jokes at an appearance in Las Vegas, is really out there. Really, really, really, really out there. Brooks doesn't act much any more, preferring to teach from his faculty spot at Rutgers. I'd love to see what a class with him looks like because he frankly comes across as somewhat demented, though in a fascinating way.

Shatner gets in a bit of soul-searching along the way, gazing wistfully at ducks and geese and swans on the water in Stratford, Ontario before kibbitzing with Plummer. And his camera people follow him as he zips around the convention floor, surprising people at every turn. Some of his questions are a bit off the beaten track for this type of documentary ('What happens after we die?' being the most bizarre, albeit occasionally illuminating in the answers and non-answers it elicits).

If you don't enjoy Star Trek in at least one of its many incarnations, I don't imagine this movie will change your opinion. If you do at least like Star Trek, this will probably be enjoyable and all too brief. Recommended.

Airplane 3: The Bloodening

Quarantine 2: Terminal, written and directed by John Pogue, based on Quarantine, written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, which was based on REC, written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza; starring Mercedes Masohn (Jenny), Josh Cooke (Henry), and Mattie Liptak (George) (2011): Straight-to-DVD sequel to solid scarer Quarantine, which was itself a remake of the excellent Spanish horror movie REC.

This sequel abandons the first-person, found-footage approach of both Quarantine and the Spanish original for a more conventional narrative approach, one that's familiar whether you've seen it in Alien (1979) or Stagecoach (1939): a group of disparate strangers are trapped together in an enclosed space by menacing forces, in this case fellow travellers infected by the genetically engineered super-rabies of the first film.

The super-rabies spreads fast and makes its victims tremendously anti-social, much like texting. Who will survive and what will be left of them? The answer shades way more to the high-body-count Alien end of the dynamic than the Stagecoach end, where almost everyone survives. Like Alien, this one also involves a cat as one of the threatened.

A mid-sized passenger jet flight out of L.A. has unwanted passengers of both the rat and human variety. Hilarity ensues, as the super-rabies of the first movie makes its appearance while the plane is in the air, ultimately forcing an emergency landing in Kansas City. There, the plane is...quarantined!!! At a terminal!!!

Hence the title!!!

Much monstrous mayhem ensues. This isn't a great movie, but it delivers some scares and shocks and a couple of clever action-horror setpieces. The monsters are of the fast-zombie variety seen in the first, better Quarantine, though they're a lot easier to kill this time around. That's unfortunate, as the Pythonesque Black Knight quality of the original monsters was one of the more effective and horrific things in that film. Oh, well. Not great, but certainly an adequate time-waster, and superior to a lot of higher-budget horror movies of the last ten years. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blood Brothers

The Last Voice They Hear by Ramsey Campbell (1998): Geoff and Gail Davenport are the proud parents of three-year-old Paul and co-workers on a British news show called The Goods, which exposes corruption and abuse at schools, workplaces and other venues. They live in London, England, though Gail is originally from San Francisco and Geoff from Liverpool. Gail's parents are about to visit.

And Paul is about to get a phonecall from someone he hasn't talked to in twenty years -- his estranged, older half-brother Ben, the product of terrible emotional and physical abuse from Ben's step-father (Geoff's father), Ben and Geoff's mother, and their grandparents.

And that phonecall means the end to domestic bliss, as Campbell puts another happy family through Hell.

When they were children, Geoff tried to shield Ben from their parents' wrath whenever he could. But he was a kid, and he failed. A lot. And now Ben blames him as much or more for his woes than he does their late parents and late grandparents. But there's more. Over the last seven years, someone has been killing elderly couples in a particularly gruesome way, staging the bodies to make a comment about...something.

Now Ben tells Geoff that he's the killer, and that Geoff has to play an even worse version of a bad childhood 'game' Ben cooked up in order to divine Ben's new identity, stop the killings -- and protect young Paul, in whom Ben is inordinately interested. And so we're off.

Ben's ability to operate freely, at least for awhile, is bought by threats against Geoff's wife and child -- terrible things are promised should Geoff bring the police into the loop -- but also by Geoff's own empathy and sense of guilt for Ben, empathy and guilt Ben has been using to emotionally leverage Geoff since childhood.

The novel doesn't waste much space hiding Ben's new identity from the reader. The Last Voice They Hear is a mystery about how people become the way they are, not who they are. Ben's treatment as a child and as a teenager is indeed awful -- but the mystery of why he blames Geoff more than anyone else informs much of the narrative.

Campbell deftly uses multiple third-person limited POVs to jump between first two and then three threads of the story to maintain suspense until shrinking the narrative back down at the end to one tense, focused final chase. Ben isn't sympathetic, but one feels pity for him throughout.

More importantly, while the novel shows Ben to be an extremely bright and competent killer, he's never shown to be a Lecter-style Superman. He has flaws, and his competence is ultimately as much a part of his psychic scarring as are his more pitiable traits. Geoff, as the nominal hero, may not be as interesting, but he's also flawed and almost fatally compromised by his desire to protect his family -- his entire family. It's his most decent, humane qualities that just might get everyone killed. Just as Ben wants it. Highly recommended.

Closet Case

Boogeyman, written by Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White; directed by Stephen Kay; starring Barry Watson (Tim), Emily Deschanel (Kate), Skye McCole Bartusiak (Franny), Tory Mussett (Jessica), Lucy Lawless (Tim's Mother) and Charles Mesure (Tim's Father) (2005): Somewhat blah horror film with a screen story and partial screenplay credit for Supernatural TV series creator Eric Kripke. Childhood boogeyman kidnaps young Tim's father and, as it turns out, dozens of other people over the intervening years until Tim returns home upon the death of his mother to finally confront the creature that's made him afraid of closets for the last 15 years.

There are some solid scare moments here that don't simply rely on Old Reliable 'something jumps out at you!!!', but not enough of them. Barry Watson is curiously bland as the protagonist, while the decision to have two female leads (played by Tory Mussett and Bones's Emily Deschanel) means that neither of them has enough lines to make much of an impact, though it is nice to see Deschanel in a role that doesn't require her to speak like a human computer.

The ending, apparently much-hated by everyone on the Internet, actually goes somewhere interesting, though a greater fleshing out of how and why Tim finally turns the tables on the boogeyman might have helped things. Nonetheless, it's a use of logical magic, and may have signalled what was to come in Supernatural. Well, if Kripke actually wrote the ending. Somehow they followed this with two sequels. Not recommended.

The Last Race



Showcase Presents: The Trial of the Flash, written by Cary Bates and Joey Cavalieri, illustrated by Carmine Infantino, Dennis Jensen, Frank McLaughlin, Klaus Janson and others (1983-85; collected 2011): I can't think of a major superhero who became tragedy's punching bag more than DC's Flash did in the late 1970's and early 1980's. And I'm not sure why this was allowed to happen. But happen it did. His greatest villain killed his wife, and that was just the beginning. A couple of years later that same villain -- 25th-century speedster Professor Zoom, aka The Reverse-Flash -- tried to kill the Flash's fiancee on their wedding day. In the ensuing super-speed struggle, the Flash breaks Zoom's neck, killing him.

And so begins one of the longest storylines ever contained in a single DC title, The Trial of the Flash, which would ultimately span nearly three years and end with the cancellation of that title. It was a story so long that several peripheral issues of the title are omitted here to allow the collection (still the longest in the Showcase reprint series) to avoid requiring two volumes. It's still enough, and maybe too much.

By 1985, DC had decided to reboot its entire line of superheroes, beginning with a massive crossover event/line-wide reboot and purge called Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Flash would play a pivotal but heroically self-sacrificing role in that event. After the Crisis, his nephew Wally West would take over as the Flash in the brave new post-Crisis world. Ultimately, this is The Last Flash Story But One. Sort of. To paraphrase Algis Budrys, in comic books death is always conditional.

The Barry Allen version of the Flash helped usher in DC's Silver Age in the 1950's, as new characters were given the names of cancelled heroes of the 1940's, most prominently the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom and Hawkman. They apparently lived on a different Earth than their 1940's forebears (in the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash, Barry is seen reading a comic-book issue of the 1940's Flash from whom, after gaining his super-speed powers, Barry ultimately takes his superhero name).

Writer John Broome and penciller Carmine Infantino made the Flash a zippy, fun, quasi-super-scientific thrill ride over the character's first decade. (In-story 'Flash Facts' gave explanations of certain speed and scientific effects seen in the story, such as how a boomerang works). In The Trial of the Flash, Infantino has returned to the character after nearly 20 years away, staying with him to the end with pencils that are much more stylized and 'loose' than his Silver Age work, but still often possessed of a quality of speed and quickness and time-bending simultaneity that most other Flash artists have lacked.

Longtime Flash writer Cary Bates puts the Scarlet Speedster through quite a wringer here, as various parties try to wipe out the Flash's defense lawyers, kill him before the trial, or just do the usual super-villain thing of mayhem and thievery. It's a surprisingly harrowing and often downbeat ride, though it does have a conditional happy ending -- conditional because the Flash's fate in Crisis will supercede any ending in his own title and, indeed, that fate had already been published before the storyline herein ended.

It would take more than 20 years for the Barry Allen Flash to return from the dead -- several eternities in superhero comics -- and his history has recently been purged and restarted once again. There are some absurdities here, and one major annoyance (that would be the frankly ridiculous mental health issues of Flash's fiancee Fiona), but overall this is a lot of melodramatic fun. It would have been interesting to see what occasional cover inker Klaus Janson (so integral to Frank Miller's art on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns) could have done with Infantino's interior pencils -- the Infantino covers Janson inks are terrific -- but the interior art remains solid and sometimes startling. Recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coma Chameleon


Insidious, written by Leigh Whannell, directed by James Wan, starring Patrick Wilson (Josh Lambert), Rose Byrne (Renai Lambert), Ty Simpkins (Dalton Lambert), Barbara Hershey (Lorraine Lambert), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Leigh Whannell (Specs) and Angus Sampson (Tucker) (2011): Surprisingly 'old-school' ghost story given that the writer and director are best known for their work on the hardcore Saw films. If it weren't for the last twenty minutes and the subsequent, exhausted 'twist' ending, this would be a really solid film.

Young Dalton Lambert goes into a medically inexplicable coma. His family searches for answers. Weird things happen. A psychic is consulted. More weird things happen. That's the movie with the major twists and revelations unrevealed.

Wan and Whannel get a lot of productive mileage out of showing little and suggesting a lot, of quick scares and odd things lurking in the outskirts of the frame. The cosmology introduced by the psychic to explain what's going on makes a certain amount of sense, though it's not developed enough to be all that convincing for long. A visual homage to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is a bit jarring; that one supernatural entity looks an awful lot like Darth Maul undercuts a certain amount of tension.

Rose Byrne is a stand-out as the worried mother. Byrne's face in repose tends to look sad anyway -- I think it's her eyebrows -- and the look suits the material. Patrick Wilson is fine as the father, who has supernatural secrets of his own, though he appears to lose about 50 IQ points in the last twenty minutes. When the psychic tells you not to draw attention to yourself, don't run around yelling at every supernatural entity you encounter, that's all I've got to say.

The movie also joins the horror sub-sub-sub-genre of 'Monsters who love novelty songs,' as one entity really likes Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which was already terrifying enough on its own. Hell's playlist must be really awful. Recommended.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fighting Mad



Fighting American, written and illustrated by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with Jack Oleck, Mort Meskin, John Prentice, George Tuska and others (1954-55, 1966; collected 2011): By the mid-1950's, the American superhero comic book had been reduced to a few 'old' staples (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman), with the rest of the Golden Age flood cancelled because of low sales. Comics were growing up, with war, horror, romance and crime comics dominating the marketplace, along with the first issues of a little comic book called Mad.

But the industry-self-imposed censorship of the Comics Code Authority, implemented in response to government hearings in both the U.S. and Canada about the contributions of violent comic books to juvenile delinquency, would bring superheroes back as a wholesome substitute for the now-banned excesses and adult situations of crime, horror and war comics. American comic books would descend into a long stretch of second, superhero-dominated childhood, one they've really only been recovering from since the 1970's.

Into the superhero fray would come Fighting American, created by the great Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who'd created Captain America for Timely/Marvel back in the early 1940's) for Prize Comics. He'd only survive seven issues (as Simon notes in the introduction, that was four better than the revived, Commie-fighting Captain America of the 1950's). But what issues!

The series starts off as a fairly straightforward McCarthy-era superhero book, with super-soldier Fighting American and plucky kid sidekick Speedboy battling Communists and the occasional alien. But McCarthyism was on the way out, and by the third issue, straightforward superhero adventures were as well.

Instead, the comic became more and more comedic and satiric, with our heroes fighting villains that included Hotsky Trotsky, Round Robin, Invisible Irving, Poison Ivan and Rhode Island Red. In what's probably the story closest to being a Mad magazine parody of a superhero comic, a Soviet superman turns out to have powers created by his terrible body odour. He's rendered powerless (and pro-capitalist) by a shower. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Kirby and Simon (who share both art and writing duties) do the lion's share of the artwork here, though some of the material is obviously not from their hands. There's a refreshing lunacy at work here. The comedy doesn't always work, but when it does, it's pretty scathing -- Simon and Kirby were obviously tuned in to the absurdities of the "long underwear" genre (their words, in one of the stories collected here, not mine).

The volume also collects a few stories done for a brief Harvey Comics revival in the late 1960's, though these stories are clearly not drawn by either Simon or Kirby. Fighting American is the grandfather of absurdist Commie-fighting superhero Flaming Carrot and a few others -- the satiric superhero elements and outrageous, occasionally punning names also remind me of Rick Veitch's work. This is great, unusual stuff. In one of the 'straight' stories, the U.S. Air Force bombs Mt. Shasta, where an apocalyptic battle between Commies and Satan-worshipping monsters is taking place. OK, add Hellboy to the list of descendants. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Verdict on Satan: Quite a Guy!!!

Lucifer Volume 6: Mansions of the Silence, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Dean Ormston and David Hahn (2003; collected 2004); Lucifer Volume 7: Exodus, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly (2003-2004; collected 2005): Mike Carey's version of Lucifer, created by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman series, almost seems like a conscious upping of the ante with Gaiman's award-winning title about Dream of the Endless. Dream wasn't all that likeable. Indeed, he was something of a jerk. Indeed, the whole series was in part about Dream coming to terms with the fact that he was a jerk in the self-pitying Byronic mode.

And here we have Lucifer, who is even more of an anti-hero, though a fascinating and shaded one, and definitely not one to be burdened by guilt or self-pity. In such a situation, one's sympathies will be engaged not by the titular protagonist but by the supporting characters, though Lucifer occasionally comes across pretty well simply because so many of his opponents are such monsters and assholes by comparison.

Lucifer gave up his kingship of Hell fairly early in the Sandman series, wandering the Earth for awhile before opening a night-club (aptly named Lux) in Los Angeles. But his out-sized ambitions returned, and by the time of these volumes he's created his own universe, apparently hoping to learn from the mistakes of his Father -- that is, God, or the Presence as he is generally called herein.

Mansions of the Silence depicts Lucifer's repayment of a debt to the human/angel hybrid named Elaine Belloc, who saved Lucifer's life in a previous installment but whose soul was subsequently kidnapped and dragged off into the eponymous Mansions, a vast expanse inhabited by various supernatural beings who have no interest in living in any of the codified afterlifes of the spiritual universe.

Belloc's soul has been used to bait a trap for Lucifer; he despatches a ragtag group of allies into the Mansions both to reveal the extent of the threat and to preserve the integrity of this spiritual space, at least until he retrieves Elaine. Lucifer's power is too great for the Mansions to support his presence -- if he enters them, the entire realm will quickly disintegrate.

The quest is weird and wooly, with lots of mythical overtones, undertones, and shout-outs to a wide assortment of world religions. Exodus then follows Lucifer's subsequent moves, and the fall-out from God's big announcement at the beginning of Mansions. Lucifer plays the hero, to an extent, in both volumes, though always for his own reasons -- reasons which are not entirely revealed at the time. He's a right bastard, but less so than any of the gods (or God) we meet, and Lucifer's creation seems remarkably benign and pleasant under the circumstances.

Carey deftly combines humour and pathos and the epic throughout both these volumes -- a 'mini-arc' about an odd and very sympathetic demon who spins webs out of emotions he steals from human souls is the stand-out in Exodus, a weird little heart-warmer about families and friendship. The art by Peter Gross and others is crisp throughout, expressively managing to convey menace, the Sublime and a pleasing level of cartoony humour at the appropriate moments with equal skill. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

War is Hello!


Army@Love Volume 2: Generation Pwned, written by Rick Veitch, illustrated by Rick Veitch, Gary Erskine, and Jose Villarrubia (2007-2008; collected 2008): Hilarious, scabrous satire of war and culture in the near future ("A few years from now," we're periodically told), as American troops in the country of 'Afbaghistan' fight to win hearts and minds, and to make the Armed Forces of the near-future a cool thing for American youth to join by any means necessary, including subliminal advertisements and shiny, happy multimedia depictions of the sex- and drug-drenched wonderland of modern warfare.

War isn't like a video game. War has become a video game, but the participants are still prone to the age-old problems of stress disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, separation from loved ones back home, and the occasional enemy infiltrator.

Veitch's career-long love of occasionally goofy, satirically pointed names (Beau Gest and Flabberghast, to cite two) still manifests from time to time, which can be a bit jarring when those names brush up against the more normative elements of the narrative. Otherwise this is Veitch's sharpest, most well-observed satire in a career with many high points in that too-small subgenre of comic books.

In a perfect world, this series would have gone on for a long time. Unfortunately, we only got 18 issues of it. So it goes. Gary Erskine's inks eliminate pretty much all the occasional shagginess of Veitch's pencils, giving the book a sort of hard-edge hyper-reality that well serves the subject material and the treatment thereof. Great satire, and a great war book. This isn't for the drooling old codgers sitting around watching The Hitler Channel. Highly recommended.

The Raw and the Cooked

Night of the Claw (aka The Claw) by Ramsey Campbell (writing as 'Jay Ramsay') (1983): Horror great Ramsey Campbell's only pseudonymonous novel sees thriller novelist Alan Knight, his wife Liz and their daughter Anna threatened by a supernatural relic Alan was tricked into bringing back from a research trip to West Africa. This is the eponymous Claw of the Leopard Men, a real African secret society which committed ritual killings back in the 1940's in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Marlowe (note the shout-out to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), an anthropologist investigating the origins of the cult, discovered the Claw -- and was supernaturally infected by it. Passing it off to Knight doesn't save Marlowe, however, and he commits suicide rather than kill his daughter. The Claw causes any post-adolescent who touches it to eventually kill children, preferably his or her own.

After a set-up back in England, where Alan grows increasingly angry at Anna, and an innocent who accidentally touched the Claw goes on an animal-killing spree, the narrative divides into two main threads. Alan returns to Africa where, with the help of Marlowe's African contact, he'll try to seek out both the cult and the means to end the curse. The Claw, stolen by a person or persons unknown, remains in England, somewhere in the seaside town in which the Knights live. The Claw's malign influence begins infecting everyone around Knight, including his wife, and the novel becomes a race against time to save Anna from her increasingly bloodthirsty mother.

Campbell handles the African material quite sensitively under the circumstances. The Leopard Men Cult is viewed by normal African society as a horrifying aberration, one which Marlowe's African contact Dr. Banjo (who himself has two daughters) is willing to do anything to eradicate. Banjo and Knight must figure out the rules of fetishistic magic in order to defeat the Claw's power once and for all time.

The strength of the English narrative lies in Campbell's realistic third-person evocation of the mindset of six-year-old Anna as first her father and the her mother start becoming monsters who seem to want to hurt her. Anna may be plucky, but she's no unrealistic super-kid, and her helplessness in certain situations as the peril grows -- and as no one outside the family offers much help -- will be familiar to anyone who's read about real-life child abuse.

This is horror about a fractured family dynamic, and while the African narrative could be more developed, the English portion of the narrative is top-notch psychological horror. It's not one of Campbell's great novels, but it has a lot of terrific scenes and a really strong and sad depiction of a family fragmenting into violence and attendant terror. Recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Superhorror

The Far Reaches of Fear (previously published as Superhorror [1976]), edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980) containing:

The Viaduct by Brian Lumley; Fog in My Throat by R. A. Lafferty; Christina by Daphne Castell; The Case of James Elmo Freebish by Joseph F. Pumilia; The Hunting Ground by David Drake; The Petey Car by Manly Wade Wellman; Wood by Robert Aickman; The Pattern by Ramsey Campbell and Dark Wings by Fritz Leiber.

Campbell's first original anthology really sees him come out of the gate running. Hell, his first three original anthologies (this, New Terrors and New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos) show a keen mind in the unfortunately not-all-that lucrative world of original horror anthologies. But the 1970's and early 1980's were somewhat financially kinder to the purveyors and writers of short stories.

As with New Terrors, the range of the stories is impressive: Castell's melancholy, M.R. James-tinged ghost story; Drake's terrifically tense tale of a wounded Viet Nam vet come home to a war with something inhumanly worse than the Viet Cong; Pumilia's homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950's; Lafferty's surprisingly understated (for Lafferty) tale of existential science-horror; Wellman's slice of homespun Appalachian creepiness; Leiber's X-rated tale of dopplegangers; Lumley's perfect, awful piece of childhood horror; Aickman's typically mysterious tale of clockwork toys and malign wood-working; and Campbell's own unusual take on predestination and fate.

It's a solid selection of stories under either this name or its original title of Superhorror (the latter hardcover has an awesomely creepy cover). I originally got the latter for 25 cents from the Tillsonburg library in about 1982. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Terrors

New Terrors II, edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980; 1984), containing:

Sun City by Lisa Tuttle; Time to Laugh by Joan Aiken; Bridal Suite by Graham Masterton; The Miraculous Cairn by Christopher Priest; The Rubber Room by Robert Bloch; Drama In Five Acts by Giles Gordon; The Initiation by Jack Sullivan; Lucille Would Have Known by John Frederick Burke; The Funny Face Murders by R. A. Lafferty; Femme Fatale by Marianne Leconte; Can You Still See Me? by Margaret Dickson; One Way Out by Felice Picano; The Ice Monkey by M. John Harrison; Symbiote by Andrew J. Offutt and Across the Water to Skye by Charles L. Grant.

Second half of Campbell's British New Terrors anthology of original horror stories divided for American paperback publication. The stories range from the solid and familiarly M.R. Jamesian "Lucille Would Have Known" (though James never wrote a ghost story about bus tours) to the brooding, Kafkaesque "The Miraculous Cairn" and the post-modern prose-poem "Drama in Five Acts." Range is indeed what we have here, without sacrificing terror, horror or the occasional gross-out seen most prominently in "Bridal Suite." "Symbiote" and the grotesque "Femme Fatale."

Several of the stories are almost perfectly representative of their authors, especially M. John Harrison's "The Ice Monkey" -- suggestive but ultimately nebulous terror set in a relentlessly broken urban wasteland counterpointed with the dangerous Sublime of nature --and R.A. Lafferty's weird-ass, Chestertonian "The Funny Face Murders." Old masters like Aiken, Bloch and Lafferty rub shoulders here with both the up-and-coming (Masterson, Tuttle, Harrison and Priest) and the relatively obscure to the horror genre (Dickson, Picano and Gordon). In all, a wide-ranging and often deeply disturbing anthology. Or at least half of one. Highly recommended.

Strange Choices

DAW Year's Best Horror Stories Series V (1976), edited by Gerald W. Page (1977), containing:
The Service by Jerry Sohl; Long Hollow Swamp by Joseph Payne Brennan; Sing a Last Song of Valdese by Karl Edward Wagner; Harold's Blues by Glen Singer; The Well by H. Warner Munn; A Most Unusual Murder by Robert Bloch; Huzdra by Tanith Lee; Shatterday by Harlan Ellison; Children of the Forest by David Drake; The Day It Rained Lizards by Arthur Byron Cover; Followers of the Dark Star by Robert Edmond Alter; When All the Children Call My Name by Charles L. Grant; Belsen Express by Fritz Leiber and Where the Woodbine Twineth by Manly Wade Wellman.

An odd entry in DAW's long-running horror annual with a lot of previously unpublished stories and several stories that aren't really horror at all, the latter most notably those by Munn, Bloch, and Cover. The best stories here are by Wagner, Drake, Lee, and Leiber, the last of which is one of the oddest and most affecting Holocaust stories I can think of. Manly Wade Wellman contributes a fairly representative tale of backwoods supernatural goings-on, more tall tale told around the cracker barrel than actual horror.

The Cover story is something of an unpleasant mess, while Brennan's story starts strong with weird occurences in shunned places before veering into what almost seems like self-parody with the revelation of the hidden menace. Munn's novella -- the longest piece in the anthology -- is a somewhat overripe bit of Westernized Orientalism. Lee and Wagner offer us intriguingly offbeat riffs on fairy tales and legend. Not a great volume in the series, but fairly solid. Recommended.

Docudramamine

Paranormal Activity 3, written by Christopher B. Landon, based on characters and situations created by Oren Peli, starring Chloe Csengery (Katie), Jessica Tyler Brown (Kristi), Lauren Bittner (Julie), and Dustin Ingram (Randy Rosen) (2011): The 'documentary/found footage' subgenre of horror films, so popular right now, harks back to the 19th-century beginnings of what we now recognize as the horror story. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was told in the form of letters and diary entries; Bram Stoker's Dracula added fake newspaper clippings to that mix; Edgar Allan Poe played with fiction and fact within stories that were sometimes published as 'fact.'

H.P. Lovecraft moved the documentary style in a more holistic fictional direction, having his narrators tell ostensibly true tales about fictional events and mythologies and framing everything inside the conceit that the fiction was the real truth about the universe, and recognized fact the fiction.

I have a great fondness for these attempts at documentary horror -- at their best, they're much better than almost every other filmed attempt at horror in the last twenty or thirty years, in part because they move so resolutely away from the grapohic violence of the slasher films that have dominated the horror film genre since the late 1970's. Suggestion and subtlety are what work best in these movies, and Paranormal Activity 3 comes up with some lovely moments of 'found' horror.

The fictional backstory of the three Paranormal films situates the entire narrative within the subtext of long-term child sexual, physical and emotional abuse, abuse that spans generations and is part of the horror. It's a classic example of Stephen King's 'sub-text school' of horror, in which the supernatural stands in for something too mundanely awful to be depicted on film.

Thankfully, one can also say 'pooh!' to sub-text and simply enjoy the movies as a depiction of the pervasive and perhaps unkillable influence of supernatural evil. That the threatened protagonists are spiritually and intellectually unsuited to a confrontation with elemental and generational evil is part of the point of the movies, I think -- no one is coming to save them because they're too dumb, or too conditioned to an unintellectual passivity, to make any real effort to save themselves. They're reactive, not pro-active.

I won't bother with the plot of the movie, or even the characterization. It all makes more sense if you've seen the first two films, though if you haven't you may be a lot more shocked at some of the plot developments. There is clever, killer use of a camera mounted on a rotating fan within the story world, with menace building as we move at a set pace back and forth from foyer to dining room and back again, and things start to appear that shouldn't be there.

There's also one of the smarter, more realistic character reactions to a haunting that I've seen in some time -- a secondary character seems to have seen Eddie Murphy's hilarious bit about The Amityville Horror and reacts accordingly when threatening weirdness occurs. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Atom Heart Brother


DC Archives: Action Heroes Volume 1, written by Joe Gill, Steve Ditko and others, illustrated by Steve Ditko and others (1961-1966; reprinted 2004): Charlton Comics was pretty much the lowest of the low when it came to American comic-book publishers of the 1950's, 60's and 70's. But the company did have one major asset: artist Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange for Marvel) liked working for them because while they paid badly, they left him pretty much alone to do as he pleased.

DC bought the Charlton Comics stable of super-heroes in the early 1980's, a purchase that nearly led to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen series being about those same heroes -- Moore initially pitched his dystopian, revisionist superhero series as being about the newly purchased Charlton heroes. DC decided to instead integrate the heroes into the DC Universe, and Moore revised Watchmen so as to be about new but similar heroes.

Captain Atom (who would become Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) stars in this first collection of notable Charlton superhero comics of the 1960's and 1970's. With Charlton, 'notable' almost universally means 'Steve Ditko.' Ditko does full art on some of the earlier Captain Atom adventures before being inked indifferently by others on the latter adventures. It's Ditko at the height of his career as an artist, and the early 60's stories look especially good, with fine linework and some lovely, weird cosmic vistas.

Captain Atom gains his powers of flight, super-strength, and nebulous, atomicky other things after getting blown up by a nuclear bomb and then somehow reassembling himself. Now highly radioactive, he wears a containment suit so as not to irradiate everyone around him, and battles a hodgepode of Communist spies and alien menaces. Well, and a space dragon in one off-beat story that seems like it was cribbed from some of the odder adventures of Captain Marvel or Marvelman.

Joe Gill's writing is, for the most part, a combination of lead-footed dialogue, ridiculous scientific explanations, and Silver-Age bombast. Apparently Gill wrote 150 script pages a week for Charlton at his height of production, so one can't expect much. Ditko makes the whole thing sing, however, his normal characters looking extraordinarily ordinary, his action sequences fluid, his weirdness, well, weird. Doctor Spectro is an especially odd villain from the later issues in this volume, a light-wielding mad scientist who gets split into five light-wielding midgets. Riveting and totally ridiculous at times, this is nonetheless a lot of fun. Recommended.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Go There?


The Thing, written by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. and The Thing (1982), written by Bill Lancaster, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Kate Lloyd), Joel Edgerton (Sam Carter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Jameson) and Ulrich Thomsen (Dr. Halvorson) (2011): Totally pointless prequel to John Carpenter's gory, gonzo adaptation of John Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 sci-fi-horror novella "Who Goes There?", which itself bore more than a few suspicious resemblances to H.P. Lovecraft's 1936 sci-fi-horror novella "At the Mountains of Madness." Here, we follow the adventures of the (mostly) Norwegian Antarctic base scientists who first discover the eponymous Thing and who, reduced to two guys in a helicopter at the very start of Carpenter's Thing, try to stop the creature from reaching the American base of that film. Got all that?

Carpenter's film wasn't truly great -- the dialogue and plotting needed a bit more zip for that -- but it was improved immensely by its cast of character-actor All-Stars and its ground-breaking alien special effects work, which still looks amazingly creepy and goopy and disturbing even now. Unfortunately, the CGI here suffers from underdone CGIitis, with the alien, while far more complex in several of its manifestations, lacking weight and heft regardless of its size on the screen.

It doesn't help that the Thing has lost about a 100 IQ points, bursting out of hiding at several points when pretending to stay human would have secured its supposed goal: getting off the isolated Antarctic base to a more populated place with better transporation options so that it could, given its biology, eventually replace everything biological on the planet with itself. Instead, it pops out at inopportune moments so often that one eventually believes that it's actual purpose on Earth is to run around scaring people and breaking shit.

The people aren't much brighter. At one point, a group of them locks two suspicious helicopter-crash survivors in a shack because doing so will protect the group in the event that the survivors are really the Thing. But we've already seen the Thing shoot twenty feet into the air and through a roof from a standing start inside a giant block of ice that it's been trapped in for 100,000 years. How is the shack going to stop it? Oh, well.

Perky young protagonist Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the roller-skating, Amazon-package-delivering love interest in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) plays a character from the Bones school of incredibly young bone experts. Everyone else is pretty much interchangeable except the actor who played Mr. Eko on Lost, criminally underused here, and the guy playing the base commander, the latter of whom looks like Sting during his Mandolin-playing German-pimp stage. Boy, Sting makes a lousy Antarctic base commander. No wonder the Police broke up. Not recommended.

Time Bandits


In Time, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Justin Timberlake (Will Salas), Amanda Seyfried (Sylvia Weis) and Cillian Murphy (Raymond Leon) (2011): Enjoyable throwback to the at least semi-socially aware science-fiction films of the pre-Star Wars era. Niccols (writer-director of Gattaca and S1m0ne and writer of The Truman Show) pitches his films somewhere between the future and an alternate timeline, and this one, somewhat subtly, appears to take place not so much in the near-future as in an alternate universe where the secrets of human aging were decoded decades or possibly centuries ago.
Those at the top can live forever; those at the bottom scrabble for every minute and second. Time is money, and while no one ages past a certain age any more -- everyone's stuck permanently at 25 once they reach it the old-fashioned way -- death comes for anyone whose clock runs out due to lack of funds after the age of 25. And the elite keep raising the price of everything, forcing the working class (there doesn't seem to be a middle class anymore) to work more and more just to literally survive.
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, young, rebellious working-class hero who gets more than a century of extra time (all of it encoded into the green-glowy numeric display everyone has grafted somehow onto his or her right arm) from a member of the elite who's grown tired of life and of the perpetual oppression of the lower classes.
Soon Salas and a daughter of the elite are on the run from Timekeeper Leon. Can they overthrow the way things are and hand out millions of extra years to the downtrodden and the oppressed? What do you think? Enjoyable and clever in the background details (you may actually have fun trying to figure out when time 'stopped' based on the technologym and lack thereof, you see in the movie), but also somewhat rote in its connect-the-dots final half-hour. The movie's heart is pretty obviously on the side of the people and against the banks and corporations. Recommended.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zero



Fantastic Four 1234, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Jae Lee (2001; collected 2004): Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison has always seemed much more comfortable at DC than Marvel, despite the sales success of his 4-year run on Marvel's flagship X-Men title in the early oughts. This miniseries about the Fantastic Four is something of an abomination, though that isn't all Morrison's fault -- hyperreal artist Jae Lee, very good on a lot of Marvel titles, is a terrible fit for the Fantastic Four.

Basically, Dr. Doom gets up to some shenanigans, the members of the FF start acting wonky, and then the reasons for their wonkiness are revealed. This may be the most 'decompressed' Morrison writing ever -- it certainly seems a piece with its era of Marvel comics, as 20 pages of plot gets spread out over 100 pages. This cuts against one of Morrison's strengths -- namely, his hyper-dense, Silver-Age-influenced plotting. What one gets is a four-issue miniseries that takes less time to read than any issue of Morrison's JLA.

Lee's art is solid but ill-used in this case -- as with a lot of other contemporary Marvel artists, he tends to make The Thing look like a burn victim, which I'd say is pretty much the last place to go with this character. Applying a certain level of realism to Mr. Fantastic/Reed Richards results in another grotesquerie. The Fantastic Four really shouldn't look like people you'd run screaming from if you met them on the street (well, OK, a little with The Thing sometimes, but he still works best as a tragicomic lug and loveable proto-Hellboy monster).

The centrepiece of Doom's latest evil plan gets tossed off in a couple of sentences -- with some development, it might have at least been an interesting idea, but as is it just sits there unconvincingly. Not recommended.

Planetary Alignment



Planetary Volume 1: All Over the World, written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by John Cassaday and Laura Martin (1998-2000; collected 2001): 27 issues spread over 12 years... that's how long the truly epic story of Planetary took to play out due to a combination of health issues and other artistic and writerly committments.

Elijah Snow, The Drummer and Jakita Wagner -- the three super-powered members of Planetary -- would investigate a wide variety of superheroic and science-fictional events over that time, all tied into the overarching plot that involved the efforts of the super-powered, Nazi-derived Four to do something terrible to all of humanity, something terrible they'd been building towards for decades.

The Four -- a nightmarish version of Marvel's Fantastic Four -- had been systematically holding back humanity for those decades, destroying or suppressing various wonders, technologies and strange visitors from another planet. Against them stands Planetary, "archaeologists of the impossible", funded by a mysterious Fourth Man as the world's last hope for a future. As Planetary seeks out the roots and the aims of the Four's plan, Snow also seeks out the mystery of the identity of the Fourth Man.

Early on, though, the master-narrative was still being alluded to, discovered by the characters as they went along. Snow, capable of generating vast amounts of cold (which of course means that he's really capable of extracting kinetic energy from his environment), begins the book somewhat amnesiac and terminally bored. Recruited by super-strong Wagner and information guru The Drummer, he then takes part in a series of pulp- and comic- and movie-allusive adventures that begin to reveal the secret world under the skin.

Giant atomic monsters on Japan's Island Zero! The secret fate of pulp superman Doc Brass! The Hong Kong ghost-cop and his mission of vengeance! And the origins of The Four, America's first astronauts transformed into something greater and something worse than human. With John Cassaday's often stunningly beautiful art, Planetary quickly became one of the best, and the most interesting, superhero comics ever created. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

War Stars

The Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear (1993): In this sequel to Bear's excellent late-1980's science-fiction disaster novel The Forge of God, Earth has been murdered by self-replicating machines created by a race known to the rest of galactic civilization only as the Killers, who have seeded the Milky Way with machines that seek out and destroy intelligent life wherever they find it.

The Benefactors, benevolent machines created by an alliance of interstellar civilizations, arrived in our solar system too late to fully defeat the machines of the Killers, though they did rescue tens of thousands of people from the dying Earth (along with a laundry list of species) and begin the process of renovating Mars and Venus into two new homes for humanity's survivors.

Part of humanity's bargain with the Benefactors involves the selection of a crew for a 'Ship of the Law' sent forth to find and destroy the home of the Killers if they still exist. Every race saved by the Benefactors sends such a ship forth, partially built from the materials of that species' dead homeworld if the homeworld has been destroyed.

The sentient, benevolent machines of the Benefactors are cagey -- in order to protect themselves, the races of the alliance don't tell the races they've rescued who they are or where they live, at least not immediately. Any intelligent, space-faring race may become a Wolf species like the Killers. In space, the best defense is silence and misdirection. The Killers targetted Earth because of the radio and television signals that have been flooding into space for the last 100 years. Highly developed species maintain a low electromagnetic footprint as a matter of self defense.

Five years into their mission, the 80+ human teenagers of the Ship of the Law Dawn Treader come across a solar system that seems to be the home of the Killers. Hundreds of years have passed outside the ship as it moved at speeds close to light in its search (welcome to relativity -- the universe of the novel doesn't seem to allow for faster-than-light travel). Technologies that can wipe solar systems off the map are about to compete -- and one will be found wanting.

Martin, the main narrator, is the son of one of The Forge of God's protagonists, and we see much of the search and the battles with the Killers through his eyes. This is hard, extrapolational science fiction, Bear's specialty. Those laws of physics which aren't yet known are extrapolated logically from some fairly arcane ideas of Bear's about how things really work at the quantum level. The result is a mix of the probable (relativistic effects being the most 'normative' thing here from a scientific point-of-view) and the meticulously extrapolated (everything from quark matter to the instantaneous communications devices the crew calls 'noaches' for 'no channel').

And along with an examination of group dynamics comes one fascinating alien race -- the Brothers, from another Ship of the Law that joins the Dawn Treader in its final assault, who are cooperative life-forms made up of smaller, potentially independent creatures that look like giant centipedes. Some time and attention is lavished on the culture of the peaceful Brothers, whose biological need for cooperation makes them less war-like and more thoughtful than the humans. They're terrifically imagined aliens -- their group-form nature has even affected their mathematics, which deals only in probabilities and not in integers.

In the end, though, it's the space battles that form the twin nuclei of the novel's narrative. Going back to E.E. "Doc" Smith's space operas of the 1920's and 1930's, print science fiction has given us star wars that make Star Wars look like a fart in an elevator, and Anvil of Stars is no exception. But Bear takes care to evaluate the ethics of war -- and indeed of genocide -- through the contrasting viewpoints of his human and alien characters.

The narrative also works as a group bildungsroman for the various human characters, as all must wrestle with why and how to achieve justice against a race that may no longer remember why it did what it did -- or, alternately, to survive the psychic trauma knowingly exacted by the still-thriving, still-malevolent Killers as they play hide-and-seek behind artificial worlds, alien races and entire civilizations. Thoughtful, insightful and thrilling. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Let the Wild Wild Remain

Hellboy Volume 9: The Wild Hunt, written by Mike Mignola, illustrated by Duncan Fegredo (2008-2009): Cleverly (and for new readers welcomingly), Mignola's Hellboy output now splits almost evenly into two categories -- standalone stories of one to three issues about Hellboy's past, and the 'mythology' stories about Hellboy's role in the coming apocalypse.

The Wild Hunt is one of the latter. I'd imagine it's almost impenetrable to a newbie (hence the standalone stories to bring new readers in without requiring them to buy a whole trade if they don't want to). It's pretty essential for those who've followed The Story Thus Far, though.

Having left the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence several years earlier, Hellboy begins the volume chilling at the home of some dead friends. Well, the ghosts of dead friends. Some Upper-Class British Twits convince Hellboy to join in the Wild Hunt, which they maintain is a periodic hunt for newly awakened giants in the British countryside. But they may not be telling the truth. Meanwhile, other foes -- including Merlin's femme fatale Nimue -- are running their own game.

Basically, everybody wants to somehow fulfill the nebulous prophecy that Hellboy will bring about the end of the Earth except Hellboy, who manfully wrestles with his destiny (indeed, even the meaning of his destiny) as he always has. We get one shocking revelation, some extreme giant-fighting, some creepy and a bit inexplicable stuff in what seems to be the land of the Faerie, and a slight increase in the murkiness surrounding Hellboy's future. An enjoyable installment in all, though not a jumping-on point. Recommended.

The Rocketeer



The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, written and illustrated by Dave Stevens and others (Collected 2009): With the late and much-lamented writer/artist Dave Stevens, there's only one real career-related 'What if?' -- what if he could have been faster without sacrificing the vision he held for his art and writing? His entire public comic-book output over 30 years basically consists of several hundred covers, pin-ups and spot illustrations. And this 200-page volume of his two Rocketeer arcs, both completed prior to the so-so Disney live-action Rocketeer movie of 1991. Stevens also did storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Set in the late 1930's, the painstakingly detailed and researched comic book gave us the adventures of Cliff Secord, a callow stunt pilot on the air show circuit who stumbles onto an experimental rocket pack which, with help from a mechanic friend, he learns to use. He's soon battling Nazis trying to steal U.S. flight technology while also avoiding both the FBI and what he assumes are aviation pioneer Howard Hughes and his men. And he's trying to patch things up with his model/actress girlfriend Bettie, who's the spitting image of 1940's and 1950's fetish model Bettie Page. Indeed, the comic book revived interest in Page and led to a lifelong friendship between the reclusive model and Stevens.

The movie renamed Bettie 'Jenny' and had her played by a young Jennifer Connelly, the former choice, I assume, intended to avoid paying the real Bettie Page any royalties for using her likeness in a movie. It also added Terry "Lost" O'Quinn as Howard Hughes. One of the in-jokes of the comic book was that the people Secord thought were Hughes and company were in actuality the never-herein-named pulp hero Doc Savage and his merry band of adventurers. I'm guessing Disney didn't want to pay for that, either.


The movie throws in a couple of bits from the second arc (most notably an autogyro and a henchmen who looks like tragic horror-movie star Rondo Hatton) but mostly adapts the first with liberal additions that include Paul Sorvino as a patriotic mobster and Timoth Dalton as an Errol-Flynn-esque Hollywood star.

As befits its serialized nature, the comic-book Rocketeer was episodic rather than epic, a lovingly rendered period piece that I suppose could have gone on forever (and indeed has been revived in the past year by writers and artists who loved Stevens's work). Stevens was equally proficient at period detail and good-girl art, and while Cliff starts off as somewhat mercenary, he quickly grows into a suitable partner for Doc Savage and, in the second arc, a thinly disguised Shadow.

This is a beautifully job of restoration by IDW, a suitable memorial to a writer-artist who went before his time and left us too few pages of work. Even if you don't love 30's pulp adventure, The Rocketeer offers a lot of marvelous evocations of 1930's style and design. Well, and Bettie. Highly recommended.

Lost Empire

Iron Wolf: Fires of the Revolution, written by Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore, illustrated by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell (1991): Baroque science-fiction story set in Chaykin's reworked version of DC's 1950's and early 1960's science-fiction stories. Humanity has gone to the stars and fractured into various empires and archipelagoes, many of them with their own 'Earth' at the centre. In one of these, the Renaissance-flavoured Empire Galaktika, Iron Wolf and a group of rebels with different aims seek to overthrow the corrupt Imperial government.

There's a fair amount of wit here, not the least of which is the revelation that the 'Empire Galaktika' is pretty small beans -- one solar system, a handful of planets -- swelled to self-importance primarily because of its long isolation from the rest of interstellar human civilization. Iron Wolf teams up with some explorers from those larger, outside civilizations, and revolutionary shenanigans ensue. Chaykin and longtime writerly collaborator give us the wry, sarcastic dialogue Chaykin first offered in his seminal American Flagg series in the 1980's. The team-up of a fairly young Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell makes for lovely art.

Chaykin's introduction notes the influence of oddball space operas that include Dune and Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality stories, in which far-future tech mixes with social mores and structures borrowed from humanity's past. Chaykin has the 'Empire' and other little empires consciously borrow from humanity's social past, a mark in part of how bored certain pockets of humanity have become with the way things are.

Beyond the 'Empire', events chronicled in Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's Twilight miniseries have given humanity the curse of immortality, and one of the characters from that longer, larger epic shows up here. It would be nice if DC allowed for Chaykin's return to this particular universe, representing as it does one of the more successful attempts at adult science fiction in the history of mainstream comic books. Recommended.

Swamp Thing


DC Comics Classics Library: Roots of the Swamp Thing, written by Len Wein, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, Nestor Redondo, Mike Kaluta and Luis Dominguez (1972-1974, 1991; collected 2009): Swamp Thing (who never calls himself that) is one of those DC characters with a loyal following that stretches back 40 years to his first appearances. That's mainly thanks to the spectacular artwork of Bernie Wrightson, with an assist to the melodramatic writing by Wein, who makes Swampy into a brooding, quasi-Byronic hero. Well, if Byron were a scientist who'd been changed by a lab accident into a 7-foot-tall "muck-encrusted mockery of a man."

DC was cooking with gas in the early 1970's, the result of an influx of astonishing new writing and artistic talent. Marvel, mostly moribund, was in the process of becoming what DC had been -- a conservative comic-book company with a highly controlled house style for both art and story. Meanwhile, DC seemed to keep stumbling and bumbling along into mostly short-lived by influential and critically revered series. Swamp Thing was one of those.

Wrightson was great at grotesques, at horror and the macabre, and Wein supplied him with a ten-issue run of horror tropes for Swamp Thing (really Alec Holland, or so he thought at the time) to shamble into battle against, including a Frankenstein's monster, a werewolf, a witch, and a Cthulhoid monstrosity living in a mineshaft in Maine. Here, of course, the misunderstood monster is the hero, as are some of the monsters he first battles and then befriends. It's a horror-tinged paean to outsiders. Wrightson also gave of one of the most interesting artistic imaginings of Batman up to the time.

Some moments clunk, of course -- Wein was a young writer, and his solutions to some of the problems he creates for Alec Holland can be a bit on the ridiculous side. I'm also not entirely convinced Wein knew what "brackish" meant. So it goes. Wrightson would leave after ten issues, followed by Wein three issues later after a capable but not Wrightsonesque artistic run by Nestor Redondo.

The book would go on for several more issues, be cancelled, and return in the early 1980's to accompany the release of the woeful Swamp Thing movie. Eventually would come writer Alan Moore (Watchmen), with his entry into American comic-book writing coming on Saga of the Swamp Thing. But that was still nearly a decade away. This stuff, though, is golden. Muck-encrusted gold, but still. Highly recommended.

Going Ape


Murders in the Rue Morgue, based on the story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Robert Florey, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, John Huston and Ethel M. Kelly, directed by Robert Florey, starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Mirakle), Sidney Fox (Camille) and Leon Ames (Pierre Dupin) (1932): This could be Exhibit 1A of how Hollywood has always wreaked strange havoc when it adapts a movie from another medium (Exhibit 1 would be any version of Moby Dick prior to the John Huston version).

Poe's original mid-19th-century short story is considered by many to be the first true detective story, featuring as it does seasoned Parisian crime-solver C. Auguste Dupin matching wits with a homicidal orangutan dressed up as a woman. This movie gives us some sort of ape, callow Parisian medical student Pierre Dupin, and Bela Lugosi as perverse scientist Dr. Mirakle. Oh, well.

Dr. Marakle's obsession is to crossbreed an ape with a human woman. He kidnaps women and injects them with ape blood from the ape in question to see if they're biologically compatible. The woman dies, Dr. Mirakle dumps the body in the Seine, and the process starts over again. Pierre Dupin figures out what he's up to and the chase is on to save Pierre's fiancee from the clutches of Lugosi and ape alike. Either Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) achieved remarkable heights with his ape makeup, or the extreme close-ups of the ape are actually of a real ape. It's sorta hard to tell.

Filmed before the Production Code but released after, Murders in the Rue Morgue required an astonishing 19 minutes of cuts from its original 80-minute running time to get it up to Code standards. It's still a pretty perverse exercise at points, and the sets and cinematography are moody and expressionistic. Universal's army of German expatriates and other cinematic innovators were hard at work cooking up the look of the American horror film here as throughout the 1930's Universal horror catalogue.

Lugosi and the director got this movie as a sort of consolation prize for being denied starring in and directing Frankenstein, and it's pretty entertaining. And an hour long. I'd love to see that deleted footage, but it probably doesn't exist anymore. Recommended.